Westerns

westerns


I was born into a shit-kickin’ family. My father’s parents were Eastern Washington farmers, and my sister Susan married into a local dairy family, and – well, what more do you need?

Evidently it’s in our DNA. My brother Leonard worked in grocery stores his whole life, and yet he talks like Walter Brennan. He was, for a fact, born on my parents’ farm, during a brief period in their early married life during which they were farming, but still!
Anyway, everyone in my family loves Westerns, and the whole Old West folklore thing. (When Leonard found out I was doing our family history, he drawled: “Are we descended from any horse thieves?” Evidently that would have been perfectly delicious. The reality – some Polish peasants, some Italian peasants, some English hooligans and riffraff – just isn’t colorful enough, in a six-guns-and-Randolph-Scott way.)

Every once in a while I try to reassociate myself with my Boot Hill roots and watch a few Westerns on TMC. Sometimes they’re harmless enough that they sort of wash over me. But – you know? – a lot of them – most of them – just aren’t very good.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know that there are some classics, like “Cimarron” and “Stagecoach” and “Red River.” I have seen at least ten minutes of each of these – more of “Cimarron,” because it has Irene Dunne in it – and they are all lovely. I stick by my original point, however. Read on:)

  • Westerns are all depressingly similar. I will spare you a recitation of plot points, cliches, situations, etc. I will only say that I recently fell asleep during a Jimmy Stewart western, woke up about ninety minutes later during another Jimmy Stewart Western, and was uncertain for a few minutes if it was the same movie.
  • They certainly save money on costumes and sets. I’m sure there was a kind of Studio Western Kit, containing things like 1) one chuck wagon 2) three dance hall girl dresses 3) two fancy saddles 4) one fancy lamp with a fringed shade, for indoor / city-slicker  / bawdy house scenes.
  • Scenery. Magnificent, right? HDTV has killed that illusion. In Movie #2 the other day, J. Stewart and company were riding along a dangerous mountain ridge with all kinds of mountains and forests and valleys in the distance, except that, um, no they weren’t. The foreground was perfectly clear and in focus; the scenic background looked like Jackson Pollock’s hick cousin Vernton Pollock had blooped and blopped together some green and blue and white paint to produce Western Background #14.

And so forth.

I am sure, as we say, that for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like. I like all kinds of silly / stupid / sub-par things, especially in the movie category. (Next time you hear me warbling on about how wonderful “Shack Out On 101” is, give me a real hard whack on the back of my head.) But, bafflingly, I was born without the mental toolkit required to make sense of these verkakte Westerns, even though genetically I should be right in there with my relatives.

Sigh.

Okay. Now: anybody want to see “Shack Out On 101” one more time?


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Movie review: “The More the Merrier” (1943)

more the merrier


“The More the Merrier” is one of those movies that seems very ordinary until it sneaks up on you and bites you on the butt.

It sounds unremarkable in synopsis: Washington DC working woman Jean Arthur decides (for patriotic reasons) to rent out half her apartment, because there’s a housing shortage. She (reluctantly) ends up with grandfatherly wiseguy Charles Coburn as a roommate. He almost instantly rents half of his half-apartment to handsome young Joel McCrea, who’s doing some kind of mysterious government work.

And, as they say, hijinks ensue.

Unpromising, right? But it’s full of delights.

First of all: Jean Arthur. She’s almost forgotten now, but she was a great comedienne with a voice that was husky and squeaky at the same time, and she had terrific comic timing and a very expressive face.

Second: Charles Coburn. He’s sly and sympathetic, and is obviously plotting to get Joel and Jean together from the very outset. (He won an Academy Award for this performance, by the way.)

Third (and not least): Joel McCrea. You know how I feel about him. He’s not traditionally handsome – his nose is a little pointy – but he’s intensely masculine without being threatening or boorish, and he has the best smile.

Some of my favorite scenes:

–         McCrea and Coburn charge around the apartment making choo-choo-train noises, pretending to keep up with Jean Arthur’s ridiculously precise morning schedule.

–         McCrea and Coburn lie on the roof, on their stomachs, reading the Dick Tracy comic strip from the paper, while Jean Arthur watches them with bemusement. (Coburn reads Tracy; McCrea does the voice of the Leopard Lady.)

–         Jean Arthur, in her room, turns on some Latin dance music, and dances to it, all by herself. (She even turns her head to check out her own butt). In the next room over, Joel McCrea (in bathrobe) slowly begins to do the same step, also all by himself. And in the next room over from that, Charles Coburn does a few steps too.

–         Joel McCrea jumps into the shower, removes his bathrobe (after getting it soaking wet!), and proceeds to slap himself all over and bark like a seal, while Jean Arthur listens in astonishment from her bedroom.

–         An astonishing scene in which Jean Arthur describes her engagement to her “fiancé Mr. Pendergast,” while Joel McCrea makes love to her and kisses her. This scene is hotter than Hades, kids! And this is something Joel McCrea does very well; he did a similar scene in “The Palm Beach Story.” The message he communicates is: “I know you think you love someone else. But I love you, and I know you love me too.” It’s a very powerful message, and he communicates it better than any actor I’ve ever seen.

This is a classic movie. It’s small, but perfect in its way. It reminds me of Jane Austen’s remark about carving her “two inches of ivory.”

“The More the Merrier” is two inches of perfectly carved ivory. And (as Jane reminds us) two inches of perfectly-carved ivory can be very lovely.


For Sunday: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance “The Continental” (1935)

continental


The Continental” was the first song to win an Oscar for Best Original Song, in the movie “The Gay Divorcee,” back in 1935.

 

 

This is a video of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to the tune in the movie. They are wonderful together.

 

 

Enjoy.

 

 

 


 

Movie review: “The Princess and the Frog” (2009)

princess-and-the-frog-2-hd


I like Disney movies very much. They can be screamingly funny at their best, and pathetically sentimental at the same time; and who can resist that combination? Love and kindness always win out over greed and hatred (just like in real life). But (unlike real life) there’s always a shadow: death, separation, sadness.

The Disney studio went through a long lull in the 1970s and 1980s, with only a few movies: “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Rescuers.” Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, they blazed to life again with movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”

Then another lull, but of a different kind. Disney was producing a lot of movies again, but they weren’t quite as good: “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” “Hercules,” “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “The Emperor’s New Groove.” (I’m not saying these movies are bad; all these have redeeming qualities. “Mulan” is beautifully animated and uniquely sensitive, and “Hercules” (which I saw again recently) is very funny and has some good music, and “Emperor’s New Groove” has the voices of David Spade and John Goodman and Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton, all apparently having an excellent time. But they’re flawed too: “Mulan” gets pretty dark – it’s about war, after all – and “Hercules” and “Emperor’s New Groove” both have endings that go seven directions at once. I don’t even like to think about “Pocahontas,” which has some pretty animation, but a garbled plot and not much entertainment value.)

It was for this reason that I put off seeing “The Princess and the Frog.” Disney had done a Native American princess, and an Asian princess, and even a Middle Eastern princess. (I use the word “princess” instead of “heroine,” because we’re talking about Disney. You understand.) Now – ta-daa! – they created an African-American princess. I didn’t want to see the movie. It was bound to be pious as hell, and cutesy. Oprah herself was voicing the heroine’s mother! For some, that was a seal of approval; for me, that meant that the Disney studio (with its history of racism – go watch “Dumbo” again if you haven’t forgotten) was finally making amends for its past.

And amends might be good for the soul, but they aren’t necessarily fun to watch.

Well, friends, I was wrong. “Princess and the Frog” is a jolly good time. The heroine this time round, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), is a hard-working Jazz Age New Orleans waitress who just wants to open a restaurant. The prince, Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), is a good-looking royal wastrel who’s in New Orleans looking for a good time (in the short term) and a rich wife (in the long term). The villain turns Naveen into a frog. Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess, and gets her to kiss him (it doesn’t take him long to talk her into it!), and she turns into a frog.

Hijinks ensue.

As always with Disney, there’s lots of crossover. We’ve been in the swamps before: go watch “The Rescuers” if you don’t remember. Also, we spend a lot of time looking up at the evening star in this movie – one character even sings a song to it! – and that should make any faithful Disneycrat think of Jiminy Cricket.

The songs are pretty good, especially one called “Dig a Little Deeper” (with a chorus line of pink spoonbills!):

There’s also a nicely creepy comeuppance song for the villain (voiced by Keith David) at the end:

Flaws? Yes, a few. They lay on the N’Awlins charm pretty thick, as well as the bayou slapstick. Also, New Orleans in the 1920s appears to be amazingly free from racism and segregation.

But we’re talking about a fantasy here, and – as fantasies go – this is a lovely one.

Not all Disney princesses are the same. Some are frail and need constant help, like Snow White. Some are very tough, like Mulan. Tiana is tough: she wants to fulfill her father’s dream, and she wants to make her mother happy. She’s willing to put her own happiness aside to make those things happen.

She’s a good person.

And Naveen – a shallow good-for-nothing – turns out to be romantic, and kind, and selfless.

After seeing “The Princess and the Frog,” I felt triumphant.

And that’s the way you should feel after watching a good Disney movie.


For Sunday: Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin

ginger rogers were in the money


As a movie buff, I always stand and salute whenever any of the “Gold Diggers” movies of the 1930s come on the air. I DVR them and play them over and over again.

 

 

This is from the first (and best) of them: “Gold Diggers of 1933.”  It opens with a cheerful song – “We’re In The Money,” a renunciation of the Depression – and ends with a very downbeat musical number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” very sad indeed.

 

 

Not your usual movie.

 

 

Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, and Joan Blondell are featured, as well as some names that aren’t so well remembered: Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Ned Sparks.

 

For me, one of the most astonishing things in this excellent movie is in the first sequence: Ginger Rogers singing “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin.

 

Watch and be amazed.

 

 

 

 

For Sunday: Maria’s dance from “Metropolis” (1927)

marias dance metropolis


Metropolis” is one of my favorite movies. It’s a wild science-fiction romp from 1927; it’s silent, but you can now see it with its original musical score, which is very expressive.

Here’s the plot: the city of Metropolis is divided between the lofty towers of the rich and powerful and the dark underground cities of the workers. A woman named Maria (played luminously by Brigitte Helm) is preaching to the workers and telling them to expect a “mediator.” The dictator of Metropolis, in an attempt to stop Maria, asks crazy Doctor Rotwang to create a evil robot replica of Maria; the robot proceeds a) to stir up all kinds of discord in the underground cities, and b) to dance at Yoshiwara, the hippest nightclub in the tower city, and drive all the upscale men insane with lust.

This is the false Maria’s dance. It’s beyond amazing. (Just so you know: the young man in bed is the true Maria’s boyfriend (who also happens  to be the dictator’s son), having visions of the Apocalypse.)

Enjoy.

 


Raymond Burr

Raymond Burr


Raymond Burr was a handsome second-string actor who started his career in the late 1940s. He evolved into a movie villain (as in “Rear Window” ), and then a heroic TV actor (as in “Perry Mason,” and later “Ironside”). He was handsome and broad-shouldered, with a deep gruff voice. He gained weight in the 1950s and 1960s, but it gave him gravity.

Also, he was gay.

He met an actor named Robert Benvenides while working on the “Perry Mason” show. They fell in love, and spent the rest of their lives together. Hollywood couldn’t endure this, of course, so the studios created a fiction about marriages and children. (Raymond was married to a woman for a while, back in the 1940s, but it ended in divorce and no children.)

He was reputed to be very generous. IMDB reports the story that Errol Flynn told him that, if he died with ten dollars in his pocket, he wouldn’t have done his job. It inspired him to be philanthropic, and he always helped his friends.

He died in 1992, and Benvenides was his sole heir, but Raymond’s family contested this. They failed, thank goodness.

How times have changed! Look at George Takei! And Neil Patrick Harris! And Ellen de Generes!

Partner and I have talked about marriage. Sadly, we’d end up paying more income tax married than we would as two “single” people. But our mutual employer, Brown University, regards us as Domestic Partners, so we enjoy some advantages that way. Also, we have not found any local institutions that discriminate against us. Lately (with all my health-related adventures) I simply introduce Partner to my doctors and nurses as “my life partner,” and he’s welcomed immediately.

How easy we have it, and how difficult Raymond Burr and his partner Robert Benvenides had it, only twenty years ago.

The world is moving in the right direction.

Slowly.


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