Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953)

Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE SET-UP (1949)

When a filmmaker tries something different, it is often labeled a gimmick or a stunt.  So it was with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and its continuous ten minute takes.  This was especially the case with Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and its extensive use of the subjective camera.  Whatever the merits of these innovations, it is obvious that an infusion of new ideas – a new way of looking at things – is important from time to time, in cinema and any artistic pursuit.

THE SET-UP (1949) is a thrilling boxing picture presented in real-time – the innovation of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn.  The film is seventy-two minutes long and the on-screen action takes place over seventy-two minutes in the lives of the characters.  We know this because the first shot after the opening credits is of a street corner clock telling us it is five minutes after nine.  The final shot of the film is of the same clock reading seventeen minutes after ten.  But before we get to this point we are lured into this busy evening scene, with people filing in and out of a bar called “Dreamland” and a sports complex named “Paradise City Arena.”  We are immediately aware that these names will be featured prominently and ironically in the film and we soon find out that this is a street where dreams are often crushed and the smokey atmosphere of these establishments are more closely related to hell than to heaven. 

It is fight night in Paradise City and we are whisked into the arena and introduced to a series of fascinating characters: A blind man (Archie Leonard) who has the action of the fights relayed to him by a friend who accompanies him.  An obese man (Dwight Martin) shoveling every imaginable food into his gaping mouth, waiting for the next burst of violence like he anticipates each bite of hot dog.  Another, older man who listens to a radio broadcast of a baseball game while eating up the fight action.  He is obviously a chronic gambler with bets on both sports.  There are also many woman, including one supposedly squeamish lady who refers to the last fight she attended by saying “I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!” 

Across the street, in a seedy hotel room, is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his visiting girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter).  Stoker is a washed up fighter hoping for one big win so he can retire and open a cigar store or a beer joint.  Julie wants him to quit now.  But he has a fight scheduled for this evening.  He doesn’t know that his manager, Tiny (George Tobias) has agreed to have Stoker throw the fight in an unholy alliance with a local gangster, “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter).  Tiny, wishing to avoid upsetting Stoker, is not planning to reveal the scheme to him.  He is counting on the aging and inept hack to continue his losing ways naturally.  Big mistake…

Stoker’s dreams are always just out of his grasp – like the prizes in the claw game his trainer, Red (Percy Helton) seems obsessed with in the early scenes at an arcade.  He finds inspiration in the stories of other fighters, and then is horrified when they return from the ring pummeled and delirious.  Now he waits his turn and Julie has torn up her ticket.  He will go it alone.  A trainer named Gus (Wallace Ford) reads a “True Romance” type magazine called “Love” as he awaits the outcomes of the fights in the locker room.  We cannot help but think of Stoker’s situation.  Julie does indeed love him – and she hates boxing.  In the hotel, we discover that she avoids calling him by his boxing handle, and only refers to him as “Bill.”  To everyone else it is always “Stoker.” 

The fight world is presented as an atmosphere ripe with corruption, and it is not difficult to understand Tiny’s throwing the fight for money.  One trainer even cheats at solitaire!  When it comes time for Stoker’s match, the ring announcer’s words “Ladies and gentlemen” are met with boos from the crowd.  The fans are well aware that they are as corrupt as the game they celebrate. 

The scenes that follow are some of the most exciting in all of cinema.  They are also fascinating for their incisive depiction of the human comedy.  Stoker is not only battling his opponent “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Fieberling), but for the soul of everyone involved in this blood sport.  When Stoker’s eye is closed and bloodied, the blind man, hanging on every word of his companion and the announcer, screams out viciously “The other eye Nelson!  Close the other eye!”  As a blind man yearns for the blinding of another human being, the brutality becomes overwhelming. 

But Stoker fights back, causing Tiny to worry.  Between rounds, his manager begs Stoker to just “go the distance” and not to fight so passionately.  He feigns concern that his boxer may be injured.  As Stoker is implored to lay off, a barker can be heard in the background shouting “Get your cold beer here!”, reminding him and the audience of his dream.  He will fight on – with everything he has.  This is too much for Tiny who, during another break in the fighting, finally spills the beans to Stoker.  He comes out fighting harder than ever.  Proving everyone loves a winner, the blind man begins rooting for Stoker, who knocks out Nelson.  Tiny and Red beat it. 

Cornered in an alley by Little Boy and his goons, Stoker is pounded into unconsciousness and has his hand smashed.  This fight is a natural extension of what goes on in the ring.  There is a jazz club adjacent to the alley and as the thugs wail on Stoker, Wise cuts to shadows on the alley wall of a swing band wailing away.  Both beat downs are the music of the night in Paradise City.  Later, he wakes up and staggers into the street.  The “Dreamland” sign is partially obscured by buildings and is distorted in such a way that it appears to say “I Dream.”  Julie arrives in time to cradle Stoker in her arms.  He reveals the whole sordid tale and states proudly “I won.”  And he has – not just the match – but his freedom.  The broken hand means nothing as he was planning on retiring anyway.  “We both won tonight”, says Julie.  In a beautiful crane shot, the camera pulls back to reveal that clock, once again.  Seventy two minutes have passed for Stoker and Julie as well as the audience.  This brief running time and real-time approach to the film makes for a more immediate, moving and suspenseful experience.  It has been a memorable night at the fights, indeed, for all concerned. 
CREDITS: Produced by Richard Goldstone. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Art Cohn. Based on the poem (that’s right, poem!) by Joseph Moncure March. Photographed by Milton Krasner. Edited by Roland Gross. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton, Wallace Ford, Hal Fieberling, Archie Leonard, Dwight Martin.              

   

May 15, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, boxing films, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006)

The Hollywood of FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006) is a place where people are impossibly rude to one another when they are not being phony suck ups, executives make ridiculous “suggestions” that ruin the artistic intent of the filmmakers (however lame), and actors can’t remember the names of people on the crew while other actors become shoe salesmen when washed up.  It is peopled by emotional wrecks like Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), an aptly named alcoholic in waiting whose life is changed when a rumor is started that she may be nominated for an Oscar.  The film that may finally garner her the respect she has always craved is entitled “Home For Purim”, and it is just bad enough to be an academy award winner.  Set in the deep south during WWII, it concerns a Jewish family (complete with Gomer Pyle accents) perplexed when their daughter returns from war with a lesbian lover.  The rest of the cast and crew of this opus are as big a bunch of losers as Marilyn, with each and every one of them a “hack” in their own right.  Her co-star is Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer) whose most famous role up till now is as a foot long wiener in a commercial for kosher hot dogs.  The fact that he is also a kosher wiener (as the goofy head of the family) in “Home For Purim” reveals that type casting is alive and well in Hollywood.  The ham fest continues with Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) and Callie Webb (indie film favorite Parker Posey), lovers who portray siblings in “Purim.”  Rachael Harris is the lesbian love interest in the film within a film.  Eugene Levy has a funny turn as Victor’s hopeless agent.  In a sly move, the director of FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Christopher Guest) also plays the director of the WWII saga.  He wrote the screenplay with Levy – the real screenplay – not the mess that is the basis for “Home For Purim.”  That one was written by Phillip Koontz (Bob Balaban) and Lane Iverson (Michael McKean), both superb as befuddled authors when the studio head (Ricky Gervais) suggests toning down the “Jewishness” of the film.  This guts the whole premise – so much so – that a new title is in order: “Home For Thanksgiving.” 

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is handled with the utmost wit and verve, making it a fine addition to the Guest/Levy comedy collaborations (all of which include many of the same cast members).  The dialogue is svelte and sharp and often lambasts anal retentive Hollywood: “Do you know how tight my aperture is right now?” asks a dismayed Director of Photography.  Publicist Corey Taft (John Michael Higgins) expresses his belief about performers by stating “Inside all actors there’s a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale.  Which one will show up?”  There is still more wisdom, as demonstrated when producer Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge) is asked by a reporter just exactly what it is a producer does.  Her answer boils down to “Pay for snacks.”  When make-up man Sandy Lane (Ed Begley JR.) refers to the Oscars as “the backbone of the industry”, Victor responds with “an industry known for not having a backbone.”   As a side note, the name “Sandy Lane” is wild in itself, since the character is gay and it could easily be taken as a play on “dirt road.” 

The satire almost always hits its mark.  Fred Willard, sporting an outrageous Mohawk style haircut, is perfect as a seedy “Entertainment Tonight” type reporter.  His abominable cruelty is only a slight exaggeration of heartless show business vultures going back to the “True Hollywood Stories” gossip magazines of the forties.  And he is oh so funny- and not just because of his hair.  In an interview with the cast, the clueless reporter fires off a string of non sequiturs delivered with such youthful verve, it is difficult to believe “Fernwood Tonight” was on the air over thirty years ago. 

The studio overseeing all this nonsense is called “Sunfish Classic”, probably a jab at “Sun Classics Pictures” – a notorious “B” studio of the 1970s. 

Soon the buzz gets around that Victor and Callie are also being considered for Oscar nods, and it is no wonder that everyone wants to be in show business.  Even the local weather girl does her report as a ventriloquist act with a gorilla hand puppet. 

The critics, as well (and perhaps especially) are seen as hopeless bafoons.  An Ebert and Siskel style review show features Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock as critics who constantly disagree to the point of viciousness and when they both like “Home For Thanksgiving” Lake is so overcome a string of spittle drips down his chin. 

But the anxiety of a possible Oscar takes its toll on Marilyn who flips her lid, changing her persona so completely, she is soon dressing and acting like a strung out hooker.  And when it is finally revealed that none of the three receives a nomination, the collective heartbreak is palpable.  The emotion of this scene is impressive, considering the “out there” comedy of the rest of the film.  Especially moving is O’Hara, and when, in the final moments, we find Marilyn working as an acting teacher, it is not surprising to find that she is still miserable, though trying to convince herself otherwise.  With a horrific Norma Desmond grin plastered on her face, she tells her students that she has finally gotten to that special place where she is “comfortable in my own skin.”  With the fade out comes the closing credits, a creepy, ironic recording of “Hooray for Hollywood”, and the realization that for all it’s crazy comedy FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is one of the darkest films about Hollywood since SUNSET BOULEVARD.

CREDITS: Produced by Karen Murphy.  Directed by Christopher Guest.  Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy.  Cinematography by Roberto Schaefer.  Edited by Robert Leighton.  Music by C.J. Vanston.  With: Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer, Christopher Moynihan, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Ricky Gervaise, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley JR.               

May 7, 2013 Posted by | 21st century film, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment