Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hope and Tashlin Mine Comedic Gold in Son of Paleface

Among the most unapologetically unpretentious comedies of its era, Frank Tashlin’s undeservedly forgotten, underrated Son of Paleface doesn’t offer a profound or sophisticated idea during its brisk 95-minute unfolding, to the benefit of audiences looking for a good time. Its sole purpose is to gather as many laughs from audiences as possible; in regards to tone, Son could be a father to Airplane!; for one viewer, Son also has lingered in memory long after many “important” films fade. I originally saw the movie decades ago in high school when my drama instructor (who would’ve been about ten when the movie came out in 1952) showed the film as an end-of-semester treat, and it went over like gangbusters. Viewing the film anew after several years, Tashlin’s skill in setting up a slew of gags and the inspired, energetic work of stars Bob Hope, Jane Russell and Roy Rogers has not grown stale- the sense of fun maintained by these key players is as infectious and fresh as ever.

Son came four years after one of Bob Hope’s biggest solo successes (The Paleface, natch) and happily re-teams him with the comely, statuesque and good-natured Jane Russell, who is right-at-home trading quips with Hope and keeping her mischievous leading man in his place, while the movie impressively ups the ante concerning the laugh quotient- those claiming Son rates a distance second to the first Paleface just aren’t paying attention, giving into the sequels-can’t-match-the-original bias. Hope made his share of stinkers onscreen, particularly in the later stages of his career, but at his best he’s a delight to watch, and although Hope could mix serious aspects of roles with comedy in a skillful, straightforward manner (he does great work in this vein in 1956’s little-seen but highly entertaining That Certain Feeling) he admirably resisted playing for pathos in these roles, a bait most other top comics snatched at time and again in a play for (often unwarranted, when it didn’t work) audience sympathy and critical respect. Hope’s onscreen persona during his heyday as a cowardly, horny, sneaky conman had been perfected for over a decade in his solo outings and the smash-hit Road series with Bing Crosby; with his quick-witted comic timing and skill, Hope seldom overplayed a joke or pandered for a laugh- he got them by being genuinely funny. Hope’s lively, oversized persona and focus on pure comedy made him the ideal choice to team up with director Tashlin’s comic skills (the director knew his way around a gag as adeptly as his leading man after serving for years in the animation field). The sense of fun that permeates the film even allows a scene involving an un-PC swipe at Indians to evade disaster, as Hope is made the butt of his own insults once he realizes the wooden Chief he’s been slamming with insults is flesh-and-blood, turning Hope into a jabbering hypocrite.

Hope knew how to do these types of jokes and double-takes beautifully and he’s in peak form from his opening shtick wherein he talks to the audience through narration while bidding adieu to his unimpressed girlfriend, and he never slackens the pace from there, consistently grabbing laughs and staying focused on maintaining a strong comic tone throughout the whole film. Tashlin’s cartoon sensibility is also evident- the film is close to a live-action cartoon, with Hope’s head spinning in a whirlwind twenty years before The Exorcist offering only one example of the outlandish visuals on display throughout the movie. Tashlin excelled post Son using this heightened comic style, via his frequent partnership with Jerry Lewis, including possibly the two best Martin & Lewis offerings, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust and Lewis’ laugh-packed solo outings Who’s Minding the Store and The Disorderly Orderly as well as Jayne Mansfield’s two biggest onscreen hits, The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but he possible never generated as many cleverly crafted visual gags in a film as what he does with Hope and company here. And, although he joked in the Road comedies and as the preeminent Oscar host during the 1950’s and 60’s about his lack of consideration for an actual Academy Award, I’ll take Hope’s self-depreciating, carefree Junior Potter with his rat-a-tat-tat delivery and sly asides over Gary Cooper’s somber, sincere Will Kane (even though Donald O’Connor would have to factor into the equation for his all-timer musical comedy work in Singin’ in the Rain). Unfortunately, then as it still largely holds true today, comedy isn’t valued in the same breath as drama, and the idea of the film or Hope scoring any major critical recognition for Son would’ve seemed as insane as DeMille’s entertaining-but-fairly-inane The Greatest Show on Earth winning Best Picture that year . . . on second thought, this would’ve been the PERFECT year to reward unassuming, laugh-inducing art in the form of one of Hope’s top performances.

Besides her robust figure and striking countenance, Jane Russell has the gift of appearing completely confident and relaxed onscreen, like you dropped in for a cup of coffee and she just happened to be filming a comedy in her living room. Russell has to be the most down-to-earth and accessible sexpot imaginable; although possessed of substantial va-va-voom, she’s more a wisecracking gal Friday than the personification of anyone’s femme fatale. This ease of comportment carries over into her singing style as well. Russell’s relaxed, highly likeable manner would get its biggest showcase the following year in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; she makes it look effortless both here and in the later film, but I can’t imagine many other performers carrying off the musical comedy/siren routine and Russell’s killer, instinctual readings of good lines as adeptly.

Marking one of his few excursions into a major feature, Roy Rogers keeps pace with his formidable co-stars: his handsome, stoic demeanor provides an entertaining contrast to Hope’s lively smarminess and their choice exchanges, including a classic interchange concerning Roger's preference for horses over feminine charms, consistently provoke guffaws. Rogers is equally believable as a romantic interest for Russell- Rogers may be too noble a character to even kiss Russell in the film, but his chemistry with her is good enough that it had me forgetting who Russell ends up with. In addition, Tashlin adeptly ensures none of the stars of the film miss out on the fun by granting Roger’s trusty steed Trigger some of the biggest laughs in the film, especially when the cinema’s most talented horse ends up bunking with Hope in one of the film’s most memorable bits.

The simple, upbeat musical score perfectly blends with the overall tone of the picture, and even when Rogers is serenading Russell with the lovely, slower tempo “California Rose,” the opportunity isn’t missed to finish the song with a great site gag as the jealous Hope enters the scene. “Am I In Love?” gained the film’s sole Oscar nod and is done as an amusing duet between Hope and Russell, while Rogers has one of his most amusing bits off-screen, with his rendition of “There’s a Cloud in My Valley of Sunshine” on the phonograph setting the tone for a dancing bit with Hope and Russell.

In a case of how a movie's destiny often doesn't logically follow and play out as expected, it's interesting that even after being a big success during its initial run (according to Variety, Son ranked right behind High Noon at ninth for 1952 film rentals, and just ahead of no less than Singin’ in the Rain), this highly entertaining comedy never held on to much of a reputation. Here’s hoping there’s still a few drama teachers out there who fondly recall Hope and Tashlin’s lively shenanigans in one of the most amusing films from the 1950s, and pass on this comedy classic to groups of sure-to-be-entertained newcomers exposed to this peak in both artist’s careers.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Budd Boetticher Steers a Memorable Bullfighter

1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady provides a rewarding cinematic experience, with director Budd Boetticher effectively conveying a vivid sense of time and place via on-location filming of this conventional yet (in Boetticher’s hands) diverting tale of a Chuck Regan, a young American who becomes fascinated by the world of bullfighting, primarily to win the heart of his lady fair, Anita. The film has been resorted to its intended 124-minute director’s cut on Olive's 2013 Blu-Ray release, after initially being shown at 87 minutes in order to fit on double bills. Although at two-hours-plus the movie’s standard plot devices, including romantic misunderstandings and reconciliations, the best friend/mentor who suffers in order to increase the hero’s nobility, and said hero’s 11th-hour chance of redemption in the face of seemingly impossible adversity, become too obvious, the longer allows Boetticher the opportunity to build an impressive atmospheric tone centered around the Mexican locales and natives unusual in a studio production of the time (working at low-budget Republic possibly helped curb the Hollywood gloss and grant the proper verisimilitude to the film), while enabling key performers the benefit of adding a measure of complexity to their roles.

As Chuck Regan, Robert Stack found an ideal fusion of personality and role. Sporting blond locks and a sincere, personable demeanor, the Hollywood veteran (even in 1951, as Stack had mingled among tinsel town’s elite for several years before providing Deanna Durbin with her first onscreen kiss in 1939’s First Love) and reliably staunch leading man has perhaps his most indelible part, and is at the peak of his physical beauty besides; Stack is so perfectly handsome in Bullfighter it’s a bit ridiculous, and depressing to us mere mortals. Beyond looks and natural charm Stack, who was always a solid, workmanlike actor, clearly is striving to be fully vested in every scene. He’s focused, down-to-earth and professional, and has the audience on his side through each dilemma Chuck faces. Although Stack may not possess the emotional depth of a contemporary such as Montgomery Clift, his stoic remoteness in some close-ups actually proves an asset, adding an air of mystery and movie-star glamour to some key scenes as the viewer wonders what exactly is making the character tick behind his still, serene countenance. 

Although the clearly American Joy Page is nobody’s senorita as Anita and her part falls mainly in the “young ingénue” category, her earnestness matches up well with Stack’s, and Page’s often grave manner lends some individuality to her character (this trait also aided Page in her most famous role as the serious-minded young newlywed who wants to get out of Casablanca with her unlucky gambling husband) while also helping to convince this tougher-than-expected maiden might actually be able to withstand the irresistible Stack’s advances, at least momentarily. Gilbert Roland is a perfect fit as the  legendary matador Manolo Estrada, who learns skeet shooting from Chuck (not coincidently, Stack was a national champion in this sport) in exchange for teaching the novice the skills needed in the bullfighting ring. In one wonderful sequence superbly set up by Boetticher Estrada, with a group of young children on a wall behind him, watches Chuck practice; when the youngsters start cheering some of Chuck’s moves, Estrada turns and immediately silences them, then turns back with the satisfied look of a man in complete control of his environment, and Roland pulls the scene off with aplomb- here, as in his many sequences with Stack and real-life matadors in the bullring, he really does seem to be the master of this kingdom (Roland had studied bullfighting before beginning his lengthy acting career). 

Rounding out the cast are Virginia Grey and John Hubbard as the Floods, a theatrical couple who accompany Chuck to Mexico- as Lisbeth, the flirtatious wife with an eye for matadors, Grey attracts attention with her constantly-changing hair color; unless I’m imagining things she went from blond-to-brunette in every other scene, and these shifts prove interesting to watch, in any case. As Estrada’s devoted wife Chelo, Katy Jurado and her huge, baleful, beautiful eyes make a considerable impact a year before her breakthrough in High Noon. Boetticher gives Jurado a standout scene wherein Chelo chastises a heckler who’s berating the injured Estrada for not performing a pas de deux with a highly-agitated bull, thereby allowing Jurado to display the calm-yet-forceful presence that would serve her well in some of her subsequent Hollywood films (Jurado was somehow overlooked by the Academy for Noon, but would later score an Oscar nod for her work as another loyal, if more passive, wife in 1954’s Broken Lance). 

Guided by Boetticher’s adept hand (he also co-produced the film with John Wayne and co-wrote the story) and the fine work of an engaged and engaging cast, The Bullfighter and the Lady presents an involving narrative that incorporates many realistic, insightful touches illustrating the intricacies and challenges existing in an unusual profession; although I don’t care for any sport that harms man or animal, Bullfighter is an engrossing drama that holds up better than many a grade-A studio production of the era.  

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bidding Adieu to a Wonderful Day

        Possessing a truly phenomenal career in music, film and television, Doris Day, who passed away May 13th, remained beloved by fans worldwide for over forty years after leaving the entertainment business in the mid-1970’s with a move to Carmel and an admirable dedication thereafter to animal welfare. Following some eventful early years which included a car accident that put an end to a planned dancing career and a recovery process wherein a wonderful singing voice was discovered, the perennially buoyant former Doris Mary Kapplehoff (the song “Day By Day” from her early career as a band singer was responsible for the moniker switch) first achieved fame with Les Brown’s band in 1945 via the memorable “Sentimental Journey,” then went from success to success thereafter, from her movie debut in 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, wherein she gained another signature tune with “It’s Magic,” throughout a 1950’s heyday as one the most popular singers and film stars before gaining (for better or worse) even greater fame in the early-to-mid 1960’s in a string of sex-comedies wherein hunks such as Cary Grant, Rod Taylor and (iconically) Rock Hudson attempted to break through Doris’ prim, steely reserve (James Garner also figures prominently among her leading men during this period, but he plays her spouse in both their outings, and therefore the chase was essentially over).

Although Molly Haskell has argued Doris was ahead of her time in playing a modern, independent career woman in offerings such as 1959’s career-altering Pillow Talk and the follow-up Lover Come Back, it’s clear even if the term “virgin” isn’t specifically mentioned, these movies center around the “will-she-or-won’t she” question, which reaches its apex in 1962’s Grant-costarred That Touch of Mink, wherein Day’s character’s virginity is clearly made the somewhat tiresome focal point. Doris is a skilled comedienne, with good mugging and double take reflexes and a keen, wry way with a line (one of my treasured viewing experiences occurs during the opening scene of 1960’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies wherein, after one of her kids mentions all the family dog does is sleep, Day states “Well, he’s a dog,” then, with perfectly underplayed sarcasm, tosses off, “Whaddaya want from him, blank verse?”) but she sometimes resorts to a simpering, coy delivery style in these box-office blockbusters; the more straightforward comedy playing found in Daisies, Teacher’s Pet, The Thrill of it All (wherein Doris has a great scene screwing up a live television commercial for “Happy Soap”; it’s not an easy acting feat to make flubbing look this spontaneous and natural while still convincing audiences her on-screen housewife would nevertheless prove to be a perfect sponsor for the product, but Day absolutely nails it, as she does her uncontrollable and hilarious crying jag in Pillow Talk, which probably helped Day score her sole Oscar nod) and in her intelligent, spot-on work as Jane Osgood, a young widow trying to save her Maine-based lobster business as she takes on corporate bureaucracy in the under-appreciated, lovely It Happened to Jane (with Day appealingly paired with Jack Lemmon), show the star at her unforced, charming best.

Day also scored in a change-of-pace role as a tough, ambitious Ruth Etting in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me (granting Day with one of the 1950’s biggest albums, as the soundtrack logged 17 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album chart) and as the distressed wife in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which gave Day the song forever identified with her, “Que Sera, Sera”; although Day’s optimism was a perfect fit for the song’s practical message, she initially didn’t think much of the tune and was taken by surprise when it became a smash in both the U.S. and U.K. The dark, fascinating Storm Warning provided one of the star’s few excursions into grimmer film subject manner, but many fans feel (with good reason) Day reached her zenith onscreen in 1953’s more characteristically sunny Calamity Jane. Although most of the star’s Warner Brothers musicals are cheerful but underwhelming and mainly illustrate what an admirable pro Day was in any circumstance (check out what she pulls off in the otherwise woeful Lucky Me), here her home studio (but not for much longer) came though. Playing the tough, often overbearing title character, Day was gifted with an inventive storyline, terrific costar in Howard Keel and a wonderful original score, which offered several showcases for Day, from memorably riding into town at the film’s outset singing and dancing to “The Deadwood Stage,” impressively shuffling and belting her way through “Just Blew in From the Windy City” and her gentle, touching deliveries of “The Black Hills of Dakota” and the film’s signature Oscar-winning tune, “Secret Love,” which became her biggest solo hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard pop charts in early 1954 (“Que Sera” and “It’s Magic” both just missed with #2 peaks, although “Que Sera” went to #1 in England). Day’s energy and good spirits drive the movie, and her avid commitment to the role took so much out of Day she later stated a nervous breakdown after filming was completed was the result.

Unfortunately Day seldom had a Calamity come her way to demonstrate her awesome musical comedy talents. As Day gained her place as filmdom’s top comedienne and #1 box-office attraction after Pillow Talk (and eventually lost much of her stature in the process as the quality of these light excursions dwindled- her one attempt at a musical during this time, 1962's Jumbo, unfortunately did not find an audience, through no fault of Day's, as she is splendid), two roles that got away could have aided Day’s reputation immeasurably; although Day turned down Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate due to the adult subject manner (which is unfortunate considering she could have carried it off with aplomb), the fact she’s wasn’t given the lead in 1958’s South Pacific makes a Day and/or film musical fan either weep or want to go back in time and kill South director Josh Logan, especially following Day’s A-1, seemingly effortless work in the previous year’s film adaptation of The Pajama Game, which features a wonderful moment wherein Day movingly sings “Hey There” live onscreen to fully capture the character’s emotions, as opposed to doing the standard pre-recording method for a number- in general throughout Pajama, Day brings a freshness to the material that helps alleviate some of the prepared, overtly stage-bound work found elsewhere in the film. Regarding South, I’m convinced Logan must have existed in another dimension at the time, as anyone in this universe could clearly assess a perfect match of role and performer with Day as Nellie Forbush (according to his autobiography, Logan refused to consider Day after she didn’t sing at a party- yes, he was a complete fool in this case), and listening to Day’s superb 1960 recording of “A Wonderful Guy,” we’re left to rue what should have been her biggest screen triumph. As it turned out, the 1960’s comedies mostly grew ever-lamer, resulting in Doris’ bowing out of films with 1968’s With Six You Get Eggroll, which actually provided Day with a final box-office success. Immediately thereafter, Day was forced into a five-year run on television with The Doris Day Show, as her shiftless third husband died after signing Doris up for the gig without her knowledge while also going through 23 million dollars of her money. After a rough start, Day worked hard and made revisions to turn the show around, with its eventual success helping her gain back some financial solvency.  

Personally Day has heavily factored in my entertainment enjoyment, particularly as I favor films and music from her prime performing years, wherein she created a wealth of riches via movies and memorable recordings. Day's movies and her consistent effervescence in them led me to cull clips for a tribute video 10 years ago, which can be viewed here. Pillow Talk (along with other Day comedies which gained lesser but significant viewings) was a go-to movie to put in the VHS (and later, DVD) player when I was in the mood for a mindless diversion and, although I can’t think of a time Day didn’t sound pitch-perfect and terrific, her singing of “With a Song in My Heart” in 1950’s Young Man With a Horn is one of the most beautiful vocals I’ve witnessed in a movie. Off-screen Day’s vocals have resonated just as strongly, and over the years I’ve listened to her as much as any other popular singer. My first CD purchase was her “Hooray For Hollywood,” which features sublime renditions of “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” and other Day recordings (her killer take on “April in Paris” is nirvana) support the notion Day simply possessed one of the greatest instruments ever, as she seldom failed to provide definitive, note-perfect versions of a multitude of songs, including her own long string of hits and such standards such as “It Had to Be You,”  “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and “When I Fall in Love”; the 2008 Hall of Fame Grammy Day received was as well-earned as a lifetime achievement award can be. Rest in peace, beautiful songbird.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Carol Channing Finds Her Groove in Skidoo

Partaking of 1968’s Skidoo, which has maintained a reputation for being one of filmdom’s biggest travesties, while also forming a strong cult fan base (for good reason), had me pondering anew the entertainment value of bad films which have their own unique flavor and style, in comparison to movies considered superior to these unforgettable train-wreck endeavors. Skidoo inarguably struggles to find an appropriate tone, but as it flails about from scene-to-scene in an attempt to be far-out and groovy circa the Summer of Love, under the direction of the simultaneously conventional and daring Otto Preminger, it proves to be a more fascinating watch than many a better movie, with an eclectic ensemble cast that bears repeat viewings, just to see if one movie really does contain Slim Pickens on an acid trip singing “Home on the Range,” Groucho Marx as mafia leader 'God' on board his ship tossing lines at his Amazonian henchwoman/mistress, Jackie Gleason as Tony Banks, the former mob member who incurs God’s wrath, barreling through his scenes as fast as possible with the hope Art Carney or Audrey Meadows will show up and save him, especially the moment when a group of extras come close to tossing Gleason in the drink during the movie’s chaotic wrap-up at sea, and the site of Carol Channing, playing Gleason’s uninhibited wife Flo, peeling out of a dress in an attempt to arouse the unimpressed Frankie Avalon (and the dress really does peel- it’s constructed to come off just like an orange rind).

 Thank God (the other one) for Carol Channing in this film, particularly near the conclusion when, wearing a long silver wig which I swear makes her resemble a googly-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow at one point, one of theater history’s most irrepressible performers climbs onboard Marx/God’s yacht along with her merry contingency of swinging flower children and subsequently traipses around the ship, shrugging and frugging with gleeful abandon while belting the title song and, depending on a viewer’s taste, in the process she either shoots the movie into the stratosphere and provides the psychedelic trip it has been attempting in vain to obtain for ninety minutes, or represents the most unwelcome boat guest since the Creature met Julie Adams on deck before carrying her away to the lower depths many believe Skidoo also inhabits. For one enchanted viewer it was a beautiful moment, one of those sweet memories that initially turns a person into a film fanatic, good taste or the opinion of other more discerning viewers be damned.

