Tinkers, Letters, Laughter and Ghosts

Odds Bodkins!

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If you haven’t heard of Abbott and Costello, you are in for a treat. When I was in elementary school, there was only so much my dad could show to me. So, he stuck to comedies mostly and some of my favorite films featured the famous comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

They started in radio and are most famous for their “Who’s on First?” sketch. As a kid, I watched them in a very simplistic way. Abbott was the straight man, Costello was the funny one. They were out to make people laugh, plain and simple.

 

 

The Time of Their Lives, made in 1946, stuck with me though as something more than a comical farce. I was a seven or eight when I first saw it and vividly remember running out of the room because I was scared. My dad yelled behind me, “It’s supposed to be funny!” Let me tell you. I was truly terrified of Abbott and Costello. True Story.

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To give you a little background, The Time of Their Lives follows Horatio Prim (Lou Costello), a Revolutionary War hero, who’s set on marrying his sweetheart, Nora (Anna Gillis). She’s a maid in Danbury manor and decides to take Horatio’s letter of commendation from George Washington to Mistress Melanie (Marjorie Reynolds).

One thing leads to another that results in the wrongful executions of Melanie and Horatio by soldiers who believe they are traitors. They throw their bodies in a well and curse their souls to be bound to Danbury Manor until crack of doom….unless some evidence proves them patriots. Melanie and Horatio hang around as ghosts until what was modern day (1946) when new tenants move in. One of them is an ancestor of a butler (who treated Lou like crap) from the revolutionary era, Dr. Ralph Greenway (Bud Abbott).

 

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Costello and Melanie decide to haunt the new tenants and fun antics ensue including the most terrifying while at the same time hilarious seance ever on screen. While this film is a lot of fun to watch, it was apparently not as fun to make. Costello and Abbott were having a feud during shooting and halfway through, Costello called the director and told him he wanted to switch roles with Abbott or he wouldn’t come back to set. Well, they waited him out and he was lovely when he finally returned.

 

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The great formula of the Abbott and Costello movies is real horror movie tropes contrasting the comedy antics of Bud and Lou. In Time of their Lives, there are parts that I truly find scary, despite knowing that it’s a comedy. It makes the laughs bigger when you feel it grounded in something as opposed to just watch a comedy sketch.

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I’m also a sucker for ghost stories and think this one is a lot of fun! There’s something for everyone genre-wise. Additionally, the special effects are great. Their rudimentary quality strangely makes me suspend my disbelief more. They don’t look perfect, but they don’t need to.

Also, Lou trying to dematerialize…you’ll understand.

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Vintage Trailer below:

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The Red Shoes: The Quintessential Ballet Film

Last night, something rare and wonderful happened. My little brother decided to let me show him a movie of my choosing. If you knew my family and our film craziness, you’d know just how rare it really is. I decided to show him a film which inspired me when I first saw it and with that in mind, here’s a little background on how I was originally introduced to the film.

Years ago, I saw a documentary called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Prolific fimmaker Martin Scorsese talks about all the films that inspired him when he was young, the films and artists that made him fall in love with movies. One of the films he talked about was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. It was only shown for a moment in the documentary but I knew I had to see it.

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As Roger Ebert explains in his review of the 1948 film, The Red Shoes is really an amalgam of two kinds of stories. Powell and Pressburger melded multiple genres to create something truly original and daring, especially for the time it was made in.

“One story could be a Hollywood musical: A young ballerina falls in love with the composer of the ballet that makes her an overnight star. The other story is darker and more guarded. It involves the impresario who runs the ballet company, who demands loyalty and obedience, who is enraged when the young people get married” (Ebert 2005).

Moira Shearer turned down the role for a year before giving in. She was just starting out as a ballet dancer and didn’t want her reputation to be tarnished by the film. However, she ended up giving in and although the process of making the film was apparently arduous, the film has gone on to be considered a revered classic of British cinema.

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Personally, I tend to be drawn to dialogue and storytelling over the visual nature of a film. But, I have to say The Red Shoes is all about the visual. What stuck with me after I saw it were images and the glorious color that just doesn’t exist anymore. There was fluidity and beauty is every shot. Now, I understand, that much of the credit for that goes to the prolific cinematographer of the film, Jack Cardiff.

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It is said that this film inspired a generation of young girls to become ballerinas. I can see why to some extent, but I also feel that, had I seen this as a young girl, it would deter me from dancing professionally. While it doesn’t take as harsh a view as Darren Aronovsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the sacrifices it takes to make it as a ballerina. The film purports to say that you can have love or art, but not both. Never both.

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Another aspect of the film which interested me as a teenager was the character of Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. He was interesting because he wasn’t simple. There was obviously jealousy and resentment and possessiveness of Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) but it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t romantic. I interpreted it as almost as a jealousy of Victoria being able to have everything she wanted: both love and a great artistic career. Maybe it was something he wanted to have earlier in life, but couldn’t. It isn’t clear.

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For me, a great film inspires conversation. Whether it be about the story or the cinematography or the acting or the dancing is not important. Someone created something which made you think. I think there is something for everyone to appreciate in this film. It certainly has stuck with me over the years. We’re just lucky that Scorsese championed the restoration of this film so that it can still be seen in all its beauty 68 years after it was made.

Vintage trailer below:

Added tidbit: Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor throughout his long career, was actually married to Michael Powell. Scorsese met him through a publicist and introduced the pair. Sadly, they were only married a few years before Powell’s death in 1990.

Why “Guys and Dolls” is not just another 50’s musical

I was fifteen or so when I first became introduced to Guys and Dolls. I saw the play at my high school and remember sitting in the audience, bored out of my mind. I was much more preoccupied at the time with the boy I had a crush on and the fact that he’d brought a different girl to the play.

As such, I always had a negative impression of Guys and Dolls. I associated it with that high school experience and as a result, didn’t really have much interest in watching the film. However, in my late teens, I was introduced to Brando – not old Brando, but instead, the Brando of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, I also saw a small film called So Long at the Fair which starred a young Jean Simmons.

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When I happened to see the cover for Guys and Dolls with Brando, Simmons, and Sinatra, I decided it was worth a chance. I did not expect to fall in love with the film though. I’ve always loved musicals, but was somehow convinced that Guys and Dolls didn’t have a lot of depth. Turns out I was half right. Samuel Goldwyn worked with director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz to create more of a backstory and add a little more depth to the characters than originally existed in the stage musical.

A little background first: Guys and Dolls, made in 1955, follows a gambler, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) who desperately makes a bet that Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) cannot take out Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Detroit is also trying to make it work with his fiance, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine).

There was a lot that went into this film, but it wasn’t the easiest film to make, partly because of the hostility that existed between Sinatra and Brando. Long story short, Sinatra believed he should be playing Sky Masterson as he was the more musically adept. However, Brando had just won the Oscar for On the Waterfront and was very in demand. Brando knew of Sinatra’s jealousy and loved annoying him, messing up takes on purpose just to piss Sinatra off.

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When Brando sang “Luck be a Lady”, Sinatra apparently went around set, telling people, “It’s going to sound a lot better when I sing it tonight!” Sinatra did shows almost every night in Vegas and “Luck be a Lady” was apart of his set. Looking back, it is hard to believe that Sinatra didn’t sing the song in the film, as it became one of his signature songs.

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Now, on to the important part. Why do I love this film? There are so many reasons, but probably the biggest one is the incredible actors. Brando, while not a great singer, adds a credibility to the film that it just wouldn’t have without him. Simmons is absolutely lovely as Sarah Brown. She has poise, a great voice, and great comedic sensibilities. Sinatra, while not wanting the role he was given, also gives a great performance. They even added a few songs for him that were not in the original musical.

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Musicals are by their very nature unrealistic. And while this film had a set akin to a theater stage, there was something that made you suspend your disbelief. Joseph L. Mankiewicz accomplished something very specific. He gave the audience a taste of what seeing the broadway show was like while also creating characters that had depth. Outside of all of that, the movie boasts wonderful songs and is just plain fun. I think you’ll agree.

Vintage trailer below.

 

Oh Claudette, you old so and so…

The two holiday weeks are equal parts stressful and fun. There’s family and hordes of food, but there’s also time for movies.

My favorite part of the holiday season here in Los Angeles is the schedule at the American Cinematheque. For those outside of the Los Angeles bubble, the American Cinematheque is a screening organization which shows classic or “alternative” films. They show films at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and also at the Aero in Santa Monica.

During the holidays, they tend to show popular films, the ones that will sell out when people are off work and actually have the time to go to the movies. Die Hard and It’s a Wonderful Life are the christmas staples, but what I look forward to most is those first few screenings in the new year when they highlight 30s and 40s screwball comedies.

This year, on the second night of their screwball comedy tribute, they showed a double feature of Midnight (1939) and Remember the Night (1940). I had seen Midnight before, but it had been a while. I knew I liked it, but couldn’t remember the particulars. In this second viewing, I was blown away at how modern and hilarious it was. The audience was totally connected to the story and the characters.

For a little background, Midnight stars Claudette Colbert as Eve Peabody, a nightclub singer who arrives in Paris without a cent to her name. Straight off the train, she meets Tibor Chemny (Don Ameche), a taxi driver who falls in love with her at first sight.

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However, Eve, scared of her feelings for Tibor, runs away, right into a high class soiree happening nearby where she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore…Yes, he’s Drew’s great-grandfather)….

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Georges sets his eyes on Eve when he sees that his wife’s (Mary Astor) lover, Jacques Piqot, played by Frances Lederer is interested in Eve. Georges tells Eve he’ll foot all her bills if she pretends to be a baroness and steals away Jacques from his wife. As if there is not enough problems, the taxi driver then comes back in and Eve does everything to protect her story, piling lie upon lie.

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Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett penned the script while Mitchell Leisen directed. It really was a dream team in a lot of respects, especially considering that Barrymore died only two short years later. However, the making of the film was slightly tumultuous as Leisen apparently liked to change dialogue. This enraged Wilder and led him to direct his own scripts from then on.

Midnight is light and tremendously fun. Ameche’s role is very much something Gable would have done. He’s gruffly lovable and we all watch hoping Eve and Tibor can make it work. But, Barrymore really steals the show, taking advantage of every moment he’s on screen.

It’s the perfect movie for those lazy winter days, especially when rain attacks Los Angeles and all you want to do is watch old movies and drink hot cocoa….or maybe that’s just me. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Vintage trailer below: