Friday, May 27, 2011

THE DARK CORNER: You Picked a Fine Time to Meet Me, Lucille

Watch your step—you might trip over a spoiler or two!

At times, 20th Century-Fox’s 1946 thriller The Dark Corner (TDC) plays like a greatest-hits collection of classic ’40s suspense films, but to me, that’s part of its charm. The talents involved include: co-star Clifton Webb, again playing a witty, urbane, snobbish Manhattanite fascinated by a beautiful brunette and her portrait like Laura; The Glass Key’s co-star William Bendix, who’s always fun to watch whether he’s playing a lovable mug or, in this case, a hissable thug; and Laura’s co-screenwriter Jay Dratler, along with Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Leo Rosten of The Joy of Yiddish fame! Indeed, the versatile Rosten wrote TDC’s original 1945 Good Housekeeping serial under the nom de plume Leonard Q. Ross. Ever prolific, Rosten also wrote many other stories, novels, and movie scripts, including two of my favorites, All Through the Night (1941) and Mystery Street (1950). Even the film’s Gershwin-esque opening theme music, a piece by Alfred Newman titled "Manhattan Street Scene," had been used before, in Fox’s first neo-noir thriller I Wake up Screaming (1941). (Fun Fact: Newman's Oscar-winning family of composers includes nephew Randy Newman, another of our household faves!)

TDC’s engaging cast, sharp dialogue, and compelling plot elements work wonderfully under Henry Hathaway’s direction.Critics and audiences agreed that Lucille Ball shines in this early dramatic role of hers, long before I Love Lucy made her a comedy icon. According to both the TCM Web site and the entertaining DVD commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini, Hathaway was such a tough taskmaster that Ball had a nervous breakdown during the filming. It doesn’t show onscreen in her assured, appealing portrayal of smart, loyal secretary Kathleen Stewart, originally Kathleen Conley in the Good Housekeeping serial (in fact, the DVD’s package copy mistakenly identifies Kathleen’s last name in the film as Conley, not Stewart). Kathleen's falling in love with her P.I. boss, Bradford Galt (no relation to John Galt), and the feeling is mutual.

As Brad, Mark Stevens makes a fine Dick Powell-like transition from musicals to tough-guy parts. Brad’s starting out fresh in New York City after being framed for manslaughter and nearly killed in California by his corrupt ex-partner, lawyer Tony Jardine. As a favor to his Cali colleagues, local cop Lt. Reeves is keeping tabs on Galt to make sure the “impulsive youth” stays out of trouble. In the role of Reeves, fans of the March of Time newsreels will recognize Reed Hadley’s commanding speaking voice; he’s got great screen presence and a formidable air of authority. Nevertheless, it seems Brad’s past is coming back to haunt him. When Brad catches a big lug (Bendix) on his tail wearing a white suit (who does he think he is, Roy Scheider in Last Embrace?), he’s shocked when the guy claims Tony Jardine hired him. The plot thickens as vulnerable but determined Brad sets out to see if Tony’s aiming to finish what he started out west.

"Working conditions are certainly looking up around here." And how!
Meanwhile, on the swankier side of the city, art dealer/collector Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) drums up business for his posh art gallery and celebrates his third wedding anniversary at an elegant party for about a hundred of his closest friends and loved ones, including his beautiful young wife, Mari (Cathy Downs, who played the title role in My Darling Clementine and became the future wife of The Amazing Colossal Man). Hardy jokes that as a couple, Mari and Hardy are “the perfect picture of Beauty and the Beast,” though Mari charmingly disagrees. A close friend of the Cathcarts joins the celebration—none other than Tony Jardine himself (Kurt Kreuger, who excelled at playing smooth-talking Nazis and other shady Continental types), who’s apparently moved his law practice to The Big Apple! But Tony himself is still a bad apple, seducing and blackmailing vulnerable women of means.