Although Otto Preminger’s reputation of directing actors in a manner akin to a human blowtorch supposedly remained during the filming of Skidoo, the supremely self-confident Carol Channing appears impervious to any form of intimidation; with eyes bulging and a smile that couldn’t be removed with a hurricane, adorned in white go-go boots, red short-shorts, a Revolutionary jacket she must have borrowed from Paul Revere and the Raiders and that indestructible wig, she’s a hip Baby Jane Hudson, determined to perform with avid panache and a healthy dose of dementia no matter what surrounds her, while lost in a love of performing and perhaps in another dimension; not only does Channing avoid going down with the ship while costars Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx understandably and maybe even admirably appear to want to fire their agents, then kill themselves but, armed with a verve that would cause both Carmen Miranda and Betty Hutton to blush, she single-handedly keeps this cinematic Titanic afloat during its mind-blogging finale- sure, there are greater movies, and maybe nearly any movie can be counted among them, but Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t have the riveting Channing with her crazed sensibility sashaying through the desert chiming “Skidoo!! Skidoo!! Between the one and three there is a two!!” even if it should have. Although if as a small child I’d seen the shot of Channing somewhere near an orgasmic state while sitting in a vibrating chair warbling away, the result most likely would’ve been my parents not sleeping alone for many nights and deep emotional scars thereafter, her enthusiasm and professionalism in bringing joy and a measure of entertainment to Skidoo in the face of catastrophe surroundings warrants a viewer's admiration; like all works of art (good or bad), you have to see the film and Channing’s mind-bending performance of “Skidoo” because it's there.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Farwell to a Lovely, Soulful Star

Some movie lovers develop a special identification with key performers, to the extent they feel they have a friend onscreen each time said performer shows up in a movie. My attachment to Dorothy Malone was formed in the 1980’s as a classic-movie mad teen bent on gobbling up as many Oscar-winning performances as possible, though even then I knew Oscar didn’t necessarily equate a great film or performance. However, upon seeing Malone for the first time in Written on the Wind I felt the Academy was damn right in this case, and I sensed something else very special- the soulfulness in those beautiful eyes was hard to shake off, and although as nymphomaniac Marylee Hadley Malone was portraying one of the era’s quintessential tramps, only redeemed near the final-fadeout after causing a wealth of problems for anyone in her vicinity, a warmth and likability was evident as well. I was hooked to a possibly unhealthy extent (I own several posters from Malone films, but few from any other stars).
I have never been able to view Malone objectively- I just love the fact she and her distinct presence is there to gaze upon, and that she had the opportunity to eke out a career of some distinction before the good roles dried up. In mentions of her passing on January 19th, the inevitable reference to the “Oscar curse” was brought up. Although it’s true after her win for Wind Malone never partook of a major hit again until her small but vivid bit in her final film, Basic Instinct, she did interesting and sometimes arresting work in subsequent films: especially likable in Tip on a Dead Jockey, working hard to bring some dramatic intensity to Man of a Thousand Faces and in her biggest post-Oscar role as the ill-fated Diana Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon, and truly memorable and moving in her career-best work in The Tarnished Angels, which provides a distinct showcase for Malone's mixture of wounded vulnerability and world-weary bitterness.
Discovered in college in 1943, the eighteen-year-old Malone was signed up first by RKO before moving over to Warner Brothers, where she paid her dues for a few years in bit parts, before finally gaining attention with her justifiably famous few minutes with Bogart in 1946’s The Big Sleep, slyly portraying the foxiest book shop clerk in film history with great humor and skill. Although she displayed a unique type of intellectual sexiness in Sleep, after her success Malone languished as a reliable ingénue in a series of programmers and Westerns for the next decade, before finally breaking through in late 1954-early 1955 via her memorable May-December tryst with Tab Hunter in Battle Cry and in Young at Heart, both of which gave her some opportunities to demonstrate the emotional depth and erotic restlessness which would become central to her work with Douglas Sirk in Wind and Angels. Heart also featured Malone as a blonde, and the new locks did her plenty of favors- always a beauty, a blonde Malone became distractingly breathtaking onscreen. The major success of Battle Cry helped place Malone third on 1955’s “Stars of Tomorrow” poll, the same year Malone was serenaded by Dean Martin to the memorable strains of "Innamorata" in Artists and Models, one of the best Martin & Lewis efforts thanks to director Frank Tashlin. The upswing continued when Douglas Sirk pegged Malone for her juicy role in Wind, with the unforgettable moment of Malone rumbaing-away upstairs to "Temptation" while her daddy expires up, then downstairs.
After surviving 1960's The Last Voyage, Malone's career reached a nadir with the fun but underwhelming Beach Party before salvation came in 1964 on television's first prime time soap opera, Peyton Place, which set Malone up well for the remainder of the 1960's, bringing her a wider audience than before and providing some financial stability. Although Place focused largely on its cast of young up-and-comers, significantly Ryan O'Neal, Mia Farrow and Barbara Parkins, as Constance MacKenzie, a woman who harbors a secret past (of course), top-billed Malone was allowed the chance to demonstrate some perceptive, intelligent playing. Moving back to Texas to raise her two daughters by actor Jacques Bergerac (the couple were married from 1959-1964), Malone made occasional film and television appearances, turning up in one of television's first big miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man and touchingly as a sweet, dotty, dog-loving mother in John Huston's 1979 cult classic Winter Kills before making a final brief impression in Instinct as Hazel Dobkins, a widow who widowed herself several decades beforehand.
During the recent Academy Award broadcast, the Academy neglected to include Malone in the "In Memorandum" segment, a move that, to at least one loyal Malone fan, proved to be much more inept than the "Moonlight in La La Land" envelope fiasco of 2017. Fortunately the fact Malone has a history as an Oscar winner will guarantee curious classic movie fans will continue to seek out her impressive work as this blogger once did, ensuring her legacy as a fine screen performer will endure.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Looking Back at Kubrick's 2001

I finally made it past the apes, and got Stanley Kubrick’s most perplexing monkey off my back by sitting through an entire screening of his keystone sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, with only occasional nod-offs to hinder my progress. I figured the “Dawn of Man” opening of this odd Odyssey was meant to signify Man’s Inhumanity to Man or something, with that imposing black rectangle and eerie voices representing the Almighty, or maybe the Spirit of Mankind. Then again, perhaps this whole prologue could be a pretentious load of crap. I worship frequently at the alter of Kubrick, but I’ll take some of his supposedly “lesser” films (The Killing and Lolita come to mind) over his artsy, and sometimes long-winded and fartsy, years-in-the-making masterpieces.

I wavered in and out of consciousness, hoping Shelley Winters or Timothy Carey would wander in from a prior Kubrick undertaking and liven up the movie‘s slow, meandering tone, as I simultaneously mulled over the fact all the awesome classical music and vivid outer space and outta-site imagery accompanying it don’t completely hide the fact there's nothing of much consequence happening in this Dead Zone for long stretches of the movie‘s 148-minute running time. I know the special effects are impressive and light years ahead of other 1960’s films; however, more than once visions of my old Lite-Brite set were recalled, as familiar psychedelic neon colors filled the screen. The Jackie-O Pillbox hats on those deliberately lumbering spaceship flight attendants (or whatever they are) also scream “1962: A Space Odyssey,” but there’s enough fantastic sights and events on display to understand why audiences have been duly impressed by this mega-hit for decades, even if I still find myself referencing another 1960’s touchstone film as I ponder, “What’s it all about, Stanley?”

To be fair, some of the future is foreseen- that landing pad looks Disco 70’s enough to envision a white-tuxed John Travolta strutting around it as he points up to the landing ships, and one of the spaceships resembled a super-sized R2D2 after a few too many Big Macs (from the Spaceship designs alone, it‘s clear George Lucas must have caught this movie a few times before creating Star Wars, with a little Star Trek glory thrown in for good measure).

The stoically sexy Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood show up after an hour, bringing Hal and the most intriguing storyline with them, and I finally became the involved viewer Kubrick intended me to be up until the point I actually was into the movie. As astronaut Dave Bowman, Dullea anchors his scenes, and his intelligent playing easily takes the acting honors, even though one suspects Captain Kirk could kick that sneaky computer‘s ass deep into the Final Frontier a lot sooner than the calm, reasonable Dave.

With the main, and maybe only, storyline coming to a resolution, you get the idea Kubrick might wrap things up neatly, but he’s still got plenty of artistry to go, leading to a head-trippy and kind-of endless closing act. Upon leaving the theater, I heard a group discussing the meaning of the film’s final images. One young man stated “He (Keir Dullea’s character) was reborn, and went back to change the course of humanity.” Sounds good to me, as his explanation was a lot better than anything I could come up with- it could just be jealousy towards his insightfulness on my inane part, but I pondered if this sage guy’s grandfather wrote for Kubrick, and passed the film's "true meaning" onto subsequent generations.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ann-Margret is Super Video

My tribute to Hollywood's enduring (congrats on that recent Emmy), mega-talented hyphenate is up over here at YouTube. I was able to keep the music, so the visual imagery plays out as intended.

Bye, Bye Birdie was the only videocassette I owned that eventually wore out, primarily from my watching the opening and closing of the movie non-stop, which features the overwhelming Ann-Margret commanding that blue-backgrounded screen using an awesome combination of talent, beauty, vigor and eroticism rarely seen on-screen. No sweet, unassuming starlet, Ann-Margret was an attention-getting original, rumbling her way through musicals, dramas and comedies with a mischievous leer and an unsurpassed vitality. In 1966 Pauline Kael, in a review of Stagecoach, wrote "Ann-Margret comes through dirty no matter what she plays. . . (she) gleams with built-in innuendo. She's like Natalie Wood with sex, a lewd mechanical doll." So what? John Forsythe may perform with more professional restraint, but who the hell's watching him when Ann-Margret's flouncing around and teasing him with assertive, charismatic abandon in the trash classic Kitten With a Whip? And who wants to see a demure Ann-Margret opposite Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid? Her vampy Melba, getting hot and bothered at a cock fight or just about anyplace else, is a lot more fun and entertaining. And Ann-Margret definitely was an entertainer from the get-go. A couple of years ago, I was able to finally gain access to her star-making appearance on the 1962 Academy Awards (big thanks to May at the Academy Archives for making this happen) and all the elements of a first-class performer are already there as Ann-Margret alluringly charges her way through "Bachelor in Paradise" with an alarming degree of confidence and skill, rousing even the stodgiest Academy member to applaud the gifted newcomer's eye-catching efforts.

Concurrent to the Oscars, she made a similar impact on-screen performing a truly sizzling "Isn't it Kind of Fun" in the otherwise polite, old-fashioned State Fair update. Major stardom came with 1963's Birdie and was solidified the following year via her iconic teaming with Elvis; Viva Las Vegas should be another standard travelogue-type vehicle for the King, but sparks keep flying between the enamored costars, and the heat is on. After a couple good years, the Sex-Kitten formula began to grow tiresome, and TV and Vegas appearances, along with trips to the boys in 'Nam, sustained Ann-Margret until Mike Nichols offered her a chance for big-screen redemption and her first serious recognition as an actress of merit via her fragile, emotionally beat-up yet eerily sensual Bobbie in Carnal Knowledge.

Ann-Margret has nicely counterbalanced dignified roles (Who Will Love My Children? was a high point) with her formerly-established saucy, high-wattage persona during the last several decades, and sometimes combines the two elements- her alternately flamboyant and defeated Nora Walker in Tommy successfully showcases both her dramatic and musical talents. However, for me the image of Ann-Margret twisting and undulating through the final moments of Birdie with a passion for performing that rivals Streisand's still offers the best example of her unique, valuable gifts as a performer. Not to lessen her achievements, but I could see other performers pulling off some of her later career roles with a comparable impact. However, in the early stages of her career, Ann-Margret's feats on-screen, especially in musicals, are more singular. Sure, she's great in Knowledge, but the many glowing reviews from clearly surprised critics suggested she'd previously shown little if any ability as a performer. Does Ann-Margret's incredibly vivid work in the early-mid 1960's really pale in comparison to her fine, mature performances in straight dramatic roles? Or does this lack of respect stem from the traditional bias that dramatic work outclasses musical and comedy performances? When it comes to pinpointing an example that best illustrates Ann-Margret's impressive talent, I'm posting my tent in the Birdie camp, with its image of a bold Ann-Margret miming a kiss smack into the camera maintaining a place high on my list of perfect movie moments.

I've been out and about during the last few months taking in several special events in the LA area, and filming what I could for posterity using a Flip camera. Here are links to these interviews:

All good wishes go to Kim Novak as she faces a serious heath issue. Last July, Ms. Novak made a compelling, rare public appearance at the Egyptian Theater in conjunction with the release of Sony's "Kim Novak Collection" DVD set. Check out the interview here.

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner also appeared at the Egyptian in July. I was able to get one of the last available seats in the balcony's front row. The image is pretty much washed out due to strong lighting and distance issues, but the audio is good. Click here for the link.

I've also been to Santa Monica a lot, to catch special events at the wonderful Aero Theater. First up was a Don Murray appearance last July, between showings of The Hoodlum Priest and Bus Stop, featuring a brief appearance in the audience by Murray's onetime costar, Eva Marie Saint.

In September, after a sold-out showing of North By Northwest, Ms. Saint made it to the stage at the Aero for a great interview of her own.

The talented, incredibly likable Paula Prentiss also made it to the Aero in August for an interview. Unfortunately, my Flip camera went dead midway through the Q&A, but I did capture about fifteen minutes of an entertaining interview.

Prentiss' husband Richard Benjamin was on deck a couple nights later at the Aero to discuss his noteworthy career.

Finally, the personable Barbara Rush vividly discussed her life on and off the screen during an appearance at the Aero.