Saturday, February 24, 2018

Stubs - Runaway Brain


Runaway Brain (1995) Starring the voices of: Wayne Allwine, Russi Taylor, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Cummings, Bill Farmer Directed by Chris Bailey. Story by Tim Hauser. Produced by Ron Tippe. Runtime: 7 minutes. U.S. Color. Animated, Comedy, Horror.

Mickey Mouse is the face of the Walt Disney Company, and prominent at attractions like Disneyland, but he hasn’t been so prominent in Disney animated works. In 2013, he appeared in Get A Horse, a 3D animated short that recalled his past glories on the silver screen. But prior to that, he hadn’t appeared in a theatrical animated short since Runaway Brain (1995), a period of 18 years.

Mickey made his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), a Disney homage of sorts to Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). He would go on to be featured in 130 films including Plane Crazy (1929), The Band Concert (1935), and Fantasia (1940). But things came to a stop after The Simple Things (1953). For whatever reason, it would be thirty years before his next animated short, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). The Prince and the Pauper (1990) would follow and it would be 5 more years before Runaway Brain.

It’s not that Mickey needs any sort of introduction, despite his time away from theaters. He is iconic in that way.

The film opens on a rainy night. Mickey (Wayne Allwine), with his dog Pluto (Bill Farmer) by his side, is doing what a lot of guys might be doing, playing a video game. This one appears to be based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with the wicked witch throwing apples on the Dwarfs. His gameplay is interrupted when Minnie (Russi Taylor) comes home.

Mickey (Wayne Allwine) is shown to be a video game addict.

She figures, correctly as it turns out, that Mickey has forgotten the anniversary of their first date. Pretending he hasn’t, he shows her a newspaper ad for Miniature Golf, but Minnie only sees the ad below that one, a trip to Hawaii. Happy to know he has planned something special, Minnie leaves. It is only then that Mickey realizes that the trip will cost $999.99, which is obviously more than he has.

Minnie (Russi Taylor) is disappointed that Mickey has forgotten the anniversary of their first date.

Pluto comes to the rescue by finding a want ad that promises to pay $999.99 for one day’s mindless work. Thinking he’s hit a home run, Mickey goes to apply. But when he arrives at the address at 1313 Lobotomy Lane, he falls through a trap door and into a science lab where he is strapped down in a chair, unable to move.

Pluto (Bill Farmer) shows Mickey a help wanted ad that promises the money he needs.

He is interviewed by the primate-like Dr. Frankenollie (Kelsey Grammer) who decides Mickey will do and introduces him to his co-worker, Julius (Jim Cummings), a twenty-foot tall creature. Dr. Frankenollie wants Mickey’s brain, which we see extends into his ears, for Julius. So in what has become a cliché of sorts, he throws a switch to move Mickey’s thoughts and memories into Julius.

Dr. Frankenollie (Kelsey Grammer) decides Mickey is perfect for his needs.

There is an explosion, which we find out burns the doctor into a crisp. Mickey discovers this when now in Julius’ body he tells the doctor to change him back and the doctor’s body falls away like so much ash on the end of a cigarette.

The doctor sets off the transference with a click of a button.

With Julius’ brain in it, Mickey’s body turns feral. When Mickey tries to explain that he needs to change back, he tries to get Julius to look at the photos in Mickey’s wallet, one of which is him as Steamboat Willie. But when Julius sees Minnie’s photo, he is smitten by her. Seeing her on the street entering a bikini shop, he runs down to get her. Minnie, of course, doesn’t see any difference in Mickey and hides the scanty bikini to save it for their vacation. But when Mickey in Julius’ body tries to save her, she thinks he is the monster.

With Julius' brain in his body, Mickey turns feral and even scares himself.

Quickly, however, she realizes that he is her Mickey. In a King Kong-like move, he places her on a tall building where she will be safe and goes back to battle Julius. For a moment, Julius outsmarts Mickey and the two of them are sent falling towards the ground, but they land on electrical lines and the resulting charge sends their brains back to the right bodies.

Julius, back in his own body, clutches Mickey and Minnie even though they're sticking through a billboard.

But the bounce back up from the wires sends them to the top of the building and thrusts all three through a large billboard advertising Hawaii. Mickey realizes he’s back into his own body, but he’s in Julius’ grasp. Minnie is in the other hand. Mickey manages to escape and tries to fight Julius with window cleaner gear before rescuing Minnie when she is dropped by Julius by swinging on a rope to catch her. Mickey uses the same rope to tie Julius to the hand of the hula dancer on the billboard. Julius is trapped like a yo-yo.

Minnie falls before Mickey rescues her.

In the final scene, Mickey and Minnie are together on their way to Hawaii on a raft being pulled through the ocean by Julius with a photo of Minnie being used as the carrot on the stick to keep him swimming.

Mickey does manage to take Minnie to Hawaii aboard a raft.

Produced by Walt Disney Animation France, the film was originally released in North America on August 11, 1995, accompanying A Kid In King Arthur’s Court, a live-action family-friendly retelling of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and a remake of Disney’s own Unidentified Flying Oddball (1978).

After having been off the screen for five years, Mickey’s appearance in Runaway Brain didn’t meet with universal praise. Many otherwise Disney fans were turned off by the macabre nature of the short, especially when compared to the light tone of his previous shorts.

The short was re-released with 101 Dalmatians (1996), their live-action remake of the animated classic. But Disney asked theater owners to cut the short off all film prints and replace it with trailers for then-upcoming Disney films. Runaway Brain would later be released attached to George of the Jungle (1997), yet another live-action remake. The short would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 68th Academy Awards, ending up losing to A Close Shave (1995) from Aardman Animations and director Nick Park.

Watching the short, I wasn’t really bothered by its horror film undertones. I will admit that it is not something you’d expect from a Mickey Mouse animated short. But there is nothing in this short that you haven’t seen in other animated films, even when Dr. Frankenollie turning to ash is nothing new.

While most of the early animated shorts from the studios, including Disney, were never rated, they did include violence that feature films couldn’t have gotten away with because of the interpretation of the Production Code by the Hays Office.

The film’s use of imagery from movies like Frankenstein (1931) and King Kong (1933) seems to presume that its audience is already aware of these films. They’re a visual short-hand for science fiction and horror that allow the filmmakers, who only have seven minutes, to sort of cheat on their storytelling.

However, the film overall feels sort of disjointed to me. A derivative of other films, there is nothing really unique about it, that is there is nothing you haven’t seen before, with the possible difference seeing Mickey Mouse in this sort of film.

Kelsey Grammer, who was in the middle of his 20-year plus run playing Dr. Fraiser Crane on TV shows Cheers and Fraiser, has a rather small role considering his celebrity at the time. Dr. Frankenollie may instigate the action, but he disappears rather quickly in the story. You wonder why the stunt casting if the role was so small.

The other actors, while perhaps not as well-known to mainstream audiences, are still gifted voice actors. Wayne Allwine had played Mickey Mouse for 32 years and his wife Russi Taylor has voiced Minnie since 1986, not to mention Martin Prince, Sherri and Terri, and Üter on the animated series The Simpsons. Jim Cummings, whose voice has appeared in over 400 films, is perhaps known for another Disney project he worked on, the title role in the TV series Darkwing Duck. Bill Farmer has been playing another Disney dog, Goofy, since 1987, as well as voicing Pluto. If you ever have a chance to attend a panel for voice actors at a comic-convention, I would recommend you attend as they are very entertaining to watch and listen to.

It is the fact that Disney has made the film sort of hard to find that makes it compelling to watch. What are they trying to hide? We’re disc people at my house, and proud of it, but this short was not available on disc, rather it was a digital extra for the digital version of Walt Disney Short Film Collection from 2015. The character of Julius, however, would make one more appearance as an optional secret boss in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance in Traverse Town.

For the die-hard Mickey Mouse fan, this is worth seeking out. If you’re a casual fan of Disney animation, then Runaway Brain is sort of fun to watch and makes for a pleasant diversion.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stubs - Black Panther


Black Panther (2018) Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Screenplay by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole. Based on Black Panther created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Runtime: 134 minutes. USA. Superhero, Fantasy

Few films have arrived at theaters with more hype and buzz than Black Panther, the latest film from Disney’s Marvel Studios. This hype has turned into a box-office megahit, making about $200 million in its first few days in US theaters. Now hype and box-office success don’t necessarily mean that the film is any good. Fortunately, that is not the case with Black Panther.

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Black Panther made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). The first black superhero in American mainstream comics, he is the king of Wakanda, a very rich and electronically advanced nation, thanks to the amount of Vibranium that a meteorite deposited there 10,000 years ago. Vibranium, a fictional metal, absorbs sound waves and other vibrations, including kinetic energy, making it the strongest metal on Earth. (Captain America’s Shield is made out of Vibranium and originally thought to have used the entire world’s supply.)

Vibranium is the source of the wealth and advanced technology that separates Wakanda from every other nation in Africa, if not the world. But somehow, despite being wealthy, Wakanda has remained secretive and has, until Civil War, tried to stay out of the league of nations. The country doesn’t trade with other nations and is considered by the rest of the world as an impoverished third-world nation.

This film picks up pretty much where Captain America: Civil War (2016) ends. That film, which brought together most but not all of the Avengers, also introduced Black Panther to the MCU. In that film, after his father, T'Chaka, King of Wakanda (John Kani) is killed, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes the Black Panther, but according to this film, he doesn’t become King until after that story was wrapped.

One thing Wakanda tries to do is keep their supply of Vibranium from leaving the country, though some has left. In addition to Captain America’s Shield, there is an artifact in a London museum. Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), with the help of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), steals it, but when they try to sell it, T’Challa, his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general in charge of the all-female special forces, are there to stop Klaue. This is all a pretext for Stevens, also known as Killmonger, who has his own connections to the throne of Wakanda and challenges T’Challa for its rule. Also helping T’Challa is Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), a CIA agent also introduced to the MCU in Civil War.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is challenged by Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) for leadership in Wakanda.

The Black Panther is presented as a cross between Batman and James Bond. He’s well trained and well-financed and has a vast menagerie of weapons and devices to choose from. T'Challa's 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is an inventor of new technologies and serves as this film’s Q when she walks him through her lab offering him enhancements to weapons and uniforms.

Wakanda is a mixture of great technology and ancient rituals. Here, T’Challa is flanked by
 his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the general in
charge of the all-female special forces who wear more traditional garb.

The culture of Wakanda seems to be a mixture of ultra-modern with ties to the past in the rituals they go through, including a challenge period before the king is crowned. While it is fascinating, it doesn’t always ring true. This is not unique to this film, as many times comic book worlds don’t always work when placed in even their own environments. The possession of an object of great wealth is only valuable when someone else buys it. If Wakanda doesn’t sell Vibranium then it wouldn’t have the great wealth necessary for the Black Panther to function. Think if Saudi Arabia didn’t sell the oil it rests on, their way of life would not be what it is today.

