Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

It’s the Holiday season and TCM will treat us to a mixture of beloved old Holiday favorites and some others that will be sure to please.

An interesting non-TCM item is the premiere of a three-hour live musical production of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. It’s scheduled to air on December 17 from 7:00 to 10:00 pm on Fox. From what we’ve been able to learn, the role of the narrator, the adult Ralphie Parker, will be played by Matthew Broderick. Ralphie as a child will be played by 11-year old Andy Walken. Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos are set to play Ralphie’s parents. Ana Gasteyer will play Mrs. Schwartz, the mother of Ralphie’s friend Schwartz. Jane Krakowski will play Miss Shields. New songs have been written by Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land). And yes, the iconic lamp will be featured.


December 1: After accidentally helping rustlers steal valuable horses, five children pursue them through the outback of Australia to retrieve the animals in Bush Christmas (1947) at Midnight. Following at 1:30 am, after 8-year old Margaret O’Brien learns the truth about her Aunt Susan's (Angela Lansbury) fiancé, Steve (George Murphy), she loses all faith in her family and in God. It will take nothing short of a miracle to restore Flavia's belief in Tenth Avenue Angel.

December 8: Alistair Sim is Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, generally considered by critics and film historians as the best version of the classic Dickens tale, airing at 8:00 pm. Sir Seymour Hicks follows with his interpretation of Dickens’ miser in the 1935 British production, titled simply Scrooge, at 9:45 pm. It’s a faithful interpretation of the Dickens classic.

December 14: Compliments of the Season, a 1930 short from Warner Bros., airs at 1:30 pm. Eric Dressler is a recently released petty thief who saves Lenita Lane from jumping off a pier to her death on Christmas Eve. Talking to her he learns that she is destitute and forlorn because she cannot find the man she loves (Weldon Heyburn). He has moved and she is all alone. Dressler wants to buy her dinner, but he is flat broke. He decides to raise some money by robbing a passing man on the street, and in an ironic twist the man turns out to be the missing boy friend. Look for Pat O’Brien in his first role (uncredited) as the detective trailing Dressler. 

December 15: Begin at 8 pm with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding co-workers who are secret anonymous romantic pen pals in Ernst Lubitsch’s incomparable 1940 The Shop Around the Corner. Following at 10 pm lovely Janet Leigh is a young widow caught between boring businessman Wendell Corey and hunky ne’er-do-well Robert Mitchum in Holiday Affair(1949).

The night continues at 11:45 pm with Don DeFore, Ann Harding, Charlie Ruggles and Victor Moore in the delightful It Happened on Fifth Avenue from Monogram (1947). And closing out the evening at 2 am, Monty Woolley disrupts an Ohio family’s Christmas in Warners’ The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941). Bette Davis got top billing as Woolley’s long-suffering secretary, but it’s Woolley’s show as he plays a thinly disguised Alexander Woollcott. Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell are the poor couple whose home Woolley takes over. Reginald Gardner is a thinly disguised Noel Coward and Jimmy Durante is along as a thinly disguised Harpo Marx. Ann Sheridan is excellent as a thinly disguised Gertrude Lawrence and Mary Wickes is memorable as Woolley’s put upon nurse. 


December 7: Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney are Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in the sappy 1948 biopic Words and Music at 8:00 pm. Also starring Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, June Allyson, Mel Torme, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse and Perry Como. Highlights are Judy Garland singing “Johnny One-Note,” Lena Horne’s exuberant version of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and Kelly and Vera-Ellen’s dance to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

Danny Thomas is songwriter Gus Kahn in the hokey 1952 biopic I’ll See You in My Dreams at 10:15 pm. Doris Day, Frank Lovejoy and James Gleason co-star.

Gene Kelly made his big screen debut as Judy Garland’s vaudeville partner in 1942’s For Me and My Gal. Kelly and Garland sing the title tune and “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose,” while Garland warbles an excellent version of “How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?).”

Busby Berkeley directs Dick Powell, Rosemary and Lola Lane, Glenda Farrell and Johnnie Davis in the exuberant Hollywood Hotel at 2:15 am. The highlight of the film is the opening number, as Johnnie Davis joins Benny Goodman and his orchestra in “Hooray for Hollywood.” The film is worth watching just for that number alone and the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s vibrant version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.”    

Songwriter Harry Warren performs several of his own compositions, including "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" and "Shadow Waltz” in the 1933 Warner Bros. short, Harry Warren: America’s Foremost Composer, airing at 4:15 am.

Finally, closing out the evening at 4:30 am is Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in the 1934 Busby Berkeley musical Dames. A must see for anyone who hasn’t caught it before.

December 14: At 8 pm Mickey Rooney romances Judy Garland in 1943’s Girl Crazy with a marvelous score by the Gershwins that includes “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me,” with the finale set to “I Got Rhythm.”

Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman and Jack Haley star in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) at 10 pm. The score by Irving Berlin includes “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,”  and the title tune.

At Midnight Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly star along with Louis Armstrong in High Society (1956), a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. The music by Cole Porter includes “True Love,” “Did You Evah?” “You're Sensational,” plus Bing and Satchmo performing “Now You Has Jazz.” 

Fred Astaire and Red Skelton star as Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in the biopic Three Little Words (1950). The songs from the real Kalmar and Ruby include the title song, “Who's Sorry Now?” and “Thinking of You.” Debbie Reynolds plays Helen Kane, but “I Wanna Be Loved by You” is dubbed by the real Helen Kane.

And at 4:15 am Fred Astaire, Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith and Artie Shaw headline 1940’s Second Chorus. Astaire and Meredith play two trumpet players scheming to get into Artie Shaw’s band. Tunes by Shaw and Johnny Mercer include “Would You Like to Be the Love of My Life?”


