MY FAIR LADY (1964) – A lively “classical” movie musical

MyFairLady

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1964 — deservingly so, and I say that as a huge fan of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, which came out the same year and wasn’t even nominated. Film history tells us that the Beatles film was a beloved influence for generations of moviemakers to come, while the former film was one of the last gasps of the “classical” movie musical.

But My Fair Lady is certainly nothing to sneeze at. It too seems to have influenced some filmmakers. (Think of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, with male leads who condescendingly “educate” their women and then discover that the women have minds of their own.) And like the flowers that poor Cockney girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) tries to peddle for a meager living, My Fair Lady has subtle joys that spring forth from out of nowhere.

The story — musicalized from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion — is that of Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a self-satisfied bachelor and phonics professor who bets his sidekick that he can take a nobody and turn her into a high-society woman. Enter the nobody: Eliza Doolittle, asking to take phonics lessons.

Of course, turning a low-life into a dandy isn’t precisely what the movie’s about, though it has a lot of fun with this plot point. The trouble — for Higgins, at least — begins after he succeeds at his quest and then belatedly discovers that Doolittle has more on her mind than just remaining Higgins’ trophy.

And small wonder — Doolittle’s own dad Alfred (the delightful Stanley Holloway) hasn’t exactly been a male role model for her. In fact, Alfred’s two great numbers — “With a Little Bit of Luck,” about his best efforts to escape work, and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” about his resignation to marriage — are a story of male ego run amok in themselves.

That’s probably why My Fair Lady is still so enjoyable — because everyone in it has a story. (Observe Higgins’ petulance in the brief scene where he’s humbled by his mother, who immediately takes Eliza’s side in the ongoing argument.)

In its own way, My Fair Lady is as radical as The Beatles. Rex Harrison wasn’t much of a singer, so he “talks” his way through the movie’s songs, creating a song style of his own. And Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by the famous Hollywood “alternate” Marni Nixon (who also sang uncredited in the movie version of The King and I).

But Harrison and Hepburn’s grin-inducing performances overcome all impersonalities. And with the movie’s 30th-anniversary restoration, it’s as much a delight to look at as to listen to. My Fair Lady is a prime example of the kind of movie “they don’t make like that anymore.”

Popeye and Poopdeck Pappy in GOONLAND (1938) – Where the father-and-child reunion is only a cartoon away

Goonland

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Popeye is sailing a boat and singing a song about how he wants to find his long-lost “pappy,” who deserted Popeye after taking one look at him when he was born. We have just seen Popeye’s psyche scrambled all over a movie screen.

Popeye sees smoke coming from what turns out to be Goon Island. When Popeye goes ashore, he comes across the Goons. I could probably spend an entire website trying to describe their appearance. Suffice to say, they’re tall, lanky, mute, not especially friendly, and look like more psyche come to life.

Popeye follows a Goon all the way into his village and only then decides he doesn’t want to get caught by the other Goons, so, in a lovely piece of animated contortion, he disguises himself and tries to pass himself off as a Goon. And if seeing the lanky, stoop-shouldered, resigned Goons isn’t a weird enough sight, check out that Goon with the chest-baring strut.

Popeye happens upon a barred window, looks in, and sees his grey-haired pappy sitting alone, playing checkers with himself. Popeye tries to have a heartfelt reunion with his dad, but Pappy only sputters, “I don’t like relatives! What’cha want me to do, kiss ya?” This cartoon has more issues than a magazine stand.

Pappy finally loosens up when he sees Popeye getting dragged away by a gang of Goons. The Goons throw away Popeye’s much-needed can of spinach, and it rolls toward Pappy’s window. This is something Pappy can relate to. Who knew spinach was such a comfort food? Naturally, Pappy manages to reach the spinach, swallow it, and break out of prison. Aw, look, Popeye inherited his daddy’s muscles!

Pappy saves Popeye just as the Goons are about to drop a boulder on him. Just when father and son are having a tearful reunion, more Goons descend on them. But the Fates (in the form of the Fleischers) will not allow such a joyous occasion to be voided — they let their film break, and the Goons fall out of the frame. (It’s a cop-out, I know, but a brilliantly animated one.)

At least forty years too late, Popeye finally finds happiness as his father carries him away in his arms. Well, blow me nose!

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCan

Laurel & Hardy in THE FLYING DEUCES (1939) – Really tisn’t better to have loved and lost

FLYINGDEUCES

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Flying Deuces is usually dismissed as one of Laurel & Hardy’s back-burner numbers, but it’s probably their last movie where they operated at “full speed.” As L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt has meticulously detailed, it was the only non-Hal Roach-produced feature where Laurel was allowed his usual creative control. The movie gets right down to business and then breezes along for just over an hour.

Here, Stan and Ollie are a couple of Des Moines tourists in Paris. (How a couple of nondescript Iowans made it all the way to France is the first of this movie’s great, unsolved L&H mysteries.) Ollie has a schoolboy crush on Georgette (Jean Parker), the local innkeeper’s daughter, who milks Ollie for candy and laughs while neglecting to tell him that she’s already married to Francois (Reginald Gardiner), a Foreign Legion officer. (As opposed to the usual, outright shrewish L&H mates, Georgette seems downright passive-aggressive. Another unsolved mystery.)

Ollie’s “courting” scenes, and his dainty reactions when Georgette kindly but firmly snubs him, are among the great Ollie-as-courtly-Southerner routines. (After the snub, Ollie takes a leaf from Greta Garbo and declares to Stan, “I want to be…ay-lone.“)

Eventually, Ollie decides there is nothing left but to commit suicide. But he doesn’t want to be that much ay-lone — he decides to take Stan with him. (Ollie’s explanation to Stan is one of their best-ever pieces of dialogue.) All this, plus a runaway shark in the river where Ollie intends to off himself, result in a funnier mock-suicide scene than Charlie Chaplin’s in City Lights. (At one point, the shark’s fin pokes Ollie’s upturned behind, and Ollie, unaware of the shark’s presence, turns to Stan and gently commands, “Don’t do that.” Unsolved Mystery No. 3: What did he think Stan was doing to him, anyway?)

Eventually, Francois appears on the scene and advises The Boys to join the Foreign Legion to help Ollie forget his unrequited love (a/k/a Mrs. Francois, though Francois happily doesn’t know that). Much of the rest of the movie’s comedy results from Stan and Ollie’s tragic misconception that they need stay in the Legion just long enough for Ollie to forget, then they can shuffle on back to Des Moines. This eventually results in Stan and Ollie being sentenced to a firing squad at dawn, before which Stan tries to placate Ollie by playing a Harpo Marx-like number on his bedsprings. (For once, the unbridled scope of Ollie’s camera-looks matches their equally outrageous reason for being.)

They barely escape their sentence and end up in a runaway plane — a hilarious sequence which, if perhaps not completely convincing, is still far more satisfying than the 25-cent car ride we got from them in County Hospital.

Between the movie’s “freak ending” (for once, an oddly touching one), and the movie’s rich use of L&H/Roach co-stars (James Finlayson, Charles Middleton essentially reprising his role from Beau Hunks, and Rychard Cramer in an uncredited but appropriate cameo), The Flying Deuces is quite above-average among L&H’s later movies.

TRIVIA NOTE: This is the movie on which set Oliver Hardy met a script girl named Lucille Jones, who became Mrs. Hardy in 1940.

(I have also written a blog entry that details the story behind the making of this movie. Click here to read it.)

The Return of Derek Taylor Shayne

I have a Facebook friend named Derek Taylor Shayne who lives in central Florida and spends his time making goofy, two-reeler-style comedies. Here’s the latest one in his Halloween trilogy. If you enjoy comedic stylists such as Bob Hope and Red Skelton, then…well, try this guy anyway.

Laurel & Hardy in BACON GRABBERS – Radio for help

POSTER

With Laurel and Hardy, it seems that the simpler the task, the more unlikely it is to be accomplished. In Bacon Grabbers, a local sheriff assigns Stan and Ollie to serve papers on a man (Edgar Kennedy) who is delinquent on his payments for a radio. The sheriff should know better when it takes Stan and Ollie a good third of the movie just to make it out of his office.

This is Laurel & Hardy at their simple best: Give ’em a task and watch them bollix it up. Their grasp of events is way too elementary to take the long view. It’s all they can do just to get the delinquent notice into Kennedy’s hand. (Every time one of them manages to corner Kennedy, it turns out that the other one has the paper.) And only when they finally manage to serve the paper do they realize that while they’re at it, they ought to try to pick up the radio too.

This short has it all: Edgar Kennedy (why didn’t the ’40s scriptwriters, who were so eager to rip off old L&H shorts, study this one when they had Kennedy at hand for the unfunny Air Raid Wardens?), Jean Harlow (albeit far more covered-up than she is in Double Whoopee), the contentious Charlie Hall, hilarious physical comedy, and even a great “Beanie” Walker intertitle in which Ollie, for definitely the only time in the L&H canon, accuses Stan of having “hot Corsican blood.”

Popeye and Olive Oyl in I’LL NEVER CROW AGAIN (1941) – Olive acts like an old crow towards Popeye

Popeye

Olive Oyl notices some crows nonchalantly feasting in her garden. She yells at Popeye to do something about it. Strangely, though, every time Popeye tries to a new ploy to get rid of the crows, Olive derisively laughs at the same guy she ordered to help her out.

The birds aren’t much to, er, crow about either, coming off as second cousins of either their kin in Walt Disney’s Dumbo (released, ironically, one month after this cartoon) or Heckle & Jeckle. The cartoon is saved by some better-than-average gags, particularly a finale where Popeye satisfyingly turns the tables on Olive’s maliciousness.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:  CanCanCan

The 2014 What a Character! Blogathon

As I’ve previously mentioned, I am officially a sucker for blogathons. The second such ‘thon in which I’ll be participating next month is devoted to memorable character actors. (I’ll be writing about the wonderful Charles Durning.) I’ve posted this ‘thon’s banner at my blog’s side panel, and I’ve posted its URL below. Check it out for more details about this fascinating blogathon!

http://aurorasginjoint.com/2014/10/15/announcement-what-a-character-blogathon-2014/

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) – Murderous farce goes down surprisingly smoothly

CaryGrant

Frank Capra has become hallowed in film history as the director of films that champion the average American and the common cause. Of course, that’s only if you haven’t seen his film version of the Broadway black-comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the funniest farces ever.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who’s newly married after having lived with his doting aunts all of his life. At first glance, this family seems as sunny as any in a Capra comedy. Mortimer’s eccentric uncle has delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt, and there are references to Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan. But his aunts are as doting as aunts can be. And Mortimer, newly married, is preparing to go on a Niagara Falls honeymoon with his loving wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane).

This happy domesticity unravels the moment Mortimer happens to open his aunts’ wooden chest and sees a corpse inhabiting it. At first, Mortimer jumps to the logical conclusion that crazy Teddy has committed the murder. Then he discovers that his sweet aunts were responsible for that corpse and 11 others who are buried in the cellar.

The aunts regard their work as mercy killings. After all, they poison only lonely old men whose lives have no meaning — unlike Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who heartlessly kills anyone who gets in his way and who happens to pay a return visit to his old home on the same night that Mortimer uncovers the unwelcome houseguests.

As with most farces, Arsenic and Old Lace requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In particular, this story is quite obviously a remnant of the 1940’s, when mental illness was a lot more frivolously regarded. And the ever-opening door, a staple of farces, seems awfully overused — especially when Jonathan, a convicted murderer, seems rather unconcerned about so many people (including cops) traipsing in and out of the house.

If there’s any glue that keeps the story together, it’s Cary Grant. Just watching him do wacko double-takes or muttering under his breath like Popeye the Sailor is worth the watching. There’s a great moment when he and Massey try to protect their secrets at the same time, and then some major plot points play across Grant’s wondrous face for about ten seconds. It’s far funnier and more effective than a page of expository dialogue could be.

Besides enjoying the movie as a major black comedy, film aficionados can only wonder how a comedy about murderers (a) became such a hit during World War II and (b) how it ever made it past movie censors intact.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in I EATS MY SPINACH (1933) – Popeye on rodeo drive

PopeyeBluto

Popeye and Olive Oyl go to a rodeo, where they watch Bluto as a rodeo-rider. Olive is smitten with Bluto (and from the looks of the apathetic audience, she’s the only one who is), so naturally Popeye has to show him up. He jumps on Bluto’s horse and runs circles on him, followed by his returning the favor by letting the horse run him in circles. Ditto the steer-wrestling contest (love it when a bull subdues Bluto and clamps his hooves above his head in victory). Bluto tries to kidnap Olive, but Popeye pops the spinach, knocks Bluto out, and punches a pushy bull so hard he turns into an instant meat market.

Funny enough, but more spot-gaggy than story-driven. The cartoon’s atmosphere is established in the first scene, when Popeye casually throws a boulder at Olive’s apartment window to get her attention, and she slides down the building’s drainpipe to meet him. A cartoon that starts at wacko level doesn’t have much place to go.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

Charlie Chaplin in LIMELIGHT (1952) – If 1914 had been a little different for him…

Limelight

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

My favorite film critic, the late Pauline Kael, “made her bones” as a movie critic with her debut review (in San Francisco’s City Lights magazine) of Chaplin’s Limelight. Kael made no bones about despising the movie; her review was headlined “Slimelight.” The review’s truncated version, which appeared in Kael’s capsule-review collection 5,001 Nights at the Movies, I quote here in its entirety:

[The movie is] Chaplin’s high-minded and sentimental view of the theater and himself. His exhortations about life, courage, consciousness, and “truth” are set in a self-pitying, self-glorifying story. As Calvero the old, impoverished English clown, he appears at a gala benefit and shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest, and then dies in the wings as the applause fades – this is surely the richest hunk of self-gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral – and Chaplin serves it up straight. The mediocrity of Calvero’s stage routines may be the result of Chaplin’s aiming at greatness. At one point Calvero awaits a young ballerina (played with considerable charm by Claire Bloom, and danced with authority by Melissa Hayden). In the darkened theater after she has performed, he says to her, “My dear, you are a true artist, a true artist,” and the emphasis is on his eyes, his depth of feeling. And is it because Chaplin didn’t talk on screen until late in his career that he doesn’t seem to have a dramatic instinct for language? (He talks high-mindedly and incessantly.)

Other than Kael’s remarks about Calvero’s routines and Bloom’s charm, I can’t find any point to debate – and yet I still find the movie alluring.

The movie began life as an autobiographical novel titled Footlights — the “Chaplin Collection” DVD of the movie contains sound clips of Chaplin reading two brief passages from the erstwhile novel – so it’s not too surprising how self-absorbed the movie is. It’s set in London in 1914 (ironically, the year Chaplin became a hit in movies). Calvero (Chaplin), a washed-up stage comedian, happens upon Terry (Claire Bloom), a young girl in his apartment building who has attempted suicide. Calvero saves her from death and nurses her back to health. Terry is a wanna-be ballet dancer who fears she has lost the use of her legs, and basically, she and Calvero take turns building up each other’s self-confidence.

Terry eventually meets up with Neville (Chaplin’s eldest son Sydney), a composer with whom she had briefly crossed paths, and Calvero urges her to forge a bond with him. But Terry is so grateful to Calvero that she pushes Neville aside and insists to Calvero that she loves him. There are a couple of major obstacles with this plot point. Kael notwithstanding, I found Bloom’s performance mostly two-note; she’s either heroically enduring pain or bleating out her deepest thoughts. And as with the supposed charm of the lead character in Monsieur Verdoux, the supposed passion that Terry feels for Calvero is more talked about than shown to us, so that when Terry finally declares “I love you” to Calvero, it’s as much a surprise to us as to him.

Secondly, the movie would be far more interesting if this passion were acted upon, in any manner – say, with Calvero denying his true feelings for Terry while being jealous that Neville is making time with her. Instead, Calvero clucks that Terry can’t possibly be in love with her while enjoying her worship at the same time (he’s not even jealous of Neville, who seems to be one more person within his orbit of worship). So this May-December romance is an intriguing plot thread left dangling all the way to movie’s end.

The other major problem is the movie’s pacing. The movie’s present-day (1914) story grinds to a halt several times for flashbacks – Calvero’s dreams about the past, Terry’s story about her first meeting Neville, etc. Mind you, many of the flashbacks are the movie’s most worthwhile moments, especially when they revolve around Calvero’s stage act. Yet one wishes Chaplin could have compacted them better into his script. (Perhaps if he’d gotten rid of some of Calvero’s long-winded philosophizing…)

And yet, the movie is not without its merits. While Bloom is so-so and (poor) Sydney registers zero as an on-screen presence, much of the acting is quite enjoyable. As Bodalink, the impresario who arranges Calvero’s eventual comeback, Norman Lloyd looks and plays like a link to Show Business Past. In her brief but lovely appearances as Calvero’s buxom landlady, Marjorie Bennett seems as though she could have played with Chaplin in one of his two-reelers, especially when Calvero is trying to woo her into another month’s rent-free stay at his apartment.

I also don’t agree with Kael’s comments about Calvero’s stage act. The bit with the “trained” fleas is at least amusing, and Calvero’s banter with Claire Bloom on-stage brings to mind the quote often attributed to Chaplin wherein he told Groucho Marx, “I wish I could speak like you on-screen.” Here, he just about does so.

And of course, there’s the famous, wordless stage duet that Chaplin does with Buster Keaton near movie’s end. If you haven’t seen the movie and you ever fantasized about two movie comedy legends getting together…well, for about ten minutes, this movie grants your wish.

(And perhaps it’s my imagination, but the shot of Calvero finishing his act, and then looking out in horror to a sea of empty seats…Did they pay homage to that shot in The Rocky Horror Picture Show? It sure looks like it.)

Limelight is yet another of those Chaplin vehicles that’s flawed but fascinating; you wish it was better than it is, yet even in its final state, you can’t keep your eyes off it.