Sunday, November 20, 2022

He Ran All the Way

He Ran all the way

(1951)
Directed by
John Berry
Written by Dalton Trumbo (as Guy Endore) and Hugo Butler from a novel by Sam Ross
Starring John Garfield, Shelley Winters, Wallace Ford, Selina Royle, Bobby Hyatt, Gladys George, Norman Lloyd
IMDB Entry

The Hollywood blacklist ruined careers and lives and perhaps none more than John Garfield.He had burst on the scene after growing up in Brooklyn and his talent for acting was noticed and he was brought to Hollywood, usually cast as a boxer or gangster.*  His final film before his early death was He Ran All the Way.

Nick Robey (Garfield) was a man down on his luck and living with his mother (Gladys George). His friend Al Molin (Norman Lloyd) convinces him to rob a payroll, despite the fact that Nick is starting to get cold feet.Of course, the job goes sour, a cop is killed and Al badly wounded.  Nick goes on the run with the money. When hiding out at a public pool, he meets Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters).She is charmed by him and he offers to take her home, at which point Nick takes her and her family hostage, using them as hostages until the heat is off.

Garfield is, as usual, excellent.  He capture the character’s desperation, and at the same time manages to make him both sympathetic and potentially dangerous.Shelly Winters was in her early career, when she could still play the ingenue, and she also makes the most of the role, She goes through the movie both repelled and attracted to Nick, so there is some real doubt as to the climax.

This was Garfield’s last film. He refused to name names before House Un-American Activities Committee.  He was blacklisted. The stress, and his long-term heart problems – which he seemed to have ignored – caused his death at age 39. Wallace Ford is also memorable as Peg’s father, who is backed into a corner trying to protect his family.

Writer Dalton Trumbo was under the blacklist at the time, but was able to find work using various pen names. Director John Berry also felt the touch of the hysteria, but found work in Europe before returning to the US once things calmed down, directing the charming romance, Claudine.

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*One of his earlier films, They Made Me a Criminal, was a good description of his movie career.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Michael O’Donoghue (comedy)

Michael O'Donoghue

(1940-1994)
Wikipedia Page

Michael O’Donoghue’s influence on 20th century comedy is incalculable. While he was not the type of comic writer who would ever get mass appeal due to his dark approach to humor, he was a part of two of the most influential comedy institutions of his era.

O’Donoghue grew up in Rochester, NY, and by college, he became enamored of being a comedy writer, writing original revues. Once he graduated, he wrote a comic strip for the Evergreen Review—not a comic magazine – featuring Phoebe Zeit-Geist, a woman who often ended up kidnapped and naked, parodying superhero comics. Gary Trudeau has cited it as an influence.

He ended up being one of the founding writers of The National Lampoon. Now the Lampoon has faded in every way since its heyday, but it was a smash hit when it started, showing a new form of humor – irreverent, dark, sexy, and willing to take no prisoners in its satire.  O’Donoghue was in the center of that. He contributed many articles and eventually rose to be its editor.  One of my favorites was his “How to Write Good,” a hilarious parody of writing advice columns.

By the late 70s, the Lampoon could do no wrong. It jumped into movies with Animal House. O’Donoghue wrote a record album – National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner, and wrote and appeared in the short lived National Lampoon Radio Hour.

Then Lorne Michaels came calling.  He hired O’Donoghue to write and perform in the new sketch comedy he was developing – Saturday Night Live.  O’Donoghue was one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. As such, he was the first person to be shown in the first sketch, and also had the very first line on the show.

O’Donoghue had specific ideas about comedy, and put them into place. In general, he thought violence was funny. The sketch above shows some of it, and it was even more obvious in one recurring sketch where he would do impressions of celebrities have steel needles poked into their eyes. He also did a series of sketches as “Mr. Mike,” who told fairy tales that ended up with death and mass destruction – as he put it “random acts of meaningless violence.”

His most successful SNL sketch – considered a classic of the show --- was the brilliant “Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise.” If you haven’t seen it, watch it here:

O’Donoghue was prickly, and thus left SNL after arguments. He tried to do a TV special – Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video – which was deemed* too violent and released as a film. He would be hired back a few times to SNL, but always was fired.

He took up acting roles and co-wrote and appeared in Scrooged. He also had some success as a songwriter, most notably “Single Women” which was a hit for Dolly Parton.

O’Donoghue died in1994 of a cerebral hemorrhage; he suffered from migraines for years. I would write more about him, but suddenly I am run over by a truck. The End.

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*Rightly

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Pope Must Die(t)

The Pope Must Diet!

(1991)
Directed by
Peter Richardson
Written by Peter Richardson and Peter Richens
Starring Robbie Coltrane, Alex Rocco, Paul Bartel, Beverly D’Angelo, Herbert Lom
IMDB Entry

In memory of Robbie Coltrane.

Some movies court controversy and have to overcome it.Sometimes it works out. Other times it kills the movie’s chances. The Pope Must Die(t) is an example of the latter, despite the fact it’s a very funny bit of satire.

In the first scene, the pope dies. A conclave is held, and by accident, they elect David Albanizi (Robbie Coltrane), a humble and honest (and klutzy) country priest, who plays a mean rock guitar. It was part of a plot by Cardinal Rocco (Alex Rocco) who secretly is an agent of the crime boss Vittorio Corelli (Herbert Lom)*.

It turns out the Church is badly corrupted and Rocco is willing to do anything to get rid of Abanizi before he discovers it all and to put the preferred candidate in his place.

Coltrane is excellent as a good man who is overwhelmed (and a bit naïve), and Alex Rocco is perfect as the corrupt cardinal.

Of course, the subject was bound to offend. To say it puts the Church in a bad light is putting it mildly. It is clearly not meant to be a serious look at things and is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of the church**

Still, the film ran into more difficulties. The original title – The Pope Must Die! – was in terrible taste to begin with. The basis for the plot is shenanigans at the Vatican Bank, which paralleled a real scandal.

The studio insisted on cuts, and changed the title in the US to The Pope Must Diet.”*** The title didn’t make a lot of sense, and ultimately didn’t help. The subject turned away many audiences. Many media sources refused to run ads for it under the original title, and didn’t change their minds when the title (and posters) were changed.

Ultimately, the movie failed at the box office. However, once you get past the dark blasphemy of a fictional version of the Church, it turns out to be a first-class comedy.

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*Best known as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss the foil of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.

**They have female priests, for instance, leading to the final joke.

***At Robbie Coltrane’s suggestion,since he saw posters for the movie defaced with the “T” at the end.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Whitehall 1212 (radio)

Whitehall 1212

(1951-1952)

Written and Directed by Willys Cooper
IMDB Entry

Success in media begets copycats, especially in TV and radio. When Dragnet became a hit, other producers tried to copy the format of choosing actual cases from police files. Of course, Dragnet wouldn’t allow anyone to use the files of the Los Angeles police, so people looked elsewhere. Willys Cooper managed to get the cooperation of Scotland Yard in London, and used it as a basis for Whitehall 1212.

The show clearly was imitating Dragnet*, though with a formula all its own. It would introduce the audience to Scotland Yards’ Black Museum, where mementos of crimes were kept for study.** After talking about the artifact of this week’s case, a police inspector would come in and discuss the case from start to finish, dramatizing what he found and how it all unfolded until the criminal was caught (and usually hanged).

While the show did not have the great characterizations that made Dragnet a hit, the crimes were well chosen and listening to police procedure in the UK shows the difference between the two legal systems. If there was any doubt that these weren’t real cases, one of them was clearly the famous Hawley Crippen case, with all the names changed.***

The show was performed by an all-British cast, and went through different actors in the main show for most episodes.

At about the same time, Orson Welles hosted The Black Museum, another radio show based on its artifacts..Welles’ version wasn’t a police procedural, though, and showed the crime being committed.

The show ran for around a year. Clearly it wasn’t the success Dragnet was, mostly because it lacked the quirky characters that made Webb’s show latter so fascinating (though they tried). Welles’s version didn’t fare much better. But both are fine examples of radio drama.

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*Including the line in the introduction: “The names, for obvious reasons, have been changed.”

**There was (and still is) a Black Museum (now called the Crime Museum), though it’s not open to the public.

***Not sure why they had to. The case is famous even today.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Nicky Hopkins (music)

Nicky Hopkins

(1944-1994)
Wikipedia Entry

Even if you don’t recognize the name, if you listened to rock music – especially UK rockers – you have heard Nicky Hopkins play. He was quite simply, the businest studio musician of his era.

Hopkins learned the piano at age 3, and began playing professionally when he was 16. Just as his career was taking off, he became bedridden. Hopkins had Crohn’s disease, leading to operations and frail health. It prevented him from joining a band – the touring was too stressful. So he settled into being a session musician.

For a while, if you wanted someone to play piano, you called Hopkins.And the big names called him. He started with the Kinks and the Who, and then worked with the Rolling Stones for nine years.  Other acts that used him included Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Beck, Joe Cocker, Rod Steward, Donovan, Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller, Donovan, Carly Simon, Art Garfundel, Spinal Tap, Joe Walsh and even the Beatles – both as a group and individually with all four members.

With Quicksilver Messenger Service, he recorded his most exciting composition, Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder.

Hopkins took on the nickname of “Edward” elsewhere. When the Rolling Stones released an album of jams from their Let it Bleed sessions, the named it Jamming with Edward.

Hopkins also put out some solo albums, but they didn’t sell enough to make him a star.

He also was a member of the early supergroup, Sweet Thursday. Consisting of Hopkins, Alun Davies, Jon Mark, Harvey Burns, and Brian Odgers, The group might have achieved much, but their record company went bankrupt and could not promote it.

His Crohn’s finally caught up with him in 1994, but he left a legacy of brilliant piano playing.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

That Was the Week That Was (TV)

(1962-63)
(1963-65) (US)
Created by
Ned Sherrin 
Starring 
(UK) David Frost, Millicent Martin, Kenneth Cope, David Kernan, Bernard Levin, Lance Percival, William Rushton, Roy Kinnear, Timothy Birdsall,  Al Mancini, Robert Lang
Starring (US): David Frost, Nancy Ames, et al.
IMDB Entry

I think I mentioned before that I became a fan of political satire at a young age. Of course, political satire was considered iffy programming in the early age of TV, so it was hard to find examples of it. But what I remember most was a short-lived show called That Was the Week That Was (abbreviated as “TW3”).

It started out in the UK. Information about it is sparse, but it looks like the BBC charged Ned Sherrin to produce a TV show that could latch on to a current UK trend for political humor. David Frost was chosen as the presenter and would introduce news stories, often in humorous song.*

The show was a smash, but created controversy and ran for about a year. But an American executive decided to give satire a try and came up with a US version. David Frost crossed the pond and worked on an American version.

The show also used music and in this case, much of it was written by Tom Lehrer, one of the great names in musical satire. He put out an album of his songs for the show, That Was the Year that Was.

The American version lasted a big longer than the UK one. The satire wasn’t quite as vicious.

David Frost went on to be a talk show host and scored a coup when he got an extensive interview with Richard Nixon after Watergate. The movie about their meetings Frost/Nixon, has Nixon thinking Frost was a lightweight who knew nothing about politics, but Frost’s work on TW3 showed he indeed knew the subject.

The videos of the US version have been lost, though there are some of the UK version. I’m not sure how well it would hold up 60 years later, since most of the references are badly dated, but it’s an important milestone in televised satire.

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*The catchy theme song was by Ron Grainer, known to millions of fans as the composer of the Doctor Who Theme.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing

(1987)
Written and Directed by
Patricia Rozema
Starring Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Anne-Marie MacDonald
IMDB Entry

Most Americans don’t think about Canadian films. There are plenty of American films that use Canadian locations for shooting, but films created completely in Canada with Canadian talent are rarely shown outside the big cities. Which is a shame when something like I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing comes along.

Polly (Sheila McCarthy) is a temporary administrative assistant who is incompetent at everything. She gets a job at an art gallery run by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon). While there, Mary (Anne-Marie Macdonald) comes by, Gabrielle’s ex-lover and a painter and they revive their relationship. Polly, who takes photos as a hobby, also want to take part in the artistic life.

The movie has little plot. It mostly focuses on Polly, who videotapes her thoughts and her fantasies. Polly is absolutely charming, someone who is trying to find her place in the world. Gabrielle is cool and calculating, and more than a tad manipulative.

This was near the beginning of Sheila McCarthy’s career. She won a Genie Award for the best  Actress in a Canadian film* and has since garnered a second win and many other awards. She had a recurring role in the first season of The Umbrella Academy and was a regular in the Canadian TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie.

This was writer/director Patricia Rozema’s first feature, the start of a very successful career as a writer and director, including an Emmy.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and won a special prize, allowing it to get a distribution deal that paid all shooting expenses. It has also been listed as one of the top Canadian films of the 20th century.

If you’re looking for action, this isn’t the film you want, but if you like a charming character study, give it a look.

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*There are several familiar names on the list of winners, including Sandra Oh and Brie Larson

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Street Scene

Street Scene

(1931)
Directed by
King Vidor
Written by Elmer Rice
Starring Sylvia Sidney, William Collier Jr., Estelle Taylor, David Landau, Beulah Bondi, Russel Hopton
IMDB Entry

The Hays code went into full effect in 1934 and its strict rules on what could be portrayed was a major limitation on the subjects of films until it was finally was dropped in 1968. It’s not that there weren’t good movies made while it was in effect, but it restricted subject matter, especially dealing with adult subjects. Street Scene dated from before the code, and is a strong drama dealing with subjects that the code wouldn’t allow.

