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!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Happy 109th, Archie Leach!

Werth: Wise!

Wise: Werth!

Werth: With all the cake from our recent birthday salutes, I'm busting out of my pants.

Wise: Cake just wants you to be happy.  It's the pants that double-crossed you. 

Werth: Today is really a special birthday, though, as it would have been Hollwood icon Cary Grant's 109th birthday.

Wise: Which means that Taylor Swift is just a bit too old to be his co-star. 

Werth: In his later years, Hollywood did have a habit of making Grant the romantic partner for some much younger leading ladies. But in the 1940 classic His Girl Friday, Grant was evenly matched age- and acting-wise with the fast-talking Rosalind Russell. Grant is Walter Burns, a sly, underhanded newspaper editor who is willing to do anything to break the story. Russell is Hildy, his recent ex-wife who stops by the office to let him know she's not only quitting his rag, 
but she's engaged to be married to insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin who "looks like Ralph Bellamy" (a punchline paid off by the fact that Bruce is played by Ralph Bellamy).

Wise: Making him prince of the second banana role

Werth: Walter refuses to lose his best reporter and his wife, so he concocts a plan to trick Hildy into helping with one last story hoping she'll miss her train to Albany and a "normal" life. Walter's plan is helped along by the fact that a controversial execution is about to take place and Hildy can't resist covering it. 
Howard Hawks directed His Girl Friday at a breakneck pace with the comic zingers, sly glances, and even the stripes on Hildy's hat and coat zipping by so fast that we have to lean forward to catch every wonderful moment. It's the perfect pacing for a story about journalism, racing across the screen like an AP newsflash.

Wise: Although at the time, it must have been the teletype machine. 

Werth: Grant's charm and grace make even the conniving Walter loveable and Russell's machine-gun one-liners and asides are comedy perfection. As much electric chemistry as these two generated, Grant and Russell never teamed up on the silver screen again. Perhaps it's for the best, because it's hard to imagine even this great duo topping their performances in this milestone in Hollywood comedies.
Wise: Grant plays an equally appealing, although more sinister, character in Suspicion (1941).  As irresponsible playboy Johnnie Aysgarth, Grant stumbles into the train compartment of bookish Lena McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and promptly scams her for first class fare before gradually falling for her.  
After a whirlwind romance, the pair elope, much to the disapproval of Lena's staid—and wealthy—parents.  After they return from a grand honeymoon, Lena begins to realize that Johnnie's finances are a tangle of debts, promises, and lost bets at the racetrack.  This being an Alfred Hitchcock film, she also begins to suspect that her beloved husband has a darker side.  

Werth: Why can't Hitchcock's ladies ever trust their men?

Wise: As Johnnie's financial troubles mount, she begins to wonder to what lengths he'll go to shore up his failed business ventures.  And when his best pal—and erstwhile business partner—turns up in Paris dead under mysterious circumstances, she begins to fear for her life.  

Werth: Oh Joan, just drink your milk...

Wise: Fontaine won the Academy Award for this, her second outing with Hitchcock (she was also nominated for her first, Rebecca, the year before), and her evolutionfrom a dowdy spinster to a woman possessed by lust and finally to a prisoner of her own fearsunfolds thrillingly, yet believably.  
Of course Grant's performance provides the perfect support: his charm could just as easily melt an old maid's frozen heart as it could drain the lifeblood from her veins.  But as a pair, the two make one of Hitchcock's most erotic screen couples.  Grant's roguishness barely conceals his carnal desires, while Fontaine's slightly breathless performance makes audiences wonder if she might willingly sacrifice her life to her husband's gambling addiction in exchange for just one more roll in the sack.  

Werth: Speaking of sacks, I need something to wear that has a little more give than these pants.  

Wise: Just have another piece of cake and we'll both wear muumuus for next week's Film Gab.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy Birthday Radio City!

Werth: How do, Wise?

Wise: I do well, Werth. I see you're baking another cake. Who's the lucky star? Rod Taylor?

Werth: While it is the dashing Aussie actor's 83rd birthday, today also marks the 80th Anniversary of the first movie shown at what was once New York's most famous movie theater, Radio City Music Hall. It's hard to believe what with all the concerts and Cirque de Soleil antics that currently go into Radio City, that until 1979 you could actually watch movies at the opulent landmark.

Wise: Did the Rockettes sell jujubes between showings of Burt Reynolds flicks?

Werth: The first film shown was The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and it was an auspicious start to 1933 for the budding actress. In July of the same year, Stanwyck starred in what would become one of her most notorious classics, Baby Face. Stanwyck plays Lily, a girl from the mining town side of Erie, PA, who works in her father's rundown speakeasy slinging drinks and dodging come-ons from the sometimes shirtless clientele. 
After her father tries to pimp her out for police protection and is karmically blown-up by his own still, Lily hikes up her garters and heads to New York City to use her feminine charms to get everything she never had.

Wise: You mean a gay best friend and Louis Vuitton bag?

Werth: A very clever cinematic device is used to show how Lily climbs the corporate ladder man by man (including a young, un-western John Wayne) until she is using her sexy gaze to woo the president of the bank and living high on the hog. But like the stock market crash that haunted the era, Lily's success doesn't last and she is forced to face the consequences of using love to manipulate people. 
Stanwyck's ability to play hard-edged dames that were eminently likable made her the perfect actress for Lily. Stanwyck played Lily's sexuality like a cat, aggressive when she sees something she wants, but reluctant once she is finished to do anything other than curl up in a ball and lap at her milkbowl. It's the kind of multi-layered performance that she became legendary for, with explosive outbursts of anger and tenderness that exposed the human side to this hard-edged tramp. 
But in case you thought Stanwyck was all smart-mouth and come hither glances, Orry-Kelly's posterior-hugging gowns also remind us that Stanwyck was a beautiful woman. In one particular scene she is given the Garbo-look, with swept back hair and penciled eyebrows that show this spunky gal from Brooklyn was one of Hollywood's great lookers as well as one its best actresses.

Wise: I know a few Brooklyn gals who could use a little Orry-Kelly in their lives. 

Werth: Baby Face became a lightening rod for controversy due to its explicit display of immoral character and was altered after its initial release to include strange German moralizing from a cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and a new ending. Once the Production Code began being enforced by Joseph I. Breen and Company in 1934, the likes of Baby Face would not be seen again in American film until the dismantling of the Hays Code in the mid-1960's.

Wise: 1933 also saw the premiere of Paramount's all-star film extravaganza of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.  An amalgam of both Alice books, the film was adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and was based in part on the successful stage version of the Carroll's classic by Eva LaGallienne and Florida Friebus.  In our contemporary world where fantasy has become box office bread and butter, it's strange to see the filmmakers struggling to bring Great Britain's classic fairy tale to the screen.  

Werth: Looking at some of the stock photos, I'm actually terrified of these characters

Wise: The film scrupulously tries to recreate Sir John Tenniel's famous illustrations through clever use of sets, make-up and costumes, and lifts dialogue wholesale from Carroll's text, but despite this fidelity to the source material, the film lacks the sourball pleasure of the original.  
The all-star cast—including W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen and May Robeson as the Queen of Hearts—works hard to capture the book's absurdity, but are hampered by Norman McLeod's static direction and utter lack of pace.  Part of the problem also lies with Charlotte Henry's Alice: she looks the part, but is completely unable to summon the occasional prickly impatience of Carroll's heroine. 

Werth: I'm often described as prickily impatient.

Wise: There have been many claims over the years that the film's failure at the box office was caused by audiences unable to recognize their favorite stars under the heavy character make-up, but it seems to me that the real problem wasn't so much Wally Westmore's cleverly designed prosthetics as it was the entire production's effort to be laboriously faithful to the books without injecting the kind of madcap zip that Depression era films were capturing so well.  
There are plenty of moments just aching to leap off the screen—particularly Fields' cantankerous turn and the always genius Edward Everett Horton's Mad Hatter—but just never make it.  It was a film carefully studied by the powers at MGM as they began production on The Wizard of Oz
and it's probably no coincidence that the latter movie eschewed Baum's turn of the century setting and plainspoken dialogue in favor of contemporary Kansas and the zing of Tin Pan Alley swing.  

Werth: It's nice to see how you always bring it back to Judy.  

Wise: As long as we both bring it back for next week's Film Gab.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Brand New Gab

Werth: Happy New Year, Wise!   

