Monday, November 30, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


This month’s star is none other than Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. Besides being known as the singer of his generation, Sinatra has also surprised many as an exceptional actor, possessing a natural gift for the craft. Like many with the same gift, he distrusted and disliked the method actors; witness his on-the-set feud with Marlon Brando when the two were performing in Guys and Dolls. Though a good part of the feud is rooted in Sinatra’s jealousy that Brando, a non-singer, secured the romantic lead, Sinatra was also greatly annoyed by Brando’s insistence on multiple takes to “get it just right.” For Sinatra, a natural study, one take was often enough, and the thought of going over the same material ad infinitum drove him up the proverbial wall.

Each night devoted to Sinatra begins at 8:00 pm with one of his televised music specials from the ‘50s and ‘60s. These are rare treats, as we see an artist at the height of his power. As for the movies … well, that’s more of a scattershot matter, as Frank’s hits this month are balanced with as many duds.

December 2: The aforementioned Guys and Dolls is being shown at 9:00 pm, followed by the pick of the night: Pal Joey. For those Sinatra fans interested in his personification as the ultimate singer, the “ring-a-ding-ding” guy, this film is where it all started. Frank plays a nightclub crooner who chases every skirt that crosses his path, until ex-stripper Rita Hayworth makes him an offer he can’t refuse – his own club, but with some heavy strings attached. When he falls for Kim Novak, will he be strong enough to cut the ties that bind? The Rodgers and Hart score includes a couple of songs that have forever been associated with Sinatra: “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”

December 9: The best flick of the night – easily – is From Here to Eternity (1953) at 9:15 pm. I should qualify that statement: it’s a great movie for Sinatra fans; for most others, it’s a run-of-the-mill soaper set at Pearl Harbor right before the Japanese attacked. It has all the stock characters: the Whore with a Heart of Gold (Donna Reed), the Rebellious Sergeant (Burt Lancaster), who fiddles around with his Commander’s Unfulfilled Wife (Deborah Kerr), the Pathetic Outsider (Montgomery Clift), the Power Mad Bully (Ernest Borgnine), and Sinatra in an excellent performance as the Destined Loser. Sinatra’s performance as Maggio won him the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Of course, the story of how he got the role has become one of Hollywood’s great myths – that the Mob threatened Harry Cohn, heads of Columbia Studios, to give Frank the role. And that scene was so well realized in The Godfather when the studio head goes to bed only to find his favorite horse’s head in there with him. It’s the stuff legends are made of, but not necessarily facts.


December 7: This month’s theme is “Girlfriends,” and frankly, it’s simply more of the same old, same old, except for tonight at 11:45 pm when Peter Jackson’s 1994 minor masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures, will air. The film is based on a real-life incident that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. BFF’s Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), are so close, it’s downright creepy. Both girls live in a fantasy world that to them is as real as the everyday world they inhabit. When the adults threaten that world, the girls see Pauline’s mother as their primary obstacle and murder her. This is a film as fascinating as it is disturbing, as director Jackson takes us into the forbidden fantasy world of the young women, imbuing the film with a surrealistic quality as peaceful fantasy turns to brute force. Winslet is stunning as Juliet in her film debut, aided and abetted by Lynskey’s equally forceful performance. For those who haven’t yet caught it, it's a Must.


December 6: It’s a rare treat with a double feature from acclaimed director Keisuke Kinoshita beginning at 2:00 am with his 1946 drama, Morning for the Osone Family, and followed at 3:30 am by his masterly Twenty-Four Eyes, from 1954. The first, which I confess I haven’t yet seen, is a story about a liberal-minded Japanese family torn apart by the war and its imperialist politics. Made after the Japanese surrender, the film gives voice to many suppressed ideas, such as the suffering of individual families during this period, and I’m looking forward to see how a director as talented as Kinshita deals with them.

Twenty-Four Eyes I have seen, and it’s one of my favorite movies. Hisako Oishi is a young teacher assigned to an elementary school on the Inland Sea island of Shodoshima, a farming community. When she arrives riding a bicycle instead of walking and wearing a dress rather than a kimono, the locals are suspicious. But her pupils love her, and after the locals figure out that she rides a bicycle because she lives too far away and wears a dress because it’s easier to ride a bike that way, they realize she’s no threat. She looks after and nurtures her pupils, but with the coming of war and the cheerleading that goes with it, Hisako is appalled at the thought of so many young lives wasted on the battlefields, and decides to quit teaching rather than witness her pupils returning in ashen boxes. She comes back only after the war has ended and she knows she is needed. The film focuses almost entirely on the relationships Hisako has with her pupils and we see little of her family life outside the school. Kinoshita’s reluctance in showing more of Hisako’s home life is exactly what keeps this film from sinking into the depths of maudlin sentimentality. Credit also must to go Hideko Takamine who gives a commanding performance of Hisako as she matures through the years. Look for the great Chishu Ryu as a teacher who attempts to fill in for Hisako, but with far less successful results.


December 10: It’s a night of one of my favorite directors, Claude Chabrol, with five of his films. Begin at 8:00 pm with Les Cousins (1959), a complex character study filled with dark humor about Charles (Gerard Blain), a naïve young man from the country coming to Paris to study law. He shares a flat with his cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), a decadent, disillusioned hedonist. The two are like night and day. Charles is introspective, naïve, and lacking confidence with women. Paul, on the other hand, was raised in the city, and has all the women he could handle. While Charles is serious about school, Paul could care less about his studies, as they seem to interfere with his good times. However, things between the two come to a head when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), one of Paul’s acquaintances, and things go downhill from there, leading to one of the strangest – and strongest – endings I’ve ever seen in a film. This was Chabrol’s second film, but his first hit.

Following at 10:00 pm is Chabrol’s first film, Le Beau Serge (1959), a brilliant realization of Thomas Wolfe’s theme that “you can’t go home again,” combined with a deflating of the romantic notion life in the country. Jean-Claude Brialy is Francois, a theology student in Paris stricken with tuberculosis who travels to his hometown in the provinces to recover. He finds that things were not what they were when he left; that his best friend, Serge (Gerard Blain), who showed such promise as an architecture student, is now a hopeless drunk stuck in a bad marriage. Hoping to help his friend reclaim his promise, Francois only succeeds in making things worse.

