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The Cobalt Screening Room Balcony

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/2/2019, 6:07 pm

Jeff, let me offer Ya a slightly different perspective. This was one of a sub-genre from the time period it was made. Drive-In fodder. Filler for the double and some times triple feature. Since drive-ins couldn't run multiple showin's of an expensive feature film, movies like this one were meant to keep people on the property and spendin' money in the snack bar. That's the primary reason we have so many cheesy low budget stinkers from the 50's and early 60's.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/2/2019, 7:25 pm

I think this one was even sub-sub-basement in a trailer park film. But if its purpose is to legitimize smoochin' in a stall when nobody's paying any attention at all to what's on the screen, well then. . . No, I take it back: It's still pretty stinky cheese, man. Run, run as fast as you can. . . .
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/2/2019, 7:31 pm

ghemrats wrote:I think this one was even sub-sub-basement in a trailer park film. But if its purpose is to legitimize smoochin' in a stall when nobody's paying any attention at all to what's on the screen, well then. . . No, I take it back: It's still pretty stinky cheese, man.  Run, run as fast as you can. . . .
Jeff

Oh it's definitely in the Limburger category. Some place between a wedge and a putrid puddle.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/3/2019, 7:37 pm

Post #219: Surprise! Today's feature is an honest to God vintage film starring Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith and Sydney Greenstreet--and there's not an invisible man in sight! Nor are there giant gila monsters, aliens of any sort (which should please our president), nor a budget of $42.77. Because today we're in. . . . *Conflict* (1945). Yes, it's a good old Warner Brothers thriller, interestingly the only pairing of Bogart and Greenstreet wherein Greenstreet is a good guy and Bogart is the antagonist.

Raymond Chandler said Bogart was "tough without a gun." You can certainly see that on display today, as he plays Richard Mason, a wealthy engineer trapped in a volatile five-year marriage to Kathryn (Rose Hobart), a sniping virago whose nose is permanently stapled to the ceiling. Seeing Richard's fawning affection for her sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith), Kathryn browbeats and taunts him with withering contempt, promising she will never allow him a divorce. Okay, I'm a huge Bogart fan, so right there I was shouting at the screen that you don't micturate on Bogart's brogans and tell him it's April showers, and you *never* want to see him mad because he could beat the weebies out of the Hulk even on a bad day.

Dutifully they attend a part hosted by their dear friend, psychologist Dr. Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet), a jovial merrymaker who holds the Masons as the ideal couple, though he admits he was guarded when they first wed five years ago. And he sprinkles his characteristic three-syllable laugh (Muh huh-HA) every two minutes over the anniversary party goers while Richard and Kathryn pierce one another with artificial smiles as if they are Ozzie and Harriet after hitting the lotto. When Evelyn gaily tosses off a conversation starter, Richard's attentions are riveted in a Pavlovian laser focus, stretching a giddy smile across his rough jawline. Measuring out 10cc's of rationalization he tells Kathryn when confronted, I'm not in love, so don't forget it, it's just a silly phase I'm going through. . . .

But on their way home in a torrential rain storm, as Richard is admiring Evelyn in his rear view mirror while Kathryn glowers at him, there's the inevitable skidding car accident in the glare of flashing headlights from an approaching vehicle. The world tilts on its axis, Dick plays and replays a swirling whirlpool of close-ups reproaching him in echo chambers and sharp, admonishing, unblinking stares, and glass shatters in a blinding cascade around him. It's a bummer, man. And it leaves him with a broken leg, his ladies escaping with minor cuts.

Now let's ratchet up the Creeping Dread Machine. Though he's healed well enough to navigate with a cane, Dick confines himself to his wheelchair, feigning pain and confusing his doctor, who deems his paralysis psychosomatic, treatable through exercise and fresh air. Just what the doctor ordered--a trip to a mountain lodge, accessible through treacherous turns and narrow drives, a perfect getaway for just Dick and Kathryn, but as the vacation looms,"business" mysteriously presents itself and Dick sends Kathryn up ahead of him. On her way, Kathryn encounters a car high up in the mountains, blocking her passage through the narrow pass in the low-lying fog. In best Bogart tradition, Dick surfaces, trench-coated, his face partially shadowed by his fedora inching low. Shocked by his ability to walk with a cane, and even more by the menacing scowl he's sporting, Kathryn screams. Fade. Dick reaches into the car, his arm grazing a lifeless torso, releasing the brake, and pushes Kathryn and the car over the cliff where it somersaults, slams into log pilings, and lands in a twisted wreckage buried beneath a modified Alexander Calder sculpture of timbers.

What follows in *Conflict*'s fast paced and economical 86 minutes is a mystery forked like the mountain road. Dick returns home to a pre-arranged meeting with his architectural partner, playing the concerned husband effortlessly: Why hasn't Kathryn called yet? She should have arrived at the lodge by now. . . was she diverted? Is she safe? Why hasn't she checked in to the lodge by now? Doggone my lack of mobility, I shouldn't have allowed her to leave alone. Soon his indignation and panic fuel a full police investigation, not to mention the sympathetic shoulder of Evelyn. But when Kathryn's cameo ring surfaces in the hands of a pickpocket during the police investigation--the same ring she was wearing when Dick killed her and should now be resting comfortably at the base of the ravine under two tons of Lincoln Logs--the suspense tightens.

A widening gyre of fearful events dogs Dick in the solitary minutes that follow. Fresh spritzes of Kathryn's perfume saturate the bedroom. . . her wedding band is back in her jewelry box locked in the safe. He receives mail in Kathryn's handwriting. But don't cue the theremin--this is a drama, not a cheap sci-fi cheese platter. Is Kathryn alive, playing a game of Spot The Cookie with him? Is it his guilt manifesting itself in her personal effects? And will his plot to pledge his undying love to Evelyn be sabotaged by the police investigation, should he be caught? But this is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you's. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in his head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head. . . Even hypothetical discussions with Dr. Hamilton about flawless criminal intent are laden with personal application: "Laws of chance are overwhelmingly against it [perfect crime], so are the laws of human nature. You see a murderer's whole safety depends upon a complication of lies. If he had no motive, no access, if his alibi is perfect, even if he feels no remorse, think of the strain he endures in knowing one error would be his undoing. That if he is forgetful enough to conflict one of his statements, his act of innocence is unconvincing in any details, if he so much as talks in his sleep."

The enjoyment of this minor Bogart classic lies in the mounting paranoia of upset plans and Dick's measured systematic unraveling. Listen carefully to Greenstreet's Hamilton early on as he lays out the basic structure for the film: "You see sometimes a thought can be like a malignant disease that starts to eat away the willpower. When that happens, it's my business to remove the thought before it can cause destruction." At the time this is delivered, it's merely dinner conversation, a matter of fact acoustic background, but it grows as a central theme in the film. Dick responds, "That's a very pretty theory, Doctor, but I don't quite see how you can take a thought out of a man's head. It seems to me if it's there, it's there and there's nothing can be done about it." Little does Dick realize that theory will be placed in action all too soon.

Bogart did not want to film *Conflict* and delayed production of the movie for six weeks at which time studio head Jack Warner threatened him with suspension if he didn't relent. Perhaps not coincidentally off the set Bogart was navigating a violent, disintegrating and tempestuous fifth wedding anniversary with wife Mayo Methot at the time of filming in 1943 (the film's debut was postponed two years over a story rights dispute); that same year, succumbing to a volatile cocktail of alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia, Methot attempted suicide. The anger and angst Dick Mason submerges in *Conflict*, as well as his affection directed at a younger woman, eerily reflect Bogart's personal life, as he married Lauren Bacall less than two years later after numerous attempts at reconciliation with Methot.

In the purest sense *Conflict* is not a noir, even though its themes of alienation, rampant emotions, the loss of personal control and morality, and entrapment are gunning full force here. If you're eagle eared you'll be able to catch a spoiler which may act as a clue to the conclusion, and you may have to suspend some disbelief along the way, but even though it's not a top-drawer Bogart classic, it still belongs in the mahogany dresser of really entertaining movies. Incidentally, a couple nice grace notes are Easter-egged for Bogie aficionados: You can catch a facsimile Maltese Falcon perched on top of the wooden filing cabinet in Detective Lt. Egan's (Patrick O'Moore) office when Dick visits. And the exact brooch Ingrid Bergman wore in her opening scenes in *Casablanca* (1942) is on Kathryn's lapel.

So let today's movie wipe away all the mutant atomic lobsters sneaking out of the Love Shack and replace them with some solid acting, top production values and twisted plot lines. It's really the stuff dreams are made of. . . even if those dreams show your morality circling the drain while big white faces of your friends bore judgmental holes through your spinning wheel of your head. It sure beats nuclear leeches sunning on the beaches.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/4/2019, 3:37 pm

Post #220:  I beg your indulgence as I’m about to throw a Pithy Party: Philip K. Dick once said, “This is a mournful discovery. 1) Those who agree with you are insane; 2) Those who do not agree with you are in power.” Now you may ask yourself, Why is he trying to scare the pith out of me? “And you may ask yourself How do I work this? And you may ask yourself Where is that large automobile? And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful house! And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful wife! Letting the days go by. . .”

Okay. Enough. If Philip K. Dick’s comment didn’t get under your skin, I figured Talking Heads would, because they both underscore today’s cinematic offering, a thriller I saw in a theater the week it came out. I was one of a very few in the audience, which creeped me out even more than if I had been one small unpopped kernel in the popcorn bag. *The Parallax View* (1974) has been called the “mother of all conspiracy movies,” the second part of director Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoid Trilogy--*Klute* (1972), our feature today, and *All The President’s Men* (1976).  To heighten its appeal, let’s be aware that principal filming of it took place while the Watergate hearings were being televised, and star Warren Beatty actually watched the proceedings in his trailer between takes.

Yes, Dear Friends, we’re taking a magic bus back to the Sinister, Slippery Seventies when people shivered over shadow organizations who stealthily secreted saltpeter in the salt shakers at Big Boy.  Neighborhood cottage industries popped up to uncover the covert communist plots to steal shopping carts from the local A&P for purposes one could only dream of, but they ain’t good. . . and they’re not just ninety miles away off the Florida Coast, they’re here now! Fluoridation was a machination of the government to control our thinking under the guise of helping our kids masticate more forcibly. What’s that you’re saying about our elected officials at the Drain Commission? I couldn’t quite catch that—please speak into this ketchup bottle I’m casually carrying home for our family barbecue and pool party. Yes, I know it’s December in Michigan, but I like to be prepared. . .

*The Parallax View* plunges head first (literally) into conspiracy plots in the first scene: Seattle’s Fourth Of July parade thunders down the street, celebrating what director Pakula called “sunlit Americana, the America we’ve lost.”  Presidential candidate Charles Carroll and his Butternut White Bread wife ascend the famous Space Needle amid the cheers and confetti, gesturing grandly until they reach the summit and the candidate is assassinated before our eyes. A gun-toting waiter scampers to the top of the restaurant, pursued by aides and police, only to slip and plummet to his death while another waiter, still jostled in the panicked crowd of the aftermath, slips his gun into his pocket and spirits himself away unnoticed.

A Congressional committee investigating the killing [shades of the Warren Commission] determines it was the work of a sole assassin, the waiter who fell to his death.  In prescient irony the committee hopes to end the “irresponsible exploitative speculations put forward by the press.”   This pronouncement is presented in extreme long shot, the dias of the committee at first glance appearing as a burnished glossy coffin with brass handles against a black backdrop.  Slowly as the camera moves in we realize the optical trick—the “handles” are actually the heads of the committee now being drawn into focus and the body of the coffin is long bench.

Three years later, Joe Frady (Beatty), an egotistical, cynical muckraker, forces himself to listen to the rambling hysterics of TV news reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), Frady’s former girlfriend.  Convinced she is going to be killed, just as six other witnesses to the assassination have died in convenient “accidents,” Lee pleads with Joe to help. Softening to accept Lee’s alarmist rant, as she steps onto the balcony behind a diaphanous curtain [Holy Symbolism, Batman], Joe begrudgingly joins her to lend a semblance of comfort.  Cut to Lee on a slab in the morgue, a solemn thrumming minimalist score by Michael Small registering just below our diaphragms. Keanu Reeves says “Whoa.” [That’s a metaphor; Reeves was only ten years old at this time.]  Suicide, the official verdict reads, drug overdose and a DUI.

Wracked with guilt, or perhaps vexed that he might have been wrong, Joe decides to follow up on Lee’s insistence that witnesses were being systematically eliminated. His investigation takes him to Salmontail, a small town suffering the loss of Judge Arthur Bridges, another Space Needle witness. There Joe finds himself on the sporting end of a “spontaneous” fight with the Sheriff’s deputy (Earl Hindman, who gained terrific notoriety as Tim Allen’s neighbor Wilson on *Home Improvement*, except here you can see his entire face connecting with Beatty’s fist).  The Sheriff himself (Kelly Thorsden) is no Andy Taylor either, as Joe discovers later searching his cabin.

Armed with a recruitment brochure for the Parallax Corporation, a secretive company designed to identify, sign up and then offer the services of potential assassins, Joe determines he’ll infiltrate the organization and possibly earn a Pulitzer because of it. . . oh yeah, and get to the bottom of those pesky assassinations too.  With no particular political agenda, Parallax is an equal opportunity employer, simple mercenary capitalists offering services for which the market is clamoring. “Parallax receives demands from all phases of industry,” confirms one of its officials.

After researching their initial “aptitude tests” with local psychologist Nelson Schwartzkopf (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), finding it’s a test isolating psychotic behavioral traits, Joe applies with doctored and highly explosive answers to the initial application, and is approached by Jack Younger (an uber-creepy Walter McGinn).  With Joe assuming a socially deviant persona with violent tendencies, he’s assigned to Parallax Corporations’ Division of Human Engineering for additional testing.  This is a bravura sequence registering Joe’s reactions to an increasingly disturbing slide show juxtaposing images of sweetness, human kindness, harmonious families and homespun traditions against flashes of hideous social violence, oppression, Uncle Sam, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Hitler, a nice smattering of Jack Kirby’s Thor nudged next to ME against a black screen, KKK atrocities, Jack Ruby killing Oswald—all in dazzling speed and a resounding patriotic score.

It is this sequence that tempers the remainder of the film.  It’s a palpable break in the narrative, as subsequent scenes unfold sometimes without dialogue, including a twelve-minute scene of relative silence which ratchets up the dread that much more.  The montage sequence is sometimes misunderstood as a brainwashing tool, Joe being subliminally programed toward violence.  But I believe Pakula has been clear in his intentions here—it is not brainwashing, it’s extensively monitoring Joe’s responses to the anxiety-powered imagery, to validate or invalidate his credentials as a sociopath.

There is so much to discuss in this film, as it’s just as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago, and that is saying something.  I won’t reveal more here, because the crawling tension is something to experience first-hand, and *The Parallax View*’s twists come rapidly.  Pakula uses architecture, framing and pacing in masterful constructions, often reinforcing the paranoid insignificance of the individual versus the omnipotent collective with long shots of Joe dwarfed by his surroundings and constantly being watched by unseen forces.  No one escapes.

The Parallax Corporation implicitly promises a strict adherence to Marshal McLuhan’s *Medium Is The Massage*: “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception. . . . A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” The very definition of “parallax” suggests the fluidity of perception, how differing perspectives alter perceptions of reality. For this is precisely what Joe chases—a complex grid of mirrors in which every participant sees a different stimulus.

I am reminded of the old *Outer Limits* opening—“There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits.”
 
Dang! It was kind of spooky when I was a kid watching it, but seen in a parallax juxtaposition or applying that opening to a broader totalitarian context, with “the media are the enemy” floating in the back of my head, *The Parallax View* is gaining ground on becoming one of the more disturbing watches around.

Pakula said of *The Parallax View*, “If the picture works, the audience will trust the person sitting next to them a little less at the end of the film.” I’m not sure if that makes for a comfortable evening on the couch, but it sure gives me pause in considering how I conduct my life today. . . . Alexa, find me Timeless Thrillers with sly dystopian impulses, would you? And, Hal, open the pod bay doors.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was. . . Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/4/2019, 5:52 pm

Thanks loads for gettin' that song stuck in my head. At some point I'll return the favor. But the song will be Disco Duck.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/5/2019, 11:04 am

Post #221:  How’s this for a rousing recommendation: Jim Jones (whose massacre of 900 people did great promotional work on Kool-Aid) placed today’s feature *Executive Action* (1973) among his favorite movies and often screened it for his “followers” in Jonestown.  That little tidbit of history was almost enough for me to choose another film for today’s commentary, but I learned that fact after watching it.  Now I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t like it.  It’s one of the few Burt Lancaster movies that left me cold, like LeCarre’s Spy Who Sought Out A Register That Didn’t Rumble And Clank When Heating Up.

After yesterday’s terrific conspiracy thriller, I thought I’d try my hand at another in that sub-genre that was so fashionable in the ‘70s. But for me it turned out to be the same two-word response shared by The Dukes Of Hazard when one of the brothers proposed to his best girl: Bo Ring.  Critics at the time of its release branded the film “colorless” and “a crude cut and paste job.”  For me its blandness and rather pedestrian acting—even great stars can have an off day—hold much of the fascination of a massively masticated stick of Juicy Fruit.  Yes, Virginia, the chewing gum DOES lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight.

*Executive Action* is interesting more as a factoid in cinema history than anything else.  Its dealing with the Kennedy assassination, offering a revisionist historical speculation that it was engineered by rich Americans, caused quite a stir when it was released on the ten-year anniversary of the actual event.  Courageous, controversial or just registering the crest of the conspiracy wave, the film was yanked from most theaters within a two-week run due to pressure and negative press. Promoting the film was another hunk of trouble as many television stations refused to run trailers for it.  Of course there was also the stunt of offering audience members an eight-page “newspaper” proclaiming all manner of conspiracy theories cross-referenced to the Warren Commission report, whose veracity it openly questioned.

Scripted by Dalton Trumbo, directed by David Miller, and partially funded by producer Kirk Douglas, though Donald Sutherland originally held the rights and planned to star, the film weaves archival footage of Kennedy and others in a countdown cross edit of top-drawer mercenaries—three teams—in preparation for the assault in Dallas.  It’s all told with a stark, dry advancement, the screen constantly fading to black with white dates that keep the chronology moving.  It watches like a tedious detailed powerpoint read by a dispassionate tenured professor with ivy growing up his legs.

Burt Lancaster is joined by Robert Ryan (who succumbed to cancer four months before the film’s release), Will Geer (a formerly blacklisted actor by HUAC), John Anderson and Gilbert Green (known for a long list of television appearances including *Star Trek* and *Mannix*)—as an unidentified group of wealthy right wing politicians, industrialists and Texas oil millionaires who decide JFK should be killed because his policies don’t sync up with their philosophies, predominately the nuclear test ban treaty and an emphasis on civil rights.  But these coldly rational conspirators and their machine-efficient assassins invited no interest from me. And perhaps that is the point to some degree—how utterly banal and unaffected such evil can be.  Even so, this treatise on removing an impediment (or a president) as one might flick away a shard of bothersome dandruff offers no suspense along the way; we know how it turns out.

Now I must admit that I’m probably jaded by the tsunami of (superior) conspiracy films I’ve seen in recent years--*Conspiracy Theory* (1997) with Mel Gibson, *Enemy Of The State* (1998) with Will Smith, *The Conversation* (1974) with Gene Hackman, *Bob Roberts (1991) with Tim Robbins, *The Firm* (1993) with Tom Cruise, *The Interpreter* (2005) with Nicole Kidman, *Salt* (2010) with Angelina Jolie—as well as all those sub-sub-categories of double agents and spies like *Red Sparrow* (2018) with Jennifer Lawrence, and Luc Beeson’s films--*The Star Chamber* (1983) with Michael Douglas.  But these are small potatoes mixed in with the salad of television with *The X Files* and *24* and *Alias* and the band plays on. . . .

So perhaps *Executive Action* was better in the twenty years preceding Oliver Stone’s *JFK*, and my relative fatigue or shell shock or just dullness from being bludgeoned by One Shooter, Two Shooter, Red Shooter, Blue Shooter analyses has made it easy for me to dismiss the film as another one for the pile.  And of course my yawning over this treatment is probably augmented with pervasive pre-emption of television by impeachment hearings, proceedings scored with an endless tape loop of “hoax/no collusion/witch hunt” ear-worming its way into our national consciousness like an annoying AM radio drilling of Rebecca Black’s “Friday”—or, God help me, my All Time Most Egregious Just Kill Me Now song—“Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton.
 
But admittedly there are moments when the offhanded exposition of the group’s long range plans is chilling.  Robert Ryan’s Foster calmly lays out his dream for his America’s legacy: “The real problem is this, James. In two decades [2000], there will be 7 billion human beings on this planet. Most of them brown, yellow or black, all of them hungry, all of them determined to love, and swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America. Hence, Vietnam. An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come. And with proper planning, we can reduce the population to 550 million by the end of the century. I know. I've seen the data. . . . Not only will the nations affected be better off, but the techniques developed there can be used to reduce our own excess population. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone whites, and so forth.”

These are the sentiments of our “protagonists,” or at least those with whom the focal point of the film remains.  So in that regard, *Executive Action* disturbs. The methodical “framing” of Lee Harvey Oswald, carefully plotted personal appearances by look-alike (James MacColl) making outrageous scripted sound bites, is well enacted as is the meticulous planning of the multiple vantage points and motorcade speed calculations.  Yes, it’s all slick, but to me ultimately it’s another parched enactment of a What If scenario populated by rich integers in a quasi-documentary approach.

If you go in for this sort of speculative blend of fiction and fact, you may enjoy *Executive Action*.  As you can tell by the trailer, it takes itself abundantly seriously, though to me it’s a stilted moderately compelling film, but I was neither entertained nor enlightened.  But again, that’s just me: It has a pretty solid following from other audience members who’ve expressed their opinions. So go crazy, folks. . . but do your best not to follow in the footsteps of Jim Jones. I’d tell you the Jim Jones joke, but the punchline is too long.

Tomorrow I’m shifting (stripping?) gears.  With holiday viewing ramping up like a souped-up dual head overhead cam engine sleigh, I’m going to start dropping some offbeat holiday films down your chimney, films you might not ordinarily consider when you dust off the hard candy and plop in movies with a festive spirit.  So tune in tomorrow for much lighter fare and keep that can of Santa Flush at the ready in case he comes down with the flue.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/6/2019, 12:33 pm

Post #222: It’s the holiday season, so whoop de doo and dickery doc, don’t forget to wind up your clock, ‘cuz just exactly at twelve o’clock Philip Marlowe is going to give you a Christmas present that will clean your clock, slap you in the face, knock you out and navigate every twist and turn yourself. Today’s feature *Lady In The Lake* (1947), is a Christmas tale unlike any other you’ve seen, so I hope you’ve been good, because it’s murder what some people will do with the holidays.

Full disclosure: *Lady In The Lake* is one of my favorite Raymond Chandler adaptations, right alongside *Murder, My Sweet* (1944) with Dick Powell and *The Big Sleep* (1946) with Bogart and Bacall. I am a self-admitted snob when it comes to depictions of Marlowe and basically eschew some of the more current remakes (the 1978 Robert Mitchum *The Big Sleep* is in my mind an abomination, though his *Farewell, My Lovely* (1975) is much better, and I’m one of the few who doesn’t really care for *The Long Goodbye* (1973) with Elliott Gould or *Marlowe* (1969) even though I really admire James Garner. See, I’m picky. And I’m a huge Chandler maven).

In his directorial debut, Robert Montgomery plays Marlowe far too cynically and off-putting for my tastes. Watch how in the prologue as he addresses the camera, he seldom blinks but just glares at us as if to dare us into approaching him. That said, we don’t see much of Montgomery in the remainder of the film, and the technique he uses is as rare as a stocking filled with egg nog: a purely subjective camera which all the characters address as if it’s the detective himself. Montgomery essentially is reduced to a voice-over except when he is shown in a mirror in cleverly staged blocking. *Lady In The Lake* is the first film to employ this first-person perspective for the entire duration of the picture, even though Montgomery was said to have been influenced by Delmer Daves’ direction of the Bogart-Bacall film *Dark Passage* which does not show Bogart’s face for 62 minutes into the film. *Lady In The Lake* maintains this revolutionary technique (still referred to as a “gimmick” by some critics) for most of its 105 minutes.

Our expectations for the film are constantly being challenged, starting with the opening title cards, each a beautifully airbrushed Christmas scene bordered by holly and berries. They are flipped unobtrusively with all the traditional credits implicitly promising a typical MGM romantic holiday comedy, complete with flowery script, until the last card is flipped to reveal a shiny black Colt Model 1908 "Vest Pocket" .25 caliber six-shot semi-automatic handgun. Ho ho ho oh no. And the soaring violins and jingle bells that usually accompany the score have been completely replaced with Maurice Goldman’s direction of an acapella choir—no instruments were harmed (or used) in the background soundtrack. Just soaring chorale voices punctuating the film’s tense moments.

It’s three days before Christmas when Marlowe, growing weary of trying to get the two last nickels in his pocket to mate, is summoned to Kingsby Publications, a pulp publisher’s offices, to discuss his submission of a short story, “If I Should Die Before I Live.” Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Trotter), a pretty tightly wound executive, tries to out-coy Marlowe by discussing his payment for the story, backending the offer with the real reason she’s contacted him—Chrystal Kingsby, wife of Adrienne’s boss and love interest Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), has gone missing, and it’s up to Marlowe to find her.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot involving corrupt cops (Lloyd Nolan’s Lt. DeGarmo is particularly seedy), pretty boy fortune hunters (Richard Simmons, not the Sweatin’ to the Oldies guy but the actor who would later play *Sergeant Preston* on television), murderers and runaway errant wives. You know, everything you’ve come to expect from any bubbly celebration of the twelve days of Christmas.

And through it all we witness the unfolding of details through our own eyes, presently on loan to Marlowe, as the camera tilts, dollies forward down hallways and through doorways, moves in close for kisses, flips in car crashes and experiences dousing of heady alcohol to set up a police frame-up when investigative powers get too close for comfort. There’s even the surprisingly graphic (for 1947) discovery of a murder upon a midnight clear, all accompanied by the chance to hear the angels sing. There’s scant opportunity to find peace on the earth or good will toward men in Bay City tonight, folks, especially after Marlowe finds a monogramed handkerchief with the initials AF in the dead man’s house.

In every sense of the word, in *Lady In The Lake* Marlowe enacts his role as a loner. We are confined to his sight, he has no family, in this story he lives in a hotel, Christmas parties brake to a screeching halt when he shows up with all eyes staring blankly in his direction as if he’s a reindeer in spats, and his relationship with Adrienne Fromsett is based in sarcasm, cynicism and wise cracks, distancing methods. Montgomery’s Marlowe, when seen obliquely, frowns perpetually, and since we are for the most part unable to see his facial expressions, we must infer them from the reactions of the people he’s encountered.

Toward that end, the film becomes a unique study of body language. When I first saw the film I didn’t care for Audrey Trotter, though she fulfilled in some scenes the requisite femme fatale role. But she, too, is a figure of stern anger, seldom relaxing her facial muscles even when she smiles. Her tightly spun updo and harsh black and white angular suits present a presence hardened by circumstance. But then in a scene when Marlowe catches her off guard, late at night in her robe, her hair down around her shoulders, we might realize two clues to her personality: She has had to dominate the men in her climb to a position of authority, which would explain why Kingsby is so recessive and wimpy; she has also been mirroring Marlowe’s aggressive maneuvering for control.

So on this viewing I actually shifted my viewpoint again. Now I had to admire the real challenge Ms. Trotter faced in speaking directly to the camera all the time, breaking the training that has conditioned all seasoned actors—the number one rule of acting in film is Don’t Look At The Camera. Evidently Lloyd Nolan found that extremely difficult to achieve, unconsciously darting his eyes away as the film progressed. Of course it didn’t help that he was nearly blinded in one scene wherein a bullet splinters a glass window and he was hit by flying debris.

But Ms. Trotter really performs an extraordinary feat—she imbues Adrienne with a complexity that fuels the film. Is she part of the scheming and killing? Is she genuinely developing an emotional attachment to Marlowe? Is she a gold-digging opportunist “settling” for Kingsby to promote her career, and thus immune to deep feelings of love and attachment? Is she trying to manipulate Marlowe just as she does Kingsby? Marlowe doesn’t know, and by extension neither do we until late in the film. That chameleonic tendency may be a defense mechanism to avoid complicated human emotions and vulnerability. From a practical standpoint with Marlowe somewhat indisposed, since we cannot see him and gain clues from his kinesics, Adrienne becomes a very potent figurehead for us to identify with. Still, it’s interesting to know that the MGM-approved ending is one both Montgomery and Trotter fought against, though I won’t reveal it here. But regardless, *Lady In The Lake* functions as a sardonic Christmas card, even as the chorale sprinkle “Jingle Bells” into the narrative. [And in a terrific inside joke, be sure to take note of the actress playing Chrystal Kingsby listed in the opening credits. If you know French, you’ll enjoy her performance even more. If I’m being too coy, just PM me and I’ll spill the beans.]

Oh, all right, I am droning on like a drunken elf. After my commentary on *Comfort And Joy* and now this one, you can expect at least one non-traditional Christmas posting per week until we hit the New Year, just to make your days [be] merry and bright, and all your Christmases be white. That’s usually not an issue in Michigan, but if you’re not in the snow belt, just stock up on powdered donuts and sing “Holy Holy Holy.”
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/6/2019, 6:44 pm

For some reason, this one reminded me that I need to dig out my bootleg copy of the Star Wars Holiday Special. I wonder where I put that?
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Post by ghemrats on 12/6/2019, 7:08 pm

Did you leave it in the Cantina with Greedo?

Man, I vaguely remember that show. The only real memory of it wavers around the Oh Wow That Was Bad drawer. . . .
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/7/2019, 4:02 pm

Post #223: O, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, why not sit back with a light little comedy from one of my favorite "entertainment" directors George Roy Hill.

My first exposure to the films of director George Roy Hill was in 1969 when I was knocked back in my plush red faux-velvet seat at the State Theater in Bay City. The film was his sixth venture as director, a movie that instantly made me a fan of screenwriter William Goldman because I loved writing and made a point of paying attention to the wordsmithing that tumbled out of the screen. The movie was *Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid* which I ended up paying for at least three more times in the theater.  No VHS tapes or DVDs were around then, so the State made a lot of money from me.

Then, in 1972 as I nearly lived at the theaters of Mount Pleasant, I found *Slaughterhouse-Five*, the “unfilmable” Kurt Vonnegut classic that somehow George Roy Hill brought to the screen in Cannes and blew everyone away. The next year Roy Hill’s *The Sting* made me a permanent fixture in the sticky floors of movie palaces as I saw it seven times, once with the woman who is now my wife. *The Great Waldo Pepper* (1975) again with Robert Redford and the profane *Slap Shot* (1977) with Paul Newman followed, as I did, and George added to his list of indelibly etched films in 1982 with another unfilmable adaptation of my favorite book, *The World According To Garp* with newcomer Robin Williams.

Then his final film, *Funny Farm* (1988) with Chevy Chase ushered in my ten-year wedding anniversary as Joyce and I entered the cramped little cinema behind McDonald’s and laughed until we stopped.  For her birthday this year I bought Joyce a DVD of the film, we watched it last night, and basked in the nostalgia it brought, simple laughs and some great memories of how we grew as a couple sharing moments with the stars.

The film’s screenwriter Jeffrey Boam said, "George wanted to do a much classier version than I ever imagined it to be.  I imagined it to be a little cruder, more low-brow humor, rougher and more like the movies Chevy was doing at the time, but George was a classy guy and he wasn’t going to do that. He does what he does. He made the movie classy, and I think a lot of Chevy’s fans were let down because it wasn’t as raucous and vulgar as they might have expected.”  Thank God for George Roy Hill, because he made this movie a charmer when other directors and studios would have clamored to make another umpteenth derivative bastard offspring of *Caddyshack* (1980) when one was sufficient.

*Funny Farm* to me is a cute little underrated nugget of a film.  If it were just another Chevy Chase vehicle capitalizing on his ability to fall flat on his face or mug shamelessly as he did often in the days of *SNL*, it would remain buried with his *Modern Problems* (1981).  But George Roy Hill knew how to make movies with character.  His inclusion of Madolyn Smith was a genius stroke.  As Chase’s wife Elizabeth, she brings a sparkling, perky believability to the show, and she more than complements the slow burn of Chase’s Andy Farmer. The screen fairly glows when she’s at its center.

The story itself is typical of a Cary Grant-Myrna Loy pairing, a *Mr. Blandings* comedy of acclimation that might have served Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan with a stepped-up slapstick agenda that we saw in Hanks’ contemporary *The Money Pit* (1986) with Shelly Long.  Andy Farmer is a New York sports columnist who leaves his hectic city pace to escape with his wife to the idyllic country life in Redbud, Vermont.  But their house is a Norman Rockwell dream with its hard wood floors, Dutch doors, spacious rooms and lush yard sloping down to a duck pond.  Just what the two need to settle into the quiet and write in a room flooded with natural light.

Sure, there are a few little distractions, like those darned mischievous kids who collect road signs which would have directed the movers to the country home if they had remained standing, a kamikaze postman who’s so liquored up by the time he reaches the house (five miles outside his normal route) he just flings the mail in the general direction of the yard, the sheriff who’s lost his driver’s license and now has to take a Redbud cab (station wagon) everywhere (with a portable red light he can place atop it for official business), and then there’s the splintered coffin buried in the Farmer’s garden bearing the house’s last occupant.  You know—little blips in an otherwise lovely transition to country living.

And let’s be clear about the film’s title: There is no farm, per se, outside of Andy and Elizabeth’s last name, but it’s a metaphor for their mental states that slowly deteriorate as they are beset by unexpected emotional warm and cold fronts moving over their new property.  Andy suffers writer’s block, while Elizabeth discovers a well of untapped potential for expression within her; Andy strives desperately to fit in to become a Redbuddy to the town’s inhabitants; Elizabeth easily finds comfort and friendship in the local antique dealer who stocks her store with remnants from her own life.  Andy grows restless, irked by even the smallest sparrow whistling joyfully outside Andy’s office; Elizabeth rejoices in domestication as she unpacks, dances, and adopts a large frumpy dog to sit by the fire.

Finally spurred into action, Andy giddily completes the first few chapters of his magnum opus, the novel he’s always wanted to write, *The Big Heist*, which will fulfill his publisher’s contract along with its huge advance.  But Elizabeth’s reading of it is akin to Herbert Morrison’s reaction to the Hindenburg.  Oh, the humanity! it’s bad, and engulfing the novel in flames would be an improvement. And harmony is not restored when Elizabeth’s first effort, a children’s book, is snatched up by Andy’s publisher with a $5,000 advance and glowing reviews.

Robert Anderson once said, “In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.” And the comic implications of that line fuel the remainder of *Funny Farm*.  As the winter months approach (Chaucer called winter the time when stones die), the Farmers separate and contract with the citizens of Redbud to help them sell their house—The Farmers will donate $15,000 to Redbud, and award $50 cash to each Redbud resident who helps to make a good impression on their prospective home buyers.  Overnight Redbud is transformed into a Norman Rockwell Blue Plate Special with garnishes supplied by Thomas Kincaid and a side order of Currier and Ives on steroids.  And with these scenes the film becomes another in our list of Non-Traditional Christmas Movies.

Bringing the heart (and snow) to Redbud—actually Townsend, Vermont—proved costly to Warner Brothers. Location manager David Israel used a “fire retardant foam” to simulate fresh winter’s coat of white. Israel said, “The foam has been used hundreds of times … and it never hurt anything.”  But no one told the town’s maple trees that, and they promptly died due to the foam’s toxicity, leaving Warners’ insurance with a healthy tab which they paid.

*Funny Farm* earned $5.7 million on 1,557 screens during its opening weekend, making it a modest success, though Siskel and Ebert felt it was easily the best film Chase had made, comparing it favorably to the films of Preston Sturges.  It also holds a 92% four- and five-star rating on Amazon.  To me it’s a leisurely 104 minutes of basically old-fashioned comedy; a liberal sprinkling of profanity (mostly “SOB” and “GD” references) might earn its PG rating, but on the whole, borrowing my wife’s pronouncement, “That was really cute.  And fun.”  

A man with a very strong sense of what he wants, George Roy Hill reined in his stars (Chase here and Robin Williams in *Garp*) who strained to let ad-libs fly. Both actors have admitted that the director was a kind, quiet taskmaster who on occasion would let the comedians add their own grace notes—but never committed those flights to film as his vision was clear and firmly established already.  

George Roy Hill handled Paul Newman with the same control, which Newman took advantage of when they worked together.  A practical joker at heart, when Newman and his suggestions of change were rebuffed on *Butch Cassidy*, he had the director’s desk sawed in half and waited until it collapsed with Roy Hill behind it. Similarly during *The Sting*, the director did not adopt Newman’s suggestion for a scene change, and found his car sawed in half, though Newman bought him a new sports car to compensate.  

And in spite of his single-minded attachment to his own vision, big name stars still admired him for his craft.  His long-time business manager Ms. Edwin Brown said of the camaraderie with Newman and Redford especially, "His pairing of the two of them in 'Butch Cassidy' and 'The Sting" was really an inspirational stroke because it worked so well.  He knew what he wanted to achieve when he was making a film, and he knew how to convey that to the professionals around him."  I guess that’s what I would call class.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/8/2019, 4:22 pm

Here's a feature dedicated to one of the Cobalt's most stalwart members, Brother Nightkey.

Post #224:  Will those among you who have been recipients of hand-me-downs please pass your shirt to the person sitting next to you. No, not this minute, if you’re at work—that would probably creep out everyone around you and facilitate a harassment suit as well as nominate you for the Getting Too Much Of A Jump Start On The Office Christmas Party Award.

No, the reason I bring this up is because today’s feature, *Night Key* (1937), was a cinematic hot potato in production.  First the director was Ralph Murphy, then it was passed along to Arthur Lubin, who was replaced by Sidney Salkow, and it ended up with an inexperienced Lloyd Corrigan, whose father was James Corrigan, star of fifteen films from 1920 to 1927.  And the green grass grew all around, all around, and the green grass grew. . .  The final film cost $192,000, $17,000 over budget, filmed in 27 days, six days over its deadline.  All this, and it’s still only 68 minutes.  Now THAT’S something to see for yourself, Gang.

