Sunday, October 25, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'White Heat'

The local cinephile society shows a lot of forgotten films, but “White Heat” (Warner Bros., 1949), presented recently, certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

The James Cagney film, directed by Raoul Walsh, is so well-known that it’s hard to find anything new to talk about. Who doesn’t know about killer Cody Jarrett, his catchphrase – “Top of the World, Ma!” – and his odd relationship with his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly?

And that literally explosive ending.

The film still holds up, still moves along quite nicely.

But there’s one aspect of it that perhaps has not been mentioned enough:

Edmond O’Brien.

O’Brien plays the cop who pretends to be a convict and wins Jarrett’s confidence in prison. It’s a solid performance by an actor who I fear has been overlooked in recent years.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve also recently heard some episodes of the radio series “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” that featured O’Brien. He was one of several actors who portrayed the lead character, a crime-solving insurance investigator "with the action-packed expense account." O’Brien played Dollar as a tough guy who, under all the toughness, was a bit of a softie – but just a bit.

O’Brien, particularly in the 1950s, was a master when it came to playing guys who were hard-boiled but not glamorous, and maybe not all that heroic. The typical O’Brien character was not larger than life; he was more like you and me, and sometimes maybe uncomfortably so. (I’m particularly thinking of his Oscar-winning portrayal of Oscar Muldoon, the glib but craven press agent in “The Barefoot Contessa.”)

Then there’s “The Comedian,” a “Playhouse 90” episode (written by Rod Serling from a story by Ernest Lehman), in which O’Brien plays Al Preston, a desperate TV comedy writer who steals material from another writer. (“The Comedian” used to be on VHS. I hope someday it’ll be on DVD, because it’s too good to miss, with other outstanding performances by Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter and Mel Torme and direction by John Frankenheimer. All done on live TV, too.)

(Update, 4/26/10: I'm very happy to report that a DVD of "The Comedian" is now available as part of a box set that is titled "The Golden Age of Television" and also features kinescopes of "Marty," Rod Serling's "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "No Time for Sergeants," "A Wind from the South," "Bang the Drum Slowly" -- starring Paul Newman -- and "Days of Wine and Roses.")

As O’Brien got older, his performances could go a little over the top, though sometimes endearingly so – I’m particularly thinking of the senator in “Seven Days in May.”

I don’t know much about O’Brien as a person, but he seemed like the kind of actor who enjoyed acting and wasn’t in it just for the bucks.

And in “White Heat” he more than holds his own against Cagney.

Let’s not forget him.

Soupy Sales

A lot of kids my age grew up watching Soupy Sales.

I wasn’t one of them.

This was simply because Soupy’s show (somehow I can’t refer to him by his last name) wasn’t shown in my area.

I did, occasionally, see Soupy on other shows. He struck me as a nice enough guy, though maybe a bit too silly and corny for my taste.

But I didn’t dislike him; he seemed to know he was silly and corny – he never pretended to be Noel Coward – and maybe that was part, or most, of his charm.

And as I got older and watched him on game shows, I began to fully appreciate him, to become aware of something that I don’t think has been pointed out very often, if at all:

Unlike some comics, Soupy, who got his start in radio, was a total pro as a broadcaster, knowing when to crack wise and when to play the game, never hogging the spotlight, looking out for the needs of the show first.

Case in point: an episode of the syndicated, post-John Daly version of “What's My Line.” The mystery guest is Rodney Dangerfield. Someone (Soupy, I think) guesses him right away. This means that the host has some time to fill.

During a lull in the post-game interview, Soupy jumps in -- not with a joke of his own, but with a setup line for Rodney (something like, "Rodney, how's you're wife been?") and Dangerfield is off and running for a very funny couple of minutes.

I remember thinking that this was a classy thing to do, and thinking that Soupy Sales, despite the many-times-warmed-over gags, was a very classy guy.

I still think so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Thirteen Hours by Air'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

“Thirteen Hours by Air” (Paramount, 1936) stars Fred MacMurray as an airline pilot. This was early in his career, when he was in his devil-may-care mode – far different from the roles he played in his later, Geritol-may-care mode.

If you only know MacMurray from “My Three Sons,” you should give his early films a try. Instead of just reacting to the latest antics of Chip, Ernie and Robbie (not to mention Uncle Charley’s sputterings), he is suave, charming, knowing, even cocky, but not in an off-putting way. Years later he would put a darker spin on this character as Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity,” but here his goal is not murdering anyone’s husband but merely getting his plane to California on time.

But although MacMurray’s character doesn’t have his mind on murder, he definitely fancies himself as a lady killer, and the quarry in question here is passenger Joan Bennett.

The film is a mix of comedy and suspense, the latter provided by two mysterious characters – one (played by Alan Baxter) who definitely seems up to no good. (Was Baxter ever up to any good? ) The other character (played by Brian Donlevy, minus mustache, and, like MacMurray, just starting out) may or may not be a doctor.

Much of the comedy is provided by Zasu Pitts, who is in charge of a bratty kid portrayed by Benny Bartlett. I like Zasu, but a little of her can go a long way, and here her character is on a cross-country plane trip, so I could have used a little relief from the comedy, though her airsickness scene did make me laugh.

