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

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

There was a lot going on here, and ultimately I was fascinated by this film.

During the Korean War, Major Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) is in a platoon captured during a skirmish with Chinese forces; but three days later, he and his comrades return to their home base, with Marco stating that they were saved by squad leader Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), save for two men. Shaw deserves the Medal of Honor, Marco insists – for he is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The others in the squad say the same – and, oddly, they use those exact words. But Shaw is thus honored and the men all discharged from combat.

Marco is assigned to a position with Army Intelligence. But he seems to have been affected by his capture – for instance, he keeps having weird dreams about his platoon all sitting in on the stage in some kind of amphitheater, being discussed by a group of observers; at some point, he dreams Shaw is ordered to kill their two missing platoon members as everyone coldly watches. The spectators at this event are an odd bunch as well – sometimes he dreams they’re a ladies’ gardening club, but other times he dreams they’re a bunch of Russian and Chinese diplomats. Marco chalks it all up to shell shock – until he gets a letter from another fellow platoon member, claiming he’s having the very same dream. The coincidence is enough to prompt Army Intelligence to interview them both, showing both men photos of known Chinese and Russian spies. When both men recognize a couple as figures from their dream, the Army realizes they’re both actually flashing back to a brainwashing scheme – one which has set up Shaw as an assassin.

Marco agrees to cooperate with the continuing investigation. He first visits Shaw, who has since left the Army and become a reporter – against the wishes of his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather John Iselin (James Gregory). Iselin is best known for McCarthy-like anti-Communist stunts, but Eleanor is the real power figure in the couple, and the more liberal-minded Shaw wants nothing to do with either. But Eleanor seems to know an awful lot about exactly how Shaw was programmed and how to trigger his conditioning, and Marco races to discover how to deprogram his comrade and what Eleanor’s ultimate plan is, before it’s set in motion.

One of the things that struck me about this film is just how weird it got in places. Marco’s dream sequence starts out looking like that garden club, with Marco and Shaw and their comrades sitting impassively on a stage surrounded by women speaking intently about breeding hydrangeas. But after a couple minutes, suddenly we see the women have turned into a group of men, discussing mental conditioning. And then when Shaw is ordered to kill his first comrade – we cut back to the women’s club applauding politely. But then it’s the women talking about mental conditioning. And then the men about hydrangeas. And the whole time Marco and his comrades are sitting there looking bored, even when Shaw is choking one of them to death. It’s a lot to take in – but not so much that it would turn off anyone, and is instead exactly enough to provoke curiosity about just what the hey is going on.

Other similarly weird moments crop up throughout – particularly when Shaw has been “triggered”, including one moment when he’s set off accidentally and heads to Central Park for a swim.

Eleanor’s ultimate motivation is an intriguing mystery as well. For most of the film she comes across as a sort of 60s version of Lady MacBeth, pushing both Shaw and Iselin into attaining the political notoriety she wants but can’t have as a woman. And yet there’s a moment that lead me to suspect her motives were even more complicated still – it’s best I not divulge – but even though the matter isn’t quite cleared up by the film’s end, I was still intrigued they even just raised the question.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was Frank Sinatra himself. His work in The Man With The Golden Arm already caught my eye – but his performance here completely overcame my last lingering pre-judgement of the man. In my defense – I’d grown up at a time when Sinatra, like Bob Hope or Dean Martin, was kind of seen as a has-been – a dude who’d been popular when my parents were kids but now was out in Las Vegas doing retreads of his older work for other older folks reminiscing about their glory days. But the thing with “has-beens” is that they once were something, and finally seeing what he had been was illuminating.

My one complaint with the film was that the two romantic subplots get short shrift; Janet Leigh has an all-too-small role as “Rose Cheyney”, a woman Marco falls in love with after a brief and baffling conversation on a train, and Leslie Parrish is “Jocelyn Jordan”, a free-spirited socialite Shaw marries against his mother’s wishes. Jocelyn is little more than a plot device, and Rose is even less of a presence. But these are small complaints compared to the rest of the film.