For all the folderol and fluster surrounding the film, *Night Key* is actually a great deal of fun, as long as your expectations are pretty low for a “B” film. All of the stars in the film are completely engaging in that old 1930s comfortable-chair manner.  Boris Karloff is the key star with an energetic and lovely Jean Rogers (Dale Arden in *Flash Gordon* serials) as his devoted daughter.  It’s a lively little thriller with terrific comic undertones that sweep it along like an evening with an old friend filled with shaggy dog stories, or an old shaggy dog with friendly devotion.

In a change of pace for Karloff, here he’s Professor David Mallory, a brilliant inventor who years ago revolutionized the security and burglar alarm industry with a sophisticated system that monitors break-ins, silently alerting the home base and dispatching security agents.  But his disreputable partner Stephen Ranger (Samuel Hinds) stole the invention and made millions right out from under Mallory (There’s got to be a mustachioed cad in every B picture; it’s the law). Now, in his ailing health, impending blindness and his dotage, Mallory has refined the system, making it state-of-the-art and rendering the old mechanics obsolete.  He has also developed a “Night Key,” an electronic box that subverts the Ranger Security system, allowing its bearer unlimited, undetectable access to any protected building.

Supported by his unconditionally loving daughter Joan, Mallory plans to sell and install his innovation to an eager market monopolized by his former partner. Kind humanitarian that he is, Mallory approaches Ranger to glean some financial security for Joan, but is once again finagled into selling his invention for a mere $500, betrayed by his own lawyer. Wishing to teach Ranger that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit and criminal undercutting does not pay, Mallory enlists the help of a goofy small-time grifter Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh, ripped from a Damon Runyon headline) to teach Ranger a lesson with his “Night Key.”

Of course Mallory is purely mischievous, breaking into businesses and re-arranging inventory then leaving a note ominously intoning, “What I created I can destroy. Signed, Night Key,” thus undermining the integrity of Ranger’s system. His is an aim at moral integrity, not gain, but his efforts soon draw the attention of the criminal network, specifically “The Kid” (Alan Baxter, whose sleep-inducing monotone drains some of the life out of his menace) and his henchman “Fingers” (Ward Bond who hovers with the delicacy of a steam shovel).

Meanwhile, in a bid to heighten sympathy and help women appreciate this caper, Joan is hound-dogged by one of Ranger’s men, Jimmy Travis (Warren Hull) and his square jaw.  As you can tell by his boyish first name, though Jimmy works for Ranger, he’s really a good, non-judgmental guy who holds an open mind when it comes to his boss’s intentions; Ranger’s rangers are seeking the now missing Professor, kidnaped by the gangsters who want to profit from the Night Key. And with Hallmark movie predictability Jimmy slowly convinces Joan that he’s a keen old sport with whom she can fall madly in love by the end of the picture, which by this time is only another half hour or so.

*Night Key* is a bit of an oddity, a great piece of nostalgia, especially since Universal felt by 1937 that the horror genre was starting to mold and crinkle at the edges.  Karloff was still under their sway, contractually obligated to make one more film, and frankly they didn’t know what to do with him.  Even so, Karloff was a strong presence, having established himself as versatile enough to play this atypical “good guy” role.  He shines here, playing a nearly doddering and technically blind scientist thirty-seven years older than his actual age.

Jean Rogers is just fine with her role, showing a little spark and backbone. (Prior to her death in 1991, a few years earlier, I forged a nice friendship with her by mail, tracking down her address and sending her a tentative note asking if she’d be amenable to signing a photo for me.  Surprisingly, she responded with a lovely, long letter, and we remained in contact for a couple years.  She was a most gracious and humble lady who enjoyed doing watercolors; one of my regrets remains that I never bought one of them before her passing.  But I do have two cherished *Flash Gordon* photos inscribed to me from “Your friend, Jean Rogers.”)

Warren Hull is an affable presence, flipping allegiances and working hard to be “the kind of guy who could really go for the kind of girl” Joan is. Hobart Cavanaugh is a totally likable rapscallion who provides levity and care for Karloff’s old man, eagerly calling him “boss” from their first meeting, and Samuel S. Hinds plays his slimy lone Ranger with slick panache.  Everybody in this film appears to realize it’s not Pulitzer material, so they can just kick back and enjoy the crazy carousel ride that borders on science fiction or fanciful drama.

*Night Key* might have been a hot potato during its pre-production, but for me I can go with a little half-baked side every now and then, and for an occasional weekend snack, there’s something comforting in a nice plate of tots that won’t fill you up or make you feel bloated but allows you to feel like a kid again.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/9/2019, 3:38 pm

Post #225:  I’ll take 1940s Movie Musicals for 4200, Alex:  The Answer is. . . One of the few times when it’s morally permissible to gasp unashamedly at the female lead of the film without being labeled a sexist or a puerile case of arrested development. [BRANK] What is. . . when the star is Rita Hayworth?  Right! Choose. . . I’ll take *Cover Girl* (1944) for a true Daily Double.  

Oh, okay, the film co-stars Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers, with Eve Arden, Otto Kruger and Lee Bowman hovering in the wings, but it’s Rita who steals the show as Rusty Parker, the bombshell background dancer at Danny McGuire's Night Club in Brooklyn.  The first Columbia musical to be filmed in Technicolor (and just lose yourself in Rita’s red hair!), *Cover Girl* rivals the best musicals from MGM for infinite watchability—just don’t spend a lot of time on the story, which is as pedestrian as Gene Kelly is flexible.

Anchored by the first musical collaboration between Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern, with the exception of “Long Ago And Far Way,” the film’s dance sequences are backed by largely unmemorable songs.  But that’s of small consequence in the final analysis because the dancing is pretty pretty pretty good.  It’s just terrific to see Rita and Gene step out, with a real stand-out solo number known as the “Alter Ego” sequence in which Gene Kelly dances with a superimposed self (standing in for his conscience) in a lonely street, a scene that would serve as the basis for his famous *Singing In The Rain* routine in another eight years.  "It was the most difficult thing I've ever done, a technical torture," he said later.

On loan from MGM under the provision he’d be allowed complete choreographic control over his scenes, Gene Kelly collaborated with his longtime co-director and partner Stanley Donen (who left an impressive directorial catalog of 28 film and by his own admission proposed to writer/actress Elaine May “about 172 times”).  Kelly’s work on *Cover Girl*, only his sixth film, is largely known as some of the best of his career, predating and predicting his splendid successes in the 1950s.  He removed some of the stage walls so street scenes involving himself, Rita and Phil Silvers could be filmed in one take, reducing costly overruns and reshoots.  And each dance sequence was filmed with three cameras—close-up, medium-range and long shots, another economical technique that helped Kelly establish himself especially in the eyes of Louis B. Mayer, who didn’t particularly care for the dancer until this film (for the rival studio Columbia after Mayer loaned him out).
 
“Make Way For Tomorrow” is a strong dance number with the three leads in complete harmony, allowing Phil Silvers to show he’s quite a hoofer put up against the seasoned professionalism of Rita and Gene.  I have to admit I was a little surprised that the most lovely (and oft-recorded) “Long Away and Far Away” is not afforded its own spectacular choreographic moment, instead merely providing a poignant underscore to some strained relationship drama.

And the story itself is a simple tour of Clicheville: *Vanity* magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger) and his executive assistant Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (the prickly and sardonic Eve Arden) discover Rusty (Rita) at Danny’s (Kelly) night club and make her the winner of the magazine’s “Cover Girl” contest.  Accompanied by millionaire Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman), Coudair nudges Rusty’s career into the bright spotlights of success in a meteoric ascension.  Secretly, Rusty stirs up long-buried memories of Coudair’s first love and the one who got away, her grandmother who was also a glowing star of the stage.

Naturally Rusty’s juggling of newfound fame and her gig at Danny’s forces their relationship through the colander, as both tend toward stubbornness.  Stir in Noel’s growing affection for our blazing redhead and we’ve got all the ingredients for a Hallmark souffle that rises only because of the dazzling, photogenic love affair Rita has with the camera.  Her sumptuous wardrobe enhances her flowing movements with striking exuberance; it’s hard to isolate one ensemble that’s my favorite but I think it’s a tie between a backless pastel chartreuse (I know, it’s not my favorite color either, but Dang, she’s beautiful in it) layered gown showcasing her airy dance with Gene Kelly in a dress shop; the flowing, sparkling, ethereal gold gown lending a surrealistic swirl in a number involving a winding elevated road is spectacular as well.  But the final shot of Rita framed in the doorway of Joe’s oyster bar, her dress wafting in a street breeze that halted my breath for a moment, would have made me doubt the relative sanity of Danny if he didn’t sweep her up on the spot.

Now I can’t say that Rita Hayworth would look good even if she wore nothing as that would cause me to plunge over the Precipice of Sexist Double Entendre, but here she is simply beautiful, her glorious mane falling in a precursory *Gilda* (1946) abandon.  You might note that Charles Vidor directed both *Cover Girl* and *Gilda*, as well as several other collaborations with her; so in the famous introduction shot of Gilda, flipping her hair back over her eye, if you watch carefully you’ll see early versions of that classic move in *Cover Girl*.  And interestingly, when Rita filmed the wedding sequence in today’s feature, her off screen life gave her another reason to celebrate—she married Orson Welles that same day.

In filming this movie that literally launched the careers of Rita and Gene Kelly, she said, “We had a sensational time with Gene and Phil. I knew we had a rapport – they were both so great to work with. It was a happy time. I didn’t know we were doing anything special, but you knew it was going to be good because it felt good making it.”  That joy is evident in every scene.

If you’re like me, you’ll find *Cover Girl* is a feast of fashion. Watch closely for the casual elegance of Jinx Falkenberg (playing herself in two cameos) and the professional sharpness of Eve Arden’s clothes throughout the picture to glean a textbook definition of 1940s fashion.  I’m usually not one to dwell on such accoutrements, but *Cover Girl* is predicated on glamor as a subtext—the clothes comment on the content of everyone’s character.

Tony Thomas, author of a Gene Kelly retrospective, said, "In the history of the Hollywood musical Cover Girl marks a major turning point, a transitional point at which the long-familiar concept of the movie musical as a string of songs strung together by a skimpy plot gave way to a broader concept in which the musical sequences would form a part of the plot."  That turning point garnered the film five Academy Award nominations—Best cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Recording, and Song (“Long Ago And Far Away”), winning Best Musical Score.

But in addition to the visual excitement, I found a little sprinkling of humor to be a big plus.  Phil Silvers is an absolute saving grace for the story as Genius, Danny’s best friend and on-stage comic, and Rita’s hilariously lively interview with Cornelia Jackson demonstrates her wonderful comic timing.  What a joy she would be in a well-made screwball comedy: sexy AND funny?  Dip me in chocolate and bite off my head, I’m a marshmallow Santa. . . .

*Cover Girl* may not be the finest musical around, but it’s offering more generous servings of splash and dazzle than you’ll find in a month’s worth of *Jeopardy*.  No offense, Alex, but I’ll take the redhead for all the money and leave you with the show.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/9/2019, 5:54 pm

Hours and hours of nuthin' but song and dance Rita wouldn't need a movie to justify it. I'd plunk down my money and just sit there absorbin' the wonder of it all.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/10/2019, 12:48 pm

Post #226: As long as we’re in the game show mode, let’s spin the Magic Wheel Of Trivia and see how many of you folks can name the original host of *The Price Is Right*? How many say Bob Barker? [BRANK] Wrong. Understandable, but still wrong. Drew Carey? [RASPBERRIES] Oh come on, you’re not even in the right century. How many of you remember Bill Cullen as the brushcut host? [DING DING DING] Tell ‘em what they’ve won, Johnny! Today’s winners will walk away with a fizzy little comedy that is not as well remembered as it should be: *Champagne For Caesar* (1950) starring Ronald Colman and Celeste Holm and Vincent Price.

When I was a kid watching Bill Cullen coax a panel of four contestants through a bidding war, game shows were all the rage. And *Champagne For Caesar* becomes doubly interesting because it was the first film to actively lampoon that craze, and in a more prescient turn accurately predict scandalous behind-the-scenes chicanery that would bring about its downfall—nine years later when Congress initiated investigations into the rigging of game shows. But watching it now is a breezy exercise in nostalgia.

In *Caesar* we follow the unemployable intellectual Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Colman at his suave best) who believes radio and television game shows represent the forerunner of intellectual destruction in America, one of the worst offenders being *Masquerade For Money*. “If it is noteworthy and rewarding to know that 2 and 2 make 4 to the accompaniment of deafening applause and prizes, then 2 and 2 making 4 will become the top level of learning,” he tells his sister Gwen (Barbara Britton, who, ironically, appeared in live commercials during the infamous game show *The $64,000 Question*).

Beauregard interviews for a job with the show’s sponsor, Milday Soap and its eccentric owner Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price), only to be rebuffed due to his uncompromising sense of humor. Seeking retribution, he appears on *Masquerade For Money* dressed as an encyclopedia volume and begins his ascent through the quiz show’s levels of difficulty—questions are based on the contestants’ costume, starting at five dollars and then doubling with each successive question up to $160. They may stop at any time, but missing a question loses their winnings to that point. Naturally, because Beauregard knows everything about everything, he determines to keep playing while host Happy Hogan (Art Linkletter) sputters in surprise.

Beauregard’s appearance on the show is notable for several reasons, chief among them his open disparaging of the sponsor’s product, suggesting it’s just like any other soap, which infuriates Burnbridge Waters. He also reaches the maximum too easily and asks for another question, which he correctly answers, bringing his winnings to an unprecedented $320. . . which he refuses, asking to return the following week for more chances to prove his superior intelligence. Waters relents, offering the genius return visits for one question each week, over the next six weeks, in conjunction with a media blitz that sends sales of Milady Soap soaring.

Meanwhile, Waters enlists Happy Hogan to take piano lessons from Gwen, to uncover any lapses in Beauregard’s knowledge base which can be used against him on the air. But no one anticipated Gwen and Happy actually growing to love one another, and so Happy confesses to Gwen the plan, and Gwen explains Beauregard’s intention to win $40 million and put Waters out of business, a major blow for literacy everywhere.

Subterfuge abounds in the film’s airy 99-minute running time, as Waters’ machinations grow more wildly out of kilter as the story progresses, bringing in a femme fatale, Flame O’Neill (Celeste Holm) to temp, distract and mentally obstruct Beauregard’s concentration as the stakes grow higher. It’s a screwball comedy all the way, with Vincent Price and Celeste Holm giving over the top performances counterpointed by the unflappable grace of Ronald Colman, who is almost above it all.

Elements of *Champagne For Caesar* present themselves like a Frank Tashlin film—ebullient energy, spacious sets filled with kitschy details, easy camaraderie among all the participants and fast pacing that tick the minutes away with the weightlessness of bubbles in a glass.

Vincent Price especially was at first awed by his co-star Ronald Colman: “My first day on *Caesar* was one of abject misery. I was to co-star with Ronald Colman, and the thought was not as ego-building as it should have been, but rather I was overcome with a kind of humility. . . [Director] Dick Whorf recognized my dilemma and did a very sweet thing: he rearranged the schedule so that I didn’t have to do a big scene with Ronnie on the first day. One day ‘in the presence’ and I was all right, for he had the confident actor’s ability of putting everybody at ease. During the filming, we all became great friends. . . .”

Celeste Holm also remembered Colman fondly: “I remember during one of the first days of the shooting, as his portable dressing room was next to mine, I could hear much of what was said in his; the door was open and he was being interviewed by an earnest and rather awed young lady. She asked him what he thought was the most important thing for an actor to retain, and he said after only a moment’s pause, ‘His amateur’s enthusiasm.’ I don’t remember the exact occasion when he confessed that his greatest fear was at the end of each engagement when he would close his makeup kit and would wonder if he would ever be asked to open it again.”

*Champagne For Caesar* had only a brief screen life before it disappeared into television limbo. Both Holm and Colman were paid a flat fee but offered another fee after its initial run, but independent producer Harry Popkin could not be tracked down after the film wrapped. Neither actor was paid the second fee. Julia Benita Colman remarks in her biography of her father, “Whenever we drove past his [Popkin’s] house in Beverly Hills, Ronnie and Benita [his wife] would shake their fists and we’d all join in with, “That’s where that s** of a b*tch Harry Popkin-with-all-my-money used to live!”

Today it remains a kind satire—neither brash nor trenchant—of another time, a certain charming halo radiating from its chemistry. And as for that cryptic title—I’m still not sure why Caesar, Beauregard’s parrot with a penchant for alcohol (voiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc), is the subject of the title, but that’s of little consequence really. And personally I never really thought the romance between Happy and Gwen made a lot of sense because Art Linkletter and Barbara Britton were not sparks in the nitroglycerin, but. . . okay, I’ll suspend disbelief again. The real fun rests in the interactions of the other stars and the playful overreactions of Vincent Price and Celeste Holm. They are so gleefully goofy that I could easily see them Coming On Down the aisle today, giggling and yelping like the mad who tremble at the chance to win a set of Ginsu Knives or a Kitchen Magician and a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat (Ding Ding).

As for me I’ll just help control the pet population by having my pet spayed or neutered.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/11/2019, 11:45 am

Post #227: My friends, I come before you today to celebrate a lost art engendered by sarcasm, personal power, and sex appeal. You’re all aware, by this time, of my innate dumbness when it comes to making trenchant observations about depictions of women in film in the Golden Age of Hollywood. So today’s epic tome (which will test the limits of even my most loyal friends) does not comment on the overtly Neanderthal sexism of old movies when urbane men jolly well smacked the bottom of the female lead which stopped her dead, to stare in modest amazement at the camera while the audience chortled in mock dismay.

No, let me draw your attention to the faded tradition of whip-crack-smart women whose sexual attractiveness rocketed over the moon because they could carve you up with a conversational scalpel and not appear as a frigid spinster or a female pound puppy. She could go head to head with strongest male lead, separate his knees from rest of his body and then sell them back to him as the newest innovation from The Knights Who Say Ni!—and he’d *still* want to go dancing with her.

Now for the purposes of today’s pontification, I’m absolving the film noir femme fatale, not counting the inherently evil temptresses like Lana Turner in *The Postman Always Rings Twice* (1946) and Barbara Stanwyck in *Double Indemnity* (1944), for a simple reason: Those women had something to gain through their machinations, and the men were just integers to them. Today’s focus is on the sharp-tongued equal whose character is demonstrated in her dialogue and quick wit, celebrating the brash and the subtle, the Marlene Dietrichs and the Myrna Loys.

We’ve met them these beauties of backbone before: Bogart had Bacall (pick a movie, any movie), Glenn Ford had Rita Hayworth (*Gilda* 1946), Gene Tierney had Rex Harrison (*The Ghost And Mrs. Muir* 1947), Cary Grant had Rosalind Russell (*His Girl Friday* 1940), Errol Flynn had Olivia de Havilland (actually, he didn’t; she was the only woman with whom he couldn’t field a base hit after *The Adventures of Robin Hood* 1938, but you get the idea).

So submitted for your approval, today’s feature gives us James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, the “Oomph” Girl, a label she reviled, even though she more than fulfilled its promise in triplicate. The movie is one of my Honorable Mentions for Favorite Film (tied with *Gilda*), the Warner Brothers Classic *Torrid Zone* (1940). And oh boy, does it live up to that steamy title with arguably some of the finest, hottest whiplash-inducing dialogue around.

In my mind a female lead like Ann Sheridan’s Lee Donley is a pure delight because she can not only hold her own against the formidable James Cagney, but can easily steal his thunder and make him return for more. Her delivery of lines, which are great to begin with, comes right from the base of her spinal column, erupting from her character rather than from a practiced rehearsal. A genuine canniness is at large here, and while she shows vulnerability, she is definitely not going to take anyone’s excrement either. Oh yeah, and she’s a tousled redhead.

*Torrid Zone*’s plot isn’t the reason I found myself compelled and glued to the screen; the storyline is a little hinky, begging a little suspension of disbelief. The drawing power comes from the characters who rattle off their lines in a staccato rhythm with the speed of a bullet seeking its target. And often the retorts do as much damage as that projectile. If you’re going to take on Cagney, Sheridan and Pat O’Brien, you had better have easy access to a personal arsenal of quips.

The setting for this “Torrid Zone” is located south of the border in Puerto Aguilar between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, on a banana plantation managed by the conniving executive Steve Case (Pat O’Brien). He’s a harsh, hard boiled taskmaster whose mouth is a machine gun attached to a bullhorn—he doesn’t talk, he strafes his environment at high volume, sending the weak for cover.

He’s particularly volatile lately because the likable revolutionary Rosario La Mata (George Tobias, who will be best remembered by Boomers and Millennials as Abner Kravitz, the long suffering neighbor on *Bewitched*) has been stoking the fires of unrest among Case’s workers. And to add bruises to the banana, his best foreman Nick Butler (Cagney) has slept with Case’s wife, broken up his marriage, and worst of all, quit working for him.

Nick is a cocky, laconic but effective foreman with dreams of taking a ship back to Chicago to manage his own company. Onboard the ship he meets Lee Donley (Ann Sheridan), a spitfire card sharp and nightclub singer who at Case’s insistence has been exiled from Puerto Aguilar just because he’s an icehole who doesn’t want her “distraction” around his men. Lee and Nick settle into an instant rapport of sarcastic shorthand, and their shared anarchistic outlook helps them bond over their extreme distaste for Case. Here’s a typical exchange:

Lee Donley: Why don't you send that mind of yours out and have it dry-cleaned.
Nick Butler: What's the use? Look at the company I'm in.
Lee Donley: You won't be for long!

Through some fierce negotiations, since Nick is the only person who can bring order to the plantation, Case re-hires him, dangling a huge bonus before him, under Nick’s proviso that he work for only two weeks. When Lee joins him at the plantation, she finds more than she anticipated: Nick’s former flame, Gloria Anderson (Helen Vinson) now married to Case’s inept manager (Jerome Cowan), is hot to rekindle that fire, which leads to some of the best sniping since *NCIS*’s Gibbs grabbed a rifle:

Lee Donley: [as Gloria enters] Here comes Malicious.
Nick Butler: Can that talk!
Lee Donley: Well, some days a girl can't make a cent!
Gloria Anderson: I don't imagine you have any trouble.
Lee Donley: Why do you walk around making noises like a lady? All a guy has to do is wink and he hits the jackpot.

Adding to the conflict, Rosario is in jail, awaiting his execution as soon as Case can strongarm the local ineffectual police chief Juan Rodriguez (the fabulous Frank Publia) into getting it done: “After a good night's sleep a man doesn't mind being shot, but during siesta? . . . [Case persists] All right, all right! Si, senor. We... we give him a permanent siesta - we shoot him right away.” But Rosario, who mixes enthusiastic charm with obligatory malice toward authority, escapes to wreak more havoc during Nick’s supervision.

So it is in the pressure cooker of *Torrid Zone*--Nick taunts Case, Case persecutes Lee, Nick obliges Gloria’s adulterous advances, Rosario forges a lovely friendship with Lee, Police Chief Rodriguez spurts and sputters as Case’s lackey while trying to look in control, and Nick’s sidekick Wally Davis (a harmonica toting Andy Devine) wheezes and whines through it all.

But what elevates this film from other South of the Border epics is the comedy that washes the entire production. In many ways *Torrid Zone* is a screwball comedy with so many punchlines it’s like a conveyor belt of boxers waiting their turn to pummel the audience with quick jabs. So, in this corner are Cagney and Sheridan performing a graceful rope a dope to the cheers of the audience. Their sparring is a brisk and powerful dance around five acres of 950 banana trees planted on the Warner Brothers backlot. And as aside, I have to give props to James Cagney for sporting a mustache in this film—and saying to the producers, “If the mustache goes, I go.” Strength in conviction.

And this is a chemistry so seldom seen today. I have wracked my brain to think of a contemporary film that showcases such masterful rapid fire punches. In prepping this commentary, I couldn’t even come up with actresses or roles today equaling the energy or fun Sheridan seems to have in this film. Today, the mix of sarcasm, sex appeal and vulnerability has been replaced by an emphasis on ONE of the elements but not this combination. There are plenty of sarcastic women in film today, but often they come off as snarky, mean spirited, profane or just unlikable, on the attack rather than offhandedly frisky (Now THERE’S a word you don’t hear invoked very often).

Sure, there are some sexy actresses today, but Ann Sheridan can exude mystery without removing one article of clothing. You might remember the key iconic scene in *Basic Instinct* (1992) and wonder if there are other limits we can transcend in order to shock. Sexy? Debatable. Sexual? Oh yeah. Witty? Nope. But the former two qualities seem to be blurred as we move forward. Amy Schumer’s *Trainwreck* (2015) was sarcastic, funny, at times vulnerable, but was there a sexy craft involved in the dialogue? For me the reasons to laugh were more out of inappropriateness than literate character development.

I can watch *Gilda* and *Torrid Zone* and wonder how they got away with some of the lines, and comedies like *Bringing Up Baby* (1938) or *Philadelphia Story* (1940) or even some Ginger Rogers musicals make laugh at the quick-wittedness that enhances the appeal of the stars. It seemed so effortless, while many films today seem labored or heavy-handed.

One of the few examples I could dredge up in a popular film today was Karen Allen’s Marion Ravencroft in *Raiders Of The Lost Ark* (1981), the only woman who could cold-cock Harrison Ford, snap his head around and elicit a wry smile from him or drink the Napalese locals into drunken submission. A close second might be Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Carnahan in *The Mummy* (1999). But in both instances the directors and screenwriters were consciously evoking the feel of the 1930s-40s hard-hewn heroines with a sharp mouth and a backbone of steel. Have such roles iconic cultural characterizations—strong, non-emasculating females—relegated only to TCM or late show nostalgia-thons? Man, I hope not.

Now don’t get me wrong: We have some top talent today; I’m not disparaging our acting pool. But at times I wonder where the top-notch wordsmiths are who can supply such talent with memorable dialogue that stings with power and characterization. Will the next generation of filmgoers find in their time a Rita Hayworth, a Gene Tierney, an Ann Sheridan, or a Lauren Bacall who could decalcify at least half of the audience in a lesson how to whistle and make a big guy like Bogart (okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he was strong) roll his eyes?

As Led Zeppelin said, Ramble on. . . sorry. The take-away is this: *Torrid Zone* harkens back to a time when the war of the sexes was a method of courtship rather than a Take No Prisoners agenda, a time that may have inspired Sheryl Crow to write “When I'm throwing punches in the air, When I'm broken down and I can't stand, Would you be man enough to be my man?” Whoa, said Keanu Reeves.
Enjoy.
Jeff









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Post by Space Cadet on 12/11/2019, 7:49 pm

One of my all time favorite Queens of Dialog is Katharine Hepburn. Best remembered for her work with Spencer Tracy. But my favorite Hepburn roles were opposite Cary Grant. Two of my all time favorite comfort movies are Bringing Up Baby (Hepburn and Grant) and The Philadelphia Story (Hepburn, Grant and James Stewart). But of course there's also the William Powell Myrna Loy combo in the Thin Man movies. And the less energetic but still incredible interplay of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night.

Do we have any screen pairings which compare to these, in today's movies? I'm not thinking about popularity. I mean absolute chemistry.
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Post by CompleteDayMan on 12/11/2019, 8:40 pm

Space Cadet wrote:One of my all time favorite Queens of Dialog is Katharine Hepburn. Best remembered for her work with Spencer Tracy. But my favorite Hepburn roles were opposite Cary Grant. Two of my all time favorite comfort movies are Bringing Up Baby (Hepburn and Grant) and The Philadelphia Story (Hepburn, Grant and James Stewart). But of course there's also the William Powell Myrna Loy combo in the Thin Man movies. And the less energetic but still incredible interplay of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night.

Do we have any screen pairings which compare to these, in today's movies? I'm not thinking about popularity. I mean absolute chemistry.

The basic answer Space is 'No'. And you forgot Colbert & MacMurray in multiple movies - 7 I think.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/12/2019, 11:08 am

Post #228:  And then on the other hand. . . perhaps God is getting even with me for being so opinionated in my last post.  For He gave me quite a shove in the opposite direction with today’s feature, *Flaxy Martin* (1949) with Virginia Mayo and Randolph Scott.  You might think Flaxy is rather like Smuckers Jelly—with a name like Flaxy, it’s got to be good.  You would be completely wrong—she’s not good, she’s not sweet, she spreads it on thick, but like cherry preserves she’s the pits.  And for her role in the film, she’ll pull a pucker out of your face.  One of my favorite lines from Alice Morgan in the first episode of *Luther* fits here to perfection: “So go on. Kiss me. Kill me. Do something.”

For all the [movie] girls I’ve loved before, I can’t recall one playing such an unscrupulous character as this one.  My first exposure to Virginia Mayo was in Danny Kaye films, and in *Flaxy Martin* she’s so far removed from those roles, smirking at her manipulations and others’ bad fortune, that I lost count of the number of times I said “Wow” during its 86-minute running time.

Even though it’s named after Virginia Mayo’s character, the film really belongs to Zachary Scott as mob attorney Walter Colby.  Despite being hitched up with the underworld boss Hap Richie (Douglas Kennedy) at his voracious girlfriend Flaxy’s insistence, Walt is a pretty straight arrow even if he is monumentally dim in his understanding of women.  He’s knowledgeable in the law but has had all common sense walloped out of his head by Virginia Mayo’s mob-entangled, seductive showgirl with the weight of a nylon loaded with quick drying cement.

Like Frank Zappa, Walt’s only in it for the money, quickly tiring of representing pond scum but holding on anyway to whisk Flaxy away with a tidy nest egg, a happy monogamous marriage, and a life away from the creeping cancerous crime defense that’s devouring him whole.  So deadened is he by Flaxy’s flashy fashion that he doesn’t even see her double-timing him with Richie and being implicated in witness tampering and murder. O, there are none so blind as those who will not see. . . .

When Flaxy is suspected of killing a young woman, Walt’s faithful devotion to his faithlessly demented girl completely derails his train of thought by confessing to the murder himself.  Confident as he is in his courtroom prowess, he decides to defend himself, gaining freedom for both himself and Flaxy.  So moved is she by his selfless (and stupid) gesture, Flaxy reaches into the depths of her soul and with Richie frames Walt to ensure his guilty verdict.

But just before he’s transported to prison, Walt is approached by his friend and former client Sam Malko (Tom D’Andrea, best remembered as Gillis on *The Life Of Riley TV series) with news that the real killer has been drunkenly bragging about the kill and Flaxy’s involvement, filling Walt with the striking realization that maybe, just possibly Flaxy doesn’t love him as much as she says.  And so, escaping from the train taking him to serve twenty years, he seeks vengeance for his betrayal and his lawyer’s poor judgment.

Aided by country girl Nora Carson (Dorothy Malone) who finds him passed out on the highway after his tumble from the train, Walt scowls and frowns his way into scrapes with Richie’s goon-ette Roper (Elisha Cook Jr.) intent on killing him.  It’s a brisk noirish drama which offers a couple suspenseful moments, some nice gritty city scenery, a headful of logistical nightmares, and a lot of teeth gnashing either in contempt (Walt) or bitter schadenfreude at the stupidity of men being led around by their predictably raging hormones (Flaxy).

Directed by Richard Bare, who found his real career directing the brunt of *Green Acres* episodes, *Flaxy Martin* raises a number of questions we’re not supposed to ask:  Why is the film named after Virginia Mayo’s character when she literally disappears from the narrative for the middle half of the film?  Why would an attorney, compelled to act morally, confess to a crime he didn’t commit and no one with a functioning brain—not even the detectives investigating the case--believes he is capable of?  Is Nora in the habit of picking up strange unconscious men lying in the street, taking them home, patching their wounds, making them breakfast and never once—even after she discovers he’s a convicted killer—fearing for her own safety?  Could she BE any less creeped out when she’s watching a hood dig a grave for her, just nonchalantly passing time handcuffed to a killer while facing imminent doom, when her greatest fear is being buried alive?  Why do people in these movies fall in love so quickly and completely when everything tells them it’s not a smart move?  Why did the filmmakers choose Douglas Kennedy to play the main bad guy when he has all the menace of a bad corned beef sandwich on white? How can Elisha Cook Jr. carry and shoot a gun that’s bigger than he is, and why does he call Zachary Scott “Shamus” when that’s a term for a private eye, not a lawyer?  Wouldn’t “Shyster” make more sense?  And if a gun is empty, why do idiot mittens throw them at their antagonists like that’s going to deter them?  Outside of being beaned and causing them to fall back with a loud “Oww!  That’s gonna leave a mark” what good does such an action hold?

But Virginia Mayo is fun to watch as she tries to slither out of Gordian Knots she’s tied herself.  She is sexy as she lounges around in silk, expelling vaporous smoke from her cigarettes and bristling with the quick changes of an emotional chameleon.  She is almost completely unlikable and intractable in her pursuit of money with no regard for collateral damage.  And it’s this bounteous bundling of bitchery that finally makes Zachary Scott such a pathetic boob as he spends most of the movie trying to wrap his menial mind around how he could have been so easily twisted into such a gullible Gumby.  (You’ve got me, Pokey)

Somewhere in here is a really snappy noir screaming to be let loose, but its clawing and scratching to reveal itself is just part of the acoustic background.  *Flaxy Martin* is enjoyable if you set your brain on Simmer and don’t concern yourself with serving it steaming hot.  If the script had just arched up the sarcasm instead of falling back on lame lines like “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,” and if the director had asked Zachary Scott to stretch beyond the two emotions he mastered in this role, it would be a whole different story.  

But given Hollywood’s track record, they’d probably come up with a script about three Playboy Bunnies named Flaxy, Waxy and Cottontale, all of whom are ensnared in a deceitful love trapezoid with a brilliant but emotionally stunted and therefore insipid mob laywer embroiled in a decapitation murder.  It would be renamed *Heads You Lose, Tails We Win* and be freighted with Hays Code violations, making it a sure-fire box office hit.

Then again, maybe it would be better to just watch a few episodes of *Green Acres* and see if Oliver ever asks Sam Drucker to order him a ham and cheese with a side of Smuckers, hold the Mayo.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/13/2019, 11:11 am

Post #229: Before redeeming myself with a nice Christmas movie to take the sting and stink from today’s commentary, I have to sink into the nefarious depths of a confounding Double Feature, united by utter, uncompromising disregard for quality, logic, production values, acting and directorial competence. Oh yeah, they also center their “stories” around brains, and between the two films there’s not a working cranial instrument within forty-two miles of those involved. So, as I’m fond of quoting John Lennon, “Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream.”

Submitted for your disapproval, two movies (using even the most rudimentary criterion to call them that: the people in the films DO move) were both filmed in the late 1950s but not released, perhaps out of pity for their potential audiences, until 1962 and 1963 respectively but not respectfully: *The Brain That Wouldn’t Die* (1962) shot in 1959, and *Monstrosity [aka The Atomic Brain]* (1963) shot in 1958; both—and I’m not making this up—were turned into musicals in 2010 and 2009, when Theater died briefly and then was brought back to life with *The Book Of Mormon*.

Do you want the bad news or the atrocity first? Either way it’s a no-win proposition, but at least one of them ascended to achieve a full two-star rating while the other floundered with one-and-one-half; in either instance the ratings are adjusted for inflation and would rank much lower if your taste in films is not resting in your mouth. Both of them have been treated to *Mystery Science Theater 3000* critical deconstructions, but the latter of the two is so bad, even *MST3K*’s episode evaded mention in the Top 100 Shows of the Season 11 Kickstarter polls. Now THAT is saying something, which is more than the film does.

So with that prologue, let’s go with Holy Crap That’s So Bad It’s Almost Good for Minus $42, Alex: *The Brain That Wouldn’t Die* is so bad [how bad is it?], it’s so bad that lead actress Virginia Leith reviled the film enough to refuse to return for post-production editing, leaving Doris Brent (who played Nurse in the picture) to dub a few of Leith’s lines. Not that you’d notice. . . or care, for that matter, because the film offers up such howlers on a silver plate (much like the one Leith’s head rests on for 90% of the film) as: “I'm only a head, and you're whatever you are. Together we're strong. More powerful than any of them.” Didn’t Bill Gates say that to his wife at one time? Anyway. . .

Yes, as you’ve already inferred, Jan Compton (Leith) has made it to the head of her class following an automobile accident at the hands of her fiancé Dr. Bill Cortner (Jason Evers). Cortner is a brilliant but morally crippled neurosurgeon who has secretly been lording over a trans-plantation while sipping mint juleps and uttering inane lines like, “Nothing is unbelievable if you have the nerve to operate.” And oh, he’s got buckets of nerve, and nerve endings, in his laboratory with his assistant Kurt (Anthony La Penna) whose disfigured hand looks like a leprous foot. But together these quackadoos revive Jan’s head with which Cortner ran for a touchdown after the accident; silly women in these shows, always losing their heads in a panic.

Now sporting the newest fashion from Rome, a stylish nun’s wimple which will surely be the talk of the Vatican during those long nights spent in vespers, Jan bemoans the fact that she can no longer scratch that itch on her nose because she has no body, “and nobody cares for me, that’s why I’m sad and lonely.” But that’s just it, Jan—you DO have people (using the term very loosely) around you—there’s Bill, who goes out hunting for strippers (that’s only logical) with killer bodies on which he can mount your head, and there’s Kurt with the hand aching agony of da-feet. . . and best of all there’s the seven-foot Mutant Experiment Gone Horribly Awry (let’s call him MEGHA because he’s megha-ugly and pissed off because of it) locked in the closet under the stairs where Harry Potter lived.

So when Jan goes a little off her nut and starts instant messaging telegraphically the real fun begins: Cortner brings home a former girlfriend who likes to pose in skimpy bathing suits for horndogs with their Instamatics, MEGHA with a little help from his friend Jan disarms Kurt who dies in a hideous torment akin to what the audience feels while watching the film, and everything pans out for Jan when she gets to attend a Flaming Lips concert. (None of those puns will make sense unless you’ve seen the film, then you can join the chorus of groans the principals emit in the last minutes of the film.)

But what can you expect from a movie that was filmed in thirteen days in the basement of a New York hotel? Not much, but it sure as sugar is leagues better than our next feature, *Monstrosity [aka The Atomic Brain]* (1963) which lives up to its title, was filmed in TEN days (Eat THAT, Undying Brain Jan In A Pan), with a company that went bankrupt halfway through the shooting, leaving the film unfinished and the director fired but was tinkered with for a couple years before producers abandoned it and just released what they had, and can be remembered fondly as the last movies of Lisa Lang (Anita Gonzales) and Judy Bamber (Beatrice Mullins, the token big breasted one with one eye) and Ms. Bamber’s cat Xerxes (The Cat).