The airplane and airport sets seem realistic (or at least not very fanciful), and there’s a doozy of a sequence set in a snowstorm. But if you’re looking for hyperrealism, book another flight: At one point here, MacMurray throws a gun out of an airplane door while the plane is in flight, and in another scene, his co-pilot – also in midflight – opens his window to scrape some ice off.

Then again, this was made during the Depression, so maybe they couldn’t afford air pressure.

Before the film, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Hare Lift,” in which the wascally wabbit does battle with Yosemite Sam on a plane that’s out of control.

It’s always great to see these Warner cartoons on a big screen, with an appreciative audience. It’s the way they were meant to be seen, and director Friz Freleng’s timing of Warren Foster’s gags is impeccable. I think one reason so many Warners cartoons hold up so well is that they had to be a certain length, and every foot of film, every frame, had to count, as they do here.

And only Bugs could get away with stopping the crashing plane at the last possible moment and telling us that this could be done with no sweat because the plane had “air brakes.” He tells us this with a look that almost dares us to groan, implying that if we did groan, we wouldn’t be cool like Bugs. And who doesn't want to be cool like Bugs?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And the award goes to ... a friend of mine

If you look at my blogroll, you'll see a link to the Web site of Julie Hyzy, mystery writer.

Last I looked, Julie hadn't updated her blog since she announced that she was on her way to Bouchercon, the top annual gathering of mystery authors and fans, being held this year in Indianapolis. (I've been to a couple of these things, but I didn't make it this year.)

I suppose the key reason Julie hasn't updated her blog is that despite recent advances in technology, there is currently no Internet service on Cloud Nine.

Which is where Julie is currently residing, having just won the Anthony Award for Best Original Paperback for her book "State of the Onion."

This is a big deal, folks.

"State of the Onion" is the first in a series of novels about the adventures (or misadventures) of Olivia Paras, a chef at the White House.

I first met Julie and her friend and fellow author, Michael A. Black, whose blogroll is also on this blog, at a Bouchercon in Toronto. Since then, Julie has not only read my few published stories (with apparently no deleterious effects) but has been cheering me on.

You couldn't meet a nicer person than Julie, but if you can't meet Julie, you can do the next best thing: Get one of her books ("Hail to the Chef" is also available, and "Eggsecutive Orders" is due out next year) and meet Olivia Paras, who sounds a lot like -- suspiciously like -- Julie. But hey, what's wrong with that? Didn't Flaubert say he was Madame Bovary?

And where is his Anthony Award?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If you act now, they'll throw in a preposition

A magazine I subscribe to -- a magazine for writers, no less -- sent me a notice today, stating that if I don't renew ASAP, my subscription will expire.

A sign at the top of the notice -- boxed and in larger type -- says:

Choose Your Bonus Renewal Savings
-- Now -- To Avoid A Lapse Service!

At the (old) movies: 'College Holiday'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

Chances are pretty good that you haven’t seen “College Holiday” (Paramount, 1936) on TV lately. Chances are at least as good that you won’t see it there any time soon.

The film is for the most part a typical example of a kind of movie that seems to have been very popular then: the college musical. (Given that these movies were made during the Depression, I can’t help wondering whether these fake campuses were far more populated than the real ones.)

But two things set “College Holiday” apart, and they are not good things.

The focus of the plot (to use the word loosely – so loosely that it almost fell apart as I was typing it) is a plan to carefully mate college students so that the next generation will be a superior population. Yes, folks, we’re talking eugenics – a cute idea for an innocuous musical in 1936 (maybe), but a less than innocuous idea for a series of terrible events a few years later.

The other thing is a minstrel show at the end of the movie. At first it doesn’t seem that offensive; most of the performers aren’t in blackface.

But then a couple does a dance in blackface.

And, more to the point, there’s the Martha Raye number.

For those of you too young to remember, Martha Raye was kind of like Bette Midler without the irony. She could be very funny. Touching, even.

But here she sings a song in blackface – not the result of makeup, but of lighting.

And as she is singing the lighting changes, she turns white. And (as I recall) black again.

If my enunciation isn’t all it should be right now, it’s probably because I still haven’t mustered the strength to lift my jaw off the floor.

And it’s really too bad that the film has these strikes against it, because otherwise it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, with some appealing songs and mostly likable performers, including Jack Benny (in his early, smartass mode, before he became a professional miser) as the lead, with Burns and Allen in top form. (Was there ever a more perfect actress than Gracie Allen, at least in the sense that she never went out of character? She was beautifully consistent all through her career.)

But one particular treat is an early performance by Marsha Hunt.

Hunt was one of those performers who was always dependable but never achieved top stardom. One major reason: She and her husband were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Although she plays a major role here, I suspect this film didn’t do much for her career; she eventually moved to MGM. Perhaps one thing that held her back was the co-star she is saddled with here: Leif Erickson, later known as the crusty old guy on TV’s “The High Chapparal,” but in this film a leading man who is, to perhaps put it most charitably, stiff, the kind of guy who is buttoned down even while wearing an undershirt. In terms of restraint, Leif Erickson is perhaps the only performer in history who makes Nelson Eddy look like Jerry Lewis.

Despite all this, Hunt is her usual charming self. And I’m happy to report that, from all accounts, she is still charming – one of the few 1930s film performers who is still alive today. At last year’s Bouchercon – the international get-together for mystery writers and fans – I saw her in a chilling short film, “The Grand Inquisitor,” made just last year. Catch it if you can – but don’t expect another “College Holiday.”