OUT OF THE PAST (1947) revisited

February 7, 2021

***** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are a few films that provide the perfect example of Film Noir, and this one from director Jacques Tourneur is unquestionably one of them. Tourneur is also known for CAT PEOPLE (1942) and he’s the son of prolific French director, Maurice Tourneur. Daniel Mainwaring, under his pen name Geoffrey Homes, adapted the screenplay from his own novel, “Build My Gallows High”.

Jeff is the owner of a small town gas station, and although relatively new to the town, he’s made a few local friends – in particular Ann, with whom he has a pretty serious, though not altogether honest, relationship. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Jeff’s mysterious past catches up with him, and this happens pretty early in the story. He’s called back to the big city by one of the henchmen for mobster Whit, who wants Jeff to track down Whit’s mistress, Kathie, who absconded with $40,000. It’s an offer Jeff can’t refuse, and soon enough he’s in Acapulco entranced by the “dame” he’s paid to track down. What follows is a slew of twists and turns, double-crosses, dangerous close calls, and yes, yet another “dame” that can’t be trusted.

The noir hijinks are a blast to watch, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary cast. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, and his dry, laconic approach allows him to walk that line between being an anti-hero and a good guy that we root for. Whit is played exceeding well by not-yet-a-star Kirk Douglas, whose pent-up energy and fast-talking nature are the perfect dueling partner for Mitchum. While the screen presence of Mitchum and Douglas can’t be denied, it’s Jane Greer who steals nearly every scene she’s in playing Kathie. Duplicitous is not a strong enough word for the character of Kathie. Ann is played beautifully by Virginia Huston, and Rhonda Fleming comes into the story as Meta Carson about halfway through, competing with Kathie for the title of least trustworthy woman you’ll likely come across. Other supporting performances come from Paul Valentine as Whit’s henchman Joe, Richard Webb as Ann’s protective and jealous suitor Jim, Steve Brodie as Fisher, and Dickie Moore as Jeff’s trusty employee known only as The Kid.

Director Tourneau was a master of creating atmosphere, and his career took him through many types of projects, formats, and genres: Short films, westerns, horror, adventure, war, mystery, and crime. The last few years of his career were spent directing TV movies and series. He passed away in 1977 at age 73, leaving behind two movies, OUT OF THE PAST and CAT PEOPLE that would be selected for the National Film Registry. Writer Daniel Mainwaring also passed in 1977 (age 74), and though he began as a journalist-turned-novelist, his greatest success was as a screenwriter. In addition to this film, he also wrote another noir classic, THE BIG STEAL (1949), in which director Don Siegel reunited Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer; and the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), also directed by Siegel.

 Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas are both considered giants of Hollywood past. Mitchum is viewed as the consummate tough guy, and his characters often stood out due to the air of indifference in his acting style. He was only nominated for one Oscar in his career, but the memorable roles are many – including westerns, romance, and crime thrillers. Mitchum’s “bad boy” persona was only enhanced by his serving jail time for a marijuana offense in 1949, however in real life, he was married to his wife Dorothy for 57 years (although his extramarital affairs were well known). He also had some success as a singer-songwriter, and on screen, he is remembered for two of the best ever screen villains from CAPE FEAR (1962) and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). Fans of TOMBSTONE (1993) recognize Mitchum’s voice as the narrator, and his final screen appearance was in 1997, the same year he died at age 79.

Kirk Douglas was nominated for 3 Oscars, and very few actors were more proficient at stealing a scene, and even fewer duplicated his long-lasting screen presence. He was a showy performer who was hardly known when cast in OUT OF THE PAST, the movie that vaulted him towards stardom. His most iconic roles include Vincent Van Gogh in LUST FOR LIFE (1956), Doc Holliday in GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957), and in two Stanley Kubrick films, PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and SPARTACUS (1960). Douglas is often given credit for virtually ending Hollywood’s “Blacklist” by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write for SPARTACUS. Douglas worked frequently in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and made eight films with Burt Lancaster, another industry legend. A stroke in 1996 made speaking very difficult for him, but therapy allowed him to get back on stage and on screen. In the early 1960s, Douglas starred on stage in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and he held on to the screen rights until his son, actor-producer Michael Douglas, turned it into a 1975 box office hit starring Jack Nicholson. Kirk Douglas was married to his second wife, Anne, for 65 years until his death in 2020 at age 103.

 Jane Greer was only 22 when she filmed OUT OF THE PAST, yet she had the aura to make us believe her Kathie could turn any man inside-out. She won beauty pageants as a baby, and sang with orchestras as a teenager, but the movie camera and big screen took her to a new level. As her career was just starting, she got caught in the infamous web of Howard Hughes, and only a quickie marriage to singer Rudy Vallee allowed her to escape. Her two best known films are this one and THE BIG STEAL two years later, in which she again co-starred with Mitchum. In 1984, she appeared in Taylor Hackford’s remake of OUT OF THE PAST, entitled AGAINST ALL ODDS. In the film, she plays Rachel Ward’s mother. After her second divorce in 1963, she had a long-term relationship with actor Frank London. They both passed away in 2001. She was 76.

Rhonda Fleming was in her mid-20s during filming, and had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945). Her career spanned more than 40 films, including Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), Fritz Lang’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956), and John Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL (1957). She worked with most every leading man of the era, including four films with Ronald Reagan. As a gifted singer, she performed in  Broadway musicals and was featured in her own concerts. Fleming spent most of the 1960’s and 1970’s doing TV work. She was married 6 times, and died in 2020 at age 97.  The third female star in the film was Virginia Huston as Jeff’s small town girlfriend. Ms. Huston’s acting career lasted less than a decade, and she also appeared in FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) with Joan Crawford, and as Jane opposite Lex Barker in TARZAN’S PERIL (1951). She passed away from cancer at age 55 in 1981.

Paul Valentine, who plays Whit’s smirking henchman Joe, also had a fairly limited career, although like Ms. Greer, he also appeared in the remake AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984. It was one of his last screen appearances. Richard Webb, Anne’s intense and jealous protector Jim, was a hard-working character actor from the 1940s through the 1970s, and he authored some books on psychic phenomena. Dickie Moore plays the deaf-mute “Kid”, Jeff’s confidant, and was the epitome of a child star. Beginning at age 18 months, Moore appeared in 52 movies by age 10. If you are ever in a trivia contest and the question comes up about Shirley Temple’s first on screen kiss – you’ll rack up the points if you answer ‘Dickie Moore’. He appeared in five Best Picture nominees, but his acting career was over by age 30. While researching his book on child stars, he met actress Jane Powell. They had been married for 27 years at the time of his death in 2015.

The film stands the test of time and is right there with THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and any others considered classic Film Noir. In fact, Humphrey Bogart was originally offered the role of Jeff, and while we can imagine him in the role, Mitchum was terrific in making it his own. No one has ever said, “Baby, I don’t care” any better, and it is also the name of Mitchum’s 2001 biography written by Lee Server. In addition to the great cast, Tourneur makes creative use of lighting and camera angles throughout, and all of that adds up to a fun movie-watching experience in spite of some of the confusion on how the story progresses. It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys classic movies or wants to experience a young actress stealing a film right out from under two screen legends.

*NOTE: I previously wrote about this movie in 2011, but I felt the urge to dig a bit deeper after re-watching it recently.

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (1929-2021)

February 5, 2021

 It was announced today that legendary actor Christopher Plummer passed away at age 91. Thanks to his more than 200 screen credits covering 8 decades, and especially for his role as Captain Von Trapp in the long-time family favorite, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), Plummer was one of the most recognized, most respected, and most beloved actors of our time.

Plummer was a three-time Oscar nominee: as Tolstoy in THE LAST STATION (2009); as J Paul Getty in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017), and as a terminally ill man who surprises his family by taking a younger male lover in BEGINNERS (2010). It’s his terrific performance in that last movie that won him his only Oscar as he became the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar. The “legendary” status I mentioned early stems not just from his work on the big screen. Plummer is renowned for his stage work, and was a two-time Tony winner, and he also won two Emmy’s for his TV performances.  Although he was nominated for a Grammy, the EGOT eluded him.

There are too many memorable performances to list, but it’s amazing that 73 of his acting credits came after he turned 70 years old.  In fact, one of his final appearances was in the excellent 2019 whodunit, KNIVES OUT.  Plummer released his autobiography, “In Spite of Myself” in 2008, and he was the great-grandson of former Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.

He was married for 53 years to his third wife, British dancer-actress Elaine Taylor, and among his surviving family is his daughter, Emmy-winning actress Amanda Plummer, who was so memorable in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION.  Even if he hadn’t been such a talented stage and screen actor, Mr. Plummer likely could have had a nice career as a voice actor … such a smooth, sophisticated baritone.

May Captain Von Trapp “Bloom and Grow Forever”

In THE SOUND OF MUSIC, his singing voice was dubbed by singer Bill Lee, but here is a recording of Plummer’s actual voice singing EDELWEISS. Personally, I would have stuck with Plummer’s version for realism, but I’ll admit, Lee’s version brings a tear to my eye every time.

 

 


THE HAUNTING (1963) revisited

January 30, 2021

*** This is an entry into my “Revisited” series where I re-watch a classic movie and then write about it – not with a traditional review, but rather a general discussion of the movie, those involved with it, and its impact or influence.

 Greetings again from the darkness. Long ago, filmmakers figured out how to have fun with ‘things that go bump in the night’. Of course some do it better than others, and how scary or creepy you find a movie will depend on your personal phobias and preferences. For a combination of haunted house, ghost story, and psychological thriller, few are better than this 1963 gem from director Robert Wise. I’ve strategically planned this after the recent success of two limited series from Netflix: “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020). Although the two series were marketed as being related, in fact only the 2018 series was based on the 1959 novel from Shirley Jackson … the same as Wise’s 1963 film.

The story begins with Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) being contracted to conduct a scientific study of psychic phenomena and paranormal activity in the now vacant Hill House mansion that has a 90 year history of strange and tragic endings for its past inhabitants. He will be joined by two hand-picked volunteers, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), as well as Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), the young man who stands to inherit Hill House. Eleanor has a history of paranormal connection (as a child) and Theo is a clairvoyant with ESP tendencies. Luke is mostly an obnoxious rich kid hoping to cash in on his inheritance.

