CASABLANCA (1942) – You must remember this, as there will be a movie quiz on it later

Casablanca

There’s this guy who’s been burned in love, see. So he hangs out at his bar and acts like he doesn’t care about anyone. Then his lover comes back, only now she has a husband who has secret papers he has to get out of the country, fast. Now, the barfly could get his revenge and forget them both, or he could help the guy out and snooker his old flame into staying with him. Ah, what’s a World War II apolitical in occupied France to do?

If you’re lucky enough not to already know this scenario, I highly urge you to buy the two-DVD set of Casablanca, winner of 1942’s Best Picture Oscar. The rest of us can once more enjoy a legendary movie that, like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane, only grows better with time.

In a career-defining role, Humphrey Bogart plays Rick, the nightclub owner who appears stoic until visited by old flame Ilsa (dreamy Ingrid Bergman), who sends his stoicism up in flames and has a few issues of her own to deal with. For one thing, there’s a war going on. It’s impossible for anyone who didn’t live through the Second World War to appreciate the intensity of what was at stake. But Casablanca gives us a pretty darned good idea, just by personalizing the whole thing under the guise of romance.

Ably supporting Bogart and Bergman is the supporting cast of a lifetime, including Claude Rains, Paul Heinreid, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. There’s also the miracle of an Oscar-winning screenplay (by Howard Koch and Julius and Philip Epstein), which was derived from a so-so stage play and then made up as it went along. (Even the actors didn’t know how the ending would occur until the day they filmed it.)

Lastly, there’s the great music. Most of it is Max Steiner’s lush score, but the movie also makes much of a then-little-known song called “As Time Goes By.” And wait until you see what this movie does for the French national anthem (a rousing highlight of the movie, shown in the clip linked below).

The DVD set includes tons of extras, including two documentaries hosted by Bogart’s widow Lauren Bacall. But my personal fave extra is the long-overdue Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck parody Carrotblanca, which, for my money, was the funniest movie of 1995. (You’ll be pleased to know that Tweety Bird does a wicked Peter Lorre imitation.)

So round up the usual suspects and savor a Hollywood classic. You’ll be glad you stuck your neck out for this one.

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POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES (1937) – Another Popeye storybook delight

PopeyeAliBaba

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This cartoon, released one year almost to the day after the success of Popeye’s previous color landmark, Sindbad the Sailor, is perhaps a teeny notch down from its predecessor, just as The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races is a tad-paler sequel to A Night at the Opera. But in each case, the good stuff in either movie is so good, must we quibble?? (Anyway, when that credit/cave door opens and the swanky theme music starts, I admit I’m suckered in every time.)

Naturally, the movie starts with Ali Baba (Bluto, typecast again) singing a song, this one about how he and the thieves are tough, rather than how he tamed a bunch of hyper-monsters. Having a bunch of braggarts sing is a bit New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” compared to singing about the wild animals you’ve tamed, so Bluto automatically starts off a bit lagging here.

Instead of Popeye sailing on a generic ship, here he starts off with a slightly topical reference, as a soldier at the Coast Guard Station. (Typical of the Fleischers’ attention to detail, they even show the sun gleaming off Popeye’s bald head.) Wimpy sits about a Spruce Goose-like contraption that Popeye launches upon getting word of Ali Baba’s shenanigans. Olive Oyl comes along for the ride, and the Goose literally bounces all over the globe before crashing in the Middle East.

The trio traipse through the desert, encountering some anachronistic gags predating the style of Bugs Bunny’s 1955 Sahara Hare. (Like Bugs, Wimpy sees a very elaborate mirage — in this case, a table laden with food.) Eventually, Olive collapses (but not before Popeye briefly props her up like a camel), as does Wimpy. Popeye threads himself and the other two together as a makeshift tire and rolls into town.

They enter a café, and one of the few outright racist gags of the movie occurs when Popeye is handed a menu in Arabic (which of course he can’t read), until it’s pieced together as a jigsaw puzzle into English. (But Jack Mercer’s chattering here, and elsewhere in the movie, is terrific.)

Popeye and Olive hear a radio broadcast in which the announcer warns of Ali Baba’s arrival by reiterating A.B.’s theme song. (Like Ali Baba needed product placement?) Everyone and everything go into hiding (a clock hides his hands away, even), including the radio after it’s finished its announcement.

Ali Baba’s gang enters and leaves so quickly, they’re literally just a blur. Popeye slows down Ali Baba long enough to try to fight with him, but Ali hangs Popeye from the ceiling as a chandelier and makes off with Olive and Wimpy. Popeye escapes and fuels up a camel (!) to catch the gang.

Ali and his crew enter and close their cave, but Popeye uses his pipe as a blowtorch to cut open an entrance. The cave, like that in Sindbad the Sailor, is another 3D delight for the eyes. In the cave, Popeye finds Olive (forced to do the thieves’ laundry) and Wimpy (chained up just beyond reach of Ali’s huge meal, though of course he manages a few steals). (Gotta love Ali’s guttural sounds when he eats, too — he makes Wimpy look a model of etiquette.)

Ali Baba catches Popeye and throws him to the thieves, who pass him around like a wiffle ball and then dangle him just above a man-eating shark. In the nick of time (surprise!), Popeye remembers his spinach can and tells it to “Open, sez-me!” In a series of extremely satisfying gags, Popeye subdues Ali and his thieves and has them lead a victory parade for himself and his pals.

This might be a strange complaint for a Popeye cartoon, but my only problem with the movie is that it is perhaps too gaggy. I liked the straight-faced fairy-tale style of Sindbad the Sailor a little better; this movie’s sometimes-peculiar jokiness seems to pave the way for the irony-laden CGI cartoons of the 2000’s. That said, it’s still a delightful cartoon on all counts.

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

Laurel & Hardy in THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE (1943) – Stan and Ollie in color

LHColor

The Tree in a Test Tube, while not Laurel & Hardy’s greatest comedic achievement, is at least cute and shows them in character. That’s more than you can say for most of L&H’s movie work from the 1940’s.

This was a short subject sponsored by the U.S. Government to show the importance of wood products in contributing to the war effort. Laurel & Hardy appear in the short’s first half, as ’40s funnyman Pete Smith exhorts L&H (off-screen) to display the many wood products they have on their persons. L&H hold up various wood-derived items, one by one, as Smith makes cutesy comments about most of them (“We want to see your junk, er, your nice things!”). L&H’s part was obviously shot silently — reportedly, on a lunch hour at Fox — with Smith’s voice-over added later.

The movie’s biggest novelty is that it was shot in early color, the only L&H movie other than The Rogue Song to be so filmed. The color in question — 16-millimeter Kodachrome — doesn’t show The Boys to best advantage, but at least their pantomime is funnier than most of the stuff in their Fox movies.

Paying full admission to see new STAR WARS trailer? I thought of doing it first!

Montage

In the wake of Disney’s news that the trailer for the latest Star Wars movie will be playing in select theaters on Friday and Saturday, fans of the series say they will pay full admission just to see only the 88-second trailer. It has been further reported that Star Wars fans did the same thing in 1999 when previews for the long awaited Episode I: The Phantom Menace were screened.

This action is apparently very newsworthy to some readers, but I have to report that it is not without precedent.

In 1995, Carrotblanca, the first new theatrical Bugs Bunny cartoon in years, opened as a curtain-raiser for The Great Panda Adventure. One day on my lunch hour, I drove to a local theater, paid full admission, enjoyed Carrotblanca, and happily left to go back to work.

So to sum up, I invented the concept four years before the Star Wars crowd did. Now, somebody is going to tell me that they did something similar with their favorite short subject or trailer long before I did — in which case, I will copyright the concept as my own.

ThatsAllFolks

Laurel & Hardy in DIRTY WORK (1933) – A sweeping comedy

dirtywork

Have you ever noticed that when Laurel & Hardy are self-employed in one of their movies, the job at hand always seems to be their first assignment? Perhaps their movies show them in so many different professions because, after they’ve wreaked havoc on someone’s home in a given job, word-of-mouth gets around and they have to try something else.

Here, Stan and Ollie are chimney sweeps, with none of the grace or elan of Laurel protegee Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. When they get into a chimney, by God, they get out every bit of soot — either on themselves or on the unsuspecting victim’s belongings. It really is hysterical to watch.

Dialogue is often short-changed in critiques of L&H movies, but here it’s as funny as the sight gags. The house in question belongs to an eccentric professor whose butler Jessup is not smitten with Stan and Ollie and who makes ominous remarks to them such as, “Somewhere, an electric chair is waiting!” Later, when the professor is looking for his butler, Hardy gets in one of his great Southern in-jokes when the prof asks, “Where is Jessup?” and Ollie helpfully replies, “About thirty-five miles east of Augusta, Georgia!”

Best of all is, surprisingly, one of Laurel’s patented freak-endings, here made just about plausible. You want to know more than that about the gag? Sorry, I have nothing to say.

PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) – Give thanks for it

Planes

Christmas movies abound, but only a handful of films celebrate Thanksgiving. Among them is the delightful Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which should be required viewing for anyone naive enough not to realize what they should feel thankful for.

The movie was probably a peak for its collaborators. Writer-director John Hughes was still riding a wave of success from his teen-angst comedies such as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. John Candy was a golden boy from his work on “Second City TV” and his likable schlub in Stripes and Splash. And Steve Martin was just then refining his wild-and-crazy-guy persona into a more believable, uptight but well-meaning adult. All three still had hits after this one, but few of them linger in the memory as well.

If you’ve seen The Odd Couple or any number of road movies featuring an incongruous duo thrown together, the movie’s scenario will be no big surprise. Martin plays Neal Page, a snotty advertising exec who knocks himself out trying to make it home from New York to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family. He’s foiled at every turn by Del Griffin (Candy), a glad-handing shower-ring salesman who keeps worming his way into Page’s path.

As Stan Laurel once said about his comedies, the surprises are often not in the destination but how one arrives there. And Martin and Candy evoke nothing so much as a latter-day Laurel & Hardy, as their simple goal of reaching Chicago in 48 hours evolves into a splendid farce of misplaced wallets, ever-worsening modes of transportation, and one of the funniest car wrecks ever conceived for the movies.

This might have turned into a frantic cartoon, as Hughes’ more labored movies often did. But it’s grounded in a couple of solid characterizations. Candy has a couple of maudlin speeches about what a humble guy he is, but mostly he conveys his character through some humbled glances when he realizes he’s gone too far. And Martin’s body language, from devilish stares to dancing fits of frustration, speaks volumes.

There are numerous moments here that belong in the annals of great film comedy: The aforementioned car wreck. The scene where Martin vents his frustration by counting the ways in which Candy annoys him. The scene where Martin and Candy mistakenly wake up in each other’s arms, and try to shake it off by talking about the latest Bears game. And the scene where Martin repeatedly, lovingly spits out the F-word to an oblivious rental clerk.

If holiday annoyances are wearing you down, rent Planes, Trains and Automobiles to remind you how comparatively easy you have it. (If you still think you have it bad, do a double feature and rent David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross to get a glimpse of the worst job you could possibly have. But that’s another review.)