Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wedding Bell Wackiness Double-Feature: BALL OF FIRE and OSCAR

This post is being published as part of the CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon from January 22nd to 27th, 2012.

Love is a funny thing, especially in the movies, so Vinnie and I have donned our Team Bartilucci romantic screwball comedy caps to spotlight two of our favorites!

Dorian’s Pick: Ball of Fire (1941)

“Once upon a time — in 1941 to be exact — there lived in a great, tall forest — called New York — eight men who were writing an encyclopedia. They were so wise they knew everything: The depth of the oceans, and what makes a glowworm glow, and what tune Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. But there was one thing about which they knew very little — as you shall see…”

How could I not fall in love with Ball of Fire (BoF)? To borrow a line from Foul Play, it was fate, Fergie — kismet! The star team of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, reunited from Meet John Doe that same year, was a tantalizing draw, plus I’m a sucker for stories set in my hometown, New York City. But I was also interested in BoF because I like comedies about characters who appreciate wordplay and learning (Pygmalian/My Fair Lady, anyone?). I’ve loved reading, writing, and generally having fun with the English language ever since I learned to read at the age of three (during a family vacation in the Bahamas, but that’s a story for another time). My older siblings used to show me off by having me read passages from The New York Times out loud; granted, I didn’t always understand what all the words meant, but somehow I figured out what they sounded like phonetically. For another thing, on an even more personal note, BoF’s sassy heroine Katherine O’Shea goes by the name “Sugarpuss,” or “Shugie” for short. As luck would have it, our daughter Siobhan’s nickname happens to be “Shugie”!  (For the record, “Shugie” is pronounced like “sugar” ending with “ee” instead of “er.” For those of you who’ve never heard the name “Siobhan,” it’s pronounced “shuh-VON.” Those who pronounce it ‘SIGH-oh-ban’ will be asked to leave the Internet.) Mind you, this was long before we watched and loved BoF; up till then, we had nicknamed Siobhan “Shugie” in honor of Shaggy’s baby sister on the animated TV series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (yet another story for yet another time. We’ve got a million of ’em)! Our Shugie thought the name “Sugarpuss O’Shea” was the most hilarious name she’d ever heard!