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The Horror Of Dracula (1958)

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For a couple decades mid-Century, the British film company Hammer was kind of a big deal – particularly for its horror films. Part of the draw for film goers was that Hammer films didn’t shy away from gore and Gothic monster stuff – and as time went on, they leaned into that, to the point that it started to feel a bit over-the-top and corny; when gore no longer was a draw, they tried playing up the sex until that didn’t work either. The later Hammer works sound definitely like they would match anyone’s impression of a 50s or 60s “B-movie” or drive-in feature.

But this 1958 adaptation of the famous ur-vampire story was at the beginning of their heyday – and I think I get why they became a thing in the first place.

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I talked a lot about adaptations during my original reviews of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and how sometimes over-faithfulness to the original work can do a film a dis-service. This adaptation definitely plays fast and loose with the original story – ditching some plot threads and characters entirely, changing some other characters’ relationships and completely doing away with some of Count Dracula’s powers. But they were really smart about it, and their tweaks ultimately made up a retelling that was lively, attention-getting and much easier to follow.

For example: in the original work, the character “Jonathan Harker” is a real estate solicitor Count Dracula has summoned for a more mundane business deal, and he gets bit by a couple of Dracula’s minions and turns up in a hospital in Budapest with some mysterious blood loss. No one even suspects Dracula is a vampire until he turns up in England and starts snacking on some women there, and the character “Van Helsing” only comes on the scene when Harker’s fiancée “Mina” sees her bestie “Lucy” start to succumb to the same weird blood loss Harker is facing. There’s a whole weird love triangle between Mina, Harker, and the Count, another one with Lucy and a bunch of guys, and a whole lot of primly-worded letters back and forth to people across three different countries while Van Helsing, Harker, and company all figure out how to corner the Count and do him in.

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Here, we cut straight to the chase – Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) already knows Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a vampire, and has gotten himself a job at Dracula’s castle as part of a plan he’s cooked up with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to stake him and get things over with. But Dracula finds him out and turns the tables on him, causing consternation in the home of his fiancée – who instead is Lucy (Carol Marsh), and is only a couple towns over instead of all the way in England. But Lucy herself is mysteriously ill, and is being tended to by Mina (Melissa Stribling), who is already married to Mina’s brother. Van Helsing turns up a few days later in search of Harker, checks in with Lucy and Mina, and quickly figures out not only that Harker failed in his mission, but that Dracula has now targeted Lucy – and after that, he’ll probably move on to Mina. Working with Mina’s husband Arthur (Michael Gough), he comes up with a new plan to track the Count down and do him in once and for all.

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That is a way simpler distillation of the plot – doing away with all the extraneous stuff which adds color to the text when you’re reading, but bogs things down when you’re watching. It’s similar to the cuts which the Universal film made, so director Terrence Fisher probably knew it would work. And it does work – this film had a quick pace that grabs you right at the start, and it’s easy to follow the story from the word go – even when they throw in some brief “comic” bits involving a paranoid innkeeper or a bureaucratic guy manning a toll booth. Fisher also had the advantage of some better technology – the special effects that he has just plain work better, and he also has the gift of color film instead of the black-and-white of the 1930s.

Fisher also had some really smart people working on the film – particularly Christopher Lee in the title role. In a later interview, Lee confessed that he found the famous Bela Legosi depiction a little ridiculous – ” Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak.” Lee ignored all other actors’ takes on the character and instead studied the book – and picked up on an erotic note to the character which other actors had previously ignored. He leaned into that – Legosi’s Dracula stares creepily at his prey, but Lee’s Dracula stares lustfully. It’s a much more “magnetic” performance, and better explains the compulsion Dracula has over his victims. Fisher worked that erotic undercurrent into the rest of the film; when filming one scene, in which Mina comes home after having been lured out by Dracula, Fisher advised Stribling to play it as if she’d just come home from one hell of a one-night stand.

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These same elements – the quick pacing, the erotic subtext, the willingness to diverge from the source material – probably shot Hammer in the foot later on. But here they got the balance precisely right, and it was easy for me to see how Hammer Horror was able to capture people’s imaginations for so long.

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Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday marked Audrey Hepburn's coronation as a movie star ...

Audrey Hepburn was a 100% absolute queen and I will not be told different.

