Monday, December 27, 2010

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) Roy Del Ruth

This is a lesser known movie but very worth a watch. Some refer to it as a Christmas movie but it’s really not. It’s more a commentary on post-war society and on what being “rich” really means.

A hobo with an unexplained past figures out how to live in boarded up mansions of absentee wealthy people, gone for the season. He meets up with other unfortunates, who hook up with others, and the story takes off from there.

Victor Moore is the hobo star who is best known to me for his hilarious role in Swing Time (1936) as Pop Cardetti. Charles Ruggles is also a favorite and here he plays the second richest man in the world. These two had long-lasting careers beginning in silent movies and ending with a few appearances on television, and it’s great to see them together.

Filling out the cast are some soon-to-be TV stars, Don Defore (Ozzie and Harriet, Hazel) and Gale Storm (My Little Margie, the Gale Storm Show). And Alan Hale Jr, with over 200 TV and movie roles, became best known for playing Skipper on Gilligan’s Island.

Another notable performances is by actress Ann Harding. Most of her film roles were back in the 1930s, and she adds a beautiful and poignant presence as the ex-wife of Charles Ruggles. She also introduces us to “slumgullion.”

Look for character actors Edward Brophy as the local patrolman and Charles Lane as the recalcitrant landlord. Edward Gargan is the policeman in the park who is less than sympathetic to a supposed hobo (“If you need a place to stay, go to a flophouse. If you’re hungry, go to a soup kitchen”). I’m reminded of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are two hilarious sequences in the movie, neither having much to do with the plot. The first is Abe Reynolds as the tailor. He did not make many films but his monologue here will make you laugh out loud. (Reynolds also played the tailor in the aforementioned Swing Time.) The second scene, although not as witty, involves a waiter in a restaurant trying to balance an uneven table, and some aggressive musicians.

The musical score uses George M. Cohan’s “Mary” when Ruggles interacts with his ex-wife Mary, Ann Harding. But the original score is by Edward Ward, who has more than one hundred credits as composer/musical director. There are many clever lines in the movie, and Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani were Oscar nominated for Best Writing.

DeFore: “Just because I’m in bed doesn’t mean I’ll take this lying down.”

Brophy: “That joint’s as empty as a sewing basket at a nudist camp.”

Brophy and Moore: “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s cousin.” “Oh, your family connections must be better than that.”   

The classic line is the last of the movie so listen for it. This film is an enjoyable lark and is sometimes compared to It’s a Wonderful Life, with the theme of what it really means to be rich running through both. But don’t be fooled. It’s not anywhere near that good.

“To be without friends is a serious form of poverty.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Blob (1958) Irvin S Yeaworth Jr, Russell S Doughten Jr

It’s a campy 1950s sci-fi film that is still fun to watch. It scared the heck out of young viewers back in the day but today, not so much. The studio had Burt Bacharach and Mack David compose the song that plays during the opening credits and wanted it to be “non-threatening.” The song is light-hearted and goofy, and completely belies the tone of the film. “Beware of the blob, it creeps and leaps and glides and slides...”

Opening scene: Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut are teenagers watching for shooting stars, and see a big one. They go searching for the point of impact, along with an old man who lives nearby. We hear a slurping sound and a dog barking. The old man reaches the “arrival” and inquisitively, or foolishly, starts poking it with a stick. And that is where this narrative ends because you need to see the rest for yourself.

Thrown into the movie are hot-rodding, rebellious teenagers, a good cop and a bad cop (he has his background reasons), and a stuffed-shirt father who just may redeem himself. The teenagers, of course, win the day as the town is finally forced to believe their story. “How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don’t believe in?”

The sound recording is poor with studio echoes everywhere. Dialogue is stilted, and McQueen and Corsaut are 28 and 25, respectively, playing teenagers. The film did bring stardom to Steve McQueen as he was hired for the television series “Wanted: Dead or Alive” on the basis of this performance. Aneta Corsaut would later become best known as Helen Crump, Andy’s girlfriend, on the Andy Griffeth Show; this was her film debut.

The old man in the beginning should be noted as Olin Howland, an actor with more than 200 movie credits and who was taught to fly by the Wright Brothers. This was his last film. The original music in the film is credited to Ralph Carmichael, better known for his musical association with Billy Graham.

The movie isn’t nearly as good as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) or “Thing From Another World” (1951) and has nowhere near their staying power. But it’s an interesting little part of 1950s movie history.

There has been one sequel to date, a 1972 production directed by Larry Hagman, “Beware the Blob," the only film Hagman ever directed. The screenplay took off from the last lines of the original movie:  "I don’t think it can be killed but at least we’ve got it stopped.” “At least if the Arctic stays cold.”  Chuck Russell directed a 1988 remake, and there is currently a 2011 version in development.

Here is one last piece of trivia in case you find yourself on Jeopardy someday. The movie being viewed in the theater in the film’s classic scene is the 1955 “Dementia” by John Parker. Take the movie for what it is and enjoy it.

“It’s kind of like a mass that gets bigger and bigger.”
“Don’t go in there, Jim It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”   

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Thing From Another World (1951) Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks

Think 1950s science fiction and this film has to be near the top of the list. The director credited with the movie is Christian Nyby, and there are divergent opinions on the level of Hawks’ involvement. But after you watch it, you will know that it’s a Howard Hawks film. Hawks was noted for quick, overlapping dialogue (remember “His Girl Friday”?), and this movie is replete with it.

The movie opens in a Officer’s Club in Anchorage, Alaska, and a group of Air Force personnel are soon sent to investigate a mysterious crash at an arctic scientific outpost. They arrive and are in immediate conflict with a brilliant but naive scientist. Preserve our lives and possibly the world’s, or the protect a source of possibly superior knowledge and information? And who gets to decide?  “There are no enemies in science, just phenomena, and we are studying one.”  “No pleasure, no pain, no emotion, no heart. Our superior in every way.”

There’s a wonderful scene early on when air force personnel and scientists are gathered at the scene of the crash. As they circle with their elongated shadows, the light slowly dawns on their faces as to what they have found.

The characters are on the whole quite likeable, and their dialogue and interactions are laced with wit and humor. (“We’re getting nowhere.” “We’re consistent!”) There’s also a  good deal of suspense and no wasted scenes. 

You won’t see “The Thing” until about an hour into the movie, and slowly, more and more of it is revealed. You’d never know it but it’s James Arness in a role he took, and hated, before his Gunsmoke fame. No other big name stars will be found here, just a cast full of experienced character actors, some with familiar faces.

The cinematography by Russell Harlan makes heavy use of light and shadows for dramatic effect. A noted cinematographer, Harlan has over 100 credits to his name, including his work in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Dimitri Tiomkin was a well-known Hollywood composer and conductor with hundreds of musical score credits (e.g., “High Noon,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”). His score for “The Thing” is suitably eerie when there’s about to be an alien moment, complete with a soprano descant at one point, and theremin by Samuel, and is altogether effective. 

John Carpenter remade the movie in 1982 starring Kurt Russell. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on any comparison. But I can recommend the 1951 version. How can you resist a closing like this?

“Watch the skies everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Mortal Storm (1940) Frank Borzage

To fully appreciate this movie, one has to understand its historical significance. It was released in 1940, before the U.S. had entered WWII. The majority of Americans did not want to get involved in “Europe’s War,” information was starting to leak out about the treatment of the Jews, and yet appeasing Hitler was still the name of the game. But Louie B Mayer, as head of MGM, and Frank Borzage plunged ahead, portraying the Nazis as brutal, ignorant, and anti-Semitic. This was a bold move in 1940, and Hitler banned all MGM films in German-controlled countries after the film’s release.

The film is set in 1933, just as Hitler comes to power in Germany. The setting is a small German town near the border of Austria. Frank Morgan is the respected Professor Roth, teaching at a local college. He has two step-sons from his wife’s previous marriage, and he and his wife have had two children together. The word “Jew” is never mentioned but we know that Profession Roth is Jewish, and his step-sons are not.

The effects of Nazi politics on this family slowly play out, beginning with a happy family birthday party and ending with a camera panning through the now deserted home, and snowfall filling in the last footprints, walking away. It’s a  powerful film, with this family being a microcosm for all of Germany and its conquered countries. It dispelled with the notion of a person, or a country, being able to remain neutral.

There are a few things you’ll want to ignore, the first and foremost being the use of rear projection filming for the ski scenes. The other is the accents or lack thereof. Everyone in the film is a German and it would make sense for them to all have the same accent, whatever it might be. But we have Nazi officers speaking English with a German accent, and the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya with her heavy Russian accent, playing Jimmy Stewart’s German mother. Everyone else has a distinctive American accent. But these are trivial points.

Robert Young and Jimmy Stewart pop up effectively into the movie in Frank Morgan’s classroom. The always enchanting Margaret Sullavan plays the daughter of the Professor. Robert Stack and William T Orr are the Aryan step-sons, and their mother is played by Irene Rich. Watch for Ward Bond as a cruel Nazi torturing Bonita Granville (of Nancy Drew fame) for information. Dan Dailey also makes an brief appearance as a stalwart Nazi.

And listen for the “I was only following orders,” the excuse that would hauntingly return during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. Bond delivers several of the most chilling statements in the movie to Sullavan, as Freya Roth, Jewish from her father, Aryan by her mother:
“You belong ‘in part’ to the German race.” “Your name doesn’t sound very well to German ears.”  In 1940, it was just the beginning.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Robert Aldrich

Filmed in less than three weeks, this is a film noir detective story not to be missed. Based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, the dialogue is snappy and wise-cracking, and always entertaining. It’s the ultimate pulp fiction.

The opening sequence is one of my favorites. Before any credits role, we see bare feet running down a highway at night. Next up we meet Mike Hammer, slamming on his breaks so as not to hit the barefoot woman, saying,  “You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in.” We’re immediately hooked.
From here on in, the movie is fast-paced action with a plot that is not spoon-fed. It’s difficult to review the movie without giving anything away, but the film should be viewed without any previous knowledge and information for the full impact. Shocking murders take place but not in the bloody Quentin Tarantino sense. The scenes will stay with you but not give you nightmares.

Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer to perfection. He’s a sleazy bedroom detective, a tough guy who relishes a bit of violence. After picking up the running feet, he becomes further and further entangled in nefarious and mysterious activities. We follow along with him as he tries to figure things out, and just maybe get a piece of the action. It’s a brutal world and Hammer is not uncomfortable in it.
Cloris Leachman has her film debut as the running feet. Albert Dekker is a perfectly sinister Dr. Soberin. Maxine Cooper is well played as Hammer’s Girl Friday, and look for villains, Jack Lambert and Jack Elam, early in their careers. Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, and Wesley Addy also have notable roles. Percy Helton has a memorable part as Doc Kennedy; you won’t forget his screams.  And Gaby Rodgers? You won’t see her anywhere else because she had two movie roles and only a few TV appearances. But you will remember her. And here’s a Gaby piece of trivia: she co-wrote the popular country-western song “Jackson.”

The black and white cinematography of Ernest Lazlo is spot-on, crisp and atmospheric. Aldrich’s direction is taut and he never lets up with the story. Hitchcock had his “MacGuffins”, and much later Tarantino had his Briefcase. In between the two, Aldrich introduces us to his “Great Whatsit.”  So step into the world of Mike Hammer as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and stay alive.
“What did they pay you? I’ll top it.”
“You can’t top this: they said they’d let me breathe.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Upperworld (1934) Roy Del Ruth

This is an odd little movie but not without its merits. The first is Warren William, a prominent star in early talkies due to his beautiful voice and patrician good looks that included a John Barrymore-ish profile. The second is Mary Astor, known more today for her appearance in “The Maltese Falcon” (also directed by Roy Del Ruth). She’s a status-seeking wife and William is her indulgent and very wealthy husband. Their son, who’s packed off to camp like we’d put our dog out, is played by popular child actor, Dickie Moore.

A young Ginger Rogers is a showgirl with a heart of gold, or greed. She’s attracted and attractive to William, who is otherwise a somewhat happily, though neglected, married man. Rogers’ boyfriend/manager is effectively played by J. Carroll Naish, who keeps his eye on the money.

A maybe affair ensues along with an attempt at blackmail, a couple of murders, and a scandalous trial. Along the way, you will meet Andy Devine as a pleasant chauffeur, John Qualen as a bribeable janitor, the handsome Robert Barrat as the police commissioner who may have been paid off, and the intrepid Sidney Toler, as a policeman who finds pertinent information and won’t be stifled.

The ending is somewhat abrupt and when the chauffeur props Dickie Moore up on the railing of a cruise ship to Europe, I have to admit I cringed.

But it’s interesting to see an early Ginger Rogers, who had only one pairing with Fred Astaire behind her; she was on the cusp of stardom. Dickie Moore went on to make more than 100 movies, retired at age 29, and married Jane Powell in 1988. Sidney Toler came to fame later for playing Charlie Chan from 1939-1946. Warren William died young in 1948 at age 54 and is not so well known today but should be appreciated for his body of work.

The movie is a Warner Brothers production and the musical credits go to Leo F. Forbstein. He signed with Warner Brothers in 1926 as head of the music department and director of the Vitaphone Orchestra. When he died in 1948, he had almost 600 credits to his name. This is a movie for movie buffs only but it has its worthy moments.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Big Heat (1963) Fritz Lang

Although made in 1953, this film is an essential film noir that should not be missed. Mild by today’s standards, the violence must have been shocking back in the 1950s even though most of it takes place off-screen.

Glenn Ford is a by-the-book cop who finds himself surrounded by graft and corruption. His personal life is suddenly impacted, and the rest of the movie is about revenge and how far a person might go to exact it. This is the dark side of the movie. How many lives would you sacrifice to get your revenge?
Ford appears to be somewhat unaware of the sacrifices made on his behalf (complete with his last line in the movie) and is mesmerizing to watch. He coldly operates on the verge of violence and with barely controlled rage throughout the film, and it’s one of his best roles. We know a little more than he does as he slowly pieces things together but there are plenty of surprises.
Gloria Grahame plays a pivotal role and when she’s on the screen, you’ll be paying attention. A young Lee Marvin is evilly sinister, and don’t miss his scene with Carolyn Jones, well before her Addams’ Family fame. Also watch for Jocelyn Brando, the older sister of her famous brother, Marlon.
The real stars of the movie, however, are the director and the cinematographer. The movie is concise, fast-paced, and expertly directed  with no extraneous footage. Cinematography by Charles Lang is beautiful in black & white; he is one of the most Oscar-nominated cinematographers in history and his name is attached to many notable films, e.g., Some Like It Hot, Charade, The Magnificent Seven, Sabrina, and many more. The musical score is riveting but there seems to be disagreement as to the credit, some films sites naming Henry Vars and others, Daniele Amfitheatrof.
Noted Director, Fritz Lang

This story originated as a Saturday Evening Post serial by crime writer William McGivern, and was turned into a screenplay by Sydney Boehm. I'll leave you with Gloria Grahame speaking their words.

“The lid’s off the garbage can and I did it."
"You made better time than they make in the Olympics." 
And the classic: "The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Undercurrent (1946) Vincente Minnelli

It’s from Minnelli at MGM but this is no extravagant technicolor musical. It’s not really film noir either but more an interesting melodrama and sometime thriller. Although not his usual fare, director Minnelli does his best to build the slow-growing tension and suspense throughout the movie culminating in the somewhat exciting yet overwrought ending.

Tall, dark, and handsome Robert Taylor has a very strong role and plays his switching personalities very effectively. He sweeps Katharine Hepburn off her feet but she soon senses that everything may not be as it seems, or is it?

And Katharine Hepburn is the star, here playing a timid woman. Sometimes she’s a little over the top but on the whole she does a fine job and is enjoyable to watch as she slowly pieces things together.

The third character in this ever-evolving story is Robert Mitchum. And he is revealed throughout the movie without physically being there. He appears three short times, most compellingly in a scene with Robert Taylor in the stable. Light and shadows, good and evil, unerring cinematography, and a rearing horse make this one of the best scenes in the movie.

Minor roles that complete the picture are played by Edmund Gwynne, Marjorie Main, Jayne Meadows (in her first film role), and Kathryn Card, better known as Mrs. McGillicuddy, Lucy’s mother in T.V.’s “I Love Lucy.”

The usual MGM talent is present: Sound by Douglas Shearer, and Art Direction and Set Decoration by Cedric Gibbons and Edwin Willis, respectively. Shearer and Gibbons have been noted previously, and Willis needs special mention for being a talented Set Decorator with more than 600 movie credits and eight Academy Awards for his set designs.

Adding to the great atmosphere created in this film is the stunning cinematography of Karl Freund, who moved into television in the 1950s. (While working for Desilu Productions, Freund developed the three-camera system to film a television show and finished his career as the head cinematographer for “I Love Lucy.”)

And lastly, Irene Lentz Gibbons, who billed herself with first name only. Married to Cedric Gibbons’ brother, she became a gown designer for many stars, beginning with Ginger Rogers, and ended up with about 200 design or costume supervisor credits to her name. Her life did not end well but her name is always recognizable as the credits roll: “Costumes by Irene.”   

The best part of this movie is the atmosphere: storms, sinister shadows lurking everywhere, and mysteries abounding. It could have been a better movie with a different director but it is also the only movie Hepburn ever made with Mitchum, Taylor, or Minnelli. So maybe that in itself merits a viewing. And if you’re wondering about the memorable, uncredited music theme - it’s Brahms Symphony # 3, third movement.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Uncertain Glory (1944) Raoul Walsh

Although this film stars Errol Flynn, there is no swashbuckling, just Flynn in one of his better performances. Taking place in France during World War II, the movie has the Gestapo, Vichy France, and the French resistance providing the backdrop for the story.

Our central characters are Flynn, playing Jean Picard *, a possible murderous criminal, and his nemesis, Paul Lukas, as French Inspector Marcel Bonet. They take us on a journey that includes many twists and turns, some expected and others not. Flynn’s character has the charming insouciance present in most of his roles and he’s still a rake.  

Paul Lukas was a Hungarian stage and movie actor, usually confined to small film roles (around 100 film appearances, including that of Professor Aronnax in “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”). This was a big role for Lukas and he plays the serious, honest police officer very effectively. We watch him struggle throughout the film whether or not to believe Flynn. Sometimes he’s taken in, sometimes not - just like us. Flynn and Lukas play off each other very well and their many scenes together are fun to watch. (“How brave a gun makes a little man.”) The scene that takes place in a church is beautifully directed and filmed. Watch their faces as Flynn’s tale unwinds.

Lucile Watson plays a mother willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to save her son from death at the hands of the Germans. Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade in a few Sherlock Holmes movies) is the town priest and moral compass. The beautiful Faye Emerson has a brief role as one of the women Flynn easily charms, and Jean Sullivan plays another. Sullivan resembles Jennifer Jones, made a total of four films, and plays this part sickeningly sweet.

Accents need to be ignored because they’re all different: English, Hungarian, American, and German, and Sheldon Leonard with his New York City accent playing a Frenchman.

Director Raoul Walsh, better known for “High Sierra,” “Public Enemy,” “White Heat,” and many, many more, also directed Flynn in “Gentleman Jim” in 1942. Sidney Hickcox did a notable job with the black and white cinematography, and Adolph Deutsch is credited with the original music.  

As befitting 1944, the ending is a little over the top as we watch Errol Flynn moving toward his destiny, buoyed up by huge swells of “La Marseillaise.”  Viva la France!

* Jean Picard was a famous French astronomer, 1620-1682. 

                Raoul Walsh

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Deadline - U.S.A. (1952) Richard Brooks

Humphrey Bogart made ten movies after this, and this one is not to be missed if you’re a Bogart fan. He’s a newspaperman, the editor of a family owned paper that just may be sold to a Rupert Murdoch type of conglomerate. While this drama is playing out, there are two newspaper stories being investigated. One pertains to a murdered woman found in a river, clad in nothing but a fur coat. The other story revolves around a notorious gangster who has so far avoided any criminal convictions (think Al Capone or Tony Soprano). All three plot lines eventually coalesce as the movie winds toward its dramatic, although somewhat abrupt, conclusion.

It’s a fascinating representation of how a newspaper was run and is also a strong commentary on the importance of freedom of the press. Bogart shines as the world-weary editor who retains his journalistic integrity with moral fervor.

Ethel Barrymore plays the widowed matriarch of the family who owns the paper and is also the mother of two daughters (“Stupidity isn’t hereditary; you acquire it by yourself.”). As would be expected, Barrymore plays her like the grand lady she is. Bogart and Barrymore have good rapport, and watch in particular for the sweet scene when they discuss life, love, and the newspaper business.

Kim Hunter (of Stella Streetcar fame) plays Bogart’s ex-wife and she doesn’t have much of a part. She has an inexplicable little role in the conclusion as well. The gangster is very well played by Martin Gabel. He practically seethes with evil and has the overwhelming confidence of a mobster who knows he’s in control.

The newspaper room is filled with hard-working, fast-living reporters, and you will find Ed Begley and Jim Backus among them. Backus has a great part in the newspaper “wake” and the entire wake is a wonderful, black-humor scene.

Faces you will recognize in the newsroom, even if you don’t know their names, include Warren Stevens, Paul Stewart, Willis Bouchey, and John Doucette. Henchmen of note include Robert Foulk and Joe Sawyer. All of these people have hundreds of movie roles to their credits. James Dean purportedly has a small role in the movie but I didn’t see him.

The director, Richard Brooks, also wrote the film. His previous experience as a reporter in New York City certainly helped the realistic tone of the newsroom. And his love of the newspaper business comes through in the film. It’s an early directorial attempt for film-writer Brooks who went on to direct “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Elmer Gantry,” and “In Cold Blood.” The production feels like a gritty Warner Brothers film but this was put out by 20th Century Fox.

Sometimes the idealism gets a little heavy-handed (e.g., a corpse falls on the printing press at one point; will it, and all it represents, stop the presses?). But overall, it’s a well-paced drama and an interesting depiction of journalistic integrity and the newspaper business.

“It may not be the oldest profession but it’s the best.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Locket (1946) John Brahm

The movie begins at a pre-wedding party for Laraine Day and Gene Raymond. Suddenly a stranger (Brian Aherne) appears, asking to speak privately to the future groom. Aherne’s story about the soon-to-be bride is fantastic and Raymond is incredulous. As Aherne continues, we are suddenly in his flashback, which leads to his earlier encounter with Robert Mitchum, who also had a surprising story about Day.  Yes, we are now in Mitchum’s flashback, and we’re not finished yet. From Mitchum’s flashback we move into Day’s, which takes us back to her childhood. Slowly the mist surrounding the conflicting stories begins to recede.

Murder and mayhem ensue throughout the flashbacks, and eventually we are brought back up through each successive flashback until we have circled back to where we started, at the party and moving on to the wedding. As you can surmise from the title, a small locket plays a significant role, being both cause and effect for the entire film.

The three men in Day’s life all do a fine job with their roles but Laraine Day is the star. Also notable is Katherine Emery as Mrs. Willis; she appears in a flashback and at the dramatic conclusion.

There are a few additional items to note about this movie, the first being the director. Brahm moved early on to television and is probably better known for directing original “Twilight Zone” episodes and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Lillian Fontaine, mother of her two more famous daughters, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, has a very small role as Lady Wyndham. And the Willis house is the same set used for the home of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in “Notorious.” Lastly, watch for Mitchum’s painting as his parting gift; you’ll only get a brief look and that picture says a thousand words.

“Do you approve of foolish marriages?”  “Certainly. They alienate relatives.”

“If you want some things badly enough, someday you'll have them.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

13 Ghosts (1960) William Castle

“Tonight, death walks again in this evil house.” This is just quirky fun from William Castle. Child actor Charles Herbert makes a birthday wish that the financially-strapped family can own their own house with furniture that nobody could take away, and voila! The family finds out they have inherited a house from their pre-Ghostbusters Uncle, Plato Zorba.

Along with the house, the family inherits the housekeeper. Herbert tells their visiting attorney, “There’s a witch in the house; ring the bell, she’ll answer.” Shortly thereafter we meet Uncle Plato’s assistant, the infamous wicked witch, Margaret Hamilton. She is sinister and mysterious, and although she does not command flying monkeys, she does have power and information, particularly when leading a seance.

Ghosts abound with campy and entertaining special effects. Watch the ouija board move, and the floating planchette land on the lap of perhaps the next victim/future ghost. There’s a spider-webbed shuffling ghost (or is he?) and a ghost emerging from a painting, but it’s really all about the glasses. When the film was introduced in theaters, glasses were provided in order to view the ghosts. Look through the red to see them or the blue to have them fade away. This wasn’t 3-D but a film process called Illusion-O. What a great gimmick and treat for those who watched the original film in the theater. And glasses also feature prominently in the movie. Another part of the family’s inheritance is a box that contains a pair of ghost-viewing glasses. Very nice tie-in from Castle. There’s just one pair so only the brave family members put them on; others only see ghostly impacts.

A few noteworthy ghosts include the murderous Italian chef making a mess in the kitchen (“That’s Emilio. He killed his wife, his mother-in-law, and his sister-in-law with a meat cleaver. Whack! Whack! Whack!”, from the nonchalant Herbert). And Herbert wearing the ghost-glasses fearlessly watches a headless lion tamer and lion in the basement; the lion apparently deprived the tamer of his head and the tamer would like it back. This scene inexplicably carries on far too long but it emphasizes Herbert’s easy and comfortable connection with the ghosts.

The uncle caught 11 ghosts and apparently became the 12th, but why and how? The ghosts indicate that there will soon be a 13th. Who is this destined to be? Will the family stay in the house long enough to find out? Also in the plot is a stash of cash somewhere in the house, which the destitute family could certainly use but at what expense? And what’s behind attorney Martin Milner’s helpfulness (you may recognize him from later TV shows, “Route 66" and “Adam-12")? Other family members are made up by Rosemary DeCamp, Jo Morrow, and Donald Woods.

This is just enjoyable to watch, particularly if you’re a fan of early special effects and William Castle. “You really are a witch aren’t you?” “Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies”. The front door slowly closes on a swirling ghost mass...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Four Jacks and a Jill (1942) Jack Hively

This is not a great movie but it has its funny moments and several good musical numbers. The plot clips right along (try to keep up) and doesn’t always make much sense but it doesn’t matter.

The four musicians banter amongst themselves and if you are listening, you’ll be amused. Eddie Foy Jr, is one of the “Jacks” and has his share of comedic moments (dancing with Bolger in “Boogie Woogie Conga”) but Ray Bolger has the best scene in which he does a prize fighter dance routine - it’s worth watching the movie just for this segment. He also dances his way through “I’m in Good Shape” and you will appreciate his talent.

Jack Durant plays a caricature of a hoodlum, brow beaten only by June Havoc (yes, of “Gypsy” fame), in her first starring film role. Her musical number is “I Haven’t a Thing to Wear” and she performs it very well. She’s funny. Desi Arnez plays a dual role and is entertaining as well. Anne Shirley is her usual sweet self, ably dubbed by Martha Mears. In an interesting tie-in, both Havoc and Shirley were pushed into careers at a young age by their mothers. Shirley retired from film at age 26 (1944) and already had a 20-year film career. This role was Havoc’s first major film and she continued acting sporadically into the 1980s. Also watch for Henry Daniell and Fritz Feld as they display their comic abilities.

Soundtrack titles are by Harry Revel and Mort Greene with “The Boogie Woogie Conga” being a highlight. Musical numbers are fun, dialogue has some witty patter, the plot is weak, and the movie is short. Watch it for the highlights.

“She’s a vulture for culture.” “Pardon me while I cop a nod.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Shake Hands with the Devil (1959) Michael Anderson

Based on a novel by Rearden Conner, this story brings us to 1921 Ireland, where citizens and soldiers alike are caught in the maelstrom of the Irish Republican Army, forces of the British Crown, and the Black & Tans. Hired by Britain to help suppress the Irish, the mercenary Black and Tans were joined by other ex-military personnel known as Auxiliaries. Together these two groups became notorious for their indiscriminate violence against the Irish, including burning towns (look up Cork, Conner's hometown), opening fire on a football-watching crowd, and random beatings and killings.

When the IRA, known for its assassinations of British sympathizers and police, would strike, the Black and Tans would brutally retaliate. Their name allegedly came from the fact that when they arrived in Ireland, there were not enough uniforms for all of them; therefore, their clothes became an amalgam of military and police uniforms, khaki and dark. (The wanton violence eventually repulsed even the British, and after wreaking havoc for several years, they were finally removed from Ireland; their presence had served no purpose other than to broaden support for the IRA.)

Enter Don Murray, an Irishman from America attending medical school. He is quickly caught up in random violence that forces him to decide on which side of the fence he will reside. Then meet the powerful James Cagney who is a Professor of Medicine, and a commander in the Irish Republican Army. This is a great Cagney role and worth a movie watch just to see the many layers of his personality unfold.

Other notables are the beautiful Dana Wynter (if you’re a Science Fiction movie fan, you’ll recognize her from the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), Glynis Johns, Michael Redgrave (father of Lynn and Vanessa), and watch for an early and memorable appearance by Richard Harris. Also present are famed British stage actors Cyril Cusack and Sybil Thorndike.

The film is fairly action packed and quite tense at times. The characters grapple with the use of violence - is it a justified means to an end? If so, to what degree, or are there no limits? When does a person fighting for his country’s freedom become a fanatical terrorist?

Shot on location in Ireland, the cinematography (Erwin Hillier) is stunning in its black and white beauty. Street scenes are gritty and grim, and lighting and camera angles make the most of both city and landscape settings. Near the end, there’s a great shot of Cagney standing in the shadows in a doorway, with the light behind him. Will he step into the light or remain in the dark? Brilliant shooting.

My favorite scene is the last - not because it’s unpredictable but because it’s beautifully filmed. You’ll even see some nice pre-Sergio Leone dramatic closeups. And while the credits roll, someone is pounding on a door, leaving the film with its moral ambiguity intact.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Vice Squad (1953) Arnold Laven

Although the name of the film doesn’t really fit its contents, the author of the novel on which this movie is based, Leslie T. White, was a lifelong member of the law enforcement community, including a stint as an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office; and it shows. The genre is “police procedure,” not a “whodunit.” At times it reminded me of “Dragnet” (debuted on radio in 1949 and on TV in 1951), only with Edward G. Robinson in for Jack Webb, with more personality, and a much larger, more entertaining cast.

This is one day in the life of Captain Barnaby (Robinson). Although the role held no challenges for Robinson, he played it well as the all-wise, always calm, head of the Vice Squad. In one interesting scene, Robinson is being interviewed for TV and is a little nervous. He asks, “Is it alright to smoke in the interview?” Interviewer: “That’s what we want!” Good old, early TV/movie days.

Several crimes need to be unraveled and Robinson is just the one to do it, with the help of his competent police force. The criminals start out equal to the task but will they fall to their deserved fates or outmaneuver the police? This criminal entity has some of the better scenes in the movie and is led by the menacing Edward Binns (Juror #6 in “Twelve Angry Men”). Adam Williams is remarkable to watch as the conflicted, dramatic maybe-criminal. And Lee Van Cleef, everyone’s favorite villain, is seen here in his second year of movie-making.

Two favorite character actors, Barry Kelley and Porter Hall, play a defense attorney and a hapless “victim,” respectively. Both roles are funny and well-played. Look for high-voiced Percy Helton in one of the several subplots, and Paulette Goddard, as a lovely Madam who has good chemistry and repartee with Robinson. (Goddard made only a few more movies and TV appearances after this. She also had a few very famous husbands including Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, and Erich Maria Remarque.)

The real stars are the cinematography (Joseph F. Biroc) and location. This is black and white, 1950s Los Angeles, complete with cars - it’s not a made-in-the-studio movie. Great use of light and shadows and excellent camera angles, particularly for the criminals and their activities, give this a film noir look. And for all the easy banter, the film provides considerable suspense toward the end, suitably set in a condemned, concrete building. Dramatic, tension-laden music (Herschel Burke Gilbert) underscores the criminals’ activities throughout and was otherwise absent.

Look for the easy way police had back then with their methods. Too early for Miranda rights, but not too soon for manipulations here and there, a few scams, and maybe a little blackmail; this was police business as usual, and an entertaining day for us in the life of Captain Barnaby in old Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking Chance (2009) Ross Katz

Private First Class Chance Phelps (1984-2004) died in Iraq at age 19 and was buried in Wyoming eight days later. His body was escorted by Lt Colonel Michael Strobl. This is their story.

You will see things in this very moving film (made for HBO) that you have probably never seen before. Since 1991 (up until April of 2009), any media coverage of the return of deceased soldiers was banned. No coffins being loaded onto air transports, and no unloading. Besides that, most of us are completely unfamiliar with the proceedings regarding the treatment of the combat dead, and this movie is the beginning of our education.

Aluminum transfer cases with bodies packed in ice leave Germany and arrive at Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. What transpires here will amaze you and I won’t disclose the details; their motto is “Dignity, Honor, and Respect.” Every service member who dies in a combat theater is transported by military aircraft to this mortuary for processing and burial preparation. When the body is ready, a military “escort” is assigned to bring that soldier to his or her final resting place.

A lifelong Marine and veteran of Desert Storm, Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) is conflicted about not serving in the current Iran war. He’s working in a cubicle, crunching numbers for the Marine Corps. In the one report to which we are privy, Strobl recommends that the number of replacements at a specific Iraqi site replace the casualty number and not be increased as requested; his superior overrules him in favor of the men on the ground. Strobl is stung by the implied criticism and his guilt worsens. Every night after his family is sleeping, he looks through the list of the names of those who have died that day, hoping he sees no one he knows. One night he sees someone from his hometown, whom he doesn’t know, and he decides to volunteer for escort duty.

The movie is as much about Strobl’s journey as it is his fallen comrade’s. But overall, the story is larger than the characters. At each stop in the trip from Delaware to Wyoming, Strobl is met with respect, acts of kindness, and impromptu tributes. They are directed at Strobl but are really for the unknown Phelps. It’s a unified, national grieving, and eight days of honoring the deceased. People who never knew him were thinking about him.

In Phelps’ hometown, Strobl meets with other veterans (one from the Korean “war” who gives him a dressing down for his guilt), turns over Phelps’ personal effects to his family, effects he has carefully guarded and repeatedly examined, and attends the funeral and burial.

“From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis; Minneapolis to Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive. Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving.”

This is not a political movie but a story about the meticulous treatment each of the fallen receives, and about our national, collective mourning. Each casualty is not just a number, but a person with a name, with friends and family. Watching this transport of a KIA brings our wars much closer to home. Watch and weep.

Lt. Colonel Strobl’s escort report became the basis of the screenplay (that he co-wrote with director, Ross Katz), and you can read the original report everywhere online. The movie stays quite true other than adding an obnoxious airline screener, a night spent in an airport hangar, and an impromptu funeral procession.

“Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.” I think we all do.

Of related interest:

Daily reports of the names of casualties:

A 2008 report of the nine-day journey home of Joe Montgomery, written by Chris Jones, from his burial moving backwards in time:

Monday, May 24, 2010

There’s Something About a Soldier (1943) Alfred E. Green

This is a Columbia Pictures production made during World War II and I mention it for several reasons, none being the quality of the film. The movie centers on Officer’s Candidate School applicants, their backgrounds, and progression. Rear projection footage is poorly and overly used. Watch and cringe.

The always lovely Evelyn Keyes is the love interest. For “Leave It to Beaver” fans, Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver) is amusing to watch as he plays the heavy-handed lieutenant to the new recruits. Bruce Bennett (you know him from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Mildred Pierce”) is the serious, war veteran. Also look for William Edmunds as the Polish father, and Louis Beavers, a talented black actress forced into the stereotypical maid or cook roles. In her first film role, Shelley Winters appears as Norma.

Tom Neal (1914-1972) plays an arrogant soldier who comes to be a decent human being by the end of the movie. Born in Evanston, Illinois to a wealthy family, Neal became a champion boxer at Northwestern University and received a law degree from Harvard. Intelligent and nice-looking, his movie roles ended up being thugs, or at the very least, tough guys. And in real-life, that’s what he was. He shared girlfriend, Barbara Payton (she’s a whole other story), with actor Franchot Tone for a while and once beat Tone up so badly he ended up in the hospital with a coma. Neal killed his third, and last, wife by a gunshot to the back of the head, and was sentenced to 10 years in jail for involuntary manslaughter (must have had a heck of an attorney).

More notorious than famous, Neal made fewer than 100 film and TV roles and all between 1938-1959. Watch for this hapless, handsome actor and you’ll appreciate, if not his acting, his back story.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Front Page (1931) Lewis Milestone

Most of you will be more familiar with the remakes of this great play: “His Girl Friday” in 1940 with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1974 “The Front Page.” There was another production in 1988 with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner entitled “Switching Channels,” which I haven’t seen and probably won’t. But this first film version is a treat and makes me wish I could have seen the original stage play. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the play based on their experiences as crime reporters in Chicago, and I need to find a copy of the play.

Howard Hughes produced the movie and Lewis Milestone (of “All Quiet on the Western Front” fame) directed. The cast is filled with recognizable faces and voices. And in my opinion, Pat O’Brien is the star. He snaps out his dialogue with the rest of the wisecracking reporters and is an impressive Hildy Johnson. Look for the scene where he’s carrying on two conversations into two telephones - very clever work. Adolph Menjou plays the devious Walter Burns, silent screen actress Mary Brian is O’Brien’s love interest, and Mae Clarke, of Jimmy Cagney grapefruit fame, is the streetwalker with a heart of gold.

Other notables are Edward Everett Horton, a hilarious germaphobe, George E Stone as the hapless anarchist, and Frank McHugh, Clarence Wilson, and Slim Summerville. Don’t miss the brief appearance by Francis Ford as Carl, a detective, not because he’s spectacular but because he’s the brother of director John Ford, who famously placed him in small roles in most of his films. (Francis was John’s older brother and was a silent film actor and director in his own right before the advent of sound.) Gustav von Seyffertitz plays Professor Max J, Engelhoffer, who diagnoses the anarchist: “dementia praecox!”

The directing and cinematography (Glen MacWilliams) are amazing for a 1931 film. Watch for the camera quickly moving from reporter to reporter as they make their telephone calls. One of my favorite shots shows the long telephone table as each reporter leans in from the opposite side to make his call. Milestone was an early user of camera panning and has some amazing camera angles. He moves the camera throughout the set and varies between long shots and close-ups very effectively. Sound quality could use some cleaning up but just get over it.

