Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kiss Them For Me

Year 7, Day 87 - 3/28/15 - Movie #1,987

BEFORE: The end of the (M)Archie Madness Tournament is in sight.  Just one more war-themed picture after this one, then I'll tabulate the results.  I'm back to Stanley Donen tonight, and of course it's the first pairing of director Donen with actor Cary Grant, which would later be followed by "Indiscreet", "The Grass is Greener", and "Charade".  

THE PLOT:  Three decorated Navy pilots finagle a four day leave in San Francisco. They procure a posh suite at the hotel and Commander Crewson, a master of procurement, arranges to populate it with party people.

AFTER: The first beauty shot of San Francisco looked extremely familiar - I spent 1 fabulous day in S.F. in 2012 right after Comic-Con, and as a result I now occasionally recognize landmarks from that city in films, like I do with New York, Boston and San Diego.  I paused on the first shot of the hotel and called up my Flickr page - yep, that's the Fairmont, and I took almost exactly the same photo from the same angle, 55 years later of course.  The interior shot matched as well, the Fairmont has one of those fabulous, opulent, unmistakable lobbies with brown marble and a giant staircase.  I went there because of their notorious "Tonga Room", where one can have a drink in a rainforest setting, with indoor rain and canned thunder on various intervals.  Of course, I was there on a Tuesday, and the Tonga Room is closed on Tuesdays, a fact that Anthony Bourdain failed to mention on his show "The Layover".  Due diligence, Tony...

But that's not why you called, is it?  Tonight's film centers on Navy pilots on leave who are tired of the war, which seems a bit of an odd topic for 1957, a time when films tended to either sensationalize World War II, or look back on it fondly.  But if you're looking for the missing link between the attitudes of "From Here to Eternity" and "On the Town" and, let's say, "Kelly's Heroes" or "M*A*S*H", this could be it.  Seamen here are human - they do their duty, but they also question whether following orders is right, they want to party, and in private they wonder how long this crazy war is going to be going on.  They don't want to die - well, that just makes sense, now, doesn't it?  And they break the rules when it comes to women and having a good time, because they feel that they deserve to do so. 

That said, if you don't want to take this film so seriously, and you want to think of it as the film where Cary Grant goes on shore leave with Col. Klink from "Hogan's Heroes" and the alien from "My Favorite Martian", and they party with the hottie from "The Girl Can't Help It", well, I can't stop you.  

There's an argument over the promotion of war itself - somehow our boys get roped into doing promotions for a shipping magnate, aka a war profiteer (Boo! We needed a villain!) but Cary Grant's character falls into a love triangle via the guy's fiancée, so that seems fair.  How dare he try to profit from the war - he doesn't deserve to be married!  And there's a debate over whether our heroes even deserve to be partying, because the Navy keeps trying to send them to a hospital for observation or some manufactured duty.  

On the whole, this was a bit confusing - are they on leave or not?  Was their absence approved, or did they bend the rules to get to San Francisco?  And if they're not where they're supposed to be, how does the Navy know where they are?  And is it OK to steal another man's girl, or sleep with a woman who's not your wife, just because you're on shore leave?  I mean, the rules of proper society still apply, don't they?  And if they were there just to party, why did Lt. Buzzkill keep trying to set them up to give rallying speeches at the shipyard?

Also starring Jayne Mansfield, Suzy Parker, Leif Erickson (last seen in "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd"), Ray Walston (last seen in "The Apartment"), Larry Blyden, Werner Klemperer (last seen in "Houseboat"), Harey Carey Jr., with a cameo from Nancy Kulp.

RATING: 4 out of 10 nylon stockings

Friday, March 27, 2015

I Was a Male War Bride

Year 7, Day 86 - 3/27/15 - Movie #1,986

BEFORE: Today's film was directed by Howard Hawks, who also directed yesterday's film, "Only Angels Have Wings" - but 10 years later.  I don't try to organize my films by director, but sometimes it just happens that way. 

THE PLOT:  Captain Henri Rochard is a French officer assigned to work with Lieut. Catherine Gates. Through a wacky series of misadventures, they fall in love and marry. When the war ends, Capt. Rochard tries to return to America with the other war brides.

AFTER: This film is a bit of a snappier romance than "Only Angels Have Wings", and it doesn't suffer from that "Who, me/" syndrome, with a bunch of dialogue extenders. When we meet our hero and heroine, they've clearly had a go at a relationship before, and it didn't quite work out - so there's some contention between them, which not only feels natural, it seems realistic.  When they have to work on another assignment, their proximity causes them to give it another try.  I'd be curious to know some stats on how many relationships started this way after World War II - with female military personnel working side-by-side with male ones. 

Together they've got to cross the (French? German?) countryside and find Mr. Schindler (the same one from "Schindler's List"? Nah, couldn't be) and convince him to work with the Allies instead of the criminal black market.  At least their misadventures and travel problems give them something of a shared history, and they don't just fall in love because they're near each other.  The more we see them do together, the more organic the relationship feels.  

However, I couldn't take Cary Grant seriously as a Frenchman - he acts like an American and talks like a Brit, and doesn't seem French at all.  The only thing worse than not hearing him speak French is hearing him massacre a few words in German.  

Once the relationship is on, however, they have to contend with military red tape in getting their union approved, and then the final hurdle is getting Rochard to America as a "war bride".  This is played mostly for laughs, as the script just naturally assumes that the U.S. military wouldn't be forward enough to consider the possibility of a "war groom", so he's got to travel and bunk with the ladies - only as a man he can't bunk with the ladies, so it becomes one big military Catch-22.   And regulations prevent him from bunking with his wife, because she's a soldier, so he's stuck. 

You'd think that the military would grant some form of leave to a soldier getting married, male or female, but no, then we wouldn't have this comic situation to deal with.   

Also starring Ann Sheridan, Randy Stuart (last seen in "All About Eve"), Marion Marshall, Bill Neff.

RATING: 5 out of 10 haystacks

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Only Angels Have Wings

Year 7, Day 85 - 3/26/15 - Movie #1,985

BEFORE: Now entering Round 4 of the (M)Archie Madness Tournament, just a few more days to go. Of course, Cary Grant made over 70 films so there's no way I can watch them all in just 3 weeks, so my work will always seem incomplete.  But let's get to Round 4, which was intended to be about the military, but I realize now that this film has nothing to do with wartime pilots, but just regular pilots instead.  Oh, well. 

THE PLOT:  At a remote South American trading port, the manager of an air freight company is forced to risk his pilots' lives in order to win an important contract.

AFTER:  This film covers the complexities of running a cargo service near the Andes Mountains, working out of the fictional port of Barranca. Whether the planes are carrying the mail, or serving as air ambulances, or delivering nitroglycerin to oil fields (I'm not sure why one would do that, it seems like carrying a torch into a hay barn...) the one thing we learn is that flying these planes is muy peligroso.

Almost as dangerous is being in love with one of these hotshot pilots, because a girl never knows if her man is coming back or not.  I have to acknowledge the accidental timing of watching this film just a few days after a German plane crashed in France, but darn if it doesn't seem like we've had a number of prominent plane crashes and disappearances in the last couple of years.  And you wonder why I never fly, unless I have to?  We've got people working on developing driverless cars, with the noble goal of reducing traffic accidents to zero, why isn't anyone working on safer air travel?  I hate the way humans just invent things that are inherently dangerous and then say, "That's it, we're done!  No way we can improve on that!"  What about fuel that won't explode, or planes that bounce, or can't be tracked by missiles, or won't sink into the ocean?  I'm spitballing here, of course, and I'm not saying those ideas are feasible, but let's keep thinking of new ideas, damn it!!

This almost turned into another dreaded love triangle, when one boat brought a woman who falls for Cary Grant, despite his risky lifestyle and desire to not settle down (I bet all that just makes him more attractive to women, curse him...) and then a later boat brings his ex-girlfriend, who's married to the latest pilot recruit.  Said recruit has a bad reputation, as he once bailed out of a plane, leaving behind the brother of another pilot, but to regain his reputation, he's willing to take the riskiest flights through the most dangerous weather conditions.  Geez, if the terrain is so rough and the weather is so bad in this area, why the heck did someone open an air freight company there?  Wouldn't a delivery service of burros, like a South American Pony Express, make more sense?  

As I've mentioned before, one of the down sides of having gone to film school is that I often need to figure out how certain film effects were achieved.  During last night's film, I needed to figure out how they made Mae West look like a lion tamer.  In some shots they used rear projection of lion footage, and I'm guessing that when she put her head in the lion's mouth, they used a fake lion's head.  Oh, it looked plenty real, but there was a noticeable cut just before and just after her head appeared to be in danger.  Tonight's investigation of special effects concerns the planes taking off and landing on this remote stretch of runway - something didn't look 100% kosher to me, and I'll wager they used scale model planes on wires, though I didn't see any wires.  

Hmm, I guess I'm wrong, because Wikipedia only mentions the real planes that were used for the long-shots, and doesn't make any mention of model planes.  No, wait, I found a web-page where someone mentioned the 2008 appraisal on "Antiques Roadshow" of a miniature plane used in the filming of "Only Angels Have Wings".  It just makes sense - why would someone crash a real plane for a film when they can crash a model much more cheaply and safely?  

A lot of the dialogue feels forced, however, because of something I call "Who, me?" syndrome.  This is a cheap way to lengthen scenes by having every actor question the line before, rather than move on in the conversation.  Example: "I want to talk to you about something."  "Who, me?"  "Umm, yes, you're the only other person here.  Did you talk to Ted?"  "Who, me?"  You get the idea.  

Also starring Jean Arthur (last seen in "The Talk of the Town"), Thomas Mitchell (last seen in "Gone With the Wind"), Rita Hayworth (last seen in "Cover Girl"), Richard Barthelmess, Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr.

RATING: 4 out of 10 condors 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I'm No Angel

Year 7, Day 84 - 3/25/15 - Movie #1,984

BEFORE: Back to the tournament - my third film in a row starring Mae West is also the 2nd film in which she co-starred with Cary Grant.  Why, it's almost like I planned it this way.  From here I head forward through Cary's filmography for 4 more films, all of which have to do with various wars or military actions.  But first, back to Ms. West.

THE PLOT:  The bold Tira works as dancing beauty and lion tamer at a fair. Out of an urgent need of money, she agrees to a risky new number: putting her head into a lion's mouth! With this attraction the circus makes it to New York and Tira can persue her dearest occupation: flirting with rich men and accepting expensive presents.

AFTER: I'm still not sure that I "get" Mae West - I think maybe you have to be someone from the 1930's to get her.  OK, she's a passable singer, though she's got way too much vibrato in her voice and she had a bad habit of rolling her eyes for emphasis.  Was this supposed to be sexy?  Did it suggest some sort of orgasmic pleasure?  Or was it just something to do with her eyes while she sang?  Basically, Mae West just sort of stands there while she sings, which isn't very interesting at all.  Sure, sound was still relatively new in motion pictures, so she's a good singer in the way Al Jolson was a good singer, which means very little by today's standards. 

In terms of sex appeal, I think you really have to be a product of the times to fall for her charms.  In an age where I can jump on the internet and see all manner of explicit actions, where more is more, but she was a star where you couldn't show more, so I guess she's sexy, if you haven't seen things that are much more shocking.  But playing off her "experience" also makes her read as sort of oldish, almost like the first on-screen cougar or something.  Hey, whatever floats your boat, horny men of 1933.

It's also a little hard to see how men found the "bad girl" thing attractive - so you WANT to date a gold-digger?  Someone who's been around the block more than a few times, and is probably only interested in your money?  OK, good luck with that.  She seems like the "Charlie the Tuna" of on-screen sirens.  (Charlie the Tuna used to be a mascot for Star-Kist tuna, he would mistakenly think that Star-Kist tuna wanted fish with good taste, when in fact that they just wanted tuna that tasted good.  Common mistake I guess, but it never made much sense - why would Charlie WANT to be caught and killed and canned?)  In the same vein, men only THINK they want a bad girl, when what they really want is a good girl, who's willing to act like a bad girl, but only with them.   I can't imagine why this parade of men is so enamored by her, when they all know what she's about.  Does each suitor think things are going to be different with her, but just for him?  

I also think you have to be from that era to appreciate the circus scenes.  With the recent announcement that Ringling Bros. will be phasing out elephants from their circus shows - because apparently using elephants in performances AND treating them humanely can't be done simultaneously - it's odd now to watch scenes where lions are being whipped and also shot at (probably blanks in the gun, but still...) and this is considered appropriate entertainment.  

The best part of the film is probably the court scene - and you know this took place in a different time than today, because back then you could sue someone if they called off an engagement.  Breach of promise suit - but today this would be laughed out of court, because people are more allowed to follow their hearts, call off weddings and that sort of thing.  Logically, calling off a wedding would be preferable to getting married under false pretenses and then having lengthy divorce proceedings.  

A number of Tira's men are called to the stand, each one describing how they bought her expensive presents, and then "spent time" with her.  But Tira cross-examines each one, asking about, for example, their marital status at the time.  Since each man can't admit to cheating on his wife in court, he's forced to "admit" that nothing untoward happened - so she basically calls each man out.  Clever bit, that. 

Still, it wasn't really enough to hold my interest - again, it's more of a character study than an actual plot, though there's more storyline than in "She Done Him Wrong", there's less than was seen in "My Little Chickadee".  I fell asleep at about 2/3 of the way through, and had to finish the film in the evening.

Also starring Cary Grant (last seen in "She Done Him Wrong"), Edward Arnold (last seen in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"), Gregory Ratoff (last seen in "All About Eve"), Ralf Harolde, Gertrude Howard.

RATING: 3 out of 10 horoscopes

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Little Chickadee

Year 7, Day 83 - 3/24/15 - Movie #1,983

BEFORE: Today marks five weeks since adopting a low-cholesterol diet, and later today I'll be at the doctor's office for a shot, and I'll finally find out if there's been progress in losing some weight.  My pants feel looser, and I've noticed it's been easier to climb stairs, and if I drop something, I've got a fair chance of being able to bend down and pick it up, so I think the outlook is good.  I've been mostly subsisting on a regimen of veggie burgers and falafel platters, so somewhere my ex-wife is having a laugh at my expense.  Also, frequent visitors to my Flickr page are probably wondering why I haven't posted any pictures of interesting restaurant food like pretzel nachos, hot dogs wrapped in bacon or hamburgers with fried eggs on top.  

Today, I'm also taking a break from the (M)Archie Madness Tournament - Cary Grant is NOT in this film.  What happened was - months before running a tribute to Mr. Leach, they ran a few Mae West films, and old Archie was in two of them.  When he was named their Star of the Month for December, I realized that the two chains would dovetail nicely.  Now, it would have been easy to run all of the Cary Grant films together, and end with today's film, but today's film links to almost nothing, and to me, that's a dead end.  So I found another outro for the Cary Grant chain, and there's really no place else to put today's film, except right between two other Mae West films, which maintains the linking, but breaks the Tournament into two parts - it's the lesser of two organizational evils, the same sort of thing happened earlier this year when I wrapped up the Edward Norton chain, then again with the Bruce Willis chain at the end of January.  C'est la vie. 

THE PLOT:  Rightly suspected of illicit relations with the Masked Bandit, Flower Belle Lee is run out of Little Bend. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie and pretends to marry him for "respectability."

AFTER: Since I'm trying hard to wrap up the project this year, it's time to get to those last-minute film-related sins.  I finally got to Chaplin late last year, and I'll be dealing with the Marx Brothers very soon, but I have to admit that I've never seen a W.C. Fields film before (and before last night, I hadn't seen a Mae West film before, either).  Oh, I know the stereotypes about his character, and I've seen clips, but never watched a full film.  As a kid I worked my way through the catalogues of the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello, and in college I got turned on to Buster Keaton, and that was pretty much that.  Fields seemed to bridge that gap between silent, physical comics like Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and later physical comics like the Stooges.  I guess I assumed he was the thinking man's comic, because his humor seemed mostly verbal - and when you're young the physical comedy is where it's at. 

Now that I'm an adult (or so they tell me) I've got a better chance at understanding the humor in Mae West's suggestive lines, or W.C. Fields' wisecracks.  Plus I can appreciate the fact that both were known for writing their own material, and both signed on for this film with the assumption they'd be writing all the dialogue.  In the end, he wrote his own line, and she wrote hers.  This seems a little disjointed, but given the fact that her character spends most of the film rebuffing his advances, it kind of helps the story when their dialogue clashes a bit. 

Their characters fit together because they're both con artists, he's a literal snake-oil salesman, and she's more noted for romancing men to get diamonds or gold - so they sort of desert each other.  When they meet on a train and she sees the big bag of (fake) money that he carries around, she agrees to (fake) marry him so that she can make a name for herself in a Western town, where he coincidentally gets set up as a (fake) sheriff.  After that, it's kind of like the situation in a romantic comedy like "My Favorite Wife" - she's got to keep fending him off, because we can't see two people sleep together if they're not really husband and wife.

Eventually the Masked Bandit returns, and I'll admit I guessed wrong about his identity - I think they put a few red herring suggestions into the storyline.  And I'm glad to see that there IS a storyline, it's a nice refreshing change from last night's character study.  

Reportedly W.C. Fields walked off of the set of this film, and after about two weeks the director realized he wasn't coming back, so they hired a stand-in to finish the last third of the scenes.  This probably motivated certain scenes, like when he dresses up LIKE the masked bandit to try and catch the bandit, or the gag where he's taking a bath and you just see his feet sticking up from the tub.  If anyone really took a bath like that, they'd most likely drown. 

And I know it was a different time and all that, but the portrayal of Native Americans here is downright criminal.  They're either savages attacking a train, or passive drunkards who say "Ugh!" and "How!" and not much else.  I guess one of them is our hero Twillie's friend, but in the same way that Kato was Inspector Clouseau's friend in the "Pink Panther" films.  It's downright deplorable.

Also starring W.C. Fields, Margaret Hamilton, Joseph Calleia (last seen in "For Whom the Bell Tolls"), Dick Foran, Donald Meek (last seen in "Love on the Run"), Willard Robertson, Fuzzy Knight. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 poker chips

Monday, March 23, 2015

She Done Him Wrong

Year 7, Day 82 - 3/23/15 - Movie #1,982
BEFORE: Well, tonight I'm going about as far back into Cary Grant's career as I can - heck, I'm darn close to the start of movies themselves.  OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit since tonight's film was released in 1933, and movies had been around for over 20 years at that point.  But out of all the films I've watched in the last few years, only 24 are older than this one.  (The oldest film so far is Chaplin's "The Kid".) 

THE PLOT:  In the Gay Nineties, a seductive nightclub singer contends with several suitors, including a jealous escaped convict and a handsome temperance league member.

AFTER: I'm occasionally surprised by which films appear on that list of "1,001 Movies to Watch Before You Die".  This film is on that list, but last night's wasn't, and tomorrow night's won't be - there's just no rhyme or reason to it sometimes.  OK, so this may be Mae West's first feature, does that by itself justify its inclusion on that list?  Is it because this is one of the last films to be made before the Production Code?  Is it significant for being somewhat racy, and proving the need for the Code?  

Maybe it's because it's the film that made stars out of both Mae West and Cary Grant?  That seems to be the prevailing mentality.  I don't think it could be due to the elaborate story, because there's barely a plot worth talking about here - it comes off more like a character study of a showgirl, or perhaps a period piece trying to encapsulate the spirit of the 1890's.  Perhaps people in 1933 were nostalgic for an early time, due to the Great Depression - in much the same way people now are romanticizing the 1980's or 1990's.  

My wife and I have been watching repeats of VH-1's "I Love the 80's", during dinner if we don't have a show like "Hell's Kitchen" or "Top Chef" to watch - because that's our nostalgia jam.  But it's starting to get depressing, like when they do a segment about Whitney Houston, followed by one about Robin Williams and Comic Relief.  Of course, those people were alive when they made the show, but no longer.  

I'm surprised that I don't get more depressed while watching a film like "She Done Him Wrong" - if I stop to think about how everyone appearing in the film and everyone who worked on the film is most likely deceased, that's always a sobering thought.  I mean, it's nice that their images and the film they made will live on, thanks to film preservation efforts and now digital storage, but's like I spend my nights being entertained by ghosts and shadows. 

This is the shortest film (66 minutes) to ever receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture - it's also the film where Mae West says the often misquoted line, "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" It was based on a play titled Diamond Lil, but they changed her character's name to Lou for the film.  It was shot in only three weeks, and I dare say it feels like it - it doesn't seem like anyone spent much time working on story details, or even worrying whether there was a coherent plot at all.  There are also nearly as many continuity mistakes as there are saucy comebacks.    

Also starring Mae West, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland (last seen in "Around the World in Eighty Days"), Noah Beery Sr., Rafaela Ottiano (last seen in "Grand Hotel").

RATING: 3 out of 10 5-cent beers

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Year 7, Day 81 - 3/22/15 - Movie #1,981

BEFORE: We went out to a Chinese auction on Long Island yesterday - this is not an auction run by Asians, it's a fund-raising affair for a church or scout troop where people bid on donated items by buying tickets and placing them in little cups, sort of like a raffle.  It's "Chinese" meaning strange, like in Chinese checkers or Chinese fire-drill.  My brother-in-law and sister-in-law did well, winning 6 prize baskets, but I only bought $20 worth of tickets and won just one item, a plaque signed by Mookie Wilson of the 1986 Mets.  I don't collect sports autographs, just ones from Star Wars actors, but I think I'll hang on to this one.  I moved to NYC in 1986 for college, and became a Mets fan for a while - in the 1986 World Series I rooted for both teams, so I'll keep a piece of Mets nostalgia.  

THE PLOT: A young man falls in love with a girl from a rich family. His unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life is met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentric sister and long suffering brother.

AFTER: I'm not sure if this constitutes a love triangle or not, because it's clear that Cary Grant's character might be dating the wrong sister, but no one realizes it at the time.  He's too hung up on Julia, the staid, boring sister, and Julia wants to mold him into a hard-working rich person.  He wants to get there eventually, but having come up through the ranks as a hard worker in steel mills and such, he wants to take a few years off and see the world while he's young enough to enjoy it.  

Johnny and Julia are so mismatched here, it's tough to see how they fell in love in the first place - while her sister Linda, though overprotective of Julia, eventually comes to believe that his spontaneity might be just what Julia needs in her life, so she stands up for Johnny and comes to admire him in the process.  Linda would also like to travel and see the world, hey, you don't suppose...nah, that's crazy talk.  What kind of man would pursue one sister, and then the other?  

This highlights something that a lot of romantic comedies seem to forget - people tend to come together when they're of similar mindsets about the world.  Sure, opposites sometimes attract, but I think that's an oversimplification, as well as a storywriting crutch.  If two characters have similar outlooks, we the audience might think they're made for each other before they do or before the writers do - and that's how fan fiction was born.  

Remember "Moonlighting"?  Fans of that 80's show naturally assumed that Bruce Willis's character and Cybill Shepherd's character would get together, even though the whole premise of the show was that these were two very different people, with vastly different approaches to life.  Eventually fans clamored to see their pairing, and then once it took place, there was a realization that not only would their relationship not work out (not without massive amounts of compromise, which would dilute each character's individuality and/or free will) but suddenly the tension was broken, suspense was lost, and there were few stories left to tell.  

There's a double meaning to the title, because Grant's character wants to go on holiday, and the film is also set in the week between Christmas and New Year's, and some have pointed out that a New Year's Eve party is planned with very little notice - but perhaps we can assume that this family is so rich they can plan and cater a party within a couple days, get invitations messengered out to the city's most fashionable guests, who naturally would change their plans at the last minute in order to attend such a high-class function.  So, no NITPICK POINT there. 

Also starring Katherine Hepburn (last seen in "Woman of the Year"), Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres (last seen in "All Quiet on the Western Front"), Edward Everett Horton (last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace"), Jean Dixon, Henry Kolker.

RATING: 3 out of 10 puppet shows