A Night at the Opera – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The Marx Brothers have the reputation for producing some of the funniest movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  This is in some ways deserved but it is by no means justified for all of their films.  In addition, no one would claim that the entirety of any of the movies is consistently funny.  After all, the number of people who would laugh through a three-minute harp solo is extremely small, probably zero.

But I consider A Night at the Opera their best effort.  For that reason, I’ll start with a review of it and if I decide to tackle any of the others it will involve comparing them to the qualities of A Night at the Opera.

The story starts out in Italy with Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) trying to convince the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to donate $200,000 to the New York Opera in order to cement her place in high society.  With the money, the opera company’s director Herman Gottlieb, can sign a famous Italian tenor Rodolfo Lassparri for the upcoming season production of Il Trovatore.  There is a love triangle between the soprano Rosa Castaldi, an unknown but brilliant tenor, Ricardo Baroni and the villainous Lassparri.

Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Fiorello (Chico Marx) work to get Ricardo Baroni signed by Driftwood to the New York Opera instead of Lassparri but fail and the two of them are forced to stow away along with Baroni on the steam ship heading for New York.  Driftwood hides them in his closet sized stateroom and this gives rise to one of the funniest scenes in the movie when a troop of cleaning, maintenance and wait staff along with other miscellaneous persons end up crowding into the stateroom with the Marx Brothers and eventually explode out into the ship corridor when Mrs. Claypool opens the door.  This scene contains one of Groucho’s trademark wisecracks.  With about ten people already in the room a knock comes on the door and Groucho opens it to discover a young woman.

Groucho – Yes?

Girl – Is my Aunt Minnie in here?

Groucho – You can come in and prowl around if you want to.  If she isn’t in here, you can probably find somebody just as good.

Girl – Could I use your phone?

Groucho – Use the phone?  I’ll lay you even money you can’t get in the room.

The whole plot including the love story is a thin pretext for the Marx Brothers to sow chaos everywhere they go.  The climax of the movie is the opera opening night and the three brothers doing everything imaginable to sabotage Lassparri’s performance and provide Baroni with an opportunity to sing as the lead tenor in his place.  Harpo (or more likely his stunt double) ends up performing swashbuckling acrobatics in the manner of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and eventually kidnaps Lassparri right off the stage to allow the climactic aria duet to be sung by Baroni and Castaldi.

And just as it looks like the brothers will be carted off to jail by the NYPD, Baroni blackmails Gottlieb into hiring himself, Castaldi, Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso and calling off the police in exchange for Baroni and Castaldi agreeing to perform an encore that is being thunderously demanded by the overjoyed audience.

This absurd story line is actually one of the tighter Marx Brother movie plots.  Their movies were sort of like a variety show out of vaudeville.  In between dramatic scenes you would get Chico playing the piano or Harpo playing the harp.  And most of the movies had several comic songs sung by Groucho.  In this movie there is also a number of songs and arias sung by the Baroni and Castaldi characters.  So, depending how you feel about songs in a movie will decide whether you can tolerate any Marx Brothers movie at all.

As indicated initially I like this movie.  That is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to cut out the harp solo.  And that is not saying all the comedy routines are equally successful for me.  But taking the whole movie together I would call A Night at the Opera a funny movie.  And I would say, compared to many of the Marx Brothers movies, the personalities of the brothers are much less obnoxious than they typically are.  And it is notable that the production values for this movie produced by MGM are much higher than their previous movies for Paramount.  If you are already a fan of the Marx Brothers and have never seen “A Night at the Opera” then I can unreservedly recommend this movie for you.  For everyone else, especially those born in the 21st century your mileage may vary.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 3

Any of you who have followed the guest contributors here may know that The Fatman is a more learned student of the cinema than I am.  When he saw my Ransom reviews, he alerted me to a ransom-type movie by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “High and Low”.  Now, Kurosawa is best known to American audiences from his homage to the American Western called “The Seven Samurai.  And the American Western’s homage to him is the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”

So anyway, I decided to give it a spin.  “High and Low” is not a direct retelling of the Ransom story in fact it is based on an American crime novel called “King’s Ransom” written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain.  But I think it still fits under the umbrella of the Ransom comparison.

Kingo Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune) is the CEO of a large shoe manufacturing company with the very original name of National Shoes.  He is extremely wealthy but came up through the ranks from humble beginnings.  He lives in a beautiful home on a prominent hill overlooking the city.  He has a wife, Reiko and young son, Jun and they share the home with his chauffer Yutaka Sada and his son, Shinichi, who is Jun’s friend.

Gondo is being pressured by the Board of Directors to back their play to oust the founder of the company and start making stylish but poorly-made shoes at a high profit.  Gondo disagrees saying the answer is to upgrade the style of the current well-built shoes and thereby maintain the brand and expand the market.  The Board threatens to oust him instead.  In discussions between Gondo and his assistant we learn that Gondo has anticipated this hostile takeover and has collected enough loan money to take over the company himself.  He has a check for fifty million yen that his assistant will deliver by train that night to lock down the stock he needs for the takeover.  The loans will basically mortgage everything he owns but he knows he’ll be able to pay them off once he has control of the company.

