Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Main Event

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jonathon Saia

The Main Event (WB, 1979) – Director: Howard Zieff. Writers: Gail Parent & Andrew Smith. Stars: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Paul Sand, Whitman Mayo, Patti D’Arbanville, Chu Chu Malave, Richard Lawson, James Gregory, Richard Altman, Seth Banks, Lindsay Bloom, Earl Boen, Roger Bowen, Badja Duola & Rory Calhoun. Color, Rated PR, 112 minutes.

I am not an object, a woman; I am a person, a man!"

I am utterly ambivalent toward the so-called "battle of the sexes." As far as I'm concerned, Henry Higgins was right. Why can't a woman be more like a man?!

We get it. Men and women are different. Maybe even come from different planets! Who cares? Haven't we exhausted this phenomenon by now? And isn't it presumptuous to assume that all women do X and all men like Y? Shouldn't we be focusing on the person and not the gender? Focusing on the inner workings of relationships as individual things and not indicative of gender politics? Of course this was the whole point of feminism, to see beyond the gender and see the person.

But all of this "equality" talk has backfired; despite the constant barrage of the "even though men and woman are different they shouldn't be treated differently," with every Sex and the City episode, every Scorsese movie, every time we are told to "take it like a man," to "embrace our feminine side," we turn around and celebrate the solidification of these so-called bygone gender roles we claim to be above and beyond, continuing to pit the genders against one another for some pointless game of Who's the Boss?; 104.3, a radio station in LA, even has a Battle of the Sexes competition every Friday morning, asking stereotypical questions to opposite genders, trying to prove who is...better? Or something.

This is the most perplexing part of any of these contests/films/books/songs/paint-by-numbers: while a woman can act "like a man" or a man can act "like a woman," in order to find that ever elusive love, they must drop all signs of "progress" and embrace their pre-designed roles: the ballsy, self-assured woman, the Jasmines and Ariels of the world, must submit their independence and wait to be saved by their dashing man; the shy, skinny boys, the George McFlys and Hercules of the world, must prove their worth by punching out the tough guy, when the phrase "zero to hero" means "I have muscles now," and carry the girl off into the sunset.



Which is why we have movies like The Main Event, starring feminist icon Barbra Streisand and pretty boy Ryan O'Neal as – what else? – star-crossed lovers, reminding us that "progress" is complicated and that a woman truly can have it all! Or something.

Prepare yourself because this gets a little convoluted: Babs plays Hillary Kramer, the owner of a successful perfume company who is about to go through the roof with her newest concoction: a unisex scent, created by combining a man's cologne and a woman's ode de toilette. If you weren't sure by the poster of Babs and O’Neil nose to nose sporting boxing gloves, this is a film where masculinity and femininity are literally duking it out for dominance.

But her business manager squandered away her assets without her knowledge, leaving her broke as a joke, and out of business. Which reads as hilariously false. We are really supposed to believe that a woman like Barbra Streisand – excuse me, Hillary Kramer – would leave her affairs so haphazardly to a man?

So she sells the business to a competitor, never once mentioning (now or for the remainder of the film) her presumed ace in the hole: her hybrid cologne; one to which she would presumably have the sole copyright because she invented it. But why would she mention the perfume business again? She is a boxing manager now, putting every waking moment into securing her protégé's victory. Huh?

Turns out that her nefarious manager also was syphoning money to a boxer as a tax write-off (naturally, perfume magnates would patronize boxers...the government would never look into this type of deduction). So she goes to collect the $47,000 she has unknowingly paid him over the past four years. Naturally, he doesn't have it so she makes him a proposition: box and win me my money back.

But he isn't really a boxer. That's right. He runs a driving school in the shape of a boxing glove (I'm sure this was enough of a tie-in to fool the government) and hasn't had a fight in years.

Well, that is going to change now that Babs is on the scene! Although she doesn't threaten him with civic force or legal action; he is supposed to do what she says because...because all-the-women-independent-throw-your-hands-up-at-me? I don't remember. My head was spinning in confusion! And months later, I am still reeling from its tilt-a-whirl derring-do.

Anyway, Babs puts Ryan threw the ropes of having a female boss – and he schools her in the machismo-like grunts of a man who was hired for his looks and not any discernible talent. (Oh! And his character's name is Kid, further infantilizing the male while maturing the woman; how the objectification tables have turned!). He trains and gets his pretty face bashed in; she nags from the sidelines in her designer sweat suit and horrible perm that was somehow considered sexy in the '70s. He spouts misogynistic banter at her very liberated ears; she laughs it off with her signature chutzpah, churning his insults like butta'.

Then while on a training retreat at a faraway camp in the snowcapped woods, Ryan inexplicably begins treating her with respect, leading to them making love. But where the film (blissfully) splits from history (and every film like it) Babs, "like a man," keeps her head during the after glow. Ryan, taking on the "feminine" role, assumes now that they have had sex they are a couple on the road to marriage; he no longer owes her any money. Babs, the pragmatist with her eye on getting back on her feet, without him, laughs in shock; of course he still owes her the money. Well, Ryan flies off the handle and the lovers return to their respective corners to cool down.



Being a romantic comedy – the tagline is "A Glove Story" – they reconcile in the final frame as Streisand the Singer belts her first disco hit over the soundtrack, cleverly titled "The Main Event." You see, if The Kid wins, then she will have her money and be out of his life forever; if he loses, then they will just have to keep on boxing until he does. So Hillary literally throws in the towel (hence the cliché), forfeiting the match, somehow solidifying their love and continuing their relationship.

The message is very mixed here. And for a movie that is clearly trying to say something, clearly trying to pit the sexes against each other, clearly playing with stereotypes to subvert expectations, this is more ridiculous than it would be in a film starring someone like Meg Ryan or Ali McGraw. But for a film starring Streisand, a woman whose entire career has been around subverting expectation and breaking through the glass ceiling, the man, the gruff misogynistic man, the man who says things like "a woman belongs on her back with her mouth closed," a man who has zero redeeming qualities (except his appearance and presumed bedroom prowess), this man is still the one that the woman wants; the woman who is college educated, the woman who is a business owner, the woman who has the scientific knowledge to create perfumes, the woman who takes jazzercise classes complete with a trainer yelling things like "no wonder your husbands are leaving you!" the woman who gives up her own dreams of getting back on her feet financially because as every woman knows, a man is the most important thing a woman can have. At least Catwoman (2004) – one of the worst and least enjoying films I have ever seen – ends with the woman walking into the night, alone; and Benjamin Bratt was sexy, smart, and kind. If Hillary and The Kid would not have dated if he had won, why are we supposed to believe that they will because he lost? Wouldn't he be pissed that she forfeited a match he was clearly winning? If he won, wouldn't he then be at the top of his game on the way to bigger and better matches and more money? If they were going to be together anyway, wouldn't this help her open a new business even easier? Wouldn't this net them a better place to live, a brighter future? But logic is never the road most traveled in the world of the rom-com.

But The Main Event is not an awful movie because of what it may or may not say about gender roles and the never-ending battle of the sexes. The Main Event is awful because we don't care about any of the characters. We are ambivalent towards their happiness because they are clearly wrong for one another. Is she going to be a full time fight manager now, playing second fiddle to her inevitable husband? Will this really bring her "happiness?" Especially when the first half of the film didn't set her up as successfully unhappy! Is he suddenly going to join the human race and realize that women aren't just for sex? I ain't buying any of this contrived malarkey. Why did Babs want to produce this schlock? Maybe it was the expectation that they would be as charming and funny as they were in What's Up, Doc? (1972). Whatever the reason, The Main Event fails because it is just plain boring.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 16-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

CHRISTMAS MOVIES

December 22: A Barbara Stanwyck double feature kicks off at 8 pm with the wonderful Christmas in Connecticut, followed at 10 pm by the touching Preston Sturges scripted Remember the Night (1940).

We shift gears at Midnight for Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien and Leon Ames in 1944’s heartwarming Meet Me in St. Louis.


December 24: At 8 pm comes one of the most delightful of the holiday films TCM is airing during the month. That film is The Bishop’s Wife (1947), with Cary Grant as Dudley, an angel sent to help Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) realize his project to build an elaborate new cathedral and repair his marriage to Julia (Loretta Young). It’s a combination of the heartwarming with the inspirational as Grant works his magic. Look for supporting players Monty Woolley as a history professor, Elsa Lanchester as the Brougham’s devoted housekeeper, and James Gleason in a comic relief role as a cab driver.

At 10 pm is another delightful holiday film, Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). A sequel of sorts to Going My Way, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is assigned to a rundown parochial school on the verge of condemnation. Presided over by Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), O’Malley must find a way to work with her to save the school. Though not as good as Going My Way, there’s still a lot in it to thoroughly warm the heart. 

At Midnight it’s the rarely seen The Cheaters (1945) from Republic Pictures. A wealthy self-obsessed family preparing for Christmas is in financial trouble. They learn that an extremely rich uncle has died and left his fortune to a woman he didn’t even know. The family, scheming to find Watson and keep her under wraps until the search period is over and the fortune reverts to them, hits on an idea that will help them in their scheme and at the same time enable them to stand out among their friends. They will adopt a "lost man" and bring him to their house for the holidays (sort of akin to My Man Godfrey). Finding a news story of a washed-up actor who has attempted suicide, they bring him to their home. But the actor proves far more than they bargained for and shows them some real truths about both giving and living. Eugene Palette and Billie Burke plays the heads of the wealthy family, with Joseph Schildkraut as the unemployed actor they take in. I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years, but never got the chance to see it. Now I can.

At 2 am it’s the durable 1938 MGM version of A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen as Scrooge and Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as the Cratchits. With standout performances from Leo G. Carroll as Jacob Marley and Ann Rutherford as the Spirit of Christmas Past. And at 3:30 am, Glenn Ford and Bette Davis star in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a pallid remake of his 1933 Lady For a Day.

December 25: At 9 am TCM is airing Hal Roach’s 1934 production of Babes in Toyland with Laurel and Hardy in fine form as two bumbling employees in this version of the Victor Herbert operetta. Following at 10:30 am, Seymour Hicks takes on the title role in 1935’s Scrooge, from Twickenham Film Distributors in England. Paramount distributed the film in the U.S.

THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK

December 21: At 8 pm Fred Astaire again romances Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936). The highlight of the film is the excellent score by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, including “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” and the unforgettable “The Way You Look Tonight.” At 10 pm comes 42nd Street (1933), the classic backstage musical with Warner Baxter, Dick Powell, Bebe Daniels and Ruby Keeler as the girl from the chorus who suddenly must carry the show. Great hokum with a slew of fabulous songs from Al Dubin and Harry Warren: “Young and Healthy,” “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the title tune, one of the best songs ever written and one that still thrills me every time I hear it, even if it is sung by Ruby Keeler. 

George M. Cohan takes center stage at 11:45 pm as Jimmy Cagney shows us why he won the Oscar for Best Actor playing Cohan in the lively biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Add to this the great selection of Cohan tunes, including “Harrigan,” “So Long, Mary,” “Forty-five Minutes From Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” and Give My Regards to Broadway,” and it’s a film we can watch any number of times. 


At 2 am it’s the offbeat 1954 Deep in My Heart, a biopic of composer Sigmund Romberg, whose mission was to bring serious music to Broadway. Despite its overlong length, the film has a lot going for it, with the lead role of Romberg being played with panache by Jose Ferrer. Merle Oberon is actress Dorothy Donnelly, who spotted Romberg early on and encouraged his talent. Walter Pidgeon is wonderful as producer J.J. Schubert, and Paul Stewart is solid as Shubert’s associate, Bert Townsend. But the real stars of the show are the guest stars MGM brings on to perform Romberg’s music. Jane Powell and Vic Damone team up for “Will You Remember (Sweetheart),” the only film pairing of brothers Gene and Fred Kelly for “I Love to Go Swimmin' with Wimmen,” Ann Miller singing and dancing to “It,” and Cyd Charisse teaming with James Mitchell on “One Alone.” Even Ferrer gets into the act, soloing on “Jazzadadadoo,” and teaming with Helen Traubel on “Leg of Mutton.” Traubel solos with “Auf Wiedersehn,” “You Will Remember Vienna,” and the unforgettable “Stouthearted Men.” Perhaps the most unusual number is Tony Martin and Joan Weldon dueting “Lover, Come Back to Me.” Weldon is best known for her role as ant expert Dr. Patricia Medford in the 1954 sci-fi classic Them!

The evening closes at 4:45 am with the 1934 MGM musical The Cat and the Fiddle, starring Ramon Novarro as a struggling composer with his eyes on Jeanette MacDonald. The music by Jerome Kern and Otto A. Harbach includes “She Didn't Say Yes,” “A New Love is Old,” and “The Night Was Made for Love.”

December 28: The spotlight class out tonight with The Dolly Sisters (1945) leading off at 8:00 pm. Betty Grable and June Haver play two sisters from Hungary who become vaudeville stars in the early 1900s. the music, from different composers, includes such well-known tunes as “Carolina in the Morning,” “I'm Always Chasing Rainbows,” “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!,” and “The Sidewalks of New York.” 

Betty Hutton is Annie Oakley, Howard Keel is Frank Butler and Louis Calhern in Buffalo Bill in 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun. The music, by Irving Berlin, includes such standards as “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” “Anything You Can Do,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “The Girl That I Marry,” 

Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin are three sailors who meet Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller and Betty Garrett while On The Town (1949), which airs at 12:15 am. The music is supplied by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and includes the famous “New York, New York.”

The Band Wagon (1953), starring  Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan, airs at 2:00 am. Tunes by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz include “By Myself,” “A Shine on Your Shoes,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Love Louisa,” “Louisiana Hayride,” “Triplets,” and the ever popular “That’s Entertainment.”

Closing out the night is Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), starring Jack Benny. Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor. The music, by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, includes such popular standards as “Broadway Rhythm,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “All I Do Is Dream Of You,” and “I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin’.” 

IN MEMORIAM

December 29: TCM salutes some of those who passed away this year with five movies, beginning at 8:00 pm with Jules and Jim (1962), honoring Jeanne Moreau. At 10:00 pm, Bill Paxton is honored with Apollo 13 (1995) is airing. Mary Tyler Moore is remembered at 12:30 am with Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Director George A. Romero is saluted at 3:15 am with his Night of the Living Dead, from 1968. Finally, TCM remembers Don Rickles with the 1970 production off Kelly’s Heroes.

The next morning, December 30, TCM is airing Gold of the Seven Saints from 1961, starring the late Roger Moore.

HOLIDAYS WITH HITCHCOCK

TCM offers us a very unusual Christmas present with a 24-hour marathon of Alfred Hitchcock films beginning on Christmas Day at 8 pm and ending on Boxing Day. Here’s the rundown.

December 25: 8:00 pm - Rear Window; 10:00 pm - North by Northwest; 12:30 am - Dial M for Murder; 2:30 am - The Birds; 4:45 am - Vertigo.

December 26: 7:00 am - Shadow of a Doubt; 9:00 am - Strangers on a Train; 11:00 am - The Trouble With Harry; 1:00 pm - Topaz; 3:15 pm - Marnie; 5:45 pm - The Man Who Knew Too Much (from 1956).

ROSSELLINI


December 17: A beautiful double feature from Roberto Rossellini begins at 2 am with his entrancing 1950 effort, The Flowers of St. Francis. Rossellini follows the spiritual life of St. Francis of Assisi as he brings together his followers and builds the Franciscan Order, to their journey to Rome to secure the Pope’s blessing, and their return in the rain to Rivotorlo after gaining the Pope’s blessing to disperse into the world to preach on their own. Rossellini uses the film and its message of spiritual enlightenment as a counterweight to the despair and cynicism ravaging postwar Europe. The simplicity, and good will of St. Francis' message of peace to all is a call to the faithful to once again listen and heed the naïve who are sincere rather than place their faith in those who use cleverness instead of being pure hearted. Rossellini's is telling the audience that those who are pure at heart will always overcome the evil that exists in the world. 

Immediately following at 3:45 am is Rossellini’s 1972 biopic, Blaise Pascal. It’s an intriguing look at the life of the French philosopher from age 17 to his death at the age of 39 in 1662. Along the way the film examines Pascal’s role in the battle between reason and faith. As Pascal, Pierre Arditi gives a performance for the ages as the philosopher faces a society that believes in witchcraft and fails to understand his discovery of the vacuum, which for Pascal asserts the existence of infinity. Pascal spent his short existence on earth trying to move French society out of the darkness and towards enlightenment. And on his deathbed (after suffering rather poor health for most of his life), Pascal affirms his belief not only in God, but also in clear thought, which he sees as not opposed to belief in God, but entirely compatible with that belief. This is a film that will delightfully enlighten you (no pun intended).

ALBERT BROOKS

December 17: At 8 pm TCM is airing a double feature directed by and starring Albert Brooks. First up is Real Life (1979), an often hilarious mockumentary of the famous 1973 PBS documentary, An American Family. Brooks brilliantly satirizes both the family that allowed the cameras to invade their personal life, the media, who glommed onto it and began to reshape American life, and us, who cheerfully went along with the whole thing. Following at 10 pm is Modern Romance (1981), with Brooks as film editor Robert Cole, currently working on a cheesy sci-fi film, who is constantly breaking up and reconciling with his extremely patient and long-suffering girlfriend, Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold). Unlike the preceding film, this one totally misses the mark: it is shallow and totally unfunny. Not helping matters is the fact that there is no chemistry between Brooks and Harrold. Instead of insight we get a sappy romance that never takes off because Brooks’ character is so unlikeable. Watch at your own risk.

ZERO

December 27: An evening with the great Zero Mostel begins at 8:00 pm with his famous role as Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ 1968 The Producers. At 9:45 Zero is blacklisted comedian Hecky Brown in the 1976 comedy/drama The Front. Mostel is an embittered man who needs the help of angel Harry Belafonte in The Angel Levine (1976) at 11:45 pm. A most unusual western hits the airwaves at 1:30 am as Kim Novak leads a group of outlaws posing as religious leaders of the local church to rob a fortress-like bank built by the James Brothers, the Dalton Brothers and the Younger Brothers to store their ill-gotten gold in The Great Bank Robbery from Warner Bros. in 1969. Zero is the Rev. Pious Blue. And last, at 3:30 am, Zero is the drunken Potemkin, courtier to Russian empires Catherine the Great (Jeanne Moreau) in 1968’s Great Catherine. Peter O’Toole, Jack Hawkins and Akim Tamiroff also star in this slapstick adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play.

THIN MAN MARATHON

December 31: There is no better way to spend New Year’s Eve than watching William Powell and Myrna Loy solve crimes. The Thin Man marathon kicks off at 8:00 pm with the original, The Thin Man (1934). At 9:45 pm comes After the Thin Man (1936). Another Thin Man (1939) follows at 11:45 pm. Then it’s Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) at 1:45 am. The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) airs at 3:30 am, and the last of the series, Song of the Thin Man (1947), can be seen at 5:15 am.

PRE-CODE

December 31: The only Pre-Code film this edition is One Way Passage (1932), starring William Powell and Kay Francis, at 10:00 am. Read our review of it here

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE


December 16: Tune in at 2 am for a great psychotronic double feature. First up is The Twilight People, a 1972 atrocious remake of Island of Lost Souls from director Eddie Romero and co-producer and star John Ashley. The best take on the film comes from Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film: “Like most Romero duds, it stars John Ashley (who co-produced). The panther woman is played by Pam Grier! This boring quasi remake includes an ape man, antelope man, flying bat man, wolf woman and a tree woman(?), a Nazi, bad makeup, and some pretty gory scenes.” If that doesn’t make you want to tune in, nothing does. It’s followed at 3:45 am by the original 1933 classic, Island of Lost Souls.

December 22: Elvis stars in the classic Jailhouse Rock at 3:30 pm, made in the days when he was actually making good movies. 

December 23: Tune in at 2:15 am to see Olivia Newton-John as a goddess sent to help roller-skating Michael Beck in the unpopular 1980 misfire Xanadu. Also starring is Sandahl Bergman and Gene Kelly, of all people. Following at 4:00 am is the dull The Unholy Rollers (1972), though it features Claudia Jennings in one of her best roles as a young woman who quits her job at a cannery to try her luck on the roller derby circuit with the L.A. Avengers. Co-produced by Roger Corman and James H. Nicholson, it’s a lame attempt to cash in on the superior Kansas City Bomber, made the same year with Raquel Welch. Jennings is wonderful, but the script lets her down, featuring typical show biz corruption.

December 27: A Val Lewton double header of The Leopard Man (1943) and Cat People (1942) begins at 5:30 pm.


December 30: At 2:00 am it’s He Knows You’re Alone from 1980, a film whose only distinction being it was the first film of Tom Hanks and was directed by Armand Mastroianni, Marcello’s American cousin. Following at 4:30 am is the equally dreadful Don’t Open the Door! (aka Don’t Hang Up) from 1975 about a dutiful grand-daughter who goes home to take care of her elderly grandmother and finds herself in the same house with a homicidal maniac.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for December 15-22

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
December 15–December 22

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

MEET JOHN DOE (December 16, 1:45 pm): This is a wonderful film and I've never seen Gary Cooper more relaxed in a role than of the fictitious John Doe, the every-man who is created by fired newspaper columnist Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck writes a column with a letter from "John Doe," who is tired of the corrupt system that has left him jobless and bitter, and plans to jump off the roof of city hall on Christmas Eve. The story takes on a life of its own so she convinces the paper's bosses to find a John Doe and write articles about him, thus creating a national movement. The movie is a comedy with an important message about how society ignores the regular guy. Frank Capra's films are often too sentimental for my tastes, but he hits the right notes with this movie. The supporting cast is solid, particularly Walter Brennan as Cooper's tramp buddy, known as the Colonel, and James Gleason as the headline-hungry managing editor. 

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (December 18, 11;45 am): In Seven Days in May, Burt Lancaster teams up with Kirk Douglas (the two co-starred in seven movies during their cinematic careers) to make a memorable and outstanding film. Lancaster is the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is leading several of its members in a conspiracy to remove the president (Fredric March) from office because he signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Douglas is a Marine Corps colonel and military adviser who finds out about the proposed coup and tells the president. It's among the best political thrillers ever made. An interesting tidbit: the shots taken outside the White House were done with the permission of President John F. Kennedy (those scenes were done in 1963 before his assassination), but Pentagon officials weren't cooperative, refusing to permit Douglas to be filmed walking into that building. 

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (December 15, 8:00 pm): Ernest Lubitsch was at his absolute best when he directed this wonderful gem about two feuding co-workers at a Budapest notions store who do not realize that they are secret romantic pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, as the employees, bring the concept of charm to its ideal. They are aided and abetted by a sterling cast, including Frank Morgan (in one of the best performances), Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, and Inez Courtney. It boasts a superb script by Samson Raphaelson, who adapted it from Nikolaus Laszlo’s play, Parfumerie. In fact, the film was such as hit that it was later remade as a Judy Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a Broadway musical, She Loves Me (1963, revived in 1934), and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, You’ve Got Mail (1998), where the lovers correspond via e-mail. However, the original still stands head and shoulders above the remakes and is an essential.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT (December 22, 10:00 pm): This being the Christmas season, TCM rolls out the Christmas-themed movies. And this little item, written by Preston Sturges, is one of the best. Fred MacMurray is an assistant prosecutor in court against shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck and her lawyer. Knowing his chance for a conviction are slim and none, given the fact it's the holiday season and Stanwyck’s lawyer is pulling out all the stops in presenting his client as a downtrodden poor woman, McMurray successfully has the trial postponed until after the holidays. Suddenly his conscience begins to bother him at the thought of leaving Stanwyck in the clink over the holidays and he bails her out. She is poor and has nowhere to go. He learns that her mother has a farm in Indiana and as he is going to visit his mother and family in that state he arranges to drop her at her mother’s farm. However, her mother turns her back on her daughter. Stressed, MacMurray brings her to his family’s home, where she’s greeted almost as one of the family. Over the day that follow they fall in love, which leads to a bittersweet ending when he returns her to court after the holidays. Sturges’ script is intelligent, witty and incisive. Sturges described the movies as one that "had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.” That’s putting it mildly, although having such actors as Stanwyck and MacMurray, supported by Beulah Bondi and Willard Robertson made things a whole lot easier. It’s not a movie many think of when considering the holiday fare, but it’s one of the best nevertheless.

WE DISAGREE ON ... 42nd STREET (December 16, 8:15 am and December 21, 10:00 pm)
EDA++. This is the mother of all Pre-Code musicals, and the prototype for all future musicals. The story is simple – Sugar Daddy Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is backing a new Broadway show titled “Pretty Lady,” which will star his squeeze Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). The trouble is that while Brock is Dillon’s Main Squeeze, she doesn’t want to be squoze by him. She’d rather be in the arms of old boyfriend George Brent, with whom she’s still in love. Things come to a boil, with the result that Bebe breaks her ankle and can’t go on. Just as it looks like there’s going to be a dark theater, young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is plucked from the chorus line by director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) and given the chance to be the star. You know the rest. Once Busby Berkeley takes over staging the dance numbers, it’ll never be quite the same again, both for the musicals and for Berkeley. Not only does the film contain unforgettable numbers such as “Young and Healthy,” Shuffling Off to Buffalo,” and the title song, but listen in and catch some of the most risque lines and scenarios ever to populate a musical. Ginger Rogers, in an early role, plays a character named Anytime Annie. “She only said ‘No’ once, and that was when she didn’t hear the question,” says backstage manager Andy Lee (George E. Stone). Also watch for the homosexual innuendo between Julian Marsh and Andy Lee. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this film over the years, but each time I sit down to watch, it comes across still as fresh as the first time I saw it.
DAVID: C-. When I saw the play on Broadway in 1982 (two years after it opened), I thought it was fun, primarily because of the great choreography. The plot is simplistic and there's a handful of good songs. When I saw the 1933 movie, of which the play is based, a few years ago, I wondered why anyone would take a mediocre at best film and make it a play. (Of course, the play was an unbelievable success and the film was well-received.) The movie is filled with cliche lines about putting on a Broadway musical including the unknown chorus girl becoming the star. The only missing piece is Mickey Rooney. Like its play adaption, the movie's plot is virtually nonexistent. The film is a shade under 90 minutes and about 20 minutes of it is three song-and-dance numbers from the fictitious play being put on in the film. The Busby Berkeley dance numbers have entertaining moments and the cinematography is good, but not nearly enough to keep my interest. If, like me, you're not a musical fan, there's no reason to watch this movie.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Coco

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Coco (Pixar/Disney, 2017) – Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina. Writers: Matthew Aldrich, Adrian Molina (s/p). Story: Matthew Aldrich, Jason Katz, Adrian Molina, Lee Unkrich. Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt & Edward James Olmos. Color, animated, Rated PG, 109 minutes.

After being dazzled by Book of Life (2014) and agog that a full length feature could be done completely on computer, I was eager to see another. Like the previous film, the scenes in this one contained multiple layers of background scenery and lights which added incredible depth to a two-dimensional film. (I tried to view it in 3D but couldn’t find a theater providing it.)

Like the movie Leap (2016), the creators of Coco paid great attention to detail. The stunning ballet moves in the former were reflected by the close-up and accurate guitar fingering in the latter. Have you ever seen someone playing a musical instrument in a movie and were absolutely sure that person was not actually playing? Not here. At first, the Spanish subtitles were a bit distracting, but the film was so good I eventually ignored them.

Twelve-year-old Miguel Rivera (Gonzalez) loves music and worships his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) to the point of wanting to be like him. But his grandmother, Abuelita Elena (Renee Victor) constantly enforces great-grandmother Mamá Imelda’s (Alanna Ubach) injunction of no music in the Rivera household. She even destroys the one guitar he has to keep him from joining the talent competition in Mariachi Square. Papá Enrique (Camil) and Mamá Luisa (Sofia Espinoza) try to get Miguel to join the family shoe-making business, but Miguel wants nothing of it. Only great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia) does not give Miguel a hard time about his music.

It’s the eve of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) and everyone is gathering Aztec marigolds to create a path to the Santa Cecilia cemetery for the deceased to follow and visit the living. The Rivera family have their own “ofrenda” – a kind of shrine featuring photographs of the dearly beloved relatives with candles and food for the visitors. Notably, the photo of Mamá Coco with her husband and daughter has a corner torn off and is missing the man’s head. A goofy, clumsy, hairless street dog Miguel named Dante bounces onto the ofrenda and starts eating the food. When Miguel tries to stop him, Mamá Coco’s photo topples to the ground and breaks. Picking the picture out of the smashed frame Miguel see that it has a fold on the man’s side. Unfolding it reveals the distinctive guitar owned and played by Ernesto de la Cruz and Miguel is ecstatic to think that he’s related to his hero.


Still desperate for a guitar, Miguel sneaks into Ernesto’s mausoleum and removes the famous guitar, giving it a dramatic strum. At once, people know someone has broken into the mausoleum and Miguel thinks he will be arrested. But only Dante can see him. He still has the photo and meets former family members Papá Julio (Alfonso Arau), Tio Oscar and Tio Felipe (Herbert Siguenza) and Tia Rosita (Selene Luna) as they arrive for a visit. All are shocked to see him but think he may be helpful in assisting Mamá Imelda, who is having trouble crossing the bridge of marigolds. (The reason she can’t is because Miguel has her photo.) Together, they walk back to the extremely colorful Land of the Dead to find Imelda.

Imelda is not happy to see Miguel and even less happy to learn that he wants to be a musician, since her husband left her with a daughter to raise alone. She gives him her blessing to return with the condition that he never play guitar again. But Miguel is determined. Upon arriving again at the mausoleum, he strums the guitar and returns to the Land of the Dead and evades Imelda and the family to seek out Ernesto. On the way he meets Hector (Bernal) who not only is jeered at by locals for dying by “choking on a chorizo,” but is in danger of disappearing because the last living person who remembers him is forgetting him.

Miguel makes a deal with Héctor to bring his photograph back to the ofrenda if he will get him to Ernesto. Remembering a line Ernesto said in one of his movies, Miguel decides to make him listen with music and the two obtain a guitar from Chicharrón (Olmos) just before he fades into the oblivion of forgetfulness. It is here Miguel learns that Hector is an accomplished musician who worked with Ernesto de la Cruz and the adventure really begins.

Ernesto gives a concert every Dia de los Muertos and the two find where he rehearses. But he’s not there. He’s hosting an exclusive party at his mansion all the way across town. Miguel enters a talent contest and does well but comes in second. The winning group, however agrees to smuggle him into the party. Héctor dresses up like Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and gains entrance as well.

Inside, Miguel has to use his musical talent to get the crowd’s attention off of Ernesto and Ernesto’s onto him by singing one of Ernesto’s bouncy tunes. Ernesto is delighted to learn that he has a great, great grandson. But when Héctor arrives the revelations begin piling up as to who is related to whom.

Coco is a celebration of Mexican culture, respect for the deceased and mythology. We see many riotously colored Alebrije, or spirit guides, animals with horns and wings that normally would not be there. Imelda has a giant winged and horned cougar who does her bidding. It is light-hearted and sentimental, humorous and rebellious, a total joy. 

The music in general was a glorious fiesta of Mexican exuberant flare. It made me laugh, it made me cry, the kids in the audience were rapt with attention, and even the adults reacted. Some applauded at the end. Thank you Pixar. That’s family entertainment!

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses. 


Blue Fin
1567 Broadway, New York

Located in the W Hotel chain and squeezed in between a Dos Caminos Mexican restaurant and a jumble of scaffolds is the ocean blue neon sign announcing Blue Fin. The lower level is the bar and up a beautiful flight of stairs with an amazing wall of blue “waves” was the restaurant proper. A short wait later, I was led to a table at an orange banquette facing the wonderful azure wall.

The décor is simple but elegant. Lights with shades like coolie hats and bare bulbs strung carelessly like holiday decorations were the main source of light, and red votive candles dotted each table. The cocktail list had one drink I could not ignore. The Liquid Intelligence was a mixture of Casamigos Blanco tequila, Aperol, ruby red grapefruit juice, and Reál Blue agave nectar. Served in an old-fashioned champagne glass, the coral-colored concoction was not too strong but went down well.

Blue Fin is a seafood restaurant with a raw bar and sushi selections. My server, Gregory, asked if I had any questions, but I had already made up my mind.

The wine list was extensive, divided into countries of origin, with types of whites and types of red. I ordered a delightful 2012 DeMorgenzon Winery Chenin Blanc, from Stellenbosch, South Africa. It was light, crisp and refreshing. An amicable wine with my dinner.


My first course was the Times Square Roll, a California style sushi roll (rice on the outside) with crab, spicy Hamachi (Pacific yellowtail), mango, avocado, and yuzu-miso (a sauce made with fermented soy beans, sake, mirin rice wine and egg yolk). I used the chop sticks provided to pick up a piece and dip it into the soy sauce. The net flavor was sweet, though I could taste the spicy part and the sake hints. A little wasabi to each next bite and it soared even higher in taste.

The next dish was something I first tried in a place called the Fatty Crab. The Slow-Braised Pork Belly Bao Buns with gochujang (a red chili), pickled vegetables, and “aromatics” was a bit chewier than the first time tasting and parts were even crispy, but the overall flavor was smoky and a bit spicy. Still, an excellent dish.


For my main course I chose a fish my mother always loved: the Halibut a la Plancha (grilled) came on a mound of jumbo lump crabmeat, lemon herb gnocchi, and roasted squash. It was a bit on the dry side and surprisingly fishy smelling. It didn’t taste bad, but I don’t remember halibut ever hitting my nose so boldly. The side dish of crispy cauliflower was comparable to popcorn shrimp in the batter and came with a piquant dipping sauce with a dash of olive oil. They were better without the sauce.

I think it was the ice cream more than the dessert that made me order the sticky toffee pudding with maple walnut ice cream. I loved it and took my time finishing it. A double espresso felt good after that and I saw Calvados on the drinks list, but Gregory apologized that they were out of it. He recommended a drink called Liquor 43 and let me taste it. More familiarly known as Cuarenta y Tres, it’s a Spanish liqueur made from citrus and fruit juices flavored with vanilla, herbs and spices. It reminded me a little of Galliano. Perfect!

The W Hotel chain started in 1998 and even if I can’t afford to stay at one (unless I win the lottery) I know I can come dine at Blue Fin anytime, and I will return. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

From Headquarters

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

From Headquarters (WB, 1933) – Director: William Dieterle. Writer: Peter Milne (s/p), Robert N. Lee (s/p & story). Stars: George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Palette, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Hugh Herbert, Dorothy Burgess, Theodore Newton, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray, Edward Ellis & Kenneth Thomson. B&W, 64 minutes. 

From Headquarters is a nifty little police procedural, much in the footsteps of its predecessor, Bureau of Missing Persons, released earlier that year. (Read our review of it here.) Also like its predecessor, it combines a solid procedural story with a personal one between its stars. The plot itself is quite complicated, unusual for a film only 64 minutes in length. Also enhancing the film are some ahead-of-their-time POV shots from the director, very unusual for what is basically a programmer.


Wealthy, eccentric playboy and gun collector Gordon Bates (Thomson) is thought to have committed suicide, but investigating officer Lt. Jim Stevens (Brent) comes to the conclusion it was murder after examining the body. His aide, Sgt. Boggs (Palette) immediately suspects the victim’s fiancee, Lou Ann Winton (Lindsay) because her fingerprints were found on the gun. Under questioning she admits to struggling with Bates when he wanted her to become his mistress instead of his wife, but she denies killing him. 

As the forensics laboratory uncovers each new piece of evidence, Boggs transfers his suspicions to a different suspect, causing Stevens, who was once Lou’s lover, to clear each one. First, the lab reveals that the hair found under Bates’s fingernails belonged to Lou’s brother, Jack (Newton). Then the lab finds that the gun with Lou’s fingerprints was not the murder weapon. 

Stevens begs Lou to come forth with the truth and she finally admits that she still loves him but agreed to marry Bates only because he was blackmailing her mother. She tells Stevens that with the help of Bates’ butler, Horton (Kinnell), she and Jack were trying to retrieve the incriminating letters. 

Stevens, however, strongly believes there is much more to the story. A new suspect emerges when rug dealer Anderzian (Barrat) comes to headquarters demanding the return of some letters from Bates’ safe. Suspicious, Stevens reads them, looking to see if they contain a motive for Bates’ murder. 


The lab informs him that, using ultraviolet light, a second letter is found written on each of the letters in invisible ink, revealing Anderzian’s part in the blackmail scheme. To cover his part in the crime, Anderzian kills safecracker Muggs Mantori (Cavanaugh), who had come to headquarters to give evidence in the case, but was ignored by Boggs. After Anderzian is arrested, Stevens and Boggs narrow down the suspects until they find the murderer. The butler did it. Horton confesses that he shot Bates in self-defense when Bates caught him trying to steal the blackmail letters from the safe. Stevens advises him that if he pleads self-defense he will be acquitted, especially after then evidence about Bates’ blackmailing scheme comes to light. The film ends with Stevens proposing to Lou, who happily accepts.

From Headquarters is a surprisingly good film, considering its length. Besides the excellent performances from the cast, it gives us a good mystery with a quite a few red herrings, solid police work with an emphasis on forensic detection, and intelligent police work. But what sets it apart from other programmers is the cinematography (by William Rees) and the inventive direction from Dieterle, who uses cuts, swipes and POV shots as an integral part of the film to advance the plot.

As the film begins we think we’re seeing the apartment where the murder took place, but then Dieterle pulls back the camera to reveal a still photograph of the crime scene and body that was taken by the police. Various suspects give their accounts of what they witnessed on the night in question in well-placed flashbacks, with point of view shots representing what each saw that night. The camera movements are obvious, calling our attention to what each witness saw. Only once is the POV abandoned, and that is in the case of showing the actual body. Dieterle instead shows the action by cleverly using shadows on the wall to convey the action.   

When in the police station itself, Dieterle films a suspect from a low angle. An unusual technique in the Hollywood of the ’30s, it will become a standard cinematography device in the noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

The other strong point of the film is the emphasis given to the science of crime investigation. It attempts to show the audience exactly what takes place behind the scenes of a murder investigation in a big city police department. Using such techniques as fingerprinting, mugshots, line-ups, ballistics testing, ultraviolet rays and Hollerith punched card tabulating machines to search police databases of criminals, we see police dispatch and phone rooms and the police lab, where we are given a look into ballistic analysis.

In this sense the film anticipates the semi-documentary crime films that became popular in the late ‘40s, such as The Street With No Name (Keighley, 1948) and He Walked By Night (Mann, 1948), where the FBI and LAPD use punch card Hollerith tabulators to identify suspects by their fingerprints (The Street With No Name) and known bank robbers (He Walked By Night). For its part, From Headquarters is following the vogue that became popular in American crime fiction in the ‘30s of showing the analysis and science behind the characters.

But we must remember that no amount of technical or cinematic razzle-dazzle can overcome a weak plot and poor performances. In presenting the audience with what could almost be seen as a sociological investigation of a large police station and the many different types to work and interact there, the film places strong emphasis on the integrity of the characters. 

As Lt. Stevens, George Brent gives a balanced performance, torn between his need to find the killer and his love for Lou Winton. It’s to Dieterle’s credit that he doesn’t allow the required romance between the leads to get too much in the way of the story’s progress. Eugene Pallette gives Sgt. Boggs a much harder edge that he did when playing the similar Sgt. Heath in the Philo Vance films, often jumping to conclusions and “betting his badge” on each hunch that his lieutenant has to shoot down. Though he’s playing what is essentially a one-note character, Pallette presents Boggs as a basically intelligent man giving to jumping the gun. As Inspector Donnelly, Henry O’Neill mediates between the conflicting officers and scientists, giving us a portrait of a man who rises to leadership in crisis.


As Lou, Margaret Lindsay is her typically efficient self, and Kinnell and Barrat shine in their roles as the butler Horton and antiques dealer Anderzian. With his accent, Barrat comes off like Lugosi. Ken Murray, best known to those of us who watch TCM for his home movies of Hollywood celebrities (a hobby he began in the ‘30s that turned into a lucrative moneymaker), is memorable as a wise-cracking reporter. The only sour note is Hugh Herbert as the annoying bail bondsman Manny Wales, at attempt at comedy relief that misfires.

From Headquarters unfurls over a single day, reaching its climax when a murder takes place in police headquarters itself, with each suspect having a moment along the way.  A nice touch is presenting the murder victim himself as a nasty piece of work with a drug habit, explaining the number of suspects who were in and out of his apartment. Meanwhile the focus rapidly turns as each false lead and new piece of evidence emerges. And if the ending turns out to the the oldest cliche ion the world of whodunits, it’s all so smoothly directed and acted that we’re prepared to overlook this fault.

Afterwords

William Dieterle began as an actor in Germany at the age of 16. An actor in films since 1913, some of his best known rules were in such films as Waxworks (Leni, 1924) and Faust (Murnau, 1926)

Tiring of acting, he turned to directing as a sideline in 1923. With wife Charlotte Hagenbruch he started his own film production company, and in 1930 they emigrated to America, where he found work with Warner Bros. directing German-language versions of the studio's popular hits for the German market.

The studio promoted him as a director of all kinds of films, and in 1931 he debuted with The Last Flight. as time went by he directed bigger and better films such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939). In 1939 he moved over to RKO to direct Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the 1940s he became associated with David O. Selznick, directing Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). He and Charlotte returned to Germany in 1958 and he directed a few films there and in Italy until his retirement in 1965. He died on December 8, 1972, in Ottobrunn, a town in Bavaria.

TCM reports that news items in Film Daily at the time indicated that Michael Curtiz was set to direct with Bette Davis, Glenda Farrell and George E. Stone being considered for parts. Murray Kinnell's character is called "Horton" in the film, although contemporary sources and the copyright synopsis call the character "Waters." 

The film was remade in a fashion in 1938 as When Were You Born? Anna May Wong starred in this unjustly forgotten whodunit as an investigator who astrology instead of forensic science to solve the mystery of the murder of a business tycoon.