Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Favorite Blonde - Where There's Spies, There's Hope!

This post is for the Madeleine Carroll Blogathon, hosted by Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, from February 26th through 27th! Enjoy!

I get a kick out of Bob Hope’s comedy-mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s, including the “Old Dark House” spoof The Cat and the Canary (1939); The Ghost Breakers (1940); and the swell detective spoof My Favorite Brunette (1947). But now I’ve got another favorite for Bob and the girls: My Favorite Blonde (1942), thanks to our great friend and fellow blogger R.A. Kerr (Ruth to us gals on the go!)!

By now, you’ve surely heard of the aristocratic beauty in the Alfred Hitchcock suspense films The 39 Steps (1935); and The Secret Agent (1936) with our gal Maddie (that’s how she was affectionately called by friends and loved ones, so I’m told) as well as the Coming Attractions for her films, as well as on the great Alfred Hitchcock bringing them together when he chose Madeleine as his leading lady in The 39 Steps, as well as Secret Agent (1936), co-starring John Gielgud, this time with Peter Lorre, Lili Palmer, and Robert Young. If you ask me, My Favorite Blonde is a delightful spoof that even our Mr.Hitchcock would get a kick out of!

Hope and Carroll got along right away - a little TOO well
as far as Sterling Hayden was concerned!
Lovely Maddie’s next triumph brought her to the U.S, the home of Radio – talk about great word of mouth! To no surprise, Bob Hope found himself smitten by Maddie, and she was flattered at his devotion. Audiences loved it, eating out of fans’ hands. Like any red-blooded American fella in the 1940s, Bob thought Maddie was the bees’ knees’ knees, and with a war on, Maddie was happy to help the war effort. Bob was dazzled by her wit, charm, and beauty. Bob’s crush on Maddie was a big hit with their repartee on the show. Just one little problem: Maddie thought of Bob as just a an admirer and a colleague, while Bob was truly crushing on our gal Maddie. Bob’s long-time wife Dolores was apparently a good sport, but her fiancĂ©, tough-guy Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar; The Asphalt Jungle), made no bones about it according to author Lawrence Quirk: “Hayden wanted to show up on the set and rearrange the famed ski-nose!” (Who can blame him?)  Just as well, Bob, you had a swell wife, that’s enough, buster!  (My dear late mom would have agreed, as she was a big Sterling Hayden fan!)!

"This can't be California - it ain't raining!"
At the beginning of My Favorite Blonde, we meet our heroine, Karen Bentley (Madeleine Carroll, of course!), a clearly a sophisticated lady indeed, downing a Pousse CafĂ©, so cool she can actually show the bartender how to prepare each ring – what a gal! But Karen barely gets time to polish off her off her drink when she sees a seriously wounded man on deck! Turns out she's a spy that would give Peggy Carter a run for her money, and the poor guy turns out to be one of Karen’s good-guy spy colleagues!  He comes to with only enough time to get the "spy info" into her hands - a small scorpion-shaped pin, engraved with coded information for flight plans for a new fleet of warplanes.  Karen has to make tracks before the baddies can catch up to her too!  And believe us, Karen’s foes are no cream-puffs: they’re the evil Madame Stephanie Runick (Oscar-winner Gale Sondergaard; The Letter); and Dr. Streger (George Zucco of After The Thin Man; The Cat and the Canary).

Haines and Percy-guess who's the star?
Karen ditches the baddies with a deft swap in a cab, and ducks into the stage door of a vaudeville theater, claiming to want to talk to the members of the first act she sees on the board, "Haines and Percy".  But even though Larry Haines (Bob Hope) has first billing, he's second banana to his partner, a trained roller-skating penguin! He's heading for The Coast that night for what he claims is a big movie deal (in fact it's Percy who has the offer), but as soon as Karen hears about his plans, she demands to hitch a ride with him, demanding he ask no questions.  She's so cute he can't say no, so when they start on their journey, he's got no idea why she starts jumping into mad characters and accents when she spies (sorry) one of Gayle's Goons lurking nearby.  Grabbing him for an attention diverting kiss one moment and pushing him away the next, Larry exasperatedly asks, “Say, what do operate on, alternating current?”

Larry spends a good portion of the film dazed and confused -- it's not till they reach what's supposed the end of their mission in Chicago does he learn what's really going on, just in time to get properly terrified!  The agent they were supposed to drop the McGuffin off with has been gotten to first - he's got a knife in his back, and the place is surrounded. 

