Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars

The Gazebo (1959): The Other Hitchcock Movie Hitchcock Didn’t Make

If there’s any revelation from The Gazebo, it has to be the comic talents of Glenn Ford. Between his constant hypertension and exacerbated nerves, there’s a high-strung comic eccentricity present all but flying in the face of the persona Ford built his career on. The mind will quickly flash to a plethora of embittered noir and hardened westerns. Here he’s the epitome of a spineless worry-wort. He’s Average Joe incarnated, and it’s incessantly funny.

But to show how subjective performance (and comedy) is to this day, let me go ahead and cite the NY Times’ eminent Bosley Crowther who said of Ford, “Perhaps if Mr. Ford were a better or, at least, less wooden comedian than he is, some of this blundering and blathering would seem a little brighter than it does.” Do with it what you will.

Although she isn’t allotted too much to do, Debbie Reynolds scintilates in all her absolutely plucky, lovely delightfulness, with a devotion for her high-strung husband that remains irrepressible. It plays as a bit of a sad irony as she had recently been left by her husband Eddie Fisher for Liz Taylor. Ford had also divorced his longtime wife Eleanor Powell. The relational context cannot be totally lost on the audience.

The story itself throws us right into the action, stealing a trick from syndicated television with an opening murder! In fact, it is a television episode because our protagonist, Elliot Nash, is an overworked writer-director who’s at his wits end nearly every night as he tries to steady the ship behind the monitor. It seems like a curious occupation — a terribly high anxiety job — for someone of his temperament. From a narrative perspective, it all fits together impeccably.

Because he gets himself involved in murder; he even commits murder. But that’s a long story. In order for any of that to take, there must be the comic flourishes to disrupt the normal beats. One starting place is their home life. Elliot wants mightily to leave the home behind, going so far as to renovate his house to make it less appealing to his wife. It provides this Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Green Acres kind of sensibility that’s just innately silly.

We must also mention Elliot’s pet pigeon, Herman, highlighting even more of his master’s kooky eccentricities. The other asset in the picture is the supporting cast including the wisecracking best friend Harlow (Carl Reiner), who always seems to find himself over after another day at the law firm so he can try and steal a kiss from Nell. He also proves useful as Elliot tries to formulate how one exactly goes about getting away with murder. It’s important to have a talking partner to bounce ideas off of.

Their housekeeper Matilda (Doro Merande) holds up her part of the bargain by yelling every line of dialogue with the sensitivity of a foghorn, partially because she takes care of her deaf mother by night. Then, there’s the always stately, if slightly oddball, John McGiver, who has the most delightful diction. How he says “Gaze-bo” just kills me. More on that subject momentarily.

Many folks consider Charade the greatest Hitchock picture that Hitchock didn’t make and rightfully so. You have the supernal acting talents and the main conceit about innocents on the run. There’s a suave comic elegance to go with genuine spy thrills. This plot is one side of the Hitchcockian coin if you will.

The other side is obsessed with the perfect murder and how to go about it. You need look no further than Rope or Strangers on a Train or even the more comic proclivities of The Trouble with Harry to see these prevailing themes at work.  Another element he becomes increasingly obsessed with is murder in the home. The famed director once quipped that this was its rightful place (Hence the success of his TV program). To this lineage, we might easily include Shadow of a Doubt or Dial M for Murder.

Here is where The Gazebo actually does do quite well to highlight an aspect of the genre that infatuated the director though we could probably stop short of calling this picture Hitchcockian in wit. It is anything but, and there is individual charm in that. It never quite sheds its out-and-out goofiness.

At this time, it seems important to note the film was based on a play. Apart from using this as an excuse to dismiss some of the more stagy moments, which feel relatively few, the play was actually written by Alec Coppel. He, coincidentally, penned a little doozy called Vertigo. You probably have heard about it. And subsequently, his hero winds up getting on the phone with Hitch on more than one occasion. Here is the hint of the autobiographical.

Otherwise, the movie leaves all of the Master’s sensibilities behind, and while I would never quite compare Ford to Cary Grant, he gives that kind of virtuoso performance, which feels simultaneously all over the place and perfectly suited for what the movie requires. Everything falls back on Ford’s continuously scattered protagonist as he flounders around every which way. It’s a black comedy but not in the usual way.