Wise: Happy New Year, Werth!  

Werth: The New Year is all about new beginnings, and some of the best movies are about characters who start new lives as new people.  

Wise: Are we talking about identity theft?  Because my parents are obsessed with that.
Werth: Not exactly, although theft and identity are part of my "new beginnings" classic, 1969's Midnight Cowboy. John Schlesinger's controversial film starts off with a shot of a mostly deserted Texas drive-in with the prairie and the sky stretching off into the distance. It's the perfect image for Joe Buck's (Jon Voight) Hollywood-style fantasy of moving out of his one-horse town to New York City to become a successful gigolo.

Wise: It must have been a much more glamorous career path before the advent of Craig's List. 

Werth: Dressed in his fringe jacket, green shirt and black cowboy hat and boots, Joe Buck packs up his cowhide suitcase with western shirts and a picture of Paul Newman from the movie Hud and rides a Greyhound to New York City only to find his new beginning as a "stud" is fraught with wake-up calls. 
After being swindled by a blousy penthouse-frau (don't-ask-me-why Academy Award-nominated Sylvia Miles), Joe meets skanky cripple Rico "Ratso" Rizzo (a post-Graduate Dustin Hoffman) and these two outsiders forge an uncomfortable, yet touching bond.  
They hatch scheme after scheme, exhausting themselves and the chances around them, until they have no other choice but to leave New York City for good. Sadly, as Nilsson croons "Everybody's Talkin'", we know that the movie-inspired dreams of these luckless scavengers are doomed whether they are in a condemned apartment building in Manhattan or on the sunny beaches of Florida.

Wise: At least the fresh orange juice will keep scurvy at bay. 

Werth: Many film-folk like to point to Easy Rider (1969) as the movie that ushered in a new era for Hollywood, but I think a better case can be made for Midnight Cowboy dragging Tinseltown into the '70's. 

Even with an initial X-Rating due to the nudity, sex, drag queens, drug use and a gay blowjob courtesy of a young Bob Balaban, Midnight Cowboy earned seven Academy Award noms and won three—including Best Picture and Best Director. 
It was the first time that the Old Guard handed its highest accolade to such edgy, raw material. Schelsinger's use of montage editing was fresh and impactful in visualizing the crossroads of daydreams, nightmares, and real life—and helped define a cinematic style, making Midnight Cowboy a new beginning for Hollywood film.

Wise: In Now, Voyager (1942), Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a dowdy Boston spinster suffering under her dictatorial mother (Gladys Cooper who made a career of playing judgmental society matrons).  A kind psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) admits her to his sanitarium where Charlotte transforms into a self-possessed woman; fearing relapse if she returns to her mother's house, Charlotte instead embarks on a cruise to South America where she meets a handsome (and married) stranger Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid).  
An accident during a sightseeing excursion, separates them from the ship and while stranded, they fall in love.  

Werth: Stuck together in a cabin after their Portugese taxi driver nearly takes them off a mountain cliff is reason enough for anyone to fall in love.
Wise: Unwilling to break up her lover's marriage, Charlotte returns to Boston heartbroken, but full of a strength she never knew she had.  She takes control of her relationship with her mother and gets engaged to a handsome widower from one of the most prominent Boston Brahmin families, but when a fierce argument with her mother results in her mother's sudden death, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium where she attempts to forge a new life for the second time.  

Werth: The scene of Charlotte sassing her mother to death is one of my all-time favorites.

Wise: Davis, who had always struggled against the confines of the studio system, found new independence in Now, Voyager both onscreen and off.  Because producer Hal B. Wallace developed the film as an independent production within Warner Bros., Davis was able to exert her influence on costumes, casting, and even her director Irving Rapper who found the collaboration both rewarding and exhausting.  
But it's onscreen that Davis makes her biggest transformation, not just within the film by trading dowdy foulard dresses for sleek Orry-Kelly designs, but by putting aside the snarling independence of her earlier roles and taking on a new fortitude grounded in moral certainty.  It's shocking to see Davis this tender, yet just as ferocious as she had ever been.  

Werth: And even more shocking to see her with those eyebrows.

Wise: Tune in to next week's Film Gab when we pluck out more classic films!