Murphy’s Romance (1985)

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Despite the pure 80s-ness of the synths, I cannot help but be charmed by Carol King’s vocals in the opening track to go along with an entire score she composed for this film. It introduces an understated tale of a young divorced mother (Sally Field) and her son (Corey Haim) who are setting up camp and a new life for themselves. It’s a real fixer-upper they’ve acquired, epitomized by Sally Field chucking her boot at a rat as it scurries back into the shadows. 

However, she is defined by a do-it-yourself mentality — the of kind quality we admire in her within the first few scenes. In spite of a lack of capital, they make the shell of a ranch into a real home that’s livable even as they are still trying to come to terms with the alien community they now find themselves in.

In many ways, the rural Arizona town proves to be an analogous slice of Middle America with much of what Martin Ritt captured over the course of his career from the Huds to the Norma Raes of the world. This particular one has a local druggist named Murphy (James Garner), a widower who drives an antique car with a windshield plastered with a couple of his prime causes.

In his first interaction with Mrs. Emma Moriarty, he describes his home impeccably with four words, “Small, warm, and nosy.” It becomes instantly familiar. What we have on our hands resonates with me for the simple fact I recognize this small town. Not because I lived in it — not by a long shot — but I’ve spent time in such places just passing through or visiting family. We see at least one old friend in Charles Lane, the chipper elderly man who has found love again at the ripe young age of 89.

Otherwise, Murphy is quite the local celebrity. It seems like every middle-aged lady is having him over for bridge or dinner — something nice like that — so much so that most of his evenings are booked up. He’s a generally hot commodity and people like him. Emma soon sees his charm too. She struggles to get a loan at the bank to jumpstart her business to train and board horses because she’s a woman. The town still holds to those archaic traditions.

Though he won’t give her money outright, Murphy does bless her in more subtle ways. First, by introducing her into the folds of the tight-knit community and also directing business her way — starting with the fine horse he buys at a local auction. It’s in these scenes Garner and Field build a rapport that feels about as genuine as they come. While not necessarily romantic, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry continues to grow. They care about one another.

The most obvious complication in the story occurs when Emma’s former husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) comes back to town. It’s as much to mooch money off his former spouse as it is to see their son whom he has all but neglected.  

The fact the casting seems poor might contribute to the fact that Field is simply such a mismatch for her husband. They have little in common as far as interest or vision or overall drive. He has zilch — prizing partying and good times over any type of breadwinning integrity. If anything she supports his leech-like ways.

A bit of Bret Maverick starts coming to the surface again, most memorably over a poker game where Garner coolly calls Bobby out to the porch to have a talk with him. He’s also not too interested in the gory human hamburger, monster movies at the local movie theater that coincidentally enthrall Bobby. This is coming from a man who hasn’t watched a movie since The Duke died. When he’s had enough he walks out and sits on a bench to chew the fat.  

As ludicrous as it seems, a bit of a tug of war begins. Even as Murphy feels a tad too old to be courting Emma, Bobby Jack has no right to her based on his lack of character. The older gentleman gets his new acquaintances into the Elk’s Club for Bingo night. There are ensuing feuds between Murphy and his jealous rival on the dance floor defusing themselves through comedy. Bobby’s renewed advances on Emma far from being passionate conclude with sneezing in the hay. Then, things take an even weirder turn when the loafing ex-husband gets his own visitor. 

Ultimately, it is a birthday part providing a stage to look over a life and give thanks for an existence full of relationships. We’re back to the small-town atmosphere again. The near lackadaisical pacing plays a part in it too. 

In an age of R-rated comedies, action films, and whatever else, Murphy’s Romance is in danger of being railroaded by its more ostentatious competition. But the fact there is no gratuitous sex or violence remains its ace in the hole. Instead, it relies wholly on the grace of its two stars who more than oblige.

Truthfully, in my mind, there would be little reason to watch this slight story without Sally Field and James Garner. The fact Brando was initially wanted for the part is nearly laughable. He couldn’t pull it off like his Sayonara (1957) costar and the chemistry with Sally Field would not have gelled in the same exquisite manner. 

Field lent such peppy candor to parts all the way back to her Gidget days, which saw her bloom into a quality talent with perennially accessible charm. It’s important for Garner to be just as approachable — a man who often asserted he never wanted anyone to catch him acting — he’s so natural, making it all look easy. We like him for it.

Their conversations amble along — the way real people interact — people who have made mistakes and deal with them in the normal way. People who manage kinship through an invitation for dinner there or a random act of kindness here. They harbor jealousy, don’t always say what they’re feeling, and their love language is connotated through quality time more than anything else.

Murphy’s Romance is charming for precisely this understatement. Tact is something so often lacking in this hypercharged world of ours. The romance mentioned in the title is warranted but some viewers might be taken aback by how it exerts itself. There is an underlying decency and a tenderness to it all.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

Noah Beery Jr. (1913-1994)

It’s putting itbeery-red-river lightly to say Noah Beery Jr. came out of an acting family. His father, and namesake, Noah Beery Sr., much like his son, was a character actor well respected during the dawn of the film industry. He appeared in both silents and talkies as diverse as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Young Noah’s uncle Wallace Beery achieved a wide degree of fame during the 1930s with such classics as The Champ (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), and Dinner at Eight (1933). Even Noah’s mother Marguerite Walker Lindsey was an actor at one point.

Thus, it makes complete sense that Noah Beery Jr. followed in the footsteps of the family lineage. Some of his most notable films included: Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Of Mice and Men (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Red River (1948), Jubal (1956), and Inherit the Wind (1960). And he could always be counted on to play a slightly pudgy, generally good-natured side kick or victim. That was his niche in Hollywood and it served him well even if it was not the most prominent of careers. However, it would prove useful in his later years.

Noah_Beery_Jr-stillFor most of us, including myself, Noah Beery Jr. will always and forever be the beloved “Rocky,” the concerned and often comical father of Private Investigator James Rockford (James Garner) on The Rockford Files (1974-1980).  What made the show work was the fact that they gelled so well together, because the roles already seemed to fit who they were so perfectly. It could have been just another cop show from any decade really, but that duo made the show a cut above. We wanted to watch them together, because it was good old-fashioned fun and we actually cared about them as individuals.

Fittingly Beery and Garner began in westerns. Beery in mostly films and Garner as the gambling drifter Bret Maverick in the TV western Maverick. By the 1970s they were both a pair of vets and the chemistry they created was perfection. There was no need to don a role, because they appeared to be playing themselves or at least the version of themselves that they had played for so many years now.  It felt like a genuine relationship between a son and his father. Even facially they share some resemblance.

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I truly love James Garner, undoubtedly like many others. He made the Rockford Files  a perennial favorite, but Rocky gives the character of Jim even more depth. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that in the world of fictional television parents Rocky is one of my personal favorites. Maybe he feels different than most because his son is grown up, but he still has such a tremendous relationship with him. Rocky’s a bit of a country bumpkin,and still a generally caring man who worries about his son and can be a nag like any good parent. He has to let Jim be, and yet that doesn’t mean he can’t worry about him still.

Invariably some of the greatest moments in Rockford came not in the climatic car chases or frequent fist fights (which are great!), but in the equally frequent family squabbles between father and son. Maybe Jim borrowed something like Rocky’s truck or Rocky needs a favor, but in every one of these instances we feel connected with these two. Their lives play out in that beat up Malibu trailer much like our lives play out in reality. They come across as so human, and that has been rewarded over the years by a dedicated fan base.

I just hope no one every calls me “Sonny.” Rocky can get away with it but no one else! Here’s to you Noah Beery Jr. Here’s to you Rocky!

Move Over, Darling (1963)

Move_Over_Darling_-_PosterMove Over, Darling is a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940) and the unfinished Something’s Got to Give (1962). Thus, a Marilyn Monroe & Dean Martin vehicle ultimately turned into a Doris Day romantic comedy with James Garner and Polly Bergen. The dynamic feels so different and yet it ends up fitting nicely into the Doris Day canon. James Garner is always a fun actor and he plays an enjoyable role opposite Day.

The third time is still the charm with a plot involving a wife who is thought to be dead and returns after 5 years on a deserted island. Meanwhile her husband has moved on finally with a new wife who he has just recently married. One husband, two wives. That’s frowned upon in American society so he must figure out how to navigate these choppy marital waters. There are plenty of laughs in this screwball type plot line even if it is worn thin by this point.

The cast is full of great character players including Thelma Ritter, a very funny Edgar Buchannan, Don Knotts, John Astin and Chuck Connors. In this regard it is fun to compare and contrast the roles from the previous renditions such as Don Knotts versus Wally Cox as the shoe salesman, and so on.

It’s not a great film but certainly an enjoyable one full of marital mishaps and screwy situations. Not much more you can ask for so move over, darling and enjoy the show! Here’s to Doris Day who is still with us, James Garner who recently left us and a whole host of others.

3.5/5 Stars

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

2e4c1-localsheriff5Funeral sequences are a mainstay of the western genre because they give us a chance to peer inside of characters and examine the time and place that is the west. It can be tough, hard, and most certainly brutal. Support Your Local Sheriff is a barrel full of fun because it takes many of these set pieces and subverts them for the sake of humor.

It opens with one of these typical solemn wakes for a man that no one seems to know or care much about. All too soon everyone is distracted by a speck of gold and mayhem commences. It sets the tone for the entire film and the people we will soon become acquainted with. All the action is wonderfully exaggerated by a frantic harmonica-laden score with jaw harp included. It’s twangy madness that works to a tee. But enough of that.

The mining town of Calendar is a wild, untamed place built for the sole purpose of mining. The rough and tumble Danby Family seem to have a monopoly on the gold trade controlling the only road out of the town. It’s a big mess.

That’s the climate that Jason McCullogh walks into (James Garner) on his way to Australia. After seeing Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) kill a man, he decides to sign on as the town’s sheriff. Town “mayor” Olly Perkins and his entourage are surprised that any person would want to take the job, but after seeing Jason’s marksmanship they giddily agree. Quickly he astutely breaks up mud fights, puts Danby in jail and finds himself a deputy in Jake (Jack Elam).

Most of the rest of the film follows Pa Danby (Walter Brennan) and his two nitwit sons as they try and get their equally dumb baby brother out of prison. It’s followed by a long line of hired gunman who all fail out knocking the sheriff off.  Jason also has encounters with Perkins’ often ditsy daughter Prudy (Joan Hackett). It would be wrong to say that Prudy is the only whimsy one, because it feels like everyone in town has a screw loose, from the hero to the villains.

That’s what makes Support Your Local Sheriff so appealing. James Garner is as charming a wisecracker as ever, but on a whole, this film is full of comedic misunderstandings, caterwauling, and stupidity with an ignoramus around every corner. There’s a jail without bars, villains who are wimps, a girl who hides in a tree and lights herself on fire, even a protagonist who seems bent on heading off to the real frontier in Australia. What?

Thus, this rewriting of your typical western trope of a man taming the west works out quite well and in many ways feels like a precursor to Blazing Saddles. It was a lot of fun to have two personal favorites in James Garner (The Rockford Files) and Harry Morgan (MASH) in a film together. Joan Hackett was a lot of fun too. I really want to see more with her (ie. Will Penny, The Last Sheila).

3.5/5 Stars

The Great Escape (1963)

Based on true events, this film describes the heroic exploits of POWs in a German Stalag during World War II. With extreme heart and teamwork the men take upon the task of making a massive escape. Led by Richard Attenbourough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Charles Bronson to name a few, they begin their monumental task. Despite adversity, their plan slowly becomes reality and escape is imminent. When the time comes over 70 men get away in the night, escaping secretly across Germany. However, relief is quickly replaced by tragedy as many of the escapees are shot or captured. Through it all the Allies struggle courageously against the Nazis. By the end they may be a little battered but they certainly are not beaten. Besides a wonderful ensemble cast, this film has one of the most iconic themes and chase scenes of all time.

4.5/5 Stars