30 March 2009

Dietrich and Donat Find Love and Adventure During the Russian Revolution and I Discover A Fantastic Film

I love surprises. I got quite a surprise the other day when TCM offered its first ever showing of a film I'd not yet heard of, Knight Without Armor (1937). I saw that it starred Marlene Dietrich who has greatly enriched my fantasy life over the years (if only I could build a time machine I'd send myself back to the 1930's and...). That it co-starred Robert Donat, so wonderful in Hitchock's The 39 Steps, made it a must for the old DVR.

I didn't know what to expect. At this point in my life if I haven't heard of a film with such major stars in it I assume that it mustn't be very good. In this case I was very mistaken.

Donat plays a British journalist in pre Revolutionary Russia who, upon being booted out of the country for criticizing the Czarist regime, is recruited to stay and spy for his homeland. Meanwhile Dietrich is a very wealthy Countess who lives in luxury with a houseful of servants at her disposable.

Only a revolution could bring these two souls together and Mother Russia obliges. They fall madly in love. I'll dispense with further plot points, its best you discover it for yourself. If you missed it last week, fear not, you won’t have to wait three months or more to see it again. TCM will be re-airing next Monday at 1:00 am. Set your recording device now. (It’s not currently available in DVD.) Go on. Do it right away, you don't want to take a chance of forgetting. The rest of us will wait....

Knight without Armor is a Korda Brothers production and indeed TCM showed it as part of a tribute to the sibling film makers. The Hungarian born producers filmed this story of Russia in England with a German star and a French director born in Belgium, Jacques Feyder. The screenplay, based on James Hilton's novel, was adapted by American Frances Marion. How international can you get?

This melting pot of the movie had me wondering where it had been all my life. Unlike many other films set around the Russian Revolution it manages to be epic in scope without an epic length (just under an hour and three quarters).

One doesn't quite know what to rave about first. There is the lush cinematography of Harry Stradling Jr. who had a long and distinguished career; there is the wonderful score by Miklos Rosza for whom this was the first of nearly 100 films. And there is the brutal honesty of the story itself. White Russians executing Red Russians and Red Russians executing White Russians. By rifle and machine gun. It’s as violent a story you’ll see from the latter half of the Thirties. There is an alarming sense of arbitrariness coupled with an inevitable doom, that makes that violence all the more chilling.

I was struck by how realistic King Without Armor was. Yes you've got a fantastic love story with all manner of near miss high wire escapes and incredible fortune, but you've also got a vivid re-telling of the human toll and the unimaginable tragedy the Russian Revolution caused so many.

The train scenes alone have a documentary feel. The anxious waits at the trains stations, the crowding aboard trains. The desperation to get out, to anywhere. Then there are the on-the-spot trials many resulting in on-the-spot executions that are oh so chilling.

But the film’s most powerful scene is of the countess waking up in her mansion to find the servants gone. Every last one. Not a soul to wait on her hand and foot. There is the overwhelming sense that the world had been turned upside down (it had been) as she races around the empty rooms and out to the gardens finding no one. (The unexplained emptiness is eerie.) Finally she's confronted by an angry mob of revolutionaries seeking revenge on the aristocracy. It's an amazing scene and again the photography and score enhance it, but so does Feyer's composition of it.

And of course there is Dietrich's face. Feyer does not have the camera caress her in lingering close ups as von Sternberg so famously did, but he does have her framed perfectly in many shots. Using that lovely and evocative face to tell the story.

Dietrich is wonderful as the poor little rich girl, her very life capsized only to find an inner strength never before called upon. She also finds love in the arms of a stranger that helps her tap further reservoirs of bravery.

Donat here proves what a terrific star he could have been had not the terrible asthma that ultimately killed him much too soon limited the number of roles he could play. (Production of this film was slowed when he suffered a serious attack that sidelined him for a month). He is dashing and intelligent but shows enough fear to make his character seem all the more human and the story thus more real.

Together Dietrich and Donat are heroic because they betray vulnerabilities and doubt. They are not superheroes but two people facing an imaginable crisis using all the wits at their disposable.

What could have been, and indeed I feared, would be, a corny romance/adventure was a wonderful slice of history and touching love story.

What a great find this film was for me. I already cannot wait to watch it again to find more within it. And to think there is doubtless so much more out there to discover!

29 March 2009

It's Great To See You! A Celebration of Towering Figures in Small Roles

They're like an old friend who pops into town now and again. Or like a beloved Uncle who pays an occasional visit. They never hang around for long but their brief appearances are memorable. You can't wait to see them again. They're idiosyncratic, they're delightful. They are supporting players from films of the Thirties and Forties. Always a best man, never the groom.

The mere fact of their name in the opening credits can create anticipation. In addition to say Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard you're getting a wonderful bonus that may help turn a good movie into a classic. It's no coincidence that they show up in most of the great films of their era. I suppose that calling them supporting players is a misnomer, after all, there are no small parts only small actors and these men are truly giants.

So I offer to you a dozen male "supporting" players who are as much apart of Hollywood's Golden Age as Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney or Clark Gable. For each I've included seven of the films in which they appeared. To show just how much territory they covered I've been careful not to mention any movie more than once. Is this the definitive list? Absolutely not. There are others, but these 12 will do for now. Could a similar list comprised of women by made? Indeed it could. This is a gentleman's only list, though female readers are, as always most welcome. This Not At All Dirty Dozen is offered in the order I thought of them.

Guy Kibbee. Chubby, bald and bumbling and fumbling. In other words, adorable. He usually had a fair amount of dough and was always a sucker for any nice looking dame who'd coo in his ear. Kibbee featured in some films but shined as a supporting player. Great as an inept politician. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Babes in Arms (1939), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Blonde Crazy (1931), Taxi! (1932), Rain (1932).

William Demarest. Gruff but lovable. Plenty of bluster but as harmless as a kitten. One of Preston Sturges' regular company of players. Demarest will be best remembered by me as Constable Kockenlocker, the father of an unwed young mother-to-be in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Demarest proved here that he was a master of the pratfall. Often a very protective right hand man as in The Lady Eve were he has the great closing line: "positively the same dame." Seven Movies He Enhanced: Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944); Stage Door Canteen (1943); Sullivan's Travels (1941); The Devil and Miss Jones (1941); Palm Beach Story (1942); Along Came Jones (1945); The Great Man Votes (1939).

Eric Blore. The wonderful blogger and artist Kate Gabrielle of Silents and Talkies opined to me, that the world would be a far better place if everyone liked Eric Blore. Amen sister. He was the British sidekick to countless stars. Often a butler, often simmering with anger, often up to something. Always a delightful character. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Swing Time (1936); Joy of Living (1938); The Lady Eve (1941); The Shanghai Gesture (1941); Love Happy (1949); The Ex Mrs. Bradford (1936).

Franklin Pangborn. No one would have dared point this out back in Pangborn's heyday but he was gay and he played gay characters. It wasn't an issue one way or another as long his sexuality wasn't spoken of and it wasn't. Another regular in Sturges' films. The classic Pangborn performance was as the frustrated reception comittee organizer in Hail the Conquering hero. Usually played an officious sort trying to keep things going while all around him went kablooey. Seven Movies He Enhanced: My Man Godfrey (1936); Flying Down to Rio (1933); The Bank Dick (1940); George Washington Slept Here (1942); Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); Now Voyager (1942); Stage Door (1937).

Charles Lane. Is there anything he wasn't in? My God the guy shows up everywhere. Counting TV he had 347 acting credits to this name. That's no typo, 347. Never a big role, often a desk clark or bureacrat. There's something about his ubiquity (look it's Charles Lane!) that gives any movie he's in a seal of approval. Never a cuddly character but always a pleasure to see. Lived to be a 102 years old. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Employee's Entrance (1933); Broadway Bill (1934); Twentieth Century (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); You Can't Take it With You (1938); Union Depot (1932), Ball of Fire (1941).

