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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

PAPA'S DELICATE CONDITION (1963)

Orson Welles famously dubbed Jackie Gleason ‘The Great One,’ but not for his comedy. Welles was referring to Gleason as serious actor. Yet finding film evidence to support the claim is tough. The Chaplinesque mime of GIGOT/’62' proves bathetic; the failing, irascible Dad of NOTHING IN COMMON/’86 doesn’t stand a chance under Garry Marshall’s alternately coarse & inept megging. There’s always the cool, grace-under-pressure Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER/’61, but where else to look? Television anthology shows? Surely not this lazy piece of soft-soap nostalgia, with vet helmer George Marshall sleeping-walking thru a pastel colored turn-of-the-last-century family drama about an irresponsible, irrepressible soft-hearted daddy with a weakness for the bottle? Glynis Johns & Charles Ruggles, as long-suffering wife & skeptical Father-in-Law, find the dark shadows behind the bonhomie, but no one else, certainly not the two unmemorable daughters, help matters. But it lies in stealth behind every rote comic move Gleason makes in what is more-or-less a reprise of his Tony Award-winning perf as Uncle Sid in TAKE ME ALONG, a 1959 B’way musical of Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS. 

No small figure of the American stage, Uncle Sid. He’s O’Neill’s first sketch for the tortured alcoholic souls of his final masterpieces, the roles long owned by Jason Robards: Hickey in THE ICEMAN COMETH; James in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY and MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. The connection is particularly noticeable when you hear all the talk about Hickey in ICEMAN before he shows up. Hickey was Sid. Just how Gleason might have gone about playing this guy is pure conjecture. Even Orson Welles couldn’t have found a way to discipline Gleason into getting thru it. But as a second-way of thinking about what may be the greatest roles of the American stage, this film mediocrity is all we’ve got to go on.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: PAPA may have been conceived as a semi-musical, but only a few choruses of ‘Bill Bailey’ and the Oscar-winning original ‘Call Me Irresponsible’ remain. And is Gleason doing it ‘live’ on set? Most unusual for the time.

DOUBLE-BILL: O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS comes off wonderfully in its 1935 filming, mercifully trimmed & winningly atmospheric under Clarence Brown’s affectionate helming even if Wallace Beery is over-parted as Uncle Sid. A musical version, SUMMER HOLIDAY/’48 (unrelated to Gleason’s TAKE ME ALONG) has Frank Morgan as a pitch-perfect Sid, but the part is cut to nothing. The film is phenomenally well directed by Rouben Mamoulian, but its raison d’etre, restarting Mickey Rooney’s post-WWII career, sinks everything. And he was so good in the earlier film as the kid brother.

A LIFE OF HER OWN (1950)

Lana Turner & Ray Milland star in this largely forgotten women’s drama that serves up that old standby: the single girl who comes to New York, finds a guy & career, but no happiness because Mr. Right is already married. But in 1950, films were trying to be ‘daring,’ ‘adult,’ so Lana’s character knows from the start that her guy is unavailable, and still gets to play sympathetic lead. Tag on a glamorous occupation (fashion model) and George Cukor’s smooth direction and you’ve got to wonder why this one doesn’t add up. Part of the trouble is that the role is outside Turner’s comfort range, being neither perky nor sultry, and equally outside her physical range. (Short neck, round face: next. Ava Gardner must have been busy elsewhere on the M-G-M lot.) A couple of undeveloped subplots look more promising, like the unexplored rapport between Turner & Louis Calhern who plays pal to everyone. Asexual? Gay? Cukor also gets some riveting tragic vibes out of Margaret Phillips as Milland’s wife & from Ann Dvorak as a model whose future is all used up. All topped off with a fascinating, if inexplicable turn from Barry Sullivan as a snide angel-of-death type. What an odd concoction hides in plain sight here.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Check out Lana’s smooth dancing partner at her birthday party for Milland. It’s Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s assistant. The guy who danced as Ginger, Rita or Cyd when those classic routines were being worked up.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

BUT NOT FOR ME (1959)

Samson Raphaelson’s sturdy & wise little play, ACCENT ON YOUTH (winningly revived on stage with David Hyde Pierce in ‘09), had its third cinematic outing as a late vehicle for Clark Gable . . . sort of. The original serendipitous May/December romance between boss & secretary still runs the plot, but the leading role has now been split in half with Gable playing hard-nosed B’way producer and Lee J. Cobb, in a pleasingly mild turn, as dipsomaniac playwright. More damaging, the wrap-up all but negates Raphaelson’s lovingly finessed ending. But the package, designed specifically for Gable @ 57 (see ad above), works reasonably well on its own terms, with Gable using his personal life as a guide for rewrite before the obvious chemistry between him and Lili Palmer, playing his well-balanced ex, helps carry us thru a few too many plot reversals than any film should try. Vet helmer Walter Lang, on a rare loan-out from 20th/Fox, pulls off some believable B’way atmosphere, but Paramount’s backlot Long Island is strictly from Encino.

