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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.