Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Gab Old Summertime

It's a quiet week here in Film Gab's spacious Manhattan digs.  Werth is off gallivanting through Europe doing his best Henry James impersonation, although with all his hair and none of the digestive complaints (we hope).  The less picaresque half of Film Gab stuck around the city to get a little work done and dream of foreign shores.  The combination of the two brings to mind those great Hollywood flicks where even those who stay at home get to take an incredible journey. 

Marking the end of her reign as kiddie box office champ, The Little Princess (1939) is one of Shirley Temple's most unusual films.  Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the movie follows Sara Crew (Temple), who is sent to boarding school by her doting father (Ian Hunter), only to run afoul of the mean-spirited headmistress Miss Minchin (Mary Nash) when her father and his fortune are lost in the Boer War.  Even though Miss Minchin forces her to become a scullery maid, Sara never loses her good spirits, making friends with the other domestics and finding an ally in Ram Dass (Cesar Romero), the servant of a powerful lord next door.  Refusing to give up hope, Sara continues to search army hospitals for her father until she gets a royal assist from Queen Victoria (Beryl Mercer).   

The film is at times slavishly faithful to its source material while it also packs in all the usual bits from previous Temple films: a dance number with a comedian, young lovers reunited, and a confrontation with an old crank.  These changes never violate Burnett's creation, in fact, they seem to honor the story's muddled past: originally a magazine serial, Burnett revised Princess into a novella, adapted it to stage play with distinct versions running in London and New York, and eventually incorporated bits from all those incarnations into the final novel.  (And to add to the blurry history, when Alfonso Cuarón made his adaption in 1995, he included elements from the Shirley Temple film that had never appeared in print.)

Of course the most famous scene is the dream sequence that takes place after Sara has been banished to the garret by Miss Minchin and she dreams of being a princess in a storybook land that looks like it sprang directly from a Maxfield Parrish illustration.  Inside the dream, Sara meets fantasy versions of her real-life friends, plus she is able to dispatch cruel Miss Minchin and to assert the importance of generosity and kindness over the petty cruelties favored by the headmistress.  

Another film that uses dreams as an escape from the drudgery of the everyday world is Dreamchild (1985), a hallucinatory mediation on the later years of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's literary heroine.  Journeying to New York City in 1932, Alice, now a very elderly and snappish Mrs. Hargreaves (Coral Browne), is preparing to make a speech at Columbia University in celebration of the centenary of Lewis Carroll's birth.  

The trip and the occasion dredge up troubling memories of stuttering clergyman Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Ian Holm) whose infatuation with her transformed him into a literary giant and her into the beloved heroine of millions of readers.  Never comfortable with the acclaim, Alice has grown into a dour adult, but the trip forces her to confront her past, both her actual past at Oxford University among her family, and the imagined past in Carroll's fantasy land.  

The creatures of Wonderland were created by the Jim Henson workshop, and they are startlingly lifelike realizations of  Sir John Tenniel's famous illustrations.  But their function within the movie is to force Alice to re-evaluate her memories and to accept her strange double history.  

The film is a fantasia of odd juxtapositions with deep emotional undercurrents, and while it definitely shows traces of screenwriter Dennis Potter's 1965 stage play, director Gavin Millar skillfully manages the transitions between Victorian England and Great Depression era New York.  Part of that success emerges from the fine performances by Browne and Holm, and even Peter Gallagher's take on a raffish tabloid reporter adds a certain panache.

Both these films leave us pleasantly bewildered, full of imaginary landscapes, and ready to dream of our next journey abroad.  Just make sure we all make it back in time for next week's Film Gab. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Gab Under the Stars

Werth: It's here, Wise!

Wise: Did my Liza Minnelli puppet finally arrive from Amsterdam?

Werth: No. And I don't know what disturbs me more—the puppet or you posting that clip. I'm talking about the annual HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival that starts Monday!

 Wise: It's the official start to summer in New York.  For those of us without digs in the Hamptons. 

Werth: For ten Mondays in the summer, lovely Bryant Park becomes an outdoor movie theater that presents some of the most popular classic films for our viewing pleasure.

Wise: I love cinema al fresco. 

Werth: I thought before we talk about some of the offerings this year, I'd give a few helpful hints to make our readers' Bryant Park moviegoing experience more pleasant.

Wise: You are always so generous with advice.
Werth: First of all—be on time. The grounds open at 5PM and it's like the Oklahoma Land Rush to grab a spot on the lawn, so get there early to get the choicest seat. Secondly—in addition to a blanket, bring trash bags to sit on just in case the ground is damp. Because nothing spoils a show more than a damp bottom.  Afterward you can be a good citizen and use the bag  to throw out any garbage.

Wise: I try to avoid damp bottoms and come prepared with my vinyl-backed flannel picnic blanket that folds into a neat satchel. 

Werth: Most people bring lovely food and drink items to enjoy picnic style, and I always wonder, "Hey, can I wash down that triple creme brie with a glass of chardonnay?" The technical answer is no. Alcohol is not allowed in NYC parks—but in my experience if you're discreet and not hauling a keg in, you'll probably be all right bringing a bottle of wine to add a touch of sparkle to your evening.

Wise: Or just pour your wine into a Sprite bottle like Werth does for family functions.

Werth: Finally, before you settle into the movie, remember to give yourself a quick spritz of bug repellent 'cause the only thing that likes a dusk-time movie more than you are bloodthirsty swarms of mosquitoes.

Wise: Enough tips! Which movies should we see?

Werth: The list is quite fun this year, but my personal pick would be July 25th's The Lady Eve (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

Wise: The Lady Eve on a Summer's eve?  Sounds totally fresh.

Werth: Eve is yet another classic comedy from the hilarious pen and lens of Preston Sturges. Fonda is a milquetoast reptile expert who also happens to be an heir to an ale empire.

Wise: Snakes and beer—your favorites.

Werth: Fonda is coming home to New York on a boat from South America when the con-artist team of Stanwyck and Charles Coburn decide to fleece him for all he's worth. True to the romantic comedy genre, the hunter falls for the hunted and soon, in classic Sturges style, romance becomes a tangled, witty, pratfall-laden mess. 
Stanwyck in particular really shines as the sultry and smart gal who wants love, revenge, and then love again. The scene where she narrates as she watches in the reflection of her compact the ship's eligible bachelorettes attempt to woo Fonda at his table is some of the most whip-smart comedy of Sturges' career. Wonderful supporting work from a few of the best character actors of the time period (Coburn, William Demerest, Eugene Pallette and Eric Blore) make Eve a light summertime frolic, tailor-made for a snakeless park.

Wise: Comedies are perfect viewing for picnics with friends, so I'd suggest seeing Airplane! (1980) on August 8th because there's really nothing quite like snorting not-Sprite right out your nose. 

Werth: Unless of course it's snorting not-Coke.

Wise: The grandaddy of the hugely successful Naked Gun and Scary Movie franchises, Airplane! tops them all in sheer, gleeful absurdity.  
Co-written and -directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, the film follows traumatized WWII pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) as he attempts to patch up his rocky relationship with his stewardess girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) on a doomed flight from Los Angeles to Chicago.  Only by overcoming his worst fears can he save the day and get the girl.  

Werth: You make the plot sound like it's a classic airline disaster film.

Wise: That's part of what makes Airplane! such a successful comedy. The film sticks to the classic structure of Hollywood disaster films, but follows that logic to the most absurd ends. Plus the cast is full of tough guy stalwarts like Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and (perhaps most successfully) Leslie Nielsen, each of them playing to type and without a wink to the chaos around them. 

Werth: I particularly love the actors' straight delivery of such memorable lines as, "Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?", "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking," and "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley. "

Wise: Of course I can't talk about Airplane! without mentioning the two single most hilarious screen cameos ever filmed.  I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, but please look out for Barbara Billingsley and Ethel Merman.
Werth: So, Wise, what delicious items will you be bringing in your picnic basket?

Wise: Simple things, like bread, cheese and fruits.  Maybe a tart for dessert.

Werth: I love tarts.

Wise: We knew that about you.

Werth: So bring your damp bottoms, your Sprite bottles and your tarts to Bryant Park this Summer and join us next week for more Film Gab.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dial F for Film Forum!

Didn't know that the Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder (1954) had a limited release in 3-D?  Well it did, and starting Friday 6/17 for one week only, Film Forum is showing Grace Kelly and Ray Milland in Naturalvision 3D. Don't miss this classic thriller that reminds you to always keep a pair of scissors on your desk!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Judy!

Werth: Happy Friday, Wise!  

Wise: Happy Friday nothing.  It's Judy Garland's birthday!

Werth: I knew there was a reason you were wearing pigtails. How do you plan on celebrating? 

Wise: Well, first I plan on spending some quality time enjoying the catalog for Profiles in History's auction of Debbie Reynolds' massive collection of  Hollywood memorabilia, paying particular attention to a blue and white dotted dress and a pair of Ruby Slippers that Judy Garland wore while testing costumes for The Wizard of Oz.  And then I thought I'd talk about how great Judy is in one of her most iconic roles: Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Werth: I'm expecting a trolley cake with 89 candles.

Wise: Of course there will be cake, even thought it's hardly necessary when there's a confection as sweet as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  This was the first collaboration between Judy and her soon to be husband Vincente Minnelli, and while it seems like the perfect fit now, at the time Judy turned down both of them.  

She was tired of playing an endless parade of winsome teenage girls who sing a few tunes while pining away hopelessly for the boy next door. But Minnelli convinced her that this was the role that could make audiences accept her in more adult roles and that he was just the director to do it. 

Werth: Oh they did it, all right.

Wise: Even though Minnelli had only been in Hollywood a few years, his experience designing and directing musical reviews in New York had honed his talent in creating striking images.  While the script was full of the kind of puppy love romance Judy had been tossing off in her films with Mickey Rooney, the musical numbers allowed her to express a very grown up longing for love.  Tom Drake, who played the neighboring object of her affection, seems completely bereft of any screen chemistry until Judy begins to sing "The Boy Next Door" and suddenly the bland milquetoast gets a lot more appealing.

Werth: And that's really an accomplishment, considering you don't even see Tom in that number. Minnelli focuses solely on Judy's blossoming feelings, allowing us to see Tom in her eyes as she peeps through her window.

Wise: St. Louis is also interesting because it is such a well-balanced ensemble piece.  Mary Astor has some wonderful moments as Judy's mother, and Leon Ames is fantastic in the blustery father role that Minnelli would later perfect with Spencer Tracy in the original Father of the Bride films.  
But it is Margaret O'Brien who has the juiciest role as Judy's hilariously death-haunted little sister, Tootie.  She lops off her dolls' heads and buries them in the back yard, and even has one of the most surreal, terrifying and exhilarating scenes in all film history when she confronts spooky neighbor Mr. Braukoff on Halloween. 

Werth: Speaking of surreal, I revisited one of Judy's later films and found myself feeling, well... rather odd.

Wise: Did you manage to sit through Gay Purr-ee again?

Werth: Even more odd than Judy doing the V.O. for a Parisian pussycat is Judy's second to last film, 1963's A Child Is Waiting. Deep in her dramatic film phase, Judy plays an ex-Julliard concert pianist who gets a job working at an institution for special needs kids. Burt Lancaster plays the dedicated, stern, over-worked head of the under-funded facility. These two cinematic titans begin to bump heads when little Reuben Widdicome (Bruce Ritchey) develops an attachment to Garland.

Wise: What kid wouldn't want to get close to Dorothy? 

Werth: What makes this movie so unique and at times disquieting is that director John Cassavetes used actual special needs kids to fill out the cast of child actors (look closely for TV's Billy Mumy and Butch Patrick.) Billed as "The Children" the classrooms were filled with children with Downs Syndrome, autism, and other mental and behavioral disabilities. And these students weren't simply window-dressing. 
Cassavetes used them as active characters in the story, keeping the camera focused on them as they interacted with the main characters off-script. The choice to give these children the spotlight was bold, and gives the film a sense of real heart that Hollywood dramas could sometimes dilute. Cassavetes was ultimately fired by producer Stanley Kramer because the two disagreed on how to edit the film, but the clash between verite and Hollywood tear-jerker adds to the thematic battle between handicapped and handicapable in the film.

Wise: Judy's forte was always in turning vulnerability into strength. 

Werth: After re-seeing the film, I think it's one of Garland's most subtly beautiful performances. Her usual acting ticks and tricks were absent giving her performance a rare naturalistic feel. There's a sense when you see her interacting with these children (especially Ritchey) that she had an innate understanding of not fitting in, of a longing for childhood. When she is surrounded in the hallway by an inquisitive mob on her first day at the institution, she seems almost as lost and vulnerable as the children around her.

Wise: You just want to give Judy a big ol' hug.

Werth: But since she's been dead 42 years, let's just raise a glass to the one and only Judy Garland!

Wise: Hear, hear! And tune in to next week's Film Gab when we find more films to drink to.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Big Screen in the Sky

While most people remember James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon from the epic television run of Gunsmoke, to this Film Gabber, he will always be heroic Robert Graham who took a flame thrower to an army of giant ants in the L.A. sewer system in the 1954 sci-fi/horror masterwork, Them! Three years earlier Arness had starred in another sci-fi classic, The Thing From Another World. His six-foot-seven frame, a Frankenstein-esque makeup job and some dark lighting were all director Christian Nyby needed to create a menacing creature that stomped through an Arctic Army base- on fire, no less. With a nice-lookin' mug, Arness was able to get out of the B-horror movie genre and move to westerns where a friendship with John Wayne led to his iconic television role as a fine upstanding lawman. James Arness passed away today at the age of 88 of natural causes.

Rest in Gab

Wise: Greetings, Werth!
Werth: Greetings, Wise!

Wise: Did you have a fun-filled Memorial Day Holiday?

Werth: Fun-filled? Wise, Memorial Day is supposed to be spent honoring our dearly departed.

Wise: So you didn’t go to a dinner party, flirt with a bartender for free drinks or spend hours soaking in your tub on your day off?

Werth: Of course I did! But I also thought about those sad moments when we lose people we care about.

Wise: You made a list of your favorite movie death scenes, didn’t you?
Werth: You betcha! And my number one favorite is Bette Davis croaking in Dark Victory.

Wise: Thanks for the spoiler.

Werth: What spoiler? She gets brain cancer... in 1939. She’s a goner. It’s curtains from the opening credits—but what a way to go! Her tragic acceptance of what she knows is coming but must hide from her husband is beautiful. Legend has it that Davis fought with director Edmund Goulding about her “death climb” up the stairs. Worried that film score composer Max Steiner would be orchestral-ly outdoing her performance she insisted, “Well, either I'm going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is going to climb those stairs, but I'll be God-DAMNED if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!"

Wise: I’m assuming there was a cigarette involved somewhere.

Werth: Whatever Goulding told Davis, in the end, Steiner and Davis climbed the stairs together to perfect effect. Davis, Steiner and the movie were all nominated for the top prizes at the Academy awards that year—but it was the greatest year in Hollywood History, so competition was very stiff with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz ultimately snagging those Oscars.

Wise: Frankly, The Wizard of Oz ought to have snagged a few more Oscars that year, but it does contain one of the best death scenes ever filmed.  

Werth: I know where this is going...

Wise: Look, I love the chance to blubber when a movie character reaches his expiration date, but death is an experience full of uncontrollable emotions—some sad, some happy, some squirrely—and I like to have my cinematic terminations reflect that.  

Werth: Just get on with the Wicked Witch biting it.
Wise: Think about how great Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the witch is: that frustrated ambition, that out-of-control cackle tickling your spine with ice, that glee she takes in plotting the destruction of Dorothy and her friends.  But when the bucket of water hits and she realizes that the end has come for her beautiful wickedness, she literally dissolves into rage.  It’s really the only way for her to go.  Throughout the movie, she has been a constant threat, adding a razor’s edge to what could have been a Technicolor meringue, and only her death can exorcise her living menace.  It’s a catharsis, allowing Dorothy and her friends to earn their rewards, and has served as the model in the deaths of countless villains ever since.  

Werth: Before Wise breaks into a gospel version of “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead”, here’s a list of our other favorite cinematic death scenes:
Lance’s List
West Side Story
Terms of Endearment
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Imitation of Life
Moulin Rouge
Damien: Omen II
Dancer in the Dark
The Poseidon Adventure
The Manchurian Candidate 
Alan’s List
Silent Light
Murder on the Orient Express 
One True Thing
The Royal Tenenbaums
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Good Earth 
Pan’s Labyrinth
Like Water for Chocolate  

Werth: I like your death list, Wise.

Wise: I like your death list, Werth. Now what about you, Film Gab Readers? What are your favorite death scene movies?

Werth: And check back next week for a less deadly Film Gab!