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Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Lite (originally published 12/93)

Remember what Christmas movie viewing was like in the bad old days before home video? The television networks and their affiliates made all the choices for you. If the only time "It's A Wonderful Life" was being shown was at 1:00am on December 21, your options were either to miss it or to sit up half the night and then spend the next day wishing you'd never been born.

Now, of course, things are different. You can program your own living room Christmas film festival, scheduled at your convenience and featuring only the kind of Christmas movies you like best. Some of us like the hardcore stuff -- drenched in mistletoe, cascading snow and sentimentality, and presided over by St. Nick himself. You might call us the "Miracle on 34th Street" crowd. Others, however, prefer their seasonal film fare with just a light dusting of the trappings of Christmas, while the focus of the main storyline remains elsewhere. Since this latter type is less easy to identify, I thought it might be useful to list a few films that fall into that category. These are not primarily Christmas movies, but all of them include at least one important Christmas scene.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1942) Monty Woolley plays Sheridan Whiteside, a character transparently based on Alexander Woollcott, a prominent literary and stage critic of the time. Woollcott was one of the mainstays of the famed Algonquin round table, a celebrated aggregation of witty and sophisticated tastemakers that included Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. Personally, however, he was more than a little hard to take. Known for his sharp tongue and acid wit, Woollcott delighted in turning clever phrases at the expense of others. Sheridan Whiteside is, if such a thing is possible, a caricature of Woollcott crafted by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the authors of the play on which the film is based, who knew Woollcott well. Whiteside is on a lecture tour a couple of weeks before Christmas when he is persuaded to have dinner with a nouveau riche businessman named Stanley and his socialite wife. Although he considers them riffraff, he grudgingly goes. Unfortunately for all concerned, he slips on the ice on their front stoop and finds himself confined to the couple's home for several weeks while his injuries heal. Whiteside commandeers the couple's home, as is his custom, throwing their lives into complete chaos. Ultimately it becomes necessary to bring in a radio remote crew so that Whiteside can do the Christmas Eve broadcast of his radio show from the Stanley living room. This is an enormously entertaining film, crackling with clever Kaufman-Hart dialogue. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944) It's an MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Garland. What more do you need to know? The story portrays four episodes (one for each season of the year) in the life of the Smith family of St. Louis. The winter sequence, which revolves around who will escort whom to the Christmas ball, features Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

"The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945) In a sequel to the highly successful "Going My Way" (1944), Bing Crosby repeats his role as Father O'Malley. This time he finds himself butting heads, albeit gently and lightheartedly, with the mother superior (Ingrid Bergman) of a parish school that is so old and creaky that it is in danger of being condemned. In one especially charming scene the two of them watch the first-graders rehearsing the Christmas play that they have written. Crosby's acting style, as always, is as comfortable as an old shoe, and Bergman plays off him perfectly.

"Fanny and Alexander" (1982). If you think of Ingmar Bergman movies exclusively as morbid flicks about long-faced Swedes sitting around discussing the silence of God, this film will be a real eye-opener. It is a visually beautiful film that opens with a family Christmas celebration. The two title characters are children, and most of the film reflects their fascination with the magic of life. There's misfortune along the way, sure, but not the kind of unremitting, soul-deadening angst that has come to be associated with Bergman. Do take note of the R rating, however. It's not typical Bergman, but it's not Disney either.

If you prefer your Christmas fare low-key, these films should fill the bill. Meanwhile, I'll be off somewhere gorging myself on "Miracle on 34th Street."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Bad and the Bankable (originally published 6/93)

Between "Basic Instinct," "Body of Evidence," and "Indecent Proposal," you have to wonder what in the name of Caligula the folks in Hollywood can be thinking of. Do they think of the ticket buying public as nothing more than walking glands?

Well, maybe. But more likely they are simply following a principle that has held true from the silent cinema right down to today: shocking people's sensibilities is good for the box office. Back in the silent days, 1915 audiences were invited to cluck their tongues disapprovingly at a picture called "A Fool There Was," starring an actress named Theda Bara as the fallen woman who leads men astray. Theda Bara was carefully publicized as a mystery woman, possibly the love child of a French artist and his Egyptian mistress. Studio PR people pointed out knowingly that her name was an anagram of "Arab death." In point of fact, she was a Cincinnati tailor's daughter named Theodosia Goodman. The air of mystery and intrigue about her was just that -- air. Sort of like Madonna. But, like Madonna, she sold tickets.

Prints of "A Fool There Was" still exist, but as far as I know it isn't available on video. [2009 NOTE: This is no longer true. You can get it on DVD from Kino Video.] Not to worry, though. If you don't yet feel sufficiently debauched by the recent spate of racy movies, here are a few of the scandalous films of yesteryear that are available on home video.

"The Outlaw" (1943). Howard Hughes's notorious sexy Western is pretty tame stuff by today's standards, but in its day it caused quite a stir. It doesn't take long to realize that the camera is paying more attention to Jane Russell's anatomy than to the story line. It's just as well, really; it isn't much of a story. The film remains worthwhile mostly because its remarkably strong supporting cast included Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell, two of the best in the business, as Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, respectively.

"Baby Doll" (1956). Elia Kazan's adaptation of a Tennessee Williams script was guaranteed to offend almost everyone. No major studio release had ever portrayed the seduction of virginal youth with such frankness. Carroll Baker plays the child bride of a Mississippi cotton gin operator (Karl Malden). His dirty business practices catch up with him when a competitor (Eli Wallach) uses his wife to get the goods on him. "Baby Doll" was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and denounced from virtually every pulpit in the country. Reviewers jumped on the bandwagon as well. Time magazine, for example, offered this encomium: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Money in the bank. You can't buy that kind of promotion for a million dollars. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Last Tango in Paris" (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci, whose more recent films include "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky," shook some people up with this occasionally brutal mixture of physical love and emotional aridity. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play a pair of lovers who regularly meet in an empty apartment to carry on the ultimate casual affair, not even bothering to tell each other their names.

"Carnal Knowledge" (1971). Playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote this story of two sex-obsessed college roommates (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) who never seem to outgrow their adolescent sexual hang-ups. Although we follow them well into middle age, their attitudes about sex remain those of a couple of teenagers with raging hormones. Although the film contains very little nudity or (to borrow a euphemism from cable TV) strong sexual content, the guardians of public morality went ballistic. There were even some attempts at outright censorship, including a few obscenity arrests, none of which could ultimately stand up in court.

But the people who raised the public outcry against "Carnal Knowledge," and all the others, for that matter, were misguided. No, I don't mean that they were necessarily wrong about the objectionable nature of the films. That's obviously open to debate in each individual case. I'm saying that they were misguided in thinking that they were doing any damage to the films and their producers by protesting.

You may remember a film a few years back called "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which was perceived by some as blasphemous. When asked how he felt about those who were denouncing the film, Python member John Cleese replied that he'd like to be able to send them all a thank you note. They had, after all, made him wealthy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Huckster Extraordinaire (originally published 2/94)

The pioneers of the American motion picture industry were, by and large, not highly educated people. In fact, most were immigrants who stumbled into the fledgling film business from other pursuits like the garment trade. They were an uncouth and unsophisticated bunch, and yet they managed in little more than a decade to build a film industry that was the envy of the world.

How did they do it? Not by hiring marketing research firms to run focus groups, I assure you. Even if such things had existed back then, these guys wouldn't have had a clue how to interpret the data. Instead, the movie pioneers relied on two important qualities that they did possess.

First, they had an instinct for what the common, everyday moviegoer wanted to see, in part because they were common, everyday folks themselves. Second, and probably most important, the ones who succeeded had a natural talent for showmanship.

Sometime during the last 20 or 30 years the movies gave up the last traces of true showmanship. Even the little touch of theaters opening a curtain to reveal the picture after the projector is started has almost entirely vanished. (Anyone remember when all theaters closed the curtain after the coming attractions trailers, then opened it again for the main feature? If so, you're no spring chicken.)

I was delighted, therefore, to read of the release of a film called "Matinee," starring John Goodman as a 1950s producer who specializes in selling his low budget movies by means of outlandish promotional gimmicks. If you've seen "Matinee," you should know that Goodman's character was not created from whole cloth, but rather was based on an actual movie producer/director. His name was William Castle and he was the last of the big time showmen in Hollywood.

For instance, when his murder mystery "Macabre" was released in 1958 Castle issued life insurance policies for the audience members, payable if the faint of heart should die of fright during the movie.

But perhaps the apex of his career was 1959's "The Tingler," for which selected theater seats were wired to deliver a mild electric shock to the occupant. Following an announcement that the tingler was loose in the theater, the patrons who had chosen the prepared seats would be jolted to their feet. Of course, only a couple of actually wired seats were needed. Thereafter, anyone who felt anything at all, down to and including a pants cuff brushing against their leg, would jump up just to be safe.

Castle's gimmick films are not widely available on video. [2009 NOTE: Happily, this is no longer the case. A recently released Castle box set largely redresses this omission. See] I suppose this is understandable; after all, if you watch them in your living room you don't get the benefit of the gimmicks. Still, a couple of them are available. While they are by no means great films, they are entertaining. Castle's sense of showmanship informs the content of his films just as surely as it informed his promotions.

"House on Haunted Hill" (1958). Vincent Price stars as a wealthy eccentric who offers a group of people $50,000 each if they will spend a night in a haunted house. The gimmick here was what Castle called "Emergo." At a certain point in the film, theaters would send a skeleton clattering over the audience's heads from the front of the auditorium to the back, giving the impression (they hoped) that it had emerged from the screen.

"13 Ghosts" (1960). A kind of lighthearted forerunner to "The Amityville Horror," this film tells the story of a family that buys and moves into a house only to discover that it is haunted. In fact, it is haunted by no less than 12 ghosts, who are anxious to add another to their ranks so that they will number a good, proper, ghostly 13.

Castle's gimmick for "13 Ghosts" was called "Illusion-O." Audience members received "ghost viewers" upon entering the theater. These were color filters mounted in a small cardboard frame. Thus equipped, the audience members could either look through the viewers or not, depending on whether they wanted to see the ghosts or not. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer touting the "Illusion-O" gimmick.

As shameless as his promotions were, and despite the fact that many of them were more than a little on the dumb side, I can't help missing William Castle just a bit. When the crackerbox multiplex folks act like they are doing me a big favor just to focus the picture, I sometimes wish that Castle's ghost would come screaming out of their screen, rattling his skeleton over the audience, just to show them what real showmanship was like once upon a time.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Put Me In, Coach (originally published 6/96)

Actors, like athletes, can be divided into two categories: amateurs and pros. In each case, the transition from amateur to pro requires both natural gifts and years of training. There is, however, a striking difference. Although you will never see an amateur athlete competing alongside pros in a regular, non-exhibition game, motion picture releases starring amateur actors are not all that uncommon. When that happens, as it did in the current release “Kazaam,” starring Shaquille O’Neal, the rookie in the cast list usually turns out to be a celebrated athlete. Clearly, the producers are counting on Shaq’s popularity as a sports star to translate into bucks at the box office, thereby offsetting the liability of casting a non-actor in a starring role.

It’s not a new ploy, by any means. Moviemakers have been recruiting from the ranks of the sports community almost as long as there have been movies. In fact, there are even a few star athletes who have made the transition from sports star to movie star with impressive skill. To see some really worthwhile movie work done by ex-jocks, look for these titles on video.

Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan, the Ape Man” (1932). Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan provided the conduit for many an ex-athlete into the movie business. Johnny Weissmuller, a renowned Olympic swimming champion, was not the first to portray Tarzan on the screen and certainly not the last, but he managed to make the part his own in a way that no one since has even approached. With high-dollar M-G-M production values going for him, not to mention that unforgettable yell, Weissmuller parlayed this impressive debut into a successful career.

Paul Robeson in “The Emperor Jones” (1933). It seemed that Paul Robeson succeeded extravagantly at whatever he chose to turn his hand to. Not content with being a professional football star, he graduated from Columbia University’s law school while simultaneously beginning a career as a stage performer. In the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” Robeson plays an escaped convict who, through a preposterous sequence of events, becomes the ruler of a small Caribbean island. Robeson, as usual, is brilliant.

Esther Williams in “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949). Like Weissmuller, Esther Williams originally made her mark as a champion swimmer. She was recruited for the movies by M-G-M, where big, elaborate musicals were fast becoming the specialty of the house. They put her in a bathing suit, staged vast, surreal musical numbers around her swimming and diving talents, and brought Red Skelton in for comic support. If you’ve never seen one of these, you owe it to yourself. For a sampling, take a look at the film's trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies:

Chuck Connors in “Geronimo” (1962). After playing basketball for Seton Hall, Connors went on to play major league baseball, first for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then for the Chicago Cubs. He is probably best remembered today as the star of the television series “The Rifleman,” but having served that apprenticeship he went on to become a pretty fair journeyman movie actor. Indeed, he has a few moments of real distinction, one of which is his sympathetic portrayal of Geronimo, ruefully watching the betrayal of his people by the United States government.

Ward Bond in “Gentleman Jim” (1942). Plucked from the USC football roster by director John Ford, Ward Bond never looked back, becoming one of the movies’ most dependable supporting players. His golden moments onscreen are legion, but I’ve always had a soft spot for his great portrayal of John L. Sullivan opposite Errol Flynn as “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.

Roosevelt Grier in “The Sophisticated Gents” (1981). Grier’s film career has had its low points, but this excellent TV movie redeems them all. He plays one of nine members of a black athletics club who reunite for a 25th anniversary tribute to their old coach. Melvin Van Peebles adapted the script from the novel “The Junior Bachelor Society” by John A. Williams.

Okay, so we’ve established that ex-jocks can indeed do good work on the big screen. But can they become significant box office draws? For the answer to that one, I refer you to the career of Duke Morrison, another USC football player who was recruited by John Ford at the same time as Ward Bond. He changed his name to John Wayne, starred in “Stagecoach” (1939), and the rest is box office history.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Myth Interpretation (originally published 8/97)

If you went to see the new, animated version of “Hercules” expecting to see the deeply troubled hero of Greek mythology, I can only assume that you didn’t notice the name “Disney” on the poster. As they have since the days when Uncle Walt himself was still alive, the Disney people continue to recast classic stories in more contemporary storytelling molds. In this case, the harrowing tale of the penitential labors of Hercules has been replaced by the story of a callow youth in a god’s body gradually growing to emotional maturity. To make the story even more accessible, the original setting in ancient Greece has been retained in name only. We see instead an ancient setting overlaid with an anachronistic modern veneer of language and customs, similar to the interweaving of modern technology with the Stone Age setting of “The Flintstones.”

Not surprisingly, this cheerful irreverence toward the original myth is seen by many as an offense against our literary heritage. Well, maybe it is, but if so we shouldn’t send Disney to the pillory all alone. Plenty of other filmmakers have also played fast and loose with Greek and Roman mythology. Here are a few non-Disney titles, all available on video, in which ancient myths are revamped, updated, and generally given a narrative face lift.

“Pygmalion” (1938). The familiar story of “My Fair Lady,” in which Professor Henry Higgins transforms a cockney urchin into a respected lady by coaching her in proper speech, is in fact a modern version of the myth of Pygmalion. In the original myth, a sculptor named Pygmalion fell in love with a statue he had created. The goddess Venus, taking pity on him, endowed the statue with life so that they could be married. This early film version is based on George Bernard Shaw’s non-musical play, the inspiration for “My Fair Lady,” in which the mythological origins of the story are acknowledged in the title.

“Down to Earth” (1947). Rita Hayworth stars as Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance. A theatrical producer, played by Larry Parks, is staging a show based on the muses, but Terpsichore doesn’t care at all for the “low and vulgar manner” in which she is being portrayed. She receives special dispensation to take on human form to try and rectify the unfortunate situation. This musical comedy was remade in 1980 as “Xanadu,” with Olivia Newton-John as the muse.

“One Touch of Venus” (1948). When a department store window dresser impulsively kisses one of his mannequins, she is magically changed into the personification of Venus, the goddess of love, for 24 hours. The role of Venus went to Ava Gardner, Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol of the period. The film was based on a play by S.J. Perelman featuring songs by Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill. Those who are familiar with the play say that the film doesn’t begin to do it justice. That’s probably true, but for those of us who don’t know what we’re missing, the film remains an entertaining diversion.

“Black Orpheus” (1959). Director Marcel Camus’s fascinating updated version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was the talk of the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. In the original myth, Orpheus pursues his dead wife into the underworld to try to bring her back. Camus’s version changes the setting to modern-day Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. The surreal mood created by the revelers’ outlandish costumes allows the supernatural story of the myth to blend seamlessly with the contemporary setting.

“A Dream of Passion” (1978). Melina Mercouri plays a Greek actress who is rehearsing to star in a stage production of “Medea.” As a publicity stunt, she meets with a woman, played by Ellen Burstyn, who has been convicted of murdering her own children, just as Medea did. Inevitably, the actress becomes absorbed by the story of the woman who has lived out the myth of Medea in real life. The film explores how the interaction of these two women feeds into the interpretation of Medea that emerges on the stage.

That kind of interaction with mythology is, in a sense, what all of these films represent. From Disney to Shaw, each has peered into the myth and seen themselves, then retold the myth in their own way. Whether that’s a desecration or an enhancement is, I’m afraid, too weighty a debate to resolve here.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Frances Marion (originally published 7/97)

For most of its history, the movie industry has been almost entirely male dominated. Only in recent years have women begun to move into positions of real power, and even that progress has been limited and maddeningly incremental. There was a time, however, when the influence of women in the industry was considerable. In fact, during the heyday of the silent film in the twenties, female screenwriters were so dominant in the field that their male counterparts could occasionally be heard grumbling about the inequity of it all.The big names in script writing included June Mathis, Anita Loos, Jeannie Macpherson, and Bess Meredyth, all enormously talented women reaping the fruits of their creative abilities.

At the top of the pyramid sat Frances Marion, one of early Hollywood’s most colorful, interesting, and gifted figures. The past couple of months has seen a renewed interest in Marion’s life and career, beginning with the publication of Cari Beauchamp’s biography, “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood” (Scribner, 1997). Patrons at the Museum of Modern Art have recently been treated to a Marion retrospective, entitled “Frances Marion and Her Circle,” at which thirty of her films were screened. If, however, you don’t have the luxury of flying to New York for MOMA screenings, take heart. With a little help from the corner video store, you can have your own private Marion retrospective. Look for these titles on video.

“Poor Little Rich Girl” (1917). Marion had a knack for befriending some of the most talented actresses in the business; that’s the “circle” referred to by the MOMA series title. One of her very best friends was Mary Pickford, the single biggest female star of the silent era. She became known as “America’s Sweetheart,” typically playing little girl roles until she was well into her twenties. This film, scripted by Marion, was largely responsible for the “Little Mary” image that shaped the rest of Pickford’s stellar career. Pickford plays a child of wealth and privilege who has nevertheless remained unspoiled and sweet-natured, a theme most recently reprised in “Richie Rich” (1994) with Macaulay Culkin.

“The Son of the Sheik” (1926). Rudolph Valentino’s reign as Hollywood’s greatest heartthrob of the silent era began in 1921 with “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and was solidified later that same year with the release of “The Sheik.” The sequel to that film, adapted by Marion from Edith M. Hull’s novel, would prove to be the last screen appearance by Valentino before his untimely death. It’s a fine swan song, loaded with action and romance and leavened with a tongue-in-cheek tone that invites you to enjoy the ride without taking it too seriously.

“Min and Bill” (1930). Silent star Marie Dressler’s career had fallen on hard times. Because she had been kind to Marion at a difficult time in her life, Marion determined to help Dressler make a comeback. After securing a part for Dressler in “Anna Christie” (1930), Marion wrote “Min and Bill” for her. Playing opposite Wallace Beery as Bill, Dressler creates the role of Min Divot, a tough, grizzled waterfront innkeeper. Her performance was rewarded with an Academy Award. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Big House” (1930). This dramatization of the brutishness of penitentiary life is the prototype for all subsequent prison movies, from Cagney right down to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Wallace Beery stars as the tough convict who rules the roost at the big house. Marion’s screenplay earned her the first of her two Oscars.

It is utterly impossible in this short space to do justice to Marion’s remarkable career. She wrote scripts for just about every imaginable genre, boosted the careers of innumerable Hollywood stars, and was a trusted consultant to such legendary studio heads as Sam Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. If I’ve piqued your interest, I can only recommend that you look for Beauchamp’s biography, as well as Marion’s own autobiography, “Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood” (Macmillan, 1972). You’ll read about many more of the nearly 150 films she contributed to, including early film versions of “Anne of Green Gables,” “Pollyanna,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Camille.” And you might just find yourself wishing for the return of the good old days when women needed no passport into the upper ranks of the film industry except their native talent.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Elementary, Watson, part 2 (originally published 4/01)

As we saw last week, the Odyssey cable channel’s recent television adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” is only the latest in a long, long line of Sherlock Holmes adaptations for movies and television. Matt Frewer, who plays Holmes in this newest interpretation of the immortal sleuth, follows in the footsteps of an intimidating roster of distinguished predecessors.

We saw, for example, that in the early 1930s a British actor named Arthur Wontner dethroned Ellie Norwood as the screen’s “definitive Holmes.” Wontner so closely resembled Doyle’s descriptions of Holmes that it must have seemed that every actor to follow him would necessarily be doomed to live in his shadow. And yet it was only a few years later that another actor would succeed in eclipsing even the redoubtable Wontner as the public’s favorite Holmes. For some additonal examples of how Holmes has been interpreted through the years, look for these titles on home video.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939). Twentieth Century Fox struck box office gold by casting Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson in Doyle’s creepy tale of death on the moors. They played off one another brilliantly, Bruce as a slightly pompous but bumbling Watson and Rathbone as a high strung, intense Holmes. The film was successful enough to spawn a string of sequels, which finally played out seven years and a dozen films later. By the time “Dressed to Kill” (1946) brought an end to the series, Rathbone’s face, voice, and mannerisms had been burned into the minds of moviegoers as the very embodiment of Holmes.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959). After Rathbone relinquished the role, other actors were understandably wary of it. For over a decade, therefore, Holmes was uncharacteristically absent from the screen. Eventually, however, Hammer Films, a British studio, took on the challenge. Hammer had already had great success in remaking classics of the horror genre, including a Frankenstein film and a Dracula film. Emboldened by these successes, they decided to risk a new Holmes film. They cast Peter Cushing, one of the studio’s most reliable actors, in the lead. Like Wontner, Cushing bore a striking resemblance to Holmes as described by Doyle. That, along with his proven aptitude for carrying creepy thrillers, produced a performance that could stand quite well alongside Rathbone’s.

“A Study in Terror” (1965). Once the Rathbone curse was lifted from the role by Cushing’s success, filmmakers once again began to bring their own interpretations of Holmes to the screen. One notable entry was this atmospheric thriller, pitting Holmes against none other than Jack the Ripper. It was a logical premise, since the fictional Holmes and the historical Ripper were contemporaries. John Neville, a British leading man who had already played Hamlet on the screen, took on the role of Holmes.

“The Seven Percent Solution” (1976). In 1974, Nicholas Meyer hit the best seller list with a revisionist Holmes novel based on Holmes’s use of cocaine, as frankly described by Doyle, to stave off the psychological demons that plagued him when not actively involved in solving a case. Meyer postulated that Holmes’s arch-rival, Dr. Moriarty, was actually a perfectly ordinary gentleman, elevated by Holmes’s cocaine-addled mind into “the Napoleon of crime.” Dr. Watson, seeing his brilliant friend cracking up, contrives to take Holmes to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud. The film version of Meyer’s book, scripted by Meyer himself, boasted a remarkable cast. Nicol Williamson stars as an unsettlingly human Holmes, ably supported by Robert Duvall as Watson and Alan Arkin as Freud.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” (1984). With the premiere of this series of Sherlockian television programs from Granada Television in England, the mantle of “definitive Holmes” at last was transferred from Basil Rathbone to a new actor. The heir apparent was Jeremy Brett. Hailed by both the general public and Holmes afficionados, Brett’s portrayal remains the current benchmark for the role. The Granada series went on to adapt all but 19 of the Doyle stories before Brett’s untimely death cut the series short.

Matt Frewer has now appeared as Holmes twice, and undoubtedly will again if “The Sign of Four” proves successful. With such a distinguished tradition of Holmes portrayals to live up to, however, you don’t need to be a super-sleuth to deduce that establishing himself in the role is going to be anything but elementary.

Elementary, Watson (originally published 3/01)

Of all the fictional detectives ever created, it seems that none has taken hold of our collective imagination as firmly as Sherlock Holmes. People who have trouble remembering their relatives’ addresses have no trouble remembering 221-B Baker Street, and occasionally some of them are moved to send a letter there to consult the master himself. Although he is a fictional character, it sometimes seems that Sherlock Holmes is more real than some of the people I encounter in real life.

Maybe it seems that way, in part, because he has been incarnated on the screen, both the movie screen and the television screen, so many times by so many actors. I haven’t done the research to back up the claim, but I would venture to guess that Holmes has been portrayed more times by more different actors than any other fictional character. Only Tarzan comes to mind as a potential rival.

The most recent actor to take on the role of Holmes is Matt Frewer, of “Max Headroom” fame, in a production of “The Sign of Four” that aired recently on the Odyssey cable network. This was Frewer’s second Holmes film, the first being last year’s remake of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you’re interested in comparing Frewer’s interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most enduring creation to those of his predecessors, look for these titles on home video.

“Sherlock Holmes: The Early Years” (various dates). The earliest screen adaptations of Doyle’s stories were short silent films, made in the first decade of the existence of motion pictures. Most, naturally, no longer survive. Some of the few remaining scraps of early Holmes cinema have been collected in this videotape, which is available from Movies Unlimited ( [2009 UPDATE: This is no longer true, although I did find it for sale at "Hollywood's Attic" online. If interested, you can purchase a VHS copy at -- assuming, of course, that you still have a VHS VCR to play it on.] It includes a 1912 French short subject based on “The Copper Beeches” as well as the earliest known Holmes film, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled,” from 1900. A particular treat is the inclusion of two performances by Ellie Norwood, the first film actor to be regarded as “the definitive Holmes.” Norwood appears in “The Dying Detective” (1921) and “The Devil’s Foot” (1921).

“The Speckled Band” (1931). The earliest Holmes talkie that is available on video is a British production starring Raymond Massey. By this time, William Gillette’s famous stage portrayal had left its indelible mark on Holmes by adding the familiar deerstalker cap and curved Meerschaum pipe to Doyle’s own description of his character. Massey’s Holmes does not fit into any pre-existing mold, however, not even Doyle’s. Instead, he presides over a busy office filled with assistants and futuristic (for the time) equipment. Massey himself was not terribly happy with the result, but it remains an interesting curiosity. [2009 UPDATE: This one has made the transition to DVD. You can find it at]

“A Study in Scarlet” (1933). Reginald Owen is, to my knowledge, the only actor ever to play both Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes on the screen. He was Watson to Clive Brook’s Holmes, then took on the lead role for this version of Doyle’s introduction of the character. To call it an adaptation would be an overstatement, however. The producer, Sam Bischoff, had acquired the rights to the title but not to Doyle’s story. Owen himself, along with Robert Florey, wrote a script based on a whole new plot. Owen was an adequate Holmes, but five years later he would leave an altogether more memorable impression in the role of another classic literary character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the MGM production of “A Christmas Carol” (1938). [2009 UPDATE: This one has also turned up on DVD. Look for it at]

“The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes” (1935). The second screen actor to be thought of as “the definitive Holmes” was British stage veteran Arthur Wontner. He remains a particular favorite of Holmes afficionados, who insist that of all the actors to take on the role Wontner comes closest to the character they imagine in their heads when they read the original stories. Indeed, Wontner received a letter of praise and congratulations on his portrayal from Doyle’s own wife. Of Wontner’s five Holmes films, only “The Triumph,” an adaptation of Doyle’s “The Valley of Fear,” remains available on video, although his version of “Silver Blaze” (1937) still turns up occasionally for rent. [2009 UPDATE: Good news for Wontner fans -- there is a very reasonably priced DVD boxed set called "Classic Rarities of Sherlock Holmes" that includes three Wontner/Holmes titles PLUS the above-mentioned Reginald Owen "Study in Scarlet." Look for it at]

Next week we’ll look at more interpretations of the great Sherlock, including that of the actor who became so firmly identified with the role that no one else even bothered to try to follow in his footsteps for more than a decade after he relinquished it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Knight at the Movies, part 2 (originally published 5/01)

Being a knight in the modern world just doesn’t have the same cachet as it did in medieval times. Paul McCartney and Elton John, although estimable fellows to be sure, don’t project the same swashbuckling image somehow as Lancelot and Percival. In the old days you had to slay a dragon or seek the Holy Grail to be knighted; nowadays selling a whole lot of CDs is enough to make the cut.

For those who yearn for the heyday of chivalry when knights were bold, there are movies like the currently playing “A Knight’s Tale” to recreate those halcyon days. As we saw last week, this story of a young squire striving to attain the ideal of knighthood is the most recent in a long line of films dealing with the theme. Here are some additional knightly titles to look for on home video.

“The Black Arrow” (1948). For those who like action packed period films, it’s hard to do much better than this lively adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Louis Hayward stars as a British nobleman returning from the War of the Roses only to learn that his father has been murdered. His quest for vengeance leads to a substantial body count, culminating in the obligatory jousting contest pitting good knight against bad knight.

“The Seventh Seal” (1957). If you like your knights a bit more cerebral, try this enduring classic from the imagination of Swedish cinema master Ingmar Bergman. Max von Sydow, a perennial Bergman collaborator, plays Antonius Block, a weary, disillusioned knight returning from the Crusades to find his homeland ravaged by plague. When he himself is confronted by Death, in the person of a shadowy figure robed in black, he is bold enough to ask Death for a reprieve. He proposes to play a game of chess with Death. As long as he can escape checkmate, Death is to allow him to continue living. Death, who is intrigued by the challenge, and who enjoys a good game of chess, agrees to the terms. Bergman uses the duration of their game to raise fascinating questions about the meaning of life and death, including the theme that he would return to again and again in his films: the difficulty of maintaining religious faith in the face of the silence of God. Heady stuff, to be sure, but Bergman carries it off impressively. If you’ve only been exposed to this film by way of its many parodies, you owe it to yourself to experience the original.

“Lancelot of the Lake” (1974). Last week I called your attention to “Knights of the Round Table” (1953), which glorifies and romanticizes the legendary court of King Arthur. At the other end of the spectrum lies “Lancelot of the Lake,” written and directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Camelot is presented here as a failed ideal populated by petty, avaricious knights. The fabled Lancelot is no better, pursuing his affair with Queen Guinevere in the full knowledge that he is undermining everything that Camelot stands for. Bresson’s films are virtually an art form unto themselves, bearing little resemblance to anyone else’s. Chances are you will either love this film or hate it.

“Knightriders” (1981). Paradoxically, one of my own favorite films about knighthood is set in the Twentieth Century. Written and directed by George Romero, who is best known for “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), it includes many of the familiar appurtenances of courtly romances, including chain mail armor, maces, lances, and, of course, jousting contests. The difference is that these latter day knights ride motorcycles rather than horses. The itinerant group travels from one location to another staging medieval style tournaments for the amusement of the locals. The twist is that the leader of the group, played by Ed Harris, has persuaded them to adopt the social mores and ideals of the mythical Camelot. Setting himself up as king, he seeks to embody the chivalric ideal in the modern world.

I suspect that the impulse, dramatized by Romero, to transplant into today’s world that which was noble and high-minded about the age of chivalry lies at the root of our continuing fascination with movies about knights of old. If only those who engage in today’s jousting contests, from corporate board rooms to the halls of Congress, could be held to those age-old standards, we would probably all be better off.

A Knight at the Movies (originally published 5/01)

It’s not so hard to understand why we remain fascinated with knighthood as it existed in the Middle Ages. What could be more seductive, after all, than the ideals of chivalry, the lure of adventure on a grand scale, the challenge of holding oneself to a higher standard, and, of course, the fun of knocking other people off their horses with long poles. The latest screen manifestation of this fascination is “A Knight’s Tale,” in which a young squire attempts to joust his way into the 14th Century aristocracy. For a sampling of how earlier films have presented knights of old, look for these titles on home video.

“Don Quichotte” (1935). The classic Cervantes tale of Don Quixote hearkens back to medieval chivalry rather than portraying it directly. Its hero is a latter day admirer of knight-errantry who sets out to live the life he has so often read about. One of the earliest film adaptations of this venerable novel is a French-British production directed by German filmmaker G.W. Pabst. The title role, played by Russian opera star Feodor Chaliapin, calls for four songs from Quixote, making this the first musical film adaptation of the novel, long before “Man of La Mancha” (1972). The songs were written by famed French opera and ballet composer Jacques Ibert. [2009 NOTE: This one takes some finding these days, but it is around. Look for it here:]

"When Knights Were Bold” (1936). This British production also pokes fun at knightly chivalry; somewhat less elegantly than Cervantes, to be sure, but all in good fun nonetheless. Taking its cue from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” it tells the story of an Englishman who has inherited a castle. Aristocratic ways do not come naturally to him, however, putting him at odds with his rather snooty family. When he is accidentally knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor, he awakes to find himself in medieval times, where he learns what chivalry is really all about.

“Ivanhoe” (1952). Sir Walter Scott’s epic tale requires a big canvas, and in the 1950s no studio was turning out more lavish fare than MGM. This picture was made at MGM’s British production facility. Mounting big budget productions there made sense owing to the fact that British law at the time required most of the profits earned by American films in the U.K. to be spent there, rather than taking the money out of the British economy. This adaptation of “Ivanhoe” is a prime example of MGM at its international zenith. No expense is spared. The stellar cast features Robert Taylor in the title role, supported by George Sanders, Joan Fontaine, and Elizabeth Taylor. Like many medieval romances, this one is built around the intrigues of Prince John the usurper, scheming to take the throne that rightfully belongs to King Richard the Lionhearted. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe valiantly fights for Richard while jousting his way into the hearts of two fair ladies. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Knights of the Round Table” (1953). Following up on the success of “Ivanhoe,” MGM next turned to the most famous tale of courtly romance ever told. The story of King Arthur remains a perennial favorite, and this, being an MGM production, is one of the most opulent screen renderings of the tale of Camelot. Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner star as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, whose forbidden romance behind the back of King Arthur (Mel Ferrer) takes center stage. It’s a wide stage, however, with plenty of room for big battle scenes and a hefty sampling of the Arthurian legends’ rich cast of characters. From Merlin to Morgan Le Fay to Gawain, chances are good that your favorite character will turn up at least briefly.

Next week we'll look at some additional movie knights -- knights bold, knights errant, and even a few chivalric knights who somehow wandered into the twentieth century.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Tiny Invaders (originally published 6/03)

As gruesome as movie monsters can be, there’s one thing you have to give them. Even if you can’t kill the average matinee monster, you can at least run away from them. The threat they represent is tangible and corporeal. They’re generally big, ugly, loud, and probably smell bad. That’s what I’d call fair warning.

Much more disturbing to me are the real life malefactors that have quietly and insidiously been invading the bodies of people around the world over the last few months to infect them with SARS. What can you do, after all, when the monster that threatens your life is much too small to see? When you can’t know if the precautions you’ve taken were adequate until it’s much too late?

Naturally, the dramatic potential of this type of tiny invader has not escaped filmmakers through the years. If you’ve stayed indoors with the shades pulled since the SARS outbreak, might as well pass the time by watching some entertaining films about public health calamities. It will give you something to do while you’re waiting for your drinking water to boil.

“The Andromeda Strain” (1971). You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that Michael Crichton was out ahead of the curve on this one. Although he didn’t write or direct this adaptation of his novel, the spirit of his book is well represented. The story centers around a group of scientists who are called together at a super-secret government facility dedicated to the control of unknown biohazards. This place is like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on steroids, high tech to the nth degree. The assembled scientists are brought together to figure out how to deal with a virus brought back by an experimental space probe. It killed every inhabitant of a small, isolated town except for an infant and a sterno bum. Can the docs isolate their common immunity factor before it’s too late? The climax is a typically harrowing Crichton nail-biter. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Pursuit” (1972). Crichton again. This one is a TV movie based on “Binary,” one of the books Crichton published under the pseudonym “John Lange.” The premise is that a crazed terrorist is threatening to release a deadly nerve gas in a city that is hosting a political convention. The excellent cast includes Ben Gazzara, E.G. Marshall, and William Windom. Crichton himself directed.

“The Crazies” (1973). In a much lesser-known film, George Romero tried a variation on his “Night of the Living Dead” formula with this sardonic biohazard tale. When the military accidentally releases a virulent biochemical weapon, contaminating the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town, the results are pure Romero. This particular bug causes violent insanity before it actually kills, leading the infected citizenry to maim and brutalize each other before succumbing to the disease.

“The Cassandra Crossing” (1977). Have you noticed that all the titles so far are from the 1970s? What can I tell you, we had a thing for disaster movies back then, from overturned ocean liners to buildings on fire to imperiled airliners. Sooner or later there had to be a train disaster movie, and this was it. The plot involves terrorists on board a European express train, but the ante is further raised by the fact that the terrorists have been exposed to the plague. While the military types, as represented by Burt Lancaster, try to deal with the terrorists, the medical types, as represented by Richard Harris, must try to cope with the spread of plague through the train. It’s all a bit far-fetched, but fun if you’re in the mood.

“Panic in the Streets” (1950). I wanted to throw this one in just to prove that the 1970s didn’t have a complete lock on this kind of film. Richard Widmark stars as a public health doctor with the unenviable task of tracking down a murderer who probably contracted pneumonic plague from his last victim. It’s as tense in its own way as anything Michael Crichton ever dreamed up. Best of all, it was directed by one of the legends of the industry, Elia Kazan.

You should be able to find each of these films on the shelves of one of your local video stores. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re willing to risk leaving the house to go and look for them.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Burning Rubber and Swapping Paint (originally published 6/03)

Despite their name, movies don’t actually move. They are, in fact, nothing more than a succession of still pictures. Even so, the illusion of motion they create is so compelling that we call them motion pictures in spite of the fact that we know better.

Because motion is the single most salient aspect of movies, stories that involve lots of movement have an inherent cinematic advantage over more sedentary subject matter. This accounts, in part, for the popularity of films like the recently released “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which relies heavily on variations on the tried and true action movie gimmick of the high speed car chase. If you’ve seen this high octane thriller and found that it didn’t entirely fulfill your motion quotient, you might want to seek out these films featuring famous car chases.

“Thunder Road” (1958). Robert Mitchum stars as a Tennessee moonshine runner whose fast driving skills keep him just barely one step ahead of the federal revenue agents. This was something of a pet project for Mitchum, who produced and co-scripted in addition to playing the lead.

“Bullitt” (1968). Steve McQueen stars as a San Francisco detective assigned to see that a targeted witness lives to testify. When he detects the bad guys tailing his car, he whips around and starts following them. This leads to a high speed game of cat and mouse. As the two cars leap and lurch over the extremely hilly streets of San Francisco, you may find your heart leaping and lurching into your throat. This was the car chase scene that set the benchmark for all those that followed. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer, which includes a few clips from the famous chase scene.

“Vanishing Point” (1971). Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a professional driver who has contracted to deliver a car from Denver to San Francisco. On a whim, he makes a bet that he can make the trip in 15 hours. As he burns up the road, popping pep pills and breaking laws, he encounters increasing resistance from law enforcement types who take a dim view of his driving methods. Meanwhile, police radio chatter about Kowalski is monitored by a blind disk jockey called “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little), who uses his radio show to cheer Kowalski on. Ultimately, this is a rather bleak, road-to-nowhere existentialist film. Still, it’s a rare treat for car chase fans, since almost the whole movie is one long chase scene.

“The French Connection” (1971). Director William Friedkin’s career was made by this gritty tale of New York narcotics cops tracking down a French drug kingpin. Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as his partner, Buddy Russo, aren’t your basic by-the-book cops, but they seem to get results. The legendary chase scene involves Doyle pursuing a man who has just taken a shot at him. When the bad guy takes an elevated transit train, Doyle’s only hope of catching him is to get to the next station first. He commandeers a car and races flat-out under the elevated tracks. It’s a real white-knuckle ride, with Friedkin throwing one obstacle after another in Doyle’s path.

“The Seven Ups” (1973). Philip D’Antoni, who produced “The French Connection,” directed this one. It’s a kind of semi-reprise of the earlier film, retaining Roy Scheider and the car chases but without devoting a lot of time to plot and characterization. Others might feel cheated, but the car chase purists will love it.

“The Driver” (1978). Writer/director Walter Hill’s dark drama pits Ryan O’Neal as a getaway driver against Bruce Dern as the cop who is obsessed with nailing him. The film begins and ends with spectacular chase sequences, one in which O’Neal’s character is the pursued and one in which he is the pursuer.

“Live and Let Die” (1973). I can’t resist mentioning the chase from this first film with Roger Moore as James Bond. It isn’t strictly a car chase because most of the chasing is done in speedboats, but it is a very funny parody of movie chase conventions. Most of the humor comes from focusing on the havoc inflicted on bystanders, from a pool party to a wedding party.

There are some other great movie car chases available on video that I’d love to tell you about but, frankly, the shock absorbers on my DVD player are shot from all this tearing around. Until I can get the suspension overhauled, I’d better stick to more tranquil categories.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pixar's Predecessors (originally published 6/03)

Too often, taking a child to the movies proves to be a distasteful chore. Naturally, you want to avoid the violence and salaciousness of the R-rated fare, so you opt for the “kiddie films.” These are guaranteed to be free of blood, gore, and kinky sex, but, unfortunately, they are usually equally free of imagination, interesting characters, and ideas of any kind.

In recent years, however, a marvelous company called Pixar has demonstrated that films aimed at young audiences need not sacrifice storytelling excellence. From “Toy Story” (1995) to “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) to their most recent release, “Finding Nemo,” they have consistently shown a concern for telling engaging and coherent stories rather than simply allowing their animation virtuosity to carry their films.

Pixar didn’t invent the radical idea of employing talent and taste in the production of children’s films, however. They merely resurrected it after a long period of dormancy. For a sampling of earlier films that target young audiences without insulting their intelligence, look for these titles on home video.

“The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T” (1953). This was the only original film script written by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). It is a wonderful fantasy about a tyrannical piano teacher who enslaves 500 children to play for him on an enormous piano. The role of the nefarious Dr. Terwilliger is played by Hans Conried, a character actor whose name may not be familiar to you, but whose voice undoubtedly will be. If you love reading the Dr. Seuss books to your kids, and find that you keep on reading them after the kids are asleep, give this gem a try.

“The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). Don’t be put off by the title. I know it sounds like a James Bond film, but in fact it is a charming and moving fantasy executed by masters of the genre. The producer-director was George Pal, who also produced “Destination Moon” (1950), “War of the Worlds” (1953), and “When Worlds Collide” (1951). I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Pal just a couple of years before his death. He told me that of all his films this one had most especially been a labor of love. He had gone to Charles Beaumont, one of the three principle scriptwriters for the original “Twilight Zone” television series, and asked him what script he would write if he could choose any subject at all. Beaumont replied that he had always wanted to adapt Charles Finney’s short novel, “The Circus of Dr. Lao,” for the screen. Pal commissioned the script on the spot and directed the picture himself. The story is about a little town in the old West that is dying. Its resources are drying up and its inhabitants are thinking of selling out to a crooked entrepreneur who has neglected to mention the railroad that will soon be built through the town. While they ponder their decision, a strange and wonderful circus comes to town, presided over by an enigmatic Chinaman named Dr. Lao. Tony Randall gives an astonishing performance, not only as Dr. Lao, but also as several of the attractions in his circus, including Merlin the Magician, the Medusa, Pan, and even the Abominable Snowman. Don’t miss this one. It will feed the kids’ imaginations and give them plenty of ideas to chew on without going over their heads. And by all means watch it with them – it offers plenty for grownups to chew on as well. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic movies, are a few clips from the film, along with excerpts from an interview with Tony Randall.

“Babes in Toyland” (1934). Please note the date on this one. If you pick up the 1961 version you will have missed the boat. The 1934 version of the classic Victor Herbert operetta has two things going for it that no other version can touch: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They play the Toymaker’s assistants in a Toyland that is terrorized by a villain named Barnaby and his army of bogeymen. Barnaby tries to force Bo-Peep to marry him until Laurel and Hardy enlist the aid of the wooden soldiers to save the day.

When the Pixar films begin to lose their edge after the hundredth viewing, don’t yield to the temptation to turn your kids’ entertainment over to the tender mercies of the Care Bears. Remember that the corner video store has plenty of worthwhile films to offer them if you’re willing to make a detour to the vintage section.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hope Endures (originally published 7/03, on the occasion of Bob Hope's death)

After a century of life, most of it spent in show business, Bob Hope left behind a rich and voluminous legacy in the form of books, recordings of radio shows, and videotapes of television programs. Still, for my money, the most enduring monuments to this entertainment giant remain his films. For some reason, perhaps because he continued to do television long after his movie career had ended, people seem to remember him more for his TV work than for his movies, and yet it was on the big screen that he came into his own as more than just a joke machine. In his motion pictures, he emerged as a unique and gifted comic actor.

I can only imagine that the problem lies in the fact that his movies are screened only rarely. The last major theatrical festival of his film work that I’m aware of was way back in May of 1979, a series of screenings at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In this age of home video, however, there is no excuse for such a distinguished body of work to languish unseen. If you’re looking for an appropriate way to mark the passing of one of the all-time great comic talents, head down to the video store and pick up these titles.

“The Paleface” (1948). Hope’s classic comic Western finds him in a typical role as a wisecracking but likeable frontier dentist. Jane Russell, one of the leading glamour actresses of the 1940s, plays Calamity Jane. Tough as nails and a dead shot, she’s the polar opposite of Hope’s character, who is cowardly and inept. Calamity is sprung from prison by the government in exchange for her promise to find out who has been smuggling guns to the Indians. To give herself a respectable cover from which to operate, she marries Hope’s character and travels west with him. The two played off each other so successfully that a sequel, “Son of Paleface,” was made four years later.

