Monday, October 12, 2015

Remembrance of Things Past

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

This last week of my vacation included re-introducing Betty and Maggie, two friends from karaoke, to the Bronx Zoo. They loved it and increased my love of it by their reactions to the various animals – even the chipmunks scampering everywhere and the peacocks begging for food at the café.

On my continued foray down my basement I removed another bag of garbage and disposed of two 70-year-old carpets. These carpeted the floors of our former home in Astoria, Queens, before we moved. They were so thin I could tear them apart with my bare hands.

The only interesting discoveries were an old flashlight (that still works), an old-fashioned cartridge fountain pen, and a silver candlestick (when I cleaned it, the black tarnish came off willingly). Other than that, it was an adventure just making space out of clutter.

While I was at the zoo, I learned that my Dad had one of his unpredictable blackout spells where he winds up on the floor and has no recollection of falling except for the aches that follow. After taking him to his doctor, who was inconclusive, my sister advised me not to go to my usual Friday dinner and movie, and keep an eye on him. This is what prompted this rather long mémoire. Enjoy!

Films of My Youth

It was the 1950s. Doo-wop was in its heyday, though I was completely oblivious of its existence. It was the first 10 years of my life. All I knew was Lawrence Welk, Xavier Cougat, and German beer-drinking music, and those only on Sundays. But I was not totally insulated. Over that period of time, my parents occasionally brought me to the movies. Dad bought a bag of hot, fresh, soft pretzels and we were set. I remember these films from the big screen even though, at the time, I sometimes had no idea of the implications in the stories. Presented here are the memories I have of those rare treats and their impressions.

Lili (1953) – Leslie Caron as Lili Daurier, Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet, Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc (aka Marcus the Magnificent), Zsa Zsa Gabor as Rosalie, Kurt Kasznar as Jacquot and Amanda Blake as Peach LipsAt the time, I thought it was a lovely story about a young French girl, a carnival, four puppets and a cute song, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” I was just as naïve as the character Leslie Caron played. However, when I read the actual story, I was moved to re-view the film and enjoy it in a completely different way.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – With James Mason as Captain Nemo, Paul Lukas as Pierre Arronax, and Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, I had no problem understanding this movie. Like my mother, I was already a fan of anything involving undersea scenes and this one had a great one with a giant squid attacking the submarine! It was still early in the development of special effects, but I was convinced.

Moby Dick (1956) – Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, Richard Basehart as Ishmael, Leo Genn as Starbuck, James Robertson Justice as Captain Boomer, Harry Andrews as Stubb, and Bernard Miles as The Manxman. By now, I had read several books on animals and, though this was an exciting film for me, I just couldn’t comprehend the obsession of chasing an animal that didn’t exist. The white sperm whale moved convincingly and that was enough for me. I cheered for the whale. Later on, in high school it was explained that Moby Dick was an allegoric whale. But now, there’s a new movie coming out entitled In the Heart of the Sea that claims that the book was based on a real story. Maybe I’ll see it to find out.

The King and I (1956) – Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens, Yul Brynner as King Mongkut of Siam, Rita Moreno as Tuptim. One of my first musicals and, I thought, done in a grand style. The costumes and sets were so colorful and elaborate. I still love “Shall We Dance” and “March of the Siamese Children” though “Getting to Know You” was a little corny, even then. I loved it when Anna showed the King of Siam the actual size of his country on a global map. Geography was a favorite subject for me at that time. The only thing that confused me was the unexplained cause of death for the King.

The Ten Commandments (1956) – Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Rameses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne DeCarlo as Sephora, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Derek as Joshua, Cedric Hardwicke as Seti, Nina Foch as Bithiah, Martha Scott as Yochabel. Judith Anderson as Memnet, Vincent Price as Baka and John Carradine as Aaron. No matter how many times I see this movie I still see something I missed the time before. On first viewing it was a spectacle, full of amazing effects and supported by powerful music. My favorite scene was when the Angel of Death oozes down from the sky as a green mist and snakes through the streets. It was chilling. Now I see the hilarity of the miscast Edward G. Robinson in an improbable part. Today, I see The Ten Commandments as an arty series of tableaux interspersed with moderately good special effects and strong to over-the-top acting, but I enjoy it anyway.

The Pajama Game (1957) – Doris Day as Babe Williams, John Raitt as Sid Sorokin, Carol Haney as Gladys Hotchkiss, Eddie Foy Jr. as Vernon Hines, and Reta Shaw as Mabel. It was my second musical and a regrettably forgettable movie. I do remember the theme song and the “Hurry Up” song, which was slowed down (cleverly) when the workers at the factory staged a work slow-down as a form of protest to get a “Seven and a Half Cents” raise. I guess the tango was a fad at that time; otherwise the song “Hernando’s Hideaway” would not have been featured. Good thing it was. I love tangos. As far as it being a love story, however, I was clueless at the time.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – William Holden as Shears, Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito. OK, I knew this was a World War II film and I understood that the major amount of characters were prisoners of war to the Japanese, but I had no idea it took place in Burma. I was frankly amazed that so many men could whistle the theme song perfectly in tune. (I can’t whistle, not then, not now.) But the movie had a really cool train wreck as it plummeted off the destroyed bridge.

Gigi (1958) – Leslie Caron as Gigi, Maurice Chevalier as Honore Lachaille, Louis Jourdan as Gaston Lachaille, Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez, Eva Gabor as Liane d’Extremans and Jacques Bergerac as Sandomir. My third musical and, for me, a definite top 10 rater as musicals go. Though the title song didn’t grab me (too sappy, and I didn’t like the way Jourdan sang it) there were much better songs and they were delivered with real feeling. “I Don’t Understand the Parisians” was almost atonally sung by Caron but with great emotion. My favorite song, “I Remember It Well,” the Chevalier/Gingold duet was charming and ultimately memorable. I could sing it entirely today. But again, the plot was obscured by the costumes and music for me. I had no idea that Gigi was being trained to be a courtesan. Re-viewing it recently opened my eyes. As I start senior-hood, the song “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” has real meaning for me.

Vertigo (1958) – With James Stewart as John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton, Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge Wood, and Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster, it was my first Alfred Hitchcock film, and one that made me a fan of his work ever after. At the time I had no idea what acrophobia was, but I knew I never wanted to experience it. Much later on, when I leaned over the rail at the top of the Eiffel Tower to take a picture straight down, I knew I didn’t have it. The film was undeniably exciting and no one can beat Hitchcock’s sense of timing and building suspense. And yes, I look for Hitch’s cameos in every movie.

The Vikings (1958) – Kirk Douglas as Einar, Tony Curtis as Eric, Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana. Even though the three main male characters are totally unbelievable as Vikings to me now, they made being a Viking fun for me back then. I had to wonder how Moby Dick would have changed if Kirk Douglas opened the movie with “Whale of a Tale.” Some reviewers have called it a “Norse Opera” (Ha-ha!). But hey, it had a king, a beautiful princess, slavery and men brandishing swords. What else could a young viewer want?

The Alamo (1960) – John Wayne as Colonel Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark as Colonel Jim Bowie, Laurence Harvey as Colonel William Travis, Frankie Avalon as Smitty, Patrick Wayne as Captain James Butler Bonham. Though I knew the outcome of this historical film, it was exciting to see the interpretation of how events unfolded. At the time, John Wayne could play any hero and I would believe him. Now, not so much. On the big screen though, this movie had an impact. The dramatic cinematography, ferocious fighting and artful scenery shots made it a true blockbuster before the term was invented. I loved the song “Green Leaves of Summer,” and was humming it all the way home.

You may have noticed that there are no films from 1955. My brother was born in 1954 and we were four children at that time, very close in age, which kept my parents pretty busy. Even though Lady and the Tramp came out that year I didn’t see it until it was re-released and we had moved from Astoria to Queens Village, when I was old enough to walk to the Queens or Community theaters myself with a group of friends. Unfortunately, these two movie houses, the Alden and Loew’s Valencia in Jamaica proper, were all converted to churches of various denominations and the next nearest to me, The Floral Theater in Floral Park went out of business and is still unleased. That left no theaters within walking distance. Now, I pretty much depend on theaters in Manhattan.