For the most part, the film looks good and the action moves along fairly well. There are times when I sort of lose track of who is who in the fight scenes, but that is nothing unique to this film. The acting is also fairly good, with Boseman, Jordan, Serkis, Nyong’o, Gurira, and Wright all distinguishing themselves. While I generally like Freeman, he’s a British actor and I’m a little surprised that they couldn’t find an American one available to play the part. That is nothing against his performance, only a comment.

While it does help to have seen Captain America: Civil War beforehand, which we did, it does bring up a bit of a plot hole. In Black Panther, it’s suggested that the King is the Black Panther by virtue of being King. And T’Challa is not coronated as King until after he’s gone through a ritual in the film. But he’s already the Black Panther before the film starts, so how did that work? If he became the Black Panther by virtue of his father dying, then when did he ingest what he has to in order to become the Black Panther?

Some of the hype is a little overstated; this is not the first film to feature a black superhero from comics. That honor goes to Steel (1997), a rather forgettable film starring Shaquille O’Neal. While Steel was from DC, Blade is a Marvel comic superhero and was portayed by Wesley Snipes (remember him?) in three films: Blade (1998), Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004). But it makes for better copy to say Black Panther is the first, even if only in the MCU.

There are a few odd political moments in the film. At one point, even though he is an invited guest of the King, Ross is greeted as “Colonizer”, an overt reference to his white European background, even though he is not a European character and Wakanda was never colonized. There is another reference made towards the end of the film to the slave ships that brought Black Africans to the New World in chains. While this is not without factual background, it seems a little misplaced when it is spoken. These references seem to come a little out of left field considering the story has nothing to do with either.

All that said, the film is quite good, involving and for the most part a lot of fun to watch. There are some serious moments dealing with black youth in America, though it is certainly not the focus of the film, though they do help to shape the story.

It seems that Marvel films are now less like homework, as Doctor Strange (2016) seemed to be when it was released. After Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and now Black Panther, they seem to be enjoyable fare again. I would not consider this to be one of the best films of the MCU, but it is still in the top half. I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who has been following the MCU or is looking for an entry point to it. Even if you’re not a Marvel fan, you may still find yourself enjoying the film.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Stubs - County Hospital


County Hospital (1932) Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert Directed by James Parrott. Screenplay by H.M. Walker. Produced by Hal Roach. Runtime 19 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Comedy Short

Sometimes its hard to top yourself and in 1932, the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had released what maybe their gold standard, The Music Box, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Comedy). Knowing that, there maybe nowhere but down for the duo.

While not the follow up short, that would go to The Chimp, County Hospital was another short for the two. Written and filmed in February 1932, the film would be released on June 25, 1932. Like The Music Box, County Hospital has a pretty basic premise, one friend visits a sick friend in the hospital but in this case, the friends are two of the most talented comics to ever live.

Stan arrives at the County Hospital.

Stan is shown driving on his way to the hospital. For whatever reason, when he sees the typical Quiet Hospital Zone sign, his car rears up on its front wheels.

Despite his broken leg, Oliver looks content lying in his hospital bed.

Inside, Oliver is in bed with a broken leg in traction. He seems surprisingly happy for someone who is bedridden. When Laurel enters the room, he’s carrying a paper bag. When Oliver inquires about its contents, Stan tells him “hard-boiled eggs and nuts.”

What else do you bring to someone in a hospital bed but hard-boiled eggs and nuts?

But Oliver would rather have had candy, but Stan tells him that he can’t afford candy; Oliver never paid him from the last time. Even though Oliver doesn’t want an egg, Stan has one. Now you might imagine watching a man eat a hard-boiled egg wouldn’t be funny but, somehow, the way Stan eats it, without a care in the world, makes it funny.

Stan eats his egg like he doesn't have a care in the world.

When he’s done with one, even Oliver is surprised when Stan takes out a second one. But this time, the egg rolls off the night stand into Oliver’s water pitcher. He stops Stan from reaching his hand into the water to retrieve the egg. It takes two tries, but eventually, Stan is able to pluck the egg without putting his hand in the water. But the egg is wet and when Stan uses the towel draped over the table, he spills the water pitcher into Oliver’s bed.

Stan about to spill a pitcher of water into Oliver's bed.

Next, The Doctor (Billy Gilbert) enters to check on his patient. Oliver is happy to hear that he might have to stay in the hospital for a couple of months. While doctor and patient are talking, Stan decides to have a nut. When he sees the weight being used to hold up Oliver’s leg, he gets an idea what to use to crack the nut.

The Doctor (Billy Gilbert) arrives to check on his patient.

Picking up the weight, he tries to use it on the window sill. This sends Oliver up in the air, being held up by his broken leg. When the Doctor tries to pull the weight off the sill, he goes out the window, pulling the weight with him and Oliver further into the air.

The Doctor goes out the window.

Meanwhile, Nurse Smith (Estelle Etterre) is given a sedative for one of the patients. But hearing the commotion in Oliver’s room, she comes running into the room, putting the syringe down on a chair.
The doctor hangs on for dear life, while Stan feebly tries to pull him back inside all the time, Oliver is a human yo-yo. But dragging the rope back and forth over the edge of the sill eventually breaks it, sending Oliver crashing down, breaking his bed in the process. It takes Stan a while longer to finally pull the Doctor back into the room.

A publicity still showing getting Oliver back in his bed.

By the time the Doctor is pulled back into the room, the nurses and orderlies have gotten his bed back together. But the Doctor is mad and orders everyone to leave the room. When they’re alone, The Doctor orders Oliver to leave the hospital. Stan, though, doesn’t seem to react to the news with any haste.

Stan cuts the wrong trouser leg on the wrong pair of trousers.

When Oliver asks Stan to help him get dressed, Stan struggles with the pants leg, which is too small to fit over Oliver’s cast.  Oliver tells him to use a pair of scissors, so Stan cuts off one of the legs of a pair of trousers he takes out of the closet. But it turns out to be the wrong leg, so Oliver cuts off the right leg.

Just then, Oliver’s roommate (William Austin) returns with news that he’s too is going home, though most likely because he’s cured. But the roommate soon realizes that he’s trying to put on Oliver Hardy’s pants, whose names are even in the pants. Stan takes a seat in the chair and gets stuck by the hypodermic needle.

Into the room comes Nurse Smith looking for her syringe.  She finds it sticking out of Stan’s backside. She laughs at his predicament. She takes the syringe back to Miss Wallace (May Wallace), the head nurse, to get it refilled. Laughingly, she tells Nurse Wallace that Stan is going to sleep for a week.

Stan helps Oliver out to the car.

Stan, already starting to show the effects, helps Oliver out to the car. Oliver, despite the cast on his leg, insists on driving, but when they try to get his cast over the car’s windshield, he ends up in the backseat of the car. He insists Stan drive.

Stan is half-asleep while driving Oliver home from the hospital.

The rest of the movie is Stan, half-asleep, driving through what is possibly the streets of Culver City, with Oliver in the backseat all too aware of the danger they’re in. Finally, they end up getting squashed between two street cars, leaving their car bent in a semi-circle and driving in circles.

Publicity still showing the car after it's been squashed between two street cars.

While there are funny moments, the film suffers from poor production values. Its reliance on rear projection is undermined at just how bad those shots look. The last several minutes, which don’t look good at all, just drive the point home. I can’t underline how poor the final sequence looks, as it is so obviously rear projection footage that isn’t always to scale and doesn’t look the least bit believable.

Rather than a coherent story, like The Music Box, County Hospital seems to be a series of set piece sketches that don’t exactly work together to form a whole: hard-boiled eggs and nuts, the nut smashing with the weight, the cutting of the pants and the drive home, each sadly a little less funny than the sketch before.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play pretty much the same characters they always do, which is not to take away from them. Most great movie comedians play a particular role or type of role through most of their films. Chaplin had his Little Tramp, Lloyd had the Glass Characters, the Marx Brothers had their own stock characters and so do Laurel and Hardy. Funnier together than separately, they play like a well-oiled machine. Too bad sometimes the material they’re working with isn’t always up to snuff.

The supporting cast is almost superfluous. With the exception of Billy Gilbert, none of them are all that memorable and in some cases, like Hardy’s roommate, don’t even have role names.

After climbing to the heights in The Music Box released earlier in 1932, the pair comes back down to Earth in County Hospital. If you can just watch the first half of the film, then it is very funny, but like a bad SNL sketch, it goes on too long.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Stubs - You Nazty Spy!


You Nazty Spy! (1940) Starring: Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Lorna Gray, Dick Curtis, Don Beddoe. Directed by Jules White. Screenplay by Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman. Produced by Jules White. Run Time: 18 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Comedy, Satire, Slapstick

If you’re of a certain age, the Three Stooges was something you watched after school on television. For me, they were the feature on a show called Slam Bang Theatre, hosted by Icky Twerp (Bill Camfield) with his two sidekicks in ape masks, Ajax and Delphinium. They were not something that my parents really wanted me to watch, thinking these old slapstick shorts would be a bad influence on me and my brother. They never out and out stopped us from watching, just looked disappointed when we talked about it.

Long before the Three Stooges became mid-60s syndication figures, they had appeared on vaudeville starting as support players for Ted Healy. Larry Fine, a vaudeville violinist, met Shemp Howard and Ted Healy when they were performing in the Shubert Brothers' A Night in Spain. Since Shemp was leaving the play, Fine was asked if he wanted to replace him, a replacement stooge. At the time, Healy’s other two stooges were Bobby Pinkus and Sam 'Moody' Braun.

Later, in 1929, Healy signed a contract to perform in a new Shubert Brothers revue, A Night in Venice and brought with him Fine, Shemp and Moe Howard. Moe had previously worked with Healy as well, back in 1921 in vaudeville. A Night in Venice ran until March 1930. That spring and summer, they toured as "Ted Healy & His Racketeers" before heading to Hollywood for Fox Studio’s Soup to Nuts (1930).

The Stooges broke away from Healy after that, as "Howard, Fine and Howard: Three Lost Soles" until the Summer of 1932. In July, Fine, Moe and Moe’s brother Curly joined back up with Healy; Shemp had broken off to pursue a solo career.

MGM signed Healy and his Stooges to a contract in 1933 and they appeared in several feature films and short subjects. Their final film together was Hollywood Party (1934). After that, the stooges parted company. The Stooges would sign a contract with Columbia Pictures to make two-reel comedies. They would go on to make 190 shorts at Columbia between 1934 and 1958, though there would be changes in the group, with Curly replacing Shemp in 1932, Shemp coming back to replace Curly in 1946 and Joe Besser replacing Shemp in 1956. Curly Joe DeRita would replace Besser in 1958 until 1970.

Their humor was considered low-brow slapstick. Moe was basically the ringleader and used physical abuse to keep the others in line and to do his bidding. I can understand why my parents were wary of me watching them and over time I feel like I’ve outgrown their humor, though it’s been a long time since I’ve watched any of their shorts.

What is of interest here is You Nazty Spy! the groups’ 44th short. The subject matter is something that Hollywood had tried to ignore up until now, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. While Charlie Chaplin would get a lot of credit for parodying Hitler in his film The Great Dictator (1940), the Stooges beat him to the punch by about 9 months.

At the time of the film’s release, the U.S. was trying to avoid taking sides in what was becoming a European War. So worried was the U.S. government about taking sides, in 1941, isolationist senators were investigating suspected anti-Nazi propaganda by Hollywood. The committee had gone as far as making a list of films with an anti-Nazi bent. (These hearings are little known because they were canceled on the morning of Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, and the findings were never reported.)

The Hays office and the production code discouraged or prohibited many types of political and satirical messages in films, requiring that the history and prominent people of other countries must be portrayed "fairly". Short films, though, like those starring the Stooges, were given less attention than features and apparently didn’t stop them from making the film.

Filmed between December 5 and 9, 1939, the film was released on January 19, 1940. Written by Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman, the latter of whom had worked with Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields. The director was Jules White, head of Columbia Pictures' short-subject division. In the 1930’s, while other suppliers of comedy shorts Hal Roach, Educational Pictures and Universal Pictures were scaling back, Columbia was just ramping up. White was used to physical humor, which fit in well with The Three Stooges act. Rather than the physical humor of say, the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges were much rougher. Rather than cutting a deck of cars with an ax, as Harpo does in Horse Feathers (1932), Moe is more likely to hit Larry over the head with one.

You Nazty Spy! featured a new title sequence including the Columbia logo's torch-bearing woman on the left-hand corner, standing on a pedestal where each step has printed out "Columbia," "Short Subject" and "Presentation." 

The short begins with a title card disclaimer that reads: "Any resemblance between the characters in this picture and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle."

The story takes place in the fictional country of Moronika, where three munition manufacturers, Ixnay (Richard Fiske), Onay (Dick Curtis), and Amscray (Don Beddoe), are sitting around complaining about the lack of money they’re making. They blame their king, Herman the Sixth and Seven-Eights, and his policy of peace over war. Their solution is to instigate an overthrow of the King and install a dictatorship in his place. But who in the kingdom would be stupid enough to be a figurehead they could control?

Ixnay (Richard Fiske), Onay (Dick Curtis), and Amscray (Don Beddoe) meet with Moe Hailstone (Moe Howard), Curly Gallstone (Curly Howard) and Larry Pebble (Larry Fine) to discuss setting up a dictatorship.

Ixnay suggests they use one of the paper hangers working in his living room. They go in and we meet Moe Hailstone (Moe Howard), Curly Gallstone (Curly Howard), and Larry Pebble (Larry Fine). It is decided that Moe shall be the dictator, Curly his Field Marshal and Larry as Minister of Propaganda, send-ups of Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels respectively.

Moe, Curly and Larry accept the offer and give their own version of the Nazi salute.

They are told instigate a Beer Hall Putsch; to buy beer for a crowd and then lead them against the King. This apparently happens off camera, as next, we see the flag of Moronika features two snakes in the shape of a swastika and the phrase "Moronika for Morons".

Moe gives a parody of a Hitler speech flanked by his Field Marshal and Minister of Propaganda.

Next, we see the Stooges, Moe is making a speech on a balcony flanked by Curly and Larry. As Moe speaks about helping Moronika helping its neighbors and then helping themselves to their neighbors, Larry holds up signs directing the masses on how to respond. The signs read "CHEERS", "APPLAUSE", and, accidentally, "HISS".

The king's daughter (Lorna Gray) disguised as Moe's secretary.

Afterwards, Moe’s secretary, or stenographer as Curly calls her, is the king’s daughter (Lorna Gray). She announces to Moe that Mattie Herring (a spoof of World War I spy Mata Hari) is there to see him and then changes out of her secretary disguise. As Mattie, she comes to read Moe his future. Rather than a crystal ball, she uses an 8 ball, which she instructs Moe to sit behind. When the 8-ball gets busted in two, a note inside gives her away as the daughter of the King.

As Mattie Herring, she plays fortune teller with an 8-ball.

Suspecting her of being a spy, she is sentenced to death and Curly is supposed to execute her. But when he offers her a blindfold, she says “yes” and then puts it over Curly’s eyes. Curly, even though he can’t see anything, still tries to go through with the execution, but she takes the opportunity to make her escape.

Moe wants to have a round-meeting with neighboring countries, and when Larry points out that it is a square table, Moe gives him a saw to round it off with.

The map showing Moronika and the surrounding countries.

Then for some reason, a ballerina enters, dancing of course, and informs Moe that the delegates for the meeting have arrived. Moe tells those assembled that Moronika demands concessions from its neighbors, leading the delegates to start arguing with him. Curly quells them by knocking them out with golf balls.

But their triumph is short-lived. After the meeting, a large mob, led by the King and Mattie Herring, advance on the palace. The trio immediately abdicates and try to find a place to hide. They inadvertently run into a lion’s den and are eaten. The film ends with the lions wearing articles of the trio’s clothing. And if it’s not clear what took place, one of the lions burps.

The short was surprisingly successful, even playing at major theaters that had previously not shown their work. A sequel followed, I'll Never Heil Again, in 1941, the first in the Stooges film canon. By then, everyone was getting onboard the anti-Nazi bandwagon.