"Beauty" Mari & "Beast" Hardy celebrate their 3rd anniversary. Tradition says leather is the gift of choice. Who'd have thought the Cathcarts were into leather?
We also find that Hardy’s burning love for Mari is like his passion for his paintings; he sees her and everything in his lavish home as treasured possessions. “I never want you to grow up,” Hardy coos to Mari as they waltz at the party. “You should remain ageless, like a Madonna, who lives and breathes and smiles, and belongs to me.” How’s that for an unsettling bit of sweet talk? Later, Hardy proudly unveils his newest acquisition, a painting he’s been obsessed with for years: a 19th-century portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Mari. It’s no coincidence: Hardy admits that when he met Mari after coveting the portrait for so long, “I felt as if I had always known her—and wanted her.” Although Hardy keeps Mari in the lap of luxury, the novelty of this marriage-cum-ownership is wearing off for his restless young wife. She and Hardy even have separate bedrooms (what did she expect with Clifton Webb and the Production Code?). No wonder Mari has the hots for Tony, unaware he’s a blackmailing gigolo. The script and Downs’s portrayal show Mari in a sympathetic light throughout TDC.  At a rendezvous with Tony at his luxe bachelor pad, Mari tells him, “Tony, I tried. I made a bad bargain, and I tried to stick it out with him, but I just keep sitting, listening to his paintings crack with age.” With the conflicting emotions flitting across Tony’s face as Mari gets more insistent that they run away together, we viewers can almost hear him thinking, “What about my career? How will I keep my seduction-and-extortion racket going after she dumps her rich husband to marry me?”  But that’s the least of their problems when these worlds of high society and low crime finally collide, as Hardy uses trickery and White Suit’s strong-arm tactics to fit Brad for a frame and Tony for a pine box.

To complicate matters further, Brad can be his own worst enemy at times, especially since Tony’s near-fatal double-cross shook Brad’s confidence in himself, leaving him prone to drinking and despair. Good thing Kathleen always thinks on her feet when trouble rears its nasty head. She has a knack for dragging Brad out of his periodic pity parties and helping him focus on clearing himself while also rebuilding his shattered confidence. If you ask me, Kathleen is underpaid! The chemistry between Ball and Stevens deliciously blends banter, tenderness, and sexual smolder. Though Kathleen deftly keeps Brad from going all the way because she “plays for keeps,” the lovebirds still get into some pretty hot kissing, especially in a great scene showing the couple reflected in a mirror as they embrace.

A murder frame-up is no laughing matter to Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens

I like the whole “haves” vs. “have-nots” element running through TDC, with little details like the running gag about Brad scoring nylon stockings for Kathleen, and the crucial clue Brad gets from the slide-whistle-playing urchin (the uncredited Colleen Alpaugh) in White Suit’s building. Keep an eye out for two other uncredited but memorable character actors: Minerva Urecal, best known to Team Bartilucci as Mother in the 1960 season of TV's Peter Gunn and the harridan who gets briefly turned to stone in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), playing one of Brad’s clients; and Douglas Spencer of The Thing from Another World as one of several deli customers gawking as Brad almost becomes a hit-and-run victim. In one scene between Hardy and White Suit, there’s this highbrow-to-lowbrow translation that always cracks me up as Hardy instructs White Suit to phone Brad and trick him into a deadly rendezvous:
Hardy (whispering to White Suit):
“Tell him you need two-hundred dollars to leave town.”

White Suit (to Brad on phone):

“I need two yards, powder money!”
Getting back to clues, I love that something as prosaic as dry cleaning helps our heroes crack the case!  Another nice bit: Brad is dropping Kathleen off at the movies near his apartment, where he’s going to face off with White Suit. Worried, Kathleen pouts, “I never thought I’d have to beg you to take me up to your apartment.” Brad replies, with a grin, “You’ve been there...” The box office gal (Mary Field from Dark Passage, another uncredited scene-stealer) has the most priceless look on her face as she strains to hear the rest of the conversation!
TDC has plenty of superb writing and acting woven skillfully through the film noir tropes. I particularly liked this wonderful emotional scene between Hardy and Mari a little over an hour into the film, in which the couple talks around their marital situation in that “friend of a friend” way. Hardy reveals that Tony (who’s been murdered by now, unbeknownst to Mari, who’d planned to run off with Tony that very night), has been dallying with rich women, including Lucy Wilding (Molly Lamont from The Awful Truth and Scared to Death), who we (but not Mari) saw Tony blackmailing earlier. Mari doesn’t want to hear it:

Mari (near tears): “It’s not true! He’s always loathed her.”
“He loathed her rather intimately, I’m afraid.”
“But he couldn’t! I mean, she’s too old for him.”
The distraught Mari rushes off to her bed, her figure shown off lusciously yet tastefully by the light shining through her filmy negligee (thanks to ace Director of Photography Joe MacDonald, amping up the moody film noir feel with his beautifully stark use of shadows and light) as she slips under the covers. Hardy’s expression is both cold and wounded. “Love is not the exclusive province of adolescents, my dear,” he says quietly. “It’s a heart ailment that strikes all age groups, like my love for you. My love for you is the only malady I’ve contracted since the usual childhood diseases—and it’s incurable.”

There’s a bracing street feeling to TDC’s periodic outbursts of brutal-for-the-era violence. None of this Marquis of Queensbury rules stuff—the combatants really clobber each other! Even Hardy commits a murder so sudden and shocking that I gasped in spite of myself. White Suit’s ambush in Brad’s apartment even has a touch of (unintentional?) humor; watch William Bendix’s head, and you'll see his toupee come loose, hanging onto his scalp by a thread!

The film was shot in both NYC and L.A., but it all looks convincingly like Manhattan. The NYC second-unit work is especially good, including shots of the Third Avenue El and an exciting car chase. In addition to the nifty commentary track, the DVD’s extras include swell vintage trailers for TDC and other Fox crime flicks. If you love films noir but don't have time to sit down and give all your favorites your undivided attention, watching TDC is the next best thing!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Brooks Alumn-O-Rama: FATSO and THE FRISCO KID, by Team Bartilucci

My husband Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci blogging caps on again! One of the many reasons he and I and our families have always loved Mel Brooks’ movies is that Mel and most if not all of the writers, directors, and actors he worked with came from ethnic families and grew up in multicultural New York. Vinnie and I did, too; I grew up mostly in the Bronx and also lived in Manhattan for many years, while Vin grew up in Elmont, Long Island. Our combined ethnic heritage includes Italy, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as France and, I’m told, possibly Spain. We’re a regular U.N.!

The two movies we’ll be covering this week feature regulars from Brooks’ movies. While only the first was produced by Mel’s company, Brooksfilms, you’ll see plenty of familiar faces in the casts of both movies. Enjoy!

Dorians Pick: Fatso (1980)

This comedy-drama—or dramedy, as they say nowadays—was Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft’s only foray into writing and directing that we know of, but it was fantastico!  Having grown up in New York City in a food-loving family that was Italian-American on Dad’s side and Irish-American on Mom’s side, our clan identifies so closely with Fatso’s characters that it almost feels like a documentary to us!  Heck, I still remember the movie poster from its original theatrical release: a mournful-looking Dom DeLuise standing against a long list of foods under the bold heading “Do Not Eat:” Weight-loss solutions have come a long way since then, but human nature and emotional family members haven’t changed all that much—and that’s one of the things that has always endeared Fatso to our family and friends.

DeLuise is best known as a hilarious member of Mel Brooks’s stock company of zanies, but it was great to see him at last in a leading man role—a romantic leading man, at that! He plays our hero Dominick DiNapoli, an overweight 40-year-old bachelor living in NYC’s Little Italy. His happy life revolves around his boisterous Italian-American family, all living together in apartments in their two-family walk-up. Dom’s sister Antoinette (Bancroft) lives in one apartment with her husband and kids, while Dom shares his apartment with his “baby” brother Frankie, a.k.a. "Junior" (Ron Carey, who’d been best known and loved in our household as chauffeur/sidekick Brophy in Brooks’ hilarious Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety. What a shame that all three leads are no longer with us, though I’m glad we have Fatso and other fine films of theirs to remember them by. But I digress…)  Dom’s countless cousins include his big-hearted and just plain big cousin Sal (Manny Medina), who loves food, glorious food, as much as Dom. Having been doted on and overfed by his worried, well-meaning mom (tragically, Dom’s two  previous baby brothers died before the age of 2), Dom’s life has revolved around eating, drinking, and being merry more often than not. But when 39-year-old Sal dies of a massive heart attack, the grieving Antoinette and Junior frantically beseech Dom to tackle his own weight problem before he follows in Sal’s footsteps to the graveyard (pitch-dark humor abounds at the funeral).

Dom’s misadventures on the road to weight management begin with the support group Chubby Checkers, recommended by neighborhood friend Mrs. Goodman (played by Estelle Reiner, the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene-stealer from her director son Rob Reiner’s modern classic …When Harry Met Sally).  Dom tries to stick to the nigh-draconian diet, in which the diet doctor pretty much recommends that he eat and drink only the basic food groups and none of the rich dinners and desserts he adores, since this takes place in 1980! It reminded me of a wisecrack Joan Rivers made in one of her early books, Having A Baby Can Be A Scream: “If it tastes good, spit it out.” Antoinette and Junior try to help Dom stick to his weight-loss plan. Alas, their well-intentioned but overzealous haranguing only makes poor Dom feel worse about himself.

Then he meets the new shopkeeper in town, a voluptuous, sweet-natured blonde named Lydia Bollowenski (Candice Azzara). It’s clear that down-to-earth, huggable, adorable Lydia is perfect for Dom, and as Dom works up the courage to ask her out, they slowly but surely fall in love. Although Fatso was rated PG, Dom and Lydia’s romantic scenes together are still pretty darn romantic and sensual. I bet Dom DeLuise never got so much kissing and clinches in all of his movies combined, bless his heart!
Our family’s favorite scene is when Dom tries to head off a midnight binge with the help of two Chubby Checkers members. Of course, the trouble with controlling eating is that unlike alcohol or drugs, we all need food to survive. So when the subject inevitably turns to food, the situation soon erupts into the most spectacular binge of all time for all concerned! It always cracks us up when Dom and his partners-in-weight-management rhapsodize dreamily about the many ways to enjoy a jelly doughnut, turning the innocent phrase “Get the honey, Junior” into a threat/chant.

By turns zany, warm-hearted, and bittersweet, Fatso may be too shrill for some tastes, but my family and I loved it from beginning to end, and still do!  Born Anna Maria Italiano, triple-threat Bancroft’s Bronx roots show throughout. The volatile yet endearing characters and the loving details about their lives ring true, kind of like Martin Scorsese on laughing gas. While many of the film’s ideas about the best approaches to battling the bulge are dated now, it was surprisingly ahead of its time in portraying emotional eating and its tragicomic aspects, making it all the more devious that Bancroft and Director of Photography Brianne Murphy filmed the tempting, luscious-looking foodstuffs in an inviting, sensual fashion reminiscent of the 1978 comedy-thriller Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?  Can you imagine what Fatso would have been like if The Food Network had existed back then? Yikes! It would be utter food porn!

Bancroft and her cast sprinkle many nice little character touches throughout, like the way Dom stirs a huge pot of sauce during Sal’s wake at Antoinette’s apartment, weeping while at the same time sampling the sauce and adding his own seasonings. I also love the romantic moments and easy conversations between Dom and Lydia. Having waged my own “battle of the bulge” during much of my adult life (and succeeding thanks to the new-and-improved Weight Watchers Points Plus program, not to put the whammy on it!), I could absolutely identify with Fatso. It’s like a lively Sunday dinner with my Grandma Josie and/or our other food-loving drama queen relatives and Italian-American pals in our old Bronx neighborhood—and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Fatso sometimes shows up on The Fox Movie Channel (letterboxed!) and HBO Comedy, but I wish some enterprising company would release it on DVD or Blu-Ray sometime!

Vinnie tosses some spice in the sauce on Fatso:The dialogue in the film is solid and authentic, with moments of brilliance.  The phrase "You ate the 'ony'!" cannot be sufficiently explained; it must be experienced. Later, Dom laments to Lydia that he's failed twice now on his diet, and she replies, "Christ fell THREE times...and he was Christ!" And at the climax of the film, Dom speaks to Lydia on the phone; all we hear is the word "yes," 17 times.  He runs the gamut of emotions in that conversation, and it's a wonderful moment. 

Vinnie's Pick: The Frisco Kid (1979)
A Jewish cowboy. Sounds groan-worthy doesn't it?  That was how The Frisco Kid was pitched to the public, and pretty much what most people know about it.  But if you take the time to sit down and watch it, it's a solid comedy with two very good actors as its tentpoles.
Gene Wilder plays Avram Belinsky, a Polish rabbi (who just barely came out 38th in a class of 39) who is selected to travel to America, specifically to San Francisco (which, according to the chief Rabbi, is "near New York") to head a new temple.  To say that his trip is not smooth is an understatement.  After the ship to California leaves early without him, he arranges passage in a wagon train with two brothers who eventually roll him for his cash and throw him out of the wagon.  He finds a group of Amish farmers, mistaking their black clothes for Jewish garb.  The farmers help him to a train, which, while Avram is in the washroom, is robbed by Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford)  He and Tommy meet up again officially later in Avram's journey, and Tommy quickly realizes this poor schmuck won't make it ten miles without his help.

They forge a friendship which is tested by, among other things, a harsh winter, Indians, peyote poisoning, Tommy's revelation to Avram as a bank robber, and Avram's continued refusal to ride on the Sabbath, even though they're being chased by  a posse. Further west they meet up with the trio who stole Avram's money, one of whom is wearing the decorative breastplate from the torah as a necklace.  A short and embarrassing fight later, Avram has his money back, and three new enemies.  They follow the pair to a beach and attempt to gun them down, but Tommy shoots the brothers' crony, and Avram fires a gun for the first time, killing one of the brothers. 

After they arrive in San Francisco, Avram has a crisis of faith, and decides he cannot be a Rabbi anymore. Not because he killed a man -- it was in the act of saving a life, and in such extreme circumstances, many acts are considered permissible -- but because when he had the choice to come and help Tommy or save the Torah from the campfire, he ran to save the Torah. He is shattered that "I chose a piece of paper over the life of my best friend."  The hesitation is short-lived as the members of the congregation find him at the restaurant he and Tommy are eating at...and so does remaining robber-brother Matt Diggs (character actor William Smith). The final gunfight ends with no further blood being spilled, and Avram takes his place as the head of the temple, a wiser man than when he left Poland.
While there are the requisite ethnic jokes peppered throughout the script (Clyde Kusatsu has a short part that would NEVER be allowed in a film today), the film flies high on the wings of its leading men.  Wilder takes what could be a schticky trope of a character and fills him with a quiet strength, playing him not as comically naive, but honest and trusting, both in his fellow man and his God.  This was one of Harrison Ford's first starring roles after Star Wars, and he gets to play Tommy with bombast and bluster, taking the limelight that Wilder courteously vacates with his subdued turn. Wilder spends a great deal of time succeeding through that quiet strength and a lot of passive-aggressive "I'm not ASKING you to do anything", and Ford responds with wonderful slow burns.  The film is deftly directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, et al) as a traditional Western with no glib Brooksian anachronisms. Ford was called stiff in his performance; I saw it more that he was playing a traditional Western bushwhacker. Similarly, William Smith gets to give a classic Western "You killed my brother" performance, and he nails it.  Don't blink, or you'll miss score composer Frank DeVol ("Happy" Kyne himself) as the piano player in the Red Dog saloon.
Apparently, John Wayne was originally courted for Harrison Ford's role.  I think that would have changed the balance of the film entirely.  While Wayne could certainly do comedy (surely we've gone on about The Quiet Man before, haven't we?), it would have absolutely become a John Wayne Movie, and Wilder and his character would have taken a back seat, or at least would have given up the seat with the cushion. 

Fans of Quincy, M.E. will recognize Val Bisoglio as, of all things, an Indian chief who shares with Wilder the single greatest descriptions of God, especially the Jewish interpretation of Him, ever put to screen.  Suffering from a drought and holding a rain dance, the chief asks Avram why "his god" won't just make it rain.

Chief Gray Cloud: What does he do?
Avram: He... He can do anything!
Chief Gray Cloud: Then why can't he make rain?
Avram: Because he doesn't make rain. He gives us strength when we're suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness... but He does not make rain!
[a flash of thunder, followed by a downpour]
Of course... sometimes, just like that, he'll change His mind.
One of the subtle themes through the film is that Avram becomes friends with and receives assistance from all sorts of people, including Indians, Amish and a Christian monastery (with Vincent Schiavelli as a monk who has taken a vow of silence).   Everyone gets along, regardless of creed.  Nice touch. It's a charming little film, far from the spoof masterpieces of Brooks.  Like Fatso, it's a film about people.

Dorian kibbitzes on The Frisco Kid:

The Frisco Kid was as funny as I expected, with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford’s odd couple team-up working very well. I especially liked the surprising subtlety and nuance that Wilder brought to his endearing performance as the gentle rabbi. His Wild West adventure teaches him how to be the best rabbi he can be—and triumph over bad guys without going against his own teachings!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon - IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD: The Original Colbert Report!

Welcome to Edwina Corday's Poetry Corner! Here's her poetry-chart-topping rhyme, "It's A Wonderful World":

The night will be here when we are gone,
Though we are gone, the stars will be here,
And other throats will sing in the dawn,
It’s a wonderful world, my dear.