Professor Potts digs NYC’s sub(way)culture!
Taking good notes for research is important!
Sweetening the entertainment pot further, other talented people behind BoF included director Howard Hawks; Samuel Goldwyn, producing BoF for RKO; screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who based their story on Wilder and Thomas Monroe’s From A to Z; and versatile Director of Photography Gregg Toland, who got an Oscar nomination that year for Citizen Kane. To qualify for the 1941 Academy Awards, BoF played a week-long engagement in Los Angeles, then officially opened at the Radio City Music Hall in January 1942. Set in the then-contemporary New York City of 1941, BoF is a breezy comic take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (more about that shortly). In New York City’s Central Park, we meet our hero Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper in lovable naïf mode), the youngest of eight brilliant, endearing professors taking a constitutional in Central Park on the first sunny spring day of the season. Prof. Potts’ colleagues are played by a great cast of beloved character actors: Oskar Homolka (Hitchcock’s Sabotage and the Harry Palmer spy thrillers Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain) as Prof. Gurkakoff; Henry Travers (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, It’s a Wonderful Life) as Prof. Jerome; S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall (Casablanca, Wonder Man) as Prof. Magenbruch; Tully Marshall (Scarface, Grand Hotel) as Prof. Robinson; Leonid Kinskey (Duck Soup and The Man with the Golden Arm, and he’s a Casablanca alumnus, too) as Prof. Quintana; Aubrey Mather as Prof. Peagram (Jane Eyre, The Song of Bernadette); and Prof. Oddly (Team Bartilucci fave Richard Haydn, known for voicing animated characters as well as his supporting roles in live-action films). These men have virtually cloistered themselves in the house they all share at The Daniel S. Totten Foundation. They’re in their ninth year of writing their encyclopedia of slang. Man, these boys need to get out more! More to the point, they need to get their slang encyclopedia finished pronto, because even though Miss Totten (Mary Field from The Dark Corner and Dark Passage — so much dark in such a lighthearted movie!) has a crush on Potts, the Foundation’s lawyer Larsen (veteran character actor Charles Lane, back when he was actually young!) is pressuring our boys to “slap it together” and finish already. Potts firmly replies that “we are not the slapping-together kind…If our work goes slowly, it’s because the world goes so fast.” Well, Potts and company had better hang onto their hats, because their world is about to go a whole lot faster, not to mention funnier! (By the way, there isn’t a real-life toaster inventor named Daniel S. Totten that we know of, though there are electric toasters!) Fun Fact: According to the TCM Web site, Wilder and Brackett picked up authentic slang for the script by visiting the drugstore across the street from Hollywood High School; a burlesque house; and the Hollywood Park racetrack.
The happiest fellas in Brainiac Land!
Just as our eight professors aren’t seven height-challenged miners pitted against a wicked witch and a poisoned apple, nor is our heroine a sweet, demure princess. Instead, we have beautiful, brassy nightclub entertainer Sugarpuss O’Shea, a.k.a. Shugie (Stanwyck). She’s introduced to us in smart, snappy style, performing “Drum Boogie” (her singing was dubbed by Martha Tilton, bandleader Tommy Dorsey’s lead singer), accompanied by the great drummer Gene Krupa (as himself)! Seems the D.A. is convinced that Shugie’s gangster beau Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews, before Laura made him a star at 20th Century-Fox) just might have knocked off one of his fellow hoods. Ol’ John Law wants Shugie for questioning, since the D.A. has an incriminating receipt for a pair of pajamas she’d once given him as a gift. With a “subpeeny” nipping at her heels, Sugarpuss goes on the lam, and we don’t mean the Little-Bo-Peep kind! But Lilac’s henchmen Duke Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma Anderson (Ralph Peters) see the business card from Potts that Shugie had left behind after initially nixing his invitation to join his slang symposium. The thugs get ideas: first, if Lilac marries Shugie, he’ll be safe because as Mrs. Lilac, she wouldn’t be able to testify against him. Second, who’d think to look for Shugie in a quaint old house infested with bookworms? Asthma and Pastrami give Shugie incentive to go along with their scheme by giving her a ring with a diamond almost as big as the one at Yankee Stadium! Potts and his colleagues are plenty book-smart, but something tells me they’ll also be street-smart by the time Shugie gets through with them!
If Shugie’s the new neighborhood Avon Lady, we’ll take one of everything!
BoF’s sprightly plot and snappy patter had me smiling from the start. Cooper and Stanwyck have marvelous chemistry together as Shugie shakes up Potts and Company’s scholarly existence for the better. While the versatile Stanwyck is always awesome in both dramas (such as my own favorite, Double Indemnity) and comedies, I particularly enjoy seeing her funny flag fly in films like BoF and The Lady Eve. It’s a joy to see Stanwyck’s impeccable comic timing in BoF, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s as beautiful as she is hilarious. With Edith Head costuming her, whether Stanwyck is wearing sequins or a simple shirtwaist dress, you can’t take your eyes off her, especially with the confident, panther-like way she walks. I was touched at the sight of “Potsie’s” modest engagement ring above Joe Lilac’s huge rock, undoubtedly the best ring Potts could afford on his academic salary, bless him. His proposal to Shugie touched me even more, especially: “Dust piles on our hearts, and it took you to blow it away.” Shugie finds herself growing increasingly fond of her “eight wise idiots,” and slowly but surely falling in love with Potts and regretting her commitment to Lilac and the con job she agreed to.

Mr. Looper, er, Hooper, lilac’s not really your color!
But the professors climbing out of their ivory tower aren’t the only outstanding supporting character actors in BoF. There’s Will Lee as Benny the Creep, one of Lilac’s henchmen, long before he became the beloved Mr. Hooper on TV’s Sesame Street; Charles Arnt from My Favorite Brunette as Lilac’s lawyer; and Allen Jenkins (his many roles included George Sanders’ sidekick in the Falcon films and the voice of Officer Dibble on Hanna-Barbera’s animated series Top Cat, another Team Bartilucci fave) as a garbage man who enlists the professors’ help in winning a radio quiz show so he can take his sweetie out on the town — but let him tell you in his own words as Potts tries to keep up with all these new-to-him words and phrases:
“We’ll be steppin’, me and the smooch, I mean the dish, I mean the mouse, you know, hit the jiggles for a little rum boogie?...Brother, we’re gonna have some hoy-toy-toy!” In turn, the delighted professors roar, “Hoy-toy-toy!” The garbage man adds, “If you want that one explained, go ask your papa.”
 As Miss Bragg, Kathleen Howard is the very model of an uptight, narrow-minded den mother type who, to slightly paraphrase a line from Witness for the Prosecution, has just had an egg-beater thrown into the wheels of her Victorian household. Miss Bragg may mean well in her stick-up-the-butt way, but I couldn’t help hoping someone would belt her one, so I couldn’t help approving when Shugie did just that — that is, until I read on the TCM Web site that while shooting the fight scene with Howard, Stanwyck accidentally connected too hard with a punch and broke Ms. Howard’s jaw — yikes! Just goes to show sometimes it’s unwise to go too far for your art!

Is this what they mean by “stopping on a dime”?
Of all the lovable professors, the one I found myself most fond of was Richard Haydn’s Prof. Oddly, who gets so into whatever he’s examining that the other professors have to whistle for him like a dog. A widower, Prof. Oddly is the only one of the group who’s been married. When Shugie and the professors set off for New Jersey for the wedding, unaware that Lilac and his goons are setting the boys up, it leads to a funny and truly touching scene as Prof. Oddly suggests fatherly advice to Potsie, sharing his fond remembrances of happy times with his late wife Genevieve and the popular old song by that name, with all the professors poignantly singing along. With the help of a loose room number on the motel room door, it leads beautifully to both comedy and sweet love, though not without bumps along the way. It all ends in our guys dashing (in every sense) in top hats and tails to New Jersey to save the girl and the day in a finale that only our astute octet could have pulled off, and it had me cheering! It’s no wonder that, according to the TCM Web site, BoF ended up being the 25th highest-grossing film of 1942, taking in $2.2 million at the box office (which was serious coin back then). Between the success that year of both BoF and the Oscar-winning Sergeant York (1941), it was a mighty fine year for Gary Cooper, who ranked seventh at the box office for 1941 — no small feat considering all the films available back then, decades before TV and so many other forms of entertainment created competition for fans’ attention. Another Fun Fact: In 1942, Barbara Stanwyck joined her Remember the Night co-star Fred MacMurray for a radio version of BoF broadcast on Lux Radio Theatre in 1942, and of course, they would eventually reunite for Double Indemnity and There’s Always Tomorrow. On a related note, as a fan of Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, I’d like to check out A Song is Born, their musical remake with Hawks, even though I hear it’s not as good as the original. I sympathize; improving on the perfection of BoF is a tall order indeed!

Things that make you go "Yum-yum!"

Nothing perks up symposiums like a conga!
One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind her!

Before Witness for the Prosecution’s Monocle Test, there was Prof. Gurkakoff’s Reflector Test!

Hope is the thing with feathers — perfect for tickle torture!

Vinnie's Pick: Oscar (1991)

To simplify greatly, there are three types of people; those who have never seen Oscar, those who love Oscar, and those who have never forgiven John Landis for Vic Morrow, and refuse to give any of his work since a fair viewing.

It's a comedy, something that star Sylvester ("Stop or My Mom Will Shoot") Stallone is not well known for. Specifically it's a screwball farce, based on a French film from 1967 Director John Landis and his writing team turned it into a period piece, following many of its trappings religiously. It takes place largely in one location, the palatial residence of gangster Angelo "Snaps" Provolone, who has promised his father (a hiLARious cameo by Kirk Douglas) that he'd go straight. On one madcap day as he prepares to invest in a bank and fulfill his promise, he learns that his head accountant "Little" Anthony Rossano (Vincent Spano) is in love with his daughter, Lisa (Marisa Tomei) (except he's not), who is pregnant from another man, the titular Oscar, their chauffeur (except she's not), planned to marry her off to his dialect coach, Dr. Thornton Poole (Tim Curry) who is also in love with her (except he's not), and at random times, 100,000 dollars plays a shell game among three black satchels that make their way about the house.

Snaps, Connie, and Aldo  keep it all in the Family
Landis keeps the film going at a breakneck pace - characters and situations fly in and out of the house at ramming speed, the dialogue is fast and laced with period slang ("Nix the underwear, Doc, it never happened"). With all the questionable characters (and black bags) that come and go, it's no surprise Lt. Toomey (Kurtwood Smith, a guy who's a LOT better at being funny than people realize - we're still all remembering Clarence Boddicker) is sure something's up in the Provolone home. Like so many tributes to past genres, it's as good as you remember 1930s madcap comedies were, but so few actually were. Another recent example is Down With Love, which featured more bedroom comedy tropes per capita than any actual films of the genre.

The meat of the plot is from the French original, the comedy of errors about the people in love and the bags, but Landis added a whole layer of comedy by making it a comedic Prohibition-era period piece. Lots of wordplay comedy, many new characters, and the whole plot about the bankers and Lt. Toomey's insistence that things are not as they appear. And oh, those bags... A classic plot point of comedies, whether used as the McGuffin to get the spies after the wrong guy, or a devious way to hide the diamonds, it's been seen in endless films, in recent years, most famously What's Up Doc?

Lisa and Thornton's budding romance
is by the book!
Both Stallone and Landis surrounded themselves with friends - there's lots of folks in the film who'd worked with one or the other in past films. Peter Reigert and Mark Metcalf return from Animal House, as does scoremeister Elmer Bernstein. As opposed to the tack they took in Animal House, where Bernstein wrote a deliberately serious score that worked perfectly against the on-screen goings on, they went for a patently comedic soundtrack here, based on the opera The Barber of Seville.

A couple of important first major breaks in the film as well - It's Marisa Tomei's first major role, and while she got a Razzie for it, The Wife and I knew right away we'd be hearing from her again, and I don't mean a postcard. One year later she grabbed an ACTUAL Oscar for her role in My Cousin Vinny. Similarly, lovable lunkhead Connie was played to slack-faced perfection by Chazz Palmintieri, who just a year before had played a very different kind of mobster in his self-written one-man play A Bronx Tale. Combining this with similarly comedic gunsel Cheech in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and he quickly became one of our favorite comedic gangster actors. So when we later saw him in things like The Usual Suspects and the film version of A Bronx Tale, we were blown away by the diametric opposite performances.

"So, boss, which satchel has the secret
Government underwear?"
Tim Curry had just premiered his older, slightly puffier look in the previous year's The Hunt For Red October, and had already shown staggering ability for madcap comedy in another sadly underappreciated film, Clue. His timing here is flawless, his face a wild set of earnest expressions and a perfect upper-class twit of a voice.
But in honesty, the shining jewel of performances is Stallone himself. In later comedic performances like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, he's more parodying himself, but here he plays a note-perfect comedic gangster in the Damon Runyon tradition. He shares the screen with some heavy hitters, but holds his own expertly. "Snaps" remains exasperated throughout, and some of his best lines are when his emotions get the better of him. As he tries to explain a small part of his day to his wife Sofia (Ornella Muti), including mention of a daughter Theresa, she responds "We don't HAVE a daughter Theresa!", to which he gaspingly replies, "Do you think I don't KNOW that?"

Going to the chapel and they're gonna get married...
Few films got as bad a rap as this one in its time. In those pre-Internet days, it was able to be the number-one film for two weeks before the reviews started making the rounds and and people suddenly were educated as to how bad a film it was. It's gained a big following thanks to video, one it seriously deserves. See it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

NIAGARA: Falling for the Wrong Girl Can Be Murder

Niagara (1953) may have been filmed in dazzling Technicolor, but it’s got the black heart of a film noir! Directed by Henry Hathaway from a script by Billy Wilder’s frequent collaborator Charles Brackett (who also produced it), Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen, Niagara is a dark thriller despite the blue skies and white waters of majestic Niagara Falls; even Sol Kaplan’s music has a dark but lush tone, bringing to mind one of my favorite composers, Bernard Hermann. Director of Photography Joe McDonald (The Dark Corner, My Darling Clementine, Mirage) shot the beautiful, bright locations while still making atmospheric, suspenseful use of shadows and light. Even more dazzling is Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest star vehicles; the film’s ads boasted about the film’s two “forces of nature,” Niagara Falls and Marilyn, and they meant it! Monroe is sultry and slippery in one of her last femme fatale roles before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showed the world Marilyn’s funny side. 20th Century-Fox’s head honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck, wasn’t exactly Marilyn’s biggest fan. In the intro to the most recent TCM airing of Niagara, Robert Osborne reported that Zanuck felt she had no class, and that gals like her were a dime a dozen. What a dope! But the Marilyn Buzz was stronger and louder than Niagara Falls itself, so she got the upper hand; good for her! It helped that co-star Joseph Cotten was fond of her, and he was very kind and patient with Marilyn’s frequent tardiness. More importantly, Cotten recognized Ms. Monroe’s earnest determination to prove she wasn’t some here-today-gone-tomorrow type. Heck, after I learned all this, I was doubly impressed with Marilyn’s powerhouse performance, considering director Hathaway had a reputation as a tough taskmaster (see my blog post about The Dark Corner). Fun Fact: Niagara’s assistant director was Gerd Oswald, who went on to the TV series The Outer Limits.

Dangerous when wet! (Or dry, for that matter!)
Despite the happy cliché of Niagara Falls being a honeymooners’ paradise, Niagara The Movie is moody from the start as edgy George Loomis (Cotten) wanders around the Canadian side of the falls at dawn, feeling insignificant. He’s a war veteran freshly released from an Army hospital, where he was treated for PTSD, or as they called it back then, “battle fatigue.” He’s also got a gorgeous young sexpot wife, Rose (Monroe), so you’d think George’s life isn’t that bad. Ah, but Rose has thorns: a secret lover (Richard Allan, a tasty piece of eye candy) and a plot to kill George and make it look like suicide. In fact, Lover Boy is so secret that we never actually hear his name! For the record, old newspapers I checked on the Internet identified Richard Allan’s character as, variously, “Patrick” and “Ted Patrick.” In any case, George may not be the most stable guy, but I found myself feeling kinda sorry for him. This is why it’s so important to get to know someone before you get married (as Audrey Hepburn learns the hard way in Charade)!

Rose, you naughty girl, don’t smoke in bed! (How does she keep her glossy fire-engine red lipstick from smearing the sheets?)
Fate brings the Loomises together with Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Casey Adams, a.k.a. actor/composer Max Showalter from Sixteen Candles, among others). Polly and Ray are at the falls for their late honeymoon, long delayed by eager-beaver Ray’s demanding job as a cereal executive. Ray brings his Winston Churchill book with him (he’s a regular Lance Romance, that Ray), but he promises Polly that “It’ll be as good as a regular honeymoon.” “It should be better,” Polly replies teasingly. “I’ve got my union card now.” They laugh and snuggle, and that’s one of the few happy moments Polly and Ray have together before the Loomises make their honeymoon into a living hell.

Loving a wily vixen like Rose would give any guy a headache!
*SMASH!* "Uh, sorry; can't stand that darn
'I gave my love a cherry' song!"
Things get creepy, starting with small, mild inconveniences, like our lovebirds settling for a cabin with a so-so view because Rose and the unwell George are still in the cabin Polly and Ray were supposed to have. While the Cutlers enjoy their tour of the falls, Polly spies Rose making out with her hunky hottie. At an outdoor party that evening, Polly almost misses a romantic moment watching the falls’ light show with Ray because she’s bandaging George’s hand after he cuts himself breaking Rose’s favorite romantic record in a rage. For her part, Rose just sits there and smirks. (It reminded me of the toga party scene in Animal House when, out of nowhere, John Belushi busts up folkie Stephen Bishop’s guitar, then gives it back to him with a deadpan “Sorry.”) Our sympathetic honeymooners get fed-up as they’re reluctantly pulled deeper into the Loomises’ problems, not realizing wily Rose is setting them up as witnesses to George’s increasingly shaky mental state, all the better to make his eventual death look like suicide. Like that’s not enough, Ray’s ridiculously jolly boss, Mr. Kettering (Don Wilson, from Jack Benny’s various shows) and his wife (Lurene Tuttle from Psycho and oodles of TV shows) show up, eager to sightsee with the Cutlers and schmooze with Ray about giving him a raise because of his prize-winning shredded wheat promotion idea, turning the honeymoon into a busman’s holiday. Oy! 
By now, Polly and Ray have been through the wringer because of those loony Loomises, so even though Ray can be a chucklehead at times, I had to smile and sympathize with him being, to quote the High Noon theme song, “torn ’twixt love and duty,” sincerely wanting to take care of his distraught bride, yet reluctant to nix an opportunity to score a raise that would improve their life together in myriad ways. If the 1953 economy was anything like today’s economy, I can’t blame Polly for agreeing to include face time with the boss as part of their honeymoon itinerary! Peters and Adams make an appealing couple, sweet with a nice touch of insouciant playfulness. The peripatetic Ray clearly means well and loves Polly. Heck, he doesn’t even show any serious lust for the luscious Rose; he just makes good-natured wisecracks about her to Polly, and vice-versa. For that matter, I liked how Polly never acted catty or jealous around Rose. Now that’s self-confidence! As the calculating, manipulative Rose, Monroe smolders like nobody’s business, driving the fellas mad with her careless come-hither air and her curves in, as George grouses, a dress “cut down so low in front, you can see her kneecaps.” Monroe even gets to sing “Kiss” (no, not the Prince song), the lushly romantic tune that Rose and her secret sweetie like so much. It’ll come back to haunt her later, but I don’t want to give away the nifty twists! I’ll only say that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to call the bell tower scene his own. Admittedly, considering Hitchcock’s particular taste in female stars, I imagine Hitch would have picked a cooler, more subtle blonde than our Marilyn, dazzling though she is; I suspect Hitch would have considered Marilyn’s Rose Loomis to be more the Judy Barton type than the Madeleine Elster type . After the bell tower scene, the film almost literally drifts into Perils of Pauline territory, but by then I cared enough about the characters to stick around and see how it all worked out.

"Goody! My evil plan is working beautifully!"
Hot make-up sex with Rose? No wonder George is happy!
Cotten is at once terrifying and heartbreaking as Rose’s emotionally scarred fool for love/lust, a hard-luck guy who can’t seem to get out of his own way. We learn a lot about Rose and George’s relationship in little scenes and throwaway lines, like George admitting to Polly and Ray that he re-enlisted in the Army to show Rose he was still just as capable as any young stud. Then there’s the couple’s short-lived jubilance the day after that literally record-breaking fight. The Loomises laugh and kiss, with Rose under the covers in bed and George on top of her with the blanket between them (this was the 1950s, after all), talking about all the fun they’ll have when they hit Chicago. “Georgie, this is quite a change,” Rose purrs. “What brought this on?” George smiles at her. “You know what.” He gives her a long kiss. “When we have a fight and make up that way, I never want to leave your side.” Ooh, hot make-up sex — a little daring for a mainstream studio film of that era, no? All told, Niagara is good, dark, tawdry fun. By the way, keep an eye out for the uncredited Sean McClory of The Quiet Man fame (and many other movie and TV appearances) as Denis O’Dea’s right-hand man at the police station.

Hi, remember us, Jean Peters and Casey Adams, Marilyn and Joe's co-stars?

Wonder if Rose’s hunky hottie gets style tips from Bruno Antony?

Wonder if Rose gets her style tips from Marlene Dietrich?

What's the matter, Rose? Don't you like that song?

Bells are ringing for me and my MURDER!

"Uh, Georgie, let's not be hasty...c'mon, I'll sing you 'Happy Birthday'!"

"'Rest and relaxation, my foot! Come on, Polly, we're spending our
delayed honeymoon in Disney World! And no shredded wheat, I promise!"