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)

Some Like it Hot

My favorite sequence in “Some Like it Hot” is the one where Jack Lemmon (as Daphne) is dancing the tango with his millionaire suitor, Osgood Fielding III, a white rose clenched in his teeth.  You see the couple turn and now Fielding’s got the rose clenched in his teeth. Next thing you know, the rose is tucked behind Fielding’s ear and Daphne’s got him down in a dip.  Olé!

Whether Daphne’s mixing bootleg Manhattans in a hot water bottle for the other girls in the band from her berth on the train to Florida, or fending off Fielding’s advances in the elevator, you can’t take your eyes off Lemmon’s character.  Marilyn Monroe is delightful to watch, and Tony Curtis does a pretty good imitation of Cary Grant when he’s courting her, but Lemmon carries this picture.  He’s having way too much fun in a dress, and when he tells Tony Curtis’s character that he and Fielding are engaged, his comic timing is perfect.

Of course, Fielding gets in the last word.  Our two “girls” are in Fielding’s motorboat, escaping from the mob.  Fielding thinks that he and Daphne are eloping, and Lemmon’s got to tell him the truth:

Daphne: Osgood, I’m gonna level with you.  We can’t get married at all.

Fielding: Why not?

Daphne: Well, in the first place, I’m not a natural blonde.

Fielding: Doesn’t matter.

Daphne: I smoke!  I smoke all the time!

Fielding: I don’t care.

Daphne: Well, I have a terrible past.  For three years now, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.

Fielding: I forgive you.

Daphne: I can never have children!

Fielding: We can adopt some.

Daphne: But you don’t understand, Osgood! (he pulls off his wig)  I’m a man.

Fielding: Well, nobody’s perfect.

(11 April 2011)

Woman of the Year

“Woman of the Year” is one of those classics you’re always hearing about.  Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy began their twenty-seven-year love affair on the set, and the sexual attraction between the two stars is what gives this picture its buzz.  Here are Tess and Sam at a baseball game.  Can’t you tell they’re already in love?

In other ways, though, the film is like Mr. Potato Head:  so many parts that don’t entirely cohere.  Start with the ending, where Tess makes a fool of herself in the kitchen, trying to be a good housewife.  Apparently the studio tacked it on to amuse the women in the audience—and back in 1942 it did satisfy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who considered it Hepburn’s best scene.  What’s she doing, writing newspaper articles about the war, following events in Europe, hosting refugees in her apartment?  For goodness sake, writes Crowther, “Tracy’s character, a plain, old-fashioned fellow, can’t be sure whether he is married to her or General De Gaulle.”

Still, I like Crowther’s description of the film:  “As warming as a Manhattan cocktail and as juicy as a porterhouse steak.”  Juicy for sure:  Hepburn’s character is actually kittenish.  But for all Tracy’s character’s plain, old-fashioned charm, Sam manages to get in a few zingers at his wife’s expense.  “The outstanding woman of the year isn’t a woman at all,” he announces as Tess leaves to accept the award.  Ouch!  I thought this was supposed to be a romantic comedy.

And Sam’s good old American lack of worldliness does make one wince at moments, like when he calls an turbaned Indian diplomat a “towel head” at one of Tess’s international gatherings, all in good fun, of course.

But admitting the film’s limitations, it is endearing.  Not only do the two lead actors deliver outstanding performances, but the supporting characters are delightful as well, from Sam’s newspaper cronies and drinking buddies to Hepburn’s father and aunt, not to mention those stray refugees who keep showing up in her apartment at inopportune moments.  Enjoy the Manhattan and the steak in the spirit of New York, circa 1942.

(22 April 2011)

The Graduate

I didn’t see this movie when it came out.  (I was eleven; the content would have been considered too mature.)  So maybe the first time I saw it was in college, when it seemed dated.  Why was Benjamin so passive?  The obsession with marriage:  what was that about?  Even the Simon and Garfunkel songs felt old.  All that wistful harmonizing about herbs, and those koo koo ka choo’s. Embarrassing.

Sometime in the 1980s I saw “The Graduate” again.  By then, it had become a classic and I approached it in that spirit.  I couldn’t wait to hear the famous line, spoken by one of the Dustin Hoffman character’s parents’ friends, “I just want to say one word to you.  Just one word.  Plastics.”  I recognized the famous shot where Hoffman is framed by Anne Bancroft’s leg.  And the scene where you see Hoffman high up in the church window, hands outstretched like he’s being crucified.  So symbolic, you know?

This time around, I watched it as a period piece.  How sad that time seems to me now.  There’s Anne Bancroft, all of thirty-five when she made the picture, a beautiful woman playing a washed-up housewife.  She’s got no life, admits she’s an alcoholic, is messing up her daughter while having meaningless sex with a boy barely out of his teens.  We’ve come a long way, baby!

As for Hoffman’s character, how vapid can you get?  There he is, confused, alienated.  An award-winning student at a prestigious east coast school, managing editor of his college newspaper, who has no interest in anything but himself.  Really, you’d hardly know there was a war in Vietnam, or that the battle over civil rights was still raging in America during the period when the film is set.  Katharine Ross’s character is a student at Berkeley.  We see Hoffman’s character looking for her on the campus, hanging around in bookstores and coffee shops.  Wasn’t Berkeley a hotbed of student activism in 1967?

At one point, Hoffman’s character tries to explain to Ross’s character why he’s confused and alienated.  “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

Sheesh, get a life!

(26 April 2011)

The Odd Couple

You can tell that this film was a stage play.  It’s kind of flat, even when the characters venture out of Oscar’s apartment.  The dialogue, to be honest, is not consistently funny, and some of the business is predictable.  But the chemistry between Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and Lemmon’s comic timing (as always) save the day.

Felix Ungar: [serving refreshments at the poker game] Cold glass of beer for Roy…

Roy: Thank you.

Felix Ungar: Where’s your coaster?

Roy: My what?

Felix Ungar: Your coaster. The little round thing that goes under the glass.

Roy: I think I bet it.

Oscar Madison: [tosses the coaster back to Roy] Here, here, here. I knew I was winning too much! Here.

Felix Ungar: Always try to use your coasters, huh, fellas? A scotch and a little bit of water…

Speed: Scotch and a little bit of water and I have my coaster.

Felix Ungar: I don’t want to be a pest, but you know what glasses can do.

Oscar Madison: [under his breath] They leave little rings on the table.

Felix Ungar: They leave little rings on the table!

Oscar Madison: [under his breath] And we don’t want little rings on the table.

The two were first paired in “The Fortune Cookie” and would go on to make more great films together, but nothing matches their performances in this one.  Even the trailer makes me smile.  Jack Klugman and Tony Randall went on to make the tale their own, but if you haven’t seen the original, you don’t know what you’re missing.

(1 October 2011)