It works because of its hero’s complete bumbling collapse. He’s the perfect magic bullet for the film because in a send-up of a genre that requires premeditation, cunning, and nerves of steel, he lacks all of these things. He’s a generally sympathetic guy. But working in television, he obviously has an active imagination and he gets ideas.

Also, he’s being heftily blackmailed. Not from any dark secret from his past. On the contrary, his wife, an up-and-coming broadway talent, once modeled nude and now the cheesecake shots have gotten into some opportunistic hands. Martin Landau makes a late cameo as a heavy who looks to kidnap Mrs. Nash for leverage. No, he’s not the blackmailer, but he’s tied in with a different man, a man Elliot may have accidentally killed…

Soon the police are involved, a missing bullet, Herman the pigeon, and of course, the Gazebo. Particulars like these mean everything and at the same time nothing at all as we sit back and enjoy the ride. If the movie loses a bit of steam leading up to its pat ending, then it’s more than forgiven.

Otherwise, it’s thoroughly delightful — crazy and cockeyed in the most agreeable of ways. Nothing more, nothing less. Contrary to Mr. Crowther, Glenn Ford does the audience a service by lightening up. One wonders how Hitchcock might have used him.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951): Bob Hope and Silver Bells

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“Don’t look like you’re handling hot reindeer” – Bob Hope as The Lemon Drop Kid

There blows the infamous Lemon Drop Kid a racetrack scrounger feeding the populous phony tips. In another context, he’d be one slimy stooge a la Richard Widmark, but played by Bob Hope, he’s nothing but a lovable dope. As with any Hope vehicle, it does seem as if the part was tailor-made for him with the gags to boot, and he has his usual repertoire ready.

It all slides along with the usual endearing hiccups until it hits a brick wall. The Kid inauspiciously steps into a booby trap of a southern gal whose actually with feared mobster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) of all people. He pays off his friends handsomely and his enemies not so much…

Because The Kid made him lose out on a sure thing — $10,000 in cold hard cash — he’s put out an ultimatum. Either The Kid gets him the dough by Christmas Eve or else he’ll find his head in his stocking on Christmas morning. It makes the craven grifter shiver just thinking about it.

He’s got to get a move on with his days running down. The main problem — or else there would be no movie — is the fact he has little capital to work with. He’s broke and everyone he knows is either in the pokey, homeless, or not too keen to dish out their hard-earned cash. It’s these odds and Bob Hope’s own persona that allow us to root for such an incorrigible loser.

He pays a house call on his best girl Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) who fits into the latter category. She’s not about giving out handouts, and she has good reason. However, after a few minutes of schmoozing about a marriage license, The Kid has run off with more of her money.

Local New York boss Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) is the next stop and not being too fond of the Kid himself. Given their history and his own financial straights, he’s not about to oblige. The Kid does reconnect with an old chum Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell), but she is the worst off of all of them with her husband about to be paroled from the clink and the two of them having barely enough money to get by on.

To swipe a phrase from Dr. Seuss, a street-corner Santa gives The Kid an awful idea –The Kid has a wonderful, awful idea. Although knowing Hope, he bungles it. The first time he dons his bearded costume and gets out his bell and tin can, it lands him in the clink for panhandling. The host of elves jailed with him let him have it. But he gets smarter once bail is posted.

Soon he’s wrangled together all the lovable scum of the earth to help him salvage Christmas — and his life — from being completely abysmal. These are the most gratifying scenes for bringing in such grouchy talents as William Frawley, Sid Melton, and Jay C. Flippen. They pull off the parts well providing the manpower for The Kid’s regiment of Santas.

Soon with Nellie as their real-life poster doll, they turn a casino into an old folks’ home completely on the level. The Kid is the only one in it for himself. Everyone else thinks they’re genuinely in it for the ladies, and it pays heavy dividends in a matter of days. People appreciate the extra goodwill during the holidays.

In fact, the platoon of reformed Santa Clauses do fine work. Brainy is happy, we have the birth of “Silver Bells;” it even looks like The Kid might live to see New Year’s. Oxford Charlie is also visually impressed. So impressed he decides to elbow his way into the racket taking the old dolls as hostages to live in his own home, leaving The Kid high and dry.

