Archive for TCM

Tonight on TCM: Classic Prison Comedies

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Wheeler and Woolsey with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2017 by travsd

All month long, TCM is devoting Tuesday nights to prison films. Tonight (actually the wee hours of tomorrow) they’ll have these three “comedy classics” with jailhouse settings.

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2:45am (EST): Jail Busters (1955)

The Bowery Boys. Not for the first time, the boys purposefully commit a crime so they can go undercover in jail to get the goods on a gang of crooks who are in there. It is a stupid plan of course! The guy who was supposed to have arranged everything (Lyle Talbot) is crooked himself and hangs the boys out to dry. Percy Helton plays the warden!

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4:00am (EST): Pardon Us (1931)

Laurel and Hardy’s first feature length film Pardon Us (1931), directed by James Parrott. The title is a joke—it’s a prison comedy. Get it? Pardon us? Watching this film, I’d not be a bit surprised to learn it was a major influence on the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art the Thou? (Yes, yes, Sullivan’s Travels but also this). I think this movie is easily one of Laurel and Hardy’s best features.

The fact that the pair are incarcerated is a joint responsibility. The movie starts out with them buying ingredients for beer. It’s Ollie who gets the bright idea of selling their surplus homebrew, thus the crime is at his instigation. Later however it is Stanley who tries to sell some to a policeman (he thinks the uniform was that of a streetcar conductor).

A major theme throughout the film is Stanley’s bad tooth, which for some unnatural reason causes him to make a raspberry sound when he speaks, triggering all manner of trouble for the pair. There isn’t much of a plot, but this tooth noise, like a musical motif waves through the film and drives most of the action. This noise antagonizes guards, the warden, and the bull goose of their cell, who later respects him for it. They become involved in an escape plan; everyone gets caught right away but them/ They blend in with a bunch of black field hands on a cotton plantation by putting on blackface. Ollie even sings a minstrel song that Stan dances to. (It’s unfortunate to modern eyes, but there it is). In a scene of masterful tension, the warden’s car breaks down right where they’re standing, obligating the boys to fix the vehicle. They almost make it through the episode — until Stan’s tooth noise blows their cover. Later, back in prison, Stanley accidentally foils another prison break due to his mishaps with a tommy gun, and the boys are about to get an early release when…

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5:00am (EST) Hold ’em Jail (1932) 

Wheeler and Woolsey . 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!

For more on slapstick film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

Tomorrow on TCM: 24 Hours of Vitaphones!

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by travsd

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Tomorrow, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Vitaphone, Warner Brothers’ revolutionary sound-on-disc system that finally meant the breakthrough of talking pictures, Turner Classic Movies will be showing over four dozen of these early talkies, produced from 1926 through the 1930s. The fun starts at 6am (that’s why I’m telling you about it now) and continues through the wee hours of the next day. In the prime time slot, starting at 8pm, my old pal Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project will guest host with Ben Mankiewicz, and give us his take on many of these old jewels, which he has been so instrumental in preserving and sharing with the world. Ron was extremely helpful to me in my research for my book No Applause circa 2003, and also took part in our 100th anniversary tribute to the Palace Theatre at the Players Club in 2013. 

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This was a highly experimental time; in this line-up you will find a surprising diversity of approaches to combining sound and picture. Some, like The Better ‘Ole (1926) starring Sydney Chaplin and Don Juan (1926) with John Barrymore are essentially silents, with a soundtrack of music and special effects. The groundbreaking The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson is about half “silent”, with only the musical numbers featuring sync sound. Some, like Art Trouble (1934) are straightforward narrative comedy shorts of the sort we associate with Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges (Art Trouble happens to star Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, and a very young Jimmy Stewart). And many of them — probably the bulk of them, given the crudity of the technology in the early days — are just straightforward records of vaudeville acts, the kind of thing Jim Moore and myself paid tribute to with our “Vaudephone” series. Needless to say, I should hope, some of these old Vitaphones are often the best (and sometimes the only) place to see actual vaudevillians do their thing. This is why, for vaudeville fans, this program is not to be missed. Record them all now — watch them at your leisure!

