Friday, November 29, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
seen @ Herald Square Plaza, New York NY

I don't remember my family shopping at Macy's a lot while growing up. I definitely remember going to Alexander's and JC Penney and Sears, but I don't remember going to Macy's, either at Herald Square in Manhattan or anywhere else. There is at least one Macy's here in Queens, near (but not part of) the Queens Center Mall.

Department store shopping could be fun as a kid, but a lot of the time, my mother would pick out stuff from the store catalog, like Sears, and order things like clothes through the mail. She would let me go through the catalog and identify whatever shirts or sneakers or pants struck my fancy. Sometimes she'd get the wrong size, other times I decided I didn't like the item as much as I thought I did, for whatever reason. Looking back, I tended to get a lot of dorky clothes this way, and a lot of the time, it was my own fault.

I don't remember which of my toys came from department stores. I remember going to children's shops like Child World and getting toys and clothes there. There was an Alexander's in Flushing that I'd go to for toys, school supplies, and little rinky-dink trinkets. I seem to recall hitting their gumball machines for prizes fairly often.

Of course, I associate department stores with my childhood because nowadays, it's all about Amazon and similar online websites. Lots of the department stores I remember shopping at as a kid are gone now. I go to sporting goods stores like Modell's for my clothes and the only time I go out of my way to get toys now is if they come out of my cereal box.

I popped into the Macy's at Herald Square recently. I forget what I was doing there; I might have been killing time waiting for some other appointment, but I hadn't been in there in a long time, and I was just curious as to what it looked like now. They still have the wooden escalators, and many of the old facades and door frames are still intact. The building has held up remarkably well. Regardless, I rarely do any shopping in Manhattan anyway. Whatever it is I need, chances are good I can get it cheaper in Queens.

So the original Miracle on 34th Street, as we all know, is set in and around Macy's at Herald Square, and last Friday, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), as part of their 20th anniversary celebration, screened the film in the relatively new pedestrian plaza right outside Macy's. They actually ran it all day and into the night. Host Robert Osbourne was there to introduce the evening showing; that's the one I went to. It was my first time seeing the man himself in person. He looks the same as he does on TV. Maybe a bit taller.

TCM had a sweet set-up. The plaza covers a substantial amount of real estate between 35th Street to the north and 33rd Street to the south, where Broadway and Sixth Avenue intersect. (It's hard to describe what it looks like in words, so that's why I took pictures. Look for them on my WSW Facebook page). Basically, though, there was a truck with a giant video screen high up on a pole, at the 34th Street end of the plaza, and love seats, sofas and even a rocking chair that TCM provided in addition to the chairs and tables normally present. They had a food truck in the back, along with one of their brand new tour buses. (If you don't know about that, read this.)

A brief word about TCM: I watch it a lot more now, due to the direct and pervasive influence of my classic film blogger friends. It is without question an excellent resource for old movies; the fact that they're commercial-free makes watching it a joy. (Seriously: don't you HATE the way some networks, like AMC, jump into commercials without easing you into it at least? It can be so jarring to finish watching a quiet scene and then all of a sudden, BAM! a car commercial, which is always louder. Hate it!) I'm not as fanatical a viewer of TCM as some, but I'll watch it if there's something good on - often times, for the blog, but not always. The TCM Film Festival looks like a lot of fun, from what I've read about it; I'd love to go one day. And that's about it. 

The Herald Square plaza, like the Times Square plaza and others around the five boroughs, are relatively recent additions to the New York landscape, built for the express purpose of calming traffic and making it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around. In a televised debate before the November election, Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio made a curious statement in which he said that "the jury's out" on whether or not the Times Square and Herald Square plazas were of value, a statement which completely ignores all the evidence that conclusively proves otherwise. This is especially troubling given that he has put forth a plan for the city in which the goal is to eliminate all traffic fatalities.

If DeBlasio had been in Herald Square last Friday, he would have had ample reason to retract his statement. We lucked out on the weather, for one thing; it was cool, but not cold. I took my coat off during the screening and felt fine the whole time. Also, the love seats and chairs made the screening inviting enough, but there were also dozens of other people standing around outside Macy's, taking in the movie or buying snacks from the food truck. It was a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere, in an environment that didn't even exist five years ago, and could not have existed without the commitment made by the city, under Mayor Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, to rethink how we use our streets. I really hope our new mayor will continue in that tradition, because projects like the Herald Square plaza are nothing but good for New York.

As for the movie itself, well, it is far and away my favorite Christmas movie of all time. It's a clever story, well told, that doesn't fall prey to easy sentimentalism and holiday-infused treacle even though it very easily could. It makes good use of the location shots in and around Herald Square - at times, there would be an exterior shot of Macy's and I'd turn my head and look at the real Macy's to the right of me, and marvel at the changes between then and now. And Edmund Gwenn will totally make you believe that Santa Claus is real. This is not just a great holiday movie, it's a great movie, period.

One of the things that Gwenn's character rails against is the commercialism of the holidays, which leads, of course, to his idea of sending customers to the competition if Macy's didn't have an item, an idea quickly adopted by the department store as a whole. It's Black Friday as I write this, a concept which I'm sure didn't exist back in 1947, but in recent years, the shopping event has leaked over into late Thursday, Thanksgiving... and according to this Huffington Post article, Macy's at Herald Square, the same place depicted in Miracle as a business that put people over profits, joined in the "fun":
..."WOOOOOOOOOOOO!" come the screams as shoppers jockey for positions. First they must make it through the heavy outer doors, as security personnel loom over the scene, and then through a second logjam at the inner doors. Finally, they enter the media funnel, and brave photographers step into the flow of traffic, cameras flashing like strobes. Phones thrust in the air record the scene and the shoppers take in the attention, waving to reporters and howling all the way.... 
Michael Kors and Coach, right up front, fill up in a flash and the crowd begins to spread to every corner of the sales floor. A girl bolts by me, hand firmly grasped around her friend's wrist as she drags her toward Michael Kors, gaze fixated on a red tote. "Hurry up!" she squeals as her friend stumbles on the leg of a table.
This was on Thanksgiving night, friends and neighbors.

I don't know what to make of this, especially in a time where the disparity between the rich and the poor in America is wider than it has ever been. I know this wasn't the main theme of the movie, but I think it's certainly worth examining. We pay lip service to the holiday season as a time of selflessness and generosity, but we're still greedy bastards at heart, and the lessons taught by a movie as timeless as Miracle remain unlearned over sixty years later. So, I dunno. I think in the end, we get exactly what we deserve. Sorry, I realize this is a depressing way to talk about such an uplifting movie.

Once again, look for my pics from the event on the WSW Facebook page.

51,233 and counting

Details to follow next week.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (yet another movie title missing the 'the') was alright as Oscar bait biopics go, but honestly, it was that very baity-ness that left me bored with it in the end. It didn't surprise me much - partially because I had already seen the trailer a dozen times, but also because it was so by-the-numbers. It followed all the expected beats of an Oscar bait film: lone protagonist fighting the System, plucky sidekick whom he must learn from even as the sidekick learns from him, tragic death, redemptive moment (or something very much like it), you get the idea. I felt like I has seen this movie dozens of times before, and while Matthew McConaughey was terrific, this movie did not move me the way Milk or Behind the Candelabra did. Speaking of which, I have seen complaints from the gay community that this movie diminishes the role actual gay men played during the AIDS crisis days of the 80s, and I tend to think that's a fair point as well. But for me, this was little more than one more "prestige" biopic that wants you to like it - to really, really like it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Of Mice and Men (1939)

The Chaney Blogathon is an event devoted to one of the most well-known father-son duos in Hollywood, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr, hosted by The Last Drive In and Movies Silently. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Of Mice and Men (1939)
seen on TV @ TCM

Yeah, so we all read Of Mice and Men in high school, right? It's one of those Great American Novels we all learn about and then forget after the English test and the vocabulary words and the final essay. I admit to having read it only once, in high school, and never again. I'm as familiar with the story as I am because of having seen the 90s film version with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. This was, of course, during my video store days. I don't recall if we had the 1939 version. Maybe it wasn't available on VHS at the time? Don't remember.

The friendship between George and Lenny is great. George feels responsible for Lenny, but at the same time, one gets the sense that he would totally ditch him if he could live with the consequences. Lenny is useful in terms of getting work, but he's dumb as a post, and that ultimately makes him a liability. When you're living in the heart of the Great Depression, though, and you're totally on your own, abandoning him isn't such an easy decision to make, and that's what makes their relationship so fascinating to watch, from start to finish.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Lenny, and he's the subject of this particular post. He's certainly well-cast; I didn't realize how tall he was, but then, everybody looked tall next to Burgess Meredith! (IMDB lists him as 6'2".) You could say that Lenny's not a difficult role to play; just act dumb - and not even dumb in an ironic, knowing way, like Marilyn Monroe, but literally stupid - and maybe that's true. I suspect the trick may be in maintaining consistency, not slipping into caricature - remembering that dumb as Lenny may be, he's still a person and not a cartoon.

 In the TCM intro to the film, Robert Osborne and guest programmer Gilbert Gottfried (!!) mentioned that LCJ wasn't regarded as that great an actor in general, especially in comparison to his famous father, but I thought he pulled the role off fine. His Lenny seemed a little broader than Malkovich's Lenny, but I doubt anyone would argue that Malkovich is a better actor overall.

It couldn't have been easy, living in the shadow of his father, Lon Sr. LCJ originally performed under his given name, Creighton Chaney, until a producer changed his name as a means to boost his career. It helped to a degree, but history shows that he wasn't thrilled about it. A quote attributed to him states, "I am most proud of the name Lon Chaney. I am not proud of Lon Chaney, Jr., because they had to starve me to make me take this name."

LCJ played a wolfman, a vampire, a mummy, and even the Frankenstein monster (on TV) throughout his career, and you gotta admit, that's one heck of a grand slam. These days, actors who play movie monsters and/or serial killers rarely get as much recognition as the Chaneys did, and while they may also take on "straight" roles, rarely are they in films the caliber of Mice, or High Noon or The Defiant Ones, as LCJ did. I suppose the actor who comes closest to the Chaneys' legacy today may be Andy Serkis, but of course, he requires a CGI makeover for his best-known monster roles.

LCJ may not have scaled the cinematic heights his father did, but he did alright for himself. You can't go wrong with a career that's been immortalized in song...

The Phantom of the Opera (w/Lon Chaney Sr.)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The circus kid: Veteran funnyman Joe E. Brown

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

Some Like It Hot has got to be, in my humble opinion, the funniest English-language comedy film of all time. (Brief aside: I remember when I first heard about the movie when I was much younger, I thought it must be a dirty movie - by modern standards. A character in either a TV show or film briefly mentioned it - wish I could remember what it was - and something about the way she talked about it made me think that. Don't know why.) It's Marilyn Monroe at (arguably) her sexiest, and for laughs per minute, it doesn't get much better than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag.

That mouth of his was a little creepy.
As I learned more about movies in general, and director Billy Wilder in particular, I could put names to some of the rest of the cast as well. Old Dude Who Flirts With Jack Lemmon, in particular, is a major scene-stealer, but it wasn't until recent years that I could put the name Joe E. Brown to him. He, of course, gets many funny moments with Lemmon, and is lucky enough to get to say one of the all-time great last lines in movie history (which only makes sense in context). Turns out he's got quite a story.

