All posts by Doug Krentzlin

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Bat Whispers” (1930)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

Although it’s a crackling good thriller in its own right (if a somewhat dated one), Roland West’s little-seen 1930 “creepy old house” mystery-thriller The Bat Whispers has two main claims to distinction: (1) It was one of the very first widescreen features, and (2) Bob Kane cited The Bat Whispers, along with Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, as his inspiration for the creation of Batman.[1] (Coming full circle, Tim Burton was obviously heavily influenced by West’s use of miniatures and mobile camerawork in The Bat Whispers when he made his 1989 version of Batman.)

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Like so many old house mysteries, The Bat Whispers had its origins in a hit Broadway play. In this case, the source was Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s 1920 play The Bat, based on Rinehart’s 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. (West first adapted the play as a silent film in 1925 under its original title.) Other successful plays of the period that belong in this particular subgenre were Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s The Ghost Breaker (1914), John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary (1922), and Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla (1925). The genre also flourished on UK stages as well, particularly with Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train (1923) and Edgar Wallace’s The Terror (1927). All of the aforementioned plays were adapted as silent films or early talkies or both. The genre was especially popular with the studios in the early days of sound because of their limited settings and plethora of dialogue. (The form was brilliantly lampooned in James Parrott’s hilarious 1930 three-reeler The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. And even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the act with his 1932 thriller Number Seventeen, a surrealistic semi-parody that virtually deconstructed the genre.) [2] The talkie versions of The Gorilla and The Cat and the Canary (retitled The Cat Creeps) both just barely beat The Bat Whispers to the theaters by mere days in November 1930.

A former actor, West was an ambitious, innovative filmmaker, but not a terribly prolific one. He only made 14 movies during his brief 15-year career spanning 1916 to 1931, his only talkies being his last three films. (The Bat Whispers was his penultimate movie.) One of West’s idiosyncrasies was shooting only at night, between the hours of 6:00 pm to 4:00 am. This was not an eccentricity on the part of West, but rather a deliberate effort to avoid any attempts at kibitzing from the studio suits. As Una Merkel (who played the female ingénue in The Bat Whispers) was quoted in Scott MacQueen’s book Between Action and Cut: “He just didn’t want to be bothered with anybody. When he worked at night, there was nobody but him and the company. We all ate together at midnight, everybody at the same table” [3]

Like most innovators, West was inevitably drawn to new technology and The Bat Whispers was his opportunity to experiment with widescreen photography (in this case, the process in question was a 65mm format called Magnifilm) as well as utilizing recent cinematography breakthroughs to bring a mobility to images that were particularly noteworthy in those days when supposedly all talkies were doomed to be static. [4] The state-of-the-art equipment used on the film included a dolly-mounted camera crane and a 300-foot track suspending the camera by cables from overhead scaffolding. West also made creative use of miniature sets which allowed the cameras to give the illusion of swooping up and around buildings and the remote country mansion where the bulk of the story takes place.

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Because very few theaters of the period were equipped to show widescreen films, West covered himself by simultaneously filming an alternate version in standard 35mm. (The cinematographer for the 65mm version was Robert Planck and Ray June did the 35mm version.) For decades, the 65mm version of The Bat Whispers was considered to be lost to posterity, but in 1987, an excellent nitrate print was discovered in the archives of the Mary Pickford Estate, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive performed the restoration work with the result doing full justice to West’s remarkable widescreen compositions.

It’s fascinating to compare West’s silent and sound versions of The Bat. West was enamored of the visual stylization of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, and his emulation of this approach is apparent in both versions. The silent version, in particular, looks like something UFA might’ve produced, with its deliberately unrealistic sets by William Cameron Menzies. But virtually all of the shots are stationary and relied on editing to go from one portion of a set to another. Not so in The Bat Whispers. There are entire sequences in which the camera is in almost constant motion. Also, the timelessly Gothic sets of the silent version were replaced with slick modern-looking settings, especially apparent in the film’s opening sequences in New York City.

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The first 10-minutes of The Bat Whispers display some breathtakingly stunning filmmaking. Underneath the opening credits, we hear a large clock chiming eleven o’clock. The first shot fades in on the camera pulling back from a miniature of a clock tower looming over the New York skyline. The camera then swings down 90° and starts descending to the street below with its miniature cars and pedestrians. Upon reaching ground level, there’s a cut to an actual location with real cars and people. As a police car pulls up, a police lieutenant about to climb aboard is being harassed by a persistent newsboy hawking the latest news about the notorious criminal known as “The Bat.” The officer blows off the newsboy and gets into the car which pulls away with its siren blaring.

The film cuts to inside the police car as it speeds through the dark city streets. A radio broadcast provides preliminary exposition: The Bat, infamous thief and murderer, has sworn to steal the diamond necklace newly-acquired by millionaire Bell (Richard Tucker) precisely at midnight. A master shot shows the car pulling up to a brownstone apartment building. The lieutenant gets out and asks another cop guarding the building which window is Bell’s penthouse. After the cop points out the lighted window on the top floor, the camera rises straight up the side of the brownstone via an elevated crane and, with the aid of a jump cut, straight into the open window of Bell’s library and up to him as he sits at his desk. Another cut brings us to a close-up of the Bat’s threatening note to Bell: “Greetings, Mr. Bell. If you will be in your library alone at twelve sharp midnight, it will prove your nerve and test my ability to steal the Rossmore Necklace out of your safe. The Bat.”

Cut to a gun sitting on Bell’s desk and a clock reading 11:57 pm. In a wideshot, Bell gets up from his desk, pockets the revolver, and goes to a connecting door to the room beyond where a group of cops and reporters wait with a police captain (DeWitt Jennings). As Bell assures the captain that everything is all right, a radio announcer boasts that the police have obviously outsmarted the Bat because it has reached the appointed hour without the robbery taking place. Bell closes the door, goes back to his desk to check the time (12:05 am), then just to assure himself, goes to open a concealed wall safe.

Cut to a close-up of the open window. A black-gloved hand reaches in, grabs hold of the cord of the window shade, and starts flapping the shade as though a heavy wind is blowing it. Cut back to Bell at the safe with the necklace in his hands. He notices the shade flapping and goes to the window. An over-the shoulder POV shot shows the police on guard in the street below. The camera cuts to the outside of the window as Bell reaches out to adjust the shade and he’s jumped from above by the silhouette of the Bat, suspended from the roof by a rope. A cut back inside the window shows Bell’s lower body writhing as the Bat strangles him. The Bat’s hand reaches in, takes the necklace out of Bell’s dead fingers, and tosses in a folded note.

In the outer room, Bell’s butler (Wilson Benge) is calling out to his employer, accompanied by a lively fox trot coming over the radio. The captain goes to the door and starts pounding on it. Meanwhile, outside the library window, the Bat is climbing up his rope to the roof. Cut back to the outer room as the cops force the door open. Cut to inside the library. The cops and butler rush in and are horrified by the sight of Bell’s dead body slumped in the window. The captain shouts out the window for the rest of the cops to come up to the apartment, while the butler discovers the empty safe now bereft of the necklace. The captain reads the note left by the Bat aloud: “To the police, why waste time chasing rainbows? I always get what I go after. Bell was easy because his clock was fast and you boys were slow. Au revoir, leaving for the country to give the police a rest.” The captain orders his men to “get Detective Anderson” and then declares in apoplectic fury to the gathered reporters, “No cheap crook is gonna make a sucker out of me and get away with it!”

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Dissolve to the clock tower as the hands, starting at midnight, start spinning to depict time passing by. Another dissolve shows us the wheels of a train racing through the night, while yet another dissolve reveals miniatures of the New York skyscrapers speeding by. A cut to a POV shot from the train’s front as it heads down the track approaching a bend with a large billboard declaring the upcoming suburb of Oakdale (more miniatures).Another dissolve has the camera dollying along a row of streetlamps leading up to a large bank (yet more miniatures). Via another dissolve, the camera darts in through an upper window overlooking a dark, shadowy antechamber containing the bank’s vault. (This shot especially reflects the film’s German Expressionism influence.) With the oversized shadow of the Bat looming above, a man enters the chamber, opens the vault, removes a valise, and closes the vault, the man and the Bat’s shadow exiting simultaneously.

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Cut to the bank’s parking lot, with the lurking shadow of the Bat prominently cast over the pavement. The thief hops into his car, there’s a dissolve to an insert shot of the vehicle’s license plate (3007), then back to the master shot as the car pulls out of the lot and up the road. Cut to the Bat silhouetted against the night sky descending by his rope. He gets into his car and takes off down the road in pursuit. A cut inside the thief’s car reveals him pulling a switch activating a smokescreen, which another cut shows emanating from the exhaust. Cut to miniatures of the cars and the country road as the smokescreen envelopes the Bat’s car, throwing it off the track as the thief seemingly makes his escape. Fade out.

Fade in on the front gate of the Fleming estate (the mansion within is this thriller’s obligatory creepy old house) and the thief, with a glance over his shoulder, slipping in through the gate. Cut to further down the estate’s wall and road as the Bat’s car pulls up and a flashlight beam scans the thief’s car parked nearby. A quick insert to a close-up of the beam hitting the license plate, confirming that it is indeed the same getaway car. Silhouetted against the estate wall, the distorted shadow of the Bat lurches towards the gate. (A brief insert cut shows one of the Bat’s feet dragging on the ground.) Cut to the thief creeping up to the window of the mansion’s study. Cut to a closer shot of the thief with his back to the camera peering in the window, then a dissolve into the study, and the story finally gets underway with the film’s first extended dialogue scene. And that’s just the first reel!

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Although some of the dialogue scenes betray the customary staginess of the period, there still remains a considerable amount of creativity exhibited in the scenes where the visual action predominates as the house’s occupants and visitors roam (and sometimes run) through the numerous back hallways, stairwells, chutes, hidden passages, and even the rooftops, with intrigues and double-crosses taking place among the various parties competing for the story’s two MacGuffins, the necklace and the bank swag. The characters involved include Miss Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton), a caustic, middle-aged dowager who’s rented the Fleming estate for the season; Lizzie Allen (Maude Eberne), van Gorder’s whiny, moronic, and perpetually frightened comedy relief maid; the estate’s feeble-minded caretaker (Spencer Charters, who was unequalled when it came to playing feeble-minded types); Dale (Merkel), Miss van Gorder’s niece, who serves as the traditional damsel-in-distress; Brook (William Bakewell), Dale’s fiancé, a bank teller who’s been implicated in the robbery and is impersonating a gardener in hopes of locating the loot and clearing his name; the sinister Dr. Venrees (sepulchral-voiced, Satanic-visaged Gustav von Seyffertitz); Richard Fleming (Hugh Huntley), the nephew of the estate’s owner who’s in search of a hidden room where the bank funds might be stashed; Detective Jones (Charles Dow Clark), a bumbling hayseed country constable who’s the other comic relief character; a  stranger who’s injured and stricken with amnesia (Ben Bard); and a second masked fiend (S.E. Jennings). And presiding over events on that proverbial dark and stormy night is Detective Anderson (Chester Morris), a cynical, urbane sleuth obsessed with getting to the bottom of the mysterious proceedings.

After a series of melodramatic incidents, culminating in the torching of the estate’s garage, the Bat is finally captured (accidentally by Lizzie) and unmasked. But wait, there’s more! As the cast forms a tableau outside the mansion with the Bat tied to a tree, a curtain closes on the image and the camera pulls back to reveal a proscenium stage. Suddenly, an unseen stage manager starts shouting, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don’t do that! We’re not through yet! Keep your seats, everybody!” A theater usher sauntering on-stage with a sign is admonished, “Don’t put out that sign! Pull back that curtain! Put on the lights!” The curtain parts to reveal a shadow of a large Oriental urn. “Where is the Bat?” the stage manger screams, to be answered with a “Coming! Coming!” from the actor playing said Bat. A silhouette of the Bat descends on his ever-present rope behind the urn. There’s a burst of flash powder. Then, the actor in question steps forward in evening clothes to address the audience with a tongue-in-cheek speech requesting them not to reveal the surprise ending to their friends who haven’t seen the movie yet because, when that happens, the Bat is “heartbroken and goes around for days killing people without the slightest enjoyment in his work.” If the audience will refrain from spoilers, the Bat “promises not to haunt your homes, steal your money, or frighten your little children. Is it a bargain?” And with that, the “The End” title fades in, with a jaunty jazz tune playing in the background. (This and the aforementioned fox trot are the only music heard during the film.)

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In 1959, The Bat was remade again to take advantage of the horror revival resulting from the release of the old Hollywood horror pictures to television. Written and directed by veteran ‘B’ scenarist Crane Wilbur, this decidedly low-budget affair starred Vincent Price as the doctor (renamed Malcolm Wells), Agnes Moorehead as Cornelia van Gorder, Gavin Gordon (Mystery of the Wax Museum, Bride of Frankenstein) as Detective Anderson, and Darla Hood (the Our Gang comedies) as the female ingénue in her final film appearance. (In a too-cute-by-half touch, van Gorder was reconceived as a mystery writer on vacation.) Although this remake is the one most often seen on television, it has absolutely none of the visual style of its predecessors, and in no way threatenes The Bat Whispers’ status as the definitive version.

Fortunately for connoisseurs of classic cinema, Milestone Film & Video, an award-winning company specializing in releasing restored editions of lost and rare film classics, issued a DVD of The Bat Whispers in 1999, containing pristine prints of both the 70mm and 35mm versions. (The DVD is currently out of print, but new and used copies are still available from Amazon). The movie remains a cultural and historical artifact in addition to being a lot of fun to boot. Just remember, though: “The Bat always flies at night… and always in a straight line.”

[1] Yes, I’m aware that it’s now well known that writer Bill Finger deserves the lion’s share of the credit for shaping the character of Batman as we now know him (even though DC Comics gave Kane the sole credit), but even Finger admitted that the initial basic idea was Kane’s.

[2] Whereas most of these films stuck to their basic claustrophobic settings, it’s typical of Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor that the last third of Number Seventeen is devoted to an elaborate cross-country chase scene.

[3] Some of this information was derived from Bret Wood’s TCM article on The Bat Whispers. Some caveats, though. Wood claims that West “altered the identity of the culprit from that of the four-year-old silent version of the film.” This is not accurate; although the surname of the character revealed to the masked villain is different in the talkie version, it’s still the equivalent of the same character in the silent film. Also, a warning, if you haven’t seen The Bat Whispers, you should steer clear of TCM’s cast list for the film; the identity of the actor playing the Bat is given away.

[4] West wasn’t the only filmmaker determined to bring camera mobility to the early sound cinema. Lewis Milestone, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Dieterle also went out of their way to avoid the stationary camerawork that plagued so many talkies of the period.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Woman Chaser” (1999)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

The primordial ooze that the genre we now know as film noir emerged from was the pulp magazine fiction of the 1920s and 30s and the subsequent novels by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich. In fact, the creation of the film noir genre was an accidental result of then-screenwriter John Huston’s decision to do a meticulously faithful adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which had already been filmed twice before (both badly), as his directorial debut. Because it retained Hammett’s uncompromising vision of the criminal world and the people who inhabited it on both sides of the law (a reflection of Hammett’s first-hand experiences as a Pinkerton detective), Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon seemed breathtakingly new and the film’s success at the box office inspired other studios to try their hand at adapting pulp novels.

The works of the aforementioned writers were particularly popular with filmmakers because their relatively linear narratives made them easily adaptable to the film medium. The works of a later generation of pulp writers from the 40s and 50s were far more difficult to adapt to a visual medium because their first-person narratives took place mainly in the heads of their protagonists and, more often than not, these narrators were psychotics and madmen. The writers that fall into this second category include Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. As Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) proves, in the hands of a genuinely inspired filmmaker, it is possible to translate material like this into visual terms. Another filmmaker who managed to pull off this challenge was independent director Robinson Devor in his criminally little-known 1999 adaptation of Willeford’s 1960 novel The Woman Chaser.

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After premiering at the 1999 New York Film Festival, and subsequently screening at other showcase festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest, The Woman Chaser opened to mixed reviews, had a limited distribution, and also turned up on cable via The Sundance Channel and Showtime and on VHS. Then The Woman Chaser pretty much vanished off the face of the earth, not even receiving a DVD release. Just recently, however, thanks to that new-fangled thingamabob known as on-line streaming, Sundance Institute’s Artist Services has been able to make The Woman Chaser available for viewing on iTunes (as of May 20), and also on Netflix or netflix amerika, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (starting on June 15), giving this underrated little gem a well-deserved second chance.

Willeford was a World War II veteran-turned-writer whose work had been filmed twice before, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) and George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990, based on the first of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels). Both of these films have much to recommend them, but neither came as close to capturing Willeford’s style as Devor’s The Woman Chaser. As quoted in an on-line article by Jesse Sublett, Willeford’s widow Betsy concisely articulated what makes Devor’s film stand out from the other film versions of her husband’s work: “I like it best of the three adaptations. It’s uncommercial, the way the book was, and has the courage of its outrageousness.” As Huston did with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Devor wrote the screenplay himself, observing scrupulous fidelity to his source, faithfully duplicated the novel’s story structure scene-for-scene, and taking all of the dialogue almost verbatim from the book. Devor also retained the novel’s original setting and period, Los Angeles circa 1960.

Devor had only one previous film, Angelyne (1995), a documentary about actress and model Angyline Angelyne, under his belt when he decided to make his “real” filmmaking debut with an adaptation of The Woman Chaser. In an interview with Dan Lybarger for Nitrate On-Line, Devor recounted how he obtained a second-hand copy of Willeford’s novel from a couple who sold old mystery and crime books out of their home in Redondo Beach and later filmed his adaptation on weekends while retaining his day job as a vice president of a Los Angeles PR firm. Devor’s first choice for the leading role, Richard Hudson, was Jason Patric, but when Patric wasn’t available, he gladly went with Patrick Warburton because, as he put it, “I knew that we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy.”

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Richard Hudson, the main character and first-person narrator of The Woman Chaser, is, like the protagonist of Willeford’s first novel High Priest of California, a sociopathic used car dealer. A representative of a San Francisco repo tycoon known professionally as “Honest Hal,” Richard has returned to his home town of Los Angeles in order to start an Honest Hal franchise there. He selects a rundown used car lot near the Capitol Building, which towers over the background, and quickly scams the lot’s owner (Eugene Roche) into forking the business over to him. Richard then hires an ex-Army sergeant named Bill Harris (Ron Morgan) to be his manager and adds three burnouts to the staff as salesmen. One sweltering August day without any sales happening, Richard has an inspiration and takes it to Bill in the air-conditioned trailer that serves as the lot’s office.

Richard: “Lift the phone, Cool One, and call a costume company.”

Bill: “Any company in particular?”

Richard: “One that sells Santa Claus suits, complete with beards.”

Bill: “What sizes?”

Richard: The sizes worn by Evans, Cartwell, and Jody-boy, our three star salesmen.”

Bill: “You shouldn’t do it, Chief. It’s the middle of August. Those guys will melt out there.”

Richard: (angrily) “It’s the first day of August and they’ll wear the suits every damned day until I tell them to take them off!” (lowering his voice) “What is more unusual than Santa Claus selling used cars in August?”

Bill: “You’ve got me for the moment.”

Richard: “Nothing! Honest Hal is now Santa Claus in the middle of summer, bringing the good people of the City of Angels goodies in the form of repos. Your repos. Now, get the suits and get our buddy boys into them. Take a half-page in The Times and write some decent copy for a change. I don’t want those repos on the lot by Saturday!” (pause) “Oh, by the way, Cool One, you will inform our white-bearded salesmen that the Santy Claus suits are your idea.”

Richard takes advantage of relocating to LA to reconnect with his mother (Lynette Bennett), a retired ballerina who lives in a decaying mansion straight out of Sunset Boulevard with Richard’s stepfather Leo (Paul Malevich), an ex-film director, and Leo’s teenage daughter Laura (Emily Newman). At his mother’s invitation, Richard moves into the former servants’ quarters above the garage. Like most sociopaths, Richard has a heightened opinion of himself and regards his customers and just about every other member of society as “feebs” who live boringly ordinary lives. One night, Richard has a horrifying epiphany: his life is just as pointless as those of all the people he looks down upon. Sitting alone in his car and weeping to himself, he decides that he must “create something. Anything.”

An avid moviegoer, Richard believes that the one form of art that he’s capable of is filmmaking; he’ll write and direct his very own movie. Richard dreams up a story he titles The Man Who Got Away and writes a one-paragraph synopsis of it: “A truck-driver driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles runs over and kills a child. He tries to get away. He doesn’t.” Richard then takes his idea to Leo, who works out the minimum budget required to make the film. Richard is convinced that he and Leo can raise half of the amount needed. (Richard will embezzle his share from Honest Hal and Leo will hock the valuable painting that is his sole leftover from his glory days.) He begs Leo to contact “The Man” (Ernie Vincent), the head of Leo’s former studio Mammoth Pictures, and see if he’ll put up the other half. After reading Richard’s screenplay, The Man greenlights the project and offers the studio’s resources in lieu of cash to make the picture.

Working on a limited budget and schedule that doesn’t allow for any retakes, Richard completes his movie. But after watching the first cut, he becomes dissatisfied with his creation and decides to edit it down to a length he believes necessary to maintain the film’s tension. By the time Richard and Ruggerio (Max Kerstein), the editor assigned to him by the studio, finish pruning the film to the point Richard wants, they have a movie that runs only 63 minutes. That’s when Ruggerio breaks the bad news to Richard.

Ruggerio: “With the sound effects and the music dubbed in, it will be a little masterpiece and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Unfortunately, we have to put twenty-seven more minutes of film. Three minutes can be taken in titling, but the other twenty-four will have to be plain old padding.”

Richard: “Can we pad twenty-four minutes and still maintain the pace I’ve set, the mood and so on?”

Ruggerio: “Nope. But there’s no choice.”

Richard: “Why is that?”

Ruggerio: “You know that as well as I do, Mr. Hudson. A movie is ninety minutes long. Six full reels. That’s the business.”

Richard: “But unnecessary padding will ruin my movie.”

Ruggerio: “Not really. We can stretch the hell out of that chase down the highway. I’ve got stock stuff I haven’t even looked at yet, reel after reel. Scenic views, wild flowers, traffic jams, all kinds of stuff, and we can fit it in fine. I remember a western once where I stretched a desert chase out twenty-five minutes with long shots of different guys riding on horseback. Nobody knew the difference. People like chases.”

Richard: “The Man Who Got Away isn’t a western.”

Ruggerio: “Yeah, but he doesn’t really get away, either. It’s the same thing as a big chase—“

Richard: (shouting angrily) “Damn it, no! As far as I’m concerned, my movie will run as it is, twenty-seven minutes short! Period. I’m not going to ruin my movie because of some stupid ruling that it has to be ninety minutes long!” 1

Richard digs in his heels, insisting that adding unnecessary footage to his movie would be “like adding three more plates to the Last Supper or an extra wing on the Pentagon.” Unexpectedly, The Man doesn’t reject the movie outright as being too short. In fact, he and Leo have come up with an idea to salvage the film. When Richard learns what will be done with his “masterpiece” against his will, he explodes in rage, taking a perverse, self-destructive revenge on all those he believes have double-crossed him. (Re: the title, while Richard does his share of exploiting and abusing many of the female characters who are unfortunate enough to cross his path, it’s hardly the main focus of the story. Willeford’s original title for his book was The Director, but Newstand Library, the original publisher, thought that The Woman Chaser would be a more appropriately lurid title for a paperback pulp novel.)

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Devor not only got the 1960 period details (costumes, cars, props, locations) down perfectly, but, aided by Kramer Morgenthau’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography, he also was successful in recreating the look of such low-budget independent films of the period as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Also contributing to the period authenticity was Daniele Luppi’s music score, utilizing recordings by jazz artists of the time like Les Baxter, Chico O’Farrell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, and Jimmy Smith.

Typical of Willeford’s work, much of his novel The Woman Chaser is set inside Richard Hudson’s psyche, with long, rambling soliloquies from Richard detailing how he observes the rest of the world, his patronizing contempt for everyone he comes in contact with, and his philosophy based on his belief that movies mirror real life. Devor retained many of these soliloquies and filmed them in ways that provide visual metaphors for Richard’s life-as-film outlook. Some of the monologues are done as voice-overs accompanying either the action or close-ups of Richard looking straight at the camera with the glare of a movie projector backlighting him from behind and bathing him in a halo-like glow. Other monologues consist of Richard in a dark room breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with Richard’s head in the far background of the extreme left of the screen while the turning reels of a 16mm projector and its projected light frame Richard in the foreground.

Since the story is told entirely from Richard Hudson’s POV, Patrick Warburton appears in every single scene and he rises to the occasion by giving the performance of his career. (People who know Warburton mainly for his work in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement will be in for a big surprise when they see The Woman Chaser.) The power in Warburton’s performance lies in his underplaying the role rather than going for the over-the-top approach that most actors take when playing maniacs. Warburton plays Richard as a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off, a passive-aggressive type just barely suppressing his inner rage and frustration while hiding behind a facade of macho hipness. In an interview with Jeffrey M. Anderson for the website Combustible Celluloid, Warburton gave his personal take on the character: “He’s just a brutish, self-serving ass. There’s something very boyish about Hudson. He’s dangerous and he scares you, but then there are times when he’s just like a pathetic little boy. Maybe that’s why you can empathize with him a little bit, ’cause you just see what a pathetic creature he is and how lost he is.”

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For the rest of his cast, Devor went with non-experienced actors, deliberately avoiding professionals. As he explained to Lybarger: “To me, the ultimate failure in a lot of movies—and a lot of people will agree with me—is that a lot of the actors look like they’re in the 90s or 2000. They’re just too good-looking; they’re just too coifed. Their bodies are just too cut, and there are no flaws. That’s not the kind of look people had in the past, and it’s not appropriate for this project. My formula for this when I was casting—God love the actors; they’re wonderful, attractive people as contemporary human beings—but I wanted Hudson to be this kind of normal-looking guy surrounded by these grotesques. I wanted to stack the deck and to make his bullying almost more of a mismatch. I wanted to make Leo so unaggressive and so unthreatening that, when he ultimately betrays Richard, it’s very absurd. It’s difficult to find somebody. A lot of people would come in, and they’d be character actors playing [Leo] like a wacky intellectual. This non-actor [Paul Malevich] was a very down-to-earth sweet guy. He was a real person. He allowed us to film him in unflattering ways. There were very few self-conscious actors on the set, which was great.” Ironically, this paralleled the way Richard Hudson decides to cast his movie when Leo states that their marginal budget provides a pitifully low amount for the actors’ salaries. As Richard tells Leo in Willeford’s novel, “To do my movie, it has to be done with nobodies… If I can get actors nobody knows, they’ll believe in the characters as they see them on the screen.”

Although it played in a few key cities (New York, LA, Austin, San Francisco) in mid-2000, The Woman Chaser never received a general nationwide release. It didn’t help that many reviewers (including the New York Times’ Stephen Holder) dismissed it as “a film noir spoof,” which only shows how little most mainstream critics know about film noir. 2 (Despite an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout The Woman Chaser, it’s no “spoof,” it’s the real deal.) In the years since, The Woman Chaser has earned more respect and developed a cult following. In a Film Noir of the Week review, Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) praised The Woman Chaser for being “faithful to its beautifully seedy genre while feeling like an entirely unique experience” and characterized it as “an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated.”

