Thursday, August 30, 2007

Beach Scene 1941

Now that we’re nearing the end of summer, a nod to my favorite beach scene in the movies. This is in “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941) where Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn, and Spring Byington share a picnic lunch on the crowded beach of Coney Island. Rented bathing suits and a lesson on how the masses live are the order of the day for the wealthy Coburn incognito as a worker in his own store. Miss Arthur, Mr. Cummings, and Miss Byington are his unwitting employees who befriend him and show him the ropes.

This film deserves its own essay at another time, but for now, the scene at the crowded beach is enough to invoke a sense of quickly fading summer. It is not a beach of teenagers twitching to the twang of electric guitars as in a future era. There is no surfing by privileged middle class youngsters, but only a stolen moment for the Depression-era laboring classes on the weekend to try to snatch some essence of the good life. Not easy in the elbow-to-elbow mob on that beach. But, like all working people everywhere, as Mr. Coburn learns, you take what you can get, and make the most of it.

What are your favorite beach scenes?

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Hope some of you can get to the beach.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jessie Ralph

Jessie Ralph was born during the American Civil War and died during World War II. She appeared on Broadway in many of George M. Cohan’s shows, and came to Hollywood as an elderly woman. During the 1930s, when her most famous work was done, she was in her 70s.

Ms. Ralph plays the feisty Mrs. Burley in “San Francisco,” and W. C. Fields unbearable mother-in-law in “The Bank Dick” (1940), Greta Garbo’s maid in “Camille” (1936), and Aunt Katherine in “After the Thin Man” (1936). She was adept at comedy and drama, and was one of those charismatic actors who seem to draw all the attention when the camera was on her. She appeared in some 52 movies in a just seven-year span between 1933 and 1940, when she retired. I keep wondering if there’s some secret to longevity in these character actors. Maybe it’s just to keep working.

Sponsored Link:
Jessie Ralph Movies

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

San Francisco (1936) - Part 2

See Part 1 of "San Francisco" here.

MacDonald spends much of the movie torn between a choice of Gable or Holt, and it is Burley’s Irish mother, played by the delightful character actress Jessie Ralph who gives us a history, a background for this fascinating San Francisco of theirs, describing how she came to this place in 1851, sailing around the Horn, and who once loved a blackguard like Blackie but gave him up for a respectable marriage to a respectable man. She looks out from the magnificent windows of her colossal Nob Hill mansion and proclaims of her city, “Deep down underneath all our evil and sin we’ve got right here in San Francisco the finest set of human beings that was ever rounded up in one spot.”

But, she admonishes, “We can’t go on like this, sinful and blasphemous with no fear of God in our hearts.” She could be warning her of Blackie, but it is a portent of things to come, as if the coming earthquake might be divine retribution on a careless humanity. Up until this moment, it’s easy to forget that this is a movie about an earthquake because the buildup of human drama to it is so well done.

At the pivotal “Chicken’s Ball” where MacDonald is escorted by Burley, Della, one of Blackie’s many former girlfriends, played by Margaret Irving, tosses a five-dollar piece to Burley and delivers one of my favorite lines, “There’s a five spot, Brother. I’m buying back me introduction to you.”

With Blackie facing jail because of Burley, MacDonald wins the prize for Blackie with a spirited rendition of “San Francisco” vamping it coquettishly in a splendid rendition, making us believe San Francisco is indeed, the “heart of the golden west.”

Then the earthquake. Oh, yes, there was going to be an earthquake in this movie, too. The initial tremor lasts only a couple of minutes, but seems much longer, and the rest of the movie deals with vivid scenes of destruction and aftershocks, fire and terror, and the inevitable slow, dazed march of refugees out of the city.

The special effects of the film are quite good, but what is really excellent about the film is that the chaos is made more human than in what usually occurs in modern films. With our superior technology and computer graphics, we tend to lean more heavily on the razzle-dazzle and pay short shrift to the human emotion.

A dust-covered woman sits in shock at the only standing table in a room full of debris. A hand protrudes, searching, from a pile of rubble, then stiffens and falls limp. People try to help each other, others run away. There are happy reunions, and final partings. The city of which they were so proud and sang an anthem about moments before becomes their trap and tries to kill them.

Gable spends the rest of the movie in a panic trying to find MacDonald. An affecting scene occurs when he must tell old Mrs. Burley that her son has been found dead, and he can only hug her, and behind them, her magnificent Nob Hill mansion is dynamited to create a firebreak.

Eventually Gable locates Father Tim, who leads him to MacDonald at a makeshift tent city, singing “Nearer My God, To Thee” at the death of a child. Blackie has found Mary and then he finds God, and drops to his knees to give thanks.

There is a triumphant note at the end when the fire is out and all march up the hill to observe their city in ruins, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and pledging to rebuild. It’s easy to look upon the faces of the younger extras, knowing that rebuilding to the young is an easy thing. It is far more affecting to see hope in the eyes of the elderly actors. Having to begin over and over again is the toughest thing we have to do. People who have lived a long life know that. People who’ve suffered earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes know that all too well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

San Francisco (1936) - Part 1

“San Francisco” (1936) recreates the raucous turn-of-the-20th Century Barbary Coast before our eyes with affectionate detail, and then destroys it before our eyes with the sudden shock of an earthquake.

The film takes us back to the months preceding the April 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the attention to detail of that period is worth noting. The sets, the embellishments of architecture and set dressing, the costumes are all wonderfully evocative. The film was made 30 years after the quake. One wonders if a film made today about a period of time 30 years ago, of the late 1970s, could be done with such accuracy without the temptation of caricature or mocking parody.

The film uses to extraordinary lengths an army of extras efficiently and realistically placed and choreographed. One never gets the sense that these are cattle waiting for the director to yell, “Action!” but rather citizens going about the minutiae of everyday life, and we have stumbled upon their private world.

The film could almost be called a musical as well, because there are several pieces of music heard throughout the movie, many popular songs, and most notably operatic scenes from “Faust” and “La Traviata” and the fabulous title song, “San Francisco.” Introduced in this film, the song is now one of the two designated official songs of the City of San Francisco, and has to be one of the very best love songs to a city ever written.

Clark Gable, the owner of a seedy club and his boyhood pal, Father Tim, played by Spencer Tracy, star along with Jeannette MacDonald, a woman all alone in the big city trying to pursue a career as a singer. When Gable interviews her for his club, all he cares about are her legs, and we see right off that Gable is incorrigible, selfish, and irresistibly virile.

His habit of flaunting his new girlfriends in front of old ones and a cocky habit of referring to himself in the third person could make Gable’s character Blackie unlikable, except that he has his charming moments of redemption. He donates an organ to Fr. Tim’s mission. He releases Mary, played by Miss MacDonald, from her contract to him to realize her dream of performing opera at the Tivoli Opera House. We see the endearing change come over him as he watches her perform beautifully in a life she was meant to live.

This is short-lived, however, and the plot takes many twists in the triangle relationship of MacDonald, Gable, and Jack Burley, played by Jack Holt, who wants to marry her. There is another triangle between Gable, MacDonald and Mr. Tracy, when Father Tim, fearing for MacDonald’s happiness and for her soul with scoundrel like Gable, interferes. Miss MacDonald does not make it easy for watchdog Father Tim, as she is the one who proposes to Gable, who bemusedly, if not insultingly agrees to let her “harpoon” him.

On the side we have a political election, a contest between Gable and Holt for control of the Barbary, and Gable postpones the marriage because, as he tells his bride to be, he doesn’t want to look foolish before his tough friends. On a side note, we see a cameo by young Tommy Bupp, who we last saw in “Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts” ( see entry August 22nd) and also a small part by Ted Healy, former ringleader of The Three Stooges as Mat, one of Gable’s performers.

Part 2 of  “San Francisco” here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Going to the Movies - Two B-Horror Films

Two recent trips to the movies brought an interesting perspective. The first trip to see a current feature film was enjoyable enough, despite the inevitable scenes which are geared to attract the immature and unintelligent, and enough of those folks to pay for the making of the film. Enjoyable despite the previews of coming attractions which contained enough key scenes of similar immature and unintelligent (read vulgar) material to attract some key demographic which will evidently stomach that sort of thing better than I do.

However, though I was curious to see the film, I probably would not have gone had I not gift certificates to use. A brief stroll through the mega movie cavern where multiple films played, and a glance at the variety and prices of the food served, left me more in awe than the film. As, I think, it always does.

Then another movie going experience brought a curious balance to this. Since this is a blog about OLD movies, it fits in here. A group of friends and I met on a warm summer evening, after a spur of the moment meal at a family-owned diner/hot dog stand of the kind of variety that has been called Road Food, where the food is homemade, great, and inexpensive and the shack of a building has more history than your family tree, we went to the movies.

Not just any film, but a double feature of horror B-flicks from days gone by, back when you dressed for the movies like you dressed for church (since a lot of people who still go to church don’t dress for it, this might not be a good analogy). These were two really lousy films, and we had a terrific time.

The films were “The Terror” (1963) with Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson in one of his early roles. Mr. Nicholson has likely crossed this one off his resume and done his best to forget it. It is perhaps inelegant of me to raise it here. The second was “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) with Vincent Price and a young Richard Long, and a genuinely spooked Elisha Cook, Jr.

We played trivia and won prizes. We laughed when the evil ones were terminated, and applauded when the “scary” parts occurred. We mimicked the actors as we left the theater. None of this was done in derision, but ironically, in appreciation of being entertained. There were men as well as women in the audience enjoying the show equally, because these were not chick flicks, nor action films, so we were not marketed to by gender. There were all ages in the audience, from nerdy teens taking it much too seriously, to oldsters with shining eyes remembering their first dates at the drive-in. When the film was over, we talked spontaneously about our old neighborhood movie houses, long since gone, where we had seen films of this sort. When the audience was asked to fill out a survey in the lobby, many hands eagerly reached for the forms and pencils, not brusquely passing by as usual, but wanting to share what they felt. Conversations erupted among strangers.

It occurred to me that the big difference between the first experience of seeing a current pretty okay Hollywood film and the double feature of two ridiculous old ones, was that we enjoyed the old ones more because we felt entertained. As silly as the “frightening” scenarios were, we were not made uncomfortable by unnecessary vulgarity intended to play us like an instrument. What violence that occurred in these films was laughable. Mostly, and above all, we did not feel as if we had just been targeted, marketed, merchandized, and been viewed by the operating officers of some media conglomerate as a demographic to be exploited. Which is how I usually feel when I go to the movies, like I've been had.

We felt entertained, and when we clapped at the end of the double feature, (not having clapped at all at the current film, only slipped away from the theater as quickly as possible without lingering), it was with real appreciation at having been given a night of lighthearted fun for the price of admission (a much lower price obviously than the feature film). Perhaps it's simply because films are not made for a general audience anymore that we do not experience this sense of community. Much in the same way there are no more "popular songs" that everyone knows.

The business of making movies has always been about making a profit. That is a given, but it seems there is less showmanship, for want of a better word, than there used to be. Only push the product to a targeted market until the shelf life expires. It’s not the same thing.

That’s it for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts (1937)

“Tex Rides with the Boy Scouts” (1937) stars Tex Ritter, his horse “White Flash”, and features Marjorie Reynolds, who later went on to a better role in “Holiday Inn” (1942) opposite Bing Crosby.

The movie begins with a kind a newsreel feel to it with the announcer voice over telling us a bit about the history of the Boy Scouts. In this short, Tex, and his two bumbling pals Stubby, played by Horace Murphy and Pee Wee, played by Snub Pollard, stumble upon a Boy Scout camp near to where some bad guys are hiding stolen gold.

You have to be a pretty confident guy to hang out with pals named Pee Wee and Stubby, or else just desperate for friends. Tex has an easy time winning over the Scouts, because he lets on he is a former Scout himself. The lead Scout, a freckled, overly enthusiastic youth named Buzzy, who says things like “Jiminy Crickets!” has a big sister, played by Marjorie Reynolds. “Sis” does little more than pout in Tex’s direction, so there is little love interest in the film. Just as well, because that’s sissy stuff.

Tex wears an enormous ten-gallon hat, sings a bit, and says things like “mosey.” There is a smattering of stereotype in the form of the Chinese laundry man named Sing Fung, played by Phillip Ahn, who actually says, “No tickee, no washee.” There is some swell riding, a shootout on horseback where nobody loses their hats, and some fisticuffs. Only the bad guys smoke, and there’s no cussing. Just bad acting and bad writing.

The real charm of this film is a brief but lovely segment where Tex gets to sing “Red River Valley” at a barn dance. His band, and the dancers before us, girls in print dresses and men in the best clothes they could find, look utterly genuine, like the kind of people you would see in a rural dance in Depression-era America. It is remarkably unaffected and natural, and all too brief. Tex also sings “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and the crowds erupts into a square dance. It is sweet and somehow touching.

The only unnatural part of the scene is when “Sis” enters in a gown she might wear to New York City’s Rainbow Room. Then the rest of the short crumbles back to awkward melodrama when young Buzzy gets shot by the bad guy.

After the local sawbones patches the boy up, Tex asks, “Who shot you, son?” After a dramatic, almost eternal pause (young Buzzy, played by Tommy Bupp, has learned to milk it), Buzzy accuses the bad guy in some mumbled additional plot exposition.

Tex and the Boy Scouts prevail in this Grand National picture, Marjorie Reynolds went on to better things, and alls well that ends well.

Sponsored Link:
Tex Ritter Movies

Monday, August 20, 2007

Alan Reed - 100th Anniversary

A nod today to Alan Reed, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Before you say “Fred Flintstone,” remember that Mr. Reed was a prolific television and radio actor who mastered a number of accents and portrayed many different characters before Fred became his calling card.

He began on Broadway, and in between radio gigs he left us a few films to remember him by, including film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), the Bing Crosby musical “Here Comes the Groom” (1951), suspense drama “The Desperate Hours” (1955), and a turn as Pancho Villa in “Viva Zapata!” (1952). He was the mobster, Sally Tomato, in prison and with a soft spot for Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

His deep, rumbly, playful voice, no matter the dialect he used or the character he portrayed, was easily recognizable. It was a wonderful voice, just made for radio, and gave Fred Flintstone his working man’s élan. Reportedly, “Yabba dabba doo!” was a catch phrase coined by Mr. Reed.

Sponsored Link:
Alan Reed Movies

Thursday, August 16, 2007

All Aboard - Trains in the Movies

The movies began with “The Great Train Robbery,” (1903) a film that lasted all of ten minutes and gave birth to our fascination with the flickers. It also began a relationship that blossomed in Hollywood’s heyday of trains and the movies.

“It’s a taxi!” Audrey Hepburn incredulously remarks to Gregory Peck in “Roman Holiday” (1953), because she has never ridden in one before, to which he sarcastically replies, “It’s not the Super Chief.”

The Chief and the Super Chief brought many actors to Hollywood, and the Super Chief was featured in the film, “Three for Bedroom C” (1952), but many, many films contained a scene or two on the “magic carpet made of steel” about which Arlo Guthrie later sang.

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake hop a boxcar as pretend hoboes in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Later they get to leap off the moving train. The Three Stooges enjoy slightly better accommodations in “Movie Maniacs” (1935) where their boxcar carries furniture and props bound for Hollywood. They sleep in a large bed, and Curly cooks their breakfast on a working stove. Despite the usual nonsense of the Stooges, Moe gets to say the most sensible thing anybody probably said in the old movies. Curly asks, “How we gonna get in pictures? We know nothing about movies.” To which Moe replies, “There’s a couple thousand people in pictures don’t know nothing about it. Three more won’t make any difference.”

“White Christmas” (1954) includes a famous scene of the four principals, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera Ellen in a dinning car traveling from Florida to Vermont as they sing about “Snow.” Director Michael Curtiz transforms a static scene to one of seeming Busby Berkley-like movement as they turn a handkerchief, a napkin, and some parsley into a snow-covered hill, with quick shots on all their faces and we see their booth from several angles. It is the most movement in a musical number you could get with all the actors sitting down.

“Since You Went Away” (1944) (see blog entry April 19, 2007 ) of course has the famous scene of Jennifer Jones chasing after the train as she bids goodbye to her boyfriend, but there is a quieter, more meaningful scene in the film as the mother and daughters travel wearily in an overcrowded train at night. We see several servicemen on board, including an amputee. We see refugees, including a young European girl who describes their destitution living under Nazi occupation, and she shudders as the conductor walks by because he is wearing a uniform.

Here Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones talk with the elderly woman who tells them her granddaughter was a nurse at Corregidor. The train gives us a sense of being moved along, without our will, to some unknown destiny, and a claustrophobic sense of camaraderie.

