Abbott and Costello Films: Naughty Nineties, Time of Their Lives, A&C Meet Frankenstein

The Naughty Nineties (1945)

The next genre Abbott and Costello took on in The Naughty Nineties was the show boat-style musical. Henry Travers fits as a kindly old ship captain who promises family-friendly entertainment headlined by his daughter and a very familiar leading man (Bud Abbott).  Costello crops up in a local band pounding his drum with a parade off the beaten path. Soon enough he’s getting up to all kinds of his usual shenanigans as the lone stagehand for their stage production.

Comedy like this must have a rightful antagonist: Rita Johnson and Alan Curtis lead a trio of shady malcontents. They’re getting brushed out of town, but they set their sites on the naive Captain. His one vice is gambling, and they know how to bend the odds. Soon he has no recourse but to work with them by their rules. They commoditize and taint all he’s worked so hard to build.

Enter Abbott and Costello. They take on a crooked roulette wheel with the hiccups using a wad of chewing gum. Lou makes himself useful in the kitchen whipping up a feather-filled cake though he gets his comeuppance with a cat burger routine that has him cringing over his dinner after every mew.

Although it’s not very organic and feels like the most shoehorned gag in the story (because it was), we do get one of the recorded versions of “Who’s on First?” standing in the halls of comedy as one of the most revered routines of all time. Partially because it only works with the duo. You need the straight man, you need the comic, and then the situation to put them at odds. Few have done it so cleverly as this one.

The rest of the movie isn’t so lofty and that’s okay. Costello’s running around the deck being chased and chasing. It’s puerile entertainment, but not the worst we could have. If nothing else, his ever-present wheezing, warbling sound effects feel reminiscent of Stan Laurel though Costello’s portly frame makes him feel a little more like a man-child. This too became the bedrock of Abbott and Costello’s comedy.

3.5/5 Stars

Time of Their Lives (1946)

Time of Their Lives feels like an obvious departure for the team. We found ourselves planted in a colonial drama with a spritzing of the usual comedy. Box office woes or not, I’m not quite sure I’m amenable to how they retooled the Abbott and Costello formula. This movie begins as a straight period piece. It can be done well with something like The Court Jester, but it does feel like the boys rarely get enough time together. Perhaps this was by design.

Still, like many of the great comedians of their day and age, they seem to work best when they can break away from the rigors of plot and the confinement put on them by a narrative arc even if it’s for the sake of a few throwaway gags. Because this is what their entire reputation is founded on, and it’s these moments in between where they lose the plot and we gain laughter.

Time of Their Lives is certainly in danger of becoming moldy pretty fast if not for a quick change of direction leading into an entirely different movie. The ghost angle is something — Mister Topper redux if you will — but it feels a bit uneven and not quite in the vein of what we’re used to. What it does morph into is a bit of the Costello and Marjorie Reynolds show, which isn’t an entirely bankrupt proposition. In comparison, Abbott as a straight-laced and tormented psychiatrist doesn’t provide much in the way of genuine laughs. He functions best in conjunction with his able partner.

I’ve already made it painfully apparent, I’m not an admirer of haunted house films with seances and the like, but Abbott and Costello probably give us the funniest version (although I need to rewatch I Love Lucy to make doubly sure). I especially appreciated when Costello the apparition made his presence fully known by rapping his comedy partner over the foot. There’s not a great deal of this kind of interplay in the picture, but it seems telling these are still among the most noteworthy moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Between the animated credits and their pairing of some historically lucrative stars, Universal does well to promote their assets. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein also shows an understanding of the continued shelf life of IP. If that was true in the 1940s, it’s even more of a buzzword in the modern media landscape.

At its best, we get Abbott and Costello trading off their impressions of some of the most iconic monsters. But more important than that is how our team is back together again. All is right within their world with their patented antagonism restored along with their attempts at menial labor.

Abbott’s bossing Costello around even as he’s somehow managed to nab the pretty girl. It’s really a reversal of the Hope & Crosby dynamic where Bing always seems to get the girls. Here it’s the lovable pudgy nincompoop Costello. Though both his pretty ladies have ulterior motives.

They also have ample opportunity to bump heads with a belligerent businessman. It’s only the beginning of their troubles. McDougal’s House of Horrors is a personal showcase for the traditional gags where Lou crosses paths with Dracula who is very much alive, though he’s never around when Bud comes back to investigate.

Lou can’t catch a break, but of course, that’s the gag. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man, he unwittingly has run-ins with them all, and somehow comes out on the other side still intact. This is the ultimate joke that can only work with a foundation of laughs. It’s his absurd invincibility in the face of all of this supernatural threat and menace that seems bent on destroying him time and time again.

It’s also one of the first movies in their catalog with a dramatic turn — Abbott must believe his buddy for once — he knows he’s not just seeing things. It does disrupt the situational irony fundamental to their brand of comedy, but it comes late enough, we’re ready for our resolution, and the movie pays it off in the most melodramatic Hollywood form.

But it is a glorious crescendo of scaredy-cat comedy, and it seems to suggest to forthcoming generations just what can be done if you successfully meld these genres together. Because it doesn’t merely trivialize them. By weaving together the mythology of the Universal monsters from their own standalone entries, this addition effectively built on all their legacies. 

3.5/5 Stars

Abbott and Costello Films: Buck Privates, Hold That Ghost, Who Done It?

Buck Privates (1941)

Service comedies almost feel like a rite of passage for comedy teams, and it’s no different with this early success from Abbott and Costello. Against their hijinks, there’s a blatantly obvious love triangle (Lee Bowman, Jane Frazee, and Alan Curtis) meant to lend some balance to the drama. It feels reminiscent of what studios tried to do by domesticating all the Marx Brothers’ later works with “plot.”

The Andrew Sisters — at the height of their powers — also sing a couple of their best toe-tappers including “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Bounce Me Brother, With a Solid Four.” There’s a certain amount of buoyant jingoism about them. This is a staple of their appeal.

Still, it’s strange to think Pearl Harbor had not yet occurred when the film was shot. The country was on the cusp of something but not yet plunged into the abyss of World War. For now, Abbott and Costello can live their charmed comedic life.

This is the picture that transitioned them from the vaudevillian circuit and really made them lucrative movie stars. It’s all about the bits from playing craps to army physicals and a bumbling drill regimen as only Abbott and Costello could pull it off. They do have a mark and easy rival who goes from police officer to hulking company officer (Nat Pendleton), but just as often the comic tension is borne out of their own self-made antagonism.

Costello is always a hapless victim and Abbott always has a way of either berating his ineptitude or egging him on. This was the crux of their not-so-secret formula. Again, like the Marx Brothers, it’s not like they were an overnight success trying to come up with their personas as they went along. They already feel like a well-oiled machine we can thoroughly enjoy without any reservations.

3.5/5 Stars

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Hold That Ghost finds Abbott and Costello perfectly in rhythm. First, they’re bumbling waiters at a fancy restaurant. Then, they’re gas station attendants and in both places, they find themselves unwittingly linked with a local gangster named Moose, who’s tangled up with a blackmailer and the D.A.

All of this is a set-up because the majority of the picture takes place in a haunted house. Even if the studio added these earlier scenes to capitalize on the musical success of Buck Privates, it does feel like the perfect entree.

Our hapless heroes are piled into a jalopy full of a menagerie of mostly second-rate character players and then dropped off in front of a dark and haunted tavern. There’s a ridiculously handsome professor with his head buried in his work, and the pouting blonde just waiting for him to notice. The third member is a jovial radio actress who’s more than game to make Lou’s acquaintance. I was gleeful when the cast took to the floor of the haunted manor for some after-dinner dancing with some raucous choreography courtesy of our portly twinkle toes.

The dark and stormy night elicits all the typical scares especially because Costello is the king of the yellowbellies (and for good reason). Because while his partner chides him for being a lily-liver, gangsters commit murders, detectives show up unannounced out of nowhere only to disappear, and of course, there are the ghosts.

The way Costello sounds off like a little kid taps into his shtick at its best. He’s known for being hoodwinked and demonstrative in some of their most well-known skits (ie. Who’s on First?), but the dynamic works when he’s totally nettled his straight man with his utter idiocy. One can only work with the ire of the other. The same goes for any of the sleights of hand or deception gags they pull.

They work on this spectrum of perceived intelligence. Costello sees things and protests. We know he’s speaking the truth, but to any objective outsider (in this case Abbott), he’s being unreasonable.

Like Stan Laurel, he’s a bit of a charmed character, and the world in all its many lunacies is observable only to him. His hat is swiped from his head, a bedroom turns into a gambling joint, and dead bodies fall on the floor only to disappear into thin air.

The ongoing candle gag only works due to this same principle predicated on timing. Abbott’s out of view and yet standing just off stage so he comes back into frame at the most inopportune (or opportune) time for the visual gag to take. Abbott and Costello pretty much built a career on this, and why not? I find it delightful even after all these years.

4/5 Stars

Who Done It? (1942)

It wouldn’t be an Abbott and Costello picture without them taking some menial job ripe with some humor to show off their usual conflicting ineptitude. They display perfectly out-of-sync, synchronicity if you will. You have to be working together to be so visually discordant.

Costello’s behind a cafe counter cutting a piece of cheese — Linberger cheese — and he’s about to suffocate from the smell. The customer’s grousing for his food and Abbott’s barking after his pal, who has no recourse to bring out a gas mask…

Again this feels like the appetizer whetting our appetite for coming attractions as Costello keeps on getting fleeced by a kid bellhop. But they’re on to better things because our boys are aspiring radio talents moonlighting as soda jerks.

They meet another professorial fellow, who might be their inroad to a career in radio murder mysteries. However, when the network president (Thomas Gomez) gets murdered mid-program, they have a chance to prove just how good they are at solving crimes. Most of the movie takes place in these stationary interiors, inside the radio set, and yet the boys tumble all over the place as per usual.

What sets the movie a cut above some of the other A & C pictures comes with the supporting cast. Who Done It is bolstered by some well-remembered talent of the era falling into their readily available parts.

Patric Knowles and Louise Albritton are well and fine as the prospective young lovers caught in the drama after losing the good colonel. Mary Wickes brings her ever-wry wit to play up her own fledgling romance with Costello.

William Gargan and Bendix can be called upon in a pinch to lampoon their typically hardboiled cops plucked from just about any noir you’ve ever seen. There’s Jerome Cowan in another role. This familiarity helps carry the lulls when our heroes aren’t front and center.

All the rest of the time they’re hard at work filling us with belly laughs. There’s a familiar-sound “watts and volt” bit. Then, with a killer on the loose, Costello gets beset by transcription machines, stage acrobats, and sound effects; it feels like a comedic jungle gym with so many possibilities for his elastic talents. I’ve rarely considered halitosis so funny.

But just about everything is superseded by the finale kicked off by the anxiety-inducing phone gag I knew in another iteration during my childhood. Every person and his brother is able to patch through their calls in an instant — the world over — and yet the operator tells poor Lou his line is busy.

It doesn’t matter if he has thousands of dollars on the line or if there’s still a murderer to be apprehended. Because he constantly reminds us these pictures are about the means, not the ends. This one’s a lively ride hyping up the melodrama and leaning into chaotic bits of slapstick in all the best ways.

4/5 Stars

My Name is Nobody (1973)

For those familiar with the tales of Odysseus, My Name is Nobody earns its name from the witty trick the Greek hero uses to escape the Cyclops. However, the movie should draw more comparisons to the works of Sergio Leone than Homer.

It’s difficult not to immediately calibrate the film’s first scene against something like the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West; it’s as much about the stretching and manipulation of time as it is the near-wordless actions. There’s even a clock ticking in the background.

We have a callback to Fonda getting a shave at the Tonsorial Parlor in My Darling Clementine (feet even propped up) however, here the scene is done up with this new sense of impending dread, and we can’t quite fathom why. We just feel it.

Again, getting a shave, milking a cow, brushing a horse, are mundane activities undertaken by three strangers, and yet the scene imbues them with this uneasy energy. They could be Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock biding their time at the creaking train depot for Charles Bronson.

Although Leone’s not the director; he conceived the original idea, and Tonino Valerii, who was Leone’s assistant director on some of his most prominent films, knows what it means to milk the moment through images and sound.

It’s not even the heart and soul of the movie, but like the earlier picture, it gives us the essence of the style and certainly Jack Beauregard. Because after giving the public a shock by turning Henry Fonda into a bad man, Leone’s done the western icon one last favor by canonizing his legacy for a final time.

Before any of this gets perilously high-winded and overly contemplative, it should be mentioned forthright that My Name is Nobody remains an unadulterated comedy on multiple accounts. Given what I’ve said already, I’m not sure if this comes as a shock or not. But what’s even more imperative is how it’s intended to be this way.

The dialogue is pure pap. It feels generally tone-deaf and totally out of sink with some of the best images of the movie, but this is all very much in the tradition of the Spaghetti western no matter the language, locale, or subject matter. It’s telling the only actor who actually dubbed himself was in fact, Henry Fonda. Again, he’s given the ultimate deference and his audience probably expects nothing less.

I’m also no music man, but there are elements of Ennio Morricone’s compositions here — the man who wrote the book on the Spaghetti soundtrack — seeming to gleefully parody himself. The interludes during the title credits are merry and gay literally popping with an almost sickening buoyancy. Later, it devolves into a melding of Wagner and chanting chorale arrangements that can only hearken back to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Here we get our first look at Terence Hill. He’s a vagabond who catches fish with his bare hands. This too builds off the same persona he had in They Call Me Trinity. He’s the anti-Eastwood if we can call him that — bearing a convivial manner — though equally adept when it comes to gunslinging.

Since there is no Bud Spencer, he gets Henry Fonda as his main partner in crime. Nothing against his most prolific friend and countrymen, but you’re definitely getting a different kind of picture with this change in personnel.

True, it’s hardly Fonda’s best work, but he feels strangely at peace with his surroundings and coolly confident since he’s done this so many times before. He’s not capable of going into parody in the same manner as Morricone’s score. Or if he does, it only aids in burnishing his already established legend.

Because he has a pedigree with forging the West you never had in a movie like They Call Me Trinity, though it shared some tonal similarity thanks in part to Terence Hill’s quick drawing ne’er do well. Fonda manages some amount of grandeur in a movie that otherwise is happily preoccupied with slapstick and scatological humor. There’s Sam Peckinpah’s name listed on a tombstone for goodness sake! And yet Henry Fonda, that is Jack Beauregard, provides a certain level of enduring gravitas to the proceedings.

It functions relatively effectively because Nobody (the name of Hill’s character) idolizes the older gunslinger so much. He makes us believe in him even as many of us bring our own history with Fonda to the movie already. The younger gun can best be described as a historian of Jack Beauregard and better yet a fanboy. He knows all about his exploits and has followed him from his earliest days.

He’s a peculiar sort of figure. At once, seeming to jostle for the spotlight and dog the renowned fighter, and at the other end, trying to grow his acclaim. He wants people to remember Beauregard as the larger-than-life figure he was in real life on countless occasions. But he also wants the man to go out by living up to his expectations. He can only do this by facing off with The Wild Bunch, a pack out of outlaw roughriders at least 100-strong.

The fun and games of the movie happen at a bustling carnival. Nobody takes the time to shoot a stilt walker down to size and pie a fat-headed vendor. He’s equally game for some gunplay in the saloon showcasing both his tolerance for alcohol and his uncanny sharpshooting.

All of this feels like an audition for a bout with Beauregard. Because the whole movie they toy with their adversaries, whether it’s in a funhouse, over bombs, or dynamite. Nobody ably turns some of his playthings into bobo dolls and runs off with a train filled with gold after staring down the engineer in a urinal. Yes, this really happens.

But of course, the movie is never about rivalry and this is how it sidesteps the usual trope others will remember from The Gunfighter or I Shot Jesse James, et al. In the final stand we have The Wild Bunch kicking up a dust storm in a face-off against a solitary, bespectacled Henry Fonda at the ready with his shotgun. He’s kept his part of his bargain, for the sake of his legacy and his ever-present shadow has provided him a fitting piece of assistance.

Although I have little call to cast aspersions on the picture, it feels like My Name is Nobody strives to be both comedy and elegy. It can never fully succeeds at either, but there are distinct elements to be appreciated. One of these is Fonda, and he goes out as a “national monument” rightfully so.

It’s not his greatest western by a long shot, but his last round in the saddle puts a fitting denouement on Fonda’s career adding its own addendum to the kind of Liberty Valance mythos or the cyclical lineage of toxic gunfighters. The pronouncement “Nobody shot Jeff Bearegaurd” maintains its double meaning. Sometimes myths aren’t bald-faced lies. They can also be acts of willful preservation and frankly, peace of mind.

In My Name is Nobody, there’s a warm jocularity to it all, down to the very last shot. It’s an accommodating movie, and although this keeps it from being totally profound, that’s okay.

3.5/5 Stars

They Call Me Trinity (1970)

When I was living abroad it was one of my European friends who first introduced me to Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. I had never heard of them and was anxious to learn something about the duo. Regardless of what their names imply, both men are Italians with aliases befitting American action heroes.

They Call Me Trinity is one of their most lucrative pairings together, and it fits into the historical narratives I know well. It is a spaghetti western a la Leone or Corbucci, but it was made with deeply comic inflections.

We all know the laconic heroes: Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” or Bronson’s “Harmonica.” Hill seems to be one of their ilk, although he can be found lounging lazily on a litter pulled by his horse. He proceeds to get up and walk into the nearest cantina looking half-naked as he scarfs down a skillet of beans and drains a bottle of booze with a hearty belch. It’s the kind of showing that draws the curiosity of all bystanders. He represents a different kind of temerity — totally comic in nature. It helps he’s also ludicrously fast on the draw.

If he’s one source of easy laughs, the other is his brother played by Spencer, a sheriff in a nearby town at odds with some of the locals. It doesn’t help he’s got one of their buddies held prisoner. Bambino, as he’s called, showcases some farcical gunplay and superhuman brawn, wiping the floor with anyone who dares challenge him. Also, he’s not too pleased to see his blood relation, who quickly turns the showdown into a spectator sport.

Beyond their sibling rivalry, Trinity is just the man who could let everyone know Bambino is actually an escaped convict and not a true sheriff; he stole the job from the real man while he bides his time waiting for his cronies. None of this is of great importance

It must be said that the sense of reality is always strained to the nth degree in these Italian western pieces, normally shot in Europe with international casts, copious amounts of dubbing for various audiences, and any number of anachronistic flourishes. The dubbing is so prevalent it becomes an artistic decision more than a purely merchandising one. It’s part of the charm of the Spaghetti western and Trinity gladly soaks in this tradition.

The eponymous hero calls on his brother’s sense of propriety to help a clan of defenseless Mormons, whose pious hospitality is brutalized by Mexican marauders who might as well be under the commission of a corrupt landowner (purportedly Farley Granger) intent on pushing the migrants out.

Trinity is rallied to their cause by two bodacious Mormon daughters (Gisela Hahn and Elena Pedemonte) and Bambino reluctantly takes part thanks to their fine stock of horses. He might be able to gain something out of the arrangement. When his friends do arrive, they start instructing the righteous people on how to defend themselves and fight their battles.

They make their final stand, and it’s full of kinds of cathartic poundings and pummelings of the enemy. The good guys put up a valiant fight. It’s not quite The Magnificent Seven, but it has an ending worthy of its own characters.

From time to time, it’s a pleasure having heroes like these who feel a bit like a reincarnation of Laurel & Hardy for the buddy, western, action movie era. Bud Spencer as a bit of an indestructible hulk with an irascible temper. Hill as the handsome rapscallion who’s more than easy to root for.

They would follow up this success with many more — some westerns and then other pairings taking advantage of all the crazes taking over the international movie industry. I was introduced to them in Miami Supercops, which indubitably ripped off a handful of Miami Vice episodes and any number of cop shows being released in the ’70s and ’80s.

Here you have a great deal of the charm in Hill and Spencer. The Spaghetti Western was a hit in how it took the American conventions and gave them a facelift through pastiche and violent homage. It sounds like a formalistic mess and in many ways, it is, but that’s also part of the charm.

3/5 Stars

Cat Ballou (1965)

When the Columbia statue whips off her toga and comes out with western wear and six shooters, the movie’s intentions are made quite clear. And if that’s not enough Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye appear on the scene, decked out, strumming their banjos. They become the accompanying bards relating the ballad of Cat Ballou.

To my mind, it’s one of the only moments in Nat King Cole’s movie career where his talents seem used in a more robust way, and it seems like he’s genuinely having a ball sending up the story. He and Stubby have an open line of communication going with the audience becoming one of the film’s primary conduits for comedy.

And of course, the world itself is ripe with screwy antics easily sharing a world with the likes of Support Your Local Sheriff if not Blazing Saddles. It feels like the West is a place filled with all sorts of oddball characters and idiosyncracies worthy of laughs and a myriad of double-takes.

Jane Fonda was still ascending on her way to becoming one of the ’60s and 1970s most visible performers, and she teems with an undeniable pluckiness in the title role. In its own likable and goofy way, it becomes a picture of empowerment for female heroines.

If hardly a feminist screed, it nevertheless has the kind of charm you might find in an episode of That Girl. It’s Hollywood not quite coming to terms with the full brunt of counter-culture (Ann-Margret was even earmarked for the role).

But if Fonda proves her mettle as a “wanted” outlaw destined to be hung and the leader of a “nefarious” gang of desperados, it’s Lee Marvin who becomes the film’s undisputed attraction. Kid Shelleen is an inspired western hybrid: the restless gunslinger crossed with the town drunk.

He’s got hair like Harpo Marx coiffed under his beat-up hat, hands twitching, married to a bottle, with his disheveled buckskins hanging down to put his long john undergarments on full display. It’s this whole package making Lee Marvin’s performance such a crowd pleaser, but this is only true because it flies in the face of so much of what he made a name for himself doing. He was tough guys, psychos, and henchmen. Here he’s more than game to lie prostrate in the street, falling over his horse, in fits of comedic inebriation.

However, it’s the scene before his auspicious introduction that really brings the picture together. The square dancing sequences become a wonderfully visual merging of characters and arcs all in one place as Cat formulates a plan to help her daddy out: enlisting the help of a gunslinger, or at least a man with a gun. It devolves into glorious chaos as all the men who have been thrown into her life (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and Tom Nardini) vow to protect the elder Ballou (John Marley) to the best of their abilities.

Cat Ballou is mostly corny, and it works best leaning whole hog into this sentiment. When it tries to be something with the semblance of drama, it doesn’t quite work as if it’s grasping for something outside its comfort zone. Cat loses her father, faces a town complicit in the killing perpetrated by a rival gunman — a silver-nosed murderer (also played by Marvin). Even a storied hero like Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicut) has stuck himself behind a mercantile counter.

Jane Fonda exerts herself pouting and throwing a rock tantrum to get her three male companions to see it her way. The Hole-in-the-Wall gang is revived to acquire their much-needed funds, and they do quite a job of it without a Superposse to chase after them.

These exploits are how Cat Ballou earns notoriety across the Old West although she finds herself before a scaffold for quite a different reason. The gallows humor of the noose going around her gorgeous neck feels like another unbecoming scenario until we slip back into a much-preferred gear of silliness.

Cat Ballou is at its finest as a goofball western, a bit dorky around the edges but no less lovable. It does mystify me how it became such an award-season darling, though it’s not without a few unremitting charms. Its impact on the western mythos feels minor at best if only for Fonda’s spirited heroine in a genre otherwise replete with male heroes.

3.5/5 Stars

Cowboy (1958)

In Cowboy, Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford continue their fruitful partnership by examining the life of a different sort of cattleman. The movie opens on a grand mid-century establishment soon to be frequented by a  cowboy named Reece. Everything is colorful and ornate in the Spanish style with gaudy curtains and wood interiors.

Thus, it begins as a hotel drama that switches out a sulking Garbo and destructive John Barrymore for a gang of cowhands and a hotel clerk’s romance. The movie would not be the same without Jack Lemmon. He is Frank Harris, a lowly clerk with the unenviable task of moving some guests to make way for Mr. Reece. It runs deeper still. He’s fallen in love with the gorgeous daughter (Ann Kashfi) though her father dismisses the young man’s affirmations of love.

Soon enough, they will return to their native Mexico, and Maria will be a distant memory to the impressionable boy. Before he can sort out his feelings, Reece’s contingent comes pouring in and takes over the hotel.

The whole movie is built out of these two men coming together and what a glorious juxtaposition of characters it is. The dreamy-eyed idiot and a veteran cowboy, pragmatic and hard-bitten. Ford and Lemmon have been created on their most fundamental level to chafe with one another. Still, the tinge of comedy is not entirely imperceptible in the setup.

In their introduction, you have Lemmon sidling up to Reece’s bath to get in with his gang while Ford shoots stray cockroaches with some relish. Equally important is how real life intersects with film fiction because Glenn Ford built a storied career in westerns, even if you only count his films with Delmer Daves. Lemmon was always the common, everyman schmuck. Now he’s a tenderfoot barely prepared to place his backside on a horse.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo explores a modern mode of western calling for a different brand of star. Lemmon could easily be built into the City Slicker archetype, lovelorn and ready to prove himself. The first time Harris gets tossed from his horse it feels like a kind of initiation. He’s begrudgingly allowed to ride along, but there’s not going to be any concessions for him. He better toughen up or get out.

As their journey together begins, Daves does remind us about the austere beauty out on the range. It’s a tough life certainly, there is no Sabbath; you must learn to sleep in the saddle and pick yourself up when you fall. And yet there’s a newfound appreciation watching the cowboys at work against nature’s grandeur all around them. It feels like a noble profession out on the land using your heads and working hard each and every day.

Brian Donlevy was a minor icon of the 1940s, once he overcame his relegation as a tough guy, but almost 20 years later, there’s a modicum amount of joy seeing him still up to the task at hand along with such disparate figures as Dick York and Richard Jaeckel, each prone to their own sins, whether drink or violence.

It becomes apparent as a long-form almost classical tale, Cowboy can easily be compared with other cattle movies a la Red River. Because while we have Jack Lemmon and Ford’s not totally averse to humor, there must be hardship and conflict stirred up. They take up the mantles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, vying for control as they exorcise personal demons and hone in on their priorities.

Later there’s a strangely poignant funeral sequence after one of the trailhands (Strother Mother) is killed in a rattlesnake attack instigated by a practical joke. These unfortunate circumstances lend a troubling undercurrent to the sober congregation. It’s Frank’s first lesson in the cruelty of the trail.

In another moment, one of their group is drinking it up at a Mexican Cantina and is obviously about to be jumped by some jealous locals. Harris is intent to help him, but they live by the credo: if a man’s old enough to get himself into trouble, then a man’s old enough to get himself out of trouble. There’s no sentimentality or loyalty as far as they are concerned. You do your work and look out for your own hide.

These events are not completely isolated, but they put the newest trailhand over the edge. We know he’s naive about what it takes to survive out on the road, but he also highlights the callous code these men are willing to live by. He barks at Reece, “I thought I would be living with men, not a pack of animals.” It changes him thereafter. He won’t allow it to affect him anymore.

Cowboy hints at Jack Lemmon’s substantial chops as an actor. And I use the term in the sense it is often used. Sometimes comedy is not considered true “acting” to the same degree as drama, but it seems comedic actors are capable of some of the best drama. Perhaps they can see one in the other or vice versa.

Because the movie begins as a kind of comedy on the range. At least this is what it hints at and what we know Lemmon can offer. And then it builds into a story with greater ferocity and also emotional depth. It’s not just about a jilted romance, but a disillusionment in this admiration he had for a certain brand of masculinity. There’s something inwardly thrilling in this transformation even as we see the change projected over Lemmon’s character.

With grit and determination, Harris gets below the border to see his girl once more, but he’s been made callous and her circumstances are different. It feels like a betrayal. In these specific scenes, Dalton Trumbo, who was currently an exile in Mexico due to the Blacklist, calls upon a locale not far removed from him or even his earlier bullfighting effort, The Brave One. Also, he would go into a further deconstruction of the cowboy archetype in Lonely Are The Brave only a few years later. It’s difficult not to view these films across the same continuum.

True, it is a tale about cowboys — their lifestyle, whether real or imagined — and both the toxicity and mythos that comes with such a life. I couldn’t help thinking, like The Magnificent Seven, it fashions itself into something greater — a broader exploration of morality. Masculinity in the West takes on many facets be it survival, gunplay, or getting the girl, but it’s movies like these making it about a kind of stalwart integrity.

Like The Magnificent Seven, it starts out as a mission — representing a job with specific utility — and becomes a parable of doing right by your fellow man. Lemmon must mature and Ford must soften until they both settle on a newfound prerogative. The movie reverts back to the cycles these men know best, and yet not without changing them.

Cowboy is easily the most unheralded picture in Delmer Daves’s western trilogy with Glenn Ford, but it’s held together by some more stunning imagery and two truly complementary performances. Now as they lounge side by side in their bathwater picking off cockroaches, there’s a mutual respect between them along with a newfound parity.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gold of Naples (1953)

It’s easy to be skeptical of anthologies, portmanteaus, or these kinds of thematic character pieces. However, The Gold of Naples’s structure, built out of 6 interlocking vignettes, suits the talents of Vitorrio De Sica since he’s always invested in a world of characters — emphasizing people from all walks of life — rather than a few chosen stars.

The actor-director readily provides a tableau with which to celebrate the city, and there’s no doubt a few stars stand out even as the picture is surprisingly balanced, mixing tones and subject matter one moment after another.

It opens with that charmed Italian comedian Toto as the clown prince Saviero: part Peter Sellers, part Stan Laurel. He’s slowly dying on the inside thanks to the local gangster who has all but commandeered his household on a passing invitation from the jester’s wife. It’s raged out of control.

Next, we have a portrait of a street corner pizzeria. It very well could be a dramatic scandal as a married woman is found necking with a handsome suitor before rushing off to work. The spirited beauty, Donna Sofia, as only Sophia Loren could embody her, works with her portly husband to feed the entire neighborhood, mostly on credit. Then, calamity!

Donna Sofia’s ring is gone! We know where it might be, but they go ahead and make the rounds of all their clientele. One of the digressions involves a man who’s beside himself with grief; he wants to kill himself, and they join a whole host of others looking to comfort him, raising up prayers to the Virgin Mary on his behalf. Of course, they still have their primary reason for coming.

Husband and wife throw each other glances as they pat the man’s hands and try and find a way to broach the subject. How do you ask a weeping man if he found a stray ring in his pizza? Everything is supposed to build to the scandalous reveal, but we never get that. It’s a happy-go-lucky resolution amid all the hubbub.

If the first two interludes are primarily vehicles of good-natured comedy, teasing out the absurdities of the situation, the anthology is not squeamish about taking a drastic, even daring turn toward the melancholy. It’s a funeral procession and as the little wooden casket passes by we realize this is for a child. What a horrible scenario when life is snuffed out so early and a mother is forced to bury her own child.

Watching her organize the event, it’s evident she’s a very particular woman, but not in an overly demanding way. She wants the best for her son making sure everyone is in their correct place as the Father leads them toward their destination.

The solemnity of the moment is not lost on us nor the fact that the surrounding world still operates around them, whether honking horns in the distance or a feuding couple on the second floor. But for a mother, time seems to stop still. Nothing else matters.

She calls for the sugared almonds and tosses them off the wheels into the street. It causes an ungodly ruckus from all the little boys excited to get a taste, but the mother doesn’t scold them for their indecency. There’s a sense that she relishes it because, in their youthful, unbridled energy, her boy is alive for her again. But when the almonds are gone, so is the brief moment of comfort. It’s so transient and unsatiating. There’s no way to hold back the tears. Moments later we leave her and the emotions linger.

How do you follow up this level of sorrow? De Sica takes it upon himself as he shows up onscreen as Count Prospero, a man with a very peculiar problem — it’s a kind of gambling — although we realize it’s actually playing cards with a young tyke. Perhaps this is all he can scrounge up after a less than successful career playing chance. His wife isn’t happy with his spendthrift ways; he can’t stop the habit.

Regardless, since it’s often so easy to section De Sica’s career into his work behind the camera and then his work in front of it, there’s no small pleasure in seeing him taking on the rather oddball role, which he handles with aplomb. It functions thanks to his stately features being crossed with his character’s comic inclinations. I’ve never heard of the card game Scopa before. However, the hapless count is taken to the proverbial cleaners, that much is obvious.

He moans at the kid, “Your luck is disgusting!” Things just keep on getting worse. He’s unraveling and going completely berserk as the little boy across from him with his quizzical gaze keeps on winning hand after hand. He’ll do anything to get outside and play again.

The old man is left screaming to the rooftops as he rides up in the lift in what feels like the perfect curtain on his tale. Toto and Loren are undisputed stars, but De Sica reserves a place in our memories with a larger-than-life turn.

In the next segment, it’s all about the young woman Teresa (Silvana Mangano) who is meant to have a rendezvous with a prospective husband. We get the sense that this is one of those courting rituals out of a more traditional world. If you come from upstanding families and you’re not moral profligates, you get together in wedlock. Getting to know one another comes with time.  Love is a happy bonus.

Though Don Nicola has breeding and looks, Teresa is placed in the oddest and most uncomfortable of circumstances. Here we have a man marrying as an act of atonement for scorning another girl. You could build a whole narrative out of it — this poor young woman caught up in a loveless marriage. But we are given a slight reprieve as an audience, leaving Teresa where she is.

The final capstone is a welcomed piece of levity. The local medicine man provides all sorts of solutions to the local population. They’re particularly miffed with a local snob driving his fancy wheels through the narrow neighborhood streets. The fitting remedy a la the battle of Jericho involves blowing raspberries at an overbearing duke.

It’s incredulous how the tone of The Gold of Naples can change so rapidly — sometimes within an individual vignette — and yet De Sica manages to bridle it in and somehow make it palatable. Even a later project like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, while utilizing the eminent talents of Loren and Marcello, was all comedy. There’s something almost more impressive watching the scenarios run the emotional gamut, albeit over 6 storylines instead of 3. It’s a pleasant surprise.

4/5 Stars

Miracle in Milan (1951)

The title and the opening preface hint that this is a kind of fairy tale. True to form, Miracle in Milan opens with a baby being found not in the reeds like Moses but lying in a cabbage patch. He’s taken by a ditzy old lady — with a smile almost permanently placed on her face — and together, as he grows up, they share a childlike zest for life. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that she ultimately dies. He must forge on ahead with his mother’s blessing.

The boy Toto (Francesco Golisano) grows up before us in a matter of scenes, and yet his essence is still very much the same. His most salient features might be the far-off expression he wears. I can’t explain it though it seems like he’s seeing beyond the present moment into some other realm. He’s cut from the same cloth as Elwood P. Dowd and other angelic creatures who seem to walk among us.

The curious nature of the film is how it takes the visual landscape we come to equate with De Sica’s Italian Neorealism and subsequently blends it into a fantasy story which becomes a kind of fable. The dramatics are not in the same realm as Shoeshine or The Bicycle Thief, but it becomes another exploration of the plight and also the irrepressible spirit of the common people.

With this absence of natural conflict or drama, at least initially, it becomes more of a roaming, rambling character piece. This in itself is enjoyable if lightweight compared to some of De Sica’s most lasting tales of humanity. What it does allow is license to cover terrain he would not be able to reach in his other films.

The score is charged with this continual sense of peppy motion toward a certain destination though it does revise itself under many different situations. Meanwhile, the weather above feels positively empathetic with a layer of fog shrouding the city. This becomes quite literal when sunbeams break out through the dogged marine layer and leads to a frenzy of men chasing after the coveted light.

They make quite the sight: a singing, pushing, prancing, bobbing mass of humanity, all clumped together bathing in the rays. It’s a comical moment that has no equal, and yet De Sica makes his intentions quite clear even if this is just his entry point.

“It is true that my people have already attained happiness after their own fashion; precisely because they are destitute, these people still feel — as the majority of ordinary men perhaps no longer do — the living warmth of a ray of winter sunshine, the simple poetry of the wind. They greet water with the same pure joy as Saint Francis did.”

When this minor miracle dissipates and they are forced to go back to their days one voice in the crowd mutters, “Jesus wept.” There’s a bit of comedy in the scenario — visually if nothing else — but there’s also truth in these words. Because this is always cited as a definitive example of how Jesus Christ was a man of empathy; he had genuine feelings and was moved to tears for the downtrodden.

De Sica is fascinated by these types both in their innate comedy and common accessibility to us as an audience. Because we watch them as Toto with his generous spirit and warm-hearted nature helps in building a utopic colony of shanty houses. All are welcome and provided accommodations of their choosing.

This is the version of The Grapes of Wrath that Steinbeck was incapable of writing. Where the world comes together and develops into a kind of benevolent order instead of continued dissolution and stratification between classes and creeds. And when trouble does come in any form, it’s met with a resounding answer — some kind of miracle — returning things to their natural, rightful order.

In one moment their encampment becomes an oil geyser. Later with their colony in danger of being overrun by authorities armed with smoke bombs, they respond by blowing the smoke from whence it came. Fire hoses are met with an army of umbrellas, and the military forces are met with humiliations of operatic proportions.

Toto, as a character, feels like the group’s talisman, and it becomes even more pronounced when his long-departed mother swoops down and grants him a magical dove from above. It’s a prodigal, practically indecent gift. Suddenly even his charmed ability to grant happiness — the finest hobby he could ever have — goes haywire in the midst of human greed. A clamor takes over the camp, and it’s hilarious at first although it soon grows tiresome.

People get their fur coats, top hats, chandeliers, and anything else their greedy hearts can dream up. Toto conjures up the frenzy of Christ-like miracles though he soon becomes much more like a genie. Even statues (Alba Arnova) come alive to dance off into the night! The young maid Edvige (Brunella Bovo) feels like the one character not looking to gain something from him; she likes him for who he is, a decent young man overflowing with an almost blind faith and geniality.

I lied a bit about the dearth of conflict because the wheels of progress and wealthy men finally do overtake them effectively pushing them off the land. They find themselves unceremoniously carted off in police wagons — Toto and everyone else. However, De Sica has already conditioned us, even dared us, to maintain our belief in the unimaginable. There are still a few spritzers of magic left for the finale.

It’s somehow fitting that Milan Cathedral becomes the final backdrop for one last miracle. Although the ensuing animation and special effects are hardly spiritual in nature, it feels like a resolution befitting such a fairy tale with a bit of pixie dust Walt Disney would have no doubt appreciated.

4/5 Stars

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

There’s something illuminating about getting a movie from our neighbors across the pond that offers a winking look at American society. The movie takes its title quite literally, scaring off the Columbia lady with a critter who subsequently carries away the animated title sequence. Because the U.S. might be the prototypical lion, but Grand Fenwick is the mouse that roared.

The minuscule duchy of Fenwick — a measly nation if there ever was one — remains stagnated in the medieval ages, economically and otherwise. Their major exports are wine, particularly popular on the West coast, though competition in the form of copycat businesses proves steep competition.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Fenwick leaders resolve to declare war on America. It’s really all part of their contingency plan expecting that their quick and inevitable defeat will lead to American rehabilitation and, thus, newfound prosperity for their little principality. They no doubt are well aware of the Marshall Plan and the U.S.’s undying interest in any floundering nation, they can look to capitalize on. Better us swoop in than have the Soviets socialize them, right?

Regardless, all this poppycock and tomfoolery is made even more palatable thanks to the talents of Peter Sellers. He hasn’t reached Clousseau status nor the apex of his stardom in the 1960s, but he would be an international icon soon enough. For now, we get to sit back and witness him in dialogue with himself. First as the Machiavellian prime minister Mountjoy, then the Queen Victoria knockoff, Duchess Gloriana, and finally, the ultimate Sellers hero, Tully Bascomb.

Because it is this meek and unassuming game warden, who is called upon to lead the charge across the sea onto enemy territory. Armed with their bows & arrows, chainmail, and Fenwickian pluck, their force, 20 men strong, sets off. I mention Bascomb as the prototypical Sellers hero because he’s such a small character, and yet since he is lacking in much, it works impeccably well with the utter outrageousness of the comedy blowing up around him.

Before Monty Python and even before Dr. Strangelove, there was The Mouse That Roared, and not simply due to the trio of roles carried by Sellers. Like its future scion, it takes no umbrage about trampling over Medieval iconography in all its antiquity and finding wells of humor therein. It’s also an atomic bomb-conscious comedy. Surely, you could say almost all comedies of the 50s and 60s were informed by this reality — this pervasive fear — but Mouse takes these themes to heart.

For what generally feels like a humble picture, the moving parts are rather extraordinary. Beyond Sellers, we have director Jack Arnold remembered mostly for his Sci-Fi and monster movies of the 1950s. The marriage sounds less outrageous than it is (or maybe it’s just outrageous enough) because this is meant to be a farce. There are no creatures from the black lagoon or incredible shrinking men, but there is some extraterrestrial hysteria.

It plays with all the alarmist tendencies of the age when the Fenwick contingent prey on a passing truck and punctures its tires, leaving the victims thinking the nation’s being invaded by men from outer space. This streak of nuclear age anxiety with a distinct message is more than enough to wedge it into the rest of Arnold’s canon.

But we have yet to mention Jean Seberg. She’s no doubt at her most childish — she’s only 20 or 21 years old, after all — playing the peeved daughter of a famed scientist. It hardly accentuates her talents nor her playful mystique like Breathless or even Monsieur Tristesse, but it is something different. Because it’s her father’s Q Bomb, which could eat an H Bomb for breakfast, that is currently being tested and is accidentally discovered by the Fenwickians.

In a serendipitous act of lunacy, they instantly become the aggressors ready to take advantage of the situation and bring America to its knees by kidnapping some of its most fundamental assets. It’s the kind of goofy, lightweight stuff taking the edge off. Although there’s an agenda, no matter what implications it might have in the nuclear age, The Mouse That Roared is the perfectly tame goofball comedy we expect to see when we visit sitcoms of the 50s and 60s.

The fish out of water commentary about America dries up when the prisoners are carted back across the pond. Tully and his men make a triumphant return only to be met with some chagrin from the hoodwinked cabinet. They’ve mucked things up. Not only have they not surrendered, they’ve gone and taken hostages and ran off with the most dangerous superweapon in the world!

By this stage, the heart of the comedy has mostly dried up too, though there are a few passing gags relating to the hot potato bomb that wheezes and sizzles to the touch just waiting to annihilate mankind. Likewise, Tully finds himself smitten with feisty young Helen in a love affair that could be telegraphed from miles away. Ultimately, it plays the best when its intentions are made clear with the goofball inanity of it all before didacticism and treacly romance are allowed to give their final stamp of approval on the story. For what it’s worth, I’m one Yank who enjoys being invaded in such a manner as this.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Otto Preminger famously combed through headshots and plucked Jean Seberg out of her Iowa hometown to be groomed as his latest star. St. Joan was far from a stunning ascension for the young starlet, but her follow-up with Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, showcases her incandescence.

Adapted from Francoise Sagan’s novel about youth set on the French Riviera, I cannot think of a better environ to augment Seberg’s talents. Her Cecile is a carefree spirit and rather noncommital when it comes to anything like marriage, but Seberg imbues her with a poise well beyond her years.

The fact that the picture is positively cascading with ritzy, sun-soaked opulence more than suits a jaunty David Niven and the pixie-haired Seberg — they’re a father and daughter duo — who know no other existence than utter extravagance. Preminger more than matches his stars with gorgeous tones drifting from black and white to vibrant color.

They feel all but compelled to recline on the veranda to soak up the sunbeams with a cool beverage or take a refreshing dip in the water. Who can blame them?  The audience is allowed to live vicariously through all their pleasures, and it makes the interim portions of Bonjour Tristesse both light and luscious in content.

If you haven’t gotten the idea already, Preminger’s picture conjures up ample comparisons to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Demy’s Bay of Angels sharing much of the same world. What happens exactly? That is and it isn’t easy to say because it’s the mood and the time spent with the characters in their environs that’s both scintillating and charming. Some characters almost evaporate between the beaches, casinos, and champagne bubbles. The most important ones give the film buoyancy and a dash of substance sprinkled in.

However, to hone on any sort of plot, it begins rather simply as a comedy of the situation with father and daughter pulling off shenanigans together. They have such a cultured camaraderie, that it’s second nature to refer to each other by their first names. Romantic dalliances are also expected, between Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) the pretty young thing Raymond traipses around with and Cecile’s latest fling, a strapping young man named Phillippe (Geoffrey Horne). He’s one out of a laundry list of past suitors. They’re contented enough with their free-flowing lifestyle.

Then, follows the auspicious day when Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. She’s been invited for the summer holiday as a friend of Raymond’s late wife. She’s not of their ilk with a sense of propriety that they’ve never taken much time to worry about or even consider. One can only imagine what she will think of the laissez-faire romantic lifestyles of Cecile and Raymond. The tensions in the fresh sea air from the outset.

However, we must take pause because there is also a sense of deja vu in the atmosphere. Surely Niven and Kerr have played these characters before in other movies — their dashing playboy and refined prude — this time falling in love with each other. Even Seberg with her iconic pixie cut looks utterly familiar if only due to the ubiquitous iconography of Breathless a few years later.

Whether totally conscious or not, it does feel like Bonjour Tristesse is totally in dialogue with the onscreen personas of its three stars. This feels very much like a component of Old Hollywood where stars were built around their types and somehow instead of disappearing into roles, they brought their own individual sense of authenticity and emotional truth to whatever part they played. For the best ones, it’s like each subsequent role was built on the foundation of their previous work.

Jean-Luc Godard even acknowledged, “The character played by Jean Seberg [in Breathless] was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse, I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: “Three years later.”

In the latter half of the film, it’s the character’s youth that becomes strikingly apparent as she grows jealous of their new houseguest who has tamed her father and taken away some of her long-held freedoms in an attempt to make her a more traditional young lady.

And yet the happy-go-lucky gaiety remains up until the very brink of devastation. Otherwise, we watch with rapt interest as she goes darting after her lady oppressor like the epitome of her gamine self ready to watch her fall into the emotional trap orchestrated by her girlish ploys. Suddenly all the merriment isn’t so merry after all and it’s terrifying in its incisive cruelty. We are reminded of the selfish vindictiveness of youth. C’est la vie.

For garnering such a tepid response in its heyday, Bonjour Tristesse represents much of the allure of Old Hollywood though it rarely gets the plaudits of some of its brethren. Somehow, between Preminger and Seberg, Niven and Kerr, and sweeping Cinemascope, it’s easy for the picture to get lost in the shuffle because the four of them have innumerable other productions of note.

This one deserves at least a second chance for its mise en scene alone. Preminger actually does something with it to the point that the final moments of the movie mean something. It’s not the same film we thought we were signing up for.

It’s gorgeous, vain, at times, even superficial, but we would be remiss not to pick up on the inherent melancholy played in sharp contrast to the vibrant palette. Suddenly, it makes complete sense why their present is in black and white and only the past can remain in color.

4/5 Stars