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Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Case of Mistaken Identity (originally published 6/95)

Unless I'm badly misreading the signs down at the local newsstand, it seems to be Sandra Bullock's turn to be the flavor of the month. Over the past few months, by my careful count, she has been on the cover of every major publication except "Scientific American" and "Field and Stream." All she needs to do to complete the sweep is discover a formula for cold fusion while on a hunting trip.

It's no accident, however, that she is enjoying her hour in the spotlight. In addition to her talent and engaging screen presence, she seems to have a knack for choosing vehicles built around tried and true formulas. "Speed," for example, tapped into the bottomless appetite of movie audiences for high-octane chase scenes. Her current film, "While You Were Sleeping," makes use of an equally sturdy dramatic device, that of mistaken identity. It is, in fact, one of the oldest plot devices, and has served as the basis for both comedy and drama with equal success. If you've enjoyed the comic confusion resulting from Bullock's impersonation of an unconscious man's fiancee in "While You Were Sleeping," here are some earlier examples of mistaken identity comedies to look for on home video.

"Along Came Jones" (1945). Gary Cooper plays Melody Jones, an inoffensive and thoroughly inept cowboy who can barely hold a gun, let alone shoot one. He does, however, resemble Monte Jarrod (Dan Duryea), a gunfighter who is feared throughout the territory. Even the initials on his saddle seem to confirm that Jones is Jarrod. Cooper, who produced the film, plays the confusion for comic effect in a gentle parody of his own heroic screen image. It was a gutsy move -- or a foolhardy one, depending on your point of view. Cecil B. DeMille, for one, advised Cooper that his audience would never forgive him if he undermined their cherished image of him. Luckily, Coop's fans showed more tolerance than DeMille had given them credit for. They no doubt recalled how engaging Cooper had been as the gentle and amusing Longfellow Deeds in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1936), a connection that is explicitly played up in the film's original coming attractions trailer, which is reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Court Jester" (1956). In what is generally regarded as his best film, Danny Kaye parodies swashbuckling adventures of the Robin Hood variety. Kaye plays Hawkins, a lowly servant to the leaders of a peasant rebellion against a usurping king. To prove himself worthy, Hawkins assumes the identity of the usurper's court jester in order to assist his compatriots from the inside. This is the film that features Kaye's classic routine in which he vainly tries to keep straight whether the "pellet with the poison" is in the "vessel with the pestle" or the "flagon with the dragon." Another highlight is Basil Rathbone poking fun at his own villainous image much as Cooper had done with his heroic image in "Along Came Jones."

"Top Hat" (1935). No one used mistaken identity more entertainingly than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as this delightful musical demonstrates. Jerry Travers (Astaire) meets Dale Tremont (Rogers) at a resort near Venice and is instantly smitten. Dale, however, wants nothing to do with Jerry. The situation only gets worse when Dale gets the mistaken impression that Jerry is married to a friend of hers named Madge (Helen Broderick). In fact, Madge has invited Dale for the specific purpose of introducing her to Jerry, thinking that they might hit it off. This leads to lots of comic business in which Madge seems to be encouraging Dale to dally with her husband. The plot is great fun, the Irving Berlin songs are first-rate, and the dancing, needless to say, is sublime.

"Bachelor Mother" (1939). Ginger Rogers stars, without Fred Astaire this time, as a department store employee who finds herself stuck with an abandoned baby. Having agreed to hold the baby for a moment, she gradually realizes that no one is coming back for it. Everyone assumes that she's the child's mother, and nothing she says can convince them otherwise. It is further assumed that the child's father is the son of the store's owner, a suave young playboy played by David Niven.

It is little short of a miracle that a comedy with such racy overtones was made and released during the height of the Hollywood production code, which was designed to keep movie content squeaky clean to head off government censorship. If you want to watch it, though, go ahead. If the censorship police come after you, you can always claim that they've got the wrong person.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Calamities Aplenty (originally published 5/95)

The storytellers who create our history for us have the power to confer immortality. If enough of them choose to include a particular name in their tales, that name will acquire a life of its own, independent of its owner and therefore undiminished by his or her earthly demise.

There is, of course, a trade-off. In order to become such a mythic figure, it is necessary to give up your identity as a real, flesh and blood person. Once that happens, the realities of who you really were and what you actually did become irrelevant. The storytellers have an absolute license to choose good storytelling over factual accuracy, and they don't hesitate to use it.

That's why the real woman who was Martha Jane Cannary is even more thoroughly lost to history than most of her contemporaries. She has been superseded for all time by the legend of Calamity Jane, who may or may not have been the mother of Wild Bill Hickock's child, and who may or may not have toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's legendary Wild West Show. It all depends on who is telling the story.

If you saw "Buffalo Girls" on television, with Anjelica Huston in the role of Calamity Jane, you might be interested to see some of the other movie portrayals of this mythic figure. The few that are available on video are representative of the broad range of interpretations to which her legend has been subjected.

"The Plainsman" (1936). Cecil B. DeMille's epic saga of the American West features Gary Cooper as Hickock and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. This was crafty casting, since Cooper and Arthur had teamed up extremely successfully earlier that same year in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town." Arthur is a very feminine Calamity Jane, showing just a little tomboyishness around the edges. This was a time when women with a masculine temperament and demeanor were invariably presented in a condescending, isn't-that-cute manner, as if she were a child pretending to be a grownup.

"The Paleface" (1948). Jane Russell's version of Calamity Jane in this Bob Hope comedy is a kind of double parody. She's spoofing both the legend of Calamity Jane and her own infamous film debut in the Howard Hughes western, "The Outlaw" (1943). Hope is a tenderfoot dentist whom Calamity marries so that she can travel incognito. Since she has no real interest in him, part of the comedy revolves around Calamity consistently parrying his every effort to consummate the marriage. This Calamity is allowed to be genuinely tough and capable, rather than just a cute tomboy, because part of the comedy premise is the gender role reversal with the weak and helpless Hope.

"Calamity Jane" (1953). Sooner or later, it was inevitable that Calamity would get her own musical. Doris Day plays the title role as a charming tomboy. She's always been content to be looked on as just one of the boys, but realizes that there is a downside to her lack of femininity when she develops a crush on a certain soldier. Although that romance doesn't work out, it does lead Calamity to the realization that she has been in love with Bill Hickock all along. Looking back on it from our contemporary perspective, the film can be read as a wry commentary on gender roles, although I'm not so sure that it was originally intended that way. Day's performance of the song "Secret Love" became a hit record and won the Academy Award as Best Song. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's trailer.

"Calamity Jane" (1984). This made-for-TV movie takes an approach to the character of Calamity that is very similar in some ways to that of "Buffalo Girls." There is a conscious effort to minimize the cutesy tomboyishness of earlier portrayals and to create instead a more rounded and believable character. This is necessary in part because she is presented here as the central character in a dramatic film. No caricature could carry our interest over such an extended dramatic work. Like "Buffalo Girls," this version of Calamity's life includes the daughter she gave away and the emotional cost of that decision. Calamity is capably played by Jane Alexander.

This is, by the way, the same Jane Alexander who recently became the director of the National Endowment for the Arts. I imagine that her experience playing Calamity Jane has served her well in that role, now that she has had to learn to circle the wagons and shoot it out with savages for real.