Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ace in the Hole

Ace in the hole(1951)
Directed by
Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling
IMDB Entry

For a long time, the adjective used to describe Billy Wilder was “cynical.” And, indeed, the director of films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, and The Fortune Cookie certainly shows a jaundanced view of humanity.  But there’s a problem being too cynical – at least there was in the 1950s* – so his movie Ace in the Hole was a flop. Still, it is among his best.

The movie follow Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a down and out newspaperman.  Tatum’s problems were all his own and he ends up taking a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a small newspaper that’s his only chance.  After trying to keep his nose clean, Tatum stumbles upon a story:  a local artifact hunter, Leo Minosa, is trapped in a cave and needs to be rescued.

Tatum sees this as opportunity.  He convinces rescuers to take their time in order to keep the story going.  And he succeeds:  the country focuses on Leo and the attempts to save him.  The site becomes a media carnival (literally) as the news and curiosity seekers converge.

This is a movie with the courage of its cynical convictions.  Tatum never softens in his hustle and brash talk.  Douglas plays him as a pure heel, only out for himself and willing to climb over anyone to get his way and with a dark view of humanity.  Few others show anything but an eye for what’s in it for them; even Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) is out only for herself.

The movie flopped.  The audience just didn’t like to see such as bitter look at US society, one where decent people are few and far between.  The studio tried to rename it The Big Carnival to sucker people in, but to no avail.

The flop didn’t hurt Wilder’s career much** and was forgotten by all but fanatical film aficionados.  But it’s far more in tune with attitudes today.***

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* I’m reminded of the slogan, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

**The studio did some bookkeeping tricks, so that his cut of profits in his next film – Stalag 17 – was cut by the studio.

***See it on a double feature with The Well (from the same year), which deals with the same situation in a more upbeat way.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Two of Us

The Two of Us(Le vieil homme et l'enfant) (1967)
Directed by
Claude Berri
Written by  Claude Berri, Gerard Brach, and Michel Rivelin
Starring Michel Simon, Alain Cohen
IMDB Entry

One of the best things about going off to college for me was the ability to see many more movies.  I grew up in a small town, with only one theater (one screen, of course), so my choices were limited to what they showed as well as anything that was broadcast on the NYC stations (once we got cable).  Not only did I move to an area with a couple of dozen theaters, but our college had its own film programs.  My freshman year, they had a general policy – classics and well-known films on weekends, but art films on Tuesday and Friday.  Which is where I saw The Two of Us.

The movie is set in 1944 in France.  Claude (Alain Cohen) is a Jewish boy living with his parents in secret in Paris.  Afraid he might give them away, they quickly teach him some of the basics of Catholicism and send him to a farm in the French countryside, run by Grandpa (Michel Simon).  Grandpa is prickly, charming, and often very sweet. He is also an anti-Semite, believing the Jews are responsible for the war.

Grandpa and ClaudeThe movie, based upon director Claude Berri’s experiences as a boy, stays away from the usual Hollywood dramatics such a situation would normally bring up. Normally, you’d expect most of the film being made up of Claude fearing being exposed and with many incidents where he just manages to keep from being found out.  While Claude is aware he had to keep his origin secret,* the movie isn’t built around it, nor is it built around Grandpa discovering the errors of his ways.**  The movie is more about the relationship between the two and how it grows into a loving friendship.

Michel Simon had appeared in several landmark French films of the 30s and beyond.***  This film was an attempt at a comeback after an accident involving film makeup paralyzed part of his face, and helped him reclaim his stardom.  His Grandpa is richly pictured as having a strong fatherly love for the boy, while still showing a lot of complexity to the character.

Alain Cohen also turns in a terrific performance, one of the best by a child in the history of film.  He’s perfectly natural and extremely likeable.

This was Claude Berri’s first full-length film, financed after he won a best short subject Oscar.  He continued a successful career with more autobiographical films**** and in 1986 directed his masterpiece:  Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring.  But even the first time out, Berri shows a overflowing talent.

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*For instance, if anyone discovers he’s circumcised, he’s in big trouble. 

**He doesn’t.

***His role in Boudu Saved from Drowning was played by Nick Nolte in a remake fifty years later, Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

****Starring Cohen, using him much like Truffault used Jean-Pierre Leaud for his semiautobiographical work.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hoppity Hooper (TV)

Hooper(1964-56)
Produced by
Jay Ward and Bill Scott
Written by Bill Scott and Chris Hayward
Starring  Chris Allen, Hans Conreid, Bill Scott, Paul Frees
IMDB Entry

Jay Ward and Bill Scott were superstars of Saturday morning cartoons.  Ward helped produce the first TV show to feature original animation, Crusader Rabbit, and he and Scott were the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle* and its spinoffs, plus also George of the Jungle.  But their most obscure work was the short-lived series Hoppity Hooper.

The show recounted the adventures of the title character (Chris Allen), a young, somewhat naïve frog from Foggy Bog, Wisconsin.  In the first episode, he runs into a couple small-time con animals, Waldo Wigglesworth (Hans Conreid), a fox, and Fillmore (Bill Scott), a bear.  Waldo manages to convince Hoppity that he’s his uncle, and the three go off on various misadventures.

