John Wayne in a Woman’s Picture?

 DATELINE: Duke Takes on Shane’s Girlfriend

not a chance Witless Comedy.

Well, at least John Wayne is not yet in women’s lingerie in 1943. A Lady Takes a Chance is not exactly High Noon. We hate to say it, but don’t leave this film to chance. Just leave it alone.

Jean Arthur was a big star, and John Wayne wanted to be a big star. Despite his accolades and sensational performance in Stagecoach, Duke Wayne needed to cross-over to become super big. So, he even drives a car.

Someone at the studio figured that he needed to widen his audience to include adult women who admired working-class heroine Jean Arthur, the everyday spunky girl of America.

How would John Wayne do with spunky women? You have an early answer here. He treats them like horses. If we recall our Hollywood history: they shoot horses, don’t they?

Among the pallid jokes is to have Duke don an apron, or to watch Jean Arthur try to sleep uncomfortably under the prairie stars.

Yes, this was a time when you went west on a bus. Jean Arthur must ultimately choose between bookish Hans Conreid, paunchy Grady Sutton, or virile John Wayne! Some choice.

Someone failed to plug this movie. Pull the plug, please.

This early misuse of John Wayne is absolutely fascinating as a studio-system miscalculation. Or was it? Then again, we like disaster movies too. We wanted to see Phil Silvers (Sergeant Bilko) with the classic military cowboy.

The only other time we saw John Wayne in a woman’s comedy, he did a guest star role in the 1970s on Maude with the high-shootin’ Bea Arthur. It was a real showdown. Yeah, he outdrew that Golden Girl of cynical womanhood.

Jean Arthur is the queen bee/big star here, hypocritical with her multiple boyfriends in New York, but indignant that Duke Wayne has a few girlfriends from the rodeo circuit. She treated Alan Ladd just as badly in her next Western, Shane, as Brandon de Wilde’s mother.

If producers were aiming for frothy, as in beer suds, most of it stuck to Jean Arthur’s upper lip. Literally.

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Trumpet Blowing at Midnight

DATELINE: Blowhard Comedy

Bugs Benny

For most of his career, actor and comedian Jack Benny blamed a movie called The Horn Blows at Midnight for ruining his movie stardom. In fact, he never made another movie for decades, succeeding on a newer medium called TV.

In some ways he was a re-actor, mostly playing off situations and people. Having a personality with notable quirks; vanity, greed, among his most notorious deadly sins, he was mostly asexual and devoid of anger issues.

Here he is faced with irony after irony: he drinks Paradise Coffee that ‘helps you sleep’. He is too ineffective to start the doomsday scenario.

As a milquetoast, he was the antithesis of heroic post-World War II men–those tough guy approaches bordered on psychotic (all the major stars went from their usual roles to a more sinister version in the years after the war).

That bring us to Midnight: where and when Benny is a second-rate angel in heaven given the task of blowing Gabriel’s horn (Heaven’s real star’s too busy) at midnight in New York City to end the corrupt world of a small planet called Earth.

It is whimsy gone mad. Nearly every joke is told twice. It almost becomes a Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon. Yet, the film was directed by action  helmsman Raoul Walsh. It used fantasy special effects and had a cast to die for. Yes, that is the original pantywaist Franklin Pangborn, and yes, that is Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers. Oh, yes, that is Robert Blake as a kid. Yes, that is every notable second-banana in second-banana roles. They are wonderful to behold.

It is not much more than a mild, simple whimsical tale with a few digs. Worse yet, the gimmick of the movie is blatantly false, which undercuts its sharpness. We won’t tell you if Benny falls asleep too often.

It was not a bad film, but no one went to see it—and Jack took it personally. Of course, it does not help when Jack tells the audience that, if he saw this stuff in a movie, they would not believe it.  They didn’t.

Benny retired from movies. His last starring vehicle is a diversion for the cynical, harsh times that followed World War II and the burgeoning Cold War. It also fits for us today in a mad, mad, mad world of Trump daily crises.