During these discussions we see Jun and Shinichi dressed as cowboys chasing each other around with cap guns.  And now that Jun has won the game as sheriff, he trades costumes with Shinichi and assumes the role of outlaw.  Gondo gives the check to the assistant and tells him which train to take.  But before the assistant leaves a call comes in from someone claiming to have kidnapped Jun.  The kidnapper says the ransom will be thirty million yen.  Gondo tells the kidnapper he will pay the ransom.  Now Gondo tells his assistant to cancel his train ride because Gondo will need that money for the ransom.  Almost immediately Jun walks back in the room and Gondo assumes the call was a hoax.  But when Jun asks everyone where Shinichi has gone the adults realize that the kidnapper mistook the boy wearing Jun’s costume for Jun and kidnapped Shinichi by accident.  Sada is now understandably worried about his son but Gondo tells him that the kidnapper will release Shinichi when he realizes the boy is not from a rich family.  But the kidnapper calls back and says he will demand the ransom for Shinichi instead and he will kill the boy if the money is not surrendered.  Gondo refuses and hangs up.  Now the police are called in.

The police show up and go through the same phone tapping routine we’ve seen in the other two movies and analyze the kidnapper’s demands and mindset.  They try to convince Gondo that this particular kidnapper is extremely angry and seems to have a grudge against Gondo or at least against the rich.  They ask him if he will consider paying the ransom but he explains that he must go forward with the takeover or he will be out of a job and ruined financially.  At this point Sada and Reiko separately beg Gondo to relent and pay the ransom.  Gondo refuses.  The police ask that at least he tell the kidnapper that he will pay the money in hopes that they can catch the kidnapper during the ransom exchange.  Gondo agrees to this.  He gets the instructions from the kidnapper and after seeing Sada break down in despair Gondo relents and agrees to pay the ransom.

There is an intricate arrangement with bags of cash that will fit through a narrow bathroom window on the train once Gondo sees Shinichi standing with his captor adjacent to the tracks.  The money is payed and Shinichi is freed.  Gondo loses his house and all his possessions to his creditors.

The rest of the movie is a police procedural about trying to find the kidnappers and get Gondo’s money back.  Small clues gathered from the kidnapper’s phone conversations and the somewhat vague information provided by Shinichi combine to allow the police to hunt down the gang.  The final part of the movie involves some heroin addicts who were part of the gang and we get some scenes of the seedy world that these people inhabit.  Finally, the kidnapper is caught and because of the murder of his accomplices he is given a death sentence.

We see Gondo get his money back but it is too late to restore his old life.  He takes a job with a smaller shoe company and he actually enjoys the work more because of his greater creative control there.

In the last scene the murderer asks Gondo to come to the prison to talk.  He explains why he picked Gondo.  From his tenement below the hill he dwelt on Gondo’s affluence and the anger this engendered drove him to his crimes.  He claims not to be afraid of his death but by the end of the conversation he breaks out in hysterics and is dragged away and the movie ends.

This movie is sort of a hybrid.  The story really is a police procedural.  The crime allows for the police to solve the puzzle of finding the criminal and getting justice for Gondo.  But the predicament of Gondo is a very Japanese story.  The honor and the prestige of the “great man” is a theme that interests Kurosawa and specifically he is examining how the modern capitalist model has removed the human element from the equation.  Gondo was a poor man who became rich and Sada is a poor man who is entirely at Gondo’s mercy for his son’s life.  Basically, we are watching a struggle for Gondo’s soul.

Japanese cinema is in some ways hard for Americans to enter.  In addition to the language barrier and the need to read the subtitles, facial expressions and even mannerisms are decidedly different.  I like the movie and thought it was well done.  Whether anyone who hasn’t seen Japanese films would enjoy it is an open question.  I recommend it.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

In 1996 Ron Howard directed a remake of Ransom.  He cast Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in the leads as Tom and Kate Mullen the parents of a young son Sean.  Tom is the owner of his own airline and a leading member of New York high society.  During an educational event in Central Park at which Kate is a judge Sean is kidnapped while Tom was distracted.

Now we meet the kidnappers.  Maris is a caterer who works for the Mullens.  Brothers Clark and Cubby Barnes and Miles Roberts are small time criminals.  But the mastermind of the gang is Police Detective Jimmy Shaker, played by the great Gary Sinise, who set up the whole crime and uses his knowledge of police procedures to engineer a convoluted ransom transfer.  He has Tom carry the two million dollars to a civic center and jump in a swimming pool to destroy any electronic devices.  Then Tom switches cars and drives to New Jersey while Shaker gives Tom directions over a mobile phone.  During this phone call Shaker answers Tom’s question of why Tom’s family was picked.  Shaker tells him that Tom is a man who buys his way out of trouble.  Tom paid off men to frame a labor leader that was making trouble for Tom’s airline.  From Shaker’s point of view, he sees Tom as a sure thing to pay his son’s ransom.  Then Shaker tells Tom the story of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H. G. Wells’ story “The Time Machine.”  To Shaker the Mullens and the other elites are the Eloi living in the daylight world of wealth and privilege while Shaker and the rest of the Morlocks slave away in the underworld of the poor.  He states that it’s just the nature of things that the cannibalistic Morlocks have to surface from time to time to eat an Eloi.

