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Shakespeare in Silence

Considering that much of the impact of William Shakespeare’s works lies in the beautiful poetry of his spoken dialogue, it might seem odd to find that hundreds of movies were made of his works during the silent film era. Or maybe not – while that gorgeous poetry is undeniably a cornerstone of the Bard’s cultural endurance, it must also be observed that those plays are overflowing with some extraordinarily visual – and visceral – scenes, packed to the brim with murder and battle and sudden death, and romance and sex and comedy, and all the things that generally make for a riveting story no matter how they’re told. Granted, to really make the leap from theater stage to silent screen, you need writers who can pare those plays down to the barest of essentials, and a director who can build a coherent narrative out of those stripped-down masterpieces.

images (1)That’s one of the reasons that the 1908 Percy Stow film version of The Tempest is so remarkable. Taking a three hour play and chopping it down to twelve minutes while still keeping a more or less recognizable thread of the story is quite a feat – though it still helps immensely if you’re familiar with the play. But what really makes the production stand out is how visually interesting the whole thing is to watch. Not content to simply film on a sound stage, Stowe takes the camera on location to film some scenes, and combines them with an interestingly designed set and some rather impressive special effects for other scenes. The result is a dynamic telling of the story that certainly doesn’t drag, but still manages to convey a lot of the story in its short running time. If the film has a drawback, it’s that none of Shakespeare’s text made it onto the title cards, but that’s a very small complaint indeed, given the ambitious nature of the production and how well it succeeds on other levels.

By contrast, when legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith decided to bring The Taming of the Shrew to the screen, he went in completely the opposite direction, not even making an attempt to keep the story intact.  Instead, standing at the fountainhead of a great Hollywood tradition that continues to this day, he stripped out everything that was, to his mind, non-hqdefaultessential – like most of the plot -and opted instead to craft the play into something more to his liking. Like a slapstick comedy.

How well does it work? Well, that depends on how much you like slapstick – and how much of a stickler you are when it comes to Shakespeare. Working with about 10 minutes of film, Griffith doesn’t exactly stick to what little of the script he retained. The whole thing reeks more of the Keystone Kops than the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.

But for all that, this is a very funny piece of film that careens along at breakneck pace. Silent movie icon Florence Lawrence, generally regarded as America’s first bona fide movie star (she was Canadian). makes for a beautiful, funny, and fierce Katherina, and honestly, you might find yourself too busy snickering at the pratfalls and comic brawling to really register the fact that there ain’t much Shakespeare in this Shakespeare adaptation. And hey – it’s only ten minutes or so.

Not quite as wild as The Taming of the Shrew, and not quite as visually interesting as The Tempest, but still quite a lot of fun to watch, is the 1909 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which marks that play’s first appearance on the silver screen. Like The Tempest, the makers of this delightful diversion Midsummer-Nights-Dream-1909-Image-14wanted to cram as complete a story as possible into a 12-minute running time, but this production opts for detailed intertitles in order to explain the plot as opposed to the rather terse intertitles of the earlier film. Strangely, this version also ditches the fearsome fairy king Oberon in favor of a new character, Penelope, to quarrel with Titania and send Puck about his mischief.

Why did they make the change? Could they find no suitable actor for Oberon? Were they trying to accommodate the inclusion of a producer’s niece? Or was the idea of a husband, as a prank, magically tricking his wife into an adulterous affair to teach her a lesson a bit too, ah, European? Alas, we shall perhaps never know.

But the real delight in the film is 13 year old Gladys Hulette. As Puck she is charming, playful, and delightfully naughty. It’s a star-making performance, and indeed she did graduate to a rather successful leading lady career in silent film, although most of her body of work has unfortunately been lost to time and bad storage techniques. In point of fact, no complete version of this film is known to exist, with most available versions cut off about a minute or so too soon, ending on Bottom telling the wild tale of his night of romance with the fairy queen while stuck with a jackass’s head. Hopefully, a more complete version will turn up in somebody’s basement or attic – I’m just dying to know how the story turns out.

Sir Frank Benson’s 1911 film of Richard III, which he starred in as well as directed, was one of a series of filmed performances of Shakespeare’s plays that included Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, though the rest of these films seem to have been lost to the sands of time. It’s a shame, because this film is well-acted and easy to follow, thanks to concise intertitles that even retain choice quotes from the play’s text to embellish the action on screen.  Of particular note is the interesting handling of Richard’s bad dream the night before the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field, where he is tormented by the ghosts of those he has murdered, thanks to his guilty conscience and the magic of some decent special effects.

Though this is far from being a complete presentation of the play,  clocking in at less than half an hour, the longer running time does allow for a few narrative flourishes and more engaging set pieces than the shorter films that preceded it, giving the whole affair what must have seemed at the time a bit of an epic flair.

Sadly, we’ll never know what silent Shakespearian gems we’re missing out on, as so many have been lost or destroyed, as it is with far too many of the movies from film’s infancy – an estimated 90% of films made before 1929 are forever lost to us. But what survives gives us an interesting insight into the early days of cinema, when artists struggled against the limitations of the technology available to them to deliver some dazzling entertainment to the public.

Some Chicks Just Won’t Take A Hint

Burying_the_ExObviously, it’s never really too early to start watching scary movies in anticipation of Halloween, and if they’re funny as well, how can you lose? Along that line of reasoning, Joe Dante’s zombie romcom Burying the Ex seemed like – pardon the expression – a no-brainer. But while it’s a perfectly agreeable little film, it doesn’t seem to be very much else; far from flaming the passions of my love of horror-comedy, this one seems to be rather doggedly going through the motions. Not unlike the hero’s supernaturally clingy ex, this film seems desperate for us to be in love with it, but just doesn’t have a spark of real life in it to latch onto.

It’s the story of horror movie enthusiast Max (Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive) and his fanatically ecosensitive girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene, from all of those Twilight movies), who have recently decided to move in together. Evelyn is a sex-crazed hottie, but she’s also controlling and manipulative, and Max eventually realizes that they have nothing in common. She’s not interested in supporting his dream of owning his own horror-themed shop, she hates his womanizing half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper), and any time another girl says even two words to Max, she wildly overreacts.

When Max meets his dream girl, Olivia (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective), who owns her own horror-themed ice cream shop (I Scream. The name of the shop is I Scream), sparks begin to fly and Max comes to the conclusion that, uncomfortable as the idea makes him, it’s time to end things with Evelyn. But on the day he’s decided to break things off, Evelyn is hit by a bus and killed.

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Unfortunately, Max had promised that he and Evelyn would be together forever, and even more unfortunately, he made the promise over a piece of magical bric-a-brac that came from somewhere, we never find out where, and anyway it’s destroyed as soon as its usefulness to the story is concluded, because it’s that kind of movie. And so Evelyn claws her way back from the grave, horny as hell, super-strong, decaying, and ready to reclaim her guy.

Even though we’ve seen better from Joe Dante – much better, like Gremlins, for instance, or Innerspace – the movie isn’t altogether unwatchable, and from time to time even displays flashes of savage wit reminiscent of The ‘Burbs and even some of the playfully gory gallows humor of Piranha. But it’s also lifeless enough to make you wish that Dante had opted to fully commit to a deadpan genre parody like Piranha or played it a bit more straight to produce a genuine horror creature feature along the lines of The Howling, or anything, really, that would have kept the movie from shuffling along like the cinema of the dead. Even his recent Goosebumps-style offering, The Hole, mostly satisfied as a kind of a family-friendly horror film that evoked nostalgic memories of Amazing Stories and the 80’s Twilight Zone, but with Burying the Ex, it may be time to accept that Joe Dante’s best era as a director is already behind him.

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There are some major problems with this film, which, by all rights, ought to be a lot funnier than it actually is. There are plenty of interesting angles that get set up but never fully explored – that some relationships just seem to drag on after the romance has died, the idea of a smothering partner wanting to suck the life out of you (in this case, literally!), and the fact that most, if not all, of Max’s problems could have been avoided if he’d just worked up the nerve to break up with Evelyn in the first place. As it stands, it’s not scary enough to be effective horror, it’s not funny enough to be effective comedy, it’s not sweet enough to be an effective romance… it’s not even crass or offensive enough to be a bro-centric ‘ditch the bitch’ picture. It’s shallow and emotionally uninvolving and, for a zom-rom-com, it’s infuriatingly devoid of any satisfying romance or zombie shocks.

But it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d watch if it came on TV and you didn’t have anything else to do, or if you just happen to have an affinity for zombie movies, or perhaps for Alexandra Daddario, who is as cute as she is inexplicably bland in a role that ought to be quirky and charming. I’m not singling her out, by the way – none of the characters seem to reach their full potential, even as stereotypes. Anton Yelchin is a wonderful actor with inherent nerd charm, but even he seems to be phoning this performance in. Oliver Cooper as Travis is supposed to be a lovable pig, but he’s neither particularly loveable nor particularly committed to his character’s piggishness; he’s not really even offensive enough to make you laugh. Evelyn is supposed to be just the worst, but honestly, she really isn’t that bad; she and Max really aren’t a good fit, but hers needs to be the sort of character that makes you root for the bus, and she just isn’t that level of awful. How bad could she really be if she (grudgingly) puts up with Travis bringing over an endless parade of hot chicks (who inexplicably find him sexually irresistible) for sex fests on their living room couch? Even Zombie Evelyn isn’t that much of a pill, really, until she spontaneously develops a craving for brains after watching a gory film – I guess she just sort of realized in that moment that she was supposed to have a craving for brains, not nookie. She certainly isn’t the kind of bitch-from-the-grave she needs to be to make the movie work. Not even the movie’s soundtrack lives up to its potential – they talk a lot about Johnny Ramone in the movie,  but what you get is… The Kobanes?

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“Am — Am I zombieing correctly? Am I doing it right?”

One can’t help but think that, like Evelyn, it would have been better for everyone if this movie had just stayed buried.

And it is a shame, because a Joe Dante in his prime would have taken Alan Trezza’s painfully thin script and spun some gold out of it. What happened to the guy who gave us the completely bonkers self-parodying Looney Tunes horror-comedy Gremlins 2? This film needed that guy, the subversive maniac, behind the camera… Not the guy who just goes through the motions and doesn’t have the guts to make us chuckle, cry, or cringe. It’s just not enough to cram in cute little horror references and pepper the film with clips from classic B-movies – but even those hover in the background, just out of focus, their presence implied but never really explored. And it doesn’t help that this material was already done much, much more effectively – and hilariously – in the 2014 Aubrey Plaza comedy Life After Beth, which also starred Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, and John C. Reilly. On the other hand, it’s a film that may find a following on the strength of Dante’s reputation, but I wonder how much currency that reputation will carry after a few more apathetic films like this.

The movie did have one surprise for me, though: a cameo from the great B-movie staple Dick Miller. Which was especially surprising to me, since I could have sworn that he died a few years back. Like, it was in the papers, wasn’t it?

Nothing’s weirder than seeing someone you thought was dead turn up in a zombie movie.

