Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run through and reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying that still can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Danny Kaye Does Thurber

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In many ways, it seems short stories are the best sources for feature-length films because they allow the narrative to take the spark of an idea and extrapolate and mold it into something new and hopefully ingenious in its own right.

Author James Thurber didn’t seem to think that was the case with this adaptation of his short story plucked from the pages of The New Yorker in 1939 and turned into a vessel of lavish Hollywood entertainment by Samuel Goldwyn. Reading his story, in itself, gives a fascinating insight into the film version. For one thing, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” onomatopoeia is translated from page to screen.

However, it’s also very apparent watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that Goldwyn, for obvious reasons, tailored the material to his star Danny Kaye. There’s certainly no point of contention there and the story probably is better for it.

In this version, Walter Mitty is a Pulp magazine editor and being unmarried, it’s his mother, not his wife, who is constantly nagging him to stop dawdling and do his best to not be so absent-minded. If you actually think about it, the fact this homely mama’s boy is brainstorming racy detective novels, exotic love stories, and horror romances is a bit ironic. Though given his flights of fancy, it’s not all too unbelievable.

Kaye’s spry verbal acrobatics are as limber as ever finding his voice contorting, shrieking, and hiccuping in all manner of ways through all manner of dialogue, monologues, and songs. He also progressively plays up his nervous shtick as he goes clunking around offices, with pigeons flying about, continually fearing for his life while also receiving the ire of his conceited boss.

These developments come with the acquisition of a little black book that very much resembles the one he uses to maintain his daily regimen. Except this one is very important to a beautiful woman named Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) as she attempts to acquire some priceless Dutch jewels.

The best elements of the narrative, plucked from the fanciful comic short story, have Mitty swimming in and out of daydreams. And of course, alluring Mayo plays the grateful damsel in every scenario, cast as his dream girl and later found in the flesh when they cross paths for the first time.

His imagination has him taking on all sorts of occupations from a captain on the high seas to a world-class surgeon in the operating room of a hospital. Then, it’s a daring Air Cadet in the RAF with impressive impersonation abilities. The persona of the Riverboat Gambler made me realize Snoopy has a bit of Walter Mitty’s whimsy in him. It’s not too far a stretch to surmise Charles M. Schultz was all too familiar with the picture. But onwards and upwards as Walter daydreams himself into being a women’s hat designer and finally a western hero. Each scenario conveniently brought to life in front of us. This is the film at its most inventive.

But the comedy of the original story, you soon realize, is that Walter Mitty really is a mundane individual. There’s nothing particularly special about him and yet he takes the banalities of daily life and turns them into something thrilling to ignite his hyperactive imagination. Maybe implicitly it’s about being stuck in the monotony but more overtly it’s simply a tale of a normal, average, everyday person who, when you pull back the curtain, has a deeply imaginative fantasy life. Perhaps there’s something neurotic about it but more so it’s simply goofy.

Although watching Danny Kaye run around with Virginia Mayo in what feels like an inept amalgamation of The Big Sleep and North by Northwest has its intrigue, you begin getting away from its true inspiration. Because the lovable peculiarity of Mitty is that he’s so very unextraordinary and his life is so menial. However, by inserting this cloak-and-dagger stuff, although the film gets more exciting, it loses something of its main conceit.

The best single scene by far finally comes at the tail-end where Mitty’s lives collide and he finally gains a backbone. Calling out all the small-minded, tiresome, annoying quibblers in his life. It’s Walter’s way of firmly sticking it to the insufferable doldrums he’s been subjected to.

But it is interesting how films or modes of media, in general, are very much indicative of their times. Take Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” being turned into Apocalypse Now (1979) in the post-Vietnam years and most certainly the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  It reflected the escape from mid-life crises that many Americans no doubt crave at a certain age. Again, it’s part of the overarching narrative but not necessarily the true essence of Thurber’s original idea. Funny how that happens.

