San Diego, I Love You (1944): Featuring Buster Keaton

12362-san-diego-i-love-you.jpgI came to this movie because it has San Diego in the title: my home away from home for some time. Taking stock of its assets is simple enough. It’s a B-grade film set during the War Years housing crisis. Judging by film output at the time like More The Merrier (1943) and Standing Room Only (1944), it seemed a very popular subject matter. But also crucial to this plot is the invention of a special one-man life raft. All the immediate details are of lesser concern.

It’s all an excuse for the “McCooley Republic” made up of patriarch Phillip (Edward Everett Horton), his eldest daughter Virginia (Louise Albritton), and four young boys, to travel down south toward the border. They pick up and leave behind pop’s monotonous job teaching the classics as a high school teacher in quaint Waterville, CA.

Spurred on by the prodding of his daughter, they look to get Phillip’s piece of ingenuity to the bigwigs in San Diego to see if they can land funding. One never knows what might be beneficial to the war effort (Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s Frequency Hopping anyone?).

What a lovely surprise we get not only Everett Everett Horton but also the ever huffy Eric Blore as Nelson the perpetually fired valet who is always left whimpering pitifully. Even “The Great Stone Face” himself turns in an extended cameo as a disgruntled bus driver who decides to break with the daily grind. Buster Keaton may have never reached the same apex of the 1920s, but it is unfair to say the rest of his career was pointless. He has a couple minutes of fun to offer us here driving his bus off-grid along the beach.

These are a few of the true nuggets of this picture, an obvious forerunner to many a run-of-the-mill TV sitcoms a generation later. What set many of those apart were not simply the situations but the casts they were able to wrangle together. Our romantic leads, by most accounts, are forgotten today. Louise Albritton is another perky girl-next-door for wartime audiences like a Betty Hutton (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Gale Storm (It Happened on Fifth Ave), or Jeanne Crain (Apartment for Peggy). Likewise, John Hall has a modicum amount of fame playing opposite Maria Montez in a string of exotic extravaganzas.

But the aforementioned veteran characters are enough to whet my appetite well nigh 10 years after their greatest screwball successes. The chance to see some dated footage of San Diego — a la Some Like It Hot (1959) — had me on the edge of my seat but alas, from what can be gleaned, most of the shots are on a studio backlot. Still, there are a few stray mentions of Balboa Park and sailing a raft to Point Loma and some scenes set at the San Diego Zoo. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

3/5 Stars

Is The Good Fairy (1935) Luisa Ginglebusher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Josef Von Sternberg always seemed preoccupied with telling stories involving places that he indubitably knew little about but therein lies the allure. He could develop the Moroccos, the Shanghais, the Macaos into places imbued with far more meaning than they probably ever could have in real life.

Because he is hardly working in reality but with the inventions of his own mind and he was a master when it came to setting the scene and texturing atmospherics. He was a world maker and one of the finest craftsmen in Hollywood exoticism.

The opening prologue juxtaposes the seedy underworld that we are about to witness to the last remnants of the Tower of Babel where Man coalesced in his indiscretions before being scattered over the ends of the earth. It proves to be a rather odd analogy as the film revolves around a velodrome of gambling — a pit of worldly devices that the camera slowly descends on.

Visually it’s the inverse of babel as our eye is led to sink into this world of Mother Gin Sling’s establishment, joining the ranks of Rick’s Cafe, the Cantina, and countless others in the pantheon of dubious melting pots of humanity captured on the screen.

We meet a fair many of the individuals who play a small part in her operation including Dr. Omar (Victor Mature) and Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), a young provocative beauty looking for a good time and a glimpse of the notorious proprietor.  Then our friendly neighborhood dragon lady (Ona Munson) makes an appearance and things are in full swing.

The kind Doctor easily distracted by an attractive young woman, lets himself get wrapped up with Poppy while still sharing drinks with Ms. Dixie Pomeroy. But this is only a minor spat.

The main problem is Mother Gin Sling’s who has been ordered to relinquish her property and move her establishment to the Chinese sector which is far less profitable. But being the conniving magnate that she is, she’s not about to go down without a fight before the New Year.