Five 2014 Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet… But Really Want To

I watch a lot of movies.  I mean, a lot.  In fact, this entire blog is a monument to the fact that I spend a good chunk of my free time watching movies.  But even so, I can’t see everything I want to.  Sometimes I just didn’t make it to the theater for one reason or another, like with Gone Girl or A Walk Among The Tombstones (I’m sorry Lawrence Block, I love you, I really really do, but life got away from me).  I’ll see them sooner or later, and hopefully, it will be sooner.  But there are other films that I just didn’t get an opportunity to see, and that’s what this post is about.   Some of these were in extremely limited release, some of these played only at film festivals, and some weren’t released in the US at all.  Here are five I’d eventually like to see.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

a-girl-walks-home-at-nightI’m not sure how to describe this one to you.  If Jim Jarmusch directed a feminist spaghetti western noir adaptation of an Anne Rice vampire novel, that might come close. However you describe it, Ana Lily Amirpour’s ridiculously stylish debut film, “the first Iranian vampire Western,” looks like it would be well worth the price of admission.

Set in a shadowy Iranian town called Bad City, which seems to be populated exclusively by the worst kind human flotsam than can wash up in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the story of a lonely nameless vampire (Sheila Vand) who skateboards around the city while she stalks its most despicable inhabitants.  One night while on the prowl, she encounters Arash (Arash Marandi), a handsome young man whose dreams of escaping Bad City and quaint notions of romance and honor have made him something of a laughingstock among his friends.  An unlikely romance blossoms between the two, but is love even possible in a city as dark and depraved as Bad City?

 

Frank

frank-2014-film-posterI have a friend who really likes Michael Fassbender, and I kind of picture her anguished expression if I ever told her that he made an entire film and never showed his face in it once.  But she probably wouldn’t be too devastated, since she actually appreciates his acting, too, and from all accounts Frank is one of Fassbender’s most epic performances to date.

Actually, it would probably take no less than an actor of Fassbender’s calibre to pull off a character who lives in a paper mache head.  Frank, the leader of an experimental art band called  the Soronprfbs, invites aspiring songwriter Don (Domhnall Gleeson) to join the group, but Don soon begins to realize that he will never be able to measure up to Frank’s own inherent genius and talent.  Unless, that is, he can experience the same types of hardships and tragedies that everyone assumes the mysterious Frank must have had before forming the band.  The film plays out as part satire and part buddy comedy, and throws cold water on the argument that any particular artist’s genius is a product of mental illness.  It’s been praised by critics as being endearingly quirky and thought-provoking, as if Michael Fassbender in a paper mache head wasn’t enough of a hook, and the cast, which also includes Scoot McNairy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is fantastic.

 

Wild Tales

Wild_Tales-742190384-largeThis darkly comedic anthology film features six stories of violent revenge.  To know me is to know how much I love stories of violent revenge.  Wild Tales is right up my revenge-fueled alley.

The first story, “Pasternak,” follows a group of passengers on an airplane slowly discovering that they all know and have wronged a man named Pasternak.  And then the realization sinks in that they’ve already all fallen into Pasternak’s cunning plan for revenge.  “Las Ratas” (The Rats) opens with a loan shark who stops at a small roadside diner only to be confronted by the waitress, whose family he ruined.  The cook concocts a plan for revenge on her behalf that goes horribly wrong. “El más fuerte” (The Strongest) features two men driving along a highway who become embroiled in the world’s most brutal case of road rage.  “Bombita” (Little Bomb) shows not only how a simple parking violation can ruin a man’s life, but why you should never piss off a demolitions expert. In “La Propuesta” (The Proposal) a kid suffering from affluenza accidentally runs down a pregnant woman with his dad’s car, then runs away from the scene of the accident without helping her.  His father devises a plan to pay their gardener to take the blame, but it might wind up costing more than anybody could have imagined. And finally, in “Hasta que la muerte nos separe” (Until Death Do Us Part) a young bride discovers her husband’s infidelities at their wedding reception and, while looking for comfort from one of the kitchen staff, commits a little adultery of her own.  What follows is one of the wildest wedding receptions in history, but in the end, they may be a pretty well-matched couple after all.

 

It Follows

It-Follows-posterMy wife is much more into the horror movie scene than I am, but I can appreciate a good one when it comes along, and It Follows seems to qualify. Granted, there’s no shortage of movies warning us about the very bad things that can happen once teenagers start up with the rumpy-pumpy, but this one has been really racking up rave reviews from the handful of film festivals that have featured it.

19-year-old Jay has a delightful date with a young fellow only to find that their sexual encounter has left her infected with a shapeshifting demonic entity that will stalk her relentlessly and will eventually kill her unless she stays far out of its reach.  The only way to rid herself of the presence is to sleep with someone else in order to pass it on.  I hate it when I get the demon clap.

Described at Cannes as a mash-up of Jacques Tourneur-style atmosphere and  John Carpenter-style coming-of-age angst, I’ve been trying to avoid hearing too much about it before I see it.  But what I’ve heard makes this movie sound like one that I will thoroughly enjoy.

 

Song of the Sea

song_of_the_sea_poster-620x826-poster-for-song-of-the-seaThe Secret of Kells was such a beautifully written and animated film that I hoped more would follow from Tomm Moore. Song of the Sea, featuring the voices of Brendan Gleeson and Fionnula Flanagan, looks every bit as wonderful and magical.  It’s not just an adaptation of the Irish/Scottish legend of the selkies, mythological creatures who live as seals in the sea but shed their skins to live as human on land once they’ve found love – until the siren call of the sea lures them back.

The film starts after the legend has ended, and concerns two siblings, frustrated Ben and mute Saoirse, who live in a lighthouse with their father.  Their mother abandoned them years ago, leaving their father distraught, but the pair discover that the stories she told them are true, and that Saoirse is, like her mother, a selkie.  Together, they embark on a journey through the magical creatures and places that are part of their heritage, hoping to find out where in these disparate worlds they belong.  It looks endearingly sincere and every bit as dazzlingly animated as Kells, and it’s one on the list that I’m most looking forward to.

