18 April 2009
Busby B, Edward G and a Woody Makes Three
It has been argued that I've not posted quite enough recently (though not by anyone who is functionally literate). It's just been so hectic the past few days what with the holidays, the wedding, the trial, the cruise, the benefit concert, the surgery, the alien abduction and Spring cleaning. But enough about me...In reverse chronological order of my viewing them, I now present and discuss the last three films I've watched.
42nd Street (1933). Recently read an article Roger Ebert in which he named what he considered the 10 most influential films. He included a just published list by TCM of 15 such movies. Their list included 42nd Street and here's what they said: "Although musicals helped launch talkies, the genre was box office poison by 1933. Visionary producer Darryl F. Zanuck had the idea for a backstage story that would capture the effect of the Depression on hard-working chorus girls. He was smart enough to put Busby Berkeley in charge of the dance routines, and his geometric patterns and dazzling camera movements both revitalized musicals and saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy." I was thus inspired to whip out my DVD of the film for viewing this morning. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, as they would be on numerous other occasions, were the story's central love interest. For many of us in the Baby Boomer Generation both can be an acquired taste. In truth Powell is most interesting in a later noir, Murder My Sweet (1944) in which he is a more than passable Philip Marlowe. In the event, I've grown to appreciate Powell despite the inherit simpleness of his characters. He's a decent dancer, a good singer and plays plucky, charming blokes. Keeler is an odd duck. Her delivery can seem flat and uninteresting. She comes off as innocent as a three year old on Easter morning. Her singing voice is okay and she can dance up a storm. But given who she's surrounded by in films like this and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), her blinkered virtue may be just what the doctor ordered. 42nd Street boasts a stellar supporting cast. There's Una Merkle who I've gone from barely noticing, to appreciating to really liking to being nuts about. A perennial co star as the daffy dame she’s always, always good for a laugh or nine. Ned Sparks is there and brings his unforgettable voice and manner and cigar. Did he ever bust out a smile, woo a dame or do a prat fall? Who cares? You can be a one trick pony if your trick is that good. The irrepressible Guy Kibbee as Abner Dillon is the dough behind the musical. Dillon has a an ornery streak that most of Kibbee's characters lacked. He's his usual lovable self just the same. The ubiquitous Allen Jenkins is on board. Why 42nd Street is so deep in talent that the great Ginger Rogers has a relatively small, though crucial role as Anytime Annie -- it’s said of her that the only time she said no she hadn't heard the question. The least surprising thing about 42nd Street is that Charles Lane is in it (it would make more sense to mention films Lane doesn't appear in). Along with Powell and Keeler, Bebe Daniels, Warner Baxter and George Brent star. Lloyd Bacon directed but this film came to DVD as part of a Busby Berkeley DVD collection. He was, of course, the choreographer. There is thus dance spectaculars featuring many, many synchronized legs and sets that are too impossibly large to fit on a stage. Thus we have the Berkeley combo of surrealism and precision routines. If you don't enjoy Berkeley numbers its quite possible you're from a different planet (how is Jupiter these days?). So of course I really like 42nd Street and all its butt slapping, witty dialogue, cornball speeches and innuendo. I must congratulate myself on an excellent viewing choice.
Double Indemnity (1944). Yesterday the question before me was: what to do with the time in between returning home from work and heading out to the ballpark? My answer was watching this "classic film noir" that I’d recently recorded via TCM. Yes I've seen and enjoyed it many times before. I don't quite love it enough to buy a copy or put it on my top 100 films of all time but let's not quibble about how much I dig it. Just stay calm, buddy. It features some of the best dialogue you'll ever hear, not at all surprising given that it’s a Billy Wilder film. It features Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff in a fantastic performance. He's wonderfully understated, outwardly cool while obviously turmoil bubbles within that conflicted soul. My all time favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck is the evil seductress, Phyllis Dietrichson. The wig looks sillier and sillier with each viewing but ultimately doesn't dampen one's appreciation for the film (unless said individual is a real stickler). Yet despite MacMurray and Stanwyck’s presence the real star of this movie is the amazing Edward G. Robinson. His portryal of claims investigator Barton Keyes is one of the greatest performances ever. (I will now pause while you hurl accusations of hyperbole my way.) Robinson stays 100 % in character while providing a fabulously flamboyant performance. His Barton Keyes is all eccentric intelligence, intuition and single mindedness. Robinson opens Keyes up in such a way that you can think right along with him. You admire Keys while at the same time worrying that he's going to bring down his friend, the poor sap Neff. Indeed the Keyes/Neff relationship is as crucial -- nay, more so -- to the story than the Neff/Dietrichson one. They love each other. No, it's not homo eroticism, it's a strange and wonderful combination of best friends, trusted co-workers, father-son. The damage done to that friendship by the murder of Mr. Dietrichson is the real tragedy in Double Indemnity. Robinson played one helluva lot of gangsters, and to the casual film fan that's all he was (then again he was GREAT as a gangster so that's not such a bad thing). But see him in such films as this one and Scarlet Street (1945), The Sea Wolf (1941), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and Five Star Final (1931). Edward G could, as they say, do it all.
Melinda and Melinda (2004). There had been two Woody Allen films that I had not yet seen -- until I finally watched this on Thursday (that just leaves Anything Else (2003)). Finally! And what took me so long? I must have been really busy the past five years, or the reviews were scathing, or I'm simply out of my mind. Actually none of the above. It's just one of those things, I suppose. (I'm just receiving word that I should not rule out the “out of my mind” possibility). Given how many great films he is responsible for it's not exactly harsh criticism to say that this is not one of Woody's best. A mediocre Allen film is far better than most garbage in release these days. I enjoyed Melinda doubled very much. The idea of two playwrights creating two versions based on the same incident, one tragic one comic, is pure Woody. Provided, of course, he then proceeds to show both variations, intercutting between. Radha Mitchell is both Melindas. She was made for Woody, being beautiful and able to play the intelligent, neurotic New Yorker conflicted about life and love. I'd go so far to say she's Woodier (to coin a phrase) than Scarlett Johannson who's pretty darn Woody -- you getting all this? The usual splendid Allen cast includes Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet (hubba bubba), Chloe Sevigny, Wallace Shawn and Josh Brolin. (What, no Charles Lane?). This was Allen's last New York based film before heading off to Europe (though he's back in the Big Apple for his next feature). There is the usual assortment of successful New York intellectuals trying to sort out sex, the meaning of life and the vagaries of friendships. Listening to Melinda doubled for a few minutes is more than enough to know you're watching an Allen film. This does not constitute a bad thing. Many directors, producers and stars have a certain style that they do variations of throughout extremely successful, entertaining careers. Melinda and Melinda is funny and wise, just not nearly so funny and wise as say Manhattan (1979) or Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). This is, I believe, a case of praising with faint damnation.
Program note: TCM is showing Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) for the first time, Monday at 9:15pm Eastern time, 6:15 pm Pacific. Watch it or record it for later viewing and thank me later.