I have fond memories of my movie adventures with Mom and Dad and can appreciate the wonder of a child seeing Hollywood’s greatest creations on the big screen. Today, I call this amazed reaction the “Wow!” factor and look for it in every movie.

First Tastes

If you’ve been following my column, you’ve noticed that I have eclectic tastes in dining. It wasn’t always so. I was a picky eater as a child but was not allowed to refuse any food placed in front of me. Dessert never came until my plate was clean and we were not allowed to slip food to the dog. How picky was I? I stopped eating bananas for years after tasting a rotten one. I hated pasta for at least a decade after having had baked macaroni repeatedly on Fridays in Lent. My Aunt Katie’s Chicken Paprikras was raved about by everyone in my family but me. The undercooked chicken skin gave me nightmares and her tarnished silverware added a gross metallic taste to everything. I didn’t like anything cooked in a pressure cooker (still don’t) and today I know why. asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spinach all come out of the cooker tasting like nothing and smell bad. Got the idea?

But then there came the day of my graduation from Manhattan Community College. Mom and Dad took me to my first restaurant, a Swedish smorgasbord at The Stockholm on 151 W. 51st St. in the Abbey Victoria Hotel in Manhattan. I never saw so much food I’ve never had before. Do I remember any of it? Not much, but I took to Swedish meatballs really fast and I loved cherry tomatoes. Not too long after, the Abbey Victoria was torn down and a new building stands in its place. The Aldo Sohm Wine Bar now occupies the address of my first dining experience.

When my sister graduated St. Michael’s Academy, I had my second dinner out. It was at the Cattleman Palace Steakhouse at 5 E. 45th St. I remember being impressed at the steaks and it was the first time I had a Wedge Salad – a quarter of a head of lettuce with dressing on the side. I loved it then, but you couldn’t pay me to order one now, too boring. The address is now the location of the Midtown Center for Pace University.

I discovered my favorite ethnic cuisine while directing a barbershop chorus in Flushing. The Indian restaurant Kalpana at 42-87 Main St. was a little hole-in-the-wall, but every dish was a new experience for me. The spices, the aromas, unique breads, and the strange, sweet desserts had me returning week after week. It was there I bit into a cardamom pod for the first time and was totally disgusted (it tasted like soap to me). Since then I’ve learned that cardamom is an integral part of Indian cuisine and am now used to it. I also learned that the first aroma I ever loved at Kalpana was from bay leaves cooking with onions. Kalpana too has left the world of gastronomy, and the address is now the Lu Xiang Yuan Chinese restaurant.

My first taste of real Italian food came at the famous Mama Leone’s at 361 W. 44th St. The bustling service and trays of cheese as pre-appetizers was mind-boggling; that is until I learned about turnover in a Theater District restaurant. The speedy service was meant to keep the flow of customers going. Mama gave way to an apartment house. Later, while with the same chorus in Queens, I experienced La Gioconda at 42-59 Main St., Flushing (strangely enough, only two doors away from Kalpana). I learned here that the restaurant name is the Italian title of the Mona Lisa and, indeed, they did have a copy tucked away in the back of the place. Each time I dined there I suggested that it be brought closer to the front, but, alas, they never moved it. It was at La Gioconda that I fell in love with cannelloni and concluded that not all pastas were bad. It wasn’t until much later, on my second trip to Italy, that I became addicted to pasta. The space that once was La Gioconda is now Xindeyi International Trade USA, Inc. While speaking of Italian restaurants, it would unfair of me not to mention Bacigalup’s (any Abbott and Costello fans out there?) where I discovered Al Arabiata sauce – a spicy tomato sauce made with crushed pepper. The Best North Dumpling Soup Chinese restaurant now occupies that space in the Golden Shopping Mall.

My second favorite cuisine was an interesting first. I knew French food was generally expensive, especially in Manhattan, and that they generally required one to dress for dinner. My sister gave me all that information when she dined at La Cave Henri IV at 227 E. 50th St. with her French Club from school. 53rd Street on the east side of Fifth Avenue has always been a French enclave and I chose Le Quercy at 52 W. 53rd St. It was a great opportunity to use the French I learned from high school into college. I didn’t order escargot that time, but I did get adventurous enough to try Cuisses de Grenouille (frog’s legs) and I loved it. They were garlicky, tender and the texture of delicate chicken meat but without the chicken flavor. (Don’t let anyone tell you that anything, besides chicken, tastes like chicken.) What happened to Le Quercy? It’s now an apartment building. Later on, I dined at La Cave Henri IV and enjoyed it as well. An apartment building took this French restaurant’s place as well.

My Dad introduced me to Chinese food when he brought home those unique combination cans of Chun King dinners, the ones with the gluey goop in the bottom can and the crisp Chinese “noodles” in the top one. Just add rice and you’ve totally deluded yourself about Chinese cuisine. In 1965, I had some money of my own and decided to have dinner at the Chun King Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. It was a little better than the canned stuff, and it piqued my curiosity. Later, while in my second year of college, I went to my first real Chinese restaurant, The Lotus Eaters, at 182 5th Ave. This was an eye opener. There was actual, recognizable food served here, with delightful flavors – nothing like what I was used to. It started me on my love for Chinese food and spurred my trying strange, new flavors. Peking Duck is now tops on my list of dishes and the strangest? Jellyfish. Yes, those creatures without bones or brain that go ballooning through the ocean. (They don’t taste like chicken either.) What I had was crispy, translucent strips, with the main flavor being garlic. The Lotus Eaters has succumbed to a Bikram Yoga salon upstairs over a 7-Eleven.

If the lead in my quartet is reading this article I’d say, “Chef Chet, you can skip this paragraph.” He doesn’t accept Mexican food as a cuisine. But he’s never been to the places I have. The tacos at a drive-through Jack in the Box franchise got me interested in Mexican. They were spicy, difficult to eat without them crumbling all over you, and made the car smell bad the next day. Much later, on a mystery plane trip to Louisville, Kentucky, I dined with friends at Chi Chi’s (another franchise) and was amazed. I loved their enchiladas mole (chili and chocolate sauce) and sought out that recipe at every Mexican place since. It’s only too bad that the Chi Chi’s in Manhattan paled in comparison and went out of business. The one in Manhasset, Long Island, was great. Eventually, I settled on El Coyote at 774 Broadway while I was rehearsing with the Mixed Nuts quartet. I got to love Blue Margaritas there. Douglas Elliman Real Estate offices are now where El Coyote used to be.

In the early years of my working career a number of people I worked with sang the praises of Soul Food. And, second only to Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem (now closed) which was also beyond my adventuresome territory at the time, there was Jack’s Nest at 310 3rd Ave. After having had ham hocks, black-eyed peas and collard greens cooked in fatback, I understood. The sweetness of this artery-hardening cuisine gave me such a sugar buzz I felt I could take over the world. It’s great food, but a steady diet of it was decidedly dangerous to my waistline. Jack’s Nest is now a residence hall for New York University.

When my Dad started researching our family tree and actually found direct relatives in Germany (both sides of my family go back to the same country), I understood why I loved my mother’s sauerbraten. It took forever to marinate and prepare but it was excellent. Where to find German cuisine in Manhattan? I started with a franchise called Zum Zum on Fulton Street downtown. But instead of my mother’s cooking, they stressed the sausage side of German recipes with sauerkraut (of course). It was good, but it was not the whole story. 

Strangely enough, Jack’s Nest prepared me for my favorite German dish, which I found at two places, Rolf’s (281 3rd Ave. – still there today) and The Happy Wanderer at 6405 Stanley Ave. in Niagara, Canada (also, still there today, hurray!). It was, and still is, Eisbein (pig’s feet). Zum Zum changed hands many times and is now a souvenir shop.

