Friday, July 3, 2015

Film Review: The General

"The General"  **** (out of ****)

Buster Keaton helps defend the honor of the ol' South and win a major battle during the Civil War in the silent comedy classic, "The General" (1926).

Watching "The General" again recently I was struck by many things which I may not have noticed over the years or simply didn't remember about the movie, as it had been years since I last watched this comedy treasure.

Early on in the movie there are a few, subtle, moments in the movie which are typical Buster Keaton moments and help explain his character, not only in this movie, but the comedy persona he created for all of his silent comedies.

It is one of the first sequences in the movie. We meet Johnnie Gray (Keaton) engineer for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, who we are told only has two loves in his life. One is his locomotive, called The General, and the other is the girl in his life, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack).

After a day's work Johnnie rushes to meet Annabelle. What Johnnie doesn't know is two young boys have been following him as well as Annabelle. Johnnie keeps walking towards Annabelle's home, knocks on the door, and as he waits for an answer, turns around to notice the crowd behind him. What does he do when he sees them? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No shocked expression. No embarrassing moment. No pratfall. No double take. He simply acknowledges Annabelle with a nod of the head and they walk inside the house together.

What is so characteristic of the moment is it illustrates why Keaton's comedy character was referred to as "the great stone face". Nothing phased him. His expression doesn't really change when you watch him. Imagine Stan Laurel in this sequence or Harold Lloyd. Surely they would have given an exaggerated reaction. But not Keaton. Less is more with Keaton.

Within this same scene Johnnie notices the two young boys have followed him into Annabelle's home. Without saying a word to the boys or Annabelle, Johnnie casually stands up, walks to pick up his hat, heads towards the door, the two young boys stand in front of him, Johnnie opens the door, the young boys proceed to walk out, Johnnie closes the door and walks back towards Annabelle.

This demonstrates how Keaton's characters are always thinking. The mind is constantly at work. Life throw obstacles at "the great stone face" but nothing deters him. He immediately assesses the situation and forms a plan of action right before the audiences' eyes, in an instant. Keaton doesn't draw out these moments showing us a long thought process with the character meticulously planning every detail. The viewer just watches the plan unfold and tries to keep up with "the great stone face".

What is also interesting watching "The General" is the movie really never wants to be more than an action / comedy. The film, co-written and directed by Clyde Bruckman and Keaton, never goes in for sentimentality or romance. Try to say the same about a Charlie Chaplin movie. Of course that doesn't mean Keaton's approach is better but it clearly distinguishes the different approach to storytelling both men had. Could you tell this story with sentimental and romantic scenes? Sure.

Take for example a sequence when Johnnie learns the Civil War is inevitable. Annabelle's brother (Frank Barnes) and her father (Charles Smith) quickly decide to enlist. Feeling pressure from the family, especially Annabelle, Johnnie agrees to as well. But, when he goes to the recruiting office he is denied. It is felt Johnnie could better serve the South as an engineer than a soldier. Annabelle's brother and father don't know Johnnie was rejected and think he is simply a coward, "a disgrace to the South" they tell Annabelle. She feels letdown and tells Johnnie never to speak to her again until he is in uniform.

In this moment Johnnie feels rejected. Here would be a perfect opportunity for some sentimentality. Johnnie's heart has been broken. He sits on the side rod of a train by the wheel. He is lost in his thoughts. Suddenly the train begins to slowly move with Johnnie still on the side rod as he begins to ride up and down and quickly realizes what is going on. Poof! A moment of self-reflection turns into a sight gag.

A year passes. Johnnie and Annabelle have not spoken to one another. Johnnie still works as an engineer. We learn of a plan the North has devised to steal The General and ambush the South in a surprise attack. Annabelle will be on the train this same day as she is going to visit her father, who has been wounded in the war. She finds herself in the wrong place at the the wrong time and is held prisoner by the North.

At this point all Johnnie knows is someone has stolen his train after it has made a stop. He attempts to chase it and finds himself in an army encampment. It is here he learns Annabelle is being held hostage. He now must rescue her, the train and warn the Southern army of the North's plan.

Here once again is an opportunity for the movie to engage in some romantic scenes with a nice kiss and make-up scene between Johnnie and Annabelle. But who has time for that!

At every opportunity when the movie can divert its attention to more dramatic or romantic scenes the movie instinctively settles on action sequences. Buster Keaton was really ahead of the curve. Look how many buddy action / comedies we get today!

Although I guess that could be the one flaw someone may find with "The General". The movie feels like one long action sequence. It has a very simple plot and spends a lot of its time showing trains chasing after each other. For the majority of the movie Johnnie is seen on a train. This was actually the criticism most movie critics (sheep) had with the movie during its original release.

I find these moments work though as it allows Keaton to show good visual gags. Each train tries to slow down the other by throw items on the train tracks or causing damage to them. The humor comes from how Johnnie finds ways the over come these obstacles. Again, we see that mind always at work. These sequences also contain some thrills. We even see a train collapse when traveling over a bridge!

If we chose to think about it long enough, we can also find a message about masculinity here. Annabelle is disappointed when Johnnie isn't enlisted. He isn't a man. Where is his bravery? His sense of honor? His patriotic sentiment? Annabelle won't even speak to him. But, Annabelle soon changes her mind when Johnnie rescues her. Now he has committed a heroic act. Now he is a man.

The movie was inspired by a real incident during the Civil War known as The Great Locomotive Chase (or Andrews' Raid) which happened on the Western & Atlantic Railroad in April of 1862. The movie used a memoir written by the soldier William Pittenger as inspiration.

Upon its initial release "The General" was a commercial and critical flop and ranked among Keaton's worst performing movies at the box-office. Time has been on the movie's side however as now it is considered not only Buster Keaton's best movie but some even rank it as one of the all-time greatest silent movies ever made. The movie also appeared on AFI's updated 100 greatest movies list in 2007.

I'm honestly not sure if I would call this Keaton's greatest film or his most typical. I am going through a re-evaluation process with Keaton. It has been so many years since I have watched his comedies. In some cases it has been 15 years. Recently I have re-watched "Seven Chances" (1925) and "Go West" (1925) and my reaction was not as I thought it would be. Unfortunately, of the silent comedians, Keaton is the one that has been neglected by me. I have only previously written about "Sherlock, Jr." (1924).

Watching Keaton again though I find some similarity in his character and Chaplin's Tramp. Both men are loners. In "Go West" Keaton's character is called "Friendless". Both men want to be active participants in society. Chaplin though is shunned because of his looks. Keaton makes a greater effort. Keaton also has more thrills in his movies and displays a greater athletic ability. Still, sometimes it is difficult for me to completely warm up to "the great stone face". I consider myself a Chaplin man. I prefer Chaplin's sense of storytelling. There is more involvement with his characters.

However, I am looking forward to re-examining the work of Keaton and while I am on the fence if this is Keaton's best movie it is nonetheless a movie people should watch, especially those that are not familiar with Buster Keaton.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Film Review: Girl Rush

"Girl Rush"  *** (out of ****)

There's plenty of gold and girls in the RKO comedy "Girl Rush" (1944) starring Wally Brown and Alan Carney.

Back in the 1940s, in order to capitalize on the success Universal was having with Abbott & Costello comedies, RKO studio wanted to create a comedy team with a similar appeal, so, the studio paired two of its contract players together; Wally Brown and Alan Carney. Between the years 1943 through 1946 the two men were in 11 pictures together, though not necessarily as a team. Sometimes they were just supporting players in the same movie and did not share any scenes together.

When the two men were a team they often played the characters Jerry Miles (Wally Brown) and Mike Strager (Alan Carney). Jerry was supposed to be the "leader" of the team. Their relationship didn't resemble Abbott & Costello so much as it did Laurel & Hardy. Two men that wanted to be taken serious and achieve great success. Neither man however was very intelligent. Although Jerry may have been the "thinker" between the two, that is only because Mike was dumb enough to let him be. Jerry could only be the big man standing next to Mike. And only Mike would look at Jerry and think he had any brains.

Needless to say Brown & Carney never achieved the success of Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy. They didn't even achieve the success of Wheeler & Woolsey, another comedy team at RKO which was popular back in the 1930s. Instead Brown & Carney are a forgotten team only known to filmbuffs and maybe fans of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) where once in a while their movies will play on television.

Of the movies the two men appeared in "The Adventures of a Rookie" (1943), a low rent version of Abbott & Costello's "Buck Privates" (1941), is often considered their best movie. However, their most popular movie and most easily accessible movie, may be the horror/comedy "Zombies on Broadway" (1945). Perhaps thanks to TCM, Warner Brothers has put four of their movies on DVD as part of a comedy collection. It is part of their "Archive Collection".

One of the movies that is part of the collection is "Girl Rush", made right before "Zombies on Broadway" but after "Step Lively" (1944), my favorite movie featuring the team. It stars a young Frank Sinatra.

The movie takes play in the 1800s with Jerry and Mike as a couple on saloon performers working in San Francisco with an all female troupe called "The Frisco Follies" consisting of Flo (Frances Langford) the group's singer and Suzie (Barbara Jo Allen though credited as Vera Vague) the comedian of the group. They have a hit show, a first for Jerry and Mike, thanks largely to men coming to see the ladies. The popularity of the show comes to an end when gold is discovered and all the men in the town head out to take part in the big gold rush. This leaves the show without an audience.

Never without a bad idea Jerry decides the best way to keep the show going would be for him and Mike to head out to see if they can find any gold and the ladies keep the show going. If Jerry and Mike find gold they will pack up and take their show to New York.

The two men find themselves in a small town called Red Creek, where there are no women. The town is run by Greg Barlan (Cy Kendall) who runs a tavern where all the men in town go to drink and gamble. What the town needs however is another form of entertaining, where men won't kill each other for cheating for cards. The town also needs women. This is where Jerry and Mike come in. A musical comedy show may be just what the town needs and since their show features women it may be just the ticket! But how can Jerry and Mike convince the women to give up on the idea of going to New York and instead go to Red Creek? They'll have to lie to the women.

Although Brown and Carney were paired together by a studio, they still have a good amount of chemistry together. The movie is short on big laughs but the best comedy sequence in the movie may be when the two men are driven crazy from hungry after a day of traveling and try to get to sleep. Each man is afraid the other may kill them and cook them. So, one hides a razor blade in his hand while the other hides an ax.

Another good sequence has the two playing "the shell game", three card monty with walnut shells, where one of them has a pea underneath, as they try to con the residents of Red Creek in order to buy some food.

What some viewers may find interesting is a young Robert Mitchum appears in the movie, playing Jimmy Smith. One of the men in Red Creek who wants to run Greg Barlan out of town. Mitchum keeps his tough guy persona but believe it or not actually dresses in drag. Even when in drag though Mitchum still tries to be rugged by not speaking in a high pitch voice, in order to convince people he is a woman.

Mitchum at this point, had appeared in many movies including one with Laurel & Hardy called "The Dancing Masters" (1943). He usually played tough guys and gangsters.

"Girl Rush" is relatively short on plot and runs a mere 65 minutes. The movie could have actually been longer as I suspect too much was edited. Still it sees its story through and has a beginning, middle and end.

The movie was written by Robert E. Kent, who also wrote "Zombies on Broadway" and "Genius at Work" (1946) also with Brown & Carney adapted from a story by the Hungarian writers Laszlo Vadnay and Aladar Laszlo and was directed by Gordon Douglas who directed the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Saps at Sea" (1940) and "Zenobia" (1939) starring Oliver Hardy and Harry Langdon.

"Girl Rush" won't please everyone but those that like "clean" comedy and discovering "forgotten" films from Hollywood should find something to enjoy. Plus, on the scale of Brown & Carney's work together "Girl Rush" is a good example of their brand of comedy and what they had to offer.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Film Review: Father's Day

"Father's Day"  *** (out of ****)

Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are together again for the first time in "Father's Day" (1997).

When you hear a comedy is going to star Billy Crystal and Robin Williams you reasonably expect it to be a very funny comedy showcasing two great comedy talents. Williams with his maniac style and brilliant gift for improvisation and Billy Crystal for his wit and ability to dish out one-liners.

When it was first released Billy Crystal and Robin Williams had a field day with the press. Expectations were very high. Crystal and Williams were hitting all the talk shows. I remember them even making a guest appearance on the television show "Friends". Because the two men were friends in real life and because of their talent and because it was the first film they had appeared together in, audiences were expecting a laugh riot.

"Father's Day" came at a time Crystal needed a hit badly. Prior to this movie he had starred in "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) and "Forget Paris" (1995), two movies which he directed and I personally like but they were not a success at the box-office. After this movie he appeared in "My Giant" (1998), another box-office flop.

Williams on the other hand, while not starring in great movies, was having more success. He appeared in Mike Nichol's "The Birdcage" (1995), "Jumanji" (1995) and "Nine Months" (1995). All were hits at the box-office upon their release.

And then there was "Father's Day". The critics (sheep) butchered the movie and audiences stood away. The movie grossed a little more than $28 million domestically against an $85 million dollar budget. That's bad.

The movie, based on the French comedy "Les Comperes" (1983) directed by Francis Veber and starring Gerard Depardieu, was not what audiences were expecting. People simply felt the movie was not funny. In his original review Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert gave the movie one star and wrote "Father's Day" is a brainless feature-length sitcom with too much sit and no com." However, I disagree. Is "Father's Day" a really funny movie? No. Have Billy Crystal and Robin Williams appeared in funnier movies? Yes but that's not a high bar in my opinion.

It is very difficult for comedians to often find movies which are well-suited for them. Comedians like Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are better than the movies they appear in. No single movie can capture what makes them funny. The reason any particular movie starring either one of them is going to work is because of star power. The audience simply wants to watch them. There will always been a moment or two when they will make us laugh watching the movie. That's how I feel about "Father's Day".

I laughed a few times watching the movie. No big laughs but a few small laughs. Still I sat through the entire movie and overall enjoyed the experience. I liked the movie best when Williams and Crystal were on-screen and able to do their "shtick". When the movie gets out of their way, it works. When the movie started to follow its plot, it slows down and becomes less interesting. At the end of the day though you watch because of Williams and Crystal. It's ashame they didn't star in more movies together. Imagine them as a comedy team in the 1930s!

Still maybe a comedy by Francis Veber wasn't the right material for them. In fact, why Hollywood keeps adapting his French comedies into English is beyond me. The movies have a terrible track record. There was "La Chevre" (1981) remade as "Pure Luck" (1991) with Martin Short. There was "Le Jouet" (1976) remade as "The Toy" (1981). Veber even directed his own remake, "Three Fugitives" (1989) which was based off of "Les Fugitifs" (1986). None of them received much fanfare from the public.

Billy Crystal plays Jack Lawrence, an attorney now married to his third wife, Carrie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Many years ago he was in love with Collette (Nastassja Kinski). After sixteen years she calls him to tell him he is the father of her son, Scott (Charlie Hofheimer) and now more than ever Collette and Scott need Jack. Scott has run away from home and Collette would like Jack to find him.

Jack at first isn't sure he believes Collette story. Why wait all these years? Why not take a blood test to find out? Collette says she married soon after and would allow her husband, Bob (Bruce Greenwood) to believe he was the father of the boy. As for blood work. There is no time. Someone has to find Scott.

Believing Jack will not help her Collette turns to Dale (Williams) whom she also dated at the same time and gives the same story to about him being the father of Scott. Dale is a bit more open to the idea and very, very eager to find Scott.

Whereas Jack feels he is leading a full life, Dale is a failed artist. When we first meet Dale he is attempting suicide, which given the tragic events of Williams' life, the audience now looks at these type of scenes differently. So finding a son he never knew existed gives Dale a sense of purpose.

The thing that always bothered me about "Father's Day" was why didn't Bob go and look for his son? I could understand if Bob and Collette were divorced or if there was a sub-plot that Scott ran away from home because of Bob but there is none of that. Why does Collete need to track down two men, create a ridiculous story when the father of the child is in the same home with you? Why not tell him, go out and find our son now or you'll never see me again! It makes Bob seem like a pathetic man and a pathetic father and a useless character.

If you aren't able to get over that aspect of the plot though you cannot enjoy the movie. So the audience must make an attempt to look past this point.

"Father's Day" has moments when it wants to be a broad farce and have a lot of wild, shocking comedic moments. One sequence involves Jack and Dale finding Scott, who is drunk, bringing back to a hotel room and proceeding to give him a shower. Jack's wife calls at this moment and room service enters the room. Meanwhile Dale is in the shower yelling for Jack to help him shower the boy which is suppose to be very suggestive to the wife and bell-hop.

Another strange detail of the movie is its obsession with headbutting. It is Jack's weapon of choice and soon he teaches Dale the proper way to do it and they are headbutting everyone that gets in their way.

There isn't much for the cast to do. Everything rest on Crystal and Williams. Too bad Julia Louis-Dreyfus wasn't given more. Still, the movie is at best a light diversion. It is fun to see Crystal and Williams together. They have good chemistry. The best moments of the movie are when they are on-screen.

The movie was directed by Ivan Reitman who was quite a force at the box-office directing titles like "Ghostbusters" (1984), "Stripes" (1981), "Twins" (1988), "Kindergarten Cop" (1990) and "Ghostbusters II" (1989). I never said all the movies were good. I just said they were popular! With Reitman behind the movie that raised expectations as well. He seemed to have a knack for finding projects which had a mainstream appeal. Nice formula, lowest common denominator, Hollywood products.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Film Review: Saboteur

"Saboteur"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, doesn't sabotage the entertaining story he has in the World War II American propaganda thriller, "Saboteur" (1942).

Many, if not all, movie lovers know Alfred Hitchcock was a British filmmaker who started his career in the United Kingdom before coming to America to make several of the most distinguished films of his career.

Hitchcock's first American film was the Academy Award winning "Rebecca" (1940) starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That same year he also directed "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) with Joel McCrea. It was nominated for a best picture Academy Award but lost to "Rebecca".

"Foreign Correspondent" was a WW 2 espionage thriller, which unfortunately doesn't receive the credit it deserves from the public.

I mention this because "Saboteur" was Hitchcock's fifth American film and like many of his early American films deals with WW 2. Another example is "Lifeboat" (1944). But unlike "Foreign Correspondent", "Saboteur" is a piece of American propaganda. After telling an interesting story, the main goal of "Saboteur" is to portrayal America as a country filled with good-hearted people. A country that believes all men are innocent until proven guilty. And as a country that will, without doubt, win the war because Americans are morally superior to their enemies abroad.

One would think as a foreigner himself Hitchcock wanted to make sure the American public knew he loves this country.

"Saboteur" is not a great movie. I would never rank it along side Alfred Hitchcock's best movies but after watching it a second time around I must admit it made a greater impression on me. There is quality filmmaking displayed here. Hitchcock knows how to milk a scene for all the tension it is worth. The movie also has very good acting. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are very good in the lead roles though I was more impressed with Cummings. He has more screen-time and more is asked of him acting wise.

The movie doesn't go over any new ground for Hitchcock, even at this point in his career. The basic idea of the movie is an innocent man wrongfully accused of murder. Even by 1942 Alfred Hitchcock had made films similar in the U.K. A prime example would be "The 39 Steps" (1935), perhaps the best known of all of his British films, as well as "Young and Innocent" (1937). However, if we were to compare all three movies, "Saboteur" wins out. It is stylistically an improvement. I truly believe Hitchcock made his best films in America. He was given more money, worked with better stories and better actors.

Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane. He works at an aircraft factory with his best friend Mason (Virgil Summers). One day at the factory there is a fire. Barry is accused of handing Mason a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline which kills the man right in front of Barry's eyes. Barry pleads his innocence. Yes he handed Mason the fire extinguisher but the man the police really want is the man that handed the extinguisher to Barry, a fellow named Fry (Norman Lloyd). Only problem is, no one ever heard of a guy named Fry working at the factory. Barry must now find Fry and clear his name and prove he is not guilty of sabotage.

As good as Cummings is in the role some will find it interesting that most audiences in 1942 would not have expected to see Cummings in such a serious movie. Cummings was actually known for appearing in comedies and musicals. Prior to this movie he acted in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940), which served as the on-screen debut of Abbott & Costello, "The Devil & Miss Jones" (1941) with Jean Arthur and "Moon Over Miami" (1941) a Betty Grable musical. Directly before starring in this movie he was in "Kings Row" (1942), which was a drama and provided Ronald Reagan with one of his most memorable performances.

All of this works in Cummings favor. Audiences identified him as a "good guy". He could never hurt anyone. There was a certain innocence associated with him. He played nice, easy going guys that liked to kiss the pretty girls. Just an average Joe, who usually came from a family with money. So, it is fun to see Cummings play against type.Yes he is an innocent man but the movie requires dramatic moments from him. Hitch even casted him again in "Dial M For Murder" (1954).

Priscilla Lane's career didn't last as long as Cumming's did. She will probably be best known to audiences for appearing in Frank Capra's comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) with Cary Grant. This time around she plays a woman named Pat. She is dragged into Barry's dilemma after her blind uncle agrees to help Barry by asking Pat to drive him to a blacksmith after he has been handcuffed and escaped a police car.

To appease her uncle she agrees to drive Barry but tricks him instead by taking him tot he police. Pat feels it is her duty as a good American to report Barry. He is an enemy of America. Pat on the other hand is a good citizen.

The relationship between Pat and Barry is not so different for the one between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in "The 39 Steps". He is on the run, she doesn't believe him, wants to turn him in, for some reason she begins to trust him and a romance develops between the two.

Some of the choice scenes in "Saboteur" show how Hitchcock knew where to place his camera. In an attempt to take the handcuffs off Barry uses the fan under the hood of Pat's car to cut throw it. At the same time Pat is going to stop the first car that drives past the road they are on and ask for help to have Barry arrested. We see a car approach. We cut to the fan on the car with the handcuffs in sight. We go back to the approaching car. The music swells. Back tot he fan. The car is closer and close but those handcuffs aren't broken yet. The audience sits in suspense. Will those damn handcuffs cut or not!

