Comedy

‘Godfrey’ Screenplay Skewers the One Percent

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Poor Gail Patrick (left) thinks she can outwit William Powell (right). Image: Cineplex

Sometimes Hollywood is a bit much, really.

Filmmakers know that we, the masses, enjoy send-ups of rich people. We love it when we can feel intellectually superior to the dim-witted characters on the screen.

The joke is on us, of course. Many of these Hollywood films are made by rich people skewering their own kind, so we can buy tickets to laugh at them – thereby making them even richer.

But once in a while there is a script that makes us forget all of that by offering a deeper message. One such film, for us, is the 1936 screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey.

Godfrey (William Powell) is a “Forgotten” (read: homeless) man who lives with other Forgotten Men in a New York City landfill. One night, limousines arrive and lavishly-dressed rich people, involved in a scavenger hunt, invade the landfill to collect some of these Forgotten Men.

The movie’s not even five minutes old and already the script has smacked us upside the head. It’s significant that homeless people are living in the landfill. (In the landfill. In a first world country!) Even the 1930s term Forgotten Man is cosmetic, intended to mask a societal problem. The phrase is almost quaint and faintly amusing – as though one had left a pair of gloves at the polo club.

One of the rich people (Carole Lombard) quickly realizes the callousness of her mission and apologizes to Powell. He insists he be the Forgotten Man on her Scavenger Hunt List and so, with gratitude, she offers him a job as her family’s butler.

It’s here we get to see a wacky rich family who are alarmingly out of touch with society (i.e. the Depression) and the suffering of others. But they are not without their charm. For example, the father (Eugene Pallette), in summarizing the family’s finances, declares, “[Y]ou people have confused me with the Treasury Department.”

Witty lines, interesting characters, a social message. This is a script that could be nominated for an Oscar.

Which it was.

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The morals of the idle rich. Image: tumblr

The script has assigned Powell’s character the voice of reason, the one who tries to keep everyone grounded. We learn this early in the film, when Powell, rumpled and unshaven from landfill living, accepts the job offer from Lombard, all sleek in her Travis Banton gown.

Powell: “Just one question.”

Lombard: “What.”

Powell: “Where do you live?”

Lombard: “1011 Fifth. It’s funny – I never thought of that.”

Powell: [with a sardonic laugh] “No, you didn’t.”

Throughout the film, Powell tries to reconcile his new life as a butler with his former life as a Forgotten Man. Lombard’s older sister (Gail Patrick) discovers Powell has a secret past which she’s determined to uncover. In the meantime, she never lets Powell forget she’s a Superior Being because she has access to more money.

Powell’s character isn’t bedazzled by riches, and he scorns people who are. “I wanted to see how a bunch of empty-headed nitwits conducted themselves,” he says. “My curiosity is satisfied.”

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards, but went home empty-handed. It was beaten by The Story of Louis Pasteur in the categories of Best Picture and Best Screenplay. However, a person can’t blame the Academy; it would be difficult for any film to run against the guy who developed pasteurization.

Yet, we like to think the still-relevant My Man Godfrey was a close second.

My Man Godfrey: starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Written by Morrie Ryskind, Eric Hatch, Robert Presnell, Zoë Akins. Universal Productions Inc., 1936, B&W, 95 mins.

This post is part of the 31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon: The Crafts, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE for a list of all participants.

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Buster Keaton: Animal Rights Activist

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Buster Keaton with his best friend. Image: Britannica.com

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a herd of cattle were suddenly turned loose in a major city?

Really? You’ve never wondered about that?

Well, if you have pondered this, then you must see the 1925 Buster Keaton comedy-western, Go West. You’ll be delighted with a glorious scene where Keaton frees 1,000 head of cattle from a train in downtown Los Angeles.

It’s funny to see the newly-freed cows and bulls milling about; they visit a china shop (ha ha – get it?), a dress shop and a Turkish bath. They also wander into a barber shop, where a stray cow licks the shaving cream from a terrified customer’s face.