Karen: “They have access to the building. You’ll never get out of this building alive!”
Larry: Lady, if I'm not out of that door in 2 seconds flat, my name's not Larry Haines!
(Villain throws knife, missing Larry by a hair.) Larry turns back: “Meet John Doe!”

For a lighthearted comedy, they got a few great noir-esque shots in!
Larry goes for a classic gag to get a police escort to safety -- they stage a "domestic dispute" that would put the Bickersons to shame, and as soon as they're out of danger, they start "making up" in the back of the police car so cloyingly that the cops boot them out.  Of course, by that time they've found the dead spy in the apartment, and they're blamed for the murder, which only makes the trip to California all the more harrowing! Our heroes also get some swell noir-style imagery in a dark chase scene, but there’s still plenty of cameos in the Teamster picnic, where Karen and Larry face it: they’re addicted to love! But that doesn’t mean there’s still lots of hilarity – not when Carl Switzer, a.k.a Alfalfa, brings pandemonium to a women’s conference, spitting with wild abandon!

Two crooners in one film - that's value!
There's a couple of references to Carroll's The 39 Steps as well - Bob has to give an impromptu speech as they hide from the Nazis, and earlier on, he talks about a mysterious man with "only two fingers on one hand" (and he don't mean Harold Lloyd!)

Also keep an eyes peeled as they try to get lost in a Chicago crowd; that’s Bing Crosby in a cameo in a hilarious scene where Karen and Larry find themselves at a Teamsters picnic, where Irish eyes are both laughing and fighting! Call me a softy, but I was touched by the blend of zany comedy and tenderness, especially in the love scene in the box car. Might as well face it, you crazy kids, you’re added to love!   And watch for the mortuary scene – you might die laughing!

Monday, February 2, 2015

You Shall Have Fun, Hey? A Beatles double-feature by Team Bartilucci

Growing up in the Bronx, I watched late-night movies in my elementary school days, but only on weekends, and even then only when my very favorite films were on TV.  In those days, the only movies I enjoyed most aired so late at night (or so early in the morning, depending on your viewpoint) were The Beatles’ first (and best) two films, HELP! (1965) and A Hard Day’s Night (1964). I mention them in backwards chronological order because that was how our WABC affiliate usually showed them. Maybe WABC-TV figured that HELP!  would draw better ratings, being the wackier and more colorful of the two films literally! My fellow late-1960s baby boomers will recall that A Hard Day’s Night was filmed in glorious Black and White), making sure more insomniac Beatles fans would stay up through the …Night for the entire double-feature. My sister Cara and I couldn’t be more different, but our love of The Beatles was one of the few things we had in common. We knew “Beatles” was the name of a band long before we knew A “beetle” was the name of an insect. But I digress!

Grandma Josie would sleep over and sneak in bags of cookies and candy (the fruit-flavored marshmallows were my favorite) for us to munch while we watched the movies on TV, late-night commercials and all. Mom and Dad usually came home by the time A Hard Day’s Night started, and they’d insist that it was long past my bedtime, even for a weekend night. This is why I never saw the whole movie from start to finish until I was in my teens, but it was worth the wait, quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite movies!


According to TCM’s Roger Fristoe, A Hard Day’s Night was a smash (and no wonder!), a film that had personality as well as singing, was a crowd-pleaser which also had the good fortune to have four cheeky yet endearing young stars:  John Lennon, the mischievous  smart-aleck; the likable Paul  McCartney, the boyish heartthrob;  the quiet yet wry-humored George Harrison, a nice young fella whose laid-back comments steal the show in his quiet way; and loveable nebbish Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey). It didn’t hurt that Director Richard Lester made it for a nimble budget of $500,000 budget!  They’re the Beatles, they’re each likable, smart, and witty, literally making beautiful music together – what’s not to love, as well as talented and hot!  Screenwriter Alun Owen got an Oscar nomination for for his Screenplay and its cheeky, witty dialogue (though My Fair Lady was the winner that year.)

The charm of The Fab Four certainly got them plenty of got mileage from their fame, and even from other new stars in their wake ; hey, the newbies had to eat, too!  But while John, Paul, George and Ringo had plenty of star power and wit, it sure didn’t hurt to have a delightful supporting cast, including:
"So far, I've seen a car and a room, and a TRAIN and a room,
and a ROOM and a room!"

Wilfrid Brambell as Paul's (other) grandfather was ostensibly the film's star, at the time the star of Steptoe and Son, Britain's hottest sitcom, which would come to America years later, with a minor casting change, as Sanford and Son.  The running joke about Paul's grandfather being so "clean" was a play off S&S' catchphrase of the elder Mr. Steptoe being a "FILTHY old man!"

Victor Spinetti is a hoot as the frustrated TV director desperately trying to rein in the chaos of the loveable lads - he'd have better luck lassoing smoke. He swings between boisterous demands for obedience, offers to resign, or fears that if it doesn't go perfectly, he'll end up directing something useless like The Epilogue, (the BBC's traditional end of the broadcast day), or worse, News in Welsh.

Anna Quayle (Chitty Bang Bang-Bang) as a daft fan who John has to convince he's not really him. Eventually she walks away convinced "You don't look like him all like him at all.."   Lennon ad-libs "She looks more like him than I do."

Norman Rossington and John Junkin as the band's frenzied manager Norm and his kindly but "always taller than me" assistant Shake.

The structure of the film is simple, more of a simple skeleton to hang dialogue and wild vignettes on. The Beatles glide merrily though the landscape, a mix of equal parts Marx Brothers, Bugs Bunny, and the Mynah Bird from the Chuck Jones "Inki" cartoons, sowing disarray in their wake.  They are matched only by Paul's Grandfather, sent along to distract him from a broken heart, but spends his time setting various people against each other and enjoying the sparks.

The mayhem starts fast, with The Boys being chased through town (in a sequence that's STILL being copied and "homaged" to this day), ending up on the train to London where the Fab Four (I'm gonna run out of names for these guys any time time now, you know) play merry hell with a stiff-necked Middle-Class City-worker (played by Richard Vernon, who played the man from the treasury in Goldfinger, and years later, Slartibartfast in the TV version of The Hitchhikers' Guide To the Galaxy). 

In town they make their way to the hotel and immediately begin straining at the leash their manager keeps them on. When Paul's grandpa sneaks out to take advantage of Ringo's invitation to a gaming club, the quartet race off to "save" him, only to be retrieved quickly by manager Norm. A whirlwind press conference offers some of the most memorable questions and answers ever, quite an accurate reflection of their real press conferences. In addition to Paul answering every unheard question with "no we're just good friends" there's quoteables like these:

Reporter: Tell me, how did you find America?
John: Turn left at Greenland.

Reporter: Do you think those haircuts have come to stay?
Ringo: Well, this one has, it's stuck on good and proper now (tugs at hair).

Reporter: What would you call that hairstyle?
George: (deadpan) Arthur.
(That's likely the second tip of the hat to mad magazine in the film - Shake is reading the paperback Son of MAD earlier in the movie, and "Arthur" was the name is am avocado plant that popped up inexplicably in the background of many of the proceedings in the magazine.)

"I now declare this bridge open"
Soon they're herded into a TV studio for a variety show program that evening.  All they need do is sit about for a bit between rehearsal and broadcast. Simple.  And the White Star Line expected the Titanic to have an uneventful maiden voyage.   It's at this point the film really opens up - each of the boys get their own chances to shine in what are practically blackout sketches. 
George spends a few minutes scuttling the plans of a marketing whiz (Kenneth Haigh) who he tells that his shirt designs are "dead grotty" and their teen spokewoman Susan is: " A well-known drag"
Ringo "goes parading before it's too late" at Grandpa's urging, and delivers a sad sack mini-performance  that would rival Jackie Gleason. Though it's reported that his dour and pained expression wasn't acting - he was nursing a massive hangover from a hard day's night of drinking the night before!  Maybe that's why Ringo felt pick-on, and not sly Grandfather getting "notions" -- but it's still great fun, with the finale with the lads getting our lads scramlbling all over London!

Shake never learned to shave with a razor, coming  from
"a long line of electricians"
And in between the whole thing are the musical sequences that got director Richard Lester named on of the spiritual fathers of MTV (to which he replied that he wanted a paternity test).
As befits the biggest name of the film, Brambell gets the most "plot" of the film as "Lord" John Mccartney.  He's responsible for inspiring Ringo to go walkabout, and after collecting all the boys' signatures, forges himself a stack of autographed photos and gets in dutch with the peelers, ending up on the booking bench next to young Mr. Starkey. He's the closest the film has to an antagonist - indeed, Paul refers to him as a "villain" right near the beginning.  Once the boys are collected up again (just in time) for the show, the film turns into a mini-concert as they perform before a teeming throng of British youth, which allegedly includes a very young Phil "No Jacket Required" Collins.  It's sort of a thank you to the viewers for sitting through all the narrative, which hopefully by the end they ended up enjoying.  I certainly did.

