Thursday, December 30, 2010

Auld Lang Gab!

Werth: Happy New Year, Wise!

Wise: Happy New Year, Werth!

Werth: Any fun plans for New Year’s Eve?

Wise: I’m coming to your house to watch your favorite New Year’s movie.

Werth: I know! I just love hearing you say it.

Wise: Between the curry-rubbed baked brie and the copious amounts of mid-level champagne, what will we be watching?

Werth: Well, Wise, you are really in for a treat, because my favorite New Year’s Eve movie is 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure.

Wise: You mean the re-make?

Werth: Bite your tongue! I pretend that disaster of a disaster movie never happened. In this case (as with most) the original really is the best. Irwin Allen produced this all-star adventure flick about the S.S. Poseidon and her passengers and crew as they ring in the New Year at sea. No sooner do they finish Auld Lang Syne than a tidal wave hits the ship and capsizes it, literally turning everyone’s world upside down.

Wise: Sounds like a dud way to start 1973.

Werth: Indeed. But as the Academy Award®-winning theme song says, “There’s got to be a morning after.” The rest of the film follows a small group of survivors as they struggle to climb to the bottom (now the top) of the ship to escape certain death by drowning and or/fiery explosions. Based on the exciting Paul Gallico book of the same name, Allen really makes some fun design and special-effects choices. When young Robin Shelby (played with borderline annoying juvenile pluck by Eric Shea) goes to the men’s room and stares hopelessly at the ceiling where the toilets hang with their lids open, we get a real sense of the pickle these people are in.

Wise: Please don’t ever use the words “pickle” and “men’s room” in the same sentence again.

Werth: I promise. Topping the effects is the stellar cast assembled to play this intrepid group: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowell, Red Buttons, Jack Albertson, Arthur O’Connell, Leslie Nielsen and the one and only Shelley Winters.

Wise: Please tell me Shelley lives.
 Werth: No spoilers! But her performance as Belle Rosen, legendary in camp circles, earned her a well-deserved Best-Suporting Actress nomination. All in all it’s a fun flick that actually makes you care about the characters so that you are invested in whether they survive the ordeal... or not. It became the first hit of Irwin Allen’s disaster dynasty that would go on to include The Towering Inferno, The Swarm and the inevitable Poseidon Adventure sequel.

Wise: Sounds like the perfect way to start 2011.

Werth: I mean, as long as you’re not trapped in a capsized luxury liner, you’re doing better than these folks, right? So if after the stroke of midnight we’re still sober enough, what would be your pick for a follow-up New Year’s flick?  

Wise: Well, I thought it might be a good idea to follow the deadly histrionics of The Poseidon Adventures with something a little quieter that focuses on domestic conflicts.  I’m thinking of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven.  

Werth: I love that movie. Tell the New Year’s connection!  

Wise: A small but pivotal scene takes place on New Year’s Eve, but the majority of the film feels autumnal.  Julianne Moore plays the apotheosis of the 50s housewife struggling with the dawning knowledge that her seemingly ideal, ad executive husband, played by Dennis Quaid, is actually gay.

Werth: That makes him more ideal in my book. 

Wise: Not for her unfortunately.  The revelation destroys her marriage, plus the friendship she strikes up with her gardener, played by Dennis Haysbert, causes all kinds of gossip and backbiting among her proper Connecticut neighbors who rigidly, but politely, adhere to divisions made along racial lines.  It’s really the story of one woman’s discovery of the hollowness of her achievements and her subsequent determination to make a more honest life for herself.  

Werth: It’s so dramatic!

Wise: Melodramatic, actually.  Todd Haynes made the film as a tribute to the Douglass Sirk “women’s pictures” of the 1950s, and he uses the lurid color palette, the heightened emotionalism, and the undercurrent of social critique characteristic to those movies.  The cinematography is lush, gently floating though sets filled with crimsons, ochres, lavenders, jades and chartreuse.  Sandy Powell’s costumes are glamorous and chic, but somehow real.  And the score by Elmer Bernstein is perfectly calibrated, romantic when it needs to be, anguished and occasionally brittle.  

