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.


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

Movie review: “Footlight Parade” (1933)

footlight parade

I thought I’d seen everything made before 1935. Brother, was I wrong.



Turner Classic Movies threw “Footlight Parade” at me a few weeks ago. It’s a minor classic. Here’s the plot in brief: movie theaters are putting on live musical shows between their presentations, in order to bring in bigger audiences. Producer Jimmy Cagney is mass-producing these musical shows and sending them all over the country, but someone (???) is stealing his ideas. His secretary (Joan Blondell) is in love with him, though he’s too business-minded to notice.



Etc., etc., etc. Lots of musical numbers (by Busby Berkeley!), and lots of wisecracking dialogue.



But the revelation here is an actor named Frank McHugh.



McHugh is doing gay. And, for once, not flamboyant Franklin Pangborn gay, but subtle gay.



McHugh’s a dance director. He’s a miserable hypochondriac, and he threatens to quit every few minutes, and he always looks as if he’s ready to burst into tears. He leads the chorus girls in dance numbers, dancing almost as smoothly as they do, smoking a cigar the whole time.



Best of all: he sings a love duet with Dick Powell (all the while puffing on his cigar), in order to show the girls how it’s done. He’s perfectly oblivious, and he’s perfectly sweet. (And, I have to add, Dick Powell never once chokes on the cigar smoke that McHugh is blowing into his face.)



This is a charming movie, with some lovely dance numbers, and some interesting performances. And it’s a valuable study in 1930s Beliefs and Standards.



Take a moment out of your busy schedule and see it, if you have the chance.


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: “It Should Happen To You”


I caught another odd interesting movie on TCM a while back: “It Should Happen To You.”  Quick synopsis: Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday), down on her luck, meets lively interesting documentarian Pete (a young Jack Lemmon), who tries to cheer her up, and who (incidentally) finds her fascinating.  Then Gladys gets an idea: why not invest in a billboard?  It will be in Columbus Circle in Manhattan and it will just say her name: GLADYS GLOVER.  If nothing else, it will make her feel better about herself.



Things go wild.  Evan Adams III (a young and sickeningly handsome Peter Lawford) tries to buy the billboard away from her for his family’s soap company; then, of course, he falls for her.  He makes a bargain: if he can have the Columbus Circle billboard, he’ll give her six others, strategically placed throughout Manhattan. 



People start to recognize her name.  How can they not?  It’s plastered all over the city.  A cynical reporter does a story about her – just another crazy New Yorker –  but realizes quickly that the audience likes her goofy sincerity.  Soon she’s on TV, with 1950s celebs like Ilka Chase and Wendy Barrie and Constance Bennett.  Lawford’s soap company makes her their spokesmodel.  Gladys is suddenly famous, and enchanted with the idea of being famous.



Poor Jack Lemmon is sulking at the sidelines this whole time.  Finally, of course, being good-hearted, Judy realizes that her fame is based on nothing, and renounces it, and marries Jack.



Is any of this resonating with you?  Is the name “Kardashian” occurring to you, or “Paris Hilton”?



The movie works for a couple of reasons.  First: Judy Holliday.  The woman couldn’t turn in a bad performance.  She always played the same character, of course: uneducated but smart, quick, funny, deadpan.  Jack Lemmon is at his young/goofy best too (this was his first movie).  Also there’s the writing: it’s a Garson Kanin screenplay (supposedly inspired by a comment he made to his wife Ruth Gordon during a downtime in their careers, when he pointed up at a prominent Manhattan billboard and told her that her name would be up there someday), and the dialogue is very sharp.  He knew how to write for Judy Holliday (she was in both “Adam’s Rib” and “Born Yesterday”), and I would love to know how much of the dialogue came from Garson’s typewriter and how much was pure Judy.  It’s also a nostalgia romp for old-timers like me, with the black-and-white cinematography of Manhattan. (I swear there are whole streets and avenues that haven’t changed since this movie was made; at one point Partner sat up and pointed at the screen and said: “Bickford’s! I remember eating there!”)



But, for me, it was mostly about the anatomy of fame. 



Lots of old movies are about the perils of fame: “Meet John Doe,” “Nothing Sacred,” “A Face In the Crowd.”  It makes one realize that Hollywood has not changed, nor human nature, nor our appetite to be rich and famous, nor our appetite to be close to the rich and famous.



The movie has a silly squishy ending.  It also has a very mawkish song.  I’m just warning you, in case you see it.



But do see it.



It will make you laugh a couple of times, but it will also make you think.



A little.


Movie review: “The Man Who Came To Dinner”


Of the making of movies there is no end.  I used to think it was possible to see them all, every single one of them.  Of course, that was back in the 1970s, and there were a lot fewer movies back then.  Since then – well, the mind boggles.  I have given up on that particular life goal.



But there are so many good movies back in the vaults!



That’s why I treasure TCM.  They trot them out, the good and the bad and the obscure.  They are remarkably judgment-free.  I owe them so much, for seeing gems like “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Fanny,” and “The Heiress.”



Also, just recently, for the very first time in my life, “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”



It’s a filmization of a successful Kaufman/Hart play which they wrote (very obviously) about their friend Alexander Woolcott, a radio personality who had a huge personality but who was also completely insufferable.  Sheridan Whiteside (the Woolcott character) is touring the Midwest when he gets (mildly) injured and has to spend December holed up with a nouveau-riche Ohio family, and naturally he takes over the whole house and starts interfering in everything.   The cast is rich with talent: Bette Davis as his fed-up secretary, the curvy Ann Sheridan as his bitchy actress friend, Jimmy Durante as Harpo Marx.




But the great revelation here is the brilliant Monty Woolley.



Woolley was a stage actor who’d done the role on Broadway; when Hollywood took on the project, naturally they wanted someone famous, but once they’d signed enough high-powered talent like Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan, they deigned to allow Master Wooley to keep his leading role.



He is amazing.  He is evil and dynamic.  He is Santa and Satan at the same time.  His eyes gleam demonically, and he bares his teeth in the most alarming way.  He spends most of the movie in a wheelchair, but you are constantly terrified that he’s going to leap up and beat the hell out of people.  He uses “repulsive” and “gruesome” as pet names (as, reportedly, did Woolcott).  He ends up being the hero of the day, solving everyone’s problems (and one really wonders if Woolcott was as nice as that). 



One of my favorite lines: his nurse, the terrified Mary Wickes, his nurse, sees him eating candy and tells him it’s not good for him.   His response: “My great-aunt Jennifer ate a box of candy a day for her entire life.  She lived to be one hundred and two, and three days after she died, she looked better than you do now.”



(Postscript: one of my college friends just wrote me a nice New Year’s note to say that he’d just seen this movie on television.  “And,” he said, “Sheridan Whiteside always reminds me of you.”)



(I was amazed, and startled, and very very flattered.)



Margaret Dumont


 TCM recently ran a Marx Brothers marathon.  I caught bits of “Horse Feathers,” and afterward my very favorite, “Duck Soup.”



I like so many things about the Marx Brothers’ movies: the freedom, the cleverness of the dialogue, the stupid obviousness of the slapstick bits, the bizarre/surreal quality of many of the gags, even the sudden lapses into sentimentality when they stop to sing a song.



And I am always thankful when Margaret Dumont shows up.



She is the grand dame who reigns over seven of the Marx Brothers’ movies: the hostess, the millionairess, the unlikely love-interest.  She is handsome and stately, like an ocean liner.  She has a rich plummy voice, slipping from reedy alto to fluting soprano.  She is not at all physical; she generally stands in one place and lets the Marx Brothers run around her like squirrels around an oak tree.  She was with the brothers on Broadway in “Cocoanuts” in the 1920s; when they made it into a movie a few years later, she and the brothers reprised their stage roles.  This is how Groucho described the action in 1930, in a letter to his friend Arthur Sheekman:



“I arise in the morning and before I have had my clothes on ten minutes, I am over at the theater doing the ordering scene.  Then follows thirty minutes of Harpo climbing up Dumont’s leg, and the shirt scene, and then to the dressing room for what I imagine is going to be a good long rest.  I am no more than seated with the Morning World, when the buzzer rings and I am downstairs again doing the ordering scene, and Harpo is back again at Dumont’s leg.”



Dumont is queenly and oblivious, the perfect foil.  She does reaction shots, seemingly unaware of what she’s reacting to.  Groucho later said that, after filming the “Duck Soup” scene in which Groucho shouts “We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”, Dumont came over to him and said: “Julie [his real name was Julius], what does that line mean?”  



(I think Dumont was smarter than this.  She’d been on stage for years, after all, and she was no dummy.  Here’s one of her quotes from IMDB: “I’m not a stooge, I’m the best straight woman in Hollywood. There’s an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”)



Film critic Cecelia Ager said it best: “Somebody somewhere should erect a statue to Margaret Dumont, with a plaque reading: “Dedicated to the woman who took an awful lot of guff from the Marx Brothers through the years, and answered it with courage and steadfastness.”



Dumont passed away in 1965, just days after doing a television reenactment (with Groucho!) of their big musical number from 1930’s “Animal Crackers”: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” 



Her real name was Daisy Baker.



Rest in peace, Daisy.


Movie review: “It Happened on Fifth Avenue”


TCM recently showed a piece of fluff called “It Happened On Fifth Avenue.” 



It’s a post-WWII movie, and how!  A group of returned GIs are having a hard time finding jobs and housing.  They fall in with a charming worldly bum (Victor Moore) who tells them his secret to comfortable living: in the winter, rich people leave their Manhattan mansions and move south.  What’s to keep you from moving in?  No one will ever know . . .



Naturally Don DeFore, one of the GIs, has hooked up with Gale Storm, who’s actually the daughter of the millionaire (Charlie Ruggles) who owns this particular mansion.  A bit later, for various inane reasons, Charlie himself – the millionaire, the owner of the house – pretends to be a hobo and joins the group.



Complications (and hijinks) ensue. 



The film’s populist tone surprised me.  Modern Hollywood would never make a film like this.  The real bum (Victor Moore) is constantly lecturing the disguised millionaire (Ruggles) on his behavior.  The constant message underneath is that rich people have too much stuff.  They have more than one house!  More than one everything!    In one scene, the poor ex-GIs try to purchase an old Army barracks as part of a business deal; the rich guy beats them to it, and his fat bowler-hatted representative orders everyone off the property.  The GIs, incensed, pelt the man with rotten produce (I guess they brought it with them).  In a Soviet movie – like one of Sergei Eisenstein’s movies – it would have been rocks, and bullets.  Here, it’s played for laughs.



Lots of myths are perpetuated here.  The millionaire turns out to be a benevolent guy.  The GIs are the salt of the earth.  Women are all about love.  Victor Moore, the career hobo, is portrayed as the best person of all: kind, thoughtful, and completely oblivious to reality.



Just like real life.



Isn’t that nice?



Honestly, this movie made my skin crawl.  I had to switch away to the Jewelry Channel for a while, and look at opalite and cubic zirconia, just for a breather. 



But it made me realize also that things don’t change much.  It reminded me of the Occupy movement happening right now, and their outrageous notion that rich people have – unaccountably and irrationally and unfairly – too much stuff.



Who says movies aren’t educational?


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