Friday, April 25, 2014

"Bannerline" and the Keefe Brasselle Story

"Bannerline" isn't much of a movie and Keefe Brasselle isn't much of an actor.

So why am I writing this?

Because Brasselle had a minor acting career, and, considering what came later, which we will detail below, it's kind of interesting to see him in action.

Also, to watch "Bannerline" is to watch a great movie studio -- MGM -- slowly dying, along with two of its acting stalwarts, Lewis Stone and Lionel Barrymore.

One of the last films produced under the watch of Louis B. Mayer, "Bannerline" takes place in the small town of Backlotsville, on the same streets which the late Mickey Rooney probably trod as Andy Hardy.
 
Brasselle plays Mike Perrivale, a cub reporter for the town paper, the Clarion. The paper's owner keeps assigning fluff pieces to Mike, and he's never allowed to write anything about the town's crime lord, Scarbine (J. Carrol Naish). Mike's fiancee (Sally Forrest) tips him to a story -- the town's beloved high school history teacher, Trimble (Barrymore), is on his death bed. Encouraged by the paper's wizened layout editor, Josh (Stone), Mike interviews Trimble, who expresses anger that the citizens (and the newspaper) are reluctant to take on Scarbine:



Mike gets an idea -- since Trimble is expected to die the next day, why not make up a fake edition of the Tribune that reports the end of Scarbine's corrupt reign so he can go happily? Josh helps out, and even the paper's editor chips in, with the understanding that they will produce only a few copies as souvenirs and one for Trimble.

Lewis Stone, twilight edition.
Then, after everyone has gone home, Mike and Josh get another idea -- to print and distribute the fake newspaper to everyone in town. Since this is an MGM movie made in 1951 under Mayer, the unthinkable comes true without a lot of fuss or bother, and your lowest expectations are met -- Scarbine is incarcerated, Trimble dies a fulfilled man and everyone else lives happily ever after.

"Bannerline" is MGM at its smarmiest -- full of fake sentiment (with Spring Byington as Mike's plucky mother-in-law to be), noble speeches (Barrymore is largely immobile but still bites off his lines with vigor) and cute romantic situations between Brasselle and Forrest. Both Barrymore and Stone were just a few years from death (two years hence, in 1953, Stone would collapse and die from a heart attack after -- seriously -- chasing some kids off his lawn) and they class up the joint a bit, but there's just nothing to get excited about here. There were a lot of interesting innovations happening in Hollywood movies in 1951, but "Bannerline" doesn't reflect any of them. It might just as well have been made ten years earlier.  

So much for "Bannerline." Now for a little more about Brasselle.

Born in Ohio as John Brasselli, he came west and made his movie debut in 1944, playing small parts in films like "The Babe Ruth Story" and "T Men." In 1951, the same year he made "Bannerline," he also appeared in a small part in "A Place in the Sun." In 1953, he was cast in what could have been a star-making role -- as the lead in "The Eddie Cantor Story," lip synching to songs while Cantor supplied the singing. He appeared on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" to promote the film in a swaggering, charisma-free performance:


Really?

Brasselle's work in the film was widely panned and it was a failure at the box office. He made only a handful of movies over the rest of the decade.

Then in 1961, Brasselle appeared in the news when the New Jersey nightclub he owned caught on fire -- with six gasoline cans found nearby. He was also dogged with rumored mob connections -- he was the godson of mobster Joe Profaci.

In the summer of 1963, Brasselle popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, on CBS as the host of a summer replacement variety show. When producer Greg Garrison yelled at Brasselle for missing an entrance, Brasselle put a hit on him. Garrison hid out at the apartment of a show regular, former prizefighter Rocky Graziano, who straightened things out. 

The president of CBS at the time was James Aubrey, a mercurial fellow who was known as "the smiling cobra." Aubrey had built CBS into a ratings powerhouse by scheduling light fare that emphasized, as he stated in a memo, "broads, bosoms and fun" -- hits like "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gunsmoke," "The Red Skelton Hour," "The Lucy Show" and "Candid Camera."

For whatever reason -- the mob connections or just plain greed -- Aubrey threw his lot in with Brasselle for the 1964-65 season. On CBS's fall schedule were three new shows from Brasselle's Richelieu Productions. The company had never produced a TV series, and the shows didn't even shoot pilot episodes. What's more, they all had artificially high production costs that screamed "kickback." None of the three -- "The Baileys of Balboa," "The Cara Williams Show" and "The Reporter" -- lasted more than a season, and in early 1965 a CBS shareholder charged Aubrey and Brasselle with conspiracy to defraud the network.

Aubrey resigned shortly thereafter, and Brasselle became bitter. He wrote a work of fiction, "The CanniBalS," based on the experience. In interviews he blamed everyone in Hollywood for his failure, and Hollywood reciprocated by leaving him totally alone.

Brasselle's last film, which he co-directed, was "If You Don't Stop It ... You'll Go Blind!," a R-rated drive-in quickie that was released in 1975. He died of liver cancer in 1981, at age 58.

Just one more thing -- Brasselle's "Colgate Comedy Hour" appearance reminds me of the episode of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" where Rob, Buddy and Sally are forced into writing a nightclub act for the no-talent nephew of a mobster (played by executive producer Sheldon Leonard):

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Great Villain Blogathon Entry: Otto Kruger in "Saboteur," or There Are None So Blind as Those Who Will Nazi

This is my entry in the Great Villain Blogathon sponsored by Shadows and Satin, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Please visit the link above and read the other entries as well, k?

A very pleasant and sincere greeting to all of you. My name
is Charles Tobin, and as you can clearly see I am a kind,
considerate, fully respectable 100% American with a nice
wardrobe. I am president of one of the fascist -- I mean
fastest -- growing companies in the country. 

Unfortunately, some troublemakers -- such as my friend Barry
Kane here -- have branded me as a villain, accusing me of
running a sabotage ring, of all things! With your permission,
I will outline my case -- that it is Barry Kane, not I, who is
the REAL villain -- and I believe you will agree.

I first met Mr. Kane when he muscled his way into my
palatial, well-kept desert estate on National Striped Bathrobe Day. 

Before he came in, if you can believe it, he relieved
himself on my front stoop!


Then, upon entry, he shamelessly ingratiated himself
with my granddaughter as I was fetching refreshments.


My housekeeper reacted as any good frau -- I mean
woman -- would. By drawing a pistol. 

Mr. Kane reacted in the most cowardly way possible --
by using my granddaughter as cover! So he escaped,
without so much as a thank you for the refreshments. 

By now, the word was out about Mr. Kane
being a fugitive --

-- and he enticed a Miss Martin into pretending to be
his "hostage."

Together they went on a spree of property destruction ...

... ending at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Mr. Kane
attacked Frank, one of my henchmen -- I mean employees --
who was minding his own business, peacefully
listening to Radio Berlin. 

Then Miss Martin cruelly tricked Frank
while they were sightseeing at the Statue of Liberty.

This led to Frank being ambushed by Mr. Kane and
Miss Martin, and things very quickly got, you should
excuse the expression, out of hand.

Do I blame Mr. Kane for Frank's death? Well, let's put it
this way -- HE SOLD FRANK THAT SUIT.

Well, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Judge the
evidence for yourselves, and please take into account
my friendly manner and luxurious lifestyle. I believe that
the truth will triumph uber alles -- I mean, over all.
Auf wiedersehen!




Saturday, April 12, 2014

My Diamonds and Gold Blogathon Entry: "Charade," or Cary Nation

This post is part of the Diamonds and Gold Blogathon, co-hosted by Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman. Please visit them and check out the other entries as well!  

Telegram from Time magazine: "How old Cary Grant?" 
Grant's response: "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?" 

In movies like "Bringing Up Baby" and "Monkey Business," Cary Grant wears glasses for comic effect.

In the 1963 film "Charade," he wears them to see -- and to send us one of several messages that he is older, if no less Cary Grantish.

"How do you shave in there?"
Grant was in his late 50s when he made "Charade," not that it matters to us. But it mattered to him. He was a little squeamish about playing a romantic lead opposite Audrey Hepburn, a woman who was his junior by a couple of decades. (Never mind that in real life he was chasing after the 25-year-old Dyan Cannon.)

So Grant worked with screenwriter Peter Stone and director Stanley Donen (in the last of their four pictures together) to gently and cleverly emphasize the fact that he wasn't a spring chicken anymore.

The result? Not only does "Charade" satisfy as a suspense film and as a romantic film, it also has the unusual combination of offbeat warmth and genuine heat between the leading characters. It's easily Grant's most self-referential film, made at the perfect time -- just as his legendary film career was winding down, by his choice. The character of Peter Joshua (the first names of Donen's two oldest sons) is distilled Cary Grant -- the essence of a dozen or more of his films and of the onscreen persona of the man who helped make them classics.

The movie opens with a shock -- a body being thrown off a high-speed train whizzing across the French countryside, the face of the victim suddenly filling the frame, frozen in death.

The stiff is Charles Lambert, a bit of a ne'er-do-well who was on the verge of being divorced by wife Regina (Hepburn). His death saves her the trouble, and the non-stricken widow has already found a new male friend and possible conquest -- Joshua, who she has just met on a skiing trip while Charles was getting offed by a stranger on a train.

Charles's funeral is one of several great set pieces in the movie. The only mourners, if you can call them that, are Regina, her best friend and the detective investigating the case, who sits in the back and clips his fingernails. But it also attracts some rather threatening characters -- Scobie (George Kennedy), Tex (James Coburn) and Gideon (Ned Glass):



Regina has no idea who the men are, or what connection Charles had with them. She gets the story from state department honcho Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) -- Charles, Tex, Scobie and Gideon were buddies during World War II who hijacked a gold shipment. Then the men went back to America and Charles stayed behind with the loot. Now it's 20 years later and the men want it -- but they don't know where Charles hid it.

Regina's only protector is Joshua, who reappears in her life after their encounter on the skiing trip. He seems to be the right man in the right place at the right time.

But is he? Regina can't tell -- she comes to learn that he has several identities, but she also can't fight her attraction to him, which comes as no surprise to anyone in the world, because the guy is Cary Grant.

Grant brings all the tools in his arsenal to "Charade" -- the tan, the white dress shirts that set off the tan, the monochromatic suits and ties (so as not to fight with Hepburn's Givenchy wardrobe and color palate), and the bemusement (and concealed pride) that someone as young and attractive as Regina is chasing him. He is tough when the situation calls for it, but not above being goofy just for the hell of it:



As essential as Grant is to the success of "Charade," it's frightening to consider that he almost didn't make the movie. Donen tells the story that, initially, Grant had committed to make a movie with Howard Hawks and had to turn Donen down -- then Grant read the script for the Hawks movie, "Man's Favorite Sport?" and jumped back into "Charade."

Grant appeared in just two more movies -- as a grizzled beachcomber in 1964's "Father Goose" and as a grandfatherly matchmaker who connects Jim Hutton with Samantha Eggar in 1966's "Walk, Don't Run." (The movie was a remake of "The More the Merrier," and Grant played the role Charles Coburn won an Oscar for in the original.) After that, Grant became a "normal" citizen, free to wear his glasses all the time -- and he did.










While we're on the subject of aging gracefully, here is "Charade" director Stanley Donen at age 72, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Academy Awards by breaking into song and a little soft shoe. This is one of my very favorite Oscar moments:


 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Love Song of Harry Ritz (Inspired by Repeated Viewings of "The Gorilla")

With apologies to T. S. Eliot.
 
Let us go then, you and I, and Al, don't forget Al
when the evening is spread out against the sky
to that Haunted House
of Fear and Squalor
where danger awaits,
and PLEASE DON'T HOLLER!








   Let us go and make our visit.
   In the room, so dark and smelly, 
   we will talk of Patsy Kelly.










And indeed there will be time
For a gorilla to appear,
Lumbering through the library
of a rich guy looking like Lionel Atwill
Whose murder we will prevent!
For we are detectives on our toes
and not a trio of mugging schmoes.






   In the room, for pity sakes,
   we will do our double takes.

    






And indeed there will be time
for some physical schtick
some vaudeville click
some comic lick

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
because that would scare that gorilla, I bet.





  I have seen the moment of my bravery flicker,
  And I have seen the gorilla stand behind me, and snicker,
  And in short, I was afraid.










I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled
and a hat with a turned up brim,
because people laugh at that stuff.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
They opened for us at the Palace.
I have seen them eating cheesecake at Lindy's
with Milton Berle and Martha Raye
or another girl and Joey Faye --




  Here comes the ending
  like sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
  we get into our jalopy
  and head back to town
  Let us go then, you and I, and Al, don't forget Al
  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Weary River"

A better title for the 1929 film "Weary River" might be "The Sad, Sensitive, Singing Bandleader Convict."

OK, maybe it wouldn't be a better title, but it would be more descriptive of the trials and tribulations faced by our morose hero, Jerry Larrabee, played by hall-of-fame frowner Richard Barthelmess.

"Weary River" is a bit of an odd duck in that it is a part talkie, alternating silent and talking sequences. You might expect the difference between the two to seem herky-jerky, but director Frank Lloyd (he was Oscar-nominated) makes the transitions surprisingly smooth. 

Richard Barthelmess runs the gamut of emotion.

As the movie begins, Barthelmess-as-Jerry isn't sad at all! He enters a speakeasy where everybody knows his name. He is a high-living gangster, and always on his arm is the beauteous Alice (Betty Compson) who, when the occasion calls for it, can make with the tears like nobody's business.

But for the time being, everything is beer and skittles (the game, not the candy) -- Jerry and Alice are living the high life, cohabiting a ritzy apartment and wearing well-tailored duds. Then Jerry gets a visit from the cops, personified by Robert Emmett O'Connor. (Who else?) They're chummy, but an innocent bystander has been killed in a shootout between Jerry's gang and their rivals, and Jerry has been fingered as the shooter. So Jerry goes downtown:


Then, before you can say "The Shawshank Redemption," Jerry is in the jug. At first he is bitter about being there, and causes a mini-riot with a few guards. But the prison warden (William Holden, but not the one you're thinking of) is an understanding sort. He cautions Jerry about the pitfalls of running with "bad companions," and Jerry, a budding musician, starts leading the prison band. When Alice comes to visit, the warden (wrongly) pegs her as a bad sort and discourages her from seeing Jerry.

Meanwhile Jerry, miserable and inspired by a minister's talk, writes a song called "Weary River" and sings it on the air. The patrons of the nightclub where Jerry used to hang out listen raptly, including Alice:


"Weary River" is a hit -- so much so that Jerry sings it, in its entirely, at four different times throughout the movie. Magically, Jerry is then released from prison and tours the country as the "Master of Melody." But then thoughtless people start throwing the word "convict" around:


How does Jerry react? By crying all the way to the bank? Nope. He gets bitter and frowns even more than usual. His vaudeville career nosedives, and he starts hanging out again with those bad companions the warden warned him about. The warden learns of Jerry's possible defection and rushes to help, as does Alice. Will they save the Master of Melody, or will he turn into a Maker of Mayhem?
  
"Weary River" is well intentioned and sincere, and even a little prescient -- within a year, thanks to the Great Depression, a lot of people who saw this movie would be sailing weary rivers of their own.

Here are the complete credits.