Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Film Review: Fit For A King


"Fit For A King"  *** (out of ****)

Joe E. Brown makes headlines in "Fit For A King" (1937).

Born Joseph Evans Brown in 1891, Joe E. Brown left his childhood home in Holgate, Ohio at the age of nine to join the circus with a tumblers act. As he got older he became a baseball player and allegedly declined an opportunity to play professional baseball with the New York Yankees, so he could start a career as an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit.

Joe E. Brown would incorporate his athletic ability and love of sports into his comedies, not unlike the better known comedian Buster Keaton, who was also known for his athletic ability and being capable of doing his own stunts.

Mr. Brown would usually play an "all-American" character. The kind of guy that followed the American dream, liked to watch baseball, had plenty of get rich schemes, a "go-getter" attitude and wanted to get married to a pretty girl. In many ways this "everyday guy" persona was comparable to Harold Lloyd. The best way to describe the comedy style of Joe E. Brown would be to say it was a mix of Buster Keaton meets Harold Lloyd. But, was Joe E. Brown as good as a comedian as those men? The general public of today, who probably don't know who Joe E. Brown was, would say no. However, in his day, Joe E. Brown was quite popular. Today unfortunately he is forgotten. To some it wouldn't matter but to us old-timers, those who love Hollywood movies from the 1930s & 40s, every now and then it is nice to watch a comedy starring Joe E. Brown.

"Fit For A King" unfortunately does not show Joe E. Brown at the top of his game. The best comedies starring Mr. Brown were released in the early 1930s by Warner Brothers. By the time "Fit For A King" was released Mr. Brown was no longer at Warner Brothers. RKO released "Fit For A King" and kept it on what would have to be considered a "B" movie budget.

Mr. Brown plays Virgil Jones, who has given himself the nickname "Scoops". He is the nephew of the New York Blade newspaper's publisher. Through this connection he has been given a job at the paper in the attempt of learning the business. The newspaper's editor, Hardwick (Russell Hicks) doesn't believe Virgil has the brains and ability to be a newspaper man. Instead Hardwick gives Virgil assignments such as getting his lunch.

But, Virgil is eager to learn the business and become a great reporter. If he is just given a chance Virgil is sure through his determination and hard work he can become a reporter. His opportunity arrives when Hardwick learns there have been failed assassination attempts made on the British Archduke Julio (Harry Davenport), who has been visiting in New York. Initially Hardwick doesn't think much of the story since he cannot figure out when anyone would want to assassinate the Archduke, so he gives the story to Virgil. However, Hardwick comes to regret the decision once he learns a rival newspaper has put their best reporter, Briggs (Paul Kelly) on the assignment. By this time it is too late as the story has taken Virgil to Paris.

When in Paris Virgil meets Jane Hamilton (Helen Mack), a small town girl from Nebreska who is on vacation. What Virgil doesn't realize is she is really a princess and the assassination attempts have not been for Archduke Julio, with whom she is traveling, but for her. The question is, is Virgil smart enough to figure all of this out or will Briggs beat him to the story.

"Fit For A King" has a modest running time of 73 minutes. It is too short. One can tell there has been much left out as sometimes it is confusing figuring out what everyone's motivations are. The movie does not make everything abundantly clear.

"Fit For A King" wants to be something of a slapstick comedy mixed with romance. In the hands of Harold Lloyd it may work. Lloyd had a team of good gag writers working for him however. Joe E. Brown isn't as lucky. The movie was written by Richard Flournoy who is best known (?) for writing the Blondie movie series. Mr. Flournoy doesn't take advantage of Joe E. Brown's talents and incorporate them into his story.

For a man with a good athletic ability there is nothing physical for Mr. Brown to do in the movie. The best gag involves Virgil arrested on a ship and put in the brig. At this particular time there are choppy waves, causing the ship to sway left to right. Virgil glides side to side in the brig where fate would have it there is water pouring into one of the portholes in the brig which will not close shut. It is one of the few times in the movie Mr. Brown is able to engage in any slapstick comedy.

Even in this sequence though other opportunities for humor are missed. The sequence is shot in a long shot. There is no music and strangely no dialogue. Imagine how much funnier the sequence would play with music behind it, close-ups of the water splashing into Virgil's face as he yells (his wide-mouth yell was one of Mr. Brown's trademarks) for someone to help him. Instead what we have is a static shot with everything in frame. We don't even get to see Virgil's facial expressions.

The movie was directed by Edward Sedgwick who worked often with Buster Keaton at MGM. Mr. Sedgwick directed Mr. Keaton in "The Cameraman" (1928), which "Fit For A King" resembles very little. That movie should have been the inspiration for this Joe E. Brown vehicle. Mr. Sedgwick would work with Mr, Brown on a total on five comedies including "Riding On Air" (1937) and "Gladiator" (1938).

One would have thought Mr. Sedgwick  would have known how to properly film a comedy. "For For A King" does nothing visual. The camera merely keeps everything in frame, brightly lit. No one, the cinematographer or the director wanted to raise the level of production here from average, at times even slightly below, to something more arresting.

You may want to write this all off by saying both Mr. Brown and Mr. Sedgwick were at the end of their careers. Mr. Brown would continue acting in movies and television shows for roughly another 30 years but the quality of his movies greatly declined around this time. The only big break he received was when Billy Wilder cast him in the comedy "Some Like It Hot" (1959), which may have helped introduce Mr. Brown to a whole new generation of audiences.

Besides missing comedy opportunities the acting is not exceptional either. Helen Mack, who did have some choice moments in her career, such as roles in "His Girl Friday" (1940) and the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Milky Way" (1936) doesn't have much of a presence and is not believable in the romance aspect of the movie.

The only performance in the movie worth anything is the one given by Joe E. Brown, whom depsite the quality of the script gives the movie everything he has.

If I seem somewhat critical of "Fit For A King" you may ask, why the three star rating? You have to put things into perspective. If "Fit For A King" is not a great comedy or one of Mr. Brown's better comedies, it is an improvement on the movies Mr. Brown was starring in at this time. For that reason it is worth seeing. If you are going to watch later Joe E. Brown comedies, this one, while a mid-range comedy, is one of the better ones.

Those interested in seeing Mr. Brown in better comedies should watch "Local Boy Makes Good" (1932), "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) and "A Very Honorable Guy" (1934). Watch "Fit For A King" after you have watched those.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars

"Star Wars"
*** 1/2 (out of ****)

May the Force be with you!

George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (1977) was one of my childhood favorites growing up. I didn't discover the "Star Wars Trilogy" until my teens. Like those that first saw the series, upon its theatrical release, I became obsessed with all things "Star Wars" and trying to unravel the mystery of the Force.

As the years passed I hadn't thought much about "Star Wars". I was initially excited when plans were announced by George Lucas that he was going to create a new trilogy, this time explaining the origins of Anakin Skywalker, as now I would be able to see a "Star Wars" movie in a theatre myself. I liked the movies more than the general public, which engaged in their usual over-reacting and condemned the new trilogy as  inferior to the original films.

After that time "Star Wars" had almost completely left my mind. It was an after thought. And then news was released Disney had bought the franchise from Mr. Lucas and a whole new series of movies were going to be released. Fans greatly anticipated the release of a new "Star Wars". The marketing was overwhelming. You couldn't escape "Star Wars". That of course brought back attention to the original movies. The new series of films would take place after "Return of the Jedi" (1983). And that is where I find myself. I have seen "The Force Awakens" (2015), thought it was a good movie but wanted to re-watch the original trilogy. For all the praise "The Force Awakens" has received, I remembered the original movies being much, much more enjoyable.

Watching "Star Wars" again I see my memory played tricks on me. I had to watch the movie twice to fully appreciate it. I had originally remembered "Star Wars" being a more emotional movie, creating a full background for the character Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), which is why I didn't like "The Force Awakens" as much as other movies. I felt we didn't get to know the characters. I now see Mr. Lucas doesn't nearly tell us enough about the characters he has created in this universal either.

"Stars Wars" essentially is a "B" movie but it has much better production values than any "B" movie you will have ever seen. Us old timers can see the influence of "Flash Gordon" (1936) and "Buck Rogers" (1939), rousing space adventures which placed characters in life and death situations, as movie audiences would return to theatres week after week to see if the heroes would escape. That I believe more than anything is supposed to be the magic of "Star Wars".

This movie is more about the adventure than the characters. There is minimal background provided. But that is besides the point. It is what the characters do. Their interaction with one another that makes the movie special. Watching "Star Wars" again, I could almost see this as a 1930s or 40s movie serial. The acting is nearly at the same level and the dialogue is only slightly better. Still the movie is fun with its blend of science-fiction, action, lighthearted humor and adventure.

We meet a young man named Luke Skywalker. He is a late teenager, eager to leave the home of his aunt (Shelagh Fraser) and uncle (Phil Brown) and attend an Academy, where most of his friends are. However, the uncle needs Luke to help him tend to their farm and promises Luke the following year he may leave.

On this particular day two droids; R2-D2 and C-3PO have escaped a spaceship in which Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was aboard. She is the leader of a Rebel Alliance, which has stolen plans to the Death Star, a space station capable of destroying planets. It is the creation of the Galactic Empire. The Princess has inserted the plans as well as a secret message in R2-D2 with instructions for a Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to help.

The droids have been kidnapped by Jawa traders and are sold to Luke's uncle. But R2-D2 is determined to reach Obi-Wan Kenobi, who lives on the same planet as Luke. Eventually Obi-Wan receives the message from R2-D2 and introduced to Luke, who's father, Anakin, was also a Jedi Knight and knew Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan, wanting to respect the wishes of the Princess, wants to help deliver the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance but requires the help of Luke Skywalker. And so our adventure begins.

There is not much of a plot to "Star Wars" but the movie is unrelenting in introducing us to new characters and creating fighting sequences. The plot is just enough to carry some level of importance but is merely a flimsy excuse to bring all these characters together.

Of all the actors in "Star Wars" it is Sir Alec Guinness who seems the most uncomfortable. One could imagine the reason Mr. Lucas would cast the famous actor would be because Sir Guinness would add respectability to the story. Sir Guinness, for younger audiences unaware, was a very distinguished English actor known for his roles in both comedies and dramatic films. In the years after the release of "Star Wars" Sir Guinness would admit his dislike for the character Obi-Wan Kenobi and resented the fact he became so strongly identified with the character. Sir Guinness feels this is all beneath him. The audience can clearly tell he is having trouble delivering the dialogue. Oddly enough Sir Guinness would received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his performance.

The actor who comes out looking the best is Harrison Ford as a hot-shot pilot Han Solo. It is the Han Solo character that most resembles a Buck Rogers type. He adds much of the lighthearted humor to the movie. He is the only male character that routinely engages in fighting sequences and has the screen presence of a hero.

Although the series would be centered on the Luke Skywalker character (were audiences aware this would be a trilogy in 1977?), Skywalker is the most bland of all the characters. There is nothing special about him. Luke Skywalker is surrounded by extraordinary people. He is a nobody at this point. He is learning the ways of the Force. He is not a great fighter either. He doesn't possess heroic qualities. That is why there is a sequence at the end of the movie where Skywalker  and other Rebel fighters try to destroy the Death Star. It is to help the audience see Skywalker as a hero. The movie had to allow him to accomplish something while every other character does something heroic.

But the real fun in watching "Star Wars" is to see George Lucas' imagination and the creation of all the creatures shown in the movie. The best scene is a sequence where Obi-Wan and Luke go to a dangerous meeting ground hoping to find a pilot. In this scene we see several scary looking aliens. How on earth did George Lucas create these characters?

Despite the lack of a strong plot the viewer also enjoys the action sequences and light saber flights. Just as one would watching "Flash Gordon". The movie creates one action scene after another in an attempt to draw the viewer into the story and make us care about the characters.

Upon its release "Star Wars" was at once a nostalgic throwback to early movie serials of the 1930s and a groundbreaking movie which has inspired sci-fi movies ever since. It was one of those rare critical and commercial darlings. At its time of release it was the highest grossing movie of all time (although when adjusted for inflation, no movie has grossed more than "Gone With the Wind" (1939) an amazing feat when you think about it) and would go on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, director, screenplay and naturally visual effects.

Is "Star Wars" one of the greatest movies of all-time? Not really. But boy is it fun to watch. I really admire the spirit of the movie and where it draws its influence from. Even in 2016 I look at the movie and think it is a great visual feast. Based on its cultural impact and influence any serious movie lover has to see this movie as well as its sequels.

[Note: This review is a reaction to the original theatrical version released on VHS. I absolutely refuse to watch the "Special Edition" versions in which George Lucas added scenes and special effects.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Double Indemnity

"Double Indemnity"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's murder in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944).

"Double Indemnity" is widely considered one of, if not the greatest, of all the American noir movies. It is difficult to disagree. "Double Indemnity" set the standard for the genre. Anything else to comes along is an imitator. Every story about a couple murdering someone for love owes something to this Billy Wilder classic, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain.

Of course, is it love? Does the fast talking dame with the flirty eyes and murder on her mind really love the fast talking guy with lust in his eyes? She may have all the angles figured out but does he know what is going on?

It is a question to ask when watching "Double Indemnity" and a question to ask when watching any noir story. Can you trust women? Do women simply use men to push their own agenda and show their dominance over men, who are too naive and busy looking at a set of pretty legs and a cute smile?

It is a chance meeting for the two of them. They didn't know the other existed. One was unhappy, in a loveless marriage, the other seems content. Has a nice job, makes good money and has no troubles to speak of. When they meet there is sex in the air. The first time he sees her she just got out of a shower and is wrapped in a towel. From that moment he has only one thing on his mind. She sees the look in his eyes and figures she has him just where she wants him. Neither one of them admit it though. To hear them tell the story there was electric in the air. Sparks where flying. It may have been lust or love but whatever it was, it was real. They both felt something in that moment.

"He" is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman. "She" is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of man Walter was meeting about an auto insurance policy renewal. The husband isn't home and so Walter lays on the one-lines and flirty talk while Phyllis plays back. She asks him about accident insurance. Walter tells her he can offer her husband a good policy. He can mention to it him when they discuss the auto policy. But, Phyllis wants to get the policy without her husband knowing it.

At that moment, although no one has said the word "murder" Walter knows what is going on and sees right through Phyllis. Walter tells her as much and storms out of her home. But, Phyllis is just his type. He can't shake her off and he can't shake off their conversation. He's hooked.

Walter is mostly afraid of the insurance claims adjuster, Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He's smart and knows a phony claim when it hits his desk. If Walter and Phyllis are going to murder her husband, after he signs up for an insurance policy, they have to make sure it looks like an accident, in which case Phyllis will get a double payment. And hope Keyes won't suspect the wife of murder.

Walter takes it upon himself to be the brains. He has everything worked on and demands Phyllis follows his instructions to the "tee". Walter is going to try and think like Keyes. Anticipate all the questions Keyes would ask and come up with the answers.

For what was supposed to bring the two together, they are now more apart then ever. They can't be seen together. They can't speak on the phone. Nothing can link them together before or after the murder. And as for the money, they still have to wait for the claim to be approved.

Whenever any two people, who are romantic, don't spend a lot of time together, jealousy will set in. What is the other one doing? Do they still love me? Have they forgotten me? Are they seeing someone else? Paranoia sets in or maybe a cold smack of reality.

Walter has killed Phyllis' husband. She is free of him. She has to wait for the money. But what then? Does Phyllis really love Walter? Does Walter really love Phyllis? Can they trust each other? Will one of them confess and develop a guilty conscience?

Raymond Chandler was a novelist who created Phillip Marlowe, the hard-boiled, tough as nails detective played by Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (1946). Cain also would become associated with crime novels. Prior to writing "Double Indemnity", Cain wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice", which would later be turned into a movie as well, and "Mildred Pierce".

These two men are largely responsible for what makes "Double Indemnity" a classic. They helped establish the romantic, cinematic images audiences associate with tough talking detective and smooth, fast talking guys. The dialogue in "Double Indemnity" has been the source of parody. It is filled with 1940s slang. It has a certain rhythm to it. It is fast and quick-witted. It is full of double-entendres.

While the words do have a rhythm to them the musical score by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa should also be noted. To me it sounds as if doom is approaching. It signifies the relationship between the two characters and their fate. The music sounds as if it is passing judgement.

Another memorable trait of the movie is the lighting which gives the impression it is coming through venetian blinds, which makes it appear as if the characters are trapped in prison, as the lines run across them. This is something you will find in multiple noir films to follow.

"Double Indemnity" also establishes the concept of telling its story in flashback. Only the beginning and end of the movie are in the present, as our lead character walks us through everything that has lead up to this event.

What surprises me most about "Double Indemnity" is that Billy Wilder directed it. He was such a versatile talent. I often associate him with comedy. But he directed movies from multiple genres including "Stalag 17" (1953) a WW2 POW story, "The Lost Weekend" (1945), one of the first Hollywood movies to deal with alcoholism and the courtroom drama "Witness of the Prosecution" (1957). That Mr. Wilder was able to direct all these different movies, with their different styles and sensibilities, is a comment on this man's talent.

The casting of Fred MacMurray may seem a little strange to some, depending upon your age. A lot of us may remember Mr. MacMurray from the television show "My Three Sons" as well as his role in Disney comedies like "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). In the mid-to-late 1930s he was put in lighthearted romantic comedies, like the wonderful "Hands Across the Table" (1935) and "True Confession" (1937) it was not often audiences had the opportunity to see Mr. MacMurray play such a character as Walter, who may not be entirely likable.

Barbara Stanwyck wasn't a stranger to playing a temptress. She appeared in the pre-code movie "Baby Face" (1933) but also poked fun at this persona in the Preston Sturges comedy "The Lady Eve" (1941).

If Walter didn't work in insurance the Keyes character would most definitely have been a detective and that is how Edward G. Robinson plays him but also adds a touch of humor. Keyes complains he is overworked and not paid enough. But Keyes trusts his instincts. He will follow this claim through until the end. This is in contrast to the tough gangsters Mr. Robinson gained fame playing in the 1930s like in "Little Caesar" (1931).

It is difficult to overstate the influence "Double Indemnity" has had on American films and the noir genre in particular. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture, director, screenplay and actress (Stanwyck). It was also selected as one of the best American films of all-time as part of the American Film Institutes (AFI) 100 Years...100 Movies list. "Double Indemnity" is truly a landmark film. All film lovers should see it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Review: It's A Gift

"It's A Gift"  **** (out of ****)

W.C. Fields. He built a career on a comedic persona as a man who hated dogs, women and children. In "It's A Gift" (1934) he takes full advantage of his public persona.

"The American Dream". One aspect of it goes something like this; we will all live in a nice big house with a white picket fence around it. We will get married and have two adorable children. One son and one daughter. We will work hard, save money and provide for our families. We will always have the love and support of our families.

Balderdash!

Out of this idyllic sentiment, created to turn people into work slaves and give them a false sense of accomplishment, came W.C. Fields.

In 1934, as "It's A Gift" was being released, Hollywood, was beginning to enforce the Production Code - a set of guidelines aimed at promoting decent, American values. One of the institutions Hollywood would have liked to preserve was domestic life. It is supposed to be bliss. With that in mind it is astonishing W.C. Fields was able to make any movies at all, let alone become one of the greatest comedians of all-time, a legend. Mr. Fields was a slap in the face to the code and the American way of life.

Often movies tell us the two lovers kiss and the movie ends happily ever after. Well, what's next? Enter W.C. Fields. In "It's A Gift" Mr. Fields plays his usual character of a man who lives in a household where he is unappreciated. He has a nagging wife, who even complains in her sleep (!) and two children that generally regard him as inferior. Mr. Fields is a man uncomfortable in his own home. The home is not his castle.

This theme is immediately established in an opening sequence as Harold Bissonette (Fields) is trying to shave. His daughter, Mildred (Jean Rouverol) wants him to hurry up so she may enter. Harold tells her she may as he is only shaving. The daughter immediately hogs the mirror, brushing her teeth, her hair, gargling and putting on lipstick. Meanwhile Harold is desperately trying to shave.

While the audience is supposed to laugh at this, at the same time, we are to sympathize with Harold. The poor man can't even shave in his own home. Despite whatever the flaws of his character, Mr. Fields always presented him as a sympathetic character, the hero of the story. Another slap in the face of the Production Code. Mr. Fields, including his Harold character, we not sinners seeking redemption. There is no life lesson for them to learn.

Next we are treated to a sequence involving the family about to eat breakfast. Harold trips and falls down on one of his son's (Tom Bupp) roller skates, as his wife, Amelia (Kathleen Howard) warns him about not breaking their son's skates. It cost a lot of money to have them repaired. Arms start flying, as everyone is grabbing food off the table, all before Harold can grab a piece of anything. Then Amelia informs Harold of a telegram they received. Harold's uncle is on his death bed. Harold doesn't show much emotion however the prospect of the uncle's passing opens the door of an inheritance. With this money Harold secretly wants to buy a orange grove.

Here is something a depression era audience could relate to; a working class man coming up with a get rich quick scheme. A poor man dreaming of a better life. Audiences today could relate to that story, couldn't they? I would have even been willing to bet this orange grove was a nod to John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath", another story about an American family heading west, believing a better life waits for them as fruit pickers. It would have made a nice theory and a good inside joke unfortunately Mr. Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939.

None of the family wants to travel to California, where the orange grove is. Amelia opposes because she doubts Harold knows anything about the orange business. She would rather spend the money on improving their house. Mildred doesn't want to go to California because it would mean an end to her relationship with John (Julian Madison), who sold the deed to the orange grove to Harold.

But, Harold stands firm and takes all of their criticism. He knows better than them. He has a vision, a dream. He is positive the orange grove will lead to prosperity.

"It's A Gift" is rather light on plot. Nearly everything described to you takes place in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The rest of the movie is comprised of comedy sequences.

Harold owns a grocery store and a large amount of time is devoted to hijinks which ensues in the store from one man waiting for someone to take his order of kumquats to a blind man who enters and nearly destroys everything in sight with his walking cane. No doubt liberals today would not approve of this, stating the movie is making fun of the handicap, the blind in particular.

Another funny sequence has Harold trying to get some sleep on his back porch. Amelia has been nagging the whole night, so Harold decides to lie down on their swing hanging up on the porch. As soon as he lies down a parade of noise begins from the milkman, a traveling salesman selling insurance and two people shouting at each other. Not to mention the swing doesn't seem strong enough to hold Harold.

I can see why the absence of a stronger plot would lead some to dislike "It's A Gift". It lacks a central conflict. There is no antagonist they will say. I can see their point. In another movie I might agree but that doesn't seem to apply to "It's A Gift". The antagonist is the family. The American way of life. The conflict is Harold trying to get to California and if the orange grove will be as Harold expected. The purpose of the movie is to showcase Mr. Fields. That is why the movie is a collection of comedy sequences instead of a three act traditional narrative.

This was quite common in the 1920s and 30s in American comedies. The movies didn't have strong plots they were just might to be potboilers for the star. It doesn't matter whether it was Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. The movies were just strung along by a series of comedy routines. What makes one movie better than the next is how funny it is.

"It's A Gift", for me, is the best comedy W.C. Fields starred in. Unfortunately I am not sure it is well remembered. The sheep (movie critics) and the general public only seemed concerned with throwing praise at "The Bank Dick" (1940). While that is a fine movie, one which you will see many of the same themes explored, "It's A Gift" I find to be funnier and it takes a sharper aim at domestic life. The story seems more appropriate for the curmudgeon Mr. Fields play.

Still I must admit, W.C. Fields usually works better when he is playing against someone, hence the appearance of Baby LeRoy, who has a very small role in the movie, which makes it all the more amazing the top billing he receives. Mr. Fields was very good when appearing opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. McCarthy and Mr. Fields were "rivals" on the radio, with Mr. Fields often threatening to turn McCarthy into firewood. A good straight man in "It's A Gift" may have only added to the humor.

"It's A Gift" was directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who also worked with the Marx Brothers on "Horse Feathers" (1932) and several Bob Hope comedies including "The Paleface" (1948) and "Casanova's Big Night" (1954) and based on a story by Charles Bogle (W.C. Fields) with a screenplay by Jack Cunningham, who also wrote another W.C. Fields comedy, "The Old Fashioned Way" (1934).

I am usually slightly hesitant to credit directors and writers on W.C. Fields movies because I believe Mr. Fields had total control of his comedies. No one was going to "direct" W.C. Fields.

However, if you are unfamiliar with the comedy of this great man, "It's A Gift" is a fine example of his comedy persona and the themes usually found in his comedies. It is a comedy masterpiece.

Film Review: The Big Clock

"The Big Clock"  **** (out of ****)

Time is running out for Ray Milland in "The Big Clock" (1948).

"The Big Clock", directed by John Farrow with a cast including Ray Milland, Charles Laughton and Maureen O' Sullivan, is not a very well remembered noir picture, released by Paramount, but it sure is a lot of fun to watch and worthy of the public's attention.

Based on a novel written by Kenneth Fearing, "The Big Clock" tells the story of an editor, George Stroud (Milland), who works for Janoth Publishing on a crime magazine entitled "Crimeways". "Crimeways", in the past, has managed to solve murders before the police do. Stroud has created a system in which he and his researchers follow "irrelevant" clues, the clues the police don't bother to investigate.

George is a happily married man. He and his wife, Georgette (O' Sullivan), along with their son (B.G. Norman) are about to go on a long overdue honeymoon. When George and Georgette were first married, George's boss, Earl Janoth (Laughton), called the couple on their honeymoon, informing George he wanted him to be the editor of "Crimeway" and his presence was needed immediately. That was seven years ago.

Will George and Georgette finally get their honeymoon? Not if Janoth has anything to say about it. Janoth, a married man as well, was spotted at the apartment of his mistress, Pauline (Rita Johnson), where that very night, in a fit of rage Janoth killed her. In order to protect himself, Janoth wants George to find the man who spotted him and blame the murder on the mysterious individual. The problem? George was the man who spotted Janoth. What will George do when all the clues to the murder will lead to him?

"The Big Clock" is an exciting genre exercise. What sets the movie apart is the fine cast and good script, written by Jonathan Latimer, which creates a labyrinth of intrigue and does so with lighthearted humor.

Like several other noir movies, the story of "The Big Clock" is told in flashback. When the movie opens it is late at night, we are in he lobby of the Janoth building, when we see George hiding from a security guard, as George races to the top of the building, in the control room of the big clock, the largest clock ever built, it is able to tell you the time of any place in the world, through a voice-over, we hear George inform the audience how different life was for him only 36 hours ago. What happened? How did George find himself in this predicament, fearing for his life, with a murder charge hanging over his head.

Pauline and George spent a night drinking together after George threatens to quit his job if Janoth doesn't allow him time off to have a honeymoon and Pauline and Janoth are on the outs, with a break-up expected. Pauline happens to spot George at the office and believes she and George may be able to blackmail Janoth, if it is revealed he has a mistress. At the end of the night, George takes Pauline home and that is when he spots Janoth getting off an elevator walking into Pauline's apartment.

As George's staff of researchers hunt down the mysterious stranger who may have killed Pauline, George must come up with a way to expose Janoth, but, do so in a way he brings attention to himself and allows the evidence to naturally lead to Janoth. But, how can it, when George was seen in public with Pauline.

Playing Janoth, Charles Laughton is a man who knows he is important. Janoth has no problem throwing his weight around, intimidating employees, testing their loyalty. At the same time there is something subtly humorous in Laughton's performance. The conceited air which Laughton carries himself with a constant brushing of his mustache.

Milland plays George as one might expect. He is smart, quick on his feet, but trapped. Milland was one of those actors that could walk that fine line and be both wryly comical and serious. Milland has some comical moments, especially when he has been drinking and searches the city for a green clock, but, he does make the audience believe he is a man on the run and the audience eagerly awaits, trying to figure out how this mystery will end.

Additional comic touches are presented by Elsa Lanchester, as a painter who believes a great deal in herself and her talent, even if the public hasn't discovered her yet. One of her painting was discovered being carried by the mysterious man that was with Pauline.

But it is not all fun and games in "The Big Clock". Director, John Farrow, does all the things we expect a noir movie to do. Characters walk in shadows, there is suspense, murder and an innocent man on the run, trying to clear his name. The movie does a lot with lighting, usually keeping George in the dark.

Farrow may not be very well remembered today but he was nominated once for a best director Academy Award for the war movie, "Wake Island" (1942) and did direct Robert Mitchum in the decent noir movie, "Where Danger Lives" (1950) but for me, "The Big Clock" is Farrow's best movie. In one respect the movie resembles an Alfred Hitchcock movie, in the way it injects humor into its story of a man wrongly accused.

However I have a feeling the humor in the movie is what has kept it from finding a larger audience and being revered as a classic noir story. Some may be put off by the humor and not take the movie serious. Noir, some will say, should not have humor. "The Big Clock" is not laugh out loud funny but I appreciate the script writer saw comedic possibilities in this story and decided to give the characters a sense of humor.

"The Big Clock" is a very good piece of Hollywood escapism. An intriguing story with good performances by a talented cast. "The Big Clock" deserves a second chance and in some cases a first chance.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Film Review: The Freshman

"The Freshman"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Harold Lloyd scores a touchdown with his silent, college themed, comedy "The Freshman" (1925).

"The Freshman", with the exception of "Safety Last" (1923), might be the most popular comedy Harold Lloyd ever appeared in. When the American Film Institute (AFI) comprised a list of the 100 greatest American movie comedies of all-time, this Harold Lloyd comedy made the list. Unfortunately, when a list was made of the 100 greatest movies, the comedy classic didn't make the cut.

Harold Lloyd often played a very American character in his comedies. He accepted and aspired to achieve the "American Dream". Mr. Lloyd had a "go-getter" attitude. He believed if he worked hard, nothing could hold him back. All he had to do was believe in himself.

The character was referred to as "glasses". Mr. Lloyd wanted the character to be an every man. Someone audiences could instantly relate to and someone female audiences in particular could accept in a romance.

This was in contrast to the characters other silent comedians played such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon. Mr. Chaplin played a tramp, who was an outcast in society. Mr. Keaton struggled for acceptance. Mr. Langdon played a man-child, that hadn't quite matured yet. Mr. Lloyd on the other hand could have been your next door neighbor.

The challenge for Harold Lloyd was to come up with stories which would properly serve purpose for the "glasses" character. In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd had found a good backdrop. Comedians have often had fun with the college setting. Most silent comedians told stories which dealt with acceptance. In college every freshman feels like an outcast. A lot of that is because the older students make them feel that way but also because the students are unsure of themselves and want to make a good impression. Every student quickly learns of a hierarchy of power and different "clicks" to fit into. This opens the door for a lot of comedic possibilities.

"The Freshman" also serves as a timely comedy. During the 1920s statics show college enrollment doubled when compared to the previous decade. College sports were at the height of their popularity, especially football.

In "The Freshman" Mr. Lloyd plays Harold Lamb. A young man eagerly waiting to attended college. All he knows of college life is what he reads in books and sees in movies. He accepts everything he sees and reads at face value. In order to fit in, Harold has devised a plan. He will imitate a character he saw in a movie. That should make him make a splash at college. Harold even dreams of being voted the most popular student of the year.

The opening introduction of the character is supposed to make the audience sympathize with Harold. He is supposed to be a nice, kind, well-meaning young man though a bit naive, which makes the audience wonder, will Harold be able to fit in?

College isn't exactly what Harold had planned as the audience suspected. His fellow students aren't as willing to accept him as Harold would like. A character credited as "The College Cad" (Brooks Benedict) repeatedly makes fun of Harold behind his back and places Harold in embarrassing situations. One involves tricking Harold into giving a speech before the entire school, because "all freshman are required to do it". In reality the school was waiting to hear from the dean of the university.

However Harold remains unaware of what is going on behind his back and believes he may be a popularity rival to Chet Trask (James Anderson), the most popular student in school and captain of the football team. To further solidify his popularity Harold wants to join the football team as well.

No Harold Lloyd comedy would be complete without a romantic sub-plot. This time around Harold likes Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). Peggy works with her mother at the Hotel Tate, where Harold is staying.

Most silent comedies, including those with Mr. Lloyd, would usually sacrifice plot for gags. The comedies were mostly comprised of comedy sequences strung together by a very thin plot. "Safety Last" would be an example. "The Freshman" however is different. The movie actually has a decent story and the humor grows from the plot. Jokes do not come out of left field and distract us from the main plot of the movie but help advance the plot.

Oddly enough, the weak link in the plot is the romance. Most of Harold Lloyd's comedies were really romantic-comedies. They were simple stories of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end. This time around Harold gets the girl at the beginning. The movie is not concerned with their romance. There is not much for the Peggy character to do as a result. Though by the end of the movie the character provides Harold with a much needed pep talk, and is another example of an old cliche, behind every good man is a good woman. A woman inspires a man.

Usually what would happen in a movie like this, the comedian plays a shy, timid young man who dreams of becoming popular. Secretly he has a crush on the most popular girl in school, who doesn't notice him and is dating the captain of the football team. In order to prove himself the comedian would join the football and prove himself at the end of the movie during a big game sequence and score a winning touchdown. All at once, proving he his a "man" and getting the girl.

"The Freshman" is not entirely interested in telling that story, though it does hit on most of those plot points. What makes "The Freshman" really stand out among other Harold Lloyd comedies are the number of really good comedy sequences. One involves Harold trying out for the football team and having great difficulty tackling a dummy during practice. Another good sequence has Harold at a fancy school dance while his tuxedo slowly comes apart at the seams.

The quality of "The Freshman" shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Mr. Lloyd's comedies. The movie was co-directed by Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer, two of Mr. Lloyd's trusted writers. Together Mr. Taylor and Mr. Newmeyer co-directed five Harold Lloyd comedies including "Safety Last" and "Girl Shy" (1924).

Among the writers, besides Sam Taylor, they included Harold Lloyd regulars such as Ted Wilde, who co-wrote "The Kid Brother" (1927) and directed "Speedy" (1928), for which Mr. Wilde's directing received an Academy Award nomination. Another writer was Tim Whelan, who worked on "Girl Shy" and "Hot Water" (1924).

Because these men worked with Mr. Lloyd in the past they knew what was expected of them. They saw the "glasses" character as Mr. Lloyd did and understood where the humor should come from in relation to the character and plot advancement.

I'm not sure though if I would refer to "The Freshman" as Harold Lloyd's best comedy but it is one of his funniest and one of his better structured movies. It is able to find a better balance between gags and plot than most of Harold Lloyd's other comedies. If only there was a way to balance the romance aspect of the movie better.

Film Review: Rashomon

"Rashomon"  **** (out of ****)

[Note: This review will contain spoilers without proper spoiler alerts. Please do not read this review if you have not seen this movie.]

Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) is often described as being a story about perspective. Even the sheep (movie critics) explain the plot as such. If I ever hear one more person say this about the movie I am going to wonder if anyone has ever seen the movie.

"Rashomon" does tell us a story repeatedly from the viewpoint of different characters. But that isn't what the movie is about. What is being said during these multiple tellings of the story? That is what "Rashomon" is about.

"Rashomon" is a morality tale. It is a story about lies, honor, the human condition. A story commentating on evil in society. Human nature.

In "Rashomon" the viewer is told a murder has been committed. Three people were involved. A husband, wife and a bandit. The husband (Masayuki Mori) was mudered. But how he died is a mystery. Was it the bandit (Toshiro Mifune)? The wife (Machiko Kyo)? Or suicide?

The movie begins with a heavy rainstorm. Two men; a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) seek shelter underneath the Rashomon gate. They sit bewildered. The woodcutter mutters to himself he doesn't understand. The priest has a defeated expression on his face. Soon a third man (Kichijiro Ueda) runs towards them, also seeking shelter.

The third man immediately notices the state of the other two men. He inquires what is wrong. Both the priest and the woodcutter confide in the third man, they have heard an amazing story. A story only amazing because of the horror it reveals about people. Intrigued by such a description the third man again asks them what happened. A man was murdered they reveal. The third man bushes this off. Only one? Big deal. Just beyond where they are he tells them they will find five or six unclaimed bodies. The priest concurs, yes, violence is everywhere; war, earthquakes, famine, fire, plagues. Here Akira Kurosawa is making a point. The destructive nature of the world. However, keep in mind "Rashomon" was released post-World War II. Remember the destruction Japan had to endure with the dropping of the bomb. Keep in mind the number of lives lost. The psychological effects it had on the survivors. This conversation between the three men about destruction and evil in the world would resonate with audiences.

The priest and the woodcutter explain they have just come from the court garden where they have testified about the murder. The woodcutter found the dead body while the priest was the last man to see the husband alive, with the exception of the wife and bandit.

While at the court garden the two men heard three different versions of what happened. The bandit's story, the wife's story and the husband's story - through a medium that has channeled his spirit. All three versions are different with some themes overlapping. The three stories however share themes of honor, saving face and sacrifice. In each story the person telling their recollection of events presents them-self as the honorable one.

The first story we hear is that of the bandit. In this version the bandit was taken by the beauty of the wife. He was determined to "have" her but wanted to do so without killing the husband. The bandit, named Tajomaru, devises a plan to take the husband and wife off a busy trail. He lies to the husband, telling him he has found many swords and mirrors and asks the husband if he would like to buy some. The husband and wife follow. Tajomaru overpowers the husband and ties him up. In order to embarrass the husband, Tajomaru brings the wife to witness the spectacle and then rapes the woman.

As Tajomaru is about to leave, the wife pleads with him not to. One of the men must die. She simply cannot live knowing two men will be aware of her shame. She must save face. The two men must fight. Tajomaru, in his defense to the court, presents his actions as honorable. He did not murder the man. The husband defending himself. The husband wanted to protect the honor of his wife. But, Tajomaru was just too strong, too clever. But, he still admits the husband was a worthy opponent.

In this version we will notice the one who comes out looking the best is the bandit. His story emphasizes his strength and cunning. He tricked the husband, raped the wife, accepting her plea to save face, allowed the husband the opportunity to defend himself, but in the end the bandit kills him. Within these actions, the bandit wants to suggest he was honorable. He did allow the husband to defend himself. He did take pity on the wife's plea.

The next version we hear is the wife's. Now it is explained to us after Tajomaru rapes her he runs away laughing while the husband is still tied up. She cuts the rope with her dagger, which she offers to her husband. She asks that he kill her. She has been disgraced in front of her husband and now must present herself as a sacrificial lamb. The disapproving look on her husband's face is too much for her to bear.

The husband doesn't kill her though. She is still holding on to the dagger when suddenly her memory goes blank. She cannot remember what happened next because she fainted. When she wakes up her dagger mysteriously stabbed her husband.

Of course here all the honor belong to the wife. She knew what happened was wrong and her husband could never love her the same way again, knowing another man had slept with her. She is willing to sacrifice herself for her husband's honor.

What is interesting here between the two version of the stories are the gender stereotypes in play, especially concerning women. Although the movie is Japaneses, American audiences should been able to compare this story to a noir movie. The woman is the cause of violence. She is pitting the two men against each other. This will become more prominent in the husband's version of the story. Mr. Kurosawa was often accused, in his homeland, of not telling stories based on Japanese tradition. His stories were too "Western". One could definitely see "Rashomon" being remade in America as a noir movie.

The last story heard in court is the husband's. In this variation of the story after the rape of the wife, the bandit tries to console the wife. The bandit tells the wife, he did what he did out of love. Upon hearing this the wife tells the bandit she will go away with him but first he must kill the husband.

The bandit is taken aback by the wife's cruel request. Turned off by her hateful way, the bandit tells the husband he will tell the woman for him, all the husband need do is give the word. The wife runs away and the bandit it unable to catch her. He cuts the ropes off the husband and leaves.

The husband feels betrayed. His wife had asked another man to kill him. His wife was prepared to leave him. Feeling he has nothing left to live for the husband picks up his wife's dagger and kills himself.

This time around it is the husband that is the sacrificial lamb. Each spouse viewed their death as a way to preserve honor. And of course, each person was prepared to make that sacrifice because of how bound to tradition they were. Really hitting home the point they are honor to those hearing the story.

So, which version was true? How did the husband die? The woodcutter doesn't believe any of the stories. But how is he so sure? After repeated questioning, he finally reveals to the two men, he lied. He didn't just happen to discover the body but witnessed the murder.

In the woodcutter's version, elements of the previous stories are intertwined. Now after having raped the wife the bandit is pleading with the woman to come with him. He loves her. But, she says she is a woman. It is not her decision. The men must fight. She will go with the winner. So, the bandit unties the husband but, the husband doesn't want to fight. He is disgusted by her. He refuses to defend her honor after she has been been intimate with two men. The husband tells the bandit, he can have his wife.

The wife however tries to use reverse psychology and questions what kind of men are they? How could a husband not defend his wife's honor? And what kind of tough man does the bandit think he is, raping a woman and then not being man enough to kill the husband and take what he wants.

In three of the four stories the woman pitted the men against each other. Only in her version was their no fight. What does this tell us about the nature of women?

"Rashomon" tries to redeem some of the characters by the end of the movie by having the three men discover a baby, that has been abandon. One of them steals the blanket covering the child while the other two condemn the man.

After hearing a story about murder and betray and lies, as human try to cover their tracks and justify their evil behavior, we ask ourselves, is their any good in the world? Mr. Kurosawa cannot leave us with a story that tells us there is no hope for the world, can he?

In order to capture the element of truth and lies, good and evil, Mr. Kurosawa makes interesting lighting choices. Some scenes in "Rashomon" are bright, the court scenes for example, while others are darker and have a melancholy feel, the husband's version of events for example. Light symbolizing truth and darkness serving as evil.

Acting wise it is interesting to see characters act out different scenarios of the same story giving them the opportunity to display their range. However, none of the acting impressed me. What I come away with most watching "Rashomon" are ideas. That is why I have reviewed the movie as I have, running through the plot and interpreting the character's actions, hoping to get across how the themes of lies, truth, honor and morality are present.

"Rashomon" is an interesting movie but it may require multiple viewings. That may be too much of a challenge for some viewers but this is a thought-provoking film. One can also see the Western influence on Mr. Kurosawa's work, which may make his movies easy for Americans to digest. If you are willing to give "Rashomon" a chance, you will find it to be a rewarding experience. It is one of the great master's best films.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Film Review: I Married A Witch

"I Married A Witch"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Love is bewitching in Rene Clair's classic supernatural romantic / comedy "I Married A Witch" (1942).

Based on Thorne Smith's novel "The Passionate Witch", Rene Clair's "I Married A Witch" is a wonderful screwball comedy arguing all women, even witches, want to get married because no force on earth, even witchcraft, is stronger than love.

When I was much younger "I Married A Witch" was a childhood favorite. I found the movie so silly as a child. Even the title of the movie made me smile. It didn't hurt that I enjoyed the work of the brilliant French filmmaker, Rene Clair, either.

Mr. Clair has always seemed to have had a penchant for finding good natured, fantasy comedies such as in his English language movies; "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944) and "The Ghost Goes West" (1935). This was a bit of a contrast to his French comedies, which had a bit of a Chaplin-esque quality to them as seen in "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930) and "Le Million" (1931).

"I Married A Witch" begins in the 17th century in New England. A woman, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are about to be burnt at the stake when they are accused of witchcraft. Before she dies however, Jennifer, places a curse on her accuser, Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), that he and his descendants will forever remain unlucky in love. All the men will marry the wrong woman for them.

And so it goes until we reach the modern day and meet Wallace Wooley (also March), who is running for governor and about to marry Estelle (Susan Haywood), the daughter of a well-connected newspaper mogul J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick).

On the eve of the election and his wedding day, something out of the ordinary happens. On the site where Jennifer and Daniel were burnt, an ash tree was planted, as it was believe this would keep their evil spirits from escaping. That remains true for three centuries until a lightning storm strikes the ash tree and releases the spirits of Jennifer and Daniel.

It doesn't take Jennifer and Daniel long to find Wallace and to quickly determine he is a descendant of the Wooley family. The two hatch a plan to add to Wallace's misfortune. Daniel informs Jennifer her curse was not the most effective. You see, all women are the wrong women for men once they are married, so says Daniel. The "curse" for man is the woman that won't marry him and he loves.

Jennifer finds inspiration in her father's words and decides she will make Wallace fall in love with her but she will not marry him. To make things worst, after Wallace falls in love with him she will reveal she is a witch!

Dating back to biblical times with the story of Adam & Eve women have always been viewed in society and pop culture as figures of temptation. Women are the downfall of man. Women lured men with their sex appeal all in an attempt to extract power and show their dominance. 

At the time when "I Married A Witch" was released "noir" films had become popular. Stories of femme fatales luring innocent men into killing their husbands for money and the promise the two would be together.

"I Married A Witch" takes events one step further and places the label of "witch" on women. The female characters in the movie are not kind, warm individuals. They nag and complain. They place the men in compromising situations. They have their own hidden agenda. The men in the movie are always a step behind, trying to play catch up. Even Daniel is eventually outsmarted by Jennifer. No man is able to escape the tricks and deceitfulness of a woman.

"I Married A Witch" takes these ideas and presents them as a screwball comedy, so as not to seem threatening or isolate its female audience. One could blind themselves to any underlying message and simply view "I Married A Witch" as nothing more than a love story. If one chooses to do that, that is where the screwball comedy element comes in.

In most screwball comedies; "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "The Awful Truth" (1937), the woman is presented as the aggressor and the man is unsuspecting. The woman devises schemes to make the man fall in love with him, even though the man has shown no romantic interest in the woman. Notice however, whether it is a noir movie or a screwball comedy, the woman is always scheming. In one way or another the woman is taking advantage of a man.

This would all seem to suit Veronica Lake, who enjoyed great popularity in the 1940s starring in comedies and noir movies. Considered to be a screen beauty with a very distinguished hair style, it was easy for audiences to accept Ms. Lake as a kind of temptress yet she was accepted in light comedies as well. "I Married A Witch" gives her the opportunities to show both sides of her skills in one movie.

It has been suggested by some that "I Married A Witch" has elements which resemble a Preston Sturges comedy. Mr. Sturges, another great comedy director, originally served as one of the producers of the movie but dropped out after creative differences with Mr. Clair.

Outside of the supernatural / fantasy aspects of the story one could see how Mr. Sturges would have been a suitable director for this story as it does incorporate physical comedy with verbal humor, which Mr. Sturges had a naturally talent for blending together. Joel McCrea was even going to star in the movie (he appeared in three of Mr. Sturges' comedies) but declined due to Veronica Lake's casting. The two did not get along after working together on the Preston Sturges comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (1941).

Also contributing to the movie is Robert Benchley, the great satirist, known for appearing in comedy shorts, displaying the difficulties of everyday living. and for being a member of the Algonquin Round Table - a group of New York writers. Unfortunately here his character he really not defined. He plays a friend of Wallace, who also happens to be a doctor, but he does deliver some nice lines and his presence alone should bring a smile to your face.

The only downfall to "I Married A Witch" is the running time of 77 minutes. It almost feels as if something is missing, an additional conflict. The movie takes to long to build up its premise and then resolves everything too quickly. But the majority of the movie is lighthearted and funny. It probably could have used a Preston Sturges to add more physical comedy and maybe someone like Robert Benchley to write some one-liners, still the tone of the movie is consistent and works.

Sadly this would also be one of the last movies Mr. Clair directed that made a significant impact on American audiences. Mr. Clair would later return to France to direct his final films.

For reasons I can't explain the movie did score one Academy Award nomination for its musical score. Of all the categories the Academy could have nominated this movie for, why they chose the musical score is as strange as witchcraft to me.

One also has to believe "I Married A Witch" was some sort of inspiration for the television show "Bewitched" which first aired in 1964. It too centered on a witch marrying a man.

I'm also willing to bet the title of the movie was inspired by the 1938 Rogers & Hart Broadway musical "I Married an Angel", which is where the song "Spring is Here" was introduced.

If you are not familiar with the films of Rene Clair, I would suggest suggest watching his early French comedies first and then view "I Married A Witch".

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Film Review: The Big Parade

"The Big Parade"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

War / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing
Lyrics to the song "War" written by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925) is routinely listed as one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, one of the greatest silent movies ever made and simply one of the greatest movies of all-time. This is one of those rare occasions when I must agree with the masses. "The Big Parade" is guilty of all charges.

When I first saw "The Big Parade" I enjoyed it quite a bit however I felt it lacked the gritty realism of "All Quite On the Western Front" (1930), the Academy Award winner for best picture. That movie, for me, remains the greatest of all the early war movies, however, watching "The Big Parade" again, I think I would say this is more of a "human story". It tries to capture life, love, death and war and puts it all into one movie. It reaches all the same conclusions as "All Quite On the Western Front" but goes about it in a much different way.

"The Big Parade" helped catapult the career of King Vidor and established him as one of the major filmmakers at M-G-M. This movie, along with "The Crowd" (1928), also one of the greatest movies ever made, exhibits a sense of realism Mr. Vidor would become associated with. Although the movie was released prior to the existence of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it is not difficult the believe "The Big Parade" would had scored an Academy Award nomination as did other films directed by Mr. Vidor such as the melodrama "The Champ" (1931), "The Crowd", "Stella Dallas" (1937) and "Hallelujah" (1929).

The movie begins in 1917 as we follow Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) a wealthy, floppish young man. He is engaged to Justyn (Claire Adams) and is a disappointment to his father (Hobart Bosworth), who believes his son is too lazy and needs to prove himself as a man instead of living off the family name.

On this particular day we learn war has been declared by President Wilson. Here is where "The Big Parade" makes its strongest anti-war statement. Justyn tells Jim how excited she will be to see him in uniform. It will make her love Jim more. Jim's father is proud when he discovers his son has enlisted. There is a parade for all the men who have listed. The crowd waves American flags. The would-be soldiers hold up signs indicating they can't wait to fight and kill the enemy.

Mr. Vidor and "The Big Parade" present these people as fools. What exactly is the crowd cheering, the death of these young men? It is a certainty not all of them will return home. Why would Justyn love Jim more for enlisting? In a woman's eyes, does that make him seem brave? Could the men that have enlisted tell you why the war is even being fought? Probably not. But, people wave their flags and feel they have done their part. They will stay behind and read about the war in the paper. If they felt such a sense of patriotism why didn't they enlist?

There are those that say, war is a rich man's game. Presidents of countries have disagreements while poor people do the fighting. And for what? Where are the presidents while the fighting is going on? Where are the rich? Who benefits from having poor people kill each other against an enemy they have never seen, spoken to or heard of? Some will say that sounds like the kind of thing someone who is afraid of war and death would say. You're damn right! I'm afraid of death and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Why should I or anyone else be ashamed to admit that? Because of fear of a stranger calling you a coward? That's what causes the problem.

"The Big Parade" sees drama in telling the story of a rich man enlisting. The movie feels this will create the greatest transformation. A rich man, who has lived an easy life and knows nothing about the world, will see the hell of war. On the battlefield his money will not matter when bullets are flying in his direction. To further humanize Jim, the movie has him befriend two working class men that have enlisted as well, Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, and Bull (Tom O' Brien), a bartender.

This kind of story was more commonly told during World War II. Because of the draft Americans have always, rightfully so, believed the rich are able to avoid being drafted and only the poor fight. In order to keep harmony you will notice Hollywood would often tell stories of rich men being drafted, unable to use their connections to avoid serving, and fight along side the working class. The movies would even go a step further and suggest the rich men made good soldiers.

After this strong social commentary "The Big Parade" then becomes a love story. Jim and his regiment are sent to France, where Jim meets Melisande (Renee Adoree) who works on a local farm with her mother. Jim, Slim and Bull each find Melisande attractive and make passes at her but she only responds to Jim. Melisande doesn't speak English and Jim doesn't speak French but there is no denying their physical attraction towards each other. The question is what will Jim tell Justyn, who writes letters to Jim, expressing how much she misses him.

For me this aspect of the movie takes "The Big Parade" off track and slows the movie down. As it stands now "The Big Parade" has a running time of two hours and 30 minutes. Sequences involving this love story and the antics of the three men could have easily been left on the editing room floor. The only explanation for elongating the romance between these two characters is because John Gilbert is in the lead. Mr. Gilbert was emerging as a sex symbol rivaling Rudolph Valentino. You couldn't waste that reputation. It would make the females audiences sympathize with him as now he has a reason to stay alive, the love of a good woman.

Finally, after nearly 90 minutes, "The Big Parade" takes Jim on the battlefield, where he will be tested. Now he will see what war is like. The men are sent walking through a battlefield while a German sniper is firing at them.

I had forgotten how good the fighting sequences are. It further helps promote the movie's anti-war agenda. Men are seen dying left and right in the background as Jim, who is part of the front line, keeps walking forward, unaware of those that have fallen. It is during this sequence we think of the crowd cheering earlier in the movie as these men had walked together in that moment too. The men bragged about fighting. They seemed so eager to fight. Now look at them. They fear for their lives.

The movie directly makes this argument when Jim is stuck in a ditch. He fears one of his friends has died from enemy fire. If Jim runs out to save him, he may die too. What should he do? Frustrated he yells "God damn" the war. What is he fighting for?

"The Big Parade" is a near perfect movie with only three exceptions. One, it goes on too long. Two, the romance sequences go on too long and are not needed. It disrupts the flow of the movie and its anti-war sentiment. Three, Jim is not activate enough on the battlefield. I would have preferred if Jim killed someone, even if it is reluctantly. This would greatly change him. Now you can see what war does to a man. The mental effect killing someone, even on the battlefield, has on a soldier.

Because "The Big Parade" is a pre-code movie, a movie made before the Production Code was strictly enforced, starting in 1934, it can get away with certain things other movies would not have been able to. For one thing the language. There is a lot of "God damn" which the code would have looked down upon and consider blasphemy. There is also a scene involving nudity, as we see the backside of Slim and Bull taking a shower.

Because of the strong anti-war sentiment I wonder why did King Vidor feel the need to tell this story, which was based on a play by Joseph Farnham and an autobiography by Laurence Stallings. The war ended in 1918. America was going through good economic times. Was "The Big Parade" a cautionary tale, warning Americans to never allow this to happen again?

"The Big Parade" would go on to influence countless war movies which followed. Only "All Quiet On the Western" would match it. "The Big Parade" stands as one of the most important movies any serious film lover should see.

Film Review: Monte Carlo

"Monte Carlo"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ernst Lubitsch breaks the bank with his musical comedy "Monte Carlo" (1930).

When it comes to sophisticated, adult, sexually playful musical comedies Ernst Lubitsch has no equal. When it comes to great comedies there are few that can match the wit found in a comedy directed by Mr. Lubitsch. His delicate touch and handling of comedies became known as "The Lubitsch Touch". In "Monte Carlo" Mr. Lubitsch's gifts are on full display.

Today's younger audiences may not find much of the material in "Monte Carlo" risque but keep in mind the movie was released in 1930. This is one of those movies referred to as "pre-code", meaning it was released before the Production Code was harshly enforced in 1934 onward.

In "Monte Carlo" we are dealing with a woman desperate for money. So desperate that the question arises, will she marry a wealthy man, whom she does not love, strictly for his money? There is a male character, a playboy, that so desperately wants have a romance with a woman, he pretends to be a poor barber just so he may enter her bedroom. He then speaks naughtily about seeing the woman in her lingerie and how delicate her skin looks.

Again, to the modern audience none of this may seem like much. But, you must remember, movies hadn't fallen yet to the low standards we have today. There was not excess nudity and foul language in movies. Quentin Tarantino would have been terribly out of place back then. The most audiences could hope for were the sly, charming, playful comedies of Ernst Lubitsch.

Although "Monte Carlo" is a musical, Mr. Lubitsch was not primarily a director of musicals. He directed four movies at Paramont which were however. Three of the musicals starred Jeanette MacDonald. The others include "The Love Parade" (1929) and "One Hour with You" (1932). After the release of "One Hour with You" Mr. Lubitsch would direct, mostly, straight comedies such as "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), "Ninotchka" (1939) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940). Notice the difference in subject matter between "Monte Carlo" or "Trouble in Paradise" and "The Shop Around the Corner". The sexual playfulness is missing. You couldn't get away with it by that time.

The woman is "Monte Carlo" is Countess Mara (MacDonald). The movie begins on the day she is about to marry Prince Otto von Liebenheim (Claud Allister). A terrible rain storm begins, signaling trouble on the horizon, especially since this will be an outdoor affair. Before the bride is to walk down the isle the groom finds out she has left. In despair Prince Liebenheim runs to the Countess' bedroom and notices nothing is there except her wedding dress. The Prince meekly yells for his father.

This opening sequence clearly establishes a few character traits. The Prince is not "manly". When events become too difficult for him to deal with, he yells for help, his father. He is not capable of solving problems on his only. Physically we can see the Prince is not attractive. He is puny looking as well and wears glasses. This makes its difficult to believe a woman could ever be attracted to him, especially a beautiful woman. In a self-referential moment the Prince sings a song about his wealth, his looks and how his money will help him solve problems.

Although we never see the Countess in the opening sequence, the fact that she does not get married and runs away on her wedding day, demonstrates a woman that has no regard for tradition. She is a free spirit. An "independent woman". She will not marry for money, even if she is in desperate need of it. When the audiences does finally get to see the Countess she is on a train, with her assistant, Bertha (Zasu Pitts). All the Countess has on is lingerie and a fur coat, though we see more of the lingerie. She gives a sigh of relief and tells Bertha it was a close call. She nearly got married. The only thing that prevented her for going through with it was the dress did not fit. She took that as an omen. From this the audience can gather she is a superstitious woman.

In only her lingerie and with practically no money, the train conductor needs to know where the Countess is headed. With no destination in mind, she decides on Monte Carlo on a whim.

Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan) is a carefree playboy, living in Monte Carlo. Besides spending time with beautiful women, he also enjoys gambling at the casino. He believes she has a sure-fire system for betting at the roulette table. If he is standing next to a brunette he bets on red. If standing next to a red head he bets on black. When asked what he does if standing next to a blonde the Count responds, "I ask where she lives". Audiences should be able to determine what exactly that implies.

As soon as the Count sees the Countess he in intrigued though for the first time in his life he is afraid to simply walk up to a woman and give her a pick-up line. He quickly assesses he needed a gimmick. He requires some excuse to speak to her. As the Countess walks towards a casino, the Count notices she rubs the hump of a hunchback. This was a real superstition at one time. When the Count sees this, if feels he has his excuse to speak to her. He will tell her gently touching his hair provides good luck.

Through this the audience can determine the Count is a schemer. Perhaps not a bad man, but, someone always on the hunt for a beautiful woman, and a man who will say and do whatever he has to to speak to as many beautiful women as he can. The fact that he was apprehensive about approaching the Countess at first is supposed to imply, this time it is love. The Countess is not like other woman to the Count, just as easy conquest. This time the Count may actually have feelings for a woman.

Unfortunately the Count's scheme doesn't work. The Countess becomes a bit greedy. She initially has some success at the roulette table, betting heavy. Instead of being happy with the small fortune she has won, she continues to gamble and loses everything in the process. This ruins the Count's opportunity of presenting himself as the Countess' personal good luck charm. So, he needs to devise a new plan. After speaking to a real barber, how does the Countess' hair, the Count decides to impersonate a hairdresser, which will allow him access to the Countess.

The question now becomes, can a Countess learn to love a hairdresser? Will their difference in social status matter? Can love overcome all odds? Lets remember, the Countess is supposed to be an independent woman. But, she needs money. A hairdresser cannot provide for her. What would people say if a Countess married her hairdresser.

This part of "Monte Carlo" would seem to take its inspiration from the novel "Monsieur Beaucaire" written by Booth Tarkington. The novel was later turned into an opera and was the inspiration for a few movie adaptations. One silent movie version starring Rudolph Valentino and a comedy version starring Bob Hope.

What makes "Monte Carlo" work is the material is treated in a silly, frivolous manner. Audiences should be able to figure out how events will end. We aren't watching the movie for suspense. We enjoy watching the two lead performers. They are likable characters and the audience wants them to get together. In fairy tale Hollywood fashion of course, the hairdresser is a rich Count, which sends a positive message that women don't marry for money but instead are driven by a desire to marry for love. Whether or not this is true, we will save for another time.

Keep in mind by 1930 America was in a Great Depression. The Countess may have financial problems, as did the countless Americans in the audience watching the movie, but, she is not standing in a breadline. What a nice piece of escapism for audiences. Characters travel to Monte Carlo, even if they have no money, they search for love, and poof, good fortunate smiles upon them. Hairdressers turn out to be Counts. "Monte Carlo" is a silly, optimistic comedy.

The musical score in "Monte Carlo" was written by Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling. The most popular song in the movie is sung by MacDonald, "Beyond the Blue Horizon", which would become something of a theme song for Ms. MacDonald. However I prefer a duet sung by Mr. Buchanan and Ms. MacDonald called "Always in All Way". There is also "She'll Love Me and Like It" sung by the Prince and "Trimmin' the Women" about the Count's deceitful plan to impose as a hairdresser.

The movie's screenplay was adapted by that great Hungarian screenwriter, Ernest Vajda, who wrote several screenplays Mr. Lubitsch directed including "The Love Parade", "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931) and "The Merry Widow" (1934), another musical with Ms. MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Mr. Vajda also wrote the screenplay to the charming, funny pre-code gem "The Guardsman" (1931). Mr. Vajda is as equally responsible for "Monte Carlo"s success as Mr. Lubitsch is.

If you are unfamiliar with movies of Mr. Lubitsch, "Monte Carlo" is a nice play to start. You will see what Mr. Lubitsch was getting away with before the code was enforced. This is a funny, well acted, playful musical comedy mostly about sex and finding true love. It has a level of sophistication missing from so many movies made today. The movie may seem silly but it is intelligent in many ways.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Film Review: New Year's Day

"New Year's Day"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Do you want to ring in the new year with filmmaker Henry Jaglom?

For a lot of people a new year represents a clean slate. A chance to start anew, a fresh beginning. You can forget about the mistakes of the past year and set your life on a new course.

This simple, basic idea has lead filmmaker Henry Jaglom to make "New Year's Day" (1989), an at times well meaning movie that sadly doesn't go far enough.

Most of Mr. Jaglom's movies are well meaning stories revolving around the love lives of an eccentric group of characters, who are usually actors or some other type of artists. Some of his movies work - "Always, But Not Forever" (1985), "Someone To Love" (1988) and "Deja Vu" (1998). But others, like "New Year's Day", are something of a mixed bag.

Henry Jaglom came on the cinematic scene in the 1970s, when American independent cinema was finding a strong voice, thanks in no small part to filmmakers like John Cassevettes, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich. Mr. Jaglom's films often center around female characters and are known for their small scale, personal, almost improvised quality. Mr. Jaglom is not above casting friends and family members in his movies, which add to the intimate setting Mr. Jaglom would like to create.

"New Year's Day" begins almost as a documentary, as the lead character Drew (Jaglom) stares into the camera and tells us he is miserable and because of that misery he is going to leave his home in L.A. and head to his hometown New York.

When Drew arrives in New York on New Year's Day, he finds his apartment is being occupied by three women; Lucy (Maggie Jakobson), Annie (Gwen Welles) and Winona (Melanie Winter) who have misunderstood the terms of their lease. It is almost a situation which recalls Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl" (1977) however "New Year's Day" lacks the same likable characters, warmth and humor.

The three women believed that had to leave the apartment after the first of the month. Drew is unable to find another hotel room, so it is decided Drew will stay with the women as they have a final party in the apartment.

The three women, like Drew, are also miserable. Lucy wants to leave New York and head to L.A. we learn she has had a troubling relationship with Billy (David Duchovny) a serial cheater. She must leave New York in order to forget about him. Winona is determine to have a baby by the end of the year. This wouldn't be a problem but she doesn't have a husband or boyfriend yet. She is giving herself three months to find a man with acceptable genes and she will raise the child by herself. Annie is unsure what to do with her life and doesn't want Lucy to leave her behind.

One of the problems with "New Year's Day" is the Drew character. Drew meets these women and in another movie one of two things would happen. Either Drew would learn something about himself through these women or Drew would help the women discover something about themselves. Neither really happens in this movie. The Drew character is an on-looker, observing everyone at the party, claiming they are all insane.

Drew has the strongest interaction with Billy, as they discuss Billy's personality and Lucy, whom despite Drew's protest, we can tell he is attracted to. But the Drew character feels unnecessary because at the end of the day the character has no impact on anyone's life.

Mr. Jaglom plays Drew as if he were Woody Allen. Drew stares into the camera at the beginning and end of the movie addressing the audience in an attempt to teach us life lessons and come up with some clever observations. The problem is Mr. Jaglom is not Woody Allen. Mr. Jaglom lacks Mr. Allen's sense of humor and ability to come up with amusing life observations which have a hint of truth in them. Mr. Jaglom is not a profound thinker, an intellectual. So, his attempts at trying to get "New Year's Day" a deeper meaning don't succeed.

One sequence involves characters talking about taking out personal ads in the newspaper. One character says the reason people do it is because they are lonely and people want to connect with someone. That may very well be true but that is not the beginning and end of that discussion. For Mr. Jaglom it is. That is as profound as Mr. Jaglom gets. If you are going to have this discussion, which in today's terms would include on-line dating, the deeper question to ask is, why are people lonely? Why do people feel the need to have another person in their life? Why does that give us a sense of being complete? Don't people need to learn to accept themselves and be happy with who they are? You can't reply on other people to have a feeling of self-worth. Those questions are never asked.

There is also the question of what does Mr. Jaglom want to tell us about these characters? What is the audience supposed to walk away feeling and thinking from this movie? Love in New York is disappointing? People should learn the terms of their lease? Don't let strangers into your apartment? Women complain about not finding the right guy too often, when they are really the problem?

Nothing is clearly defined in "New Year's Day" however I am grateful Mr. Jaglom actually allowed himself to follow this story and not turn it into one of his "talking heads" movies where a question is brought up and for the remainder of the movie we hear every single character in the movie answer in the question, in a kind of documentary style of filmmaking. That approach becomes repetitive and boring. In 'New Year's Day" at least there are characters to follow with something that resembles a plot.

Of all the characters in the movie, Mr. Jaglom wants the audience to be the most taken with Lucy and wants the audience to sit amazed looking at Maggie Jakobson, whom would go on to greater fame for her work on various television shows. Audiences will probably best remember her as Janice on "Friends". Ms. Jakobson is a likable presence in the movie but that doesn't have to do with anything Mr. Jaglom has created in the Lucy character. I would believe Ms. Jakobson brought a lot of herself to the role. For example in he movie Lucy says she doesn't a lot of voice over work for animated shows, doing all the female characters. In real life that is what Ms. Jakobson did at the beginning of her career.

Unfortunately there is too much missing in "New Year's Day". We don't get a real sense of who these characters are. Nothing is said regarding the issues brought up concerning love, life and sex. The Drew character is not used properly. The audience sits and watches these characters and soon they disappear. The movie is over. What was it all about. Just like any other day in our life, we meet people, time passes, the day is over and we never see those people again. Now what?

Film Review: Battling Butler



"Battling Butler"  *** (out of ****)

It's a knockout for Buster Keaton in the silent comedy "Battling Butler" (1926).

If you were to ask most fans of silent comedy what they thought of "Battling Butler" the majority would say it is, at best, a second-rate Buster Keaton comedy. It lacks the inspiration and inventiveness of Keaton's "The General" (1926) or "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). This would also be what Buster Keaton fans would say about the movie. At one time I would have strongly disagreed with these type of comments. I used to praise "Battling Butler" and refer to it as Buster Keaton's funniest picture and my all-time favorite however after viewing it again I now, rather surprisingly, agree with the majority - somewhat. "Battling Butler" lacks the inspiration of Keaton comedies like "The General", "Battling Butler" is almost sit-com material although I do recommend seeing it. It does have some good comedy sequences.

What is most interesting watching Buster Keaton in "Battling Butler" is how Mr. Keaton won't completely succumb to the cliches of the romantic-comedy. Mr. Keaton has a lot of confidence in this comedic material and narrative. He sees no reason to engage in sentimental or semi-romantic scenes. With another filmmaker at the helm "Battling Butler" would have a bit more heart. It would have a larger role for the female character and a touch of romance.

However there are aspects of "Battling Butler" which don't feel Keaton-esque. It may be because the movie was based on a stage play of the same title. Mr. Keaton tries but can't thoroughly make this material his own. The Great Stone Face character is out of place in this story. Perhaps Joe E. Brown or Harold Lloyd would have been better suited for this story.

On the other hand one can see why Mr. Keaton would want to film this story. Mr. Keaton was very athletic and did perform his own stunts. Mr. Keaton's comedies relied heavily on physical comedy and slapstick. Mr. Keaton does a lot of running, jumping and falling in his movies. "Battling Butler" deals with boxing which gives Mr. Keaton plenty of opportunities to engage in physical comedy and display his athleticism.

Also lurking around "Battling Butler" is a story of masculinity. It is interesting to note just how many comedies often deal with this theme. The male character (the comedian) must prove himself as masculine in order to impress the female character he is attracted to. So the character must enter in the big race or fight the jock or score the winning touchdown in the football game, anything to prove he can "rough it" and use force instead of brains. This implies females like the "he-man" type and are impressed by strength.

In "Battling Butler" Mr. Keaton plays Alfred Butler. The movie begins with Alfred, who comes from a family of great wealth, sitting in the living room of the mansion his family owns, while his mother is babying him along with the butler and Alfred's valet. The valet (Snitz Edward, who was born in Hungary) is even removing a cigarette from Alfred's mouth and placing back inside once Alfred's exhales. This immediately established Alfred is privileged and dependent upon others. He can't even smoke a cigarette on his own. Meanwhile his father walks in and notices this spectacle. He looks on disapprovingly and suggest Alfred should go on a camping trip to help him "man up", do some hunting and fishing.

Without any protest Alfred agrees and has his valet arrange everything. On this camping trip the valet has set-up Alfred's tent, which is large enough to have a bed inside, prepare his meal, a small stove was brought along, and lays out Alfred's clothes for him.

While attempting to hunt Alfred meets a pretty girl, credited as "The Mountain Girl" (Sally O' Neil). She comes from a poor family and despite the difference in their social rank, Alfred claims he is in love. The Girl shows interest in Alfred as well even though the Girl's father (Walter James) and brother (Bud Fine) do not approve because they feel Alfred is a "weakling". In other words, Alfred is not manly enough.

What can Alfred do in order to gain the father's approval? Wanting to help matters the valet comes up with a plan. In the newspaper an article is written about an important light heavyweight boxing match going to take place. The challenger is called Alfred "Battling" Butler (Francis McDonald). The valet believes if the father and brother think Alfred is a boxer surely that would prove he is a man, a tough, rugged man. Alfred and the valet hope Alfred "Battling" Butler will lose the match against the champion, which will put an end to the matter, and Alfred can marry the girl.

Because this is a comedy, events aren't as simply as that. The unexpected happens and Alfred "Battling" Butler wins the championship. In order to keep the lie going Alfred and his valet must travel to the town where each fight is taking place while trying to prevent the Girl from coming along.

Events soon escalate and Alfred now finds himself in a situation where he must fight in the place of Alfred "Battling" Butler against the number one contender, the Alabama Murderer. Of course Alfred doesn't know how to fight. He is not in shape. And naturally the Girl is in attendance for the big fight.

There are three moments in "Battling Butler" which perfectly capture the appeal of the Great Stone Face character. Alfred wants to propose to The Mountain Girl. There is a love advice column in the newspaper about the very topic of how to propose to a woman. The article goes over the proper questions for the man to ask and the replies he may receive. Alfred cuts out the article and hides it in a place where he will be able to read it during his proposal. Alfred asks the Girl if she could love him. Alfred is not expecting a direct response, per the article, the Girl replies she does love Alfred. Alfred very calmly rips the article to shreds, takes the Girl in his arms and kisses her. No double take, no exaggerated gestures, just very calm, steady, deliberate actions. That was the Keaton character. He was never phased. He never allowed his emotions to show.

Next there is a moment when Alfred and the Girl are about to be married. Alfred has given the ring to his valet, but has forgot. The priest ask for the ring. Alfred checks his pocket. The valet immediately shows up and hands Alfred the ring. Imagine how another comedian would have handled this situation. The comic looks for the ring, can't find it, begins to panic. The bride begins to panic, the guest begin to panic. The priest looks on disappointed. Finally someone hands him the ring.

Some may not find humor in this and ask what is the appeal. As I understand it, the appeal is, life constantly throws us curve balls but The Great Stone Face doesn't allow himself to become upset. He is always thinking and reacting to every situation. That is the humor. How quickly he responds to the problem thrown his way and he does it all with a dead pan expression.

Finally there is a moment when Alfred learns, from the Girl's father, about an upcoming fight. Alfred doesn't blink an eye and ask his valet to arrange for their travel. Alfred is even calm when the Girl says she is going with him. Alfred immediately comes up with an excuse for why he doesn't want to see him fight.

"Battling Butler" was the highest grossing movie of Buster Keaton's career. His acclaimed masterpiece, "The General" was a flop. Both were released in the same year. It goes to show you the difference in commercial appeal and critical appeal. Critics (sheep) were not kind to "Battling Butler" but audiences went to see it. Today critics still don't like it and rather spend all of their time praising "The General".

"Battling Butler" is a decent comedy. It is worth watching and should not be ignored by movie fans. There are some good comedy sequences, and hints of what made The Great Stone Face character so appealing as well as a society commentary on masculinity and how women inspire men to "prove" themselves. Still, I cannot deny "Battling Butler" lacks some of the big laughs and inventiveness of other Buster Keaton comedies. But, for a comedy approximately 90 years old, one has to admit "Battling Butler" holds up pretty well. It is not a quintessential Keaton comedy but a worthwhile effort.