Comedy

A Mexican Revenge

Dolores del Rio plays Pat O'Brien like a two-bit Image: kdsjf dksljf

Dolores del Rio is dressed for revenge. Image: Dawn’s Dolores del Rio

They say revenge is a dish best served cold.

We (as in, yours truly) are not very skilled in the “getting even” department, which is why we’re paying close attention to a 1935 comedy about Mexican folks getting even with American folks.

In Caliente is a stylish 1930s musical comedy with dazzling choreography by Busby Berkeley. It stars the über-glam Dolores del Rio as a Mexican-born dancer who is unable to forgive a New York magazine editor for disparaging her talent in print.

Pat O’Brien plays said editor, a rapid-speaking, short-tempered man who believes yelling is better than talking. He is also the worst kind of critic because he writes reviews of performances without ever seeing them.

In his magazine, O’Brien wrote that del Rio was “a bag of bones” and “onion soup without the onions.” (Whoa! Watch that smart mouth of yours, O’Brien.)

So, if you were Dolores del Rio and you knew this cad was vacationing in your hometown the same time you were, would you be tempted to get even? Exactly.

Fortunately for del Rio, O’Brien becomes smitten with her as soon as he sees her, and who could blame him? She’s the Hollywood Gold Standard: thin, beautiful, well dressed. She’s the type who exercises in chiffon.

del Rio and her manager (Leo Carrillo) use O’Brien’s feelings to leverage their revenge. (“His name is engraved on my heart in letters of blood,” says a seething Carrillo.) These two careful plot their revenge until – uh oh! – del Rio discovers O’Brien is not quite the beast she thought he was and, despite everything, she may be falling for him.

Drat. Another Hollywood story where True Love derails revenge and no one wants to get even any more.

Or do they?

(actor) loves to do business with Americans. (Screencap by yours truly)

Leo Carrillo (left) loves doing business with Americans.

The most interesting revenge in this movie doesn’t involve del Rio at all. It involves the citizens of Caliente.

Caliente, as portrayed by the movie, is a resort town overrun with Americans who can’t spend money fast enough. These Americans are used to having a Certain Level of Service. For instance, they need people to carry luggage, drive taxis and mix cocktails. By default, these thankless tasks must fall to the residents of Caliente.

Not only that, the Americans have turned Caliente into the ideal American resort, with gentrified tennis courts and chaise lounges by the pool. The Americans don’t really want to be in Mexico, they just want to say they’ve been.

What’s a local resident to do?

Whenever possible, the film shows locals cheerfully hustling Americans at the card table or over-charging them to have their picture taken on a mule. A local band charges a small fee to play at your party, but it’ll cost you more if you want them to leave.

There is a wonderful scene (on the golf course!) where Carrillo hustles O’Brien’s assistant (Edward Everett Horton). Carrillo explains del Rio is a great artist but not a business woman and that she’ll need “a little something in advance.” Horton promptly writes a cheque.

See? These locals are only doing what the Americans want, and that is to ease money out of those alligator-skin wallets.

In Caliente is a frilly and beautifully-filmed movie with a talented cast and memorable music. However, you may find yourself rooting more for the residents of Caliente than the main characters.

In Caliente: Dolores del Rio, Pat O’Brien, Leo Carrillo. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Jerry Wald and Julius Epstein. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1935, B&W, 84 mins.

This post is part of the HOLLYWOOD HISPANIC HERITAGE blogathon hosted by Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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Stealing the Scen(ery) from Buster Keaton

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Buster Keaton knits a fashionable sweater while riding through the Canadian Rockies. Image: shelleysdavies.com

Buster Keaton may have been one of the most coordinated people on earth.

His early film career is testament to his athleticism and physical sense of humour. The brilliant 1926 film, The General, for example, has you holding your breath as Keaton performs stunts on moving trains. Sometimes you can hardly watch because of the danger, but he’s so nimble and funny you can’t not watch.

One of Keaton’s last film roles was also performed on a moving train – or, more accurately, a railway speeder.

In the 1965 silent short, The Railrodder, Keaton is a Londoner who sees a newspaper ad promoting Canadian tourism, and immediately decides to travel to the Great White North. When he arrives on Canada’s Atlantic shore, he discovers two things: (1) it’s 3,900 miles to the Pacific Ocean; and (2) there’s an abandoned railway speeder which he uses to get across that 3900-mile stretch.