We get an early introduction to Eleanor’s home life, and in those days she would likely have been labeled a spinster. She has spent many years taking care of her recently deceased mother, and is now out of step with reality … and burdened with guilt from her sister, who not only treats her like a child, but also blames Eleanor for their mother’s death. Being selected for the Hill House research is a dream come true for her – a chance to do something for herself. Her arrival at the gates of the manor provide a glimpse of just how important this is to her. She refuses to heed the caretaker’s (Valentine Dyall) warning, and demands to be allowed in.

Our first view of Hill House is seen through Eleanor’s eyes and we hear her inner voice acknowledge the feeling of having the house “watch her” as she drives up. The exterior shots of the neo-Gothic mansion are truly awe-inspiring and intimidating. She is greeted at the door by the other caretaker (Rosalie Crutchley), who takes socially awkward to a new level with her zombie-like warnings of the night and the dark. Soon the others arrive, and the initial conversations allow us to understand the differing personalities and get our first look at the interior of Hill House.

The initial set-up is for a scientific, first hand analysis of supernatural occurrences inside the house … all led, of course, by Dr. Markham. Sexual tension plays a role here as Eleanor is attracted to Dr. Markham, who conveniently has not mentioned that he’s married. Simultaneously, Theodora teases and flirts with Eleanor, while only admitting to not being married, yet still cohabiting as an “us”. What is abundantly clear from the beginning is that Hill House itself is a featured character. Director Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton utilize creative camera angles and specialized lighting, and capture the essence of the home through terrific set design. In a rare case for horror movies, very few special effects are present outside of sounds; although the spiral staircase in the library and the heaving wooden doors are quite memorable.

Director Robert Wise was a 4 time Oscar winner (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, 1965, WEST SIDE STORY, 1961) and was also Orson Welles’ film editor on CITIZEN KANE (1941). Wise directed such diverse films as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979); the sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), which turned Paul Newman into a star; RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1959) a submarine movie starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), which was Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination; and another horror gem AUDREY ROSE (1977). Well-liked by actors and respected in the industry, Mr. Wise died in 2005 at age 91.

Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Wise both previously received their first Oscar nominations for I WANT TO LIVE (1958), and were frequent collaborators, including: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971, adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel), and THE HINDENBURG (1975). Gidding adapted Shirley Jackson’s tremendous novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”, with some variations that turned it into more of a psychological cinematic experience. Mr. Gidding passed away in 2004 at age 84.

 Julie Harris received her Oscar nomination for EAST OF EDEN (1955), where many fell in love with her as Abra, the girl torn between two brothers, one of which was played by Oscar nominee James Dean in his star-making turn. Ms. Harris’ career spanned seven decades (1948-2009), and, as a 5-time Tony winner, she remains one of the most honored and respected stage performers of all-time. Much of her later career was on stage and television, including a long run on “Knot’s Landing”. She passed away in 2013 at age 87.

Claire Bloom, who plays Theodora, is still alive today and turns 90 the day after Valentine’s Day 2021. He acting career has spanned eight decades (1948-2019), and one more gig will get her to a remarkable nine! Never one to shy away from controversy, Ms. Bloom shines here as the lesbian with ESP, and she is also a renowned stage actress recognized for her Shakespearian work. She had marriages to Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger and Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Roth, and many will recall her role as Queen Mary in THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).

The two male leads in the film were played by Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. Mr. Johnson is known as the actor who turned down the role of James Bond in 1962, setting the stage for Sean Connery’s historic run. Johnson was briefly married to Kim Novak (VERTIGO, 1958), and his career lasted seven decades (1950-2015), and he remained working until his death in 2015 at age 87.  Mr. Tamblyn was coming off his role as Jets’ leader Riff in Robert Wise’s WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and he had earlier appeared in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). He was Oscar nominated for his role in PEYTON PLACE (1957), and during his 8 decade career (1948-2018), he appeared in 6 movies that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture. He is 86 years old and recently appeared in the 2018 limited series “The Haunting of Hill House”. He is the father of actor Amber Tamblyn.

For fans of James Bond movies, you’ll be pleased to see Lois Maxwell appear in this film as Dr. Markway’s wife. Of course, Ms. Maxwell is known to fans as Miss Moneypenny in 14 James Bond movies, second only to Desmond Llewelyn’s 17 appearances as Q. She passed away in 2007 at age 80.

 In the movie, Hill House is described as a 90 year old New England house with a history of psychic phenomena. However, the exterior shots are actually of a neo-Gothic mansion (hotel) in Ettington Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s an active hotel with a history tracks back to the 11th century. The interior shots were conducted on a UK studio set. In 1999 director Jan De Bont (SPEED, 1994) delivered a second adaptation (not a remake) of Jackson’s novel, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones. A different house was used for Hill House.

Wise’s film is now nearly 60 years old, and it holds up today thanks to the house, the performances, the direction, and the decision to create a psychological thriller and character study. The power of suggestion is key, yet it never loses the core of being a haunted house story … a house that seems to want Eleanor (note the parallels to the origin story of Abigail told in one of the early scenes). There have been debates about whether that initial set-up takes too long, or if more attention should have been paid to why the house is drawn to Eleanor (and vice versa), but overall, it holds up very well as classic horror. On a separate note, no one could accuse the film of being cursed, as most everyone associated, enjoyed a long a fruitful career and life … even the house!

