My 5 favorite movie actors

Five Stars Blogathon

The following is my contribution to the third annual Five Stars Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Classic Film & TV Cafe on May 16, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ rapturous reviews of their five all-time favorite movie stars!

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Jodie Foster. Whenever I see Jodie Foster on the screen, I see a fiery woman who is very smart and who is frequently frustrated at having to deal with the less intelligent people in life. Since I often have that same viewpoint of suffering fools non-gladly, I cherish its portrayal on the screen.

Furthermore, she’s so intense that (a) you can’t take your eyes off of her, and (b) you believe every role she plays — whether it’s an underage hooker in over her head in Taxi Driver, the single mother of a brilliant but socially inept child in Little Man Tate, or a starry-eyed astronomer in Contact. In short, Foster makes intelligence sexy.

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Jane Russell. Jane Russell’s brash persona was of its time. She’d have never become a star in our sexually-explicit-yet-politically-correct era, where actresses can show off all the skin they want and then punch out any guy who looks at them as a sex object. Jane was what she was — built, brassy, and non-apologetic about all of it.

(One story goes that, on the set of the movie His Kind of Woman [1951], Russell, Vincent Price, and Robert Mitchum were being interviewed by a sob-sister reporter. As it happened, the trio were all sitting inside a room on the ledge of a second-story window, trying to catch a breeze. When the reporter asked how Russell could reconcile her Christianity with her worldly movie roles, Jane countered with, “Can’t I be a Christian and still have big tits?” Mitchum laughed so hard that Price had to grab hold of him to keep him from falling out the window.)

These days, any guy who deigns to admit that anything turns him on is branded a pervert. But I’ll be glad to say it — Russell’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude, combined with her fulsome physique, get me roiled up every time. Try watching the very first shot of her in the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface (1952) — with the camera panning up her long, glorious legs as va-va-voom music plays on the soundtrack — and see how nonchalant you remain.

Russell was also a decent actress, and even a good comedienne, when given the opportunity in gems such as SOP and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. At the risk of sounding completely sexist, they don’t make ‘em like Russell anymore — so let’s be grateful that some people had a camera pointed at her when they did.

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John Goodman. I first saw John Goodman in David Byrne’s offbeat comedy True Stories (1986). Goodman played Louis Fyne, a shy, overweight cleanroom technician who does a video advertising for a mate. The first thing that struck me was how stereotypical the role seemed. The second thing to strike me was how Goodman quietly transcended the role’s hoariness and really made you feel for this poor schmuck.

Right after that movie, Goodman went balls-out as a nutso escaped convict in the Coen Bros.’ comedy Raising Arizona (1987), and that cemented my love for the guy. After that, he had a huge string of roles where he could seemingly do no wrong — a former high-school quarterback in Everybody’s All-American, a cop who partnered with Al Pacino in Sea of Love, and of course, lovable working-class stiff Dan Connor on the sitcom “Roseanne.” It seemed as though Goodman began all of these roles by planting a tiny seed of truth within his character — so that, no matter how outrageous the situation got, you really believed in and felt for this guy.

Unfortunately, Goodman’s turn from mild-mannered character actor to major star resulted in him starring in some really embarrassing movies — King Ralph, The Babe, and the truly painful The Flintstones. But still, when Goodman is really into a worthy role, he still feels like someone you want to give a big bear-hug and buy him a beer.

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Charles Durning. In his earlier movies, Durning seemed intent on playing the man you love to hate — whether he was a corrupt cop in The Sting (1973), or the owner of a frog-leg fast-food chain who set his sights on Kermit the Frog as his chain’s spokesperson in The Muppet Movie (1979).

Then, in the 1980’s, it was as though a weight lifted off Durning’s shoulders, and he was suddenly doing roles that couldn’t help but endear him to you — the wily senator in the “Sidestep” number of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), the widower won over by Dustin Hoffman’s man-disguised-as-a-woman in Tootsie (1982), and the laconic small-town doctor in Burt Reynolds’ late-80’s sitcom “Evening Shade.” He seemed to bask in his own charm, and the joy spread to his audience. I smiled every time he came on the screen.

But his biggest role, because it was real life, was as a deservedly decorated World War II veteran. For many years, he served as a spokesman on PBS’ Memorial Day concerts, recounting stories of fellow soldiers who never made it back home. With each passing year, you could see the toll it took on Durning to perform this task, but he carried on with it grandly. This culminated in what I think was his finest hour — his Emmy-nominated guest turn on “CSI,” where he played a WWII veteran who was, after several decades, still wracked with guilt over the death of a fellow soldier.

