Red Har-Fest

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2017 by dcairns

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On Shadowplayer GSPegger’s recommendation we ran WHISTLING IN THE DARK, and that led us to watch the sequels, WHISTLING IN DIXIE and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN.

We’re fans of the original WITD, which stars the superb Ernest Truex, a fleeting attempt to make a movie star out of the Kick the Can/HIS GIRL FRIDAY actor, so we weren’t sure how we’d take to Red doing the same material. Also, the casting of Conrad Veidt as villain gave us pause — would this be tragic and mortifying like John Barrymore playing stooge to Kay Kyser? In the end, no — the movie isn’t too heavily indebted to its source, swapping gangsters for a sinister cult, and Veidt gets to retain his dignity by playing it straight, while still suggesting that he might just possibly be having some fun. “We part in radiant harmony.”

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We overcame our animosity to Skelton — OK, he still mugs a lot and projects an over-eager “Like me! Like me!” vibe, but the writing MAKES him likable, and he is given a warm relationship with co-star Ann Rutherford.

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How to characterise these things? Well, they are a lot like Bob Hope’s comedy-thrillers. Films two and three are mainly written by Nat Perrin, of Bilko fame. In fact, many of the wisecracks are only so-so, with Skelton’s devotion sometimes putting over weak-ish material and sometimes trampling it. But the comic situations are good, and Rags Ragland is an effective, if gruesome foil.

All the films have spectacular brawls, which get more and more protracted as the series goes on. Rutherford gamely throws herself into these Donnybrooks — literally. A fight involving both Ragland and guest heavy Mike “the murderizer” Mazurki in BROOKLYN threatens to burst the screen with sheer plug-ugliness. Director S. Sylvan Simon isn’t too subtle with the slapstick, but gets laughter building by piling on energetic knockabout stuff until it reaches the ceiling. Similar to the excess of Preston Sturges or the furious chases at the end of some W.C. Fields flicks. 30s and 40s visual comedy just isn’t as elegant as the silent kind, but works by a kind of aggressive overegging.

Also, Simon is very good at the light-hearted spookshow stuff, aided by very good sets and lighting, so there’s plenty of the requisite old dark house atmosphere. He’s a director I’ll have to look into some more.

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If Veidt emerges with dignity intact in DARK, the same can’t be said for George Bancroft in DIXIE. It’s kind of pitiful — the big hambone, who’s been impossible to work with during his “glory” years, is actually trying to give a performance in this nonsense, complete with southern accent. For his pains, he gets stripped to his long johns in a flooded chamber and repeatedly punched unconscious. All of which is pretty funny, and it’s George Bancroft it’s happening to, so it’s, you know, acceptable.

What beats the wisecracking and even the punch-ups is the terrifying situations Red and Ann keep getting into — the flooding chamber is just one. An elevator threatens to crush them against an iron grid in BROOKLYN, and then they’re bound with chains and threatened with disposal down a dark chute into the sea. Quips are funnier when there’s an edge of hysterical panic to them.

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The bit that got Fiona in hysterics was Red having trouble with a set of joke shop false teeth while trying to pass incognito through a police station while wanted for murder. Best falsers gag since MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. But there are several hilarious and kind of nerve-racking bits in each picture. Later in BROOKLYN, Red has his head compressed in a vice, and his dramatic rendition of the sensation — talking in a deep, slurred voice like a brain-damaged boxer — is funny yet horrific.

Also, an addendum to my observations on HULLABALOO, in which MGM spoofed Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Skelton here is playing a radio sleuth perhaps modeled loosely on Welles’ turn as The Shadow, and at the end of the first film he manages to broadcast to the nation while held prisoner by Veidt’s cult. But the local police don’t believe anything they hear on the radio, having made fools of themselves the previous year…

(Fake news is not new.)

Hammock Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by dcairns

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We had high hopes for PAGAN LOVE SONG, one of the last Esther Williams movies remaining to be watched. But while it certainly conforms to the easy-going vibe we enjoy in her films, this one’s a little TOO relaxed. An hour goes by without anything resembling dramatic tension at all, so that when some actual suspense is attempted over whether Howard Keel’s coconut crop is going to be ruined by rainfall, it was almost unbearable. His poor coconuts!

The film also features a tiny Rita Moreno, and as in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the poor thing doesn’t gets to sing or dance. The casting of Tahitians is hit-or-miss: Esther makes an unlikely half-Tahitian, but there are some genuine native actors whose untutored way with dialogue is a joy.

Plenty of swimming, at least, even if the movie resorts to a crazy dream sequence — Esther swimming in a tropical sky is a psychedelic delight, especially when little bubbles escape her smile, drifting off into the clouds.

SKIRTS AHOY! is actually a much better musical (despite Arthur Freed contributing lyrics, PLS has no memorable songs), with Esther doing her own singing for once, and some cameos by stars like Debbie Reynolds & Bobby Van. While we were unenthused going in due to the military theme, the subject of women in the navy (Waves, they call ’em) proved to be quite an interesting one, even if, being an MGM musical, the film was never going to get particularly in-depth, if you’ll excuse the nautical pun.

Skirts Ahoy! (1952) from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fiona’s very keen on this number, which makes good-natured fun of the whole “wet, she was a star” thing and allows Esther to use her own singing voice, which MGM rarely permitted.

