Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Babes in Toyland (1961)


Walt Disney's slick, overproduced adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta is a charmless and lifeless affair, devoid of any sense of fun despite the obvious resources poured in to its production, directed with all the sincerity of a network TV commercial. Despite his superficial attempts to re-create the magic of the classic 1934 Hal Roach production with Laurel and Hardy, Disney's version falls far short. Its drawn out, loud musical numbers (featuring unnecessary new and updated material in addition to the Herbert originals), candy-colored, garish sets and costumes, and overblown special effects are merely a distraction from the absence of genuine charm and heart that made the earlier version such a favorite.

That Disney obviously modeled his production on the Roach version can be seen most glaringly in his Laurel and Hardy substitutes played by Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, who pale in comparison with the real thing. Calvin does at least a serviceable job as the corpulent, gentlemanly Hardy stand-in, while Sheldon, ostensibly meant to resemble Laurel, rather brings to mind a weird cross between Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx in his mute, zany characterization. To be fair, they try their best with the material they are given, but it is, of course, an impossible and utterly pointless task to try and re-create the chemistry or comedy genius of Laurel and Hardy.

Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, as the romantic leads, lack any of the innocent charm of Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight. Indeed, Sands' wooden performance as Tom makes Knight's performance in the original seem positively dynamic in comparison! The only real standout in the cast is the wonderful Ray Bolger as Barnaby, but even he lacks the real sense of menace and over-the-top villainy so superbly acted by Henry Brandon in the original. Bolger is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, and demonstrates his fine singing and dancing skills, but he is such a likable, delightful performer that he just can't seem to muster up the threatening tone that the role requires in order to be really effective. Ed Wynn as the bumbling, bombastic Toymaker is amusing enough doing his usual comic shtick, and at least adds a bit of fun to the proceedings with his presence.

The finale, with the parade of the wooden soldiers, has none of the dramatic urgency of the corresponding sequence in the Hal Roach version, and by the time it finally occurs, feels like just one more overdone special effects set piece (even lacking the quaint charm of Roy Seawright's stop-motion effects in the original). Compared to Hal Roach's timeless classic, which continues to delight new audiences 80 years after its release, the Disney version is instantly dated camp, with its concessions to contemporary fashion.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Luke's Movie Muddle (1916)


Typically rough, knockabout early Harold Lloyd "Lonesome Luke" one-reeler, with Luke running a movie house. The cinema setting provides a fun backdrop for the comedy, with Luke finding time to flirt with his pretty female customers while interacting with a parade of eccentric moviegoers who cause him no end of trouble.

Snub Pollard -- Lloyd's frequent co-star in these early comedies and later a star in his own right -- lends fine comic support as the projectionist, and there is a clever moment when Pollard furiously overcranks the projector, causing the film-within-the-film to race by breathlessly. Generally, though, the gags feel routine and uninspired, showing no real flashes of the brilliant construction that would mark Lloyd's mature work. Lloyd was cranking these comedies out at a staggering rate while still learning the craft and developing his character. He was still basically aping Chaplin at this stage of his career; despite superficial differences (a split mustache, a loose-fitting jacket), many of the mannerisms and gestures are reminiscent of Chaplin. It would be another year or so before he'd find the character that was to become his trademark, and another year or two after that before he really found his style as both a performer and filmmaker. Early shorts like this provided Lloyd with his training ground, and can still hold surprises in their fast-and-furious gagging.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Six of a Kind (1934)


Delightfully zany, madcap comedy that serves as a vehicle for no less than six fine comic talents, the charming domestic comedy of Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland, the verbal nonsense of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the great character humor of W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth. For its freewheeling, loose 62 minute running time, the plot is actually rather complicated: Bank clerk Ruggles and his wife Boland are setting off by car on their second honeymoon, and have advertised for another couple to travel with them to help share expenses. To their horror, they get stuck with Burns and Allen, who intend on riding with them all the way to California and proceed to turn the trip into a nightmare. Meanwhile, a fellow bank clerk has stolen a small fortune and smuggled it out of the bank in Ruggles' suitcase, and follows the couple on their journey in pursuit of the loot. The characters and situations all run into one another in a small-town hotel, run by Alison Skipworth and watched over by W.C. Fields as Sheriff "Honest John" Hoxley.

This fast-paced road comedy is directed with characteristic skill by the great Leo McCarey. It's the kind of leisurely--paced comedy where the plot can be put on hold for several minutes at a time while W.C. Fields regales long-time stooge Tammany Young with his rambling story of how he came to be known as "Honest John" (due to his returning a man's lost glass eye), or while Gracie Allen explains to George Burns that her niece has three feet (since she last saw her, she grew another foot). Rather than distracting from the plot, these isolated sequences provide some of the film's biggest highlights. Even with these interludes, the pace and energy never lag thanks to McCarey's expert direction, and when the routines are this good, who cares about the story?

Although he doesn't appear till nearly the last third of the film's running time, Fields very nearly steals the picture. This film was made during the height of his creative powers at Paramount, when he was alternating between his own series of starring vehicles, and appearances in ensemble comedies in which he shared the stage with other fine talents. His assured performance provides so many really funny moments, many of which appear to have been improvised or at least suggested by Fields, that he becomes the most interesting part of the film to watch. It's a tribute to the Great Man's talents that he was able to find so much to do with this role, which amounts to little more than a supporting part, and to inject so many memorable bits of business into his scenes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)


A playful, tongue-in-cheek romantic farce -- about an aging Don Juan faking his own death in order to take a rest from his romantic conquests -- directed by Alexander Korda with a deceptively light but evocative style reminiscent of both Lubitsch and Sternberg (especially THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN). Douglas Fairbanks, in his final film role, stars as the title character, and plays the legendary lover with a decidedly vigorous approach. His Don Juan is a weary, wiser take on the character, which works quite nicely here, and suits Fairbanks at this late stage of his career. It's probably Fairbanks' finest sound film performance, coming across as more relaxed and at ease than in his other talkies. He certainly exhibits the old Fairbanks charm, even if he is a perhaps a bit more subdued than usual, and still gets the chance to show off some impressive physical feats, such as leaping over a staircase railing, with incredible grace. Overall, it's a fine and fitting swan song for the great silent screen swashbuckler.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)


A lyrical, dreamlike Gothic horror classic, exquisitely directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced with real imagination by Val Lewton. A nurse comes to the island of St. Sebastian in the West Indies, to care for the catatonic wife of a wealthy plantation owner, but it soon becomes apparent that the situation between the owner, his wife, and his young half-brother is far more complicated than it first appears. As the nurse learns more about both the family's history, and the islanders' belief in zombies and voodoo practices, she comes to believe that such a ritual may be the only hope to rescue the wife from her state of living death.

Val Lewton's B-horror films, produced for RKO in the '40s, are famous for their minimalism and their ability to conjure up real horror and suspense using the barest of elements in highly creative fashion. This may be the most effective film of the group, both for its literate screenplay (loosely based on the premise of "Jane Eyre") and for its poetic, ethereal style, evoking a dream experience that moves lucidly and mysteriously. The sequence in which the nurse and the owner's wife make the trek across the island to attend a voodoo ritual is an especially masterful exercise in atmospheric horror, with the symbols of the skulls, hollow gourd and hanging goat, the sound of the wailing wind and rustling leaves, and the contrast between light and darkness creating an unshakable sense of dread.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Man I Love (1947)


Superb romantic musical melodrama, directed by Raoul Walsh for Warner Bros. at the peak of his career. Ida Lupino stars as a New York nightclub singer who travels to Long Beach to spend the holidays with her family but finds that they are all embroiled in their own personal dramas. She gets involved with an unscrupulous nightclub owner (Robert Alda) while falling in love with a tormented but brilliant pianist (Bruce Bennett), haunted by painful memories of his ex-wife.

THE MAN I LOVE is the work of a director who had developed his technique to a point where there is not a shot, not a single moment, out of place. It is an incredibly atmospheric piece, enhanced by the artifice of its studio-bound sets, rear projection and stylized dialogue that combine to create something really special -- a fantasy that is simultaneously grounded in realism. The mood is heightened by the evocative score, which features velvety, haunting arrangements of several pop standards (including the title song). It is a supreme example of the stylish entertainment that the Hollywood studio system, at the height of its powers, was capable of producing.

Minstrel Man (1944)

 

Above-average PRC musical drama about a blackface minstrel (Benny Fields) who abandons his newborn daughter after his wife dies in childbirth. He leaves the infant in the care of his best friends and disappears from her life for years until he learns that his daughter, now a teenager, is set to star in a revival of his old "Minstrel Man" show on Broadway, and is reunited with her on stage.

Aside from singing some pleasant songs by Paul Webster and Harry Revel, crooner Benny Fields does not make much of an impression in this, his only dramatic starring role. He seems ill at ease playing the dramatic scenes, though the reservation in his performance probably works to the advantage of some of the moments of high melodrama -- such as receiving the news of his wife's death, or encountering his estranged daughter -- which are actually rather nicely understated. When he's given the chance to sing though, Fields shines.

Stylishly directed by Joseph H. Lewis (who took over from Edgar G. Ulmer, who reportedly directed the first several days of filming), there are some interesting camera moves, including a particularly well-executed crane shot on a pair of dancers in the Havana sequence and an effective high-angle shot in an early theater scene. Lewis' direction is a fine example of the craftsmanship that makes even a Poverty Row quickie like this visually compelling.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The King of Comedy (1983)


Like all great satires, Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY has only become more prescient and relevant with age. The film is partly a wry comment on the cult of celebrity, and partly a dark character study of a delusional schmuck named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) who imagines himself a comedy genius and whose eventual appearance on a fictional "Tonight Show"-type of program seems to embody Warhol's idea of 15 minutes of fame. "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime", Rupert proclaims at the end of his act.

Rupert -- like all of life's losers who build their identities and derive their self-worth from basking in the reflected glory of people more successful than they (in this case, by collecting celebrity autographs) -- doesn't have much going on in his life. He lives in his mother's basement in one of the outer boroughs of New York City, where he holds imaginary conversations with cardboard-cutouts of celebrities like Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the host of a wildly-popular, self-titled nightly TV talk show that can make or break new comedy talent. Of course, it's pure fantasy, one that seems galaxies away from the reality of Rupert's pathetic existence. 

That is, until, fate lands him a seat in Jerry's limo after the show one night. Riding a few blocks from the studio to Jerry's apartment, Rupert takes the opportunity to pitch himself to Jerry as a potential guest for his show. In order to get rid of his personable but rather unbalanced passenger, Jerry tells Rupert to send a tape of his act to the show's producers for consideration. This chance encounter plunges Rupert into a wild fantasy in which he becomes convinced he and Jerry are best pals, and that his future as "the king of comedy" has been handed to him on a silver platter.

De Niro's performance as Pupkin strikes a masterful chord. He and Scorsese wisely avoid making him a caricature or an object of ridicule. Even when we want to laugh at his delusional behavior, ridiculous as it may be, there is a layer of real pain and sadness not deep beneath the surface. Scorsese only hints at Pupkin's past, and even what we see of his personal life is limited largely to his fantasies. His mother, for example, is only ever heard as a disembodied voice, shouting down into the basement for Rupert to go to bed or turn down his music as if he were still an adolescent boy. The most we ever learn about Rupert's childhood is, tellingly, through the anecdotes he delivers in his standup monologue, though even these -- at least one of which (involving his mother being dead for nine years) is directly contradictory to what we know -- are infused with a level of fantasy. What Rupert's jokes do reveal -- when we finally hear them -- is that he seems to use self-deprecating humor as a way of dealing with an unhappy childhood (through jokes about his abusive and alcoholic parents, bullying classmates and indifferent teachers). We get a further hint of this earlier in the film, when Rupert imagines his old high school principal publicly apologizing to him on television for the way he and the students treated Rupert.

Indeed, it seems that what Rupert wants more than anything in being famous is just to be loved and adored. Though he treats Jerry like a buddy and an old pal, it is conceivable that he could also see in him something of a father figure, someone who can give the affection and approval that Rupert has always lacked. But that would also imply that Rupert realizes he could learn something from Jerry. Instead, he seems to view Jerry purely opportunistically, as someone whose fame and fortune can rub off on him and who will get him to where he wants to be. Of course, Langford is hardly a perfect role model himself; you don't get to the top by being a nice guy. That said, Lewis and Scorsese are careful not to portray Langford merely as a belligerent jerk or egotistical bastard, which would undercut the character. Langford is clearly a hard-working and dedicated show business professional who has paid his dues to get where he is, but has become jaded by his experiences in dealing with hangers-on and phonies. If he is impatient or demanding, it is only because he expects of others what he expects of himself. Ultimately, he is portrayed neither as a monster or a towering genius but -- as Langford says of himself in one scene -- a human being.

In addition to his relationship with the celebrities he worships, Rupert is also incapable of real friendship with other people in his life, no doubt a result of his social awkwardness and also of his extreme narcissism (it quickly becomes clear that Rupert's favorite, indeed only, topic of conversation seems to be himself). He seems to have a kind of love-hate relationship with an even more unbalanced celebrity stalker named Masha (Sandra Bernhard, in a brilliant performance) -- though their relationship is never made clear, it doesn't seem to be sexual in any way, but it does seem to be co-dependent on often borderline sadistic behavior toward each other. Around his fellow autograph hounds, Rupert sees himself as superior, telling one of them that collecting is "not my whole life", suggesting that he views the others as pathetic, while his purpose in collecting is more noble. When he rekindles an acquaintance with Rita, an old high school crush, Rupert seems to only be capable of viewing her as another character in his life story that he's mapped out, going so far as to give her his own autograph as a gift, since it will no doubt be worth a lot of money someday, and fantasizing about the two of them being married on live television. Even in his fantasies about Jerry, Rupert frequently imagines Jerry groveling toward him (begging him to take over the show for a few weeks, and telling Rupert how envious he is of his genius) rather than imagining any kind of real friendship between the two of them.

Rupert's illusions about that friendship come crashing down when he takes Rita out to Langford's Long Island home, where -- he assures her -- Jerry has personally invited them to spend the weekend (he has, of course, done no such thing; the invitation was purely the product of Rupert's overheated imagination). When the pair show up unannounced, Jerry has to cut his golf game short to come home and deal with the intruders. Mortified, Rita apologizes and insists on leaving (but not before pocketing one of Jerry's knick-knacks as a memento). Rupert, however, insists Jerry has mis-treated them and makes veiled threats, whereupon Jerry has them both thrown out of the house. This is the breaking point for both men -- Jerry tells Rupert exactly what he thinks of him in no uncertain terms, and Rupert concocts an incredibly dangerous and foolish scheme to get his big break in show business that will have lasting consequences on the rest of his life.

It is revealing in this scene that when Rupert does get a glimpse of Jerry's private life, it does not turn out to be the glamorous atmosphere of schmoozing and hobnobbing with other celebrities that Rupert has no doubt envisioned. Instead, Jerry spends his Saturday relaxing with a game of golf and enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, enjoying the leisure time he has earned and re-charging his energy before another tireless week of performing. Jerry has to waste precious free time out of his weekend dealing with Rupert, who wants Jerry to drop what he's doing and listen to his tape, to which Jerry snaps, "I have a life" -- a life he has worked very hard to build for himself, and the kind of life Rupert feels entitled to just by wanting it.

Indeed, that is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of Rupert Pupkin. As his climactic standup act shows, he is not without some talent. But he is unwilling to work hard to achieve his goals. He is more interested in talking about being a comedian than ever actually going out and being one. Like so many wannabes, he waits on the sidelines for that "perfect opportunity" that may never come, rather than taking the bold first steps toward his goal, because he knows it can never live up to the results about which he he has fantasized many times. As Jerry tells Rupert during their first meeting, the comic timing and interplay that appears so natural and relaxed on his show is the result of years and years of hard work and practice, and that the old axiom happens to be true -- you have to start at the bottom. Similarly, Jerry's producer helpfully tells Rupert after listening to his tape that he has potential and should hone his act for a while on the nightclub circuit, where he can develop and perfect his material, before auditioning to appear on network TV. All sound advice, but not the easy answer Rupert is looking for. 

Of course, in Rupert's case, he eventually does get the "perfect opportunity" he's been waiting for -- when he and Masha resort to kidnapping Jerry and holding him for ransom in exchange for a coveted guest shot on the show -- but by that point, it is clear that Rupert can no longer see the division between real life and fantasy, and indeed, by the end of the film, neither can the audience. Rupert's act is, surprisingly, not awful, and -- we are told -- that after serving a short stint in prison, during which time he has honed his comic material, he writes a best-selling book about his escapades (about to be turned into a major motion picture), and enjoys the fame and adulation he has always craved. Scorsese leaves us wondering how much, if any, of this is true. It doesn't matter. Either way, Rupert's success -- whether entirely the result of his delusional imagination or the result of a sated public willing to applaud anything put in front of it on television -- is an empty one.