Like John Goodman at his best, Durning had such an authentic Everyman quality that you couldn’t help but be won over by him.

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Stan Laurel. I am a classic-comedy buff, and I mulled over this final choice for ages. There are many comedians from that era who transcended their low-comedy origins and became larger than life — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, and W.C. Fields, to name a few. I picked Stan Laurel out of this group because he developed such an endearing characterization in partnership with Oliver Hardy, you felt you could believe in simple-but-charming Stanley even if Ollie wasn’t there with him.

(Witness the minute or so at the end of the Laurel & Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces [1939], where Stanley is a lonely vagabond traversing the countryside. It’s just enough of a solo turn that you wish he could have done an entire movie of that character by himself.)

Laurel started out in vaudeville with Charlie Chaplin, and his early movie work consisted of Chaplin-like gags minus Chaplin’s plausibility or heart. When Laurel was first teamed with Hardy, he was hesitant about it, because he had established himself as a writer-director and preferred to work behind the camera. But then he created the character that endeared him to generations of movie fans.

Stanley’s likable dumbness is probably his saving grace as well. When Ollie lords it over him, he seems to convince himself that it’s his friend’s way of looking out for him. And if you doubt Laurel’s depth of performance, watch the final 10 minutes of the L&H comedy A Chump at Oxford (1940), where he becomes a completely different person: a condescending British genius who turns the tables on Ollie and makes him feel like the dummy for a change.

Laurel & Hardy buffs will tell you there’s a reason they continue watching those movies long after they’ve memorized the gags. It’s that extra touch of movie magic, much of it provided by Laurel as the uncredited writer-director-editor of those movies. What’s not to love?

NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!) is here!

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I’m still waiting on one final entry before I announce the prize winners. In the meantime, I encourage you to read the other blog entries that have been posted. All of them capture the spirit of their respective Laurel & Hardy movies quite nicely!

Serendipitous Anachronisms – Liberty (1929)

CaftanWoman – Me and My Pal (1933)

thoughtsallsorts – The Live Ghost (1934)

Realweegiemidget Reviews – A Chump at Oxford (1940)

Laurel & Hardy on NBC’s “This Is Your Life” (Dec. 1, 1954)

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Like nearly everything Laurel & Hardy did on film, their 1954 live appearance on Ralph Edwards’ NBC celebrity-bio series “This Is Your Life” is worth seeing at least once — but in this case, probably not much more than once. Even their final Hollywood films offered L&H more to do than sit like stooges in somebody else’s scheme, which is pretty much what “This Is Your Life” did.

For those unfamiliar with this sentimental hooey, “This Is Your Life’s” premise was that each week, some unsuspecting celebrity would be dragged onto live TV and have his or her life story condescendingly recalled to him by host Ralph Edwards, who would also parade the celebrity’s friends or associates on stage to briefly regale the audience with all-too-well rehearsed anecdotes. (Buster Keaton was another comedy legend subjected to this process at one point.) The “TIYL” format is shown in full, naked flower here, as director Leo McCarey stammeringly tried to tell how L&H were made a team, and one-time co-star Vivian Blaine told a story that had nothing to do with her co-starring role in L&H’s Jitterbugs.

Stan Laurel later recounted his disgust with the whole enterprise, and it shows on camera — while always smiling and polite, he never utters one word more than he has to. By contrast, the show reunited Oliver Hardy with his childhood sweetheart, and Hardy is shown trying to have a private conversation with his old acquaintance, oblivious of Edwards’ rush to continue the show (which was running late due to Stan’s reluctance to show up at all, causing Edwards to ad-lib uncomfortably for the first few minutes of the broadcast).

The L&H segment of “This Is Your Life” stands, like their final big-studio films, as another prime example of Hollywood’s willingness to capitalize on The Boys’ famous personas without any concern as to whether L&H were shown in their best light.

If you dare to watch the segment, it’s embedded below:

Less than one week to NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!)

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Next Monday is our Laurel & Hardy blogathon (With Prizes!). All you have to do is a well-written blog entry that critiques a Laurel & Hardy movie. First prize is a copy of Randy Skredvedt’s terrific “Ultimate Edition” of his Laurel & Hardy biography. What are you waiting for? Click here for all the details!

Announcing NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!)

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Spring cleaning at the ol’ Movie Movie Blog Blog has yielded some interesting surprises — which, in the generous spirit of spring season, I’d like to pass along to you. Therefore, it is with bated breath (for which I’m seeing a doctor) that I happily announce…

NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!)

(Yes, I know — Nuts in May is the title of a Stan Laurel solo film, not a Laurel & Hardy team film. But I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.)

Let me start by saying that if you’re interested in participating, you’re going to have work fast on this one. For, as befitting the ‘thon’s title, it will take place on Monday, May 1, 2017.

So now you’re saying, “Prizes, schmizes! I can’t enter a blogathon that’s coming up so soon!” Well, hold on, snootie, we haven’t announced the prizes yet!

(Fifth- and fourth-place prizes were added to this blogathon after I published this initial announcement about the ‘thon. Click here to read what those prizes are.)

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Third prize is the Kino Video/Lobster Films 2004 DVD of Laurel & Hardy’s 1939 film The Flying Deuces. (NOTE: This is not a Blu-Ray edition.) This is a restored, uncut version of the movie that was transferred from a nitrate 35mm negative discovered in France. The DVD also includes:

  • The Stolen Jools, a 1931 all-star short subject made for charity. Laurel & Hardy have a short but funny cameo in it.
  • The Tree in a Test Tube, a 1943 educational short subject featuring Laurel & Hardy in color, performing pantomime.
  • The notorious 1954 segment of “This Is Your Life” in which Hardy and a polite but reluctant Laurel are featured.
  • 1932 newsreel footage of Laurel & Hardy’s trip to the United Kingdom.
  • Copies of stills and promotional material for the movie.

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Second prize are the 1997 Laurel & Hardy “70th-anniversary” dolls featured in the above photo. (NOTE: The prize is the dolls [as shown above] and their props. The dolls are no longer in their original packaging.) Props include an umbrella for Hardy, a suitcase for Laurel, and small doll stands that contain replicas of Laurel’s and Hardy’s autographs.

And now for the grand prize. Are you sitting down?

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First prize is a near-mint-condition copy of Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies – The Ultimate Edition. Yes, this is the 632-page hardback book that was released to huge critical acclaim last year. It’s loaded to the max with updates from Skretvedt’s initial 1987 book, including tons of photographs and trivia to savor.

So here are the rules — read them carefully!

  1. Blogathon participants are asked to write a review of one of the 106 films in which Laurel and Hardy were paired from 1926 to 1951. (That includes the early Hal Roach/Pathe productions in which Laurel & Hardy co-starred in the same film but were not featured as a team.) Please choose only from this list of movies — no “This Is Your Life,” compilation films, TV specials, or anything that deviates from said list. (A listing of this group of films can be found here.)
  2. No duplicate entries are allowed for this blogathon. At the bottom of this blog is a list of blogathon entries that will be regularly updated. Please check the list before you begin writing your entry, to see if someone has already taken your choice.
  3. Your review does not necessarily have to be positive — for example, if you want to review a L&H/20th Century-Fox film that you don’t like, that’s fine. All I ask is that the review be well-written, thought-out, reasoned, and entertaining.
  4. I will be the sole judge of the blogathon entries and will determine which entries win first, second, third, fourth, and fifth prize. So re-read Rule # 3 if necessary.
  5. Banners to promote the blogathon are posted at the bottom of this blog. Once you have written and posted your entry at your blog, grab a banner, post it with your entry, and link the banner back to this blog. Also, please leave your blogathon entry’s URL in the “Comments” section below so that I can read your entry.
  6. Your entry must be posted at your blog by 12:00 midnight Eastern Time on Monday, May 1, 2017. I will announce the blogathon winners as soon as possible after that time, possibly the next day. All blogathon entries will be linked here, and I will post the first- through fifth-prize-winning entries at this blog.

So for my and Laurel & Hardy’s sake, think hard, write well, and have fun! Here’s the line-up so far:

Serendipitous Anachronisms – Liberty (1929)

The Movie Rat – The Music Box (1932)

CaftanWoman – Me and My Pal (1933)

thoughtsallsorts – The Live Ghost (1934)

Realweegiemidget Reviews – A Chump at Oxford (1940)

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Laurel & Hardy: The eternal friendship of Stan and Ollie

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The following is my contribution to the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 18-20, 2016 by Debra at the blog Moon in Gemini. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to some of cinema’s most memorable friendships!

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Usually, anyone who writes about Laurel & Hardy dwells on their comedy highlights (and justifiably so). But in this instance, I’d like to discuss some of their more thoughtful moments and show why, as L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt once said, they have more “depth” than most comedy teams.

It’s not for nothing that, within their fan base, Laurel & Hardy are just as likely to inspire a tear as a laugh. The most commonly cited instance is the famous softshoe dance from Way Out West (1937; embedded below), in which the deep bond of Stan and Ollie is just as obvious as their superb comic timing.

But there are plenty of other instances — not as funny, maybe, but just as touching — that illuminate Stan and Ollie’s friendship. I’d like to cite just four of them. (SPOILER ALERTS)

At the climax of their short subject Below Zero (1930), Stan and Ollie have just been, literally, knocked out and thrown out of the back of a greasy-spoon cafe for not paying their dinner tab. (They thought they had sufficient funds to pay for it, but you know, it’s Stan and Ollie.) When Ollie regains consciousness, he doesn’t see Stan anywhere, and he yells for Stan several times — first in a normal tone of voice, then with fear that his friend is missing or has been physically harmed. All of this is conveyed simply by Ollie calling Stan’s name four times, followed by Ollie grabbing a large piece of wood and rushing to the cafe’s back door to bang on it.

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This is also a tribute to Oliver Hardy’s often-underrated acting. (And of course, Stan turns out to be all right — I’ll let you discover the movie’s silly ending for yourself.)

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In L&H’s first feature film Pardon Us (1931), The Boys have been sentenced to prison for trying to sell bootleg liquor (to a cop, as it happens). Stan has a troublesome lisp that makes the end of his every sentence sound as though he’s blowing a raspberry. It’s determined that Stan needs to go the prison dentist to get a loose tooth pulled. Stan has grave misgivings about this idea, especially after seeing a couple of patients in the dentist’s waiting room who are vocalizing their agony. Suddenly, Ollie sneaks in, takes a seat next to Stan, and declares that he’ll stay with Stan all through the dental visit. It’s a tiny moment that’s not dwelled upon, but Stan’s delight at seeing a cheerful, familiar face in a hostile environment speaks volumes.

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In Busy Bodies (1933), Stan and Ollie are having a back-and-forth physical row with an antagonistic co-worker (Charlie Hall). At one point, Stan hits Ollie by mistake. Charlie laughs and starts to make friends with Stan, telling Stan he has “a kind face.” Stan starts to get chummy with his new buddy and offers him a cigar. Ollie’s look to the camera — a device that always conveys Ollie’s exasperation to the audience — has an undertone of pity in this instance, as Ollie fears that Stan has turned on him. (Not to worry. Stan gets Charlie ejected from work — theirs is a “No Smoking” place of business.)

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The most profound instance of Stan and Ollie’s loss-and-regaining of friendship occurs at the end of their feature film A Chump at Oxford (1940). (Major spoilers follow.) Stan and Ollie are attending Oxford University on a scholarship. Unbeknownst to them, Oxford once had a brilliant professor named Lord Paddington who, one day, inexplicably walked away from Oxford for good. Paddington’s former servant notices Stan’s resemblance to the former genius and declares that Stan is Lord Paddington returned to his old stomping grounds. Ollie laughs derisively at the idea.

OLLIE: Why, I’ve known him for years, and he’s the dumbest guy that I ever saw. Aren’t you, Stan?

STAN: I certainly am.

But when Stan leans out a window and is conked on the head by the window’s pane, Lord Paddington’s memory returns — as does Lord P. in all of his snobby glory.

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There follows a delicious scene in which Ollie is justly punished for all of his years of condescending treatment of Stan, as Ollie is demoted to being Lord P.’s lackey. At one point, Paddington instructs Ollie on how to behave with more poise. “Lift your chin up,” he tells Ollie. When Ollie duly lifts his chin, Stan instructs him, “No, no, no, both of them!”

Ollie eventually loses it, telling Paddington that he’s had enough and that he’s returning to America without him. As it happens, some of Lord P.’s followers are singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” outside his window. Lord P. goes to the window to listen, the window pane does its business again, and Stan is returned to his old self.

Ollie is still on a rampage when Stan starts to cry at the thought of Ollie deserting him. Eventually, it dawns on Ollie that Stan is back to normal. Ollie laughs in happiness and throws his arms around his old buddy, briefly looking down at his derided double-chin before resuming his joy at the return of his old friend.

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You have to think that Stan Laurel, as the uncredited co-creator of most of Laurel & Hardy’s movies, felt compelled to add these subtle grace notes to L&H’s characterizations. They’re minor, but they’re there for anyone who looks for them, and they add a little emotion to what could have simply been (superb) slapstick comedies.

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