Return of the Pink Panther

If you’re only going to watch one Pink Panther movie, this is the one I’d recommend. You get more of Peter Sellers than in the original installment, Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s tics and twitches are at just the right calibration, and Cato has really hit his stride.

There’s the usual slapstick, with perhaps a tad too many pairs of pants getting ripped, but the bit with the lightbulb popping up in the Swiss hotel room, and the scene where Clouseau and the bellboy are hiding in the sauna are nicely done. You also get Clouseau saying “minkey,” “phoehn,” and “rheume.”

But the best part’s the costumes. Peter Sellers’s Englishman’s parody of a Frenchman was never better than the telephone repairman, complete with goatee and espadrilles in his ticky tacky truck. The bumbling cleaner who vacuums up a parrot: we see it coming quite a ways off. It’s still hilarious.Lounge Lizard 2 And nothing tops the swinger putting the make on the suspect’s wife in the hotel bar.

Christopher Plummer doesn’t have much to do as the presumed jewel thief. He’s not as suave as David Niven, who played Sir Charles Lytton the first time around. There are a few nice touches in the scenes he’s in, like having  the theme from Casablanca playing on the piano when he arrives in the fancy hotel in Lugash (the scene was filmed in Morocco) and giving him characters reminiscent of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to play against when he is there.

Oh, and you get the pink panther animation over the titles, along with the Henry Mancini score. What’s not to like?

Holiday

For a Cary Grant fan like myself, the prospect of watching him and Katharine Hepburn together was not to be missed this Memorial Day weekend.  “Holiday” was made in 1938, the same year as the pair’s much better known romantic comedy, “Bringing Up Baby.” This one’s a romantic comedy too, but it’s got an edge. A sad undercurrent that lends the film depth.

Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the older sister of the woman Grant’s character (Johnny) loves. The Setons are a wealthy family with the usual skeletons in the closet. In this case, it’s a younger brother with a drinking problem. Ned Seton has given up his love of music to go into business and his quiet self-destructiveness broke my heart.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Linda has just realized that she’s in love with Johnny.katharine-hepburn-cary-grant-holiday-black-gown-2 She’s too high-principled to steal him away from her sister — nobody does high-principled better than Hepburn — even though we can see that she’s just his type.

So Linda asks Ned to pour her a glass of champagne.

“What’s it like, to get drunk Ned?”

He considers this seriously. “How drunk?”

“Good and drunk.”

“Grand!”

“How is it?” Linda persists.

“Well…” He pauses to refill his glass. “To begin with it brings you to life.”

“Does it?” she asks, brightening to the idea.

“And after awhile you begin to know all about it. You feel… important.”

“That must be good!”

“Yes.” He beckons her closer. “And then pretty soon the game starts.”

“What game?”

“A swell game. A terribly exciting game. You see, you think clear as crystal but every move, every sentence is a problem. It gets pretty interesting.”

Linda’s face falls as understanding dawns. “You get beaten then, don’t you?”

“Sure, but that’s good too. Then you don’t mind anything. Not anything at all. Then you sleep.”

“How long can you keep it up?”

“A long while. As long as you can last.”

“Oh, Ned. That’s awful.”

“Think so? Other things are worse”.

“Where do you end up?

“Where does everybody end up?” He says this matter-of-factly. “You die.  That’s alright too.”

Shades of the bitter disillusionment of “Dinner at Eight,” which George Cukor also directed from a stage play. The romance is lovely, right up there with “The Philadelphia Story” (another Cukor gem). But the dialogue lends this film a darker tone.

Many thanks to E. H. for recommending it to me.

The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper 090318-witness who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. Here he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.

 

Next we have him as Lady Agatha and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne:

 

Followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

 

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.

Bedazzled

Most of the guys I knew in college thought this was the funniest movie ever. It was definitely a guy thing, clever in a sophomoric, British boys school sort of way. Not unlike Monty Python, in fact. The bit with the nuns on the trampolines in particular.

I’ve got to admit, I found it funny as well. Not laugh-out-loud funny (except for the bit with the nuns on the trampolines), but it was satisfying, seeing Dudley Moore play the kind of poor schmuck he excelled at, watching him being outsmarted time and time again by Peter Cook’s devil.

He wasn’t a bad guy, Peter Cook’s devil. George Spiggott (the sophomoric humor…) was more of a practical joker than a truly evil being. You couldn’t help enjoying yourself in his company, even though you knew you shouldn’t.

Things go wrong when he’s around, but they go wrong for other people. A paper bag full of cans and bottles breaks, spilling some poor lady’s groceries on the sidewalk. A pigeon poops on some guy’s head. Wasps invade some flower childrens’ picnic.

So what? For once it’s not your life that’s going wrong. It’s Dudley Moore’s, or the grocery bag lady’s or the flower childrens’ and we’re not talking about major catastrophes here, folks. These are minor annoyances. It’s okay to laugh. Nobody gets hurt.

And Peter Cook cracks me up as the devil.

Palm Beach Story

You have to pay attention to this one. The opening, for example: why is Claudette Colbert tied up in the closet and simultaneously dashing off to be married? Why is the groom (Joel McCrea) frantically changing clothes in the taxi? All this is going on as the credits roll, and you’re inclined to forget the confusion once the film begins. That would be a mistake.

Don’t let the eccentric little man played by Robert Dudley slide under the radar, either. Here he plays the Wienie King, a millionaire with a heart of gold, and he gets off some great lines:

Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!

Before he ended up a character actor in Hollywood, Dudley was a dentist from Cincinnati. Quirky little guy in a big hat. Adorable!

It’s not just him, though. Everyone’s a gem in this picture, even walk-ons. Colbert’s character wants to get a divorce. She hails a cab and asks the cabbie’s advice on where she can get both the divorce AND a rich husband. Palm Beach is just the place, he tells her. “This time of the year, you got the track, you got the ocean, you got palm trees. Three months – and you leave from Penn Station.”

Once at Penn Station, Colbert hooks up with a wild group of aging hunters, the Ale and Quail Club. I can’t begin to describe them, but here’s the trailer.

Next up is the loopy multi-millionaire, John D. Hackensacker, III. Believe it or not, he’s played by Rudy Vallee (and no, he doesn’t sing). I think he was the model for the yacht-owning guy that Tony Curtis parodied in “Some Like it Hot.” Sturges uses him to make fun of the Rockefeller set:

John D. Hackensacker III: Do you happen to remember how much tip I gave the taxi driver?

Gerry Jeffers: Well, I didn’t see the coin, but from his face, I think it was ten cents.

John D. Hackensacker III: Tipping is un-American.

Some aspects of “Palm Beach Story” are dated, and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss a lot of the fun. Not my favorite Sturges film (that would be “The Great McGinty”), but well worth watching.

The Lady Eve

Half-brilliant (the first half). Half-baked (the second half). You put up with the second half because the first half is so wonderful, and the ending is your reward.

Why do Barbara Stanwyck’s character and Henry Fonda’s character fall in love? Well, there’s the sexual chemistry. Even in black and white, and in spite of the Hays code, the frisson between these two fine actors is impossible to miss.

Jean has Hopsy exactly where she wants him. Then she realizes she really does want him. For all his innocence, there’s something, well, manly about the dear boy. But it takes him an awfully long time to realize that he wants her, too. Not his fantasy of her, but the clever, flawed, and vulnerable woman she is. He loves her complexity.

I think the second half of the movie is disappointing because Stanwyck’s character is not herself. She’s playing a shallow aristocrat and you forget how conflicted she is. Slapstick takes over at this point; Fonda’s character falls for Stanwyck, but literally this time. Over and over. It’s tiresome.

Only in the final minutes does Stanwyck regain her edge.

Her victory is fleeting because, darn it, she still loves the guy and can’t bring herself to take advantage of him. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Good old Hopsy comes around, realizes what he’s got, and lets Stanwyck win him back.

The Gold Rush

First of all you’ve got to realize that by the time “The Gold Rush” appeared, in 1925, Charlie Chaplin had a world-wide following.  People lined up on opening night, eager to see his latest antics.  So imagine the delight of the audience when the Little Tramp appeared, in his usual get-up, and walking his funny walk, in snowy Alaska.

“The Gold Rush” has my two favorite scenes ever.  There’s the one where the Little Tramp eats his shoe — he gives the fearsome Big Jim the choicest portion, but still manages to savor the sole and laces, down to the last nail.

 

Then you get the famous Table Ballet, which is just about everyone’s favorite.  A few years ago, I was riding on a train in Europe and the couple in the seats across the aisle staged their own version of the dance for the benefit of their toddler.  The little boy’s laughter filled the train compartment.

 

Layered beneath the laughs and the slapstick of “The Gold Rush” is a poignant story.  The Little Tramp gets his heart broken by a dance hall girl.  The image of him sitting all alone in his cabin on New Year’s Eve, listening to the closing notes of “Auld Lang Syne” as they waft up from the dance hall in the town, will break your heart as well.

Chaplin said that this was the film he wanted to be remembered by; he was so fond of it, he reworked the picture in 1942, editing out a few scenes, adding narration and a new score.  I think the original version is better.  Never fails to make me smile.

Ninotchka

French champagne.  One sip and you’ll become a convert to capitalism.  Trust me, it works.

There’s Greta Garbo’s humorless Soviet envoy, a model revolutionary if ever there was one.  She believes in the righteousness of the cause and has nothing but contempt for the west.  “The last mass trials were a great success,” she assures her three comrades. “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

Ah, but she is in Paris. Who can resist the charms of the city of light?  Here she is, meeting the dissolute Count Leon d’Algout—the man to whom she’ll owe that first taste of champagne:

He’s already corrupted her comrades, and it isn’t long before Garbo succumbs to capitalist culture.  First she buys a silly hat, next a gown, and when she goes back to Moscow, she can’t resist bringing along a bit of silky French lingerie.

The stunning dialogue was written by the Hungarian author and screenwriter Melchior Lengyel, with help from the Austro-Hungarian-born filmmaker Billy Wilder.  Melchior also wrote “To Be or Not to Be,” and both films were directed by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch.  You can see the European sensibility at work; both films have the same bite, and yet there’s nothing heavy-handed in “Ninotchka.”  As the count knows, the best way of subverting the enemy is to make ’em laugh.

Bringing Up Baby

This one’s for Olyvia Eve Garrison, born January 2, 2012

Cary Grant is having the worst day of his life. He’s a paleontologist who’s just assembled a huge brontosaurus skeleton, and he’s about to put in very last bone. All he’s got to do is convince a wealthy widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Random, to give a million dollars to his museum and he’ll be all set.

Enter Katharine Hepburn’s madcap heiress character, Susan, and her pet leopard, Baby. She’s instantly smitten by Grant and used to getting her own way.  Before you know it, she’s got Grant where she wants him…

Unfortunately, the dowager at the front door is Grant’s benefactor, who also happens to be Susan’s aunt.  Things go downhill from there. Mrs. Random’s dog buries the bone, Baby is set free, another leopard appears on the scene, and this one’s not tame. It’s a killer.  Meanwhile, the entire cast ends up in jail. Still with me? Never mind. Susan’s got everything under control.

 

Welcome to the world, Olyvia.  May you find joy always, and laughter even in adversity.

© Lisa Lieberman 2012