30 April 2009

I Need a Good Title For this Post...How About Ferris Bueller's Year of Living Dangerously?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Or so said a young lady named Juliet. But what'd she know? She was a teenager who took her own life.

But is the sentiment true of films? Would The Godfather be as good a film if called The Fighting Corleones? Or would The Searchers be the same film if named Looking For Debbie? How about if It's A Wonderful Life was The Incredible George Bailey? Yeah, as a matter of fact they probably would be.

A good or bad title is ultimately far less important than the work of the movie's editor, costume designer or even the key grip. Still a good title can pique your interest almost as much as the film's trailer. Some films even live up to their titles. It's also nice when a title gives us a notion of what the film is about. I much admired the film for which Halle Berry won her Oscar, Monster's Ball (2001). But the meaning of the title had to be explained and had little to do with the movie. There's no such ambiguity with a title like Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Here are some movies I admire that have excellent titles.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Frank Johnson's Day Off would be a good title. But Ferris Bueller? Unforgettable. Both first and last names are quirky and mark the film as something special. Also the title tells us a lot about what we're about to see. Ferris Bueller is in fact going to take the day off. And what a day!

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). This is a weird title. It translates to: 12 months of existing in peril. Hmmm, still weird. But the deal is, that's largely what the movie about. A guy living in danger for a year. Great title, great film. Peter Weir directed and Mel Gibson starred.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). It's an ironic title because the main character is neither a hero (least not the kind we expect) nor a conqueror. Eddie Bracken played the hero. Preston Sturges wrote and directed. Our hero was first hailed then fell out favor before being hailed again.

Do the Right Thing (1989). Big plus right off the bat, it's a quote from Malcolm X. It also is the theme of the movie, for Malcolm's full quote was "you've got to do the right thing." That's your film right there. Spike Lee wrote and directed and I'd bet a nickle he conceived the title.

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). He was indeed a fugitive from a chain gang. He was real and on the lam when the movie about his life hit theaters. Those facts add even more to the power of the title. Of course the immediacy of the title "I am" is powerful all by itself. Paul Muni starred, Mervin LeRoy directed and it's this Saturday's TCM essential.

If... (1968). You'll note that virtually all the titles on this list are long. Here's one of the shortest titles of any film ever. Of course the ellipse is what makes it. We immediately wonder "if what?" The title is intriguing and remains so after watching the movie. It suggests possibility, choices. From Lindsay Anderson, made a star of Malcolm McDowell.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Because of my sports affiliations I've often joked that I wished the movie were instead called, 49ers of the Lost Ark. Be that as it may, it's a title that gets your attention. I remember when I first heard it I wondered what the hell a lost ark was and who a raider of it would be. Sounded cool though. The subsequent sequels all had mundane titles.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). We knowing going in that a man named Liberty Valance is going to be shot. We also know that his death will be important. We don't know who did the shooting, but whoever it is must be a person of significance. Again, if the title was The Man Who Shot Frank Johnson, not so good. But Liberty Valance? I'm in.

The Trouble with Harry (1955). Harry is dead and the fact of his corpse lying out there in front of one and all is a real problem. So the title is perfect and the movie just about is, too. A dark comedy from Alfred Hitchcock. Cast includes Jerry Mathers in his pre Beaver Cleaver days. (Photo above.)

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). They don't? Who says? That's an odd title. Then you see the movie and think, "yeah, that makes sense." Not that there are any dead guys in plaid that I can recall. From the mind of Carl Reiner. Steve Martin starred.

Along Came Jones (1945). We gotta figure that there's some bloke named Jones who is going to show up somewhere at some point and either be eagerly anticipated or make a real splash. Gary Cooper was Jones and get this, his first name was Melody. Melody Jones. How cool is that? Loretta Young and William Demarest also featured. Great title, Great cast.

Callaway Went Thataway (1951). Okay, full disclosure. Never seen it. Guess I'll have to now. I just love the title. It rhymes! It has the word thataway in it! Come on! That's a fantastic title. I see where it's going to be on TCM on May 11. I'll set the DVR now.

Okay, so what are some of your favorite film titles?

26 April 2009

Extra! Extra! Newspapers and Their Reporters as Depicted on the Big Screen

One of the saddest consequences of the recent economic downturn in this country is the demise of so many daily newspapers. Many of those still publishing are on life support. For those of us who love to be able to fold, write on, and carry to the bathroom, our news, these are troubling times. Fortunately there can be some solace found in the usual place. Movies.

Films have a long been successful at capturing the atmosphere of the newsroom. They've also seen the heroic and immoral inherent in so many newspaper people. So while it may not be the same as toting our news, sports, comics and movie listings around, at least we can vicariously experience the excitement of breaking news and investigative reporting. I now provide my readers (both of us) with 10 movies featuring a newspaper reporter. I do not claim this to be a definitive list but I guarantee it's a good one. I believe I qualify for this assignment as I am not only a film buff but my first career was as a newspaper reporter.

Edward G. Robinson as Joseph G. Randall in Five Star Final (1931). As powerful a movie on newspapers as was ever made. It's a film that movingly demonstrates that all reporters are not heroes or even nice guys. In this case Robinson is the editor of a scandal sheet plumbing the depth for juicy headlines. When the result of their sleazy tactics is a suicide, the editor's pre existing conscience emerges and he rails at the money mad publishers. Boris Karloff appears as something scarier than Frankenstein. He's a reporter who'll masquerade as a preacher in pursuit of sensational story destroying a happy family in the bargain. Robinson is wonderful as the editor. The great shame of the film is that is currently not available on DVD.

Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the Presidents Men (1976). You've heard about them and their story right? Something about Watergate and the ultimate fall of a president. One of the best aspects of the film is the re-creation of the newsroom atmosphere. That sure looks like it must be the actual Washington Post they’re working in. While Redford and Hoffman have earned much deserved praise for their performances, tips of the cap are also in order for Jason Robards, Martin Balsam and Jack Warden as various Post editors. This is a film that somehow managed to be exciting despite the facts that a) we knew how it turned out and b) a lot of what we watch is the daily grind of digging for a story.

Cary Grant as Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940). There is a previous incarnation of the story called The Front Page (1931) and a later The Front Page (1974) with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. They're good but this film is something special. Having Grant and Russell in the leads with Howard Hawks directing is tough to beat, if not impossible. Yes, His Girl Friday was a screwball comedy with a delightful romance mixed in, but it was also a look at a the newspaper biz. With Grant as the uber dedicated editor and Russell the ideal reporter (i.e. someone skilled at writing, interviewing and tracking down a story) we get insight into the thrill of coming up with "the story." Sometimes the story is a fresh angle on a known incident or set of events and sometimes its something the public was totally unaware of. So His Girl Friday is both one helluva lot of fun and an entertaining look at the 4th estate.

Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell in Meet John Doe (1940). A newspaper is acquired by new bosses who comes in and and starts firing people left and right. Among the sacked is female reporter Ann Mitchell. Well, by god she's going out in a blaze of glory by concocting the story of a John Doe fed up with society who's going to speak his peace before dramatically taking his life on New Year's Eve. The story is a hit and the paper has to keep her on board for more installments. Okay so she's deceived the public -- how naughty. But a series of stories comes out of it and a "real" John Doe is found (Gary Cooper, no less). Then a whole political movement is born. Stanwyck is great (when was she ever not?) as was James Gleason as the prototypical editor with ulcers. Doesn't necessarily put newspapers in the best light but then they don't always deserve to be.

Spencer Tracy as Haggerty in Libeled Lady (1936). How far would you go to get a story? How about marrying off your fiance to another guy? Sound weird? It's all part of the one more delightful films of the 1930s or any other time period. It also boasts an all star cast, in addition to Tracy there's Myrna Loy, William Powell and Jean Harlow. Tracy's Haggerty is one of those reporters who'll go to any lengths for a story, as we've seen, and no he doesn't really lose his intended to another man. But does he lose the story? Watch it and find out.

Robert Williams as Stew Smith in Platinum Blonde (1931). He went in search of the big story and came back with a wife. Not only that he married into wealth. Lots of wealth. But like any good reporter Stew Smith isn't beholden to the mighty dollar or the high society it can spawn. He wants to keep working and lead a relatively simple life. Can this marriage last? Will Smith leave the paper for a tux? Whattyou think?

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane and Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane (1941). Many of you may be aware of this obscure film that's earned some critical praise over the years. Of course there's newspaper work splattered all over this film. Watch Kane buy up the best newsmen in town. Watch Kane break the big stories even if he has to create them first. Watch Leland write a scathing review of Kane's beloved, getting drunk to supply the courage. Watch Kane finish the review but fire Leland in the bargain. See the excitement of the newsroom. See how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely and the part newspapers can play in the games of power and corruption.

Joel McCrea as John Jones in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Talk about a dedicated professional! War in Europe appears imminent and our hero is sent from the relative safety of New York across the pond in search of the big scoop. Fair enough but he could still just sit in a bar like Robert Benchley (the film's comic relief). Not our intrepid reporter who dashes about chasing Nazis and the story. Along the way Jones nearly gets pushed off a high observatory, pursues assassins through the Dutch countryside and survives a plane crash into the Atlantic. Does he learn anything? Does he get and report and the story? Hey, this is a spoiler free zone. Find out for yourself. Alfred Hitchcock directed. One of my favorite all time movies.

Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Some gossip columnists are lower than wharf rats. Nonetheless these power brokers who deal in pure grade slime have legions of readers and are bowed before like sultans. Lancaster portrayed one such king making, scribe in this classic film. I grew up reading a great but morally commendable columnist, Herb Caen. Others in newspaper history have been scandal mongers. Hunsecker is a great example.

Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery in Zodiac (2007). Many reporters are portrayed as drunks. This may be because they are. Or at least were. During my newspaper days I wasn't shy about taking a drink or 12. Avery was a real life reporter who pursued the story of the Zodiac killer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He had what is euphemistically referred to as a substance abuse problem. Even so he was a fine reporter. Zodiac not only shows us Avery but the paper at which he worked during the 60’s and 70’s -- in historic detail. Of course the real hero of the story is an editorial cartoonist, Robert Graymsith played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and no I'll not be doing a separate post on great cartoonists in films.

25 April 2009

Whattaya Call That Block That Writers Sometimes Get? (AKA Worst Blog Post Ever)

Not today. Couldn't string together words that made any sort of sense. Not to save my life, though thankfully I was under no such threat. Tried two previous posts and it was a no go. Abort! Abort! This was not so much a case of writer's block as writer's Rock of Gibraltar (you see, I don't even know if that makes sense and I'm pretty sure its not funny).

By God I tried. I stared at the keys and the computer screen and my fingers. I pecked. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Nil. Zero.

So here I am so desperate to get something posted that I'm writing about not having been able to write. You see not posting wouldn't be such a big deal were it for the fact that, not only was this not a work day it wasn't even a go-somewhere-day. Plus I didn't get much else productive done. If I manage a blog post well that's something in the plus column. I did a very half assed job of yard work that further convinced me that I'm not a house guy. I'm an apartment guy. I'd much rather watch a movie than pull weeds.

Last night the missus and I watched Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) (tried to blog about it today but like I said...). Among the cast was Roland Young who pretty much comes with a guarantee that you're watching a good movie (among his other credits are Topper (1937) as the title character, The Philadelphia Story (1940) as Uncle Willie, and another movie that I'll get to in a second). Today we watched The Young in Heart (1938) in which Mr. Young also featured (told you we'd get to it).

In both films he's a fun and fun loving English gentleman. In Ruggles he's a man of means who loses his valet (Charles Laughton in the title role) in a poker game to some rich Americans from the sticks. In Young at Heart he's the father in a family of four high class swindlers, moochers and card sharks. Billie Burke plays mom with Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as their young uns. At the risk of being obvious it's a great cast, especially the notion of sweet as candy Janet Gaynor being a rogue.

So I've managed two movies in two days. Big deal. It's not like one of them was epic length, or even two hours. I also squandered time being unable to write. I fumbled and stumbled at gardening (I'm really a sight with a rake, like a fish wearing a hat). I read about three pages from the book I'd been breezing through until I crashed into today.

I hate to blow my own horn but I did manage something I'm quite proud of. The missus prepared a large and delicious dinner and I selflessly consumed a large portion of it. Please, please, no applause.

As the evening wore on I watched an episode of the Jack Benny Show (proudly sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes) on You Tube. His very special guest was Humphrey Bogart. It was a hoot. You Tube is one of the greatest ways to waste time ever invented. Here's an example: I watched Woody Allen and Nancy Sinatra on Password circa 1965. I watched old TV commercials. I watched a bit of Captain Kangaroo. I watched a few Oscar acceptance speeches, Diane Keaton, Liza Minnelli, Robert DeNiro and Matt Damon/Ben Affleck were the winners. By this time I was beginning to bore myself.

Just to prove that my time wasting was an all day affair I will report that in the morning I had an extended conversation with the cat. Of greater interest was a chat with oldest daughter (still in Europe) on Skype. And hey how about this, I washed the sheets. I spent time wondering if in a past life I had a fling with Myrna Loy (pictured above) which come to think of it is no waste of time at all. Watched some baseball. Washed the dishes (twice!) Watched last night's Letterman. Wondered about Charles Laughton. And here's why: according to his IMDb Laughton was gay, though married to actress Elsa Lancaster for the last 33 years of his life, they had no children. Further, Laughton reportedly became an agnostic because of his experiences as a soldier in World war I. No details provided which makes me all the more curious about what he saw there. Also of note: filming on Ruggles was "delayed when Laughton was hospitalized for several weeks for a rectal abscess." Oh my.

So if you've read this far you may gather that today was not a total waste. I've again established that I'm a grand master at frittering away time. I also got a blog post out of my inability to write a blog post earlier. By the way you need not have read this far out of any sense of obligation. I have to be here but there's no reason why you have to suffer.

I'm hopeful that my case of writer's block (rather presumptuous, assumes that I'm a writer -- ha!) is of the 24 hour variety and I'll be back in form tomorrow. I do have blog post drafts ready to be built into something I can show off at the county fair.

I leave you with this fun fact from the Letterman show: the Chinese are working on a submarine that can go above water.

That's it. I'm out!

23 April 2009

Crime May Not Pay But it Can Be A Blast

*Super Spoiler Alert*

Dying in a hail of bullets. In reality it would doubtless be a gruesome way to go. In films it can be positively romantic. Especially if your demise comes at the end of the film and you've had one helluva fun ride along the way.

If you haven't seen Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or The Wild Bunch (1969), avert your eyes. Better yet, click out of this window and watch whichever of these outstanding movies you missed. Thank me later.

Released within two years of one another, all three depicted robbers cum killers living and loving to the fullest until death does them part from this world. Their similarities, like their popularity, were no accident. Western culture was transforming in the late 1960s and rebellion was in. Of course none of this troika depicted rebellion but their anti-establishment sensibilities were pretty clear.

Bonnie & Clyde came along first. Here were a duo whose unconventionality even tinged their love making, or the curious lack thereof. They also teamed up with three unlikely compadres. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the title characters were every bit the beautiful and charismatic leading couple audiences wanted (and then some). But their designated driver C.W. Moss, played by the ever eccentric Michael J. Pollard, took the notion of what a gangster looked and acted like and turned it upside down. Pug nosed, quirky, imps who sobbed after nearly botching a getaway were something new for a new time. Along with Gene Hackman as Clyde's brother Buck, there was the hysterical sister-in-law Blanche. A role that garnered Estelle Parsons an Oscar. While the Barrow gang's two leaders were classic gorgeous Hollywood anti heroes, the rest of the quintet seemed like people we might run into at the grocery store. Their fates were sad, yet ordinary, a sharp contrast to the blaze of glory with which Bonnie and Clyde shuffled off this mortal coil. Grand fates were reserved for the truly grand.

Like Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid immortalized a historic twosome. Both movies took great liberties with the truth of their stories in pursuit of art. Butch and Sundance, of course, were no ordinary chaps. Goodness me, has a movie ever had a pairing of men so appealing as Paul Newman and Robert Redford? It would be hard to think of a twosome that could match them let alone one that did.( Maybe the two co-stars of The Sting (1973).)  While Bonnie and Clyde plied their trade during America's Great Depression, Butch and Sundance were, symbolically methinks, cavorting about at the end of an era. Specifically the closing of the American Frontier. Indeed it started closing in on them so fast they had to lam it to South America. Australia would have been next.

Both pairs of heroes were careful to do their pilfering from banks, leaving poor folk to have their pittance. This was another appeal to audiences then (and now for that matter). No better way to "stick it the man" than heisting his loot and if you could spread a little love around to those in need, all the better.

Butch and Sundance did not have a motley crew. They did have Katherine Ross and there was nothing motley about her in 1969. Thus these three protagonists were very easy on the eyes. When crooks look like models rather than sewer rats they're a damn sight easier to root for. And when those beauties are shot to pieces we feel all the worse for their fate (that their real life counterparts were not nearly so undeserving is immaterial). In Bonnie & Clyde we see seemingly every damn one of those umpteen bullets penetrate their bodies. But it's more balletic than brutal. More artistic than awful. In Butch Cassidy we see nary a single shot deface out heroes. They freeze in tableau as the hail of bullets are fired at them. Round after round. The scene is left to our imaginations and most of us choose just to remember them poised and posed in time. Gory details are absent. The cessation of their lives suffices to punctuate their story.

The Wild Bunch is in many ways a very different movie from the other two and may strike some as an odd choice to include here. There is a gang, not a dynamic duo. The heroes are not beautiful people, but symbolically to the story, aging gunslingers. There is no romance just a drunken romp with a few female Mexican villagers. The Wild Bunch did not have quite the same appeal to young audiences as the other two films and may not seem to be an anti-authoritarian a movie to some.

Like Butch and Sundance, the gang here was doing its deeds at the end of an era and there is even more symbolism to their time and venue. It was Southern Texas and Mexico just before World War I fully introduced the modern age of killing. We get a glimpse of this as the gang employs one of those new fangled machine guns to mow down the enemy. Indeed by the time the bloodletting is done it seems the romantic Old West has bled to death too.

William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson were not exactly spring chickens when they starred as the Bunch. And of course that was part of the point. These were old men trying to hold on to their old ideas long enough for one last score. They end up taking on a corrupt and just god awful Mexican general and his army. So there you have at. A gang of outlaws decide suddenly to do the right thing. With Holden uttering one of Hollywood's greatest ever two word lines -- "let's go" (but it's the way he said it) -- they embark on a suicidal attack against the military. You don't get any more rebellious than that, folks.

As in the other two films our heroes die by gunfire -- lots of it. But in this case, though bloody and operatic, it is a bit less dramatic than the aforementioned films as they fall one at a time. Also, these heroes actually win their final battle, though of course making the ultimate sacrifice in the bargain.

In all three movies audiences found themselves not just siding with, but heartily rooting for blatant law breakers. However we had plenty of reason to cheer them. Women, children and virtually anyone “innocent” was spared. These were anti heroes and part of that heroism was that they lived life on their terms (don’t we all wish we could? Most of us can’t even tell off the boss, let alone rob the b*stard). And by God they were having one great big barrel of fun in the bargain. Some of these heroes were witty, some were good looking, some were philosophical. All shared a passionate hatred for any constraints society tried placing on them. Jail was out of the question. Hell, a 9-5 job was unthinkable.

They had to get blown away at the end though. They were paying for our sins, those misdeeds of theirs we rooted on and imagined ourselves doing. (It was left to A Clockwork Orange (1971) a few years later to go the next step and leave its criminal deviant alive and well thus leaving to us to wrestle with our consciences.) These were not the crime-doesn't-pay endings of Film Noir. Their deaths made them and their exploits legendary. Its hard to forget such endings, and with no further exploits to come, we remember their deeds all the more.

Of course whatever these films were about would have been moot were it not for the fact that they were visionary in style. The honor roll of directors: Bonnie & Clyde, Arthur Penn; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill; and The Wild Bunch, Sam Penckinpah.

I could have gone in ever so slightly a different direction and included Robert Aldirch’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). It did, after all feature a bunch of cons, though led by a legit Lee Marvin and performing a noble mission during WWII against the Nazis. It had many of the same elements of three films featured in the post. Especially with Charles Bronson’s clarion call to the Sixties as its closing line, “I could get used to killing officers.” 

21 April 2009

Take Me Out to the Movies....

You needn't believe in the tee shirt that says, "Baseball is Life", to see that, Sugar, the new film from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, is not just about an aspiring ballplayer.

Indeed I'd go so far to say that calling Sugar a baseball movie is to trivialize it in the extreme.

Yes, there's a lot of baseball in the story of Miguel "Sugar" Santos a 20 year old Dominican pitching prospect playing for a Class A team in Iowa. But while the story begins and ends with action on the diamond, there's a lot more to it in between.

I'm guessing there will be a lot of people showing up at movie theaters looking for a Cinderella story with Santos winning the 7th game of the World Series in dramatic fashion. Sorry folks this film may not be for you.

And my goodness haven't we had enough sports movies with the same story arcs already? The improbable rise and thrilling ultimate victory of a rag tag team or individual underdog? It even crept into a movie about debating, last years, how-many-cliches-can-we-cram-into-one-movie, The Great Debaters.

And that's the wonderful thing about Sugar, there's not a single predictable moment in the film. All the more reason to know as few plot points as possible as you sit down to watch it.

Sugar is about lots of things before its about baseball. It's about the immigrant experience for one and the vagaries of learning a new language. It's about good simple, Christian folk in the corn belt and their conflicted granddaughter -- played by Ellary Porterfield, and this young actress is a revelation, I've read she's off to college now but I hope we see more of her talents on the big screen -- who wants to witness her religion but feels the yearnings of womanhood. It's about relationships among young men and you'll enjoy the scene where a group of young Dominican ballplayers out partying sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in broken, drunken English. So its about camaraderie. Its about choices. Those of us who've spent a few decades on the planet can attest to the fact that the decisions we make as young adults and even before impact the rest of our days -- be careful, kids. It's about dreams and how those dreams can change in the blink of an eye both because of external and internal factors.

Algenis Perez Soto in the title role delivers a wonderful performance, remarkable for its subtlety. Yes Santos loses control a few times, but only a few. This is a very self contained character and to reveal so much of him takes some powerful good acting. The rest of the cast is good too and they can thank a screenplay that does not have them play cardboard cutouts but real people. The elderly Iowa farmers who take Sugar in, his baseball manager and a Puerto Rican carpenter who befriends him are all fully drawn characters. How many actors and stories are bogged down by totally predictable characters? It's a rhetorical question but I'll answer it anyway: way too many.

Sugar reminds me of last year's excellent Thomas McCarthy film, The Visitor in that it has the courage to be different. Fleck and Boden most recently made Half Nelson a movie very dear to my heart as it explored both teaching and drug addiction, two things I know a little bit about. With independent filmmakers like Fleck and McCarthy around, audiences will continue to have alternatives to Fast Furious Spiderman Mutant Chronicles 3.

Thank God.

19 April 2009

Great Films That Are One Character Degree of Separation from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The first film from Hollywood's Golden Age that I fell in love with as an adult was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) which still ranks number two on my all time favorite American films list. For many years after falling in love with it I was constantly discovering members of Mr. Smith's cast in other films. This bespeaks how wonderful a cast director Frank Capra assembled for the film and the frequency with which many actors appeared in films in those days.

I now offer the fruits of a recent game I played to occupy time during a particularly meaningless stretch of class time in one of the courses I'm taking. It's simply this, how many great films could I come up in which Mr. Smith cast members appeared? The rules were only one film per actor and only one actor per film. My criteria for "great film" was that it must be one of my all time favorites. I came up with 17 films, it could have been more if Astird Allwyn had managed to appear in anything else half decent.

Jimmy Stewart, who played the title character was in many other great films including, Vertigo (1958).

Claude Rains was the corrupt but guilt ridden Senator Paine here and the famously slimy chum to Bogie, Captain Renault, in Casablanca (1942).

Jean Arthur was Stewart's love interest and aide, Saunders, she hooked up with Cary Grant in The Talk of the Town (1942).

H.B. Warner was Senator Agnew in Mr. Smith one of zillions of fine movies in which he appeared, another is Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Porter Hall was Senator Monroe and showed up in many other classics including Sullivan's Travels (1941).

William Demarest as Bill Griffith was not for the first time or last a right hand man to a political boss, but he was a cop in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944).

Eugene Pallette was also a sidekick to the head political honcho, he played long suffering dads a lot as in The Lady Eve (1941).

Ruth Donnelly played the governor's wife here and Harriet Bowers Gould in Footlight Parade (1933).

Beulah Bondi was Smith's mom in this film and a preacher's wife in Rain (1932).

Harry Carey was the U.S. Vice President in Mr. Smith and the wealthy Mr. Melville in Red River (1948).

Grant Mitchell was senator MacPherson here, a father numerous times and a friendly caretaker in Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Guy Kibeee was the governor of an unnamed state who appointed Smith to the senate and the daffy love struck lawyer Fanuel H. Peabody (that's Fannie to you) in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

Thomas Mitchell was reporter Diz Moore in Mr. Smith and in the same year was the drunkard Doc Boone in Stagecoach (1939).

Jack Carson was also a reporter, Sweeny Farrell, but was simply Chuck in another movie with Smith in the title, Hitchock’s lone screwball comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).

Erville Alderson was the sadly mistaken handwriting expert in Smith and Chancelor Alexei Bestuchef in The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Edwarrd Arnold was the evil Jim Taylor in this Capra film and the evil D.B. Norton in a later Capra movie, Meet John Doe (1941).

Charles Lane -- seriously folks how could the ubiquitous Mr. Lane NOT be in this film? -- He’s got for what his him meaty role in Mr. Smith as Nosey a scandal sheet news reporter. Among his 18 trillion other roles was the part of a rent collector in Its a Wonderful life (1946).

Do you realize how many more great films I could have added without the one film per character rule? I'll give you a clue, the answer rhymes with cousins and is suggestive of multiples of the number 12.

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.

16 April 2009

Finally Getting Gaga Over Harlow

At first I didn't quite "get" Jean Harlow. Sure I loved almost every film she was in and I loved her characters, but I just wasn't gaga over her.

In Platinum Blonde (1931) her co star Loretta Young is ever so much lovelier. As seductive and "bad' as Harlow is in Red Headed Woman (1932), she's not up to the standard Barbara Stanwyck sets in Baby Face (1933).

I was missing the point about Harlow. I was guilty of thinking about her with that other brain us men so famously possess. So I was liking her and intrigued by her but felt that maybe she just wasn't my type. Then I got it. (Watch her films enough times and it'll happen.) I stopped just looking and started listening.

Ladies and gents, Jean Harlow was funny as all get out.

The stork's deliveries got nothing on the way Harlow delivers this line from Bombshell (1933): "Is that the way you prove that you just more than care for me? Treating me like a strip act in a burlesque show! A glamorous bombshell, eh? A glorified chump, that's what I've been! Well, I'm sick of it, you understand? With the business and everybody! You can get another "It Girl," a "But Girl" or a "How, When and Where Girl." I'm clearing out, and you can all stay here in this half-paid-for car barn and get somebody else to pull the apple cart!" It's rapid fire but with just the right inflections. Harlow spits out words and sentences like they're hers to do with as she pleases.

And say can she do sarcasm? In my favorite of her films, Red Dust, she's an ex hooker on a rubber plantation when she suggests:" I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning on what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night." Oh but its the way she says it.

Harlow played smart, funny and wise -- while you thought she was just a looker. In the same film she's more than a match for the worldly, handsome boss played by Gable (why, Clark of course). "You can check the wings and halo at the desk," she tells him.

And by god you didn't mess with her or try to get the best of her. In Libeled Lady (1936) she said to Spencer Tracy, "I don't care who he is. Nobody talks to me like a house detective." Spence thought himself wise by responding: "How do you know how a house detective talks?" Harlow fired back with: "Don't you think I read?" Try to one up that dame.

Harlow was fetching, sure enough, but it was the banter that got ya. She might look the part of simple dame but she never played it. Any heartbreak she suffered was not worn on her sleeve but tucked away, a resource to fuel future understanding and action. Born wise and better yet a natural and astute learner. Especially adroit at figuring out what made others tick. And brother don't kid yourself, she was self reliant. Sure she might hook up with some guy (and why not it's not like they stayed away or anything). That was her prerogative. And if she didn't like his terms she set her own. Harlow's characters were tough and smart enough to make choices, not always a simple thing for easy on the eyes dames like her who attracted all kinds.

Unfortunately most people just know the mentally running on empty Harlow of Dinner at Eight (1933). She's fine as the gold digging wife of a nouveau riche Wallace Beery, just as she's dandy as James Cagney's moll in Public Enemy (1931). But to really appreciate her you've got to see Bombshell, Red Dust, Red Headed Woman, Libeled Lady, Reckless and even Wife vs. Secretary (1936). Whether it's Tracy, Gable, William Powell or Franchot Tone, this dame held her own.

She came across two formidable foes in her life and career. The first was the enforcement of the production code. The skunks at the Hays office put a real crimp in the sexually charged characters she excelled at and reduced the power of one of her chief weapons: salty talk and the actions to back it up. Such censorship set movies back several decades and especially hurt certain directors and stars like Harlow. Still she had great roles and performances skiting around the code as best as could be expected. The other foe was the uremic poisoning that took her away from the world decades too soon.

Goodness, dead at 26. What a tragic loss for movie audiences. To think what she could have done in another 40 or so years of films. Fortunately she's got about 21 sizable roles left behind. Catch as many as you can and remember to give her a good listen. You don't even have to take your eyes off her to do it.

13 April 2009

If You Like Rebecca it's Probably Because You Love Joan

I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) today. It's a movie that seemingly everyone has seen and most people either like, love or positively worship. It managed to be an excellent romantic melodrama without tipping over into the realm of the soap opera. Principal credit goes to the director. But a superior cast also deserves recognition. Any wooden performances would have doomed it.

Even once its mystery is known, Rebecca is worth repeat viewings. I share now some of my thoughts after enjoying it today. I hope they’ll help illuminate its enduring popularity.

* Joan Fontaine is absolutely gorgeous and perfect as the female lead. It's a quite remarkable performance conveying as it does all the insecurities and self doubts of her character. You keep rooting for her to be tougher and see her efforts but realize that she is overwhelmed. You also see why Maxim (Laurence Olivier) would fall for. She’s utterly without pretense, so obviously intelligent and its worth mentioning again, stunning.

* Speaking of Olivier...It's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of the uber wealthy British land baron. He was so suave, so self assured yet so wracked by demons and his own temper. His Maxim was such a virtuous sort, benevolent and, in his own way, loving, but still rife with imperfections that nearly do him in. The role seemed to come so naturally to Olivier, but then that was his genius, he never seemed to be trying all that hard.

* Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers has one of the great screen entrances of all time. She veritably floats from the left of the screen to being full figure before the camera suggesting all the crazy understated malice that she so personifies. Mrs. Danvers is one scary woman (I positively hate the word "bitch" but one is sorely tempted when describing her, such hate does she engender). There's something about the purity of her love for the late Mrs. de Winter that makes her all the more frightening. An evil borne of love is a powerful force indeed. Much credit to Hitch for the way he shot her. She always seemed to glide and that utterly passive face lit bright within the darkness...(Shiver.)

* Wonderful character actors abound (a strange term that, given that all actors play characters) in Rebecca. There's the always affable Reginald Denny, the perfect best friend or neighbor. Nigel Bruce the quintessential daffy English gentleman. The lovable C Aubrey Smith is Colonel Julyan, the local law enforcement. George Sanders in one of his slimiest roles as the blackmailing car salesman. He positively oozes English manners and sophistication while slithering through the film. Leo G Carroll, a Hitchcock favorite, pops in as a doctor and is, as always, serviceable.

* While Mrs. Danvers gets everyone's attention, especially in their initial viewing of Rebecca, I notice Fontaine more and more. It would not have been nearly so highly regarded a film with any less of a performance or performer playing the second Mrs. de Winter. You see a young woman, obviously quite bright, yet stuck as an old bag's companion. She is seemingly headed to a rather ordinary existence in which reading a particularly good book would represent the high point of any week. Eventually there'd be a marriage, probably to a doctor or professor, and some happiness there, but she’d remain somehow unfulfilled. But in being rescued from that life she's thrust into what for her was a previously unimaginable world. She is the lady of the manor, and not just any manor at that, but the magnificent Manderlay. Not only is she married to the much revered lord and master but she is the second wife and her predecessor has died tragically, loved by all (or so it would seem). This heroine also finds herself up against a powerful rival. This Mrs. Danver is not only the housekeeper but the one who bears the first Mrs. de Winter's torch. Our heroine is supposed to be her superior. Talk about awkward. There is no false bravado in Fontaine's performance. There are attempts to assert herself there is growing confidence and there is survival. She is sustained by love for her husband and a determination to do right by him and in the process herself. Fontaine is utterly convincing in large part because she is not too broad. There are no theatrical hysterics but plenty of frustration, bewilderment and insecurity. The register of her voice and subtle changes in her facial features suffice to bespeak her emotional cauldron. So I’ve come back to where I started, with Ms. Fontaine.

* What a terrific film. A multi layered story that reveals more with each viewing. Hitchcock was amazing. His ability to edit in camera kept it from being a Selznick movie (David O. produced) and left it for the most part in his own hands, that is to say, the hands of a master.

12 April 2009

How Many Steps Was That Again?

Last night was Hitchock double feature night for the missus and I. The world's greatest television station (Turner Classic Movies, if I must tell you) aired two of his films during the day, The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942). Through the magic of the DVR I recorded both and our evening was set.

Somehow Saboteur was selected by TCM as their weekly “essential.” Of the more than 60 films Hitch directed Saboteur ranks in the bottom third. Which is to say its a good enough film but hardly an "essential." Essentials co hosts Robert Osborne (aka Mr. TCM) and Alec Baldwin discussed the film's biggest problem in their introduction. Hitch wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles and had to settle for Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane. That's one hell of a drop off. (According to IMDb's trivia section Hitch also sought Joel McCrea and Margaret Sullavan.) Further, he wanted Harry Carey as the chief villain thinking that it would be striking to have Mr. Ordinary Salt of the Earth American playing an evil spy. Instead he got Otto Kruger who looks, talks and acts every bit the charming evil mastermind. Ho hum.

Baldwin pointed out that in Saboteur, Cummings tries too hard. In a Hitchock film the main thing for a leading man to do is "get out of the way," said Baldwin. To then watch Cummings chew the scenery is to see exactly what Baldwin was talking about. Cummings was fine in a later Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder, (1954) where he had a less demanding role; but if you were going to give him a big part it better be on TV. The adorable Ms. Lane (as cute as a bug's ear) was perfect for comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which she starred opposite Cary Grant. She had no business in this picture.

Saboteur's weaknesses become especially apparent when you watch The 39 Steps, one of Hitch's masterpieces and definitely a film worthy of being an "essential." Indeed in both the intro and wrap up to Saboteur, Osborne and Baldwin made glowing reference to it. Having, as it does, Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll as the hero and heroine are gigantic plusses. Donat in particular is the very embodiment of suave, sophistication in the face of horrid spies and police who think him a murderer.

Comparisons between The 39 Steps and Saboteur are particularly apt because of how similar the stories are. In both cases an ordinary and quite innocent joe is suspected of a heinous crime and gets his name and picture plastered over the newspapers. To clear himself he must make a cross country dash to expose the real evil doers, who, along with the authorities, want to see him reigned in. And in each film our hero winds up with a lovely blonde in tow who at first is convinced our man guilty as sin but then not only believes him innocent, but falls in love with him in the bargain. And oh by the way the bad guys are foreign agents bent on destroying democracy.

If that sounds really, really familiar its because Hitchock used virtually the same scenario in North by Northwest (1959).

The amazing thing is that even with remarkably similar story lines, each story is fresh, original and entertaining. Hitchcock could have made an interesting movie out of page 186 of the phone book and 20 years later made a similar film about page 212 and you’d have loved 'em both.

Similarities between Saboteur and The 39 Steps also include bumbling coppers, amazing escapes and a denouement in a public setting. Hitch loved to end his films with scenes in full view of the general public and or at historic sights. Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the stage of a crowded theater, the British Museum.... Let it all hang out right front of God and everybody.

The action in The 39 Steps is fluid. In Saboteur its in fits and starts. In the former film you say "wow!" in the latter "yeah right." Saboteur has an ordinary action movie look, The 39 Steps looks truly Hitchockian and has a sense of humor to boot.

Mainly, Saboteur suffers from having to be compared with Hitchcock's other films and when you watch something like The 39 Steps right after, it really pales.

So what a great night I had hanging out with Alfred Hitchcock, Priscilla Lane, Robert Donat, Alec Baldwin and of course the wife. Maybe some day the missus and I will end up on the lam and before out adventure is done will bring down Al Qaeda and...aw, skip it.

11 April 2009

Hello Stranger!

The Petrified Forest (1936) is mostly remembered for Humphrey Bogart's performance as Duke Mantee -- a brilliant re interpretation of John Dillinger --and the hostage scene that comprises the film's second half. But to me the most intriguing aspect of the movie is the first half when Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) walks into Gabrielle Maple's (Bette Davis) life.

A July 4th weekend when I was 15. At a large family gathering. My first cousins and I were bored to tears when in walked a distant relative we'd never met. Steven was 19, a true hippie, an intellectual. Funny, fun loving. He spiked our lemonade with vodka. I was never the same again. It's not that Steven’s introducing me to demon rum that was so significant. In the course of the weekend he helped transform me from a naif to bohemian. The booze was but one aspect of this change. I started reading more seriously, laughing more uproariously and questioning authority more openly. This devilish raconteur had unlocked something within me. The lid would never go back on Pandora’s Box.

It happens in life that one someone strides into a person's sphere and they are forever changed. Often they bring true love and all the attendant joy and grief. But it can be so much else or more than that. Witness Gabrielle.

She lives with her father and grandfather out in the stultifying Arizona desert where she works at the family diner. She dreams of going to France and staying with her mother. Ahh to to go France where anything is possible! Meanwhile she's pursued by the hired help, a big lummox, strong of body, weak of mind and fore square in his intent to betroth Gabby. He's clearly not in Gabrielle's class. She loves poetry, painting and her larger than life dreams. My God how many women have succumbed over the centuries to lesser men either out of necessity or desperation? (Don't do it young women, hold out for someone special, like my wife did...okay, maybe not a great example.)

Into the diner walks an Englishman, exotic for his nationality alone. But he brings more. This Mr. Squier is a writer, a traveler and a very deep thinker indeed. That he is penniless is of no matter, he brings other types of riches, far more valuable ones. Alan can enrich Gabrielle's mind if not her purse. He brings charm, wit, contemplation and experience.

Our Gabrielle will never be the same.

In the end, of course, he makes the ultimate sacrifice so that she can pursue her dreams. But the greatest gift was not the insurance money but unlocking possibilities.

That's what a new person entering our life can do. Help us experience or to see different ways of living or at least of viewing the world. The Petrified Forest explores this idea as well as any film before or since. But surely Gabrielle is not merely the beneficiary of extraordinary luck. Anyone may be exposed to the new and interesting. It is crucial to be open to it, to be able to appreciate it, to explore it. If Gabrielle were not intellectually curious then Alan’s arrival would be like giving a great book to an illiterate.

Of course there is another stranger who enters the diner: Bogart's Duke Mantee. Surely his presence is crucial to Gabrielle as well. But he is all accident, mayhem and death. He forces change by barging in and wreaking havoc, not by enriching or opening minds.

In addition to Bogie, fine performances by Howard and Davis highlight the film as does Genevieve Tobin in a small but crucial role as a fellow hostage. As Mrs. Chisolm she represents the very opposite of what Gabrielle's aspires to be. Mrs. Chisolm heartbreakingly tells of how she gave up her dreams when she married for money and has thus lived with regret ever since.

I cannot finish this post without including these wonderful words from Squier: "Any woman's worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don't you see that's the whole excuse for our existence? It's what makes the whole thing possible and tolerable."

Amen, brother.

07 April 2009

I'd Love to Join Them

However I'd ask if we could move to the non smoking section.

(Left to right that's Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak (sigh).)

06 April 2009

I've Got No Right to Sing the Blues

My God you just don't want to sit around doing nothing. You've got to feel like you're being useful. Better still you've actually got to be useful. That's what kills the chronically or newly unemployed. The uselessness. I haven't done a damn thing worth mentioning for three days and I'm feeling it. I'm feeling the fact that I'll likely not do much in the coming three days either. Part of this isn't my fault, I've got "an invasive procedure" scheduled later in the week. That'll effectively kill off that day and the next. I'll spare you the details other than it'll be routine and a no news is good news deal.

Yesterday I did go to the gym as I do pretty much every other day. Out of nowhere my hamstring tugged at me. I was just past the half way point in a 35 minute run on the treadmill and feeling pretty good. I've been spending the past two months trying to get back into the shape I was in before the Paris trip. I missed a couple of weeks working out because of the trip then got a cold, then was busy then got a really bad cold. If you miss two weeks it takes you three or four to get back to where you were. I missed more than that. The hammie feels better today but by God if this slows me down any I'll be tempted to kick the cat (don't worry, I won't).

Today I blogged about The Grapes of Wrath. Then I went to Moe's bookstore and picked up a copy of Norman Davies' No Simple victory. It's another World War II book but has a different take emphasizing the role of the USSR in winning the damn thing and...well, if you're really interested I suppose you can look it up. From the bookstore I went across the street to Peets and had a coffee while working on the crossword puzzle. Then I walked home and watched Strangers on a Train. I did a little house cleaning, read, took a nap checked out the NCAA men's basketball title game then sat around feeling worthless. (Doesn't sound like that bad a day now that I've written about it.)

It's Spring Break so I've got no sub jobs. This is the first spring break in 20 years that I haven't been a full time classroom teacher. I'm happy being a student and a sub and not having the mind-crushing worries, but I'm still adjusting too. It's a process.

So for whatever reason these past few days have been a good opportunity to feel sorry for myself which is silly because I get a week off from being a lousy substitute teacher. What the hell can be better than that?

We all run up against times like this. A malaise. It's so damn easy to focus on what's wrong, what hurts, what we've failed at, what possible trials await us. Sometimes things come together in a good way and you feel great. Sometimes its the opposite. Thank God I can sit at this computer and peck away about my "feelings". Having a creative outlet is a damn life saver. Plus it helps knowing that I'm going to publish this so its got to make sense for other people. I think there's a point at which a blogger has to take him or herself seriously and realize there are folks out there who read your ravings so you might as well try to make a useful point or two. I mean, sure, ultimately you write for yourself but with an awareness of readers both real and imagined. That's one reason I focus on films, it keeps me from being too damn self-indulgent (You mean, like you're being now? Exactly!). Plus I love movies to death.

You know what, people respond to? Honesty. They may not always, always like it, but they respect it. That's all we can ask from each other: the truth from our perspective. And its a damn hard thing to do. It makes us vulnerable. It's easier to fit in and say what we know people like to hear. Look at how many false fronts we put up in the course of our lives. Sure, sometimes for good reason, sometimes to protect other people's feelings. You can't walk around saying "your hair looks like crap that way." Or "my god that's a hideous dress." But a lot of time we're playing roles. It's really a matter of degrees, I suppose. Too often we lean towards not ruffling feathers or trying to make ourselves appear to be something we are not.

So anyway I guess I feel better for having written. Plus I've got Sinatra playing and that always helps. I find it nigh on (is that right, "nigh on"? I could look it up I suppose, but not right now, I'll just go with nigh on) impossible to feel gloomy when you've got a collection of Sinatra CDs at your disposable. Or Marx Brothers DVDs. I've got a bunch of them. I've got all of Preston Sturges' best films. A solid collection of Hitchcock. A lot of classic comedies and gangster films from the 1930s plus the newest version of the Godfather collection. Oh sure I've got a wonderful family too and friends and my health and an scheduled "invasive procedure" that will hopefully confirm my robust health.

I also get to do this. Write.

May I take a moment for a few shout outs (it's your friggin blog, do what you want). Hello Kathryn, Megan, Miranda, Kevin, Phil, Paul, Robert, Sirpa, both nieces and both nephews, and my newest cyberfriend Kate of Silents & Talkies who, like an older cyber chum, R.D., has posted so many kind comments, she's aces.

So folks, I ask you, ain't life grand?

(By the way that's Ann Dvorak pictured above. If I had been around in the 1930s I'd have married that dame. The fact that we can watch movies with her in them today is another reason to be really, really happy.)

"Maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled..."

Who's to blame?

It's an essential question, perhaps the essential question to the angry, wronged person. We want to know who's responsible. Then we can demand recompense or a punishment befitting the injustice. Or maybe we'll at least now where to direct our anger.

Watch the frustration of the dispossessed in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Surely the man behind the tractor, preparing to level the home is not to blame. He is, after all, merely in the employ of a company assigning him this dirty work. And by the way, that dirty work will allow him to feed his family. It is though economic times and he can't be blamed for making a buck where he can.

So, okay its not his fault, who's then? The bank? And where exactly are they and to whom within the bank may one direct their ire? But is not a bank comprised of many people who as a group act in the interests of the bottom line and are not able to afford such luxuries as compassion?

Maybe the government. But the government is the people and we are the people. Surely no elected official would assume responsibility, nor even a body of representatives.

We see throughout the story that the police are placed in the role of the heavy. But they are merely the muscles of the law. As heartless as they may may be, they are in the service of maintaining order in a society sorely in need of it.

So the Joads and the many others of America's Central Plains who were victims of both the Great Depression and the cruel effects of the Dust Bowl must push on. Suffering equal parts sorrow and anger, tempered by the hope that keeps the fires of the human spirit burning through the coldest winters. They push on.

Most people need to know why. Why they have lost their homes, their livelihood, perhaps even loved ones. Sure they'll keep trying to make the best of things. But in the mean time answer them this: why are we made to suffer so? And what can we do about it? Don't tell a person there is nothing to be done. A person who is powerless is helpless and defeated. Tom Joad, for one, can't accept that. At the end of the film he vows to find out. He tells his Ma: "maybe I can just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that's wrong and see if they ain't somethin' that can be done about it. I ain't thought it out all clear, Ma. I can't. I don't know enough."

If he can just find out "somethin,'" he'll surely feel better. Because he just doesn't "know enough." Information is power. A person armed with information is far deadlier than one armed with a gun. The suffering of people can make for an epic tragedy but the story takes another much more powerful dimension when there are those like Tom Joad who ask: why?

There are some obvious and clear enemies in The Grapes of Wrath such as employers who'll not pay a living wage because they can get away with and because they know its better than nothing and hell there are thousands of others who'll take the pay if you won't. And then there are the employees and cops who'll call anyone who questions them "a Red." And say, Tom wants to know, just what is "a Red," anyway? Maybe its something you call someone to divert people from hearing what they're saying. If you don't like the message, kill the messenger, a much used and cowardly tactic of the powerful.

The Grapes of Wrath is an amazingly radical film (which is particularly odd given that it was directed by the relatively conservative John Ford). It's strikingly anti-authoritarian. It is a rallying cry for people to band together and question and challenge anyone in power, to not meekly accept their lot.

It's also a clarion call for a united front of the people to challenge the faceless bureaucracy that oppresses them. For as Tom says: "fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody.... " One big soul. What a mighty force for change that can be. What a radical notion. What a scary thought for those powers that be.

Perhaps Tom's parting words to his mother say it all: "Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."

If not, surely these words by Ma Joad do capture the spirit of the film: "Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."

A people bowed but not broken. A people made to suffer for years of government neglect and greed and service to businesses and the rich. But a blame so diffused its hard to figure out just exactly where to direct that anger.

The Grapes of Wrath (based, of course, on John Steinbeck's novel) is not incidentally one of the most visually stunning films ever made. It also features a fantastic cast led by Henry Fonda as Tom and Jane Darwell as Ma. The film hasn't aged a day since its debut. If anything, given the times we live in, its fresher than ever.

04 April 2009

All About Eve and Margo and Tracy and Annie and Stella and Ilsa and Evelyn and Marge....

In my preceding post I listed 11 (why 11? you ask, why not 11 I reply) memorable male film characters. I excluded anyone previously famous in another medium such as literature (sorry Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity (1944)) or as a real person (apologies Edith Piaf of La Vie en Rose) or a recurring character (another time Princess Leia of Star Wars (1977 et al). Under the same ground rules I now present 11 (that's right I said 11, you got a problem with it?) notable female characters of film.

Margo Channing played by Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950). Eve may have got what she wanted but Margo didn't lose an iota of dignity or stature. It took her awhile to catch on to Eve's machinations but she eventually saw it all clear enough and would not be so fooled again. Margo was the pre feminist woman. Self possessed and self reliant without being self absorbed. A true talent unafraid of men or her own ability to woo them. Who else could have played this role as well as the great Bette Davis. Try no one.

Tracy Lord played by Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Ultimately she needed some interloping news reporters to help edge her away from the wrong man and back in the arms of her true love, Cary Grant's CK Dexter Haven. Twas Mr. Haven who said of Tracy, "Not interested in yourself, Red, you're fascinated. You're far and away your favorite person in the world." Bit harsh but he was making a point. And you should really make a point to watch Lord more carefully next time you take in this fine film. She's far more complex a person than most give her credit for. Accused of not having her own mind, an anti-feminist, she's actually quite independent and suffers only from confusion. Sure she needs a shove in the right direction. Not a crime, that.

Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). It's a hell of an advantage to have your character name in the film title but it was Diane Keaton's Oscar winning performance that made Annie shine. That and the clothes which started a mini fashion trend. She was a devastating combination of cute, pretty, smart, neurotic and funny. Writer/Director Woody Allen has a most well earned reputation for creating memorable roles for women (just ask Diane Weist, Scarlet Johannson or Mia Farrow, Actually forgot that last one she and Woody had a bit of a falling out). Annie might have been his best.

Stella Dallas played by Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937). Again the title and the character are one and the same, but the similarities end there. Stanwyck's Stella Dallas is the archetype of the self sacrificing mom who will do anything for her child even to the extreme of giving her up and stepping aside. The movie provided Stanwyck with one of her best roles which is going some considering how many great ones she had. This is melodrama at its best and if Stanwyck's performance doesn't choke you up you maybe better check your pulse.

Eve Carrington played by Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950). That conniving little b*tch. Look how she manipulates people. What a phony! But she gets what she wants in the end, though stuck with George Sanders in the bargain. Few actresses have had a role like Eve to sink their teeth into and Baxter took full advantage. You had to admire Eve even in he act of despising her. She has a strange dark appeal to the baser nature of men, hence her being saddled with sanders seems appropriate.

