Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Was a Male War Bride

Directed by
Howard Hawks
Written by Charles Lederer & Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde, from a story by Henri Rochard.
Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan
IMDB Entry

Cary Grant is generally thought of today as a suave and romantic leading man. But Grant was also a fine comedian, and seemed very much to like playing comic roles.  One of the best of these was in I Was a Male War Bride.

It’s set in Germany after WWII has ended.  Cathy Gates (Ann Sheridan) is a American assigned to drive French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) in a mission to recruit a German to join the American side.  Cathy and Henri rub each other the wrong way from the start,* but slowly warm to each other and fall in love. They marry, but Cathy is immediately ordered back to the states. Henri wants to go with her, but the only way to do it is to get permission under the War Brides Act.**  The problem is that, even though the law does allow this, it happens so rarely that no one believes it.

The movie has the typical Hawks fast pace, and works very nicely in making the romance seem believable. Red tape can be very funny onscreen, and the movie makes the most of that.

Grant is Grant and is willing to take a pratfall in order to sell a gag.

One of my favorite running gags is Grant having to repeatedly recite “I am an alien spouse of female military personnel en route to the United States under public law 271 of the Congress” whenever he has to explain what’s going on.  The payoff is when they finally get things settle and someone explains to him – in the exact same words he’s been using all along.  I’ve had similar things happen to me and they always remind me of the movie.

*A typical event in romantic comedies of the era.

**An actual law, that allowed GIs to bring their wives back to the US without being screened out at immigration.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Oscar Levant (actor, musician, wit)

Wikipedia Page

Some people are famous for being famous. That was how I first noticed Oscar Levant in the 60s, most notably from the title of his autobiography, Memoirs of an Amnesiac. All I knew was that he seemed to show up on talk shows and people regarded him well. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about his genius.

Levant was born in Pittsburg, but moved to New York City in his teens, where he studied piano. He became quite good at it, and moved to Hollywood, where he befriended George Gershwin and worked as a composer, writing both film music and hit songs, as well as working on classical pieces.

In the early 30s, he came to public attention as one of the panelists on the radio show Information Please.  Levant became known for his encyclopedic knowledge and his quick wit. He was a master of ad libbing hilarious one-liners.

This became his step toward stardom. He started appearing in movies, usually playing a wisecracking pianist. His most extensive role was probably in The Band Wagon, where he’s songwriting parter with Nanette Fabray.*  He even briefly had a TV show.

His piano playing, though, took him into the classical world. He became known as one of the best interpreters of George Gershwin and his recording of Rhapsody in Blue was for many years considered one of the best.

Through everything, Levant had a rather complicated personal life. He was a massive hypochondriac, and had numerous neuroses, which he was very open about.

He also tended to do his own thing.  Harpo Marx told of how he just showed up on his doorstep one day, announcing he was going to be Harpo’s houseguest and stayed there for months. Levant did that to other of this friends and then, suddenly, announce he was leaving and go somewhere else.

Harpo also praised his piano playing. In one story, he interrupted the performance of a trio, replaced the pianist and finished the piece with them – one he had never played before – so that the others in the group felt like he’d been practicing with them for years.

Levant was a heavy smoker and died of a heart attack in 1972. Much of his radio work has been lost, and the talk show appearances are even harder to find. But I still was able to find one of of his greatest one-liners, the one that showed me he was a comic genius.

There’s not a lot about him on the Internet, and his book is out of print, but he was a man who was always a delight wherever he appeared – neurotic tics and all.

*Supposedly, based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green.