Tomorrow on TCM: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers…and Fred Astaire

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies, several musical films starring the beloved team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, followed by a few teaming Astaire with other partners.

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6:00am (EST) Flying Down to Rio (1933)

The first pairing of Astaire and Rogers, although they do not star—they are about 5th and 6th in the billing. But their personalities shine far brighter than those of the leads (Dolores Del Rio, et al). A bandleader (slash songwriter slash amateur pilot) falls in love with a Brazilian heiress he met at a Miami hotel, and books his band down in Rio. It turns out she is set to marry a landowner, so various schemes ensue. But that’s not the important part. This is the movie with the famous set piece of several dozen chorus girls doing their dances on the wings of flying airplanes. It also has the song “Rio by the Sea-o”. Character actors include Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton as (what else?) hotel managers. Fred plays one of the musicians, Ginger the band’s singer. They dance together on one of the numbers. It was on the basis of this, and their chemistry in acting together, that they were made into a screen team.

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7:30am (EST) The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Fred and Ginger’s first starring vehicle, adapted from the Broadway show The Gay Divorce Astaire had appeared in the previous year. Contains songs by various songwriters, including Cole Porter’s gorgeous “Night and Day”, and a dance craze song called “The Continental”. The plot is farcical and actually quite dumb—has a million holes in it and is completely illogical, but who cares? It starts in Paris. Fred is a musical comedy star and his friend Edward Everett Horton a lawyer. He meets Ginger on the ship to London and accidentally rips her dress. he wants to see her again but she totally brushes him off. He finally finds her again in London and gets the same treatment. It turns out she is married and seeking a divorce. The lawyer arranges for Ginger to be seen meeting with a gigolo so there will be grounds for the divorce. She mistakes Fred for the gigolo. The film remains hugely entertaining for all the usual reasons, the performances (including these plus the delightful Eric Blore), the songs, the art deco art direction etc., etc, etc. It (like most of the Fred and Ginger musicals) was directed by Mark Sandrich, a former silent film director who was also the father of TV director Jay Sandrich.

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9:30am (EST) Roberta (1935)

The original Broadway stage production (with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbachi) featured Bob Hope in his breakout role, the one that took him from vaudeville to stardom. It must have been galling to him not to have been cast in the film! In the film version Fred and Ginger share the limelight with Randolph Scott (who’s perfectly cast as a lumbering Midwestern football player) and Irene Dunn. It’s a perfect, magical 30s comedy. Fred is a bandleader stranded in France in want of a gig. Scott is just his friend, tagging along, but he suddenly remembers that his Aunt Minnie is the most sought-after dress-maker in Paris (under the name “Roberta”). They go and seek her patronage. She turns out to be a delightful character…having all these American virtues, appreciation for the down-to-earth, honesty, heartiness…but at the same time able to function in the glamorous world of Paris fashion. Irene Dunn plays her assistant and near-partner in the shop, definitely being groomed for succession. Rogers is masquerading as a French countess, but is really a singer and Astaire’s old flame. It’s obvious Scott and Dunn’s characters have chemistry but they’re slow in realizing it. Then Roberta dies, bringing Scott’s former fiancé, a gold-digger out of the woodwork, so now he’s confused. He and Dunn should be partners in the shop but now she’s mad at him. Then it turns out Dunn is a Russian princess! Somehow they all get together in the end. The awesome songs include “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (which is just kind of shoehorned in there) and “Lovely to Look At”.

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11:15am (EST) Top Hat (1935) 

The musicals of the 30s tend to transcend the usual disposableness that normally characterizes the genre, usually because of the beautiful art deco art direction, great ensemble casts of Broadway veterans, snappy (if light) scripts, and occasionally great songs. Top Hat is generally thought of as the best of the lot. Irving Berlin wrote a half dozen songs, two of which are complete classics, the brilliant “Cheek to Cheek” and the title song, which is really called “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. The script is good, well constructed farce and holds our attention, revolving around a mistaken identity. Rogers and Astaire fall in love (after she has complained about his tap dancing in the room over hers), but she mistakenly comes to believe he is the man who has married her friend (who is actually Edward Everertt Horton). The action is first laid in London, and then in a Venice that looks like one of the sets from The Wizard of Oz. The funniest part (surprise) is Eric Blore as the butler!

