Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Film Reviews: Sally, Irene and Mary & Pin Up Girl

"Sally, Irene and Mary" *** (out of ****)

Today we are looking at two films starring the queens of 20th Century Fox musicals; Alice Faye and Betty Grable. One of them is a fine showcase for the actress, while sadly the other is a bit of a disappointment.

"Sally, Irene and "Mary" (1938) stars Alice Faye and of the two films reviewed today, is the better picture. The movie is an enjoyable blend of comedy, dance and music. What surprised me most about the film was that it is genuinely funny. There are several funny lines through-out the movie which actually had me laughing out loud. That's not always the case for me when it comes to musicals.

The film was a remake of a 1925 silent picture of the same title which starred Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett. This time around Faye stars as Sally with Joan Davis as Irene and Majorie Weaver as Mary. Three young girls looking to make it big on broadway. Meanwhile they pick up odd end jobs hoping their agent, "Gabby" Green, played by Jack Benny "rival" Fred Allen, makes them stars.

Complications ensue (they always do) when Sally meets Tommy Reynolds (Tony Martin, at the time married to Faye). There is an instant attraction between them but Tommy, a singer at a nightclub Sally & Co. find a job, plans to retire from show business, since he hasn't reached the fame he had hoped to achieve.

Another young woman, Joyce Taylor (Louise Hovick, better known as Gypsy Rose Lee) has her eye on Tommy also. Joyce has a reputation of marrying men for their men, which is evident from all the jewelry we see her wearing.

Gabby, smelling a scheme, decides to convince Joyce to produce a broadway show starring Tommy and the three girls. Joyce agrees in hopes it will make Tommy a star. But, not wanting to hurt his male pride, Joyce agrees to be a silent partner. But she lets the cat out of the bag when she sees how friendly Tommy and Sally have become.

"Sally, Irene and Mary" is yet another example of those down-on-their luck depression comedies, filled with young people hoping to strike it rich. You can compare it to something like "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) or another Fox movie made in 1938, "Three Blind Mice", which I have also reviewed. In fact both movies were directed by the same person; William A. Seiter, who also directed "Room Service" (1938) with the Marx Brothers and the Fred Astaire (minus Ginger) musical "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942).

When I reviewed "Three Blind Mice", which I liked over-all, I complained the film needed some more snappy dialogue. "Sally, Irene and Mary" makes up for what that film lacked. Besides Alice Faye and her wonderful singing, the comedy steals the show, especially Fred Allen. Allen, for you youngsters out there, was a very popular radio comedian known for his pretend feud with fellow funnyman, Jack Benny. In his last years he was also on the panel for the well known game show "What's My Line" (God, I'm embarrassed to admit I know these things). He appeared in some movies like "It's In the Bag" (1945) and "Love Thy Neighbor" (1940, with Jack Benny). He was a very funny comedian and I feel this movie showcases his talent. There are a lot of bits for him.

Besides Allen there is Joan Davis. She might be best known to Abbott & Costello fans for appearing in "Hold That Ghost" (1941, which I have reviewed). She was in radio too and was quite popular during the 40s. Here she plays the wise-cracking smart-alec best friend.

But while I truly enjoy all these funny bits, that's almost where the movie goes wrong. It is like having too many chefs in the kitchen. In addition to Allen and Davis, Jimmy Durante also appears. His role is not necessary at all. They didn't need someone of his stature in the role. By 1938 he had appeared in quite a few films already, he was, early in his career, paired with Buster Keaton (!). Watch "What! No Beer?" (1933) and "The Passionate Plumber" (1932). I will admit both are funny but nowhere near Keaton's best.

Durante even gets a song and dance comedy routine near the end of the film which only manages to slow the picture down to a halt. The sequence is really a spotlight for him since he has little to do in the movie. The movie was doing fine with just Allen and Davis and didn't really need a third comic.

But here I am reviewing an Alice Faye musical and I'm not talking about Faye! Alice Faye was a box-office hit for 20th Century Fox. She is best known for her work in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), "The Gang's All Here" (1943, which I have reviewed). George White's 1935 Scandals" (1935) and for singing the Oscar winning song, "You'll Never Know", one of the great WW2 love songs.

Faye, like Betty Grable after her, had a sweet, girl next door appeal to her. She was attractive but wasn't a pin up girl the way Grable was. But, films which starred both of them always took advantage of their beauty. Though that is not to suggest Faye was merely a pretty face. She could sing. Listen to her go on the up-tempo tune, "Got Music On My Mind" and compare that to the ballad "This Is Where I Came In". Her voice, and to some extent, her acting talent, are able to convey just the right feeling for both songs. She milks all the emotion out of "This Is Where" and gives "Music On My Mind" a jazz flavored appeal.

The third friend, played by Majorie Weaver, isn't given much to do. She was also in "Three Blind Mice". She never really became a major star. She mostly appeared in "B" movies. I would assume 20th Century Fox thought she had something, why else sign her? But they didn't know what to do with her. Too bad.

"Sally, Irene and Mary" is a very entertaining charming musical comedy. It only starts to take some bad turns in the final act, but, for a majority of the time it is a very pleasurable viewing experience. Sadly the film has not been put on DVD (so many good films haven't yet) and it very difficult to find on VHS. Still, I'd suggest looking for it.

"Pin Up Girl" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

Here is a movie called "Pin Up Girl" (1944) starring the pin up girl herself, Betty Grable, made during the peak of her popularity and it just doesn't live up to its hype. What a shame!

I've written about Betty Grable on here quite a few times already. She was one of my favorite actresses. It is not that she had a wide acting range, I seriously don't think she did. What I love about her though is she was pitch perfect for musicals. As I said about Alice Faye, Betty Grable was marketed by 20th Century Fox has a girl next door. She was beautiful but it seemed as if she didn't know it. She didn't use her beauty against men. She was approachable.

A lot of those qualities are in "Pin Up Girl". Grable is very entertaining in it. But, the movie doesn't work. Betty Grable, surprisingly isn't given enough to do. The movie is like a revue. There is a lot of dancing and singing and choreography (a lot of which doesn't involve Betty) in the movie which takes up screen time not allowing enough time for the plot, which does have plenty of possibilities.

Grable stars as Lorry Jones, a small town girl from Missouri who joined the USO. She is the number one pin up girl in the army (this was true of Grable at the time). Every service man wants to dance with or talk to Lorry. As a result she is engaged to roughly 500 men. She simply can't turn them down and doesn't want to hurt their feeling since they are doing so much for the country.

But Lorry has a problem telling the truth. She is going to Washington, D.C. for a secretary job but is too embarrassed to admit it. So, she lies and says she is joining a USO traveling show. Now the boys are heartbroken. This however is only the beginning of her problems.

Lorry decides she wants to stop in New York first for some fun and there she meets a war hero, Tommy Dooley (John Harvey). Later, when trying to get a table at a fancy restaurant, she uses his name. What she doesn't know is Tommy is going there himself. And, the owner of the restaurant, Eddie Hall (Joe E. Brown) is best friends with Tommy. Now what will Lorry do?

As is usual in a musical comedy Tommy falls in love at first sight with Lorry, who pretends to be a big broadway star. The situation worsens when Lorry now has to pretend to be a secretary, who is station at the very office Tommy must report to and the broadway star.

This all kind of reminds me of a Groucho Marx movie called "Copacabana" (1947) with Carmen Miranda. Unfortunately "Pin Up Girl" doesn't do enough with all the comedic possibilities of such a premise. And the film has a terrible ending which only hints at resolutions.


We don't even get to see the lovers kiss and make up at the end!


The movie was directed by H. Brunce Humberstone who also directed Grable in the non-musical noir-ish "I Wake Up Screaming" (1941) with Victor Mature and he directed Alice Faye in "Hello, Frisco, Hello" (1943).

Like "Sally, Irene and Mary" the film has a very good supporting cast. I've written before about Joe E. Brown. He was a popular comedian at Warner Brothers during the 1930s. I reviewed him "Painted Faces" (1929) a lousy courtroom drama. Better to watch him in comedies like "You Said A Mouthful" (1932). He is best known today for his role in "Some Like It Hot" (1958) and his delivery of the famous ending line.

Martha Raye co-stars as Molly, a singer at Eddie's restaurant. She was popular in the 40s too. She appeared in "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) the film version of the famous Olsen & Johnson stage comedy and in Charlie Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). Also spot Eugene Pallette. And bandleader Charlie Spivak makes his film debut (I guess Harry James was unavailable. That was Grable's husband).

"Pin Up Girl" does at least give us plenty of shots of Grable's "million dollar legs". Her best numbers are "Once Too Often" and "The Story of the Very Merry Widow". In both musical sequences her legs are on full display. Plus "Once Too Often" has a kind of catchy melody.

Also surprising about the film I felt it lacked a patriotic feel to it. It doesn't take advantage of the war time setting.

Still, Grable has been in better movies and I can't really recommend this in good faith. Watch Grable in "Moon Over Miami" (1941), "Down Argentine Way" (1940) and even "That Lady in Ermine" (1948). "Pin Up Girl" doesn't do enough. Too much singing and dancing without Grable and not enough plot.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Empire Strikes Back" Hits 30!

Is the Force still with you?

It may be hard to believe but it has been 30 years since the theatrical release of “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980).

“The Empire Strikes Back” was the second installment of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, coming after “A New Hope” (1977), directed by George Lucas, had become one of the highest grossing films of all time.

This time around directing duties were taken over by Irvin Kershner, who would go on to direct such titles as “Robo Cop 2” (1990). The script was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who would also write “Return of the Jedi” (1983) and Leigh Brackett, known for “The Big Sleep” (1946) and “Rio Bravo” (1959). It follows much of the formula which made the previous film so successful, blending science-fiction, soap opera and dashes of humor. The screenplay was nominated by the Writer’s Guild in the “comedy” category.

What has made “The Empire Strikes Back” such an endurable film? Why after all these years do people still want to visit “a galaxy far, far away”? Could it be because the film feeds on our imagination and innocence? Here is a world where good and evil are clearly defined. Where the possibilities seem endless.

Watching the film again I was surprised at what kind of rollicking adventure it is. I remembered the film being a bit more brooding. It is often suggested this film is the darkest of the trilogy, but, no, we are plunged into one daring cliff hanger sequence after another. The film has an energy which at times feels unrelenting.

The plot, what little of it there is, has Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) travel to the planet Dagobah where they search for the old and wise Jedi master, Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). Meanwhile Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) try to escape the clutches of the Empire and Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).

“The Empire Strikes Back” however remains a visual feast for the eyes. A dazzling spectacle. Viewers discover the ice planet Hoth and tautaums and see Imperial Walkers. But the most memorable creation is the character of Yoda.

The film though is really about entering adulthood, becoming a man and accepting one's fate. Luke Skywalker must learn the ways of the Jedi and how to harness the power of the “Force”. He learns about his identity and where he comes from. Supplying the film with one of the most famous lines in movie history.

This is common among trilogies or series. The middle installment, whether it is “The Godfather” films, “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings”, is where our lead character must grow up. They are in an awkward stage of their life. They are in their “middle” stage, learning to accept who they must become.

Coincidentally we can say the same about the audience that first saw “The Empire Strikes Back”. Back in 1977 most fans were teenagers, then, three years later, they too had grown up. They were leaving their teen years behind them. They probably had more in common with Luke Skywalker than they may have first realized. Probably because they were too busy being amazed by those light saber fights.

At its time of release “The Empire Strikes Back” was met with both critical and commercial success. The film grossed more than $148 million, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert placed the film on his “top ten” list, eventually calling it the best of the trilogy. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards and given a special Oscar for its visual effects.

“Star Wars” cultural impact has been proven by multiple parodies. Some of the most notable examples include “SNL” skits, the Mel Brooks comedy “Spaceballs” (1987) and even a music video by “Weird” Al Yankovic (done to the melody of Don McLean’s “American Pie”).

It seems the “Force” will remain with us for another 30 years.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Breathless" At 50

Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard.

There was once a time those names meant something to the movie going public. Now, 50 years after the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) made its splash with Godard’s “Breathless” ("A bout de souffle" 1960), the public seems to have forgotten them.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of “Breathless”, considered by many film buffs to be Godard’s most influential work and the most symbolic film of the French New Wave. Though the movement started a year prior with Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” (1959).

“Breathless” was initially viewed as a revolutionary film due to its pacing and rapid edits, introducing us to the term “jump cuts”. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert says the film represents the beginning of modern movies.

Looking back on “Breathless” one can see why the film caused a stir. It was unlike most movies a mainstream audience would see. The frantic energy of the film and the self-referential nature of it.

This is a movie for people who love movies. There is a direct reference to “Bob the Gambler”, the lead character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur” (1956). The hero of “Breathless” (Jean Paul Belmondo) goes by an alias Laszlo Kovacs. That is the name of the prominent Hungarian cinematographer. Our hero also models himself after Humphrey Bogart. And Belmondo’s character, Michel, is an extension of the kind of character Bogart or Jean Gabin played.

For years my thought was “Breathless” was a gangster film. A movie about a young car thief on the run after shooting a police officer. But now I think it is more of a love story between two deeply flawed people.

Jean Seberg plays Patricia, Michel’s love interest. She may or may not love him. The two play a cat and mouse game of emotions. She even hints she might be pregnant with his baby.

You couldn’t really call Patricia a femme fatale yet Godard is having fun with noir conventions. “Breathless”, like several noir films before it, ends with the same message. A woman is more dangerous than any weapon.

The impact of “Breathless” and the French New Wave is still felt today. In 1983 a remake of “Breathless” was made starring Richard Gere. The techniques of the movement can be seen in the work of Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino.

After 50 years both the French New Wave and “Breathless” still have the ability to rattle us and make us rethink the conventions of cinema.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Film Review: The Convent

"The Convent" *** (out of ****)

In my attempts to introduce readers to many of the great filmmakers in world cinema I have decided to once again review the work of the world-renown Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira.

The last time I reviewed a film by de Oliveira was his sequel to Bunuel's "Belle de Jour" (1967), "Belle Toujours" (2006). In that review I explained I was not very familiar with his work but was eager to watch more of his films. Between that review and this one I have come across more of his work.

Manoel de Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908, at 101 he is the oldest living active filmmaker. He manages to direct one film a year, proving to the nay-sayers, with age does not come a loss of talent or creativity. In Europe he is a well respected auteur. To celebrate his 100th birthday in the U.K. a 22 DVD collection of his work was released. Unfortunately in America his work is hard to come by. Some of his more recent titles are available though such as "The Convent" (1996).

Of the limited amount of films I have seen by de Oliveira this one seems to take him out of his element the most, at least on the surface. My experience with de Oliveira's work has suggested he mostly deals with the musings of love. I feel comfortable comparing him to Eric Rohmer. Both of these directors rely heavily on dialogue. Their characters speak about philosophy and love. And I must say, his stories usually end on a tragic note.

In "The Convent" we follow a married couple; Michael (John Malkovich) and Helene (Catherine Deneuve). They travel to a Portuguese monastery for research regarding a thesis Michael is working on. It is his belief Shakespeare was not English but rather of Spanish Jewish origin.

This however is quite useless to the story. It is merely a device to get these characters into the monastery. Think in terms of a haunted house movie. The main object is the get all the characters together in the creepy setting. The objective in "The Convent" is the same. Once the couple are in the monastery and walk on the grounds there is little discussion about Shakespeare. The dialogue now centers on religion, the occult, God and Faust. In fact, if you called "The Convent" de Oliveira's adaptation of Faust you wouldn't be too far off base.

As soon as Michael and Helene arrive the viewer can tell something is aschew in the monastery. They are greeted by Baltar (Luis Miguel Cintra) who immediately makes sexual advances at Helene. Meanwhile to help Michael with his research is Piedade (de Oliveira's greatest muse Leonor Silveira). She was married before but is said to be "innocent" and "pure". The only other people seen at the monastery are Baltazar (Duarte de Almeida) and Berta (Heloisa Miranda) a fortune teller.