Tom demands to know how the exchange will lead him to his son to which Shaker replies that when Tom hands the money over to the courier, he’ll be given the address where his son can be found.  But when he arrives at a quarry where the courier takes the money, he is given no address and Tom notices the look of confusion on the courier’s face when the question is asked.  The courier is Cubby Barnes played by Donnie Wahlberg who was the only one of the kidnappers who treated Sean Mullen decently during his captivity.  FBI helicopters chase after Cubby on his ATV and when the agents start rappelling to the ground Cubby fires at them with an automatic weapon.  In answer he is killed by gunfire from the law enforcement agents.

The kidnappers are in disarray after this because Cubby’s identity will make his brother’s identity easy to figure out.  But undaunted, Shaker immediately contacts Tom and begins a second transfer operation.  But Tom has figured out that the kidnappers have no intention of releasing his son.  So instead of proceeding to the drop he tells Shaker to watch Channel 5 on the television for further information.  Tom calls his corporate friends and arranges to be put on the air.  He lays the two million dollars on a table and into the camera he tells the kidnappers and the world that he has no intention of paying the ransom and instead want the two million to be a reward for capturing his son’s abductors.  He gives the kidnappers a way out saying if Sean is returned unharmed, he will withdraw the reward.

Everyone turns against Tom, the FBI agents who have been advising him, his wife Kate and every man on the street who is questioned by the media.  Now Shaker calls him up and threatens to kill Sean if Tom doesn’t pay the ransom.  Tom says he doesn’t believe he’ll return Sean at all.  Now the kidnappers send a note through the housekeeper to Kate to show up late at night in a deserted church to arrange for an exchange.  Kate is attacked by Shaker in disguise who punches her and chokes her before leaving her with Sean’s shirt soaked in blood.

Kate begs Tom to relent but instead Tom goes down to the street and tells the reporters that he is doubling the reward to four million dollars.  Shaker calls up enraged and shouts at Tom that he will kill Sean if Tom doesn’t agree to the ransom immediately.  Tom shouts abuse at Shaker and then he hears a gunshot ring out over the phone.  Kate attacks Tom and slaps him repeatedly and collapses to the floor.  Tom stumbles out onto the penthouse roof and at first seems to be planning to jump but then collapses onto the roof sobbing.  Kate finds her way to the roof and consoles him.

But Shaker fired into the wall.  Sean is alive.  Now Clark Barnes and Miles Roberts are packing their van to leave the scene and Maris is panicked and doesn’t know whether to run or kill herself with a gun she has.  She is romantically involved with Shaker but their bond has been broken by the sordid nature of the crime they are committing.  The only one who isn’t panicking is Shaker.  He’s come up with Plan B.  He calls up the precinct on his radio and tells them that there is a kidnapping at the address they are holding Sean at.  He shoots Clark and Miles as they try to drive off but Maris shoots him in the shoulder.  Shaker returns fire and kills her.  Now Shaker pretends that he discovered the kidnapping and puts himself in line for the four-million-dollar reward.

Sean is returned to his parents traumatized but only slightly injured and the Mullens begin to bring their lives back to normal.  One day Shaker shows up at the Mullens’ home to collect his reward but as Tom is writing out the check, he sees Sean quaking with fear at Shaker’s voice.  Tom realizes what it means but almost immediately afterward Shaker knows that Tom knows.  At this point Shaker’s anger leads him to say he will execute Tom.  But Tom convinces him that they can go to Tom’s bank and have the reward transferred to Shaker’s offshore bank.  Then Tom agrees to fly Shaker to Mexico in his private jet.  While driving to the bank Tom ostensibly calls the airport to set up his flight but actually calls the FBI and tips them off to where he is headed.

Tom and Shaker make the wire transfer at the bank but as they’re leaving some NYPD who have been alerted by the FBI attempt to arrest Shaker.  He shoots two of them and takes off running.  Tom catches him and beats him brutally but Shaker manages to push Tom into traffic where he is shaken up by a passing car.  Now there is a foot race and finally Tom grabs Shaker and throws him through a plate glass window.  Tom retrieves Shaker’s gun and covers him with it.  The NYPD and FBI show up and tell Tom to drop the gun and Shaker to lay on the ground.  Shaker is bleeding profusely from a neck wound from the broken window but he secretly reaches for an ankle holster.  When Tom drops his gun arm to his side Shaker pulls his gun to shoot Tom but is beaten to the draw by Tom and several law-enforcement officers.  Shaker is shot dead and Kate shows up to hug Tom and signal the end of the nightmare.

Wow, that’s a lot of stuff, to stuff into one movie.  And I’ve left out a lot of details.  The FBI Special Agent Lonnie Hawkins played by Delroy Lindo has a role in convincing Kate to stop Tom from offering the reward.  He also is privy to Tom’s perjury in the conviction of the labor leader.  The relationships between the various kidnappers is complicated and volatile.  There are a lot of moving pieces.

It’s a well-crafted movie.  At certain points the various characters border on hysterics but considering the roles and stakes involved the action is reasonable.  None of the characters is blameless but even some of the criminals may make some claims to the viewers sympathy.  I think it’s a good crime drama with a lot of human interest.  I can recommend it as worth seeing.

In the last part of this review I’ll look at the 1956 and the 1996 versions of Ransom to see how they compare and what that comparison might say about the years in which they were made.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 1

I am as old as hell itself so I remember seeing Ransom in the theater in 1996.  It was a very popular movie and Mel Gibson was a big star back then.  I was dimly aware that the movie was a remake of a film of the same name.  Actually, the original was Ransom!  That exclamation point must have been big news back in 1956.  I’ve since had a chance to see the 1956 version and I intend to review it and then review the 1996 remake and compare them.

Glenn Ford and Donna Reed star as David and Edith Stannard a married couple with a young son named Andy.  They are very wealthy because David and his brother Al own a very successful company.  We see the child and parents in a comical argument caused by Andy “stealing” the boards from under his parents’ bed to build his backyard fort.  We witness the way David dotes on the boy and promises to break away from his busy work to join the boy in his construction project.  The mother and father send the boy off to his school bus and then David heads off to work.  We also meet the major domo of the household servants Jesse Chapman.  He is a Southern Black Christian man, much given to reciting scripture who very seriously attends to the welfare of his employer’s family.

At work we find David contending with his brother Al over whether the company should continue to advance into new product models or wait until more return is collected on the earlier models.  Although the brothers quarrel, they show affection for each other.  Later we see David return home having “stolen” some lumber from a willing construction site foreman and asks his wife where their son is.  She says he is still at school but David informs her that it is past his time.  Immediately the phone rings and Edith hear from a school administrator that a “nurse” from Dr. Gorman’s office took Andy from school to be seen by the doctor.  Now, both frightened by this news, David calls Dr. Gorman and hears his worst fears, that the doctor did not send for the boy.  David calls the police and Chief Backett arrives and sets in motion the police actions.  An electrician sets up a separate phone line and a tape recorder.  And the police set up a trace on the line waiting for a ransom demand over the phone.  At this point a newspaper reporter named Charlie Telfer (played by a very young Leslie Nielsen) enters the house uninvited.  The Chief counsels the Stannards to allow Telfer to stay during the investigation and so keep him from printing wild speculations by the promise of an exclusive story.  Charlie proves himself to be a cynical young man who attempts to bribe Chapman to get some photos of Andy’s room.  Chapman spurns the offer as an insult.

The parents become rattled from the waiting and now the school administrator shows up and complains that she is the wronged party by the kidnapping.  Edith grabs for the fireplace poker and is only stopped by the police chief from braining her.  After she is escorted out the phone rings and the kidnapper tells David what he wants, $500,000 in small bills and to show that the money is ready the television show which David’s company sponsors will be the signal.  The host will wear a white suit jacket.

Now Al arranges for the money.  It is being counted and serial numbers recorded.  Now David talks to the Chief and Charlie about the exchange.  But when David expresses the hope that Andy will be home by end of day the men crush his hopes by telling him that regardless of whether he pays the ransom or not the chance of return is the same, two out of three.  And hearing this, David’s logical mind jumps to a conclusion.  Now he goes to the television station and tells the host that the plan has changed and he, David will speak to the audience.  He spreads the ransom money on a table and then tells the camera that he will not ransom his son.  Instead he will use the $500,000 as a reward to anyone who will turn in the kidnappers.  And to the kidnapper he adds that if Andy is returned unharmed then the reward will be rescinded and if the kidnapper happens to be captured David will act as a character witness on the kidnapper’s behalf because of the mercy shown his son.  And then he finishes by swearing on a Bible that all he said would be observed.

But when David returns home, he is told by all, by the chief, by Al, by Charlie and most of all by Edith that he has done a terrible thing. She begs him to undo it and go back to the kidnappers and reverse himself.  David tells them it is too late.  For good or ill the die is cast.  Edith breaks down and is taken to Al’s house down the street to mourn.  A crowd that has assembled outside the home reacts to the news with rage and stones are thrown through the windows.  Charlie goes outside and tells the reporters to go home and leave the family to its agony.  Then the police disperse the angry crowd.  Finally, Andy’s shirt is found in an abandoned car and delivered to his father.  But there is a quantity of blood on the shirt.  Now David despairs and breaks down in tears.  The only one who has not deserted him in his lowest hour is Chapman who tries to comfort him and reminds him of King David’s grief at the death of his son Absalom.  After he calms himself David goes into the yard and looks at the fort that Andy was building the other day.  And as he stands there, he thinks he hears Andy calling him.  And looking up he sees his son.  Unable to believe his eyes he clasps Andy in his arms in joy but notices that Andy’s wearing a strange shirt.  Andy explains that they gave it to him after he bit the nurse and her blood got on his shirt.  Now the house is alerted.  Chapman calls Al’s house to let Edith know the good news and the movie ends in front of the house with Edith running up and being embraced by her son and her husband embracing them both.

This is some serious melodrama.  Every heartstring there is gets tugged.  But the story works and the acting is good.  Any parent watching this will feel every fear and experience the anxiety of such a daring plan by David to save his son.  This is a good movie of its kind, a personal drama.  I can recommend it.  In the next part of this review, we’ll look at what forty years changes in the story as we look at the remake.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 2

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.

Need A Laugh?

In the classic movie “The Caine Mutiny” the petty tyrant Captain Queeg assigns the deceptive title of morale officer to one of his unfortunate junior officers.  His responsibility in this position was to ruthlessly enforce the dress code down to the buttoning of shirts and the length of hair on the enlisted men.  Whereas this was a mockery of the concept of morale I believe that a morale officer is exactly what the country needs right now.  And to a large extent that is what President Trump has been attempting to do with his COVID-19 press conferences.  He’s trying to provide helpful information and an optimistic assessment of the progress we’re making in the dreary business of navigating through the pandemic swamp.  But we need more than that.  Trapped in our homes and deprived of even the opportunity to work we need some distractions.  We need some entertainment.

In a happier time, even just a short generation ago we could turn on the television and we would find on every network at least one show that was funny enough to distract us.  Back in the early 1990s you could watch Home Improvement with Tim Allen as a tv dad with his wife and three boys stumbling through the foibles of American family life with gentle humor and a very muted take on the battle of the sexes and the revolt of the young against their parents.  Later on, you could still laugh at the misanthropic but relatively harmless antics of Seinfeld and his neurotic associates.  Even during the 2000s you could see a show like King of Queens where the humor was more like a pitched battle between the husband and wife and the dysfunctionality of the older generation was on full display with Jerry Stiller’s portrayal of Arthur Spooner more resembling a mental patient than a normal adult.  But it was funny and the characters somewhat resembled real people.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.  The loss of any originality on network television seems to have killed off the sitcom.  The stupidity of the writing and the restrictions on the plot dictated by political correctness have rendered these shows unwatchable.  Maybe the better writers have moved over to cable stations like HBO and Netflix but the darkness of most of what passes for comedy on cable is pretty extreme.

And that is where we are.  As a society we are surrounded by joyless dysfunctional productions that are supposed to be entertainment.  The action shows aren’t good but they’re just supposed to tell a simple story of good versus evil.  That’s easy enough to do.  Comedy is harder.  It takes intelligence and an actual sense of humor.  Those two things are mostly absent now.  But that’s what we need.  A good laugh.

Luckily, there is a lot of old comedy available.  And there is probably something there for all tastes.  Everything from the tame antics of the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello and the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, to the early modern comedy of George Carlin, Mel Brooks and Rodney Dangerfield, to the outrageous Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, right up to the current rants of Dave Chappelle.  Of course, the definition of funny varies enormously depending on the audience.  It’s probably safe to say that generational tastes will divide the audience into several camps.  But what is undeniable is that the modern entertainment industry has destroyed comedy.

But we still need a laugh.  So, go looking for something that is funny and put it on and have a good laugh.  You need it and the rest of us do too.

What I would recommend is do a search online for what movies, tv shows and comedy recordings are considered the funniest for the time periods when your concept of comedy was formed and see if you agree with the opinion.  Look at general lists of comedies for these time periods and make a list of your own favorites.  Then rent or buy or stream a few of these comedies together in your own film festival.  Make sure you have your favorite popcorn or other snacks and enjoy.  Maybe tell a friend or two and have a virtual movie festival in separate homes.  You can make a deal to swap favorites and compare notes after the fact.

Just to show that my heart is in the right place I’ll throw a few out.  Now mind you, I’ll start off by saying my tastes are peculiar.  But there they are.  I’ll go with two W. C. Fields movies, “It’s a Gift” and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.”  I always enjoy his henpecked husband routine and the melodramatic actress who plays his wife in both these movies is perfect.  I love telling Camera Girl that she treats me just as badly as Field’s wife in the movies.

Add in the first installment of the “Thin Man” series.  And finish off the early movies with the Marx Brother’s “A Night at the Opera.”  For the later decades we could take a couple of Bill Murray movies, say “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.”  Maybe add a Jim Carrey movie, say the “Mask.”  And finish off with a cartoon that’s mostly a comedy like “The Incredibles.”  For a classic tv series I’d go with Jackie Gleason’s, “The Honeymooners.”

If you have any picks you’d like to volunteer leave them in the comments and share the wealth.

A Letter to Three Wives – An OCF Classic Movie Review

IMDb lists this 1949 film as a romance drama.  Today we’d call such a film a “chick flick.”  The director,Joseph Mankiewicz  was also responsible for “All About Eve,” which was another movie that centered around women.  Mankiewicz received Oscars for both of them so it seems this type of movie was his specialty.

The plot revolves around three married couples, the Bishops, the Phipps and the Hollingsways.  They live in a suburb of New York City and the three wives Deborah, Rita and Lora Mae, respectively, all have an uneasy relationship with a fourth woman, Addie Ross who has always been admired by their husbands for her beauty, intelligence and taste.  As the story opens it’s the morning of the first big country club dance in town and the wives are in various stages of annoyance with their husbands.

Deborah is angry at Brad because he’s going on a business trip and doesn’t even know if he’ll return in time for the dance.  In addition, he has selected an evening gown for his wife for the dance that she has discovered is identical to a dress Addie Ross recently wore.  Rita is angry with George because he is dismissive of her job as a radio script writer whereas she resents that he works as a low paying teacher at the high school.  She is also surprised to see him leaving that morning in a suit, something he never does.  And Lora Mae is dismissive of her husband Porter strictly on general grounds.  Their relationship is a continuous stream of digs and jibes by both of them.

The wives are engaged that day as chaperones for the grammar school annual outing at the lake.  But right before the boat leaves the dock a letter arrives for the three women addressed from Addie Ross.  In it she ironically says goodbye to them as her three dearest friends.  She’s leaving town forever but as a memento of her life with them she says that she’s running away with one of their husbands.

The bulk of the movie is the reminiscences of the three women on their history together as wives, friends and rivals for Addie Ross.  Brad and Deborah Bishop are played by Jeffrey Lynn and Jeanne Crain.  Brad is the rich, handsome aristocrat of the story.  Deborah is a farm girl that Brad met in the Navy in WW II.  She has always been intimidated by the more sophisticated background of his friends and their shared experiences as longtime residents of the town.  Honestly, I find these two characters the least interesting of the six.  Kirk Douglas and Ann Sothern are George and Rita Phipps.  They are the intelligent couple.  He’s a school teacher and a wit.  She’s a hard-working career mother trying to push George into a more ambitious and better paying career.  Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell are Porter and Lora Mae Hollingsway.  Based on their way of speaking and information you learn from the story they are both from “the wrong side of the tracks.”  In fact, in a comical scene from her past we see that Lora Mae’s mother’s apartment was practically on top of the elevated train tracks adjoining it.  Porter is a very wealthy retailer with a chain of appliance stores and a mansion.  And when Porter and Lora Mae meet, she is his employee and he is a cynical divorced man on the make.  She is a painfully beautiful young woman to his gruff 35-year-old cynic and she skillfully uses her charms to negotiate a marriage.  And after he can no longer resist her, he grudgingly agrees to marry her but in terms so unflattering and unromantic that their married life is guaranteed to be a vicious cycle of hurt feelings.  Porter and Lora Mae are the most interesting part of the movie.  Paul Douglas’s characterization of Porter as the gruff regular guy and Linda Darnell’s Lora Mae as the wise-cracking shrew are very amusing.  And Linda Darnell is a remarkably beautiful young woman in this film.  A small supporting part in this movie is played by Thelma Ritter as a friend of Lora Mae’s mother and housekeeper to the Phipps.  Ritter is always the most interesting character on screen in any scene she is in and this movie is no exception.

The movie has a surprise ending at the country club dance when we find out that love can be found in unexpected places.

One of the things I find interesting about this movie is the “types” that the various characters represent.  Brad Bishop and apparently Addie Ross are the “to the manor born” aristocrats of the town.  They both have money and refined taste.  George and Rita Phipps are the educated middle class.  They are the product of the egalitarian World War II generation who believe in the virtues of enlightened modernism.  Porter and Lora Mae are from the working class and for both of them buying into refinement of the upper class is one of their highest motivations.  Porter is constantly talking about Addie’s “class” and disparaging Lora Mae for her lack of class.  And when she goes to Porter’s house for the first time Lora Mae tells Porter that she wants to be a lady so she can have a big house with a piano with a photo of her in the silver frame just like Porter has of Addie Ross.  Deborah Bishop is the farm girl who is completely intimidated by Brad and Addie’s sophistication.  Instead of aspiring to become like them she just fatalistically assumes that someday brad will cast her aside for her social superior, Addie.

Although Brad is obviously friendly with the Phipps and not noticeably a snob his character is very sparsely sketched in.  And likewise, Deborah’s inferiority complex makes her a very one-dimensional character.  The Phipps are a more fully drawn pair of characters and their husband/wife dynamic is also more believable and therefore enjoyable.  I especially like how Kirk Douglas describes his low status and not very well-paying job as making him a comic figure and almost unmanly.  George is the modern man, comfortable with his wife as a bread winner.  When she complains that he bought cheaper whiskey because he can’t afford scotch, she hints that she can afford to buy it instead.  To this George replies, “I forget sometimes that I’m merely the titular head of the household.”  But even Rita is insecure of George’s relationship with Addie.  When Rita forgets George’s birthday Addie sends him a present of a rare symphony recording that has a romantic inscription that inspires Rita’s jealousy.

But the most fully drawn characters are Porter and Lora Mae.  He is the self-made man who worked his up to success.  He is proud of his success and desires to be measured by his material possessions and by the “class” that he tries to surround himself with.  Addie Ross is his ideal of an aristocrat who wouldn’t covet his wealth and would add the class that he was born without.  He was formerly married to a gold digger and he assumes because Lora Mae forced him to marry her that she is looking for the same kind of “pay day” where she can divorce him for all she can get.

Lora Mae is a woman born poor but blessed with the gift of great beauty.  She likes Porter but she refuses to enter into an intimate relationship with him without the promise of marriage.  She knows this will torture him but she tells him openly that is her price.  When he finally grudgingly agrees, he tells her that she is making a “good deal” without any illusions of love.  The bitterness this statement elicits from her is the poison that haunts their every married day with each of them sniping at the other about their shortcomings.  Here is an almost Shakespearian scenario where misunderstanding blinds love on both sides.

The movie is quite enjoyable and is an excellent date movie for married couples since the war between men and women is on full display and is resolved very agreeably.  I highly recommend this film.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 10 – Richard III – Olivier’s 1955 Version

This is not one of my favorite plays.  Part of that is my allegiance to the House of Lancaster.  Henry IV and Henry V seemed like my kind of guys so I was sorry to see the House of York pry back the crown from their side in Henry VI Parts I, II & III.  But more than that, it’s the spectacle of a monster like Richard crushing the people around him, his family in fact, without any compunction or even much difficulty.  His brothers Edward and George are oblivious to his treachery even as it is being accomplished.  His other enemies are more aware but equally powerless to save themselves from his malice.  He moves from outrage to outrage upping the ante at each stage.  Finally, he assigns a merciless assassin to smother his nine and twelve-year-old nephews with their own pillow to ensure that they never have the chance to revenge themselves on Richard for his usurpation of their father’s crown.  And then there’s the matter of Lady Anne.  She is the widow of the Lancaster heir to the throne, Henry VI’s son Edward.  And it was Richard who killed Edward.  Having Anne agree to wed Richard is the final outrage that just makes the play a bridge too far for me.  I mean, come on! Richard is a hunchbacked, withered armed, monster.  Anne spits in his face and calls him a fiend and then willingly marries him.  This is a tough play to understand.

Anyway, Olivier plays Richard to the hilt.  He is actually comical at certain points in his jocular, two-faced portrayal of the monster.  Olivier has surrounded himself with an all-star cast of Shakespearean professionals.  Cedric Hardwicke is his brother King Edward IV, John Gielgud is his brother George, Duke of Clarence, Ralph Richardson is Duke of Buckingham and Claire Bloom is Lady Anne.  The acting is good.  It’s just that I can’t stomach the plot.  To see evil just dance along while well meaning people are led to the slaughter irks me.  The ending should be consolation enough.  Richard gets his comeuppance and pays the price.  But the play rubs me the wrong way.  It’s the way that good seems to be powerless to resist evil.  It’s almost as if it gives up without a fight.  Oh well.

So, as you can tell I don’t love this play but I recognize that it’s really about me and my way of looking at the world.  I acknowledge that this is a well-acted version of the play and the production is full of nice touches.  The chanting monks, the cinematography of the battle scene, the excellent set design, the skill of the cast.  Olivier’s elocution and mastery of the part demands it be seen.  He gives us a consummate and thoroughgoing villain.  All of it recommends this play to the Shakespeare devotee.  So, I do recommend this version.  It is well done and deserves high praise.

But I’d rather watch Hamlet.  I’d rather watch Henry V.  Richard III rankles me no little bit.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 9 – Henry V – Branagh’s 1989 Version

Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V.  I watched Branagh’s version that night.  I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.

When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star.  He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again.  He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry.  They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together.  Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare.  Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead.  Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable.  The movie was a critical success.

Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted.  The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned.  The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.

But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s.  And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis.  Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far.  A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech.  When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm.  But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels.  It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.

And the action of the play mirrors this same difference.  Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages.  It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.  It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields.  Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud.  Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King.  And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out.  When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance.  He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants.  So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play.  He’s left all the warts in plain sight.

Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic.  Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French.  Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained.  So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.

How do they compare?  In my opinion they are both excellent films.  And they have different strengths.  I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language.  He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like.  No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.

But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version.  Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life.  By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead.  Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp.  Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 8 – Henry V – Olivier’s 1944 Version

Another Olivier film in which he starred and directed.  He also was one of the producers and had a part in the screenplay.  Shakespeare’s plot revolves around young King Henry (or Harry to his friends) defending his claim to the throne of France.  His Norman ancestors shared lineage with the French kings and here Henry is demanding from the French king that he be named his successor.  But the Dauphin (the king’s son and heir) answers for his father by sending an insulting “gift” to substitute for Henry’s claim.  He sends him a box of tennis balls.  That starts the war.

The action is divided between Henry’s prosecution of the war, scenes among the French leaders and several personal vignettes.  One set of vignettes involve Henry’s former companions; Ancient Pistol, Bardolph, Nim, Mistress Quickly and Sir John Falstaff.  In his youth Henry was an irresponsible wastrel that associated with these disreputable characters.  But these knaves were very popular from two earlier plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and here they are brought back for a final curtain call.  Their actions are for comic relief and as a contrast to the heroics of Henry and his warriors.  Then there are scenes with the three captains Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy from respectively Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.  These three men speak in heavily accented dialects reflecting their ethnicities.  They are also provided for comic relief with mockery of MacMorris being the primary focus.  And finally, there is the scene of Princess Katherine and her Duenna talking about King Harry in a scene where the Princess attempts to learn a few words of English seemingly in anticipation of meeting Henry.

The story’s climax is the momentous battle of Agincourt where according to Shakespeare’s reckoning an army of 12,000 Englishmen, mostly infantry and archers, defeated an army of 60,000 Frenchmen that included a large contingent of heavy cavalry.  After the English victory we have a scene where the French King agrees to make Henry his heir in exchange for Henry’s marriage to Princess Katherine.  And this is completed with Henry winning Katherine’s heart in a scene that is meant to signify his passionate and determined nature.

So how does Olivier handle this complicated and fragmented plot?  After all, some scenes take place in a palace, some in an inn but others are in the middle of a pitched battle and others in a bivouac.  In Shakespeare’s day, in his little circular theater, interior scene changes were hard enough but battle scenes could only be handled by suspension of disbelief and by heralds arriving to announce distant action.  Olivier pays homage to this by starting the play in the Globe Theater.  We see the actors behind the scene dressing and preparing to enter the stage.  Even Olivier as Henry is shown first as an actor about to enter his first scene.  The following scene at the inn between Ancient Pistol and company are also handled as scenes in the theater.

But once the action moves afield, we get exterior shots of the English and French countryside (actually Irish, this was shot right before D-Day and England was on a war footing while neutral Ireland was not).  And it’s outdoors that Olivier gets to give the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech.  And the big battle includes an actual cavalry charge.  After the battle they use a strange combination of exterior shots with painted backgrounds that are sort of picturesque in conjuring up a theater.  And a theater is where the finale happens, right back in the Globe Theater where the Narrator closes the curtain on Henry and Katherine and reads the epilogue.

So, how did I like this mess?  Well, actually, quite a lot.  I can’t help but admire the way Olivier takes the conventions of a Shakespeare play like the exits and entrances of the cast and makes them part of an internal joke by showing the cast as actors going onto a stage.  He even takes the speech that explains his claim to the throne and makes it a comic scene with bishops and clergymen dropping and finally throwing ancient manuscripts at each other in their confusion at trying to prove Henry is the legitimate King of France.  To a modern audience the base and crude friends of ancient Pistol seem strange and exotic but Olivier has his Globe audience filled with Pistol’s spiritual kinsmen who cheer and catcall in approval of their low antics.

By modern standards the battle scenes are somewhat theatrical.  After you’ve seen elves and men mowing down orcs in one of the Lord of the Rings movies the knights on horseback can’t be very convincing.  And Olivier is no Errol Flynn swashbuckling with a sword.  But what Olivier has is the ability to take Shakespeare’s lines and turn them into dramatic speech.  I think the fact that Olivier had done Shakespeare on the stage with the best English actors of his generation was what gave him the ability to give the words the inflection and cadence that turns them from a museum piece into a dramatic scene.  I’ve seen the St. Crispin’s Day speech done by Branagh and Olivier.  Branagh gives it all the intensity and emotion he can.  Olivier is calmer and quieter but he infuses his speech with the storyteller’s charm of what it will be like to look back at a victory from the vantage point of many years.  Maybe my admiration of his skills is idiosyncratic to me.  But even though he is an actor from an earlier time I do not think our modern method actors can compare.  They always reach for emotional affect and seem to overdo it.

Henry V is a special play in Shakespeare’s list.  Everything but the epilogue is a reflection of the will and fortune of a fortunate king.  All his ventures succeed and his reign is fortunate.  Only the epilogue reminds us that the War of the Roses is yet to revive in his son’s time and erase all his glories and end the English sovereignty on the mainland.  But the play gives the audience a chance to hear of victory as a contrast to the tragedies that will follow.  Olivier made his production as a morale boost for the English who were about to join the Americans in the D-Day invasion of France.  The story of an earlier invasion of France by Henry was supposed to provide hope for the nation worn out by years of bombing raids and setbacks in the war.  And so, Olivier omitted the defeats from the epilogue.  Wise decision.

This version is dated in terms of cinematography and stylized in some aspects of the acting but I recommend it to those who enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.

 

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