She will host a little dinner party inviting many prominent guests including Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). All of this feels fairly straightforward and mundane though there is an obvious sense that dark secrets are being veiled in shadows to be revealed at the most advantageous moment.

Though it never truly grips us with a substantial climax, the film’s laurels rest mostly on its setting and the breadth of its character reservoir. It always makes me sad to see Marcel Dalio relegated to a roulette man following the work he commanded in the films of Jean Renoir. Meanwhile, Eric Blore always delights me even in his smallest, most insignificant appearances. In this picture, he plays the Bookkeeper. There’s not much to be said about his cruciality to the plot but he’s delightful all the same.

The feisty Phyllis Brooks delivers an acerbic and spirited performance as the chorus girl that comes with a lot of panache even if it feels so at odds with the world she has fallen into. Perhaps that’s the point.

But rather remarkably her screen presence is only surpassed by Gene Tierney in a seemingly uncharacteristic role — though I admit that the assertion is made with a certain degree of foresight glancing over the extent of her career.

In Laura (1944),  Tierney played a character who was a femme fatale without ever trying to be — men simply got drawn under her spell but in Shanghai Gesture, there’s a markedly different glint in her eye. It’s probably the same glint that would make her so deliciously evil in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). But no matter, she’s a conceited and ungrateful woman with a compulsive nature for the roulette wheel. Thus, her main companion is not Dr. Omar but gambler’s fallacy.

While there are some enjoyable performances, the aforementioned providing perfect specimens, the holes or inadequacies of the cast in certain areas is also an obvious weak point. Yellowface and other types of whitewashing are not just a matter of bad taste they simply take the world of the film and make it feel a little bit hokey when you think of the alternatives.

It really is a shame that at the very least Anna May Wong couldn’t have donned the role of Mother Gin Sling, especially because she appeared prominently in Shanghai Express (1932). Some might consider this as a spiritual sequel to von Sternberg’s earlier film barring the absence of two of its finest assets, namely Marlene Dietrich and Wong.

True, once again even if she was cast, there could be another digression on perpetuating negative stereotypes but if you don’t even have a part, to begin with, that’s a whole different problem. No disrespect to Ona Munson whatsoever but she seems woefully miscast. Anna May Wong would have at least been a step in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of the Hays Code which called for a markedly different script and numerous rewrites. Much of the content changes were for its earthier more debauched aspects, but another crucial change was Dr. Omar replacing a character named Prince Oshima.

Instead of the plastic piece of eye candy Victor Mature, we could have had someone maybe a little more authentic like a Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo. And I’m not being very discriminating about acting styles just the fact that these men are actually Asian (not even Japanese) and they had some prominence in Hollywood. Just not enough to wind up in a film such as this — set in Asia — though completely enveloped in Hollywood’s own distillation of reality. Not even von Sternberg could save the film in that capacity with his production values. Still, fezzes are cool. It’s an undisputed fact. But if I had to make a personal preference I would take Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) to Victor Mature here.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Top Hat (1935)

tophat1Perhaps Astaire and Rogers most famous film together, Top Hat has them in top form once more, seemingly defying gravity at the full peak of their powers. The beauty of their partnership is that they’re able to tell the progression of a love story through dance, but they do it with such ease and grace it looks like so much fun. For a brief moment, you almost forget what the plot line of the movie is even about. It doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is these two harmonious beings in perfect unison with each other.

But for those who take some interest in the plot, it is once more a simple screwball story of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements. Jerry Travers is supposed to perform in the show of one Horace Hardwicke, played impeccably by the stuttering Edward Everett Horton. However, Jerry gets smitten with the girl downstairs, but she gets the wrong idea. After all, he is staying in Horace’s suite. They rendezvous in Italy at a lavish gondola getaway where they meet up with Horace’s wife Madge, the always entertaining Helen Broderick. She’s playing matchmaker for Jerry because he has a girl named Dale Tremont (Rogers), who she wants him to meet. Of course, they already know each other, but again she mistakenly believes he’s Horace.

It’s all very awkward, however, all Travers knows is that he’s infatuated with this girl so he goes headlong after her. She’s aloof with him and eventually tries to marry the overly-honorable Alberto Beddini as a defense. Horace over the entire course of the film is bickering with his butler Bates (Eric Blore) and it seems like he’s constantly getting thrown under the bus. But this time Bates does something that makes everyone happy. All that matter is that Astaire and Rogers are back together because in their universe anything else would be unthinkable.

Astaire’s opening number “Fancy Free” is especially lively setting the tone of the story, while “Isn’t a Lovely Day” taking place under the gazebo in the rain is an important starting point for the love story. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” honestly is not one of my favorite numbers, but it is worth it alone to see Astaire twirl around with his stick using it to develop rhythm and act as almost a third leg.

An American classic from Irving Berlin, “Cheek to Cheek” is undoubtedly the apex of this film, because by now our stars are in love and in this dance they have entered almost a suspended state of bliss personified by their floating forms. All the other players fade away and the dynamic dancing duo gracefully glides into heaven together.

The final number “The Piccolino” is rather decadently extravagant to match the flamboyant set, but again when all else fades away and we are left with only Astaire and Rogers, that’s when the scene truly feels magical. It’s as if within all the noise there is once again a moment of beautiful intimacy. But intimate in the sense of two wonderful performers being seemingly so connected in their art form. They hold the sinews of the screwball romance together if only through their exquisite dances.

Most opinion on film is essentially subjective, and in my opinion Swing Time (1936) from the following year is a stronger picture. It has a few more memorable numbers and it is perhaps a little more well balanced all around. Although you do lose Edward Everett Horton for Victor Moore, a lot of the other players remain the same. Also, Top Hat‘s script feels a little weaker, not that it’s of great importance. Because after all, most people don’t go into a film like this ready to analyze the script. We want to be dazzled by two of the great icons of Hollywood, as much now as during the Depression years, and they certainly do that to perfection.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Swing Time (1936)

swingtime1I wondered to myself, after watching Swing Time once again, if anyone else might have easily taken Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ places as films greatest dancing couple, and then I quickly discarded this heretical idea. They appeared in 10 films together with this film directed by George Stevens being there six pairing. By now they’re a well-oiled, beautifully elegant dancing machine.

As with many of their films the genre is a hybrid of a screwball comedy and a musical which of course most importantly showcases their legendary dancing prowess.

Astaire is the carefree gambler and hoofer “Lucky” Garnett who gets duped out of his marriage by his buddies and must head to New York to prove himself to his fiancees’ father. He goes off with his faithful friend “Pop” (Victor Moore), who also has a penchant for card tricks. They have nary a penny in their pockets and he meets a pretty young dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) over a stolen quarter.

From her point of view, he just won’t stop leaving her alone and he just wants to get the chance to dance with her. Astaire and Rogers’ first number together, “Pick Yourself Up,” is a peppy piece that sets the bar for the rest of the film. They swivel, glide, and sway, perfectly in sync, orbiting one another. And for the rest of the film whenever they dance together they never seem to lose that innate connection.

As far as the screwball aspect goes, Lucky is tight on money resorting to gambling for some new duds, but his chance to dance with Penny is his big break. They just need an orchestra to accompany them. The only problem is someone else owns the orchestra and the orchestra leader Ricardo is also madly in love with Penny. In a shady set-up all across the board they draw cards for the contract and “Lucky” wins. He and Penny have a growing connection, but he still feels guilt based on his attachment to his fiancee Margaret. And of course his life catches up with him and Penny finds out while simultaneously the orchestra is taken away from him.

It must happen this way so they can realize how much they mean to each other and share one final dance together. Out of all the misunderstandings comes a lot of big laughs and in the end, everybody thinks it’s funny. Since Ricardo loses his pants, Penny decides to marry Lucky after all and everything is right in the world of Astaire and Rogers.

You don’t necessarily watch a film like this for the acting, but thanks undoubtedly to the studio system we have a colorful supporting cast including the two-timing but lovable Pop, Mabel is a wisecracking riot in her own right, and although his screen time is short, Eric Blore is enjoyable as the hissy dance studio boss Mr. Gordon.

