Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Sea Bat

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Sea Bat (MGM, 1930) – Directors: Wesley Ruggles, Lionel Barrymore. Writers: Dorothy Yost (story), Bess Meredyth, John Howard Lawson (s/p). Stars: Raquel Torres, Charles Bickford, Nils Asther, George F. Marion, John Miljan, Boris Karloff, Gibson Gowland, Edmund Breese, Mathilde Comont, & Mack Swain. B&W, 73 minutes.

The Sea Bat is a film that should have been better than it was, being as it was written by Bess Meredith and John Howard Lawson. But somewhere along the way it ran afoul of MGM management as director Wesley Ruggles was suddenly replaced by Lionel Barrymore. Why, we don’t know. But it may have had something to do with cost overruns, as Wesley filmed on location along Mexico’s Mazatlán coast and Barrymore’s scenes are indoors, particularly the diving scenes, which were shot in the studio tank.

Set on an island in the West Indies, the opening lines let us know what we’re in for: "Portuga island … through the night, the weird chants of voodoo worship … through the day, the weird industry of sponge fishing ..." However the film is not nearly as exotic as the opening lines would indicate, as it follows the the lives of the men who make their living as sponge divers. One of the perils of their trade is the “sea bat,” a huge manta ray that terrorizes the divers and gives audiences something to thrill over.

In the opening scenes, Nina (Torres) offers a pagan talisman to her beloved brother Carl (Asther) as he is going out on his morning sponge dive. Carl turns it away, showing Nina his cross and telling her he doesn’t need any voodoo for protection. The cast doesn’t know it yet, but this is to be Carl’s last dive, as he falls victim to the sea bat.


Nina is devastated. In despair, she turns to the voodoo rites of the natives, throwing herself in wholeheartedly. She also offers herself as the wife to whoever manages to kill the sea bat. While this is going on, the Reverend Sims (Bickford) arrives on the island to replace the outgoing reverend. But Sims is no reverend, he is actually John Dennis, an escapee from Devil’s Island in disguise. Nina’s father, Antone (Marion), the island’s mayor, is especially pleased to see the new reverend, as the island has been in need of spiritual guidance since the old reverend departed. But Sims is very reluctant to take up his pastoral duties; he’d rather be left alone. Antone, however, wants him to reform Nina and Sims agrees to give it a try. As he tries to save Nina’s soul, the two become strangely attracted to each other and fall in love. He tells her his real identity and they plan to escape the island by way of a motorboat.

However, Juan (Miljan), the villain of the piece, has figured out the reverend’s identity, and along with cohort Limey (Gowland) subdue Sims and tie him up. While they are taking him by boat back to Devil’s Island for the reward they are attacked by the sea bat. Both Juan and Limey are killed, while Sims makes it back to shore and a reunion with Nina. The episode has shocked the goodness back into Sims. He tells Nina he’s going back to give himself up and serve out his term. She tells him she will go with him and wait as the picture ends.

It’s a pretty straightforward plot; unfortunately much of the characterization necessary to fill in the blanks leaves us wanting. As Nina, Torres acquits herself well. She is a familiar character to those who are fans of these types of adventures: the Exotic. The Exotic is always a woman, a femme fatale – beautiful, mysterious, with a hidden agenda which the hero must discover before it engulfs him. In the early days of sound, the Exotic played a large role as movies took their audiences away from the humdrum of everyday life to new ports of imagination. Quite a few actresses got their start playing this type, including Lupe Velez and Myrna Loy. (Velez even did a parody of the character in the 1934 spoof Hollywood Party, playing The Jaguar Woman to Jimmy Durante’s “Schnarzan the Conquerer.”)


The fad died down in the ‘30s, only to be reinvigorated in the ‘40s, with jungle adventures aplenty. Who can forget Hedy Lamarr in 1942’s White Cargo with her famous line, “I am Tondelayo?” Even stripper Ann Corio got in on the act in PRC’s Jungle Siren (1942) and Monogram’s Call of the Jungle (1944). However, being as this is a Pre-Code film, Torres gets to flash a lot more flesh, at one point giving us quite a peek during a wet t-shirt type of scene (get a load of what’s not under the blouse) where she fights off would-be rapists Juan and Limey with a knife. And only in a Pre-Code film could she so blatantly offer herself as the reward to whoever destroys the sea bat. One thing that has always befuddled me is: why she didn’t have a bigger career? Latinas were in demand for movies during this time (Velez and Dolores Del Rio had good careers at this point), and yet the only thing she is somewhat famous for was playing Vera Marcal in Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers.

The movie’s other lead, Charles Bickford, doesn’t come off as well as Torres. After glowing reviews for his roles in Cecil DeMille’s first talkie, Dynamite (1929) and Anna Christie, opposite Garbo, Bickford seems to have squandered his capital with this performance, as he comes off rather lifeless and disinterested. I recall reading that he was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Lon Chaney, so perhaps the lack of preparation accounts for it. But considering that his talkie career began as a leading man, he quickly moved his way down the ladder to character actor and B-movie headliner in only a few years.

The problem with Bickford’s character as the “reverend” was his extreme reluctance to perform his ministerial duties; very odd since he came to the island as the pastor. But we are never let in on why he is so reluctant and the only thing I can surmise is that the studio didn’t want any trouble with censors over a phony playing a man of the cloth. This may be the case, for as the movie wears on, his character seems to be transformed from carrying around his pocket Bible. On the other hand, were Bickford’s character a real man of the cloth, we might have wound up with a pale imitation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Sadie Thompson, which Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson brought to the screen in 1928. (It was remade by Lewis Milestone and Joseph M. Schenck as Rain in 1932 starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston.) His scenes with Torres are half-and-half – she’s convincing, he isn’t.