HELP! (1965)

The Beatles were dragged back before the cameras only a year later for their second film. A bigger budget, more locations, more stars, but the same director, Richard Lester. Lester had experience capturing chaos in a film can - he did The Running Jumping Standing Still Film, starring The Goons (Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan), who were greatly revered by the Liverpudlian Lads.

Now filming in color, and offering a bit more defined plot, the film still offered more than enough room for wackiness and Beatleific behavior.

Originally titled "Eight Arms to Hold You", a title nobody really cared for, but changed so late in the production process that the first single, featuring Ticket to Ride and Yes It Is, says that it's from the upcoming film The film begins in a heathen temple in some heathen country, where a human sacrifice is being offered to Kaili, a non-existent but real-sounding eastern diety, the extra vowel likely added to avoid insult to any remaining Thugees.  The proceedings are halted as the less-than-willing subject is not wearing the sacrificial ring - she secretly mailed to a pop-star in Britain with a predilection for rings, named...? Anyone?

Now, let's not always see the same hands...

Yes, Ringo ends up with the McGuffin stuck on his finger, and gets chased throughout the film by High Priest Clang played by Leo McKern (The Prisoner, Rumpole of the Bailey) and his bevy of assassins, headed (or perhaps hindered) by Ahme, played by Eleanor Bron (Bedazzled). Ringo tries all sort of things to get the ring off, eventually entering the grasping hands of Professor Foot (the returning Victor Spinetti) and his hapless assistant Algernon Roy Kinnear (Williy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Foot sees the seemingly indestructible ring as a means to...dare I say it...rule the world - perhaps he was thinking of a certain other Ring.

This was Eleanor Bron's first film - she'd go on to be
one of Britain's grand dames of comedy
The Beatles have a cartoony disconnect from reality in the film.  It starts in their domicile, which from the outside seems to be four contiguous flats in a suburban street of row homes, but from within it's revealed to be on monstrous single room made up of the interiors of the Fab Four, an architectural miracle that we of Team Bartilucci would love to duplicate as soon as that lottery money starts rolling in.  We see a lot more exaggerated physical comedy situations in this film, from the overclocked hand dryer in the men's room to the floor being sawed through under Ringo's drum set as the heathens attempt to initially retrieve the ring, and as the sun sets, attempt to sacrifice the new wearer, AKA The Famous Ringo. Paul is shrunk to the size of a stick of gum in a rather well-done bit of scenery, and Professor Foot uses all sorts of mad contraptions. It's a far more cinematic film than the first one, which maintains a rather grounded state, if rather off-level.

As with the first film, the boys have unique and individual personalities, a practice applied to almost all pop bands in the 60's onward.  Paul is (of course) the dashing lady-killer, George the quiet one, though able to deliver the occasional stinging barb, John the inscrutable trickster god, and Ringo the hapless boob.  Indeed, it's Ringo's cowardice that causes the ring to "cling to your finger like the hunger of a child"

Quite a few more stars of British comedy make a showing in the film.  In addition to the aforementioned, we see Patrick Cargill (Father Dear Father, and another Number Two on The Prisoner) as the Superintendent of Police and a master of mimicry, and Alfie Bass (The Lavender Hill Mob, The Army Game) as the doorman of an Indian restaurant (thank god for British unions).
The film jumps about from the Alps to the Bahamas, for little reason other than the lads had never been there and asked for scenes there so they could get a vacation in.  While in the Alps, the mentioned they'd never been skiing - Richard Lester pressed skis and poles into their hands, telling them to "find a hill and practice".  He filmed the results, which became much of the meat of the Ticket to Ride sequence.

In a gag worthy of The Goons, Clang packs up the entire temple
in crates and ships it to the Bahamas, cause
The Beatles wanted a holiday.
The film is also rife with spy jokes - United Artists was also releasing the Bond films, so there's tons of gags in the film like Clang's  van dropping tacks, Bhuta carrying a sword umbrella, and tossing his turban Oddjob-style.  The score offers a few Bond-ish stings in there, as well as wittily disguised covers of past Beatles songs.  the all-sitar version of A Hard Day's Night is hilarious, especially the first time you realize what it is.