Don't rack your brain trying to remember Edwina's lovely poem from your English class; you'll find her verses in the Hollywood school of poetry. This charming if somewhat ditzy and eccentric poetess (that’s what they call her, a poetess, not a poet. It’s a 1939 thing) is played by that luminous, long-running Oscar-winner Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World (IaWW). With that title alone, you’d have every right to expect IaWW to be a wonderful screwball comedy-mystery. Its got a heck of a pedigree. For starters, the director is none other than Oscar-nominee W.S. Van Dyke, who brought us San Francisco (1936) as well as The Thin Man (1934) and several of its sequels. The script was a collaboration between talented, versatile screenwriters Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz (the latter being part of the Mankiewicz filmmaking family, including his grandson Ben Mankiewicz of TCM fame), whose combined resumes included such classics as Nothing Sacred, Twentieth Century, Dinner at Eight, Citizen Kane, The Front Page and its distaff remake His Girl Friday, and several of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Now team up Claudette Colbert with a pre-Oscar James Stewart (note that Colbert’s name appears onscreen in a larger font than Stewart’s, since she was the bigger star at the time). It didn’t hurt that the film’s title brought to mind the stars’ beloved films It Happened One Night and It’s a Wonderful Life (even if …Life took audiences quite a while to get into film fans’ hearts. I won’t lie to you, folks: we of Team Bartilucci have always found It’s a Wonderful Life infuriating for myriad reasons. But I digress….). The action is set in both New York City and upstate New York, which is a plus for a native New Yorker like me. On top of that, keep in mind that the year was 1939, a banner year for great movies! With all that going for IaWW, the resulting collaboration should be a real crowd-pleaser, right?

Well…almost. IaWW wasn’t bad, but for much of its 86-minute running time, I found it amiable at best, as opposed to actually wonderful, laugh-out-loud funny, or nail-bitingly suspenseful. Make no mistake, the film has its moments, but as a whole, it didn’t truly grab my undivided attention until about the last 40 minutes or so, when there was shooting, tension, and clever scheming to unmask the villains. But I’m getting ahead of myself! Stewart plays a NYC private eye with the manly-man name of Guy Johnson. Showing his range just as he did in After the Thin Man (1936), Stewart’s Guy is no folksy charmer here, but a cynical tough guy who thinks dames are dopes, and isn’t afraid to cuff ’em one if they start squawking. (If Guy tried that today, he’d be in for a lawsuit!) Come to think of it, the role of Guy was probably good practice for the darker, more emotionally complicated roles Stewart played under the direction of Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.

Guy works with his older, more seasoned partner “Cap” Streeter (Guy Kibbee) for a private investigation firm called, appropriately enough, Private Inquiries. Their biggest client is the much-married souse and tobacco heir Willie Heyward, a.k.a. “Willie the Pooh” (played by Ernest Truex, great as put-upon milquetoast types in His Girl Friday, Whistling in the Dark, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among others). Having previously worked “demonstrating electric belts in drugstore windows,” Guy’s determined to hang onto his meal ticket: “Willie the Pooh’s my dream man, and I’m gonna keep fishing him out of manholes just as long as he keeps paying off.” Too bad Willie gets himself framed for the murder of Dolores Gonzales (Cecilia Callejo), a “Broadway nymph” and bubble dancer a la Sally Rand who was all set to sue Willie for allegedly jilting her. The only clue to her killer is a dime mysteriously cut in half. Our perplexed P.I. finds himself framed by Vivian Tarbel, a.k.a. the newly-minted Mrs. Heyward (Frances Drake of Mad Love and the 1935 version of Les Miserables) and her honey, Al Mallon (Sidney Blackmer, the great character actor who’s graced everything from Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo to Rosemary’s Baby). Before you can say “Nick Charles,” Guy is charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year in Sing Sing.

I'd swear by my eyes if I could
see through these glasses!
On the train to prison, Guy is handcuffed to Sergeant Koretz (Nat Pendleton, Thin Man alumnus and one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite wrestlers-turned-actors), accompanied by Lieutenant Miller (Edgar Kennedy, Mr. Slow Burn himself) as they pass the time playing poker. Guy notices a personal ad in a nearby newspaper: “Why don’t you come to Saugerties Theater Wednesday evening, and see your long-lost husband? HALF-A-DIME.” (For you readers unfamiliar with upstate New York, yes, Saugerties is a real town.) Guy tricks Koretz into leaving their compartment for a smoke, and *SPLASH!* Guy manages a watery escape under cover of night. But our perky poetess Edwina happens to see the whole thing. Before you can say “I swear by my eyes,” (Edwina says that through the whole picture, not unlike Little John in the 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit Hood), Guy takes Edwina hostage, and wacky hijinks ensue, including Guy's hilarious attempt to pass himself off as a scoutmaster. Elsewhere, in one of my favorite bits, Koretz tries to convince the local police that he was jumped by a mob instead of Guy tricking him and knocking him out singlehandedly. I must say, Guy could be so obnoxious sometimes, I wouldn’t have minded if someone had punched his lights out!

