Archive for Top Cat

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

Dibble, P.I.

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , on December 1, 2009 by dcairns

The Michael Shayne, Private Eye films are good B-movie fun, with Lloyd Nolan, never really a front-running leading man, surprisingly appealing in these unpretentious little thrillers. The only thing distinguishing them from countless other detective movies, apart from a sprinkling of wit, are the facts that they’re if anything a little MORE generic than any other ‘tec movies, and the fact that they rejoice in the character’s Irish-American roots. So it seems fitting that Nolan’s detective license is signed by Irish-American character actor Allen Jenkins!

Okay, so it says Allan B Jenkins…

Lovers of Warner Bros precodes will likely know Allen well. Persons of my generation, kids during the 70s, may also know him as the voice of Officer Dibble on TV’s Top Cat. Incidentally, in a fit of madness, the BBC broadcast the show under the title “Boss Cat,” under the mistaken assumptions that (1) nobody in the UK was familiar with the expression “top dog,” upon which the Hanna-Barbera cartoon based its title (2) this mattered in the slightest and (3) nobody would notice that the theme tune of the show had LYRICS, which clearly included the words “Top” and “Cat.”

Dibble askew.

I’m still angry about that all these years later. I can’t let it go. This may offer some clue as to why I can be a tricky person to collaborate with creatively. As Buster Keaton said, “In this business, there’s a certain amount of guess. Has to be. So you try to convince yourself, maybe the other fellow’s right. But once in a while… ain’t no guess.”

Michael Shayne Mysteries Vol. 1 (Michael Shayne: Private Detective / The Man Who Wouldn’t Die / Sleepers West / Blue, White, and Perfect)

Quote of the Day: Fishhead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2008 by dcairns

“They’re like alleycats on a fish head!” complains Allen Jenkins of the heavy police presence in THREE ON A MATCH (1932), but one feels he’s really looking forward to his future as the voice of Officer Dribble, I mean Dibble, on TV’s Top Cat cartoon show.

This movie’s climax seems to be a nexus-point for cinematic influences. A grand suspense/shock sequence in its own right, it uses a plot idea replicated decades later in DIE HARD — a body thrown from a window with writing on it, delivering a forceful message to the outside world from an imprisoned character.

Furthermore, the climax involves what the IMDb would call the following keywords: mother and son jeopardy; trapped in room; mirror; lipstick. So the spectre of THE SHINING isn’t far off, although all those elements are used quite differently in Kubrick’s horrorshow.

Earlier in the movie the little boy plays with his toy yacht at a municipal pond. This reminds me of Polanski’s THE TENANT, which includes a basically irrelevant but very entertaining scene of the same action, and the connection seems to me to be clinched by the fact that both films climax with a figure in women’s clothing falling from a window and crashing through a glass awning, if an awning can be glass.

So this little-known, highly entertaining Warners pre-code melodrama seems to have somehow extended tendrils out in all directions, colonising films far removed from it in time and space…