Comedy

The Algonquin Table of the Old West

Gordon MacRae's pimped-out surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: lsdkjf askdjf

Gordon MacRae’s fully-loaded surrey, with a fringe on top. Image: Los Angeles Times

You would have a skewed view of life if you only watched musicals.

For example, look at the recently-restored Rodgers and Hammerstein western-comedy musical, Oklahoma! (1955). This film is about a group of farmers and ranchers in turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma, who hold a box lunch social to raise money for the schoolhouse roof.

This film makes it look like these farmers and ranchers have nothing to do but sing and dance and make merriment. In one scene, a train pulls into the station and everyone on the station platform suddenly – and without warning – leaps into a impromptu hoedown.

The rustic Oklahoma in this film looks gla-mor-ous. Men’s tailored shirts are neatly pressed, and women’s Orry-Kelly gowns dresses are made of sumptuous fabrics. Life is so effortless, folks do their chores while wearing crisp, white clothes. There’s not a drop of sweat in sight.

You’ll notice a lot of dancing in this Oklahoma, even interpretive dance where themes of innocence and exploitation are examined.

The villain in this neck of the woods is played by Rod Steiger, a surly and vaguely creepy man who is the only one in the film with grime on his clothes. He lusts after young Shirley Jones (in her film debut) and resents the cowboy Gordon MacRae for wooing her.

You could be forgiven for thinking these are simple, unsophisticated folk. Indeed, the film opens with MacRae (in a glorious CinemaScope tracking shot) riding his horse along a row of corn, underneath a dazzling blue sky. He sings about the beautiful morning and a “bright golden haze on the meadow”.

Basic, wholesome people living a basic, wholesome life? Not so fast, partner.

The marvels of Kansas City. Image: alksdj faksdj f

The marvels – wholesome and unwholesome – of Kansas City. Image: Dusted Off

What really makes this film, besides the wardrobe and the scenery, is the song lyrics. The clever lyrics easily outpace the script in wit and innuendo.

Notably, the songs seesaw between the conflicted feelings of the characters. For example, a man sings about his visit to Kansas City and, alternating between amazement and disapproval, he describes life in the prosperous, fast-growing burg:

Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a building ought to grow.

He then goes on to detail, with a twinkle in his eye, various other sights including a burlesque show.

In another scene, MacRae confronts the surly Steiger with a song that swings between threats and flattery. MacRae suggests no man will be more highly praised at his own funeral than Steiger himself:

He’s looking oh so pretty and so nice
He looks like he’s asleep.
It’s a shame that he won’t keep,
But it’s summer and we’re running out of ice.

That’s a bit twisted, no? MacRae is taking chances, singing this kind of stuff to the temperamental Steiger.

In another scene, Gene Nelson proposes to his girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), although she doesn’t really want to settle down. After the he proposes, Grahame replies:

But if a wife is wise, she’s gotta realize
That men like you are wild and free …
Stay up late and don’t come home till three
And go right off to sleep if you’re sleepy.
There’s no use waiting up for me!

Oklahoma! won Academy Awards for Best Music and Best Sound, and raked in $6.8 million at the box office that year. We think you’ll enjoy this cheeky, light-hearted tribute to the 46th state of the union.

Oklahoma! starring Gordon MacRae, Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson. Directed by Fred Zinneman. Written by Sonya Levien & William Ludwig. Magna Theatre Corp., 1955, B&W, 145 mins.

Silent Film with a Surrealist Twist

Buying a new arm at the limb store. Image: lskdj f

Buying a new arm at the Limb shop. Image: cinecouch.com

We could hardly wait to share an obscure six-minute film with you.

Get this: Here is a film that was made in 1908, during the Nickleodeon period (1905-1915), and it feels as fresh and original as many indie short films produced today.

Some background: Before movies became the blockbuster form of entertainment they were before the pre-gaming era, films were shown as one attraction in a vaudeville (variety) show. However, in 1905, there was a shift in the entertainment industry, when the first Nickelodeon theatre opened in Pittsburg. Price of admission: 5 cents.

Suddenly movies became the dominant form of entertainment. As vaudeville theatres were converted to nickelodeon theatres, the programs changed, too. Instead of the focus on live acts, the focus was now on the films, although singing and some vaudeville acts still accompanied these films. These programs lasted between 10 minutes and an hour.

A lot of films were produced during this period; theatres changed their programs as often as three times a week. Everything about these films were short – production time, run time, and length of time in theatres.

Now, you may think these films were simple and unsophisticated. But we disagree. We like to think audiences were given their nickel’s worth. One example is 1908’s The Thieving Hand.

This movie was filmed in Brooklyn, New York, by the Vitagraph Company of America. This company began by making newsreels, but it graduated to narrative film. It was a prolific company; in 1907, for instance, no other company produced more films than Vitagraph. It was also the first studio to use stop-motion photography.

The Thieving Hand is an excellent example of Vitagraph’s trick cinematography (and black humour) during this era.

The plot involves a one-armed man who peddles cigars on a street corner. He sells a cigar to a rich man who accidentally drops his ring in the street. When the one-armed cigar peddler chases him down and returns the ring, the rich man rewards him by buying him a new arm.

Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: alskdfj

Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: Film: Ab Initio

This is where the film leaps into surrealism. The two men go to a Limbs shop where the one-armed man can be outfitted with a new forearm + hand. (The shop’s windows has arms and legs on display, but you can buy an assortment of hands and feet as well. Wooden “peg” legs are available, too, if that’s your style.)

Sadly for the cigar peddler, his new hand has a mind of its own and steals from passersby on the street. The owner, the poor slob, has no idea his fancy new hand is a kleptomaniac and, through a series of events that are not his fault, ends up in the slammer.

It’s an interesting study of a man, who is honest, and his alter-ego, The Hand, which is dishonest.

It’s also a delightful film with a slightly twisted bent, made better by some cheeky special effects, including:

  • Forearm + hand crawling around by itself.
  • Fitting the man with his new arm by merely shoving it up his shirtsleeve. (If only fitting prosthetics were this easy!)
  • The man pulling off the arm when he doesn’t want it any more.
  • The hand putting rings on itself, then admiring how it looks.

No CGI or other high-tech tricks here, only clever sleight of hand (ha ha). The result is pure magic.

But don’t take our word for it! We’ve included the full movie below. We think you’ll get a kick out of this little-known Nickelodeon gem.

The Thieving Hand: starring Paul Panzer. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. Vitagraph Co. of America, 1908, B&W, 6 mins.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies, Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click here to view all the posts for today’s era.

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Billy Wilder’s Life-Affirming Ninotchka

"We're here to work, Comrades." Greta Garbo as Type A communist. Image: alkdsj flksd f

Greta Garbo, Type “A” communist. Image: More Stars than in the Heavens

A person could go on all day about the delightful 1939 comedy, Ninotchka. What’s not to love about a film with Cedric Gibbons art direction, Adrian gowns, Ernst Lubitsch’s skilled directing (a.k.a. “The Lubitsch Touch“), and a top-notch cast?

What we admire most is the script.

The screenplay was a collaborative effort by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and a man who would become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors, Billy Wilder.

To us, the script is like sneaking into your grandmother’s freezer and discovering a cache of baked goods. There are plenty of funny lines, endearing characters, and thoughtful observations on geopolitics.

Ninotchka is set in pre-World War II Paris, where three Russian envoys have arrived with orders to sell Russian jewels on behalf of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, prices are not ideal because the market has become flooded with such jewels.

There’s a bigger glitch: A Russian Countess in exile (Ina Claire), learns the Soviets have arrived with intentions to sell her family’s confiscated heirlooms.

Moscow then dispatches an Envoy Extraordinary named Ninotcha (Greta Garbo) to Paris to sort out this mess.

Wilder & Co. have created such intriguing characters that even if this film had no plot, it would still be fascinating. Characters reveal, in the first exchange of dialogue, their agenda and their eventual outcome.

