Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

A young bishop (David Niven) is struggling to get his cathedral built and it’s affecting his marriage. He prays for guidance and in walks Dudley (Cary Grant) claiming to be an angel. But instead of focusing on the cathedral, he concentrates on what really matters.

The movie began production with Grant in the bishop role and Niven as the angel. When the director was replaced, the new director reversed the roles and recast the part of the Wife. Also, the Bishop’s daughter was the daughter in It’s a Wonderful Life. You know the one: “TeaCHER says, evRY time A belLL rings …” But I want to talk about Loretta Young.

Amazingly adorable in her early roles, here she is quite charming. The story of her illegitimate child with Clark Gable frequently comes up. He was married, and she hid the pregnancy from the media. She put the girl into an orphanage for a year, then “adopted” her. I thought this was heartless for quite a while but a few details had escaped me. One, both of their contracts likely would have been terminated had this gotten out, and Loretta would not recover as she traded on her good girl image. Also, she was only 22 when Judy Lewis was born. Gable was 34, the pig! I’ll remember to cut her a little slack from now on.

The Bishop’s Wife is a film likely saved by studio interference. First by changing directors and the role reversal, but also by bringing in Robert Sherwood and Billy Wilder to fix a few scenes after initial filming had wrapped. That couldn’t have hurt. The end result may have gone way over budget, and released two months too late for Christmas, but it is quality Holiday fare. It has humor and heart. Elsa Lanchester was, again, wonderful in a supporting role. Also look for the obvious stunt doubles in the ice skating scene. AMRU 3.5.
“For some time now, every time I pass the cemetery, I feel as though I'm apartment hunting.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

When a rich businessman (Charles Ruggles) moves south for the winter, a bum moves into his fifth avenue mansion. He doesn’t eat much or cause harm so that the owner never suspects. A serviceman loses his apartment when a rich businessman (Charles Ruggles) decides to build a monstrous building on the same spot. He has a chance encounter with the a bum, who has moved into a rich businessman’s (Charles Ruggles) house while he’s away. When the daughter of a rich businessman (Charles Ruggles) returns home, the others think she too is homeless. Reluctantly they allow her to stay, and enthusiastically she agrees to play along.

Wow, what a cute little film! No real big names here (excepting Charles Ruggles, of course), just good performances supporting a delightful story. Hey, look! It’s a young Jonas Grumby (Alan Hale Jr)! The others were unknown to me. There was something particularly charming about Victor Moore’s portrayal of the first bum, feeling both noble and authentic.

Romantic comedies are seldom ensemble pieces. Yes, the story does revolve heavily around our prospective love birds, but there is more to the story. It Happened on Fifth Avenue is charming, heartwarming, and satisfying. It had a lot of nice moments. A good holiday find. AMRU 3.5.
“Well, it happened at the movies. Gregory Peck and this blonde were getting married. So I said to Whitey, I said, "Gee, I sure wish that was us." And Whitey said, "Uh-huh." And then I said, "Ain't marriage wonderful?" And Whitey said, "Uh-huh." And then I said, "Why don't we get married?" And Whitey said, "Uh-huh." And, oh, after all, how can you say no to a guy who coaxes you like that.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Night at the Opera (1935)

The setting: a transatlantic voyage, then a New York opera house. The circumstance: Dumont character hires Groucho character to get her into High Society, and he has her donate to the opera. The complicating factor: Arrogant opera star has the hots for leading lady, but she loves unimportant background singer (who's really great if only someone would just give him a chance!). The result: unspectacular.

There is as much point summarizing a Marx Brothers film as there would a stooge short. The story just an excuse for the comedy bits. The ones that stand out are a cop searching through Groucho’s apartment looking for Chico, Harpo, and the background singer (they were stowaways) but they move to the other room in the nick of time. Meh. Another is where Groucho’s tiny state room is crowded by said stowaways, engineers, kitchen people, and a parade of insundry people.

Pretty opera star Rosa was played by a young Kitty Carlisle. From time well spent watching game shows in the 1970’s and 80’s, I was quite familiar with the old Kitty Carlisle. I never knew why she was famous, but she appeared to be popular, if boring. Apparently she did a lot of theater before and after her short, unremarkable Hollywood career. She went on to do a ton of variety TV before making To Tell the Truth a semi-permanent home. I had difficulty seeing the 25 year old Kitty and not seeing the geriatric Kitty I knew so well.

The first Zeppo-free Marx Brothers film and first with MGM, Groucho said it was one of his favorites. For me no gag stands out as particularly amusing. Nothing really wrong here, it's just predictable and seldom amusing. I’ve only six more Marx Brothers films to go and I am wondering if I’ll find any of them particularly interesting. I hope so. AMRU 3.
“I saw Mrs. Claypool first. Of course, her mother really saw her first but there's no point in bringing the Civil War into this.”

Friday, December 16, 2016

Remember the Night (1940)

Shoplifter Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) is on trial and her attorney uses the classic Hypnotism defense. When the prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray) realizes the jury is eating that crap up, he calls for Expert Testimony, thus delaying the trial until after the holidays and turning the tables back in his favor. Feeling bad he caused her to spend the holidays in lockup, he arranges for her to be bailed out. Only his man downtown thought he wanted her bailed out and brought around to his place for some nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more. Only he didn’t. At all. I mean, he’s Fred F’ing MacMurray for god sakes!

As luck would have it he’s going home for the holidays, she wants to reconnect up with her loving mother, and would you know it, it’s on the way! So, off on a road trip these love-birds-to-be go. What adventures they will have!

Remember the Night is a charming romantic comedy. It makes a case for nurture over nature without beating you over the head. The two grew up in similar circumstances, but while one steals, the other is a successful lawyer. The difference is Love. Hold a sec, I have to get a tissue. There seems to be something in my eye …

MacMurray and Stanwyck are solid performers. Please watch Double Indemnity if you haven't. Stanwyck’s transformation from streetwise bad girl to sympathetic woman was handled very well. Even more interesting is how the motion picture code is at odds with the Hollywood ending. Now, if I could only figure out which Night we are supposed to Remember. AMRU 3.5.
“Now there's nothing as dangerous as a square shooter. If all men were like you there wouldn't be any nice girls left.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The lead salesman (James Stewart) of a small shop in Budapest is trading letters with a woman from the personals and falls in love. Turns out, she’s the new sales girl he can’t stand. Oh, spoiler alert! I got that in in time, right?

Actually, that’s just part of the setup, and a lot goes on here besides the romance. What's going on with the owner and Alfred? What's going on with the sales guy who acts like a dick all the time? And the errand boy? The Shop Around the Corner is a character study at it’s heart, and fairly chatty as plays-turned-movies tend to be.

Frank Morgan, aka The Wizard, is the shop owner with personal problems. He’d die before he reached 60. Old friends may remember Felix Bressart as a Russian from Ninotchka, or Greenberg from To Be or Not To Be. He’d die before he gets as old as Frank. Margaret Sullavan played the love interest. She’d die before she got my age. Errand boy William Tracy younger still. So it goes.

The Shop Around the Corner is a Christmas romantic comedy, but don't let that fool you. It’s an interesting, layered story and well acted. There is action outside of the love interest, but it never becomes cluttered. It's clever, witty, and charming. Director Ernst Lubitsch built a world that feels complete and inviting, and the events that transpire inside have weight and meaning. I can’t say I’ve ever not been pleasantly surprised by his films. AMRU 4.
"Doctor, do I call you a pill-peddler?"

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Seamen on the Black Sea battleship Prince Tavricheskiy (known to the girls downtown as Old Man Potemkin) are angered by poor treatment and rotten mean. When the Captain decides to execute most of his crew because they wouldn’t eat their borscht (as all good boys should!), they mutiny. When the good people of Odessa openly support the sailors, the evil Cossacks brutally shoot them down. You know, down the steps. The Odessa steps.

Battleship Potemkin is an unflinching propaganda piece, make no mistake, but it’s a very innovative one. In here Sergei Eisenstein developed techniques every Scooby Doo episode owes a debt of gratitude to. Well, kinda. Anyhow, I found it curious how when the crowd declares the revolution for all Russians, and one Odessa citizen yells down with Jews, he is ostracized from the group. A very noble moment, if in striking contrast with the reality of the subject.

But propaganda by its very nature plays fast and loose with the facts. The mutiny of the Potemkin took place twelve years before the Russian revolution and the events transpired quite differently. Or so Wikipedia tells me. I’m no historian.

There is no arguing how important Potemkin is. Eisenstein used non actors to heighten authenticity. I found the nuts and bolts activities of sailors very interesting. But even for an under 70 minute film, parts did seem tedious. Particularly the buildups to the stairs sequence as well as the finale. Really, this is a film school film. A document of early film making innovations. But still, it’s a good watch even for us non film students. AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Scrooge (1970)

Grumpy old man, ghosts, Christmas spirit … and now featuring SONGS!

Ah, A Christmas Carol, we meet again. Let’s see how you stack up, shall we? Most of what I love of the Dickens story is here, but not without issues. I don’t mind additions to the original story so long as the intent is kept. The obvious example here are the songs, which, even though they didn’t charm me,  I give them a pass. The acting is good for the most part and it’s an accurate retelling. The tone, however, seemed inconsistent. Sometimes serious, sometimes goofy.

In Stave IV Scrooge doesn’t just fall on his grave, but travels to a hell resembling a bad Star Trek TOS set. Silliness ensues. Also, not a fan of Alec Guinness’ (Jacob Marley) performance. Trying to be ethereal and mysterious by moving in a stylized slow motion manner, he looked like he was cruising the strip in the Castro. Hate to say that about an actor I really respect. Forgive me Obi Wan.

Not a lot interesting to say about the film either. Scrooge’s Albert Finney was twelve years younger than the man playing his little sister's son. They called Belle ‘Isabel’ (which beats the hell out of Alice!) and made her the daughter of Old Fezziwig Himself. Alec Guinness’ musical number was cut. Should have cut a couple more.

Attractive sets, the acting good for the most part, and the musical numbers were ok, if you are into that sort of thing. The tonal inconsistency and tedious length keep Scrooge from excelling. And it needed some tightening. Fifteen minutes shorter … AMRU 3.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

A destroyer is sunk and two seaman are adrift for weeks. When rescued the nurse refuses to give one a satisfying meal, so he flirts with her to get fed. Now he’s “engaged”, and she thinks he is hesitant to get married because he never had a real home. SO she convinces a magazine publisher to have the famous cooking writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) invite him over for Christmas to show him what a home is like. Only, Lane a complete fraud. She doesn’t live in Connecticut, and can’t cook, and doesn’t have the husband and baby she wrote about. Also, the publisher Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), who believes everything in his magazines is truthful, will be joining them as well. Wow, what a convoluted setup for a generic Rom Com.

So, pretty Elizabeth agrees to marry a doofus architect (Reginald Gardiner), have the bartender from Rick’s Cafe American handle the cooking, and try to sneak in a marriage ceremony to make it all legit. All the while she falls in love with a man she thinks is engaged, and thinks she is married. Will these two love birds ever get together?

Let’s spend some time chatting about Sydney Greenstreet. Very recognizable due to his great size and because of the quality of his films. Past 60 when he debuted in The Maltese Falcon, he’d be retired before he reached 70. I give him credit for outliving his two frequent costars Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre (by 17 and 14 years respectively), he didn’t exactly avoid health issues. His cause of death is listed as the effects of diabetes and nephritis, clearly brought on by his weight. But his work was outstanding and his library of films (24 in eight years) stands as a testament to his talent.

Una O’Connor has a somewhat similar story. She started in films at almost 50 and appeared in about 65 films, many of them classics. If you needed a comically shrill housekeeper, Una was your lady. She moved to television in the late 1940s but came out of retirement to finish her career with Witness for the Prosecution (1957). I am amazed how often her face turns up.

The success of a Rom Com relies entirely on the chemistry of the lovers (where have I heard this before?) and despite its flaws, Christmas in Connecticut succeeds. While fifteen minutes shorter would have been fifteen minutes better (now, I know I heard that before!), the story got us where it needed to. Safe, predictable holiday fare. AMRU 3.
“Having babies to boost your circulation takes time.”