Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Great Dictator

Year 6, Day 297 - 10/24/14 - Movie #1,887

BEFORE: Chaplin carries over for the final time, and Paulette Goddard does too - makes sense, since she was his third wife and all that.  This film is from 1940, a time when it was much in vogue to make fun of Hitler, in much the same way that modern comedians have made fun of Saddam, Bin Laden and Kim Jong Il.

THE PLOT: Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel's regime.

AFTER: Chaplin plays two roles here, and any time that happens, you expect to see a switcheroo, a riff on "The Prince and the Pauper".  But that doesn't happen here until the very end, which is a little suspect.  Why don't more people notice the resemblance between the humble barber and the leader of Tomania?  The barber himself is still shell-shocked from World War I, so that's his excuse, but what about the regular people?  Especially since they both have such a tiny mustache, and no one else has that.  (I wonder if Chaplin was mad at Hitler for stealing his look - we still call it a "Hitler mustache", not a "Chaplin")

There's not much sublety here - Chaplin worked in full sound and used the opportunity to have his Hynkel/Hitler character make prolonged speeches with (presumably) German-sounding nonsense.  His Tramp/barber character also talks, but sparingly, still preferring pantomime over pontification, at least until the end where he makes a speech to try and save the world.  A little Wiki research tells me that this ending was unpopular at the time, since this was taken as Chaplin expressing his own political beliefs, and some people didn't like this interjection of politics into their comedy.

This was tricky, tricky comedy ground - to make a film in 1940 that showed the persecution of Jews and mentioned concentration camps while still mining that subject matter for slapstick and mistaken identity bits.  To have a sequence where Hynkel/Hitler dances with a large balloon shaped like the Earth - showing his thirst for power and territory while still keeping it light.  The only other film I can think of from that time that managed such a difficult balance was the original 1942 "To Be or Not To Be".

Making names like Goebbels and Goering sound like "Garbage" and "Herring" isn't exactly subtle either.  But I suppose somebody had to do it. And Benito Mussolini becomes "Benzino Napaloni", but I don't see how Italy got named "Bacteria" here.  Like the Hynkel speeches, most of the gags involving Napaloni just go on way too long, like when his train pulls too far into the station, then too far back, and so on.  Or the negotiation/food fight between Hynkel and Napaloni - just goes around and around, and lands exactly nowhere.

In the end, it's a form of fantasy fulfillment - that Hynkel/Hitler could reverse his Anti-Semitic policies on a whim, or through a set of comic mishaps, seems like a sort of wishful thinking for people who were on the brink of going to war.  If only life had imitated art.

Also starring Jack Oakie, Billy Gilbert (last seen in "Love on the Run"), Henry Daniell, Maurice Moskovitch

RATING: 4 out of 10 puddings

Friday, October 24, 2014

Modern Times

Year 6, Day 296 - 10/23/14 - Movie #1,886

BEFORE: Well, I've made great progress in the last two days, but I've also screwed up my sleeping schedule something fierce.  My body now wants to be awake when I should be sleeping, and vice versa.  Plus I seem to have lost the ability to fall asleep in a bed, I now have to start a film, watch it for 30-45 minutes, fall asleep in the recliner for 2 hours, wake up and finish the film - after all that, it's about 5 am and I can't get back to sleep.  When I was working 5 days a week, making it through a whole movie didn't seem to be much of a problem, but sleeping late on Tuesdays and Thursdays could also be affecting things.  Nah, let's blame Chaplin.

THE PLOT:  The Tramp struggles to live in modern industrial society with the help of a young homeless woman.

AFTER:  It's sort of ironic to watch a film titled "Modern Times" when it was made almost 80 years ago.  How modern could it possibly still be?  Turns out, quite a bit in the portrayal of the factory, which has a boss that can view all of his workers on a giant screen, and order them back to work the same way, even when they're smoking in the bathroom.  (Chaplin depicted the first hidden toilet-cam, I guess...)

