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The Cobalt Screening Room Balcony

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Post by ghemrats on 12/17/2019, 2:04 pm

Post #233: There are three elements in today's feature that underscore, highlight in yellow, print in bold capitals and draw arrows around them emphasizing that I am a sap for certain romantic flights of fancy: the use of The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (Tony Williams's concluding note chops me to the bone everytime), the appearance of Holly Hunter (she is flat-out show-stopping when the crowd parts to reveal her in her white fashion gown), and the comic timing of John Goodman in a supporting role (he can move from the broad to the nuanced in a flash). So when you put all three of those ingredients together in one film, I will take notice. Maybe you will too when I mention that *Always* (1989) is a Steven Spielberg film and the last film appearance of Audrey Hepburn.

*Always* is unapologetically romantic, from the storyline right down through the close-ups and set pieces. It *wants* you to cry and works hard at achieving that. But above all it's a conscious effort to harken back to the classic romance films of the 1940s--it's evident in every frame with its saturated sepias and pastels, its lush soft white light, its heroism at the core conflict, and the sentiment of loss and moving on. So it was no surprise to me when I learned it was Spielberg's intention to remake and update to some limited degree the 1944 Spencer Tracy film, *A Guy Named Joe*. It feels like sweet old sentiments brought forward.

Spielberg's uncompromising eye for detail is also on full display, as he insisted the film use authentic WWII planes. According to IMDB, the bomber flown by Pete and Dorinda is the Douglas A-26 Invader, used by the US Army Air Forces in WWII, and the US Air Force in Korea and Vietnam. Al flies the PBY Catalina, a Navy rescue and transport plane in WWII. Dorinda helps Al ferry a Cessna 337 Skymaster, also known as the O-2 when flown by the Air Force in Vietnam. Ted flies a Super Decathalon, an aerobatic airplane. All this lends a very old school feel to the film.

Yes, I can find a lot to like in *Always*. And based on the audience reactions, many good folk surrendered to his vision, as crowds of people have registered their love for the film, have chronicled their tears and afforded it top honors with enough stars to blind everyone who read their critiques. So let me focus on what worked for me, a hopeless romantic, before I devote a few lines to the reasons *Always* left me largely unmoved, even as I wanted to give myself over to it completely.

First the story: Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss in his third collaboration with Spielberg, after *Jaws* (1975) and *Close Encounters Of The Third Kind*(1980)) is a hotshot pilot whose life is devoted to fighting fires in the Pacific Northwest and wooing Dorinda Durston, a perky spitfire forest service air traffic controller (Holly Hunter). His best friend Al Yackey (John Goodman) is also a firefighting pilot whose larger than life presence and devotion to the happy couple endear him to the audience immediately. "Oh there's only ever been two kinds [of love]," he tells Pete, who is slow to tell Dorinda what she means to him: "There's flash fires, which are all flame, burn themselves out and leave nothing. Then there's the long burning. That is nature's burn. Even when you think it's out, the forest floor is warm to the touch. That's the kind you and Dorinda got."

But during a mission as our two daredevil pilots strafe a fire with chemicals, Al's right engine bursts into flame, signalling imminent doom. This is typical bravura Spielberg, pumping up the action, suspense and tragedy with ease and style. In a daring rescue, Pete saves Al but at a high cost, which ushers in Act Two of the story. Pete finds himself strolling through a charred wasteland, whistling the theme from *Leave It To Beaver*, until he reaches a patch of perfectly preserved emerald green grass watched over by a radiant Audrey Hepburn (in her last film role) who grooms him and sets him on his way to pass along his expertise. "I told you," she says, " anything you do for yourself is a waste of spirit."

Pete adjusts to his spiritual quest quickly, reconciling himself to his death and returning to provide "the divine breath" or inspiration to a younger, less confident pilot Ted Baker (Brad Johnson). Though mere moments to Pete, six months have passed on the earthly plane, but Pete perseveres to be the invisible guide to the novice in Al's aeriel firefighting training camp. Can you guess that Ted has fallen in love with Dorinda while Pete has to look on in pained resignation that she is no longer his to love? That is some heavy soup to spoon out, Dude, and Dreyfuss can't chuck it all and go bowling with Goodman in this film to assuage that hurt.

How it all pans out will be yours to uncover, for I'm offering no more spoilers here, but with this framework you can see how the old tear ducts might be ready for priming. Those first tenuous steps toward healing which inflict so much pain can be crippling--in this case for both Dorinda and Pete, who has to stand by in ghostly silence as his love grows away from him, as she should. "That's my girl" becomes the litany, but the universe shrugs. And it is this undercurrent that should evoke the most personal of reactions. Maybe it will work for you; it didn't fully engage for me, and I think I can articulate why.

If you have seen *Ghost* released one year after *Always*, you may recall a similar scenario, and chances are you recall the pottery wheel scene which unfurled as the Righteous Brothers sang "Unchained Melody." A heart stopper that worked. Almost universally. You may recall that I hate comparing one movie to another, but this juxtaposition helps explain why I was moved by *Ghost* and not so by *Always*. For one thing I formed no attachment for Richard Dreyfuss as Pete. Even though he had a certain chemistry to begin with, with Holly Hunter, he didn't seem so firmly invested in his character. He was in my mind still rather cocky and ready to sputter, "Hey, that's my girl!" while I didn't believe him that much. He was vocalizing rather than emoting, telling rather than showing. I felt like, Yeah, bummer, man, she is the whole package, I can see why you'd be so upset. So my reaction was more cerebral than visceral, a punch to the hard bone of the jaw more than the gut.

Similarly Brad Johnson as Ted is largely an integer for the new heartthrob, bearing as much personality as an avatar. In a scene wherein we're signaled to feel the innocent, tremulous joy of a budding love--actually could have been a really memorable moment--slow dancing in Dorinda's small home in wistful sepia toned light, I kept listening for a zing of my heart strings. They were plucked a bit but never evolved into a ballad because Johnson was so wooden. I get that he was supposed to be sweetly introverted, to contrast the somewhat brash self-assured Pete, but for me his charisma was too deeply buried. Yes, he fulfills the handsome column in the checklist, but even Dorinda says, "He's too beautiful. He's too much twisted steel and sex appeal. I can't be with a guy that looks like I won him in a raffle." Exactly! So why, if the story follows the much traveled path, would I invest any emotional stake in him? (Perhaps you ladies will find him more intriguing than I, to which I gladly bow to your greater insight)

John Goodman, for me, was the perfect blending of comedy and pathos, and his chemistry with Holly Hunter was explored previously in another of my favorite films, *Raising Arizona* (1987) two years earlier. His casual airiness (pun, sorry) looks spontaneous, as if he's delighting in ad libbing his way through the film. With his infectious good humor and his gift for understatement (as when his plane is afire) make his contributions seem natural and organic to his character. But think how we would have been treated if Spielberg had been able to cast his original choices for Pete and Al--Paul Newman and Robert Redford. A completely different dynamic, and Newman in Dreyfuss's role addresses the essential gravitas that is missing here. But once again we can thank God that another of his choices for Pete (Tom Cruise) passed on the role. Disaster averted.

If there is a human reason to watch this film, it rests solely in the hands and performance of Holly Hunter. She is the quintessential Dorinda--feisty and animated, tough and reflective, grounded and sexy, an equal to any aviator. Her vulnerability is evidenced quietly, her resolve rising from an iron spine. She's playful and laser focused, and her solo dance late in the picture is balletic, poignant and touching. I just wish Dreyfuss's Pete could have mirrored her range of emotions more capably than he allows; part of that, I know, is his character as written, but there were glimmers of greater understanding when he shares a change of heart by the fireside, drops his evasion and permits her to see his priorities.

*Always* is a lovely romantic notion. The action sequences develop suspense and are artfully captured, one of Spielberg's strengths. And a firestorm of 1940s optimistic fantasy lies at its core, but for me it was a small brush fire that does little harm. It offers some fleeting moments of connection (between characters and with the audience) which warm and comfort without much effort. I just wish I were allowed to care a little more. But The Platters still stir my soul, always.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/18/2019, 1:27 pm

Post #234: It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood: It's cold and clear, the temperature topping off as I write this at seventeen degrees, a fine dusting of snow hints at a white Christmas (and for me it can then go away), Christmas day is one week from today promising a reunion with family and good humor and food, and we're closing in on the end of a political decade marked by derision, antipathy and today impeachment hearings. 'Seems to me, you don't want to talk about it, 'Seems to me you just turn your pretty head and walk away. . . So let's adhere to the old French saying, Sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

And laugh I did, consistently, at or with today's feature, *My Fellow Americans* (1996) starring Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Usually I don't laugh at the machinations and Machiavellian convolutions of political films, as they tend to be dark dystopian conspiracy theories or improbable action films with terse dialogue from Presidents of steely resolve and gritted teeth--think Harrison Ford in *Air Force One* (1997)--"Get. Off. My. Plane." But in the hands of director Peter Segal (who helmed *The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult* (1994) two years before today's film, our foundling fathers are played for broad, at times slapstick comedy.

With *My Fellow Americans* we follow the arc of three presidents--Jack Lemmon's Republican Russell Kramer, followed by James Garner's Democrat Matt Douglas, then supplanted by Dan Aykroyd's William Haney, Kramer's former veep. Over the span of the film's breezy 101 minutes, we follow a modern updating of a Crosby and Hope *Road* picture, a sort of *Road To Wreck And Ruin In Washington* as Lemmon and Garner, admittedly two of my favorite actors, snarl and sputter and snipe at each other as they run for their lives from a corrupt Presidential ploy. I know, who would even think of a President as a corrupt, conniving, political piranha surrounded by equally insidious pols and governmental hitmen intent on taking down his predecessors to cover his own inefficiencies and morally questionable self-promotion? Yeah, boggles the mind. But just keep repeating, It's only a movie. . .it's only a movie. . .

President Kramer (Lemmon) fights post-presidential ennui by writing useless self-improvement cook books and gardening tomes, while Douglas (Garner) continues stimulating the private sector with his memoir editor (Marg Hellenberger). Life out of the public eye can be dispiriting, but it picks up when the Chair of the Democratic National Committee (Wilford Brimley) approaches Douglas with news of a covert dirty deal code-named Olympia, suggesting a series of kickbacks from a defense contractor. This scandal implicates Douglas's rival Kramer, news that would clinch the bid for a re-election of Douglas if he can verify the transaction. News travels fast in Washington, and Kramer learns of his alleged complicity via a television reporter (Sela Ward). Naturally it's a smear job concocted by President Haney (Aykroyd) to cover his involvement in the scheme when he was VP.

But the heat is on, triggered by the assassination of the contractor who attempts to inform Douglas of the plot. Now both former presidents are on the lam, pursued by evil NSA agents and governmentally trained henchmen intent on silencing them before they can uncover incriminating proof of the crime. On the cross-country road trip Kramer and Douglas do their level best to outdo the other with insults, a veritable effusion of trash talking peppered with expletives designed to suggest a dysfunctional or disreputable family heritage. (Interesting that the original intent of the film was to pair Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to reprise their confrontational chemistry which proved so popular in *Grumpy Old Men* (1993) and *Grumpier Old Men* (1995). Matthau's ailing health forced him to bow out, though I wonder if he would have been able to carry the ladies man role that Garner excels at presenting.)

On the road again, Kramer relies on his charm and his "Dreams are like children" acorn to maneuver his way in and out of people's good graces, while Douglas tends toward his usual straight-arrow straight talk: "Oh, the 'voice of the people'? There is no such thing! You've got 240 million voices all yellin' for something different. The only thing you all seem to agree on is you don't want higher taxes. 'The voice of the people' my fanny!" Along the way they confront the real issues of the film's social commentary--the homeless, the starry-eyed idealistic immigrant, the indigent and the voice of the turtle. Democrats and Republicans alike are skewed in their confrontations with the world outside of their libraries and posh hotels, while the notorious close in on their every move toward resolution.

In Kramer we find traces of George Bush, while Douglas fields echoes of Bill Clinton, but those similarities are facile as this is not a "message" movie. It is by turns silly, witty, frenetic, and free wheeling, and again, since comedy is highly subjective I found it a goofy fantasy fable with little agenda beyond making the audience forget their troubles for a time with two natural screen legends who play off one another wonderfully. And it's always a pleasure to see Lauren Bacall on the screen, as Kramer's First Lady, though she has all of eleven lines of dialogue in the entire film. Only she can elevate a line like, "Don't say "freaking", Russ. If you have to use the "F" word, go for the gold" with such punch. How good it is, too, to be ushered into the film by newscaster Edwin Newman, whose brief appearance reminds us how articulate a news commentator could be.

*My Fellow Americans* is, for me, a great film with which to relax. It moves quickly, never fails to make me smile and laugh, and the easy camaraderie between Lemmon and Garner as actors committed to their roles makes their acting look effortless. For trivia fans, it's interesting to note Lemmon did nearly all of his own stunts, and the early drafts of the script were actually tailored to suit Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, to reunite them after Spielberg's *Hook* (1991); personally, that film would have been a completely different movie, and I'm not convinced it would be better, as our stars own their roles so comfortably. I get a little wistful in realizing Lauren Bacall and James Garner both passed on in 2014, joining their friend Jack Lemmon who died in 2001. We've lost a lot of talent in this millennium, but we can still enjoy their craft and issue up some thanks for making our movie-going experience so much richer.

So when you've come in from shoveling or brushing away the snow in the driveway, you've opened one of the last remaining doors in your advent calendar, you're settling in with a little nog in anticipation of the week ahead, switch off the ongoing rancorous debate on the tube and don't concern yourself with logic--just enjoy this nutty comedy roasting by an open fire.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by CompleteDayMan on 12/18/2019, 1:40 pm

Sue and I watched this the other night also. Great flick, and you're right about the Lemmon / Garner camaraderie as there was also between Lemmon and Matthau in Grumpy Old Men which we also watched. Actually I was watching Ann-Margret if I'm really honest.
These folks must have been wonderful to work with.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/18/2019, 1:44 pm

I can watch Ann-Margret all the time. Have you seen her in *The Cincinnati Kid* (1965)? Mama mia, that's a spicy meata-ball! (And I mean that only in the most kind and supportive way)
Jeff

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Post by CompleteDayMan on 12/18/2019, 4:35 pm

I have indeed but a long time ago. I just looked at the trailer on Yahoo to refresh my memory - mama mia!
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Post by Space Cadet on 12/18/2019, 6:02 pm

Jeff, Ya been knockin' it outta the park on a regular basis lately. Keep this up and management's gonna have to rework your contract.

I'm a fan of both James Garner and John Goodman. Support Your Local Sheriff is another of my many comfort movies. And King Ralph is a much under-rated flick. Goodman's character in O' Brother Where Art Thou is just classic. My favorite scene, is the expression he managed to put into one eye through a hole in a bedsheet, just before he was clunked by a firey cross.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/19/2019, 1:03 pm

Post #235: 'Tis the season to be jolly, or maybe it's because of the fairly constant salvo of Hallmark movies in the house, or maybe it's the realization that my family will be here for Christmas that makes me want to keep the film commentaries light and fluffy and modestly soul pleasing. Whatever the reason, today's feature is a quirky, lovely, sweet tempered little film that I used in classes that boasted the special blend of people who would be receptive to it; it's been my experience that when I'm excited by a film, it's crushing to show it to people who don't give a fig and a flying fruit ninja about it--just drains the joy out of it for me temporarily. So in the words of the sage Rocket J. Squirrel, "Here's something I hope you'll really like."

*Ruby Sparks* (2012) is one of those films that slips past your radar but perhaps shouldn't. Written by the star of the film, the titular Ruby, the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" (an appellation she abhors) Zoe Kazan, it is a romantic little charmer that masks some very real emotional weight. For those of you who may have suffered through any of my classes when I was "teaching," I apologize if this textual note provides an unwelcome memory--but I'm not so arrogant to believe my thoughts had staying power to begin with, so let's plunge on:

Two laws tend to govern many people's behavior, and both suggest the dilemma of our lead character Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a struggling novelist weighted by the title "genius" with his first book which he wrote at age 19. He's desperate to create a sophomore effort but his inspiration is waning. His therapist (Elliott Gould--how nice to see him after so long) suggests he break the mental constipation by writing a page about anything, not worrying about its impact. Calvin dreams that night about an elusive but entrancing young woman and sets out to evoke her compelling presence on paper. Still stinging from a debilitating breakup with his former girlfriend, Calvin invests all his psychic energy into this vision, giving her a name and background, thus breaking his writer's block. Here we are introduced to the First Law, Tristan's Law, which states "appealingness is inversely proportionate to attainability." (We want what we cannot have, and it's precisely because we can't have it that we desire it.)

Excited by his newfound inspiration, Calvin tells his brother Harry (Chris Messina) about this wonderful woman who's come to him in the park of his imagination. But Harry remains critical, suggesting the writing is unrealistic, bordering delusional because no one could live up to such idealism. "Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real," he says. "You haven't written a person, okay? You've written a girl." Calvin refuses to relent and writes an eloquent passage in which the girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) falls in love with him.

To his shock the next morning he wakes to find Ruby incarnate, a corporeal being in his kitchen making him breakfast and possessing all the knowledge, behavioral traits, disposition and fancy of the fictional Ruby. She is bright, pert, free spirited, loving, blindingly intelligent, and filled with all the joie de vivre and sweetness anyone could desire; in short, she is his words made flesh. And thus we have fulfilled, indeed found a loophole around, Tristan's Law: a dream become reality. The Rolling Stones were wrong--You CAN always get what you want. (Take that, Mick) A whirlwind romance of the finest kind is set in motion as Calvin struggles to explain from whence she has come--to others and to himself.

In the movies' best shortsighted solution, Calvin takes Steve Winwood's lyric and puts it into action: You just roll with it, baby. He tells harry the truth of her existence, and is moved to prove it by writing behavior for Ruby and seeing it made manifest in the next moment--she can speak French, she is fluent in Italian and moves easily between the two as Calvin scripts her to speak. Swearing Harry to secrecy Calvin promises that even though he can control her every whim or action, he will not write about her again. Thus we find ourselves developing a growing awareness of our Second Law, Midas's Law, which states "Possession diminishes perception of value, immediately." (Once you've got what you want, you no longer want it. Sing it to me, BB: "The thrill is gone."

Calvin takes Ruby on a short vacation at the dwelling of his mother and her lover (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas), the home a unique ecological oddity befitting the couple's eccentric, essential "hippie" lifestyle. Ruby fits right in while Calvin sulks, grows dispassionate and jealous of Ruby who is evolving into a young woman hungry for experience and broadening of her horizons. So there's trouble in paradise, which eventually causes Ruby to leave. Now even more moody and despondent, Calvin realizes he can direct her attentions and bring her back, more in love with him than ever before. And this is when our two Laws collide.

For me it was easy to suspend disbelief because Zoe Kazan is such an effusive force on the screen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that she and Paul Dano are a couple off-screen as well, since 2007; she is also the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan) As Ruby, she brings a fresh innocence and depth of emotional range that make the audience empathize--how I don't know, since she's a double fiction, a character sprung from the mind of another character Kazan created; if that's not meta- I don't know what is. And she is the perfect spoil for Dano's Calvin, who suffers from the tortured artist syndrome of smelling roses and looking for the coffin, as Mencken suggested about the cynic. He wants the perfect relationship, gets it, and doesn't want it any longer, a trait that seems pandemic in a culture whose longest non-marital relationship today lasts three months.

Kazan tends to bristle at the suggestion that Ruby is a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." She says, "It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person."

It's not all that common to find a film that seems to airy and breezy yet holds such poignant and perceptive observations about the distinction between "having" a relationship and "being in love." Erich Fromm suggested that "having" was a mindset that reduced all manner of life to the grouping of possessions; 'I have a girlfriend," is Calvin's main problem as he sees Ruby as a passive possession. And Ruby calls him on that early in the film, in discussing, rather sweetly, why he named his dog Scotty after F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Naming your dog after him? It's a little disrespectful. Think about it. You're a novelist. You think this guy's the greatest. So you name your dog after him to cut him down to size. This way, you can put him on a leash... and yell 'Bad Scotty' and feel all superior because you pee inside. Kill your idols, man. I'm all for it."

But as we move through the couple's trials, we can see the politics of power in action. In a scene three-quarters of the way through the film, Calvin exerts complete control over Ruby by scripting her every statement and action. It's a horrendous scene in many ways because we can experience the masochistic unraveling of Calvin's emotion and spiritual stasis. Equally disquieting is the destructive nature of defining life as the accumulation of possessions--can a relationship survive if it's based in servitude, willing or involuntary? In some ways consciously chosen subjugation might be even more distressing since it signals the resignation of the soul, the deadening of choice, which allows any growth to wizen like a gourd. And who wants to live with a desiccated fruit, which is worse than a couch potato.

And so it's nice to see some growth in Calvin. In a particularly touching admission he writes to Ruby, "I'm sorry for every word I wrote to change you. I'm sorry for so many things. I couldn't see you when you were here. And now that you're gone, I see you everywhere. One may read this and think it's magic, but falling in love is an act of magic. So is writing. It was once said of *Catcher in the Rye*, that rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass. A human being has been created out of ink, paper and imagination."

*Ruby Sparks* then is a kind little change of pace, a truly warm breeze to keep you comfortable on a winter's day when the chill index barely makes it past 17 degrees. For people who write, it's a testament to the power of language in thought and action. For people who feel, it's a reminder that pain and loss and enduring faith bring mixed blessings, but it's only the unappreciative heart that makes such an adventure less than magical. Here endeth the First Lesson.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/20/2019, 3:22 pm

Post #236: Since the holidays are known as a time of celebration, joy and peaceful coexistence, we're going to continue the parade of the upbeat with today's offering, coincidentally star Rita Hayworth's favorite film, *You Were Never Lovelier* (1942) with Fred Astaire. Though I have not developed a penchant for musicals as a genre, I can honestly say this is one of the best, if not my top pick, head and shoulders and feet higher than the duo's wartime *You'll Never Get Rich* filmed the year before this one. And this one is aptly titled, as it promises Rita at her most dazzling and gorgeous. (I'd better move on before I start hyperventilating.)

Set in Buenos Aires, our weightless fare finds Bob Davis (Fred Astaire) taking time out from his dancing to lose a fortune betting on the ponies and on the lookout for a job. While finagling to obtain an interview with the crusty but benign night club owner Eduardo Acuna (the fabulous Adolphe Menjou), Bob runs into his old pal Xavier Cugat, who immediately enlists him to perform at the wedding of Acuna's eldest daughter. In rich Argentinian tradition, Acuna has proclaimed his daughters must marry in order of age, which leaves Maria (Rita Hayworth) next in line, despite her disinterest in marriage. Her intractable decision worries her younger sisters, Cecy and Lita (Leslie Brooks and Adele Mara), who are actively engaged but set in limbo until Maria is wed.

In typical musical plot fashion, Bob is attracted to Maria at the wedding but lands in the deep freeze as Maria extends a cold shoulder. Hoping to thaw his daughter's resolve, Acuna starts writing anonymous love notes to her as a secret admirer, accompanied by a daily deluge of orchids, affection that defrosts Maria's frozen emotion. Through a small convolution (so present in musicals, but here it's charming) Acuna mistakes Bob--still in search of a job--for a courier and so hands him another note and orchid to deliver to Maria, who now believes she has a face to attach to her secret admirer.

Naturally Acuna hires Bob to impersonate the fictional suitor, and soon Fred and Rita are gliding across the dance floor, looking to all the world as the most graceful gravity defiers on the planet. If you're a fan of musicals, especially classics such as this one with music by Jerome Kern and words by Johnny Mercer, interspersed with numbers from Xavier Cugat, you realize the plot is just a device to connect show stopping numbers. But here the plot bounces along with a fair amount of screwball comedy, misinterpretations and flat-out fun, with Menjou blustering and blistering along with a hapless Gus Schilling as Fernando, his secretary, bearing the brunt of his boisterous bellowing.

Though Rita and Fred shared the stage in only two films, Fred has said Rita was his favorite dance partner, here performing a romantic sweeping grace in "I'm Old-Fashioned" in which Rita was never lovelier, in long takes that must have been physically demanding. In the long list of musicals I've seen, I can think of no other sequence that so captures my admiration and sheer sense of awe as these two command the space. And I know when it comes to Rita Hayworth I'm a one-note samba, but I think as Maria she nearly edges out her own Gilda as one of the most patently beautiful women on the screen. And when she floats and soars with those filmy gowns that waft in the air--Holy Wow, he said with sophisticated articulation.

On another plane altogether is the skit-scat-doodly-oop-de-doo jive cat rhythm of "The Shorty George" which allows the duo to reference popular swing and jitterbug while throwing in some tap as well. It's such a playful, cool number you can't help but smile through it; you might know that of all the routines in the film, this one required the most rehearsal time for all its intricacies. Interesting to note during rehearsals of "The Shorty George," Rita experienced one of her "most embarrassing" moments when she fell down during the dance and knocked herself out cold, but you'd never know from the final result. Solid, Jackson. (Since space was tight during filming, Rita and Fred were said to have rehearsed over a funeral parlor next to a cemetery; I'd just die to see them practicing. Every time a procession went by, they had to stop rehearsing. To keep things light, Astaire would tell Hayworth jokes, and he even soaked his hands in ice before taking her into his arms for one of their routines. "Oddly enough," Fred wrote, "we pulled some good dance material out of those weird surroundings.")

According to Rita, "The brass at Columbia had forgotten all about the fact that I was a dancer until Fred Astaire, who knew my background, reminded them. When Fred came to Columbia to make *You'll Never Get Rich* (1941), they asked him who he wanted as a dancing partner. Fred asked for me! That surprised them, but Fred knew what he was about. He knew my work. The film was a huge success and as a result I was loaned out to Fox for *My Gal Sal* (1942), and then re-teamed with Fred for *You Were Never Lovelier*." Leslie Caron said that Fred Astaire was in love with Rita, growing perhaps out of her ability to master dance moves Astaire taught in the morning by lunchtime. Just watch him in the "I'm Old Fashioned" sequence, and you can see for yourself what affection he held for her. Join the club, pal.

Fred said, "Gene Markey, then a producer at Columbia Pictures, asked me to discuss an idea about working with a little girl they had under contract there. She was primarily a dancer, he said, and sure to become a terrific star. She had only done a few B pictures up to that time. Her name was Rita Cansino -- recently changed to Hayworth. I had heard about this beautiful daughter of my old vaudeville-days friend Eduardo Cansino. . . .Rita danced with trained perfection and individuality. She, of course, knew through experience what this dancing business was all about. That was apparent the moment I started working with her."

Their chemistry is in evidence whenever they dance. Nominated for three Academy Awards--Best Sound, Best Soundtrack, and Best Song ("Dearly Beloved"), *You Were Never Lovelier* lives up to its promise, offering Rita Hayworth in lush black and white, her sequined dresses capturing her radiance. She was still four years away from *Gilda*, but she exudes sexiness without even trying. While I have not been able to spot him, according to historians a fifteen-year old Fidel Castro appears as an extra in the film, so if anyone sees him, give me his coordinates.

All in all, then, this is a musical for folks who don't particularly enjoy musicals. It has grace, elan, humor, beautiful songs and 97 minutes of 1940s joy. It's also the last of Rita and Fred's films together, and for me the stronger of the two. Astaire's biographer Charlie Reinhart wrote of the two: “There was a kind of reserve about Fred. It was charming. It carried over to his dancing. With Hayworth there was no reserve. She was very explosive. And that’s why I think they really complemented each other.” Well, complement yourself and see this film. It's the perfect light movie to get you in the mood for more celebrating.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/20/2019, 5:39 pm

All it needs is RITA!!!
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Post by ghemrats on 12/21/2019, 5:44 pm

Post #237: You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why--today's feature is a long forgotten Christmas tale whose lack of big-name talent and reliance on sentiment left it floating around in limbo for many years. But for folks who want to remember a time when the old fashioned virtues of courtesy and grace were still in demand, *Beyond Tomorrow (aka Beyond Christmas, and And So Goodbye)* (1940) might be the leisurely stroll you'd enjoy after a hefty meal of celebration.

It's a fable of simple truths, for a time meandering through the snow to find its way, so belay any anticipations that this is a precursor to *The Terminator's Classical Holiday Melee: I'll Be Bach* or even *Die Hard, Get Up Early, Whoopee Ki Yi Aye, Mother Mary and Joseph*. No, this one belongs to another time when altruism was embraced and not seen as a fatal weakness of character.

Three old bachelor industrial engineers--George Melton (Harry Carey), Allan Chadwick (C. Aubrey Smith) and Michael O'Brien (Charles Winninger)--are slaving away on a design on Christmas Eve, racing a deadline. But the ever cheery Michael is the soul of the holiday, bearing gifts and dismissing their staff in the spirit of celebration. As the trio return to the mansion they share with Madame Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), an elderly countess dispossessed by the Russian Revolution, anticipating an evening's festivities entertaining prestigious guests, they are disappointed when no one arrives. Ever bright, though, Michael suggests a holiday wager--each man will toss his wallet bearing a ten dollar bill into the snow and await its return with a new guest.

If Michael is the embodiment of childlike wonder, George is his antithesis, groaning and grousing through the evening. Perhaps reading the negative energy attached to George's wallet, a young socialite and Broadway star Arlene Terry (Helen Vinson) gives the ten dollars to her driver and throws the wallet away. Allan and Michael's however unite two young people--homespun Texan James Houston (Richard Carlson) and teacher Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker), both solitary singles who in perfect 1940s fashion fall in love, much to the delight of two of the three bachelors, as James displays his wonderful singing voice. At the time of their meeting James is working the rodeo in Madison Square Garden, trying to scrounge together enough money to return to his beloved Texas home, while Jean teaches kindergarten at Wayne Children's Foundation Clinic.

Now because this film is only 84 minutes long, we need to move along once the couple have established the trio as their guiding spirits and dear friends. Against Madame Tanya's imploring wishes that they take a train rather than a plane to a business meeting in another state, our three board the plane and perish in a fateful crash in an icy storm. Momentarily confused, all three return as ghosts to the mansion, witnessing the outpouring of mourning and offering celestial comfort to Madam Tanya who senses their presence. Together they watch James and Jean planning their wedding with bonds Michael has bequeathed to them, and James meets Arlene Terry, who promotes his singing career in her show.

Yes, you can guess the rehearsals eat up James's time, causing feelings of abandonment and insecurity in Jean, as James grows closer to his new partner. And Jean isn't the only one--Arlene's uber-jealous former husband has been lurking and looking, slowly building his indignation and nuclear temper over James. So the stage is freighted with conflict as concurrent to the earthly struggles, Michael dickers with George to yield to a change of heart, from his craggy anger to a spirit of life and love to save his soul. But it's a monumental task, one that will color George's fate.

How this all plays out will be yours to discover, and as long as your expectations are tempered, you might enjoy the sentimental innocence of it all. Charles Winninger is winning as Michael, the joyful optimist whose care for others' fortunes carries the strength of the picture. The film stands as a testament to diversity as it's filled with differing cultures and classes, giving it a harmoniously universal appeal. Michael is Irish, Allan is British, Madame Tanya is Russian, the support staff come from all corners of the globe (as evidenced by their singing "Jingle Bells" in their native German, Russian and Italian); James hails from humble origins with an aw-shucks attitude and wistful appreciation for human kindness, Jean joins him in humility and flutters against any form of imposition as if she's not worthy of bother, Arlene is the archetypal society dame with connections everywhere, and George frowns at everything and everyone even though secretly he yearns to be free of his frustrating surliness.

Known as an 'Orphan" film, lapsing into the public domain after Academy Productions went belly up, *Beyond Tomorrow* was directed by A. Edward Sutherland, who was one of the original Keystone Kops with Hal Roach and was a good friend to W.C. Fields. His fifth (and final) wife Edwina whom he married in 1944 designed the gowns for the film. The film debuted May, 1940 but didn't find its way to New York until September, where critics were less than enthusiastic. *New York Times* critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “We’ve never had any particular grudge against ghosts, but we’re rapidly developing one…Take *Beyond Tomorrow*…For its first half it is a latter-day Christmas carol, told with a gamin tenderness and warming as a hot toddy. But when its three elderly good Samaritans return from a plane crash as celluloid chimeras, its mystical peregrinations are more preposterous than moving." Grinch.

The screenplay was written by two women--Mildred Cram and Adele Comandini. Ms. Cram's strength lay in her sense of the sentimental, her arguably biggest accomplishment being the basis for Leo McCarey's *An Affair To Remember* (1957) with Cary Grant, which would be the basis for a remake thirty-six years later with *Sleepless In Seattle*. Ms. Comandini was nominated for an Academy Award in 1936 for *Three Smart Girls* and is perhaps best known for *Christmas In Connecticut* (1945), with twenty film screenplays in her cache.

*Beyond Tomorrow* is a minor treat to be sure, but it will surely touch your empathy more than some of the lame attempts at Back To School Specials or Lifetime movies. It's a quiet entry in your holiday library, but its softly spoken moral lessons make for a kind hearted viewing when the lights are in their most relaxed glow. And you can watch it directly from my commentary on Youtube, so you won't need to fight the crowds or fret out the postal service to track it down. Four days and counting, Folks. Be blessed.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/22/2019, 5:13 pm

Post #238: "If I cannot bring you comfort, then at least I bring you hope, For nothing is more precious, Than the time we have and so, We all must learn from small misfortune, Count the blessings that are real, Let the bells ring out for Christmas At the closing of the year." I couldn't think of a more appropriate opener for today's feature, nor a more heartfelt wish as we close in on Christmas. I only wish our feature could have fulfilled its promise to more people when it was released on Christmas twenty-seven years ago. For *Toys* (1992) is elevated and reviled in equal measure, but I have always held a special place for it, and so. . . here's today's offering.

