La Visita (1963): Commedia all’italiana and The Human Heart

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The premise of The Visitor is born in a rapid succession of images and shots. It’s a meet-cute correspondence so-to-speak as an attractive young woman venturing into her 30s looks to find an eligible man to invite into her home on some kind of ill-defined get-to-know-you basis.

It would not be possible without an advert in a newspaper fishing for a husband who meets certain basic qualifications. It’s not quite a blind date, but it might as well be. It somehow feels akin to the hook-up, internet, online dating culture we are awash in during the 21st century. At least, this is the 1960s alternative.

But lest one gets the wrong impression, it also feels a bit like 84 Charing Cross Road, except there is no pretense of books. They’re two lonely people looking to get together with someone for the sake of companionship. If they’ve read the Good Book, they know it’s not good for man (or woman) to be alone.

The pretty single woman, Pina, waits for the train from Rome bringing her mystery man. Sandra Milo though still her beautiful self all but transforms into a different woman than most are normally accustomed from her in anything from the director’s earlier Andua or Fellini’s 8 1/2.

If you’ve seen anything from Divorce Italian Style to Two Women, you might not be totally surprised (or scandalized) by the misogyny, but somehow it never feels right because it reflects the lustful intent in the collective hearts of men. It’s not the actions that are most troubling; it is what they suggest about society-at-large. When the colloquial name for someone is “Miss Booty,” you realize the seat of the issue.

Because as Pina brings this bookish-looking fellow named Adolfo (Francois Perier) back to her humble abode, the cringe-worthy gaze of the camera — his gaze — continues to dictate the picture. What we have before us is obviously in the mode of so-called “Commedia all’italianaor “comedy the Italian way.”

It’s the Italian spin on the sex comedy, which in Hollywood would look a bit more like Pillow Talk or at the very least Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell. And yet unlike Hollywood, there seems to be little narrative drive. The picture is contented to amble along, which can be both its greatest blessing and a defining curse.

At its best, it casts a sardonic eye at the fragilities and flaws running deep within Italian culture and certainly all its romantic dalliances. But there is a fine line between reveling in the passionate desires and simultaneously trivializing this pervasive trend in society.  There’s an effort to try and smooth it over with humor.

The quirks are present in full force. A parrot sounding unmistakably like Donald Duck and a turtle named Consuelo. Local weirdos abound including an oafish peasant ready to throw jealous temper tantrums and get any sort of rise out of the visiting Roman that he can.

Throughout their courtship, recollections coming stream back whether it’s work — the purportedly well-off bookkeeper is actually hated by his boss. They’ve also maintained relationships in a laundromat and with an itinerant truck driver, respectively, never quite finding time to talk about their former lovers. Perhaps it just slips their minds…

Dinner provides another telling arena. As the man gets more comfortable with himself, we begin to see a bit more of who he is, especially piggish, gobbling away at her dinner and relishing in all the gluttony before him to satiate his appetite. Likewise, there’s the youthful siren (Angela Minervini) tugging at him, reminiscent of Marcello’s desires for Stefania Sandrelli in Divorce Italian Style.

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Except there’s no lacquered pretense of suavity or manners —  not really. The pudgy face, bespectacled lout is precisely that and his interactions with the flaunting girl prove painful to watch. This relationship with Chiaretta comes to a head at a gathering outdoors where all the teens and adults mingle over dance. The wheels fall off the cart. Pina is hurt and feels betrayed by her now uninhibited man. It doesn’t come out immediately. Still, it’s there.

Eventually, she lashes out at him, for his arrogance, his treatment of animals, and of people, including herself. She has a point, and don’t get me wrong; he’s completely deserving of her wrath. But if he gets berated, I might be deserving of a few choice words along with most everyone else. He woefully admits that this is what happens to one living alone. We cannot condone his behavior. It’s a sorry excuse and yet…the harrowing thing is how mundane he is in his substandard treatment of others.

Can we conveniently write them off as lonely, insignificant people trying to get by in the world? I’m not sure. Will we enter the insidious gray area of writing off his behavior or condoning it? It’s possible. I didn’t enjoy being subjected to the utter pitifulness of it all and I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit seeing some of their qualities reflected right back at me. We are not immune to the loneliness they feel. We see all their defects.  Can we acknowledge our own?