Sig Ruman. Thrice a foil for the Marx Brothers most notably in A Night at the Opera as the Opera Manager Herman Gottlieb. Having been born in raised in Germany (served in their army during World War I) its no surprise that he played Germans. But was wonderful as a Russian in Ninotchka. Given his girth (ample) and his voice (booming) he could feel the screen visually and an aurally, always to wonderful effect. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Ninotchka (1939); A Night at the Opera (1935); A Day at the Races (1937); Only Angles Have Wings (1939); Berlin Correspondent (1942); It Happened Tomorrow (1944); A Night in Casablanca (1946).

Thomas Mitchell. Of this 12 he was probably the finest actor and won an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor in Stagecoach) to show for it. Memorable as a drunk or doing drunk scenes and an absolute revelation as Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life. He could be smart, cynical, cowardly, dim witted or brave, but he was always lovable. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Stagecoach (1939); It's A Wonderful Life (1946); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Theodora Goes Wild (1936); The Black Swan (1942); Bataan (1943); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

C. Aubrey Smith. If the call went in to central casting for a tall, austere, older British gent, Smith most have topped the list. The white handle bar mustache, regal bearing and posh accent made him seem the epitome of the upper crust Englishman. Often a Colonel, sometimes a vixen's plaything, always a money in the bank performance. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Trouble in Paradise (1932); Queen Christina (1933); Cleopatra (1934); The Scarlett Empress (1934); Rebecca (1940); The Prisoner of Zenda (1937); China Seas (1935).

Edward Evertt Horton. Had a notable TV career but I 'll always think of him as Professor Nick Potter, mentor and friend to Cary Grant in Holiday. Was a constant companion to Fred Astaire in the Astaire/Rogers musicals. Best as a wealthy sophisticate but one possessed less with intellectual capacity than witless charm. Seven Movies He Enhanced: Holiday (1938); Arsenic And Old Lace (1944); The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941); The Devil is a Woman (1935); Lost Horizon (1937).

Frank Morgan. To most he was the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz but I'll always think of him as Hugo Matuschek the shop owner in Shop Around the Corner. It was a most moving performance as the kind-hearted boss who wrongly suspects that his most trusted employee is having an affair with his wife. Morgan was great as the dad, the boss or the absent minded professor. Seven Movies He Enhanced: The Shop Around the Corner (1940); The Wizard of Oz (1939); The Human Comedy (1943); The Mortal Storm (1940); Boom Town (1940); Honky Tonk (1941); Bombshell (1933).

Jerome Cowan. Best known for his brief appearance as the lecherous and doomed Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. Cowan had a long run in TV. He was perfect as the suave and wise second banana. Often the star's best friends, more often beaten out of the girl, a worthy rival but always second fiddle. Seven Movies He Enhanced: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Hurricane (1937), You Only Live Once (1937); Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Mr. Skeffington (1944); Shall We Dance (1937); Torrid Zone (1940), City for Conquest (1940).

Asta. This plucky canine was, lamentably, typecast as a dog. But I'd be barking up the wrong tree if I made too much of that. The very fact of his being a dog cut short his career as his species don't tend to live as long as us homo sapiens. Played opposite William Powell and Myrna Loy several times and was always a scene stealer. Also noteworthy was a supporting role with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. His private life is little known as he did not grant interviews. Doggone good actor. Five Movies He Enhanced: The Thin Man (1934); After The Thin Man (1936); The Awful Truth (1937); Topper Takes a Trip (1938); The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).

27 March 2009

It Takes All Kinds (Or So I've Been Told)

Growing up I always heard that "it takes all kinds." It was never clear to me just exactly why "all kinds" were in fact required. As I grew older I wondered just exactly why we couldn't get away without certain kinds, such as homicidal maniacs, serial rapists, child molesters and Ann Coulter.

I thus long ago concluded that, taken literally, the concept of having all kinds is undesirable.

I was reminded of this yesterday while riding the bus, a form of conveyance that indeed attracts all kinds. I was minding my own beeswax (which is my wont on buses) reading a book titled "Berlin Games: How the Nazis Stole the Olympic Dream" by Guy Walters about the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. I've always been at once intrigued and repelled by the Third Reich. It is equal parts fascinating and horrid. Ultimately nothing good came from it save valuable lessons on the nature of evil.

The gentleman occupying the seat next to me asked what I was reading. I gave him as brief a summary as possible and returned to my reading hoping that what would do.

No such luck.

"Do you know who this is?" he asked showing me photo of man that had been printed from the Internet.

I answered honestly that he looked familiar but I couldn't quite place him.

Heidegger, he informed me adding that the German philosopher was an inspiration to Nazi thinkers.

"Doesn't look Aryan, does he?" my bus mate asked.

"No he doesn't" I allowed still unaware that he was building towards something.

Next he showed me a full page of mug shots showing various leaders of Nazi Germany, Hitler himself among them.

"Do any of them look Aryan?" he asked.

What a coincidence, I thought. Here I am reading about the Nazis and I randomly sit next to someone who has pictures of their leaders. Moreover these pics reveal that the hypocritical b*stards didn't even resemble the Aryan ideal they so extolled.

Then my new friend outed himself as a true loony. "They were all Zionists," he revealed.

Yes, I thought, that would explain their systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews, wouldn't it. (I even think like a smart ass.)

My actual verbal reply was something along the lines of "uhmpfhg."

Before I could form an actual coherent sentence like, "say buddy, ever consider making cyanide a daily part of your diet?" the whackjob showed me a picture of the White House with a Jewish menorah superimposed over it. "You know what this is?" he asked indicating the menorah. Before I could reply he said, with great satisfaction, "a menorah; everyone in the White House now is a Zionist. See, its what they do, they take over governments."

Ya know, the fact that you can photo shop an iconic Jewish image over a picture of the White House is not terribly convincing of anything other than computer skills.

I looked up and saw that we were approaching my stop. I thanked the heavens that this had been a particularly short ride.

"You see what I'm saying," he asked.

"Yes, I do." I replied, meaning, of course, that as far as I was concerned what he was saying was that he himself is a certifiable kook trapped inside a normal looking body.

I knew better than to engage my Zionist-hating friend. People in his frame of mind have switched off the reasonable, rational portion of their brains. Any new information they receive is filtered through their rigid ideology (psychosis). Offering contradictions or alternative views to them are just like lobbing a softball. They'll swing from the heels and try to smash it back at ya.

My stop came and I veritably flew off the bus.

Our culture allows all kinds to speak out. Thankfully it allows us to tune them out if we so choose.

26 March 2009

A Story As Timely as If Ripped From Today's Headlines!

Mass unemployment.
Mobs of juveniles attacking police.

Not exactly the fare one associates with films of the 1930's. But it's all part of director William Wellman's, Wild Boys of the Road (1933). As is a teenager complaining to a judge about how banks, soldiers, farmers and breweries are getting help, but "What about us? We're kids!" This is not the "let's put on a show!" hokum most are accustomed to from 1930's cinema. Wild Boys is part of the truly Golden Age of American film known as the pre code era. Censorship was not rigidly enforced and films tackled mature and controversial subject matter in a way they would not be able to again for several decades. (See my recent posts on the pre code era. The first is linked to this sentence. And the second to this one.)

I hope you all saw Wild Boys on TCM the other night or that you taped, Tivo'd or VCR'd it. If not thank your lucky stars that it's finally come out on DVD.

This is a movie that pulls no punches; I submit as evidence the beginning of this post.

Two teens in Depression Era America take to the road to relieve their hungry families the burden of feeding them. The central character, Eddie, is so selfless he's already sold his beloved jalopy and given the cash to dear old dad. Along the way our friends meet a fellow traveler, a lovely young girl badly disguised as a boy. Not surprisingly their numbers soon multiply as other adolescent vagabonds join them. They ride the rails seeking an elusive job, along the way providing each other with company and solidarity.

Meanwhile they constantly run afoul of authorities, who after all have to enforce the laws of the land. These desperate times call for desperate measures and the waifs take on first railroad bulls and later the police. The results of this latter battle are inevitable.

Wild Boys is a great companion piece to John Ford's Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both show a bent but not broken country in which the American dream has given way to nightmare. The rich and powerful have survived the Depression relatively unscathed while the masses have taken a direct hit. (This would be an appropriate point to pause and read the great Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again" which this sentence is linked to.) Both Wellman and Ford were depicting an American in which the indomitable will of the people could take on and perhaps even overcome any hardship. Their films show the ugly truth of America during the depression. Good people resorting to any measure, even slipping into lawlessness, in a desperate attempt to maintain their dignity.

What is dignity if not a roof over your head and a full belly for you and yours? Is it not also self sufficiency? The myth perpetrated over the years by conservatives is of legions of American with their hands out begging for government relief or welfare checks. That's not most Americans. Most Americans will accept a temporary handout but truly desire a long term solution. As far as these people are concerned a government that has done so much for businesses is more than welcome to help. That law abiding Americans were forced to resort to crime speaks of America's great peril. This also, not incidentally, serves as a primer to what poverty does to those who suffer it in, even the best of times.

Wellman and Ford have captured the struggle that ripped not just at the social fabric of the country, but within the souls of Americans. Whether it is Henry Fonda as Tom Joad or Frankie Daro as Eddie or anyone of dozens of other characters, the bewilderment mixed with moxie combined with faith are etched in their faces. And thankfully Wild Boys shows that not all such faces are white. These films are prescient today as America teeters precariously on the brink of another Depression and its citizens rage at corporate heads handed huge bonuses as rewards despite public records of incompetence.

Wild Boys ends with a note of hope. Our arrested heroes face a kindly judge who gives a personal pledge to help. Eddie's somersault down the sidewalk bespeaks the renewed optimism Americans were starting to feel at the time of the movie's release. After all they had just elected a new president who offered hope after the failed policies of a Republican. Wait, that really sounds familiar.....

22 March 2009

What a Pal!

It's rare for an old curmudgeon like me to find anything positive to say about recent trends in American cinema but I've found one: male buddies, pals, friends, chums, bros, BFFs, partners, amigos, comrades, compatriots. By whatever name they're right up there on the big screen high fivin, goofin', laughin' and supporting one another. That is so totally awesome, man.

The prime example is a recent film (just out this weekend) that has its main theme that very notion of male friends. I Love You, Man is not just the latest but the best of the guy friend flicks.

The story centers around a charming young man, Peter Klaven, who has just gotten engaged. Problem is, he has no male friends. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Not even someone who could be the best man at his forthcoming nuptials.

Klaven is played by Paul Rudd. I'll say this about Rudd, I want to hang out with him. He often plays a best friend  simply because he's perfect for it. He's as likable a guy as you'll ever see and he plays one in the movies. As for I Love You, Man, long story short, and this is not a spoiler, he finds a best friend in the person of Sydney Fife (great last name) who is played by the also likable Jason Segal.

Their friendship is based on mutual interests, openness, support and the ability to have a great time together. Like the hokey pokey, that's what it's all about.

This is a great friendship because it comes at no one else's expense. They don't exploit women. They don't belittle other types of people, they stay within the law and they stay true to themselves. Klaven and Fife (did I emotion that' a great last name) are just as goofy, silly, childish and immature as any other male of any age (we're like that ladies). But here's the twist, they're nice to women and the only people they mess with are the rare assh*le who deserves a poke in the nose. What a great cinematic concept. Where has this been all these years?

One thing that has been proven is that just because the subject of a film is stupid doesn't mean the film has to be. You can take as a basic premise a couple of total goofballs hanging out trying to get laid and make an intelligent, even touching movie. Moreover you can get lots and lots of laughs without hurting anyone.

Of course the inevitable question about male friends who are close these days is: are they...you know? You mean GAY?? In the cases of these films they are not. However it is refreshing indeed to see that the gay characters, like Klaven's brother in I Love You, Man played by Andy Samberg, are NOT cardboard cut out stereotypes. I cannot presume to speak for my gay brothers and sisters, but it seems there is nothing offensive in either the portrayals of gay men in these films or the treatment of those characters by straights. Progress.

For that matter its not too much of a stretch to say that Milk (2008) focused to a degree on some platonic male friends. While the title character was indeed involved with several characters sexually, there were a lot of men working together and being close friends without jumping into the sack.

I may have just come up with an idea for a screenwriter looking for a story. How about a male buddy picture between two gay men? Or a gay man and a straight man?

I should add that films like I Love You, Man do not just appeal to men. Indeed I believe they have a broad appeal (that pun was NOT intentded and if it was it would have violated the spirit of the post). If there was a targeted demographic for the movie I doubt I was part of it. A few years ago the premise of the film would have sounded dumb. But that's only because these types of film were so bloody stupid. Now, they can and often are good films and good films appeal to all types of film goers. You combine laughs and an intelligent story and you're on to something.

You've totally got to see this movie, man. It's awesome. See it with your best bud.

21 March 2009

They Made Me Who I am Today: Six Films Present at My Creation

At the end of my last writing here I said: "In my next post I’ll examine the aftermath of 1968 Oscars in film as it related to yours truly." I've got every right to change my mind and I am so doing. This post will be about six films that influenced me as a young man and a movie goer beginning with two that received nominations for best picture in 1968. These two, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, were at the core of Mark Harris' book Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood ,which was the subject of my last post. That being said, here are the six pics in the order I saw them.

Bonnie & Clyde (1967). I'd never seen anything like it on the big screen. There was graphic violence. It was neither revolting nor glorified, it was just there. When Clyde shoots his pursuer in the face I had this instant, wow, gulp reaction. It was startling. It was not pretty. It was the way to tell a story -- realistically. Buck Barrow's death and his wife's blinding similarly made powerful impressions on me. This was the real face of violence. It seemed important to see it that way. The movie also featured sex, sort of. Clearly Clyde had, shall we say, issues. As someone just entering his teens this was amazing. Obviously sex was far more complicated than I had imagined why it even included malfunctions. I felt for the guy and had something to think about other than the action. Most significantly the clear heroes of the film were the criminals. This did not make me aspire to robbery. Like a lot of young folks I was deeply immersed in the rebellious attitudes and actions sweeping our country. There was real Robin Hood and anti establishment elements to Bonnie & Clyde. I felt that through this film there was a cool cinematic face to what was going on.

The Graduate (1967). Talk about anti establishment! There was no wanton criminality. There were no protests. There was no illicit drug use. But Ben Braddock seemed to me the ultimate rebel and never mind whether he had a cause. What a totally cool guy. He'd just finished college with honors but wasn't going to take what was then called the "straight" route. No "plastics" for him. Never mind that he didn't really doanything, save sleep with a much older woman. Ben did what hewanted to do and if that was nothing, well cool. Of course he ultimately goes to any and all lengths to get the girl he wanted. What could be cooler than that? Especially the way they haul off together, her having just married another dude and still in her wedding dress. Screw social conventions! That Simon & Garfunkel's sounds accompanied much of the story made seem even cooler yet.

If...(1968). If this list were in order, If...would have been first. You start off with Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis. My first film idol was Steve McQueen, then came McDowell. He was really really cool and really really British (like the Beatles!). McDowell was perfect because he wasn't a perfect specimen. Not too handsome. Not too strong. Not too tough. Just totally self assured and totally of his own mold. Mick Travis listened to classical music, for chrissakes. Who does that? Travis does because he's totally comfortable with being who he is. If.... was set in old English private school (is there any other kind?). So you've got a mix of different lads. As young men we can all relate to being thrown in together with a mixed bag of other chaps. There's the bullies, the geeks, the jocks, and then there's guys like Mick. The whole allegorical business of the mass killing at the end was endlessly fascinating. Mick and his friends (followers?) including his girl, seemed to be taking their protest to the logical extreme. The movie was saying something profound. I wasn't so adept at interpreting it as I was at enjoying the fact of this improbable kind of story telling. McDowell was hero to me but I should have known to credit the film's director Lindsay Anderson for the way the story was told. I was utterly thrilled by If... as were my friends. We discussed it for hours and hours.

Midnight Cowboy (1969). I was absolutely bowled over. Dustin Hoffman's acting, the Harry Nilsson song, the realism....I felt somehow empowered that I could see serious stories being told on screen. No romance, comedy, action or adventure. A story about the way life really was. The kind of stories I'd just become acquainted with through novels. Midnight Cowboy made me want to tell stories of humans struggling with life. It made me want to be an actor and give a riveting performance that made people gasp. It made me want to make a movie using profound songs like "Everybody's Talkin'." It was so thrilling to see a story populated with so many strange characters and happenings. When Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture I cheered. The Hollywood establishment had gotten it right. (Little did I know how seldom they'd do so in the future).

MASH (1970). Sticking it to the Vietnam war! Sticking it to the army! Sticking it to the government! And with sex, booze and football. Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland were regularly featured stars during my teens. They were oft times irreverent and never more so than in this Robert Altman film. This was a buddy picture. A bunch of guys, led by Gould and Sutherland, hanging out, thumbing their noses at the army while having fun and sex. But get this, these guys were also highly competent doctors. They were saving lives in the bargain! How cool is that? You can be of service to humanity but not to the bureaucrats and you can swill martinis and fornicate in the bargain. Life could be fun!

A Clockwork Orange (1971). It's scary how totally into this movie, indeed this story I was into. Saw the film a half dozen times. Read the book. Bought the soundtrack. Had a poster from the film. And last but not least, I bought a derby from a San Francisco gentleman's store. Yes, a derby just like Alex wore. A Clockwork Orange the book was a great piece of literature from Anthony Burgess. Stanley Kubrick's cinematic version was bravura film making. But why my obsession? Well there's McDowell again. Watching a hero go through all manner of experience and come out okay in the end is fulfilling. Especially when he doesn't play by any rules but his own. I was NOT inspired to violence by the story. I WAS inspired to live. Really live. This is part of the impact of these films. They made me want to be true to my essence. I knew there were certain boundaries, social niceties. But if I was going to march the straight and narrow, I'd do it to the beat of my own drummer. A Clockwork Orange was an extension of what was started for me by If...Life as full of endless possibilities and subject to our interpretation. What did Alex's story mean? what were Kubrick or Burgess or McDowell saying? Imagine putting your own spin on a story. Seeing it through your own eyes. The point of A Clockwork Orange wasn't to engage in violence but to engage in your own life. Violence was a choice Alex made. It wasn't real. Living life as you saw it was real.

All these movies thrilled me. They also challenged me to learn more and be more and understand more. They fueled my own irreverence, my sense of humor and my questioning of authority. That movies questioned the establishment convinced me that art could be an integral part of social change. I wanted to be part of change. I wanted it in myself and I wanted it for the world.

Other influential films for me were Play it Again, Sam (1972), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Little Big Man (1970), O Lucky Man! (1973), Getting Straight (1970), Serpico (1973) and Zabriske Point (1970). Yeah, no foreign films, those came to me later.

19 March 2009

1967, The Year the Seventies Began in American Film

There were more great American films made in the 1970's than the combined output of the ensuing three decades.

The many factors involved have been discussed ad nauseam by film critics and historians and know nothing bloggers like myself. There were a slew of dynamite young directors converging on the scene in the 70's (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg to name but a few). The French Wave was belatedly exerting an influence. The censorship imposed by the production code had given way to the film rating system. The cultural upheaval of the Sixties was effecting the type of films people made and wanted to see. And, not incidentally, neither the special effects revolution nor the concept of the blockbuster were ruining the industry.

The Seventies were indeed a glorious time for film. A few examples, The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Jaws (1975), The Exorcist (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), Chinatown (1974), Mean Streets (1973), Annie Hall (1977), Cabaret (1972), The Sting (1973), Animal House (1978)...trust me, I've just gotten started. The opening salvo came three years before the decade began with two landmark films that were very much in keeping with the spirit of the Seventies. I refer to Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate.

The story of these two films along with the other three nominated for 1967's Best Picture Oscar is wonderfully told by Mark Harris in Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. It's one of the best books on film ever and I'm highly recommending it with no cash, gifts or thanks expected either from the author or publisher (though I have a strict policy of taking any payola I can get my grubby mitts on).

The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde were joined as nominees by the well-intentioned In the Heat of the Night (which won) a post Civil Rights movement look at race relations in the South via a detective story. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger co-starred, the latter winning the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a racist but ultimately reasonable cop. Norman Jewison directed. Poiter appeared in another nominated film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? which appeared dated about a month after its release. Poiter was too perfect as the fiance of a young white woman (forgettably played by the forgettable Kate Houghton who had the good sense to leave films soon thereafter). The woman's parents would have their liberal views on race relations put to the test by the engagement. The parents were played by Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn in their final film pairing, indeed it was Tracy's final screen appearance, he died shortly after production ended. The final nominee was Dr. Doolittle, a disaster in virtually respect save the producers’ successful campaign to garner Oscar nominations, best pic among them.

Harris does a masterful job of relating how the five films came to be. He neither discusses one movie at a time nor goes strictly chronologically. He’ll follow one fact of a movies story until just before its exhausted then move on to another. I found it all surprisingly compelling, in large part owing to Harris’ story telling capabilities. He manages to include plenty of juicy gossip and anecdotes but its never prurient or gratuitous. You want a primer on old Hollywood breathing its last, this is your book.

While reading Five Pictures I variously wondered how any movie ever gets made and how all films don’t end up being perfect. In both cases it is the human factor that makes for either brilliance or disaster.

There are personalities aplenty in the story who readers will come to love, hate, admire or want to debate. There’s the writing duo of Robert Benton and David Newman who conceived the idea for Bonnie And Clyde, wrote the screenplay then doggedly pursued a producer who could get the film made. There’s Rex Harrison, so charming and warm on screen such a noxious prima donna off. And Sidney Poiter. Heroic. Conflicted. Having to act as virtually the sole representative of all African Americans in Hollywood and often assailed by all sides in the process. You'll also meet the wunderkind of Hollywood, director Mike Nicholas who would snare the best director Oscar.

Of course the focus of the story and not incidentally the most intriguing part of it is the making and consequent successes of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde. That neither won the big prize is no surprise given Oscar’s history and the times in which they appeared. They were surprising smashes and foretold a new era of imaginative, risk-taking film making. Indeed, they helped topple the censorious production code. Their critical and box office acclaim foretold a time when American film finally caught up with Europeans in creating more personal movies that spoke to the Baby Boom generation and America’s social upheaval.

In my next post I’ll examine the aftermath of 1968 Oscars in film as it related to yours truly. Meanwhile go buy yourself a copy of Harris’ book. Thank me later.

18 March 2009

It'll Be Wonderful!

I'm going to write a book. The title will be "A Turkey Sandwich Without the Feathers." As the title suggests this will be a light hearted look at life. Full of foibles. Metaphors. Similes."You go, gurrrrl friend," moments. Observations that everyone can relate to. Readers will nod and say "uh huh." And smile. I'll have a lot of suggestions like: pet a puppy today or smile at a stranger or contact an old friend. An emphasis on seeing the best in all of God's creatures. Common sense stuff. There'll also be some charming stories about my aunt Theresa, God rest her portly soul. I'll talk about faith but not in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. The political comments in the book will be in the form of tut tutting racists and other extremists. Stuff like: Weren't those 9/11 terrorist awful? I'll include a recipe for meatloaf that'll make you a real hit with the family. It'll be a really really cute book (it really will!). I'll have rib tickling chapter titles like "Hams Without the Wry" about non funny actors who overact. You get it, right? I'll appear on a few talk shows -- not the ones with people yelling at each other or the kind hosted by acerbic comedians. I'll have nice pleasant inoffensive chats with the hosts, who'll talk about how they simply "LOVE" my book. So will Larry King who'll have a blurb on the back of the book jacket. I won't get on his show or Oprah, but that's cool. The book will be a huge hit. Walgreen's will carry it.
Once I'm through with the book tour I'll sign a big contract to write a sequel. Then I'll buy a shotgun and blow my brains out.
Can't wait.

17 March 2009

Your Pre Code Films Primer Part II

A few days ago I listed ten wonderful films from the pre code era. A brief explanation and introduction of what I was going on about was provided and this sentence is linked to that intro. Suffice it to say that the list of ten wasn't near enough. So here is another ten (wouldn't be funny if I had a list of nine or eleven?). If someone wanted to make a case that this list is better than the first one they wouldn't get much of an argument from me. Anyhoo with the first ten I was looking for a representative selection and I'm trying to do the same again. All 20 films are guaranteed to be great examples of cinema from any era. 'Nuff said, here's another half score.

Heroes for Sale (1933). Finally coming to DVD next week as part of TCM's third set of pre codes. It works on numerous levels but most of all tis a great Depression era social drama. Its about war heroes, both the real ones and the phony baloney kind. It's about labor struggles its...Oh it's no good to try to capsulize it in so short a space; there's so much that Heroes (pictured above) has to say. Director William Wellman made a slew of great films during the pre code era alone. He had a knack for telling stories by creating worlds that were so real you couldn't help but react viscerally. Heroes is totally unsentimental and compelling in the way of many pre code dramas. Not to be missed.

Three On A Match (1932). How's this for starters: the three on the match are Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. Did someone just say 'who's Ann Dvorak?' The lovely Ms. Dvorak is one of those all too forgotten gems of bygone days. She's not just a pretty face. Ms. Dvorak exudes vulnerability and strength of character. The kind of dame men fall for all these years later, even if there’s an even prettier one in the room. When you've got the incomparable Bette Davis and the utterly delightful Joan Blondell rounding out the cast...Pure quality. Mervin LeRoy, a pretty fair director himself, brought to screen this story of three young women who were girlhood friends catching up on old times. We get to follow their new times which are wildly divergent. There's redemption, tragedy and heroism. All of it packed into a very pre code running time of 63 minutes. Zowie!

The Divorcee (1930). Let this be a lesson to anyone interested in marrying Norma Shearer: she don't put up with no mess. Naughty Norma seeks revenge on her adulterous husband with a fling or two of her own. This is the kind of stuff Hollywood shied away from once the production code was enforced. Sure its about sex, but its more about a woman with her own mind and own body who'll do as she pleases, thank you very much. The pre code era gave actresses like Shearer great roles, this is the perfect example.

The Public Enemy (1931). They made some terrific gangster films during the pre code era, none better than this classic starring James Cagney. I could go on and on about Public Enemy but I already did. Read an earlier post that this sentence is linked to. Come on, read it....

Trouble in Paradise (1932). Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins formed a great duo of roguish thieves in this Ernst Lubitsch film. Indeed to me this is Marshall's signature role. He's letter perfect as the high class jewel thief plying his trade in European capitals. Has he met his match in the lovely Ms. Hopkins? What fun they had! And what fun for audiences! And in pre code days there was none of this film noir crap about crime never paying.

Morocco (1930). Marlene Dietrich is obsessed with Gary Cooper. Can you imagine her not getting her man? Joseph von sternberg directed Morocco in one of his many parings with Marlene. What a team they made! He had "a thing for her" (keep it clean) and it resulted in camera shots that veritably caressed the star. You loved Marlene doing a cabaret act in a gorilla suit in Blonde Venus and you'll dig in her tux too. The on screen romance between Dietrich and French legionnaire Cooper is a sight.

Footlight Parade (1933). As great as Cagney was playing gangsters he was equally good doing some song and dance. Problem was he rarely got the chance. See him here with frequent co-star Joan Blondell (goodness she was in a lot of terrific films in those days). See also the delightful pairing of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler along with beloved character actors Guy Kibbee and Frank McHugh. Sub plots aplenty but most off all some fine patter and toe tapping numbers. The incomparable Busby Berkeley staged the extravaganzas.

Employee's Entrance (1933). You can't have enough of the youthful Loretta Young on any list. Here she is a salesgirl seduced by a tyrannical boss (Warren William, who was made for the role). While she carries on with the head honcho she also falls for someone closer to own age and station in life played by Wallace Ford (what a fine and interesting career he had). Roy Del Ruth directed.

Waterloo Bridge (1931). For God's sakes make sure you're seeing this the original and not the poxy 1940 version with Vivian Leigh and Robert Taylor. James Whale directed and Mae Clarke stars. Ms. Clarke gives a heartbreaking performance as a chorus girl in London during World War I who's forced to turn to another "older profession". She falls for a solider and there's a sense of tragic inevitability to the ensuing romance. Whale's direction is top drawer. Such stories were not told so honestly in the intervening years as the sappy watered down remake proves.

Five Star Final (1931). This is an all time favorite of mine. Mervin LeRoy directed this powerful look at the sensationalistic press. Edward G. Robinson is the editor who comes to understand the direct human cost of sleazy journalism. Boris Karloff is creepy, but this time as a reporter who'll go to any lengths to get a story. The film is relevant today although an exploitative media is more in evidence through TV and the internet. More on this film in a forthcoming post on movies and the newspapers.

The more alert of you will notice that the two films on this list (Five Star Final and Employee's entrance) have not yet been released on DVD. Someone needs to get with the program.

16 March 2009

Did Anyone Bother to Ask Lee Harvey What He Thought of the Movie?

Those of us who are students of the Kennedy assassination know the answer to this bit of historical trivia: What movie was playing when alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested on November 22, 1963 in the Texas Theater?

The answer is, of course, Hell is For Heroes (1962).

Much as Manhattan Melodrama (1934) is principally known as the film John Dillinger had just seen when he was shot outside of a movie theater in Chicago. Hell is for Heroes is similarly more famous for who saw it then what they saw. Tis a shame, that.

I watched it via TCM Saturday. Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film. Having Mankiewicz as your host instead of Robert Osborne is like having Babe Ruth's backup start ahead of the Bambino. He may be good, but he's not "the man." Once you get over the fact that you're dealing with the second string you appreciate that the Manc (he needs a nickname) knows his way around a film intro too. Saturday he informed viewers that Hell is for Heroes was quite graphic. I hope he added, for its time (sorry, don't recall). If he did he was spot on.

Of all the many outstanding World War II films made, Hell is for Heroes is one of them. No, I'm not trying to be a smart ass (no effort required on my part). That Hell is for Heroes qualifies as one of the many excellent films dealing with World War II is nothing to sneeze at.


The man behind the camera was Don Siegal who was prolific as a TV director but was also responsible for the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971).

The cast is fascinating. First off you've got one of my childhood heroes, Steve McQueen. He sports a wisp of a beard (recalling Vic Morrow in the TV series Combat) and attitude appropriate to the film's title. He's all surly gumption and stoic anger. Then there's pop singer Bobby Darin whose premature death not only cost the world some nice music but some nice film performances as well. (It also contributed to Kevin Spacey's bizarre obsession with the man, but that's a story for another time and another blogger.) I've not seen much of Darin the actor but he more than held his own in this film.

