Saturday, March 12, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE - Sarong, it's been good to know ya!

Dorothy Lamour did for the sarong what Jane Russell did for the cross-your heart bra.  Since her first film, The Jungle Princess, she became inextricably tied to those flower-printed wraps, and there was nary a film for years later when she didn't turn up in one at some point. She's best known to modern audiences for the "Road" pictures with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. and indeed, decades later whe the animated adventure Road to El Dorado came out, what was the character occupying the Lamour Position wearing?

In the middle of the Road series, Lamour teamed with Hope for one of another series of films, Hope's "Favorite" trilogy. The first one, My Favorite Blonde (1942), teamed Hope with Madeleine Carroll in a zany yet suspenseful adventure reminiscent of her Alfred Hitchcock thrillers The 39 Steps (1935) and Secret Agent (1936). The last of the trilogy was My Favorite Spy (1951), in which Hope teamed up for similarly funny, frantic shenanigans with the beautiful and brainy Hedy Lamarr. Although I enjoyed all three “Favorites,” I was drawn most strongly to MFB because it affectionately spoofs one of my favorite genres, the private eye mystery.

"I must remember this address!"
 We meet our hero, San Francisco baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Hope), on Death Row—this is comedy? Oh yes it is, smarty, because there’s a gaggle of reporters interviewing our hero as he gets a chance to tell his side of the murder frame-up he’s embroiled in. In true 1940s-style detective voiceover, Ronnie admits, “I wanted to be a detective too. It only took brains, courage and a gun---and I had the gun!"

In flashback (this is a film noir spoof, after all, and a darn nifty one!), we find out that before Ronnie found himself embroiled in suspense, romance, and zany shenanigans, he was a successful baby photographer in San Francisco’s Trafalgar Building.  The tenant across the hall is cool, tough private detective Sam McCloud (played in cameo by Alan Ladd, a moment made all the funnier by the fact that he's not seen until Ronnie comments that he could be as tough as those movie detectives, "even Alan Ladd!")

Carlotta Montay has a hush-hush case for our hero!
When Ronnie office-sits for McCloud while he's away on a case, he finds his dreams of playing detective coming all too true all too soon when a mysterious damsel-in-distress, Baroness Carlotta Montay (Lamour; no relation to Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdes) slinks into the picture, wearing fabulous Edith Head fashions. She is, as Ronnie describes her in voiceover, a “dark-eyed-dreamboat up to her gorgeous lips in trouble.” Thinking Ronnie is Sam, she begs him to help her find Baron Montay (Frank Puglia in a dual role), her older husband…or is he?

Soon Ronnie is up to his ski-nose in trouble as he and the comely Carlotta are chased by a gang of cutthroats with designs on Baron Montay’s uranium. That's right, uranium—the MacGuffin of Hitchcock’s thriller Notorious from the previous year!  When things go from bad to worse, will our hero sit down to “the worst last meal I ever ate,” or can he clear himself as he ducks flying bullets and one-liners between make-out sessions with Carlotta? One of Hope's best comedies, MFB deftly spoofs hard-boiled private eye thrillers of the era with a barrage of uproarious quips and set pieces in a private sanatorium and an atmospheric mansion (Ronnie: “Nice cheerful place. What time do they bring the mummies out?”). It’s like The Big Sleep on laughing gas, and makes about the same amount of sense. I’m tempted to quote more of Hope and Lamour’s witty quips, but I’d probably end up typing almost the entire zingy script verbatim.

Time to open the mailman?
Whew, it's just the bad guys
messing with us!

Hope and Lamour's usual comic/romantic chemistry is at its finest. I especially enjoyed the fact that more often than not, Carlotta was able to think on her feet and get the bumbling Ronnie out of one jam after another while he either went to pieces or let his little bouts of success go to his head. You go, girl!  The nifty supporting cast includes Peter Lorre as a knife-throwing henchman and assassin studying to pass his U.S. citizenship exam (he makes the phrase “What does the executive branch of our government do? It carries OUT the laws!” sound sinister and hilarious at the same time); the unfairly uncredited Jean Wong, endearing as Mrs. Fong, mother of a tot so loathe to smile that Ronnie quips, "This kid's gonna grow up to be a sponsor!"; Jack La Rue, the lone American in 1948’s Brits-trying-to-sound-like-New-Yorkers adaptation of the notorious oddball crime drama No Orchids for Miss Blandish; and a couple of delightful star cameos sure to bring a smile to any classic movie fan’s face.

OUCH!  Ronnie gets knocked down,
but gets back up again...and again!
Lon Chaney Jr got a nice big role in the film as Wille, an orderly at asylum Seacliff Lodge, a man whose strength is entirely physical.  After his turn as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Lon would play parodies of the character at various points of the rest of his career - this was one of the first, and one of the best.

Somewhere along the way, MFB slipped out of Paramount Pictures’ hands and wound up in Public Domain Hell!  The Madacy DVD currently available doesn't have the most pristine print; it’s got more scratches than a nudist who stumbled into poison ivy. Nevertheless, my scratchy copy of MFB is still a far better copy than the one that Turner Classic Movies periodically runs!  Heck, the TCM print is actually missing a few minutes in the scene taking place just after the rained-upon Ronnie and Carlotta return to McCloud’s office. I noticed the Columbia Pictures Television logo at the end of TCM’s recent MFB broadcast. Right now the best copy available is part of a three disc set, The Bob Hope Collection, which also features two of the Road pictures (Rio and Bali), and The Lemon Drop Kid.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lloyd Corrigan – What a Character!

This blog post is part of the What A Character! Blogathon hosted by Kellee at Outspoken & FreckledPaula at Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen 

One of the selling points of a great character actor is his ability to be cast in virtually any role, and have people leaving the theater remembering the performance, and not the actor.  It’s precisely why so many great character actors go nameless – you know their face, but their name will often slip your mind.  It’s the whole reason we see marathons of character actors given names like “That Guy!” Thursdays.

Lloyd Corrigan is very much an example of that situation. With 172 acting credits in both large screen and small on his IMDB resume, he’s not a name that the average film fan will know, but he’s certainly one they’ve seen.

Before his prolific acting career, Corrigan started as a writer and director for the silent films, including a female-centric version of the perennial Brewster’s Millions story, and a trilogy of Fu Manchu films, starring Werner Oland as The Demon Doctor. A short he wrote and directed, La Cucaracha, won the best comedy short subject for 1935.

As an actor, he jumped regularly between comedy – he appeared in a couple Bob Hope comedies like The Ghost Breakers and Son of Paleface, and a few of the Bowery Boys films– and drama, like the 1946 noir film The Chase, where he plays a business rival of the main character who meets a grisly death via a large dog in a locked wine cellar. He appeared in several of the Boston Blackie series of films in a recurring role of millionaire Arthur Manleder. He was in the Jose Ferrer version of Cyrano De Bergerac as Ragueneau the pastry chef.

Corrigan helps Ray Milland and
 Maureen O’Sullivan in The Big Clock
In the Noir classic The Big Clock, Lloyd plays a radio actor who comes to the aid of suspected murderer George Stroud (Ray Milland), who is also in charge of the investigation to find said murderer.  Corrigan takes on a number of roles to aid Stroud, including a false suspect, one “Jefferson Randolph”, an anxious witness happy to describe said suspect, and later in the film as a police inspector, with the hopes of keeping the real suspect under control.

In Whistling in the Dark, the first of the Red Skelton trilogy, Corrigan plays Harvey Upshaw, target of a wild murder plot.  He’s a harmless married man who’s intended to receive a sizable pile of cash from a maiden aunt, much to the consternation of Conrad Veidt, who was expecting the money to be bequeathed to his supernatural scam.  Skelton plays a radio detective who gets involved in the goings on and must use his radio show as a live attempt to contact Upshaw, who is on an airplane with a man who plans to kill him with poisoned tooth powder. Did I mention this was a comedy?

Holborn Gaines, relaxing in his dead
wife's housecoat in The Manchurian
In amongst all the comedies, Corrigan still made appearances in major dramas, including The Manchurian Candidate, where he played newspaper magnate Holborn Gaines, employer and friend of Medal of Honor winner and potent brainwashing subject Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Gaines becomes close with Shaw after discover they share an abiding hatred of Shaw’s father-in-law, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) and his wife, Raymond’s mother (Angela Lansbury). Sadly, as a test of Shaw’s conditioning, he is instructed to kill Gaines.

Corrigan had quite the resume on
television as well - here he is on
an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive
In addition to an appearance as the Mayor in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, one of Corrigan’s last regular roles was a one-season sitcom called Hank, about a hard-working young man who’s trying to make his way through college with a series of small jobs and a steady string of auditing classes.
Lloyd Corrigan’s appearances in films are often brief – as a character actor, his job is to further the story, not be the story. He deserves more recognition, in name as well as face, and we can but hope that pieces like this, we can help fix that problem.

Friday, October 23, 2015

NORTH BY NORTHWEST - "PAY the Two Dollars!"

This post is part of the CMBA Trains Plane and Automobiles Blogathon, running from October 19th - 24th. Click below for a list of the other weary travelers on the filmic highways and byways!

Anyone who has known me very long knows that while I love the work of Alfred Hitchcock, the film that rises to the top of the heap is his action masterpiece, North by Northwest.  It hits all the notes a Hitchcock film should – no surprise considering co-writer Ernest Lehmann has said it was his plan to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".

He started with Hitch to pen an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare – they couldn’t get a hook on the film, but they got along famously.  Ernest offered to drop from the project, but Hitch would hear none of it – they whipped up a mad plot and pitched it the producers, who suddenly couldn’t care the Mary Deare wrecked or not.

The primary kernel of the plot was based on a true story – Journalist Otis C. Guernsey once told Hitch about a fictitious secret agent manufactured by a couple of British secretaries, which the German agents started wasting time following around.  Otis began to work up a story about a traveling salesman mistaken for the agent, but even though he couldn’t make head or tail of the plot, Hitch bought the idea from him for ten grand.  He and Lehmann took the idea and started folding in all the set pieces Hitch had been wanting to do, including a chase across Mount Rushmore.

Lehmann used to work on Madison Avenue, and came up with the idea of making the traveling salesman (which they first thought would be great for Hitch-alumnus James Stewart) into a stylish ad-man, for whom they rightly cast Cary Grant. We’ve often joked that Cary Grant could easily have played the role that James Mason played, that of mastermind and Mover of Government Secrets (Perhaps) Philip Vandamm, but Mason could never have played Roger Thornhill.  He’d have been able to look at the Glen Cove constabulary and asked, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?", they would immediately reply, "Er, no, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you." Now, a film with James Stewart as Thornhill and Cary Grant as Vandamm?  Where’s my parallel dimension transporter?

I hope they're not still at the bar waiting for Roger...
The setup to the chaos is a simple case of mistaken identity. While meeting some friends at the Plaza Hotel’s famous Oak Bar, Roger O (Stands for “Nothing, like me”, he explains later) Thornhill flags down a bellboy who was at the time paging a Mr. George Kaplan.  A pair of shady Jaspers assume Roger is Kaplan, and hustle him into a taxi faster than you can say “The Wrong Man”. He’s whisked out to Long Island to the home of a mysterious and suave gentleman named (he says) Townsend who begins to grill him on mysterious goings on, about which Roger dutifully reports he knows nothing, and also that he’s not even the guy they’re looking for, which explains the first answer perfectly.  Instead, Townsend compliments “Kaplan” on his rigorous training, and sets out to kill him by plying him with bourbon and Laura’s Mercedes. 

The film sneaks into paranoia film territory here – when he attempts to relate his story to the police, all evidence of the events are erased from the mansion, and the people living there claim he’d been there for a party and left in an advanced state of inebriation.  He makes his way back to the Plaza and finds the enigmatic Mr. Kaplan’s room, his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) in tow, and nefarious characters on their tail.

It’s at this point the scene shifts and Hitch uses one of his classic tricks – giving the audience information the characters in the film don’t have, so we understand more about what’s going on than they, and making the whole situation more suspenseful.  We learn that Mr. Kaplan does not exist – we learn it seven times, to be precise – in a wonderful bit of expository dialogue, a board room of spymasters, led by “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll, made up to look like one of the Dulles brothers) they explain in exacting detail that Kaplan is a fiction, a decoy, created to give the Bad Men someone to chase, while their real operatives can work undiscovered.  They learn of Mr. Thornhill’s predicament, and choose to do nothing, gleeful at the prospect that their decoy has suddenly sprouted legs and is quacking all on his own.

Hitch did love the Fist-I-Cam shot, didn't he?

From there we watch Roger “hunt for a man that doesn’t exist”, as the trailer describes it, from Chicago to a cornfield to an art auction to Mount Rushmore to a hospital to Abraham Lincoln’s nose.  And if that breakneck list makes you want to see the film, you had the same response as the MGM producers when he shot it past them.

You could run a film class on any one of the shots from
Hitch's movies.
The location shots in the film are almost as famous as the film itself.  Hitch couldn’t get permission to shoot in, or even in front of the United Nations, so they pulled an indie film trick, and set a camera up in a hidden location, and quickly and surreptitiously filmed Cary Grant getting out of the cab for the shot – the interiors were all done on sound stages. The famous cropduster scene was filmed on Graces Highway in Kern County, California (and if you care to give it a look, here’s the link to it on Google Maps)

And as for that last shot of the train going into a tunnel? Hitch gleefully confirmed it means exactly what we all thought it did.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

CHARADE: The tale of four men and the woman that loves him.

This TotED classic remix is brought to you for the Anti-Damsel Blogathon,hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In!

"Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these... 'it might have been'."
--Felix Unger John Greenleaf Whittier

Let me tell you a tale of a missed opportunity.

Back when Thandie Newton appeared in Mission Impossible II, Hubby Vinnie and I were immediately taken by her looks and demeanor, not to mention her charisma on screen.  We began wondering what she'd be good in, and he wondered how exciting she'd be in a film with Will Smith.  Not a couple months later it was announced that they would indeed star together in a remake of one of my favorite films, Charade! Needless to say, our zeal and excitement for this production was so high, people wanted to climb us.

Alas, such great heights only bring such shattering falls.

The writers' strike came along, and Hollywood rushed to get something, ANYTHING before the cameras, to make sure there wouldn't be any gap as scripts weren't being written.  Smith shuffled his schedule around to do the Ali biopic, and rather than waiting, as responsible adults would do, the producers replaced him with Mark Wahlberg, who is of course your second choice after Will Smith.

The result, The Truth About Charlie, was a calamity, made by and starring a great bunch of people, led by an actor who was so clearly out of place he brought the whole thing down, like a Detroit Slant-6 engine with one piston made of day-old rye bread.

We left the theater feeling the same sense of loss as when you pay hundreds of dollars to see a Broadway play, only to have one of those little slips of white paper flutter from your Playbill, informing you that this evening the role of the star will be play by the understudy. We raced home and cleared the taste from our mouths by watching the original.  Audrey Hepburn always makes things better.

I’ve always affectionately joked that Charade was the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, as those who know me well can attest. Brimming with piquant romance, sophisticated comedy, and stylish suspense—including a soup├žon of graphic-for-its-era violence and gore—Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic comedy-thriller is a thoroughly entertaining object lesson in why it’s so important for people to really get to know their sweeties before marrying them. Case in point: Charade’s heroine Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn). Reggie, a beautiful young American simultaneous translator in Paris, quit her job at E.U.R.E.S.C.O. after marrying the rich and mysterious Charles Lampert—but he’s turning out to be too mysterious for comfort. When we meet Reggie, she’s vacationing in Megeve’s lovely French Alps resort, but it’s no pleasure trip. She’s suffering from buyer’s remorse — or more accurately, bridal remorse — and seriously contemplating divorce. As she sadly admits to her friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot), “I’ve tried to make it work, really I have.…But with Charles, everything is secrecy and lies. He’s hiding something from me, Sylvie, something terrible — and it frightens me.” Witty byplay with a handsome older gent who introduces himself as Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) perks things up before Reggie returns home to Paris

Reggie in disguise, with glasses!
But her homecoming is a rude awakening: Reggie is utterly gobsmacked to find their apartment is completely bare, and Charles has been murdered! On top of that, three men unknown to her turn up at Charles’s very sparsely-attended funeral. One of them, Tex Penthollow (James Coburn), holds a mirror to Charles’s open casket to see if he’s breathing. The second, Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass, who also played opposite Grant in North by Northwest as the suspicious Grand Central Terminal ticket agent) sneezes violently over Charles’s casket. (Sylvie dryly notes, “He must have known Charles pretty well…he’s allergic to him.”) The third mourner is an angry, imposing fella named Herman Scobie (George Kennedy) with a bad attitude and a metal prosthetic claw. He storms into the church and confirms Charles’s deceased state by plunging a pin into his corpse, to the shock of both Reggie and Sylvie.  

Reggie's a Truthful Whitefoot, with a white dress to match!
"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"
With oranges like these, who needs apples?
Turns out Charles was living a double life—a quadruple life, really, considering he had 4 passports under 4 different names. But that’s only the beginning; self-described American Embassy “desk jockey” Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) reveals that Charles was a wanted man! He and the other “mourners” had fought in World War 2 together, going behind enemy lines to deliver $250,000 in gold to the French underground. Instead, they stole the gold but got ambushed by the Nazis, which is how Scobie got a claw where his hand used to be. Charles escaped with the $250 grand and had managed to elude his former comrades until now. The bewildered, vulnerable yet determined Reggie is the gang’s only lead, if they don’t get fed up and kill her first. 

There’s one scene where Tex corners Reggie in a phone booth at the Black Sheep Club (oranges never looked so sexy or funny!), torturing our hapless heroine by dropping lit matches on her dress as she brushes them off, screaming and sobbing. It’s always made me want to write a scene (if someone hasn’t beat me to it) in which the heroine has just enough room to knee her tormentor in the groin, snapping, “I saw that movie, too!” Reggie gets trapped in another phone booth near the end of the film, being chased by quite a different tormentor, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Peter catches up with Reggie in Paris and offers to help her out with the fix she’s in. His playful hard-to-get routine is catnip to her, and she’s falling in love…until she finds out the guy has as many aliases as Charles did. Boy, Reggie sure can pick ’em!  Bartholomew wants to take advantage of Reggie’s mystery man by encouraging her to play nice with Peter — or is it Alex? Adam? — and see what he’s up to. Who can she trust, and how can she keep all those names straight? Her life becomes a case of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” as the crooks and Peter/Alex/Adam/Whatever His Name Is moves into Reggie’s small hotel, where comedy, suspense, murder, and paranoid gallows humor also set up light housekeeping.

The Criterion DVD features a great and witty
commentary track by Donen and Stone!
Charade is the movie that made me a fan of both Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. In fact, I actually saw Charade long before I ever saw any of Donen’s classic musicals. He has fun with Charade’s Hitchcockian aspects, such as the clever corpse-eye-view shot involving a morgue drawer. Every other line of Stone’s screenplay is sparklingly quotable, and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are among my favorite screen couples. It’s a pity they didn’t have more opportunities to team up onscreen together during their long careers. My family and I have always loved the wry way that Grant, then 59, and Hepburn, then 34, kidded the age difference between them. That was more or less Grant’s idea, according to Donen and Stone on the superb Criterion Collection DVD’s delightful, anecdote-rich commentary track. Grant was concerned that it would be unseemly for a man his age to be chasing a beautiful woman so much younger than him, so he convinced the filmmakers to make Hepburn’s character the romantic aggressor. Personally, I found this gambit to be quite charming, and it makes sense for Reggie’s trusting, romantic, impulsive personality. 

Will Reggie and Peter/Alex/Adam
live happily and frivolously ever after?
In fact, Audrey Hepburn had the most remarkable knack for being glamorous yet approachable; she was one of the most endearing glamour-pusses in movie history. James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau are in top form in their early pre-Oscar screen roles. Both Hepburn and Paris look their sophisticated best here; let’s face it, Audrey was born to wear Givenchy!  Charade’s driving opening theme is my favorite piece of Henry Mancini music (the Pink Panther theme comes a very close second). In fact, the whole score reflects the film’s many moods perfectly. Without giving too much away, I love the clever MacGuffin, too; those who aren’t as into philately as my stepdad may have a new respect for stamp-collecting after watching Charade!

One of the nice things about the film is it does a good job of using its setting as part of the plot.  Many films could take place in any city - they don't take advantage of any landmarks, there's no sense that the people around them are in any way representative of the city they're in.  But Charade weaves its way in and out of Paris perfectly, they ride the Bateaux Parisiens, the floating restaurant on the Seine, and the climax takes place around the Palais-Royal

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Sharks vs The Rats - Team Bartilucci's Summer Movies post!

This post is for The Beach Party Blogathon, Hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, from June 8th - 12th, 2015!

Dori's pick

Jaws (1975): “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Post!”

In case you haven't heard, Fathom Events is bringing
JAWS back to theaters for two days only!
More info at
JAWS was the blockbuster hit of 1975 – indeed, the FIRST of what we call a blockbuster, being the first film to break 100 million dollars.  Seems a paltry sum today – now a film is practically considered a dismal failure if it DOESN’T break a hundred million! Of all the people that became household names as a result of the film, the biggest have to be sharks themselves.  It made shark attacks guaranteed ratings for the nightly news, and put the Discovery Channel on the map when some clever dick decided to give them a week of programming every year, a week some look forward to the way a kid looks forward to Christmas.

I remember the first time our family went to see Steven Spielberg’s thriller.  At the time, I was the youngest kid in our family, as well as the shyest  (though nobody ever believes me; I guess I talk a good game! :-D) . I was at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, where we lived at the time. I was nervous as all get out, but my Mom said. “Don’t worry, little one, we’ll help you!”  Even my older brother Peter was smiling and, saying, “You’ll be fine!”  He was a lifeguard that summer – what a year to pick, huh? So, Mom and our parents and friends were both scared silly, yet nursed guilty hopes that hoped we kids might find a Great White Shark in the Long Island Sound.

JAWS also gave me my first crush on rumpled and vulnerable Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper.  He’d go on to win an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl and entertain in plenty of films, including house favorite, What About Bob? Roy Scheider came a close second in the crush race, with an equally stellar career in thrillers like Last Embrace, and Still of the Night as well as wacko outings like Naked Lunch.

If this shark doesn't leave me alone I'm gonna give
"poop deck" a whole new meaning!
Murray Hamilton, a character actor known for “having ROTC” in No Time for Sergeants and the moody Frankenheimer classic Seconds played the Mayor of Amity island, and if he didn’t take that anchor-emblazoned blazer home with him, I’ll lose all respect for him.  Actress Lorraine Gary may have had a sweet deal as being the bosses’ at wife of Universal, but I found her to be endearing as Ellen Brody.

Fun Fin Fact – In Peter Benchley’s (grandson of better-than-us humorist Robert Benchley) original novel on which the film is based, Hooper and Ellen Brody were secret lovers, and ended up dead.  Just as well that they dropped that – would have made it hard to like him!

The film starts off with a bang (and many whimpers from the audience) with poor swimmer Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) doing out for a quick dip, and becoming the first…boating accident victim.  At least that’s what Mayor Vaughn insists it was; what with only a few days before the July 4th holiday, he doesn’t want to scare the island’s main source of income away with news of a shark attack.

The poster for JAWS may be the single most parodied
image in the history of film. 
Fun Fin Fact – Backlinie would return four years later, not for Jaws 2 (thank God) but for Spielberg’s foray into comedy, 1941, to play a similar young lady who decides to go for a swim, but with decidedly different results!

Sheriff Brody (Scheider) a former city cop who hates the water, suspects that may not be the case (what with all the bite marks and all) but goes with the Mayor, because hey, what are the odds that it’ll…oh, yeah, so it happens again. A kid gets et, and when his mom puts a bounty on the shark, there’s a feeding frenzy for it, which is what we writers call “irony”.

Brody calls in oceanographer Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) to give a second opinion on Chrissie’s autopsy.  He does, vociferously, and it is summarily ignored by the Mayor, who happily invites the tourists to the beach, because what are the odds that THREE…oh yeah.

They hire grizzled shark fisherman Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) to bring in the monster, and it’s here that the film spends most of its time.  Indeed, when he was offered the job, director Steven Spielberg said the shark hunt was his favorite part of the story, and planned to make it the dramatic center of the film. With the help of editor Verna Fields, the balance between humor and shock was perfected.  Case in point – the famous (and allegedly ad-libbed) line “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” was originally lost under the screams of the audience after the preceding shot of Ol’ Brucie popping up to dine on chum – they added space to Brody’s reaction and increased the volume so it wouldn’t be missed.

Spielberg had moments of doubt during the filming, but
I doubt he ever really thought of doing this!
The shoot of the film is legendary – it went twice again over the budgeted shooting schedule of 50 days, and the mechanical shark almost never worked, spawning the title of two separate documentaries about the film.  But as happens at great moments in history, things going wrong often bring great inspiration.  With the shark barely functioning, the plan changed to barely showing the shark.  Save for a tactfully photographed fin and that iconic theme by John Williams, the source of all our fear barely made an appearance until we board Quint’s ship the Orca.

It’s been said that Star Wars changed film and the film industry forever, changing the mindset to the goal of the “summer movie” and the slow replacement of character-driven films with action and thrillers.  But I maintain that move started here with JAWS. While still very much a character film, which Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, it got the ball rolling for wide releases and bigger budgets.  The film was originally to open in as many as 900 theaters, a staggering number for the day.  But after a screening, Universal honcho Lew Wasserman ordered the number of screen be reduced. Not because he doubted the film, just the opposite – he saw the film running all summer, and wanted to make it a destination event. Reducing the number of theaters meant people would have to drive a bit to see it – quite the change in tactics from what we see today, where they’d run the film on the side of a bark if they thought they could sell a few more tickets.

Vinnie's pick

“He is Our Ideel” – the undeniable charm of Eric Von Zipper

You can tell the quality of a hero by the caliber of the foes he attracts.  And loveable teenagers (a highly elastic term in Holywood) Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon had the perfect foil in their classic run of beach movies – the ultimate tough guy, the lord of all he surveys, the great Eric Von Zipper, undisputed leader of the Rats, the roughest motorcycle gang on the beach.

Played with comic virtuosity by Harvey Lembeck, Zipper was a note-perfect parody of Marlon Brando’s character from The Wild One. Indeed, in Beach Blanket Bingo, Zipper says his favorite actor is “Marlo Brandon”. Harvey and his gang so permeated the national zeitgeist that to this day there’s no major city that isn’t rumored to have a street gang called the Rats, responsible for most of the havoc and chaos the police are tasked to combat.

The Rats and their fearless leader were largely ineffectual, befitting the fun harmless nature of the films.  Harvey was a master of slapstick and physical comedy, peppering his performance with odd gestures and moves to order the Rats around, punctuated by well-placed sound effects.

Eric and the Rats almost outlived the beach party films themselves.  They last appeared in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, with almost a completely different cast– the Rats served as the connecting tissue to the rest of the series. Eric and Annette Funicello has unnamed cameos in the Frankie Avalon vehicle Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which was a very interesting production.  Lembeck appeared on a Very Special Episode of popular dance series Shindig! titled The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, designed as publicity for the film. Harvey played the role of Hugo, played by Jack Mullaney in the film.  According to star Vincent Price, Goldfoot was to have been a “horror musical”, in the style of Rocky Horror which would come along decades later.  The Shindig special featured many of those songs that never got used for the film, performed by Lembeck and Price.

Harvey Lembeck was an established and successful character actor, including a long run on Sgt. Bilko, the Phil Silvers show. He took the role of Harry Shapiro he created in Stalag 17 on Broadway and carried it to the Billy Wilder classic movie, playing against William Frawley Robert Strauss as Animal.

Why me? Why me alla time?
Harvey was an early proponent of improvisational comedy – when he was asked by Jack Kosslyn of the Mercury Theater to take over their actors’ workshop, he agreed, but used it to teach comedy instead of drama.  Starting with scripted pieces, he used improv as a tool to sharpen the wit of the students as he realized there weren’t nearly enough scripts to practice with.  The comedy workshop that bears his name is still going strong, run by his kids, director Michael Lembeck and actress Helaine, best known from her run on Welcome Back Kotter.  The alumni of the school is a staggering list, from Robin Williams to Brian Cranston, from Sharon Stone to Kim Cattrall.  For some time, the school had space at Paramount Studios, and the producers of their TV shows would regularly visit the classes to see who Harvey was working with. Garry Marshall often picked the best of Harvey’s students, including his own sister Penny Marshall and Al Molinaro, to star in his shows.

By the time producer James Nicholson approached Harvey Lembeck to be in their first “beach party” film (creatively titled Beach Party) he had already amassed a successful acting career.  So what inspired him to take on the role? According to his son Michael Lembeck, a successful director in his own right, it was to help students in his classes.  He would populate the Rats (and its female auxiliary, the Mice) with his students. The films were, as Michael put it, “The silliest thing he ever did” but it provided a place to showcase “his kids”.  “He treated his students like family” said Michael, something that carries through to Michael’s work today. “I’ll have my cast over for dinner while we’re working”.

Eric falls victim (again?) to the
Himalayan Time Suspension Technique.

The beach party story has never gone out of style, and the role of the tough guy ruling the beach a la Eric and the Rats remains just as vital. While it didn’t take place on the beach, early seasons of Happy Days featured street gang The Demons, led by their Zipper-analogue, Bag Zombrowski.  Ten years after the last beach party film, Harvey’s daughter Helaine got her first professional job on The Krofft Supershow (which also featured her brother Michael as the lead singer of Kaptain Kool and the Kongs) in a show called Magic Mongo, about some teenagers spending all their time on the beach…with their genie (played by Lennie Weinrib).  The role of the beach tough “Ace” was filled by Bart Braverman, just a couple years before his run on Vegas. Another ten and change years after that, Frankie and Annette reunited for Back to the Beach, featuring many of the original cast.  Harvey had passed on by then, but the spirit of the Von Zipper clan was carried on by Zed and his gang, an 80’s punk re-interpretation of the Rats.  His last name was never given, but if he wasn’t the son of Eric and Puss (the muscular blonde in the Mice played by Alberta Nelson), I’ll eat my second-favorite hat. His sway has reached outside of film well. There’s a Brazlian surf-rock band, Erick Von Zipper, named after him, and sells quality sunglasses and goggles for the discriminating beach and snow-bum.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Night At The Opera – Here comes Sanity Clause!

This post is for The Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon, Hosted by CMBA, from April 27 through May 1, 2015!
Starring The Marx Brothers: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, and Harpo Marx.
Co-starring Margaret Dumont, Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones
Director: Sam Wood (1934)

Fantasia in Radio City Music Hall!  Especially “What’s Opera, Doc?” with Elmer Fudd singing “”Kill the Wabbit” over the Ring Cycle (no hobbits in sight, of course, this was the ORIGINAL Ring tale, but that’s, you should pardon the expression, another story) Call it a “Gateway drug” if you like except it’s not illegal -- you only get high on music and comedy.
We kids were introduced to the classics as kids from Looney Tunes and Disney’s

Likewise, odds are most classic comedy fans’ look at opera was likely from the Marx Brothers masterpiece, A Night at the Opera.  I’ve been a fan of The Marx Brothers since my older siblings showed me their comedies when I was in kindergarten!  They sat me down to watch The Cocoanuts, with also introduced me to Kay Francis with each new zany antics, including, where I also discovered Kay Francis.  I rarely find a Marx Brothers comedy that I haven’t liked, but A Night at the Opera is my hands-down favorite!

To say that Bugs and the Marx boys had parallels is an understatement.  Bugs had to work triple time, taking on aspects of all three of the Brother, from Groucho’s sharp tongue to Chico’s willingness to engage in a blow to the head, to Harpo’s sheer manic frenzy, ripping pants and coats all in the campaign to make his target look and feel an utter fool.

The Marx Brothers had settled into almost archetype roles for their films, and this is no exception.

Every Marx Brothers film has at least one
perfectly quotable malaprop pun - Night at the
Opera delivers one of the best
as Otis B. Driftwood; promoter and sometime con-man; ever sidling up to the ample bosom and bank account of Mrs. Claypool, played by film’s greatest straight man, Margaret Dumont

Chico Marx takes his heavily accented position as Firello,, kind of a wise guy, but sharp and well meaning.  He’s slightly less actively criminal this time around, but he’s clearly not above whipping out a leather cosh when needs must.

He is ever teamed with his “Silent partner” Tomasso, played by Harpo Marx, playing his traditional role of mute whirlwind of chaos.

As usual, Groucho starts alone, working his way into Mrs. Claypool’s best graces as primary patron of the city’s opera company, where he sets himself up with a cushy managerial position, careful never to actually hear any singing.  Keen to sign legendary European tenor Rodolfo Lasparri (not the one “of Palermo Sicily), for all of you who saw The Freshman) he meets Fiorello, who claims to manage “The greatest tenor in the world”. Of course, he’s not referring to The Great Lasparri, but his friend Ricardo (Allan Jones) who has no resume as a singer. But Lasparri has the hots for Ricardo’s girl, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and when he’s approached to sing, he says he won’t go to New York without her.

As zany as the boys can be, they can also be kind and helpful to their friends, so at this point, Lasparri become the Marx’ “Special friend” (as the Marx-channeling Warner Brothers called their targets of torment on Animaniacs) and he becomes the target of their own special brand of War of Nerves.  At the same time, Groucho has to keep Mrs. Claypool’s cheeks blushing, and keep his opposition for her charms and bankbook, Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) off balance. 

The trip back from Europe provides us what may be one of the greatest scenes of physical comedy in a Marx Brothers film, and possibly any film ever, The Stateroom Scene.Two and a half minutes of filmic perfection.

The setup is simple – Driftwood’s room on the ship is calamitously small – so much so that it can barely accommodate himself and his monstrous steamer trunk, which is itself accommodating stowaways Fiorello, Tomasso and Ricardo.  So as more and more people arrive to do various work in the room, it become increasingly sardine-like.  To this day it’s one of the only scenes of black-and-white film that our daughter Siobhan will willingly sit through, and no surprise why.

The Marxes were all noted lotharios - none of them ever
needed a "beard"!
Graham Linehan, creator of classic British sitcoms like Father Ted and The IT Crowd, points out a theory of sitcom scenarios from Griff Rhys-Jones – the characters in a sitcom must be trapped, or otherwise stuck together, or why else would they stay with people they hated?  That adds another layer of comedy to the scene – all throughout the scene, Groucho is trying to prepare for an intimate dalliance with Mrs. Claypool, resulting in a moment of surprise when she arrives.

When is a door not a door?  When it's a cot held up
to hide from a detective, obviously!
When the company arrives in New York, there’s the matter of the ship being three Italians heavy.  So the boys pose as visiting Russian aviators, allegedly fresh from a grand adventure.  After a speech at City Hall goes south, the stowaways are on the run, and with a policeman hot on their trail, it becomes very difficult for Groucho to keep all his oars in the water.  Not as famous as the Stateroom Scene is the sequence where the crew must shell-game a series of cots between two hotel rooms to keep Detective Henderson off kilter.

The final reel is sheer Marx madness as a massive plot is hatched to get revenge on all those who have wronged them, get the starcrossed lovers back together, and get Driftwood back into Mrs Claypool’s arms and trust fund.

The manic action of a Marx Brothers movie is met equally by the wit of the dialogue.  Groucho has a free-range tongue, and from it comes some of the most perplexing verbiage ever heard on film, leaving the stage littered with confused targets:

Otis B. Driftwood: That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.
Mrs. Claypool: Really?
Driftwood: Of course, that's why I'm sitting here with you. Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips! Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you. How do you account for that? (to the camera) If she figures that one out, she's good.

Decades later, Dennis Dugan directed a truly under-appreciated remake of this film titled Brain Donors. Set in a ballet company instead of opera, it features John Tuturro in the Groucho-esque role of Roland T. Flakfiser, Mel Smith as Rocco Melonchek and hybrid stand-up comic Bob Nelson standing in for Harpo as Jacques. Nancy Marchand, then known best from Lou Grant and now better known for The Sopranos steps in for Dumont as doddering dowager Lillian Ogelthorpe.  It more than satisfies the requirements that a remake must meet, and while it can never replace the original, it does a fine job of showing that classic comedy still holds up today.  Well worth a look

Sunday, April 12, 2015

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1961): Face the Music!

This post is forThe Great Villain Blogathon, Hosted by Speakeasy; Shadows & Satin; and Silver Screenings, from April 13 through April 17, 2015, revised for 2015!

Have you ever seen a movie that seems like a typical genre flick, but as you keep watching it, you realize it’s got a mind of its own, and it’s so wild and crazy and all-but-off-the rails, you soon realize that you can’t help loving it?  Well, gang, meet the 1951 RKO comedy/noir His Kind of Woman, which also quickly became one of my favorite movies!  Director John Farrow (The Big Clock; Wake Island; and; Hondo, among many other memorable films, with the directing mostly given to Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) was responsible for considerable tweaking—re-shoots, even!  Lots of writers were in His Kind of Woman, too, including Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard, with Gerald Drayson Adams’ original story getting credit as well. Seems like everyone gets a little credit here, and why not, with that swell cast?

In His Kind of Woman, we meet our Villain from the start: Nick Ferraro, a vicious deported crime boss with a sinister agenda. Raymond Burr plays one of his very best villain roles here as the wicked Raymond Burr, the man who scared us in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window; Raw Deal; A Place in The Sun; the role of Steve Martin (no, not the actor/comedian/author Steve Martin) from the classic Japanese thriller Godzilla, now a hero for a change!  We don’t want to spill all the surprises, though we’re impressed with Burr's range, from bad guys to many Emmy-Awards for his role as good-guy-lawyer Perry Mason.  In real life, Burr was a complicated man who left his private life to himself, with his loyal long-time friends and colleagues, including the cast of Perry Mason and Ironside.  Good for him; the man was entitled to have a private life and trusted friends as, as well as his Emmy Awards! 

"OK, who's the wise guy cracking Selznick jokes?!"
Burr freely invented the facts of his life, often claiming to tragedy to triumph, claiming to have had a happy childhood; then joining the Coast Guard; then acting and working at a Vancouver stock theater. No wonder Burr became an actor, even if Burr had to fudge his credits – but it worked!  Burr became starstruck, becoming an apt pupil, eager to become an actor.  His  He started playing heavies (literally, with his huge frame)  playing heavies to film movie stars villains to fame and fortune as TV’s Perry Mason and Ironside, with fame and Emmys, bless him; with Burr’s superb as a fine a fine actor both before his success as a TV and film actor and with Burr’s thanks to Perry Mason and Ironside!  Burr was quite the chameleon, but I’d say it served him well in his acting career. showed

But today, the spotlight belongs to the stars of His Kind of Woman!
Burr played superbly in his villain roles, which says a lot, considering Robert Mitchum is at his bedroom-eyed best as Dan Milner, a rambler and a gambler, literally. But Dan is easy to like; how can you not trust a guy who sticks with milk or ginger ale instead of booze, and helps others who are in trouble as well!   Sure, it’s implied that Dan has gotten in trouble with liquor in the past, but it’s also that clear that that Dan has learned his lesson.  Dan is the kind of likable lug who really should get in the habit of looking before he leaps. He seems to have been pretty successful at making a living from gambling (we wish Dan was a real guy who could’ve given my late dad pointers!), but Lady Luck hasn’t been returning Dan’s calls lately (dames—sheesh!). But Dan has a funny feeling there’s more to his recent string of nigh-Kafkaesque mishaps than cold dice, especially when he’s accosted by a couple of smooth-talking, suit-clad jaspers: Corley (the uncredited Paul Frees, whose voice is well known to Team Bartilucci from both animated and live-action films, including another RKO classic, The Thing from Another World), and Thompson (Charles McGraw from The Narrow Margin and The Killers, who also narrates the film in early scenes).  Corley and Thompson offer Dan a cool fifty-grand (big money back them) to go to The Morros Lodge, a fabulous Mexican resort (filmed in Baja California) and await further instructions, no questions asked (well, few questions, anyway).  Dan’s not entirely comfortable with the arrangement, but he sure can use the dough. Wonder if Dan’s ever heard a little story about a Trojan horse?

Dan sure knows how to rub Lenore the right way!
While waiting for his plane to Mexico, tough guy Dan is smitten in spite of himself when he meets the lovely, sassy, ostensibly rich Lenore Brent (Jane Russell from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes;The; Paleface; Macao), giving her lovely voice, among her other charms (producer Howard Hughes never missed an opportunity to showcase the ravishing Russell’s pulchritude). I always enjoy The Paleface hearing Jane Russell sing; she has a nice snappy way with a song, and she’s both sultry and jaunty as she sings “Five Little Miles from San Berdoo” and the torchy  “You’ll Know.” Despite their characters’ mutual cat-and-mouse routine, you can see the electricity crackling between Russell and Mitchum. There they are, sexy and playful as all get-out, and nobody’s naked (though they sometimes come close, at least by late 1940s/early 1950s standards)! By all accounts, Mitchum and Russell were good friends offscreen, and only friends. (In fact, after Mitchum’s death in 1997, Russell and Mitchum’s wife Dorothy scattered his ashes at sea.  But I digress!)

Back at the Morros Lodge the ranch, er, lodge, the fun in the sun apparently includes role-playing games as well, because each vacationer Dan meets at this gorgeous resort seems to be trying to be someone else!  Lenore may or may not be an heiress, and her real name may or may not be Liz Brady; Bill Lusk (Tim Holt of The Magnificent Ambersons and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) might be a drunken tourist, or he might be a wily Fed. Myron Winton (Jim Backus, whose many roles included Rebel Without A Cause and TV’s Gilligan’s Island, not to mention the voice of Mr. Magoo!) is a! businessman who turns out to be a card sharp, or maybe just a plain old cheater. Then there’s mysterious author Martin Kraft (John Mylong) who only seems interested in playing chess with himself (“Maybe he hates to lose,” Dan suggests).

I also like that Dan is basically a decent guy with a kind heart underneath his sleepy-eyed shrewdness, like when he helps the young newlywed couple win their money back from sneaky so-and-so Winton. Maybe that’s why Lusk finally ditches his lush routine and reveals to Dan that he’s an immigration officer pursuing evil Nick Ferraro (is Nick an evil S.O.B. or what!?)  Burr is in his element in one of his juiciest over-the-top bad-guy roles before Perry Mason made him a TV star). Turns out the only thing Kraft writes is prescriptions: he’s really a plastic surgeon who was himself deported, like Nick. Seems Dan’s role in all this is the ultimate face-off: the doc’s supposed to put Dan’s face on the evil Nick so he can sneak back into the U.S., after which Nick and his boys will bump Dan off so Nick can keep his secret! Yikes!

Don't you go fainting on me when  I'm trying to torment you, mister!
I’ll admit the mix of film noir suspense and zany comedy gets a bit lopsided at times, but I was so caught up in the fun of His Kind of Woman, I was having too much fun to quibble!  I liked the nice background details, too, like the sarcastic radio announcer ragging on Nick Ferraro!  Lots of our favorite uncredited supporting players in His Kind Of Woman also include Mamie Van Doren, Robert Cornthwaite (clean-shaven and almost unrecognizable from his role as the exhausted, going-mad scientist in The Thing from Another World), and Anthony Caruso (The Asphalt Jungle, among others) as one of Nick’s vicious strong-arm boys. On a related note, it’s interesting to see the difference between early 1950s and 21st-century beefcake. As I said in my I Wake up Screaming post, today’s muscular hunks are so ridiculously ripped, you'd cut yourself if you touched them!  However, Nick is a psychotic, with a posse of sadistic henchmen, including Anthony Caruso (The Asphalt Jungle).; Charles McGraw.  But it’s Nick who’s the true villain.  He’s so nuts that he won’t let poor Dan come to come to until he gets to see right in his eyes!  Even the bad guys are getting antsy; maybe they’ve got more dates with other vicious bad guys his a gun in his hand – that guy’s so nutty, even his fellow goons are getting antsy, or maybe they just has other creeps to victimize!

My king for a horse, but guns will do! Vincent Price steals the show as movie star Mark Cardigan!
Ironically, one of the most sincere characters in His Kind of Woman. is Vincent Price’s character, the flamboyant movie star Mark Cardigan. He thinks he’s gonna run off with his mistress Lenore.  Surprise!  Wifey Helen (Marjorie Reynolds of Ministry of Fear; and White Christman)) shows up, with her attorney in tow.  Price is clearly having a blast, and I don’t just mean with his hunting rifle!  Even with Mark’s goofy airs, he saves the day, bless him (with a few hilarious fits and starts along the way). Every cast member is great fun to watch, though there’s no denying that Price steals the show as Mark. He basks in the spotlight and he’s a big ham, but a tasty one. Even better, Mark truly puts his money where his Shakespeare-trained mouth is when Dan’s in danger. The scene where Mark tries to squeeze every volunteer at the resort into the boat to rescue Dan is laugh-out-loud funny!

Over at the TCM Web site, Price wrote that Mitchum was “heaven to work of those “diamond- in- the-rough”  types in whose character you can’t find any sort of holes because he’s so open and honest...He’s a complete anachronism. He claims he doesn’t care about acting, but he’s an extraordinary actor. He’s one of that group of people in Hollywood who are such extraordinary personalities that people forget they’re marvelous actors.” Moreover, Mitchum was generous on the set, treating about twenty members of the cast and crew to lunch in his bungalow every day, and “on several occasions when he realized his stand-in had had a rough night, he stood in for the stand-in.” Don’t you love it when actors you like turn out to be decent folks, too?

The Film's DVD commentary mentions that one of the band members seen in the background of several scene was Lalo Guererro, credited as the father of Pacheco, or Chicano music.  In addition to popularizing the latin sub-style , he was also a master parodist, with Mexicanized versions of hit songs like "Tacos for Two" and his first big hit, "Pancho Lopez", a parody of Davy Crockett.