It’s fitting, then, that her first starring role is as a princess – the cloistered and closely-guarded Princess Ann, heir to an unknown European nation and off on a whirlwind post-War goodwill tour of Europe. Every step she takes is pre-scheduled, every statement is pre-scripted, and she is chafing under her tight leash by the time she arrives in Rome. When she snaps at her chaperone one night at bedtime, the royal doctor gives her a sedative – she has a full schedule the next day and she needs her rest.  But before it can kick in, Ann makes her escape – shimmying out a window and hiding in a delivery van to sneak out of the embassy.  She enjoys a few minutes of wandering around one of Rome’s piazzas before the drugs finally kick in, and she falls asleep on a park bench near the Forum. Posterazzi EVCMBDROHOEC015 Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck ...

She’s soon discovered by Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a cynical reporter who doesn’t recognize her and thinks she’s just another tourist who’s had a bit too much vino. Joe chivalrously brings her back to his flat to sleep it off.  It’s not until the next morning when Joe heads into the press office for his day’s assignment that he realizes just who’s sleeping in his place.  He excitedly promises his boss an exclusive with the princess – whom the embassy has been claiming is bedridden with an illness – and hurries home to where Ann is just waking up, understandably alarmed about where she is.  Joe keeps quiet about him knowing who she is, and reassures her she’s fine and nothing happened – and adds that hey, how about they hang out today?  Get to know each other better, y’know?

Joe keeps his true motive under wraps – but so does Ann, who turns him down, and makes as graceful an exit as possible. But she’s not headed back to the embassy; she’s just out for a wander, exploring Rome on her stolen day off.  Joe secretly tails her at first, taking notes as she samples small pleasures like a fancy new hairdo, a bit of gelato, a seat in the sun on the Spanish steps.  He “conveniently” bumps into her again after a bit, this time with his buddy Irving (Eddie Albert) – a photographer friend he’s hastily summoned – and offers again to play tour guide.

Jess in a Yellow Dress - Roman Holiday Fashion Tips

Joe and Irving squire the ecstatic Ann on a grand adventure through Rome, exploring monuments and sipping champagne and nearly crashing a Vespa before the three head out dancing.  Ann is getting pensive as night falls, knowing that she’ll have to return to her real life in the morning – and Joe, who’s been writing down their adventures, starts to have second thoughts about his expose – and about what he thinks about Ann.

The denouement is probably the most conventional bit of this film. You know that Joe’s probably not going to go ahead with his planned article, and that Ann and Joe would end up sweet on each other.  But in another film they would have found a way to reconnect later; here, it’s pretty clear that this one day is all they’ll have.  They do see each other one more time when Joe turns up in the press scrum at Ann’s rescheduled conference; but somehow both manage to say their lovers’ farewells, with Joe wordlessly reassuring her that he will keep their adventure under wraps and just between the two of them.

Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, Audrey Hepburn, 1953 ...

I’ll say it again – Hepburn is a queen.  Or more accurately, she becomes one over the course of this movie.  Her Princess Ann is an incredibly rich performance – the petulant fed-up Ann at the beginning of the film grows up into a regal presence by the end, able to command authority in her chaperones simply by giving a sidelong glance.  And in between she is the ordinary girl living in the moment she desperately wants to be. Her smile when the hairdresser flatters her new haircut is radiant.

And Hepburn is funny.  There are some early moments of physical comedy as Joe helps the dazed Ann to safety – but they’re not overly broad or slapsticky.  They’re just….funny.   Joe initially plans to have Ann sleep on his couch while he cozies down in his own bed – but things shake down quite differently, and it’s a masterwork of physical comedy.

Cocosse | Journal: Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth) / Rome

Fortunately everyone involved seemed to realize just what a prize they had in Hepburn.  During her screen test, director William Wyler suspected that she had a goofball side, and had the casting director capture some candid footage of her to go with the dignified audition scene she’d been given.  It was the candid stuff that got Hepburn the role.  Peck also loved working with her as well – the famous scene when Joe teases her at the “Mouth of Truth”, pretending his hand has been bitten off, was an ad-lib, because Peck suspected it would get a fabulously fun reaction out of Hepburn.  Peck originally had star billing on the film, but was so impressed by Hepburn that he asked producers to move her smaller “Introducing Audrey Hepburn” credit to top billing in the credits.  She’d earned it, he said.

Damn straight she did, because she is a queen.

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Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

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So.  You know how I grumbled and grumped about movie musicals in the past?  You know how I said that the last film, An American In Paris, should have stuck to the dancing and left out the plot?  You know how I said that I’ve accepted that I’m a major cynic about movie musicals?  Especially jukebox musicals?

I….I think I found one that I like.

I think this time they went with a concept that kind of just works.  This time the story is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, and deals with the switchover from silent films to talkies.  Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star with a vaudeville past (his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo, played by Donald O’Connor, is the music director for all his films and is an offscreen sidekick as well).  He’s often playing the romantic lead in films with ditzy Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), and bristles at how the fan magazines suggest they’re a couple in real life.  ….Lina actually believes the press, which makes it worse.  But then Don meets a pretty chorus girl, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who has loftier ambitions.  Don tries to get acquainted, but Lina tries to interfere.

However, then their studio discovers talkies – and the studio discovers they have a problem with Lina. During a test screening for “The Dueling Cavalier”, Don and Lina’s first talkie, the audience laughs uproariously at Lina’s heavy Queens accent. On the other hand, Kathy’s just starting to make a name for herself with her own fine singing voice – and while Lina is caught up in some emergency elocution lessons, she and Don have been falling for each other.  During one of their dates, Don has a brainstorm – they can team up with Cosmo to write some music numbers, and re-cut “The Dueling Cavalier” as a musical, using Kathy’s voice dubbed in under Lina’s image.  Just this once.  They won’t tell Lina, even!  The studio head is all for it, and set immediately to work, preparing a huge publicity launch to introduce Kathy as “the voice behind the scenes” as well.

But then Lina finds out – and is not happy with the situation at all.  And vows to stop them.

So, it’s profoundly silly.  Maybe the fact that this is set in the never-never land of Hollywood makes the frothy ridiculousness of a musical somehow make sense.  There’s more logic to someone on a stage set randomly bursting into song than there is on a Paris street, at least, and the big dance numbers that bring the whole show to a halt can spring more naturally from “hey let’s show the boss our new act” or “hey let’s work out the latest number”.  Or even “hey let’s make fun of this voice coach by ad-libbing a riff on the tongue twisters he’s teaching us” or whatever.

Or maybe…this is just plain fun.  Instead of being a “Jukebox” by one artist, where they try to come up with excuses to cram in as many of their greatest hits, this film is a collection of fun and silly songs from the 1920s and 1930s.

And it also has a couple of numbers that even I acknowledge are impressive.  Donald O’Connor gets a big solo with “Make ’em Laugh”, an ode to comedy which sees him doing pratfalls and backflips and other acrobatic gallivanting around a soundstage.

And then of course….there is the title number. I’ve always kinda liked the song “Singin’ In The Rain” itself; it’s infectiously joyful, it’s easy to sing, and it’s nearly ubiquitous.  And – I confess to having actually sung it to myself when caught in the rain on my way home from dates in the past.  I’ve also seen the clip of Gene Kelly’s big solo dance to the song, and got caught up in his sheer exuberance and joy – Don Lockwood is having the time of his damn life, and Gene Kelly is also having the time of his life performing it. And even though I’ve seen it before – it is utterly infectious.

Seeing that made me dig up something I remembered from when I was a kid – Gene Kelly was actually the last guest on the old Muppet Show.  There was a running gag on the show that the Muppets were trying to get Gene to perform, but he wanted to just sit and watch this time. And he seemed especially reluctant to sing “Singin’ In The Rain” for people – even when he sees that Kermit has gone to great lengths to recreate the set from that famous dance in hopes.

But the show ended with Gene singing a medley of some of his film hits for the gang backstage – and then finally relenting and singing a few lines of “Singin’ In The Rain”.  Towards the end of the bit, he strolls out onto the old set, looks around at it with a fond smile, then smiles into the camera and walks off – and if you look close, you can see that even here, he can’t resist doing a little shuffle-step for a second.

He loved doing this number. You can tell.

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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.

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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).

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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If you look back through my review for films with Jimmy Cagney, you’ll notice an interesting progression.  I started with a low opinion of him, based on some clips I’d seen years ago and found unimpressive.  But over the course of a handful of films, I discovered his acting chops…and then his dance prowess…and then with Yankee Doodle Dandy, we finally come to the film that soured me on him all those years ago.  And it’s time for me to admit that I owe Jimmy Cagney an apology.

In my defense, the film doesn’t do him any tremendous favors – at least from the perspective of today.  It’s a fairly standard show-biz biopic, telling the story of theater showman George M. Cohan – the vaudevillian-turned-Tin-Pan-Alley-composer who wrote the spirited patriotic standards “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There”, plus “Give  My Regards To Broadway” and countless other show tunes from Broadway’s early years.  FDR awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 1942, an event that serves as the framing device for the film; at the top of the film, Cohan has just come out of retirement to play FDR in a new Broadway comedy, and after his curtain call he receives a telegram inviting him to the White House.

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He heads to Washington right away, is quickly shown into the Oval Office, and within a few brief minutes has started reminiscing about his life story, triggering a two-hour retrospective flashback covering Cohan’s birth, childhood in a vaudevillian family, initial early struggles, breakout success, ascendancy to fame, retirement, and a brief period of dotage before his return to the stage.  There are scores of musical numbers, scenes from his family’s act and his own musicals. There are scenes of him at a piano, frowning in concentration for a moment or two before finally getting an idea and hastily tapping out the tune to something the world now knows by heart. There are scenes when he is down on his luck but vows to just hang in there.  There are dancing girls and waving flags and World War I doughboys marching off to war whistling his songs.

There is, in short, nothing in the plot that you haven’t already seen in plenty of other biopics about famous showmen.  The film is more like a greatest-hits album than anything with a narrative; any “problems” are neatly resolved within minutes, and any “struggle” is also similarly dispatched with ease so that we can move on to the next Big Hit From The Songbook.

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It’s not anything I’d watch if it were a modern tale about a fictional person.  It’s doubtless I’d watch a modern remake like this even if it was about Cohan.  But at the same time, I can’t ignore that this came out a few months after Pearl Harbor, at a time when the United States was no doubt desperate for some heartwarming, sentimental rah-rah patriotism and good vibes, and so even while I want to cringe at moments like the staged recreations of that famous Spirit of ’76 painting or other similar numbers, I also am reminding myself that this was absolutely and exactly what audiences at the time were desperate for.

And – I have to say that Jimmy Cagney is one of the reasons why I’m able to forgive it.  Ironically, Cagney was not Cohan’s first choice for the part – Cohan was hoping to get Fred Astaire, whom he greatly admired.  Cagney wasn’t all that fond of Cohan either – Cohan was a little too much of a red-blooded Conservative for the progressive Cagney.  However, fate took a hand in things – first Fred Astaire turned down the part, since he felt Cagney’s dancing style was too stiff and clunky for him to recreate in a film. And as for Cagney, he was starting to get some unwelcome attention from the government due to suspicion he was a Communist.  So when Cohan and company next offered Cagney the part, Cagney jumped at the chance to deflect rumors of un-American activity by playing an uber-patriot – not just playing him, actually, but becoming him.

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Ironically, Cagney was so good at becoming George Cohan that that’s what lead to my initial distaste. The clips I’d seen before now all featured Cagney “singing” all the songs in this sort of spoken-word sungspiel, the kind that I’ve always associated with “this actor can’t sing but we had to cast him anyway and so we’re putting up with it”.  To my great surprise, I learned that this was how Cohan actually sang in his own shows; Cagney could sing all along, he was just taking on Cohan’s style.  He took on Cohan’s dancing style as well – a sort of wind-up toy stiff-legged thing, all stiff back and jerky kicks, but fast, blindingly fast and energetic.  It is indeed way off what the smooth and suave Astaire would have done – but Cagney throws himself into it, with all the gumption he has to spare (he was reportedly so enthusiastic he sprained his ankle twice during filming).  Whatever reservation Cagney may have initially had about the part, he left it behind.

Cohan was won over by his performance, heaping praise on the movie and calling Cagney “a tough act to follow” at the premiere.  Critics were also effusive in their praise, including awarding Cagney a Best Actor Oscar that year.  And…I have to admit, Cagney has also at long last won me over.  I’m still not wildly impressed by the film, but watching the film that put me off Jimmy Cagney has finally won me over to him again at last.

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….”