29 September 2008

Triumph of the Mouse


Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave Adolph Hitler 18 Mickey Mouse cartoons for Christmas in 1937.

There's something to add to fun facts to know and tell about the world's most reviled dictator (how about a shout out to Joe Stalin?). Der Fuhrer loved dogs, small children and had a weakness for pastries. Hitler was a vegetarian.

Still this business about him loving Mickey Mouse cartoons is a little bit too weird to comprehend. Am I wrong about this? Would anyone say, "yeah I kind of figured Hitler would be a sucker for Mickey?" Are you wondering if, had he not taken his own life, Adolph would have enjoyed a visit to Disneyland? Did he like Pluto (must have if he liked dogs) too? What about Goofy? And was he blind to his own resemblance to Donald Duck?

I'm sure Hitler would have drawn the line at Warner Brothers cartoons. Especially Bugs Bunny (much too American) and most especially when they went all anti Nazi. Daffy Duck must have been too black for him.

Evidently Hitler loved to watch films late at night. Besides cartoons I'm not sure what else he liked. I'm sure he was no fan of Fritz Lang, whose films the Nazis banned.

There's a well known story about a copy of Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) being smuggled into Germany via Portugal for Hitler's viewing. After watching it he immediately had it run a second time. The epitaph to the story is always "history did not record his reaction to the film..." Damn that's frustrating. Another use for a time machine. Find out how he reacted. Did it give him pause? At all Just for a second? Did he chuckle once, twice? Or was he all laughed out from his Mickey Mouse collection?

We know one film he really liked, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935).

There's been much debate over the years whether this should be considered a great film given it's glorification of the Nazi regime. To me its analogous to a physically beautiful woman who is a serial killer. She still can be admired for her beauty, if you can get past that whole murdering innocent people thing. I find Triumph of the Will utterly fascinating as film making and utterly repulsive for what it celebrates. Most of all though it's an important historical document.

I wonder if Hitler would warm up for watching it with a Mickey Mouse cartoon?

25 September 2008

Three Cheers for The Ship!


By God just because a film is blatant propaganda designed to rally the home front during a war doesn't mean its not a cracking good show. A surprising number of excellent films about the second world war were released during the second world war. (Is it a measure of the Iraq war's unpopularity that the same cannot be said of the current conflict?)

A couple of months ago I posted a list of really good World War II movies. RD Finch who has an excellent film blog of his own, The Movie Projector suggested I would have done well to include In Which We Serve (1942) a British film that marked the directorial debut of one David Lean. (Actually he shared directing honors with the film's screenwriter, producer and star, Noel Coward.)

I had to sheepishly confess that I'd never seen In Which We Serve. Tonight I righted that wrong by catching a beautiful new print of it at the Pacific Film Archives. The British Film Institute has remastered a number of Lean's films in honor of the centennial of his birth.

So my question is, how did I miss this wonderful film for all these years? I suppose that even as aged a man as yours truly can't have seen everything. Indeed, I'm jut now catching up with the films of Swedish bloke named Bergman (The Seventh Seal is all its cracked up to be, if not more).

In Which We Serve is ostensibly about a ship, a British destroyer seeing action in the early part of the war. Of course ships tend to work much better with a crew so we get to meet many of them and even some of their families. The focus is the captain, played by Coward.

The effete Noel Coward, he of the cocktail and witty bon mot in the drawing room as a British naval captain? Come on! Trust me, it works. Coward may have been a bit of fop (a right bloody talented one) but he was also superb actor. Plus he had the bearing appropriate to an officer.

It's no spoiler to tell you the ship sinks. We see that early on in the film, then much of the story is told in flashback. I was surprised at how realistic In Which We Serve was in depicitng naval life in war time. Battle scenes, shipboard life and those aching visits home. It's hard to imagine (though this film helps) what it was like to be home on leave during war time. Trying to spend "normal" time at home with loved ones. Trying to pack in "special" moments. Not knowing whether you'll come home again and in what condition. And not even knowing if home would be there. In Which We Serve reminds us that those back home in England were vulnerable too with the the Blitz destroying homes and lives.

The cast is excellent and includes an incredibly young Richard Attenborough in his film debut. None of the heroics seem false and the audiences will not feel manipulated by excessive sentiment. British understatement at its best. And its not lip service to say that the ship is a key character. There's some wonderful opening moments showing the actual construction of the ship. we also see just how devoted a crew was to its ship, a relationship perhaps shared by pilot's and their planes.

Like many superior films In Which We Serve tells a multi layered story covering several years with seeming ease. It clocks in at under two hours. Quite a contrast to Lean's later epics.