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Burns and Allen at their peak, and fresh as a daisy, in their sketch “Lambchops”

If you aren’t up for 24 hours of film watching (wimp!) here are some special things to watch out for:

  • Not surprisingly, Ron will be presenting some of everybody’s favorites during his prime time slot. These are ones he frequently shows at his live screenings, and consequently some of the first ones I ever watched, and have watched the most. They include Rose Marie the Child Wonder (1929), starring Rose Marie (who’s still with us!) when she was a precocious, jaw-dropping child star; Lambchops (1929, my favorite of them all, starring the young, heartstring-pulling, PERFECT Burns and Allen); and the hilarious The Happy Hottentots (1930) starring the one and only Joe Frisco.
  • The musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). The Mad Marchioness blogged about that film here when she was still bloggin’
  • Some other key vaudevillians in the wee hours: Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields (1928), Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties (1929); Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1930); and a most interesting artifact, Butler and Brennan in You Don’t Know the Half of It (1929). This latter one is cool because it is one of our only ways to experience the seminal team of Savoy and Brennan, though it is only by proxy. Drag queen Bert Savoy was dead at this point, so his old partner Jay Brennan performs it with a woman named Ann Butler!
  • How to Break 90 #3 Hip Action (1933) will be a thrill for W.C. Fields fans — it’s a rare bit of arcana most of us have never seen, where a bunch of golf pros show their stuff and Fields cuts up for the camera
  • Ups and Downs (1937) features a very young Phil Silvers; Paree Paree (1934), a very young Bob Hope; Seeing Red (1939), a very young Red Skelton
  • The very first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not film (1931)
  • The Ingenues, The Band Beautiful (1928) is a very early recording of the all-girl band I wrote about here.

And this is only SOME of them! For playing times for the various film, and more information go here. I couldn’t be more excited.

Tonight and Tomorrow on TCM: A Horror Grab Bag

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , on October 21, 2016 by travsd

Tonight on TCM, and into the wee hours of tomorrow, a continuation of their tidal wave of classic horror films for the Halloween season.

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8:00pm (EST): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

This is easily the least of the three major classic Hollywood adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influential horror tale. Far better are the silent one with John Barrymore and the 1932 Frederic March version. Still, this one remains worth watching at least once, and may be seen as a kind of indispensable experiment. This is the Spencer Tracy “realistic” version, directed by Victor Fleming. The make-up is much more subdued, as is Tracy’s performance as Hyde. There is a sort of quiet menace about the character, but it doesn’t really possess the scenery chewing one wants and expects. Tracy is best in the early scenes, when we get to know and like Jekyll. The dinner table scene where he defends his work always stands out in my mind. After the opening scenes, the screenplay clings VERY closely to the 1932 version, at times, almost like they were filming the same script, scene by scene. An unrecognizable Lana Turner plays Jekyll’s nondescript fiancé. Donald Crisp is her father (one of the film’s better elements). Ingrid Bergman is horrible as a dance hall girl, with her combination Swedish-Cockney accent. And silent film comedian Billy Bevan is a lovable cop!

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10:00pm (EST): Eyes Without a Face (1960)

A French/Italian co-production about a mad plastic surgeon who steals the faces of kidnapped women in order to graft them onto the face of his daughter, whose face was destroyed in an accident. The titular faceless faces are masks, which the women wear to hide the atrocities beneath. That’s the cool part but it wears thin quickly. It sounds more exciting than it plays out.

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11:45pm (EST): The Body Snatcher (1945)

One of the better (perhaps the best) of the Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale (which was in turn based on the real life story of Burke and Hare.) Set in Edinburgh in the 1830s. Boris Karloff plays a grave robber who helps a famous surgeon (Henry Daniell) obtain the corpses he needs to do his research. Like Burke and Hare, Karloff’s character has taken to killing people to get the corpses he needs.  As a subplot the surgeon’s assistant really wants to help a little crippled girl walk. The situation both drives the need for new corpses (for research) but also provides tension. Is she in danger? Will the ghoul come for her? In the end the surgeon kills the grave robber, then accidentally takes his corpse one night. As they ride on a road one night, the surgeon hears the grave robber’s voice, cracks the wagon up and has a fatal accident. Karloff’s performance in the film is great. Bela Lugosi plays a creepy servant.

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1:15am (EST): Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954)

A Technicolor 3-D remake of  The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) done very much in the style of House of Wax (1953), with Karl Malden as the villain. It’s all highly silly — the mechanism that controls the ape is a ringing bell on a bracelet…and the sound designer feels compelled to include that noise in every scene in which the bracelet is present, which is most of the scenes in the movie.

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2:45am (EST): Macabre (1958)

William Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.

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4:00am (EST): The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

In this Monogram cheapie, Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who sends poisoned orchids to brides on their wedding day so he can steal their mysterious virgin essence of youth and beauty, and transplant it to his wife!  I’d say that this one marks a new low for him, but then he’d already made The Devil Bat! On the other hand, at least The Devil Bat has a Devil Bat! And fortunately that one’s playing as well! (see below)

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5:15am (EST): The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962)

Hilarious low budget film about a scientist who performs gruesome Frankensteinian experiments. One day he is riding with his girlfriend in the car and they get into an accident. She dies but he carries her head home in a bag and keeps it alive with tubes. Then he goes looking for a woman to kill so he can put his girlfriend’s head on it. Several great scenes with burlesque dancers, beauty pageants, and finally an art model makes the “cut”. Meanwhile his girlfriend is not at all grateful about having been kept alive. She sits there in a muffin pan and rolls her eyes and conspires with Whatever’s Behind That Locked Door (apparently an earlier failed experiment). I’ll tell ya what’s behind that locked door! It’s Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant! 

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6:45am (EST): The Killer Shrews (1959)

Surprisingly, this one is not an AIP/ Roger Corman production. It would make for a perfect double feature with Night of the Lepus, but for the fact that no one would sit still for two movies like this. The plot: a supply boat puts in on an island where a scientist has been experimenting with a serum that would shrink humans (in order to solve world hunger). Instead, he winds up growing shrews, and the shrews get out of hand. Played by puppets and dogs in costumes, the giant shrews look silly indeed.

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8:00am (EST): The Devil Bat (1940)

This movie is unspeakably awesome…down in the Ed Wood category of Grade Z films. Bela Lugosi is a mad scientist who has not only artificially grown a bunch of super-sized bats (through radiation of course) but has also trained them to attack whoever wears a certain cologne. (His ostensible job is inventing colognes). One of my favorite exchanges in cinema: Innocent victim: “Goodnight, doctor!” Lugosi: “GoodBYE, Jimmy”. The bat of course is shown is separate shots which give no idea of scale (a real bat), or presented as a big plastic swooping kite-like prop on a wire. I have seen this film perhaps ten times.

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9:15am (EST) The Seventh Victim (1943)

A teenager looks for her missing sister/ guardian and her detective work leads to a Satanic cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. Features Kim Hunter and  a pre-Beaver Hugh Beaumont. The film doesn’t go as far into superstition as it ought to to make it interesting and so does not scare us. Feels more like a noir, a melodrama or a spy thriller than horror. The Satanists seem more like Nazis, just some kind of a secret group of callous, plotting people. At the climax they try to coerce the missing sister into committing suicide but she won’t. Later she does, but then only because she wants to — not because she is being forced to. On the other hand, check out the sister’s rad, Bohemian haircut, a sort of Betty Paige/ Morticia Addams mash-up.

 

Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #5

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will  be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that in full movie descriptions I always include spoilers.

Tomorrow’s line-up is focused on spaghetti westerns. While I have seen scores of Italian westerns, most of the classics of the genre, I am astonished to observe that I’ve only seen one  of the films they are showing in the daytime (the soporific Guns for San Sebastian. You’ll quickly find I am not a huge fan of most Italian westerns). Several of the daytime films seem to be TCM premieres. As we go into prime time though, we get into Leone, etc and we’ll have a few squibs about those.

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6:15am: Hate for Hate (1967)

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8:00am: Guns for San Sebastian (1968)

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10:00am: The Stranger Returns (1968)

 

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12:00pm: The Silent Stranger (1968)

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2:00pm: The Five Man Army (1970)

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4:00pm: A Bullet for Sandoval (1970)

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6:00pm: Red Sun (1971)

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8:00: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Italian director Sergio Leone based this founding spaghetti western on Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood, as The Man with No Name, wearing a poncho and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, wanders into a desolate town where he somehow decides there’s money to be made. There are two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojas. Clint, a supernaturally good shot (he kills everyone he shoots at in one shot and no even gets a chance to shoot back) goes to work for both gangs. In the end he kills everyone from both gangs (which amounts to the entire town) and takes home twice the money. But he’s a little better morally than the gang — at a certain point, he helps a young couple and their child escape. The film is less a story that one follows and more like a collection of memorable scenes and images. Such as Clint making a bunch of guys apologize for insulting his mule, then killing all four of them in about a second. “Make that four coffins,” he says to the coffin maker. Clint accidentally punching a woman in the face. Clint propping up two dead bodies in the graveyard to stand in for a couple of soldiers. A bunch of U.S. soldiers stopping Mexican cavalry that is transporting a coach full of gold; they turn out to be Rojas’ gang. Rojas’ gang setting a house on fire and then shooting everyone who runs out, including the matriarch, laughing all the while. Clint, all of his bones broken, killing two pursuers by crushing them with a wine barrel, and then crawling across town on his belly to safety. Appearing like a magician in the end through a haze of dynamite smoke and then spooking his enemies by seeming impervious to bullets (he has sheet metal under his poncho). And it’s all for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

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9:45pm: For a Few Dollars More (1965)

This sequel to A Fistful of Dollars has Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters, after a crook named Indio, a guy so evil his wanted poster depicts him laughing. Van Cleef, known as The Colonel, smokes a pipe, and uses a strange gun, a pistol that is adaptable into a rifle. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls the emergency brake to make an unscheduled stop on the train and then terrorizes the conductor when he dares to complain. The bounty hunters decide to team up  after a contest in which they shoot each others’ hats.  One of them must go undercover with the gang as they prepare to rob the bank in El Paso. Indio once killed his friend then raped his friend’s girlfriend (who shot herself while he was doing it). Maybe that’s why he keeps smoking grass to calm down but it only makes him more insane. He plays music in a little watch whenever he fights a duel. The film climaxes with a three-way duel. Of course Indio loses. It turns out the girl he had raped was The Colonel’s sister. This explains why the Colonel turns down the bounty in the end. The Colonel only wanted revenge. Whereas Clint wanted A FEW DOLLARS MORE.

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12:00am: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1968)

Leone’s third and last film in the Eastwood trilogy. When I first saw it I was alternately bored and scornfully amused by it. Now I think it’s amazing, though merely stylistically. Its cleverness is all directed at aesthetic elements. It doesn’t analyze or critique the human condition or America’s role in history or anything like that. I think the influence of many Italian film-makers on westerns has been in the main deleterious in this respect. Their storytelling makes no judgment between good or bad behavior. Revenge and vendetta are represented as legitimate human pursuits. We are occasionally invited to laugh at the pain and distress of others. It is a cruel universe. Yet many of the details and plot twists remind me of fairy tales: extremely fanciful, almost magical. At any rate, to the film at hand:

The film’s most indelible element is its justly celebrated soundtrack (Ennio Morricone), and the stylish way we are introduced to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the titular characters. Essentially it’s the same story as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! The title characters are in mad pursuit of a cache of gold they didn’t even steal themselves (although these guys are plenty crooked already). Their paths keep crossing, the alliances keep shifting. Starts in New Mexico during the Civil War.  “Angel Eyes” (Van Cleef) learns about the gold when hired by one of the robbers to track down one of the others. He kills a guy who knows the name his quarry is traveling under (and his son) and the man who hired him. “When I have a job, I always follow through”.  Meanwhile, enter “Blondie” (Eastwood) and “Tuco” i.e., The Rat” (Wallach in Mexican mode). Tuco is a shifty eyed weasel, the cousin of Wallach’s character in The Magnificent Seven. These  two are partners. Blondie brings Tuco into the authorities for the price on his head, and then shoots the rope when they are about to hang him (shooting everybody’s hats off in the bargain). When Wallach annoys him one too many times, Eastwood takes all the money and leaves him in the desert.

Wallach makes it back to town, washes his face, and goes directly to the gun store, where he gets a gun, whiskey, and a sombrero — and robs the til. Wallach catches up to Eastwood while he is “rescuing” his next partner.  Wallach walks Eastwood through the desert now with no water and no hat, until he is seriously injured by the sun. He is about to put a bullet in his head when a wagon rides up. Everyone inside (they’re all wearing Confederate uniforms) seems to be dead. However, one is alive. He turns out to be the missing robber from the gold heist. He manages to give part of the location to Wallach, who then goes to get him some water and meanwhile he gives the rest of the clue to Eastwood. Then he expires. The two men are now bound together whether they want to be or not. Wallach brings Eastwood to recuperate at a hospital run by his brother, a priest. (They’re wearing confederate uniforms; they’ve disguised themselves as the dead soldiers, since they are actually wanted criminals). They’re then caught by Union soldiers, whom they mistook for Confederates, since they’re covered head to toe in grey dust. That’s one fairy tale twist. Another is that a major figure at the prison camp is Angel Eyes, who tortures Wallach for information, while Confederate prisoners play sweet music to cover the sound. Angel Eyes brings Blondie with him to get the gold. Meanwhile Wallach leaps off a prison train, handcuffed to a guard, knifing him on the way. Unable to get out of the handcuffs, he lays the chain across the railroad track, and waits for next train, which frees him. He catches up with the other two in a fantastic, dreamlike village that has been destroyed by cannon. Someone tries to kill Wallach while he takes a bath. He shoots from under the suds, saying one of my favorite lines: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Wallach and Blondie team up, shoot several of Angel Eyes’ men, but Angel Eyes escapes.