Hitchcock was also a wit and injected dark humor into his movie. In "Saboteur" two men are fighting while a radio is playing. The radio broadcast almost serves as a play-by-play of the fight going on between the two men.

The final thrill sequence takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Which creates its own symbolism in the movie as a representation of freedom. Plus, since the movie takes place during WW2 and the story involves Fascist sympathizers (the word Nazi is never used), the statue symbolizes America and is suppose to be a showdown between good vs evil.

"Saboteur" does a lot right. I felt the story goes on a bit too long and the ending seemed unsatisfactory to me. I felt it didn't accomplish what it was suppose to. I also didn't care for the American pride speeches, which were a bit too forceful for me. Still the acting is good, Hitchcock's directing displays great craft and the movie does have a few suspenseful sequences. "Saboteur" is a fun ride and you can see hints of later films like "North By Northwest" (1959) and "Notorious" (1946) which would improve on the story created here.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Film Review: In Society

"In Society"
** 1\2  (out of ****)

Abbott & Costello hobnob with the well-to-do when they go "In Society" (1944).

"In Society" was the twelfth comedy to star Abbott & Costello in a period of four years. The team made their first film appearance in a Robert Cummings - Allan Jones comedy called "One Night in the Tropics" (1940). In that movie the comedy team played supporting characters and they even found time to do their "who's on first" bit although it is a shortened version.

By the time the team starred in their next picture, "Buck Privates" (1941), a peace-time war comedy, they had the lead roles and Universal Studios had a hit on their hands. Universal released four Abbott & Costello comedies in 1941 alone and four more in 1942. As one might expect this became too much of a good thing. There was an over saturation of Abbott & Costello movies. That is not to say there weren't some good comedies being released by the team, there were; "Hold That Ghost" (1941), "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941) and "Who Done It" (1942) but a lot of the movies were just average and had the team repeat routines. "In Society" is an example of the middle-of-the-road quality the team sometimes released.

Bud & Lou play working-class plumbers who receive a telephone call from a wealthy businessman who has a leak in his bathroom sink. The boys show up, in their plumbing uniforms, but, are mistaken for guest at a costume themed party being thrown by the man's wife. Bud & Lou meanwhile naturally do not have a clue how to repairs the leak in the bathroom sink. Instead they cause more damage and destroy the man's home.

This set-up feels more like a situation the Three Stooges would find themselves in. Moe, Larry and Curley often interacted with high society, crashing parties, causing destruction wherever they went. But it doesn't feel right for Abbott & Costello. This isn't normally a predicament they find themselves in.

After the boys destroy the man's home, they accidentally receive an invitation for a weekend getaway at another wealthy estate where a famous painting will be unveiled. The boys see this as a great business opportunity. They can go and pass around business cards. You know, these mansions have four or five bathrooms in them.

This leads to gangsters, which the boys owe money, crashing the party, pretending to have been invited by Bud & Lou, wanting to steal the valuable painting.

The major problem with "In Society" is it feels like a rushed production. The story was not fully developed. It feels as if Universal Studios just wanted to release another Abbott & Costello movie quickly in an order to cash in on their popularity and turn in a profit. Doing something like this though could hurt the team more than cause good. If the quality of work the boys were appearing in was not good, popular or not, audiences would not see their movies.

"In Society" does what a lot of movies from the 1940s did. It has a little comedy, a little romance and some songs and dancing. What hurts "In Society" is the romance is poor, the acting, outside of Abbott & Costello, is poor and the songs are OK. This formula, of putting everything into one movie, only works when everything is done well.

Other Abbott & Costello movies featured popular musical acts of the era such as the Andrew Sisters, a singing sister trio that sang songs like "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" and bandleader Ted Lewis. These musical acts were never asked to serve double duty though and play an activate role in the plot. They only played themselves and usually appeared in a nightclub scene which would provide the movie the opportunity to introduce a new song.

However in this movie Marion Hutton, a big band vocalist, is asked to serve as a love interest in the movie. She can't act! She may be nice to look at and have a decent enough voice but who had the brilliant idea to give her a part to play? Was she dating a producer of the movie? She plays a cab driver that is friendly with Bud & Lou. Her name is Elsie Hammerdingle. She drives the boy to the wealthy businessman's home and is also mistaken for a guest in costume. There she meets Peter Evans (Kirby Grant) a playboy. The two are immediately attracted to one another only Elsie doesn't want to tell Peter she isn't rich.

As is the case with most movies made in the 1940s, which feature a famous comedy team; the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, it is the comedy team which has all the best scenes and generally speaking is why audiences are watching the movie in the first place. "In Society" is no exception to the rule. The best scenes in the movie involve Abbott & Costello doing their vaudeville routines. Everything else in the movie is a letdown.

If we were to remove every element of the movie that did not revolve around Abbott & Costello, at best, you might have 30 minutes of screen-time. The entire length of the movie is 74 minutes. Keep in mind that includes the credits and musical numbers. There simply is not enough going on in this movie plot-wise. What the audience sees on screen is really a draft of an idea. Abbott & Costello are doing their thing. The comedy routines are in place. Now the hard work. Creating a plot where they can have an active role in it. You want them to be plumbers? Fine. Engage with high society? Good. We can get some laughs out of this. But you need to do more. You need to re-cast the other parts. Rethink the romance or completely get rid of this sub-plot. It isn't very well developed anyway and quite frankly, could have been its own feature length comedy. Poor girl, dreams of becoming rich, works as a cab driver, mistakenly meets a rich man, who believes she in costume at a party and they fall in love but she is too embarrassed to tell him the truth. She lies about who she is, he finds out...you know how it ends. Predictable? Yes. But, enough plot for a movie of its own.

Instead what we have now are sub-plots which aren't fully developed scrambling for screen-time. There is not enough conflict to engage the audience. Nothing interesting is happening when Abbott & Costello aren't on-screen to keep audiences watching. The acting is poor. Marion Hutton is an amateur at best and has no zest for her lines. Kirby Grant lacks charisma. There is zero chemistry between him and Hutton.

Abbott & Costello are always funny to watch but I find their body of work a mixed-bag. They have just as many "misses" as they do "hits" when compared to Laurel & Hardy or the Marx Brothers. They also appeared in more movies then either comedy team. If you watch several of their movies at a time you'll always see how often they repeat routines. After a certain point in their career they stopped creating new routines. When the team created their television show, which aired between 1952 - 1954, it further allowed them another medium to rehash their routines which they have previously done on stage, radio and movies.

There are bright spots in their movie career after "In Society", in fact there are several good movies to select from; "Here Come the Co-eds" (1945), "The Naughty Nineties" (1945), "The Time of Their Lives" (1946) and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948).

"In Society" shows promise. The boys are funny in it. The problem is it was just not fully developed. It feels like a rushed production. There is not enough plot here. It is a little rough around the edges.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Film Review: The Black Swan

"The Black Swan"  *** (out of ****)

Shiver me timbers! It's the pirate's life for me in "The Black Swan" (1942).

