TCM Cruise Report #4: What We Saw Thursday

2 Nov

Despite the late night Wednesday, I was up early (sans Wife – “I can’t take it; you’re the one who loves W.C. Fields. I need coffee and sleep”) for

It’s a Gift

a personal favorite filled with vaguely-connected comic set pieces, though I’d argue the character study (if you insist on those terms) aspect of it holds the whole thing together remarkably well.


It would be easy to list favorite lines and moments (“Vegetable man? Vegetable gentleman?”), but let it suffice to say that everyone in this particular audience came into the room with a clear notion of how to spell “Carl LaFong.” Some laughs were even smaller than they deserved to be because most everyone knew there was a better, weirder follow-up line mumbled underneath it that they wanted very much to hear and give its due. It was precisely the right way to see something like this.

Also, having had no opportunities to see a Fields movie with a sizeable audience, I recommend anyone who finds his work too strident or uncomfortable or angry to see something this way. Nothing releases the tension and accepts the Daily Truth of situations like these than the therapeutic laughter of mass recognition.

(It’s doubtful that any TCM programmers are reading this, but if there’s a screening of Million Dollar Legs next cruise, at the very least the couple behind me who shared their buffet cookie and I will be there.)

Then meet The Wife and it was off to

Mildred Pierce

which I haven’t seen in at least twenty years and she had never seen in one complete sitting. It was preceded by a few anecdotes from Ann Blyth, which made her a bit weepy (The Wife, not Ann). As I said before, my big takeaway from this one is that I’ll have to un-discount Jack Carson. Dammit.

Though I’ll add that I think this would be a terrific introduction for a classic film neophyte. The story is so clear and so straightforward but told so stylishly, and the performances are so much of their time – heightened, melodramatic, but grounded – that you’ll know by the end whether or not this “old movie” mishegoss is the sort of thing for you.


A special note: this was our first Eve Arden sighting of the cruise, never unwelcome. Rare in a film of that era that two sympathetic characters who are businesswomen who like each other just fine sit down for a nice glass of straight bourbon, neat.

After,  a quick trip to the poolside pizza bar before

The Music Man

which we’ve each seen no less than precisely three gajillion times and been involved in productions of and just watched on blu ray with a group of friends a couple of weeks before and still couldn’t wait. This was one of my first loves, this movie, and along with Jim Dale in Pete’s Dragon probably sparked my interest in the ne’er-do-well distant-period confidence man type, from then to now.

But never on the big screen. So much lovely detail. While The Wife drooled longingly at the costume designs, I kept getting (happily) distracted by little things in the corners that even after all these years I’d never noticed. The Paroo household has a collection of Edison wax cylinders I hadn’t ever seen, and now I’m going to have to do some pausing, because I think I could read the title on half of them if I had the time.


Shirley Jones opened with some anecdotes about Sinatra not being in this movie, which…I think he would have been a splendid Billy Bigelow had his marriage been on different footing and all, but The Music Man belongs solidly to Robert Preston and it’s good to hear Willson had the good sense to fight for him.

We had planned to see Out of the Past, but time was tight so we had lovely dinner (fully and properly dressed for the Night of Noir festivities) and after a bit of mercifully non-Bedford Falls High-like dancing atop the pool, we snuck out for

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

the 1920 John Barrymore version, masterfully accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the members of whom are, if I may say, good at what they do. We had the good fortune to run into Rodney Sauer and his wife at the pool the next day (and of having a friendly Louisville, KY vs. Louisville, CO dance-off with them on Saturday night, but that’s a…you…you had to be there. We tip our hats to your flying spats) so we got to say this in person, which is another lovely thing about this cruise: the people doing this fine work are trapped at sea with you and have no choice but to listen to you tell them how good they are at their jobs ad infinitum. Poor saps.

Annex - Barrymore, John (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)_NRFPT_01I’m told this was the oldest film yet screened on a TCM Cruise, but it still works. I spent a big chunk of my spring watching John Barrymore performances for – it’s a long story, but it involves my seeking inspiration from (pronounced “stealing”) some of his mannerisms and his sense of self-parody for Nick Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I had watched this again not long ago. I was not unhappy to watch it again.

(And again, though no TCM Cruise programmers are likely to see this, I could happily have forced myself to sit through 3 or 4 accompanied silents last week. Happily.)

There was more dancing/drinking at the second half of Noir Night after that, but not much because our brains and bodies hurt and there were still two more days of this to survive, these two people in love, hurtling over a body of water in a vessel over which they had no control – reminds me of another movie…maybe tomorrow.

TCM Cruise Report #3: What We Saw Tuesday & Wednesday

29 Oct

We’re at that point in our old movie watching lives, The Wife and I, that I’m pretty sure there were no movies on the TCM Cruise Screening list I’m about the put forward that we hadn’t seen. It had been many years ago for some, and others had been patchwork viewings and not start-to-finish affairs (one quite intentionally, but I’ll get to that in a bit). They’re none of them exactly dug from the cellars of obscurity, so I won’t get all review-y with them, but I’d like to note some impressions of seeing them on a big screen for in most cases the first time.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

A little introduction from Ben beforehand about Bernard Hermann’s love of this score and Ben’s his great-uncle’s lovely weird spectral romance included a list of as many movies with “ghost” in the title that he could come up with and his observation that they were all either comedy or horror and this was the only romance he could think of. (I was tempted to ask “What about Ghost?” but I’m not that much of a jerk.)

My word, the cinematography, though. This immediately becomes a film I always thought was nice and all, but became incredibly moving when all the details were available to my eye.

And that’s going to be the thread here – so many of these I had seen so many times, but a large, clear, full-screen viewing on snappy Disney ship sound systems makes them into new movies entirely. Louisville had a revival house in my college days, but the Vogue died around ‘98 (the marquee is still there because it’s all cute and Deco and there ought to be a law that if you won’t leave the cinema standing you do NOT get to keep the marquee for “architectural color,” bastard landlords of the world. But I digress).

For example, a couple of hours before TG&MM, we saw

House of Wax in 3D

which, aside from its insane paddleball sequence (by Reggie Rymal, who had a career of his own, thank you, as is evident around 4:20 here:


features some lovely depth work of the Viewmaster school during all the time can-can girls aren’t in your lap. I will say I was surprised the line “You never saw a show like this in Provincetown” didn’t get a bigger laugh, but to each his own.

After a day in Bahamian hammocks at Castaway Cay, the next evening brought a prime example of what I’m talking about.

The Palm Beach Story

isn’t even my favorite Sturges, but it seems to be going through a new period of appreciation (there’s a Criterion on the way) and it was, if I may risk spraining my Caps Lock key, MAGNIFICENT with an audience and a proper screen size. Tiny, tiny things like Mary Astor’s shifts of eye focus from one part of Captain McGlue to another or the visible shards of pince nez on Rudy Vallee’s face got laughs of their own. And the rhythm of any comedy from this era makes more sense with multiple viewers instead of lonely, lonely movie geeks at home rather wishing they were more effective evangelists.

(That one was preceded by a fun little Bruce Goldstein montage of some of the wildly varied character actor faces from the Sturges stable and beyond. Nice to be in an audience where Frank McHugh gets some applause recognition.)

The next one I’ve seen several times on the big screen, and

Rear Window

has been spoken of plenty, but I will note that recent news about some remodeling at Disney Hollywood Studios made us riff for a while on what a TCM/Disney partnership would look like there: some college students dressed as giant plastic-headed Bob & Ben; Illeana is already there on the Aerosmith ride, but she’d have a more prominent role as real estate guide on the Mr. Blandings (wild) ride (Melvyn’s narration would be worked in, too) . Clearly our plans also involved a life size replica of the view out Jeff’s rear window. Though I’m sure the people who own the rights to the Chipmunks would find a way to fight Disney on that. (Geek joke.)

rear windowWe split, The Wife and I, for a while because she cannot be restrained from Errol Flynn, and while I love to see a buckle well swashed, simultaneous to The Sea Hawk was the reason I was excited about this cruise in the first place,

Elmer Gantry

which I haven’t seen in years but which I fell in love with at 13 or 14. Weird kid. It holds up well, and while I remember it looking more, shall we say, 1960s, the production design at proper scale was lovely – the textures of Lancaster’s seedy salesman wardrobe and those of the rural congregations were downright distracting, as were the wallpapers, the general hues and, of course, Shirley Jones. But Lulu was always distracting. Maybe I wasn’t such a weird kid.

That’s plenty, isn’t it? Well, we had three more days of this mishegoss, two of them entirely at sea with no port to distract from the matter at hand. More tomorrow.

TCM Cruise Report #2: The People

29 Oct

20141024_000158389_iOSNow, this is probably true of any such gathering, but it occurred to me at some point on this little jaunt about the seas that the TCM Cruise is rather like a university filled with people who are fancy honor students in their respective high schools.

Among your friends, on your pub quiz team, for your family who still calls you asking what that one guy’s name was, the one with the hair, you know, the one your mother doesn’t like, among these people you are a one-person IMDB for all their recommendation and 2am argument-solving needs. But once aboard…well, let’s just say that every pub quiz team on the Eastern seaboard would’ve been doomed had anything happened to this ship.

Fortunately, this was an atmosphere not of competition but of glee. Everyone there was just so happy not to be the one weirdo who wanted to have a conversation about William Castle or Buster Keaton or whichever or both that a bunch of people of wildly varying ages and levels of social comfort seemed able to chatter away without much concern. We weren’t boring each other the way we do the rest of you, is what I’m saying. We were like ugly towel ducklings who in each other’s presence blossomed into beautiful towel swans.


(Sometimes with towel elephants on our backs for some reason that may have involved unwillingness to undo the towel origami.)