Brown's road to show business had some very unusual twists. He was a circus tumbler at the age of nine, touring around the country. Then he got into baseball - almost became a Y-nk-- but preferred to go into showbiz instead, first Broadway and then the movies. He would go on to be a broadcaster for them in 1953, though. Among his '30s films include three baseball-themed movies, plus his son Joe L. would eventually become the general manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates for over twenty years.

With Olivia DeHavilland in Alibi Ike (1935)
Comedies were Joe E. Brown's forte, and for a time, he was fairly big. During World War 2, he entertained American troops, traveling on his own dime. He also lost a son in the war. His post-war work slackened off, although in addition to Some Like It Hot he was also in Show Boat and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, plus some work in early television.

In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations With Wilder, Wilder stated that he was aware of who Brown was, but that he didn't realize Brown was still around until he saw him at a Los Angeles Dodgers ball game and realized he was perfect for the role of Osgood Fielding III in Some Like it Hot:
...So I asked him, "Would you like to read [for the part]?" "Would I? Of course I would." He did the part, and shortly after, he died. [He actually didn't die until 1973.] He was an absolute surprise to people, to young people, because they'd never seen him. He had the biggest mouth in the world. He was the nicest guy.
The sexual innuendo in Hot cannot be understated, and Brown was so marvelous at pulling it off. This scene where he meets Lemmon (in disguise, of course) for the first time is brilliant.

Look at his face at 1:10. His character is totally convinced that Lemmon's not only a chick, but a desirable one - and of course, the "Pull in your reel" line can only be interpreted one way. And Lemmon gives as good as he gets at 1:31 when he talks about slapping his fiddle. The dialogue by Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond is pure gold, of course, but it's brought to life magnificently by these wonderful comedic actors.

That famous last line was suggested by Diamond, at first as a placeholder until he and Wilder found something funnier:
...We never found the line, so we went with "Nobody's perfect." The audience just exploded at the preview in Westwood.... it wound up to be our funniest last line. I was asked by many people, "What is going to happen now? What happens now to Lemmon, what happens to his husband?" And I always said, "I have no idea." "Nobody's perfect." Leave it up there on the screen. You cannot top that.
With Buster Keaton in the Disney short
"Mickey's Gala Premier" (1933)
Did you know that Brown has also been immortalized in comics and cartoons? He appeared as himself in an old British comic called Film Fun, beginning in 1933, and he was caricatured in several Disney cartoons. He was also the inspiration for two semi-obscure Hanna-Barbera characters: Lippy the Lion and Peter Potamus

I vaguely remember Peter Potamus from early in my childhood. Despite his "Hippo Hurricane Howler," he didn't make much of an impression on me, I'm afraid - and no wonder, if all his cartoons were as lame as the one at the link. I don't remember Lippy the Lion, but he seems completely indistinguishable from PP.

Brown was indeed quite a character. Next time one of his early movies shows up on TCM, I hope to catch it - especially if it's one of his baseball movies!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Enough Said

I was not prepared for how much I would genuinely enjoy this warm, witty and honest movie. And to think I almost passed on it! I wish I had more time to go into detail in it because it works on multiple levels. The basic premise is this: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a masseuse and Catherine Keener is a client who constantly complains about her ex-husband, James Gandolfini. What she doesn't know, however, is that JLD is dating Gandolfini, who also doesn't know that Keener is one of JLD's clients. There's also a subplot about JLD's daughter, who's about to leave for college. Enough Said deals with issues like empty-nest syndrome, middle-age dating, and yes, even body issues from the male perspective, with such grace, humor and sensitivity. I remember writer-director Nicole Holofcener from her films in the 90s, and this might be the best thing she's ever done. Gandolfini in particular is a revelation. He carries himself with a quiet dignity and gentleness without sacrificing his masculinity, and it makes me so sad to know that we'll never get to see him in more roles as excellent as this (though I think he made one more film before his death). This is a beautiful film, the kind every romantic comedy should aspire to. See this movie, I urge you.