Archive | August, 2013

Donald O’Connor

29 Aug

Donald O’Connor would have been 88 today. We all got fancy with our Gene Kelly birthday action last week. In lieu of such an occasion, let’s talk about something important: formative influences.

I am not a professional dancer. At all. Despite what a kind and good dance teacher told us (“You are ALL dancers”!”) and occasional eccentric successes, if you come to me and give me names of choreography, I will not know what those mean or how to achieve them. And I saw and was impressed by Gene Kelly’s work fairly early in life. My reaction was just appreciative, not participative.

But I know from funny. I make no claim to be brilliant at funny’s execution, but I know from funny. Every bit as much as David Paymer in Mr. Saturday Night.

And one of the formative memories of “Oh – so THAT’S how it works,” right up there with Dick Van Dyke, Cosby albums and Waldorf & Statler, was of this. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

Formative. My love of silent comedy/slapstick, eccentric movement, the thing with the rubbery lips after he hits the brick wall: formative. I cannot overestimate its place in my psyche. Blah blah greatest movie musical of all time awards honors blah blah. I don’t care. I didn’t know any of that when I was seven or eight or whatever. I knew that this man was funny and did funny things funnily.

And instead of just laughing like a sane person, I clearly decided somewhere in there that I wanted to participate.

It wasn’t much later that I saw the weaker-but-I-didn’t-know-that-because-I-had-just-learned-these-old-things-existed musical, Anything Goes.

Also There’s No Business Like Show Business, which AMC & the Disney Channel showed a lot circa 1984 (I’m guessing).  And some Francis movies.

And somewhere in there I noticed that I knew what this guy’s name was, and no one at school did. Hm.


I even saw his last movie (Out to Sea) in the theater purely because he was in it. (Okay, and Lemmon and Mattheau.) But in box office terms, he “opened a movie, for me anyway. In 1997.

So I take a moment to recognize this Formativivity. Thank you, sir. You are significantly responsible for my shady way of making living. I raise a glass. Just one though. I’m plumb out of balloons.

Gene Kelly Corrupts the Young

27 Aug

summer stockNow that I have your attention…

A friend has a five-year-old child who has, for at least a year, been a Gene Kelly devotee. I think it started with Singin’ in the Rain (as it should) and moved through the rest of his musical oeuvre pretty swiftly – to the point that, when we were invited over to watch a movie last weekend (projected onto the side of a white house on a lovely summer evening), some effort had to made to find one she hadn’t seen. And no, Xanadu doesn’t count; we want to be invited back.

We watched Summer Stock in preparation for this evening, because aforementioned Kid had already seen it, we hadn’t watched it in a long time,  and I got the TCM Judy Garland box for my wife a while back. For a movie that was made on (and in fact in meta-reference to) a hackneyed hey-kids-musical-in-a-barn skeleton, it really holds together well. Summer Stock isn’t the focus of this entry, but I’m going to indulge in a digression.

The creative act is very rarely captured well dramatically. I have a pet peeve involving scenes in films like Ray and The Glenn Miller Story where that conversation that never happens happens: “If only I could find that sound [that happened serendipitously but that hindsight has shown us is my signature and therefore it’s assumed was meticulously planned].” Bugs the crap out of me. There are only two scenes that come to mind that capture the creative moment.

One is in Mike Leigh’s Topy-Turvy, in which William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) has the click that gives him the idea for The Mikado and twinkles directly into the camera, hearing music that has not yet been written. It’s right.

TopsyThe other is Gene Kelly’s famous floor squeak/newspaper solo to “You Wonderful You” here, which I could wax rhapsodic about here, about how this is really how such things happen (or seem to at the time), or you could just spend five minutes watching, after which time you’ll agree and I won’t have to talk about it anymore.


It had been concluded that The Kid had yet to see Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which is by no means Kelly’s finest work (or Busby Berkeley’s) but, again she’s already binged on his film career, so it was this or Ziegfeld Follies.  Or, I suppose, Young Girls of Rochefort, which…not yet.

I had never seen Ball Game big-screen size before and it’s fascinating what that does to a performance. Besides the physical wonder of Esther Williams in even the smallest swimming scene and Gene’s solo Irish breakdown at that picnic (plus the numbers that remain my personal favorites, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” and “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate”), Gene in particular seems kind of over the top in an unusual way. He’s got the crazy eyes in this one…


I mean, Betty Garrett (criminally underrated and under-utilized) never played ‘em small, and yet she’s always the right kind of large. The well-documented offscreen tensions between Kelly & Berkeley and Kelly & Williams probably explain Kelly’s performance here, as well as all the hodge-podging and montaging. Though I’m not sure anything can explain that closing number and its begging of the whole “are we in character, or not, or…?” question. Weird choices, Buzz.


The Kid seemed to enjoy her evening, however. And we’ve been asked to curate a few selections for next summer, by which time she’ll have accepted that she’s seen all the Gene and needs to branch out…Carmen Miranda time, anyone?

Musings on Paul Williams, Frank Loesser & Vince Guaraldi

24 Aug

People write terrible songs sometimes when it’s time to write for children. Cloying, simplistic, past repetitive and onward into cruelly monotonous.

(I’m setting out on a project that would involve songs for children, so this is on my mind.)

And other people don’t. They don’t write terrible songs for children. They do magnificent things.

The other day a heard a friend in the other room singing “Rainbow Connection” to an infant and it put the song in my head. And it occurred to me why, beyond the fact that I’ve heard it since I was about five, this is such a brilliant song for kids: they can understand it almost as well as adults.

Rainbow_connectionWhen I was five, my life experience was (despite that huge leap in the first year) culturally pretty narrow. But I had, like most kids my age, seen The Wizard of Oz already. I mean, who hasn’t? It’s on the TV in the womb’s waiting room.

And what does Paul Williams choose to write about in a song that’s to open a movie that, while in no way really a kiddie movie (thanks again, Jim), everyone must have known would be seen by millions of children? With a song that immediately makes obvious reference to one of the only pieces of pop culture we knew, “Over the Rainbow,” and proceeds to write a poem about it, a poem the meaning of which was a little elusive at the time, but made that okay; a poem that came out of the mouth of a frog we already loved and trusted like earlier generations loved and trusted Howdy Doody or Mickey Mouse.

How the hell did he do that?

And then I got to thinking about my two other favorite examples of music that follows a less obvious path though written for children (no, not Williams’ “Flying Dreams” from The Secret of NIMH, though I’ve known the words since I was about nine), one of which used a very different tack, the other of which was closer to Williams’, in a way.

hans danny kayeThe former is Frank Loesser’s score for Hans Christian Andersen, which once heard is un-unsingable. You cannot not remember it. Using a musical logic that’s above commercial jingles, more in the neighborhood of what 1950s popular music was putting into practice in earnest – The Hook – Loesser almost offers a primer for children on how to make up songs, much as Andersen does with stories in the movie. “Thumbelina” and “No Two People” and “Wonderful Copenhagen” are not just songs you can join before they finish, they are songs that make your mind wander (in a good way, a creative way) when they accost you again later. The songs cause you to make up songs.

Was I alone here? I was a weird kid, but still.

vince_1The latter, the one that shares something with Williams, I think, is Vince Guaraldi, whose soundtracks for Charlie Brown specials are THE way to introduce a child to jazz. And it was many years before I figured out why: I think it’s because a good number of his soundtrack songs are improvisations based on the melodies of folk tunes (“Camptown Races”), Christmas carols (“The Little Drummer Boy”), the Minuet in G – songs, like “Over the Rainbow,” that a very small child has (or had… I can only speak for one generation) already heard. Songs that, when melodically or lyrically mused upon, even a child can follow.

What’s my point? I guess just that these three people were awfully good at this. And that I’m glad they did it.

Quickie: Hopscotch (1980)

24 Aug

hopscotch posterClearing off the DVR and watching Hopscotch, a thirty-three-year-old movie, this afternoon, I was struck by the confusing lack of remake.

I’m no lover of remakes. Ninety percent of the time I’d rather a new writer got a chance with a new idea.

But – and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this – the news is plumb stuffed with government secrets being leaked out by all kinds of technological (and non-) means. Stuffed.

If you watch/read the stations/sites I do, sympathy is generally with the leakers. And, while I will summarily ignore any and all discussion of this in the comments, I tend to agree.

And then we have Miles Kendig, the charming classical-music-loving ex-CIA operative who blows a massive and loud whistle the old fashioned pre-Internet way: by publishing it internationally.

The odd thing about a modern remake in light of the recent stink about the NSA’s web peekery is that the best way to accomplish the same thing now would be just like then: type it on a typewriter and mail the hard copy to secret locations people would have to go and find. All of which is a) more securely secure and b) a hell of a lot more interesting to watch than any scene involving people looking at screens.

Anyway. Mark my words. It’s coming. Hopscotch with Will Ferrell. Enjoy.

hopscotch beattyPS – this is also a lovely Ned Beatty role. Beatty and I share a hometown in which he is, to my way of thinking, insufficiently acknowledged. I wrote the following song for the main theater company I work with in Louisville. Enjoy…

Charles Coburn Day on TCM–8/24

23 Aug

TCM’s August “Summer Under the Stars” programming is always hit and miss with me. Frequently (and they seem to be fighting this mightily in 2013) it ends up spending half its time celebrating some of more obvious actors and films that they show all year, more even than their “31 Days of Oscar.”

But, oh, that other half.

Earlier in the month, there was a day dedicated to Mary Boland; another to Wallace Beery; another to Ramon Navarro. All of which makes up mightily for the Bogart and Davis and Wood and people I love, I do, but have at my disposal and need little reminding about the careers of.

Charles Coburn1And tomorrow (Saturday, August 24) we shall all gather and celebrate Charles Coburn with an utterly ridiculous wealth of character work.

The nice thing about these days dedicated to character actors (Martin Balsam, Glenda Farrell, Boland, Beery) is that even when they show something familiar, the block gives a nice picture of a workhorse career, a focus on depth instead of breadth. Coburn played every plump older gentleman you can imagine, and was always Coburn, yet with differences – the mark of a true pro in the character world.

All of this will be clear when you look at the highlights of the lineup:

Vivacious Lady with James Stewart, Ginger Rogers and a truckload of collegiate Wacky, featuring one of the finest lady-fights on film;

Together Again with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer – more late Screwball charm;

Made for Each Other, with Stewart again as well as Carole Lombard in a melodrama pulled up to greater heights by the cast;

Bachelor Mother, with Rogers;

Heaven Can Wait, a never-mentioned-enough gem with Gene Tierney and Aon Ameche;

The Lady Eve which just typing makes me want to drop my day and watch;

The More the Merrier, another oft-ignored little Screwball with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea;

-plus a couple I haven’t seen: H.M. Pulham, Esq. and the semi-Lubitsch, A Royal Scandal.

Not too shabby for a man who didn’t work in Hollywood until his late 50s.


Apropos of Nothing: The Thin Man series

23 Aug

This is about mood and not about cinematic critique or synopsis, so do bear with me.

thin-man-powell-loy-astaI am exhausted. My brain hurts after finishing a more-grueling-than-usual production process and though said show is closed and has been for nearly a week, the grey matter is still greyer than usual. Difficult to focus, difficult to start the new projects that it’s time to start; even the movies I’ve been meaning to catch up on for this site are all foreign or heady or in some way exhausting to focus on.

I don’t say any of this by way of beweeping my outcast state or presuming that everyone doesn’t get tuckered now and again. This is all just a setting of scene.

When I am creatively exhausted or emotionally exhausted, I look for inspiration in Tati or Keaton or the Marx Brothers. When I am Just Plain Exhausted, there are specific reinforcements I call in, particular mac’n’cheese movies  – there’s a short list. They’re very personal preferences and should not, in most cases, imply an endorsement of quality; merely attachment.

another-thin-manBut that’s not true in the case of The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man (which is on as I type – Asta has run off with the knife and Nick is leading an oafish group of cops out to look for…shots are being fired! What will happen?!), Shadow of the Thin Man, The Thin Man Goes Home, and Song of the Thin Man. They’re solid top to bottom.

People talk about the earlier ones being better, about the Nick and Nora Charles aging out of the fun of their first two or three outings.  I have no opinion on this sort of misguided talk from the sort of misguided people who would choose a favorite child.

