30 Years Ago in NYC (Because I’ve Now Been Here That Long)

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , on August 17, 2017 by travsd

Taken a couple of years later; the tee shirt was a promo for David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

I marked this on my calendar to write about today: 30 years ago (yesterday and today) there occurred a curious alignment of stars and planets that New Age people called “the Harmonic Convergence“.  It was a topic of chatter that summer, in the media and amongst ordinary people, in the same way that the “2000 bug” was, or the upcoming solar eclipse is. The Harmonic Convergence was like the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was said. The alignment meant there would be this unleashing of positive energy, that everything would be beautiful, and auspicious, and right. It was a crock, of course. It proved to be an ordinary day. Why I note the date at all is because I remember where I was. I was in New York City.

I generally count the summer of 1987 as when I moved here, although in the fall I did return to school in Providence for several months, and then spent another few months in Maine before finally moving here for good. But ’87 was my first experience living here, working here (at temp jobs), taking the subway to get around, carrying around my morning coffee in those Greek themed cardboard coffee cups that say “We are Happy to Serve You.” It was my first time learning what it was to walk around in the shoes of a New Yorker, even if I wasn’t one myself yet.

I’d come here before as a tourist of course, about a half dozen times as a teenager, had been to Broadway shows, the Met and MOMA, and so forth. I grew up between New York and Boston. Though I was much closer to Boston, ironically I’d spent much more time in the Big Apple. My first visit here, at about the age of 13 changed my life. I always knew I wanted to move here. In 1987 I actually began the process. I was a baby at the time, about the same age that my oldest son is now. About seven years ago I passed the crucial milestone of having lived the majority of my life here. New York is now my home in a way that even my hometown is not.

So, this is one of those hokey “how things were different” posts; bear with an old timer and his memories at this milestone.

Checkered Cab

It was the NYC of Working Girl, Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Sidewalk Stories. Some of the cabs still looked like those cabs on Taxi.  Hizzoner Ed Koch was still the Mayor, and a wonderful ambassador and booster for the cityRonald Reagan was still president and it was still the Reagan economy. And in 1987 Newsweek did a cover story on this local asshole, who was still two years away from helping to railroad the Central Park Five:

Temp jobs were plentiful. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street and midtown, and took other odd jobs. There were no cell phones. Computers in the workplace were new. Macs and IBMs were entirely different; the latter didn’t yet employ Windows or a Mouse, so you had to learn keystrokes. There was no Internet. Documents were exchanged long distance via Fax Machine.

At the same time homeless people seemed to be everywhere. Crime was higher. The subways were covered in graffiti. Though the Walkman existed, belligerent dudes would carry boom boxes everywhere blasting their personal music. When they got onto subway cars it was a tense experience, because they annoyed everybody but it wasn’t worth fighting about. The Guardian Angels, a proto-vigilante group, were highly visible as a volunteer, if largely cosmetic, means of dealing with the crime situation.

Because there was no Internet, everyone read The Village Voice, which then cost a dollar, to see what was going on. I literally read the whole thing cover to cover, not just for the news, but for jobs (they had the best, most relevant classifieds), and for what to do socially and recreationally, because of the reviews and pages of paid ads. (Later competition would follow from the New York Press and Time Out New York, but those weren’t a factor for several years.) We went to see bands at places like CBGBs. Political performance art by people like Karen Finley and Penny Arcade was on the ascendant. It had been only a few months since Andy Warhol and Charles Ludlam had died (weeks in the case of Ludlam); Basquiat and Keith Haring only had months to live.

Times Square was the worst sort of pit you can possibly imagine. The following year I got an internship at a Theatre Row theatre on the opposite end of 42nd Street. Getting there was a terrifying gauntlet past crack dens and porn theatres, and criminal low lifes of every description. When people tell me they want that back I want to knock their block off. By contrast, today’s Times Square is a scene of vitality and health. It used to be a disgrace, a showplace of rot and disease.

As I’ve written many times, Indie Theater was not yet a thing (wouldn’t be for a long time), and there was an enormous need for it, because the original Off Off companies like La Mama had gotten big. You couldn’t just walk in off the street and do a show anywhere anymore. The Off Off places seemed just as hard to get into as Broadway. Coffee houses and galleries and so forth were no longer scenes of artistic ferment in the same way as they had been in the legendary 60s. We did go to art events, poetry readings and the like, but as I say, it was against the backdrop of the Reagan years; the climate was more like winter setting in rather than a flower unfolding. Subsequent years were better in certain ways. Certainly in terms of access to venues, although that’s always a struggle in one way or another.

In those days (as Penny Arcade has articulated so well) we were drawn to New York for its storied diversity, yes for art, but for breadth of culture — food for example, from a 100 different countries. Now it’s safer and cleaner in ways that newcomers may take for granted. At the same time, the experience is not as rich, for the new comers seem to have tamed it somewhat, to have suburbanized it. It is more like a mall now, more like the American provinces than the Capital of the World. But I’m not sure I could live anywhere else. In fact, I know I can’t. I can’t drive!

 

 

 

 

How Coney Island Gave Us the First Roller Coasters

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2017 by travsd

Today is National Roller Coaster Day! It’s not nearly enough well known that Coney Island was the birthplace of the roller coaster, forgotten mostly because Coney Island amusement parks started being eclipsed by larger, newer ones around the country in the 1950s and 60s. But facts are facts, so I do my part in getting the word out. Here are some of the notable, pathbreaking roller coasters at Coney Island.

The Switchback Railway (1884) at Coney Island was the first roller coaster in the world. There was much that was different about it. Passengers sat sideways. It only went one way. And it was powered strictly by gravity: you were toted to the top of the first hill (by people!), and you coasted until you stopped. Other early ones included the Serpentine Railway (1885), which was the first one to take you on a complete loop to your starting place, and the Oval Coaster (1885), the first one that used a mechanism to take you to the top of the first hill. Both of these coasters worked on the gravity principal as well.

Elephant Scenic Railway (Circa 1886-1896)

A coaster that wrapped around the notorious Elephant Hotel three times. Try getting a night’s rest with screaming passengers outside your window. Burned down with the hotel in 1896.

Loop the Loop (Sea Lion Park) 1901-1910

This was the first SAFE roller coaster with a loop (it had been preceded by the Flip Flap Railway, 1895-1902, at the same park, but it sounds like that one gave ya whiplash). The Loop the Loop sounds pretty dangerous too — only centrifugal force kept your car on the tracks as you went around. Another dangerous sounding one was the Cannon Coaster (1902-1907), on which the car literally jumped over a gap like Evel Knievel. It sounds like they never worked out the kinks in that one. Yipes.

Giant Roller Coaster 

This one was billed at the time as the longest coaster ever built (6,150 feet). It was originally at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, then installed at Brighton Beach circa 1907.

Chase Through the Clouds (1910-1919) a.k.a Mile Sky Chaser (1923-1944)

This one had originally been known s “Chase Through the Clouds” and was located in Brighton Beach until moved to Luna Park following a fire, and given a new name.

Scenic Spiral Wheel, a.k.a The Top (1917-1920)

You often see this impressive looking experiment in old film footage. While your car went around the tracks the entire structure was moving too, in the manner of a child’s top.

Big Dipper a.k.a. the Wild Cat a.k.a the Comet (1921-1945)

We now enter the era of classic roller coasters, when several were built that we would today recognize as modern, fast, high, electrically operated roller coasters. This one went up on the site of the old Switchback Railway, roughly where the NY Aquarium parking lot now is. Its name changed several times over the years.

 

The Thunderbolt (1925-82)

This one is famous for being depicted in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (it’s the one with the house underneath). After it burned and closed in 1982, its rusted out hulk was a beloved landmark in Coney Island for 20 years until torn down to make way for the baseball stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones now play.

The Limit (1925-1934) later incorporated into the Bobsled (1941-1974)

The Tornado a.k.a The Bobs (1926-1977)

The Cyclone (1927-present)

The only one of the classic coasters still standing. Take a ride on it today!

The Jumbo Jet (1973-2003)

The was one of the few new rides to go up at Coney in the late 20th century. It was still running until 2003. I didn’t remember it (since I never rode it) until I saw this photo!

The history continues. Several new roller coaster rides have opened in the new Luna Park since 2010. Learn about them here.

28 “Great Hitchcock Movies” Made By Other People

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2017 by travsd

This post was originally intended for Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, but since it’s not actually about the Master of Suspense himself but only some of his imitators, any old day’ll do. Elements that remind us of Hitchcock include: psychology: especially paranoia and obsessive sexuality; travelogue: a series of multiple exotic locations, often climaxing at famous landmarks and monuments; glamour: top movie stars (usually the best looking ones), wearing costumes by top fashion designers; humor: sophisticated, quipping repartee; and a self-conscious eye: often incorporating unusual angles or points of view or shot sequences that call attention to their existence, and the fact of looking. These elements are not always all present simultaneously or at all.

With one exception I’ve restricted the list to films made during Hitchcock’s lifetime. And I’ve left certain obvious things off, such as the James Bond films (not because they don’t fit, they do, but because they constitute an entire branching sub-genre themselves), and the Mel Brooks parody/tribute High Anxiety (1978). Also (interestingly) despite his clear fascination with terror, Hitchcock was noticeably, almost stubbornly, unconcerned with the supernatural, thus we leave off certain films like The Uninvited (1944), for example, whose location and atmosphere are reminiscent of Rebecca (1940), or Portrait of Jennie (1948), which has a Hitchcockesque tone. Both are disqualified for being ghost stories, which Hitchcock never indulged in.

Above Suspicion (1943)

Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray are a couple of American newlyweds drafted by British secret service to spy on the Nazis during their European honeymoon. The film is set in 1939, before American involvement in the war, thus they will be “above suspicion” by the Germans. With its theme of European tourism and innocent bystanders being drawn into international webs of espionage, the film is reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) Secret Agent (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Saboteur (1942).

Gaslight (1944)

This classic film has actually surpassed any similar Hitchcock movie in becoming idiomatic for an evil husband (Charles Boyer) trying to make his wife (Ingrid Bergman) think she’s insane. It has much in common with Hitchcock’s earlier Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Bergman was to become a Hitchcock regular, starring in Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and Under Capricorn (1949). Joseph Cotten, who plays the hero in this, was the villain in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released the previous year and would also star in Under Capricorn (1949).

The Stranger (1946)

Orson Welles loved spy stories. The strain was strongest in his radio work, although you can also see it in his involvement in such projects as Journey Into Fear (1942), The Third Man (1949), and Mr. Arkadin (1949 — I like its British title better: Confidential Report). With The Stranger, Welles was trying to prove his commercial viability in the wake of the box office failure of his earlier pictures Citizen Kane (1940) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). No one was more commercial than Hitchcock. The Stranger’s theme of an evil monster who has managed to integrate himself into an idyllic American small town is reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt (Welles gives a chilling dinner table speech here much reminiscent of one that Cotten gives in the latter film); the idea of still-active post-war Nazis was explored by Hitchcock that same year in Notorious. 

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Robert Siodmak directed this thriller. Dorothy Maguire plays a mute serving girl who may be a serial killer’s next intended victim. Serial killers had been a favorite subject of Hitchcock’s since the time of The Lodger (1927); he returned to it in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972). The film’s opening set piece, which happens in an apartment above a movie theatre reminds us of a similar lay-out in Sabotage (1936). The film has eerie theramin music on the soundtrack, as in Spellbound. The big creepy isolated old house Maguire works in is like the one in Rebecca (and all Gothic dramas); and the titular staircase actually presages one that plays a highly memorable role in Vertigo (1958).

Dragonwyck (1946)

The “house haunted by memories” is like Rebecca; the slow poisoning of a wife (Gene Tierney) like Notorious; the tormented, controlling creep of a husband (Vincent Price) is like many Hitchcock characters. This movie is set in early 19th century upstate New York but Hitchcock occasionally did period pieces, notably Jamaica Inn (1939) and Under Capricorn (1949). Given Hitchcock’s love of Gothic melodrama, and his receptivity to female writers (see Du Maurier, below) one has to wonder if the Bronte Sisters had been a major influence on him as a youngster.

Possessed (1947)

Joan Crawford loves Van Heflin just a little too much. The theme of traumatically-induced amnesia is similar to Spellbound; the sick love obsession is like the one that would be at the heart of Vertigo. It is interesting, given the number of Hitchcockesque films Crawford appeared in, that she would never get to work with the Master.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Invalid Barbara Stanwyck accidentally overhears a murder plot over the phone. As in too many Hitchcock films to count, she is drawn into the thing, feeling morally bound to solve the mystery and prevent the crime from happening. The eventual realization that her own husband (Burt Lancaster) may be a killer also echoes Sabotage, Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious and would recur in Dial M for Murder (1954), whose telephone themed title reminds us of this one. Hitchcock would also use the invalid theme in many movies, notably Notorious and Rear Window (1954).  Wendell Corey, so memorable in Rear Window, is also in this film.

Sudden Fear (1952)

Again with Joan Crawford, and again with theme of a murderin’ schemin’ husband (Jack Palance) and a bit o’ gaslightin’. She then turns the tables in a most satisfying twist. The fact that her character is a playwright can be taken as a justification for the elaborateness of her revenge plot.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

This one is based on a novel by one of Hitchcock’s favorite writers, who provided source material for no less than three of his films: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Birds (1963): Daphne Du Maurier. Hitchcock could easily have directed a film of this story as well. Richard Burton (in one of his earliest starring roles) falls in love with a young woman (Olivia de Havilland) who may have murdered his best friend and cousin (she was his cousin’s wife, thus the title). Its atmospheric setting in a castle on the Cornwall coast connects it to both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier made the area her home, and frequently laid her melodramatic yarns there.

Niagara (1953)

This one is amazing — so much like the Hitchcock of the 50s, yet predates a lot of that work. Joseph Cotten is the jealous husband of Marilyn Monroe (and rightfully so. To my mind, this is the sexiest of all Monroe’s performances. It’s enough to drive every heterosexual male in the audience out of his friggin’ mind). Cotten murders Monroe’s lover, then fakes his own death, and then terrorizes a fellow tourist (Jean Peters) who has accidentally learned the truth. Having the sexual obsession with a blond at the center of the story is quintessential Hitchcock, as its setting at an iconic tourist destination (Niagara Falls, obviously) which in particular reminds us of Redwood Forest in Vertigo and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).

Black Widow (1954)

An interesting and unjustly forgotten suspense thriller written, directed and produced by Nunnally Johnson, who’d produced and written My Cousin Rachel. A Broadway producer played by Van Helfin is accused of murdering a young schemer (Peggy Ann Garner, best remembered as the girl in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). He is forced to flee and solve the mystery himself, which of course he does. The “smart New York settings” really remind me of the Hitchcock of the period, especially Rope (1948) — it has the same kind of fake but gorgeous cyclorama paintings outside the windows of the swanky apartments — but also Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. A topic for another time, but somehow this movie doesn’t quite gel. It’s one of Johnson’s first outings as director and there are problems of pace. And somehow he manages to underuse his stellar cast, which includes Gene Tierney, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, and Reginald Gardiner. Interestingly Gardiner’s first film had been Hitchcock’s The Lodger. 

Diabolique (1955)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, often called the French Hitchcock. It is said Hitchcock had wanted to direct a film of the novel this movie was based on, but Clouzet beat him to securing the rights. Like Hitchcock, Clouzet had been influenced by German Expressionism, and was known for suspense thrillers. In this one a pair of women (Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzet, the director’s wife) murder  the cruel tyrant (Paul Meurisse) who dominates both their lives at a provincial boys school, and events only get weirder after that. The bathtub murder scene is said to have inspired the shower scene in Psycho. 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Hitchcock never directed Agatha Christie stories, nor for that matter conventional murder mysteries per se, but Witness for the Prosecution does have its superficial similarities with The Paradine Case (1947), and for most of its running time anyway is about the familiar Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man wrongly suspected of murder. I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) were two Hitchcock films from the same period which riffed on this theme.

The Scapegoat (1959)

Another film based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel. This one plays on the familiar Hitchcockian theme of the double, which we get in films ranging from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Vertigo.  Here drab, lonely Alec Guinness is vacationing in France when he meets a man who is his twin in every way (also played by Guinness). The other man vanishes, leaving Guinness to take over his life, which includes wealth, an enormous estate, and the people in his life, including a wife, daughter and mistress. Bette Davis plays his drug addict mother!  Then of course the wife is murdered. The double turns out to have been the culprit and it is on the original Guinness to prove he wasn’t guilty. This film was remade in 2012 with Matthew Rhys in the Guinness part.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is frequently compared to Hitchcock’s Pyscho. Interestingly, given the fact that Powell didn’t usually direct this kind of film (to put it mildly) and Hitchcock was known for it, Powell’s film actually came out five months before Hitchcock’s. The voyeurism of Vertigo clearly influenced Peeping Tom. I find the fact that Peeping Tom‘s psychopathic creep is German for some reason to be vaguely Hitchcockian, and obviously the self-conscious detail that the villain is a film-maker, as well. It is the latter fact that makes Peeping Tom the true antecedent of later films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and De Palma’s Murder a la Mod (1968), which is one reason those two films don’t have their own entries on this list.

Midnight Lace (1960)

This film is like a family reunion for former Hitchcock actors. Doris Day from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)! John Gavin from Psycho! John Williams from Dial M for Murder! Herbert Marshall from Murder (1930) and Foreign Correspondent! With Rex Harrison, Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell! Day is said to have gotten so involved in her character’s terror in this film that she gave herself a nervous breakdown. It’s all about a gaslighting plot; the antagonist repeatedly terrorizes Day but only when she’s alone, so there’s no one around to witness it. People around her begin to suspect she is going crazy.

I Thank a Fool (1962)

An interesting little artifact I stumbled across on TCM not long ago. Susan Hayward (in one of the best performances of the late phase of her career) plays a former nurse who’s done prison time for a mercy killing she comitted. She is then hired by the Prosecutor who originally put her away (Peter Finch) who then seemingly proceeds to frame her for the murder of his insane wife (Diane Cilento). Insanity, a remote mansion, being wrongly accused of murder, and other elements remind one of Hitch

Charade (1963)

This one is too well-known for me to have to say much about, I hope! Cary Grant was a veteran of several Hitchcock pictures, with North by Northwest as the most relevant one here. Peter Stone’s script was plainly written to channel the best of all Hitchcock tropes and scenes. Saul Bass, who’d designed memorable title sequences for Vertigo and North by Northwest did them for this film as well. And to my mind Audrey Hepburn has much in common in terms of screen of screen presence with frequent Hitchcock leading lady Grace Kelly.

Topkapi (1964)

This one is less obviously Hitchcockian, but I have my reasons. Peter Ustinov is a small time crook who finds himself drafted against his will into a double bind, forced to help a gang of high end thieves, and forced to help the police. Coerced into playing the double agent, and to have to lie to both police and the crooks, is a nightmarish predicament characteristic of Hitchcock. That, the exotic Mediterranean setting and the scenario of high-end heists (both of which it shares with To Catch a Thief) inspire me to include it here.

That Man from Rio (1964)

Ostensibly a Bond parody, this Italian-French co-production is more like a stylish Hitchcock adventure such as North by Northwest — its hero is not a professional spy whose job is to have such adventures. Jean Paul Belmondo is a sailor on leave whose girlfriend gets kidnapped by some antiquities smugglers, so he goes off in pursuit. His adventures take him to Brazil, where the famous landmarks of Rio have the same kind of visual prominence that American ones do in Hitchcock films. Plus this film (like Charade) is very rich in humor, a trait of all of Hitchcock’s double chase films.

Mirage (1965)

Peter Stone’s follow-up t0 Charade, designed to be the same kind of Hitchcock tribute, directed by Edward Dmtryk. In place of the leads from the previous hit, there are two more than worthy replacements: Gregory Peck (who’d been in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and The Paradine Case) and Diane Baker (who played the sister in Marnie).  Peck plays an accountant who suddenly finds him sucked into a maelstrom of intrigue — because he is actually an important scientist with amnesia.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

A plot of the gaslighting sort: Carol Lynley is a young mom who drops her daughter off for her first day of school. The daughter vanishes and there is no proof that she ever existed. This plot (and the eventual arrival of an actual psycho) in combination with a cast of major stars (Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Kier Dullea) approximate the magic of a Hitchcock experience. Directed by Otto Preminger. 

Blindfold (1966)

Rock Hudson was often a kind of second string stand-in for top tier guys like Cary Grant and Gregory Peck. He is used in that capacity here as a psychiatrist who is drafted by the CIA to help a valuable scientist regain his memory. His character is famous, a target of reporters, an element that reminds me of North by Northwest. Hudson is taken to visit the scientist several times for psychiatric sessions, blindfolded (so he won’t know the location). Later, he is kidnapped by international criminals who want to find the scientist themselves. At the climax, Hudson must locate the scientist himself using his wits and sense of hearing alone. I hope I don’t have to spell out why this one is Hitchcockesque — it just is!

Arabesque (1966)

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen, who’d directed Charade, and co-written by Peter Stone from Charade and others. Cary Grant was originally sought for the lead role, but this was just at the time he was in the process of retiring. Gregory Peck, who’d been in Mirage, became the choice for the hero, an Egyptologist who is kidnapped and swept away to the Middle East so he can do a job of translating. The love interest is the most beautiful woman in the world, Sophia Loren. The plot is unbelievably convoluted, nearly impossible to follow. The international settings, thrills, sex and glamour float it along, but one thing missing from the equation is humor. It’s there in the script, but Gregory Peck was not a funny man. When he delivers the quips, they fall to earth like pyramid stones.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn as a blind lady in a New York City apartment being terrorized by a psycho (Alan Arkin) and gaslighted by his more artful partners (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, the latter of whom had been in Mirage). The men are after some heroin that was in a doll that someone gave Hepburn’s photographer husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) at the airport.  Her predicament of being trapped, helpless and alone in a Greenwich Village apartment is reminiscent of Rear Window, among other things.

Sisters (1973)

This is Brian de Palma’s first truly Hitchcockian film and in some ways his best, as it is more original and is less about literally quoting and re-creating Hitchcockian film techniques. Sometimes his earlier film Murder a la Mod is called Hitchcockian, but as we write above, it is more like Antonioni or Godard. In SistersMargot Kidder may or may not be a pair of separated Siamese twins, one of whom is a psycho murderer. Other “faux Hitchcock” De Palma movies include Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992). By the 1980s this strain of his work became increasingly tiresome, just empty exercises in technique.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story about a grieving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are in Venice following the death of their child (The husband has a job restoring an old cathedral). This one, with its intimation of ghostly hauntings and psychic premonition, is more supernatural than Hitchcock would have liked, but it is based on Du Maurier and does end with a meat cleaver murder.

Frantic (1988)

This is my only outlier timewise, and I include it for what I hope will be an obvious reason: it is essentially Roman Polanski doing Hitchcock. I remember thinking that very thing in the cinema when I saw it in on its original release; that moment was essentially the origin of this long germinating piece. I have been formulating this list for decades. (There are others I have left off, perhaps I will do a part two at some point). The plot is essentially The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a doctor (Harrison Ford) seeking his kidnapped wife (Betty Buckley) rather than a kidnapped child, shot against the picturesque background of Paris, all on account of some accidentally switched suitcases.