The stories are reminiscent of those in Rocky and Bullwinkle, the adventures shown in multi-episode pieces filled with puns, wordplay, and silly satire.  Unlike Rocky and Bullwinkle, the adventures were short:  usually four parts.  The Hoppity Hooper cartoons were the first and last of each half hour show, with other Jay Ward cartoons like Fractured Fairy Tales rerun to fill out the time.

Hoppity was very much like Rocky – cheerful, friendly, but not quite as alert to what was going on.  Fillmore was a dumber version of Bullwinkle; his signature was to blow a loud, flat note on his bugle.  Paul Frees handled the narration and any stray characters who came along.

But it was Uncle Waldo who was the centerpiece.  Hans Conreid was at his best in the role, hamming outrageously and having a lot of fun. 

The show ran for two seasons, then was in syndication for some time.  Ward continued with Rocky and Bullwinkle for a few more years, until that sort of cartoon became passé. 

But if you love the Moose and Squirrel, you should see their Frog, Fox, and Bear counterparts.

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*People don’t realize how long a run Rocky and Bullwinkle had.  It lasted almost to 1980 on NBC’s schedule, though in the last few years it ran at 1:00 pm, when most local affiliates switched to other shows.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Baby Jane(1962)
Directed by
Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Henry Farrell
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
IMDB Entry

Hollywood is tough on aging actresses.  There seems to be a career path from sexy girlfriend, to wife, to “whatever happened to?”  But the glamour is still part of it, and it’s often difficult for an actress to admit to herself that she isn’t as attractive, and even more difficult for a star (especially an old Hollywood star) to play an unglamorous role. In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, director Robert Aldrich managed to get Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a movie about a pair of aging actresses.

Baby Jane Hudson is a very successful child star in vaudeville, much to the envy of her sister Blanche.*  And when movies come in, both go to Hollywood, but Blanche (Joan Crawford) is now the star, while Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is the flop.**  Jane turns to alcohol and, on one drunken evening, there is a car crash and Blanche is left permanently injured.

The film then moves to the 1960s.  The two sisters live together. Jane is a bitter woman, lost in the bottle, but spending her time caring for Blanche mostly out of guilt. And Jane is becoming more and more erratic, even planning a comeback, grotesquely singing the songs she did as a child star, despite the fact the are hideously inappropriate.  She hires Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to help, and begins to psychologically torture Blanche in a portrayal of classic controlling behavior. 

Director Robert Aldrich was even then best known for action films, and Baby Jane is more about psychological torture than action.  Jane’s erratic behavior terrifies Blanche, and he manages to make the use of a single set – the sisters’ house – in terrifying ways.***

Bette Davis may have been the best of the actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, and her Jane is terrific – childish, bitter, nasty, and walking around with tons of makeup that make her look grotesque.  And yet, at the end, she says one of the most pathetically sad lines in film history, completely changing your opinion of the character.

Jane and BlancheCrawford was also one of the greats of the time, and her Blanche is, by necessity, a far more subtler performance.  She is the one the audience identifies with, and is the focus of the terror.  She makes a good victim partly because you can sense her inner strength, but helplessness due to the accident.

This is the first time the two actresses worked together.  Often, big Hollywood names of the 40s didn’t have their paths crossing, usually because they worked for different studios.****  In this case, however, there was another reason:  the two women hated each other.  This predated the movie, and there was some wonder in Hollywood as to whether Aldrich could even finish it, given that it had a very low budget.  He knew of the issue, however, and kept them apart except for any scenes they were required to play together.  They two women also appreciated that they needed a good role to keep their careers alive, so swallowed their hatred and made the film.*****

The movie was a major hit, and gave a boost to Davis’s career and garnering her an Oscar nomination.  Aldrich was able to make more hits, including The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen. Crawford did less, devolving into movies like Trog, though she was memorable in an episode of Night Gallery, one of Stephen Spielberg's first TV assignments.

Despite its success, which made the title a catchphrase, the movie seems to have fallen off the radar.  Its type of horror – called Grand Guignol at the time, though it seems far from that today – seems tame, and audiences are more interested in younger actors and more bloody scares.  But Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? still stands as an important landmark in film.

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*The dynamic is similar to that in Gypsy, though with far more conflict between the sisters.

**Actual clips from some of their films of the time were used to show their careers.  Bette Davis suggested Parachute Jumper as the worst film she ever did, so footage from that was use.

***The movie was my first realization of the “gun on the table” principle of writing:  I noticed the door to Blanche’s bedroom opened outward, not into the room as is usual.  It turned out that became an important plot point later on. 

****Davis worked for Warner Brothers, while Crawford was as MGM.

*****After the success of Baby Jane, Aldrich wanted to get the two actresses together again for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but Crawford dropped out and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland (whose feud with her sister Joan Fontaine made the Davis-Crawford one seem like a playground spat).  Davis was photographed drinking Coca-Cola, a dig at Crawford, who was on the board of Pepsi and insisted on product placement for Pepsi in every film she was in.