Friday, January 25, 2013

A Gab of Thousands

Werth: What's up, Wise?  

Wise: Ugh, I'm having a weird craving for smorgasbord.  Kind of like the place near my parents where busloads of seniors come to feast on a mile-long buffet of food.  And afterward maybe I could catch a showing of Movie 43 because sometimes the only thing that will satisfy is an overflowing serving of mixed delights. 

Werth: According to early reviews, you might not want to mix food and Movie 43. Might I suggest you curb your hunger pangs with our own festival of ensemble films?  

Wise: Will there be an all-you-can-eat sundae bar included?  

Werth: I'm afraid you'll have to bring your own frozen treat.

Wise: Well, I suppose I could do worse than Lucille Bremer's chilly mug in one of the greatest line-ups of MGM stars ever assembled: Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

Werth: Ann Miller lovingly dubbed Bremer, "Arthur Freed's whore." 

Wise: But she was at the apex of her professional life in Ziegfeld.  Paired with Fred Astaire in two elaborate musical numbers, she joined a cast that included some of the studio's best song and dance talent, including Gene Kelly, Astaire, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse and Lena Horne.  
The film also included some of the studio's top comedy stars with the likes of Lucille Ball, Fanny Brice and Red Skelton dishing out the laughs.  William Powell reprises his role as the titular Broadway impresario from The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and envisions casting one of his legendary revues with the top stars of the day.  

Werth: A white-haired Powell replaced the original opening which included puppets doing blackface and a talking Leo the Lion.

Wise: Fred Astaire opens with "Here's to the Girls," a confection of song and dance that includes a carousel of live horses, the requisite Ziegfeld girls bedecked in frothy layers of pink tulle, and a ballet solo by Charisse.  Later, Ball emerges from the chorus and takes up a sequined whip to tame a pack of black-spangled dancers in puma costumes.  

Werth: It's nice to see they used a little restraint in the first number.

Wise: Producer Arthur Freed had spent years assembling a team of top talent at MGM, and his production unit had proven itself with hits like Babes on Broadway (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); Follies capitalized on that success and predicted two decades of the most sophisticated and popular movie musicals ever made.  
And at the center of the Follies is a Judy Garland number titled "A Great Lady has an Interview" where she parodies a certain type of self-serious, Oscar-winning actress (think Greer Garson) who would much rather play a Betty Grable role.  The segment was directed by Vincent Minnelli, choreographed by Charles Walters, written by Kay Thompson, and epitomizes the kind of smart, yet exhilarating, movie entertainments that came from Freed's wildly talented collaborators on both sides of the camera.
Werth: Another film that seems to have just about everyone in Hollywood in it is Stanley Kramer's 1963 epic comedy, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. After a group of travelers survive a car smash-up on a Southern California highway, they witness the last words of crook Smiler Grogan (played with bucket-kickin' glee by Jimmy Durante), detailing the whereabouts of a stash of hot loot. 
Soon, it's every funny man and funny lady for themselves as they take cars, planes and even a little girl's bicycle to find the mysterious "big W" in Santa Rosita State Park.

Wise: I'm usually watching out for bears when I'm outdoors. 

Werth: Following these cash hounds is Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy), who is hoping to end his career on a high note by finding the stolen simoleans. Mad World is truly madcap with several storylines breaking off and coming back together, then breaking off again before the big finish (three hours after it began) at a Long Beach hotel that is about to be demolished. 
If it sounds exhausting, it is, but it is worth it to have fun with some of the great comedic talents of the era. Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Terry Thomas, Ethel Merman, Phil Sivers, Dick Shawn, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Peter Falk and that pint-sized ham Mickey Rooney trip, slap, insult and swindle their way across gorgeous Southern California. 
And if that's not enough talent for you, the cameos include everyone from Jack Benny to the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, Joe E. Brown and Wise favorite, Edward Everett Horton.

Wise: I cribbed all my best comedy bits from him and Laura Hope Crews

Werth: Mad World was a runaway smash and if it doesn't still hit all of its comedic marks today, it gives us some great nostalgia amongst the images of Mickey Rooney trying to fly a plane and Ethel slipping on a banana peel.

Wise: Speaking of bananas I'm ready to eat.

Werth: Strap on your feedbag and join us next week for another heaping helping of Film Gab!

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