Saturday, July 9, 2016

Stubs - Movie Movie

Movie Movie (1978) Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Red Buttons, Eli Wallach, Barry Bostwick, Harry Hamlin, Barbara Harris. Directed by Stanley Donen. Written by Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller. Produced by Stanley Donen. Black and White/Color U.S.A. Run time: 105 minutes. Musical, Comedy

Originally called Double Feature, the concept was to replicate the movie experience of the 1930s and 40s, when a movie was accompanied by a newsreel, trailers and even a second feature. We’ve discussed the concept of “A” and “B” pictures in a previous review. But the original, and unnamed studio, which liked Stanley Donen’s concept, passed on Larry Geilbart’s script. Donen was allowed to shop the idea around and found a home with Sir Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. (If you’re a Beatles fan you’ll also know Sir Grade as being behind ATV which controlled the Beatles musical catalogue until he sold it to Michael Jackson.) In this story, Grade is more or less a hero, since he liked the idea enough to help bring it to the screen.

The idea was for two features, one a parody of black and white boxing films, Dynamite Hands, for which there were numerous examples to draw from, including Winner Take All (1932), and a color musical, Baxter’s Beauties, think 42nd Street or one of many backstage musical films from the early thirties. In between them there would be a trailer for a third film, a World War I flying ace film, Zero Hour. A fake newsreel and a second trailer were also shot, but dropped from the final film after test screenings in San Francisco in June, 1978. A prologue, featuring the venerable George Burns, was also added to the film in October or November, 1978 perhaps as a result of the test screenings.

Production apparently took place primarily at Warner Bros.’ Burbank studios, according to a supplemental interview attached to the recent Blu-Ray release, featuring Harry Hamlin. Movie Movie would be Hamlin’s first film. He was originally set against being a film actor and was on his way to London for a Fulbright Scholarship, when he was cast.

Casting changes seem to be common with any movie and this one is no exception. Rebecca York was originally supposed to appear in both films, but Trish Van Devere, then George C. Scott’s wife, decided that she wanted to be in both segments, so she replaced York as the love interest in Dynamite Hands. Ann-Margaret and James Farentino were also in discussions to appear in the film. Both were supposed to appear in both segments, but did not end up in the finished film. I wonder if Farentino’s departure might have opened the door for either Barry Bostwick or Harry Hamlin to appear.
Bostwick, by the time, was already a minor movie star, having appeared in the midnight cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and had already won an Tony Award as lead actor in a musical for his work on Broadway in The Robber Bridegroom (1977). While he would appear in both films, his singing and dancing talents wouldn’t be utilized until the second feature.

Another Broadway star, Ann Reinking, would also appear. Reinking, best perhaps known for her dancing and her work with director/choreographer Bob Fosse, was also relatively new to film, with Movie Movie one of only four films she’s made; her next film would be the Fosse directed All That Jazz (1979). Like Bostwick, her musical talents would be utilized, but only in the first film, as she would not appear in Baxter’s Beauties, perhaps because Van Devere was playing the lead role of the musical actress.

The film would feature four very well-known actors, the biggest being George C. Scott, who had been acting since the last 1950s in such films as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Hustler (1961) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). In 1970, Scott had made a very big splash with his portrayal in Patton, winning, but refusing, the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Eli Wallach, who would win an Honorary Academy Award in 2011, was one of those actors who could play nearly any character, whether it be the lecherous Silva Vaccaro in Baby Doll (1956) to the Mexican bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960). His chameleon acting skills would be put to the test in Movie Movie, as he would appear in both films.

Like Wallach, Red Buttons got his start on Broadway before coming to film in 1947. A comedian, Buttons had already won an Academy Award for his performance as Airman Joe Kelly in Sayonara (1957). His roles in both films were supporting roles to Scott’s character.

Rounding out the Academy Award winning actors in this film was Art Carney. Perhaps best known for his role as Ed Norton in Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners (1951-1955), he had won an Oscar for his performance opposite a cat in Harry and Tonto (1974). A reliable actor with good comedic timing, Carney would appear in both films.

Even though the first film, Dynamite Hands, was supposed to be in black and white, the film was actually shot in color due to the desire for TV sales. The required lighting put the production behind schedule and the original cinematographer was replaced. The film, which was recently released on Blu-Ray, originally opened with a brief introduction by George Burns, but this bit of video was not included in this release, except as a special feature.

Dynamite Hands opens with an exterior shot of a New York street corner, circa the late 1930s. Inside his office, Dr. Blaine (Art Carney) is completing his thorough examination of Angie Popchik (Kathleen Beller). He has the sad news that her eyes are getting worse and that the operation to fix them is only done by a doctor in Austria. The cost would be about $25,000, travel included.

Angie Popchik (Kathleen Beller) has eye trouble which will cost $25,000 to fix.

But young Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin) is not aware of the bad news when he makes the delivery from the family deli to the gym of boxing trainer Gloves Malloy (George C. Scott). When the boxer Gloves is training, Sailor Lawson (Clay Hodges), refuses to pay for his sandwich, he and Joey get into it. Sailor can’t lay a glove on Joey, but Joey manages to knock him out cold.

Gloves offers Joey a contract, but Joey has his heart set on going to law school and becoming a lawyer. But that dream changes when he goes home and learns from his parents, Mama Popchik (Jocelyn Brando) and “Pops” (Michael Kidd), about Angie’s needs and the money it will cost.

Distraught, Joey goes up to the roof where he keeps pigeons. There he finds his best girl, Betsy McGuire (Trish Van Devere), a librarian for New York City. He tells her about Angie’s fate and what he has to do to help and she is initially with him on his idea to raise the money.

The next day, Joey goes back to Gloves and agrees to fight until he’s made the twenty-five grand.  Their contract is a handshake. With Gloves and Peanuts (Red Buttons) in his corner, Joey starts out on a string of fights around the country. When he returns six months later, he’s undefeated, but no closer to having the money Angie needs, having only earned $300 in that time.

While they’re sharing a drink in a nightclub, Joey, with Betsy by his side, tells Gloves how anxious he is to fight in Madison Square Garden and earn the large payday that would go with it. Gloves, though, doesn’t think Joey is ready yet and tells him he still needs more time.

Enter Vince Marlowe (Eli Wallach), a rival promoter and also owner of the nightclub. He overhears the conversation and offers to make it happen in three months. Despite Gloves' objections and warnings to stay away from the unscrupulous promoter, Joey agrees to let Vince represent him, but only if Gloves and Peanuts are a part of the deal.

Meanwhile, Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking) performs in the club and Joey is awestruck by her presence. When Gloves and Betsy leave the nightclub in disgust, Vince seizes on the moment and introduces Joey to Troubles. She’s one of the fast women Betsy was afraid of and Troubles lives up to her name.

Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking) tries to make Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin)
forget about his girl and just about everything else.

Joey gets back to training with Gloves and Peanuts and despite his parent’s objections, starts to date Troubles. Angie, meanwhile, meets Johnny Danko (Barry Bostwick), one of Vince’s henchmen, and falls in love.

When he returns back to town, things are not right between him and Betsy. She wants nothing to do with him. Upstairs in the family’s apartment, Joey finds Angie and Johnny heavy petting and kicks Johnny down the stairs, promising to kill him if he comes around again.

Mad, he goes to Vince’s to demand the money, but Vince puts him off, telling him that he’s booked him in the Garden in a few days and then he’ll give him the money he needs for Angie’s operation. But before he can leave, Joey sees Troubles come downstairs from Vince’s bedroom.

Joey tries to win Betsy’s love back. He apologizes for his bad behavior and swears to her that she’s the only woman for him. But Betsy insists that she needs more time to think things over.

The night of the big fight comes and Peanuts is prepping Joey for the fight when Vince comes in. He 
tells Joey that he’s bet heavily against him and he tells Joey to take a dive in the fifth or else he won’t give him the money for Angie’s operation. Joey doesn’t want to go along, but feels trapped. Only then does he learn from Gloves that he and Peanuts have bet the farm, literally, on Joey. That’s bad enough, but on the way to the ring he finds out that everyone in the old neighborhood has bet on him and then finally learns that Pops has bet the deli on Joey to win.

The night of the big fight, Joey doesn't fight back until the fifth round.

Meanwhile, Betsy is back home listening on the radio and Vince and Troubles are sitting in the stands next to each other.

Joey doesn’t fight back for the first four rounds and looks close to giving up when at ringside, Angie and Johnny show up. They apologize for their late arrival, but despite Joey’s objections, the two of them have just wed and are leaving the next day on Johnny’s money to Austria for the operation.

Meanwhile, Betsy hurries down the Garden to be at ringside when Joey comes out for the fifth. Instead of the beating he’s been receiving or taking a dive, Joey knocks out his opponent and wins the fight. He’s escorted by police back to his dressing room, where Gloves tells him to get lost for a while and shows Joey and Betsy out the back way to a taxi.

Gloves goes to the nearest payphone to call the boxing commissioner about the rigged fight, but Vince stops him. While they’re getting into the cab, Joey hears a gunshot and goes back in. There he finds Gloves shot and with Peanuts by his side, Joey says goodbye to him.

Joey has a heartfelt goodbye with Gloves (George C. Scott).

So angered is Joey by Gloves’ murder that he hurries through law school in time to become District Attorney and personally try Vince for the crime. After his impassioned final argument, the jury does not need to deliberate and finds Vince guilty. With Betsy by his side, Johnny and Angie arrive to tell him that the operation was a success. When reporters clamor for a statement, Joey climbs up on the Judge’s (Charles Lane) bench and gives a rambling speech, dedicating the prosecution to Gloves’ memory. The film ends with a superimposed shot of Gloves munching down on his ever present cigar.

Before the next “feature” there is the coming attraction for “Zero Hour” a World War I send-up in which Scott, Carney and Wallach get to speak with bad English accents.

The second feature starts with the exact same shot as Dynamite Hands, except this time the shot is in color. We’re once again inside a doctor’s office, this time Dr. Bowers (Art Carney). This time the patient is Spats Baxter (George C. Scott), a legendary Broadway producer. Once again, the good doctor has bad news. Spats has six months to live, from their last appointment, five months ago. Dr. Bowers tells him that he suffers from Spencer’s disease, which only seems to affect show people.

The diagnosis leads Spats to confess to Dr. Bowers that he has to have one more hit show for the sake of his daughter no one knows about. After killing her mother in a car crash while driving drunk, he sent the girl upstate and sends her money anonymously every month at the finishing school she attends.

Soon afterwards, Kitty Simpson (Rebecca York), fresh off the train, happens to walk by the Baxter’s Beauties theater which is having auditions. But before she can get inside, she makes the acquaintance of Dick Cummings (Barry Bostwick), a seemingly nose in his books kind of guy. They end up entangled and trapped on top of an oversized wedding cake that comes up through the sidewalk. When Dick tries to extricate himself, he knocks Kitty’s suitcase out of her hands and it opens. But her embarrassment is only starting. When Dick tries to quickly put things right, he gets the hem of her dress caught inside the suitcase, so when he yanks it her dress comes off.

Dick slinks inside the theater, having been sent by an accounting agency. After putting herself back together and going inside, Kitty is informed by Pop (Eli Wallach), the stage manager, that they’re full up. But dance director Jinks Murphy (Red Buttons) is persuaded, after Kitty faints, by veteran chorus line dancer Trixie Lane (Barbara Harris) to give the girl an audition. But talent will out and Jinks wants to pass, but Spats, who has just returned from the doctor’s, decides to take a chance on her, having been a dancer once himself.

