Friday, May 27, 2011

No More Teacher’s Dirty Gab

Wise: What’s up, Werth?

Werth: Shhhh!  I’m studying.

Wise: Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s homepage?

Werth: While everyone else is gearing up for the Memorial Day Weekend, I’m studying for college finals. And they can’t happen soon enough.

Wise: Would talking about a school-themed classic film make the time go by faster for you?

Werth: You know me too well, Wise. One of my favorite school movies gives new meaning to the words “School House Rock”. When MGM’s Blackboard Jungle came out in 1955, much ado was made over its gritty depiction of a new teacher literally fighting to teach at an inner city boys’ school. The opening credits were underscored by the unthinkable—a rock-n-roll song.

Wise: Max Steiner must have been appalled.  

Werth: Bill Hailey and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” shot to number one, and legend has it that teenagers tore up movie theaters across the country. Director Richard Brooks uses the song as a rough, musical symbol of a young generation lashing out at a  society obsessed with conformity. He shot Blackboard in dark tones with low lighting and sparse studio sets, cleverly neglecting to mention which city it was set in to remind us this failing high school could be anywhere. There are no great cinematic flourishes here as Brooks went instead for raw, emotional intensity. The scenes of violence (including an attempted rape in a library) are remorseless, bloody and ugly. 
These no-good-niks aren’t your father’s Dead End Kids. Instigated by Artie Wilson (a truly menacing Vic Morrow), they are a lawless, arrogant, sadistic crew that make us question whether Richard Dadier’s (Glenn Ford) goal of teaching them is a misguided pipe dream.

Wise: Having pipe dreams about inner city youth seems like it might get you into trouble.  

Werth: Aside from the stylistic choices, this movie works because of the performances of its two stars—Ford and, in his first major role, Sidney Poitier. Through great films like Gilda (1946) and The Big Heat (1953), Ford had crafted a handsome, intelligent, masculine screen persona that seemed to flow naturally. Like Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, Ford embodied simple traits and translated them to the big screen to serve the wide variety of films he made. In Blackboard Jungle he is optimistic and strong, not in a saccharine, “Aw shucks, we can do anything” way. He reminds us instead of a tough, flawed, but ultimately well-meaning father figure. And in his moments of doubt Ford really makes us wonder if he believes the convictions he’s been spouting. 
One student he focuses his “you too can learn” philosophy on is Gregory Miller, played by Poitier. Poitier’s electric charm and quick-fuse fury create a performance that portended the great actor this young man would become. He is sleek, angry and gives tantalizing hints of the grace and pride that would become hallmarks of his career.

Wise: Sort of like, Guess Who’s Coming to Detention?  

Werth: Blackboard Jungle may seem a little dated with it’s “Daddy-o’s” and use of the word “stinkin’” instead of another word that ends with a ‘k’, but the issues of social inequality, racism and impenetrable bureaucracy in our schools are as topical today as they were when juvenile delinquents threatened the ‘50’s American Way. And where else will you see an early walk-on from Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley from the Dick Van Dyke Show) and a very young Jamie Farr (Klinger of M.A.S.H fame) as a constantly-grinning hoodlum?

Wise: The hoodlums in The Trouble with Angels (1966) are of the more girlish variety. Angels is something of an anomaly in Hollywood: a slapstick comedy about the lives of teenage girls, written and directed by women and starring an almost all-female cast.  It’s certainly not overburdened by a heavy feminist message, but it does take its characters quite seriously and uses the daily lives of women as fodder for the hilarity that ensues.  Haley Mills, in an attempt to overcome the good-girl image of her Disney past, plays Mary Clancy, a rebellious teenager with a penchant for hijinks, sent to staid St. Francis Academy where she teams up with the morose Rachel Devery (June Harding), and together they run afoul of the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell).  

Werth: Rosalind Russell—the smokiest Catholic baritone since Joan of Arc burned at the stake.

Wise: It’s also something of a departure for her.  Long after her run in classic screwball comedies and just past her outsize roles in Gypsy and Auntie Mame, Russell still gets to show off her comic chops, but she’s also doing something a bit more subtle.  Amid the pratfalls and double-takes, she exudes wisdom and gentleness and really makes the audience believe that she is a woman with a religious calling and not just a dame in a habit.  

Werth: It probably helped that Russell was a devout Catholic—or as biographers like to say, “deeply religious.”

Wise: That deep humanity runs through the entire film, largely thanks to the direction by Ida Lupino who began her career at Warner Bros. as their second-string Bette Davis and grew into the most prominent female director in 50’s and 60’s Hollywood.  She did a lot of TV (including several episodes of Gilligan’s Island) and B movies, and although a lot of that was genre work, she was consistently able to subvert the conventions of formula work and examine the inner lives of women within the confines of the Hollywood system. 

Werth: Subverting the dominant paradigm is a hoot!

Wise: The Trouble with Angels is one of the rare movies that makes me laugh just as much as an adult as it did when I was a kid.  The timing is so spot-on, but there’s an undercurrent of seriousness that grounds the comedy and makes it not just a picture about jokes, but one about wit. 

Werth: Jesse Tyler Ferguson is very witty.

Wise: What happened to studying for finals?

Werth: Jesse’s ginger-ness is very distracting.

 Wise: Tune in to next week’s Film Gab for more cinematic distractions!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When Theaters Go Too Dark

The wonderful Roger Ebert takes a fascinating look at the new technology of movie projection and how it may be ruining your movie-going experience.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It’s the End of the Gab as We Know It!

Werth: Good day, Wise!

Wise: Don’t you mean goodbye?

Werth: Why would I mean that?

Wise: Haven’t you seen all the placards in the subway proclaiming that May 21st, 2011, is The Rapture?

Werth: Oh right... I forgot to write that in my Turner Classic Movies day planner.   

Wise: The Rapture is the beginning of the end of the world when all the faithful are whisked into heaven while everyone else sticks around for the coming plagues, persecutions, scourges and disasters.  

Werth: If you ask me, all the faithful leaving would make those of us left behind a lot happier.

Wise: That might depend on who the faithful actually turn out to be.  But while we wait to discover whether we’re among the elect or the damned, let’s talk about our favorite end of the world movies.  

Werth: Ooh! Yes, please! When I think of movies about the end of life as we know it, one dilly springs to mind, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth.

Wise: And not the last man on Werth?  

Werth: Based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, (now you know where they got the name for the re-make) Last Man chronicles the attempts of Dr. Robert Morgan to stay alive after a mysterious disease has swept the world and killed everyone including his beloved daughter and wife. 
 You might think it wouldn’t be so hard to stay alive if you were just by yourself, but unfortunately the bacteria doesn’t just kill people, it turns them into vampire zombies that come to Morgan’s house every night and try to kill him. So Morgan’s days are spent gathering garlic, making wooden stakes, burning bodies and wandering around the deserted city knocking on doors and killing the undead wherever they are sleeping. Kind of like the Avon Lady of the Apocalypse.

Wise: No soap on a rope or Skin-So-Soft for the zombies?

Werth: And to play this last bastion of virile manhood on planet Earth, the filmmakers chose the one and only Vincent Price.

Wise: Was Mickey Rooney busy?

Werth: Matheson went on record to say he didn’t think Price was the right choice for the part, but Price lends a solid dignity to this cheap affair. Much like some of the schlock-fests Price made famous, his austere, patrician quality raises the material above the level of the typical B-horror film. 
He’s very serious about escaping the vampires, even though they are laughably weak. He just pushes them over and runs by while they gently hammer at the set with pieces of prop wood. He is tender and loving with his child who can’t seem to look away from the camerman as she lies dying. His many voiceovers have a wonderfully detached quality, making us feel for this man who must be so, so lonely and scared—even if the whole point of the multiple voiceovers was so the movie could be cheaply cross-dubbed into English and Italian.

Wise: For a horror movie, it doesn’t sound very scary.

Werth: It’s not really. It’s more atmospheric than anything else. It was shot entirely in Italy and the 60’s housing developments are creepy in that they look disused and deserted, but they must have been places where real people were then living. Some say the gritty look laid the groundwork for George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, and you can definitely see similarities in their bleakness. Last Man has that wonderful “What would I do?” quality that makes these loner, post-apocalyptic films special. 
We watch Price drinking his coffee and listening to the record player while his former best friend (now a zomb-pire) howls and bashes at his front door. We can’t help but wonder what we would do if we were the last person on Earth. 

Wise: The film I’m thinking about is more post than apocalyptic. 

Werth: You always add a twist.  

Wise: Just call me the M. Night Shyamalan of film bloggers.  

Werth: Just tell me you’re not reviewing The Village

Wise: Produced, written and directed by John Boorman, Zardoz (1974) depicts a future earth where all the intelligence and beauty has been gathered in a hidden zone called the Vortex where a band of immortals spend their days in blissed out monotony.  Meanwhile, the rest of the planet is populated by ignorant warring tribes called Brutals who worship an all-knowing floating head that dispenses guns and gathers tributes of grain, ensuring that these savage people are in a constant state of conflict.  A Brutal named Zed (Sean Connery wearing a costume that looks like something Vincente Minnelli would have designed for a low-budget BDSM film) stows away in the head and is taken into the Vortex where the Eternals live in paradise.  

Werth: Sounds like a nightclub.
Wise: No nightclub is as weird as the Vortex.  Once Zed is discovered by the immortals, he falls under the mind control of Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman) and is turned into a slave so he can be observed.  Because the Eternals underestimate his intelligence, Zed is able to undermine the rigid social divisions and bring about a reconciliation between the Brutals and the Eternals.  Best of all, there’s also a trippy flashback to a demolished library where Boorman reveals the source of Zed’s knowledge is linked to one of my all-time favorite books.  

Werth: The Wizard of Zard-Oz? Zardoz with the Wind?

Wise: I’m not sure that Zardoz is a great movie, but it’s certainly worth seeing.  It’s Connery’s second film after he quit playing James Bond and it’s interesting to watch him attempt to find a new star persona.  Plus, John Boorman was still a Hollywood golden boy after his huge success with Deliverance, so Zardoz is something of a passion project for him, although what makes a director turn from redneck rape to sci-fi morality play is beyond me.  

Werth: So, Wise, what are you packing for the Rapture?  

 Wise: Some shades, obviously, because it’s going to be shiny in heaven.  And a toothbrush because who wants to spend eternity worrying about tooth decay?  How about you?  

Werth: I’d probably go with a pair of clean undies and Joan Crawford’s My Way of Life. Someone’s got to remind people about good manners after the apocalypse.

Wise: Well, if we’re still around next Friday, tune in for more Film Gab!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Here Comes the Gab

Werth: Oh, Wise...

Wise: Oh, Werth...

Werth: Is it just me, or is the whole world high on matrimony?

Wise: We’re snorting weddings like cheap cocaine.

Werth: Will and Kate just headed off on their crown-sponsored honeymoon, gay marriage ads are popping up on television, last week my dream-husband John Krasinski opened in the by-the-wedding-book rom-com Something Borrowed

Wise: —and don’t forget Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids walks down the aisle today.

Werth: It’s like a betrothal zeitgeist. And the worst part is I haven’t been invited to a single wedding this summer.

Wise: Cheer up. Maybe one of your Kansas relatives will require an unexpected shotgun wedding.

Werth: I think I’ll just curl up on my couch with a box of buttermints and a classic movie with a wedding in it—wait—not just one wedding, but three!

Wise: I love your over-achievement.

Werth: 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire follows three department store models who figure the best way to get ahead in life is to find a rich man and marry him.

Wise: Because nothing says traditional marriage like gold digging.  

Werth: Loco, Pola and Schatze (you can’t make this stuff up, kids) pool their money to rent a luxury apartment in New York in the hopes of springing their mantrap on any eligible tycoons, heirs or lottery winners that they can find. And their bait was the best Hollywood had to offer.
Plucky Betty Grable and her legs had been a staple of the cinema and soldier’s lockers since WWII. Lauren Bacall’s sophisticated beauty had nabbed Bogey’s heart and everyone else’s in such film noir classics as To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). And rounding out this cast of man-hungry beauties was the new mink in Twentieth Century Fox’s closet, Marilyn Monroe. Her hands still sticky from being immortalized in the wet cement of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Monroe was riding high on a wave of superstardom caused by her popular performance earlier that year in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953).

Wise: Jiminy. Grable, Bacall and Monroe?  That’s like the bombshell version of Sophie’s Choice.  

Werth: Exactly the kind of quandry Twentieth Century Fox execs wanted. So to give the audience as much female perusal as possible, director Jean Negluesco shot Millionaire in Cinemascope, making it the first movie made in the new wide-screen format. (The Robe (1953) actually went to theaters first, but it was shot second.) In addition to the grandiose buffet of cans, kissers and gams, the acting styles of these three actresses complimented each other fantastically. Bacall’s droll, smart-mouth sophistication tempered Grable’s feisty “chorus-girl” spunk, and Monroe—well for anyone who thinks all Monroe ever did was play dumb blondes, Millionaire is a perfect example of how intelligent a comedienne she really was.
The well-proprotioned Pola has a manhunting handicap—she can’t see without her glasses. And since men don’t makes passes at girls who wear glasses, she takes them off whenever she’s working a room. Monroe gets to trip, stumble and grope her way across the screen, literally searching for her millionaire.

Wise: Like a pair of glasses would keep any red-blooded male away from Marilyn Monroe.

Werth: You have to suspend disbelief, but it gives Monroe the chance to strut her stuff as the adept physical comedienne she truly was. This performance goes a long way towards explaining why she was such a big movie star.

Wise: Do all three gals nab a Rockefeller for a husband?

Werth: Twists and turns abound with the male assistance of David Wayne, Rory Calhoun and William Powell, but let’s just say, nobody leaves the movie single.

Wise: Well not to one-up your three weddings, but one of my favorite wedding flicks has four weddings in it.

Werth: Are you going to review Big Love?

Wise: No, but I do have a big love for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).  Following the misadventures of a close-knit group of singleton Brits as they navigate an unending season of weddings, the movie became a surprise hit when it was released, becoming the top-earning British film to date and nabbing an Oscar nom for best picture.  Directed by Mike Newell and written by Richard Curtis, it delightfully captures all the pratfalls, misunderstandings, and exhilarations of falling in love.  These guys have had a hand in just about every movie you guiltily watch rainy weekend afternoons: Love, Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Enchanted April.  It’s like they invented an entirely new genre of movie: the feel-good tear-jerker, British edition.  

Werth: Which also describes frequent star of those films, Hugh Grant.  

Wise: Four Weddings created Hugh Grant and his shambling, charming, floppy-haired persona.  He was the It boy of the 90s, and much of his subsequent career has been playing either to or against this type.  But he wasn’t the only star to emerge. Kirsten Scott Thomas, who was spot-on as the love-lorn Fiona, went on to an Oscar nominated turn in The English Patient.  
Simon Callow, who played vest-loving Gareth, has been in innumerable films often playing similar grandiose characters.  Plus he’s written well-received biographies of Charles Laughton and Orson Wells.  And John Hannah, playing sensitive Matthew, turned this early screen role into a string of delightful performances in everything from Agatha Christie TV movies to action-adventure in The Mummy to the sword and sandal shenanigans of TV’s Spartacus.  

Werth: I notice that you haven’t mentioned Andie MacDowell. Is it because she’s not British?

Wise: It’s because she’s kind of forgettable in this role.  Don’t get me wrong.  She’s perfectly lovely and believable as long as the camera simply lingers on her ethereal beauty, but once she starts speaking, it’s over for me.  To be fair, she’s really playing a symbol while the rest of the cast indulges in a carnival of emotions.  Still, she’s more scenery than screen siren.  

Werth: So it’s not ‘til death do you part with Andie?

Wise: I would not get to that church on time.

Werth: Then let’s just leave her at the altar. Tune in next week when we say “I do” to more Film Gab!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Big Screen in the Sky

Yesterday we bid adieu to one of the great play and film scribes of the 20th Century. Arthur Laurents began writing for Broadway in 1945, quickly transitioning to Hollywood with 1948's Hitchcock classic, Rope. Laurents successfully straddled both coasts by parlaying his landmark stage successes West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962) to the screen as well as writing cinematic gems like Summeritme (1955), Anastasia (1956) and The Way We Were (1973). Known for being blunt about his sexuality and his opinions about how Hollywood mangled his stage successes, Laurents was passionately outspoken about his work and was even the target of the Great Communist Hunt of the 1940's for his work with civil rights causes. Today we hope that Heaven is a-buzz with the argument, "Which is better? West Side Story the musical or the movie?"

Pour Some Poison on Me

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Howdy, Wise.

Wise: What’s with the pen and the REALLY long piece of paper?

Werth: I realized that this week is the 73rd anniversary of the of the infamous Box Office Poison ad that was published in the May 3rd, 1938 Hollywood Reporter—and I think it’s time to update it.

Wise: That Box Office Poison ad was bananas!

Werth: I know! The list was concocted by the President of the Independent Theater Owners of America Harry Brandt in an attempt to get Hollywood to “Wake up!” and give them better movies to exhibit. The films of Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Dolores del Río, Kay Francis, Fred Astaire and Edward Arnold were all labeled “poison at the box office.”

Wise: I’m surprised Mickey Rooney wasn’t in there.

Werth: But one surprising member of the Box Office Poison Club had actually earned the moniker. Despite her meteoric rise in 1932, Katharine Hepburn’s movies were going belly-up at the box office, and in February, 1938 (only months before the poison ad) she starred in a real stinker, Bringing Up Baby.
Wise: Hold it right there, Werth. You can make fun of Judy Berlin all you want, but Bringing Up Baby is one of the finest examples of the screwball comedy.
Werth: Oh, I totally agree. Unfortunately the 1938 audience didn’t and they stayed away in droves. Perhaps one of the best examples of “movies ahead of their time,” Baby had a promising pedigree. The talented Hepburn was paired with screen charmer Cary Grant for the second time and the whole project was to be overseen by that master of fast comedy, Howard Hawks. The plot was wacky even for a screwball comedy. A pent-up paleontologist finds himself the unwilling object of affection of a carefree heiress who has just gotten a leopard named Baby in the mail.

Wise: It’s too bad you can’t mail leopards anymore.

Werth: The rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue that Hawks was famous for is unrelenting and all the performers sprint from argument to pratfall in a giddy whirl of happenstance and comic misunderstanding. Baby’s comedy flies and its two stars hold on for dear life. What maybe threw some of the audience off, was the fact that both Hepburn and Grant played slightly against type. Grant often played a suave, carefree, lovable gent, but his Dr. David Huxley is an overwhelmed fuss-budget. His outbursts of frustration are matched by a sort of mimed confusion—making him a veritable one-man Laurel & Hardy. 
Hepburn, who had no trouble playing blue-bloods, gave Susan Vance an air of scatter-brainedness you wouldn’t normally see from her. It’s one of the rare times when she really lets loose and looks like she’s having fun. In one scene she pretends to be a mobster and the film noir tough guy talk that comes out of her mouth is priceless.

Wise: I just imagined her saying, “The calla lilies are in bloom” like Edward G. Robinson.
Werth: But at the end of the day, Baby lost $365,000 and RKO fired Hawks and convinced Hepburn to terminate her own contract around the same time she was labeled “box office poison.”

Wise: Ouch. Baby had claws.

Werth: But those scratches didn’t last long, because in 1940 Hepburn came roaring back to prominence in the smash hit The Philadelphia Story and never had to worry about being poisonous again.

Wise: Half the people on that list eventually turned out to be Hollywood legends, so it’s hard to imagine that any of them were really poison at the box office, but I guess the one thing that most of them have in common is that the list appeared while their careers were going through a transition.  

Werth: Just like we’re transitioning from my half of Film Gab to yours.  

Wise: And I think that’s the best explanation why someone who’s now as universally beloved as Fred Astaire was labelled a stinker by the exhibitors.  After a lengthy and successful career dancing in Vaudeville with his sister Adele, Astaire signed a contract with RKO where he was partnered with Ginger Rogers for a string of classic musicals like Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance?  As the decade came to a close, both Astaire and Rodgers wanted to move on to other things.  Rodgers had a slightly easier time finding audience acceptance in different roles, while Astaire floundered a bit before ending up at MGM where he starred in some of Metro’s biggest musicals of the late 40’s and 50’s, Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and The Band Wagon.  

Werth: No one could dance on the ceiling like Fred.

Wise: But there is a definite difference between these two phases of Astaire’s career.  The RKO films are a lot scrappier, and while his dancing is never anything less than the epitome of elegance, Astaire’s characters were often smart-alecks or schemers.  At MGM, where the ruling style included lush violins and saturated color, Astaire became a much more romantic figure.  And even when he wasn’t working at Metro, this new style followed, most notably in Funny Face (1957) which also starred Audrey Hepburn.  

Werth: Who for once sang without offscreen help from Marnie Nixon.  

Wise: Right.  Astaire plays Dick Avery, a fashion photographer loosely based on Richard Avedon, who is sent by the imperious editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson in a hilarious performance) to discover the next big thing: models who think!  

Werth: They must be still looking.  

Wise: Thankfully Audrey turns up early on as a beatnik bookstore employee more enamored of Nietzsche than Givenchy, although a trip to Paris, some incredible fashion, and a few dance numbers with Astaire convinces her to adore both.  

Werth: Seeing both of these movies convinces me that Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn were too good to be bad.  

Wise: Exactly.  So fess up, Werth.  Who’s on your 2011 Box Office Poison List?

Werth: I’ve changed my mind. It seems that most everyone on the 1938 list had career resurgences and became cinematic legends and—

Wise: And you don’t want your list to revitalize Renee Zellweger’s career.

Werth: Exactly. Tune in next week when we make or break more Hollywood careers at Film Gab!