Undoubtedly In Which We Serve did serve to help rally the allies. It's message of courage and devotion to the cause must have been crystal clear and quite comforting. Audiences today may not be so moved but they will enjoy a rousing good tale quite well told.

As Coward's captain says of his sinking ship, "three cheers..."

22 September 2008

Don't Shoot the Unemotional Man


I'm intrigued by the laconic post modern protagonist. One example is Charles Aznavour in Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Azavou's Charlie Kohler (nee Eduoard Sayroan) shows as much emotion as a sleeping cat. Smiles and frowns make infrequent and abbreviated appearances on Charlie's rather ordinary face. Alaim Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouri (1967) is another Frenchmen who can't be bothered with visible displays of emotion. He is the anti Pacino in his studied calm.

There is something engaging about these stoic characters, seemingly unruffled by fate or circumstance. Of course, seemingly is a key word for we can only guess at their inner turmoils. Given what we don't know about these men they are all the more interesting for their outward placidity.

A viewer has a certain confidence in a character who doesn't bark or blush. He allows events and other people to swirl around him reacting appropriately but betraying nothing of his feelings. Here is another key, these men act. There is little discussion, no conferences or negotiations they just do. Of course these men are loners although they usually have a beautiful woman nearby who loves him. His love for her will be expressed physically, not through words.

The French do not have a monopoly on such characters, witness Steve McQueen's Doc McCoy in The Getaway (1972) or Ryan O'Neal as the tile character in The Driver (1978). Both films were written by Walter Hill who was obviously parital to quiet men of action.

These are methodical men almost to the point of being robotic. Audiences root for them with the same fervor they do more effusive men. Perhaps because they intrigue us. Why are they so quiet? Does nothing stir them? Is there some trauma that robbed them of feeling? Or are they simply so purposeful as to be unaffected by the rest of us mortals? Perhaps that's it, while the rest of us expose our thoughts and feelings these men are in control. How wonderful to be in command of the one thing that we actually can be -- ourselves.

I love Shoot the Piano Player in part for how unflappable Charlie acts. Whether in the face of a kidnappers, a murder, or a new love he keeps on keepin' on. Given the events of the film, he is like the eye of the storm. But Charlie is not a simple man. His virtuosity on the piano and desire to raise a younger sibling suggest depth. So it is with these post modern silent types. They always suggest that there is a lot below those silent surfaces.

Such characters certainly are best suited for a particular type of film. Often European or North American movies of the 1960's and '70's. Sometimes a neo noir or crime film. Certainly where extraordinary events take place. (Being stoic in the face of washing the dishes is hardly remarkable.)

And it is not by accident that I used the masculine pronoun. This is a male type of role. Women are constitutionally incapable of such self repression -- thankfully. But, at least in film, women are drawn to the stoics, often with tragic results. Tragedy dances about and sometimes visits our silent heroes. And they never even bat an eye.

Finally it may be that in their very calm they act as mirrors for the surrounding action. In Shoot the Piano Player Charlie has brothers and co workers and neighbors who set in motion events and in turn respond outwardly and dramatically. Through Charlie the audience has a lens for the ongoing action. Charlie's mien provides our locus. We need him to stay cool he provides order.

Perhaps that's the true definition of being cool.

21 September 2008

Exclusive Riku Writes Interview with Penelope Cruz


Recently I had the opportunity to interview actress Penelope Cruz for Riku Writes. The Spanish born Ms. Cruz featured in two summer 2008 films, Elegy and Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. In 2007 she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Volver.

RW: Thank you so much for taking time out from your busy schedule to speak with me.
PC: It is my honor. I consider your film blog to be the finest I have ever read.
RW: That’s very kind of you.
PC: I am not alone in this opinion. Millions in Spain share this view. You are one of the greatest living American writers.
RW: I’m very flattered, thank you. What was it like working with Woody Allen?
PC: It was a great experience but nothing like the experience of meeting you. This is the greatest day of my life.
RW: Thank you. You’ve also worked with director Pedro Almodovar....
PC: He is gay. You are not?
RW: No. Um, how would you compare his directing style with Woody’s?
PC: They are very different just as being here with you is different and better than anything I could imagine.
RW: That’s kind of you.
PC: Are you married?
RW: Yes.
PC: I hate this bitch! Do you cheat on her?
RW: No, I’m a faithful husband.
PC: Then you will excuse me, I must go kill myself.
RW: Please don’t I’m not worth it.
PC: You are worth life itself!
RW: Ms. Cruz you...
PC: Call me Penelope.
RW: Penelope, you are young, talented and beautiful, you have everything to live for.
PC: These things you describe are nothing compared to being with you. Therefore if I cannot have you what is the point of living?
RW: I'd like to help but...
PC: I will now disrobe.
RW: Ya know, maybe I can check with my wife on this whole faithful thing. She might not consider it such a hard and fast rule.
PC: Remind her that rules were made to be broken. I will pay her to be with you for just one night.
RW: Please Penelope you’re making me feel cheap.
PC: You don’t know what I am willing to pay.
RW: Yeah, ya know cheap is such a relative term and with the dollar being what is today...
PC: I will pay in Euros!
PC: You had me at disrobe.

