Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: 2 "A" comedies

ANIMAL CRACKERS: I grew up watching comedy teams like Abbott & Costello (I liked them, especially their horror movie spoofs), Laurel & Hardy (so-so, but a bit slow for my tastes), Martin & Lewis (didn't really get them), and the Three Stooges (never liked them at all), but it wasn't until I was in college that I saw a Marx Brothers movie and I fell in love with them. Animal Crackers, made in 1930, was out of circulation for many years due to rights issues, but in 1974 it was re-issued in theaters and that's when I saw it. I was practically alone in the theater, and usually comedies are more enjoyable with a big audience, but I laughed myself silly and immediately wanted more Marx. In those pre-home video days, that was easier said than done, but luckily between the re-release of Animal Crackers and Groucho's recent concert tour, the Marxes were back in the media spotlight, and I managed to see many of their films at revival houses and campus showings.

Though casual fans probably best know and like their later MGM movies (such as A Night at the Opera), I prefer their earlier Paramount comedies, which were more whimsically anarchic and relied much less on the MGM formula that always involved a bland romantic couple which the Marxes help out. There is a plot in Animal Crackers--a famous painting is stolen at a weekend house party and the Marxes help (and hinder) the investigation--but it is cheerfully subverted constantly with extended comedy bits that have no relation to any plot thread at all: Harpo and Chico playing a crazy bridge game, Chico pestering a rich guy whom he knew years ago as Abie the Fishman, Groucho as an explorer telling his audience that he shot an elephant in his pajamas (and how the elephant got in Groucho's pajamas, he'll never know). Chico's musical bit at the piano, in which he starts a piece with a plodding melody but can't ever get around to finishing it, is his best solo bit in any of the brothers' films

The three brothers rule the film; Zeppo, the straight-man brother, fades into the background, but Margaret Dumont as the rich and stuffy Mrs. Rittenhouse is memorable as Groucho's best straight "man" ever (and she's even better in their later film Duck Soup). This was theoretically a musical, and two songs from it, "Hurray for Captain Spaulding" and "Hello, I Must Be Going," remained identified with Groucho for the rest of his career. The ending is so strange and almost surreal, I couldn't believe it made it into a major studio film: with the mystery more or less solved and all the characters gathered in one room, Harpo, who has been chasing lovely young blondes all along, sprays knockout gas at everyone, positions himself next to a pretty girl, then sprays himself unconscious. It's a weird but lovely way to bring the manic proceedings to an end. Duck Soup is a shorter, tighter movie, and has more famous lines and bits, but I still think this is my favorite

AUNTIE MAME: Rosalind Russell plays the rich madcap Mame Dennis who alters her partying life when she becomes legal guardian of her late brother's son Patrick. Her friends think that Patrick, like so many other things in her life, will be just a temporary distraction or passing fad, but she devotes herself to the boy, trying to expand his horizons and make him a free-thinker. When he becomes engaged to a stuffy, stupid high-class college girl, she holds a party which exposes her and her parents as asses. The plot is important, but it is Russell's movie all the way and she makes the most of a wonderful character. Though there is no gay content (except for a oddly-highlighted lesbian couple in an early party scene), the film has a high camp factor, not in a bad-movie way, but in the exaggerated humor and the almost over-the-top personality of Mame Dennis. Russell knows just how far to go and when to ease up so she doesn't lose the human touch and become just a drag queen caricature.

The young Roger Smith (pictured above, best known as a private eye on TV's 77 Sunset Strip) is excellent as the college-age Dennis, Coral Browne is fine as a pompous actress who is Mame's best friend, and Peggy Cass steals all of her scenes as the naive Agnes Gooch who is hired to transcribe Mame's memoir ("I'm her *sponge*," she growls). The movie is long and deliberately stagy, with blackouts and fade-ups just as in a Broadway play, and oddly, the one time the film is opened up, when Mame visits a Southern plantation with her boyfriend (Forrest Tucker), it loses steam. Maybe Mame is such a creature of the "stage," turning her everyday life into a performance, that she suffocates when given too much "reality." Russell was nominated for an Oscar and should have won. This is one of my comfort movies that I can put on to banish the blues or to make a snowbound weekend more bearable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: Annie, and then...

ANNIE HALL (1977): The archetypal Woody Allen movie, the one it still seems OK to like, the bridge from his “early funny” period to his “serious” movies. I don’t quite buy into that dichotomy as this one is both quite funny and fairly serious, as are many of his later movies, and it served as a model for the modern romantic comedy genre, at least up until the current crop of Seth Rogen-type, men-as-teenagers movies. In the main plotline, Woody woos, gets, and loses Diane Keaton (in a story that seems based on their real-life relationship), but almost as important as the comic love story are two other elements: the character study of the nebbishy hero (who would continue to be at the center of Allen’s films) and the romantic depiction of life in New York City (which would reach its peak in his next comedy, Manhattan).

Equally important is the style, which fractures time, not just in terms of narrative flashbacks and flashforwards, but in the way characters from the present actually go back in time to confront characters from the past: the adult Woody Allen sitting in his elementary school classroom, Diane Keaton’s mother (Coleen Dewhurst) in the 70’s chatting with Woody’s mom in the 40’s. Things that still make me laugh: Woody’s cocaine sneeze, the line from Janet Margolin about a headache as bad as Oswald’s in Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” the 9-year-old girl looking at the camera and saying “I’m into leather,” the surprise appearance of Marshall McLuhan. And the bittersweet ending is just right, though few of Allen’s imitators would dare to end their movies with the guy not getting the girl.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945): The best film version yet of the Agatha Christie classic, also known as Ten Little Indians. The plot: 10 people are invited to a house party on an isolated island--they don’t know each other and don’t know the host, a Mr. U.N. Owen. But after dinner, when the host doesn’t show up, they learn that they have been brought together because the phantom host (U.N. Owen = Unknown) thinks that each one of them got away scot free with some crime or some other bad behavior which should have been punished. One by one, each is murdered in ways foretold by a “Ten little Indians” rhyme. Is one of the ten the killer? Will anyone survive?

Because it’s a Hollywood movie (and because it’s based on a play adapted from the novel), this ending has a couple of noble survivors and an ending that ties up all the loose ends, as opposed to the very interesting novel which has a much bleaker conclusion. But even with the bland ending, this is vintage whodunit territory filled with tricky plotpoints and mostly excellent performances, especially from old pros Walter Huston, Roland Young, Judith Anderson, and Barry Fitzgerald (who overacts much less than usual). This film is apparently in the public domain and hence there are several dicey versions out there, none of them “restored” in any meaningful sense of the word, but still this is one to search out, especially for mystery fans. The acting and writing are good enough that, even knowing how it ends doesn’t spoil return viewings.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: All That Jazz

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979): Broadway director and choreographer Bob Fosse only made five movies, but two of them are on my favorites list, Cabaret and this one. The critics are right that it's self-indulgent, but when a someone makes a movie about his own (fictionalized) life, self-indulgence should be expected, especially when he uses Fellini's indulgent 8-1/2 as a model. The main character, based on Fosse, is a director (Roy Scheider) who, while working on editing a movie and staging a new Broadway musical, has a heart attack and looks back on his womanizing life. The movie presents his memories as dialogues with a death figure (Jessica Lange, at left) and as musical numbers staged in his imagination.

This film was influential in a couple of ways. First, the rapid-fire editing was picked up by directors of music videos at the dawn of the MTV era--and Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted" video is a direct homage to the "Take Off With Us" sequence in the movie. It was also, unfortunately, picked up by other directors and has become the default style for the movie musical, to the detriment of dance staged for film. (I liked Chicago and Moulin Rouge but the dance editing tends to make me cringe).

It also helped to set up another movie musical style, best exemplified by Chicago (originally a Fosse stage show). The classic movie musical had production numbers set in the "real" world with characters bursting out in song--Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story. Modern audiences supposedly find this unrealistic [well, duh, but they have no problem with Spider-Man and Darth Vader?] so now, thanks partly to All That Jazz, characters in musicals usually only sing when they're on a stage or fantasizing, even extending to the TV musical Glee.

The acting is solid, and I'm shocked that Leland Palmer, who is excellent as the director's wife, didn't go on to do more films. When I think of Fosse, I see Scheider, who inhabits the role perfectly. The ending is downbeat, but exhilarating in its audaciousness. This was the last movie I saw multiple times while it was playing in theaters. I was 23, out of college, and living on my own for the first time that winter of 1980, and as I didn't have a car (or any friends who lived nearby), I was stuck within walking distance of my apartment for entertainment. Luckily, there was a multiplex theater nearby, and when I discovered this movie, I went back to see it 10 or 12 times during the six weeks that it played (a couple of those times were later, at a second-run house after I got a car). Maybe I liked this movie so much because I had no life at the time, but it's held up over all these years, so I think there was more to my obsession than just having been a lonely gay guy dazzled by glitz and jazz hands.