A train provides the plot device of a woman pretending to be 12 so that she won’t be charged the price of an adult fare in “The Major and the Minor” (1942), a solution which Ginger Rogers then has difficulty extricating herself from for much of the film.

When “The Thin Man Goes Home” (1944), he goes home on a train, but their dog Asta is caught protruding from Myrna Loy’s coat and must be sent back to the baggage room.

A train provides the honeymoon to Niagara Falls and a musical number from the upper and lower berths of a sleeping car in “42nd Street” (1933) as we “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.”

Joseph Cotten attempts to kill Teresa Wright in “Shadow of Doubt” (1943) (see blog entry: July 2, 2007) by shoving her off a train, with unexpected results.

Trains had the unusual juxtaposition of both being the everyday workhorses of our society back then, and at the same time, representing glamour and freedom from the everyday.

They could also show us the modern technology of our world at the time, or they could open a window onto the nostalgic past, such as in the number, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” sung by Judy Garland and cast on the train platform, from “The Harvey Girls” (1946).

Can you think of other train scenes?

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Everybody Comes to Rick's

A pivotal moment in the film “Casablanca” (1942) occurs when Major Strasser and the other Nazis are drowned out in their singing of “Die Wacht am Rhein” by everybody else in the café singing “La Marseillaise.” It is a stirring scene, and one that never fails to bring some of us to tears. It has been reported that the much of cast in that scene were brought to tears as well. In one of those almost supernatural moments when art really does reflect life, the desperate European refugees in the café were actually played by European refugees. It is a spine-tingling moment of reality in an otherwise not very realistic film.

“Casablanca” has become larger than life for us, a film whose reputation has grown with the decades. It will likely always be a favorite for its witty dialogue, its charismatic actors, and its fast-paced plot. It has the irresistible veneer of glamour in an otherwise dark and frightening time.

But, even those of us who love the film cannot overlook the fact that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund would not have played a cat and mouse game of hidden threats over cocktails with Nazi officers in French-occupied Africa. The Nazis would have taken both of them into custody the moment they arrived in Casablanca, tortured them, and filmed their corpses with newsreel cameras. The movie would have been over in ten minutes. No cocktails, no white dinner jackets, no game of hide and seek with omnipotent “papers” that will set them free.

In this respect, “Casablanca” could be called an escapist film, because it gives us heroism and hope, redemption, a fairy tale of intrigue. The most fanciful scene in the movie, carrying this fairy tale along, is the scene with “La Marseillaise” trumping “Die Wacht am Rhein.”

And in that same scene, ironically, we see the real truth of the film, not always recognized, but there. S.Z. Sakall, who plays Carl, fled Hungary in 1939. His three sisters didn’t make it, and died in a concentration camp, along with other relatives.

Madeleine LeBeau, who played Yvonne, who pines for Rick and who is fought over by the Nazi soldier and the French soldier, and her then real-life husband Marcel Dalio, who played Emil, the gambling room croupier, both escaped from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon, as in the film. Reportedly, the visas they obtained for Chile were forgeries, but they managed to arrive in the US through hastily arranged temporary Canadian passports.

Curt Bois, who played the pickpocket, fled Germany in the early 1930s. Helmut Dantine, who played the young Bulgarian man losing at the gambling tables, whose wife beseeches Rick to help them, fled Austria. Dantine was an Austrian who was put into a concentration camp after the Anschluss. He was arrested for leading an anti-Nazi youth movement. He was then 19 years old.

Mr. Leuchtag, who practices his English by asking his wife the time, “What watch?” was played by Ludwig Stössel, was another Austrian who fled after the Anschluss.

Ilka Grünig, who played Mrs. Leuchtag and replies “Ten watch”, escaped Germany in the early 1930s after the Nazis came to power.

Even the Nazis, ironically, were played by actors who escaped real Nazis. Richard Ryen, who played Colonel Heinze, was a Hungarian-born actor who was actually expelled by the Nazis from Germany. Hans Twardowski, who played the Nazi officer who fights with the French soldier over Yvonne, fled Germany in the early 1930s.

Even Major Strasser, played by Conrad Veidt (see blog entry March 5, 2007) escaped the SS, who pursued him for anti-Nazi activities, and he fled to England where he became a British citizen and supported Britain’s war effort with his salary.

There were actually very few American-born actors in the cast of “Casablanca” and not all of the rest were refugees, but a good many of them were. This gives the film a legitimacy that certain fanciful elements of the script did not.

Here is a link to the “La Marseillaise” scene. When you watch it, think of the refugee actors with tears in their eyes, and remember that the Nazi regime had not yet been defeated at the time this film was made. It was not known then if they would be.

Sponsored Link:
Casablanca (Special Edition) [DVD](1942) DVD

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Now Playing - October 1942

“My Sister Eileen” has had many incarnations. It started as a series of short stories published in The New Yorker magazine by Ruth McKenney, then published as a book. The book includes chapters, not dealt with in the film, about several hysterical childhood episodes in the lives of Ruth and Eileen and the McKenney family. I don’t suppose they will ever be made into a film, but these early chapters are really funny. Especially the first chapter, “No Tears, No Good” where she illustrates their movie-going experience as small children in 1918.

The popularity of the book was such that it was adapted as a stage play, and deals mostly with the sisters’ move from Ohio to New York City. Romance, Ruth’s budding journalistic career, their run-down apartment, crazy landlord and neighbors, and the Brazilian Navy are all featured.

The play became this film, with Rosalind Russell as Ruth, and with an enormous ad from October 1942 that seems to tell the whole story in picture vignettes. This was not the end, however, as the film went back to Broadway to become a musical, called “Wonderful Town,” with Rosalind Russell again showing her versatility by singing the role of Ruth. The "My Sister Eileen" film was remade in 1955, and became a short-lived television show in 1960.