3/5 Stars

The Boatniks (1970): A Balboa Island Sit-Com

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I won’t make any pretense that The Boatniks is a great movie by any means but surely it speaks to some favorable quality when you enjoy something for its sheer goofiness, a certain sense of nostalgia, and the overall familiarity that pervades the material.

Yes, it’s a long sitcom episode but in this case, I have no qualms with such light and fluffy fare because so many good friends from my childhood came aboard for the ride. Norman Tokar, a prolific figure behind Leave it to Beaver directs with a script worked on by among other people Arthur Julian of Hogan’s Heroes, one of my dearest childhood favorites.

The cast has all sorts of sitcom mainstays of the 60s including Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko), Bob Hastings (McHale’s Navy), Joey Foreman (Get Smart guest star), Al Lewis (Car 54 Where Are You?, The Munster), Joe E. Ross (Car 54 Where are You?), Shaaron Claridge (Adam-12), and last but certainly not least Vitto Scotti, arguably the most prolific sitcom actor of all time. If you don’t know who he is, it’s all too obvious you haven’t seen enough of the classics.

The Boatniks (a not so clever play on Beatniks) wears its goofball wonkiness on its sleeve. We have a hapless hero who must come out from under the shadow of his prestigious father to take over command of the local Coast Guard in Balboa Bay.

Ensign Garland (Robert Morse) doesn’t start off too successfully as he lands a plethora of citations and winds up instigating a traffic accident all on his way to the docks. Then, at the docks, he clumsily splatters a sun-soaked Boat Rental and Sailing Instructor (Stefanie Powers) with yellow paint much to her chagrin. Everything is going just dandy only to get better.

He subsequently bumbles his way through his duty, first getting beached on a rock and having to be towed by the smug instructor, followed by any number of issues from a husband locked in a cabin to a pretty girl whose skirt got caught in her boat’s controls. A Mayday goes out on both accounts. Despite handling some of these problems about as successfully as possible given the circumstances, Garland’s commanding officer (Don Ameche) is far from impressed by the compromising situations he always seems to be in but at least the girl starts to like him.

Simultaneously, three thieves led by, of all people, Phil Silvers, have absconded with a payload of priceless jewels. Their car is the one that gets rear-ended by the same awkward Ensign and with roadblocks dotting the coast, all the way from Orange County to San Diego, their only chance is to head for the sea which they do despite having no nautical knowledge whatsoever. For those who didn’t gather already, it does not bode well.

They lose their priceless picnic basket into the great wild blue yonder and in an attempt to recover their spoils the trio trawls for everything in the bay except what they’re looking for. First, they snag a gigantic sea bass that sends their boat reeling. Then, they go deep-sea diving. It’s all to no avail and flustered by a shark attack, the commodore picks up the phone and makes a long-distance call to his buddy in Tokyo for leads on pearl divers. A young Japanese woman arrives and the failure to communicate is used to great and awkward comic effect even as Phil Silvers tries to use Spanish to speak with a pretty diver (Midori). Of course, when it counts she knows how to speak the language.

The Bay is also inhabited by an assortment of other weirdos including Wally Cox and his floating harem La Dolce Vita; it’s a constant party at his place that never leaves the docks. One oddball sailor does his best to practice lashing himself to the mast in preparation for his trip around the world, conveniently leaving his wife and children behind. Another bungling seaman nervously huffs before he performs his daily ritual of bouncing his boat off the dock. It has no bearing on the plot but each is good for a few stray laughs of sheer corniness.

The scenery remains another point of interest for me because the fact is the film was all but shot in my backyard or at least quite close to where I grew up (albeit a few years before I lived there). We grew up hearing stories of John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen, and Joey Bishop only a few of the prominent figures who resided in the area at one time or another.

We have brief views of Balboa Island and seafront homes visible in the background as the buffoonery takes center stage. Boatniks would precede the Columbo episode “Dead Weight” starring Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette with Peter Falk’s title character, making use of the same scenery. Except Boatniks is a great deal lighter.

In the modern age of Disney as a mega-conglomerate, these are the kind of family-friendly movies that I dearly miss. It feels like part It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and some of McHale’s Navy sprinkled in with dashes of so many other things. I enjoyed it far more than I probably had any right to but why shouldn’t I? It’s unabashed, quality fun for the whole family.

3/5 Stars

Review: Stalag 17 (1953)

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I grew up with Hogan’s Heroes reruns on our Magnavox analog television. In fact, at one point it was my favorite show because it had such a colorful cast, it was perennially entertaining and utterly goofy to the extreme. But others have understandably decried the show because they see it finding humor in something that is not very funny. They contend it was making light of the Holocaust and WWII on the whole. Although I do believe this is an oversimplification and I don’t have time to tackle it right now, it’s still an important dialogue to have. I will defer to others for the time being.

The point of discourse I want to take up is Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 because it’s obvious there would be no Hogan’s Heroes without this P.O.W. comedy-drama. The plots, even the characterizations, are eerily similar, close enough to prompt plagiarism lawsuits. But the difference is Hogan functions as pure zaniness carried by the strength of its ensemble where the Germans are utter buffoons. That’s the hallmark of characters like Sergeant Schultz (John Banner) and Kommandant Klink (Werner Klemperer) who are both lovable imbeciles. They will never be allowed victory over Hogan and his allies.

In Wilder’s hands, a P.O.W. camp is silly and light-hearted at times, yes, but it’s also equally dark and cynical. Because what would a Wilder picture be without some pointed comic venom? Two obvious points of reference would have to be the wartime comedy directed by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, To Be or Not to Be (1942), which some would argue employs morbid humor. Then there’s Grande Illusion (1937) starring Erich von Stroheim (featured in Sunset Boulevard) as a prison camp commander who can easily be contrasted with Otto Preminger’s Colonel von Scherberg. In both, you have those evident counterpoints of humor and tragedy exquisitely executed.

Stalag 17′s opening escape attempt of two men is snuffed out by machine gun fire just waiting to mow them down. It’s the definition of unsentimental and it is the first of numerous breakdowns in communication. There is a rat somewhere. There has to be.

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Then, the picture is back to its belly laughs supplied most obviously by Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and his tubby, scruffy buddy Animal (Robert Strauss). They spearhead all of the shenanigans, including a daring attempt to break into the prison camp of Russian women to sneak a peek. You see, Animal’s deeply broken up by his unrequited love for Betty Grable. They bicker with the resident Sergeant Schultz (Sig Ruman), another Hogan’s Heroes precursor, who good-naturedly chortles at all their ribbing. Surely this isn’t anything like how Stalags actually operated?

Wilder’s trademark biting wit is most fully realized in Sefton. For the part he was initially reluctant to take, William Holden donned a crew cut and scruff generally masking his normally dashing features. But this was hardly the aspect making him uneasy about the role.

Sefton is a textbook undesirable. He openly trades with the enemy in an effort to make himself as comfortable as possible. He bets a boatload of cigarettes the two fugitives won’t make it out of the camp and when it proves morbidly correct, he makes a killing.

Likewise, he’s the local wheeler-dealer, maintaining the Stalag 17 rat race turf complete with betting for all the servicemen. His other enterprises include a distillery — a flamethrower of sumptuous potato peel schnapps — and “The Observatory” where all the boys eagerly line up for a tantalizing look at the Russian delousing shack. Conveniently, he’s also the obvious culprit when a stoolie is suspected within their ranks.

It takes all kinds to liven up the joint and make it into a space with real drama to go along with so many lighter notes. We already mentioned Harry and Animal but the Barracks chief is the always reliable Hoffy (Richard Erdman), head of security is Peter Graves, Duke (Neville Brand) is the rough and tumble one who’s not squeamish about having a fist fight. There’s a blond brainiac, the catatonic one, the amputee who uses his spare space to sneak materials in and out of the barracks, and the nasally mailman with a voice to top all voices.

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When a new prisoner named Dunbar (Don Taylor) gets brought in with his copilot (Jay Lawrence), who has a penchant for spot-on impersonations, they receive a hero’s welcome. After all, they helped to sabotage enemy armaments on their way to being captured. But the information leaks continue with their radio being confiscated and Dunbar being called in for questioning, due to his treacherous activities. The SS is coming to take him to Berlin for questioning. If he’s ever going to come out alive the P.O.W.s must make a last ditch effort to try and get him to safety.

Meanwhile, Sefton gets a going over by the whole barracks, which is quickly overshadowed by Christmas in the camp complete with carols, dancing, and parading full of gaiety. It’s meant to lull us into a false sense of security as Sefton is put in his place and things are good again. It all conveniently diverts from something else. Sefton’s not the culprit. Someone else has been communicating with the Germans and tipping them off.

The final confrontation is when the film really puts it all on the line. We find out who the perpetrator is and Sefton’s vindicated in everything, even going out as a kind of hero. Except to the bitter end, he’s never redeemed as a human being. He’s as hard-edged and acerbic as ever and yet to the folks at homes, he’s who will be cast a hero because he did something brave. Holden was uncomfortable with this as much as we are as an audience but Billy Wilder was unflinching and ultimately right in creating this dissonance.

If anything, Stalag 17 as realized by Billy Wilder and his team is a reminder of the harshness and utter absurdity of war. This is how he conceives it — a man who lost his parents to concentration camps and was sent over to his former land to help rebuild it. He probably knew as much as anyone how horrible the Nazi atrocities were but to memorialize every attribute of the Allies as noble would not document the whole truth.

If Sefton’s the poster boy of the war, then we have to take a deep hard look out our ideals and what we stand for. Because, of course, he was the only one not taken in. Everyone else was so quick to accuse him and to see what they wanted to. It’s almost as if a film documenting an aspect of WWII was in the same breathe suggesting what was afoot with the red scare in the rising fury of the Cold War. Heaven forbid a person we don’t like or don’t agree with is not so easy to demonize as “other.”

It’s far too scary to concede they’re probably just like us. They just didn’t have the decency to hide it. Perhaps they’re better because they were not swayed by the clouded judgment of others.

So if I watch Stalag 17 and become turned off by this incongruity between the historical setting, the lightness in tone, and the shock of a generally unsympathetic lead, maybe it says more about my conception of the world than anything wrong with Billy Wilder’s admittedly incisive picture. It’s a scary admission to make but it just might be true.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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“Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” ~ John Wayne as Nathan Brittles

Instigated by one of the cataclysmic massacres of the West, Custer’s Last Stand, the word is sent by telegraph and pony express all across the country. Simultaneously, members of numerous tribes including the Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. They have a new resolve to make war with “The White Man” who has continually lied and cheated them out of their land. It brings deep-seated issues at the core of American’s history to the surface.

However, for what initially appears a heavy drama, Ford’s picture comes off surprisingly light and quite comical in patches. Frank Nugent’s script forges a story about the U.S. Calvary at Fort Stark. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is counting down the days until his retirement not so much with anticipation; it’s all but inevitable. Because you see, he’s been in the service of his country for a good many years and it’s about time for him to step down.

John Ford gave Duke the part, realizing after Red River (1948), Wayne was not simply a warm body with an imposing presence; he truly was an actor by this point in his career. Resultingly, he makes Ford’s decision to cast him in a slightly more demanding role pay off handsomely. To his credit, he makes a fine showing imbuing the part with a certain world-weariness that comes with age but also immense good humor.

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Victor McLaglen, as the burly First Sergeant Quincannon, calls on his Colonel every morning taking a nip out of the bottle he has conveniently hidden in the other man’s quarters, as they commiserate about their military careers coming to a close.

Meanwhile, the two hot-blooded young men under his command (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) turn foolish in their pursuit of the prettiest (and only) flirt in camp, niece of the commanding officer Allshard, Ms. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). Brittles observes with mild amusement as they vie for her affection, barking reprimands at them for their undisciplined behavior, while simultaneously stirring them on — noting that she wears a yellow ribbon in her hair denoting a beau. The question remains who she will pick and it becomes one of the film’s running gags as much as it is a source of easy conflict.

Initially, there seems to be little nuance in how the Native Americans are portrayed, prone to indiscriminate violence, yet at least, even for a moment, the film suggests it is not a cultural divide but one defined by generations. Young men are intent on making a name for themselves and finding glory on the battlefield. It is the old man who have gotten past that. They have seen how war ravages the earth and humanity. They are weary of such ordeals.

Nathan Brittles goes to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) on the eve of his retirement to forge some fragile peace. But his old friend is powerless to do anything so Brittles takes yet another approach to save lives. It’s his one final gift to his men. Mind you, he was not required to take on any of this and yet a man such as Brittles would have nothing less because he cherishes his command and the men who ride beside him. They mean just as much to him as the U.S. Calvary itself has for well nigh 40 years.

What makes all these preceding events genuinely striking is the stunning Technicolor frames. The continuous processions over the plains are breathtaking panoramas with skies as immaculate as the western backgrounds themselves.  The most well-conceived moments come in capturing thunderbolts out on the prairie as Brittles leads his caravan on their mission with their two female cohorts.

In such instances, there’s a scope and grandeur that gives the impression of an intricate painting even more than a film and it’s true Ford and his director of photography purportedly drew inspiration from the works of Frederic Remmington. In this regard — and I’ll try to not overstep my bounds — Winton Hoch’s cinematography stands up to if not surpasses the imagery of The Searchers. Likewise, there are wonderfully decadent period costumes evoking the era nicely but as always John Wayne dons his worn in, one-of-a-kind pride and joy that he would wear until his Rio Bravio (1959) days.

Though relatively forgotten alongside more formidable offerings like The Searchers, Stagecoach, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might just be one of Wayne’s most fascinating performances in a Ford picture. Not only is he playing a man 20 years his senior — and doing it with surprising credibility — he makes the old calvary man into a figure with true heart and soul. He’s not too hardened or unfeeling to hold onto lifelong friendships, enjoy a good joke, or grin at the young love that besets the hearts of the men under him. They respect him and he cherishes them in return.

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There are numerous poignant moments as his tenure winds down but one of the finest comes when he gives his beloved troops one final inspection. They surprise him with a gift paid for by all of them — a solid silver watch with a remembrance on it. It’s a token of respect to a man they deeply admire. In a move that can’t help but conjure up George Washington himself, Brittles pulls out his granny glasses to read the inscription and we see yet again this great man of strength was, as we always suspected, a man of a certain sensitivity too. He’s deeply touched.

He rides off, a job well done, but as it so happens the cavalry is not done with him as trusty Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) comes to fetch him one final time. Not by a long shot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is simultaneously an elegy to those who served and were lost in the line of duty and more specifically to a man who took great pride in his post.

4/5 Stars

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

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We lost the inimitable Milos Forman not too long ago and it was a minor embarrassment I had yet to watch one of his earlier works from his native Czechoslovakia where he was an integral member of what is now termed The Czech New Wave.

He was, of course, best remembered in the U.S. for a pair of films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). However, looking at a picture like Loves of a Blonde oftentimes proves more elucidating because with smaller more intimate stories you sometimes are able to glean more about the director and gain a better sense of who they are.

True, those in the mainstream might find Loves of a Blonde‘s plot too featherweight and arthouse aficionados might be surprised to find how humorous it is. It’s hardly self-absorbed with its own importance. But if the right viewer finds it, they’ll surely be delighted.

The title track is the Czech equivalent to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, signifying a story that took full advantage of the temporary thawing of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard alone Loves of a Blonde is a remarkable relic.

In the opening moments, a girl in a dormitory tells her friend about an encounter she once had with a soldier. They shared talk of deer and how animals don’t have obligations like people. They only come together during mating season. There you apparently have nature’s argument for free love. Except for geese. They sometimes stay together for upwards of 120 years.

Simultaneously, a local factory supervisor — an older gentleman — looking to somehow boost the morale of the local female population, because all the resident males have been conscripted, strikes up a deal with a military man to ship in some men.

The People’s Army is welcomed into the town with all the trimmings. It’s the scene straight out of Hail The Conquering Hero (1944), albeit played realistically with men piling off the train to the sound of a brass band and fanfare. Girls waiting to view the smartly dressed men wander by in their uniforms. The destination in question: A dance.

Forman in such a document is willing to take his time on people who normally would not carry the screen, at least in a Hollywood picture. That in itself is refreshing and brazenly real or at least as real as it can be creating this lovely blending of professional and untrained actors all together.

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We settle in on a scenario that is reminiscent of a Middle School dance in America. Totally inept and awkward, as a trio of older men looks to catch the eye of three young gals — except these fellows are no Don Juans. Even the one who fancies himself the leader doesn’t know what he’s doing.

First, the waiter botches it all by dropping the expensive bottle of wine they bought off at the wrong table. They receive the inquisitive gazes of the women on the receiving end. It only gets worse when the waiter proceeds to remove said bottle and take it to the next table to rectify his error. They have made contact but it’s the ugliest of executions. Meanwhile, the girls who’ve caught them looking, again and again, aren’t quite sure if they’re flattered or not.

Then the normative rituals commence with the men bringing the girls over for a drink and the girls oblige almost as a nicety rather than for any want or desire. A ring rolls under the table which one of the bespectacled bumblers struggles to recover. The whole extended mishap features some of the most cringe-worthy comedic moments that I can recently recall. Only for bickering to ensue as the evening falls apart entirely. First, one man decides to go to bed and then the girls follow suit.

Andulla (Hana Brejchova) goes up to the room of a pianist warily, where he tries to teach her self-defense tactics. The inevitable happens and they wind up in bed together though he struggles to get the blinds in his hotel room down.

Afterward, he gives her the most peculiar compliment. She’s angular like a Piccaso guitar. And he’s generally kind but we know this is just a minor thing to him. Not that he’s trying to take advantage of the girl per se but it doesn’t carry much weight for him. There were other girls in other places. And yet for her, it’s possible that she’s never felt so close to someone before. For her, this is love or at least something close to what she is searching for. He vaguely invites her to come see him sometime and she resolves to take him up on the offer.

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There are these moments that follow where it feels like we are watching a screwball comedy. She meets the parents, suitcase in hand, asking for their son. And they have no good answer for where he is. They’re even more confused about what she’s doing there and why.

Father just wants to watch TV and mind his own business. He thinks his nagging wife is nuts but not as nuts as his son. Bless her soul, but the mother is a certified worrywart thrown in a tizzy about just about everything. I’m sure most of us know the type played to the extreme here.

Son arrives home and his disapproving mother makes him join the parents in bed. She’s not about to let him sleep in the same room as the girl. They’re like the three bears crammed into a bed together, bickering and saying that the girl should have never come in the first place.

It fascinates me how one seemingly ephemeral idea that might only be a quick flash of an image or a concept can lay the foundation for an entire picture. Forman was himself a child forced into migration at an early age by the Holocaust and in his young adult days witnessed a girl lugging her suitcase around the big city without anywhere to go. He gave her a lift and heard her story.  She had been invited by a man she’d met who really had no intention of having her at all. It’s just what you say. It’s the etiquette of it all but it doesn’t really mean anything. At least not to most people. There we have the story’s defining motif.

There’s an innocence that radiates from Hana Brejchova’s eyes; she’s so very youthful and still trying to figure out her life. In dismissive terms, we’d call her a dumb blonde but this film suggests something more — a person who is trusting and wants real love.

So due to a temporary relaxation of censorship, Forman’s film could be broken down to frank depictions of romance and free love but that is not its end goal. Because even in those forms of expression, we find a surprising amount of, not only astute observational humor about humanity but an equally telling melancholy. Loves of a Blonde is a testament to both.

4/5 Stars

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars