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TCM Cruise Report #4: What We Saw Thursday

2 Nov

Despite the late night Wednesday, I was up early (sans Wife – “I can’t take it; you’re the one who loves W.C. Fields. I need coffee and sleep”) for

It’s a Gift

a personal favorite filled with vaguely-connected comic set pieces, though I’d argue the character study (if you insist on those terms) aspect of it holds the whole thing together remarkably well.

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It would be easy to list favorite lines and moments (“Vegetable man? Vegetable gentleman?”), but let it suffice to say that everyone in this particular audience came into the room with a clear notion of how to spell “Carl LaFong.” Some laughs were even smaller than they deserved to be because most everyone knew there was a better, weirder follow-up line mumbled underneath it that they wanted very much to hear and give its due. It was precisely the right way to see something like this.

Also, having had no opportunities to see a Fields movie with a sizeable audience, I recommend anyone who finds his work too strident or uncomfortable or angry to see something this way. Nothing releases the tension and accepts the Daily Truth of situations like these than the therapeutic laughter of mass recognition.

(It’s doubtful that any TCM programmers are reading this, but if there’s a screening of Million Dollar Legs next cruise, at the very least the couple behind me who shared their buffet cookie and I will be there.)

Then meet The Wife and it was off to

Mildred Pierce

which I haven’t seen in at least twenty years and she had never seen in one complete sitting. It was preceded by a few anecdotes from Ann Blyth, which made her a bit weepy (The Wife, not Ann). As I said before, my big takeaway from this one is that I’ll have to un-discount Jack Carson. Dammit.

Though I’ll add that I think this would be a terrific introduction for a classic film neophyte. The story is so clear and so straightforward but told so stylishly, and the performances are so much of their time – heightened, melodramatic, but grounded – that you’ll know by the end whether or not this “old movie” mishegoss is the sort of thing for you.

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A special note: this was our first Eve Arden sighting of the cruise, never unwelcome. Rare in a film of that era that two sympathetic characters who are businesswomen who like each other just fine sit down for a nice glass of straight bourbon, neat.

After,  a quick trip to the poolside pizza bar before

The Music Man

which we’ve each seen no less than precisely three gajillion times and been involved in productions of and just watched on blu ray with a group of friends a couple of weeks before and still couldn’t wait. This was one of my first loves, this movie, and along with Jim Dale in Pete’s Dragon probably sparked my interest in the ne’er-do-well distant-period confidence man type, from then to now.

But never on the big screen. So much lovely detail. While The Wife drooled longingly at the costume designs, I kept getting (happily) distracted by little things in the corners that even after all these years I’d never noticed. The Paroo household has a collection of Edison wax cylinders I hadn’t ever seen, and now I’m going to have to do some pausing, because I think I could read the title on half of them if I had the time.

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Shirley Jones opened with some anecdotes about Sinatra not being in this movie, which…I think he would have been a splendid Billy Bigelow had his marriage been on different footing and all, but The Music Man belongs solidly to Robert Preston and it’s good to hear Willson had the good sense to fight for him.

We had planned to see Out of the Past, but time was tight so we had lovely dinner (fully and properly dressed for the Night of Noir festivities) and after a bit of mercifully non-Bedford Falls High-like dancing atop the pool, we snuck out for

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

the 1920 John Barrymore version, masterfully accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the members of whom are, if I may say, good at what they do. We had the good fortune to run into Rodney Sauer and his wife at the pool the next day (and of having a friendly Louisville, KY vs. Louisville, CO dance-off with them on Saturday night, but that’s a…you…you had to be there. We tip our hats to your flying spats) so we got to say this in person, which is another lovely thing about this cruise: the people doing this fine work are trapped at sea with you and have no choice but to listen to you tell them how good they are at their jobs ad infinitum. Poor saps.

Annex - Barrymore, John (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)_NRFPT_01I’m told this was the oldest film yet screened on a TCM Cruise, but it still works. I spent a big chunk of my spring watching John Barrymore performances for – it’s a long story, but it involves my seeking inspiration from (pronounced “stealing”) some of his mannerisms and his sense of self-parody for Nick Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so I had watched this again not long ago. I was not unhappy to watch it again.

(And again, though no TCM Cruise programmers are likely to see this, I could happily have forced myself to sit through 3 or 4 accompanied silents last week. Happily.)

There was more dancing/drinking at the second half of Noir Night after that, but not much because our brains and bodies hurt and there were still two more days of this to survive, these two people in love, hurtling over a body of water in a vessel over which they had no control – reminds me of another movie…maybe tomorrow.

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TCM Cruise Report #3: What We Saw Tuesday & Wednesday

29 Oct

We’re at that point in our old movie watching lives, The Wife and I, that I’m pretty sure there were no movies on the TCM Cruise Screening list I’m about the put forward that we hadn’t seen. It had been many years ago for some, and others had been patchwork viewings and not start-to-finish affairs (one quite intentionally, but I’ll get to that in a bit). They’re none of them exactly dug from the cellars of obscurity, so I won’t get all review-y with them, but I’d like to note some impressions of seeing them on a big screen for in most cases the first time.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

A little introduction from Ben beforehand about Bernard Hermann’s love of this score and Ben’s his great-uncle’s lovely weird spectral romance included a list of as many movies with “ghost” in the title that he could come up with and his observation that they were all either comedy or horror and this was the only romance he could think of. (I was tempted to ask “What about Ghost?” but I’m not that much of a jerk.)

My word, the cinematography, though. This immediately becomes a film I always thought was nice and all, but became incredibly moving when all the details were available to my eye.

And that’s going to be the thread here – so many of these I had seen so many times, but a large, clear, full-screen viewing on snappy Disney ship sound systems makes them into new movies entirely. Louisville had a revival house in my college days, but the Vogue died around ‘98 (the marquee is still there because it’s all cute and Deco and there ought to be a law that if you won’t leave the cinema standing you do NOT get to keep the marquee for “architectural color,” bastard landlords of the world. But I digress).

For example, a couple of hours before TG&MM, we saw

House of Wax in 3D

which, aside from its insane paddleball sequence (by Reggie Rymal, who had a career of his own, thank you, as is evident around 4:20 here:

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features some lovely depth work of the Viewmaster school during all the time can-can girls aren’t in your lap. I will say I was surprised the line “You never saw a show like this in Provincetown” didn’t get a bigger laugh, but to each his own.

After a day in Bahamian hammocks at Castaway Cay, the next evening brought a prime example of what I’m talking about.

The Palm Beach Story

isn’t even my favorite Sturges, but it seems to be going through a new period of appreciation (there’s a Criterion on the way) and it was, if I may risk spraining my Caps Lock key, MAGNIFICENT with an audience and a proper screen size. Tiny, tiny things like Mary Astor’s shifts of eye focus from one part of Captain McGlue to another or the visible shards of pince nez on Rudy Vallee’s face got laughs of their own. And the rhythm of any comedy from this era makes more sense with multiple viewers instead of lonely, lonely movie geeks at home rather wishing they were more effective evangelists.

(That one was preceded by a fun little Bruce Goldstein montage of some of the wildly varied character actor faces from the Sturges stable and beyond. Nice to be in an audience where Frank McHugh gets some applause recognition.)

The next one I’ve seen several times on the big screen, and

Rear Window

has been spoken of plenty, but I will note that recent news about some remodeling at Disney Hollywood Studios made us riff for a while on what a TCM/Disney partnership would look like there: some college students dressed as giant plastic-headed Bob & Ben; Illeana is already there on the Aerosmith ride, but she’d have a more prominent role as real estate guide on the Mr. Blandings (wild) ride (Melvyn’s narration would be worked in, too) . Clearly our plans also involved a life size replica of the view out Jeff’s rear window. Though I’m sure the people who own the rights to the Chipmunks would find a way to fight Disney on that. (Geek joke.)

rear windowWe split, The Wife and I, for a while because she cannot be restrained from Errol Flynn, and while I love to see a buckle well swashed, simultaneous to The Sea Hawk was the reason I was excited about this cruise in the first place,

Elmer Gantry

which I haven’t seen in years but which I fell in love with at 13 or 14. Weird kid. It holds up well, and while I remember it looking more, shall we say, 1960s, the production design at proper scale was lovely – the textures of Lancaster’s seedy salesman wardrobe and those of the rural congregations were downright distracting, as were the wallpapers, the general hues and, of course, Shirley Jones. But Lulu was always distracting. Maybe I wasn’t such a weird kid.

That’s plenty, isn’t it? Well, we had three more days of this mishegoss, two of them entirely at sea with no port to distract from the matter at hand. More tomorrow.

TCM Cruise Report #2: The People

29 Oct

20141024_000158389_iOSNow, this is probably true of any such gathering, but it occurred to me at some point on this little jaunt about the seas that the TCM Cruise is rather like a university filled with people who are fancy honor students in their respective high schools.

Among your friends, on your pub quiz team, for your family who still calls you asking what that one guy’s name was, the one with the hair, you know, the one your mother doesn’t like, among these people you are a one-person IMDB for all their recommendation and 2am argument-solving needs. But once aboard…well, let’s just say that every pub quiz team on the Eastern seaboard would’ve been doomed had anything happened to this ship.

Fortunately, this was an atmosphere not of competition but of glee. Everyone there was just so happy not to be the one weirdo who wanted to have a conversation about William Castle or Buster Keaton or whichever or both that a bunch of people of wildly varying ages and levels of social comfort seemed able to chatter away without much concern. We weren’t boring each other the way we do the rest of you, is what I’m saying. We were like ugly towel ducklings who in each other’s presence blossomed into beautiful towel swans.

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(Sometimes with towel elephants on our backs for some reason that may have involved unwillingness to undo the towel origami.)

The very first couple we ran into, sitting at lunch on day one (Bill & Michael, Sarasota, early 60s?) were friendly enough at first, probably thought us younger even than we are, but at some point our mutual copious knowledge of the life and work of Esther Williams became clear. Suddenly we were in. “Oh, so you know movies,” one of them said, as if perhaps one runs into casual flik-watchers on this ship. And the bond was formed. From there we could get down to specifics – that scene in that movie filmed on that Thursday afternoon, etc. No one to impress and no one playing catch up. It was time to spend a week watching these things and talking about them, their history, their influence, our love.

And God forbid one of us should run into Shirley Jones in the atrium.

(As far as that goes, we didn’t have much luck with the Fancy Old Movie Star guests. We’re too polite; if Shirley or Dreyfuss showed up in a hallway or sat in a bar they were accosted by a coot swarm, or sometimes one Little Old Lady with the aggressive force of a coot swarm on her own. And into the woodwork we’d fade. Fortunately, The Wife encountered Ann Blyth long enough to tell her her Ann Blyth Story of being compared to her by a college professor while she studied musical theatre, something she still holds as a high compliment. Ann seemed to think that was lovely as well. There were cheek-pressing hugs. Yes, the cheek that Joan Crawford slapped.)

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It was also a pleasure to meet, however briefly,  a couple of TCM Party frequenters, Scott McGee and Illeana Douglas. Nice to finally put faces with their names. I KID!

We were even lucky enough to have great dinner companions, two couples in our generational ballpark (there were plenty, of course, but it was nice of whatever powers handle such things to lump us together) with a general liberality and quiet appreciation of a good drink. Not to mention the couples and individuals we ran into regularly at screenings.

(The only source of mild social tension I noticed on board was our sudden realization that because of the aforementioned Little Old Ladies, we were never ever going to be able to take an elevator. But it’s a cruise. I kept saying that to myself. Over. And over.)

Good people, is what I’m saying. The part one worries about on such an excursion was no worry at all.

More to come.

TCM Cruise Report #1: Surprises & the Dreyfuss/Douglass Debates

28 Oct

First, a note about this Slight Return:

I haven’t added to this blog for months – solid workload with a Shakespeare festival throughout the spring and summer was tremendous, lovely, sweaty, and made me very happy. But there was no time for writing random thoughts about old movies. Scarcely time to watch them.

But The Wife and I also spent the bulk of that time anxiously anticipating the TCM Cruise. In that special way only two Virgos can: checking and rechecking packing lists, schedules, schedules and packing lists, pretending that new information is being added when we know in our hearts it’s just an excuse to gleefully obsess.

So we did that. Then we went on the cruise. On which I shall now report in a couple of manageable-sized posts.

I don’t know how long this will last. Life is busy and part of that busyness involves writing other stuff, which often keeps me from writing this stuff. Plus, it’s Christmas gift knitting season. Priorities.

The TCM Cruise Overview:

We loved it.

Specifics:

Rather than a dull chronology, I’ll try to bounce from highlight to highlight. This post will be on one minor and one major surprise.

MINOR – the screening of Mildred Pierce involved, as screenings of Mildred Pierce often do, Jack Carson. I don’t care much for Jack Carson. He bugs me. I don’t have to explain this to you. It’s visceral.

Then I saw him on the big screen, on which he has, and there’s no other way I can put this, sclera. Whites in both of his beady little eyes. Apparently that’s where he was hiding his acting. On my TV, he’s got shark eyes. Lifeless eyes, black eyes like a doll’s eye.  But on a full movie screen, he was… pretty good.

And dammit, now I have to reconsider Jack Carson. I DO NOT HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME. *shakes fist* “Carson!!!!”

phffft_9MAJOR – There was onboard tragedy during the cruise with the passing of Frank Mankiewicz, Really Impressive Human Being and father of TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Ben left the ship at Key West, which I hope didn’t prevent him from finding out about the sizeable and sincere outpourings of sympathy from the screening audiences as they heard the news.

This also made for some serious schedule wiggling behind the scenes, obviously. There was, for example, a “Meet Ben” event slated for Saturday morning (we were fortunate enough to see the Wednesday edition) in which he was to be interviewed by Illeana Douglas. This was replaced by a conversation between Douglas and Richard Dreyfuss on the craft of acting.

What this meant was that over the course of two days, The Wife and I saw Douglas interview Dreyfuss in a general way for an hour, then heard them talk shop for another hour, then heard a solo Dreyfuss’s Q&A after a screening of Jaws.

It was the greatest thing ever.

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One of our favorite takeaways was that Dreyfuss has what I will gently describe as a tendency to digress (that’s by no means a dig – the path is curvy but leads to fascinating places) and their mutual enjoyment of each other’s company makes Douglas a dab hand at the dropping of breadcrumbs to remind him how he got there and bringing him back. We enjoyed this because in telling a story in our own lives, I am the wandering Dreyfuss and my wife the jovially restraining Douglas.

Anyway, many tales were told, of hero-to-both Spencer Tracy, of the Adler acting legacy (the Brando meeting), of those moments onstage when the actor is a conductor and the audience an orchestra. Douglas confessed to having used “What Would Dreyfuss Do?” as a fallback acting strategy, finding out that Dreyfuss did the same thing but with Tracy, and therefore there were moments in her career in which she may have been doing Dreyfuss doing Tracy. (Leading the Wife and I to talk later about what ours might be – it’s entirely possible our most common Emergency WW_D? go-tos are Gene Wilder and Madeleine Kahn. Though mine might also be Frank Morgan. Not sure how to feel about that.)

We had a couple of questions – about whether they thought it might be an effective acting strategy for a young actor to do just that, to seek inspiration from actors of the opposite sex, because they’ll be making choices that you won’t be able to/asked to replicate exactly and therefore will give you a more distinctive perspective. Also, why hasn’t Dreyfuss played Theodore Roosevelt in a film about the Amazonian River of Doubt expedition? – but as with all Q&A sessions in the world, the majority of the questions are from well-meaning people who more or less say, “mostly I want to have a private moment with you in public where I tell you you’re great.”

Though there was an attendee who asked him a question about academics studying his work that allowed for a really nice moment about self-confidence, depression and perseverance that was worth ten of the “that was great; you’re great” questions. And after this Dreyfuss spent the Jaws Q&A trying to encourage the audience’s impulses to dig deep. Some did. Some didn’t. Admirable effort at any rate.

It wasn’t supposed to happen, but that whole conversation about craft was one of the accidental highlights of the cruise and the sort of thing I hope TCM is encouraged to include on the slate next time. The audience got less anecdote and more nuts-and-bolts, but seemed to enjoy it just as much. Or perhaps I project.

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TO COME: Tales of My Wife Trying Not to Weep on Ann Blyth; Social Encounters with Fellow Travelers; Why We Totally Skipped Key West to Watch Even More Movies; and more!

Looking Backward: The Great Moment (1944), “Second Looks,” and The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

11 May

When I lived in Boston, I used to read in the Public Garden, usually in the shadow of a column not too far from the equestrian statue of Washington. Throughout the first autumn I was there, the weather was so nice that I kept dozing off every time I started to read. Eventually I took a closer look at the column – a monument to the discovery of the painkilling properties of ether. So the dozing made sense, I guess.

My understanding of the story behind the studio’s meddling with The Great Moment (gleaned from the magical community that is the TCMParty hashtag) is fairly (I almost said “patently”) obvious throughout. The pace just isn’t a Sturges pace, and it’s clear that a few conversations are joined in medias res but weren’t filmed that way. Things are missing, the tone is uneven. But there’s something about watching the Sturges/Paramount stable get to try something unusual that has its pleasures. For me.

Demarest and McCrea

The man knew his business.

Kudos to William Demarest for doing what he clearly knew to be his job – his repetitive “night of September 30th” story is a highlight, or at least a running gag that works. It’s a tricky proposition for an actor: will I be known for range (Streep, Day-Lewis) or for reliability (everyone in this cast)? Coming from the world of Clown, there’s something really appealing to me about being a Pangborn, a Kibbee or a Hale. No one is ever unhappy to see your face, and after a certain critical mass of exposure/dependability you start to take on an important Brechtian function, becoming a human shorthand character that starts communicating expectations just by showing up (which can then be used or abused as necessary).

As I write this, The Horn Blows at Midnight is still on – Benny just did his brilliant read of the “eight beautiful – nine beautiful – TEN beautiful girls?” line. Like nearly anyone who knows this movie, I knew the jokes at its expense first (one of the first videotapes I ever owned, circa 11 years old, was a pair of Jack Benny Programs from the early 50s, one of which featured Humphrey Bogart and a cheap stab at this movie). Its charms are hard for me to resist or further explain. I will simply sit here quietly, laughing to myself and getting the Fallen Angel Twinges every sixty minutes. Pardon me.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

Oh, come on, it’s not THAT bad.

Again, both of these are a result of TCM’s decision to do these “Second Looks” Fridays hosted and curated by Illeana Douglas, who has equaled any (and surpassed most) of the channel’s celebrity programmers. Douglas clearly has a level of enthusiasm, knowledge, and articulation that really hit the sweet spot for an ideal guest host. Here’s hoping they decide to bring her and this feature back on an at least semi-regular basis. It’s nice to have the obscurities treated with the delight and information usually reserved for name pictures and the “problematic” seen as worth watching for all kinds of reasons.