George F. Marion steals the film as Antone, the father of Carl and Nina. He is the island’s governor/mayor who also seems to double as the town drunk. Marion displays just the right mixture of officialdom and corruption as he tries to convince the islanders of his position and tries convince barman Dutchy (Swain) of his right to a free drink. John Miljan is his usual villainous self as Juan, and Gibson Gowland, who starred in Von Stroheim’s ill-fated Greed, is fine as Limey. As for Karloff, look quickly or you’ll miss him. Silent star Nils Asther, in his first talkie, also has a role that is all too brief. We aren’t given a chance to see how well he can do in the realm of talkies. And Mack Swain, known mainly as the adversary of Charlie Chaplin, makes for a good, blustery and tough Dutchy.


The unsung star of the film is the sea bat itself. Given the times, it’s a fine example of f/x work on the part of the studio. In reality, a manta ray is a gentle creature, but appearances are everything, so it made for quite a frightening monster, though from the way it’s photographed, it looks more like a shark than a ray. The only glitch is the scene where the manta ray bears down on Carl – we can see that Carl has been replaced by a doll. But the scene is mercifully brief and does not detract from the fun.

Give cinematographer Ira Morgan props for some fine photography, especially in the scenes with the sea bat. Barrymore handles the indoor scenes and the love scenes between Bickford and Torres with his usual professionalism, though the way he photographed her rather unconvincing voodoo dance leaves much to be desired. 

For those Pre-Code fans out there, The Sea Bat is definitely worth the time. Other will enjoy it also, especially as it has not aged well and now comes off as a camp folly. Everything else aside, the chance to see Raquel Torres prancing around half-naked singing the song “Lo-Lo” a cappella is worth the price of admission alone. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The BFG

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The BFG (Amblin/Disney, 2016) – Director: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Melisa Matheson (s/p), Roald Dahl (book). Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Adam Godley, Michael Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moniz de Sa, & Marilyn Norry. Color, Rated PG, 117 minutes.

After the Orphanage Matron (Norry) fails to secure all the locks on the front door and leaves half the mail on the floor, we see Sophie (Barnhill) wrapped in a quilt, tip-toe down the main staircase to complete the unfinished tasks. In her monologue, we learn that the “Witching Hour” is not necessarily midnight, or even one or two o’clock. It’s three in the morning, the hour that only Sophie is awake, that she returns to her bed with a flashlight and her copy of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. The other children in three rows of beds are fast asleep. Sophie’s bed is the last one in the center row, nearest the window.

Suddenly, she hears a clatter in the street below and she recites her mantra, “Do not get out of bed…(she does)…Do not go to the window…(she does)…Do not look behind the curtains…(again, she does)…and do not look over the railing!” She finds a few cats have overturned a garbage can.

However, a huge hand appears from around the corner and uprights the garbage can.


The giant (Rylance) hears her gasp, knows he’s been seen and plucks her from her bed, quilt and all, and speedily runs back to Giantland, which is somewhere in the North Sea, beyond Scotland.

Sophie learns that the giant doesn’t want to eat her (as most giants would), but instead eats a noxious stew made from the ugliest cucumber ever (called a snozzcumber). She understands that he’s friendly and because he wants to go about in secret, he kidnapped her to remain unseen. She redubs him BFG for Big Friendly Giant (he never reveals his true name).

Sophie soon discovers that BFG is the runt of a litter of 10 giants who refer to him as “Runt,” and are big enough to carry him like a doll. They have names: Fleshlumpeater (Clement), Bloodbottler (Hader), Maidmasher (Ólafsson), Manhugger (Godley), Butcher Boy (Adamthwaite), Childchewer (Holmes), Gizzardgulper (Gibbs) and Meatdripper (Moniz de Sa), and they do eat children.

BFG’s “job” is catching dreams in Dreamland and blowing them through his trumpet to sleeping people. But when Sophie insists on accompanying him on a hunting foray, the other giants find her quilt and smell her on it. They know BFG is harboring a “bean” (their word for a ‘being’) and when BFG takes Sophie back to London, they figure out his source of their ‘food’ and follow. What to do? Enlist the services of Queen Elizabeth II (Wilton), her aide, Mary (Hall), and Head of Household Mr. Tibbs (Spall). But this plan requires the revelation of the BFG.

The book, written in 1982 by Roald Dahl, was made into an animated film in 1989. This amazing live-action film’s screenplay comes from the pen of the late Melissa Mathison. Under Steven Spielberg’s able direction and with John Williams spectacular musical talents, this remarkably sensitive film needed a telephone book of people working on its stunning visual effects. I remember back when King Kong’s finger bent backward with the struggles of the beauty he caught. Not here. The giants are as real as Sophie and the close-ups are simply mind-boggling.

Frankly, I expected this movie to be silly, and in some short scenes, it was. But the sheer genius behind the production, the message behind the near-gibberish (you can understand it, but it sounds like Jabberwocky) spoken by the BFG and the superior acting by Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill bring this fantasy into reality. There was teary pathos and laugh-till-you-cry visual comedy. Even the most cynical child would be entertained. I know I will still laugh uncontrollably whenever I remember the green brew frobscottle, the volatile potable with downward-fizzing bubbles and explosive “Whizpopping” after-effect. My favorite line? “Dreams are short on the outside, but long on the inside.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Paramount Bar & Grill
235 W. 46th St., In the Paramount HotelNew York

The term “Hotel Restaurant” evokes shudders in some reviewers. They are often known for spotty service, so-so food and cheesy décor. But we all know it’s the exception that proves the rule.


The classy glass and brass awning over the entrance to the Paramount Hotel in midtown Manhattan raises expectations. The soft gold lighting and elegant use of mirrors and black walls makes it an inviting place to stay.

The young man at the station gave me a choice of two tables. I chose the one with more light and was seated on a comfortable gray leather banquette. The operative word at Paramount is comfort. Though obviously a bar, it’s also a stress-relieving lounge. There is an arty silver-gray wine rack on the wall facing the bar. The black, bare-topped tables melt into the overall décor and the white cloth napkins and stemmed water glasses add to the relaxed atmosphere.

My server Thomas arrived shortly and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Though the “Smoky Scotsman” was an attractive brew I went with my favorite martini when Thomas confirmed the availability of Beefeaters gin. It was well-chilled and well mixed.

When Thomas returned, I had chosen a salad but was torn between two main courses. He recommended one over the other but asked if I was really hungry because it was a large portion. I assured him I would pace myself.

While Thomas was registering my order, another server brought a silver basket with warm rolls resting on a napkin and the butter dish on the side. He noticed my finished cocktail and asked if I wanted another. I told him I was switching to wine and had a salad coming. He recommended the 2010 Chardonnay from the Santa Barbara Winery, California. A crisp, well-chilled, golden wine, it went perfectly with my Baby Spinach Salad.


My eyes popped from their sockets at the main course; a 14 oz. Berkshire Pork Chop, sizzling and beautifully browned. It sat majestically on a bed of bright green broccolini in a whole grain mustard cream sauce. It was a good five inches in diameter and a little over an inch thick. The meat was tender and white, not too dry, and savory where browned. I succeeded in slowing down and finished it.

The side dish, called “O’Brien’s Potato Hash,” was way different from hash-browns. Bite-sized wedges of baked potato along with chopped red and yellow peppers and a small dish of homemade catsup. Served Brit-style on faux newspaper, it was kitschy as well as delicious.

Thomas wondered if I had any room left for dessert and I asked him for a recommendation. The “Pastry Bread Pudding” caught my eye and that was his advice. The fluffy pudding was topped with a substantial scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel. It was good, but it was the only dish I didn’t finish. Thomas asked why. “Needs bourbon,” I replied. A double espresso later and my Paramount dinner was finished. I may even try to stay at the Paramount on my next stay-cation.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for August 23-31

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
August 23–August 31

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (August 26, 10:15 am): This 1932 Pre-Code movie is a joy to watch for many reasons. It's an entertaining film, the acting is very good, and the casting couldn't be more absurd. Boris Karloff plays the sinister Fu Manchu who is looking for the tomb of Genghis Khan to take his mask and sword and lead a rising of his fellow Asians to destroy the white race. Myrna Loy is great – and really, really hot – as his obedient and completely subservient daughter who Manchu mistreats to such extremes that it becomes funny. One of the best scenes in the film has Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) placed underneath a large ringing bell as a form of torture to get him to break down and provide Manchu with the location of Khan's tomb. Manchu also has a death ray that is used against him. It's a lot of fun and only 68 minutes in length.

GASLIGHT (August 29, 12:00 am): As a huge fan of Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman, it's great to see that when the two teamed together in this 1944 film that the result was spectacular. (Unfortunately, the chemistry between the two wasn't nearly as good when they worked together on Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn five years later.) Gaslight has fantastic pacing, starting slowly planting the seeds of Bergman's potential insanity and building to a mad frenzy with Cotten's Scotland Yard inspector saving the day and Bergman gaining revenge. While Charles Boyer has never been a favorite of mine, he is excellent in this role as Bergman's scheming husband who is slowly driving her crazy. Also deserving of praise is Angela Lansbury – I'm not a fan of her either – in her film debut as the couple's maid. Lansbury has the hots for Boyer and nothing but disdain for Bergman. A well-acted, well-directed film that is one I always enjoy viewing no matter how many times I see it.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (August 26, 9:30 pm): In my opinion, this is the greatest horror film ever made, though the way James Whale directs it, it could also be seen as a black comedy. One of the decisions he made – to have the monster speak – was derided at the time and for a while later, but now is rightly regarded as a brilliant move on Whale’s part. It gives the monster a touch of humanity and frees him, for a time at least, from merely becoming the automaton he was to become in later films.

THE GREAT ESCAPE (August 27, 8:00 pm): Based on one of the biggest mass escapes from a POW camp in World War II, it boasts an all-star cast that includes James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Donald, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. The plot is relatively simple: The Nazis have built an escape-proof camp to which every escape artist is being sent to stop them from even thinking about another attempt. But the duty of every prisoner is to escape, and this lot is up to the task. It’s a great film that never stops moving with a plot that adds new obstacles and challenges to the prisoners’ dilemma. Attenborough is “The Big X,” a veteran escape artist whose arrival sets the plot in motion. The film also solidified the image of Steve McQueen as the King of Cool through his portrayal of the individualistic prisoner Hilts, as witnessed by the scene near the end when he attempts to jump a border fence with a stolen motorcycle. This is also a film that one can watch numerous times without getting bored. Watch for the scene where the Germans catch Attenborough and Gordon Jackson. It’s one of the best ironic scenes in the history of the movies. Also keep an eye on James Garner and Donald Pleasance and the chemistry between them. The Great Escape is one of those rare movies that comes along every once in a while where the audience is entertained through the use of intelligent plotting and restrained performances. That’s the main reason I have watched it numerous times, even though I’m not exactly a Steve McQueen fan.

WE DISAGREE ON … MASCULIN FEMININ (August 23, 2:00 am)

ED: B-. Once upon a time there was a director named Jean-Luc Godard. At first, he made some unusual and interesting films, their popularity resting in their novelty. But soon, like other young upper middle-class people of Europe in the ‘60s he became entranced by left-wing politics and it came to infect his films in the worst way, eventually dominating them, subjugating the story to ideology. This is one of the first films along his road to the political and suffers because of it. On the surface, it’s a love story about a disillusioned young man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) just released from national service. As his girlfriend (Chantel Goya) doggedly pursues her dream of becoming a pop singer, he becomes isolated from his friends and peers and becomes ever increasingly radicalized. The interaction between Leaud and Goya is sweet, and if it weren’t for the politics, this could easily pass for a Truffaut film. But Godard wants to subvert and politicize us, which accounts for long boring stretches in the film as Leaud acts out. Ingmar Bergman was no fan of Godard, and his opinion of the film is as follows: “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual, and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a f***ing bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin, Féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mind-numbingly boring.” I don’t feel as harshly toward Godard as Bergman did, but this film represents his descent from making offbeat, novel films into long, boring monographs for the critics.


DAVID: A-. Ed is largely correct in his assessment of director Jean-Luc Godard's career. His early films – particularly his debut BreathlessMy Life to Live, Contempt and Band of Outsiders – are among the most interesting movies made in the early 1960s. While Francois Truffaut is the best and most consistent director of the French New Wave, Godard was the most daring. That meant as he moved into the mid-1960s and for about a decade, his films ranged from excellent to terrible with several of them, as Ed points out, too focused on left-wing politics. Godard sacrificed quality for a disjointed message. Godard hasn't made many movies in the past 30 years, and those he's done are film collages that I simply don't understand. They are painful to watch so I typically turn them off after about 30 or 40 minutes – and I rarely stop watching any film, much less works done by directors as good as Godard. As for those films he directed between 1965 and 1975, Godard made some great ones. That leads me to Masculin Feminin. While there are some flaws, this film along with Made in U.S.A. (both from 1966), are as good as anything Godard directed. Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was such an incredible talent, is spectacular as Paul, an idealist looking for a job while dating Madeleline (Chantel Goya), a budding pop singer, who doesn't share Paul's passion. It's free-flowing with dialogue that jumps from one topic to another as Godard's quick cuts do the same. The acting is spectacular, hiding that the film's plot is almost nonexistent. Actually, the story is secondary to the film's words, which blend dark humor with pop-culture references and politics (though it is kept significantly more in check here than in Godard's other films of this era) and a guy just looking to get laid by a pretty girl. It's a sexy, compelling avant-garde film that Godard should have made more of during the past 50 years.

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Hot Rhythm

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

Hot Rhythm (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Tim Ryan & Charles R. Marion. Cast: Dona Drake, Robert Lowery, Tim Ryan, Irene Ryan, Sidney Miller, Jerry Cooper, Harry Langdon, Robert Kent, Lloyd Ingraham, Cyril Ring, Joan Curtis, Paul Porcasi. B&W, 79 minutes.

Imagine, a film – and a musical, yet – starring both Irene Ryan and former silent comic Harry Langdon. Only on Poverty Row.

Jimmy O’Brien (Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (Miller) work for the Beacon Recording Company. They write jingles for radio commercials, but would like to graduate to songwriting and the raise that comes with the position. 

Jimmy literally runs into Mary Adams (Drake) in the hallway. She has just finished singing one of his jingles in a commercial. Head over heels, he poses as a songwriter and tells her he can introduce her to Herman Strohbach (Kent), the manager of the Tommy Taylor band. Strohbach is looking for a girl singer to audition. However, complications arise because Strohbach and Taylor (Cooper) are locked in a dispute over a new contract with Beacon boss J.P. O’Hara (Tim Ryan).

Jimmy has an idea: he’ll make a demo record of Mary so O’Hara can hear it the following day. Lacking a band, he records Mary singing along with Taylor’s band on a live radio broadcast. Afterward, he gives the demo to Sammy, who leaves it for pressing. 


Meanwhile, Mr. Whiffle (Langdon), O’Hara’s assistant, informs his boss that his secretary just quit. O’Hara tells him to hire another. He hires the scatterbrained Polly Kane (Irene Ryan). No sooner does she start work than she hears that a girl singer in a quartette singing radio jingles falls sick and she convinces Whiffle to let her take the sick girl’s place in the quartette.

O’Hara hears Mary’s demo and likes what he hears, though he doesn’t know who the singer is. Later, to his horror he discovers that the boys in the pressing room thought the demo was a regular Tommy Taylor disc and pressed and distributed 10,000 copies of the record. This leaves O’Hara open to legal action from Strohbach and Taylor. 

While Jimmy, Sammy and Mary wait for O’Hara to tell them about his reaction, the boss and Polly are busy going all over the city, buying every copy they can find and smashing it. Their strange behavior is noticed by the police, who arrest them, leaving them to be bailed out by Jimmy and his friends.

O’Hara is determined to find the girl who sang on the Tommy Taylor record. When he mentions this new girl singer to Polly, she thinks he is talking about the jingle she recorded and tells O’Hara it was her. His reaction is to offer her a contract so she can make more records. Meanwhile, Mary discovers Jimmy is not really a songwriter and breaks up with him because he deceived her. When Strohbach and Taylor hear Mary’s demo, Taylor decides to hire her, but Strohbach, by mistake, has already offered a deal to Polly.


In the meantime, Mary returns to her old job singing at a cafe. When Jimmy and Sammy go to see her and straighten everything out, the resulting chaos gets Mary fired. The next day, Mary tells Jimmy that he should confess everything to O'Hara but he refuses, for Strohbach is suing O'Hara for $250,000 for distributing the illegal record.

Polly tells O'Hara that she is quitting in order to sing with Taylor's band, which leads him to believe she is the girl on Mary's demo. As she has not yet formally signed with Strohbach, he signs her up and tells Jimmy and Sammy to make a recording of Polly with a house band, where they have her perform one of their songs. 

O'Hara is shocked when he hears that Polly's voice is nothing like Mary’s, O’Hara is taken aback and realizes he’s signed the wrong person. He then convinces Polly to sign with Strohbach. However, after Polly signs with Strohbach, her record is suddenly in demand, causing O'Hara and Sammy to go on another record smashing spree, which again lands them in jail. 

After Jimmy and Mary bail them out, Jimmy and Sammy finally confess all to O’Hara, who fires them. Sammy then takes Mary to see Taylor and proves that she’s the singer he's been seeking. The meeting is interrupted by a phone call from Strohbach, who triumphantly says that he has "the girl" under contract. 

At the nightclub where Taylor is appearing, Mary and Polly are both scheduled to perform and all the interested parties are in the audience. When Taylor introduces his new singer, both Mary and Polly take bows, but Taylor escorts Mary to the microphone. Realizing he signed the wrong singer, Strohbach passes out. Mary, who by this time has made up with Jimmy, is a hit, and O'Hara tells Jimmy and Sammy that he will double their salaries. 

When Strohbach regains consciousness, O'Hara offers to take Polly off his hands if he will drop his lawsuit. Strohbach readily agrees, but after he hands the contract over, O'Hara shows him a newspaper clipping about Polly's hit record, which causes Strohbach to pass out again.

Afterwords

After years of watching Irene Ryan as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies, I always find it a little strange to see her in other parts. I remember as a teenager seeing her as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in one of his RKO shorts and I was simply dazzled, not only seeing her as someone other than Granny, but seeing her as a young woman. Already accomplished in vaudeville (where she met and married fellow performer Tim Ryan in 1922) and on radio, Irene’s film carer, which began in 1935, consisted mainly of shorts for Educational Films (later Columbia and RKO) and uncredited parts in feature films. In 1943, she and Tim went to Monogram, were they appeared in Sarong Girl, starring Ann Corio. Tim caught on at Monogram, both onscreen and off, as a scriptwriter. He often wrote parts for Irene, even after they divorced in October 1943. They were simply billed by Monogram as “Tim and Irene” on movie posters. 


As O’Hara, the harried and perplexed boss, Tim Ryan puts in a nice performance. His scenes with Irene display the precise timing they learned during years in vaudeville. In addition, he and Charles Marion wrote a funny script for the film.

The presence of Harry Langdon as Mr. Whiffle is the reason for most film buffs to tune in. Langdon brings his silent movie comedic touches to the film, and the sad part is that he disappears about halfway through the film. He has a great scene when he stands in for a medicine tonic ad. At first, the tonic won’t fizz, and then it fizzes too much. Employing his great comic timing, Langdon reacts to the situation in hilarious fashion, even at one point attempting to trying to put the fizzy glass in his suit pocket. His scenes with Irene Ryan also stand out as they use their comic skills to good effect. Unfortunately, a few months after this film was released, Langdon passed away at the relatively young age of 60 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Lowery makes for a so-so leading man, hindered by a lack of chemistry with female lead Dona Drake, whose singing far exceeds her acting. Sidney Miller is probably best known among film buffs for his many appearances in Warner Bros. Pre-Code pictures and later, Mickey Rooney films. He met Rooney on the set of Boys Town (1938) where, unlike many of Rooney’s co-workers, he got along well with the star and befriended him, later writing the lyrics to Rooney’s musical compositions. After World War II, he shifted careers from acting to writing, working for Donald O’Connor. In 1953, he joined Walt Disney, where he was wrote, directed, and composed music for many of Disney’s television ventures – in particular, The Mickey Mouse Club, where Disney tasked him with a total revamp of the show after its first season. (Disney wanted it to appeal more to teenagers than to the very young children at which it was originally aimed.) Miller brought in new writers and choreographers to give the Mousketeers more musical numbers and comedy skits and turn the show into a sort of mini-variety show. Although that was what Disney wanted, it didn't go over with the audience, with the result that the numbers for the show went down. Miller’s arguments with the cast led to his dismissal and he continued his directorial career in television, including My Favorite Martian (1963), The Addams Family (1964), and Get Smart (1965). He is also remembered as the man who directed Lou Costello’s first solo effort after his break with Bud Abbott, the ghastly The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959).

All totaled, Hot Rhythm is a decent time-waster, with good comedy and surprisingly – for Monogram – good music. Director William Beaudine does a good job with the material, keeping the pacing brisk. It’s odd that Beaudine is remembered today – thanks in large part to the Medved brothers in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards – as a bad director. 

Beaudine, who began directing back in 1915, was one of the most respected directors in the silent days, known as a seasoned comedy director and renowned for his ability to work with children. When talkies arrived he was one of Hollywood’s top directors, commanding $2,000 a week in 1931. But he was wiped out by the stock market crash and most of his salary went toward reducing his debt load. In 1935, he went to England, where he directed more than a dozen films. When he returned to the States, he found his absence had hurt him and he was unable to secure work at the major studios. The only places he could work were Poverty Row studios and independent productions. His efficient style made him in demand by low-budget producers needing to save money, and this efficiency translated well when he turned his directorial talent to television. It’s somewhat odd today that Beaudine is derided for his style, being called “One-Shot Beaudine,” when MGM director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, is praised for what was essentially the same style, and lauded as “One Shot Woody.” 

Faces in the Crowd: Dona Drake

The life of Dona Drake could well be said to have been something right out of a Fannie Hurst novel. Born Eunice Westmoreland in Miami, Florida, on November 15, 1914, she was the daughter of African-American parents Joseph Andrew and Novella Smith Westmoreland. Being light-skinned was a great help to her career due to American attitudes about race, and she billed herself as a Latino of Mexican heritage. First known as Una Villon, she worked Broadway, nightclubs, and revues. (Keeping in line with her new identity, she even went so far as to learn Spanish.) 


In 1935, she changed her name to Rita Rio to further emphasize her “ethnicity.” She landed a featured role in Eddie Cantor’s Strike Me Pink (1936) in which she did a snake-like dancing performance during the “The Lady Dances” number. The climax was when Cantor threw her high in the air and then catches her with the palm of one hand some distance away. Her performance didn’t lead to any further film work, but it did enable her to form an all-woman band called “Rita Rio and Her Rhythm Girls” (aka “The Girlfriends”)  that toured successfully.

On her own she performed in a few two-reelers and sang on the radio. Her good friend Dorothy Lamour helped her land a contract at Paramount, where the studio changed her name to Dona Drake. The publicity sheet for her written by the studio stated that she was christened Rita Novella, was of Mexican, Irish and French descent and born and raised in Mexico City. Her first film for her new studio was the 1941 Lamour vehicle, Aloma of the South Seas. She also appeared in the Bob Hope comedy Louisiana Purchase (1941) as well as in the Hope/Bing Crosby/Lamour film Road to Morocco (1942), where she played an Arab girl. The failure to break from typecasting led the studio to drop her shortly after loaning her to Monogram for Hot Rhythm

In August 1944, she married Oscar- (and later Emmy-) winning costume designer William Travilla. (Travilla gained fame when he dressed Marilyn Monroe in a tailored potato sack to prove she’d look good in anything.) As a freelancer, she appeared in the 1946 Claudette Colbert/John Wayne film Without Reservations. Other notable films during this period were Another Part of the Forest(1948) as Dan Duryea’s girlfriend, Beyond the Forest (1949) as Bette Davis’s Indian maid, and The Girl From Jones Beach (1949) as Eddie Bracken’s paramour. She also starred as the gold digging second female lead in the 1948 Stanley Kramer production So This is New York.

The birth of daughter Nia slowed her down a bit, but she returned to work television before retiring from a variety of health ailments, including heart trouble and epilepsy. In 1989, she succumbed to respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia. Husband Travilla followed her to the grave the following year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Ice Age: Collision Course (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Directors: Mike Thurmeier & Galen T. Chu. Writers: Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg, Yoni Brenner (s/p), Aubrey Solomon (story). Voices: Stephanie Beatriz, Robert Cardone, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Adam Devine, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Max Greenfield, Ray Romano, Jessie J, Queen Latifah, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lopez, Jorge Lucas, Andrew Christopher Nichols, Melissa Rauch, Nick Offerman, Simon Pegg, Chris Wedge, Wanda Sykes, Nick Offerman, Keke Palmer, & Michael Strahan. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 94 minutes.

The fifth film in the Ice Age series begins with a serious monologue by Neil deGrasse Tyson about theories on how the solar system came to be in its current configuration. At the end he says, “Some are much dumber.” 

The scene quickly switches to Scrat (Wedge), who is still chasing the acorn and trying to plant it in the ice without disaster befalling him. This time, a hole opens up beneath him and drops him into a flying saucer encased in the ice. At first, he decides to plant his acorn in the saucer’s driving control, but he changes his mind and accidentally grabs the throttle, hurtling into space causing havoc with both planets and asteroids. In the chaos, two planets collide and the resulting debris starts on a collision course with Earth.

Back on Earth, Ellie (Latifah) the mammoth and her daughter Peaches (Palmer) are planning an anniversary party. As usual, Ellie’s mate, Manny (Romano) is clueless as to what is going on. Even consulting his best friend Diego (Leary) the saber-toothed tiger doesn’t help; and his mate, Shira (Lopez) is not about to give it away. But Manny has other problems. Peaches is in love with Julian (Devine), who is clumsy and hyperactive at the same time. They want to get married and move out on their own.

Elsewhere, Sid (Leguizamo) the ground-sloth is being dumped by girlfriend Francine (Rauch) and again mooning about having nothing left but his “boyish good-looks and a Mariachi band!” (which he hired for their wedding.) His Granny (Sykes) gives him left-handed advice which is useless at best.

On the day of the party, Manny realizes he forgot to get Ellie a gift and it’s at this point that the first scraps of the asteroid enter Earth’s atmosphere like fireworks. Ellie thinks it’s so romantic that he lit up the sky just for her when a major piece flames up and heads right for them and everyone has to run.


Meanwhile, if you’ve been following the five-movie series, in the underground Lost World where the remaining dinosaurs have survived, Buck the Weasel (Pegg) is rescuing a triceratops’ egg from three oviraptors: Gavin (Offerman), his daughter Gertie (Beatriz) and son Roger (Greenfield). As we now know about oviraptors, this trio has feathers, but unlike modern knowledge, these three can fly.

It doesn’t take too much time for Manny’s group and Buck and his pursuers to meet at the surface and figure out that a world extinction type asteroid is heading for Earth and together, they have to avert the collision. The raptors believe they can fly above the destruction and escape it.

Buck has uncovered an ancient monolith (who created it is a complete mystery) from which they get directions to the point where the asteroid will hit. Once there, they discover an asteroid already embedded in the ground. In its crystal-studded interior they meet Brooke (Jessie J), another ground-sloth who is just as looney as Sid, and they fall in love. Brooke brings them to the Shangri Llama (Ferguson) who has no idea as to how to stop the asteroid. 

The Ice Age series started off wonderfully with one and two, Meltdown (2006) and, though still entertaining, lost something in the writing and the attitude of the characters in three, four, Continental Drift (2012) and this one. Scrat remains the one consistently funny member of the cast, while the rest of the “humor” supplied is of the bathroom variety. Another problem is that that main characters have lost much of their personality. What almost makes up for this are three new characters conjured up by Buck; Pythagoras Buck, Robo Buck (both Pegg), and Neil deBuck Weasel (Tyson), who even sports a mustache and the little galaxy and stars vest Neil always wears. Inside the crystal of eternal youth, we find another funny and kind-of sexy character, a big blue bunny named Teddy (Strahan), who finds Granny to be very foxy.

Those who stay through the credits will see the final scene, which was made into one of the trailers: Scrat, his acorn and the sliding doors on the spaceship – still very funny. Kids will love it. Adults who saw all the previous movies will say, “What did you do with my characters?” I suggest the writers take a cue from the writers of the Madagascar series, which is still consistently funny and clever.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Maialino
2 Lexington Ave., New York

At the southern end point of Lexington Avenue is a sleek white stone building that houses Maialino. Though nondescript on the outside, the inside is like a tastefully decorated Swiss chalet with open beam ceilings, subtly netted lightbulbs in swags, and blue-checked tablecloths under white.


I was led to a table in the back that was perfectly situated by a sunny window. I chose the banquette side so that I could look outside as well be comfortable. I began with “The Bruno’s Buck Cocktail” – Tequila, Green Charteuse, Ginger and lime. It was a lovely pale green, and slightly spicy, but refreshing.

I was having déjà vu – I knew I had visited this place before. I asked Gabe, my waiter, if the Gramercy Park Hotel was right next door and he said it was. That was it! In one of my past jobs back in 1972, I went to lunch in the Gramercy Park Hotel restaurant, which at the time was only a small part of this large, el-shaped restaurant. Back then it was French and I remembered ordering the Sole Bonne Femme because I saw Julia Child prepare it on television.

I discussed various possible dinner selections with Gabe and stated that since Maiale means “pork” in Italian, one dish should be pork. He agreed and we soon had a three-course dinner chosen.

The wine was easy. Usually I’m a red wine lover who is very picky about whites. But when I saw the 2014 Pallavicini from Lazio, I looked no further. It’s fresh, crisp, good with any dish and even good alone with conversation. 

My appetizer, the Trippa alla Trasteverina – spicy Tripe and pecorino – was delightful, a little chewy and not spicy enough for me (I recommended pepperoncino to the chef), but after a liberal application of freshly ground pepper, it was almost perfect. It had none of the astringent effects of badly prepared tripe and all of the good flavor.

The pasta dish was one I’ve never tried before: Garganelli con Coniglio, braised rabbit, tomato and Castelvetrano olives, and it was another gastronomic adventure. The pasta was al dente and the tender rabbit meat was cut to resemble the pasta. It was a surprise in every bite. (Garganelli is a large, ribbed tubular pasta similar to penne.)


Due to a misunderstanding, Gabe brought the dessert menu early. “What about the main course?” I asked. After the apologies, I received the house signature dish, Maialino al Forno – what they call a “four story” suckling pig with rosemary potatoes. It was appetizing, glassy-crisp skin that hid sinfully rich fat and delicate, tender pork with three rib bones at one end.

The dessert choice was much easier. Another new dish for me was Pistachio Budino (very much like a mousse) with Amaretto cherries and dark chocolate pistachio clusters and whipped cream. The budino tantalized me with nutty flavor and the cherries provided a symphonic background and, like bacon, everything goes with whipped cream.

To accompany my white peony tea, I ordered a glass of Brachetto d'Aqui, a reddish pink sparking wine from the Piedmont region of Italy. Even with my fond memories of 1972, Maialino added new ones and the desire to return.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for August 16-31

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

CONSTANCE CUMMINGS

An actress who got her start in regional stock theater back in 1926, Constance Cummings has 58 movie and TV credits to her name, yet she is mostly forgotten today. She made her film debut as Mary Brady in Howard Hawks’ 1931 prison drama, The Criminal Code. She worked steadily during the ‘30s, appearing in such films as Attorney for the DefenseAmerican MadnessMovie CrazyWashington Merry-Go-Round (1932), The Mind Reader, Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933), and Remember Last Night? (1935). Her most famous role was as Ruth Condomine in David Lean’s 1945 drama, Blithe Spirit.

TCM is honoring her on August 24, showing many of the films listed above, save for the latter two. We recommend the following: Haunted Honeymoon (1940, 7:30 am), The Mind Reader (9:00 am), The Big Timer (1932, 3:30 pm), Attorney for the Defense (5:00 pm), Broadway Through a Keyhole (8:00 pm), Night After Night (1932, 9:45 pm), famous as the film that introduced Mae West, American Madness (11:15 pm), Doomed Cargo (1936, 12:45 am), Movie Crazy (2:15 am), and The Criminal Code (4:15 am). There are a few other Pre-Code films of hers playing through the day for those fans of the sub-genre.

OUT OF THE ORDINARY

August 17: Director Samuel Fuller’s excellent war drama set in Korea, The Steel Helmet (1951), starts at 6 pm. 


August 18: A rarely seen, but interesting, film is airing at 9:45 pm, Go Into Your Dance (1935), starring the real-life couple of Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler in their first – and last – pairing. Al is a singer trying to make a comeback who teams with dancer Keeler. Along the way, however, he gets enmeshed with gangster Barton MacLane. Solid support comes from Glenda Farrell and the irrepressible Patsy Kelly. Though the film was a solid hit, there would be no more pairings of Keeler and Jolson because of Al’s enormous ego. After seeing the comment cards from test audiences, he told his wife that "They don't want to see me anymore. They want us.” Al just couldn’t bear not being Number One. 

The film is wonderful, with Al at the top of his game belting out such tunes as “Mammy, I’ll Sing to You,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” and the great “Latin From Manhattan,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Bobby Connolly's masterful dance direction. Another reason to tune in is to see the great Helen Morgan. She was the queen of the torch singers in the ‘20s, but years of alcoholism had taken its toll. She performs the ballad "The Little Things You Used To Do," while in her customary pose of being sprawled on the piano. A mere five years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver.

August 23: On a day devoted to French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, there are quite a few films to choose from, but none more important than the one airing at 6:15 pm. And God Created Woman, a 1956 production directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim. Though it’s a silly exploitation film seemingly based around Bardot’s talent of shredding her clothes, it’s importance lies in the fact that it was an “art house” hit here in America, and more than any other film, started the movement that eventually brought down the hated Production Code. 

Watching it today, we quickly pick up on two points: Bardot can’t act and Vadim can’t direct. But the real point is that Bardot didn’t have to act – all she had to do was walk around half-naked and just be Bardot. No other actress so exuded pure weapon sexuality like Bardot. As for the film, somehow it became a favorite, along with its director, of the Cahiers de Cinema crowd with both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard slobbering over its supposed virtues, calling Vadim “our only truly modern filmmaker.” He was an auteur, for God’s sake, which made him important to these two would-be (at the time) filmmakers. Watch it anyway, it’s a hoot.

Godard finally got his chance to work with Bardot, and the results can be seen in Masculin-Feminin from 1966, airing at 2:00 am and the earlier Contempt, from 1963, which airs afterward at 4:00 am.


August 29: The day belongs to Charles Boyer, and the best of his movies, The Earrings of Madame de ... (1954), airs at noon. Regular readers of this column have seen me rave about this film, directed by the great Max Ophuls, and for those who haven’t, tune in and discover a wonderful and subtle film about how a woman’s little white lies can balloon and come back to haunt her. 

PRE-CODE

August 18: Four classic Ruby Keeler WB musicals are on tap, beginning the Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) at 6 pm, followed by 42nd Street (1932) at 8 pm, Dames (1934) at 11:30 pm, and Footlight Parade (1933) at 1:30 am.

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE

August 17: At 10 am, it’s Phil Karlson’s hard-hitting docudrama, The Phenix City Story (1955), made right after the National Guard went into the corruption riddled city to clean out the rats. It stars John McIntyre, Richard Kiley and Kathryn Grant, who later married Bing Crosby.

August 18:  Star-of-the-Day Angie Dickinson stars with Rock Hudson in Roger Vadim’s must-see, Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) at 2:15 am.

August 21: Tune in at 1:45 pm for that great unintentional comedy team, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, starring in the unforgettable What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? from 1962. The film was a small at the box office and begat a trend whereby the leading ladies would chew yards of scenery in B-grade horror films.

August 22: Robert Montgomery is so good, so compelling as a serial murderer in Night Must Fall (1937) that we sometimes wonder if he wasn’t born for the role. It airs at the late hour of 3:45 am.


August 23: Even star-of-the-day Brigitte Bardot made a psychotronic film, which is on display at 12:15 pm. It’s the offbeat homage to Edgar Allan Poe, Spirits of the Dead (1968). The film was a trilogy of tales, all based on Poe stories, with each segment of the trilogy helmed by a different director: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini. While we might well expect Bardot to be featured in Vadim’s part of the trilogy, “Metzengerstein,” she actually appears as Giuseppina in “William Wilson,” which is directed by Malle. Despite the trilogy format, the film maintains a consistent quality that rates it as one for the better horror films to come out of the ‘60s.

August 26: As the day is devoted to Boris Karloff, it’s loaded with psychotronic films. To save time we’ll just review the best of the bunch, starting at 10:15 am with The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Karloff is in his element as the dastardly villain out to discover the secret to global power. Lewis Stone and Charles Starrett are the unwitting explorers who accidentally wander into his den, and Myrna Loy shines as Karloff’s daughter Fah So See.

For a good B movie, check out British Intelligence (1940) at 1 pm with Karloff as a German agent up against double agent Margaret Lindsay. The joy in the film is seeing Karloff in a non-horror role and he gives a stellar performance.

At 8 pm, it’s back to horror, with five notable Karloff films in a row. First up is the classic Frankenstein (1931), followed by The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a sequel superior to the original. Both are directed by the great James Whale. At 11 pm, it’s the eerie and haunting The Mummy from 1932, the directorial debut of noted cameraman Karl Freund. At 12:30 am, it’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s offbeat The Black Ca(1934) with Bela Lugosi in the unaccustomed role of good guy battling the devil-worshipping Karloff. It’s rarely shown and is well worth the time invested. Finally, at 1:45 am, Karloff and Henry Daniell star in producer Val Lewton’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, The Body Snatcher (1945).

August 29: At midnight, it’s Charles Boyer as the villain in the classic Gaslight (1944) as he tries to drive wife Ingrid Bergman crazy. 


August 31: Dean Martin cashes in on the James Bond craze as Matt Helm in The Silencers (1966), airing at 9:45 am. Martin brings his own brand of humor and style to what could be just another Bond ripoff and actually makes it fun to watch.