DOUBLE-BILL: Kim Novak & Fredric March also played May/December that year in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT/’59, an unsung reunion for ‘Team MARTY/’55' (Delbert Mann/Paddy Chayefsky) convincingly set about ten blocks south of the Theater District in the NYC rag trade.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER (1953)

Most of writer/director Andrew Stone’s work, even the pics released by the major studios, play like B+ indies. There’s a awkward homemade quality in the overall look, as well as in the acting, even from Hollywood vets. Call the result ‘heightened flatness.’ Evolving methods in film production allowed Stone to cut his costs by shooting in real locations, but any gains from quasi-documentary techniques just clashed all the more strongly against cheap studio sets. Add in a tendency to telegraph action & motivation and it’s no wonder to find his characters looking a tad slow on the uptake. That’s certainly the case here, yet it paradoxically adds an intriguing ‘off’ tone to an otherwise obvious murder case that sees doting uncle Joseph Cotten numbly resisting any suggestion that sister-in-law Jean Peters might be thinking of poisoning his adorable niece & nephew. Egged on to think the worst by family friends Gary Merrill & Catherine McLeod, Cotten does a full reverse, only to be held in check by the cops, the D.A. and a judge who all let him know that poisoning is a tough charge to prove. Ploughing ahead, Stone builds some real cumulative creepiness with dogged tread and a fresh bottle of poison, but it's not quite enough.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Peters & Cotten spent a lot of ‘53 working thru murder angles. Try them in Henry Hathaway’s excellent, TechniColored fever-dream, NIAGARA/’53, with Marilyn Monroe in good early form.

Friday, December 27, 2013

THE GOLDEN ARROW (1936)

The one-two punch of this piddling Screwball Romance followed by SATAN MET A LADY/’36, a lame comedy-slanted remake of THE MALTESE FALCON/’31, finally drove Bette Davis to the London courts where she tried (but failed) to break her contract with Warner Bros. She should have just shown this film, lousy enough to break any contract!* Bette’s a phony heiress, hired on the QT by a cosmetics firm as a publicity dodge. But she’s grown tired of the society circuit and the constant glam life. A mistaken-identity meet-cute on her yacht with regular guy reporter George Brent offers her a way out. He seems a nice enough guy, why not try a marriage of convenience? Brent gets six months to finish his novel; Bette gets a ‘cover’ while she scans about for a decent spouse? Not such an awful an idea for a gagged-up comedy pic, but everyone working on this one (scripter, lenser, actors, director, studio) feels completely out of their fach. Maybe over at Paramount . . . with a rewrite . . . and Claudette Colbert. Maybe.**

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, if Davis had won the case, she’d have missed her legendary run @ Warners, and a decade of top-notch pics.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: **Paramount did make something like this in ‘36, but with Carole Lombard, THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS. Goodish film . . . great title!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

DEUX HOMMES DANS MANHATTAN / TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (1959)

Before Jean-Pierre Melville started making those influential ‘60s pics about impossibly cool thieves & assassins, he made an NYC pit stop (his promised land) to write, direct & even play one of the leads in this noir-infatuated pic. Melville plays a reporter for a foreign news agency* who teams with Pierre Grasset, an all but amoral, opportunistic photog for ‘Paris Match,’ on a dusk-to-dawn hunt thru the city for a missing United Nations delegate. Their nighttime hunt centers on three shady ladies, ‘friends’ of the missing man, each only too happy to misdirect them. We tag along on this Gotham underbelly tour, mostly Manhattan with a touch of Brooklyn thrown in, a strip club and a great all-night Kosher diner. (Gefilte Fish........50¢) Budget constraints forced Melville into using a few unconvincing mock-up sets to finish the shooting back in France (mostly interiors with the shades drawn to hide any phony views), but the grubby tone rings true all the way down the line; and the last few twists memorably handled.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two years before, Alexander Mackendrick’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS/’57 also nailed that overnight sewer’s-eye-view of Manhattan. Born in Boston, but entirely Scottish raised, his film was also a first Stateside project. Guess it helps to have an outsiders POV.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The sublime bas-relief of journalistic activity briefly seen right below the French News Bureau office window early in the film remains just as it's seen here in Rockefeller Center, due north of the Skating Ring, a dynamic Art Deco homage to the Associated Press.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

KOKURIKO-ZAZA KARA / FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (2011)

Co-written by anime great Hayao Miyazaki; lovingly helmed by his son, Goro; featuring an all-star voice cast on its English track; you’ve got to figure this animated film from Studio Ghibli, a big hit back in Japan, was originally headed for a major Stateside Disney release that never happened. Was the story too domestic, too small & intimate, too unmagically quotidian? So, distribution fell to little ‘Gkid,’ who barely got it in the marketplace. But don’t let that stop you from watching this total charmer, a star-crossed high school romance that turns out all right in the end. Recent efforts from Ghibli have felt over-stuffed with busyness, metaphor & grisly conflict, hardly the case here. Instead, we get a neat dose of ‘63 Japanese nostalgia, just before the 1964 Olympics certified their post-war comeback. And with the usual ‘more innocent times’ clichés replaced with sharp recollections of a time that felt loaded with real possibility. (In the States, Kennedy called it the New Frontier.) And this attitude helps a bantam-weight story about two high school kids who discover a block to their budding relationship gain a real emotional kick. There’s also a pitch perfect subplot about fixing up a dilapidated, but comfy-cozy Student Union building that neatly binds contemporary social issues into the story. And if some of the characterizations come off a bit flat, a fault less noticeable on the Japanese track, the basic story quickly pulls you in.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

DAY OF THE FALCON (aka BLACK GOLD) (2011)