The Railrodder is a rather strange, but delightful homage to Keaton’s silent film prowess and to the importance of the railroad in Canadian history. Keaton, who turned 69(!) during filming, busies himself while riding the speeder across Canada. He cooks scrambled eggs, does a bit of “housework”, tries to hunt geese. All of these are done while the speeder is in motion.

There are quieter moments, too. In one scene, Keaton stops the speeder in the middle of the Prairies while he prissily sets out a formal tea service and sips, unhurriedly, from a china cup.

All of these activities are made possible by the presence of a mysterious orange box on the speeder. This box seems to house an entire props department including, but not limited to, a rifle, the aforementioned tea service, and a large buffalo-skin coat to wear whilst riding through the mountains.

The Railrodder is determined to show us how progressive Canada was in the mid 1960s. Scenes unfailingly include power lines, manufacturing plants, and bridges – lots of bridges. To someone who hasn’t been to Canada, it might look as though you couldn’t spit without hitting a bridge.

Despite these unsightly signs of progress, Canada looks beautiful and majestic and interesting. Which creates an unusual dilemma.

Keaton laksjdf sfdj. Image: alksdjf dkjs

The well-dressed Keaton surveys the Prairies. Image: Will Has a Blog

Keaton is billed as the star of the show, and rightfully so. He’s funny, engaging and utterly entertaining. (Click here for an outtake prank.) But he has to work to steal the scene from the main character: Canada.

In our opinion (not that we’re biased), some of the most impressive Canadian scenery is left out of the film. Yet, the varied landscapes – from ocean to prairie to mountain – make you appreciate how big this place is. (Canada is the second largest nation, area-wise, in the world.)

There’s absolutely no one else besides Buster Keaton you’d want riding a speeder across Canada. But when he’s in the Rockies, for instance, you hardly notice him. The mountains look so crisp and inviting it’s easy to get lost in the scenery.

The Railrodder was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and every Canadian Of A Certain Age has seen it at least once. We adore this film because it embraces two things we admire: Buster Keaton’s talent and our magnificent country.

The Railrodder: starring Buster Keaton. Directed by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton & John Spotton). Written by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton). The National Film Board of Canada, 1965, Colour, 25 mins.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by yours truly and the über-Canadian Speakeasy. Click HERE for a list of participants.

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Fly Fishing with William Powell

William Powell (right) is confident in his fake-fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema

William Powell (right) is confident in his fake fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema

Sometimes, knowing what you’re doing is overrated.

Who doesn’t love that adrenaline rush of panic and disbelief when you’re caught, unprepared, in a frantic situation beyond your control? That’s when you know you’re alive.

Many actors have beautifully demonstrated this type of unfortunate circumstance, and one of our favourites is William Powell in the 1936 screwball comedy Libeled Lady.

Libeled Lady is a very funny movie with this cast: Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. It has a smart script, gorgeous Cedric Gibbons‘ set designs and an enviable wardrobe by Dolly Tree. Here is a movie that cannot go wrong.

Briefly, the plot: Tracy plays the managing editor of a newspaper that prints a story accusing a socialite (Loy) of being a home wrecker. Loy, who is vacationing in Europe, threatens to sue the paper upon her return to the United States. Tracy, fearing the $5 million lawsuit will bankrupt his newspaper, plans a “sting” operation: He will ask his girlfriend (Harlow) to temporarily marry Powell (in name only), then arrange a compromising situation between Powell and Loy. This will make the Loy homewrecking story actually true, the lawsuit will be dropped, and everyone can just move along. Nothing to see here.

As part of his scheme to seduce Loy, Powell decides to go through her father (Walter Connolly), a rich industrialist and an avid trout fisherman. Powell devours fly fishing books, and even arranges for a fly-fishing tutor to visit him at his hotel where he’s staging a fake honeymoon with the agitated Harlow.

(Digression: It’s a treat to see the Powell-and-Harlow scenes, since they were a real-life couple. Powell’s character is polite and courteous towards Harlow, while she becomes increasingly irritated with distracted boyfriend Tracy and starts falling for Powell.)

After he travels to London, Powell immediately finds Loy and Connolly on the ship leaving for America. Powell starts in with the fishing yarns, but Loy is suspicious.

Connolly (to Powell): “So, you’ve fished Gluckman’s Point. Well, you’re an angler all right.”

Loy: “I should say Mr. Chandler’s quite an angler.”

Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: Pinterest

Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: pinterest.com

 

We know the movie is building towards an epic Man-Versus-Trout battle and we are not disappointed. Once they are landed in the U.S., Connolly invites Powell to on a fishing trip with Loy and himself. Powell arrives, decked out in shiny new fishing gear and a copy of The Anglers’ Hand-Book for Beginners tucked in his creel (basket). While Connolly and Loy are expertly casting their lines – and catching fish – Powell ends up in the drink, only to discover his precious Hand-Book cheerfully floating downstream.

This is precisely one of the things that we, the audience, have paid for. The William Powell of the 1930s is a study in scrupulous grooming; he practically gleams with studio polish. As much as we adore him, we want to see him floundering down a stream in a wet, floppy hat, desperately clinging to a fishing rod as though it were useful. It makes the urbane Powell less of a movie star and more like one of us – and we love him all the more for it.

Libeled Lady is a movie that isn’t as popular as it deserves to be. The entire movie is a delight, but the scenes of Powell’s attempts at fly fishing are pure movie magic.

Libeled Lady: starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. Written by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, George Oppenheimer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1936, B&W, 98 mins.

The Infatuation Drug

Note: This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Today’s movie connects to Speakeasy’s My Darling Clementine via producer/writer Samuel G. Engel.

Pat Boone (left) counsels Dick Sargent on the ways of l'amour. Image: ebay

Pat Boone (left) counsels Dick Sargent on How to Romance Women. Image: eBay

Maybe young Pat Boone didn’t realize how brave he was.

In the 1957 musical comedy Bernardine, the young singer plays a slick-talking but misguided lothario who dispenses advice like he’s dispensing medicine.

“Misguided” could be too soft a word. In one scene, Boone’s character refers to a friend’s girlfriend by saying, “It belongs to Wilson.” In another scene, he sings about “technique” and how women love it when men are deceitful and neglectful.

Pretty offensive stuff – and would be to women in the 1950s – except for one thing: Boone plays the character with such over-the-top sliminess that you become fascinated by his outrageously stupid worldview.

Bernardine, based on the play by Mary Chase, stars Boone and Dick Sargent as high school seniors who are three weeks away from graduating. But Sargent’s grades are so poor, he may not graduate if he doesn’t pass his final exams. Added to this turmoil is Sargent’s inability to romance girls, despite Boone’s prescriptions.

Sargent and Boone have fantasized about the ultimate dream woman whom they’ve named Bernardine Mudd (of all things). Things get complicated when Sargent meets the beautiful Terry Moore, with whom he becomes instantly smitten. Here’s his real-life Bernardine!

However, final exams loom large, and Sargent is forced to put his romantic life on hold. He must remain sequestered in his house for two weeks to cram. He panics: What if Moore meets someone else in the meantime?!!!!!

During his “captivity”, Sargent is jittery, unfocused, irritable – much like someone going through withdrawal. Love/infatuation is a drug, they say, and Sargent’s character is a first-rate addict.

Terry Moore has her pick of men. Image: ebay

Terry Moore is the object of Dick Sargent’s obsessive affections. Image: eBay

Bernardine is a deceptively clever film. Here we have Boone, a smooth talker who employs a $50-dollar vocabulary and good-naturedly teases his chums. But while Boone winks at his friends, the movie winks at us. Can you believe these morons? the filmmakers seem to say.

Yet this movie is not so light-hearted as it first appears. Janet Gaynor, who plays Sargent’s mother, has a rather preachy lecture about parenting, but offers some thoughtful insights. The ending, too, is surprisingly philosophical, and it’s here Boone and Sargent prove they can really act.

In many ways, producer Samuel G. Engel has created a cliché 1950s teen film, with a handsome pop star singing about love and teenagers clad in wide skirts and sweater vests. But its strong characters and witty script give it a timeless feel, along with the obvious infatuation/pharmaceutical symbolism.

Producer Engel was no dummy. Besides producing and screenwriting, he was President of the Producer’s Guild of America (1955-1958), and lobbied to include short films in the Academy Awards. Before he came to Hollywood, he was a successful businessman who owned a chain of retail outlets in Manhattan.

These retail outlets were drugstores.

Samuel Engel was a pharmacologist by trade, who earned his degree at the Albany College of Pharmacy.

Now, we ask you: Who better to show us that infatuation is a drug? Engel has shrewdly done so with the little-known musical Bernardine.

Bernardine: Pat Boone, Terry Moore, Janet Gaynor. Directed by Henry Levin. Written by Theodore Reeves. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1957, Colour (by DeLuxe), 95 mins.

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon hosted by the über chic Classic Film & TV Café. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.

BYOB

John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety

Charles W... sldfj asfdj  Image: lsdkjf

Charles Winninger won’t talk politics today, gentlemen. *Wink!*  Image: Alt Screen

Guess which of John Ford‘s films was his favourite. Come on, take a wild guess.

The Sun Shines Bright is not a typical John Ford movie. There isn’t a single A-list actor, nor does it appear to have an expensive budget. Despite this (or because of it?) the director labeled it as his favourite.

The Sun Shines Bright is about a small southern town at the turn of the twentieth century. It is based on three short stories written by American humourist Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944).

The town’s circuit judge, played by Charles Winninger, is facing re-election. Winninger’s character is a down-to-earth man who refers to his drink as “corn squeezin’s”, and scurries about helping his fellow townspeople. However, he is always in election mode and often mockingly protests, “No politics today, gentlemen.” It’s a rather disingenuous campaign strategy when you think about it.

While the campaigning is afoot, an African American teenager (Elzie Emanuel) is arrested for raping a white girl. Winninger works to calm the town’s anger, especially when a lynch mob marches toward the jail where Emanuel is held.

In the midst of all this, a young woman who was adopted as a child (Arleen Whelan) tries to find the truth about her birth family.

There is a lot to admire about The Sun Shines Bright. It’s beautifully filmed, like all of Ford’s movies, with each shot artfully framed. It doesn’t easily slide easily into one genre, so it is more reflective of actual life. It is a drama and a comedy and a philosophical history.

It’s the kind of movie that should make us think Ford-as-storyteller is a fine humanitarian.

But it doesn’t.

It can’t, because we are watching John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety. This is where words do not match actions, and the discrepancy between the two is so jarring we can hardly concentrate on the plot.

skdfj alksfj d Image: blu-ray.com

Stepin Fetchit as Winninger’s “assistant” (read: Servant). Image: blu-ray.com

The themes of this film are hypocrisy and redemption, as illustrated by these scenarios:

  • a young woman is ostracized by her fellow townsfolk because she was born out of wedlock.
  • when a sick woman with a dubious reputation arrives in town, she shunned by “decent” folk and is forced to take refuge at a brothel.
  • when a white girl is assaulted, police immediately arrest an African American teenager without proof.

These are thought-provoking themes that should be explored in film. Yet it’s strange that in a movie preaching Equality For All, the director presents African Americans as weak, one-dimensional characters who are completely dependent upon white townsfolk. Subtext: everyone deserves to be equal but them.

These characters have neither original thought nor ambition nor bravery. Really? People who survived slavery – and all that went with it – are now simpering fools?

It’s Faux Piety. Because Ford presents African Americans as ludicrous caricatures, the movie becomes hollow. When Emanuel is found innocent of rape charges, the film celebrates Winninger the Hero instead of examining the actions that imprisoned an innocent teenager to begin with.

We are left wondering: Redemption for some, but not all?

The Sun Shines Bright could have been one of the great films of Ford’s career. Instead, it leaves us feeling like a great premise has been squandered.

The Sun Shines Bright: starring Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell. Directed by John Ford. Written by Laurence Stallings. Republic Pictures Corp., 1953, B&W, 100 mins.

This post is part of the JOHN FORD BLOGATHON hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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The Edmond O’Brien Guide to Not Working

Wanda Hendrix (left) tries to tell Edmond O'Brien to get lost.

Wanda Hendrix (left) politely tells Edmond O’Brien to get lost. (Lousy screencap by yours truly.)

We all know someone who is, shall we say, “thrifty”.

This is a person who panics if they have to spend their money, but they’re very encouraging when it comes to spending your money.

Yet, there are rare people who elevate thriftiness to an art form and make it look like an enviable – even honourable – profession.

Such is the character Edmond O’Brien portrays in The Admiral was a Lady, a 1950 comedy about recently-discharged vets adjusting to civilian life after World War II. O’Brien heads a former bomber crew who meet a WAVE ensign (Wanda Hendrix) at the so-called “52/20 Club”. (This is a social security office where veterans collect a $20/week assistance cheque while looking for employment.)

The airmen take Hendrix under their wings (ha ha), and settle into a domestic arrangement à la Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

O’Brien is perfectly cast as a charming con man who claims he “can’t afford to work”. Hendrix is delightfully funny as a down-to-earth woman swept up by the airmen’s enthusiasm. Our fave, Rudy Vallee, steals a few scenes as a cash-strapped businessman whose ex-wife is his “only liquid asset”.

Rudy Vallee (right) threatens Edmund O'Brien with a job if he doesn't behave. Image: sjad askjf sdkj

An angry Rudy Vallee (right) threatens Edmund O’Brien with a job. Image: wn.com

But wait! This movie is more than brilliant casting and laugh-out-loud lines. The screenwriters have thoughtfully provided us with a gift, something that resonates with us today as much as it did with vets in 1950.

A Blueprint for Happier Living through Not Working

How is this possible? We’re glad you asked! We have organized the script’s blueprint for Not Working into five handy categories:

1. Housing

There’s no need to pay for housing if there are abandoned, freshly scrubbed buildings that no one else has thought to live in. In our movie, the airmen have commandeered empty army barracks, complete with cavernous, multi-stall bathrooms.

2. Food

Food is always a tricky item to avoid purchasing. However, our scriptwriters assure us that days-old food is inexpensive and poses no health risk! In one scene, the men treat Hendrix to chicken that’s been on a rotisserie for five days. What’s five days on a spit when it’s an extra 50 per cent off?

3. Transportation

Why bother with a car when you can hitch a ride with a delivery truck? In our film, the boys are chauffered by in a delivery van. With deliveries all over the city, a person can go anywhere free of charge.

4. Banking

Sadly, banking rules have changed since 1950, and perhaps O’Brien’s crew was responsible. The script tells us that, back in the day, you could cash your $20/week cheque by opening a bank account, collecting your cash, then immediately closing the account. (And don’t forget the promotional piggy bank, Mac!)

5. Entertainment

Who says a person can’t have fun on $20/week? O’Brien poses as a millionaire looking to buy a yacht so he and the men can take Henrix for an ocean excursion. When the current yacht owner mentions the price of the boat, O’Brien nearly chokes. But he recovers and says coyly, “$70,000 is a lot of money. Even for me.”

The Admiral was a Lady is a small budget film that deserves to be more well known. If it isn’t praised for its script and acting, then it should be revered for its tongue-in-cheek budgeting tips.

The Admiral was  Lady: starring Edmund O’Brien, Wanda Hendrix, Rudy Vallee. Directed by Albert S. Rogell. Written by John O’Dea and Sidney Salko. United Artists, 1950, B&W, 87 mins.

This post is part of Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Be sure to read all the other contributions, daddy-o.

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The Science of Romantic Comedy

Marian Davies is annoyed with Charles Chaplin (right). Image: asldkfj asdlkfj asdf

Marion Davies is annoyed with autograph-seeker Charles Chaplin (right). Image: Chaplin for the Ages

A cynic would tell you every Romantic Comedy plays out like this: Boy Meets Girl – Boy Loses Girl + Boy Wins Girl = Formulaic Pandering to the Masses

To which we reply: So?

Formulas are good! Don’t we use formulas in developing a non-toxic lawn fertilizer? Or a cheeky bordeaux? What’s wrong with using a formula, anyway?

A formula is necessary for a romantic comedy, and we shall prove it using Scientific Methods. Our control group in this analysis consists of elements from the 1928 comedy, Show People, a loving look at Hollywood and what it take to be a Star.

In order to construct the Romantic Comedy Formula, we must first apply the Shakespeare Axiom: The course of true love never did run smooth.

We must also examine the Isometric Structure. Romantic comedies, by definition, need to have a feel-good ending. They also need a good script with heaps of witty lines, actors with perfect timing and a director who builds the story at a measured pace.

The point of the Romantic Comedy is the Happy Outcome, as symbolized in our formula:

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First, we need a protagonist. In this instance, our protagonist is the beautiful, rubber-faced Marion Davies (as identified by the symbol “p”). She has come to Hollywood to be a Big Movie Star.

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The luminescent Marion Davies (“p”). Image: mardecortésbaja.com

Next, we need a Love Interest (identified by the symbol “li”), as played by William Haines. Haines’ character is a B-movie comedian who will never be a matinee idol, but he’s a down-to-earth soul who is kind and and very amusing.

The witty and handsome William Haines. Images: Wikipedia

The witty and handsome love interest William Haines (“li”). Image: Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we need an occasion for Davies and Haines to Meet, which is nicely summed up here:

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…wherein the Protagonist (Davies) meets the Love Interest (Haines) – squared, because each has their own perception of the event.

Plus pi or, in this movie, pie:

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…because sometimes you just need a slice of pie. Haines also needs pies, lots of them, because that’s the kind of actor he is. (He’s called a “custard pie comedian”.) In comedy, as in life, there are infinite occasions for pie.

Back to the story! The chemistry between Davies and Haines is obvious, as evidenced in an early scene: Haines tenderly reapplies Davies’ lipstick after she’s been unexpectedly sprayed with water on her first day of filming.

William Haines gives beauty tips to Marian Davies. Image: lkasdfj laksdjf

William Haines gives beauty tips to Ms. Davies. Image: Which Way LA?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now! Into this formula we must add a flimsy, self-absorbed Distraction (Paul Ralli), as identified by the symbol “d”. His dialogue is filled with magnificent hogwash, such as: “Being a lady of quality, she chose the cinema as a medium of self-expression.”

The vain and sullen Ralli is Obviously Unsuitable for the winsome Davies, but she finds herself attracted to him for reasons of career advancement. As dull as he is, he knows all the Right People.

Paul Ralli considers himself to be a work of art. Image: djsf akldjs

Paul Ralli (“d”) considers himself to be a work of art. Image: limassolinhistory.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This growing attraction between Davies and Haines, and Davies and Ralli, is compounded by several obstacles as per the Shakespeare Axiom:

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(Note: The many obstacles are symbolized by “O” to the power of 10,000 because the players are continually blindsided in romantic comedies. As one character says, “Remember, the one law of pictures is, don’t anticipate!”)

The trouble is, Ralli has wealth and connections (which are the same thing in Hollywood, no?) and he seems infinitely more capable than Haines. Haines doesn’t appear to have much of a future as a Big Movie Star…but really, does not being an A-List actor really matter? This can be illustrated as such:

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…where Davies has to weigh Ralli’s wealth [w] against Haines’ foibles [1*1*1*1]. But wealth can only go so far against a charming, handsome man who makes you laugh.

Davies comes to this very Realization before it’s Too Late! Does she want an unhappy life with a well-connected fop, or does she want to have a vibrant relationship with the man she loves? She seizes upon the theory that there really is no future without Haines:

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Which, of course, hastens the Davies/Haines end-of-movie embrace, as shown by a standard formula for Acceleration:

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Et voilà! Here is our completed Romantic Comedy Formula:

 

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See? Not so simple, right? This is formulaic pandering to the masses? We don’t think so.

Even if you do not agree with our scientific methods, we urge you to see the funny and delightful Show People. It is a well-crafted look at Hollywood filmmaking in the silent era – and at romantic comedy in any era.

Show People: starring Marion Davies, William Hanes, Dell Henderson. Directed by King Vidor. Treatment by Agnes Christine Johnston and Laurence Stallings. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928, B&W, 65 mins.

This post is part of The Romantic Comedy Blogathon hosted by the lovely Backlots and Carole & Co. Be sure to read all the other contributions.

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Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

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Judy Garland wears her Sunday Best to impress her new fiancé. Image: denverlibrary.org

Judy Garland made everything look easy.

She could sing and dance and make you believe she flew to an emerald city in a tornado. Combined with her dramatic talents, it’s easy to forget how funny she was.

We marvelled at her comedic gifts when we screened The Harvey Girls (1946), a delightful musical-comedy Western.

Garland plays a young woman travelling from Ohio to the Wild West to marry a man with whom she’s corresponded, but has never met. On the train, she meets a group of spunky-but-respectable gals who are training to be waitresses at a Harvey House restaurant in Arizona. (These railroad-stop restaurants, established in the 1870s, are regarded as the first restaurant chain in the U.S.)

Garland is utterly charming. In an early scene, she sits on the westbound train, glancing enviously at the fried chicken the Harvey girls are eating, while she pokes at a single leftover crust in her lunch basket. Nevertheless, she spreads her napkin with a flourish over her lap and peers into her basket as though she can’t decide which imaginary delicacy to eat first.

