Archive | April, 2013

Looking Forward: Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938)

29 Apr
Cowboy From Brooklyn (1938)

Hypnosis also used in this film to convince others of Powell’s cowboyhood.


Late Wednesday, May 1 at 1:00 a.m. on TCM

What I know of Cowboy from Brooklyn puts it firmly in my wheelhouse: Johnny Mercer & Harry Warren; Dick Powell (who always had a sort of soft, beaten side in his later noirs, but always kind of suited his first name in his romantic comedies); and generally low-star ratings. Which means I’m very likely going to enjoy it a lot.

Now, will it be good? I sincerely doubt it. But there’s an inexplicable sociological joy I get out of pictures like this. “That didn’t seem sexist?” “That worked for people then?” “Note the treatment (or lack) of insert social/racial subset. I will watch in gleeful fascination be it good or bad. Also, The Wife and I may or may not steal a move or two for a show. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing?

(My linker won’t link this morning, so here:

See you there!

Four Daughters (1938)

29 Apr
Four Daughters (1938)

A sweet moment with the charming and sonorously-named Lemp family.

Wednesday, May 1 at 9:45 p.m. on TCM

Ah, Four Daughters. This is where I admit I have a problem: what used to be called “women’s pictures.” I am Man enough to admit I cried once watching The Clock (in fairness, I was running a fever). Yes, I’m still a sucker for Kitty Foyle. And don’t get me started on Stella Dallas. I love movies like this. “Movies like this” implies “all,” and that’s not true – there’s always junk out there – but I, like everyone, have sentimental (and Sentimental) favorites that transcend standard quality judgments.

Like Four Daughters. I have gone actively out of my way to see all four parts of this little Lemp Family Saga; yes, even Daughters Courageous, in which the first movie is remade wholesale with a slight shift in surname/parental arrangement. (Five if you want to count Seven Sweethearts, which I always think is one of them for a split second before realizing almost immediately it isn’t but still belongs in the same drawer, metaphorically.)

This one is a semi-known gem (it’s on TCM with reasonable frequency), about which I have little exciting to say beyond praising the performances of May Robson, Claude Rains, John Garfield and Frank McHugh (always McHugh) and reminiscing about my youthful crush on Priscilla Lane (must’ve been Arsenic & Old Lace). And recommending it to those who haven’t seen it. It’s going to be a week of rainy days in various parts of the country. This suits one of them.

For Fun: note that this was directed by Michael Curtiz in the same year as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Angels With Dirty Faces, among others. I don’t know what that means, but I like saying it.

Addendum: Ball of Fire and The Doff

27 Apr

Sadly, there’s this lost gesture. I suspect it disappeared after, you know, hats. But it seems to be a reference to doffing. Of a hat.

Now surely one didn’t always have to take the whole hat off. Surely just tapping the brim with the extended tips of the index and middle finger would suffice in the hustle-bustle of midtown. Eventually it could be taken as read.

And surely the Doff could even be useful to a sass-mouthed broad who wouldn’t wear an unpinned-therefore-doffable hat if you paid her in rabbit stoles and beluga.

For when I picture a textbook Doff, I picture this one:

GIF from the voluminous and splendid archives of

Sugarpuss O’Shea says, “Hullo!’

(GIF courtesy of the voluminous and splendid archives of BelleCS.)

But if you hadn’t noticed the existence of the Doff up to now, you won’t be able to get through a handful of 20s-40s era movies without them piling up on you. Sorry. I don’t know. Make it a drinking game.

William Powell does a particularly subtle one in, I believe, My Man Godfrey. Talking to one of his old business pals, the man pays him a compliment and without breaking conversational stride, Powell offers a Doff that says, in a tick of the wrist, “That’s awfully kind of you, pal, and that’s as may be, but…” Masterfully doffed.

There’s a nice one in Shall We Dance, too, the Astaire/Rogers one (if I need to specify – nor Richard Gere nor Asian businessmen Doff). The designing ballerina Lady Tarrington gives it to Pete “Petrov” Peters as he skedaddles from her after boarding the steamer. I think she says “Bon voyage.” I’m working from memory here. But I see it pretty clearly.

Let this be my plea for the Doff’s timely return. It’s a greeting. It’s a salute. It looks great being done sarcastically off the back of a train at one’s thwarted pursuers. Pretty much all you need in a go-to gesture. Imagine I’m aiming one at you now.


26 Apr
The Seventh Seal (1957)

(a la Frank “The Guy From ‘Jack Benny'” Nelson) Yeeeeeeesss?

I’ve got one for you…

Late Sun. 4/28 on TCM:

12:15 a.m. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

1:30 a.m. The Paleface (1922)

2:15 a.m. The Seventh Seal (1957)

4:00 a.m. Love & Death (1975)

*Yes, I know. There are four, not three. But Paleface is a short. Leave me alone.

