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: “There’s No Business Like Show Business”


Recently TCM showed “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with Dan Dailey and Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe and Donald O’Connor and Johnnie Ray and Mitzi Gaynor.



About halfway through, Partner – who was, I think, watching “The Good Wife” in the next room – got up and very quietly closed his door.  Too much Mermanization, I assume.  She really does fill a room, doesn’t she?



This film is big and bloated, a regular Baby Huey of a movie.  It’s the story of a show-business family through the years, from vaudeville to Broadway, with radio along the way.  It pulls out all the stops: a son (Johnnie Ray) who becomes a priest, another son (Donald O’Connor) who runs away and joins the army, and – ahem – Marilyn Monroe (extremely unconvincingly) as a big Broadway singing star.  (Her big number – “Heat Wave” – is one of the most entertainingly embarrassing musical numbers ever filmed.)




Then there’s the gay angle.  Seeing Dan Dailey (the father of the all-singing / all-dancing Donohue clan) and Johnnie Ray (the son who aspires to become a Catholic priest) performing together, along with gay icon Ethel Merman – well, I’m surprised blood didn’t start spurting from my ears.  (For those of you who wonder how I know that Dan and Johnnie were gay: well, sadly, Johnnie was arrested several times in the benighted 1950s for soliciting sex with men.  Dan was fingered by the 50s Hollywood gossip magazines, and it seems to be pretty much accepted that he was gay.  Information from those days is obscure, certainly.)



But, oh my dears, the musical numbers!  And the goofiness of the production!  This is Hollywood at its Velveeta cheesiest. 



Which means also, perversely, that this is Hollywood doing what it does best. 



Please put it on your list.  One way or the other, whether you think it’s terrible or wonderful, it’s a must-see, a classic.



(Some other time we’ll talk about Ethel Merman and her short-lived marriage to – gasp! – Ernest Borgnine.



(Essay question: what do you suppose that honeymoon was like?)


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?


Appreciation: Van Heflin


It is now mid-December, and Turner Classic Movies is showing its annual “TCM Remembers” video, which commemorates all of the Hollywood people who have died over the past year.  I always find myself going “Oh!”, remembering that Farley Granger, and Dana Wynter, and Len Lesser, and Betty Garrett, and Kenneth Mars, all died this year – and then seeing the long procession of other people of whose passing I was unaware.  TCM always does a lovely job of finding brief evocative clips of the actors and actresses looking beautiful, and the behind-the-scenes people looking dignified and busy and intense.  It invariably makes me sad, and I love it.



It makes me realize, too, that Hollywood was full of wonderful performers, many of whom even I – the viewer of ten thousand movies, the “Trivial Pursuit: Silver Screen” champion – am unfamiliar with.



For example:



It was Van Heflin’s birthday on December 13.  (He would have been 101.)  I had the day off, and I ran errands and was very productive, but for much of the day I had the TV on, and they were running a solid string of Van Heflin movies. 



Well, I tell you, I had myself a good time.



I read up on Mister Heflin a bit along the way.  Born in Oklahoma; went to sea; tried acting, wasn’t successful; Katherine Hepburn gave him a little push, and he finally made it; won an Oscar in 1942 for a supporting role in gangster movie called “Johnny Eager”; never really made it as a leading man, but always delivered a solid performance.  Nice face: plain at first, but interesting, and he definitely grows on you.  I can see what Miss Hepburn saw.



First was “Tennessee Johnson.”  Yes, they actually made a movie biography of President Andrew Johnson!  I only saw the last twenty minutes, which was – of course – the impeachment.  Lionel Barrymore is the snarling senator who wants Heflin/Johnson out of office.  But, of course, as soon as you see Heflin – dignified, courtly, handsome – you realize what’s going to happen.  (Hint: it’s not quite what happened in real life, but it makes for good viewing.)



Next came “Green Dolphin Street,” and I yelped with joy, as I’d read the novel in my teens: it’s about a 19th-century goofball in New Zealand who proposes by letter to the wrong sister halfway around the world.  (It’s not his fault entirely; he was drunk, and the sisters both had names beginning with “M.”) Anyway, the movie has a great cast – Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Frank Morgan – and Heflin shows up as a tough Englishman in New Zealand, wearing a sort of Maori-styled cowboy outfit.  I could just eat him up.



I went out to run some errands, but when I came home, one of the most peculiar movies I’ve ever seen had just begun: “East Side, West Side.”  It’s a weepie about virtuous millionairess Barbara Stanwyck and her husband James Mason, a spineless cad who cheats on Barbara with a very kinky Ava Gardner.  (I’ll admit it: Ava Gardner terrifies me.  She always looks as if she’s just eaten a human baby.)  Heflin is a bouncy energetic ex-cop who now works as a mysterious government operative in wartime Europe; he enters the movie as Cyd Charisse’s boyfriend (don’t ask), but falls for Barbara immediately.  There is the sweetest and most unrealistic dumping scene I’ve ever seen, in which Cyd tells Van that he can go do what he likes, and summons another man to the table as if by magic to take his place.  Then follows – what? – a murder mystery!  Ava is found dead, and the murderer is – oh hell, I’ll just tell you – a gigantic blonde bimbo who’s jealous of her.  Apparently she strangled Ava with her huge powerful hands (breaking a nail in the process, which of course is a part of the evidence against her).  When Van goes to collect her, she tries to beat him up.  It is one of the most truly peculiar scenes in moviedom.



I am now a big Van Heflin fan.



You there: go find me a copy of “Johnny Eager.”



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