Details regarding the aftermath of the interview cannot be related at this time due to on going litigation. Riku Writes again thanks Penelope Cruz for...uh, “her time.”

This post is dedicated to my wife whose many attributes include a wonderful sense of humor and a kind and forgiving nature.

18 September 2008

What's It About?


The first question you get about a film from some people is: "what's it about?" As if the sum total of a movie can be delineated by some basic plot points.

Yet if you rave to someone about a song you're unlikely to be asked: "what are the words?"

Basic plot points are all well and good but often are totally insufficient in understanding a movie. Sure you can tell someone what Cabaret (1972) or Breathless (1960) are "about" but in doing so are you really giving them any sense of the artistry of either film?

In some cases "what a movie is about" is in my mind of secondary importance. Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975) and Chaplin's City Lights (1931) to use to totally unrelated films as examples, are less about their central story lines and much more about mood, scenes and characters.

Movies are both visual and aural experiences and those aspects can seldom be expressed through plot points.

All this came to mind after I watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987). I can tell you that it centers around two Berlin based angels and that one of them falls in love and wants to become human. I can add that Peter Falk appears as himself and that the angel's love interest is a trapeze artist. If you're unfamiliar with the movie you then might conclude that this is an awfully silly movie and that I must be joking when I say I love it.

Not silly and I'm not joking.

Der Himmel Uber Berlin, as it is known in Germany, stars Bruno Gansz. Meaning that Gansz has played both an angel and Adolph Hitler (in 2004's The Downfall). Just for variety's sake he was a waiter in the Italian film Bread & tulips (2000) and took on the role of Faust in a German TV epic. His long time friend Otto Sander co starred in Wings of Desire as the co angel.

Wings of Desire is a beautiful film to watch. It was strategically shot in black and white, except, again strategically, for a few scenes in color, by legendary French cinema-photographer Henri Alekan. The score is not beautiful to listen to but is haunting and absolutely appropriate.

Through the faces of the actors, the manner in which the film is shot and scored a mood is created that lasts from start to finish. Maybe that's part of the best answer to the question of what this movie is about. Mood. Thoughts (which we both hear literally and intuit subtly). Meditations on life, eternity, chance and love.

The movie also co stars the city of Berlin. Indeed Wenders’ original intent was to make a film celebrating his favorite german city. Actually he quite succeeded though most of us remember the movie more for its other gifts.

Wings of Desire was in many respects a terribly ambitious film to make. It could quite easily have become maudlin and self indulgent. Instead it won Wenders the best director award at Cannes and went on to be a critical and popular smash.

Surely its appeal is that it takes what is potentially a totally cerebral story and touches our emotions. We are allowed to luxuriate in the free flowing story, following the angels as they follow humans. I could add that it is a totally unpredictable movie but that would suggest that one could conceive to follow the story in a linear fashion.
Wings of Desire is not to be watched but to be experienced.

Don’t ask what its about, ask how it feels. (Quite good.)

15 September 2008

Why it Works


Yesterday i saw I Served the King of England a 2006 film from Czechoslovakia just now in release in the US. It's the story of a young man plunging headlong into life with all the excitement and anticipation that youth affords. It is the story of that same man many years later looking back on his life with all the sagacity and perspective age provides us. It's about life.

This film tells the story of a life replete with madcap sexual escapades, roars of laughter, wildly changing fortunes and of course Nazis. What, you wanna see the story of a shoemaker who lives in the same village for 80 years and dies a contented grandfather?

I Served the King of England follows a waiter who yearns to be among the millionaires, not just serving them. He's got a Chaplinesque ability to win our hearts though the perfectly timed slap stick, heavy doses of pathos and an uncanny knack for knocking the pompous down to size. Because our film is the 21st century we get lots of sex and naked women too. Fun.

With I Served we also get messages, symbolism and social commentary. Our hero occasionally tosses coins on the ground to watch how people respond, especially the rich (to their hands and knees they go). We see a matire d' who speaks dozens of languages (but won't speak German to Nazis) and can guess what customers will order -- after all, he is the one who served the king of England. We see a head waiter who upon dropping a dish, destroys them all and throws a massive tantrum leaving the business forever because of course that's the price of his one stumble. We see greed (greed really films well, just watch the salesman who spreads his folding money all over the floor) and we inevitably see the prices of greed -- its expensive.

We've had Chaplin and we also have Dickens. Coincidences, great riches, wrenching poverty, tragedy and triumph all befitting and befalling one plucky protagonist. So wonderfully David Copperfield! Even the protagonist as an old coot is a charmer.

We also have an abbreviated lesson on 20th century Czechoslovakian history with Nazis storming through causing havoc and pain only to be gotten rid of and followed by Godless Communists who dole out more misery. Interestingly enough our hero marries a Nazi, of all things. While he literally gets to *ahem* a Nazi he is figuratively *ahem*ed by the commies. (By the way, she liked looking at a portrait of Hitler while "doing it." Talk about kinky.)

I Served the King of England will last for hours perhaps days or longer within your heart. On the screen its barely two hours. For a life! For such a rich life! That's some seriously good film making.

The better portion of a life often makes for great cinema, especially as in this case when so much goes on and it is all so well told. Oh sure there is a distinct unreality to this life, but its a departure from the real that we can invest in. We don't have to suspend reality, just our inhibitions.

The stars are Ivan Barnev as the youthful version of the hero and Oldrich Kaiser as his older manifestation. The cast also includes a number of beautiful young scantily clad or totally unclad women. Yes, yes, yes it is all within context of the story and most decidedly not gratuitous (if that matters to you.)

The director is Jiri Menzel. Reviews and promos for this film often mention that he also directed the wonderful and wistful Closely Watched Trains. That movie was released over 40 years. Given how good these two films are its hard to imagine he's done nothing noteworthy in between. IMDb lists 18 efforts in the interim. Let's have a look at them, oh powers that be.

Meanwhile have a look at I Served the King of England. It works on a couple of zillion levels. See all the paragraphs that precede this for just a few details.

10 September 2008

TV Chuckles, Yucks, Guffaws, Cackles and Laughs



I’m always on the look out for new sitcoms to watch. Thankfully the real gems are rare. Thus I waste less time staring at the tube and have more time for more important matters (like staring at the computer). I love a good sit com. They provide a few laughs, distract you from your cares and often have a cozy feeling to them. The characters become like part of your extended family. In fact, part of what makes a really good sit com is really strong, interesting and of course funny characters.

It is surprisingly difficult to produce a really good sitcom. The clear evidence is how many have been tried and how few have succeeded -- and no, I don't count high ratings as a measure of success. What follows are my ten favorite sitcoms of all time. One thing I find notable about the list is that they are spread out over the history of television. I do believe the golden age of sit coms was the 70’s but the Creme de la Creme are from throughout TV's history.

One constant in good sit coms is a central character who is especially likable and while funny, a relatively sane figure. The best of sitcoms have not lapsed into dramatic story lines. There is no “will they get married?” or “will they get divorced” questions hovering over the show getting in the way of the comedy. The basic rule in the best sit coms is to save the drama for your mama. And in most cases stories are self contained. You may have running gags but not overly involved story lines. The idea is to make with the laughs.

Anyway, here are my favorites:

1. Seinfeld (1990-1998)
. There’s nothing even to compare. It is the piece de resistance of sit coms. Every blessed episode is funny. It benefited from the greatest writing any TV show save perhaps The Sopranos has ever had. Four main characters bounced off each other with wit, wit and more wit. It was also an extremely intelligent show.

2. The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978). Bob Newhart has been great at stand up, films, specials, comedy albums but he was made for the sit com. He tried several but it was the role of psychologist Robert Hartley that he was at his best. His dead pan delivery among the incredible cast of loonies was perfect.

3. The Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977). How lucky we were when this and the Bob Newhart Show were back-to-back on the CBS schedule. Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner and Ted Knight working on a news show was bound to be funny. The scripts were always great and the show proved there are no bit parts.

4. Taxi (1978-1983).
Judd Hirsch was the centerpiece in this taxi cab company comedy. Surrounding him were the likes of the immortal Andy Kauffman and the priceless Danny DeVito. TV is always behind the curve. That makes it all the more remarkable that this sit com was well ahead of its time.