So, see, I know the joke is already here – Seventh Seal is the magnificent contextual setup for the punchline release of Love and Death (a favorite of my preferred Goofy-Age Woody Allen). But I have the foreknowledge that one of the loveliest in-cinema laughs I was ever a part of was at a showing of Seventh Seal at the Brattle in Boston years ago.

(I’m sure no one there remembers me – around the turn of the century, I used to call ahead and get them to put M&Ms in the soda fridge for me so I could have them with the hot popcorn. Good times.)

Anyhow, in comes the Reaper, who (which?) after standing there for a moment in front of von Sydow, announces himself in his Eeyore-ish Norse way: “I am Death.” Which seemed so patently obvious and deadpan that the audience, as one, let out this belting snort. Not mockery, now. It was funny that night. And it made the whole movie so much fun without making it anything it wasn’t (I’d argue it improved it, in fact). I mean, Death does pull out a handsaw at one point: the movie is not without humor. Can we not assume there’s more than we thought?

Thinking about it now, I realize that was a big moment for me – I’ve done script adaptations of a handful of classics since that time and in each I’ve looked for opportunities to mine for comedy instead of superimpose it. It’s trickier than it sounds, and something I wish happened more often; not to say that I’m successful, but I don’t know that it’s even a goal for most.

So I’m arguing that Buster Keaton is a perfect lead-in to put one in the right frame of mind for Bergman’s famed Arty Death Movie. After all, what is most good comedy but intriguingly heroic ways to deal with the threat of some form of Death? (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Moliere’s Don Juan, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. certainly fit that description.)

I’m not saying stay up ‘til all hours. This is why Nature gives us DVR. But watch these three together and let them seep into each other. That’s all I ask.

Post Script: I had the opportunity to see The Paleface here in Louisville a few weeks ago with live accompaniment by Bourbon Baroque. No point. Just bragging.

Quickie: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

26 Apr
Jean Harlow in "Wife vs. Secretary"

Secretary? Wife? Magneto? Cerebro?

We were watching Wife vs. Secretary, which we recorded the other night, and wondered…is Myrna Loy one and Jean Harlow the other, or is Harlow the only title character? Admit it: your jaw is on the floor right now. I know, I know. These raw insights don’t come without shock to me, either.

Also, Jean at one point says to Jimmy Stewart: “I can’t do that now, Dave.” 2001 would’ve been an entirely different film…

Looking Forward: The Captain is a Lady (1940)

26 Apr
The Captain is a Lady (1940)

Does he have a Bob Keeshan thing going on there, or is it me?

What really catches my eye when I browse TCM listings is a character actor with top billing. I share the worlds love for the Lombards and Loys and Coopers and Fondas. But there a joy to me in watching, say, The Mask of Dimitrios with Lorre and Greenstreet running the show on their own that’s entirely different from the joy of Casablanca.

The danger, of course, is what I think of as the Barney Fife Factor. You love Barney Fife. You look forward to a good Barney-centric episode. You applaud when he enters. But do you want a whole Barney series? History tells us this is hit-and-miss. Can you imagine an all-Kramer half-hour? And the less spoken of Enos, the better…

But Edward Everett Horton could carry a movie. Yes, he’s better when he springs in, delights, and flees; but if pressed, he can carry the weight. And frankly, what was Orson Welles if not a character actor who knew how to run a show? And get upset about frozen pea text.

So when I saw the listing for The Captain is a Lady, starring Charles Coburn and Beulah Bondi, I was understandably excited. The ideal Daddy Warbucks and the ideal Frances Perkins from the Annie-that-time-precluded, except in a movie I’d probably enjoy significantly more than Annie?  Sign me up!

I’ll meet you back here sometime in the days following May 3 at 11 a.m.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

26 Apr
The Palm Beach Story (1942)

How is it that a scene where that guy helps that woman with a wayward necklace clasps is one of the hottest scenes ever filmed? How?

Preston Sturges and Jacques Tati are two of my favorite – I use this word under duress – auteurs.  What made me put them in a sentence together, something I wouldn’t normally have thought to do? The Palm Beach Story is on TCM at midnight and I watched Tati’s Play Time (againagainagain) the other night, and just now I got to thinking about The Rich. Money in comedy is usually either blithely ignored (all Fred & Ginger movies) or paramount (almost all Chaplin), especially in the Depression-era stuff in which I tend to indulge.

But in these two films I’m talking about, there are millionaires pulling strings hither and yon (in Tati’s case, only one – the American in the Royal Garden sequence, though someone (maybe the American?) must own that company Hulot is interviewing with; in Palm Beach it’s tough to throw a rock without hitting an affluent white guy). And they’re generally likeable, despite the fact that they’re also complete if somewhat unconscious puppetmasters. Perhaps that’s what feels unusual: in recent news, the ultra-rich are almost never portrayed as, you know, possessing of basic decency. In our modern Depression, it’s hard for me to imagine a hit comedy coming out that would treat wealth so blithely.

I am, however, quite certain that Abe Froman of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a direct descendent – perhaps the son – of The Wienie King. You will never convince me otherwise.

In the same vein, I like to think Frank Faylen’s taxi driver is Ernie of It’s a Wonderful Life – but why isn’t he in Bedford Falls? Do you think you know everything about Ernie’s life? Do you? Marvel Comics pulls this crap all the time. Why can’t Frank Faylen?


I should also commit the brief blasphemy that this is my favorite Claudette Colbert performance. Yes, yes, It Happened One Night is a thing of beauty. “De gustibus non est disputandum” is tattooed on my bicep. Probably the finest work of Vallee and Astor, too. For McCrea, I have to lean more toward Sullivan’s Travels, which isn’t really surprising.


And let’s meditate for a second on the ending. Without spoiling it, it’s a lot like the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Which got me to pondering:

-time spent on an unusual  boat ride;

-significant time spent pretending to be someone else;

-a romantically fickle wealthy woman (though The Princess Centimillia is a drop less mournful than Olivia);

-and I think it could safely be said that Sirs Toby & Andrew could slip unnoticed into the Ale & Quail Club’s private car.

My conclusion? I don’t have one. But comedies are, as I’ll probably harp on repeatedly here, so seldom taken seriously as art and as craft (why award one when there’s a Dour and Important story out there), so a gentle formal comparison to Shakespeare couldn’t hurt my case, could it?

Ball of Fire (1941)

26 Apr
Ball of Fire (1941)

Nine terrific performers here, and you’re looking at that gam, aren’t you?

Man. Ball of Fire. I’ve looked for information and come up dry, but why has this never been adapted for the stage? Am I going to have to do this myself?

It’s on TCM at 4:15 tomorrow morning. That same glorious public domain situation that put It’s A Wonderful Life on 400 times a year for a while there did the same to Ball of Fire on the PBS of my childhood. Or that’s how I remember it, anyway. I have as little memory of my first time seeing this as I do my first Wizard of Oz.

And while, yes, I am perennially distracted by Barbara Stanwyck, this little beauty is a Cook’s tour of the pasty old character actors I love (and not so old: I was shocked when I first found out that Richard Haydn (Prof. Oddly) was only in his mid-30s at the time, playing a character who was pretty much unchanged when he did it on that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show). I remember getting a weird look from a middle-school friend as we listened to some early George Carlin we had unearthed – I believe it was the “Wonderful WINO radio” bit – when Oscar Homolka was name-checked and I had to explain defensively why laughed and then why I even knew who the hell that was. It’s been a tough life; really.


My parents, though they can never remember the names, are character actor face repositories. It therefore became my job in the household to remember the names. Phone call:

Mom: “What’s that actor’s name, he’s in this movie, on the phone, and he has a hat on. It’s black and white.”

Me: “…”

Mom: “I think he was in State Fair. He’s the one people used to say your Grandpa looked like.”

Me: “That’s Dana Andrews. Is he talking to Gary Cooper?”

Take that, Trebek. Cf. David Foster Wallace’s “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” or that section of Twain’s Autobiography about the bowling green. It’s always more rewarding to play on a non-standard field you know than on a flat, even plain.


My wife is a lover of all things Grimm, tales of Snow White in particular, and while she’s never asked, this is by far my favorite adaptation of that tale. I have a soft spot for the A Song is Born Danny Kaye/Virginia Mayo remake, too, but I know it’s inferior, I know. Nostalgia isn’t about qualitative proof; it’s about what was on TV at grandma’s that one time.

To begin with…

26 Apr

…people often ask me to recommend movies for them. Not as often as I offer recommendations. But still.

Case in point: a blog.

There are plenty of sources for fact and for insightful critique. So that won’t be here. What will? Who can say. I will mention that I lean toward movies made before my birth (1973); I have a deeper love for character actors than stars; I would rather talk about things I enjoy than things I don’t; I think comedy is under-appreciated, and the word “appreciate” has many meanings. So this will reflect that.

I also have a couple of nephews in the 11-13 range, a couple of nieces in the 4-7 range, all four of whom have avuncular movie nonsense forced upon them; and a wife with whom I watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies (which, besides weather emergency reports, is the sole reason we pay for cable.)

I have no earthly idea who will read this. But I hope to post weekly a) something I already love and b) something I’m looking forward to/just saw. Initially, anyway, because one has to start someplace, I’ll be seeking a) and b) the TCM listings for the coming week.