For example, the Countess’ courtesan (Melvyn Douglas), is a suave fellow who appears with this introduction: “Remember that platinum watch with the diamond numbers? You’ll be in a position to give it to me now.”

Garbo, at the start of the film, is a dour, industrial-strength communist. She doesn’t suffer fools, and she despises frivolity.

Her adversary, the Countess, is a refined, cultured woman who is equally tough. She despises everything Garbo represents. Our sympathies throughout the movie lie with Garbo, but Claire is not going down without a fight. When the two women finally meet, Claire sharply reminds Garbo of everything the Bolsheviks have taken from her.

Whether as a screenwriter or director, Wilder is as funny as he is cynical. He’s an unflinching observer of human nature. This script incorporates Wilder’s trademark shrewdness, but we also find something unexpected.

Ninotchka, at heart, is overwhelmingly life-affirming.

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A tipsy Garbo jokes about being human. Image: britannica.com

Garbo’s character undergoes an incredible transformation in this film. When she first arrives in Paris, she orders her fellow comrades, “Don’t make an issue of my womanhood. We’re here to work.

When she sees a ridiculous hat in a shop window, she almost can’t express enough displeasure. (“A civilization cannot survive with such hats.”) However, each time she passes the window, her contempt softens. Then, when she opens a carefully-locked drawer in her hotel room and pulls out said hat, we realize she is shedding Soviet rhetoric for a more human existence.

Douglas is drawn to Garbo in spite of (or because of?) her humourless demeanour. He implores her to smile and to laugh at “the whole spectacle” of life. “Thinking about death is so glum,” he says.

After Garbo’s internal human-ness awakens, she gives a poignant speech which must have been acutely felt by audiences in 1939, when the world was on the verge of global war. Her speech is almost a direct plea to world leaders.

“Comrades, people of the world,” she says, “the revolution is on the march. I know, bombs will fall, civilizations will crumble, but not yet. Please – wait. What’s the hurry? Give us our moment. Let us be happy.”

Ninotchka received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. We know you’ll enjoy this clever film co-authored by the great Billy Wilder.

Ninotchka: starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, BW, 1939, 110 mins.

This post is part of the BILLY WILDER Blogathon co-hosted by Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Click HERE to view all the fab posts in this blogathon.

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Guilty Pleasure: Beach Party (1963)

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The life of a California teen – “surfin’ all day and swingin’ all night.”  Image: ishareimage.com

Please, no judging.

Here is today’s confession: We are endlessly fascinated by the Frankie + Annette Beach Party movies.

There were a handful of these movies made between 1963-66, each one worse than its predecessor – and that is saying something. These films, made by American International Pictures, were targeted to teenagers and include lots of music, dancing and surfing.

These elements must appeal to us more than we care to admit, because these crazy movies are our ultimate guilty pleasure.

Our favourite is Beach Party (1963), the first of the illustrious series. In this movie, a social anthropologist (a deadpan Robert Cummings), rents a beach house so he can spy on these mad surfing kids and write a book on Post-Adolescent Surf Dwellers.

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Cummings sports a voluminous academic beard. Image: Forgotten Actors

Cummings may be a professor and a noted expert in his field, but he’s as thick as day-old gravy when it comes to l’affaire de coeur. No one is more aware of this than his assistant (Dorothy Malone), a savvy, chic woman who’s half in love with her dim-witted boss.

Among the so-called “surf dwellers” are a young couple, teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon and former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. Avalon has rented a neighbouring beach house so he can spend the weekend alone with his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, Funicello has invited half the state of California to share the house with them, because she’s not ready for The Big Step.

As a result, Avalon and Funicello spend most of the movie trying to make each other jealous. Avalon takes up with a waitress from a local hotspot, while Funicello flirts with Cummings.

There’s a bad guy, too!, in the form of Harvey Lembeck, the leader of an inept motorcycle gang. Lembeck calls his minions “You Stupid”, while his dress and mannerisms spoof Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One.

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Marlon Brando – er, Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) is easily defeated. Image: B-Movie Detective

Beach Party doesn’t have a complex plot, but the script is surprisingly funny and self-mocking. Malone delivers some laugh-out-loud punchlines, while Cummings and Funicello share some amusing moments, many of which poke fun at Cummings’ age. In one scene, Cummings takes Funicello for a ride in his twin-engine plane, and she asks how he learned how to fly.

Cummings: “…That was before the war, of course.”
Funicello: “Which one?’
Cummings (wryly): “The Spanish American.”
Funicello: “Oh, you’re teasing. I bet it was World War I.”

One thing this movie never fails to do is remind you of how Hip it is. Scenes incorporate bongo drums and surfing slag as much as possible. The beach fashions are über stylish, and no one appears in the same swimsuit twice. Even the local hangout is hip, featuring poetry as performance art, yoga practitioners and live music by Dick Dale and the Del Tones.

This film also never fails to remind you that teenagers are cool, while the older generation is, well, old. In one scene, Cummings decides to go to the beach in his neck-to-knee 1920s-era bathing suit. Funicello defends the suit by saying tactfully, “I like it. It’s substantial looking.”

Beach Party isn’t cinematic art, nor is it a deep analysis of the human condition. It is, however, an entertaining movie – which makes it a worthy guilty pleasure.

Beach Party: starring Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone, Frankie Avalon. Directed by Willam Asher. Written by Lou Rusoff. American International Pictures, 1963, Colour, 101 mins.

This post is part of the Beach Party Blogathon co-hosted by Speakeasy and yours truly. Click here to view all the groovy posts in this blogathon.

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Katharine Hepburn as Woman of the Year

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Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn: Fireworks at first sight. Image: Doctor Macro

We’re torn when it comes to the 1942 romantic comedy Woman of the Year.

This is an early WWII comedy about a slightly rumpled sportswriter (Spencer Tracy) who meets and marries a gonna-liberate-all-women-and-save-the-world journalist (Katharine Hepburn).

After a fast and intense courtship, the two marry, then learn to adjust to each other.

Or not.

Tracy’s character loves an opinionated, high-spirited woman, but he’s woefully unprepared to live with Hepburn’s doggedness. If she’s not rescuing Greek orphans, she’s giving asylum to political refugees or interviewing world leaders. As Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock might say, Hepburn runs “madly off in all directions”.

In this film, director George Stevens uses dialogue as a frame for the more important job of defining the characters. For example, when Tracy first meets Hepburn in person, it is in the newspaper publisher’s office. The publisher, standing in the background, is droning on about Who Knows What: all we see is Tracy’s attraction to Hepburn and the chemistry that’s going to propel the plot.

But not all dialogue acts as wallpaper. When Tracy meets his new father-in-law (Minor Watson) on the day of the wedding, he has a small confession:

Tracy (to Watson): “I’ve been worried about you since yesterday.”
Watson: “I’ve been worried about you for years.”

Tracy’s character is no dummy; neither is Hepburn’s, which makes the script rather frustrating.

Hepburn meets her adoring public when named Woman of the Year. Image: lksdjf lkasfj

Hepburn shows reporters what a hard worker she is. Image: Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari

Hepburn’s character is not perfect. She sometimes makes dumb decisions and jumps into situations before thinking them through. (If she weren’t impetuous, though, she might not have married Tracy in the first place.)

She’s persistent in making the world A Better Place, but this isn’t a hobby to pass the time until marriage. This is who she is.

Therefore, it is unfair to ask Hepburn to Stop It. Many influential women who trade domesticity for the greater good feel the push-pull of domestic life. (Read the memoirs of any past or present female world leader – they’ll tell you how it is.)

However, it’s not Tracy who’s asking Hepburn to Stop It. Nay, he admires her energy and determination. We realize this early in the film:

Tracy: “I love you.” …
Hepburn: “Even when I’m sober?”
Tracy: “Even when you’re brilliant.”

It’s the script that’s pressuring Hepburn to Stop It. Other scripts from this period would praise men for doing the very things Hepburn does. But Hepburn is a woman; therefore, the script requires her character to suffer because she’s not feminine enough.

Even if Tracy were the one telling Hepburn to Stop It, he would likely have our sympathy. He is completely in love with Hepburn (both on screen and off), and is not satisfied with scheduling brief meetings between trains and speeches and ball games. Because he’s Spencer Tracy – and therefore gruffly charming and endearing – we want him to be happy.

This is why we’re torn about Woman of the Year. There is no good guy or bad guy; there are two people trying to find their way in a relationship, just like people do in real life.

Still, Woman of the Year is an entertaining Battle of the Sexes, and a Must See for fans of Tracy and Hepburn.

Woman of the Year: starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. Written by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1942, B&W, 112 mins.

This post is part of THE GREAT KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON, hosted by MargaretPerry.org. Click HERE for a list of all fab entries.

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How to Make a 1930s Screwball Comedy

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Billie Burke (left) asks Constance Bennett not to be so sensible. Image: Constance Bennett

Dear Reader, we’ve made our peace with the fact we’ll never be nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. We’re not too broken up about this, just like we’re OK with not being selected for the NASA Aeronautics Academy. We’ll get by.

But if we were to write a screenplay, we would model it after the 1938 screwball comedy Merrily We Live. This is one of those films about a wacky but endearing rich family who employ ex-cons and drifters as their servants. (Note: One has to pretend this scenario hasn’t been done before, à la My Man Godfrey.)

In our opinion, there are three major elements to this lesser-known film that make it a stellar example in screwball-icity. We had thought of plotting these elements on a graph, but were too lazy – a characteristic, incidentally, frowned upon at the Aeronautics Academy.

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Brian Aherne embraces his new job. Image: Matinee Moustache

#1 Script
At a glance, the plot seems to be standard 1930’s material: A rich family unknowingly hires a famous writer (Brian Aherne) as a chauffeur, because they believe him to be homeless person. Aherne’s character is having so much fun, he doesn’t wish to disabuse the family of this notion.

However, this film’s script is superior to many other comedies due to the sheer volume of jokes. The jokes are so numerous and delivered so quickly, they practically trip over each other.

For instance, the delightfully spinny family matriarch (Billie Burke) is trying to counsel her Very Smart Daughter (Constance Bennett):

Burke (to Bennett): “My mother always told me children are seen and not heard.”
Bennett: “But your mother was smarter than my mother.”
Burke: “Yes, I know she was, darling.”

Another delightful element is the running gags threaded throughout the film. One such gag is the family’s butler (the perfectly-cast Alan Mowbray), who is forever threatening to quit if the family doesn’t stop hiring ex-cons who steal family heirlooms. (This leads to another scene where the patriarch of the family dryly asks the newly-hired Aherne if he has stolen anything yet.)

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“Darling, puffy sleeves are an Investment.” Image: gifsoup.com

#2 Wardrobe & Sets
The best thing about rich people in 1930s screwball comedies is their environment. We love it when art deco sets are nearly overwhelming in their size and shininess. Merrily We Live indulges us in the same way as a chocolate fondue party. Set designer W.L. Stevens has provided a scrumptious buffet filled with lush draperies and highly-collectible furniture; no wonder these people are continually stolen from!

A grand set requires a grand wardrobe. Bennett’s wardrobe (designed by the fab Irene) is chic, elegant, stylish. Burke’s wardrobe, on the other hand, almost competes with her décor – while her clothes are grand and expensive, they’re charmingly out of step with the decade.

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Daily affirmations. Image: Matinee Moustache

#3 Engaging Characters
Screwball comedies have outrageous people who outlandishly. In one scene, an annoying, self-absorbed boyfriend (Phillip Reed) drives Bennett home after a date. He leans in to kiss her and she socks him in the jaw.

This film has a wide assortment of charismatic characters, from the no-nonsense Bennett to Mowbray’s disapproving butler to Aherne’s writerly quirkiness.

Oh – and we can’t forget two minor but important players, the family’s two Great Danes named Get Off The Rug, and You Too.

Merrily We Live is an amusing film that is so good, you’ll want to watch it twice in a row. You’ll agree it’s every bit as clever as anything produced by NASA’s Aeronautics Academy.

Merrily We Live: starring Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Alan Mowbray. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Written by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevene. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1938, B&W, 95 mins.

How to Survive Shipwreck with a Murderer and a Stupid Detective

Gwen Lee surveys the morons around her.

Gwen Lee surveys the morons around her.

If there’s anything the movies have taught us, it’s this: Whenever you go on a boat, always wear your best gown and pearls – and bring your fur coat, if you have one.

The movies tell us how exciting ships are. A person is forever running into millionaires or Royalty In Disguise. If you’re really lucky, you’ll become shipwrecked on an uncharted island.

Something even more exciting happens in the 1933 comedy-thriller, The Intruder, and it begins on a dark and stormy night – which, as you know, is the best time for evil-doers to run amok. A cruise ship is knocked off course due to strong winds while a murder is being committed on board. Not only that, the murder victim is robbed of diamonds that were stolen from someone else.

Then the ship crashes and the murder suspects – along with the murderer – are forced into a single lifeboat. They land on a deserted island, where the intrigue continues!

See? If a person had decided on a road trip instead of taking a cruise, they would have missed all the fun.

The Intruder is a campy, pre-code treat recommended to us, in an off-handed way, by our friends at Noirish.

There is a good collection of characters in this film, including the bossy-but-thick-headed detective (William B. Davidson), who offers such insights as, “Well, either they’re alive or they’re not.” There’s also an inebriated passenger (Arthur Housman), who wonders if the rescue ship will feature a well-stocked bar.

The best character in this film is Daisy (Gwen Lee), a mashup of Joan Blondell and Mae West. Daisy is the ultimate Pre-Code Woman: smart, brash and capable. She’s the type of character you want on your side if you’ve been shipwrecked on an uncharted island with:

  • a crafty murderer
  • an assortment of murder suspects
  • a diamond robber
  • a stupid detective
  • a wisecracking drunkard
  • a crazed castaway
  • a man in gorilla suit (Don’t ask.)

Daisy shows us how handle this situation and still look as fresh as, well, a daisy.

The key lies in her Alfreda gown, accessorized by a multi-strand pearl necklace, which she wears throughout the ordeal. (Let this be a lesson, Dear Reader: One need not let fashion suffer when dodging murderers on a remote island.)

Gwen Lee (right) tells Lila Lee (no relation) to straighten her stockings.

Gwen Lee (right) tells Lila Lee (no relation) to put on her big girl stockings.

Hollywood costume designer Alfreda enjoyed her greatest popularity in the early 1930s. Her gowns were featured in such pre-code gems as Forgotten Terrors, Officer 13 and  A Shriek in the Night. Not only were her gowns gorgeous, they gave heroines an important quality: courage.

For example, in The Intruder, Daisy never becomes flustered. When she and another female passenger, Miss Wayne (Lila Lee) fall into the clutches of a kidnapper, the women duck into a castaway’s shelter. Here they they discover a human skeleton named “Mary” sitting in a chair. Miss Wayne, understandably, becomes fretful about being killed. Daisy promises she won’t allow the murderer to harm them: “Over my dead body,” she quips.

Alfreda was not one to design a costume without practical features. Daisy’s gown is black, sleek, and durable enough for shipwrecks. But it has an added feature – a handy slip which Daisy tears away and uses as a bandage to save Miss Wayne’s life.

The Intruder seems to draw mixed reviews from audiences. Many people have a “meh” reaction, but we think this pre-code flick is a fun mix of black humour and genuine intrigue.

The Intruder: starring Monte Blue, Lila Lee, William B. Davidson. Directed by Albert Ray. Written by Frances Hyland. Allied Pictures Corp., 1933, B&W, 54 mins.

This post is part of THE PRE-CODE BLOGATHON, hosted by Shadows & Satin and pre-code.com. Click HERE for a list of all the entries.

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‘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.