Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Spoiler Experiment pt. 1: Draft Day

Draft Day
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

In a sense, what I'm doing with this Spoiler Experiment isn't terribly new for me. There have been movies in the past that I've seen knowing either (almost) everything or (almost) nothing. This, however, will be the first time I've made a conscious effort to pay attention to whether or not it makes a difference either way.

I'm writing this section on April 10, the night before I go to see Draft Day, the first of my two case studies. To reiterate, I chose my two test films, Draft Day and Million Dollar Arm, because they're just similar enough: sports comedies featuring middle-aged star actors, about businessmen looking for young talent to replenish their teams. It's my belief that this will make for a fairer comparison than if I chose films from different genres, or if I picked a studio film and an independent one.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight
seen on TV @ TCM

Among the many awesome posts written for my recent Diamonds & Gold Blogathon was one about Marie Dressler. I had a vague idea of who she was prior to reading this: middle-aged 30's star... and that's about it. I had the impression she was big in her day, though I found that kinda hard to believe: a matronly, not-that-great-looking (sorry) woman was once a box office draw? But apparently it's true.

Seeing her in a movie like Dinner at Eight, I think I can see something of what made her successful. It feels very much like a play, which makes sense since it's based on one, and it's much more character-driven than I expected. It takes its time in setting up its story, and it has a rambling, leisurely kind of feel, unlike, say, Grand Hotel, another MGM all-star attraction, which feels more plot-driven.

I liked the first scene between Dressler and Lionel Barrymore. It's two old pros playing off of each other, making acting look easy. You get the sense of history between the two of them, and genuine affection even though the passion has died. The way Barrymore plays it, I can almost believe that Dressler's character was once someone desirable. By contrast, she seems at ease and a little wistful, knowing that time has passed between the two of them and whatever beauty she may have once had has faded. It's a warm moment that plays out naturally.

The whole movie lets us into the lives of its many characters in much the same way. I also liked seeing Jean Harlow stand up to the ever-intimidating Wallace Beery. I had seen her before in one or two other movies, so I had an impression of what she was like. Such a shame that she died so young - only 26. What would the rest of her career had been like?

This year marks MGM's 90th anniversary, and while they're no longer the Hollywood powerhouse they once were, they still have one of the greatest legacies in the history of film. I guess when I think of MGM movies, I mostly think of musicals - big, star-studded affairs in widescreen and Technicolor. And James Bond, of course. They, perhaps more than any other old-school studio, symbolize the Golden Age of Hollywood for me and, I imagine, for many others too.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The WW2 record of Brigadier Gen. James Stewart

The James Stewart blogathon is an event devoted to the life and career of the great Golden Age actor, presented by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. For a complete list of participating bloggers, please visit the host site.

James Stewart is fondly remembered today as one of Hollywood's finest actors, but to those members of the Greatest Generation who fought in World War 2, Stewart is also remembered as a war hero, who served with great distinction as a member of the US Army Air Corps.

Stewart had piloting experience from his younger years. Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1908, he had an deep interest in aviation as a child. Charles Lindbergh, whom he would go on to portray in the movies one day, was his idol. In college, however, he gained a greater interest in acting, which led to theater work (where he first met, among others, Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan), and eventually, a career in Hollywood. Aviation still interested him, though, and in 1935 he got his civilian pilot's license and bought his own plane. In 1938, he obtained a commercial pilot's license.

Stewart was drafted into the fight in Europe, entering before Pearl Harbor led to America's formal declaration of war. In February 1941, the same month in which he'd win his one and only Best Actor Oscar, for The Philadelphia Story, he went to his local draft board but was turned down for being underweight, so he spent the next month bingeing on spaghetti, steak and milkshakes until he barely made it in a second time.

Inducted as a private on March 22, 1941, Stewart underwent basic training at Moffett Field, California and was a media sensation. During this time, in addition to his education, he was a flight instructor and a narrator for training films, and also went on war bond tours. By the spring of 1943, he rose to the rank of captain, serving as operations officer for the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force.

By November, he led the B-24 Liberators, who were part of the Second Air Division, out of Royal Air Force Station Tibenham in England. The B-24 was a bomber plane, generally used with the B-17 on daylight raids throughout Europe, with a cruising speed of 215 MPH and a maximum speed of 290 MPH. The standard crew compliment was anywhere between seven and ten. In addition to bombs, they were outfitted with M2 Browning machine guns. Over 18,000 B-24 bombers were made by the war's end.

Stewart led several bombing missions that winter, including one on Christmas Eve in France, before getting promoted to major in January 1944. In March, he was transferred to RAF Old Buckenham as group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit, where he continued to lead sorties. By the spring of 1945, he made colonel and was named chief of staff of the Second Air Division, having completed twenty raids with the 445th and the 453rd. He came home in September, remaining part of the Air Force Reserve as commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base. In 1959, he was promoted one more time, to the rank of brigadier general.

Among the military accolades awarded to Stewart for his service include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He retired from the Air Force on May 31st, 1968.

