Archive | June, 2013

DVR Alert: Zero Hour! (1957)

30 Jun

zerohour3ve6There’s precious little I can say about Zero Hour! (airing on TCM Monday, June 1 at 6:30 p.m.). It may be a perfectly fine little movie on its own merits but my generation will never know because it was the basis for Airplane!, about seventy percent of which is a direct scene-by-scene parody. So now the phantom of Airplane! hangs behind every scene, like the horns on the Beatles Anthology version of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” or a lost toe.

It’s as if the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are sitting in the room with you but instead of jokes they just grin and raise knowing eyebrows at you. The work is already done.

Enjoy! And good luck – we’re all counting on you.

DVR Alert: Broadway Melody of 1936 (19something) and Robert Wildhack

30 Jun

bway 1936Tomorrow (Sunday) morning on TCM at 6:00 a.m., Broadway Melody of 1936 begins. It ends about an hour and forty minutes later, with you none the wiser (“If tomorrow is opening night, why is all the cast, including the choreographer and the producer, performing in a floor show across town?!?”) but much happier. Eleanor Powell’s French accent, too, is a surreal delight.

But I don’t think I need to add anything about Jack Benny, Robert (“Boy, he’s pretty.” – My Wife) Taylor, Eleanor (“Boy, she’s pretty.”  – Me) Powell or Buddy & Vilma Ebsen (during who’s dances you’ll think just once at random, “Barnaby Jones, ladies and gentlemen”). And the Freed/Brown score is filled with songs you already know from Singin’ In the Rain. So instead let’s talk for a moment about Robert Wildhack.

Robert Wildhack used to host a radio show in the early 1930s, according to the IMDB. He also did comic monologues in vaudeville (I’m assuming the snoring routine from this one was in his pocket from those days)  and was also a poster painter, responsible for things like:

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Lovely, no? And you thought he was just the snoring guy. More fascinating info here  and here about Wildhack.

I mention all this only because little turns like these and the people who performed them are the only record we have of the majority of vaudeville’s performers. This is our heritage, kiddoes…the Snoring Guy. (I kid. It’s a pretty solid act.)

Irene Dunne

29 Jun

(This post is part of the Funny Lady Blogathon, generously hosted by Movies, Silently. Take a look at the other posts, won’t you?)

At rest, Irene Dunne’s doesn’t seem like a face for comedy… too sad-eyed, too refined. The speaking voice, giving little clue to the legitimate-style pipes, lands somewhere between Susan Sarandon and Gracie Allen and is prone to weird little half-chuckling interjections.

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But she has the trick – she really doesn’t treat her comic and dramatic roles any differently. Even to her more melodramatic romances like Love Affair and Penny Serenade, she brings a surprising comic verve (which is how to make a proper tearjerker: one can hardly pull the rug from under an audience without inviting it in for a drink) .

What’s such a pleasure about watching Dunne at work in comedy is the sense that from role to role it’s tricky to know what to expect of her, and yet she still brings her Dunne-ness, that refined air (Louisville-born, but the elocution and voice lessons paid off, despite her Southern schtick in My Favorite Wife) with a hint of the sort of eccentricity that was once just called “vivacity” but was always dangerous.

My own particular soft spot is for her terrible acting in character: the aforementioned loudmouthed Southern Gal in My Favorite Wife, as well as her weird little impressions of Cary Grant’s as-yet-unmet-by-her new wife Gail Patrick*; the lovely layers of her amusement as she pretends to be her husband’s brash and half-tanked sister “Lola” (apparently never a name for classy broads) in The Awful Truth.

tumblr_m98q7fS9ct1r4z5vfo1_400It seems only right that she did such high profile work with Cary Grant since she had the only chin that could compete with his. But she did fine work with all her partners. Her screwball set pieces were never cases of her running off on her own but always working in tandem. Her scenes with false-crisis-in-tweed Ralph Bellamy and his mother are as much fun as those with Grant in The Awful Truth. (And, ah, the dance contest. ) Even as straight man to her mooching family (including Lucille Ball and Alice Brady, who deserves her own post) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Joy of Living. And I don’t even have room to dig into her fun turn with Charles Boyer in Together Again and the lighter edges of her prim governess in Anna and the King of Siam.

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My particular favorite has always been Theodora Goes Wild. It lets people – all of them really, not just the leads – behave with the utter foolishness of the burgeoning Screwball style and yet there’s a depth to their reasoning that makes the two halves of the movie play out in such a satisfying way. And Dunne’s chemistry with Melvyn Douglas is splendid, though in fairness she’s got a lot of solid character folks to work with. This is such an ensemble story that were it not for the aforementioned chemistry, it would be easy for one of the supporting cast to run off with it all.

But the supporting cast does not and cannot. There’s no outstripping the elegantly bizarre Irene Dunne.

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*Did Gail Patrick and Ralph Bellamy ever end up together in a movie? It would seem only fair considering how many times each of them was used as interference for The Real Couple…

DVR Alert: Casablanca & All Through the Night (1942)

26 Jun

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve seen Casablanca, which seems safe. Always worth seeing again – though privately I’m glad it’s on at 3:00 a.m., when I first saw it. I love this era of twenty-four classics, but I do sort of miss the up-all-night-to-catch-the-good-ones days.

allthroughthenight13But That Movie will be followed by its perfect Vichy Waterwine/cheese pairing, All Through the Night (airing on TCM at 5:00 a.m. “tonight”), made the same year, also starring Humphrey Bogart and Conrad Veidt, and also featuring Peter Lorre. But with Phil Silvers added! Admit it: that’s what Casablanca was always missing.

It’s a lovely, goofily anti-Nazi comedy with a bunch of hoods fighting The Bad Guys, hoods including Frank McHugh, William Demarest, and Edward Brophy. Set that DVR, or stay up for it. Such a lot of fun – and not just frivolous fun: laughing at this movie is proven to defeat Nazis. So, you know…get involved.

Looking Backward: A Millionaire for Christy (1951)

26 Jun

A Millionaire for Christy is a frothy little screwball with surprising chemistry between its stars (when you think Hot Makeout Action, I ‘m betting you don’t immediately think Fred MacMurray and Eleanor Parker – GIF courtesy Constance Milligan).

millionaire christy constancemilligangifThe weirdest thing about it, and admittedly it’s only weird if you’re someone who watches too many of these damned things, is context – it’s such a 1930s movie that it’s weird to see in the early 1950s.

I’ve seen this before in more recent comedies that desperately want to pay tribute to an older style and there’s frequently something kind of desperate going on. That isn’t really the case here. But there is a strange friction between the goings-on and the period in A Millionaire for Christy, almost as if the screenplay sat around for fifteen years and someone just shaved out the vague references to the WPA. Which, sixty years later, is scarcely noticeable, but still there. Maybe it’s me.

It’s a frequent problem for me in a certain kind of post-WWII movie, that attempt to recapture the attitudes of a world before the massive change it brought that makes for the occasional film equivalent of a brittle smile. It took a while for Hollywood to level out. (Anyone else feel like latter day Abbot & Costello become layabouts with dead-end jobs in a prosperous America instead of just another couple of out-of-work oddjobbers like they were before V-J Day? Again, maybe it’s me.)

Still, light fun, and fine work from Parker in particular, who didn’t usually do this sort of thing.

Looking Forward: A Millionaire for Christy (1951)

23 Jun

macmurray-parker-millionaireI know nothing of A Millionaire for Christy beyond its title, its stars (Fred MacMurray and Eleanor Parker, and its general Screwball categorization. Which is enough to start with. See you here sometime after it airs on TCM Monday, June 24 at 10:00 p.m.

DVR Alert: To Be or Not to Be(1942)

23 Jun

To Be or Not To Be1I just noticed that To Be or Not to Be is on TCM at something ridiculous like 5:15 a.m. tomorrow (or tonight or however you look at that). If you’ve never…it’s just a beautiful thing. Forgetting even Jack Benny and Carole Lombard for a second, forget about it being right next to The Great Dictator as one of the finest WWII comedies made during the war itself… and remember Felix Bressart.

bressartIt is entirely possible that I am the only person besides Felix Bressart’s mother for whom he, in box office terms, could open a movie. But if Bressart is in it, I’m watching it. A magnificent character actor, not exclusively but usually comic. I’ve noted his magic before, but I just took a cursory spin past his IMDB page and seem to have seen something like 15 of his performances. Tip of the iceberg. And the hat. “A laugh is nothing to sneeze at.”

So, To Be or Not to Be. You deserve it. Perhaps I’ll go in depth later about why Benny’s dad stormed out of the movie the first time, but for now, just take a(nother) look.

DVR Alert – Essentials, Jr.: The Pirate (1948) tonight

23 Jun

The Pirate (airing on TCM tonight at 8:00 p.m. as part of Bill Hader’s always well- curated “Essentials, Jr.”) is one of my wife’s favorite movies. It flopped when it came out (that wasn’t her fault, of course – she missed that by a couple of decades), and is still a love-or-hate to many.

pirate-1948-04-gI enjoy it, myself (The Nicholas Brothers alone make it an easy sell for me), but my wife experienced this at the right time of childhood to make it one of those Beloveds. She will also defend it with vehemence against all those who denounce its silliness as the wrong kind. The quotes that follow are hers.

