Friday, August 16, 2013

My Favorite Ending? "My Favorite Year"

Caution: This whole post is one big old spoiler.

There are a lot of things to love about the 1982 film "My Favorite Year" -- Peter O'Toole's Oscar-nominated performance, Richard Benjamin's sensitive direction, great supporting performances from Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper and Joseph Bologna, and Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo's script.

Especially Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo's script, because "My Favorite Year" wouldn't exist without it. The idea supposedly sprang from a conversation with one of the movie's producers, Mel Brooks, about his days as a writer on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" in the early 1950s.

Mark Linn-Baker plays our hero, Benjy Stone, nee Steinberg, a writer who seems a lot like Mel Brooks and/or Woody Allen, who also wrote for Caesar.

Joseph Bologna plays the rough-edged, Caesar-like King Kaiser, the star of the show Benjy works for  -- "Comedy Cavalcade," broadcast live every Saturday night on NBC, just as "Your Show of Shows" was.

And in a touching, playful performance, Peter O'Toole plays larger-than-life movie star Alan Swann, whose propensity for scandal and wild behavior call to mind Errol Flynn. He's appearing on "Comedy Cavalcade" as a guest star.

The favorite year is 1954, when much of television was still broadcast live, and Benjy's job is to keep Swann out of trouble until the broadcast. This leads to several well-staged slapstick sequences in restaurants and swanky apartments. Benjy also takes Swann to his old neighborhood in the Bronx to visit his mother (a great Lainie Kazan) and her husband, a Filipino prizefighter.

There are also several subplots, including Benjy's fledgling romance with K.C. (Harper) and Swann's desire to visit a never-seen daughter who lives in Connecticut.

"My Favorite Year" works its way up to that fateful Saturday night, where there's a lot going on backstage. Sketches on the show have been poking fun at a crooked union boss (Cameron Mitchell), and he has sent his stooges to beat up Kaiser on live TV. Meanwhile, Swann is terrified of appearing live ("I'm not an actor -- I'm a movie star!") and is ready to walk out. Everything comes to a head just as it's time to go on the air:



What I love about this ending is that it accomplishes several things at once -- it restores Swann's confidence while allowing him to parody his persona, it solidifies the relationship between Benjy and K.C., it beats the bad guys and it shows how extraordinary live, spontaneous TV could be. The moment when everyone in the control booth just watches silently as the audience goes crazy is very moving to me.

Another great thing about "My Favorite Year" is that it salutes a TV show that really deserves it. Unlike a lot of 1950s TV, "Your Show of Shows" sketches are just as funny today. To me, Sid Caesar is tied only with Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball as the funniest performers of that decade, and Caesar didn't have familiar characters to lean on. Here is the classic parody of "This Is Your Life" with Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, where Morris's elastic body movements led to his being cast as Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show":



"My Favorite Year" is a love letter to live TV, to Hollywood legends and to the innocence of 1954. All's well that ends very, very well indeed.

Here are the full credits, and a trailer:




Sunday, August 11, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: "What Price Hollywood?" or A Star Is Torn

On this edition of Neglected Post Theatre we look at the story of John Barrymore, or the story of Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck, or the story of Colleen Moore and John McCormick, or the story of ... well, anyway, here's "What Price Hollywood," or A Star Is Torn.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Movie Crazy," or Lloyd Bridges

In the 1932 film "Movie Crazy," pre-code meets pre-pre-code.

As small-town boy Harold Hall, Harold Lloyd plays the same sincere, guileless but resourceful character he played in silent films. He's followed his star to Hollywood, where he wants to break into pictures in the worst way.

Lloyd's character is right out of the early 1920s, but the people he meets -- particularly actress Mary Sears, nicely played by Constance Cummings -- are right out of a wisecracking pre-code movie. Mary ends up falling for Harold in spite of herself because he's so genuine, and so accident-prone -- her nickname for him is "trouble" -- and she provides great sarcastic commentary as she watches his pratfalls. As a result, "Movie Crazy" nicely bridges silent and pre-code comedy.

We begin in Littleton, Kansas, where Harold lives with his parents. He mistakenly sends someone else's photo -- an all-American good looker -- to a Hollywood studio in hopes of getting an audition. The studio extends an invitation and Harold is on a train at once.

Harold has hardly stepped off the train before he's tapped to be an extra in a movie scene being shot at the station. The stars are pompous matinee idol Vance (Kenneth Thomson) and Mary, in heavy makeup as a Spanish maiden. As you might expect, Harold ruins every take in practically every way possible, from tripping over the leading man to pulling down a stack of noisy metal milk cans.

Then we cut to the studio, where Harold meets Mary, out of makeup. It starts raining and Harold "helps" her put up her convertible top:



Harold ends up back at Mary's place, where she takes pity on him and lets him inside to get dry. He has a seat, and reminds us that thanks to his silent movie training he still knows how to take a fall:


Lloyd stays true to his long-established character in "Movie Crazy" -- his best comic moments come in largely silent slapstick sequences. My favorite part of the film is his screen test, a series of botched takes. All he has to do is enter and answer the phone, and he blows it beautifully:



Harold doesn't know that Mary is also the Spanish woman -- he thinks they're two different people.
Mary keeps teasing him while dressed as her Spanish character, and he never pushes her away convincingly enough, so Mary dumps him. This leads to a sequence at a fancy dress ball. Harold mistakenly thinks Mary has invited him, and he ends up putting on a magician's jacket by mistake. In echoes of the formal dance sequence in Lloyd's "The Freshman," his coat unleashes chaos at the party and he endures the ultimate humiliation of being thrown out and rejected by Mary.

As is the patten in this kind of movie, Harold's triumph follows a few minutes later -- he ends up in a fight with Vance, his rival for Mary. He doesn't that it's being filmed, on a set that's supposed to be a sinking ship. Again, Lloyd's visual gags carry the day:



By the end of the picture, Lloyd is back in good graces with Mary and the studio. The kid from Kansas has stayed true to himself -- in a pre-code world he's gotten ahead by sticking to his own code.

Here are the full cast and credits for "Movie Crazy."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Mary Stevens, MD" or Lyle Be Seeing You

Lyle Talbot's been on my mind a lot lately, and believe me, that's the first time I've ever written that sentence.   

This has happened because I've been reading a book by his daughter, Margaret, called The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century. Margaret Talbot is a staff reporter for The New Yorker, and this book is a clear-eyed but affectionate look at the life her father lived, the friends and lovers he had and the career he experienced.

And it is some kind of career -- Talbot was never a megastar, but his career spans some real Hollywood highs and lows, from choice Warner Bros. pre-code films to cheeseball Z-movies directed by Ed Wood to several years as a regular on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot skillfully takes her father's life and places it within the context of the growth of American mass entertainment, mixing his personal experiences with larger historical milestones.

"When I was growing up," writes Margaret Talbot, "my father was older than all the other fathers I knew; born in 1902, he had been close to sixty when I was born, nearly eighty when I graduated from high school. His direct connection to the sepia-toned, history-book past -- before electricity, before talking pictures -- struck me as strange and alienating sometimes. ... Yet my father's turn of the century origins also gave me an intimacy with the past that I came to treasure, and a yearning not just to know about history but to feel what it was like."

Born in Nebraska, Talbot grew up in show business -- he worked as a hypnotist's assistant and then a magician's ringer in the audience, playing innumerable small towns. He worked in circuses and in repertory companies. Finally in 1932 he made his way to Hollywood, and amazingly he became a contract player at Warner Bros. In "Big City Blues" he gets into a fight with a hood played by Humphrey Bogart; in "Three on a Match" he's the lowlife who seduces well-to-do Ann Dvorak and gets her hooked on cocaine; in "Ladies They Talk About" he is the gangster who Barbara Stanwyck tries to help escape from prison. 

 
The 1933 film "Mary Stevens, MD" is an unusual one for Talbot, in that he plays the romantic lead. It stands out for a couple of other reasons, too -- one is the strong relationship between Kay Francis in the title role and Glenda Farrell as her faithful nurse and friend. Another is that heroine gets pregnant out of wedlock and keeps the baby. And another is that despite the trials and tribulations she experiences, Mary is always the picture of professionalism and skill.



As the movie begins, Mary and Dr. Don Andrews (Talbot) have just graduated from medical school together. They are romantically involved, and they open a clinic in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. Glenda Farrell is along as their no-nonsense nurse, conveniently named Glenda. Here she is in action:




Mary gets right to work as a pediatrician. Don, on the other hand, starts romancing Lois (Thelma Todd), the daughter of the local political boss. He spends less and less time seeing patients, and finally ends up marrying Lois and taking a cushy government job.  "Some people work for a career," opines Glenda, "and some people marry one."

But Don finances a plush new office for Mary, and they're still professional pals. Then he takes her out one day for a long, liquid lunch before rushing back to the hospital for surgery he forgot about. Mary assists him because she knows he's the worse for wear and then gives him what for:



Mary and Don go through a period of estrangement. Then by chance they meet out of town -- Mary is on vacation; Don has gotten himself tangled in a political scandal and is hiding out to avoid a subpoena. With no one else around and lots of time on their hands, an affair begins. Then Mary comes back to town with news for Glenda:



Much drama unfolds before the happy ending. And even though Talbot's character is a stinker, Francis helps us accept him.

Margaret Talbot says this is one of her father's better films, and I agree -- not necessarily because of Talbot's performance, which is fine, but because of Francis and the conviction she brings to the role.

"My father liked Francis -- they called each other "cuz," and he thought her lisp was cute," Talbot writes. "They were never lovers, though both got around, but their chemistry works pretty well here -- not so much in the laughable scenes where they're doing something vauguely medical but in the private moments when he shows her a tender sympathy. He could play tender -- his natural sweetness and affection for women shone through in those moments."

Talbot knows her father wasn't perfect -- he was a little narcissistic and slightly superficial. He'd been married and divorced three times before meeting Margaret Epple, who he married in 1948. At that point he had a serious drinking problem. Margaret Epple Talbot helped him overcome that obstacle and become a doting, if slightly elderly, father to four children. (Margaret Talbot's brother, Stephen, had an acting career of his own; he played Gilbert, Beaver's friend, on several episodes of "Leave It to Beaver.")     

Lyle Talbot died in 1996, at age 94. Thankfully, his ability to tell a good story outlives him in his daughter.

"Over the years," she writes, "I realized stories were what made my family. Stories were the soft golden net that enmeshed us. My father's stories. And my parents' stories -- how they met, how she saved him. It was a fairy tale, really, the brave and young princess who unlocked the cage -- but true, too."

Here is more information about The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, and here are the credits for "Mary Stevens, M.D.," and a trailer: