Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and . . . Dali ?

blogopenerThis Friday, August 14, TCM salutes Groucho Marx as part of this month’s Summer Under the Stars. Most of the day is devoted to the classic comedies of the Marx Brothers, which regular TCM viewers have seen multiple times. One of the most rewarding experiences for any avid movie lover is to watch a familiar film with a new perspective, leading the viewer to discover new insights and therefore a new appreciation. I hope my post today offers some of you a different perspective on the Marx Brothers’ movies.

Studying and teaching art history has prompted me to look at the movies in new ways. For example, when first studying the Dadaists in graduate school, I thought immediately of the Marx Brothers, because Dadaism was intentionally subversive and anarchic. It was born out of the anger and frustration over WWI and its causes, and it was designed to ridicule artistic traditions, moral conventions, and social institutions. In cafes and theaters, Dadaists dressed in ridiculous costumes, uttered meaningless noises, or performed poetry based on puns, nonsequiturs, and the interplay of words. Visual artists created collages and sculptures that reflected Freud’s and Jung’s ideas on the subconscious. After the war, the Surrealists picked up where the Dadaists left off, though their perspective was less nihilistic and they were more interested in tapping into the subconscious for their imagery. Surrealism is really about the irrational juxtaposition of recognizable images. Normal, everyday objects lose their identity or meaning because they have been taken out familiar contexts, or because they are depicted as warped or decayed. The imagery can be disturbing, provocative, and/or humorous. The artist whose work came to define Surrealism, at least for the mainstream public, was Salvador Dali, and Dali may have been the Marx Brothers’ biggest fan.

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Carnal Knowledge

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TCM will be highlighting films by Ann-Margret this Thursday. The memory of her basking in a spray of beans and chocolate as she then makes love to a man-sized, hotdog-shaped pillow are so well-seared into any young stoner’s mind that I was tempted to write about Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975). However there is something in the air right now that pointed me, instead, toward Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971). It has to do with a perennial hot-button topic that will never go away as long as humans are around, be it Elvis’ gyrating hips in 1957 or whatever Miley Cyrus is licking right now: Sex. Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015), for example, is currently well on its way toward raking in over $100 million and is getting a lot of ink for Amy Schumer’s portrayal of a sexually liberated woman who grows up thinking monogamy isn’t realistic. It would be nice to think that we’ve come a long way since Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks, 1977), which portrayed the drama of a free-spirited and promiscuous woman (Diane Keaton) as a slippery slope into inevitable tragedy. But it was scarcely two weeks ago that a deranged religious extremist with a gun in Lafayette, Louisiana, picked a screening of Trainwreck for an act of terrorism. [...MORE]

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD
August 8, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article looking back at the 1980s apocalyptic-screwball singularity that was Miracle Mile. One of the comments posted to that thread exhorted TCM to stop showing imports—as non sequitur a remark as you could hope for. I wanted to respond with a list of the kinds of imported films I refuse to live without (Godzilla, Jackie Chan, Hammer Horror, Claude Chabrol, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang’s silent films, Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films, Alfred Hitchcock’s English films, Powell & Pressburger, J-Horror, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone…) or to try to argue what Hollywood would have lost—or never had in the first place—without the influx of foreign-born talent and the need to compete against foreign-made films.

But then I decided it would be more fun to be obstinate. Why not single out an import that hasn’t had the time to become recognized as a classic, and will have few—if any—defenders? An import that has barely been released in the US at all, and which sets itself conspicuously to be compared to a beloved classic?

So, this week, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

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KEYWORDS: Kang-ho Song, The Good The Bad The Weird
COMMENTS: 6
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The Co-Stars of Katharine

Today is Katharine Hepburn’s day on TCM and I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss something I’ve always found to be one of her greatest strengths: Finding chemistry with just about anyone. It’s not an easy thing to do in and of itself but she took it one step further: She had chemistry with Spencer Tracy, the man she loved.  Do you know how many real life Hollywood couples have absolutely no chemistry on the screen?  Almost all of them. But Hepburn?  She could make every co-star, lover or not, look like they’d worked with her for the last thirty years.

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A Few Fun Facts About Michael Caine

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Who doesn’t like Michael Caine? It’s hard to imagine that there are any film fanatics alive who don’t appreciate at least one or two of the 123 films that he’s appeared in. I happen to love Michael Caine and today TCM will be airing a batch of films featuring the bespectacled British actor as part of their ongoing “Summer Under the Stars” programming. One of the films being shown is HELL IN KOREA (1956), which contains his first credited screen performance along with some of my favorite Caine films including BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967), THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986), THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), GET CARTER (1971) and THE ROMANTIC ENGLISH WOMAN (1975). As an accompaniment to TCM’s spotlight on Michael Caine I thought I’d compile some interesting facts about the man that may or may not surprise you.

