Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for Feb. 1-7

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

Thus begins TCM’s annual salute entitled “31 Days of Oscar.”  There is little to recommend for the week of February 1-7 except for the final two days, when we have a seeming bounty of most interesting films.

February 2

7:00 pm Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary: Tales from the Lot (2013)

The overall quality of TCM’s documentaries is high, so even though I haven’t seen it, I don’t expect a dog. It’s an abbreviated history of the studio featuring interviews with executives and stars.

February 6

8:00 pm All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, 1930) - Director: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Ben Alexander, Arnold Lucy, and Beryl Mercer. B&W 145 minutes.

The years between the wars saw a number of anti-war films produced. What Price Glory from Fox and The Big Parade from MGM viewed World War I not as a heroic mission, but rather as a tragedy that should have been avoided.

This film, adapted from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, follows a group of young German students, talked into enlisting by the frenetic pro-war speeches of their teacher. The story is entirely told from their viewpoint and follows their growing disillusionment as they witness the death, mutilation, and insanity all around them. Any preconceptions they had about “the enemy,” Germany’s mission, and the “rights and wrongs” of the conflict disappear to be replaced by anger and confusion. Watch for the scene where Paul (Ayers) mortally wounds a French soldier and then cries bitterly as he tries to save his own life while trapped in a shell crater with a corpse. Also of note is the scene where a bitter Paul returns to his old school and confronts his jingoistic teacher, who is busy indoctrinating the next class of potential recruits. The film retains its edge until the very end, never letting up or wavering in its stark look at the tragedy of war and the effect it has on those fighting in it.

Look especially for Ben Alexander, later famous as Officer Frank Smith, Joe Friday’s partner on the original Dragnet, as Kemmerich.

Needless to say, the Nazis were not thrilled with this film. At screenings in Germany they disrupted the film by tossing stink or smoke bombs into the theater. When they took power in 1933, this was among the first films banned by Goebbels.

10:30 pm Imitation of Life (Universal, 1934) - Director: John M. Stahl. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Louise Beavers, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, and Fredi Washington. B&W 116 minutes.

By today’s standards, Imitation of Life is simply dismissed by as an example of the racism that so dominated Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement. But this is more than just a simple story. Based on the Fannie Hurst novel, Claudette Colbert stars as a newly widowed mother who teams with her maid, played by Beavers, to open a waffle house. They hit it rich later on the strength of the waffle recipe that came from Beavers.

But wealth does not buy happiness, at least not in a Fannie Hurst soaper. It comes with a price, and in this case the price is the trouble both have with their daughters. Colbert’s daughter, feeling neglected by her mother, rebels and at one point tries to seduce her mother’s fiancée (William). Beavers’s daughter (Washington) is a light-skinned African-American who passes for white. She is deeply ashamed by the fact her mother has very dark skin and completely disassociates herself not only from her mother, but also from the black community. 

Even though critics – both liberal and conservative – attacked the film upon its release, on closer examination, several points stand out. For one thing, Stahl’s 1934 version is much more progressive than the 1959 remake directed by Douglas Sirk. For instance, Colbert and Beavers are single mothers making progress in an industry traditionally run by men. Even more important is the sub-plot addressing Washington’s discomfort with her mother – a point ignored by other films of the era. In fact, the light skinned versus dark skinned division among African-Americans would later pop up as a musical number in director Spike Lee’s 1988 musical, School Daze. The daughter (Washington) was also a break with the traditional casting mindset of the time. Hollywood usually cast white actresses in these roles. Think of Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Helen Morgan in the 1936 and later Ava Gardner in the 1951 versions of Showboat, and Susan Kohner in the 1959 remake of Imitation of Life.

No, it’s not a groundbreaking departure by any means: Beavers is still solidly subservient though Colbert’s character treats her as an equal. But it is at least a departure from the sort of beyond demeaning roles usually assigned to black actors. Watch this for the performance of Louise Beavers. That she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar is the real crime.

12:30 am The Bride of Frankenstein (Universal, 1935) - Director: James Whale. Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, and Dwight Frye. B&W 80 minutes.

By 1935, Whale was tired of horror. He made his mark on Hollywood with Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, all of which helped Universal stave off bankruptcy. Whale wanted to expand his repertoire (in the next year he would direct the musical Showboat), but the Laemmles wanted another horror film, a sequel to the immensely popular Frankenstein. Whale held out for as long as he could, but finally caved in. Why? Due to his track record of profitable film after profitable film, Whale was given the title of producer/director. He also had an ace up his sleeve: he would make this the most outrageous horror film yet with a large injection of black comedy.

The result, The Bride of Frankenstein, was not only the rare specimen that surpassed the original, but it also went down as one of the greatest films ever made. It certainly was the best horror film ever made. The Bride begins with Mary Shelley (Lanchester) telling her latest story to her husband Percy (Walton) and their friend Lord Byron (Gordon). As the story unfolds we learn that the Monster survived the fire and Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger) appears with a most unusual pitch to Henry Frankenstein (Clive), who is recuperating from his meeting with his monster.  Meanwhile, the Monster meets with a blind hermit (Heggie) who teaches him to speak, a scene marvelously sent up in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. He also makes the acquaintance of Pretorius, who entices him with a plan to create a mate for him. Henry, who wants nothing to do with Pretorius’s idea, is blackmailed when Pretorius has the monster kidnap Henry’s bride, Elizabeth (Hobson, who was only 17 when the movie was shot). The result is that The Monster gets his bride (Lanchester as a strange doppelganger), but things go spectacularly bad.

Look for Whale’s fun with religion, including a bizarre crucifixion scene with The Monster and the sub-text of The Monster’s meeting with the hermit. A trivia note: Valerie Hobson was married in real life to British Secretary of State for War John Profumo, notorious for his affair with prostitute Christine Keeler in a scandal that led to the eventual downfall of the Harold Macmillan government.

February 7

11:30 am My Life as a Dog (Skouras Pictures, 1987) - Director: Lasse Hallstrom. Cast: Anton Glanzelius, Anki Liden, Manfred Serner, Tomas Von Bromssen, and Melinda Kinnaman. Color 101 minutes. 

One of the best films about the chaos of childhood and its effect, My Life as a Dog concerns the adventures of a 12-year old boy sent to a rural village in Sweden full of fellow eccentrics while his mother convalesces. Young Ingemar (Glanzelius) is a sweet child full of energy and a creative sense of mischief that frequently goes out of control. The pleasures and pains of Ingemar’s life are beautifully balanced: the joys of everyday, the confusion of being a child in an adult world, and looking ahead to each new day. It’s funny and touching without becoming mauldlin. Look for the scene where he accompanies a buxom blonde as a chaperone while she poses nude for a sculptor. Director Hallstrom began his career directing music videos, most notably for ABBA, and his first feature film was ABBA: The Movie (1977).

1:30 pm Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) (Lux Films, 1949) - Director: Giuseppe DeSantis. Cast: Silvana Magnano, Doris Dowling, Vittorio Gassman, and Raf Vallone. B&W 108 minutes.

Walter (Gassman) and Francesca (Dowling) are petty criminals fleeing the police in Northern Italy. The two decide to split up and Francesca joins a group of women rice field workers, where she waits for Walter. Here she meets the voluptuous Silvana (Magnano) and the soon-to-be-discharged soldier Marco (Vallone). When Walter shows up, he soon devises a plan to steal the harvested rice, even though this would bring further hardship on the already impoverished workers.

Shot on location, the film is firmly within the boundaries of the prevailing Neo-Realist movement of the time. DeSantis manages to keep what could well become an overly complicated plot in check with some excellent camerawork and sharp editing. While it quite doesn’t reach the heights of The Bicycle Thieves or German Year Zero, it still manages to deliver solid drama supplanted by solid performances from its cast, particularly Dowling.

5:30 pm I Compagni (The Organizer) (Lux Films, 1964) - Director: Mario Monicelli. Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Gabriella Giorgelli, Vittorio Sanipoli, Folco Lulli, Elvira Tonelli, and Bernard Blier. B&W 130 minutes.

This is a gritty, well-directed story about exploited textile workers in turn of the century Italy and their fight for better working conditions. Pautasso (Lulli), Martinelli (Blier), and Caesarina (Tonelli) are the leaders of the workers. Professor Sinigaglia (Mastroianni), presumably sent by the Socialists to help the workers organize their strike, joins them and planning of the movement begins. 

Management is unrelenting in their stance: the only concession they will consider is the lifting of the suspension of Pautasso (Lulli), one of the early leaders. As the strike drags on, strikebreakers are called in, violence breaks out and Sinigaglia goes into hiding. However, when foreman Baudet (Sanipoli) convinces Martinetti that a return to work would be seen as a sign of strength, Sinigaglia comes out of hiding to rally the workers. They march to the mill where the militia fires on them, killing a 15-year old striker. The professor is arrested and the workers return to their jobs. Even though nothing has been decided, the workers’ strength is felt for the first time.

For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for February 1-7

February 1–February 7

It’s TCM’s annual “31 Days of Oscar” month, where Oscar nominated films in every category are shown. This month TCM mixes it up with films from different studios highlighted.


LITTLE CAESAR (February 1, 9:00 am): This 1931 Pre-code gem from Warners made a major movie star out of Edward G. Robinson. As Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello, a small-time hood who ruthlessly becomes a mob boss in Chicago, Robinson makes the character one of cinema's greatest anti-hero. Eddie G. plays Rico, also known as Little Caesar, with incredible conviction and passion. Only James Cagney in Public Enemy portrays a Prohibition gangster on par with Robinson in Little Caesar. Rico is cold-blooded, single-minded and determined to take control of the Chicago rackets, not caring who or what gets in his way. The final scene in the gutter after Rico is gunned down and says, "Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?" is a classic.

THE DEER HUNTER (February 7, 1:00 am): Ever since I first saw The Deer Hunter in the theater in 1978 at the age of 11, I have been captivated by this brilliant film. To this day, it remains one of my favorite movies. Mike (Robert DeNiro), Steve (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three western Pennsylvania steelworkers who goes to fight in Vietnam during the war. The movie, a shade over three hours long, takes its time showing us what life is like for the three leads, their friends and families. Their lives are centered on working at the mills (which were closing around the time of this film's release at a staggering level, destroying the economies of towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia) and escaping reality by hunting deer. The three are gung-ho to fight in Vietnam, but quickly learn the horrors of the war. The film is shocking, hard-hitting, tragic and captivating. The actors are fantastic and the film is impressive in how it captures the authenticity of living in a steel town and attempting to survive during the Vietnam War. It's a film you must see and one that is so good that you'll want to watch it again and again.


THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (February 6, 12:30 am): 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. It's also one of the rare times where the sequel surpasses the original.

I COMPAGNI – THE ORGANIZER (February 7, 5:30 pm.): A great film concerning the plight of exploited textile workers in Turin, Italy at the turn of the century and their fight for better working conditions. Far from depressing, it is a film with heart and humor with a great performance by Marcello Mastroianni. As it’s rarely shown in this country, tune it in.

WE DISAGREE ON ... EAST OF EDEN (February 4, 6:30 am)

ED: A. Made in 1954, released in 1955, when Elia Kazan was at the height of his creative powers, East of Eden is a finely nuanced film, a rough retelling, as it were, of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, embodied in the Trask brothers. Aron (Richard Davalos) is Abel, the good son, favored by his father, while Cal (James Dean) represents Cain, uncomfortable in his own skin and constantly fidgeting. The family patriarch, Adam (in a brilliant performance by Raymond Massey) is a stern, humorless taskmaster. Kazan captures the family dynamic perfectly, highlighting the contrast between the sons and Cal and his father. Nothing escapes Kazan’s eye, as notice the cinematography, with its dreamy shots of the surrounding countryside, and even a romantic shot of a freight train. This is the American Eden circa 1917, but Dean’s performance makes it feel much later. His heartbreaking rendition of Cal, consumed by jealousy, is probably the best performance of his short career. Richard Davalos, perfect as the innocent Aron; Jo Van Fleet’s wonderful portrayal of their mother. It all blends together under Kazan’s skilled guidance into a masterpiece of cinematic drama. Francois Truffaut praised the film and Dean in particular in Cahiers du Cinema, by noting “East of Eden is the first film to give us a Baudelairean hero, fascinated by vice and honor, who can embody both love and hate at the same time.” That Kazan can take the last third of Steinbeck’s novel and transform it into a gripping family drama only gives further testament to his peculiar genius.

DAVID: C. I've never understood the appeal of James Dean during his short cinematic career. His characters are all the same - mad at the world for some flimsy reason, or no reason at all. Dean broods and his characters often have trouble functioning because of their internal turmoil angst. Most critics love his performances in the three credited films he did: this 1955 film debut, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. But to me, Dean is a poor man's Montgomery Clift. Both are "method" actors, but Clift knew how to get the most out of nearly all his roles. Dean always went over the top to the point I had no idea why his characters acted the way they did. Rebel is the perfect example of that. Maybe Dean would have grown as an actor if he hadn't died so young. But I can only judge him based on what he did during his brief film career. East of Eden is his best performance, and I don't think much of it. Imagine my opinion of Giant - and if Ed gives it an excellent grade the next time it airs on TCM, you won't have to imagine. There is some indication as to why Dean's character, Cal, is troubled in East of Eden. His father Adam isn't an affectionate man and he clearly favors Aron, Cal's brother, in an obvious set-up of the Cain and Abel Biblical tale. If you can't figure it out by the name of the film, the names of the characters Cal (Cain) and Aron (Abel) provide assistance. If you still don't get it, their father's name is Adam. The name of their mother, who Adam tells his son is dead, is Kate, the only one without a name connected to the Old Testament story. She isn't dead. She runs a whorehouse in town. I guess the snake got to Kate. Unlike the Bible story, Cal doesn't kill his brother. He is troubled, but a nice guy who is misunderstood. (Aren't we all?) Dad is a vegetable farmer who loses everything when his plans for a long-hauling veggie business goes bust. Cal gets into the bean business and is a huge success because of World War II profits. He wants to give the money to Pops in an attempt to buy his love. But Adam isn't interested because the money came as a result of the war. Cal broods, brings Aron to see the mother he was told was dead, Aron broods, enlists in the military and Adam suffers a heart attack - or a broken heart. I'm a fan of many Elia Kazan films, but he really misses the mark with this one. The pacing is painfully slow and dull. The cinematography is nice, but doesn't save this movie from being a snoozer. As Bosley Crowther, The New York Times' main film critic of the era, wrote in his review, "The director gets more into this picture with the scenery than with the characters. For the stubborn fact is that the people who move about in this film are not sufficiently well established to give point to the anguish through which they go, and the demonstrations of their torment are perceptibly stylized and grotesque." He also calls Dean's performance "a mass of histrionic gingerbread." That last one is a little harsh - to gingerbread.

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

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hansel and Gretel - Witch Hunters in 3D

Dinner and a Movie

Hansel and Gretel Get Flat Ironed or Witch is Which?

By Steve Herte

Once again, it’s time for another adventure in theater and dining after a busy day at work. It's great to laugh. Enjoy!

Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters in 3D (Paramount, 2013) - Director: Tommy Wirkola. Cast: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Cedric Eich, Alea Sophia Boudodimos, Thomas Scharff, Monique Ganderton, Rainer Bock, Ingrid Berdal, Joanna Kulig, Thomas Mann, and Pihla Viitala. 88 minutes.

“Me and my sister? We have a past.” - Hansel

When I saw the trailers for this bizarre film, which was actually made a year ago (they were waiting for an appropriate time to release it), I knew it would be a hoot. All I could think was Hansel and Gretel were abused by a witch as children, and now they’re really pissed off and hitting back hard. And do they ever!

The movie starts with 3D flames and pop-up book style representations of people, villages, forests and witches being killed all to the tune of a glorious victory orchestration. It’s very effective and fun to watch. Then we get the background story. As children, Hansel (Eich) and Gretel (Boudodimos) are taken by their father (Scharff) into the woods and told firmly to stay there as he leaves and blows out his lantern. Believing he would return, the two obey for a while, but you know kids; they have to explore. They find a cottage made entirely of candy. (And it looks yummy: the circular door has a peppermint spiral and is surrounded by colorful disks that are stacked like Necco Wafers, with the peaked roof dripping sweet icing.) When they bang on the door nothing happens. But when they realize the cottage is edible, the door swings open and they are sucked in. The hideous witch (Ganderton) speaks only occasionally and mostly makes greasy creaking noises, but she locks Hansel in a cage and sets Gretel to work starting up the oven. Threatening to kill Gretel she forces Hansel to eat lots of candy to fatten him up. From there you know the story – the witch winds up in the oven and the two children are changed forever.

They are now adults (played by Renner and Arterton) and are requested by Mayor Engleman (Bock) to return to the village of Augsberg as heroes. They dress in black leather and have an arsenal of incredibly ornate and versatile weapons (Gretel’s crossbow shoots multiple arrows and can swivel to both sides sending arrows in two directions at once) to continue killing witches. Sheriff Berringer (Stormare) is not happy about the duo usurping his power and does everything in his power to discredit them, especially when they thwart his plans to have Mina (Viitala) burned as a witch. We find out at this point that Hansel is obviously diabetic from all the candy he ate as a child and has to inject himself in the leg regularly using an antique syringe. (The last time I saw one of these was in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia – I wouldn’t want to be jabbed by it.)

The story reveals that 11 children have been swiped from the town by three witches, Muriel (Janssen), and her two cohorts (Berdal and Kulig) with the assistance of their troll, Edward. (I would have thought a troll might have a more exotic name.) Edward is huge and mostly computer generated and bears a strange resemblance to Ed Asner. Two actors are required to play him: Derek Mears and Robin Atkin Downes (voice only). Anyway, in three days there will be an eclipse of the moon (the Blood Moon) and 12 children born in different months are needed by a crowd of witches at a Sabbath at midnight to perform a ceremony that will make them immune to fire. The only other ingredient needed is the heart of a White Witch.

Throughout the movie Gretel wonders about their parents, but Hansel doesn’t want to discuss them. She gets a big clue when the sheriff and his men ambush her and Edward saves her from them in an unbelievably gory battle (he stomps the sheriff’s head flat among other dismemberments). He then takes her to a place to dress her wounds and responds to her inquiry of “why” with, “Trolls serve witches.”

Hansel and Gretel learn the truth when they confront Muriel at their former home after learning the basement has a witch grotto. Muriel tells them that their mother was a White Witch and the townspeople found out about it. Their father brought them to the relative safety of the forest as their mother was being burned at the stake. Upon his return he was hanged in front of her. Their genetic heritage is why witches’ spells do not work on them. Muriel, though, needs Gretel’s heart for her ceremony of the Blood Moon and makes off with her.

Meanwhile Hansel has his own battles with witches and is helped by Mina (who, by the way, is a White Witch) with whom he falls in love. She teams with him and Ben (Mann), a local boy who is the biggest fan of the witch-killing duo, to thwart the Blood Moon ceremony and rescue the children. Muriel manages to escape and they track her down to, of all places, the Candy Cottage where Hansel tells Ben, “Whatever you do, don’t eat the “f”in’ candy.” There is a final battle, Muriel is beheaded, and all is well.

There is no way you can take any part of this movie seriously. For instance: Grimm’s Fairy Tales were published in 1812 and the Gatling Gun was invented in the 1860s, but Hansel had a very large one nevertheless. The amazingly large shotgun he carried looks like a miniature of Napoleon’s cannons. No one in the movie has a German accent, not even the mayor. The names Hansel and Gretel are consistently pronounced correctly with German vowels, yet Augsberg is always pronounced Awgsburg (very American). The dialoge is common and uninspired to the extent of being hokey. Both Hansel and Gretel get to say, “You’ve got to be “f”in’ kidding me!” when they see they’ve returned to the Candy Cottage. I found myself chuckling to laughing out loud several times.

However, the musical soundtrack is excellent. Without it there would be no white-knuckle moments in the final battle. The special effects department had a carnival with the costume and make-up departments in creating dozens of variously deformed and outlandishly dressed witches. Some even looked like punk rock stars and others like sideshow freaks.

But beware moviegoers! It’s not over. At the end of this very silly flick, Hansel and Gretel, Ben and Edward (sounds like a bad movie title in itself) join up to rid the countryside of any other witches. Ergo, a sequel! (Rating: 2 out of 5 Martini glasses.)


31 West 21st Street (Between 5th& 6th) New York

Billing themselves as “an old school bistro in the Flatiron District,” Prandial is just that. When searching for an interesting spot to dine I found them on billed as American cuisine. In my way of thinking, any cuisine that cannot be pigeonholed directly as French, Indian, Italian, German, etc. gets dumped into “American.” The word “prandial” is defined as relating to a meal, and the people who work at this restaurant make every effort to ensure you relate to your meal.

Upon arrival at the Captain’s Station the perky smiling hostess led us to the perfect table in the back of the spacious, airy, white-walled room lit by traditional old New York swags with bare oak flooring and red Persian carpets. There was a short stairway down to the bar from where we sat that revealed the black and white octagonal tiled floor – also, very old New York.

Everyone was smiling and eager to serve. A young man took my drink order and even approved my choice of Beefeater gin in a Cosmopolitan over “tasteless” vodka. Later on, another server noted how much I enjoyed it by suggesting he would try one after his shift.

The one page, two-sided menu features Appetizers, Soup and Salads on one side and Entrees and Sides on the other. It was a good thing I had a wonderful drink to mull things over because there were many interesting choices to be made. The water and the bread plate arrived promptly; the bread being the crusty fluffy kind I can’t resist with a brick of sweet butter. I was also glad that, being between international trips, my lovely dining companion had agreed to join me once again.

Still undecided, I asked for the wine list, which consisted of several three-hole punched pages joined by metal loops. I found the selection, as well as the prices, amazing, which made my decision even more difficult. After several questions asked of Lorella (server number three) however, the Vegetable Soup of the day – a delightful pumpkin colored puree of several vegetables with an enticing aroma of spice – was the first course. The many flavors it evoked were almost mind-boggling. The wine was a personal favorite of mine, a 2009 “Green and Red” Zinfandel from Chiles Vineyards – a nice full-bodied red with a spicy aftertaste. The appetizer was Cockles and Chorizo – an inspired combination of old world and new with the tiny clams garnished with even tinier cubes of spicy sausage in a light creamy white wine, onion and olive oil sauce flanked by toasted bread. It’s nice to look across the table at the look of approval on the choice.

The main course was (coincidentally) Lorella’s favorite: Smoked Berkshire Pork Chop. This incredible piece of meat was fully two inches thick and a hefty portion, well done and juicy inside and caramelized on top. It was surrounded by delicate, crispy spaetzle and grilled Brussels sprout halves, and crowned by a square of pickled watermelon rind. I haven’t had pickled watermelon rind since my teens when a neighbor made it for me. Generally I like my pork on the pink side but I was still amazed at how evenly this filet was cooked, and yet not dry in the least. The spaetzle could have been fluffier (I remember my aunt’s Hungarian version fondly) but it served its purpose.

After all this good food, the decision to combine dessert and drink into one was an excellent idea. The Coffee Parfait capped off the dinner nicely with a satisfyingly creamy experience of both coffee and pudding.

Prandial gave me such pause to think about choices that a return visit is almost mandatory. I definitely want to “relate” to my meal again.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Danny Kaye Tribute

Danny Kaye: Animated on Film and Spoofed in Animation

By Ed Garea

Edited by Steve Herte

Up In Arms (Goldwyn/RKO, 1944) – Director: Elliott Nugent. Cast: Danny Kaye, Dana Andrews, Dinah Shore, Constance Dowling, Louis Calhern, Elisha Cook, Jr., Lyle Talbot, and Margaret Dumont. Color. 105 minutes.

Book Revue (WB, 1946) – Director: Bob Clampett. Voices: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck/Big Bad Wolf/Henry VIII/Cop/Sailor/Cuckoo/Mice), Bea Benaderet (Bobby-Soxer/Woman on “Freckles” cover/various screams), Sara Berner (Henry VIII’s mother/Swooning Bobby-Soxers). Color. 7 minutes. 

The year 1944 saw the birth of a new musical star on film. He was Danny Kaye and he did not come into movies unprepared. Born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, he began his career as an entertainer shortly after the death of his mother while in his early teens. He dropped out of high school and went to Florida with a friend, where he worked as a busker. Returning to Brooklyn, his father decided not to pressure his son to find a job, leaving it to young Daniel to follow his muse. While still in his teens, Kaye worked as an entertainer in the “Borscht Belt,” the resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He perfected an act as an emcee that interacted with his audience between introducing other acts. 

His first break in the business came as one of “The Three Terpsichoreans,” a vaudeville dance act. With them he toured the Far East, but when he came back to America the act could not find work and Kaye had to work hard for bookings. One of his jobs was in a burlesque act with fan dancer Sally Rand, making sure her fans were always held in front of her. 

In 1935, Kaye managed to once again land a job in the Catskills, and signed with New York-based Educational Pictures, a low-budget outfit famous for its two-reel comedies, which were released through 20th Century Fox. Kaye debuted in Moon Over Manhattan (1935), and went on to star in a number of two-reelers for the company, usually playing a manic, fast-talking Russian. Educational Pictures went bankrupt after Fox failed to renew their contract and a short-lived attempt to produce feature-length films with Grand National turned out to be a dream. Kaye returned to the Catskills but shortly after auditioned for and won the lead in the Broadway show The Straw Hat Revue. Sylvia Fine was the show’s pianist, lyricist and composer. The show closed after only 10 weeks, but Kaye was around long enough to be noticed by critics. He also formed a lifelong bond with Sylvia Fine when they married shortly after the show’s closure.

The reviews were glowing enough for Kaye and Sylvia to be booked at La Martinique, an upscale New York City nightclub on West 57th Street. It was there playwright Moss Hart saw the act and signed Kaye for his new show, Lady in the Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence. Though Lawrence was the star, Kaye brought down the house in his role as fashion photographer Russell Paxton with his patter song “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” in which he dashed through the names of 50 Russian composers in only 39 seconds or so. He became a star, and the next season headlined a smash musical about a young man who has been drafted entitled Let’s Face It!

It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned and Kaye signed with producer Samuel Goldwyn to star in Up in Arms, a remake of Eddie Cantor’s 1930 musical, Whoopee! Goldwyn made two suggestions to Kaye about his appearance: a nose job so he would look less Jewish, which Kaye refused; and a request to change his hair color from its natural red to blonde for the cameras, to which Kaye agreed. 

As Cantor dominated Whoopee! so Kaye dominates Up in Arms. He plays Danny Weems, a man that can best be described as a hypochondriac’s hypochondriac. He even gets a job as an elevator operator in a medical building so he can be close to the doctors. His snap diagnoses of patients irk the doctors, who are constantly telling him to mind his own business. He is in love with nurse Mary Morgan (Dowling), but she’s in love with his best friend Joe (Andrews). Conversely, Joe’s girl, nurse Virginia (Shore) is secretly in love with Danny.

When Danny and Joe are drafted, the fun really begins. After a rough stretch in basic training, they are shipped to the South Pacific, where Danny again runs afoul of the Colonel (Calhern) and is imprisoned. As can only happen in Hollywood, he is “rescued” by a squad of Japanese and brought back to their camp for questioning. He manages to knock out the Japanese commander and, disguised as him, manages to capture the entire Japanese force, making him a hero. 

The film mixes its unabashed themes of patriotism, romance, and idealism, both on the front lines and the home front quite nicely, as would be expected. It’s the star power of Kaye, however, that allows the film to transcend from the ordinary to the superlative. He rivets us with his performance of the song, “Theatre Lobby Number” (written by his wife Sylvia with Max Leibman), taking the audience through the credits of an entire movie in swing time. Another highlight was born on the stage: singing a song in scat. This Kaye does in “Melody in 4-F” (also written by Sylvia and Leibman, originally performed by Kaye in Let’s Face It). It’s a wonderful and entrancing number about the life of a soldier from draft questionnaire to the field of battle, told in scat style with only a few words emphasized for the audience’s benefit and accentuated with Kaye’s manic style. 

It wasn’t just Kaye, however, who makes the magic in the movie. Credit must also be given to Dinah Shore, who matches Kaye almost note for note, albeit without the mania. During a dream sequence in which Kaye is married to Mary by preacher Calhern, it turns out that she married Joe instead. This leads to a dynamic number with co-star Shore with Kaye decked out in a burgundy suit traipsing amongst Goldwyn Girls dressed in black and made up as a sort of Postmodern forest. He and Shore then launch into a frenetic number segueing in and out of a variety of styles, slang, scat and jive, almost as if Kaye were trying to impersonate a Black performer impersonating Danny Kaye pretending to impersonate a Black performer. It’s utterly amazing to watch, with an almost hypnotic effect that makes one want to rewind and watch again and again. In fact, during all Kaye’s numbers he seems to transcend the movie itself, as if he were performing in another dimension while the movie was going on behind him and not as part of the movie.

For some strange reason, the movie is not currently on DVD. We can only hope that whatever Powers-That-Be come to their senses and release this one. In the meantime, watch our TCM TiVo Alert for its next showing.

By 1946 Danny Kaye was a staple of America’s cultural landscape. Up in Arms was a major hit, he had a hit radio show, and was in demand at clubs all across the nation. So it was only natural that he should be lampooned in some form or other. Incredibly, the work that lampooned Kaye later came itself to be regarded as a work of both cinematic art and cartoon art.

Book Revue was produced by the animation unit of Warners and released in 1946. Directed by Bob Clampett and animated by Manny Gould, Robert McKimson, Bill Melendez, and Rod Scribner, it follows in the “books and other things come to life” style of earlier Warners efforts as Have You Got Any Castles? (1938) and Goofy Groceries (1941) that featured pop culture stars of the time. However, Book Revue transcends these prior efforts by taking us into the Postmodern, as it were, blending real personalities with fictional titles and characters and no demarcation line between the two. The cartoon begins at Midnight (the Witching Hour) when an inebriated cuckoo emerges from his clock to announce the time. Cut to the cover of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, where a silhouette of the author is shown with clock gear insides. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Bob Burns (as a hillbilly playing his bazooka), Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all make appearances and the scene changes into a full-blown jam session.

Suddenly cut to Daffy Duck, on the cover of a Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies comic book. (Look quickly in the background. There is a book by Ann Anomymous titled The Invisible Man: A Biography of Robert Clampett.) Daffy walks over to the cover of Saratoga Trunk and begins going through the trunk, putting on a purple zoot suit with a big green bow tie, a blond wig, and a set of teeth in the style of Danny Kaye.

He shouts “Stop!” bringing the music to a halt. The cartoon now belongs wholly to Daffy, in a manic parody for the ages, and one that has yet to be duplicated. 

Daffy goes over to the cover of Danny Boy (in case we didn’t get it by now) and denounces the goings-on in a faux Russian accent in the style of Kaye. “Swing music. Jazz. Phooey! Ah, bublichkas. How difference in my native willage: Soft music, why-o-lins; the happy peoples sitting on their balalaikas, playing their samovars. And then … there was Cucaracha. Ah, Cucaracha. So round, so firm, so fully packed, so easy on the draw. They would sing to me a little Gypsy love song, like this. Listen. CUCARACHA! CUCARACHA CUCARACHA, HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO. CUCARACHA, CUCARACHA, HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO.” He then launches into a version of Carolina in the Morning: “Nothing could be feener than to be in Caroleener in the morning...” 

As he sings, Little Red Riding Hood passes by (a parody of Margaret O’Brien) and Daffy makes his way to Grandma’s house, where the wolf is sitting in the window. As Daffy dances away, finishing the song, the Wolf snaps at him repeatedly. Daffy now beats Red to Grandma’s door and warns her about the wolf in scat, a parody of “Melody in 4-F.” It goes like this (Thanks to zerozordon620 on You Tube for the lyrics):

Beep deep beep da boop doo bay, Big bad wolf in a suit zoo gay, Heep zoop zaddle zoodle zed, Heep doop oodle up to Grandma's bed, Heep doop zeedle zondle zeers, Zeep zoop zoddle great big ears, Heep doop doddle doodle zid, Hop da better to hear you with. Hey hey hoo hoo how 'bout that? Say hoo what eyes you got, Laddle dad laddle did, Reet toot toddle to see you with, Leet toot toddle zaa zoo beet, Zeep zoop zoddle great big teeth, Heet zoop zoddle det doo top, Heet zoop zoddle to eat you up. Doorain, doorain, doorain.”

Red screams and runs away. Daffy does a double take with the Wolf salting his leg and becomes a giant eye lens as he realizes the Wolf now wants him. After a chase, The Long Arm of the Law reaches out, grabs the Wolf and deposits him before Judge Magazine. The Wolf is sentenced to Life (Magazine), but breaks out. He’s tripped by Jimmy Durante’s nose (on the cover of So Big), landing on Skid Row. As he tries to scramble out, a pair of hands is holding Sinatra up before him. The Wolf merely says, “Frankie,” and faints into Dante’s Inferno. Everyone breaks into celebration when the Wolf suddenly pops his head out of the Inferno and shouts, “Stop that dancing up there! . . .ya sillies.” This is the actual title of a 1944 song by Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, with the lisping “ya sillies” added as a take-off on Joe Besser. 

Book Revue was one of six cartoons Clampett made in 1946, his last year at the studio. Unlike his co-directors, Jones, Tashlin, and Freling, Clampett’s work frequently pushed the bounds of storylines and characterization. From ‘30s black and white cartoons like Porky in Wackyland (1938), The Daffy Doc (1938) and Africa Squeaks (1940) to Horton Hatches the Egg (1942), the classic Great Piggy Bank Robbery and his finale, the thoroughly surrealistic The Big Snooze (both 1946), Clampett continued to blur the lines between character, story and audience to the point where the accepted rules of storytelling no longer applied. After he was fired by new production chief Eddie Selzer in 1946 for continuing to break the rules, Clampett began a new career as a puppeteer, creating Beany and Cecil, which later became a successful cartoon series, but nowhere near the level of his work for Warner Brothers. More’s the pity.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

The Quartet at the Bar

By Steve Herte

I was really happy that the movie I wanted to see was showing at the Paris Theater on 58th Street. It's a bit of old New York, a classy venue with pearl gray velvet seats and matching curtain (yes, an actual curtain that opens before the movie). It's not a mega-plex, only shows one movie at a time, one has to wait a short time on the ticket-holders line and there are no previews and no commercials. What a delight! 

As much as the theater was nostalgic, the restaurant was a vision of the future. So please enjoy the latest Dinner and a Movie.

Quartet (Headline Pictures/BBC Films, 2012) Director: Dustin Hoffman. Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and Michael Byrne. 98 min.

As I might have mentioned before, I go to the movies for entertainment. I do not find current events entertaining. Otherwise I would spend more time watching the news. Biographical and historic movies are rarely a source of interest for me. Today’s “comedies” depend way too much on vulgarity to be truly funny and the whole werewolf/vampire silliness is just a waste of time. That said, this week the only movie attracting my attention was Quartet. Yes, I know it’s not about a Barbershop quartet but you can see how the title caught my eye.

I love all forms of music, be it rock and roll, blues, jazz, country, classical or opera and this movie (Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut) is about music and the way people feel about it. The setting is the Beecham Home for Retired Musicians, a stately palatial residence on a hill surrounded by the beautiful walled fields of the English countryside. The occupants are the elderly of the professional opera, orchestras and musical theater. (I would love to retire to this place.) Every day there is someone playing a cello or clarinet solo or singing an aria or popular song from the Music Hall days. The rooms are elegant and the lifestyle easy and dignified. Each year the residents perform in a “gala” (this time to celebrate Giuseppi Verdi’s birthday) and sell tickets to outsiders to defray the costs of running the establishment. Fortunately, many of the retirees were famous in their time and are a draw to this annual show.

This particular year is different, however, because it is the year that Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) becomes a member of the august group. In her heyday she was a member of a quartet that performed the most acclaimed version of the Quartet from Rigoletto. The other three – Wilfred Bond (Bill Connolly), Cecily “Cissy” Robson (Pauline Collins) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) – are already ensconced in the Beecham Home and everyone is abuzz about the new resident. Upon learning who it is, they all gather on the balcony above the entry hall and applaud Jean as she walks in the door. She’s delighted but prefers to keep to herself and stays in her room.

However, not everyone is delighted that Jean has arrived. We learn that two marriages ago she was married to Reggie for seven hours before she had a fling with Frank White (Michael Byrne) and he has not forgotten it. He, on the other hand, never married again. So what we have is a bittersweet love story of a couple rejoined in their latter years and how they eventually rebuild their bridges and come to forgive each other. Still it takes most of the movie to convince Jean that she should rejoin the quartet and recreate that thrilling moment of musical excellence.

Quartet is a charming tale with beautiful scenery and some of the most wonderful pieces of music tying the clever dialogue together. (The main melody to the quartet from Rigoletto is played in several variations from time to time.) The acting is superb (as I might have expected) and the lines are delivered clearly. I didn’t expect suspense in this movie, but it was there nevertheless. Everything builds up to the “gala” and whether or not “the quartet” would be the crowning performance, right up to minutes before they are due onstage. At this point, Cissy has a moment of dementia and has to be talked out of “going home” and into going on with the act. I was nervous about whether Smith (or for that matter, any of the four of them) would actually sing and yet I was a little disappointed when, to tumultuous applause, the four lined up onstage and the scene tastefully changed to an aerial view of the building and a quartet of seasoned professionals began singing off camera at the end of the movie.
But that was not why the film lost a half a martini glass. I don’t classify myself as a prude but this movie was neither a gangster film nor a war film nor even a low-class western and the “F” word had no place in it – much less twice. It cheapened the whole tone of the movie. There are several colloquial expressions Smith could have used after, “I’m going to say something quite rude to you.” 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

222 East 58th Street (2nd/3rd Avenues), New York City

One thing I’ve noticed as my number of restaurants grows is that the choice of new places in any one location shrinks proportionally. It took an hour to choose my reservation. This one was too brightly lit, that one didn’t have enough choices on the menu, another had uncomfortable-looking chairs…etc. At bar.vetro (that’s the way they spell it – vetro means “glass” in Italian, supposedly for the “floating” pale green glass near the ceiling) I found an Italian restaurant that defied tradition. The décor is minimal – everything is silver gray or black and white with small spot track lighting on the ceiling. The crowd is quite young; in fact my presence significantly raised the median age, whereas it lowered it at the theater.

The manager greeted me at the door (there is no Captain’s station and no room for one) and shook my hand, immediately turning it over to admire my rings before having a girl check my coat and bag and leading me to my table. Even though the table was small and the chair appeared to be made of cast aluminum, I was comfortable. The noise level from the crowd in the one-room space was a bit distracting – to the point of my absent-mindedly leaving off the word “martini” in my drink order, but the waiter was savvy enough to know what I meant. It turned out to be pretty good.

The single-page menu is categorized into Bruschette (there are four different toppings for the toasted Italian bread), Antipasti (appetizers), Primo Piatto (pastas), Secondo Piatto (entrées), Contorni (sides), Insalate (salads), and Per La Tavolo (for the table – shared sides). I saw two pastas I liked and also noticed that there was a way to have both as a combination. Upon the advice of Johnny (my waiter) that an appetizer, this combination and a main dish would be too much food, I settled on the combination and main dish only. My choice was Fusilli Calabrese – tossed with fresh vegetables and Cavatelli with sausage, cannellini beans and escarole. Both dishes were obviously homemade and fresh because of the texture and al dente quality. Both were delicious – the peppers, tomatoes and peas in one crisp and perfectly cooked and the sausage crumbled just right in the other. My only comment was that the Fusilli was really Strozzapreti (priest strangler pasta), two very different looking pastas. Fusilli looks like spaghetti curled like a pig’s tail and strozzapreti is a longer version of cavatelli, a hand-rolled pasta. No complaints were made because they were both excellent. At least they didn’t give me rotelli.

I couldn’t believe they had Fontana Candida Frascati (2010) on the wine list. I ordered that fresh, crisp Roman white for my meal remembering my first taste of Frascati on my last trip to Rome. It was perfect with both pastas and was a crowning achievement to my main course, Filet of Grouper prepared with a spicy Fra Diavolo style tomato sauce and served with a twist of linguine. Since I already had two pastas I had Johnny substitute spinach with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. The grouper was pure delight and yielded to the fork nicely (no knife needed here) and the spinach tingled with garlic just as it should.

What to have for dessert, I wondered. Oh look! They have a combination dessert too! I just had to choose the fluffy mound of milk chocolate mousse side-by-side on a plate with another fluffy mound of zabaglione. Normally I prefer fresh-made zabaglione (egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine whipped into a froth and poured over strawberries) warm, but this pre-made fluff was still better than the chocolate (which was wonderful). Then a double espresso and a nice glass of grappa, and I forgot that the restaurant looked like the inside of my freezer compartment. I was even entertained by the conversation at the table behind me. One man ordered Blackfish and wondered what it was. The other told him it was Black Sea Bass. I had to chuckle – two very different fish.
When I return to bar.vetro maybe I’ll teach them what fusilli really is, maybe not, but I’m definitely curious about the Italian Disco Fries (with creamy Gorgonzola Cheese, Pancetta and Truffle Oil – ooh!).

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.