Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Gabs Are Here Again

Werth: Hey, Wise, can you spare a dime?  

Wise: Oh, gee, Werth, I don't typically carry change.  It's a plastic society, you know.  

Werth: Save your explanations, Wise.  I was referring to the anthem of the Great Depression with lyrics by the great E. Y. Harburg.  With Lawless opening this Friday, I've been nostalgic for the Hollywood classics made in the decade after the 1929 stock market crash. Americans struggled with wild unemployment, severely reduced incomes and homelessness and longed for an escape from the world of Hoovervilles and soup kitchens. 
One of the easiest places for people to go to forget about their troubles, was their local movie theater. Everyday stories of fearless heroes and glamorous heroines unspooled for an audience hungry for distractionall for the price of one quarter. 

Wise: The Gay Divorcee (1934) eschews the realities of the Great Depression almost entirely and instead presents a romanticized version of life among the jet set.  After being abandoned by her geologist husband, Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) heads to England where she seeks the advice of her serially married aunt on how best to obtain a divorce.  Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) calls upon her bumbling lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (the ever delightful Edward Everett Horton) who schemes to have Mimi caught in a staged affair, only to have the plan go awry when Mimi mistakes besotted dance man Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) for the gigolo.
After a series of mistaken identities, sudden reversals and transcendent dance numbers, the missing geologist is revealed to be a cad and Mimi can guiltlessly dissolve that failed marriage and embark on a happier union with Guy.  

Werth: I think all divorce proceedings should require a tap number. 

Wise: Of course the plot is littered with roadblocks just to allow the audience the pleasure of witnessing Mimi and Guy fall in love.  Mimi's reluctance and Guy's persistence is beautifully realized in their duet to Cole Porter's "Night and Day."
Choreographed by Astaire and longtime collaborator Hermes Pan, the number exemplifies what made Depression-era audiences clamor for the Astaire/Rogers dance team: his elegance and crack precision; her insight that acting while dancing was just as important as during the dramatic bits.  It's a seduction as poetic as it is erotic, leaving both Mimi and the audience shuddering with pleasure.  

Werth: Shuddering with pleasure. Sounds like a shaky Newport cigarette ad.

Wise: Perhaps the most delightful, non-Astaire/Rogers number in the film is Betty Grable's flirtation in song "Let's Knock Knees."  In pursuit of Horton's prissy Egbert, she leads the chorus of beach goers in a spirited novelty dance that showcases both her tap dancing chops and Horton's finely honed comic persona.  In real life, it would be a ridiculous pairing, but in the fantasy world of the silver screen, it somehow makes sense that a dithering, old-maidish man would fall for a teenage, platinum blonde hoofer.  

Werth: Happens in Hollywood real life. Just ask Kelsey Grammer.

Wise: But that's all part of why these Hollywood fantasies work: an ordinary-looking fellow like Fred Astaire could have an extraordinary talent that elevates him to a world just beyond the grasp of the everyday, transporting audiences away from their cares and toward a glittering Art Deco place in the imagination. 

Werth: From the opening number of Gold Diggers of 1933, you'd think director Mervyn LeRoy was also shooting for some cinematic escapism from the troubles of the breadline. Ginger Rogers (boy, that girl got around), all fresh-faced and spunky sings "We're in the Money" while a bevy of finely coiffed chorus girls dance around her holding giant coins in skimpy Orry-Kelly costumes blinged out with enough change to excite all of New York's panhandlers. But the number is rudely interrupted by a group of policemen who close down the rehearsal and the show because the producer can't pay his bills.

Wise: Could that please happen to The Client List?  

Werth: Ginger is out on the street, and her palsCarol (Joan Blondell who would have celebrated her 106th birthday this week), Trixie (Fanny Brice wannabe Aline MacMahon), and Polly (Ruby Keeler)are all worried where their next dollar is going to come from as they share one dress and steal milk from across the breezeway for breakfast. But this is a musical, so of course they can't wind up hooking it on the corner or living in a Hooverville. Cigar-chomping producer Barney (Ned Sparks) has an idea for a show and all he needs is the money to put it up. 
Luck would have it that the next door neighbor, Brad (gooey-toned Dick Powell), is a wildly talented composer who also happens to be a secret blue-blood to boot. So the money appears, everyone gets a part in the show

 Wise: and they all live happily ever after.

Werth: After the requisite mistaken identities, romantic hijinx, Guy Kibbee mugging and lavish, kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance numbers, yes. But along the way, the poor showgirls get the upper hand on the upper crust, and the finale, "Remember My Forgotten Man" gives the audience a touching reminder of the real world that escapist fantasies like Gold Diggers were trying to help them escape from.

Wise: I guess with fantasies about superheroes, plucky archers and foul-mouthed teddy bears, Hollywood is still using escapist fare to help us forget our current financial woes.

Werth: As long as they don't help our readers forget next week's Film Gab. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Baby Gab

Today's Wall Street Journal features a story about an upcoming documentary on the life and career of nearly forgotten silent film star Baby Peggy. The doc, titled Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, premieres in New York next week at MOMA and is accompanied by a discussion with the film's director Vera Iwerebor and the 93-year-old eponymous star.  From the WSJ:

"I was probably one of the 20 top stars [of that era]," says Southern California resident Diana Serra Cary, 93, who, as "Baby Peggy" Montgomery, made some 50 two-reeler comedies and six feature-length movies before her 7th birthday. "I started out at $75 a week when I was 20 months old. At the end of six months . . . the studio upped me to $150 a week. . . . At 5 years old, I was making a million dollars a picture."
This being a Hollywood story, tragedy eventually strikes, and Peggy, after losing two fortunes and her career is forgotten once the sound era sets in and must struggle for even bit parts as an extra.  But for every tragic second act, there is a triumphant final reel, and this doc promises to return the luster to Peggy's long-eclipsed star. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Funny Ladies

Wise: Hello, Werth!

Werth: Hello, Wise.

Wise: I see you've donned a fright wig.

Werth: I thought it was the least I could do to honor the passing of film and television comedienne Phyllis Diller.

Wise: Just don't start calling me "Fang."

Werth: Diller wasn't really that big a movie star, but she definitely gave women a presence in the comedy culutre that helped those who came after her become silver-screen laugh queens.
Goldie Hawn could have been just another pretty face, but in 1968 she proved on TV's Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In that she could take the dumb blonde routine to a new level.

Wise: It takes a special talent to round up belly laughs with just a giggle and a bikini. 

Werth: While still performing on Laugh-In, Hawn jumped into the movie pool and almost immediately won an Oscar for her role in Cactus Flower (1969). That success was followed by second-billing in There's a Girl in My Soup (1969) and $ (1970) until 1972 when she became the top-billed actress in hits like Butterflies Are Free and The Sugarland Express (1974).
After playing second-fiddle to stars like Warren Beatty (Shampoo (1975)) and George Segal (The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)), Hawn would return to the first position in 1978 with the mega-hit comedy/thriller Foul Play.

Wise: Not to mention Overboard (1987). 

Werth: Foul Play is basically a romatic comedy homage to mystery-thrillers with some obvious tips of the cap to Hitchcock classics Vertigo, Dial M for Murder and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hawn plays divorced librarian Gloria Mundy who decides to try and be more outgoing by picking up a hitchhiker on her drive back to her home in San Francisco.

Wise: I know picking up total strangers always makes me loosen up.

Werth: Unfortunately this hitchhiker winds up being murdered, tossing Gloria into an intrigue-filled plot to assassinate the Pope involving a man with a scarred face, a scary albino named Whitey, and a hitman known as "The Dwarf."

Wise: I assume he busts kneecaps.

Werth: Gloria's knight in corduroy armor is disgraced detective Tony Carlson (the almost lecherous Chevy Chase), who seems to be spending more time wooing Gloria than figuring out how to stop the assassination.
And rounding out this randy cast is Dudley Moore in his breakthrough American performance as diminutive perv, Stanley Tibbets. The film isn't as whacky as a Marx Brothers movie nor as action-filled as a Lethal Weapon. Underscored by a sappy Barry Manilow tune, Foul Play takes a really comfortable middle-of-the-road route bewteen comedy and thrills and creates a satisfying, but not altogether transcendant experience.
Its charm emanates from its lead, with Hawn taking her dumb blonde act to more palatable levels by putting her in situations where she's not dumbshe or the person she's talking to just doesn't know what the other person is talking about.
It leads to a comedy of misunderstandings that allows for such fun moments as a Burgess Meredith vs. Rachel Roberts karate fight and a multi-car race across San Francisco. All-in-all Foul Play isn't foul at all, playing coy at a time when having an old lady use the F-word in a Scrabble game was risqué comedy.

Wise: Comediennes don't have to be dumb blondes to be successful at comedy.  In fact, being a fast-talking, savvy brunette can also lead to big laughs.  Rosalind Russell hit it big in screwball hits like His Girl Friday (1940) and The Feminine Touch (1941), but it is her performance in Auntie Mame (1958) that has become perhaps her most iconic comedic performance.

Werth: I know you weren't going to continue without mentioning her side-splitting turn in 1939's The Women. 

Wise: Of course not. Based on the novel by Patrick Dennis (actually a fictionalized memoir of author Edward Everett Tanner III's nom de plume), Auntie Mame presents the life of orphaned, ten-year-old Patrick once he goes to live with his bohemian aunt Mame Dennis (Russell).  
Mame's outsize personality transforms the sober little boy, and eventually comes to the rescue when Patrick's Ivy League education threatens to pair him up with a shallow, social climbing bride (Joanna Barnes deploying a really top drawer Locust Valley lockjaw).  

Werth: One of my favorite scenes is when Mame gives the Upsons the what for.

Wise: Surrounded by a cadre of eccentrics—Broadway doyenne and heroic tippler Vera Charles (Coral Browne); lecherous Irish poet Brian O'Bannion (Robin Hughes); Texas oilman Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker)—Russell holds her own.  Having originated the role on Broadway, Russell's performance has an appropriate theatricality about it, but her background in film informs the quieter moments when the camera lingers in closeup.  
At its heart, this is a film about finding love, and the tenderness that Russell exhibits when she realizes how much Patrick means to her anchors the film's oddball delights.

Werth: Not to mention the eye-popping array of gowns created by Orry-Kelly.

Wise: While Russell is the chief pleasure of Auntie Mame, the film is crowded with hilarious turns by gifted actresses.  Coral Browne's Vera has all the grande dame-ness of Bette Davis in All About Eve, but leavens the part with her penchant for booze.  Lee Patrick's daft society matron reveals how dangerously close the suburban set is to bigotry.  
But perhaps best of all is Peggy Cass as Mame's secretary Agnes Gooch.  The socially awkward frump was already something of a cliché by the time Auntie Mame hit theaters, but Cass not only takes the requisite glasses, dumpy cardigan, and sensible shoes to their stereotypical heights, she also gets her very own bombshell moment when she follows Mame's exhortation to "Live! Live! Live!"

Werth: Sounds like all these funny ladies followed that good advice.

Wise: As long as we all follow the laughs to next week's Film Gab.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

They're Baaaack!

Werth: One, two, three, four, five—

Wise: Are you practicing for your advanced math classes, Werth?

Werth: No, I'm counting the number of out-of-work action stars who are making a comeback in The Expendables 2.

Wise: You'll need an abacus for that.

Werth: While I'm not a huge fan of the mindless action genre, I think it's great that actors like Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger can put their golf clubs down and show up for hair and makeup.

Wise: The ones who still have hair.

Werth: That kind of comeback reminds me of my favorite star resurgence flick, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

Wise: Speaking of wigs and makeup.

Werth: When Robert Aldrich started pitching his cinematic take on Henry Farrell's novel, the studios were not biting. Not helping matters was the fact that the two stars of the film were stars in memory only. Neither Joan Crawford nor Bette Davis had much caché left at the box office after glorious careers as marquee headliners.
These famous leading ladies had been relegated to playing old baglady mothers (Davis as Apple Annie in Pocketful of Miracles (1961)) and ball-breaking bitch bosses (Crawford as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (1959)). But after slashing the budget, Aldrich was able to convince Jack Warner to distribute the film, even if, as Warner was accused of saying, "I wouldn't give a plugged nickel for those two old broads."

Wise: I guess he was busy plugging other broads.

Werth: Baby Jane opens in 1917 in a vaudeville hall where the "Diminutive Dancing Duse from Duluth," Baby Jane Hudson (a sickeningly perky Julie Allred), taps and sings her way through her juvenile number, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." An offstage tantrum reveals a rift between her and her older, un-famous sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie).
Fast forward to a screening room in 1935 where studio execs are screening the grown-up Jane in her latest flop (the footage is actually of Davis from 1933's Parachute Jumper) and wondering why they have to work with this hopeless has-been. The reason? Her hugely successful, movie star sister Blanche's contract requires that Jane get work too.

Wise: The drab older sister also rises.

Werth: But those tables turn again as a cinematically edited accident leaves us with the idea that the spoiled Jane has run over her sister with a car. The film then jumps again in time to the early 1960's where we find Blanche (Crawford) regally sitting in her wheelchair watching one of her old movies on TV (real footage from her hit Sadie McKee (1934)). Jane (Davis) tromps into the room looking like Mrs. Haversham after a mime class and the bitch-fest begins.
The great fun of this movie has always, and will always be the amazing chemistry between these two actresses. The sparks don't fly, they explode as Jane abuses Blanche and Blanche struggles to survive. Much was made in the press of how much Crawford and Davis hated each other, and perhaps that PR agent creation has colored our modern viewing of the film.
No one would be silly enough to say that these two titans of the silver screen liked each other, but by most reputable accounts they were nothing but professional on set. So that leaves us with two amazing actresses who were able to not only create unique opposing characters, but a complicated and emotionally engaging screen relationship with each other.

Wise: Which can't be said for those limp dishrags from Twilight.

Werth: Baby Jane is fascinating in that not only do we see a conflict between Davis/Jane and Crawford/Blanche, but Aldrich also seems torn between worshipping these old movie stars and degrading them. On the one hand we know their mythic reputations and get glimpses of their old work, but on the other, Davis transforms into a painful-to-look-at pyschotic harridan and Crawford is physically brutalized.
While neither actress came out of this movie "looking" good, Davis was nominated for an Oscar and both stars had a resurgence in their careers—even if it was made up of more horror schlock like Davis' Dead Ringer (1964) and The Nanny (1965) and Crawford's dalliances with William Castle in Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965). Still, Baby Jane was a wonderful opportunity to remind the world that these two stars still had plenty of shine in them.

Wise: Even stars who haven't been eclipsed by the next generation sometimes need a career re-invention.  After two decades of being America's TV sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore left behind the quirky world of sitcoms for Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People (1980).  In it, she plays Beth Jarrett, a perfect suburban mother gone brittle and cold after the death of one son and the suicide attempt of the other.

Werth: That is definitely not a plotline for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Wise: Based on the novel by Judith Guest, the film focuses on Beth's depressed son Conrad (Oscar-winning Timothy Hutton) and his attempts to return to normalcy despite the guilt he feels for not being able to save his brother in a boating accident.  Helping him along the way is psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch gently stepping away from his smarmier Taxi persona) and his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) who nobly, although fruitlessly, attempts to reconcile mother and son.

Werth: He should have just called in Lou Grant to take care of it.

Wise: Moore is terrifying in the role.  After years of playing appealing gals with spunk, she makes Beth utterly unapproachable—all jutting elbows, strained throat, pursed lips.  But unlike a lot of other actors' attempts at image reboots, Moore's past success actually enhances her work here. 
The warmth of her sitcom performaces throws her portrayal of Beth into greater relief, allowing her to make Beth colder and more vicious than just about any other actor could.  The audience longs for—along with her damaged, hurting son—the warmth of the person beneath this icy façade.

Werth: Icy façade or plastic surgery?

Wise: Redford's direction, aside from displaying great sensitivity to the subject, is very clever about the way he uses his actors.  After all, he was in the midst of transforming himself  from matinee idol to auteur, and cannily plays with audience expectations. 
Among other things, Ordinary People is about a golden boy who doesn't survive, and the scrappier, more emotionally messy sibling who does.  Redford uses that model for himself and his actors—especially Moore—escaping the gilded perfections of the past for a more complicated vision of the present.

Werth: Well faithful readers, make sure your complicated vision is focused on next week's Film Gab!

Friday, August 10, 2012

American Gabsters

Wise: Hi there, Werth!

Werth: Hi there, Wise!  I see you're chipper today.

Wise: Because BAM's American Gagster Festival is running now through September 17th.  It's a series of fifty classic comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the 1980's and celebrates some of the most hilarious actor/director partnerships in cinema history. 

Werth: I'm assuming that Adam Sandler is not represented.

Wise: Unfortunately not, but the festival kicks off with the detective comedy classic The Thin Man (1934).  Adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, the film adds a madcap gloss to the book's gumshoe aesthetic.  William Powell and Myran Loy play Nick and Nora Charles—he a retired, tippling detective and she a glamorous heiress—who get pulled into the case of missing inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) whose mistress turns up dead.  

Werth: Because nothing is funnier than a dimestore blonde with a bullet in her back.

Wise: The film is a strange—but delightful—hybrid of film noir and screwball comedy, filled with street toughs lurking in shadows, loud-mouthed dames, but leavened by the amazing chemistry between Powell and Loy.  Powell's performance as cocktail guzzling Nick is loaded with charm as he nimbly displays a sparkling verbal acuity as well as a liver that just won't quit.

Werth: How he shoots balloons off a Christmas tree after five martinis I'll never know. 

Wise: But just as spectacular is Loy's effervescent performance as Nora.  Taking what could have been yet another dithering society girl, Loy gives Nora beauty and brains and shows she knows how to use both.  
Her devotion to Nick makes him sexy, and just as Ginger Rogers brought out Fred Astaire's carnality, Loy makes a funny-looking man with an odd talent into an object of desire.
Werth: She should have been paired up with Peter Lorre.

Wise: Of course, I have to mention the other great performance in the film: Skippy as the Charles' wire-haired fox terrier Asta.  Instead of remaining a canine accessory, Asta ferrets out both clues and comic relief, plus sparked a nationwide frenzy for the breed.  Director W.S. Van Dyke gives Asta some of the best screen moments, which actually seems to point to Van Dyke's strength as a director.  
Known around the MGM lot as "one take Woody," he shot The Thin Man in about fourteen days, and while he dispenses with some of the visual flourishes that might have marked him an auteur, his strategy seems to have been laying a solid groundwork, then getting out of the way while his on-screen talent made fireworks of their own.

 Werth: I think I'll go to BAM to take in one of my favorite laugh-fests, Preston Sturges' classic, Sullivan's Travels (1941).

Wise: You mentioned that flick once before in our posting about silver screen racism.

Werth: I did, because one particular scene does smack of racist stereotypes, but interestingly enough as the movie progresses, Sturges seems to comment on these sterotypes as he explores the difference and interdependence between comedy and drama.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of frothy comedies like Ants in Your Plants and Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. But he has tired of making the world laugh and wants to instead address the serious issues of poverty and homelessness in America in a new film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Wise: Talk about being stuck in development until George Clooney and the Coen brothers took it on. 

Werth: But after an argument with his producers, Sullivan realizes that he doesn't have any idea what it means to be poor or in trouble. So he decides to dress in the era's hobo-chic and ride the rails to connect with the common man. Sullivan's producers balk at the idea of their big money-making vehicle driving off the road, so they have him followed by a crew of keepers, doctors and reporters in a "land-yacht."
In the midst of trying to shake this stellar group of character actors (including Sturges favorite William Demarest), Sullivan meets a failed starlet (ethereal and pregnant at the time Veronica Lake) who joins in on his adventure to help him experience life on the wrong side of the tracks. The film has all the Sturges comedy hallmarks of pratfalls, bullet-fast dialogue and complex physical comedy scenes—like when the inside of the land-yacht turns into a funhouse as the bus drives off-road chasing Sullivan in a nitrus-powered kiddie car.

Wise: I guess Lucy's pratfalls in The Long, Long Trailer (1953) weren't so original.

Werth: But mid-way, the film takes a fascinating turn. As Sullivan and his partner walk into trainyards, shanty-towns, and soup kitchens, Sturges shows an assemblage of disturbingly real facesworn, grizzled, forgotten, White, Black, and Brown. As Sullivan is shanghaied, mistaken for dead and put on a Southern chaingang, the movie leaves the realm of comedy entirely, making us realize that maybe the tumbles into swimming pools, wisecracks and flying cake batter aren't so important. But to Sturges, they are.
The legendary scene of the prisoners watching a Mickey and Pluto cartoon in a Black church is a touching (albeit obvious) depiction of the power of comedy to elevate our spirits, if only for a moment. The film asserts that comedy lifts humanity out of the troubles of life and that it's better to go to a movie to laugh than to cry. But it's not that simple.
Sturges uses drama in Sullivan's Travels to help us arrive at his theme of comedy conquers all, making drama and comedy an inseparable yin and yang of the Hollywood movie and our lives.

Wise: Which reminds me of another inseparable pairing: Film Gab and Next Week.  

Werth: Hilarious! And don't forget to catch a little comedy genius at BAM.