December 3: Fellini’s nostalgically tinted look about growing up in a small Italian town and how it fares under Mussolini, Amarcord (1973) is set for 3:00 am.

December 4: Robert Bresson’s taut POW drama, A Man Escaped (1956), is set to air at 2:15 am. At the late hour of 1:45 am, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou and William Holden Star in the rarely seen boxing drama, Golden Boy (1939).

December 6: The epic story of the original astronauts and their unique approach to the space program, The Right Stuff (1983), will be shown at  9:00 pm. With Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom. Following at 12:30 am is the venerable Chariots of Fire (1981).

December 10: Two films about the darker side of science are due to air beginning at 2:00 am with  the Soviet Nine Days of One Year (1962). Two young nuclear physicists. Dmitry Gusev (Aleksey Batalov and Ilya Kulikov (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy) are good friends, but rivals in love. Dmitry marries Lyolya (Tatyana Lavrova) and they have a happy marriage. While attempting to make fusion work in a reactor Dmitry becomes careless and exposes himself to large amounts of radioactivity and falls seriously ill. However, he has a strong spirit, and his will to live, combined with his deep passion for his work and his strong love for mankind makes it possible for him to recover. Directed by Mikhail Romm, the film is somewhat groundbreaking in admitting that carelessness in a nuclear laboratory, causes a radiation incident, something the Soviet Union was loath to admit: that nuclear accidents were possible in Russia. However, his strong socialist faith in his work and mankind enables him to lick the problem and the film ends on a hopeful note.

Following at 4:00 am is Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 drama, Fear. Irene Wagner (Ingrid Bergman) is the wife of prominent scientist Albert Wagner (Mathias Wieman). Irene, much younger than her husband, has an affair with playboy Erich Baumann (Kurt Kreuger). However, Erich's nasty former flame, Luisa (Renate Mannhardt), finds out about the affair and proceeds to blackmail Irene. Irene’s life now becomes an escalating nightmare, for with each payoff, the amount increases. How will she solve it and break free?  The last collaboration of Bergman and Rossellini, it’s easily the weakest and is really for Bergman fans only.

December 11: In Withnail & I (12:15 am) it’s 1969 London. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann), two unemployed – and unemployable – actors, fed up with everything, decide to leave their squalid flat for what they think will be an idyllic holiday in the countryside, courtesy of Withnail's uncle Monty’s (Richard Griffiths) country cottage. But when they get there, they find it’s far less thank they imagined: it continually rains and there is no food, a situation that is beyond their limited survival skills. To make matters worse, Uncle Monty arrives and displays a rather uncomfortable interest in Marwood. A dismal flop when it premiered in 1987, it is regarded today as one of the best British comedies ever made. Despite its largely English humor, Withnail & I is a very accessible film, and one of the best films about friendship. 


December 5: The morning and afternoon is devoted to the films of the noted German emigre director with his classic M (1931) leading off at 6:00 am. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) follows at 8:00 am. Then Spencer Tracy stars in Lang’s first American film, Fury (1936) at 10:15 am. Hangmen Also Die, the 1943 drama about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, airs at Noon. Clash By Night (1952), with Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas is shown at 2:30 pm. Following at 4:30 pm is 1955’s Moonfleet, with Stewart Granger, George Sanders and Joan Greenwood, and finally, at 6:15 pm, reporters led by Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino are after a serial killer in the 1956 drama While the City Sleeps.


December 3: Beginning at 8:00 pm, TCM is running two films based on George Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen. First up is The Loves of Carmen (1948), a non-musical version starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. Following at 10:00 pm is Otto Preminger’s 1954 Carmen Jones, with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Dorothy Dandridge as the ultimate femme fatale, Carmen Jones. Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the film’s music from Bizet's opera, but it’s Dandridge’s exciting and earthy performance that makes this one to catch. 


December 9: The original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly, Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman and Dwight Frye as Wilmer can be seen at 6:30 am. 

December 11: Dipso director Lowell Sherman makes a star out of waitress Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood? (1932) at 6 am. 

At 2:30 am, Horse Feathers, the hilarious Marx Brothers comedy from 1932, is scheduled to air. As film buffs know, the movie has been rather badly edited over the years. It has recently been restored, and it will be interesting to see if TCM shows the restored version or just repeats the shredded version. 

December 12: A morning and afternoon of Edward G. Robinson kicks off at 6:30 am with Robinson and James Cagney in Smart Money (1931). At 8 am it’s Eddie G. donning yellowface in The Hatchet Man (1932), followed at 9:30 by Silver Dollar (1932). Eddie G. is a farmer who strikes it rich with a silver mine and dumps his loyal wife Aline MacMahon for the flashy Bebe Daniels. At 11 am Eddie G. is a condemned murderer who, in the last moments of his life, relieves the events that led him to the electric chair in the 1932 drama Two Seconds. Read our review of it here. At 12:15 pm, Robinson is a bootlegger who quits the rackets and tries to break into high society with the end of Prohibition in the 1933 comedy The Little Giant. Mary Astor co-stars in this frequently funny comedy. Finally, at 1:45 pm, Robinson is a compulsive gambler who loses everything in 1934’s Dark Hazard.


December 2: TCM is honoring the English actor with four of his films, beginning with the James Whale directed The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at 8:00 pm. Following at 9:30 pm Clive stars with Diana Wynyard in another film directed by Whale, One More River (1934). At 11:15 pm Clive is a classical pianist who has the hands of a murderer grafted onto his wrists by mad doctor Peter Lorre in Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love. Finally, at 12:30 am, aviatrix Katharine Hepburn sacrifices all for Married man Clive in 1933’s Christopher Strong.  


December 7: The classic 1932 version of The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff with Zita Johann, will be shown at 6:30 pm. Over the years since it premiered it’s been imitated, but never duplicated, let alone topped.

December 10: Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind airs at 8:00 pm, followed at 10:30 by Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush in Jack Arnold’s 1953 sci-fi classic, It Came From Outer Space.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for December 1-7

December 1–December 7


NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (December 1, 12:30 pm): Cary Grant is so good as a Cockney drifter in None But the Lonely Heart that I look at this 1944 film as the precursor to the classic British "kitchen-sink" films of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Those films focused on angry young men living directionless lives in post-World War II England. This film takes place in post-World War I England. Equally excellent is the legendary Ethel Barrymore as his dying mother. In addition to the amazing performances from Grant and Barrymore, the storyline is compelling, well-paced and really depressing. The movie lost money for RKO, which unfortunately meant Grant would never take on a similar role as the one in this film despite his groundbreaking performance.

FURY (December 5, 10:15 am): This is director Fritz Lang's first American film, and it's one filled with suspense, revenge, mob rule, hostility, intolerance and action. Spencer Tracy established himself as one of Hollywood's best actors when Fury was released in 1936. Tracy plays Joe Wilson, who is accused of a crime he didn't commit. While he sits in jail, waiting for the police investigation into the crime, the local townspeople get worked up and go to lynch him. Unable to get inside, they torched the jail with Wilson killed in the fire – or so it seems. The great plot twist is that Joe escapes, but is presumed dead, with the people responsible for the incident facing murder charges. With the help of his brothers, Joe seeks revenge against his would-be killers. Tracy does a great job going from a hardworking, mild-mannered guy into one controlled by anger and vengeance. The film moves from a love story to suspense to a courtroom drama.


KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (December 2, 4:00 pm): This classic from Ealing Studios is mostly known for the fact Alec Guinness plays eight different roles – all members of the D’Ascoyne family – in this hilarious tale of revenge. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is an Englishman born into poverty, but who has a distant connection to royalty on his mother’s side. The problem is that eight members of the D’Ascoyne family stand between him and what he feels is his rightful inheritance. Louis solves this problem by systematically bumping off each member. Joan Greenwood adds to the fun as the greedy Sibella, and Valerie Hobson is wonderful as Edith D’Ascoyne. It’s one of the most intelligent black comedies ever made and if you haven’t yet seen it ... let’s just say that if there ever such a thing as a real “Must See,” this is it.

LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY (December 5, 10:00 pm): The Andy Hardy series at MGM was the most profitable B-movies series ever made. They were essentially B-movies with an A-budget and style. They are also a guilty pleasure of mine. Sure, they were corny as hell and tried to evoke an America that didn’t even exist at that time, but they are a lot of fun to watch, although I think it all comes down to how one feels about Mickey Rooney. This one tends to stand out due to the supporting cast, specifically Lana Turner and Judy Garland. Turner’s a wonder to behold here, with her natural auburn hair (before it was bleached), and Garland plays the role of a young girl with a crush on Andy Hardy almost to perfection. And she gets to sing, as well. The plot, with Andy minding his friend Beezy’s girlfriend (Turner) while he’s away, and the sidebar, with Mrs. Hardy having to travel to Canada to nurse her sick mother, are nominal. It’s the Rooney-Garland relationship that comes to the center of the film. The only flaw in the pudding is that Andy’s girlfriend, Polly Benedict, is also conveniently away for the holidays, so we miss out on the gorgeous Ann Rutherford for most of the film. Also look for a young Gene Reynolds (who went on to become a prolific television director) as a young friend of Andy’s.

WE AGREE ON ... BRUTE FORCE  (December 4, 6:15 pm)

ED: A. Jules Dassin’s postwar prison noir, a film that clearly lives up to its name, draws its inspiration from both a real life prison riot at Alcatraz and the POW experience in Nazi Germany during the war. The cons we meet in the film, led by Burt Lancaster, Howard Duff and Charles Bickford are closer to prisoners-of-war; morally righteous men whose shared brotherhood is threatened by the screws, the camp guards. Hume Cronyn is superb as Munsey, the fascistic captain of the guards with a love of torture unheard of in previous prison dramas. He’s not out to simply discipline a prisoner; he’s out to totally break the prisoners in his charge, to take away their hopes and dreams, and completely dehumanize them. The worst form of torture in this gulag is assignment to “the drainpipe,” a never-ending excavation defined by one inmate as “Nobody knows where that drainpipe is goin’, or where it’ll come out, or even if it’ll ever be used.” It’s not meant to break those considered by other inmates as unbreakable; it’s meant to kill them. Pushed beyond their capacity, the prisoners ultimately rebel, even though they know that rebellion to be futile. That’s the real point of the film.

DAVID: A. This 1947 film pulls no punches in showing how brutal life is in Westgate Prison, an overcrowded penitentiary run in theory by a weak-willed warden. In reality, it's the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn in his greatest role) who runs the prison through his emotional and physical beatings of the inmates. His cruelty seems arbitrary as he causes one inmate to commit suicide through mind games and another to plant a shiv on Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) causing him to end up in “the hole.” Collins leaving solitary confinement and planning his revenge and escape starts this hard-hitting film. Lancaster, as usual, is brilliant, compelling and authentic in Brute Force, only his second film. The inmates are largely sympathetic characters, but certainly are no angels and the way they exact revenge on the con who planted the shiv on Collins will make some viewers shutter. Collins and the others in cell R17 plan an escape by going through "the drainpipe," which Ed expertly explains above. The plan is doomed from the beginning and even when it becomes obvious to Collins, he decides taking the chance to escape is better than spending another day with Munsey in Westgate. The film's driving points are inmates are human beings who deserve some dignity, and no matter what happens, prisoners who eventually get released still carry the scars of their time being incarcerated. It's not to be missed.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

What! No Beer?

Train Wreck Cinema

By Ed Garea

What! No Beer? (MGM, 1933) – Director: Edward Sedgwick. Writers: Carey Wilson (s/p), Robert E. Hopkins (story), Jack Cluett (add. dial.). Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Roscoe Ates, Phyliss Barry, John Miljan, Henry Armetta, Edward Brophy, Charles Dunbar & Charles Giblyn. B&W, 65 min.

A Question for the Night: How can a studio take one fair comic and one comic legend and make a film starring them that has absolutely no laughs whatsoever? 

Start with a lame script that fails to take advantage of any comic situations, then add a comic legend who is not only beyond caring anymore, but actually shows up for filming  three sheets to the wind. Add to this an overbearing co-star and mediocre direction. Thus we get What! No Beer? This is a mediocre Prohibition comedy about two dimwitted bootleggers and their ensuing problems with both the law and other bootleggers. It’s a promising premise loaded with comic possibilities, but the plot makes no sense, jumping from one situation to another in a haphazard manner in the belief that chaotic and loud is funny. It isn’t.

Though Keaton is the star, it’s Durante’s film, with Keaton just along for the ride. Durante is Jimmy Potts, a barber and active “wet” proponent. After learning that his state has voted to repeal Prohibition, Potts runs to his timid friend, taxidermist Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) for financial backing to start a brewery. 

For his part Elmer has been in love with Hortense (Barry), the free-spending moll of local bootlegger Butch Lorado (Miljan) ever since he saw her after mistakenly stumbling into a temperance meeting. (Of course, the bootleggers want Prohibition to remain in force, the better for their business.) After Potts tells him about his idea to buy a local brewery and make his own beer, Elmer backs his plan, for he wants to make money to impress Hortense. He agrees to invest his life savings in the brewery and become Jimmy’s partner. 

Not realizing that the repeal amendment requires state-by-state ratification, Elmer and Jimmy plow ahead with their plan and hire three hobos living in the brewery, Schultz (Ates), Tony (Armetta) and Mulligan (Dunbar), to help them prepare the brew as per Jimmy’s recipe. But before they can sell a single glass they are raided by the police. Jimmy and Elmer are arrested on charges of violating local prohibition laws and face six years each in jail. They are released after the police chemist discovers there is no alcohol in Jimmy’s beer. What they have done is to brew a batch of “near beer.” 

Jimmy, guilty about Elmer losing his savings, learns from Tony that Schultz used to be a brewmeister. Schultz had tried to tell Jimmy the night before that hops were necessary to make alcoholic beer, but because of his heavy stutter Jimmy could not understand him. Now determined to make good Elmer’s losses Jimmy decides to use Schultz’s recipe, but in order to assuage the nervous Elmer, Potts tells him that their operation will only make “near beer.”

While Jimmy gets busy Elmer is visited by bootlegger Spike Moran (Brophy), who along with Lorado, is concerned about a plan Elmer devised from reading books about salesmanship to undercut the competition’s prices. Elmer, totally oblivious to Spike’s real intentions, contracts with the bootlegger to deliver 1,000 barrels a day and accepts $10,000 as a down payment. Spike figures he can sell the brew at ten times its cost. Elmer then rushes off to the unemployment office and hires 50 new employees. When Jimmy learns what Elmer has done, he tells his partner the truth about the beer and hides the $10,000 Spike paid Elmer in his overcoat pocket. 

Meanwhile, Butch sends Hortense to visit Elmer and find out what she can about their operation. She pretends to faint and Elmer carries her into the office. There he manages to spill water all over her dress. She removes the dress and Elmer gives her Jimmy’s overcoat to wear. She takes her leave after learning about Elmer’s deal with Spike. When Jimmy returns and finds the coat missing, Elmer tells him that Hortense has it. Jimmy confesses he hid the money in it, but Elmer doesn’t mind, for she’s the girl for whom he wants to make a million.

Hortense tells Butch about Spike’s deal with Elmer. When the $10,000 falls out of the coat Lorado calls her a tramp and hits her, assuming the worst given her state of undress. Later she calls Elmer and he asks about the money. She lies and says she never saw it, to which Elmer responds by telling her to keep it and buy a Rolls. He asks her out for an afternoon at the park and she accepts.

After two of Spike’s men say that Lorado threatened to kill them if they attempted to deliver the beer, Elmer volunteers to deliver it himself. Lorado’s men plan to kill him at the top of a hill, but the truck’s tire blows out halfway up causing the barrels to fall off of the back and chase the gangsters away. Jimmy arrives, and Elmer mourns the loss of the near beer. Jimmy explains that it was real beer, and they’re involved with gangsters. Elmer, however, won't leave town, because he’s got a date with Hortense at the park.   

The next day, while Elmer is romancing Hortense in the park, Lorado kills Spike and takes over the brewery with his gang.

Meanwhile, the cops are planning to raid the brewery. Hortense finds out and slips Elmer a note about the raid. Elmer escapes in a barrel, grabs a blackboard, and drives away. He shows what he's written on the board to everyone on the street: Free Beer at the Brewery. The factory is mobbed, and by the time the police arrive, there’s no beer left and the gangsters are arrested.   
Cut to a senator speaking to Congress and telling the story of a town in his state where the gangsters were put out of business when the people stormed the brewery. He calls for an end to Prohibition. We see a headline, “Beer Legalized,” crowds cheer, grain is harvested, and beer is made and delivered. 

At Butt's Beer Garden, Elmer and Jimmy arrive in an open car. Jimmy offers free beer as the crowd mobs them for autographs and steals their clothes as well. Hortense asks if Elmer is hurt. He isn't. Jimmy, holds up a frosty glass of beer and turns to the camera: “It's your turn next folks. It won't be long now.” He blows off the foam and chugs some down.


What! No Beer? is a terrible movie. It was the coda to Buster Keaton’s tenure at MGM, a tenure that saw him eventually reduced to playing second fiddle to one-note comic Jimmy Durante. There are several scenes in the movie where it is quite noticeable that Keaton is drunk. His pratfalls, used in his pre-MGM days to heighten his other gags, literally fall flat in the movie. His love affair with Hortense is rushed. Again, in his pre-MGM days, Keaton would construct enough of a plot to explain his sudden passion. Now he’s only an actor, paid to read lines he didn’t write and to perform gags he didn’t invent. The writers never took into consideration any explanation of why Keaton falls in love at first sight. He just does and follows Hortense around like a lovesick puppy. We don’t get to see his ardor from her point-of-view nor that of her boyfriend, Lorado. 

Considered second only to Chaplin in his silent days, Keaton made the biggest mistake of his life when he signed with MGM. Financially, it was a nice deal for Keaton, with a salary of $3,000 a week, but everyone close to him warned Buster not to sign. Chaplin told him that “they’ll ruin you helping you.”

Alas, his friends were right as Keaton went almost overnight from an independent producer-director to studio employee. The first thing to go was his creative freedom. His working process leaned heavily on improvisation. He’d outline the story’s beginning and ending, with the middle being decided as production moved along. He was in control: figuring out what each scene needed in setting and situation as he went along. When he was satisfied, he would have the set built and choose his props and costumes for the cast. If a situation arose where a better gag could be used he would temporarily halt production while he adjusted the sets and props. 

Now that he worked for MGM, the studio told him what he could and couldn’t do. It is usually thought that sound killed Keaton’s creativity, but in actuality he wanted to make 1929’s Spite Marriage using the new sound technology. The studio turned him down; sound was new and expensive. It was saved for what the studio considered “important” projects,” such as dramas and musicals. Comedies weren’t seen as worth the time and expenditure. In 1929 Keaton was cast, along with most of the studio’s other stars (with the exception of Garbo) in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a variety format talkie showcasing the fact that MGM’s stars could talk. But not Keaton. He performed a silent comic dance and later appeared in an ensemble singalong of “Singin’ in the Rain.” But as the camera cuts to Keaton, his mouth is shut, looking confused and at sea as the others keep singing. It was a portent of things to come.

His first sound film at MGM, Free and Easy (1930) was followed by a succession of films of lesser quality as Keaton reacted to his new employees status with disinterest. At the same time he was also facing an acrimonious and expensive divorce from Natalie Talmadge. He began drinking heavily and it affected his work. The studio lost confidence in Keaton’s ability to carry a film, so in 1932 he was teamed with loudmouth comic Jimmy Durante in The Passionate Plumber, the first of three films they would make together. Things went from bad to worse as Keaton ended up playing second fiddle to Durante. He reacted to his situation by stepping up his drinking habit, which disrupted entire production schedules due to hangovers and alcoholic blackouts. He also began to vocalize his objections to his increasingly demeaning roles in the films with Durante. 

MGM had another film planned for the duo, called Buddies, and they were slated to co-star with Jackie Cooper. But Keaton was now more of a liability to the studio than an asset, despite his continuing popularity. After What! No Beer? MGM decided to cut its losses and gave Keaton the gate despite the fact that his films were very profitable at the box office.     

In 1934, Keaton accepted an offer to star in an independent film in France, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. From 1934-37 he also starred in a series of two-reelers for Educational films, usually under the direction of Charles Lamont or Mack Sennett. He also starred in a 1936 English film called The Invader (released in America as An Old Spanish Custom).

Returning to America he continued working for Educational Films. MGM also hired him as a gagman. Among the comics he worked with was Harpo Marx. In 1939 Columbia hired him to star in 10 two-reel comedies, under directors Del Lord and Jules White, who also helmed the Three Stooges shorts at the same studio. His first short for the studio was Pest from the West, a shorter, tighter remake of The Invader, directed by Lord. However, the shorts rapidly declined in quality, and after the final short, She's Oil Mine (1941), Keaton swore he would never again “make another crummy two-reeler.” The Columbia entries would be his final starring series for any movie studio.     

With his personal life stabilizing after his 1940 marriage to Eleanor Norris, Keaton played character roles in both "A" and "B" features. Critics rediscovered him in 1949 and producers occasionally hired him for bigger "prestige" pictures, with cameos in such major productions as In the Good Old SummertimeSunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He had a more substantial role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in a poignant comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952).  With the exception of a 1922 publicity film called Seeing StarsLimelight marked the only occasion in which the Chaplin and Keaton would ever appear together on film.     

In the ‘50s he began doing guest shots on television, appearing on such shows as Rheingold TheatreThe Eddie Cantor Comedy TheaterScreen Directors Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre , Playhouse 90, Route 66, Burke’s Law and The Donna Reed Show. In 1961 he won critical notice when he starred in a Twilight Zone episode called "Once Upon a Time.” Including both silent and sound sequences, Keaton played Mulligan, a time traveler who traveled from 1890 to 1960 and back by means of a special helmet. He also guested in a hilarious episode of Candid Camera as a man for whom everything goes wrong. In addition to television series, Keaton also found steady work in TV commercials. He filmed a popular series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer reviving some of the gags from his silent film days.     

Beginning in 1964, Keaton began working for American International Pictures, appearing in Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket BingoHow to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sergeant Dead Head (1965). Not only was he allowed to write and perform his own gags, he also did a little physical comedy, not bad for a 70-year old man.     

In a short called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada, he wore his traditional porkpie hat and traveled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, performing gags similar to those in films he madden his silent films. The film is notable for being Keaton's last silent screen performance and was made in tandem with a behind-the-scenes documentary about his life and times, called Buster Keaton Rides Again.    

Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of 70. Though he was diagnosed with the terminal illness in January 1966, he was never informed of his condition, believing it to be bronchitis.

