Saturday, April 29, 2017

Clark Gable

Stardust: TCM's May Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

May’s choice for Star of the Month should please classic movie buffs. Clark Gable was one of the dominant stars in film from his breakthrough to superstardom in 1934 until his death in 1961.

Born William Clark Gable in Cadiz, Ohio, on February 1, 1901, to oil well driller William Henry "Will" and Adeline (nee Hershelman) Gable, he was mistakenly listed as  female on his birth certificate. Adeline died, possibly from a brain tumor, when he was just 10 months old. Two years later, his father married Jennie Dunlap and she raised young William to be well-dressed and well-groomed. She played the piano and gave her young stepson lessons at home. He later took up brass instruments, and at the age of 13 his talent allowed him to be the only boys in the men’s town band. While in high school, his father took up farming and moved to Ravenna. Father wanted son to work the farm with him, but the young Gable preferred working for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in nearby Akron.

He said he was inspired to become an actor at the age of 17 after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise. He toured in stock companies while working the oil fields and also worked as a horse manager. He caught on with several second-class theater companies, and traveled all the way to Portland, Oregon, working as a logger. It was in Portland that he met Laura Hope Crews, who encouraged him to return to the stage with another theater company. Twenty years later, Crews played Aunt Pittypat alongside Gable in Gone With the Wind (1939). 

His acting coach in Portland was theater manager Josephine Dillon, 17 years his senior. She remade the young actor, financing his dental work and hair style. She also helped him build his body, teaching him body control and posture, as well as training him to lower his natural high-pitched voice for better resonance and tone. After this long period of training, she considered him ready for Hollywood and financed his move there in 1924, where she became his first manager and wife. He adopted the name Clark Gable and worked as an extra. As no starring roles were forthcoming he returned to the stage, encouraged by Lionel Barrymore, who later became a lifelong friend.

In 1930, he made quite an impression as the troubled and desperate Killer Mears in the Los Angeles stage production of The Last Mile. On the strength of his performance, MGM offered Gable a contract, with his first film role being that of a villain in the low-budget William Boyd Western The Painted Desert (1930). The amount of fan mail he received caused the studio to take notice.

In 1930, Gable and Josephine Dillon were divorced. A few days later, he married Texas socialite Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas “Rhea” Langham. He went to Warner Brothers, where he tested for the lead in The Public Enemy, but studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck rejected him, saying, ”His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.” 

After several failed screen tests for Barrymore and Zanuck, Gable was signed by MGM in 1930 by Irving Thalberg. He started mainly in supporting roles, usually as the villain. Meanwhile MGM's publicity manager Howard Strickling was developing the young actor’s studio image, playing up his he-man experiences and a persona as a “lumberjack in evening clothes.”

To build his brand and increase his popularity, MGM paired him with well-established female stars such as Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). He received a big push with his role as gangster Ace Wilfong in A Free Soul (read our essay here), who brutalized star Norma Shearer. The critical and popular reaction he received ended his days as a supporting actor.    

Now a star, Gable quickly got himself in Louis Mayer’s doghouse for refusing roles. In 1934, according to Hollywood legend, Mayer’s form of punishment for his rebellious star was to lend him to Columbia, then regarded as a second-rate operation. This has been refuted by more recent biographies, which state that the truth was that MGM did not have a film ready, and as they were paying him $2,000 per week, Mayer decided to lend him to Columbia for $2,500 per week, pocketing the extra $500. The film was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.   

When Gable returned to MGM he returned as a superstar, having won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as reporter Peter Warne. Though Gable and Capra got off to a rocky start, they ended up enjoying the making of the movie, for Capra discovered the perfect role for Gable: that of Clark Gable. The director tailored Gable's character in the film to closely fit his real personality. Gable would play himself from then onward, no matter what the film and no matter what the subject – with one exception, Parnell (1937), which served as proof never to leave his comfort zone again.

In choosing which of Gable’s films to recommend, we are sticking with his early roles along with a few that do not air that often or stand out by dint of being unusual or unusually lousy. The reason is that we’re not so much taken with Pre-Code pictures, which we regard as so much smoke and mirrors, as with the development of Clark Gable. His early films offer a good map to trace his evolution from supporting player to superstar.

May 2: Besides It Happened One Night, there are three Must Sees airing this night. At 10:00 pm it’s 1932’s No Man of Her Own. This film is important as it was Gable’s only film with his future wife, Carole Lombard. It’s a rather run of the mill story about a card sharp on the lam (Gable) who meets and marries a small town librarian (Lombard). Supposedly they got on well, and when Lombard handed out her usual prank gifts at the wrap party, she gave Gable a ham with his picture on it.  

At 3:00 am Gable slaps around Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931) and at 5:00 am he slaps around Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, also from 1931. According to Robert Osborne, the role of Nick the chauffeur in Night Nurse was originally set for James Cagney, but his breakthrough in The Public Enemy caused Darryl Zanuck to assign the role to Gable.

May 3: The morning and afternoon is devoted to Gable, with the pick of the litter being Sporting Blood (1931) at 8 am, and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931) at 9:30 – his only movie with Garbo.  At 2:30 pm it’s Strange Interlude (1932) with Norma Shearer, and at 6:00 pm it’s The White Sister (1933) with Helen Hayes, a film rarely shown.

May 9: The evening is devoted to Gable and frequent co-star Joan Crawford. Beginning at 8 pm, it’s Possessed (1931), followed at 9:30 by Strange Cargo (1940), one of the strangest films either has ever made and a psychotronic classic. At 11:30 it’s the excellent Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), followed by the cult classic Dancing Lady (1933) at 1 am, the debut film of Fred Astaire. It was also the first film for The Three Stooges.

Kept woman Joan finds herself attracted to rancher Gable in Chained (1934) at 3 am, while Gable is a Salvation Army preacher who saves troubled Joan from suicide in Laughing Sinners (1931) at 4:15. Finally, Joan runs after the wrong man for 20 years in 1934’s Forsaking All Others at 5:45 am. 

May 10: Today’s picks are After Office Hours (1935) at 8:45 am and They Met in Bombay (1941) at 1:45 pm. The latter teams Gable with Rosalind Russell, who is at her best here. Both films are really shown.

May 16: Three good Pre-Code Gables are on tap. First up at 11 pm, Gable lives it up with Mary Astor and Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932). At 12:45 it’s one of Gable’s signature roles, that of Blackie in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), co-starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Then, at 2:30 am con man Gable abuses Harlow, but hard-boiled Jean can’t help but love him in Hold Your Man (1933).

May 17: Besides Pre-Codes Men in White (1934) at 8 am and The Secret Six (1931) at 9:30 am (read our essay on it here), there is Parnell (1937) at 11:15 am. Parnell is a Must See, a train wreck of a film, with Gable vainly trying to emulate George Arliss as Irish statesman Charles Stewart Parnell. The story is that his co-star Myrna Loy was not originally slated for the film, but traded places with good friend Joan Crawford, who was badly burned the year before by critics for the costumer The Gorgeous Hussy. Wonder if Myrna ever forgave her. It’s a testament to Gable’s star power that he was able to rebound from this critical and box-office disaster. A lesser star would have been crushed like a bug underfoot.

May 24: The pick of the day is The Painted Desert (1931) at 6:45 am. It’s Gable’s first film and is important for just that reason. 

May 30: Recommended tonight are It Started in Naples (1960) with Sophia Loren at 8 pm; The Misfits (1961), Gable’s last film. (He died from a heart attack two days after the picture wrapped.) And at 2:30 am, Gable, Burt Lancaster and Don Rickles chase Japanese submarines in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) at 2:30 am. Always worth a view.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for May 1-7

May 1–May 7


THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (May 1, 6:15 pm): An excellent JD movie with Glenn Ford as a teacher trying to put high school kids on the right track. Sidney Poitier and Ford work exceptionally well with Poitier as a defiant and intelligent student who Ford sees promise in and tries to help. Vic Morrow plays the worst of the worst kids to near perfection. The scene in which Morrow’s character cruelly destroys a teacher's most-beloved items, his record collection, in class as the teacher tries to reach the kids, is an incredibly haunting piece of cinema. And the soundtrack is great, particularly the opening credits with “Rock Around the Clock.” While many think of the film as the first with a rock-and-roll song in it, it is so much more than that.

LOGAN'S RUN (May 6, 2:15 pm): I'm a huge fan of early and mid-1970s futuristic dystopian films such as this, Soylent GreenOmega Man and Rollerball. In Logan's Run, it's the year 2274 and some sort of apocalypse has occurred leaving people to live in a domed society with everything they do is handled by a super-computer. That leaves them a lot of time for wine, women (or men, though futuristic sex is a little strange) and song. There is one catch to this society: once you get to be 30, you go through a ritualistic death in a place called "Carousel." The plot is compelling, and while some of the special effects look straight out of 1976, they're effective and enjoyable. The acting is solid with Peter Ustinov exceptional as an old man living outside the dome. It's a fun science-fiction film with a lot of action and women in very mini miniskirts. 


THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE (May 1, 11:15 pm): The films of Max Ophuls are noted for their subtlety, and this film is a prime example. Taking a simple premise, that of a French woman whose series of white lies does her in, Ophuls raises it to the level of high tragedy. Although it opened in the U.S. to mild praise, the film is viewed today as one of the greatest gems of movie history, and perhaps the acme of Ophuls’ career. Of course, a good cast helps, and Ophuls has a terrific one with Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica as his leads. Ophuls is in his element here, painstakingly designing mies-en-scenes that frame and define his characters, and combining that with close-ups that allow us some psychological insight into the characters. The plot is beautifully staged, opening and closing on the consideration of the eponymous piece of jewelry that passes from owner to owner until returning to Darrieux. This is a film of charm and beauty with a marvelous subtext of the pain that goes hand in hand with vanity and which no amount of lies can cover or explain.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (May 4, 3:15 am): The late Ray Harryhausen’s great f/x epic about a dinosaur thawed out on the Arctic and now on the loose in New York City. It boasts an intelligent script, credible performances, and one helluva great monster. My only complaint is that it’s too short, but it was just what the doctor ordered for the Warner’s box office at the time. I can watch it again and again . . . wait a minute – I have.

WE AGREE ON ... MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (May 2, 11:30 pm)

ED: A+. A big, sweeping ocean adventure done only as MGM could do it. Loosely adapted from the Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall books, the story of the H.M.S. Bounty has stirring adventure, a tyrannical captain, seamen pushed to the point of mutiny, and Clark Gable. It also has a theme popular with audiences: the revolt against a tyrant. However, producer Irving Thalberg avoids the mistake made in many other such adventures of pitting a strong hero against relatively ineffectual villains. Captain Bligh, as portrayed by Charles Laughton, is not just an excellent sailor, capable of astounding feats of seamanship, but he is also a capable tyrant, courageously facing down the mutineers. He is also corrupt and terrifyingly sanctimonious; the strongest figure on the ship. Clark Gable is in his element as Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutineers. His rawboned defiance is a match for Bligh’s villainy. As Byam, the officer who returns with Bligh to England to face trial, Franchot Tone gives an engaging performance, though in the courtroom scene it seems that he’s campaigning for an Oscar. Director Frank Lloyd also gives room to the supporting cast and their stories, making the film a much more compelling human drama than a mere Us versus Them confrontation. The supporting cast includes such familiar names as Herbert Mundin, Donald Crisp, Ian Wolfe, Dudley Digges, Francis Lister, and Spring Byington, as well as Movita and Mamo Clark as the Tahitians. It’s one to catch, even if you’ve already seen it innumerable times.

DAVID: A+. An incredibly strong cast – led by Charles Laughton, who is masterful as the vicious Captain Bligh, and Clark Gable as the cunning Fletcher Christian – combined with a spare-no-expense set and some of the sharpest cinematography I've seen in a black-and-white film make Mutiny on the Bounty a timeless classic. Laughton's Bligh is completely ruthless and unforgiving, which we see almost immediately when he insists a sailor's flogging punishment be carried out even though the man is dead. The tension builds over time with Bligh showing no mercy to anyone. Things finally explode in a full-blown mutiny by many of those aboard the Bounty when the ship's beloved doctor (played by Dudley Digges) dies because Bligh pushes him too far and the captain cuts the water rations. This isn't a swashbuckler film, but one with a fascinating and approachable storyline. What adds to the film is Bligh is also a brilliant seaman who somehow manages to not only survive being placed on a small boat with about 50 loyalists set to drift to a sure death, but returns to Tahiti in an attempt to exact revenge on Christian. I can't say enough about Gable's acting skills in this movie as he's been accused at times of being one dimensional. The scenery is also wonderful and there are subplots of about a dozen or so of the shipmates stories to tell. The film captured the Oscar for Best Picture and was the last film to do that without winning any other golden statues. One of the problems was Laughton, Gable and Franchot Tone were all nominated in the Best Oscar category and essentially canceled each other out. Because of that, the Academy the following year created the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories.

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Animal Kingdom

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

The Animal Kingdom (RKO, 1932) – Director: Edward H. Griffith, George Cukor (uncredited). Writers: Horace Jackson (s/p), Adela Rogers St. John (uncredited), Philip Barry (play). Stars: Ann Harding, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, William Gargan, Neil Hamilton, Ilka Chase, Henry Stephenson, Leni Stengel & Don Dillaway. B&W, 85 minutes.

In the early days of sound, when Hollywood was looking for suitable material to place before its cameras, the plays of Philip Barry proved a good source. Barry, known for his comedies of manners, had a scored a number of hits on Broadway and some of his plays were converted into movies, such as Holiday (filmed in 1930 and 1938), You and I (filmed in 1931 as The Bargain), Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1931), Who Killed Cock Robin? (1938), Spring Dance (filmed in 1938 as Spring Madness), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Without Love (1945).

Another of Barry’s plays that was ripe for the camera was The Animal Kingdom. A hit on Broadway (it ran for 183 performances from January 12, 1932 to June 1932, exact closing date unknown), it was co-produced by its star, Leslie Howard, who was brought over to star in the film adaptation by David O. Selznick for RKO. Ann Harding, who was one of the studio’s most popular leading ladies, was given the role of Daisy Sage. The only major role left to be filled was that of Cecelia Henry. Director Edward Griffith, who had worked with Myrna Loy on the 1931 RKO drama, Rebound, pitched Selznick to borrow her from MGM to play Cecelia, but Selznick wasn’t so sure. He knew she had the requisite beauty to play the part, but he had doubts about her acting chops. Griffith, however, persisted, and Selznick gave in and borrowed her for the role. It turned out to be a good decision as Loy gave a terrific performance as the materialistic Cecelia.

Tom Collier (Howard) owns Bantam Press, a small publishing house in Connecticut. He prides himself on publishing only books of superior quality, regardless of how they sell.

Tom has been living with Daisy Sage (Harding) for the last few years. When Daisy, a commercial artist, goes off to Paris for a few weeks for an assignment, Tom suddenly falls head over heels for Cecelia Henry (Loy) and becomes engaged to her, much to the disappointment of her other beau, Owen (Hamilton), who also serves as Tom’s lawyer. Owen would love to marry Cecelia, but lacks the necessary financial resources to sustain her interest. On the night of his engagement he receives a telegram from Daisy announcing her immanent return. 

Tom reassures Cecilia that he and Daisy are only friends and leaves to break the news to Daisy. Before he can tell her the news, Daisy confesses that, since learning how to paint in Paris, that she wants to be a serious artist. She wants him to come to Mexico with her, get married and start a family. When he tells Daisy he’s become engaged she is shattered and tells him she doesn’t even want to know the other woman’s name. Tom wants Daisy to continue their friendship, but she’s too devastated to take him up on it, preferring that they simply part. Tom returns to Connecticut to marry Cecilia.

Months later Tom happens to see a poster announcing Daisy’s first gallery show. He persuades Cecelia into going with him, but on the night they are to leave she feigns a headache and announces she’s going to bed. Shortly after, she appears to Tom in a sexy nightgown and subtly seduces him into staying home that night.

Cecelia is also bothered by Tom’s butler, “Red” Regan (Gargan). Red is a washed-up fighter who Tom hired to work for him. Cecelia thinks he’s too uncouth for the job and wants Tom to fire him. To Tom’s relief, Red, who knows of Cecilia’s disapproval, tells him he is quitting to go into the gym business with an old friend.

Days later, feeling lonely and bored, Tom visits Daisy at her place and broaches the subject of rekindling their friendship. But after he leaves, Daisy, who is still in love with him, panics at the thought of getting back together and leaves for Nova Scotia on that night’s train.

When Tom’s wealthy father, Rufus (Stephenson), comes to visit, he notes to both his and Cecilia’s disapproval that Red has returned as butler. It’s explained that his prospective business went bust and Tom, being soft-hearted, hired him back. Rufus wants Tom to give up the Connecticut life and come back to live with him in New York. Cecelia is in agreement with this. Cecelia, for her part, has also convinced Tom to accept books that are sure to be best sellers, regardless of quality.

Soon after Daisy’s return, she receives a phone call from Cecelia inviting her and two of Tom’s former New York friends, cellist Franc Schmidt (Stengel) and novelist Joe Fiske (Dillaway), one of Tom’s authors, up to Connecticut for Tom’s surprise birthday party, At first Daisy turns her down, but after thinking it over, her curiosity is such that she phones back and accepts, much to Cecelia’s dismay. 

At the party, Tom shows Daisy his latest book and asks for her criticism. She tells him the novel is trash and chides him for turning his distinguished publishing house into a factory for pulp fiction. Later in the evening, Daisy enters a room just as Cecelia and Owen are about to go into a embrace. Cecelia was in the midst of convincing Owen to handle a merger of Tom’s publishing house with the powerhouse publishing firm of Williams and Warren.

Daisy is appalled by what she sees and convinces Franc and Joe to immediately return with her to New York. Before she goes, she stops to tell Tom she pities him. He is really changed from the Tom she knew and this time it’s farewell for good.

After the guests retire for the night, Cecelia and Tom argue over his not wanting to go to New York City for the winter and his reluctance to sell his business. As punishment for not acceding to her wishes Cecelia locks Tom out of their bedroom. 

The next evening, Tom has changed his tune. He’ll sell the business and move to New York to live with his father and become a “proper” gentlemen, which is what Cecelia wants. Tom says it’s for the best in that he can settle down and start a family, but when Cecelia hears that, she demurs, saying the time isn’t yet right for a family.

Over dinner, Tom tells Cecelia that her bedroom reminds him of his days in England and a brothel he used to frequent in London. Payment for services was simple – one just left the money on the mantelpiece. Cecelia cuts him short. Tom then shows her the birthday check he received from his father. She takes one look and gasps that there can’t be that much money in the world. (A close look at the check reveals it’s for $100,000, worth over $1.8 million today. When the film was released, the average salary was $20 a week.) They have more champagne and she tells him she’ll be waiting in the bedroom.

After she leaves, Red comes in to tell Tom that he’s leaving – this time for good. Tom tells Red to fetch his hat and coat. He then takes the check and endorses it over to Cecelia. When Red returns with Tom’s hat and coat, Tom places the check on the mantelpiece and tells Red he’s going back home to his “wife.”


Leslie Howard was not the only one in the cast to reprise his Broadway role in the film. William Gargan, who played butler Red Regan, and Ilka Chase, who played Cecelia’s friend Grace, were also in the film.

RKO originally bought the film rights as a vehicle for Ann Harding, but when scheduling conflicts arose, the studio substituted Irene Dunne. However, in a twist of fate, the filming of Smilin’ Through at MGM was delayed and the studio refused to release Leslie Howard to RKO to begin filming on the scheduled date. Readjusting the starting date, RKO realized that Harding would now be available and reassigned her the role.

But there was another actress on the RKO lot who coveted a role in the film – Katharine Hepburn. She was originally fired from the Broadway cast during rehearsals by Howard in the role as co-producer. He cited as his reasons the fact that she towered over him, her mannerisms and what he called her “insufferable bossiness.” Learning that Harding was a lock for the role of Daisy she set her sights on the role of Cecelia. When Loy got the role, Hepburn was miffed. Loy noted in her autobiography that Hepburn said the reason Loy got the Cecelia role was because “she was beautiful” – as if, Loy noted, that was all she had going for her.

Still, Loy had to fight for the role of Cecelia. Selznick was on the fence, preferring MGM star Karen Morely as Cecelia. Director Griffith talked Howard into acting opposite Myrna in a screen test. Again, in her autobiography Loy mentioned that before she left for the studio, her “wonderful Mexican maid, Carolla, who always pampered me,” fixed her scrambled eggs with garlic sausage. The test went well, although Loy noticed that Howard seemed a bit distant. When she asked Griffith what Howard thought of her, the director replied that Howard thought she was very good, but wondered if she always ate so much garlic. Selznick was so impressed by the test that he immediately cast Myrna in the role.

Howard’s standoffishness towards Myrna melted away as soon as they began work on the film. A compulsive womanizer, Howard was taken by Myrna’s beauty and her sensitive, responsive manner. She, in turn, was mesmerized by his combination of passion with fine British manners. He pursued her hard, at one point even going to her rented house when boyfriend Arthur Hornblow was away in New York and pressing her to run away with him. Notwithstanding the fact he had a compliant wife and two children back in London, she declined the offer, wanting to stay loyal to Hornblow. She later remembered that “it could have been a real scrambola – if I had allowed it to be.”

Her work in the film impressed the critics and her bosses at MGM alike and enabled her to stop being typecast the Exotic. The Mask of Fu Manchu would be her last venture into that territory. Her Cecelia is multifaceted and very natural; overlaying the stark materialistic outlook of the character with a veneer of seductive charm. She would move on to other roles in comedies of social manners such as Topaze and When Ladies Meet. Later she performed admirably in PenthouseThe Lady and the Prizefighter and Manhattan Melodrama, which in turn led to her breakout role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man. From then on, she never had to look back.

Howard is also excellent in the film, using his passion of manners to good use with both the characters of Cecelia and Daisy. To watch him with both one would suppose they performed in the play over a long period of time. He also worked well with old friend Gargan, allowing him to steal a few scenes in the film. 

Harding, on the other hand, while good as Daisy, seems too placid at times, considering all Tom has put her through. It also seems at times as if she is channeling Linda Seton from her critically acclaimed performance in Holiday. (Note: for all those who like the 1938 version of that film, I beg you to see the 1930 version, which can be accessed via the internet. Harding’s interpretation of Linda Seton leaves Hepburn’s stilted performance in the dust.) William Gargan is also excellent as the rough-hewn butler, and Ilka Chase manages to impress in her all-too-short role as Grace. I would have liked to have seen more of her. And I know there was more because William B. Davidson, another excellent supporting actor, played her husband and was listed in the credits supplied by Mordunt Hall of The New York Times in his review. Apparently, at some time while the film was in storage, his scenes disappeared.

Griffith, aided by fine work from cinematographer George L. Fosley, keeps the action flowing and the film from becoming much too stagy. To speed up filming he built six small sets adjoining one another on a large set. However, all went for naught when star Harding became ill and delayed production by about a week. After Griffith left the film, Selznick decided some additional scenes were necessary and brought in George Cukor to film them. 

An example of the type of adult entertainment Selznick wanted RKO to pursue, it was treated as a prestige production and opened RKO’s theater in New York, the Roxy. However, the film proved more popular in the big cities than the rest of the country and wound up $100,000 in the red.

The film’s clear Pre-Code themes – cohabitation and Tom’s discussion of his brothel days with Cecelia – prevented RKO from reissuing the film in 1935 and 1937. On both occasions, the Production Code Administration told them they would not approve the film. Finally, RKO ended up selling the film and its rights to Warner Bros. sometime in the mid-1940s. In 1946, Warners’ came out with its remake, One More Tomorrow, a completely bowdlerized version, with Ann Sheridan in the Harding role as Christie Sage, Dennis Morgan as Tom Collier, Jack Carson as Regan, and Alexis Smith as Cecelia. 

In the meantime, the original film was considered lost for many years. In 1960, it officially entered the public domain in this country as its copyright registration failed to be renewed. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s, when film historian Ronald Haver was searching the Warner vaults for missing material to complete a restoration of that studio’s version of A Star is Born (1954), that he came across a forgotten print and original negative that the studio had misplaced due to faulty bookkeeping.


Daisy: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Smurfs: The Lost Village

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Smurfs: The Lost Village (Columbia, 2017) – Director: Kelly Asbury. Writers: Stacey Harman, Pamela Ribon (s/p). Peyo (characters and works). Voices: Demi Lovato, Rainn Wilson, Joe Manganiello, Jack McBrayer, Danny Pudi, Mandy Patinkin, Dee Bradley Baker, Frank Welker, Michelle Rodriguez, Ellie Kemper, Julia Roberts, Ariel Winter, Meghan Trainor, Bret Marnell & Brandon Jeffords. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

Would you see a movie where the main characters are called “Les Schtroumpfs?” That’s what the Smurfs were called when Peyo (Pierre Culliford), a Belgian cartoonist, created them in 1956. They take the diverse personalities of the Seven Dwarfs to the extreme. Supposedly there are 100 Smurfs and, to date, only 83 have been named. All have a qualifier in their name to justify their attitude or their profession. Imagine your many different emotions becoming a separate personality and then have to rally them all as a team to solve any difficulties.

From 1981 to 1990 they starred in a television cartoon series and become a fad beloved by many. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a fan. Looking back, I realize I don’t know how or why I got to like the Smurfs, but I did. I even played a computer game based on a Smurf adventure with my niece. When the game descended into a cave and the music went from major to minor, she would always say, “This is the scary part.” It never was, but the music hinted at it. 

This is the third Smurf movie and the first one completely in CGI animation. The Smurfs (2011) and The Smurfs 2 (2013) were both live-action movies with animated Smurfs mixed in. The evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael (Mr. Krinkle) were both live performers. But the way the Smurfs were drawn was wrong, along with their voices. Smurfs 2 was a box office failure.

Accurate” is the word to describe this film,  as it’s cinematically beautiful, masterfully animated, and well cast. From the start, the camera takes the audience on a Smurf’s-eye-view trek through a colorful forest to the familiar village of mushroom houses. Like a newscast, the proposition is posed that every Smurf knows who and what he is or does by his name. But what does Smurfette (Lovato) do? According to Farmer Smurf (Durham): “We know Smurfette is a Smurf. All we have to do is figure out what an ‘ette’ is.”

Even Smurfette wonders. Then she meets another Smurf in the forest wearing a jungle camouflage outfit. The other Smurf doesn’t say a word but runs off, disappearing through a chink in the stone wall marking the boundary of the Forbidden Forest and dropping a characteristic Smurf-cap. Papa Smurf (Patinkin) has strictly warned all of his Smurfs not to venture into the Forbidden Forest, but Smurfette is convinced there are Smurfs living there. The audience knows from the previous films that Smurfette is not a true Smurf, but was created from a lump of clay by Gargamel as both his spy and a lure to capture Smurfs. It was Papa Smurf’s magic that converted her into the loving, gentle creature we know.

Shortly after her encounter, Smurfette is captured by Gargamel (Wilson) and the cap provides him an ingredient to add to his cauldron (Jeffords), which provides him a hint as to where the Lost Village is. Azrael (Welker) finds the same hint on a tapestry on the castle wall, thus making it a map for Gargamel. Hefty Smurf (Manganiello), Brainy Smurf (Pudi) and Clumsy Smurf (McBrayer) rescue Smurfette and, thanks to a ladybug called Snappy Bug, voiced by Bret Marnell (who by the way, was also film’s editor), the Smurfs have a picture of the same map.

When Papa Smurf refuses to allow the four to seek out the Lost Village and warns them of Gargamel’s plan, they sneak out and go on the adventure of their lives. They find flowers that snap them up and spit them out, fire-breathing dragonflies, luminescent rabbits, a river that acts more like a rollercoaster, and a village of Smurfs – all female. From there on it’s their job to outsmart Gargamel, Azrael and their newest crony, a goofy vulture-like bird named Monty (Baker), and thwart his plans.

Peyo would be proud of this film. We all miss Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf and Grandpa Smurf in the cartoon (he died in 2013), but Mandy Patinkin fills in marvelously. Joe Manganiello does a provocative Hefty Smurf and his interest in Smurfette is undisguised. Jake Johnson leaves George Lopez in the dust as Grouchy Smurf. And who could not find humor in Gordon Ramsay voicing Baker Smurf? The only voice that’s off is Gargamel’s. Paul Winchell set the bar in the cartoon and Hank Azaria matched it. Rainn Wilson needs more rehearsal.

On the other hand, Jokey Smurf is a tribute to the original cartoon voice, June Foray (remember Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Cindy Lou Who, and Warner Brothers’ Granny and Witch Hazel?). Also, the 83 named Smurfs has been increased to 84 with the addition of Nosey Smurf, who finds everything interesting and hears “None of your business, Nosey!” as a running gag.

I enjoyed Smurfs: The Lost Village and so will children, once you explain it to them. It was entertaining, funny, and even had pathos. While you’re explaining, you may have to eventually tell the kids who Alan Young was (Farmer Smurf in the cartoon).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

924 2nd Avenue, New York

French cuisine is a whole other thing. I knew I wanted to try French food from the first day in high school French class back in 1964. I watched Julia Child every chance I could get and savored every moment. My first French restaurant was Le Quercy, back when 52nd Street was entirely French (not any more) and tried frogs legs (and liked them) way before a friend convinced me to try escargots (loved them ever since). 

The brick red awnings at Matisse looked like they’d seen better days, even though the name in white letters was still bright. There was no sidewalk café and only a single open door on 49thStreet. I entered and announced my reservation to the young lady who would become my server, Alissa. Given a choice of tables, I sat by the window and immediately noticed a framed photograph of John Lennon on the wall. The’60s music playing made me comfortable though they sounded alien in a French bistro.

When Alissa asked me my cocktail choice I chose the signature cocktail, the Matisse – gin, champagne, cassis, tequila and fresh mint – a Kir Royale with a kick. After Alissa cited the specials and explained the sizes of the dishes I made my decision to order crestfallen. I thought about the ravioles de royan (petit raviolis), but a red flag went up in my mind. Why order a pasta that would probably not be made fresh? I gave my selections to Alissa and we decided the order they should arrive.

While waiting I took a quick look around. Photos hung on every wall except the one occupied by the bar, but not even a hint of a copy of a painting by Matisse! Hmmm. Another server brought the bread and a small dish of olive oil. The olive oil served a real purpose because the bread was partially stale and not a bit warm. Another red flag, though the scalloped silver serving bowl the bread was attractive. My first course, sweet pea soup, was a daily special. Its pleasing yellow color and consistency made me dismiss the stale bread as an accident. Hot and flavorful with an almost nutty, sweet pea taste, it was very nice.

My wine selection was a 2014 Simonnet Febvre Chablis de Borgogne, with a delicate golden color and light nose. It tasted crisp, fresh and light in tannins, perfect for my dinner choices. 

The baked camembert was served next and came on a cutting board with paper-thin green apple slices, raisin pumpernickel bread slices and a honey drizzle. Though camembert isn’t as aggressive a flavor as brie, it was still nice and warm and the rind tender. The Chablis proved itself on this dish.

I knew their Boeuf Bourguignon was Julia Child’s recipe and suspected the filet of sole as well. I asked Alissa if the Thai curry for the mussels was spicy. She said no, “but we can make it spicy!” That sold me. The mussels were served in a large earthenware crock whose lid served as the repository for the shells. As soon as it was opened I could smell lemongrass, coriander and coconut milk as well as sharp Thai peppers. I set to work removing the mussels from their shells so that they could absorb as much flavor as possible from the spicy soup at the bottom of the crock. 

They were served with a side of French fries with fresh catsup. Alissa asked if I wanted mayonnaise and I said yes. The fries were not as crisp or as hot as I would like them, but they were not the main event. The Thai curry mussels were so good I almost forgot my wine. At one point, when I had finished all the mussels, it became more of a chore spooning up the savory soup. I ran out of bread and asked for more. The first piece was satisfyingly warm, but still stale. Good grief! I asked to have the soup wrapped up to go home. I would create something later with it.

My dessert was also a special of the day, a strawberry-rhubarb panna cotta drizzled with strawberry syrup, served with blueberries, and garnished with mint leaves. It was exactly what I wanted, not too sweet and not too tart, just right. I noticed they had special coffees and I chose the Monte Cristo with Kahlua and Grand Marnier. The other tables were starting to fill in, the conversation low and discrete. I hardly knew other diners were there until I looked up.

Before leaving I asked Alissa how old Matisse was. “Seven years.” That young? It looks a lot older. It was formerly the Café de Paris, which explains it. I asked about the missing Matisse artworks. She had no answer. I told her about the stale bread and she apologized. I may return to Matisse, maybe when they mature and learn French.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for April 23-30

April 23–April 30


BRUTE FORCE (April 23, 10:00 am): This is one of the best films about life in prison. The central focus is the tense-filled relationship between Hume Cronyn, the prison's chief of security, and Burt Lancaster as Joe Collins, the tough inmate who cannot be broken. Lancaster, as usual, is brilliant, compelling and authentic in Brute Force, only his second film. This is easily Cronyn's best performance. The lessons of the film are important, particularly that nobody can truly escape prison even upon release as the scars stay with ex-cons forever. It's brutal and realistic and well worth seeing.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (April 26, 1:45 am): Among the classic films released in 1967 were The GraduateBonnie and ClydePoint Blank and the best of the bunch, In the Heat of the Night. The latter pairs one of cinema's most under-appreciated actors, Rod Steiger, with one of film's most respected (and rightfully so) actors, Sidney Poitier. In the Heat of the Night gives the viewers an authentic view of racism in the South during the era of the Civil Rights movement. Steiger is the sheriff of a racist town working with Poitier, a police detective from Philadelphia, to solve a murder while overcoming significant challenges. The film won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Steiger.


FLESH (April 27, 12:15 pm): An odd little number directed by John Ford, about Polakai (Wallace Beery), a simple, good-hearted wrestler in Weimar Germany who falls for recently sprung, hardboiled moll Laura Nash (Karen Morely). She plays the good-natured slob like a fine-tuned fiddle, getting him to spring her criminal boyfriend Nicky (Ricardo Cortez) by telling him that he’s her brother. Pregnant by Nicky, she talks Polakai into marrying her, convincing him into believing the baby is his own. They move to America, where Polakai wrestles professionally and pursues the world’s championship. But with Nicky as his manager, Polakai is receiving advice to throw bouts instead of actually trying to win legitimately. In the end, Polakai gets wise, a discovery that  in spite of his gullible good nature  he has a will of his own, a discovery that has fatal consequences for Nicky. The film was the basis for the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, about an esteemed writer convinced to come to circa 1941 Hollywood, only to find he’s been assigned to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture.

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (April 30, 10:00 am): An amazing noir based on the true story of Erwin Walker, a World War II vet who turned to crime and terrorized Los Angeles in 1946. Told in semi-documentary style, the film follows the career of Davis Morgan (Richard Basehart) a man with a taste for electronic equipment who, caught in the act, kills a policeman and becomes a wanted killer. The film focuses on his pursuers and the methods they use to track him down, highlighted by great writing and meticulous camerawork, especially in the final scenes when Morgan is hunted down in the drainage systems of L.A. Jack Webb, who had a minor part in the film, later built his radio and television hit, Dragnet, around it.  

WE DISAGREE ON ... FUNNY GIRL (April 24, 8:00 pm)

ED: A. This is an amazing tour-de-force for the young Barbra Streisand, long before the days in which she reincarnated herself as a Deep Thinker and began to spout on every subject under the sun. No, in those days she was simply Streisand, a wonderful singer and song-stylist. Since she starred in the Broadway musical of the same name, it was a simple task to move her over to the film adaptation. Sure, the sets look particularly phony and to say that the script is contrived is to put it lightly, but who goes to see a musical for the sets and script? We go to see a musical for the performances, and most of all, for the music. And the film doesn’t let us down. A strong supporting cast backs Streisand, with Kay Medford, Lee Allen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Frank Faylen giving solid turns (I would have included Omar Sharif, but the longer the movie goes on the more annoying he gets to me), and the great William Wyler as her director. A great score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill gave us songs (“People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star”) that are standards today. Now, if you’re looking for a real biography of Fanny Brice, I suggest you buy a bio of her life. But if you’re looking for an enjoyable two and a half hours, this is the perfect ticket and a great example of the ‘60s musical.

DAVID: C-. In my never-ending quest to see all the films in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made book (I've seen about 750 of them) I have to endure some real stinkers such as Funny Girl. There's very little that's funny about this film. The plot is dull and lifeless  and this is after they fictionalized the life of Fanny Brice to make this more interesting. They failed. The movie is too much of a bad thing. To quote Roger Ebert's original review, the 1968 film "is perhaps the ultimate example of the roadshow musical gone overboard. It is over-produced, over-photographed and over-long." It clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, and is a chore to watch. The movie is slow paced and only gets worse as it goes on. I generally dislike musicals and this one did nothing to change my mind. While "People" is a good tune, the rest of the songbook is forgettable. William Wyler was a wonderful director, but he did an awful job with this film. Most critics have kind words for Barbra Streisand's performance in this movie, but she's just too much and Wyler fails to reign her in, and the rest of the actors are simply awful. It's far from being the worst movie or musical ever made, but it's a bad film that fails to entertain.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Boss Baby

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Boss Baby (Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Tom McGrath. Writers: Michael McCullers, Marla Frazee (book). Stars: Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire, Miles Christopher Bakshi, James McGrath, Conrad Vernon, ViviAnn Yee, Eric Bell Jr., David Soren, Edie Mirman, James Ryan, Walt Dorn & Jules Winter. Color, Animated, 3D, Rated PG, 97 minutes.

I’ll bet Marla Frazee was surprised at how far her tongue-in-cheek picture book on how demanding a baby could go when she saw what writer Michael McCullers did with her story. 

It’s now a total fantasy with a new origin for babies and a title character acting like a miniature James Bond on a bizarre mission. The basic concept of the plot is babies don't get as much love as puppies. Seriously? Added to that, the lengths The Boss Baby goes to just to make people laugh (sometimes successfully) distracts from the point of the film. Tossing money at 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Bakshi), Boss Baby (Baldwin) says, “See if you can find a good sushi place near here, I would kill for a spicy tuna roll right now.”

The best part of The Boss Baby is the computer-generated animation and the soundtrack, although the characters’ eyes are reminiscent of a Margaret Keane painting. Second to that is casting. Alec Baldwin as the Boss Baby’s voice is perfect.

The story begins with narration (not one of my favorite things) by Tobey Maguire (who will later be the voice of adult Tim Templeton) describing his wonderful, ultra-imaginative, childhood with his parents Ted (Kimmel) and Janice (Kudrow). That is, until Mom asks him how he would like a little brother. Tim dismisses this with a “No, I’m enough.” Janice looks down at her abdomen, glances at Ted, and that’s the last we see of reality.

Meanwhile, in another ethereal (they never call it heaven) dimension, babies are being churned out by the hundreds in an assembly-line process and we follow the one who will become Boss Baby through the entire Rube Goldberg mechanism. He’s the one always facing the wrong way (he almost gets a pacifier in the rear rather than his mouth) and he’s not ticklish at the last stage. So, rather than get a family and be a real baby, he’s slotted into management. (I can get that. I’ve known several managers who are babies.) Working at Baby Corp. he gets his mission. He’s chosen to take a taxi to Tim’s home simply because both of his parents work for Puppy Co. and it has been determined that babies are not getting as much love as puppies. Not only that, but a previous big boss of Baby Corp., Francis E. Francis (Buscemi) – he was Super, Colossal Big Boss – has been fired and has grown up to be CEO of Puppy Co. He is currently developing a new puppy that will stay cute and adorable forever, virtually taking all the love away from babies.

Tim is the only one of his family who sees through Boss Baby (Ted and Janice don’t think the suit and tie and briefcase are in the least bit weird), and he catches Boss Baby talking on a play phone to his boss, Big Boss Baby (Mirman). At a disguised play date, Boss Baby is having a meeting with neighboring babies Staci (Yee), a set of triplets (Bell Jr.) and big fat Jimbo (Soren) while assembling a team. Tim manages to tape Boss Baby talking but, in the ensuing chase in and out of the house, the tape is destroyed and Tim is grounded by Ted and Janice.

Boss Baby realizes he needs Tim to accomplish his mission and the two agree to act like they love each other to get him un-grounded. It works, but Francis has other plans. He swipes the baby bottle from Boss Baby’s briefcase (the formula that keeps him from reverting to a regular baby), mass produces it for his “Forever Puppy” and takes Ted and Janice to Las Vegas for the launching of the new love object. To keep Tim and Boss Baby at home, he has his brutish brother Eugene (Vernon) dress in drag as a nanny (sort of a “Scary Poppins”) to ensure they don’t interfere. In the efforts to escape and warn the parents, Tim teaches Boss Baby how to imagine and the two draw closer.

Like a fiddler on the roof, it sounds crazy. It is indeed. And while it has its funny moments, it’s more of a cartoon than an animated feature, geared more to a pre-teen audience than to adults. It’s entertaining in a silly sort of way and verges on clever. The scene where Boss Baby and Tim swipe an Elvis impersonator’s costume while he’s in the restroom in order the get on a plane to Las Vegas has a great reaction line, “Hey! Don’t be cruel!” James McGrath is underutilized in this film as Tim’s Gandalf alarm clock and a cameo Julia Child on Tim’s television. The song “Blackbird” by Lennon and McCartney is a strange one to be pivotal in the plot. (It’s Tim’s bedtime song and one that saves the day toward the end.) Yeah, I know. It’s all kind of hard to fit together. That’s what I thought.

Rating: 2½ out of 5 martini glasses.

212 East 34th Street, New York

To give you an idea of how rare Turkish cuisine is in New York, Galata is only my tenth time dining Turkish. 

The restaurant is named for Galata District in Istanbul, colonized by the Genoese who, in the 14th century, built the 206-foot-tall Galata Tower, sometimes called the "Christea Turris” (Tower of Christ). It was meant to be a part of a fortress wall around the district as well as a watch tower over the harbor in the Golden Horn near the Bosphorus. A photo of it hangs appropriately on a wall inside the restaurant.

From the outside, you cannot tell how expansive the restaurant itself is, but once you enter through the canvas air-lock door, all is Turkish and the space magically widens. A young woman led me to a table about midway into the restaurant. She left me the wine and drinks menu and I settled in.

Soon I met my server, Can, whose resemblance to Andy Kaufman was remarkable. He helped me through the neatly leather-bound, fold-out menu and brought me my appletini – a combination of vodka, Pucker sour apple, and green apple slices as a garnish. Another server brought Turkish bread in a basket and two brown olives in olive oil as a tapenade. Turkish bread is flat like Pita but fluffier and more browned.

I forgot to mention spacing out the dishes in time and consequently, my appetizer arrived with my soup. No problem, the appetizer is a cold dish, a selection of six Turkish dips (mixed meze) to be eaten with bread and consisting of hummus, babaganough, lebni (a dill yoghurt), smoked eggplant salad, “spicy mashed vegetables” (tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic), and a chunky vegetable dip made from eggplant and tomatoes topped with cilantro. I started with the vegetables and they were a little spicy, but not overly so. The lebni put out the fire effectively. The smoked eggplant salad had a great smoky flavor, which distinguished it from the babaganough (also made from eggplant). The chunky vegetable dip was difficult to balance on the bread but was a perfect middle-ground flavor between spicy and mild. The hummus, though, is my favorite. Made from chickpeas and olives with herbs and mild spices, it’s heaven.

The selection of wines was small and had several vintages from Turkey, some I’ve already tasted. I chose the 2012 Camlibag Merlot from Bozcaada Island, Turkey. Can gave me a short history of the Camlibag family and the wine region of Turkey (along the Mediterranean coast). The taste was amazing – a delicious medium-bodied red with a fruity nose, a rich garnet color and a spicy aftertaste. 

With a choice of shrimp, scallops, tilapia or branzino, I chose the last one. It was served whole, grilled to perfection and tasting of lemon (there was a lemon on the plate if needed) with a hint of olive oil. The meat was easy to get off the bones and melt-in-the-mouth tender. I just had to be aware of small bones throughout. It was served with a nice house green salad with chopped carrots, red cabbage, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and topped with raw red onion slices in an understated vinaigrette dressing. Simple, yet elegant.

When I finished my wine, Can brought a selection of desserts, all of which I’ve tried before. He recommended one that I’ve passed over several times, but I’m glad I didn’t this time. The baked rice pudding (Sutlac), served in a beautiful glazed clay crock, had a tasty, sweet baked rind on top and lots of sweet, tender rice underneath. I asked Can about spicy dishes and he said they do have them. I told him the rice pudding is the perfect dessert after a spicy meal and that I would be back to try the hotter recipes.

I asked if they had Turkish coffee and Can asked how I would like it. “Sweet,” I replied. It was served in a beautifully decorated cup with matching saucer and was delightful. To go with it I ordered a traditional Turkish after-dinner drink called Raki (Arrak) “Tekirdag Gold.” The preparation, a certain amount in a glass, cold water poured over it making it turn cloudy, and an ice cube was similar to absinthe and so was the anise-like flavor. It’s actually a grape brandy flavored with anise.

I thanked Can for his excellent service, history lesson and conversation. I learned from the young hostess that Galata is eleven months old. I congratulated her and bade a fond farewell to Galata.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.