One thing I immediately noticed about the film is the great emphasis that de Olveira places on music. Nearly the entire film is accompanied by a score. But, the score is often too suggestive, too overwhelming. It suggest more than the scene provides us with visually. At times this can be a distraction. However, not always. After a while I began to feel as if the music was attempting to put us into a trance. Perhaps the music is not meant to compliment scenes but is suppose to reflect the character's state of mind.

The big twist here is whether or not Baltar is really the Devil. This is where the Faust aspect of the story comes in. If you are not familiar with the story, Faust was a scholar, like Michael, who sought unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Michael wants to make a great breakthrough. And as far as worldly pleasures are concern we notice an attraction between himself and Piedade. But the question soon becomes which character is Faust? Both Michael and Helene ask something of Baltar.

The film has some dark themes. In many ways this film could have played as a psychological thriller. It would seem to be the perfect choice for a film like this is not Manoel de Oliveira but Roman Polanski. Polanski would do more with the camera and lighting to create more of a disturbing atmosphere and use the monastery setting to greater effect. This is not de Oliveira's strong suit. He mostly has the characters speak to each other in the open. There is one good scene where he does play around with lighting and we see events happen as shadows on a wall. The film needed more of this.

Still I'd suggest watching "The Convent". It is fun to see de Oliveira play around with genres. A majority of viewers probably won't like the movie though. The work of Manoel de Oliveira has a way of dividing an audience. Many people feel his work is too slow and boring. I will say "The Convent" lacks a classic three act structure. I don't know if this film would serve as a good introduction into his work either. All of the films I have seen by him are so far out of the mainstream I honestly don't know where the best place to start would be. I enjoyed his "A Talking Picture" (2004), which was my introduction into his work, but American audiences strongly rejected it. His "Abraham's Valley" (1993) is epic. It is an adaptation of "Madame Bovary" but at three hours I have a hunch many will say it is too long. His "Belle Toujours" will confuse many as it leaves many questions unanswered and his "Eccentricities of A Blond Hair Girl" (2009) does the same.

All I can say is, if you are a bit more adventurous in your cinematic viewing and seek out different films outside the mainstream, I'd say give "The Convent" a chance. Also, it wouldn't be a bad idea to become more familiar with Manoel de Oliveira's work.

The movie was nominated at Cannes for the palme d'or.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Film Reviews: The Lovers & Les Enfants Terribles

"The Lovers" *** (out of ****)

Louis Malle is a great filmmaker. Sadly his name is not on everyone's lips anymore. But he was a director of considerable talent. What I always appreciated about Malle's directing style was he never imposed his own style on a movie. What I mean by that is, the material dictated the style and tone of the film. Each movie Malle's directed feels different from the next. And "The Lovers" (1958) is no exception.

A lot of people may be more familiar with the background story concerning this film than the actually film itself. "The Lovers" turned into a Supreme Court case. This is the movie the Supreme Court judge made the famous speech about pornography, "I know it when I see it". A theatre owner in Ohio was charged with exhibition of pornography for playing this film and he fought the case to the Supreme Court.

Of course I should tell you "The Lovers" is not pornography. I too know it when I see it, and this isn't it. There's not even nudity. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"The Lovers" reminds me of the work of the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The lead character, Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau) is a "lost woman". She is married to a wealthy newspaper publisher, Henri (Alain Cuny), but the marriage is a loveless one. She has been having an affair with a polo player, Raoul Flores (Jose Luis de Villalonga). She travels to Paris to stay with her best friend, Maggy (Judith Magre) who knows about the affair and gives it her blessing. But, does Jeanne want more? Is she really happy?

It is kind of difficult to describe anymore regarding the plot out of fear of spoiling something. What I will say is the title may not be what you think. Like an Antonioni film the movie pulls the rug from underneath us. What starts off as one story turns into something else.

This will divide the audience. The movie's structure will bother some. So will the character's actions. They will complain there is no clear motivation. And they are right. But, when dealing with matters of the heart I'm reminded of something Woody Allen said, "the heart knows no logical. The heart wants what the heart wants". Love makes us illogical.

We see our "lovers" meet at night, their love blossoms. Plans are made. But by morning, in the light of day, they start to second guess themselves. But isn't that the way life is? At night we lose our inhibition. We feel more lose, less constrained. By morning the world looks different. We are more level headed.

One thing I like about "The Lovers" is the flow of the movie. Malle doesn't treat this material vulgar. The love scenes are tender. It all builds up. Malle did something similar in "Murmur of the Heart" (1972). He slowly builds up to a controversial moment in both films but by the time the moment happens, somehow, we aren't shocked.

What I really like about "The Lovers" however is the honesty of it. I like the things others won't. I like the fact that Malle gives us no explanation why the characters do what they do. Sometimes things happen for no reason at all. How often are movies this honest with us?

"Les Enfants Terribles" *** (out of ****)

Jean-Pierre Melville is another great French filmmaker no one seems to remember anymore. It's too bad these great directors no longer seem relevant.

Melville is probably best known for his gangster, noir stories. "Army of Shadows" (1969) and "Bob le Flambeur" (1956) among them. Though my favorite is "Le Deuxieme Souffle" (1966). However "Les Enfants Terribles" (1950) is nothing like those other movies. This was one of Melville's first films. It was written by Jean Cocteau, a famous filmmaker in his own right. Known for "Orpheus" (1950) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1946). He should have really directed this movie. But, I must say, Cocteau seems to have stayed out of Melville's way. While it doesn't resemble a Melville film, it still does quite feel like a Cocteau film either.

The film follows a brother, Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and his sister, Elisabeth (Nicole Stephane). They live with their sick, bed-ridden mother. The two are on their own and Elisabeth has taken over as Paul's mother. She watches over him. They even share a bedroom.

There's a lot of sexual tension in this movie but the story never fully, directly deals with it. Are Paul and Elisabeth in love with each other? Is this a tale of incest?

Paul ends up falling in love with a girl, Agathe (Renee Cosima) but Elisabeth does everything she can to prevail them from getting together. Paul, on the other hand, disapproves of Elisabeth's choices in men.

Still there is the question Paul might be a homosexual. He was attacked by a fellow student, Dargelos (also played by Cosima) with a snowball, which has left him in such poor health he is unable to attend school. But as Elisabeth notes, Paul has pictures of celebrities on his wall, and they all sort of resemble Dargelos. And what about the fact the girl he does fall in love with looks like Dargelos?

The siblings play cruel jokes on other people all for their own amusement. The film mostly resembles Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" (2004). That is the movie to watch. It is much more direct with its material. We know precisely where everyone stands. Here there is too much guesswork involved.

Not one of Melville's great movies but a curiosity piece for those who appreciate him.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

All About My Mother

In honor of Mother's Day here is a list of 10 movies about moms; good, bad and downright awful. I tried to create a nice mix between more modern titles and classics. I've also tried to include some titles you may not have ever thought of. Why keep watching the same movies over and over again?

What makes a mother so special? There are the cliches answers, she brought you into this world, therefore there is a special bond between mother and child. Maybe. Your mother is the first person to love you. I guess. There's the old saying "a face only a mother could love". Some believe no matter what you do in life, your mother will always love you. A mother can never go against her child.

Honestly, I've never had a special bond with my mother, but, now isn't the time to discuss that. Lets just all bite our tongues and for today (at least) forget all the misunderstandings we've had with mom and celebrate them.

This list is in random order

1. MOTHER (1996 Dir. Albert Brooks) - I chose this one because I think it pretty much gets the relationship between mother and child correct. Only because it is Albert Brooks a lot of that insight comes to us in way of humor.

2. I REMEMBER MAMA (1948 Dir. George Stevens) - A George Stevens classic. Irene Dunn stars as "Mama". The story of a Dutch family which comes to America and tries to adapt.

3. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937 Dir. Leo McCarey) - Not exactly about a mother, but, parents in general and their selfish children. The movie is a reminder we live in a cold world which treats our elderly far too unkindly.

4. MILDRED PIERCE (1945 Dir. Michael Curtiz) - Joan Crawford (insert "Mommie Dearest" joke here) won an Oscar for her performance in this brilliant noir film about a daughter who shoots her mother's lover. Trust me, its great!

5. THE GREAT LIE (1941 Dir. Edmund Goulding) - Melodrama near its peak. Bette Davis plays a woman who desperately wants to be a mother. The plot is far too crazy to spoil here. Not very well remembered today, because of a lack of interest in the classic cinema, but, film buffs should see this.

6. THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET (1931 Dir. Edgar Selwyn) - Helen Hayes stars in this early melodrama which won her an Oscar. This is the kind of morality tale Hollywood use to engage in to warn young women what would happen if they don't lead a "pure" life. It is a movie about a mother making the ultimate sacrifice.

7. ADOPTION (Orokbefogadas 1975 Dir. Marta Meszaros) - A Hungarian classic that I'm sure most American audiences have never seen and probably never heard of either. But believe it or not, there are mothers in other countries! Meszaros was at one time the leading female Hungarian director. Her films were usually described as "women films" because of their subject matter. This one is about a woman's urge to be a mother.

8. VOLVER (2006 Dir. Pedro Almodovar) - I suppose few filmmakers in contemporary cinema deal with women the way Almodovar does. I would say this is one of his best.

9. THE MOTHER (2004 Dir. Roger Michell) - Another movie that is probably not known by many people. This would be an example of a bad mother. I don't want to give away the plot but, it's probably not what you are thinking.

10. MA MERE (2004 Dir. Christophe Honore) - One of the worst movies I've ever seen. One of the few times I actually walked out of the theatre. I was able to endure nearly a hour of this mess and couldn't take any more. This is another movie about a bad mother.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Film Review: Cracked Nuts

"Cracked Nuts" *** (out of ****)

"Cracked Nuts" (1931) is a forgotten political satire starring the equally forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

"Cracked Nuts" deals with a revolution in a small European country. In Europe, in the 1930s, this was actually quite typical. The spread of Communism and Fascism was emerging. Look at the Weimar Republic and the seeds were starting to be planted for the Spanish Civil War in 1931. "Cracked Nuts" attempts to present these serious issues with a smile.

I first saw "Cracked Nuts" many years ago. I was just starting to discover the work of this comedy team. At first viewing I disliked the film. I wrote a review on amazon and was under the impression the film didn't take the satire far enough. I was also surprised the film didn't present Wheeler and Woolsey as a team. They are, at first, rivals and don't share the screen until a half hour into the picture (after this film RKO would break up the team and try each man solo. This didn't work so they were teamed up again). And the movie is only 63 minutes long!

But after a second look I see I may have been a bit too harsh. Maybe the years cooled my heels. Whatever the reason I came away feeling I didn't give "Cracked Nuts" a fair shake. I still feel the movie doesn't go far enough in its satire but changed my mind as far as Wheeler and Woolsey not having enough screen time together. While the movie does delay their meeting, when they do pair up their scenes work. And the situations involving them separately are funny and amusing enough to keep us interested.

Bert Wheeler stars as Wendell Graham. He inherited $500,000 but managed to squander it all. He is now only left with $100,000. But money is not important to him. He is deeply in love with Betty (Dorothy Lee) and plans to marry her. She doesn't mind if Wendell loses all his money. They will get by on love. In the 1930s this was actually a popular sentiment given the depression. Pay attention to popular music of the era, songs like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "I'll Get By (As Long As I Have You)".

The problem is Betty's Aunt Minnie (Edna May Oliver) objects. She thinks Wendell is a loser and demands Betty stay away from him. Wendell will never amount to anything in her eyes. Betty deserves better.

This motivates Wendell to accomplish something to show Minnie she is wrong about him. But what exactly can Wendell do? Fortune strikes when Wendell learns of a revolution going on in Europe. He is greeted by a revolutionary (Boris Karloff) who informs him if he finances the revolt he will be made a king. Wendell agrees.

Meanwhile Robert Woolsey plays Zander Ulysses Parkhurst, "Zup" for short. We first meet "Zup" in a gambling casino where he is playing dice with King Oscar (Harvey Clark), whom "Zup" doesn't realize is a king. King Oscar loses his crown in a bet making "Zup" the new leader of the country. What "Zup" doesn't know is it was all a plan devised by the king to get out of the country before the revolt begins.

That is pretty much the set-up of the film. The premise does sound promising but "Cracked Nuts" never really goes overboard. This should have been another "Duck Soup" (1933). Wheeler and Woolsey would come back to similar material in the comedy "Diplomaniacs" (1933), their funniest film and one of the all time great comedies. Nothing in those movies made sense and I mean that in the best possible way. Those films took a no holds bar approach. They thrived on chaos. They were a slap in the face to social and political order. "Cracked Nuts" by comparison feels too tame.

Still I must admit the film does have some funny moments. Wheeler and Woolsey do have a lot of chemistry together. This was their sixth picture at RKO, so they had established a formula which worked. The team engages in their normal sexual innuendos and wordplay. Their best moment may be when looking at a map where their armies are placed and discuss the names of the towns. One town is called "What" and is next to "Which". If you aren't thinking of the famous Abbott & Costello routine "Who's On First", it's only because you don't know it. It also resembles the banter Groucho and Chico engaged in.

Another good moment is the opening sequence. Wendell sneaks into Betty and Minnie's apartment but instead hides in the bathroom just as Minnie was about to take a shower. And the dice scene with "Zup" and King Oscar is funny.

But for all the good moments I still have to go back to the movie's faults. Dorothy Lee is surprisingly given nothing to do. She usually played a sweet naive love interest to Wheeler. Her character was a contrast to Wheeler & Woolsey's suggestive wise-cracks. She plays the same kind of character here but she has very few scenes. She and Wheeler also do a duet together (a staple in their comedies) only here there isn't anything memorable about the song or their dancing. However, Edna May Oliver, a very popular character actor of the times, does have some nice moments.

Directing credit is given to Edward F. Cline. He worked often with W.C. Fields, directing "The Bank Dick" (1940, which I have reviewed) and "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941). He also directed "High Flyers" (1937), Wheeler & Woolsey's last film together and was behind the God-awful Olsen & Johnson (another forgotten comedy team) comedy "Ghost Catchers" (1944). Though as I have said before. With the ego of these comics a director probably never "directed" them. His job was mainly to keep everything in frame and keep the creative stuff to the comics.

If "Cracked Nuts" does work a lot of has to do with the writing. One of the writers was Ralph Spence who wrote the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Flying Deuces" (1939), the Ritz Brothers picture "The Gorilla" (1939) and two much better Wheeler & Woolsey comedies "Peach-O-Reno" (1931, I have reviewed it) and "Caught Plastered" (1931). The other writer was Al Boasberg. Unfortunately the films he wrote for the team are among their weaker efforts; "Silly Billies" (1936) and "The Nitwits" (1935). Though he did work with Buster Keaton on two of his best; "The Battling Butler" (1926) and "The General" (1926).

These writers understand what makes for a good Wheeler & Woolsey comedy. My feeling has always been the team's best films were the ones where plot came second and comedy routines came first. Too much plot slowed them down and restricted them. They needed room to do their comedy. "Cracked Nuts" understands this but doesn't go far enough with it.

On a scale of Wheeler & Woolsey's films I would say "Cracked Nuts" is better than "Silly Billies", "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and "The Rainmakers" (1935) but not quite as good as "Diplomaniacs", "Peach-O-Reno" or "Hips, Hips, Hooray" (1934).

Sadly "Cracked Nuts" is no longer in circulation on VHS and has not been put on DVD. Your only luck may be if TCM plays it. They have played Wheeler & Woolsey comedies in the past. If you can find the film it is worth a look.