Archive for Benny Goodman

Old School

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2012 by dcairns

When John Waters appeared at Edinburgh Film Fest to talk about his career and his monologue-movie THIS FILTHY WORLD, he spoke of the tragedy of Divine’s passing — not only did his star miss out on the success of HAIRSPRAY, but his death cast a pall over the film. “Who would say ‘Let’s go see that comedy starring that guy who just died?’” he asked, rhetorically. This didn’t stop a drunken female fan in the audience from bellowing “I would!” Waters, who is a real gent, which one might not guess from some of his movies, looked slightly pained, and answered, with great restraint, “Yes, but you know what I mean.”

Well, I’d been meaning to revisit THEY ALL LAUGHED, and Ben Gazzara’s passing seemed as good a reason as any. Fiona had never seen it. While not having Gazzara around any more is a cause for sadness, in a way it was good to see the film with a slightly different pall over it than the usual one, which is of course due to the presence of Dorothy Stratton, murdered before the film came out. And it’s hard to separate that tragedy from the movie’s history. When the distributors decided to write the film off, Bogdanovich bought it back from them and distributed it himself, which bankrupted him.

So the movie has baggage — it also has John Ritter, who died much too soon, and a lingering view of the twin towers during the opening credits. A pretty heavy load for a movie to bear when it’s trying to coast along on charm.

Because there’s virtually no plot, something which perplexed me when I saw it as a kid (it was one of the few movies our local VHS/Betamax rental place had in stock). I got the distinct impression I was missing something — a bunch of characters are set in motion for obscure reasons, move around Manhattan, get up to mysterious stuff, switch partners, fall in love, and then it’s over. I grasped that some of the men were private eyes, and I grasped who they were following — Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratton — but since the husband-clients who engaged the ‘tecs spend most of their time offscreen, and are virtually never seen conferring with their hired snoopers, I had little idea why anything was happening. It’s like Truffaut says to Hitchcock, whenever A & B are discussing an absent C, the audience scratches their scalps and wonders who the hell C is.

On top of the puzzlement, there’s an almost total lack of dramatic tension, a necessary ingredient in farce and screwball, I’d have thought. Some of the slackness comes from our not being sure what’s afoot, some of it from a genuine sense of there being nothing at stake. The characters deal with romance in such an easy-going manner — the film takes it as read that everybody is unfaithful to everybody else, and nobody seems to mind except a couple of unsympathetic husbands — that it’s hard to get engaged with the entanglements of the lead characters.

Yes, characterS — the hero role is split between Gazzara and Ritter. BG brings movie-star manliness and dignity to a bed-hopping character who arguably lacks dignity in some key ways, while Ritter, as absolutely everybody has pointed out, is playing Bogdanovich, down to the blazer and big plastic specs. His impersonation is so good he illuminates the ways in which Ryan O’Neal before him had channelled the Bogdanovich persona. But O’Neal’s own, more muscular personality still came through, whereas Ritter is subsumed.

The other cast member who suffers is Colleen Camp, who most people seem to find annoying in this. I think the problem is that she’s been drilled in the mannerisms of Madeleine Kahn in WHAT’S UP, DOC? (herself modeled on the henpecker in BRINGING UP BABY), and it’s too one-note, especially as the character has more screen time and seems intended to be at least somewhat appealing.

BUT — there are compensations for all of the above, even for those who don’t like country music (yes, it’s set in New York and has a largely country music soundtrack, with a splash of Sinatra and Benny Goodman). Bogdanovich’s conceit of transposing screwball style onto a 1981 location-shot New York movie is, in itself, quite charming. Patti Hansen (now Mrs Keith Richards) is a sensational discovery (rather eclipsing Stratton) as the lady cab driver who casually flirts with Gazzara. She’s got cute freckles and an unselfconscious manner which suggests she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing but trusts it all to work out.

There’s a very young Elizabeth Pena!

Bogdanovich’s daughters play Gazzara’s daughters, and are terrific — everybody’s got the Bogdanovich 40s timing down pat.

Audrey Hepburn has too little to do — it’s an odd romantic comedy which spends most of its time stalking — but when she finally gets a line or two, the film gains emotion. But it’s weird, with one character getting divorced, how Hepburn never seems to consider ditching her fat-cat hubbie for new love Ben. Hard to feel heartbroken for her. Maybe she’s afraid she’d lose custody of her kid, but if so, that’s a dramatic point which the film ought to bring out. It’s as if PB is so intent on keeping things light, he forgot to charge the story’s batteries with some actual motivating power.

To be honest, skipping through the director’s filmography, it’s a problem I tend to find in his original screenplays. Where the source material provides an edge, you get THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Where he has to engage with the dynamics of the thriller, as in TARGETS, it’s rather electrifying, in part because of his discomfort with the nastier qualities of the genre (and his story collaborator, Polly Platt, was a good influence). But Bogdanovich on his own wrote AT LONG LAST LOVE — not as awful as its reputation suggests, but singularly lacking in forward momentum.

The movies Bogdanovich admires usually only seem to coast along. While I admit I can’t remember a thing about the storyline of TOP HAT, I do recall that THE GAY DIVORCEE sets up narrative expectations early on and even delivers a superb plot twist. And Hawks’ disparagement of plot should never be taken at face value — his characters nearly always have goals.

