Monday, July 31, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for August 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


It’s August, which means a month of “Summer Under the Stars,” in which each day is devoted to the films of a particular actor or actress. In the past, TCM has made this somewhat interesting by including people we don’t normally see, i.e., those not from Hollywood, the international stars. But this year the only international star we get is Simone Signoret, and if we really want to stretch it, Vanessa Redgrave (and that’s really stretching it, as she has made quite a few films in America). 

Instead, we get yet another day of stars whose films have been nearly run to death. Given the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, TCM once again sticks to the tried and true, and in the end, lets its fans down. As I said in this column last year, I would like to see a day devoted to the films of the following: Marcello Mastroianni, Alec Guinness, Setsuko Hara, Monica Vitti. Paul Wegener, George Arliss, Michel Charles Hawtrey, Anouk Aimee, Ugo Tognazzi, Emil Jannings, Richard Attenborough, Vittorio Gassman, Googie Withers, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Alberto Sordi, Diana Dors, Jean-Claude Brialy, Gerard Depardieu, Giulietta Masina, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Marais, Anna Magnani, and Albert Remy. And that’s just off the top of my head.

This column is ostensibly dedicated to the rare and unusual, but there’s not much that’s rare this month and even less that’s unusual, so please excuse the brevity.


August 1: On a day devoted to Marilyn Monroe, try Ladies of the Chorus (Columbia, 1949) at 6:00 am. Adele Jergens and Marilyn are mother/daughter burlesque chorus girls. Adele sees Marilyn going down the same rocky romantic road she did when she was young and tries to prevent it. It’s Marilyn’s first substantial role and the only movie she made for Columbia, which dropped her contract shortly after this film was released. Directed by old pro Phil Karlson, it’s definitely worth a look. Eddie Garr, who plays burlesque clown Billy Mackay, is the father of Teri, which should give film buffs even more reason to tune in.

August 8: Franchot Tone stars with Ann Sothern in the breezy and entertaining Fast and Furious, the last in the Joel and Garda Sloane mystery series, airing at 10:45 am. 


August 8: Franchot Tone makes his second film appearance in Howard Hawks’ disappointing drama, Today We Live (6:00 am). This 1933 effort from MGM stars Gary Cooper and Robert Young as two officers (one a pilot and one in the Navy) competing for the love of English aristocrat Joan Crawford during World War I. Despite a script co-written by Willian Faulkner (from his story “Turn About”), the film is pretty heavy slogging with one of the corniest endings in the history of movies. Tone plays Crawford’s brother.

At 2:45 am, Tone is a playboy trying to break down showgirl Jean Harlow’s resolve in the delightful The Girl From Missouri (1934), with Harlow determined to preserve her “virtue” before marriage. With Lionel Barrymore as Tone’s millionaire father and Lewis Stone as a prospective husband whose suicide leads to trouble for Harlow.

August 11: A day dedicated to Ginger Rogers begins with four Pre-Code movies. First up at 6:00 am is The Tenderfoot (1932), a Joe E. Brown comedy that sees him as a naive cowboy with a roll of cash who wants to back a Broadway show in the worst way.

At 7:30 am, Ginger and Fred Astaire end up stealing Flying Down To Rio (1933) from erstwhile stars Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. Their number, “the Carioca,” carried them from supporting roles to stars of the show.

Ginger loses honest, hardworking fiancee Joel McCrea to spoiled heiress Marian Nixon in the dull Chance at Heaven (1933) at 9:15 am, a move he lives to regret. Didn’t they just show this a couple of weeks ago? 

Finally, at 10:45 am,  Ginger joins with Pat O’Brien and Dick Powell in the musical Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934). Otherwise humdrum, it’s worth seeing for the appearance of the Mills Brothers. 

August 13: Three excellent Pre-codes starring Barbara Stanwyck begin at 6:00 am with So Big! (1932). Based on the Edna Ferber novel, Stanwyck is a farmer’s widow who not only must take on the land after her husband dies, but must also deal with his difficult son in whom she has invested the family hopes. Look for Bette Davis in an early role.

At 7:30 am Stanwyck is a nightclub singer on the lam who hides out by becoming a mail order bride for struggling farmer George Brent in the wild melodrama The Purchase Price (1932). Directed by William Wellman, it’s bizarre, but moves along so fast we don’t have time to reflect on just how bizarre it is while we relish the racy dialogue along the way. Look for the scene where another of the mail order brides says, “You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose!” as she holds up a banana.

At 9:00 am Stanwyck stars in the Grandmother of Women’s Prison films: Ladies They Talk About (1933). Stanwyck made quite a few bizarre movies during her Pre-Code days, but this one is a doozy, with Babs as a moll arrested for her part in robbing a bank, betrayed by preacher Preston Foster, and sent to the Big House, where she interacts with as strange a cast of characters as you’ve ever seen. Look for there scene where Lillian Roth croons “If I Could Be With You” to a photo of Joe E. Brown. Obviously, she’s been cooped up too long. Also look for the quick scene where Lillian introduces Babs to some of the inmates. They pass by a well-built mannish woman smoking a cigar. “Watch out for her,” says Lillian. “She likes to wrestle!”


August 2: Two from Star of the Day Ray Milland. First up at 7:15 am is Bulldog Drummond Escapes (Paramount, 1937), a reimaging of the classic Ronald Colman film. Milland is excellent in the role and the film is an enjoyable B-programmer. At noon, Milland faces the aftermath of nuclear war in AIP’s Panic in the Year Zero (1962). Jean Hagen plays Ray’s wife and Frankie Avalon plays his son. Milland did double duty, as he also directed the film. 

August 4: Dick Powell does an amazing job bringing detective Philip Marlowe to life in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, at 10:00 pm. Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, and Mile Mander co-star.

August 6: An early film with Robert Mitchum airs at 7:30 am. In When Strangers Marry, Mitchum has his first co-starring role as Fred Graham, former beau of Millie Baxter (Kim Hunter), who has just married traveling salesman Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger). As the film unfolds Millie comes to wonder if her new husband isn’t the killer the police are looking for after a drunk was murdered in his hotel room and relieved of the $10,000 bank roll he was carrying. This 1944 production from Monogram is crisply directed by William Castle and provides a good showcase for Mitchum. Even though it was made before he became a star, it was already his 22nd film credit, including six Hopalong Cassidy oaters. Those would have been interesting for TCM to run on this day.

August 9: Sandra Dee is an innocent college student lured away and drugged by crazed Dean Stockwell, who has stolen the Necronomicon from the school library and plans to sacrifice her in The Dunwich Horror (1970), at 4:00 am. It’s a lot duller than this synopsis sounds, as warlock Ed Begley, Sr. plans to stop Stockwell with the proper curse. Roger Corman served as executive producer, which should serve to explain things.


Lon Chaney is one of the greatest actors ever to appear before a camera. Who knows what he might have accomplished if his career was not cut short by lung cancer at the age of 47 in 1930. He had recently scored a success in his first – and only – talkie, a remake of his 1925 classic The Unholy Three (airing at 4:45 pm). The sound remake is airing at the late hour of  4:15 am.

Chaney was justifiably renowned for his ability to not only lose himself in his character, but to bend his body into almost impossible poses to play such characters. Watching him effortlessly cavort around the set as the legless criminal mastermind Blizzard in 1920’s The Penalty (6:00 am), one would almost be led to think he was born without legs. But he underwent a most painful binding of his lower legs behind him to create the effect. 

In The Unknown, from 1927 (2:00 pm), he plays Alonzo the Armless Wonder. With his arms bound at his side, he learned to throw knives with his feet. In reality he is hiding from the police, and the reason he pretends to be armless is to hide his undeniable identifying mark: the fact he has two thumbs on one hand. Deeply in love with his lovely assistant Nanon, who cannot bear the feel of a man’s arms around her, he decides to make the ultimate sacrifice. As this is a Chaney film, we have an inkling how it turns out.

At 8 pm comes his most famous role: Erik the Phantom, the vengeful composer from The Phantom of the Opera (1925). If you haven’t yet seen this one, I urge you to watch it. It’s been remade several times, and even became a Broadway musical, but none of the remakes can touch the original.

Actually, all the Chaney films should be seen, but as most of us can’t really spare the time, in addition to those titles listed above, here are the best of the day: 

9:15 am – Oliver Twist. Chaney makes for an unforgettable Fagin in this 1922 production with Jackie Coogan in the title role.

6:30 pm – He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney is brilliant scientist Paul Beaumont. On the eve of a great success, loses both his wife (Ruth Hall) and invention to Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). Heartbroken, he decides to become a clown in the circus, where he falls in love with beautiful bareback rider Consuelo (Norma Shearer). Unfortunately for Chaney, she is in love with her handsome partner Bezano (John Gilbert). This marks one of Chaney’s greatest performances and is definitely one to see.

9:45 pm – Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). Again Chaney is a circus clown. He adopts an orphan who grows up to be Loretta Young (in her first substantial role). When she discovers he is in love with her, she realizes she must choose between her devotion to him and wealthy nobleman Luigi (Nils Asther), who has asked her to marry him. The film is a perfect example of Chaney's unmatched talent for turning what could merely be an unabashed tearjerking melodrama into a heartbreaking tragedy without resorting to chewing tons of scenery.

11:15 pm – Tell It to the Marines (1926). A departure of sorts for Chaney as he plays a tough drill sergeant who becomes a rival of spoiled recruit William Haines for the love of Eleanor Boardman. Recommended because it marks one of the rare times Chaney performed sans some sort of grotesque makeup. 

1:15 am – West Of Zanzibar (1928). Chaney stars as Flint in this adaptation of the Broadway hit Kongo. A magician known as Phroso, he’s an amiable music-hall entertainer known for his act with wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden). But when Anna runs away with wealthy ivory trader Crane (Lionel Barrymore), Phroso tumbles from a balcony during a fight with Crane, injuring his spine and rendering him unable to walk. Mrs. Flint passes away several months later, leaving behind a daughter names Maizie. Flint, believing Maizie is the love child of Anna and Crane, takes the child and runs off to East Africa. He has Maizie raised in a brothel, and sets up his own kingdom in the jungle, deceiving the locals with his magic tricks. Now known as “Dead-Legs,” he sends for Maizie (Mary Nolan) after she turns 18, telling her that she will finally meet her father. He treats her with open hatred, in the process turning her into an alcoholic. When he finally has his showdown scene with Crane, Flint learns that what he thought was so all these years really isn’t. This builds up to a major surprise for Flint in his relationship with Maizie. MGM remade the film in 1932 as Kongo, starring Walter Huston, who originated the part on Broadway. Those who think West of Zanzibar is extreme after seeing it should get a load of the remake. It actually goes beyond the silent version in depravity. 

During his all-too-short career, Chaney was one of the most popular movie stars of his day. A popular joke of the era was was “Don't step on it; it might be Lon Chaney!” For many years, the cause of the cancer was thought to have been a piece of artificial snow, made out of crushed gypsum, that lodged in his throat during the filming of Thunder (1929), his last silent film. However, Chaney was a heavy smoker, whose habit was said to have reached four packs a day.

Chaney was one of those rare talents who could give life to a character without overdoing it. Again, we can only imagine what it might have been like had Chaney lived.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for August 1-7

August 1–August 7


DEAD END (August 4, 6:00 am): I hate the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys. But their first movie: a gritty, authentic look at life in the slums of New York City is a keeper. It's based on a play of the same name and the movie is filmed like a play. Humphrey Bogart as Baby Face Martin, a gangster who returns to his childhood neighborhood, shows flashes of brilliance in this film that would return in movies such as CasablancaThe Big SleepThe Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. As for the kids, Billy Halop (as Tommy Gordon, the leader of the gang) is one of the most annoying movie actors I've seen. This is easily his best role as it's downhill for him after this film. Also, the other kids  Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Billy Jordan – peak with this film. The film also sports nice performances by Joel McCrea as an unemployed architect down on his luck and Claire Trevor as the neighborhood prostitute with syphilis.

CROSSFIRE (August 6, 9:00 am): Robert Ryan was a tremendous actor and this is my favorite film to feature him. This 1947 film noir that deals with anti-Semitism is considered the first B movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film stars the great Robert Mitchum with Robert Young outstanding as a police detective. But it is Ryan's powerful portrayal of a white supremacist/anti-Semite GI who kills a Jewish guy he and his buddies meet at a bar who steals the movie. 


THE UNKNOWN (August 3, 2:00 pm): When Lon Chaney and Tod Browning teamed up they made some of the best and most unusual fits of Chaney’s career. The Unknown may just be the weirdest of the lot. Chaney is “Alonzo the Armless Wonder,” an armless knife thrower who uses his feet to thrown the knives. In actually he’s a criminal on the run and only pretends to be armless, being strapped into a straitjacket type of restraint before each performance. The love of his life is his assistant, Nanon (Joan Crawford). They could be together if not for her abnormal fear of having a man’s arms around her. Chaney is so besotted that he has his arms amputated for real to prove to her his love. After he returns from the operation he finds her in the arms of Malabar the strongman (Norman Kerry), who has cured her of this fear. It’s right out of Grand Guignol and remains one of the creepiest movies ever made.

BORN TO KILL (August 4, 8:00 pm): A brutal noir that has become a cult classic thanks to the performance of Lawrence Tierney. Tierney’s a psychopathic murderer, given to violent rages. He’s just murdered a couple in Reno, Nevada. Claire Trevor discovers the bodies, but not wanting to get involved, she catches the first train to San Francisco. Aboard the train she meets Tierney and is bowled over by his charm. Although she tries to discourage him she discovers that she is attracted to him, even though she discovers he has married her half-sister for the money and social status. Even when she discovers he is the Reno murderer, it doesn’t cool her ardor. Tierney is perfectly cast as the amoral killer, and Trevor turns in another excellent performance displaying her dark side. Director Robert Wise is not known for his noirs, but this one is well-cast, well-written, and almost perfectly directed, with Wise building the tension scene by scene, building to a thrilling climax. It’s one to catch.

