Archive for Dick Van Dyke

The Low Sixties

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2021 by dcairns

The fifties died hard, were still going strong in 1963, is my main takeaway from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, directed by Vincente Minnelli and written by John Gay from Mark Toby’s novel. It’s an everyday story of real people, brought to you by filmmakers who have apparently never met any. Every note is jarring, and yet a number of them do connect to human experience, but in an off-kilter, disjointed way. Future historians will look at this movie and try to calculate how much is accurate social observation, how much is soap opera contrivance.

Glenn Ford is a recent widower living in New York with his son, the director of THE DA VINCI CODE. He produces or does something involving a radio show whose horndog disc jockey, Jerry Van Dyke (an uncanny genetic facsimile of brother Dick) urges him to remarry. It’s been, what, a month?

Three women are wheeled past to tempt our bereaved patriarch: Stella Stevens, a beauty queen from Montana who has come to the Small Apple (it’s all interior sets) to Gain Confidence; Dina Merrill, a careerist fashion consultant; Shirley Jones, the student nurse next door. The outcome is obvious — the writers think they’re smart by making Jones a divorcee with a potential career and having her argue a lot with Ford, but they haven’t counted on the casting of Jones, who is naturally soft and appealing. And she’s right all the time, and she’s already basically acting as mother to the director of APOLLO 13. Plus she’s right across the hall. The fact that she could be Ford’s daughter is no doubt to be considered a plus. His last wife died, after all, we want this one to be longer-lasting. And ultimately the disqualifying traits almost cancel each other out — she’s resorted to a career to help get over the divorce — presumably she’ll be only too happy to give up that silly girlish idea when she becomes Mrs. Eddie’s Father.

Cherishable moments include Merrill declaring she doesn’t want to be the woman BEHIND the man, but side by side with him, and Ford saying he doesn’t see that becoming a national movement anytime soon. Oh Glenn.

Psychodrama! The director of HILLBILLY ELEGY freaks out at the sight of a belly-up goldfish. Jones deduces it’s because he hasn’t grieved for his mother yet, and Ford freaks out at that — “A FISH — IS A FISH — AND HIS MOTHER — IS HIS MOTHER!” Complete with Dramatic Turn and music stab.

Ford and Minnelli are reunited immediately after the superflop FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, and obviously the intention is to spend a lot less money on this one, but it seems like wasted money since the soap and sitcom elements are exactly what the public can see at home on TV, only here they’re in a somewhat peculiar combination.

The director of A BEAUTIFUL MIND is clearly a prodigious sprog, child-actorly in mode but very skilled in his mimicry and timing, a carrot-topped replicant. Ford embodies the fifties-style paterfamilias more effectively, I bet, than he did “a hot young Argentinian stud” as David Wingrove put it, in his previous Minnelli epic. But it’s not a very appealing archetype to me.

Minnelli might be expected to regard this very square set-up with veiled horror — his comedies tend to have the quality of nightmare (FATHER OF THE BRIDE contains an actual nightmare which uses the “stairs as swamp” image repeated in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET; THE LONG, LONG TRAILER turns sitcom into pure anxiety dream, a cold sweat of a film). Here, there’s just a sort of chilly lack of enthusiasm in the visuals. A late scene where Ford and the director of FROST/NIXON roleplay a prospective conversation with Shirley Jones, with the director of CINDERELLA MAN taking the Jones part, is clearly meant to be cute, and it is, but it’s also kind of weird, like everything else.

My favourite presence in the film was Stella Stevens, and my favourite scene was her big one — comparable to Shirley MacLaine’s adorable drunken singing in SOME CAME RUNNING, and the only scene where Minnelli the great musical director has really propitious material. Dick Van Dyke’s brother tries to boost her confidence by getting her to do the drum solo she’s been scared to do. Everyone knocks it out of the park.

Lo!

My copy of the film played once then gave up the ghost, which is why so few images here. Fortunately there are lots of clips online.

The Sunday Intertitle: the thrill of the Chase

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2018 by dcairns

From Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd’s work for Hal Roach, it seems natural to move on to Charley Chase, whose silent work in particular includes some of the greatest little farces ever put on screen. Leo McCarey, who directed most of them (though he credited Chase as the real creative mind), compared the films to The Dick Van Dyke Show — domestic comedies using farcical plotting. (And when DVD found Stan Laurel in the phone book and called him up to see if it was really him, he remarked, “I stole a lot from you,” to which Stan, a regular reviewer, replied, “Yes, I know.”)

I had a conversation with an eminent farceur recently in which we agreed that feature-length farces rarely work — “very hard to find a comic motor to sustain the plot,” was his diagnosis. So shorts in the twenties and thirties did it repeatedly, sitcoms can do it endlessly, but features usually sputter. In this light I’m fascinated that THE AWFUL TRUTH works so well. Part of its success is due to director McCarey having learned so many lessons from his work with Chase (plus Stan & Ollie and I guess Max Davidson). But part of it I think is the way it drops little emotional scenes in along the way to keep the stakes clear — we should feel that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are an ideal couple and it’s a tragedy they’ve broken up, and then we can go back to laughing as they sabotage one another’s attempts to find a replacement mate.

Chase, working on two-reelers, doesn’t require any of that weight, but the films do want you to like and root for his character. Though a kind of cruelty is required, surely, to dream up such exquisite comic embarrassments, the audience is expected to wince in sympathy even as it laughs, and the ending is required to resolve the situation with a kind of poetic justice.

In INNOCENT HUSBANDS he’s married to the great Katherine Grant, in Mrs. Hardy termagant mode. She’s obsessively suspicious of her blameless spouse. Fate contrives to heap incriminating circumstances on the poor fish, really putting him through a lot of hell he doesn’t deserve, but the ending restores happiness and trust in a very McCarey way…

The film’s big idea is to combine two situations of compelling interest, the “Oh no! My wife!” bedroom farce and the mediumistic séance. Chase has to smuggles three people out of his bedroom while a spiritualist meeting sits in his living room, by disguising them as spooks. The contrivances involved to get us to this point are considerable, and almost too much — the key to this success is to make the contrivances themselves funny (as they never are in Ray Cooney type farces), playing up their absurdity or using them to point up character.

At the end of the story, Chase catches Katherine in an innocent compromising position with a man, forcing a very McCareyesque compromise: she promises not to be suspicious of him if he won’t be suspicious of her. As in THE AWFUL TRUTH, a successful marriage is like a conjuror’s trick: undeniably marvelous, but don’t inspect it too closely.

 

Then, just as peace reigns, one of the forgotten “guests” Charley has been trying to get rid off, comes tiptoeing through the back of frame. Charley sees her and cringes. Katherine, embracing him, does not. And then the character, on the way to the door, gets caught on a piece of cloth and starts pulling an ornament off its tabletop… Charley sees this too, and cringes some more…

But Charley has a revolver (established earlier) and so fires a shot at random in perfect sync with the smashing of the ornament — and the house detective (established earlier) pops out of a chest, rubbing his wounded posterior.

Amazing stuff — the condensed plotting is on a par with the final minute of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It boggles the mind that such tightly-plotted, inventive and funny stuff was put together, at speed, by serious alcoholics (McCarey, Chase, Grant too). But maybe working alcoholics need to have more discipline than the rest of us, just to be able to pull of their (farce-like) double lives. Maybe so.

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.