“Road to Morocco” (1942). Beginning in 1940 with “Road to Singapore,” Hope was teamed with Bing Crosby for a memorable series of “Road” pictures. Invariably, they ended up vying for the attention of Dorothy Lamour, who appeared in all the pictures in the series. Actually, you can’t go wrong with any of the “Road” films, but this one happens to be my favorite. It was in this film that the most distinctive element of the series really came to the fore: the occasional acknowledgement by the actors that this is only a movie. For instance, when Crosby interrupts Hope’s hysterics over their hopeless plight to point out that they are safe after all, Hope scolds him for spoiling what might have been an Academy Award-winning performance. This was a running gag with Hope, who continually joked about his failure to win an Oscar. “At my house,” he would lament, “Oscar night is known as Passover.” (Actually, he was awarded five Oscars during the course of his career, although none were for “best actor.”)

“My Favorite Blonde” (1942). Madeleine Carroll plays a British agent who is being pursued by Nazis. Hope is a vaudeville comic who unwittingly gets mixed up in the intrigue by being in the wrong place at the right time. This picture helped to define the comic spy genre that, among other things, influenced the TV series “Moonlighting.” Hope returned to this type of material in 1943 with “They Got Me Covered,” and again in 1947 with “My Favorite Brunette.” Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Louisiana Purchase” (1941). This was the film adaptation of an Irving Berlin musical play that gently poked fun at political corruption in Louisiana during the Huey Long era. Just two years after Jimmy Stewart’s emotionally charged filibuster scene in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Hope delivers a wonderful comic turn on the idea of a one-man filibuster. In its way, it’s just as much of a classic scene as Stewart’s was.

This is only the beginning. There’s also “The Cat and the Canary” (1939), “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1946), “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951), “The Seven Little Foys” (1955), and many more. Once you’ve rediscovered what a talented comic actor Hope truly was, I predict you’ll want to see them all. After all, in a world without Hope, we need all the laughs we can get.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Double Your Pleasure (originally published 12/03)

From Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” to the familiar old Doublemint Gum commercials, twin siblings have been a constant presence in popular entertainment for centuries. Movies, of course, have a distinct advantage in that camera trickery can be used to transform a single actor into twins.

In their new release, “Stuck on You,” the Farrelly Brothers bring their own peculiar twist to the theme, casting Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon as Siamese twins joined at the hip. If you prefer your movie twins to be a bit more conventional – identical but separate – here are some titles to look for on home video.

“Our Relations” (1936). Laurel and Hardy play a couple of sailors who happen to put into port in the hometown of their long lost twin brothers (also played by Laurel and Hardy). The sailors hang out, as movie sailors will, in disreputable beer halls. Their twins, a pair of family men, find themselves with lots of explaining to do when their wives learn that they’ve been seen chasing skirts in waterfront dives.

“Wonder Man” (1945). Danny Kaye must have concluded that the only way to top his wildly successful movie debut in “Up in Arms” was to become twins, because that’s exactly what he did in this classic musical comedy. The first brother, a brash entertainer, is knocked off by gangsters for knowing too much. His ghost then returns to convince his twin, a mousy intellectual, to avenge his murder. When the living brother’s staid temperament proves unequal to the task, the dead brother simply takes possession of his body to get the job done.

“The Corsican Brothers” (1941). Douglas Fairbanks Jr. carried on the family tradition in action pictures such as this adaptation of the Alexander Dumas classic. Fairbanks uses movie magic to take on both title roles as Lucien and Mario Franchi. Born as Siamese twins, the Franchi brothers narrowly escape the massacre of their family by the evil Baron Colonna. When an operation to separate them miraculously succeeds, the orphaned twins are raised separately for their protection. Lucien grows up in the forests of Corsica, becoming a kind of Robin Hood figure, while Mario is raised by friends of the family in Paris. When they meet for the first time at age 21, they both swear vengeance on the Colonna family.

“Dead Ringer” (1964). Bette Davis, in her gothic horror period, plays twin sisters. One sister has never forgiven the other one for stealing away her sweetheart by convincing him that she was pregnant with his child. Ultimately her resentment drives her to murder the offending sister. In addition to avenging the wrong she has suffered, this also allows her to assume the murdered sister’s identity and to assume control of her considerable wealth. Unfortunately, it transpires that the dead sister had been mixed up in homicide herself, leaving the surviving sister in the ironic position of getting away with one murder while standing in the shadow of the gallows for a murder she didn’t commit.

“Start the Revolution Without Me” (1970). On the eve of the premiere of their groundbreaking television show, “All in the Family,” Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin unleashed this historical romp on the big screen. It begins with a kind of loose parody of “The Corsican Brothers,” then, like the man in the Stephen Leacock story, rides off in several directions. Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of twins in 18th Century France, one of noble blood and one born to commoners. The attending physician, confused about which babies belonged with which family, had switched two of them in the cradle. Naturally, the sets of twins are mistaken for one another, involving the commoners in royal intrigues about which they know nothing. The lunacy builds until at last the story can no longer contain it, leading to a truly wild conclusion.

“The Parent Trap” (1961). We can’t, of course, forget this Disney confection, with Hayley Mills as twin sisters who have been raised separately by divorced parents. When they finally meet, they devote their combined energies to reuniting their wayward parents. It’s good, clean fun for those who are up to the challenge of suspending their disbelief to a degree above and beyond the usual call of duty.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Immortal Tramp (originally published 2/04)

Few cinematic experiences are more foreign to 21st Century moviegoers than a silent comedy. These ethereal, surreal, mute monuments to the forgotten art of pantomime inhabit a screen universe so remote from today’s comic fare that it seems a stretch to classify them both under the common rubric of comedy. Any filmmaker who can bridge that gap, who can maintain any sort of viewership across that stylistic gulf, not to mention nearly a century of time, is remarkable indeed.

One of those who has accomplished this feat is Charles Spencer Chaplin. Fans of Chaplin’s work have much to be thankful for on the home video front. High quality DVD releases of Chaplin’s work from Image Entertainment and Warner Brothers Home Video are widely available, along with an excellent documentary on Chaplin’s life and work. “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin,” produced by Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel, is well worth seeing.

When it comes to Chaplin’s feature films, I find that I can sum up my advice to you in three words: see them all. The only thing you need to know is that “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936) are silent films made after everyone else had converted to sound, so that all sound effects and synchronized music are part of the original soundtrack, not added after the fact. That’s really Chaplin’s voice singing the nonsense song in “Modern Times.”

Instead of focusing on the feature films, I thought I would offer some recommendations on Chaplin’s lesser known short subjects, which are now also readily available on home video. I’m going to recommend one title from each of the significant early periods of Chaplin’s career.

He got his start in the movie business working for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, as did most of the major comedy stars of the silent era. It was during his tenure with Keystone that Chaplin learned the ropes and began searching for a comic persona. As a result, the quality of these early efforts is uneven. The tramp outfit, in all its essentials, appears very early on, but the nuances of characterization took years to evolve.

The title I think I would recommend from the Keystone period is “The Rounders” (1914). Chaplin is teamed with Roscoe Arbuckle, another very talented comic who has been cited as a major influence by no less than Buster Keaton. Chaplin and Arbuckle play a couple of swells who are out for a night on the town. By the end of the evening they have explored new frontiers of drunkenness, but then they must confront the problem of going home to face their respective wives.

Chaplin soon left Keystone, frustrated by the conflict between the fast-paced, broad slapstick demanded by Sennett and the more subtle pantomime that his emerging Tramp character required. He signed a contract with the Essanay Studio that greatly expanded his creative control.

The Essanay film to see is “The Tramp” (1915). This is arguably the specific point in his career at which the Tramp character he had been toying with at Keystone crystallized and matured. The key ingredient that was added here was pathos – that little touch of tragedy to offset the comedy and give it emotional weight.

Probably Chaplin’s most fertile period prior to making feature pictures was spent making short subjects for the Mutual film company. These twelve little masterpieces, released in 1916 and 1917, are the work of a fully mature comic artist. You really can’t go wrong with any of Chaplin’s Mutual releases, but I have a special fondness for “The Immigrant” (1917). The plot is virtually nonexistent – coming over on a boat to America, Charlie meets and falls for Edna Purviance, his perennial leading lady from the early days – but Chaplin’s blending of laughter with poignancy and knockabout with subtle pantomime was never more sure-footed and masterful.

This year marks the ninth decade since Chaplin’s first appearance on screen. There can now be little remaining doubt that his work has outlived mere nostalgia. Against all odds, his artistry continues to engender new fans even into a new millennium. His best works are, as if anyone seriously doubted it, works for the ages.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Serial Killers (originally published 3/04)

It goes without saying that murder and murderers hold a fatal attraction for filmmakers. In fact, the only thing that cinema storytellers like more than a good, juicy murder is a whole string of them. Serial killings are tailor-made for the action film genre, since nothing keeps the old plot line moving like a fresh corpse every few minutes.

If you doubt it, go and see “Twisted,” the current release starring Ashley Judd and Andy Garcia as a pair of cops tracking down a serial killer. If you’ve already seen “Twisted,” and haven’t been reduced to peeking under the bed at night by the experience, you might also enjoy these serial killer movies.

“M” (1931). Director Fritz Lang’s classic suspense film is one of the most respected masterpieces of the German cinema. Peter Lorre, in his first major role, is outstanding as a compulsive child murderer. His eerie signature is the melody from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” that he whistles whenever murder is on his mind. In trying to track him down, the police become so eager that their investigation begins to hamper the activities of the local organized crime syndicate. To get back to business as usual, the criminals set out to find the killer themselves, so that he is eventually under pursuit from both sides of the law.

“While the City Sleeps” (1956). Years later, in the United States, Lang made this fascinating echo of “M.” Again, there is a serial killer terrorizing the city. A newspaper publisher offers the position of editor-in-chief to any member of his editorial staff who finds the killer, sending each editor scrambling for sources to pursue the murderer’s identity. As in “M,” Lang presents us with an organization outside of law enforcement mobilizing to catch a serial killer for all the wrong reasons. Apparently the cynicism that informed Lang’s work in pre-war Germany remained undiminished in postwar America.

“The Boston Strangler” (1968). Tony Curtis portrays Albert De Salvo, a real-life serial killer who terrorized the Back Bay of Boston between 1962 and 1964. Director Richard Fleischer chose to tell the story in a semi-documentary style. He also made use of a split screen technique that was in vogue at the time, dividing the wide screen up into multiple images seen simultaneously.

“10 Rillington Place” (1971). Fleischer’s other serial killer film, less well known but every bit as good as “The Boston Strangler,” stars Richard Attenborough as John Reginald Christie, the British serial killer. Christie’s testimony had resulted in the execution of Timothy John Evans for the murder of Evans’s wife and infant daughter. Only later was it discovered that Christie had committed those murders, and others besides. This was the case that led to the abolition of the death penalty in England.

“Eyes Without a Face” (1959). French director Georges Franju’s gothic classic is a triumph of moody horror. A plastic surgeon is overcome with guilt when his reckless driving causes the disfigurement of his daughter’s face. Determined to restore her beauty, he kidnaps and kills a series of women in order to remove their facial skin. His efforts to graft the new skin onto his daughter’s face repeatedly fail, necessitating more and more murders.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947). Believe it or not, there are even a handful of comedies on the subject of serial killings. This one was made by Charlie Chaplin, who cast himself in the role of a wife-murdering bluebeard. Chaplin was trying to make a point about hypocrisy – that a world that sees no moral problem with atomic bombs and other horrendous weapons of war shouldn’t be troubled by a little thing like serial killings. In the light of the atrocities for which medals are given in time of war, Chaplin thought, a bluebeard is by comparison a laughing matter.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Ealing Comedies (originally published 3/04)

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, are clearly fans of classic movies in addition to being exceptionally talented filmmakers. They have drawn inspiration for many of their films from popular genres of the past, and even borrowed the title of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) from the script of a Preston Sturges comedy called “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Their next release, however, a comedy called “The Ladykillers,” is their first out and out remake.

The film they have chosen to remake is one of a series of beloved British comedies from the Ealing studio, each of which starred Alec Guinness. If you only know Guinness from “Star Wars,” you really owe it to yourself to see these remarkable showcases of his talents. For a sampling of the work that inspired the Coens, look for these classic Ealing comedies on home video.

“The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951). Guinness plays a bank employee, a mousey little clerk who rides along with the armored cars that carry the shipments of gold bullion. He is fussy and persnickety, insisting that security procedures be followed to the letter each and every time. In reality, he has been quietly plotting for years to steal the gold. The film is full of wonderful British character actors, including Stanley Holloway, whom you may remember as Alfred Doolittle from the film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” (1964). The film’s final chase scene is especially hysterical.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). This is the story of a family black sheep who calculates that in the improbable event that eight of his snobby relatives should pass away in rapid succession, he would inherit a dukedom. Seeing that it would be risky to leave such a sequence of events to chance, he resolves to murder all eight of them. He is motivated partly by personal gain, but also by the fact that the family treated his mother shabbily. I know, it doesn’t sound much like a comedy, but it is. Guinness, you see, doesn’t play the young murderer. Instead, he is cast in the roles of all eight of the victims, one of whom is a woman.

“The Man in the White Suit” (1951). Guinness plays a chemist working for a British textile plant. Working on his own time and without company authorization, he develops a formula for a fabric that cannot be soiled or stained, and which will never wear out. He is elated about his discovery, but, to his surprise, his employers receive the news with dismay rather than appreciation. They realize what he hadn’t – that this formula would in short order make their entire industry obsolete. Suddenly this inoffensive little chemist who only wanted to contribute to humanity finds himself at the center of a political firestorm. The satire is biting and very funny. Even the noises made by Guinness’s infernal machine are funny.

“The Ladykillers” (1955). In the film that provides direct inspiration to the Coens, Guinness is again on the wrong side of the law. He and his gang rent rooms from a dotty little old lady, where they plan their robberies. When she accidentally sees a cello case full of money, the gangsters decide that she knows too much and must be killed. But God, apparently, is on her side. As each one in turn tries to do her in, something goes wrong and it is the would-be killer who meets an untimely end. The outstanding cast includes Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, who would later play off each other so hilariously in the “Pink Panther” series with Sellers as Clouseau and Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss.

I should probably pause here to point out the obvious. Ealing Studios in England made pictures for the home market. If the Yanks overseas liked them too, well and good, but if not, that was okay too. To really thoroughly enjoy these films, then, you need to have an appreciation for the eccentricities of British humor. Most especially, an appreciation for black humor is required.

Still, if the success of “Raising Arizona” (1987) and “Fargo” (1996) are any indication, the Coens have very effectively zeroed in on a segment of the American audience that does appreciate eccentric filmmaking. If you like their work, trust me, you’ll love the Ealing comedies.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side (originally published 8/05)

The adage is as old as show business itself: never perform with children or animals. They’ll steal the show right out from under you without ever even knowing that they’re doing it. Unfortunately for thespian egos, movies featuring both types of scene stealers never seem to go out of style with audiences.

In the animal movie category, this year’s “March of the Penguins” has become a box office smash in a year not overburdened with such successes. For those who prefer their movie stars furry, feathered, or with fins, I thought I’d mention a few favorite animal movie titles. I am, however, ruling out dog movies and horse movies on the grounds that they constitute categories unto themselves, if only by reason of sheer numbers.

“The Yearling” (1946). Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was adapted for the screen by veteran director Clarence Brown. Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman play the parents in this sentimental tale of pioneer hardships. Their son is played by Claude Jarman Jr. The story is a familiar one. The son adopts a fawn as a pet, but finds that his family’s hardscrabble existence doesn’t allow for such luxuries. When the fawn becomes a threat to their survival, the boy must face the hardest and most heartbreaking decision of his young life. It is a deeply touching story, skillfully told.

“Bedtime For Bonzo” (1951). This harmless little movie became the butt of innumerable jokes during its star’s tenure as president of the United States. I had my share of fun with it too, but with the Reagan administration safely tucked away in the dustbin of history, it’s time to admit that this is really a pretty good movie. In addition to being amusing, it uses humor to address one of the great scientific debates of the century: nature versus nurture. Professor Peter Boyd (Ronald Reagan) is committed to demonstrating that it is environment, not heredity, that determines who we are. To prove the point, he takes a chimpanzee named Bonzo into his home to raise him just as he would a human child. So, you see, Ronnie was actually ahead of the curve in advocating family values. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“Born Free” (1966). Based on the nonfiction book by Joy Adamson, this film tells the story of an African game warden and his wife, and of their pet lioness named Elsa. Having raised the orphaned Elsa and her siblings from cubs, Joy finds that she is too attached to Elsa to part with her. Eventually, of course, she has to face the fact that lions were meant to be free. But by then Elsa is grown, so it is up to Joy to teach her how to survive in the wild.

“Doctor Dolittle” (1967). I realize I’m in the minority here, but I much prefer this earlier version of Hugh Lofting’s classic stories to the Eddie Murphy remake. Neither version measures up to Lofting’s imaginative originals, but this one at least attempts to stay closer to his storylines. It also has the advantage of Rex Harrison’s charming performance in the lead role. More importantly, it raises, in an entertaining way, some of the animal rights issues that are only now beginning to be taken seriously. Even so, it was a resounding flop at the box office, and is regularly cited on lists of the worst films ever made. Well, I don’t care. I still like it.

“Flipper” (1963). This was the film that led producer Ivan Tors, during the latter part of his career, to specialize in moves and TV shows featuring animals. The story of a boy who adopts a dolphin as a pet clearly echoes “The Yearling,” but without the emotional depth, and with a much happier ending. Even so, the leisurely, almost European pacing is beguiling, and Flipper was endearing enough to be cast in a successful TV series.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that “March of the Penguins” takes the animal movie to its logical conclusion by eliminating the onscreen human co-stars altogether. The lone homo sapien thespian, Morgan Freeman, is relegated to the role of narrator. From the producer’s point of view, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Animal actors rarely come with entourages, and almost never demand their own trailer or a percentage of the profits. Human actors might do well to watch their backs.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ellison Wonderland (originally published 8/93)

What happens to you when you get really angry? Yeah, me too. We fume and sputter and make idiots of ourselves. It is only hours later, in the cold blood of bitter reflection, that we realize what we should have said.

But every now and then a person will be born with a diode wired in backward somewhere so that they actually get more articulate as their anger rises, not less. If that person also happens to be a writer, like H.L. Mencken or Philip Wylie, they can offer us a rare gift. Like Howard Beale in the movie "Network," they can articulate our rage for us.

I mention this by way of following up last week's column on "guilty pleasures," the bad movies that we love out of sheer perversity. One of the movies shown on TNT's recent "Bad Movies We Love" night was "The Oscar." Its script was co-written by Harlan Ellison, although he doesn't enjoy admitting it.

But if you saw "The Oscar," and if by chance this was your first exposure to Ellison's work, I need to tug your sleeve and make you aware that it is in no way representative of his work as a whole. To the contrary, he belongs to that tiny and valuable fraternity of writers for whom anger is a catalyst and not an impediment to effective communication.

The purest expression of his anger as craftsmanship is to be found in his many published essays. In his fiction, and in his scripts, it tends to take the form of emotionally charged fantasy tropes. His stories typically involve people pushed beyond the limits of what the real world can contain. It's a form of fantasy that was popularized by Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," but no one brings quite as much of an edge to it as Ellison.

If you liked Serling's shows, and you're ready to handcuff yourself to a writer who will pursue the darkest of human emotions to the edge of the abyss and leap in after them, Ellison's fiction is for you. His scripts, by comparison, tend to end up a bit watered down, but even so they still pack a punch. Forget about "The Oscar," then, and look for these Ellison titles at the corner video store.

"Soldier" (1964). This episode of the "Outer Limits" television series tells the story of a soldier from the far future who is transported back in time to the present day. Although human, he is as close to a fighting machine as futuristic training and indoctrination can make him. Warfare is all he knows, all he can cope with. Does this sound vaguely familiar? The producers of "The Terminator" were ultimately persuaded that it was similar enough that the film's credits should include an acknowledgment of the inspiration provided by Ellison's work.

"Demon With a Glass Hand" (1964). Ellison's second script for "The Outer Limits" won him the Writer's Guild Award as the best teleplay of the year, an honor he has now received four times. Again it features a time traveler from the future, but a benevolent one this time. A mysterious amnesia has rendered his origin and purpose a mystery, even to himself. As he struggles to solve the puzzle of his own identity, he must simultaneously struggle to stay alive. He has been pursued into the past by futuristic bad guys who clearly want him dead. Slowly he comes to the awful realization that he is the last hope of humanity.

"City on the Edge of Forever" (1967). Ellison's one and only script for the original "Star Trek" series is regarded by many as the best episode of all. Dr. McCoy goes through a time portal and ends up on Earth in the 1930s. While there, he does something that completely alters subsequent history. Kirk and Spock go after him to set things right and discover that McCoy had disrupted history by saving the life of a woman who would otherwise have died in a traffic accident. The problem is that by the time they figure this out Kirk has met and fallen in love with the woman who must die. Will he do the necessary thing and let her die, or will he sacrifice Earth's history for love? Ellison received his second Writer's Guild Award for this script.

Could superior scripts like these really be the work of the author of "The Oscar?" I prefer to blame the film on Ellison's two co-authors. After all, he may be beautiful when he's angry, but I don't particularly want him angry at me.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guilty Pleasures (originally published 8/93)

Sometimes I marvel at the times we're living in. While federal meat inspectors blithely approve the sale of disease-ridden flesh, TV movie reviewers agonize over whether to give a movie a thumbs-up.

"I don't know," the critic says, obviously enduring a dark night of the soul right there in front of the cameras. "The film has some charming moments and a lot of heart, but I just can't quite recommend it."

Oh, go on, force yourself.

My own theory is that if you liked a movie, it's good. If you didn't like it, there are two possibilities: a) you're not part of the movie's intended audience or b) it's bad. As a general rule of thumb this works pretty well, but you also have to take into account that little streak of perversity that lives inside all of us. If we’re honest with ourselves we all have to admit that there are some movies that we genuinely love in spite of their undeniable ghastliness. From Joe Sixpack to the most erudite cinema scholar, it’s my contention that every moviegoer has a few of these “guilty pleasures.” Here are some of mine.

“The Phantom Empire” (1935). Although you might not guess it from the title, this 12-chapter serial is an early Gene Autry picture. He was already well known as a radio singing cowboy, but this was his first starring role in a movie. In a stretch truly worthy of his acting talents, he plays a radio singing cowboy named Gene Autry. But that’s not the weird part. The plot has him doing battle with the denizens of the lost underground city of Murania. Their futuristic society has the advantage of all manner of advanced gadgetry, including metal robots in stovepipe hats. (No, I mean literally – hats made out of stovepipes.) You have to wonder what they were smoking when they decided to cast their budding young Western star in a Buck Rogers story line. There is absolutely no excuse for this movie, but I love it dearly.

“Bucket of Blood” (1959). Most people are familiar with Roger Corman’s hilarious “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) thanks to the successful musical play it inspired. Less well known is this earlier Corman film, his first effort at combining his low-budget horror film formula with comedy. Corman stalwart Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, a young sculptor yearning to gain the acceptance of the artsy, pretentious coffee house crowd. Eventually he does make it big, but only by murdering his models and covering their bodies with clay to create his sculptures. Corman didn’t miss the opportunity to ridicule the highbrow art crowd – the very people who dismissed his kind of movie making. It’s vintage Corman; cheap, nasty, but fun.

“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1965). Like Pinocchio growing up to be a real boy, some films that start off as trash evolve into classics. Robert Aldrich’s film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), for example, was conceived as pure pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to make a buck for all concerned. Screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, experiencing a bit of a slump in their respective careers, agreed to appear opposite each other in a gothic freakshow. Remarkably, the two old pros managed to breathe some life into the grisly proceedings. As a result, the film is now looked back on with a certain grudging respect. Not so “Sweet Charlotte,” Aldrich’s follow-up film. Trash it was and trash it remains. This time Davis is teamed with Olivia de Havilland in a Southern gothic horror story that resembles nothing so much as “Tales From the Crypt.” Davis is an old maid whose lover was murdered with an axe many years ago. The suspicion lingers on, even in her own mind, that she might have done the deed herself. If this sounds like promising material, perish the thought. There is much chewing of scenery by actors who certainly knew better. But they’re all enjoying themselves so hugely that I can’t help doing the same.

In fact, it may well be that therein lies the secret of guilty pleasures. If the filmmakers enjoyed their work, maybe the results, however meager, can somehow transmit that joy to the viewer.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Endings (originally published 12/94)

Somewhere along the way, happy endings fell into disrepute in the movie business. They're considered corny, facile, and unpardonably naive. To state the matter bluntly, in certain critical circles a happy ending is considered to be the last resort of a hack who just isn't creative enough to come up with a proper ending.

The lone exception is Frank Capra, who built virtually his entire distinguished career on happy endings. The result has been that nearly all subsequent feel-good movies have tended to be lumped into the same category -- an all-purpose critical dustbin labeled "Failed Capra Imitations." That's what happened this year to the relentlessly panned "Trapped in Paradise."

My contention, however, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with happy endings. It's just that there is a right way and a wrong way to do them, and almost everyone these days does them the wrong way. Frank Capra didn't have a magic touch. He just knew what he was doing.

What Capra understood is that happy endings have to be earned. Think of the ending of "It's a Wonderful Life," for instance. We can believe that all those townsfolk would shower George Bailey with money because Capra has very carefully shown each individual being helped by George during the course of the film.

Capra also understood that we will accept a radiant burst of optimism at the end of a movie only if the bulk of the story maintains a sternly unromanticized undertow. Again, look at "It's a Wonderful Life." The ending may be warm and fuzzy, but during the two hours or so leading up to it Capra has picked that little town apart with a gimlet eye, exposing all manner of pettiness and small-minded iniquity among its citizenry. By holding sentiment in abeyance, Capra makes us hunger for it. When the sentimental flood gates open in the last five minutes, then, we are too grateful to be put off by it.

If you're one of the many who have been disappointed by "Trapped in Paradise," and you want to see how feel-good movies ought to be done, you should know that "It's a Wonderful Life" is just the beginning of the Capra titles available on home video. Here are some others to look for.

"Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936). Gary Cooper stars as Longfellow Deeds, an eccentric but goodhearted fellow who inherits $20 million from a rich uncle. Having no use for the money himself, he resolves to give it away in the form of land and livestock to needy people who are willing to work a farm. There's a happy ending, but much of the film is deeply cynical, rubbing our noses in the machinations of greed and betrayal at work to thwart Deeds in his altruistic aspirations. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is a promotional trailer for a re-release of the film.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). When a U.S. senator dies unexpectedly, the political bosses who pulled his strings must decide who should be appointed to serve out his term. They pick Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a local scoutmaster with no political experience. Smith is a wide-eyed, naive patriot who reveres Washington, D.C. and believes in the wisdom and nobility of its elected officials, so the political bosses figure that he will be easy to manipulate. By the time we get to the happy ending, Capra has taken a hard-edged look at political corruption that "60 Minutes" would be proud of.

"State of the Union" (1948). Having already skewered political officeholders, Capra shifted his focus with this film to the campaigns by which politicians attain their positions. Again, his viewpoint is tough-minded and unsparing. Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, a prosperous and idealistic industrialist who allows himself to be persuaded to run for president. Early on in his campaign his straight talk endears him to the voters. Soon, however, he finds himself constrained by the fat cats who actually deliver the votes. Before Capra mercifully grants us our happy ending, we must watch this likable, intelligent man reduced to parroting the words of greedy and cynical political handlers.

Of course, there are always those who can't stand happy endings even when they are done properly. Some critics of Capra's time sneered at his work, calling it "Capra-corn." I can't tell you their names, because posterity has chosen to erase them from its page. The name of Frank Capra, on the other hand, is engraved there forever. Now that's a happy ending.