Monday, November 30, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Destry Rides Again'

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

Many years ago, I finally saw “Gone With the Wind” for the first time.

I saw it under the best possible conditions: with a receptive audience and in a theater that had been built in the late 1920s by the parent company of MGM and had been lovingly kept in shape.

After I saw the movie, I was glad that I had finally seen it.

But I’ve never felt the urge to watch it again.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s just that for me, it’s the kind of film for which the phrase “been there, done that” was coined.

I’ve also had the same feeling about a few other famous movies.

Yet there are other movies that I can watch again and again – and, in fact, do watch whenever I run into them while channel surfing. Among them are “Out of the Past,” “Double Indemnity,” “Ball of Fire,” “The Gunfighter” (a nifty but, I fear, not-too-well-known film starring Gregory Peck) and “Destry Rides Again.”

“Destry Rides Again” (Universal, 1939) is one of those movies that are so effortlessly well done as to be outright deceptive—you finish watching it, and you think you, too, could make a film just as good even though you barely know the difference between a klieg light and a kangaroo.

Which, of course, is silly. And which makes films like this all the more admirable, because the effort doesn’t show.

And when you come right down to it, there are so many ways in which this film could have been a disaster.

Consider, for example, what they did with the source material. The movie is based on a book by Max Brand—a neat name for a prolific writer of westerns, eh? Except that Max Brand—who also created Dr. Kildare—was actually a guy named Frederick Faust. (Which, in turn, sounds like a name that could have been thought up only by a guy named Max Brand, who actually was—oops, I said that already, didn’t I?)

I’ve never read the book, but I saw it in a bookstore recently and could tell that it was not supposed to be a comedy.

So here we have a studio that has the rights to a novel by a top-selling western writer, and the studio folks decide to make it into a comedy. The modern equivalent, I suppose, would be a studio buying the rights to a Stephen King novel and turning it into a rollicking comedy (with a couple of musical numbers for good measure). I don’t know what Brand/Faust thought of Universal’s idea; then again, the studio had already bought the book years ago (and made a “straight” version of it with Tom Mix in 1932), so I suspect there was nothing he could have done.

And did I mention that the producers also decided that the town dance hall girl would be played by a German actress?

I don’t know how they made this all work, but they did, and just about every element works: James Stewart in the lead role, when he was younger and his “aw shucks” persona hadn’t calcified into caricature; Marlene Dietrich (this is the only film I’ve ever enjoyed her in); and such comedy veterans as Charles Winninger, Una Merkel, Mischa Auer, Jack Carson, Billy Gilbert and Allen Jenkins.

And, to balance Fraulein Dietrich as Frenchie, an all-American-as-apple-pie miss named Irene Hervey (who was also the mother of singer Jack Jones).

Brian Donlevy plays the heavy but doesn't play him heavily.

The film’s various elements—comedy, music and some dead serious drama—are so well blended that they complement one another instead of clashing.

If the film has any flaw, it might be that the whole is a little less than the sum of its parts – but what parts! Not only the cast, but the scenes: Dietrich amiably parodying herself in the musical numbers; Stewart suddenly socking Jack Carson for mouthing off; and not one but two moving death scenes.

And did I mention the Great Marlene Dietrich-Una Merkel Hair-Pulling Contest?

What more could you ask for?

I can hardly wait to see this again sometime.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'In the Navy'

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

For years, for me, Abbott and Costello were synonymous with Sunday mornings.

That’s when one of the local TV stations used to show the pair’s Universal films when I was a kid; my siblings and I would watch as much of Bud and Lou as we could before it was time to go to Mass.

The local show was called “Movietime” – I can hear the theme music now, just as I can conjure up the memory of the theme for the same station’s “Movie of the Week,” shown at 11:30 p.m. Sundays, and which I wasn’t allowed to watch when school was in session. And then there was “Sunday Movietime,” a late-afternoon show that was hosted by the same guy who, dressed as a carnival barker, also hosted “Popeye’s Funhouse.” This being Sunday, though, he always wore a suit as he stood in front of a set that was supposed to look like the exterior of a movie theater, which he would “enter” after introducing the week’s film.

“Movietime” wasn’t limited to Abbott and Costello – there were only so many A&C movies to go around. So we also saw all the Henry Aldrich movies (I always identified with Henry, who made Charlie Brown look like an overachiever) along with the Francis the Talking Mule movies, which always seemed old hat (unfairly, I know now) because we’d seen the same basic gags on “Mr. Ed,” produced years later. (Similarly, the first time I saw the old “Honeymooners” show in reruns as a kid, they seemed old-hat too, until I realized I’d seen those gags on “The Flintstones,” which, of course, had, um, borrowed the basic idea.)

But Abbott and Costello were the gold standard, and I ate them up. What kid didn’t identify with Lou Costello, who built his career on playing a little kid who was somehow, inexplicably, in a grown-up’s body?

Eventually one of the other stations began showing the team’s TV show from the 1950s, and I was introduced to the charms of Mr. Fields. (Years later, I would come to appreciate, in a different way, the charms of Hillary Brooke.)

But as I got older, Abbott and Costello seemed tiresome. Corny. Kid stuff.

But as I got older still, I began to realize a couple of things.

1. Although I’d outgrown Costello’s antics (there’s a fine line between childlike charm and infantile obnoxiousness, and as Lou Costello got older – and, as I would later read, more obstreperous – he saw no shame in pole-vaulting over that line), I more and more became a fan of Bud Abbott. Groucho reportedly called Abbott the best straight man in the business, and I can see why. I love watching Abbott set up the routines and control the pacing. He’s flawless – never seems to break character. Yes, it was the only character he ever played, and no, of course he could never have played Hamlet, but I somehow doubt that Laurence Olivier could have put “Who’s on First?” across half as well.

2. The Abbott and Costello films – and especially their TV show – are, in a way, museum pieces of a theatrical history that is well worth preserving. Bud and Lou came from vaudeville and burlesque and knew all the routines – among them “Flugel Street,” “Niagara Falls” and “Pack, Unpack,” along with the baseball sketch – and because of them, a valuable and often very funny oral tradition survives.

“In the Navy” (Universal, 1941) is a typical example. The plot is next to nothing, to put it most charitably. Actually, when you come right down to it, the title is the plot, though you also have Dick Powell around as a famous singer who has enlisted incognito, and the relentlessly cheerful, yet somehow endearing, Andrews Sisters.

To me, the alleged plot is nothing but a framework for several classic routines – in this case, the Lemon Table Sketch, the Math Lesson (Lou shows that 7 times 13 equals 28) and, early on, a variation of Pay the Man the Two Dollars, which shows Bud at his aggressive best. And in the Lemon Table routine they are ably abetted and assisted by the always welcome Shemp Howard, whom I tended to undervalue as a kid because he wasn’t Curly (who, come to think of it, knew how to play a grown-up little kid without ever becoming obnoxious. Then again, from what I’ve read, he apparently really was a grown-up little kid).

Would I like to watch all of Bud and Lou’s movies all the way through all over again? For the most part, no.

But in short doses, they can be just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

At the (old) movies: Before the Wizard

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent showing of “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Universal, 1934)….

For years, the name Frank Morgan meant only one thing to me – and, quite possibly, to you, too: the Wizard of Oz.

After all, for many years, the annual showing of MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” was the only time I saw Morgan, though once in a while he might show up in some other old movie my folks were watching.

In recent years, Morgan has been more visible, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. He’s always a welcome presence, even if he sometimes does go over the top with a vehemence that would make Chuck Yeager dizzy.

But when he turned down his rhetorical rheostat, Morgan could be quite affecting. One of the many virtues of “The Shop Around the Corner” is his performance as store owner Hugo Matuschek. As Matuschek, Morgan is his usual, endearingly funny self, yet he is also quite touching after Matuschek finds out that his wife has been cheating with one of his employees.

This subtler, lower-gear version of Morgan is also on display in “There’s Always Tomorrow.” (If that title sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the 1956 movie with the same name – and plot – that was also made by Universal and stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.)

Morgan plays Joseph White, a married man whose wife and five children are so busy that they don’t seem to have time for him. One of them is played by a young actor named Robert Taylor.

One night, while Joseph is reading the paper on the front porch (the rest of the house is occupied by family members and guests who are attending a party he apparently forgot about), a woman approaches him and asks for directions. By a strange coincidence (which later turns out to have been no coincidence at all), the woman is Alice Vail (Binnie Barnes), whom Joseph used to work with. They renew their friendship, and if you don’t know where the plot is headed from there, it’s a cinch that you haven’t been to any movies since the world premiere of “The Great Train Robbery.”

On Thursday nights, Joseph goes to lodge meetings, or so he tells his family, but we and the entire free world know better: He’s really hanging out with Alice.

Perhaps because of censorship reasons, we’re supposed to believe that all the two of them do is talk. This may be a tall order, but Morgan and Barnes do their best, and the effect is kind of refreshing in a retro sort of way, especially considering that if the movie were to be made today, we'd probably see them both between the sheets, in 3-D, with off-screen color commentary.

Eventually Joseph’s kids find out what’s really been going on, and Alice finds out that they’ve found out. The rest of the plot would take too long to summarize, but let’s just say that:

Alice gently puts Joseph’s insensitive offspring in their place.

Alice gracefully bows out of Joseph’s life.

Binnie Barnes was one hell of an actress. She’s able to portray the sadness of unrequited love, but with a wistfulness that never threatens to teeter into the abyss of self-pity.

(Did I really write that last sentence? Geez. I’d better stay away from movies like this. But I won’t stay away from movies that feature Binnie Barnes, and you shouldn’t, either.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's the perfect blend for your tofu kebab

The label on a recently purchased bottle of barbecue sauce proudly proclaims that the product is:

Gluten free.

Lactose free.

Fat free.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Tin Pan Alley'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Remember the “Twilight Zone” episode where Dennis Weaver has the same dream each night – he’s on trial for murder, convicted, condemned to death and sent to the electric chair, but just as the switch is pulled, he wakes up, terrified?

And each time he has the dream, the cast of characters is jumbled – the guy who’s the judge now, for instance, was a death row inmate last time?

The 20th Century Fox musicals from the late 1930s and early 1940s are a little like that, though the casting doesn’t change that dramatically, and as far as I can recall, Don Ameche never went to the electric chair. (Of course, he did have the foresight to invent the telephone so the governor could call and commute his sentence.)

The Fox musicals of that era seem like permutations of each other, as if a casting director, informed that a new film needed X number of stars, donned a blindfold and tossed darts at a wall containing pictures of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, John Payne, Carmen Miranda and Sonja Henie, among others, and when the requisite number of darts had been thrown, you had your cast.

Which is why I have a hard time telling these films apart. (And, to be honest, I haven’t seen many of them.)

Anyway, for “Tin Pan Alley” (1940), the casting director’s mini-missiles scored direct hits on Alice Faye, John Payne, Betty Grable and Jack Oakie.

And it’s a pleasant enough film, even if you’ve seen the plot before. (Heck, I’ll bet the audiences who saw it the first time had seen the plot at least a few times before. And they probably would see it at least a few times again.)

Alice Faye and Betty Grable are sisters who have a singing act. Alice loves composer John Payne, who might well love her back, but for most of the film he seems to love himself a lot more as he does his best to get the attention of the Powers That Be of the early-century music world. Unfortunately, he’s such a heel that he’s more likely to get mash notes from Dr. Scholl.

Payne’s partner is Jack Oakie, a comedian whose name isn’t well known these days, which is too bad because he’s quite good – kind of like that annoying colleague or neighbor who thinks he’s funny, except that Oakie really is funny, and he knows how far he can push things without becoming annoying.

The music is a pleasant mix of vintage tunes and newer material, especially “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby,” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. It’s a really catchy tune, and it’s performed so many times that in order not to catch it, you’d have to be the butterfingers of all time. (I can hear the studio execs now: “We paid good money for that tune, and the audience is going to hear it! And hear it! And hear it…..”)

One nice surprise: Elisha Cook Jr., pre-“Maltese Falcon” and the other psychopaths he specialized in, playing a composer and showing a subtle flair for comedy. (Which is ironic, I suppose, because it might have done a world of good for John Payne’s egotistical composer to have a roscoe shoved up his nostrils. Or elsewhere.)

Before the film: “Hollywood Rhythm,” a Paramount short subject from 1934, featuring Jack Oakie and songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon – yes, the same Mack Gordon who co-wrote “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby.”

Gordon and Revel’s songs include “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking?” and “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Chances are that if you grew up in a TV market that showed a lot of Paramount’s Popeye cartoons from the 1930s (in my youth, one station’s slogan might as well have been “All Popeye All the Time”), you’ve heard these and other Gordon-Revel songs as background music.

The featurette shows the two as they are supposedly composing a new song, “Take a Number from One to Ten.” They seem like OK guys, but as I watched the short I once again wondered why so many of the composers of this country’s classic romantic tunes in person seem about as romantic as your average shoe salesman. (“Would you like to see something in B flat, three-quarter time?”)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Another Rx, another show

I well remember my acting days.

That’s chiefly because there’s not much to remember and because I’ve never really been an actor.

In high school, my fellow students and I would sometimes perform plays during English class, just sitting at our desks. And I enjoyed that.

And I’ve sometimes wished I’d been born long enough ago to be an actor during the Golden Age of Radio, where all you had to do was stand at a mike and read from a script – no memorization required! (The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to memorize lines – or anything else.)

Now … where was I?

Oh, yes, acting.

Although I enjoyed reading parts from my desk in school, and although I appeared to be fairly decent at it (though it’s hard to know for sure as the school’s policy strictly prohibited the throwing of foodstuffs), when it came to acting on stage, where I had to know what to say, when to say it, where to move, when to move, whether to say something and move at the same time without bumping into someone or something ….

You get the idea. Let’s just say that if Stanislavski had directed me, his book would have been titled “An Actor Despairs.”

Do I ever get a hankering to practice the thespian craft these days?


But when I need to test my acting chops, I don’t go to the Actors Studio. (Not that I haven’t tried, but as far as I know, James Lipton still has an injunction against me.)

Nor do I visit a community theater group to “show them how it’s done.”

No, when I want a quick workout, there’s one place where I can always go:

The prescription counter at the neighborhood drugstore.

Every once in a while I go there, and we do a very brief one-act play. There’s little in the way of blocking, not a lot to memorize, and it’s the same thing every time – kind of a pharmaceutical Kabuki.

It goes something like this (as comedians used to say)….

CLERK: Name?

ME: Murphy, Mark.

(CLERK walks over to a set of shelves and spends up to 20 seconds looking around before turning to me.)

CLERK: Did you just drop this off?

ME: No, I called it in to your automated phone line yesterday morning.

(CLERK leaves the shelves, walks over to a computer, presses some keys and looks concerned. Then the CLERK walks over to a box, searches that, talks one or two people, goes over to a second set of shelves and searches that, then returns to the first set of shelves and searches the exact same section that was searched before.)

CLERK (with a note of triumph that would make Archimedes bow his head in shame): Got it!

… This is basically it, though the script does allow for minor improvisations, bits of business, etc. For example, if the clerk is a guy he might address me as “buddy,” even though calling our relationship an acquaintanceship would be at most somewhat of a stretch.

I wish I could say that we adjourned to Sardi’s afterward to await the reviews, but one is so pressed for time these days, although once in a while the head pharmacist does have us stay for a bit so he can give us notes.

But as it is, it’s a heady enough experience – the roar of the Bengay, the smell of the Muzak!