The short is in many ways typical fare from the Stooges; eyes are poked, heads are slapped and mayhem. It shows a limit to the Stooges repertoire, and parts of the act that would be used in pretty much every short they made. Theirs is a different type of physical humor that one sees in Charlie Chaplin and Marx Brothers movies.

There are some cultural references that many today may not get. An example is that while the Stooges are waiting for their fortune, they tell each other to shush, which turns into mimicking the sound of a train going down the track until stops. A conductor comes out of nowhere and announces All out for Syracuse!" Hearing that, Larry gets up and announces that it's his stop. Moe explains to a confused Mattie, that "The boy's from Syracuse" - a reference to the musical The Boys from Syracuse which premiered on Broadway in 1938.

The Stooges were all Ashkenazi Jews and would work in Yiddish into their dialogue. In Moe's imitation of a Hitler speech, he says "in pupik gehabt haben" (the semi-obscene "I've had it in the bellybutton" in Yiddish). The irony of hearing Hitler speaking Yiddish was not lost on the Yiddish-speaking Jews in the audience.

But the main aim of the film is to parody Hitler and Nazi Germany. The phrase on the flag "Moronika for Morons" is a direct play on the Nazi slogan "Deutschland den Deutschen" (Germany for Germans). Hitler’s failed attempt to take power in 1923, leading a Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, is also parodied. The reference to Hitler as a paper hanger refers to a 1937 speech by Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, who called Hitler an "Austrian paperhanger", perhaps because he was a failed artist. The nickname stuck, even though there is no evidence that Hitler actually ever made a living doing that.

Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 was as a figurehead of sorts. The Post World I German Weimar government was run by a coalition of fascists, communists, and socialists. All of the parties were pulling for power and when they had to elect a new Chancellor of Germany, none had enough votes to win the position. They decided to elect Hitler, as a puppet figurehead, because he seemed harmless enough.

In 1933, Hitler was elected by a democratic process to the position of Chancellor of Germany. Less than one month later, a fire broke out in the Reichstag building, similar to our Congress, known as the Reichstag Fire. Hitler seized on the moment and claimed the fire was really a coup attempt by the communists. The S.S. destroyed documents and framed the communists, the leaders of which were arrested and sent to Dachau -- the beginning of the concentration camps. As Chancellor of Germany, Hitler declared a state of emergency, taking away all personal rights and freedoms. The accidental fire allowed Hitler the opportunity to become Dictator.

The Three Stooges might not be to everyone’s taste, but you have to applaud them for being the first in mainstream Hollywood to satirize the Nazis and the Third Reich. There is a certain amount of bravery involved by not only the Stooges, but also the director and writers, not to mention Columbia Pictures, for going against the isolationist grain that was predominant at the time in the U.S. So, while you might not laugh out loud at the short, you have to appreciate the Stooges for taking a stand when no one else was willing to.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Coco


I’ll admit I initially didn’t know what to make of Coco when it was announced, since it centers around a Mexican holiday I only knew about on a high school level, in addition to me not wanting to sit through a 20-minute Frozen short in order to get to the actual movie (plus I had already decided to skip Cars 3 because Cars 2 left a bad taste in my mouth). What changed my mind about this movie was the positive word of mouth, as well as it being in the running for a number of Annie Awards, including Best Animated Feature (it has since won in every category it was nominated for). After deciding to see what all the fuss was about (after the overly-long Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was finally cut from screenings), I found myself enjoying it to the point that I would put it up there with some of Pixar’s better movies.

The film centers on a boy named Miguel Rivera (Anthony González), who comes from a large Mexican family making Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) preparations. After his mysterious great-great grandfather left the family to pursue a music career, Miguel’s great-great grandmother Imelda placed a generations-long ban on music from the family, instead getting into shoemaking and starting a family business; Miguel, however, secretly idolizes the late musician Ernesto de la Cruz, wishing himself to start his own music career. On the night of Día de los Muertos, after circumstances lead Miguel to believe that de la Cruz may actually be his unspoken-of great-great grandfather, he tries to make his talent heard in spite of his grandmother Abuelita’s (Renée Victor) objections. Desperate, Miguel attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from his mausoleum, causing him to cross over into the spirit world; upon being able to see them for the first time, the spirits of Miguel’s late family members bring Miguel to the Land of the Dead to try and get him back to the Land of the Living.

Though it hits the same notes as other contemporary Disney and Pixar movies, Coco uses them to tell an affective, heartfelt story that appeals beyond its core demographic and setting. Noted for its accuracy to the Day of the Dead and Mexican culture by Spanish audiences, Coco also provides interesting insight to those outside the culture, much like how Moana does the same with Pacific Island culture. It’s evident that a lot of work and research was put into this movie, as evidenced by its intricately-detailed interpretation of the Land of the Dead and how its residents interact with the Land of the Living once per year. It’s also because of its accuracy to the culture that I felt I was able to learn more about (and better appreciate) the subject matter in under 2 hours than I did from several years in school.

The art direction is simply spectacular, especially in the Land of the Dead, the setting for the majority of the movie. As shown in a short behind-the-scenes featurette attached to the screening I went to, a lot of work was put into making this setting as detailed and aesthetically pleasing as possible and it shows. The spirits of the dead, represented as skeletons with painted skulls, are also made to be very expressive, helped by placing eyes in the sockets in such a way as to not be (too) off-putting. The animation in general is some of Pixar’s best, striking a good balance between realism and signification that works in its favor. Special credit goes to the opening sequence, which is animated in the style of papel picado, a Mexican tissue paper decoration.