What was the last really good pirate movie you saw? Some younger movie fans might say "The Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003) with Johnny Depp or one of its countless sequels but us old timers know better. We grew up with Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate" (1926), Errol Flynn in "Captain Blood" (1935) and "The Black Swan" starring Tyrone Power, 20th Century Fox's answer to Flynn.

Once upon a time swashbucklers like "The Black Swan" delighted movie audiences today however the market seems a little different. I have no doubt audiences still like action stories but the movies of yesterday contain a certain charm that is missing from today's movies and may very well be considered laughable by today's standards. What once thrilled audiences long ago today might bore them. That's too bad.

Although "The Black Swan" is a movie dealing with pirates it treats its characters no different than it would gangsters. It could have been the story of a gangster that wants to "better" himself and falls in love with a respectable lady, who will have nothing to do with him because of his background. Deep down however we know she loves him.

If we think about it long enough there is also an "ugliness" to this story in the message it sends concerning how woman want to be treated by men. At one point in the movie a female character is kidnapped by a man that claims to love her. At another point in the movie he slaps her after he pushes himself on her, wanting a kiss, and she bites him. He talks down to her and pushes her around. And what happens at the end of the picture? Naturally she professes her love for him. The prim and proper lady just needed a rugged man to shove her around a little bit and tell her what was best for her.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. We've seen various movies, even comedies, promote this idea. It also doesn't help when we hear women, even today, say they like the "bad boy". Women say they don't like the "good boys" they are boring. Women want a little fun in their lives, right? Keep on talking like that and this is the kind of movies with messages like this we are going to get. You (women) are doing yourselves no favors with this kind of talk. You are only perpetuating Hollywood to continue the cycle.

Still, if we are able to put all of that behind us and not think about it, and some younger, more liberal female viewers may not be able to, what we are left with is a movie that contains moments of action, charismatic acting with performances that walk that fine line and border on "over acting" and a great screenplay which effortless blends comedy into this story of adventure on the high seas, thanks in part to co-writer Ben Hecht, who wrote the Howard Hawks comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934) and the play "The Front Page" which served as the basis for "His Girl Friday" (1940) though "The Black Swan" is based on a Rafael Sabatini novel.

Tyrone Power plays Captain Jamie Waring, though called Jamie-Boy by his friends. Among this band of pirates Jamie-Boy is well liked and admired. However, one day he is captured by the Spanish government, which is at war with the British, and tortured until he reveals the whereabouts of Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), who was set to be executed but managed to escape. A surprise attack ensues lead by Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) and Jamie-Boy is freed. Also present is Captain Morgan who reveals he is no longer a wanted man. Instead he is the new Governor of Jamaica and wants Jamie-Boy to be his right hand man and give up his dishonest ways.

The out going governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), looks down upon Captain Morgan and considers it disgraceful that he should be the new governor as does his daughter, Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O' Hara) but Jamie-Boy has taken an instant liking to her and wants to win her over despite knowing she is engaged to Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley).

Jamie-Boy knows Lady Denby's prim and proper ways is all an act. A woman would have no interest in a man like Ingram, who is also prim and proper. Ingram wouldn't even have the nerve to slap a woman around a little bit thus he is presented as a "fancy boy" and when he and Jamie-Boy meet face to face all it takes is one punch from Jamie-Boy to knock out Ingram.

Initially Lady Denby is not impressed by Jamie-Boy's strength and tough demeanor but in an effort to win her over Jamie-Boy vows to go "straight" and put his pirate days behind him.

The people of Jamaica don't trust Captain Morgan and believe he is out to protect his friends like Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) who refused to give up his ways and always seems to know which ships will be carry expensive cargo and attacks them. Is someone from the "inside" telling him? Maybe a governor?

Watching "The Black Swan" again after all these years what impressed me most was the screenplay. You might expect a movie like this to play it a bit more serious. Heighten the drama, the sword fights, the battle ship scenes, create more suspense but the movie is playful and comical. The pirates aren't really a threat. They are "fun pirates" that chase after women and drink wine. The may act tough now and then but that is all for show. Deep down they are a couple of swell guys!

The movie has a great cast. A cast that could only have been assembled during the old studio days. How else do you get George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, Maureen O' Hara and Tyrone Power together? Not all of them are leading men but these people almost routinely turned in good performances. They were entertaining character actors. We don't have many of those today. Almost all of these performances are larger-than-life. And that is okay. These people had charisma. That is missing from so many actors of today. These people had star power. Put them in a run of the mill formula picture and their presence could carry it through and make the whole thing worthwhile. They were entertaining to watch. It didn't matter the role they played. Sometimes they didn't even change character from picture to picture. Audiences just wanted to see them in a movie doing their shtick.

For directing duties 20th Century Fox chose Henry King. King is not considered one of the great filmmakers of his era but 20th Century Fox sure put him to work often. King directed pictures such as "In Old Chicago" (1937) with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) also with Faye and Power and "A Yank in the R.A.F." (1941) again with Power. Twice he was nominated for a best director Academy Award. The first time was for "The Song of Bernadette" (1943), the true story of a young girl who was visited by the Virgin Mary. The second time was for "Wilson" (1944), the story of President Woodrow Wilson. It won five Academy Awards and was nominated for best picture. Despite all of this, I really can't say King has a distinct style. But, he keeps things moving along very nicely here.

What is going to keep people watching "The Black Swan" is the two lead performers. Maureen O' Hara, who always had trouble with men in the movies, in "The Quiet Man" (1952) it takes another man to tell her want she needs, was a beautiful woman and the camera does love her in this movie. One of her main functions is to look beautiful. The other function is to make us believe she loves Jamie-Boy. She does the former very well. Very well.

Tyrone Power was considered a heartthrob in his day and was being groomed by 20th Century Fox to be their new sex symbol often appearing in epic adventure stories. Many times these were remakes of movies starring former screen idols. Power starred in "Blood and Sand" (1941) a remake of a Rudolph Valentino silent picture. Power was also Zorro in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), a remake of a Douglas Fairbanks movie with the same title which was a box-office smash and prompted 20th Century Fox to cast him in more swashbucklers.

"The Black Swan" is a lot of fun to watch. The actors make it fun. We really don't believe in the romance between Power and O'Hara but that's okay. The dialogue is too good not to enjoy. The cinematography, which won an Academy Award, is beautiful to look at. This is good old-fashion entertainment.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Film Review: Grandma's Boy

"Grandma's Boy"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Grandma's Boy" (1922) is a Harold Lloyd comedy that does nearly everything right.

In "Grandma's Boy" Harold Lloyd plays the classic character every comedian in the silent era and into the early sound comedies would play. A timid, cowardly man who secretly loved the pretty girl but she was always being pursued by the more aggressive, better looking jock that always bullied our timid hero. It is a classic comedy persona that audiences could see traces of in Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny and even Woody Allen.

Prior to making "Grandma's Boy" Harold Lloyd starred in two-reeler gag pictures. These were often twenty minute comedies short on plot but heavy on sight gags. They did not offer much character development but instead served the purpose of doing anything for a laugh. Some of them are quite good; "Never Weaken" (1921) and "Now or Never" (1921) among them. However, starting in the 1920s Harold Lloyd and his comedy contemporaries (Chaplin, Keaton and Harry Langdon) were starting to make feature-length comedies. Chaplin made "The Kid" (1920) and Keaton "The Saphead" (1920). Of the truly great comics of the silent era only Charley Chase didn't make a splash in feature-length movies. When "Grandma's Boy" was released Lloyd had appeared in one other movie, "A Sailor Made Man" (1921), which plays around with some of the same ideas but it is "Grandma's Boy" which time has been kinder to and film historians point to as a turning point in Lloyd's career.

"Grandma's Boy" does for Harold Lloyd what "The Kid"  or "The Gold Rush" (1925) did for Chaplin. It takes their humorous character and situates it in a story where the character can engage in comedic situations but also creates a framework for more character development and a serious (enough) plot where pathos (in Chaplin's case) or romantic (in Lloyd's case) scenarios could be played out. The movies are now not just funny, gag pictures but stories with a human interest. The viewer doesn't go from joke to joke to joke but instead the plot may take a breather so it may develop its plot and create character motivation.

Of course when taking this approach your movie may not be as funny as your gag pictures. You need to find a story which can allow a proper balance and lend itself to good comedic set-pieces. "Grandma's Boy" works well enough in this area however I must be honest and say I do not laugh as much watching this movie as I do watching "Safety Last" (1923), "The Freshman" (1925) or even "Speedy" (1928). Still, "Grandma's Boy" has much to admire and appreciate and helped established the "glasses" character Harold Lloyd would continue to play in subsequential  pictures.

This time around Harold plays "Grandma's Boy" though if you are able to read the actor's lips they call him "Harold". Harold is a nineteen year old man who has always had a passive nature, even as a baby when we see another baby steal a cookie he was eating. Rather than start trouble our young Harold would just let other kids pick on him. Now that he is an adult Harold finds himself taken by "The Girl" (Mildred Davis, who appeared in several of Lloyd's comedies and eventually married him) who may like him back but Harold has competition for her attention in "His Rival" (Charles Stevenson) who repeatedly pushes Harold aside.

Harold lives with his Grandmother (Anna Townsend), who in an effort to help Harold gain bravery creates a story about Harold's grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Harold's grandfather was also a coward but one day he received a magic charm from an elderly lady. The charm had powers which would protect whoever held it from great danger. Harold's grandmother still has the charm and decides to give it to her grandson in order to restore his confidence.

It is a simple enough story and the movie's running time is only 58 minutes but "Grandma's Boy" does practically everything it needed to do to make this comedy work. First it creates the character "Harold". It establishes his personality and his cowardice nature. It quickly introduces the main characters and sets-up the conflict; Harold loves the girl but fears she does not notice him because he is constantly bullied. He needs to prove himself as a man and demonstrate his masculinity so she may notice him. After the plot is layed-out the movie creates many good comedy sequences and at the end of the picture provides Harold Lloyd the opportunity to engage in a lot of physical comedy which displays his great athletic ability, which became a staple in several of his comedies. The only thing missing is a really exciting thrill sequence. Too bad there wasn't a building for him to climb!

While I admit "Grandma's Boy" doesn't strike me as one of Lloyd's funniest pictures I do admire the structure of the movie and that more than anything is what leads me to recommend it. It is a nice lesson in comedy writing. The movie does have its laughs but tries to go for something a little extra in creating a decent story and interesting characters instead of mainly focusing on the jokes.

Though there are some good comedy sequences. A very good one involves Harold visiting the Girl and her family for Sunday dinner. Harold is wearing a very old suit and notices there are mothballs inside of it. Embarrassed by this Harold tries to hide them and accidentally places them in a candy box. As you may guess, the Girl offers Harold a piece of candy, only she gets the chose which piece he eats and she unknowingly gives him the mothball, which Harold doesn't realize until it is too late.

Another good sequence involves a posse trying to find a tramp that has murdered a man. It is Harold that captures the tramp by using various inventive ways to bring him back to the town. One involves him forcing the tramp to pull Harold, who is sitting in a wheelbarrow.

There is an interesting social commentary here on masculinity even if it is not an entirely original concept. In order for a man to feel like a man he must display strength. W.C. Fields appeared in a silent comedy himself called "Running Wild" (1927) which was much more forthcoming with this theme, going as far as to say, women secretly want a man to be aggressive towards them. "Grandma's Boy" doesn't go that far but instead suggest power is what gives a man confidence. Without strength a man is not a man.

Another idea expressed is, self-esteem is all a mind game. People rely upon lucky charms to make them better people when in reality it is all non-sense. We all have greatness within ourselves we just need to believe in ourselves. Once we do that then we can reach our potential.

It is that concept which would become the basis for the "glasses" character Lloyd played. Lloyd's character was an All-American type that would slowly gain confidence in himself. He was a go-getter. He believed in the "American Dream" and actively sought to pursue it. He wanted to get married and have a family. He strived to live in a big house with a white picket fence. He believed if he worked hard good things would happen to him. He would get that promotion at work. He would become a manager one day. He was a part of society unlike Chaplin's "Tramp" character, which was always on the outside looking in. The "Tramp" wanted to participate in society but society shunned him because of his looks. Harold Lloyd on the other hand looked like your neighbor.

"Grandma's Boy" is a good comedy illustrating the typical traits in the Lloyd character. For me it lacks the really big laughs in some other Lloyd comedies but it makes up for it with story structure and character development. Lloyd is trying to engage his audience on a different level and succeeds.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Film Review: The Mark of Zorro

"The Mark of Zorro"  *** (out of ****)

I have made a conscience effort on this blog to write about all of the great figures in the history of cinema.

My intention for starting this blog was for it to serve as a place where people my age or younger would find out about great movies from Hollywood made in the 1920s, 30s & 40s and great international films.

I have always envisioned my audience as being college age film students or students in general, that don't know much about the history of cinema but truly want to discover it and expose themselves to the great works. All they need is a starting point. They need someone to introduce titles to them and point them in the right direction. That is where I hoped I would come in. I would be that voice that discussed classic Hollywood cinema and the great movie stars associated with it.

A successful blog, as I defined it, meant if I was able to introduce one person to one movie they never heard of before. If I could reach my generation and helped them gain an appreciation for silent movies or black and white movies, that would be success. These movies are entertaining. I truly believe my generation would enjoy them if they would only give them a chance.

Over the course of the years I written about many stars of the silent era; Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Louise Brooks, John Barrymore and Lillian Gish among others. I have also discussed the giants behind the camera such as  D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Famed international filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Miklos Jancso have been mentioned. As well as American filmmakers;  Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

Of all the great movie stars and filmmakers important to cinema however there was one person I had neglected to write about, the star of "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), Douglas Fairbanks.

The reason for Fairbanks omission is an embarrassing one. I didn't know where to start. When I think of Douglas Fairbanks I have the same image in my head all movie lovers have, that of a swashbuckling hero. But, I really couldn't pick one movie which I feel is the definitive Douglas Fairbanks movie. Would it be "Robin Hood" (1922)? "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924)? "The Black Pirate" (1926)? Or could it be "The Mark of Zorro"? The movie has its own list of distinctions.

The problem is, who talks about Douglas Fairbanks anymore? Who even still watches silent movies? I'm not able to scope the general public's taste.

"The Mark of Zorro" though is just as good as any place to start to discuss Fairbanks.

"The Mark of Zorro" was the first film adaptation of Johnston McCulley's "The Curse of Capistrano" published in 1919 and introduced the character Zorro (Spanish for fox), a bandit that claims to want to fight corruption and defend the poor and oppressed living in Los Angeles during the era of Spanish rule.

