A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) -A very early look at reality TV

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

In 1957, Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) has air time to fill. Her radio show, “A Face in the Crowd,” consists of folksy interviews with down-to-earth citizens. One day, Marcia enters a local jailhouse, where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loudmouth who has been arrested on disorderly conduct.

At first, Larry wants nothing to do with Marcia, but then he takes a good look at Marcia (who dubs Larry “‘Lonesome’ Rhodes”)  and softens up. The sheriff sweetens the deal by saying that he’ll let Lonesome loose if he’ll cooperate with Marcia.

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Lonesome pulls out his handy guitar and starts improvising some wild blues, and soon Marcia is satisfied that she got what she was looking for. Later, her boss is even more impressed with Lonesome and insists that Marcia track him down. In record time, Lonesome’s charisma turns him into a radio smash, with the local citizenry utterly charmed by Lonesome’s cracker-barrel wisdom.

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But this success ends up having some unfortunate side effects. Lonesome becomes convinced that every idea that pops out of his mouth is pure gold, and heaven help any broadcast executive who dares to suggest otherwise. And Marcia, at first bemused by this hayseed gone successful, realizes she has unloosed a genie she can’t get back in the bottle.

This movie is simply mesmerizing, not the least in the ways it predicts how Madison Avenue would mount ad campaigns that would congratulate TV viewers for being such geniuses in buying their products. The movie’s extended “Vitajex” sequence, in which Lonesome turns around the unsuccessful sales of an “energy pill,” is like a short lesson in modern advertising. The movie’s other eye-popping lesson comes when Lonesome teaches a U.S. Senator how to come across as more personable so that he can win over his TV viewers (this movie came out three years before the Kennedy/Nixon debates).

All of the movie’s performances are sharpened to a fine point. Tony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Kay Medford, and the rest of the cast are fairly dripping with cynicism but never overplay their hands. Patricia Neal is just as sensuous and winning as she was in The Day The Earth Stood Still and (surprisingly) for similar reasons, as an Everywoman who slowly realizes she’s in over her head.

As for Andy Griffith, he’s as far from likable old Sheriff Taylor as he could get. Lonesome Rhodes is someone with just enough intelligence that, when pushed in the wrong direction, grabs everything he can for himself and leaving unhappiness in his wake. (There might be a reason that Turner Classic Movies broadcast this movie on the same date as President Donald Trump’s inauguration.)

A Face in the Crowd doesn’t quite qualify as film noir — but it’s not for lack of trying.

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A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) – Katharine Hepburn’s film debut

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The following is my entry in the 3rd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, being hosted May 12-14, 2016 by the blogger who is surely the biggest KH fan on the planet, MargaretPerry.org. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ insights into the movies and life of this legendary actress!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

A Bill of Divorcement always seems right on the verge of collapsing into sudsy soap opera. But the movie is always pulled back from the precipice by the sterling acting of John Barrymore and, in her sizzling film debut, Katharine Hepburn.

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The movie is based on a British stage play that was written as (to quote Wikipedia) “a reaction to a law passed in Britain in the early 1920’s that allowed insanity as grounds for a woman divorcing her husband.” In the case of this play-turned-movie, the unlucky fellow is Hilary (Barrymore), who has been committed to an asylum for the past 15 years after experiencing shell shock in World War I.

Hilary’s wife Meg (Billie Burke), having given up hope of Hilary regaining sanity, has taken up with Gray (Paul Cavanagh), had herself divorced from Hilary, and is now due to marry Gray on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, Hilary and Meg’s daughter Sydney (Hepburn) is madly in love with Kit (David Manners), and as the story begins on Christmas Eve, Kit proposes to Sydney, who happily accepts.

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But darned if old Hilary doesn’t get better again, come home, and ruin everybody’s Christmas.

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First of all, Meg is beside herself and doesn’t begin to know how she’ll tell the truth to Hilary, who has not received the warm welcome home that he’d expected from his spouse. (Truth to tell, Meg’s dithering isn’t made easier to take by the fluttery Billie Burke, who is easily the weakest cast member here. And hindsight doesn’t help either, knowing you’re watching the future Wizard of Oz’s Good Witch of the North trying to portray a cuckolding wife.)