Chaplin's not a Tramp here at first, he's a factory worker whose fortune rises and falls with the American steel industry.  But the rapidness of the assembly line gets to him, physically and mentally, so he's forced off the line.  As a commentary on the greed of industry leaders, he's even seen being fed by an experimental "feeding machine" which is intended to reduce worker's lunch hours to just a few minutes.  Of course, the machine ends up beating him silly with a corn cob, and force-feeding him metal nuts instead of pieces of food.  

After he suffers a mental breakdown, he's mistaken for a Communist instigator and thrown in jail, where he comically mixes up cocaine (sorry, "nose powder") and salt, leading to an interesting lunch that Al Pacino's Scarface would have enjoyed.  High as a kite, he stumbles out of jail, then stumbles back and prevents a jailbreak.  Normally this would get a man shanked in the shower, but here it leads to his parole.  

For once, a Chaplin film sets him up romantically with a counterpart at his level - not some beautiful, seemingly unattainable gorgeous dancing girl, but a similarly homeless girl, also wanted by the police for vagrancy.  Ever the gentleman, he steps in to get arrested in her place whenever she steals, and even covers for her when she escapes from the paddy wagon.  (It's like a 1930's comic version of "Les Miserables", am I right?)

After a failed stint as a night watchman for a department store, and yet another prison term, the two set up house, in a shack that makes the cabin from "The Gold Rush" look like a luxury hotel.  But when the newspapers announce the factory's re-opening, it's back to work - just in time to go on strike.  Wah, wah.  He finally finds some measure of success as a singing waiter, though the song that he sings is mostly made of nonsense words that sound vaguely French or Italian, along with pantomimed movements.

That's right, Chaplin sings, so it's not really a silent film - sort of a "half-silent".  Why did Chaplin persist in making silent-style films after sound films had come into vogue?  I can only assume that after such a long career in silents, this is just the method he was accustomed to.  The notes on IMDB state that Chaplin was convinced that "talkies" were just a passing fad, and since he was the writer, director, and chief financier of his films, he was able to keep making films the way he wanted, even though the industry was changing all around him.  He was also concerned about the way that his films would play in foreign countries, and felt that adding too much English dialogue would affect their international box office.  Hmm, where I have I heard that before?

Also starring Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Al Ernest Garcia

RATING: 6 out of 10 giant gears

City Lights

Year 6, Day 296 - 10/23/14 - Movie #1,885

BEFORE: Chaplin film #3 - once my Chaplin chain is over, I will have seen 91 out of the AFI's Top 100 American films, and 361 of the "1,001 Movies To See Before You Die" (with plans to watch at least another 12).
THE PLOT: The Tramp struggles to help a blind flower girl he has fallen in love with.

AFTER: Well, I didn't know Chaplin did so many "ass" jokes - the whole first comic sequence is about the Tramp being found sleeping on a statue as it's unveiled, and in trying to climb down from the statue, his butt ends up in one marble statue's face, and then in the hand of another.  He also gets his clothes caught on a sharp marble sword, but from the back, so it's awfully close to showing him being impaled on the sword, in a very personal way.  Later in the film, he works as a street-sweeper, and there's some poop humor - he refuses to go down a street where a number of horses have been, and then for the payoff, he walks by a random elephant.

But this is really about mistaken identity - the lovely blind woman has an interaction with the Tramp, and we can assume that he sounds pretty cultured (just look at how he dresses!) so when she hears a nearby car door slam, she assumes that he's driven off in his car.  Later in the film she visits him at his friend's mansion, so naturally she assumes he owns the place.

The Tramp's "friend" is a man he saved from drowning - and by "saved" I mean he did a bit where he talks him out of suicide, then falls into the river with him in comic fashion, only to climb out and stumble back in, again and again.  He's a millionaire prone to drinking, and when he's drunk he treats the Tramp well, but each time he sobers up, he can't remember who he is and has him tossed out of the mansion, DJ Jazzy Jeff style.

He also gives the Tramp his car, and later a sum of money, but can't remember doing this either once he's sober.  Most people who drink to excess aren't this bi-polar, and most eventually remember what they did while drunk, so this is another case of a filmmaker tailoring the way the world works for comic effect.  Similarly, when the Tramp reads about a doctor in Europe who can cure "blindness", that's probably a gross simplification, because no doubt there are different kinds of blindness, and I'm supposing that whatever cure that doctor has would only work on certain kinds.

But let's put all that aside, and admire how elegantly all of the pieces fit together on this one.  Every gag is neatly set up, right down to the newsboys who torment the Tramp at the start of the film, which doesn't pay off until the very end - but if they hadn't been there at the beginning, then the end sequence wouldn't have made any sense.  The burglars in the millionaire's home seem to come a bit out of the blue, but even they serve a purpose in setting up the payoff to the "I don't know this man" bit.

The best sequence is probably the boxing match - the Tramp enters into a match prepared to take a dive for some easy money, only to have his opponent rush out of town.  His new opponent doesn't honor the same agreement, so our hero is forced to fight for real.  He uses his slapstick moves to try and win the fight by unconventional means, which leads to comic situations like confusion with the referee getting mixed up in the fight, and then getting the rope to the bell tied around his neck, so that the bell rings to stop the fight whenever he gets knocked down, and then rings again to start the fight every time he walks away.

I was starting to wonder why, if the main character is a Tramp (aka hobo, aka homeless guy) he dresses so nicely.  But I think I've cracked the Chaplin code here - the character needs to travel in both worlds, that of the rich and the poor.  He needs to look elegant enough to get a job, or to not look out of place when circumstances take him to a fancy party or restaurant, but then once bad fortune comes his way again, and it inevitably does, he needs to be able to grab his hat and cane and waddle off to the next adventure.  He's the conduit between the millionaires and the flower girls of the world, between the rich prospectors and the dancing girls.

Also starring Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Florence Lee.

RATING: 6 out of 10 eviction notices

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Gold Rush

Year 6, Day 295 - 10/22/14 - Movie #1,884

BEFORE: I'm watching two films today and two again tomorrow, because my watchlist has not decreased in over a month - I was stuck at 153 for a long time, and now after doubling up a couple times, I'll be at an even 150.  I do like round numbers - I realize the list will probably increase a bit while I'm on break, so getting the number down as low as possible before the break should be helpful.  Chaplin carries over from "The Kid", for the 2nd of 5 of his classic films.

THE PLOT:  The Tramp goes to the Klondike in search of gold and finds it and more. 

AFTER: More innovations in filmmaking tonight - you can see so many of the classic gags here that were later alluded to in countless "Looney Tunes" cartoons - like when characters are stranded on a deserted island or someplace where there is no food, and one looks at the other and sees a giant pork chop with his friend's face on it.  That comes from here, where one hungry prospector looks at the Tramp and instead sees a giant edible chicken.  Ah, the endless humor of potential cannibalism!  

For the first half of the film, the Tramp (here called "The Lone Prospector") is stranded in a flimsy Yukon cabin with two men, one is another aspiring prospector and the other (as we find out later on) is a wanted man.  There's not enough food in the cabin for three men, which makes me wonder how long the original cabin owner was planning to stay there.  NOBODY planned ahead?  Everyone just came north looking for gold, and not a single person brought food, apparently.  Oh, one brought a dog, but fortunately none of them realized that the dog was made of meat.  

(Chaplin's Tramp apparently headed north without a parka, either, or even an overcoat.  I suppose he thought audiences might not recognize him if he was all covered up and they couldn't see his trademark waistcoat, but realistically, he wouldn't have lasted 10 seconds in the Yukon dressed like that.)

This leads to the classic scene where after one man is chosen to go get food, and Chaplin boils his boot for himself and the other man to eat.  I suppose leather is essentially a cow's skin, so this doesn't really seem too outrageous, does it?  And then before you know it, the craze caught on and thousands of hungry American movie-goers went home and ate their shoes - well, it was the Depression and all that. If flagpole-sitting and goldfish-swallowing were fads in the 1920's, I don't see why boot-eating didn't catch on in the 1930's.  

The second half of the film takes place back in town, after the Tramp has mined perhaps a thimble-full of gold - tramps not being known for their work ethics, you know.  He scams another cabin-owner out of breakfast, and this leads to a job minding the man's cabin while he's away.  This allows him to go to the dance hall and get caught up in the complicated (for that time, anyway) relationship between Jack and Georgia.  Jack's a ladies' man who has more women than he knows what to do with, while the Tramp barely knows what to do with one. 

But the Tramp ends up entertaining Georgia and her three lady-friends on New Year's Eve, though it seems that for the girls this is something of a lark.  Or are they just hanging out with him because he has a warm cabin and finally, some access to food?  It's a bit unclear.  But Georgia finds that's he's kept her picture ever since they danced together (while she was trying to make Jack jealous) and eventually this leads to romance in the end - which was innovative in itself, since Hollywood didn't decree that the hero always has to get the girl until 1937.  

The other classic bit to watch for is Chaplin doing a little mock dance with two dinner rolls on the ends of forks, as if they're feet and legs.  This was emulated by Johnny Depp's character in "Benny & Joon", but according to Anthony Bourdain's intro to this film on TCM, Chaplin himself nicked the idea from a Fatty Arbuckle film, "The Rough House", released 8 years earlier.  Oh, and there's also the bit where two people are in a house teetering on the edge of a cliff, and various actions make the house get closer to falling - that's been replicated in a bunch of other films too.

Also starring Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale, Malcolm Waite.

RATING: 5 out of 10 dogsleds

The Kid (1921)

Year 6, Day 295 - 10/22/14 - Movie #1,883

BEFORE: I'm suspending linking again tonight, on the suspicion that this is quite nearly an identical film to "Big Daddy" when all is said and done.  Not that I'm comparing Adam Sandler to Charlie Chaplin, or saying that the later film was a direct remake of the earlier film, but you know what I mean. I was looking for a way to work the most iconic Chaplin films in, and the opportunity presented itself - I'll do something similar for the lead-out.  In a year where I already cracked the code on Woody Allen and Hitchcock, why not work in one more Hollywood auteur?  

THE PLOT: The Tramp cares for an abandoned child, but events put that relationship in jeopardy.

AFTER: It might seem shocking to hear that I've never seen a full Chaplin film to date ("Do you like Chaplin?" "I don't know, I've never Chappled before...").  Clips of them, sure, who hasn't?  But for some reason they didn't cover his work in the NYU film program, and I've always gravitated more toward Buster Keaton and didn't see the need to expand.  I suppose before I'm done next year I'm going to have to watch some Marx Brothers films if I'm really going to do this right.  

Anyway, this film now becomes the oldest one covered in the project, and for that reason, some allowances need to be made.  I have to acknowledge that filmmaking during the silent era was a much different process, it was a product of its time and was designed to appeal to the audience of its day, which had really just gotten used to seeing images of locomotives coming toward them on-screen, without being killed by them.  Special effects weren't really around yet, the timing of comedy had to allow time for audiences to read words from cards, and acting had to be at a level of over-expressiveness that wasn't seen again until someone invented Disney Channel sitcoms.   

Even the concepts used seem quite over-simplified by today's standards - this character is good, this one is mean, this one is rich and that one is poor.  There wasn't much time for shades of gray or complex character motivations, especially since films tended to be on the shorter side, to allow for newsreels and cartoons, I suppose, and to allow for more showings per day at the Nickelodeon.  These simple short films allowed Chaplin to develop his "tramp" character, which was an icon by the time he appeared in feature films with monster running times like 68 minutes.

This film was ground-breaking in so many ways, first of all its blend of drama and comedy.  Before that, according to the terms of Shakespeare, something had to be labelled as one or the other.  I guess dramatists felt that if a story had both elements, the audience was likely to be confused about how they should feel.  It seems so simple nowadays, because after all, life is a blend of both of those elements - so why did it take so long to make films that reflected the way life is?

Secondly there is the portrayal of a woman having a child out of wedlock, probably a shocking subject matter for 1921.  Obviously we see the pressure this woman feels as she leaves the charity hospital, and has to walk RIGHT past a wedding ceremony.  (Subtlety, apparently, was not invented until the 1930's.)  Her solution to her dilemma is to abandon the baby in an expensive-looking car in front of a mansion, only she couldn't have predicted that the car would be stolen.  (The word "carjacking" wasn't even invented until the 1990's, after all...)

Chaplin's tramp cares for the boy for five years, during which time they become partners in crime, with the kid throwing rocks through windows, and the Tramp appearing coincidentally on the scene just moments later.  (And no one figured out that scheme?  I guess nomadic glaziers were just more common back then.)

It's an extraordinary set of coincidences that gets the errant mother, now a successful opera star, back in touch with her young son.  Sure, she does charity work in the slums, probably out of guilt, but how did she know her child was even still alive, or still in that part of town?  Also, DNA testing hadn't been invented yet, so I don't know how anyone back then knew for sure who they were or weren't related to.
I think people had to rely on facial resemblances, which seems sketchy at best.  

I'm not sure about the "Dreamland" fantasy sequence seen near the end of the story - the Tramp imagines his rundown part of the city populated by angels and devils, and I don't really see the point of all that, especially how it relates to his relationship with the kid.  It seems like they were trying to pad the story a bit so they could advertise it as a 6-reel film instead of a 5-reeler.

Also starring Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance.

RATING: 4 out of 10 pancakes  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Big Daddy

Year 6, Day 294 - 10/21/14 - Movie #1,882

BEFORE: Eh, what's a birthday, anyway?  Some arbitrary celebration of a day that happens to have the same numeration as the day I was born.  Are we really celebrating the fact that the earth has returned to the same location in its orbit around the sun as it was in on the day we started to act as an independent being? If so, that's bullshit in a way because the earth never really goes back to the same spot, since the whole solar system's moving around the galaxy, and the galaxy's moving too so it seems like there's really nothing to celebrate.  I think I'm at the age where I refuse to acknowledge that I'm getting a little older every day, as are we all, but it's just easier to deal with that information on one particular day, rather than fret about it a little all year long. 

Adam Sandler carries over from "Grown Ups 2" to finish off his chain.  I could have worked in "8 Crazy Nights", but we're nowhere near Hanukkah time (I think) and I'm going to go a different way to finish off the year. 

THE PLOT: A lazy law school grad adopts a kid to impress his girlfriend, but everything doesn't go as planned and he becomes the unlikely foster father.

AFTER: This gets a higher rating from me than "Grown Ups 2" did, merely because it's ABOUT something - a man learns to be responsible through taking care of his roommate's son.  Whereas "Grown Ups 2" isn't really about anything but stupid stunts, and it's just out to waste people's time. 

There are at least a couple of OK gags here - I remember when McDonald's moved the cutoff for serving breakfast to be an hour earlier, and it threw a lot of people off.  I'm one of those people that finds it tough to make it to breakfast before 10:30 am, so I feel the pain here.  Still, I don't know the pleasure (?) of taking care of a child on a full-time basis, so there's just as much here that I can't really fathom.

It ends with a competency hearing, to determine if Sandler's character is worthy of being a parent.  This might explain why they changed the ending of the "Mr. Deeds" remake, which was released three years after this film, because ending that one with a hearing would have seemed too similar.

Also starring Jon Stewart, Joey Lauren Adams (last seen in "Chasing Amy"), Rob Schneider (last seen in "Mr. Deeds"), Leslie Mann (last seen in "This Is 40"), Cole + Dylan Sprouse, Josh Mostel (last seen in "The Out-of-Towners"), Kristy Swanson, Steve Buscemi (also carrying over from "Grown Ups 2") Allen Covert (ditto), Peter Dante (ditto), Joseph Bologna (last seen in "My Favorite Year").

RATING: 4 out of 10 rollerbladers

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Grown Ups 2

Year 6, Day 293 - 10/20/14 - Movie #1,881

BEFORE: Picked this one to land on my birthday, because by the title, I can surmise that it's all about growing up.  Right?  RIGHT?  Adam Sandler carries over from "Mr. Deeds", and several other actors do the same.  Talk about being charitable - once you're one of Sandler's friends, you don't have to struggle for roles, even if you're just plain unfunny.

THE PLOT: After moving his family back to his hometown to be with his friends and their kids, Lenny finds out that between old bullies, new bullies, schizo bus drivers, drunk cops on skis, and 400 costumed party crashers, sometimes crazy follows you.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Grown Ups" (Movie #837)

AFTER: Well, this was just misguided nonsense.  I gave the first "Grown Ups" film a 4 because underneath all the slapstick, there was at least a message about how maybe it's a good idea to turn off the handheld devices and get outside with the family once in a while.  This one - no message whatsoever that I could discern.  It's just junk piled upon junk.

When the main characters are driving their kids' school bus (pretty sure you need a special license for that) because the regular bus driver is stoned, and it ends with them pulling him in an inflatable raft, you realize the plot was created by much the same process as when people play "Mad Libs".  Can we have someone ride a snowmobile through a cotton candy factory?  Sure, why not?

And there are no missed opportunities when you go for the cheapest laugh possible every time.  Diaper humor?  Leering at women working out?  Forgetting an anniversary?  Who needs a storyline when there are so many terrible mishaps that our characters can get into?  From the opening joke where a family gets pissed on by an invading reindeer, nothing ever makes sense, and it's all downhill from that point.  One character riding in a giant tire is a perfect metaphor - once it gets rolling downhill you don't know where it's going to stop, but it's bound to be a disaster.

The arbitrary stopping point (and at least there was one, God knows it could have gone on and on...) is an 80's-themed party (after pointing out that today's kids don't even know how long ago the 1980's were, so what's the point of having such a party?) where every plot thread (and I use that term very loosely) comes together in a giant fist-fight with an army of frat boys.

Thanks for making me feel old, guys - since I remember the 80's.  And thanks for reminding me that everything we do as adults is essentially a pointless endeavor that ends in annihilation and entropy.

Also starring Kevin James (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), David Spade (ditto), Chris Rock (last heard in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted"), Salma Hayek (last heard in "The Pirates! Band of Misfits"), Maya Rudolph (last heard in "Zookeeper"), Maria Bello (last seen in "Payback"), Nick Swardson, Tim Meadows (last seen in "Mean Girls"), Jon Lovitz (last heard in "Hotel Transylvania"), Colin Quinn, Steve Buscemi (also carrying over from "Mr. Deeds"), Peter Dante (ditto), Allen Covert (ditto), Oliver Hudson (last seen in "The Out of Towners"), Shaquille O'Neal, Cheri Oteri, Ellen Cleghorne, with cameos from Steve Austin, Georgia Engel, Taylor Lautner, Andy Samberg (last seen in "Celeste and Jesse Forever"), Will Forte (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Norm Crosby, Dan Patrick, Chris Berman, Milo Ventimiglia and the J. Geils Band.

RATING: 2 out of 10 field goals

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mr. Deeds

Year 6, Day 292 - 10/19/14 - Movie #1,880

BEFORE:  With less than three weeks of movies left in the year, it's time for me to start thinking about next year.  I'll describe this process more in the upcoming year-end wrap-up, but I've got just over 132 films on tap for next year - I've organized films by topic, actor, actor's birthdays and even where the films have taken place.  What's left?  How do I figure out the order for the films that are left to watch?

Well, February's easy - I just pick the films that seem to be most about love and romance, and then figure out which actors appear in more than one film - (Julia Roberts will be represented well next February, as will Dermot Mulroney). Quite by accident I have just over 28 such films, and I was able to navigate a linking path through them.  

Today I couldn't help but start to think about how to start next year's chain, and more importantly, how to end it, in case it ends up being the last year of the project.  I made some small building blocks, like 5 films with Laurence Olivier, or 6 with Edward Norton, and then I set about putting the blocks together.  The past couple years I've started the year with animated films, but I don't have very many of them on the list right now - so I picked a starting point for January 1, and a couple loose topics, like "crime/killers" and "Audrey Hepburn" and I built a 31-film chain that ends where the romance chain begins.  

Then I figured out where the year's list needs to end in December (hint: it rhymes with "Star Wars") and backtracked from there - I can't wait, because the last few films of the year will feature some of the most nimble, surprising linking I've done.  When I was done tearing apart my watchlist and putting it back together, with some of the films from the beginning moving to the end and vice versa, I had to look back upon it and marvel.  Right now there are only FIVE films orphaned at the end of the chain, connected to nothing in particular.  And I've got January through March 2015 programmed, and also October through mid-December (I'm guessing) with an indetermined space in between.  As I add more films now they'll probably get put in the middle, and as I add them to the framework maybe I can even find homes for those 5 unconnected stragglers (You try linking to "Grand Illusion", it's not easy!  The other orphans: "Dangerous Minds", "Gandhi", "Stella Dallas" and "Lust For Life").

Linking tonight is suspended due to my new "remake rule".  See yesterday's post for details. 

THE PLOT: A sweet-natured, small-town guy inherits a controlling stake in a media conglomerate and begins to do business his way.

AFTER: This is the terrible dilemma faced when remaking a film - should one stick closely to the plot-points that have been done before, or take chances and strike out in new directions?  I think, generally speaking, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.  

The makers of "Mr. Deeds" had to decide what to leave in and what to leave out - what elements of the 1936 Frank Capra film needed to be kept, and which needed to be updated?  After all, the Depression-era mindset was no longer an issue.  So they upped the dollar value of the inheritance - from $10 million to $40 billion.  They turned Longfellow Deeds from an amateur poet to an amateur greeting card writer (and pizza-store owner).

The reporter/love interest is still a reporter - but I think she works in television now, since her boss is more of a reality-TV show host/producer.  The template was probably something like "A Current Affair", but since that genre has only gotten bigger with shows like "TMZ", this seems sort of prophetic in the end.

What they kept the same - Deeds is still a simple fellow who's not above solving business problems with his fists, and he's still naive enough to think that businesses are supposed to be run above-board, and with principles that make sense. 

Some of the other tangents that were added seem to go exactly nowhere - like a visit to the reporter's fake hometown, which turns out to be a real place.  How is that even possible?  Make up a name for a city, and then find it on the map?   I'm not sure what this was intended to prove - that there are a lot of small towns with weird names?  The rescuing of the cats from the burning building is another new wrinkle that falls pretty flat. 

The ending is also quite different - instead of Deeds being put on trial with his sanity questioned, his fortune is put in jeopardy through something more akin to a hostile takeover, and then there's a last-minute solution that seems sort of thrown together or pulled out of thin air.  

Starring Adam Sandler (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), Winona Ryder (last seen in "The Age of Innocence"), Peter Gallagher (last seen in "Sex, Lies & Videotape"), John Turturro (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Jared Harris (last seen in "Lost in Space"), Erick Avari, Peter Dante, Allen Covert, Conchata Farrell, Steve Buscemi (also last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), with cameos from John McEnroe, J.B. Smoove, Harve Presnell, Rev. Al Sharpton.

RATING: 3 out of 10 butlers

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Year 6, Day 291 - 10/18/14 - Movie #1,879

BEFORE: As I get closer to the end of the year, I'm finding it necessary to relax the rules on linking a bit, if I want to include certain films in the 2014 chain.  From this point, I'm going to allow two versions of the same film (or two films that are so similar that one is "essentially" a remake of the other) and for those leaps, the linking will be suspended.  For example, I'll follow tonight's film with the remake starring Adam Sandler - I don't think one would expect any actors to carry over from a film made six decades earlier, or for the linking in that case to be anything close to productive.  Watching two versions of the same story in succession should allow me to judge them better - I'll do the same next year with two versions of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".

But for tonight, Joan Crawford and John Barrymore were both in the 1925 version of "Ben-Hur" with Gary Cooper (last seen in "For Whom the Bell Tolls").

THE PLOT: Longfellow Deeds, a simple-hearted Vermont tuba player, inherits a fortune and has to contend with opportunist city slickers.

AFTER: This seems like a proper wrap-up for the week, since the topic of economics kept coming up over and over - going back a full week to the inheritance scam seen in "Anastasia", then the search for hidden valuables in "Gaslight", then Bette Davis playing rich women in "Dark Victory" and "Now, Voyager", and a middle-class mother in "The Catered Affair".  Then "Mildred Pierce" went from working-class to upper-class with her restaurant chain, and back again, and the classes clashed at the "Grand Hotel".

(Back in February, I watched a few films on reporters falling in love, like "It Happened One Night", "Love on the Run" and "His Girl Friday", I didn't realize this one would have fit right in there - but then, I think I didn't have a copy of this one then, it's a more recent addition to the list.)

In tonight's film a small-town man unexpectedly inherits 20 million dollars from his uncle - and as I've noted before, money just seemed to be worth a lot more back in the 1930's (or things now are more expensive, I'm not really sure which) so with 20 million, a man would be set for life - but instead of just walking away with the cash, Longfellow Deeds lets himself be drawn into the big city, where lawyers and accountants elect him chairman of his own company, and he explores the mysteries of business.

For example, he can't understand why a business like an opera company can operate at a loss.  Of course, any artistic endeavor runs the risk of not being profitable, but Deeds assumes that if it's not making money, it must be doing something wrong - either they're charging too much, or not enough, or just not putting on a good enough show.

I'm not sure I followed all the logic in the ways that Deeds' folksiness manifests itself - his reporter girlfriend writes stories about him feeding doughnuts to a horse, and you'd think someone from a rural area would know a little more about horses.  Actions like this, and his plan to use his fortune to buy land for homeless families willing to farm it, lead to a competency hearing - because naturally, anyone who wants to give away his money must be crazy.

It's a little convenient that he's too loveless and forlorn to defend himself for the first part of the hearing, allowing the opposing lawyers to make their entire case.  (Don't they get a chance to do that, anyway?) And since it features the sort of wishful success that Depression-era moviegoers no doubt dreamed of, it's also probably a form of fulfillment when Deeds is declared to be the sanest man in the room.  After all, everyone is a little bit crazy, yet everyone also thinks themselves to be completely sane.

This film was directed by Frank Capra, and when you look at it next to his other big hits like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life", it's easy to spot the similar themes - the star is the common man, the individual working within/against the system to fight political or financial corruption.  In fact Capra had plans to make a sequel to this film, called "Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington", and eventually that got changed around to feature the new character of Mr. Smith.

Also notable is the first use of the word "doodle" to mean absent-minded scribbling, and also the word "pixilated", but in a different context than the word "pixelated" we use today - here it means "as if touched by pixies", also meaning to be a bit funny in the head.

Also starring Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander (last seen in "Call Northside 777"), Douglass Dumbrille, H.B Warner.

RATING: 4 out of 10 sirens