Ninotchka

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

melvyn-doulgas-greta-garbo-ninotchkaThere’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

My Man Godfrey

This film is a time capsule of sorts, a journey back to the first Depression.  Set in New York, “My Man Godfrey” points up the disparity between the very rich and the very poor.  The very rich are very nutty, and criminally irresponsible, but nobody holds it against them.  They think nothing of winding up a madcap evening at the Waldorf Ritz by breaking shop windows on Fifth Avenue, or stealing a cabbie’s horse and riding it into the living room.  Someone else will take care of the mess, pay the fines, and sweep the damages under the rug.

More to the point is the utter cluelessness of the rich, their willful ignorance of the true extent of the poverty that surrounds them.  They may descend into a hobo encampment on a lark, to pick up an “item” for a scavenger hunt, but otherwise they can’t seem to wrap their little minds around the fact that a good number of Americans at this time are really struggling.

Enter Godfrey, a Boston brahmin disguised as a bum who becomes the butler to a rich family.  He’s renounced his former life and you might say that the scales have fallen from his eyes.  Confronting a former Harvard roommate, he tells it like it is:

“Tommy, there’s a very peculiar mental process called thinking. You wouldn’t know much about that. But when I was living here, I did a lot of it. One thing I discovered was that the only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

Oh, did I mention that this film is a comedy?  A very sharp comedy, with marvelous dialogue (the way they made them in 1936) and superbly acted all-around.  Here’s William Powell looking delightfully scruffy, and a ditsy Carole Lombard you can’t help but love.

 

The Philadelphia Story

Kate is in fine form in this picture.  Of course, she got everything she wanted:  George Cukor for her director, Cary Grant for her leading man, cary-grant-and-katharine-hepburn-the-philadelphia-storyJames Stewart as the reporter she gets drunk with, and fine supporting performances from Ruth Hussey and Mary Nash.  You can tell they’re all having the time of their lives.

Kate’s character has painted herself into a corner. She’s got such high standards, no mortal man can measure up.  She’s about to marry a stuffed shirt who worships the ground she walks on—the polar opposite of her first husband (Grant).  Rosalind Russell nearly made the same mistake in “The Front Page.”  How any woman could divorce Grant is beyond me, but Kate’s character is awfully confused when the picture opens.  She thinks she wants to be worshipped.

Fortunately for Kate, she’s got Stewart to remind her how to be human.

But life isn’t only champagne and kisses.  The uptight fiancé cares only for appearances, and things look pretty bad.  He’s ready to defend his bride’s honor, but Grant beats him to it.  Maybe he’s a wee bit jealous, too.

Of course he wins Kate back.  About time she came to her senses!

M*A*S*H

Subversive comedy is my favorite and M*A*S*H is THE subversive anti-war comedy of all time. They cleaned it up for the TV show—more one-liners, less bite, and a lot less blood in the operating room—although the anti-war message still comes through loud and clear.Mash Last Supper

The movie opens with the words, “And then there was Korea…” scrolling down the screen, followed by the closing lines of General MacArthur’s 1951 Farewell Address to Congress. “I have just left your fighting sons in Korea,” the old soldier said. “They have met all tests there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.”  Triumphant parade music plays behind the General’s words, undermining their seriousness.

And who are those splendid fighting sons in Korea?  We see two of them (Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest) steal a jeep, a trio of hapless MPs in hot pursuit, Keystone Kop style.Mash Duke and Hawkeye  Arriving at the mess tent, swigging whiskey from a flask, Duke and Hawkeye put the move on some nurses and sass their commanding officer. Sure, they’re surgeons, very good surgeons, but watching them at work, you’d think they were car mechanics, the sort likely to lose tools under the hood. Bantering over the bodies they’ve opened up, flirting with the nurses while casually amputating a limb.

War isn’t hell to these guys, but it can be darn inconvenient. Try making a proper martini three miles from the front without olives! Best to bring your own, as the new guy, Trapper John McIntyre, does. In their off-duty hours, our splendid fighting sons manage to “cure” a homosexual and drive their uncool bunk-mate around the bend, sexually humiliate the officious nurse, “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and make fun of Japanese people, just for good measure. Okay, the film was released in 1970 and does show signs of age.MASH

Back to the bite. The screenplay was written by Ring Lardner, Jr.  In 1942, he’d won an Oscar for Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first picture together; for a time, he was a hot property. But Lardner’s Communist Party affiliation got him blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Subpoenaed before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he and nine other Hollywood figures refused to name names and went to prison. M*A*S*H was Lardner’s first credited screenplay in twenty years and won him another Oscar. No wonder the film’s got an edge.

Bananas

Was Woody Allen always self-indulgent?  I’m afraid so.  But in “Bananas,” his desire to make people laugh is at war with his desire to be the center of attention, and when the stand-up comic wins, the movie takes off in delightful directions.

The opening of “Bananas” is one such moment.  There you have two sportscasters, Don Dunphy and Howard Cossell, narrating a coup d’état in some Latin American country.

Dunphy:  We’ve seen a series of colorful riots that started with the traditional bombing of the American embassy – a ritual as old as the city itself.

Cossell:  It’s he… it’s El Presidente waving at the crowd. A shot rings out! He turns… he runs back toward the building, trying to get in. This crowd is going wild. He’s caught in a crossfire of bullets. And down! It’s over! It’s all over for El Presidente!

Allen’s melding of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick with Marx Brothers’ repartee — both leavened with Borscht Belt humor — doesn’t really come together.  It’s more a series of episodes than a movie, but every so often there’s a flash of brilliance.  The black woman playing J. Edgar Hoover in the courtroom scene (“l have many enemies and l rarely go out unless l’m in disguise…”).  The crowd of Hasidic Jews mistakenly brought in to fight the revolutionaries, marching down one of the city’s streets brandishing collection boxes.  The scene where Allen orders sandwiches for the entire rebel army in some out-of-the-way Latin American café (“Tuna fish.  436 on white, 357 on whole wheat…”).

Unfortunately, most of the episodes go on too long.  You keep waiting for the next flash of brilliance, but you’ve got to sit through a fair amount of self-indulgent drek before it comes along.  Same goes for Allen’s career, if you want my opinion.

(21 January 2011)

It Happened One Night

it-happenedonenightI read somewhere that Clark Gable’s talent was in playing himself. Fans lined up to see him, whatever the role, and they were never disappointed. Could he act? Ask me if I care. The version of himself he played in “It Happened One Night” was genuine, charming, and way too handsome for that control freak, Claudette Colbert.

“Cheerfully insolent” is the way a friend of mine describes Gable’s performance. Here’s a guy who thumbs his nose at authority — and at the drivers who pass him by when he’s demonstrating his best hitchhiking technique — yet lives by a clear set of principles. He’s got his pride, of course, but that’s not all. He’s got his own patented procedures for getting undressed, dunking a doughnut and (as I mentioned) hitching a ride.

The boyishness. That’s what I love about Gable in this picture. Don’t get me wrong; Rhett Butler has his appeal, but I couldn’t hold a man like him any better than poor Scarlett could. Frankly, my dear, the real-life Gable was a two-timing cad.

Not the guy he plays in “It Happened One Night,” though. Him I could imagine traveling with across the country or around the world. We’d probably end up going standby, and no doubt there’d be any number of mishaps along the way, but that would be part of the adventure. One thing for sure:  we’d never be bored.

Dr. Strangelove

I miss Peter Sellers.  As the sinister Nazi scientist with the out-of-control mechanical arm, he dominates this picture.  So it’s a surprise to realize that the character of Dr. Strangelove is only onscreen for a few scenes.  He is called upon once in the first half of the picture to explain the feasibility of the Doomsday Machine, but the famous gags where his arm gives a Nazi salute and later tries to strangle him don’t occur till the very end.

Sellers also played the upper-crust British officer who is second-in-command to the psychotic Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper,  who launches the nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.  And he played the solid midwestern American President Merkin Muffley.  The scene where Muffley apologizes to the drunken Soviet Premier Dmitri Kisov over the telephone is one of my favorite monologues:

“Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri… Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you *imagine* how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… *Of course* I like to speak to you!… *Of course* I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri.”

Apparently Sellers improvised much of his dialogue.  But the script of “Dr. Strangelove” is brilliant all-around.  George C. Scott’s trigger-happy General “Buck” Turgidson, assuring the President that a first-strike wouldn’t kill more than “ten to twenty million tops, depending on the breaks.”  He chews Juicy Fruit gum in times of stress, and the debate in the war room is plenty stressful.  Then there’s General Ripper’s certainty that he and he alone stands between the Communists and their plot to contaminate the water supply of the free world through fluoridation, “… to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

But the film belongs to Sellers’ Strangelove.  A mad gleam comes into his eye as he embellishes his plan to preserve the human species in deep mineshafts.  “Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do.”  By the time he’s worked himself up to imagining the type of women who would be required to stimulate the men to perform their prodigious service for the future of the human race, it’s clear that he’s completely bonkers.

And yet, every time I heard Slim Pickens mispronounce “nuclear” in that Texas twang of his, I had to remind myself that this film was a satire — a satire for pete’s sake! — from 1964.

(31 January 2011)


His Girl Friday

I love Rosalind Russell in this film.  (I love Cary Grant too, but then, I love him in just about everything.)  his-girl-friday-poster-art-cary-everettRussell shines whether she’s bantering with the boys in the newsroom or parrying Grant’s insults.  She knows how to take care of herself, that’s for sure.  Here’s how she talks to Grant’s editor character, who happens to be her ex-husband:

“Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up.”

Grant’s trying to prevent Russell’s character from marrying another man, and leaving the newspaper business for good.  He took it hard, the divorce.  Or so he claims.  But Russell shows not an ounce of sympathy:

“A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: ‘Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.’ Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.”

I can’t help myself, quoting dialogue left and right.  It’s just so good.  Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the original play, “The Front Page,” based on their experiences as Chicago reporters, and the story has an authentic feel.  What stands out (apart from the jokes about picaninnies — a reminder that the play dates to 1928) is Russell’s character’s nose for a story.  The boys in the newsroom know it:

Newsman: Well, I still say that anybody that can write like that ain’t gonna give it up permanently and sew socks for a guy in the insurance business. Now I give that marriage three months and I’m layin’ three to one. Any takers?

Hildy: [entering the room] I’ll take that bet. Geez. It’s getting so a girl can’t leave the room without being discussed by a bunch of old ladies…

Newsman: Oh, don’t get sore, Hildy. We were only saying a swell reporter like you wouldn’t quit so easy…

When Hildy’s got a scoop, nothing on earth can compete.  She’ll see her fiancé rot in prison, her future mother-in-law kidnapped by a thug.  She’ll wrestle a gun away from a lunatic killer, lie to the cops.  And marry Grant all over again.  But who can blame her?

(2 March 2011)

The Producers

You can certainly enjoy the 2005 remake of “The Producers” without having seen the 1968 original, but why should you deny yourself the pleasure?  That would be like eating one dessert when you can have two.  Never mind the calories, indulge in both!

Mel Brooks wrote a brilliant comedy that was way over the top.  None of the major studios would touch it, and you can see why.  Imagine auditioning Hitlers for a Broadway musical, singing Hitlers, dancing Hitlers, each with his own take on the trademark führer mustache.  What kind of person would write such a play?  Well, we know the answer to that one:  a not-too-smart Nazi with anger management issues.  Franz Liebkind trained carrier pigeons during the war.  He named his favorite Adolph.  Of course.  Franz’s admiration for his hero is bottomless, and unfathomable.  “Hitler… there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in ONE afternoon! TWO coats!”

Now add to that a director who is a flaming homosexual, with a knack for chorus numbers.  The curtain opens on a rousing song-and-dance routine involving Ziegfield Girl frauleins in tacky costumes, tap-dancing stormtroopers, including Brooks himself in a cameo (“Don’t be stupid.  Be a smartie.  Come and join the Nazi Party!”), goose-stepping chorus girls who dance in swastika formation, filmed from above Busby-Berkeley style.  And to top it off, you’ve got Zero Mostel in the role of Max Bialystock, the has-been producer who watches his sure flop turn into a hit, crying on the shoulder of Gene Wilder’s nebbishy accountant.  What’s not to love, right?

Brooks revisited his masterpiece in 2001, adapting it for the stage and making it even more outrageous.  The 2005 movie, based on the musical, is different enough to be enjoyed on its own terms, but it pays tribute to the original.  The Busby-Berkeley swastika number is still there, and in this version, Franz has taught Adolph to give the Nazi salute.

When you take something that’s offensive as far as it can go, it loses its power to wound. Here’s to Mel Brooks for showing us how to disarm hate with laughter.

(8 April 2011)