“The Way You Look Tonight” is an absolute crooner classic and aside from the initial number it can be heard throughout the film in refrains. The same goes for “A Fine Romance” which feels antiquated, but it still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable in all of its reprises. But the main attraction is, of course, the dancing, from the personified joy of “Waltz in Swing Time” to the graceful gliding of “Never Gonna Dance.” If you set aside the unfortunate blackface for a moment the Bojangles shadow dance is a stroke of creative genius that gives off an amazing result while showcasing Astaire’s individual skill.

From someone with two left feet, this film makes me want to at least attempt to dance because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turn dancing into an almost mystical experience. How does he prance and twirl so effortless on the floor? How does she do it equally as beautifully and in heels no less? It looks like they’re having so much fun and yet, in reality, they practiced for hours upon hours to get it right.  Amazing stuff.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_TravelsIf Preston Sturges was a comic wordsmith then Sullivan’s Travels was his magnum opus. It has so many pieces worth talking about, despite it only running a meager 90 minutes. It is the kind of comedy that director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) would want to make, and it’s a message movie against message movies. It’s a film about filmmaking (including mentions of Capra and Lubitsch). There’s even a scene where an ecstatic actress goes racing around the studio lot, completely disregarding the period piece she is acting in. The script has the undeniable frenetic poetry of Sturges and even takes time to wax philosophical at times. Sullivan opens the film with some very grandiose vision of what film can mean for the everyday filmgoer (I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!).

Sturges’ film is scatterbrained and insane in its pacing at times. Take the opening speeding sequence as a newly bedraggled Sullivan tries to shake his caravan so he can really get a feel for the common man’s plight. It almost gives you a heart attack as they blitz down the road, people and everything imaginable flying every which way. It’s faster than most modern action sequences could achieve.

However, although Sturges is undoubtedly known for the strength of his scripts, it’s important to note that Sullivan’s Travels has some wonderful visual sequences. Many of them lack his typical lightning dialogue and instead rely on music and images to develop scenes. Sometimes it’s the plight of the homeless on the road as Sullivan and his companion make their way across country. I would have never thought of this comparison before, but sometimes his heroes elicit the same type of empathy that would be given to Charlie Chaplin or the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times. In that same way, this film so beautifully fluctuates between comedy and heartfelt drama.

Another beautiful thing about Sullivan’s Travels is the cast. Our star is Joel McCrea, who is sometimes known as the poor man’s Gary Cooper, but that is rather unfair because he’s a compelling actor in his own right. Just look at this film to prove his case. Also, he and Veronica Lake (Ms. Peekaboo Haircut herself) have a fun relationship going from the beginning when they first meet in a diner. You might say the shoe’s on the other foot since she thinks she’s doing a good deed for this down on his luck nobody. She has no idea that her “big boy” is actually a big shot movie director. However, it makes no difference, because in some ways she feels responsible for him, and so she takes part in his noble experiment even afterward. That’s where we build respect for them, and she, in turn, falls for him. It’s what we want as an audience. And we finally get it when Sullivan beats his death and a chain gain to return to civilization. His nagging wife has married some other boob, so Sullivan gets his girl.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but it definitely seems like they don’t make character actors like they used to. It helps that Sturges has a stock company of sorts and the studio system probably helped in propagating certain actors. However, there’s no doubt that players like William Demarest and Porter Hall are so memorable. Their voices. Their look. There’s no escaping them and there are numerous other faces that you get deja vu with. We’ve seen them before somewhere and just cannot place it.

Within this whole story of comedy, romance, and a heroes journey, there is, of course, a moral. However, I don’t mind Sturges and his simple didacticism. Because he ditches high rhetoric or sickening idealism for a simple conclusion (There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh). A Pluto cartoon short that brings a few giggles can be just as impactful in this world of ours compared to the next big Oscar drama. That’s what Sullivan’s Travels led to. A change in perspective through a hilarious itinerary.

5/5 Stars