Friday, September 16, 2011

Happy Birthday Bette Joan Perske!

Wise: Howdy, Werth!

Werth: Greetings, Wise!

Wise: What's with the flamethrower?

Werth: I made a cake for Lauren Bacall's birthday and I figured it would be the easiest way to light 87 candles.

Wise: Wow. At her age, she'll need a wind machine to blow them out.

Werth: She'll just pucker up her lips and blow. Bacall is one of the great figures of classic film, and I think we should give her a Film Gab birthday present, and dedicate this week's entry to her.

Wise: Sounds good to me. Beats having to buy her something.

Werth: Bacall first came on the scene with a bang in 1944  in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not. She was paired with her future husband Humphrey Bogart and the cinematic sparks flew. The legendary duo made four movies together and their last one is a perfect Sunday afternoon, curl up on your couch classic.

Wise: As opposed to the typical hangover-induced, Domino's binge Sunday couch surfing? 

Werth: Key Largo (1948) is a veritable time capsule of some of the greats of the Hollywood studio system. Bogart is Frank McCloud, a war hero who comes to the Florida Keys to visit the young wife and father of one of his men who was killed in action. Nora (Bacall) and James Temple (the wheeled Lionel Barrymore) are happy to meet the man they've heard so much about and ask him to stay on in their hotel. 
But this bittersweet meeting is made even more bitter when a gang of mobsters led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) decides to take up residence in the hotel. All hell breaks loose when a hurricane hits and traps them all for the duration, pitting Bogart against Robinson in a silver screen titan throwdown.

Wise: I wish Bogart and Robinson had stopped by my place during Hurricane Irene.

Werth: Directed by Bogart friend and collaborator John Huston, Key Largo lacks some of the film noir edge of Huston's Maltese Falcon (1941) and Asphalt Jungle (1950). But in several scenes Huston uses bright light to give the film a grainy, almost verite feel, and some of his closeups eschew Hollywood's typical beauty shots and instead go for craggy realism. But oh what faces! Bacall is beautiful and dumps her typical sly vamp routine for one of a fresh-faced, tender woman whose looks at Bogey are more schoolgirl crush than 40's seductress. Bogey gives the reluctant man of action performance that audiences had come to expect of him, but never tired of. 
Edward G. Robinson is dapper and indomitable playing exiled mobster Johnny Rocco as if he was Napoleon, slapping women, taunting old men and chomping lustily on a cigar. Lionel Barrymore is the most boisterous invalid to ever roll across the screen and he lets loose at Rocco with both barrels, making you wonder if he could get out of that wheelchair what he would do. 

Wise: If he were alive today, probably a second career at Dancing with the Stars.  

Werth: But the real stunner in this already crowded talent pool is Claire Trevor. As the washed-up, drunken gun moll Gaye Dawn, Trevor is a heart-wrenching sensation. Desperately clinging to the bar, Trevor gives a full-bodied, Oscar-winning performance that culminates in a humiliating singing routine for a drink. She leaves us wanting to either throw her a gimlet or rush her to a twelve step program.  
Key Largo is a fun assemblage of performers at the top of their games portraying people who "ain't what they used to be"—as worn-out as the threadbare lobby of the Largo Hotel.

Wise: Or, as worn-out as the 1981 Bertie Higgins song.  At the other end of the spectrum is Bacall's late career supporting role in My Fellow Americans (1996).  A comedy about former rivals and current ex-Presidents Russell P. Kramer (Jack Lemmon) and Matt Douglas (James Garner) as they thwart assassination attempts, unravel Washington skullduggery, and meet the most cheerful, oddball Americans this side of a sit-com's backyard fence.  
Bacall, as former first lady Margaret Kramer, has little to do but gaze adoringly at Lemmon and occasionally crack wise, but she uses all her star power to communicate the brittle dignity forced upon Presidents' wives.  

Werth: Speaking of brittle dignity, I wonder if Nancy Reagan reads Film Gab...

Wise: Also along for the ride are Dan Aykroyd, Wilford Brimley, Sela Ward, Bradley Whitford, and Ester Rolle.  

Werth: It sounds like the cast for a very special episode of Murder, She Wrote.  

Wise: The credits are definitely chock-full of the usual Hollywood suspects, and the script provides each of them with a spicy morsel of scenery to chew.  And while it's not exactly Chekhov—  

Werth: Is Chekov from Star Trek in it too? 

Wise:  —the film is one of the few attempts at imagining life after the White House and the kinds of humiliations ex-Presidents face as they attempt to both keep their dignity and find purpose in the dénouement of their careers.  Of course, those small tragedies are each played for laughs—and often, the broadest, most inane yuks possible—but the film does question the afterlife of public service and the possibility of redemption after a lifetime of political compromises.  

Werth: Speaking of lifetimes—thank you, Lauren Bacall, for a lifetime of movie memories!

Wise: - and bring Nancy Reagan next week for leftover cake and more Film Gab.  

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