So you've got an acting icon-to-be and pop singer. Say, was there a comic in the cast? Funny you should ask. No less a personage than Bob Newhart, who was just becoming, "big." They even stuck a telephone bit for Newhart to do in the film. Because audiences then and now are quite familiar with Newhart's phone gags, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb thus distracting from the movie. Otherwise Newhart is just dandy in the film.

Who else? Why none other than Fess Parker, TV's Davy Crockett. What an odd duck. Parker was the poor man's Gary Cooper. Make that the destitute man's Cooper. His delivery was so flat you can barely tell he had a pulse. Cross him with Rip Taylor on coke and you'd have a normal human being. I'm not sure what Parker's appeal to audiences was but I'd have cast him as a dead guy in a heartbeat.

I know you're wondering if a bespectacled James Coburn is in the film and as a matter of fact he is. Coburn was incapable of a bad performance and he was a lot more versatile than people give him credit for. Coburn fans should check him out in this film.

I suppose the only thing missing from the cast was a troubled young man who was later to fall victim to the supposed Rebel Without a Cause curse. A guy who, you know, died of an overdose in suspicious circumstances at a young age that sort of thing, real rebellious type. Lo and behold who was that playing a Polish refugee who joins the squad? Yup, meet Nick Adams. His star did not burn quite brightly enough for most of you to have heard of him so you may have to look him up. Interesting chap who meet all the requisites aforementioned.

The movie itself (set in the European Theater, likely in the weeks following D-Day) has a well worn but well executed premise. A small squad of soldiers must valiantly hold off an enemy with vastly superior numbers. Equal portions of cunning, guile and bravery will be required. Internal conflicts arise among this melting pot of disparate characters. But the GIs pull together for the common good. There is the inevitable arrival of the "cavalry" but not soon enough to save all our heroes. Don't get too attached to any of the lads as a number "fall" in battle. One has a particularly grisly death and another a quite heroic one. Manc wasn't lying about the film's gritty realism. It's a splendid example of the beauty of black and white.

The closing shot has supposedly inspired a cult following and I can imagine far triter scenes to celebrate. It's powerful good stuff.

Manc tells us that McQueen did not get along with anyone on the set, most notably Darin. Us McQueen fans give him all the slack in the world. He may have been a pill on set but the on screen results were always good. He's part of the reason tht Hell is for Heroes is a helluva movie.

Wonder how Lee Harvey liked it.

14 March 2009

In a Class of Its Own

Today I went to a movie theater and saw my story told...in French. The film was Entre les murs, it's called The Class in English markets. By any name it was France's offical submission as best foreign film at the most recent Academy Awards and it was the first French film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival since 1987 and it was a unanimous choice.

It's the best film about teaching I've seen. Ever.

The story centers around a school year in the classroom of a French teacher in a quite racially diverse Paris school. The students are 14 and 15 year olds. Like just about every other age group between 0 and 18 it can be safely classified as "difficult."

I spent about twenty years teaching History to racially diverse classrooms' full of students only a year or so younger than the ones in the film.

France, California, same issues, same attitude, same problems, same challenges, same triumphs, the same conviction that this year or this day or this student can be different. Because you know what? Sometimes it can be different. Sometimes the teaching process works. Sometimes there's a breakthrough, an understanding. It doesn't happen often enough but when it does -- what a great feeling.

As audiences learn from watching Entre les murs, it's a two-way street. Teachers don't have a monopoly on the answers – or even on good behavior. Teacher, student, parent, we can all be real schmucks at times. Watch the teacher, played by François Bégaudeau, upon whose book the film is based, go just a bit too far with the sarcasm while engaging in the same sort of put downs at which his students are so adept. (Been there, done that.) Watch him lose it and cause actual insult. (Been there, too, regrettably). Watch the students pounce on any misstep by an adult. They don't miss a thing. Whether it's a perceived case of inequity, a shoelace undone or a mispronunciation, students will catch it and hold tight. They'll take an adult's error in their teeth and shake it like a dog with a bone. They'll gnaw at you.

But as we learn in Entre les murs there's a reason, if not a method, to this particular madness. Look how students are so often boxed into corners -- or at least feel that way. They're stuck in a place they don't want any part of, learning things of little or no interest or seeming relevance. They have to follow rules they had no role in creating. Add to this that they often come from homes that can be anything from unpleasant to ghastly.

Meanwhile, teachers are underpaid, overworked and unappreciated. They conjure imaginative lessons that fall flat in the face of bored, chatty or insolent students. The frustration mounts on both sides and the results can be unpleasant.

But good teachers know that the most important thing they can do is show up. Good students do the same and though there is the constant push and shove there is also compromise and small victories, some merely moral, celebrated by both sides.

It's the system, I tell ya. Education in western culture doesn't work. For gifted students it's fine. For average students it's a tough slog. For many from outside the European culture, like African Americans or African French, it can be a disaster waiting to happen and the waiting isn't all that long. All the education reform in the world won't help. A revolution is in order.

This is abundantly clear from my experiences and those of our teacher in Entre les murs.

There is no heroic breakthrough. No miracles. That's the stuff of Hollywood-style teacher films. But there is the daily grind in all its agony and ecstasy. There is progress and regression in equal parts but, by God, there is effort. This is not a depressing film. It's real, it's honest and it's totally compelling. Yes, I enjoyed it largely because I could relate to virtually every second. But the missus, who was with me, enjoyed it, too and so have audiences all over. This is something great cinema can do: take the mundane, even slightly unpleasant, and make great storytelling out of it.

I reiterate, the best film about teaching I've seen. Ever.

13 March 2009

So You Want to Start Watching Pre Code Films...

From shortly after the addition of sound to motion pictures until the middle of 1934, Hollywood ignored the production code. The code placed severe limitations on what films could and could not show. Sex, nudity, or immorality or crime going unpunished? Not under the watch of Hollywood's the Hays Office. Simply put rigid censorship was enforced.

Prior to this enforcement of the code there was thus a short Golden Age of uninhabited films now called pre codes. Viewers of today may be drawn to pre code films out of curiosity and titillation. But they'll stay for the quality of the films. It was a damn sight easier to make a good movie without a raft restrictions on the types of stories you could tell.

More and more of these movies are becoming available on DVD. Turner Classic Movies is releasing its third set of pre code films later this month and Universal is getting in to the act as well with a set to be issued in April.

There are a few excellent books on pre code films, none better than San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle's Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre Code Hollywood. If you don't have either the time or money to invest in a book you can always get a primer from Wikipedia.

But the best part of learning about pre code is by watching the films. Here is a modest list of ten to get you started. There are many, many others that did not make the list simply because they are not yet available on DVD. Lots of these are shown on Turner Classic Movies. The following are available now or will be part of the forthcoming TCM release.

Baby Face (1933). What could be better than watching Barbara Stanwyck sleep her way to the top? Even by today's standards Baby Face would be a shocker. We meet Stanwyck living at home with dear old dad. He's her pimp. This arrangement doesn't suit her and she leaves for the big city. Using her sexual charms Stanwyck seduces man after man on progressively higher rungs of the corporate ladder until she's on top of the world, pa. Baby Face is the quintessential pre code film and its terrific fare by any standard. Get to this classic sooner rather than later.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933). Coming soon to DVD (unless you're reading this after March 24 in which case it's available now). One of the things they did particularly well in the pre code days was produce powerful social commentary. This William Wellman film is a prime example. It's Depression-ravaged America and some youngsters have left the squalid poverty of home to try their luck on the road. All is not peaches and cream. Wild Boys is a film of gritty reality and provides a vivid look back at the early 1930's.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It wasn't just about sex in the pre code era. War pictures were far more realistic. Almost 80 years later this is still one of the great war films ever made. It is an unflinching cinematic version of Erich Maria Remarque's fantastic book. War is not glorified but shown as the terrifying slaughter it really is. Nothing sentimental here.

Night Nurse (1931). If you are at all like me and love Stanwyck and Joan Blondell this is not to be missed. They spend a lot of time undressing (no, actually nudity mind you, but sexy). However Night Nurse is not about sex. This is an entertaining crime drama with Stanwyck in the title role. A menacing young Clark Gable (sans mustache) plays a sinister chauffeur. Another from the great director William Wellman.

Midnight Mary (1933). Loretta Young grew to be lovely woman and fine actress appearing in such films as the Bishop's Wife (1947) and Farmer's Daughter (1947) (for which she won an Oscar) in her 30's then was merely a handsome middle aged woman while hosting her own show in the 50's. But in her late teens she was a real dish. She practically steals Platinum Blonde (1931) from Jean Harlow. Is heart-breaking in Born to Be Bad (1934), enriches Heroes For Sale (1933) is a fit companion for James Cagney in Taxi! (1932) and is a triumph in Employee's Entrance (1933). All of these films are from the Pre Code era and all were made when Ms. Young was between 18-21. I selected Midnight Mary because I think it is was her ultimate star vehicle. We start with her character on trial for murder and follow the Dickensian story that got her there. Franchot Tone and Ricardo Cortez co star and Wellman -- who else? -- directed.

Red-Headed Woman (1932). Jean Harlow with an edge. She is oh so sexy, oh so bad. She doesn't hesitate to wile a man with her charms, even a married one. Harlow and the pre code era went together like hand and glove and this is perhaps the ultimate expression of that marriage. The wonderful cast includes Charles Boyer, Lewis Stone and Chester Morris. None a match for Harlow. Was any man?

The Animal Kingdom (1932). Never heard of it? How's this, Myrna Loy, Leslie Howard and the vastly underrated Ann Harding. A very pre code menage a trois is the centerpiece of the story. The first time I saw it I found it disconcerting to see my beloved Myrna playing an unsympathetic character. You'll get over it like I did an enjoy her cold hearted performance. The movie is about much more than a failing marriage as Howard's character struggles with questions of art versus dollar signs.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). A story ripped from the day's headlines. The amazing and true tale of an out-of-work, out-of-luck gent wrongfully jailed in a Southern state and put to work on a chain gang. Paul Muni, who had a tendency to devour the scenery, was perfect in the lead role. So good it was banned in Georgia. Mervin LeRoy directed.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). The pre code era does a musical! (You could also go with 42nd Street (1933) or Footlight Parade (1933)). The original and far and away the best of the Gold Diggers films is also directed by LeRoy and has one of the better casts you'll ever come across. Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Aline MacMahon and Joan Blondell (Sigh!). Comedy, musical numbers and some strong commentary on the Depression. If you haven't seen it yet, waste no more time.

Blonde Venus (1932). The best of the Marlene Dietrich and Joseph von Sternberg collaborations. You could also go with Morocco (1930), the Blue Angel (1930) or Shanghai Express (1932) (If it ever appears on DVD). Dietrich's character of Helen Farraday is a devoted wife (to Herbert Marshall) and mother (to the ridiculously cute Dickie Moore). When illness strikes hubby she returns to her cabaret act. Marlene’s performance in a gorilla suit is one of filmdom's great moments. She also takes on a lover, played by Cary Grant, and eventually goes on the road with spouse in pursuit. Amazing, entertaining stuff the likes of which would not be seen for the 33 years of code enforcement.

So much left out.I never got around to two Norma Shearer films, The Divorcee (1930) or a Free Soul (1931). Should I have a part 2?

12 March 2009

I Love a Good Miracle, Don't You?

There's nothing like a good miracle to pick up your spirits. And no, I'm not referring to seeing the Virgin Mary in your mashed potatoes. I'm taking about genuine, real life events that defy explanation. While obviously possible, they are highly improbable.

The birth of my first child was a miracle. At the outset of the wife's pregnancy it was discovered that she had a fibrous tumor pressing against her uterus. The embryo was in jeopardy as was any hope of future children and indeed, though to a much lesser extent, my wife's health and well being.

The pregnancy was difficult, to put it quite mildly. As the baby grew so did the tumor. Finally the tumor burst, with no harm to mother or child. No more tumor. Baby was born a month early but otherwise was perfectly normal. I say it was a miracle because that's what the doctors called it.

I had an earlier encounter with a miracle and in the world of sports its quite well known. November 20, 1982, a college football game between two of the biggest rivals in sports. Cal vs. St*nford. The coveted St*nford Axe going to the winner.

It was a remarkable game even before the fantastic finish. Great plays, lead changes, excitement aplenty. Then a miraculous drive by the hated Cardinal was climaxed by a field goal with four seconds left that seems to clinch the victory for them. But the Bears took the kick off back for a touchdown courtesy of five laterals and a romp through the St*nford band which had mistakenly and stupidly taken the field.

"The Play" was positively surreal. I'd never seen the likes of it before. It was coming back from the lip of the rim of the edge of the precipice through means never before imagined.

Miracles are often be depicted in films as well. Sadly movie miracles generally seem silly, corny, contrived, unrealistic or all of the above. However, one time that it works on celluloid is in one of my favorite all time films, Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967). *Spoiler Alert.*

Ben Braddock travels up and down the state of California to stop the wedding of this one true love, Elaine Robinson, and claim her for himself. Not the least of his problems is finding the wedding. Nearing the nuptials he runs out of gas and must run the rest of the way to the church. This will prove fateful. Ben arrives just after the I do's are exchanged. Too late. It's over. Nothing more to be done. But he does not yield!! Ben pounds on the windows of the church screaming, "Elaine!" repeatedly.

What's this? She responds to this beyond desperate plea? She runs to him. But Ben and Elaine must reckon with a church full of opposition. Miraculously they allude one and all, even locking their pursuers in the church with a cross. The film ends with them on a bus. Ben has succeeded, not in stopping the wedding, that battle is lost, but in winning the war. He has Elaine.

Under Nichols' direction and with the accompaniment of Simon & Garfunkel's music, this is a worthy and fitting finish to a terrific film.

Miracles do visit us. They are more products of perspiration then inspiration. And they can be a joy to behold. When they are successfully done in films as in The Graduate, well that's miraculous.

09 March 2009

Margaret Dumont and Joe Pesci Would Make Such a Cute Couple

First of all take a big sip of water and don't swallow. Ready?

I was watching A Night at the Opera (1935) on TCM Saturday and got to thinking about how similar it is to Goodfellas (1990).

Spit take!

Those of you who haven't already concluded that I'm round the bend may now join the rest of the universe in assuming that all's not well in Riku's gray matter. The Marx Brother and the mob? Rufus T. Firefly and Paul Cicero? Thirties comedy and Nineties gangster?

It's all in the anarchy, folks. Groucho, Chico and Harpo don't play by the rules. Laws, conventions, social norms mean nothing to them. If it felt good, they did it. Especially if it got a laugh. For Henry Hill, Jimmy Conway, Tommy DeVito and the rest of the "gang' in Goodfellas, laws and rules are at most a minor inconvenience. Certainly nothing to get in the way of a few dollars or a good time.

To the brothers Marx and the fellas good, society was something to take advantage of not aspire to. No traipsing carefully around civilized, cultured types, they are squares who don't know from fun. As for cops and dowagers, they were foils. In fact anyone who presumed to authority or respectability was subject to a good smack or a clever jibe.

One of the great appeals of both the Marx Brothers in particular and the gangster genre in general is the vicarious thrill derived from watching people do whatever the hell they want to do -- and for the most part getting away with it. Of course someone walking into a cafe and spitting on the floor would neither be entertaining nor interesting. But pulling of a heist or cracking wise at the expense of a society dame...as the song goes..that's entertainment!