Menjou was nominated for Best Actor, Milestone for Best Director, and the movie for Outstanding Production (now called Best Picture). They lost to Lionel Barrymore, Norman Taurog, and Cimarron, respectively.

It’s a dramatic film that at the same time introduces the concept of “screwball comedy.” If you’re looking for themes or morals, try political corruption, communist hysteria, anarchists, sleazy reporters, and work vs. family, against the backdrop of lightning-quick, witty dialogue. It’s fast and funny, and although I’m a fan of “His Girl Friday,” this movie definitely rates a watch. Don’t miss the last Menjou line when the typewriter bleeps out the offending word. And keep watching through the ending credits for a nice little visual and audio tidbit.

“I have too many things to do . . . getting ready for the hanging.”

“Tell her nothing! She’s a woman, you fool!”

“I’m going to cut out drinking and swearing and everything connected with the crazy newspaper business! Honey, I’ll never even read a newspaper!” Right...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Night Must Fall (1937) Richard Thorpe

This is my favorite Robert Montgomery movie and one of his best. His character Danny/Baby Face suddenly appears in Dame May Whitty’s little cottage as the boyfriend of the maid. You know he’s clever but is he truly good or devilishly evil? Everyone in the house falls on either side of this question, with Rosalind Russell moving back and forth. Montgomery himself moves effortlessly and quickly between the dark and the light.

The household consists of the aforementioned crochety (really much worse), hypochondriac, Whitty, her niece, Russell, Merle Tottenham as the maid, the cook played by Kathleen Harrison, and Eily Malyon as the village nurse. Handsome Alan Marshal is Whitty’s lawyer and Russell’s wannabe boyfriend.

The stage is set and the play slowly unfolds. Watch when Montgomery moves into the house and asks the maid, his girlfriend, to help him with his bags. She walks in front of him carrying two large suitcases, and he practically skips past Russell, carrying nothing but a hat box. Also, later in the movie, Montgomery and Russell are in the kitchen at night in a great scene together (“You’re not frightened, you’re excited!”). Whitty is incredible in her scene when she’s left alone in her cottage, as is Montgomery in the mirror at the end.

Sets and art direction (Cedric Gibbons) are superb and the entire film is very atmospheric (cinematography by Ray June). Musical scoring is light but effective. This understated thriller has clever dialogue and is well-paced by the director. Both Whitty and Montgomery received deserving Oscar nominations for their roles (they were beat by Alice Brady and Spencer Tracy). And it’s interesting to see Russell in such a subdued role, which she performs wonderfully. Look for the familiar E.E. Clive as a tour guide near the end. And don’t look away until the end - I promise that you will not know for sure which way the wind is blowing! And you just may be looking at everyone from now on to see if their eyes are wide apart, and pondering whether or not that's a good thing...

"I often wonder on a very fine morning what it would be like for night to fall."

"Happy dreams and sweet repose..."

Faithless (1932) Harry Beaumont

The movie stars Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Montgomery and depicts a slice of life during the stock market crash and subsequent depression. The dapper Montgomery (father of Bewitched’s Samantha) is always interesting to watch. Bankhead is so over the top that it becomes obvious why she was so much more successful on the stage than in movies. For all her notoriety, she made very few movies, and is probably best known film-wise for “Lifeboat” (and for the expression “Hello, Dahling”).

Neither character is really believable as each falls into hardship, because their high society personalities remain rock solid. But like many movies before and since, the story does show how desperate circumstances can drive one into doing desperate things. Bankhead begins as a superficial, selfish woman and morphs into an understanding, self-sacrificing wife. You will have to watch it to find out what occurs and how it happens.

Look for Sterling Holloway as a photographer, and Hugh Herbert as the sleazy, wealthy Mr. Blainey. In the credits you will see Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons and Sound by Douglas Shearer. The names may not ring any bells today but both gentlemen have thousands of movie credits; give them their due.

“You’re just being a quixotic fool.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Michael Curtiz

This is a fine film that features William Powell shortly before his Thin Man days. He plays the character, Philo Vance, who is a debonair detective and bon vivant. Sound familiar? Powell made five “Philo” movies before moving to MGM and being paired with Myrna Loy, and this was his last. (Philo Vance is a character in 12 crime novels by S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) and was featured in 15 movies.)

So along with the witty Powell, there is a great cast of suspects: Ralph Morgan (older brother of the more famous “pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain” Frank), Mary Astor, Paul Cavanagh, Arthur Hohl, Helen Vinson, and Jack LaRue. There’s a murder, maybe, or two, and everyone has a motive. Eugene Pallette, the always recognizable rotund, gravel-voiced actor, plays a dim-witted detective whose amusing banter with Powell is always at Pallette’s expense. The coroner is humorously played by Etienne Giradot who after Powell, gets the best lines.

The seemingly unsolvable crime is slowly unraveled by Powell (“It’s a maze of conflicting clues”), and you might get it beforehand or you may not. How does a man in a room locked from the inside get murdered, or was it suicide? The director creatively uses split screens and imaginative flashbacks, and if you don’t know his name, you certainly know the movies Michael Curtiz directed: Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and many more. This is a well-crafted story with a clever plot. And you need to pay attention; it’s an early sound-film, and the movie unfolds through the dialogue. If you’re a mystery fan, a William Powell fan, or just a fan of well-written films, you’ll want to watch this entertaining movie.

“It’s slightly complicated since the man was shot, slugged, and stabbed himself, particularly in the back.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Cobweb (1955) Vincente Minnelli

This is a Minnelli melodrama that takes place in a mental institution with story lines that surround the employees more so than the patients. The movie is interesting for the appearances of some notable stars, well ok, maybe not even for that. But I do like Oscar Levant as a wise-cracking patient (“is that genesis or synthesis?...ah, incompleteness.”, or the scene when he’s relaxing in the tub singing M-O-T-H-E-R, "she was always quick with a knife to the back”). Gloria Grahame plays a voluptuous, ignored wife with a great chip on her shoulder, Susan Strasberg is a patient who’s afraid to leave the grounds, and John Kerr (of later South Pacific fame) plays an artistic, sensitive patient. Charles Boyer is entertaining as a womanizing, institution psychiatrist who hits on everyone including his secretary, the always stunning Adele Jergens.

Lillian Gish is a recalcitrant, not-very-nice hospital administrator.
Lauren Bacall is a calming force on everyone she meets and although she’s suffered a massive personal loss, she carries on as though she misplaced a dollar bill. Richard Widmark goes through the motions as the head of the mental institution ("He can't keep the patients up all night - he's not Scheherazade"), struggling with Boyer and Gish, as well as with his wife. He fondly remembers a time when he would get home from work at 5:30 am and his wife would have a pot of coffee ready for him - ah, the good old days. But how could he not be tempted by the serene Bacall when he has a crazy shrew at home? Look for Tommy Rettig (5000 Fingers of Dr. T, River of No Return) in a small role as Widmark’s cute, young son. And don’t miss Mabel Albertson (you’ll know her face from many 1960s & 1970s TV sitcoms) as the Head of the Board of Directors. Fay Wray makes an appearance near the end as the long-suffering wife of Charles Boyer.

It’s a struggle between the old and the young, traditional ways and more progressive ideas, work vs. family life, and oh yes, the drapes. It’s all about the drapes and what they symbolize. But my favorite parts of this film, other than the drapes, are when Oscar Levant is on the screen. He spent a bit of time in mental institutions and famously quoted: “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

Everything is neatly Minnellian-wrapped up in the end. If you want to know how, I’m afraid you’ll have to watch. And for you musical movie fans, you’ll know what movie Kerr and Strasberg were watching when you see them exiting the theater.

“Out of our needs and passions, we’ve spun a human cobweb”.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tender Mercies (1983) Bruce Beresford (written by Horton Foote)

I have loved this movie since I first viewed it in 1983. Think “Crazy Heart” but better. Robert Duvall won a very deserving Best Actor Oscar for playing the down-and-out ex-country music star, Mac Sledge, who finds redemption in a small Texas town living a simple life with his new wife, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Ellen Barkin, as Sue Anne, plays his estranged, and lost, daughter, and Betty Buckley plays his ex-wife, Dixie, who is a current country music star. Wilford Brimley appears as Dixie’s agent and Paul Gleason is a reporter who ferrets out Mac Sledge’s location. I’m not a big country music fan but I do like this soundtrack because I love the characters in the movie. Horton Foote won an Oscar, and the director and movie were both nominated.

Duvall does his own singing, proving once again his multi-talents (he also composed two of the songs in the soundtrack). Allan Hubbard never appeared in another film but was entirely captivating as Sonny (“We done it, Mac. We’re baptized... Do you think I look any different?”). Betty Buckley sings beautifully and plays the indulgent mother and angry ex-wife wonderfully. Watch for the moving, tender performance of “Over You” and the juxtaposition of her reaction when she sees Mac.

One particularly memorable moment occurs when Sue Anne makes a surprise visit to her father, Mac, whom she hasn’t seen in years. He wants to connect but doesn’t want to come between her and his ex-wife. When Sue Anne asks about her remembrance of Mac singing a song to her about the wings of a dove, he denies any recollection. When she drives away, he stands at the window watching and softly sings “Wings of a Dove”, then turns away with a palpable sigh.

Towards the end of the movie, Mac questions why certain things happen, or don’t happen (“I don’t trust happiness, never did and never will”), Sonny asks how his Daddy died (in Vietnam) (“I don’t know...he was just a boy, but he was a good boy”), and Mac is singing “Wings of a Dove” to himself outdoors before Sonny joins him with the football he received from Mac. Tess Harper is watching them from the porch and continues to thank God for his “tender mercies.” While this scene is playing out, “You Are What Love Means to Me’, written and sung by Craig Bickhardt, plays out the movie to the credits. You move away from the movie knowing that the losses these characters have suffered have brought them to this moment of appreciating the simple and good things in life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Duck Soup (1933) Leo McCarey

This is one of the funniest Marx Brothers movies you will ever see. If you’re not a Marx Brothers fan, don’t bother reading any further. It’s in my top three favorites, along with "Night at the Opera" (1935) and "Day at the Races" (1937). Watch Zeppo (Herbert) Marx in his last of seven movies; after brother, Gummo (Milton), left the act while in Vaudeville, Zeppo joined and played the straight man to his brothers. He obviously tired of this, moved on, and didn’t look back. The rest of the movies were made by Groucho (Julius), Chico (Leonard), and Harpo (Adolph, yes, Adolph).

Groucho Marx, as Rufus T. Firefly, is the ruling administrator, hired by the always-present Margaret Dumont to save Freedonia. The sly Louis Calhern is the ambassador of Sylvania, and yes, the countries go to war. “Go, and never darken my towels again!” As always, the three brothers are hilarious, verbally as well as physically. Don’t miss Edgar Kennedy as the lemonade street vendor and later in the bathtub with Harpo.

My favorite scene is the mirror gig with Groucho and the Groucho impersonators - if you’re not laughing out loud, there’s no hope for your sense of humor. This scene was later famously reprised by Lucy with Harpo on her TV show.

I could reveal the movie plot but there’s no point. The laughs are in the characters, the songs, and the jokes, replete in the dialogue and the music. Look for Groucho in the battle sequence where his uniform changes from Union soldier, Boy Scout, Davy Crockett, and more. “Hail, Freedonia!”. Watch, listen, and laugh your way through this movie.

Okay, so “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Tim Burton

This is not a great movie, but the effects are lavish and memorable. It’s not the book as we remember it, but it’s not intended to be. The 3D effects are not up to Avatar’s standards - but what is?
It’s a delight for the eyes, and the dialogue provides some very clever and witty moments. Johnny Depp is delightfully mad as the Mad Hatter, Anne Hathaway floats ethereally in her own mad way as the White Queen, and Helena Bonham Carter reigns eternally mad with her bulbous head and wicked ways. She has her Knave, Crispin Glover, who with his smarmy ways, who gets his just deserts in the end. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are always funny (Matt Lucas), Alan Rickman is cool as Absolem, the smoking, blue caterpillar, and take note of the renown Christopher Lee as the voice of the Jabberwocky. The Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) appears at will at opportune times, including once on the face of the moon.
Mia Wasikowska is Alice and she plays true as a beautiful young girl being forced into a box not of her choosing, and stands her ground after taking a detour down the rabbit hole. She not only calls out the hypocrisy around her, but also finds her “muchness” and moves bravely into her future.

It’s not a masterpiece but it is an interesting film with amazing environments. Music plays a wonderful and effective role (score by Danny Elfman), and you just may find yourself ducking a flying teacup at the tea party. Bayard (Timothy Spall), Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) provide much entertainment. Watch the movie without preconceived expectations and enjoy the visual feast that is Wonderland.
“You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”