Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Evening with Bill Murray about HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

As longtime TotED readers know, I rarely review current movies here, but when I heard about Focus Features’ fact-based comedy-drama Hyde Park on Hudson (HPoH), I didn't want to wait for the rest of the world to decide whether or not this film was a future classic!  On Sunday, October 14th , 2012, I was lucky enough to attend a sneak preview in my hometown, New York City, at Manhattan’s Florence Gould Hall.  The stars, Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Laura Linney as Daisy Suckley, surely need no introduction, being Oscar nominees themselves: Murray for Lost in Translation (2003), and Laura Linney for The Savages (2007), Kinsey (2004), and You Can Count on Me (2000), among their other memorable films.

In HPoH, distant cousin Daisy comes to Hyde Park in upstate New York (played by England) as a companion/assistant to Franklin. Her duties include helping to keep the extent of the 32nd President’s polio on the downlow; nobody wanted FDR to be shown as frail or helpless, especially with war looming on the horizon.  Daisy tends to her aunt, too, which delighted me, because Auntie is played by Team Bartilucci favorite Eleanor Bron (Help!, Alfie; Two For The Road; Bedazzled — the original 1960s films, not the remakes from the early 2000s)! 

Eleanor Bron as Daisy's Aunt
Daisy and Franklin have lots of interests in common, and soon literally become kissing cousins and confidants. The film’s narrative unfolds in an endearingly low-key style, almost as if these iconic historical figures could be members of your own family, albeit better dressed. I particularly liked the scenes with the Royal Couple, King George VI (played poignantly and ultimately endearingly by Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman from Hot Fuzz; The Iron Lady).  Both George and Elizabeth are terrified of somehow screwing up this momentous occasion.  In particular, I found myself both amused and sympathetic toward the Royal Couple during the running gag about the King and the Queen not quite knowing whether to be insulted or just plain terrified when they’re faced with (gasp!) hot dogs, fearing an international incident if they do or say the wrong things.  George and Franklin even have a bit of a father-and-son aspect to their talks together. I’ll confess I’ve never seen the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, but now that I’ve seen and enjoyed HPoH, I’d like to see both films back-to-back!  In any case, while some reviews were mixed, I found HPoH  to be witty, droll, and just plain endearing!

But you all really want to talk about Bill Murray, don’t you? Sure, we all do!  The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff conducted the Q&A and Murray was a breezy, good-natured delight with both the interviewer and the questions from the enthusiastic audience.  Quoting from Itzkoff’s intro: “WHAT do we still want from Bill Murray?  His unpremeditated film career—in which he has parlayed performances as the happy-go-lucky heroes of 1980s-era slapstick into the existentially uncertain leading men of thoughtful comedies like Groundhog Day, Rushmore, and Lost in Translation—would seem to be sufficient. Yet we demand more from this 62-year-old actor, on whose rugged face a playful smirk and a contemplative gaze look equally at home, and he appears happy to give it to us in his life beyond the screen. Tracking his movements in the wild, as he crashes karaoke parties and kickball games, has become an online pastime; Mr. Murray himself has become the folkloric equivalent of a leprechaun or fairy godparent, popping up at unpredictable yet opportune moments.”

Murray’s amiable unpredictability has always been part of his charm.  For example, as Itzkoff got to see first-hand while visiting NYC on the film’s behalf: “… Mr. Murray gave a journalist a front-row seat to see his carefree philosophy in action. Actually, closer: After Mr. Murray’s interview with another interrogator ran overtime, I was invited to accompany him to an evening appearance at Florence Gould Hall — and onto the stage of its theater, where a private chat turned into a public spectacle for a few hundred members of the Screen Actors Guild. (Imagine accompanying Mr. Murray on a version of the famous tracking shot from “Goodfellas,” through the back rooms and bowels of an unfamiliar building until the moment you expect to part ways and take your seat in the audience, only to realize then that you’re part of the act.)  Murray apologized: “I’m sorry I went too long. I just feel badly when someone doesn’t have enough. Everyone wants to talk longer. Even I want to talk longer sometimes. And then I dig myself into holes I gotta get out of.”

Regarding feedback on his performance, Murray said, “I’m curious to see what people think of it, just ’cause it is not like an ordinary movie. I don’t know if it’s great or not. We’ll see what you get.”  Indeed, he was genuinely surprised to be offered this iconic role at all:  “I thought, ‘Can this guy be serious?’  I wouldn’t have cast myself. But this guy did, and about halfway through I went, ‘Wow, he really was right.’  Not to compare myself, but certain personality things were similar, like the way he tried to leaven things and move attention around a room, get everyone their little slice of the sun.”