Movies are, after all, an ideal form of escape. There's nothing like living out the fantasy of doing what you want on your own terms be it killing em with laughter or a gat. Harpo bounds around wordlessly creating havoc and chasing women -- literally-- just as we might like to do. Meanwhile Jimmy Conway takes what he wants, when he wants, but always as a gentleman, leaving cash with the hijacked truck drivers. With laughs or panache, its all done outside regulations.

The rest of us our confined by society's conventions. Sure, we may cheat a little here, or take a bit extra there, or ignore section something code something else. But we do it behind close doors and maybe even a little guiltily.

The Marx Brothers and the gangsters of Goodfellas are also honest. They don't pretend to be respectable like we do. There are no false fronts in the way they live their lives, actually live them. How gleefully audiences applaud those who are true to their spirit, living life on their own terms. how jealous we are of them.

Not our cinematic friends. They've the cajones to do in front of god and everyone else.


06 March 2009

No Escaping Politics, Not Even in a Classic Western

There is no escaping conservative gasbags railing about government meddling and high taxes.

I thought I was safe watching a John Ford film today. Safe from crybaby Republicans yammering about government regulations while secretly picking our pockets. No such luck.

Stagecoach (1939) is the story of nine very disparate characters riding on a stagecoach into the teeth of Geronimo's war party. You've got such characters as Dallas (Claire Trevor) the shamed prostitute booted out of town. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) the shamed town drunk similarly asked to hit the road. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) a fugitive from justice. Hatfield (John Carradine) the gentleman gambler. Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) the mild mannered whiskey salesman returning to his family. And then there's Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) the bank president absconding with the payroll. If you guessed that the crooked businessman is our blustering reactionary, you win the Kewpie doll. (He's pictured above getting busted.)

My oh, oh my you should hear this self righteous, bloviating pompous swindler go on. He complains about taxes. He complains about government regulations. He insists on this and demands that. He looks down on drunks, whores, Indians and Mexicans and anyone else not up to his lofty standards. All the while there's a bag full of ill-gotten loot sitting on his lap. Here are his own words:

I don't know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they're even talking now about having *bank* examiners. As if we bankers don't know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be blazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!

Sound like a certain political "philosophy"?

Director John Ford was known as a bit of a conservative himself but at a time when the right wing, as dead wrong as they were, gave respectable arguments for their positions not laced in hyperbole and hypocrisy. Ford's films often had corrupt characters such as Gatewood who got their comeuppance. Indeed the FDR years were not only unkind to practitioners of rapacious capitalistic practices, the films of those years also made their ample girths a target. (Looks like I've set myself up for a future post, movies versus the super rich in the FDR years...coming soon?)

Despite the reminder of the government-loathing right wingers, I thoroughly enjoyed today's viewing of Stagecoach, one of my all-time favorites films.

Ford's camera work during the indoor scenes is particularly noteworthy, especially how he contrasts those cramped scenes with the wide open paces of Monument Valley. The cast is exceptional, especially Mitchell and Trevor though I think George Bancroft as the Marshall gives an underrated performance. He is the strong center of the nine travelers. Not stained by scandal, not weak, not quirky. A man determined to do what's right, even if it means stretching the law. He's essential to the success of the film and Bancroft couldn't be better.

Look here, if you've never seen Stagecoach, you've got an assignment for the weekend. if you've enjoyed it, re-visit this extraordinary film. Just beware you may be reminded of those noxious conservative blowhards.

04 March 2009

Never Heard of Him

I am second to no one in my appreciation of the world's greatest website, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It is absolutely, positively the most comprehensive film website in existence. It's the first place I go after watching a movie (unless I really need to use the bathroom). Want to learn more about the director? Check IMDb. Want to figure out where you'd previously seen that the guy who played the ranch hand? Check IMDb. Looking for reviews of the movie? Check IMDb. Trivia? Alternate Versions? Release date? Awards won? Filming locations? All on IMDb.

How about TV shows? IMDb is your one stop source. Fancy a discussion on a film or TV show? Try their discussion boards. How about if you want to get out of the house? (To see a movie, of course. ) You can find showtimes for theaters near you without leaving the comfort of the good ole IMDb.

Want some news or gossip from the film world? Guess who's got it.

Why they've even got links to some really cool blog posts (occasionally from this very site).

Yes ladies and gentleman, meine Damen und Herren, naiset ja herrat, signore e signori, Mesdames et Messieurs, señoras y señores, the IMDb is practically the only surfing center you'll ever need for everything and anything cinematic.

So what's Mr. Grumpy here got to complain about, then?

A "seemingly" trivial matter. Every day IMDb presents a poll asking readers a film or TV related question such as which is your favorite Paul Newman film or how many movies do you go to a year or what was the best film of the 1980's. The answers may sometimes astound you.

I enter into evidence today's poll question: "Only three directors have won the Academy Award for Best Director three times or more. Which one of these guys is your favorite filmmaker?" The choices were, of course, these notables:

Frank Capra (pictured above) (It Happened One Night; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; You Can’t Take It with You)
John Ford (The Informer; The Grapes of Wrath; How Green Was My Valley; The Quiet Man)
William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver; The Best Years of Our Lives; Ben-Hur)

Guess who won. No, go ahead, guess....If you said the leading answer, with an astounding 36%, was "I am not familiar with these directors" you are correct.

Not "familiar" with the directors of The Letter (1940) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) My Darling Clementine (1946), Dodsworth (1936), Meet John Doe (1941), Stagecoach (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Roman Holiday (1953) and many, many more? Sacrebleu!

This is a classic example of the abyssal ignorance you come across on the IMDb. There is a huge number of little tykes, or people with the brains of little tykes, who come on the site and vote.

Another feature of the site is that for each movie and TV show you can assign a rating from 1-10. All films thus have a composite rating and you can look up what age groups and genders particularly liked or disliked a film. IMDb also keeps track of its top 250, the ratings leaders. Of all movies ever, guess what's number one? The Shawshank Redemption. A nice enough film, but number one? Ever? The Dark Knight clocks in at number six! Of all time! Two installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy grace the top 20. Gran Torino, which popped in and out of theaters a few months ago is somehow number 82. Who even knew it had a cult following? Another recent Clint Eastwood offering, The Changeling, appears on the list as do The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and the recently released Caroline.

The top 250 is not surprising heavy on films released in the past ten years.

I am reminded of last year when I was still toiling as a middle school history teacher. I told the class I was going to show them a movie about a mountain man, called Jeremiah Johnson (1972). One student asked if there was anyone famous in it. When I replied, Robert Redford, she smirked "who?" as if I had told her Pernwickle Pennyllcker was the star.

So what we have here is a crotchety old man complaining about all the young whippersnappers who know of nothing pre MTV. Right? Well yes but it goes a lot deeper. Not so many years ago when I was a lad (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth) us young uns knew all the old baseball players and movie stars and even many of the long deceased presidents. Despite the efforts of such teachers as yours truly, today's younger set not only doesn't have a clue, it doesn't much seem to care.

So I could now launch into a lecture on our disposable society, but I think if you've made it this far you get the point.

Anthony Hopkins in the role of John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997) said, "who we are is who we were." Our culture is in very serious trouble if the younger generations have no awareness of what built it and no appreciation for what those building blocks were. Whether in film, music, sports or politics, to recognize and appreciate those who came before enhances the appreciation of those around today. We are moving so fast so far so recklessly that we are leaving behind some very precious memories. Thank God for DVDs and Turner Classic Movies (world's greatest TV station) and the reverence many sports institutions hold for the past. Still I fear that it is too many of us old fogies who are fondly remembering and enjoying Jimmy Cagney, Benny Goodman and Willie Mays. We need to get our young people on board. For their sakes and the sakes of future generations. We lose something of ourselves as a culture when we lose links to our past.

Now will someone help me down off this soapbox?