If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience. Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.
I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be). This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 3, 2013
For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.
A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.
The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema. Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot. Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.
To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.” Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler! No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.
The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis. This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.
During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems. They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland. [...MORE]
Posted by Susan Doll on November 11, 2013
This could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.
To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre. I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 20, 2013
Yesterday was International Home Movie Day, so it seemed fitting to watch Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992). The title of Mark Rappaport’s pseudo documentary is somewhat misleading, as the compilations of clips used are all taken from Hudson’s existing body of Hollywood work, rather than a personal stash of super-8 films. Actor Eric Farr appears sporadically as Hudson’s proxy to give voice to imagined musings by the actor as he speaks from beyond the grave on selected excerpts. From the Journals of Jean Seaberg finds Rappaport refining a similar template three years later, and in both cases there is an interesting appropriation of personality at work. In a curious turn of events, Rappaport’s name has been in the headlines recently due to a dispute involving an appropriation of his work, his films and his legacy, by Boston University Film professor Ray Carney – a story which has taken on a life of its own with plenty of extensive coverage. What surprises me is that, here it is, late October, a time when I should be joining all my fellow Morlocks writing about my favorite scary films, and instead I’m writing about Doris Day. To be more specific; the subject is the Day/Hudson romantic comedy Send Me No Flowers (1964), which screens tonight on TCM. But, you know what? There is actually something creepy about Doris Day… [...MORE]
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on September 26, 2013
As regular readers may or may not know, one of my hobbies is doll collecting. While perusing some recent doll releases I came across photos of a couple of new dolls based on one of my favorite romantic comedies, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967), starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. The dolls are part of the Poppy Parker line produced by Integrity Toys, which has also created a number of other impressive dolls based on classic movies including BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961), SABRINA (1954), FUNNY FACE (1957), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and MOMMIE DEAREST (1981). As both a doll collector and a classic movie fan I’ve been really impressed with the attention to detail that goes into these dolls so I decided to contact David Buttry, an acquaintance who works for Integrity Toys, and ask him a few questions about the company. I hope classic movies fans as well as fellow doll collectors will appreciate his answers and enjoy the accompanying photos.
Posted by Susan Doll on September 23, 2013
Though they rarely win awards or accolades, genre films have always driven Hollywood filmmaking. Formulaic and repetitive by nature, genres work by meeting audience expectations, because viewers find comfort, entertainment, and satisfaction in the familiar. The trick to good genre filmmaking is to balance between the old and the new, the familiar and the unexpected. Keeping genres interesting to viewers requires tweaking, updating, adjusting, or even subverting a genre’s formula or conventions. Efforts to completely re-invent a genre will likely result in box office failure, while refusing to tweak, adjust, or update can make a genre seem dull or worn out (see fellow Morlock Greg Ferrara’s recent post). One way to enliven a genre is to combine it with another genre or story trend. Sometimes that proves innovative (film noir and sci fi in Blade Runner); sometimes it seems cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster (western and sci fi in Cowboys & Aliens).
I recently re-watched the 1945 comedy Murder, He Says, a childhood favorite that I have always found peculiar. Watching it again made me realize that it is the movie’s odd mix of genres and story trends that is appealing and, ultimately, amusing. Much of the success of Murder, He Says is dependent on star Fred MacMurray, whose everyman persona and exquisite timing are assets to any genre. MacMurray plays Pete Marshall, an employee of the Trotter Poll (like the Gallup Poll) whose job entails interviewing rural folks about their lifestyles. Do you have electricity, running water, radio, a refrigerator, he asks one resident at the local general store. “What do you think we are, hicks?,” replies the bewhiskered man in his slouch hat and overalls.
Posted by David Kalat on September 21, 2013
From September and on for the next several months, on Mondays and Tuesdays TCM is airing a sprawling and ambitious multipart documentary called The Story of Film. As you have may have sussed out by now, this is a somewhat controversial program–in large measure because of its rather jaundiced view of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking. For an audience that watches TCM regularly, and finds leisure time to visit a TCM-sponsored classic movie blog like this, Story of Film‘s stance isn’t likely to find many happy supporters.
That being said, there’s a lot about Hollywood genres that is worth revisiting, challenging, and interrogating. There is too much received wisdom that has calcified around certain subjects, creating preconceptions that get in the way of being able to engage with these films in a fresh and clear-eyed way. And so, seen from that perspective, creator Mark Cousins’ approach represents an opportunity to explode some unhelpful conventional wisdom…
When it comes to silent comedy, though, he blows past that opportunity, managing to be simultaneously vaguely hostile to Hollywood’s classic era while also being uncritical about what it meant. Here’s what he says about silent comedy in the book version of Story of Film: “Silent American cinema’s greatest genre, comedy, had changed course at the beginning of the sound era and the fates of its director-stars were varied.” Yup, there it is again–that old canard about silent comedy being distinct from talkie comedy, and superior–treating 1928 as some kind of Rubicon.
Posted by David Kalat on September 14, 2013
A while back, when I was preparing the audio commentary for To Be Or Not To Be, I found myself making repeated allusions and references to Foreign Correspondent. The more I made them, the more I found them not just useful but essential–and before long I had started to discover an entire network of deep structure connecting the two films. Not all of that was relevant to a discussion of To Be Or Not To Be, and the commentary track was already overstuffed so I had to jettison some material. This month’s celebration of Hitchcock seems a perfect opportunity to explore Foreign Correspondent‘s secret twinship with To Be Or Not To Be. (Sorry I couldn’t align this with last week’s cablecast of Foreign Correspondent–I wanted to get the Edwin S. Porter post in as close to the start of The Story of Film cycle as possible)
Posted by David Kalat on August 31, 2013
Salvador Dali’s surrealist career was bookended by his experiences in the movies.
I have to couch that statement with the limiter “surrealist career” because Dali was a prolific and prodigious talent whose larger artistic career in toto is almost incomprehensibly vast—he was painting like a pro when he was a small child, and kept at it until 1989. That’s right, Dali was around to witness the first Internet virus. Just wrap your head around that.
But… he is known and celebrated primarily as a surrealist, and it is that phase of his career which intersects the world of movies. And therein lies our tale.
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