Thursday, January 29, 2009

Westbound (1959)

Welcome to the Civil War. Union Captain John Hayes (Randolph Scott) is dispatched to the West to set up a stagecoach delivery route to transport gold safely from California without those sneaky Confederates snaking it. At one critical point in the route, Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) stands in the way as a big shot Confederate sympathizer, determined to ruin the Union's plans. Fortunately, John Hayes receives help from a wounded Union soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) and his wife, Jeanie (Karen Steele) aka Big Bazongas, but Clay Putnam also has help from all his cronies and henchmen.

Movie Poster from "Westbound"

I will say upfront that this movie was a bit of a disappointment to me. This is one of those Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott collaborations which I have enjoyed, but this one isn't one of the better ones. The story is very weak and convoluted. The plot lines are under-developed and terribly predictable. Even worse, they made Scott a hero, but a mostly ineffectual one, just kind of standing by and watching chaos happen to a town till the final showdown. And good golly, the acting aside from Scott is simply atrocious. The most fun I had with the other actors was watching Big Bazongas and the way her dresses and such were cut to best show off her ... well, Big Bazongas. Everyone needs to have a talent, I guess, even if it isn't acting.

So, while this was semi-interesting, I would give this a pass unless you are a Boetticher or Scott fan, or just want to see every Western there is out there, or a fan of Big Bazongas. If you are in the mood for a good Boetticher / Scott film - pick up "The Tall T" instead. You won't be disappointed in that one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ghost Town (2008)

I love comedies, but I don't always laugh out loud even though I enjoy them. Every once in a while, a comedy will touch my funny bone in that special way that elicits full "laugh out loud" fun. This movie not only touched me once, twice, but three times a lady. And I loved it.

Insert your own funny caption *here*

The movie starts out with Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a married man that just narrowly missed getting busted by his wife (Tea Leoni) for trying to buy a love nest apartment for his girlfriend. He dies soon after and the movie turns to Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a misanthropic dentist, who is soon going in for an embarrassing hospital procedure. After he leaves the hospital he suddenly realizes he is seeing ghosts, and that includes Frank. Some amount of time has passed since Frank's death and he (and a bunch of other ghosts) want Pincus' help in resolving some unfinished business.

If this sounds somewhat similar to "Ghost" - then you are kind of in the right ballpark. I am the first to admit the whole "ghost genre" is so terribly played out. However, where "Ghost" goes terribly sentimental and somewhat sappy, this movie takes a definite turn into a deep comedic realm with a touch of humanistic moral and is all the better for it.

Ricky Gervais is someone I personally find hilarious. I love the dry, British humor. There are scenes with him in this movie that almost had me in absolute tears. Here is an example:

When he checks into the hospital he has a discussion with a nurse about if his bowels have evacuated. After trying to dodge the question, him and the nurse have the following exchange:

Pincus: "I shat. Ok? Good. Again, and again. It was like a terrorist attack down there in the darkness and the chaos, and the running and the screaming, okay?"
Nurse: "Fine with me."
Pincus: "Good. Gross invasion of my privacy, this."
Nurse: "Wait until they get you in the back."

Another example of brilliant Gervais-ness. They give him a relaxant before the procedure and he has said some not nice things as they wheel him into the room.

Doctor: "Not a real people person are you, Dr. Pincus?"
Pincus: "Not really. Given a choice between a few people and loads of people, I choose my cat. She hunts dwarfs. She takes them up the tree. They're still alive. You can see their little legs going. Sounds like Norah Jones when she plays the piano."

He can almost do no wrong in my eyes.

I also want to touch on Kinnear's performance as I have thought for a long time that Greg Kinnear is a terribly underrated actor. He is kinda like an older Jason Bateman if you think about it. He has become known as a great straight man that can toss out some deadpan lines too and get a great laugh. Time and time again I have seen him in romantic comedy roles that he hits out of the park, but I don't think he gets much respect for it. In this movie - he plays a bit of an amoral lout. He cheated on his wife and is unapologetic for it through most of the film. He is charming and we easily forgive him because he is who he is. One of my favorite exchanges between him and Gervais come in a scene which shows how unapologetic Kinnear's character is:

Frank: "You are a sad little man."
Pincus: "And you're a lying, bigamist corpse."
Frank: "No, no, I'm not a bigamist. I'm an adulterer. It's a whole different thing."
Pincus: "Sorry, my mistake. You were a real catch."

If you haven't guessed, I highly recommend this one for a day when you could use a good laugh. It isn't all about laughs in this one though, as it is well grounded with the theme of examining your own life. Pincus is a jerk and he too, is unapologetic about not caring about anyone but himself and is quiet existence. But even he has to decide if that is all he wants out of life - a detached quiet. So not only do you have a great comedy, but it has a nice little message that they don't try to beat the audience about the head with. Check this one out when you have time, it is hilarious. There, I did the whole review and not once did I use the phrase "He sees dead people". Oh, wait, uhmm ... oops.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007)

There is little I can say about the plot without giving the movie away. I *hate* to do that. So I will tell you what starts the story in motion and the rest will be for you to decide if you wish to watch it or not. A young, unidentified Russian girl dies in the ER while giving birth. All that is on her person is a diary written in Russian. The ER doctor, Anna (Naomi Watts), sets out to try to get the diary translated so she can identify the girl and find the rightful home for the baby. Unfortunately, she couldn't imagine how dangerous her investigation about the girl's identity would become.

Viggo Mortensen looking a litte more than just tough

Now, given that plot, if you know anything about the movie you might be wondering how the actual star of the movie fits in. Viggo Mortensen, Nikolai, plays a chauffer to a Russian Mafia family based in London. That is all I care to give away, but I will say that Mortensen is absolutely amazing in his role. He nailed everything about it - he nailed the accent, the attitude, the toughness - everything. I can see why he was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. His character is set up well by a short exchange with the ER doctor in the beginning of the movie when they are discussing her motor bike.

Nikolai: "How much do you want for it?"
Anna: "It has sentimental value."
Nikolai: "Ahhh, sentimental value. I have heard of that."

It is a bit subtle, but it says a lot about his character. I read that Viggo went to Russia and Siberia, with just a translator, to try to learn about the Russian mafia lifestyle and study the tattoos which figure prominently into this movie. The research paid off because ... he really nailed it.

Now, I have to warn you, this is a great story and a really good movie. However, it is seriously not for the faint of heart. It is brutal and shocking. There is a lot of graphic violence and unpleasant scenes. I had to wince away from the screen several times myself. Also, there is a fight scene that takes place where Viggo is completely naked and if you don't want to see brief glimpses of male full frontal nudity, then skip that entire scene. It isn't sexy or hot at all. It is a bloody and complex fight scene where the man happens to be completely naked when he is attacked. It fits well into the story and was incredibly brave of Viggo to take on. I just wanted to throw the warning out as I am recommending this one and don't want to hear that I told you to watch something you weren't prepared for. It is meant to shock and it does.

I still recommend this one if you can get past the graphic violence. It is one of those movies that will stay with you for a while. The characters are strong and you will ponder where they go from the point that you leave them. You will also contemplate what is good and what is evil and perhaps the much thinner line between the two than one would think. The voice of the Russian girl, via her diary, will haunt you and make you realize that "Eastern Promises" is the perfect title. It is an amazing piece of work, but it is hard to stomach.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Dark Horse (1932)

The Progressive Party is hopelessly deadlocked with trying to nominate a candidate for Governor. One side of the deadlock has a brilliant idea. They decide to nominate a "dark horse" candidate from the same county their competition is from so that the votes will be split and their guy will be nominated. Unfortunately, the other deadlocked side realizes what they are trying to do and decide to vote the "dark horse" candidate in rather than lose altogether. Of course, neither side knows anything about the "dark horse" candidate, other than his name, so now they are stuck trying to get a moon-faced, blithering idiot named Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee) into the Governor's spot. Enter Kay Russell (Bette Davis), the party's secretary, who has the answer to all their problems. Her boyfriend Hal Blake (Warren William) is a brilliant campaign manager who could run a successful campaign to get a turnip elected president. The party agrees to hire him and the antics are off and running.

Guy Kibbee, Vivienne Osborne and Warren William in "The Dark Horse"

This is a great political satire and Warren William is awesome, awesome, awesome in it. His performance crackles with energy. He is such a character - so charming. You know he is a bit of a shyster, but he is so good at being a shyster that you don't even care. He can launch into an impassioned speech at the drop of the hat to make you believe anything that he is trying to sell to you and ... you enjoy the sales pitch. Here is a perfect example, from after a sheriff breaks down his door, which he knew was coming and plays it so outraged and almost pious it is hilarious:

"What do you ruffians mean by breaking in like this? Is there no privacy in America? Has the time passed when a man's home is his castle? When you smash in my door, the laws of America crash around our heads. This is outrageous!!!!"

I remember Warren William from "Three On A Match", but didn't think too much about him then - he didn't stand out to me. In this role, not only did he stand out but he literally jumped off the screen! I can't wait to see him in more movies.

Every time I watch an early Bette Davis film I am always struck with her beauty. She looks very little like she did when she got older and really gained popularity. She looks like a cute sorority girl. She does well with the role of ... I guess the ingenue here. It is obvious that the studio didn't really know what they had yet and put her in cutesy roles where she could be sassy, but not fierce like she would be later in her career.

The supporting cast is great - which would actually include Bette Davis as supporting cast, but I have already talked about her. Guy Kippee plays Zachary Hicks, the idiot candidate, and boy does he play idiot well. I love the campaign slogan, "Vote for Hicks from the Sticks". He also has this weird way of smiling, where he bats his eyelashes like a girl, which makes him seem even more idiotic. I swear, either he is a true idiot or a great character actor. I think Warren William's character sums the candidate up best when asked what he thought of him after first meeting him. He said, "He's the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge." Ouch.

Also, I shouldn't leave out Vivienne Osborne. She plays Hal Blake's ex-wife and even though I didn't mention her at all in the plot synopsis, she plays heavily into the plot later in the film. She is pretty ... pretty calculating, that is. I kept going back and forth on my feelings about her because in one scene she seems like she might be nice, but later, you realize she is really only out to bleed anyone and everyone she can. I have to ask, how on earth did that woman get $400 / week alimony in 1932?!?!?!?! That is $1,600 a month!! In 1932?!?!?!?!

Lastly, I want to mention Frank McHugh as Joe. Joe is the go-to-guy (or crony, I guess) for Hal Blake's character. I really loved the scene where he is insulting Zachary Hicks, without realizing that the person he is talking to is actually Hicks himself. When someone calls out Hicks name and the guy walks off, Joe realizes what he has done. He takes off his hat and starts beating his head against the wall. I laughed out loud because, good golly, I have wanted to do that many times myself.

I love political satire and social commentary about the American public. They do this in a light humorous way and tossed other elements in to keep the movie interesting for everyone. The performances are great too. If this film comes on TV (it isn't available on DVD) I highly recommend you watch it. I don't think anyone would be disappointed with it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Male Animal (1942)

I have to say this - I am starting to heart me some Henry Fonda. He is one of those leading actors, like Gary Cooper, that doesn't usually grab a hold of you on first viewing like some other male leads ... like, say ... Cary Grant. However, you watch one Henry Fonda film and think "Wow, that was good. That Henry Fonda fella was good too." Then you see another and another and you suddenly think, "Wow, I heart me some Henry Fonda". Well, you think that if you are a dork like me. Otherwise you probably think, "That Henry Fonda is a fine actor and I can't believe I didn't recognize that before". (BTW, thanks to my friend for pointing me in Mr. Fonda's direction - much appreciated.)

Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda in The Male Animal

Professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) is an English professor who loves to teach and is soon to be tenured. Unfortunately, an overzealous Board of University Trustees are determined to fire all the "reds" (re: liberals) amongst the university staff. When an article in the university literature magazine is published labeling Professor Turner as a liberal who is standing up to the Board of Trustees by reading a letter by a convicted anarchist, he is suddenly thrown into the spotlight and in a tough position. To add to the mess, it is the big university game and his wife's (Olivia de Havilland) college sweetheart and football hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) has come back into town. The question soon becomes how Professor Turner will stay true to his own core beliefs and keep his job and also Ellen, his wife.

This is a cute little comedy with a very important message about free speech and how important it is to stand up to the erosion of our civil liberties. Everything about that part of the movie, I loved. I loved the exchange of the Dean of the Department with the head Trustee.

(Discussing searching out the liberals, reds, and getting rid of them)
Trustee: "Can't find the reds, get after the pinks."
Dean: "What shade should I stop at?"

That pretty much says it all doesn't it?

Henry Fonda was fantastic in this role playing the reluctant activist and hero. He played the comedy bits perfect and I loved his character. He had great lines and delivered them perfectly. Here are some examples:

Ellen: "Aren't you going to wear your nice new blue suit?"
Tommy: "I don't like to wear new suits. They are too full of creases and mortgages."

Joe: "Say, this is a nice big ol' place you got here. Do you own it?"
Tommy: "No, we rent, from a bank."

Ellen: "You better take a hot water bottle to bed with you."
Tommy: "Nice of you to arrange for a substitute."

I also thought the bit about academics vs. sports was an interesting plot line too. It got even deeper into the intellectual vs. jock debate as to who is more apt to attract women and be the right man in the long run for women. I didn't have a problem with any of that. Both of those debates rage on even today. I loved how the Professor was trying to explain the difference between the two to a young intellectual. He said: "He (the jock) is a hunter. He comes home at night with meat slung over his shoulder. (insert Henry Fonda male grunt here) While you sit drawing pictures on the wall of your cave."

The big problem I had with the whole movie was Olivia de Havilland's character. I found her so irritating and unsympathetic throughout. She has a husband that is going through a career and personal crisis and she is chasing after her college sweetheart like he is the last hot sausage in town. She chases him to the point that even the poor professor is convinced she loves the neanderthal and resigns himself to letting her go. I never understand how great men put up with such selfishness and, dare I say it, bitchiness from undeserving women. I mean, the woman screams at the man for putting on the wrong pair of trousers, for goodness sakes. Given all that though, I don't think Olivia is at fault here. She plays the character as I assume she was asked, but I hated the character and kept screaming at Henry to just dump her and move on with his life. I would have never thought Olivia de Havilland could be so unlikeable - especially in a comedic role! I even liked her better in "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte", if that tells you anything.

I did have a theory as to why they made her a shrew to him though. I think they were trying to show how mild-mannered his character is. I think they were showing that he doesn't stand up to her, so asking him to stand up to an entire institution would be impossible. So that makes his decision on whether to just go along with the university, like he does with her, or to stand up to them all the more difficult. That is the only possible reason I can think of for having her be so unreasonable to him.

So all in all, I definitely recommend this film. It is a great little Henry Fonda comedy with some great tension and plots. You will have to try to get past the wife's irritating character so you can stop yelling at her and enjoy the movie instead. At least, that is what *I* had to do to enjoy it anyway. :-)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The General (1927)

I have seen snippets of this one through the years, but decided that I should finally sit down and watch it all the way through. This movie is set during the civil war. The Northern forces have stolen The General, a train manned by Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), who was rejected by the Confederate army because he was more valuable to the South as a railroad engineer. The Northern forces plan to use The General as a supply train for it's forces in a bit of a Trojan Horse maneuver. The only person who knows about this is Gray and he must stop the attack and save the girl (there is always a girl). To do this, he must single-handedly chase down a train, cross enemy lines, re-cross enemy lines and tell the Southern Forces about the plan against them.

The talented Buster Keaton doing his thing

I don't think I could say anything here about Buster Keaton that hasn't been said a million times. His physical acting abilities are astounding. His comedic timing is impeccable. He was an amazingly talented man. What they were able to pull off without any special effects is really stunning. The dangerous stunts he performed without stunt men - amazing. The whole performance is terribly brilliant.

As for the movie? I think this is a spectacular and riveting movie for it's time. I think it set the bar for what other movies started aiming for - a dash of humor, a dash of romance and a little action too. And, I think everyone should see this brilliant movie once. Perhaps, on the outside, twice. Much beyond that, unless you are a film historian, you are probably good. I say that because the movie - while being brilliant for it's time - wears on after a while. As clever as all the Spy vs. Spy tricks were between the two dueling trains, it got a little old for me pretty quick. I don't know that this would be a film that I could watch multiple times and still be as entertained as when I watched it all the way through today.

Also, this may be blasphemous, but I have to say I prefer the Chaplin movies to the Keaton movies. I understand he was the original and what an original he was. I just think Chaplin movies really benefited from that extra decade of movie experience. Chaplin movies have more going for them than physical stunts and action - that extra decade made a difference.

So, I recommend watching this if you have never seen it. Anyone claiming to be a film buff definitely has to watch it. Today's audiences won't be bowled over by it, I don't think, but if you put it in the proper historical perspective one should, at the very least, be impressed. Opposing views always welcome - let me know if I am off the mark here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

I think everyone knows the plot on this one, but a quickie version is as follows. The HMS Bounty, is on a mission first to Tahiti and then on to the West Indies. The ship is led by a stubborn and tough Captain by the name of Bligh (Charles Laughton) that demands discipline and wields punishment as often as most people change pants. After stopping in Tahiti for a few months, the sailors begin to get restless when they set sail once again and decide to take the ship, led by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). Hence the name "Mutiny on the Bounty".

Gable and the Old Toad

I really liked Gable's performance in this and thought he deserved the Oscar that year. Apparently he lost to Victor McLaglen in "The Informer", which I have not seen, so hopefully McLaglen deserved to beat Gable out. One of the reasons I loved Gable's performance early on in the movie was how he seemed to always show contempt for Bligh, even through a smile. Gable was such a smooth operator in this, always showing the right amount of restraint or passion, depending upon what the scene called for. Just, a really well done performance.

Charles Laughton did a good job with the infamous Captain Bligh too. This isn't a historically accurate historic epic (say that three times really fast), but I think of movies as novels instead of non-fiction anyway, so that isn't terribly important to me. I thought Laughton's performance was interesting because he made him a dichotomous Blight. On the ship, he was a harsh task master. However, when he was cast out on the ocean with his loyal men, he toned the harshness way down and showed him in a more humane light. I have to say though, when I first saw Laughton on screen, I laughed. He really reminded me of a puffed up old toad with those lips sticking out and the weird hunched over stance of his. Also, I thought he looked a bit like a young and much more surly, John Candy. That made me laugh too.

I have to share some of my favorite dialogue which occurred in the opening of the movie. A young ensign reported to duty and upon seeing the ship asks, "That's the Bounty for Tahiti? She isn't very big is she?" An older gentleman replies, "It ain't the size that counts, youngster. It's the salt in the lads that man it." Well said. :-)

Also, I have to pick on one part of the movie too. I know it was 1935, but still, they had a budget of $2 million for this picture so I still think it fair to pick on this. At one point during the voyage, they toss a man overboard with a rope tied around his waist, for punishment. (Glad my parents never thought of that) Anyway, they show the man underwater, hitting his head I think and being dragged along. The underwater shot looks like, I kid you not, a Ken doll (of Ken and Barbie fame) being dragged along the water of an aquarium with a toy boat floating above him. I know, I know, it was 1935. But the shot looked horrible. Why even have the shot in the movie? Just skip it and show them pulling the man up - you would lose nothing other than the giggles.

Another weird thing for me was the almost constant use of extreme close-up on the actor's faces. I understand a close-up can be quite effective in certain scenes, but if you use it constantly, it loses it's impact. I don't know if this was the director's style or what, but I have to admit that I thought it was way over used by the end.

Also, I was reading on about the film and I ran across a lot of interesting trivia that I couldn't help share. I stress that I have no idea if these are fact or fiction, but I wanted to toss them out anyway.

  • MGM wanted Cary Grant to play Byam (the young ensign), but Grant was under contract to Paramount, which refused to release him.

  • Franchot Tone's role was originally intended for Robert Montgomery.

  • This won an Oscar for Best Picture, but won no other Oscars.

  • Actor James Cagney was sailing his boat off of Catalina Island, California, and passed the area where the film's crew was shooting aboard the Bounty replica. Cagney called to director Frank Lloyd, an old friend, and said that he was on vacation and could use a couple of bucks, and asked if Lloyd had any work for him. Lloyd put him into a sailor's uniform, and Cagney spent the rest of the day as an extra playing a sailor aboard the Bounty.

  • Clark Gable had to shave off his trademark mustache for this film for historical accuracy. Mustaches were not allowed in the Royal Navy during the time the story takes place.

  • In order to break the ice before shooting, Clark Gable, apparently unaware of co-star Charles Laughton's homosexuality, took him to a brothel. Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester always said that Laughton was nevertheless "flattered" by this gesture.

  • Clark Gable initially felt he was badly miscast as an English naval lieutenant in an historical epic. However, he later said he believed this was the best movie he had starred in.
I definitely recommend this one. So does AFI who put it on it's top 100 list and so does just about everyone. It is a great historic adventure epic. It has some weird quirks (like the close-ups) and some minor plot holes that aren't important to go into, but still, definitely worth watching when you are ready for an interesting adventure flick.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

In a small New England town, a serial killer appears to be on the loose. He targets women with some form of disability. Enter Helen Chapel (Dorothy McGuire) who is a woman who is unable to speak so that makes for a big disability. She works as a caretaker to ill and elderly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren's two sons live with her, Professor Warren (George Brent) and Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver). Mrs. Warren obviously believes one of her sons is the serial killer and wants Helen to get out of the house while she still can. Despite Mrs. Warren's pleadings, Helen does not leave. Since the house has a spiral staircase, it is a pretty good bet some kind of action is going to go down there.

Look at that gorgeous shot of Dorothy McGuire going down the Spiral Staircase.

The beginning of the movie starts with the rolling of the opening credits. However, instead of just rolling the opening credits, they show the star of the movie - the spiral staircase. They also show a woman creeping slowly down it. Then add in the super eerie music and a thunderstorm with lightning and all those sounds and with little effort the tone of the movie is totally set. Not to mention adding in an element of suspense and excitement. What a brilliant way to roll the credits. I loved it.

I always find films that take place real-time very interesting. What I mean by real-time, is that this film all transpires in one single afternoon/evening. It starts with a murder at the hotel where Helen had been watching a movie. She goes to Mrs. Warren's home where she lives and is terrorized that evening by the murderer. Also, I love a good suspense film and this fits nicely into that category. The director, Robert Siodmak, does a really good job setting up creepy and interesting shots using shadows. The music, the Gothic style, the creepy shots (the gigantic eye will give me nightmares later) all handily set up a great atmosphere for a suspense/thriller.

The performances are good, but no one particularly stands out. I enjoyed seeing George Brent again, a decade after his leading man good looks had gone a bit. Dorothy McGuire does a decent job of portraying her emotions without using words. The one that got me was good ol' Ethel. I don't know what it is about the Barrymores, but so far they just crack me up! Ethel is sick and can't move from her bed so she does all her acting with her eyes. While she tells Helen to flee the house she talks softly but keeps opening her eyes wide for emphasis, then that exhausts her so the eyes close a bit, but here they come again all wide. That is repeated a hundred times throughout the movie. Maybe I am hard on the Barrymores, but I have to say, in this movie she invented eye-size acting. Joan Fontaine invented eyebrow waggle acting and Monty Cliff invented brooding and sweating acting. I guess you have to be famous for something :-)

All in all, this was a good little suspense B-movie. I think the main flaw was the predictability - at least for me. It was pretty clear who the killer was and how it was going to climax and what would happen. However, even given that, I still recommend watching this one when you get a chance. If for no other reason than this movie falls into the category of being one of those great b&w movies that they just don't make anymore, sadly.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

It is rare that I am completely blown away by a film, but this one might as well have been dynamite in my living room. Wow.

Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a small town radio personality who highlights average people through her show called "A Face in the Crowd". She visits the local jail looking for someone to do something interesting for her show and gets more than she bargained for with 'Lonesome' Rhodes (Andy Griffith). He is a drifter with a short fuse and a big appetite for alcohol which is what landed him in jail. He does a few snippets of songs which are good, but is so engaging and charismatic when he talks on the show that she asks him to start doing his own show on their station. His "folksy" charm (they compare him to Will Rogers more than once) leads to a TV show in Memphis which then leads to a national show in New York, with Marcia by his side helping him along the way. Unfortunately, his head expands as much as his audience size and before long Marcia is trying to figure out how to deal with the monster she unwittingly created.

Marcia and her Monster

This film is a scathing commentary about the use and abuse of fame as well as the intermingling of entertainment and politics. I can't say enough how amazing it is to me that this film was made in 1957, before the Kennedy/Nixon debate ... before they really had a firm grasp on just how true this would become. This movie was completely overlooked when it was released because I don't think the audience honestly thought the American people would be that gullible, but we have proven time and time again that we really are gullible when it comes to celebrities and their power over us. Lonesome probably says it best when he tells Marcia "They're (his huge national audience) mine. I own them. They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for them. I'll be the power behind the president. And you'll be the power behind me." It is so chilling to hear those words because he actually believes it and at that moment in time, it is sadly true.

So let's get to the stunning performances.

This is Andy Griffith's film debut and by far his best performance. He plays a megalomaniac who is one of the most dangerous "wolf in sheep's clothing" type characters I have ever seen portrayed. Here is this charming man whom everyone is instantly drawn to because he is like them. However, in private, he really isn't like them. He is a hooch drinking, woman chasing, selfish man who can't see anything past his ratings and his own self. He takes everything he can from everyone and gives nothing in return. To see sweet old Andy Griffith in such a despicable role is quite the shock and boy, does good ol' Andy give it to the audience for all it is worth. In one of my favorite scenes, he is judging a baton twirling competition. Beautiful Lee Remick catches his eye as she twirls in her little skirt and his wolf-like stare is so intensely sexual that I think even I blushed for Remick. Someone sees him staring at her and says, "She is only 17." His response, with what I imagined as invisible drool on his chin was, "She looks like a very sweet child." The leer doesn't go away, only intensifies. Oof. Remember, this is Andy Griffith!!

I think Andy has gotten most of the acting kudos for this movie in recent history because of how we perceive him based off his wholesome image. However, it would be a shame to not give kudos to Patricia Neal for her performance. I was amazed at the difference of her character in the beginning versus the end. In the beginning, she looks so young and vibrant - maybe even a little sassy. She lights up the screen. By the end, she looks drawn, shrunken and exhausted. The light has totally gone out. It would be a mistake to think this movie is all about Lonesome Rhodes because I think this movie is as much about her as well. It is about Marcia being charmed by Lonesome, same as everyone else, but slowly realizing what a cold and uncaring man he really is. It is about her decision to stay with him because she can't untangle herself from his web and also because she feels a burden to try to clean up the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake. It is about how it chips away at her soul to stay there with him and help him continue to grow and flourish even though she knows she is only making her monster more powerful by doing so. Her role is crucial because it is her love for him that keeps us, as the movie audience, from turning on Lonesome as he does so many terrible things throughout the movie. As long as she continues to stay with him, then we think there must be something redeeming so we stay with Lonesome too. If you watch this movie twice, and really pay attention to Patricia Neal both times, I think you will agree with me that her performance is stunning.

I will add in a quick paragraph about Walter Matthau in this too. I like that he gives the movie some much needed balance. He is Mel Miller, a writer on the Lonesome Rhodes show, and catches on to Lonesome quicker than anyone else. It is his writer's sarcasm and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) jabs that gives voice to what the audience is thinking. For instance, Mel says "I'll say one thing for him, he's got the courage of his ignorance." Mel also happens to be in love with Marcia. In one of the sweetest scenes where he is describing himself he says, "Didn't you know? All mild men are vicious. They hate themselves for being mild, and they hate the windy extroverts whose violence seems to have a strange attraction for nice girls. You should know better." They continue talking and he so tenderly touches her jawline with his finger. It was such a sweet gesture that spoke volumes of how deep his love was for her. Such an incredibly intimate moment, all with just a simple touch.

Everything about this film is top-notch. Budd Schulberg wrote an amazing script and Elia Kazan, the director, took several first-time movie actors and guided them through performances of a lifetime. If you rent the DVD, there is a great documentary about this film where they interview Andy Griffith about what it was like to debut in this film. Kazan wanted his actors to feel the scene, not try to act the scene. Kazan told him, "If you think it and feel it hard enough, it will come out through your eyes, and the camera will see it." As an example, he tells us exactly what Kazan's direction was to him for the baton twirling competition, and I almost choked on my dinner when I heard that tidbit. The documentary is a must see.

I have raved and raved enough about this movie. If you haven't seen this - PROMISE ME - you will go out and watch it immediately. You will NOT be sorry. After you watch it, please report back here and tell me how brilliant I am for making you watch it. :-)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

I watched this a few days ago on TCM and my first question was, "Why the heck isn't this on DVD yet?" This is a delightful comedy that deserves a DVD release people!

Lynnfield, a typical small town, is in a fury over the latest best-selling novel that is being printed in excerpts in their local paper. The prudes of the town deem it too racy and therefore morally objectionable. Little do they know, one of their own, Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is actually the author. Theodora has gone to great lengths to keep the author's (her) identity a secret, but during a meeting with her publisher she meets Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas) and lets her guard down. From that point on, he is determined to free her from small town life by forcing her to admit her true identity. Meanwhile, Theodora finds out some secrets of her own about Michael and sets a plan in motion to give him a taste of his own medicine.

That looks painful

I am a fan of Irene Dunne's already so it came as no surprise that she was absolutely wonderful in the role of Theodora. In fact, she was even nominated for an Oscar for her performance. She is such a great comedic actress and this movie is one of the first to show off her talents in that area.

So the surprise, for me, was Melvyn Douglas whom I knew very little about. I believe I had only seen him in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" up to this point. He was good in that, but not a standout necessarily. In this one though, he and Irene had a great chemistry and I loved how he tormented her in such a charming way. I read a review online about how his whistling in the film was annoying, but honestly, I didn't find that to be the case. His whistling, to me, was just a constant dig at her, trying to ruffle Theodora so that she would ... take action. I love the kind of comedy that comes from two people battling against each other, almost always, because they have fallen for each other and don't want to give in. This film does a terrific job with that situation.

As for the story, I love how subversive it is to the culture at the time. It takes aim at small town America which had been so revered as being perfect. It chips away at the facade showing the hypocritical and judgemental nature of the population, but in a comedic way so as not to totally offend a primary demographic. Very clever, them big town writers. :-)

One of my favorite quotes, and I can't recall which small town supporting character said it, was about Theodora. They said, "It's all perfectly clear to me. That adorable young thing is an unholy terror on wheels. There's nothing in the world more deadly than innocence on the manhunt!"

If you haven't guessed yet, I highly recommend this great little screwball comedy gem and I demand a DVD release. Anyone listening people? More Cowbell!