Werth: Elmer is my favorite of the Bernsteins.

Wise: Of course, the performances are fantastic too.  I don’t think I can say enough about Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.  They both forgo their usual more contemporary, method-inflected acting style and delve into the more mannered performances of the 50s.  You might think that all this artifice would make a stilted picture, but like opera, the rigid form actually allows for a more moving experience.  

 Werth: It provides a gorgeous contrast between artifice and reality- which is something we all can relate to in our non-cinematic lives.

Wise: I should also mention how great Patricia Clarkson is as the neighbor and best friend and the fantastic Celia Weston as a pernicious gossip.  Even the child actors seem perfectly cast, screeching and stilted and interchangeable with the onscreen children of Lana Turner and Jane Wyman. 

Werth: Is there anything not to like about this movie? 

Wise: Not really.  It’s kind of a perfect film.  

Werth: Amen. So, dear readers, from both of us here at Film Gab, may your 2011 be as perfect as The Poseidon Adventure and Far From Heaven—

Wise: Minus the drowning and the heartbreak.

Werth & Wise: Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Holly Gabby Christmas!

Werth: Merry Christmas, Wise!

Wise: Merry Christmas, Werth!

Werth: I just love Christmas Eve. Curling up with some white chocolate pretzels and a mug of hot chocolate and vodka in front of a sparkling Christmas tree and a roaring fire waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.

Wise: You still believe in Santa?

Werth: Ssh! Children may be reading this. And nothing makes the wait for that jolly old elf more enjoyable than—

Wise: More vodka.  

Werth: Than watching a classic Christmas movie.

Wise: There are so many to choose from—Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story.

Werth: Nope. Those flicks are holiday amateur hour. When I want to watch a movie about the true spirit of Christmas, I watch The Lion in Winter.

Wise: This I gotta hear.  

Werth: It’s 1183 A.D. and King Henry II of England and bits of France is hosting Christmas at his castle in Chinon. He gathers together his three power-hungry sons; his wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine whom he keeps locked up in a castle; his doe-eyed mistress; and the young French king for some good old-fashioned holiday family dysfunction!

Wise: They don’t sing carols or have snowball fights?

Werth: To quote Good King Hank, “What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” Before the un-silent night is through, everyone’s stabbed someone in the back to get a piece of Henry’s kingdom.  Eleanor tells Henry she screwed his dad, and King Phillip lets it slip that he and Prince Richard have been doing more than hunting wild boar together.

Wise: Oh, I’ve used the old boar hunting excuse myself.

Werth: It’s historic melodrama at its Grinchiest. James Goldman’s dialogue crackles more than a yule log with the verbal barbs flying very faithfully to the 1966 play on which the film is based. Although they did cut Prince Richard’s insult about his dufus brother’s birth. “No, it’s the midwives’ fault. They threw the baby out and kept the afterbirth.”

Wise: What happened to, “Children may be reading this?”

Werth: But the best thing about this film is the acting performances. Peter O’Toole is  grumpily regal as King Henry; young Anthony Hopkins plays an early version of his infamous, icy, detached madman; and a very young Timothy Dalton is yummy as the scheming King Phillip. But it is Kate Hepburn who gives what I think is the best performance of her career. Her Eleanor of Aquitaine is a fully-imagined force of nature. 

She enacts a monologue in front of a mirror defiantly recalling the queenly legend she used to be as her haggard face looks back at her. Her fierceness, her vulnerability and her uniqueness shine in this role as a woman who is older, but no less impressive than she was that day long ago when she captured the heart of a king. It’s a role Hepburn could relate to as an aging queen of Hollywood who, despite the fact she was 61, was bound and determined not to go quietly into the Hollywood antique closet.

Wise: She won the Oscar® that year, right?

Werth: She actually shared the Oscar® that year with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl . It was the second and last time a tie has occurred for the coveted kudo.

Wise: Who deserved it more?

Werth: I actually think Funny Girl is Streisand's best film performance, so I say neither of them should have to give back their statuette.

Wise: No one should have to give back an Oscar® on Christmas.

Werth: Except Halle Berry. What Christmas movie lights up your tree, Wise? 

Wise: Well, it combines three of my favorite things: elaborate musical numbers, heart-tugging sentiment, and puppets.  

Werth: Is it Team America: World Police

Wise: Actually, it’s The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus based on the book by L. Frank Baum. It’s one of the last Animagic Christmas specials made by Rankin-Bass, producers of some of the greatest holiday entertainments, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

Werth: So, it’s not a movie? 

Wise: It’s a TV movie. 

Werth: It’s a holiday special and therefore not a movie.  

Wise: Need I remind you of your post about the Judy Garland television show last week?

Werth: You need not. Continue.

Wise: Life & Adventures tells the story of an abandoned infant adopted by the wood nymph Necile who has always longed to know more about the world outside the boundaries of the enchanted Forest of Burzee.  She names the baby Claus and raises him in perfect happiness among the other immortals.  When Claus comes of age, he is taken by The Master Woodsman to see the human world where he witnesses sorrow and suffering for the first time.   
The journey has a profound effect upon him and he decides to leave the fairy world and dedicate himself to making children happy.  After a lifetime of spreading joy, Claus approaches death, but the council of Immortals makes Claus one of them so that he will live forever to bring toys to the children of the world.  

Werth: Um.... what?  

Wise: I’m not normally a fan of stories that exploit a familiar character’s backstory, but I find Baum’s departure from the standard version of Santa Claus intriguing because he transforms the commercialism holiday gift-giving into a profound act of good.  Baum was interested in Theosophy which was a 19th Century spiritual movement and its influence gave depth to his literary world, connecting his fairy tales to larger themes.  

Werth: I’m not sure if I can handle being taught spiritual lessons by stop-motion animated puppets. 

Wise: Actually, I think it’s some of the most subtle film making ever produced by Rankin Bass.  The puppets express complex emotions and the writing addresses Baum’s most compelling ideas.  The lovely and fantastical design is clearly influenced by Alphonse Mucha, and there are plenty of funny elves and catchy tunes that stick in your head long after the hour is over.  Plus, the Master Woodsman is voiced by long-time Broadway star Alfred Drake who played opposite Katherine Hepburn in Much Ado About Nothing.  

Werth: Was that your attempt to connect Adventures to a movie?

Wise: Yup. 

Werth: Nicely done.  

Wise: Thank you. And to our readers, Merry Christmas to all—and to all a good gab!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Momma & Poppa Can You Hear Me? Part Deux

Werth: So Wise, what did you think of Robert Osborne's interview with Liza on Turner Classic Movies?

Wise: Well, at first I was worried that someone had slipped me a mickey, but then I realized the focus was just incredibly soft.  

Werth: Not as soft as those layers of pancake makeup they were both wearing. 

 Wise: Liza has always impressed me with her ability to assess the talents and the failings of both her parents.  She’s respectful of their privacy, which maybe doesn’t allow film historians as much access as they’d like, but she’s also frank about the kinds of creative and personal pressures they were under.  She must understand that because, unlike a lot of celebrity children, her talents are on a level equal to those of her parents. What did you think?  

Werth: I think that the premise of showing her as the girl next door who puts on her flowing bell-bottoms one leg at a time just like the rest of us was misguided. We don’t watch Liza to see someone we could run into at Gristedes. We watch Liza to see her explode with quirkiness and lust for life in ways that only a Hollywood legend can. But it is nice to see her alive and kicking.

Wise: The interview did make me want to watch Cabin in the Sky which was her father's directorial debut and a film I had never seen before. 

Werth: I know it well. What did you think?

Wise: Well, for a long time, I had always thought of Cabin as the movie that used a couple leftover effects from The Wizard of Oz.  It was hardly ever shown on TV and a lot of the books I read praised it, but dismissed it as less important and less accomplished than Minnelli’s later work.  So I was surprised by how immediately engaging it is.
Werth: It’s really a primer to the whole Minnelli style.  You can see the root of all his fanciful touches, the decor, the costumes, the sweeping camera moves, and his two favorite motifs—mirrors and stairs.

Wise: Plus he’s already great with actors.  Before watching it, I had a dim feeling that Cabin, being an all-black musical from 1943, would be full of the regrettable stereotypes of the period.  And they are there, no question, but Minnelli clearly has such respect for both the actors and the characters  they’re portraying.  Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson play a couple whose marriage nearly breaks apart because of his philandering and gambling.  Minnelli emphasizes their physical interactions—caresses, embraces, even punches—which gives the characters a heft they wouldn’t have had if another director, perhaps, had pushed the cartoonish eye-rolling and shuffling that was seen as comic during this time.  

Werth: It’s funny you should say that because when I saw Cabin in a film class this semester a number of the students were offended by it.  

Wise: Sure, there are a couple cringe-worthy moments, but I think that’s mostly due to some of the actors playing to type.  It was unavoidable at the time—Clark Gable had a type, Bette Davis had a type, Vincente helped create Judy’s type—but an actor playing to persona could sometimes allow for more creative risks.  

Werth: I know you don’t want to leave our discussion of Cabin without mentioning Lena Horne playing Georgia Brown, the bad girl temptress sent by the devil.  

Wise: Gorgeous, beautiful voice, funny, electric.  It’s just a shame that the culture didn’t allow us to see more of her talents on screen.

Werth: Since you’ve dealt so brilliantly with Vincente, I’m going to handle Judy.

Wise: Is that what Vincente said?

Werth: That depends which biography you’re reading.  But Wise, even though I hate to do this, I’m going to fly in the face of Werth & Wise tradition—

Wise: All four weeks of it?

Werth: I’m going to talk about… Television.

Wise: Should we change the name of the blog to Media Gab?

Werth: Hells no. We’re all aware how great Judy was on the big screen, but not everyone knows as much about her on the small screen. From 1963-1964 Garland hosted her very own musical variety show on CBS. Sunday nights opposite Bonanza, Judy would sing, dance, joke and chat her way through an hour-long entertainment extravaganza complete with guest stars and comic sidekicks.

Wise: Sounds a bit all over the place.

Werth: It was. The main problem was that the TV execs had no idea what to do with Judy. They tried giving her Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry to enhance the comedy. He wasn’t funny. They tried Judy serving “tea” to certain notable guests who would banter with her and tell stories. Censors yelled at her for touching her guests too much. They finally got on the right path when they decided to just turn the show into a weekly concert special where Judy would do what she did best—sing. But by then Judy was exhausted from a floundering marriage, the assassination of friend JFK, and the renewed influence of pills and white wine. So brand new CBS head honcho, Hunt Stromberg, Jr. (who’d never liked her to begin with) sent her a bouquet of flowers with the card, “You were great. Thanks a lot. You’re through.”

Wise: Ouch.

Werth: Despite all of that, Judy’s performances in these shows are, for the most part, marvelous. Her voice is powerful; her stage presence equal parts warm, charming and sad; and her interpretation of the songs insightful. She sings standards from her famous concerts and others like “Old Man River,” “Shenandoah” and a Porgy and Bess medley (with Vic Damone) that she would never have gotten the chance to sing in a movie. “Old Man River” in particular is so resonant with genuine pathos that you don’t question why this skinny white lady is singing a song written for a black man. Judy’s stint as a Hollywood laborer scarred her in a way that makes her performance of this song emotionally credible.

Wise: It always feels like she lived the lyrics of her songs.

Werth: True. True. But the shows aren’t all gloom and doom. The sets and the costumes have that early 60’s look. It’s a rare treat to see Judy perform with guest stars like Lena Horne, a tipsy June Allyson and ingenue Barbra Streisand. It’s a reminder how great the now-extinct variety show genre was.

Wise: If you want to bring the variety show back, we could start juggling flaming pins on the blog.

Werth: But then we’d have to change our blog name to The Werth & Wise Media Variety Hour.

Wise: Tune in next week for Film Gab with Werth & Wise.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Big Screen in the Sky

It's a very sad day here at Film Gab with the announcement of the death of writer/director Blake Edwards at age 88. It's impossible for this gabber to be subjective about Edwards. I was raised on The Pink Panther movies and had my first inklings of homosexuality while watching Victor Victoria. Later, as I began indulging in classic films, I came to appreciate his edgy drama The Days of Wine and Roses and of course his era-defining Breakfast at Tiffanys. Edwards' comedy came from an innate understanding of characters that were "fish out of water." Holly Golightly, Inspector Clouseau, Carole Todd and Peter Seller's hilarious lost Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party are all superb examples of characters who stayed true to themselves even in the midst of a normal, sometimes hostile world. It was life-altering to watch these films and realize that not being like everyone else could be funny instead of neurosis-inducing.
When Edwards was awarded an honorary Academy Award® in 2004, he rolled out onto the stage in an electric wheelchair. Hilariously, the chair malfunctioned and launched across the stage. Edwards grabbed his Oscar as he flew by the presenter and went through the wall on the opposite side of the stage. He couldn't even accept his Oscar®  like everyone else- and we wouldn't want it any other way. Heaven- Cue Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme", please.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thank Heaven for Film Forum!

If you're not doing anything too terribly exciting tomorrow night, why not stop by the Film Forum in New York City and say hello to classic Hollywood-French nymph Leslie Caron?
The star of such classics as Gigi (not to be confused with Gigli) and An American in Paris will be talking to film historian Foster Hirsch and signing her memoir Thank Heaven.
No puppets please.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Momma & Poppa Can You Hear Me? Pt. 1

Here's a very special Film Gab "Don't Miss It!" Announcement:
The still-kickin' Liza w/ a Z will sit down with Robert Osborne of TCM for an interview about her legendary parents this Saturday 12/11 at 10PM and Tuesday 11/14 at 8PM.
Watch and we'll discuss...

There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays!

Werth: Happy Holidays, Wise!

Wise: Happy Holidays, Werth-- Wait, is it the Holiday Season already?  

Werth: I’m afraid so. 

Wise: How did that happen?  I barely made it through Thanksgiving and suddenly I’m expected to be buying gifts, sending cards, decorating trees, baking cookies, pretending to be jolly, and avoiding the crowds of tourists on the streets of Manhattan?  A fellow can only do so much.  

Werth: You’ll manage.  You were born to buy, send, decorate, bake, pretend and avoid. What are your plans for the holidays?  

Wise: You know how I roll whenever the calendar turns festive—beards, buggies, and shoo-fly pie.  I’m off to see my folks in Amish Country.  How about you?
Werth: I’m headed to the Land of Ahs for a couple days packed with family and corn.  

Wise: Something you just said made me a little queasy.  

Werth: It’s actually the perfect lead-in to this week’s films.  Full of schmaltz, conflict, navel gazing, angst, uncomfortable humor, dashed hopes—

Wise: Christmas dinner at the Lohan household?  

Werth: Movies about adult children returning home.  

Wise: Actually, one of my all-time favorite movies explores this very subject.  It’s called Judy Berlin

Werth: Becky Prague?

Wise: Judy Berlin is about David Gold, a 30-something man who returns home to Babylon, New York after trying to make a go of it as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  He runs into a high school classmate—

Werth: Gina Barcelona.  

Wise: Judy Berlin played by Edie Falco just as The Sopranos was making her a star.  Her performance is energetic, wistful, a little bit naive, vastly different from the role of mobster’s wife that made her famous.  She’s about to leave for L.A where she hopes to become an actress and she takes her chance meeting with David as a good omen, but David wants to warn her that things might not turn out as well as she hopes.  Meanwhile, Judy’s mother—

Werth: Debbie London.

Wise: —Sue Berlin is acting out her frustrations with loneliness and her daughter’s leaving by having a flirtation with David’s father—

Werth: Morey Amsterdam.  

Wise: Arthur Gold, who’s the principal at the school where she teaches.  And Arthur feels thwarted in his own marriage to—

Werth: Katie Gstaad.

Wise: Alice, played by the magnificent Madeline Kahn in her final film role.  I know it’s a cliche to describe the performances of certain actresses of a certain calibre as luminous, but Kahn is spectacular in this movie.  An unexpected eclipse plunges the town into darkness, but she wanders the streets, caroling nursery rhymes and emitting a radiance that forces the other characters to confront their deepest disappointments. 

Werth: Sounds like one of those movies where’s there’s a lot going on, even though nothing happens. 

Wise: Kind of, but the tremendous acting carries through the lack of incident.  In addition to Falco and Kahn, Barbara Barrie is great as Judy’s mother, and so is Bob Dishy as the principal.  Plus it’s photographed beautifully in black and white and makes suburban Long Island into a kind of alien landscape.  I really can’t say enough good things about this film.  

Werth: Peggy Lisbon?  

Wise: Are you done yet?  

Werth: Are you frustrated yet?

Wise: Totally.  

Werth: Speaking of frustrated people who go to visit their families, I think we should talk about the grand-daddy “going home” picture of them all, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Wise: Oh that’s a good one.

Werth: It’s such a goodie, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s begin with the fact that Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are so gorgeous that it’s difficult to peel your eyes from the screen. Sure there are lots of hot people in the movies, but these two come together and raise the beauty bar to an impossible level. Newman’s unmistakable ice-blue eyes and cocksure, yet approachable, charm. Taylor’s sensual curves and seductive, knowing glances. How do these two not screw each other senseless in every scene?

Wise: Isn’t that the point? Something has to be wrong if they’re not constantly knocking boots.

Werth: Exactly. So, director Richard Brooks cast the two most beautiful stars in Hollywood to play two people who, for reasons of “mendacity,” can’t connect. They come home for Big Daddy’s birthday and an evening of family, greed, lies and confessions.

Wise: Still sounds like the Lohans.

Werth: Now if Taylor and Newman were just pretty, I wouldn’t be as geeked about their performances, but their acting is fairly compelling too. Both were nominated for Oscars® that year but got beat out by David Niven for Separate Tables and Susan Hayward for one of my favorite scenery chewing extravaganzas, I Want to Live! Taylor sometimes overplays her “big” scenes, as is her usual want, but when you realize that she shot this film right after her husband Michael Todd was killed in a plane accident, you understand the perseverance and the dedication that have made this woman a living legend.

Wise: White Diamonds doesn’t sell itself.

Werth: And let’s not forget Burl Ives and one of my absolute favorite character actresses, Judith Anderson. Ives is so gruff he’s lovable and his scene in the basement crowded with a lifetime of mouldering European furnishings is touching in its portrayal of lost sons. And Anderson— no one could play the patrician like her. She’s equal parts stern, flighty, heartfelt and ridiculous. She brandishes a handkerchief and utters gems like, “It ain’t nothin’ but a spastic colon!” with a finesse that only Anderson could employ. These actors take Tennessee Williams’ monumental story about a complicated homecoming and own it, making it almost impossible to see anyone else playing these roles.

Wise: But let’s get to the real question: Brick—gay or straight?

Werth: It’s harder to tell in the movie version since some of the gay subtext was removed for the 1958 censors. But there’s definitely enough left to make this movie groundbreaking in its attempt to name the sin that dare not speak its name… and Skipper was totally a bottom.

Wise: So, if you had a choice of going to see the family from Judy Berlin, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or your own family this Christmas, which would you visit?

Werth: I would go see my family and watch Judy Berlin and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Wise: Good answer. You AND your families tune in next week for more Film Gab with Werth & Wise!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

“I Think You’re Projecting”

Here at Film Gab, we not only love movies, we love all the minutiae that goes on behind the scenes, inside the studios, on location, at the box office and within the projector’s booth as well. And sometimes our hunt for ever more enticing movie lore reveals something extra special that we’d like to share with you.

Today’s treat is an article from Slate about the dwindling number of movie house projectionists. The advances in technology and the rise of multiplexes have combined to makes this once essential piece of the movie-going puzzle increasingly obsolete. According to Joe Rivierzo, a 30-year veteran of the craft:
"Digital will eliminate us completely," Rivierzo says. "All you have to do is load it and play it, and a lot of this stuff can be done off-site. We have theaters now running with 35 percent of the house digital. Once they go over 51 percent running digital, and they run it that way for 90 consecutive days, they can eliminate the presence of a projectionist. Our only saving grace is they can't manufacture these digital machines fast enough."
So despite the fact that there are more screens now than at any other time in the history of film, the number of technicians committed to ensuring a satisfying experience at the theater is at an all-time low. And that’s a shame because the further Hollywood gets from the hands capable of crafting our celluloid dreams, the further it stays from our hearts.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Next Stop- Movies!

Wise: Hi Werth!

Werth: Hi Wise! How was your Thanksgiving?  

Wise: Oh, you know how all family holidays are.  Kind of like a turkey, stuffed with a lot of crazy, but still delicious.  How about you? 

Werth: It was great.  I went to the country for a big dinner with friends, and aside from the weight gain, it was pretty fantastic.  For the first time I took a train back into the city, and it really inspired me.   Trains have a romance, a mystery, and they make a great setting for all kinds of events.  

Wise: Do I hear a transition coming down the tracks?  

Werth: All aboard!  

Wise: I ride the train any chance I get.  Both my parents worked for the railroad, both my grandfathers did, and so did one of my great-grandfathers.  I was bred to believe it’s the greatest way to travel.  

Werth: But more than that, trains are full of strangers and stories, coincidences and chance encounters, and there’s this sense of movement- but also of being trapped.  Lots of great film makers have used trains as a setting for their movies, taking advantage of all the possibilities offered by traveling by rail.  One of the most famous being—

Wise: Murder on the Orient Express?  

Werth: Yes, but- 

Wise: Strangers on a Train?  

Werth: Well, yes, but -  

Wise: Silver Streak?  

Werth: The movie I had in mind was Shanghai Express.

Wise: Not Shanghai Surprise?

Werth: If you wanted to talk about Shanghai Surprise, you should have done it in your Madonna post last week. Shanghai Express is the 1932 Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg thriller-romance classic.

Wise: Thrills AND romance! Tell me more!

Werth: The film takes place in 1930’s China by way of the Paramount lot. Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, a glorified lady of the night-

Wise: You mean a hooker.

Werth: As Lily says, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Stiff Clive Brook plays a doctor who boards the train to Shanghai and realizes that this much buzzed about Jezebel is his old girlfriend.

Wise: He didn’t know how good he had it.

Werth: Exactly. And like every dumb guy, he wants her to go back to being sweet and demure. Big laugh. So the train takes off across China and before you know it, poor Shanghai’s being accosted by the moral brigade and Chinese rebels led by the nefarious Henry Chang, played by everybody’s favorite white actor who made a living playing Asians, Warner Oland.

Wise: Ah so.

Werth: What really makes this movie unique is the sheer beauty of the filming. Von Sternberg was at the peak of his abilities in shading and light diffusion. The shots are stunning constructions of shadow and light. And nobody ever photographed Dietrich as well. Every shot of her in this film could be hung on the wall as a work of art. This movie is evidence of the beauty and power Dietrich’s face had on the big screen. There is no doubt after looking at her, that she is a great star, even if her acting could sometimes come off as insincere and a little hammy.

Wise: Mmmmm…. German ham.

Werth: Shanghai Express also features the sadly forgotten Asian film star Anna Mae Wong. In her day, she was one of the most beautiful women in film, but because she was Asian, she was never allowed to play starring roles of much consequence.

Wise: Another victim of Hollywood racism?

Werth: And anti-miscegenation laws. She lost the lead in 1937’s The Good Earth because uber-Caucasian Paul Muni was cast as the male lead, and an Asian (even if she was born in Los Angeles) couldn’t kiss a white man on screen… even if he was made-up to look like Charlie Chan.

Wise: Terrible.

Werth: She couldn’t work here in the States (especially after Pearl Harbor), and the Chinese disliked her cause they didn’t approve of the Asian stereotype she portrayed in Hollywood films, so she couldn’t work there. She died of a heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver at age 56 after a long battle with the bottle.

Wise: Way to end on an up note.

Werth: But watching Dietrich and Wong in Shanghai Express IS an up note. They are utterly mesmerizing. This movie proves how black and white film was the perfect medium for exotic, more-captivating-than-life beauty. I’d take Amtrak more often if I could sit in a smoky car with gals like that. So how about you, Wise?  What’s your train movie? 

Wise: I’m thinking of The Clock, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland.  

Werth: Does it take place on a train?  

Wise: No, but they ride the subway and they meet cute in the old Pennsylvania Station where Judy as a harried secretary trips over Robert Walker’s duffel bag and breaks the heel of her shoe.  Walker, playing a good natured mid-westerner on 48-hour leave from the army, offers to help, and after a series of misadventures in New York City, they are separated only to realize that they have fallen in love.  After a desperate search, they reunite in the same spot they met in Penn Station, and from there, it’s a series of frantic adventures though the convolutions of New York red tape until they finally get married at City Hall.  

Werth: And none of it takes place on a train?  

Wise: But the central location is Penn Station.  

Werth: A station is not a train.  

Wise: True, but what’s so great about this movie is how well it uses the same kinds of themes that train movies do.  People in transition, the pleasures of serendipity, even the idea of traveling inexorably to your destination.  Plus all the foamers—

Werth: Foamers?  

Wise: It’s what the rail fans call themselves.  They tend to foam at the mouth whenever they see a train or tracks or trestle bridges or tunnels or dining car silver or ticket stubs or timetables.  

Werth: I’m foaming right now.  
Wise: Central to train fandom is the devastating loss of the original Penn Station which is supposed to have put the magnificence of Grand Central to shame.  The scenic artists at MGM did an amazing job re-creating it. The whole movie was filmed on sound stages, but even so, The Clock captures the energy and feel of New York City better than many movies that are actually filmed here.  Minnelli had a great sense of the rhythms of the city, and the movie reflects that.  It’s full of quirky characters, the overwhelming bustle of rush hour, even the lazy, lonely quality the city takes on when the crowd starts to recede.  
Plus Judy is fantastic in her first non-signing role, full of tenderness, gumption, smarts.  It makes me wish she had the chance to make more dramas and maybe fewer of the more cockamamie musicals on her resume.  

Werth: I guess someone doesn’t love The Harvey Girls even though part of it takes place on an actual train.  

Wise: I could find out if Shanghai Surprise has a train in it… 

Werth: Alright, I’ll leave you alone. 

Wise: Tune in next week when Film Gab with Werth and Wise will punch your ticket for more classic films.