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


DELIVERANCE (1972) revisited

August 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the next entry in my “Revisited” series, where I re-watch and then write about (not a traditional review) a classic movie. “City Slickers” could have been an apt name for this 1972 film, though it would have forced a new title for Billy Crystal’s 1991 comedy. DELIVERANCE was directed by John Boorman, and the script was adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel by the writer himself. Many have referred to this as a man-against-nature film, and it certainly works as an adventure tale; however, I find the psychological elements just as fascinating – the primal instincts and the personal transformations.

Those nine notes are every bit as iconic as the JAWS theme. “Dueling Banjos” always sends a chill up my spine, as I recall certain scenes from the film that are forever etched into my memory. We don’t even have to wait long to hear the song. It’s the first real sequence after the opening credits which feature only the banter of four buddies animatedly discussing their weekend canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River before a dam is built and the area flooded for a hydro-electric plant. During the banter, in a bit of foreshadowing, we hear Ned Beatty’s character ask, “Are there any hillbillies” where they are headed. The first glimpse of the four men occurs as they stop for gas and interact with the locals.

The personalities of each are quickly established. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is the alpha male, and the one pushing the group to take the trip. Ed (Jon Voight) is Lewis’ friend who wants to be like him, though he lacks the confidence. Bobby (Ned Beatty) is an insurance salesman, who looks down on the locals and would rather be playing golf. Drew (Ronny Cox) is a nice guy, and the one who connects musically for the guitar and banjo picking with the local boy (Billy Redden) perched on the porch. It’s a fun, yet unsettling, scene to watch as the two pick away on their instruments. Their smiles end abruptly when the boy turns away in disgust as Drew tries to shake his hand. It’s not the last time the outsiders will be rebuffed.

 These are suburban men, settled in life, being pushed outside their comfort zone by wannbe-adventurer Lewis, who is the epitome of 1970’s machismo. His angry proclamation that “they’re drowning a river” is followed up with “because it’s there”, as an answer to why they are taking the trip. Lewis’ life vest flaunting his arms and chest, and his aggressive oratory (including the ironic, “You can’t judge people by the way they look, Chubby”) contrast with the conservative dress and mannerisms of the other men: Ed smoking a pipe, Drew strumming a guitar, and Bobby’s squishy body. For the first half of the film, Reynolds mesmerizes as the cocky Lewis.

As the men make their way down the river, they experience the sudden adrenaline rush that Lewis promised. Shooting the rapids on the river is truly man-against-nature, and the adventure that director Boorman and writer Dickey want us to initially believe is at the heart of the story. One of the key exchanges occurs at the campsight that night as Lewis acknowledges Ed’s “nice life, nice job, nice wife, nice kids”, and then asks him directly, “Why do you come on these trips with me, Ed?” It’s clear Ed is happy with his life, but he desperately wants to feel the power of being a survivalist and “real man”. It’s because of this exchange, that we find Ed’s hunting trip and face-to-face with a deer the next morning so gut-wrenching.

The second day finds some truly peaceful times with nature, and some stunning camera work and shots of nature courtesy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund. It’s in these shots where we “get it” – the appeal of becoming one with nature. Of course, it’s once things seem so right, that things go so wrong. A drastic shift occurs. Ed and Bobby are confronted by local hillbillies in the most despicable way. Fear fills the screen and our minds. The menacing mountain men are played by Herbert “Cowboy” Coward (not really an actor) and Billy McKinney (whom you’ll recognize from FIRST BLOOD, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and many other roles). Still today, the sequence is terrifying and difficult to watch, and it’s when “squeal like a pig” entered our lexicon, while “He got a real purdy mouth” became seared into our brain.

Immediately following the nightmare sequence with the hillbillies, comes one of those psychological exchanges that elevate the film to greatness. Four frantic and desperate men debating “the law”, when in actuality, they are debating self-preservation. The close-up of Ned Beatty’s face says as much as any line of dialogue, and, as is often the case, a moral dilemma is resolved by choosing the path of least resistance. The day presents more horror, as Lewis and Drew meet with disaster, while Ed’s transformation takes place. It should be noted that the film’s budget was so tight, the actors performed their own stunts – including Jon Voight’s tense (and impressive) climb up the face of the rock cliff.

Director John Boorman was a 5-time Oscar nominee, including HOPE AND GLORY (1987). He also helmed one of my sleeper favorites, THE EMERALD FOREST (1985), as well as coming right out of the gate with his first feature (and cult favorite) POINT BLANK (1967), starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Writer James Dickey wrote the 1970 novel and adapted his own novel for the screen. He was a novelist, poet, and college professor, as well as being named U.S. Poet Laureate. My favorite Dickey quote is, “The poet is one who, because he cannot love, imagines what it would be like if he could.”

For Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, it was their feature film debut. Mr. Beatty had a 40 year acting career (he retired in 2013), and notched an Oscar nomination for NETWORK (1976), while seemingly appearing in most every movie in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He may be best remembered as Lex Luthor’s bumbling henchman in SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1978), and kids today would recognize his voice as Lotso in TOY STORY 3 (2010). He also became good friends with Burt Reynolds, and was cast in many of Reynolds’ later films. His career allowed him to play a widely diverse roster of characters, and one of his often-forgotten best was in THE BIG EASY (1986). Mr. Cox is approaching a 50 year acting career, and he is also a talented singer-songwriter. His best known roles are as the Police Lieutenant in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984) and BEVERLY HILLS COP II (1987), and as a corporate executive in both ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL (1990). In addition to his many movie roles, Cox appeared in numerous TV series throughout the years, and one of my favorites was a small town family drama entitled “Apple’s Way”, which ran for two seasons, 1974-75.

Jon Voight is an actor every movie lover is familiar with. As he approaches his 60th year in the business, the highly decorated actor has been nominated for four Oscars, winning for COMING HOME (1978), starring opposite Jane Fonda. His other nominations were for playing a gigolo in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), a bad guy in the thriller RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985), and as Howard Cosell in ALI (2001). More recently he has been recognized for his stellar work in the superb cable TV series “Ray Donovan”. His daughter is Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, and Mr. Voight has had such memorable roles as boxer Billy Flynn in THE CHAMP (1979), Jim Phelps in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), a sleazy hunter in ANACONDA (1997), and President Franklin Roosevelt in PEARL HARBOR (2001). And of course, we must mention the classic Jon (“John”) Voight episode of “Seinfeld.” JAWS fans might be surprised to know that he turned down the Hooper role that ultimately went to Richard Dreyfuss.

A remarkable 60 year career ended when Burt Reynolds passed away in 2018. Reynolds was a star running back for Florida State University before an injury ended his pro aspirations and caused him to pursue acting. For an extended period of time in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Reynolds was the biggest box office draw among actors. Some of his most popular films during the streak included: THE LONGEST YARD (1974), the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT franchise (1977, 1980, 1983), SEMI-TOUGH (1977), SHARKY’S MACHINE (1981), THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) and II (1984), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982). Most of these films played off of Reynolds’ extraordinary charm and good looks (and iconic cackle), while he often strutted tongue-in-cheek as he worked extensively with a close group of friends. He later experienced some personal relationship issues, financial difficulties, and extreme health scares. Although he continued to work during the late 80s and early 90s, it was his excellent supporting work in STRIPTEASE (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) that really vaulted him back into the Hollywood scene. The latter of those two movies nabbed him the only Oscar nomination of his career. Reynolds continued to work right up until the end of his life, spanning a career of almost 200 credits (TV and movies). Some of you fellow old-timers out there might recall Reynolds’ first recurring role was as Quint in “Gunsmoke”, the longest running TV series until eclipsed by “The Simpsons” (and by “Law and Order” in seasons, though it has about 150 fewer episodes). In DELIVERANCE, Reynolds’ Lewis is “a man’s man” – the kind of guy the other suburban dads aspired to. His on screen magnetism is obvious, and stardom followed. Reynolds spent most of his adult life in front of a camera – either movies, TV, paparazzi, or talk shows. And lest we forget, though he claimed to have tried, Reynolds became the first male centerfold for “Cosmopolitan” magazine in 1972, the same year this movie hit. That smirk, cigar and bear rug created quite a sensation at the time – brilliant marketing from editor Helen Gurley Brown.

While the Cahulawassee River is fictional, the filming location was most decidedly real. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund captured the stunning beauty of Tallulah Gorge and the Chatooga River in northeastern Georgia. His camera work leaves no doubt as to nature’s double edge sword of beauty and danger. Mr. Zsigmund was a 4 time Oscar nominee, winning the award for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). He was also responsible for THE DEER HUNTER (1978), HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), THE TWO JAKES (1990), and THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Editor Tom Priestley received his only Oscar nomination for his work on this film. Mr. Priestley also served as Editor on THE GREAT GATSBY (1974), TESS (1979), and 1984 (1984), and is the son of English writer John Boynton Priestley.

 Ned Beatty’s wife and John Boorman’s son have brief appearances as Ed’s family, and writer James Dickey has a small but key role as the hulking Sheriff of Aintry, who doesn’t buy the men’s recap of events. Reynolds dominates the screen for the first half of the movie, and Mr. Beatty shines in his degradation, but it’s Voight’s transformation into a semblance of Lewis that proves most remarkable. Rarely have primal instincts and survival mode been more effectively presented on the silver screen than in this film. This “guys’ weekend” turned nightmare received 3 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor), but this was the same year that CABARET beat out THE GODFATHER in a couple of categories, so DELIVERANCE took home no awards … although we will always have those 9 notes.

*Note: “Dueling Banjos” was credited to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel, but there was a lawsuit filed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1955.

As a bonus for reading this far, here is a short video of Steve Martin and Kermit the Frog performing “Dueling Banjos”:

 

And here is the original 1972 trailer:


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer:


Panel Discussion – Streaming, Theaters, and COVID-19

July 8, 2020

I participated in a panel discussion on the state of movies: the impact of streaming services, the challenges faced by movie theaters, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in the movie industry.

The other two panelists were movie critic Will Mann and screenwriter Tim Hodgin (@tim_hodgin). The discussion was moderated by the editor of International Policy Digest, (intpolicydigest.org) and you can read it here:

Streaming, Theaters and COVID: Three Cinephiles Weigh In


THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer:


NINOTCHKA revisited (1939)

April 14, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been too far long since my last “revisited” piece. These are meant to be a combination of movie review and historical perspective on a particular classic movie that I’ve watched yet again. My choice this time is NINOTCHKA, nominated for 4 Oscars (including Best Picture nominees) in what is widely considered one of cinema’s greatest years, 1939.

The roster of director, writers, producers, cinematographer, composer, set director, set decorator, editor, costume designer and actors reads like a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. The director-producer was Ernst Lubitsch, whose career included 3 Best Director Oscars for HEAVEN CAN WAIT 1943, THE LOVE PARADE 1929, and THE PATRIOT 1928. He also directed THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) which was later adapted into YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). Lubitsch made a successful transition from silent films to talkies, and also directed 3 other films (a total of 6) that were Oscar nominated for Best Picture, including NINOTCHKA. He died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1947.

There are four credited writers for the film, each of which received an Oscar nomination. The original story was written by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, and was adapted by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch. Mr. Wilder was nominated for 21 Oscars in his career, winning 6. Of course, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors with classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), and THE APARTMENT (1960). Co-writer Mr. Brackett scored 9 career Oscar nomination, including wins for THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), SUNSET BLVD (1950), and TITANIC (1953), the first two of which he shared with Mr. Wilder. Wilder and Brackett had quite a professional relationship, as they wrote 14 movies together, and on an odd personal note, Brackett’s second wife was the younger sister of his first wife (who had died). Mr. Reisch, a 4-time Oscar nominee, shared the TITANIC Oscar with Mr. Brackett, and also wrote the still-popular GASLIGHT (1944, directed by George Cukor).

Greta Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, better known as the titular Ninotchka. Ms. Garbo was born in Sweden, and became more than a movie star … she was an icon. She was a 4-time Best Actress nominee, including one for NINOTCHKA. This was her first U.S. comedy, which was such a big deal, that MGM used the tagline, “Garbo laughs!” (a riff on “Garbo Talks!”). This was her penultimate film, as after TWO-FACED WOMAN (another comedy with co-star Melvyn Douglas), she walked away from acting in 1941 at age 36 (imagine if Meryl Streep had retired after OUT OF AFRICA). Ms. Garbo lived in seclusion in New York City, cultivating the infamous “Garbo Mystique”. She never married, though John Gilbert standing all dressed up at the alter certainly thought she was going to! For other standout Garbo performances, see ANNA KARENINA (1935), CAMILE (1936) and QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933).

Melvyn Douglas plays Count Leon d’Algout, a debonair charmer who incites a (passive-aggressive) rivalry between Ninotchka and Grand Duchess Swana. Douglas’ character is one we more frequently expect from William Powell or Cary Grant (both were offered the role), but it would be a mistake to think Lubitsch “settled” on Douglas. He’s considered one of the finest actors ever, and one of the few to have won a Tony, an Emmy, and an Oscar (he won two). Douglas has played the on screen dad to both Paul Newman (HUD, 1963) and Robert Redford (THE CANDIDATE, 1972), as well as Gene Hackman’s dad (I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, 1970) and Peter Sellers’ quasi-mentor in BEING THERE (1979). Mr. Douglas is the grandfather of well-known actress Illeana Douglas (TO DIE FOR, 1995; STIR OF ECHOES, 1999), although, to this day, he is best remembered as the actor who made Greta Garbo laugh!

While Ms. Garbo and Mr. Douglas dominate the screen time, the cast features some other interesting and talented players. Ina Claire plays the exiled Grand Duchess Swana. Ms. Claire was a young Vaudeville performer and part of Ziegfeld Follies before building a reputation as a sophisticated comedy stage actress. She was briefly married to John Gilbert after he was jilted by Garbo, and she only appeared in 7 “talkie” movies before retiring from acting in 1943. Bela Legosi appears as Commissar Razinin, and of course he is best remembered as Count Dracula from Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA for Universal. Legosi was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and died flat broke after his affiliation with schlock-director Ed Wood. He appeared alongside fellow Monster Universe icon Boris Karloff in numerous films (including THE BLACK CAT, 1934; THE RAVEN, 1935), and was buried wearing one of his Dracula capes (not the one from the film). The 3 bumbling Russian envoys who so quickly adapt to western ways are played by actors who fled their homeland and emigrated to the U.S. due to war. Sig Ruman was a German who appeared in several Marx Brothers films, Felix Bressert was a German who had a medical practice as a “side gig”, and Alexander Granach was Hungarian, and also appeared in FW Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. Lastly, Edwin Maxwell, who plays jeweler Mercier, appeared in 13 Best Picture nominees (4 winners) in a 15 year span.

Although the story is not a complicated one, it’s important to note the era. The world had not yet stabilized after WWI and was on the verge of WWII. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and one of the most feared men on the planet. That may not sound like the foundation for a comedy, and it’s important to note that the film is comedy, satire, and political commentary rolled into one. Three Russian envoys are sent to Paris to sell the jewels seized from Grand Duchess Swana during the Russian Revolution. They book the Royal Suite at a posh hotel (partly) because it has a large in-room safe for the jewels. As they are meeting with local jeweler Mercier to finalize the sale, Count Leon barges in to scuttle the sale and trick the envoys into returning the jewels to their rightful owner, the Grand Duchess. Soon, Ninotchka, a no-nonsense Russian, is dispatched to expedite the sale and send the first 3 envoys back home. Ninotchka and Count Leon meet by happenstance, and he’s immediately smitten with her, while she initially views him as little more than a curiosity.

The Eiffel Tower segment is pure brilliance in writing and acting. The dowdy Russian (Ninotchka) is interested in the global landmark for its technical achievement, while Count Leon shifts his charm into overdrive. Her line telling him to “suppress” his flirting is really our first glimpse of Garbo comedic timing … though it’s certainly not the last. The segment serves as a contrast in personalities – the face of communism versus the face of capitalism. Of course, it’s the “Garbo laughs!” moment in the café that most remember. Count Leon bumbles through joke after joke to no reaction, and once she cracks, she really lets loose. It’s a thing of beauty to watch.

As previously mentioned, it’s not just Lubitsch and Garbo and Douglas that make this a classic. The full production crew have a place in cinematic lore. Cinematographer William H Daniels won an Oscar for THE NAKED CITY (1948), and lensed 21 Garbo films. Editor Gene Ruggiero won an Oscar for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), and composer Werner Haymann was a 4-time Oscar nominee. Set-Art Director Cedric Gibbons was a one-time Edison Studios staffer, and won 11 Oscars over 26 years, eclipsing the 8 Oscars won by Set Director Edwin Willis. Adding to the intrigue is Costume Designer Adrian (married to actress Janet Gaynor) who is still revered as one of the best all time with over 250 movies in 30 years, though he’s even more famous for his designs outside of cinema.

1939 is arguably the greatest of all movie years since it also gave us: GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GOODBYE MR CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (the first of the series starring Basil Rathbone), OF MICE AND MEN, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and LOVE AFFAIR. Though it didn’t win any Oscars (4 nominations), film schools still study NINOTCHKA’s sardonic dialogue, and the way the ‘decadent’ western ways seduce the Russians. It’s clear why film history books refer to the “Lubitsch touch” – a comical and witty approach to serious topics. Beyond that, the MGM marketing department certainly knew how to capitalize on a guffawing Garbo. As with the best classic films, there is much to study, much to learn, and above all, much to enjoy.

watch the trailer:


OSCARS 2020 recap

February 10, 2020

Oscars 2020 recap

 It could be argued that the last 5 years of Best Picture announcements have each provided somewhat of a surprise as the title was announced. However, the noise level and affection directed towards the stage as those associated with PARASITE assembled, gave this year’s announcement a distinct and special feel. Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has won over many in the industry during this awards season, and the historical significance of having the first non-English language winner shouldn’t be minimized. However, there was something else at play as the applause and whistles boomed throughout Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. This was an auditorium filled with movie lovers who were celebrating a creative, unique, meaningful, and entertaining cinematic achievement … in other words, the things that movie making is meant to deliver. It was quite a moment.

While my predictions were correct on 20 of 24 categories this year, I can’t help but kick myself for not foreseeing this PARASITE juggernaut (it won 4 of its 6 Oscar nominations). Director Sam Mendes’ WWI visual masterpiece 1917 seemed to be on an unstoppable roll after winning Best Picture at BAFTA, Critics Choice, Directors’ Guild, and Producers’ Guild. But taking a step back and analyzing how the Oscars voting works – success is heavily dependent on how many ballots have a film in the first/favorite position – it becomes much easier to understand how this “upset” occurred. Ever since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the number of crazed and vocal fans for PARASITE have been all over social media encouraging others to check it out. While almost everyone was wowed with the visual experience of 1917, it was the rabid fandom for the South Korean film that really stood out.

 So it was Bong Joon Ho’s film making Oscar history, and yet there are also other things to discuss. Choosing to go “host-less” for the second straight year, the very talented Janelle Monae opened the show by performing a take-off on Mister Rogers and then exploding into a high-octane song and dance featuring many of the nominated films, and a few that weren’t. Ms. Monae also infused the first political statement of the evening – one that would surely be followed by many more. Steve Martin and Chris Rock then took the stage, and though they apparently had not rehearsed their time together, there were a couple of good zingers … especially those aimed at Amazon’s Jeff Bezos … and more than a few that fell flat.

In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor (ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD), Brad Pitt infused a bit of political commentary, as did Olaf, I mean Josh Gad, as he introduced Idina Menzel to sing the nominated song from FROZEN 2 (along with some talented international help). Diane Keaton did her best Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway impression through incoherence and cluelessness (at the expense of good guy Keanu Reeves), and one of the best moments of the show was followed by one of the strangest. Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced a wonderful medley clip of film songs which played right into Eminem taking the stage to perform his Oscar winning “Lose Yourself.” Why is that strange?  Well, 8 MILE came out in 2002, and ‘18’ is rarely celebrated as a commemorative year (unless you are a 17 year old rejoicing in legal impendence). Eminem’s song is a favorite of many, but his inclusion here left us with one unanswered question … why?

Billie Eilish delivered a beautiful version of “Yesterday” as the annual In Memoriam slides played, but live performances from Randy Newman and Elton John (whose song won) paled in comparison to that of Cynthia Erivo. We were rewarded yet again by the brilliance of Olivia Colman, following up last year’s win with a turn as presenter. Her line, “Last year was the best night of my husband’s life” deserves to become part of Oscar lore alongside streakers, no-shows, and botched announcements. We were then subjected to two much-too-long ramblings from Acting winners Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger. Mr. Phoenix at least made some sense in his plea for justice for all (and a nice quote from his deceased brother River: “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow”), while Ms. Zellweger babbled “ums” and “you knows” about heroes, and proved why most actors should stick to a script.

As I’ve stated before, celebrities are welcome to their political opinions, which many share frequently and openly. My issue is that the Academy Awards ceremony was designed as a once a year opportunity to celebrate cinema and those who make it such an enticing and entertaining art form. Especially in this day of social media, I find the political outbursts to be in poor taste … similar to bringing McDonalds carry-out to a dinner party. It seems the proper approach would be to thank the Academy and those who helped the winner with their achievements, and then head backstage and tweet all the political opinions swirling about in their head. Having one’s own hair stylist, make-up artist, limo driver, and fashion designer, does not seemingly make one an expert on equality or geopolitics, so my personal preference would be for political opinions to be stifled for a few hours.

 All the best stories have memorable endings, and this year’s Academy Awards certainly delivered that. Political ramblings were forgotten as soon as Jane Fonda, after pausing for dramatic effect (and to ensure she had the correct envelope) announced PARASITE as Best Picture. Watching movie history unfold was exhilarating, and Bong Joon Ho’s promise to “drink till the morning” was well-deserved. He has announced his involvement with an HBO series based on this Oscar winning film, so we can expect to see his creativity on one screen or another for the next few years.

***NOTE: Tom Hanks announced during the ceremony that the long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open December 14, 2020 in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district.


THE BAND’S VISIT (stage musical, 2020)

February 6, 2020

***NOTE: I don’t often post stage reviews, but since this one is adapted from a 2007 movie, I’m bending the rules

 “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.” This memorable line works not only for the story, but also holds true as a review of the stage production. When we think of Tony Award winning musicals, we tend to think big and loud, with elaborate and ostentatious set design. Full disclosure: In 2008, I became a fan of writer-director Eran Kolirin’s film version, and in 2017 the stage musical version, with a script Itamar Moses adapted (from Kolirin’s screenplay) and music from David Yazbek moved to Broadway. It won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and then won a Grammy for Best Theatre Musical Album. So yes, that’s one of the beautiful things we didn’t expect.

When the lights first come up, it’s 1996 and we see the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra waiting apprehensively at the bus station for a ride that is apparently not coming. They have arrived in Israel from Egypt, after being invited to play at the Grand Opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka. Thanks to the language barrier, they instead find their way to Bet Hativka  … “with a B” instead of “with a P”. A tiny desert town in Israel offers up only confusing looks from the locals to go with welcome hospitality. Dina, the café owner, arranges a place for each of the band members to sleep that night, and her own personal guest is Tewfiq, the band’s dignified leader.

Janet Dacal has taken over the role of Dina from Katrina Lenk (Broadway) and Chilina Kennedy (first national tour). It’s a challenging character because Dina is a tough-talking local who still harbors hope of a fulfilling relationship. In other words, her hard shell protects the warm and open heart of a romantic. Additionally, Dina is responsible for bringing energy and spirit to the stage as most of her scenes are with Tewfiq, one of the more reserved stage characters you’ve seen. Sasson Gabay has reprised his excellent silver screen role as Tewfiq (played by Tony Shalhoub on Broadway), and he perfectly embodies a man weighted with an internal burden of grief, as well as the added responsibility of proudly representing his country.

Everything takes place over the course of one night. It’s not so much a story as it is a display of human connection. There is no real clash of cultures. No, these are simply people dealing with the situation. The mundane existence of the small town locals have varying reactions to the strangers wearing powder blue uniforms and toting instruments. Ah yes, the music. Rather than overblown showstoppers, the 12 songs and score coax us through the interactions. Dina’s “Omar Sharif” is not only a catchy tune, but one that bonds her with Tewfiq. “Papi Hears the Ocean” may be the most humorous of the songs, and it’s immediately followed by the touching “Haled’s Song About Love.” Themes of humor (including a running Chet Baker gag) and love run throughout, but keep in mind, this is mostly a subdued, intimate show featuring human moments between characters.

The circular, revolving stage works brilliantly for the simple sets of this simple town. The depth comes from the characters, and sometimes what is implied is more powerful than what is said. The production is from director David Cromer (also from the Broadway run), and the show runs a little more than 90 minutes with no intermission. We are informed twice that the band’s visit wasn’t important, and maybe they are right … this was “Something Different.” In contrast to the tone of the band’s overnight stay, it’s that finale concert that brings the crowd to their feet. We get to see the musicians do what they love. It’s quite a treat.

In Dallas at the Winspear Opera House, the show will have a two-week run with Dallas Summer Musicals (February 4-16, 2020), and then an additional week through AT&T Performing Arts Center (February 18-23, 2020)