Compared to our last feature, *Monstrosity* is little more than the pan drippings of Jan’s head. But I must say, the late 1950s appear to be a great time for pin-headed busty women who think nothing of uprooting themselves and walking clueless into aggressively compromising positions with a wink and a promise. Here we have three (count ‘em, 3!) international models—from Mexico, Great Britain, and Austria, my Lord it’s a Presidential Immigration fantasy—who drop whatever (or whoever) they’re doing to work for an insanely rich but hunched old bat, Mrs. March (ironic because she can’t) who alternates negotiating her massive California manse with a cane or wheelchair, whichever looks better for the scene. Wizened like a gourd she bitterly bosses around Dr. Frank (nudge nudge, get it? Get it?) who’s experimenting with a bargain basement cyclotron (in the basement) to reanimate corpses and—sing along with me now—transplant brains into fresh bodies.

That’s where the girls come in, spin around, strip and present themselves for examination by the morally and physically disabled Mrs. March. Even more egregious than being poked with the old vegetable’s walking stick is the openly misogynistic narrator (Bradford Dillman) who drools all over the action with lines like this: “Mrs. March had not realized her future body had such a satisfactory shape. Perhaps not as spectacular as the English girl but in excellent taste. She couldn't help being amused. The stupid girl was not only modeling Mrs. March's future wardrobe but Mrs. March's future body: so firm, so nicely round in places men like.” Could it GET any worse?

Oh, don’t tempt fate and the incredible lack of taste in B-movie producers. Yes, friends, the Mexican au pair is deemed spoiled meat because she has a birthmark halfway down her back, so they replace her brain with a cat’s. So Anita Gonzales spends the remainder of the film hissing and scratching and refusing to eat anything but Fancy Feast. No wonder it was Lisa Lang’s last picture; her agents wouldn’t let her get up on the furniture.

The Austrian Nina Rhodes (Erika Peters) brilliantly deduces something is not right when Anita disappears and then reappears hissing and spitting and gouging out Bea’s eye when her breasts got in the way of Anita’s ripping up the couch. Of course she should have been tipped off when Mrs. March locked her away in the attic and disconnected all the phones, but really, the mutated failed experiment with hairy knuckles and the severe underbite and the voluptuous brainless zombie woman in diaphanous gowns who wander around the grounds for absolutely no purpose whatsoever—they really should have given Nina a moment’s pause.

And if those clues were not enough to induce a little head-scratching, how’s about we throw in Dr. Frank whose solution to the problem of pesky police nosing about is blowing up the whole damn house in a nuclear explosion triggered by his private reactor? That’ll show ‘em, by golly. But why in the fresh hell does he wear his protective Reynold’s Wrap suit in the reactor SOME TIMES but not routinely? Even Homer Simpson knows enough to put on oven mitts.

Then there’s Victor (Frank Fowler) whose main purpose, I guess, is to leer at the women body donors as the Narrator wipes the spittle from his own chin: “Three new bodies. Fresh, live, young bodies. No families or friends within thousands of miles, no one to ask embarrassing questions when they disappear. Victor wondered which one Mrs. March would pick. The little Mexican, the girl from Vienna, or the buxom blonde? Victor knew his pick, but he still felt uneasy, making love to an 80 year old woman in the body of a 20 year old girl; it's insanity!” Two words in summary here: Yee Uck!

From what I’ve been able to uncover, Mrs. March (Marjorie Eaton, who played one of the old women in the park, Miss Persimmon, in *Mary Poppins* (1964)) was only 63 when she played this role. File that tidbit of trivia under Are You Freaking Kidding Me? Even with that knowledge she’s creepy enough to make MEGAH scream in fear and run back under the front porch.

So last night was not a great night for filmgoing. Granted, together the films drained less time (82 minutes and 64 minutes respectively) than a single showing of *Pearl Harbor (2001) at 183 minutes or *Cleopatra* (1963) at 248 minutes, but that’s of limited consolation. After all, for those two hours and twenty-six minutes I could have watched *Transformers: Age of Extinction* which filled exactly the same time frame.

No, wait a minute. I just read that line again and realized the torment would have been even worse in that alternative. So I’ll take it back: Watching that double feature would not be the absolute worst investment you could make. But it’s darned close.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/13/2019, 7:00 pm

I don't want Ya to think that I'm disagreein' with Ya, because I'm not. But I've seen a few Academy Award winners that didn't actually offer any more artistic value than these two stinkers do. Hey, that could be a fun project. Collect and document every Academy Award winner that makes Ya think *WTF*.
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Post by Seamus on 12/13/2019, 7:41 pm

I love the stinkers the more cheese the better. I have noticed a couple of channels are now playing modern B movies and some of them smell like 90 day old blue cheese left under the seat of your car. Saw one yesterday about a sphinx attacking a group of secret historians assembled by Roosevelt to research mystic objects. It was brills it was so bad.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/14/2019, 3:44 pm

Post #230: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go, Take a look at the Five And Ten, and you’ll likely find Denis Leary doing his level best to steal some of those priceless Silly Putty Faberge eggs or the Stretch Armstrongs whose arms crackle ominously if you pull them too far.  Yes, Friends, it’s Christmas Redemption Day as today’s offering puts us in the festive holiday mood by holding people hostage in their own house and tying up Grandma with red ribbon and tinsel.  Welcome to *The Ref* (1994).

A word of caution before you stuff the kids’ stocking with this one:  This is a full fledged adult Christmas carol with language that will make your teeth curl, if you’re upset by such things.  Since it’s Jesus’s Birthday, His name gets a lot of mileage in this film but that’s nicely tempered with a Noah’s flood of F-bombs. (That’s largely the reason for its R-rating, though some hilariously inappropriate gags about body parts also come smashing down the chimney.)

With that said, *The Ref* is one of my favorite guilty pleasures around the holidays.  I consistently laugh out loud and revel in the top-drawer talent making their outrageous pronouncements.  It’s an ensemble film with each character taking his or her center stage at various points in the nuclear meltdown of the plot.

Denis Leary as Gus is the much put-upon would-be cat burglar who takes the proudly recalcitrant Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage for Christmas until Gus’s partner, the dim alcoholic Murray (Richard Bright), struggles to work up enough brain wattage to power one Christmas bulb (let’s not even think about a string of lights) and arrange a getaway.  All is calm, all is bright in Connecticut as a drunken neighborhood Santa staggers from home to home delivering fruitcake and guzzling offered champagne, but for Gus “Connecticut is the fifth ring of hell.”

For Lloyd and Caroline are completely unfazed by Gus’s otherwise commanding presence with a gun—they’re too busy sniping and chewing away at their spouse’s imperfections to let something as insignificant as being shot drive a wedge between their agendas. Within seconds Gus determines “I’ve hijacked my f***ing parents” and resolves out of exasperation, "From now on, the only person who gets to yell is me. Why? Because I have a gun. People with guns get to do whatever they want.  Married people without guns - for instance - you - DO NOT get to yell. Why? NO GUNS! No guns, no yelling. See? Simple little equation.” But nothing can stay these couriers from their appointed rounds, even after they’re bungee-corded together because they have no rope in the house.  That minor complication merely stiffens their resolve to inflict as much mental torture on the other as possible.

In *The Ref*’s universe, existential vacuums are the underlying structure of each person’s life.  Lloyd is a failed restauranteur held under his domineering mother’s (Glynis Johns) tight monetary control, Caroline is saddled with her own inability to follow through on projects, their son is blackmailing the commanding officer (J.K. Simmons in his film debut) while attending military school, and Lloyd’s family is a merry band of misfits who are all waiting for Grandma to die so they can stop being nice to her.  Calamity clashes with calamity when all these negative forces are holed up in the Chasseur’s lovely pressure cooker of a home for Christmas dinner, complete with Caroline’s Scandinavian Traditional Holiday Feast that would shrink the Grinch’s heart back to its original tiny state.

Its black comedy and razor sharp retorts shoot right through the heart of very real human pain: The convention of pretending Everything Is Awesome (Sing along with the *Lego Movie* (2014), not just a holiday but a year-round tradition, is skewed, peeling away the façade of perfect suburbia. The reliance on money over family (Mother charges 18% interest on a family loan) as the fundamental reason for living is spotlighted.  The subjugation of Christ’s Birth to simple stilted moral lessons (Sister-in-law Connie instructs the children, “The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good, or you’re punished and you burn in hell” and “Shut up! Don’t make me nuts today, it’s Christmas”) is a Damoclean sword hovering overhead to instill order without supplying any reason beyond “Because if you don’t behave, you’ll make Baby Jesus cry.”

Strangely, these social criticisms ring like the bells of St. Mary’s.  They are so pointedly based in truth that we can’t help but laugh at their poignancy and accuracy. When the kids complain that the Chasseur’s television is on the blink, and they ask “What are we gonna to do all night?” Connie (the brilliant Christine Baranski) responds in one sweeping breath, “Celebrate the birth of Christ! Now put the presents under the tree.”

But the unfettered joy of it all its political incorrectness lies in *The Ref*’s characterizations.  In a wonderful reversal Denis Leary’s Gus starts at a frustration level of 12 on a 10-point scale, escalating to 42 quickly—but then becomes one the stabilizing influence by the end of the film.  He shouts a good game, but is capable only of shooting an annoying smoke detector in substitute satisfaction.  He says what we cannot say, and his influence stands as a weird catalyst for others to follow suit.  

In some twisted way he stands in as God’s profane angel to facilitate a much needed wake-up call: His cynicism prods Caroline into standing up for herself (“What are we, girlfriends? Do I give a sh*t about this? No.”); he strips away Lloyd’s self righteous assuredness (“Nah, you people don't get impressed do you? Huh? Life just bores the sh*t outta you people. Well, I'm sorry. We don't all have rich mommies and daddies we can live off of or open restaurants when we get bored playing tennis.”); he stands up for the traditional roles in families (Telling Mother, “What is the matter with you? I thought mothers were sweet and nice a-a-and Patient. I know loan sharks who are more forgiving than you. Your husband ain't dead, lady. He's hiding.”); and he sets the wayward son on the right path (“You got everything, opportunities up the a**, you got a family to come home to, and what do you do? You sit around, and you bitch and you moan, because things don't go your way. Well, you know what, kid? Welcome to the real world, where most times things don't go your f***ing way.”).  Now that is one hard talking spirit, man.

Kevin Spacey’s Lloyd, much like his Lester Burham in *American Beauty* (1999), percolates beneath his seething anger at how life has let him down, as if The Way It’s Supposed To Be is a straightjacket he’s been folded into since his youth, and he’s only now realizing its confining qualities.  His final liberation entertains us as much as it does his wide-eyed niece and nephew sitting by the fire. And as good as he is at plumbing the sarcastic depths of long-simmering resentments, Judy Davis’s Caroline is, in my mind, the real agent of change.  Starting as passive aggressive and shifting to outright hostility and palpable sadness, she is the one who arguably feels the most passionately about their marriage and its salvation.  Her prodding and testing move Lloyd out of his passivity into action.  It is she who brings up divorce, clearly an outcome she does not want, but perhaps it takes something that extreme to produce change and bring to the surface all the hurt.

Aristotle believed that a comedy was a movement from chaos to order, and *The Ref* is a sterling example of that.  It’s also a solid lesson in communication pitfalls and interpersonal relationships.

Now, you can take your *National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation* (1989) filmed five years earlier and rated PG-13 for a similar journey, but as much as I like that film for what it does—entertain—compared to *The Ref* it is a baby growing his first molar.  Yes, it explores the dynamics of family gatherings and the quest for The Perfect Memory, and it does stand as a nice counterpoint to some of the more maple-syrupy holiday movies and shows which require you merely to check your watch to see how many more minutes the major conflicts need to be resolved.  But for my money if I want to laugh at a little less cartoony depictions of December dysfunction, I’ll go with *The Ref*.  It’s definitely not to everyone’s taste, but its farcical satire offers a little ginger spice with my egg nog.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/15/2019, 7:10 pm

Post #231:  When director Peter Bogdanovich [(*The Last Picture Show* (1971), *What's Up, Doc?* (1972), *Paper Moon* (1973)] asked Orson Welles if he had ever seen today's feature *Make Way For Tomorrow* (1937), Welles responded, "OH MY GOD! That is the saddest movie ever!  It would make a stone cry!"  So get out your big family size box of Kleenex, because this one is at least a two-hankie performance that is both a time capsule of its time and unusually prescient all in one long sigh.

*Make Way For Tomorrow* is director/producer Leo McCarey's favorite film, remarking in his Academy Award acceptance speech for *The Awful Truth* (also 1937), "I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture."  Starring Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore as a fifty-years-married couple, Lucy and Barkley Cooper, the film perfectly captures McCarey's unique imprint: "I love it that people laugh.  I love it that they cry. I love it that the story is about something, and I want the audience leaving the theater to feel happier than when they came in."  But I don't know that I left the film feeling happier at all, because I was fighting back tears.

The story is a heartbreaker: Lucy and Barkley gather four of their five adult children together to break the news that the bank has foreclosed on their family home, leaving the two six months to vacate the premises.  The children, married with kids of their own, breathe a sigh of relief, suggesting that's plenty of time to find other accommodations for their elderly folks. . . except that was five months and twenty-eight days ago.  Ah, heartwarming slides of [the] depression.

With times being tough and space at a premium, the siblings' only solution is to split the couple among the offspring. . . temporarily.  Never separated in their fifty years together, Lucy and Bark resolve to live one hundred miles apart between two of their children.  What marks *Make Way For Tomorrow* is its incredible balance:  Lucy is set in her ways, upsetting the home lives of son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and their freewheeling daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read), and Bark slowly drives his daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) and her husband crazy with his quietly doddering demeanor and his search for employment that will never materialize.  Clearly the parents and children are of separate minds and lifestyles, but McCarey's treatment is nonjudgmental.  There are no clear-cut villains or heroes here, just basically good people jockeying for their places in the world in a struggle to maintain personal integrity.

Lucy strives to remain optimistic, at some level believing Bark will find employment so the two can reunite.  And even though she becomes intrusive with her squeaky rocking chair, her hovering and rambling conversations with the family's guests, and her loud shrill voice when talking on the phone, McCarey turns our emotions forward and backward as we empathize with all parties involved.  When Rhoda confronts her grandmother, suggesting she should "face facts" about no one hiring Bark due to his age, Lucy responds, "When you're seventeen and the world's beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties, but when you're seventy... well, you don't care about dancing, you don't think about parties anymore, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any facts to face, so would you mind if I just went on pretending?"  Boo-yah!  But Beulah Bondi says this with tenderness, no sarcasm or rancor, no trace of admonition, just the artful sinking of any resentment toward her character we might have felt.

Our hearts are shaken when Lucy picks up the mail to see a letter from a nursing home addressed to George, for she sees her future.  And our feelings are put in the mix-master when Bark succumbs to a bad cold and Cora uses it as an excuse to ship him off to the warmer climes of California, a thousand miles away, to live with her sister Addie (whom we never see in the film).  Bark ruminates with his pal Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch), a shop owner his age, "You know, I sometimes think that children should never grow past the age when you have to tuck them into bed every night."  And Max, a voice of impartial wisdom answers, "That's right. When they get older, and you can't give them as much as other children they're ashamed of you, and when you give them everything and put them through college, [He folds his arms] they're ashamed of you."  And so we understand all sides of the complex issue of aging and caring.

McCarey is a sincere master of human complexity, and usually the greatest power comes from the faces--indeed, the eyes--of his characters.  In a scene when Cora blasts into Lucy for withholding information about Rhoda from her, we are alternately supportive, shocked, drawn in and drawn back by the scene, pivoting and forced to confront the proposition that both women should be pitied simultaneously, as we cut back and forth between close-ups, both women's eyes filled with unspoken emotion.  These scenes are very uncomfortable, and they are plentiful throughout the film, as we are not merely sitting in on very private moments, but experiencing very private pain from very personal souls.  

People close to McCarey suggest this film is partially fueled by his own motivations:  While making the film before this one, McCarey suffered from his ingestion of contaminated milk, which nearly killed him.  He was so ill, in fact, that he could not attend the funeral of his own father, a man he revered and loved deeply.  *Make Way For Tomorrow* then became his next project, imbued with unresolved feelings and regrets.  In the year he invested making the film, he was in constant conflict with studio head Adolph Zukor, who visited the set often, and pressed McCarey to change the ending (a huge mistake in my view). But McCarey fought for his vision, kept the devastating concluding scene, and was later fired for his effort.

Roger Ebert said of the film,  "*Make Way for Tomorrow* (1937) is a nearly-forgotten American film made in the Depression ... The great final arc of *Make Way for Tomorrow* is beautiful and heartbreaking. It's easy to imagine it being sentimentalized by a studio executive, being made more upbeat for the audience. That's not McCarey. What happens is wonderful and very sad. Everything depends on the performances."

Indeed, the final half hour of the 92 minute film are the most beautiful and heartbreaking of any movie I've seen.  I will provide no spoilers here, because I'd prefer you feel your heart soar and sink for yourself.  But Ebert is dead-on in his assessment of this film--that it was made in 1937 alone is a major coup, for it's an uncompromising look at the social changes in the family unit of the time.  The contrast between the Cooper family home, snow covered with a white picket fence in the country, and the clean vertical impersonality of New York high rises (the home of the offspring) sets up the perfect metaphor for shifts in the definition of family: the old fashioned vs. the modern nuclear family.  How can they coexist?  Of what value are the parents when the children have lives of their own?  Is it responsibility to family or guilt over inconvenience that causes familial care?  I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from John Updike: "An expected gift is not worth giving."

Several scenes in that last half hour made me yearn for a world where such courtesy and basic human kindness could prevail; God, why can't we live that way?  And within minutes my hard-fought cynicism begged the question, Is that really realistic?  Would people outside the family really respond with such sweetness to an old couple?  And that juxtaposition of that hard inquiry ached within me.  The curious lack of sentimentalization or mawkishness and the harsh recognition of impossible choices are not easily dismissible.  These quaint elements in the final third of the film seem legacies of the past--courtesies that only a society in the 1930s would allow.  But at the same time the lessons we're seeing unfold and the sacrifices being made seem even more relevant today than they were during the war.

One of the traits of a narcissistic culture, according to sociologist Christopher Lasch, is fear of old age.  We all move toward planned obsolescence, creating a social norm where little is permanent, goods are made to be broken and replaced, and the tide of "progress" washes away the ancient or infirmed.  We've become a time impoverished nation in an endless push forward, leaving the past behind as dust, again as John Lennon said, "Trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind."  We celebrate centenarians by placing their faces on Smuckers Jelly jars and then ram on our car horns if they take too long in the crosswalk.  The title itself *Make Way For Tomorrow* is both a celebration and an admonishment.

So you might ask, Why should I sit down with a film that so many have said would make me sad?  Oh, there are so many reasons:  It's a wonderfully human and humane film exhibiting a rare understanding of people.  It has joy and re-connection at its heart.  The acting on all fronts is superior to many films you'll see today--at the time of filming Beulah Bondi was one year younger (49) than her on-screen daughter Elisabeth Risdon, Cora, and Victor Moore was only 61; yet both are completely believable as a couple in their late seventies.  George Bernard Shaw wrote Leo McCarey a fan letter for his admiration of the film, and Frank Capra, Jean Renoir and John Ford expressed their love of the film.  It holds 100% rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes,  It still speaks volumes in its unflinching portrayal of old age and the power of love, as well as the binding ties of family history.

For me, *Make Way For Tomorrow* is a courageous film with the hard edge of truth and warm foundation of commitment.  It's worth tracking down, especially if your folks are still around and still holding it all together.  It may make you cry, but that little stocktaking is important, especially in these cold holiday nights when we're urged to dust off the hard candy, put it in the freshly washed crystalline dish, be at peace, spread cheer and share good will at least for another couple weeks.  If you see this movie, you just might want to extend those actions beyond the New Year.  And for that we'd all be grateful, I'm sure.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/16/2019, 12:48 pm

Post #232: Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays, 'cause no matter how far away you roam, when you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, well, you know you're on Devil's Island in 1898 in the company of three escaped convicts, Joseph, Albert and Jules. And for the holidays you can't beat *We're No Angels* (1955), a sprightly comedy that will warm your spirits in its French Guyana clime. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who the year before gave us the classic *White Christmas* and owns the most spectacular career in Hollywood with *Casablanca* (1942), *The Adventures of Robin Hood* (1938) and scores of other mainstays in any reputable movie library, once again delivers an enduring family favorite.

How could you possibly go wrong with Humphrey Bogart as Joseph, the leader of the gang whose expertise in salesmanship and creative bookkeeping would have served Enron well; Aldo Ray as Albert, whose murder of his uncle and a strong penchant for the ladies mired him in trouble; and Peter Ustinov as Jules, a most charming rogue who returned home one Christmas to find his wife giving a present to his friend and thus found himself exacting revenge against her. Seeking refuge in the floundering but kind business of the Ducotels (Leo G. Carroll and Joan Bennett), the trio finagle a job on Christmas Eve "fixing the roof," though their sole intention is to rob the shop under the cover of night.

In the course of the day the convicts are charmed by the flummoxed and indecisive owner Felix and his lovely wife Amelie as they anticipate the foreboding arrival of their cousin Andre Touchard (Basil Rathbone). Touchard bears the heart of a cash register, the empathy of a coconut crab with a migraine, and, oh yes, the ownership of the shop, which he allows the Ducotels to manage. . . as long as it's profitable. But Felix is prone to extending credit, which allows his books to bleed red like a Tarantino film. If that were not enough, the Ducotel's impressionable daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) has fallen deeply in love with Touchard's nephew Paul (John Baer), a snobbish lout who emulates his uncle's every notion of business. But it's Christmas Eve, a time for good spirits and the milk of human kindness, though Touchard would curdle that milk simply by entering a room where it was served. Not that he would care: "Your opinion of me holds no cash value," he says.

Finding themselves growing fond of the Ducotels and sympathetic of their troubles prior to Touchard's arrival, the convicts fight their long-standing tradition of aggressive action. "We came here to rob them," Joseph reminds Albert and Jules, "and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes." Yielding to the Ducotels' kind nature, Joseph employs his skills at selling and quickly turns a profit selling people goods they don't want at prices they cannot afford, Albert offers a hand when Isabelle feels faint ("I read someplace that when a lady faints, you should loosen her clothing," Albert suggests. To which Joseph responds, "It's that kind of reading that got you into trouble"; and Jules handily cracks a stubborn safe, opens locked doors and safe deposit boxes, and waxes poetical and philosophical--"Christmas has always been a wonderful time for me. In fact, that's how I got into trouble. I came home and found my wife giving my friend a... present. Oh, it was my fault entirely. I should have written and told her I was coming."

Soon accepted as extended family, the three decorate the Ducotels' home with flowers and holiday adornments from the Governor's garden, fix a fine dinner (I'm going to buy them their Christmas turkey. . . . Yes, buy! In the Spirit of Christmas. The hard part's going to be stealing the money to pay for it") and prepare to take their leave. But the sudden early arrival of Cousin Andre with his protegee Paul dogging his heels (for they are both soulless heels) dampens the festive spirits, especially when Andre finds glaring inefficiencies in Felix's bookkeeping before Joseph can cook them with the turkey.

*We're No Angels* is a decidedly delightful Christmas tradition in our house. Consistently funny as an ensemble comedy, this last collaboration between Bogart and Curtiz comes from a solid Broadway stage play that keeps the one-liners clipping along as they reveal character motivations with smooth economy and speed. Though Bogart is clearly the leader, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov could not be more supportive, each taking center stage at various points in the picture. Aldo Ray's strong arm looming presence easily flips into sociopathic menace when called for and is equalized by a certain protective, leering endearment toward Amelie when her emotions are threatened by callous disregard.

But I urge you to watch Peter Ustinov carefully. His subtle body language is filled with surprises and tempered grace. He is in constant quiet motion, a small flurry of hand gestures like carefully controlled birds here, an almost embarrassed deflecting of the eye in delicate implication there. His is the gift of understatement that peals louder than the most exuberant canonical bell. "I have a daughter about her [Amelie's] age. She looked like her mother. Lovely woman, her mother. Wish I'd married her," he says wistfully. He is the perfect carbon negative of Albert, though they are both murderers, separated by temperament and circumstance.

Bogart demonstrates a perfect ear for ironic commentary, his timing among the best effortless comedians. His laconic blend of careful threat and wry commentary on the human condition arrives naturally from his tough-guy reputation. This role deepened my appreciation for his craft; actor Edmund Gwenn (best known for his role as Santa Claus in *Miracle On 34th Street* (1947)) was visited by his friend George Seaton on the actor's death bed, saying, "Yes, my old friend, I guess dying can be very hard" to which Gwenn responded, his last words, “Yes,” he said, “but not as hard as playing comedy!” And to be effortlessly successful at comedy when one's entire career has been predicated on hard dramatic roles--what a wonderful talent.

As the eternal optimist who wishes to please everyone, Leo G. Carroll's Felix is an affable if scattered soul who holds the value of his family above all else. Seldom capable of finishing a thought without revising and then losing his way, Felix prefers focusing on people's good rather than surrendering to despair. "You know how miserable I get when I'm unhappy," he confides to his faithful wife. And even in times of misfortune, he seeks the wheat rather than the chaff: "Don't misunderstand me. It's true that I never liked my cousin, only because he was not likable. He had a number of good points, I'm sure. I just can't think of any."

In essence, then, though you'll find no snow in the 104 degree temperature of French Guyana, you will find three wise guys, angels to Amelie, who will brighten your holiday viewing. No chestnuts roasting by an open fire. No Jack Frost nipping at your nose, no folks dressed up like Eskimos (or Inuits if you're going to press the PC issue), but you will find yuletide carols being sung by a choir of three, some turkey and some mistletoe. So do yourself a favor and check out *We're No Angels*. And if you see something that looks like a bracelet under your tree, think twice before trying it on.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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