Have you seen Bill Murray, baby, standing in the shadows?
Asked how he prepared for the role, Murray cited his days at the celebrated Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.  There, he’d worked with the great writer, actor, and improv master Del Close, who’d explained to him: “You wear your characters like a trench coat. It’s still you in there, but there’s like a trench coat.” Murray added, “So I figured this was like a winter trench coat, because there was just a little bit more character that comes to the party. So I did a lot more reading, a lot more studying. People ask, “Did this really happen?”  Well, if you read the diaries, it’s very clear that it happened.  The writing changes. You read this later stuff, when we’re at war, and he’s not telling his wife, he’s not telling the cabinet—they don’t know where he is. But he’s sending messages by courier to her every day. This girl was the vault. I love that expression: ‘She’s the vault.’ He could tell her anything, and it wasn’t leaving her head.”

Murray wasn’t out to sully the real-life people involved, though.  “The thing I was concerned about was: The story that we’re going to tell, is it going to be a tearing-down of an icon?  I don’t know if I want to be part of that kind of action, where you trash someone.  What was the John Travolta movie, Primary Colors?  I didn’t want to do something where you were really just napalming someone.”

Itzkoff notes the joy Murray brings out of people when they encounter him, to which Murray smiles and says, “Some are more joyous than others. I’m of the habit that if there are people waiting outside the hotel, you don’t sign those autographs there. Because that means when you come back in the middle of the night, they’re still there. It’s usually a one-time thing. That’s it; that’s your one time. You try your hardest, but you can’t always be perfect.”

As he responds to this question, Murray brings Itzkoff with him onto an elevator, guiding him through a backstage area and onto the stage, where the expectant audience applauds rapturously. Even though these plans were surely explained to me ahead of time, the effect is one of dreamlike disorientation, followed by a deep breath and a tacit decision to follow Murray’s lead.

Itzkoff says:  “We were just talking about the joy you bring out of people. Do you believe it now?”

Is this like the Oprah show?” Murray playfully replies.  “Does everyone have a gift under their seat?  You guys are pretty jazzed up.”

Murray reminisces about the first time he’d went to Wrigley Field in Chicago as a boy. “I was a big Cubs fan, and I watched all the games on TV, but when I grew up, TV was in black and white. So when I was 7 years old, I was taken to my first Cubs games, and my brother Brian said, ‘Wait, Billy,’ and he put his hands over my eyes, and he walked me up the stairs.  And then he took his hands away.”  Choking up, Murray continues, “And there was Wrigley Field, in green. There was this beautiful grass and this beautiful ivy. I’d only seen it in black and white. It was like I was a blind man made to see. It was something.”

There seems to be so much serendipity in Murray’s life that Itzkoff couldn’t help but ask whether he’s actively cultivating these moments, or just hoping that they come to him.  “Well, you have to hope that they happen to you. That’s Pandora’s box, right? She opens up the box, and all the nightmares fly out.  And slams the lid shut, like, “Oops,” and opens it one more time, and hope pops out of the box. That’s the only thing we really, surely have, is hope.  You hope that you can be alive, that things will happen to you that you’ll actually witness, that you’ll participate in, rather than life just rolling over you.  Life rolls along, and holy cats, you wake up and it’s Thursday, and what happened to Monday?  Whatever the best part of my life has been, has been as a result of that remembering.

Everyone has days where you wake up and think: “Nothing good has come to me in a little while. I’d better prime the pump’?   Well, who hasn’t woken up thinking, “God, nothing good has come to me in a while,’ right?  When I feel like I’m stuck, I do something—not like I’m Mother Teresa or anything, but there’s someone who’s forgotten-about in your life, all the time.  Someone that could use an ‘Attaboy’ or a ‘How you doin’ out there?’  It’s that sort of scene, that remembering that we die alone.  We’re born alone. We do need each other. It’s lonely to really effectively live your life, and anyone you can get help from or give help to, that’s part of your obligation.”

Even today, Murray is pleasantly surprised that the roles that he’d done years ago, if not decades ago, still endure.  “When you did the job, you thought you were just trying to amuse your friends who are all on the job. I’m just trying to make the sound guy laugh, the script supervisor.  Take a movie like Caddyshack,  I can walk on a golf course, and some guy will be screaming entire scenes at me and expecting me to do it word for word with him. It’s like: ‘Fella, I did that once.  I improvised that scene.  I don’t remember how it goes.’  But I’m charmed by it. I’m not like, ‘Hey, knock it off.’ It’s kind of cool.”
Eleanor Bron from A Little Princess,
because it's a better pic of her :-)

Murray continues to be pleasantly surprised that the lessons he learned back in Second City would pay off later in life.  “It pays off in your life when you’re in an elevator and people are uncomfortable.  You can just say, ‘That’s a beautiful scarf.’  It’s just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable.  You don’t worry about yourself, because we’re vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it’ll affect me. It comes back, somehow.”