Don_Costello_in_Another_Thin_Man_trailer(Movie update: could Don Costello as “Diamond Back” be more of a character in a Thin Man movie? The guy with the thick glasses he keeps wiping; the one staking out Sheldon Leonard’s house? Look at him. Second only to Nat Pendleton.)

All I offer is that on such a night as this, when feeling proverbially full of sleep and nodding by the fire, it is good to reflect that there are mysteries that have already been solved and whose solution is secondary to the way one works on the case. That to seek to make a world wherein both seediness and classiness are appreciated for their own respective modes of erudition is a noble and valiant quest. That one could do with a liberal nip before being forced to suffer the gats and chivs of outrageous fortune.

the_thin_man_william_powell(And now a Cuban specialty dance number out of nowhere. Why? BECAUSE IT’S TERRIFIC.)

I’ll be writing more soon. There’s a calmish weekend ahead (which includes an outdoor projection of Take Me Out to the Ball Game at the house of a five-year-old friend who has seen so much Gene Kelly that she’s running out of movies and isn’t quite ready for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) and the juices will no doubt be replenished soon. L’chaim!

Julia Misbehaves (1948)

21 Aug

julia misbehaves 1Julia Misbehaves, a movie remembered mostly because it provided Elizabeth Taylor with her first screen kiss to the always-fortunate Peter Lawford, was a pleasant surprise, particularly because every review I ever read of it was about the misplaced and miscast Greer Garson. I’ve never been particularly excited by Garson films; not for anything about her in particular, just the films themselves. She was typecast in a certain way, particularly after Mrs. Miniver, that led her into a cinematic subset that I  simultaneously appreciate the quality of and seldom turn to for my own entertainment.

But she’s goofy and vivacious here in a way she seldom had the chance to be (even contemporary reviews note this – we’re still cruel to traditionally dramatic leads who give comedy a shot, but I think it was worse back then). Ditto Walter Pidgeon, though he does sing a lot here, something no one ever really asked for. It’s around-the-house singing, though, so I suppose he gets a pass.

julia misbehaves 2And for a late Screwball, something I’ve either seen a disproportionate number of lately or just been thinking about the elements of, this maneuvers itself pretty well. No one is outright mean-spirited or so flawed as to be unsympathetic (cf. Two-Faced Woman, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, to some degree My Favorite Wife). Even Julia’s mother-in-law (not Lucille Watson’s first ride in that rodeo – she was like the devil’s own Beulah Bondi for a while in the 40s) has a certain gleeful kind of imperiousness that makes her sudden and inevitable change of heart seem entirely plausible. Julia Misbehaves is no Bringing Up Baby or Theodora Goes Wild, but it gets out with its charm intact and keeps everyone likeable while maintaining the conflict for long enough to keep things interesting.

(I’m particularly fond of how young Susan’s would-be fiancée is never even shown. Why bother? Just to give him an irritating laugh or visibly clammy handshake and make us watch him suffer/be insufferable? Ralph Bellamy was too old for her anyway.)

And two special mentions: Cesar Romero, who I’ve been watching for years without knowing he had a Cary Grant-level of acrobatic ability hidden behind his mustache (he’s pretty clearly doing most of his own work here – some of the shots are framed in a weird way that implies offstage help, but not enough to make what he is doing unimpressive); and the ever Mary Boland-esque Mary Boland as his coarse, indignant and inebriated mother, stealing scene after scene of a movie she’s scarcely in.

Again, a surprise pleasure.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

15 Aug

At last.

chimes_at_midnightIn 1999 or 2000, I went to the blessed Brattle Theatre for an Orson Welles double feature, the first film of which was to be Chimes at Midnight, his adaptation of both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (with a peppering of other Falstaff here and there).

I saw about three minutes. And the sound went out. Not the theatre’s – the film’s. Nothing to be done. They showed Othello instead. Which is great and all. I had already seen it.

A couple of years later, a girlfriend found it in a video store in Chicago. It was pretty beat up. I was only in town for the weekend. It was late. Through no fault of the movie’s, I fell sound asleep.

Years went by.

chimes 3Generationally speaking, it is almost impossible to make clear how difficult it is for me to remember sometimes that the internet exists. I look for something for years, give up, and while talking about it one day, think, “Wait – look online!” And there it is – Junior Miss on YouTube or I Go Pogo on eBay.

Or Chimes at Midnight new(ish)ly released in an affordable (for me) version that also doesn’t require a region-free player.

So I got it.

Now, no less than Pauline Kael has gone all apey over this movie, so I feel no need to try and surpass her praise for it. But let me go on record as saying it’s mighty good.

chimes at midnight 10 croppedMuch of what’s said about Chimes at Midnight is about the direction, particularly the impressively staged and influential battles, which Welles, with his usual inspiring creativity based at least in part on total lack of funding, carries off like the master he was. But, again, books have been written.

But Welles the actor is perfect here – I’ve seen several Falstaffs and his, for me, most effectively balances the old knight’s vain (and vain) attempts to hide his pathetic streak under a mask of playfulness without lapsing into the actor’s trap of overemphasizing the gravity or levity. So good that I wanted to watch it again immediately to focus purely on this and not all the splendid battles, the terrific performances by the rest of the cast (I particularly enjoyed Margaret Rutherford’s Mistress Quickly and Norman Rodway’s Hotspur), and, you know, the Shakespeare.

Worth every minute I waited.

P.S. – Because of a programming opportunity that it’s too early to talk about, I’ve been thinking about double features lately. Am I insane for wanting to pair this with Auntie Mame for an evening of Questionable Role Models?

Looking Backward: Two-Faced Woman (1941)

14 Aug

I should start by saying that the previously-mentioned reviews are fair. Two-Faced Woman is a middling movie at best, and it’s mostly because of Garbo, who plays two roles (sort of) and is miscast in both of them.


It’s also from the latter end of screwball, when for whatever reason a meanness crept into the proceedings. The couple (Garbo & Melvyn Douglas) seems grouchy all the time and the charm of the leads can’t make that go away. (I have similar feelings about Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith.)

I think the key to screwball may have something to do with surrounding likeable people with obstreperous nutjobs or immersing them in unusual situations (or, ideally, both)  instead of making their own relationships and personalities the problem. Also, surrounded by nutjobs of the proper magnitude, our beloved leads can have more flaws of their own without becoming hateful. (cf. Theodora Goes Wild and Nothing Sacred.)

But what do I know?

Bullitt (1968)

13 Aug

bullitt car

I hadn’t seen Bullitt in years – it was part of Steve McQueen day on TCM last week and The Wife (who had never seen it) and I watched it. Much has been said of it, but I’ll add that it’s aged remarkably well considering the biggest strike against it: it seems to be the birthplace of a thousand clichés that were the cornerstones of every cop movie for the fifteen or twenty years that followed.

bullitt bissetHad we not been in San Francisco ourselves back in June, we probably would have thought it odd that on a day when Bullitt required a turtleneck and a sport coat, his girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) didn’t even feel the need to wear any pants. But summer can be capricious in the City by the Bay…

Also, looking at an international airport in 1968 (again, one I was just in) is beyond fascinating. People just walk around, hopping on and off planes (literally, figuratively)  like they paid for a service and have a right to be there. Shameful.

This was part of my wife’s continuing and inadvertent Boy Movie Education*, which over the last decade has included the first two Godfathers (verdict: not her cup of tea, but appreciated it and knew it was time to see it), a great pile of Kurosawa (verdict: if Mifune was still alive, she would long go have left me for him) and Jaws (which I’m amazed that she, as a New Englander, was able to sidestep for as long as she did).

bullitt fluteShe liked Bullitt. She also called the heavy use of Action Jazz Flute (another cliché that this was near the start of) as “Guiraldi-eque” without knowing that ol’ Vince was in fact a big part of the Bay Area jazz scene around this time. These are the conversations we have at home; that should give you a good snapshot.



*I know; I know. Don’t start. My wife has a tendency to watch musicals, cartoons, and various stripes of romantic comedy, as do I. She is knowledgeable and well-viewed. She just didn’t grow up in a house where Westerns and cop movies and war tales and such were the norm. Unless Gregory Peck or Errol Flynn was in them. In which case all bets were off. I’m not Better than her (at all – her memory far exceeds mine); I haven’t seen The World of Susie Wong yet, but she introduced me to Picnic at Hanging Rock and Pandora’s Box and more. But, you know. Noisy movies.