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.)

dunneloveaffair

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.

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

8 Nov

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(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.

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4th Stretching-the-Meaning-of-“Annual” One Woman Film Festival

2 Nov

keaton-sherlock_opt…since clearly the 3rd Annual took place a week before.

Regardless, that Sunday there we were, around 9:30am this time until, say, 10:00pm? (We all had an early Monday ahead of us). The slate, formed over the course of the day, was:

The Lady Eve (1941);

Sherlock, Jr. (1924);

Citizen Kane (1940);

La Belle et la Bête (1946);

Twentieth Century (1934);

and This is Spinal Tap (1984).

Some heavy hitters here, obviously, a couple of them by request, as we asked our friend if there were any omissions in her previous viewing career that she regretted. She said Citizen Kane almost immediately. The other, This is Spinal Tap, we knew from the conversation that led to her being invited for this event in the first place.

The other selections made the list because we knew of her love of romantic comedy. She isn’t one of those “I’ve never seen an old movie” people by any means, but again, we all have voids in our movie lives. (My own are numerous and daunting.) This gave us somewhere to begin – Sturges provides some of the first really intelligent American romantic comedy, “Beauty and the Beast” is the archetype on which almost all of them are based (being one of the few fairy tales wherein getting to know each other is even part of the plot), and Twentieth Century is kind of unjustly neglected. Sherlock, Jr. is in there because there’s just going to be some Keaton, Lloyd or Chaplin at all of these.

Most of these are well-documented, at this blog or elsewhere, so again, a few little thoughts, and then some surprising connections we noticed.

LITTLE THOUGHTS

ladyeve2The Lady Eve:

-Such a thing of beauty, yet no matter how many times I see it, I just sort of forget the second half. Not in a bad way – it’s just that shorthand for this movie in my head is “them on the ship” and the rest is still fresh and surprising as I watch. Again;

-It’s Stanwyck’s movie in many ways (though my love for Charles Coburn grows as I age) but Henry Fonda is funny. Who knew, right? Again, still always surprising;

“Tell him to go peel an eel!” The eel that won for Yeel?

keaton sherlock5Sherlock, Jr.:

-Previous post here;

-Our friend’s reaction to her first Keaton was characterized by a general sort of repeated, amazed, “I really like this!” as if a world had been opened. We’ll pressure her into more, I’m sure.

sscitizenkane7Citizen Kane:

-Poor Susan. That shot from her terrified, heavily made up face being barked at by her voice teacher through the stagehands in the flies and their nose-pinching review is so painful, no less so when Welles shows half of it again!;

-Like Coburn, my love for Cotton’s performance as Elderly Jed (“Sloppy Joe’s?”) continues to intensify with age. It’s so broad on one hand and so how-that-guy-would-be-around-strangers-years-later on the other. Brilliant;

-Is the second half of Kane’s life an attempt to recapture the night he met Susan (which is also the night his mother’s death was made real by all her belongings showing up in town)? She sang for him, he almost told her the Rosebud story – you can see it – things were good again for a couple of hours. He tries to make her keep singing, as if to prolong it in some weird public way, or to share that feeling with the world if you’re feeling more generously disposed toward his motives. She shouts “You never gave me anything that belongs to you, anything you care about!” He finds the snow globe after she leaves. I like to think he spends much of the rest of his Xanadu-doddering life digging through the uninventoried boxes looking for that damn Rosebud thing…

la belle et la bête<br /><br /><br />
1945<br /><br /><br />
réal : Jean Cocteau<br /><br /><br />
Josette Day</p><br /><br />
<p>collection christophelLa Belle et la Bête:

-What a thing of beauty. Unnecessary to write about, because it’s so clear and has such depth, yet so little explanation of anything, even basic geography or physics, that people frequently seem to demand (foolishly, I’d argue) in their storytelling. “None of that is the point! Just pay attention!” “Why does he even keep the horse if he could use the gloves?” “You are asking the wrong questions!”

-Josette Day. My Word. La Belle.

1934-twentieth-century-lombard-barrymore-2Twentieth Century:

Immediately another Beauty and the Beast story, except with two beasts, whose coupling at least saves other people from them;

-I haven’t threatened to close the iron door on nearly enough people lately;

-Also, Barrymore’s hair in this is one of the few things that make me regret baldness.

Spinal TapThis is Spinal Tap:

-This is one of those generational things I suppose, but I’ve seen this so many times that I scarcely need to watch it anymore, and yet, like Young Frankenstein. for example, it’s one of the rare comedies that doesn’t dry up once you know its jokes – the execution is so perfect that it becomes like rewatching some perfect double play but one that unfolds for ninety minutes;

-It was late in the game that I tracked the drummer names alongside the names of replacement Three Stooges. There are always more jokes here than you think.

And, of course…

UNEXPECTED CONNECTIONS

Annex - Welles, Orson (Citizen Kane)_03What the hell, beyond the aforementioned “Beauty and the Beast” threads, do the above have in common? Well, for starters:

Swindlers, misdirection and stage magic pervade (The Lady Eve, Sherlock Jr., Citizen Kane, La Belle et la Bête) along with differently failed attempts at same (Twentieth Century, This is Spinal Tap – particularly “Rock & Roll Creation, I think);

Doubles, twins and reflections abound, from the obvious (The Lady Eve, Sherlock Jr., La Belle et la Bête) to the less so (the mirrors of Citizen Kane, the “none more black” album cover in This is Spinal Tap);

Bursting Spheres, from Kane’s snow globe to Buster’s 13 ball to Eve’s metaphorical social-sphere-busting from class to class. An argument could even be made for a certain green globule of a former drummer;

High-dollar checks are torn (or apparently torn) to bits (The Lady Eve, Citizen Kane, Twentieth Century), a gesture sort of lost in this debit card/PayPal era. Angelica Houston has the good sense to hang on to her Stonehenge payment;

Major plot unfoldings on a train (The Lady Eve, Twentieth Century) could just  be chalked up to the period, but were still unplanned by the programmers;

Ushers apparently once brought the flowers down to the stage apron on opening night (Citizen Kane, Twentieth Century) – you get nice treatment when you don’t have armadillos in your trousers;

Mysterious castles with huge fireplaces, long hallways and broken skylights bumped nicely together in our Citizen Kane/La Belle et la Bête double feature (we’ll throw This is Spinal Tap in there for hallways as well – under the Xanadu (!!!) Star Theater – “Hello, Cleveland!”);

Women used to ride sidesaddle (The Lady Eve, La Belle et la Bête);

and Sticky papers make good comedy (Sherlock Jr., Twentieth Century).

belle-et-la-bete-1946-28-g

And for the record, the menu involved our guest’s homemade pumpkin bread, some sort of fancy coffee (I don’t know – I’m a tea drinker), butternut squash chowder, and again with the Chinese takeout. No Manhattans this week – the cocktail turned out to be, thanks to the acquisition of some green chartreuse, the festival-appropriate Bijou, which I highly recommend.

There probably won’t be another of these festivals for a while – I’m involved in a show this month and starting a long process on two others throughout December-February. This blog may slow a bit, but it will not stop, so the five people who read this thing need not fear.

twentieth-century_Repent

3rd Annual (or whenever) One Woman Film Festival report…

25 Oct

Probably this is not a festival you’re familiar with. It’s kind of exclusive. To wit:

redcarpetThe Wife and I invite a friend over to hang out in pyjamas all day one Sunday and watch movies. Said movies are curated in that a) it’s a trendy word and b) we put together a loose list that acts as kind of a mood-flexible flowchart (e.g., Stage Door can lead to Sunday in New York (young woman in the city) which in this case it did, but also potentially to The Great Garrick (backstage tales made in the 1930s), Baby Face (a very different sort of young woman in the city tale) or Vivacious Lady (more Ginger Rogers) which in this case it did not. Because we all liked the sound of Sunday in New York this time.

We’ve only done this twice before. Once was a double feature and was in no way organized. Next came another friend who watched three, maybe four with us in a semi-organized fashion. Then, this past Sunday, shit, as they say, got real.

A dear friend is moving to a fancy NYC job very soon. So we had her over at last for her One Woman Film Festival.

(Gender Note: there is no particular reason for excluding men from being invited. The proportion of our friends who would even want to do this are just overwhelmingly female.)

11am-2am. Fifteen hours. The slate, as it turned out:

The More the Merrier (1943);

Stage Door (1937);

Sunday in New York (1963);

The Apartment (1960);

From Hand to Mouth (1919);

His Girl Friday (1940);

and Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

I think the themes are clear. Rather than summarize these, follow the links for synopses or previous posts if they are by chance unfamiliar. I’m going to focus on the accidental connections that showed up, and then share a few group thoughts on each offering in the context of this festive day.

LITTLE THOUGHTS

The-More-The-Merrier-1943-3The More the Merrier:

Surprisingly erotic, this one, considering the presence of Charles Coburn, not usually a diapered cupid;

-This is one I should be throwing out more often in future Comedy vs. Drama arguments, because the craft on display here all around is at the highest possible level;

A really good Doff in this one by the man from the newspaper;

-This may also feature the most plausible floor show in classic film.

stage-Door)_01-788209Stage Door:

-Previous Post here;

I love the pace of this style, and yet fascinated by how Hepburn work in the middle, in-but-not-of the style;

-The fallacy of personal-tragedy-equals-Acting! bugs me as much as the equivalent buffoon-becomes-comic-genius trope – Almost Never True!;

-This is where the day’s conversations about women from pre-WWII into the mid-60s, dealing with the workforce changes of that era. We don’t jut sit around eating lentil soup and giggling, you know. We’re pretty high-toned.

sunday in nySunday in New York:

-Previous post here;

-Peter Nero is no Chico Marx, nor is he Henry Mancini – it can be tough to deal with a sex farce when it has a Charlie Brown score;

apart1The Apartment:

-This has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it in, I suppose, high school, but it’s even more so with age and life experience. The Robinson Crusoe speech brought a few tears this time, because I have become a total sap;

-No one blinks in unwilling disbelief like Shirley Maclaine;

-I think this movie is why I take my hat off in elevators, but not why I wear a hat;

-Santa Otis Campbell IS the face of urban decadence.

from hand to mouth lloydFrom Hand to Mouth:

-Oh, for the days when bikes and cars differed little in speed;

-This was a lucky one – it’s an early Lloyd and the sort of slapsticky thing that doesn’t always work for guests, but ours enjoyed it so she’ll surely like the really good later ones;

-Next to Keaton’s Cops, one the better uses of a silent comic hero’s tendency to be a police magnet.

his girl fridHis Girl Friday;

Besides the connections below, there was much talk about the careers of John Qualen and Cliff Edwards. I beg of you: ponder them.

theodoraTheodora Goes Wild:

-Previous Irene Dunne post here;

-This one just sort of washed over us all, exhausted, film-weary, and all with some experience with small town New England – simple pleasure, though there are always social depths to dive into another time.

 

And now the fun part…

UNEXPECTED CONNECTIONS

apatmentI mean, clearly, yes, young woman comes from small town (New York believes all other places are small towns) to find housing, work, and human connection. This hovers around all of the above-named movies.

But the ways in which political machinations get in the way of people’s lives (Theodora Goes Wild, The More the Merrier, His Girl Friday) was unexpected. As were the mores of boys  and girls being left alone in apartments (pretty much all of them bring this up except the Harold Lloyd). These are odd, but not shocking.

But there were many surprising little synchronicities, like:

two consecutive unexpected appearances by Grady Sutton (The More the Merrier, Stage Door);

two rakish bowler hat (Snub Pollard and Jack Lemmon);

something we called “Sleazeball Gets a Shoeshine” (Menjou in Stage Door, Macmurray in The Apartment);

Lady Buys a $12 Hat (Arthur in The More the Merrier, Russell in His Girl Friday, and Theodora bought a LOT of hats, so surely one of them);

Take Off Those Wet Clothes, Mister (Sunday in New York, His Girl Friday);

Counterfeit money (From Hand to Mouth, His Girl Friday);

Apartment 2B (The More the Merrier and Dr. & Mrs. Dreyfus in The Aparment);

people just had spare toothbrushes and bathrobes around in the 60s (The Apartment, Sunday in New York);

Albany Sucks + a failed fiancée refuses a civil drink (His Girl Friday, Sunday in New York);

Women jumping out of windows (His Girl Friday, Stage Door, and brought up in The Apartment);

and, strangely, the literal pratfall, which is to say a very specific slip-on-wet-surface-and-slide-onto-keister in at least four, though my notes are unclear. There were, naturally, Manhattans.

Dilatory Avuncularity: A Night at the Opera (1935)

19 Oct

Annex - Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera)_01Yes, yes it has been almost a month. I’ve been building a show, doing some Big Life Decision deciding, and cutting Hamlet down to ninety minutes. So I have plenty of excuses.

I’ve also been daunted by the DVR – while TCM has been showing some terrific stuff, much of it silent and/or foreign, thanks to the otherwise-not-my-cuppa that is The Story of Film: An Odyssey, I’ve been exhausted into a comforting-and-stupid stupor to the point that it’s been difficult to muster up the focus required to engage with such high art. And we finished all the Torchy Blanes.

But I realized that I failed to report on one last entry in the Avuncularity Excursion – The Nephews’ viewing of A Night at the Opera.

The enjoyed themselves, though they weren’t as frantically, viscerally excited as I was back in the days of my first Marx viewings. Or theirs.

A year ago or so, I showed them Duck Soup in conjunction with The Blues Brothers (I got parental dispensation; they’ve heard worse from their grandmother) – they noticed connections between the two I had never thought to attend to: not just all the “hi-de-hos,” but the pilings-of-furniture-to-block-doors and the endless cavalry approaches of the climax (though the authorities are after the Blueses and aiding the Marxes), to the point where we all left the evening fairly certain that the creators of one had spent a good amount of time watching the creations of the other.

But Opera has an important element (that I never minded) that clearly registers differently with different people – opera. Clearly there was much focus to be regained after Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle did the things they do, which are resoundingly (you should pardon) Not the Funny Part.

Fortunately there is a stateroom to pack, some remarkably false beards to dampen, an apartment to rotate (for the record, they laughed harder here than at the stateroom), an orchestra to destroy (they both play in the school band now, so this particular bit of Marxian Decorum Arson resonated) and some Keaton gags to recycle marvelously in the wings and flies of a performance of Il Trovatore, so the movie-style high-culture didn’t get in our way too much.

Also a surprise hit: the very fact of the visual of Groucho and Ruman in each other’s suits. And they’re right. It’s funny.

gottlieb night at the opera

NB: Watch this space in the coming weeks as I a) return to semi-regular blogging and b) report on a pair of One-Woman Film Festivals to be hosted by The Wife and I for a couple of friends of ours. What does that mean? The next post will make it clearer, no doubt…

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… 

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