“I think they were doing something stylistically that not many other musicals of the period were doing, creating a melodramatic, swashbuckly land that includes poses that don’t exist in the standard musical.”

“The scene where Kelly & Garland are looking out over the ocean – the scene with the big white hat…the insane banter, THAT is what they’re trying to do stylistically with the whole movie…they’re Lunt-and-Fontanneing. Sublime Ridiculousness.”

(Big But Full is a common phrase the two of us use in talk about comic (or any stylized) performance – there’s a lot of that around our house. It’s not all me. )

“This was the first thing I saw Walter Slezak in.” (I interrupt her here to ask, “What young girl doesn’t remember her first Walter Slezak movie?” That fact alone tells you everything you need about her and our marriage.)  “I’m always confused when I see him in other things that are not this…I like his voice. It was also where I was introduced to the idea of Pirates-As-Businessmen.” (Did I mention the thing with her and pirates? It long predates the arr-yelling trends of the last decade. I’m guessing it goes back to this movie.)

Her one complaint: “Be a Clown.” “THAT’S the end?” After the melodrama-romance-parody of the rest of the movie, ending on this (admittedly well-executed) number feels weird, like it was meant for another place on the storyboard and was tacked on the end later. As it turns out, it was indeed a result of the usual executive compromise.

kelly serafinI pointedly avoided asking her about Gene Kelly’s remarkably revelatory-of-thigh dream outfit . Most of her other talking points get fuzzy when we get up to that one, so it’s important to make her save it for last or pass it by altogether if possible, which it isn’t. But I reserve the right to edit that out.

Looking Backward: Holiday (1938)

23 Jun

I am evermore impressed when a movie can plausibly result in (75-year-old spoiler) an interfamilial partner swap. I never watched much Jerry Springer, but I understand it happens all the time.

Annex - Grant, Cary (Holiday)_07My last viewing of Holiday was when I was about thirteen or fourteen, which in the case of a movie like this is like not having seen it at all. It’s all very well for folks to bemoan an ancient G-Rated age of classics, but this is undeniably for grown-ups. I still remember loving it (and The Philadelphia Story, which for obvious reasons is in the same category, though I somehow managed to memorize that one almost in its entirety).

But from a too-youthful viewing perspective, this is the sort of movie that leads to a dangerous and beautiful romanticism. Not the romance kind, though the connection between Hepburn and Grant is lovely. I refer to the sparkly and shiny dialogue that though I didn’t get it all gave me high hopes for what adult discourse would entail…as unreasonable an assumption, as it turns out, as watching Shakespeare and expecting everyone to speaking in connotative and layered verse.

(Horton’s line, “You’d better be a good little girl and eat your porridge,” gave me an unavoidable flashback to an even earlier Fractured Fairy Tales age.)

Furthermore, Oscars, schmoscars: this is, I’m convinced, high on the list of Katherine Hepburn’s finest work, in that while I appreciate and in fact prefer pre-Method/”naturalism” film acting, this performance manages to have it both ways, even trickier in a “those poor rich folks” story.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to have had a chance to revisit this in this way, with a memory of what would happen but a chance to let adult understanding dawn as I watched. Fine work, all.

Bells Are Ringing (1960) & more Judy Holliday

19 Jun

Bells Are Ringing (on TCM Friday, June 21 at 10:00 a.m.)  is a sweet little thing, with  Comden/Green book and lyrics, score by Jule Styne, directed by Vincent Minnelli, and featuring Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, the recently-late-always-great Jean Stapleton and Frank Gorshin. (This is all by way of pedigree, not to show off that I read the credits.) It’s fun, it’s Holliday’s last film and it’s worth watching. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

bells are ringingThere really aren’t any telephone operators anymore. I think they’re self explanatory. But it really wasn’t that long ago that the world had answering services. Technically they still exist, but let’s be honest: no one uses them.

As an actor in college we were told (among the other legal and businesslike pyramid schemes we were encouraged to to take advantage of) that getting an answering service in New York City was a must whether one lived there or not. That long-sought-after Veneer of Professionalism you’ve heard talk about would be yours for a low monthly fee.

Now, you pay for the privilege to record your own outgoing message which you check yourself. No chance for an accidental romantic entanglement with the likes of Judy Holliday. Siri does not and will never care about you, pretend though she may.

(Bells Are Ringing is showing as part of a morning of Holliday films including  Adam’s Rib at 6:30 a.m. and Born Yesterday at 8:15 a.m.)