Friday, November 24, 2017

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Film In Focus

By Jonathon Saia

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989) – Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik. Writer: John Hughes. Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Brian Doyle-Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ellen Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel & Sam McMurray. Color, Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.        

Every family has their holiday traditions.

Reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" around the fire. Finding the pickle on the Christmas tree. Singing carols around the piano. Getting drunk to survive the foolishness. The holidays bring out the best and the worst of what it means to be a family.

One of the Saia Family traditions (in addition to all of the above) was watching the Griswolds. I've probably seen this movie a dozen times and always thought of it as a lightweight, feel good reflection of the stress the holidays bring to us all. The Christmas my grandfather died, in desperate need of a laugh, we still gathered around the TV as usual and I began to realize just how great – not just emotionally rewarding – of a film it actually is.

Notice when Clark (Chase) gives his boss a Christmas gift; all of the gifts from all of his workers are shaped exactly the same, symbolizing the cookie-cutter expectation of white collar America. Clark and his boss (played by the indefatigably cantankerous Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill's brother) are separated by a giant table, speaking volumes about the company's relationship to its workers. Notice the way Audrey's (Lewis) eyes are frozen over when shopping for the tree. Or Russ' (Galecki) frustration being given the task of unraveling the ball of lights, illustrating the way children suffer for their parents' mistakes. Or the scene in bed when Clark's fingers get sticky with the glue from the magazine. Or the great montage when the grandparents arrive yelling at one another and then unloading their grievances and their outpourings of emotion on their hosts not even two minutes in the door. The way Eddie (Quaid) piles bag upon bag of dog food into Clark's cart. The way Ellen (D'Angelo) and Audrey bond over the inescapable wounds of family pressure. And every single moment featuring Uncle Lewis (Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Questel). This film is filled with moments of tacit specificity that create an elaborate tapestry of Mid-American provincial life.

Christmas Vacation has it all: It's a road movie as they travel into the woods to chop down their own tree. It's an action movie as they struggle to get out from under the truck and the SWAT team busts through their windows. It's a sex comedy as Clark flirts with the clerk at the mall and later dreams of her doing a private striptease just for him. It's a gross out comedy as Eddie dumps his full shitter into their sewage drain. It's slapstick as the Griswolds' neighbors fall down the stairs and get attacked by dogs. It's a Man Against the Machine film as Clark finds himself an anonymous cog in the corporate wheel and shoppers fall over themselves for the last-minute deals. It's a socio-economic treatise seeing what poverty does to the family unit. It's a four-hankie weeper as Clark watches his old home movies and has a heart to heart with his dad after everything goes down hill. The screenplay by John Hughes, the master of smart comedies with heart, combines all of these seemingly mismatched elements to give us a frighteningly real life portrait of the Willie Loman in all of us.

And standing in as our Everyman is the under-appreciated Chevy Chase, always overshadowed by other titans of his generation like Bill Murray or John Belushi. But in every Chase performance there is a suave mastery of the art of physical comedy. And his most famous character, Clark Griswold, reminds me of something Buster Keaton would have played. Pantomimed to perfection, filled with passion and heart and bravery. There is a reason why he is Chevy Chase and we are not.

Christmas Vacation is also filled to the brim with wonderful character actors. Doris Roberts. Diane Ladd. E.G. Marshall. John Randolph. Miriam Lynn. A pre-Roseanne Galecki. A pre-Cape Fear Lewis. A pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. A post-Oscar nominated Hickey and Quaid. The great Mae Questel who was the voice of "Betty Boop" and "Olive Oyl." And the neglected D'Angelo. Seriously. Where has she gone?

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation taps into the joys and heartbreaks of trying to bring your family the perfect gathering, no matter which holiday you celebrate. And most poignantly, it makes you look at your own insane, obnoxious, pull-your-hair-out-frustrating family and somehow love them. To see through all the muck and mire and just love them.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for November 23-30

November 23–November 30


NETWORK (November 24, 1:15 am): This brilliant film is not only the best satire of television ever made, but it is decades ahead of its time showing how reality TV could and did capture the attention of the viewing audience. As the years pass, this 1976 film becomes more relevant as society's interest in the obsession of pseudo celebrities and our insatiable appetite for around-the-clock garbage news increase. At times, you can see yourself in the film watching some of the crap that litters the airwaves today. You know it's awful and/or outrageous, but you can't help but watch. The film shows the mental breakdown of anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and how it captures the attention of viewers whose voyeur tendencies only grow. Finch, Faye Dunaway (as an overly ambitious and sexy network executive), and Beatrice Straight (in a bit but important role as the wife of a TV executive played by William Holden) won Oscars in three of the four acting categories. Like Finch, Holden was nominated for Best Actor, but obviously didn't win. Finch's "Mad as Hell" speech is one of cinema's finest and one of its top five most iconic moments. It's drop-dead serious while also being outrageously funny.

THE PETRIFIED FOREST (November 26, 1:30 pm): In one of his first major roles, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a notorious gangster on the run. Bogart was so great in this 1936 film as the heavy – bringing depth, emotion and character to the role – that Warner Brothers spent nearly five years casting Bogart in other movies as the bad guy. But very few were of this quality. Duke and his gang end up in a diner near the Petrified Forest in Arizona with the police chasing them. The gang takes everyone inside hostage, including Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a once great writer who is now an alcoholic. Not fearing death because of what life has become for him, Squier engages Duke in conversation, pushing his buttons. The interaction between the two is outstanding. Also at the dinner is Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who owns it with her father and grandfather. Davis is excellent and even subdued as a secondary character.


GRAND ILLUSION (Nov. 24, 3:30 am): This is a “Must See” in every sense of the word. Jean Renoir directed this classic about three French prisoners in a German POW camp and their relationship with the Commandant. Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Marcel Dalio (Remember him as the croupier in Casablanca?) are the prisoners and Erich Von Stroheim is the Commandant. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar, but more importantly, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned any showings during World War II. That alone should ensure it immortal status.

I, VITTELLONI (Nov. 26, 4:00 am): Originally released in the U.S. as The Young and the Passionate, it’s usually translated as “The Young Bulls.” However, a more idiomatic translation would be “Adolescent Slobs.” An early effort from Fellini about five frustrated small town boys with big plans. The five are sons of indulgent, middle-class families who live off their parents while loafing and dreaming of riches, glory and especially, women. While their ideals are lofty, their execution is often pointless. They waste their time and energies on dubious pursuits and whatever dreams or ideas they have are childish. The brilliance of the film lies in Fellini’s observation of them without any hint of disdain; while his tone is satirical, he balances it with warmth and a certain amount of nostalgia. The film influenced a host of directors both in Europe and America. We can see its influence in such films as Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Lucas’ American Graffiti, and Levinson’s Diner. The film is autobiographical, and Fellini’s character, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), is the only one to escape from the futility of life in the small town. The film launched the career of Alberto Sordi and was awarded The Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion (best director) in 1953.

WE DISAGREE ON ... LIFE WITH FATHER (November 23, 11:45 pm)

ED: A. Right off the bat I have to tell you this is not on the level of a Citizen Kane or The Thin Man, but it does have Powell and Dunne and you can’t go wrong with them. The movie is a faithful and charming adaptation of Day’s affectionate memoir with Powell giving the film’s strongest and funniest performance as a strict father of four boys in 1883 New York City. All he wants is to enjoy a simple family life. However, his wife, played by Dunne, and his children have other plans. Time and time again his quest for peace is upset by visiting relatives, a new love, money matters and the repeated attempts by his wife to get him baptized. Powell and Dunne. They make a very believable married couple and are the best part of the movie. Day, in filling his storyline with plenty of anecdotal humor and nostalgia, makes it clear that one of his main goals is to reveal the inanity (and futility) of his father’s dated patriarchal beliefs. That he manages to preserve his father’s character while simultaneously skewering much of his nonsensical drivel is the secret to the film. And keep an eye out for Elizabeth Taylor as a teenager. She plays the role witty and what can only be called earnest loveliness. And Michael Curtiz’s direction helps move the proceedings smoothly along. Life With Father will probably hold minimal interest for modern film buffs, but if you're in the mood for light, harmless family fun than this film will probably suit you fine.  

DAVID: C+. I absolutely adore William Powell. No matter the role, he was charming, witty and entertaining. That's why I'm so disappointed with Life With Father. While Powell gave his typical wonderful performance, there's nothing he or the talented Irene Dunne can do to breathe life into this film. Their performances are fine, but the plot, based on the actual life of a stockbroker, is a real snoozer. The main storyline is finding a way to get Powell's character, Clarence Day Sr., baptized. Among the subplots is Day believes he controls his house when he doesn't, and the wooing of a teenage Elizabeth Taylor by Day's oldest son. It's a comedy with few laughs. It's far too sweet and sentimental for me, but worse than that, it's largely boring.

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Hollywood Stories, Vol. 3

By Ed Garea

Some of what you read below is true. Some is pure fantasy. But we include them all in this column, dedicated to a town unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy.

Sam Goldwyn and Pete Smith

Garson Kanin, in his memoir Hollywood, said that Goldwyn’s famous malaprops were written by his publicity agent, Pete Smith. Years later Pete Smith would gain fame as the producer/narrator of a series of shorts titled A Pete Smith Speciality. One of the writers of those shorts was Arthur Marx, son of Groucho. In Arthur’s autobiography, Son of Groucho, he tells about his father meeting up with Dore Schary, then head of MGM, and his wife Miriam. Miriam made the mistake of chiding Groucho for his taste in young women, asking why he can’t stay away from the shiksas. Groucho told Miriam to mind her own business in no uncertain terms. Her husband, was still mad as hell over the matter when he returned to work the next Monday. He summoned Pete Smith into his office. Since he couldn’t fire Groucho, he did the next best thing – he had Smith fire Arthur.

James Whale and Jean Harlow

Before he came to Universal in 1931 and wrote his name into Hollywood history as one of the greatest directors to sit behind the camera, James Whale served as a dialogue director. While working on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930), he had to work with Jean Harlow, who he despised. The feeling was mutual on her part. This was her first big break, she was terrified, and Whale was of no help whatsoever. She came to him for help on her famous “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” scene. Whale starred at her and coldly replied, “My dear girl, I can tell you how to be an actress, but I cannot tell you how to be a woman.”

Rory Calhoun

To say that Rory liked the ladies was an understatement. When his wife, actress Lita Baron, sued him for divorce, she named 79 women with whom he had allegedly committed adultery. Calhoun’s response? "Heck, she didn't even include half of them.”

Joan Crawford

Ever since daughter Christina published Mommie Dearest, her hatchet job on life with her mother, Joan Crawford has been the butt of innumerable jokes. (“Christina! Your bath is ready! I’ve been boiling it for an hour!”) However, few people knew of Joan’s generosity. In his biography of the actress, Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, Donald Spoto reveals that in 1934 Joan contacted surgeon Dr. William Branch and asked him to help her devise a program that would pay the hospital bills of any destitute patient who had worked in the movie business. The patients were to receive all necessary care at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where she had endowed several rooms and a surgical suite. All bills were sent to her and paid quickly. There was one caveat: her name was not to be used and she was to receive no credit or publicity whatsoever. Years later when a reporter learned of her actions she feigned ignorance. Spoto quotes a confidential memo from the hospital: “In the two years after 1937, more than 390 major surgeries were completed. Joan Crawford paid the bills, she never knew the people for whom she was passing, and she didn’t care.”

As for Christina, from all accounts she and brother Christopher were a handful for their mother. After spending an afternoon with Joan and Christina, Myrna Loy said that watching Joan put up with Christina made her thankful that she couldn’t have children. 

Carole Lombard

Lombard was noted for her down-to-earth attitude. She was not only popular with her fellow actors, but also with those who worked behind the camera. She was famous for remembering their birthdays and coming to their aid in emergencies. A famous story about Lombard happened when she was dating George Raft in the early ‘30s. They were both starring in Bolero (1934), and after filming George popped into her dressing room only to find her peroxiding her pubic hairs. As Raft stood there, perplexed, Lombard casually looked up and said, “Relax Georgie, I’m just making my cuffs match my collar.”

When Gable was filming Gone With the Wind, Lombard became suspicious of Vivien Leigh, thinking that she might have begins on Gable. But Clark laughed and said that Leigh only had eyes for her fiancee, Laurence Olivier. To prove it he invited the couple over for dinner. During the course of the dinner, Lombard asked her husband, who was deeply in conversation with Olivier, if he would pass the potatoes. No answer. She asked again. Still no answer. Finally, she shouted, “Will you please pass the f—ing potatoes!” Gable looked up and said, “What did you say?” To which Leigh replied in her English accent, “I believe she asked you to please pass the f—ing potatoes.” Lombard exploded in laughter and from that moment she and Leigh became good friends, especially after she learned that Leigh loved a dirty joke as much as she did.

Lombard once admitted to her good friend Garson Kanin that Gable wasn’t all that good in the sack. “Clark is a lousy lay,” she told Kanin. “A few inches shorter and he’d be the Queen of Hollywood.”

After she was tragically killed in a plane crash, Paramount had to excise a line from her last movie, To Be or Not to Be before release. The line? “What can happen in a plane?”

All About Eve

The part of Margo Channing was first offered to Barbara Stanwyck, who turned it down, possibly because playing an aging star was a little to close to home. Claudette Colbert accepted the part and was set to go when she injured her back in an accident. Scratch Colbert. Geraldine Fitzgerald was next offered the part, but the producers withdrew the offer because of her demands, one of which was her instance that the scene where Margo gets drunk be taken out of the script. That left Bette Davis. She readily accepted and not only got a badly needed career boost from her performance, but also gained a husband in co-star Gary Merrill.

Celeste Holm, who played the role of Karen Richards, the wife of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and the confidant of Margo Channing, used to greet everyone each morning on the set with a “Cheery good morning.” When she wished it to Bette Davis, Davis snarled and said, “Oh shit, good manners.” Holm never spoke to Davis for the rest of her life.

Marilyn Monroe, just beginning on her career, had a small part in the film. She was an hour late for the first of her two scenes and took 25 takes to get it right. Holm noted that “she was scared to death.” Zsa Zsa Gabor, who visited the set daily to keep an eye on husband George Sanders with Monroe there, observed four different crew members go into Monroe’s dressing room for sex on one evening alone.

Sanders, who won the Best Supporting Actor for his role as acerbic critic Addison DeWitt, was an indifferent actor, not really in love with his profession. In fact, he only went into it on the advice of a co-worker in a London advertising agency. That co-worker? Greer Garson.

Norma Shearer

When her husband, Irving Thalberg, died from a bout of pneumonia, Norma went off the rails. Her family was always mentally fragile. Sister Athole, who was married to Howard Hawks, spent many years in a mental hospital, where she died in 1985. 

At any rate, while filming Marie Antoinette in 1938, the 36-year-old Shearer carried on an affair with 18-year-old Mickey Rooney. Their trysts took place in her dressing room and their antics were so loud that it wasn’t long before management was informed and Shearer and Rooney found themselves on the carpet in Louis Mayer’s office. “You’re twice his age,” Mayer yelled at Shearer. “Act yours!” He then turned to Rooney, “And you . . . how could you? You’re Andy Hardy!” In 1942, after she retired, Shearer married ski instructor Martin Arrouge, who was 11 years her junior.

She never removed her wedding ring during filming, instead covering it with a piece of flesh-colored tape.

She was offered the past of Mrs. Miniver, but refused it, as she didn’t want to play a woman with grown children. The part made a star out of Greer Garson.

After retirement, while staying at a ski lodge, Shearer noticed a photo of the receptionist’s daughter and recommended her to MGM. That young lady became a big star under the name Janet Leigh.

Robert Taylor

In his early days in Hollywood, Taylor was quite timid and finally worked up enough courage to ask his boss at MGM, Louis Mayer, for a raise. Mayer, who had heard it all before, pulled his usual shtick, telling Taylor how he had developed his talent, trained and encouraged him though thick and thin, etc. As they were leaving his office Mayer put his arm on Taylor’s shoulder and told him, “If God had blessed me with a son, I can think of nobody I’d rather have wanted than a son like you.” When asked later if he had gotten the raise, Taylor said, “No, but I gained a father.”

His marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was at the insistence of MGM in response to magazine articles about Hollywood couples “living in sin.” Taylor was a mama’s boy and Mama did not like his intended bride one bit, skipping the ceremony. Astonishingly, Taylor refused to kiss the bride for photographers and actually spent his wedding night at his mother’s while Stanwyck fumed in the honeymoon suite.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria married director Nicholas Ray in 1948, when she was 28. The groom was 12 years her senior. The marriage unraveled four years later when Ray discovered his wife in bed with his 13-year old son, Tony. In 1960, after a disastrous second marriage to writer-producer Cy Howard, she married Tony.

Basil Rathbone

Rathbone was a genuine hero during World War I, awarded the Military Cross for heroism on the battlefield. When later asked how he won the award, Rathbone, a modest man by nature, replied, “All I did was disguise me self as a tree – that’s correct, a tree – and cried no man’s land to gather a bit of information from the German lines. I have not since been called upon to play a tree.”