When she arrives in town and sees her rough, unglamorous betrothed (Chill Wills), she is horrified. This man is the opposite of his letters, which are romantic and full of curlicues. She realizes she can’t hide forever from her husband-to-be, and she’s too stubborn to get back on the train, so she swallows her alarm and disappointment. But Wills ain’t no dummy; he gracefully asks Garland not to marry him.

Garland promptly joins the Harvey Girls and dons the employee uniform:

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Judy sings and serves steak in the Old West. Image: Sweethearts of the West

However.

The Harvey House is not welcome in town because it represents Manners and Keeping Elbows Off The Table. The saloon across the street, the feather-boa Alhambra, hates the starched-white Harvey House because townsfolk might turn into Respectable People. (You see, the Harvey House is to Civilization what the Alhambra could be to Vegas.)

And yet.

The Alhambra is owned by Ned Trent (John Hodiak), a smirky fellow whose greatest pleasure is sabotaging the Harvey House generally, and Judy Garland in particular.

But.

It was Hodiak who wrote those letters for Wills, the same letters that made Garland fall in love and board a train to the middle of nowhere to marry someone she’d never met.

Oh boy, we’ve gotten off topic. We were talking about Garland’s comedic talents. We’ve only time to describe one more scene, the one where John Hodiak steals all the Harvey House steaks!

Don't mess with Judy. Image: lskdjf a

Don’t mess with Judy. Image: YouTube

When Garland discovers the famous Harvey House steaks are missing, she decides to get ‘em back. She snatches two pistols and grimly marches across the street to the Alhambra, guns drawn. She’s All Business, yet she shrieks when she accidentally drops her weapons.

Garland reaches the Alhambra as someone is being forcibly removed. She squats under the saloon-style doors, surveying the territory, pistols cocked in the air à la Yosemite Sam. She finally musters the courage to stand and enter the bar. “Stick ‘em up,” she announces, and is almost knocked flat by bouncers trying to eject another patron. “Come on,” she pleads, “stick ‘em up now.” But everyone is having too much fun to notice.

If you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, we urge you to do so. It is a wonderful film that showcases the very amusing and charming Judy Garland.

The Harvey Girls: starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Chills Wills. Directed by George Sidney. Written by Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, Colour, 105 mins.

Ginger Rogers, Ace Detective

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 Ginger Rogers can’t believe her luck sometimes. Image: What Ginger Wore

Tell us this is not one of the best opening scenes ever:

It is night on a deserted street in New York. The camera is positioned as though you were leaning out a window of an apartment building, looking down at the sidewalk.

There is a scream and a man’s body falls, from above you, onto the pavement.

This, in our opinion, is the best kind of introduction to a movie. No chit chat, no how-do-you-do nonsense. Let’s just get down to business of murder.

Such is our introduction to A Shriek in the Night (1933), a clunky but charming pre-code murder mystery/comedy. The premise is something that wasn’t new then and is still familiar today: a rich man who may have shady dealings with criminals meets an unexpected end.

Fortunately for the police (and for the deceased), a newspaper reporter (Ginger Rogers) is On The Case. She had been investigating the man’s ties to the underworld but, now that he’s dead, she realizes she’s got a Bigger Story.

Except.

Her ex-boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) works for a rival newspaper. Talbot may not be as smart as Rogers but he has an audacious charm – and scoops her front page story to publish it in his own newspaper!

Despite this treachery (or because of), Rogers is determined to solve the mystery while trying to out-maneuver Talbot. BUT! Sinister forces discover Rogers is snooping around and, naturally, they feel they must dispose of her.

This movie was made in 1933 and, frankly, you can tell. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the scenes aren’t staged as smoothly as we’d like. However, A Shriek in the Night is still a barrel o’ fun. It winks at famous detectives (e.g. Philo Vance) and pays tribute to the popular detective magazines of the day.

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Lilian Harmer loves to read about grisly murders before going to sleep. Image: Old Films in Pictures

A good movie detective, like any detective, needs brains and guts. Rogers has both, and is très amusing in a smart-alec kind of way. In one scene, the lights suddenly go out in the rich man’s apartment. The maid (Lilian Harmer) shrieks.

Harmer: “There’s a man in the apartment!”

Rogers: “He’s a friend of mine. Keep your hands off him.”

There’s also fantastic Gangster Speak in the script. Look at this note sent to one of the characters:

“You don’t know me but I know you – and you and the mob that pinned the rap on Denny Fagan are going to get what he got – the juice.”

(Getting “the juice” means going to the electric chair. Fantastic stuff, no?)

Rogers and her nemesis, Talbot, have great chemistry; an entire movie could be made from their banter alone. One evening, Talbot arrives at the rich man’s apartment with plans to stay the night so he can protect Rogers and Harmer. An amused Rogers asks him not to wake her if he needs saving, then tells him not to drink all the scotch.

However, the movie soon gets tense as Rogers finds herself alone with the murderer – and it’s not anyone we suspected. We, as the audience, are genuinely fearful for Rogers. How will she escape?!

A Shriek in the Night may not be the slickest mystery ever produced, but it’s still a terrific film – and an excellent showcase for both Ginger Rogers’ and Lyle Talbot’s comedic talents.

A Shriek in the Night: starring Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark. Directed by Albert Ray. Screenplay by Frances Hyland. Allied Pictures Corp., 1933, B&W, 70 mins.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions in this Celebration of the Big-Screen Detective.

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1929: Americans in Paris

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Will Rogers (centre) would rather eat a snack on the stairs than attend his wife’s dinner party. Image: cinemasparagus.blogspot.ca

(This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.)

In September, the London Stock Exchange crashed; Wall Street was to follow before the end of October.

1929 was the year Greece outlawed political insurrections, Afghanistan suffered civil war and revolution, and Joseph Stalin kicked Leon Trotsky out of the Soviet Union. And in the West? There was a colossal economic implosion and the start of the Great Depression.

The signs were there: a small-scale market crash in March of that year; dubious Wall Street decisions; overextended consumer credit. But society rolled merrily along, and why not? You can’t blame anyone for wanting to believe the economy will always charge over the hill to save the day.

Hollywood movies reflected this optimism. Gold Diggers of Broadway was the highest-grossing film of the year, followed by Sunny Side Up and The Cock-Eyed World. The first Academy Awards were hosted that year (Wings won Best Picture), and Hallejuah! was released – the first film with an African-American cast.

Actor/humorist Will Rogers made his first talking picture in 1929: They Had to See Paris. This well-dressed comedy, the 27th top grossing film of the year, could almost be the story of the Western World during this period of uncertainty.

Rogers plays an small-town-Oklahoma auto mechanic with two grown children. When his newly-constructed oil well literally becomes a gusher, his wife (Irene Rich) decides they must take their children to Paris so they can meet All The Right People. Although Rogers firmly believes all the right people live in his small Oklahoma town, he accompanies his family to the City of Lights.

This is an amusing film, with some poignant moments and real exterior shots of 1920s Paris. But Director Frank Borzage is telling a bigger story than what appears to be a feel-good, America-is-the-best-country-in-the-world romp.

Example: When Rogers’ well is first put into operation, his fellow townspeople gather to watch. The oil derrick sits at the top of the hill, while the townspeople stand below.  A man slides a metal weight down the well and oil immediately sprays upwards, spewing barrels of the stuff. As oil runs down the hill, the townspeople seem to welcome the black liquid, scooping it up with their their hands, almost as if in an act of worship.

Another notable scene hints at the sizeable economic loss France suffered as a result of World War I. When his wife throws a party for French aristocrats at their country château, Rogers is shocked to discover she is paying honorariums to many of the guests, a practice that started after the war.

The film also gives a nod to the sizeable American ex-patriate community living the bohemian life in Paris at the time. Rogers’ son (Owen Davis, Jr.) gives his parents the slip and secretly moves in with an attractive young artist in the Quartier Latin.

They Had to See Paris is more than a vehicle for Will Rogers. It offers a glimpse of the Western World just before the stock market crash. The film’s themes of helping those in need, and placing importance on family and friends, were the traits folks needed to help grind their way through the Great Depression.

They Had to See Paris: starring Will Rogers, Irene Rich, Owen Davis, Jr. Directed by Frank Borzage. Scenario by Sonya Levien. Dialogue by Owen Davis. Fox Film Corp., B&W, 1929, 95 mins.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly. Please be sure to read the other contributions:

The Silent Era (1915-1926): Hosted by Movies, Silently

An Uncertain World (1927-1938): Hosted by Silver Screenings 

The War Years (1939-1950): Hosted by Once Upon a Screen

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