WE DISAGREE ON ... THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (August 6, 4:00 pm)

ED: A. For those who have not yet seen this film, it is one the best war movies ever made. The Story of G.I. Joe follows the exploits of Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) as he writes of the fortunes of Company C of the 18th Infantry during their campaign in North Africa and Italy. He observes the stress combat takes on their minds – particularly during the battle of Cassino. He also befriends a few of the company, including Lieutenant Walker (Robert Mitchum), who rises to Captain; Sergeant Warnicki (Freddie Steele) who wants nothing more than to find a phonograph on which to play a record of his son’s voice sent from back home; and Private Dondaro (Wally Cassell), who fantasized constantly about women to the point of even carrying around a bottle of perfume that he can sniff occasionally. One thing Pyle notes and the film makes clear is that the men live continually with the knowledge that they might not make it home. Ironically, Pyle never made it home, cut down by a Japanese machine gun on the island of Ie Shima in 1945. William Wellman directs the film both as a tribute to Pyle, who he met during the war, and to the men Pyle writes about for the audience back home. It’s the grittiness of this story about the lives and deaths of ordinary infantrymen that sets this movie apart from others. The strongpoint is its subtlety: character we get to know suddenly disappear from the screen without so much as a whimper. Such is war. Critic James Agee noted that: "With a slight shift of time and scene, men whose faces have become familiar simply aren't around any more. The fact is not commented on or in any way pointed; their absence merely creates its gradual vacuum and realization in the pit of the stomach. Things which seem at first tiresome, then to have become too much of a running gag, like the lascivious tongue-clacking of the professional stallion among the soldiers (Cassell) or the Sergeant's continual effort to play the record of his son's voice, are allowed to run their risks without tip-off or apology. In the course of many repetitions they take on full obsessional power and do as much as anything could do to communicate the terrific weight of time, fatigue, and half-craziness which the picture is trying so successfully to make you live through." It was Dwight Eisenhower’s favorite war film, a recommendation that should go a long way. 

DAVID: C+. In theory, I should love this movie. It's a based-on-a-true-story film of Ernie Pyle, a journalist covering World War II. I've been a newspaper reporter for nearly 30 years and love films about journalists. One of my favorite actors, Robert Mitchum, has a prominent role in the movie, playing Lieutenant/Captain Walker. And it's a war film about the humanity and insecurities of soldiers, among my favorite film subjects. That's nice in theory. While this film is considered by many critics to be among the best movies made about war, I don't share their opinion. There are some good moments in the movie, most involving Mitchum, but I found it plodding and somewhat cliché. An example of being cliché is the overuse of a puppy, the company’s “mascot,” who cries and whimpers during sad scenes to let the audience know this is a sad part of the film. For the most part, the casting is fine (with several legitimate soldiers playing soldiers), but the selection of Burgess Meredith as Pyle was a poor decision. He brings nothing to the film though that could be something that was done purposely as Pyle made the soldiers the center of his articles, and was a modest person. Whether that's the reason or not, it takes away from the overall film as Meredith makes Pyle seem like a boring cheerleader. Also, the editing toward the end of the film is choppy, a surprise to me as William A. Wellman, who directed the film, was one of the best and typically wouldn't let something like that get into the finished product. The movie isn't awful, but it failed to keep my attention. I found my eyes wandering away from this film a number of times.

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Films in Focus

By Jonathon Saia

Marnie (Universal, 1964) – Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Writers: Jay Presson Allen (s/p), Winston Graham (novel) Stars: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Bob Sweeney, Kimberly Beck, Milton Selzer, Henry Beckman, Edith Evanson, Mariette Hartley, Bruce Dern, S. John Launer & Meg Wyllie. Color, 130 minutes.

You Freud, Me Jane?”

Perhaps it’s the heavy-handed psychological jargon that now seems quaint. Perhaps it is the melodramatic ending ripe for camp. Perhaps, like The Wrong Man (1957), it gets lost in the shuffle of Hitchcock's established masterpieces it follows. Perhaps it's its uncharacteristic sentimentality. Perhaps it is the infamous rape scene that turns some viewers away. Whatever the reason, Marnie has sadly been forgotten as one of the great films – and as Hitchcock's last great work.

Marnie (Hedren) is a compulsive thief and a pathological liar. She goes from town to town, identity to identity, blonde to brunette, gaining confidence with her employers before emptying their safes and getting out of Dodge. The film begins with a shot of her purse and her latest victim grunting, "Robbed!" As Mr. Strut describes "Marion" to the police, he makes sure not to leave a physical attribute unnoticed; it is obvious he hired her for her sex appeal. The police have a chuckle at his expense, as does Mark Rutland (Connery at the peak of his Bond beauty), one of the bank's most prominent clients who just so happened to be passing by. "The girl with the great legs," Mark remembers.

Meanwhile, "Marion" is back at the hotel turning herself back into "Marnie." Hitchcock explains to us, in the "pure cinema" technique he was famous for, Marnie's checkered past. We see a pocketbook full of Social Security cards and the methodical way she packs; this girl has done this before. We are reminded of Marion Crane's preparation for escape in Psycho not only by the name she has chosen to use, but by the way she tosses a white bra into her suitcase (packing her innocence away for another day the way Marion Crane wore her black undergarments for her escape) – with that slow, romantic, Bernard Hermann score seducing us in the background. Marnie dyes her hair in the bathroom, draining the darkness, returning to innocence, and flips her newly blonde hair back like Gilda (1946), eroticizing yet infantilizing her at the same time. This is the first time we see Tippi Hedren's gorgeous face; Hitchcock has reclaimed his icy, cool blonde.

Marnie heads home to visit Mrs. Edgar (Latham), her invalid mother who never seems to treat her as a mother should, saving her maternal love for a neighbor child. Marnie, always trying to win her affections, brings her a mink stole and a beautiful bouquet of white flowers. But she sees red, literally. The red flowers on the table make her dizzy, leaving her visibly distraught and vocal of her disapproval and jealousy and screams at her mother for preferring Jessie (Beck). Mrs. Edgar evades the question, slaps her for her insubordination, and sends her away for a nap, like a toddler who has gotten out of hand.

Marnie leaves the next day to gain employment at a new firm. She uses the name "Mary" and tells her much rehearsed sob story of a dead husband as her way of gaining favor. The irony in Marnie's job interview tactics is that she uses her beauty by downplaying it. 

Covering her knees with her dress ever so deliberately to make sure men noticed her knee first, then notice that she is too much of a lady to let them see it; she is using propriety as seduction – the hard working librarian look that drive men wild. No feigned laughs for the boss, no low cut blouses. Just an eye on her duties and the dedication to work overtime. She knows she can't use real references because she has robbed them all. So she claims to be a housewife, returning to the fold in need of hard, demanding work to keep her occupied. If taken in a different tone with different music, this would be the set up for a thousand pornos. But Marnie is no slut. In fact, she is a virgin, reviled by the touch of any man who dares to show her affection. 

Mr. Rutland, the president of the company, immediately recognizes her as Marion, the girl who robbed Strut's. He encourages her hiring despite the lack of references and the potential danger she poses. She intrigues him and wants to see how far she will go. Will she try to rob him too? 

One stormy Saturday, Mark calls her to his office to ostensibly do some transcription work. But the conversation turns to the ideas of predators and prey. Mark, a one time zoologist, tells her that the female is most often the predator, harboring a criminal element. But before she can challenge his theories, lightning strikes, making her as vulnerable as a deer in a lion's den. Mark watches in titillation as she practically climbs the walls in terror over the storm. The walls flash red and a giant phallus-like tree stump crashes through the window. Mark takes her in his arms and kisses her comatose face. The passion is far from reciprocal, Marnie catatonic with fear.

From then on, they begin to date, going to the horse races. Marnie adores horses, riding bareback whenever possible (yet secretly reviles men; a clever sexual transference, playing on the way that women eroticize horses). One day at the track, a man spots "Penny," one of Marnie's past aliases. She denies it, Mark corroborates; he has caught Mary and no one else will have her. Mark learns that Mary/Marnie has an aversion to the color red. But why?

Despite Mark's genuine, yet ulterior affections, Marnie is not swayed by what she knows she must do. She robs his safe and absconds with the money.

But Mark has been expecting this and finds her. Round and round they go, sifting through Marnie's lies. His research has found out the truth; he is merely testing her. This scene is the most exciting in the film (and one of the best in the Hitchcock canon): seeing Marnie squirm as she knows Mark is too smart for her usual excuses, watching Mark visibly aroused at Marnie's discomfort and weakness. Mark blackmails Marnie into marriage.

Aboard their honeymoon cruise, Mark learns the truth depths of his wife's pathologies. That first night when he tries to sleep with her, she regresses to a howling banshee, terrified of his touch. Mark is sympathetic, especially for a glorified kidnapper. He leaves her in peace – for the time being. 

The following days, they grow closer; she seems to take to his kindness, he seems the perfect gentleman. But a man can only be patient for so long when he has such a succulent prey on the barb. Mark rapes Marnie.

If Marnie is discussed at all, the rape scene is usually one of the things mentioned. Evan Hunter, the original writer who also wrote The Birds, was so disturbed by the prospect of writing a rape scene that he included an alternate scene as an addendum in the hopes that Hitch would use it; instead, he was fired. Jay Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) took over the reins. Hunter was afraid that an audience would not be able to accept Mark as a likable character after raping his clearly disturbed wife. But on the contrary. Mark raping Marnie makes him three-dimensional and fleshes out his own pathologies. Mark is a man sexually aroused by a woman who doesn't want him, a woman who is frigid, a woman who is a thief. Mark feels he has met his match in Marnie the Predator. He will tame her. And make her his prey. 

Hedren has gone on record multiple times describing Hitchcock's untoward advances, essentially blacklisting her for two years when she refused to sleep with him (he also famously gave Melanie Griffith, Hedren's daughter, a miniature coffin with a doll of her mother in it as a gift for her 10th birthday). 

It is not conventional love he feels for her, but – like all of Hitchcock's surrogates, particularly Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1957) – obsession that drives him. He will conquer her against all odds. After Grace Kelly is almost stabbed with a pair of scissors in Dial M for Murder (1954), Kim Novak falls from a tower in Vertigo, Janet Leigh is stabbed to death, naked, with a long knife in Psycho (1960), and Tippi Hedren is "raped" by bird beaks, it is fitting that one of his characters, particularly one played by Hedren, would incur an actual rape. 

It is to Sean Connery's credit that Mark continues the picture, not unscathed, not forgiven, but understood as someone who needs Marnie to heal whatever wounds he has as much as Marnie needs him to heal her own. He continuously covers for her criminal activity; she is recalcitrant to his power, yet can't seem to keep returning to his arms. Marnie attempts suicide, which makes Mark want her even more. He nurses her back to health. They are now bound by a common trauma. They deserve and fear one another, making for one of the most unique and captivating on-screen romances this side of 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). 

Mark and Marnie return home to play Husband and Wife. Mark's sister in law, Lil (Baker) is suspicious – and has her own jealous motives to see Marnie brought down. She professes her allegiance to Mark. She will lie to the police. Anything that is necessary to protect him from whatever trouble Marnie has gotten him into. He curbs her advances and returns to his felonious Pygmalion.

Later on a fox hunt, Marnie's horse becomes injured, forcing her to kill it. She is devastated, destroying the only male she has ever truly loved. Subconsciously, Mark, the amateur psychiatrist, knows he must psychologically transfer her love of horses to him (insert Freudian sex joke here). But Marnie has finally reached her breaking point, possibly never to return. Can he save her?

He drags her to her mother's house to find out why Marnie is afraid of thunderstorms, the color red, and the touch of a man. Secretly, he already knows, but needs Mrs. Edgar to tell her daughter the truth about herself: When Marnie was a child, she killed a man; one of her mother's Johns who tried to sexually assault her. Mrs. Edgar tried to protect Marnie from the assault, but fell and broke her leg. So Marnie then took a fire poker and beat the sailor to death. The blood covered his body. Outside, the lightning flashed through the window.

Like the end of Psycho, audiences must have found this clinical explanation of Marnie's neuroses as didactic and somewhat esoteric. Perhaps this is why Marnie has ripened with age. Once ahead of its time, now Marnie's afflictions (and Mark's) almost feel like common knowledge, with Freudian theories very much a part of the layman's lexicon. Marnie's psychology has even been lampooned in Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party (2000) with the character of Chicklet terrified by the color red at the hand of her prostitute mother.

What strikes you most about watching Marnie in a Hitchcockian context is the amount of dialogue. Hitch, the King of Pure Cinema, always believed in the visual over the word. And Marnie is not void of visual clues or storytelling; Marnie's theft at Rutland's is beautifully plotted and meticulously executed all without words. But notice the long dialogue scenes in the car or the analysis scene. In a world hell bent on adapting established material, Marnie seems ripe for a stage version.

But the greatest element that sadly is forgotten by sending Marnie to the wayside is Tippi Hedren's glorious performance. After a career as a model and commercial actress, Hedren made her stunning film debut in The Birds (1963), a masterpiece that I would argue is possibly the Greatest Film Ever Made. In both films, Hedren plays a woman-child with serious mommy issues. In The Birds, she deals with them by carousing and breaking hearts; in Marnie, she steals to buy her mother's love. Here Hedren commits wholeheartedly to an almost impossible character, dichotomous and frustrating, certainly Hitch’s most complicated femme fatale. It is one of the tragedies of the silver screen that she did not go on to be a major star.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

It's a Gift

Films in Focus

By Jonathon Saia

It’s a Gift (Paramount, 1934) – Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Writers: Jack Cunningham (s/p), J.P. McEvoy (from "The Comic Supplement"), W.C. Fields (story, as Charles Bogle). Stars: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol, Julian Madison, Tommy Bupp, Baby LeRoy, Tammany Young, Morgan Wallace, Charles Sellon, Josephine Whittell, T. Roy Barnes, Diana Lewis, Spencer Charters, Guy Usher & Dell Henderson. B&W, 68 minutes.

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” – W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol' drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father's fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father's abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn't allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion's share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father's checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for his "wife" and "son" characters in his work.

Fields' genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor, where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing "feud." The only medium he didn't tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else's rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50,000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15,000 to $25,000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals. 

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the "authoritative" version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White's Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You're Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So's Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies. 

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed "types," variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae's sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy's schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/ Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello's naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

The Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar. For examples, see: Pool Sharks (1915), Sally of the Sawdust (1925), Two Flaming Youths (1928), The Old Fashioned Way (1934), Poppy (1935), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

The Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him. For examples, see: It's the Old Army Game (1926), So's Your Old Man (1926), The Potters (1927), Running Wild (1927), The Dentist (1932), The Barbershop (1933), The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), You're Telling Me! (1934), It's a Gift (1934).

In It's a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing "bis-o-nay" to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle's death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife's chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being "duped" into an investment, came from The Potters.

The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film's original title was Back Porch.  

Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, "The Family Ford" and "The Sport Model."

The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It's the Old Army Game.

Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby's bottle with gin) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You're Telling Me!) as his neighbor's child and his inept clerk, respectively.

What anchors It's a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold's humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life's savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold's failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields' delivery of the line, "Come on back, Amelia. I'll drive you" – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians. Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields' whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek. 

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

It wasn't until Fields' final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West's chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to "get ahead" seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible). 

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It's telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer's famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in art because they so rarely do in life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.

But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields' friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields' life: "I don't want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member." Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.

Monday, July 24, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

War for the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Matt Reeves. Writers: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves (s/p). Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (characters). Pierre Boulle (novel). Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Tony Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbel, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic & Alessandro Juliani. Color, Rated PG-13, 140 minutes.

Nowhere have the huge advances of technology in movie-making been showcased as when we compare the fabulous make-up jobs in Planet of the Apes (1968) and its four sequels with the computer generated images of the latest three and this remarkable film.

Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter would have been amazed (and probably thankful) that they would no longer have to spend hours just getting their faces done. The realism of these eye-popping movies and the range of emotions expressed on all the ape characters’ faces was mind boggling.

For all those who have not seen the two previous prequels, the movie starts with a brief encapsulation of the first two to get the audience up to speed for the third.

The outbreak of the Simian Flu Virus apparently is one main reason this war started. The other was the antagonism of Koba (Toby Kebbell), an aggressive and violent bonobo (and you thought bonobos were all loving and caring) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Humans are fearful of the apes both for their increasing intelligence and for the virus that causes humans to devolve. 

The first thing that goes is the power of speech.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) has led the remainder of his troop into the Muir Woods for safety but the mysteriously unnamed Colonel (Harrelson) orders his Alpha-Omega soldiers seek them out. Hoping to kill Caesar, the Colonel enters Caesar’s cave behind a waterfall and kills his wife Cornelia (Greer) and oldest son before being ousted by Caesar. Fortunately, his younger son Cornelius hid himself and survived.

Caesar entrusts Cornelius to Lake (Canning), Blue Eyes’ mate and instructs the troop to cross the desert (one of several biblical references in this movie) to be safe from the soldiers. His best friend Rocket (Notary), the orangutan Maurice (Konoval) and gorilla Luca (Adamthwaite) insist on going with him.

On the way they encounter a human living alone with his daughter who tries to shoot them but is killed in the act. They find the daughter (Miller) hiding in the shack she calls home and learn that she’s unable to speak. Maurice convinces Caesar to take the girl with them arguing that she will die without their help. They find a chromium insignia from the side of a Chevrolet Nova, give it to the girl and it becomes her name.

Later, in an abandoned souvenir shop they meet Bad Ape (Zahn) a chimp who lived in the Sierra Zoo and escaped and who was also exposed to the Simian flu virus. He and Caesar are they only apes to speak until the end, when Maurice utters his first words. The rest all communicate in American Sign Language. Though he’s terrified of doing so, Bad Ape leads Caesar and his comrades to the former weapons depot where the Colonel and his army have captured and enslaved Caesar’s troop and are forcing them to build a wall (another biblical reference, this time to the Israelites building for the Egyptians). It seems they were betrayed by the white gorilla Winter (Paunovic). The troop has been starved and given no water in days and have been separated from their “children” in a cage apart.

Luca is killed by the soldiers and Caesar is captured and crucified on an “X” shaped cross (biblical reference number three, not to mention St. Andrew). Caesar learns from the Colonel the main impetus behind his hatred of apes. The Colonel’s son contracted the Simian Flu Virus and he had to shoot him before he became a “primitive.” Now it’s up to Maurice, Rocket and Nova to free the troop and escape to the desert.

The repeated flashes of Exodus are paralleled by the Nazi-like actions of the Colonel and his soldiers, right down to the hanging of an American flag vertically, smeared with the Greek letters alpha and omega over the balcony where he addresses them, like Hitler. Several of the former followers of Koba have joined the Colonel, including Red (Olsson) a gorilla who will see the error of his ways toward the end of the film. The Colonel rages that “nature” has trumped the efforts of humankind to survive but nothing prepares him for the final biblical reference reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea scene from The Ten Commandments (1956). You have to see it.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful movie. Andy Serkis is excellent as the peaceful leader who is forced into a war and is haunted by his brother Koba’s hatred. Woody Harrelson gives another sterling performance, so far from the kooky bartender on Cheers. Karin Konoval is the wisdom of the movie and prefigures Doctor Zaius beautifully. Michael Giacchino’s musical soundtrack accentuates the action and emotional scenes throughout, even playing the Star-Spangled Banner at one point as if it were Deutschland Uber Alles. And if you like large explosions, this movie has them.

I was gladdened by the single (and only) reference to apes as “monkeys” when it appeared on the back of a soldier’s helmet as “Monkey Killer.”

And yes, I got the insulting term the soldiers called the gorillas – “Donkey” – as in Donkey Kong. If I were a five hundred pound gorilla, I wouldn’t stand for it. The dialogue, though appropriate, was not too quotable except for the Colonel’s “This is the Holy War.” And Caesar’s running line, “Apes, together, strong!” accompanied by the gesture of two fists held together at eye level.

Though this movie stands on its own and ends satisfyingly, I hear that there is another Planet of the Apes film to come. I will definitely see it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Apna Masala
344 East 6th St., New York

Having dined at twenty restaurants on East 6th Street (most of them Indian) you can imagine my wonder at having missed one.

Apna Masala (My Spice in Hindi) has been in business for three years. It’s a pretty place, with black awnings trimmed in orange, bright gold lettering and thousands of multicolored twinkle lights.

Inside, the tables have red tablecloths and protective glass on top. There are colorful tile murals depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and beautiful faux bronze/copper ceiling tiles of intricate design. The young man to whom I announced my reservation indicated a corner table by the window, a perfect place to see everything inside and out.

Another server asked if I wanted a drink. Fortunately, the next table had a cocktail menu (mine didn’t) and I swiped it. I ordered the “Adios Mother” – vodka, gin, rum, tequila, blue curacao (really?), sour mix and lemon-lime soda. This relative of the Long Island Iced Tea was served in a tall Coca-Cola style glass over ice. It was mildly powerful but the color of lemonade, so I guess they ran out of the blue curacao. It tasted like alcoholic lemonade.

My first course, the “Meat Samosa,” arrived – seasoned minced lamb and potatoes, raisins and cashews in a crispy turnover, served with chutneys. The familiar tamarind, mint and onion chutneys were not brought to my table. After three years, this should be second nature. The samosas were excellent, crispy on the outside meaty and only mildly spicy inside.

I was not surprised that my second course arrived soon after the first. The “Murgh Shorba" (chicken soup) “delicately spiced clear (not) chicken soup with tellicherry peppercorns, julienne of carrots, fresh ginger and herbs.” Though delicious and savory, this soup was definitely not clear. Served in a ceramic crock, it was yellowish in color and opaque with juicy pieces of chicken and crunchy vegetables.

Miraculously, they waited to serve my main course until after I had finished the appetizer and soup. The “Lamb Bhindi,” cooked with fresh okra in a mild spiced sauce was wonderful over basmati rice, with a side of raita – homemade whipped yoghurt with grated cucumber, cumin seeds and cilantro – and fresh baked Kashmiri naan, stuffed with cashew nuts, pistachios, almonds, coconut, apricots, cherries and raisins. Though I knew it was there, I couldn’t locate the okra in the dish. It probably dissolved in the cooking process. I would recommend this dish to people who don’t like a lot of spice. It was delightful. The raita was cooling and refreshing, but a standard recipe. The Kashmiri naan wasn’t the best I’ve had, but I knew it wasn’t the Keema naan my server might have brought (bread stuffed with minced lamb). Being hungry that evening, I finished everything.

One can rarely find unique Indian desserts on a menu and this place was no different. I chose the “Ras Malai,” a homemade cheese dish in a sweet yoghurt sauce flavored with cardamom. Again, a standard dessert but a good one. To finish, I chose the masala chai (spiced tea), a favorite of mine and made very well.

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