The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

Is The Good Fairy (1935) Luisa Ginglebusher?

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Though not what I might consider purebred screwball comedy, The Good Fairy nevertheless shares some of the essence of the genre, based around class divides and fanciful plotting. The roots in fairy stories even precede two of Billy Wilder’s finest early scripts Midnight (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941) mixing modernity with the worlds of childlike invention.

It’s no small wonder Preston Sturges would be the tip of the spear in the ascension of screenwriters as singular talents, followed soon thereafter by Wilder. Both men would crave more control over their material, which led them both to highly successful careers in the director’s chair. But we are still in the nascent stages for the time being.

The Good Fairy is actually helmed by an up-and-coming director in his own right, William Wyler, though he and Sturges were both subsequently sacked by the studio (or asked to leave) for complications they engendered. That says nothing of the quality of the movie itself.

Admittedly, I’m hardly adept at knowing just what denotes Wyler’s technique as a director aside from the addition of Herbert Marshall and the usual professionalism that assures a fine viewing experience. In this regard, it’s a sight easier to realize the hand working the strings behind the character’s mouths.

You can pick up a certain idiosyncratic quality to the dialogue and then with a flash of recollection you remember Preston Sturges. It’s unmistakable from his impeccable naming of characters; our heroine is Ms. Luisa Ginglebusher (Margaret Sullavan), to the verbal kerfuffles characters engage in, which verge on the uproariously ludicrous.

The daydreamy orphan’s trajectory from a girl’s home to an usherette on the floor of a lavish theater begins when a stately gentleman (Alan Hale) requests an audience with Dr. Schultz. He misunderstands the good doctor to be a man until a helpful girl at the orphanage straightens him out explaining “he” is actually a “she” (Beulah Bondi).

Any matter, they meet and after surveying the prospects, the theater owner decides on the whimsical Luisa (Margaret Sullavan) who soon finds herself learning calisthenics, dressed from head to toe in military garb, and lighting the way for her patrons with a glowing arrow. You’ve never seen a ticket taker quite like this. Here the lavishness comes in, overwhelming her humble sensibilities.

She is also taken with the magic of the moving pictures, getting completely distracted and involved in the movie melodrama playing out in front of her. In this particular case, a woman is continually being chided by her remonstrative lover to “Go.” The tears start flowing.

Her first misstep, no fault of her own, comes right outside the theater when a lothario (Cesar Romero) tries to pick her up. At a moment’s notice, a patron (Reginald Owen) she recognizes from inside serves as a stand-in for her husband and gets her out of harm’s way. He expects no favors from her. In fact, he has connections to get her into a decadent party. His in-road, being a waiter at the establishment.

She ends up way out of her league, an orphan enraptured in the extravagance of the upper elite and swimming in it giddily like an impoverished fish out of water. Because of course, she is. Among the party guests is Konrad, a flittering Frank Morgan who takes an immediate liking to her because she’s well, young and cute and he’s an old eccentric coot with loads of cash.

Eric Blore is up to all his huffy nonsense as an overbearing snob with a cackle for a laugh. There’s a mutual distaste cultivated by the two men that’s utterly hilarious. Reginald Owen is a fine addition as the indignant waiter constantly trying to protect this girl he feels responsible for. With fortitude and a steady supply of excuses, he looks to check in on her and make sure the older “gentleman” doesn’t take any undue liberties.

Nothing catastrophic happens but there’s a spectacular development when Luisa pulls the same trick about a fake husband and Konrad promptly offers the unseen man a job as an excuse to continually lavish the pretty young gal with trinkets. In a follow-up flash of inspiration, Luisa winds up fabricating a husband who happens to be a lawyer out of the phone book — one Max Sporum (Herbert Marshall), distinguished and honorable but terribly broke.

So providence smiles down on him warmly in the form of “The Good Fairy” conveniently bankrolled by a neurotic millionaire. Sporum, of course, thinks he’s being chosen for his strength of character while Konrad believes him to be a downtrodden soul with the wife that he’s taken a personal interest in. Only Ms. Ginglebusher knows the truth and she’s not spilling the beans unless under extreme provocation. But that inevitable moment does eventually arrive. I will leave the ensuing complications be because that is much of the delight of the picture, seeing how all the various confusions will smooth themselves out.

The question, in the end, remains, Who really is “The Good Fairy?” because for varying reasons Luisa, Konrad, and Dr. Sporum all have reasons to claim the title. What’s not up for debate is Detlaff, the waiter. Like John Barrymore a few years later, he plays “The Fairy Godmother” and he does a fine job indeed.

4/5 Stars

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) Starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss

MansfavoritesportposterMan’s Favorite Sport was meant to be a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reunion that never materialized. Because, of course, put together with Howard Hawks that only means one film — the most outrageous, cockamamie, frenzied escapade ever captured on celluloid — Bringing up Baby (1938).

Rock Hudson and Maria Perschy (I still don’t understand the necessity of her character) even do a reenactment of the famous restaurant wardrobe malfunction scene. The whole thing is unfair really. It’s not so much that Hudson’s not capable in his own right but Cary came first and so we’ll ever be comparing him. It’s best to drop that right from the beginning.

Obviously, the Grant-Hepburn movie never came into being as Hepburn never got involved and Grant, now at the tail-end of his career was hesitant about such a youthful leading lady. He chose to do a rom-com thriller called Charade (1963) instead and faced similar concerns opposite the other famous Hepburn, Audrey that is.

But back to Rock Hudson and what we got instead. When put toe-to-toe with the Doris Day comedies, it mostly holds its own given Howard Hawks’ own long affiliation with the screwiest brand of romantic comedies. From Twentieth Century (1934) all the down to I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), and of course, Man’s Favorite Sport.

Paula Prentiss, husky-voiced and armed with rapid-fire ammunition of the Katharine Hepburn persuasion, does a fine job riddling Rock Hudson with her incessant craziness. So much so that her male counterpart can’t get anything in edgewise, constantly harried and exasperated in every conceivable way. It all signals an imminent love story in their future.

Whereas Day was usually dismayed by some aspect of Hudson’s behavior, it’s Prentiss who holds the prodding role and therefore the most license to cause chaos. She had recently graduated from a plethora of pictures pairing her with Jim Hutton, including such enjoyable trifles as Where The Boys Are (1960) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).

As far as their support, John McGiver has a thatched roof that’s constantly shifting tectonically. It’s gotten to the point that he doesn’t care much. He’s the one who decides his ace employee, Roger Willoughby (Hudson) of Abercrombie and Fitch will join a fishing competition for positive publicity.

It was all dreamed up by a dynamo of a public relations lady Abigail Page (Prentiss). But the catch is the famed fishing expert has never been in a lake before, much less touched a fish in his life. He can’t fish. He can’t even swim. So when Abigail finds out she has even more leverage and agrees to teach him everything he needs to know. We already foresee that turning out just marvelously.

Then, there are two quibbling old-timers who are also contending for the laurels of the fishing tournament. After all these years, it’s a joy to see Roscoe Karns and Regis Toomey still have it like the old days. Even if they’re probably a little slower and grayer around the edges, the charming witticisms are still there. Best remembered for Hawk’s El Dorado (1966), Charlene Holt has a small part as the put-upon girlfriend who constantly has the utter misfortune of seeing her man in the most compromising situations with other women.

Because in some form Man’s Favorite Sport? is a rom-com of emasculation as Willoughby is constantly overwhelmed by Ms. Page from the very first beat. Even unwittingly, she holds the power in the dynamic as he’s plagued by her craziness and inadvertently comically harrassed around each turn. Every moment, from her initial stealing of his parking spot to criticizing his kisses, sends him reeling.

Although overlong, the picture continually saunters along, highlighted time and again by a substantial number of splashes and pratfalls. Mirroring William Powell’s fishing escapades in Libeled Lady (1936), Hudson finds his line and himself dragged along by a major catch. In another instance, he’s falling out of a tree only to land a whopper. We have black bears on road bikes, inflatable dungarees, and water-bed hijinks. In fact, he’s unwittingly leading the competition, exceeding his own expectations, though, he still has Abigail Page to contend with.

It’s like two locomotives colliding head-on — as much as a neo-screwball romantic comedy about a fishing expert who knows nothing about fishing and must learn from a woman who constantly antagonizes him can possibly be. That’s exactly what it is. At least if the locomotives can kiss and make up in the end. Man’s Favorite Sport? Sure. Rock Hudson’s not any good at fishing anyway so it suits him just fine.

3.5/5 Stars

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