Archive | September, 2013

Avuncularity: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

26 Sep

Maltese FalconFurther dispatches from the nephew visit: Monday night was a night of unhealthy processed food, too often cheese-based, and The Maltese Falcon, which they chose for reasons I’m not clear on but which may be related to the fact that their aunt and I are in possession of one of those movie prop replica black birds that belonged to their grandfather. (Do not burn our house down, Templars. We do not possess the real Falcon.)

As a performer I have a preference for comic roles, partially because I grok their ways and enjoy them, but partially because of that moment-to-moment sense of whether it’s working. Laughs and snorts are clear and evident and one knows immediately whether it landed or whether it did not.

Similar issues arise when watching a non-comedy with the boys. Are they enjoying this? Usually deep sighs are the surest negative – at this age, even wandering off isn’t a sign, since a) they’re used to watching things from which one can easily wander and b) Food & Soda are the primary objective. Always.

So I took their relative lack of fidgets and their spate of questions as we approached the end as good signs.

maltese wilmerWatching a movie you’ve seen time and again is always better with virgin eyes in the room. I know these boys well enough that when Spade disarms Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr. long having been one of my favorite parts of this movie) I should be looking at them and not him that I may revel in vicarious response. Were I a parent, I would also fully expect one of them to try the coat-around-the-elbows move as soon as it gets cold.

maltese cairoI’m also intrigued at how this lets me reevaluate my own youthful movie-watching in certain ways. The Maltese Falcon is, for example, a plot teeming with sex- Brigid and Spade’s burgeoning and manipulative relationship, Ida and Spade’s dwindling affair, Archer’s lechery, Cairo’s obvious homosexuality if one is used to period codes (or read the book), the etymology of the word “gunsel” – which was entirely lost to me at that age and yet is vital to understanding what even the hell is going on. The boys got that Spade was having an affair with his dead partner’s wife, but that’s about it. Which is probably what I got at 11 or 12.

Also worth mentioning is a habit that the younger nephew, 11, has, seemingly a spontaneous reaction each time. He has a visceral need to say aloud that a thing didn’t really happen – this from a boy who enjoyed the Transformer movies. You’re right, 11, Wilmer’s kick to Spade’s head is not the best bit of staged combat in film history (“that was fake – he didn’t really kick him”). My seemingly spontaneous reaction each time has therefore inevitably become “It’s all fake; those aren’t even their real names.”

As to their real names, the boys seemed intrigued by our incidental knowledge of the names and careers of seemingly every single actor in the movie, all of whom have faces familiar to anyone who’s seen an average of about seven of your basic pre-1968 classics, but one forgets what a childhood of watching these (and Remington Steele) will leave stuck in your head.

On that front, Walter Huston’s cameo (which is a surprise to me every single time; it just doesn’t stay in my brain) made me bring up The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which piqued their greedy little interests. So we add another to the slate for Christmas… 

maltese_falcon_walter_huston

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Rhythm on the River (1940)

23 Sep

Kraft-Mac-and-CheeseThe other comfort food movie to which I knit upon our arrival in this Place of Calm was Rhythm on the River, a surprisingly solid little romantic musical comedy with what are frequently called “winning” performances from Bing Crosby and Mary Martin, as well as the narcissism-addled non-songwriting Basil Rathbone, scene-stealing Charley Grapewin (with whom Crosby has evident fun) and Oscar Levant, oddly cast in the Oscar Levant role.

levant_crosbyFor years I had this movie on VHS, recorded in the late lamented Dorian-hosted glory days of AMC, in LP mode so I’d have room for The Mouse That Roared. I found it in a cheap DVD double-feature release (with the inferior-but-fun Rhythm on the Range from 1936) some years ago and made my wife watch it. Her love for This Sort of Thing has allowed it to be added it to the standard I-feel-like-crap/-am-stressed-and-or-exhausted pantheon.

A song is whistled by Bing Crosby, Whistler of Songs in Movies (it becomes “That’s For Me” once it gets lyrics) and the whistling (with attendant floor-thumping) happens around our house with confusing frequency. But before he whistles the actual melody, he pre-noodles it on an elevator with Mary Martin in a way that – personal bugaboo alert – convincingly replicates the actual way one noodles and settles on a tune. It’s really something to watch, that oft-noted Crosby brand of naturalism; argue all you want about the benefit of range in an actor, there’s much to be said for this thing he had, difficult to manufacture.

There’s so much charm in this silly little trifle, so much high-era Crosby Casual, some surprisingly effective comedy from Rathbone in particular. (And I’m convinced that Cherry Lane, the music publishers, was named for Martin’s character here.) I’m surprised that it’s not a more familiar title, not because I think it’s a sleeper work of genius, but because this is precisely the type of movie that people who like the Comfort of An Old Movie love. I think of it as an un-Christmas movie, in that I find myself watching it at least once a year and filled with the same general inner warmth. I don’t guarantee results for everyone, but it’s always worked for me.

It also introduced me to Wingy Manone, the great one-armed jazz trumpet player, whose Just Digging of things as one of Crosby pal Harry Barris’s band makes me consistently happy.

wingymanoneOne of the unfortunate side effects of having a soft spot for movies like this is the way in which parts of it enter your personal lexicon every bit as much as lines from Casablanca or The Godfather or what have you without the benefit of anyone else knowing what the hell you’re talking about when you say “I just dug it” or “Kelso’s Cucumber Cream” or even the period rallying cry “Peace! It’s wonderful,” not specific to this flicker but still not something one runs across every day, sadly.

 

rhythmriverAnyway, highly recommended for those nights or sick-day mornings when you know you need This Sort of Thing. You know the times.

Wonder Man (1945)

22 Sep

Kraft-Mac-and-CheeseAs is obvious to all, you’ve got your Citizen Kanes, your Vertigos, your Lawrences of Arabia, and then you’ve got your insomnia/stomach virus/summer vacation/knit while it’s on/saw this with grandma movies. I can’t provide an easy list of these in the manner of the inarguable classics listed first because it would be so highly personal as to be meaningless, untranslatable from person to person, or at least household to household.

Having arrived in a geographical place of calm for a much-needed rest in the midst of what has been and shall continue to be a stressful year and encountered a spindle of movies I left behind on an earlier visit, and further having a knit hat that needed finishing, the first discs that came into my hand were two of profound comfort: Wonder Man (1945), with Danny Kaye,Vera-Ellen, and Virginia Mayo, and another movie that will get a separate post.

Again, quality is not the issue here, but comfort. Shepherd’s pies, not mignons.

Wonder Man, sword in the tombstoneI’ll begin with the worst of the two, Wonder Man, which I saw on AMC sometime in the 1980s at my grandmother’s apartment. Doubtless there were Planter’s Cheez Balls and Coca-Cola in the vicinity, as well as a quilted satin-esque comforter with this monofilament-strength quilting thread that had pulled loose in spots and caught around one’s toes on occasion, which is probably why it had been relegated to the sofa.

It’s the one where Danny Kaye is twins, a nebbish and a recently murdered nightclub performer. A gangster is to be testified against, a brother’s body is to be possessed, and wackiness is to ensue. It’s not very good, but as I have said, one sometimes picks the puppy not for its pedigree but because it ran to the cage-front. This is Kaye in his (frequent) desperate tummler mode, manic in a way that, while still only one-tenth as cloying as Jerry Lewis, can be difficult to bear if not exposed to it in youth. Danny Kaye is like chicken pox in that respect. I’m lucky enough to be immune to the downsides, though in no way ignorant of them.

wondermanThe revelation of this viewing was my certainty that Gene Wilder loved it as a 12-year-old. The movie’s climactic set piece, if you’re in it for plot for some reason, occurs when nebbish-twin is forced to hide from gangsters on an opera stage and sing clues to the D.A. in loud mock-Italian. (The sentence “Chu Chu LaVerne is Minnie Smith” still rattles around musically in my head after all these years, ditto “tutti, tutti, whole tutti, nothing but the tutti,”)

The highlight of Wilder’s uneven-but-still-way-underrated The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother is different but clearly found inspiration in Wonder Man.

And at the end of the Wonder Man (if you consider this a spoiler, I weep for you) when nebbish-twin, honeymooning with Virginia Mayo, says he’ll always have a bit of his brother’s spirit with him and is immediately irritated by his ghost (“I’m a li’l devil, ain’t I?”), it’s difficult not to think of Teri Garr’s reprise of “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” If anyone sees Mr. Wilder around and can get confirmation of this, well, send him my way.

It’s also worth it (to me) to not that Wonder Man was certainly my first look at some actors whose faces are as familiar and comforting to me as relatives – S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, and the most formative of all of these, Virginia Mayo, about whom I’ll keep my musings private.

virginia-mayo-ca-early-1950s-everett

Avuncularity: A Shot in the Dark (1964) & The Ladykillers (1955)

22 Sep

LADYKILLERS2We’re currently visiting my wife’s hometown, in which there are two previously mentioned nephews – we’ll call them 11 and 13, at least until next year. They’ve been indoctrinated already (they’ve requested The Maltese Falcon on their own, to be watched later this week) and taken remarkably well to a wide array of boy-based selections like Duck Soup, The Blues Brothers, The Court Jester, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress (sold on the Star Wars angle), The Public Enemy, The General, Safety Last! and of course the entire deathless Planet of the Apes saga. We have to throw everything at the wall for any sticking to ensue. So far the batting average is high.

Tonight was our first evening with them this trip (my wife and her sister, our hostess were in for this evening as well) and I told them what was in my Magic Traveling DVD Wallet of Wonders, from which they chose A Shot in the Dark and The Ladykillers.

They chose these, it should be further noted, with no knowledge of the significant cast overlap. They’re good at this kind of serendipity – watch Duck Soup and The Blues Brothers back to back sometime and you’ll see what I mean. I give you the keywords “hi-de-ho,” “blocking doors with nearby furniture,” “excessive footage of approaching military” to begin with.

ShotInTheDark02QuoteWe began with Clouseau. There’s always trepidation with an old comedy, because it doesn’t always translate directly across lines of time and generation. The pace of a Blake Edwards Pink Panther movie is, believe it or not, feels relatively slow compared to a modern comedy. Not the bad kind of slow, but when I think of how frenetic they felt in my youth, it’s strange to notice.

Watching the nephews respond is a delight – 11 laughs at Bits (the cigar guillotine, the hand-in-the-globe, the shielded nudity bit snagged by his beloved Austin Powers) while 13 is obviously moved more by the Builds (the “license?”/paddy wagon running gag, the descent of Dreyfus, the repeated briefings with Graham Stark as Clouseau’s assistant Hercule), but they responded with uniform glee to the extended set scenes, right from the silent opening door farce sequence on through the living room suspect roundup, with special mention for that lovely scene (maybe my favorite) in the Sûreté hallway in which Hercule and Maria (Elke Sommer) enter Clouseau’s office without his awareness. And, of course, every appearance of Kato.

shotdarkkatoI have no doubt that Kato will cause some trouble for these two lads at some point. But that is in no way my responsibility. This is one of the prime benefits of being an uncle: one is seldom around to see how things play out. Just wind ‘em up, let ‘em go and wave bye-bye. If a bathtub breaks, I disavow all knowledge.

Also, we had a brief chat about who the hell George Sanders is, or at least that a) he was the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book and b) Peter Sellers was ruining the billiard table of a man he had been doing a semi-impression of for years as Hercules Grytpype-Thynne on the BBC’s Goon Show, something I love dearly but I’m not quite sure I’ll be forcing on them just yet. Though 11, who’s building some sort of steampunk costume for Hallowe’en, has decided Admiral Hercules Grytpype-Thynne will be a great name for him. Again, my work here is done.

LADYKILLERS3Next they chose The Ladykillers, and again I was surprised and thrilled by how well they took to it – it has a darkness about it that clearly appealed to them, as well as the general madness of Alec Guinness in comic mode, something they don’t know they’ll be getting more of…

It was a bit of a jump to go from a movie in which the plot was just an excuse for various farce machines and slapstickery to one in which the unwinding situation is the real meat. Just before Mrs. Wilberforce’s lady friends come over (to me one of the most genuinely horrifying and nerve-shattering scenes in film history, but I have a lot of older female relatives), 13 said, “How much longer is this movie?” I was about to commence worrying, until he shouted, “…because I have no idea where it’s going from here!” in excited confusion. Which is what you want.

The-Ladykillers-007There was post-movie discussion about what would happen if their grandmother, my mother-in-law, was in such a situation. Their call was that it would end pretty much the same, but with more profanity and probably a violent hand of Rummy. I respectfully refrain from any personal statement at this time.

There will be further reports this week; I have no idea where it leads or how many nights we’ll have them. But the slow process of ruining their social lives is well in hand, never you fear.

THE-LADYKILLERS-1955_portrait_w858I should note here that Alec Guinness also inspired the evening’s accidental battle cry – when Guinness’s Prof. Marcus starts to develop the Dreyfus Twitch towards the end and rambles on about how many men it would take to off the redoubtable old Mrs. Lopsided…let’s just say the phrase “The Wilberforce will be with you…always” will probably get them some blank stares at some point if they try to take it outside the home.

I’ve Got Your Number (1934), technology, & working girls

17 Sep

ivegotyournumber1Despite my about-to-be-made-evident pleasure in watching I’ve Got Your Number (another DVR leftover from TCM’s Glenda Farrell day in late August), I will make no claims to its greatness or breaking of ground; only to its non-murderous hard-boiled Warner Brothers glories and its unwitting tribute to a now non-existent segment of what is still a giant industry.

The last time I had my telephone repaired, a teenager in a polo shirt and ill-fitting khakis took money from me after I handed him a now useless piece of wastefully-constructed and fragile plastic and he handed me an identical but at least temporarily useful piece of otherwise identical plastic. He then reminded me to go to the online survey mentioned on my receipt, which would help “them” (still not sure who “them” is) make my experience better.

Sidestepping the nonsense of that statement, I should here note that at no point in that or any exchange in that kid’s day(s) as a telecommunications expert was a millionaire saved from electrocution by a lineman played by Pat O’Brien. Nor was fraudulent medium Glenda Farrell exposed via a telephone repair call, then taken out to a nightclub by Allen Jenkins. Nor did a gang of gangster swindlers use switchboard operator Joan Blondell to…do anything, because a switchboard operator? A lineman? There are precious few.

ivegotyournumber2My father has a big box of conical glass insulators from telephone poles (as seen above) in the basement, next to the spittoon and the four-sided stovetop toaster. Pretty sure those oddly beautiful little functional items are no longer standard issue.

And without insulting the importance of this by understating, I should just say that keener historians than I have written much on the subject of the place of the switchboard operator in the history of women’s employment. It was a huge job opportunity – huge – underpaid and as strict as a chain gang, but neither a schoolroom nor a kitchen. Obviously its restrictions had either loosened up a bit by the 1930s or the sauciness of your Warner Brothers dames was just not constrainable by any natural force. But clearly a gal had to keep an eye on the hotel switchboard and not get distracted by some friendly pan with pomaded hair or her time among the employed was in for a wow finish. Or words to that effect.

(There are also elevator operators in this, with the clicky-thing they used as a signal. That’s long gone. We watched The Thomas Crown Affair recently, about which more soon, and there was one there too, so they lasted at least until 1968 Boston. There are pay phones in that one, too.)

I don’t bemoan all technologies when they pass – probably it’s better that cell phones provide little opportunity to electrocute (though too many buffoons use them at gas pumps). I don’t even entirely bemoan the loss of some human jobs, supporting as I do a Buckminster Fuller/ Vonnegutian “fart around” worldview.

But I do regret that we’re rapidly losing the collective memory of how this technology affects and affected the daily lives of those who used it. And I don’t mean BuzzFeed posts about what video game controllers looked like when I was a kid. I mean things like this.

ivegotyournumber3(It’s also worth noting that we once lived in a world where Pat O’Brien could be a successful romantic lead. Ponder that.)

DVR Alert: Keaton, Chaplin & Lloyd on TCM primetime 9/9

9 Sep

chaplin-portadaIn conjunction with the second episode of The Story of Film: an Odyssey,  TCM has loaded it’s schedule 8:00 p.m. into the wee hours with much of the best of the Holy Silent Clown Trinity, beginning with Keaton (One Week, Three Ages & The General), then Chaplin (City Lights & The Kid) and winding up with Lloyd (Never Weaken & Safety Last!).

I hope this bodes well for the loss of the sense of dour gravity that the first episode emphasized. While striving to maintain my Thumper’s Father policy, I have to say that there was an overall sense of debunking rather than one of enlightening. Even when the information is the same, the attitude makes a difference.

And more importantly, I hope we’ll spend some time appreciating Comedy Itself this week. This sort of thing generally leans into glorifying the Epic/Emotional more than the serious business of laughter.

Birthday and Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

5 Sep

And what does one do when one is me, it was one’s birthday, and one had the morning free until about 3:00 p.m.?

After some quality time with the morning’s musical instrument of choice, it turns out one watches the Kino blu-ray of Sherlock, Jr., once without the commentary and once with.

I can’t decide which image felt more like Forty Years Old to me – this one:

Keaton. Sherlock Jr. bike sit frontor this one:

sherlock-jr-5…but it’s in there somewhere.

These discs are just beautiful, and I’ve been digesting them slowly as I’ve had the time. I hesitate to write a whole megillah about Sherlock, Jr. because we’ll be visiting the nephews, 11 and 13, later this month and they’ve decided independently (in a proud avuncular moment) that they really want to see some movies that feature some combination of the following: detectives; murder; black & white, in particular The Maltese Falcon.

Now clearly something comic has to be in there somewhere, so I’m bringing A Shot in the Dark (which, based on the success of The Great Race should do nicely) and this one (which, based on the success of The General and various shorts, should do even better).

(For the record, later in the evening, the Torchy Blaneity continued with The Adventurous Blonde. I would have watched Playtime, the movie that reminds me how glorious it is to be alive, but there were dinner plans, and it is better to be with people. It was a happy birthday.)

Off to roll the bottoms of my trousers.