Produced, directed and written by Barry Levinson (whose *Tin Men*(1987) I commented on earlier, noting he also held sway over *Rain Man* (1988) and a host of other fine films), *Toys* is visually one of the most imaginative, splendiferous feasts for the eyes in memory. Saturated with the brightest primary colors and the softest pastels, it's everything the child in me desires without lapsing into sensory overkill. It's a fairy tale for adults, not so much children as it does offer a clash between innocence and obsession, peacekeeping and warmongering, with a side trip to a couple more mature jokes and a scene of clearly implied adult love.

And it's that tenuous balance against audience's expectations that made *Toys* such a polarizing film. The trailer is both perfect and flawed for that reason: Robin Williams's trademark ad-libbing and riffing about the film gives you absolutely NO idea what to expect, and for that reason it's enough enticement to coax you into giving the film a shot. It's also perfect because it captures the madness of the movie, the frenetic energy and obvious affection Levinson invests in its crystallization of his dream. But there's a slight misstep in the trailer as well: You might be led to believe this is a "Robin Williams Freewheeling Gonzo Comedy," a laugh a minute with manic fury. Well, it's not. It's much more a sharp satire of merchandising, political maneuvering using children as a control group and fodder for warfare, and the definitions of family obligations and expectations, the need in some for one-upmanship, the insidious trappings of power, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity and a sense of wonder in a world pressuring us to "grow up and be responsible" by others' standards.

I know, that's some heavy water to be raining down on December 18, 1992 when people expect all their Christmases to be white. And so we enter that nebulous zone in cinema that defies the audience expectations, leaving the Disneyfied masses anticipating a sweetly silly barrage of color and comedy with a holiday vision imagined by, as Robin Williams himself explained, "FAO Schwartzkopf."

But for folks who can enter Levinson's joyful business war zone, *Toys* can be a uniquely enterprising entry, if you don't mind noticing the subtextual discussion of the difference between childish and childlike. For through the span of its 121 minutes (some complain that's too long for a movie about toys, which of course misses the real point), we see the two main characters--Robin's Leslie Zevo and his uncle Michael Gambon's Leland Zevo--revealing an exchange of positions, asking us to alter our own distinctions concerning appearances of "flakiness" and "maturity."

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this because my entire teaching career was predicated on attacking this false dichotomy so many cling to--can a spirit of joy and humor peacefully coexist with a serious intent, or does lightness of heart imply a facile disregard for the gravity of reality? Kids are lectured, "Wipe that foolish grin off your face--this is important" and "Act your age, not your shoe size," "Education, like life, is to be endured, not enjoyed," and so we create audiences and school rooms full of two-valued intellects--students looking for the RIGHT answer in good or bad people, in seriousness or levity, resting in black or white. In filmgoing it's either Tarantino or Hallmark, comedy or drama. And the twain shall never meet. For someone who relished the DMZ of middleground greys, trying to nudge people out of one extreme or the other is like leveraging a boulder with the fulcrum of rendered lard with the lever of a feather.

But I digress. Let's outline the plot so we can see the implicit playfulness in Levinson's intent: It's the end of an era as founder of Zevo Toys of Moscow, Iowa, Kenneth Zevo (Donald O'Connor) lies dying after a life of whimsy and playfulness. Determining his son Leslie (Robin Williams) is ill equipped to manage the large business, he gives control of Zevo Toys to his brother, Leland (Michael Gambon), a lieutenant general in the US Army. The burden is large on Leland until he learns of some corporate espionage taking place, which incites his military sensibilities, and he enlists the help of his son Patrick (LL Cool J) to weed out the trouble. For Leland Zevo Toys becomes the perfect battleground to create a new line of toys with militaristic applications.

Leslie and his sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) object, citing their father's wishes that they never create destructive war toys, so Leland relents, asking to requisition some factory space for his own use. Soon the once buoyant Zevo Toys with Happy Workers (paid homage to in a catchy tune sung by Tori Amos) becomes but a sliver of its former size as Leland requires increasingly large portions of the factory; even the workers become drones to the lockstep precision of the encroaching control and spatial limitations. So begins the clash of ideals that fuels the rest of the film.

Yet there are some madcap laughs along the way, as Levinson, who worked with Robin Williams in *Good Morning, Vietnam* (1987), had learned to keep the cameras rolling whenever Robin was on set. His quick wit is evidenced here as Leslie's sense of the absurd is augmented by monumental gleaming sets, fantastic costumes and wonderfully surrealistic mechanisms and backgrounds gleefully lifted from French master Rene Magritte. Even a bouncy MTV video "The Mirror Song" penned by Thomas Dolby, owing a huge debt to David Byrne whom Robin parodies, entreats Levinson's motivation with the lyrics:

Memories of things that never happened
These are always the hardest to forget
All the old friends and the loved ones
These are the people you haven't even met
Looking forward into the old days
Looking back at what there will be
There's no reality it's just an illusion
There's no real sanity just plain confusion
How do you feel?
Well I don't know just how I feel
All I know that I love you girl (what is real)
It's so real, so real, surreal

Special notice should be drawn to the score of the film by Hans Zimmer. In one of the most lovely opening sequences I've seen in a holiday movie, a troupe of child ballerinas tip toe through a mock-up of Manhattan while snow falls in large flakes to the sound of Tchaikovsky's *Winter Reveries* from *Symphony No. 1* seguing into "The Closing of the Year" with soloist Wendy Melvoin and a Children's Choir forming a larger than life Christmas tree. Even if you prefer not to stick with the entire film, do yourself a favor and watch this opening sequence, as it never ceases to choke me up, and perhaps you'll like it too. It's a simply beautiful video in and of itself.

With a budget of $52 million and every dollar of it visible on screen, *Toys* was commercially and critically a failure, recovering less than half its cost, even though it took Barry Levinson over ten years to bring it into production and ten months to film. Italian designer Ferdinando Scarfiott invested over one year working on the imaginative sets that took over all the Fox Studios' soundstages in Los Angeles. It also features the film debut of Jamie Foxx as a security guard, and *The Princess Bride*'s Robin Wright Penn as Leslie's love interest Gwen Tyler, whose main appearances require her to laugh at Leslie's awkward attempts at courtship. Here she's less dimensional than her Princess Buttercup, but she still radiates happiness. But Joan Cusack does a sparkling turn as Alsatia, who loves trying on paper-doll clothes, sleeping in a gigantic swan bed, and sporting pink plastic hairdos.

The final battle between Leslie and Leland is prefaced by Robin Williams's brilliant improvisational pep talk to the benign toys preparing for battle with the technocratic destruction of Leland. It's filled with his signature puns and subtle wordplay, yet hits a nerve in anyone who has shed a tear in watching any of the *Toy Story* films. My only qualm with the film is its distracting use of slow motion in several scenes. This manipulation seems out of place and unnecessarily moody, a rather sloppy imposition on the action. And while the battle sequence seems much too violent for young kids who were dragged into the theaters in anticipation of a joyride, these last few minutes are more likely akin to subjecting a toddler to Tower of Terror than a kid-friendly It's A Small World.

Because it's the juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood that tore such a divisive rift in audiences. Perhaps that's marketing for you, the quest for big returns over preparing potential filmgoers for a unique trip. Its PG-13 rating should have been a clue, but when you feature a whirlwind talent like Robin Williams in a film about toys one month after the release of his masterful *Aladdin* (1992), you have a certain duty to lay the groundwork for your audience, or else they will munch on your heinie, which is exactly what happened here. Rather than focusing on the visual merriment and pure inventiveness (watch for a great scene when Leslie's research room is slowly overtaken one cubic square foot at a time while his team reviews a test product), many are left wondering why their sides aren't aching from laughter.

In retrospect, for me *Toys* holds a consistent fascination. I can laugh at the rapid-fire wit of Robin Williams, smile at the sweetly nuanced performance of Joan Cusack, grow frustrated with the pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon and empathize with his overweening insecurity masked as macho bravado, and sink into its soundtrack wafting between the lush and the quirky. There is for me a lot to admire in this film, which I believe was way ahead of its audience in ambition and tone, but I also think most kids would be bored by its pontifications in the long run. For a real change of pace and pacing, perhaps after the holidays, stretch out on the floor and see if *Toys* will hold an interesting journey for you. The kid in you might like it, if she or he hasn't grown up too much.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/23/2019, 5:35 pm

Post #239: It's the most wonderful time of the year. There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. So let's visit Victorian England and cover just that, the formation of the Christmas staple, "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. But as a change of pace we'll focus our attention on the author and the challenges he faced in creating that masterpiece. Yes, friends, today's feature is a fresh investigation chomping at the periphery of the classic tale, *The Man Who Invented Christmas* (2017) with 87-year-old Christopher Plummer intermittently ghost-writing as Scrooge, the oldest actor to portray the miser in film.

A stellar cast of classically trained Shakespearean actors give a strong sense of authenticity to the story, which follows Charles Dickens (a terrific Dan Stevens) falling into an artistic pit two years after his rousing success with *Oliver Twist*. Now having suffered artistic disappointment and financial distress with three of his works taking a critical drubbing, he is pinned against the wall of expectation, mounting bills, and familial support as his father John (Jonathan Pryce) squanders and finagles his own personal affairs with irresponsible creativity. Snide condescension from his successful contemporary rival William Makepeace Thackery (Miles Jupp) just squeezes more creative juice from him.

Gaining inspiration from incidental conversations overheard in London and his accidental stumbling upon a funeral, with less than two months to spare, Dickens races a Christmas deadline, resolving to finish his Christmas tale, enlist an illustrator (Simon Callow), have the work bound and ready to sell against all odds--including his sharp writer's block. But when he hears his literate Irish servant Tara (Anna Murphy) reading a ghost story to his children, the spark is ignited. As his story unfolds, the fictional characters appear and interact with him, directing his attention to details and exposition.

Anyone over the age of two knows the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, but this revisionist approach is loaded with wit and freshness that makes the oft-told tale come alive again. When Scrooge intones "I've got a bad feeling about this" as an aside, the ring of *Star Wars* recognition peals for everyone, evoking a kind chuckle. Directed by Bharat Nalluri who directed the pilot episode of one of my favorite BBC programs *Life On Mars*, we are treated to a luscious tour of Nineteenth Century England, rich with texture and character. My old friend Tom Nehil and I used to marvel at how the British hold a special kinship and quality to their productions, simultaneously approachable and incapable of American duplication; the very faces of the actors speak of character before they utter a line of dialogue, and *The Man Who Invented Christmas* is a sterling example of that.

Those who have grown tired of Dickens' classic should not stay away from this film, fearing it will be yet another of the endless rehashes of a story they know by heart. No, here the backstory adds a fascinating brightness to the inception of the tale and the influences from Dickens' life that gave it such gravity and joy. We see Charles as a boy witnessing his father being pulled away from the family to debtors' prison, and we feel the long-buried antipathy he's felt toward his father as he struggles with Scrooge's redemption at the urging of Tara, who is heartbroken over Tiny Tim's predicted death and Scrooge's intractable self-imposed misery. The transformative properties of the protagonist become even more poignant as we see Dickens' struggle with himself.

Still, along with all its high points, and there are many for me, a couple interesting notes behind the scenes should be highlighted here. For one thing the movie was not filmed in England but in Ireland with a Welsh cast (Dickens' father Jonathan Pryce and Dickens' wife Kate Morfydd Clark, both pivotal characters), an Australian supporting character (Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Fisk), guided by director born in India but who lived much of his life in London, and the screenplay was adapted from Floridian Les Standiford's non-fiction book by a Canadian Susan Coyne. International effort indeed.

