Saturday, July 9, 2016

Rio Rita

Year 8, Day 191 - 7/9/16 - Movie #2,392

BEFORE: We're heading up to Massachusetts today for a family party, but as long as I take along a couple of DVDs with Abbott and Costello films, I should be fine.

As I said, I don't have the film where Bud and Lou go into the Air Force, so instead tonight they're going South of the Border to Mexico. 

THE PLOT: Doc and Wishey run into some Nazi agents, who want to smuggle bombs into the USA from a Mexican border hotel.

AFTER: This film starts out with Bud and Lou working in a pet shop in Texas, which does allow for a few dog-related puns ("How's Mrs. Brown's chow?" "I don't know, I never ate at her house...") but they're fired fairly quickly for their incompetence, so the next logical thing (?) for them to do is to jump into the trunk of a car they think is heading for New York. 

No such luck, though, the car's being driven by a famous singer, returning to his home town in Mexico.  This actor had such a thick accent however, it was nearly impossible for me to understand what he was saying. 

Singing was another problem - Robert Osborne on TCM introduced the film by pointing out that most Abbott and Costello films were made by Universal, but this one was made by MGM.  For some reason, this meant that the songs in the films were made in a more operatic style than, say, the ones in "Buck Privates", and the two leads both had so much vibrato in their style that I couldn't understand the lyrics of the songs, either.  So, I had trouble with the actors talking, and with the singing, leaving me clueless for major parts of the film. 

I also didn't really understand why the Mexican rangers just ride across the prairie, some while playing guitars, or what the Nazi agents were really up to.  Their plan involved radios disguised as apples, but I didn't see what the benefit of this deception was - everybody likes apples, right?  Why not make the radios look like something people don't want? 

Also, a NITPICK POINT is that radios - the kind used to transmit secret messages - are not the same as the type of radios that people use to listen to music and comedy shows - umm, I think.  This film doesn't seem to make a distinction between the two.  And when a bunch of animals, like donkeys and dogs, eat the "apples", it seems they all swallowed them whole, which animals don't do, because the radios continue to function, broadcasting music and shows from the animals' mouths.  So that's not how animals eat, and it's not how radios work.  By the time Costello's character appeared at the end with a line of donkeys who had eaten the radios, I didn't even understand what he was trying to accomplish, that's how far removed the plot got from real-world science.

Also starring Kathryn Grayson, John Carroll (last seen in "Go West"), Tom Conway (last seen in "Mrs. Miniver"), Barry Nelson (last seen in "Shadow of the Thin Man"), Peter Whitney, Patricia Dane.

RATING: 3 out of 10 code words

Friday, July 8, 2016

In the Navy

Year 8, Day 190 - 7/8/16 - Movie #2,391

BEFORE: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello carry over from "Buck Privates", which did so well at the box office (better than "Citizen Kane" in the same year!) that they rushed to film another military-themed picture.  

THE PLOT: Russ Raymond, America's number one crooner, disappears and joins the Navy under the name Tommy Halstead. Dorothy Roberts, a magazine journalist, is intent on finding out what happened to him.

AFTER: Ah, see, the navy works completely different from the army - according to Hollywood, at least.  Incompetent soldiers in the Army get sent off to war with a "Aren't you so lucky?" type of song, but incompetent sailors in the Navy never get put on a ship, because that would be dangerous for everyone.  Costello's character, Pomeroy Watson, spends SIX YEARS in the Navy before getting assigned to a ship.  Don't you think he would have been discharged, if he kept failing at everything, except making biscuits?  

This is the second of Abbott & Costello's "Service Pictures", although I don't have a copy of their third, where they go into the Air Force.  Geez, they bounced from one branch of the military to the other, and nobody seemed to mind.  I don't think you can do that in real life, though - once you pick your branch, that seems to pretty much be it.  I don't know of anyone who served in both the army and the navy, for example.  

But there's no real correlation between what goes on in the real military, and the movie military.  So, some writer just makes it up, and that's how you get the "Sons of Neptune" initiation rite, or the unbelievable plotline that a woman could wear a naval uniform and pass as a man on board a ship.  And apparently they eat just as many potatoes in the navy as they do in the army.  Well, at least "The navy gets the gravy", so they'll have something to put on those potatoes.    

They don't play dice in this one, but they do play a version of the "shell game", aka cups and balls, though they use lemons and a hole in the table.  They'll also have you believing that 7 times 13 is 28 before they're through. 

NITPICK POINT: Who let a couple of kids on to the navy base?  Or on that ship, for that matter?  Are these the captain's kids, or the children of an admiral?  They never say.  Great for comedy, but not so great for making any sense.  Meanwhile the Andrews Sisters start the fad known as "Gimme Some Skin" (later "Gimme Five") and are still obsessed with getting eight notes into every measure, for some reason.

Also starring Dick Powell, Claire Dodd, The Andrews Sisters (also carrying over from "Buck Privates"), Dick Foran (last seen in "My Little Chickadee"), William B. Davidson, Billy Lenhart, Kenneth Brown, Shemp Howard (again?). 

RATING: 5 out of 10 dance tickets 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Buck Privates

Year 8, Day 189 - 7/7/16 - Movie #2,390

BEFORE: Well, I don't really consider this a follow-up, but I watched Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the army a couple weeks ago, and then I saw Gary Cooper get drafted, so tonight it's Abbott and Costello's turn.  I had this following right after "Sergeant York" for the longest time, but then I saw the way to shoehorn the recently-acquired Jimmy Stewart films into the sequence.  Samuel Hinds carries over from "You Can't Take It With You", from a member of the family of hipsters to a major general, now that's range. 

Things have been way too serious around here lately, what with talk of propaganda and socialism, it's time to get back to simple comedies for a while.  

THE PLOT:  Bud and Lou enlist in the army in order to escape being hauled off to jail, and soon find themselves in basic training.

AFTER: Just like with Jerry Lewis, so far I've included the odd Abbott & Costello film in my chains, but I haven't done a proper chain of their films yet - but the problem so far has been that some of their films are ideal for Halloween ("Hold that Ghost", "Abbott & Costello Meet Jekyll & Hyde"), but I'm nowhere near time for horror films yet, not even comedic ones.  So I'm going to split up the Abbott & Costello films, watch five of them here in July, and save two for October.  I can only have one lead-in and one lead-out from any horror chain, anyway.  

(When this chain is done, though, I've still got a problem looming about how best to fill the space between mid-August and early October.  I guess when I get back from San Diego I'll take a closer look at what's left on the list at that point and hopefully find some connections I haven't noticed yet.  I think I've got the start of a plan.)

It's another film released in 1941, months before the U.S. was involved in World War II, but still I have to wonder if films like this played a part in either getting Americans ready for the idea, or pushing the country toward a wartime mentality.  There are songs in this film like "You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith" that really glorify the process of joining the army.  Sure, how lucky all these soldiers are to be going off to war, especially since many of them won't be coming back.  And tunes like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" (yes, this is where it first appeared) just make the army sound like so much fun, with buglers spicing up the morning reveille call - what a fine time!

Sorry, I guess I've still got some lingering cynicism after watching the propaganda of "Mrs. Miniver" and "Sergeant York".  Hey, it's 75 years from 1941 this year, it's not really that coincidental that I'm focusing on films from the start of World War II.

To me, it's almost a NITPICK POINT that the Andrews Sisters sang "Eight to the Bar" in a couple of their songs - I doubt that most people listening now, or even back then, would know what that means.  I think you'd have to be a musician to know that this means to play eight notes in the span of four beats (assuming four beats in a measure, or "bar") - so essentially, double-time, or just "play faster".  But they keep repeating the phrase as if everyone listening knows what it means, and that sort of bugs me.  Later in this film they sing "Bounce Me Brother With a Solid Four", and I wonder if that's another title that confuses non-musicians, who might think the singer's asking to be hit with a piece of wood or something.

But I digress - let's get back to the film.  This is a movie from early in Abbott & Costello's film careers, so they're not playing the leads here, just the comic relief.  I guess the movie company wasn't sure if they could carry a picture - so the main story is a love triangle between a rich man and his valet, who both get drafted at the same time.  They both fall for Judy, a hostess at the training camp - the valet seems to have known her longer, before the draft, while the rich man tries to woo her away.  The triangle never really gets resolved, as the two men settle their differences during a training exercise, and are both recommended for officer training, as Judy moves on to be a hostess for officers.  It sort of seems like she's hedging her bets, she doesn't choose between the two men with war looming, which increases her chances of having a potential husband after the war.  (Too cynical?)

But I will count it as a NITPICK POINT that Costello's character sings a song about becoming a captain in the army, which seems like an odd turn-around for a character who didn't want to enlist in the first place.  And while I'm at it, much is made at the start of the film about the institution of the draft, but  Slicker and Herbie (Bud and Lou) enlist to escape the cops - but wasn't the recruitment center in the middle of processing drafted men?  They kept asking each recruit for his draft number, but those two guys didn't have numbers!  What gives?

Another NITPICK POINT, the police officer who nearly arrests them in the opening scenes later becomes their drill instructor, Sgt. Collins.  How did he leave the force and work his way up to sergeant, all in just a matter of days, while Slicker and Herbie were being processed for basic training?  Obviously it gives them a constant comic nemesis, but I just don't know if the army promotions worked that way.

There's some wordplay here, but nothing on the level of their famous "Who's on First?" routine (which I coincidentally had to explain to the kids in the office yesterday...).  Our comic heroes mistake the army induction center for a movie theater, and when they ask the "usher" what movie is playing, he says it's "You're In the Army Now".  And when they walk in and someone asks them, "draftee?", Lou replies, "No, it's quite comfortable in here."  I admit I had to laugh. 

Also starring Bud Abbott (last seen in "Jack and the Beanstalk"), Lou Costello (ditto), Lee Bowman (last seen in "Cover Girl"), Alan Curtis (last seen in "High Sierra"), Jane Frazee, Nat Pendleton (last seen in "Another Thin Man"), The Andrews Sisters, Harry Strang, with cameos from Shemp Howard (also last seen in "Another Thin Man"), Selmer Jackson (last seen in "Sergeant York"), Eddie Hall. 

RATING: 5 out of 10 double malteds

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

You Can't Take it With You

Year 8, Day 188 - 7/6/16 - Movie #2,389

BEFORE: It all comes to a head tonight, this recurring theme of actors who were also in "It's a Wonderful Life" - tonight's film is directed by Frank Capra, and it seems like half the cast of that Christmas film is here in this one, plus a bunch of people who were in the "Thin Man" movies, and the other Capra film, "Meet John Doe".  For starters, James Stewart carries over from "Harvey" - 

THE PLOT:  A man from a family of rich snobs becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

AFTER: In addition to the director, Frank Capra, and the star, Jimmy Stewart, exactly how much crossover is there between this film and "It's a Wonderful Life"?  Well, the head of the family in tonight's film also played Mr. Potter in that Christmas film - it's kind of weird to see him in a good-guy role, and not as the fat, evil banker, who's played by a different actor here.  Then we've got the actor who played Mr. Gower, the actor who played Pa Bailey, and the guy who played Bert the Cop.  Even the actor who played the real estate salesman, the one who chewed out Mr. Potter near the end of the film is here, playing the IRS agent.  But in the past week I've also seen the members of the cast who played Mary, Clarence the Angel, Violet, Nick the bartender, and at this point it wouldn't surprise me if the crow in tonight's film was the same one that lived in the bank - yeah, I may have seen "It's a Wonderful Life" a few too many times, I've purposely avoided it the last few Christmases.

But when I put "It's a Wonderful Life" up next to "Meet John Doe" and add tonight's film, I have to conclude that Frank Capra was a socialist.  Maybe a secret socialist, because back then it was equated with Communism, and that was a dirty word.  But socialism, or at least a new breed of it, seems to be on the upswing in this country right now, so maybe it's time to pay a little more attention to the ideas of Mr. Capra.  In many ways it's the same struggle over and over again in his films, the "evil" fat-cat banker, representing capitalism, and the "good"-natured quirky American family, with a nice house filled with people with big dreams.  And we know they're middle-class, because they can only afford two servants.  Their cook had to double as the maid - I know, but times were tough back then.  

What are we to make of the class struggle that ensues, when a man from the rich family falls in love with the woman from the middle-class family?  (Not the lower-class family, or God forbid, the maid, that would shock the audiences too much...)  Can the families overcome their differences and find some common ground, for the sake of two kids in love?  

What's also thrown into the mix here is the fact that the man's father, Anthony Kirby, is consolidating his munitions operations, and building a new factory - that's capitalism, patriotism and progress, all rolled into one.  But apparently even though there's a ton of places the factory could be built, for some reason it HAS to be built in this specific 12-block area, and the people who live there all have to vacate and find other places to live.  But the holdout is - you guessed it - the family of the woman that his son loves, and they've dug in for the long haul.  Geez, what are the odds?  So this comedy of errors ensues, where each family doesn't know whether to love, hate, accept or disavow the other, and it leads to an extremely awkward dinner party that ends with everyone being thrown in jail.  I suppose there's a nice symbolic contrast between the professionally made munitions and the Sycamores' homemade fireworks, but it's a little beside the point.  

I'm reminded of a real-world situation from a few years back - when the Barclays sports center + retail complex was built in Brooklyn.  This concept of "eminent domain", where the city can buy up property for public use, displacing people, essentially forcing them to move or sell their property, got co-opted over the last decade, and started being applied to private developers - in this case, Bruce Ratner.  Mostly the new proposed center was built over the old subway rail yards at Atlantic Avenue, but the project was so big it also required a number of businesses and residential buildings to be demolished.  There were some residents who refused to sell, so while the project was delayed, the neighborhood became less and less patrolled by police, and therefore a dangerous place to live.  The final holdouts got more money in the end, but the community resistance was high all along - then the whole project got stalled by the recession, which would have been hilarious, except nobody but me was laughing.  (Read up on Vera Coking vs. Bob Guccione and Donald Trump, for another similar "holdout" case.)

But let's get back to the Vanderhof / Sycamore family.  They must own the home, maybe it's been in their family for generations, but nobody in the family seems to have a real job, except for Alice, who works in the Kirby's bank.  Is she supporting everyone else, who seem to have a bunch of hobbies like painting, dancing and playing the vibraphone, but don't work?  This is like a family of hipsters, but back in the 1930's, what gives?  I think they just called them "unemployed" or "shiftless".  Then we find out that the patriarch, Martin, hasn't paid any income tax in the last 20 years because he "doesn't believe in it".  It's meant to be comic when the IRS man comes to argue with him, and in my opinion, the tax man gives up WAY too quickly.  I realize that income tax might have been a new thing back in 1938, but isn't this the type of conversation that ends with the owing party in handcuffs?

This is what really grinds my gears about hipsters - today's hipsters, not the 1930's kind.  They want all the benefits of living in America, to enjoy all the freedoms that they're guaranteed, PLUS free college, put what do they really bring to the table?  OK, so Martin Vanderhoff doesn't believe in paying taxes, at least he's got a daughter who works.  The hipsters of today get around this problem by not having any income at all, just gigging here and there I guess, so no income, no income tax.  And then, just like the family in this film, they spend their time making and exploding a bunch of illegal fireworks.  Lock 'em up, I say, every last one of 'em.  

I work with a bunch of younger people, and at a recent party I described how I came to buy my house - at the age of 23 my first wife and I went in on a condo in Brooklyn, and after the divorce I bought out her share and got her name off the mortgage.  Then I lived there for another 8 years (12 total), and sold it for four times the original asking price, and bought (most of) a house in Queens with the money.  Perfectly legal, though it felt a little wrong, like buying property with someone else's money.  But the kids today, they don't know how to do it - you'd have thought I was J.P. Morgan with the awe my story inspired.  I tell them all to scrape up a down payment, buy a small piece of property, start building up some equity, and then just wait.  But the waiting really is the hardest part for the younger generation, since they tend to think everything should be handed to them.  Well, it doesn't work that way, not in my America.   

The story here doesn't end the same way as the Barclays story - here the rich man suddenly realizes how much fun these lazy hipsters have all day, and wants to join in.  Another brainwashed socialist. 
In these Capra stories, why is it always the "evil" capitalist who needs to see the error of his ways?  Why is it never the "good" socialist who realizes that, "Hey, the free market really has done a lot for this country!"  I suppose that in a Capra film would be about as likely as a hipster getting a job, or Donald Trump realizing how much immigrants have done for the country.

But after viewing this film, I've now seen 77 out of the 88 films that have won the Best Picture Oscar - that leaves 11, but I don't have any of those 11 left on my watchlist.  I suppose when TCM's Oscar marathon rolls around next February, I'll have to see if I can pick up any of the missing 11 - because I'm so damn close to seeing them all now.

Also starring Jean Arthur (last seen in "Only Angels Have Wings"), Lionel Barrymore (last seen in "Grand Hotel"), Edward Arnold (last seen in "Meet John Doe"), Spring Byington (ditto), Ann Miller (last seen in "Mulholland Dr."), Samuel S. Hinds (last seen in "Call Northside 777"), Donald Meek (last seen in "The Thin Man Comes Home"), Mischa Auer, H.B. Warner (last seen in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town"), Dub Taylor (last seen in "Bandolero!"), Halliwell Hobbes, Mary Forbes (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Ann Doran (also last seen in "Meet John Doe"), Harry Davenport (ditto), Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (last seen in "Gone With the Wind"), Lillian Yarbo, Clarence Wilson, Charles Lane (last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace"), with cameos from Ward Bond (last seen in "Sergeant York"), John Hamilton, Ian Wolfe (last seen in "Mrs. Miniver").

RATING: 6 out of 10 cans of salmon

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Year 8, Day 187 - 7/5/16 - Movie #2,388

BEFORE: Of course, I COULD have gone out to see "Independence Day: Resurgence" this past weekend, but I did not.  Partially that's because with all of the illegal fireworks going off, I don't feel safe leaving the house.  But we did go to my brother-in-law's house on Sunday for some burgers and hot dogs, and yesterday we barely left the house at all, I just stayed in and caught up on some TV shows and comic books.  I do want to see the new "Independence Day" in theaters, maybe the weekend after next.  I've been averaging about one film in theaters per month, even if I haven't posted those reviews yet - but I'm also planning to see the new "Ghostbusters" film this month, I may sit on that review until October, because ghosts seem sort of Halloween-y, right?  I don't know why they're releasing that film in the middle of summer, but what do I know?

An actor named Clem Bevans carries over from "Sergeant York" (as does the frequently uncredited Pat Flaherty), and this brings me back to another cast member of "It's a Wonderful Life", James Stewart of course. 

THE PLOT: Due to his insistence that he has an invisible six foot-tall rabbit for a best friend, a whimsical middle-aged man is thought by his family to be insane - but he may be wiser than anyone knows.

AFTER: I've known OF this film for a long time, I think I first heard of it when I was a kid, and I didn't quite understand it.  This guy talks to an invisible rabbit?  Well, how does anyone know it's really there?  And what good is a six-foot rabbit if you can't even see it?  Is it like a kid having an imaginary friend?  And then I got busy with being a kid, then a teenager, then an adult and I never got around to watching the movie and following up.  

OK, that's fine, maybe we all come to these things in our own time, maybe I just needed to mature some more, get a better understanding of the world, learn a little about mental illness, people who are socially awkward or live in their own headspaces, or can't handle everyone else's reality.  If anything I think this Elwood P. Dowd character comes across to me as maybe a grown-up autistic, or someone with Asperger's or something, where he's able to function in his day-to-day life, but he spends time in a fantasy place.  

That being said, I still don't understand the movie, not even after watching it.  Especially after watching it.  The problem is that once this man's fantasy is established, the movie doesn't DO anything with it.  The story goes around in circles and never gets anywhere - instead it involves people chasing each other from place to place, from the mental institution back to the house, to the bar, back to the institution, back to the house, etc.  And nothing is ever resolved, nothing determined for sure, there's no second or third act, it's just more of the same, over and over.

Then, to make matters worse, time and time again when any character has any piece of information to relate, they either stumble over saying it, or are short of breath, or get talked over by someone else, so there are tons of tiny conflicts, but all arising from poor communication.  And that's usually a poor substitute for actual conflict, or, you know, any actions occurring in any constant direction or toward any goal.  

So Elwood is crazy, so what?  So he's also a very personable fellow, so what?  So there's some confusion about whether the rabbit is real, which is obviously impossible, so what?  What does it all mean, is the rabbit some kind of metaphor for man's inhumanity to man?  Tell me something that means anything, I beg you.  Otherwise it's just a bunch of nonsense that fills up 105 minutes.  

Perhaps I got spoiled by the last few films, which were filled with wartime propaganda, political rhetoric, and such - so when presented with a simple film with no hidden agenda, it kind of feels like something is missing.  

There are some indications that perhaps the rabbit, allegedly some form of Celtic "pooka", which I'll wager was made up for this story, might be real - there's the hat, and the dictionary entry, which can't be explained away simply.  But again, so what?  If Harvey's real, which he's not, they still didn't DO anything with that fact, so it still feels like a lost opportunity.  I'm just not seeing the point of this exercise.  I just get the feeling that the writer didn't bother to take the time to learn how mental institutions work, or mental illness either for that matter, and just wrote them the way he thought they should work.  Sure, they can just give you one shot of a magic formula, then you'll stop seeing things that aren't there, it's that simple.

Also starring James Stewart (last seen in "Bandolero!"), Josephine Hull (last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace"), Peggy Dow, Charles Drake (also carrying over from "Sergeant York"), Cecil Kellaway (last seen in "The Postman Always Rings Twice"), Victoria Horne, Jesse White, William H. Lynn, Nana Bryant, Wallace Ford (last seen in "Spellbound").

RATING: 4 out of 10 cab drivers