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The jury’s still out on the merits of streaming vs. discs. (I personally share my World Cinema Paradise colleagues Stuart Galbraith IV and Stephen Bowie’s preference for the physical medium. If you own a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray, you don’t have to worry about the “streaming rights” expiring.) But steaming can atone for a multitude of sins if it brings a little-seen wonder like The Woman Chaser to a new audience. Think of it as The Film That Almost Got Away. But didn’t. (Now when the hell is this movie gonna get its long-overdue DVD and Blu-Ray release?)

[1] Actually, Willeford betrayed some unfamiliarity with the film industry here. Although they were becoming increasingly rare by the 1960s, there were still second-features being released with running times well below 90 minutes. For example, Harvey Hart’s Dark Intruder, a 59-minute long unsold pilot for a television horror series produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, was released by Universal Pictures as the bottom half of a double-bill with William Castle’s I Saw What You Did in July 1965. Also, a reel of 35mm film contained 10-minutes worth of footage, not 15-minutes, so a 90-minute film would be nine reels, not six. Nevertheless, Willeford’s fictional “90-minutes rule” was necessary for plot purposes and Devor made the right call to retain it as is. Nice in-joke: The Woman Chaser runs exactly 90-minutes.

[2] One of the reasons that it’s almost impossible to do an acceptable parody of film noir is that most great film noirs (such as The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil) contain a great deal of intentional humor and most attempts at spoofing the genre fail to be nearly as funny.

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DVD Review: “The Strange Woman” (1946)

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One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.

Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)

Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)

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After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.

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Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders

Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.

Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”

A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.

Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.

Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”

The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.

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The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)

Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.

The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
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On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.

As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Return to Oz” (1985)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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For decades, The Wizard of Oz, MGM’s 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was one of two films that stuck in the craws of the suits running Walt Disney Pictures as a movie “we should’ve made.” (The original 1977 Star Wars was the other one. Of course, Disney now owns the Star Wars franchise.) Ironically, MGM was inspired to make The Wizard of Oz when Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), became the highest-grossing movie to date. The Wizard of Oz did respectable business at the box office, but because of its gargantuan budget (it was Hollywood’s most expensive film at the time), it needed to be a megahit to make a profit. (It wasn’t until The Wizard of Oz started being broadcast on television that the film finally went into the black.) Eventually, it seemed as though MGM had the ultimate laugh at Disney’s expense in that The Wizard of Oz became a much bigger cultural icon among subsequent generations (beginning with the baby boomers) than Snow White, and also that Disney’s attempt at doing their own Oz movie, Return to Oz, was a major financial flop in 1985, particularly due to critics and audiences’ unfavorable comparisons with the MGM film. Still, the day may yet come when Disney has the last laugh after all because Return to Oz has built up a loyal following in the almost three decades since its release and has been increasingly acknowledged as the screen’s most faithful adaptation of Baum’s work.

Make no mistake; MGM’s The Wizard of Oz was a remarkable achievement, albeit one that’s gotten too much credit for what it isn’t and not enough credit for what it is. In the latter category, although the honor was usually misattributed for half a century (mainly by theater snobs) to Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, The Wizard of Oz was the first “integrated musical.” Practically all of the songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg serve to move the story forward, even the Cowardly Lion’s solo comic number “If I Was King of the Forest.” (The only exception is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is one reason it almost got cut before the film’s release.)

While The Wizard of Oz is a great musical comedy, it is, however, neither a great fantasy film nor a faithful rendition of Baum’s literary vision. Despite the innovative use of Technicolor, Victor Fleming’s bland, pedestrian direction was too heavy-handed and literal to capture the sheer wonderment of such genuinely inspired cinematic flights of fancy as Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). Return to Oz, on the other hand, is the great live-action fantasy film that Disney always wanted to make, but could never quite pull off.

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In addition to negative comparisons to MGM’s film in reviews of Return to Oz, the other main complaint was that the movie was “too dark” to be suitable entertainment for children. These complaints only proved that most of the critics had never actually read any of Baum’s original Oz novels. (And apparently they’d forgotten that The Wizard of Oz was considered pretty frightening for a children’s movie as well. Flying monkeys, anyone?) Indeed, the most nightmarish elements of Return to Oz (the Wheelers, the hall of living disembodied heads, the deadly desert, the Nome King’s underground world) were taken directly from the film’s main source, Baum’s third Oz book Ozma of Oz. (There were also some elements borrowed from the second Oz novel The Marvelous Land of Oz.)

Return to Oz remains the only movie directed by award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. In a 2000 interview with Film Freak Central’s Bill Chambers, Murch recounted how he’d inadvertently initiated the project: “I had been approached by Disney in 1980—they had pulled my name from a shortlist of people who were doing interesting things in film and might someday direct. I went down to LA for an interview with Tom Wilhite—it was just a fishing expedition on both of our parts. But one of the questions he asked was, ‘What are you interested in that you think we might also be interested in?’ and I said, ‘Another Oz story.’ I had grown up with the specific books on which Return is based, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz—in fact they were the first ‘real’ books I ever read on my own. And Tom sort of straightened up in his chair, because it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that Disney owned the rights to all of the Oz stories. And they were particularly interested in doing something with them because the copyright was going to run out in the next five years. So, we went through the usual developmental phases: I wrote a treatment with Gill Dennis, they liked it, I wrote a script with Gill and they liked that, and eventually, much to my amazement, I was in England on a soundstage saying ‘Action!’ with all of these Oz creatures around me.” (At one point, when the filming was falling behind schedule and over-budget, Disney fired Murch off the project, but his friend George Lucas went to bat for him, praising the footage shot so far and convincing the suits to rehire Murch.)

The unenviable task of playing Dorothy Gale, a role forever inexorably linked with Judy Garland in the minds of most filmgoers, was given to a young 11-year-old actress making her film debut, Fairuza Balk. (At least, Falk was closer to the age of her literary counterpart than the then-16-year-old Garland, who famously had to have her breasts bound for the part.) In that same interview, Murch detailed the difficulties Balk faced: “There were 114 days of shooting, which is a lot, and the character of Dorothy, played by Fairuza Balk, is in almost every shot. She was absolutely great, a fantastic ally in the making of the film, but there are laws in England and the United States that limit the amount of time you can shoot with a child actor, so it put great strains on how much we could do each day. Add on top of that all of the creatures she was with—puppets and claymation and animals… All of the claymation was done in post-production, so when Fairuza had to act with the nomes, she was just looking at a piece of tape on a wall, having to imagine it as something else.” (In addition, Balk did all of her own stunts.)

Joining Balk in the cast were veteran character actors Piper Laurie (as Aunt Em), Matt Clark (as Uncle Henry), Jean Marsh (as Nurse Wilson and Mombi the Witch), and Nicol Williamson (as Dr. Worley and the Nome King). (Since the film was made in the UK, mainly at Elstree Studios, the other roles were played by lesser-known British actors, or in several cases, physically played by expert stunt performers and dubbed by voice actors.) As the dual roles indicate, Return to Oz did borrow some motifs from the MGM film. Disney even paid MGM for the right to use the “ruby slippers” as Dorothy’s magical shoes, as opposed to the “silver slippers” that appeared in Baum’s original novel.

The technical team recruited by Murch was particularly impressive. The film’s executive producer was Gary Kurtz, best known as the producer of the first two Star Wars movies. (By most accounts, Kurtz’s hands-on supervision of the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, was responsible of it being the gem of the series.) Production design was by Norman Reynolds, art direction was by Charles Bishop and Fred Hole, the costumes were designed by Raymond Hughes, and, per Murch’s instructions, they closely modeled their work on the original illustrations by John R. Neill, the definitive Oz artist. (Neill’s contributions to the Oz books continued even after Baum’s death and Ruth Plumly Thompson took over as the official chronicler of the Oz adventures.) The cinematography was by David Watkin with uncredited assistance from Freddie Francis. (Unlike MGM’s film, which was filmed entirely on studio soundstages, all of the exteriors for Return to Oz where filmed on outdoor UK locations, with Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain standing in for Kansas.)

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Return to Oz was made before the advent of CGI, utilizing practical effects instead, including animatronics and stop-action animation or “Claymation,” to be exact, with Will Vinton’s Studios providing the latter. As an example of the difficulties in depicting inhuman characters in those pre-CGI days, in order to enact the role of Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man, actor/contortionist Michael Sundin was forced to bend over to lock himself inside Tik-Tok’s circular torso and had to walk backwards while watching where he was going via a mini TV set. (Sean Barrett provided Tik-Tok’s voice.)

Music is crucial to fantastic films and Return to Oz’s symphonic score couldn’t have been in better hands than David Shire. Shire’s most notable previous works were his 40s jazz score for Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely (1975) and minimalist solo piano score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). (Murch also worked on The Conversation, earning an Oscar nomination for sound montage editing.) For Return to Oz, Shire outdid himself and the resulting score remains his masterpiece. As Shire explained to David Kraft in a 1986 interview for CinemaScore, “I wanted the score to have a truly American flavor and, even though symphonic, to employ various interesting smaller combinations within that texture.” Taking his cue from the film’s setting in 1899, Shire utilized styles from that period. His theme for Oz, for instance, was a ragtime march. And for Tik-Tok’s theme, Shire used a brass quintet, “which related to Tik-Tok’s metallic rotundity,” as he put it.

As Return to Oz opens, Dorothy has been suffering from insomnia in the six months since her adventure in Oz and sits indoors all day rather than playing outside with her dog Toto. (Keeping with the continuity of the original books, the kingdom of Oz actually does exist, unlike the MGM film, where it was just a dream Dorothy had.) Needless to say, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are convinced that Dorothy’s tales of Oz are a delusion brought on by the traumatic experience of the cyclone that did severe damage their Kansas farmhouse. (Even Dorothy finding a metal key with an Oz glyph the morning after a shooting star appears over the farm fails to convince them.) Adding to the Gale family’s woes are a mortgage due and the inability of their hen Billina to lay eggs since the cyclone.

Finally, Em decides that Dorothy needs some professional help, so she takes her to the clinic of Dr. Worley. Despite the Doctor’s deceptively smooth bedside manner, it soon becomes clear that the treatment he’s recommending for Dorothy is a primitive version of electroshock therapy. Worley becomes even more insufferably patronizing after hearing Dorothy’s matter-of-fact account of the Tin Woodman’s rather gruesome origin (taken verbatim from Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). “Well, I think I know just the thing to cheer Dorothy up,” he heartily proclaims while showing off his device. “This electrical marvel will make it possible for you to sleep again and will also get rid of those bad, waking dreams that you’ve been telling me about.”

Left by Em to spend the night in the clinic (with the promise of bringing Toto with her when she returns in the morning), Dorothy is taken in hand by Nurse Wilson, a stern, unsmiling woman dressed entirely in black. While in the waiting room, Dorothy meets a mysterious young girl (Emma Ridley) who’s the same age she is. The girl hints that there is more to Worley’s clinic than meets the eye, a cryptic warning that is supported by the sounds of screams coming from another room. The girl then disappears and Nurse Wilson returns with a gurney and a couple of sinister orderlies. Dorothy is strapped down to the gurney and taken to the room where the therapy is to be applied.

Fortunately, before Worley’s machine can administer its electrical charge to Dorothy, a sudden thunderstorm knocks out the power. Wilson leaves the room to attend to screaming patients while Worley goes to check the generator. The mysterious girl reappears, unstraps Dorothy from the gurney, and the two of them flee the clinic in the midst of the raging storm, pursued by a furious Wilson. The girls fall into a river and are separated as the rushing waters sweep them away in its currents. A battered chicken coop passing by in the water provides Dorothy with a makeshift raft as she floats away into the night.

The next morning, Dorothy awakens to find the coop in an overgrown puddle surrounded by desert sands with a green, grassy meadow just a few yards away and an unusually voluble Bellina (voiced by Denise Bryer) clucking away next to her.

Dorothy: (waking up) “What’s that?”

Bellina: “Oh, I was just trying to lay my egg, that’s all.”

Dorothy: “Bellina?”

Bellina: “Who else?”

Dorothy: “What are you doing here? Have you been here all night, too?”

Bellina: (sneezes) “I’ve never been so wet in my whole life… How big is this whole pond anyway?”

Dorothy: “I don’t think it’s a pond, Bellina.” (standing up and looking around.) “Maybe it is a pond.”

Bellina: “Told you so.”

Dorothy: “Where did all of the rest of the water go?”

Bellina: “Where did Kansas go?” (looking around) “Some place for a chicken.”

Dorothy: “When did you learn to talk, anyway? I thought hens could only cluck and cackle.”

Bellina: “Strange, ain’t it? How’s my grammar?”

Dorothy: “If we were in the land of Oz, your talking wouldn’t seem strange after all.”

Bellina: (watching the last of the water dry up) “There goes the rest of the water. High and dry.”

Dorothy: (awestruck) “Oz!”

Bellina: “Hmmm?”

Dorothy: “Maybe this is Oz!”

Bellina’s about to jump down from the coop and hunt for some breakfast when Dorothy realizes that, if they are indeed in Oz, then the sands surrounding them are the “deadly desert” and that anything that set foot on it turns to sand itself. Luckily, there are enough rocks nearby to allow Dorothy to use them as stepping stones to the safety of the verdant area beyond. As Dorothy carries Bellina from rock to rock, we hear the first few solo piano notes of Shire’s Oz theme in addition to be introduced to the first example of Vinton’s Claymation in the form of a couple of those stepping stone sprouting eyes to spy on the newcomers.

For those who haven’t seen Return to Oz, I won’t spoil the subsequent adventures that Dorothy and Bellina embark upon during their stay in Oz. Suffice it to say that they encounter an impressive array of thoroughly loathsome enemies and steadfastly loyal companions who become their allies against the villains. The bad guys include a witch named Mombi, who, among her magical powers, is the ability to wear different heads like someone wears a different hat every day and keeps a supply of disembodied heads in glass cases in a hall in her palace; the Wheelers, a malevolent group of creatures who travel around on the wheels they have rather than hands and feet; and the Nome King, who has kidnapped several citizens of Oz (including the Scarecrow) and transformed them into trinkets for his underground lair while turning the remaining Oz denizens (including the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion) into stone statues. The more trinkets the Nome King acquires, the more he transforms from living rock to an increasingly humanoid form.

The good guys include the aforementioned Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man, a mechanical being made of burnished brass who serves as a one-man Royal Army of Oz; Jack Pumpkinhead (played physically by rail-thin “body popper” dancer Stewart Larange and voiced by Brian Henson), a boy with a Jack O’Lantern head and body consisting of wooden twigs made living by Mombi’s Powder of Life;  and the Gump (voiced by Lyle Conway and manipulated by puppeteer Steve Norrington), another creature animated by the Powder of Life consisting of two sofas tied together for a body, large palm tree fronds for wings, and a mounted moose’s head for its head. (Dorothy and Jack create the Gump as a way of escaping from Mombi’s palace after she makes them prisoners there.) Other familiar Oz regulars can be briefly glimpsed in the climatic celebratory sequence, including the Patchwork Girl, the Shaggy Man, and Prof. H.M. Wogglebug. We also learn the true identity of the young girl who befriended Dorothy at the clinic in this scene.

As mentioned before, the reputation of Return to Oz has grown over the years. Iconic fantasy writer Harlan Ellison singled the film out for especially effusive praise (and defense) in his book Harlan Ellison’s Watching: “Return to Oz is smashing! For those of us who are familiar with the Oz canon of L. Frank Baum and those who lovingly continued the history of that special wonderland—even though we adore the MGM classic, watch it again and again, and know a masterpiece when we (and posterity) see one—the Judy Garland musical was hardly the definitive interpretation… No, my readers, turn a deaf ear to the boos and catcalls of the trendy critics who refuse to judge this absolutely marvelous film on its own merits. Take your kids, let them scream, let your eyes drink in marvels. Return to Oz is everything we hoped for.”

Return to Oz was first released on DVD by Anchor Bay in 1999. That release is no longer available, but Disney Home Entertainment issued its own DVD of the movie in 2004. A reviewer on a site called DVD Dizzy offered this appraisal of the Disney version: “Disney’s DVD release is a step-up from Anchor Bay’s now out-of-print disc, and presents the film with high quality video and audio, and even a nice little helping of extras.”

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Baseball Edition): “Alibi Ike” (1935)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

In one of those cosmic ironies that occur so often in show business, if it wasn’t for his supporting role in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot, comedian Joe E. Brown would be almost entirely forgotten nowadays by the general public. The irony lies in the fact that Brown was one of the three Hollywood comedians who were the most popular with movie audiences during the Depression. (The other two were Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor.)

A natural-born clown with the face of a leprechaun, Brown’s abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian were second only to those of Buster Keaton. Another thing that Brown and Keaton had in common was a passion for baseball.[1] Unlike Keaton, however, Brown actually played professional baseball and even turned down an opportunity to sign up with the New York Yankees to pursue a career in show business. Not surprisingly, Brown made an unofficial trilogy of comedies about the National Pastime when he was Warner Bros.’ top comedian in the early 1930s: Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), and Alibi Ike (1935). The last of these, Alibi Ike, is not only the funniest of the trio, but is arguably the best damn baseball movie ever made as well.

Like Elmer the Great, Alibi Ike was based on a short story by the dean of baseball scribes, Ring Lardner. In fact, as directed by Ray Enright and scripted by William Wister Haines, Alibi Ike is a very faithful adaptation of Lardner’s story with much of the dialogue taken verbatim from its source. The main deviation from the original, which was a brief “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” tale, is a subplot involving game-fixing gangsters added to pad the story to feature length. (For Alibi Ike, the feature length in question was a brief 72 minutes. Those were the days.) Another deviation was changing the title character from a batting sensation to an ace pitcher. (Pitching offering more opportunities for visual humor, particularly Brown’s elaborate, exaggerated, corkscrew-pitch.)

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Alibi Ike boasted some authenticity rarely seen in sports movies. The game sequences were shot at Wrigley Field; no, not the one in Chicago, but at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, the ballpark that hosted minor league teams for about three decades and which served as a backdrop to numerous films (such as Damn Yankees) and television episodes. In addition, the majority of the non-speaking baseball player roles in the film were played not by extras, but rather by professional ball players of the period, including Herman Bell, Ray French, Wally Hebert, Wes Kingdon, Jim Levy, Frank Shellenback, Guy Cantrell, Dick Cox, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Wally Hood, Don Hurst, Smead Jolley, Lou Koupal, Bob Meusel, Wally Rehg, Ed Wells, and Jim Thorpe. (Which explains why they moved around the field like professional ballplayers and not extras pretending to be professional ballplayers.) Another notable member of the cast was an actress making her film debut, Olivia de Havilland, who played Brown’s love interest.[2] (Many up-and-coming young actresses appeared with Brown in his movies for Warners, including Ginger Rogers, Joan Bennett, Thelma Todd, Dorothy Lee, and Alice White.)

MLB is such an addictive sports to watch. What I do to add some more thrill is by betting on 메리트카지노.

“Alibi Ike” is the nickname bestowed on the main character for the reason explained in the first paragraph of Lardner’s story: “His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for ‘Excuse me.’ Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin’ for it.” In the film, Farrell is a bushleague player traded to the Chicago Cubs. In the opening scene, Johnson (Joseph King), the team’s owner, discusses the chances for the season with crusty, middle-aged manager Cap (William Frawley).

Johnson: “I know you had nothing to work with last year but—“

Cap: “Nothing? I had the finest-trained butch of rookies you ever saw with one ball player among ‘em, Pennick. All he did was keep us from fallin’ out of the league. But Pennick, it now appears, has been sold!”

Johnson: “Oh, snap out of it, Cap. We’ve still got the rest of the club.”

Cap: “Yeah, cut off Max Baer’s right arm and you’ve still got the rest of a heavyweight champion, too.”

Johnson: “It’s not as bad as all that. Pennick was good, yes, but it’s not every year you can get a hundred thousand dollars for one man.”

Cap: “Who’s gonna pitch for us, them hundred thousand dollars?”

Johnson: “You’re sure to find something good among those new players. That boy Farrell alone struck out twenty men in one game last year.”

Cap: “Yeah, in Sauk Centre, wasn’t it? Did they claim Babe Ruth was playin’ against him in Sauk Centre? I bet I’ll have to ring a cow bell to get him in off the field.”

Johnson: “Well, at that, you can buy a lotta cow bells for a hundred grand.”

While being interviewed by a sports reporter (Jack Norton playing sober for a change), Cap receives a telegram from Farrell: “Reporting tomorrow. Sorry I was late but my calendar was wrong.” “His ‘calendar was wrong!’” fumes Cap, “Now there’s an alibi for ya!” As it turns out, Farrell does show up on that day, making a spectacular entrance while he’s at it: crashing through the fence and plowing around the field in an out-of-control jalopy, sending the players scrambling to get out of his way.

Cap forgets his anger when Farrell turns out to be the pitching phenom his rep promised. He’s even willing to excuse Farrell’s endless alibis for all occasions. His teammates, on the other hand, aren’t about to ignore Farrell’s habitual mendacity, especially a pair of jokers, Jack Mack (Eddie Shubert) and catcher Bob Carey (Roscoe Karns), who go out of their way to try catching him in a fib. Farrell’s alibis even extend to totally innocuous situations, like when, after a night of playing pool, Farrell tells the boys that he’s calling it a night and going to bed. “Don’t feel a bit sleepy” he says, “but got gravel in my shoes and my feet hurt like the dickens.” (“I should think they’d take them gravel pits outta this pool room,” cracks Carey.)

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Eventually, Farrell’s alibi habit gets him in hot water when he meets Dolly Stevens (de Havilland), the sister of Cap’s wife Bess (Ruth Donnelly). Farrell and Dolly are immediately smitten with each other and he soon asks her to marry him. When Bess tells Carey about the engagement, he and Jack can’t resist the temptation to razz Farrell about it, not knowing that Dolly is within earshot on the other side of the hotel lounge door, a scene that’s taken directly from Lardner’s story.

Carey: “Now wait a minute, Ike, I got a bet here with Mack and it’s up to you to settle it.”

Farrell: “Well, make it snappy.”

Carey: “Well, I bet that you and Dolly were engaged to be married.”

Farrell: (sheepishly) “Well… well, no, we’re not exactly engaged—”

Carey: “Now, listen, no alibis! This costs me real dough if I lose, so give it to us straight. Cap’s wife said you were engaged, right?”

Farrell: “Well, I… I don’t want it to cost you any money, Bob. You win.”

Carey: “What did I tell ya? Congratulations, Ike!”

Mack: “Ike, you gotta swell gal!”

Carey: “She’s a peach! You’re a lucky guy, Ike!”

Farrell: “Yeah, she’s all right, I guess, but I never cared much for girls.”

Mack: “That is, not until you met this one?”

Farrell: “Well… she’s okay, I guess, but I didn’t want to get married yet a while.”

Carey: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s get this straight. Who done the asking? Her?”

Farrell: “No, not exactly her, but… but… but sometimes a fella don’t know just exactly what he’s gettin’ into. You… you take a good-lookin’ girl and a fella does just about what she wants him to. When a fella gets to feelin’ sorry for a girl, it’s all off.”

It isn’t until Farrell steps out of the lounge and sees Dolly glaring daggers at him that he realizes he’s been caught in the act. He tries to explain his remarks away as just joking around, but she won’t have any of it. Dolly angrily gives Farrell his ring back and leaves town, swearing never to see him again.

The timing couldn’t be worse; Farrell’s already in hot water, having gotten inadvertently involved with a gang of crooked gamblers. The day before he proposed to Dolly, Farrell was approached by a shady character named Lefty Crawford (Paul Harvey), who claimed to be the president of The Young Man’s High Ideals Club. Crawford asked Farrell to speak to the boys about clean living and he agreed to go with him. (Yeah, Farrell’s that naïve.) He didn’t even suspect anything when the “boys” turned out to be bunch of obviously adult hoods gathered in a seedy, smoke-filled hotel room.

Crawford: (with mock disapproval) “Now, boys, what did I tell you about that smoking? You know it’s not allowed. Put out those cigarettes and don’t let it happen again.”

Farrell: “Your president is right, boys. Where would I have been today if I had smoked?”

Thug: (deadpan) “All right, I’ll bite. Where?”

It wasn’t until Crawford made it clear that they wanted Farrell to lose a couple of games for them that light began to dawn. Farrell, of course, refused, but when Crawford literally twisted his arm, he was forced to pretend to go along with them in order to get out of there in one piece.

Farrell’s depression over the break-up with Dolly causes him to lose the next game, the first game he was supposed to “throw” for Crawford and his goons. Seeing as Farrell has never lost a game before, Johnson and Cap smell a rat and go to question him in his room. Their suspicions are seemingly confirmed when a known hoodlum, Kelly (Cliff Saum), delivers an envelope full of cash to Farrell while they’re there. Now, in addition to losing his girl, Farrell is believed to be on the take.

Per sports movie tradition, there’s always a big game that the good guys absolutely have to win in order to provide the story with a happy ending and a plot complication that threatens that happy ending. In this case, the big game is a night game that will determine if the Cubs make it to the pennant and the complication is Farrell being kidnapped by the gamblers. (Farrell offered to clear himself by setting up the gang for the cops, but the hoods got wise to his double-cross.) Farrell escapes from his kidnappers, leading to a wild chase in a stolen ambulance as he’s pursued by gang members, shooting at him from their car. At one point, Farrell accidentally drives the ambulance onto a car carrier truck and, when he realizes his mistake, he simply steals the truck, too, and resumes speeding toward the ballpark.

Coming full circle, Farrell arrives during the ninth inning by crashing the truck through the fence. Hastily outfitted in an oversized uniform, Farrell succeeds in striking out the opposing team, keeping the game tied as they go into the bottom of the ninth. Now it’s up to the Cubs to break that tie. Normally, in sports comedies, the way the heroes win the big game involves bending the rules a little (or breaking them outright). Not in Alibi Ike, though. Keeping with the film’s authenticity, Farrell manages to make the game-winning run in a legitimate (if unlikely) manner by using his acrobatic skills to avoid being tagged out at home. It hardly counts as a spoiler to mention that Dolly forgives Farrell and, in the final scene, they get married, giving the movie its promised Hollywood ending.

An underrated specialist in action films and comedies, Enright’s direction keeps Alibi Ike moving at a breathless clip and successfully guides Brown through one of his most amusing performances. Nineteen-year-old de Havilland makes a most charming and fetching young romantic lead for Brown. (Later that year, she would be teamed for the first time with her most notable cinematic partner, Errol Flynn, in Captain Blood.) And invaluable support is provided by Warners stock company members Donnelly, Karns, and, especially, Frawley, hilarious as always embodying his standard lovable old grouch persona. (Was Frawley ever young?)

Alibi Ike is currently available on DVD from Warner Archives. Like most Warner Archive releases, the DVD is short on extras (just the original theatrical trailer), but the film’s print is absolutely pristine and flawless. So far, Warner Archives has issued only four of the twenty comedies that Brown starred in for Warners, but, hopefully, there will be more forthcoming in the near future.


[1] Supposedly, when Keaton had his own production company in the 1920s, his employment application consisted of two questions: “Can you act?” and “Can you play baseball?” 50% was a passing score.

[2] De Havilland had already completed two movies before filming on Alibi Ike began, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Irish in Us, but they were both released after Alibi Ike. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream required extensive post-production work.)

Bigamist Featured

DVD Review: “The Bigamist” (1953)

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Seeing how much the movie industry and the media outlets covering it love to pay lipservice to women in film, it’s a mystery why they actually give so little coverage to pioneering female filmmakers, particularly Ida Lupino. Lupino was Hollywood’s first female producer-director, and she even co-wrote some of her films as well. (Director Dorothy Arzner preceded Lupino, but Arzner wasn’t a producer.) And, more to the point, Lupino was a damn good filmmaker whose work in movies and television has stood the test of time very well. And now, one of her best films The Bigamist (1953) has been remastered by Film Chest and is being released on DVD.

Outside of a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Lupino’s achievements behind the camera have largely been ignored in favor of her work as an actress, particularly her performances at Warner Bros. in the 1940s as tough, hard-boiled dames in melodramas like They Drive by Night, High Sierra, The Hard Way, and The Man I Love. (Occasionally, Warners cast her in more conventional ingénue roles in films such as The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, and Deep Valley, her last for the studio.) “The poor man’s Bette Davis” was Lupino’s own self-depreciating description of her standing at Warners. (Her first film for the studio, They Drive by Night, was a semi-remake of Bordertown, with Lupino in the role that Davis played in the original.)

When her contract at Warners ran out in the late 40s, rather than renewing it, Lupino decided to try freelancing, like so many other actors did at a time when the “studio system” first began to unravel. Lupino had spent a great deal of her time at Warners on “suspension,” the studio’s notorious punishment for “rebellious” actors, something she had in common with Davis, James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland. (It was de Havilland who successfully sued Warners over the practice, with the Supreme Court of California ruling it to be illegal, the first nail in the coffin of the aforementioned studio system. The US Supreme Court’s anti-trust ruling forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and the growing popularity of television were the next two major setbacks to the studios.) It was during these “suspension” periods that Lupino first became interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking, hanging out with directors and writers and learning the tricks of the trade from them. She was also motivated by wanting to have total control over her film work.

As a result, in addition to acting in other studios’ movies, Lupino and her second husband Collier Young formed an independent production company called The Filmakers, after first producing Not Wanted (1949), in which Lupino made her directorial debut unintentionally. Elmer Clifton, the director contracted for Not Wanted (about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) suffered a heart attack before filming began and Lupino took over (uncredited). Lupino’s subsequent directorial efforts for the Filmakers included Never Fear, Outrage (dealing with rape, another feminist-oriented subject that was considered taboo by the Production Code), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful. In 1953, Lupino made her two most notable directing efforts, The Hitch-Hiker (her only out-and-out film noir) and The Bigamist. At this point in her career, Lupino amended her self-description to “the poor man’s Don Siegel.” (A filmmaker who could work wonders on meager budgets, Siegel directed The Filmakers’ 1954 production of Private Hell 36.) After The Bigamist, Lupino’s directing career continued mainly on television, with the exception of the last theatrical film (and only comedy) she ever directed The Trouble with Angels in 1966. (Much of Lupino’s work for the small screen also revealed a flair for the macabre, particularly in the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone that she directed.)

As the title makes obvious, The Bigamist dealt with another taboo subject. Originally, as was the case with Not Wanted, Lupino was not supposed to direct The Bigamist; she was only going to act in the film, which was co-produced (with Robert Eggenweiler) and co-written (with Larry Marcus) by Lupino’s then ex-husband Young. (Soon after the divorce, both Lupino and Young had remarried, she to Howard Duff and he to Joan Fontaine.) That game plan changed when Jane Greer, who was set to play the other female lead, dropped out. Fontaine offered to take Greer’s place, but only if Lupino would direct The Bigamist as well. Lupino never wanted to direct herself, but she agreed in order to get the film underway. Which is how the two Mrs. Youngs ending up playing the two wives of the title character Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien, previously the lead in The Hitch-Hiker), a San Francisco-based small business owner who doubles as his own traveling salesman.

We first meet Harry and Wife #1, Eve (Fontaine), when they’re being interviewed by kindly child welfare official Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) as part of their adoption application. (Eve is unable to have a child.) For the most part, the interview goes well… until Harry betrays a momentary discomfort at signing the required form that gives Jordan permission to investigate their backgrounds to determine their suitability as adoptive parents, a hesitation that does not go unnoticed by Jordan. After the Grahams leave, Jordan expresses his doubts for the record in the Dictaphone recording of his notes: “From a preliminary interview, in my opinion, they would make fit parents, but something bothers me about Mr. Graham. He seemed impatient during the interview, a chip-on-the-shoulder sort of attitude. He… he behaved rather strangely when signing the… the permission to investigate form. Perhaps it is my imagination. I’ll report further when I visit the Grahams’ home for the customary inspection next week.”

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From this point, The Bigamist follows a traditional “three-act” structure of storytelling. Act One is in the form of a miniature mystery in which Jordan acts as a sleuth determined to unearth Harry’s secret, even to the extent of trailing him to Los Angeles, where he conducts most of his out-of-town business. Eventually, Jordan stumbles onto the fact that, rather than staying in a hotel, Graham owns a home in the LA suburbs. Turning up on Harry’s doorstep one night, Jordan discovers what the audience already knows, thanks to the film’s title and advertising, that there’s a second Mrs. Graham. Not only that, but Harry and Wife #2, Phyllis (Lupino), have an infant son as well.

Act Two is a lengthy flashback that takes up about half the movie as Harry tells Jordan the story of how he came to have two households. It seems that Harry and Phyllis “met cute” (to use the old screenwriters’ term) when, out of sheer boredom, Harry took an LA  bus tour of the stars’ homes and struck up a conversation with Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. They had a one-night stand that resulted in Phyllis’ pregnancy. Too weak-willed to divorce Eve (who’s also his business partner), but wanting to do the right thing by Phyllis, Harry proposed marriage to Phyllis and started the family that Eve couldn’t give him.

The sequences dealing with Harry and Phyllis’ brief fling and her subsequent pregnancy are a prime example of the absurdities imposed by the then-weakened but still enforced Code. Thanks to the Code’s infantile restrictions, there’s no hint of Harry and Phyllis enjoying a night of intimacy, nor is the word “pregnant” ever uttered in the scene where Harry learns that Phyllis is carrying his child, which is couched in the most evasively suggested terms possible. The Code was also responsible for the abrupt, unsatisfying resolution of the film’s third act, which conformed to the demand that all lawbreakers must face legal retribution.

The Bigamist’s script, Lupino’s direction, Leith Stevens’s music score, and George Diskant’s black-and-white cinematography waver between domestic drama and noir (particularly in the first two acts) before settling on the former. (Although the seedy restaurant Phyllis works in and the scarred, scowling face of its owner seemingly promise that noir will be the film’s dominant mood.) Despite the somberness of the subject matter and the sober approach taken to the material, the script does indulge in some playful Hollywood in-jokes. There are not one but two references to Gwenn’s most famous role, his Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Eve tells Harry that she thinks Jordan “looks like Santa Claus.” And during the bus tour, the driver/guide points out Gwenn’s home, referring to the actor as “the little man who is Santa Claus to the whole world.” The homes of Lupino’s former Warners colleagues Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman are also name-checked in this scene.

As she always did, Lupino got excellent performances from her cast, including herself.  She and Fontaine both contribute subtle, understated acting turns as the two Mrs. Grahams. Gwenn gives a charming, low-key performance as a dedicated public servant who is torn between duty and pity when confronting Harry about his deceit. O’Brien manages to make Harry an ultimately sympathetic (and rather pathetic) character, while still imbuing him with the sweaty neuroticism that was typical of his roles in the late 40s and early 50s.

Although Film Chest’s press release says that this version of The Bigamist was “restored from original 35mm materials,” the state of those materials obviously were not as well preserved as Film Chest’s previous remastered film release Hollow Triumph. For most of the film, the visual quality of Film Chest’s The Bigamist DVD is sharp and crisp, but noticeable scratching appears periodically and there is a little jumpiness in the opening credits. Still, the overall quality of this version of The Bigamist is light years ahead of Alpha Video’s earlier DVD version with its murky print and muddy soundtrack.

Hollow featured

DVD Review: “Hollow Triumph” (1948)

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In a 2013 Los Angeles Times article on ‘B’ movies, film historian Alan K. Rode was quoted as saying, “These ‘B’ features were shorter in time, lower in budget. To me, a ‘B’ movie is something that is fast, it moves, and is entertaining first and foremost.” Another aspect of ‘B’ movies that contributed to their quality is that often they were the result of an ideal convergence of veteran and fresh talent, some on their way up the ladder and, sad to say, some on the way down. One such ‘B’ film that reflects this kind of cinematic “perfect storm” is the 1948 film noir Hollow Triumph, which has just been released by Film Chest on DVD remastered in HD from the original 35mm film elements.

Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar in the UK) was a product of the short-lived (1947-48) production division of Eagle-Lion Films, a company that was initially established by British producer J. Arthur Rank (of the famous “gong” logo) to distribute UK films in the US and then make low-budget movies, with Bryan Foy in charge of production (later an independent producer for the studio). Nobody knew how to make quality ‘B’s better than Foy, who established Warner Bros.’ low-budget programmer unit in the ’30s, where he was known as “the keeper of the ‘B’s.” Hollow Triumph’s star was Austria-Hungary-born actor Paul Henreid, who also made his name at Warners, most memorably in Casablanca. After leaving Warners to try freelancing, Henreid accepted Eagle-Lion’s offer to both act in and produce (his debut in that capacity) his own movie. (Unfortunately, soon afterward, Henreid’s acting career hit a roadblock in the form of the HUAC witch hunts and, except for occasional supporting roles, he mainly spent the last two decades of his Hollywood career behind the cameras as a director.)

Upon having Murray Forbes’ novel Hollow Triumph recommended to him by Hungarian director Steve Sekely, Henreid chose that as his source material and assigned Sekely to helm the picture. An experienced director who got his start making movies in Germany and Hungary, Sekely was an inspired choice for the film, along with screenwriter Daniel Fuchs and innovative cinematographer John Alton. Henreid’s co-star was Joan Bennett (cast after Harry Cohn refused to loan out Henreid’s first choice, Evelyn Keyes, from her Columbia Pictures contract). Bennett was a major romantic star in the 1930s who had reinvented herself in the 40s playing hard-boiled types, most notably her three roles for celebrated director Fritz Lang in his films Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street. Hollow Triumph also boasts some fine supporting performances from a Who’s Who of lesser-known character actors, including John Qualen, Henry Brandon, Herbert Rudley, Charles Trowbridge, George Chandler, Sid Tomack, Lucien Littlefield, Norma Varden, Benny Rubin, Thomas Browne Henry, Dick Wessel, and future TV and film auteur Jack Webb, making his movie debut as a dour hitman called Bullseye. (Rather ironic seeing as Webb would become early television’s most famous cop on Dragnet.)

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In Hollow Triumph, a cast-against-type Henreid plays con man John Muller, who, despite his criminal background, also holds a medical degree in psychology (which comes in very handy later in the story). In the opening scene, Muller is paroled from prison with a warning from a deputy (Trowbridge) to keep his nose clean. So, of course, the first thing he does on the outside is get in touch with his old gang. One of his men, Big Boy (Brandon), knows of an illegal gambling den that’s ripe for a knockover, but Marcy (Rudley), another member of the gang, has cold feet because the casino is owned by Rocky Stanwyck (Henry, also making his film debut), a ruthless mobster with a rep for having anyone who crosses him pursued relentlessly and rubbed out.

Taking their places inside and out of the gambling hole, a dingy basement storeroom (which, thanks to Alton’s lighting, looks like something out of a silent German Expressionist film), Muller and his crew set the robbery into motion. However, like so many of the movies’ “perfect heists,” everything that can possibly go wrong does. Although Muller and Marcy get away with the loot, the rest of the gang are captured and eliminated by Stanwyck and his goons, and the two fugitives are well aware that it’s only a matter of time until they’re next.

Marcy opts for fleeing to Mexico and Muller takes it on the lam to LA, hiding out by reluctantly taking the tedious office job the parole board set him up with. One afternoon, while running a work errand, Muller runs into a mild-mannered dentist (Qualen) who mistakes him for someone else. That someone else is Dr. Bartok (also Henreid), a psychiatrist who works in the same building as the dentist. Conveniently, Bartok is a virtual doppelganger for Muller, but with one noticeable difference: a small scar on his cheek. Stepping into Bartok’s office while the doctor’s out to lunch (a nice subjective shot), Muller meets Bartok’s secretary Evelyn Hahn (Bennett), a bitter, disillusioned woman carrying an unrequited torch for her employer.

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Ever the louse, Muller seduces Evelyn in order to pump her for info about Bartok as part of a newly-hatched scheme to eventually eliminate the doctor and take over his life. When he learns that Marcy has been bumped off in Mexico and that a couple of torpedoes (Webb and Wessel) are hot on his trail, Muller is forced to speed up his timetable. First, he gets a job working the graveyard shift at the all-night garage where Bartok keeps his car. The next part of Muller’s plot is to duplicate Bartok’s scar on his own face with the aide of a scalpel and some anesthetic. But, as luck would have it, just as the meticulously worked-out robbery unraveled, that act of self-mutilation turns out to be the first fatal misstep in a series of unanticipated events that inevitably doom Muller’s best laid plans.

Thanks to Sekely’s expert direction and Alton’s sharp-edged black-and-white photography, Hollow Triumph has enough visual style to belie its meager budget, which is typical of the ‘B’ movies supervised by Foy. Fuchs’ brittle, cynical dialogue is also a major asset. There are many situations and plot twists in Hollow Triumph that could be described as “Hitchcockian,” although in a manner more reminiscent of the Master of Suspense’s two television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, than his movies. (Interestingly, Henreid directed several episodes of the former series and one of the latter.) In fact, Hollow Triumph’s “surprise ending” was not only echoed in more than one episode of the aforementioned television series, but it also turned up in an early episode of The Twilight Zone (albeit with a supernatural twist).