The very first couple we ran into, sitting at lunch on day one (Bill & Michael, Sarasota, early 60s?) were friendly enough at first, probably thought us younger even than we are, but at some point our mutual copious knowledge of the life and work of Esther Williams became clear. Suddenly we were in. “Oh, so you know movies,” one of them said, as if perhaps one runs into casual flik-watchers on this ship. And the bond was formed. From there we could get down to specifics – that scene in that movie filmed on that Thursday afternoon, etc. No one to impress and no one playing catch up. It was time to spend a week watching these things and talking about them, their history, their influence, our love.

And God forbid one of us should run into Shirley Jones in the atrium.

(As far as that goes, we didn’t have much luck with the Fancy Old Movie Star guests. We’re too polite; if Shirley or Dreyfuss showed up in a hallway or sat in a bar they were accosted by a coot swarm, or sometimes one Little Old Lady with the aggressive force of a coot swarm on her own. And into the woodwork we’d fade. Fortunately, The Wife encountered Ann Blyth long enough to tell her her Ann Blyth Story of being compared to her by a college professor while she studied musical theatre, something she still holds as a high compliment. Ann seemed to think that was lovely as well. There were cheek-pressing hugs. Yes, the cheek that Joan Crawford slapped.)


It was also a pleasure to meet, however briefly,  a couple of TCM Party frequenters, Scott McGee and Illeana Douglas. Nice to finally put faces with their names. I KID!

We were even lucky enough to have great dinner companions, two couples in our generational ballpark (there were plenty, of course, but it was nice of whatever powers handle such things to lump us together) with a general liberality and quiet appreciation of a good drink. Not to mention the couples and individuals we ran into regularly at screenings.

(The only source of mild social tension I noticed on board was our sudden realization that because of the aforementioned Little Old Ladies, we were never ever going to be able to take an elevator. But it’s a cruise. I kept saying that to myself. Over. And over.)

Good people, is what I’m saying. The part one worries about on such an excursion was no worry at all.

More to come.

TCM Cruise Report #1: Surprises & the Dreyfuss/Douglass Debates

28 Oct

First, a note about this Slight Return:

I haven’t added to this blog for months – solid workload with a Shakespeare festival throughout the spring and summer was tremendous, lovely, sweaty, and made me very happy. But there was no time for writing random thoughts about old movies. Scarcely time to watch them.

But The Wife and I also spent the bulk of that time anxiously anticipating the TCM Cruise. In that special way only two Virgos can: checking and rechecking packing lists, schedules, schedules and packing lists, pretending that new information is being added when we know in our hearts it’s just an excuse to gleefully obsess.

So we did that. Then we went on the cruise. On which I shall now report in a couple of manageable-sized posts.

I don’t know how long this will last. Life is busy and part of that busyness involves writing other stuff, which often keeps me from writing this stuff. Plus, it’s Christmas gift knitting season. Priorities.

The TCM Cruise Overview:

We loved it.


Rather than a dull chronology, I’ll try to bounce from highlight to highlight. This post will be on one minor and one major surprise.

MINOR – the screening of Mildred Pierce involved, as screenings of Mildred Pierce often do, Jack Carson. I don’t care much for Jack Carson. He bugs me. I don’t have to explain this to you. It’s visceral.

Then I saw him on the big screen, on which he has, and there’s no other way I can put this, sclera. Whites in both of his beady little eyes. Apparently that’s where he was hiding his acting. On my TV, he’s got shark eyes. Lifeless eyes, black eyes like a doll’s eye.  But on a full movie screen, he was… pretty good.

And dammit, now I have to reconsider Jack Carson. I DO NOT HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME. *shakes fist* “Carson!!!!”

phffft_9MAJOR – There was onboard tragedy during the cruise with the passing of Frank Mankiewicz, Really Impressive Human Being and father of TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Ben left the ship at Key West, which I hope didn’t prevent him from finding out about the sizeable and sincere outpourings of sympathy from the screening audiences as they heard the news.

This also made for some serious schedule wiggling behind the scenes, obviously. There was, for example, a “Meet Ben” event slated for Saturday morning (we were fortunate enough to see the Wednesday edition) in which he was to be interviewed by Illeana Douglas. This was replaced by a conversation between Douglas and Richard Dreyfuss on the craft of acting.

What this meant was that over the course of two days, The Wife and I saw Douglas interview Dreyfuss in a general way for an hour, then heard them talk shop for another hour, then heard a solo Dreyfuss’s Q&A after a screening of Jaws.

It was the greatest thing ever.


One of our favorite takeaways was that Dreyfuss has what I will gently describe as a tendency to digress (that’s by no means a dig – the path is curvy but leads to fascinating places) and their mutual enjoyment of each other’s company makes Douglas a dab hand at the dropping of breadcrumbs to remind him how he got there and bringing him back. We enjoyed this because in telling a story in our own lives, I am the wandering Dreyfuss and my wife the jovially restraining Douglas.

Anyway, many tales were told, of hero-to-both Spencer Tracy, of the Adler acting legacy (the Brando meeting), of those moments onstage when the actor is a conductor and the audience an orchestra. Douglas confessed to having used “What Would Dreyfuss Do?” as a fallback acting strategy, finding out that Dreyfuss did the same thing but with Tracy, and therefore there were moments in her career in which she may have been doing Dreyfuss doing Tracy. (Leading the Wife and I to talk later about what ours might be – it’s entirely possible our most common Emergency WW_D? go-tos are Gene Wilder and Madeleine Kahn. Though mine might also be Frank Morgan. Not sure how to feel about that.)

We had a couple of questions – about whether they thought it might be an effective acting strategy for a young actor to do just that, to seek inspiration from actors of the opposite sex, because they’ll be making choices that you won’t be able to/asked to replicate exactly and therefore will give you a more distinctive perspective. Also, why hasn’t Dreyfuss played Theodore Roosevelt in a film about the Amazonian River of Doubt expedition? – but as with all Q&A sessions in the world, the majority of the questions are from well-meaning people who more or less say, “mostly I want to have a private moment with you in public where I tell you you’re great.”

Though there was an attendee who asked him a question about academics studying his work that allowed for a really nice moment about self-confidence, depression and perseverance that was worth ten of the “that was great; you’re great” questions. And after this Dreyfuss spent the Jaws Q&A trying to encourage the audience’s impulses to dig deep. Some did. Some didn’t. Admirable effort at any rate.

It wasn’t supposed to happen, but that whole conversation about craft was one of the accidental highlights of the cruise and the sort of thing I hope TCM is encouraged to include on the slate next time. The audience got less anecdote and more nuts-and-bolts, but seemed to enjoy it just as much. Or perhaps I project.


TO COME: Tales of My Wife Trying Not to Weep on Ann Blyth; Social Encounters with Fellow Travelers; Why We Totally Skipped Key West to Watch Even More Movies; and more!

Avuncularity: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6 Mar

kind-hearts-and-coronetsOh, the Darkness of Kind Hearts and Coronets. I forget how darkity dark dark some of the Ealing Studios comedies are. They’re innocent little things without boobs or expletives, so they must be nothing to worry about. (I did warn the Nephews about the N-bomb at the end of this one and tried to put it in a bit of context – “to Victorian Imperialists it was racist, yes, but racism for them was just fine in a nursery rhyme, so that’s why something that for us is a MAJOR meaningful word choice happens out of nowhere here. Stay calm.”)

kind_hearts_and_coronets_01But these boys have already been introduced to the wide acting range of Ben Kenobi – that wizard is no crazy old man to them after The Ladykillers. So the whole he-plays-eight-different-mostly-murdered-D’ascoynes was a significant draw. This one was chosen by Nephew The Younger (who enjoyed it more, though I got the impression that was for the common sibling reason that if one chooses something, the other has to be at least a little bit against it) back in December, when Throne of Blood won the toss and we didn’t have time/focus for another full movie.

I spent some of the setup scenes explaining to them the short version of A History of British Class-Based Snobbery (assisted greatly by a viewing of the first episode of Fawlty Towers a couple of days later).

fawltytowersThis got them through until the killing began, which kept them both focused, and by the fight with Lionel (husband of the just awful, awful Sibella), the unjust trial (the announcement of which got “What?! No!”s from The Younger), and the gleefully inconclusive ending (more “What?! No!”), they were ensnared.

sibellaBut the payoff for this one came after, when we played a few rounds of Cineplexity with the family, which the boys had never played. The game involves an Apples To Apples sort of thing wherein two movie element cards are put down and players come up with a movie that contains both of them. (One card says “A dog or dinosaur,” another names “Cary Elwes, Cary Grant, or Kate Winslet.” Bringing Up Baby, perhaps? There are others.) Anyway, Kind Hearts was used as an answer from one of the boys in at least three different rounds, as were a couple more of our Avuncularity viewings. My work here is – not done, but going quite well, thank you.

Avuncularity, Delayed: Throne of Blood (1957), The Boat & The Goat (1921)

5 Mar

throne blood 1A couple of days before Christmas (as I said, I’ve been quite busy) the Aforementioned Nephews were given a choice of several semi-randomly selected movies, and they leapt at Throne of Blood (which was generally agreed to be a much better title than Spider’s Web Castle) when they discovered it was a) another samurai movie that was b) based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now, neither has read or seen Macbeth and I didn’t ask why this interested them for the clear reason that one’s nephews asking to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is what they call a Gift Horse. Its teeth looked fine from my vantage.

They were fairly mentally focused, as always, despite the constant physical fidgeting and the occasional and entirely legitimate questions about this and that throughout (usually Japanese military hierarchy/armor, some of which I could clear up and some of which I told them was wild guessing). It’s much easier to answer that sort of question when the movie is either silent or not in English. We can all stare at the screen and still discuss. Handy, that.

throne of blood ghostIt was so nice to watch this with a virgin audience that also knew nothing of Macbeth beyond a general awareness that it involves murder, witches and sleep-washing. No one knew beans about any walking forest, but they figured it out ahead of time, which made them feel particularly sharp. The ghost in the forest was, as it was when I first saw this, the source of immediate giggles followed by a seriously unsettled feeling. “What is that thing? Wait…what is that thing?” And after another moment of pride – “I KNEW it would end with the song again!” – the now-12-year-old asked, “So…when do the beginning and end parts happen again? Is that, like, now or…when?” A terrific question, I thought.

My only fear is that now when they finally see a production of Macbeth, no matter how good it is, the Thane’s death won’t be anywhere near as exciting as Mifune perforated by arrows. And yes, afterwards we told the story of that day on the set, which for them made it even better.

busterbw2That one is pretty heavy, though, so we finished our evening with some more Buster Keaton. The Boat was chosen first because the word “Damfino” had been discussed at our last Keaton viewing and that gag still packs the necessary gigglepunch for a 12- and a 13-year-old. The question remains: “Is it worth my limited disposable income to buy them memberships that they may be official Damfinos?”

There’s little story here to worry about, just gag after gag. For these boys, the funnel-in-the-floor moment was when they truly lost their shit. Why that? Why then? Who can say? But it was. The running bit with the world’s sturdiest pancakes wore them down as well.

They’re also still at the age where no matter what we watch there’s a moment of “that’s not real” or “that could never happen” which they just HAVE to vocalize. They really can not help it. Even when they’re enjoying themselves, “that’s fake” has to be said aloud – it’s comforting for some reason I don’t remember (but shared). My response is usually, “But the talking dragon (or whatever) isn’t a problem for you?”

I say this only because it’s Keaton alone that doesn’t inspire this. In The Boat, the collapsible masts and the uphill/downhill sailing nonsense is, even for them, so far gone, so over the cartoon-logic boundary, that he breaks them immediately of that habit. It’s fun to watch.

BusterwantedThen, The Goat, which I’ve seen more than other Keaton shorts for no particular reason. The weeping moments for them in this were the fur stole mustache and the whole elevator chase, but I have to mention the early moment where, delicately extricating himself from the presence of a cop, Buster puts on his coat around a pole and is trapped. This was met with no laugh of any kind but instead a wonder-laden “That’s funny!” as if a laugh would not be enough. Some genius of gag construction was recognized – or maybe just the idea that gags are a constructible thing, not just an event but a crafted moment dawned on them. As before, such fun to watch, these dawnings of the sun over Marblehead, as they say in Boston.

buster pole

Carmen Miranda & the Subversive Parts of Springtime in the Rockies.

25 Feb

Miranda, Carmen (Springtime in the Rockies)_01So. Carmen Miranda. And primarily Carmen Miranda in Springtime in the Rockies, though not exclusively (I believe I’ve mentioned my love for The Gang’s All Here before, and if I haven’t, I do so now)I’ve been thinking.

(Sidenote: I’ve also been working, a lot, which is why I haven’t had the time to blog – or frankly, focus on a lot of film watching – in the last couple of months or so.  It’s been great, but I’ve also missed this. I’ll be curious to see if anyone’s still reading…)

Last week, we had a lovely, relaxed, technically-not-a-festival-but-still-pyjamaed  afternoon with the participant in our Fourth One-Woman Film Festival (report to come soon enough) during which, as sometimes happens, The Gang’s All Here came out. That one’s formative for me, in that it was one of the first movies I remember identifying as “old” and “something I want to know more about.” I would suggest (humbly) that anyone wanting to know more about U.S. perceptions of the WWII Homefront would do well to unpack that movie in particular and its references. But later.

What it got me to thinking about was stereotypes, having just watched Swing Time, arguably the best Astaire & Rogers movie, but also the only one with a huge blackface number in it, made more complex because the blackface is Skin Tone Only (none of the other grotesque exaggerations common to it) and in fact is a tribute to someone – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – that Astaire held as a paragon of the craft of which he himself was seen as a paragon and always said so. So it’s done in loving honor. And also in cork. As I  said, complex.

astaire as bojanglesSo, then came a movie with Carmen Miranda, often dismissed as a capable Brazilian pop star who came to Hollywood and became a low Latin stereotype – oversexed, temperamental, and a butcher of English. Which, I don’t know. Maybe that’s true. Though if anyone can explain the difference between her persona and Sofía Vergara’s  besides “rattles in Spanish-vs.-Portugese when upset,” I’d welcome it.

Or maybe that’s not true. It’s hard for me to watch her next to, say, Betty Grable, next to whom she spent  a reasonable amount of time – like in, say Springtime in the Rockies, which I just saw again for the first time in years – and not think of Miranda as the relatively strong woman in the story. Grable isn’t ever independent; she just pouts sometimes. Not quite the same as Miranda’s clever secretary/inevitable floorshow performer. In this movie when Grable says “You’re the boss,” she’s telling John Payne he gets to decide everything about their honeymoon. When Miranda says the same thing to him earlier, it’s because he is her actual employer. And mostly she still does whatever the hell she wants.

Yes, she is made mock of for cultural reasons, primarily her tormented malaprop English. But she’s in good company. Hell, that still happens to Americans in British comedy. So it’s hard to suggest that she or any group you see her as belonging to is being singled out in that regard. (Also worth mentioning here: South American-ness was super trendy in wartime, for all those Good Neighbor reasons plus the cultural kick-assity of its music/dance goings-on. Note Springtime’s title when distributed to the rest of the hemisphere:

Springtime in the Rockies (1942)_02A Brazilian secretary was, in terms of modern Hollywood formula, a gay best friend.)

But in Springtime, she’s mostly self-protectively argumentative, capable of sexual instigation when it suits her, refusal when it doesn’t, and while no non-Anglo is strictly the lead in that era, she’s always (in her 1940-45 heyday, anyway) involved in and sometimes driving the main entanglements. Her character’s also half-Irish, but they use that as a surname punchline for her all the time (and it also makes it possible for her to end up with a white romantic partner for some reason that illustrates the bugnuts insanity of our forebears. So it goes.)

All this is coming out of a viewing of Springtime in the Rockies, though, which I should note is kind of sneaky. Despite having more or less the same writing/directing creative team as a load of other similar wacky-scrapes-and-musical-numbers movies of the era, for some reason this one decides to be sly – two walk-on indigenous waiters at the Canadian Rockies resort look at each other, give you a moment to expect “Ugh Wampum Kemosabe” talk, then instead discuss the relative merits of Harry James and Glenn Miller in the differently-irritating dialect of Period Swing Slang. Cesar Romero, usually either Latin-style disreputable Lothario or Latin-style ultra suave gigolo, is here more or less a dancing version of what I’d call the Ralph Bellamy role: priggish, WASPy, a little pushy. Doesn’t even get a girl at the end – Miranda ends up with the usually asexual Edward Everett Horton, who is instead a magnet to Brazilian romance, even before she finds out he’s spilling over with dough.

Plus two of the blandest white leads in musical history, no small feat, bless their hearts. Their bits are the least important thing in the movie and to the movie.

Springtime in the Rockies

I don’t pretend this is all cultural subversion by intent so much as comic subversion to keep the audience guessing in the middle of a series of heavily formulaic pictures, but it sure does make this one age better than some of its fellows.

So. I give you Carmen Miranda, ahead of her time as subversive icon of race and gender. Also, her outfits were rich in anti-oxidants and therefore ahead of her time nutritionally as well.

Man Enough: Love Affair (1939)

3 Dec

First off: miss me, both of you? It’s been a wild month. I played a mamboing Thomas Edison in a two-person show I co-wrote/-produced, which curtailed my viewing and therefore my writing. Also, it’s knitting season, and modern false notions of multitasking be damned, watching a movie and “having a movie on” are distinctly different to me. Anyway, things are calmer now, so I’m hoping I have more time again. So, we begin.

love affair 6

What is it about Irene Dunne that makes me want to write this, apropos of nothing and having written semi-extensively (or at least exclusively) before?

I should first revel for a moment in my status as man enough to admit that I’m a Sap.

I love these things, these stories that used to be called “women’s pictures.” I always have, though I blame my wife publicly for my post-nuptial tendency for actual weeping at them. I’m not precisely sure how she’s to blame, but it’s too late now. I’ve blamed her.

At some point in childhood I said, semi-consciously, “I like these old ones. I should be checking the year when I look at TV listings,” and started doing so. Things like this, romantic melodramas, tended to be heavily represented in the limited space pre-cable network television had for its classics. It wasn’t The Dirty Dozen or The Three Musketeers, but it was on and it was old so I was watching it. And at some point I forgot that I’m supposed to have a gender-based aversion to gooey chick flicks. (Probably that one day I was home sick and totally sobbed at The Clock. I was probably feverish, though. Forget I told you that.)

To be clear, now: I retain my aversion to being nakedly and poorly manipulated, which happens slightly more in the romantic melodrama than in other genres –beyond categorization, you’ve still got “good” and “bad” to discern – and don’t even get me started on the modern propensity to have it so distilled to a scientific formula that a romance doesn’t even have to be fleshed out so long as ten or twelve clichéd pasteurized processed predigested chunks can be cobbled together in an entwined spit-dangle of lazy, sorry storytelling(, actually).

But to be manipulated just right, as in any good tale, is a delight, even when awful things keep happening to those poor, unsuspecting little pawns. And be it  Charlotte Brontë or Billy Wilder, six-hour BBC version or just Garson and Olivier, I’m on board, handkerchief at the ready, a total Sap.

boyer-dunne-love-affair_optLove Affair’s formula has been stolen and re-stolen enough times over the years that its powers should have dissipated. It was, of course, famously re-made by it’s writer/director Leo McCarey as An Affair to Remember (and only slightly-less famously remade in Bollywood – twice), which is referenced endlessly, particularly post-Sleepless in Seattle. The remake is preferred by many, I suspect because duh Cary Grant, and I get that, honestly, but…it suffers from a notable lack of Irene Dunne.

And she, to me, is why this works. Boyer does fine work, and is perfectly cast, but there’s this Thing about Dunne that makes it plausible that she (as Terry McKay) both aspires to sing in nightclubs and prays openly in Grandmother’s chapel. That’s not really a paradox if you know any actual human beings, but in stories like this, characters tend to get distilled, probably because we only see 80-100 minutes of their lives, so what we do see is presumably important.

boyer-dunne-love-affair2Dunne has a strange electricity, though, not cold but so able to be un-bawdy, even in the most raucous of screwballs, at moments when the bawdy isn’t the point, and then turn it back on when it’s time. That’s either more difficult to pull off than it seems or no one else tried. (For examples, watch her scenes with Boyer through the porthole window or in the doorway of her stateroom and contrast them with scenes in her apartment at the end or in the aforementioned chapel.)

dunneloveaffair2Or here’s a good example with an added sprinkling of cultural anthropology: Terry’s song in the nightclub. It’s worth noting that in 1939 jazz rhythms and  styles were not fully in control of popular music, which didn’t even merit a capital-P at that point. Jazz was huge, but it shared the world’s ears with “legit” voices, with classical and art songs, in a way that often generates confusion today when the majority of Pop vocal stylings are mushed together into a paste. It was perfectly reasonable for an adult (that’s maybe an important word here) artist to sing a popular song the way Dunne does here and not be seen as weirdly dry. The obvious analog is her own performance in Show Boat four years before. She’s not a blues belter, but Terry by god means it and puts it over.

(Interesting to note that the pursuits of Our Lovers during their six-month split are so completely impractical in modern terms but are so single-mindedly sought. “Well, obviously I have to learn to make some money – I’ll be an artist; that’ll turn me a buck.” Six month is scarcely time for a 21st Century Artist to get a grant application filled out.)


But I’ll close with what is to me the scene that proves my collapse into Saphood, if only to me – and it isn’t the Wow Finish with the embrace and the sofa and the painting and all. But it’s where the writing/directing/acting prove their mettle: where Our Lovers say goodbye to Grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya), or Nanu, or whatever the hell he calls her.

I have difficulty imagining a modern actor, particularly American, performing this or a modern writer writing with this particular kind of incredibly non-melodramatic restraint. “Thank you for letting me trespass,” says Terry. Then, not at all rudely but in fact with a loving sort of decorum, she scoots down the stairs and out of the way to give them a private moment to say their familial goodbyes. She doesn’t seem to expect acknowledgment for this; it’s just what a person who’s been raised right does. THEN, only when she simply cannot resist the pull of this unexpected connection, up the stairs again to kiss Nanu silently.

And THAT is the scene that breaks me. Laugh it up at the Sap.

Edward Everett Horton (part of the 2013 “What a Character!” blogathon)

8 Nov


(This post is part of this weekend’s What A Character! blogathon – click the link above for more details about the splendid hosts and participants.)

Edward_Everett_HortonIt is not easy to do what he does. To be able to play essentially the same character regardless of the situation or surroundings is seen by some as a lack of range. Which is in a way true – I don’t suppose anyone would expect a Macbeth or a Vanya out of Edward Everett Horton (though now that I say that, I’d pay to see both of those) – but range isn’t everything. There’s also depth to be considered.

Not the “depth” people gush about when discussing the Oscar-worthiness of a nice, bleak performance that features a lot of snotty weeping. But the depth of a Persona that one knows the back roads of so intimately that again, regardless of the situation or surroundings, one can find a place for it anywhere.

Edward Everett Horton, if each character actor of his ilk could be blithely renamed like a Deadly Sin or a Disney Dwarf, was Fussy.

top-hat-hortonIn modern comic terms, he’s often described as “effeminate,” but I’d argue more for “effete,” which is splitting verbal hairs a bit, but is important to getting this right. Effeminate in the sense of “man behaving in a manner that is what one associates with a woman,” which is a possibility here, I guess, but “effete” holds a sense of pampered, infertile, non-threatening that has less to do with being Woman-ed than with being Un-manned. The difference being between, say, a kind of flamboyance that one associates with a Franklin Pangborn, whose persona is undoubtedly more aggressively “effeminate” and a Horton, whose persona, to me is less about gender roles and expectation and more about being an officious stick-in-the-mud.

gangOne of my favorite of his performances – though I’m happy to see him wherever he turns up – is in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, one of my personal desert-island-five for reasons of comfort and association if not actual quality. Mr. Potter, the affluent and pinch-mouthed old prude, affable to individuals but disapproving of anything that isn’t aggressively normal, who orders lemonade at a nightclub and feels that if a ballroom dancing couple aren’t married “there ought to be a law” yet still falls into a lets-call-it-Near-Dalliance with Carmen Miranda is to me the…well, if you read that sentence, you’ve pretty much got a handle on the Horton persona.

(To reflect in adulthood that he’s often partnered in that particular film with a freewheeling, slang-slinging, party-throwing Eugene Pallette and then consider which of them was in real life a right-wing loony with an apocalypse fortress and which of them lived comfortably with a Longtime Companion, as they said back then, is at least mildly entertaining.)

Which reminds me, apropos of very little, but this is about my entertainment as much as yours after all, of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I did an adaptation of it a few years ago and got to thinking about what a perfect WWII-era Fox musical it would’ve made. It never happened, and I doubt anyone will ever pay for the staging of a Shakespeare set in an imaginary Movie-Latin Illyria just for my personal shits/giggles, but nonetheless. So if you’re someone who revels in the fact that some scriptwriters are better than others, but that a good cast can do anything, let’s muse for a moment about a prospective Dramatis Personae*:

betty-grableViola – Betty Grable

Alice FayeOlivia – Alice Faye

don-ameche-inoldchicago-4Orsino – Don Ameche

payne-colbert_optSebastian – John Payne

Cesar-Romero-WC-9542350-1-402Antonio – Cesar Romero

palletteSir Toby Belch – Eugene Pallette

edward-everett-horton-001Edward Everett Horton – Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Greenwood, Charlotte_01Maria – Charlotte Greenwood

carmen miranda flower headpieceFeste – (here’s my stroke of genius) Carmen Miranda

sakall-kitchenFabian – S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall

billy-gilbert-3-sizedA Sea Captain – Billy Gilbert

Leonid_KinskeyValentine – Leonid Kinskey

naishCurio – J. Carroll Naish (I panicked here)

Musical settings by Benny Goodman.

Tell me you wouldn’t be happy to sit through this.

*Gibberish to many scholars, no doubt, but readers of this blogathon will, I hope, appreciate the care that went into the above.

Sidebar: Art Carney Saved My Life

5 Nov

Today in 1918 Art Carney was born.

artcarneyIn the frigid February of 1999, I was in a small production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a Boston suburb. The director had assembled four people: a loud, brash woman who would later turn up drunk to the show’s final preview; an overbearing passive-aggressive guy, a nice young Christian woman who was sweet in her way but also clearly only gradually discovered what she had gotten herself into; and me, at the time more of a milquetoast than I am now and certainly just as confrontation-averse as I remain. So, in a sense, good job, Director. And in a sense, what were you thinking, Director?

Opening weekend, I believe. George had been leaping from Act I to Act III to Act II and back during his speeches, which was not uncommon. In one of the scenes where the ladies are away and Nick is left with George for a bit, I saw it. The beads of sweat on his temple. I remember reading of Phil Silvers talking about Paul Ford going up on his lines during Bilko episodes, how beads of sweat would form on his temple and he’d get a glazed look…and I thought of that.

Phil_Silvers_Paul_Ford_Bilko_racing_pigeons_1958I should note here my childhood (and continuing) love of classic television comedy. I was raised in the cable era, so it wasn’t just Andy Griffith & Gilligan on local channels; it was Dick Van Dyke, it was Lucy, it was I Married Joan, “America’s Favorite Comedy Show, Starring America’s Queen of Comedy, Joan Davis.”

It was The Honeymooners.

Honeymooners02I did a paper and accompanying speech in Eighth Grade English on The Honeymooners. I dressed as Ed Norton for Hallowe’en the year before. I was a member of RALPH, the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners. I was a loser.

So George is temple-sweating like Paul Ford and says the deathless line that I’m SURE Albee would have included had he occurred to him, “I’m going to go see how the girls are doing.” And he left the stage, I assume to check a script in the wings.

Leaving me on the stage. Alone.

Before I had the chance to have a heart attack, I remembered Art Carney.

In a famous Honeymooners anecdote, once Gleason and Meadows made an exit through the “bedroom door” of the set. There was perhaps some miscommunication about a cue, but they didn’t return. For a long time. Leaving Art Carney on set. On live national television.

No one came in.

So he started rummaging through their icebox. For some reason there was an orange in there. Which he started to peel. Hilariously, in his cuff-shooting Nortonish way, by all reports.

Two minutes are a blip in our lives, usually. It’s not even a whole pop song, except maybe the Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back,” a thing of beauty and brevity.

But on a stage, especially alone, especially unexpectedly alone, it is an eternity; -it’s the long silent freakout part near the end of 2001 with those long-held frames of Dave’s terrified face.

2001Keir 01Unless you remember Art Carney.

I walked to the desk/sideboard. I was going to freshen my drink, and I saw some envelopes. Would Nick look at George & Martha’s private correspondence at this point?

I never got to find out. I didn’t get to do my two-minute metaphorical orange peeling. George found his line (I have no idea what it might have been) in the offstage script. On we went.

He apologized at some point before we closed, but not that night. He was kind of difficult.

In retrospect, I kind of regret my foiled improv scene; in the moment, I was just pleased that no urine left my body.

I have never known onstage fear since 1999. For which I thank Art Carney.

Happy birthday.