Friday, February 15, 2019

Meeting Buster Backwards: A Hard Act to Resist

This is my entry in the Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the amazing Lea Stans at Silent-ology . Please click here for more Buster goodies! And thanks, Lea, for keeping silents alive.

I believe this to by my first encounter with Buster:

Candid Camera was a family favorite and I do recall, as a very (repeat very) young child laughing at this old man’s antics, especially when his toupee fell in his coffee. I seem to remember the host, Alan Funt or Durwood Kirby (Arthur Godfrey in this clip), describing this old fellow as someone who was important back in the day (like all of those old unknown – to me – performers that showed up every week on the Hollywood Palace). I learned that his nickname was “The Great Stone Face,” based on his trademark never smiling expression. 

It was a memorable old face, so when I saw him again being silly on the beach with Annette and Frankie (classics Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), I smiled. I was more interested in the kids on the beach, but glad the old fellow showed up for the hijinks.

So when my 7th grade teacher handed me the assignment of writing about the man described in this New York Times obituary of February 1, 1966, I was a bit disappointed. That old guy? I was hoping for someone more interesting!

I must say, silent film to me at that time in my life were about as interesting as dried paint peeling off a soiled wall. I was just beginning to get interested in classic film and if you had said James Cagney or Jean Harlow to me, my ears would have perked up. But Keaton? Chaplin? And who the heck was Harold Lloyd? It was around this time I picked up a book in the bargain bin of our local bookstore – ah the fun of wandering around the Cherry Hill Book Store after school – called The Parade’s Gone By. It was filled with chapters about stars I barely heard of, but it was printed on rich, thick glossy paper and it was only a few dollars. I thumbed through it at home, read a few entries and put it aside (I still have it - somewhere....).

Back to the assignment. I read and wrote, probably not something very memorable. However, for some reason, that assignment remained memorable all of my life. I guess there was just something about Buster that was unforgettable.

Fast forward a few years, and Sunday nights with PBS – starting with Upstairs Downstairs and continuing to all things British on Masterpiece Theater (RIP Alistair Cooke) - became a time to be savored. So, somewhere in the 1980s I saw the advertisement for Unknown Chaplin. I know, this is about Buster, but I got to him through Charlie. This amazing 3-part documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill made me hungry to learn more. And hey, wasn’t Brownlow the author of that book I picked up years ago?

What are you doing on my post about Buster?
Anyway, because I was  enchanted with Unknown Chaplin, I was all in when PBS next aired Brownlow and Gill’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. That beautiful genius of a young man was the guy who sold Alka Seltzer? Amazing!
A face for the ages
And so I went from old Buster to the young Buster of such great features as Sherlock , Jr., The Navigator, The General, and - my favorite - Our Hospitality, all the way back to those delicious shorts. I must say, the ending of One Week is one of the best laughs I ever ever had. 

The truth is, I love all Busters - Buster young and Buster old. The young Buster was brilliant and adorable, but the old Buster was a testament to the survival of genius and the soul of a performer. 

My interest in and love of silent film has been like a tangled ball of yarn, so much fun and sometimes frustrating to unravel. There is a bar of gold at the center of discovery, but much of the fun is in the unraveling.

p.s. Many thanks to my 7th grade English teacher whose name I have forgotten.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Clearing Out My DVR: Why Can't I Like Jean Arthur?

As part of my continuing resolve to clear out all of the movie's I've recorded but resisted, I took a deep breath and jumped into 1943's "The More the Merrier" starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn.

It's a classic, right? of those films that is endlessly praised for it's comic charm. So why have I resisted it? In a word (actually 2), Jean Arthur.

Jean is so cute. Why can't I love you?
I don't why I can't warm up to this actress. I hear her voice, I see her face and I am never drawn in. Now, I realize that I am in the very tiny minority of folks who don't love Ms. Arthur, but what can I say? We all have a list of certain performers who are beloved by most but who might not thrill us so much.  In "The More The Merrier" Jean Arthur is perfectly charming, perfectly comical and kind of adorable. But I can't shake the feeling that she seems like an actress who should not be a movie star, more like the girlfriend of someone powerful who thinks his talented gal should be a star. Don't get me wrong - she is good, really good. But I just get the vibe that she would much rather be somewhere else. Maybe that's it - I don't feel that she is 100% committed.

Charles Coburn: not exactly the man who came to dinner,
more like the man who hogs the bathroom

As for the film, it is quite wonderful. Joel McCrea, as Arthur's accidental border who upends her perfectly ordered life is his easy, casually All-American sexy self. Charles Coburn, as the bureaucrat in Washington D.C. to study the WWII housing shortage is the delightful engine that propels the unlikely romance between the reluctant landlady and her border.  While the film is a fine WWII comical romance, it also is the portrait of 3 nice people who all become friends (and more).
Jean Arthur and her pals carpool to work in this adorable Fiat Topolino
And I will admit that during the travel case scene, Jean was pretty swell.
Jean gets a travel case. Her delight and simultaneous
conflict at accepting such a personal gift is my favorite scene in the film.
Of the films I've seen with Jean Arthur, this is probably the one in which I find her least objectionable. Actually, she was pretty cute if you ignore the annoying crying scenes. Nevertheless, the film won me over, so maybe there is hope for me and Jean. And who wouldn't want an accidental border like Joel McCrea?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Boris and Natasha:Victims of Typecasting

This is my entry in the What a Character Blogathon hosted by the terrific trio Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club. Click HERE for more unforgettable characters.

I apologize in advance for veering off course a bit, but some stories just need to be told and some records set straight.

Good actors sometimes are so good that they get typecast. While discouraging to the actor, the public, it seems, like to see certain actors in certain types of roles. Think Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan and Cheetah as Cheetah. Word is that Cheetah auditioned for the role of Norma Desmond's chimp in "Sunset Boulevard," but was not chosen because Paramount felt that the audience would expect Tarzan to show up at that midnight funeral.

Cheetah: a victim of type casting
Poor Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Cast as the supporting antagonists of stars Rocky and Bullwinkle, the duo never got a chance to spread their acting wings and show their stuff outside of their iconic roles. In fact, many people think Boris and Natasha were actually Pottsylvanian spies and lovers. Neither could be further from the truth.

A little  background.

Boris Badenov was born in Russia, the product of an illicit liaison between an American father and a Russian mother. will confirm: Gomez + short Unknown
Russian Woman = Boris Badenov
His father, one Gomez Addams, had a one night stand with an unknown Russian woman after an exceptionally nasty argument with his wife, Morticia, while on a Russian holiday. Gomez, when advised of his son, left him in the hands of an old friend, Mr. Big, a shady Russian character. 

Natasha Fatale's birthplace was unknown, but we do know she was the product of one Morticia Addams and one Fearless Leader (Morticia said it was the scar that sealed the deal). Apparently that fight with Gomez was a doozie.
It Happened One Night: Morticia + Fearless Leader = Natasha Fatale
Once Morticia popped out Natasha she resumed her life with Gomez, leaving the baby girl with her baby daddy.

Fearless Leader, ever devoted to his boss, Mr. Big, turned Natasha over to the little big man who was pleased to have 2 babies to mold as he pleased. He thought they might make good spies or accountants, but the duo, raised as brother and sister, had stars in their eyes and made their way to Hollywood.

The Big Break
Hollywood is a cold town. Boris and Natasha barely got by, taking small parts here and there while working as domestic help.

Truth be told, these 2 were divas
Boris was particularly crushed when he successfully auditioned for director Preston Sturges only to have his performance stolen from him by Akim Tamiroff in "The Great McGinty." Stolen!!

Natasha, too, encountered disappointment. Every time she tried out for a role, it seemed it went to Ava Gardner. 

And then came the call. Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose were looking for a pair of actors to pay some bumbling Pottsylvania spies. Boris and Natasha nailed the audition and were cast. Moose and Squirrel agreed they were so true to life! The creator, Jay Ward, loved them so much that he used their real names and even cast father figures Mr. Big and Fearless Leader as an extra bonus. For anyone that is concerned, appropriate work visas were obtained. 

Mr. Big in a big moment
Both Fearless Leader and Mr. Big proved to be one-trick ponies and retreated to their lives back in Russia once Rocky and Bullwinkle retired. Mr. Big later resurfaced by complaining that the HBO series "Sex in the City" had stolen his identity and persona. 

Supporting Moose and Squirrel

Boris and Natasha appeared in all but 3 of Rocky and Bullwinkle's story arcs. However, they never received more than a credit of "others" or "friends"when the stars were proclaimed at the beginning of the show. Yet, they were an integral part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show and became familiar figures to the public by virtue of popular support. Here is a compilation of some of their greatest moments:

Life After Moose and Squirrel
Like all typecast actors, Boris and Natasha yearned for different roles. The luckless Boris lost out to Danny DeVito for a role in the TV series "Taxi," 

and Natasha lost out to Jane Russell as a representative of full-figured women.

Once Rocky and Bullwinkle decided to call it quits, Boris and Natasha knew their time in the spotlight was over.

Eventually, they retired to private lives. Boris, to Santa Barbara, where he married his physical therapist and raised avocados. He lives a quiet life and is known to his neighbors as the gentleman farmer with the funny accent.

Natasha left Hollywood for Manhattan, where she met a billionaire and lives in a big golden tower. Sometimes, when he is asleep, she swears she sees Squirrel on his head.

One last note: please don't try to make too much sense of this!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

TCM NYC Tour: Hollywood Ain't Got Nuthin' on the Big Apple

Okay, we all know Hollywood is king when it comes to classic films, but New York City's not too shabby. As proof, TCM offers a swell tour of the city I love best (but TCM - if you're listening - how about a Paris TCM tour? I'll be the first to sign on!). 

This was my second time on the tour, the first being in 2013. But I had that funny sense of deja vu when I stepped on the bus. Turns out we had the same tour guide as we had in 2013. For the record, Jason was fantastic in 2013 and was even more fantastic (if that's possible) in 2018.

Our charming tour guide, Jason
It was a nasty, gloomy NYC day for our tour. Yes, we know we can't compete with Hollywood when it comes to the sunshine. But, once we all met at the Stardust Diner and climbed aboard our comfortable bus, we were treated to some of Manhattan's great contributions to the silver screen. 

I can never get enough of film history, but I confess I had Cary Grant on the brain that day. Why should tour day be different than any other day?

While not a stop on the tour we did pass the Winter Garden Theater. Didn't Cary have tickets for a show there in "North by Northwest"?

Just to complete the Cary Grant tour, we passed the Plaza Hotel (the oak Bar was where Cary's Hitchcock nightmare started), Grand Central Station (where Cary made his escape with Eva Marie Saint) and the Empire State Building (where Cary waited to meet Deborah Kerr in "An Affair to Remember"). Yeah, yeah, I know there was movie about a big ape that took place there, too.
Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr at the place nearest to heaven

The Plaza Hotel: things happen there
Cary at the Oak Bar. Hang in there, I'm on my way!

As if he could be lost in a crowd at Grand Central

Okay, enough about Cary (she reluctantly wrote). 2 of my other favorite NYC movie fellas were also featured on this tour: Mel Brook and Woody Allen.

Yes, Cher made a famous stroll to the Metropolitan Opera House in "Moonstruck," but Lincoln Center will always mean Max and Leo to me.

As for Woody Allen, well this (along with a dose of Gershwin) IS Manhattan:

Yes, Zabars is as awesome now

as it was then
Some other stops: The Dakota, home of Rosemary and her baby, and the Ansonia, home of those Sunshine Boys. Speaking of both buildings, I never stop being amazed at the beauty of the architecture of these and many other NYC buildings. They are truly beautiful and breathtaking creations.
the Dakota
Creepy Dakota residents
The beautiful and storied Ansonia (check out its history)
Richard Benjamin and Walter Matthau stroll
past the Ansonia in "The Sunshine Boys"

Once in a while, we do have to mourn what is lost. The charming little shop that was The Shop Around The Corner in "You've Got Mail", once an antique shop, is now a dry cleaners, Oy.

And just to brag, yours truly won the trivia contest on the bus. I was so proud. I'll treasure my tote bag.

So, if you're ever in NYC and you want the TCM treatment as only On Location Tours can do it, take the tour. Interested? Check out tour information here. Maybe you, too, can win a TCM tote bag!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

CMBA Outlaws Blogathon: The Producers (1967): It's Criminally Joyous

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Outlaws Blogathon. Click here for more outrageous cinematic lawbreakers.

Zero + Gene = Love
They're adorable, they're hysterical, they're lovable. They're desperate con men and deliberate thieves. They're Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom and they are "The Producers."
Words don't do this justice
Let me say right out of the gate: I love this film, almost above all others. It is by far my favorite comedy. Where to start? 

Max gives his all for his art
In a nutshell, Mel Brooks' "The Producers" tells the story of once-successful-but-now-down-on-his-luck Broadway Producer Max Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom. Max, who has produced a long string of flops of late, keeps his enterprise afloat by romancing elderly (and frisky) women to finance his next play. He's dishonorable, greedy and desperate. Leo Bloom, a timid accountant, finds an error while auditing the books for Max's last play, which presumably made a few dollars. While Max attempts to persuade Leo to ignore the error, Leo has a revelation: the books for a Broadway failure would never be audited. If more than 100% of shares were sold, who would know? And so, a dastardly scheme was hatched and a beautiful friendship was born.

Neurotic, hysterical and a budding criminal
First, the fraud. Arm-locked in the scheme to mount the worst play in the history of Broadway, one sure to lose a bundle, the pair strikes gold with something called "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden." A love letter to Hitler, it is written by the proud and totally nuts Nazi Franz Liebkind. Words can not do justice to the comical discomfort felt by 2 Jews who entertain the ravings of this lunatic (including wearing a swastika before they peel it off with revulsion as soon as they are out of Liebkind's sight) in order to get the rights to his play.
Courting the author: a producer does what a producer has to do
Now that the play has been found, it is important to find just the right (wrong) cast and crew. Over the top gay director Roger De Bris is chosen and hippy-dippy, improv actor Lorenzo St. Dubois (otherwise known as LSD) appears as their perfect Hitler. There's no way this can succeed, right? The boys  gleefully dream of their financially secure future with this over-sold turkey and lease some posh office space with a sexy secretary. All the while, Max continues to do his part by romancing his little old ladies and overselling shares of "Springtime for Hitler." Note here that Max is doing all the heavy lifting.

Hold Me! Touch Me! Max's couch gets a workout
Estelle Winwood is especially frisky and funny as a lady known only as Hold Me! Touch Me! (the words she coos to Max when they meet for their tryst).

Getting up close and personal with the Reich
Ah, the best laid plans. After a stunning musical number of the title song, the audience is appalled and success at failure seems assured. But wait, LSD, vamping as a totally cool and kooky Hitler, send the audience into hysterics and they view it as a comedy. Making fun of Hitler! What a concept! And just like that, the play is deemed a hit. Max and Leo are doomed and author Liebkind becomes unhinged as his Fuhrer is mocked. As Max says, "I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast...where did I go right?" Max and Leo turn on one another (Leo, as Leo would, wants to turn himself in), but are united again when author Liebkind tries to kill the pair and them himself, but runs out of bullets. The 3 band together to try and blow up the theater - anything to stop this success and the assault on Liebkind's hero - but are foiled and arrested. They are all sent to prison after being found not just guilty, but incredibly guilty.

Dick Shawn is a groovy Fuhrer
Have no fear. The lure of larceny and the boards can't be quelled behind bars. Our last view of Max and Leo find them mounting a prison show called "Prisoners of Love," and happily over-selling shares of the production to the prison guards. You can't keep a good con man down.

A little "Springtime for Hitler" for your viewing pleasure (it never gets old):

So, that's the story. But the real joy of the film is the loving relationship of Max and Leo. Leo, timid and nervous, finds a father figure in Max, a father figure who builds him up and gives him courage. And Max, that heartless cynic who never let a good scam get by him, finds a surrogate son in Leo. He should simply dismiss the boy, but he can't because he knows Leo needs him and he needs Leo.

Partners in crime. What fun!
The jokes are just too numerous to detail. Let's just say Mel Brooks hits a home run with story, character and jokes. The story is so strong that, years later  in 2001 it became a hit Broadway musical starring a brilliant Nathan Lane as Max (forget the film version of this play; stick with the original).

So, yes, Max and Leo were outlaws, but look what they and this film gave us: an unforgettable film debut for Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn at his wildest best, the Busby Berkeley-style overhead dance of in-synch swastikas of "Springtime for Hitler," the crystallization of the mad genius cinematic voice of Mel Brooks and, above all, a performance for the ages by Zero Mostel. 

Like all great films, words can't convey the wonder of "The Producers." You have to see it. Hold Me!Touch Me! had it right. Sometimes you just have to say "thank you," even when you know your pockets are being picked.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Clearing Out My DVR Part 2: Madam Satan (1930); A Dress, A Dirigible and a Dame

I love my DVR. Next to the Keurig coffee maker and the GPS, it is an invention that changed my life for the better. However, unlike the coffee maker, which gratifies me instantly with hot coffee and the GPS, that provides quick and (usually) correct directions, the DVR requires that I actually watch the movies I record. This year I have vowed to clean out the recordings in my DVR by actually watching them.

Next up: Madam Satan (1930)

I can honestly say that I have never liked anything directed by Cecil B. De Mille. This includes the fabled pre-code "Madam Satan." While not the biblical De Mille epic, it has all the hallmarks of CB's style: long stretches of boring nonsense punctuated by spectacle and sin.

On the minus side

The 2 leads, Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny, are very uninteresting. I loathed the both of them. Kay Johnson, as wife Angela, suffers as a good little wife should while her cheating husband, Bob, who runs around town with his drinking buddy Jimmy (Roland Young), flagrantly disrespects his marriage vows with booze, women and good times. His wife, he states, is a bore. While I don't admire Bob, I have to concur.

When the wife is a bore, the husband has the right to cat around, right?
The story is simply ridiculous. I'll spare you the details, but it is just one of those silly farces where the wife disguises herself and adopts a phony French accent. Bob, like all of the husbands in these situations, fails to recognize his wife under the disguise, has his ardor is rekindled by feminine wiles and, presto,  their marriage is saved. 
Bedroom farce, marital lies, mistaken identity... yawn
It is long. Maybe if it was just one of those quickie little pre-codes it might have been less objectionable, but it goes on for almost 2 hours.

On the plus side

Lillian Roth. The costumes aboard the blimp are fabled, but I thought the very best this about this film was Lillian Roth. As Trixie, the Other Woman, she is adorable, she is sassy, she has spark and I wish there was more of her. Check her out:

Roland Young, as the buddy with the blimp, is fun, too - in small doses.

The costume ball get-ups are quite legendary, a real flight of fantasy by designer Adrian. Feast your eyes:

and Trixie, of course:

The real show-stopper was Madam Satan's gown. If only the lady inside the gown was equally alluring.

And then there is that soiree of the blimp. First, we have dancing clocks and then a bizarre musical homage to electricity (which takes the whole thing down with a lightening strike).

Really, I just don't know what to say about this:

Then some debauchery with scantily clad women. Someone recognizes Trixie by her appendectomy scar. Bob pretty much makes an attempt to ravage Madam Satan in a very distasteful way, but, hey, it's De Mille.

Really, Bob... you can't tell that is your wife?
The whole thing ends in a stupid and mildly offensive way (hey lady, your marriage is in trouble because you aren't sexy enough). Really, it's just stupid. And way too long. 

Next up: The More the Merrier (1943)