Don’t get me wrong; Hollow Triumph is no unsung masterpiece. But it is a tough, spare, expertly-made and well-acted little thriller that demonstrates the virtues of ‘B’ picture making. And thanks to well-done remastering, it looks better than it has in years on Film Chest’s DVD release.

Harold Ramis

A Tribute to Harold Ramis: “Ten Reasons Why ‘Caddyshack’ May Be the Best Summertime Comedy Ever”

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The recent demise of writer/director/comic actor Harold Ramis at age 69 was a shock to most people, though I suspect that baby boomers like myself were particularly shaken and reminded of their own mortality. Yet one more of the seemingly immortal Young Turks of counterculture comedy has left us prematurely, joining the ranks of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Michael O’Donoghue, Phil Hartman, and The Firesign Theatre’s Peter Bergman. There have, of course, been numerous accolades for Ramis and his achievements, not just for the movies he appeared in or either wrote or directed or both, but also his work with Second City, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Second City’s television spin-off SCTV. (Ramis was SCTV’s first head writer in addition to being a cast member in its first two seasons. Although SCTV never enjoyed the ratings or financial success of its chief rival and inspiration Saturday Night Live, it was the funnier series and the material has dated far less.) The posthumous praise was predictably followed by the inevitable detractors pointing out that not everything Ramis touched turned to gold, especially in the last decade of his filmmaking career. (Admittedly, the least said about mutts like Year One and the bewilderingly pointless remake of Bedazzled, the better. But then even comedy giants like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers took their last bows in unworthy failures like Atoll K and Love Happy.)

As fate would have it, I recently revisited Ramis’ directorial debut Caddyshack (1980), which he also co-wrote with Douglas Kenney (co-founder of and former editor/writer for National Lampoon) and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s big brother). I had particularly fond memories of Caddyshack from days passed and was pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike so many similar “slobs vs. snobs” comedies of the period, it’s stood the test of time pretty well. Other than how amusing it still remains, the other surprising aspect about seeing Caddyshack nowadays is the sense of melancholy the film has acquired over the years that certainly wasn’t present when it first premiered in July 1980. That melancholy can be attributed to a pair of missed opportunities that weren’t apparent at the time.

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To explain the first of those “missed opportunities,” a little historical context is in order. In its brief century or so of existence, American movies have had only two Renaissances of comedy. The first one was in the silent days when top clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon reigned supreme. The second and even more impressive comedy Renaissance occurred in the talkies’ first decade when audiences were presented with a cinematic smorgasbord of great comedians that included W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Joe E. Brown, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and the Three Stooges, as well as some “legitimate” actors with wicked comedy chops, such as James Cagney, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Glenda Farrell, Lee Tracy, Warren William, and Cary Grant.

With the phenomenal success in the mid- to late-1970s of Saturday Night Live and, to a lesser extent, SCTV, it seemed as though we were in for a third film comedy Renaissance as soon as the aforementioned Young Turks of counterculture humor in those shows’ casts made the jump from the small screen to the silver one. Alas, of all the films that resulted when those comic artists made that transition, only two of them, Animal House and Caddyshack, fulfilled that promise. (Not coincidentally, both films had National Lampoon magazine alumni working on them.) But rather than being the tip of an iceberg, these two movies were instead the crest of a wave that crashed ignobly with overblown, unfunny behemoths like 1941 and The Blues Brothers. And the subsequent film comedies starring these young comics just got progressively worse. Only Frank Oz’s 1986 film version of the off-Broadway musical comedy adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors and Ramis’ 1993 comedy-fantasy Groundhog Day (generally regarded as Ramis’ masterpiece) managed to be exceptions. (The fact that both of these films featured Bill Murray, the only SNL cast member to become a major movie star, was also no coincidence.) Hence, the first of the two “missed opportunities.” (More on the second one later.)

With that intro out of the way, here are 10 reasons that Caddyshack may just be the best summertime comedy ever.

1. The setting

Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder once said, “I think the funniest picture the Marx Brothers ever made was A Night at the Opera because opera is such a deadly serious background.” Similarly, Ramis, Kenney, and Doyle-Murray realized that country clubs were equally intimidating bastions of elitism, bigotry, and conformity. Kenney, in particular, hoped that Caddyshack would be an even sharper dissection of the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots in America than the script for Animal House that he and Ramis co-wrote. In fact, the script had many autobiographical references to incidents experienced by Ramis and the Murray brothers, all of whom caddied at local country clubs as teenagers. In 1988, Bill Murray told the New York Times Magazine, “The kids who were members of the club were despicable; you couldn’t believe the attitude they had. I mean, you were literally walking barefoot in a T-shirt and jeans, carrying some privileged person’s sports toys on your back for five miles.”

Anyone who’s ever been a golf aficionado or had a friend or relative devoted to golfing knows that the sport demands an even greater level of allegiance and dedication than the most fanatical of religions. In this respect, the fictional Bushwood Country Club was an ideal setting for a satirical slapstick comedy. Although the vast majority of the principal shooting was done on location in Florida, the story is definitely set in the mid-West (Illinois, the Murrays’ home state, to be specific). In fact, Ramis deliberately selected the Rolling Hills Golf Club in Davie, Florida, for the golfing sequences because it didn’t have any palm trees.

2. The script

Or, rather, what was left of the script by the time filming commenced. Ramis, Kenney and Doyle-Murray originally conceived Caddyshack as a coming-of-age comedy/drama revolving around the teenage caddies at Bushwood, particularly Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), a boy fresh out of high school who  experiences the most significant summer of his young life as he deals with romantic entanglements, rivalries with his fellow caddies, and the social barriers he needs to overcome in order to win the club’s annual caddy scholarship to finance the college education his large, cash-strapped Catholic family can’t afford. That’s what Caddyshack was supposed to be about, but—oh, yeah, the script also had a few zany country club regulars that the caddies would encounter, you know, just tiny bit parts, practically cameo appearances—and this is where the original script ended up being thrown to the four winds. As it turned out, three of the four performers hired to play those wacky regulars—Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield—were comedians who were used to ignoring scripts and working off-the-cuff. Of course, Ramis could’ve asserted his authority and demanded that the three of them quit improvising their lines and stick to the script—which brings us to the next reason.

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3. The director

To this day, it remains unclear exactly why executive producer Jon Peters entrusted the helming of Caddyshack to Harold Ramis, who’d never directed a movie before, but the choice turned out to be an inspired one. Ramis may’ve lacked experience as a filmmaker, but, fortunately, he had a wealth of knowledge about improvisational comedy, thanks to his time with Chicago’s Second City, which made him the ideal candidate for directing—or, perhaps, more accurately, not interfering with—his top bananas as they improvised their way through scenes. As Ramis explained in “The 19th Hole,” a 1999 documentary about the making of Caddyshack compiled for the DVD release, “We always trusted improvisation. We never felt we were just ad-libbing it or winging it. It’s an actual technique and a method that allows you to create material instantly and it’s not just, you know, grabbed out of thin air. You actually plan what you’re going to do and you have a—it’s like having a script without finished dialogue.”

It’s also worth noting that there are several scenes where the younger cast members can be seen cracking up on camera at the antics of their elders. Thanks to his background, Ramis realized that, in comedy, spontaneity is far more important than neatness, and let the cameras continue to roll, whereas a more experienced hack would’ve yelled “cut” and kept reshooting until the actors “got it right,” even though the freshness of the moment would’ve be completely lost. (Hey, even as seasoned a professional as Cary Grant can be seen cracking up on camera in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday as comedian Billy Gilbert improvised his way through a scene.)

4. The filming

Another blessing in disguise was that Ramis’ inexperience as a filmmaker extended to his technical knowledge of the medium as well. By his own admission, his visual approach was mainly to just set up the cameras and record whatever happened in front of them, rather than storyboarding the shots. (Indeed, many of the scenes involving multiple characters were shot with the actors standing like a chorus line.) Whether by design or accident, this approach was similar to the way film comedies were made during those two aforementioned comedy Renaissances. Back then, most film comedies had a deliberately “flat” look to them. Every inch of the sets would be lit and most of the camera set-ups were mid- or far-shots, so the comedians could ad-lib to their heart’s content and wander around the sets freely without resorting to moving the camera or cutting to different angles.

5. The cast

Caddyshack was a true ensemble piece and not a star vehicle, in that none of the roles dominated the entire proceedings, and the leads were all given equal opportunities to shine.

a. The top bananas

Chevy Chase: Chase, who received top billing, was the film’s biggest name at the time, as difficult as that may be to grasp today. His laid-back turn as dissipated lumber yard heir Ty Webb was the closest he’d ever come to living up to his early promotion as “the new Cary Grant.” Yes, Virginia, believe it or not, Chase was actually that highly thought of at the time. Ironically, it was his crack about Grant being “a homo” on national television that first revealed to the general public what a nasty, mean-spirited bastard he could be. (Scott Colomby, who played caddy Tony D’Annunzio, mentioned in a 2007 interview: “Everyone on the set of Caddyshack was just as cool as humanly possible, except for Chevy Chase. He was a prick.”) Still, Chase was at the top of his game in Caddyshack and his casual throwaway delivery of lines like, “Your uncle molests collies,” was right on the money.

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Rodney Dangerfield: More than any of the other principals, Dangerfield was the movie’s biggest wildcard. Outside of a supporting role in The Projectionist, a small, low-budget, minimally distributed 1971 independent film (which was an unauthorized remake of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., no less), Dangerfield had never appeared in a movie before. The writers originally envisioned Don Rickles in the role of Falstaffian nouveau riche construction magnate Al Czervik, but Dangerfield was gaining popularity with young audiences at the time with his guest appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live (where, in a parody of The Amazing Colossal Man, he did a series of “he’s so big” jokes with machine-gun rapidity), so Peters decided to go with him. Despite his unfamiliarity with film techniques (he was initially spooked by the inability of the cast and crew to laugh while the cameras were rolling), Dangerfield, a graduate of the Borsht Belt school of stand-up comedy, ended up being the film’s biggest asset, completely walking away with the show (much to the dismay of some of the other cast members). Many of his one-liners have become oft-quoted over the years, such as his remark to his Chinese golfing guest as they first enter Bushwood, “I think this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ‘em you’re Jewish.” It would also seem that, of all the other older members of the cast, Dangerfield bonded the most with the younger actors, mainly because of their mutual appreciation for recreational drugs. In that same 2007 interview, Colomby revealed that the laundry room of the motel where the cast and crew were booked became the designated partying area, and that occasionally after hours Dangerfield would ask him, “Hey, Scott, you wanna do some laundry?”

Bill Murray:  While many of Chase’s and Dangerfield’s lines were impromptu, by all accounts, Murray’s dialogue was entirely improvised during his six days on the set. Much more than Chase, Murray represented the outlaw nature of counterculture comedy, and Murray’s mastery of “stream of consciousness” humor was better than any other comic in the business, even Robin Williams’. The audience never learns the back-story of Murray’s character, greenskeeper Carl Speckler, so it’s not clear if he’s just a slow-thinking stoner with delusions of grandeur or a brain-damaged Vietnam vet (the war was still fresh in peoples’ minds then and was still considered fair game for satirical comedy), but it’s irrelevant. His role is central in setting up the running gag that serves as the framework for many of the comic set-pieces, Carl’s obsessive determination to kill the gopher that’s infested the golf course, and Murray’s fevered monologues about outsmarting his “enemy” provided the movie with some of its funniest moments. Another off-the-cuff moment, Murray’s celebrated “Cinderella boy” speech, was a perfect example of his skill at improvisation. (As writer Tad Friend explained in a 2004 New Yorker article about Ramis: “Ramis took Murray aside and said, ‘When you’re playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you’re the announcer?’ Murray said, ‘Say no more,’ and did his monologue in one take.”) The scene is all the more impressive seeing as the only description of it in the script was: “The sky is beginning to darken. Carl, the greenskeeper is absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip.” (At Murray’s request, mums were substituted for tulips.)

Ted Knight: While rewatching Caddyshack, it became apparent that the performance that gains the most with each subsequent viewing is that of Ted Knight as the movie’s bad guy: pompous, reactionary WASP Judge Smails. Although Knight was no stranger to playing heavies on shows like The Twilight Zone and Peter Gunn early in his television career, the Judge was his first out-and-out comedic villain. And, as such, he succeeded brilliantly in becoming the movies’ best stuffed-shirt comic foil since Sig Ruman sputtered in apoplectic rage at the insults of Groucho Marx. In essence, Dangerfield played Groucho to Knight’s Ruman, a conflict that practically mirrored their off-camera relationship as well. Knight was an actor of the old school who would learn his lines to the letter with the intention of delivering them exactly as written, and he was completely thrown by Dangerfield’s constant ad-libbing. Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, the Judge’s promiscuous niece, once commented on Facebook, “[Knight] wasn’t playing angry, he was being angry.” Whether real or not, Knight’s exasperated frustration provided the film with a formidable enough antagonist for the other clowns to bounce off of.

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b. The kids and the second bananas: It was the younger members of the cast who inadvertently provided some of the film’s current sense of melancholia resulting from the second case of “missed opportunities.” In the initial stages of scripting and filming Caddyshack, O’Keeefe, Sarah Holcomb (as Danny’s Irish girlfriend, club waitress Maggie O’Hooligan), and Colomby were intended to be the movie’s stars, but the more the roles of Ty, Al, Carl, and the Judge were enlarged, the less prominent the roles of Danny, Maggie, and Tony became. What was supposed to have been their breakthrough roles instead reduced them to the traditional ingénue parts that were regularly found in the movies of the Marx Brothers. (O’Keefe went on to extensive work on television and the stage, whereas Holcomb, who had also played Clorette DePasto in Animal House, became ensnared in Hollywood’s drug culture and soon retired from movies.) In all fairness, the romantic scenes between O’Keefe and Holcomb had a genuine sweetness and emotional sensitivity that kept them from becoming the type of insufferable interruptions that the equivalent “young lovers” scenes in the Marxes’ movies were. In addition, Cindy Morgan’s underrated turn as Lacey showed the professionalism of an accomplished comedienne and is another performance that gains with subsequent viewings. The same goes for Colomby’s Tony, which reflects a smooth, understated assurance as well.

Then there’s the film’s “second bananas” who provided much needed support to the main clowns. One of the most prominent of these supporting roles was Dan Resin as Dr. Beeper, Bushwood’s record-holding golf champion and the Judge’s partner-in-snobbery. (Resin’s best moment in the film comes when, after a swim at the marina, Beeper tries to prove how hip he is by bumming a drag off the joint the rich kids are sharing and almost electrocutes himself by instinctively grabbing his pager when it goes off.) Another invaluable supporting player was screenwriter Doyle-Murray as Lou Loomis, Bushwood’s caddy master and inveterate gambler forever in hock to his bookie. (His best moment occurs when the Judge wins the “odds or evens” contest to determine who tees off first in the climatic golf game and Lou quips with a barely-concealed smirk: “Your honor, your Honor.”)

Also deserving of mention are Hollywood veteran Henry Wilcoxon (best remembered as Marc Anthony in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version of Cleopatra) as the Lutheran Bishop who comes close to being electrocuted himself during “the best game of my life” (played in the midst of a raging thunderstorm) when he vents his anger at “the Good Lord” by furiously shaking his club at the heavens after missing his final putt; Ramis’ former Second City colleague Ann Ryerson as Grace, the gangly tomboy caddy whose Baby Ruth bar winds up in the club’s swimming pool in the movie’s most notorious scene (which, not surprisingly, was deleted for the “edited-for-television” version that predominated on non-cable TV); Jackie Davis as Smoke, Bushwood’s token “Negro” (who gets even with the Judge for his racist joke about “the Jew, the Catholic, and the colored boy” by buffing his golf shoes so hard that sparks fly); Lois Kibbee as the perpetually flustered Mrs. Smails (who lasciviously admires Danny’s young body when he turns up undressed in her bathroom while on the lam from the Judge after getting caught making out with Lacey); John F. Barmon Jr. as the Judge’s slovenly grandson Spaulding (who inspires Al’s crack, “Now I know why tigers eat their young, you know?”); Elaine Aiken and veteran character actor Albert Salmi as Danny’s parents; Peter Berkrot and Minerva Scelza as Tony’s siblings and fellow caddies Angie and Joey (the unspoken implication is that the D’Annunzios are just as large a Catholic family as the Noonans are), and Brian MacConnachie (another National Lampoon alumni) and Scott Powell as Drew and Gatsby, the club hanger-ons who pal around with Al and inadvertently set the Czervik-Smails conflict in motion by inviting their buddy to join them at the club for a golf date.

6. The producer

Doug Kenney is credited as the film’s producer, but by most accounts, he was so caught up in his drug and alcohol habits that his main duties while filming were basically coordinating the extracurricular activities (i.e., partying) that took place after the day’s shooting. (Sadly, Kenney never lived to see the finished film. He was killed in a freak accident while on vacation in Hawaii after the principal photography was completed.) The movie’s real hands-on producer was former hairdresser Jon Peters, who’d just parlayed his professional relationship with Barbra Streisand into becoming a major Hollywood player. Caddyshack was only the fifth movie he’d produced. In addition to taking a chance on Ramis and Dangerfield, Peters also came up with one major inspiration: making the gopher Carl’s determined to off a major on-screen character. As originally scripted and filmed, the only time the audience would see the gopher was in the form of a hand puppet that poked its head out of a hole, prompting Al’s lament, “Hey, that kangaroo stole my ball!” Whether or not it was motivated by Caddyshack being an Orion Pictures production that was going to be distributed by Warner Bros., Peters realized late in the game that the “Carl vs. the gopher” subplot should be patterned along the lines of such similar eternal battles as “Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny” and “Wile E. Cayote vs. the Road Runner” in Warners’ classic Looney Tunes cartoons. After receiving instructions from Peters to incorporate the gopher into the main action, Ramis initially thought that a live animal could be trained to pull it off, but when that turned out to be unfeasible, John Dykstra, who’d already been commissioned to provide the post-production special effects, was assigned to create an animatronic gopher and the underground network of tunnels it inhabited.

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Peters was also single-handedly responsible for the one element of the film that dates it more than any other aspect: the gratuitous nudity. When Morgan expressed discomfort about doing a skinny-dipping sequence with Chase, Ramis had no problem with acquiescing to her objections, but Peters basically told her to do the scene nude or else. (“Or else” being, of course, the traditional Hollywood threat “you’ll never work in this town again.”) Morgan did manage to stand her ground, however, in refusing to allow a Playboy photographer to cover the skinny-dipping shoot. But there were reasons that films of the 1970s and early 80s (especially comedies) contained brief flashes of nudity other than to titillate the adolescent and teenage boys in the audience; more importantly, it was to avoid the dreaded “G” rating, which was the kiss of death at the box office to any movies not intended exclusively for young children. (George Lucas deliberately inserted a brief shot of a severed arm in Star Wars for the exact same purpose.) With its limited profanity and occasional “gross-out” jokes, Caddyshack was never in danger of being rated “G,” but an “R” was considered so much hipper for a film aimed at teenagers than a “PG.” Of course, this was before the 2000 “scandal” in which a Federal Trade Commission investigation revealed that “R” ratings were a joke and that gory horror pictures, violent action movies, and raunchy comedies were intentionally being marketed to adolescent boys by the Hollywood studios, a “revelation” that had political hacks like Senators McCain, Lieberman, Hatch, and Brownback professing to be shocked, shocked! (One has to wonder what planet they’d been living on.)

7. The music

Singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins had previously composed the song “I Believe in Love” for Streisand and Peters’ remake of A Star is Born, when he was commissioned by Peters to write the original songs for Caddyshack. The songs, “I’m Alright” (the main theme that runs under both the opening and closing credits), “Lead the Way,” and “Mr. Night,” were all fairly catchy with some nice use of choral arrangements in the backgrounds. (A fourth song, “Make the Move,” wasn’t used in the finished film, but was included on the soundtrack album.) “I’m Alright” was a minor hit that generated a lot of airplay, but the best of the bunch is “Mr. Night,” a honky-tonk ode to teenage horniness that accompanies the scene where, to commemorate the annual caddies’ tournament, the caddies are allowed their only admittance into the country club pool for the summer. (A crudely written sign outside the pool states that the caddies are welcome from “1:00 to 1:15.”) “Mr. Night” plays during the first half of the scene to be followed by a brief excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for a water ballet spoof, and then, when the aforementioned Baby Ruth bar ends up in the pool, Johnny Mandel’s background score parodies John Williams’ iconic “shark music” from Jaws. (Mandel also quoted from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” for the film’s climax.)

Mandel was a veteran jazz composer and arranger whose previous film work included his Grammy-winning jazz score for I Want to Live and another major comedy blockbuster M*A*S*H, for which he also composed the theme song “Suicide is Painless.” Mandel’s background score for Caddyshack evokes a deliberately retro vibe reminiscent of the light jazz-influenced orchestral scores that accompanied comedies and comic-thrillers of the 1960s. Interestingly, the one pure jazz piece in Mandel’s score was heard in the background during the Judge’s ritzy gathering at the marina. (It’s a safe bet that the irony of jazz—born in the cotton fields and whore houses of the deep South—being depicted in the movie as “rich people’s music” wasn’t lost on Mandel for a second.)

8. The ethnic humor

Thanks to the paper-thin sensitivities of adherents to Political Correctness, the ethnic humor in Caddyshack is now considered highly controversial, which wasn’t the case when the film first opened. Not surprisingly, about 95% of the ethnic jokes came from Dangerfield, who belonged an older generation of comedians for whom nothing was sacred, least of all ethnic and racial sensitivities. (The other 5% would be Carl’s cracks about the Scottish heritage of his boss Sandy, such as “I’ll fill your bagpipes with Wheatina.”) And the bulk of Al’s ethnic one-liners were generally aimed at the D’Annunzios.

Al: “Hey, you guys are brothers, huh?”

Tony: “Yeah.”

Al: “So what is this, a family business or what? You know, they say, for Italians, this is skilled labor, you know?”

Tony: (sarcastically) “No, actually, I’m a rich millionaire. You see, my doctor told me to go out and carry golf bags a couple of times a week.”

Al: “Hey, you’re a funny kid, you know? What time’re you due back at Boys Town?”

Not to get all highbrow or pretentious about it, but Al’s ethnic jokes play into the movie’s larger theme about outsiders trying to fit in—or not giving a damn about whether they fit in or not, as the case may be. (The Judge explicitly states this theme when he says, “Some people simply do not belong.”) As Al’s line about Bushwood being restricted makes clear, he’s well aware that folks like him stick out like a sore thumb there. His razzing of the D’Annunzios is a kind of expression of solidarity acknowledging that his presence at Bushwood is just as incongruous as theirs’ is.

9. The drug humor

Outside of the nudity, the other element of Caddyshack that most clearly stamps it as a product of the early 80s is the drug jokes. Indeed, drug humor was so prevalent between the mid-60s and the mid-80s that two comedy LPs of the early 70s, National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner and Robert Klein’s Mind over Matter, had references to “obligatory drug jokes.” As with the ethnic jokes, the drug jokes in Caddyshack serve a larger purpose towards the movies’ main theme. Smoking dope, as it turns out, is just about the only activity that both the rich kids and the poor ones at Bushwood have in common. Lou warns the caddies that he’s had complaints about them “smoking grass.” And, during the marina scene, we see Spaulding and his stoner pals passing around a doobie. (This, by the way, is the same joint that Dr. Beeper tries to cop a toke from before getting the shock of his life.)

Drug jokes also play a big part in the film’s only scene between Chase and Murray in which Ty “plays through” Carl’s squalid quarters while prepping for the big golf match the next morning. (A scene that Peters insisted on at the last minute after he realized that his two top-billed actors didn’t have any screen time together. So Ramis, Chase, and Murray hastily brainstormed some material over lunch and shot the entire scene that afternoon.) As Ty tries to find a way to hit his ball off of Carl’s leftover pizza slices back onto the green, Carl shows off his new grass hybrid, “a cross of bluegrass… uh… Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bent, and Northern California sensemilia. The amazing stuff about this is that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home, and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff.” The scene’s funniest moment occurs when Ty starts coughing and gagging after reluctantly taking a drag off a monster blunt packed with Carl’s grass and Carl casually admits, “It’s a little harsh.”

10. The grand finale

The movie’s climax is a $20,000 per player team match (an amount that, eventually, swells to $80,000) pitting Ty and Al against the Judge and Dr. Beeper. Like the finales of so many slapstick comedies, it was mainly an excuse to tie up all the various loose ends and allow the good guys to triumph over the bad guys. Outside of a few isolated gags (Ty’s ball flies into the trees and is impaled on a crow’s beak), the match itself is not played for laughs. The real comedy in the movie’s conclusion is reserved for Carl’s preparations to go Defcon 1 on the gopher with plastic explosives molded into the shape of woodland animals like “the harmless squirrel and the friendly rabbit.” Instead, Ramis and his co-writers borrowed a page from the book of director Frank Capra and his most frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, and played the golf match for populist sentimentality. As the match gets underway, word spreads like wildfire throughout the club and, eventually, the entire support staff of Bushwood pours out onto the links in the hopes of finally seeing the Judge receive his well-deserved comeuppance. And when, at a crucial moment in the match, it seems as though that comeuppance won’t be forthcoming after all, the movie’s Dues Ex Machina arrives in the form of Carl’s detonating the homemade bombs he’s placed in the gopher’s tunnels. Which, since it was the Judge who ordered the extermination of the gopher in the first place, it would seem that, in the immortal words of William Shakespeare, he was “hoist with his own petard.”

Speaking of Master Will, with its wonderful variety of characters, situations, and intersecting romantic pairings, I’m seriously tempted to describe Caddyshack as Shakespearian, but out of deference to those people who’d interpret seeing the words Caddyshack and “Shakespearian” in the same sentence as irrefutable proof of the End of Civilization As We Know It, I’ll resist the temptation. Still, as Bushwood’s Hoi Polloi party triumphantly, let us recall the Bard’s memorable phrase, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Or as Al puts it, “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”




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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Funny Bones” (1995)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

 

“We were funny people. We didn’t have to tell funny stories. We were funny. We had funny bones… I think there are two types of comedians. There’s a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

– George Fawkes

“Comedy’s a magnificent shambles, huh? Purposeful, intentional chaos. If it isn’t funny, you die a double death, right?”

– Tommy Fawkes

“I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible, didn’t cause pain.”

– Bruno Parker

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British filmmaker Peter Chelsom’s 1995 movie Funny Bones, which he produced, directed, and co-wrote with Peter Flannery, is the type of film that defies simple categorization. It is, among other things, a tribute to Vaudeville, a celebration of English eccentricity à la the old Ealing comedies (it was even filmed at the Ealing studios), a backstage soap opera, a drama, a tragedy, a melodrama, a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, a horror story, a musical, and a very, very, very black comedy. Speaking of which, it is the single best movie ever made about the subject of comedy. There have been several films about performers doing comedy, including Roy Del Ruth’s Always Leave Them Laughing, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Alfred E. Green’s Top Banana, Carl Reiner’s The Comic, and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memoirs, but Funny Bones doesn’t just concern those who perform comedy, it deals the very nature of comedy itself. The theme of Funny Bones, however, isn’t anything as trite as posing the question, “What is comedy?” (A question so inane that it only deserves the exact same answer that Louis Armstrong gave to someone who once asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”) Rather, the main focus of Funny Bones is exploring the difference between those who want to be funny, those who instinctively know how to be funny, and what it takes to be funny.

It’s impossible to summarize Funny Bones’ story in a sentence or two. The film does have a plot, but it’s so complex and labyrinthian that seeing exactly how it unfolds and discovering the secrets the various characters are hiding are among of the chief pleasures of watching the film for the first time. (Subsequent viewings of Funny Bones can be ever more rewarding; no matter how many times you see it, there’s always something new to discover.) Perhaps the best way to convey some idea of what Funny Bones is like without spoiling the fun is to take a look at the two characters the film revolves around.

The first one we are introduced to is Jack Parker (played by British comedian Lee Evans in his theatrical film debut) in the film’s mysterious opening scene depicting a botched robbery at sea. A young man in his 30s, Jack is first glimpsed perched at the top of the mast of one of two boats rendezvousing out in the middle of nowhere off the shore of Blackpool, England. (As Janet Maslin pointed out in her New York Times review of Funny Bones, Jack’s “most important scenes in the film have him perched above other characters at precarious heights.”) We don’t learn exactly what is being stolen or why until later in the film. What is clear in this sequence is that Jack is being betrayed by his companions, led by a slimy, corrupt cop appropriately named Sharkey (Ian McNeice), and that one of the people involved meets a macabre end when he’s thrown overboard and his feet are chopped off by the boat’s propellers, causing him to bleed to death under the water.

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It isn’t until a little later in the movie that we discover that Jack’s is really a natural-born comedian and that he comes from a family of performers. His father, Bruno (Freddie Davies), and uncle, Thomas (George Carl), were a celebrated slapstick comedy team known professionally as the Parker Brothers. His French-born mother, Katie (Leslie Caron), was a singer, who is now divorced from his father, but used to participate in the family act, as did Jack. A deeply troubled individual who has already experienced more than his share of sorrow, Jack is, nonetheless, an enormously talented comic, even more so than his elders. With Jack, comedy is instinctual, even when he’s not performing. When taken into police custody because of a presumed suicide attempt that takes place in the aftermath of the robbery, he can’t resist turning an interview with a psychiatrist (Gavin Millar) into a Vaudeville routine.

Psychiatrist: “Where were you born?”

Jack: “Blackpool.”

Psychiatrist: “Why Blackpool?”

Jack: “’Cause I wanted to be near me mother.”

Psychiatrist: “Have you lived here all your life?”

Jack: “Not yet.”

But Jack is no idiot savant; from years of experience. he knows the mechanics of comedy by heart and is also something of a technical wizard. We observe Jack at the decrepit warehouse on the Blackpool docks where he lives with his father, uncle, and pet dog, meticulously putting together a reel-to-reel tape recording of sound effects and snippets from several different radio broadcasts. The purpose of this recording is explained in a crucial mid-film scene set on an open mike night at a small Blackpool nightclub. That night, appearing under the pseudonym “Val Radio,” Jack performs a “dummy act” in time to his sound montage recording, giving the film audience its first indication of what a brilliant physical comedian he is.[1] The routine has the club audience laughing hysterically, but when Sharkey shows up unexpectedly, Jack’s cut off in mid-act by the club’s owner. In is then that we get the first hint of the dark secret Jack harbors. He’s been banned from performing by the local law for the past twelve years. Why Jack got banned is one of the film’s mysteries that isn’t answered until late in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s been established that Jack, indeed, has funny bones.

If Jack is one side of a coin, then the flip side of that coin is Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt). Like Jack, Tommy is the son of a professional comedian in his 30s whose life’s calling is comedy. Unlike Jack, Tommy isn’t funny. It isn’t just a lack of talent; it’s his attitude. Tommy is an arrogant, hipper-than-thou, privileged rich kid who can’t help feeling superior to those around him. Jack and Tommy are first linked by a transition from the Blackpool sea to a Las Vegas casino on the night of Tommy’s big debut at a prominent venue after years of playing tiny comedy clubs. Chelsom makes the transition with the aid of music: French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet’s original 1946 recording of “Le Mer” (The Sea) plays underneath the opening scene and, when the locale shifts to Vegas, it is in the middle of an elaborate stage rendition of the Americanized version of the song, “Beyond the Sea,” performed by a dancer (Harold Nicholas) backed up by a big band and a line of chorus girls.

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In a scene that’s almost as nightmarish as the one preceding it (but in a different way), Tommy waits to go on in his dressing room fighting a major case of backstage jitters. Everything that subsequently happens in that dressing room conspires to add to those jitters. The attempts of his joke writer Al (William Hootkins) to both pump him up and calm him down only succeed in infuriating him.

Al: “How’s the star of the show?”

Tommy: “I’m gonna die.”

Al: (joking heartily) “Tommy, you’re among friends. We won’t let you die!”

Tommy: “No, Al, I don’t mean on stage–although I feel like shit—I mean, I’m gonna die!”

Al:  “What is this? What’re you talking about?”

Tommy: “If I don’t do it, make it happen—you know, find that feeling—in two weeks, I’m just not gonna live any more.”

Al: “You mean you feel desperate, that’s all. A lot of people feel desperate before doing something exceptional.”

Tommy: “You know, Al, I’m not gonna play safe any more. I’m gonna take it to the edge –right to the edge—and do pirouettes.”

Al: “Pirouettes? What—what are you talking about?”

Tommy:  “Pirouettes, you dumb fuck! And if I fall… well, so be it. You know? Who gives a shit, you know?!”

Getting increasingly apprehensive, Al warns Tommy not to do “the sheep story,” pointing out that it’s a mainstream audience out there who won’t appreciate a joke with “the ‘F’ word” in it. “You’ll lose ‘em with the ‘F’ word,” he pleads. Tommy’s next visitor is his fiancée Jenny (Peter Pamela Rose), who bursts into tears over Tommy’s rudeness and breaks off their engagement. “You’re so cold! You wonder why people don’t laugh at you?” she wails before storming out of the dressing room. (The look of sheer horror on Tommy’s face reflected in the mirror at something so traumatic happening to him right before he goes out on stage is one that just about any actor or performer can identify with.) Last and most nerve-racking of Tommy’s visitors is the man he’s lived in the shadow of his entire life, his father, world-famous comedian George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis). George’s lackadaisical attitude as he peruses the dressing room (“New mirrors,” he casually observes, an ad-lib by Lewis) only intensifies his son’s case of nerves, especially when he tries to put him at ease. “You couldn’t ask for a better audience,” George says, “That room is filled with people, friends, old friends of the family. The whole of show business is there. They’re all just hoping and wishing and ready to laugh, son.” After George leaves, the heavens themselves add another twist of the screw to Tommy’s anxieties: a rumbling thunderstorm begins outside.

And just when Tommy is convinced it can’t possibly get any worse, it does… with a vengeance. After the dancer’s number is over, he spots George in the audience and encourages him to come up on stage. (Listening on the dressing room monitor, Tommy fearfully begs, “Don’t do it, dad! Oh, please don’t do it!”) Being a 24-carat ham, George unhesitatingly goes up on stage to overwhelming applause and a standing ovation. George then proceeds to do an impromptu stand-up set, beginning with, “As the cow said on a cold, wintry morning, thanks for that warm hand.” Overshadowed yet again, it’s the last straw for Tommy: he makes a beeline for the men’s room and throws up in a toilet.

Reduced to a neurotic bundle of nerves, Tommy finally takes the stage. Assuming an angry young man persona, he barely get some mild chuckles with his first jokes. Desperate, Tommy launches into the “sheep story.” Sure enough, as Al had predicted, even before he gets to the F-bomb punchline, he’s already lost the audience. Even the Japanese tourists aren’t amused. (It should be noted that this supposedly “edgy” piece of comedy material is actually one of the oldest blue jokes in the book.) Realizing how badly he’s bombed (people are already walking out), Tommy tells the crowd, “I gotta run. You’ve been a lousy fucking audience! My name’s Tommy Fawkes and I got two weeks to live!“ He flees the stage to a small, unenthusiastic smattering of semi-polite applause. When his friends and family go backstage to Tommy’s dressing room, all they find a handwritten scrawl on the mirror, “Goodbye. Sorry.”

But rather than committing suicide, Tommy turns up in his hometown of Blackpool, where he and his family lived before moving to America when he was six-years-old. Sporting a hideous mustard-yellow suit and a fake pencil mustache, Tommy is going by the name of “Rick Tarascas” (echoing the nom de plume Jack hides behind later in the film). “Tarascas” tells the lawyer he’s hired to represent him, Lawrence Berger (pronounced “Ber-jer”), a charming little milquetoast of a man played by Christopher Greet, that he’s come to Blackpool looking for new and unique comedy material. (By the way, “Tommy Fawkes returns to his hometown to find comedy material” might fit handily into a capsule review of Funny Bones, as so often has been the case, but that’s no more the plot of the film than “an anonymous reporter travels around the country trying to find out what the hell ‘Rosebud’ is” is the plot of Citizen Kane.) It soon becomes apparent, however, that the real purpose of Tommy’s quest is trying to discover the elusive secret of how to be funny.

Jack and Tommy first meet at the aforementioned open mike night. From there, everything in the story builds to the grand finale: a spectacular circus performed at a Blackpool arena, with the Parker Brothers headlining the bill. While his father and uncle are performing, Jack slips out of the audience and Sharkey smells a rat. (“Find Jack Parker now,” Sharkey cautions his men. “It’s all gettin’ a bit French… an’ I don’ like it.”) Events both magical (literally) and sinister occur, karma happens, lives are changed forever, and, after eluding the police backstage, Jack finally makes his triumphant return before an audience. But whether his appearance will result in redemption or tragedy remains to be seen until the film’s final few seconds.

Throughout the movie, Chelsom’s direction reflects his inventiveness. There are several intricately-edited montages depicting Blackpool, its eccentric inhabitants, and the even more eccentric—and downright bizarre—variety acts that audition for Tommy and Berger, including a bagpipe-playing dwarf, a lady with a singing poodle, a backward-talking man, a pair of dancing identical twins, a musical saw player, and a costumed, powdered wig-wearing magician who goes by the stage name of “the Bastard Son of Louis XIV.” Chelsom depicts important flashback sequences in two different film styles: Jack’s flashbacks are shot in black-and-white, utilizing a harsh, hard-edged, documentary-like style, whereas Tommy’s flashbacks are filmed with hand-held cameras, in slightly blurry, over-exposed footage with faded colors like 8mm home movies. As mentioned before, Chelsom’s use of music is also very creative. In addition to John Altman’s superlative background score, recordings by such diverse artists as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Washboard Sam, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and the Raymond Scott Quartet are heard.

For Funny Bones, Chelsom got first-rate performances from all of his actors. Both Evans and Platt do their best work to date as Jack and Tommy. Davies and Carl exude a feeling of melancholy resignation as the Parker Brothers. Caron is every bit as sensuous and lovely as she was in her younger days with her charming, sympathique turn as Katie. Jerry Lewis gives perhaps his finest serious performance as George, even better than his work in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Although his lack of even a hint of a British accent belies the idea of George being a native of England, it should be stated for the record that Chelsom wrote the role especially with Lewis in mind, and being the only cast member with a direct connection to classic days of Vaudeville and Hollywood comedy, Lewis’ presence is absolutely crucial to the overall film, despite only having about fifteen minutes of total screentime. Other notable performances are provided by Ruta Lee (as Mrs. Fawkes), Ticky Holgado, Terrence Rigby, and Richard Griffiths. And the late Oliver Reed plays what has to be the most atypical role of his career as Dolly Hopkins, a flamboyantly gay millionaire obsessed with his own mortality. (The fact that most of Reed’s performance wound up on the cutting room floor only adds to the sheer oddness of the role.)

Funny Bones was produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division, and they obviously had absolutely no idea of how to market the finished film when it was released in the spring of 1995. They futilely tried to sell it as a family comedy with ambiguous ad copy like, “Comedy. It’s in the timing. It’s in the material. But mostly, it’s in the bones.” (On the other hand, the theatrical trailer did suggest some of the off-the-wall quality of the film.) But it was to no avail; the film got mixed reviews and quickly vanished from sight. Disney released a DVD of the film in 2003 with no extras, not even the trailer, with the cover featuring Lewis billed as co-star and an equally deceptive tagline, “A zany look at two comedians who’ll do anything for a laugh.” One can only wonder at how many unsuspecting parents thought they’d be safe showing their children a seemingly typical Jerry Lewis comedy with an innocuous-sounding title like Funny Bones only to cause those kids to have nightmares for weeks afterwards!

 

 


[1] “Dummy act” is a Vaudeville term for an act where a comedian mimes in time to music or a recording. In the years before he teamed up with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis got his start performing a dummy act with phonograph records he played on stage.

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Late Show Featured

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Late Show” (1977)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.)  But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”

Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”

Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)

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It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)

Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’” [1] (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)

The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)

Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.

The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.

But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.

There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.

Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”

Ira: “Harry, who did it?”

Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”

Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”

Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”

Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”

Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)

Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)

The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”

Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.

Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.

“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”

Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.

The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.

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While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.

Ira: “The Whiting job.”

Margo: “What? Who?”

Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”

Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”

Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”

Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”

Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”

Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”

Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”

Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”

After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.

From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hell commentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.

As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.

Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”

Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”

Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”

Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”

Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”

On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.

Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”

Ira: “Who?”

Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” [2]

It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.

For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.

As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)

In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)



 

[1] Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books: 2002)

[2] A reference to The Thin Man television series that ran for two seasons on NBC, starting in the fall of 1957, and later went into syndication. Margo was, after all, a child of the 50s.