This big budget BIRTH OF AN (unnamed) ARAB NATION story raised about €40 mill to hire some major international talents, but it still feels like a vanity project. (Did it even get a Stateside theatrical release?) With a paint-by-the-numbers plot to match its literal paint-by-the-numbers CGI effects, it’s a slick, barely felt, techno-update of old Hollywood epic tropes. The sort of thing Darryl F. Zanuck would ‘personally produce’ in his Fox heyday. As we open, two Arab Princes take opposite sides on the idea of Western investment & oil production: stick with a closed society and traditional religious values or leap into the modern world of Global Commerce and all the goodies money can buy? Zanuck would have put Tyrone Power in as the princely son (by blood and by adoption) of the two old leaders, the young man destined to unite Old & New! Don Ameche gets stuck playing martyr as the comically frustrated half-brother. Loretta Young’s the good girl Ty can only dream about while Annabella’s the tomboy who really deserves him. Wait, that’s SUEZ/’38, but with Joseph Schildkraut in the usual Ameche spot. Oh well, once we get to the desert battles, helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud gets to play war with camels, horses, single-prop planes and all those acres of CGI-friendly, obstacle-free desert. At least, Antonio Banderas gets off a great line when he discovers that the newly acclaimed ‘Mahdi’ is his bespectacled adopted son. Too bad Tahar Rahim who plays the part, so fascinating & unreadable as the mobster-in-training in A PROPHET/’09, can’t get worked up to do anything but pout ten different ways all thru the pic.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Once he announces a prince’s death midway thru the pic, our eponymous bird is seen no more. How’d he keep top billing? (See alternate title on our poster.)

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: What an odd career Annaud has had. Major technical chops, yet barely a dozen pics over four decades. Try his intense Siege-of-Stalingrad epic, ENEMY AT THE GATES/’01 which seemed to have slipped past most viewers.

Monday, December 23, 2013

BETRAYED (1954)

Clark Gable ended three decades @ M-G-M with this unsatisfying, though not uninteresting WWII love triangle/espionage drama. Rescued from the Nazis by Victor Mature’s free-lance resistance outfit, he’s whisked to London where he recruits Lana Turner as a lookalike spy to plant back in Denmark. Shot largely in England where M-G-M had a lot of money parked, Gottfried Reinhardt helms with clarity but little distinction while the subfusc DVD transfer from Warners Archive does no favors to Freddie Young’s rich location lensing. It all sounds pretty dire, yet the film picks up interest when Turner & Mature start a relationship. What? Gable cuckolded? That’s when internal leaks start to expose the secret anti-Nazi missions. Mature & Wilfred Hyde-White, Gable’s British boss, give almost alarmingly eccentric perfs that unexpectedly pay off while Gable & Turner, in their fourth & final teaming over a bit more than a decade both seem much the worse for wear. The weight of mortality adds something grim to Gable, while Turner responds by slightly lightening her brunette bob halfway in.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As noted, the DVD transfer is less than stellar, but don’t be put off by the squarish 1.33:1 frame aspect ratio. Yes, our poster says MetroScope, but the original suggested projection ratio of 1.66:1 isn't particularly WideScreen anyway. Chances are the image was simply cropped down from the Academy Ratio format seen here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1978)

The poster to the right tells the tale on this near-miss Michael Crichton pseudo-historical caper pic. Based on his own fact-inspired novel, it’s got Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down attempting what amounts to a moving bank robbery on a speeding train. But in trying for the larky tone & got’cha twists of THE STING/’74, Crichton fails to make us believe in the stakes, leaving a poisonous residue of the incurable cutes. At least, it’s elegant to look at under lenser Geoffrey Unsworth, a past master of train stations and Connery hairpieces (see MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74). But the first two acts go nowhere which feels like a cheat since Crichton hasn’t the action chops to make all the circular motion much fun. Fortunately, the plot switches gears for a seemingly improvised third act that boils down to a single extended stunt sequence as Connery risks life & limb on the roof of a train. And, yes, that’s really Sean up there, doing major death-defying stuff and forcing Crichton into the best ‘shot choices’ in the pic. Nothing like ‘planned improvisation.’ Then back to too cute for words for the epilogue.

DOUBLE-BILL: Crichton was an even clunkier director in his debut pic, WESTWORLD/’73, but it works for that revenge-of-the-robots comic horror.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

LLOYD'S OF LONDON (1936)

With his lush eyebrows trimmed down to match co-star’s Madeleine Carroll’s, Tyrone Power moved up to Hollywood’s 'A' list with this energetic piece of historical hooey. They even got Freddie Bartholomew to play his character as a kid in the winning prologue which sets up his life-long bond with the young Horatio Nelson. Once he’s grown into Tyrone Power, keeping the future Lord Admiral free to fight the French and wooing lovely Ms. Carroll from her dastardly titled husband (a sneeringly witty George Sanders) keeps the plot running when we’re not getting a pain-free course in the symbiotic relationship between British Commerce & the Lloyd’s Insurance Syndicate: it’s Anglophilia Capitalism 101. Wonderfully shot by Bert Glennon and beautifully paced by underrated helmer Henry King, the film looks plenty lux, but without the over-polished, standardized gloss of later similar productions.

DOUBLE-BILL: Warners pulled off a similar trick the year before when they gave bit player Errol Flynn the swashbuckling lead in CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35 against Olivia de Havilland. But with Michael Curtiz helming & an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, it’s far more stirring, more exciting, more touching than this is. And Flynn’s early follow-ups kept getting better, not necessarily the case for Power & Co. Though they did let Ty's eyebrows grow back in.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A MAN BETRAYED (1941)

John Wayne hit the A-list with STAGECOACH in ’39, but he also kept making ‘B’ pics over @ Republic. In this one, some nameless college boy stumbles out of a low-down joint only to get hit by a bolt of lightning. Tough luck? Not quite, turns out he was shot before he even left the nightclub. And now the town’s powerful mayor gets the local rag to label it suicide. Cue Wayne, a freshly minted lawyer from the boy’s small town, new to big city ways . He’s there to get at the truth for the kid’s mom, only to fall hard for the mayor’s independent-minded daughter (Frances Dee). That’s a workable set-up, and the prologue comes off with a decent amount of atmosphere & polish. But after that, no one on the Republic lot seems able to develop anything: illogical story construction, witless dialogue, inconsistent characters; the thing hasn’t a chance. And what’s with Ward Bond’s characterization? He’s the first and only village idiot baddass bar bouncer . . . and laughable playing it.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Wayne stretch as an actor around this time, there’s John Ford’s under-rated, little-seen Eugene O’Neill adaptation, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME/’40 with the Duke trying on a Swedish accent. Good Wayne; great film.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BORDERTOWN (1935)

Even the non-stellar talent gives off heat in this Warners meller about a striving Mexican-American (a Max Factor’d Paul Muni) who makes a fast rise from flop L.A. barrio lawyer to (just) South-of-the-Border casino entrepreneur. Along the way, he attracts the attentions of his partner’s discontented wife (Bette Davis) and a high society gal (Margaret Lindsey) out for a daring sexcapade. Turns out he’s misread them both: one could kill for him; the other could drop him on a moment’s notice. The story plays off the class & racial attitudes of its time, but the prejudices, if anything, only add to the interest. (All but the final moral, a bit too much to swallow even in hindsight.) Muni tends to overplay, but still makes his mark while Bette Davis is really starting to show her stuff, going off her rocker to scarifying effect after she gets gross hubby Eugene Pallette out of the way. The real surprise here is seeing stolid Archie Mayo meg with such pace & dynamic visuals. Kudos to D. P. Tony Gaudio. And who was responsible for getting the normally business-like second-lead Margaret Lindsay up and running? Not the go-to girl for hot-to-trot sybarites, but she sure delivers.

DOUBLE-BILL: Halfway in, Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT/’40 turns into a near remake with George Raft, Ida Lupino & Alan Hale in for Muni, Davis & Pallette. It’s a smoother, but less memorable ride.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954)

You can get a taste of just how square Eisenhower’s America had become when ‘pop’ singing sensation Johnnie Ray, in his only film role, sings ‘If You Believe’ before leaving the family act to join the priesthood. This Irving Berlin number, written in ‘32 for the stage musical FACE THE MUSIC, originally gave Mary Boland a ripe opportunity to send-up cult evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. (She sang it atop an elephant.*) But in ‘54, it’s sung ‘straight,’ a truly felt spiritual for Ray’s spastic performing style. But then, this thru-the-decades ShowBiz family saga, about the Five Donahues (Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Mitzi Gaynor, Donald O’Connor & Ray), is about as square, wholesome & corny as they come. (It makes De Mille’s GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH/’52 look experimental.) Hokey as it is, it’s rather entertaining, with a mix of performers & Berlin tunes that works surprisingly well. Marilyn Monroe is the sexy outlier who winds up, somewhat preposterously, with O’Connor, but at least it’s still early Monroe, before Josh Logan, the Strasbergs & The Method made her so damn self-conscious. Mitzi Gaynor is generically bland & perky, as usual, but Merman’s honest coarseness helps humanize her. (According to Gaynor, they were instant buds, grousing together over Monroe’s constant delaying tactics.) If only the arrangements of songs, sets & story construction weren’t so darn clunky. O’Connor’s big solo comes with a chorus of creepy ‘undead’ statues. Yikes! And even with a score of Berlin standards on display, plus a dozen used willy-nilly in the background, they still manage to serve up ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ a half dozen times. Is that why Merman and Monroe don’t have a duet? What a missed opportunity!

DOUBLE-BILL: *(Okay, this is an Audio Only Double-Bill.) Alas, Mary Boland left no memento of her role in FACE THE MUSIC, though she can be heard warbling to hilarious effect in a few films. Fortunately, the complete score was recorded on a 2007 ENCORES! Cast Album with Judy Kaye doing Boland proud.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Merman’s legendary Mama Rose in GYPSY on B’way was lost when Roz Russell got the role in Mervyn Leroy’s 1962 film embalming. But you can see what might have been watching BUSINESS. An early scene with the kids in a train station and a late backstage confrontation with Monroe match up closely with bits of GYPSY and tell the tale. It could have really been something . . . but not with Leroy.

CONTEST: A billed but unseen artist in this film is also billed but unseen in a Buster Keaton silent. Name the artist & the Keaton movie to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choice.

Monday, December 16, 2013

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934)

This Warners programmer tries for that ripped-from-the-headlines mojo, but comes off half-baked. Bette Davis and Charles Farrell (on loan from Fox and slipping) run a little drug store that’s being squeezed on one side by a big chain operation that wants to buy them out and on the other by a mob-owned beer company that doesn’t have the quality product needed to survive in the post-Prohibition marketplace. What a headache for its wise guy entrepreneur Ricardo Cortez! But when he gets fast relief from one of Farrell’s mock-up headache powders, he lures the mug to sign on as his chemical counterfeiter. Farrell can make the goods while Cortez & his gang flood the market with his knock-off cosmetics & drugs, labeled just like the real McCoy. That’s a swell set up for an early ‘30s pic (heck, it’s still a good idea), but no one does much with it. Nicely shot by Sid Hickox, if only the script didn’t pretty much drop Davis after the first act (Glenda Farrell, as Cortez's moll, gets more to do), leaving that other Farrell to whine about his bad decisions before getting off scot-free at the finish. Still, it’s worth watching just to see Davis react to a bashful customer too timid to buy what was once called a ‘French Envelope.’

Sunday, December 15, 2013

JITTERBUGS (1943)

A truly terrible script by the prolific Scott Darling keeps this late Stan Laurel/Oliver Hardy feature from making good on its promise. The boys run out of gas (just like the film!), but get help from con man Robert Bailey who’s scamming rolls of ‘gas pills’ that turn water into fuel. Once in town, the three work together on a new scam, helping singer Vivian Blaine recover 10 grand lost to a couple of mobbed-up wise guys. There’s little rhyme, reason or motivation here, and don’t hold your breath for the sort of Dadaist illogic W. C. Fields was creating over @ Universal. Instead, we get three generic tunes for Blaine, and complete narrative inconsistency. Yet, the film is reasonably good fun thanks to vet comedy helmer Malcolm St Clair who knows how to sit back and let Stan & Ollie banter to no particular purpose. With a couple decent set pieces, plus a non-sequitur ending John Huston swiped for THE AFRICAN QUEEN/’51, this might even pass as entertainment. And if they’d added a signature L&H bit of pointless, escalating slo-mo, tit-for-tat violence, the film might be of interest to a non-completest.

DOUBLE-BILL: The Laurel & Hardy gold standard remains the early 2-reelers, especially the silents from 1928 and the 1932 Talkies. No surprise that their features were directed by comedy hacks, while the silent shorts had the likes of Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey & George Stevens barking in the megaphone.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

THE GOOD COMPANIONS (1933)

J. B. Priestly’s novel about an unlikely trio of runaway adults finding common cause in support of a second-rate touring company of musical entertainers has been adapted as a play; a musical (with an Andre Previn score); a couple of feature films; and on tv in various lengths & formats. But it’s hard to imagine a more winning version, or one that equals the charm & pitch-perfect cast of this early Talkie. The temptation to turn this into a Little-Musical-That-Could fable is wisely avoided since the revue is provincial Music Hall stuff at best, allowing Jessie Matthews to shine all the brighter as the breakout star in the troop. Priestly’s main concern isn’t backstage drama, but mobility. Not even class-conscious British social mobility, but actual physical mobility; as in leaving your home & village, even at middle-age, for a second chance. So we have John Gielgud’s teaching master; Edmund Gwenn’s factory drudge; and Mary Glynne’s drab spinster all daring to restart their lives from scratch. The first act, which largely charts their separate progressions toward the cash strapped players, offers the most imaginative parts of the film, then show-biz tropes kick in. But those are also nicely handled by director Victor Saville who refuses to over-sell the players talents, eccentricities or lovability quotients. (No doubt, inadvertently helped by the teething-pains of unpolished 1933 British Talkie technology.) It’s a rare treat to see John Gielgud still in his 20s, even if the camera doesn’t exactly ‘take’ to him. (He’d recently triumphed as Hamlet on stage, but looks more like Yorick.) Lenser Bernard Knowles licked the problem in the last act, look for the scene between Gielgud at the piano and a fast-talking song scout. Ah, much better. And if Matthews never does live up to her publicity rep as ‘the female Fred Astaire,’ the film’s semi-musical format shows her off at her best. (Note: VCI’s DVD, officially sourced from Rank, lists a short 93 minute cut on the box, but actually runs about 108 minutes and certainly looks complete.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: When Jessie Matthews gets called back on stage at the film's climax to finish her wistful, star-making song after a theatre riot, she suddenly looks like Judy Garland’s older sister.

Friday, December 13, 2013

WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012)

A clever, largely successful updating of Henry James’ devastating little child custody novel by scripters Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright and directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel. The tone is slightly flattened, the timeline compressed and the ending sentimentalized, but the story feels right at home in its new place & time. Maisie, our small heroine, is a little girl forced to play shuttlecock between her insufferably self-centered, divorcing parents. The gimmick that drives the story is that when they each remarry younger prettier people, the new step-parents become the loving care-givers Maisie’s never had. The hurdle for the filmmakers is that the Leisure Class world of James, where no one seems to work and children are sent off to boarding school at the first opportunity, and then rarely seen, has to be completely rethought for NYC-2012. It makes for a different, but accomplished work on its own terms with exceptional perfs from Julianne Moore, merciless as an aging egoist rock star; Steve Coogan as a schedule-driven international business sort; and Alexander Skarsgård & Joanna Vanderham (both crazy attractive) as earthbound step-parents, each out of their depth in their respective new marriages. Directors McGehee (what a fun name to type!) & Siegel tend to leave something on the table (a laugh, an emotion, crucial info!!), but at least they don’t dawdle. And young Onata Aprile is just great as Maisie, finding the perfect grace note for one difficult situation after another.