Hyde Park on Hudson is currently in limited release, and will be in wide release in January 2013!

Until then, check out these fun tidbits about the film, courtesy of Focus Features! Here's the link:

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942): Wild and Woolley!

It all started with the famous Algonquin Round Table, where New York City’s elite would meet to eat, drink, and crack each other up with sly, witty bon mots. The most outrageous gadabout of them all was Alexander Woollcott, a larger-than-life character even by the Algonquin Round Table’s standards.  Woollcott was one of the most eminent critics and radio personalities of the 1920s and ’30s—and also one of the most maddening men you’d ever meet!  As author Jared Stone describes him in his 2006 book Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, “While many prominent people called Woollcott a friend, he was also known for his acid tongue and demanding, impossible-to-please attitude. He could be charming and generous one minute; petulant and venomous the next.”

As Andrea Passafiume explains on the TCM Web site, Woollcott’s many notable friends included the very successful playwriting team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart: “One evening while Woollcott was visiting Moss Hart, he made an unusual request. He wanted Hart and Kaufman to write a new play for him to star in. Woollcott had dabbled in acting before, and thought that being in a play would be a new way in which to reach his massive audience.  Somewhat dubious, but not wanting to disappoint his friend, Hart agreed to give the matter some thought.”  Then Hart remembered an overnight visit with Woollcott in his country home.  Woollcott had badgered Hart and his household with all manner of unreasonable non-stop demands.  He unfairly accused Hart’s servants of stealing; he whined for cookies and milkshakes at odd hours; he demanded the heat be turned off; he insisted that Hart trade beds with him — it was always something!  As Hart described the maddening no-sleep-over to Kaufman, he had a brainwave:  “Wouldn't it have been awful if (Woollcott) had broken a leg and been on my hands for the rest of the summer?”  Ta-da!  A classic comedy was born!  Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

Sophisticates on a Train!
George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner (TMWCtD) debuted at New York City’s Music Box Theatre on October 16th, 1939.  It made Monty Woolley a Broadway star, and in January 1942, he became a movie star, too, when the Warner Bros. film version hit theaters.  The film version pretty much became an instant classic.  Even today, TMWCtD is a gift that’s kept on giving to delighted audiences over the decades, with awards and revivals in New York and London.  There was even a 1950 Radio broadcast starring Clifton Webb as Sheridan Whiteside, and Lucille Ball as Maggie Cutler.  Knowing that Webb and Ball were equally talented in both comedy and drama, I for one can cheerfully imagine going back in time to hear Webb and Ball do comedy together after their awesome dramatic performances in The Dark Corner!   I wonder how TMWCtD‘s Sherry (as friends call him) and Laura’s Waldo Lydecker would have gotten along, murder not withstanding?

Oh, my!  Will the gifts be returned?
Born in August 1888, Monty Woolley came from an elite family, owners of the renowned Marie Antoinette Hotel on Broadway.  Despite his youth, Woolley cut quite a swath through Manhattan society, along with Master’s degrees at Yale and Harvard.  He returned to Yale as an English instructor and drama coach, counting Thornton Wilder and Stephen Vincent Benet among his students, intimates, and confidants.  Woolley’s friend Cole Porter (we should all have such friends!) encouraged him to become a stage director himself, resulting in such Broadway hits as Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers, and Jubilee (1935). Woolley took his first Broadway bow in the hit musical On Your Toes (a revival is set for 2013) and soon it was Hollywood’s turn to sit up and take notice as Woolley ascended the ranks of supporting actors at MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount.

Maggie loves Bert because he's a good skate!
Woolley came into his own in the 1940s, with hits like the Christmas classic The Bishop’s Wife; When Irish Eyes are Smiling; the rather fanciful Cole Porter biopic Night and Day; and best of all, two Oscar nominations: a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the WW II drama The Pied Piper (1942), and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for another war classic, Since You Went Away (1944).  But for the life of me, I can’t imagine why Woolley wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for his iconic performance for TMWCtD! Just one of cinema’s little mysteries, I guess!

