Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bishop's Wife directed by Henry Koster (starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven)

The Bishop's Wife (1947). Screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert Sherwood from the novel The Bishop's Wife by Robert Nathan. (Some scenes were reportedly rewritten uncredited by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.)

Bishop: Are you expecting a letter?
Dudley: Well, you never know. If I did get one, the stamp would certainly be worth saving.

That's because Dudley (Cary Grant) is an angel sent to give guidance to forlorn Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), and who eventually lights up the lives of everyone else in the Bishop's life, especially The Bishop's Wife in this delightful Christmas film from the late 1940s. When the Bishop prays for help in getting a new cathedral built (the local millionairess widow will only give if her late husband's name is prominently displayed), Cary Grant shows up as his "assistant" but soon makes the Bishop even more miserable by charming his wife Julia (radiant Loretta Young), daughter Debby, and even housemaid Matilda (Elsa Lanchester, always wonderful).

The Bishop's Wife is truly "heavenly" with Grant playing off his tried-and-true persona. Originally Grant and Niven were supposed to have the opposite roles, but Grant decided he could do more with the angel role — and Grant was a bigger star — so they were exchanged. Good thing, too: I can't imagine Cary playing the indecisive Bishop any more than I can imagine Niven charming a woman away from Cary Grant.

Only a few things keep The Bishop's Wife from being perfect. There is an overlong ice-skating scene that really stretches the believability (I had to keep telling myself, "He's an angel; he can do anything"), and the film runs on about 20 minutes too long. In the beginning, Grant is so taken by Young that, if he weren't an angel, those looks would feel really sleazy. Turns out that Cary is just discovering temptations, which makes the ending all the more noble.

I originally saw The Bishop's Wife during the summer months a few years ago in the midst of a Cary Grant festival on Turner Classic Movies. That experience feels a little strange, but the movie is so ... happy that it's easy to slip into the vibe, especially with all the Christmas carols being bandied about like so many candy canes. I'd certainly recommend that fans of the stars watch it at least once (especially since Loretta Young, whom I don't find all that attractive, is made, through Gregg Toland's photography, into a very appealing woman). Niven is rather on the milquetoasty side and his richest scene involves him being stuck in a chair, but the rest of the film is two hours of Christmas joy.

Sharp-eyed viewers may recognize actress Karolyn Grimes (Debby) from her role in another classic Christmas film. The year before The Bishop's Wife, she played Zuzu in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie directed by Kirk R. Thatcher (starring Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Joan Cusack, David Arquette)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002). Teleplay by Tom Martin and Jim Lewis.

This umpteenth offering from Henson Studios is a parody-laden tribute to It's a Wonderful Life (among others) starring Joan Cusack as villain Rachel Bitterman; David Arquette as Daniel, a social-worker/angel (Heaven is implied, but never said outright) who wants to take Kermit's case; and Whoopi Goldberg as "The Boss" (see?). Also appearing are William H. Macy and Matthew Lillard along with a host of cameos from television personalities (Kelly Ripa, Molly Shannon, Carson Daly, the cast of Scrubs), including a misguided appearance from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and a hilarious turn from Mel Brooks as a lost snowman narrator.

As a whole, It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie succeeds admirably. The normally frantic Arquette tones it down considerably, settling into a mildly annoying tone that suits the character. And all the muppets are in fine form. Given that I grew up continually exposed to these voice artists, the fact that many of the characters are now embodied by different performers would hardly escape my notice. But I am happy to say that it was not a distraction and, actually, I did not realize that the characters formerly voiced by the legendary Frank Oz (who left the troupe just prior to this to focus on directing) — Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Animal, and Yoda in a cameo — were not Oz himself until doing the research for this review. (Kudos to Eric Jacobson, who makes it seem easy to fill those shoes.)

But the main thing I noticed about the movie was the amount of sexual innuendo. Not only is the "Voulez vous coucher avec moi, c'est soir" line from Moulin Rouge featured (and given a funny twist) in the "Moulin Scrooge" centerpiece (the highlight of the feature), but lines about topless bars, ogling of cleavage, and a stereotypically "dramatic" gay character (who admires Kermit as he walks away) round out the mix.

There is also a dark layer to the proceedings that, while seemingly appropriate given the source material, seemed not at all suitable for the target audience. Kermit screaming "I wish I'd never been born" over and over was nothing short of disturbing.

The story involves the normal crew and their attempts to retain the Muppet Theater by delivering their rent on time to Cusack's Bitterman. Unfortunately, Bitterman changes their contract and the time of delivery of the money is moved up six hours — unbeknownst to the rest until it is almost too late. It is then up to Fozzie to deliver the money before the deadline. This leads up to a painfully funny suspense- and slapstick-filled action sequence involving mistaken identity and various obstacles that eventually ends up ... but that would be giving it away. The eventual solution to the problem, while surely obvious to a town official, escaped me until it was delivered — but it was glossed over in favor of wrapping up the proceedings.

While it's difficult to recapture the original nostalgic joy that came with The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie (or even the early days of Sesame Street), anything involving our felt friends is worth a watch. It's always good to see them in action, and It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie is no exception.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flying Down to Rio directed by Thornton Freeland (starring Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire)

Flying Down to Rio (1933). Screenplay by Cyril Hume, H.W. Hanemann, and Erwin Gelsey from the play by Anne Caldwell based on a story by Lou Brock.

Most viewers are probably going to come to Flying Down to Rio to see the first pairing of one of filmdom's great couple: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But Astaire and Rogers are actually only supporting players to stars Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond in this lighthearted little pre-Code romantic comedy musical. (If you never thought Ginger Rogers was sexy, you have to see her as Honey Hale in this film.)

Raymond plays Roger Bond, a bandleader with a reputation for getting his orchestra barred from gigs due to his dalliances with the paying customers. His accordion player and best friend, Fred Ayres (Astaire), tries to keep him in line, but because of a bet with her girlfriends, Brazilian girl Belinha de Rezende (del Rio, actually born in Mexico) seduces him first. (As one of the friends, Lucile Browne has the best line in the movie. In a wonderful, typically pre-Code jab, she queries the others, "What has that South American got below the equator that we don't?")

Since Bond is also conveniently a pilot, he and Belinha go off to get some alone time and end up stranded on an island. Interestingly both his and hers "devils on the shoulder" appear to make sure they take full advantage of the situation though each originally had nixed the idea. They end up falling for each other, but unfortunately she's already part of an arranged marriage to Julio (Raul Roulien) who also happens to be a friend of Roger's. (Roulien's best scene is during his reaction to Roger's story of his new girl; as it quickly dawns on him that their girls are the same one.)

Fans of character actors will appreciate Flying Down to Rio's fantastic opening scene involving Franklin Pangborn, one of the great pompous asses of cinema, and Eric Blore, best known for his portrayal of elitist butlers. Both are wonderfully cruel, as the hotel manager and his assistant, in their treatment of the band while they wait for the terminally tardy Bond and Ayres to arrive.

Astaire and Rogers first show off their chemistry together during a funny and charming dance to "The Carioca" (which some of my generation may recognize from a comedic version played over the opening and closing credits of The Kentucky Fried Movie). What follows is a lengthy, 15-minute dance of the multitudes, something that would become a feature of some of the couple's early films. For example, "The Continental" runs around 17 minutes in The Gay Divorcee (their first starring vehicle and still my favorite).

(A lot of Astaire and Rogers fans pick Top Hat as their favorite. But I've never understood this since it's simply a retread of the plot — and cast! — of The Gay Divorcee. Perhaps it's simply because it contains a lot of songs that are now standards. In any case, fans wanting all three, and more, need only look as far as the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition.)

On the whole, Flying Down to Rio is a forgettable trifle, though "The Carioca" is a real earworm — I had it in my head for two weeks after watching — and it's easy to see why Astaire and Rogers became the great screen couple and not del Rio and Raymond. It's all about chemistry, and director Thornton Freeland capitalizes on the fact that one couple has it in spades while the other is merely going through the motions (though each certainly has charms of his and her own, as they would show in other films).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Heaven Can Wait (1943) directed by Ernst Lubitsch (starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslyn, Marjorie Main)

Heaven Can Wait (1943). Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson based on the play Birthday by Lazlo Bus-Fekete.

Don Ameche arrives at the gates of Hell ready to turn himself in for being so ruthless with women. "His Excellency," however, chooses first to hear his story. He finds that Ameche has not been any worse than anyone else (in fact most of his "crimes" were done in the name of love), and so sends him on his way up.

This is the story of Heaven Can Wait, yet another confection from director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (the duo responsible for the fantastic Trouble in Paradise).