On my mother’s mother’s side of the family we are Hungarian. In my early years, my only exposure to Hungarian cooking was my mother’s half-sister, Aunt Katie. I adored her stuffed cabbage and zsiros kenyer (another artery-hardener consisting of pork fat soaked rye bread topped with sautéed onions and peppers and salt – translated as “greasy bread”). But once again, it’s not the whole story. While was on a trip to a barbershop convention, a friend took me to Csikos at 3601 Connecticut Ave. NW in Washington, D.C. Good thing he was there. I would not have known that the garlic clove was there for rubbing on the bread (instead of butter). I now have a new appreciation for Chicken Paprikas – it was excellent, well cooked, and with perfectly polished utensils. Unfortunately, Csikos went the way of so many others. It’s now an apartment building.

While we’re in Eastern Europe, Austrian cuisine is an interesting one. It’s not a totally unique style, not quite German, not quite French, a lighter, gentler combination of both (though Austrians will never agree to that description). My first acquaintance with it was at Wienerwald (Vienna woods) another franchise, this one at 1650 Broadway. They served the standard Wiener schnitzel and various other preparations of pounded veal as well as a wurst platter. OK, but neither here nor there. In subsequent Austrian forays, I learned that it is the dessert course that defines the Austrian cuisine. Austria knows chocolate and how to serve it. My fondest Austrian cuisine memory was Christmas with Helene at Danube (30 Hudson St., New York) which is now an upscale Japanese restaurant called brushstroke. And Wienerwald? It’s now Ellen’s Stardust Diner, home of singing (loud) waiters and waitresses – they’re excellent singers, I just don’t like being forced to acknowledge them.

When I started my work career in 1973, Delphi was long in business at 109 W. Broadway. This fabulous Greek survivor was always there, even after 9/11. Their souvlaki was superb, their kebabs were succulent; even their salads were something special. I ate there for lunch several times and the quality never flagged, but dinner was amazing. The owner cued me into exohiko (lamb shank) and I’ve been a big fan of this dish ever since. Though I’ve dined at good Greek restaurants, particularly the estiatorios, I still mourn the loss of Delphi. Suddenly one day it was gone. And just as suddenly Super Linda, a Latin-American restaurant, was in its place. It was very good, but it was not Delphi. In about two years after, the space was empty and is currently unleased.

I had to ease into Japanese cuisine, as the stories people told me were never positive. But Dosanko, at 19 Murray St., was a safe orientation. They had great soups, with the curried one being my favorite. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. My good friend (and surrogate big brother) Tony introduced me to sushi at a small eatery in the food court at the White Plains Galleria. We sat at a counter as the various sushis traveled by in little plates on a stainless steel conveyor belt. Tony explained to me what each fish was and I tried several. I couldn’t believe that fish could taste so good uncooked. Now I’m spoiled. But I never have sushi at anyplace less than reputable. It could be dangerous, especially the Fugu (a poisonous blowfish requiring expert preparation) I eventually ate at Morimoto in Philadelphia. Dosanko is Tribeca Eye Physicians/Optometrists today.

When does Seafood become a culinary adventure? I’ve had flounder, tuna, swordfish and shrimp at home before the price became prohibitive. But for me, there was one memorable standout: Smitty’s, at 5 Gold St. The seafood normally was great there but then I discovered shad roe, a dish only available in late March and early April. The chef at Smitty’s wrapped the crescent-shaped egg case in bacon and the result was incredible! Once I got over the look of the dish and the slightly fishy taste it’s a great audience shocker. I vowed to have it once a year and tried to remember when the peak season was.

Historic note

Speaking of seafood always makes my melancholic for the loss of Sweet’s Restaurant (2 and 4 Fulton St.): A true piece of the history of New York City, Sweets was founded by Abraham Sweet in 1842 was the oldest seafood restaurant in New York for many years. Owner and Manager Lea Lake died at 89 in 1988 after 55 years on the job, and I had thought her son didn’t want to take up the business. But Sweets lasted until 1992 when a destructive “Nor-Easter” storm sounded its death knell. I still remember the Finan Haddie there and have found it nowhere else.

But wait! What about Spanish cuisine? Long ago (well, it seems like long ago) I met my good friend Renate at the ritzy Chateau Madrid at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue. I’ll never forget it. The restaurant had a “jacket-required” rule. I was not aware and was not wearing one. I was politely led to a coatroom and the only jacket that fit me was a white plaid. Great! Except I was wearing red plaid pants. The two screamed at each other. After Renate and I stopped laughing, I heard the band start a tango. No one was on the floor and I asked her to dance. “Are you kidding?” “The situation is not going to get any sillier. Let’s take advantage of it.” We danced beautifully and didn’t laugh once. Then, while we talked and I enjoyed my first Sopa de Ajo (garlic soup) the Flamenco group “Kids from Spain” took the dance floor. She later introduced me to escargot at the Café Valois 95-26 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park, an obviously Spanish restaurant with a very French name. Alas, Renate moved to Florida and I think about her at every Spanish restaurant (and on the rare occasions I’m under-dressed).  The Chateau Madrid is now Raffles Bistro in The Lexington Hotel and the Café Valois is Andy’s Seafood and Grill, a Taiwanese burger joint.

I cannot forget Cajun, that spicy cuisine from the Arcadians who moved from Maine to Louisiana. My first was at La Louisiana at 132 Lexington Ave. I never would have thought that I could like catfish, or crawfish etouffée, much less a sandwich called a “Po Boy” or a side dish called “dirty rice,” but now I love them all. On a trip to New Orleans I had alligator in three different ethnic restaurants and enjoyed it, especially sided with dirty rice. Back in New York I was glad to have had the privilege to have dined at K-Paul’s, Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant at 622 Broadway. Though it had strange rules, like every diner at the same table must order something different; and when you clean your plate (as I did) you get a gold star. (And, I did, and the waitress stuck one on my forehead). They offered Cajun martinis by the pitcher (whoopee!) made with jalapeno infused gin or vodka and garnished with a radish. La Louisiana is now an apartment building and K-Paul’s is Rockstar Games, an electronics store.

Spanish cuisine led me to Portuguese, Brazilian, Argentine, Peruvian, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Salvadoran, Latino, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jamaican and West Indian. The French resulted in experiments in Belgian, Basque, Haitian and Moroccan. Greek was logically followed by Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli, Armenian, and yes, Libyan. Soul food went to Ethiopian, Egyptian, South African, and Ghanian. Chinese and Japanese were followed by Philipino, Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Polynesian. The logical consequence of Indian was Pakistani, Afghani, and Bangladeshi. And of course, German led to Netherlandic, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Italian cuisine followed the map to Swiss, Romanian, and Russian. 

After 2,691 restaurants I cannot consider myself a picky eater anymore, though I’m still selective where I order apple pie (I like it occasionally.) and there are many dishes I haven’t tried. The Chinese have two good examples: 100-Year-Old Egg (just the concept is stomach-turning), and Sea Cucumber (the answer to the question, “What’s green and slimy and smells of fish, and dares you to eat it?”). I don’t consider myself a gourmet, mainly because the term has been seriously misused as an adjective too many times. I prefer connoisseur or just omnivore. What’s that? Would I try entomophagy (eating insects)? Maybe, if it doesn’t look similar to what it looked like alive.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Registered Nurse

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

Registered Nurse (WB, 1934) – Director: Robert Florey. Writers: Lillie Hayward & Peter Milne (s/p). Based on Night Duty, a play by Florence Johns & Wilson Lackeye, Jr. Cast: Bebe Daniels, Lyle Talbot, John Halliday, Irene Franklin, Sidney Toler, Gordon Westcott, Minna Gombell, Beulah Bondi, Vince Barnett, Phillip Reed, Mayo Methot, Renee Whitney, Virginia Sale, Ronnie Cosby, Edward Gargan, Louise Beavers, Harry Ekezian, & Tor Johnson. B&W, 63 minutes.

Registered Nurse is an entertaining programmer from Warner Bros. and director Robert Florey. Florey crams a lot of plot into only 63 minutes while making us feel the film is longer. It boasts solid performances from its stars, and despite some rather poorly written plot contrivances, manages to entertain and see us through until the end.

The film opens with a shot of Sylvia Benton (Daniels) descending a staircase at a country club while the whispers of other members play about her. They are whispering how she can stay married to such a dolt as Jim Benton (Westcott). Although socially prominent, he seems to prefer a drink or two, or three, to the company of his wife, as we witness when she walks over to the club bar to remind him that he promised the next dance to her. Jim doesn’t want to be bothered and tells her so in rather rude terms, so rude that Bill (Reed), the fellow standing next to him at the bar, offers to dance with her instead. This enrages Jim, who cuts in and attempts to take it outside with Bill. Cooler heads prevail and rush Jim outside. Jim’s had enough; he’s leaving and demands Sylvia accompany him. Sylvia tells him it would be better if she drove, given his condition, but Jim declines her offer, hitting the pedal hard as they speed along.

While in the car, an interesting conversation is going on. Sylvia is fed up with Jim’s antics. She’s had enough and wants a divorce. That’s fine with Jim, who tells her not to expect any alimony. Sylvia replies that she doesn’t need any alimony from him; she still has a valid R.N. license and can work in a hospital. Florey then cuts to the speedometer on Jim’s Lincoln and we know it’s only a matter of seconds before the inevitable crash. And, sure enough, he fails to negotiate a corner and crashes the auto in a ditch. Sylvia gets out unhurt and goes to the driver’s side to check Jim’s pulse. As the scene fades, we’re pretty sure he didn’t make it, but it ends on that ambiguous note.

In the next scene we cut to a New York City hospital where Sylvia is applying as a nurse. She tells Supervisor of Nurses, Miss McKenna (Bondi), that she is unmarried. Next comes a montage of the years passing until the present day. Not only is Sylvia established in the hospital, she has two doctors madly in love with her: the flirtatious Dr. Greg Connolly (Talbot) and the older, serious, Dr. Hedwig (Halliday). It is here where the film takes a turn into an ensemble drama, somewhat along the lines of Grand Hotel, but closer to previous Warner ensemble offerings such as Life Begins (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933). It’s a “life behind the scenes” type of film as Sylvia and her fellow nurses – Beulah Schloss (Gombell), Gloria Hammond (Methot), and Ethel Smith (Whitney) – as they treat all manner of patients.

Sylvia’s bedside manner is impeccable, as she calms wrestling manager Frankie Sylvestrie (Toler), who demands to be released by the hospital, even though he suffered a broken leg in a fight. She also calms patient Sadie Harris (Franklin), who is hospitalized with a swollen eye and a broken jaw suffered in a fight with boyfriend Frankie. We also learn that she’s the madam of a local bordello (this is Pre-Code, after all), and that she wants no part of Nurse Hammond treating her. Sylvia calms her and takes charge. In addition, she ends up calming a nervous husband worried about his wife, and has quite the tear-jerking scene after Dickie (Cosby), a young boy she and Dr. Hedwig have been treating in the children’s ward, suddenly dies.

As if that wasn’t enough, Sylvia also acts as a moral support to her fellow nurses, bucking up Nurse Schloss in her romance with Officer Pat O’Brien (gotta love that name) while fielding passes from Doctors Connolly and Hedwig. Both doctors are pursuing “Ben,” as they call her, fervently, with Hedwig actually proposing to her. Connolly is also wishing to propose. We learn that Connolly is involved with Nurse Hammond, but is keen to dump her for Sylvia, a point Hammond makes to Sylvia.

Later, as Sylvia and Greg are alone in the cafeteria, Greg broaches the subject of marriage and Sylvia tells him the reason she cannot accept. It seems she’s been married for the last five years, although separated for the last three. Greg asks why can’t she get a divorce. Sylvia replies that it would be impossible. When Greg presses her on the subject, she leaves. Hedwig now enters and Greg spills the beans to him.

Sylvia, who has been a rock of calm in this storm of nerves, suddenly goes to pieces one day when Hedwig operates on a psychopathic woman in an attempt to restore her sanity. We know that the situation is coming to a head, and it spills over at a party Sylvia and Greg are attending. He vows his love to Sylvia, telling her that he has stopped seeing all other women. It’s then that Sylva tells him the reason she cannot get a divorce. It seems that Jim survived the crash, but has become violently insane and is confined to a mental institution. Because of his condition, the law will not allow her to divorce him.

As if this isn’t enough, the soap now gets thicker. Schloss’s fiancée, Officer O’Brien, is shot during a holdup and dies in front of her at the hospital. Sylvia abandons her problems to help Schloss deal with her loss. As this is going on, guess who walks into the hospital? Why, Jim, of course. Seems he escaped from the looney bin, and during one of his few sane moments has decided to come to the hospital. While he is speaking to Dr. Hedwig in his office about an operation to cure his insanity, who should come sauntering in but Sylvia? To say she’s surprised to see him is an understatement. He needs her consent for the operation as he’s legally certified, and she’s not sure as the operation is dangerous, but Hedwig talks her into consenting.

Meanwhile, Greg tells Sylvia they should continue their affair even if Jim recovers. After Officer O’Brien was killed Greg told Sylvia they should grab happiness while they can because they never know when life will end. Both remarks are not taken well by Sylvia.

While Jim is in his room preparing for the operation, Sylvestrie comes to visit. Pretending not to know that Jim is Sylvia’s husband (he overheard Sylvia and Hedwig talking), he relates Sylvia’s story and tells Jim the right thing for the husband to do would be to commit suicide. And that is exactly what Jim does a short while later, jumping from a hall window. While this frees Sylvia, she decides to quit. When she visits Hedwig in his office to say good-bye, he asks if she’s marrying Greg, to which she answers “no.” Hedwig then asks her what she’ll do. She’s not sure. How about traveling, he proposes. He’d like to take her to Europe with him. Then he proposes and she accepts. But first, he has an emergency operation, and before she resigns, Sylvia tells him she’ll stand in as his nurse.

Amidst all this drama there’s one weak attempt at comedy. As Sylvestrie is convalescing, he is visited by two of his wrestlers: El Humid (Ekezian) and Sonnevich (Johnson). They bring him flowers and he tells them they should be in Miami for the show there. Sonnevich replies that they’re about to leave, but asks a favor of his boss. He knows that El Humid is scheduled to win, but couldn’t he win instead? He has a girl down there he’s interested in romancing. El Humid is against it. “You won last time,” he tells his opponent. “Yeah, well, you can’t wrestle, anyway,” Sonnevich fires back. One word leads to another, and before long the two are embroiled in a set-to right in Sylvestrie’s room, with Sonnevich sent sprawling over the promoter’s bed, as the doctors and nurses try to break them up. Cut quickly to the next scene and we see both grapplers bandaged and in bed. When they’re finally released they get into it again and we see the nurses simply remaking their beds. Johnson, who does most of the speaking during their scenes, is almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair and a voice that can be understood, unlike the accented guttural tones he used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. (How director Florey ever got a name such as “Sonnevich” past the censors, I’ll never know.) Ekezian would change his ring name to “Ali Baba” in 1935, and on April 25, 1936, he became world’s champ by defeating Dick Shikat.

As I said at the beginning, this is an entertaining programmer, though not really a good film. It’s more for those who love Pre-Code films or medical melodramas. Director Florey keeps things going at a good pace and brought the picture in ahead of time and under budget, a habit he’s was known for, especially later in his career, and one that probably helped him get work, as he was not a particularly outstanding director.

Stars Daniels, Talbot, and Halliday are all fine, given the limitations of the script. Daniels lays it on a little thick during the scenes where she zones out upon hearing of a patient’s mental illness, but otherwise pulls off a decent performance. I’ve always been of the opinion that Daniels was the most underrated and ill-used actor on the Warner Bros. roster. She was great as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, and her Ruth Wonderly in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is far superior to Mary Astor’s portrayal of the role in 1941. I could never see Bogart’s Sam Spade being nuts about Astor’s Wonderly, but I can easily see why Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade would be crazy about Daniels as Wonderly. Also check out her performance sometime as Lily Owens with Edward G. Robinson and Aline MacMahon in the 1932’s drama, Silver Dollar

Talbot is excellent as the smarmy cad and Halliday makes the most of his role as more of a father figure than a romantic lead. Talbot shines in a scene where the madam, Sadie, is admitted. When he stops by to visit her she greets him as “Dr. Gregory.” Talbot looks shocked and tells her he’s “Dr. Connolly.” None of this escapes the attention of supposed girlfriend Nurse Hammond, who was also in the room.

But it’s the supporting cast that makes the film interesting. As wrestling promoter Sylvestrie, Toler almost steals the movie, and Irene Franklin, as his madam girlfriend, works well with him. The nurses are all fine, with Methot getting some good screen time. It’s the most I’ve ever seen of the Portland Rosebud in a film, save for Marked Woman. Edward Gargan as O’Brien, the boyfriend of Schloss, only seems to be in the film as a sort of filler between scenes of what’s going on with Sylvia. Veteran actor Vince Barnett shines as Jerry, the orderly. He has a great scene at the staff party, serving drinks to McKenna (Bondi) and Miss Dixon, a probationary nurse (Sale). He’s serving them “Pink Suspenders,” but offers to make them a “Bosom Caresser,” so-called he says, “because it warms you all the way down.”

One thing that tickles a lot of people who have seen the film is the amount of smoking going on, especially with the doctors and nurses. In one scene, the nurses make a point of striking their matches against a “No Smoking” sign posted in their break room. But those were different times back then; patients could even smoke in their rooms.

The advertisements for the film claimed, “Every scene is a shock,” and that “It will run your temperature up to 105.” Well, not quite, but that’s what ads are for.


This was Bebe Daniels’s last film for Warner Bros., and I’m surprised they used her in an obvious Kay Francis vehicle. She did one film after this, Music is Magic for Fox, and moved with husband Ben Lyon (whom she married in 1930) to England, where both became successful on the West End stage. The Lyons also had their own radio show in London called “Life With the Lyons” and stayed in England during the war, even broadcasting during the height of the Blitz. They were the most popular couple on English radio and their program vied with Tommy Handley’s “It’s That Man Again” for the number one position in the radio ratings. They parlayed their radio success into a couple of films, the last one being The Lyons Abroad (1955).

Daniels was making a personal appearance in Chicago when she discovered that $6,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from her hotel room. Al Capone, a big Daniels fan, put out word that whoever stole the jewelry had better return it “or else.” The jewelry was all returned the very next day.

She was a cousin of actors DeForest (Star Trek) Kelley and Calvert DeForest (Larry “Bud” Melman on David Letterman's show).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2

Dinner and a Movie

Baby Bat and Baccarat

By Steve Herte

My last week of vacation opened with a blast, both weather-wise and entertainment-wise. Enjoy!

Hotel Transylvania 2 (Columbia, 2015) – Director: Genndy Tartakovsky. Writers: Robert Smigel & Adam Sadler. Voices: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan Michael-Key, Asher Blinkoff, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, Megan Mullally, Jonny Solomon, Nick Offerman, Dana Carvey, Sadie Sandler, Rob Riggle, & Mel Brooks. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 89 minutes.

I don’t say, ‘Blah, blah, blah!” scowls Count Dracula (Sandler) when his grandson proudly speaks his first words. It’s a running gag left over from Hotel Transylvania (2012) that continually gets his goat.

As the camera zooms in on the iron gates of foreboding Castle Dracula at the beginning of the film, it takes the audience through them, across a courtyard and up to a modern glass revolving door and into the main hall of the Hotel Transylvania. We’re at the wedding of Jonathan and Mavis and their two families, one of monsters and the other of humans, take their places on either side of the main aisle. The Phantom of the Opera (voiced by Lovitz, of course) is at the organ and the procession starts. The flower girl (human) is prettily dressed and adorable – that is until several werewolf pups hijack her in a whirlwind and muss up her hair and outfit – and the bride appears at the entrance, in a black Morticia Addams-style dress and a glittering veil of spider webs.

Six months later, Mavis asks her father to go for a “fly” with her (as bats) and, after a game of hide and seek in the clouds, reveals her pregnancy to him. Dracula is overjoyed to have a new vampire added to the family even though she cautions that it might be a purely human child.

Dennis (Blinkoff) is born with a thick head of curly red hair (from his father) and Grandpa Drac (he calls himself “Vampa Drac”) can’t wait to see his fangs grow in. “Maybe he’s a late-fanger. I was.” He explains, eagerly awaiting the child’s fifth birthday, when they will know for sure. As the time draws close for that ominous birthday, Mavis wants to go to California and see the place where Johnny grew up, possibly to move there should the child be human.

Fearful that Johnny and Mavis will like living among humans and that they will take his new grandson away, Dracula charges Johnny with not making the trip too enjoyable and to keep Mavis distracted enough to not phone home.

With Mavis and Johnny out of the way, Dracula enlists his friends Frankenstein (James), Wayne the werewolf (Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (Spade), and Murray the mummy Imhotep (Michael-Kaye) and they all pile into a hearse with baby Dennis. Blobby the blob (Solomon) insists on coming along but doesn’t fit comfortably inside, so they hook up a sidecar for him. Their goal is to bring out the vampiric side of Dennis before his parents return.

Not all goes as planned however. The scary forest where Drac honed his terror techniques is now populated by selfie-taking yuppies who think monsters are cool. The “Vamp Camp” where he learned to fly is now anything but scary and more Kumbaya than Creepy under the slightly effeminate camp counselor, Dana (Carvey). The rickety tower he was tossed off as a baby is now off-limits, but he and his crew climb it and toss Dennis off. Of course, Drac has to rescue the kid when he doesn’t fly on his own. But Frankenstein manages to topple the tower and set himself afire and goes running through the campgrounds lighting all the buildings in the process. It’s at this moment that Mavis calls, hears the sirens and tells Drac she’s coming home. It a wacky race back to Castle Dracula, one that Drac loses. Mavis has made up her mind. She can’t even trust her Dad. After the fifth birthday party, she, Johnny and Dennis are leaving for California.

The night before the party it’s revealed that Mavis invited Grandpa Vlad (Brooks). Dracula hastily decides to make it a monster costume party to keep Vlad from learning that the hotel has been open to humans (Vlad is “Old School” on this topic). But Vlad brings his gargoyle pal Bela (Riggle) who can smell a human at 50 paces, and he and his fellow gargoyles turn the last scene into a funny, frantic fight, one that Dennis wins when his vampire side bursts forth as Winnie the werewolf pup (Sandler) is injured by a gargoyle.

As funny as Hotel Transylvania 2 is (I laughed several times) it doesn’t quite come up to being as good as the original, though it tries hard. I wanted to see more of Fran Drescher as the Bride of Frankenstein than just a cameo. Molly Shannon had a bigger part as Wanda the werewolf, wife of Wayne and mother of a huge litter of pups. Still Robert Smigel and Adam Sandler did some great writing for this movie. When Mavis destroys a piñata at the party, Wanda warns her about candy and her pups but, too late. The pups devour all the candy and become supercharged with energy, trash the bounce house and anything else they run into. “There’s a reason they call it a litter,” says Wayne.

The 3D effects were put to good use in the several flying scenes and the concept of Frankenstein, the mummy, and the werewolf all getting out of practice at being scary as they aged was hilarious. The comedy is just sophisticated enough for adults and there are many scenes with visual comedy for kids. It’s the second best performance by Sandler. The first was the original.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

30 West 53rd St. (between 6th and 5th Avenues), New York

After Indian, French cuisine is my second favorite gustatory delight. And I must be crazy about it, because New York was experiencing a “Noreaster,” a rain event with wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour, and I had to fight the elements from 42nd Street to 53rd to get to my dinner. Fortunately, it was not a downpour and I had my London Fog coat.

I arrived relatively unscathed at the Baccarat Hotel (no, I’ve never heard of it either) where Chevalier has its own separate entrance. It’s elegant and simple, just the name in script written vertically up a black wall and lit in white light. Through two glass doors we find the Captain’s Station and a small bar with a few tables. All is shades of off-white, pearl and gray. The young lady noted my reservation and another took my coat, umbrella and baggage, and I followed the first one around the bar and into the main dining area and to my table. The room is high ceilinged and the same color scheme as the bar, except the walls have opalescent panels adding a gentle blush to the décor and the carpet and wall banquettes are a rosy tan. There are twin urns of magnolia branches and orange Amaryllis at either end of the room and a wall of wine bottles lit in red behind the first.

A mature gentleman presented me with the wine list, took my water preference and asked if I would like a cocktail. I made my standard Groucho Marx joke about getting out of these wet things and into a dry martini, and he smiled. But upon learning from him that the only gins they had were Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks (yuck!), I ordered a Stolichnaya vodka martini instead. Usually gin-less restaurants make an abysmal vodka martini, but this one was impressively good, chilled perfectly and without bruised ice floating in it.

My server, Satomi, presented me with the food menu and was very patient with me, as I took longer than usual to decide. Meanwhile, another server brought me a pre-appetizer plate of three Lilliputian delicacies. One was a puff pastry made with salmon roe and topped with the same, the second was a little brown crunchy pyramid made with goat cheese and the third resembled a tiny Linzer tart but was neither cookie nor cherry.

The menu was set up as a prix fixe of two or three courses (including dessert). There were two appetizers that called to me and that meant adding a course, which Satomi said could easily be done. There were Starters, Sides, Mains and Desserts, with a special category of dishes that could be shared at table. I had my first two dishes chosen but was interested in three different main courses. The young man at the next table had the pork loin (I learned this from another server) and it looked very appetizing. The Atlantic black cod with a curry flavor also intrigued me. But given the choice, Satomi chose the duck dish, so did I.

While Satomi went to register my order, the Amuse Bouche arrived. It was a sushi-quality slice of Hamachi (Amberjack) resting on a paper-thin slice of cucumber in a parsley sauce and topped with a sprig of frisé. Light, delicate and delicious. I was considering the wine I would choose and inwardly was hysterical at the outrageous prices. Page after page, the wines were uniformly over $200 each, some over $2,000! I was near the end of the wine list when the same gentleman appeared at my table asking what I was interested in. I told him I love a full-bodied red, but was unwilling to purchase any over $100, for no wine is worth more than that. Surprisingly, he was unflappable at that revelation and directed me to a 2013 Gigondas, Domaine Du Grapillon D’Or (French, of course) that was perfect for both my tastes and my pocketbook.

The bread arrived next, still warm from the oven with a ramekin of fresh butter. I learned that all of the bread was made in their kitchen, from the mini baguettes I now had to the olive bread and sour dough I had later. All were excellent.

It was time for the first dish. The pan-seared foie gras with black figs, sauternes gastrique and pain d’epices (literally spice bread, actually gingerbread) was heavenly but the little dish of paté under a sweet fruit topping was erotic. I tried it alone and in combination with the other ingredients and it was always amazing. My lovely red wine was a delicious companion to this and all my other dishes.

Next on my choices was the homemade tortellini stuffed with wild mushrooms and snowed under by three cheesy foams that had my senses reeling. Satomi saw me roll my eyes while eating this dish and smiled appreciatively.

My main course was duck breast beautifully grilled with turnip, lavender and a Medjool date purée. The duck was tender and juicy, sweet and savory and, sided with a fabulous mushrooms fricassée, a celebration of autumn. I had the olive bread and sour dough with this dish and they helped to get every drop of sauce.

By this time I was praising Chef Shea Gallante to seventh heaven, but Satomi reminded me of the dessert still to come. I chose the Valhrona Chocolate Soufflé with Grand Marnier Crème Anglaise and a pot of Earl Grey tea: one to stimulate the pleasure center and the other to calm it down. Both worked.

It’s been a long time since I’ve dined at a classic French brasserie and it was refreshing to know that some still exist. There are many restaurants in New York calling themselves a “brasserie,” but they neither live up to the title nor are they French (I recall one in particular, downtown, where they gave me blank stares when I pronounced the dishes in correct French). The Baccarat Hotel only opened on Bastille Day, July 14. That would make Chevalier almost three months old. They already have a Michelin star chef, hopefully they will last a good long time. There are two more dishes I want to try.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for October 8-14

October 8–October 14


STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (October 12, 11:30 am): This is one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films and that is saying a lot. Robert Walker as the crazed Bruno Anthony is hypnotically amazing. His character wants his father dead and believes he's struck a quid pro quo deal with tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Walker and Granger were solid actors, but Hitch brought out the best in them. Also, the plot of this film is unique and interesting. The two are strangers who meet on a train, talk about solving their problems, namely Walker's father and Haines' wife. Walker suggests they kill the other's problem and no one will be the wiser as they don't know each other. Haines thinks Walker is kidding until the latter kills the former's wife and wants Haines to kill Walker's father. The tension and drama are top-shelf.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (October 14, 12:00 am): My recommendation of this 1971 dystopian film comes with a caveat – only watch it once. The film is absolutely brilliant, but it's also incredibly disturbing and violent. I was blown away the first time I saw it years ago. I've had several other opportunities to watch it and simply can't make it through the first 20 minutes. It's on Netflix so I can watch it anytime I want, but again, I can't get through it. However, if you've never seen it before, watch it. It's horrifying in parts, but the story is told so well and the acting is superb. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of the Droogs, a gang of thugs who get high on drug-laced milk and then terrorize London with "a little of the old ultraviolence," They brutally beat up, rape and/or kill arbitrary people for kicks (pun intended). The scenes are graphic, but some include a bit of entertainment. You'll never hear the song "Singin' in the Rain" the same way again. Alex is caught by the authorities and agrees to go through a process to remove his violent behavior by being repeatedly exposed to graphically violent scenes. He's then sent out into the world without the ability to defend himself, and payback is a bitch. Director Stanley Kubrick points the finger at people and government for society's violence and its failings. It's very well done, but be warned again, it's deeply disturbing. 


THE GENERAL (October 9, 6:00 am): Buster Keaton’s at his absolute height in this tale of a Confederate engineer whose train, “The General,” is stolen by Yankee spies. He must get it back, which leads to a riotous chase through the Southern countryside. There’s another reason he must get it back - his girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), is aboard that train. She believes Johnnie (Buster) to be a coward because he’s not fighting in the war, but the authorities turned him down, believing he’ll serve the war effort better as an engineer. He grabs “The Texas” and begins chasing his beloved train. Filled with sight gags aplenty, the film never lets up for a minute. It’s a “must see” for those who haven’t yet seen it, and a “must see again” for those who have. A classic no matter how one cuts it.

X THE UNKNOWN (October 10, 11:45 am): Hammer made some really good science fiction movies in the 50s and 60s. This one moves from an absurd premise – intelligent mud from deep in the earth is looking for energy to feed on and sucks us completely in with an intelligent script from Jimmy Sangster, intelligent acting from star Dean Jagger and (especially) Leo McKern, and decent, considering the budget, special effects. It’s the first of the “blob” movies. Watch for Anthony Newley and Ian McNaughton as a pair of comic relief soldiers that later fall victim to the blob. McNaughton went to on produce Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

WE DISAGREE ON ... ADAM’S RIB (October 11, 6:00 pm)

ED: B. Of all the films Tracy and Hepburn collaborated on, this is one of the better efforts, a cheeky romp written especially for them by the husband and wife team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Add the smooth direction of George Cukor and some wonderful performances by the supporting cast, and this case of married lawyers battling in the courtroom and later at home becomes a harmless and enjoyable way to spend around two hours. In any film dealing with the battle of the sexes one must tread carefully to keep the comedy fresh and funny, which is why Cukor was the perfect choice to direct. He knows when to proceed and when to take the reins in. Tracy is magnificent as Adam Bonner, who sees wife Amanda as perverting the course of justice by using this case as a forum for women's rights instead of a cut-and-dried case of attempted murder. It would be easy to cross the mine and present Adam simply as a misogynist or a curmudgeonly traditionalist. The genius of Gordon and Kanin was instead to portray Adam as a lawyer who refused to see the case beyond what it essentially was: a case against vigilantism and no more. As mentioned earlier, a wonderful supporting cast helps the film, with David Wayne, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, and especially Judy Holliday (her performance here led to her being signed to play Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, which won her the Oscar), providing performances that only caused the leads, in particular Hepburn, who needs someone strong to play off, to up the volume, as it were, instead of simply coasting. It also provides Tracy with one of the best lines in the history of cinema: “Licorice, mmmm. If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's licorice." Is it a great film? Not really. But is it an enjoyable one? Yes.

DAVID: C-. Despite some amusing moments and a strong performance by Judy Holliday as the ditsy wife who is the defendant in the criminal case at the center of this film, there isn't a lot to enjoy. As I've written numerous times, Katharine Hepburn is cinema's most overrated actress. While Spencer Tracy was an extremely talented actor, he was often dragged down to his former lover's level in the films they did together. This is no exception. In this "battle of the sexes" comedy, Adam Bonner (Tracy) is a prosecuting attorney and his wife, Amanda (Hepburn), is a defense attorney. She is outraged that a woman (Holliday) was charged with attempting to murder her two-timing husband, who she shoots but doesn't kill. Amanda believes that if the roles were reversed a man would not face a similar charge. She maneuvers to defend the woman pro bono while Adam prosecutes the case. As Bosley Crowther, in a largely positive review of the film in late 1949 for The New York Times, wrote: "To be sure, the plot is a frail one and the argument is not profound. As a matter of fact, it gets quite fuzzy and vagrant as the picture goes along. And that is the one plain weakness of the whole thing: it is but a spoof, and the authors are forced to wild devices and shallow nonsense to wind it up." Crowther is too polite. I realize it's supposed to be a comedy, but Hepburn's acting goes even more over-the-top than usual. That makes for a rather implausible story and, quite frankly, a film very difficult to enjoy. The antics Amanda pulls in the courtroom makes a mockery of feminism. To call it a timeless classic – and while Ed doesn't call it one, other critics do – is ridiculous as its humor doesn't hold up well today. I wasn't around in 1949, but I'm sure I wouldn't have found it funny then either.

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

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cleopatra Jones

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Cleopatra Jones (WB, 1973) – Director: Jack Starrett. Writers: Max Julien (story and s/p), Sheldon Keller (s/p). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Dan Frazer, Bill McKinney, Stafford Morgan, Michael Warren, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Esther Rolle, Keith Hamilton, Jay Montgomery, Arnold Dover, Teddy Wilson, George Reynolds, & Angela Elayne Gibbs. Color, 89 minutes, PG.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (WB, Shaw Brothers, 1975) – Director: Charles Bail. Writers: William Tennant (s/p), Max Julien (characters). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Ni Tien, Norman Fell, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Shen Chan, Christopher Hunt, Chen Chi Lin, Locke Hua Liu, Eddy Donno, Bobby Canavarro, Mui Kwok Sing, John Cheung, & Kung-Wu Huang. Color, 94 minutes, PG.

When it first exploded onto movie screens in the early ‘70s, Blaxploitation was a Man’s World. Characters such as Shaft, Superfly and Slaughter ruled, fighting crime, corruption and The Man. Women, for their part, were relegated to the background, playing casual girlfriends, dope fiends, hookers, and victims working for the Mob, The Man, and/or the White Power structure.

Suddenly, along came Pam Grier and the playing field changed. Grier, who cut her teeth in the exploitation genre with films like The Big Doll HouseWomen in Cages, The Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama, White Mama, starred in the low-budget breakout hit Coffy from American International. Made for $500,000, it cleared more than $2 million in during its first run. Grier was a heroine for the times. A marvelously stacked 5’8”, she possessed a magnificent pair of knockers that she wasn’t afraid to display on the screen. She wasn’t much of an actress at the time, but then she didn’t have to be; she was a presence. With time she developed into a fine actress. Those who don’t believe me should take a gander at her work in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to both Pam and Blaxploitation, Jackie Brown.

One month to the day after Coffy made its debut (June 13, 1973), along came Cleopatra Jones, made by Warner Brothers. The screenplay was written by actor/writer Max Julien (The Mack), who was also responsible for the story. Julien’s original idea was to star his then-girlfriend, Vonetta McGee, but the studio nixed her in the part. A search was undertaken with the help of Julien, and Tamara Dobson, a 6’2” Vogue model, who had a few minor film credits, was chosen. While she wasn’t quite Pam Grier (Who is?), her statuesque frame led to the film’s tag line: “6 foot 2 inches of dynamite.”

Not taking any chances, the studio brought in veteran TV writer Sheldon Keller (The Dick Van Dyke ShowM*A*S*H) to lighten the tone of the script. Jack Strrett (Slaughter) was brought in to direct.

The plot of the film is simple; in fact, all the main lines are laid out in the first few minutes, and except for the addition of a few minor characters, it doesn’t deviate from that straight line. It begins as the film opens. Special Agent to the President Cleopatra Jones steps off a plane somewhere in Turkey. (She works undercover for the U.S. government aside from her regular gig as a supermodel.) Turkish army officials are there to meet her. They have located a huge field of opium poppies, which at Cleo’s signal, is put to the torch. Cut back to Los Angeles and we discover that LA drug lord Mommy (Winters) owns the poppy field, and is she mad when she gets the news. After a minute or so of chewing the scenery, Mommy gets an idea. She’ll phone her “boys” in the LAPD to raid the B&S House, which Cleo’s boyfriend, Reuben (Casey) runs as a halfway house for recovering addicts.

When Cleo hears what Mommy’s done, she sets out for LA, and the rest of the film will be a battle between Cleo and Mommy and her minions. Both have allies on the police force and both have outside forces they can call upon for help. In Cleo’s case it’s a couple of karate ass-kicking brothers named Matthew (Popwell) and Melvin (Kenyatta) Johnson. They are the sons of a friend of Cleo’s, Mrs. Johnson (Rolle), who runs an eatery in the old neighborhood with a dice game going in the back. She also has an ally named Andy (Warren), a championship dirt-bike racer whose appearance at a bike meet gives Cleo a chance to show off her superior biking skills. Director Starrett is employing a sledgehammer approach to let the audience know exactly how cool Cleopatra Jones is.

In Mommy’s case, she has the dubious assistance of local pusher Doodlebug Simkins (Fargas), and his toadies, a pair of comic henchmen named Pickle (Wilson) and Plug (Reynolds), along with a white butler named Mattingly (Mattingly). Doodlebug, however, is also plotting to overthrow Mommy and become the main pusher.

The plot unravels in multiple shootouts, standoffs, and car chases, with Cleo slowly closing in on Mommy until the final confrontation at an auto junkyard, where she finally disposes of Mommy by knocking her into a car compactor. She and her allies collect the members of Mommy’s gang and throw them into a garbage truck (how’s that for symbolism) for delivery to the police.

In most cases with films such as this, characters are secondary to plot. Here, it’s reversed. This is a big cartoon strip of a movie, and is clearly filmed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Cleo is clearly the distaff version of James Bond. She carries a card (embossed, yet) declaring her to be a Special Agent to the President, but that’s all the details we’re going to receive. As Bond drove an Aston-Martin, Cleo drives a Corvette with the license plate “CLEO 1,” in case the bad guys should ever lose her. Not that any of this matters, because the heels can’t catch up to her anyway, though they don’t give up trying. Car chases are an essential part of action films, and this one has one great big chase after Cleo disembarks at the L.A. airport. After a shootout in the baggage claim area, Cleo escapes and tolls down the road in her custom ’73 Corvette with the minions in hot pursuit, as they speed through the streets of L.A., down into the riverbed, and back again. In the end, Cleo has no trouble shaking them and killing off a few while she’s at it.

If it should come to a shootout, Cleo is fully prepared, as she has an arsenal hidden inside the door panels of her ‘Vette. And should it come down to one on one, never fear, for Cleo is an expert in karate. This girl has it all, including the ability to change into different stunning outfits almost at will, each of which magnificently displays her statuesque 6’2” figure. As Cleo strolls down the street, men of every race and age cannot help be bedazzled by her beauty.

A super hero such as Cleopatra Jones needs an equally super villain, and Cleo has one in the aforementioned Mommy. Shelly Winters plays Mommy with all the enthusiasm of a seasoned ham, chewing each piece of scenery and making the most of every line of dialogue. Winters is experienced enough – and smart enough – to realize that a super hero such as Cleo needs an over-the-top villain to play against, otherwise the film rapidly loses its momentum and sense of fun. We can laugh and sneer at her performance, but if she doesn’t lay it on thick, the film will become boring. And Mommy is one of Shelley’s great hysterical performances, screeching displeasure when one of her inept henchmen screws up, punching one out and taking a bullwhip to another. She is also the anti-Cleopatra, modeling a wardrobe of absolutely hideous clothing (plus an assortment of fright wigs to wear in almost every scene).

But there’s another way in which Shelly is the anti-Cleopatra, and that is in the role of sexuality. Cleo is heterosexual, while Mommy is an aggressive lesbian. Cleo’s male helpers are all strong and competent, while Mommy’s male henchmen are weak and inept. The only male around Mommy who’s even somewhat on the ball is Doodlebug, and he’s plotting to whack her and take over the business. During the course of the film, there’s a running gag of sorts where Mommy loses it after her boys screw up. At this point, one of her female helpers comes in to offer Mommy a soothing brandy or something equally nice. As she accepts it, she turns to the young lady and says, “Oh, Eve (or Annie, or Ursula, yada, yada, yada), you’re the only one around here who understands Mommy.” As the woman leaves, Mommy gives her a big squeeze of the butt.

The other males Cleo and Mommy must deal with are the police, most of whom are seen as corrupt. One in particular is a nasty piece of work named Purdy (McKinney), who leads the raid on Reuben’s halfway house. Bill McKinney made a good living playing despicable country villains in such films as DeliveranceCannonball Run, and Junior Bonner. Here he has a Southern accent, rather odd for an L.A. patrolman, but it gets the point across. His loathing of blacks is shown during the raid on the halfway house when he attempts to shoot one of the recovering addicts in the back. When questioned by Cleo as to who was responsible for the raid, he replies, “I wouldn’t lift a finger to help you or any of your kind.” There is a later scene where Cleo’s crew has him under observation, and we see him going into a porno theater. The only cops Cleo can trust are Captain Crawford (Frazer), and his aide, Sergeant Kert (Morgan), and she learns at the end that she can’t trust Morgan, as he turns out to be Mommy’s source of information.

In B action films, the supporting heels disappear as we get close to the end. Before one of Mommy’s henchmen, Snake (Joy), gets his, he pleads with Cleo not to “rip his doubleknits” before she trashes his suit. Doodlebug also gets his at the hands of Mommy. After he meets a particularly gruesome end, Mommy dispatches her goons to silence his girlfriend, Tiffany (Sykes), who survives the hit. It’s up to Cleo to find her before Mommy’s goons do.

The climax occurs in an auto junkyard (fitting when one thinks about it). Cleo is trapped in a car rusher, but her crew rescues her in the nick of time. The final showdown sees Cleo chasing Mommy to the top of a magnetic crane, from which Cleo hurls Mommy down to her death, while Cleo’s crew mops up the henchmen, throwing them into the back of a garbage truck as the police conveniently show up. As Reuben and the crew celebrate their victory, Cleo departs the scene. She has important work to do in stemming the flow of drugs into the community.

In spite of its outrageousness – or because of it – Cleopatra Jones is an enjoyable film. Screenwriters Max Julien and Sheldon Keller, along with director Jack Starrett have stocked the film with a solid assortment of incidental characters, each of which has a distinct personality and is given some good dialogue. Although beholden to the formula for these sorts of films, they manage to inject some humor and a few nice plot twists along the way. While the film shows the harsh conditions found in the ghetto, it also gives us a united community where the members help and support one another.

As Jones, Dobson cuts a fine figure, and Starrett makes the most of her obvious physical assets to get the character over. It is said to be the first Blaxploitation film to employ martial arts as part of its promotion. (Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, McFarland & Company, 2006). Aimed at the action movie audience, its identification of its heroine with James Bond has been noted by several critics. While Jones is presented as very feminine, the film also emphasizes her talent at traditional male endeavors such as driving and combat, where she is seen as the equal of, if not superior to, the men. Radio ads proclaimed, "She handles a car like she handles a gun, she handles a gun like she handles a man, and she handles a man like Cleopatra!"

While Jones is fighting it out with Mommy and her henchmen, she still enjoys a loving relationship with Reuben, who is portrayed as a strong male character, sensitive enough to care for his halfway house denizens, and tough enough to actively help Cleo in her fight.

Another way the film differs from other Blaxploitation films with female leads is the absence of nude scenes. According to Sims, Dobson refused to do nude scenes in order to separate herself from the “hypersexuality” of the other black heroines. During a love scene with Reuben, the two share a long, intimate kiss rather than passionately making love, emphasizing love and intimacy rather than lust.

Dobson handles the role of Cleopatra Jones well. She’s convincing in the fight scenes and handles her other scenes well, displaying a decent acting range. She lack the presence of a Pam Grier, but director Starrett’s ingenious use of the supporting cast more than compensates. As her lover, Reuben Masters, Casey also turns in a decent performance. For his part as Doodlebug, Fargas is not too far removed from his recurring role as “Huggy Bear” in the TV series Starsky & Hutch. His main attributes are his obvious untrustworthiness and an ability to chew scenery with the best of them. And what can we say about Shelley Winters? Without her exaggerated performance this film would be a lot less entertaining.

Starrett’s direction is fine. He was well-regarded in the field of B action movies, known as a director smart enough to let the actors do their thing while keeping his interference to a minimum. He also acted upon occasion, with his most famous part being that of Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.

The soundtrack by jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson sounds like something out of a TV-urban-cop show. It proved to be popular with audiences, selling in excess of 500,000 copies. The film itself was a box office success. It grossed more than $100,000 during its first week and climbed to $400,000 by its fifth week. All in all, it made over $3,250,000 for the studio.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold was released in 1975 to poor reviews and sparse box office. The attendance was blamed on everything from poor reviews to the decline of the blaxploitation genre, but the real cause was that the film just wasn’t that entertaining.

Dobson reprises her role as Cleo. This time around, Matthew and Melvin Johnson are taken captive in Hong Kong while working undercover for the U.S. government. Cleo learns that they have been captured by a powerful drug lord known as the Dragon Lady (Stevens) and sets out for Hong Kong to free them and bring the Dragon Lady to justice. Supervisory agent Stanley Nagel (Fell) meets her at the airport and explains the lay of the land. He also arranges for private detective Mi Ling Fong (Tanny) to accompany her.

As with the original, this is a odd combination of black empowerment and martial arts, with homophobia thrown in for good measure, as the Dragon Lady, like Mommy, is an aggressive lesbian. It all climaxes in the Dragon Lady’s casino/headquarters with her in a one-on-one showdown with Cleo while Fong and her allies clean up the Dragon Lady’s henchmen, while the Johnson Brothers are rescued and join in the fun.  Afterward Nagel reveals to Cleo that Mi Ling is actually an undercover government agent who, along with her crew, was assigned to help Cleo take down the nefarious Dragon Lady.

While the film contains the usual one-liners and comedy, the frequent wardrobe changes by the star, and plenty of action, it fails because of the failure of Stevens to play the role over-the-top. Her rather muted performance takes away from the film’s outrageousness, making it into another run-of-the mill B actioner. The poor box office also scuttled plans to turn the film into a TV series. 

Dobson returned to modeling, living in New York City until the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis necessitated a return to her native Baltimore and the care of her family. She passed away at the young age of 59 on October 2, 2006. He character, though, continued on in popular culture, being honored in Mike Myers’s 2002 spy spoof, Austin Powers in Goldmember, in which Beyonce Knowles co-starred as undercover FBI agent Foxxy Cleopatra.