“Wonderful Town” was revived on Broadway in 2003, and currently tours the US, showing that Ruth McKenney’s still got legs, even without the wonderful Roz.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Undersea Kingdom (1936)

“The Undersea Kingdom” (1936) - Chapter 10, to be precise, is a sliver of a serial produced by Republic in the days when kids would have to come back the next week to see if the hero got free of the mine shaft explosion or the train wreck. He always did, and it was usually by showing how, in re-capping last week’s episode, that he had jumped clear of the train before it crashed, or was never even in the mine when it exploded. One feels glad, but just a little cheated.

Ray “Crash” Corrigan starred in “The Undersea Kingdom,” which also featured a rather down and out Monte Blue, former romantic lead in silent movies, now reduced to playing Unga Khan, the villain of the piece who wants to rule the world. Villains always seem to want to rule the world, despite what a bother it is.

Also featured are Lon Chaney, Jr., and Smiley Burnette, but B-movies were nothing new to them, and Crash Corrigan would never do better for himself than B-movies and serials, where he did have a following. Mr. Corrigan started as what was called a physical culturalist back in day, a physical trainer to the actors. He got his name Crash because once he got into small roles, he did his own stunts. Known for a great physique, he spends much of this serial bare-chested, in what looks like a bathing suit, boots, a cape, and a helmet on his head that resembles a hood ornament. Anyone else would probably have gotten a headache from wearing it after a while, but our man Crash was in good shape, as we are continually reminded.

Crash is assisted by Diana, girl reporter (there are always girl reporters in these things), and Billy, a young boy who wears a dark tie and shirt, and a sailor cap making him look a little like an American Hitler Youth, and young Billy’s father, the Professor, who has been hypnotized and is under the power of Monte Blue, the bad guy.

The acting could be called forgettable, except you can’t forget it, with lines like, “If they see you, it’ll be just too bad.” In this episode, a horse-drawn chariot race occurs on hillsides of California scrub. It doesn’t look very much like Atlantis, unless perhaps Atlantis had a terrible drought that year. There are enough horses to make this seem like a Western, except all the villain’s army are dressed like they’re performing in “Lysistrata.”

There is no blood in the clashing of soldiers, perhaps because we can see that they stab each other with swords under the arm, the way we did as kids with sticks.

What is fascinating about the series is the prescient references to things that were just on the horizon for us as a nation. An attack on a fortress brings retaliation in the form of cannon-like contraptions built into the walls called “flame-throwers.” Unga Khan keeps track of his enemies by viewing them on what looks like a television set. The whole taking over the world scheme is reliant upon Unga Khan’s being able to use the Professor’s experience in harnessing the atom, and a nuclear submarine. This was still 1936. It seems as if we’d heard of these modern marvels, and we couldn’t wait for them to happen to us.

At one point, when Crash is told, “My son, on your shoulders likes the safety of Atlantis,” and he responds by making what looks for all like a “Heil Hitler” salute.

The only aspect of “Undersea Kingdom” that truly is realistic is the bit about a villain wanting to take over the world. Perhaps because of a steady diet kid’s adventure serials and science fiction plots about mad scientists and their evil plans, we reacted too slowly when we saw the mad men wanting to take over the world in real life. It seemed too unreal to be real. It was laughable, until it wasn’t anymore.

And, besides, even though the hero gets crushed by a falling wall at the end of Chapter 10, we somehow think everything will be all right anyway. We’re told, are we not, to come back next week and catch the next exciting episode? Chapter 11 is called, “The Flaming Death.”

Sponsored Link:
The Undersea Kingdom [DVD](1936) DVD

Thursday, August 9, 2007

What's Opera, Doc? (1957)

“What’s Opera Doc?” (1957) achieved what few parodies can do, and that is to create something original on its own, a genius apart from the parody. Cartoons, especially classic Warner Bros. cartoons, featured a lot of classical music, and I don’t know how old I was before I realized this Wagner fellow, and his cohorts Franz von Suppé, Rossini, and the like did not write special music for the cartoons. I cannot hear “Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna” without thinking of “Baton Bunny,” (1959) nor hear Gioachino Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” without thinking of the immortal lines, “Yell and scream and rant and rave/it’s no use, you need a shave.”

Still, in “What’s Opera, Doc?” we go beyond popular culture to the heights of a Valhalla where Elmer Fudd as Siegfried, voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan, conjures supernatural forces in his spear and magic hewmet, “Be vewy quIET…I’m hunting WAbbits.” We know this is to be a special performance just by they way we hear the orchestra tuning up over the opening credits. Excitement builds.

Is there nothing so majestic, so savage, so telling of human passions as, “Kiwuh da wabbit, kiwuh da WABBIT, WIWUH DA WABbit?” My only regret is that there seems to be no film footage of Mr. Bryan, and Mel Blanc, who voiced Bugs Bunny, singing operatic duets in a sound recording studio. Did they not know they were creating magic that should have been documented? Or, was schlepping to the studio to lay down a few voice tracks about a hunter and a rabbit so ordinary that it was considered routine? Impossible.

The other dynamic duo, director Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese, could have been filmed as well as they story boarded this cartoon. That, too, might have been magic.

Bugs makes his entrance in drag on an obese horse. Why Bugs Bunny in drag is always so funny, I have no idea, but it is. After Elmer falls in love with the ravishing Brunhilde, and after an impromptu ballet, the strains of “Retoin my wuv” are heard in Mr. Blanc’s Brooklyn tenor and Mr. Bryan’s front parlor baritone in perhaps the most romantic duet ever performed. Seriously. No, really.

Of course, this being an opera, the fates intervene and Elmer discovers his wovwey Brunhilde is only that rabbit, and his rage bears the fires of hell. He calls upon the very lightning to smite the rabbit, whom he carries, with remorse, in his arms to a peaceful eternal rest. As Bugs says, “What’d you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

It is more than perfect parody, it is a perfect 6-minute opera.

I wish Wagner could have seen it. His rage would have been almost as spectacular as Elmer’s. He had no sense of humor.

That's all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Harry Davenport

Harry Davenport was born in 1866, the year after the American Civil War ended, and his last film was made in 1950, when television had already made its appearance in our lives. The man, and the actor, went from kerosene lighting to the atom. His longevity in that career, or any career, is remarkable. He was already in his late 40s when his film career started in the silent films, and he also directed many silent films himself.

We remember him perennially as an old man, a jovial, wry, whimsical, intelligent old man who made things right by his wit and his wisdom. He played a number of doctors and grandpas. He was Dr. Meade in “Gone With the Wind,” (1939) who could not leave an overwhelming number of suffering casualties who needed him and told Scarlett that she had to deliver Melanie’s baby herself.

He played the Grandpa in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) who takes Judy Garland to the Christmas ball in his dapper tuxedo. He played in “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943) and a number of important films of the day as an instantly recognizable character actor, not the kind who disguised himself from role to role, but one whose cache, or at least the studio seemed to think so, was his being recognizable. He had a distinctive voice and carriage. We knew was to expect from him.

One of his most interesting roles is as King Louis XI in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” a very literate script that allows us to see what kind of stage actor Mr. Davenport must have been, what a flourish he must have cut before his days as the kindly old doctor and the elfin grandpa.

Mr. Davenport was also a co-founder of what would become the Actors Equity Association, so we see his devotion to his craft and his fellow actors was as genuine as the characters he made us believe.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Part 2

We have stories within stories, where Esmeralda is loved by the poet Gringoire, but loves the soldier Phoebus instead. When Phoebus is killed by Frollo, Esmeralda is brought to trial for the crime. We see further evidence about the cruelty of 15th century superstition when she is tortured into confessing, and when the King, meaning kindly to help her, insists on a trial by ordeal instead, wherein she must pick the correct dagger while blindfolded to be found innocent. She chooses incorrectly, and therefore she must be guilty. The King is sorry, but whatever his fascination for the printing press and the education of his people, he is still a man of his times who believes in such things as trial by ordeal. It is a telling thing that her condemnation is read aloud in Latin, which the common people attending the trial do not understand.

The Archdeacon, a kindly and intelligent figure, and Frollo’s brother, is played by Walter Hampden. The character is not originally found in Hugo’s novel, but was added as a result of Hollywood’s Code of the day that the clergy not be depicted as evil or fraudulent. With the Church abetting, willingly or unwilling, so much of the destructive superstition of the day, we need to see at least one representative who is a decent person. Hollywood evidentially felt that rounded things out a bit.

With Esmeralda imprisoned, the printing press comes to the fore again as Gringoire uses the forces of the printing press and public opinion to free her, but Frollo orders the press destroyed, calling it the ultimate evil. Others in Europe of 1939 also feared a free press.

Perhaps one of the most stunning scenes in motion pictures is when Quasimodo scrambles off the heights of the Cathedral, and grabbing a rope, swings down to the public gallows in the square and lifts Esmeralda to safety, climbing up to the bell tower as an unseen chorus erupts into a soaring hymn of “Hallelujah” and he lifts her high and screams, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”

The Church provides sanctuary to political prisoners, even if it winks at torture and trial by ordeal.

It is not until the quiet moment when Quasimodo speaks with Esmeralda, now safely living in the bell tower, we see how tortured a soul he really is. Mr. Laughton’s ability to suspend our belief under what must have been pounds of makeup is extraordinary, and we see through the disfigured body and the grotesque face to the heart of this unhappy young man. Her presence brings him great happiness, and yet he confesses until he saw her he did not know how truly ugly he was. She breaks his heart, just by being someone so far above him in perfection. How universal in this gut wrenching emotion among the handicapped, the different, the outcasts. Laughton captures it cruelly, perfectly.

Now forces are at work that bring the nobility, the king, the beggars, the thieves, the Church, the courts, and the printing press to a violent clash. Gringoire finally gets out a pamphlet to demand Esmeralda’s release and to accuse the nobility of their crimes. The King is impressed, “This bold new way of appealing by printed petition is creating a kind of public opinion that is forcing decisions even on kings.” What might his reaction be to the Internet?

When the mob attacks Notre Dame, Quasimodo becomes an army of one and fights them off with stones, building materials, and a vat of boiling lead. He rescues Esmeralda in a terrifically acrobatic and suspense fight in the bell tower with Frollo, but his reward is only loneliness when Esmeralda leaves with Gringoire.

“Why was I not made of stone like thee?” Quasimodo asked the grotesque gargoyle he clings to, and we are left feeling equally bereft as triumphant when the camera pulls back in a spectacular shot of Notre Dame, in all its architectural detail, to a further chorus of hallelujahs. Quasimodo becomes so small as to be indistinguishable from the gargoyles, and the massive cathedral overshadows all, all of the public square, all Paris, over all the entire 15th century.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Part 1

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) has a very literate script as a foundation and from this beginning, taken from the Victor Hugo novel, stands as fine a film, as evocative of time and place, as ever was made. Performances by Charles Laughton as Quasimodo the Hunchback, Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Frollo are superb.

Throughout the film the main theme of superstition and prejudice, which we are warned seek “to crush the adventurous spirit of man,” vies with the enlightenment of a new day. Looming above Paris, and seen in the background of many shots is the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame. It represents both the majestic spirit of man, the heights of his creativity and his faith, and yet it also represents a past of superstition and cruelty. Opposite this is the new invention of the printing press, which King Louis XI, played by Harry Davenport, marvels over, calling it a miracle when he is told that a book which would normally take months to copy by hand can be printed in a few weeks, thereby allowing the common folk to have access to knowledge.

Frollo, the chief justice, a complex man whose need to control is greater than his compassion, fears and loathes the printing press, which he says can “destroy a kingdom.” There are similar discussions throughout the film about where the world is headed with all these new fangled inventions. While watching the Fools Day celebrations, a fellow in the background behind the King keeps comically interrupting his conversation about Columbus’ assertion that the world is round by flatly commenting, “It’s flat.” The King, though he may become enlightened, has many in his court who are jealous of their privileges and of the way things are and should always be.

He is a great philosopher, this king, who comments on Quasimodo’s fascination for the Fools Day crowd, “The ugly is very appealing to man…one shrinks from the ugly, yet wants to look at it. There’s devilish fascination in it. We extract pleasure from horror.”

There are many horrors in this Paris of a long ago day. The poor are forced to beg or steal. The Gypsies, like Esmeralda, are reviled and persecuted, and anyone who runs afoul of the nobility is tortured. Esmeralda is told she is from “an evil race.” How sad to think that when this film was released in 1939, another European culture was persecuting Gypsies, Jews, and other so-called “inferior” persons as a means of expressing their own self-superiority. To think that the same superstition and prejudice could have lingered unchecked in five hundred years is appalling. It keeps one from viewing aspects of this film with amused condescension, like the world is flat and the king’s taking only one bath a year, from the perspective our own self superiority. The thought that prejudice should exist from one century to the next should keep us humble.

It is a Paris of wet streets and shadows. The shadows are ruled by an underclass of beggars and thieves. Frollo, captivated by Esmeralda and at the same time, repulsed by his lust for her, sends his ward, Quasimodo, into the streets to catch her. Sir Cedric’s multilayered performance is fascinating. Frollo is not a cardboard cutout bad guy; he is a complex man capable of greatness and susceptible to failure.

Quasimodo is caught, accused of attacking Esmeralda, and publicly whipped. Though taken as a child under the care of Frollo and raised in the bell tower of the Cathedral, Frollo regards Quasimodo more as a pet than a foster son, and there is perhaps no sadder, more devastating scene than when Frollo rides past Quasimodo, strung up on the pillory, and refuses to help him or even acknowledge him. We see by Laughton’s expression never has anyone been so alone.

The fickle crowd begins to jeer him and throw things, but Esmeralda brings him water, and when he is released back to the Cathedral, Quasimodo can only obsess with joy and wonder that someone was actually kind to him.

More tomorrow on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939).

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sabrina (1954) - Part 2

When Sabrina attends the party in probably the most fantastic gown ever created for the movies, the butler, played by Emory Parnell, gushingly brings a report back to the rest of the staff on how she’s doing, “The prettiest girl, the prettiest dress, the belle of the ball… and they way looked into each other eyes!” The Hubert de Givenchy gown, burned into our retinas, is a silk organdie with black floral patterns, a straight skirt with an overskirt open in front, and a long train. It is the best dress ever made, and Hepburn wears it with the talent of a virtuoso.

A special Olympic medal should have been given to Mr. Holden for his held-for-a-moment-in-mid-air leap over the patio wall to greet Hepburn, who, rather than running to him, waits like princess for him to run to her.

Miss Hepburn’s easy, beaming smile and graceful confidence tell us she is indeed the belle of the ball, even to the point of being oblivious of David’s discomfort at having to introduce her to his mother, and his mother’s suggestion she cook for them sometime. The chauffeur’s daughter cannot be put in her place, not anymore. She is above that.

Holden does a great comic bit when he sits on the champagne glasses, and Hampden’s frustration at the sudden and inexplicable romance between his already engaged to be married son and the chauffeur’s daughter explodes when he is reminded to be more liberal because it is the 20th century.

“Twentieth Century! I could pick a century out of a hat blindfolded and get a better one.”

Hepburn sings a dreamy chorus of “La Vie en Rose” in the car with Bogart, not as if she is performing but only absentmindedly, as if she is thinking of something else. It is a wonderfully quiet moment. She is comfortable enough to discuss with Bogart about life and love, and tweaks his hat. There is a moment when they return from sailing that she wears his coat over her shoulders and he carries her shoes that is sublimely intimate in a way she never achieves intimacy with the cocky and self-assured younger brother who regards her as a conquest.

Bogart’s flirtation-that-is-not-flirtation of remarking, “I wish I were my brother” is the capper to his character development. He says it only as a ruse to romance Sabrina, but there is truth to it as well. In many respects, he wishes he were David, but wishing that is as impossible as wishing he were younger. It cannot be. He does not dare wish she loved him. He wishes only that he were David, so that she would love him.

By now Sabrina’s character development hits the fan. She is falling for older brother Linus and tries desperately to stop herself. To the point of arriving at his New York office for date in her capri pants. Who but Hepburn would even think of wearing capri pants in a film at that date, let alone appear as stylish as she does?

At the end, Sabrina realizes with a burst of enthusiasm that she does prefer Bogart and wants him to take her to Paris, brushing away his reticence with a warm embrace and an ecstatic smile and a playful, “They’ll say I’m too young for you. There’ll be an awful scandal and the market will go down!” By now, Bogart wants to release her for her own good.

Sabrina’s father tries to put a moral on the story with, “Democracy can be a wickedly unfair thing. Nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying somebody rich.”

We have our happy ending of course, but I wish that the ending of the original play written by Samuel Taylor had been used for this film. In the play, Sabrina’s father has made wise investments enough so that Sabrina is an heiress to a fortune, and can come to Linus as an equal partner with her own separate finances. That perhaps is too modern a thought for a 1950s Cinderella story, or someone felt so at the time.

Finances, so it is reported, are a major reason for marriages that fail. So much is made of the link between wealth and romance in this film, it would have been a striking end to have Hepburn’s and Bogart’s wistful empathy for each other have the bite of a little financial savvy and even competition added to it.

That's it for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sabrina (1954) - Part 1

“Sabrina” (1954) is deceptively a watershed film. Deceptively because it is simply a Cinderella story, nothing unusual about that, but one which stands out as a turning point in film as part of popular culture, likely because of the three main stars and the film’s director. They all came together, and created something unique, a single definitive moment in time, a picture of the early 1950s.

Director Billy Wilder was at the height of his career and all three stars were recent winners of the Academy Award. The film may have come together in terms of script and casting in a last minute and slap-dash sort of way, but the result is almost flawless and remarkably poignant. This was William Holden’s last appearance as a boyish character, before he went on to more dramatic roles in “The Country Girl” and “Bridges of Toko-Ri”. Audrey Hepburn, fresh from her triumph in “Roman Holiday” and on Broadway in “Ondine” would appear in “Sabrina” with a kind of glowing confidence that she did not exhibit in later films, even films important to her career like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Wait Until Dark” which allowed her to show more range. She ironically appears more fragile in those films, but in “Sabrina” as the awkward girl turned into a sophisticated beauty, she commands the screen every second with a remarkable ease and sureness. Perhaps she is not yet aware she wears the mantle of a star.

Humphrey Bogart had spent the late 1940s and early 1950s comfortably recognized as a major star, and had won the Academy Award in 1951 for “The African Queen” which is all he needed to prove his lion’s position. In three years, by 1957, he would be dead of lung cancer. He had waited a long time in his career to become the romantic hero. This was his last hurrah.

The film makes a picture postcard to us of the early 1950s, a time of post-war opulence and unapologetic yen for the good things in life. The men at the Larrabee’s party are wearing white dinner jackets, to which Mr. Larrabee, played with wonderful crustiness by Walter Hampden complains, “They look like barbers.” It is a time of popular tunes like “Isn’t it Romantic” which haunts Sabrina and marks events in her life, a time before shallow and frenetic rock n’ roll. It is a time when dancing was a social accomplishment and seduction took time. We see it is a time of a single strand of pearls and strapless evening gowns with full skirts. Young people at this period did not want to be young, for to be young was to be gauche. Young people yearned for sophistication and experience, to emulate their elders, as Sabrina does when she spies the party from the branches of a tree on the estate. It was not a time then, as now, of arrested emotional immaturity.

This is so much a film of style that substance, where it exists, is tucked away neatly like a squared-off white handkerchief in the men’s breast pockets. All is well-mannered, like Miss Hepburn’s elegantly intoned speech. When she dances with Holden at the party and reminds him of when they were children, that he stole a kiss from her, she glances up at him with her almond eyes, her face still tilted downward, her voice low and playful, and we can see that he is aching to be alone with her and we do not blame him. The arousal is almost reverent.

When Bogart meets her for the rendezvous at the indoor tennis court instead of the expected Holden, it is a great moment in film. We know, and she suspects, that he is come to head off his brother’s romance with the chauffeur’s daughter which would cause great inconvenience to the family. However their encounter is easy and charming, and soon turns sexy as he pours her champagne and kisses her, telling her the kiss is really only a proxy kiss from his brother David. As she clings to Bogart in their slow, almost somnambulant dance, we see from her expression that he has thrown her off balance emotionally. She finds herself attracted to the older brother instead, something she did not expect or want.

At first it is an unspoken issue for present day viewers of this film (was it an issue for the audience in 1954?) that Bogart’s attitude for young Sabrina ought to seem more fatherly than romantic. It’s laudable, I think, that the film addresses this head on by remarking more than once that Bogart is much older than Hepburn. He even jokes himself when preparing to take Sabrina on an outing, as he looks at himself with sarcasm in the mirror, that he is “Joe College with a touch of arthritis.” This allows us to accept the decades difference in their ages, because they refer to it themselves and accept it.

Bogart is at least hale and hearty enough to carry Hepburn over his shoulder and ascend a flight of stairs with her after her suicide attempt. Does he realize it is a suicide attempt? He makes no comment at the time, it is only later when trying to win her over that he invents a past of suicidal desperation of his own to connect with her that we see he may remember the earlier event and attach some importance to it.

We see early on that though Bogart as the older brother carries the banner for the Larrabee family in responsibility for running their fortunes, he is yet more egalitarian than younger brother David. David is embarrassed at first to have Sabrina attend his family’s party. Bogart runs the business not because money is the means to an end, but because in establishing world trade, “people who never saw a dime before suddenly have a dollar.” He cares about the worth of people in terms of being valuable in their attributes. David is more class conscious.

None are more class conscious than Sabrina’s chauffer father, played by John Williams, who warns Sabrina on her relationship with David, “You’re reaching for the moon.” To which his daughter replies gleefully, “No, Father. The moon is reaching for me.”

So, he is. Some of the films cute moments are when David picks Sabrina up at the train station, not recognizing her after her return from school abroad in Paris, and he marvels that her poodle is called David.

“That’s funny. My name’s David, too.”

Hepburn smiles into the dog’s head for our benefit, “That is funny, isn’t it?”

More tomorrow on "Sabrina".

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