Here’s a few others that I’m looking forward to catching at some point in the near future:

The Ten Best Christmas Movies You Haven’t Seen Yet… But Should.

If you’re like me, you can hardly wait to get the Thanksgiving turkey in the fridge before you put on the Christmas songs. I love Christmas, I love everything about it. It’s my favorite holiday. I know that the cool answer in postmodern hipster America is supposed to be Halloween. And don’t get me wrong, I love that holiday, too. But Christmas is my favorite.

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I love the anticipation of it, the lead-up, the candy canes and hot chocolate, finding gifts for the people you care about. I love the way kids get around the season, oh-so-hopeful and excited that the tree will be a showcase of surprises just for them, but ever-so-cautious lest they incur the disapproval of old Santa and find a lump of coal in their stocking on Christmas morn.

Yeah, Christmas is a lot of fun.

Above all, I love the movies. There are so many, but it seems that we wind up watching the same ones over and over and over again. Sure, they’re classics, but how special would a Christmas dinner be if you had Christmas dinner every night? Instead of watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 643rd time this Christmas, why not expand your holiday movie viewing with some of these lesser-known offerings? So here, offered in no particular order, are 10 movies so good that you shouldn’t miss out on them during the Christmas season.

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10: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

You should probably know this adaptation of a Damon Runyon short story because it introduced to the world the now-classic Christmas tune “Silver Bells,” performed on screen in a duet between the film’s stars, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. But it has a lot more than just that to recommend it.

Bob is Sidney Milburn, a.k.a. “The Lemon Drop Kid,” a wisecracking racetrack tout who gives some bad advice and winds up costing a notorious mobster a $10,000 payoff. The Kid manages to fast-talk Moose into giving him until Christmas Eve to raise the dough. Out of time, out of options and out of luck, he concocts a Christmas charity scam involving a bogus old ladies’ home that starts to make money hand over fist. For a while, it looks like he might just make it out of the mess with his skin intact, but complications arise with his long-suffering girlfriend, Brainey Baxter (the absurdly beautiful Marilyn Maxwell), the rival mobster that she works for, and, of course, The Kid’s own guilty conscience.

This was the second time that Bob had headlined in an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story, the first being the 1949 remake of Little Miss Marker titled Sorrowful Jones, and it’s really a shame that Bob Hope didn’t visit Runyonland more often. His high-powered fast-talking delivery and wiseacre personality were tailor made for the colorful characters that inhabit Runyon’s New York, and like Sorrowful Jones, he’s at his comedic best here. The Lemon Drop Kid is sincere without becoming too treacly, partly because the scam he cooks up to dig himself out of the mess he’s in is so absurdly underhanded that you can hardly believe that he’ll have redeemed himself by the final reel and recaptured the affections of the far-too-beautiful for him Brainey. The darker shadings of the character and the world he inhabits serves to balance the inevitable last-minute redemption, and Bob Hope is so likable in the role that you can forgive him his trespasses, which makes it feel more plausible that the rest of the cast might, too. Hey, it is a Christmas movie, after all.

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9. Lost Christmas (2011)

So much of the Christmas entertainment we are served during the holidays asks us to view the world through childlike eyes. But what would we see through childlike eyes wet with tears and heavy with regret? I loved this thoughtful and melancholy Christmas fairy tale, based on the award-winning children’s book by David Logan, because it is a more reflective and somber look at a holiday that doesn’t necessarily have, for everyone, the sort of cheerful memories that we generally tend to associate with it. Lost Christmas has more gravitas than many of the more well-known holiday classics, but delivers just as much heartwarming holiday magic.

Goose (Larry Mills), like any child, wants to spend Christmas Eve with his father, so in an attempt to force him to stay home from work, he does a very childish thing that has very tragic consequences: The loss of both his parents in a automobile accident. One year later, we find that in order to support his ailing grandmother, Goose has turned to a life of petty crime under the tutelage of Frank (Jason Flemyng), a cynical career criminal. Their lives are desperate and without hope until Frank, on Christmas Eve, stumbles across the mysterious Anthony (Eddie Izzard), an amnesiac with a strange and perhaps even magical ability. The three embark on a journey through the lives of several disparate people grieving for what they have lost because of the terrible decisions they’ve made in the past, and discover that life is more interconnected than they have imagined, and that second chances and even miracles are not impossible.

Delving into heartbeaking themes such as death, guilt, grief, abandonment and loss, you might be surprised when I say that this may be the most magical and uplifting film on my list. Lost Christmas might best be described as a modern successor to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a holiday classic that speaks to the virtues that I personally find comfort in during the holidays, and is not afraid to mix tragedy and despair into the Christmas cheer and redemption. The journey is fraught with darkness, but as Andrew rightly counsels Goose, “Sometimes you have to go towards the things that make you want to run away.” Especially when what you’ve lost, and need to find, is something as necessary to life as hope.


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8. I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

Ginger Rogers had a pretty robust cinematic resume apart from her classic movie pairings with Fred Astaire; in point of fact, those jaunty movie musicals for which she is best-known represent only a fraction of a career that spanned over 60 years and nearly 80 films in a number of genres. Though Ginger is indisputably at her best in comedies like The Major and the Minor and Roxie Hart, her dramatic roles are impressive as well, and perhaps none quote so much as in this tender holiday romance, a quietly sentimental story of two lonely, damaged people who find comfort and eventually love with each other, but whose secrets threaten to destroy their chances for happiness.

Here, Ginger is Mary Marshall, a woman serving a six-year prison term for accidental manslaughter, who is granted a Christmas furlough so that she can spend the holidays with her uncle and his family. On the train she finds herself seated next to Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a troubled army sergeant on leave for the holidays from a military hospital; he is shell-shocked from his horrific experiences at Guadalcanal and is now prone to severe panic attacks. The two are immediately drawn to one another and over the course of the Christmas season their friendship blossoms into romance. But time is working against them both, and Mary is as reluctant to tell him that she must soon return to prison to serve out her sentence as Zach is to tell her about the lingering psychological damage he must contend with.

Yes, the dueling secrets plot has been rehashed a thousand times on screen, but that’s not the point. The point is the magnificently subtle performances that Ginger and Joesph bring to their characters. It’s so nice to see two gentle people find gentle comfort in one another – yes, I know, Mary is in jail for killing a man, but the fact that she went to jail at all, as you’ll see from her flashback, is an outrage. Likewise, Zach isn’t the typical gung-ho super-soldier that populated films of the era, he’s a quiet everyman type who has lived through some brutal experiences and can’t quite put them behind him. It’s hard not to root for these two to work things out and wind up together in the end. It tugs at your heartstrings in all the right ways, and if you feel a little misty-eyed before the end, well… you have my permission to blame it on the cider.

Best of all, you can watch the whole movie for free on YouTube!

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7. 8 Women (2002)

There’s no shortage of movie musicals to be found at Christmas time, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and speculate that this is the only one kicking around with a plot involving lies, secrets, adultery, homosexuality, and murder. This gorgeous dark comedy from director François Ozon is a period showcase of beautiful women behaving badly that wickedly blends outrageous, catty soap opera shenanigans with the arch, dry humor of a Hitchcock thriller and the murderous screwball slapstick of 1985’s murder mystery farce Clue.

Based on the 1958 play by unfairly forgotten French playwright Robert Thomas, 8 Women begins (after lush opening credits that would make Douglas Sirk green with envy) on a glorious snow-covered morning at an remote mansion in the French countryside, where a wealthy family has gathered to celebrate the holiday season with the beloved patriarch of the family. But the festivities are put on hold when the household wakes to find that the patriarch is not quite as beloved as everyone thought, because sometime in the night someone left a dagger neatly stuck between his shoulder blades! The killer can only be one of the eight women staying at the house, but which one? Was it the victim’s snobbish wife Gaby, played by the astoundingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve? Her bitter spinster sister Augustine, played by Isabelle Huppert? Or their greedy, grasping invalid mother, played by Danielle Darrieux? Could it have been one of the victim’s two innocent young daughters, played by Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier, who may not be as innocent as they seem and may not actually even be his daughters at all? Perhaps his stylish femme fatale sister, played to the hilt by Fanny Ardant, did the dastardly deed. Even the pouting sexpot of a maid, played by Emmanuelle Beart, and the beloved cook, played by Firmine Richard, are not above suspicion. Each woman has a motive. Each woman is guilty of something. But which one is guilty of murder?

I have no idea why this sharp, funny, gorgeous movie isn’t better known. Aside from being a roaring good time, the movie is packed with so many layers and so much sly inside humor and cinematic references that it literally has something for everyone to enjoy. Highly recommended.

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6. Three Wise Guys (2005)

Another Damon Runyon story! I love Damon Runyon. I’m also not immune to the occasional bit of delicious cheese cinema. Especially at Christmas; I still maintain that Jingle All The Way is one of the most enjoyable holiday films of its time. Seriously.

Anyway, like AH-nold’s foray into highly-enjoyable but meretricious family-friendly Christmas pabulum, Three Wise Guys delivers a lot of oddball fun of the sort that goes hand with snuggling up on the couch under a comforter with a mug of hot chocolate and a big plate of S’mores. Based on the Runyon short story about three hapless hoodlums who wind up in an eerily familiar situation on Christmas Eve when they fall in with a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth, Three Wise Guys runs the plot through the quirky crime movie blender to produce a surprisingly delightful guilty pleasure that makes you groan as often as it makes you chuckle.

Murray Crown (Tom Arnold) operates a shady casino and is under investigation by the feds, as well as by his jealous wife Shirley (Katey Sagal), who rightly suspects him of carrying on behind her back with Miss Mary Ann Davidson (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). It seems that Mary is pregnant with Murray’s illegitimate child, and so, worried that Murray might overreact, she snatches some insurance for herself in the form of an incriminating computer disk and hightails it to parts unknown. Murray overreacts by sending three goons – Joey (Eddie McClintock), George (Judd Nelson), and Vincent (Nick Turturro) – to track Mary down and recover the disk. But she’s a lot more cunning than they realize, and it isn’t long before the three mugs are questioning their loyalties and getting themselves into comedic jams while trying to protect her. Sure, it was filmed better back in 1936. But this is an oddly charming holiday candyfloss treat and it deserves to be appreciated, too. If for no other reason, because Rowdy Roddy Piper has a cameo as a priest. Hell, yeah!

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5. Holiday Affair (1949)

I’m not ashamed to say that I love a good romance, and the more sincere the better. And this sweet little movie should be quite the pleasant surprise for those who only know Robert Mitchum from darker like Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear, or from his work in adventure and war films.

Not that Mitchum himself is in any way softened by the light atmosphere of the movie. In fact, his straight-shooting yet idealistic Steve Mason is just one element that keeps the film sweet without ever becoming saccharine; likewise, Wendell Corey’s nice-guy kindness, Janet Leigh’s heartbreaking sincerity, and most of all little six-year-old Gordon Gerbert’s endearing performance as little Timmy all help keep the movie on an even keel.

Mitchum is really quite endearing as Steve, a ex-army drifter who loses his job because of an act of kindness towards grieving war widow Connie Ennis, achingly played by Janet Leigh. One thing leads to another, and Steve winds up at dinner Connie, her adorable son Timmy (played by a charming Gordon Gerbert) and her boyfriend, super nice-guy lawyer Carl, played by super nice-guy Wendell Corey. When Steve spends the last of his money to surprise Timmy with an expensive train set the boy desperately wants but which Connie cannot afford, this further act of kindness snowballs into a series of hysterical and eventually life-changing complications and disasters which eventually cause everyone concerned to re-examine their personal relationships and decide what they really want out of life.  Naturally, love is just around the corner, but Steve and Connie will have to take a few emotional and comedic bumps before their happiness begins.

Like I’ll Be Seeing You, this is a tenderhearted little film about broken and bruised people trying to move beyond their past personal tragedies and find happiness for the future by embracing what is being offered to them in the present. If you like your holiday romance as gentle and sweet as a comforting cup of hot tea, you’re sure to enjoy Holiday Affair.

holly

4. Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

(also known as And So Goodbye)

What’s Christmas without a good ghost story?

In Beyond Tomorrow, George (Harry Carey), Allan (C. Aubrey Smith), and Michael (Charles Winninger) are three lonely bachelor millionaires who concoct a plan to pick three random strangers to invite to dinner on Christmas Eve at the ritzy New York Mansion they share with Madame Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), a former countess displaced by the Russian revolution.  The plan is this:  They will toss three wallets into the street, each containing a small amount of money and their respective business cards; anyone who returns a wallet will then be invited to dinner.  Two wallets make their way back to the mansion, in the possession of fish-out-of-water singing cowboy Jimmy (Richard Carlson) and pretty, wistful social worker Jean (Jean Parker). Romantic sparks begin to fly between the two hapless lost souls over dinner, and it isn’t long before the two are in love.  They become fast friends with the wealthy trio, who are positively delighted at the idea that they’ve inadvertently helped a couple of people find the love that they never made time for in their own lives.

Okay, but what about the ghosts, right?  I promised you a ghost story.  Okay, okay, just hang on a minute. See, this is the part where the movie takes a wild left turn into darker territory. The three millionaires are scheduled to catch an airplane that will whisk them away to their next important business meeting, but Madame Tanya has a bad feeling about the trip and begs them to take the train instead.  They don’t listen, and during the trip the plane goes down in a terrible storm, and all three men are killed in the crash. Jean and Jimmy get the terrible news from Madame Tanya just as they are arriving to announce their engagement.

But we’re not done with George, Allan, and Michael yet.  They return to their mansion as ghosts, only vaguely perceived by Madame Tanya, to discover that Jimmy is messing things up with Jean.  He’s been putting his career over their relationship – and dallying with foxy singing star Arlene (Helen Vinson), a libertine woman who has turned Jimmy’s head in all the wrong ways.  But maybe – just maybe – with a little help from the afterlife, Jimmy can be set back on the right path.

This is a strange, wonderful little movie that might best be described as a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and Topper, with a tiny smidge of A Matter Of Life And Death thrown in for good measure.  It’s very sweet, but also surprisingly dark in places.  All in all, it’s a solid fantasy romance that, like so many other films on this list, needs to be seen by more people.  Fortunately, that’s easy enough to for anyone to do, since it’s available to watch in full on YouTube!


holly

3. The Hebrew Hammer

hebrew_hammer_01Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.  You know, there are other holidays during this season.  It’s not reserved exclusively for Christmas.

Although if the evil Santa has his way, it will be.

I know what you’re thinking.  Santa?  Evil?   Oh, yeah.  See, the Santa you remember, the cuddly guy with a beard?  Yeah, he’s gone.  He got rubbed out.  His evil son Damian (Andy Dick) has taken over the North Pole in a bloody coup, and the diabolical little runt has a plan to destroy all rival holidays and force everyone to celebrate Christmas, consolidating the Claus cartel’s grip on the winter holiday season.

The North Pole wanted Hanukkah.  Instead, they got Hammer… Up to here.

The Hebrew Hammer.  Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), the world’s first Jewish blaxploitation hero. Jewsploitation? Is that a thing? Can we make that a thing?  The chief of the Jewish Justice League (Peter Coyote) recruits the Semetic supermentsh to drop the hammer on Damian’s plot and make the world safe for dreidels and latkes.  Along the way, he’ll get a helping hand from the chief’s sexy daughter Esther (Judy Greer) and fellow tough-guy Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles) of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front.

Forget about heartwarming holiday entertainment or sentimental family time with this one.  The Hebrew Hammer is 100% kosher absurdity.  And probably one of the most unusual and entertaining holiday flicks you’ll ever see.

holly

2. It Happened On 5th Avenue (1947)

ITHAPPENEDONFIFTHAVENUEThis Academy Award-nominated film was the first film released under the Allied Artists Pictures banner, which was established when Monogram Pictures decided to make a try at clawing their way off Poverty Row.  Even though it lost to Miracle on 34th Street, It Happened On 5th Avenue has plenty of charm and holiday warmth of its own.  If it strikes you as being a sort of Frank Capra-type project, then give yourself a gold star; you’re very clever. Frank Capra thought so, too (not that you’re clever, but that it was his type of story). Capra optioned it through his production company, Liberty Films, in 1945, but decided instead to let it go to director and producer Roy Del Ruth, while he devoted his time and energy to another project that had caught his interest – a little film you might have heard of called It’s A Wonderful Life.

An almost farcical story of mistaken and hidden identities, It Happened On 5th Avenue introduces us to one Mr. Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore), a New York transient who weathers the cold winters in the Big Apple by squatting in a 5th Avenue mansion while the house’s owner, multi-millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), vacations in Virginia.  O’Connor’s interests are varied, and among them is a new skyscraper project that is going to be built right on the site of the cheap apartment building that unemployed army veteran Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) calls home.  Sympathetic to Jim’s plight, Aloysious invites him to stay in the mansion.

They also invite an 18 year-old runaway named Trudy (Gale Storm) to stay as well, not realizing that the she is in reality Michael O’Connor’s daughter.  Trudy has become smitten with Jim, and keeps up the ruse, hoping to win Jim’s affections.  Jim also invites a couple of his old war buddies and their families to stay in the mansion – is it just me, or is it getting crowded in here? -until they can find more permanent housing.

When O’Connor returns to New York unexpectedly, Trudy tells him that she is in love and convinces him, for her sake, to pose as a homeless panhandler that she has invited to stay in the mansion, so that he can meet Jim and see what a wonderful guy he is.  O’Connor is less than impressed, however, and threatens to throw all the squatters out of his house and have them arrested, so Trudy calls her mother, O’Connor’s ex-wife Mary (Ann Harding), to keep the peace while posing as a cook.  Of course love wins in the end, as it should in all truly classic Christmas films.

Even though this film has been overshadowed since the day it was released by Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life, and in fact was practically a lost film for nearly 20 years, despite having developed a strong cult following since its release, It Happened On 5th Avenue has enough charm and laughs to stand next to any popular classic of the holiday season.  Since its release on DVD and through showings of Turner Classic Movies, the film has become better known these last few years – as it should be.

holly

1. The Great Rudolph (1950)

(also known as A Christmas Wish)

The Great RupertJimmy Durante’s major claim to holiday fame is of course his indelible appearance as the narrator of the 1969 Christmas classic Frosty the Snowman, but this delightful little comedy certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.

It all begins with a squirrel. At the time, audiences were bowled over by the charming little squirrel; they were so impressed with the delightful creature that some people wondered where the filmmakers had found a squirrel that could be so well-trained. In fact, it was not the squirrel that was well-trained, but his animator, bringing his spectacular stop-motion work to the screen in a live-action feature film for the first time. His name: George Pal.

That squirrel.  It all begins with that squirrel, the titular Rupert, a singularly talented dancing squirrel who lives in the rafters of a shabby downstairs apartment.  The apartment used to belong to his former owner, an aging showbiz vet named Joe Mahoney who has fallen on hard times.  Not even a talented dancing squirrel could stop him from being evicted on the day before Christmas, and Joe, unable to take care of little Rupert, set him free in the park.  But Rupert couldn’t live out in the wild, so he made his way back to the apartment and built a nest up in the rafters.

Now the apartment belongs to an old friend of Joe’s, Louie Amendola (Jimmy Durante), and his wife (Queenie Smith) and daughter Rosalinda (Terry Moore, who was no stranger to stop-motion animated animals, having just palled around the year before with Mighty Joe Young).  The Amendola family has also fallen on hard times, but they have an asset that Joe didn’t: A beautiful daughter. Rosalinda immediately catches the eye of Pete Dingle (Tom Drake, who preferred to pal around with real live animals like Lassie). Smitten, Pete lets the Amendola family move in the same day that Joe was evicted, and without a security deposit.   That little romantic impulse doesn’t go over too well with Pete’s dad, Frank, the tight-fisted landlord who lives above the apartment, but Pete doesn’t mind as long as he’s got a chance with Rosalinda.  And to tell the truth, Frank has bigger fish to fry.  It seems that an old investment has finally begun to pay off in spades, which means a cool $1500 per week.  After Frank cashes his first check, he squirrels the money away (see what I did there?) in a secret baseboard cubbyhole that just happens to intersect with Rupert’s nest.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Amendola is praying that the family will overcome their financial troubles… Okay, you can probably see where this is going by now. Money from Heaven! A Christmas miracle! At least, that’s what it seems like to the Amendola family. Cue the comic misadventures and misunderstandings, and a fairly unexpected ending, and a lot of laughs in between.  Plus, that squirrel.  Sure, it’ll probably seem a little dated and hokey to the viewer that feasts on million-dollar CGI eye candy,  but thanks to George Pal’s expertise the darn thing has a lot of charm and personality. It’s delightful and precious in the tradition of Christmas classics that will follow, even though it isn’t as well known.  That could change, since a colorized DVD has been released under the title A Christmas Wish in the last couple of years – though I generally frown on colorization, if it helps introduce new audiences to this charmer, then so be it.  The black and white version is still in the public domain, though, and can be seen on YouTube.

holly

So there you go!  Popcorn’s popped, the tree is up, the hot chocolate’s on, and it’s time to settle in for the night with a Christmas movie.  Maybe it’ll be one of these!  Or maybe you have a delightful holiday movie that you’d like to share.  Can’t get enough of Ri¢hie Ri¢h’s Christmas Wish?  Love to sit down with the family for an annual viewing of It Happened One Christmas?  Get all misty-eyed every time A Smoky Mountain Christmas is on TV? Tell me all about it in the comments.

By the way – Yeah, I know that there are a LOT of Christmas horror movies that could have gone here and didn’t.  I didn’t overlook them.  That’s just another list for another day.  Until that time… Merry Christmas Movie Viewing!

“You are not sexy in THAT way.”

When Irving Thalberg snatched up the screen rights to Ursula Parrott’s racy bestselling novel “Ex-Wife” almost as soon as it was published in the summer of 1929 for the absolutely ridiculous amount of $20,000, he pretty much already had a star in mind. Joan Crawford, he thought, would be prefect for the lead role of Jerry, a betrayed wife who seeks revenge for her husband’s infidelities in the arms, and beds, of other men.  A lot of other men (at one point in the final film, Jerry sneers at her husband: “From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”). And Joan Crawford was eager to break away from her flapper image and tackle some meatier parts, so headlining the MGM film adaptation of the book – which would be called The Divorcee – would be a great career opportunity for her.

Irving Thalberg’s wife, the stunning Norma Shearer, was also ready to break away from her girl next door image,  and when she read the script for The Divorcee, she knew right away that it was exactly the sort of thing she was looking for.  So she mentioned it to Thalberg, who frankly just didn’t think she was the right type to play a libertine vamp with a voracious sexual appetite.  “You are not sexy in that way,” he told her.

He must have been blind, deaf, and dead.

Now that’s the kind of a statement that any red-blooded Canadian girl might be outright offended at hearing from her husband.  But Norma was undeterred – it was the part of Jerry that she wanted and it was the part of Jerry, by God, that she would have.  All she had to do, she figured, was to somehow prove to her husband that should could be every bit the screen siren that Joan Crawford could be, and then some. She brainstormed with her good friend and fellow actor Ramon Novarro, who showed her some stunning publicity shots he’d recently commissioned, the work of an unknown young portrait photographer named George Hurrell.  The photos were exotic and glamorous and positively brimming over with sexuality.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you photographed so beautifully!” she gasped.

Of course, that was the answer.  Norma was convinced that this Hurrell fellow was the man who could change her husband’s mind about whether or not she was sexy in “that way.” Keeping it all on the hush-hush, especially from her husband, she contacted the young photographer and arranged a special photo shoot. She went out and got what Irving Thalberg would years later appreciatively remember as “just about the goldest and most brocaded negligee she could find.”  And Hurrell consulted with her and worked as hard as he could to showcase her considerable assets to their best advantage.  And so it was that one fine October morning in 1929, Norma Shearer came downstairs while Irving Thalberg was at breakfast and casually tossed a portfolio in his lap.  Thalberg opened the portfolio to find:

It’s a wonder he didn’t scorch his fingers while he was paging through the pictures. ‘Not in that way,’ indeed!

He might have been dead before, but you better believe these photos resuscitated him, and he now looked at his wife in an entirely new light.  Norma got the role, and later got an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the movie, beating out Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. Thalberg couldn’t have been more pleased, since The Divorcee, released in 1930, was a gigantic smash hit for MGM. Joan Crawford, who had never really liked Norma Shearer, also never forgot and never forgave. This was the first time she lost a role to Norma, but it would not be the last.

As for Hurrell, Norma Shearer was grateful to the young photographer; without his stunning photos, it is certain that she would never have wrested the role away from Joan Crawford. His work on these photos sent an electric shock through the ranks at MGM, and it wasn’t long before Howard Strickling, head of MGM’s publicity department, had offered Hurrell a position as MGM’s official portrait photographer. Although Hurrell was initially reluctant, he eventually accepted the offer in December of that same year and began a career that would produce a gorgeous photographic record of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era and beyond.

As an aside, these photos indirectly kicked off another spectacular career in the movies. Norma Shearer knew, and the photos had proven, that the right costuming would be essential to putting this character across. So she insisted on the services of MGM’s practically brand-new head costume designer. His devastatingly slinky and sensuous costume designs for Norma Shearer’s character made all the ladies swoon, and half the men as well, and Adrian was suddenly the most in-demand costumer in Hollywood.

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo as Rita Cavallini in Romance.

Greta Garbo wow!

Know Your Place… And Stay There.

lady-for-a-night-movie-poster-1942-1020258410I watched, and enjoyed, this kind-of okay costume drama set in 1870’s New Orleans called Lady for a Night, starring Joan Blondell and John Wayne, if you can believe that. The Duke hangs up his gunbelt and spurs this time around and exchanges them for white tie and evening dress, which suits him surprisingly well, especially if you think he looks his best with the grit and dirt of the trail about him. He’s a riverboat gambler who’s in love with Joan Blondell, who happens to own a riverboat casino (imagine how well THAT marriage would play out). Joan is in love with him, but she’s also in love with wealth, social standing, and power, of which John Wayne has little. So she forces a reckless drunken playboy socialite sap from a fine old family into marrying her in exchange for forgiving his steep gambling debts. In response, the fine old family vows to make Joan’s life a living hell, and when the sap dies suddenly (with a little help), his evil old aunt tries to send Joan to the gallows for murdering him. Through it all, the Duke stands by her, faithful and stalwart, hoping she’ll eventually figure out that he’s the guy she wants (good luck with THAT).  And the moral of the story is:  Keep to your own kind, know your place, and stay there, because your insolent attempts at social mobility can only end in disaster.

It’s pretty standard soapy melodrama stuff, but Joan Blondell is a little too sweet for the part – it’s obvious that Republic Pictures must have wanted a Scarlett O’Hara type figure in the lead, and Joan Blondell just ain’t it, no matter how nice her legs are, which has nothing to do with Scarlett, but they are nice legs. She’s just too cute. She’s got the sass, but not the smolder.  Likewise, John Wayne is too sincere and earnest to fit the Rhett Butler mold, and he’s kind of wasted since he’s hardly in the picture and when he is, it’s to fawn over Joan. It’s an interesting but unremarkable relic from a transitional period in both their careers – John Wayne was just starting to get big enough to crawl out of B-movie purgatory, and Joan Blondell was trying to figure out where her career should go, having recently split from Warner Bros. 

But hey. nobody can say they didn’t have fun making the picture!

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