Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Quicksand," or Crime After Crime

Sacrificing itself this time around to Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions is the 1950 film ...

... as opposed to slowsand, or even kind-of-fast sand.

Our hero is Mickey Rooney, as a short-but-honest auto
mechanic. It's the perfect job for him -- he doesn't need
a grease rack to get under the car!

One day Mickey is at the diner with future Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd
when something catches his attention --


It is his dream girl -- a woman who looks just like
James Cagney in drag!

Upstaged by the innuendo on a lousy box of candy,
Mickey nevertheless asks female James Cagney out on a date...

...where he learns that she has very expensive tastes.

This causes Mickey to leave his old
girlfriend, Liv Tyler, behind ...

... and embark on a life of petty theft.


Mickey's crime spree involves buying a watch on time
(Ha ha! See what I did there?) and then hocking it. 

And he also holds up a guy just because he
doesn't like straw hats. 

This gets him mixed up with female James Cagney's old
boss, Ugarte from "Casablanca," who has returned from
the dead to run a penny arcade on the Santa Monica pier.

He and Mickey become fast friends ... 

... but Mickey draws the line at playing peek-a-boo, so
Ugarte blackmails him over the straw hat guy robbery.

Now Mickey is really in a spot. He has to steal a
car for Ugarte AND buy him a straw hat. His nerves are on edge.

This leads to a tense meeting with the boss.

Happily, Mickey is shot by the cops and
reunites with Liv Tyler.


Then he realizes his father-in-law will be Steven Tyler,
and he starts thinking about female James Cagney again.




Monday, December 23, 2013

"Dive Bomber," Starring Errol Flynn and ... Jack Benny?

The 1941 film "Dive Bomber" was released a month or so before the attack on Pearl Harbor. America wasn't yet formally involved in World War II, and it would be a few more months before Jack Warner started strutting around the Warner lot in the Army officer's dress uniform he'd had custom tailored in Beverly Hills.

But like a lot of films from that time, "Dive Bomber" anticipates America's entry into the war and gives us a lovingly-presented parade of military might -- in this case it's air power, in Technicolor, yet, and flanked by the rugged faces and forms of Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray and Ralph Bellamy. "Dive Bomber" looks great, and director Michael Curtiz never wastes a patch of blue sky -- there are always planes flying across it while troops and/or equipment pass by below. Dig:


World War II is a thing we're used to seeing in black and white, so the Technicolor scenes in "Dive Bomber" -- especially of real-life settings like an aircraft carrier staffed with actual people -- are riveting:



Based on a story by former Navy flier Frank "Spig" Wead, who also gave us "Ceiling Zero" and "Test Pilot," "Dive Bomber" oozes testosterone -- watching it makes you want to put on a khaki uniform and light up a Camel. Because there is smoking, always smoking -- in fact, the movie is positively Hawksian in the amount of cigarette-related male bonding that occurs. If you like a guy, you offer him a smoke. If you don't, you don't. And the symbol of ultimate bro-ness is to have the same cigarette case as your buddies.

The three guys with the same cigarette case at the beginning of "Dive Bomber" are Navy flyboys Joe (MacMurray), Tim (Regis Toomey) and Swede (Louis Jean Heydt). Watch them frolic and light each other's smokes!



Alas, tragedy occurs when one of the three (the guy whose name isn't as prominent in the credits) passes out during a steep dive and he crashes. On the ground, working in vain to rescue him, is Dr. Doug Lee (Flynn), whose fancy-pants education at Harvard and Johns Hopkins means nothing -- Nothing, you get me? -- when he can't bring the pilot back from the great beyond.

Dr. Doug decides to become a flight surgeon and try to solve the problem of pressurization and oxygen deprivation. In a weird coincidence, he begins flight lessons on December 7 (not 1941, but still). Then Dr. Doug is forced to team with the surly Dr. Lance Rogers (Bellamy), who is bitter because he is a grounded pilot. He doesn't even offer Dr. Doug a cigarette!

So Joe doesn't like Dr. Doug because he couldn't save Joe's friend. And Dr. Lance doesn't like Dr. Doug because he doesn't like anybody. And Joe doesn't like Dr. Lance because he thinks all that medical talk about pilot fatigue is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. So nobody likes anybody. And we lose World War II, the end.

No, just joshing. Everyone ends up respecting the heck out of each other and working together to keep 'em flying. Joe joins the team when one pilot's death due to fatigue hits him right in his cigarette case:



"Test Pilot" is chock full of delicious propaganda -- Hollywood always knew how to sell a war -- and our leading men, especially Flynn, deliver solid performances. There are, however two unnecessary inclusions -- one is Alexis Smith, who spends the movie chasing Flynn even though he doesn't seem that interested. The other is "comic relief" by Allan Jenkins as Lucky, a bumptious sailor who's trying to escape from his equally bumptious wife.                

Since "Dive Bomber" was a big hit at the box office, it was fair game for a parody on "The Jack Benny Program." The show aired on October 26, 1941, so there are opening jokes about Halloween, including this exchange between Benny, sidekick Mary Livingstone and announcer Don Wilson:

Don: You don't have the excitement nowadays that you used to have on Halloween.

Jack: I guess you're right.

Don: I remember when I was back in Denver as a kid. We used to have the time of our lives!

Jack: Denver? You should have seen the way we celebrated Halloween in Waukegan! The old-fashioned pranks we used to play. But -- kids don't have fun like that anymore.

Mary: Whaddya want -- plumbing or fun?

Then comes the parody of "Dive Bomber," with Jack unable to decide if he wants to play Flynn, MacMurray or Bellamy. Finally, the production gets underway, with bandleader Phil Harris as Flynn, Dennis Day as MacMurray and Benny as Bellamy.



And here's the film trailer:







Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"The Life of the Party," or Lightner Up

The 1930 film "The Life of the Party" begins in Times Square, where there are massive crowds even though there's no TGI Friday's or Olive Garden.

Right in the middle of this teeming humanity is the Acme Music Store, where Flo (Winnie Lightner) and Dot (Irene Delroy) charm the customers and try to sell sheet music. Within the movie's first five minutes, Flo manages to plug songs from every current Warner Bros. musical release -- "The Show of Shows," "Show Girl in Hollywood," "Hold Everything," "Fifty Million Frenchmen," "Gold Diggers on Broadway" -- and then she performs a little something called "(He Got a) Poison Ivy (Instead of a Clinging Vine)." See for yourself:



You have just witnessed the only song left in "The Life of the Party."

Originally filmed as a musical, and in two-strip Technicolor, "The Life of the Party" lost its numbers in the great nobody-likes-musicals-anymore scare of 1930, which also caused the film version of "Fifty Million Frenchman" to lose most of its score . On top of that, no prints of the Technicolor version seem to exist, so "The Life of the Party" is a musical comedy with no color, very little comedy, even less music and a whole lot of Winnie Lightner.

Lightner began in vaudeville and signed with Warner Bros. in the late 1920s. After making a big hit in "Gold Diggers on Broadway" and performing "Singin' in the Bathtub" in "The Show of Shows," her screen character was established -- a brash but likable schemer out for a sugar daddy. In this film she and Delroy (who only made another movie or two before disappearing completely) are good-hearted gold diggers, and their target is the sputtering Frenchman LeMaire (Charles Judels). He runs a high-class dress shop staffed by the worst models in the world, who stare at the camera and arch their backs to show how chic they are.

LeMaire gives the girls his choicest frocks, thinking he will see them that evening for some ooh-la-la. But they hightail it to Penn Station and give him the slip. (Get it?) That night, he comes to see the girls with a friend, and -- quel disappointment!



The first few minutes of Judel's furniture-breaking act are kind of funny. Unfortunately, he does the same bit several more times during the movie, with steadily diminishing returns.

The girls end up in Cuba, where Flo meets the eccentric Colonel Joy (Charles Butterworth), who raises racehorses. When Flo discovers that a soft-drink tycoon (Jack Whiting) is also visiting their hotel, she tries to set him up with Dot. Dot, in turn, falls for another guy who in reality is the soft-drink tycoon, because Flo messed up.

Then we're off to the races, where Colonel Joy discovers his jockey is drunk. Despite her heft, age and total lack of ability, Flo ends up riding the Colonel's thoroughbred, and that is not a euphemism.

In the finale, Flo finally figures out who the real tycoon is, and she and Dot stage the old reliable -- a fainting spell -- to get his attention. They do this a lot -- "I've been flat on my back on every floor in this hotel," Dot says. The unwanted Colonel keeps showing up, offering a glass of water.



All's well that ends well -- as for Lightner, she made a few more films at Warner's. Then she married director Roy Del Ruth (who directed this film) and disappeared from the screen by the mid-1930s.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Kept Husbands," or Bride and Gloom

"Whatcha watching?"

Old movie.

"Not really."

Yes. And to anticipate your next question, it's called "Kept Husbands," and it was released in 1931.

"Starring, from the looks of things, Hunky McHunkerson."

You mean Joel McCrea.

"If you say so."

I say so. Yes, he is the male lead. He is a steel worker named Dick. He has been invited to the big boss's house for dinner because he helped rescue three workers and refused any reward for it. The boss is impressed.

"Who's the blonde?"

Dorothy Mackaill, our female lead. She is Dot, the boss's spoiled daughter. At first, Dot makes fun of Dick, but then she makes a discovery about him:



"So he's a former halfback who threw the winning pass to beat Yale? Not to take anything away from his skill, but how hard is it to beat Yale in football?"

Never mind. This helps establish his bona fides as an all-American good guy who loves honest labor and his mother, not necessarily in that order.

"And he's good looking, while Dot's current boyfriend is a pasty-looking guy with a Maybelline mustache. So of course she's going to pick Dick."

Exactly.

"Now here's a new guy who talks like a leaf blower."

That is Ned Sparks, and that voice was his trademark. He plays Hughie, a guy who boards at Dick's mom's house. When Dick comes back from his dinner, Hughie gives him a hard time:



"So I'm thinking that in most other movies he had better lines than that?"

Usually. But I like to include Ned Sparks clips.

"OK. So Dick and Dot get together."

Yes. He is worried that he can't provide for her in the manner to which she is accustomed, but she is persuasive:



"And they take a long honeymoon in Europe. It lasts for like ten minutes, which in old movie time is about three months."

Then Dick goes back to his job, but he's been promoted to Third Vice President, and he does nothing all day. Instead of building bridges, he's shuffling cards and practicing his bridge game.

"There's probably a smoother way to say that."

I don't know -- it's a tricky little simile.

"In other words, Dick has become a -- dun DUNNN -- kept husband."

Yes. Dot is rich but worthless, and Dick is worthless but rich.

"There is truth in what you say."

There is but one hope for Dick -- he must stand up to his wife and go to St. Louis for that big bridge job that will help him regain his self respect.  

"Bridge as in real bridge and not as in a card game."

Yes. I told you it was tricky.  

"So I'm guessing that somebody's going to learn a lesson here, and it isn't Dick."

Dot goes to visit Dick's patient, loving mother, who explains to her that husbands actually WANT to be kept -- not by money, but by love and understanding:



"And only husbands deserve that? Seems to me that's kind of a two-way bridge."

Real bridge or card game bridge?






Sunday, December 8, 2013

"The George Raft Story," or What About Mob?

This time around, Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions brings you the 1961 opus "The George Raft Story."


We open in a nightclub, with 1960s people dancing they
way they think people danced in the 1920s. In fact, the entire movie
is full of 1960s people acting the way they think 1920s people acted. 



Exhibit A is our star, flipping a coin a la Raft but also smirking in a very 1960s way.
George is working in a nightclub as a bouncer, but what he really wants to do is...

...dance like Jerry Lewis.

Georgie is a good boy! He worships his mother, who talks with
an Italian accent even though she's supposed to be a German immigrant. 


He is also loyal to his childhood friend, The Riddler.

But he is bit of a hound with the ladies, including
Nurse Dixie McCall of TV's "Emergency!", who is wearing
an entirely appropriate 1920s hairstyle.


As this montage cleverly illustrates, Georgie begins working
for the mob even as he follows his dance destiny. 


Then trouble rears its ugly head. When Georgie criticizes John Malkovich's
performance in "Con Air," the backlash forces him to go west.

In Hollywood, George meets Hilary Swank ...

... and they form a dance team.

The dance team attracts the attention of a famous director -- let's call
him Schmoward Schmawks -- who casts George in "Scarface."


Headlines we doubt ever got printed.


Now George is a big star, and he has an affair with another
star -- the fabulous Way Mest, not to be confused with
Mayne Jansfield.

Then George is visited by childhood friend Bugsy "Bugsy" Siegel, who
wants to borrow $100,000 to finish his Las Vegas hotel
and have a life preserver removed from the side of his head. 

When Bugsy is murdered, George goes broke. He moves to Cuba
to become a casino greeter and he packs his satin dancing shirt. 

Then Castro enters the picture and Georgie's future
is uncertain. If only Willy Bilder would make a gangster comedy with
Cony Turtis, Lack Jemmon and Marilyn Monroe ...



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: "Singin' in the Rain"

I was 10 years old when I remember seeing Gene Kelly for the first time, and I was not impressed.

It was 1967, and Kelly was the star of a musical TV version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," and he was just so ... so ...smarmy. I felt like he was talking down to me, and I was 10! Besides, I was much too sophisticated for a story like "Jack and the Beanstalk," musical or no. "The Monkees" and "Batman" were more my speed.

Soon after that I had the opportunity to see "Singin' in the Rain" for the first time, and I was skeptical.

Another musical with Gene Kelly? Puh-leeze.

But this was at a time in my life when I was starting to pay attention to what people considered good movies and why, and also starting to recognize performers, so I gave it a shot.

In many ways, "Singin' in the Rain" was an introduction for me -- an introduction to big-studio moviemaking, an introduction to what Hollywood was like in the late 1920s and an introduction (or a re-introduction) to the greatness of Gene Kelly. This movie alone didn't spur my interest in film history, but it was one of the things that helped ignite it. I knew "Singin' in the Rain" wasn't a documentary by any means, but I also realized that there were real stories behind this one and I wanted to learn more. I'm still learning.

Beyond that, on a purely emotional level, "Singin' in the Rain" radiates joyousness and unlimited possibility. It's a perfect fit for Kelly's athletic, exuberant dancing style. He's Don Lockwood, joyous star of silent movies, making a mint on routine swashbuckler films that don't particularly tax his talent. He rose through vaudeville, performing in tank towns with his pal Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) before coming to Hollywood:



(Gene Kelly never had a better dancing partner than Donald O'Connor.)

When sound movies enter the picture, Don's secure screen persona is jeopardized, and for the first time, really, his ability is tested. Also being tested by the transition, and failing, is Don's screen lover Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose voice shatters microphones and whose egomania is positively Kardashian-ian ("I make more money than Calvin Coolidge -- put together!"). Starlet Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) is hired to dub Lina's voice, and she and Don fall in love.

The film's script, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is incisive and funny, and even more of a wonder when you consider what they were given to work with -- reportedly, producer Arthur Freed just told them to write a movie called "Singin' in the Rain" and to include all his songs. "All we knew," Comden said later, "was there would be some scene where someone would be singing, and it would be raining."

And as good as the script is, "Singin' in the Rain" tells its story almost exclusively through the musical numbers directed and choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. Think about it -- "Good Morning," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Make 'Em Laugh," "Singin' in the Rain" and the "Broadway Melody" ballet, which introduced the 10-year-old me to Cyd Charisse and moved my puberty up by at least a year.

And then there's my favorite scene in the movie, the only dance number in film history built around an elocution lesson:



If you don't have a smile on your face when you watch that, I don't want to know you. You can see the friendly competition between Kelly and O'Connor -- you have to believe that dancing with each other made them both better.

Released in the shadow of Kelly's Oscar-winning "An American in Paris," "Singin' in the Rain" didn't get much attention when it was released in 1952. But it's a more streamlined movie, with genuine comedy and iconic moments. Just show the still of Kelly, with an umbrella, on a lamppost to someone and ask them what movie it comes from -- they'll tell you it comes from the movie with the scene where someone would be singing, and it would be raining.