Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gene Kelly Unplugged: Half-Singing, Half-Dancing, All Acting Team Bartilucci Double-Feature!

This post is part of the CMBA Gene Kelly Blogathon, running from August 20 through August 25, 2012.   

We of Team Bartilucci have joined forces for another double-feature in the CMBA's salute to the one and only Gene Kelly!  We hope you'll enjoy our mad yet lovable ramblings! 

Dorian’s Pick: The Devil Makes Three (1952)

With so many of us writing about Gene Kelly’s musicals for the titular CMBA Blogathon, I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to focus on one of Kelly’s action-adventure films. Mine has a Salzburg Connection, though it doesn’t have a Helen MacInnes plot (that would be the bailiwick of our friend and fellow blogger Yvette Banek of …in so many words fame)!  I chose the 1952 action-drama The Devil Makes Three (TDM3). The title explains a tenet in Islam: an unmarried boy and a girl should never be alone together. It’s acceptable to have two boys or two girls in a room, or larger numbers and permutations. But if a boy and a girl are alone together, it’s said the devil is the third person in the room. With that in mind, I’d say the real devil to fear in this moody suspenser is the poverty and desperation which force hard choices on our protagonists, Captain Jeff Eliot (Kelly, excellent in a dramatic role); and the vulnerable yet determined Wilhelmina Lehrt (Pier Angeli of Somebody Up There Likes Me; Teresa; and Merry Andrew, who left us way too soon), or “Willie,” as Jeff affectionately nicknames her. But you know what really piqued my interest in TDM3? Two words: Snowmobile Nazis! How’s that for a high concept?

Disney on Ice is nowhere near as badass
as these snowbound Wild Ones on Ice!
Set in 1947 just after the war, we viewers get a catch-up prologue from Colonel James Terry (Richard Rober of The Well; Father’s Little Dividend; The Tall Target), with our story being “a composite of case histories taken from the Munich headquarters file, Criminal Investigation Division Corps of Military Police, United States Army.” Over footage of the notorious Braunes Haus that housed the Nazis, Col. Terry dryly notes, “There isn’t even a ‘For Sale’ sign on the lot where the Braunes Haus once stood.”  After this prologue, the action begins! Around the Christmas holidays, a woman (Charlotte Fleming) drives on an icy road, skidding. She stops, hurries into a phone booth, and speaks urgently—only to have her phone call cut off permanently when two motorcycle cops pull up and shoot her dead in a hail of bullets! Yikes! Talk about Hell on wheels! The only clue is a business card with the insignia “Silhouette.”

I see a little Silhouette of a club!
(Scaramouche! Scaramouche!)
Meanwhile, our hero Jeff has just left the U.S. to return to Germany (instead of vice-versa as one would expect). Jeff has been writing to the Lehrt family and sending them gifts since he returned to the States, and he’s brought all the trimmings of an old-fashioned Christmas to thank the Lehrts for saving his life during the war. But when he drives to the address he knew, he finds the place practically in ruins, with a German family that’s definitely not the Lehrts! The family now living there are strangers to Jeff; they shamefacedly admit nobody else has lived there for ages, and they’ve been accepting Jeff’s care packages all this time because otherwise, they’d be starving in the rubble of what’s left of their ramshackle home. Being a decent joe despite his frustration and puzzlement, Jeff gives the bombed-out family the gifts he’d intended to give the Lehrts, then sets out to see what the heck happened to them.

Our hero Captain Jeff Eliot thinks
he can see  his house from here!
When Jeff gets together with Lieutenant Parker (the versatile Richard Egan from Love Me Tender; Violent Saturday; Pollyanna), he and us viewers get more background. The Lehrts were a family of musicians and singers, and pretty young Willie was only 15 the last time Jeff saw her. He’d met the family during the war, when his outfit was captured in a raid over Innsbrook, then thrown into a nearby prison camp. Two days later, the Lehrts had managed to hide the injured Jeff in the family’s cellar. Shortly after New Year’s Day, the family smuggled him to an area where he’d be able to walk to safety. Parker suggests they check the Central Registry, where there’s a complete casualty list, even if it means forgoing his previously planned evening of beer, bratwurst, and knockwurst—now That’s Entertainment (not to mention friendship)!

In Germany, our heroes hope for the best,
but expect the wurst!
At the Central Registry, Jeff and Parker get the bad news: Mr. and Mrs. Lehrt were killed by bombs in July 1944, and there’s no further info about Willie on file. Parker deduces that Willie would be about 18 by now: “If she’s still alive, and she’s still pretty, there are just so many joints in Munich where she could be, and I know every one of them.”  Jeff is skeptical: “Not Willie. She wasn’t the type.”  Parker ruefully replies, “If she’s been hungry long enough, she’s the type.”  So the search for Willie begins. On the bright side, if all else fails, at least our heroes will get a pub crawl out of it!

Is that a bruise under Willie's eye?
Poor girl, she probably wishes
she could be marching home!
Their search bears fruit. Of all the gin joints in all the world, Jeff and Parker find Willie (Angeli) at her workplace—none other than Silhouette! It’s full of beautiful girl singers and tough-looking guys who aren’t exactly gentlemen. Let’s just say the gals at Silhouette aren’t working there because it’s their dream job. Willie has grown up into a lovely, doe-eyed young woman with a bruised psyche. Having been orphaned and living on her own, she’s become understandably cynical since she last saw Jeff. They talk as they walk among the bombed-out buildings in the moonlight (almost sounds romantic, in a film noir way):

Willie: “Enjoying the sights, Captain?”
Jeff: “Oh…from the air, it all looks different. You had one idea up there, and that was to navigate the plane to the aiming point.”
Willie (sarcastically): “You did a good job.”
Another of my favorite TDM3 lines:
Willie: “You will like it here at Silhouette. At midnight, Kris Kringle comes down the chimney and does a strip-tease.”

Jeff wants to make amends and thank Willie on account of her late parents having saved his life. He’d like to start by giving Willie the Christmas holiday with all the trimmings that she’d loved in happier, pre-war, pre-Nazi days. Since Jeff is doing well at his navigation instructor job in the States, he wants to go all out to show Willie a happy time, so they’re off to Salzburg for the holidays! I love Willie’s running gag about “getting a commission” from businesses around town, like at the car dealership. Ah, but as soon as Jeff and Willie hit the road, good ol’ Honest Oberlitz (Bum Kr├╝ger) scrambles into the garage, yelling in German, and who should come roaring out but those evil motorcycle guys, hell-bent for leather and burning rubber! What the heck do those no-goodniks want from our heroes?

As they drive on the Autobahn, which Jeff compares favorably to the Pennsylvania Turnpike (wow, the Autobahn must have been way less crowded in the 1950s!), Willie gives Jeff a history lesson:
Willie: “The Fuhrer built it. It was supposed to carry its conquering armies to glory. Now it carries the conquerors. How does it feel to be a conqueror?”
Jeff: “Most of the guys stationed here would rather be driving along the Turnpike. We’re not cut out to be conquerors.”

I must say I enjoyed TDM3’s touches of wry humor, poking good-natured fun at the gentler post-war changes at Germans vs. Austrians, such as the Austrian diner with a juke-box, where the personnel use American slang like “Adam and Eve on a raft.” I also loved the beautiful locations, with shots of the locations as pretty as a postcard, especially since this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to that part of the world!

I keep expecting to hear Gene Kelly and the kids
singing “I Got Rhythm” in German!
But things get serious when Parker discovers that, unbeknownst to Jeff, that German car is chock full of contraband—specifically, there’s gold under the car’s top coat!  It turns out Willie had to secretly drive contraband across the Austro-German border, though Willie is having second thoughts after falling in love with Jeff (can you blame her?), plus the poor phone booth gal killed earlier in the film was a friend of Willie’s, and she doesn’t want to meet the same awful fate. What’s more, apparently this dastardly Nacht de Legernogen (sic), described as “The Last Will and Testament of the Third Reich,” outlines chilling procedures after the hoped-for defeat. Grr! Nazis—I hate those guys (don't we all?)! Can Willie and Jeff conquer the bad guys and go on to live happy lives of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, Chevrolets, and, for Willie, American citizenship?  Although Kelly doesn’t get any song-and-dance numbers, I found him both tough and tender as the determined yet caring Jeff, and I thought he and Angeli worked well together. I was especially moved as Willie did her best to survive with dignity while being forced into hard choices just to stay alive.

No mistletoe required!
TDM3 was filmed on location in Munich and Salzburg, with a screenplay by Jerry Davis (known for such Warner Bros TV series as 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat, Surfside Six, Bewitched, and The Odd Couple, as well as the 1955 horror thriller Cult of the Cobra), and based on a story by producer Lawrence P. Bachman, known for his 1960s series of comedy-whodunits based on Dame Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, starting in 1961 with Murder, She Said. That movie series is dear to Team Bartilucci’s collective heart, especially since it starred the delightful Dame Margaret Rutherford (and we all know there’s nothing like a Dame!), as well as Children of the Damned, the 1964 sequel to the horror classic Village of the Damned.

Uh-oh! X doesn’t mark the spot in a good way here!  

Hurry, Jeff, distract the villain
with a dance number!
The film was directed by Andrew Marton, who was no stranger to action films and war films. His work included The Longest Day; the 1950 version of King Solomon’s Mines; science-fiction thriller Crack in the World, another Team B. fave; and the 1964 version of James Jones’ celebrated novel The Thin Red Line. (Terence Malick’s 1998 version included an all-star cast, including future Oscar-winner and Team Bartilucci favorite Adrien Brody, but that’s a story for another time.)  The driving rhythm of Bronislau Kaper’s music (Gaslight; Whistling in the Dark; The Naked Spur) sets an appropriate pulse-pounding pace as TDM3 moves along. But it’s not all action movie music by any means. Since the story is set in post-war Munich and Austria during the Christmas season, there's poignancy and grim reminders of the aftermath of World War 2. Bombed-out ruins, some of which housed the Nazis (good riddance, Nazi scum!), sit side-by-side with the new buildings of the ongoing reconstruction, while ironic reminders of the war appear along with holiday music such as “Oh, Christmas Tree” (in both English and German). The New York Times movie reviewer, identified only as H.H.T (the venerable Howard Thompson, perhaps?) was underwhelmed with Jerry 
“Hi, I’m Claus Clausen, I’ll be
your Otto Preminger for this evening….”
Boy, Oberlitz's coffee sure is a knockout!
Davis’ screenplay for the post-war adventure drama The Devil Makes Three (TDM3). Oh, well, can’t please everyone!

Vinnie’s Pick: What A Way to Go! (1964)

I must confess to bending the rules slightly with this entry.  This is undoubtedly a film that belongs to Shirley MacLaine.  Like a housecat who graciously lets people live in their homes, Shirley allows several leading men to share the screen with her, and each time she makes them feel comfortable, like they're the only man in the world.  Gene Kelly is the last of them, but it could be argued that his appearance is the grandest and most over the top.

Shirley plays Louisa May Foster, a shy, unassuming girl who through no fault of her own, appears to be cursed.  For every time she attempts to marry for love, her husbands seem to become bestowed with uncontrollable success.  Everything goes their way, they become engrossed in their work, and it ends with them dying in progressively outlandish fashions, leaving her alone, and each time, exponentially wealthier.  The film begins with her attempting to give all her money to the IRS in the form of a single check for 250 million dollars.  She is met with doubt, and is sent to a psychiatrist (Bob Cummings) to whom she bares her tale of woe. 
Starting with her childhood in Crawleyville, named after the town's richest family, she is pressed by her mother (Margaret Dumont!) to marry the Crawley's indolent son, Leonard (played by the indolent Dean Martin).  She instead turns her eye to Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), owner of a barely open general store, who lives his life by the tenets of Thoreau. They marry, and out of spite Crawley proceeds to make their life hell, mocking their meager existence.  Hopper snaps, and becomes a marketing dynamo, turning his general store into the most successful business in town, driving the Crawleys into bankruptcy.  The strain is too much for him, and he dies from a massive (and ironic) coronary, his last words being "a little hard work never hurt anybody!"

Louisa is now a wealthy woman, and travels to Paris to start anew.  There she meets Larry Flint - not that one, a struggling artist played by Paul Newman.  He lives the stereotypical life of an artist, in a loft surrounded by other eccentric creators, including a chimpanzee who's currently more productive than any of them.  Larry's medium is a mechanical painting device of his own invention that converts sound to brush strokes.  Louisa, happy to find another man who abhors wealth, marries him, and they live the simple life in their paint-stained loft.  But she whammies him as well, and when she suggests he play beautiful music for the machine to interpret, it paints a masterpiece.  He builds an assembly line of them, and is making money hand over waldo, leaving her alone again, first figuratively, and later literally when the machines turn on him and turn him into their living (for a while) canvas.

Her third try, she goes the opposite direction - Rod Anderson (Robert Mitchum) is even more staggeringly wealthy than she, and they hit it off immediately.  During a wild montage of parties and truly spectacular costumes (all created by the equally spectacular Edith Head), Rod is amazed to learn that athough he's been totally ignoring his business, he's actually made MORE money.  However, Louisa convinces him to sell everything and live his dream - to move back to a farm like the one he grew up on.  They do so, and are blissfully happy...until one morning, Rod accidentally tries to milk their prize bull, Melrose.  The moment is understated and only implied, but is truly hilarious - his last words, "Melrose, forGIVE me!", are preceded by a strained and surprised bovine bellow, and followed by him being kicked out the back of the barn.

Her next paramour comes in the form of Pinky Benson (Yes folks, you've been patient - it's Gene Kelly) an earnest but happy where he is song and dance man who performs in a local tavern called the Cauliflower Ear.  His act is pure schmaltz - he wears a clown getup, and does a fast hoofer nonsense number in the style of fifties performer Pinky Lee. He's barely noticed by the audience, which is just fine by the owner - a status quo that's lasted fourteen years.  Once again, Louisa thinks she's found a man who wants no more out of life than he's already got, and they wed.  And it all goes very well.  Until...

One of the recurring motifs in the film is Louisa's complimentary comparison of each of her marriages to a different kind of classic film. Her early time with Hopper was like a melodramatic silent film where love conquered all, her time in France like a French impressionistic picture, and the high-rent world of Rod like a series of lavish entrances in a "Lush Budgett" glamour film.  Her time with Pinky / Kelly, predictably enough, is portrayed as an over the top musical production.  Kelly, at 52 by the time of this film, is still staggeringly light on his feet, and Shirley more than keeps up with him.

Heading out for his birthday party after a performance, Louisa suggests he save time by not applying his makeup, and do the act in his street clothes.  He feels a bit shy without his costume, and he sings his number softly, and at half speed.  Rather than his clownish (naturally) buck and wing, he does a gentle soft-shoe number. As the raucous restaurant slowly grows silent to pay attention to him, Louisa realizes she's done it a again.  Pinky is discovered before they can finish a whip-pan, and Louisa is morosely lounging around a massive Hollywood mansion as Pinky works on a number of films at once.  Far from the soft-spoken hoofer she married, Kelly now plays Pinky in full-on parody mode, with a brassy voice and the traditional "My public" mode of the triple-threat mogul. 
At his latest premiere, they arrive in an all-pink Rolls, Louisa's head buried in a pink wig, and wrapped head to toe in pink mink.  The film, naturally, is a smash.  The surging crowd of fans are out of control, and his producers suggest he leave out the back entrance.  Just as they're about to leave, he realizes he can't do it to his fans, and pops out from the alley to surprise them.  BAD move.  They thunder toward him, their advance deftly mixed with shots (and sound effects) of stampeding elephants.  He is literally trampled to death by his adoring public.

As the dream sequences get progressively longer, so too her time spent with each husband, which means that Kelly gets the most time on screen.  He gets to play a good spectrum, from the shy tavern performer, to the lovestruck husband to the bombastic movie icon.  MacLaine is adorable throughout the film, eternally desperate for love, spending most of her time swathed in the most astounding finery, alternately covering her entirely, and leaving so little to the imagination you wonder how brother Warren didn't storm onto the set and slap all the cameramen. Her high pitched voice sounds like if she were in a comic book, it'd have little musical notes in her word balloons, like Melody from Josie and the Pussycats did.

I deliberately tried to keep my summaries of the rest of her paramours brief, as this is a Gene Kelly tribute.  But let me assure you, I left out a LOT of detail, and it's all worth a look.  The film's been making the rounds on cable, and is pretty easy to catch up with.  And well worth doing, as well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Happy Second Anniversary to TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED!

Great heavenly days! As of August 22nd, 2012, Tales of the Easily Distracted (TotED, for any newcomers) is two years old today! Where the heck does the time go?   Time to party!

Timber-r-r-r! Could Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) throw a shindig, or what?

What a difference two years makes! I’ve made so many friends, and I’ve read so many fascinating and entertaining blogs, and learned so much more about classic movies than I ever imagined. I also got the hang of Blogathons, thanks to talented folks like Page Inciardi from My Love of Old Hollywood, as well as Becky Barnes from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food, who, along with my sweet and supportive hubby Vinnie Bartilucci and our favorite inspiration, our 15-year-old daughter Siobhan, gave me the courage to put on my own Blogathon this past July, The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made), for which I continue to be grateful!  The support from my family and friends also spurred me to finish writing and polishing my suspense novel The Paranoia Club, and thanks to my wonderful editor Nicole Bokat (if you need a great editor, Nicole is your go-to gal!), I’ve finally begun sending queries to agents. I know getting published is a long, hard road more often than not, but I’m going to give it my all; nothing ventured, nothing gained. Wish me luck!

Revisions, revisions, always revisions!
( Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson in Rob Reiner's Alex and Emma)

Thanks so very much, everyone, for welcoming me among all you wonderful people in the dark—and out of the dark, for that matter!  Here’s to another year of film fun and frolic, with many more to come, I hope!

Our favorite contemporary Oscar-winning actor 
and all-around nice guy Adrien Brody approves!

Interested in the origins of TotED? Check out the link below!