DOUBLE-BILL: Vittorio De Sica just about started Italian Neo-Realism looking thru a child’s eyes at his parents’ failing marriage in THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US/’44; or check out Maisie’s worst-possible future in Ingmar Bergman’s AUTUMN SONATA/’77 where Liv Ullman’s reproachful daughter puts all the blame on her neglectful, gallivanting concert-pianist mother Ingrid Bergman.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

THE SINGING NUN (1965)

With THE SOUND OF MUSIC/’65 making millions with its story of a singing nun who leaves the convent, a tuneful tale about a singing nun who struggles to stay must have looked foolproof. Heck, there was even a real Singing Nun (Soeur Sourire) to front a not-so-true story, made from drips & drabs of those heartwarming Hollywood tales of unconventional nuns & kindly priests. But M-G-M loaded its production with dead-enders, almost everyone in front & behind the camera is either winding up a career, a contract or simply headed off to TV Land. At least we get to hear that ear-catching tune. ‘Dominique, nique, nique . . . ‘ But there’s something faintly embarrassing to the whole enterprise. All those over-lit sets, over-lit emotions, over-lit uplift, over-lit religiosity (it’s a very bright film), it’s all as phony as M-G-M’s lousy backscreen projection shots.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The real Singing Nun story would make a fascinating cautionary tale. World tours, tax troubles and a double suicide pact. But I don’t see Debbie Reynolds in it.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS/’74, Ingrid Bergman sends up the whole missionary life with a single, pricelessly funny, politically incorrect line. Or, for a great conflicted nun story, there’s Fred Zinnemann’s THE NUN’S STORY/’59 with Audrey Hepburn.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

SUMURUN / ONE ARABIAN NIGHT (1920)

Ernst Lubitsch already had five years of successful comedies (many starring himself) & trail-blazing ‘intimate’ historical dramas to his credit when he had a filmmaking breakthru in 1920. CARMEN/’18, MADAME DU BARRY and THE OYSTER PRINCESS/’19, successful as they are, still 'speak' film as a second language, but in SUMURUN (and ANNE BOLEYN/’20), cinema becomes Lubitschian native tongue. A bit of a paradox for a breaththru, since SUMURUN was adapted from a Max Reinhardt stage production Lubitsch had starred in, playing the sort of role Lon Chaney would soon make his own, the ugly, broken-hearted Pagliacci, scheming for the love of a girl he’ll never win. In his final film role, Lubitsch gives a broad, but very effective perf, suffering the pangs (and violence) of unrequited love for the alluring dancer in his traveling troupe, Pola Negri, easily stealing the film. Equal screen time goes to the royal court where the Grand Sheikh’s favorite (lovely Sumurun) refuses his entreaties because she loves a man of the cloth. Bolts of cloth, that is, he’s a lowly fabric merchant. The story has a tricky structure that uses the Sheikh’s son, also in love with Sumurun, as a ruse to affect an escape. It proves one storyline too many for Lubitsch who fumbles a bit at the climax. (Or is the print incomplete?) But there’s loads of funny supporting bits, especially for a couple of twin schemers and the not-so-loyal Court Eunuchs. (The harem’s top girl tells their leader to ‘act like a man.’) The whole production is a visual treat, with clever use of perspective, trompe l’oeil effects and multiple heads popping up thru multiple framing devices. Reinhardt would have approved, but it’s doubtful he’d have made it all so deliciously funny. The original Stateside release, retitled ONE ARABIAN NIGHT, dropped more than a reel of footage, but the current KINO DVD, with a fine piano accompaniment, seems reasonably complete even if the image quality suffers from blasting.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

CARLOS (2010)

French writer/director Olivier Assayas stepped out of his comfort zone for this blistering three-part bio-pic on self-styled terrorist-liberator Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka ‘Carlos.’ The film, released theatrically in various cuts, easily justifies its fullest running time of about 5½ hours in three easily digestible parts, no scorecard needed. Mostly playing out in the ‘70s, when Carlos was at his most active & reckless, we tag along on a series of escalating political attacks, police shootouts and plenty of collateral damage as Carlos and his unit attack whatever power they feel stands in the way of their anti-capitalistic, pro-Palestinian goals . . . whatever that might be. And that’s the question, since they wind up being against pretty much everything & everybody, and for . . . what? Carlos certainly shows no concrete idealism after he gains a measure of fame. It’s all Carlos (brilliantly played in a dazzling turn with confounding weight fluctuation & facial hair by Édgar Ramírez), or rather, all about Carlos & his ‘Carlo-istas.’ With Assayas keeping the action and politics triumphantly clear, the constantly shifting Middle Eastern alliances have rarely been navigated so well. But the film is also pure pulse-pounding thriller, beautifully paced with great perfs all around. The group’s high water mark has them taking hostage of an entire OPEC Council membership meeting. The lack of security now looks bizarre, but the film holds more closely to the facts than is usual in these things. (A fourth disc holds an hour-long documentary.) But perhaps most breathtaking of all is the group’s all but complete lack of self-awareness in joining forces exclusively with repressive governments in the Communist Block, partnering with the KGB, STASI and a variety of Arab dictatorships. (Megalomaniacs apparently lack the irony gene.) The wonder is less in Carlos’s success, being perfectly comfortable with murder takes you pretty far, but in how such a self-aggrandizing publicity whore was able to avoid arrest for decades. Maybe it was because he started out thinking he’d be the next Che Guevara and ended up closer to Scarface. The film is fabulous.

DOUBLE-BILL: Jean-François Richet’s MESRINE/’08 (a mere two-parter) with Vincent Cassel as France’s top ‘60s outlaw is like an apolitical companion piece.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE RED PONY (1949)

Casting is destiny, so pairing Myrna Loy with Robert Mitchum in John Steinbeck’s fine self-adaptation purports an unspoken romantic connection that shadows this boy-and-his-pony story. It proves a good thing, adding a note of prairie rue to the sub-text of Lewis Milestone’s handsome, slightly static film. Shepperd Strudwick, as the husband with one foot back in the city, plays reluctant outsider, even to his own son who’s drawn to Mitchum’s natural authority as the ranch-hand with all the answers. Hence, Dad’s gift of the pony which, this being Steinbeck country, leads to tough-love/life-and-death family lessons. Loy’s restraint as Mom, burying herself in chores, is a coping mechanism; her old dad (Lewis Calhern) gets by on his frontier memories, boring everyone with tales of ‘Westering.’ (And it helped Calhern in the real world with an offer to take over the role of Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50 when Frank Morgan died.) Milestone also does nicely with the non-pro school pals of Peter Miles, the day-dreaming son. Miles himself has a few awkward line readings, but his look of constant expectation makes up for a lot. So does the look of the film in general. Tony Gaudio, the great Warners D.P., on his final credit, gives the production the supra-realism of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover come to life. (Excellent color & picture quality on the 'Olive' DVD.) Quite a change from our current fashion for no-holds-barred grubbiness. And it pays off excitingly in a climactic fight between the boy & a deadly turkey vulture, bringing out the silent film montage theorist in Milestone, a fast-edit bit of violence Hitchcock may have remembered when making PSYCHO/’60 and THE BIRDS/’63. Finally, there’s composer Aaron Copland, on his third film with Milestone, tying it all together with his great original score. (Said to be his personal favorite, it’s well served by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony on an RCA disc of Copland film music.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Mitchum did a near practice run for this in RACHEL AND THE STRANGER/’48 with William Holden, Loretta Young . . . and his guitar. The man had a real set of pipes on him. For another boy-and-his-horse pic, it’s tough to beat WHITE MANE/’53, a five-reel masterpiece from Albert Lamorisse of RED BALLOON fame.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

NEOTPRAVLENNOYE PISMO / LETTER NEVER SENT (1959)

(To be read with stagy, Ruskie accent, please.) After CRANES ARE FLYING/’57* win international prize (during Cold War, yet), with sweet, but sad tale of young Soviet love during Great Patriotic War, director Mikhail Kalatozov and ace cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky make fantasy ‘dokumentary’ I AM CUBA/’64. First film, sentimental tripe everyone love; second film, movie geek porn unseen for decades, now famous for impossible cantilevered tracking shots. Very boring, but . . . hoo, boy, some show! Forgotten in middle is here, noble three-hankie tale of four intrepid geologists (three menski, one womanski) searching, searching, searching for diamond lode in not so cheery Siberia. Will love triangle tear them apart? Will radio hold up? Will dancing for joy cause broken toe? Much noble sacrifice; much handsome images & artful silhouette; many stupendous tracking shots thru forests. Why? Who care! And score? Nikolai Kryukov make music dramatics worthy of Bolshoi; Aram Khachaturian drooling with envy, consigns SPARTACUS ballet score to flames! (Lucky have back up copy.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Fatal mission pics are not so rare, think SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC/’48, NORTHWEST PASSAGE/’40 or Kalatozov’s final pic, THE RED TENT/’69, an international dud with Sean Connery, Peter Finch & 70mm. (Sergey Bondarchuk had a similar international wreck when he followed his huge production of WAR AND PEACE/’66* with Rod Steiger(!) playing Napoleon in WATERLOO/’70.) Best to pop this pretentious bubble with Buster Keaton’s THE BOAT/21, his two-reel existential masterpiece (with laughs) as Buster & family get permanently lost at sea . . . or some absurdist no man’s land. Damn if I know.

*Reviewed on this site.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

DESIRE (1937)

(That should read DÉSIRÉ, but my Title Posting Editor resists all attempts at accents.)

This is one of the strongest play-to-film transfers from author/actor/director/bon vivant Sacha Guitry’s wildly productive mid-1930s, when he seemed to be filming his effervescent boulevard comedies in batches. DÉSIRÉ sits neatly between the ironic social commentary of a Shavian exercise and a classic Ernst Lubitsch gloss on how sexual attraction effects every action. And if Guitry’s gifts in technique, structure and dialectic drama never go too deep, he’s perfectly delightful within his limits. Here, he’s an irresistible valet, that is, irresistible to his mistresses. And it’s happening again. At the same time, Guitry runs a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs dialogue on politics, manners, mores, house-service rituals and sex. Well, mostly sex, and with a blushing frankness that can still send out ripples. Adding to the fun is that his employer, and the object he denies himself, is Guitry’s actual wife at the time, Jacqueline Delubac. Desirable as she is, another beauty works below stairs, Arletty as Madame’s chambermaid, a servant who knows the proper tip for everything. Add in Madame’s longtime lover, a highly placed minister; a tetchy cook; and a well-placed, but slightly appalling, older couple for a climactic, hilarious, politically-incorrect dinner. (She’s deaf as a post; he’s both politically & sexually expedient.) As director, Guitry goes his own way, with a handmade quality to staging & editing that bumps along. You get used to it, and it pays off in a couple of tour de force soliloquies Guitry wrote for himself which might not work at all under more conventional terms.

