There’s nothing on the books that says that a “classic” has to have been liked much when it first came out. In fact, enormous swaths of what we now revere as America’s film heritage are comprised of what were flops on their first outing.
Take, for example, the Cary Grant- Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy Holiday by George Cukor (TCM is running it in the middle of the night this coming Monday–set your DVRs!). Right there, in that one sentence, I’ve probably already sold you on the merits of this picture.
Posted by Susan Doll on December 15, 2014
I confess a fondness for Christmas movies that stray from the typical snow-covered farmhouses, nostalgic small-towns, holiday-decorated department stores, and parties overrun with good cheer. While non-traditional Christmas movies rarely achieve classic status, they are interesting for unusual or personal reasons.
I have always had an affection for Donovan’s Reef, partly because I watched it on Saturday Night at the Movies with my father when I was a little girl, and he enjoyed it so much. But, I was also taken with the film’s tropical setting, which made for an exotic backdrop for Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if my obsession with the romance of the tropics began with Donovan’s Reef.
Directed by John Ford in the twilight of his career, Donovan’s Reef takes place on the (fictional) Polynesian island of Haleakaloa, which was saved from the Japanese by three Navy buddies—Dr. William “Doc” Dedham, Michael Patrick “Guns” Donovan, and Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooley. Based on the names alone, it is easy to tell that this knockabout comedy is going to be all about the boys. Thinking Haleakaloa a paradise, the three sailors can’t get the island out of their minds after the war. Doc returns to found a hospital for the islanders, while Guns establishes a couple of businesses, including a saloon called Donovan’s Reef. Gilhooley jumps ship from time to time to swim ashore to Haleakaloa for the sole purpose of starting a fistfight with Guns on their mutual birthday—apparently something of a tradition. The actual narrative begins when Doc’s adult daughter, Amelia, arrives from Boston to find her long-lost father. Doc attempts to hide his island family from her, because he fears she would not accept that he had married a native woman and fathered three children. Guns steps up and pretends the half-breed children are his. In typical Ford fashion, Amelia and Guns are attracted to each other but can’t get along.
Apologies: this week’s post is about racially insensitive jokes in silent comedy (Yes, Ben Martin, this one’s for you), and so I’ve got some unpleasant screen grabs, illustrating some gags most of us probably wish hadn’t been filmed, and then to make matters worse I’m going to speak clumsily and awkwardly about these things while analyzing jokes. None of which is really all that great an idea.
As recent history has tragically shown, we’ve got a lot of work do to repair race relations in America. But that’s not to say it’s on no one’s short list of priorities to pick at the scabs of ninety-year-old silent comedies.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 2, 2014
By the end of 1935 James Cagney was irritated. Under his Warner Brothers contract he was assigned four-to-five movies a year, almost all in the pugilist-gangster mold. Cagney was getting burnt out on the repetition, just as he was becoming a top ten box office attraction. Seeking a higher salary as well as greater input into his roles, Cagney walked off the studio lot and sued them for back pay. He had become a bad boy on-screen as well as off. He spent his time separated from WB making a couple of small features for the independent Grand National Pictures (Great Guy (’36) and Something to Sing About (’37)). The suit was settled in 1938, and Cagney was back at work at WB. His return film was the inside-Hollywood farce Boy Meets Girl, which was a recent Broadway hit. A rapid-fire parody of tinseltown excesses — it tracks the rise and fall of a literally newborn superstar — it allowed Cagney to stretch his comic chops. He gets to enact all of his mischievous Hollywood fantasies: mouthing off to the unit production chief (Ralph Bellamy), insulting soft-headed actors and inciting extras to riot. Cagney and Pat O’Brien play exaggerated versions of the famously acerbic screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as they sweet talk their way into the heart of a naive mother whose baby becomes an overnight star. This cockeyed comedy is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 18, 2014
Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good? (1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.
This is a classic movie blog, you know, so it’s supposed to be about classic movies. But there are different ways of defining “classic.” Personally I’m drawn to the definition offered up in a recent Frazz comic strip, that classic is defined by how it takes to forget something. But there are other definitions, too—and it’s worth remembering that “classic” doesn’t always mean “classy.” And that sometimes movies can be thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile without being classic. Because, let’s face it, Peter Yates’ 1976 Mother, Jugs, and Speed is not going to find itself on just about anyone’s roster of “classic films,” but it’s a surprising gem worth revisiting. It’s also not likely to turn up on TCM anytime soon, which is a shame, because it may have been too quickly forgotten for how well it works.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 11, 2014
UHF was released to apoplectic critics and an apathetic public on July 21st, 1989. Its opening weekend box office put it in eleventh place, behind the nearly month-old run of Weekend at Bernie’s. It would disappear from theaters a few weeks later. Today it comes out in a “25th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, having etched itself into the nostalgia nodes of thirty-something weirdos. I count myself among them. During those awkward pre-teen years (before “tween” made the age period sound appealing) “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a secular god, his mild pop-culture subversiveness a convenient way to channel my milquetoast angst. In 1979 Yankovic changed The Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and netted a recording contract, those albums introducing the possibility of oppositional thinking into my half-formed brain. Plus he dressed funny and had polka breaks in between tunes. No downside! His crossover moment occurred on the album Even Worse (1988), which spawned the MTV music video staple “Fat”, a nearly shot-for-shot parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. With the success of the album (it was his first to reach platinum) and the ubiquitous video, the brave souls at the now-defunct Orion Pictures gave him the chance to make a movie. Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey conceived UHF as a delivery system for parodies, along the lines of Kentucky Fried Movie. It turned out to be something more like a combo of SCTV and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but whatever it was, people hated it. Roger Ebert called it “routine, predictable and dumb — real dumb”, while Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “awful by any standard”. But though I no longer listen to Yankovic’s albums, I still find UHF to be uproarious.
Jacques Tati’s Trafic is a comedy gem that tends to get lost in the shuffle. Setting aside the tendency for this thing to be mistaken for a similarly titled but completely unrelated drama a about drug smugglers (that extra “f” makes all the difference in the world) the 1971 swan song for Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot” character was poorly reviewed on its original release. Compared to the other Hulot films it is a curiously narrative effort by Tati—although the film’s languid Tati-esque pace caused contemporary reviewers to miss that aspect.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 21, 2014
Farrelly Brothers movies are akin to family gatherings. They are filled with extreme neuroses, unexpected violence, and deep undercurrents of affection. Their films are even populated with friends and relatives from their Rhode Island home. Listen to any of their audio commentaries and you’ll find that half the actors are bankers and car salesman who grew up with them back east. Every time I see a Farrelly feature I think of how Manny Farber described Howard Hawks’ “weird mother hen instinct.” The Farrellys have it as well, just weirder. Dumb and Dumber was their directorial debut and an enormous hit, a tale of ignorant male friendship that lowered scatalogical slapstick so far it went below lowbrow and out the other side. It’s also their first attempt at depicting the bonds of brotherhood, in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels perform a kind of radical acceptance of each other’s flaws — through complete stupidity, but still (they treated the same theme with greater complexity in Stuck on You, their greatest film and biggest bomb). The long-gestating but certainly not maturing sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, comes out next month.
The Farrellys follow-up to the original Dumb and Dumber, though, will never get a sequel, though it did come out on Blu-ray last week. Kingpin is another tale of success-challenged males learning to live with the other’s failure, this time in the lacquered middle-aged crisis world of bowling. Though where Dumb and Dumber is an abstract performance piece, as Carrey and Daniels could have been performing in front of a blank wall to similar effect, Kingpin tries to embed its outrageous characters into a semblance of the real world. Each bowling alley and auto-body shop is lovingly detailed, and essential to the development of its sad sack characters. The lead failure Roy Munson, Jr. (Woody Harrelson) is from the made-up small town of Ocelot, Iowa, a corroded rust belt city where he was once its proudest son as State Bowling champion, while ending up in a pit-stained flophouse in Scranton, PA dodging his scrofulous landlord’s bill. He sees a way out in the smooth stroke of Amish naif Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who he thinks can win the big bowling competition in Reno, and take down his longtime nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray).
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