The movie was also the first film released through United Artist, a movie studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. The movie proved to be a huge financial and commercial success leading many film historians to claim "The Mark of Zorro" was the movie which catapulted Fairbanks to the level of movie star and would forever identify him as a swashbuckling hero.

Fairbanks started working in Hollywood in 1915 where he starred in many comedy movies at first and displayed great athletic abilities, doing his own stunts. Within a year of being in Hollywood however Fairbanks met Pickford and although the two were married, they began having an affair, which lasted until 1920, when they were married.

The new studio and "Zorro" would give Fairbanks more artistic control and freedom to make movies as he wanted to. Playing Zorro would allow Fairbanks to dress up in costume, have sword fight scenes, Zorro is an excellent fencer, charm beautiful women and engage in high action stunts, jumping from balconies and horse riding. It would serve as a wonderful vehicle for Fairbanks and Fairbanks was the only man that could play such a character at that time in Hollywood.

To help things along the movie was directed by Fred Niblo, who also directed Fairbanks in "The Three Musketeers" (1921), Valentino in "Blood and Sand" (1922), Garbo in "The Temptress" (1926) and my personal choice for the greatest movie made in the decade, "Ben-Hur" (1925), a lavish epic starring Ramon Novarro. And written by Fairbanks himself and Eugene Miller.

"The Mark of Zorro" does not strike me as a great film however. It is an entertaining picture that has all the scenes necessary for a adventure story but not enough plot to carry the characters' action. The movie starts off with title cards explaining the oppression of the town and the surrounding which has lead to the existence of Zorro. The learn of the two villains in the movie, Sgt. Gonzales (Noah Berry) and Captain Ramon (Robert McKim). Gonzales is hell bent on killing Zorro and Ramon is determined to win the hand of the beautiful Lolita (Marguerite De La Motte), who her parents have arranged for her to marry Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks), the son of a nobleman. Don Diego is a lazy playboy who is afraid of sword fighting and only interested in magic tricks. Because of this Lolita is in love with Zorro because of his bravery. But what Lolita doesn't know is Don Diego and Zorro are the same person.

Zorro plans to rid the town of the corrupt government headed by Gov. Alvarado (George Periolat) which mistreats the peons.

That is pretty much it. "Zorro" sets up a nice stage but doesn't go for the kill by providing us with a more detailed plot. The movie was remade 20 years later at 20th Century Fox and starred Tyrone Power as Zorro. That movie was a vast improvement as it explained who Don Diego was. A rich boy sent to Spain by his father for a better education. While in Spain Don Diego is a great swordsmen. When he returns home to Los Angeles he sees things are not as he remembers them and witness the mistreatment of the peons. A defender is needed thus Zorro is born. In order to keep his identity a secret Don Diego decides to let the people of the town believe he is a coward.

"The Mark of Zorro" explains some of this in title cards, the remake actually has the intelligence to show us and the movie is only 14 minutes longer and improves the plot and the character motivations for everyone!

Still given the time period one must acknowledge the importance of "The Mark of Zorro". While I never considered Zorro a superhero, surely one can see the influence the character must have had on The Lone Ranger, Batman and The Shadow. As for the movie itself, it helped established the action genre establishing many of the cliches still in use today. It is all here. Watch this movie and then watch any modern action movie of your choice and I bet you can compare character types and notice similar situations.

For that we must give "The Mark of Zorro" our appreciation if not our outright affection. It has a place in the history of cinema. Still, I suggest you also watch the 1940 remake as well.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Film Review: Batman & Robin (Movie Serial)

"Batman & Robin"  *** (out of ****)

The Bat is back!

"Batman & Robin" (1949) is a 15 chapter movie serial directed by Spencer Bennet and is a semi-sequel to "Batman" (1943), also a 15 chapter movie serial, which was the first ever screen appearance of the famed comic book character.

Movie serials, for younger readers, were episodic stories audiences would attend a movie theater to see. Each week you would see a new "chapter" not episode. Most of the movie serials I saw as a child were action / adventure stories which would end in cliffhangers; life or death situations the hero would find themselves in. The idea was to leave audiences in suspense in the hopes they would come back next week to find out what happened. It was a marketing gimmick to assure repeat business.

Movie serials appealed to young teenage boys who would get to watch characters like Batman or "Flash Gordon" (1936), "Superman" (1948), "The Green Hornet" (1940), "The Shadow" (1940) or "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" (1941). Many times, as in the case of Batman and Superman, these were the first screen appearances of the characters, which would also excite children. Now they would get to see live-action versions of their favorite superheroes. Think of how excited children are today seeing all the superhero movies.

In "Batman & Robin" the dynamic duo square off against "The Wizard", who disguises himself with a masked hood (and goes uncredited), a mastermind criminal that has stolen a device created by Professor Hammil (William Fawcett) that makes it possible to control any vehicle within a 50 mile radius. According to Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot. I was very surprised to see an actual famous actor in a movie serial!) if this device ends up in the wrong hands a person can control Gotham City.

Now it is up to Batman (Robert Lowery) and the boy wonder Robin (John Duncan) to help Gotham City police find this mysterious masked man before he can set his diabolical plan into motion .

In some ways I like "Batman & Robin" more than the original "Batman", which was a piece of American World War II propaganda. Batman, for instance, works for the U.S. government. The villain in that serial was a Japanese spy master called Dr. Daka. Remember, it was released after Pearl Harbor was attacked. American movies would often present the Japanese and Germans as villains during this time. "Batman & Robin" is not bogged down by American politics. In some ways I find the villain, The Wizard, more interesting than Dr. Daka. But "Batman & Robin" has so many plot holes that it interferes with my enjoying it.

For example, why did Prof. Hammil create such a device? What was its purpose? What void in society was such a machine going to fill? The machine needs diamonds to remain operational. Why? Why would Prof. Hammil chose such a mineral?

As in "Batman" the two crime fighters drive a regular vehicle. In this movie it looks like a 1949 Mercury and it is the same car they drive as Bruce Wayne and Dick Ward! How do they expect to keep their identity as Batman and Robin a secret? They even change into their costumes while in the car. I am sure it was for budget reasons a bat-mobile was not created for both of these movie serials but these actions defeat Batman and Robin's purpose of fighting crime in secret. All someone has to do is trace the license plate number back to Bruce Wayne.

Finally, "Batman & Robin" lacks on suspense. It takes seven chapters before the dynamic duo really come close to getting a clue to solve the mystery of who The Wizard is and it takes equally as long until The Wizard makes any type of demand on Gotham City which leads the viewer to ask, what is The Wizard's ultimate purpose for this device?

The serial really doesn't start to kick into high gear until chapter ten entitled "Batman's Last Chance!". At this point Batman and Robin and starting to get closer and closer to discovering who The Wizard is. However, in the process of that happening the writers, George H. Plympton (who wrote several serials including "Superman" and "Flash Gordon"), Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole, pass up several story-line opportunities including one involving Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), a reporter and possible love interest of Bruce Wayne. At one point Vale starts to suspect Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person. But nothing is done with it.

In some chapters it is suggested the villains have killed off Batman and in one particular chapter it is suggested a close acquaintance was really Batman after he is killed wearing the Batman costume. At no point in the serial is Vicki Vale shown investigating this possibility or is the media seen reporting the death of Batman.

The chapters also don't all end on cliffhangers and the title of the chapters are often misleading. Chapter titles include "Robin's Wild Ride", "Robin Rescues Batman", "Target - Robin", this would all suggest certain chapters heavily revolve around Robin which quite frankly is not the case.

Those that like a more serious interpretation of Batman, showing him as a brooding figure, a man caught in an inner-conflict with two sides of his personality fighting for control, will be sorely disappointed. The Batman and Robin seen in this serial are crime fighters. Good natured, all-American, clean-cut men that do not struggle with themselves about the burden of crime fighting and living a duel life.

In the movies this serious look at Batman is a more modern approach which some fans say took Christopher Nolan, director of the "Dark Knight Trilogy" to perfect. Prior to those movies and two of Tim Burton's movies, the most popular portrayal of Batman was done by Adam West in the 1966-1968 television show, which was actually more campy than this, but intentionally so.

A lot of action in "Batman & Robin" takes place during the day. Another characteristic at odds with the more expected notion that Batman lurks in the shadows. He is a creature of the night. Batman follows criminals in broad daylight here.

"Batman & Robin" didn't really have to be about Batman and Robin. It could have been any made-up character. It is a typical mystery-adventure story common in movie serials. The characters here just happen to be Batman and Robin. Looking at it in that context, purely on the story alone, it has some interesting moments, mostly in the final chapters. As a piece of mainstream lore into the Batman character, I would imagine it would be disappointing story-wise but of some historical interest, because these serials were the first live-action adaptations of the character.

As a serial "Batman & Robin" works. It is typical of the era and serials in general. Batman fans may be disappointed by the portrayal of the character and the lack of dimension but for a 1940s mystery story I found some things to enjoy.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Film Review: Back to School

"Back to School"  *** (out of ****)

Rodney Dangerfield gets no respect when he goes "Back to School" (1986).

If I had to pick my top three all-time favorite stand-up comics the list would include Don Rickles, Jackie Mason and Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield, more than the other two comics, made a mark on the pop culture and created a comedy persona easy for audiences to identity with. The persona was so strong people wrongly confuse the man for the character and assume Rodney Dangerfield was a crass, ignorant fool who got no respect in life.

This is similar to Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. Their personas were so strong, they worked so hard at creating them, finding the proper tone and putting a little bit of themselves into the characters, audiences "bought" it and fully believed in them. Behind every joke they say is a bit of truth.

Rodney Dangerfield did have a rough life. He came from a working class family. His mother's family came to America from Hungary. His father was a drunk and left home when Rodney was a boy. Like most people growing up during the Great Depression, Rodney started working at an early age to help support the family. Deep down Mr. Dangerfield probably felt he got no respect.

All of this was encompassed in Mr. Dangerfield's stand-up act. He would consistently make jokes about a wife that cheated on him, children that didn't love him and a society that always had a wise-crack for him.

In a certain respect I'd like to compare Mr. Dangerfield to the great comics of the 1930s and 40s; W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, Bob Hope. Mr. Dangerfield was a great comic but like those classic comics of the era before him, they all found success in a medium other than movies. When they tried to appear in movies, something was missing. They had to play a "character". They couldn't be themselves. No plot could perfectly capture their persona and elevate it.

Once in a while gold would struck. For W.C. Fields it was "It's A Gift" (1934), for Laurel & Hardy "Sons of the Desert" (1933), for Woody Allen "Annie Hall" (1977) and for Rodney Dangerfield it was "Back to School".

"Back to School" is not a great movie. It is not a great comedy. But it is a good "Rodney Dangerfield comedy". It is, I would dare say, the best comedy he appeared in. "Back to School" takes advantage of all the facets of Mr. Dangerfield's persona. It is a movie which actually creates a character somewhat molded after the perception audiences had of Mr. Dangerfield and builds upon it. There is a character there and a somewhat decent enough story to carry along events and keep our interest. Not to mention, it allows Mr. Dangerfield the room to do his act and deliver several of his wise-cracks. That's more than other movies starring Rodney Dangerfield ever did.

Sure "Caddyshack" (1980) may be considered by some a classic comedy (I'm not one of them) and "Easy Money" (1983) may have its moments, but, those movies didn't really provided Mr. Dangerfield with a character, despite the fact Mr. Dangerfield was one of the co-writers of "Easy Money". Those movies presented Mr. Dangerfield as Nouveau riche. A low-class, ignorant man who collided with upper-class society. Granted "Back to School" has elements of that but what "Back to School" does different is it adds onto that whereas "Caddyshack" merely settles for that and provided nothing else to the character except loud, exaggerated clothes.

In "Back to School" Mr. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, son of an Italian immigrant, who owned a tailor shop. Thornton's father always had high hopes for his son and wanted him to get a college education. Thornton's father would tell him, it doesn't matter how much money you have or how famous you are, if you have no education you are nothing.

This is a sentiment audiences, especially those that are first-generation Americans, can understand. I was the first person in my family to go to college and get a degree. It meant something to me and to my family.

Thornton never does go to college but becomes a wealthy business man when he grows his father's tailor shop into a "Tall and Fat" clothing store that has become a successful franchise.

Now Thornton has a son, Jason (Keith Gordon) who is going to college. This allows Thornton to live through his son as he hopes Jason will accomplish all the things he was never able to.

Thornton lives with his second wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau), a gold digger only after Thornton's money. She looks down on him as a working-class bum who is too unsophisticated to mingle with her rich, intelligent friends. If that isn't enough, she is also cheating on him. Thornton catches her in the act on the night she is throwing a party to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.

Deciding to end their marriage, Thornton travels with his bodyguard (Burt Young) to visit Jason at his college campus, where Thornton learns Jason has lied about how well he is doing. In order to encourage his son to remain in school Thornton decided to finally enroll in college and get his degree.

Reading this story I wouldn't be surprised if audiences assumed the story would now become one of a son embarrassed by his father, who would be a laughing stock at the campus not only because of his age but because of his lack of education and Thornton's crass way with words. I'm happy to say that is not what "Back to School" is. It also isn't a bonding film between father and son. Oh, sure, it goes through some of the motions but "Back to School" has a sentimental side to it and it is about second chances. Getting a second chance to get an education, a second chance at love and second chance at making a first impression. Characters say things like, you can accomplish whatever you want in life as long as you believe in yourself.

It is a sweet message even if some argue it is a naive one. But while "Back to School" may not have a profound message it is smart in its ways. Behind its Hollywood sensibility is a story that understands its characters and a particular mind-set.

The movie was directed by Alan Metter who has directed nothing noteworthy unless you are a big fan of "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow" (1994) and it shows. Visually there is nothing special about "Back to School". The strength of the movie lies in its screenplay, which was co-written by Harold Ramis from an idea Mr. Dangerfield had a hand in and the performance given by Mr. Dangerfield. Although Rodney Dangerfield is not given writing credit, without question he wrote his own lines because I have heard him deliver these lines in his stand-up act. When speaking of the fact he has been married for five years he says he can't believe it. It seems like yesterday and you know what a lousy day yesterday was! Or when he gets the nerve to ask an attractive teacher (Sally Kellerman) out on a date, she keeps refusing him telling him she is unavailable because she has classes to teach. Finally Thornton tells her to call him whenever she has no class. I guess you have to hear him deliver the lines in order for it to be funny.

"Back to School" is an entertaining movie carried by Rodney Dangerfield, who for one of the few times in his career, was given a full character to play which built on his persona and took advantage of his gifts as a comedian. It's no masterpiece but it doesn't need to be one. You just got to give Rodney Dangerfield his respect.