The book Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot goes into much greater detail about Stewart's war record from the perspective of one who served with him, author Starr Smith, an intelligence officer assigned to Stewart.

This short propaganda film, Winning Your Wings, was narrated by Stewart and directed by John Huston in 1942.

Other James Stewart films:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Diamonds & Gold Blogathon: The men

So here we are - this is part one of the blogathon, where all day today, I'll post the links to the pieces about the men. All you gotta do is put your link in the comments section and I'll put them up onto this page for all to see. If your post is about the women, Paddy will take them beginning tomorrow.

On behalf of Paddy and myself, I want to once again thank everybody who's participating, everyone who tweeted about it, everyone who linked to it on Facebook - seriously, this is the first blogathon I've had a hand in running that was not only this big, but this well promoted, and I truly, truly appreciate all the support.

In case you missed it, here's my post, on the movie Cocoon.

Ride the High Country (McCrea, Scott, Buchanan) - Caftan Woman
Charade (Cary Grant) - The Man on the Flying Trapeze
True Grit (John Wayne) - Ramblings of a Cinephile
Bunny Lake is Missing (Laurence Olivier) - Movie Classics
Dr. Cook's Garden (Bing Crosby) - A Trip Down Memory Lane
The Toll Gate (William S. Hart) - Movies Silently
Witness for the Prosecution (Charles Laughton) - Tales of the Easily Distracted
Inherit the Wind (Tracy, March) - Critica Retro (Google Translate required)
Venus (Peter O'Toole) - A Person in the Dark
The Ox-Bow Incident (Harry Davenport) - Thrilling Days of Yesteryear


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Long, Long Trailer

The Long, Long Trailer
seen on TV @ TCM

In her superb book on how marriage is depicted in movies, I Do and I Don't, Jeanine Basinger devotes a section to the rise of television, in particular the birth of the domestic sitcom, and while she cites examples of shows featuring idealized nuclear families that Americans aspired to, there was one show in particular that, despite the atypical setting and characters, came across as more relatable:
Most people think of I Love Lucy as a typical 1950s married couple. Lucy, in particular, is thought of as a 1950s housewife (God help us!). But nothing about I Love Lucy is really "typical" the way The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are. I Love Lucy uses a real marriage as a springboard to hilariously off-the-wall (and totally unrealistic) adventures.... Lucy has an endless fountain of crackpot ideas to further her goals, but also an indomitable spirit to keep her plugging away at them when they obviously aren't working.... (This is why Lucy became emblematic of the 1950s American woman: not because she's "normal," but because she's determined. She treks ever onward, confident there must be a better life somewhere up there ahead.)
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz enjoyed tremendous success with I Love Lucy, which had the subsidiary effect of boosting their film careers, and during their run on the show, they starred in two movies together, Forever, Darling and today's subject, The Long, Long Trailer.

Lucy & Desi were unique among Hollywood couples in many ways. There's the interracial aspect, for one thing. The Supreme Court would not uphold the right of interracial couples to marry until 1967, yet here was this highly visible, glamorous and successful couple proving to the world that it was absolutely no big deal for people from two different races to love each other.

Their on-screen personas as Lucy & Ricky Ricardo sometimes seemed indistinguishable from their real lives. When Lucy was pregnant with their first child, Desi Jr., not only was he written into the show, but he became a character all his own (played by a different child). In their follow-up series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, other Hollywood couples played themselves on the show, but Lucy & Desi were still Lucy & Ricky.

They were business people as well. Their Desilu Studios not only innovated the way television shows were filmed and distributed, but it was the home for many other popular shows from the 60s.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that in watching Trailer, one finds it difficult, if not impossible, to look at the two of them and not see the Ricardos. Their characters in the movie have sound-alike names, for one thing - Tacy and Nicky. Surely that's no coincidence. Nicky is basically Ricky Ricardo without the bongos, while Tacy seems like a toned-down version of Lucy Ricardo. She's not a dingbat, but she does have a hint of Lucy Ricardo's scatterbrained nature. The big difference here is that Tacy is funny because of the things that happen to her, not the things she does. One great example is the scene where she's trying to cook on the trailer as it's in motion. 

Lucy & Desi even get to sing together in one scene!. It's not meant as a big, theatrical moment, as you might expect to see on I Love Lucy, but a tender, casual, intimate moment the two of them share while they drive along the highway, listening to the radio. It's so sweet and feels so natural. If you had never seen or heard of the two of them before seeing this scene, you would not doubt for a second that they were deeply in love.

Trailer's premise is simple: Tacy convinces Nicky to buy a trailer that they can spend their honeymoon on as they travel cross country, with an eye towards making it a permanent home as well, but the one they get is huge and expensive and, of course, leads to all sorts of problems as they make their trip. Basinger notes in I Do that the trailer is the perfect metaphor for marriage: the expense leads to financial problems, the in-laws are horrified when Nicky tries to park it, Tacy's determination to keep it forces her to lie to Nicky - all of these and more are aspects of what Basinger calls "marriage movies" - the typical conflicts that arise in films about married couples.

Lucy & Desi were a match made in heaven, but it didn't last, and looking at the two of them, whether in movies like Trailer or on TV, it seems so hard to believe that they could ever part. In I Do, Basinger talks about a 1993 documentary produced by their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, called Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie, in which, through archival footage, home movies of the family, and interviews, Lucy & Desi's marriage was explored in detail, the ups and downs, to attempt to find out what went wrong. Basinger writes:
Sadly, Lucie Arnaz says to the camera, "They would have loved to have been the Ricardos," but like so many others, they couldn't manage a  sitcom life offscreen, only on.... her parents did the I Love Lucy show in order to be closer together in their work, and to be able to have kids and raise a family. The show worked, but the marriage didn't.... The film becomes a marriage movie, a TV movie, a real-life movie, and a documentary - but [it provides] no answer to the question "Why couldn't they stay married?"
Still, seeing Lucy & Desi in a movie like Trailer is a treat. They may not be Lucy & Ricky in it, but they come across as something closer to their real selves, an image refracted as it is through the lens of television.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


This is my post for the Diamonds & Gold Blogathon, an event hosted by Caftan Woman and Yours Truly in which the theme is great performances by actors age 50 and over. Check back here Saturday for my listing of the posts devoted to actors, and check CW on Sunday for the listing of posts by actresses.

Netflix rental

Earlier this year, at the Oscars, there was a bit of a to-do over seeing Hollywood Golden Ager Kim Novak, on account of her looks: it certainly seemed as if she had had some work done on her face. The general reaction on social media was negative, to say the least, though some came to her defense afterwards, and it set off a conversation about how celebrities, especially women, respond to aging.

This blogathon was not created as a response to that, although the timing has made me think about how modern audiences perceive older celebrities. As film bloggers, we tend to be sensitive to stars who struggle in vain against Father Time, even though (or perhaps because) they live in our memories as being forever young and beautiful, as a result of watching their movies over and over. For those who are less familiar with them and don't remember them from their salad days, it's harder to sympathize - not that this excuses those who ridiculed Novak. I suspect that this was one more case, among many throughout history, of celebrities being fair game for public criticism, right or wrong.

The increasing number of gray hairs on my head doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. My mother noticed them for the first time recently and I think I just shrugged and said something like, "Eh, I've gotten used to it," but no one likes being reminded that their youth is fading. Still, thanks to medical improvements, being old is no longer considered as much of a curse as it used to be... and for those of us who love those stars of the silver screen, the longer we can see them work their magic, the better. So I like the fact that we're celebrating movie stars in their twilight years... because as we've seen, it's easy to take them for granted.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The African Queen

The African Queen
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ

I had forgotten how good The African Queen is. I had only seen it once before, way back in my video store days, and all I remembered of it was the opening scene - Katharine Hepburn in that makeshift church, earnestly playing the organ to a bunch of stupefied African natives who have no idea what she's singing about.

It's funny that I'd see a movie where Humphrey Bogart is at his scruffiest so soon after reading this article about what made him such a style icon. It's true that for someone with such... unconventional looks as Bogart (to put it nicely), he rocked the tuxedo like nobody's business. And next to Harrison Ford, no one else looked better in a fedora. 

While his character in Queen is very much a Bogart kind of character - the American abroad (well, Canadian, anyway) - in terms of his image, he's playing against type. Even in To Have and Have Not, another movie where he's in another country, dresses casually and owns a boat, he's still recognizable as Bogey. Not here, though, looks-wise.

The print that the Loew's JC presented was a recent restoration (from 2009, I believe) and it looked beautiful. The Technicolor colors popped in a way I didn't remember seeing from the VHS version I saw years ago. During the opening credits, legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff got a brief burst of applause from someone in the audience, and no wonder - all those images of the river, and the surrounding jungle, and the animals, and the boat itself as it made its fateful trip. He captured it all well.

Queen was a bit of a last-minute selection on account of the problems the Friends of the Loew's (FOL) are still having with Jersey City. Despite that, and despite the pouring rain on Saturday night, a fairly big crowd turned out, which is very encouraging. Host and FOL head Colin Egan had nothing new to report regarding their struggle to retain control of the Loew's JC, but it was quite clear that the crowd was on his side. 

He always acknowledges the FOL volunteers in his introductions, but on Saturday night he made special mention of their efforts to preserve the theater during this difficult time, and someone shouted out "That's right!" as part of the applause. In addition, Egan and the rest of the staff were wearing "I support Friends of the Loew's" buttons, which they gave away for free. Naturally, I snagged one. 

I don't live in Jersey City, so I don't know if Saturday's crowd is representative of the city at large, but in this recent poll taken by the Jersey Journal, 65% of the respondents opposed JC picking a new organization to run the Loew's JC, so that's something. I would've preferred a different phrasing of the question, though, to something like "Should the FOL remain in charge of the theater" or something to that effect. 

I think FOL's efforts to preserve the theater and make it a viable venue for movies and other events are blatantly obvious to anyone who looks at the facts, but then again, I'm not the mayor of JC. Here's hoping they can resolve this dispute soon.