31 May 2009

Opinions Are Like Cardiovascular Systems, Everybody Has One

I'm minding my own damn business reading the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle when I get to the entertainment section. I was delighted to come across an article about Jorma Taccone, who along with work partners Andy Samberg and Akiva Scahffer I posted about recently. However, the author of the piece, Ruthe Stein, said the three lads met at Berkeley High School when they in fact became friends at Willard Middle School where they all suffered from having me as a history teacher. I've since written Ms. Stein to straighten her out.

Then I came to the "Ask the Critic" section where readers can send in questions to film critic Mick LaSalle. One local yokel submitted the following:

Dear Mick: Your reviews are usually on target, but you missed "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by a country mile. I loved it, and so did the vast majority of your peers. You must have felt embarrassed at panning a movie that got a zillion Oscar nominations and won in three categories. Are you so steadfast in your opinions that you never admit blowing it?
Larry Snyder

Seriously Larry, you're going to use the Oscars as a measuring stick for a movie? Have you no recollection of the travesties they've visited upon film fans in the past? You need a calculator to tally the Oscars won by such drivel as Titanic and Gone with the Wind. Meanwhile you need nothing, nada, zero to count the competitive Oscars won by Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Stanley Kubrick, William Wellman, Arthur Penn, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet, Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Altman, Orson Wells and Alan J. Pakula combined. Were you not aware that the Academy of Motion Pictures Sciences awarded best picture awards to How Green Was My Valley (1941) over Citizen Kane (1941) and Ordinary People (1980) over Raging Bull (1980)? I could go on and indeed I did in a post last Summer linked to this sentence. So don't ever try to convince someone of the worth or worthlessness of a film based on the Oscars.

But more to the point, you think a critic is going to change her or his mind about a film because of other people's opinion? "Gee, I hated it but a lot of people like it, I must be wrong!"

Finally I ask you this: why do you care if you and Mick disagree on a movie? Let it go, pal. I disagree with him and every other critic all the time. You know why? Because we all bring our own world view, tastes and feelings into our perception of a film or any other work of art. There is nothing that is universally loved because people are all different. How sad would the world be if we all liked the same exact things. Vive la difference. When it comes to political issues like torture or gay marriage, go ahead and get your panties in a bunch and try to prove the validity of your views to others. But movies? A losing proposition.

I next returned to front of the entertainment section where there are "Letters to the Pink" (referring to the section's color on Sundays). There I read this gem:

Mick LaSalle is a brilliant critic and analytical writer. But with his personal opinions, you have to realize that they are just his opinions and some of them are subject to question.

Last year he made the claim that Helen Forrest (who?), an obscure singer from the 1930s, was as great a singer as Frank Sinatra. I kid you not.
Now LaSalle has given us his top 15 movies of the 2000 decade. But he doesn't include "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (11 Academy Awards) or "No Country for Old Men," the best pictures of the past nine years and maybe the past 20 years. "The Return of the King" is the best action-adventure motion picture of all time, and "No Country" has to be the most complex and riveting murder mystery ever filmed.
Then we have LaSalle's pick for the most beautiful actress ever: Hedy Lamarr. I agree that Lamarr was stunning, but he doesn't even mention the most beautiful of all time: Elizabeth Taylor. Watching "Raintree County" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," one is hypnotized by her perfect features, black hair and purple eyes. No one in the history of film compares with this woman's jaw-dropping beauty.
So, Mick, thank you for your unparalleled insights and analysis of motion pictures, but your opinions are strictly your own.
Nicholas Duka

So let me see if I got this straight. You're saying that we need to realize that Mr. LaSalle's opinions are "are just his opinions and some of them are subject to question." Wow, are there really people who aren't aware of the fact that people's opinions are opinions and not the Oracle of Delphi? And aren't opinions by definition "subject to question"?

Now here's some of my opinions which are by the way "just my opinions" and are subject to question. If you don't know who Helen Forest is you're missing out. While I may not put her in Sinatra's league (I wouldn't rank anyone in his league) she was a helluva songstress.  Next you take LaSalle to task for not including Return of the King (2003) and No Country for Old Men in his preliminary list of top films of the decade. I can tell you with great certainty that No Country for Old Men (2007) will rank high on my list (look for the list in early January 2010) but one of those bloated Peter Jackson Lord of the Ring films? Gimme a break. See how people have such a wide variety of opinions?

Next he disparages LaSalle for calling Heddy Lamarr  the most beautiful actress ever. I gotta agree with you, the lovely Ms. Lamarr wouldn't even crack my top ten. But I've gotta ask the same question again: what the hell do you care? If someone named Moms Mabley (pictured above) the most beautiful entertainer of all time I can't see what it has to do with me. But the last line of the letter is the best: "your opinions are strictly your own." Evidently so are yours. And everyone else's. Here are the first two definitions of opinion from something called the dictionary: 1) A belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. 2) A personal view, attitude or appraisal.

Congratulations, Nick old boy, you nailed it.

So anytime that someone tries to tell you that a film critic's or historian's or carpenter's opinion is empirically verifiable fact, you just remind them what Nick said.
Anyway, that's my opinion.

29 May 2009

Faces and Voices and a Dancing Lady

Joan Crawford's long nose divides her face in half. The two halves are mirror images of one another, sleek, and flawless. You also notice those huge white eyes with little pupils that seem like small dots, lost amid all that space.

I just watched her in Dancing Lady (1933). Aside from that wonderful, powerful face there is nothing all that interesting about her visually. She shows off her gams in Dancing Lady and they're plenty nice enough but nothing to stop a train. But hell when you've got a face like that the body just has to reach the floor and have all the important parts.

Crawford could act, too, that's for sure. From ingenue to matriarch with career gal in between, her performances ranged from solid to super. But faces make stars. Look at her leading man in Dancing Lady, Clark Gable. He's indeed a pleasure to look at even for straight men. Sure he's got big ears, what of it? The rest of his head looks like its been sculpted by an artist who had good looks in mind. Then there's that voice. He don't sound like your neighbor. His voice is masculine but interesting. Come to think of it, Crawford 's voice is distinctive too. Feminine but self assured and clear as bell. Ever since talkies caught on an actor's voice has mattered. A lot. If what comes out of your mouth is unique you may have yourself a career. What, you never noticed Cary Grant's voice? Clipped, and pretty and wonderfully lucid. How's about Lauren Bacall? Husky, sexy. You could pour it on your waffles. I could listen to Edward G. Robinson read the phone book and Jean Harlow count to a million. Us regular types have regular voices. Ho hum.

Marlio Brando and Montgomery Clift and their type helped elevate the art of acting. Guys like Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn have carried that tradition on. You've got an actor losing him or herself in a character. Becoming that person. That's great stuff. Brando and them became stars because they could emote. Their interesting mugs and voices were more part of the act than a presence. But there's a helluva lot to be said for the star system. Sure half or more of the time Bogey was playing the same persona, but it was a character type you loved and couldn't get enough of.

Stars can act, sure, but what you really get is a face and a voice. When there's two stars playing opposite each other who've both going for them... it's hard for a movie to go wrong.

So Dancing Lady had two such stars, that's your picture right there. But the film positively poured it on with talent. Franchot Tone for starters. He played a "Park Avenue" type. That means someone lousy with dough, just as he did in Midnight Mary (1933) and Reckless (1935) to give just two examples. Tone was always a bridesmaid (male version) and a very good one, thank you very much. He may not have gotten the dame but he always took it good naturedly. Being in the bucks musta helped. Coming as he did from a wealthy family, probably made it natural for him to play society types. It was nice in Bombshell (1933) to see him playing a guy who was merely playing the part of an upper class sort. Tone was always likable. Even in Dancing Lady where he's a rat, he's not a wharf rat so much as a one of those white and pink ones people keep as pets.

So Tone was there to be the nice rich guy. What else you got? How's about Robert Benchley? Not for the first time he's a reporter. Benchley was almost always a lush, a layabout or both. He always cracked wise in that seen-it-all educated way of his. Benchley specialized in worldly, cynical but lovable sorts. Any film he was in was improved by his sotted presence. *Hic.*

Speaking of stereotypes, how many times was Grant Mitchell a harried father? If you're going to count, start with Dancing Lady. And say, this film also provides the film debut of Fred Astaire. You wanna talk about typecasting! Right off the bat they've got him playing a dancer...(Is he kidding? Course I am.) Astaire was to become a star but of a different type from the likes of Gable in that he was a hoofer by trade. Still, he had the distinctive voice (sometimes used for singing) and that long angular face. Stars don't come out of central casting even if they can two step.

Dancing Lady had romance, dance numbers, rags to riches, show biz, and burlesque. Ultimately the whole didn't quite equal the sum of its parts. Now don't start with me, I like the film just fine. I just don't love it, see?

I love Crawford. I don't find her sexy like Barbara Stanwyck, or cuddly like Priscilla Lane or gorgeous like Ann Sheridan, or sultry like Myrna Loy or cute like Jean Arthur. There is, in fact, a coldness to her. But it's something I quite like. A man doesn't have to want to boink every actress on film, nor even half of them. Crawford is damn interesting to watch. She makes you more interested in the story than you might otherwise be because you take her seriously. Gable, meanwhile is more of the type of guy you want to root and holler for, someone you wish you coulda paled around with. That my friends is star quality and there's no teaching it.

So Dancing Lady is a treat even if the story gets distracted now and again (did we really need the Three Stooges slapping each other around in the middle of the story? No!). The story is just good enough and the stars are...well, like stars are, bright and shiny and cool to look at.

27 May 2009

Hey Grandpa! The Adorable Charley Grapewin

(Drawing courtesy of Kate Gabrielle proprietor of the wonderful blog, Silents and Talkies.)

He was a coot, he was codger, he was a geezer, he was a curmudgeon, he was an old fogy, he was a lovable ole grandpa. He was Charley Grapewin, who delighted film audiences for an all too brief 22 years, 1929-1951.

Check out some of the films his craggy old face graced: Heroes for Sale, Midnight Mary, and Wild Boys of the Road from 1933. Alice Adams in 1935. Petrified Forest, Small Town Girl and Libeled Lady in 1936. The Good Earth and Captain Courageous in 1937. The Wizard of Oz and Sabotage in 1939. The Grapes of Wrath in 1940.

Grapewin was already 60 years old when he made his screen debut so playing the resident old timer came naturally to him. Despite all appearances, he was not born old. In fact his early show business career was as a trapeze artist and aerialist. He then trod the boards as a thespian (stage actor to you, bub). And popped into a few very early films at the turn of the century.

In his first few roles of note, Grapewin was a kindly figure, particularly in Heroes for Sale where he was an innkeeper and later ran a soup kitchen. In Midnight Mary he was the court clerk who listened to Loretta Young's story in flashback as she awaited a verdict on charges of murder.

One of Grapewin's better roles was as Bette Davis' grandpa in Petrified Forest. Outwardly a cheerleader for outlaws and the supposed survivor of an encounter with Billy the Kid, Leslie Howard takes him to task for being a selfish old skinflint. There is indeed a darkness to his Gramp Maple.

The Wizard of Oz , in which he was Uncle Henry, certainly brought Grapewin his greatest notoriety. But in fact it was somewhat limited role in which he played a very distant second fiddle to Auntie Em. But besides Petrified Forest it may have been The Grapes of Wrath that was his best role. He was just plain old Grandpa. Stubborn, lovable, the ultimate aging grandparent. The  Joads had to get him soused before they could pack him on the truck with the rest of the clan to journey west.

Did Charley Grapwein have great range as an actor? Really that's kind of a silly question. If your career starts in the seventh decade of your life you're not going to get to play the romantic lead, and probably not any kind of lead, for that matter. Grapewin was not so much stuck in the role of the grandfather as he came to embody it. The man was good at what he did. Sometimes he was a grump, other times a jolly ole cuss. Sometimes a quiet contemplative soul, other times a chuckling, silly old gaffer, but Grapewin enhanced everything he was in. He had the huge advantage many actors do: a distinctive voice and an interesting face. And he never tried to do too much, Charley Grapewin was never a buffoon, just colorful.

What a character!

(Thanks again, Kate. Great pic.)

26 May 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If...(Part Two)

You know you really like a director if you can make a top ten list of your favorites from among his films. In the second in an occasional series of looks at my favorite directors I present my ten favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies. In part one I offered my ten favorite Woody Allen films.

Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and it is an appropriate moniker. Yet it’s also limiting. He did ever so much more. His films had action, adventure, comedy, drama and romance as well as suspense. He directed classic horror stories, dark comedies and spy stories. Most of all he was an unmatched storyteller. His career began in England during the silent era and ended in Hollywood during the 1970’s.

I defy anyone to come up with a better list of stars than the ones Hitch worked with over the years. Just for starters: Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Joel McCrea, Robert Montgomery, Ray Milland, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Montgomery Clift, Charles Laughton, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Joan Fontaine, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Carole Lombard and Shirley MacLaine. Impressed yet?

Hitch was an innovative director. His use of the camera to tell the story, particularly evident in films like Vertigo and Notorious, was at once stunning and unobtrusive. Set pieces in particular highlighted his storytelling prowess. But his choices were all about moving the story forward rather than drawing attention away from it. Hitch the director was like athletes who make the spectacular seem routine.

He made everyone else around him seem better at their jobs. Actors gave better performances. Cinemaphotographers were more artistic and screenwriters more clever by half. (Or was it him?) And just to prove beyond any doubt what a crock the Academy Awards are, Hitchcock never -- no, not even once -- won a best director Oscar.

Here’s my top ten.

1.Vertigo (1958). It’s in many critical top ten greatest films lists including my own. It’s a story of one man’s obsession with one stunning blond. The city of San Francisco is the other beauty in the story. Stewart and Novak star, as does the city by the bay. Technicolor at its best.

2.Notorious (1946). Like a lot of Hitch films it gets better with each viewing. In my humble opinion Grant gives his best ever performance. See my post from last month for more.

3.Foreign Correspondent (1940). I esteem this film more than most people do. I believe it his most underrated. More stunning camera shots in this film than most directors manage in a career. The then timely story of a reporter covering what turns out to be the outbreak of World War II. Joel McCrea’s only Hitch film and I wish like hell he’d been in a few more.

4.Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Hold on a second, a screwball comedy? Hitch directing one of the great screwball comedies of all time (and it is) is like Picasso writing a terrific novel or Willie Mays throwing a touchdown pass. No fair! Final proof that Hitch could do it all. Montgomery and Lombard starred.

5.Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Reportedly his favorite film. Joseph Cotton is a killer on the lam who hangs out with his unknowing extended family in Santa Rosa, California which plays the role of Anytown U.S.A. Teresa Wright is the adoring niece who slowly comes to see Uncle (Cotton) for what he really is. The sneak.

6.Psycho (1960). I assume you know the story of the young man who has a strange relationship with his deceased mom. He operates a motel and Janet Leigh drops in takes a shower. Oh the humanity! It was ground breaking then and still a wonder today.

7.I Confess (1953). Another underrated film. Monty Clift is the priest suspected of murder. See my post from last Summer for more.

8.Strangers on a Train (1951). Hey fella, let’s swap murders! That’s the premise and my God with Robert Walker’s uber creepy performance it sure as shinola works. Rife with symbolism.

9.Rebecca(1940). A great romance, the world’s eeriest housekeeper a big house, icky George Sanders. For more see my recent post on this, the only Hitchcock film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Fontaine is fab.

10.The Trouble With Harry(1955). New England in the fall never looked lovelier. A dark (but not too dark) comedy with an interesting cast including Maclaine, John Forstyhe, Edmund Gwenn and Jerry Mathers but not as the beaver. There's also a dead fella named Harry that brings everyone together. Fun stuff.

And you know you really, really, really like the director if after the top ten list you can offer a half dozen honorable mentions, like so:

25 May 2009

A Dozen More Great World War II Films and Two From Television

Last summer I wrote a post that I called A Mere 25 Great World War II Films. Given that I called the inclusion of 25 films "mere" the question is, can I add to it? The answer is, of course.

Here are 12 more films centered around the second world war and two contributions from television, one a mini series and the other a British telly program. It's not the least surprising that a world war would generate so much powerful cinema. From a war comes action, adventure, drama, tragedy and deeply human stories about how people respond to the very very unusual. For more thoughts on this see my preceding post.

These are offered in no particular order.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Okay that's weird, we're starting with a movie set after the war. But it certainly qualifies for this list as it details the effect of war on three vets returning home and to a lesser extent on those they return to. It won a passel of awards at the Oscars including best picture and deserved every last one of them. Dana Andrews, Harold Russell and Fredric March were all brilliant as the three vets.

The Dirty Dozen (1967). Is this a rollicking good war fantasy about a rag tag group of army cons who go on a suicide mission? In a way. But it's also a powerful anti-establishment film. It's got a dream cast led by Lee Marvin and including Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and a creepy John Cassavetes. Works on many levels, particularly at action and at sticking it to the man.

Battleground (1949). Wrote about this yesterday. Love this William Wellman directed film about the Battle of the Bulge. Van Johnson stars. Black and white realism.

Two Women (1960). Yes, women got caught up in war. And how! Sophia Loren stars as one of the women and her character's daughter is the other. What they go throw...oy vey. Vittoria De Sicca directed this story set in war-ravaged Italy.

Hell is For Heroes (1962). A recent and long overdue discovery for me that I blogged about recently. How can you resist a movie with Steve McQueen, Fess Parker, Bobby Darrin and Bob Newhart? An eclectic cast and strong film about a platoon that must hold that line until re-enforcements come.

In Which We Serve (1942). It's about a British ship and the men who serve on it. I posted about it last Fall after seeing it for the first time. Noel Coward of all people stars and he co-directed with David Lean. The story is told in flashbacks as the ship sinks. Surprisingly realistic.

The Winter War (1989). The war my father bravely fought in for Finland as they held off the Russian bear for longer than anyone would have thought possible. This is a great study of men at war. Coming out of Finland it's not been seen by enough people. Available on DVD.

Destination Tokyo (1943). Yet another film I've already blogged about. Cary Grant as a sub commander on a mission from San Francisco into Tokyo Bay. Can't go wrong. Like many war movies it's an excellent buddy film. Made during the war and I'm sure it helped rally folks to the cause -- as if they needed it.

The Americanization of Emily (1964). What have we here? Another film I've blogged about, wow. This is a decidedly different film bearing as it does a powerful anti-war message. Seems like a Seventies film but no, some how this came out in 1964. Screenplay by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky. James Garner, and Julie Andrews star and yes there's a love story mixed in as well.

Stalingrad (1993). Oh my. This film is not exactly a pick-me-up. Then again you can't exactly make a film about the Battle of Stalingrad that'll leave 'em laughing. A German made film and those people knew a thing or two about how bleak and murderous that battle was.

A Walk in the Sun (1945). Another vehicle for Dana Andrews who had a worldly all American quality suited to the WWII genre. This time he's in the thick of it in Italy. Long marches, lot of talking among the men, with occasional interruptions by enemy fire.

Heaven Knows Mrs. Allison (1957). How's this, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr star and John Huston directed? Can't go wrong. Our stars are a nun and a marine (guess which is which) stranded on a Pacific Island during the war. For company there are enemy soldiers around. Will they find illicit love? Will they survive? It's worth watching this thoroughly entertaining film to find out.

And from TV:
Band of Brothers (2001). The seminal mini series from Steven Spielberg that HBO featured over several months follows the fortunes of the 101st airborne. We follow from them basic training through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Germany. Realistic, character driven, everything a war film should be, entertaining and illuminating. Good history.

Foyle's War (2002-2008). If you like detective shows and you're interested in World War II have I've got a show for you. In star Michale Kitchen you've got the ideal lead. He plays Foyle, a cop in wartime England solving murders, most related one way or the other to the war. Many story lines were based on actual events or conditions. Riveting, entertaining. Highly, highly recommended.

24 May 2009

Set Your DVRs and TIVOs The Big Parade is Going to Be on TCM!!!

Regular readers of this blog (both of us) know I rarely provide program reminders but this is indeed a very special case. On Tuesday May 26, 02:15 AM EDT which is 11:15 PM PDT on the 25th, TCM will finally, finally be showing The Big Parade (1925) again. It's been years which is to say way, way too long for a film unavailable on DVD.

It's an absolute classic from director King Vidor. Don't miss it. Thank me later.

War, What is Good For? Films, Of Course

I missed out on being in a war. Never shot at. No sleeping in mud. No seeing my buddy's brains blow out. No being under heavy artillery attack. No charges at enemy lines. No going out on patrol. No wounds. No medals. No shipping out. No furlough. Nothin.

My dad fought in the Winter War, aka the Finno-Russian War. He was also on merchant marine ships during WWII that came under airplane fire and was at the helm of one that was sunk by a Japanese submarine. I heard his stories. But me? Closest I come was being tear gassed at anti war demonstrations when I was in high school.

I've read a lot about wars, particularly the two world wars. I mean A LOT. Being an expert is relative. I'm certainly an authority on such arcane things as growing up Finnish American in Berkeley in the Sixties. I'm an expert on teaching 8th grade history. I know one helluva lot about other things like baseball, movies and World War II. But an expert? That's another thing.

There's so much to know about wars. I'm never interested in generals and their tactics. My eyes glaze over when I read that stuff. I am fascinated with certain leaders. I'm currently reading my 896th book on FDR and he had a lot to do with US response to and actions in WWII. But besides a few civilian leaders what really interests me is the men who do the fighting. Generally speaking you're taking an ordinary guy out of his comfort zone and throwing him into most unusual and horrifying circumstances. He's not only in danger of being killed or maimed, he's often called upon to do some killing of his own. And what they go through! Hard to imagine. It's not just the being shot at, it's the conditions a solider lives in. if you can really call it living. The lack of privacy, the discomfort, the anxiety are just the tip of the iceberg. Disease has been rampant in most war zones. Showers, hell, even being able to just wash your hands can be the stuff of dreams. And toilets and toilet paper? Let's not even go there.

Something that can help one understand the life of a soldier is film. There are a lot of good and many superior films that are set in war time. I dedicated a post to 25 great World War II films last summer and I've got a follow up I hope to post tomorrow. I also had a post on World War I films last Fall. The point is war, as disagreeable as it is (and there's very little mankind has come up with that's worse) makes compelling material for film.

The world's greatest TV station, TCM, is in the midst of their annual 72-hour Memorial Day weekend marathon of war related films. I've got the old DVR set to record several and have already watched a couple: Battleground (1949) and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Both directed by the great William Wellman.

The later, is based on the experiences of America's greatest war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. It hit theaters before the war was even over and even featured extras who'd recently seen combat. Indeed many of them shipped out to the Asian Theater of Operations after filming and several were killed in action as was Pyle himself.


The story of G.I. Joe is all about the soldier's faces. Wellman had the camera hold on faces. The power of the story is etched in their mugs. We see them react. We see them listen. We see them think and pray and wonder. We see their courage and fear. Those faces tell the story, everything else is backdrop. The film is dark. The soldier's humor and bonhomie is fleeting and tinged with the reality of where they are, what has happened and what may yet come.

Like the soldier's lament, it's hurry up and wait. The soldier's are either moving to the next battle site or stock still, sitting in pouring ran or blazing sun awaiting orders. There is intermittent action and by action I mean battle, which can mean death. There is nothing glamorous about it. We admire the soldier's for their perseverance, their ability to keep on. One finally cracks, but a slug in the jaw from Robert Mitchum settles him long enough to that he can later rejoin the fray. Knowing the ultimate fate of the central character, Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith) adds to the sense of gloom. When another central character dies near the end of the film and the soldier's must press on... well, it makes for a powerful story. 

Battleground was made four years later and in comparison seems light and breezy. But taken on its own terms it too is an unflinching and unglamorous look at men at war. The story centers on the infamous battling bastards of Bastogne, those brave souls of the 101st Airborne who helped stem the tide at the Battle of the Bulge.

Van Johnson adds glitz and charm but with frozen toes, buddies blown to bit and James Whitmore spewing tobacco juice, this is not exactly Brigadoon (1954). What I find surprising in Battleground is the effective performances of George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban, not exactly heavyweights. Ultimately Battleground is the more accessible film. We get to know the characters better, they're funnier and there is more optimism. Perhaps the fact that the film was made when the war was starting to fade a bit in the rear view mirror helped. Both were in glorious black and white and that adds to their grittiness. There is at times a documentary feel to each. They feel immediate.

The battle scenes in both films lack the in-living-color blood and intestines of later films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) but we get the idea. You don't need technicolor gore to appreciate the exacting wages of battle.

Like literature, films have done us the favor of showing what war is like. Sadly, too many people get the wrong message from the wrong films or ignore the right messages from the right films. They still see war as the ultimate expression of man's virility and if they're not in a position to jump into battle themselves are glad to cheer lead politicians who will send young people into carnage. One grows sick at the happy willingness of Americans to send young men and women to die or have body parts blown off in Iraq, in an utterly unnecessary and indeed self-defeating cause.

I suppose the truth is that all the great books and films in the world are not going to sway some people who don't get the idea that war is really, literally hell and should be avoided at all costs.

For the rest of us, war films can give us pause to appreciate or at least understand what our forebearers have gone through. They can be great studies of the human condition. Thankfully very few of us today face the prospects of going into battle. But we do deal with dramatic situations and dangerous foes and must come to grips with our own cowardice and bravery. War films can help us explore our inner demons.

They can also help to illuminate and inform the human condition and not incidentally are often ripping good yarns in the bargain.

22 May 2009

Production For Use, The Magnificent Efficiency of His Girl Friday

Last night I was watching Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), a film I greatly revere. But there a few things that have always bothered me about it. For example one night the gang makes much ado about going to see their beloved Baltimore Colts play in the championship game. So what happened? It's never mentioned again. Win or lose the outcome of the game is going to be discussed, or should be.

Every thread of His Girl Friday is followed to the end. All that famous overlapping dialogue and not a word of it is wasted. The great Howard Hawks directed. The screenplay was based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The celebrated stars are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell and they have deserved every encomium given for their performances here. But hearty cheers were earned by the rest of the cast. The reporters in the city room were letter perfect, they included Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey who all graced numerous films of the Thirties and Forties.

Gene Lockhart is wonderful as the bumbling sheriff and Clarence Kolb was born to play a pompous blustering big city mayor. Billy Gilbert is an absolute hoot as the incorruptible Joe Pettibone who wouldn't dream of doing anything his wife would disapprove of.

Then there's the character who is described as looking like Ralph Bellamy, Bruce Baldwin. He of course is played by Ralph Bellamy. Baldwin is the quintessential unsexy, bland, exciting as dishwater fiance that has become a film staple. No one played the likable sap better. He had done it before opposite Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) when he was all set to marry Irene Dunne.

Also in the cast was John Qualen and its pretty near time I devoted an entire post to this great character actor who showed up in many of the great films of his era. Here he plays the convicted killer Earl Williams. He gives the character enough darkness so that we take his plight seriously, but not so much that humor becomes uncomfortable. Indeed the success of this aspect of the film is one of the reasons the film works so well and on so many levels.

The notion of a condemned killer who may not be in his right mind and who in any case is a victim of society's ills has deep resonance. As do the notions of possible protests in response and politicians using the execution for their own purposes. The jailhouse interview conducted by Russell's character, Hildy Johnston and the killer is worthy of a serious drama, but like Qualen's performance does not detract from the comedy.

His Girl Friday also takes a hard look at newspapers. For example we see the casualness reporters develop in the face of tragic events, like a young woman jumping to her apparent death.

Of course pacing is everything whether the dialogue is rapid fire or languid. His Girl Friday moves at a frenetic pace but is not for a moment confusing or disorienting. Not only are characters talking fast, but the action is often constant. There are virtually no action scenes per se but people are always doing something, whether typing, talking on the phone, playing footsie or moving about the room. A lot of action takes place in one room yet the film never feels confined.

I'd submit that anyone who wants to direct a film should study certain classics and this would be one of them. There's not a second of fluff. I showed it to a journalism class comprised of 7th and 8th graders one year. Young people of that age group today almost universally balk at old films particularly in black and white. They didn't have time to utter a whine, groan or moan about His Girl Friday. They were drawn in immediately and absent a yawn in the whole film, they stayed with it, offering nary a complaint. After all, what's to complain about?

21 May 2009

May I Offer Suggests Possible Viewing Choices for the Coming Three Day Weekend?

If you read the title and are still with me I must assume that yes, it is quite all right for me to suggest some movies for your enjoyment over the Memorial Day Weekend. I am further assuming that your not going to waste valuable movie viewing time with such nonsense as picnics, barbecues, family gatherings or barn raisings.

Regular readers of this blog (both of us) know that I would do nothing so pedestrian as recommending beloved classics. You don't need me to tell you that such films as Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Godfather (1972) or My Man Godfrey (1936) exist and are quite watchable. Instead I've come up with nine films you may not be familiar with, might not have heard of or have forgotten. These nine films represent one from each decade from the twenties through the present. All are available on DVD (otherwise it would be rather silly to suggest them, eh?).