Backstory: when Esther saw what the US navy’s swimsuits looked like, she insisted on redesigning them. Esther played a swimsuit designer in NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, and it seems to be a matter of principle with classic Hollywood pictures that whenever the story involves fashion, the costumes must always be hideous. Some kind of cultural inferiority complex stifling the wardrobe department? The gowns are normally lovely, of course, but the F word is the kiss of death. All the swimwear in ND is ridiculously impractical and dripping with unnecessary and very un-streamlined tassels and fringes. Our favourite was the Highland-themed one, “Scotch Mist.” But anyway, Esther’s actual designs for the Navy in this film are practical and attractive without a trace of fanciness.

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Scotch Mist. That’s not tartan, folks! Last time I looked there was no Clan Irene. Contrast this with the no-nonsense pool costumes below.

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Fanciness is allowed when Esther does her one big pool sequence, cavorting below surface with talented kids Kathy and Russell “Bubba” Tongay as mute subsidiary naiads. While lacking the pomp and potentially lethal spectacle of licensed maniac Busby Berkeley’s aquastravaganzas, this charming little number may be one of Esther’s best.

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Most of the Kansan sea-goddess’ films were written by women, and most of them are at least reasonably progressive, as well as uniformly good-humoured. In these troublous times, they constitute the perfect escape from reality.

 

Ed Sullivan’s Travels

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2017 by dcairns

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I don’t know if George Sidney needs to be elevated up a few notches among the cognoscenti, but he definitely deserves to be better known in general. his problem may be that his good bits — brazen, stunning musical cinema — are often contained in the same flawed films as his bad bits, but his good bits are transcendent.

Andrew Sarris lobs more backhanded compliments at Sidney in The American Cinema than you can shake Ann-Margret at, from the heading “lightly likable” to the specific putdowns (“has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” and “There is a point at which brassiness, vulgarity, and downright badness become virtues”) which are very funny, but don’t do justice to the creativity and dynamism Sidney brings to his work.

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BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), adapted from a Broadway show and reaching the screen rather too late to be topical about Elvis entering the army (five years previously), isn’t particularly clued up about the rock ‘n’ roll it attempts to satirize, but its gigantic parodies of pop culture still left us gaping at the screen like the first night audience of Springtime for Hitler.

The film stars Dick Van Dyke (his first movie), Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, with Paul Lynde as secret weapon. Jesse Pearson plays Conrad Birdie, the Elvisalike, with roughly the same appeal Alberto Sordi brought to THE WHITE SHEIK — hard to spoof sex appeal when you’re mainly repulsive, but credit is deserved for courage and shamelessness.

First jaw-dropper: Pearson causes all the girls in a small Ohio town to faint, and Sidney cranes up a mile high, blasphemously parodying the giant pull-back of Confederate wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Second jaw-dropper: Lynde, who overplays like a starving actor seeing scenery for the first time in a year, is transfixed by the thought of appearing on television with Ed Sullivan (“My favourite human!”) and has a Grouchoesque Strange Interlude, wandering into the foreground and provoking a ripple-dissolve by sheer overintensity, leading to a musical dream sequence in which he and his family, attired as a heavenly choir, sing “Ed Sullivan” ad nauseam and Lynde’s face becomes progressively more purple, like Luca Brasi getting strangled in THE GODFATHER.

Third jaw-dropper: when Lynde refuses to let his daughter kiss the rock star, Mrs. Lynde worries about the kid losing face. “If he stays here, that won’t be all she -” begins Lynde, before choking off in an excess of emotion. The censorship of the word “loses” actually makes this mildly smutty joke seem about six times more obscene.

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Fourth jaw-dropper: Janet Leigh, frustrated by her mother-obsessed fiancé’s failure to propose, crashes a meeting of some random fraternal society (dressed like The Sons of the Desert) and basically rapes most of them under a table. Or so it would seem: hard to know how else we’re meant to interpret it, as one shriner after another is yanked out of frame below the furniture as if beset by Bruce the Shark.

I think Van Dyke basically inventing super-powered Benzedrine and giving it to a tortoise who then jet-propels from the room probably counts too.

Elsewhere, there are less startling pleasures: “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do” are the most recognizable numbers. Maureen Stapleton plays Dick’s domineering mom, improbably enough — she was exactly his age, joining a select club with Jesse Royce Landis, whose character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST must have given birth to Cary Grant just as she was leaving the womb herself, like a kind of Russian doll, or a variant on that cartoon of three fish swallowing one another.

Sidney loses out on the chance to be a less sexist Frank Tashlin by staging a long, not-too-funny sequence where the conductor of the Russian ballet is slipped a capsule of Van Dyke’s speed, and proceeds to lead the production at 400% velocity. The anti-Americanism is funny, but this stuff is neither a sufficiently robust response to Kruschev, nor a questioning of the Cold War. It just dilutes the acerbic gusto (that word again) of the rest — but the prolonged, Hitchcockian build-up to the slapstick IS pretty funny, so outrageously does Sidney extend the wait.

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Oh, and there’s Ed Sullivan himself, who always looked to me like a version of Richard Nixon with third-degree burns, and it turns out the low-resolution TV picture was flattering him.

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Janet Leigh reprises her bra routine from PSYCHO, and Ann-Margret is alternately cute and terrifying (when her lips retract, yikes!), ending the picture by rattling her tits right at the camera. I think female viewers, or gay male viewers (at a musical?? surely not!) are slightly short-changed in the pulchritude department, since DVD is one of those hetero actors who projects no particular sexuality — he’s straight without ever seeming to want to do anything about it. I guess that’s a useful quality, since he has to be able to share screen time with “teenage” Ann-Margret without looking like he’s going to rip his shirt off and run amongst her.