Ameche and Gene Tierney give fine lead performances. However, the film is stolen out from under them by the supporting cast. Allyn Joslyn (The Horn Blows at Midnight) is perfectly pompous as cousin Albert, and Charles Coburn is a delight as always playing Ameche's lovable grandfather, charming and good for a laugh.

But the pair who rule this film are Tierney's parents, played by Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey) and Marjorie Main (best known as "Ma Kettle"). Their powerful voices fill the air with intimidating presence when they are together; and their dueling breakfast scene is the highlight of the picture.

Yes, the acting is terrific all around, but somehow it doesn't all fit together right. The ending is obvious from the start and so isn't at all satisfying. I was left thinking, "so what?" But at the same time, the performances were so good, I didn't want Heaven Can Wait to end, so it felt cut short.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight directed by Raoul Walsh (starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Dolores Moran)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). Screenplay by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern from a story by Aubrey Wisberg.

The Horn Blows at Midnight is the infamous film about which Jack Benny constantly expressed shame on his radio show (the movie was a flop on release and became his last lead role). And while it's by no means a classic (in fact, it's probably only as well known as it is because he made so much fun of it), it's not that bad.

Yes, some of the jokes are obvious. Yes, Benny is pretty much playing himself. But not only are there several character actors worth seeing, but the storyline is also innovative (Doomsday is presented in a light, cheery manner), the performances are top-rate, the fallen-angel duo are a terrific comic team, and Dolores Moran steals every scene she's in.

Benny stars as a bad trumpet player who falls asleep during a radio commercial and dreams that he is Athanael, an angel chosen to go to Earth and blow the Doomsday trumpet, heralding its end. All he has to do is blow the horn precisely at the stroke of midnight and the world will end, getting him promoted to Angel Senior Grade. But of course things keep getting in his way, including two fallen angels who are living it up on Earth.

Benny's escapades on Earth comprise the bulk of the film, making room for several fish-out-of-water scenes (eating at a restaurant and not knowing to pay) and references to famous dead people (upon seeing a dollar bill, Benny recognizes George Washington and makes a note to tell George about it on his return).

Director Raoul Walsh has assembled a stellar cast of character actors — many with whom classic film fans will be familiar — that give Benny fabulous support. Alexis Smith is Elizabeth, Athanael's girlfriend; Guy Kibbee plays "the Chief," who assigns Benny his task; and Reginald Gardiner is suavity at its utmost as Archie Dexter, thief and aspiring conductor.

Preston Sturges stock player Franklin Pangborn is in fine pomposity as Sloan; Mike Mazurki has perfected the role of lovable goon by this point, but this is by far the largest role I've seen him in; and Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander are Osidro and Doremus, the fallen angels who don't want to go back. They are the American "Caldicott and Charters."

Former Marx brothers' foil Margaret Dumont also has a small role, and Bobby Blake, fresh from his Our Gang days, plays bratty-punk personified.

Lots of gags and quick pacing keep The Horn Blows at Midnight interesting. The climax is funny and suspenseful, involving all the main characters hanging off the side of a building. Good actors doing their best to entertain us is always fun to watch, as are all of the set pieces, especially one involving an oversized cup of coffee. On the downside, I wish they had stretched the ending out, giving viewers time to realize the story is ending, instead of compressing it into an unfunny punchline.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer directed by Irving Reis (starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, Rudy Vallee)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1948). Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon.

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy star with a teenaged Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a light-hearted comedy from the pen of Sidney Sheldon. Painter Richard Nugent (Grant, supposedly portraying a troublemaking womanizer but remaining lovable Cary) comes before Judge Margaret Turner (Loy) due to a nightclub scuffle in which he was a participant.

He later speaks on art at the school of Margaret's younger sister Susan (Temple), where she develops a crush on him (going so far as to envision him in shining armor). Upon her discovery of this disturbing crush, Margaret decides her only recourse is to have "Dickie" (as Susan has taken to calling Nugent) actually court Susan so she will lose her crush.

Grant decides that she is attracted to the "older man" side of him, so he plays at being a teenage type to turn her off. He dresses with his pant cuffs rolled up and pulls off some current slang (this was 1948), barging into the Turner home with a hearty "Mellow greetings, yookie dookie." Then he plays a funny word game:

Dickie: "You remind me of a man."
Susan: "What man?"
Dickie: "The man with the power."
Susan: "What power?"
Dickie: "The power of hoodoo."
Susan: "Hoodoo?"
Dickie: "You do."
Susan: "Do what?"
Dickie: "Remind me of a man..."

...and prepares to leave with a "Ready, boot? Let's scoot." Grant is surprisingly effective at this charade, probably because he looks so unassuming, completely dropping the suave screen personality viewers expect. (The wordplay is so seemingly original and clever, I've been quoting it since I first saw the movie back in the 1990s.)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer also allows Grant to use his gift at physical humor (as a youth he was trained in acrobatics, dancing, and pantomime) in a series of contests at a local school picnic against family friend Tommy (Rudy Vallee) at Susan's request.

It's all wonderfully fluffy and plays at no pretense of attaining classic status, even though Sheldon's screenplay won an Oscar (and yes, that's the same Sidney Sheldon who wrote all those potboiler novels that were made into TV movies in the 1980s). But Grant, Loy, and Temple are at their comedic best (although Loy is used to greater effect in the Thin Man movies), and the whole thing is a feel-good movie squared, so The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer has become one of my favorites over the years.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Free Soul directed by Clarence Brown (starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard)

A Free Soul (1931). Screenplay by Becky Gardiner (dialogue continuity by John Meehan) from the play by Willard Mack based on the novel A Free Soul by Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) may have been raised by her alcoholic lawyer father Stephen (Lionel Barrymore, a personal favorite) to be A Free Soul — much to the detriment of his relationship with his wealthy family — but that didn't mean he wanted her to hook up with his latest client, gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable); Stephen just defended him successfully on a murder charge.

Like any father, he'd rather she marry the more dependable (and unbelievably loyal) Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). But Jan finds fiery Ace much more appealing than the bland Dwight, and Dwight loves her enough to let her go (even though he finally got her to accept his proposal after 73 tries). Stephen tries to make a pact with Jan that they both quit their vices, but of course it's not so easy for either of them, and the result is a downward spiral leading to the deaths of two people.

A Free Soul is one of the films (Strangers May Kiss is another) given a great deal of coverage in Mick LaSalle's book on pre-Code actresses, Complicated Women. According to LaSalle, "A Free Soul is a movie about lust. Jan ... lusts for her gangster lover, just as her alcoholic father ... lusts for a drink, and neither has any willpower."

Both Shearer and Barrymore were nominated for Academy Awards, along with director Clarence Brown. The terrific Barrymore won, though his performance in this film is no better than others I've seen him in. By most accounts, it was due to his captivating 14-minute monologue at the conclusion of the film — an uninterrupted take that required the splicing of film from two cameras (a reel only holds 10 minutes' worth) and got A Free Soul included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But Shearer is no slouch here, either, giving one of the sexually charged performances that have made her a favorite of fans of pre-Code cinema. Shearer's silent-film acting may be distracting to some, with her intense facial expressions and often extreme poses (watch out for those elbows, cocked and ready to fire), but it's a skill that allows her to act with more than words, and Jan Ashe is a woman who is definitely more interested in talking with her body than with her larynx. A Free Soul turns the tables on the normally accepted male–female roles. He wants to talk about the relationship, but she brushes him off with, "Oh, dear, he wants to talk some more."

Shearer heats up the screen when she's with Gable (her kind of blatant sexiness was even rare then) and is reluctantly restrained when with Howard. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is less than memorable. Perhaps the consequences and conclusion were simply too predictable to this jaded moviegoer, but I think most viewers will primarily remember the gown Shearer wears through most of the first half of A Free Soul. It alone is enough to elicit a certain level of shock (especially when considering the 1931 release date), in that is leaves very little of Norma to the imagination, showcasing her bralessness along practically every other facet of her figure.

Still, it's fascinating that a movie like A Free Soul that is almost 80 years old still has the ability to astound audiences with its ideas and its fashions — ideas that we in the 21st century can hardly get our heads around, and fashions that no big star of today would outside of a particularly meaty Oscar-bait role. (Five years later, Shearer and Howard would reunite as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet — though both obviously too old for the roles — and Gable and Howard would compete for the love of another free-thinking woman eight years later in Gone with the Wind.)

Historically significant films are not always the most entertaining, but any movie fan who wants to be educated about pre-Code films, or who are simply fans of the stars, will want to take time out for this second Forbidden Hollywood set from the TCM Archives. The three-disc set also includes The Divorcee (the movie that won Shearer her Oscar), Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, and Joan Blondell), Female (starring Ruth Chatterton), and Night Nurse (with Gable, Blondell, and Barbara Stanwyck).
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