Broadway Bill (1934). Frank Capra directed and Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy (hubba hubba) star. That should be all you need to know but I'll go on. Despite the title the film has nothing to do with the theater. The title refers to a horse. So what you thought was a musical is a horse racing movie and a comic love story to boot. Loy hooks up with brother-in-law Baxter to race Broadway Bill. But allow me to quote from the New York Times' review which appeared on November 30, 1934:

To report that "Broadway Bill" tells the story of Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy and a race horse is to write down a series of words which can be singularly unimpressive in cold type. A sedate résumé of Mr. Hellinger's story would tell nothing of Mr. Capra's richly humorous inventions. Somehow no scene which he photographs is quite ordinary. There is, for example, the comic episode which discloses the complicated procedure of gossip and big inside stuff by which the two-dollar gamblers in a thousand parts of the country hasten to get their money down on Broadway Bill, thereby forcing the odds down from 100 to 6 to 1.

The Hellinger referred to is Mark, screenwriter for this delightful comedy.

Hangmen Also Die (1943). I know, I know, the title is a little weird. But, as a much younger gent might say: "but dude, check it out, Fritz Lang directed and wrote the screenplay with Bertolt Brecht, that's way cool." Agreed young friend. It's based on events following the assassination of Nazi Reichsprotector and "Hangman" Reynhard Heidrich in Morovia in 1942. The story was thus as timely as if ripped from the day's headlines. Brian Donleavy plays the culprit and is on the lam from the Nazis. The film is rich in action, heroics and drama. The Nazis are as nasty as they come on film and one must add, accurately portrayed. Donleavy, so often the heavy, is excellent as the hero. A must see for devotees of WWII films or lovers of suspense.

Local Hero (1983). One of my favorite films of all time and though I've met legions who've never seen it, I've never met anyone who saw it and didn't like it. A Houston-based oil company sends a young employee to Scotland to buy an entire village. Peter Reigert is the young man and his eccentric boss Felix Happer is played by some guy named Burt Lancaster. They both give wonderful performances but so too does the Scottish village and its denizens. How to describe Local Hero? Quirky. Charming. Fun. A study in conflicting cultures and values. Like some of Woody Allen's best, its a comedy that makes you think. Bill Forysth wrote and directed.

Gods & Monsters (1998). I saw this film for the first time knowing absolutely nothing about it other than the reviews were good (hey, sometimes I roll that way). What a great way to see what turned out to be a favorite film. Sir Ian McKellan stars as real life film director James Whale ( he was responsible for the best of the Frankenstein films, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the original and superior versions of Show Boat (1936) and Waterloo Bridge (1931) to name a few). The film posits about his last days as a semi reclusive gay man in Hollywood. Brendan Fraser is a revelation as the gardener cum model in whom Whale confides as he reflects on his life. This fascinating film features Lynn Redgrave's Oscar nominated performance as Whales' domineering old German maid. If you've never seen Gods & Monsters do so sooner rather than later.

The Circus (1928). Chaplin's tramp character gets a job...guess where. Go on. Who said at a circus? Right you are. This is one of Chaplin's most under-appreciated films. There is the requisite romance and laughs aplenty. Overshadowed coming out shortly after The Gold Rush (1925) but nearly that classic's equal.

Broken Flowers (2005). A Jim Jarmusch film which may tell you a lot about it from the get go. If you're unfamiliar with the director's work this is the movie to start with. Bill Murray plays a man who discovers that one of his exes had a child many years ago. But which? He aims to find out by visiting old flames. Murray's dead pan performance is letter perfect particularly as a contrast to the goofines he encounters on his solo road trip. Sharon Stone, Chloe Sevigny, Jessica Lange, Julie Delpy, Tilda Swinton and a totally naked Alexis Dziena are along for the ride.

High Society (1956). Sounds like a terrible idea doesn't it? A musical re-make of The Philadelphia Story (1940). But taken on its own terms High Society is a gas. You get Sinatra, Bing and Satchmo. And oh by the way, Grace Kelly. The story is a fluff, the actors glide through their roles but if you're tired of rap stars wearing replica jerseys and baggy jeans, this is just the ticket. Classy guys in tuxes, gorgeous dames, champagne glasses, mansions and sweet singing. The Sinatra/Crosby duet of Cole Porter's "Well, Did You Evah" is worth sitting through anything. Toss in a passel of other hits and you've got a most enjoyable hour and three quarters.

Silver Streak (1976). (Photo above.) It stars Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder so do I really need to go on? Probably should just as a matter of good form. Given who the two stars it should come as no surprise that this is a comedy and a good one at that. Wilder finds romance, danger and Pryor on a cross country train ride. Patrick McGoohan is the bad guy. Jill Clayburgh the love interest. 

Marnie (1964). This is not one of the great movies that Alfred Hitchcock directed but it's one of the very good ones. There are plot holes and incongruities but there's also Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery as your co stars. There's the usual heavy Hitchcock doses of mystery and suspense. Ms.Hedren plays the title character and we find out from the get go that she's: a) gorgeous b) a thief c) deeply disturbed. So of course when the wealthy Connery character marries her we can see trouble coming. We also see a mystery solved and perhaps love or justice triumph. Maybe both. Worth a look.

Also TCM has a slew of good war films on this weekend to commemorate Memorial day weekend. My recommendations include Battleground (1949), A Walk in the Sun (1945), The Story of GI Joe (1945), The Big Parade (1925) and Ballad of a Soldier (1959). Check your local listings.

18 May 2009

You Know You Really Like A Director If....

You know you really like a director if you can make a top ten list of your favorites from among his films. In the first in an occasional series of looks at my favorite directors I present my ten favorite Woody Allen movies. And yes, they’re in order. Needless to say (so why am I saying it?)

Allen is one of my very favorites. He is one of our most prolific directors, generally churning out a movie a year, and for over four decades! Allen was a comedy writer and a stand up comic before turning his attention to directing and not surprisingly his first few movies were pure comedies. He's turned his attention to more serious topics over the years but the vast majority of his films have reflected his brilliant sense of humor.

You know to expect something special from a director whose influences range from Groucho Marx to Ingmar Bergaman and something special is what audiences have gotten. Now in his 70s Allen is still going strong with a new film soon to be released and another soon to start shooting. I've enjoyed Allen's work for most of my life and coming up with my ten favorites was a breeze. Actually not true, it would have been easier to create a list of 20. Narrowing it down to ten was a bit of chore. Anyway, here they are.

1. Manhattan (1979). A film that has been nestled securely in my top five of all time for several decades now. Upon releasing it to some acclaim Allen reportedly said, “I got away with it.” He also has supposedly chastised fans of the film for being terribly middle class. He can call me any name he likes (except an upstart, no one calls me or a Firefly an upstart) I love this movie. I don’t watch it, I luxuriate in it. The characters, the music, the cinema photography the profundity, the laughs. Sometimes you’ve just got to have faith in a movie.

2. Annie Hall (1977). Allen’s one and only winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Woody also got the best director Oscar though he couldn’t be bothered showing up. A great comedy. A great love story. A ground breaking film with umpteen memorable lines and moments.

3. Zelig (1983). If I live to be a 150 (I’ll be really old) I’ll never understand what critics and audiences have failed to see in this incredible movie. I’ll say no more than to suggest that you click on this sentence to see an earlier post of mine on the incredible changing man.

4. Broadway Danny Rose (1985). Again I hate to appear to be lazy or for that matter facetious or didactic but I must refer to your an earlier post of mine. Click on this here sentence for my thoughts on this delightful comedy.

5. Hannah and her Sisters (1986). I’m not sure if anyone on the planet will know what I mean by this (they get me on Jupiter) but here goes: This is the Woodiest of all Woody Allen films. Call it the ultimate Woody. So much going on, not so much with Hannah, but those sisters! And Woody’s character and Michael Caine. What a cast too. The perfect Thanksgiving movie.

6. Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Greatest premise ever. A character walks out of film into “real life.” Real life is as stark as it gets in this movie what with the Great Depression doing its thing to America. Mia Farrow is an abused wife, out of work and out of hope except for what she can get from regular visits to the picture show. The film lives up to the outlandish and irresistible set up.

7. Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). My favorite film of 2008. Penelope Cruz recently became the zillionth woman to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for an Allen film and by gum she sure deserved it. Javier Bardem went from playing Anton Chigurh to the roguish Spanish artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo. Scarlett Johannsson and Rachael Hall were two American’s in Barcelona who found love (or at least sex) and more. Much more.

8. Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Dianne Wiest won one of her Woody directed Oscars for this movie. For my money (what there is of it) they could have also tossed one Jim Broadbent's way for his high-larious turn as over-eating actor Warner Purcell. The cast also included Jack Warden, Chazz Palminteri, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louis Parker (yum), Tracy Ullman, Jennifer Tilly and the lead, John Cusack. Gangsters and the theater -- can’t go wrong.

9. Bananas (1971). For just plain old yucks this very early Allen film is unbeatable. If Allen had stuck to making slapstick farces likes this no one would have squawked. What a riot! A not so thinly-veiled riff on Cuba and its revolution played for laughs.

10. Match Point (2005). The most accessible of Woody’s “heavy” movies. Instead of trying to go all Bergman on us he told a very Hitchcockian story (kind of a Theodore Dreiser does London) of love and murder. Beautifully told. The lovely Miss Scarlett’s first Woody, so to speak.

And you know you really, really, really like the director if after the top ten list you can offer a half dozen honorable mentions, like so:

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Small Time Crooks (2000), Radio Days (1987), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Stardust Memories (1980).

17 May 2009

How Much Do You Want for That Soul? Two Perspectives on a Timeless Classic

Part One: The Germans

There are two film versions of the sell-your-soul-to-the-devil story that I'm particularly fond of. Both have German roots. The more recent is Mephisto (1981) which was made in Germany by a joint German, Austrian, Hungarian company. I wrote about a few months ago and this sentence is linked to that post. The older version is The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) made in these United States but by native German director William Dieterle. I wrote about the soul-seller in the film, Jabez Stone in February and this sentence is linked to that post.

Of course one of the origins of these stories is Goethe's Faust and yes Goethe was German. Other artistic renditions of the story have been created by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, F.W. Murnau and Thomas Mann. The nationalities of these gents is Austrian, Hungarian, German and German, respectively.


What makes Germans so intrigued by and adept at telling the story of man who will give his very soul for fame and riches? I could go all Hitler on you here but only one of these tellings (Mephisto) relates to Nazism. Also, only Mephisto and the '41 film came after Hitler assumed power.

More likely the story resonates with Germans because of its origins in their legends. Add to that the many superior German artists and you have a likely explanation.

Dieterle's telling is a wonderful combination of a powerful story made in a style of film making that came out of German studios in the Weimar days. Many of those film makers fled Germany when Hitler came to power and re-settled in the U.S. where they made invaluable contributions to Hollywood (among them Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch).

Dieterle, along with cinema photographer Joseph August, created a wonderfully atmospheric story that is an example of the black and white at its best. It owes much to the German expressionist films of those heady pre Hitler days. The use of light and shadow through such elements fire, clouds and moonlight ,are wonderfully evocative. Resulting special effects (sans computers, no less) coupled with a bravura performance by Walter Huston make this a great film.

Part Two: The USA Today

Raise your hand if you can think of a person in this country who recently realized untold riches only to end up in the gray bar motel because his gains were ill gotten? Who said Bernie Madoff? Well done. It's not as if Madoff was one-of-a-kind. He was especially pernicious and greedy and had the ill fortune to get caught. There are many, many more and they have long held an unhealthy influence on American politics. Greed has been a dominant influence in our nation's history. And unlike Madoff most do not pay for their sins in this life.

Once Jabez Stone got his he turned his back on neighbors (not literally, of course, he had to have his hand out to them to take the cash they owed). Enough would never suffice. Jabez had to have more money. It's like the Americans today who whine incessantly about a three per cent increase in taxes. Freedom to some is the freedom to make as much money as they possible without the government getting their mitts on a penny of it. Jabez gave not to his fellows but wrung them for all they were worth and built himself an ostentatious mansion.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is like many films made in the FDR years. It celebrates the notion of community, people pulling together for the common good (socialists!!!). Government is represented as an often benevolent body that can be a force for good. Take Senator Daniel Webster who is celebrated by the struggling New Hampshire dirt farmers as a politician who looks out for their interests. These men do not look at government as evil. Nonsense. A government of, by and for the people is their friend. Hell, it's them.

No, people do not literally make deals with Satan (that we know of) but they might as well for all the parts of their souls that are lost in their pursuit of riches, fame and power. Rare is the person who realizes the rags to riches American dream without selling off bits of their integrity. In the bargain they lose what is one of the best in all people, the capacity to accept and love other people. More precisely, people who they cannot further profit from financially.

Jabez Stone has the good fortune of being represented by Daniel Webster. So eloquent a man that he can sway a jury of the damned. Not only is Stone's soul saved but he makes a Scroogeian transformation, joins the farmers' Grange and vows to work with, not against, his neighbors (socialist!!!).

Surely the U.S .would be better off today if some of our richest had to face eternal damnation before actually shuffling off this mortal coil. Maybe they too could realize the greedy errors of their ways and reform.

16 May 2009

Can I Help You Find Something?

"A film is -- or should be -- more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of mood and feelings." -- Stanley Kubrick.

By the dictates of narratives, a story, whether on paper or film, needs to have a certain basic structure. There must be characters at least some of whom should be fully drawn and three dimensional. There is generally a beginning in which a situation and one or more characters are introduced. There is usually a middle in which the story's central conflict is played out. And there is a climax in which a resolution is reached. But that is not the be all and and all of a story. As Kubrick suggests, how the story is told can reveal as much, even more, than plot points.

Kubrick's quote refers to some of the better films ever made, including a few of his own directorial efforts. Like lyrics to a beautiful song, a film's story line can serve as an accompaniment to a great film.

A really good director can take an ordinary story and make it into a compelling movie. Give him a ripping good yarn and you may have yourself a masterpiece. For example John Ford's The Searchers (1956).

I watched it yesterday and the degree to which it gets better with each viewing suggests that some day it will crack my top ten.

The Searchers is a multi-layered story that explores such themes as racism, revenge and obsession. I once heard someone dismiss it as a 'western' which is like saying that The Godfather (1972) is a "gangster flick."

The visual style of The Searchers is a rather clear case of Ford at his best. It was filmed in Vista Vision. To not watch it in wide screen would be like listening to The London Philharmonic on a transistor radio. The Searchers was filmed at Ford's home away from home, Monument Valley and it is utterly gorgeous. If they shot it on back lot it would have been a B picture. In The Searchers scenery is story -- especially as it contrasts to Ford's trademark claustrophobic interiors.

John Wayne and the under appreciated Jeffrey Hunter are the two searchers. Other than playing some guy named Jesus in The King of Kings (1961), Hunter never had a role in any way comparable. And other than The Longest Day (1962) was never in another particularly noteworthy film. It's a shame because he gives a solid performance. The surprise is Wayne who tended to saunter and bluff and gruff his way through most roles. His Ethan Edwards is uber macho but ultimately a vulnerable and redeemable bigot. Wayne gives Edwards equal parts ugliness and redemption.

Like most classics, The Searchers is chock full of wonderful supporting players. Ward Bond, who showed up in a couple dozen of America's best films, gives his best performance as Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton. Usually strong and silent, here he's strong and noisy as hell. Hank Worden is wonderfully eccentric as Mose Harper, the man who thanked people for telling him to shut up and just wanted a rocking chair out of life. John Qualen, another regular in some terrific films, is on hand along with Vera Miles, Olive Carey and of course, the object of the search, Natalie Wood. Wood improved any film she was in just by showing that lovely puss of hers.

The Searchers is wonderfully bookended by the opening and the closing of a door. In both instances the camera looks out the door from within the house onto John Wayne. Behind Wayne is that scenery. My God the whole movie is like that. Shot after shot that tells the story better than any words could.

The first time I watched the Searchers I wasn't all that impressed probably because I listened to it more than watched it. It was probably a full screen version that compresses and veritably blurs the picture. Now I've got a digitally remastered DVD versions that is sumptuous. Some day I hope to see it on the big screen (any theater owner want to screen it for me?).

The Native Americans in The Searchers are Comanches and are not depicted much better by Ford than any other Hollywood director ever did. They're murderous bastards (the truth of the matter is that there were Native Americans in previous centuries who would just a soon massacre you as look at you, then again, sometimes maybe whitey had it coming). But this time the whites are hardly any better, particularly the iconic Wayne. What a notion! Wayne's bigotry (or at least that of his character, Ethan Edwards) is right out there in plain sight and it's not pretty nor meant to me. He'd kill a white woman in cold blood who'd been "ruined" by "laying with" a native. Even if she's his niece. This was in 1956 when movies in particular and American culture in general were many years away from acknowledging their racism.

While this story line is right out there in the open, there are subtleties and nuances to the film as well. Take for instance the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law. Those are pretty telling glances they exchange. And what's with all that money he's got, and just where the hell was he for the three years between the end of the Civil War and the start of our story?

Plenty of talking points and its all worth watching because of the manner, as Kubrick put it, the moods and feelings progress. I don't know if The Searchers influenced him but it did many other great directors from Scorsese to Spielberg.

I think I'll go watch it again.