A NEW LEAF (1971) – It’s never too late to turn over

ANewLeafPoster

A New Leaf is the best movie W.C. Fields never made.

That is completely intended as a compliment, and it in no way belittles Walter Matthau, who delivers a fine lead performance. But there is no mistaking the spirit of Fields in Matthau, whose body language and voice inflections deliver most of the laughs that writer/director/co-star Elaine May doesn’t steal away from him.

The movie is a whimsical black comedy, if there is such a thing. Matthau plays Henry Graham, a pampered man who has depended all his life on the kindness of rich not-quite-strangers (his well-off uncle and his accountant, among others) and his trust fund for his livelihood. Henry has now run through his trust fund and the goodwill of said strangers, and in a very funny scene (one among many), his accountant (William Redfield) has to meticulously and repeatedly explain to Henry why and how he has no more money to burn through.

Having no particular skills or drive in life, Henry concludes that he must find a rich woman to marry and enable him to continue the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Eventually he finds the easiest of targets — heiress Henrietta Lowell (May), a nondescript botanist and teacher who practically trips over herself with her every move.

Through a rapid series of machinations, Graham takes charge of Henrietta’s life and bank account, nonchalantly planning to eventually off Henrietta and continue to live off her riches. But gradually, a funny little thing called conscience slips into Henry’s crevisses, and having never previously had such feelings — in himself, or for anyone else — he is at a loss at how to cope with it.

This was May’s writing-directing movie debut, and she never strikes a wrong note. The dialogue is crisp, and every loving shot is held just long enough to make its comic point.

May also gets wonderful performances from the entire cast, including herself. As with the heroine in her later The Heartbreak Kid, at first we seem meant to laugh derisively at mousy Henrietta and her uncouth ways. But just like the flora she catalogs, Henrietta begins to blossom under Henry’s (reluctant) tutelage.

The rest of the cast similarly blossoms under May’s direction, including Redfield, James Coco, Jack Weston, Doris Roberts, and most notably George Rose as Henry’s Jiminy Cricket of a butler. They all underplay beautifully and deliver a smashing comedy almost nonchalantly. A New Leaf was initially a box-office flop but has long since become a cult classic, its comic bloom never fading over the years.

Advertisements

THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) – Beauty and the nebbishy beast

HeartbreakKidPoster

Why do we always want what we can’t have? And what would happen if we actually got it? Director Elaine May, working from a script by Neil Simon based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, examines the answers under a harsh microscope in the bitter black comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

In this instance, the “we” is Jewish nebbish Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a getting-by sporting goods salesman. Shortly after his Jewish honeymoon with the former Lila Kolodny (Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin) begins, he is alone on the beach when he meets what he can’t have — a perky WASP blonde named Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). Having endured a road trip from New York with his newlywed bride — during which the thought of 50 ensuing years with his less-than-perfect wife has solidified in his mind — he sees idyllic freedom in the form of flitting, flirty Kelly. Now all he has do is ditch his new bride to get what he thinks he has always wanted. Simple, right?

Far from it. He does his best to talk his way out of everything pre-Lila and seems to have snookered everyone — except for Kelly’s rich, tough-as-nails father (Eddie Albert).

It’s definitely a black comedy, with hardly a likable person in it (except, perhaps, for naive Lila). But the movie never pushes for its effects. May simply examines this roundelay of people in long, rich takes, documentary style.

You can easily believe that Lenny is some kind of salesman. He uses endless strings of almost-convincing lies to connive Lila while doing everything he can to convince Kelly and her father of his sincerity. Once Lenny starts on this quest of acceptance from the WASPs, he deludes himself into believing that the sincerity of his cause is enough to carry him through the rest of his life — a life for which he has no current plan, except to win over Kelly.

I have only a couple of quibbles with The Heartbreak Kid. The movie does all it can to uglify poor Lily — giving her character quirks to make her look shnooky, lathering her in sunburn makeup. I’m guessing that 1972 audiences derisively laughed at her in contrast to Kelly’s WASP perfection, but I found Lila’s quirks rather endearing, as any truly loving groom would. I suppose that’s part of the point the movie is trying to make, but I think the movie tries a little too hard to make Lila a slobbery house pet in Lenny’s eyes.

My other problem is with Mr. Corcoran, Kelly’s watchdog father. Eddie Albert (also nominated for an Oscar) is absolutely fabulous, subtly showing the dad’s simmering dislike for Lenny with only body language and a few well-chosen words (as opposed to Lenny, of course, who can’t shut up). It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t explore the father’s uncomfortable fixation on his daughter a little more deeply.

But in the end, these are minor faults. Without getting too deep about it, what The Heartbreak Kid is really about is how cinema (at least up to 1972) shaped people’s ideas of what true beauty really is, and how it made some people (such as stalker-y Lenny) want to go overboard in order to obtain it.

(My thanks to Debbie of the blog Moon in Gemini for her recommendation of this fascinating and funny movie.)

 

 

MANHATTAN (1979) – A pain in the “But”

p500_p_v8_as

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

When I saw Manhattan upon its first release, I was only 18 years old, I was already a rabid Woody Allen fan, and the 1970’s were…well, the ‘70s. But the movie is getting a radical revisiting in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and I now see the movie as a mass of contradictions — or, to put it more plainly, a lot of “But’s.”

The movie begins smashingly, with a gorgeous montage of New York scenery sumptuously photographed by Gordon Willis, and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background. Amidst this assertive opening, we soon hear the reedy voice of TV writer and author Isaac Davis (Allen) “writing” the first chapter of his book (i.e., dictating it into a tape recorder). It’s a beautiful visual and a funny introduction to the movie’s themes.

But…Isaac’s description of New York includes a reference to “street-smart guys who know all the angles,” juxtaposed with a shot of leering construction workers eyeing a curvy brunette who’s crossing the street. Don’t look now, but some ‘70s sexism is slipping through the crevices.

Meryl

In what is probably the movie’s most underwritten character, Meryl Streep, in an early movie role, plays Jill, Isaac’s second ex-wife and the mother of their only child, whom Jill is now raising with her lesbian partner Connie (Karen Ludwig). A major plot point of the movie is that Jill has written and published a tell-all book about her marriage with Isaac and his reaction to his later discovery of his wife’s lesbianism (he tried to run them both over with a car).

But…this entire part of the plot seems contrived and unfocused. At one point, Isaac freely admits to a friend that he tried to run the couple over, but later he tries to claim to Jill that it was an accident. Worse is Streep’s strange acting in the movie. In her first, confrontational scene with Isaac, Jill is cocky about having the book to hold over Isaac’s head, but later, in her own apartment, Jill nervously tries to avoid Isaac’s inquiries, as though he still has some unknown power over her.

Another major plot point is that of Isaac’s longtime best friend, a professor named Yale (Michael Murphy). Unbeknownst to Yale’s wife Emily (Anne Byrne), he has been having an affair with a neurotic and pretentious woman named Mary (Diane Keaton). Yale, Mary, and Isaac have quite the partner-changing routine, as Yale nervously “passes” Mary off to Isaac when he decides to stay true to his wife, only to later selfishly reclaim Mary and destroy both his marriage and his friendship with Isaac. This is meant to serve as Allen’s moral compass of the movie, as he has Isaac give Yale a kiss-off speech telling him how selfish he is.

Group

But…this moralistic high ground doesn’t easily gel with the movie’s May/December elephant in the room: Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), Isaac’s high-school-age girlfriend who is a full quarter-century younger than Isaac. Even if you are willing to separate the art from the artist (you know — Allen, who infamously married his much younger [not-really-his] stepdaughter), Isaac cannot completely joke his way out of a relationship that seems, at best, morally iffy. (Where are Tracy’s parents throughout this roundelay? Strangely unseen and undiscussed, at least until movie’s end, where Tracy is given a throwaway line about their looking for an apartment for her in London, where she has just earned a scholarship.)

And there’s no question that the Isaac-Tracy romance is the movie’s biggest moral quagmire. Isaac is forever making speeches about ethics, but he is forever leading Tracy on while keeping her at arm’s length, until he finally gets a shot at Mary and breaks off with Tracy. And as soon as his chance with Mary goes kaput, he goes running back to try to get Tracy back into his life.

So there are a lot of wonderful touches to enjoy in Manhattan, as long as you can evade the “But…” angel who keeps tapping you on your shoulder and telling you that this is not really a cautionary tale, for the 1970’s or any other decade.

(POSTSCRIPT: It’s worth noting that even Allen himself seems torn by contradictions about his own movie. When it became his biggest box-office success to date, he said, “People really latched onto Manhattan in a way that I thought was irrational.” Yet in 1980, when New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote a long and scorching diatribe against not only Manhattan, but Allen’s movies Annie HallInteriors, and Stardust Memories, Allen felt compelled to end his years-long friendship with Kael.)

THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

 

broadwaybanner1

The following is my entry in The Broadway Bound Blogathon, being hosted by Rebecca at her blog Taking Up Room from June 1-3, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Broadway-related movies!

image (1) (1)

There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the 2005 twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.

 

Laurel & Hardy in WAY OUT WEST (1937) – My kind of Western

The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon

The following is my entry in The Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, being hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of their favorite cinematic versions of comfort food!

Way

Way Out West is an anomaly in Laurel & Hardy’s film career. Laurel & Hardy shorts and features, like most of the work from their producer Hal Roach, were taken for granted by everyone but the public. Contemporary critics sniffed their noses at L&H, and the movie industry regarded them as modest time-killers between the big-studio productions.

But Way Out West had something beyond its modest pretensions at Western-spoofing. Its jaunty score, superbly done by L&H veteran Marvin Hatley, was nominated for an Oscar. And in the wake of L&H’s success, Western spoofs suddenly became the rage, as W.C. Fields, Mae West, and The Marx Brothers followed suit.

But as with most Hollywood spin- or rip-offs, none of them managed the charm of the original. This is the one everyone remembers, mostly because of a softshoe number that goes beyond comedy to touchingly demonstrate Stan and Ollie’s underlying affection for each other. If you don’t laugh at it, it’s probably because you’re crying with joy from it. (The complete movie is embedded below; the dance routine starts at the 13:43 mark. Try not to at least smile at it. I dare you.)

The plot concerns the deed to a late miner’s valuable property, which the miner was naive enough to entrust to Stan and Ollie for its delivery to the miner’s daughter, named Mary Roberts. Stan inadvertently spills the beans to Mary’s evil caretaker (famed L&H scowler James Finlayson), who enlists his wife to impersonate Mary so they can snag the deed for themselves.

As plots (particularly Laurel & Hardy’s) go, this one is pretty sturdy, though it’s light enough to encompass three musical numbers (all low-key and charming) and tons of physical comedy within the film’s 70 minutes. Most Laurel & Hardy feature films were criticized for trying to shoehorn brief L&H routines in between the “straight” plots or romantic interests, but this movie is pure Laurel & Hardy in every sense.

Among the movie’s highlights are a chase scene that culminates in Stan’s nearly being tickled to death, and an endlessly inventive burglary scene involving nothing more than a block-and-tackle and a mule (who gets a cast credit, and deserves it). And of course, there are the wonderful musical numbers. (40 years after the movie’s release, two of these songs were released on a record in Britain and went straight to #1.)

The best-loved comedians are inevitably the ones who make us think they’re us. This movie has a running gag of Ollie confidently negotiating a stream, only to be continually sucked in by an unseen pothole. It’s a perfect metaphor for Laurel & Hardy and their ongoing audience appeal.

(Also click here to visit my webpage devoted exclusively to this wonderful movie, and click here to listen to my new Laurel & Hardy podcast!)

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) – Two little Hitlers

modern-times

The following is my second of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

greatdictator

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first “all-talking” movie, is not a perfect film – there are dead spots here and there, and it wavers nervously between political farce and humanistic melodrama. Yet it is as compelling as anything in the Chaplin canon.

For one thing, you couldn’t find a movie that is more “of its time.” Chaplin’s uncanny resemblance to Hitler (they were also born within a week of each other) inevitably dictated (sorry) that Chaplin would have to take on the monster of his era. Chaplin later said that, had he known of the horrors of the actual concentration camps (portrayed fairly benignly here), he could never have made this movie. Yet one should be grateful he took on its subject matter at all, as history tells us how pacifist much of Hollywood (and America) was willing to be at the time.

The story concerns Chaplin’s version of Hitler, “Der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, and his country of Tomania, which he hopes to ruthlessly expand to include the entire globe. (Lest there be any doubt about this goal, there’s the movie’s famous, wordless scene in which Hynkel makes love to his “intended” by dancing and playing with an inflated globe of the Earth.)

Chaplin also plays Hynkel’s inadvertent double, an innocent Jewish barber who comes upon Hynkel’s Tomania after years in a psychiatric ward following World War I. The barber returns to his modest Jewish community and his business, thinking that everything is back to normal, only to be thrust into the center of anything-but-normal.

Chaplin’s burlesque of Hitler can be described only as spot-on; even the gibberish is perfect. As for the age-old question of whether the barber character is an extension of Chaplin’s Tramp, all you can do is look at the derby hat, toothbrush moustache, and waddle-walk, and think to yourself: He sure ain’t Monsieur Verdoux.

The movie begins a bit clumsily, as it’s pretty obvious that Chaplin is trying to do some silent-movie comedy at sound speed. But soon enough, the movie gets in sync and provides many memorable set-pieces: the globe dance, the barber shaving a customer in time to the radio music, the coins in the pudding, etc.

And this movie should stand as the final word to any critic who says that Chaplin never let another actor be his equal or upstage him. To a man (we’ll discuss the woman in a moment), Chaplin the director gets wonderful performances, of varying kinds, from his peers. Reginald Gardiner is rather touching as Schultz, the Tomanian officer who grants the barber some slack due to their shared past. Comic veteran Billy Gilbert is adorable as Hynkel’s flunkie Herring, forever sputtering and hoping for a ray of Hynkel’s approval. Henry Daniell is just fascinating as Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch, bringing more to the role than seems asked of him; you get the feeling Garbitsch could have been a powermonger to overtake Hynkel if Chaplin had let him. The most sober (without being maudlin) of the downtrodden Jews is the cynical Jaeckel, understatedly played by Maurice Moscovich.

And let us give a manic salute to Jack Oakie for his Mussolini take-off, Napaloni. Chaplin gives Oakie generous leeway to show Napaloni’s passive-aggressive superiority to the neurotic Hynkel, and Oakie makes the most of every minute he’s on-screen.

download

Then there’s the famous finale, where the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and is called upon to address the world just before Hynkel’s forces are set to take over a nearby country of refuge. Chaplin famously “dropped the mask” here and delivered a heartfelt, six-minute speech devoted to humanity. The speech has mostly been a sore spot, even among many Chaplin buffs, since the movie was first released. And I have to say it: The speech works for me.

Of course, the speech is very out-of-character; it’s doubtful that the simplistic barber could conjure up such verbosity on the spot. That leaves Chaplin-the-celebrity addressing us, and many people have said he should have shut up then and there. But whenever I watch and hear that final speech, I think about 1940 and how much different (and presumably nicer) the world would have been if the real Hitler had found it in himself to say something like that. And aren’t movies just wish-fulfillment, anyway? On those terms, I can accept that speech quite handily.

(If the speech is missing anything, it’s that comic punctuation Chaplin used to include — a gag that would “snap” the pathos and keep it from getting too icky, as in City Lights when the Tramp lingers on the sight of the blind girl and she unknowingly throws water in his face. Maybe the speech could have been “leavened” by a cutaway or two to Hynkel having been forced into taking the barber’s place at the insane asylum, sitting bound-up in a strait-jacket and going into hysterics as he listens to the barber giving his power away.)

What I find much harder to ignore (or accept) about the movie is Paulette Goddard as Hannah, the simple, modest cleaning woman of the Jewish ghetto. Hannah is a poorly written character to start with – she’s little more than Chaplin’s love letter to Goddard (who was Mrs. Chaplin at the time) – and Goddard herself doesn’t add much to the role. Hannah is forever giving “Rah-rah, let’s beat those nasty storm troopers” speeches to the point of tedium. One such speech occurs when Hynkel, in an effort to finagle a loan from a Jewish businessman, decides to temporarily quit persecuting the ghetto’s Jews. When the storm troopers unexpectedly treat Hannah and the barber politely, Hannah looks straight into the camera and expostulates about the world’s goodness in a way to make you turn away in embarrassment.

Complaints aside, The Great Dictator remains compelling and often hilarious Chaplin viewing. It was his biggest money-maker to date, so there must have been at least a few other people who agreed with Chaplin’s sentiments in that closing speech.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about the ongoing debate on Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton.)

Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton: Who cares??

modern-times

The following is my first of two entries in The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon: The Life and Films of the Little Tramp, being co-hosted by the blogs Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner from Apr. 14-16, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to Charles Chaplin on his 126th birthday (Apr. 16)!

(All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export.)

ChaplinOrKeaton

I first came across Charlie Chaplin when I was 11 years old and just “getting into” silent movies. I didn’t start watching Buster Keaton movies until a few years later, mainly because I never had access to any of them until a local PBS station began showing them. I find both men, in their individual ways, brilliant silent-film comedians.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been listening to the ridiculous debate about Chaplin versus Keaton — which comic is funnier, less sentimental, more artistic, etc. — as though great movie comics are so plentiful that we must compare apples to oranges. For the final word on this subject, I have two quotes. The first quote is from The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr’s invaluable study of silent-film comedy; the second is a seemingly irrelevant quote about a completely different subject by Susan Sontag. (However, in Sontag’s case, replace “The Doors and Dostoyevsky” with “Keaton and Chaplin,” and you’ll see what I mean.)

SilentClowns

* “…[Keaton] has been hailed, here and there, not only as Chaplin’s equal but as Chaplin’s superior. This, I think, is waste effort, a misreading of Keaton’s very values…Let Chaplin be king, and Keaton court jester. The king effectively rules, the jester tells the truth.” – Walter Kerr, 1975

SusanSontag

* “If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?” – Susan Sontag, 1996

(If you liked this blog, please click here to read my second blogathon entry, about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.)