At midnight, it’s Story of Women (1988), a dark drama set in Vichy France and based on the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud, arrested for performing back-alley abortions and the last woman to be guillotined in France. Read more about in our essay here. Isabelle Huppert is brilliant as Giraud.

La Ceremonie (1995) follows at 2:00 am, a sly, beautifully layered example of Chabrol’s Marxism in the story of a small-town postmistress (Isabelle Huppert) who befriends and encourages an illiterate maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) to rebel against her employers. Once again, Chabrol provides us with an ending we are not expecting while unleashing on-target shots against many middle-class mores.

Finally, at 4:00 am, comes Masques (1987), a well-intended misfire about an author who wants to write a book about a popular TV game show host. What begins as a simple interview turns into a complex cat-and-mouse game as each antagonist learns the secrets of the other until our author discovers a murderous plot. Although it’s done with the usual Chabrot panache, it comes up short as the script cannot keep up with the momentum of the plot.


December 5: Tune in at 2:00 am for Italian director Mario Bava’s last feature, Shock (1979), a Exoricist copy recut and released in America as Beyond the Door 2.

December 12: Continuing the emphasis on Italian horror directors, it’s the turn of goremaster Lucio Fulci and his 1984 opus, The House by the Cemetery. A couple moves into a house near Boston. Dr. Freudstein, an ancient cannibal, maintains a lab in the basement, of which the couple is unaware, though the ghost of a little girl tries to warn them. Think of The Shining all ramped up out of any sense of proportion. According to Michael Weldon, the unrated movie has gore, blood, decapitations, a giant bat, and maggots. Looks as if we have much to look forward to here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for December 1-7

December 1–December 7


GREAT EXPECTATIONS (December 2, 11:30 am): How do you take a 400-page classic book and turn it into a great film? I don't know, but I imagine those working on the 1946 film adaption of Great Expectations, led by the skilled direction of David Lean, who co-wrote the screenplay, worked very hard to accomplish that goal. And what's more incredible is Lean – known for lengthy but excellent movies like Lawrence of ArabiaDoctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai – did it in under two hours. The film is blessed with an outstanding cast, including John Mills, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt, Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson, and the screenplay is an excellent adaption of Charles Dickens' wonderful book. It's a delightful, entertaining film about a young orphan, Pip, who is taken to London at the expense of a mysterious benefactor who believes him to be a man with "great expectations."

MAN HUNT (December 3, 3:00 am): Expertly directed by Fritz Lang, this is a 1941 film – that takes place in 1939 – about a famous big-game hunter, played by Walter Pidgeon, who comes across Hitler's residence in 1939 and has the Führer in his sights. The gun is empty. He then decides that it's probably a good idea to kill Hitler, but he's caught as he takes another shot. What follows is, as the movie title states, a man hunt in which Pidgeon dodges in and out of danger chased by George Sanders, playing the naughty Nazi role he perfected over the years. Well-acted, well-directed and well-paced, Man Hunt is an outstanding film.


IN WHICH WE SERVE (December 2, 3:30 pm): Written, codirected and scored by costar Noel Coward, this is the magnificent story about the crew on a British fighting ship told via flashback. Unlike many films about World War Two, this one remains fresh and marks the film debuts of Richard Attenborough, Daniel Massey, and the infant Juliet Mills. Codirector David Lean’s first directing credit. The film was so thoroughly effective that the Nazis placed Noel Coward on a special hit list.

HAXAN (December 5, 5:45 am): An amazing, unconventional semi-documentary from Sweden in 1922 about the history of witchcraft based on actual incidents from the records of witch trials, torture during the Inquisition, and demonic possession. Look for writer-director Benjamin Christensen playing none other than Satan. Visually stunning, with genuine scares aplenty.

WE DISAGREE ON ... AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (December 6, 3:30 pm)

ED: A+. During the early ‘50s the Freed Unit at MGM made three classic musicals: Singin’ in the RainThe Band Wagon, and this one. Made when star Gene Kelly was at the top of his creative powers with the studio, it was flawlessly acted by its cast, and directed by Vincente Minnelli. Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI and struggling American artist who stayed in Paris after the war ended. He is “discovered” by a socially connected heiress (Nina Foch) with an interest in more than Jerry’s art. In turn Jerry falls for Lise (Leslie Caron), a young girl already engaged to a cabaret singer. In addition to the two women, Jerry is entertained by Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a would-be concert pianist. Fans of the musical form know that plot is the last thing they need worry about. It’s the music and the dancing. Both are well represented here, with the Gershwins supplying the music, and Kelly and Caron the dancing. The film is built around a simple idea: Kelly wanted to make a film with a lengthy ballet scene based on Gershwin’s tone poem. Freed and Minnelli took the idea and ran with it, adding plot complications plus some stunning backgrounds that bring to mind the works of the French impressionists. This is definitely a move for the eyes as well as the ear. Levant adds a safety valve of acerbic wit whenever the romantic complications threaten to become leaden. He does this simply by playing Oscar Levant, which he does in every film he’s in. However, his performance here tops all the others. Nina Foch provides a solid support, proving she’s come a long way since her B-ingénue days at Fox, and Leslie Caron, a discovery of Kelly’s, provides the eye candy as well as an underdog to root for along with Kelly. Those who have seen it know what I’m talking about, while to those that haven’t, I recommend this as a definite Must See.

DAVID: B-. Gene Kelly is among the two best dancers in the history of cinema with Fred Astaire, of course, being the other. Kelly was more physical and muscular than what most people think of dancers. He was quite charming and how can anyone hate that wonderful smile? During his career in Hollywood, Kelly fancied himself a visionary. An American in Paris is a perfect example. Kelly wanted a lengthy ballet-heavy dance performance that showcased Paris through the works of French impressionist paintings so that's what he did in the final number leading to the conclusion of this film. The concept is admirable, but the implementation is quite frankly boring  and it goes on for 16 minutes. I'm not a fan of musicals though there are some I greatly enjoy including Singin' in the Rain with Kelly (which also at one point spends more than 20 minutes on a daydream/dance that has little to do with that movie's plot). An American in Paris is a good film. Why else would I give it a B-? But it's certainly not a classic. Also, unfortunately it was a leader in Hollywood's move away from film noir toward lighter movies in the 1950s. The plot is basic as are the characters in the movie. Kelly wants to be a great painter, but is offended when a rich socialite takes an artistic and sexual interest in him. Kelly has two buddies: one wants to be a concert pianist and the other a cabaret singer. There's a simplistic love triangle with a happy ending. Leslie Caron, the female lead and the girl Kelly wants, could dance, but was a lousy actress. I've never understood her appeal as she always seemed way too young for her love interests. Her characters never have any depth, which is probably why she was in this film. I don't buy for a second the contention that a musical doesn't need to have a plot, and that we should primarily concern ourselves with the singing and dancing. When the music stops, why should our enjoyment or interest stop with it? The songs are good, the dancing – except the final one – is also entertaining, the scenery is magnificent and, as usual, MGM spared no expense when it came to the color of its big-time productions. It's good, but it's not a movie I'd ever seek out to watch.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Crimson Peak

Dinner and a Movie

An Evening with the Cleavers

By Steve Herte

Over the years I've been writing the Dinner and a Movie column, the most frequent question I’ve gotten is, “Why do you write restaurant reviews for a movie blog?"

My answer is that I'm primarily a gastronome who loves movies. I feel the column is a part of what makes Celluloid Club unique, and for those that don't like unique, there are thousands of other blogs out there without restaurant reviews.

I love what I'm doing and enjoy my movie and dinner night. Sometimes things go wrong; sometimes everything is perfect. It’s my foray into the unknown. In this case, it was a director that drew me to the film and a mostly unfamiliar menu that led me to the table. Movies are my escape from harsh reality and dining out provides me with an excuse to say whether or not I like a certain dish with authority. And I cleave to these principles. Speaking of cleavers, enjoy!

Crimson Peak (Universal, 2015) – Director: Guillermo del Toro. Writers: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, & Tamara Hope. Color, Rated R, 119 minutes.

Ghosts are real. This much I know.” Edith Cushing.

It’s 1901 in Buffalo, New York. Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is writing ghost stories and trying to break into the man’s world of authorship. Her editor doesn’t care if her story is good or not. He believes that a woman should be writing love stories. He doesn’t know that Edith writes from experience. Fourteen years prior, her mother died and visited her as a creepy blackened ghost with long claw-like fingers to warn her about avoiding “Crimson Peak.” As a child, Edith had no idea what her mother meant, she was too busy being terrified.

Her father, Carter Cushing (Beaver) and her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) both wonder why a young, pretty girl would rather write books than go to parties. Alan’s mother, Mrs. McMichael (Hope), along with all the society girls, chides her as being a “Mary Shelley.” All the girls are abuzz about a newcomer to town: a charming young Baronet from England who will be attending the latest soirée.

But Edith will have none of that and she stays home while her father and Alan leave. It’s a rainy night. Her maid announces that a man is here to see her, and he has been standing in the rain until her father left the house. She reluctantly agrees to see him and, when she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), there is immediately something chemical between the two. He talks her into going to the party and, if her arrival isn’t enough to set the gossipers chattering, he demonstrates the waltz with her while holding a lit candle. “If you dance the waltz properly, the flame never goes out.” And it doesn’t.

Thomas’ sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Chastain) plays the piano while eying her brother and Edith with a strange, predatory expression that changes to condescension whenever she speaks with Edith. Edith doesn’t notice any of this; she’s falling in love with Thomas.

Thomas, an inventor as well as a baronet, has created a digging machine made for mining the red clay near his home in Cumberland, England. He is trying to get funding to perfect the machine and eventually sell it to mining operations. He approaches Carter Cushing at a board meeting with his proposal but Carter has already done his homework and found that Edinburgh, Milan and Paris have already rejected the offer. Also, Carter has taken an immediate dislike for Sir Thomas, deeming him unfit for his daughter.

Edith’s mother visits her a second time, repeating the warning about Crimson Peak, but Edith is too frightened to take heed. (If my mother came back looking like that and talking like Doug Jones – who plays all the talking spirits in this movie – I would be frightened, too.)

Carter writes a check to bribe Thomas and Lucille to return to England and leave Edith brokenhearted. After a dinner party at the Cushing house Thomas does exactly that, sending Edith in tears to her room.

But this is a formula gothic horror film and we know Edith will follow Thomas and marry him. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger ambushes Carter in the bathroom and bashes his head against a sink, killing him (and breaking the corner off the porcelain sink). The verdict is that he must have slipped and fell. (Repeatedly?)

Edith is now a wealthy woman and free to join her new husband on a trip back to England. Carter’s accountant, Ferguson (Gray) is taking care of her monetary transfers while she rides in a carriage over the blood-red clay to the enormous decaying hulk that is Allerdale Hall. There is a hole in the roof over the main entryway and various detritus (as well as snow) constantly rains through it. Edith is still clueless when she steps on the floorboard and the gooey red clay oozes out beneath her feet. The house itself is sinking into the clay and makes grotesque breathing sounds as it does so.

There is a cage-like elevator to get to the upper floors as well as stairways and Thomas tells her never to go below this level. (But we know it’s only a matter of time before she disregards this advice.) Whenever she’s alone, Edith meets various blood-red apparitions (must be the clay), including one that arises from a bathtub with the cleaver still lodged in its skull and Thomas’ mother, Lady Sharp (Doug Jones again). Only she can see them.

Back in America, Alan hires private detective Holly (Gorman) to get historic information on this Sir Thomas. Learning that other young women in Edinburgh, Milan and Paris have been married to Thomas and all have disappeared after a prolonged sickness due to poisoning, he chases after Edith.

Edith learns these same facts when she swipes a key engraved with the name “Enola” from Lucille’s key ring and opens a steamer trunk she found in the lower levels of Allerdale Hall. Shortly thereafter, she’s ill and coughing up blood. When the snow falls and footprints made in it show up bright red, Thomas confides that the townspeople have dubbed Allerdale Hall “Crimson Peak” because the clay underneath stains the snow red. (What townspeople? This house is all alone out in the middle of nowhere.) You suddenly see the realization in Edith’s eyes. She’s clueless no more.

Sounds good right? Guillermo del Toro’s direction sets forth a classic gothic horror tale in the beginning but it deteriorates into slapstick comedy at the end. In the final face-off between the white-gowned Edith and the almost black, blue-gowned Lucille is a duel of cleaver and shovel. (Yes, it makes the satisfying ‘Wang’ sound when it comes down on Lucille’s head.) The entire audience laughed. I did, too, but I also felt sorry for a good movie that has gone bad. The special effects are well done, but many are familiar from previous films. The best and most amazing things were the stage sets. The house itself is incredibly over-ornamental. The corridors have arches that appear to have teeth, as if you were passing through a shark’s jaws. The music also was excellent, building and then falling silent when something scary was about to happen. While the film was chilling in parts, it couldn’t retain that mood. The writing by del Toro and Matthew Robbins followed suit with the visual, becoming comic at the end.

There is plenty of gore for those who crave it and a couple of new ways to make a kill, but no foul language (a definite plus). There’s a ludicrous bed scene where Edith and Thomas consummate their marriage that could have been alluded to and cut. Parents, take this to heart if you’re planning to see it before it disappears like the artistry at the beginning. Did I mention the great costumes? The only possible award nomination.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Calle Dão
38 W. 39th St. (5th/6th Avenues), New York

Cuban restaurants are rare (this is only my fifth) and Cuban-Chinese cuisine (my second) even rarer. Calle Dão means “Knife Street” – half in Spanish, half in Chinese – and the symbol they use on their entry sign is a cleaver. Seemed like a perfect segue from the movie I just saw, especially with the crimson doorway and awning at the entrance.

Inside, it’s dimmer than Allerdale Hall. The walls, painted half a sea green and half white on the right, have bare-topped tables lit only by a single votive candle. The bar on the left glows from a golden backlight behind shelves of bottles and is only dimly lit by swags shaped like the headlights from a giant’s truck. Beyond an ornamental wrought iron gate is the small main dining area, already well populated by chattering people, while speakers blast out salsa music.

The young woman at the Captain’s Station noted my reservation and led me to one of the single tables midway through the bar. I suddenly felt like Ernest Hemmingway at Sloppy Louie’s in Key West. She left me the two laminated cards, which were the food menu and the drinks menu. With a little effort and positioning of the candle, I was able to read both.

Anis, my server, soon appeared and took my water preference and the same girl arrived to pour it. When Anis returned, I ordered the “Revolucion!” cocktail – a habanero-infused tequila and Ginger Canton (a liqueur) concoction with absinthe, sweet corn kernels, pineapple, agave and lemon. The red salt lining the martini style glass was festive against the golden, spicy, fruity brew I sipped as I read the food menu.

The selections on the menu were simply grouped as Raw Bar (ceviches, oysters and clams), Appetizers, Entrées, and Sides. I explained to Anis that I was almost unfamiliar with most of the dishes on the menu, but that I had a good appetite, was a slow eater, and wanted to construct a three-course dinner. He agreed to let me know if I had ordered too much food and that the dishes would be spaced according to the time it took me to finish.

When I gave Anis my choices he said plainly that I may have ordered “a ‘little” too much food, but I agreed to take home anything I couldn’t eat and thanked him for his help. I was ready for adventure with my choices, and they did not disappoint. Another server brought me a basket of taro chips – thinly sliced taro root, fried crisp and lightly salted – with a ramekin of dipping sauce. I’ve had these before and loved them, and had to remember not to consume the whole basketful before my meal.

The first course, pig’s ears, sounds horrendous, but looks nothing like its name. Think of Szechuan lamb. The meat was shredded, rice-floured and fried crisp, then mounded on a plate and bathed in the sesame chili sauce, garnished with sprigs of cilantro. The texture was similar to a good calamari and the taste was spicy, sesame pork. It was a hefty portion as well and I knew what Anis meant by a ‘little too much food’.

When I finished my cocktail I ordered the 2014 Malbec “Agua de Piedras” Mendoza, Argentina, which complimented the pig’s ears perfectly. It was surprising how such a young red could be so assertive.

I have come to love empanadas and when I saw duck empanadas on the menu, I knew I had to try them. Anis almost pooh-poohed this dish, stating, “If you like duck.” He was enthusiastic over my other choices, though. The three crescent-shaped pastries arrived encircling a ramekin of ginger sauce. The pastry was crisp and tasty and the duck inside shredded nicely, not too moist and not too dry; just a little overly flavored with ginger. The manager came over to my table at this point and I told her about it. I also complimented the concept of merging Cuban and Chinese cuisines. The empanadas were gone before I remembered to take a picture of them, as is my wont.

The manager told me that Calle Dão has been doing business for a little over a year and a half. She left my table pleased. In a little while the main course arrived. It was another adventure. The spiced goat neck, touted to have been rubbed with Calle Dão house spices, was on a bed of baby bok choy, garnished with cilantro and sided with tostones (deep fried plantain chips). The first taste of the goat meat was spicy, but afterward the heat diminished, allowing the natural gamy-sweet flavor of the goat to take over. Again, the portion was respectably large, and the meat was surrounded a single neck vertebra (yes I know what one looks like). The bok choy was cooked well and still crunchy. It was the best goat I’ve ever had. The manager passed by again and I raved about the dish to her.

I was able to finish everything except the tostones and taro chips, and I had Anis wrap them up to go home with me. It was dessert time. I chose the newest dessert, the sesame panna cotta. It was as pure and delicate as the finest blanc-mange, with blueberries and sliced strawberries accompanying it in a light, sweet sauce. I loved it, but the change in flavor volume from my previous dishes was almost shocking. The manager, knowing it was a new dish, visited me again. I told her of the delicacy of the dish and how it was such a wild contrast to everything else. “Perhaps you will try our flan – on the house?” I agreed. It’s not often I have two desserts.

The flan, the traditional Spanish caramel custard, was served in a spicy crema sauce with cracked peppercorns on top. There was no doubt this dessert could stand up to the flavors of the meal I just finished. My only comment was that the panna cotta was creamier than the flan, which tasted grainier rather than smooth. Still, it was amazing. A Café Cubano later I was satisfied.

Though the menu was not large, it was rife with dishes foreign to my experience. Helene always said she could never eat a dish called “mofongo,” but there it was, in three different preparations. And I’m not a vegetarian but there are two vegetarian dishes that are intriguing: the pan-fried noodles which one can have with or without your choice of meat, and the barley paella, with okra, grape tomatoes, sunchoke, wild mushrooms, root vegetables and fermented bean curd.

The next time I visit to Calle Dão I think I’ll bring along a flashlight.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Cocoanuts

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929) – Directors: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley. Writers: George S. Kaufman (book), and Morrie Ryskind (adaptation). Stars: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Kay Francis, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, Basil Ruysdael, Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls, & Allan K. Foster Girls. B&W, 96 minutes.

Until such time, if ever, that their legendary lost film, Humor Risk (1921) is discovered, The Cocoanuts will stand at the Marx Brothers’ first film.

The Brothers had been established on Broadway since 1924 and their first stage hit was I’ll Say She Is. It was a hodgepodge of old Marx Brothers vaudeville routines and musical numbers held together by the story of a rich girl looking for excitement as presented by a succession of new suitors. The climax of the show was a long sketch with Groucho as Napoleon, which the Brothers regarded as the funniest thing they ever did and parts of which would appear in later films.

The show ran from May 19, 1924, at the Casino Theatre in New York City and closed on February 7, 1925, after 313 performances. The Marxs next went on later that year to star in The Cocoanuts, which opened on Broadway at the Lyric Theatre on December 8, 1925, and closed on August 7, 1926, after 276 performances, and then it went on tour. It came back to Broadway for a limited revival at the Century Theatre from May 16 to May 28, 1927, after which the Brothers moved on to Animal Crackers.

Once Hollywood determined that sound was here to stay, the studios descended upon Broadway like a swarm of locusts, looking for talent, as many stars of the silent screen could not make the transition to sound. Given their Broadway success, the Marxs were snapped up by Paramount, which had also bought the film rights to both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. (I’ll Say She Is was considered unfilmable.)

As part of their Paramount deal, The Cocoanuts was filmed at the Paramount studio in Astoria Studios in Queens, while the Brothers performed Animal Crackers in the evening. Wednesdays were taken off from filming for matinees. The film was one of the first sound movies to be shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios. (The studio had recently been refurbished to accommodate sound.) Monta Bell was chosen as producer.

Bell decided to split the role of director between Robert Florey, who would handle the main duties, and Joseph Santley, who would handle the musical numbers. Apparently, Florey was hired because of his success in keeping budgets within limits and the studio was afraid that, with the Marxs’ reputation, that the film was a sure bet to go over budget. To handle the camera work, cinematographer George Folsey was assigned to the project.

Of the original Broadway cast, only Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter) and Basil Ruysdael (Detective Hennessey) were cast in the film version in addition to the Marxs. Stage veteran Mary Eaton was brought in to play Polly Potter, Oscar Shaw was given the role of lead Robert Adams, Cyril Ring was brought on as villain Harvey Yates, and neophyte Kay Francis appeared in her first movie as Penelope. Finally, Morrie Ryskind was brought in to adapt the play to the screen. He made several changes:

Groucho’s character, named Henry Schlemmer in the play, is renamed as Mr. Hammer. Chico goes from “Willie the Wop” in the play to “Signor Pastrami,” referred to by that name by Groucho and Dumont, and Harpo goes from “Silent Sam” to “Silent Red.” The only reference to Harpo’s character’s name comes from a wanted poster. Only Zeppo’s character keeps his name: Jamison.

The play originally opened with musical numbers, followed by a sequence of dialogues between Eddie the Bellhop (Georgie Hale in the play), Jamison, Mrs. Potter, Harvey Yates, and Polly to establish their characters. Instead, the film opens with a brief musical interlude followed by the entrance of Mr. Hammer.

Eddie’s role was cut completely, and Sylvan Lee appears, uncredited, as “Bell Captain.” Penelope’s role is more sharply refined to bring out her shadier aspects, and the tune “When My Dreams Come True” replaced the frequently reprised “A Little Bungalow.”

Most importantly, Ryskind added the “Why-a-duck” routine, which would go on to become one of the Marxs’ most famous and quoted routines.

The play, as originally constructed by George S. Kaufman, was a satire of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. It’s set in the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, run by Mr. Hammer (Groucho), assisted by Jamison (Zeppo), who is more hindrance than help. Harpo and Chico are two con men without funds looking to make their fortunes. The only paying guest at the hotel is Mrs. Potter (Dumont), a wealthy widow who is staying along with daughter Polly (Eaton). Polly is in love with struggling young architect Bob Adams (Shaw), who works as a clerk at the hotel, but in his spare time has drawn up plans for the development of the entire area as Cocoanut Manor. Polly and Bob wish to marry, but Mrs. Potter is convinced that Harvey Yates (Ring) is of higher social standing and therefore would make for a better husband. What Mrs. Potter does not know is that Yates is a con man planning to steal her diamond necklace with the help of partner-in-crime Penelope. The criminals pull off the heist and frame Bob, who is tossed in jail. Mrs. Potter announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Meanwhile, Bob is freed by Chico and Harpo while Polly tricks Yates during the engagement party into revealing the truth behind the theft. Yates and Penelope are arrested and the engagement party goes on – only with the substitution of Bob as the prospective groom.

So much for the plot – it was always intended just as the framework in which the Marxs perform their patented routines. Marx Brothers legend has George Kaufman standing in the back of the theater while the play was going on. He was talking with a guest when he suddenly held up his hand. “Excuse me,” he told the bewildered guest, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”

Florey came to America in the early ‘20s as a correspondent for a French film magazine and began his career in film as a gag writer and soon after worked as director of foreign publicity for Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Rudolph Valentino. Working with the Marx Brothers came as a shock to his system. Shooting a stage play was not his idea of a good time to begin with, and working with four stars who kept changing the dialogue to suit themselves left him dazed and confused. Sound was new to Florey; The Cocoanuts was his second sound film. His request to shoot some of the film in Florida was nixed. Rehearsals were also useless. “What was there to rehearse with the Marx Brothers?” asked Florey. “They had performed the show a thousand times … They did what they did and that was that. Aside from directing traffic, which turned out to be my main function, I photographed it to the best of my ability.” Because he ceded control to his four stars, Florey didn’t bother prepping the supporting cast either, which shows in their confused performances, outside of Dumont and Ruysdael, who worked in the Broadway productions. Florey was more interested in experimenting with the music and dance scenes, even though Santley was brought in as choreographer. To his credit, Florey created some overhead shots that seem to be progenitors of Busby Berkeley’s famous numbers later for Warner Brothers and MGM. Cameraman Folsey said, “Florey had an eye. He knew it was interesting to shoot down on a bunch of chorus girls unfolding like flowers – we hadn’t done that before.”

A problem Florey could do nothing about was sound recording. The transition to sound had just begun and the microphones of the time were acutely sensitive. So much so, in fact, that the camera had to be enclosed in large soundproof booths with a glass panel in front so the microphones wouldn’t pick up the noise. As a result, the camera no longer moved, but remained static. Marks on the floor for the actors to hit were of prime importance to keep them in frame. As a result, the camera locks down on each scene as the Marxs run on and off, as if from the wings of a theater.

One of the things that infuriated cinematographer Folsey was the constant failure of the Brothers Marx to hit their spots, as they had a habit of wandering around, being used to the freedom of the stage. Another thing that bothered Folsey was the stifling heat in the booth that required him to limit filming to short periods.

The microphone was so sensitive that even the rustling and crinkling of paper was enough to cause a major distraction. During the famous “Why-a-duck” routine 27 takes were ruined by the crinkling of the blueprints Groucho uses to explain the layout to Chico until Florey finally got the idea of soaking them in water. The 28th take, using the soaked blueprints, came off smoothly. In fact, the blueprints are so limp and shiny that we can see they are dripping with water.

Even the musical numbers had to be recorded live on the soundstage as they were shot (rather than pre-recorded) as Irving Berlin conducted an off-camera orchestra. As a result, the frequent interludes for the numbers became intrusive, breaking up the flow of the film. In the auction scene, Groucho is reduced to something of an emcee as he introduces Polly Potter singing “Monkey-Doodle-Doo.” The song pushed most in the film is one Berlin wrote especially for it, the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True,” (replacing “A Little Bungalow” from the play) which is sung at various times by Bob and Polly and even played by Harpo both on the clarinet and harp. None of the tunes in the film could be considered memorable nor was any of the music in the Broadway production. It was said that Kaufman didn’t care for music, as he didn’t write it. Marxian legend has it that, when the show was being prepared for Broadway, Kaufman kept throwing out Berlin‘s tunes, one of which was – supposedly – “Always.”

Face it, though, who pays attention to the music in a Marx Brothers film, except if played by Harpo or Chico? The perfect composers for the Brothers turned out to be Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in their later Paramount films, which were nonsense ditties.

The performances in The Cocoanuts were a decidedly mixed bag. The Marxs were fine, though they do seem a might uncomfortable at first (except Harpo, who was not limited by having to recite dialogue) frequently stumbling and hesitating in delivering their lines. For performers used to live audiences for over 20 years, standing still on a soundstage with only an audience of studio hands was a bit unnerving. They were used to the instantaneous response of a crowd to let them know if the material was working. But take away Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, and The Cocoanuts is unwatchable.

Aside from Dumont and Ruysdael, who were in the original play, none of the supporting cast, save for Francis, turns in a decent performance. As the romantic leads, Shaw and Eaton are totally forgettable. Shaw has no screen presence, and Eaton, aside from a few song and dance numbers, is practically invisible. Shaw returned to Broadway where he worked until his retirement in 1941. Aside from a silent comedy opposite Marion Davies after The Cocoanuts, Shaw didn’t appear in another film until 1940 when he appeared in a supporting role for Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the River.

Mary Eaton fared no better. Known as one of ‘The Seven Little Eatons’ of Broadway and Ziegfield fame, Paramount starred Mary in a follow-up production with Eddie Cantor and Helen Morgan called Glorifying the American Girl. It’s dreadful performance at the box office ended Mary’s film career and she returned to the stage. Her career ended in the ‘30s due to her alcoholism and she died in 1948 from severe cirrhosis of the liver.

As the main villain, Cyril Ring is as flat as last night’s beer. The reviews he received for his performance were so dreadful as to doom his career as an actor. Ring had 398 screen credits after appearing in The Cocoanuts, with about 99% of them being unbilled. He had become a professional extra. The only one of those especially hired for the film to survive was Kay Francis. It was her first film and she displayed enough presence to be brought back by Paramount. She would later go on to be Warner Brothers’ highest-paid actress in the ‘30s, not bad for someone who sounded as though she took speech lessons from Elmer Fudd.

Part of this could be attributed to the spontaneous ad-libbing of the Marxs, which makes it difficult to adjust, but blame must also be laid at the feet of director Florey, who did a horrible job of preparing his troops. When the film is not coming to a halt in order for someone to sing “When My Dreams Come True,” it’s stopping to explain the plot over and over. The audience is constantly reminded about the stolen necklace, the mysterious map, and Detective Hennessy snooping around for no apparent reason. Is it any wonder we can’t wait for the next bit from Groucho, Chico and Harpo?

And what of the Brothers themselves? The Cocoanuts is interesting in that it’s their first film and we get to see their film characters developing. We open with Groucho giving Zeppo instructions and Zeppo ignoring them. Groucho bemoans the lack of paying guests, but whenever one phones to make a reservation he puts them off with a wisecrack. The bellhops inform Groucho they want to be paid. Groucho responds by confusing them with a speech culminating in his asking them if all they want to do is to be wage slaves. When they reply “no,” he asks what is it that makes one a wage slave. When they can’t answer, Groucho tells them that it’s wages and not to worry, for they won’t get any from him. Not only does this answer satisfy them, they react by cheering. This is an easy crowd.

Groucho is rather stiff and hesitant so far, without the quick patter and comebacks we’re used to, but as soon as Chico and Harpo arrive things pick up. Groucho and Zeppo go to welcome them with hands outstretched and all four end up chasing each other in a circle, stepping over chairs and the lobby sofa as they go. A bellhop tries to take Harpo’s suitcase to his room. Harpo resists and the suitcase pops open. “Hey,” says Groucho, “You know that suitcase is empty.” “That’s all right,” replies Chico. “We fill it up before we leave.” Harpo amuses himself by pulling the buttons off the bellboy’s uniform and eating them. Later he will eat a telephone and drink from an inkwell. Florey, in one of his few contributions to the film, devised the gags with Harpo: the phone (as well as the buttons) is chocolate and the “ink” is flat cola. Groucho and Chico engage in their first on-screen banter: “Now, would you like a suite on the third floor?” “I’ll take a Polack in the basement.”

Groucho later pursues Mrs. Potter after learning she’s not only a widow, but also filthy rich. He tries to seduce her in his inimitable way, proposing marriage, but she rejects his every advance. No wonder, with lines like “Your eyes, they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit.” “What?” “I’m sorry,” Groucho replies. “That isn’t a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on the pants.” When she tells him later that, “You wouldn’t love me if I was poor,” his response is, “I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.”

Meanwhile, Penelope and Yates are working out plans to steal Mrs. Potter’s necklace, with Penelope planning to fix the blame on Chico and Harpo. She invites Chico to her room and later does the same with Harpo. The scene of her trying to vamp Harpo is precious. She drops her handkerchief. Harpo picks it up and pockets it. When she asks him if he’s seen it he broadly and slowly shakes his head “no.” She tells him if he finds to bring it to her room and asks if he knows where her room is. His reaction is to slowly, and with a lascivious look on his face, nods his head “yes.”

Yates comes to Penelope’s room and slips her Mrs. Potter’s keys. Now comes a scene reminiscent of the bedroom scene in I’ll Say She Is. As Penelope opens the door to Mrs. Potter’s adjoining room, Groucho opens the front door, looking for Mrs. Potter. The doors close. Chico enters and leaves, followed by Harpo, Hennessey, Mrs. Potter, and Groucho numerous times. Finally Penelope gets the chance to grab the necklace. She returns to her room and breathes a sigh of relief. “Alone at last,” she says, as Harpo comes up through her bed as the scene ends.

Having failed to interest Mrs. Potter in purchasing Cocoanut Manor, Groucho decides to hold an auction for the empty lots. To insure that the bidding is brisk, he brings in Chico and instructs him to how to bid. “If someone says ‘100’, you say ‘200’.” “Sure,” replies Chico. Groucho continues, “And if some says ‘300’, you say . . .” “400,” Chico replies, “I gotcha.” Groucho shows Chico the blueprints of the area, pointing out the highlights. When Groucho mentions the levees, Chico asks if that’s the Jewish neighborhood. “Well,” answers Groucho, “we’ll pass over that.” Soon, however, all goes for naught when Groucho points out a viaduct on the property. “Why-a duck?” Chico wants to know. “Why-a no chicken?” “I don’t know ‘why-a no chicken,” Groucho responds. “I’m a stranger here myself.” However no matter how many explanations Groucho tries to provide to the question, all fall upon deaf ears, for Chico can’t understand why-a no duck? It’s a classic routine and the timing is excellent, as if they’ve been doing it on the stage all along.

Come the actual auction, however, and all of Groucho’s plans have been for naught. Chico takes his instructions literally, topping every bid, even his own. Somehow, Bob Adams sneaks in to purchase Lot 26. Mrs. Potter then announces her necklace is missing. “I’ll offer a $1,000 reward to whoever finds it.” Chico, still on a roll, says “2,000.” Harpo hands her the necklace. When Hennessey questions Bob as to why he bought the lot on which Harpo found the necklace, Penelope breaks down and tells Bob she was only joking about him taking the necklace.

Chico and Harpo arrive at the jail to spring Bob. Harpo places a chisel on the lock, but keeps hitting his hand with the mallet until he smiles and suddenly remembers he had the key in his pocket all along. Once back at the hotel, Groucho and Bob try to figure out the crime while Harpo picks both their pockets, including Groucho’s bridgework.

At the party Mrs. Potter laughs at Groucho’s costume while Harpo steals Hennessey’s shirt. This leads to Hennessey breaking into song about getting his shirt back, a ditty called “I Want My Shirt,” sung to the tune of Bizet’s Carmen. Groucho proceeds to deliver a speech that parodies every speech made at various functions, thanking everyone for the retirement watch for his 20 years on the railroad, “which reminds me of the story of the Irishman,” as everyone laughs, “It’s so funny,” he continues, “I wish I could remember it.”

Mrs. Potter is asked to speak. Harpo gets up from his seat with an annoyed look on his face and shortly returns looking mellower. Yates is asked to speak. Once again Harpo rises and leaves. We then see his destination is the punch bowl, from which he drinks liberally. Yates replies that he doesn’t know what to say. “Then shut up,” Chico advises. Groucho shakes his hand. Chico walks to the piano. “Senor Pastrami, what is the first number?” asks Mrs. Potter. “Number one,” replies Chico, and proceeds to launch into Victor Herbert’s “Gypsy Love Song,” displaying the tricks with his right hand that would become commonplace in later Marx films.

When it becomes Polly’s turn to speak, she produces the map in Yates’ handwriting that led Penelope to the hiding place to stash the necklace. Yates and Hammer are arrested and Mrs. Potter announces that Polly will marry Bob Adams, who has won the job to design Cocoanut Manor, instead. The film ends with Yates and Penelope handcuffed to each other, the Marx Brothers waving to the audience, and Bob and Polly singing the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True” as the film fades to black.

It’s interesting to see each Marx brother as he develops his character. Groucho starts off hesitatingly, but picks up steam as the move progresses. Groucho’s genius is in subverting any semblance of a rational conversation by beginning normally, but soon breaking it down into a maze of puns, invented words, asides, thoughts spoken aloud, and statements contradicting each other. Because of this, he needs a foil. Fortunately, he has one of the very best in Margaret Dumont, who in their pictures always personified the epitome of class, good manners and social graces. It was Groucho’s job to tear her down and leave her confused, which he did with panache. In The Cocoanuts, their scenes together are somewhat on the stiff side; seemingly they are getting used to each other in the new medium of film. In later films, she is charmed by his raffishness, but here she is merely insulted and flustered. She also has a brief, but funny scene with Harpo during the bedroom scene. He lies on the bed and pats it for her to join him. “What?” she asks. “Certainly not!”

Of course, the one person Groucho cannot get the best of with his patter is Chico, who always gets the better of him. Chico’s use of language is not for communication, except in the case of Harpo. For everyone else, it is an instrument of obfuscation, especially Groucho. Take the “Why-a-duck” routine. Chico’s almost gleeful response to Groucho’s attempt at a rational explanation is to pose a question that Groucho cannot answer because there simply is no answer. In later films he will hone this to a fine point, causing Groucho to respond with lines such as, “There’s my argument, restrict immigration,” (Monkey Business) and “Chicolini here may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” (Duck Soup) The only time he ever came close to being bested was in Animal Crackers, when he noticed that philanthropist Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) is really Abie Kabbible, a fish peddler. When Chico asks, “How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?” Chandler fires back, “How did you get to be an Italian?” It didn’t matter because Chico gets the better of him anyway.

Harpo’s character is the most primal, completely nonverbal, and the most subversive. Seeing him in The Cocoanuts for the first time must have been revolutionary. He is on the screen for no more than a few minutes before he is eating a bellhop’s uniform buttons, tearing up the guests’ mail, eating a telephone and drinking ink. His taxi horn is not only used for communication, but also as a weapon. He is almost a pure primal force; only Harpo would come out of the middle of a bed. Chico acts as his interpreter and buffer, but once unleashed Harpo is capable of anything. He comes close to the trickster of folklore, making mischief for its own sake. He improvised his antics, as compared to his brothers, who had their material written for them. “How can you write for Harpo?” George S. Kaufman once mused. “All you can write is ‘Harpo enters.’ From that point, he’s on his own.”

Harpo’s red wig photographed darker in The Cocoanuts, which caused him to lighten it for subsequent films. It has been said that he donned a blonde wig, but the truth is that he lightened his usual red wig. This is noted in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup by his character’s name – Pinky. And in Go West from 1940, one of the saloon girls tells her co-workers to “watch out for the redhead. He’s a terror.”

For his part Groucho was fascinated with the jargon of filmmaking. As recounted by Joe Adamson in his authoritative Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo (the book of the films of the Marx Brothers), Groucho was taking a break on the set while the director and the cameraman tried to solve a problem of lighting a scene. It seems that the floodlight (called a “broad” in the technical lingo) wasn’t strong enough and it was suggested that perhaps a spotlight (known as a “baby”) could facilitate matters. Cameraman Joseph Folsey turned to director Robert Florey and assured him he would take care of the problem: “I’ll stick a baby in that broad before the afternoon’s over.” This caused Groucho no shortage of amusement as filming continued.

And what of Zeppo? He has little to do here, a trend that continued until he quit the act after Duck Soup in 1933. Zeppo’s problem was that by the time he joined his brothers there was no room for any character he could develop. Groucho was the fast-talker, Harpo the frantic mime, and Chico the dialect comedian. The common assumption today is that Zeppo had no talent. That wasn’t true. He was an excellent actor and was said to be the funniest of the brothers offstage. Zeppo’s true value to the act was in his ability to take over for his brothers if they were too ill to perform: He could sub for his brothers and frequently no one was the wiser. (It beat another, lesser understudy in the role or refunding the patrons’ money.) When Groucho underwent an appendectomy during the road trip for Animal Crackers, Zeppo took over his role. Groucho attended a performance in Chicago, and when he saw just how good his little brother was, he got well quickly. When the Marxs stopped performing in plays and limited themselves to the screen, there was no place for Zeppo to go, so he remained in his role as the Marx Brother with nothing to do.

The problem with The Cocoanuts lay in the direction. Florey saw himself as a traffic cop while Santley restricted himself to the musical numbers, wanting no part of the Marxs. Groucho was later quoted as saying, "One of them didn't understand English and the other didn't understand comedy." Florey also had a problem with sound film as well. There are too many shots in the movie that seem placed there simply to have a shot, such as in the banquet scene where Florey cuts to two close-ups of Kay Francis without any apparent connection. The main problem is that the movie just doesn’t move, remaining what it originally was, a filmed version of the play.

In Marx Brothers lore it’s said that when the film was screened for its stars they were appalled and wanted to buy the negative back to prevent its release. I could accept this were it not for the fact that the Brothers supposedly said the same thing about Humor Risk. Perhaps they got their way with that one, as it’s lost. At any rate, The Cocoanuts was a big hit at the box office with a gross of $1,800,000, which made it one of the most successful of the early taking films, and promising Paramount of future riches in subsequent films.

Trivia: Look for Barton MacLane in a cameo as a lifeguard at the end of the film’s opening number.

Legend has it that Paramount head Adolph Zukor balked at paying the Marxs $75,000 for starring in the film. He later met with Chico, who told Zukor it was a true honor to meet with one of the giants of the industry and it was such an honor that he and his brothers agreed to do The Cocoanuts for only $100,000. Zukor, completely flattered, agreed that was, indeed, a low price and signed the contracts.