5. The Honeymooners (1955-1956). Jackie Gleason alone is funny. Toss in the quintessential wacky neighbor in the person of Art Carney’s Ed Norton and you're good to go. Jayne Meadows had impeccable comic timing as Ralph Kramden’s long suffering wife, Alice. The Kramdens' sparse apartment was plenty with all this talent.

6. Sgt. Bilko(1955-1958). Technically called the Phil Silvers show. Silvers in a sit com was pretty much a can’t miss proposition. Episdoes usually centered around Bilko’s schemes and pulling one over the brass. There was magic in this repetition. And magic in the unforgettable character Duane Doberman.

7. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). A proviso here, only the episodes up to the departure of Don Knotts. Once he left it became a barely run of the mill show. Barney Fife was perhaps the most inspired TV character of all time.

8. 30 Rock (2006-Present). The only current show on my list. It’s been with us for but two years but thankfully TV and film audiences have many more years of creator and star Tina Fey’s brilliance. For this show Add Tracy Morgan and national treasure Alec Baldwin and the laughs never stop.

9. The Odd Couple (1970-1975) Much funnier than the film upon which it was based. Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were the perfect comedy duo.

10. Car 54 Where Are You? (1961-1963) The best sitcom theme song of all time and the funniest cops led by Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne.

Honarable mention to The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982), I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Barney Miller (1975-1982).

Cheers (1982-1993) might have made the list but it went on a few years too long and too often lapsed into sentiment usually in the form of romances. M*A*S*H (1972-1983) was even more guilty in this respect. The show dragged on forever, actors left and were replaced by less interesting ones. The wit gave way to tedious dramatics and arguments. Will & Grace (1998-2006) would have been a candidate but got wrapped up in dramatic story lines that detracted from the laughs. Also its series finale was a travesty. Imagine a depressing sit com.

Special category award. Best cable sit com to Weeds (2005-Present). Not exactly your warm and fuzzy family show what with the sex, drugs. profanity and violence. But God it's a great show and really funny. Plus you get Mary-Louise Parker. Yum.

Finally I leave you with this wonderful website, Sitcoms Online.

Those Nasty Nazis of Film


As I pour through Richard Evans' multi volume history of the Third Reich it occurs to me the extent to which Nazis have been used in films for almost 75 years.
For one thing they are ideal villains. There never has been nor ever likely will be anything politically incorrect about demonizing them. Also, they really were that bad. And finally they were made for a visual medium what with their color uniforms, flags, emblems, salutes and marches.

As much as films have caricaturized and stereotyped Nazis in movies, generally speaking these depictions have often been fairly accurate. They really were God awful b*stards who relied on violence and torture.  The Nazis were unabashedly racist, sexist, homophobic and every other thing we revile today. Also, there is no mistaking their goals were domination of large part of the world with the killing and enslavement of tens of millions as part of the plan.
But I digress...

There have been some memorable portrayals of Nazi characters in films. Here's a look at ten of the best portrayals of some of the worst people.

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List (1993).  This quickly became the gold standard of evil Nazis in films. Goeth was a real person and a real horror. I suppose it is fair to say that Fiennes did him justice. He played Goeth as the totally hedonistic cold blooded killer he was, a slovenly one at that who lazily shot at passing Jews from his balcony. One of the most chilling scenes in cinema is when he says to Helen Hirsch a Jewish woman in his employ, "I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word..." as he is at once reviled and aroused by her. This is is the essence of the sickness within anti semitism.

Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).  There are myriad elements that make Casablanca one of the most revered films of all time.  Among them is Veidt's portrayal of the oily Major Strasser. Veidt had a special antipathy toward the Nazis as he fled his native Germany shortly after they came to power. His wife was Jewish. Strasser is the quintessential self possessed bureaucrat unhesitant about using violence.

Bruno Ganz as Adolph Hitler in Downfall (2004). He was, of course, the ultimate Nazi.  Ganz played him not as a monster but as a human being.  A God awful human being and arguably  the most destructive to humankind in history but a human being. It is a compelling performance in an important film.

Paul Lukas as Dr. Kassell in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Not a great film but a wonderful performance. Lukas gave his character an intelligence and urbanity that makes the ideas of the Nazis so frightening. After all not all Nazis were thugs, some were doctors, architects, professors.  Scary.

Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Its a performance that verges on camp but effective enough to be scary as hell. Toht is that long leather jacket wearing bespectacled Gestapo guy who seems to live to torture.

Walter Slezak as Willy in Lifeboat (1944). This character was designed to rally the homefront during the war and he sure must have been effective. Duplicitous, cunning, strong and totally resolute.  He bore all the earmarks of a cunning and dangerous enemy. Slezak was never better.

Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christen Szell in Marathon Man (1976).  Okay maybe I'm cheating here because the film is set 30 years after the war but Olivier is after all playing a Nazi and an unrepentant one at that who has escaped justice lo those many years. Szell was the "White Angel" of Auschwitz during the war and his memory haunts Holocaust survivors.  The dental "exam" he gives Dustin Hoffman's Babe Levy is a cinematic classic, in part because it is excruciating yet watchable.

Alexander Granach as Alois Gruber in Hangmen Also Die (1943). Granach was another German who high tailed it out of Germany once Hitler came to power. He played a Russian in Ninochtka (1939) to great effect but I always remember for his performance in this underrated Fritz Lang film about the Czech underground. He was a methodical, calculated interrogator who put a happy exterior to mask a cold heart. Don't you hate that?

Otto Preminger as Col von Scherbach in Stalag 17 (1953). No list of this kind is complete without a POW camp Kommandant (Col. Klink need not apply) and Preminger's performance was as good as they come and doubtless others that followed. He had that nasty Nazi arrogance that was so despicable. The scenes with the removal of his boots are weirdly memorable.

Paul Schofield as Col. Franz von Waldheim in The Train (1964) . The worldly sophisticated cultured Nazi is one of the worst.  Art love von Waldheim may have a touch of class but deep down he's a snake in  the grass too. Using humans as human shields, executing suspected spies, serving the Third Reich as much as did the Brownshirts.

07 September 2008

Mr. Debonair Himself, Herbert Marshall


His voice, his manner, his movements positively exuded class.

When you hear Herbert Marshall speak in one of the 73 films in which he appeared you can hear the sophistication. Let's get some more adjectives out: suave, elegant, dapper, urbane, gracious and most important of all, charming. Marshall always came off as educated and classy, but never pretentious. So let's get out these adjectives too: affable, likable and even comfortable.

Marshal always seemed like he'd been to the best schools, read all the classics, knew which were the good wines and had never ever burped. I defy you to not enjoy Marshall's company, even when he's playing a rogue (especially?) or a double crossing spy.

In Foreign Correspondent (1940) his character, Stephen Fisher is a Nazi spy masquerading as a peace advocate. Fisher has fooled everyone, including his own daughter. But in the end, after his exposure, Fisher gives his own life to save his captors. What a guy!

Perhaps the quintessential Marshall role was as Gaston Monescu, the international jewel thief and scam artist in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). Countless other actors have played high class thieves to great success but I'd put Marshall up against any of them. You like him, admire him and root him on with all your heart.

Born in London, Marshall served England in the first World War where he lost a leg (it was never found). Fit with a wooden leg he nonetheless pursued a career in acting. Did Marshall ever amble around in his films like a guy who could use his own leg to knock on wood? He did not. Marshall may never have played a sprinter but his walk was as jaunty as his characters.

Marshall's first big film role was as Marlene Dietrich's dutiful husband in Joseph von Sternberg's brilliant film, Blonde Venus (1932). While Dietrich stole the show, as usual, Marshall was heart-breaking as the spouse who has to leave wife and child in New York to seek the only possible cure to the poisoning he's suffered. He returns fully cured to find his wife and child gone and pursues them to the ends of the earth. A great dad and devoted husband!

Marshall also got to enjoy a screen marriage to Greta Garbo, in The Painted Veil (1934). Only to have to play the cuckold again. As if that was enough, Marshall was betrayed yet again in The Letter (1940). This time Bette Davis was the adulteress, committing murder in the process. Again Marshall won our hearts as the earnest and faithful hubby gullible but loyal to the end.

Who else could be played for such a sap but never seem like a sap? While other actors would have seemed like dupes, Marshall just ill used and deserving a better fate.

Marshall had better luck in other films such as with Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise and Jean Arthur in If You Could Only Cook (1935). Of course, in neither case was he married to the dames -- yet. Not exactly a testimony to the institution of marriage. Off screen Marshall was married four times and is rumored to have had affairs with Hopkins, Kay Francis and Gloria Swanson. Not bad.

I dare say (as a Marshall character would intone in that lovely baritone) I can think of no one in film today who resembles Marshall. This is high praise indeed. It suggests an actor who was one of a kind. One of the higher aspiration of any performer. Marshall was distinctive, his performances were without affect, just genuine and original.

Ya know, real class.

05 September 2008

It's About Time!



I have always been  proud of my participation in protests during the late 60's and early 70's. I was growing up in, of all places, Berkeley which was of course a center of student unrest. There was a sense that we were changing the world. Peace and love could be the order of the day. Clearly we were part of a sea change in the culture and moved all future political discussion to the left.

I have similarly always been proud of being born and raised in Berkeley and re-locating here for most of my adult years. I married and raised two children in this incredible city.

I have not been proud, however, of the actions of tree sitters and others who have sought to stop the construction of the sports training facility adjacent to Memorial stadium on the Cal campus. They have made fools of themselves and Berkeley and cost the university literally millions of dollars. Their protest was not in the spirit of the 60's.  It was more akin to a bad satire of real democratic protest. Imagine what the tree sitters could have accomplished if they had employed all that energy to help people in need. (True that would have meant hard work and without nearly as much publicity.)

Today the trees have started to come down. The university has prevailed in court and construction can begin. Finally! Meanwhile if anyone wants to march against the Iraq, an unfair tax structure or cuts in education, count me in. Oh yes and...Go Bears!

03 September 2008

Like Danny Rose I Don't Mean to Sound Facetious or Didactic


I don't want to bad mouth the kid but he's a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse. And I say that with all due respect. - Danny Rose.

Danny Rose was the Ed Wood of theatrical agents, which is to say, inept but well-meaning and lovable.

The character was the creation of Woody Allen who wrote, directed and played the title role in 1984's Broadway Danny Rose. Simply put:  the movie is one of the great comedies of our time and even succeeds as a love story.

Allen has been so prolific a filmmaker that there's a can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees effect to his body of work. Having directed 38 films (and counting) it's not surprising that a few get lost in the shuffle. In my mind Broadway Danny Rose deserves a place in Allen's top ten – if not his top five – best films.

Everything about the film works. From the cinematography to Mia Farrow's transcendent performance to the hokey but catchy songs of Nick Apollo Forte. The set up is brilliant with a group of comics (playing themselves) sitting around in a deli swapping jokes and stories with Sandy Baron eventually telling the ultimate Danny Rose tale. But the main reason the film succeeds is because of the star – Woody Allen. Allen's selection of himself to play the role was truly inspired.

Danny Rose handles one-armed jugglers, and one-legged tap dancers, bird acts, and even a skating penguin dressed as a rabbi. Sadly, those few acts of his that actually succeed inevitably leave him for a "better" agent. But they'll never get the kind of personal attention that Rose can provide. "Friendly but not familiar," admonished his father (God rest his soul) but Danny gives the proverbial 110%. His dedication comes because he has the most endearing and important of qualities: faith.

Against all reason, the director Ed Wood, as portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 1994 film Ed Wood, had faith; faith in himself, his cast and crew and thus his films. That's why we love and root for Wood. Similarly, the faith Rose has in his clients,  and by extension, himself, is why we root for him. Of course both are surrounded by people even odder than himself. But neither Wood nor Rose are judgemental. In their loyalty is true love. There is something piquant about truly devoted people who pursue their goals heedless of the world's myriad cynics and know-it-alls who surround them.

Audiences can abide a little incompetence in a movie's lead if it's swathed in earnestness, persistence and affability. In Rose's case add a fantastic sense of humor (he was, after all, a failed comic) and you can't help but love the guy.

The ultimate Danny Rose story that the comic Sandy Baron tells centers around an aging pop star of the 1950's, Lou Canova, played by Nick Apollo Forte. Canova is represented by Rose who, of course, has faith in this boozing, womanizing has-been. Lo and behold the "nostalgia craze" hits and Canova draws the attention of no less than Milton Berle. Rose must not only look after Canova's every need but be the beard and take his temperamental girlfriend Tina Vitale (Farrow) to the big show. Hilarity ensues.

Broadway Danny Rose is over and done in a mere 84 minutes, closing credits and all.  This is a remarkable tribute to Allen's direction.  The cast of characters alone is dizzying including, as it does, Mafia hitmen, Howard Cosell, a fortune teller, the world's worst ventriloquist and the various and sundry personnel already noted.
Pacing is everything.

I find Broadway Danny Rose funny each time I watch it. It also stays fresh because Allen's title character is so totally guileless, and so utterly endearing, and so wonderfully hopeful.

What a sweet movie.

02 September 2008

How Angels Beat the Code


I think Warner Brothers slipped one by Joseph Breen and the the rest of the censorship Nazis when they released Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938.

The Production Code was strict about pretty much everything including the idea that bad guys had to pay the price for their misdeeds. In fact, for a brief period after the code started being enforced you were hard pressed to find any gangster films even being made.

Angels, directed by Michael Curtiz, starred James Cagney as career criminal Rocky Sullivan who returns from a recent stint in jail to his old neighborhood. He looks up his childhood friend Jerry Connolly (it’s no accident that his initials were J C) who is now a priest. They renew their acquaintances and even their friendship. This despite the fact that they clearly represent good and evil and the padre at least is aware of it – in an appropriately humble way.

Rocky also looks up his most recent partner, a shyster lawyer, played by Humphrey Bogart, who's ostensibly holding on to Rocky's $100,000. Meanwhile Rocky encounters the grown-up version of a girl he used to tease, Laury Ferguson. Ferguson is brought to life by Ann Sheridan, upon whom I have a massive crush (albeit 70 years late). The two get along just fine as grown-ups.

Lastly, we have the Dead End Kids as the rambunctious teen age bad seeds of the neighborhood. Their brand of mischief-making recalls that of the youthful Rocky, meaning they slip onto the other side of the law. A key to the story – and the manner in which Angels With Dirty Faces beat the code – is the relationship Rocky develops with the gang.

Rocky becomes hero, mentor and role model to the lads. Father Sullivan's efforts to lead them on the right path have been for naught, with Rocky in the picture it is perhaps make or break time for these roughnecks.

While Rocky has gladly taken the boys under his wing he also has some very significant fish to fry. Bogart is part of a larger criminal enterprise and has no intention of parting with Rocky’s money. Indeed, these really bad guys (there are degrees of bad guys, especially in films of that era) want him rubbed out. Rocky’s way too smart for them though and not only stays alive but muscles in on the operation.

Our friend Rocky has a lot going on but like most any character played by Cagney, he’ll clear all hurdles with grace and charm. Herein lies the problem. Rocky is making fools of the police and thus the establishment and thus laws and thus morals and thus God. Father Connolly can’t have that for his parish, no matter that the principal perpetrator is his old pal.

With the cops impotent the padre joins forces with crusading reporters to expose the criminal element as personified by Rocky.

(From this point on we’re into serious spoiler territory so if you’ve not seen the movie proceed at your own risk.)

In large part due to Connolly’s agitation, Rocky and his reluctant partners engage in a gun battle and you can guess who wins that. The cops are drawn to the fracas and Rocky’s fate is sealed. It’s to prison, trial and the chair for him.

This was 1938 and bad guys couldn't win. But that wasn’t enough. After all, Rocky was still a hero to the young gang back home and frying in the chair wasn’t going to change that. All this is made clear by shots of the boys reading the latest news stories about Rocky.

The solution comes in the form of Father Connolly, who persuades Rocky to do the one thing he least wants to do: go out like a coward. If he faces death kicking and screaming he’ll no longer be such a hero to impressionable youngsters. A stoic Rocky is what the kids expect; only a rat shows fear. At the last second Rocky obliges. The boys read this and are disappointed in their one-time hero. The film ends with them going off with Father Connolly to pray for Rocky. Good triumphs over evil, game set and match.

Or does it?

Maybe the characters thought Rocky was a coward but audiences knew Rocky was putting on an act at the end. What a great guy to do that. Say, he must be all right! Plus Cagney’s Rocky was still the colorful character who led the exciting if abbreviated life. Father Connolly? A good guy, but come on, this was Pat O’Brien being oh so upright and moral. In other words, dull as dish soap.

Angels with Dirty Faces was clearly saying one thing and showing another. I doubt many career decisions have been based on seeing it but I’ve got to think it would be just as likely to lead one to a life of crime as to the priesthood.

The enforcement of the Production Code (not to mention the Code itself) sucked – to put it quite bluntly. But savvy filmmakers managed to work around it. While being sure to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, they’d still get away with a little immorality, sex, and unpunished crime.

What lunkheads like Breen missed was that the audiences who saw Angels with Dirty Faces were enthralled with Cagney, not the ultimate triumph of O’Brien. This was not the Cagney of White Heat (1948) rotten to the core. He was kind to all save double crossing gangsters who were far dirtier rats than he. True, Rocky’s tutelage of the young guns would have kept them on the path to evil but he lent them a touch of class. He refereed a basketball game for them and insisted they play by the rules (watching basketball from the 1930’s is, as they say, a hoot).

Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan was a multi dimensional character who audiences would root for. In the end he did the right thing. O’Brien’s priest was a true saint and truly yawn inducing. He automatically did the right thing. There was no choice involved. Me thinks Angels with Dirty Face slipped a fast one past the code all right.