DOUBLE-BILL: Might as well go for the matching pair and try Hollywood’s take on French manners, mores & sexual attraction in DESIRE/’36. That’s a non-accented DESIRE from one year earlier.) Frank Borzage directs this yummy Ernst Lubitsch production with Marlene Dietrich & Gary Cooper.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BLANCANIEVES (2012)

It took Spanish helmer Pablo Berger a decade to get his second feature made; and no wonder, since it’s a highly stylized modern silent-film retelling of SNOW WHITE. No surprise it turns out to be just the sort of prize-worthy, over-cooked, artsy film-fest entry you feared it’d be. BIG surprise that shortly past the halfway mark, six bullfighting dwarfs show up to help make the film everything you hoped it might be. How’d that happen? Simply put, Berger overloads his first act with one precious shot after another, you ‘oo’ and ‘ah,’ but worry about the cost of the frame. Couldn't we just move along? With so little filmmaking experience, he’s no whiz at setting up situations or clarifying action; and risibly kick-starting FATE with an ill-timed, but obviously needless flash photo at a bullfight when its Andalusian high noon. Meantime, silent film buffs will scoff at his unending use of ‘clever’ camera placements, optical tricks and lens choices. But once those gentlemanly little bullfighters come to Damsel’s rescue, the panting & flourishes recede and the narrative drive takes off. The film stops trying to revive Expressionist manners and runs more along the lines of classic Hollywood adventure pics, not so far from Rouben Mamoulian’s kinetic, nearly danceable MARK OF ZORRO/’40. And Berger tops it all off with a terrific coda that threads the needle between enigmatic and sentimental.

DOUBLE-BILL: While Mamoulian’s ZORRO strikes a similar tone, his luscious, TechniColored BLOOD AND SAND/’41 is the more obvious pairing, even as it reverses BLANCANIEVES by working best in its first half. For a silent film pairing, there's the superb grotesquerie of Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS/'28.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944)

Oscar Wilde’s oft-filmed story was pummeled into a WWII pep talk for U.S. soldier boy Robert Young in this glossy, studio-bound wartime version from M-G-M. Stationed with his squad in England, Young discovers he’s the latest inheritor of the Canterville curse of cowardice. What’ll happen when he’s sent off to battle? Charles Laughton hams things up as the ghost who begat the jinx 300 years ago, still prancing about the joint now run by his descendant, 6 yr-old Margaret O’Brien, quivery of lip, loose of tear duct. Lapped up back in the day, its little lessons, forced comedy & sentiment now feel awful thick, though the prologue does offer a chance to see young Peter Lawford as Laughton’s kid brother. That’s a stretch! Jules Dassin took over the film when Laughton nixed original director Norman McLeod, but the film’s need for whimsy, and lots of it, was something neither of them specialized in.*

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *At M-G-M, Norman Taurog was the obvious choice as helmer, but with no credits between ‘43 and ‘46, he was presumably in service at the time.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Ian Richardson, Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Richard Kiley, Michael Redgrave & David Niven have all played the ghost, but a recently announced remake lists Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry in its cast. (Who’ll be playing play the ghost?) Sounds promising, especially if they do it straight and unmodernized.

Monday, December 2, 2013

THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966)

Harold Pinter didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature for his commercial screenplays. They’re unhappy compromises that find his vaguely menacing signature dialogue, pregnant pauses and absurdist free-association (often weirdly comic) fancies fighting against the demands of whatever genre he’s tickling. Here, it’s the international spy game with Alec Guinness as George Segal’s ‘controller,’ tossing him into a tangled web of Berlin Neo-Nazis twenty years after the war. Max von Sydow is the main target, but Segal can only find his headquarters with the help of Senta Berger who holds a key to the underground world and becomes Segal’s latest conquest. If only something happened along the way or was being planned! Perhaps we’d take less notice of what’s missing if director Michael Anderson took charge on the spare action sequences, but not much happens in those either. (Or even looks convincing.) Meanwhile, Guinness, along with George Sanders, Robert Helpmann, Robert Flemyng and other supporting espionage players get almost nothing to do. No doubt, a sly, Pinteresque joke on the useless nature of the spy game, but dramatically unsatisfying. Much like the non-surprising, twisted-allegiance grace note finale.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The ending seems to have THE THIRD MAN/’49 on its brain. Vienna instead of Berlin, but still a good idea.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

DANGEROUS (1935)

Doubling down on her no-holds-barred perf in R.K.O.’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE/’34, Warner Bros. gave Bette Davis plenty to chew on, swallow and spit right back at you in every reel of this trashy tale. She’s a jinxed actress, down on her luck when society architect Franchot Tone takes her on as a charity project. Naturally, they capitulate, screw up his engagement with unexciting Margaret Lindsay and nearly destroy each other. Real-life doomed actress Jeanne Eagles (prominently mentioned in the storyline*) was the likely inspiration for these melodramatic doings, but there’s little resemblance to anything real under Alfred E. Green’s mechanical megging. (Second-unit man Russell Saunders is likely responsible for the famous third-act smash-up.) It still remains intensely watchable, in spite of some unintended giggles, thanks to lots of chemistry between Tone & Davis, plus a few lifelike moments, as when Davis tells off housekeeper Alison Skipworth. Yikes! Few actress worried less about playing the sympathy card, compare with Kate Hepburn’s actress in MORNING GLORY/’33, yet they each got Oscar’d for them.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Davis always claimed to have dubbed the nameless Academy Award statue ‘Oscar’ after she brought the award home and noted a resemblance to her then-husband’s (Harmon Oscar Nelson) backside. Hmm.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The astonishing Jeanne Eagles survives in one film, a stage-bound, but utterly fascinating early Talkie adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER/’29, handsomely remade by Davis with William Wyler directing in 1940.