In his typical self-aware fashion, Hope mentions Milton Berle in passing, so what better gag than to take a cue from Mr. Television himself? He infiltrates Charlie’s base. However, the only problems left to be solved are how to deal with Oxford Charlie and then Moose Moran.

Thankfully, the movie ends with the right ribbon on top with the good guys beating the bad, the guy getting the girl, and one final jab at Bing Crosby as the curtains go down. The Kid has finally learned about selflessness even if Hope still plays up his usual vanity. He wouldn’t be Bob Hope without that, now would he?

It won’t win major accolades, but if you’re a fan of our star or crave alternative Yuletide entertainment to fill out your holiday festivities, The Lemon Drop Kid has something to offer. It’s corny and full of the kind of good-natured cheer that just about everyone could use more of during Christmastime. If you don’t, you know who you are.

3/5 Stars

Merrily We Live! (1938): My Man Godfrey Redux

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What a harebrained movie this is in all the best ways. The origins of Merrily We Live themselves are a tad murky or, at the very least, convoluted. It’s purportedly based on the novel The Dark Chapter, which subsequently received a Broadway adaptation, They All Want Something. There was a film in 1930, What a Man, with a similar vignette about a chauffeur falling in love with a woman. But for the classic film aficionado, basic similarities to My Man Godfrey are obvious enough to warrant some amount of comparison.

It is a shame ensuing generations have mostly forgotten Constance Bennett. (I must admit to paying more attention to her sister Joan.) Our leading man and amiable Englishman Brian Adherne is obliging if generally uninteresting. Certainly, we don’t have the pinpoint comic delivery of William Powell or the sheer frenzied force of comedic fury that is Carole Lombard so in this regard, Merrily We Live is a lesser effort, but that does not mean it can’t offer up its own mercurial delights.

We trade out a supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, and Gail Patrick with one arguably just as good calling on the talents of Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville. Alan Mowbray is one of the lone holdouts from the earlier picture. Thus, there is barely a drop in quality, which leads one to marvel at the sheer prolific nature of these character actors. It really was the heyday of the bit roles with actors building up such robust catalogues of appearances and seamlessly sliding into role after role.

The help, headed by Grosvenor (Mowbray), is constantly in disarray as the vexed valet threatens to walk out on his duties time and time again for all the egregious infractions he has to put up with. The latest affront was an unseen tramp named Ambrose (these character names are gold) who ran off with the family silver.

The breakfast table is an arena and a convenient microcosm for the wacky family dynamics to play out in farcical fashion. This particular morning, since there is a sudden lack of silverware in the house, the family must make do with any amount of ladles, chisels, and hammers. It’s highly irregular, but they are no normal menage.

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We are blessed with another ridiculously rich and dysfunctional family of bickering oddballs. Constance Bennett, as the eldest daughter Geraldine “Jerry,” has a grand old time being mildly amused by the utter chaos that makes up their day-to-day in the lap of luxury and excess. She’s not quite as high-strung as Lombard before her, but bouncing off her family members is entertainment enough.

Baby sister Marion (Bonita Granville) is ready to whine and prank her way into getting funds for her latest scheme. She’s part whiny brat and certainly a budding comedienne. One need only remember her chilling turn in These Three to realize how starkly different she is. Then, their brother’s always bickering and complaining about the siblings he’s been saddled with.

Billie Burke is at her most ditsy-headed cycling through absent-minded hilarity and bubble-brained insufferableness. What’s not to like? She even holds a dinner party a la Dinner at Eight. Consequently, she’s also the source of some of this constant disarray with her most recent hobby of collecting “forgotten men” and bringing them on as servants. Ambrose was her latest pet project and also the most recent disaster.

Clarence Kolb is at his most physically brilliant given more than a mere scene or two to flex his comic talents. He doesn’t disappoint alongside his wacky costars. I’ve never been so delighted with his characterization while attempting to eat his breakfast or taking a cab home after becoming completely wasted.

The family is rounded out by their two absurdly named pooches “Get Off The Rug” and “You Too,” not to mention Mrs. Kilbourne’s pride and joys “Fishy Wishy.” It’s not so much pure spastic energy but the off-the-cuff remarks and sudden jolts of absurdity and slapstick carrying the film to its conclusion. These elements are what drag the story along its merry path of craziness with or without major plot points.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention Rawlins (Adherne), the most important new piece in the screwball equation, acting as a bit of a willing catalyst for all the mayhem inside the mansion’s walls. There has to be one normal lout, and so he conveniently fits the bill as the resident straight man.

It begins when his car goes hurtling over the side of the road. He’s an author with no means of communication. His only recourse is to find a telephone. His attire and Mrs. Kilbourne’s dull-headed insistence pull him into the house quite by accident.

All he wants is to make his phone call, but he good-naturedly acquiesces when Mrs. brings him on to work as their new chauffeur. It’s a bit of good fun. This is the key. He gladly enables their quirkiness playing along with their daily madcap rituals.

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One moment he’s assisting a fawning Jerry into the first-floor window after her flirtatious solicitation. Then, he’s covering for Mr. Kilbourne when he comes home from a bender with his buddies, as a cabbie tries to take advantage of him. The list of duties could go on and on, and very few of them have to do with his recently acquired occupation.

One of my personal high points from the movie includes Grosvenor repeatedly clunking into the chimes in the dining room, matched by the breakfast chatter. It’s not highbrow, but somehow I find this tromping around and people falling to the ground faint uproariously funny, in the right circumstances.

Merrily We Live is just the film, though one must admit it ends far too abruptly to do itself any favors. It’s a movie that’s never about the story anyway; it’s the brief instances of near serendipitous comic verve seemingly bottled more by accident than any amount of scripting. These are the interludes to truly relish and they just might be worth another viewing — once my blood pressure has settled down again.

3.5/5 Stars

Topper (1937): Cary Grant’s a Ghost

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We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.

Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.

You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.

If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.

They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.

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Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.

The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.

Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.

Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.

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It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.

Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.

He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.

I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.

3/5 Stars

Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Quality Capra

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This is my post in The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon put on by the Wonderful World of Cinema!

Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), or A.P. as his deferential colleagues call him, is a business magnate with innumerable successful endeavors. He has the full pockets to go along with a career full of shrewd decisions. And the latest scheme he’s worked up just might be the granddaddy of them all, that is, if it weren’t for the obliging grandfather in his way.

It stands to reason if Kirby can secure the 12 blocks around the Ramsey company, his one sole remaining competitor, he can cripple them out of business with a large scale monopoly, therefore controlling the munitions industry outright.

It’s a representation of the ugliest strain of free market capitalism. This is not the type of carte blanche you want ruling business, especially in Frank Capra’s world. Still, Kirby wants no interference and that means even Martin Vanderhoff must go. He throws one of his cronies, the perpetually twitching Clarence Wilson, at the problem to get it resolved by any means necessary.

But lest you think the man is merely an old crank who won’t sell out, Lionel Barrymore (now crippled by worsening arthritis) walks into the picture on crutches and mesmerizes the entire audience with his instant charisma. This isn’t quite UP, nor is he just a silly little man gumming up the works. Well, maybe he is, but he finds strength in family. That and his given temperament are all the better for doing battle with Mr. Kirby, indirectly though it maybe.

Lionel Barrymore is defined in modern generations solely by the curmudgeon Mr. Potter and little else. What You Can’t Take It With You is a superlative reminder of is just how magnetic an actor he was in all sorts of parts. Here he serves as the affable glue holding the picture together at the seams and spinning wisdom throughout the neighborhood.

It begins by recruiting other “lilies of the field” including the timid Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who leaves behind the job he’s been slaving away at to follow his passions. You see, he makes things.

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There’s something innately compelling about the life Mr. Vanderhoff leads. In fact, it’s a bit of a practical utopia. He doesn’t work. He follows his fancy, whether sliding down the banisters, playing his harmonica, or going to the graduations to listen to the speeches. Still, he gets by and feels deeply contented holding malice towards none. The prayers he sends up to the big man upstairs are irreligious, frank, but genuine in nature.

His family takes much the same approach ,and they’ve built for themselves a comfortable if altogether quirky family commune.  Tony Kirby’s not far off when he surmises it’s “Like living in the world of Walt Disney.

Grandpa does all the aforementioned activities including collecting stamps because it’s what he likes best. Mr. Sycamore makes fireworks because he never grew up and mother writes plays because a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake. Mr. Poppins feels right at home in the basement workshop devoted to all sorts of fanciful tinkering with a raven hopping about. Meanwhile, the precocious Essie (Ann Miller) jaunts around in ballet slippers to her husband’s xylophone playing.

Charles Lane’s IRS income tax man paying a house call and grating up against the libertarian, pragmatism of Grandpa is a hint of conflict just waiting to come to a head. Of course, all of this would add up to nothing if it weren’t for the central romance spawning the indelible chemistry between James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because they are a bit of the prototypical Romeo & Juliet passion. He’s set up in his father’s business with no aspirations whatsoever to take over the family firm, and she is his typist with no status to her name. But we never once forget who these people are, and they are adorable together.

They forego the stuffy ballet for two front row seats at a much more attractive park bench, complete with daydreamy small talk and a personal show by a pack of real toe-tapping tykes. Then, it comes to meeting the parents at a well-to-do restaurant and in the sheer awkwardness of the scene, one cannot help but reminisce about Hepburn and Grant’s own high jinks from Bringing up Baby. This one involves a humorous tag, some phantom mice scurrying about, and so on and so forth (you get the idea).

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However, the creme de la creme has to be his parents coming over for dinner to meet Alice’s family under the most embarrassing circumstances, just as whimsical bedlam sets in. Xylophones, dancing, darts, exploding fireworks. You name it and they’re doing it. In fact, it’s enough for them to get raided by the police and serve time down at the courthouse waiting for bail — the Kirbys included. It’s the proverbial nail in the coffin.

I’m not sure if he was genius or not, but Capra had a knack for capturing the organic mayhem of a bustling courtroom to a tee. You Can’t Take It With You‘s finale uses the judicial arena to bring the story out of despair. There are words traded, a $100 fine enacted, and the passing of the charity hat, with the same outpouring of generosity from the common folk George Bailey would later be blessed with. Even the benevolent judge (Harry Davenport) throws into the pot.

And obviously, there is no Capracorn without the inspired quill of Robert Riskin. Watching more and more of Capra’s collaborations with Robert Riskin, there is the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter has as much to do with this American optimism we so often attribute to the director. Because the words, the scenarios, the characters are constructed in such a way to draw on these deep-running themes time and time again.

You Can’t Take It With You is an unequivocal reminder that these prevailing themes of humanity never quite go away; they only reimagine themselves and return with a vengeance. The patriarch laments the fact nowadays most everyone says “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.” If this aphorism was true in a pre-war society, think how much more pertinent it remains in a hyper-polarized, antagonizing social media age.

You can scoff out their resolutions as needlessly naive or champion them as eternal optimists. Regardless, in the world dreamed up here, it’s not just the lion laying down with the lamb. The banker can play harmonica with the country bumpkin and pick up the Russian in a fireman’s carry. If that’s not a bit of paradise, I’m not sure what is.

4/5 Stars

Indiscreet (1958): In Honor of Stanley Donen

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Note: This post was written soon after the passing of Stanley Donen.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman on adjacent title cards is all you should need to watch the movie. Although I came for an entirely different name because this past spring we lost Stanley Donen — the last remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age — and it seemed necessary to pay him the highest tribute I can. It’s not with words, no, but by actually sitting down and enjoying one of his films.

Ingrid Bergman is one of the sweetest screen stars. She’s not altogether impervious to vengeful thoughts, but you never see her taking it too far.  We always want the best for her, and it’s little different here. Her preexisting life is utter humdrum. Everything about it is just too immaculate.

As a well-to-do, internationally acclaimed actress, she is, nevertheless, a woman who comes back from a tour abroad totally dissatisfied with the men she’s been able to come across. It’s not that they aren’t handsome, rich, good dancers, or the like. But she wants someone interesting, an intellectual equal, and a little old-fashioned charm wouldn’t hurt. Her usual circles don’t appear to be a ready breeding ground for such types.

Anna’s emotionally involved sister — married to a high-ranking official — questions why she has never settled on a man. Perhaps her standards are just too high (don’t listen to her Ingrid!). No matter, it looks to be another dull evening out on the town at a foreign dinner. The speaker is no doubt a snooty new candidate for NATO. It’s a high-class bore.

However, the stuffy ordeal all of a sudden gets a lot more swoon-worthy for everyone involved when Cary Grant walks through the front door. We’ve all but been guaranteed a diverting evening. So Margaret, ever prying into her sister’s affairs, gets set to play a bit of a matchmaker, relishing the setup, and the predictable outcomes. We have our story. Grant being charming and Bergman enjoying his company while still remaining aloof. He’s almost too good to be true. What of skeletons in his closet?

Dare I say, it’s all inconsequential, lest you get the wrong impression? Because there’s no doubt about it. The plot is facile. The conflict is thin. On the other hand, the tete-a-tete is most agreeable. One would habit a guess, without our stars, the picture would be quite flat. With them, all of a sudden, characters and the subsequent story is given texture. Their chemistry is present before the picture begins, and it exits with them after the final curtain. This is one of the keys.

Stanley Donen doesn’t have to do too much touch-up around his already spectacular talent, but he does utilize a split-screen to conveniently mollify the production codes, with the two lovers sharing a telephone conversation in their respective beds. Nora Ephron purportedly loved this movie thus, When Harry Met Sally got much the same treatment. It can be seen as another homage just as Sleeping in Seattle came out of the tradition of An Affair to Remember.

In Indiscreet they occupy themselves talking about the mundane things from the weather, to playing the violin, elder statesmen, and lamb chops. We don’t care all that much because the bottom line is spending time with Cary and Ingrid. There is Grant’s mild reveal. He’s got a big secret. Well, it’s not too big, but I’ll avoid spoiling it all the same.

If Fred Astaire’s dancing is immaculate, then Grant’s is equally so for entirely different reasons.  It’s not from any amount of meticulous choreography, but his spry and innumerable graces. He always walked this phenomenal thin line between suavity and comic pratfalls, no doubt learned in his early days as an acrobat.

His physical prowess hasn’t atrophied, aiding him splendidly on the dance floor in Indiscreet, through every step of his flailing, jumping jig. What’s more, Bergman, eyeing him with an unfettered look of disdain, is equally important. There’s no question it’s a defining scene in an unassuming trifle of a rom-com.

The final act is consumed with Anna’s attempt at a bit of friendly revenge. She puts on a pitiful charade to get back at her masquerading lover, engaging the services of her in-house help. The final punchline is a genuine amount of sincerity coming over the man as the clock strikes 12. Why you ask? Because we want a happy ending.

It’s a strange sensation to see Cary Grant’s profile in an embrace, with Ingrid’s head nestled on his shoulder, smiling off past the camera. I felt like I’ve seen this all before somewhere. Was it in Notorious, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest, Charade? Maybe it was all of the above. It never gets old. When the greats get together, it’s not always perfection; sometimes all we’re looking for is diverting entertainment.

It seems apt to call upon a line Cary Grant sneaks into the end of the film. He’s harried. It seems like he’s being laughed at for being vulnerable. He hasn’t understood the underlying joke.

So pacing around in front of his giddy romantic partner, he surmises men are the true romanticists. I cannot corroborate if this is true or not, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that Stanley Donen might believe this as well. It’s hard to dispute when you watch his movies, as buoyant and propelled by romantic fancy as they are. Indiscreet is little different. It’s a fitting testament to one of the unsung greats. He will be dearly missed.

3.5/5 Stars

The Stooge (1952): A Martin & Lewis Biopic?

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If the story holds, Jerry Lewis named The Stooge among his favorites of the work he did during his famed partnership with Dean Martin. This was the sole reason for watching it and this is probably the most effective lens in considering what to make of it.

The plot itself follows a show business narrative and draws up a fictitious story about how they needed each other or how they managed to perfectly complement one another’s talents. Except that’s not entirely right because it’s really about how Bill Miller (Martin) is a bit of an arrogant control freak, using someone else’s talents to bolster his own career. He somehow carries this dissonant belief Ted Rogers (Lewis) is the secret weapon of his act and still of secondary importance. He, Bill Miller, is the real draw.

To provide some context, Miller has recently wed his best girl (Polly Bergen), who foregoes her own career as a performer to sit in the cheering section of her husband, so he can make a go at the big time. It’s the all-absorbing preoccupation of his entire life as he works with his agent (Leo Lyman) to become a star. Despite others giving him advice to the contrary, he wants to be a single. And even when he finds his missing piece, he still considers himself a solo act.

Lewis gets his opening in a hash house giving the man behind the counter real grief. Then, he pays off a cynical cabby with crumpled up bills hidden all across his person. It only gets more outrageous.

Obviously, it’s toying with the dynamic integral to the Lewis & Martin formula with Lewis making a racket from the balcony in his attempt at song, only to start up the patter between Dean down on the stage with his skimmer and accordion. It feels like they were meant to do together. The perfect counterpoints to each other’s images and strengths.

However, there are all these perfectly manufactured moments and thus nothing feels truly spontaneous, like catching lightning in the bottle. With the gags being set up, we have a sense of what is going to happen before they actually occur. One exception and somehow an immaculately hilarious image (not that it was ad-libbed,) is Martin bouncing Lewis continuously on the bedspread like a human pogo stick. The mental picture it conjures up is enough.

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It’s true Dino does feel like a bit of a tyrant. One can only surmise the picture was held out of circulation for a time so he could build an initial rapport with the audience. They released two other features before sending The Stooge off the assembly line.

All told, the most gratifying moment might be right at the end for the simple reason the picture no longer has to make a pretense of the drama because it’s just been resolved. The one zany off-the-wall man-child runs his crazy interference while Martin looks on with mild befuddlement, and they find some wry equilibrium in there somewhere. There’s no element of Miller’s colossal ego getting in the way so we go to straight to the heart of what made Martin and Lewis a lasting comedy team.

It’s a shame the film was plagued by a plot gumming up their routines. Not only was Dean Martin intermittently unlikable, it really dices up the film. The saccharine moments of applied drama are mostly throwaway. The comedy works slightly better. Though I must admit my personal preference for Dean over Jerry.

As a very subjective observer, I am drawn to consider The Caddy instead. Not only does the premise feel more conducive to gags, but the chemistry also allowed for our stars, as characters, to feel richer. They are part of a close-knit community and when their world includes Donna Reed and a snappy rendition of “That’s Amore,” it’s hard to ask for much more with already meager expectations in place. It’s the simple pleasures and, for me, The Caddy offers more of them.

In hindsight, The Stooge feels harrowingly close to loose biography. This is not to suggest the two men were their characters, but we have Dean’s drunkenness and Lewis’s own persona upstaging any and every bit of Martin’s talent. We could even wager a guess these are portentous moments, given their own eventual breakup. Certainly being the insane energizer bunny bouncing all over the stage has its drawbacks, but you do get a great deal of attention.

Most of the other Martin and Lewis pictures during their prolific run brought genre and camaraderie together. This was their charm bottled up so easily and then delivered to the masses. The Stooge doesn’t always employ the same brand of simplistic comedic commoditization, probably to its detriment.

In truth, it suggests my own reluctance to parse through the reality of the men behind the characterizations. A typical Paramount vehicle for the pair might be the perfect portrait of 1950s idyllic America on the outside and yet underneath there were festering issues. The country’s most beloved comedy duo was plagued by discord just like everyone else.  No fabricated sitcom setup can completely smooth over reality.

3/5 Stars

The Nutty Professor (1963): Jerry Lewis is Jekyll and Hyde

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I can bemusedly remember more than a few trips out to the high school football fields as our designated evacuation point for fire drills. The other times we ended up out there was more likely than not due to the chemistry department setting them off with some supernal explosion of their own devising. You can only imagine it being a giddy badge of honor among these grown-up nerds.

In full disclosure, I must admit being indebted to Disney’s Absent-Minded Professor for creating my paradigm for the mad scientist. Jerry Lewis takes this readily available archetype to set up an analogous comic cocktail — albeit to the utmost extremes — marrying it with one of his own creations: Julius Kelp.

The Nutty Professor‘s gloriously campy color schemes are all the better for this wonky Jekyll and Hyde riff. Rooms look like they’re all but made out of cardboard and as such, every interior and visible prop feels expendable. School officials (Del Moore) and secretaries (Kathleen Freeman) are either high-strung or chatty cartoon characters.

In one exemplary moment, Lewis all but railroads the usually fastidious chancellor into doing an impromptu rendition of Hamlet on his office table. A modicum amount of ego-schmoozing effectively makes a complete mockery of the man with typical Lewis lampoonery.

Likewise, the interminable supply of handsomely-clothed, virile male co-eds all look like they either play quarterback or shooting guard for their respective sports teams. And all the pert young women are a similar picture of All-American, bright-eyed ideals.

Considering these elements, The Nutty Professor is derived mostly from performances more than being gag-driven; the jokes come organically out of character. I’ll fall back on my normal diagnosis of Lewis comedies, namely, the plot too often gets in the way.

Kelp is a walking stereotype, but he’s also an endearing Jerry Lewis creation, complete with outrageous buck-teeth, googly glasses, a lexical vault full of spoonerisms, and probably the worst excuse for a haircut in the history of the movies. If we can risk being facetious momentarily, these are all very calculated decisions. It’s a visual statement made all too obvious; this man is a loser.

The childishly simple premise digs into these same themes. Although there might only be one or two isolated occurrences we can think of, Kelp attempts to combat a bully in his class who pushes him around. Since it’s not altogether overwhelming conflict, we must consider this to be partially his own inferiority complex speaking.

It doesn’t help a pretty student like Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) simply reinforces all of his inadequacies. Because she is yet another paradigm with her hairbows and schoolgirl charms.  She is caught between the dorky loser and the vain, devilishly handsome lady killer. The question remains: Where do her values lie?

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If I haven’t spoiled the punchline already, there is an obvious road the zany tale must traverse. Around his new fitness regimen, Julius acquires a carload of books from the library; his results spawn a most curious potion. One would think he’s transforming into a werewolf or something. Actually, it’s far worse: Enter Buddy Love (also played by Lewis).

If you don’t hear the imaginary notes of “Love Potion No. 9” performed by The Coasters or The Searchers (depending on your preference), then your brain isn’t as formulaic as mine.

Regardless, Kelp’s alter ego soon finds himself waltzing into the local collegiate watering hole, the aptly christened Purple Pit. There Buddy Love makes his self-assured debut, hair plastered down, smoking a cigarette, and owning his outrageous duds. He catches everyone gawking on the street, and it’s much the same on the inside — showcasing a Lewis POV shot allowing us inside his conceited head.

It’s easy to consider The Nutty Professor a vanity project on a cursory level. Because Jerry Lewis is always at the center of this universe. Take the moment he’s supposed to be the devilishly handsome Love and literally, the whole club comes to the standstill. It’s absolute absurdity.

But in some ways, this perspective just doesn’t take because although Lewis is at the center of everything, he’s willing to look like a dorky, bumbling, idiot just as much if not more so. Someone who can do that has to be at least somewhat comfortable in their skin or at least content with putting on the charade of an utter doofus.

It relies completely on his dual role and Lewis’s own capacity — having the world constantly revolve around him — self-promoting himself and simultaneously tearing himself down. The tightrope walk is a compelling one.

Some have posited Buddy Love is a not-too-subtle shot at Dean Martin as the former compadres were still broken up after a fairly acrimonious split. Lewis instead denied these assertions by suggesting it was a knock on all the vainglorious phonies he had met on his long stint in show business. It seems just as likely The Nutty Professor could even function as a dialectic to examine Lewis’s own persona.

One can only imagine, in some outrageous universe, where the fulcrum between Lewis’s own worst and best selves would fall along the spectrum of his two cinematic creations. On one side, he has this image as a klutzy uncouth man-child and yet we must reconcile this with his authoritative vision as a director and a subsequent product of the same show business machine.

He was the one who could brazenly claim so much fame, success, and accomplishment at such an early age. It’s difficult to envision a world where circumstances didn’t go to his head even a little bit. And if there is not already a piece of Love in him, then at least we can acknowledge there is a risk of such a persona cropping up.

If The Bellboy had a family-friendly moral tacked on at the end, then The Nutty Professor is much the same with a few more lines devoted to a theme. Because the inevitable happens and the worlds collide — Jerry or Love or Kelp is ousted as his true self, after masquerading in front of all these people. What a horrible ordeal to slog through.

However, he finds some words. They go like this: “You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re gonna have to spend with you. If you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?”

It’s a compelling message even if the preceding content is all over the spectrum. Along with the science-fiction, we have the audience-appointed fairy tale ending with the guy getting the girl. There need not be more explanation. The Nutty Professor rumbles through all our expectations.

I do find it strangely compelling having all the main players bow in the end credits. It’s like the curtain call in a play where everything is far more intimate. Of course, Jerry Lewis puts his lasting mark on this one by falling into the camera and shattering it. We would expect nothing less.

3/5 Stars