Friday, August 16, 2013

Are the Stars Out Tonight?

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  

Werth:  Good evening, sir.  May I offer you a cocktail?  

Wise:  I'll take the booze, but what's with the penguin suit?  

Werth: Lee Daniels' The Butler opens today and I'm getting ready for the juggernaut of Hollywood talent that plays presidential dress-up in a fictionalized version of the life of White House domestic Eugene Allen.  Alan Rickman plays Reagan, James Marsden plays Kennedy, Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan—

Wise: But will any of them be as good as Oprah?  

Werth:  Not if she has a scene where she marches through a cornfield. Hollywood realized the scratch to be made by lumping together their top stars early on, and when the silents turned to talkies, MGM tried the tactic to beat its competitors to the musical punch with The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It's one of those cases where the title says it all. Mimicking the Broadway and vaudeville stage shows of the time, MGM put together a group of musical numbers, comedy sketches, and dance routines using a "galaxy of stars" both known and relatively unknown.

Wise: It's one way to keep idle stars off the skids. 

Werth: Master of Ceremonies Jack Benny had been a vaudeville regular, but his violin-toting, deadpan act was still in its infancy for Revue. Benny mugs and puns as he introduces the acts, including then matinee idol Conrad Nagel as the evening's Interlocutor.

Wise: Evidence of Nagel's long and successful career in film, television and radio can be seen in his three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Werth: Fame seemed to haunt Revue. Buster Keaton shimmies as an Egyptian dancer in "The Dance of the Sea" but the stoic-faced comic's most notable years were behind him. Meanwhile Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act complete with a cake-in-the-face pratfall while they were moving from silent short stars to feature-length comedy stars. 
Other silent luminaries who transitioned to sound successfully in Revue are Norma Shearer, William Randolph Hearst's main squeeze Marion Davies, and a young Joan Crawford who dances and sings like her life depended on it. But some counted Revue as the sunset of their careers with both dashing William Haines and handsome but prissy-throated John Gilbert ending their careers by 1936. 
Marie Dressler's career was supposedly over by 1929, but a year later this vaudeville veteran would be seeing a career re-birth by starring with Garbo in Anna Christie and getting an Oscar for Min and Bill.

Wise: Nothing like a little song and dance to jumpstart a comeback. 

Werth: Revue is one of those early sound films that's best watched like it's a filmic cave drawing. Sound was only two years young at this point, and many directors, including Revue's, were unskilled at moving the camera. The dialogue is stilted, numbers seem to go on interminably and most scenes are shot with a static camera facing the stage as if you were sitting in the audience of George White's Scandals. 
But cinematic touches appear in a couple numbers with a strange film negative minstrel show, a special effects shot of dancer/singer Bessie Love miniaturized (twice), the use of two-strip Technicolor for a couple scenes, and kaleidoscopic, overhead shots of the not-so-precise dancers dancing in fear to "Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out." 
These shots must have been informed by choreographer Busby Berkeley's earlier Broadway work, but he was not involved with the filming. He would start revolutionizing film a year later when he staged the dances for Samuel Goldwyn's Whoopee! 

Whatever the primitive flaws of Revue, it was a hit and earned an Oscar nomination that year garnering a lot of attention for the song, "Singin' in the Rain," and its lyricist, future musical mogul Arthur Freed.

Wise: The success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and its long list of La-La-Land luminaries prompted a surge in adaptions of Agatha Christie penned mysteries, and one of the most enjoyable is The Mirror Crack'd (1980).  Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak play Marina Rudd and Lola Brewster, two long-time rival actresses who descend on a tiny English village to film a lavish costume picture based on contretemps between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.  
Adding to the pressure cooker atmosphere is Marina's husband Jason (Rock Hudson), the director of the film, and Lola's husband Marty (Tony Curtis), who's the producer.  At a village reception, a gushing fan brags about her devotion to Marina, only to wind up dead after sipping from her idol's cocktail.  
Marina spirals out of control after this attempt on her life, and order is only restored upon the arrival of Angela Lansbury as Christie's beloved Miss Jane Marple in sensible shoes and a tightly curled wig.  

Werth: From Miss Marple to Jessica Fletcher. No one should commit a crime around Angela Lansbury.

Wise: Part of the pleasure of these big ensemble films is the opportunity they give big stars to play outsized versions of themselves.  Taylor as Marina gets to be both more extravagantly beautiful (she arrives on screen wearing a helmet made of lilacs) and more dramatic (the hysterics of her breakdown would have sunk a less starry film).  
She and Novak trade a few delicious barbs whenever they're in the same scene, taking full advantage of the public's endless appetite for the kind of cooked up, bitchy antagonism that sells a lot of movie magazines even to this day.  Tony Curtis plays a seedier version of his character in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  
Only Rock Hudson seems a little subdued; his supportive husband lacks the winking charm that made him so great in so many films.  

Werth: For a second, I read that last line as if Rock Hudson had a supportive husband... which he should have.

Wise: Lansbury's performance is a little less broad than her co-stars' efforts, but she still gets to have a lot of sly fun as Christie's grandmotherly know-it-all.  She always has a bit of business to perform—knitting, cooking, pulling a Mackintosh more securely about her shoulders—that distracts both the audience and the criminals from observing her deductive powers at work.  Like the most satisfying whodunnits, the identity of the murderer is the least likely suspect, but the pleasure of the revelation comes from the clever, cat-like way that Lansbury's Marple unravels the mystery in the final reel.  

Werth: Well, Wise, I guess we should reveal that this is something of the final reel for Film Gab.  

Wise: Right.  After almost three years and several hundred movie recommendations, we're going to be taking a little break from our weekly updates.  

Werth: But fear not, loyal Gabbers. We'll be popping in from time to time comment on new films, Hollywood trends, and to salute the passing of our Tinsel Town heroes.  

Wise: In the meantime, why not take a sentimental journey back to the beginning of Film Gab and catch up on any of the flicks you may have missed? 

Werth: And if you ever need a little live Film Gab in your life, just remember that our extensive love of Hollywood lore can be had for the price of a couple drinks.  Cheers!

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