Only two actors besides Monty Woolley reprised their original Broadway roles for the movie:
  • Mary Wickes (Now, Voyager; June Bride; It Happened to Jane; and many TV series, including several with frequent co-star Lucille Ball), making her Broadway debut, and then her movie debut, as Miss Preen, the ever-startled and put-upon nurse.
  • Ruth Vivian, who plays the sweet, soft-spoken, but apparently batty Harriet Stanley (Confidential Agent; A Letter to Three Wives).
Then television came along, bringing a (reportedly so-so) 1972 TV movie starring Orson Welles, Lee Remick, and even Mary Wickes reprising her debut role.  In 2000, there was a delightful Broadway revival at The Roundabout Theatre, starring Team Bartilucci favorite Nathan Lane, also broadcast on PBS (which we watched and loved). There had even been a musical version in 1967, Sherry!, by none other than James Lipton!   Alas, it was short-lived, but the soundtrack is still available on as of this writing, with a powerhouse cast including Lane, Bernadette Peters, Tommy Tune, and Carol Burnett!

But of course, movies are the medium we’re most mad about here at TotED, so we’re focusing on the 1942 Warner Bros. version of TMWCtD, one of our favorite holiday comedies!  Naturally, Warner Bros. snapped up the movie rights, and the result has something for everyone:  comedy chock-full of witty dialogue by brothers Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (the writers who brought us such hits as Casablanca and the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace), adapted from Kaufman and Hart’s play, of course, not to mention romance and rivalry; gorgeous gals; screwball comedy; even penguins and octopi!  How’s that for getting your movie-going money’s worth (so to speak, considering most of us here are most likely watching in on DVD/Blu-Ray and such)? 

Granted, at that time, Monty Woolley wasn’t as familiar to moviegoers as he was to Broadway audiences, so Warner Bros. surrounded Woolley with a galaxy of stars, including:
  •  Bette Davis, incomparable superstar and two-time Oscar-winner, as Sherry’s secretary Maggie Cutler. In fact, Davis had gone to New York to see the play herself, and she loved it.  She thought this comedy would be a nice change of pace from her usual heavy dramatic roles, and having Davis’ star power on the marquee sure couldn’t hurt!
  • Billie Burke as the dithering Mrs. Stanley, known and loved from the Topper films, the Father of the Bride films, and most iconic of all, her performance as The Wizard of Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch!
  • Grant Mitchell as the ever-irked Ernest Stanley, known for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Arsenic and Old Lace; The Grapes of Wrath;
  • Reginald Gardiner as Noel Coward manqué Beverly Carlton, also known for Laurel and Hardy’s The Flying Deuces, as well as The Great Dictator and Christmas in Connecticut;
  • Ann Sheridan, the “Oomph Girl” herself, as the popular, man-hungry movie/stage star Lorraine Sheldon, who was known for They Drive By Night; Nora Prentiss; George Washington Slept Here.  At the same time she made TMWCtD, the busy Sheridan was also shooting Kings Row (1942).
  • Jimmy Durante as Banjo, the husky-voiced zany with the impressive proboscis and rapid-fire wacky wit, inspired in real life by Harpo Marx. Durante could do it all, in every medium, as an actor (You’re in the Army Now; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; On an Island with You), comedian, composer, singer, and songwriter.  Who can forget Durante’s hit songs "Inka Dinka Doo," Umbriago,” and “Make Someone Happy,” especially at holiday time? Heck, while I was writing this post, I heard Durante’s cheerfully gruff voice singing “Make Someone Happy” for a commercial for!
Sheridan Whiteside calls in the Cavalry in his ongoing war
against happiness in those other than himself!

The film opens on Sherry and his longtime secretary Maggie Cutler, arriving from New York City to do a favor for Sherry’s old friend Harry Clarke, who’s running a lecture tour.  Despite the friendship, Sherry’s raising the roof even before the train to Mesalia, Ohio has pulled into the station:

 Sherry:  “I simply will not sit down at dinner with Midwestern barbarians.  I think too highly of my digestive system.”

 Maggie:  “Harry Clarke is one of your oldest friends.”

Sherry:  “My stomach is an older one.”

Merry Christmas to Sherry from Madagascar!
The worldly, arrogant, tart-tongued Sheridan Whiteside — “Sherry” to his sophisticated friends — couldn’t be more different from the genteel — if impatient — bourgeois ball-bearing magnate Ernest Stanley and his wife, Daisy.  It’s clear that Sherry is a termagant under even the best of circumstances.  Then Sherry slips and racks himself on the Stanleys’ snowy, poorly-shoveled steps, and the Stanleys’ well-organized life turns upside-down, with wickedly funny results!  The shenanigans bring to mind a quote from a lecture by Stephen King during my college days at Fordham University:  “When bad things happen to others, it’s funny.  When it happens to you, it’s horror!”  Luckily for us viewers, the funny parts override everything else in this hilarious nightmare!

Sexy stage siren Lorraine Sheldon can always get a cab!
At least Sherry is a witty, entertaining, fun-to-watch tyrant, as long as you don’t cross him somehow.  He’s a great host — albeit at the bedeviled Stanleys’ expense — as he invites everyone and everything to his hosts’ home, from convicts to overseas visitors from many lands and languages, even different  species, including octopi and penguins.  Those poor Stanleys — their phone bills alone must be through the roof with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Sherry’s other famous friends gabbing away!  Slipping on ice and landing painfully on his rump certainly may not always lift Sherry’s spirits, but it sure leaves us howling with laughter as pandemonium reigns in the Stanley home, with scads of famous friends calling and visiting while Sherry amuses himself with gossip and guile.

We give Lorraine's blouse buttons 3 thumbs up!
Call it Stockholm Syndrome, or call it just plain warming up to each other, but as Sherry’s convalescence progresses, he finds himself taking a liking to some members of the household, including the couple working for the Stanleys, John (Edward Starkey) and Sarah (Betty Roadman), which just goes to show that if you feed people well, they’ll be your friends for life!  Sherry also takes a shine to the Stanley family’s young adult kids, June (Elisabeth Fraser) and Richard (Russell Arms).  Mr. Stanley keeps the young folks on short leashes, and when they confide in Sherry about Richard’s aspirations to be a professional photographer and June’s love for a labor union agitator who Mr. Stanley disapproves of, Sherry does his bit to help them while at the same time ensuring apoplexy from the easily-shocked Ernest and Daisy.  That’s what I call a win-win situation!

Sheesh, Lorraine! Beverly C helps Maggie phone it in!
Meanwhile, sophisticated Maggie finds herself drawn to the editor of the Mesalia Journal, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis from The Big Shot; Mission to Moscow; and many TV Westerns — appropriate, since his real name was William Justice!).  Bert proves to be an easygoing, affable fella; indeed, he must be the most laid-back newspaperman in or out of movies!   Bert doesn’t even get rattled when Sherry tricks him out of a dollar to pay the cab driver — which Bert firmly but good-naturedly gets back from Bert.  Good for you, Bert!  No wonder Maggie’s falling for this sweet,  handsome, refreshingly uncomplicated man.  Bette Davis turns out to be a swell comedienne with her droll delivery, while subtly letting her both her hair and her guard down to let Bert win her heart.Will there be a Christmas wedding with everyone living happily ever after?  Not so fast!  When Sherry realizes love is blossoming between Maggie and Bert, Sherry doesn’t like it a bit!  Beneath Sherry’s acid tongue, he’s genuinely fond of Maggie, but he’s even more fond of having everything his own way, with no disruptions of his precious routine!  So the rascally Sherry launches his secret weapon:  glamorous actress Lorraine Sheldon, who’s been looking for a new play to star in, and is always open for mixing business with pleasure.  Without spoiling the screwball surprises, I can only say that love just might conquer all with a little help from your zaniest, most talented friends!  That said, I must say Maggie needs more faith in Bert.  Newspaperman or not, I don’t think it’s occurred to Bert that Lorraine’s hot for him.  Maybe he’s too uncomplicated?

The secret of "Oomph Girl" Lorraine's fab  figure:
she sleeps in a mold!

Banjo meets Miss Preen. Hello, Nurse!
Considering how many stars vied for roles in TMWCtD, there could have been several versions filmed to keep everyone in Hollywood busy!  According to the TCM Web site, the following actors all wanted to be considered for roles:

Laird Cregar (Ooh, would that have been awesome, or what?!)
Orson Welles
Charles Laughton
Fredric March
Robert Benchley
Cary Grant
Rosalind Russell
Myrna Loy
Jean Arthur
Olivia de Havilland

At one time, Howard Hawks was interested in directing The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Bette Davis desperately wanted John Barrymore to play Sheridan Whiteside, but Barrymores drinking problem prevented him from being able to handle the film's snappy, complicated dialogue.

A dog bite to the nose temporarily  kept Bette Davis from being able to film scenes.

The character of Lorraine was reportedly based on actress Gertrude Lawrence.

In the film Jimmy Durante's character Banjo refers to Ann Sheridan's character Lorraine as "The Oomph Girl,” which was Sheridan's real-life nickname. In the original play, Banjo calls Lorraine "Old Hot-Pants.”

Mary Astor was tested for the role of Lorraine. (She'd have been a great choice, too!)

Danny Kaye tested for the role of Banjo. (0h, I can just imagine the awesomeness!)

Harpo Marx played the role of Banjo himself in a 1941 stage production at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania.

The character of Beverly Carlton was based on Noel Coward.

Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur and Olivia de Havilland were considered to play the role of Maggie.

The play The Man Who Came to Dinner was considered to be the last great collaboration between the team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

According to the IMDb, co-star Richard Travis came back to the town of Paragould, Arkansas to host the World Premiere of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Capitol Theatre.  Travis had previously lived and worked there as the editor of the theater's coming-attractions magazine!  What’s more, Travis’ real name was William Justice, which no doubt explains why he went on to many Western roles. 

All of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ wish you and yours a truly joyful and safe:
Merry Christmas!
Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Kwanzaa!
And/or anything else 

you and yours wish to celebrate!

Monday, November 19, 2012

THE GHOST BREAKERS: Havana Frightful Good Time!

As fond as I am of the 1939 version of The Cat & The Canary, the words of that great philosopher Daffy Duck leap to mind:  “If they like that mess, they’re starvin’ for some real hoofin’!”  Well, if Paramount’s 1940 tweaking of The Ghost Breakers (TGB) isn’t the real hoofin’, I don’t know what is!  It’s a premium blend  of snappy comedy, playful romance, and genuine spooky suspense.  Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (Witness for the Prosecution; The Asphalt Jungle; Oklahoma!) reunites The Cat & The Canary co-stars Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, as well as director George Marshall (The Gazebo; It Started with a Kiss). Their funny, sparkling chemistry together is better than ever, blending warmth, romance, and comedy as deliciously as a daiquiri.  Hope and Goddard are so darling together, I want to hug them and bring them home for the holidays!  (But a DVD will do!)  I like the cheeky references to Paulette Goddard’s Cecil B. DeMille movies, too (Unconquered; Reap the Wild Wind, etc.).

Be very, very quiet; we're hunting ghosts!
Based on the work of Walter DeLeon and based on the play by John Willard and Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard (any relation to co-star Paulette Goddard?), the film gets off to an exciting start in New York City during a violent thunderstorm that’s almost worthy of Hurricane Sandy.  “Nice night for a murder,” says our heroine Mary Carter (Goddard) as she packs for her voyage to pre-Castro Cuba.  She only thinks she’s kidding, with all the mystery and intrigue afoot!  You see, Mary’s off to Cuba to claim her family inheritance, Castillo Maldito, or “Black Island.”  Sounds cozy already, huh?  Mary’s mom had told her about Black Island and its sinister legends, but Mary’s a good-natured yet skeptical New Yorker who doesn’t scare easily: “(My mother) also told me about Santa Claus, Snow White, and the Seven Dwarves.”  Of course, her Cuban advisor, Senor Havez (Pedro de Cordoba of Anthony Adverse; The Corsican Brothers; Hitchcock’s Saboteur) gives Mary a last friendly warning: “We must admit there is a dividing line somewhere between superstition and the supernatural.  All I know is that during the last twenty years, no human being who has tried to spend the night in Castillo Maldito ever lived to see a sunrise.”  You never know; I can imagine the eager developers eventually showing up waving contracts for chain restaurants and hotels anytime now!  But Mary gets an urgent phone call from Ramon Medeiros (Anthony Quinn of Road to Singapore and Road to Morocco, as well as winning Best Supporting Actor Oscars for Lust for Life and Viva Zapata!) about her upcoming trip. Alas, whatever it was he wanted to say gets lost in a hail of gunfire, and poor Medeiros is no more.  What was Medeiros trying to tell Mary before everyone got trigger-happy?

"Johnny Ola told me about her! They call her 'Superman'!"

Meanwhile, meet our hero, radio star Larry Lawrence (Hope) and his valet Alex (Willie Best of High Sierra; Cabin in the Sky; and Hope and Goddard’s third film together, Nothing But the Truth). Larry’s full name is in fact Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence, a name so nice they named him thrice!   “My parents had no imagination,” Larry explains.  He and Alex are packing for a fishing trip, but will they end up sleeping with the fishes instead?  You see, as if the storm and the hotel’s resulting blackout weren’t already agita-inducing, Larry’s radio show focuses on dishing the dirt on notorious criminal underworld types. Wouldn’t you know Larry has run afoul of gangster Frenchy Duvall (Paul Fix of After the Thin Man; Dr. Cyclops; and ironically, TV’s The Rifleman, as Marshal Micah Torrence!)?  Now Duvall is out for blood.  Sheesh, underworld types can be so sensitive!  As more gunplay ensues, Larry fears he’s the one who accidentally killed Medeiros, and he and Alex end up unwittingly joining Mary on a slow boat to Cuba! 

Young Richard Carlson as The Man in the White Suit!
Romance blooms for Mary and Larry, though that doesn’t stop others from trying to keep our heroes from reaching Black Island, including Dr. Parada (Paul Lukas of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Watch on the Rhine, the film that won Lukas his Best Actor Oscar), Anthony Quinn again, this time as Ramon Medeiros’ brother Francisco.  Look sharp during the scene at the Las Palmas nightclub with Lloyd Corrigan (Whistling in the Dark; The Big Clock; The Manchurian Candidate; the Boston Blackie movies) for a brief appearance by lovely Dolores Moran (To Have and Have Not; The Horn Blows at Midnight; Old Acquaintance) and a dapper young Richard Carlson (The Little Foxes; The Creature from the Black Lagoon; It Came from Outer Space; and the fact-based 1953 to 1956 TV series I Led Three Lives) as Mary’s old friend Geoff Montgomery. Carlson is in one of my favorite scenes:

Geoff:  “A zombie has no will of his own.  You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.”

  “You mean like Democrats?”

They won't hear nothin' more
from The Mighty Quinn....

 TGB’s comedy and horror elements blend superbly, with character actor Noble Johnson (King Kong; Jungle Book; The Most Dangerous Game) playing a truly haunting, memorable zombie.  John M. Miller from the TCM Web site notes that TGB pre-dates Val Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie by three years.  For better or worse, like any actors who were even remotely swarthy, both Anthony Quinn and Noble Johnson were frequently cast in supporting roles at Universal Studios and RKO as Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs, and other so-called “exotic” types. 

...Or will they? He resurrects real good!
TGB’s production values are top notch, from Edith Head’s gorgeous wardrobe for Paulette Goddard, to Hans Dreier and Robert Usher’s Art Direction, to the cinematography of Charles Lang (Charade; Some Like It Hot; How to Steal a Million).  Farciot Edouart’s special effects photography with the ghosts emerging is eerily captivating.

Willie Best was highly praised by none other than his co-star Bob Hope, who said Best was one of the best actors he ever knew—and yet so many people have criticized him, or more specifically, the African-American stereotypes he was called upon to portray. I say you can’t fault a performer (or anyone else) for NOT being ahead of his time!  My dear friend and fellow blogger Becky Barnes of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food renown agrees: “Willie Best was one of the best comedians of the era. It's such a shame things were the way they were then. I think he just about carried The Ghost Breakers, and he deserves acclaim for his work.”  Amen to that, sister!
Bob Hope and Willie Best agree: no comedy-thriller holds a candle to The Ghost Breakers!

 Just as zombies never die, neither do remakes:  The Ghost Breakers was successfully remade in 1953 for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff, with Lizabeth Scott as the heiress-in-distress, including voiceover cameos by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby! 

I think Mary would prefer a free drink or a mint on her pillow!

Ooh, The Zombies!  I loved that band!

Laura, er, Mary is the face in the misty light....
Aha, we've solved the mystery! Mary's ancestor was Dr. Phibes!
Don't you just love a happy ending on the high seas?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Cat and The Canary (1939) - Cat Ballyhoo!

Where there’s life, there’s Hope—Bob Hope!  Okay, so I borrowed that from an ad line from another one of Hope’s comedies, but the point is, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard were a delightful team in their first film together, Paramount’s The Cat and The Canary (TC&TC).  Produced by Arthur Hornblow of Witness for the Prosecution fame, and based on John Willard’s original 1922 stage play, the popular thriller was eventually adapted for both stage and screen in 1927 and 1930.  Director Elliott Nugent (My Favorite Brunette, Up in Arms) joined forces with Hope and Goddard for this 1939 version of the story, adding more witty, playful comedy and romance to Willard’s thriller. This version worked so well that Hope and Goddard made two more films together: The Ghost Breakers (1940), and Nothing But the Truth (1941).  For the record, there was also a 1979 version.  I never saw it, but the stars sound promising:  Yanks Carol Lynley and Michael Callan, and Brits Honor Blackman, Wendy Hiller, Edward Fox, Olivia Hussey, Daniel Massey, Peter McEnery, and Wilfrid Hyde-White. But I digress….

 Here's looking at you, kids!

Universal actually owned the rights to Willard’s play, but sold them to Paramount. Fun Fact: the film, along with the 1940 film The Ghost Breakers (which I’ll discuss next time), was an inspiration to Walt Disney for his Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland!   Focusing on the funny, The New York Times’ film critic Frank S. Nugent describes Bob Hope not as the thing with feathers a la Emily Dickenson, but as having “a chin like a forehead and a gag line for every occasion… (This version of the story) is more hair-brained than hair-raising, which is as it should be.”  I agree: with this cast, fun and suspense make a swell team, including the delightful Nydia Westman (the 1933 version of Little Women; The Remarkable Andrew; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) as Cousin Cicily, a charmingly daft flibbertigibbet among the late Cyrus Norman’s relatives.  The supporting cast weren’t small potatoes, either, with George Zucco (The Mummy; After the Thin Man; The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Gale Sondergaard (Anna and the King of Siam; The Letter; and Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner for Anthony Adverse).  I especially enjoyed Sondergaard as Miss Lu; she’s kinda like a sophisticated Bayou Mrs. Danvers played for straight-faced laughs, blending mystery, menace, and mirth. Both Zucco and Sondergaard  playfully spoof the more ominous roles they were known for, while still being spooky enough to keep viewers on their toes, blending suspense and comedy into a sparkling cocktail. As Lawyer Crosby (no relation to Hope’s future screen co-star Bing Crosby), George Zucco’s foreboding presence adds the right touch of menace.   