The movie was based on a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice about a day in the life of the inhabitants of a single New York City tenement block. It’s a hot summer day, and Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi) is busy gossiping with the neighbors about what’s going on in the building. The chief gossip involves Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor), who is having an affair with the collector for the dairy, Steve Sankey (Russell Hopton). Anna’s husband Frank (David Landau) is suspicious. At the same time, their daughter Rose (Sylvia Sydney) is being pressured by her boss to quit her job and go on the stage. He even offers to set her up in an apartment. Rose wisely sees the offer for what it is and refuses, and is attracted to Sam Kaplan (William Collier, Jr.), even though there is a big hurdle:  he’s Jewish.

The main story is spiced by little slice-of-life vignettes, sketching characters both good and bad. It all leads up to a tragedy, but life goes on in the street.

The ending is relatively advanced for its time, with the final shot showing Rose taking on an independent role.

Beulah Bondi holds the movie together. Her comments and explanations not only set up the various situations, but also act as a Greek chorus. This Bondi’s first film role after having played it on Broadway, and she went on to a long career as a character actress, usually playing mothers.*

Sylvia Sidney also had a long career, lasting into the 1990s.

King Vidor was no stranger to directing movies showing ordinary people. His The Crowd is considered one of the classics of silent film and he continued to direct successful films into the 1950s. Except for one scene in a taxi, everything takes place on the same set, as though it were a play on stage.

The movie got caught up when the Hays Office took over.  It went into obscurity, so much so that many of the prints were lost. But it can be found now online at Archive.org.

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*Including George Bailey’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Wild Boys of the Road


Wild Boys of the Road

(1933)
Directed by
William Wellman
Written by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern
Starring Frankie Darro, Edwin Philipps, Dorothy Coonan, Sterling Holloway, Rochelle Hudson
IMDB Entry

Before talkies came in, Warner Brothers was struggling. The Jazz Singer turned them into a major studio and they continued with gangster films and other movies showing the seedier side of life, and especially life in the lower classes.* Wild Boys of the Road is one of their gems, but one that tends to be overlooked.

Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and Tommy Gordon (Edwin Philips) are two teens during the Depression who are suffering its effects. When Eddie’s father loses his job, the two decide to hit the rails to Chicago in search for work. On a freight train, they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan), and go from train to train until they reach their destination – but there’s no work there. Sally has an aunt who can give them a home, preventing them from being rounded up and sent home, but the aunt turns out to be running a bordello. When it’s raided, the three escape and keep heading east, getting into trouble all the way

The movie still is powerful after all these years.  The three are all attractive characters and you quickly sympathize for them.**

Since this was a pre-code film, the script doesn’t shy away from things the Hays office cracked down upon a few years later. It makes the story that much stronger.

Frankie Darro had been acting on screen for quite some time, starting when he was six. He worked regularly in the silent days, since he was a talented stunt performer and was often the first one called when they needed a child to do a stunt. He kept working through the 1960s, with is best-known role one that he wasn’t credited for – one of the actors who operated Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet.

Wild Boys.
Wild Boys. Sterling Holloway is the gawky boy second from right.

He’s excellent as Eddie – the driving force of the trio and the one who eventually helps to get things fixed for them. Edwin Phipps also puts on a good performance, though his career didn’t extend past this. This was also the only named and credited role for Dorothy Coonan, who left acting soon after this to marry director William Wellman.

Wellman was the director of The Public Enemy, which introduced James Cagney to the world, and had a long and successful career with movies like A Star is Born,**  Nothing Sacred, Beau Geste, Lady of Burlesque*** and The High and the Mighty.

There are two other familiar names and voices. Ward Bond – who appeared in many John Ford westerns and, of course, the Bogart Maltese Falcon --  has an uncredited small but memorable part as a horrific brakeman. And Sterling Holloway was working regularly into the 1980s, appearing on a lot of 50s TV as well as lending his distinctive voice to Disney characters, most notably, their original Winnie the Pooh.

There are many interesting elements in the story. The various teens end up hanging together, including two Blacks. Though their roles stay close to the stereotypes of the time, they seem to be accepted by the other boys riding the rails.

Another touch is the judge who ultimately decides their fate. The actor has the glasses and accent of Franklin Roosevelt, and there’s a prominent poster of the National Recovery Administration eagle in his courtroom.*****

It’s a shame the movie is not better known. Like many 30s films, it is fast paced and fits a lot into its short running time. Not having to abide by the Hays code makes it more realistic than later films.  It’s available at archive.org.

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*When they weren’t doing lavish musicals.

**Darro was actually still a teen  and the other two were just barely out of them.

***The original Janet Gaynor version

****From the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee

*****One of the earliest of FDR’s agencies to fight the Depression, until it was declared unconstitutional.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

The Last Laugh
(1924)
Directed by
F.W. Murnau
Screenplay by Carl Meyer
Starring Emil Jannings
IMDB Entry

Interest in silent films is fading and younger audiences don’t have a lot of regard for them. If there is anything still relevant, it’s usually silent comedies from Chaplin and Keaton. But there were plenty of good dramas, too, and one of the classics is The Last Laugh.

The story is a simple one. A hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) is happy in his job, which is quite prestigious. People in his neighborhood tip their hats and salute him.  But the doorman is getting old and, when he is spotted taking a break, his boss decides he’s not up to the job, and reassigns him to be a restroom attendant.This breaks him. He keeps his uniform so the neighbors don’t realize his loss of status, but the secret is eventually found out, earning him the scorn of his family and everyone who knows him.

Doorman gets the bad news

The tragedy is averted by a tacked-on ending that even the director thinks is improbable.*

Intertitle

Jannings was a top actor of the late silent days. This wasn’t the only time he played a tragic protagonist and he even was the first winner of the Best Actor Oscar. He returned to Germany immediately after**,  knowing that his German accent was not going to fly once sound came in. He made his most successful film, The Blue Angel, there, playing opposite Marlene Dietrich. Though he was still an important actor in Germany, his legacy was tarnished because he made Nazi propaganda films. Though he argued that he had to make the films, his career ended with the end of the war. Dietrich, who fled Germany and was a staunch anti-Nazi, hated him for it.

From a technical point of view, the film was groundbreaking. Murnau and Mayer wanted to avoid intertitles and there is only one in the entire movie. In addition Murnau, working with cinematographer Karl Freund,*** developed camera techniques that had never been tried before and which were quickly emulated. Murnau is considered by film scholars as one of the greatest directors, and this film shows why.