Spats goes to see the star of his show, Isobel Stuart (Trish Van Devere), getting drunk despite his boycott on any alcohol in her lavish, two-story dressing room. Her assistant, Gussie (Maidie Norman), doesn’t know how the liquor is getting in. (We find out later it's hidden in the piano.) Isobel knows star power and holds it over Spats. She refuses to do the new show, which he is desperate to do, unless he provides a completely new score.

Meantime, Spats finds his new accountant, Dick Cummings (Barry Bostwick), sitting behind his desk when he enters. Dick informs his new boss that everything looks good and that he has plenty of money on hand for the new production. While going through the ledgers, Spats discovers sheet music. Dick confesses to be a would-be song writer, offering up a song, which parodies love songs of the day, rhyming June, moon and spoon. Spats is impressed with what he hears and offers Dick the chance to write a score, 12 songs, but he has to do it one night. Dick is up to the challenge and starts 
out right away to write.

Spats Baxter (George C. Scott) finds sheet music in and among the ledgers
of his new accountant, Dick Cummings (Barry Bostwick).

Meanwhile, Trixie takes Kitty home to her apartment and reveals that she has a secret crush on Spats. Kitty settles in and ends up on the roof, presumably to check on the laundry that is hanging there to dry. But who should be up on the roof, with his piano composing, but Dick. While Kitty isn’t happy to see him at first, she does inspire the last song Dick needs to write. By mis-turning a phrase, she says "It Just Shows to Go Ya” and the show's big number practically writes itself. The two young wannabes sing and fall in love for everyone in the neighborhood to witness.

"It Just Shows to Go Ya" Dick and  Kitty (Rebecca York) get reacquainted and fall in love. 

The next day at rehearsal, Isobel is impressed by the score and as impressed by the young composer, whom she starts to woo. Dick even has to cancel his first date with Kitty, which breaks her heart.  Dick thinks Isobel loves him and is quite enthralled by the star’s attention. However, the short-lived romance ends, when Dick overhears Isobel tell Spats that she’s only using Dick to write great songs for her. Dick apologizes to Kitty for his behavior and they resume their romance.

Spats’ plans take a tumble when he learns that checks he’s written for the sets and costumes bounced. He finds out that Isobel has been charging her lavish lifestyle to the production and Spats owes $36,000, money he doesn’t have. He dismisses the cast and crew as he is forced to shut down the production.

But things turn around when Mr. Pennington (Charles Lane) comes to visit Spats, delivering to him the money he needs from an anonymous source. With the production back on, Kitty reveals to Trixie that she’s the source of the money. She tells her roommate about the money she’s been receiving her whole life from an unknown benefactor.

But during dress rehearsals, Isobel sees Dick and Kitty kissing and in a jealous rage tells Spats that she won’t go on as long as Kitty is still around. Seeing that he has no other choice, Spats tells Kitty that he has to let her go. Heartbroken, Kitty leaves town.

On opening night, Spats discovers that Isobel is once again drunk, having passed out on the floor. Worse, in her drunken stupor she’s fallen and broken her ankle, so there is no way she can go on. It’s then that Trixie reveals to Spats that not only could Kitty go in in her place, but that she’s also the one who gave him the money. Spats puts two and two together and realizes that Kitty is his long-lost daughter.

With only 90 minutes before the curtain is to go up and in a tip of the hat to the work of George M. Cohan, Spats dispatches Dick and Trixie to retrieve her from the finishing school in New Rochelle, “because it’s only 45 minutes from Broadway.” In the cab ride back, they tell Kitty about her true parentage and also rehearse the show in the back seat. They are fortunate that when their cab is pulled over for speeding, the motorcycle cop owes Spats a favor and escorts them the rest of the way into New York. But rush as they must, they are still late and Spats orders Peanuts to hold the curtain.

Baxter's Bikes is the opening number in the show.

The family reunion takes a backseat to getting Kitty onstage. She goes out a nobody and comes back a star as the musical is the big success that Spats desperately wanted. But Spencer’s disease finally catches up to him and Spats collapses on the stage. With the cast and crew around him, he praises Kitty, urges Dick to take care of his daughter and shows regrets about overlooking Trixie. He dies to a heavenly version of the show’s big number "It Just Shows to Go Ya.”

It helps, but isn’t required, to be somewhat familiar with studio era cinema, this is after all, not just a parody, but also a love-letter to Hollywood, similar to but better than say Hail, Caesar! (2016). The people behind this film, Stanley Donen in particular, were aware of and had been a part of the era they were dealing with. Donen, who knew a thing or two about musicals, helping to direct with Gene Kelly On The Town (1949) and Singin’ In the Rain (1952), also knew comedy, having directed the very funny original Bedazzled (1967) with British comedy greats Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

He is helped with a witty screenplay co-credited to Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller. Gelbart, who seemed to excel at period piece comedy, was one of the co-creators of the highly successful TV Series M*A*S*H which ran from 1972 to 1983. The screenplay is witty and funny and not afraid to make nonsense dialogue with heart; harder than you think it might be.

The acting is pretty good throughout. The one complaint would be Trish Van Devere as Betsy McGuire in Dynamite Hands. She is clearly too old for the role of a mid-twenties girl as she was in her late-thirties when she made the movie. Not that she was bad, per se, it’s just that she didn’t look right for the part, but it wasn’t talent that got her the role, but rather her marriage to the film's star. Ann Reinking certainly makes an impression as Troubles Moran and Barry Bostwick shines as Dick Cummings. They both make the hard work they do look easy, which is a sign of just how talented they are. It often seems that the better someone is at something the easier they make it look.

Most of the Academy Award winning lead males show their versatility, but really only George C. Scott has a leading role in both films. Wallach has a much bigger part in Dynamite Hands than in Baxter’s Beauties, but he is good even in a diminished role. Art Carney plays virtually the same character in both films and they are scenes that could have been shot back to back they are so similar. Likewise, Buttons’ Peanuts and Jinks are also very similar.

The films do not only a good job of recreating the double-bill experience, but also in how studio films were part art and part industrial. After all, with their own theater chains, studios were cranking out about a film a week. It is a tribute to the talent pool that so many of them were as good as they are. Not only do both films re-use actors, shots and sets, but they also hit upon similar themes and hit similar plot points, even though they are trying to tell different stories. They’re both boy meets girl stories at their essence and as follows, boy loses girl. In both, the innocent boy's affections are drawn away by a more glamorous woman, show girls. Both men realize their mistakes, not on their own, but by seeing and hearing that the love they thought was real wasn’t, and beg for the original girl to take them back. If the plots seem familiar than that is also to be expected. Remember, Hollywood films used to be considered safe for consumption by all age groups. Normally nothing too risky or daring with familiar being a good bet.

The pacing is also about right. As we’ve discussed in previous reviews of films like Winner Take All, the films never stop to catch their breath as they relentlessly move from opening credits to the end. The fact that Joey was able to become DA practically overnight, while amusing on its face, isn’t really too far out of line for how it might have been treated in a “B” film of the day, which routinely compressed time for the sake of plot.

I really liked Movie Movie the first time I saw it, yes in a theater, and it became one of those “why can’t I find it” films, which occasionally happens when smaller libraries change hands. The new owners may or may not know what they have. Nostalgia being what it is, Movie Movie became better and better in my mind the harder it was to find. When I saw that this film was finally getting an English-language release, I jumped on the pre-order. (I had actually considered importing a foreign language version with the original English as a bonus feature.) While I would not say I’m disappointed, the film doesn’t quite live up to the buildup I had in my own head, but that’s me.

If you love old Hollywood films, the studio era in particular, and have never seen Movie Movie, then I would say that you should definitely watch the film now that it has been restored. If you’re like me and have seen the film before, it is definitely worth watching it again, just be aware that absence can sometimes make the heart grow fonder and the film seem better.

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