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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

It’s Love I’m After (1937): In Honor of Olivia De Havilland

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There is a very significant reason to be watching It’s Love I’m After at this time. Her name is Olivia de Havilland, and by some brilliant piece of Providence, she has just recently turned 104 years old! She, of course, was in her early 20s when this movie came out and what a charmer it is.

A few years before To Be or Not To Be, here is another movie hamming up Shakespeare on the stage. This time it’s Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as they act out their version of Romeo and Juliet for a rapt audience. What makes the sequence is the dueling couple whispering snide asides to one another mid-performance. Barbs about garlic breath and upstaging come out because they’re both conceited and jealously in love.

But where is Olivia in all of this? She’s up in the balcony swooning over the sublime eye candy down on the stage. She’s seen all of his performances and is positively devoted to his very essence. Her boyfriend (Patric Knowles) looks on with frustration as he’s having to compete with a rival who has never even met his girl before.

This is soon remedied when she promptly goes backstage to pay her respects. It’s all quite innocent. Basil and Joyce continue their incessant bickering from their adjoining dressing rooms, still at each other’s throats, despite the wall between them.

Then, Marcia West presents herself positively agog by the image of her idol thoroughly in the flesh before her. He’s flattered but he hardly knows what he’s doing when he accepts her compliments. Worse still, Joyce sees the young woman on her way out. Harmless or not, it adds further fuel to their relational fires.

What a delight it is to see such beloved thespians and titans of dramaturgy like Howard and Davis doing comedy, of all things, and doing it quite well in the screwball vein. After all, this would be their third picture together following Of Human Bondage and Petrified Forest. There’s no comparison.

The movie is totally overtaken by bipolar swings in fortune. First lovers’ quarrels — it’s the worst New Year’s Eve ever — then there are marriage proposals, and finally, Basil resolves to help a young fellow out.

They do have some handy support. There were few better in this department than Eric Blore, and he has a readily available supply of birdcalls and advice on his master’s matrimonial habits on the “precipice,” as it were.

Being your typically theatrical, philandering type, Basil resolves to shirk his impulses and pursue his own moral salvation. In this case, his good deed is for a lovesick fellow whose best girl is smitten with the stagebound Romeo. The actor doesn’t know it’s the same girl. How can he? No one in these movies ever stops to compare notes.

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Still, he resolves to turn up on her doorstep and rudely ruffle her illusion of him. He and his man Digges (Blore) pay a late-night housecall to the West residence. Their shouts of “ire” soon become “fire” and brief pandemonium sets in as an impromptu round of “We’re here because we’re here” comes out sounding a lot like “Auld Lang Syne.”

He schmoozes his way into the house, making himself at home in the company of the avuncular father, befuddled mother, and a gossiping sister (Bonita Granville) always peeping through keyholes. But in Marcia’s eyes, he can still do no wrong. Now he’s got quite the prompting audience, and he’s all but ready to do his part.

His bit of showmanship has him playing up his image as an egotistical malcontent tearing through the guests and their breakfast table with ferocity (and some help from the Bard). Digges does his best to complain about the lack of kippers and other inadequacies. None of it congeals as they were hoping, in fact, it has an adverse effect. Marcia agrees with his every word.

As someone fed on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster, there’s something familiar and comforting about the picture’s comic situation. Basil is no Bertie Wooster. Digges is no Jeeves, but they are stuck in the same madcap realm of romantic entanglement mixed with comedic hijinks.

Whatever Basil tries is quite unsuccessful in quelling the ardor or the affection of Ms. West. The best-laid plans all too quickly go awry and poor Digges can do little to stop the inevitable. Joyce makes her reappearance at precisely the most inopportune time. She catches her man in the arm of another. The jealous boyfriend feels affronted as he watches his girl be ripped away from him, albeit unwittingly.

The story couldn’t look bleaker and further from its agreed-upon happy ending and yet, eventually, it comes, like any good rom-com. Don’t ask me how it happens. Maybe it’s the youthful fickleness of De Havilland’s ingenue. Perhaps cinematic serendipity gets in the way. Regardless, the partners shuffle around only to get back together with their ordained.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are, again, madly in love, then yelling and screaming and pushing each other across the room. Digges is busy packing the suitcases only for the contents to come tumbling out as future husband and wife make up and share a passionate embrace. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun! End scene.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Bellboy (1960) and Jerry Lewis The Goofball Auteur

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The Bellboy is introduced by a witty disclaimer as a studio executive (a cameo by Jack Kruschen) explains this is a film based on fun. There is no story. No plot. Instead, it acts as a visual diary in the week of a real nut! He subsequently reels about in his chair laughing hysterically.

It breaks the normal precedence in a move Lewis may have learned from Frank Tashlin and yet it also is a clever mode of conditioning the audience. With their expectations tempered, The Bellboy is allowed to excel on its own merit as something entirely unique. That it is.

What becomes evident is that we are witnessing the beginning of the next stage of Lewis’s artistic career, effectively blurring the accepted lines between major goofball and auteur. Paramount was bucking for his next picture to be released for the summer crowds.

Being the consummate professional and insanely efficient, Lewis needed only 4 weeks (26 days of filming) to crank out the movie, while simultaneously playing the stand-up circuit. He would get the movie out in time for the summer rush, and it would continue his successes at the top of the box office.

His inspiration was the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, conveniently located in the vicinity of his current nightclub act. It proved a ready-made environment ripe for gags of all sorts. One must only remember the red-hats in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or the shenanigans at The Hotel Del Coronado in Some Like it Hot to see the obvious potential for comedy. Lewis even asked Billy Wilder to direct at one point. Wilder fired back with the advice that Lewis should do it himself. The rest was proverbial history.

One creative element of the palette missing: color though Lewis would rectify the situation with his next movie, The Ladies Man. For now, he has exorbitant amounts of fun with the freedom afforded him, designing a character who is a none too subtle nod to the titans of yesteryear.

His mute (and dumb) bellboy Stanley muddles his way through work at the hotel, getting pulled into all sorts of tasks. In one moment, he’s tricked into setting up a giant ballroom full of chairs. There’s one dizzying unbroken shot of Lewis charging across the floor disappearing for a solitary moment to bring back two chairs to begin filling up the space at a snail’s pace.

His colleagues are cackling at his gullibility only to peek in on his progress. The punchline being the chairs all set up immaculately. They are gobsmacked but we know better. It shows the power of a cut, where separate images are given so much meaning by even a brief disassociation. Lewis has gladly leaned into a sense of surrealism to augment his usual dopey slapstick shtick.

Another vignette follows the movie star Jerry Lewis (played by none other than Jerry Lewis) whose envoy is met at the hotel entrance by a host of gawking onlookers. His absurdly large entourage files out of his limousine and nearly suffocates him with their well-wishing. He’s had it with their constant hovering. The scene is capped with everyone cramming into the elevator together with similar absurd results. This gag might easily be a nod to The Marx Brothers and Wilder as well.

Milton Berle does his pal a favor by turning up in an isolated sequence. A moment is traded between Milton and Stanley only for the real Lewis to bump into Milton and send him for a loop. The final twist is Berle has a bellboy doppelganger of his own.

As the picture is never beholden to a plot, these loose and free situations keep on coming. Stanley might be trying to go on a dog walking detail only to get tangled up by a plethora of constricting leashes. Maybe he’s on phone duty, and it’s a bit like playing whack a mole where the call is never coming from the telephone he expects.

All the bellboys become unhinged at the sight of pretty girls, and Stanley finds himself all but maimed by an arguing couple who find a point of resolution when they join forces to beat the crud out of him. He conducts an unseen, but very raucous orchestra a la Bugs Bunny created entirely through the merits of sound design and Lewis’s own physical abilities.

My favorite sequence might be when he all but mutilates a sculpture, still wet, sitting out in the lobby for an art exhibition. Don’t ask why it was there. This is the wrong question. Just know the results are riotous.

The same might be said of Lewis all of a sudden showing up at a major golf classic just in time to flashbulb Cary Middlecoff as he’s trying to sink his climactic putt. Or he finds himself airborne and causing quite the stir after commandeering a plane.

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These digressions are nonsensical but since it’s not faulty advertising, the scenarios succeed quite spectacularly. Because Lewis has leaned into this conceit and let his zany brain run wild with all the harebrained bits he can dream up. It does feel like the Marx Brothers at their best — at least in the sense we never go to their movie for a plot. It only exists as something the gags can hang their hat on. But foregoing the normal premises for pure comedy is to Lewis’s benefit.

The legend goes Jerry Lewis asked one of his idols for advice on the script, naming his protagonist as a nod to him and even having a shuffling, bowler-wearing doppelganger appear throughout his movie. The mentor was, of course, Stan Laurel, who had all but stopped performing since the death of his inseparable partner Oliver Hardy. Lewis, for all intent and purposes, had died to his partner, Dean Martin, but reimagined himself bigger and better.

At its best, The Bellboy is an audacious experimental pantomime accentuated by surrealism liberally borrowing from the tradition of Stan Laurel and Jacques Tati. Sound plays such an important role in the comedy as do these continually incidental encounters. They become the origins of genuine laughs.

But there’s also this element of outrageous even impossible scenarios being played straight.  It probably has as much in debt to the animated logic of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as it does to the aforementioned comedians. However, at the end of the day, this can only be Jerry Lewis. If I only had a modicum amount of respect for him before, my esteem for him only grows with every effort. I might relish his forefathers more, but Lewis still has some claim at comic immortality in his own right.

3/5 Stars

The Ladies Man (1961): Herbert H. Heebert

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The French (and Europe in general) have unparalleled esteem for Jerry Lewis.  It no doubt allows them to put him in conversations with their own beloved Jacques Tati as the true heirs to the Chaplins and the Keatons of comedy.

It’s no major revelation most Americans, flagged from the general populous, might scoff at such pronouncements. Because Jerry Lewis was just the comic with that obnoxious voice doing bits with Dean Martin and screwing around. Admittedly, this is my own bias acting out. He’s undoubtedly wildly popular with many.

Still, his type of comedies and routines feel like a dime a dozen. His most renowned picture, after all, is The Nutty Professor, and then his string of comedies with Martin, while successful, were never critically reputed.

What our friends across the pond take into account is how Lewis made himself into a holistic artist capable of many things — not simply performing. We saw this goofball. Whereas they rightfully recognized a visionary director, a prolific writer of material, who simultaneously helped to expand the language of film. It hardly seems like we’re talking about the same person, and yet we are.

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What he manages to accomplish starts with taking comedy back to its purest roots, making it into a totally visual experience. There’s no better example than his stark departure with Frank Tashlin: The Bellboy. The Ladies Man builds off these ideas further, nevertheless, developing them with the same persona some adored since childhood and many, like me, will grow weary of after a couple of minutes.

However, this reaction easily clouds what Lewis is actually doing. He effectively turns the American Dream into a satirical, at times, surrealist fantasy playing upon his already solidified persona and allowing himself greater verisimilitude to explore ideas around the slapstick. At its core, The Ladies Man (with no apostrophe s) is an absurd tale of emasculation.

The inciting incident occurs in a small town where Herbert H. Heebert sees his best girl kissing a mostly unseen suitor following their junior college graduation. It’s a devastating blow. He takes this as a sign he must shrug off girls forever and try and find an occupation as far away from them as possible.

Of course, there’s then nowhere else for him to end up but a giant dollhouse full to the brim with attractive, young women of all shapes and sizes. It’s inevitable. Sure enough, Herbert is hired on by a housekeeper named Katie (Kathleen Freeman) who takes all his foibles in stride. Freeman is also one of the few characters who can stand up to the antics of her leading man. The indelible image occurs when he jumps into her arms out of fright. She’s there to be a foil emblematic of all things maternal and sunshiny.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the female tenants, unbeknownst to the slumbering Herbert, plays out as an intricate morning ritual complete with a jazzy accompaniment and of course, a whole host of alluring women.

This is our first taste of the film’s obvious choreography, and it is executed on a grand scale. The dizzying set made up of rooms upon rooms, multiple stories, and spiral staircases is a veritable jungle gym for Lewis to play with. This pertains both to the actor and the director, realizing elaborate crane shots as his hapless hero is put up against this colorful, campy backdrop.

The glut of the film, by one means or another, follows his daily duties. Of course, they’re only an excuse for a range of gags. They involve a butterfly collection,  passing out the mail, and being the in-house doorman. His most daunting task is taking care of “Baby.” One minute he’s sloshing milk through the living room in a bucket, the next minute dragging a huge slab of meat to feed the beast his breakfast.

Herbert has his own breakfast sloppily fed to him in a high chair by Katie. Yes, it’s strange. It is soon overshadowed by the film’s finest cameo by George Raft, who proves his authenticity to Herbert by showing off his dancing prowess — cheek-to-cheek.

The next extended aside is the picture’s most surreal moment when Herbert enters a “forbidden room” only to encounter a willowy woman suspended from the ceiling. He starts fleeing the slinking woman in black only for Harry James’ Orchestra and a dance floor to appear, facilitating their game of cat and mouse. Any meaning is oblique at best, but that makes it no less of a mesmerizing diversion. After all, things slip back into the status quo like nothing at all.

In the last act, the house gets invaded by a television crew and even more madness commences for Herbert as he is all but forgotten amid the tumult. Everyone is just happy he’s stayed around so long to keep up on their chores. It’s one girl named Fay (Pat Stanley) who actually has concerns for him as a fellow human being. This is rare.

In the dining room one morning, she decries her housemates’ manipulative behavior because they’re selfishly thinking about what they can say to keep him constantly doing their bidding. They have no concept of his thoughts or feelings, only his usefulness to them.

However, this indictment has telling implications. If this is a film about emasculation, what do we call the underappreciated place of traditional womanhood? How is this a critique of husbands and boyfriends who spend their evenings thinking of their significant others as nothing more than objects to cater to their whims?

It’s a toxic and quite damning scenario. While the ideal might be well-meaning it only stands up to scrutiny if both partners have symbiotic, multi-faceted roles meant to support one another. In other words, there needs to be some give-and-take, some form of interpersonal connection, and autonomy.

These observations alone make it necessary for me to eat my own words and my dismissal of Jerry Lewis. Because it’s initially difficult to acknowledge Lewis as an artisan and yet watching something like The Ladies Man, it’s impossible not to acknowledge its visual strengths. Yes, a lot of it’s not altogether funny, the gags are at times downright awful, and if you don’t relish Lewis’s own persona, you’re not going to be bucking for him to do his usual shtick.

But as a social commentary, there’s a surprisingly large pool of insights. Likewise, for its visual and physical feats, Ladies Man is a minor marvel even an extraordinary one, though it loses some weight thanks to all the mediocre elements.

Still, there are a handful of scenes with visual expressions and choreographies of a truly unique caliber. It’s as if in another life with a little touch-up, this might be the Marx Brothers mixed with Tati. Likewise, Tashlin’s own cartoon-like, visual wackiness has already been nodded to out of necessity.

Admittedly, my own greatest flaw is being an American. My impressions are already unflinching. When I look at Jerry Lewis I see a multi-talented performer who nevertheless, is more of a tiresome icon than a comic delight. To paraphrase a famous axiom, a comic is never appreciated in his own country. Thankfully, Jerry has the French (and everyone else). It’s the intellectual with the absurd: a match made in heaven.

3/5 Stars

Funny Face (1957) Shows Audrey Hepburn’s Enduring Beauty

Funny_Face_1957.jpgI’m not an expert on fashion photographers, but with only a passing interest in the industry, two of the most luminous names I know are probably Richard Avedon and Bob Willougby. Their names seem to crop up more than almost anyone when you consider film stills. It’s no coincidence that they both famously did shoots of Audrey Hepburn: one of the most widely photographed women of all time.

I never realized it before, but it also seems little coincidence that Richard Avedon is fairly close in name to Richard “Dick” Avery, a fashion photographer, played by Fred Astaire in this picture. Avedon himself was an advisor on the musical even providing the now-iconic headshot of Hepburn, capturing her iconic eyes and the contours of her face.

That’s the first level of reality being reworked for a bit of frothy fantasy. We’re met in the opening minutes by a histrionic tastemaker, Magazine matriarch Maggie Prescott (an uproariously assertive Kay Thompson) who comes off a bit strong but slowly sinks into our affections. Ruta Lee is constantly scampering about with the rest of her staff, getting whisked around by Prescott’s every whim.

She champions a change in direction for Quality magazine as they’ve gotten a bit lax and set in the status quo, and so she catalyzes a pink extravaganza to shake up the fashion world. It just might work.

Astaire is as affable as ever, remaining mellow with age and yet the models he has to deal with, in his line of work, are shown to be ditzy and a dime a dozen. He proposes an even bolder deviation from the norm than Prescott. The idea: Taking a bookkeeper, frumpy and austere at first glance, and turning her into a starlet.

Hepburn makes for the sweetest intellectual, running a bookshop that gets overrun by a magazine syndicate in Greenwich Village. She’s all but lost in the fray while simultaneously giving Avery the touch of inspiration. It’s right there in her face.

As she flees from the editor’s frenzied staff of ladies, intent on finding her and making her over, it’s in the darkroom where she seeks refuge and comes face-to-face again with Avery, who lightens her spirits and makes her feel at ease. Now I can check another thing off my list, as Hepburn and Astaire share a lovely darkroom dance together, which I hardly remembered from before.

In the end, she takes a minor liking in the idea of traveling to Paris for a photo shoot, even if it’s only a means to get her closer to the philosopher that shes always deeply admired for his work with empathicalism. Apparently, it’s all the rage in some circles.

At any rate, a new kind of fashion icon is born. She’s denoted by “Character, Spirit, and Intelligence.” Imagine that. Of course, the bookish Jo Stockton doesn’t see it either. She confesses, “I have no illusions about my looks. I think my face is funny.” Upon closer observation, the near autobiographical aspects seep out again.

Because, if memory serves me right, Hepburn never considered herself attractive or glamorous, even if she was seen as such the world over. Her figure was too slight or her nose too this, and her eyes not enough that. It’s the typical human fallacy to only see the blemishes and imperfections. We either have too big a view of ourselves or too little. It takes other people to straighten us out. We see a funny face, and they see the character that dwells therein — the adorableness and glamour Audrey Hepburn personfied.

In Funny Face Hepburn also gets to relive some of her training as she initially had an extensive background in ballet and dance as a teenager. Her most visible number comprises a beatnik hangout teaming with new and peculiar forms of artistic expression. There she is right in the midst of them whipping around with a peppy hand-clapping verve that sees her arms and springy ponytail flying too.

Back on the fashion circuit, she’s turned into a stunning pink bird of paradise with the spotlight beaming down on her and everyone entranced by her pure exquisiteness. Meanwhile, Astaire gives his cane dances of old a facelift with an umbrella and overcoat, including a brief interlude as a whimsical matador.

“He Loves and She Loves” has them at their most euphoric, acting outt a wedding scene that can never be. They are co-workers and nothing more. But when the fashion gala is made a shambles of, and they have a major tiff over a certain French philosopher named Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), it looks to be the end of the story. However, we’ve seen enough movies to know not to get up and leave in the seventh inning. There’s a comeback in the ninth.

Hepburn’s voice makes an appearance in all of its demure glory. While not spectacular in nature, I’m a proponent of hearing people’s actual voices when they’re given the task of trebling through a tune. I’m of the sentiment that I would rather hear an unadorned, even “warts and all” performance opposed to the airbrushed “dubbed” showings that were so prevalent. Hepburn was a particular casualty of this phenomenon in My Fair Lady (1964), even as her quivering rendition of “Moon River” goes down as one of the most intimate performances on film. I rest my case.

While not the most cohesive musical out there, we have enough glimmers of fun and frivolous entertainment to more than satiate our wants. Of course, our stars are two of the most sunshiny personalities the movies ever bore, and together there’s the expected amount of good-natured amiability. At least, in the end.

Likewise, Cole Porter and the rich imagery courtesy of Stanley Donen, Richard Avedon, Technicolor, et. al. make the balloons brighter and the wardrobes all the more luxuriant. A true feast for the eyes, as they say, even if the plot could be tipped over with a feather.

3.5/5 Stars

Kiss Me Kate (1953): A Musical and Meta Entertainment

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The film version of Kiss Me Kate, helmed by MGM’s perennial musical director George Sidney, is a translation of Cole Porter’s rousing Broadway success. We must play a game of two degrees of separation because the stage smash was itself a comical backstage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew. I cannot necessarily attest to where one begins and the other ends, between stage, film, and original play, since my own knowledge is shoddy at best. So I will contain my thoughts to the story at hand.

At its core are the strained relations of a formerly married couple composed of two prima donna stage performers: the devilishly handsome, barrel-chested baritone Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his equally strong-willed, alluring, and talented ex Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). In all regards, a match made it heaven. They undoubtedly deserve each other.

The undisputed peppiness of Ann Miller, as she bursts in on them and Cole Porter (Ron Randell), is an immediate jovial assault on their relationship as she flaunts her attributes in “Too Darn Hot” and gets a little lovey-dovey with the self-absorbed leading man. I’m not sure if any audience member is shocked when she’s seen playfully prancing about with her other boyfriend (the always impressive Tommy Rall) in  “Why Can’t You Behave?”

To needlessly mix metaphors, the production is nearly sunk before it gets off the ground. And yet a mixture of persuasion, jealousy, and the quality of the material coaxes Grayson’s character into the fragile reunion. Wunderbar!

Lilli’s rendition of “I Hate Men” proves a blatantly pointed number where on stage sentiments are mirrored in her life; she doesn’t mince words raging through the set, flinging props to her obvious satisfaction.

In fact, she’s far more suited for the flaming red wig she wears on stage than her actual modest cut. The 3-D qualities come to bear thanks to the tossing of beer steins and flower bouquets. It’s one of visual cues to suggest this very purposeful sense of the off-stage and on-stage lives merging and colliding with one another.

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We have the backroom interludes and then the continuous sequences of the performance photographed straight on until little discrepancies come into play to make everything run afoul.

Breaks in characters. Personal vendettas playing out on stage with each minor slap and smack in the stage directions supplied with ample fury from years of pent-up rage. Deviations in the actual production also come to pass. Namely, a cringe-worthy spanking as the midway curtain drops.

It’s in the intermittent period where Kate utters that immortal Shakespearian retort, “Thou Jerk.” In fact, there’s great fun to be had with this conscious collision of Old English prose and the contemporary vernacular. The number “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare” suggests as much.

Keenan Wynn and James Whitemore are brought on to thoroughly liven up the second act as a pair of neighborly enforcers sent to visit Fred in his dressing room. They go so far as becoming a part of the production as it continues to go off script and off-the-rails. Because Kate is intent on running off with her rich boyfriend Tex (a Ralph Bellamy-type), and Graham connives to keep her around, pulling the heavies into his plan.

It feels strikingly like a His Girl Friday (1940) deal as we see our leads gravitating toward others while never finding it within themselves to completely forsake their former spouses, in spite of the mutual distaste. It’s indisputable, but it also suggest the fire still kindling between them.

Hermes Pan adds to his illustrious body of work while Bob Fosse’s choreography is almost a blip on the radar. Even then,  it’s strangely singular and expressive, charting his course toward The Pajama Game and many, many more projects to come.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller’s dancing reminds us that she’s the purest performer on taps within this picture and when given free-range, she follows up her first routine with continued verve. She does feel all over the place, but that can mostly be attributed to her character. In fact, one could affirm that she rightfully earns some of the most memorable screen time based on the uninhibited vivacity she showcases.

In its waning moments, it looks like the fictional production has finally met its inevitable end: a crash-and-burn finale, as the understudy has to rush on to take the place of the departing Catherine. In an off-the-cuff moment, playing opposite his future father-in-law’s question of where his daughter might possibly be,  Fred mutters, “Right now she should be flying over Newark.”

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Thus, Kiss Me Kate, at its most inventive, is hyper-aware of its meta qualities; this story-within-a-story tracing the line between the artificial and the reality projected up on the screen that is itself a fabrication of light and images. It reaches out further than most films of this type because its original release in 3-D, while admittedly a gimmick to snag the TV generation, also accentuates this razor-thin dividing line between the cinematic space and the space that the viewer occupies.

However, ultimately the production though laced with humor and vengeful lovers, quality choreography, and flamboyant set design and costuming, comes off strangely hollow in its landing. Because the ending feels false and inherently wrong.

Here is a man who is conceited and has no sense of self-sacrifice or concern for others, as farcical as he might be. Again, we could argue that Kiss Me Kate is solely entertainment, only occupying cinematic space. And yet we brushed up against everything thus far. How are we to make distinctions? In the real world, even in the 1950s and especially now, there is no excuse for Graham.

Surely, like any person, he deserves a second chance and the grace that comes from a person willing to forgive. However, one might question the way in which Lilli flies back to him. There seems to be no regard for his past indiscretions just as there’s no conversation to be had about the flings they’ve both been having on the sides. Because Kate is herself a bit of an entitled snob. And there you have this falseness most fully realized.

Life is a lot more complicated than film reality. Kiss Me Kate cannot quite pull it off because it inserts the uncluttered, picture-perfect Hollywood framing on the storyline.

Ironically, it’s actually the performance that gets continually disrupted while so-called real-life falls into place nearly seamlessly. So in the end, it matters whether you care about making a distinction between the stage and what happens backstage in the purported reality.

Because at least we can all agree that none of it is actually before us in the flesh where real lives are at stake. We can keep it at an arm’s length and laugh along with it without allowing it to influence our perceptions of this world.

Taken as such, Kiss Me Kate is a coruscating delight bursting forth, rather agreeably, with comedy and song. It can be absorbed merely as diverting Technicolor entertainment for sure. However, when we allow it to reach out and influence our worldview in other ways that’s where we might falter.

3.5/5 Stars

The Love Parade (1929): Ernst Lubitsch’s First Talkie

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Looking over it now, The Love Parade just might be one of the finest pre-1930s musicals, capitalizing on the rising trend thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody. Whereas many of its contemporaries are mainly interesting as historical relics, this Lubitsch comedy still has some inspiration to offer, riding on its own merits alone.

The acclaimed German director’s first sound project shows no signs of a needed learning curve all but translating his command of the medium into the sound era with ease. Yes, the set-ups appear choppy due to the editing of sequences.  True, the action is often static because the camera was yet to be truly mobile. But this is also part of Lubitsch’s deceptive skill in incisively drawing our eye to whatever will give us the clearest visual cue to the jokes that he’s staging.

It’s rarely a cluttered experience though Chevalier adds to it by breaking the fourth wall, even intermittently speaking in French and English. In fact, a separate cut of the picture was made in the French-language. Also, much of the sound design was synced afterward. Both are realities of the changing times and what talkies meant for the evolution of a global industry.

But what is most striking of all is, again, Lubitsch’s impeccable handle of the visually comic because that’s something that translates from the silent days exquisitely and far from using dialogue as a mere crutch or idle chatter, in its very best applications, it’s used to punctuate the scenes with a gag.

The same goes for noises and sounds. Far from oversaturating our ears, Lubitsch almost uses them strategically giving each more import whether a whistle, a song, or erupting cannon fire. There’s a cadence in the use of noise to underscore scenes, and it feels succinct and genuinely artful.

It’s true that it’s difficult to go backward, but sometimes you wonder if filmmakers should.  Allow me to explain. The likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock had substantial success in the modern era of filmmaking and yet they never lost their early sensibilities. It goes allow with this innate principle suggesting moviemaking was a visual medium above all else. Of course, for Hitch that meant he was the master of staging thrillers. Lubitsch will always be remembered as the king of sophisticated comedies of manners. The Love Parade is little different.

Sylvania is a country with marriage on the mind. It seems like everyone from subjects to royal courtesans are constantly obsessing over who is to be married and when. Most important of all is their Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) who has yet to tie the knot. It’s very much an unfortunate circumstance for the honor of the kingdom.

However, their savior just might come in the form of Count Alfred Renard who resides as the military attache in the Sylvanian embassy in France. But he also happens to be quite the lady’s man. It is true that the somehow deeply-rooted stereotype of Frenchmen as witty, suave romantics must at least, cinematically, start with Maurice Chevalier, before making its way through Charles Boyer and later generations.

He and the Queen gladly trade repartee in the winking song “Anything to Please the Queen” and the comic conundrum proceeds from there. He is sent before her to be reprimanded for his indiscretions, and she finds she rather likes him.

Their first dinner together carries the rapt attention of many invested onlookers from all walks of life and any number of perches, from ladies in waiting to cabinet members, and then lowly servants played uproariously by Lupino Lane and the ill-fated Lillian Roth.

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However, an onslaught of bad luck comes in full force on the wedding day including whistling, mirrors, and the piece de resistance: a cross-eyed man. Chevalier shudders at the thought until his worst nightmares come true in the form of a palace guard (Ben Turpin). The vows are spoken with a twist as the minister confirms, “I pronounce you wife and man.”

It’s summed up succinctly by one of the portly advisers (Eugene Pallette) as such, “Man is man and woman is woman. No man can be a wife.”

Perhaps it seems a silly bit of conflict and yet even now, it feels cutting-edge for the day because men still feel emasculated for such a thing. We are still so used to being the breadwinners and in positions of power almost a century later. Yes, it’s played for a certain comic effect, but the fact is MacDonald has the position of true influence as ruler of the kingdom, while Chevalier is brought up to her station in life by the title bestowed upon him when he becomes her husband.

Jacques and Lulu revel in the fact that they can get married without the complications of class in “Let’s Be Common,” backed by some stellar physical acrobatics verging on vaudeville-style slapstick. And still, marital discord exerts itself behind the palace doors. Renard is unhappy with his pointless life. Meanwhile, downstairs the male and female servants quarrel over whether or not “The Queen is Always Right.”

Is it a spoiler to admit that some concession is arrived at in the end, for the sake of love? I don’t think so, and Chevalier and MacDonald shine in the first of several pairings together. What we are left with is that unprecedented blending of sauciness and sophistication afforded to Lubitsch, particularly at this time in history, without the harsh enforcement of production codes for a few more years. What is more, the films arguably only became richer over time from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) to Rouben Marmoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and finally The Merry Widow (1934).

3.5/5 Stars

The Gay Divorcee (1934): The Astaire & Rogers Foolproof Formula

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The plots to the Astaire and Rogers musicals are usually deceptively simple. Thus, thanks be to their dancing transcending it all. The affair opens in some posh corner of Europe where the always dithering Edward Everett Horton is sitting with Fred Astaire who has to prove his identity to get out of paying a check. They’ve both conveniently misplaced their wallets. After a routine complete with pretty girls and dancing fingers, he gives an impromptu performance of his own bringing down the house and proving he really is world-renowned performer Guy Holden.

Later on, at the docks, a fellow American, arriving in England (Ginger Rogers), is meeting her lovably fatuous aunt (Alice Brady) only to have her dress accidentally caught in a travel trunk. The man who comes to her aid and subsequently rips her garment is, of course, Astaire. Being a gentleman and genuinely taken with her, he gives her his coat to cover up, but the damage has already been done. She finds him a bit bothersome. You can tell it instantly by every look of disdain she throws him. Meanwhile, he eats up any pretense to talk with her, though she dismisses his advances. It’s how the story always goes.

He turns his resolve to find the girl, matched with the everyday occurrence of getting dressed to go out on the town, into the number “Needle in a Haystack,” which has Astaire exuding his typical elan on taps. Of the millions of women around, he’s looking for one very particular needle, and he’s not above canvassing the streets, even if it’s an insurmountable task, made increasingly apparent through montage. It goes to all this trouble only to very coincidentally rear-end her as he’s rubbernecking (adding yet another reason for her not to like him much).

Meanwhile, Egbert (Horton) is looking to make his father proud of him in the family law firm, though he’s never seemed to have much gumption or stomach for the trade. His worst nightmare, Hortense (the same Alice Brady) comes back into his life also bringing with her the proposition of a case that just might be his opportunity to assert himself. Mimi, the same woman constantly harried by Holden, is looking to get out of a loveless marriage and so the inept lawyer suggests setting up a rendezvous with a professional gigolo to end the union for good.

He invites Guy along for the ride knowing the sunshine, gaiety, and girls might do him good as a distraction for his lovesickness. He needs to forget this girl he’s so taken with. However, they’ve failed to compare notes. It doesn’t take extra-sensory perception to read where the picture will go from here, in fact, there’s hardly a need to continue. The human mind might do a finer job in its vivid imagination to derive what complications will arise from such a premise.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Edward Horton doing a little saucy jig, “K-nock K-nees,” which also proves an early showcase for 40s wartime superstar Betty Grable if you’re able to recognize her. Likewise, in the subsequent scenes, Eric Blore is delightful as ever, this time as a waiter with his typical crisp & snooty delivery, ably sparring with the comic foibles of Horton.

Fortuitously, he turns up in several more instances to serve up the tea things along with idle chatter to anyone who will lend an ear. Astaire and Rogers’s first number together is the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” only to birth further misunderstands thanks to one ironic code phrase, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Don’t ask for an explanation.

“The Continental” is an impressively glossy number that until Gene Kelly conjured up his American in Paris (1951) dream sequence, clocked in as the industry’s longest continuous dance number. Some of it involves our leads, but not the whole thing. It feels much more like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

And yet right there you understand the exquisite nature of Astaire and Rogers because they made dancing into something intimate and personal. It was between two people as much as it was a lavish production number, and that’s what resonates with us even after the curtain falls and we’ve been wowed by the expansive nature of the staging.

Yes, the geologist husband finally makes his token appearance as expected and the hired romancer Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) continues to bumble along in an effort to play his raffish role. Of course, Astaire proves far more convincing in the part of the lover finally getting the girl as expected.

Does any of this matter? Hardly. But it’s one final opportunity to get Astaire, Rogers, Blore, Horton, and everyone else in a room together. That’s surely enough to recommend this frolicking trifle of gaiety starring everyone’s favorite couple on taps. There’s nothing better to lift your spirits than Astaire and Rogers.

4/5 Stars

Amarcord (1973): Life is a Carnival

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The most magical moments of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord occur at the very beginning and near the end. First, when the puffballs flutter through the air as a sign of spring and then, later, when a soft layer of powder signifies the advent of winter.

It’s a reminder of nature, of seasons, of how life is made up of rhythms, from beginning to end. If you live in California you miss out on that kind of tangible expression of life. You cannot capture the lyrical quality as the Italian maestro captures them over his vignette-driven spectacle with the aid of editor Ruggero Mastroianni.

Part of the reason I loved living abroad — in Japan specifically — there was some sense of the seasons, the utter sereneness of new-fallen snow, and a word to describe the wistfulness that often goes along with nostalgia and the lasting impression of memories (“Natsukashii”).

Fittingly, “Amarcord” is a provincial Italian expression for “I remember,” and this film is full up on quaffs of nostalgia and playful observation from the always lively creative reservoirs of Fellini. You cannot acknowledge the satire of his film without appreciating the affection embedded within it. They are closely related. Because even as you see all the faults and foibles, you cannot help but cast a sympathetic eye on these imbeciles — at least the lovable ones.

If someone else did it, you would get the sense of something mean-spirited, but when it’s your own people and your own way of life, somehow it comes off as not only humorous and perceptive but surprisingly warm.

The pacing is free; the scenes as loose as can be. Our only real markers of change are the aforementioned seasons. Around them, we get to know people. Spring means puffballs but also the local burning of an effigy on a giant bonfire to bring in the new season, complete with firecrackers and festivities.

School life is a lark full of windbags and crotchety oddballs who obliviously try to impart knowledge to their pupils on the highest arts. Their study regimen includes Greek, mathematics, the frescoes of Giotto, ancient history, the relation between church and state in Mussolini’s society, and so on. Each is a lost cause.

Around the dinner table, Mama and Papa Biondi have raging fits in what we might deem typical Italian fashion. They’re constantly bickering and scolding the bambinos for every infraction. In some upside-down manner, it’s a sign of their love and concern.

It’s true the town’s adolescent population, including their son Titta, get up to all sorts of dirty tricks, languishing in their fantasies, and going to confession only out of duty to their parents. There’s nothing contrite about it. Perhaps they don’t know any better.

You can make this argument judging from more general observation. Through Fellini’s lens, a fascist nation under Mussolini is often ridiculous. Flirtatious “Bellas” like the town hairdresser Gradisca (Magli Noel) swoon with nationalistic fervor at rallies, races, Grand Hotels, and the triumphant passage of the SS Rex — a vessel of national pride. That is until it capsizes all the beaming onlookers in their dingies.

One is reminded life is simpler and full of everyday peculiarities. Take Uncle Teo who gets a day on the town, outside of the mental institution, only to spend most of it barricaded up a tree, proclaiming how he wants a woman. One can only imagine it must be a lonely, dreary place on the inside. Then, there are snowball fights in the streets with the paths carved out of the snowpack and Gradisca a perfect target for all the gamely youth.

Nino Rota’s score accentuates so much mood, so much atmosphere, adding to the visual carnival, like a jaunty march and it is, taking us through time and sending us to places all over the little town.

On this grand scale, I’m inclined to like the idea of Fellini’s carousel of images, at least more than the particulars. This whirling, lively, rendition of life in its march of time speaks to so much about existence itself. The themes of looking back at the old ways — with nostalgia — but then also picking apart where we’ve come from to see the flaws and the idiosyncrasies. Some worthwhile, others worth stripping away and dismissing.

One of the most alarming takeaways is just how bawdy Italian culture is. Now it’s nothing new, but we are reminded of uncomfortable truths. Like the fact, Gradica is the ravishing eye-candy for every leering male in town, young and old. It speaks to so much about the male heart and mind, obsessed as it seems to be with women as commodities.

Eventually, Gradisca finds a man, her “Gary Cooper,” and we don’t have much inclination if he’s worthy of her or not. Still, it signals a change. Her wedding is a joyous Italian affair, but it also signs the beginning of the end. It’s as if, when she goes, along with her goes all the trimmings of their youth.

I am reminded of one moment when Grandpa is wandering around aimlessly in the fog. He’s not exactly a saint either. Regardless, he loses his way and laments the fact there are no trees, no people, no birds, no wine. If this is death, he’s not one for it. The situation solves itself easily enough when a carriage rattles by, and he’s found to be right outside his house.

Could this be Fellini’s way to comment on the situation and then temper it so quickly? Because a lot of the characters in Amarcord seem to be caught in this oblivious sort of fog. The greatest tools at Fellini’s disposal are merriment, humor, and even vulgarity to try and defuse situations, whether about love, death, politics, religion, whatever it is. And it’s a relatively effective form of satire a lot of the time.

However, every once in a while you remember it can only get us so far. The “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” mentality, doesn’t quite fill one up with assurance. At least it’s not lasting. Because whether we like it or not, time is always high-stepping onward regardless of whether we’ve made peace with it or not. The turning of the seasons signify life and also death. No one feels that more than Titta. That’s what he’ll remember. Only time will tell if it gets any easier.

3.5/5 Stars