While my initial reaction to the title was slight umbrage, as I don't believe a British author actually "created" Christmas, on researching the film I found it to be an apt title after all. At the time Dickens was writing the story, England viewed Christmas as a secondary date of celebration, its magic increasingly waning in favor of the once-pagan rituals of Boxing Day. Indeed Dickens' publishers questioned about the wisdom of writing about such a holiday. But with Queen Victoria's recent marriage to the German Prince Albert and the installation of the Christmas tree, Dickens felt there would be a resurgence of interest in Christmas as a time when family bonded and peace toward one another would be recalled.

Les Standiford wrote, “Dickens had no notion of what the festival would become today, but he was clearly onto something. He even went on to write four more Christmas books but none were even nearly as successful as *A Christmas Carol*.” And so in many ways Dickens' efforts metaphorically re-introduced Christmas as a festive time of redemption to the social consciousness and conscience, "inventing" feelings of good cheer and God's blessings to us all.

And yes, there are fictive elements in the film--there is no historical evidence to suggest the Irish servant Tara was a corporeal being, and Dickens' father may not have physically moved into his home, as the movie suggests. But surprisingly the visualization of his characters is not far removed from reality; Susan Coyne said, “Through my research, I learned that he used to talk about his characters as though they were what he called ‘the children of his fancy. Even when he was not working, he’d feel them tugging on his sleeve saying ‘time to get back to work.'”

So, in my constant search for films that are a little off the beaten path, or perhaps forgotten altogether, here's another that I would recommend for your holiday viewing. The narrative is quite easy to follow so the kids can reap the benefits of near-history while enjoying the performances and the parents can luxuriate in really fine performances by all involved. Even more *The Man Who Invented Christmas* might be one of those films that allows us to revisit a holiday chestnut that's been roasting on an open fire since childhood, interpreted and re-interpreted and re-imagined by everyone from Alastair Sim (my own personal favorite Scrooge) to Albert Finney to George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, Reginald Owen, Lionel Barrymore, Jim Carrey, Vanessa Williams, Cosmo G. Spacely, Seymour Hicks, Kelsey Grammer, Basil Rathbone, Rowan Atkinson (yes, Virginia, Mr. Bean once starred as Scrooge), *Peaky Blinders* Steven Knight, Rich Little, Walter Matthau, Cicely Tyson, Simon Callow (who is the illustrator in our feature today), Tim Curry, Fred Flintstone, and Mr. McGoo. I'm surely missing a few, so Humbug, this is good enough. . . .

As you come in from the maddening crowds of Meijer and madding malls, pick up a little egg nog and breathe: It's Christmas Eve tomorrow, and a time not of bustling but of blessing. Hug your loved ones for me and save a big one for yourself. Tomorrow, a timeless classic.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/23/2019, 5:54 pm

I've still gotta decide what I'm gettin' myself for Christmas. On one hand, I know exactly what I want. On the other hand, I've been pretty naughty this past year. And I have a couple more practical jokes planned before the new year.

In the words of Stan Freberg...
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Post by ghemrats on 12/23/2019, 7:19 pm

There's always that inflatable Rita Hayworth doll. . .
Twisted Evil
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Post by ghemrats on 12/24/2019, 7:04 pm

Post #240: Ring out the bells, it's the holiday season, ring out the bells, it's a holiday time, ring out the bells we've got a good reason to ring the bells and hear the pretty bells chime! Happy Christmas Eve, my dear friends, a time to gather and give thanks for all the blessings we've received over the past year--and you are one of my biggest. So in a quiet break from my stated mission of providing commentaries for lesser known or appreciated films, today we feature one of my top family favorites which we can watch on repeat play every year and never cease to be moved by it: *The Bishop's Wife* (1947) with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven.

I won't provide any spoilers here in case you haven't seen it (and if you haven't, why haven't you?), but just cover the basic plotline so you can avoid the mistaken perceptions of audiences in 1947, who initially stayed away from it because they thought it was a "religious" film. You will find no moralizing here, as *The Bishop's Wife* is a sweet, warm-hearted comedy revolving around an Episcopal Bishop's (David Niven) attempts to fight politics and still erect a magnificent cathedral with some help from his assistant, Dudley (Cary Grant). Along the way of its breezy and memorable 109 minutes, we're treated to the luminous Loretta Young as Julia in the eponymous role.

Bishop Henry Brougham is at his wits' end, seeking guidance in dealing with the financial backing of his proposed cathedral, most of which comes from the stodgy widow Agnes Hamilton who has already promoted Henry's ascension to his current post. For Henry the Christmas season is an endless procession of meetings, compromises and political maneuvering, much more than a time of celebration and family. His rise from the simpler, more modest beginnings at St. Timothy's church, now fighting for its survival, has taken him away from family and into the high-priced world of wealth manipulation, and the strain is beginning to show.

Submitted for your approval is a helpful clergy assistant in the form of Dudley, whose very presence seems an answer to prayer. Within moments of his arrival spirits pick up, old relationships are renewed, Julia rediscovers the joy of simple pleasures like shopping and skating at the Currier And Ives ice pond and finding time to breathe. Even crusty old Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley never looking more homey and soft at the center) finds himself mellowing and finding new inspiration to complete his long-neglected history of Rome "which will rival Gibbon. Only Henry finds Dudley's insertion into their lives troubling, as he devotes so much time and energy to Julia while the Bishop is dickering for completion of his own mission in the cathedral.

*The Bishop's Wife* was surprisingly met with a fair number of challenges, starting with the changing of the cast: Dana Andrews was originally slated to star as Henry with Teresa Wright as Julia, who had to bow out of the production due to her pregnancy. Andrews was then replaced by David Niven and Cary Grant, with Grant in the role of Bishop. Now some contradictory stories are told that Cary Grant really wanted to play Henry with Niven as Dudley, but after Samuel Goldwyn viewed the rushes from the original director William A. Seiter (who directed *One Touch Of Venus* commented on earlier this year), he replaced Seiter with Henry Koster. That footage was scrapped, and Koster decided Grant should play Dudley and Niven the Bishop. Some sources suggest Grant really wanted to play the Bishop but was coerced into the switch by Koster; other sources say it was Grant who told Koster he and Niven should trade roles. In fact Goldyn's decision to start over cost the studio between $700 -900,000 due to the delay and cost of new sets.

For a time, facing the backlash of perceived religion being touted in the film, the marketing department at Godlwyn Studios added re-titled the film *Cary And The Bishop's Wife*, reportedly increasing attendance by 25%. Also, ties to *It's A Wonderful Life* (1946) are also present--smart watchers will recognize Karolyn Grimes as Henry and Julia's daughter Debby also played Zuzu alongside James Stewart and Donna Reed. And the snowballers' defense team leader on the park hill is Robert J. Anderson, who played the young George Bailey who was literally smacked by pharmacist Mr. Gower (that was not pure acting on Anderson's part in the 1946 classic--actor W.B. Warner actually hit the young actor so hard Anderson's ear did bleed).

At the time of the film's release *The Bishop's Wife* was selected for that year's Royal Command Film Performance screening. Princess Margaret and her sister, Queen Elizabeth, both attended the screening of 'The Bishop's Wife' on November 25 at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square. David Niven said, "The audience loved every second of it, and the Queen and Princess Margaret told me afterwards and at great length how much they had enjoyed it."

But this is all backstage fluff when you consider the true message of the film--the ties that bind, the importance of friends and family, and an emphasis on people over ego. Henry delivers his Christmas sermon (with Dudley's help), a scene which never ceases to choke me up after 105 minutes of heartfelt smiling and resolving to live as this film suggests. As my Christmas gift to you, the people I consider my extended family, with deepest appreciation for all you have done, will do and all that you are, here is Henry's speech, my Christmas Eve blessing over you all. With love. . . .

"Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child's cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled... all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's his birthday we are celebrating. Don't ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most... and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth."

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/24/2019, 7:41 pm

I'm watchin' it tonight And I don't have a Rita Hayworth blowup doll.

My wife would probably smother me in my sleep if I did. She's kinda narrow minded about some things.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/25/2019, 9:22 pm

Post #241: And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year older, and a new one just begun. A very Merry Christmas, I hope you had fun, The near and the dear ones, The old and the young. Yes, let's celebrate a feature that unites the near and the dear ones, the old and the young in their ability to be weirded out by one of the most bizarre conflicts pitted in a festive holiday movie. Imported from Mexico and dubbed into English by the "King of the Kiddie Matinee" K. Gordon Murray, *Santa Claus (aka Santa Claus Versus The Devil)* (1959) is now available to you in sparkling Eastmancolor which will remind you most nostalgically of Ted Turner's gift to mankind, colorization of black and white film, its colors so vibrant they'll jump off the screen. . . and run frantically toward the exit before they fade any more.

High above the North Pole, hovering in a pre-Star Wars Cloud City, Santa (José Elías Moreno) wanders around aimless as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and hills, giggling at nothing in particular except for his apparent lack of breathable air which is making him loopy. Murray himself provides a breathless commentary, gushing, "This is Santa's Magic Observatory. What wonderful instruments! The Ear Scope! The Teletalker, that knows everything! The Cosmic Telescope! The Master Eye! Nothing that happens on Earth is unknown to Santa Claus!" So Santa is doing brisk business for Homeland Security, legitimizing The Patriot Act before it was loosed on us and acting every bit of the creepy voyeur he appears to be. That Ear Scope looks like a post-modern 1950s nouveau laryngologist's instrument, the Teletalker is an uncomfortably large set of lips set into a machine, and the Cosmic Eye is a lazy roaming plastic ocular socket set into a rubber tentacle. No wonder this film set masses of kids in the Fifties to pump up the pockets of therapists today.

Santa is noodling over a huge pipe organ, which inexplicably calls up certain close-ups of all the nations on Earth in a celestial display of politically incorrect stereotypes designed to make us appreciate diversity, I guess. But try your best not to cringe or turn inside out when he hits Africa, and the nearly naked little kids wearing beads and playing bongos frolic and caper to no discernible music. The Japanese kids in their kimonos waddle and sing, Beth and Pierre in France wear berets and paint their dolls, Brazilian children wear Carmen Miranda headsets and shake their little maracas, and the American progeny wear cowboy hats and sing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" with a plastic guitar, and the Mexican kids sing about cockroaches. Why, oh why do we spend so much money on educating people on the nature of diversity when we could save bundles just by getting them to watch this film and reap such expansive, cogent understanding of cultures other than our own? The world may never know.

Meanwhile, in hell (Whoops, thought we were already there), a sonorously voiced Lucifer sends one of his left hand demons, a goofy doofus all in red from embarrassment, named Pitch (José Luis Aguirre) dances around the flames and the cavernous set found in every horrible sci-fi film from previous years, seemingly unaware that his name is the perfect prescription for anyone watching this film--Pitch it, run run as fast as you can, it's the Stinky Cheese, man. Pitch is dispatched to Earth with the expressed purpose to "make Santa real angry" by coaxing children into behaving badly and proving to them "who their real master is." Now that's the kind of message you don't often see in holiday fare, eh?

Soon Pitch is setting his sites on little Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) goading her into shoplifting a gaudily attired doll that is as big as she, secreting the item underneath her short jacket; in truth the doll could probably fit Lupita under HER gown among the frills. Without ruining the first twenty minutes for you, I will point out the Lupita returns the doll before she can be caught, but suffers a nasty dream inspired by the demon. Well, this really gets Santa pissed, so he consults his assistant Merlin the Magician (Armando Arriola); now, again, how a Druidic Arthurian figure such as he was recruited into the clouds to serve Santa is not clear, but his sagely presence serves to remind us that we're not supposed to ask questions (or understand the internal logic of this story).

We then meet the hirsute Royal Blacksmith who appears to have a hedgehog stapled to his chest, and a whole team of Elfkins who care for Santa's white plastic reindeer which he stole from a local carousel, all in preparation for his Trans Heavenly Flight SC 707 (The Super Reindeer Special, Red Carpet Flight to Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn via the Milky Way), but not before he has to wind up the sleigh—that’s right, it’s the old wind-up hand cranker toy from Mattie Mattel.

So let's take an intermission from the commentary for a moment to work up a tally: We've got a creepy old man doing high level reconnaissance work on a pipe organ surrounded by child labor slaving away in a cloud castle, staffed by bearded guys employing medieval alchemy while the Devil tries to undermine his efforts with a shiny red outcast from Britain's royal family with elephantine ears. Yup, that about covers it, and we've still got a half hour to go!

Now what would a Christmas story be without a heartrending encounter with a little boy who wonders if his parents love him, and who hugs Santa's boots asking if Santa has any affection for him? Santa leaves the boy asleep, seeks out the parents and gives them a "special cocktail" after which the couple decide they need to see their son, whom they left alone so they could gad about town for the holiday. Cheese Louise, will this ever get any better, or will its whimsical score continue to delude us into thinking this is all just light fun?

In good conscience, and in the spirit of the holiday, I'll not divulge the ending of the story, but I will share with you the on-screen narration we see just before THE END lets us know we can turn it off for good: "Blessed Are Those Who Believe For They Shall See God…PEACE ON EARTH…GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN. MERRY CHRISTMAS."

So the director and staff may in fact had good intentions in making *Santa Claus Versus The Devil*, but by this time I think we all know where the road to good intentions leads. . . and it ain't in the clouds. In the final analysis, any film that shows little Lupita asking for two dolls--one for herself and one for the Baby Jesus--no matter how cheesy its execution, must be hiding a big heart. Nevertheless, may your days be merry and bright, and however you celebrate, like Santa's magic powder, do your best to “give people a sound sleep and fill them with wonderful thoughts and good intentions.” And let's hope the Devil isn't in the details. Be blessed, my dear friends.

And Space, I hope your wife gives you even more understanding that the estimable amount she surely already bestows--that Rita Hayworth body pillow you have coming can be shared; tell her that.
Enjoy,
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/26/2019, 5:21 pm

Post #242:  As we lie gazing at the far distance made that much more expansive through the marvels of tryptophan, filled to bursting with the festive feast of family and food, why don't we double our pleasure, double our fun with doublegood Danny Kaye *On The Riviera* (1951) doubling down in dueling roles with Gene Tierney and Corinne Calvet. While this is one of his lesser known, perhaps more unappreciated, roles, he still shines and dances in his trademark style.  So before we return with our usual roster of naked city noirs and boffo box office buffoonery dredging the basement of B-films, let's hunker over the leftovers with some light comedy (and keep your eyes peeled for an uncredited dance diva Gwen Verdon in an early role) .

Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Music and Best Stage Design) and boasting high production values, *On The Riviera* follows Jack Martin (Danny Kaye One), an American entertainer-singer-dancer-mimic, who has honed his impression of French industrialist and WWI Ace aviator Henri Duran (Danny Kaye Two) to perfection.  One night, under the adoring eyes of his girlfriend Colette (Corinne Calvet), Jack performs his bit before the real Duran (DK 2) and his strikingly beautiful wife Lili (Gene Tierney--did I mention I really like her?) in the audience.  Backstage after the performance Duran meets Colette, becomes entranced by her and extends an invitation to a party, which she declines politely, somewhat aware of Duran's reputation as a womanizer.  

Meanwhile, Jack shares a kind conversation with Duran's wife Lili and becomes enamored with her beauty as she marvels at his resemblance to her husband.

When Duran is called away to London to negotiate a tricky transaction as his airline is in danger due to his rival Felix Periton (Jean Merat).  Calculating a ruse to confuse and distract Periton from Duran's stock buyout, Jack is hired to impersonate Duran at the gala party that evening, not even allowing Lili to know of the switch.  And the ruse is afoot.  You can expect the usual complications as Lili finds out about the masquerade and plays along, Colette decides to attend the party after all to confront Jack, and the real Duran returns in the nick of time to further upend the festivities.

Even though this is one of Danny Kaye's "smaller" (read: less popular when juxtaposed against his many big triumphs) films, *On The Riviera* offers him arguably more opportunity to explore his talent for nuance.  His movement from character to character through subtle body language, intonation and posture is outstanding, and his wife Sylvia Fine has accorded him ample opportunity to engage in his trademark verbal terpsichorean prowess with a delightful highlight, *Popo The Puppet* and my personal favorite, the closing number "Happy Ending."  And while audiences are quick to point to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly when musical dance numbers are referenced, Danny Kaye should be invoked right up there with them, in my mind, as we see him swirl and hold his own in a couple other night club routines.

I've always found this one of Danny Kaye's less comical roles overall, though his juggling of affairs with Lili and with Periton are inspired.  His bluffing an understanding of French with Periton works so well in his negotiations, lobbing an ambiguous "Mhmmm" in answer to a bidding war, that he flummoxes his opponent.  And his transformative Duran with his "wife" teaches everyone a well earned lesson in interpersonal communication and truth.

As an aside, if you're a fan of Gene Tierney's *Laura* (1944) [and who isn't], take the rare opportunity to see the famous portrait of "Laura" on full display in glorious color hanging in the Durans' apartment.  And a lingering question concerning the grand masquerade, for me at least, is the degree of intimacy shared by Jack and Lili, especially when Lili shows genuine concern when the real Henri returns after her spending a nice evening with "him."  Gene Tierney's showcase loveliness and indignation in this brief scene are a joy, allowing us to play along with the double entendres that pass between Jack and Lili.  Oh that devious Duran. . . .

So here again is a pleasant little diversion, not too filling to top the torpor hovering over the holiday's feasting, but nicely complementary.  As we approach the New Year, may we all find the spirit of good humor and care extended for as long as we can.  Tomorrow, we'll be back with a little change of pace that won't rival the turkeys I've commented on in the past few months.  If you've still got the wishbone, here's hoping you get the better portion in that tug of war. (BTW: If any of this commentary lapsed into nonsense or non sequitur, it was because I kept dozing off while writing it; that tryptophan tends to work wonders. . . .)
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by Space Cadet on 12/26/2019, 5:53 pm

Rita Hayworth Body Pillow!? Is that really a thing!? Umm... askin' for a friend...
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Post by Seamus on 12/26/2019, 6:33 pm

The kid hugging Santa's boot was creepy. The whole movie was creepy. Demons taking on Santa when everyone knows Santa is ex-special forces.
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Post by ghemrats on 12/26/2019, 7:16 pm

I've got a copy of *Santa Claus Conquers The Martians* coming before the New Year, so I'll drop that little bomb soon. I think it stars either Ray Walston or Matt Damon, but don't quote me on that, Seamus.

The Rita Hayworth body pillow is made by the same company that made the Jane Russell and Joy Lansing versions, but some shifting and settling in shipping might occur; so they might look more like Marjorie Main by the time they make it to you, Space. They were going to make a Marlene Dietrich version, but it kept invading regions of the bed it was tested on. On the plus side, which is the side I sleep on, you won't have much 'splainin' to do to Mrs. Cadet if the pillow gets bunched into the Ma Kettle form.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/27/2019, 4:20 pm

Post #243:  Broadcasting live from that nether region between Christmas and New Year's, we've got a long distance dedication from Jacqueline Hyde​ in Alton, Illinois, and it reads: "Dear Casey, You know I always loved those splashy color extravaganzas with Danny Kaye.  They always brought such life and love to the holidays, and they always made me smile--people tell me I have one of the nicest smiles around, and I know they've been put there by Danny Kaye. Since it's the holidays, could you play *White Christmas* (1954) for me? I promise I've been good, so this would be a nice after-Christmas gift. Happy Holidays, Jacqueline."  Well, Jacqueline, I don't like Dean Jagger who played the General in that movie, so I'm not going to post it.  Instead, here's a black and white movie from 1963, an uproarious slapstick comedy without Danny Kaye's traditional singing and dancing.  It's *The Man From The Diner's Club* and I saw it when it first came out in a small theater in Bay City, Michigan.

I've always held a special place in my funny bone for the old Warner Brothers cartoons--Bugs and Daffy form one of the best comedy teams ever in my book. So by that Loony Tunes osmosis (or is it a Q-36 Imodium Space Modulator?) I have come to appreciate the directorial works of Frank Tashlin, who worked on some classic Bugs ventures as well as Jerry Lewis films.  He takes the helm here, working at a fever pitch with Danny Kaye, Telly Savalas (*Kojak*), Cara Williams (TV's *Pete And Gladys*, one of my personal favorite sit-coms) Martha Hyer, Everett Sloane (*Citizen Kane* 1940), George Kennedy and Anne Morgan Guilbert (Millie on *The Dick Van Dyke Show*).  Google the word Zany and it will take you to this film.

With a first screenwriting credit going to William Peter "Bill" Blatty (who would later become a household word as the author of that rollicking laugh riot *The Exorcist* 1973), *The Man From The Diner's Club* follows the misadventures of Ernest Klenk, a hyperactive Diner's Club account clerk being driven to a nervous breakdown by the constant blipping and booping of the company's room-sized computer (It's actually bigger than a TRS-80).  Add to his distraction his upcoming wedding (tomorrow, actually) to the lovely Lucy (Martha Hyer) whose nuptials have been postponed four times already, AND he's been given only one more chance to do his job well before he adds unemployment (again) to his resume.

So when due to a clerical error he issues a Diner's Club card to gangster Ronald "Foots" Pulardo (Telly Savalas WITH HAIR!), a racketeer using a gymnasium as a cover for his criminal empire, things are looking dark for Ernie.  The comic complications careen like a crazy pinball as Ernie discovers his mistake, tries to retrieve the card before Foots receives it, and becomes embroiled in an imbroglio with the gangster's dim moll Sugar Pye (Cara Williams). And if that's not enough, because, like Foots, one of his feet is longer than the other, Ernie's being groomed to take the place of Foots in a gym explosion, leading police to believe the racketeer is dead when in reality he and Sugar are escaping to Mexico.

It's all very kooky and silly, befitting any vehicle for Jerry Lewis or a WB cartoon, since Tashlin directed both during his career.  Sight gags abound with Danny Kaye, at age fifty, doing his level best to twist and pratfall with the best of them. His trademark verbal sparring is largely absent here, as physical comedy takes precedence over wordplay, but there are some memorable man vs. machinery jabs that place the film squarely in the flow of early 1960s business-as-automated chaos movies issuing forth in the glow of the post-1950s Organizational Grey Flannel Suit Businessman mode, where people are dehumanized and slaves to technology.  The final chase scene is inspired, a Mack Sennett homage that we would see repeated in Tashlin's script and direction of Jerry Lewis's *The Disorderly Orderly* (1964), another of my favorites in the Jerry Lewis canon.

For many years the uncredited or discredited rumor persisted that *The Man From The Diner's Club* was conceived as a Lewis vehicle, as Jerry was fifteen years younger than Danny Kaye at the time of the filming, but it has never been conclusively proven one way or another.  As it turns out,  *The Man From The Diner's Club* marks the finale to Danny Kaye's auspicious film career, as according to his biographer Matthew Gottfried writes, "an overall depression seemed to have overtaken Kaye's career. Despite Las Vegas engagements and television specials, ...he was in an artistic crisis."

Similarly co-star Martha Hyer said Danny was a sweet and sensitive man but not funny off stage, even a little sad.; he "was much more serious than I could have imagined. Like all great comedians he seemed to have that streak of melancholy... He only seemed to be happy when the camera was rolling... But I must say I learned a lot from him -- especially when it came to timing."

I finally tracked down this film on DVD through a vendor in Australia; such is the fate of Danny Kaye's last film, relegated to no Big Star Disc Tribute but an all region disc that you have to search to find.  It's rather sad, but for those of us who love Danny Kaye's energy and quirky kindness it's still nice to relax and see his manic self making people smile.  At 96 minutes, *The Man From The Diner's Club* [in fact, the apostrophe, according to the company itself, is not to be included for pure accuracy, but as an English professor I can easily let that detail slide] is a perfect comedy for kids of all ages. Watching it again made me nostalgic for the old Washington Theater where I first saw it on a big screen, abutted by a spectacular trailer for a movie I would not be able to see for another ten years, Alfred Hitchcock's *The Birds* which was coming to the theater a week later.  Good times, good friends. Enjoy it with my twilight zone of holiday blessings.  It's a film of a bygone time.  Hope you like it, Jacqueline.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/29/2019, 6:58 pm

Post #245: City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style, in the air there's a feeling of Christmas, even though it's passed us. Its spirit lingers, especially if you stay out of the stores returning gifts and weathering the pent-up wrath of people who are still jockeying for a deal. But before we bid a most grateful goodbye to 2019 in a couple days, let's hold on to the good feelings the holidays perpetuate, shall we? Yes, today's feature is a belated Christmas present from Bob "Thanks for the gifts and good will" Hope in a 1951 Damon Runyon yarn, *The Lemon Drop Kid," sure to keep the good mood rocking.

New Yorker Sidney Milburn (Bob Hope) has a habit of popping lemon drops at the drop of a hat when he's swindling and hustling bettors at the race track in Florida. But when he accidentally steers the girlfriend of mobster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) away from a $2,000 winning bet paying five to one, his luck takes a sudden dive and Moose gives him twenty-three days (Christmas) to cough up his $10,000. Returning to New York with his Christmas Sword of Damocles hanging over his head like deadly mistletoe, The Kid hits up everyone he knows, from his long-dangled fiancee Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) to a local mob boss Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) and the dispossessed Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell) who's always been good to him.

Desperate and penniless, The Kid is inspired by street corner Santas ringing their bells for charity to start up his own charity, under the guise of providing shelter for Nellie and other "Dolls" living hand to mouth due to their ineligibility for nursing homes. Using Moose's old abandoned mansion and casino and enlisting all the denizens of Manhattan to panhandle as Santas, The Kid installs The Nellie Tuesday Home For Old Dolls and the money starts flowing in, $2,000 in one day. Overjoyed by The Kid's "selfless" kind heart, Brainy tells her boss Oxford Charlie, who immediately sees an easy transition into his own pocket. Complications multiply as the Christmas deadline--cross the line by not paying and you're dead, Kid--rockets toward The Kid's fate.

Officially stated as director is Sidney Lanfield, though an uncredited Frank Tashlin actually finished a good one-third of the film, *The Lemon Drop Kid* introduced to the screen the carol "Silver Bells," which became a standard for Bob Hope in the following years, a constant sung on his television specials with his guests, such as Olivia Newton-John, Shirley Jones, Barbara Mandrell and even his wife Delores Hope, who was an accomplished song-and-dance star when Bob first met her). *The Lemon Drop Kid* was filmed in 1950 slated for a Christmas release, but when "Silver Bells" became a hit by Bing Crosby in December, 1950, Hope saw the final rushes and felt the film was weak. So he enlisted Frank Tashlin to write and direct an extended scene introducing the song with Marilyn Maxwell, postponing the film's release until March, 1951. Sadly, because of that lag it was less well received than it might have been. On the plus side, it's undoubtedly the most memorable and sweet sequence in the film, lovingly tracked by Tashlin's eye for detail.

But luckily for us, as we are not constrained by release dates and can enjoy films at our own time frames, *The Lemon Drop Kid* stands as a great Bob Hope vehicle--fast, funny, a little sentimental but good tempered all the way through. Its cast of supporting goons is splendid too--William Frawley (who starred in the original 1934 version of the story and will be best remembered as Fred Mertz), Sid Melton and Jay C. Flippen (both immediately recognizable character actors from the golden days of cinema) and even Tor Johnson as the Super Swedish Angel (A Swedish wrestler who gained fame in a host of Bob Hope and Abbott & Costello features, Tor was immortalized in the 1950s in Ed Wood B-pictures including the legendary "worst movie of all time," *Plan 9 From Outer Space* 1959.)

Since this is a Bob Hope movie, very little of the actual short story by Damon Runyon remains in the screenplay. According to Runyon's biographer Tom Clark, "Damon Runyon’s Broadway tales are ironic mini-comedies based on the American outlaw code. It is the old Code of the West, transposed to Manhattan and the twentieth century. To live outside the law you must be honest, the saying used to go. Runyon rearranges it to read: To live outside the law you must be an interesting character, and anyway, no one is more honest than he has to be." At least the spirit of the author is maintained in this enjoyable comedy.

Standing alone on its own merits, *The Lemon Drop Kid* remains a gentle tale welcome at anyone's Christmas after-dinner evening wind-down. You can view the entire movie provided here, though Shout! offers a splendid print on DVD; no extras on the disc, but it's a beautifully clean copy. As an aside, the origin of "Silver Bells" has conflicting reports, though composer Ray Evans confirms it was originally titled "Tinkle Bells." He said, "We never thought that tinkle had a double meaning until Jay [Livingston, Evans' co-composer] went home and his first wife said, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is?'" Neither of them realized the word is slang for urination. But some sources say they were inspired by the bells of Salvation Army workers, while Evans, interviewed on NPR in 2005, remembers the song sprang from a bell on the desk he and Jay Livingston shared.

Regardless of its humble beginnings, the song is a Christmas standard, just as you might find *The Lemon Drop Kid* set for replay next year at this time.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/30/2019, 6:07 pm

Post #246: How could we possibly say goodbye to 2019 without harboring a beautiful image in our minds, in this case--Rita Hayworth! Her radiance, for me anyway, tends to outshine some of the inane, insipid, flaccid posturing catering to the lowest common denominator of human baseness to which we've borne witness in many a moon; so what better way to knock that year in the head than with a solid Swarovski crystal bottle of bubbly exuberance thanks to a young and lovely Rita (no meter maid, she)? Here's our fluffy little feature for today, *Angels Over Broadway* (1940) starring the film's associate producer Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Written, produced and directed by the great Ben Hecht, *Angels Over Broadway* earned an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay and marks the debut of Rita in her first "A" picture. Originally titled *Before I Die*, certainly a more ominous marquee lead, the film's tagline was ""A HECTIC ROMANCE TO BLOW THE FUSES OUT ALONG MAZDA LANE"; Mazda Lane was the brand of light bulbs named after the Persian god of light and good, lending its name to one of the nicknames for the marquees dotting Broadway in its prime.

In a 1998 interview with James Bawden, Fairbanks remembered the backstory of the film. "I got everything together, convinced Harry Cohn to bankroll us at Columbia. Ben Hecht did the screenplay and Lee Garmes and Ben directed it together. An enchanting character study, I think. We needed a cheap leading lady and took Rita Hayworth, who was under contract. We redressed her, regroomed her, and this was her first A picture. She even got the character's speech impediment down pat. Tommy Mitchell [who plays Gene Gibbons, a playwright on the skids] took a pay cut to do it; so did John Qualen [lead Charles Engle]. Cohn couldn't figure out what the film was all about but neither could we. Thanks to Lee the photography glistens. Today it would be an art house film and Cohn ran it on double bills, but it convinced me I should produce."

So does the film fulfill the screaming copy suggesting so much electricity in the air that the audience will return to their sedate homes newly energized, shocked into a frazzle, hair combusting over the kinetic energy of its plot and stars? Uh, the simple answer is no. Is it a "Hectic Romance" that will leave you panting in anticipation or drained from frantic, twisting, whirling sparks jettisoning from the promise of intimate contact between Rita and Fairbanks? Not even by 1940 standards, I'm afraid. But it does have some terrific dialogue, the high-pitched patter of a young Rita Hayworth motor-boating some of her early lines in breathless delivery, and a delightful secondary character in Thomas Mitchell's Gene Gibbons whose literary monologues easily dwarf the action of a strangely meandering plot.

We open as our main character (for he is no hero or protagonist in the extreme) Charles Engle (John Qualen) solemnly composes his suicide note. Now there's a snappy plot point on which to hang the movie. Not that he doesn't have ample reason to call it a life: His wife has cuckolded him, he's embezzled $3,000 from his trusting employer to keep her happy [No such luck, Chuck], and now that he's been discovered, his boss gives him until six o'clock the next morning to return the money or it's off to jail with him and his wife, no conjugal visits implied or accessible.

Dissuaded from jumping into the river by a patrolling cop, Charles seeks sad refuge in a swanky night club where he's mistaken for a millionaire because he tips the cigarette girl a twenty for a pack of final coffin nails. Enter slick con man Bill O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who thinks he knows a dupe when he sees one and sashays over to Charles with a plan to inveigle him in a poker game run by gangster Dutch Enright (Ralph Theodore). To honey the pot a little more O'Brien sweet talks failed showgirl Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth) into joining his scam by flattering and flirting with Charles. Nina is a semi-naive naif whose past is constantly called into question as she struggles to make it big on Broadway, even if compromise offers a scenic shortcut.

Naturally, the "romance" in question lies between O'Brien and Nina with lines like, "Please beat it! I'm no gun moll!" countered by O'Brien's investment-protective "You ain't no buzzard's dish either - not when I'm around!" Oh, don't you just wish such lovely lines were still in force today? Why, it almost makes you swoon. Nina says, "I'm a little better than you think, Mr. O'Brien." to which O'Brien responds, as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, "That wouldn't be hard." Oh you smooth talker, Betty Crocker.

But before the plan unfolds to the further detriment of our mopey Charles who makes the cartoon character Droopy look like he's on powerful uppers, washed-up, self-demeaning playwright Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell, whom you'll recognize immediately as Scarlet O'Hara's father and George Bailey's Uncle Billy), a man who owned Broadway one year ago, pours himself into the booth shared with Charles, Nina and O'Brien and waxes philosophic about all of life's failures and opportunities. Perceptive even when he's plastered, Gibbons spots the bottomless void in Charles and pulls his life story from him as O'Brien and Nina are away from the table.

It is Gibbons who takes center stage whenever he's on screen, with wonderful monologues like the following:

Eugene 'Gene' Gibbons: [seeing a waiter put two drinks on the table] "Fine, fine! I no longer have to order drinks. I just attract them. He shall have liquor wherever he goes! . . . As I understand from your communication, Mr. Engle, you're on the brink of self-destruction. May I shake your hand? A brilliant idea! I speak as one who has destroyed himself a score of times. I am, Mr. Engle, a veteran corpse. We are all corpses here! This rendezvous is one of the musical graveyards of the town. Caters to zombies hopping around with dead hearts and price tags for souls. Hmmmp! Will you join me, sir? It is the custom here for the dead to drink - heavily!

"Allow me to present my credentials as a fellow cadaver. I'm being divorced by my wife whom I love dearly in my own nasty way. I was disemboweled by another woman. I have written three bad plays in a row, and next year I'll write a worse one. I have neither a home, a single hope, nor a shred of curiosity left. Bankrupt and broke, I've destroyed myself, sir, in becoming famous. I am no longer a man, Mr. Engle, I'm an epitaph over an ash can! And now, sir, what's your story?"

Thus the story unfolds as Gibbons does his utmost to help the suicidal patron and O'Brien does everything he can to work him for a fool as Nina stands by relishing dance routines and innocuously offering gushing, enthusiastic remarks like, "Oh, if only I had my slave costume and my chains!" *Angels Over Broadway* can be likened to walking through a funhouse whose floors tip and teeter as you fight for balance and attempt to determine what we're supposed to take away from Ben Hecht's great dialogue. Is this a weird romance? A lushly filmed pseudo noir? A comedy that keeps taking us into dark corners?

And with whom are we supposed to identify--not O'Brien, as he's smarmy, a little slimy, and not terribly charismatic in the long run. Not really Charles--for he has the box mix for empathy, except he's so patently pathetic with his hangdog look and lack of meaningful interaction, largely just sitting and staring down into his drinks. Nina? Well, she's bubbly and as quick with a grin as a freshly printed Smiley Face button, but does she exhibit any innate depth of character? That leaves Gibbons, but he's forty-two sheets to the wind the whole time, and we have to wonder if his genuinely humane treatment of others is born of honest altruism or inebriated innocence; sadly the latter is true as he wakes from a drunken nap with no knowledge or memory of anyone or anything.

For me the central "protagonist" is less a character than a moral tone. I'd call this more of an ensemble cast rather than one stand-out performance, though, all prejudice aside, Rita Hayworth might well be the most layered of all participants. Some critics have compared her to a prototype for Marilyn Monroe in this picture, as she at times seems a dim bulb intellectually but a 300-watt corker when she gets a close-up; the camera just loves her, and so do we, as she finally embodies a spirit of optimism amidst the cynicism and failure of the other three principals. It is she who can see something noble in O'Brien and the glimmer of greatness in Gibbons, not to mention the gulf resting in Engle (which is another spelling in German referring to the titular Angel). She is another angel, one still shy of becoming hardened to Ben Hecht's vision of Broadway, still retaining a drive that allows her to relinquish her past for a glowing future.

The "romance" such that it is depends on Nina's unwavering belief in a positive resolution. And that is extended to O'Brien as she maneuvers her way around his narcissistic facade to find the man who talks big egocentricity but shields a bruised vulnerability that no one has taken the time to investigate. It's always easier to skate through life with a facile regard for others than to allow others to see you have a soul. And even Gibbons, in his drunken reveries, opens his hurt for all to examine, an action that is easy to explain away the next day as a lapse of judgment brought about by the grape industry. So *Angels Over Broadway* deals with broken people, an informal group therapy session in a chrome-and-ivory night spot where the booze flows like Old Man River in a tux.

If you allow yourself to uncork a bit and let its 79 minutes to wash over you, you may just find that *Angels Over Broadway*, like O'Brien, talks smart and takes its time finding its grounding, but like angels it offers you the chance to drop some of the weight you're carrying from 2019 and float just a bit higher, where the lights illumine the possibility of happier days ahead.
Enjoy.
Jeff

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Post by ghemrats on 12/31/2019, 6:32 pm

Post #247: He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, you knows if you've been bad or good, so here's your penance if you fell into the latter category, *Santa Claus Conquers The Martians* (1964).  So celebrate the New Year tonight with a film (in the most flexible use of the term) that will make you think you're watching through a veil of yellow Saran Wrap (Dow brings good things to life) tightly wound across your head.  Now, under normal circumstances I would issue a warning that actually wrapping your face in cellophane can result in suffocation and brain damage, but with this movie you can attain the same results *without* the clear plastic.  Just watch it and you'll actually find yourself gasping for air and experiencing the agony of IQ points screaming and clawing to escape from your brain. No brag, just fact.

I could blame this trip up to the North Pole and the *Lost In Space* styrofoam red rocks on O. Leo Leahy, as he suggested this before the holidays, but that would be unfair.  He's never seen it but just ran across its promotional poster (sparing no expense, the marketing team saw this as a step up from their usual jobs writing copy for *Grit*, Charles Atlas ads, 3-D glasses, those damn sea monkeys and hand buzzers) and asked if it was real.  No, O. Leo, it's not real--just keep repeating "It's only a movie, it's only a movie. . ."

The first indication that this picture easily outdistanced every other piece of celluloid for Most Egregious Endurance Test is its theme, composed by (I kid you not, Jack Paar) the band leader for *The Gong Show*, Milton DeLugg.  "Hooray for Santy Claus" will undoubtedly be relegated to the annals of the Journal Of Burrowing Ear Worms, a publication consulted by Black Ops whenever their extreme measures of violence have proven ineffective in extracting secrets from representatives of hostile foreign governments (those not befriended by the President).  And yes, Virginia, its name IS "SANTY Claus," a monicker that sounds like a cheap generic feminine deodorant knock-off found only after 2:00 AM on cable.

But soft, mayhaps he grinds his ax too readily.  Surely in this time of new beginnings we might be moved to find some shard of charity still sheltered in the well of the wineskin?  Oh, o-kaaayy, but only because you've asked so medievally. *Santa Claus Conquers The Martians* does offer two debuts--it's the first film appearance of Mrs. Claus (Doris Rich), and she's joined by Pia Zadora (for the uninitiated, Pia Zadora was an "actress" known for being nominated as Worst Actress of the Decade (1980–89), Worst Actress of the Century (losing out to Madonna in 2000) and winning Worst New Star of  the Decade (1980-89) by the Golden Raspberry Awards), who plays Girmar (short for Girl Martian), a little Martian girl whose job is to stare obliquely at her co-stars, arguably her finest role.

Shot in an abandoned aircraft hanger in Long Island, New York, the "film" chronicles Santa's powerfully obsessive influence on lackadaisical Martian kids who do little more than sit by their teleprompters watching Earth's television signals. Momar (Mother Martian) and Kimar (King Martian) seek the counsel of Chochem, (Yiddish for "sage"), a hunched ancient wiseman who tried out for the role of Merlin but had too much hair.  He advises that Martian children are mindless little mooks whose creativity has been quashed by too many years of authoritarian Martian rule and must be allowed to play, and would they maybe have a nice egg creme they could spare, it's so dusty in his cave, and maybe a nice MLT - mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe, they're so perky, I love that.  Kimar immediately dispatches an envoy to retrieve Santa so the kids won't grow up to be like him, a frustrated Broadway actor reduced to playing roles like this in green metallic face paint.

Santa's reaction to being kidnapped is typical of a right jolly old elf--he laughs. He laughs at his elves, he laughs at toys, he laughs at children, he laughs at sawdust and at snow, and he laughs at Martians, especially Voldar (perhaps so named because he's a Volatile Dark Guy) who looks and acts like a cranky Frank Zappa.  You can tell Voldar (Vincent Beck) is going to cause trouble because he likes baring his teeth, snatching a couple of Earthkids Billy and Betty, barking orders at another actor trapped in a silver-painted FAO Schwartz box with a tea pot head, trying to kill Santa, fighting the King's judgment and chewing the scenery.  But Santa, God love him, is undeterred, building from scratch a toy-making computer for all the mopey little Markids (Martian Kids--jeepers, I'm starting to get the hang of this movie).

But Voldar and his henchmen sabotage the machine and mistakenly kidnap Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) who likes Santa so much he starts dressing like him.  Luckily at this point (arguably the longest 81 minutes ever committed to film or mental institution), Kimar discovers the treachery and in a confrontational showdown so lame it would make Tiny Tim retract his well wishes for everyone the Markids and Billy and Betty beat Voldar and his men with toys: a little native American drummer beats his drum savagely, Wham-O whiffle balls pummel them, Santa laughs, a mechanical dog skittles across the room, snow falls, Santa laughs, Wham-O Air Blasters blow air around, little toy soldiers wobble, Voldar stands on one leg like a drunken monkey, and Santa just about wets himself with glee.

All of this is brought to you in "Star Blazing COLOR," as the taglines of the advertisements bellow.  Uhm, yeah, I guess, though it's so tinny and faded through public domain showings that the scratches and technological spackling that the narrative flow is interrupted by ice floes of static, I can assume no stars were hurt in the production of this movie. But for mavens of modernism you can find original Fritz Hanson chairs and tables on display, along with a TV announcer's ecstatic pronouncement that "For Martian furniture, Fritz of Mars!" This company is still in business, with futuristic Martian settings available for prices ranging between £500-£6000.  That's right, friends, you too can live like a Martian.

What's especially cheesy about the production is its reliance on stock footage--rocket takeoffs, grainy footage of NASA technicians at studious contemplation at glowing screens, even the self-same US Air Force screen shots shared by Stanley Kubrick in *Dr. Strangelove* (1964) of planes refueling in flight.  Money was also saved in several inventive ways: The Martian parents feed their kids pills--"We have hamburger, buttered asparagus, mashed potatoes, and chocolate layer-cake pills," Momar twinkles.

And when Billy and Betty encounter a fierce polar bear while en route to Santa's Workshop, what we see is something akin to a ski lodge rug hoisted over an actor (Gene Lindsey, who would later appear in Pakula's *All The President's Men* not as a bear but as a Watergate conspirator) on his knees. “We weren’t about to get a real bear!” director Nicholas Webster said. Oh heck, Nick, who could tell the difference anyway, except perhaps anyone who was sighted.  But really, Nick, couldn't you have figured out a better place for the kids to hide from the rampaging bear than in his own dead-end cave five feet deep?

So knowing that all the actors in this film were trained Broadway thespians, can we calculate the number of jobs they landed with this on their resumes?  I doubt we'll need more than an abacus to figure it.  After all, what can you say about a film that launched Pia Zadora's career and allowed her seventeen years later to become the talk of the town in the film *Butterfly* (1981), winning a Golden Globe for Best Female Newcomer with co-stars Stacy Keach and Ed McMahon--and Orson Welles?  (Let's ignore the fact that the film allows her to play a willing victim of incest in a film financed by her Israeli millionaire husband who was thirty years her senior)

On the other hand, no other movie in memory allows us to bask in the glow of such pregnant subtext as Billy's vicious and spontaneous name calling when he's being taken by Voldar: "You'll never get away with this, you Martian!"  Or this Shakespearean-in-its-implications exchange between Kimar and Santa:  "Santa, you will never return to Earth, you belong to Mars now." To which Santa quips: "Ho Ho, Hooo..."  And who could match the philosophical depth of Dropo who, when confronted with the accusation that he was sleeping on the job, expounds, "I wasn't sleeping, chief. It's just that I haven't been able to sleep these last few months. I forgot how. So I was just practicing." Why, it all positively rings of the Tao.

With the New Year wee hours away now, as we gird ourselves for the entrance of a new decade, it's always rewarding to look from whence we've come.  And in watching *Santa Claus Conquers The Martians* we might wistfully wipe away a slow tear, recalling auld acquaintances we've long forgotten, and regretting this is one movie we should have released to time. . . but haven't, which will bring even more, hotter tears, though Santy Claus will bellow with laughter over our misfortune.  And in those moments when we stare up at the Times Square crystalline ball, waiting for it to drop like puberty, and wish we had bought stock in Swarovski when it was still affordable, let's resolve to take our cue from the Jolly Fat Man and laugh a little more and cry a little less and offer up thanks that we have been gifted with good friends like you who make it all richer and less alone.  God bless ya'll. Sliante is tainte!

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