Coming up in February

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Classic movie fans…they’re a unique bunch of people.

Appreciating Aldo Ray…a northern California boy makes good in Hollywood.

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Which one will she choose?…what’s a gal in a rom-com supposed to do when she has three different proposals of marriage?

Phases of a screen career…the great, the good and the not-so-good.

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Hedy arrested for shoplifting: a sequel…it’s 1991 and Hedy Lamarr’s been accused of taking things from another store.

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Join me in February!

Pauline Kael’s observations

Positive

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NIGHT MUST FALL (1937)..Kael says it’s scary and gruesomely effective. She also says the victim (Dame May Whitty) is as loathsome as the killer (Robert Montgomery) but you still want her to live which can be seen as a way of complimenting Whitty’s performance.

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GOOD NEWS (1947)..She calls it one of the best collegiate musicals produced by Hollywood. She enjoys the performances rendered by June Allyson and Peter Lawford; and she praises Charles Walters’ choreography and direction. Plus she likes the fact most of the catchy songs have been preserved from the original stage production.

*****

Negative 

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KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1943)..Flat out says it’s “not good.” Complains that it is (over)stuffed with anti-Fascism. She calls it a “gothic wet blanket,” whatever that means, and says most of the cast is wasted. She does not care for Tracy’s performance, and thinks Hepburn plays the mournful female too dramatically. She implies that the two stars should stick to comedies.

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THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)..She wastes no time calling it “mawkish and trite.” She suggests De Mille went huge– with the idea that bigger was better. She dislikes the extremely melodramatic contrivances of characters who do not seem in the least bit interesting. She also says it is too clean looking for a place overrun by circus animals. She comments on how something so cornball could win an Oscar for best picture.

*****

Positive and negative

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PIGSKIN PARADE (1936)..According to Kael, this sports comedy is atrocious. But she says it’s also funny and enjoyable. Though she does not exactly recommend it, the picture still has a lot going for it. It features Judy Garland in an early role.

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THE FURY (1978)..She calls Brian De Palma’s sci-fi thriller “cheap.” Nonetheless, she finds it compelling from a visual standpoint. She singles the film out for its unrelenting intensity, but says it tries too hard to present classic sequences.

Essential: BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)

There’s a lot going on in this film, and even after two viewings, I’m not sure I even appreciate all the nuances in Woody Allen’s BROADWAY DANNY ROSE. It’s a charming tale of show biz shenanigans– a frenetic mixture of stage acts and the mob– that would be expanded upon in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Here the focus is on a beleaguered talent agent out of his depth when it comes to solving the romantic problems of his biggest client, a nightclub singer named Lou Canova.

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Lou is played by musician Nick Apollo Forte, who so far has only appeared in this one movie. It’s appropriate in a way, since Lou should be someone with enough talent to become a huge star but someone for whom major success eludes him. Maybe Forte’s own agent is as hapless as Danny. Regardless of all that, what makes the scenes work is the way Danny coaches him, which to some extent, is probably Allen coaching Forte through the moviemaking process. So their relationship has a lot of truth on screen.

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Also making the scenes come to life is Allen’s real-life partner Mia Farrow. She plays a gangster’s moll named Tina who has been sleeping with Lou. Somehow Danny gets in the middle of this potentially hazardous triangle, and in the process (because they spend so much time together), he develops a strange attachment to Tina. He realizes their special bond long before Tina does, and this sets up a nice resolution when she reaches the same conclusion. Many critics of the day, including Roger Ebert, lavished praise on Farrow for her performance in this picture. And I agree, she’s simply fantastic.

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Also adding to the fun are cameos from comedy stars who interact with Allen in various segments. Ex-wife Louise Lasser has an uncredited bit at the beginning as his secretary. And there are three scenes which feature Milton Berle. Berle is playing himself, and the plot involves Danny trying to get him to use Lou for a TV special. In the meantime, there are other comics in scenes at a deli– they function as the story’s ‘greek chorus.’ They comment on the action and narrate the different scrapes Danny encounters in his dealings with Berle, Lou, Tina and the local mafia.

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Reviewers on the IMDb have rated the film highly, with many saying the production benefits from strong acting and crisp black-and-white cinematography. With other Allen-Farrow collaborations, we have a pseudo-realistic look at life in which they usually play themselves (like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or HUSBANDS AND WIVES). But in this movie, they are portraying characters that seem quite a bit different from who they are. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

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BROADWAY DANNY ROSE can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Dennis Morgan & Jack Carson

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Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson were both from Wisconsin. During their early days in show business, they met and became friends in Milwaukee. After working in vaudeville and nightclubs around the midwest, they made it to Hollywood but were signed by different studios. Dennis found work at MGM under the name Stanley Morner but didn’t make much of an impression. He was soon let go, and Warner Brothers got him on the rebound.

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Jack was working at RKO and quickly moving from bit parts to substantial supporting roles. Two of these films were Ginger Rogers movies. In the early 40s, Jack left RKO and moved over to Warners. He could now costar on screen with his old pal Dennis. Interestingly, Dennis had become a household name when he was loaned to RKO for KITTY FOYLE.

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During the 1940s, Dennis & Jack made quite a few pictures together—dramas as well as comedies. They were probably at their best in THE HARD WAY with Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie. The critics raved. But the lighter fare did better with audiences, and they were regarded as their studio’s answer to Bob Hope & Bing Crosby.

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By the early 50s, Jack had left Warners to do comedy and musical roles at Paramount. In an independent production, he costarred with Ginger Rogers again, this time as a lead. Back at Warners Dennis was still appearing in big budget movies and finishing out his contract. He did a courtroom melodrama with Ginger called PERFECT STRANGERS.

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After he left Warners, Dennis freelanced at RKO and at Columbia in B films. His movie career was in decline during the mid-50s. Since he was quite wealthy from investments, he was not compelled to work much on TV in the following years. However, he did turn up in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And quite a bit later, he had a last hurrah when he set sail on The Love Boat. He also found time to raise money for the American Cancer Society, in honor of Jack Carson who had died in 1961 from the disease.

 

Essential: HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

We were visiting my grandparents in Chicago one year, and this was the first movie I remember my family renting at a video store. It was my grandmother’s idea; she and my aunt had heard from one of their friends it was supposed to be a good film. My mother who had fled Chicago years earlier for life as a farmwife in Wisconsin had no real interest in it. However, she was stuck watching it and spared us kids from having to sit through a similar fate by sending us out to play in the backyard. I wish I had been allowed to watch it, just so I could see what women like my grandmother and aunt would have liked about it. At any rate, I did not finally view it until just this week.

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An interesting thing about having to wait over thirty years to see a movie is that you do see it with wiser eyes. All the 80s-isms are there, and if I had seen it when it was new, it would have been too contemporary. Looking at it now and seeing Woody Allen mention Reagan, nuclear weapons and Catholics who want prayer in school kind of makes me nostalgic for life in 1986. Also, it’s ironic when he talks about things being made to serve an audience that will someday be dead– in this movie, several of the performers are already gone (most recently Carrie Fisher). Probably a lot of the people who saw it back then are now dead.

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The characters and what they represent will never die. Of course Hannah is really Mia Farrow and the sisters (played by Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey) represent Mia’s own real-life sisters. Not only is today’s viewer glimpsing a time capsule from the mid-80s, he/she is also seeing this particular family (the Farrows) being depicted at a certain time in their own unique history. Adding to the pseudo-documentary aspect of the “story” is the fact that Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia’s own mother, is cast as her character’s mother in the film. Of course, they had all read Allen’s script before they consented to being in a “reality” tale about their own off-screen lives– so they knew what they were getting into, right?

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While Mia is playing herself as Hannah, we have Michael Caine playing her husband. Obviously, this is a stand-in for Allen himself, though technically he never married Mia Farrow. He’s lusting after one of her sisters, which is probably confessional on some level, since I would imagine Allen lusted after or even possibly had an affair with one of Mia’s own sisters (it gets complicated when you factor in his later relationship with Mia’s adopted daughter). On top of all this, Allen is playing a guy named Mickey, who is probably himself in the future, since he’s playing the ex-husband of Mia/Hannah. Allen did not eventually marry one of Farrow’s own sisters (represented by Wiest’s character), so we can say this story did not ultimately come true. At some point it was only an exercise in Allen’s imagination.

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Putting it all into some sort of cosmic perspective, we get Allen on screen playing out scenes where he thinks he might have a brain tumor. Later he learns he is not dying, yet ironically, after he is home free, he contemplates shooting himself. I would guess these were real things from Allen’s own life, where it’s a fine line between frenzied comedy and actual neurosis playing itself out. His related search for meaning in alternate religions, besides Judaism, are very likely a seriocomic grappling of his own crises of faith. With Woody Allen, we get a fantastic sense of make-believe but reflecting on the surface are easy-to-see truths that betray the fictionalized elements.

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I think what this film has going in its favor is the way it celebrates family. The Thanksgiving scenes with Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan exemplify this best. And so do the occasional get-togethers the sisters have throughout the year. In this regard, the motion picture is very transcendent. Also, I think the reason the film did so well with moviegoers (it was one of Allen’s biggest hits) was that it reinforces life. Allen and the character he plays seem to be plagued with the idea there is no afterlife. Yet after a botched suicide attempt, he reconnects with an old friend and by the end, he learns he’s going to be father. It’s kind of like what Frank Capra’s films accomplished for Depression era audiences. Like Allen’s character the audience, many of them gone now, needed to know their struggles and their existence had been worth something.

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HANNAH AND HER SISTERS can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Interiors and memories

Admit it. You’ve thought it. Maybe you didn’t say it out loud. But it crossed your mind (at least once):

You tried to give the movie a chance, but it’s just not happening. You decided maybe another minute, maybe five more minutes. Maybe it would get better…but it never did.

Recently, I watched two films by a certain director whose name I won’t mention. His films are either masterpieces, or else they’re self-indulgent exercises in vanity. Assorted bits of philosophical nonsense. Granted even self-indulgent nonsense can have merit if it contains substantial ideas.

On one of the films, I pressed pause at the 25-minute mark. There were 62 more minutes left. Surely I had seen enough to form a valid opinion. My thoughts were wandering. The dialogue started to seem like some sort of satire about people the director had met in his life, but didn’t really know. Though he wanted us to think he had considered these characters fully.

The other film was an absolute masterpiece. Okay, a masterpiece with flaws. Genuinely good but moderately flawed. So how can one motion picture by a well-known director be so completely great, and his very next one so totally bad? I’m still trying to figure it out.

 

A discussion about BYE BYE BIRDIE

This column grew out of a conversation I had with TCM message board poster RayBan:

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RB: There is quite a difference between the original Broadway musical, which was directed by Gower Champion and the later screen version, directed by George Sidney. The stage musical pivoted on the relationship between the characters played by Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera. The film version loses that emotional center by building up Ann-Margret’s part. She often seems to be squeezing Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh off the screen. And she really wasn’t young enough to play a high school girl.

TB: It became an Ann-Margret vehicle. I suppose Columbia thought that would ensure box office success, instead of letting the original material carry the film.

RB: For the director, George Sidney, this is quite a step down. The stage musical is infinitely superior.

TB: I think Charles Walters would have done a better job directing it, don’t you?

RB: Charles Walters would have been perfect.

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TB:When I was a sophomore in high school, we performed the play. I remember some of us looked at the movie to see how our parts were played. We had a red-haired girl play Kim, and she did look like Ann-Margret. She was 16, a real high school girl and she fit the part perfectly. I played Mr. McAfee– and if you go by the original text, he’s a blustering sort of Gale Gordon type; not at all how Paul Lynde plays him in the film.

RB: So, you got to sing ‘Kids,’ you lucky dude, you!

TB: Yes, I had two big songs– ‘Kids’ and ‘Ed Sullivan.’ Plus the finale.

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RB: Who played Conrad Birdie?

TB: Our high school quarterback. I had a scene where I have to fight him, while he’s trying to do a song. My character wants him to leave my daughter alone. We had rehearsed the whole thing perfectly. I was supposed to push my way through the crowd, get up on the platform and tell him to stay away from my precious baby girl. And he was supposed to brush me off, as in ignore me, and keep playing his song to finish out the scene.

RB: But it didn’t go as planned?

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TB: Not at all. The night of the performance in front of a sold-out audience, he did more than ignore me– he actually shoved me back and knocked me off the high-rise platform. I fell at least twelve feet maybe more. The audience thought it was how the scene was supposed to go, but the rest of the cast on stage knew it was not as we rehearsed it. They all gasped, very much in character– thinking I was hurtling towards certain death, or at least a concussion.

RB: I can see it now.

TB: Somehow I landed just right, and though my shin was in incredible pain, I pushed my way back up on to the platform. I got in his face again just as the scene ended and the curtain closed. He was surprised to see that not only had I rebounded from the fall but I had gotten up there and stolen the scene from him. I learned a lot about myself that night– how much I loved to act, because it pulled me out of my shyness and inhibitions– and how I was willing to take the necessary pratfalls. After the curtain closed, it was intermission and they were all asking me if I was okay. We still had the second half of the play to do. We all had a great time with it.

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