 

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Comedies of Wheeler and Woolsey

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by travsd

For Bob Woolsey’s birthday, we consolidate all of our previous posts on the films of the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey into one big monster post. Looked at all at once, RKO’s star comedy team of the 1930s was surprisingly prolific. In fact, I’d assumed I’d pretty much seen all of their films (I’ve seen 15, and that seems like a lot), but I’m astounded to realize this morning that there are still SEVEN of their films together I haven’t seen (full disclosure: They are the short Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931 — actually, I’ve half “seen” this one; the audio track is available on Youtube), Peach O’Reno (1931), and their last five. In light of their truly solid track record, I’ve begun to realize that their standing ought to be reassessed, for, pound for pound, they have a more consistent record of excellence than nearly any similar comedy team I can think of. Laurel and Hardy beat ’em clearly, but in just about any other case there’s an argument to be made for both sides. A topic for another time.

At any rate, herewith their films:
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Rio Rita (1929)

The cinematic debut of the team. The movie was an adaptation of the 1927 Broadway hit, starring Wheeler and Woolsey and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The ’29 version replaced the stage Rita (Ethelind Terry) with the box-office insurance of Bebe Daniels, and the original Jim (J. Harold Murray) with John Boles

The plot concerns a bandit known only as “the Kinkajou.”  It’s set in Mexico, just over the border from Texas. Wheeler is supposed to be there to get divorced and remarried, with Woolsey as his friend and advisor. Wheeler learns that his divorce didn’t take though, so he has to avoid his new sweetie Dorothy Lee. Then the two get drunk and there’s a funny drunk scene. Then the first wife (Helen Kaiser) shows up and she’s inherited millions of dollars so now Woolsey wants her. Meanwhile Rita (who has suspected  her brother of being the Kinkajou) makes to marry a Russian general…who turns out to be the real Kinkajou, so she is able to marry her true love (Boles).  Got all that? As always there’s far too much of the dull romantic plot and far too little comedy. Fortunately future Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles nip that drawback in the bud.

Among the pleasures of this early talkie is that the last act is in two strip Technicolor, in a scene set on an implausibly large sailing ship travelling up the Rio Grande.  Like all fantasies, it’s silly, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rio Rita was later remade in 1942 as one of the first film vehicles for Abbott and Costello.

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The Cuckoos (1930)

Ironically, this film began life as a Clark and McCullough vehicle, the 1926 Broadway hit The Ramblers. But Clark and McCullough were committed to their series of shorts for Fox — I’m sure they kicked themselves for this missed opportunity, for The Cuckoos ended up being the making of Wheeler and Woolsey, cementing their nebulous beginnings in Rio Rita into a proper screen team.

The Cuckoos is one of my favorite and one of the best Wheeler and Woolsey comedies, bringing to the table a joke-crammed script by Guy Bolton, and one of the strongest Kalmar and Ruby scores. Its only drawback is that (much like the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which it much resembles) it is rather statically filmed and stage bound. However, unlike those films, but like Rio Rita and Dixiana, it has a two strip Technicolor sequence. Wheeler and Woolsey are terrific in their parts (even if you can’t stop yourself from imagining Bobby Clark doing the role that became Woolsey’s).

Wheeler and Woolsey play a pair of con artists who are down and out in Mexico just south of the border. Dorothy Lee is a girl whom Wheeler loves, though for some mysterious reason she is a member of a family of Gypsies. What a band of Gypsies are doing in Mexico, goes just as unexplained as why the American girl is among them. Jobyna Howland is very funny as one “Fanny Furst” (a play on the name of socialite novelist and suffragette Fanny Hurst), a rich dowager for Woolsey to romance. The show also has an obligatory pair of lovers and rivals, but the three actors are so perfunctory and stiff you can just go ahead and put them out of your mind. The real thing is the musical numbers and  the comedians, and sensing their big chance, they bring their “A” game to this film.dixiana-lobbycard

Dixiana (1930)

Dixiana was my first Wheeler and Woolsey film. W & W are the comic relief in this standard period musical, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, the main plot of which concerns the star-crossed romance between a young aristocrat (Everett Marshall) and the titular Dixiana (Bebe Daniels), the performing ward of travelling showmen Peewee (Wheeler) and Ginger (Woolsey). As he often does in their films, Wheeler gets a romantic interest of his own in the shape of shapely Dorothy Lee. The comedy and music of this film are fairly forgettable. What tends to stand out is its visual beauty, especially the film’s final third (the Mardi Gras scene), which was shot in two strip Technicolor. Joseph Cawthorn plays a stern, slave-owning plantation father; slave Bill Robinson gets to do his famous stair dance. It’s scarcely the most progressive film in the world, but at the time there was very little that would answer that description .

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Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, the boys are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

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Hook, Line and Sinker (1930)

Directed by Eddie Cline. Though the comedians are in fine form, the plot of this one is very run of the mill…the sort of thing that would be remade many times over by Joe E. Brown, the Bowery Boys etc. Wheeler and Woolsey play insurance salesman who help heiress Dorothy Lee spruce up an abandoned hotel and make a resort out of it called the Ritz de la Riviera (some echoes of Cocoanuts?) Wheeler and she are sweet on each other. Her mother wants her to marry the family lawyer, who talks a good line, but is secretly a crook. He hires a bunch of murdering gangsters and a femme fatale named the Duchess to get W & W out of the picture (and steal jewels and money from the safe). But the movie contains lots of really funny lines and situations. Woolsey romances the girl’s mother. The gangsters keep trying to kill them. The moll keeps entrapping Wheeler. Hugh Herbert plays a funny hotel detective, who’s always sleeping. At the climax, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights and they confront the crooks in the dark. Machine guns, hand grenades, dynamite. In the end all is exposed, the crooks are vanquished and the heroes get rewards.

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Everything’s Rosie (1931)

One of Woolsey’s few solo vehicles, directed by Clyde Bruckman.  Early in their careers, Wheeler and Woolsey were each tried as solo stars by RKO as an experiment and to bolster their box office value in case the team didn’t work out. Everything’s Rosie was so interesting and enjoyable to me I was tempted to store it in my DVR queue in perpetuity. I found it hilarious; I wanted to steal every joke. Yet, though it was a modest box office success in a year when the Depression caused almost every other Hollywood picture to flop, its panning by the critics was near universal.

Intellectually, I can see why. It is an almost total rip-off of W.C. Fields’ Poppy: Woolsey plays a shady but lovable circus carny with a young female ward (Anita Louise) and the plot arc is near identical (the girl falls in love with a young local rich boy, and she and Woolsey are persecuted and framed because they are showfolk.) While Fields’s film Poppy wasn’t made until 1938, he had starred in the original Broadway play of it in 1924, and a silent screen version Sally of the Sawdust in 1925. Woolsey had been in the Broadway version.  Even today, Woolsey can’t help but seem derivative, with his echoes of Groucho Marx, Walter CatlettGeorge Burns and the now equally obscure Bobby Clark (though Woolsey was much bigger star than the latter two at the time). And I can imagine that, in that day, its barrage of vaudeville one-liners (Al Boasberg was one of the writers) must have seemed passe and corny. Vaudeville was dying an agonizing death at that very moment.  But from the perspective of distance, I see only charm and hilarity. Everything’s Rosie is a film I aim to own and steal from copiously.

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Cracked Nuts (1931)

Directed by Eddie Cline. The film is interesting for many reasons. One is that, much like Burns and Allen’s 1939 Honolulu, the two comedians are kept separate through a great deal of the picture, to test whether they could work separately outside the context of the team. Secondly, it is the first of the zany satires set in a mythical European kingdom, setting the template for later comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). Released in trhe depths of the Depression, Cracked Nuts was RKO’s biggest grossing film of the year.

The plot? Young millionaire Wheeler falls in love with debutante Dorothy Lee during a transatlantic voyage. Her mother (Edna May Oliver) doesn’t think much of him, so he arranges to finance a revolution in her native country of El Dorania (she is vocal in her dislike of the President). Meanwhile, back in El Dorania, Bob Woolsey wins the crown of the king of El Dorania in a crap game. You do the comedy math! Also in the cast is a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Revolutionary. And a sight gag by Ben Turpin!

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Caught Plastered (1931)

In this one, the boys play a couple of failed vaudevillians who decide to help a little old lady named “Mother” save her drug store by having performances (including a radio show) on the premises. Unfortunately, Mother owes money to a man named Harry (Jason Robards, Sr) who convinces them to sell a certain”lemon syrup” which he supplies. The syrup is a big hit, but is laced with alcohol, which gets them in trouble with the authorities, this being the Prohibition era and all. This plot twist also explains the now obscure title of the film. It’s a play on “court plaster”, an item then found in most drug stores, and “plastered” — which everyone gets when they drink the lemon-syrup. As usual Dorothy Lee plays Wheeler’s love interest, and look for Lee Moran in a bit part as a drunk.

Oh! Oh! Cleopatra (1931, short)

An interesting beast, co-produced by RKO and The Masquers, which was like Hollywood’s equivalent to the Lambs. Apart from assorted cameos, Wheeler and Woolsey almost exclusively made features; shorts were Clark and McCullough turf. But apparently The Masquers had their own series of shorts, and Wheeler and Woolsey agreed to star in this one. For some reason, just the audio portion is available to listen to on Youtube, but it gives a flavor. A professor develops a pill that allows a person to go back in time. W & W, experience what it is like to Marc Antony and Julius Caesar (if Antony and Caesar behaved like Wheeler and Woolsey) and they cavort with Cleopatra (Dorothy Burgess). It was directed by Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ The Cococanuts. 

Peach O’Reno (1931)

I really love the title of this one. There’s the obvious wordplay, but I can just hear Bob Woolsey use that expression in reference to a pretty girl: “Man, is that a Peacherino!” Further, the film sounds like a hoot: the boys play a couple of divorce lawyers, each of whom are separately advising an estranged husband and wife (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), telling them each to dally with decoy correspondents. On top of this, their law office converts into a gambling casino at night; there are some clips of this process on Youtube. I’ve seen it copied in later comedies, like Bob Hope’s The Lemon Drop Kid. And naturally, some mean guy wants to kill Woolsey for helping his wife to divorce him. Wheeler has a drag scene in the film.

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Girl Crazy (1932)

The film was adapted from the hit Broadway show from a couple of years earlier which boasted a book by Guy Bolton, songs by the Gershwins, and Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among its stars. Considerable changes were made to the film version. Here it has morphed into a much zanier vehicle appropriate for this team, no date largely through the influence of adapted Herman J. Mankiewicz, who’d also had a hand in such madcap madness as Million Dollar Legs, Meet the Baron and several Marx Brothers movies (before of course his epochal contribution to Citizen Kane). Girl Crazy lost money when it was released, but I found it mighty funny.

It’s set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. At any rate, I really go for the high absurdity in these early 30s comedies. This version of Girl Crazy is one of those happy surprises that your correspondent lives to find.

It was later remade in 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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Hold ‘Em Jail (1932)

In this one, one of their funnier ones, the boys get their turn at a funny football game, in a feature directed by Norman Taurog. The title is a play on the Ivy League cheer “Hold ’em, Yale!” Here, the boys are framed and sent to prison, then forced to play on the warden’s team (a possible model for The Longest Yard?) The warden is played by the omnipresent Edgar Kennedy, Rosco Ates is one of the players, their frequent foil Edna May Oliver is in it, and it contains an early performance by Betty Grable!

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So This is Africa (1933)

Directed by Eddie Cline, written by Norman Krasna. Esther Muir plays a lady entrusted by a movie company to make a nature documentary in Africa, but there’s one hitch: she’s afraid of animals. To complete the picture ,the company hires Wheeler and Woolsey, a couple of out-of-work vaudevillians with a lion taming act (the lions are aged and toothless). They are on the verge of jumping off a ledge when we meet them. Then they try to steak a donkey for horsemeat to feed their lions. Finally the producers catch up to them. Then there is a nightclub number and FINALLY they are off to Africa for the obligatory Tarzan gags, guys in gorilla suits and Wheeler’s hook-up with the unspeakably sexy jungle woman Miss More (Raquel Torres, from Duck Soup. That’s not the only Marx Brothers borrowing. The movie contains a Strange Interlude parody notably similar to the one in Animal Crackers.). Then they are all captured by a murderous tribe of Amazon babes, but the boys are only too glad to be captured. (Amazingly, this movie avoids overt racism — sort of — by completely omitting depictions of dark-skinned people. Africa is populated by leopard-skin wearing Caucasians.)  A total eclipse of the sun arrives and the women go into their usual night time frenzy. Our heroes disguise themselves as native girls until a tribe of randy men come to seize the Amazons as their “wives”. Unfortunately Wheeler and Woolsey are taken in the dragnet. A year later they are doing laundry and we assume they have become these native men’s bitches! But in a reveal we learn they are the happy husbands of Muir and Torres.

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Diplomaniacs (1933)

This crazy comedy was penned by Herman Mankiewicz who had written Million Dollar Legs and would produce the Marx Brothers early vehicles, including the similar Duck Soup. The plot starts out with Wheeler and Woolsey operating a barber shop on an Indian reservation. Since the Indians wear their hair long and generally don’t have much facial hair the shop has no business. When one of them utters the phrase “foreign relations” the boys are sent off to meet the Chief, who rides around in a limousine and has an Oxford accent. The Chief is going to make them delegates to the international peace conference on behalf of his tribe, to try to engineer world peace. There is a shipboard segment (as there always seems to be in 30s comedies) and then the last act is at the conference. The most tasteless bit has an exploding bomb blacking the faces of all the delegates – so they do a minstrel** number! Contains a few likable songs.  Louis Calhern plays a scheming delegate (just as he would later in Duck Soup).

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Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)

In this musical comedy, one of the team’s better remembered ones, (co-written by Kalmar and Ruby) the boys become salesmen for beauty magnate Thelma Todd’s new flavored lipstick. Dorothy Lee, as usual is Wheeler’s romantic interest, and Ruth Etting has a musical number (reduced from a much larger part). Numbers include “Keep Romance Alive” and “Keep Doin’ What You’re Doin'”. Check out the pre-code outfits on those Goldwyn Girls!

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Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934)

Directed by Mark Sandrich. This is rated one of the team’s best comedies, and just like their previous film Hips, Hips, Hooray it pairs them with the double whammy of Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd. And, as in the previous film the boys are masquerading as somebody they’re not. In this case it’s the king’s physicians (they’re just a couple of country bumpkins). Oh, did we mention the Medieval setting? That’s what makes it special and the movie gets much mileage out of the history gags, which put it in a league with films like Roman Scandals, The Court Jester and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. 

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Kentucky Kernels (1934)

This is an extremely funny movie, written by Kalmar and Ruby, and featuring Spanky McFarland from Our Gang and Margaret Dumont. It’s essentially The Kid meets The Little Colonel meets Our Hospitality meets Duck Soup meets any number of Depression Era stories. A guy tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He is caught in a fishing net by W & W. They convince the guy—who is despondent over the loss of his girl – to adopt a kid. They go to pick up the kid from the adoption agency (it’s run by Dumont). Spanky is a perfect child, except he has a compulsion to break glass. This results in much hilarity and embarrassment throughout the picture. Unfortunately the guy gets back together with his girl, leaving W & W to look after Spanky. This turns out to a blessing when it emerges that Spanky is heir to a fortune in the form of a Kentucky estate. They go down to claim it but quickly learn that Spanky’s family and another are locked in a bitter and violent feud. They are able to forestall violence for awhile until Spanky sets off the powder keg by exploding a light bulb. The last scene has the heroes trapped in the manor surrounded by scores of the enemy family. In the end they are rescued by a telegram informing them that Spanky is not a relative at all. In addition to innumerable funny lines and bits and songs, the film features the stereotypical comedy stylings of Sleep N Eat

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The Nitwits (1935)

Directed by no less than George Stevens. In this middling caper comedy, the boys work at a cigar store. Woolsey is an inventor who has created a machine that makes anyone tell the truth. Bert is a songwriter who wants to marry his girl Mary (Betty Grable). Meanwhile a killer named the Black Widow is murdering people all across town, and  the head of a music company that employs Wheeler’s girl is being threatened by the same killer. The man is murdered, and Mary is suspected. The boys have to solve it.In the end they trick the private investigator into sitting in the truth machine—he reveals that he is the culprit.  Sleep n Eat (Willie Best) has a couple of turns. The movie feels like a precursor to endless similar comedies of the forties starring, well, everybody…

Okay here are there last few, none of which I’ve seen — once I have I’ll add to this post. Some are available on DVD, so at point I’ll get to ’em:

The Rainmakers (1935)

Drought was a topical story idea during the years of the Dust Bowl. Here, the boys take on a crook whose swindling honest folk with a phony rainmaking scheme.

Silly Billies (1936)

A western comedy, with the boys as frontier dentists!

Mummy’s Boys (1936)

A mummy comedy — two full decades before Abbott and Costello’s!

On Again-Off Again (1937)

A musical comedy in which the boys are partners in a pharmaceutical firm, who keep quarreling and want to split up but really need each other. Eventually they decide to determine the fate of the company with a wrestling match. Woolsey was already physically ailing by this point.

High Flyers (1937)

The pair’s last film teams them up with Lupe Velez, almost like a passing of the torch to the Mexican Spitire, whose own comedy series started just two years later. W & W plays a couple of phony pilot who get tricked into doing some illegal smuggling. Wheeler also does his Charlie Chaplin impression, which had been a highlight of his vaudeville act prior to teaming with Woolsey.

There are also these Bert Wheeler solo vehicles, none of which I’ve seen, but are on my to-do: Too Many Cooks (1931), The Cowboy Quarterback (1939); Las Vegas Nights (1941); and then two shorts a decade later two Columbia shorts: Innocently Guilty (1950) and The Awful Sleuth (1951) . Wheeler worked in tv til 1962.

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. 

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Coney Island Film Clips

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), My Shows, Silent Film with tags , , on August 12, 2017 by travsd

This is an unusual post for us. It’s designed to be a kind of appendix to the talk I am giving at the Coney Island Museum today, Coney Island and the Movies. But if you weren’t at the talk, you may find it useful and enjoyable too! Just click on the links below to go the clip on Youtube (for as long as the clip remains available on Youtube.)

Shooting the Chutes, Sea Lion Park (1896, Edison) 

Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (1903, Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter)

The Electrocution of an Elephant (1903, Edison, depicts the execution of the rogue elephant Topsy at Luna Park) TRIGGER WARNING: This depicts just what is described.

Coney Island at Night (1905, Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter) 

Boarding School Girls at Coney Island (1905, Edison)

At Coney Island (1912), Mack Sennett and Mabel Norman cavort around Luna Park and Steeplechase in one of the very earliest Keystones, made only a year after the Dreamland fire. Ford Sterling tries to romance Mabel, but his wife turns out not to like the idea. 

Coney Island (1917, starring Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al St. John against backdrop of the beach, the Surf Ave Mardi Gras Parade, and the rides at both amusement parks) 

Ford Motor Company Footage of Luna Park, The Bowery etc, ca. 1918

Canned Thrills (Silent Pathe documentary, 1920s showing Steeplechase and Luna Park)

Harold Lloyd in Speedy (1928: 5 minute scene from a feature length silent film, where he brings his date to Luna Park) 

Meet Me Down at Coney Isle (1930, Fox Movietone)

Let’s Go Coney Island! (British Pathe doc, 1932) Just two minutes, rides at Steeplechase, Human Cannonball at Luna Park) 

Shorty at Coney Island (1936 Paramount short starring a chimp at Steeplechase)

Coney Island (Trailer for 1943 Fox film with Betty Grable, George Montgomery, Charles Winniger etc. Not shot on location; strictly studio sets) 

Newsreel (before 1944, showing Steeplechase, Luna Park, independent rides (roller coasters), sideshows and the beach)

Coney Island, USA (1952, documentary)

Little Fugitive (1953)

The Clown (1953. Red Skelton drama has scenes at Steeplechase. No clip)

Imitation of Life 1959 (Douglas Sirk. Scene where Lana Turner and Juanita Moore meet is set at Coney Island in 1947. No clip.)

Carnival of Blood (1970, Low budget horror movie, especially good for coverage of games and dark rides)

1970 Home Movie 

1973 student documentary

Annie Hall (1977, Under the Tornado) 

The Wiz (1978, part of Coney Island sequence, on the Cyclone)

Great raw news footage with Gabe Pressman following 1978 fire that destroyed the Tornado

Scene from The Warriors (1979) 

Requiem for a Dream (2000, set in Brighton Beach, no clip)

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, pivotal scene on Coney Island beach, no clip)

Cloverfield (2008, great scene on the Wonder Wheel, no clip)

Also Brooklyn (2015), Mr. Roboto (2015 tv series), and the upcoming Woody Allen film Wonder Wheel (2017).

Also: Info about many more films from 1897 through 2004 at this link. 

 

Norma Shearer: The Subtle Magnet

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

I have a friend — a female friend — who never talks about Norma Shearer (1902-1983) without talking about how ugly and unappealing she finds her. I suppose my friend looks at her and sees what Shearer herself saw (and apparently what the ungenerous Flo Ziegfeld saw when she auditioned for him): eyes that were too close together and even sometimes (from certain angles) crossed in the bargain, almost as though both peepers both pointed at her aquiline, George Washington-esque nose. But I’ve always found her powerfully attractive. It’s rare for people who don’t deviate in some way from the ideal to make an impression. Shearer makes an impression — not only because she’s beautiful, but also weighty, serious, strong-willed, confident: qualities you want in a dramatic actor.

Also, probably because of her quirky looks, she became much more chameleon-like than other leading ladies who were her contemporaries. I had a devil of a time finding a “representative” photo to head this post with. There is no such thing. Her characters all look quite a bit different from one another. I suppose the “archetypal” look I might be tempted to choose is from The Women — but she looks (intentionally) on the frumpy side through most of that picture — it’s the one in which she loses her husband to real life offscreen rival and schemer Joan Crawford. But in so many of her films she possesses real glamorous beauty, from flappers and vamps in the silent days to Marie Antoinette (one of my favorite of her films, and one of the best of all MGM films I think). The picture above was chosen almost at random, because I was tired of trying to find just the right one.

I didn’t discover Shearer until quite late in life. There are a bunch of stars like that, mostly of the Pre-Code era, and I’ve ended up being particular fans of their’s, maybe because I was old enough when I discovered them to pay particular close attention and to say “Oh my God, here is a WHOLE MOVIE STAR with a WHOLE CAREER I’ve never even looked at yet!” and to really appreciate and savor the experience. I think the only one of her movies I saw as a kid was that silly 1936 Romeo and Juliet where she and Leslie Howard are both 20 years older than their characters. I still haven’t seen most of her silent work as a star, only He Who Gets Slapped (1925) with Lon Chaney, and Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). But by now I’ve seen a good deal of her sound work: The Hollywood Revue of 1929; her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcee (1930) opposite Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery; Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931), again with Montgomery; The Barrets of Wimpole Street with Charles Laughton (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Marie Antoinette (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1939) and The Women (1939). She made three films afterwards which I’ve yet to watch.

The fact that some of her best work happened after her husband (and let’s face it, patron) Irving Thalberg died speaks to her hard won fitness for the role of movie star. But her last couple of films failed, and she retired young (age 40) a very rich woman.

Some interesting things about her early career, which initially prompted me to do this post. One is, that she was inspired to go into show business at age nine when she was taken to a vaudeville show in her native Montreal. Another is that her first movie job was the 1919 Larry Semon comedy The Star Boarder! (She was a member of the Big V Beauty Squad, Vitagraph’s attempt to compete with Mack Sennett’s Bathing Girls). She was also an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold, and about silent film, Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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With the National Hobo Convention in play this weekend, it seemed a good time to revisit the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually a good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: the two men meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York.

Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver, and several silent comedy hands and vaudevillians in smaller roles and walk-ons. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend (Madge Evans). She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformational experience that would have made it a better-known classic. It seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to.k The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hobos and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step.

Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

For more on many of the stars in this film see my books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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