Even if you don’t care for the ol’ bovine-in-the-big-city schtick, you’ll still enjoy this film about a young man (Keaton) who ends up working as a ranch hand in Arizona. The film’s title, Go West, is from the famous quotation, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country”, commonly attributed to author Horace Greeley c.a. 1850.

Keaton’s character doesn’t have friends (he’s referred to as “Friendless” in the credits), nor does he care. He accepts good luck and bad, equally, with that stoic face.

His fortunes change, however, during a round-up on the ranch, when Keaton removes a stone from a cow’s hoof. Here he gains his first real friend – a cow named Brown Eyes. This grateful cow develops a little “crush” on Keaton, and refuses to leave his side. Keaton repays this loyalty by saving her from the branding iron, and by chasing coyotes away from the barn at night.

But when the owner of the ranch (Howard Truesdale) decides it’s time to ship his 1,000 head of cattle – including Brown Eyes – to the stockyards, Keaton’s equanimity vanishes. When his best efforts to shelter her prove futile, he decides to stow away on the cattle train to protect his best friend.

Keaton is told to smile when he calls someone a cheat. Image: lsdkjf jdks

Keaton is told to smile when he calls someone a cheat. Image: blu-ray.com

Go West is a delightful film, written and directed by the rubber-limbed Keaton. His character’s circumstances are rather dismal, but Keaton never lets us pity him. This determined young man is so oddly charming, it’s hard to believe he isn’t the most popular person in town.

As director, Keaton is superb. He sets up his shots for maximum comic effect, and threads running sight gags throughout the film. He also includes innovative camera angles, such as the view from atop a charging bull.

He’s also famously unafraid to place himself in harm’s way. In one scene, he realizes the cattle train is out of control, so he runs along the top of the train and leaps into the engine room. (It’s reminiscent of his masterpiece, The General, released the following year.)

Keaton isn’t a large-scale animal rights activist in this film; he’s intent on saving one animal, not the entire herd. But there is that glorious scene of freeing those poor bovines: When the train arrives in L.A., Keaton methodically slides open the bars on each cattle car and the animals, sensing their Big Chance, spring loose. Director Keaton captures the escape in such a way that we know how these cattle feel: free at last!

Go West isn’t one of Keaton’s most famous movies, but it ought to be. It’s a must-see film that shows us why Keaton became a legend in the first place.

Go West: starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers. Directed by Buster Keaton. Written by Buster Keaton (& Lex Neal). A Metro-Goldwyn Production, 1925, B&W, 54 mins.

This post is part of the BUSTER KEATON BLOGATHON, hosted by Silent-ology. Click HERE for a list of all participants.

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Vincent Price: Super Boss

Vincent Price: It's lonely at the top. Image: sdfuseilfjkdsk

Vincent Price: It’s lonely at the top. Image: Macabre Drive-In Theatre

Have you ever had a boss who was self-centred, greedy and completely unreasonable?

No, we didn’t think so. Bosses, by nature, are always kind, forgiving and rational.

However, if you are one of the very few who may have had a negative boss/subordinate experience, we recommend the delightful Champagne for Caesar.

Champagne for Caesar is a 1950 comedy with a stellar cast featuring Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm and Vincent Price. With a cast like this, a movie cannot go wrong.

Colman plays a perpetually under-employed intellectual who tries, but is unable, to secure a job as a research surveyor for a national firm, Milady Soap Company (“The Soap that Sanctifies”). This company is ruled by Price who interviews, then greatly offends, Colman.

Colman decides to get even with Price by becoming a contestant on the television quiz show sponsored by Price’s company, Masquerade for Money. This is a show where contestants wear costumes and answer trivia questions for cash prizes.

Colman is delightful in this movie. He’s convincing as a kind-hearted know-it-all who has the brains to score a truckload of Milady Soap Company moola.

Holm, too, is perfectly cast as a beautiful smarty-pants with whom Colman becomes instantly smitten. Holm has a hysterical deadpan delivery that almost seems to wink at us in the audience.

But Vincent Price!

Price is the best part of this film. He’s captivating in the role of an obnoxious, narcissistic idiot – a man who surrounds himself with Yes Men. For example, Price falls into a “thinking” trance whenever someone brings up a distasteful subject, and his Yes Men must reverentially tiptoe around his otherworldly reverie.

Vincent Price (centre, clutching heart) is surrounded by his Yes People. Image: ldsjf eiofj

Price surrounded by his Yes People. Image: wearemoviegeeks.com

No one chews the scenery better than Price, even on a bad day. When Colman starts winning very large sums on the quiz show, Price’s angst is thoroughly satisfying. This is because Colman and Price are making a fool of every bad boss any one of us has ever had.

For instance: In the scene where Price interviews Colman for the position at Milady, we see Price at his oversized desk, flanked by busts of Napoleon and Julius Caesar. Colman, clearly out of place in this pretentious atmosphere, makes a small joke. A snippy Price immediately declares his hatred of humour.

(A person who hates humour?)

Price: “At some given moment you would probably revert to type.”

Colman: “Oh, but surely –”

Price: (anguished) “Why is he interrupting? I didn’t indicate that I had finished talking. Did I? … You are an intellect and I hate intellectual types.”

In another scene, Price murmurs to his secretary, “You do care for me, don’t you? Remind me to ask you later what you’re doing tonight.”

You can see why we desperately want Colman to beat Price at his own (quiz show) game.

However, all of this creates an interesting situation. The more times Colman wins – and becomes famous – on Masquerade for Money, the more successful and famous Milady Soap Company becomes. It’s a public relations Détente.

The movie also raises a side question: Can big business ultimately tame the celebrities it creates?

Even though some of the humour is dated, Champagne for Caesar is a little-known treasure that deserves a wider audience. If you’ve ever had a Bad Boss experience, you might find this film oddly therapeutic.

Champagne for Caesar: Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, Vincent Price. Directed by Richard B. Whorf. Written by Hans Jacoby and Fred Brady. United Artists Corp., 1950, B&W, 100 mins.

Edna May Oliver vs. The Glass Ceiling

Edna May Oliver (left) tries to explain the obvious to James Gleason. Image: kdsjf eifj sdk

Edna May Oliver (left) explains the obvious to James Gleason. Image: Past Offences

Question: When was the last time you saw a movie in which…

  1. A female amateur sleuth did a better job of solving a mystery than a male detective?
  2. A middle-aged woman who LOOKS middle aged is the main character?
  3. A man becomes romantically interested in a middle-aged woman who is smarter than he?

Happily, the last time we saw a movie like this was the other night. Sadly, the movie was made in 1932.

The Penguin Pool Murder is a gem of a film that ought to be more well known. It has a witty script, clever camera angles, and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the last scene.

Edna May Oliver stars as Miss Hildegard Withers (emphasis on the Miss), a spinsterly schoolteacher who wears a sensible suit and comfortable shoes. She is prim, smart and ambitious, and her vocabulary includes such delightful phrases as “insofar as”.

Oliver happens to be at the city’s aquarium with her class on the day a murder is committed. While she is shepherding her students around the (gorgeous art deco) building, a body falls into the penguin pool. Enter James Gleason as the crusty detective who talks more like a gangster than a law enforcement officer.

As a potential suspect, Oliver is taken into the manager’s office for questioning by Gleason. Something stirs in her and she quickly gloms onto the opportunity of her scholastic lifetime: catching a murderer.

Gleason is impressed by Oliver’s ability to judge character. (“I’ve been teaching school long enough, Inspector, to know whether someone is telling the truth or not.”) He appreciates her help – indeed he relies on it – but his chauvinism sometimes interferes with his professionalism.

In one scene, Oliver shows him notes she’s compiled based on evidence they’ve gathered. Gleason is astounded at what she’s written.

Gleason: You oughtn’t to be a school teacher, Miss Withers. You ought to be a –

Oliver: Detective?

Gleason: (laughs) No, it takes a certain type to be a detective.

Oliver: (dryly) I’ve noticed that.

The chemistry between Oliver and Gleason is a lot of fun – and very appealing. Their banter has been described as that of “an old married couple” but, in our opinion, the dialogue is saucier, mostly because Gleason’s detective loves a woman with backbone.

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Edna May Oliver can get anyone to talk. Image: moviefanfare.com

Although Oliver’s character looks like an old-fashioned defender of The Establishment, she is not. For example, in one scene, Gleason tells Oliver he’s leaving to interview someone and that she should stay put. Oliver sits down for a moment, then forcefully stands up, wraps her fur stole around her neck – twice – and marches out the door.

The one scene that is most illustrative of Oliver’s character is when she barges into a men’s public restroom. She is following Gleason, who goes into the washroom and closes the door ahead of her. Oliver pauses slightly, as though she’s steeling herself, then storms through the door. Gleason, kneeling beside an unconscious man, doesn’t even blink when he sees Oliver enter.

This movie was based on the first of 18 Hildegard Withers novels, seven of which were published in the 1930s. Six movies were made from these novels; Oliver starred in the first three.

The Penguin Pool Murder has become one of our favourite films, and we think it could become one of yours. Set aside an hour to watch this film; you’ll be glad you did.

The Penguin Pool Murder: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Robert Armstrong. Directed by George Archainbaud. Written by Willis Goldbeck. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932, B&W, 75 mins.

The Gold Digger’s Fashion Guide

Moon Over Miami Betty Grable

Betty Grable (centre) calls the front desk and orders a Millionaire. Image: Vintage Clothing Love

We are of the opinion that a person should marry for love. But, for those who insist on finding a millionaire and marrying for money, may we recommend some valuable fashion advice?

We ourselves had no idea what to wear when chasing millionaires until we saw the perfect Millionaire* Chasing Attire in the 1941 musical comedy Moon Over Miami.

(*A million dollars in 1941 is worth $16,528,297.87 today. In case you were wondering.)

About the plot: Betty Grable, her sister (Carole Landis), and their aunt (the scene-stealing Charlotte Greenwood) move to Miami, where “rich men are as plentiful as grapefruit and millionaires hang from every palm tree.” (Take note.)

Grable poses as a rich young socialite on vacation, while Landis poses as her personal assistant and Greenwood as the maid. Turns out Grable meets not one, but two! handsome millionaires (Don Ameche and Robert Cummings), and is faced with the awkward dilemma of which millionaire to marry.

About the wardrobe: Everything in this film is designed to accessorize the clothes, from the sets to the co-stars – Cummings and Ameche being the most prominent accessories in this film. The scrumptious wardrobe was designed by famed Hollywood costume designer, Travis Banton. (For samples of his work, click here.)

Before we begin our Wardrobe Analysis, we must remember one important principle: The millionaire must think he (or she) is catching you, not the other way around. (And let’s face it, Dear Reader, you are a catch.)

Now, let us examine Grable’s wardrobe savour-faire, which we can classify in three main categories.

1. Evening Wear

Grable (left) is Millionaire Hunting. Because Landis (seated) is wearing sleeves, she's obviously not. Image: dkjf jeu

Notice Landis (seated) is wearing sleeves, so she’s obviously not Millionaire Hunting. Image: Beauty Bombshells

As you might have guessed, millionaires attend only the best parties where everyone dresses in Very Expensive clothes. This means your party attire must be made by this season’s most sought-after designer. It cannot be last season’s frock purchased at a designer outlet or – heaven forbid – at any place bearing the word “depot”.

2. Everyday Wear

Notice Grable's green suit. It screams, "I'll look good in your money." Image: tumblr

Notice Grable’s emerald-green suit. It screams, “I look good in your money.” Image: tumblr

Despite all appearances, Millionaire Chasing is not a casual, happy-go-lucky activity, so just forget about polyester-blend attire. No stretchy jeans and no – [shudder] – yoga pants. You must be strict with yourself: this is Serious Business.

3. Cultural Wear

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Notice Grable is ready to perform an impromptu number at a moment’s notice. Image: dvdbeaver.com

If you’re moving to another city/country to pursue your millionaire, you must accept the fact that, at some point, you will star in a floor show at a local nightclub. Here’s your chance to show your spouse-to-be that you elevate the local culture. Make sure your outfit pays homage to the locals, but is obviously something they could never afford.

Now you’re ready. Dress in your best outfit and go find that lucky Millionaire. Be sure to send us an invite to the wedding!

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

Appendix: Wardrobe Checklist

1 Cowboy Waitress Outfit (a reminder of your humble roots)

1 Fur-Trimmed Coat-and-Dress Set

1 Gate-Crashing Party Dress

1 Driving-in-the-Country Suit

1 Sight-Seeing Outfit (suitable for submarine travel)

1 Swishy Gown (with sequinned appliqué)

1 Impromptu Cultural Dance Outfit

1 Trench Coat (for hasty getaways)

1 Breakfast Pantsuit

1 Butterfly-Themed LOOK-AT-ME Dress

1 Swimsuit (not for swimming)

Moon Over Miami: Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Robert Cummings. Directed by Walter Lang. Written by Vincent Lawrence & Brown Holmes. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1941, Technicolor, 91 mins.

Winston Churchill vs. Colonel Blimp

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Roger Livesey (left) plays a bombastic yet lovable Colonel. Image: moviemail.com

When we (as in, yours truly) were young, we felt we were smarter than older generations because we could identify the celebrities du jour. We thought this somehow made us smarter, which is rather embarrassing to admit.

Now that we’re a bit older, we realize we don’t know as much as the generation before or after us, which is also rather embarrassing.

There’s a lot to be said about the experience and wisdom of older generations, but oftentimes the fresh perspective of younger generations is necessary.

This is one of the themes of the British WWII war dramedy The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film about a young British army soldier who duels with, then befriends, a German soldier. He remains the German’s lifelong friend despite the miles between them, a mutual love for the same woman, and a mild skirmish known as WWI.

The main character is a clever young man who serves his country his entire life with the ideals he was raised, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly out of step with the perplexing twentieth century.

So, who on earth was Colonel Blimp?

Blimp was a popular British cartoon that lampooned stuffy, démodé leaders in government and the military. Blimp often makes circular arguments and/or arrives at ridiculous conclusions, most of which are based on the assumption that the British Empire Is Never Wrong. Here is an example:

Colonel Blimp in his element. Image: akdsjf

Colonel Blimp waxing eloquent in his Turkish bath. Image: Air Force Amazons

The movie Colonel Blimp is named Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), and when we first meet him, he is just like the cartoon figure pictured above. He is an awkward, blustery old man, complete with giant walrus moustache.

We also discover, however, that Wynne-Candy is also a man who loves deeply and, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman he didn’t marry – and never got over it. (This woman is Deborah Kerr, who plays three women in the film.) Not only that, his fondness and admiration for his German friend (Anton Walbrook), is a remarkable show of loyalty. Despite our initial impressions, we find ourselves becoming enamoured with Wynne-Candy.

Colonel Blimp is considered one of the greatest British films ever made; it was written and directed by the brilliant filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of the most remarkable scenes features a monologue by Anton Walbrook when his character applies for refugee status in England. The monologue starts at the 1:16 mark below. When Walbrook begins his speech, notice the camera never looks away, never blinks.

But when Colonel Blimp was released in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to have it banned, even though it was a commercial success – and even though it contained Walbrook’s inspirational monologue. When the ban attempt failed, he managed to delay its international release until 1945.

Colonel Blimp, we presume? Image: lskdfj

Colonel Blimp’s personality bears no resemblance to Winston Churchill. None what-so-ever. Image: Cinemas Online

One can’t be too hard on Churchill for this position. It was WWII, after all, and British civilians were asked to make great sacrifices for the war. He certainly wanted to keep civilian morale high, and having a pompous, slightly ridiculous character lampooning the military was, in his mind, likely defeating the purpose.

(The British media, like any other media, loves a whiff of scandal, and they discussed Churchill’s displeasure with this film at length in 2012, when Colonel Blimp was re-released. You can see an example here.)

If you’ve not seen The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, please set aside an evening for it. It’s a gorgeous film, and is ranked 45 out of the top 100 British films of all time. More importantly, however, you’ll be glad to make Colonel Blimp’s acquaintance.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Rank Organisation, 1943, Technicolor, 163 mins.

This post is part of the BRITISH EMPIRE Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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The Enchanting Soviet Cinderella

Zolushka (Cinderella) alskdjf asdjkf Image: media.4local.ru

Zolushka (Cinderella) dreams of dancing and eating ice cream. Image: media.4local.ru

Get this.

Did you know that Soviet filmmakers released a film in 1947 that rivals MGM’s The Wizard of Oz? Yup, when you compare music, sets and costumes, the Soviet film measures up to the MGM extravaganza in nearly every way.

Zolushka is a retelling of the classic Cinderella tale. A loving and sweet-tempered girl lives with her unkind stepmother and two stepsisters, who use guilt and intimidation to keep Zolushka in her place as a servant.

Zolushka truly is a marvel. She cleans the house, gathers heavy firewood and sews her sisters’ ball gowns – all in one evening.

On the night of the ball, Zolushka asks permission to go to the park to gaze at the party from a distance. (Is that not the saddest request you’ve ever heard?) The stepmother agrees but says a few chores must be completed first, such as pulling weeds, sorting beans and painting the house.

This film has a witty script, with some unexpected lines. For instance, a woodchopper says Zolushka’s Step-Aunt was eaten by an ogre, who subsequently died of poisoning. In another scene, the king talks up his princely son by exclaiming, “He can do speeches! And poems! And compliments!”

The script also contains hues of Marxism. For example, the king is friends with commoners, which suggests Soviet society does not contain societal classes. “Because our kingdom is a Fairytale Kingdom for a reason,” he says. (Cough – baloney! – cough.)

The Fairy Godmother, too, is a Soviet Propaganda Tutor. After she transforms Zolushka from girl-in-rags to girl-in-shiny-gown, she offers a little speech: “I can see clearly that, although dressed in a lavish ball gown, you’ll remain the sweet and hardworking girl you’ve always been. And please stay that way. It will bring you happiness.”

This film borrows heavily from folklore. As a result, it has lots of magic. Magic is crucial, but perhaps not so much to the film nor to the girl Zolushka.

The magic is essential for the audience.

The Soviet fairy godmother instructs Zolushka to work hard. Image: sldkfj asdj

Mother Russia – er, the Fairy Godmother showers magic on Zolushka. Image: Zolushka Online

Zolushka was released two years after World War II, and the horrors of that war would still be fresh in the minds of Soviet audiences. While WWII was grisly on all fronts, it could be argued that some of the most gruesome events took place on Soviet soil.

Zolushka’s stepmother, for instance, muses about her future once one of her daughters has married the prince: “It’s a shame this kingdom is too small for me,” she says. “I’ll have no room for my antics. But that’s fixable – I’ll fight my neighbours.” This thinly-veiled reference to Adolph Hitler and his imperialistic tendencies would certainly strike a chord with audiences. (Never mind that the Soviet government had these same tendencies; that’s a discussion for another day.)

Before the war, Soviet citizens would have already suffered from pogroms, forced collectivization of farms, mass starvation, political and military purges, the prison system (a.k.a. the Gulag), and constant surveillance by the NSA, oops, the KGB.

Soviet audiences needed beauty and magic because they were Zolushka – downtrodden souls kept in servitude, living in a dreary, thankless regime. The girl on the screen with the crystal shoes is the embodiment of the Soviet populace. “Happiness has vanished as a mirage,” sings the girl, “and sorrow is in front of me.”

Zolushka is probably one of the most haunting and beautifully-filmed versions of the Cinderella story, if not the most meaningful. Whether or not you have an interest in Soviet-era cinema, we highly recommend it.

Zolushka: Yanina Zhejmo, Aleksei Konsovsky, Erast Garin. Directed by Nadezhda Kosheverova and Mikhail Shapiro. Written by Yevgeni Shvarts. Lenfilm Studio, 1947, Colour, 79 mins.

This post is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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The Amazing Edward G. Robinson: Is He or Isn’t He?

Edward G. Robinson (centre) leads a dangerous double life. Image lksdjf klsadfj

Edward G. Robinson (centre) leads a dangerous double life. Image: fdp.pl

Sometimes movies pose tantalizing questions, such as: Is the main character off his rocker?

Hamlet is a famous example of a character with ambiguous mental health; so is another lesser-known figure, Dr.  Clitterhouse.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) is a black comedy about a successful medical doctor (Edward G. Robinson) who becomes fascinated by what he calls “the Criminal Mind”. He desires to write a book examining the physiological characteristics of criminal brains, and he’s convinced this research will help law enforcement agents battle crime.

The only way he can do this, he reasons, is to become a criminal himself so he can measure his physiological responses (e.g. blood pressure, pupil dilation, etc.) after committing a crime.

Fortunately for Robinson, he falls in with a gang headed by criminal power couple Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor. Their gang specializes in stealing and liquidating stolen goods.

Robinson couldn’t be happier in this new secret life as a gangster – er, we mean his new life as a “scientific researcher”. He continually monitors gang members’ vital signs before and after they stage robberies, and carefully records this data in a thick book for future analysis.

Unfortunately for Robinson, a disgruntled Bogart distrusts his motives, and refuses to participate in the testing. He also doesn’t like Trevor’s growing attraction to Robinson. (What? You didn’t think Edward G. Robinson was a ladies’ man? Get outta here! Dames fall for him all the time.)

A showdown between Bogart and Robinson is inevitable – and it coincides with Robinson’s realization that, in order to have perfect insight into the Criminal Mind, he needs to commit the ultimate crime: Murder.

Humprey Bogart (centre) suddenly feels ill after trying to Blackmail Edward G. Robinson (left). Image: aldfkj

Humphrey Bogart (centre) suddenly feels ill after a foiled blackmail attempt. Image & review: Pretty Clever Films

Robinson’s mental state is the central question in this film. Is he misguided in his pursuit of science? Is he fulfilling secret criminal fantasies? Or is he plain wacko?

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse was originally a short story by British playwright Barré Lyndon before it was adapted as a stage play that ran in both London and New York.

We (as in, yours truly) are very fussy when it comes to transferring plays to the screen. We find there is a tendency for scenes to drag and the dialogue to become onerous. But this is not the case with Dr. Clitterhouse.

Director Anatole Litvak and screenwriters John Wexley and John Huston have created a near-perfect screen adaptation. For instance, in one scene, there is a robbery at a fur coat manufacturer which is as tense as anything you’ve seen in a film noir. As this scene unfolds, you’ll find yourself holding your breath. Guaranteed.

The movie is also perfectly cast, with Bogart as the sneering, sarcastic hoodlum, and Trevor as the ambitious criminal businesswoman. And there is Robinson, a mercurial character who purposely allows us to read into his motives whatever we choose.

This is one of those rare films that lends itself to intense philosophical discussion. What is the role of science in our society? How far should scientists go verify controversial hypotheses?

If you’re keen to see Edward G. Robinson as a lunatic-but-maybe-not-a-lunatic, we recommend The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. This movie will keep you guessing until the end – and even then you may not be sure.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse: Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Hymphrey Bogart. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Written by John Wexley and John Huston. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1938, B&W, 87 mins.

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 carefully 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.

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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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