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Next August, how about Summer Under the Character Actors?

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Don’t get me wrong… I love stars. Big ones, little ones. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Poitier and Myrna Loy. I love them dearly. But after years of Summer Under the Stars, an annual programming event for which TCM reserves a full day to showcase as many films starring a particular Hollywood A-lister as it can shoehorn into a 24-hour block, I’m left wishing we could do something for the supporting cast, the day players, the character actors. You know ‘em, you love ‘em, and the movies just wouldn’t be the same without them. Imagine!

Elisha Cook Jr.

Imagine the glory of Elisha Cook, Jr. Day! Where to begin? You could toss in his film debut in HER UNBORN CHILD (1930, above left), in which Cook reprised the role of the pink o’cheek Stewart Kennedy from the Broadway production two years earlier. And from there the sky’s the limit for a guy with a near 60 year film career. You’d  have to include his immortal turn as sawed off gunsel Wilmer Cook in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941, above center) as well as the death row convict in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940), the porter in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), Lawrence Tierney’s luckless roommate in BORN TO KILL (1947), the pathetic George Peatty in THE KILLING (1956), the doomed Sonewall Torrey in SHANE (1953 — actually, “doomed” would describe most of Cook’s characters — the bug-eyed Watson Pritchard in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), the hook-handed morgue attendant in  BLACULA (1972), the wizened midway worker On-Your-Mark in CARNY (1980), and maybe even a wild card appearance, such as the screenwriter Selby in HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941, above right), who winds up riddled with bullets but still alive… if leaking madly.

Agnes MoorheadWho was more fun than Agnes Moorhead? Okay, Maybe Mary Wickes but don’t make me choose! I love a good hatchet-faced woman, but I love a bad hatchet-faced woman even more, and Agnes Moorhead certainly fit that bill. From her film debut in CITIZEN KANE (1941, above left) to her final significant performance in the made-for-TV FRANKENSTEIN, THE TRUE STORY (1973), Moorhead was always on-message and on-target and always, always better than you… whether she was playing a snooty society dame with something to hide in DARK PASSAGE (1947, above center) or a dried out old piece of white trash in HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964, above right). Of course, we would have to include anything she did with Orson Welles, including THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943), and JANE EYRE  (1943), but I would also make room for atypical turn as the reform-minded warden of CAGED (1950), as “Third Cousin” Henry Travers’ wife in DRAGON SEED (1944), as the stone-faced Sister Cluny, whose air of hawk-like stoicism cuts through the treacle of THE SINGING NUN (1967), or as Joe E. Lewis’ better half Parthy Hawks in SHOWBOAT (1951). But, really, you can’t put your foot wrong with Agnes Moorhead, so if you’d rather watch JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) or FOURTEEN HOURS (1951), or WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1972), I’m not likely to kick.

Olin HowlinIn retrospect, though, I bet TCM would do a whole day for Agnes Moorhead… but I doubt they’d pay the same respect to Olin Howlin? Who?, you ask? Oh, you know… the old guy who is the first to get eaten by THE BLOB (1957, above right) and the old soak in THEM! (1954, above center) who sings “Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze!” That guy! Man, I love Olin Howlin (sometimes Howland) so much that when he appears on screen I shout “Olin Howlin!” even if I’m the only one there. (And I usually am.) Olin Howlin is such a memorable utility player — the perfect fit for the doctor, reporter, doorman, sheriff, stagecoach driver, station master, ranch hand, pirate, or desk clerk with an unsettling folksy edge — that it’s remarkable to consider that he often had only a minute of screen time to make an impression. That he takes up so little of the running time in each of his movies does in no way diminish his wonderful gift for being memorable, as he was as Veronica Lake’s shifty agent in THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), as the undertaker in THE RETURN OF DR. X (1939), as the flustered detective Dunhill, forever one step behind Warren William’s wily private dick Ted Shane in the oddball MALTESE FALCON variation SATAN MET A LADY (1936), as the crossdressing (for professional purposes, of course) Sergeant Entwhistle in NANCY DREW… REPORTER (1939), as the delightfully-named Cisco Tridd, Henry Fonda’s brutish father-in-law in CHAD HANNA (1940), as the paint crew boss whose steadfast professionalism leaves Laurel and Hardy dangling from a window ledge in NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1944), as the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child schoolmaster in LITTLE WOMEN (1949), or the bus stop storyteller in the Robert Florey short CHARLIE’S HAUNT (1950), produced by Bell Telephone and starring Edger Bergen (and, it follows, Charlie McCarthy). But again, you can’t make a false move if Olin Howlin is in the picture. He’s in the first two versions of A STAR IS BORN and very early in his career played a capering, fiddle-playing Death in the 1922 silent DANSE MACABRE; he’s unrecognizable under a cloak, his face obscured by a Death’s head mask, but I just like knowing he’s there.

Una O'Connor

Who doesn’t love Una O’Connor? Who?! Say your name and I will come to where you live and shove you hard! The Belfast-born actress is near and dear to many of us for her classic horror performances in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933, above left) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935, above center), but she plied her trade on the silver screen for nearly thirty years, playing parts for Alfred Hitchcock in MURDER! (1930), George Cukor in DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935), Michael Curtiz in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and THE SEA HAWK (1940), Jules Dassin in THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944), Ernst Lubitsch in CLUNY BROWN (1946), and Billy Wilder in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), her final film role. She’s even in CAVALCADE (1933), that Clive Brooke movie that stole the Best Picture Academy Award from KING KONG (1933), and she played Joan Crawford’s maid in CHAINED (1935). Don’t you wish she had written some memoirs?

Character actors galore

I could go on and on. Mary Treen! Mort Mills! Eily Mayon! Whit Bissell! Noble Johnson! Barton McLane! They’re in so many movies and they are always wonderful and my heart leaps whenever they walk into the frame and I am not alone in that! Not everybody grows up wanting to be Clark Gable or John Wayne or Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner. Not all of us are cut out to be heroes or femme fatales. Some of us are fat or short or weird looking, or we have great big noses and recessed chins or buck teeth and we grow up understanding that no one will ever fall in love with us because of how we look so we just make ourselves interesting. If you live long enough, you come to understand that you are not the star of the show we call Life; you understand that the show will go on without you, and if you don’t want to make yourself crazy you accept that you are just a supporting player and you learn to make your scenes memorable.

 

Hyper Hypochondira: Feel My Pulse (1928)

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Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.

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Adolphe Menjou: From Valentino to Kubrick

Adolphe Menjou Holding Daschund Aboard ShipToday, the films of Adolphe Menjou are highlighted as part TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Classic movie lovers know Menjou as the dapper, erudite gent with the cane, hat, and waxed mustache. In comedies, melodramas, crime stories, and historical dramas, he was the older suitor, the authoritative boss, the cultured crook, the aristocrat. He was such a fixture in Golden Age movies that it is easy to assume he always played supporting characters. That’s the assumption an entertainment writer for the McClatchy-Tribune Information Services made just a few days ago in an online article promoting Summer Under the Stars. The writer questioned TCM’s decision to include Menjou, Mae Clarke, Virginia Bruce, and Monty Woolley, implying they were never really stars. She also hints that perhaps these performers are too obscure to be true stars. The writer, who will remain nameless, commits the fatal error that many web scribes make: She failed to adequately research her topic, assuming that if her generation has not heard of these actors, they must be obscure. She is wrong about Menjou. He was indeed a star before he evolved into a well-respected supporting player; as a matter of fact, he was a romantic lead for almost a decade.

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Costuming Sci-Fi Adventure, Old School

Tonight TCM airs one of my favorite films of all time, The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighly, and starring Errol Flynn in the role that truly cemented his status as a swashbuckling icon after earlier star-making successes like Captain Blood set the stage. Also starring cinematic greats Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale, Sr., Eugene Pallette, and Claude Rains, The Adventures of Robin Hood stands the test of time despite the fact that Flynn is prancing around in green tights, not looking rugged at all.  Or maybe because of that?  Later renditions of Robin Hood, including that one with Kevin Costner, tried to make Robin appear, clothing-wise, more as he would have in real life, or so we’re led to believe.  And to that I say phooey.  Why is everyone so concerned with making everyone look so damn salt of the earth and rugged?

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August 1, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

Ernst Lubitsch Forgives Himself

If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).

Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.

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KEYWORDS: Don Ameche, Ernst Lubitsch, Gene Tierney, Heaven Can Wait
COMMENTS: 8
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