Monday, May 30, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Following the success of Tim Burton’s 2010 take on Alice in Wonderland, a sequel was inevitable, although this time James Bobin takes the directorial reins from Burton. Appropriately, this movie borrows from the title of the second Alice book, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (aka Through the Looking-Glass), and as such is based more so off of that than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Having read both of the original Lewis Carroll books and found Tim Burton’s take interesting, I was curious to see what would be done with this movie, even knowing from the trailers that the plot would be very different (having played American McGee’s take though, I was more okay with the idea). Walking away from this sequel, I thought it was worth the Time.

After traveling the world for 3 years on her father’s ship, the Wonder, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns home only to find that, due to legal circumstances occurring while she was gone, Hamish (Leo Bill), whom she had refused to marry, essentially has her home hostage in exchange for the ship. Not wishing to give up the boat, Alice exits a conversation with her mother (Lindsay Duncan) to blow off some steam. During this, Absolem (Alan Rickman), now a butterfly, leads Alice into a room where he enters a mirror (also called a looking glass, as in the title). Once Alice enters the mirror to prevent Hamish from finding her, she ends up back in Underland, where she must console the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who believes his family survived the Jabberwocky attack years prior to the events of the previous movie. Despite her beliefs in impossibility, Alice believes this to be impossible, and is forced out of the Hatter’s house. With no other option, Alice, as suggested by the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) has to seek help from an unlikely person: Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), the personification of the concept of time.

As mentioned above, the film’s plot drastically deviates from the book it is named after, although the 2010 Tim Burton movie and its story would make a straight adaptation a little difficult, since this continuity assumes that the Queen of Hearts (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and the Red Queen (Through the Looking-Glass) are the same character (they are not, though it is a widespread misconception). Rather, the story involves time travel, which is usually associated with creative bankruptcy, save for series like Back to the Future where time travel is the central focus. Though this may be off-putting for some, the given approach to time travel logic makes some amount of sense (only Alice and Time are able to move freely, otherwise seeing your past self will destroy all of space-time in relation to Underland, though time-travelling at all will put Time itself and himself in jeopardy) and I give the film makers credit for staying consistent with their logic and weaving it in with the previous movie’s events and this movie’s overall message about learning from the past. For the sake of notability, however, I will point out that there is one scene that is more or less directly adapted from the movie’s namesake, and that is the scene where Alice enters the mirror world for the first time.

The acting in this movie is good, with returning actors playing their characters well. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the original character of Time, displays that his performance in Hugo was not just a fluke; though he is best known for acting silly, it is evident that he is able to put in a dramatic performance when necessary, and this is one such instance. Notably, this is also the final acting role for the late Alan Rickman prior to his unfortunate passing earlier this year. While he reprises his role as the blue caterpillar/butterfly, named Absolem in this series, his character does not have many lines, either due to him not having very many lines in the first place or the filmmakers working with what had already been recorded before his death. In any case, his final performance was still good for what made it in, and the movie is dedicated to his memory.

The visual effects are really well-done, especially in regards to the visualization of time travel, which is presumably where a lot of the budget went. The animated characters interact very seamlessly with the live-action characters, as do any visual effects on the actors themselves. Of note is the character Time, who is seemingly mechanical, and so the effects are done to where you actually believe it. There are also the assistants to Time, the Seconds, which fit well with the well-rendered clock aesthetic of Time’s domain. In general, the lighting is also noticeably a little brighter than in the previous movie, likely due to the fact that it’s not directed by Tim Burton.

For what it is, Alice Through the Looking Glass is actually pretty enjoyable. The story doesn’t really get too complicated, even with the time travel shenanigans, and some events make more sense when you factor in the Tim Burton movie and its flashback sequences. Admittedly, it does edge close to being a Johnny Depp movie, as per usual with a lot of movies he appears in, but that’s likely due to star power and likely won’t be an issue for Johnny Depp fans. I would recommend this movie to fans of Alice in Wonderland that enjoyed the 2010 movie, and in fact I would highly suggest watching that one first for the sake of story, though there are understandably some purists out there, for whom this movie will most likely not appeal. In any case, it’s interesting to see someone try something new with the story, and it’s likely to get a continuation if it does well enough, however I’m not sure what they can call it since there’s only so many books to borrow names from (unless you also maybe count the original manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stubs - The Camerman

The Cameraman (1928) Starring: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton (uncredited). Story by Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton. Titles by Joseph Farnham. Produced by Buster Keaton, Lawrence Weingarten. Run Time: 67 minutes U.S. Black and White, Silent, Comedy.

As we mentioned in our review of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), Buster Keaton soon afterwards lost the financial backing of Joseph M. Schenck and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was run by Nicholas Schenck, Joseph’s younger brother. He may not have thought he had much choice at the time and it would be a move Keaton would soon regret. When he was making features for Joseph, Keaton had the flexibility to shoot when an idea inspired him. Nicholas’ MGM was less forgiving, wanting product on a schedule.

I’m a little unsure whose idea The Cameraman was. Clyde Bruckman, who gets partial credit for the story, was one of Keaton’s gag men, but Lew Lipton was a studio writer. I’ve heard, in commentary on TCM, that Keaton pitched a lot of ideas to MGM, but all were turned down. Instead, they presented him with this, so perhaps he took a studio idea and re-worked it with his usual troupe of writers. Whatever the results, at least one more time, Keaton was able to come up with a winner.

Even before Steamboat Bill, Jr. was released in theaters (May 12, 1928), Keaton was already shooting The Cameraman (April 12 to June 26, 1928), so there wasn’t a lot of moss growing under his feet. Looking back on the output of the studios it seems like everything came out quickly and often. Making genius, however, was less common.

The film opens with a tribute to the hardworking newsreel cameraman, showing various men in dangerous and daring situations. But there is also another type of cameraman like Buster (Buster Keaton), a sidewalk tintype portrait photographer in New York City. When we first see him, he’s scrambling hard to find business. He is about to take a customer’s photo, when a crowd gathers and news crews, including MGM Newsreel, show up with cameras cranking to document the event. Buster is caught up in the crowd and thrust up against Sally (Marceline Day), a woman in the crowd.

Buster (Buster Keaton) is thrust up against Sally (Marceline Day) when the crowd surges.

She is beautiful and after the crowd has gone he asks is he can take her tintype. She reluctantly agrees and while Keaton gets caught up with posing her, he does manage to take her photo before Harold (Harold Goodwin), one of the MGM cameramen, comes back to get her. She is whisked away before Buster can give her the tintype.

Sally reluctantly poses so Buster can take a tintype of her.

But Buster knows where she works and has a photo of her to go by. Finding the MGM Newsreel office is easy, but tracking her down is not so. After finding out her name from the doorman, Buster follows a cameraman into the MGM office. When he asks the first person he sees if he’s seen Sally, the man thinks he’s daft, because Sally is sitting right by the door. Buster is almost out of the office before he finally sees her. When she offers to pay for the tintype, ten cents, he gives it to her as a gift.

He wants to take her portrait again and even though she doesn’t get off for hours, decides to wait for her. When he notices Harold around, Keaton decides the best way to get close to her is to work at MGM. He asks about working there, but the cameramen scoff at him. Sally, feeling sorry for his treatment, tells Buster he needs to get his own camera first and he rushes out to get one.

Buster wants to make good and goes looking for a fire. 

But new camera equipment is expensive and Buster has to settle for an old used one. More scoffs when he returns to MGM, but when a big fire at a warehouse breaks out, Sally encourages Buster to go film it. Trailing behind the other cameramen, Buster asks the first cop (Henry Gribbon) he runs into about where the fire is. When Buster sees a firetruck hurrying by, he runs and leaps onto the side of the engine, only to discover it’s returning to the station.

Buster jumps on a passing fire engine only to end up back at the station rather than the fire.

Unable to find the fire, Buster, as Sally suggests, tries to film anything and everything. He hits on the idea of filming the New York Yankees, but they’re playing in St. Louis. Left alone down on the field at Yankee stadium, Buster imagines himself playing in a game in one of the funnier sequences in the movie. First he is the pitcher, trying to pick off a runner at third, before trying to get the next batter out. Once that’s done, Buster turns to offense and takes a turn at batting. After a wild pitch that nearly beans him, Buster hits a home run, sliding head first into home plate. While he accepts the cheers of the imaginary crowd he realizes the groundskeeper has been watching him. Buster hurries away to look for other subjects to shoot.

The groundskeeper kicks Buster off the field after one of the funnier sequences in the film.

The first batch of film he brings back to MGM is not usable. As an example, through accidental double exposure, Buster has managed to make it look like a battleship is coming down on the city’s thoroughfares. While some of the effects could not have been done with a camera alone, the idea is that Buster is not up to MGM Newsreel standard and he is kicked out.

Buster's first footage ends up being laughed at.

Feeling sorry for him, Sally intercepts him in the hall and gives him some pointers about shooting film, like never crank backwards. Encouraged by her attention, Buster screws up the courage to ask her to go on a long walk with him the next day, which is Sunday. Sally tells him that she has other plans, but asks for his number in case they fall through.

Sunday and Buster is fully dressed early in the morning, waiting for the phone, which is several floors below, to ring. But first, he needs money and tries to open his bank of dimes. This proves harder than it should. Taking a hammer to the bank and using the wall for backing doesn’t work as the bank is pushed through the thin wall. Using the claw of the hammer, Buster rips into the wall to find the bank. Unable to break it open he throws the bank to the floor and the dimes fly out.

When the phone rings, Buster runs down several flights to the lobby, only to find it’s not for him. Dejected, Buster walks back up the stairs and, without noticing he’s overshot his own floor, ends up on the roof before he knows it. When he hears the phone is for him, he runs all the way back down, overshooting the lobby this time and ending up in the basement. Finally at the phone, Sally tells him she’s available.

While she’s still talking to him, Buster excitedly runs over to her boarding house, passing the cop again who takes notice. Sally is just realizing Buster is no longer on the phone when he shows up in the lobby behind her. After she goes to finish getting ready, Buster waits in the sitting room with the other tenants and the landlady who chaperons the girls. It isn’t long before he causes a commotion.

Sally doesn't realize that Buster is not on the other end of the call.

Finally out on the street, Sally goes one way and Buster the other. He decides to take her to The Plunge, a pool, and they hurry to catch the bus. But once on board, they get separated, Sally takes seat on the bottom floor and Buster gets pushed up to the top of the double decker bus. When he realizes Sally is seated below him, he climbs down and sits on the bumper so he can be next to her. Once again, the cop takes notice, especially when Buster gets bumped off his perch and must run to get back on.

Buster rides next to Sally even though there is no room on the bus.

At the Plunge, the two rent swimsuits and Sally goes into the ladies room to change. Buster ends up sharing a changing cube with a heavyset man (Edward Brophy). Rather than taking turns the two men try to change at the same time, getting into each other’s way and clothes as they do. Squeezed and throttled, Keaton does emerge, though he is wearing a swim suit that is easily three sizes too large.

Keaton ends up at a changing room with a heavyset man (Edward Brophy).

Sally, who is quite fetching in her skintight suit, gets the attention of a gaggle of boys who follow her and Buster into the water. When Sally tries to play catch with Buster, the men, who are much larger, practically drown him as they fight for the ball. Finally, Sally pulls Buster away and they sit together on the rim of a fountain in the center of the pool.

It should come as no surprise that Sally attracts the attention of other men at the Plunge pool.

Watching the divers, Buster decides to show off for Sally and climbs up to the high dive. But when he hits the water, his suit comes off. Buster doesn’t realize he’s naked until he starts to get out. Sally wants to leave and gets out of the pool to change. Buster, though, is stuck. That is until he hits on the idea and steals a large woman’s bloomer bottoms and wears them out of the water.

Buster tries to get out of the pool when he realizes he's lost his swimsuit.

Sally wants to go to the beach, but they aren’t able to squeeze into the taxi going that way. Things are so tight that when Buster opens the door, passengers fall out. After helping push the doors closed again, Buster and Sally are still on the outside looking in. Just then Harold drives up in his convertible coupe and offers Sally a ride home. It looks like rain and Buster helps Harold put up the top, but Harold insists Buster ride in the rumble seat. By the time they get to Sally’s, Buster is soaked. Sally gives Buster a kiss on the cheek and he starts to walk home in the rain.

Buster is soaked by the time he gets Sally  home after their date.

But our friend the cop, having seen Buster do some crazy looking things all day, pulls him aside to check his reflexes to see if he’s crazy. But Buster manages to escape into the rainy night, losing the cop who falls down while chasing him.

The next day, Buster is waiting in the MGM newsreel office bright and early. When a hot tip comes in about trouble in Chinatown, Sally gives the scoop to Buster, who once again rushes out to cover the story. He is in such a rush that he runs into an organ grinder and the two collapse on top of the man’s monkey. Thinking it’s dead, a passing policeman makes Buster pay the hurdy gurdy man for the animal and then forces him to take it away. But the monkey is not dead, only stunned and insists on staying with Buster from then on.

The Tong Wars are just getting underway and Buster takes great effort and risk to shoot the events. More than once, a leader of one of the rival tongs sends someone to kill Buster, to stop the filming, but each assassin is thwarted. Despite escaping gunfire, Buster finds himself stuck in a room with one of the Tong leaders and some of his loyal followers. They are moving menacingly towards him when the police arrive and save Buster. But one of the cops is the one who has been observing Buster and he tries to get Buster thrown into a paddy wagon headed to Bellevue hospital. But once again, Buster escapes and makes his way back to the newsreel office.

Buster dutifully keeps hand cranking his camera while bullets fly during the Tong Wars.

Excited, Buster tells Sally what he’s been through. When Edward J. Blake (Sidney Bracey), the newsreel company’s boss, overhears, he wants to see the footage. But when Buster opens the camera the film is missing from the reel and all that remains is a torn piece. Buster apparently forgot to load the film, even though he’s sure he had. When Blake wants to know who gave Buster the tip, Sally is the only likely candidate. But rather than see her get fired, Buster offers to leave and never return to MGM.

Buster though doesn’t give up filming and sets out to record a regatta/boat race. When he loads the film, he realized that he has the Tong footage and suspects that the mischievous monkey had switched reels on him.

Meanwhile, for whatever reason, Sally and Harold are involved in the regatta and go speeding by in one of the boats. When Harold tries to take a sharp turn the two are ejected from the boat. Harold makes it back to shore, but Sally is trapped by the boat, which continues to speed around her in a tight circle. Buster jumps into another boat, which he steers into the unmanned boat’s way. Buster than swims back to shore with Sally and lays her down on his coat. Not sure what to do, Buster hurries to a nearby drug store to get supplies to revive her.

Buster carries an unconscious Sally out of the water after the boat accident.

Harold, meanwhile makes it to shore and sees Sally. He walks over to her and cradles her just as she wakes up. She is impressed by Harold’s bravery for saving her and the two walk off together. Buster arrives just in time to see them leave.

Broken-hearted, Buster sends his Tong war footage to MGM offering it free of charge. Edward decides to screen it for a laugh with Sally and Harold sitting in. But not only is the Tong footage some of the best camera work the boss has ever seen, but there is also footage from the boat race and rescue, which the monkey apparently shot. Sally now knows the truth about Harold and Edward sends her out to find Buster.

Edward J. Blake (Sidney Bracey), the boss at the newsreel office, is impressed by Buster's footage. So is Sally.

Back to being a tintype photographer, Sally finds Buster on the street. She tells him that the boss wants him back and that there is going to be a great reception for him. At that moment, the streets once again fill with cheering fans and ticker tape. Buster thinks the fuss is for him, but we see that it is really for Charles Lindbergh.

Buster thinks the crowd and adulation is for him, instead it's for Charles Lindbergh.

Two historical notes: Tintypes are photographs taken on a sheet of iron that is coated with lacquer or enamel. These have been around since the 1860’s and were falling out of favor by the time this film was made. The other is that most movie studios, like TV broadcast networks today, had news divisions, which presented newsreels as part of their program of films. MGM News was actually produced by William Randolph Hearst’s company. In 1930, they were renamed News of the Day.

While the film received good reviews, MGM took away most of Buster’s creative control over his films. This is not to say that the films he made at MGM were not financially successful, only that they were no longer really Keaton films. His independence and creativity were stifled by the studio in favor of the bottom line.

The Cameraman was followed by Spite Marriage (1929), Keaton’s last silent film. He would successfully transition to the talkies with Free and Easy (1930). In those early sound days, the studio would have the actors do three takes of each scene, one in English, one in Spanish and the third in French or German. The actors would have to learn to speak the foreign languages phonetically. Keaton would later complain that not only did MGM make him do bad films, he had to do them three times.

The studio would eventually pair him with Jimmy Durante for a series of films: The Passionate Plumber (1932) Speak Easily (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933). By the time the last film was released, things had gotten so bad between MGM and Keaton, that they fired him despite the film being a success.

Edward Sedgwick directed all of Keaton’s MGM films. Like many of Keaton’s independent films, the actor would have a hand in the direction, whether credited or not. Despite the fact that MGM thrust Sedgwick onto Keaton, the two were actually good friends, bonding over a mutual love of baseball. The two would at one time share an office at MGM. Keaton would even suggest Sedgwick as a director for the Red Skelton starrer, A Southern Yankee (1948).

Buster sits next to director Edward Sedgwick on the set of The Cameraman.

Marceline Day would start her film career as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties appearing in Picking Peaches (1924). She would make comedies with Harry Langdon and Westerns with Hoot Gibson, Art Acord and Jack Hoxie, before appearing in more dramatic roles opposite the likes of Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Ramon Navarro and Lon Chaney. In 1927, she was named one of the 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars, a group of “future” starts which included Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Janet Gaynor and Dolores Del Rio. Despite her successes, Day retired from the movie business by 1933. Perhaps her best known role, outside of The Cameraman, was in London After Midnight (1927) opposite Chaney directed by Tod Browning.

Like London After Midnight, The Cameraman was, for a time, considered lost. However, a complete print was discovered in Paris in 1968 and a higher quality print, though with missing scenes, was found in 1991. The two prints were combined for the film we have today.

And it would have been a shame if The Cameraman had been lost to the world. While the film doesn’t have the same death-defying acts as say Steamboat Bill Jr., there are still some very challenging stunts, such as Keaton leaping onto the fender of a moving bus or riding a collapsing platform as it falls two stories to the ground. I hate to say it, but Keaton is funny just running and he does a lot of that in this film.

Like some other of his films, the big premise is often there as a backdrop for other sight gag sequences. Take the imaginary game at Yankee Stadium; being a cameraman only tangentially sets that up. But it’s watching what Keaton does with the place and situation that makes it memorable. This is a genius at work. While the sequence is probably well planned in advance, it comes across as one long improvisation; like a silent and subdued version of what Robin Williams used to do so well.

Another example is the sequence at The Plunge. This has more to do with setting Keaton off in an indoor aquatic environment and seeing what he and his writers can make of it, than anything else. You can almost imagine the thinking process. Start off with him changing clothes in the same small room as a larger man and have him end up wearing a suit that is too large for him. The look is funny, but it’s what happens to him in and out of it that makes the routine a classic.

Shooting the changing room scene with Edward Brophy.

And the film isn’t in a hurry for its jokes to pay off. The too big suit coming off is accomplished, but only after setting up the still tenuous relationship between Sally and Buster. You get a real sense from Sally that while she’s flattered by the attention of the other men in the pool, she’d still rather be alone with Buster. She’s a girl who wants to have fun, but still keep her morals in check. Having recently seen her in the stills that make up London After Midnight, it is good to remember that she was a fine actress in her day. And she is the right type of actress Buster needs for the romantic angle that is a part of most of his films to date; pretty, smart and playful.

While the film is funny, there is also pathos. Buster is in love with Sally and very shy at the same time. You don’t need words to know what he’s going through. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster was able to be more than just the comedian in his best films. The Cameraman’s Buster is a three-dimensional character with love, hope and ambition. Keaton doesn’t get any real credit as an actor, few comedians do, but he is able to do more than just make you laugh; he makes you care about his character.

In an example of the pathos, Buster is heart-broken when he
returns after saving her life and  finds Sally is gone.

There is so much to like about The Cameraman. I’ve seen it three times, including once at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, the subsequent DVD release and once on TCM. This is definitely a comedy that stands up to multiple viewings. Rather than knowing what’s coming next, you anticipate how Keaton will do his next bit. And he never disappoints.

If you’re a Keaton fan like I am, then you should definitely see The Cameraman. If you’re not a Keaton fan than this film should make you one.

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Stubs – Girl Crazy

Girl Crazy (1943) Starring: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Gil Stratton Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by Fred F. Finklehoffe. Produced Arthur Freed Runtime 99 minutes. US. Black and White. Musical, Comedy

I am a big fan of the music of George Gershwin. Perhaps best known for “classical” compositions like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris and the opera Porgy and Bess, George also had a very successful career writing Broadway musicals with his brother Ira as his lyricist. Together they wrote Lady Be Good (1924), Tip-Toes (1925), Oh Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930), Show Girl (1929), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), Pardon My English (1933) and Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933) before bringing their talents to Hollywood.

RKO hired the Gershwin brothers to write music for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, Shall We Dance (1937), and another Astaire film, Damsel in Distress (1937). Gershwin died while working on the score for The Goldwyn Follies (1938). His music would continue to be used in Hollywood after his death. The film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) features some previously unpublished songs and, of course, An American in Paris (1951) makes a musical using various Gershwin songs. Similarly, Broadway has continued to make “new” musicals using his songs: Crazy for You (1992) and Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012).

I became aware of the Broadway musical Girl Crazy from a re-recording conducted by John Mauceri, formerly the conductor of The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. A series of recordings on Elektra Nonesuch recreated Gershwin musicals, including Strike Up the Band, Oh Kay! and Lady Be Good, as well as Gershwin playing via piano rolls.

I’ve previously written a little about the Broadway musical Girl Crazy in a biographical sketch about Ginger Rogers in a review of Vivacious Lady (1938), so pardon me if I cover the same ground here. The musical starred Ginger Rogers as Molly Gray, Allen Kearns as Danny Churchill, Ethel Merman as Kate Fothergill and Willie Howard as Gieber Goldfarb. The show featured fourteen Gershwin songs, including standards like Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and But Not For Me, as well as Bronco Busters, Land of the Gay Caballero, Treat Me Rough, Could You Use Me and Bidin’ My Time. Playing in the pit orchestra were such future stars as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. Gershwin himself sometimes conducted during the original run from October 14,1930 to June 6, 1931.

Ginger Rogers in the original Broadway production of Girl Crazy.

MGM’s 1943 film version is not the first. RKO originally made it as a vehicle for Wheeler & Woolsey, a popular comedy act in films and in vaudeville at the time. This film, which I have never seen, retained only three songs from the stage musical, Biding My Time, I Got Rhythm and But Not For Me. According to Richard Jewell, an expert on all things RKO, the film, directed by William A. Seiter, made only $555,000 on a budget of $532,000. I don’t think, in anyone’s book, it would have been considered a huge hit.

There would also be a later version made called When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), also from MGM. Directed by Alvin Ganzer, this version starred Connie Francis and Herman’s Hermits. This version intermixed Gershwin songs with ones by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Herman’s Hermits, Liberace and other writers.

In 1943, MGM took on the musical as a vehicle for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The duo had already appeared together in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Babes in Arms (1939), Andy Hardy Meets a Debutante (1940), Strike Up the Band (1940; another Gershwin musical adaptation) and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941). Both actors were extremely talented and very popular.

Mickey Rooney, born Joseph Yule, Jr., had been an entertainer since being fourteen months old, first appeared in films at the age of seven in the silent comedy Orchids and Ermine (1927), starring Colleen Moore. He played Mickey McGuire in 78 short films from 1927 to 1936. He signed with MGM in 1934, making his first appearance in A Family Affair (1937), the first in the Andy Hardy film series.

Judy Garland began life as Francis Ethel Gumm and was one of The Gumm Sisters in a vaudeville act before she was signed by MGM in 1935 at the age of 13. In addition to her work with Mickey Rooney, she had already, by the time Girl Crazy was made, starred in the perennial classic The Wizard of Oz (1939).

While the movie starts off with the general story of the stage musical, i.e. New York playboy Danny Churchill, Jr. (Mickey Rooney) makes scandalous headlines and his father, Danny, Sr. (Henry O'Neill), in the film a publisher, sends him out West. After that, the stories start to part ways. Danny, in the movie, is sent to Cody, a small mining college that only has male students.

Danny Churchill, Jr. (Mickey Rooney) is a New York playboy.

Upon disembarking the train in Cody, Danny discovers he must walk the eight miles to the school through the desert. Every eight miles he sees another sign telling him that it is eight miles to the school. One of the reasons his father has sent him to Cody is that there are supposedly no women there, but leave it to Danny to find one. Out on the desert floor, he meets young, attractive Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), whose car has broken down. Danny’s reputation precedes him, as Ginger, the local postmistress, is aware of his playboy persona and laughingly rejects his advances. Once he gets her car going, it uses a crank to turn over, she drives off without him.

Danny finally reaches campus and meets his roommate, Bud Livermore (Gil Stratton), who fills him in on the school's rigorous schedule, which includes getting up early and going to bed early as well. The following dawn, Bud manages to get Danny up and fellow students tell him about the day-long horse ride to a wilderness camp they are about to undertake. As part of his initiation, Danny is given Whitey, the school's wildest horse to ride. Whatever bravado Danny might have is quickly drained away as the horse takes off at full speed and eventually throws Danny down a steep embankment and returns to the school.

Danny is rescued by Rags ("Rags" Ragland), an ex-New York taxicab driver who now works for the college. Rags offers him a ride in his buckboard and delivers Danny to the camp. By that time, Ginger has arrived to cook steaks for the boys and once again snubs Danny’s advances.

One night in the wilderness is enough for Danny and the next day, he goes to see Dean Phineas Armour (Guy Kibbee), Ginger's grandfather, to announce he’s returning East. Ginger drives Danny to the village, and along the way, Danny resumes his flirtation, singing “Could You Use Me?” and sneaking in a kiss before parting.

Danny puts the moves on Ginger (Judy Garland) while she's driving him to the village.

It’s Ginger’s birthday and the students of Cody throw an elaborate party for the popular and only girl on campus. They give her a small white piano as a present, which leads into a big production number around the song Embraceable You.

Danny returns to campus and eavesdrops as Henry Lathrop (Robert E. Strickland) proposes to Ginger in a very unromantic way. Ginger gently turns him down. After Henry departs, Danny tells Ginger that he has decided to stay at Cody so he can be near her. As proof of his commitment, Danny offers Ginger his grandmother's locket. But she urges him to keep it.

Later, Danny gives Rags a message to wire to his father. When Rags hands the message to the clerk, he reads it aloud in front of Henry and other Cody students. In the wire, along with informing his father that he’s staying, he makes derogatory comments about Cody which infuriate the students. After Henry brings the matter up to the Cody student council, Dean Armour calls both young men into his office and orders them to make nice.

Soon after, Ginger hears a radio report that Governor Tait (Howard Freeman) will be signing legislation closing Cody because of low admissions. Anxious to help, Danny comes up with an idea for Cody to sponsor an annual rodeo and beauty contest to attract new students. And of course, a show, which Danny promises will bring back the old west.

Danny and Ginger then present the governor with the plan, and Tait agrees to delay signing the legislation for thirty days. To assure the plan's success, Danny attends the coming-out party of the governor's daughter Marjorie (Frances Rafferty) and flatters the attractive debutantes there into agreeing to enter the beauty contest at Cody. During the evening, Marjorie flirts openly with Danny and even snatches his locket from him, which she starts to wear.

Danny and Ginger convince Governor Tait (Howard Freeman) to delay signing legislation.

Later, at the beauty contest, Danny once again swears his love to Ginger. Ginger and Marjorie just happen to be the top vote-getters and Danny proclaims Marjorie the winner. It is then that Ginger sees Danny's grandmother’s locket around Marjorie's neck and assumes the worst. Ginger starts packing to leave.

Determined not to lose her, Danny presents her with the locket, which he had retrieved from Marjorie. He once again swears his fidelity. Danny’s idea has been a big success. With their personal life settled, Danny and Ginger show Dean Armour the two hundred enrollment applications from girls wanting to attend Cody, which convinces him to make the school co-educational.

Their personal problems resolved, Danny and Ginger sing and dance together accompanied by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra to the song I Got Rhythm, one of only six songs that made it from the stage musical. The rodeo show finale is directed by Busby Berkeley.

Garland and Rooney dance together as part of  the production number for "I Got Rhythm".

Berkeley was originally signed to direct the film, but he apparently had too many creative differences with Judy Garland. The elaborate ending is his only contribution to the final film. One wonders what the film might have been if he were allowed to direct the entire movie. I say this, because, despite the high wattage of the lead actor and actress and the music of Gershwin, the musical falls a little flat.

This is really a movie version of the stage musical in name only. Whole characters are dropped (Slick; Gieber Goldfarb) and the plot is changed significantly. From the start of the movie, songs are being juggled. Treat Me Rough, which appeared in Act II of the Broadway musical, is the first song to be featured. The song is part of a nightclub act, featuring June Allyson, making her feature film debut as a Specialty Singer. The arrangement is water downed to accommodate a chorus line singing much of it and, for me, the film really never recovers.

Tommy Dorsey leads his Orchestra in a rendition of  Fascinating Rhythm.

During Marjorie’s party, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra play Fascinating Rhythm, which while written by the Gershwins was not in the Broadway production of Girl Crazy. It actually comes from another musical, Lady Be Good. Bidin’ My Time, an ode to procrastination, is used close to how it was in the original musical, except for the film interjects Garland into the number in what has to be one of the worst outfits I’ve seen in movies. But Not For Me appears at about the right place and what I would imagine is a similar circumstance as the Broadway musical. I Got Rhythm, which closes the movie, was actually used at the end of Act I of the stage musical. Seeing as the show is supposed to bring back the Old West, one wonders where I Got Rhythm fits into that concept.

While I admire Rooney’s talent, I have not seen very many of his films. In this one, he comes off as trying too hard at just about everything he does as if he alone could save the picture. This is typified by a bit he does while Danny and Ginger are waiting to meet the Governor. A radio crew leaves a microphone alone with the two and, in an effort to cheer up Ginger, Danny does an imitation of sports radio, including covering a tennis match and a mock interview with boxer Joe Louis after a bout and tells a rather lame joke about a man with a magnetized leg. Not sure if it was ad-libbed or was only meant to appear that way to show off Rooney’s versatility, but the bit went on too long and had literally nothing to do with the rest of the story.

An open mike is an excuse for a little "ad-lib" by Rooney.

Garland’s character seems to laugh at anything Danny does, sometimes at him and sometimes with him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling the laughs were more because it said to laugh in the script, not because the antics were particularly funny.

Even though I’ve never seen the stage musical, I feel that it got short shrift by Arthur Freed’s group at MGM. Instead of capturing the energy I hear on recordings, Girl Crazy ended up another let’s put on a show Rooney-Garland pairing and a flat one at that.

I watched hoping I would like Girl Crazy much more than I did. But, sadly, this adaptation is not for me.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Keanu - Some Movies Never Find Their Audience

Keanu (2016) Starring: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Method Man, Luis Guzmán, Nia Long and Will Forte. Directed by Peter Atencio. Written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens. Produced by: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Joel Zadak. Color. USA. 98 minutes. Action, Comedy

After five years of sketch comedy on Comedy Central, the creators and actors behind Key & Peele, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, have turned their talents to the big screen. The result, Keanu, is heavy on the action and even heavier on the laughs. The film deserves both praise and its R rating.

When Rell (Jordan Peele) gets dumped by his girlfriend, no one is more relieved to hear than his cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key). But into Rell’s life comes a kitten, whom he falls in love with and names Keanu, though not supposedly named after the actor, but rather the Hawaiian expression meaning "the cool breeze."

Rell (Jordan Peele) develops close ties to a kitten, Keanu.

But the cat has a past and when the 17th Street Blips, the gang made of members kicked out of the Bloods and the Crips, break into Rell’s apartment by mistake, they take the cat with them. That’s when things start to go south. Clarence, who is left alone for the weekend, tries to help Rell get the cat back, they end up being mistaken for the notorious Allentown Boys, also played by Peele and Key.

You never stop worrying about Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and
 Rell, who always seem to be in danger throughout the film.

The film is as much about getting the cat back as it is about Clarence and Rell getting out of their comfort zones and assuming their new identities with cautious relish. And there are many times they nearly give it away as their real selves are never far below the surface.

Both leads are very funny and it is obvious that they work well together. There is a real sense that the two actors are always on the same page; no doubt a by-product from working together for a number of years on television. Unlike SNL alums, who’s films often feel like three minute sketches stretched out to an uncomfortable ninety-minutes, Keanu doesn’t lose steam throughout. I do deduct some points for it leaving itself open for an unnecessary sequel that will most likely never be made.

While the lead actors are good together, the rest of the cast is also solid. Method Man, a name I’ve seen more on credits than actually on the screen, is very menacing as Cheddar, the leader of the Blips, who often talks with a gun in one hand and Keanu the kitten in the other. Then there is the street-wise Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Rell’s pot dealer/neighbor Hulka (Will Forte), rival drug dealer Bacon Diaz (Luis Guzman), Clarence’s wife (Nia Long) and playing what I hope is a bizarro-version of herself, Anna Farris.

Now, this is a hard R comedy. In addition to language, plenty of cursing and other, what used to be called, “inappropriate” language, there is plenty of violence. Thankfully, this is nothing we haven’t already seen before, but bullets fly and people die. Add to that, a good portion of the action takes place in an unfortunately named strip joint and you can see where the nudity comes from. I’m not pointing this out because any of it shocked me, but rather to make sure there is no question about the setting and atmosphere of the film.

But if you can get past that there is a lot of humor and a lot of laugh out loud moments. I won’t go into any of it in real detail, but a lot of the laughs revolve around Clarence’s musical selections on his iPhone, which include a healthy dose of George Michael’s 1987 Faith album. The humor, though surrounded by carnage, never really gets crude, which is a sign of writers, Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens, who know how to find humor in the situation without relying on jokes about bodily functions and fluids. Just to prove there is no escape from it, there is one moment when the film does go low for a joke, but it is really situational humor when Rell is put on the spot to one up someone and can’t think of what to say.

Keanu has been out in the theaters for only three weeks as of this review, but if our nearly empty theater is any indication, the film never seemed to find its audience. And this sometimes happens to good films. While I wouldn’t put this at the level of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), another film that never caught on like it should have, Keanu should be doing better than it is at the box-office. Films with relatively “smart” humor are so rare these days, as Hollywood seems to have an over reliance on the Adam Sandler-Seth Rogen-Judd Apatow-nothing-is-too-low-for-a-laugh school of comedy. I know we’re, sadly, long past the days of the simpler humor of Laurel and Hardy, but it’s still nice to see a film that mostly relies on a dialogue with the occasional slapstick for its laughs.

If you’re in the mood for an R-rated laugh out loud time, then I would suggest that you hurry to see Keanu before it is out of the theaters. Not a perfect film, it is hard to beat for an adult good time at the theaters.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Stubs - The Music Box (1932)

The Music Box (1932) Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy. Directed by James Parrott. Written by H.M. Walker. Produced by Hal Roach. Black and White. U.S.A. Run time: 29 minutes. Comedy

One of the most famous comedy duos in film history was the pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Known as Laurel and Hardy, the two would make 107 shorts, films and cameo appearances over a career that lasted from 1927 until Hardy’s death in 1957. It’s hard to pick one film out of that body of work to say was their best. The short The Music Box would certainly be in the running.

Like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel was a Brit by birth and, still using his real name Stan Jefferson, was also a member of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, along with a young Chaplin, sometimes serving as his understudy. In fact, Stan accompanied Chaplin when the troupe made the tour of the U.S. that would lead to Chaplin’s signing with Mack Sennett.

Stan, still known as Stan Jefferson, made his first film in 1917, Nuts in May. For a time, Stan was what was called a Chaplin imitator, appearing in films dressed like Chaplin’s tramp. In 1921, he would appear for the first time with Oliver Hardy in a film, The Lucky Dog, but it would be six more years before they would be teamed together by Hal Roach.

Oliver Hardy got into the film business in 1910, but as a projectionist, ticket taker, janitor and manager at the film theater in his home town of Milledgeville, Georgia. Convinced he could be a better actor than some of the ones he saw on screen, Hardy got the acting bug. He first moved to Jacksonville, Florida, at a friends’ suggestion, since there was some early film production there. His first film was Outwitting Dad (1914) and in 1915, he would appear in 50 one-reelers for the Lubin studio.

After working in New York and Jacksonville, Hardy moved to Los Angeles in 1917. Working freelance for various studios in Hollywood, Hardy would make 40 films for the Vitagraph studios. 6’1” and weighing up to 300 pounds, Hardy was often cast as the heavy in many of those films. In 1924, Hardy began working for Hal Roach.

Meanwhile, Laurel was making films for producer Joe Rock, signing a contract to make 12 two-reeler comedies. Rock’s only stipulation was that Laurel’s girlfriend and comedy partner, Mae Dahlberg, could not appear in any of the films, whom Rock thought was hindering Laurel’s work and career. Rock even offered her cash and a one-way ticket back to her native Australia, an offer she accepted, to leave Laurel alone.

After his contract with Rock was fulfilled, Laurel began to work for Hal Roach, where he concentrated more on writing and directing films, including Yes, Yes Nanette (1926) starring Hardy. An injury to Hardy would bring Laurel back into acting. The two would work together in Sipping Wives, Duck Soup and With Love and Hisses, all in 1927. Leo McCarey, the supervising director at Roach Studios, began teaming them together from then on.

As a team they would make 34 silent shorts. While they began making films with synchronized music and sound effects in 1928, their first sound short was Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) with Edgar Kennedy, Mae Busch and Thelma Todd appearing in support. After making another silent short, Double Whoopee (1928) with Jean Harlow making an appearance, they would go on to make 45 sound shorts and 27 feature films.

The Music Box was one of eight shorts the team would make in 1932 and was a partial remake of an earlier short they made in 1927, Hats Off, now considered a lost film. In that film, the two men play unsuccessful washing machine salesmen. Thinking they have a hot lead, the two carry a washing machine up a large flight of steps only to find that the would-be buyer only wants them to post a letter for her. Shooting on the same steps in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, the washing machine became a player piano.

A still from Hats Off (1927). In this film, Laurel and Hardy haul around a washing machine, not a piano.

The film opens with a woman (Gladys Gale) in a piano store, ordering a player piano as a surprise gift for her husband, whose birthday it is today. She tells the piano salesman (William Gillespie) that her address is 1127 Walnut Avenue. The shop keeper then hires Laurel and Hardy, who had pooled their $3.80 to start a horse-drawn transfer company, to deliver the piano.

The duo asks a postman (Charlie Hall), out on his rounds, if he knows where the address is located. He points up a long flight of steps and indicates that it’s at the very top. Obviously novices at the job, Laurel and Hardy get to work, first off-loading the piano onto Hardy’s back, which sounds like a dumb idea and is made worse when the horse moves forward. Laurel has to pull the piano off his fallen and trapped partner.

Postman (Charlie Hall) points to the address Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are looking for ... the top of the infamous stairway.

About halfway up, the boys run into a nursemaid (Lilyan Irene) pushing a baby buggy coming down. In their attempt to let her pass, the piano, which seems to have a mind of its own, slides back down the stairs. When she gets to the bottom of the stairs, the boys don’t appreciate her laughing at their predicament. In frustration, Laurel kicks her in the backside. She punches him back and hits Hardy over the head with a nearby milk bottle.

Laurel kicks the nursemaid (Lilyan Irene) after she laughs at their predicament.

She leaves and Laurel and Hardy start hefting the piano back up the stairs. The woman, meanwhile, tells the beat patrolman (Sam Lufkin) about her run-in with the pair and he promises to handle the situation.

The boys are again pretty far up the stairs when the policeman arrives and calls them down. Hardy sends Laurel down to find out what the policeman wants, which turns out to be “the other monkey,” Hardy. The policeman hands out some street justice, kicking Hardy twice in mistaken punishment for having kicked the woman. When Laurel asks if perhaps the policeman was "bounding over his steps," i.e. stepping over his bounds, the policeman hits him with his nightstick as an answer. Meanwhile, the piano has chased Hardy down the stairs so the boys dutifully start to carry it back up the stairs again.

Hardy gets chased down the stairs by the piano.

This time up, they run into Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F (Billy Gilbert), who is, naturally, going down. When Hardy suggests that the professor just step around them, he gets quite belligerent and demands that they move the piano to let him pass. Laurel makes things worse by taking his top hat off his head and tossing it down the stairs. It glides all the way down to the street, where it is run over by a passing vehicle. The Professor storms off, promising to get the two boys arrested.

Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen's (Billy Gilbert) way is blocked by the piano.

The boys ignore him and go back to their job, this time making it all the way up the stairs and then some. Hardy is walking backwards and steps up and into a decorative fountain. Getting him and the piano out of the water, the two ring the bell at the house. Not only is there no one home, but the piano rolls away and, of course, back down the long staircase. But this time, Hardy manages to grab it, only to be dragged all the way down to the street.

All the way up the stairs and into the fountain.

After dragging it back up again, the two run into the Postman, who informs them that they could have simply followed the street up to the house. Instead of putting that information away for another time, Laurel and Hardy dutifully take the piano back down the hill, put it on the horse drawn carriage and drive it up to the house.

They take the piano down the stairs and back up the hill on the horse drawn carriage.

There is still no one home, and instead of leaving it by the front door, they notice an open door on the balcony right above the front door. Hardy has the idea that Laurel can climb up to the balcony and they could lift it up to the second floor and carry it down to the first floor. Laurel climbs up the ladder and, using the flimsy frame of an overhang, manages with Hardy’s help, and using a block and tackle, to hoist it up. With the piano on the balcony, he drops the block and tackle on Hardy’s head, knocking him off the ladder but through the apparently unlocked front door.

Laurel manages to hoist the piano up to the balcony.

After much confusion and one more trip for all three into the fountain, Laurel and Hardy manage to get the piano into the house. When they uncrate it to set it up, out of the box rushes hundreds of gallons of water, which Laurel tries to clean up with his handkerchief, which is a monumental losing effort. With the piano finally out of the crate, the boys start to pick up the pieces of the crate, with each dutifully picking up a piece and putting it a pile that the other one is also picking up a piece and putting it in the other’s stack.

Hardy, Laurel and the piano all end up in the fountain.

In walks the Professor who lives there, still fuming from their previous encounter. He is not happy about the damage they’ve done to his house and to his living room. And he doesn’t like pianos either, so much that he takes an ax to the one they delivered. His destruction is only halted when his wife returns home and tells him that the piano was a gift from her to him as a surprise birthday present. Now he loves it and tries to make amends with the boys by signing for the delivery. But alas, the fountain pen, as they do in these sort of comedies shoots ink, into his face. As the professor fumes, Laurel and Hardy make their escape.

The Professor takes an axe to the piano.

The Music Box was well received and would win the first Academy Award for Live Action Short Film (Comedy). This is a film that allows novices access into the world of Laurel and Hardy. To put it mildly, the film is funny. You can sense the chemistry of the two leads who work together like a well-oiled comedy machine. There is a synchronicity in their movements that only looks natural with familiarity and practice.

Now there is definitely a bit of the dumb leading the dumb at work here, with Hardy usually in charge, even if it’s solely by his size. And while there is slapstick humor, it’s more of a thinking man’s version, rather than the endless punching and poking of the type the Three Stooges are famous for.

Laurel and Hardy are sort of like two big kids in adult bodies, so you have to see their actions in that light. When Laurel kicks the nurse in the behind, it’s not an anti-woman statement, but rather an act of a frustrated child, who, after having been out-witted, in a sense, can only lash out physically.

And like children, they don’t like being made fun of, which is why they take the piano all the way back down the hill, in order to deliver it the proper way. So no joke on them. And they only break into the house in order to finish the delivery, not for any maleficence. (There are others of their films where this isn’t necessarily true.)

Billy Gilbert, who played the professor, was a discovery of Laurel’s, who spotted him in the show Sensations of 1929. Gilbert would appear in not only Laurel and Hardy films, including County Hospital (1932), but also in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). He would also do voice work for Walt Disney, voicing Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). He would also appear in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) as Herring, a parody of Hermann Göring and in the small, but vital role of Joe Pettibone in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940). A great comedy character actor, his talents are not all on display here, but no one can forget Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen, M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F.

If you’ve never seen The Music Box, there is no reason not to. The film provides a glimpse into a simpler time in not only Hollywood comedy, but in the world at large. There is an earnestness to Laurel and Hardy’s work that one doesn’t always find now. And while so many comedians wear out their welcome before their careers are over, Laurel and Hardy definitely left everyone wanting more.