Archive for Ernest Truex

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.)

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Zoning Out

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2017 by dcairns

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Even though Joseph DR NO Wiseman’s lead character in the Twilight Zone episode One More Pallbearer is called Paul Radin, I could determine no reason why his building is called Radin Blog. (Note: I got it eventually.) I tweeted author Dean Radin, whose book The Conscious Universe is a good eye-opener, to say that it’s a shame he wasn’t writing a blog anymore as I had found the perfect banner for him.

I don’t think I ever want to run out of PG Wodehouse books to read, and in the same way I don’t want to run out of Twilight Zone episodes, although all the same i would hate to check out leaving any of them unenjoyed. This will need careful management.

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One More Pallbearer is Rod Serling in atomic mode (see also: Carol for Another Christmas), which is usually good value, and he has the ideal star. As Dr. No, Wiseman played a scientist with metal hands, having lost his original flesh ones in an atomic experiment. That always struck me as improbable and a bit funny. This one suffers a bit from having no sympathy, really, for any characters, but the double twist at the end is a zinger and a half. Not quite two zingers, but still pretty good.

Kick the Can was remade by Spielberg in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and Fiona suggested it might be illuminating to check out the original. It was — where Spielberg’s filmlet was cloying and annoying, the original is beautifully bleak. All the rough edges were smoothed off, and the result bathed in a honey-like amber glow. The old folks’ home where it’s set seems paradisical in the movie, and starkly deadening in the series installment. The ending, in which the inmates rejuvenate and run of into the night, leaving one bereft old skeptic, is stark and strange in the series: we don’t know how these kids will live, where they will go. Serling pops out of the bushes to say they’re in the Twilight Zone, which might as well mean they’re dead. It’s eerie, not reassuring.

In the Spielberg, having enjoyed their moment of second childhood, the oldsters return to their doddering, hip-replaced selves, because the status quo must, apparently be preserved.

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I like Scatman Crothers fine, though as a “magic negro” figure he Uncle Toms it a bit in the Spielberg, encouraged by his director. There’s no such character in the series episode, just an old duffer who HOPES, but does not KNOW, that playing children’s games might cancel out the aging process. I was wracking my brains to identify the actor while I was watching, then realized it was old Ernest Truex, best known as the saccharine would-be poet from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (maybe they hired him to script the Spielberg), and also memorable in Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Turns out he had a huge career, starting in silents, and they even tried him in lead roles during the pre-code era when such things seemed worth attempting. WHISTLING IN THE DARK, which pairs him, improbably, with Una Merkel, is well worth a look.