Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982) – Dead-perfect send-up of film noir


I liked Steve Martin when Steve Martin wasn’t cool (in the movies, at least). After his surprising box-office success in The Jerk (1979), Martin went the Woody Allen route and lost his way with his audience for a while — including Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, a film noir spoof that earned middling box-office. I found it one of the funniest comedies of its year.

Martin (who co-wrote with director Carl Reiner) plays Rigby Reardon, a 1940’s gumshoe in the Bogart style. (In fact, via interspliced film footage, Martin constantly chastizes Bogart about his downtrodden appearance.) Reardon helps a gorgeous femme fatale (Rachel Ward at her most voluptuous) to solve the mystery of her scientist father’s disappearance.

This is mostly an excuse to throw Martin together in (seemingly, and seamlessly) the same scene with old film clips of Bogart, Cary Grant, and other noir stars. The gimmick isn’t always hilarious, but at the very least it’s fun to watch. But Martin manages to be quite hilarious on his own — doing a schizoid ballet on skinned knees, or nonchalantly “adjusting” (i.e. groping) Ward’s ample breasts. The later Reiner/Martin collaboration All of Me (1984) proved to the world what a flawless physical comedian Martin could be, but there’s ample display of his talent here.

Reiner and veteran composer Miklos Rosza (Double Indemnity) also deserve credit for evoking noir moods about as lovingly as you could ask for. The movie is filled with shadowy corners and appropriately slithery music. (Check out the scene where Rosza duplicates Martin’s expression of the phrase “cleaning woman.”) Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid — the title is explained within the movie, by the way, but it doesn’t help — is an overlooked but delightful entry in the Martin canon.

Laurel & Hardy in SWISS MISS (1938) – A Big Lavish Musical Superfeature!


Swiss Miss is no Way Out West; in fact, it’s two minutes longer than that feature and has far more peripheral material. If anything, it’s like those late-period Marx Brothers movies where the nutty comics intrude upon the supposedly interesting starring lovers, though it’s a notch or two better than that.

(One actor that both comic teams’ movies have in common is Walter Woolf King, who played a stuffy opera singer in the Marxes’ A Night in the Opera and here plays a stuffy opera composer. Indeed, if a classic-comedy connoisseur didn’t know better, he/she could imagine that Woolf’s opening scene in Swiss Miss depicts the Night opera star being exiled to Switzerland after getting his just desserts from the Marx Brothers.)

Producer Hal Roach advertised this movie as his “Big Lavish Musical Superfeature,” and he sure did his darndest to make the movie live up to its billing. We have to endure a ten-minute musical tribute to Swiss yodeling before we’re allowed even a glimpse of Stan and Ollie. The plot we’re supposed to care about concerns the composer, who has escaped to Switzerland to write his latest masterpiece away from the shadow of his diva singer-wife (Della Lind). Naturally, the plot we end up caring about is Stan and Ollie failing as mousetrap salesmen in the world’s biggest cheese-producing country, and being forced to work for a tyrannical hotel chef.

Unlike the charming musical numbers in Way Out West, the numbers here are mainly to be endured. (Even in the 1930’s, were there a lot of moviegoers who came out of the theater humming “The Cricket Song”?)

Luckily, the L&H sequences — such as Stan trying to snatch a keg of brandy from an assertive rescue-dog (shown below), and the famed scene of Stan and Ollie trying to move a piano across a rickety bridge (shades of The Music Box) — are worth waiting for. There’s even a mild attempt to integrate L&H into the silly romantic story, as the diva works her wiles on Ollie to make her husband jealous. (Naturally, the situation gets resolved — not so much to satisfy the grand love affair as to give the movie a quick wrap-up.)

You could almost make a drinking game out of watching Swiss Miss by enjoying the comedy scenes and then taking a swig when King and/or the Swiss residents start singing. I’ll bring the brandy.

Laurel & Hardy in THEIR PURPLE MOMENT (1928) – Another nice mess # 2,122


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The premise of this film is that Laurel & Hardy hide a lot from their wives, and their wives know all the secrets. Again, not one of their more feminist-oriented movies.

Stan thinks he is able to stash a few bucks out of his paycheck and hide it in a supposed “family photo,” but of course his wife knows all and replaces the money with cigar coupons. Stan and Ollie go out to wine and dine on the supposed stash and are hoisted by their own petard. (A similar premise, of course, later propelled their talkie Blotto.)

As this sort of thing was repeated in countless sitcoms generations hence, some of the nicest moments come from Stan and Ollie’s reactions when they realize they’re in over their head. After that comes a slapstick finale that has practically nothing to do with what went before it. Stan and Ollie’s wives have come to catch them in a lie, and Stan and Ollie’s erstwhile dates await them with a shotgun and a knife. And what happens at the end? Stan and Ollie throw pies and soup at each other when Ollie tries to accuse Stan of dragging him “into this den of vice.” So what? If all I had to endure to get out of sure death was a pie in the face, I’d take it in an instant, too.

One month away from our sexy-movie blogathon


We’re just one month away from the SEX! (now that I have your attention) BLOGATHON! Blog with us about your favorite movies that suggests sex rather than graphically shows it. Click on the above banner to learn more about (and enter) the blogathon!

THE BULLFIGHTERS (1945) – Laurel & Hardy’s fine farewell to Hollywood


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Bullfighters, Laurel & Hardy’s final film for Twentieth-Century Fox, was once described by L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt as “the one Fox film of theirs I can watch without wincing too much.” In terms of the L&H/Fox films which preceded this one, that makes it a masterpiece.

Indeed, but for a few out-of-character touches (What’s up with Stan and Ollie’s hair??), the movie could serve as an adequate introduction to L&H’s style. L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray’s research disclosed that an uncredited Laurel directed an entire sequence of the film (the contretemps at the water fountain), but Laurel’s mark is, happily, all over this movie. There are many reprises of and variations on familiar L&H routines here. (My favorite: Ollie signs a hotel register with his usual flourish, while Stan glops a simple “X” into the book. The topper: An illiterate hotel arrival admits he can’t sign his name and also writes an “X”; Stan sees it and says, “He’s forging my name!”)

Unlike the other Fox films with their subplots of gangsters and con men, the plot here is mercifully simple: As private investigators on the trail of a villainous woman (Carol Andrews, who provides a great tit-for-tat routine and then is never heard from again), Stan and Ollie are waylaid when Stan’s resemblance to a famous bullfighter forces him to serve as the bullfighter’s double until the real McCoy arrives. Stan and Ollie are blackmailed into cooperating with this scheme when the bullfighter’s P.R. man (Richard Lane) threatens to expose them to his boss (Ralph Sanford), who previously did prison time due to Stan and Ollie’s mistaken testimony, and who has threatened to skin them alive if he sees them again.

Among the movie’s other virtues is Norbert Brodine’s handsome cinematography. This shouldn’t be much of an asset, since high production values were often the only asset that an otherwise indifferent Fox offered to L&H films. But it’s hard not to notice the movie’s glistening lighting and photography, even in still photographs from the film.

The movie is not without its debits, particularly a yawn of a climactic bullfight. But for once, L&H seem to believe in their Fox surroundings (as Richard Lane points out in MacGillivray’s book, Hardy never stopped acting, even when a scene didn’t directly involve him), which helps to put the comedy across. And the final shot is the last of L&H’s freak endings so beloved of Stan Laurel. As Laurel & Hardy’s final Hollywood film, they could have done a lot worse — Utopia, for example.

Buster Keaton in THE GOAT (1921) – A dead-shot-perfect comedy


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

In appearance, The Goat is the story of a vagabond (Keaton) who gets mistaken for an escaped murderer named Dead Shot Dan. In actuality, the movie is but a warm-up for Keaton’s epic two-reeler Cops.

Indeed, Keaton the “scenarist” (as they called movie-story men in the 1920’s) drops the “Dead Shot Dan” angle into the story pretty quickly and then abandons it for half the movie. Buster is on the run from the cops, all right, but it all starts because he throws a horseshoe over his shoulder for good luck, only to bean a street cop. From there, the movie glides into one of Keaton’s (and maybe cinema’s) funniest chases ever. You’d never guess there could be so many variations on a chase motif, but the best of them are definitely presented here.

When the “Dead Shot Dan” part of the story resumes, the chase mostly narrows down to Buster and a private detective. From there it gets a tad routine, though “routine” for Keaton entails running endlessly up and down the same flight of stairs to avoid his hunter. As if that wasn’t triumph enough, he even gets a girl at the end. Quite a feat for a guy who began the movie being unable to wrangle even a free loaf of bread from a food line.

Meanwhile, Dead Shot Dan is still at large.

OUR WIFE (1931) – Don’t Laurel & Hardy make a cute couple?


(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Who says Laurel & Hardy don’t have subtext? The gist of Our Wife is that Ollie is eloping with his fiancee (Babe London). Watch Stan’s face when Ollie reminds him that he’s the “best man.” It could well be the first time in his life that Stan was best anything.

Our Wife is amiable middle-level L&H — not a classic along the lines of The Music Box or Helpmates, but still a sure-fire laugh-getter. For me at least, the reason it’s denied classic status is the horrible cutaway shots to Ollie’s wedding cake being gradually ravaged by more and more flies. (Couldn’t somebody have put a glass cover over the blankety-blank thing?) Ollie eventually chastizes Stan for spraying bug spray on the cake to eradicate the flies, but by that time, we in the audience are gratified that somebody did something to relieve our nausea.

There’s also the movie’s middle section, where Stan, Ollie, and Ollie’s bride try to squeeze themselves into a getaway car that’s slightly larger than a Matchbox model. (Those who think Laurel had no directorial finesse should view the movie’s first shot of the car sitting quietly under a street light, followed by Ollie’s bride coming into the shot and towering over the car.) The scene is a bit drawn-out (which is more than one can say for the car), though it’s still a hoot. (The car was probably crowded as soon as Stan got into it — it never occurred to him that two plus-sized people might not fit into it easily??)

The final scene at the preacher’s office is a nice, near-freak ending. No physical distortions here, but there is the parson’s wife (Blanche Payson, who gave her all in a single still shot in Helpmates) punching a deserving Stan in the chin, and cross-eyed preacher Ben Turpin performing a most unusual wedding (at least for 1931). (Let’s put it this way — the conservatives in “red states” probably won’t enjoy the joke.)

Charlie Chaplin in THE FLOORWALKER (1916) – Riding the escalator to Comedy Heaven


The Floorwalker spills over with the confidence Chaplin had obviously gained from becoming his own producer via his Mutual contract. Here, he provides himself an elaborate department-store setting and makes the most of every opportunity with a gag or prop, rather as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would do decades later with The Terminal.

As with his Essanay shorts Work and Police, Chaplin finds interesting chances to make a little social commentary. Charlie makes his entrance innocently knocking over a few items in the store, and it’s quite ironic that a shop assistant (Albert Austin) lingers on harassing Charlie for being a potential thief, while just a few feet away, people are robbing the store blind.

Oh, and up on the second floor as well. The contents of the store’s safe are about to stolen by the assistant manager (Lloyd Bacon) and the manager (the film debut of Chaplin’s wonderfully florid villain Eric Campbell – you know, the guy Bud Jamison kept trying to be in the Essanay films). But the assistant knocks the manager out and tries to abscond the funds for himself. He happens upon Charlie, who turns out to be a dead ringer for him, and they do a wonderful minute or so of the “mirror” routine (made most famous by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, but done in countless other films as well).

The assistant gets the bright idea of he and Charlie “trading” identities, thinking that he (the assistant) can get out of the store with the stolen money if he’s disguised as a customer. Little does he know that this customer has everyone on his tail already (and the manager will soon follow, once he comes to).

Too many great gags and set-pieces to mention, including cinema’s first use of an escalator (prompting Mack Sennett to turn green with envy that he hadn’t thought of it first). The Floorwalker shows Chaplin fully flexing his comedy muscles and enjoying every minute of it.

THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) – I live for movies like this


The following is my contribution to the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon, hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16). Click on the above banner to view the schedule of all the great posts in this blogathon!

Writer-director Preston Sturges (center) and cast.

Writer-director Preston Sturges (center) and cast.

The Palm Beach Story posits that people are so unused to good fortune that when it’s dropped right into their laps, they have no idea what to do with it. And those people include the movie’s audience.


The movie begins with a whirlwind sequence of exposition (set to a cockeyed version of “The William Tell Overture”) which seems to explain absolutely nothing. It’s writer-director Preston Sturges’ nose-thumbing at movies which have nothing but exposition. He seems to be saying, “Must we explain everything from the get-go? Have some patience on this trip, and I’ll get you there.”

Soon enough, we meet Tom (Joel McCrea), a frustrated construction designer, and Gerry (Claudette Colbert), his equally frustrated wife. They live in a posh apartment but are constantly dodging bill collectors, until Gerry’s chance run-in with a meat mogul known as “The Weenie King.” (You think that’s flouting the censors? Wait until you see Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944].)

Gerry tells The Weenie King of her financial plight, and he gives her a wad of money to help her, just because she’s so darned cute. (Once you see Claudette Colbert, this will seem a little more plausible.)

Far from feeling relieved, Tom is displeased that Gerry can solve their financial woes with only a little flirting. Gerry counters that everything in life is “about sex” (Note to censors: Flout-flout), and eventually she leaves Tom to set out on her own, solely to prove that she can get whatever she needs whatever she needs in life just by being a woman.

It’s never shown whether Gerry proves this to herself or not. But along the way, she meets some memorable characters: the members of The Ale and Quail Club (headed by Sturges veteran William Demarest); an oft-married millionairess (delightful Mary Astor) and her foreign-speaking boyfriend of the moment; and a soft-spoken yachtsman (Rudy Vallee), who patiently endures Gerry’s systematic breaking of his every pair of pince-nez’s. All of these people love to talk, and Sturges obliges them with enough epigrams for a swank New Year’s bash.


And for those who think Sturges couldn’t direct as well as he wrote, I recommend the scene where a tipsy Tom and Gerry discuss their impending divorce. The scene begins with Tom trying to unzip the back of Gerry’s dress for her, and it ends as one of the swooniest love scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness. (I’ve written a completely separate blog entry devoted to this kissing scene alone — read it here.)

And just when you think the movie has run out of steam, Sturges pulls a happy ending out of his hat that has you laughing through the closing credits. Smart and smarter — now, there’s a trend Hollywood should have pursued.

(If you too love this movie and are a member of Facebook, please click here to join my Facebook page devoted to this glorious movie.)