One aspect of the film that is not clear is the background of German cultural assumptions, which were not known to the American audiences when it came out and are even more obscure now. The doorman’s prestige was because he wore a uniform**** and the demotion devastates him for that reason. Another point is the German title, Der letzte Mann. Literally, it means “The Last Man,” but another meaning is “The man who used to have this job.”

The film was a big success, both critically and financially, and is still highly regarded by film schools and students. The acting style may be dated, but if you watch, you will be moved by the doorman’s fate.

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*He specifically says so in the single intertitle.

**I’ve seen accounts that he was waiting for a train to take him to New York to sail to Germany when he learned he had won.

***Freund moved to the US and worked on movies like the original Dracula (sharing directing duties uncredited), The Mummy, and Mad Love.

**** Murnau thought the story absurd because "everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more than a doorman."

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Baby Face

Baby Face

(1933)
Directed by
Alfred E. Green
Written by Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola (screenplay), Darryl F. Zanuck (Story)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, John Wayne, Theresa Harris, Alphonse Ethier
IMDB Entry

Movies always attracted the attention of bluenoses, and the introduction of sound made it worse. Eventually, a code of censorship – the Hays Code – was set up in 1930, but not rigorously enforced until 1934.* During that short period, files did not shy away from adult subjects, and a perfect example is Baby Face.

Lily “Baby Face” Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) works in her father’s speakeasy, where he forces her to have sex with customers. She develops a friendship with Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), who introduces her to the philosophy of Nietzsche and gives her the idea of only doing anything she needs to survive. When her father is killed, she leaves for New York City with her friend Chico (Theresa Harris), seducing a railroad worker to let them jump a freight. The pattern established, she rises in success by seducing men who are in a position to help her goals.

The movie is much franker than Hollywood films from when after the code is established. It’s perfectly clear that she’s sleeping her way to the top and has no compunction about doing it.

Stanwyck is excellent. In her career, she often showed a hard edge in her roles and it is quite apparent here, along with the ability to turn sweet and helpless when it suited her. George Brent plays the man she finally falls in love with.

As an aside, Theresa Harris is excellent as Chico. Lily treats her as an equal throughout, unusual for a Black actress of the time.  Harris had a fairly long career in films but – as she complained – usually as a maid, because that was the best she could hope for.** This may have been her best role, she it’s clear that, though she is Lily’s maid when she rises to success, she is treated as a friend, confidant and equal. Theresa was also an excellent singer, and was given the chance to sing a bit in the film.

A discussion of the film usually mention John Wayne was in it. This was early in his career and before he established himself in westerns. But his role is small – just a couple of scenes and a dozen lines of dialog.

Despite there being no Hays Office, the movie was censored. Most notable is the addition of a final scene where Lily sees the errors of her ways. The original ending was darker and much more downbeat. It was lost for years, but someone uncovered the cut scenes and added it to the film in 2004.

The movie is a fine example of what movies can do when allowed to take on adult themes.

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*Partly in reaction to the sexual innuendo in the films of Mae West.

**Her most visible role this days is as the housekeeper/maid to Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Ruling Class



The Ruling Class

(1972)
Directed by
Peter Medak
Written by Pete Barnes, from his play
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews, Carolyn Seymour, William Mervyn,
IMDB Entry

Audiences sometimes had trouble thinking of Peter O’Toole as a great actor. O’Toole thought it was because he was considered so handsome that critics only saw him as a pretty boy, but I think it’s at least partly because his roles often had a quirkiness that some did not take seriously. A prime example of this is The Ruling Class.

Jack Gurney (O’Toole) inherits the title as the 14th Earl after his father dies in an embarrassing accident. The problem is that Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s Jesus.  This is unacceptable to his family and friends, who find his message of peace and love – and his penchant for breaking into song – make him unacceptable.Jack rises above the machinations for a long time until one finally succeeds, creating a new form of insanity that is far more dangerous but far more acceptable to the ruling class.

This is a bravura performance by O’Toole. His Jack as Jesus has plenty of charisma and wit, and his change at the end is a completely different and dangerous character. The rest of the cast is also perfect for the satirical message that the upper class of UK society is completely corrupt.

This was early in the career of Peter Medak, who has kept busy directing movies and TV.

O’Toole got an Oscar nomination for the role, but, as was always the case, he failed to win it. The movie became forgotten, as people preferred O'Toole in less iconoclastic roles, but this is one of his best.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Sam’s Strip (comic strip)

(1961-1963)
by
Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas
Wikipedia Entry

Sam’s Strip was a comic book that was ahead of its time – and possibly too far behind it.

It was the brainchild of Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas. The two worked together on Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois in the fifties and both were avid comic strip fans and historians. The idea came to them to write a strip about comics, where the characters interacted with both the greats and the conventions of the genre.  The result was Sam’s Strip.

Sam had a round body, a cartoon nose, and a mouth hidden under the collar of this shirt.  He was joined by a unnamed assistant, and most of the strip talked about the difficulties of running a comic
strip. Sam would go to the comic strip prop closet to bring out some standard comic book devices, like a picture of a saw in a log when he wanted to sleep or exclamation points to hang in the air.  Jerry Dumas would occasionally appear or be referred to. Old-time comic book characters would show up and Sam would talk about the difficulties of getting help or good gags.

There was also a mild political element. Sam would comment on political figures, and editorial cartoon elements (like the weary world pioneered by Herblock) but the strip never took any strong stances a la Pogo.

Walker and Dumas came up with the gags, while Dumas did the art. Walker also did the lettering.

Sam's Strip 2
The strip was never very popular. Sam broke the fourth wall in just about every strip, something audiences were not used to. Also, Dumas concentrated on using old-time cartoon characters like Happy Hooligan, who the audience didn’t recognize. It wasn’t necessary to do so, but it may have confused readers.*

The strip folded after less than two years.

But Dumas loved the characters, so in 1977 he repurposed them with Sam and Silo, where Sam’s assistant now had a name. They were small-town police and the strip ran many years.

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*This was also a lot of work for Dumas. Copiers were rare, so he had to draw each character individually, matching the original artist’s style.  A monumental task.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Pickle Brothers/The Uncalled for Three (comedy)

(1965-1968)
Ron Prince, Michael Mislove, Peter Lee
Wikipedia Entry
IMDB Entry
History of the Pickle Brothers

Everyone remembers their first rock concert. Mine was the Beach Boys.

This was around 1967.  You have to remember that this was the low point of their careers. Brian Wilson stopped touring, their albums were getting poor reviews, and it was looking like they were washed up.The concert was outdoors at Nassau County Community College, and it was free.

They didn’t draw 100 people.

But I’m not writing about the Beach Boys.   I’m talking about their opening act, “The Uncalled For Three.” It consisted of three wild comedians, a mixture of slapstick, puns, sight gags, parody, vaudeville, and rapid-fire jokes.  I loved it.

The group formed at Hofstra University on Long Island and began to find a local following and started appearing in clubs like The Bitter End and The Hungry i.* Eventually, they changed the name of the act to “The Pickle Brothers.” and toured as an opening act for the Beach Boys.**

They started appearing on variety and talk shows. Here’s their act on The Ed Sullivan Show  in 1966.

It was typical of their comedy, which seems much like that of Laugh-In, though faster and more frenetic. You can also see the influence of the Marx Brothers very clearly..

The group started to get attention and then tried what many comedians tried: a TV show.

They did it first class. The script was written by Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, who as a team wrote for Get Smart and the Monkees.*** The director was William Friedkin, who later went on to make The French Connection. The show included Maureen Arthur, who was memorable as Hedy LaRue in the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

The result can be found on Youtube.

You can see the similarities in concept with The Monkees.and the result was able to keep up their anything goes style of comedy.

Alas, as you probably know, the show wasn’t picked up. The pilot was well received by audiences, but TV executives didn’t think they could keep up the quality for a full season.

The group broke up a year or so after the pilot. It’s probably difficult to keep a comedy act together once vaudeville wasn’t around. The three members went on to other things.

Peter Lee has published an ebook about their history.

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*Neither are well known today, but they were the top venues for comedy and folk singing in the early 60s, breaking many stars. The Bitter End is still in operation.

**I happened to spot their act a few weeks ago on Sullivan show reruns. The name “The Pickle Brothers” meant nothing to me, but there was something very familiar about their style. A little Googling and I found out that they were, indeed, the Uncalled For Three I had seen as the Beach Boys’ opening act. It seems they kept the name “Uncalled for Three” for their touring.

****You can spot the similarities between The Monkees and the Pickle Brothers pilot. Gardner also originated the Who’s in Charge Here? series of books, which took pictures of political figures and added speech balloons. (For example, the cover of the first one showed JFK and Harry Truman, sitting together, with Truman saying “So the bathroom still leaks.”

Sunday, May 22, 2022

In the Dark (TV)

(2019- 22)
Created by
Corrine Kingsbury
Starring Perry Mattfeld, Brooke Markham, Morgan Krantz, Casey Diedrick, Rich Sommer, Nicki Micheaux, Calle Riley, Matt Murray
IMDB Entry

In the Dark
The CW has an audience in mind: fans of Superheroes and teen dramas.*  But there is an occasional show that breaks out of the mold and works as straight drama. And one of their best shows is In the Dark.

It’s the story of Murphy Mason (Perry Mattfeld), who went blind in her early teens. She has learned to cope with it, but is aimless, taking comfort in sarcasm and meaningless sex. When Tyson Bailey, a street kid who saved her from a mugging, and someone she had taking a liking to -- is murdered, she gets involved in the case, dragging in her friend Jess Damon (Brooke Markham) and co-worker Felix Bell (Morgan Krantz) into it. Dean Riley (Rich Sommer) is the cop investigating, and who doesn’t believe any crime was committed.  Dean, however, recruits her to help out with his daughter Chloe (Calle Walton), who is also blind.

The show is strongly plotted as things get unveiled and we learn about why Tyson was killed.

The real strength, though is Perry Matfield as Murphy. Murphy is not a good person – she’s manipulative, getting others to help her out, and is more than willing to betray them all to get what she wants.  At the same time, she’s very funny and sometimes clearly vulnerable, even if she is loath to admit it.

Another great character is Nia Bailey (Nicki Micheaux) as a drug lord who speaks softly but who manages to put subtle menace in everything she says. Brooke Markham is great as Murphy’s best friend who is both frustrated and loyal to her.

I loved the show when it first came out, but somehow missed the second season. I picked up the third and finally decided to see what I had missed. The quality of the writing was that there was a certain even that was referenced multiple times the third season, but when I actually saw it happened, I was still surprised.

The show will have a fourth and final
season starting next month, and I’m looking forward to it. It can be found on Netflix.

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*Sometimes both at once.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover

(1989)
Written and Directed by
Peter Greenaway
Starring Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard.
IMDB Entry

Peter Greenaway is not for everyone.* Originally a painter, he brings an artist’s sensibility to the screen, very stylized. He’s also not afraid of taboo concepts, especially sex, violence, and cannibalism. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Is a fascinating portrayal of his interests.

Richard Borst’s (Richard Bohringer – the Cook) is a chef, whose restaurant is taken over by Albert Spica (Michael Gambon – The Thief), a wealthy and crude gangster who eats there each day. Spica is sadistic, cruel, and intimidating, especially to his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who, spotting Michael (Alan Howard – Her Lover) in the restaurant, starts a torrid affair with him in one of the restaurant’s rest rooms. Of course, Spica eventually learns of the affair and kills him in the most humiliating way possible. But Georgina gets revenge.

The story is visually sumptuous, with rich colors and everything staged like it was in a classical painting (sometimes specifically so). There is a theme of colors; as people walk from room to room, their clothing changes to match the color of the room.

Gambon is excellent as a man you want to hate – a crude bully who thinks he can get away with whatever he wants. Helen Mirren is always great and this role lets her show her as a woman who gets tired of her husband humiliating her and turns on him.

The movie is well regarded, and certainly a great one, but clearly not for everyone’s taste.

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*A friend of mine once called Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract as the worst movie he’d ever seen.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Shootout in a One Dog Town


(1974)
Directed by
Burt Kennedy
Written by Larry Cohen (Story and Screenplay), Dick Nelson (screenplay)
Starring Richard Crenna, Jack Elam, Richard Egan, Stefanie Powers, Michael Ansara, Dub Taylor, Arthur O’Connell
IMDB Entry

Back in the day, directors specialized. Some were known for comedies, others for dramas. Burt Kennedy was known for comic westerns like the classic Support Your Local Sheriff! But he could also show his dramatic chops in the made-for-TV movie, Shootout in a One Dog Town.

It starts with a gang of outlaws ambushing some riders. One – Reynolds (Michael Ansara) – escapes and, though shot, makes it to the town of Opportunity, which does only have one dog. Banker Zach Wells (Richard Crenna) agrees to take the strongbox filled with money that Reynolds was carrying, while Reynolds goes for help. Unfortunately, Reynolds dies before he can do anything else.

The outlaws aren’t giving up, of course.  Leader Petry (Richard Egan) is greedy and not one to let that much money* slip through his hands, even after one of his gang is killed. Petry just thinks it’s a bigger share for those who are left.

Shoot Out in a One-Dog Town

Zach enlists the Sheriff and reformed drunk, Handy (Jack Elam) to help him out, while the other townspeople decide it’s best to be elsewhere. Zach’s wife Letty (Stefanie Powers) urges him to just let them have the money, but Zach will have none of it.

The movie gives the impression it’s a comedy,** but it is more of a western drama, with some lighthearted moments. Jack Elam was in the middle of his transition from villainous henchman to comic sidekick, but the character does show a good mixture of drama and comic relief, and veteran actors Dub Taylor and Arthur O’Connell have small roles as townspeople.

Richard Crenna is also quite good as he shows Zach’s resourcefulness holding off the deliciously vicious Petry. Richard Egan makes the character purely evil, without going overboard. Stefanie Powers is OK, but her part really gives her nothing to do.

Overall, though the film is a top-notch western.

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*One minor quibble is that it supposedly contains $200,000 in gold, an insane amount of money for the time (at least $6 million today).

**The first credit card says it was produced by William Hannah and Joe Barbara. Hannah-Barbara did dabble in live-action action films, usually made for TV, around this time.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Egg (Music)

Egg

1968-1974
Dave Stewart (Hammond organ, piano, Mellotron), Mont Campbell (bass, vocals), Clive Brooks (drums).
Wikipedia Entry

There have been several attempts to label a group of musicians after the area they performed in. The San Francisco Sound was the most well known, with several groups from that area becoming major stars. The Boss-Town Sound was far less successful.* And in England, there was the Canterbury Sound.

The name is misleading. It didn’t have much to do with Canterbury; few of the groups performed or lived there. But there was a certain similarity in their music – experimental, progressive, and with a sense of humor. Musicians drifted in and out of the groups, which included Soft Machine, Caravan, Camel, Gong, Henry Cow, and, of course, Egg.**

The members of the band – Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell, and Clive Brooks played together for several years as Uriel. When they signed a record deal, they were advised to change their name, and chose Egg.***

Their first eponymous album was a mixture of prog rock, classical, jazz, and whatever else. They had ambitions: one side consisted of “Symphony No. 2,” a twenty-minute piece, with a title that showed their playfulness.

The album was critically praised, but didn’t sell well. Still it did enough for Deram Records to pay for the recording of a second album. “The Police Force” was recorded, but Deram got cold feet and shelved it. Eventually it was released, also to acclaim, but probably to no money. While they had enough material for a third album, Deram said “no” and wouldn’t be budged.  The group broke up after that, but Dave Stewart managed to get the third album released in 1974 as “The Civil Surface.”

The music is very much reminiscent of Soft Machine, with long meandering melodies and a lot of jazz influence. The lineup is much like Emerson Lake and Palmer, though Stewart’s style is nothing like Keith Emerson, more soft and less bombastic.

Stewart went on to join Hatfield and the North, and Canterbury-like outfit. Campbell moved out of rock and into world music, where he’s a renouned multi-instrumentalist. Brooks joined the Groundhogs, and then became a drum technician for Pink Floyd.

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*It was actually an attempt by MGM records to build hype to match the hype for San Francisco. The groups signed were nowhere near as good, and people got turned off by the hype, making it a flop that hurt the bands who were being promoted (some of which were quite good, but bad hype can destroy anyone).

**None of the bands got widespread commercial success; they were critical darlings, but the complexity of the music guaranteed it would only be a niche audience.

***Supposedly because “Uriel” sounded too much like “urinal.”

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Abandon Ship

Abandon Ship

(UK Title: Seven Waves Away,
Alternate Title: Seven Days from Now)
(1957)
Written and Directed by
Richard Sale
Starring Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling, Lloyd Nolan, Stephen Boyd, John Stratton
IMDB Entry

I read a lot about movies, especially in my younger days. As a result, I’ve at least heard of the top films of the era. But when Adam-Troy Castro, a friend of mine who runs a movie blog on Patreon, mentioned Abandon Ship, I had never heard of it, and he spoke so well of it that I had to take a look. It is a true dramatic gem.

The movie starts out with the image of a mine floating free on the water as the credits roll. Then it explodes.

It destroys the ocean liner SS Crescent Star, which sinks in seven minutes, killing nearly all of the 1156 people on board. Executive Officer Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds his girlfriend Julie White (Mai Zetterling) and joins the 25 other survivors rest on the only lifeboat.

The big problem is that the lifeboat is built for twelve. Not everyone can fit on the boat without swamping it, so some of the survivors have to remain in the water, holding on to the gunwales.

Holmes takes charge, given command by the dying captain. And their prospects are dire. They are 1500 miles from land, and the ship’s radio operator, Sparks (John Stratton), was unable to send an SOS. Holmes has to do the unthinkable and sacrifice some of the survivors in order that the rest of them can live.

The lifeboat

The drama is as intense as I’ve ever seen. Everything is life and death, and, as conditions deteriorate, Holmes has to make life or death decisions.

Power is excellent. He has to condemn people to death because logically it is the only choice, but he still manages to project that he hates the course he has to follow, even as he follows it.

John Stratton is also memorable as the radio operator who is clearly suffering from PTSD and guilt over not being able to bring help soon.

One important point is that the film is based on a true story. And while nowadays, that’s usually trumpeted in all the promotional material, this isn’t mentioned until the very end of the file, where they tell the legal fate of Holmes.

Director Richard Sale came up as a screenwriter and switched to directing. Some of the films he wrote had vaguely memorable.* This was his final film.

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*Notably, Suddently, where Frank Sinatra played an assassin. The film was withdrawn from distribution by Sinatra because it was too close to the JFK assassination. But there was a colorized version that became the horrible example of colorization, mostly because “Old Blue Eyes” is shown with brown eyes.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

I Dood It

I Dood It

1943
Directed by
Vincente Minnelli
Written by Sig Herzig, Fred Saidy
Starring Red Skelton, Eleanor Powell, Richard Ainley,Patricia Dane, John Hodiak, Hazel Scott, Lena Horne
IMDB Entry

Eleanor Powell was one of the great dancers of film. I had seen very little of her, especially not on her own.*  So I happened to stumble upon I Dood It** with Red Skelton, a favorite comedian of mine from his TV days, and finally got a chance to see her in a feature.

She was spectacular.

The movie focuses on Joseph Rivington Reynolds (Red Skelton), a pants presser who becomes enamored of the Broadway star Constance Shaw (Eleanor Powell).  He shows up at every performance and knows every line of her current play, a Civil War romance. Shaw is engaged to her co-star Roy Hartwood (John Hodiak) who is two-timing her with Suretta Brenton (Patricia Dane). Angry, she goes to Joseph, who is following just to get a glimpse of her, too shy to even approach her. Due to a misunderstanding, Constance thinks he’s the rich owner of a gold mine and marries him out out spite.

The movie is based on Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage and Keaton actually provided gags. Indeed, one of the comic set pieces comes from the Keaton film, when Joseph tries to put Constance into bed after she has fallen asleep.

The plot is slight but serviceable.  What lifts up the film is the musical numbers. Director Vincent Minnelli** stages them all as though they were on stage, and they all give Powell a chance to amaze. She is known for her tap dancing, which is especially good, especially since she does it all in high heels. What really stands out, however, is her cowboy roping dance, where she does thing with a lariat that are extremely impressive (especially at 3:30 of this clip).. 

What is also of note is the appearance of Black performers in the film. Both Hazel Scott and Lena Horne perform major numbers. Butterfly McQueen – from Gone with the Wind – also has a small role as a maid, and there is little condescension toward her.

Skelton is fine. He was always comfortable with slapstick and silent comedy, which puts him in good stead.

Director Vincent Minnelli was near the beginning of a long career, primarily with movie musical. This is one of his lesser-known films.

There’s also a lot of references to World War II, which was going on at the time. There is a subplot involving German saboteurs, and one joke when Skelton mentions butter and an entire room takes notice, because it was rationed at the time.

Powell’s career was surprisingly short. She made only one more movie after this and switched to working nightclubs. She did get some recognition in the That’s Entertainment series, but most of her films tended to be revues; this is one of the few times she played a character.

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*She did once partner with Fred Astaire, and clips of that have been shown in many contexts.

**The title comes from a catchphrase from Skelton’s radio show, where he played the “Mean Widdle Kid,” a Bart Simpson-like boy.

***Yes, Liza’s father.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

(2014)
Directed by
Rob Minkoff
Written by Craig Wright. Additional dialog by Robert Ben Garant
Starring (voice): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie  Mann, Allison Janney
IMDB Entry

When I was growing up, I had a clear favorite cartoon show:  Rocky and Bullwinkle* and my favorite part of them was “Peabody’s Improbable History.” It had everything I liked and it was always a treat.** When I heard they were making Mr. Peabody and Sherman, I was wary. I didn’t think they could keep up the craziness of the original.*** It took a while for me to catch it, but when I did, I realized it was a pretty good adaptation.

Mr. Peabody (voice of Ty Burrell) is a genius dog who adopts Sherman (Max Charles) as his own.****. He uses his time machine – the WABAC***** – to teach him about history.  In school, however, Sherman contradicts the teacher when she says George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, leading to teasing by Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), leading to Sherman biting her, ultimately bringing in the Child Protective Services agent, Karen Grunion (Allison Janney). In an attempt to smooth things over, he invited Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) to try to smooth things over. Despite warnings against it, Sherman is goaded into telling Penny about the WABAC, and she ends up in ancient Egypt to be married to King Tut.

That’s the start of various frenetic adventures through time, with some nice animated action sequences, until the entire thing escalates so that Mr. Peabody has to save the day.

The main difference from the original is that they develops the relations between Mr. Peabody and Sherman, turning it into father/son situation. Of course, the original had no time to delve into such things, but when you’re turning a five-minute cartoon into a feature film, something has to be added.

It also changed the structure from the original. Mr. Peabody would go back in time to see historical events and had to act to make things work out as history was written.******

The voice cast is excellent. Ty Burrell manages to make Mr. Peabody into a know-it-all without him sounding like one. And there are quite a few surprising voice cameos.

And, of course, the puns. The original was notable for ending each episode with a terrible pun.******* It probably led to my lifelong love of the form.

There were also some great references to the original, and to other Jay Ward cartoons. I especially liked the final gag, which refers to the original TV opening sequence.

Definitely worth a look. A new take on the characters that shouldn’t disappoint long-time fans.

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*In all its titles:  The Rocky Show, Rocky and His Friends, and The Bullwinkle Show.

**Nowadays, they don’t quite hold up as well as the main Rocky and Bullwinkle segments, but at still pretty good.

***I was also wary of the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie, but found it better than I expected.

****Leading to the line taken from the original: “If a boy can adopt a dog, I don’t see why a dog can’t adopt a boy.”  (Though the original used “own” instead of “adopt.”)

*****Also spelled “Wayback,” which is the most common way it’s referred to.

*****Much like Quantum Leap.

*******Just like in Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot, which may have been an influence.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Virginia Gregg

Virginia Gregg

(1918-1986)
IMDB Entry

Actors are usually noticed. But some actors can have long careers in small roles and still remain anonymous. And one actor who fits this category is Virginia Gregg.

Gregg was born in Harrisburg, PA, but moved to Hollywood as a child. She started getting parts as a voice actress in radio. There were few shows of the time where she didn’t appear. It seemed like whenever they needed a female actress, she showed up. She played all ages, from ingenues to old women. I kept hearing her name as I listen to Old Time Radio broadcasts.

She also was in many films, and when TV came around, she continued to work. Jack Webb clearly liked her work; she was on Dragnet ten times, his movie The D.I, the 1966 revival of Dragnet, The D.A, Emergency! and Adam-12.  It seems like she was in every dramatic show from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. Then she switched to voicework.  Indeed, her best known movie was the voice of Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho – uncredited.

Why isn’t she well known? Well, first of all it was rare for her to play a recurring character.  Her ten performances in the original Dragnet had her playing a different character each time. And though she was fine at what she did, she did not have the distinctive voice that made someone like William Conrad identifiable. I usually didn’t spot her in a show until they announced the credits. In addition, she did not have the Hollywood looks that got you case in a lead role.  Also, she was in her late 30s when TV came in – too old for a leading actress, especially one whose body of work was small roles.

I don’t think she minded – few people can match her for working steadily for over 40 years.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Tenth Man (TV)

(1988)

The Tenth Man

Directed by
Jack Gold
Written by Lee Langley, from a novel by Graham Greene
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Watson
IMDB Entry

Graham Greene had a long and successful career that straddled the genres of thriller and literary novels. The Tenth Man, one of his later novels, was made into a first-class TV movie.

Jean Louis Chavel (Anthony Hopkins) is a comfortable Paris lawyer during the Nazi occupation when he is rounded up by the Nazis to be used as a hostage. When the Resistance kills a German official, the thirty men are given the ultimatum: pick three of them to be killed in retaliation.

Chavel is chosen. Desperate, he offers all his wealth and property to anyone who wishes to switch places. No one is interested until Michel Mangeot (Timothy Watson), who is dying of tuberculosis, volunteers, giving it all to his sister Therese (Kristin Scott Thomas) and mother. At the last minute Chavel tries to change his mind, but Mangeot goes to the firing squad.

Three years later, the war over, Chavel is freed and travels to his house to meet Therese. She hates Chavel, so he gives her a false name and tells her he was in the prison with Chavel and her brother. He offers to help around the house, and ends up as a servant. A relationship develops, which is shattered when and imposter (Derek Jacobi) shows up, claiming to be Chavel.

It is not a surprise that Anthony Hopkins gives a fine performance.  His Chavel is a man haunted by his decision and is brought a bit more toward normalcy by his interactions with Therese, who is played strongly by Kristin Scott Thomas.

Most impressive is Derek Jacobi. The mannerisms that make him a good guy are especially effective in playing the devious imposter. He got a supporting actor Emmy for the role* and it was well deserved.

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*He doesn’t appear until the final third.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Bronco Billy

Bronco Billy
(1980)
Directed by
Clint Eastwood
Written by Dennis Hacklin
Starring Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis, Scatman Crouthers
IMDB Entry

Think of Clint Eastwood, and the word “western” immediately comes to mind. He developed a reputation as a taciturn man of action, a traditional western hero in the untraditional 60s. But Eastwood also had a lighter side, and showed far more depth in his characterizations as time went by. And one of the more interesting characters was in Bronco Billy.

Bronco Billy McCoy (Eastwood) is the owner and main attraction of an old fashioned wild west show, the type that went out of fashion long before the movie was set. He claims to be the fastest gun in the west, and ends each performance with a knife throwing act. When he accidently nicks his assistant, she leaves and he is forced to turn to Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), an heiress who has been abandoned by her new husband, John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis). Antoinette is forced to take the place in the act.

His show is not making any money, but Billy continues on, mostly to keep the dream alive, and to provide jobs (rarely paid) for the various misfits, ex-cons,  and alcoholics who make up the crew.

The movie shows a true lover for the imaginary west of movies.* Eastwood shows his softer side, usually avoiding a battle unless provoked.

Sondra Locke – who had a relationship with Eastwood at the time – is good, but Scatman Crouthers is just fine as the show’s ringmaster and announcer. For a short time, Crouthers was in the middle of a career peak, playing notable character roles.

The movie was a modest success, both critically and financially, but Eastwood was looking for more. It may be because he felt it was one of his most personal works.

Definitely worth seeing out.

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*I don’t think it’s coincidence that the character shares his name with Broncho Billy Anderson, one of the first western stars, who appeared in The Great Train Robbery.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Leap Year

(1924)
Directed by
James Cruze, Roscoe Arbuckle
Written by Walter Woods, from a story by Sarah Y. Mason
Starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mary Thurman, Lucien Littlefield, John McKinnon, Harriet Hammond, Gertrude Short, Maude Wayne
IMDB Entry

Leap Year
I’ve been curious about this film for decades.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle* was one of the bigger names of silent comedy. He gave Buster Keaton his start, and was one of Mack Sennett’s biggest stars. Few remember that. They mostly remember the scandal.

To recap, a woman, Virginia Rappe, died after a Hollywood party and a friend of hers claimed Arbuckle raped her, the weight of his body causing her death. It was a sensation. The Hearst papers ran with it,** Arbuckle was eventually acquitted,*** but his career was ruined.

His studio, Paramount had seven films of his in the can and ready to go when the scandal hit. For obvious reasons, they decided not to release them.

I always wondered what the films were like. How would have Arbuckle’s career unfolded if it hadn’t been for the scandal?  I had thought they were lost forever.

Turns out, though several of them were lost, people were able to track down prints of the rest.

Leap Year is the most easily available (on Youtube and archive.org).  It was released in Finland in 1924 so there were prints, and by 1981 it was finally shown in America.

Stanley Piper (Arbuckle) is the nephew of the rich, crotchety Jeremiah Piper (Lucien Littlefield), a hypochondriac who has a full-time nurse, Phyllis Brown (Mary Thurman). Stanley is in love with Phyllis, but through a series of misunderstandings, three women (Harriet Hammone, Gertrude Short, and Maude Wayne) believe that Stanley is proposing to them; all accept. Stanley can’t get them to understand, as well as confusing Phyllis, who is not happy with the situation. The women show up at Stanley’s house and he has to devise ways to break up and keep the women apart from each other.  But every attempt only make them more attracted to him.

How is it? Pretty run-of-the-mill. Slapstick and misunderstanding abound and the plot twists are pretty obvious and contrived. But I’m sure it would have been successful if it could have been released in 1921. On the other hand, I doubt it would be remembered as a classic silent comedy and would not have put Arbuckle up in James Agee’s pantheon.

Arbuckle does make an effective leading man. His weight works against him, but Stanley is basically a decent guy, and he is handsome enough to pull off the role believably.

The film was directed by James Cruze, a veteran silent film director and actor who worked until his 1938, his best-known film these days The Great Gabbo, probably the original evil ventriloquist’s dummy trope.

Arbuckle couldn’t recover from the scandal. He had occasional acting roles, usually in films directed by his friends (who all stood by him during the trials) then switched to directing using the pseudonym William Goodrich. By the late 20s, he directed a series of short subjects under that name for Educational Pictures.**** By 1932, the scandal was far enough in the past for him to get a contract for more short subjects, which did well enough for Warner Brothers to sign him to star in a feature.

He died the day after he signed the contract.

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*He did not like his nickname

**Hearst is reported as saying it “sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania."

***The jury saying “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime."

****Leading to one of the funniest mistranslations I’d ever come across.  I have a French-language film encyclopedia which reported he did “educational films,” not understanding that “Educational” was the name of the film company. The idea that the scandal-ruined Arbuckle would be directing films for schools always seemed absurd. Educational Pictures had nothing to do with education; it was a small, low-budget producer of short subjects. Buster Keaton worked there when MGM dropped him and they also were where many bigger stars got their first roles.  They were out of business by 1940

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong

A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong

(2017)
Directed by
Richard Boden
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Starring Derek Jacobi, Diana Rigg, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Nancy Zamit
IMDB Entry

A Christmas Carol has been adapted hundreds of times. There are debates as to who played the best Scrooge. But there is nothing to match A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong.

It starts out as a standard adaptation, with Derek Jacobi as Scrooge. But as it gets started, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society abducts the BBC Studios and Jacobi and puts on their own production.

As the title states, everything goes wrong. Marley’s corpse falls out of the coffin, the door to Scrooge’s office won’t open (so he walks around to the side of the set), Diana Rigg (the aunt of one of the actresses) can’t make it on time to narrate, so has to do it on her cell phone. Bob Cratchit can’t remember his lines, so they are written (blatantly) all over the set. Props fail and stagehands struggle to make them work and the camera manages to show them whenever they aren’t supposed to be shown. There is dissention as to who will play Scrooge, ridiculous special effects, CGI failures, and pratfalls galore.

The result is hilarious. If you’ve ever been involved in a theater production, it’s even funnier as the actors try to pretend that everything is fine and they’re not in the middle of a disaster.  It’s pure slapstick, and perfectly done.

It's available on Youtube.