Watership Upside Down in Bugsy Demeanor?

DATELINE: Hare-brained cartoons?

Watership Down Bugs & Daffy, or B’rer Rabbits?

Two movies about rabbits we have seen recently are cartoons. Of course, by today’s high-falutin’ standards, they are now called ‘animation’. Watership Down, based on a children’s book, is a think-piece, now remade with a couple of big-name Brit stars.

The other film we saw was a compilation of Bugs Bunny cartoons from the Golden Age of 1942-43. The gulf between these two film works transcends streaming DVD and enters the realm of unreal hare-brains.

Stars Nick Hoult and James MacAvoy have definite chemistry as actors together, as B’rer Rabbits, in Watership Down. They play the voices of Hazel and Fiver. You may not see it, but you can surely hear their rapport.

The new version of the animated story has shown up as a Netflix movie series. Unlike Disney animation, in which characters can be distinguished, this film has a bunch of hares and bunny rabbits that are clones. After a while, we are trying to determine accents and vocalizations to tell if we are listening to Nick Hoult or James McAvoy.

We love both actors, and that’s the long and short of it.

We also do not love four hours of animation to tell a story. Alas, even broken into 4 episodic chunks tested our mettle. On the other hand, the eight Warner Brothers cartoons are about six minutes each. They are also racist, filled with fat hatred, and feature Bugs in drag often, but can’t end soon enough.

Though Warner cartoons are claimed to be highly restored, they grow increasingly unwatchable as color fades and clarity blurs. On the other hand, you can see every fur-laced lash of the hares of the new animation in Watership, if you really care enough.

The Biblical tones and literary pretensions of one are undercut in the other’s attempt to play down to Brooklyn rabbit accents and fat Elmer Fudd. Yes, Fudd has not yet gone on a diet in these early films—and even wears a corset in two cartoons.

If there is a big difference in the films, one has personality unleashed, and the other is less brash.

We may find that in each lesson it may be that teachable moments are less successful in cartoon form. It undercuts and underscores at the same time. However, in the age of superheroes and Marvel Comics, we suspect this is the new Dickensian epic-style.

We’d just like to see Hoult and McAvoy in human form. Give us a real movie please.

Gilligan’s Island Manifesto

DATELINE: Commie Plot on Deserted Isle

cast your fate

Never kid a kidder.

Well, this documentary takes the bizarre position that a moronic, if not sophomoric, TV series Gilligan’s Island was a communist plot to brainwash American children.

Of course, this could all be a case of mistaken identity, or Swiftian satire. File this Twilight Zone film under the heading The Gilligan Manifesto. It is nearly compelling and convincing that lessons of Karl Marx were open secrets of the plots. After all, the island is community property.

Creator Sherwood Schwartz admits that his original dramatic idea was to put a group of nuclear holocaust survivors on an island but found the comedic approach more agreeable.

When you combined a skipper without a boat, a professor without a college, a millionaire without a bank, and a movie star without celebrity, you had downgraded everyone to equal status. Add to the mix a worker from the proletariat, in the form of benighted Gilligan, and you have communist lesson plans.

You may wonder where and what Edgar Hoover was doing the years this series was top of the ratings after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Episodes routinely satirized money, government, judicial systems, police, and religious values. Yes, the clips bear it out. Actress Dawn Wells, the last survivor, admits no one had a clue about this in the 1960s.

The film gives a background of nuclear horror: from Robert Oppenheimer’s ominous platitudes to a series of trailer clips from every 1950s movie that dealt with shipwrecked souls on islands and small bands of apocalyptic survivors trying to rebuild civilization. And, there were plenty of such movies.

The entire enterprise has a lip-smacking, tongue-in-cheek quality. The Gilligan Manifesto is pure Marx (Groucho, Harpo & Karl).

Rupert, aka Xmas Wish

DATELINE: Two Orders of Ham.

durante

One of the most forgotten of low-budget Christmas movies is a strange concoction from 1950. It has been titled Rupert the Great, and when colorized in recent years in India, was re-christened, A Christmas Wish.

Whatever you call it, this is a bizarre film billed as “heart-warming,” but it is an odd duck about an odder squirrel.

Yes, Great Rupert is a Puppetoon squirrel in show biz (made from stop-action). He dances in kilts and is highly intelligent. The film comes from the mind and production of the great George Pal. Alas, Rupert is a mere second banana in a second-rate movie directed by Irving Pichel.

The star is non-stop action. It is the inimitable Jimmy Durante who pulls out all the stops.

Perhaps kids in 1950 were more easily entertained.

However, this does not prevent us from watching in utter fascination. Jimmy Durante pretends to be Danny Amendola, not the former Patriots player, but some kind of vaudeville comic. Don’t be fooled: it’s Jimmy Durante playing himself.

If you ever wondered why Durante never starred in more movies, this one reveals the amazing truth. He steals every scene, wipes out other performances, blows away any semblance of plot, and dominates every moment of the film.

Not even an animated squirrel can stand up to Jimmy. He is a happening, an event, a force of nature.

Terry Moore was supposed to star with top-billing, her major film role after Mighty Joe Young, another animated creature by George Pal’s protégé Ray Harryhausen. Miss Moore was too cute to worry about animals. Durante was another matter.

The film was re-tailored to allow Durante to do his usual patter and sing “Jingle Bells,” in one scene at the piano.

Even Rupert the Great never dared to show his rodent face when Durante was about. This is a weak Christmas film, but a work of stunning film history. Thus, we have rendered this year’s Xmas movie review moot.

 

Adios & Adieu, Bronson & Delon

DATELINE: Farewell, Friend!

adios & adieu

Where has this 1960s crime caper movie been hiding for fifty years?  Charles Bronson is teamed with Alain Delon as a couple of ex-Foreign Legionnaires who plan to break into a major corporate vault.

They are both young and virile.

The film may have had a limited American release, known in circles as Adios, Amigo as well as Adieu, l’Ami.  The American title turns out to be Farewell, Friend.  It’s all the same.

The movie was made when Bronson was on the cusp of international stardom and started matching up with European stars. It came around the time of The Dirty Dozen.

Alain Delon was bigger and received top billing, but he wanted American recognition. His English here is quite good. He was known for critically-acclaimed arty films, and his American incursion was less art and more matter-of-fact.

These two misfits are not exactly well-matched, nor do they like each other. So, you can be fairly certain their amiable hostility will support the old aphorism there is no honor among thieves.

We had no illusions that there would be a good script, but that at least it would give the two stars enough space to play it to the hilt. Indeed, it does.

Even more surprising, the sets are stylish and modern. Not only that, Bronson and Delon are dressed in the finest tailored suits. They do not look like refugees from Haight-Ashbury, as do many stars in 1968 movies.

Bronson has the rough-edged thug role, and Delon is the more debonair scam artist. Their reasons for breaking into a French corporate payroll vault also puts them at loggerheads. Yet, without the usual mayhem and car chases, this turns out to be a quite intriguing and different film, probably dissatisfying to fans.

We loved it.

Gods & Monsters: 20 Years Later?

 DATELINE:   Fraser, Olyphant, or Caviezel?

Whale & Monster

As part of our continuing shock at how many years have passed since certain minor classic films have been around, we were stunned to note that it is nearly that long since Ian McKellan played the director of Frankenstein, in 1957, before his suicide.

James Whale was gay, and the Bill Condon film is based on novelized account of his last days in 1957 and is titled Gods and Monsters. Partly owing to John Hurt playing a literary critic stalking a teen heart-throb in Love and Death on Long Island the year before, we had McKellan with a sunset crush on his gardener.

How true is it all?  At least we were not treated to one of those disclaimers, “Based on a true story.”

Whale had long since left the Hollywood sound stage, partly owing to box office poison. He had made some literate and funny horror films that stand the test of time: Frankenstein and Bride thereof.

With his mind slipping away from a stroke or some form of Alzheimer’s Disease, he puts his attention on Brendan Fraser, a most handsome young yardman with a flat top hairdo that is just too preciously reminiscent of the Monster designed by Whale in 1931.

Fraser, at the time, was part of a trio of actors who could have been interchangeable in the role: Timothy Olyphant and Jim Caviezel were the other two. All the same age and style.

McKellan is, as always, brilliant and plays off Lynn Redgrave as his unattractive housekeeper. He puts the moves on the unwilling Fraser, but it is all subterfuge to force the homophobic former Marine into killing him and putting him out of his misery.

A coda to the sensitive, episodic incidents in Whale’s final days, is perhaps the weakest link in the movie as Condon had no idea how to end it, that is otherwise a powerful biographical movie.

From Russia (With Kisses & Flowers)

DATELINE: Spy Extravaganza

Lotte Lenya Lets Bond Have It

Lotte Lenya & Sean Connery in Fight Royale!

No, From Russia with Love is not about a date between Trump and Putin. It’s the 1963 movie about James Bond, based on Ian Fleming’s hilarious novels, and starring Sean Connery.

With its iconic music, beautiful location photography, glorious Technicolor, and outrageous performances, it is a hoot and a half, even fifty years after its original release. Every set up will have your mouth agape and fighting back laughs.

If you want to know how a movie can stand up to time, take a look: even with its anachronistic and silly car phones, beepers, and lasers. These were cutting edge back then.

Not half the entertainment is in its two foremost early Bond villains: Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya.

Shaw’s tow-headed muscle guy was a forerunner of Dolph Lundgren’s Soviet superman from Rocky. It was the start of a decade of over-the-top villains, culminating with Quint from Jaws.

No overwhelming technology or special effects had yet to take hold in the well-produced low-budget Bond movies. However, a regrettable act or two occurs, with Connery slugging a woman. The producers also steal Hitchcock’s North by Northwest crop duster chase with a helicopter going after Bond.

Pipsqueak septuagenarian Lotte Lenya steals every scene, as she did as the procuress in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Her final confrontation, a fight with James Bond, is a kick or two to the head. She gives him a run for his secret agent style. You can’t beat an old lady fighting James Bond in grand style.

American Pie and Racism

DATELINE: Stopping Black Candidates at Any Cost?

imbeciles at work Go Suck on a Georgia Peach!

Like many deluded Americans, we thought racism, like smallpox, had been eradicated. Well, smallpox is back—and so is racism, thanks to a president who encourages it.

Racism, a sign at Fenway Park said, last year is “as American as baseball.”  The sign was quickly removed, but its sentiment remains. No World Series victory deodorizes this stink.

Trump has encouraged white nationalists to arm themselves and travel to the border of Mexico to shoot unarmed women and children if they dare to cross the line in the dirt.

Your president (well, someone’s president Trump) has insulted every black woman he can find: latest is Michelle Obama whom he contends writes a book for money and must put in controversy. Those are his values all right. You only act for money. In most morality, that’s called bribery.

Trump has called every black female journalist he meets stupid, which goes with his view of black Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Gee, do we see a pattern here? Not if you live in Florida.

In Georgia, another Georgia Peach is running for governor and hates black women like his opponent Abrams. We note only that the original Georgia Peach was a virulent racist, so Kemp is in a grand old party tradition.

In the Citrus state where Anita Bryant used to spew hate, you now have resident Trump furious that his boy Rick Scott is having the election stolen. Trump’s other stooge, DeSantis, is forming a transition team to take over. It used to be called a coup d’etat, now it’s called a recount.

Racism is as American as the grandiose old party that kicked out Lincoln years ago.

It’s rather unusual for American history to have a robber baron and grand wizard rolled into one orange-hair orangutan in the “Whiter than White House.”

Winter Kills an Assassination Plot

DATELINE:  Not Citizen Kane

Taylor as Madam Hollywood Miss Taylor, We Presume?