This final question remains: Will they find their happiness or live a life weighed down by this sense of miserable drudgery? Redemption begins with not simply a change of actions but a change in heart. It always strikes me Italian-style comedy rarely seems possible without some manifestation of human tragedy. There’s no more human way to grapple with our own boorishness, our own misapprehensions, and our own inadequacies.

3/5 Stars

Go West (1925): Keaton & His Cow

320px-Keaton_Go_West_1925“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley

I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.

Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.

A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.

So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.

The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.

I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.

The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.

She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.

He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.

Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.

The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.

It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.

I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.

In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.

Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.

4/5 Stars

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928): Buster Keaton The Human Tumbleweed

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Whatever your thoughts on silent movies, be it based on misinformation, overt loathing, or verging on utter veneration, one has to admit there’s something to the simplicity of these films. And by simplicity, I’m referring to the construction of their stories. They rarely seem to get bogged down by detail. In fact, one could argue they’re at their best on this relatively basic plane. If you’re skeptical, you can call them tropes, maybe archetypes. Regardless, they tap into something universal, even primal.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a prime case study for what I’m considering. It’s a riverboat tale setting up a conflict between two families overlaid by a Romeo & Juliet romance and spiced up all together by its secret weapon and the main attraction: Buster Keaton.

The shoddy but well-loved Stonewall Jackson is another relic of the Confederacy, not unlike Keaton’s prized train in The General. In this case, it’s run by a grizzled veteran of the waters who is about to be pushed out by steep competition. His rival, too, is symbolic as the industrial-era magnate taking over the waterways to go with his hotels and other ancillary attractions. There’s also nothing subtle about his name: King.

The next development is about as absurd as you can get. The steamboat’s captain gets word his son is arriving from boarding school to assist him. He hasn’t seen the lad since infancy and expects a big strapping fellow — not unlike himself. Set up by a prolonged “white carnation gag” full of misidentification, he winds up with timid, squat Buster Keaton to call son. This shrinking schoolboy is a far cry from what he hoped for, and he’s a bit begrudging.

Their ensuing trip to a hat store not only records the contemporary culture’s affinity for a different brand of headwear but also manages to sneak in a nod to Keaton’s ubiquitous pork pie. He slips it off quickly as if afraid someone might recognize him and cause him to break character.

The paces to follow are not surprising. His beautiful and vivacious school chum is the daughter of King. They hold a puppy-like love for one another even as their fathers continue to feud. Just to make ourselves clear, none of this matters all that much.

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The secret to Keaton is his innate understanding of the visual gag that could make his brand of comedy funny and, as a result, his stoic everyman too. Stretched out on a plank between two boats — trying to cloak himself in darkness — there’s a shot of King’s boat, and we know they will be lurching forward as they tug at the ropes. He’s going to end up in the drink.

But of course, that doesn’t happen. At least not immediately — his weight perfectly balanced so he juts out on the board like a cantilever, seemingly oblivious of how close he came. So unaware in fact, he tumbles in seconds later. It plays with our perceptions in the most fundamental ways. With irony at his disposal, he milks the laugh and makes it something more compelling and lasting, even to the point of its foregone conclusion.

Later, he raids the rival riverboat in pursuit of his love as his father’s own pride and joy is subsequently decommissioned. His feud with King is exacerbated, and he gets slammed with time in the clink for defying the law.

All these beats are again mundane. They don’t tell us much nor surprise our expectations. Fortuitously, inclement weather comes and Keaton is once more provided a whirling dervish of natural disasters to carry him away in the throes of comedy. Again, this all continues functioning in spite of the story.

Because I’ve dealt with typhoons before first hand — umbrellas upturned in an instant — but this is ridiculous. It defies logic, mass, and normal feats of human ingenuity, but those are the riches of the moviemaking industry and Keaton’s comedy, as facades of entire buildings topple around the human tumbleweed.

He’s whisked away on hovering beds, which might as well be a transplanted flying carpet from Arabian Nights, leading into one of his most iconic and death-defying setups. Again, the visual has primacy, and it works on principles as old as time. We crave security. We fear harm and dismemberment. In all his pluckiness, Keaton takes them on and somehow prevails.

There are a couple moments where it’s like he’s literally suspended in air, fighting against the wind to stand upright, until he’s forced to split the difference. Also, true to form, he uses what feels like a few vaudevillian sleights of hand, supplied by curtains, trapped doors, and a nack for all things physical.

What I admire about Keaton is how he manages to do things that still take the breath away even if only for an instant. He is a bit of a magician and yet he lets us in on the tricks, and he lets the audience take part in them with him — to think we know more than him — and then he proceeds to still pull one over on us.

Even if his character is unwitting, somehow his body and he, as an entity, always seem to know just the right step or movement; it’s just idiosyncratic enough to work in the scenario so he comes out on the other side all in one piece.

When he finally takes command of the ship hopping to and fro, scurrying there, yanking this cord here, it feels like Buster Keaton at the height of his powers, and it shows how this scrawny little guy could be so resourceful on his feet.

Mind you, it’s not just a matter of our story’s hero coming into his own, but it’s a practical expression of the actor’s own prowess — he is an unswerving force of nature packed into what might seem to be a slight frame. He really and truly is a marvel. Because “The Great (Wet) Stone Face” transcends Steamboat Bill Jr. In fact, he is Steamboat Bill Jr. The movie as well as the man.

4.5/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

The Major and The Minor (1942) and The Taking of Sudan

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Billy Wilder obviously got his start in screenwriting but much like Preston Sturges before him, he desperately wanted creative control to sculpt the vision of the meticulous scripts he helped forge with writing partner (and producer) Charles Brackett.

He got his breakout chance with The Major and The Minor and hardly squandered the opportunity. This might sound silly and high-minded given the plot of the picture:  a young woman posing as a child to claim half-fare on the train to her home state with ensuing complications…

However, the film flows not only out of the script but the execution and total commitment to the gag by Ginger Rogers. At first, it seems like a curious decision. She went from lavish musicals and heady drama to something so zany. Even today her legacy is first and foremost galvanized out of the magic she created on taps with her legendary partner Fred Astaire.

And yet, she took a chance on the neophyte because he had charisma and a gentlemanly manner, and she wholeheartedly believed in his talents. If you take a look at his trajectory after The Major and The Minor, her observations were very well-founded. From these promising albeit still humble beginnings, Billy Wilder shot to the top of Hollywood remaining one of its premier storytellers for decades.

It comes down to his almost holistic approach to comedy and drama. Somehow they become one and the same, tackled with the same gleeful, frequently trenchant wit no matter the subject matter.

This one begins with a typically pointed tagline: “The Dutch bought New York from The Indians in 1626 and by May 1941 there wasn’t an Indian left who regretted it.”

To put the statement in context, we get to know jaded and long-suffering Susan Applegate (Rogers) as she pays a visit to her latest client for a reinvigorating scalp treatment. Everyone including the bellboy gives her a whistle or a fresh word. It’s little better meeting Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) as he offers her a martini, and she retaliates with an egg shampoo. While she maintains her business-like demeanor, he begins to flirt, mix martinis, and tell a string of increasingly lame cracks, making her fume.

It’s the final straw. She’s had it with the Big Apple and is now prepared to catch the first train back to the welcoming cornfields of her native Iowa. Here’s the catch. They’ve upped the fare, and she doesn’t have the funds to cut it. This calls for a creative solution.

All these types of screwy comedies have to involve some harebrained scheme, the type of fodder made to order for some of the best I Love Lucy episodes. In a similar manner, what is a screwball comedy without a train?

Since she can’t swing a ticket back to her hometown, she dreams up the wackiest solution. Pose as a child… It’s just about as outlandish as it sounds and looks just as strange.

Ginger goes into the Women’s Lounge and comes out a certified bobby soxer no doubt ready to swoon over Frank Sinatra. It becomes increasingly evident we are witnessing a forerunner to Some Like it Hot, as she pulls off the shenanigan with the help of a purloined balloon, a willing accomplice, and an extra high-pitched tone.

As an added alibi for the conductors, she fibs being of Scandinavian stock even speaking Swedish like the great Garbo (“I Want to Be Alone”). Wouldn’t you know, they catch her smoking underage, setting up the obligatory chase scene giving way to the ever-necessary meet-cute.

Enter Ginger Rogers into Ray Milland’s compartment. In a film crammed with cringe-worthy awkwardness, it has to be one of the definitive moments. To his credit, Milland does the storyline a service by committing to the setup in all earnestness. It’s possible to accept his candor, in various moments, chiding her for using her spare change to buy sweets or stumbling through “The Facts of Life.”

He legitimately believes this is a young girl he’s happened upon and treats her accordingly, even as the irony sets in. His one footfall is failing to defend her better against the ravenous boys under his tutelage.

Because he is a military man with a sterling record who, nevertheless, feels stuck in his current post at the military academy. His fiancee’s daddy is his commanding officer and Pamela (Rita Johnson) is used to having everything her way. So when she comes aboard the train to welcome her man home, boy, is she surprised to see another “woman” in his room (unbeknownst to him, of course). In jealous retribution, she sends a tray full of breakfast clattering into his face, which is more worthy of a few hearty chortles. The game is afoot now.

“Susu” as she’s now called is able to smooth things over while maintaining her cover and keeping the good major from public disgrace. As a reward, she gets to experience all the pleasures and perils of Wallace Military Institute, including Rita’s baby sister. However, the aspiring Madame Curie named Lucy, though initially skeptical becomes a willing accomplice in the other “girl’s” ever-evolving plans.

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What begins as a fundamental story of escape morphs into a mission of mercy to salvage the life of Phillip Kirby from soul-crushing mediocrity. On his behalf, “Susu” weathers an army of handsy young Cadette Adjutants, who have been trained in, among other things, “The Taking of Sudan,” a handy piece of history if you want to kanoodle.

Using her beguiling feminine wiles to her advantage, Applegate tries to snag the switchboard to send an outbound phone call to get Uncle Phillip’s orders altered. Not only does her ineptitude throw the camp into an uproar; she also raises suspicions.

It only makes sense that the academy’s ball is a space for everything to implode. But first, we must take a moment to acknowledge what a peculiar pairing it is having all the kiddos dancing with Ginger Rogers. Again, she takes it like a sport sans feathery boa or suave dance partner.

Although this is the least of her worries. Something is fated to go awry. It comes in the form of a ticking time bomb of a man who finds little Susu very familiar indeed. The final act falls heavily on the shoulders of the leads’ charismatic powers to rescue it from utter triteness.

Since I’ve been in the habit of mentioning Wilder in the same breath with Preston Sturges as of late, it’s fitting enough to note how The Major and The Minor steals liberally from The Lady Eve‘s playbook. In the end, the after-hours military maneuvers and “The Taking of Sudan” are its own contributions to the screwball genre courtesy of Brackett and Wilder.

3.5/5 Stars

The Palm Beach Story (1942): Another Screwy Sturges Freight Train

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“After you’re married… That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say!” – Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers

All the timeless Preston Sturges pictures have the pace of a freight train barreling down the tracks in loop de loops and figure eights. The Prologue of The Palm Beach Story sets up a raucous race to make it to a wedding ceremony involving a bride and a groom…and a woman tied up… It’s gone in a blink. Hold that thought.

Cut to present. There’s Franklin Pangborn, always hustled and harried. This time as an apartment manager trying to show off the new apartments he has for lease to the grouchy, incessantly deaf Wienie King and his bubbly wife.  These two initial scenes are textbook examples of how to juxtapose people and places for comic effect. In fact, sometimes Sturges will gladly lean into the joke before giving us any indication of what his story really pertains to.

When we finally find a premise, he’s already taken us for a spin. Because the previously revealed bride and groom, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), sunk all their money trying to get a bite — namely the $99,000 he needs to get his suspended airport project off the ground. As of right now, there are no takers, and their marriage has tanked. Strangely enough, they still love each other madly. At the very least, their constant quarreling seems to hint at their continued devotion. That’s the wrinkle.

She wants to get a divorce (sacrificially, of course) so she might hook a rich husband to pay for his pet project. He selfishly wants to stay married to her. He tries to hold onto her, racing out of their apartment, in only the bed linens, as she resolves to go to Palm Beach — to find herself a millionaire — for him.

Sturges relishes the comic situation, which verges on the risque, especially for the day and age. The script was even repeatedly balked at by the Production Codes for the very same reasons and still they manage to mention the word “sex” quite frankly (Gasp)!

What becomes most evident is this increasingly flippant disregard for the institution of marriage. The ensuing world and the situations arising make sense originating from a man who himself came out of affluent circles with a row of marriages left in his wake. He’s in a sense writing what he knows intimately while still utilizing his own idiosyncratic perspective.

It’s a glorious trip to Palm Beach as he loads the cars end to end with his stock company, comprising a traveling circus of dopey millionaires making up the Ale and Quail Club. Gerrie gratefully becomes their mascot as they pay her way to the far off land of the Florida coast.

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In typical Sturges fashion, he overwhelms the screen with the sheer force of bodies and figures from the likes of William Demarest, Al Bridge, and just about anyone else you’ve ever seen in a Sturges film before. They divert themselves with any number of dalliances including hiccups, trap shooting crackers, and nighttime serenades of “Sweet Adaline.”

What’s even more hilarious is how we never actually see these characters again. They serve their purpose and service the writer-director’s scatterbrained devices. The extended sequence functions as its own standalone vessel of amusement.

He really is the king of writing robust character parts that, while never throwaway, need not be overly important. Today it feels like every bit role must be functional. For Sturges, a character functions, first and foremost, if they add to the comic maelstrom he’s whipping up. When they serve their purpose he can zip onward toward further zaniness.

Likewise, aside from being entertaining, The Wienie King is Sturges’s great enabler within the entire picture, gladly shoveling out money as if it were nothing, for rent and plane tickets — whatever the story requires — and despite his apparent obliviousness, he has these near-surreal bouts of hyper-lucidity. In considering his character, one cannot help surmising a stopped clock is right twice a day – even a tone-deaf one.

There must be a story, but the script gladly supplies a vehicle full of hilarity to deliver the goods for the benefit of the audience. As we progress with the ever-whirling thingamajig of wackiness, there’s the introduction of Rudy Vallee. The former matinee idol shows a certain penchant for comedy in his own right, added to the Sturges hall of fame of crazy aristocrats.

His dry idiosyncrasies serve him well, from the methodical removal and placing of his specs to the ongoing accounting he does in his little black book. Even a couple rueful in-jokes to his earlier crooning days, including “Isn’t It Romantic?,” send a few knowing winks toward the perceptive viewer.

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Although she purportedly struggled with her director’s style of mile-a-minute dialogue, Mary Astor, nevertheless, does the corkscrew language a major service as the ably speedy-mouthed Princess Centimillia, who bowls one over with her mixture of glitzy upper crust exuberance and ready-made amorousness. The perfect foil for her dry brother dear “Snoodles.”

To round out the quartet (quintet if you include the single misfire Toto), Tom Jeffers arrives to reclaim his wife but finds himself being turned into a brother named Captain McGlue before he can get in a word edgewise. The quarreling goes on behind closed doors as estranged husband and wife both find themselves romantic objects — currently pursued by other people.

One can’t help to compare it to Midnight, the Billy Wilder penned film with all sorts of little white lies and shenanigans being pulled to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s true often the best screwball farces — including some of Sturges’s successes — involve people donning aliases with highly comic ends, of course. Even in this frenetic company, The Palm Beach Story might be more outlandish than most, on par with the rambunctious insanity of Some Like it Hot.

What a glorious wisenheimer Sturges is holding off on the one loose end we’ve been wondering about since the outset of the movie only for it to be the final payoff, setting in motion another story that we’ll never hope to see. Everything is bookended by this ultimate gag that plays as pure Sturges. He’s shoehorned the whole story just so he can swoop in from left field with the most propitious footnote.

At its best, The Palm Beach Story exudes all the zany charms of Sturges’ screwiest works between a finely wrought cast with plenty of whiz-bang patter that time and time again gladly succumbs to silliness. Preston Sturges does his secondary characters a major service, and they more than return the favor. It’s a picture totally stolen away by the supporting cast and rightfully so.

4/5 Stars

 

The Great McGinty (1940): Preston Sturges & Politics

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“If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics!” – William Demarest

The Great McGinty feels like a film of many notable firsts. The two most prominent ones being Preston Sturges’s first time in the director’s chair, famously agreeing to a salary of $10 for creative control of his screenplay. The second first has to be Brian Donlevy getting a break at a starring role, even if the picture itself was an inauspicious beginning. As an in-joke, he plays into his image as a heavy only to turn that on its head for something far more intriguing and intermittently hilarious.

We wind up in a banana republic for a hot minute. There’s the usual melange: dancing girls, sailors, drunks, and behind the bar is a very familiar face indeed. It’s the strangest of interludes for such an expedient picture and for a satire that will wind up whipping us all the way around the world to the grand ol’ United States of America. However, one should admit in the mind of such an inspired looney as Preston Sturges, the progression is as natural as X, Y, Z.

Because, formerly, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) was no better than a tramp before his bartending days.  However, even someone like him was a vital cog in the crooked methods employed by a dirty political machine. Led by a bigshot shyster (Akim Tamiroff), they conveniently pad the ballot boxes in the favor of their rather limp candidate.

In fact, they finagle the homeless vote in return for some hot soup and a couple of bucks in their pocket, getting it down to a very dubious science. Each ballot box is manned by an inside man who supplies a name to each new recruit with the deceased, the elderly, and the chronically infirm played by masquerading vagrants.

They’re an easy market to exploit because when desperation is your only guiding light, you’ll bend to any low for some grub. Only one man is cunning enough to take advantage of their shady business for his own benefit. Soon McGinty’s weaseled his way into over $70 bucks and his tough-guy act gets him in with the boss.

He starts out on the lowest rung as an enforcer but soon works his way up thanks in part to his self-assured charisma and the built-in brawn to back it up. When the old mayor gets tossed out on the waves of scandal, the time is ripe for a new up-and-comer. The recurring farce of the movie is how easily the Boss shifts between tickets and candidates with the system all but rigged his way regardless of political affiliation. Is it some uncanny portent Tamiroff originated from the Russian Empire by birth?

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The Great McGinty might feel like a one-joke pony if it solely relied on the ludicrous premise of a nobody jumping through the hoops to become mayor and then governor. Instead, Sturges fills out his story with the details of a real life, including the highlights of marriage to his secretary, the new home they purchase together, and the mammoth parade that is thrown in his honor to celebrate his ascension.

Muriel Angelus’s name has been all but buried under years of celluloid — this was her last picture in a truncated career — but she has surprising bearing and charm throughout the picture. One is briefly reminded of Madeleine Carroll. But either way, it serves the movie well to lean into this highly irregular and totally ill-proposed couple. Somehow she manages to be well-suited for Donlevy because they appear so diametrically opposed. His hard-nosed rough and tumble bravado constantly chafes against her inbred propriety and ready-made home life with two kids.

After all, their subsequent marriage is only meant to be a vehicle of convenience although it’s easy enough to infer…perhaps she loves him dearly but is also too proud to force her affections on him. He’s a numbskull, yes, but perhaps there’s some deep-rooted affection in him as well.

They shape one another. He becomes a father figure. Catherine encourages him to tap into his inherent decency and the slivers of goodwill she’s seen glimpses of, even as he feels content to let well enough alone, riding the machine all the way to the governorship.

On the other hand, sweatshops, tenements, and child labor all need a champion to hasten their demise. He has the chance to actually stand for something of substance, and Sturges suggests behind at least some cutthroat half-rate men stands a great woman. They can change for the better.

Admittedly, The Great McGinty is actually a much darker, more foreboding film than we might be initially be led to believe from a production headlined by Preston Sturges. It’s easy to start cross-referencing it with the political graft featured in some of Frank Capra’s notable works, even as the wit and jabs of cynicism of a similar nature would also find their way into the work of Billy Wilder.

Capra’s pictures like Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe probably lay into the graft and corruption harder, but they grant us a sincere happy ending to smooth everything over. Wilder would have to subvert everything to the very last line. And Sturges is more so in this camp although Wilder would come in his wake as another prominent writer-turned-director.

But the stock company is his alone, and he is totally devoted not only to the word on the page but the utter mayhem of it all. It’s a story of graft and corruption where the “bad guy” winds up playing barman alongside the man he was looking to bury earlier on. That in itself is the grand joke Sturges gives us as a parting gag. Thankfully, it doesn’t kill the satire of this otherwise unheralded comedy. In fact, it helps punctuate the utter lunacy of it all. 

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars