film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

Ace In The Hole (1951)

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The sharp-eyed reader will note that I have a new tag category for my entries now – for this film joins Top Hat and Adam’s Rib as being a film where I suddenly understood why a given Hollywood notable I’d been hearing about all my life was….well, notable.  In this case, I finally Got It about why people speak so highly of Ace In The Hole’s Billy Wilder, who directed, produced, and wrote for the picture.

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In this case it was the script itself that made me sit up and take notice. Kirk Douglas stars as “Chuck Tatum”, a down-on-his-luck reporter trying to bounce back from a run of bad luck when he strolls into the head office for an Albuquerque daily paper.  He’s written for the big leagues, he brags – papers in New York, Chicago, and other big cities – but some drinking and philandering got him fired. He’s cleaned himself up, he swears, and is looking for a chance to get back on the job.  The bemused head editor agrees to take him on, but keeps Tatum on a tight leash for the ensuing year thereafter, sending him out to cover things like Boy Scout jamborees and low-level weather events.  Tatum grumbles a lot – in one scene he rants to the rest of the office about how bored he is – but everyone has learned to ignore him, and the head editor keeps sending him out to do puff pieces.

It’s while Tatum is on his way to one such puff piece – a charity rattlesnake hunt – that he discovers breaking news. He and his photographer Herbie (a fresh-faced Robert Arthur) have stopped for gas at a tourist trap in a tiny town, but no one is manning the station – because they’ve just rushed over to the cave behind the station, where the station owner’s son has just been trapped under a fallen rock.  Tatum rushes back to the cave, eager to cover the story and report on the rescue effort.  But when he hears their rescue plan should take only a few hours, however, he talks them into a more complicated plan, one that might take a few days.  Oh, and can he stay at the station and cover their efforts?…

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In the days when “fake news” is a popular insult, Tatum’s behavior seems pretty familiar as he massages the situation for the sake of the story. He cozies up to the local sheriff – a lackluster career lawman up for re-election – and promises to talk up his reputation if the sheriff keeps other newsmen away.  He persuades the victim’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who was on the verge of leaving him anyway, to stay around and play the loving spouse – and make thousands off the crowds now coming to watch the spectacle.  He makes very public visits to the cave every day to get his exclusive interviews with the victim Leo (Richard Benedict).  In short, he does everything he can to prolong the situation, riding Leo’s plight so hard that he nearly forgets that they’re supposed to be rescuing him.

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At the time of its release, other critics found the story pretty unbelievable. Tatum is heavily unpleasant (I turned to The Roommate during Tatum’s rant to his fellow reporters and said, “So, I’m just checking – it’s not just me, he’s a jerk, right?”), and manages to bowl over the locals involved in the rescue pretty easily.  Lorraine is also all too willing to play along for her own ends, going so far as to bring in a circus tent and carnival rides to cater to the growing crowd (a sign primly states all proceeds go to Leo’s rescue fund).  But Wilder was inspired by a similar pair of human-interest stories involving people trapped in caves – one is even name-checked during the film, with Tatum citing the reporter as a role model.  And from what we’ve seen of human nature in the years since 1951, it doesn’t require that much of a leap of imagination to accept that a reporter as persuasive and selfish as Tatum could cause a good deal of ruckus, particularly when he meets equally selfish people to collude with.  In fact, I found Wilder’s script to be remarkably astute, and that was part of its appeal for me.

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The leads are all fine and dandy, as well – I didn’t like watching Douglas as Tatum, but that had more to do with Tatum just being a jerk, and paradoxically speaks to how well Douglas was doing in the role.  The scenes that really stick with me, though, are all long crowd scenes, charting the growing spectacle; in one, a train pulls up across from the gas station, bearing a cloth banner proclaiming that it’s a special train rigged up to bring people to the site.  Passengers all start pouring out of the doors before the train even comes to a stop, everyone racing towards the cave and losing themselves in the huge carnival that’s sprung up alongside it.  And towards the end, after the events have run their course, there’s an equally-quick exodus of spectators, leaving Leo’s father wandering alone in the clearing before the cave, staring dumbstruck at the emptiness and silence and looking utterly small.

You know that if such an event happened today that someone like Tatum would be working to make #SaveLeo a trending topic on Twitter and that we’d be seeing Instagrammers posing for selfies by the cave, with the circus moving on just as fast – if not faster – when the whole thing died down.  And that, like I said, is why I found Wilder so prescient – he was writing about 21st-Century social media in 1951.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

Adam’s Rib (1949)

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Back when I saw Top Hatmy immediate reaction was “oh, now I get why everyone talks about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”  Similarly: on the evening of October 16th, 2019, I finally learned why people talk about Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn so glowingly.

Adam’s Rib doesn’t have the weightiest plot, to be honest; in its original review, the New York Times quipped that while it wasn’t “solid food”, the film was “meaty, juicy and comically nourishing“, and I’m inclined to agree.  Hepburn and Tracy star as Adam and Amanda Bonner, a pair of married New York lawyers with the city’s D.A. office.  They’re clearly fond of each other, and enjoy a comfortable life – lavish penthouse in the city, a second home in a cozy little Connecticut farmhouse – but keep things lively with spirited debates about legal and moral issues of the day.

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Like this news story that’s just made the papers one morning – a jilted woman, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) was just arrested for trailing her cheating husband to his girlfriend’s and firing a pistol.  We actually see the incident first thing – Doris is completely inept with a gun (she even has to consult a booklet first to see how to fire it), and it’s unclear whether she was aiming at anyone.  Regardless of her intent, she wounded her husband and is now charged with assault.  Adam and Amanda debate the story over breakfast – he feels it’s a clear-cut case from a legal standpoint.  But Amanda argues that if the genders were swapped, Doris would have been treated differently, and possibly not even charged. Still, it’s just an intellectual exercise for them both, just something to talk about as they head to work.

But then Adam is assigned the role of prosecuting attorney in Doris’ trial. And when he tells Amanda, she marches straight to the Legal Aid society and offers her service as Doris’ defense attorney.  And the battle commences!

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Now – anyone planning to watch this as a straight-up courtroom story may be in for some disappointment.  I’m no expert – my “legal education” consists of Law and Order reruns and one copywriting temp gig at Columbia Law School’s Alumni Magazine – but Amanda’s legal argument feels a little…far-fetched.  She could have easily made a case out of Doris’ maltreatment by her husband, and from her claim that she only meant to scare her husband. There’s enough cause for reasonable doubt there.  But Amanda chooses to turn the whole thing into a springboard for a larger debate on women’s overall equality, going so far as to bring in a small group of other women – wholly unrelated to the case – to testify about their own gender-based struggles and limitations in their chosen professions.  It was an interesting scene to watch today – even though it ultimately is played for laughs – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that as a legal argument, it didn’t seem like it’d hold water.

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Then again, watching this as a straight-up courtroom story is a mistake anyway.  You’re watching this to watch Hepburn and Tracy, period.  We see their courtroom debates, sure – but we also watch how the ongoing trial affects their home life. And for a while, it seems like the couple find each day’s debates a little…stimulating.  Tracy and Hepburn have a chemistry and an ease with each other that is delicious – flirtatious, comfortable, playful, even a little erotic (we don’t see anything sexual, but we do hear an offscreen smack of a kiss – and we hear an onscreen smack when Adam spanks Amanda during a massage).

The homefront playfulness fades as the stakes rise in the court, of course, and both get a little mean with each other – but you can tell this is a couple that has a history of deep love and respect, and will eventually put things right. The film even flirts with a plot twist that implies that the pair will break up, but I didn’t buy it in the slightest – and not just because “this is a romantic comedy and of course they won’t break up”.  I didn’t buy it because from what I’d seen onscreen, I knew Adam and Amanda weren’t going to break up. They were too in love and had been for too long.  And that is entirely thanks to the performances from Tracy and Hepburn, and the chemistry they share.

Amazingly, the performances weren’t nominated for any awards, it seems; the film’s only Oscar nomination came for the script – a collaboration between writer Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon, herself an actress with several Broadway credits in her past and some acting Oscars in her own future (but we’ll get there eventually).

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

Top Hat (1935)

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And thus on the evening of July 30th, 2018, I finally learned why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were such a big deal.

Look: I’ve said before that one of the reasons I’m doing this project is for self-education. I grew up in a small town with only a single multiplex, and the only indie theater complex nearby favored cult-classic stuff from the 1970s and cartoons for the kids.  Any late-night movies we got on TV were usually 60’s horror cheese.  There are vast swaths of film history I simply haven’t been exposed to properly.  Add in my aversion to most musical films, and that’s how I’ve managed to be ignorant all this time.

Not that I hadn’t heard of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Their fame and reputation were well established when I was a kid, and I’ve seen passing brief clips of one or another of their numbers, usually only a few seconds’ worth of segments in one documentary or another.  I knew that Astaire and Rogers were supposed to be good, and saw tastes of things here and there, but the penny still hadn’t dropped.

Watching one of their films properly makes the case.  Mind you, I found the plot utterly ridiculous – a romantic misunderstanding straight out of a Three’s Company episode drives the action, with Astaire and Rogers as a pair of singletons whom a married couple are trying to fix up.  Astaire is Jerry Travers, a showman who’s come to London to star in his friend Horace’s stage show – and Rogers is Dale Tremont, a model who’s come to meet her friend Madge’s new husband (Horace) as well as the gent Madge is trying to set her up with.  Travers runs into Tremont before they are formally introduced, and they both get flirty – until a chance misunderstanding leads Tremont to think Travers is actually Horace.  So for a surprisingly long time, she’s totally confused about why her friend’s husband is pursuing her – and why her friend is actually encouraging the situation.

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This is a plot device that always makes me roll my eyes, where the “problem” is something that could be solved in about two minutes if people just talked to each other like grownups.  Roger Ebert famously referred to these kinds of plots as “Idiot plots” – “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”  But like with the Marx Brothers, the plot really isn’t the point – it’s the dancing.  Even Roger Ebert’s review of Top Hat excuses the froth – “This is an Idiot Plot, yes, and could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue, but there are times when nothing but an Idiot Plot will do, and we are happy to play along.”

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Speaking of idiots – when it comes to dance, I am one.  But – Astaire’s talent was completely and nakedly obvious even to a rube like me.  Right from the first – Astaire’s first number was a tap solo in Horace’s hotel room, and managed to be intricate and athletic yet somehow….poised and elegant at the same time.  He was energetic as all hell – dancing rings around the room – but suave, elegant and graceful no matter how fast the feet were flying.

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And then Ginger Rogers joined the party.  Their first duet was on a gazebo the pair were trapped under during a rainstorm; up to this point, Tremont’s been kind of cold towards the obviously smitten Travers, but over the course of the dance – and through the dance – you can see her assert herself, Travers’ ardor becomes more of a conversation, and the pair finally connect.  And it happens with a dance.

The real showstopper is Dancing Cheek to Cheek, which comes after Madge has all but thrown Tremont into Travers’ arms while all are on vacation in Venice.  Tremont is understandably conflicted – she still thinks Travers is Horace, but she’s falling for him – and Travers is already smitten, and ecstatic he’s dancing with her.  This is one of the numbers that gets trotted out in a lot of clip shows and has been featured in other movies, and with good reason – it is graceful and gorgeous and elegant and….eh, using words doesn’t seem to work.  It left me nodding and wistful and thinking “ah, now I get it.”

That scene also has a backstage-anecdote punch line.  Fred Astaire was a superlatively smart dresser and was opinionated about all his costumes – the top-hat-and-tails were usually his idea, as were the blazer-and-button-down-with-tie his characters wore in casual moments.  However, he also took into account how a costume would look while dancing.  Rogers decided to do the same this time, and for this particular number chose a dress festooned with hundreds of ostrich feathers; the choreography featured a lot of dips and swings, and the feathers would flow beautifully.  But the chosen dress hadn’t been built to withstand dancing this vigorous, and during the first take the dress started shedding.  Astaire hit the roof, snapping that the pair looked “like a chicken getting attacked by a coyote” because of the feathers flying everywhere.  Astaire and Rogers had a blowup on set, with Rogers’ mother even coming into the fray – but Rogers won, with the condition that they draft a couple seamstresses to spend all night sewing all the feathers more securely to the dress before trying again the following day.  (Even so, you can see a couple feathers getting shook loose during the scene.)

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The famous duo made up soon after, and even used the incident as an in-joke; Astaire used the nickname “Feathers” for Rogers on and off forever after, and on the last day of filming he presented Rogers with a gold feather charm for her charm bracelet, singing a parody of their famous number he’d made up:

“Feathers, I hate feathers,
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak….”