Richard Condon’s novel called Winter Kills, a roman a clef of the Kennedy Assassination, makes for one of the earliest of conspiracy theory movies. Winter Kills is by the man who wrote the Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

Vincent Canby of the NY Times called it equal to Citizen Kane, but that seems a stretch. It is more akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A stunning cast of cameos appear and disappear quickly. The opening credits are about as jaw-dropping as Murder on the Orient Express:  Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Eli Wallach, and on and on.

How could it go wrong? Well, you can start by scratching your head over the notion that movie is billed as a tragic comedy.

The Kennedy murder in 1963 may be a comedy of errors in its commission and solution, but hardly a comedy.

The film takes the off-putting hints of conspiracy and gives them fake names:  Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby, etc.

Jeff Bridges is the young man (at his most attractive in 1979) who is the brother of an assassinated president who decides to solve the crime himself. In the meantime, conspirators are killing everyone around him. His attitude is bizarre, like someone has strung together unrelated scenes (blame goes to the director).

John Huston gives another irascible performance as the President’s father and Dorothy Malone is his mother.

The film predates the Internet but makes some intriguing theories that a master-programmed spy network of computers is following everyone as early as 1960. It is a stunning prediction on today’s world. That alone is gripping and clairvoyant.

All the usual suspects are present: Hollywood moguls, billionaires, crackpot businessmen, mobsters, Cubans, political hacks, the CIA, and on and on. We know the drill by now, but back in 1980, this was shocking. With more evidence now available, the theories here are standard conclusions today.

As for the movie, it is over-the-top and worth your attention. Not Citizen Kane, it is equal to Stone’s JFK.

 

 

 

 

 

Windy Conditions for Orson Welles

DATELINE: Citizen Kane’s Bookend

Orson's Last

It’s disorienting to see a new movie that is 35-years old with stars long dead: John Huston, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart, and all the usual Orson Welles friends. He also included new discoveries in his films like Bob Random and Rich Little. Orson called it The Other Side of the Wind.

The movie is a mockumentary of a movie made on the last day of the life of a legendary film director named Jack Hannaford.

Huston is Hannaford, playing God again, or the devil to Welles as observed by Susan Strasberg (daughter of James Dean’s acting tutor Lee Strasberg) as she plays a carbon copy of film maven Pauline Kael.

As the insider look at Hollywood develops, those in the know will begin to recognize that Johnny Dale is Jimmy Dean, and that the director appears to be a combo of Nick Ray and George Stevens, the men behind the films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.

Indeed, two of Dean’s co-stars have roles in the film: Dennis Hopper and Mercedes McCambridge. Our money is on Nick Ray—whose ambiguous sexual relationship with stars seems to be at the heart of the Welles picture. He is giving us the ultimate insider look.

Welles never used nudity in his films until this final movie: he plays to the times, psychedelic sex, which now seems dated. The film made by Johnny Dale is sandwiched within and around the life of Hannaford who dies in Dale’s Porsche Spyder, a copy of Dean’s death car.

All the usual Orson touches and themes are present: betrayal of people, rather than principle. There are no principles in Hollywood. He also has a field day ridiculing all those New Wave European directors.

Movie magic is everywhere because Welles could do so much with so little—and scenes seem seamless, even if shot with body doubles three years later.

Critics claimed he never wanted to finish the picture because it was his raison d’etre. It was also his Swan Song and his testament to Hollywood. It’s brilliant and fascinating with every step of the much-sought divine accident that Welles believed essential to film inspiration. Highly recommended.

Valentino’s The Black Eagle

 DATELINE: Surprisingly Fun Silent

 Valentino Yes, Valentino!

You may well think that we’ve lost what’s left of our wits when we chose to watch a silent movie that is not The Artist of a few years back.

No, we picked one of the lesser well-known works of Rudolph Valentino: it’s called The Eagle, based on an old Russian novel by Pushkin. For those unfamiliar with Russian classics, it’s a Robin Hood tale about a wayward young officer who runs afoul of Czarina Catherine when he rebuffs her advances.

Taking to the hills, the young man becomes an outlaw bent on vengeance for loss of his family estate. It all becomes complicated when he falls for the beautiful daughter of his enemy. All this is done with aplomb and humor, sumptuous sets and delightful underplaying.

Valentino does not dance a tango here, but a minuet. And, the director is one of the greats of Hollywood, Clarence Brown who is best known for The Yearling, twenty years later. He was an actors’ director, especially good with child stars.

Brown could always coax great performances, and Valentino is a surprise with a comedic touch. The ridiculous legend does not do him justice. And, Vilma Banky is the swanky belle with the odd name. She too is perfection. Minor roles, like the Czarina and the chaperone of Vilma, are older women with deft touches in their acting.

A silent of this kind of movie might have failed had we heard Valentino’s accent and voice, but what a shame that we never had the chance.

If a silent film comes your way, this may be the one to sample.

 

 

 

 

Casey & AC at the Bat: Managers in World Series

DATELINE: Field of Dreams at Fenway Again

casey Casey, not AC?

If you were to ask, we doubt we’d have said we would return to watching the Red Sox again. Our last blog on them was several years ago, but it is the World Series in Boston, again.

If you were to ask if writing about the managers might be a possibility,we might shrug. However, we realized that two former Sox players were now in back in Boston as managers:  Yes, there was an aging star Dave Roberts, now with the Dodgers, and his counterpart Alex Cora.

Might we say there is Magic in the Moonlight at Fenway? Well, only because we saw Magic Johnson there in the stands, as an executive braintrust with the Los Angeles baseball team. Wasn’t he part of the Bird-Magic story in Boston?

No, wait, we were thinking of Moonlight Graham playing in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner was sitting in the stands with James Earl Jones who played Terence Mann, the writer who wanted to play with these same Dodgers.

No, we were shocked to see Alex Cora, or AC as his players call him in the modern familiarity with supervisors and managers. He was running a talent-laden team that had replaced the previous manager for not winning a World Series.

When AC pulled the hot rookie Devers and replaced him with a pitch hitter named Nunez, we were more in marvel at the assortment of beards on the players. Yet, suddenly, AC became a genius before a national audience.

The last time we saw that it was someone in another era by the name of Casey Stengel. He managed the New York Yankees, another talent-laden team that kept winning. Stengel would pick a pinch-hitter out of a hat who would win the game.

Suddenly there was AC channeling Casey. How appropriate, if not poetic. AC picked the man to win the game with a homer to the Monster Seats. It was a ghost movie for baseball once again.

 

 

 

Leonardo: the Mystery of the Lost Portrait

DATELINE: More Da Vinci Uncoded

Leo Mess Portrait

An Italian production, but with American voice-overs to make it more palatable to English-speaking audiences, the latest Leonardo documentary puts a focus on a newly discovered “Lost Portrait.”

Indeed, the quest by the art historian is to put the interesting self-portrait through its paces. It looks, at first, too good to be 500 years old. Only when a restorer took off the varnish and repairs, it began to show its age: cracks and scratches over the face.

We think someone tried to scratch Da Vinci’s eyes out in a cat fight.

Experts are lined up from Salerno to Naples to Madrid, each specialist offering some different angles. Facial recognition experts try to determine if all extant self-portraits (and one portrait by a Da Vinci friend) are the same person.

This latest discovery is the Lucan Leonardo, thought for a long time to be a picture of Galileo.

Still, was the wood-based picture really done by Leonardo?

He looks about 50 and one test proved the feather in his cap was added in the 19th century: wrong kind of paint. However, the rest seemed authentic to 1500 or so.

This film features some unusual and unique techniques never done previously:  police detectives actually find thumb prints on the paint and match them to fingerprints on Leonardo’s manuscript codexes.

Forensic artists use all self-portraits to create 3-D versions of his head, and forensic handwriting experts decipher the backwards words in Latin on the obverse of the painting.

There’s something odd about the eyes, but…this one is worth your time.