Their next episode is a digression, perhaps it is only there to bring the characters’ redemption. They encounter a Union battalion that is at a stalemate with their Confederate counterparts. They fight and lose men every day over a bridge they are not allowed to destroy. The two men blow up the bridge. Finally they make it to the graveyard. Wallach, through trickery, gets there first. The other two show up. there is a three way shootout. Angel Eyes dies of course. Eastwood shoots him, having emptied Wallach’s gun earlier. Wallach digs uo the gold. Eastwood makes him put his head in a noose, standing on a very shaky headstone. He then rides away, waiting until the last possible second to shoot the rope.

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3:00am: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

A kind of American tribute to the spaghetti western, also starring Clint Eastwood. I think of this movie as The Ox-Bow Incident squared. It’s supposed to be Oklahoma, 1889, but it really takes place in some weird parallel universe that might be called “Hanging Land”. All anyone has anything to do with in this world involves stringin’ ‘em up. An unjust and botched hanging of Eastwood (definitely based on the one in The Oxbow Incident) launches the story. Then Eastwood goes to work for a hangin’ judge (Pat Hingle), to bring back all them guys who almost hung Eastwood so they can hang ‘em! Meanwhile, the judge does a whole bunch of other hangings, and the whole town gathers in the town square to watch this enormous gallows that dominates the entire town in a manner that seems to echo the guillotine in Paris. (The prisoners are also kept in a huge dungeon that evokes the Bastille). Though American, the film has a strong flavor of spaghetti westerns, including the stylized hyper violence; lengthy shots where nothing in particular is happening, and a cool soundtrack. Other side benefits: Alan Hale Jr is one of the bad guys (exceedingly surreal and weird to see Skipper in this context) as are Bruce Dern and Ed Begley, Sr. who are right in their element.

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5:00am: The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

I’m very much looking forward to seeing this light western comedy starring Ginger Rogers for the first time!

 

Tonight on TCM: 2 Classic War Comedies (Plus Thanhouser Films)

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Marx Brothers, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by travsd

Tonight on Turner Movie Classics, two of the greatest classic anti-war satires of all time, followed by an exploration of the the Thanhouse Film Company.

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8:00 pm (EST): Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup is the movie most die-hard Marx Brothers fans will name as their favorite Marx Brothers movie. For years it was mine. It seems like the climax of the best phase of their movie career, their early years at Paramount, with the zaniest script and songs (by Kalmar and Ruby), the biggest pretensions toward satirical meaning, and a director at the helm who himself was a comic auteur Leo McCarey, shaper of the early cinematic work of Laurel and Hardy, and then later director of a long list of classics. The film also reunites the team with Margaret Dumont, magical foil from their first two films.

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Dumont plays Mrs. Teasdale, a wealthy philanthropist in the fictional European nation of Freedonia. She agrees to lend a large sum of money to her struggling government, but only if they name Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) their President. The problem is that Firefly is insane. He seems determined to have a war, using tiny slights by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of nearby Sylvania as the pretext. It just so happens that Trentino is a spy with malevolent intentions. But if Firefly knows it, it is only at the level of instinct. Mostly, he just likes to make crazy shit happen. His confederates are Chicolini, a peanut vendor (Chico), and Pinky (Harpo). Zeppo is busted back down to a secretary role as in the team’s first two features.

Gone completely is ANY semblance of a romantic sub-plot with two lovers, no doubt one reason the film is so much cherished by comedy fans. Unfortunately, the fact that Duck Soup didn’t do as well at the box office as the smash hit Horse Feathers would later be used as an argument that the team needed to restore those boring romances to their films. In many of their later movies, the Marx Brothers would sometimes seem to be playing second fiddle to this inferior element, making fans pine for the glory days of Duck Soup.

When I was a kid I could not for the life of me fathom why 1933 audiences might be less enthusiastic about Duck Soup than their previous and subsequent films. “This world doesn’t deserve to live!” With a much wider exposure to the times now I can better see it. With the benefit of hindsight we are able to look at Duck Soup as a great satire on the arbitrary authority and senseless absurdity of Fascism. Hitler had just come to power. It feels significant. But 1933 was a different landscape. Mussolini and Hitler had been in the headlines for years, and they hadn’t yet committed their greatest atrocities. Thus, the reaction of a lot of critics at the time was essentially  “Meh. So what?” Plus, the zany political satire thing had been done recently at the time, not just the previously mentioned Of Thee I Sing (which the Marxes had considered adapting) but also in movies starring fellow comedians like W.C. Fields (Million Dollar Legs, 1932), Jolson, Langdon et al (Hallelujah I’m a Bum, 1933), Jack Pearl (Meet the Baron, 1933) and Wheeler and Woolsey (Diplomaniacs, 1933). The latter movie had even featured Louis Calhern as a scheming diplomat!

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And there are ways in which the Marxes seemed to be repeating themselves in Duck Soup, reviving elements from their previous movies, and even cannibalizing dialogue from their recent radio show Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel (written by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin). And furthermore, the elements that McCarey contributes are not just the least Marxian elements, but themselves rehashes. The title of the film had already been used for a Laurel and Hardy film. Many of the bits that fans cherish are not Marx specific. The “mirror routine”, had been done countless times before, by Chaplin, Max Linder, Raymond Dandy, etc. The hat business with Chico, Harpo and Edgar Kennedy is old Laurel and Hardy stuff, they did it in half a dozen films. Granted, the team executes these bits expertly and put their own spin on them, but it’s not like it’s new material.

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This isn’t to disparage this brilliant film. It’s to explain why, if you were sitting in a theatre in November, 1933, you might have a different perspective on it than we do. Many people found it funny, but no one found it new or fresh.

We of course see its countless virtues. The crazy musical numbers. Groucho’s dialogue, ranking with Animal Crackers for his best. The spy trial of Chicolini, possibly the funniest Chico routine in the team’s cinematic record. The hilarious battle sequence, which outdoes the football game climax of Horse Feathers for sheer insanity. Harpo’s most surreal gag ever, when a barking dog comes out of the tattoo of a dog house on his arm. The recurring gag of Harpo’s motorcycle taking off and leaving Groucho in the sidecar, with the inevitable topper of Harpo on the sidecar leaving Groucho on the motorcycle.

The Marx Brothers had many great moments ahead of them, as a team and as individuals. But 70 minutes of sustained hilarity all in a row like this here? No, sadly, never again. Five movies and that was that.

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9:30pm (EST) The Great Dictator (1940)

By the 1930s there was no avoiding the fact that another buffoon with a toothbrush mustache was vying with Chaplin for the title of most famous man in the world. Charlie Chaplin despised Adolf Hitler. That the German tyrant  had spoiled Chaplin’s distinctive brand and banned his films was the least of it. Hitler was against everything Chaplin stood for: humanism, tolerance, sympathy, freedom. He was convincing large numbers of people to hate Jews; the woman Chaplin loved at the time (Paulette Goddard) was half Jewish.

For years Chaplin had been threatening to make a picture about Napoleon, originally with Edna Purviance as his Josephine. It was an easy matter for him to transfer the Napoleon ideas that had been gestating and adapt them into a burlesque on Hitler.  Since his trademark mustache had been stolen, the proposed film would also be his sad farewell to his famous screen character. In this film, The Little Fellow (a barber here) is a Jewish war hero who bears an uncanny resemblance to the national dictator Adenoid Hynkel. In the end, he will have the opportunity to briefly replace him and make his plea for common sense and human decency.

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This was a momentous theme, important enough for Chaplin to drop his decade-long rear guard action against dialogue. This would be a much larger job for him than it had been for any other silent comedian who had gone into talkies. Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, all of them were highly collaborative artists. When it came time to talk, writers would write their screenplays, which they would undoubtedly tweak, but that was the extent of it. But, aside from the minor contribution here and there, Chaplin had always been the sole creator of his works. This meant that in addition to the many hats he already wore, he would now have to reinvent himself as a screenwriter in the modern sense: somebody who sits down at a typewriter and writes a playscript, spoken dialogue and all, for the screen. It seems to me he made an amazing adjustment. While Chaplin did hire helpers to assist with early drafts, to anyone who is familiar with his voice there is no doubt that most of what winds up on screen is Chaplin’s.

The thing that most surprises about The Great Dictator is, despite its weighty purpose, how out-and-out funny it is. It may be his most Mack Sennett-like film since his Essanay days, frankly comical in an accessible earthy way. All of the fun with names (Tomainia, Bacteria, Garbitsch, Herring, Napoloni) is straight out of the Ben Turpin playbook. And Chaplin has been careful to balance the introduction of spoken dialogue with copious amounts of slapstick and physical business throughout the entire movie. The World War I flashback that opens the film (evoking Shoulder Arms) showcases the Little Fellow’s misadventures with a ridiculously large gun named Big Bertha, followed by a bit where he and an injured pilot (Reginald Gardiner) fly their bi-plane upside down without noticing it.  Later when we get to the present, there is a great scene where the girl, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, in her second and last Chaplin role), is hitting storm troopers on the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally strikes Charlie, he goes classically goofy with concussion and does a little dance up and down the sidewalk as though soused. Chaplin is amazingly agile in this film. At one point, the fifty-ish comedian leaps into the air and dives head first into a barrel as though he were half his age. But now that it is 1940 and he has sound with which to play, he experiments with the ways in which movement and sound can interplay. The barber shaves a customer in time to a Hungarian dance being played on the radio. A microphone withers when Hynkel yells into it (another Sennett-style gag). And then there is Hynkel’s famously beautiful dance with the globe to the music of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of Chaplin’s most famous scenes.

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But he also saw that there were ways to make similarly symbolic points without losing the humor, as when Hynkel and Napoloni jack up the adjacent barber chairs in which they’re seated to the height of the ceiling so that they can be taller than one another. Another bit, both funny and dark, reminds me of the tone of The Gold Rush. In a grim contest to see who will go on a suicide mission to kill Hynkel, the Little Fellow and the men from the ghetto are eating cupcakes, one of which has a gold coin in it. Not particularly heroic, the barber weighs each plate that comes his way. Satisfied, he begins to eat, only to have the guy sitting next to him switch cupcakes on him. No matter which cupcake he eats, the Little Fellow seems to get the gold coin.

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A lot of the verbal humor is broad, as well. Much of it is lifted from vaudeville: Jack Oakie’s dialect as Napoloni is straight from the Chico Marx school of Italian impersonation, and Chaplin’s own parodies of Hitler’s speeches is a piece of “Dutch” comedy worthy of Weber and Fields, Baron Munchausen, or for that matter Ford Sterling. The doubletalk business hearkens back to his first onscreen spoken words, the nonsense song from Modern Times.

Some of the ethnic lampoon backfires somewhat. With no awareness of the Holocaust then in progress, Chaplin’s gentle Jewish stereotypes, hearkening back to his own “Sam Cohen” routine on the London burlesque stage, seem out of place and distasteful to say the least. But how could he have known? Conversely, the storm troopers are WAY too gently represented. Here they are painted as mere buffoons and lummoxes in the Keystone Kops mold. It rings uncomfortable and false even in the context of 1940, as the thugs, just like the real ones of the time, are painting “Jew” on storefronts, smashing windows, and beating up women and old men in the street. With hindsight it’s easy to see that the best strategy would have been to treat these characters with no humor whatsoever. There is a way to integrate such serious villains into a comedy without losing the overall humor. Chaplin had done it in films like The Kid and The Gold Rush. It seems like he flinched here.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that America had not yet joined the war, and a large part of the public was either pro-Germany or pro-neutrality, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest grossing film to date. This no doubt was in part due to curiosity on the part of the public to hear Chaplin speak.  Nowadays, I would venture to say the film is less well-known than his best-known silents The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. However, it seems to be picking up steam all the time thanks to frequent television airplay and in the long run it may come to match them in popularity.

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Then, starting at midnight, a special treat for silent movie fans — a few hours devoted to the exploration of the pioneering Thanhouser Film Company (1909-1917). The program will begin with a screening of Ned Thanhouser’s  2014 documentary The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema and then continue by showing three of the studio’s films: Cry of the Children (1912), Evidence of the Film (1913) and Petticoat (1912). I’ve seen the latter two films — well worth a look!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow A.M. on TCM: The Best Witch Movie Ever (& the Worst “Wizard”)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

Haxan 1922 - Witches' Flight

Tomorrow morning at 6:00am, Turner Classic Movies will be showing perhaps the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A silent Danish/Swedish co-production from 1922,  Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (by Benjamin Christensen) purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.

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Tomasin en el Reino de Oz - El Mago de Oz - The Wizard of Oz - 1925 - Cartel007

Then at 8:00 a.m. Turner Movie Classics will be showing the notorious 1925 Larry Semon silent version of The Wizard of Oz. This was actually the second screen version. A 1910 adaptation had been made by the Selig studio, with L. Frank Baum’s direct involvement and Bebe Daniels in the role of Dorothy. Semon’s was the first feature length version.

Any resemblance between this film and the Baum book is purely coincidental. Despite the fact that the film opens with an old man reading from a book of The Wizard of Oz scarcely any story detail remains intact (although Semon’s nose does resemble Margaret Hamilton’s). In this film, the Wizard is a mere toady of a mean despot named “Emperor Kruel”. Oliver Hardy is in the film, although, amazingly, he is not the heavy. That role can be said to be played by Fatty Alexander, here cast as Uncle Henry, a mean bully! Will the heresies never cease? Farm hands Hardy and Semon are rivals for the affection of Dorothy, who is about to turn 18.

While we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plot, Semon runs afowl of a duck who spits animated white liquid in his face; and then a bunch of animated bees which sting his butt, but not before his fundament has been kicked by a mule, sending Semon flying into an enormous patch of cactuses that have mysteriously been transplanted to Kansas. (Semon anticipates Jerry Lewis by wearing inappropriate jewelry—in this case a large ring—that his character would never wear).

There is a third farm hand played by an African-American whose SCREEN name is G. Howe Black”. You can imagine the kind of comedy this character generates. He is first discovered rolling his eyes and slurping a stolen watermelon. Later he will run through the skies as lightning keeps zapping his butt.

But we are ahead of ourselves. We learn in a flashback that Dorothy is not really related to Henry and Em, she was left on the doorstep as an infant (played by the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen on celluloid). A note in the basket says to open the attached envelope when she turns 18—she is clearly the lost Queen of Oz. Bad guys from Oz come to steal the note before she reads it. (They leave Oz in a tri-plane; arrive in Kansas in a biplane. Must be like heaven, when you leave, you lose a pair of wings.)

The tornado arrives by divine intervention bringing Hardy, Semon, Dorothy, Uncle Henry and the black guy to Oz.  Dorothy learns she is to be queen, but the bad guys show up. Semon hides by dressing as a Scarecrow. Hardy, the Tin Man. They are arrested, but only Semon and the black guy are thrown in the dungeon. Everyone else is perfectly happy about the situation. While Emperor Kruel schemes to marry Dorothy, our friends in the dungeon try to escape. The black guy dresses in a lion costume, thus completing the trilogy and fulfilling aesthetic mandate. The film’s best (or most original) sequence emerges…one I believe resuscitated by Abbott and Costello for Africa Screams. Semon and the costumed black guy (do you WANT me to call him G. Howe Black?) get amongst some real lions. Of course at a certain point Semon will think he is with his human friend and get very saucy and confident with an actual lion. Well…you had to be there.

Anyway, in the end, Prince Kynd (remember him?) has a sword fight and defeats Emperor Kruel, thus making all the other male characters in the plot superfluous.

EPILOGUE: The requisite Semon set piece on towers with the acrobatic swinging of stunt men. Semon’s character jumps onto an airplane just as the tower he is on is smashed by a cannon—this would go in ANY action film today. Back to the little girl’s dream. End.

For more on silent film 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 etc

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Tonight: Check Out Leo McCarey’s Last Comedy

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by travsd

Poster_of_the_movie_Rally_'Round_the_Flag,_Boys!

Tonight on Turner Classic Movies at 10:15pm (EST), Leo McCarey’s last comedy film Rally Around the Flag, Boys (1958). Although he directed films in several genres, comedy was McCarey’s principal bailiwick, from his time at Hal Roach directing Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy, to features with Eddie Cantor and Harold Lloyd, to a string of screwball comedy classics. (Read my full article on McCarey here).

1958 is quite late in his career, and this film is SO interesting for so many reasons.

One is that it is a real window into the 1950s, mixing a Douglas Sirk setting and aesthetic with a realistic peek into the period we almost never get from the artificial studio films of the time. It actually feels a bit like Mad Men, which probably drew from it.  (It’s about anti-government protest politics in a small Connecticut town, with sub-themes of marital infidelity, consumer dissatisfaction, feminism, chafing at conformity, all looking ahead to the 1960s and 70s.)

Secondly, McCarey managed to pry some fairly broad comic performances from the likes of Paul Newman and Joan Collins, no easy task (He is less successful at that where Joanne Woodward is concerned).

Newman plays a pr man. Woodward (as his wife) gets involved in local protest against a nearby army base (a nuclear facility) which is being built nearby. Newman gets drafted (literally drafted) into doing public relations for the military. Meantime Joan Collins keeps trying to seduce him, further driving a wedge in the marriage. Gale Gordon plays a general, Jack Carson a colonel. Tuesday Weld is a local teenage girl. Dwayne Hickman a greaser who pursues her.

The movie eventually loses focus and steam, but it was a moderate success in its day. I think it would have survived in the public’s memory better if it had had a better title – this one is very misleading. I had assumed it was a World War One thing prior to seeing it.

It was a minor miracle that McCarey even managed to find his sense of humor at this late date, and on the subject of the Cold War II no less. By the 50s and 60s, his big themes tended to be pro-religion (Going My Way, 1944 and The Bells of St Mary, 1945) and anti-Communism (My Son John, 1952 and Satan Never Sleeps, 1962).  The latter one was his final film by then he slipped very far outside the mainstream.

For more on 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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