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.”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

This is a movie not to be missed. From the moment the train stops at Black Rock, and a stranger, Spencer Tracy, disembarks, the mystery and suspense begin to build. Everyone in town treats Tracy with hostility, for no apparent reason. Some of the townspeople are completely evil while others struggle between the overwhelming power of the evil and a vestige of a conscience.

Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin all play villains very effectively. John Ericson, and his sister, Anne Francis, are the young people of the town. The sheriff, Dean Jagger, has stuffed his cowardice and guilt in a liquor bottle. And Walter Brennan is the practical town doctor who goes along to get along. Here’s an exchange between Tracy and Brennan:

Tracy: “I got a problem of my own.”

Brennan: “You sure have. They’re going to kill you with no hard feelings.”
Tracy: “And you’re going to sit there and let ‘em do it.”
Brennan; “Don’t get waspish with me, mister....I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy.”

So what happened in this town and why the hostility to a stranger? And why is the stranger here? Facts are slowly revealed while the tension builds, and there’s not a weak moment in the film. Tracy remains in his black suit while the rest of the cast is dressed in casual western gear; this only strengthens the contrast between them. Filmed on location, John Sturges and William C. Mellor (cinematographer) put you in this hot, dry, Western town and with the wide angles, show how isolated it is and cut off from the rest of the world (before Tracy, the train has not stopped here for four years). The movie score was composed by Andre Previn and his music enhances every moment.

Spencer Tracy made ten movies after this film (he died in 1967) and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for this role. The award instead went to one of his co-stars, Ernest Borgnine for “Marty”. But watch for the fight in the bar between Tracy and Borgnine when Tracy takes his early revenge. Another interesting side note: Sturges took home the Oscar for Best Director, beating out the director of “Marty”, Delbert Mann.

Here’s one more piece of the puzzle for you: Tracy is a one-armed man. If you can figure out this movie before the conclusion, let me know, but you will be totally hooked up to the end.

“I think something kind of bad happened here...,something I can’t quite seem to find a handle to.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) William Dieterle

Originally called “All That Money Can Buy”, so as not to offend the religious right who abhorred any use of “devil” in a title, the story by Stephen Vincent Benet is the classic tale of selling one’s soul to the devil for money and power. The movie depicts the character transformation of James Craig after his deal.

Walter Huston was deservedly nominated for Best Actor, and as Mr. Scratch (the Devil), he takes over every scene in which he appears. Simone Simon is equally slyly devilish as Huston’s assistant, and you’ll get the shivers when you watch her singing to the baby of James Craig and Anne Shirley. (Simone gained fame the following year in “Cat People”.) Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) plays the solid-as-a-rock mother and mother-in-law, and Edward Arnold, as Daniel Webster, is a force to be reckoned with, as Mr. Scratch finds out. Notable appearances are also made by Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, and H.B. Warner.

Filmed in the studio with some use of rear-projection, the cinematographer (Joseph H August) still manages to offer up some nicely-produced, atmospheric scenes. Bernard Herrmann won the Oscar for Best Musical Scoring; music is minimal throughout much of the early film but becomes more important and effective as the movie goes on. Note the maniacal “Pop Goes the Weasel” played by Huston during a dance when Simone is first introduced.

The party at the mansion is eerily evil, and you will discover who else has sold his soul to the devil. But the trial at the end of the movie with a “jury of the damned” (“bastards, liars, traitors, naves”) is not to be missed, along with Scratch looking at “you” at the end. Dialogue is witty, eloquent, and humorous.

Walter Huston lost the Best Actor award to Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York”, as did Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” I’d say that’s pretty good company.

(One last note, Robert Wise, who was not yet a famous film director, was the film editor for this movie as well as "Citizen Kane".)

I never did hold much with Job, even if he is scripture. Took on too much to suit me. Course I don’t want to malign the man, but he always sounded to me like he come from Massachusetts. (Jane Darwell)

If two New Hampshire men aren’t a match for the devil, we’d better give this country back to the Indians. (Edward Arnold)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Red Dust (1932) Victor Fleming

This is a good movie, and much better than its 1953 remake, “Mogambo”. Clark Gable manages a rubber plantation somewhere in Indo-China. And yes, there’s plenty of Asian racism, not the least of which is the silly, laughing Willie Fung (Fung made 100s of movies, usually portraying a servant, a waiter, etc.). Into Gable’s world comes Jean Harlow, an attractive, wisecracking woman of ill-repute, who fleeing something or someone, finds her way to the plantation. Add to this plantation mix Gene Reynolds, who has been hired by Gable and unexpectedly brings along his pretty wife, Mary Astor. Relationships emerge, develop, and intertwine: Gable with Harlow, Harlow with Astor, Astor with Gable, Gable with Reynolds, etc.

Gable (31 years old) and Harlow (21) have great chemistry and both play their roles wonderfully. Astor is fine as the tempted woman (much better than Grace Kelly in the later “Mogambo”), and Reynolds is relegated to having a fever and proclaiming his dependence on his wife. Donald Crisp plays a very minor part, and Tully Marshall is Gable’s assistant on the plantation (“If it was the summer of 1894, I’d play games with you sister (Harlow). But life is much simpler now”).

For a movie produced in the studio, the production is good, ignoring that terrible set with Gable and Reynolds on the tree branch. There is no musical score but the acting and dialogue carry the movie very well. Being made before the Movie Production Code was enforced (that began in 1934), the movie contains scenes and double entendres that two years later would not have been possible. *

In “Mogambo”, Gable reprised his character, this time as a big-game hunter, Ave Gardner played the Harlow role, and Kelly took the Astor part. Although “Mogambo” is filmed on location, “Red Dust” still beats it hands down. Watch for the famous bath in the rain barrel scene with Harlow and Gable. If you’re a fan of these two stars, you’ll enjoy seeing them together in this film.

I wouldn’t touch her with your best pair of rubber gloves. Harlow upon being warned by Gable to stay away from the lady, Mary Astor.

* See http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Production_Code for some history and an interesting read.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pepe (1960) George Sidney

This peculiar movie is interesting to watch for the dozens of cameo appearances by Hollywood stars, and to see the famed Mexican comedian, Cantinflas (Pepe). He’s treated disparagingly throughout the movie (“What are you, a juvenile delinquent?” “No, I’m a Mexican”) but always comes out on top. Along with Cantinflas, Shirley Jones and Dan Dailey play roles while everybody else plays themselves. Some of the writing is just hilarious with clever wordplay between the naive Pepe and those trying to take advantage of or mock him. There are too many stars to mention and if you’re not an old movie fan, you’ll miss many of them (even Jay North/Dennis the Menace makes an appearance).

Here a few favorite scenes to watch for and appreciate:

The great Ernie Kovacs playing an immigration officer when Pepe is passing through.

Bing Crosby crackin’ wise about Bob Hope.

Jack Lemmon appearing in his “Some Like It Hot” drag (“There’s got to be a better way of making a living. I don’t know how they stand it (removing high heels).”

Bobby Darin, with Andre Previn on the piano, giving a wonderful performance in the nightclub.

In the same nightclub, a dance sequence with Shirley Jones and talented dancers Matt Mattox (one of the brothers in Seven Brides...) and Michael Callan with a beautifully choreographed knife fight.

The scene with Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis showing off Cantinflas’ physical comedic abilities.

Dan Dailey doing an impression of Edward G Robinson, to Edward G Robinson.

Maurice Chevalier in a funny scene with Cantinflas and Dan Dailey centering around “Mimi” (do-do, re-re?).

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin bantering with Cantinflas in the Sands Hotel (also watch for Cesar Romero with Cantinflas: “Voo doo?” “No, I do.”).

Card trick scene with Jimmy Durante - Cantinflas speaks his part almost entirely in Spanish and the whole scene is great.

So, some funny/clever dialogue, humorous cameos, the comedic talents of Cantinflas (who some call the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico), not much of a plot, several outstanding performances, and some nicely filmed Mexico street scenes (cinematography by Joseph MacDonald), make up this strange and sometimes entertaining movie. It’s certainly worth one watch.