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1:00pm (EST) Follow the Fleet (1936)

Not as strong as most of the others. A weird idea…an innocent Hollywood movie about love affairs between sailors and the women who are infatuated with them. Sure, there are intimations of sex, but they are very sanitized, never sordid. It as though the whole thing were being touched with gloves on, viewed through goggles. Why choose a subject that you can’t REALLY do? Perhaps they thought they would titillate just as much as they could, which wasn’t very much. Astaire and Rogers are one couple (former dance partners, now he’s in the Navy and she works in a dance hall). The other couple is fellow sailor Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet) as Rogers’ sex starved sister, who actually gets to sing a couple of numbers. The film doesn’t have the strong farcical premise most of their good ones have, in fact it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot at all. Nor does it have the strong cast of character actors and comic relief, or the sparkling dialogue of their better ones. Ultimately the film even resorts to the Mickey and Judy plot device – putting on a show to save the family boat. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is the most famous song from the score. Fred plays some jazz piano in addition to great dance numbers. Ginger gets a solo dance number in a segment that reminds one of Ruby Keeler.

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3:00pm (EST) Swing Time (1936)

Directed by George Stevens! The dancing and songs are so great in these films the fact that they are great light comedies is often overlooked. This one has Victor Moore and Eric Blore. Astaire is a dancer and gambler. He is about to get married but his friends sabotage the wedding. He hops a freight train to New York in his tuxedo with his pal Pops (Moore). He meets Ginger when she tries to abscond with his quarter at a cigarette machine. She turns out to be a dance instructor. He of course takes the class, pretends he can’t dance, and then shows off when the moment is right. They fall in love, but the outstanding fiancé is an issue. In the end she is about to marry Fred’s rival, a bandleader, but Fred sabotages the wedding using the same tricks his friends used on him. The film has the terrific songs “Pick Yourself Up” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (possibly the most beautiful and romantic song ever). There is one blackface number which is wonderfully staged but intrinsically heinous and tough to transcend.

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4:45pm (EST) Carefree (1938)

The plots of Fred and Ginger’s better films feel akin to screwball comedies. In this one Astaire is a shrink, Rogers his patient, the fiancé of his best friend (Ralph Bellamy)…but she falls in love with the doctor. In most of their films, Astaire is in love with Rogers while she plays hard to get; here it is a bit reversed. Some funny bits with Rogers running amok, first under an anesthetic, then under hypnosis. And Astaire is completely believable as a shrink—a different sort of role for him. I love Astaire’s diction and accent—though he’s from the midwest, he sounds urbane, New York, upper class. I note there’s almost always one or more nances and/or dopes in the cast…I’m guessing to make the somewhat fey dandy Astaire seem relatively macho by comparison as the hero. Here it is Franklin Pangborn as the nance, Ralph Bellamy as the dope. Also in the cast is an uncredited Hattie McDaniel. The Irving Berlin songs are perfectly wonderful, though none of them in this film were hits. The most interesting dance number has Astaire playing harmonica while he taps, then dancing with golf clubs and balls.

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6:15pm (EST) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

The last film of the original series. Lots of music but all period stuff from the teens. An interesting hybrid form (bio pic and romantic musical comedy) and a nice stretch for them, which they pull off just fine. Not just an Astaire-Rogers vehicle, but also a bio-pic about the century’s greatest dance team, whom the creators (very laudably) sought to remind the public about as their memory began to fade. The story has its share of drama and even tragedy, and the pair carry the heavier acting required very well. As all Hollywood bio-pics of the period do, the film plays havoc with the facts, but its still a wonderful picture. The art direction is lovely. The dancing is great but you also get a dance education: you get to see what the Castle Walk looked like, etc. Other treats include a young Walter Brennan and as their manservant, and Lew Fields playing himself in a larger role than might be expected. They even re-create the barber sketch that Castle had done at Fields’ theater early in the century.

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8:00pm (EST) Shall We Dance? (1937)

Fred and Ginger once again abetted by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Lots of great music by the Gershwins, including the classics “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the sublime “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. Lots of great dances in this. The plot casts Astaire as a ballet dancer named “Petrov” (who is really a down to earth American named Pete Peters who secretly wants to tap dance and is in love with Rogers night club star). As in all the films, Rogers plays hard to get, and the gist of the farce is that the press thinks they are married, but they are not. The plot starts in Paris, then shipboard (where there is a number in the art deco engine room, based around the rhythm of the pistons, as assisted by a convenient crew of ignominiously anonymous darkies), then finally they hit New York (where Rogers and Astaire do a great dance routine in the park on roller skates). Astaire gets to have much fun mixing ballet and tap. He also has a fun bit where he dances to a Victrola that winds down on him.

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After this, several films of the post-Ginger period.

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At 10:15pm (EST) there’s You Were Never Lovelier (1942), a swing era trifle that puts Fred opposite Rita Hayworth in an Argentine setting.

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Midnight (EST) The Band Wagon (1953)

A terrific MGM musical directed by Vincent Minnelli, with songs by Dietz and Schwartz, and a very witty script by Comden and Green. Fred Astaire in a too-close-to-home role as a fading movie star hired to star in a Broadway show created by the Comden-and-Green-esque Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. Cyd Charisse is a snooty ballet dancer. But the director (played by the excellent and all-too-rare-in-films Jack Buchanan) tries to turn the show into a high-brow adaptation of Faust. “That’s Entertainment” is the best known song in the show. Funny patter, and classic dance sequences between Astaire and Charisse. My favorite sequence is set in Times Square (and in a arcade therein). So neat to see the theatrical district in the transitional period preceding its decline.

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2:00am (EST) Silk Stockings (1957)

Cole Porter’s last musical, based on Ninotchka, starring Astaire and Cyd Charisse, with a strong book and excellent songs (except for a highly embarrassing rock and roll number starring Astaire, which ought to be far more notorious than it is).

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4:15am (EST) Royal Wedding (1951)

I’ve not seen this one but it seems to be just like what it sounds like. Description here. 

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tonight: Burlesque at Bedford Hall

Posted in BROOKLYN, Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , on August 4, 2015 by travsd

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One of Chaplin’s More Tasteless Comedies: The Property Man

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 1, 2015 by travsd

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Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Property Man (1914)

Something feels original about this film in contrast with most of Chaplin’s earlier Keystones. Not brilliant, but in his own voice. Charlie plays a prop man in a vaudeville house, whose ineptitude causes much chaos. There are some echoes of Kid Auto Races at Venice when his character keeps winding up in front of the audience; but here the audience is made up of Keystone personnel, including Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, and Mack Sennett himself. Mostly he just knocks things down and ruins the performers’ acts.

For sheer meanness, The Property Man contains some of Chaplin’s most tasteless moments. In the film, Charlie doles out endless abuse on a fellow stage hand (Josef Swickard), who happens to be about 90 years old. When we see the old fellow struggle with a heavy steamer trunk we assume that Charlie is going to come to his aid; instead he merely helps the old guy get it onto his back. Later when the man stumbles and is pinned beneath the trunk, Charlie sits on top of it in a misguided effort to pry it off. On several occasions throughout the film, Chaplin gives the same character a few swift kicks just for the heck of it.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tomorrow at AMMI: John Ford’s “Stagecoach”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow, August 1 at 2:00pm, as part of its John Ford series, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria Queens will be screening the 1939 classic Stagecoach. 

Nowadays Ford is so much associated with westerns that it is odd to consider that for around a decade they were thought of as part of his past. He’d made his reputation making westerns during the silent era, but when talkies came in his movies tended to be comedies, sea stories and tales of Ireland. Westerns weren’t considered appropriate for A-list directors in the thirties. After the failure of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail in 1930, the major studios shunned them, although little outfits like Monogram Pictures churned them out as B movies by the bucketload. Stagecoach marked Ford’s return to the genre, and the start date of its rehabilitation as mainstream, serious entertainment. The great period will last another twenty years, then tapering off in the sixties.

I consider Stagecoach one of the best, most perfect movies ever, western or no, bar none. Its screenplay (by Dudley Nichols, with uncredited work by Ben Hecht) has become a sort of a template that has been copied countless times since and in many genres: the little microcosm of misfits trapped in a dangerous situation.

The film (like most of Ford’s westerns) was shot in Arizona’s gorgeous, iconic Monument Valley.  The stagecoach, run by Andy Devine, is set to make its usual run, but the cavalry rides up to inform him that Geronimo is on the warpath so the army will be providing an escort. The passengers include a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and the drunken town doctor (Thomas Mitchell), both forced to leave town by a morality committee. Also on board is an oddly religious whiskey salesman (Thomas Meek) and a pregnant lady (Louise Platt). At the last second, three others get on board: the sheriff  (George Bancroft), for protection; the town banker, because he has just stolen the contents of the bank’s safe (Berton Churchill); and a gambler (John Carradine), who is a son of the South and is chivalrously drawn to protect the pregnant lady, also of the south (whom he recognizes as the daughter of his old Confederate general). Just outside of town, they pick up John Wayne, the Ringo Kid, an escaped convict with a heart of gold. Stagecoach was to be the breakthrough film for Wayne, who’d starred in the ill-fated The Big Trail, and had been relegated to low-budget B movies ever since.

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Soon, the cavalry bails on them (“we have our orders”, a constant theme in westerns: the letter vs. spirit of the law) and they are on their own. Another major theme is honest goodness vs. hypocrisy. Very Christian in the real sense. The downtrodden, though “bad” by society’s standards, are stripped of pretension and therefore free to be honestly good. The characters in this camp are the doctor, the prostitute (who cares for the pregnant woman’s baby even though the pregnant woman shunned her) and the Ringo Kid (who treats the prostitute like a lady when everyone else treats her like a pariah. Unlike the other men, here the Kid is the REAL gentleman). The gambler is sort of in the middle. He lives by the code of chivalry, the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Though he is a gambler, we approve of his single-minded protection of the pregnant lady. Yet, he is among those who are cruel to the prostitute, and — in a beautiful, terrible moment at the climax, when it looks like they will be captured by Indians, he is about to shoot her in the head rather than let her be raped. Ford clearly disapproves of this impulse, and lets us off the hook when Carradine gets an arrow in him at the last second. The cavalry arrives anyway, but if she had been captured by Indians…well, he comes back to that question in The Searchers. The other major hypocrite is the banker, a blowhard who speechifies about the American economy, etc, while he is nothing more than a cowardly thief.

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Great touches in the film : Andy Devine calling out to his team of horses (“yah!”) as they speed along: it’s magical, reminds me of Santa Claus and his reindeer. The team running (especially against the backdrop of the gigantic mesas) is a beautiful sight. And then there is Yakima Canutt’s famous stunt that made it look like the Ringo Kid crawled under the rig as it charged along — a spectacular moment.

Following the hair-raising climax, with the stagecoach chased by Indians and nearly caught, then rescued by cavalry. At this stage, you’d think the movie is over, but there’s an added prize, a limax after the climax. A showdown between the Ringo Kid and the three brothers he wants to kill. How do you think it tuns out?

For tickets go here. 

100 Years of Bathing Beauties?

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by travsd

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Depending on how you measure it and whom you believe, July 2015 may mark the centennial anniversary of that aesthetic troupe of nymphets known as the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, a gaggle of swim-suited sirens whom Sennett employed in his films and in his promotional materials and live events.

The date comes from a couple of places. An essay called “Splashes of Fun and Beauty: Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties” by Hilda Haeyere, in Rob King and Tom Paulus’s 1970 book Slapstick Comedy gives that date. And Simon Louvish’s Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett has a quote from director Eddie Cline saying they were featured in a Louise Fazenda from around that time. But Louvish is quick to adjust that, saying that the formation of Keystone-Triangle (one of the many corporation iterations of Sennett’s production company) in 1917 would be the more proper time frame. And Brent Walker, author of Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory says, “Bathing girls (mostly LA Athletic Club swimmers and divers such as Ivy Crosthwaite and Aileen Allen) started showing up in 1915 Mutual films. But it was the series of Woodley Specials that Eddie Cline made in 1917 that seemed to cement the Sennett bathing girls as a “thing,” who were then featured in postcards during the Paramount era circa 1918-19.”

Further, a swim-suited Mabel Normand’s first film for Sennett in 1911 was The Diving Girl. In 1912 would follow The Water Nymph. And the idea seems to have kept evolving, developing, picking up steam. Thus, July 1915 doesn’t feel particularly special or significant, although it is the date you will find on Wikipedia, and elsewhere on the internet, and we don’t want to appear to have been caught napping.

The idea for a cinematic troupe of “Bathing Girls” or “Bathing Beauties” was really just a refinement of stuff that was in the air. One strong influence in Sennett’s work was burlesque. Sennett had worked at least a couple of seasons in burlesque in New York between the years 1902 and 1908. Burlesque at this time was closer to what we think of as a “revue”, the girl element consisting of a chorus line of cuties performing cheeky song and dance numbers; stripping wouldn’t commonly be part of the equation for decades.

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

Burlesque chorus ca. 1907

And then there was the example of professional swimmer Annette Kellerman, popularizer of the the lady’s one piece swimsuit, who’d become a vaudeville and film star starting around 1907.  And let us not forget Broadway’s most famous chorus line, the Ziegfeld Girls, a staple of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies since its formation in 1908 (later much imitated by a whole slate of other Broadway revues).

Gratuitous cavorting in swimgear became such a staple of Keystone and Sennett comedies that by A Bedroom Blunder (1917), there was an entire chorus of them, and they were branded the Sennett Bathing Girls (sometimes known by other names). Their insertion into any comedy was always hilariously gratuitous: a busload of the girls might spill out onto the beach where they would liven up a Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon or Billy Bevan short by stretching, jiggling and preening while playing with an inflatable beach ball.

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with Billy Bevan

Much like the Keystone Kops, the membership in this troupe was fluid and constantly shifting. Members in this elite sorority at various times included Carole Lombard, Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver, Madeline Hurlock, Anita Garvin,  Kathryn McGuire, Sybil Seely, and Virginia Fox.  (Gloria Swanson, though she worked for Sennett, was never one of the Bathing Girls, and she was distressed to ever hear anyone say she was, although people continue to, right down to the present day).

By the late 20s, the Bathing Girls were becoming the main attraction in many Sennett comedies. Sennett’s studio didn’t last very long into the sound era, but even if it had, the advent of stronger enforcement of the Production Code after 1934 would have made a continuation of the Bathing Girls unlikely. (Sam Goldwyn’s “Goldwyn Girls”, such a staple of Eddie Cantor pictures, seem to vanish around that time). At any rate, in the ensuing decades it eventually became the case that nearly EVERY woman was wearing what previously would have been considered a scandalous bathing suit — no need for “Bathing Beauties” to be a thing. America was now a Universal Bathing Girl Nation.

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The 1924 Harry Langdon short “Picking Peaches” has him judging the Sennett Bathing Girls in a beauty pageant

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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On a New Bogdanovich Comedy (and Our Cautious Optimism)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS with tags , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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It’s an exciting time to be a film geek of a certain order (i.e., me). Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is expected to see daylight sometime next year and now I learn this morning that this new romantic comedy by Peter Bogdanovich will be getting a limited release as of August 21.

It’s his birthday today — I was going to do a more general post, but now we have She’s Funny That Way to look forward to. To say that our optimism is cautious is to put it mildly. While Bogdanovich has made some of our favorite films, he’s also made quite a few bewildering and horrendous turkeys. We’ll get to both in half a tic, but I do want to first insert some reasons for optimism: the new movie is backed by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and stars Owen Wilson, Joanna Lumley, Illeana Douglas, Richard Lewis, Jennifer Anniston, Tovah Feldshuh and Bogdanovich past masters Cybill Shepherd, Austin Pendleton and Tatum O’Neal among many others (I’m aging myself – -I have no idea who those younger actors in the credits are). A lot of people seem to have gone to the wall on his behalf in order to make a success out of this thing, out of admiration, or for old time’s sake, or whatever. On the other hand…it’s co-written by his wife Louise Stratton, has gotten mixed reviews thus far, and is in the same genre (ensemble rom-com) as most of his most terrible movies. So: we’ll see. I am keeping an open mind, and am hopeful.

Why do I care?

Well, to be of my age is to have seen and re-seen two of his important films at a crucial time, and to have been deeply impacted and highly influenced by them. I refer not to his first great film, 1971’s The Last Picture Show (though) it’s beautiful as I didn’t see until it was 20 years old. I refer instead to his next two pictures, What’s Up, Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

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The former film is of course Bogdanovich’s tribute to the screwball comedy and directors like Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Somehow, through whatever alchemy, he managed to create a near flawless comedy. There’s the brilliant farcical script (by Bogdanovich, Buck Henry and two other writers) about confusion resulting from several matching bags, which puts me in mind of Mack Sennett, which further puts me in mind of French farce. There’s the impeccable casting, especially Barbara Streisand in what I consider her greatest screen role, and an ensemble composed ENTIRELY of genius character actors, including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, and John Hillerman and about two dozen others. The weakest link is probably Ryan O’Neal as the romantic lead. He does his job, and he doesn’t spoil the picture by any means, and he’s even funny, but…..well, he’s in VERY distinguished company here, isn’t he? Lastly, in addition to Bogdanovich’s masterful direction of the cast, it’s shot by Lazlo Kovacs and edited by Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for editing Jaws), and every shot feels perfect, as does the rhythm (which is so CRUCIAL to comedy).

Ya wanna see how cinematographers and editors and directors and actors can all collaborate to make great comedy? Look at one of my favorite moments in the film, when Kahn, as O’Neal’s fiance is given a wrong address and stumbles upon a bunch of gangsters in the middle of torturing somebody in an abandoned waterfront warehouse. Doesn’t sound funny, but it’s hysterical — it’s all in the feel.

At any rate, I probably watched this film on tv 15 times as a kid, and it became a sort of seldom-matched gold standard for me. This film has a joke, a line, or a gag every second. So do the great comedies of yesteryear, and that is what I DEMAND from a comedy. Anything less is lazy-ass shit.

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Paper Moon influenced me in an entirely different way. There was one immediate element to grab me in this one — a kid. Tatum O’Neal is just a couple of years older than me, and in movies like this and The Bad News Bears (1975) she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this film is SO evocative of the period (The Depression), it gets the mis en scene so right, I was in awe even as a child. The 70s were halcyon days for nostalgia about past decades; my whole love for vaudeville is filtered through that era’s look BACK at earlier decades. And I really loved the LOOK of Ryan O’Neal’s character in this movie, the mustache and hat — and the character of the door-to-door con man. A big impression.

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Now, I haven’t seen all of his films, but I’ve seen many of them, and I’m surprised to find that there’s only three in the bunch I found downright terrible. His early AIP movie Targets (1968) with Boris Karloff is extremely interesting and even a classic of its kind. Daisy Miller (1974) gets a bad rap. I think it’s a near perfect adaptation of James’ novel but for the crucial drawback of Cybil Shepherd’s tone-deaf performance, a near literal bull in a China closet. The director was not thinking with his brain when he made the movie, know what uh mean? Mask (1985), Noises Off (1992) and The Cat’s Meow (2001) are all well-realized, perfectly competent if unambitious films, neither bad nor remarkable. (My kids even really love Noises Off).

But the bad ones…are quite bad. I tried to watch Nickelodeon (1976) when researching Chain of Fools but found it unwatchable….I couldn’t get more than about ten minutes in. It’s set in the silent era, and I saw him trying to slam that same breakneck, Hawksian pace in. It’s not a one-size fits all thing. It either suits the material and the performers or it doesn’t. I saw the cast trying too hard, and I couldn’t watch it. I’ll have to go back and give it another shot at some point. But I did watch all (or most of) They All Laughed (1981) and Illegally Yours (1988), and found them both abysmal. The former film has its points of interest: the cast includes the ill-fated Dorothy Stratton, as well as Audrey Hepburn (in one of her last, increasingly rare film appearances), and Ben Gazzara (with whom Hepburn had had a relationship)…and a bespectacled John Ritter, trying very hard as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in. But the movie is almost completely incoherent, and (it should go without saying) not funny. And Illegally Yours, which features a bespectacled Rob Lowe as the bespectacled Ryan O’Neal/ Peter Bogdanovich stand-in, is even a notch or two below that.

Still….we like and respect Bogdanovich as a critic, author, actor, and most of the time as a director, so we hope this new one is good. Or, at least, good enough.

To learn more about comedy film please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stan Laurel in “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stan Laurel (Solo) with tags , , , , , , , on July 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the Stan Laurel solo comedy Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride (1925), co-directed by Joe Rock and Scott Pembroke. This comedy was made two years before Laurel’s teaming with Oliver Hardy, when Laurel was still a struggling, wanna-be comedy star who could never quite click. That said, Laurel’s best solo comedies were parodies of other pictures, and this is a film of that type. It’s probably one of his best solo comedies. It’s obviously a spoof of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, made with John Barrymore five years earlier, as well as the Robert Louis Stevenson book itself.

Silliness is the order of the day. Laurel’s “Mr. Pride” commits evils of the mildest sort:  stealing children’s ice cream and scaring a woman by popping a paper bag near her head. And of course there is the great fun of the transformation and the make-up. Jerry Lewis would later go to town with his own parody of this story and this scene in The Nutty Professor (1963). One doubts he ever saw this film but he did know and admire Laurel — one has to wonder if got some inspiration from hearing about this film, at least.

To learn more about silent comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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