As the movie is somewhat of a musical (not one with random song breaks), the songs, of course, have to be good and Coco does it well. Each of the songs are used to good effect, aiding the story and showing off the voice actors’ singing abilities without overtaking the film. A stand-out song is “Remember Me”, a recurring original composition that ties into the main themes of the movie, though I will not divulge how for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

Coco is definitely one of Pixar’s better movies, showing that Pixar has learned from their missteps and serves as the return to form they’ve been heading towards since Inside Out in 2015. Going by reactions from Mexican audiences, the depiction of Mexican culture is spot-on and I felt like I learned a lot about the Day of the Dead holiday and what it represents. Coco is also a good movie in its own right, taking full advantage of its themes to drive home its messages in an effective manner. The animation is also some of Pixar’s best, which seems will only get better if the attached teaser for The Incredibles 2 is any indication. Even if you don’t celebrate Día de los Muertos, Coco provides something for everyone and is a must-see for Pixar and animation fans.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stubs - A Dog's Life (1918)


A Dog’s Life (1918) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Syd Chaplin, Henry Bergman, Charles Reisner, Albert Austin, Tom Wilson. Directed Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Run Time: 33 minutes USA Black and White, Silent, Comedy

An article in the January 26, 1918, issue of the Los Angeles Times heralded the opening of a movie studio on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood, next to what had been a lemon orchard. Flush with a million-dollar contract from First National, Chaplin had spent about half of it, according to the story, to build his own studio.

In the article, written by Grace Kingsley, who was the LA Times’ motion picture editor from 1914 until her retirement in 1933, Chaplin discusses the first film he plans to make. "All about a dog!" Chaplin had apparently been thinking about the comic possibilities of working with a dog and felt that time was right.

But before he made A Dog’s Life, Chaplin wrote and produced a short called How Movies Are Made, which gave the audience a brief tour of the new facilities disguised as a day in the life of Charlie Chaplin, movie mogul. We see him arrive at his new studio, receive the morning fan mail, working with his crews, applying makeup on an actress and then giving her a screen test, rehearsing with his actors, editing his film, etc. We’re also shown how negatives are processed and the film dried on giant drums. A fairly interesting slice of life, but for whatever reason, never released.

In his effort to find the right dog, Chaplin looked at several breeds, including a dachshund, a Pomeranian, a poodle, a Boston bull terrier and an English bulldog before deciding what he needed was a mongrel. To find the right one, Chaplin picked up 21 dogs from the Los Angeles pound and brought them to the set. When neighbors complained, he cut back to 12 dogs before settling on one, Mutt. In her article, Kingsley refers to “a scrap of a mongrel” that was at Chaplin’s feet during the interview. She refers to the dog as Bingo, but it’s not clear if that is the same dog that made it into the film.

Chaplin films were not written in the usual way that we think films are written. Routines were worked out, sometimes on the set, with a trial and error to find the right bit. At the time of the Kingsley article, all that was known for sure about the movie was that it included an employment bureau in it.

When the film opens, The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is sleeping in a vacant lot. When a traveling hot dog vendor stops to service a customer, Charlie reaches through the broken down fence to fish a hot dog out while the vendor isn’t looking. As he goes back for mustard, The Tramp is spotted by one of several cops on foot patrol. The Tramp avoids capture by rolling in and out of the lot through the missing bottom of the fence, while the hapless cop runs back and forth. When the Tramp sees his chance, he kicks the officer’s backside, when he gets stuck halfway under. The arrival of a second cop causes The Tramp to take off.

The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) gets caught stealing a hot dog from a vendor.

Meanwhile, we see a lonely Scraps (Mutt) who is also hungry and looking for food on the streets.

Things are much better for Scraps (Mutt).

The Tramp, with best intentions, goes to an Employment office where there are openings for strong men to work in the sewers but there are also openings for work at a brewery. Even though The Tramp is the first one in, he gets knocked off the bench, twice and gets cut on by others in line for the jobs. He runs back and forth between windows and clerks (Charles Reisner and Albert Austin) until all the openings are filled.

Charlie's attempt to find work gets thwarted at the Employment Bureau.

Back out on the street, The Tramp spies Scraps, who gets attacked by a pack of feral dogs over scraps she’s found. The Tramp rushes out to save her, fighting off dogs, one of which attaches itself to The Tramp’s backside.

Finally clear of them, The Tramp tries to find something to feed the dog. There is a bottle of milk on the porch, awaiting collection, the remnants of which Charlie lets the dog drink. To get to the bit on the bottom, The Tramp inserts the dog’s tail into the bottle and lets her lick the excess milk off of her own tail.

The Tramp steals muffins from a lunch wagon run by his half-brother Syd.

Later, the two happen by a lunch wagon and harass the owner (Syd Chaplin). First, Scraps steals two hot dogs the owner was preparing to cook. And then The Tramp helps himself to a plate of muffins set out for the paying trade. With the owner’s attention elsewhere, The Tramp steals and eats all of them. Things get harder when the owner grows suspicious. They play around with double and triple checks as The Tramp uses any opening to steal one.

At the Green Lantern, the Tramp and Scraps are escorted out.

From there, the two venture over to a street café, the Green Lantern. Despite a large sign saying No Dogs Allowed, The Tramp tries to walk in with the dog on a leash. However, The Tramp is not to be undeterred. Stuffing Scraps into his pants, The Tramp re-enters. And except for the dog’s tail sticking out of a hole in the back of his pants, he might get away with. Finally, he lets Scraps out of his pants.

The Tramp sticks Scraps in his pants and goes back in.

The Green Lantern is part bar and part nightclub. We see the patrons dance and see a girl dancer perform on stage. Then a new singer (Edna Purviance) comes to the stage and delivers a song that brings everyone, literally everyone including the musicians, to tears. Some cry so hard and so much that it is almost surreal.

The Bar Singer (Edna Purviance) is not good at flirting.

Despite her talent as a singer, she is encouraged by the Dance Hall Proprietor (Granville Redmond) to flirt with the clientele to get them to buy her drinks. Edna is not a natural flirt and it takes her telling The Tramp that she’s flirting with him for anything to happen. They dance a frenetic and awkward step together. The band seems to have only one speed, fast. Afterward, when The Tramp can’t afford to buy her a drink, the barkeep throws him to the curb.

The Tramp and the Singer dance while she holds Scraps' leash.

Meanwhile, a rich drunk is mugged by two assailants who steal his wallet. The cops are close by and take up the chase. One of the robbers buries the wallet in the same vacant lot Charlie lives in. The thieves escape and later we see the drunk rich man get up and stumble away.

Scraps makes a good pillow.

Later, when The Tramp and Mutt return to get some sleep, Scraps digs up the wallet. With his newfound wealth, The Tramp returns to the Green Lantern to look for the bar singer. He has money now and wants to marry her.

The Tramp shows the Singer the money he has.

Back at the bar, her failings as a flirt don’t go unnoticed by the owner. A rather large man at the bar (Alf Reeves) is very aggressive with her and when she resists, the man walks away but the owner fires her.

The Green Lantern also just happens to be where the thieves plan to rendezvous. They are there when The Tramp flashes the money to the Singer and they recognize the wallet. When they take it back by force, The Tramp and The Singer are escorted out.

Determined to get the wallet back, The Tramp sneaks back into the bar and gets in behind the crooks in their booth. He smacks one of the men on the back of the head, through a curtain, with a mallet. 

Reaching through holes in the curtain, he sticks his arm up behind the unconscious crook, assuming his identity. The Tramp does various gestures as if he were the Crook, straightening his tie, lifting a glass of beer for a sip, wiping his mouth and holding out his hand for a cut of the loot. His partner gives him half without question. The Tramp then waves the other Crook forward and hits him over the head with the bottle of beer when he leans in.

The Tramp takes the wallet and hurries out the way he had come in, as the Crooks revive and take chase. Out on the street, the Tramp takes refuge in the lunch stand, with the proprietor and him taking cover while the Crooks fire on them. Scraps relieves The Tramp of the wallet and takes it back to the Singer, as the cops move in and arrest the thieves.

The idyllic ending with Scraps as a new mother.

Now with the money, the Tramp and the Singer can live out their dream lives. As the film ends, the Tramp is shown planting seeds in the soil. Inside, the Singer is making dinner and brings him his robe at the end of the day. Together, they gaze down lovingly on a layette, within whicha reScraps and a lovely litter of puppies.

The film is notable for several things. This is the first film in which Charlie and his elder half-brother Sydney appear together on film. The two have had a working relationship going back to the English music halls. Syd had worked hard to get Charlie into the Fred Karno’s comedy troupe that would ultimately lead to him being discovered by Mack Sennett. Charlie, in turn, got Syd signed by Keystone where he starred in A Submarine Pirate (1915), the second most financially successful comedy that studio ever made, behind Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), which starred Charlie.

After leaving acting, Sydney was the one who negotiated Charlie’s contracts with Mutual and First National. A Dog’s Life was Syd’s return to acting, though he would still handle his brother’s business affairs. Following his appearance here, Syd would also appear in films like Shoulder Arms (1918).

The film also represents a step forward in his own filmmaking. Not only was it his longest film to date but according to Chaplin, it was also the first in which he seriously considered comic plot construction. Chaplin’s next film, Shoulder Arms. would indeed be his first feature-length film. Released on April 14, 1918, A Dog’s Life would also be his biggest hit to date and was advertised as his "First Million Dollar Picture".

A Dog’s Life is often times more poignant than laugh out loud funny. Chaplin was in the process of taking the Tramp from his slapstick past into a more of a sentimental character. To quote John McCabe’s biography Charlie Chaplin, “It was clear to Chaplin that Charlie now needed a deeper dimension. Roguish tricks as such would no longer sustain such a character. The problem was that as a slapstick comedian his farcical plots did not easily accommodate sentiment. This conflict Chaplin helped resolve by making Charlie increasingly more of a Pierrot, that wistful mischievous clown who so artfully combines tears and laughter.” Chaplin was taking steps towards making films like City Lights (1931), that successfully married comedy and sentiment in what was perhaps one of his greatest and most memorable silent films.

All that said, A Dog’s Life is not all that great. The humor is never laughing out loud and in some cases, hasn’t aged all that well. That is not to say there are not funny moments, but they are not anything you haven’t seen before in a Chaplin film.

The speed at which the romance moves between the Tramp and the Bar Singer is lightning fast. In fact, it wasn’t all clear that they had shared more than a dance, let alone fallen in love until Charlie obtains the wallet. The money seems to propel them together. It is never clear how much money there is in there, but it must have been enough to buy a farm and start a new life. Talk about a gap between the wealthy and the downtrodden, as our wealthy drunk was carrying that much on him and doesn’t seem to be all that bothered about losing it.

While there are moments in A Dog’s Life, I can’t say that I would necessarily recommend it. This definitely points to better films to come and I would recommend you seeking those films out.

Be sure to check out other silent film reviews at our Silent Cinema Review Hub.