In the end, THEY ALL LAUGHED is pretty enjoyable — we didn’t know precisely why we were watching, but we never felt like switching off. And the film would appear to be seriously overlong, at nearly two hours, but survives. I can’t resent its formlessness too much — the plots of Bogdanovich’s best films, which are seriously good (PAPER MOON was my first exposure to The New Hollywood, and I still love it) always threaten to disintegrate, and hang together against the odds. So one should allow him the odd film which doesn’t quite make it to the finish line intact. The sad thing about his career is that Hollywood, or the public, or fate, did not allow him these “failures”.

Ants In Your Plants

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937 is one of those uneven-by-design revue movies — with minimal plot and mismatched stars — of which poor Mitchell Leisen handled several. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a kind of demented masterpiece, and there are definitely high spots amid the floating debris of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, including a touching rendition of “Thanks for the Memories,” (featuring Bob Hope, not usually Mr. Sentiment), a slapstick dance number by Martha Raye, and various comedic stylings by WC Fields, who plays pool and steps on a fellow human being’s head, but TBBO37 is lumbered by a script which unites disjointedness with witlessness, although there’s one good line: “Talking to her is like shaking hands with an empty glove.”

The empty glove is Gracie Allen, for whose comedy I’ve always had something of a blind spot. Her characterisation of kooky idiot-woman who gets everything wrong seems somehow… lacking in nuance. George Burns as a younger man just doesn’t make any sense to me. And he seems like a thug. Actually, all the men in this movie are louts, from venal agent Ray Milland (a Leisen favourite, which sometimes seems reasonable and sometimes, like here, inexplicable), snide radio producer Jack Benny, and egotistical singer Frank Forest.

Forest at least gets a good musical number, allowing Leisen to indulge his enthusiasm for mood lighting and all things South of the Border. He’s not the most coherent dance director, tending to pile together overlapping layers of dancers, all doing different things, the ones in the foreground too close to comfortably follow with the eye or the camera, but the designs and compositions here are sumptuous kitsch.

In fact, it’s best to ignore the slender plot and the weak comedy and savour the guest numbers — Benny Goodman and his band get a zippy number with animated wipes that dance to the music, while Leopold Stokowski and his band receive more solemn treatment, with Leisen lighting the conductor like Franchot Tone in PHANTOM LADY, all looming hands.

Leisen’s cameraman is Theodor “Mr Sparkle” Sparkuhl, and the two together create some marvelous effects, whenever there’s no plot or acting to get in the way. And Leisen contrives a walk-on, as Arkansan comedy turn Bob Burns hunts for Stokowski to demonstrate his musical bazooka (don’t ask). “Did you ever -” he begins to asks the brisk director. “Sure, lots of times,” snaps Leisen, and is off.

Here’s more musical malarkey to give you an idea of the skills Leisen brings to this somewhat unpromising material –

Heads you lose.

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2008 by dcairns

Regular Shadowplayers may recall my near-sexual fascination for Busby Berkeley and the FLOATING HEAD OF DEATH. Imagine my all-pervading joy and sheer, sensuous transport at finding another such head at the start of B.B.’s THE GANG’S ALL HERE:

This cheerful yet somehow alarming individual drifts weightless towards us, crooning “Brazil”, right at the start of the film. He’s not quite as skull-beneath-the-skin terrifying as Wini Shaw in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, but it turns out he’s only a foretaste of the main attraction, which comes at the film’s end:

At the climax of a number celebrating the perennial joys of the polka dot, the traditional B.B. chorus-line transmutes by the aid of mirrors into a glistening Technicolor iris-sphincter, permutating kaleidoscopically and finally emitting –

Eugene Pallette! B. Kite and I struggled to capture this man’s majesty in our Believer article on character actors, only for Fiona to encapsulate the Great Man in a colossal nutshell: “He’s the brick shithouse everybody’s always talking about.”

Anyway, I don’t want to take that sphincter metaphor any further than I absolutely have to, but basically the entire cast of the film is evacuated right in our faces, an image out of Heironymous Bosch.

It’s hard to decide who’s more terrifying. Mock-turtle Edward Everett Horton on a sickly green polka dot platter, lunging into our eyes like a vision from Hades, certainly comes near the  top. For once in this film, Carmen Miranda is actually less horripilating than everybody else.

Benny Goodman is just WRONG ALL OVER. He’s an odd film presence, in general, quite likably different and welcome, but hurled bodiless towards us with a translucent lavender ruff, he becomes a CREATURE OF NIGHTMARE.

AARGH! Shit shit shit get it way from me! Charlotte Greenwood demonstrates why Nicholas Ray slept with a gun under his pillow. If you wake up from dreaming of THIS, you’ve gotta be able to fire off a few rounds at anything lurking in the corner of the room or you’ll have a case of the screaming ab-dabs for sure.

And then Alice Faye, the singing Simone Signoret, with her cerulean-blue face, is wafted at us on happy updrafts of melody and we realise that we truly are in the Twentieth Century Fox’s idea of Sheol, Gehenna, the bottomless pit – adrift, decapitated, among the eternally smiling, hopelessly insane stars.

“Hell will have no surprises for them!”

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