Ilsa Lund played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942). Ya know, all she had to really do was look at a man in just the right way with those soulful eyes and you wouldn't need Sam to play "As Time Goes By" for him to melt. Ilsa was a looker all right but she was also one of the good guys. Sure she was ready to give up her heroic hubby for Bogie's Richard Blaine, but she was such a good person that the selfless Blaine couldn't accept. Just gave her a nudge. Here's looking at you, ilsa.

Evelyn Mulwray as played by Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974). She was the mother, the sister, the mother the sister, the mother AND the sister. Dunaway was teamed with Jack Nicholson and John Huston and more than held her own. Ms. Mulwray was all things to all people. Spoiled. Manipulative. Victim. Heroine. Mostly she was memorable.

Marge Gunderson played by Frances MacDormand in Fargo (1996). Gunderson was Sarah Palin with brains. She wouldn't shoot a wolf from a helicopter but would hunt down a desperate criminal through snow drifts. Pregnant, plain speaking in that Upper Midwest accent. A dogged professional. You betchya!

Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). I'm the first to admit that I tend to lavish massive amounts of praise on anything movie related that I love. So here goes: Swanson's Norma Desmond is one of the 10 greatest film characters of all time. That walk down the stairs at the end of the film alone would be enough to cement her place in cinematic lore. My God you just don't get any better than this. Nuff said.

Sugar Kane Kowalczyk played by Marylin Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959). If by hot they mean Sugar Kane, I'm in. Monore was all bouncy ass and breathy sexiness. A physical wonder of nature with nothing false about her. An admitted gold digger who knows herself far more than supposedly smarter dames. It's not just the physical endowments one remembers about her. Monore breathed some real depth into Sugar Kane.

Mildred Ratched as played by Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Better known as Nurse Ratched, this character has come to symbolize the villainous nurse (the anti Florence Nightingale, if you will). What's scarier than a sadistic medical professional? Fletcher was one of those serviceable actors who had one great role and played it to the hilt. Nurse Ratched, just the name (shiver). What a fink.

02 April 2009

What Was that Character's Name? The One DeNiro Played in Taxi Driver?

The other night I as watching The Daily Show (as is my wont to do). Jon Stewart's guest was Seth Rogen who in the course of their chat mentioned Travis Bickle. A character in a film known by one all and indeed an archetype of the troubled loner turned vigilante. But Rogen then added that Bickle was the main character from Taxi Driver. I guess a few folks watching might have required the clarification.

It got me thinking about film characters who the vast majority of the movie-loving public know by name. So of course I had to compile a list for this here blog and in it write a bit about why these characters are such an indelible part of our culture.

I decided to exclude characters who were first known in another medium such as literature. Sorry Attitcus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (literature) or Stanley Kowlaski of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) (theater). Also eliminated were characters based on and named for real people, sorry Clyde Barrow of Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Lastly I'm not including characters who had recurring roles in films, one timers only, sorry Indiana Jones of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

I'm also confining this list to men. A list of famous female characters will follow in a future post. So here are 11 notable film characters (11? why 11? Why not 11!?).

Travis Bickle played by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (1976). Its a name synonymous with troubled loners. It has creeped into our culture. Assassins, vigilantes, ex military types, creepy cab drivers. Of course if his name was Tom Buckman instead of the more distinctive Travis Bickle (rhymes with pickle) it might be more easily forgotten. But Travis Bickle will live with us for a long time.

Fred C. Dobbs played by Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
On the other hand...I suppose part of the allure of Fred C. Dobbs is the striking ordinariness of the name. I mean you've got the frickin' middle initial there in between a Fred and a Dobbs. And look who Dobbsie is, a down on his luck American in Mexico who goes searching for gold. And look what happens: he finds some, then goes nuts with paranoia. A priceless Bogart performance and a name that everyone remembers, for all its banality and maybe in part because of it. So sometimes for some reason a name needn’t be unusual to be remembered.

Alvy Singer played by Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977). I still haven't figured out why Tony Roberts' character keeps calling him, Max. Anyhoo, the name Alvy Singer is immortalized if for no other reason than its being repeated by the two "gentlemen" outside the theater. Remember the ones who Singer himself referred to as the cast of The Godfather? And part of a teamsters meeting? "Alvy Singer! From the Carson show!" It was a great scene in a great film and one of the few times Allen gave himself a distinctive name.

Jefferson Smith played by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Anytime there's a Smith anywhere near Washington D.C. this name comes up. Anytime someone new and fresh comes along who's headed for the nation's capital its Mr. So and So Goes to Washington. The movie is a classic and Stewart was utterly magnificent. Plus the combination of the patriotic sounding Jefferson along with the salt of the earth Smith sticks with us.

Rufus T. Firefly played by Groucho Marx in Duck Soup (1933). Sure I could have gone with other Groucho characters like Otis B Driftwood, Wolf J Flywheel or Hugo Z Hackenbush, but Firefly is the best of the names in the best of his films (in my most humble opinion). Groucho, like fellow comic W.C. Fields invented or was given funny character names for many of his roles. Firefly was the wise cracking ruler of Freedonia who had to lead his country into war against Sylvannia. What a glorious struggle it was!

Charles Foster Kane played by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941). Everything about the film has become legendary. The name of the lead character itself is bigger than life and is shown that way on screen and spoken that way as well. Charles Foster Kane was the perfect moniker for a man who did so much and aspired to so much more. A rose by any other name would have smelled as sweet but wouldn't have had the same ring.

CK Dexter Haven played by Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Cary Grant is so distinctive an actor its not always easy to remember what the devil his character's name was. But how do you forget a name with three parts, the first one of which is initials? Especially such an elegant sounding name. And most especially when a drunken Jimmy Stewart repeats the name over and over outside his house? You don't. Anyway the nonplussed CK is one of Grant's more memorable roles in one of his more memorable pictures.

Crash Davis played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham (1988). This is at the very least a famous name in baseball circles. Career minor leaguers are often referred to as Crash Davis types. Crash was someone a lot of folks could root for. More wise than talented. Fun loving and the rare man who's a match for the savviest dame. Costner has been okay in a lot of films but he was great as Crash and the name has taken on a life of its on.

Liberty Valance played by Lee Marvin in the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961). Having your character name in the title of a movie is a sure fire attention getter. And if you're meaner than a rattlesnake with a hangover and if your death is the stuff of legends, well by gum you’re somebody all right. Lee Marvin played this cussed Western outlaw to the hilt. And the varmint was not only handy with a gun but with whip too. Talk about mean! Having Liberty as a first name when your a cutthroat is ironic and unforgettable.

Sidney Falco played by Tony Curtis in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Curtis was more than a pretty face as he proved on numerous occasions particularly in his role as the oily, creepy publicist. What a performance! What a character! Oozing up, that is sucking up, to super powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) vainly trying to slake his thirst for success. Indeed the imperious Hunsecker could qualify for this list as well.

Norman Bates played by Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960). He loved his mother in a most unusual way. On the other hand he didn't much care for beautiful blonds in showers or nosy detectives creeping around the house. What a completely “Normal Norman” he seemed at first. Turned out he was handy with a knife and in all the wrong ways. One wonders if there was a precipitous decline in naming babies Norman after Psycho's release.