How do you like them apples?
Isn't this how Stockholm Syndrome starts?
 Bit by bit, the comedy starts to percolate as Guy and Edwina find themselves obliged to join forces out in the wilds of upstate New York, with Edwina alternately helping and unwittingly hindering Guy as he tries to prove his innocence and save Willie from the electric chair. As I said, the first two-thirds of IaWW were watchable if not exactly full-tilt hilarious—but then a miracle happens, as described by my husband Vinnie: “Suddenly Claudette Colbert shifted the plot into reverse psychology!” Quick thinking, comedy and suspense suddenly blend together beautifully during the climax at the Saugerties County Theatre’s production of the Maxwell Anderson/Laurence Stallings play What Price Glory? Slowly but surely, Guy warms up to Edwina, who’s already falling in love with him despite the bickering you'd expect in such a situation (just ask Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll of The 39 Steps, among others). They infiltrate the theater when scene-stealing grand dame theater director Cecil Cunningham hires Guy as the play’s new Southern-accented actor “Cyril Hemingway.”

Cap comes to help Guy, only to become a human Whack-A-Mole as Edwina’s well-meant attempts to help both men keep backfiring. (I was starting to worry that poor Cap would be brain-damaged before this dizzy tale was over!) Vivian’s long-lost actor hubby turns up, unaware he’s got a target on his back, the poor slob! The stage cast within the movie cast includes Team Bartilucci faves Hans Conried, George Chandler (nervous bartender Louis Ord in Dead Reckoning) and Grady Sutton (who I always remember from the Odd Couple TV series episode “The Flying Felix” with Tony Randall’s attempt at lip-reading: “I…sense…much… trouble…in…the…fuselage…Frederick!” I know, I know, I’m digressing again! J)  There’s genuine suspense in the urgently-whispered conversation between Cap and Guy as we’re reminded that Willie’s life is at stake. There’s even a nifty little catfight between Edwina and Vivian at the end!

As Frank Miller explains in his article on the TCM Web site, Claudette Colbert had looked forward to getting MGM’s legendary glamour treatment. However, her hopes “were dashed when director W.S. Van Dyke was assigned to the picture. Although he had helped create the screwball genre as director of The Thin Man in 1934, he was popular with studio head Louis B. Mayer mainly because he worked quickly, earning the nickname ‘One-Take Woody.’ His female star was appalled at how quickly he threw the film together, being used to the more leisurely pace at her home studio, Paramount, where great care was always taken to showcase her beauty.” Anyway, Colbert got more opportunities for glamour roles at MGM in films like The Secret Heart (1946)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dorian’s Mother’s Day Smorgasbord: a Four-Course Meal of Fiction, Food, and Fond Memories

Me and Mom on Team Bartilucci's wedding day,
July 14, 1989
 With Mother’s Day coming this very weekend, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to run items about some of the memories and happy things that our family, a.k.a. Team Bartilucci, happens to enjoy. My late mom, Jacqueline Kehoe, enjoyed movies and fiction as much as I do. Once I began writing my own original fiction, which I write simply as Dorian Tenore to give the world’s typesetters a break (presuming typesetters still exist in today’s rapidly-changing publishing world), Mom was thrilled to read it, and I must admit her own lively life was among my inspirations. I’m currently editing my first novel, and I’m almost finished writing my second. I can almost hear Mom now, editing over my shoulder, saying, “I like this character, he’s got spunk…that character seems like a goody-two-shoes, but she’s got a wild past, I can tell….”  Mom and I had discussed writing a comedic novel inspired by her own and our family’s wacky, witty, glamorous exploits, but alas, Mom died of pulmonary fibrosis in December 2009 before we could really get into it. Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and find the notes Mom said she’d written down. But at least we have memories and anecdotes to pass down to loved ones and friends. Let’s get this Mother’s Day Smorgasbord started!