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:

Addendum to NUTS IN MAY: A LAUREL & HARDY BLOGATHON (WITH PRIZES!) – More prizes!

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This blogathon just keeps getting better (at least for the entrants!). When I announced the blogathon last week, I expected entrants to be flocking in, based on the ‘thon’s first prize — the “Ultimate Edition” of Randy Skretvedt’s lavish book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies.

To date, I’ve received notices from five, count ’em, 5 entrants.

So what the hey — if others are going to snub their noses at this blogathon, shouldn’t everybody who has entered get a prize? Therefore…

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Fifth prize will be a(n admittedly very used) hardbound copy of John McCabe’s 1975 coffee-table book Laurel & Hardy. In America’s pre-cable and -video days, this book was a real find (and expensive for its day). The book provides detailed synopses of every Laurel & Hardy team movie, with publicity stills and other related minutia from those movies, as well as short tributes to Stan and Ollie from long-gone celebrities including Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, and Groucho Marx.

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Fourth prize is a (again, used) paperback copy of Glenn Mitchell’s The Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, a book that has truly earned its title. This is an exhaustively researched and lovingly written tome, with new news about familiar L&H movies and trivia, and even newer news about things you didn’t know about L&H.

So if nobody else enters the blogathon/contest at this point, you’ll definitely get something out of it (but which prize will it be?).

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(If you’re just reading about this blogathon for the first time and want to enter it, click here to read the original entry about the blogathon and its first, second, and third prizes. Entry deadline is 12 midnight Eastern time on Mon., May 1, 2017.)

 

THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ (1991) – Modern-day silent movie

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that some major actors performed in a silent movie in 1991. I wouldn’t have known it myself if PBS hadn’t broadcast the movie on “Great Performances” two years after the movie was released.

The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez is written and directed by Peter Sellars, a theater director who is famous for his unconventional takes on operas and plays. One example was his 1980 staging of Don Giovanni as a “blaxploitation” movie, with the title character shooting up heroin at one point. Opera News called the production “an act of artistic vandalism.”

Dr. Ramirez is likely to inspire similar complaints from anyone who is expecting a mainstream film. Basically, the movie grafts the Expressionist themes and look of the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari onto the setting of late-1980’s Wall Street.

Peter Gallagher and Joan Cusack play two young stockbroker/lovers whose personal and business lives are not going so well. That makes them easy bait for mysterious and fiendish Dr. Ramirez (Ron Vawter) and his even stranger partner-in-crime Cesar (Mikhail Baryshnikov).

In an introduction to the movie, director Sellars makes lofty claims about the movie laying waste to Wall Street’s barren greediness. I don’t know about all that. To me, the amazing thing is that this story is told with no dialogue, not even subtitles — a word-free conceit that hadn’t been attempted since F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) — and Sellars makes it work. The movie really makes you work for its pleasures, but the actors are so good, and the staging is so well thought-out, you can really make the connections.

The movie is far from perfect. Its score by John Adams is bombastic at some points, a few close-ups are held way too long after they’ve made their point, and the film’s climax flies all over the place. Yet I could never take my eyes off the movie.

In a movie world where it seems every bit of exposition must be clearly laid out for the dimmest yahoo in the audience, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez flies its freak flag proudly…and lucidly. For that alone, it deserves a place in cinema history.

Below is Part 1 of the movie. The movie is available for free on YouTube in five parts.

 

 

 

PONETTE (1997) – Heartbreaking children’s perspective on death

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The French import Ponette is one of the most devastatingly emotional movies I’ve ever seen.

It opens with a charming image: the 4-year-old title character sucking the open thumb of a broken arm encased in a cast. Sadly, that’s the last lighthearted image the movie conjures up for quite a while. It turns out that the cast is a result of a car accident that has killed Ponette’s mother.

Ponette’s father is of little help, having left Ponette with her unsympathetic cousins while he comes to terms with his grief. It is up to Ponette to deal with the blow as best as she can. She asks her cousins and their friends about death, and they try to help her with tortured theology pieced together from what they’ve been told by apathetic adults. And so Ponette tries this trick and that, hoping that eventually she’ll hit upon the right formula to bring her mother back.

Movies rarely seem to catch the way little children really talk and behave. This movie has it down pat, and it’s all the more heartbreaking for it. Without making it as explicit as a Hollywood production would, it’s obvious that these kids are having even more trouble than their parents in making sense of a senseless world.

And at the center of this story is Ponette, played by Victoire Thivisol in a performance that won her a film-festival award and universal raves. Her performance has nothing to do with the studied mannerisms and milkings of most child actors. Thivisol’s work here inspires many tears, but they are all earned.

The movie’s sole sore spot with reviewers has been its conclusion, which some people have tagged as compromisingly happy in a film that otherwise offers no easy answers. I prefer to think of the ending as hopeful. Yes, Ponette gets her mother back, but only for a short while, after which she must again cope with her grief. Ponette is smiling a little more by movie’s end, it’s true, but I was still crying as much as I was at the start.

MADELINE (1998) – Utterly charming children’s film

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Occasionally, Hollywood remembers that a good family movie can actually be enjoyed by the entire family, rather than endured for the children’s sake. 1998’s miracle was Madeline, easily the best family film since Babe.

It’s based on Ludwig Bemelmans’s delightful series of books about a feisty young girl who lives in a Parisian boarding house. The fact that the books delight so many readers (including me) immediately gave me a sense of dread. Surely Hollywood would feel compelled to “dumb down” the material and fill the movie with so-called jokes about bodily functions.

But other than a brief reference to a nasty-smelling cheese, the movie version is happily free of such stupidity. From the very first scene, in which the book’s drawings come to life as a narrator intones the familiar introduction (“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines…”), a silly grin planted itself on my face and never left.

The movie’s stylization is a wonder. The books’ color palette has been faithfully adapted, with eye-popping primary colors (Madeline’s yellow hat is as much of a character in the movie as Madeline is). This is the most delightful kids’ movie to just plain look at since Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

The plot is easy enough to follow, especially for anyone who has read the books. (The main story threads are the boarding house’s being sold by its sullen owner Lord Covington, and Madeline’s eventual friendship with Pepito, the mischievous boy next door.) Yet as simplistic as the plot is, it makes sense on its own terms. The movie’s villains, while not overly menacing, are quite believable and not the Three Stooges kind of bad guys constantly tripping over themselves for cheap laughs.

The movie’s nicest surprise is in its resolution. (SPOILER ALERT paragraph!) All through the movie, we’re told that Lord Covington is a mean old businessman with no concern for the girls’ welfare. So we’re prepped for this subplot to be capped off with some stupid chase scene, or for Madeline to blackmail the old goat into keeping the school open. Instead, this plot thread is resolved with the most emotionally satisfying movie scene of the year — one that combines plausibility, intelligence, and genuine feeling. And that was the last thing I expected from any kiddie film.

The casting is perfect. Fargo Oscar winner Frances McDormand finds just the right note as the girls’ caretaker, Miss Clavel — a bit perplexed, but never ditzy, and as strong-willed as a caretaker of twelve girls would need to be. Nigel Hawthorne at first seems a bit too reserved as Lord Covington, but when the above-mentioned scene arrives, we suddenly realize how nicely the character has been developed.

And as for Madeline — where in the world did they get Hatty Jones? I’ve not heard of this girl anywhere else, and I would have guessed that, as with the ill-fated update of Leave It to Beaver, casting an unknown in the lead role would amount to little more than a publicity stunt. But Jones brings a storybook character to life and makes her totally engaging instead of a typical wisecracking brat. I can only imagine little moviegoers everywhere cheering on Madeline’s resourcefulness.

Finally, one must acknowledge the movie’s director, Daisy von Scherler Mayer. It would be easy to say that such a story requires a feminine touch, except that plenty of female directors have shown themselves to be as heavy-handed as any male. But Mayer retains the books’ charm and their gift for not talking down to their audience, which is a key element of any good children’s book — or any excellent movie, for that matter.