Tag Archives: classic films

Avuncularity: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6 Mar

kind-hearts-and-coronetsOh, the Darkness of Kind Hearts and Coronets. I forget how darkity dark dark some of the Ealing Studios comedies are. They’re innocent little things without boobs or expletives, so they must be nothing to worry about. (I did warn the Nephews about the N-bomb at the end of this one and tried to put it in a bit of context – “to Victorian Imperialists it was racist, yes, but racism for them was just fine in a nursery rhyme, so that’s why something that for us is a MAJOR meaningful word choice happens out of nowhere here. Stay calm.”)

kind_hearts_and_coronets_01But these boys have already been introduced to the wide acting range of Ben Kenobi – that wizard is no crazy old man to them after The Ladykillers. So the whole he-plays-eight-different-mostly-murdered-D’ascoynes was a significant draw. This one was chosen by Nephew The Younger (who enjoyed it more, though I got the impression that was for the common sibling reason that if one chooses something, the other has to be at least a little bit against it) back in December, when Throne of Blood won the toss and we didn’t have time/focus for another full movie.

I spent some of the setup scenes explaining to them the short version of A History of British Class-Based Snobbery (assisted greatly by a viewing of the first episode of Fawlty Towers a couple of days later).

fawltytowersThis got them through until the killing began, which kept them both focused, and by the fight with Lionel (husband of the just awful, awful Sibella), the unjust trial (the announcement of which got “What?! No!”s from The Younger), and the gleefully inconclusive ending (more “What?! No!”), they were ensnared.

sibellaBut the payoff for this one came after, when we played a few rounds of Cineplexity with the family, which the boys had never played. The game involves an Apples To Apples sort of thing wherein two movie element cards are put down and players come up with a movie that contains both of them. (One card says “A dog or dinosaur,” another names “Cary Elwes, Cary Grant, or Kate Winslet.” Bringing Up Baby, perhaps? There are others.) Anyway, Kind Hearts was used as an answer from one of the boys in at least three different rounds, as were a couple more of our Avuncularity viewings. My work here is – not done, but going quite well, thank you.

Avuncularity, Delayed: Throne of Blood (1957), The Boat & The Goat (1921)

5 Mar

throne blood 1A couple of days before Christmas (as I said, I’ve been quite busy) the Aforementioned Nephews were given a choice of several semi-randomly selected movies, and they leapt at Throne of Blood (which was generally agreed to be a much better title than Spider’s Web Castle) when they discovered it was a) another samurai movie that was b) based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now, neither has read or seen Macbeth and I didn’t ask why this interested them for the clear reason that one’s nephews asking to watch Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is what they call a Gift Horse. Its teeth looked fine from my vantage.

They were fairly mentally focused, as always, despite the constant physical fidgeting and the occasional and entirely legitimate questions about this and that throughout (usually Japanese military hierarchy/armor, some of which I could clear up and some of which I told them was wild guessing). It’s much easier to answer that sort of question when the movie is either silent or not in English. We can all stare at the screen and still discuss. Handy, that.

throne of blood ghostIt was so nice to watch this with a virgin audience that also knew nothing of Macbeth beyond a general awareness that it involves murder, witches and sleep-washing. No one knew beans about any walking forest, but they figured it out ahead of time, which made them feel particularly sharp. The ghost in the forest was, as it was when I first saw this, the source of immediate giggles followed by a seriously unsettled feeling. “What is that thing? Wait…what is that thing?” And after another moment of pride – “I KNEW it would end with the song again!” – the now-12-year-old asked, “So…when do the beginning and end parts happen again? Is that, like, now or…when?” A terrific question, I thought.

My only fear is that now when they finally see a production of Macbeth, no matter how good it is, the Thane’s death won’t be anywhere near as exciting as Mifune perforated by arrows. And yes, afterwards we told the story of that day on the set, which for them made it even better.

busterbw2That one is pretty heavy, though, so we finished our evening with some more Buster Keaton. The Boat was chosen first because the word “Damfino” had been discussed at our last Keaton viewing and that gag still packs the necessary gigglepunch for a 12- and a 13-year-old. The question remains: “Is it worth my limited disposable income to buy them memberships that they may be official Damfinos?”

There’s little story here to worry about, just gag after gag. For these boys, the funnel-in-the-floor moment was when they truly lost their shit. Why that? Why then? Who can say? But it was. The running bit with the world’s sturdiest pancakes wore them down as well.

They’re also still at the age where no matter what we watch there’s a moment of “that’s not real” or “that could never happen” which they just HAVE to vocalize. They really can not help it. Even when they’re enjoying themselves, “that’s fake” has to be said aloud – it’s comforting for some reason I don’t remember (but shared). My response is usually, “But the talking dragon (or whatever) isn’t a problem for you?”

I say this only because it’s Keaton alone that doesn’t inspire this. In The Boat, the collapsible masts and the uphill/downhill sailing nonsense is, even for them, so far gone, so over the cartoon-logic boundary, that he breaks them immediately of that habit. It’s fun to watch.

BusterwantedThen, The Goat, which I’ve seen more than other Keaton shorts for no particular reason. The weeping moments for them in this were the fur stole mustache and the whole elevator chase, but I have to mention the early moment where, delicately extricating himself from the presence of a cop, Buster puts on his coat around a pole and is trapped. This was met with no laugh of any kind but instead a wonder-laden “That’s funny!” as if a laugh would not be enough. Some genius of gag construction was recognized – or maybe just the idea that gags are a constructible thing, not just an event but a crafted moment dawned on them. As before, such fun to watch, these dawnings of the sun over Marblehead, as they say in Boston.

buster pole

Carmen Miranda & the Subversive Parts of Springtime in the Rockies.

25 Feb

Miranda, Carmen (Springtime in the Rockies)_01So. Carmen Miranda. And primarily Carmen Miranda in Springtime in the Rockies, though not exclusively (I believe I’ve mentioned my love for The Gang’s All Here before, and if I haven’t, I do so now)I’ve been thinking.

(Sidenote: I’ve also been working, a lot, which is why I haven’t had the time to blog – or frankly, focus on a lot of film watching – in the last couple of months or so.  It’s been great, but I’ve also missed this. I’ll be curious to see if anyone’s still reading…)

Last week, we had a lovely, relaxed, technically-not-a-festival-but-still-pyjamaed  afternoon with the participant in our Fourth One-Woman Film Festival (report to come soon enough) during which, as sometimes happens, The Gang’s All Here came out. That one’s formative for me, in that it was one of the first movies I remember identifying as “old” and “something I want to know more about.” I would suggest (humbly) that anyone wanting to know more about U.S. perceptions of the WWII Homefront would do well to unpack that movie in particular and its references. But later.

What it got me to thinking about was stereotypes, having just watched Swing Time, arguably the best Astaire & Rogers movie, but also the only one with a huge blackface number in it, made more complex because the blackface is Skin Tone Only (none of the other grotesque exaggerations common to it) and in fact is a tribute to someone – Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – that Astaire held as a paragon of the craft of which he himself was seen as a paragon and always said so. So it’s done in loving honor. And also in cork. As I  said, complex.

astaire as bojanglesSo, then came a movie with Carmen Miranda, often dismissed as a capable Brazilian pop star who came to Hollywood and became a low Latin stereotype – oversexed, temperamental, and a butcher of English. Which, I don’t know. Maybe that’s true. Though if anyone can explain the difference between her persona and Sofía Vergara’s  besides “rattles in Spanish-vs.-Portugese when upset,” I’d welcome it.

Or maybe that’s not true. It’s hard for me to watch her next to, say, Betty Grable, next to whom she spent  a reasonable amount of time – like in, say Springtime in the Rockies, which I just saw again for the first time in years – and not think of Miranda as the relatively strong woman in the story. Grable isn’t ever independent; she just pouts sometimes. Not quite the same as Miranda’s clever secretary/inevitable floorshow performer. In this movie when Grable says “You’re the boss,” she’s telling John Payne he gets to decide everything about their honeymoon. When Miranda says the same thing to him earlier, it’s because he is her actual employer. And mostly she still does whatever the hell she wants.

Yes, she is made mock of for cultural reasons, primarily her tormented malaprop English. But she’s in good company. Hell, that still happens to Americans in British comedy. So it’s hard to suggest that she or any group you see her as belonging to is being singled out in that regard. (Also worth mentioning here: South American-ness was super trendy in wartime, for all those Good Neighbor reasons plus the cultural kick-assity of its music/dance goings-on. Note Springtime’s title when distributed to the rest of the hemisphere:

Springtime in the Rockies (1942)_02A Brazilian secretary was, in terms of modern Hollywood formula, a gay best friend.)

But in Springtime, she’s mostly self-protectively argumentative, capable of sexual instigation when it suits her, refusal when it doesn’t, and while no non-Anglo is strictly the lead in that era, she’s always (in her 1940-45 heyday, anyway) involved in and sometimes driving the main entanglements. Her character’s also half-Irish, but they use that as a surname punchline for her all the time (and it also makes it possible for her to end up with a white romantic partner for some reason that illustrates the bugnuts insanity of our forebears. So it goes.)

All this is coming out of a viewing of Springtime in the Rockies, though, which I should note is kind of sneaky. Despite having more or less the same writing/directing creative team as a load of other similar wacky-scrapes-and-musical-numbers movies of the era, for some reason this one decides to be sly – two walk-on indigenous waiters at the Canadian Rockies resort look at each other, give you a moment to expect “Ugh Wampum Kemosabe” talk, then instead discuss the relative merits of Harry James and Glenn Miller in the differently-irritating dialect of Period Swing Slang. Cesar Romero, usually either Latin-style disreputable Lothario or Latin-style ultra suave gigolo, is here more or less a dancing version of what I’d call the Ralph Bellamy role: priggish, WASPy, a little pushy. Doesn’t even get a girl at the end – Miranda ends up with the usually asexual Edward Everett Horton, who is instead a magnet to Brazilian romance, even before she finds out he’s spilling over with dough.

Plus two of the blandest white leads in musical history, no small feat, bless their hearts. Their bits are the least important thing in the movie and to the movie.

Springtime in the Rockies

I don’t pretend this is all cultural subversion by intent so much as comic subversion to keep the audience guessing in the middle of a series of heavily formulaic pictures, but it sure does make this one age better than some of its fellows.

So. I give you Carmen Miranda, ahead of her time as subversive icon of race and gender. Also, her outfits were rich in anti-oxidants and therefore ahead of her time nutritionally as well.

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.)


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.

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

8 Nov


(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.

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.


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…


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).


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.


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.


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…


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… 


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.