Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in HOLD THE WIRE (1936) – Can you hear me now?

HoldTheWire

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Olive is curled up with a romance magazine when Popeye’s phone call interrupts her. He wants to go out with her, but Olive tells him he’s not romantic enough, whereupon he reads sappy poetry to her and wins her over.

Bluto walks to Olive’s house, overhears her conversation with Popeye, and of course butts in. Being a seasoned telephone lineman (who knew?), Bluto is able to tear off the receiver from a nearby phone, climb the telephone pole outside Olive’s house, switch lines, and insult Olive over the phone and make her think Popeye is to blame. Gotta give the guy his props — most guys would just try to cut the phone line and get electrocuted in the process.

Popeye figures out Bluto’s trick and climbs the pole, and we’re off on another Bluto-bash far above terra firma. Popeye is about to lose for good when Olive sends him an urgent phone message: “Eat your spinach!” (Popeye’s prize-winning retort: “I never thought of that.” Get a clue, sailor!)

Popeye does a mini-sequel to Man on the Flying Trapeze and knocks Bluto for the usual loop. The phone-wire fight yanks Olive right out of her house, but Popeye saves her at the last moment. The cartoon’s final image is of Popeye and Olive in romantic shadow atop the telephone pole, as the city’s phone customers complain about their loss of service. Somebody invent the cell phone, quick!

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

Charlie Chaplin in THE ADVENTURER (1917) – The end of an era

Adventurer

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Adventurer is bittersweet in more ways than one. It begins with Charlie as the ultimate loner (an escaped convict) and comes full circle to that point by movie’s end. Also, it’s funny enough, hardly Chaplin’s worst short. And yet, considering some of the inspired flights of fancy that preceded it, it seems a sort of shoulder-shrugging way for Chaplin to have ended his fruitful Mutual period.

The movie begins with Charlie on the run from a full coterie of cops, on the edge of a beach. (The outdoor scenery, by the way, is lovingly photographed by Rollie Totheroh. Compare the lovely natural settings of movies such as this one and The Pilgrim to Chaplin’s later studio-bound movies, whose “cheap look” is a sore spot among Chaplin’s critics.) This opening section is a bit protracted, since we have a pretty good idea that Charlie will escape anyway.

Charlie swims for it and makes a getaway, eventually arriving at a pier where an egotistic man (Eric Campbell) is flexing his muscles for the benefit of his date (Edna Purviance). Suddenly they hear screams, and they see that a woman is drowning. The logic that follows is a little hazy. Eric takes off his coat as though he’s going to dive in, but then he doesn’t do so; apparently, he can’t swim. Edna, evidently in reaction to Eric’s cowardice, dives in herself, even though she does nothing to help the drowning woman. Charlie happens upon the scene and starts to rescue the drowner. But, in one of Chaplin’s rare gags of genuine cruelty (arse-kicking aside), he sees Edna in the water and decides to dump the drowner and rescue pretty Edna instead.

Eventually, Charlie saves both women as well as Eric (twice – Charlie accidentally knocks him into the drink again), but Eric realizes that Charlie is trying to horn in on Edna, and he will have nothing to do with Charlie.

Both men are taken back to Edna’s home to recuperate. Charlie takes easily to his new, plush surroundings, dressing nattily and mixing drinks for himself every chance he gets. Meanwhile, via a newspaper article, Eric discovers Charlie’s true identity and calls the police. The movie ends with one of Chaplin’s funniest chase scenes, as he ducks and scrambles from myriad cops and Eric.

After the zippy chase scene, the movie disappoints with its ending, with Charlie escaping via what amounts to a throwaway gag, as if Chaplin just wanted to wrap up this movie and finish off his contract – which might well have been the case.

(Actors’ Trivia: The chauffeur in the early part of the movie was played by Chaplin’s real-life chauffeur, Toraichi Kono. Also, the film marks the final movie appearance of Eric Campbell; two months after the film’s release, Campbell died in a car accident exacerbated by his drunken driving.)

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.