Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Calamity Jane (1953)

When a saloon in Deadwood discovers the pretty Francis Fryer of New York they booked isn’t actually a pretty woman, but in fact a dude (and not a very pretty one), the boastful Calamity Jane (Doris Day) promises to bring in the famous Adelaid Adams. She travels to Chicagie but mistakenly brings back Adelaid’s assistant instead.

The story is really just a framework for the music and Rom-Com story. Howard Keel played Wild Bill Hickok as one possible romantic partner. Of course the cute-as-a-button Doris Day plays the butch Calamity Jane, because a real tomboy would have been out of the question.

This is the first Day picture I’ve done for this project, not because of any disrespect, but because her typical uptempo fluff falls outside of my typical interest. That said, I do find myself appreciating fluff for what it is. And what it is isn’t too bad. Day’s numbers are rather good and she is downright charming.

So, who was Calamity Jane in real life? First, let’s begin with Buffalo Bill. William Cody spent time in the old west and in later years profited by exploiting the public’s fascination with the subject. One of his acts was Martha Jane Cannary, a woman whose claim to fame was exaggerating her association with Wild Bill Hickok, a man who was genuinely famous for exaggerated his life stories. Anyhow, Martha called herself Calamity Jane and told stories, before dying in a drunken stupor at fifty one.

You cannot fault Calamity Jane for being historically inaccurate. Martha Jane herself made up everything she didn't exaggerate, and the film even played up her exaggerations. This here is nothing more than yet another fanciful retelling of a decidedly invented story. And not too bad of one. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, that’s female thinkin’. And nothing’ll get you into more trouble.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Lifeboat (1944)

A ship is sunk by a German U-Boat and survivors assemble onto a remaining lifeboat. A torpedo also downs the U-Boat and one of the survivors is a Nazi. How can this crazy, mixed up family learn to get along?

Here we have an eclectic cast in a very confined space. Americans, Brits, and a Nazi. Engine room grunts, a socialite, a negro, a millionaire, a crazy person, Gilligan, the Skipper, and a Nazi. A few conflicts, mysteries, and deaths. I will give nothing away. Did I mention there was a Nazi? Well, that’s kinda a spoiler, I guess.

Socialite reporter Tallulah Bankhead lived an interesting life. She started in Hollywood but didn’t get far. So she became a hit on the London stage. Tried and failed again at Hollywood, then took Broadway and the New York social scene by storm, She returned to Hollywood at forty and made Lifeboat. Her unconventional style and open sexuality earned her fans and detractors. Her Hollywood career didn’t last and her last role was as Batman villain Black Widow.

The set for Lifeboat was tall to make room for the water, and actors had to climb a ladder to get into the boat. It was noted that Tallulah did not wear underpants, Hitchcock reportedly remarked "I don't know if this is a matter for the costume department, makeup, or hairdressing." Maybe apocryphal but amusing nevertheless.

Longtime readers may remember William Bendix from Blue Dahlia, or Henry Hull from Werewolf of London, or Walter Slezak from The Inspector General, or maybe Hume Cronyn from,well I guess nothing I’ve seen so far. He was in several films on my must-see list. He effected a terrible cockney accent hard to forget. Amazing cast of character actors, reminiscent of 12 Angry Men. And written by John Steinbeck to boot!

Lifeboat is a survival story and a character study. I find early Hitchcock to be inspired but somehow flawed. An exaggerated ending or otherwise unpolished. Lifeboat is Hitch at the prime of his career, on the verge of greatness. Thrilling throughout and way better than I expected. AMRU 4.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Unholy Three (1930)

A circus is closed down after a brawl, so some of the performers go into business for themselves. Echo (Lon Chaney), a ventriloquist, Hercules, a strong man, and Tweedledee, a midget open a pet store as a front. Echo, disguised as an old woman, makes his birds talk. When the customer complains that they don’t anymore, our heroes visit and case the joint for robbing later. The heat is on when a burglary goes bad leaving one dead. Our bumbling crew frame nice guy Hector then lay low. Also in the gang is Rosie, a pickpocket apparently in a relationship with Echo, and a Gorilla, because, of course.

The Unholy Three (1930) is a remake of a silent film of the same name from five years earlier. The older is considered the better film but this stands as Chaney’s only spoken role. Adding voice to his transformative skills, he not only did two voices (normal and old lady) but also performed all of the ventriloquism in the film. He would die six weeks after the film’s release robbing Hollywood of a true acting genius.

A long while back I wondered what was up with all the gorillas in early talkie horrors. Mostly, that was Charles Gemora. Not the gorilla, the guy in the suit. He played similar roles in The Island of Lost Souls and the terrible Ghost Parade, as well as dozens of others. He was a makeup artist by trade.

There are many parallels between this film (and its predecessor) with Freaks (1932). Dwarf Harry Earles appeared in all three films, Tod Browning directed the silent Unholy and Freaks, all three have a character named Hercules, and the Circus setting, a favorite of Browning. Browning did excellent silent films and earned some acclaim with Freaks and Dracula (1931) but let’s face it. His sound films were a mess. Maybe he couldn’t adapt with the radically new style of storytelling that sound ushered in, or maybe it was all the drinking. He never did a retrospective interview about his career.

As the silent 1925 version is largely considered superior, it’s the one I normally come across. I was happy that TCM ran this version so I could finally hear Chaney speak. Not a terrible film but little to recommend it otherwise. As a Chaney fan I was glad to see it, but to be fair, it deserves a slightly lower grade. AMRU 2.5.
“The way you look at me. You and that horrible little midge. You give me the creeps!”

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Cameraman (1928)

Poor Buster (Buster Keaton) sells tintypes for a dime. When a pretty reporter for the fictitious newsreel company MGM crosses his path, he decides he will make a name for himself by selling them some photos. Yea, all silent comedies are alike. Down on his luck everyman falls for pretty girl, and he must show his worth. And this one is pretty much by the books.

This was Buster’s first film with MGM. Assuming he was also the director, he started off behaving as such. When real director Edward Sedgwick told him not to, he took a back seat. But when Sedgwick had trouble getting the actors to understand what he wanted, he asked Buster for assistance.

The move from independent filmmaker to MGM lackie has largely been seen as a terrible move for Keaton. He wanted the financial stability of a large studio, but lost the freedom to create the film he wanted. But Keaton knew cinema was changing. Sound cinema required resources. More equipment, more technicians, quieter sets. And it ushered forth a new form of storytelling at odds with his established style. Buster’s transition to sound and big studios could have gone better for him and the studio as well, but his drinking and lifestyle ruffled feathers enough to keep him at odds with the industry. When the box office dried up, there was little reason to listen to his concerns, and Buster would fade into a forgotten genius.

But, back to the movie at hand. Although the trend would not continue, Buster did manage to produce a film worth of his reputation. AMRU 3.5.
“What are you doin ‘.... givin’ me a sleigh-ride?”

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Holiday (1938)

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) and Julia Seton meet, fall in love, and decide to marry while on vacation. Then the movie begins and they get to know each other. Turns out Julia is rich. Like Seton family rich, and she has ideas of poor Johnny Case following in old dad’s footsteps in business. But Johnny is a bit of a non-conformist and wants to play things his own way. Sorda like Julia’s non-conformist sister (Katharine Hepburn).

I wrote recently that I had grown tired of Rom-Coms, and wanted to avoid them for a while. But Holiday was already on the DVR so I knew it would be watched at some point. Lucky for me, George Cukor did Rom-Coms better than most and Holiday is a winner.

This was the beginning of the “Katharine Hepburn is Box Office Poison” era that started with Bringing Up Baby earlier in the year, and studio execs were concerned. The studio boss wanted to preemptively take out an ad in Variety asking “What is wrong with Katharine Hepburn?” but she warned that people might tell him. The movie didn’t fare well financially, likely because Johnny wanting to be a vagabond didn’t play well during the depression.

Holiday is a delightful film mostly because how likable the characters are. Not just Cary and Kate, but also Kate’s brother and Johnny’s friends, the Potters. Johnny’s plan didn’t make much sense to me but that didn’t matter. I liked him, and his friends. And in a Rom-Com, that’s all we can hope for.
“Johnny, when two people love each other as much as you do, anything that keeps them apart must be wrong.”