Unfollowing The Golden Rule: Good Sam (1948)

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation - Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

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Battle of the Powells: William vs. Dick

dickToday, TCM pays tribute to Dick Powell, airing 14 of his films as part of Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this month, a day had been devoted to William Powell. As a major fan of both stars, I can’t decide if I was more excited to listen to Dick Powell croon and crack wise, or watch William Powell woo his costars with wit and style.

Like several male stars from the Golden Age, neither Powell was classically handsome. Yet, both are attractive and appealing because of their cultivated charisma and star images. WP was the elegant gentleman who exuded romance and class, while his keen sense of humor prevented his characters from becoming too high brow or pompous. Though he played oily cads very early in his career, his star image as the suave gent was cemented by the 1930s and remained remarkably consistent until his last movie, Mr. Roberts, in 1955. I admire those Golden Age movie stars who were able to maneuver their images through the changes in the industry and the ravages of aging. But, then again, who doesn’t respect Dick Powell for completely changing his star image from the sweet-faced crooner of backstage musicals to the wise-cracking, hard-boiled anti-hero of film noir.

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Saying Good Night to Brian G. Hutton (1935-2014): Night Watch (1973)

taylorhutton1Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.

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August 16, 2014
David Kalat
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Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.

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KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
COMMENTS: 66
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August 9, 2014
David Kalat
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Split Decision

At the risk of being absurdly reductionist: there are two kinds of special effects.  The first is the Invisible effect—the kind that you aren’t meant to notice.

Back in the days of classic film, these sorts of effects included matte paintings used in establishing shots, or rear projection effects.  Of course, keen eyed observers probably did notice these effects from time to time, and modern eyes are even more attuned to spot them, but the point was that you weren’t really supposed to remark on these things—they were executed by the production team simply as a means of filling out the scenery and frame within which the important stuff happened.  Nowadays there are even more sophisticated CGI techniques to perform similar functions.  When film fans (like those of us congregated here) argue over the relative merits of CGI vs. old school practical effects, we’re generally arguing over the second kind of special effect, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph.  The fact is, the vast majority of CGI effects and digital compositing pass you by without you even noticing, because they’re Invisible.  Here’s a link to a surprising video montage of the extraordinary ubiquity of digital effects in the most ordinary of situations:

http://petapixel.com/2011/02/15/amazing-effects-from-popular-tv-shows/

Which brings us to the second category of special effects, which is the one most people think of when you say “special effects,” and that’s the Spectacle.  Instead of techniques used to help dress the set and set the stage for the real drama, these are effects that are the drama in and of themselves.

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KEYWORDS: alec guinness, special effects, The scapegoat
COMMENTS: 9
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Carole Lombard’s Lasting Impact … on Napa!

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Carole Lombard will be headlining TCM’s Summer Under the Stars line-up on Sunday, August 11th.

While pursuing my personal interest in local history here in Napa I was pleasantly surprised to discover how one of my favorite funny ladies, the brassy blonde bombshell Carole Lombard, had made a lasting impression on the area when she visited California’s Wine Country in 1939 to star in Garson Kanin’s THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (1940). This notable RKO production was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Sidney Howard that chronicled a complicated love triangle between an ambitious San Francisco waitress (Carole Lombard), a simple-minded Italian grape farmer (Charles Laughton) and his affable ranch hand (William Gargan). Much of the film was shot on location in the Napa Valley and during that time Lombard, along with her costars and husband Clark Gable, toured wineries, mingled with locals and befriended some well-heeled residents who still fondly recall family stories about encountering the lovely Lombard.

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July 26, 2014
David Kalat
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Pryor convictions

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.

Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker in Superman III.

Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”

As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

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KEYWORDS: Arthur Hiller, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Silver Streak
COMMENTS: 19
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Columbia Crime: The Whistler

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The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).

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When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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Forgotten 1970s: To Find a Man (1972)

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The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a Man. Brian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.

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