Secondly, Hilary’s return causes Sydney’s aunt Hester (Elizabeth Patterson) to reveal to Sydney that it was a bit more than just shell shock that brought her daddy down; in fact, both Hilary and another family member had mental problems, so it’s possible that insanity runs in their family. This just might interfere with Kit’s plan to have Sydney birth a few dozen kids.

Other than Burke, the movie’s major debit is director George Cukor’s penchant for TV-style close-ups (20 years before TV became popular) of actors giving overly long speeches. Given all of this, you’d think you’d be laughing this movie off the screen. But we’d be forgetting that intangible element called “star power,” and Barrymore and Hepburn have it here in spades.

From his first entrance, Barrymore is thoroughly believable as a man who has just escaped after nearly two decades in an asylum. The sentence seems to have worn down his physical being. Barrymore walks through the entire movie resigned, with slumped shoulders, as though the memory of the asylum was a weight pressing down on him.

And Hepburn is simply dynamic. Sydney doesn’t make a point of telling us what a carefree, independent spirit she is; she simply is — is a force of nature — and it makes the sadness that occurs later in the movie that much more heartbreaking. It’s easy to see how Hepburn’s performance must have captured moviegoers’ attention and imagination.

Some movies go straight past the rational side of your brain and hit that primal spot where you’re still willing to respond to unabashed emotion — and when that response is earned, it’s a gratifying time at the movies. That’s what A Bill of Divorcement is.

 

SO YOU THINK YOU’RE NOT GUILTY (1950) – In praise of Joe McDoakes

 

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The following is my contribution to the Oscars Snubs Blogathon, being co-hosted Feb. 26-28, 2016 by The Midnite Drive-In and Silver Scenes. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ defenses of Academy Award nominees that didn’t win the golden statuette!

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I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about Joe McDoakes, and this blogathon gives me a perfect excuse to do so.

“What the heck is a ‘Joe McDoakes’?”, I hear you cry.

Joe McDoakes was a series of 63 one-reel comedy short subjects produced by Warner Bros. between 1942 and 1956. George O’Hanlon — later to gain his greatest fame as the voice of George in the TV cartoon “The Jetsons” — played the title character.

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George O’Hanlon as Joe.

The shorts began as a project of Richard Bare, a film professor at USC who wanted to show his students how to make a movie. (After the McDoakes series was retired, Bare made further use of his offbeat sense of humor, as the director of a wonderfully wacko TV series titled “Green Acres.”) The shorts were directed by Bare and also written solely by him up through 1948, at which point O’Hanlon took a hand in the storylines as well.

The series’ raison d’etre was to place Joe in an everyday situation and, usually, watch him bollix it up through stubbornness or misplaced overconfidence. The first few shorts showed Joe going through the motions of an activity (as in the debut short, So You Want to Quit Smoking) while an offscreen narrator commented on Joe’s actions. Eventually, Joe and his supporting cast were allowed to speak, although the narrator (usually the delightful Art Gilmore) wasn’t abandoned until 1948.

I could spend an entire blog cataloging the virtues of this achingly hilarious series of shorts. (As it happens, I devoted an entire website to it instead. Click here if you’re interested in the minutia of the Joe McDoakes series.)

Suffice to say, three of these short subjects were deservedly nominated for Best One-Reel Short Subject Academy Awards; undeservingly, none of them won the statuette. For the purposes of this blogathon, I will center my attentions on the 1950 Oscar nominee, So You Think You’re Not Guilty.

(Oh, yeah, I forgot. At this point, I’m dutifully supposed to mention 1950’s One-Reel Short Subject Oscar winner, Paramount’s Aquatic House-PartyAnyone who has devoted a blog or website to this immortal movie gem, please leave your URL in the “Comments” section below.)

(Also, the remainder of this blog entry contains complete spoilers of So You Think You’re Not Guilty. So skip to the last two paragraphs if you truly intend to obtain the movie in one of its rare forms, which I’ll discuss later.)

At the start of the movie, Joe is driving his convertible through town with his wife Alice (Phyllis Coates, best known as TV’s first Lois Lane on “Adventures of Superman”). Joe dutifully stops at one of those old-style traffic lights where the “Stop” and “Go” signs pop up and down appropriately. Here, though, the signs go haywire, causing Joe to drive skittishly and cause a traffic jam.

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A policeman pulls Joe over and politely tries to deal with him. But Joe brashly proclaims his innocence, despite the fact that he has neither his driver’s license nor his vehicle registration to hand over to the cop. The cop writes Joe a traffic ticket and tells Joe he can pay the $2 fine in court and be done with it. But in court, “innocent” Joe makes such a nuisance of himself that the judge fines him first $50 for contempt, then $75, and finally $100.

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So Joe has just multiplied his losses by 50. Not good enough for him, though — now he wants a trial. Sadly, Mr. Battin (Ted Stanhope, above left), Joe’s lawyer, isn’t nearly as concerned about Joe’s innocence as Joe is. While the prosecutor (Willard Waterman) pulls out every shameless tactic possible, including a “witness” to the incident (a blind man with a seeing-eye dog), Battin says nothing.

At the end of the prosecutor’s song-and-dance, Battin whispers to Joe, “I got an ace in the hole. Watch this!” Battin slowly stands up and announces, “The defense rests.”

For some reason, this doesn’t pacify Joe, who creates such a scene in the courtroom that he gets another $1,000 tacked onto his fine and is sentenced to 30 days in jail. While in his jail cell, a fellow prisoner coerces Joe into breaking out with him. Joe tries to escape through the window, but his suspenders get stuck on what’s left of the sawed-off bars. Joe is quickly captured and sentenced to 10 years for an attempted jail break.

Next we see Joe out in the jail courtyard, having served a year of his sentence. A fellow prisoner (a nifty cameo by Douglas Fowley, a gangster in late-era Laurel & Hardy movies) says that when they both get out of jail, Joe needs to look him up. The con is getting into a new racket that’s perfect for Joe: “Signal-fixin’ radar — ya always got the green light!”

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Joe is called to a meeting with the warden (Ralph Sanford), who asks Joe if he really did commit the crime of which he’s been accused. Hard-boiled Joe gladly admits to the crime and says he’ll do it again when he gets out. Ironically, now that Joe has finally admitted his guilt, the warden says that Joe is qualified to get out of jail. “‘Stop-Lite’ McDoakes Paroled,” reads a banner newspaper headline.

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Joe, once again free and driving, makes the very same driving mistake at the very same traffic light. But no heroics this time — as soon as a cop approaches Joe, he throws $2 at the cop and begs him to pay off the ticket.

I wish this movie was available for posting here. Sadly, this wonderful short subject and its 62 brethren are as rare as an Oscar was for the series itself. If you want to see So You Think You’re Not Guilty by itself, it’s available as an extra on Warner Bros.’ 2005 DVD release of the James Cagney classic White Heat.

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Also, the entire McDoakes series is available for purchase on demand. Depending on if you buy a new or used set, it costs anywhere from $32 to $50 at Amazon.com — but IMHO, it’s worth every penny. (If you don’t want to take my word for it, click here to read critic Leonard Maltin’s rave review, which inspired me to buy the set sight-unseen.) I think you’ll agree that Not Guilty and a good number of these other shorts were simply robbed at Oscar time.

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#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Feb. 27: EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)

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How does a single, abnormally-sized spider turn up in a random cave for no reason? How is it that, after the spider has been knocked out with poison, rock-and-roll music brings it back to life? And worst of all, how can they name a movie Earth vs. the Spider when it’s not an entire planet that’s being threatened but merely a nondescript, white-bread town that probably deserves to be obliterated anyway?

These are just some of the many questions that won’t be answered this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST. Join us at Twitter.com and use the hashtag #SatMat to enjoy a movie you’ll never forget laughing at!

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Feb. 13: LOCUSTS: DAY OF DESTRUCTION (2005)

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I love disaster movies that give you just a faint whiff of characterization — not a carload of exposition (because who could believe in these characters, anyway?), just enough to rationalize your watching the carnage to come. Locusts: Day of Destruction fits the bill perfectly.

Lucy Lawless plays Dr. Maddy Rierdon, a Dept. of Agriculture investigator who’s getting it from all angles. Her husband is whining because she’s too engrossed in her job to start a family with him. One of her former professors (John Heard) has started a mutant-locust experiment on his own, leaving Maddy to shut down the prof’s lab and fire him.

And worst of all, Maddy must not be getting paid diddly-squat, because her wardrobe is so constrictive, she wears tight jeans to a meeting where she’s addressing her formally dressed peers, and at one point, she walks around an awful long time with just a bra on before she can find a top that fits her. Poor thing!

Oh, and that renegade locust experiment? You don’t think the prof really burned all of those creatures away, do you?

So, Lucy Lawless cheesecake and a locust plague. Need I say more? See you at Twitter.com this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST — use the hashtag #SatMat to comment on the movie as it unspools before you!

 

 

 

Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart in PANIC ROOM (2002) – A thinking woman’s movie

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The following is my entry in The Girl Week Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 16-22, 2015 by the blog Dell on Movies. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of bloggers’ tributes to their favorite movie actresses and heroines!

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There’s an interesting book titled Brave Dames and Wimpettes, in which novelist Susan Isaacs posits that most modern movie heroines still use old feminine wiles instead of brainpower to get what they want. Urgently recommended viewing for Ms. Isaacs would be Panic Room, one of the best thrillers of the early 2000’s.

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The movie’s heroines are Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recent divorcee, and her young daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart, essaying one of her first movie roles at the tender age of 11). They’ve just moved into a three-story Manhattan home of the kind to be found more easily in movies than in Manhattan. The prime draw of this house is its “panic room.” In the event of a burglary or similar emergency, the resident locks himself inside this room and uses its separate phone line to call the police.

On their very first night in the house, Meg and Sarah find out just how good to be true this room is, when three unruly burglars break in. It happens that the house’s previous owner left a few million dollars behind in the house, and wouldn’t you know it, the money’s in the same panic room where Meg and Sarah lock themselves. Oh, and for good measure, Meg didn’t have a chance to get the separate phone line hooked up.

Yeah, I know, this whole set-up could happen only in the movies. But before the thrills are unleashed, the movie takes the time to set up the relationship between Meg and Sarah, and it’s nicely done. Because we get to know them for a while, we have a stake in their peril.

And believe me, these are not two women who sit around screaming and waiting for some moronically written boogie-men to kill them. Simply because the marvelous screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) allows these women to think, they manage to stay one step ahead of the burglars, who eventually find themselves cowering as much as those wimpettes Isaacs writes about.

Except for some overly swooping camera movement at the beginning, David Fincher’s direction is as perfectly taut as you could hope to find in a thriller.

As for the lead actresses — what a wealth! With her interplay with Foster and her remarkable subtlety, even in 2002 it looked as though Kristen Stewart would be…well, the next Jodie Foster.

And what is there to say about Foster? I find her one of the most beautiful women in movies, simply because she makes intelligence sexy.

Watching a seeming no-brainer like Panic Room is like expecting an ice-cream cone and getting a dinner at Four Seasons.

THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet #Noirvember movie for Sat., Nov. 21: Lawrence Tierney in THE HOODLUM (1951)

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The name of this week’s The Gangsters All Here movie gets straight to the point. The movie is called The Hoodlum — a title so generic, it’s the movie equivalent of slapping a white-with-black-lettering label on a can of beans. But there’s nothing generic about the guy who plays the title role…

It's Lawrence Tierney!

It’s Lawrence Tierney!

The Hoodlum is directed by Max Nosseck, who directed Tierney in his breakout role in Dillinger (1945). But by the time of this movie, both Tierney’s and Nosseck’s careers had hit bottom — Tierney due to a lot of jail time earned by off-screen drinking and brawling, and Nosseck because he went from Dillinger right b;lkack to the B- and worse-type movies he’d previously been doing.

One could almost say that the bitterness of these two men burst forth in this movie and made it work. Tierney plays Vincent Lubeck, a career criminal whose career is so vast, it’s lovingly detailed in the movie’s prologue. Lubeck gets paroled due to a lucky break, but he still comes out of jail declaring that life has never given him a chance and will continue to not do so. So when Lubeck gets a good look at both (a) a loot-filled armored car that passes his way every day, and (b) his brother’s sob-sister-and-virginal girlfriend, what do you think are the chances that he’ll try to nab both?

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On a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, I give this movie a 4-½. Tierney sizzles from start to finish, and the movie is uncompromising in nearly every aspect of its subject matter (especially for 1951). I deduct a half-star only because the movie begins with that weariest of tropes, a plea to the jailhouse warden from the convict’s elderly mother. But if you stick with the movie right to the end, you’ll see that even this cliche gets turned on its head.
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