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January 24, 2015
David Kalat
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The wrong week to quit sniffing glue

When you talk about “classic cinema” you talk about motion pictures that influenced the culture. Films that inspired other films, established careers, wormed their way into the memories of audiences, endured in our cultural heritage in some way…

Well, by that definition, you could argue Airplane! is of greater cultural significance than Citizen Kane.

It’s sure a lot funnier.

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KEYWORDS: airplane disaster films, Airplane!, Parody
COMMENTS: 5
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Comedy of Remarriage: The Moon’s Our Home (1936)

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Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.

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January 17, 2015
David Kalat
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Make Spit Takes, Not War

What’s wrong with comedies?

I don’t mean that as in, “why aren’t today’s comedies as good as the olden days?” Because that’s nonsense—the breadth and depth of innovative, hilarious comedy being done today is staggering: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Portlandia, The Comeback, Nathan For You, Inside Amy Shumer, Parks and Recreation, The Daily Show, John Oliver, The Colbert Report, Drunk History, Arrested Development’s revival on Netflix, Bob’s Burgers, Veep, The Soup, Key & Peele… I mean, yeah, that’s a big ole’ list of TV shows not movies, but it’s not like 2014 was devoid of good comedies of different styles and approaches in theaters: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Muppets Most Wanted, 22 Jump Street, Top Five, and (infamously) The Interview.

So, no, my question isn’t why aren’t comedies better, but why don’t comedies get more respect?

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KEYWORDS:
COMMENTS: 11
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January 3, 2015
David Kalat
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Magic Pixie Dream Grampa

I’m here to talk about farces. About romantic comedies, TV sitcoms, and silent slapstick. About Charley Chase, the Marx Brothers, and Charles Coburn. I’m inspired this week by the lovely 1943 romantic comedy The More the Merrier, with Jean Arthur, which TCM is running Monday night. But I’m also hoping you’ll not only set your DVR for that gem, but maybe seek out a DVD of Charley Chase’s Mighty Like a Moose… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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KEYWORDS: Charles Coburn, charley chase, George Stevens, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Mighty Like a Moose, The Marx Brothers, The More the Merrier (1943)
COMMENTS: 5
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Against Type: Hi, Nellie (1934)

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Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).

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December 20, 2014
David Kalat
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If we took a holiday / Took some time to celebrate

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.

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KEYWORDS: Cary Grant, George Cukor, Holiday, Katharine Hepburn
COMMENTS: 6
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Christmas on Celluloid: “Donovan’s Reef”

Donovan's Reef 1963 posterI 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.

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December 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Slapstick While Black

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.

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KEYWORDS:
COMMENTS: 19
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Cagney the Comedian: Boy Meets Girl (1938)

Poster - Boy Meets Girl (1938)_01

 

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.

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November 22, 2014
David Kalat
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When Harry Met Ollie

Undoubtedly one of the strangest and most interesting bad movies ever made, Zenobia is a jumble of bad creative decisions so inscrutable as to be almost indefensible.

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KEYWORDS: hal roach, Harry Langdon, laurel and hardy, Oliver Hardy, Zenobia
COMMENTS: 8
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