Archive for Keenan Wynn

A Head in the Hole

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2022 by dcairns

Next time you’re found with your head in the ground
There a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little ostrich
Think he can get his own head lost, which
Anyone knows that nerd bird
Can’t just hide, it’s absurd.

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes.

(With apologies to James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.)

We knew we liked Carolyn Jones a whole lot, but seeing Frank Capra’s A HOLE IN THE HEAD confirmed just how much. It’s a somewhat misbegotten venture, though the fact that it’s the only post-WONDERFUL LIFE feature that’s not a remake of a glory-days hit made me suspect it might have higher hopes than RIDING HIGH or POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. What it shares with those films is bloat — no way does this slight story need to be two hours long. I feel like Capra was working so infrequently he tended to get clenched and self-important when he DID make a film, and this might have been a decent throwaway 90 minute job if he didn’t have his reputation for importance to think about.

Also, any film with that title and Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson in the leads ought to be a gangster comedy. The title might have worked on Broadway for Arnold Schulman’s play but as soon as you load the cast with hood actors…

There’s some good dialogue and the cast all perform OK but at about half the speed required. Only Keenan Wynn (ably assisted by Joi Lansing and her important breasts) picks up the pace and energy to 1930s levels. But Jones brings something else: eccentricity and even eeriness. In his (very) critical biography, Joseph McBride notes that Capra should have noticed that HERE is where his film was. It’s like Angela Scoular walking off with A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, seemingly without Chaplin noticing.

Main problem with this gag is Sinatra can’t do pratfalls, necessitating THREE ruinous cuts to get the stuntman in and out…

Jones has it all worked out. She can’t make much of an impression driving through Miami in a sub-Vorkapich montage (as early as MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN montage editor Don Siegel lamented Capra’s devotion to dated techniques — I don’t see it as that dated in 1936, though I wasn’t there, but by 1959 it’s certainly retro). When Capra shamelessly recycles a Harry Langdon gag with an unconscious Jones, she can’t contribute much. But nearly every other shot is a blinder. Here they are, mostly ~

And that is all I have to say.

A HOLE IN THE HEAD stars Danny Ocean; Dr. Clitterhouse; the Baroness; Morticia Addams; Moe Williams; Col. ‘Bat’ Guano; Boots Malone; Documentary Couple; Wainscoat; and Abe Vogel.

Playbook

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by dcairns

I read all Richard Stark’s Parker novels a couple of years back, all except The Hunter, AKA Point Blank AKA Payback, because I know the John Boorman film of it quite well and didn’t want deja vu. But I’m on a Donald Westlake kick at the moment and momentarily ran out of paperbacks, and so started on this one at long last — because Richard Stark was Donald Westlake’s other nom de plume, used for most of his more hardboiled stuff.

Comparing book to film is pretty interesting — a lot of the more Westlake-like “break into a fortress” plotting proves to be original to the movie, which suggests to me that one of other of screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse had read some later Stark.

The book is fascinating because you can feel Stark and Parker becoming themselves as it goes on. To begin with, Parker is over-described with an eagerness to impress that is a little embarrassing compared to the laconic style so effective in the later works. (Although this is great: “His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.”) And he’s not too professional: he gets drunk, and he goes on a mission of vengeance. It’s only in part 5 of 5 that he decides what he really wants is the return of the money he stole and that was stolen from him. This means the book lacks the singular drive that Brian DePalma admires so much in Boorman’s film: “This whole film is GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY!”

It’s fascinating how the movie develops intriguing suggestions from the novel. There are various lines about Parker’s having come back from the dead — Boorman, something of a mystic, seizes on this to take the story partway into Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — Boorman told Michel Ciment that both his Lee Marvin movies might be happening in the lead character’s mind as he experiences his own death. And the impression that Parker/Walker (as he’s named in the film, a suggestive, supernaturally-resonant name) brings death to those around him by his mere presence — this springs from the first casualty of the novel, Parker’s wife, who he doesn’t kill but who dies because of him. Subsequently everyone thinks he killed her and he doesn’t bother to disabuse them of the notion. The movie seems to take all this into consideration and folds it together with old Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff gangster/horror flick THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris literally does rise from the dead and cause his enemies to perish without laying a finger on them.

“She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead too, if you want.”

Stegman licked his lips. He turned his head and nodded at the small stone buildings out at the end of the pier. “There’s people there,” he said. “All I got to do is holler.”

“You’d never get it out. Take a deep breath and you’re dead. Open your mouth wide and you’re dead.”

Stegman looked back at him. “I don’t see no gun,” he said. “I don’t see no weapon.”

Parker held up his hands. “”You see two of them,” he said. “They’re all I need.”

“You’re out of your mind. It’s broad daylight. We’re in the front seat of a car. People see us scuffling -“

“There wouldn’t be any scuffle, Stegman. I’d touch you once, and you’d be dead. Look at me. You know this isn’t a bluff.”

The Boorman movie also enhances the whole Tarzan-Versus-IBM thing, with Parker as a primitive, out of step with modern, corporate crime. The stone age hero squaring off against decadent moderns also animated Boorman’s loony ZARDOZ. Lee Marvin’s man of violence is both a pitiable anachronism and, in Boorman’s eyes, infinitely purer (like the xenomorph in ALIEN) and more admirable than the blustering suits he braces.

Westlake/Stark’s indication that mob boss Carter looks like Ambassador Trentino, the walking fontanelle — “His resemblance to Louis Calhern was startling.” — is amusing, but was not picked up by the movie, which cast Lloyd Bochner.

Of course, the movie invents subsidiary characters as foils and expositional devices — Angie Dickinson is the Girl in the Picture, someone Walker can explain his plans to. Keenan “Bat Guano” Wynn as the Deep Throat figure who sets Walker in motion has a similar expository role, only he dispenses info rather than receiving it. These add-ons don’t do any harm, because none of them sentimentalize Walker or turn him into a chivalric outlaw with a code, as in the Jason Statham outing.

Oddly enough, once Westlake/Stark realized what he had in Parker, it wasn’t about violence at all — it was about a professional doing a job. Parker is a problem-solver, and what he does is not different than what his novelist did, only in Parker’s world the problems are solved physically, whereas for his author it was all a mental exercise. Good thing for us.

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…