Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hobson's Choice

Hobson's Choice (1954)
Directed by
David Lean
Written by David Lean, Norman Spencer, and Wynyard Browne, from a play by Harold Brighouse
Starring Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda De Banzie, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales
IMDB Entry

David Lean is one of cinema's most honored directors, known nowadays for The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India, as well as some well-regarded Dickens adaptations.  Though primarily known for his epics, like most top directors, his filmography is varied, and Hobson's Choice was his foray into comedy and a charming look at romance enhanced by a very talented cast.

Henry Horatio Hobson (Charles Laughton) is the owner of a very successful shoe shop.  He's a drunkard and a bully, a minor tyrant who is successful primarily because his three daughters Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), Alice (Daphne Anderson), and Vicky (Prunella Scales) do most of the work without pay.  Maggie actually runs the shop, and she of the others want to be married and free of their father's tyranny.*  While Alice and Vicky have found potential husbands and may be able to leave, Hobson refuses to allow Maggie to see anyone, since she is too useful to him.  Maggie focuses on Hobson's one paid employee, Will Mossop (John Mills) and pushes him to marry her and start out on their own.

The movie is a delight from start to finish.  Laughton always was a dominating screen presence, and, under Lean's direction, is given enough rope to turn in a terrific performance as the likeable bully.  He does show a gift for physical comedy:  watch the opening, where the character is established (skip ahead to 2:30).

Brenda de Banzie matches him in strength and charm, playing Maggie as clearly being her father's daughter -- maybe too much so for her father.  She was primarily a stage actress, it seems, and this is her one notable film role.  She makes it count.  John Mills*** is also fun as her reluctant suitor.

The film seems to have done well at the box office, but, being a British production, slowly faded from viewing. It was so different from the type of big production dramas that Lean became famous for that those who liked his movies probably didn't like this one.

For Brenda de Banzie, this was the highlight of her career, while John Mills ended up winning an Oscar for Ryan's Daughter, also directed by Lean.  Laughton, of course, kept up his larger-than-life persona as a major star for the rest of his career.  In addition to Laughton and Mills, probably the best-known member of the cast was Prunella Scales, who gained popular culture immortality as Sybil Fawlty in the classic comedy Fawlty Towers.****

*Yes, it's residual sexism, but the film was set in the 1880s, and the women really have no way of setting out on their own.

**Father of 60s Disney star Hayley Mills.  It started out that Hayley was billed as John's daughter; then John was Hayley's father.  Now they're both pretty obscure.  Mills has said that Hobson's Choice was the favorite of all his films.

***Irrelevant bit of trivia: if you ever visit Victoria Falls, you can stay in a Fawlty Towers in Livingstone, Zambia.  Word has it that it has a real touch of class.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

52 Pickup

52 Pickup Directed by
John Frankenheimer
Screenplay by Elmore Leonard and John Steppling, from a novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring Roy Scheider, John Glover, Ann-Margaret, Vanity, Kelly Preston, Clarence Williams III
IMDB Entry

For awhile in the early 90s, my wife went on a Roy Scheider kick. We ended up renting and buying a lot of films by Scheider and I grew to appreciate him as an actor, even though quite a few for his films really weren't all that good.  The one surprise in the lot, though, was a tense thriller called 52 Pickup, which turned out to be an excellent film on many levels.

Elmore Leonard, considered one of the greatest crime writers of his time*, adapted the screenplay from his own novel.  Scheider plays Harry Mitchell, whose is having an affair with Cini, a girl half his age (Kelly Preston).  When porn king and all-around sleaze Alan Raimy (John Glover) finds out, he blackmails Harry, since the information would be disastrous for the political campaign of his wife Barbara (Ann-Margaret).  Harry refuses to pay, so Raimy kills Cini, and frames Harry for the crime.  Harry has to come up with the money, and also wants to take down Raimy for the murder.

John Glover The film is nicely plotted, with great dialog from Leonard. Harry becomes a real hero getting himself out of the mess, and the movie knows enough to make sure that Raimy is a top-notch villain.  He's childish, vicious, violent, smart, and everything bad, and Glover's performance is memorable, and one of the greatest villains in film history.  The best part about it is that he is so unpredictable.  I want that in a bad guy -- someone who you can never be sure of.

The entire cast does a terrific job.  One of the surprises is Clarence Williams III, best known for his TV work on The Mod Squad,** who is chilling as on of Raimy's co-conspirators. 

Director John Frankenheimer had established himself as a top-tier director in the 60s, with Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May.  He stumbled a bit in the 70s and clearly was past his prime by the 80s.  52 Pickup may have been his last artistically satisfying film (though, like most of his later films, it was not a hit).

The movie gained mixed reviews, mostly because of the sleaziness of the porn film background*** and the film sank off the charts.  By the time video became commonplace, it was just another forgotten film.  The movie isn't for everyone, but for a dark, hard-nosed crime film, this is hard to top.

*He has not been well-served in films, though Jackie Brown is an exceptional film.

**Where he was once required to deliver the line, "I can dig it" with grave seriousness, a sure sign he had talent as an actor.

***One scene, at a party, included several well-known porn stars of the time (clothed).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Doctor Doctor (TV)

Created by
Norman Steinberg
Starring Matt Frewer, Julius Carry, Beau Gravitte, Maureen Miller, Tony Carriero
IMDB Entry

Matt Frewer Matt Frewer burst upon the TV scene as Max Headroom, a manic "computer generated" personality that had a strong manic streak.  After the show was canceled, he needed a place to show off his talent for wild comedy, and that led to his next starring venture.  It was obvious that comedy would be a good fit, and he was soon cast in the lead of Doctor Doctor.

The show was crated by Norman Steinberg.  The name may mean nothing to you, but you certainly have seen his work:  he was co-writer of Blazing Saddles.  The show cast Frewer as Mike Stratford, who was a doctor in a practice with four other colleagues.  But Mike was also a television personality, doing health segments for the local morning show.

The show set the tone with its opening credits, a wild version of the Rascal's "Good Lovin'"*

Mike was, of course, a caring and very competent doctor behind all his goofiness, but the show was there to give Frewer a chance to go wild.  He's not at the Robin Williams level of manic energy,** but he is pretty close.  I particularly remember one exchange the still makes me chuckle

(The doctors are in a small private plane that has lost power and is hurtling to the ground).
Doctor:  What do we do?
Mike:  Depends.
Doctor:  Depends on what?
Mike:  No.  Depends.  The adult diaper.

Another milestone for the series was Mike's brother Richard (Tony Carriero), who was portrayed a being a well-adjusted gay man.  It was still unusual back in 1989 and won the show nominations for the GLAAD media awards. Mike did joke about Richard's orientation, but never in a cruel way.

I don't mean to ignore the rest of the actors or the scripts:  they were also very funny in their own right.  The show was Frewer's and he certainly benefited by working with other talented actors.

The show was successful in a limited run and was brought back for two full seasons before being canceled.  Frewer never really found the right vehicle, though he worked steadily in canceled series and as a guest star or recurring character.  Julius Carry became a cult favorite as Lord Bowler in The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.

This is a show that never seemed to get much respect when it was on the air, and seems to have been lost in the shuffle since then. But it's an excellent comedy that always had a skewed version of humor.

*Robert Palmer's "A Bad Case of Loving You" would have been even more inspired.  I don't know if they were aware of the song, or if they just couldn't get the rights.

**About the only others who came close to Williams were Jonathan Winters and Zero Mostel.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Harvard Lampoon Life Magazine Parody (book)

Life Magazine Parody Written by
the staff of the Harvard Lampoon, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, editors.

Doug Kenney may have been the most influential comic mind of the latter half of the 20th century.  He was the mind behind Bored of the Rings, the first editor of the National Lampoon,* and screenwriter of Animal House.  There is also a direct connection between the Lampoon and Saturday Night Life.  And Kenney got his first national exposure as editor of  the Harvard Lampoon Life Magazine Parody.

The Harvard Lampoon had a long history of doing parodies of popular magazines.  It was a regular fundraiser of theirs:  they'd do a parody issue and sell enough copies around Boston and the northeast to make some money.    In this case, they were able to get the issue out to a much wider audience.**

The magazine matched Life accurately, but that was the easy part.  The articles were straight ahead silliness, many based upon the idea that the world is going to end.  There are profiles of intellectuals (philosopher Eric Mouth and poet Harry Umbridge), fashion made out of food (including a "sleeveless bacon blouse" and a salami skirt made out of genoa and bologna***), a recipe for thermonuclear turkey, kids playing war a little too realistically, the adventure and excitement of cows and sheep, and columns paralleling the columnists in the actual magazine.****

The magazine sold decently, making some money for the Harvard Lampoon, and perhaps gave some impetus for the founding of the National Lampoon.  The original is hard to find, probably because it was basically meant to be recycled.  But it's still one of the funniest parodies around, and historically important as a springboard for most of what was successful in American humor.

*A subject for another day.  Henry Beard was no slouch, either.

**I picked it up in my home town on eastern Long Island.  It made me want to apply to Harvard to work on the Lampoon.  Alas, Harvard turned me down.

*** I have no evidence that Lada Gaga has ever seen an issue, but it make you wonder.

****Life Magazine enjoyed the parody enough to take out several full-page ads in it. There were multiple advertisers, and a modern reader might wonder if they were parodies themselves, but all the ads were genuine.