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.


Book review: “How to Train a Wild Elephant (& Other Adventures in Mindfulness)” by Jan Chozen Bays

how to train a wild elephant


I have been a wannabe Buddhist for decades now. I love its core ideas, and I accept the Four Noble Truths, but I find it difficult to practice any of the devotions or the meditations. My mind is just too busy and clouded with samsara.

So I was pleasantly attracted by the title of this book.

The human mind – your mind, my mind – is the “wild elephant” of the title. It runs in all directions at once. How do we tame it? This book offers suggestions.

I’ve found some of them very useful.

Examples:

Take three deep breaths. I close my eyes while doing this. Here’s the thing: don’t think. Slowly: inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale. Now open your eyes.

This is not just a calm-down exercise, or a “Serenity Now!” mantra. Just think about yourself, and your breathing, for a few seconds.

It works.

Whenever you see someone during the day, think: “This may be the last time I ever see him/her.” It reminds you of mortality. It keeps you from treating them slightingly or badly. And who knows? Once in a while it may be true.

Notice the color blue. This sounds stupid, but it’s very effective. Blue is the sky color, but it’s also everywhere. Take a moment and notice all the bits and pieces of blue around you. You’ll be astounded.

And the most difficult of all: When you’re eating, just eat. Take a bite, chew it, and swallow it. Do not take another bite until you’ve completely chewed and swallowed the first one. Make yourself aware of the taste of the food. Don’t read, or watch TV, or talk. Just eat, slowly and with appreciation.

Slowly, step by step, breath by breath, bite by bite, we may actually achieve nirvana.


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

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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.


Movie review: “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944)

mask of dimitrios


I fell in love with this small movie, “The Mask of Dimitrios,” the first time I saw it. I ululate with pleasure every time it’s on Turner Classic Movies, and I record it and watch it two or three times over.

Summary: Peter Lorre, a Dutch mystery writer, becomes interested in the death of a criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos in Istanbul. He follows Dimitrios’s story from Istanbul to Athens to Sofia to Geneva to Paris. He comes across all kinds of interesting people, all of whom know strange and incriminating things about poor dead Dimitrios. Then he realizes that Sydney Greenstreet, a jolly Englishman, seems to be following him on his journey of discovery . . .

Robert Osborne, the TMC host, calls this “no great shakes of a movie,” and a “guilty pleasure”: one of those noirish Warner Brothers movies in which people look mysterious and run up and down staircases.

He’s right about all of the above.

But the movie is a real pleasure, not just a guilty pleasure.

It is a pleasure to watch the creepy / plausible Peter Lorre make his way through Europe, discovering what he can about Dimitrios. (This is one of those movies in which we see a physical map of Europe, and we move from city to city, step by step.)

It is a pleasure to see Sydney Greenstreet run the gamut from obnoxious fellow tourist to threatening criminal to – what? – a friend.

It is a pleasure to see Faye Emerson as a bar-owner in Sofia, throatily intoning her memories of Dimitrios.

It is a pleasure to see the lean dark-eyed weasel-like Zachary Scott as Dimitrios, who may or may not be dead.

My favorite moment is toward the end of the movie, when Greenstreet gets shot. Lorre has a conniption fit, as only Lorre can. “He vas my friend!” he seethes. “Vell, he vasn’t exactly my friend, but – vell, I liked him!”

It’s a dramatic moment, and it makes me laugh every time.

“No great shakes of a movie”?

It’s a terrific movie.


Movie review: “42nd Street”

42nd street


I think about movies a lot. Well, of course I do: I’m a gay man over fifty. And sometimes I wonder: Is there really such a thing as “the best movie”?

 

 

It would need to be Practically Perfect In Every Way: acting, direction, cinematography, dialogue. It would need a cleverly-constructed plot that ends satisfactorily. It would need to leave you feeling profoundly moved – amused, charmed, thoughtful – so that, a week later, you’d still be thinking about it.

 

 

As it turns out, there are a number of movies like this (for me, anyway). So: is it “Annie Hall”? “Casablanca”? “Duck Soup”? “The Maltese Falcon”? “Godfather Part II”? “The Lion in Winter?”

 

 

I can’t do more than make a list of ten or fifteen that fit all the above criteria: dynamite acting, beautiful direction, a crackerjack plot, sharp dialogue. All of the above fit the bill.

 

 

And so does “42nd Street.”

 

 

This is a gem from 1933, and it’s easily the best “hey, let’s put on a show!” movie ever made. In short: it’s the Depression, and two amusingly morose Broadway producers are putting together a Broadway show. They hire the mercurially brilliant director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), and the charming leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Dorothy sprains her ankle right before opening night. What will become of the show? Well, thank goodness there’s a plucky young chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) who can take over the part . . .

 

 

This sounds corny, but you can’t imagine how much fun it is until you’ve seen it. The dialogue – from eighty years ago – crackles with wit. (My favorite: the chorus performs an awful musical number, and the director screams in agony for them to stop. The musical director runs up front. “Didn’t you like it?” he asks. “Yes!” Warner Baxter screams. “I’ve loved it since 1905!”) The portrayals make me laugh, especially Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel as two sassy chorus girls, Ned Sparks as Morose Producer #1, and Guy Kibbee as a plump millionaire who likes to pat chorus girls on the bum. (The movie was pre-Code. Follow this link if you don’t know what that means. In short, for the rest of you: it means that the moviemakes could do pretty much what they felt like doing without censorship.)

