Friday, March 29, 2013

Film Gab Birthday Duo!

Wise: Werth, I see you have two cakes prepared again. Is it another double birthday or are you binging?

Werth: I'm binging on birthdays because today is the birthday of not one, but two great character actors, Eileen Heckart and Arthur O'Connell.

Wise: They not only shared a birthday but they also shared the Broadway stage in the premiere of William Inge's Picnic in 1953 and the silver screen in 1956's Bus Stop.

Werth: Eileen was the younger of the two Oscar-nominated actors, greeting the world as Anna Eileen Herbet in Columbus, OH. Eileen graduated from Ohio State and while her husband was away at war, she moved to NYC to pursue a stage career. She would go on to become a Tony-nominated fixture on the Great White Way and found her way into the fledgling television biz performing stage properites on classic shows like The Ford Theatre Hour and Lux Video Theatre. Her road to Hollywood was a little rougher, as her looks didn't easily translate to the screen. But in 1956 she was in fourcount 'em fourfilms and earned her first Oscar nomination for the camp classic, The Bad Seed
One of those films was also a big starting vehicle for a then fairly unknown actor named Paul Newman. Somebody Up There Likes Me is the film adaptation of boxer Rocky Graziano's autobiography and follows the young Rocky from boyhood no-goodnik, to adult no-goodnik, to boxing champion.

Wise: But not up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, I assume.
Werth: Filmed by director Robert Wise in black-and-white, the film maintains a gritty, noir-ish look at poverty-stricken New York and Brooklyn and at the shady world of prize-fighting. Newman is a wonder to behold, his classic good looks busted into broken noses and swollen eyes care of makeup artist William Tuttle. 
But Newman proves he's not just a man to drool over. He gives Rocky a torn characterization that gives him more humanity than a simple punching bag. Newman's Rocky is dumb and lazy but resourceful and driven, a callous thug and a tender father. The NY accent hinders Newman's innate naturalness on screen, but his role in Somebody clearly shows a star was born.

Wise: That and his boxing trunks.
Werth: And only six years Newman's senior, Heckart plays Rocky's mother, Ma Barbella, a guilt-ridden mother who only wants the best for her soneven when he doesn't deserve it. Heckart was wonderful at playing flawed survivors. 
As Ma, she lives with the guilt of knowing that her husband's abusive, downward spiral into the shit-heel we see is all because she begged him to stop boxing, killing his dream at the expense of her desire not to see his mug get beat-up all the time. Wrapped in a shawl watching Rocky get the crap knocked out of him on television, Ma has to re-face the consequences of the sweet science. 

Wise:I bet Newman's agent was doing the same thing. 

Werth: While the fight scenes are not as realistic as a post-Rocky and Raging Bull audience might be used to, the black-and-white photography of the fight scenes brings the ring into stark-reality, the audience encircling it thrown into darkness as they watch two men punching their way to what they hope will be a better life. Cinematopgrapher Joseph Ruttenberg earned an Oscar for his work on the film.  
Heckart would join the Oscar Winner's Circle in 1972 when she won for the role she created on stage in Butterflies Are Free, before going on to a busy career in television playing everything from Mary's aunt on the Mary Tyler Moore Show to playing Ellen's Grandma on Ellen

Wise: Arthur O'Connell had a similarly varied career, making his big break as a reporter in the final moments of Citizen Kane (1941) before earning an Oscar nom for Picnic (1955), sharing screen time with James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1956), and playing a friendly pharmacist in a series of ads for Crest.  This versatility came in handy when he joined the cast of Frank Capra's Pocket Full of Miracles (1961) in a small but pivotal role.  
The film, a remake of Capra's own Lady for a Day (1933), features a deep bench of some of Hollywood's great character actors.  

Werth: And Ann-Margret playing Ann-Margret.

Wise: The film stars Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude, a superstitious gangster on the make who refuses to seal a deal without first buying a rosy-cheeked fruit from Apple Annie (a bedraggled Bette Davis).  
When he discovers that Annie has a secret daughter whom she's been supporting in a Spanish boarding school and who now wants to finally meet her mother, Dave and his girlfriend Queenie (Hope Lange) clean Annie up, install her in a swank apartment, and assemble a cast of underground toughs to pose as her society friends.  

Werth: There should be a reality show based on this.

Wise: O'Connell plays Count Alfonso Romero, the potential father-in-law to Annie's daughter, and the role calls for a very nuanced takestern enough to put the ruse at risk, but tender enough to make audiences root for the romance to succeed—and O'Connell succeeds brilliantly.  Davis has a lot of fun in the first half of the film playing a drunk guttersnipe with a heart of gold, and later, after she's had a makeover and the script calls for little more than smiling beatifically, she still radiates the passion of a mother who would do anything for her child. 
Peter Falk has a few great lines (and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination) as Dave's sidekick Joy Boy.  But it's veteran scene-stealer and Film Gab favorite Edward Everett Horton who seems to 
be having the best time onscreen, making sly nods to the audience while taking full advantage of all the plum bits that Capra and his screenwriters were feeding him.  
Even amidst this wealth of talent, O'Connell shines, bringing dignity and humor to a role that anchors the madcap shenanigans around him.

Werth: So, Wise, are you ready to dig into this cake?  

 Wise: I'll take two pieces.  One for now and one for next week's Film Gab.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Happy 100 Lew!

Wise: Welcome back, Werth!

Werth: Good to be back, Wise. I see you held down the fort with your in-depth review of the new Oz flick.

Wise: It had everything except Mila Kunis' viral BBC Radio interview.

Werth: Now that I'm back, I thought we could wish a happy 100th birthday to Hollywood agent icon Lew Wasserman.

Wise: He repped a Film Gab's who's who of stars: Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Gregory Peck, Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly

Werth: Wasserman became just as famous as many of his clients when, in the 1950's as head of MCA, he helped change the film industry through the practice of film packaging where Wasserman would gather a roster of talent across the spectrum of film specialties (actors, directors, writers, production designers, costumers, you name it!) and then pitch them out on projects as a whole. Not only did this make certain that MCA made a lot of money, but it also kept production teams together, ensuring that these hit-making artisans worked on more than one movie together. 
Wasserman's relationship with Alfred Hitchcock is a perfect example. With MCA since the early Fifties, Hitchcock had become a household commodity through his television show and hit movies, but in 1959, with Wasserman's help, he would make one of his most iconic and popular films, North by Northwest.

Wise: Spy capers were a lot more thrilling in the days before Google Maps.

Werth: From the Saul Bass opening with vivid animation and Bernard Herrmann's sprinting score, North by Northwest flies (pun intended.) Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, a bachelor advertising exec who accidentally interrupts a page at the Oak Room in the old Plaza Hotel who is calling for George Kaplan. This one quirk of fate sets into motion a cross-country, mistaken identity, cat-and-mouse game between Thornhill and criminal mastermind Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). 
It's a literal planes, trains and automobiles adventure as Thornhill attempts to find the elusive George Kaplan and clear his name before Vandamm or his nefarious "secretary" Leonard (performed with gay, jilted-lover relish by Martin Landau) snuff him out.

Wise: Fey henchmen love to snuff. 

Werth: While riding the Twentieth Century train to Chicago, Thornhill winds up bunking with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a cold, mysterious Hitchcock blond if there ever was one. The chemistry between Grant and Marie Saint nearly burns the celluloid. 
Their dinner scene on the train and subsequent makeout session is one of the sexiest bits in classic film that just barely goes under the censors' radars. It's that type of energy that whisks this film through its twists and turns with only small moments to stop and catch our breath and appreciate Grant's Foster Brooks imitation.

Wise: That makes me thirsty for a bourbon, a sports car and a cap gun.
Werth: Hitchcock puts the Vistavision film format to its most spectacular use, creating horizons and heights that fill the widescreen with a desolate Indiana cornfield and the top of Mount Rushmore. 
The post-Vertigo use of technicolor is a shade less overt, but still the siennas, salmon pinks, blue greens, and reds punctuate settings and costumes, earning the film a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination. Many of the sets start off as real exterior shots, but the cornfield, Mount Rushmore, and the U.N. all become meticulously crafted sets or dreamy matte paintings under Hitchcock's direction. 
At the beginning of the film Thornhill says in advertising, "there is no such thing as a lie." In a Hitchock film, everything, from the blonde to the Vandamm house set on top of Mount Rushmore is one thrilling, cinematic lie.
Wise: There may not be quite so many lies in The Band Wagon (1953), but it does involve some fancy footwork from another of Wasserman's clients, Fred Astaire.  Considered by many as one of the best musicals from old Hollywood, The Band Wagon casts Astaire as fading movie star Tony Hunter who absconds to New York where he hopes to revive his film career by starring in a Broadway show written by his old pals Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray).  Hoping to make a sensation, the trio convinces Broadway wunderkind Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the show; instead he transforms the Martons's madcap musical into a grim update of Faust.  

Werth:  I know when I think of Faust, I think of tap numbers.

Wise: Buchanan's one brilliant coup is casting ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead despite the reservations of her manager/boyfriend Paul Byrd (Thomas Mitchell).  Beyond that, his grandiose ideas prove to be a flop, and the highly anticipated tryout in New Haven bombs so badly that all the financial backers flee the production.   To save the show, Tony sells his art collection to fund an overhaul and ends up with both a Broadway smash and the girl.  

Werth: The art market was very good in 1953. 

Wise: Screenwriting team Betty Comden and Adolph Green have obvious fun spoofing their own reputations—Fabray and Levant brilliantly capture the team's sophistication and its neuroses—as well as director Vincente Minnelli in the over-the-top campiness of Buchanan.  
Of course Minnelli brings his own signature use of color and deft camera moves to the mix, although he wisely allows Astaire's genius to take center stage.  The sparks never really fly between 

Astaire and Charisse, nevertheless Astaire's dancing is impossibly romantic whether with a shoeshine man (Leroy Daniels) in a Times Square penny arcade or with Charisse in a soundstage version of Central Park that's almost better than the real thing.  

Werth: It's all thanks to the late, great Lew Wassermanwho was better at picking movies than he was at picking eyewear.

Wise: Check back with Film Gab next week for more of our favorite picks.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Since Werth is busy applying his massive brain to the academic world and left me alone in Film Gab Labs this week, I thought I'd switch things up and step away from our usual fare of classic, cult, and outright cuckoo films to say a few things about a movie that's just opened in theaters: Oz The Great and Powerful.  

Loyal Gabbers already know that my favorite film is MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939), and many suspect from the few hints I've dropped how much I've been looking forward to the new film from Disney.  But primarily I'm a fan of L. Frank Baum's books, and while the MGM film captures something of the exhilaration and the sentiment of Baum's magical world, it never approaches his weirdness.  Because the Oz books are odd, filled with boys who turn out to be enchanted princesses, magical ducks, lonely eccentrics, punning utensils, invisible bears, and an entire race of people who keeps their brains canned and in their pockets.  
Sam Raimi, the director of the new film, has a history of bringing wonderfully strange things to the screen: his Evil Dead trilogy is both bloodthirsty and hilarious; his Spiderman flicks (at least the first two) revel in portraying an outsider suddenly gaining superhuman, albeit somewhat sticky, powers.  Introducing the filmmakerwho made severed limbs comicto the writerwho dramatized the Tin Woodman's conversation with his own discarded flesh noggin—seemed inspired.  

But the new film is almost unbearably square.  Sure, there are a couple 3-D tricks that makes audiences jump, some beautifully designed effects, even the gorgeous black-and-white opening scenes filmed in the pre-Cinemascope Academy ratio, but presenting a "re-imagining" of a much more beloved fantasy that once again reveals a scintillating villain as simply a Lonelyheart badly in need of a hug is absurd.  The Grinch is wicked not because of some schoolyard crush gone wrong, but because he's a Grinch.  Willy Wonka didn't become a magical candymaker because of bad orthodonture.  And Darth Vader didn't become the most terrifying figure in both the Old Republic and the Empire in a plot twist straight out of The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963).  

This defanging of villains is disrespectful not only to the original authors, but more importantly it trivializes viewers' memories of being terrified by what they saw onscreen.  Margaret Hamilton may have been a retired Kindergarten teacher, but when she turned up in Munchkinland in a ball of fire and unleashed that chilling cackle she became responsible for generations of nightmares.  Even her Winged Monkeys (which are rather obviously short actors in furry pajamas) can elicit screams of terror.  Disney's Wicked Witch, on the other hand, is about as scary as the average Judy Blume character, and her evil could have been washed away just as easily by a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream as by a bucket.  

Which isn't to say that there aren't pleasures in Raimi's film.  Michelle Williams is excellent, and so is Rachel Weisz even though she belongs in another movie.  There's also a scene between James Franco's Wizard and Zach Braff's animated monkey that's marvelous, not because of the dialogue (which is terrible), but because the Yellow Brick Road, framed by an overgrown pasture and a split rail fence, looks so magically real.  But the greatest pleasure of the film is also perhaps its smallest: China Girl.  Voiced by Joey King and beautifully animated, she is the one character that captures something of Baum's whimsy and weirdness.  Despite her porcelain constitution, she is both headstrong and clever like the Dorothy of the books and just as full of longing for home as Judy Garland in the MGM film.  

In an interview with Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, filmmaking legend Nora Ephron declared it would be impossible to ever make a movie that got anywhere near the Oz books she loved as a child.  It would be a shame if that were true, although so far, she seems to have been proved right.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

We're Off to Gab the Wizard

Werth: Howdy, Wise.  It looks like you're all ready for the opening of Oz The Great and Powerful.  

Wise: I sure am.  I've got my 3-D glasses, my official Glinda wand, my James Franco doll, and even a bucket in case the whole thing turns my stomach.  

Werth: But where are your Ruby Slippers?

Wise: Well, as the endless barrage of puff pieces in the press will tell you, the Ruby Slippers belong to Warner Bros., the current owner of MGM's The Wizard of Oz, and won't turn up in Sam Raimi's film which is supposed to be based on ideas culled from L. Frank Baum's original 14 Oz books.  But rabid Oz fans needn't fret if they're looking for direct ties to the Judy Garland movie because the talented artisans who worked at Metro Goldwyn Mayer left traces of their handiwork all over scores of great films.  
Not only can you see Margaret O'Brien carrying Dorothy's basket in Little Women (1949), Janet Gaynor decked out in Glinda's gown in San Francisco (1936), you can also check out what looks suspiciously like Dorothy's front door in a gangster's apartment in Another Thin Man (1939).

Werth: Not only did props, costumes and set pieces from The Wizard of Oz make their way into other movies, the director Victor Fleming can be found directing oodles of other classic films. In fact, 1939 was a good year for Fleming as he directed both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and even won the Best Director prize for the latter. But Fleming was a successful director years before he went to the merry old land of Oz. 
When he directed the show business comedy Bombshell in 1933, he was already one of Hollywood's top directors. Teamed again with his Red Dust (1932) leading lady Jean Harlow, Fleming opens Bombshell with a whirlwind montage of Lola Burns: movie star, fashion icon, tabloid cutie and perfume purveyor.

Wise: This was long before most celebrity fragrances stank

Werth: It's actually kind of amazing how topical this 80 year old movie is. Lola feels trapped by her stardom which includes mobs of autograph seeking fans, stalkers, opportunistic salesmen, and a family of money-hungry vultures—led by her tippling, buttinsky father Pops, played by the Wizard himself, Frank Morgan.

Wise: He didn't spend all his leisure time driving around a Technicolor horse. 

Werth: And the man who gives her the most grief is the studio's press agent Space "Bud" Hanlon (Lee Tracy) who places made-up, salacious news stories about Lola on the front page every chance he gets. Of course this doesn't stop the two of them from getting a yen for each other.  Bombshell is like a loud, shouting roller coaster ride. 
The dialogue is lightning quick with the insults and one-liners flying at a rat-a-tat pace. Frankly, by the time Lola attmepts to escape Hollywood by running away to a desert resort, the audience feels like it needs to join her for a well-earned rest. But Bombshell is a heck of a lot of fun, and even though she isn't as comically smooth as she was in Red Dust or Dinner at Eight (1933), watching Harlow is always a treat. That platinum mop of hair and her wise-cracking, luminous face light up the screen in a way that few stars can.

Wise: Stars who light up the silver screen are blessed with luck, talent as well as an army of off-screen artists who are able to create that Hollywood glow.  And perhaps no one had as large and as lasting and impact on the way Hollywood looked as Sydney Guilaroff, the legendary hair stylist to the stars.  Discovered by Claudette Colbert and championed by Joan Crawford, Guilaroff became the chief stylist at MGM and worked his magic in over a thousand films.  
He designed signature looks for Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959), for Liza Minnelli in New York, New York (1976), and had a huge impact on The Wizard of Oz by creating Judy Garland's iconic braids. 

Werth: He also kept Joan Crawford company when she won the Oscar for Mildred Pierce... in her sickbed.
Wise: Guilaroff not only made certain that stars looked good, he also helped them create their characters for the screen, and some of his most interesting work resulted when he re-teamed with Garland in Easter Parade (1948).  The film follows Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) who is unceremoniously dumped by his dance partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) when she is offered a solo in the Ziegfeld Follies.  Furious, Don resolves to transform the next women he meets into a replacement for Nadine.  
When that woman turns out to be a very unlikely Hannah Brown (Garland), he at first tries to re-do her in Nadine's glamorous image before realizing Hannah's true worth both on- and off-stage, and eventually the two fall in love, all set to Irving Berlin's magical score.  

Werth: Judy and Ann starred in lots of projects together, including an episode of Hollywood Hoarder.

Wise: Easter Parade presented a series of challenges to Guilaroff who had to design styles that not only reflected the film's 1912 setting but also Hannah's gradual evolution from frumpy chorus girl to star.  Garland begins the picture with tightly wound curls, then switches to an imitation of Miller's slicked and elegant coif, before her hair gradually becomes softer and more natural for the finale.  
Along the way she famously dons a short, ratty wig as she and Astaire perform the film's most famous number, "A Couple of Swells," costumed as tramps.  It's subtle work, but it's also a reminder of all the myriad talents that go into making a picture great. 

Werth: If the box office buzz is any indication, the myriad of talents who worked on Oz The Great and Powerful, will have cause to celebrate.

Wise: We'll celebrate next week with another installment of Film Gab!