Meet the lady known as Lu!
Hope’s movie career had begun with The Big Broadcast of 1938, and Goddard started her career as a child model, debuting in The Ziegfeld Follies at the tender age of 13!  Goddard’s fame as the Follies’ girl on the crescent moon put her on the map.  She was married to a a millionaire at the age of 16—and divorced not long after that.  After dissolving her marriage in 1931, Goddard went to Hollywood, where her natural talent and beauty sent her stardom soaring, bewitching Hollywood’s elite.  She earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in the 1943 war drama So Proudly We Hail!  She attracted some pretty remarkable fellas as husbands, too:  Charlie Chaplin; Team Bartilucci fave Burgess Meredith; and author Erich Maria Remarque of All Quiet on the Western Front fame. Goddard also did her bit for higher education, leaving over $20 million to New York University when she died in 1990.  What a gal!

Hello, I’m Mrs. Trumbull! Mrs. Ricardo
recommended me. Anyone need a
babysitter for spectral spooks?

The plot involves a gaggle of distant cousins who’ve come together after 10 years for the reading of Cyrus Norman’s will.  In the great comedy-thriller tradition, the prettiest and most generally winsome gal, Joyce Norman (Goddard) finds herself the designated Lady in Distress, while the affable, quip-slinging actor Wally Campbell (Hope) has noticed how little Joyce has grown up quite nicely.  Attraction is in the air, and no wonder, with the delightful chemistry between Hope and Goddard!  I especially liked the way Wally manages to be brave for Joyce in spite of his nervousness. 

Joyce and Wally ain’t afraid of no ghosts!
That comes later, in The Ghost Breakers!

In addition to Joyce and Wally, the prospective victims, er, heirs include Fred Blythe (John Beal of Double Wedding; My Six Convicts; The Firm); Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery, another 1933 Little Women cast member); and Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, whose long career included Intruder in the Dust; Lady on a Train; TV’s I Love Lucy as babysitter Mrs. Trumball).  Wally tries to put the others at ease with quips: “I hear old Uncle Cyrus’s ghost is holding bank night.”  What’s more, thanks to Wally’s theatrical background, he can’t help predicting each new spooky suspense cliché, keeping the others’ heads turning suspiciously, prompting Wally to suggest to Joyce, “I’ll recommend a nice quiet bomb-proof cellar to you for the next 30 days.”  Sorry, guys, everybody’s gotta stay overnight whether they want to or not.  As Wally wryly explains, “The members of Local Number 2 of the Bayou Canoe Paddlers and Putt-Putt Pushers Union fold putt after midnight.” Well, that’s OK; Wally and Joyce and company can always while away the time looking for a diamond necklace worth a fortune while trying to avoid being bumped off.

Oops, Joyce grabbed the wrong book.
She was looking for Bazooka Joe’s
bubble gum bio, The Psychology of Fleer!

On top of the creepy goings-on at ol’ Blue Bayou, the local authorities announce that there’s a fugitive psychopath on the loose from Fairview, the local asylum. “That’s all we needed,” Wally says. “Well, anyway, he’ll feel right at home.”  The killer is known as “The Cat,” but this “Cat” sure isn’t the suave Cary Grant/To Catch A Thief kind of cat burglar!  Soon Wally and Joyce are up to their ears in danger and romance, with more secret panels than The Game Show Network as Miss Lu stirs the pot with ominous warnings and whatnot!  Can Wally and Joyce live happily ever after, “live” being the operative word?  One thing’s for sure: with Hope and Goddard, it’ll sure be fun finding out! 

Hey, Joyce, give a guy a hand!

Fun Facts: 

If you like The Cat and The Canary, check out other reviews of this fun film by other swell bloggers!

1.) Yvette Banek from her stupendous blog IN SO MANY WORDS from March 2012!

2.) John Greco’s Twenty-Four Frames review from May 2011! 

Also, don't miss an uncredited Charles Lane (Ball of Fire; I Wake Up Screaming, etc.) in the final scene!  I admit it, I'm a sucker for a happy ending, especially a funny one!