 

 

This movie has some of the best musical numbers ever staged. Some of them are staged, remarkably enough, as practice numbers: you’re seeing them as if they’re being practiced for the Big Show. Naturally, you don’t see them in full costume and with full choreography until late in the movie, and then you see the genius of Busby Berkeley in full flower: the naughty hilarity of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the huge (and strangely moving) New York panorama of the title number.

 

 

And at the end, we see Warner Baxter the director on the sidewalk listening to departing audience members  talking about the show. They loved it! But why does the director get all the credit? It’s the leading lady that makes the show . . .

 

 

It’s a perfect ending.

 

 

It’s a perfect movie.


 

Gerard Butler

gerard butler


Partner and I saw “Olympus Has Fallen” last weekend when we were down on Cape Cod.

Oh dear. It’s dreadful. If you really want to see it, here’s what you do: queue up “Independence Day” and “Die Hard” and “Red Dawn” one after another, and hit yourself on the head very hard with a ball peen hammer while you’re watching them.

Here’s a quick plot summary, with spoilers: North Koreans make a (very unlikely) commando attack on the White House. The North Koreans have incredible space-age weapons, and evidently all we Americans have is handguns. The American President (Aaron Eckhart) is a charming weenie who gives the North Koreans two-thirds of the computer codes they want, because “they’ll never get the third part.” Naturally, they figure out the third part on their own.

But that’s okay: a superhuman Secret Service operative, played by Gerard Butler, kills all the North Koreans and saves the President (and, incidentally, the United States of America).

Which brings us to Gerard Butler.

You might remember Gerard as King Leonidas in “300,” gigantic and bearded and powerful and angry. Well, god bless him, that’s pretty much his schtick. He’s big and dark and nicely built, and has blue eyes which range from Warm to Stern to Threatening. He’s one of those men on whom stubble looks not only good, but natural.

He’s a co-producer of this movie, so you’d expect his character to be The Hero, and you’d be right. He’s a friend of the Weenie President, and a second (and much better) father to the Weenie President’s son.

Also, he’s an unstoppable killer.

A while back, I wrote about Victor Mature, and the uses of big handsome muscular men in the movies.

“Olympus Has Fallen” establishes that nothing has changed.

We love you, Gerard, the way audiences loved Victor in the 1950s.

Now: please make better movies.

Over and out!


Movie review: “Oz the Great and Powerful”

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Partner and I saw “Oz the Great and Powerful,” with James Franco and Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, this past weekend. We knew the reviews hadn’t been great, but we knew also that it had done terrific box office the past few weeks, and that a number of my friends had seen it.

 

 

Um. Well . . .

 

 

I am, as you’d expect, a huge Ozphile. I love the 1939 movie (what gay man doesn’t?), and “Wicked” (both book and musical), and I own all fourteen of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and I have seen “The Wiz” and a couple of the other knockoff versions. It’s a rich mythology, and lots of people have had fun playing in the wonderland that Baum created.

 

 

But this new movie is a mess, frankly. It has some great bits: the opening credits are wonderful – an animated sequence of magic tricks – and there are some beautiful scenes along the way: gorgeous super-realistic color, flowers that are gems and musical instruments. But it tries to recapture the amiable magic of the 1939 movie, and it fails. There are all kinds of winking reminiscences of the old movie: a lion, and some scarecrows, and a reference to “having no heart,” and singing/dancing Munchkins.

 

As in the 1939 movie, we open in Kansas, in a sepia-toned black-and-white. The Wizard (Mr. Franco) is a sideshow conjuror and a womanizer. He gets in a hot-air balloon to escape from the circus strongman, who’s just found out that his girlfriend has been seeing the Wizard on the side.

 

 

Cue the tornado!

 

 

The Land of Oz, naturally, is super-Technicolor. We meet witches, and flying monkeys, and talking birds. The movie was filmed in 2D/3D, so there are lots of soaring / flying / coasting scenes; when the Wizard first gets to Oz, he rides down a waterfall in a way that reminded me exactly of the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World. (If there’s not an “Oz” ride in Disney World within ten years – provided this movie is a hit – I’ll eat my magical hat.)

 

 

You’d think, with all that background material, that the screenwriters would have had enough to work with.

 

 

But they ended up with a thin movie full of thin characters.

 

 

You know what? Save yourself the heartache. Go to Netflix and see “Wild at Heart” instead. It’s a very sly retelling of the Oz story, and it’s much better than “Oz the Great and Powerful”:

 

 

 


 

Book report: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg”

 


There’s a certain kind of novel that was produced in great quantity by British writers in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s and 1950s.  They are usually brief, and set in Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa.  The characters are almost entirely expatriates – not only British, but Canadians, Americans, exiled Russians, and are often diplomats, or con men, or spies.  The atmosphere is usually light, until something oddly serious happens: an assassination, a declaration of war, some tragic event.

These novels were (I think) a response to the British Empire’s expansion through the world.  There were enormous numbers of British people working in countries all over the world, living in unfamiliar environments, clinging to one another (and to other English-speakers and Europeans) for a sense of community.

Think of Kipling’s “Kim” as a progenitor of the genre.  Think of Graham Greene, with his African and Asian and Caribbean comedy/dramas like “A Burnt-Out Case” and “The Quiet American” and “The Comedians” and “Our Man in Havana.”  Think of Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (did I ever tell you that I knew someone who knew her?).  Think of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.”  Think of Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series.  Think of Muriel Spark’s first story, “The Seraph and the Zambezi,” and her novella “The Go-Away Bird.” Think of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful “The Towers of Trebizond.”

I recently discovered a prime example of the genre: Anthony Powell’s “Venusberg.”

It’s a simple story: a British journalist, Lushington, goes to an unnamed Baltic country on assignment.  Lushington is in love with a Englishwoman who is, in turn, hopelessly in love with the local British attaché, who (perversely and carelessly) doesn’t care about her at all.

Whom do we meet in our unnamed Baltic country? Not one but two displaced Russian counts, one melancholy and doomed, the other probably a fake.  A local woman who’s only too eager to have an affair with Lushington.  Her husband, a clueless eminent local professor.  An American embassy worker who rattles on endlessly about virtue and progress and the future, while pronouncing himself a man of few words.  A local military officer named Waldemar, who is very pleasant and sincere, and who is trying very hard to learn how to be a true European.

We never discover the name of the country we’re in.  Everyone is speaking English most of the time, with a little bad French thrown in.  Now and then we’re told that someone speaks “in an unknown language”; the joke is that it’s probably the local language, which few of the main characters speak.

Love affairs happen.  Death happens.  Lushington goes back to England.

All in one hundred and sixty pages.

Here is Powell’s epigraph for the novel, which explains the title:

“Here, according to popular tradition, is situated the grotto of Venus, into which she enticed the knight Tannhauser; fine view from the top.”

From the sublime to the absurd: from the airy beauty of folklore and mythology to the flat pronouncements of a travel guide.

“Venusberg” is sad and funny and lovely, and gave me a few hours of pleasure, and it will stay with me.

Try it, if you can find it in your dusty old public library.  You may like it.


Movie review: “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell”

Seen not long ago on TCM: “Mr. Belvedere Rings The Bell,” from 1951, with Clifton Webb andJoanne Dru and Zero Mostel and Hugh Marlowe and a host of others.

 

Clifton Webb’s an author / lecturer who wants to pep up an old folks’ home; Hugh Marlowe is the good-but-stodgy minister running the place; Joanne Dru is the minister’s assistant, who sort of falls in love with Clifton Webb, but who’s really in love with Hugh Marlowe. There are also a passel of of wonderful older character actors and actresses playing the denizens of the old folks’ home.

And then there’s Zero Mostel, folks. I probably would have switched away, if not for him. 1951? He was testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee  that year. Zero didn’t name names, however. It was terrible for his career in the 1950s, but (eventually) he came back, and he triumphed.

In this movie, Zero is (as usual) balding and sweaty and amoral, but finally very sweet. And brilliant, as always. I can only wonder what was going through his head while he was acting in this movie. Was he testifying to Congress while acting in this? Jesus.

And Clifton Webb (who, for me, will always be Waldo Lydecker in “Laura,” typing in the bathtub), is wonderful.

As a movie, “Mr. Belvedere Rings The Bell” is a pleasant nothing. As a period piece, it’s interesting. As a time capsule, and an artifact of human culture, it’s priceless.

 

 

Movie review: “Dodsworth”

dodsworth


Dodsworth” is a gem from 1936, directed by William Wyler, based on a subtle little Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is Sam Dodsworth, head of an automobile-manufacturing firm in Ohio, who’s retiring so that he can enjoy the Good Life in Europe. Ruth Chatterton is his silly shallow younger wife, who’s fairly drooling to get to Europe so that she can misbehave (and she does).

 

 

And Mary Astor is the nice divorced lady that Sam meets on the boat going over to Europe, who lives in Italy “because it’s cheap.”

 

 

Sam adores his silly young wife, even while she cheats on him with a variety of men: English, French, Austrian.

 

 

Finally Sam and his wife part ways.

 

 

Do you think Sam will find the nice lady in Italy whom he met on the boat?

 

 

Hmm. I wonder.

 

 

Mary Astor wrote about it in her wonderful autobiography, “A Life on Film.” She especially remembered creating the scene in which she sees Sam Dodsworth coming to her from the steamship in the Naples harbor. She recreates it for us: the chalk marks on the scenery, and the silly stuff (an ashcan labeled PUT YOUR BUTTS IN HERE that was in her eyeline). And she imagined herself the heroine, and waved to an imaginary man in a boat in the harbor, and made herself believe that it was real.

 

 

And it was real. “At every theater, at every performance,” she wrote, “the audience clapped their hands. It sounded like applause, but it was sheer joy.”

 

 

See “Dodsworth,” kids. It is sheer joy.


 

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