Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Young Henry (Richard Greene), heir to the Baskerville Estate, gets to move in early when uncle Charles dies of a heart attack. Or was he eaten by a phantom hound? No, it was a heart attack. Anyhow, Charlie’s good buddy Dr. Mortimer thinks the family is cursed (you now, by a hound) and young Henry’s life is in great danger. He goes to the legendary Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help.

Remember when I covered the 1959 Hammer version? You do? I don't, to be honest. That was almost seven years ago, and yes, I still haven’t read the source story. I may have gotten details wrong there, so hopefully I’ll do better here.

In a pre-Cumberpatch world, Holmes and Watson were synonymous with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. (Remember Nigel from Suspicion?) The pair did fourteen Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Impressed? Twelve were between 42 and 46, plus they even made an appearance in an unassociated comedy. Now THAT’S a production schedule! As such, their style and performances became the standard for all future versions.

The character of Watson (in a pre-Martin Freeman world) was that of a portly, somewhat pompous windbag. A complete foil to Holmes’ understated genius. That characterization comes from Nigel Bruce. The Watson from the stories was the admiring and frequently confounded narrator, not dissimilar to Freeman’s depiction.

Veteran studio hack John Carradine played the suspicious butler. This was just about when his career was taking off. That same year he’d appear in Stagecoach and eventually build a reputation in the world of horror. Also appearing is Lionel Atwill as the good Doctor. He too would spend time working the Universal horror circuit. Come to think of it, Basil himself also had a brief spell there.

The Baskerville estate lies, apparently, on a rocky asteroid, far from civilization but with unusually fast mail delivery. Anyhow, they hold dinner parties,  perform seances, and fall in love while waiting for the mythical hound-beast to eat them all. Or not. Hard to tell.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a lot of fun. A better than fair mystery with great atmosphere, the kind Old Hollywood sometimes did well. There were red herrings and amusing moments, and a good time was had by all. Except those who died. The next one won't be too far off. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, Watson - the needle!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

In the summer, wives and children of the well to do escape the Manhattan heat for lakeside paradises, leaving husbands and fathers behind to behave like unsupervised delinquents. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) wants to be good, yes he does, but, you see, this hot blond (Marilyn Monroe) just moved upstairs, and you know …

Originally a play, the story revolved around a man’s affair when the wife is away. No, actual affairs just won’t do, says the Hays office. Instead of feeling guilty for having an affair, good old Sherman has to feel guilty about WANTING to have an affair. So Ewell plays the aging, dorky, ladies-man-wanna-be to Monroe’s ditzy sexpot confused why men react strangely to her baby-doll act. We, the audience, grin and pretend to be wiser.

For reasons that escape me, now that I’ve seen the film, I don't understand how Marilyn’s subway skirt scene became so iconic. It is shorter and less sexy than I expected, and, well that’s all I have to say about that. Hey, look! It’s Carolyn Jones, again in a tiny role. She played Morticia …. nevermind.

The production code turned a very provocative stage play into a somewhat confounding film. Billy Wilder and George Axelrod did their level best to create a viable comedy out of a redacted screenplay, but the end result is only mildly amusing and eminently dated. Compare this to Irma la Douce made seven years later also by Wilder (and originally was to star Monroe) after standards were loosened quite a bit. Neither were fantastic films, but Irma at least had sex appeal. In a very giggling-twelve-year-old sort of way, but still. I would be curious what a faithful adaptation would look like.

The Seven Year Itch isn't uninteresting, but it is somewhat strange (Sherman has fantasy conversations and narrates his own life). There is humor, but nothing to evoke an actual laugh. AMRU 3.
“Miss Morris, I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast. As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Miracle Worker (1962)

A baby girl (Patty Duke, eventually) loses her sight and hearing to an illness and becomes more and more unmanageable. Out of desperation her parents hire an unconventional carpetbagger (Anne Bancroft) to work a miracle, maybe.

This is the story of Helen Keller, the deaf, dumb, and blind kid from those witty and original jokes of my youth. The movie did not address whether or not she could play a mean pinball. My mother knew of Keller in her youth as a motivational speaker, so I guess she wasn’t actually dumb in either sense of the word. Back to the movie.

Here are some things that struck me: Fifteen year old (and victim of 2016) Patty Duke was tiny, no bigger than a child of eight. In adulthood she topped out at five foot nothing which aided in her portrayal as a much younger child. Playing a deaf and blind child can go oh so very wrong in oh so many ways, but Duke’s experience playing the character onstage payed off. Her performance felt amazingly authentic, without even a hint of camp.

The Miracle Worker was a very low budget production. With a budget of half a million (chicken feed even by 1962 standards), it shows in the titling, score, and film grain quality. This did not hurt the story, in fact a more Hollywood polished product may have detracted. The task at hand did not need to be romanticized.

Helen’s mom was played by none other than Inga Swenson, better known to me as Ingrid Swenson from Soap and to a lesser extent Gretchen from Benson. She didn’t play a very endearing character on television and it was surprising to see her all young and hot, and with an accomplished southern belle accent.

This fascinating character study and battle of wills has only the power of the acting performances going for it, but power it has in spades. Helen’s behavior and the events ring very true, although it did look silly sometimes when she would push Anne Sullivan and she’d go flying. Still, even though it’s fifty five years old, I’d recommend it to anyone dealing with a less than compliant child. AMRU 3.5.
“Mrs. Keller, I don't think Helen's greatest handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it's your love and pity. All these years you've felt so sorry for her you've kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Road to Singapore (1940)

Two regular guys (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) are being pressured into marriage. Bing by his captain of industry dad (Charles Coburn) and fairly hot fiancee (Judith Barrett), and Bob by, I don’t know, some thugs because he took liberties with someone’s daughter? We never see her. So anyhow, they escape to Singapore to bachelor freedom and poverty. There they meet a hot dancer (Dorothy Lamour) who is escaping her angry … boss? Boyfriend? (Anthony Quinn).

From what I understand, all of the Road movies follow the same format. Flee to exotic location and compete over cutie Lamour as an excuse for comedy gags and running bits. The trio appeared in seven such films, the first few being the best, if IMdb is to be trusted.

It was originally a vehicle for George Burns and Gracie Allen (not sure how the escaping marriage angle was handled there), then offered to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie, and finally given to Hope and Crosby because they were clowning around on the Paramount set. Thus a comedy team was born.

I enjoyed Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary. The horror element was skillfully relieved by solid comedy. But here the laughs were in short supply. The tone was light and the banter playful, and I'll excuse the level of cultural sensitivity you could expect, but I don’t recall snickering, even once. And while Hope was working hard the laughs, Bing’s cucumber cool demeanor was about as interesting as his search engine namesake. The end result was a watchable, mildly interesting, unfunny, and skippable film. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Irma la Douce (1963)

An honest Parisian cop (Jack Lemmon) is fired for calling a raid on street walkers. He then falls in love with one of them (Shirley MacLaine) and becomes her pimp. It’s the classic love story.

What was originally a musical was adapted into a rather strange film. Themes like crime, prostitution, infidelity, domestic violence, and even murder are treated with a bizarre whimsy. Universal Protagonist Jack Lemmon suffers through all of it. He loves Irma and cannot stand it when she serves her customers, so he concocts a bizarre plan to deal with his jealousy, but no spoilers here.

Marilyn Monroe and Charles Laughton both were set to appear but were totally croak-city come production. A Marilyn Irma (or EAR-ma) would have been an interesting change. Surely she would have highlighted the character’s stupid qualities. Laughton would have played bar owner Moustache, and would have been wonderful but I don’t see how he could have improved on Lou Jacobi. Who wasn’t dead yet was Grace Lee Whitney as Kiki the Cossack, whom geeks will recognize as Yeoman Janice Rand. Also interesting is the the film debut of James Caan and an early appearance of Bill Bixby. Look them up, ya damn millennials!

Very bawdy by early 60’s standards. Unlike another Billy Wilder film made a few earlier (which I will soon cover), the sexuality holds up. Many shots of topless women from the back, MacLaine included. It’s a twelve-year old’s dream. Before the internet, that is. It is a good example of how Hollywood changed during these times. What a difference eight years makes.

MacLaine didn’t think much of the script nor the film, but it earned her an Oscar nom none-the-less. The tone is almost off-putting with it’s flip treatment of dark material, but it doesn’t fail to entertain. The dialog is clever and witty like (almost) all Wilder films, and it is visually appealing. But that’s another story. AMRU 3.5.
“It's a hard way to earn an easy living.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Maria (Ava Gardner), a beautiful Spanish club performer, is recruited by Hollywood looking for a fresh face. Despite Hollywood, Maria isn’t all keen to go. She likes to keep her feet in the dirt, whatever that means.

The movie begins at Maria’s funeral. The story is about her rise to fame, her struggle with what is truly important to her, the rich and powerful men that court her, and her ultimate fate. It is told from the perspective of the lives she touched, mostly Director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart).

What I was expecting to be a pretty standard rom-com turned out to be something else. There are comedic elements but it is by no means a comedy. And romance is in short supply. That’s right faithful reader. Bogart does not get the girl. Leave it to Mankiewicz to do a regular Hollywood production that doesn’t exactly follow genre conventions. Typically wordy, intelligent, and high quality. Despite much of the film taking place directly in Hollywood, it has a European feel in a way I can’t exactly explain. I also get the feeling that it was a longer film (128 minutes as it is) and cut down. There are characters introduced who seem to have more story in them.

The Barefoot Contessa is an interesting, if not riveting, character study. It’s witty, visually appealing, does not lull, and keeps you invested to the conclusion. The tone was a little unexpected and maybe not Mankiewicz’s best, but it was most certainly interesting. AMRU 3.5.
“I *have* never done a day's work in my life - honest OR dishonest, but neither have you... To make 100 dollars into 110 dollars, this is work. To make 100 million into 110 million, this is inevitable.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Sound of Music (1965)

Young Maria (Julie Andrews) is a misfit at a convent, so they convince her to take the job of a governess of seven children (the oldest is sixteen, going on seventeen), of a military disciplinarian. Who hates Nazis.

Loosely based on real life, what actually happened over two decades is depicted over a few months. There are a great many other inaccuracies, but I won’t bore you with Wikipedia stuff. What’s interesting about this movie? If you know it only by pop culture references, you may be surprised by the presence of Nazis. They are actually a foundational part of the story. What shouldn’t be surprising is that Julie Andrews is wonderful and lights up the screen every time she’s on, which is virtually every frame.

Grumpy Christopher Plummer, who hated making the film and hated the end product, called working with Andrews as being hit over the head with a Valentine’s day card every day. He used an old actors technique to get himself through the shoot called drink-yourself-blotto. Maybe his malcontentedness helped him channel his inner jerk. Real father Georg wasn’t the dower soul as he is depicted. The real Maria and Von Trapp children asked to have his character soften, but what fun would that be. Maria was something of a pest on the set.

The Sound of Music is a wonderfully looking film. The combination of fluffy songs with evading the Nazis tied up in a Rom Com format is unexpectedly enjoyable. Robert Wise knows how to shoot a film and is a much underrated director. AMRU 4.
“The poor didn’t want this one.”