Friday, April 27, 2012

We Gab Hard for the Money

Werth: Hullo, Wise.

Wise: Hi, Werth?  What's wrong?  You look like you're about to eat my brains.

Werth: Work has been really busy of late. It's totally getting in the way of my watching old movies and scouring the internet for pictures I don't already have of Joan Crawford.

Wise: I'm sorry to hear that, but I can totally sympathize.  Sometimes work feels like it's swallowing up the best of me and only leaving scraps behind.

Werth: You know what would make me feel much better?

Wise: Winning the lottery and being named Robert Osborn's successor?  

Werth: Yes, but in the meantime I was hoping we could try some good ol' Hollywood escapism and gab about great movies where people's lives take an interesting turn because of their jobs.

Wise: You know I'm game.  Cinema therapy is the great cure-all.

Werth: And nothing cures quite like a Billy Wilder comedy—although 1960's The Apartment would be better classified as a comedy/drama. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an employee of the massive Consolidated Life Company. Shown sitting at his desk in a cavernous, industrial-style common workroom whose lights and desks seem to stretch off into infinity, C.C. is already primed to move up the corporate ladder. To curry favor with his bosses, C.C. makes his W. 67th St. apartment available to his superiors as a destination for their clandestine quickies with women other than their wives.

Wise: Poor wives. They never get the clandestine quickies.

Werth: Unfortunately for C.C., this means a lot of time spent loitering outside his building or walking in Central Park in the dead of night waiting for his bosses to finish with their floozies. 
But it all appears to be worth it when the head of PR, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray at his slickest) offers C.C. a promotion and his own office—provided Mr. Sheldrake can get in on the love nest action.

Wise: Wow, the absent-minded professor not only invented flubber, but was also a dog.

Werth: C.C. accepts, of course, and is anxious to share his promotion news with the elevator-girl of his dreams, Miss Kubelick (the recently turned 78 Shirley MacLaine). But what C.C. doesn't know is that Miss Kubelick is actually the chippie Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with in C.C.'s apartment.

Wise: It makes sloppy seconds so much easier when the girl is already in your bedroom.

Werth: It gets even sloppier when Miss Kubelick finds out that she is merely the latest girl in a long string of receptionists and actuaries for Mr. Sheldrake, so she attempts suicide Christmas Eve in C.C.'s apartment.

Wise: Okay, what happened to the comedy?

Werth: That's what's so refreshing about this movie. In the hands of a director like Blake Edwards this would be a door-slamming sex farce. But in Wilder's hands, the comedy and drama weave together to form something that, while not real enough to be called "realistic," is tender enough to be human. 
Both MacLaine and Lemmon are perfectly cast for this blend of loneliness and levity. MacLaine's typical kooky pluckiness is more reserved than usual—but still endearingly charming—hiding an inner sadness borne of broken trust. 
And Lemmon's brilliance at finding comedy in the smallest of motions and moments is utilized to its fullest, giving his lonely C.C. depth, even while he is straining his spaghetti with a tennis racket.

Wise: I use my tennis racket as a cheese grater.

Werth: Nominated for 10 Academy Awards and winning five—including the biggie, Best Picture—The Apartment would be the last truly great film that Wilder would make. But in a career that included such classics as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment is the epitome of Wilder's ability to make us laugh one moment and sniffle the next. 

Wise: Witticisms and the workplace also combine perfectly in It (1927), a confection starring silent screen mega-star Clara Bow as Betty Lou Spence, a shop girl just bursting with "It." 

Werth: I'm assuming you don't mean she dresses like a clown and kills people through the sewage system.  

Wise: Of course not.  It is based on a short story by Elinor Glyn who defined "It" as "That quality possessed by some which draws all others by its magnetic force," and Clara Bow had that in spades.  
Propelled to Hollywood stardom by winning a nationwide Fame and Fortune contest, Bow became one of the defining faces of the silent era and It became one of her defining roles.  The film has occasionally been dismissed as a Cinderella story, but Bow shows a lot more pluck and ambition than the stereotypical fairy tale princess.  
She falls for her boss, Cyrus Waltham (a dreamy Antonio Moreno), the scion of Waltham's Department Store where she works.  Realizing that he will never notice her as a salesgirl, she strikes up a friendship with Cyrus' best friend Monty (William Austin inhabiting the fey dandy role later perfected by Edward Everett Horton) and convinces him to escort her to the Ritz where she engineers a meeting with Cyrus and he promptly becomes smitten by her.  

Werth: Now all I can think about is a delicious, buttery cracker...

Wise: She makes a wager that he won't recognize her the next time they meet, and the following day at the store, he does just that.  When he realizes his mistake, he offers to make good on their bet, and she suggests a trip to Coney Island.  After a happily romantic excursion, things turn sour when she rebuffs his aggressive advances, only to turn even worse when a tabloid reporter (a young Gary Cooper in a non-speaking role), two priggish social workers, and the baby of 
Betty's unmarried roommate incite a mix-up that convinces Cyrus that she is nothing but a golddigger.  Furious, Betty hatches a plan to make Cyrus fall in love with her despite what he thinks are her failings and to humiliate him when he proposes.  Since this is a comedy, her scheme doesn't come off as she plans, but a roundelay of mistaken identities, comeuppance for snobs, and a yachting accident ensures a happy ending. 

Werth: You used roundelay and comeuppance in the same sentence. Are you going for a double word score or something?

Wise: It's interesting to compare It with a lot of contemporary romantic comedies because most of snafus that fuel the plot in this kind of film stem from Betty's principles rather than the sniveling humiliations in, say, your typical Katherine Heigl film.  Betty is never less than her most authentic (and rambunctious) self, and if she is reduced to tears near the end of the film, it's not because she's missed out on some idealized prince, but because she has failed to find her equal.  And that's why this film feels so satisfying despite its age: Betty finds her happy ending because she's earned it, and not because a romantic golden goose plopped in her lap totally undeserved. 

Werth: Sorry, Wise. I hate to stop you, but I gotta get back to work. 

Wise: Just don't forget to punch the clock for next week's Film Gab.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Will You Gabby Me?

Werth: Wuzzup, Wise?  

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  Just give me a minute; I'm feeling kind of queasy.  

Werth: Lose a fight with a Doritos Locos Taco?

Wise: No, I just got back from an afternoon in the park and was horrified to witness some dude proposing to his song.  

Werth: Was the girl Zooey Deschanel?  

Wise: Hardly.  She was an earnest, non-profit type in desperate need of a VO5 Hot Oil treatment.  And he looked like a branch bank assistant manager who spends all his vacations at Disneyland.  

Werth: Love is in the air.  It must have something to do with Jason Segel's new flick The Five Year Engagement.

Wise: It certainly does get me thinking about great films featuring couples hoping to get hitched.  Like The Harvey Girls (1946) starring Judy Garland as Susan Bradley, an Ohio gal with such a longing for adventure that she answers an ad in a lonely hearts column and gets engaged to a dreamboat from the Wild West whom she's never met.  The only problem is that her rodeo Romeo turns out to be a marble mouthed dummy played by Chill Wills.  

Werth: She might have had better luck using Grindr.

Wise: It turns out that all the letters Judy exchanged with her beau were ghost written by saloon owner Ned Trent (John Hodiak).  She breaks the engagement and goes to work at the brand new Fred Harvey Restaurant in town—part of a chain of restaurants that followed the railroads out west and exerted a huge influence on civilizing the cowboys and merchandizing the Native Americans.

Of course, this influx of manners and good food doesn't sit well with the corrupt local judge or the lead dance hall girl, Em (a delightful Angela Lansbury in spangles, a corset and a lot of green eye shadow), who want the cowboys to keep drinking and carousing instead of cleaning up and marrying the lady waitresses at the Harvey House.  

Werth: I'd do a lot for a good plate of meatloaf, but I'd never give up Angela Lansbury.  

Wise: The film was originally conceived as a traditional western starring Lana Turner and Clark Gable—  

Werth: So it wasn't the first time Judy got Lana's sloppy seconds.  

Wise: But MGM's legendary musical producer Arthur Freed was convinced that the story would make a perfect vehicle for Judy (also so he could shoehorn his mistress Lucille Bremer into Yolanda and the Thief opposite Fred Astaire which was the picture Judy wanted to make).  Mostly Freed was right.  
Judy is marvelous in the film, especially her showstopping rendition of the Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer hit "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe."  Less successful was her chemistry with Hodiak, making their on-screen romance something of a bust, but she does have a few magical moments with her Wizard of Oz co-star Ray Bolger.  Still, with a cast that includes Cyd Charisse, Marjorie Main and Virginia O'Brien, it's hard not to fall in love with this singing saddles confection.  

Werth: Western engagements are nice, but I prefer my engagement flicks hard-boiled. The betrothal in film-noir classic Laura (1944) ends on a bit of a sour note, with the lucky, young bride-to-be found shot dead in her apartment.

Wise: Well, that's one less tacky bachelorette party the world has to endure.

Werth: Dashing detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) learns through his investigation that stunning, smart corpse Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) was engaged to low-life playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). 

Wise: Engaged to The Abominable Dr. Phibes? Maybe it's all for the best that she's dead.

Werth: But were they really engaged? Poison-pen man-about-town Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) reveals to McPherson in a series of flashbacks that Laura hadn't decided to marry Shelby yet, and that Laura's rich, spinster aunt Ann Treadwell (the eternally delicious Judith Anderson) would rather be the the one carrying the bouquet down the aisle with Shelby. 
Complicating matters is the fact that McPherson during the course of his investigation has fallen in love with the victim, spending hours hanging out with her well-lit portrait over the fireplace and drinking her whiskey.

Wise: I do that sometimes with my picture of Margaret Hamilton.

Werth: As convoluted as it all sounds, one of the most famous cinematic twists happens about half-way through and turns the whole movie upside down, making any further discussion of the plot a guaranteed spoiler.  
While many speak of Laura as a typical noir, to be fair, it doesn't have the gritty nature that many other crime flicks of the era have. Director Otto Preminger skillfully built the mystery and suspense with refined wit and sophistication instead of dingy bars and dark alleys. The characters of Laura are a well-heeled crew who kill as much with bon mots as they do .38 specials. 
Standing at the top of this stylish pack is Lydecker. Webb's performance as the acid-tongued critic is joyously arch and earned him an Academy Award nomination. His police interview from a bathtub is the epitome of cheek, and if you ask me, totally gay.

Wise: And who wouldn't ask you?

Werth: With two of the best-looking leads and a bevy of the era's best character actors, Laura is an engagement no one should miss.

Wise: Speaking of engagements, how's about you and me head to the park and marry a pair of those Doritos Loco Tacos?

Werth: As long as the honeymoon's over in time for next week's Film Gab.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Curses! Curses!

Werth: So, Wise. 

Wise: Yes, Werth?

Werth: It's Friday the 13th and it's got me thinking about all the cursed movies out there.

Wise: I know, why doesn't Kate Hudson just disappear?

Werth: Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of unlucky films that seem to predict the deaths of their stars. 

Wise: You mean like the John Wayne starring bio-pic of Genghis Khan, The Conqueror, where a flash flood nearly drowned the entire crew and those that survived were all at risk for cancer because they filmed the picture downwind of a nuclear testing site?

Werth: Right. Because the fact that John Wayne and Susan Hayward were lifetime smokers had nothing to do with them dying from cancer. 
My favorite cursed movie is famous outside of its unluckiness. Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) can rightly be called iconic in its defining of the teen movie genre of the '50's. James Dean in his trademark red jacket spoke to an entire generation (and many after) of the teenage angst that roils beneath the surface of high schoolers who don't fit in to society's well-ordered cliques.

Wise: It was Bully for the '50's set.

Werth: Dean is Jim Stark, the new kid on the block who opens the film by being dragged into a police station drunk on Easter Night. Also waiting for their parents after being picked up by the fuzz for various infractions are Judy (Natalie Wood) and John (Sal Mineo). While their interaction in this first scene is limited, these three lives will connect to one another to become the core of the film, symbolizing a lost generation raised after the war in an American society that was obsessed with class and conflicted about the definitions of gender roles.

Wise: I would be conflicted, too, if my mom looked like Rosie the Riveter. 

Werth: Each of these young actors brings something unique to the screen. Wood is beautiful, sexy, and hurtinga daddy's girl whose daddy couldn't care less. Mineo is heartbreaking as the yearning young man whose gaze at John is impossible to be read as anything other than pure desire. 
It's surprising to see such an obvious depiction of gay love in a movie from this erabut since the love that dare not speak its name is never mentionedit evaded the Production Code and gives the film a tragic unrequited romance.

Wise: This kind of thing just doesn't happen on Gossip Girl.  

Werth: And, of course, there's Dean. Much has been made of Dean's acting and screen presence in the three films he starred in. His short life has given a prominence to his performances that while interesting, were probably more indicators of the actor he would become than fully-realized roles. Dean had an innate sensitivitya volatile energy that could explode in anger or charm. This restless quality, this uncertainty of how he would react was nurtured by his Method training and is fascinating to watch. But it is unrefined.  
With Dean, you can sometimes see the wheels turning. There are moments when he seems to emulate Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who, by '55, had already started the screen-acting revolution that Dean desperately wanted to be part of. But in watching Dean it is exciting to see a young actor on the verge of discovery, sadly a discovery that would never come to full fruition.

Wise: Here comes the cursed part.

Werth: All of Rebel's main cast passed away in an untimely manner. Dean was killed in a car accident during the production of Giant in 1955, Mineo was stabbed to death outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976, and Wood drowned near Santa Catalina Island in a still disputed case in 1981. Watching the movie is eerieseeing these three young actors discovering their talents and knowing that each would meet tragic ends. But with iconic scenes like the chicken run and the apocalyptic Griffith Observatory planetarium show, Rebel has much more to offer than mere macabre fascination. It is a smart critique of American society and family that resonates across time... and into a Paula Abdul video.

Wise: In The Crow, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancée Shelly are brutally beaten and murdered on the eve of their Halloween wedding, which also happens to be Devil's Night when all the Detroit-area gangs flood the streets to terrorize the inhabitants and incite widespread mayhem.

Werth: Beats t.p. and soaping windows.

Wise: A year later, a mysterious crow lands on Eric's grave and summons Eric from the dead.  Returning to the scene of the crime, Eric vows revenge on his murderers.  
Lucky for him, this blackbird resurrection has made him indestructible, and after donning a sleek black, crime-fighting ensemble and make-up patterned on his girlfriend's old porcelain harlequin mask—

Werth: Because nothing is scarier than looking like a French clown.  
Wise: He sets out to exact revenge with the help of Sarah, the guttersnipe neighbor girl with a junkie mom and a heart of gold, and Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), the cop who investigated the crime.  A savage vengeance ensues—including the blood-thirsty eye-gouging of Bai Ling, the sexy, lisping 90's grunge version of Fu Manchu—and only after Eric has dealt comeuppance to each of his foes is he able to return peacefully to the grave. 

Werth: Bai Ling makes me want to gouge out my eyes. 

Wise: The Crow is famous for the accidental death of its star from an accidental gunshot wound a week before filming completed, but the real curse of the film seems to be the long list of stars who have participated in the increasingly bleak and direct-to-video sequels: Kirsten Dunst, Edward Furlong, Tara Reid, David Boreanaz, Eric Mabius—

Werth: That is a long and lackluster list.

Wise: And I'm not even finished: Danny Trejo, Fred Ward and Dennis Hopper all lent their talents to descendents of The Crow.  Which kind of makes sense since the film was a success at the box office and with many critics, and seems to have been an important stop in the transformation of comic book-inspired movies from the candy-colored pop of the Richard Donner helmed Superman films to the grittier, more stylized fare that floods the multiplexes today.  

Werth: So, Wise, do you think you're brave enough to handle our own mini film festival of cursed movies? 

Wise: I'll only curse you if we're not back next week for more Film Gab.   

Friday, April 6, 2012

Peck 'n Bette Birthday Spectacular!

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Hello, Wise. I see you brought a belated Happy Birthday cake for Gregory Peck with you today.

Wise: No, I brought a belated Happy Birthday cake for Bette Davis.

Werth: What? Both of these celluloid big-wigs had birthdays yesterday? No way!

Wise: Apparently way. Good Queen Bette would have turned 104.

Werth: And Gorgeous Greg would have been 96. Ironic that they shared a birthday but never screentime in a movie.

Wise: Bette would have made a marvelous Boo Radley.

Werth: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is usually the first Peck movie that people think of, but he had a wonderfully long and prolific movie career. One of my favorites is the William Wyler romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953). Peck is American journalist Joe Bradley who lucks out on his way home from a poker game when he finds an unconscious runaway royal princess.

Wise: Happens in the West Village all the time.

Werth: Only this doped-up princess is played by then newcomer, Audrey Hepburn. Much ado has been made of Hepburn's first starring role, and boy does she deserve it. You can't take your eyes off her. Her effortless beauty and youthful maturity leap off the screen. It's hard to imagine this girl ever being anything except a hugely successful movie star.

Wise: She wouldn't be scrubbing the john with those cheekbones. 

Werth: With all the attention being given to Hepburn's bird-like, belted waist, you'd think her co-star would just fade into the Trevi Fountain, but not Peck. He had wanted to do a comedy to get away from all the heavy dramas, biblical epics and westerns he'd been doing, so he relished playing the handsome, free-wheeling Bradley. 
This slick, "knows all the angles" newsman attempts to trick this incognito, day-tripping princess into giving him a whopper of an interview without disclosing who he is—or that he knows who she is. He leads her all over Rome on a once-in-a-lifetime tour that has probably done more for Roman tourism than any other movie.

Wise: Except maybe for Gladiator.

Werth: Shot entirely on location (with some help from the legendary Cinecitta Studios) Roman Holiday is just that: a wonderful adventure through a 1950's Rome crowded with horses, bicycles, Vespas, and wildly gesticulating Italian "types."  Of course the two fall in love—but wisely, the ending avoids the fairy-tale possibilities by showing us that sometimes the most magical day in our life only lasts one day. 
With ten Oscars noms (including Wyler for Best Director and pre-Green Acres Eddie Albert for Best Supporting Actor) and three wins (Hepburn as Best Actress, Edith Head for Best Costume Design B&W, and blacklistee Dalton Trumbo hiding behind McLellan Hunter for Best Writing Motion Picture Story), Roman Holiday is a light laugh confection that makes you yearn to use some of those air miles for a nostalgic Italian getaway.  

Wise: Bette Davis leaves for an island getaway at the end of Jezebel (1938), but it's not for a romantic romp. 

Werth: Unless you consider a Yellow Fever colony romantic.  

Wise: Davis plays Julie Marsden, a strong-willed Southern belle who asserts her independence to the detriment of her engagement to stolid banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda).  
When she dons a flaming red gown instead of the white traditional to unmarried women at the annual Olympus ball, Preston breaks their engagement and she is shunned by New Orleans society.  After a year spent in seclusion, Julie learns that Preston has returned from a sojourn up North and she goes to him begging for forgiveness and to resume their engagement only to find that he has married another woman in the meantime.  
To further complicate matters, a Yellow Fever epidemic sweeps the city, sickening Preston and condemning him to an island where all the victims are quarantined.  His new wife Amy prepares to accompany him, but Julie begs to take her place on the grounds that only a Southerner could survive the horrors of the island and to prove that her love for Preston has transcended her selfishness. 

Werth: I don't know about you, but there are better ways to try and prove you're unselfish than subjecting yourself to deadly communicable diseases. Donate money to the Milk Fund or something.

Wise: Hollywood legend has it that Davis used Jezebel as a lengthy audition for David Selznick as he was casting Scarlett O'Hara, but whatever the truth to that claim, the film is much more than a pale copy of Gone with the Wind. Davis won her second Oscar for Best Actress and the film cemented her status as a top Hollywood star. 
Of course all the hallmarks of classic Davis performance are here—the unruly pride, a frankness about women's desire—but she also incorporates a vision of ennobling female sacrifice that transforms the character from run-of-the-mill to extraordinary.

Werth: Her Louisiana accent by way of Boston is extraordinary.

Wise: Helping her along is William Wyler's evocative direction, Max Steiner's moving score, and Ernest Haller's alternately tender and terrifying cinematography.  But perhaps the biggest assist comes from costume designer Orry-Kelly who created not only the infamous red dress as well as its obverse, the dimity lace number she was supposed to wear, but also the self-abnegating gray cloak she wears at the end of the film that obliterates her vanity and asserts her sacrifice. So, Werth, whose cake should we slice into first?

Werth: Any way you slice it, we'll be back for next week's Film Gab. 

Wise: No, seriously. I want to eat both cakes.