Friday, September 30, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for October 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

October is the Psychotronic Month, due to all the horror films being shown. Also to honor October we are placing the Psychotronic category at the head of the column this month.



There can be few other choices for Star of the Month as apt as Christopher Lee, and TCM has a representative selection of his films. To be honest, Lee was somewhat wooden, but this was more than compensated for by his incredible screen presence. No one else outside of Bela Lugosi could have played Dracula with as much menace or eroticism. In films where he had a lot of dialogue to handle, his wooden delivery could be a problem, but as he reached worldwide stardom, this flaw was overlooked in favor of his charisma.

October 3: TCM leads off at 8 pm with a most unusual film for Lee, Jinnah, from 1998. Lee plays Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an Indian Muslim who fought for a Pakistan separate from India. It’s most interesting, as we’ve had films about Gandhi and the founding of modern India, but Pakistan has received scant attention. Jinnah takes us behind the scenes and gives us a glimpse into the machinations of Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru and Lord Mountbatten in separating Pakistan from India proper and establishing it as a separate nation in its own right. James Fox makes for a fine Mountbatten, and Robert Ashby impresses as Nehru, who was opposed to the idea of a separate Pakistan. Highly recommended.

The rest of the slate is composed of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the first of the trilogy, at 10 pm, immediately followed at 1:15 am by Richard Lester’s remake of The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1975), at 3:15 am. Lee plays Rochefort in both films.

October 10: Three of the five films starring Lee as Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu are on tap, beginning at 8 pm with The Face of Fu Manchu from 1965. Made by West German company, Constantin Productions, the films are all centered around some fiendish plot Fu Manchu has to conquer the world. Though not technically low budget affairs, they suffer from vague and badly written plots, too many extraneous characters, and ambiguous endings, where we are led to believe that Fu Manchu has been dispatched only to find he’s coming back.

Following at 10 pm is The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), where Fu has kidnaps 12 beautiful women, each the daughter of an international political figure. The ladies appear in topless fight scenes, which are cut from American prints. At 11:45 pm comes The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1968). Fu kidnaps a famous surgeon and his daughter, forcing the doctor to transform a prisoner into an exact double of Fu’s mortal enemy, Scotland Yard Inspector Sir Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer). Fu also joins with the Mafia to form a super crime syndicate. As usual, when the good guys think they’ve seen the last of him, he shouts, “The world will hear from me again.” The beautiful Tsai Chin plays Fu’s daughter, Lin Tang, in each of the films in there series. In her memoir, Chin denounced the films for their stereotyping of Chinese, especially their use of “Yellowface” in having Caucasian actors play Asians. While I agree with her – these sort of films, like those employing Blackface – make me particularly uncomfortable, I find it rather odd that she waited so long to denounce them from the safety of elapsed time. She was a successful star in England when she made these “classics” and could have easily said something at the time. I check it up to a trait the late Truman Capote said actors possessed in abundance: stupidity. He was right, they weren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. At least Myrna Loy denounced playing in Blackface in the 1927 crap classic, Ham and Eggs at the Front, a short while later. Interestingly, however, she never regretted appearing in Yellowface, a further symptom of Capote Syndrome. 

TCM finishes out the evening with two Lee horror/mystery programmers, Nothing But the Night (1972), with Peter Cushing and Diana Dors, at 1:30 am, and Scream and Scream Again, with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, (1970) at 3:15 am. Both are fun time wasters. A point of trivia: Nothing But the Night was never released in America.


In a commendable flash of inspiration, TCM has anointed Frankenstein as “Monster of the Month.” God knows they have enough Frankenstein films in their library and this is a novel way to present them.

October 2: It’s a triple-header of classic Universal Frankenstein films, beginning at 8 pm with James Whale’s Frankenstein from 1931, continuing at 9:30 pm with Whale’s 1935 superior sequel,The Bride of Frankenstein, and follows up at 11 pm with Rowland Lee’s expressionistic Son of Frankenstein (1939).  

October 9: TCM continues with the Universal films, leading off with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) at 8 pm, 1943’s epic battle of the monsters, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, at 9:15 pm, and Karloff, not as the Monster but a mad scientist, in 1944’s House of Frankenstein, at 10:45 pm. The latter is a sort of monsterpalooza with Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr), The Monster (Glenn Strange), and a hunchback (J. Carroll Naish) thrown in for good measure. Also with the gorgeous Anne Gwynne, George Zucco, and the young Elena Verdugo (who later achieved fame in Marcus Welby, M.D., with Robert Young.) 


October 7: TCM is really on a roll this month, as they dedicate an evening to horror films from the 1920’s. Yeah, we’ve seen them all before; there’s nothing new, but for us horror devotees, it’s always good to see them again. Here’s the lineup: 8:00 – Nosferatu (1922), 9:45 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), 11:15 – The Unholy Three (1925), 1:00 am – The Phantom of the Opera (1925), 2:45 am – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), and 4:45 am – The Penalty (1920). 


October 14: TCM continues the theme by airing an evening of horror comedies. Again nothing new, but fun to catch again: 8:00 pm – The Cat and the Canary (1939), 9:30 pm – The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966), 11:30 pm – The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), 1:00 am – Young Frankenstein (1974), 3:00 am – Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), 4:30 pm – Spooks Run Wild (1941), and 5:45 am – Ghosts on the Loose (1943).

October 15: Monogram’s comedy team, The Bowery Boys, cross the horror divide in four films aired this morning, beginning with Master Minds (1949, 7:00 am), Spook Busters (1946, 8:15 am), Spook Chasers (1957, 9:30 am), and the aptly titled The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954, at 10:45 am).


October 1: When Sach suddenly develops the ability to read minds, The Bowery Boys become investigators in Private Eyes (Monogram, 1953).

October 2: At 1 am, it’s the 1925 silent version of The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy, Larry Semon as The Scarecrow, Oliver Hardy as The Tin Woodsman, and Spencer Bell as The Cowardly Lion. Semon who also directed, gives us a new version with Semon as a toymaker who reads the book to his granddaughter. He then alternates with scenes of Dorothy in Kansas and Oz, where the citizens are demanding the return of their queen, overthrown along with the beloved Prince Kind (Bryant Washburn) by the evil Prime Minister Keuel (Josef Swickard). The rest somewhat follows the book, as Dorothy is caught up in a twister and delivered to Oz. But in the end she becomes the new queen. The film was a flop with audiences and critics alike, who derided it as having a “custard pie atmosphere.”

At 4:45 am comes producer Val Lewton’s marvelous take on the loneliness of childhood, The Curse of the Cat People (RKO, 1944).

October 8: At 6:30 am, Lon Chaney lets Joan Crawford slip through his arms in Tod Browning’s macabre masterpiece The Unknown (MGM, 1927). At 7:30 am, deranged lovesick surgeon Peter Lorre grafts a murderer’s hands onto the wrists of concert pianist Colin Clive in MGM’s Mad Love (1935). At 9 am, Boris Karloff is trapped on a quarantined Greek island with a group of people, one of whom may be a vampire, in Val Lewton’s slow moving Isle of the Dead (RKO, 1945). At 10:30 am, The Bowery Boys battle spies in Paris Playboys (Allied Artists, 1954).

At 2 am, San Francisco is terrorized by The Zodiac Killer (1971), while at 3:30 am we have the underrated The Town That Dreaded Sundown from AIP in 1977. It's based on the unsolved 1946 killings by a hooded serial killer in Texarkana, Arkansas.

October 9: At 12:15, it’s the silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the great John Barrymore in the title role. Following at 2:00 am comes the offbeat (to say the least) haunted house story, House, from 1977, the film that revived the fortunes of its studio, Toho. Immediately following at 3:30 is director Robert Wise’s masterful The Haunting (MGM, 1963).

October 14: Race car driver Elvis tears up the track in Speedway (1968) while trying to outrun beautiful tax auditor Nancy Sinatra. The fun begins at 6:15 pm.

October 15: David Niven deserts wife Deborah Kerr because of some old family secret in Eye of the Devil (1967) at midnight. At 2:00 am, it’s a Blaxploitation doubleheader, beginning with the inimitable Rudy Ray Moore starring in Dolemite (1975) as a pimp who’s framed by the police for drug dealing. After he gets out of jail he enlists the help of old friends Queen Bee and her black belt karate ‘hos to help him exact revenge. Tune this one in – it’s even stranger than I described. Following at 3:30 am is one of the classics of the genre, as Ron O’Neal stars in Superfly, from 1972.


October 10: Begin the morning at 6:00 am with Gus Williams in Captain Sindbad from 1963. At 7:30 am, it's Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961) from director George Pal. The Greek army sets out to destroy the Colossus of Rhodes in the aptly named The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) at 9:15 am. Finally, at 11:30 am, the marooned Ulysses and Hercules say hello to Biblical strongman Samson in Hercules, Samson & Ulysses (1965). 



October 5: At the incredible hour of 5:15 am comes a film I’ve read much about, but have never seen. Nor have the vast majority of us. It’s The Last Mile, a realization of the hit Broadway play, with Howard Phillips, Preston Foster, George E. Stone, and Paul Fix. Foster plays the iconic role of “Killer” John Mears, which won fame for both Spencer Tracy (on Broadway, bringing him to the attention of Hollywood) and Clark Gable, who played the role on the L.A. stage. One would think that the film rights to such a Broadway hit would be fought for by the major studios, but the film was directed by Sam Bischoff (with a screenplay by Seton I. Miller) and released by Poverty Row studio World Wide Pictures in 1932. A 1959 remake starred Mickey Rooney, but this original version lapsed into the public domain and has been rarely shown in the years since. It was one of the first movies shown on television in 1946.

October 11: At 11:30 am, it’s director Roberto Rossellini’s beautiful and moving story of the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Composed of short vignettes, it was written by Rossellini, Fellini, and two Italian priests. Except for famed Italian comic actor Aldo Fabrizi, the rest of the cast is comprised of non-actors. As St. Francis, Rossellini cast a real-life Franciscan monk, Brother Nazario Gerardi.

October 13: From director Costa-Gavras and star Yves Montand comes the political double feature of Z (1969), based on the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, an antiwar activist and liberal member of the Greek legislature, at 3:15 pm, and The Confession (1970) an extremely harrowing story based on an autobiographical book by the married Artur and Lise London, who were targets in the Slánský Trial of 1952 in Czechoslovakia. Fourteen notable Communists, most of them Jewish, were accused of espionage for Western nations and after the show trial, 11 of then were executed, with three sentenced to life. Their sentences were commuted when Alexander Dubcek came to power.


October 1: At 2:00 am, TCM throws us to the lions beginning with Roar (1981), starring the mother-daughter team of Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith about an environmentalist’s estranged family visiting his home in Africa only to find it overrun with wild animals. At 3:45, it’s the animal classic Born Free (1965), the hit tearjerker about Elsa the lioness, with the husband and wife team of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, no strangers to animal-themed movies. 


October 3: Three in a row beginning at 6:00 am with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in Redemption (1930); the Woody Van Dyke directed The Cuban Love Song (1931) at 7:15 with Lawrence Tibbett and Lupe Velez in a story of an ex-marine returning to Cuba to find the child he fathered; and at 8:45 the comedy, The Prodigal (1931) with Tibbett and Esther Ralston about a wealthy Southern boy who decides to take to the road as a hobo.

October 4: Four Buster Keaton movies, beginning at 7:30 am with the classic The Cameraman from 1928. Following is Spite Marriage (1929) at 9:00, Free and Easy (1930) at 10:30, and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) at 12:15 pm. It’s interesting to watch them in a row and witness MGM sucking the creative life out of one of the most brilliant comedians in the history of the movies.

October 14: Cheeky young race car driver William Haines zooms not into the winner’s circle in Speedway (1929) at 6:00 am while co-star Anita Page looks on adoringly.


October 7: Spend the entire morning and afternoon with Dr. Kildare as TCM runs all the classic MGM films about there good doctor beginning with Young Dr. Kildare (1938) at 6:00 am. Read our essay about it here.

October 12: Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) suspects there’s more than meets the eye when he investigates a mysterious series of suicides in 1936’s The Garden Murder Case from MGM. Virginia Bruce is along for the ride.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for October 1-7

October 1-October 7


HANG 'EM HIGH (October 1, 6:00 pm): When it comes to great cutting-edge Westerns, Clint Eastwood has made more than anyone. Many of them have received the praise they deserve including The "Man with No Name" trilogy of A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as High Plains DrifterThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. To me, 1968's Hang 'Em High belongs in the same class as those. Eastwood is Jed Cooper, who is wrongly accused by a posse (including Bruce Dern, Ed Begley Sr. and Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) of killing a man and stealing his cattle. The posse hang Cooper, but that doesn't kill him – even though it leaves him with a nasty scar around his neck. As Eastwood characters are prone to do, Cooper wants revenge. But this one has a twist. Cooper, who was previously a lawman, becomes a federal marshal. He comes across a member of the posse and tries to arrest him, but ends up having to shoot (and of course, kill) him when he reaches for his gun. Slowly, he comes across everyone in the posse. Cooper wants to see all of them brought to justice, but because that would lead to being hanged, none of them are terribly interested in the proposition. There are plenty of shootouts and great action scenes, but the best part of the film is Cooper's struggle to uphold the law while resisting his strong urge to seek revenge.

JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (October 2, 2:15 a.m.): Legendary Italian director Federico Fellini was blessed to have the incredibly talented Giulietta Masina as his leading lady in several of his films, including this 1965 gem. It was easy for Fellini to cast her as she was his wife. In this film, Masina plays Juliet, a housewife who spends her time daydreaming while her husband cheats on her. It just so happens that her neighbor, Suzy (Sandra Milo), is so sexually liberated that she has male sex partners roaming her home. The transformation of Juliet as she becomes more self-aware and leaves her husband along with Masina's convincing performance takes a film that could fall flat on its face and makes it a classic. 


THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (October 2, 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.

NOSFERATU (October 7, 8:00 pm): F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized filming of the classic Bram Stoker novel was almost lost after a judge ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed after Stoker’s estate sued for copyright infringement and won. But a few copies survived and were edited without Murnau’s knowledge to further obfuscate its origins from Stoker’s novel, setting off a hunt for a close to pristine copy as possible for restoration. This film is a classic of the horror genre, giving the audience many truly creepy moments. The film generally follows the plot of Dracula, only its protagonist is Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Unlike Lugosi, who would make the vampire into somewhat of a sex symbol, Schreck’s vampire is truly rodentlike. There’s nothing at all appealing about him. Because of the controversy surrounding it, Nosferatu became one the first cult films and was itself subjected to much myth making about its origins and its actors. For more on this, see the 2000 dark comedy Shadow of the Vampire, a look at the making of Nosferatu. It is a film that must be seen, even if one is not a fan of horror.

WE DISAGREE ON ... HAXAN (October 7, 2:45 am)

ED: A-. This seven-part historical view of witchcraft from Denmark ranks of one of the best horror films ever made. The movie is loaded with great imagery, with the acting several levels above what is usually offered in films of its time. The costumes, lighting, sets, and effects are all superb leading to the end where director/star Benjamin Christensen tries to make a correlation between the actions and mannerisms of witches as attributed by observers in their time to the modern symptoms and affects (1922) of hysteria. I don’t know if I’m buying into it, but he does raise an interesting point. Above all, watch this not only for itself, but also with respect to its influence on such subsequent films as Ulmer’s The Black Cat, Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, Bava’s Black Sunday, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and Hardy’s The Wicker Man, among others. This is a film that demands to be seen.

DAVID: C+. While ambitious for its time, and I'm not losing sight that it's 94 years old, it's a film that doesn't know what it want to be. Sometimes it's a documentary, including the exceptionally boring beginning in which we are shown photographs from books as if we are trapped in a bad high school lesson on the supernatural with an actual classroom pointers. Sometimes it's a theatrical production with over-the-top acting of witch-trial reenactments and dreams about demons, making it laughable at certain points. Then it becomes a mockumentary as we are schooled on evil in some silly skits. Perhaps the worst is the supposed initiation of witches who kiss the devil on his behind. At times, it's a combination of all three so you don't know what's going on. Benjamin Christensen, who directed and was one of its main actors, wanted to show and tell so much and shove all sorts of theories and stories together that he damaged the end product. I agree with portions of what Ed wrote about the costumes, lighting, sets and effects being ahead of its time, but the storyline is lacking.

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Wild Life

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Wild Life (Lionsgate, 2016) – Directors: Vincent Kesteloot, Ben Stassen. Stars: Yuri Lowenthal, Doug Stone, Jeff Doucette, Debi Tinsley, Laila Berzins, Joey Camen, Sandy Fox, Marieve Herington, Gerald Schaale, & David Howard. Animated, Color, 3D, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

The trailers for this Belgian animated feature held so much promise I was eager to see it. And yes, the animation is very well done. The characters move smoothly and believably and are far from flat cartoons right down to the details in feathers. The voice match-ups are excellent and fitting to the character. The story is a great concept; the tale of Robinson Crusoe as told from the viewpoint of the animals already living on the island where he’s shipwrecked. It’s even politically correct in that it eliminates the character Friday completely. But how the story is told would not convince a five-year-old.

One has to wonder from the start why the miserably seasick Robinson Crusoe (Lowenthal) is on a wooden sailing ship. The rest of the crew mock him and his only friend is his dog Aynsley (Stone), a Skye Terrier with a distinctly Scottish accent. It seems his only purpose on board is to keep the two vicious cats, Mal (Doucette), and his mate May (Tinsley), away from the chickens. May dominates the relationship and vows vengeance on Crusoe and Aynsley for thwarting her dining plans.

Meanwhile, on a rocky desert island, there’s a luau every night and all the animals gather food for the feast: Rosie the tapir (Berzins), Scrubby the goat (Camen), Epi the hedgehog (Fox) who looks more like an echidna, Kiki the colorful tropical bird (Herington), Pango the pangolin (Doucette), and Carmello the chameleon (Schaale). 

Only Mak, a scarlet macaw (Howard), is not preparing for dinner. He’s bored with the sameness of everyday life on the island and is dreaming of another place far away when he finds a ring on the shore. Not sure what it is, he pecks away the encrustations and concludes that it’s proof that somewhere else exists, and he wants to go there.

A violent storm brews over the ocean and affects both ship and luau. When our animal friends wake up the next morning, a ship, broken in two, is on the rocks off shore. As Crusoe and Aynsley struggle ashore in a barrel, the animals fear of being attacked by sea monsters. Mak, however, is undaunted; he wants to know more. There are some great aerial flying scenes as we follow him over, under, and through the ship’s wreckage. Crusoe was trapped by a broken main mast blocking the hatch above him, but he manages to break though and eventually befriends Mak with a biscuit. But when Crusoe leaves the room, Mal and May attack and Mak dislocates a wing in the fray. Crusoe heals Mak and renames him Tuesday, which he estimates would be the current day.

The rest of the story is Crusoe trying to adapt to life on the island and Tuesday being his intermediary with the other animals. Mal and May also escape to the island after a final battle with Aynsley which sets fire to the ship and explodes the gunpowder cache. Poor Aynsley, my favorite character, is never seen again.

The animals help Crusoe build his treehouse and get food and even cooperate in exiling Mal and May to Curse Island: a rocky outcrop offshore with only bugs to eat and dangerous currents surrounding it. But the vengeful May is pregnant and plans her retaliation with her brood of a dozen young.

I liked the fact that the narration (kept to a minimum, thank you) by Mak was told to two rats on board the rescue (albeit pirate) ship, but the passage of time was a little confusing. Granted, animals could care less what day it was (except for Mak), but I would have liked to have seen some gauge between May’s announcement of pregnancy and the adulthood of her kittens. There are just too many unanswered questions for my taste.

The Wild Life is a charmingly cutesy movie best seen in 3D as it takes full advantage of the 3D effects. Several items and characters are sent toward the audience and there are scenes with items hovering over you. The script is simple and not as educational as Dora The Explorer, but entertaining for the little ones. The only joke I laughed at was when Crusoe finds a pair of glasses for the near-sighted Scrubby, and he looks at Rosie and says, “Rosie! You’re not a pig! You’re beautiful!” It doesn’t really have a moral and the only award it will be nominated for is technical expertise. I enjoyed it. It just didn’t “Wow!” me.

Rating: out of 5 Martini glasses.

25 Cooper Square, New York

Before making my reservation at Narcissa I was reading a website listing the “100 Best Restaurants in New York” and I found it interesting that, of the entries, I’d only dined at 23. Most of them I’ve never heard of, some I didn’t think belonged on the list and a few made the list simply because they’re the most expensive restaurants in the city. Ambience and prohibitive prices do not make a good restaurant. But Narcissa was listed.

The many times I’ve been to Cooper Square were occasioned by the need to buy sheet music or the irresistible lure of Indian food. I had no idea that any high-end restaurant was right on the square. And yet, for two and a half years, Narcissa was almost hidden at the end of an alleyway next to a noisy college-scene bar, the Café Standard, a block away from Cooper Union College.

I saw the name of the restaurant above the doors at the far end of the alley painted on the white wall in bright colors with flowers. The Captain’s Station for the Café Standard in the Standard Hotel (which claims both the bar and the restaurant) was between me and my destination. Inside, I breathed a sigh of relief. All was blonde wood and soft gold accents and white chairs. There were two rooms and a garden.

I ordered the Mexitaly cocktail – espresso infused Mezcal, amaro Montenegro and ancho chili liquor, finished off with mole bitters and orange essence. It was delightful, almost like a smoky fortified wine, had a beautiful burnt orange color and one could taste the coffee infusion.

The wine steward came over and and I chose the 2013 Spätburgunder from the Shelter Winery in the Baden region of Germany. It had a definitely fruity nose and a medium body, a little on the fruity side but with a noticeable tannic character. Not sweet, as I might have expected, but with an edge to it that would accent a spicy dish, it was an attractive deep ruby color.

My first course was peekytoe crab with champagne mango, jalapeño and mache (a simple pastry dough wrapping the main ingredient). The dish was a fantasy in gold and green, and the delicate crab meat was sparked by the flavor of the jalapeño slices. The wine turned that spark into a party.

The next course was duck confit tortellini with spring onions and cranberry beans garnished with purple pansy petals (say that three times, fast). It was a pasta and savory soup dish in one.

The main course was spiced Colorado lamb – a rib section and chop with semolina gnocchi and sliced, grilled fairytale eggplant. I didn’t need a sharp knife to carve the tender juicy meat off the bone and the gnocchi disintegrated under my fork, but they were delicious. I decided to go totally decadent with the side dish and make my meal a carnivore’s delight, with grilled pork ribs as a side dish. It was a first for me. They were tender and a little drier than the lamb, but just as flavorful.

Afterward, I had to have dessert, and the name alone would have made me choose it. The Eton Mess – fresh strawberries and basil under a fluffy blanket of champagne sabayon. Excellent. I ordered a lovely pot of herbal spiced chai and a glass of Nonino Quintessentia Amaro to follow it. Narcissa wasn’t finished with me. Carolyn brought out two home-made brownies for an after-dinner treat. Perfect.

While there, I watched the people at the next table and found reasons to return. The carrots wellington looked scrumptious and I have to try their watermelon salad. Narcissa definitely deserves to be on my “100 Best” list.

Here's a shot of the nearby Cooper Union College:

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Oh, God!

Gallagher’s Forum

By Jon Gallagher

Oh, God! (WB, 1977) – Director: Carl Reiner. Writers: Larry Gelbart (s/p). Avery Corman (novel). Cast: George Burns, John Denver, Teri Garr, Donald Pleasence, Ralph Bellamy, William Daniels, Barnard Hughes, Paul Sorvino, Barry Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Jeff Corey, George Furth, David Ogden Stiers, Titos Vandis, & Moosie Drier. Color, Rated PG, 98 minutes.

A few months ago, I “cut the cable,” mainly due to the fact that my cable TV provider seems to think that the way to reward their customers for their loyalty is to raise their prices while cutting their service. In all fairness, they did give me a choice: Pay an extra $15 a month for what I was already getting or lose about 10 channels or a DVR for the same as I was getting now. I surprised them. I chose “none of the above,” went out and bought a set of what we used to call “rabbit ears,” and discovered that I could get 23 channels over the air for free.

Some of these channels include networks not carried by cable TV companies like AntennaTV (imagine that!), the MeTV network, Bounce, and others. Most of the programming is old shows that makes me wonder how we ever managed to get this far in technology while others reminded me of how good TV once was with actual writers and scripts rather than people making fools out of themselves in the name of “reality TV.”

Oh, wait. This is supposed to be a movie review, not an editorial. Sorry about that. I just needed to get you up to date on why this particular movie was reviewed. One of the over the air channels that I now receive carries an old show from the 1950s, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, starring the immortal husband and wife comedy team that made the transitions all the way from vaudeville to radio to TV. George was in his 50s during the TV run which lasted from 1950 to 1958.

I don’t remember the TV show. I was only a year old when it went off the air. But I do remember that he also starred in a couple movies, just about the time I was going to college. He was in his 80s when he won an Oscar for his role in The Sunshine Boys and he was cast opposite John Denver in Oh, God!, playing the title character. I remembered the latter and began digging for a source on which to watch it. 

I found it on Amazon.

John Denver was a pop/country music star with a string of hit songs including “Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” who was trying his hand at acting as his music career was on the decline. It was a novel, if not somewhat risky, pairing, but producers were counting on the chemistry that Burns seemed to have with all of his costars to carry the film.

Denver was cast as Jerry Landers, a perfectly ordinary guy who led a boring life as the assistant manager of a grocery store. He gets a letter inviting him to an interview the next day and it’s signed simply, “God.” Figuring it’s a joke, he tosses it into a bedside wastebasket only to have it pop back up in the middle of the night and again the next day while at the store.

With curiosity getting the better of him, Jerry goes to the interview where God tells him that He wants Jerry to be his messenger and tell the world that everything is going to be okay. At first, all we hear is God’s voice: Burns’ trademarked grandfatherly gravelly growl which Jerry dismisses as a practical joke of some sort. When God finally appears in the flesh to Jerry, the Almighty turns out to be the octogenarian Burns who somehow gets through the entire movie without his iconic cigar.

God manages to lead Jerry along, convincing him little by little that this is no joke and that Jerry was picked at random to spread the gospel. Of course, the world around Jerry reacts as it would to anyone who claimed to have a personal visit from the Almighty – they laugh at him and criticize him, going as far as to put him on Dinah Shore’s talk show with a police sketch artist so the world can see what God looks like.

The movie culminates with an evangelist (Sorvino) suing Jerry for defamation of character (God had told Jerry that the guy was a phony) and God showing up in court to testify on Jerry’s behalf which leads to a classic scene:

Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth?
God: So help me, Me.
Judge: So help you, you?
God: If it pleases the court, and even if it doesn’t, I’m God, your honor.

All in all, it’s a charming movie with no heavy-handedness on the religious aspects. Although God is involved, it doesn’t continually bash us over the head with theology, but rather poses questions for us to answer on our own through the interaction of the characters. Denver and Burns do share a chemistry that is enjoyable to watch and it’s obvious that the seasoned Burns is leading Denver through his maiden voyage in movies, making him even perhaps better than he already is. The singer/songwriter, who leaves his guitar in the wings with Burns’ cigar, comes off as being very natural and engaging, the type of guy that would be fun to work with or be around in the real world. Burns is also a natural playing the old guy part, seemingly with an answer to everything, but then who wouldn’t when you’re God?

Add this to the fact that you get to watch Teri Garr, who plays Jerry's wife, and you just can’t complain at all.

I re-watched the movie with my 32-year-old daughter, and her two preteen kids. Although they weren’t impressed with the movie, it didn’t insult their intelligence and they did ask quite a few questions about those things that looked sort of like cash registers at the supermarket where Jerry worked as well as that push button radio in Jerry’s car.

Had the movie been written in our current day and age, there would have been more than enough people out there to be offended by something in it, but those are people who spend their entire day just looking, hoping, and praying to find something that they can claim offends them.

It’s a delightful movie, and leaves us with a genuinely good feeling (not a fake-good). It’s an easy A- which could only have been better if they’d let John sing the title song (of which there wasn’t one). 

If you get the chance to find this at the local video store, or local library, you might want to check it out. There are certainly worse ways to spend 98 minutes.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Let Us Be Gay

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Let Us Be Gay (MGM, 1930) – Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Writers: Rachel Crothers (play), Frances Marion (s/p), Lucille Newmark (additional dialogue). Stars: Norma Shearer, Rod La Rocque, Marie Dressler, Gilbert Emery, Hedda Hopper, Raymond Hackett, Sally Eilers, Tyrell Davis, Wilfred Noy, William H. O’Brien, Sybil Grove, Mary Gordon, Dickie Moore, & Helene Millard. B&W, 79 minutes.

Now that sound was a fait accompli, MGM intensified its search for new material that would fit their stars. Irving Thalberg picked up Let Us Be Gay, a play by Rachel Crothers that had a good run on Broadway starring Frances Larrimore and Warren William, as a good vehicle for wife Norma Shearer, who was coming off the success of The Divorcee. Noting that for all its snappy dialogue and pacing, it was yet another story about a drab housewife whose husband deserts her for greener pastures. Frances Marion was brought in to revamp the prologue and add even more snappy new dialogue. In the end, the studio came away with a pleasing Shearer attraction. Of course, the fact that Marie Dressler is also on hand adds to the fun. Unfortunately, the ending completely undoes everything and nearly pulls the picture down with it.

As the film opens, we are in the house of Bob and Kitty Brown (La Rocque and Shearer). Kitty is a hausfrau who dotes on her husband, this day serving him breakfast in bed. She’s the definition of meek and subservient. Bob would like to stay and chat but he has an important date to play golf and he has to get ready. At one point, he can’t find his favorite tie and asks Kitty where it could be. Kitty, ever so dowdily dressed, is making yet another dress, but finds the time to locate the missing article of clothing. She asks Bob if she can come along on his golf date; after all, she has in the past. Bob, however, is evasive, telling her that he’s already rushed and for her to dress properly would take too much time.

Years of experience watching these sort of movies tells us instinctively that golf is the last thing on Bob’s mind, and a phone call shortly after he exits the bedroom confirms our suspicions, especially when he tells the caller never to phone him at his house. But it’s too late, she is on her way over to “clear the air,” and shortly afterward she’s standing in the living room. Just as she has her arms wrapped around his neck, who should saunter in but Kitty? Bob is too visibly embarrassed to speak, but his squeeze introduces herself to the shocked Kitty as Helen, adding that she thought it was time that they met. 

Kitty, quickly pulling herself together, tells her adversary that she has heard a lot about her from Bob. Helen, damage done, tells Bob she’ll be waiting out in the car. After she departs, Bob and Kitty get into it, with Kitty asking him to leave. Bob coldly tells her that if he walks out that door he’s not coming back, which is fine by Kitty. After he leaves, Kitty breaks down in tears.

The interesting thing about this scene is Kitty. At first, we don’t recognize her. Then it hits us: it’s Norma Shearer! Yes, Norma Shearer sans makeup, looking as dowdy as she can get. And it works, for she is almost unrecognizable. The Shearer we are used to is the vivacious glammed-up model. With her hair in rollers, wearing unflattering glasses, and dressed like a frump, (those with HD can even see her freckles), Norma comes across as distinctly unglamorous. 

Yet, despite her unmade look, on closer inspection we can still see that she is a beautiful woman; a lot more approachable, more down-to-earth without all the glam. It also reaffirms our faith in Shearer as an actress. How many other MGM divas would be so bold as to risk playing a scene without make-up? Remember, women in the movies even awoke in the morning wearing lipstick. Greta Garbo played a rundown prostitute in Anna Christie, but she still looked like Garbo. Joan Crawford may have despised Shearer and thought of herself as the better actress, but not even Joan would appear before the cameras facially naked. Shearer proved so good at it she repeated the feat in 1938’s Marie Antoinette.

A title card informs us that it is three years later and that we are at the estate of Mrs. Bouccicault (Dressler), a wealthy and scheming socialite, on Long Island. We gather from the servants that a new guest is coming to visit and they wonder if it will be anything like her usual run of guests. Mrs. Bouccicault is a collector. In this case, she collects upper class twits for her parties. It’s difficult to tell them apart as the film progresses, but with a little concentration we are able and equally repulsed as well. Included among the guests are lousy, boring amateur poet Wallace (Davis), and Townley (Emery), a dull figure who tries to get by on charm he doesn’t have and merely comes off as silly.

As we quickly surmised, Kitty is the expected guest. When we see her now, she has changed from a dowdy caterpillar into a most beautiful butterfly. The glam is back – and with a vengeance. This is the Shearer we know and love. Mick La Salle, in his wonderful book about Pre-Code cinema, Complicated Women, wrote the following about Shearer’s transformation: “Once again, Shearer was suggesting that women weren’t limited in their options. The picture promised the possibility of beauty and adventure for all women. As if to prove it, Shearer was willing to hint that her own beauty was manufactured.” 

We learn that Mrs. Bouccicault met her while in Paris and has brought her to Long Island with a specific purpose in mind. Kitty is a hired gun. It seems that Mrs. Bouccicault’s granddaughter Diane (Eilers), though engaged to Bruce (Hackett), has become infatuated with a four-flusher. The dowager tells Kitty that she has been invited specifically to take the rat away from Diane and let the engagement follow its course. 

Mrs. Bouccicault asks Kitty if she’s up to the task, and the banter between the two is risqué: “Well, my one little talent, clothes, is beginning to make money. When I can pay my own bills, men may come and men may go.”

Dressler, not quite sold by Kitty, continues the line of questioning: “Are you trying to imply that, until this point, there haven’t been any coming (she rolls her eyes slyly to make sure the audience knows what she means) or going?

In case we haven’t caught on to her meaning, Shearer emphasizes it: “Now Bouccy, that’s not like you. That’s clumsy. I’m surprised at you.”

Of course, we all know who the cad is that Bouccy wants to give the gate. Even those who haven’t yet seen the movie and are reading this for the first time can easily guess who it is. That’s right, it’s none other than good old Bob, on the make for money. Kitty is stunned when she discovers his identity and the rest of the movie becomes a sort of parlor game, with Kitty and Bob trying to top each other in witty remarks while not letting on to the others about their real relationship.

They pretend not to know each other, but as they make small talk, her feelings come out: What were you saying, Mrs. Brown? Did something unlucky happen to you years ago?”

Well, I thought so then, but I’ve grown wiser since.”

Bob asks Kitty about using the name, Kitty Courtland Brown. She explains: “Courtland was my maiden name. I took it back after my divorce.”

When Bob says that Brown is a name to be proud of, Kitty’s response is tinged with bitterness: “That’s the way I felt about it too. Evidently you don’t mind being a Brown, but I did – horribly.”

Taken aback, the only riposte Bob can come up with is, “You seem to have got rid of it very successfully.”

Kitty fires one final shot: “I hope so. Three years in Paris ought to improve any woman. Like you, I’ve been amusing myself with anything and everything that came my way. I know how a man feels about those things now.” Shearer plays the scene so well that we’re unsure if she is really serious or just putting the screws to him.

Bob, though he doesn’t believe her, is nevertheless taken with her. She didn’t look that way in all the years they were married and now she appears like a completely different woman – just the sort of thing a serial philanderer likes. If he was unsure about her veracity during their conversation, finding two men in her bedroom easily convinces him that she hasn't been home making new dresses. Kitty flirts so fast and easily it seems as if she’s practicing an early form of speed dating, and she’s expert at making the men feel as if they’re on the verge of conquest when in reality they are still at the starting gate. Bob is becoming convinced that what his ex-wife told him is the truth. The scene with would-be suitors coming and going into Norma’s bedroom is almost like the bedroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers.

The climax of the film comes when Bob, clearly dismayed by the antics in Kitty’s bedroom, announces that he and Diane are to be wed. Once again, Kitty is devastated. Bouccy, who’s been smelling a rat when it comes to Bob and Kitty, quickly figures out the truth and plays the trump card by arranging for their young children to join them at the estate. 

While Bob is overcome emotionally by the children’s appearance (he has not seen them for three years), they prove to be Kitty’s undoing. Dressed for the film’s final scene in a man’s coat and tie, she gloats over her new-found liberation, telling all that she’s not ready to sit by compliantly at the domestic hearth. Suddenly, seeing the children causes Kitty to break down and throw herself at Bob’s feet to take her back. “I’m so lonely,” she cries, leading us to realize that she wasn’t out sowing her wild oats so much as sewing new coats. And yet, the main reason Bob takes her back is because Diane, upon getting a load of the kids, realizes what a scumbag he is and gives him the heave-ho, going back to Bruce.

It’s definitely a cop-out ending and I can’t say it any better than the critic for The New York Times: “The ending of 'Let Us Be Gay' is unfortunate. It comes abruptly, and with tears and a manner of "I won't do it again." It does not fit in well with what has gone before; it is not in keeping with the characterization. Kitty is one minute laughing at her former husband and the next is agreeing to start all over with him. She, the Long Island Lorelei, the young lady who had been asked by Mrs. Bouccicault to rescue her granddaughter from the toils of Bob.”

This is the real message of the film: Kitty’s verbal fireworks are just that – talk, born of anger over Bob’s tomcatting. Though a woman may test the bounds of traditional marriage roles, given the chance, she will go running back to the safety of traditional matrimony. Her tears only serve to emphasize her realization over the price she has paid for divorcing her husband.

At the end, Kitty is back to the beginning of the film. She was the one wronged, the one whose loyalty was repaid with treachery. And now she wants to go back to a guy who hasn’t bothered to see his own children in three years. The real message of the film is that if husband strays, it’s the wife’s fault for not keeping herself sexually alluring by employing glamorous make-up and chic fashions. A woman wronged by her husband in such a way can respond by asserting herself and turning away from the accepted view of marriage, but in the end she must return. There’s only so far she can go. Notice that Kitty “reinvents” herself as Kitty Courtland Brown. If she were serious, she would have dropped the “Brown” and simply taken back her maiden name. The way she does it here served more to irritate Bob than to declare her independence from him. As author Roger Dooley noted in his book From Scarface to Scarlett, “It is remarkable how many plays which seemed to deal lightly with divorce still had the original couple getting back together; nearly 10 years later, Shearer was still following the same pattern in The Women.”


As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Let Us Be Gay is definitely an early talkie. Except for the prologue at the Brown home the camera hardly moves, and several scenes start a few seconds before the actors appear. One scene in Bouccy’s living room featured only a pillow for seven seconds (I timed it) before Shearer appeared to joust with Dressler. It comes across as exactly what it is, a filmed play.

The film was shot on a rushed schedule of 23 days due to the pregnancy of its star. It was brought in at a cost of $257,000 and produced a nice profit of $527,000. Though the critics praised Shearer, it was Marie Dressler who was singled for her performance. Dressler had established herself as a performer who could both draw gasps of delighted recognition and loud applause from audiences. Of course, with Marion wielding the pen, the role was custom-made for Dressler and she played it in her normal fashion: large, in charge, and able to chew scenery at will.

Compared to Dressler, Shearer’s performance comes off as a little uneven. Her scenes with Dressler are the best in the movie as their characters engage in a verbal dance with witty banter, smiles, and winks. Offstage, they built up a warm affection for each other, with Norma giving Marie shrewd financial advice that enabled her to save more than she normally would, for according to mutual friend Frances Marion, Marie was a scatterbrain with a lot of money and a known soft touch.

Unfortunately, though, Shearer had to act with Rod La Rocque, an actor so wooden he had to be sprayed with bird repellent to keep the woodpeckers away. La Rocque made his fame and fortune in the silent era, beginning in 1914. By the ‘20s he was well-established as a romantic lead in such films as Resurrection (1927), Stand and Deliver (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929), with Joan Crawford. Offstage, his marriage to silent siren Vilma Banky in 1927 had been one of the Hollywood events of the year. The marriage was a happy one, ending only with LaRocque’s death in 1969. But there were problems for Rod, as his voice, diction and acting skills combined to keep him from becoming a star in the new era of sound.

The Thalbergs liked Rod and wanted him to repeat his success in the silents, but despite the best efforts of MGM’s speech coaches, La Rocque could not overcome his deficiencies. As regards his acting, the less said the better. He has zero chemistry with either Shearer or Eilers. He also lacks any sort of charm or sexual charisma, something that would attract the audience to him. It’s hard to see why either woman was so attracted to him. There’s nothing there. But perhaps the best summary of La Rocque in the film came from critic Richard Dana Skinner in The Commonwealth: “Mr. Rod La Rocque talks in the fashion of a traveling salesman who has about half-finished a course in elocution. His diction is deliberately monotonous and he gives one the impression of being a hastily rehearsed amateur.”

After the film was released, Thalberg wisely stopped his push of La Rocque and the rest of the actor’s career consisted of increasingly minor parts with the occasional starring role for studios like Republic and Grand National. After portraying the character of Ted Sheldon in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Rod left Hollywood for a career as a real estate broker, where he did quite well. Ironically, wife Vilma Banky also struck out in the talkies, the possessor of a Hungarian accent so thick one critic said that, compared to her, Zsa Zsa Gabor sounds as if she’s from Brooklyn.

Another problem plaguing Shearer during filming was the fact that she was pregnant with her second child. Norma, known as one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, jumped at the chance to play the role, as her inactivity during pregnancy bored her. (She also feared that if she were away from the screen too long, her public would forget her.) Because her condition had become quite noticeable during the last week of filming, designer Adrian draped her with even more care than usual. Shearer also strategically hid her figure behind tables and chairs and drapes and restricted her movements to a minimum. As an actress known for her costuming, when the scene called for her to wear anything of a revealing nature, she stuffed herself into stiff corsets and along with Adrian, spent hours looking for the right design. 

To say that Shearer finished filming in the nick of time is an understatement. The movie premiered on August 9, 1930. On August 25, Irving Thalberg, Jr. was born.

In 1931, a French-language version of Let Us Be Gay was released under the title Soyons gais. Directed by Arthur Robison, it starred Lily Damita and Adolphe Menjou.