Posted in Movie Reviews

Smile

"Tell us about that, dear...in your own words"
“Tell us about that, dear…in your own words”

Somewhere during the last three or four decades American film lost its talent to produce good-natured satire. Now everything is played for keeps, mirroring the scorched earth politics that have been the norm in recent memory. Just as an example, I doubt a movie like “His Girl Friday,” released in 1940, could be made today. The left would picket over the gender, ethnic and racial jokes, though the film is most definitely an equal opportunity offender (and funny as hell); the right would complain that the anarchist Earl Williams should have been hanged, and that the poor sheriff was done dirt by the lefty newspaper reporters (that era’s version of the “lamestream media”).

1975’s “Smile,” directed by Michael Ritchie, is the type of gentle satire that’s somehow lost its place in today’s humor. Despite its potshots at those eternal targets, beauty pageants and small town life, there’s a sweetness here. Ritchie leaves you with more winners than losers. He deliberately refrains from inviting the audience to feel superior to the characters; instead, he brings you into their world. Christopher Guest is the only filmmaker working today whose tone approaches that of “Smile,” though he’s definitely more pointed at times.

“Smile” covers the week in which small town Santa Rosa hosts the California state finals for the teen-age Young American Miss pageant. As expected, the event sponsor is the local Chamber of Commerce, among whose leading lights is Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), car dealer extraordinaire and the pageant’s Chief Judge. Relentlessly optimistic, he’s congenitally unable to open his mouth without a cliché, a catchphrase or a meme tumbling out. As can be imagined, Big Bob’s Number 1 pet peeve is anyone who “wallows in self-pity.” Nevertheless, there’s not one mean bone in his body, so it’s quite painful when events force him to question his values.

His polar opposite is Tommy French (Michael Kidd), a somewhat down on his luck director-choreographer, who’s been reduced to staging local beauty pageants. Despite all this he remains a total pro, and his frequent clashes with the squarely upright Jaycee in charge, Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis), usually find him on the winning side, even if victory comes at a cost. Above all, though, Tommy’s a realist. When a stagehand congratulates him on the fine job he’s done, French wryly replies: “Yeah. I took a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls.”

Watching the newly-minted "Vegas showgirls"
Watching the newly-minted “Vegas showgirls”

Ritchie has a keen eye and a good sense of balance. While he does go after some obvious targets like the smarmy pageant emcee, the above-mentioned Wilson Shears and Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), former Young American Miss and now professional martyr married to Andy, the town drunk (Nicholas Pryor), he shows us a fond yet rueful view of small town life. There’s the Elks Bears breakfast honoring the pageant contestants, presided over by the local funeral director (Paul Benedict, who should have been used more), and the Jaycees blowing off steam at their Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (though their rooster garb uneasily resembles the KKK’s white sheets). Yet Ritchie also shows us that Santa Rosa is like every other small town that people need to leave in order to grow up. Not because it’s a bad place—only a stifling one. When Big Bob urges Andy to stay in Santa Rosa to solve his problems, the latter, with a defiant gleam in his eye, replies “Who wants to?”

Ritchie takes a sympathetic view of the pageant contestants. We’re spared the horror of stage mothers and professional coaches; Ritchie is too smart to waste our time with that. Instead, we experience the pageant through the eyes of a contestant, Robin (Joan Prather), a sweet, naive kid who to her surprise catches the fever to win. Then there’s her roommate, Doria (Annette O’Toole, giving the type of performance you remember for years), a pageant veteran who’s used to dealing with horny dermatologists and Vaseline on her teeth to help her maintain that smile, among other travails. Her talent spot in the pageant is perhaps the high point of “Smile”—a striptease scrubbed clean by an accompanying poetry recitation, capped off by an unforgetable ending. This bit alone is worth the cost of the DVD. Trust me.

As Tommy French says, the girls are basically your average high school kids. They’re not goody-goody, they’re certainly not Ginger Rogers—they’re simply playing the game, one whose values Robin questions. We catch her in the middle of a conversation with Doria, who points out: “Boys get paid for making touchdowns. Why shouldn’t a girl get paid for being pretty?” Robin’s reply always gladdens this former band nerd’s heart: “Well, maybe boys shouldn’t get paid for making touchdowns.”

Ultimately Ritchie’s view is somewhat ambivalent. While he shows us the silliness of the pageant and the clichés that prevail (not to mention the loot the winner collects), we also see the camaraderie of the contestants, their refreshing ability to see through a ton of adult b.s. and their resilience. A pity we lose this as we grow older.

“Smile”—a lovely reminder that once upon a time films were actually made for grown-ups.

Posted in Movie Reviews

The Old Burly Q

"Take Ten Terrific Girls (And Only Nine Costumes)"
“Take Ten Terrific Girls (And Only Nine Costumes)”

It was known as “the poor man’s Follies.”

Despite the passage of years, Minsky’s Burlesque retains its legendary status. As a result, 1968’s “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” William Friedkin’s first directorial effort, seems as fresh today as ever. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you this is not exactly a tidy film. Character motivations turn on a dime, and the death of Bert Lahr in the midst of shooting left an enormous hole in the movie.

This is definitely a “plot—what plot?” film, and you end up not caring anyway. For the record “Minsky’s” shows us what happens when Rachel Shpitenduyvel (Britt Ecklund), late of Pennsylvania Amish country, runs away from home in 1925 to become a burlesque dancer. Whatever. The best parts of the film are the on-stage performances of a no-nonsense chorus line, an affable tenor and some gifted comics. Although Jason Robards is somewhat dour as a top banana, he has his moments—that scene in the deli as he tries to seduce a speechless flapper is excellent.

There’s so much to love about “Minsky’s”:

That marvellously witty score by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. Listen carefully to the song performed in Trim Hoolihan’s speakeasy—Strouse later used the melody in a slower tempo for Daddy Warbucks’ ballad, “Something Was Missing,” in the Broadway show “Annie.”

You’ll never hear Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 the same way ever again. Trust me.

Jack Burns as a candy butcher hawking “jen-you-ine chee-o-colate bonbons [clap clap] with the nuts inside.” He is absolute perfection, whether using a shill to push more sales or describing the book included with every purchase: “Mademoiselle Fifi. She drove a million Frenchmen wild.” He wears his derby well and his bright voice along with his unforgettable facial expressions make you think he was born in the wrong era.

"And you will see... what little Willie saw...at the picnic."
“And you will see… what little Willie saw…at the picnic.”

The absolute love of craft displayed by the veteran performers: Rudy Vallee giving that priceless introduction (and delivering the title song), Dexter Maitland, who had spent many years in burlesque, bringing new life to the role of a somewhat moth-eaten tenor, and best of all, Norman Wisdom. His scene where he explains burlesque to the naive Rachel is lovely, and his appreciation for her ultimate show biz know-how saves the film from a sour ending. And it should come as no surprise that he does a far better bump and grind than Britt Ecklund.

The audience as a leading character. Actually I should say two different characters, because there’s a careful distinction drawn between the working stiffs who spend their lunch hour at the theater and the black tie, uptown crowd out to see Mademoiselle Fifi at the midnight show. In either case, their reactions to what is happening on stage are a highlight of the movie.

Forrest Tucker (“I’m taking the little lady to the theater to make her dee-but”), Joseph Wiseman, Harry Andrews and Denholm Elliott as, respectively, Trim Hoolihan, Louis Minsky, Jacob Shpitenduyvel and Vance Fowler (of the Society for the Suppression of Vice). They were some of the best character actors of their time, and it’s wonderful to watch them in action.

The boys in the orchestra pit whose reactions to Rachel’s Bible dance are priceless. Later, when she appears as Mademoiselle Fifi, I treasure their encouragement of her—the drummer’s wink and a nod as he plays a roll and cymbal crash to signal a bump and grind, and the immortal “boom boom-ba-boom” that accompanies a stripper’s strut across the stage.

It’s interesting that the role of Billy Minsky, played by an incredibly young yet negligible Elliot Gould, was first offered to Alan Alda (His commitment to “The Apple Tree,” then playing on Broadway, precluded the film appearance). He’s a major contributor to “Behind the Burly Q,” Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating documentary, in which former strippers, comics, dancers and their survivors describe what burlesque was like in its heyday. Until I saw it, I had no idea that Robert Alda, Alan’s father, who’s best known for creating the role of Sky Masterson in Broadway’s “Guys and Dolls,” began his career as a straight man and “tit singer” in burlesque, i.e., the tenor who sang the opening song as the girls paraded across the stage, assets on display.

“Behind the Burly Q” features some great dish involving the biggest stars (Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio, Blaze Starr), and the revelation of some trade secrets (strippers always carefully handed their discarded clothing to someone waiting in the wings—no tossing into the audience). But what endures is a terrific oral history by performers taking pride in their art and their ability to keep their audiences entertained during some tough times. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Kubrick’s “The Shining”

"Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance"
“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance”

I hadn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in several years, but two recent events made me return to it. One was a debate with my co-workers as to which was better—the movie or the Stephen King novel on which it’s based. The other was purely monetary: I hated to see my hard-earned Best Buy points go to waste. So my newly purchased Blu-ray edition became Sunday’s entertainment as I worked my way through a week’s worth of laundry.

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s novel, I was disappointed in Kubrick’s film when I first saw it in 1980. Like many readers, I expected the movie to be an adaptation, but Kubrick chose to use the novel as a springboard for his own ideas. The result is a clear instance of book and film markedly parting company.

Some flaws remain even when considering the movie without reference to its source. Jack Nicholson gives away far too much too soon. That cocked eyebrow and those glinting eyes signal crazy too early in the game; he becomes outrageous rather than horrific. Kubrick uses Shelley Duvall as little more than a doormat except at the end of the film, and Danny Lloyd, as Danny Torrance, seems like a little zombie who’s been forbidden to act like a child (This is truly a shame, because “The Making of ‘The Shining'” featurette reveals this kid to have been a real charmer with a great laugh).

It’s mentioned a number of times in the Blu-ray’s extras that Kubrick viewed “The Shining” as a tale of a man coming to hate his own family. However, the first time we see Jack, Wendy and Danny together as they drive up to the Overlook Hotel, Jack seems to be there already. He’s irritable and short with his wife and son, there’s no chemistry between Nicholson and Duvall, and by the time Jack tells Danny he loves him, we just don’t believe it. There’s no development, no sense of erosion of feeling. It’s as if Kubrick just flicks the switch on Jack Torrance from responsible family man to monster. A more minor quibble: why have Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) make that long trek from Miami to Denver, rent a Snow Cat and drive through a blizzard just to be axed the moment he steps foot in the Overlook lobby? If you’re going to kill him off, at least give him a fighting chance before the dispatch.

Despite all this, there’s so much I love about the movie. In no particular order:

The Overlook’s maze is a superb replacement for King’s topiary animals. The former is the type of visual good film thrives on; the latter device works best as psychological horror on the printed page (for proof watch the 1997 television remake of “The Shining” where those animals look ridiculous). The maze’s scale model also plays an important role—that shot with Jack looking down into the model as it morphs into an overhead view of Wendy and Danny navigating their way through the real thing is breathtaking.

The Overlook itself, which is really the main character in “The Shining.” The set decoration is stunning. It’s virtually timeless. Despite all the haunted goings-on, you feel a strong urge to be able to step right into that bar and the golden ballroom. One minor gripe: Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 and used for exterior shots of the Overlook, looks too modern for a hotel supposedly built in 1909.

"I co-rrrected her"
“I co-rrrected her”

Jack’s encounters with Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel) and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). His face lit from below, Lloyd comes across as a kindly Satan in a red jacket. Not so Grady, who counsels Jack in what can only be described as Hell’s Bathroom. Aside from relating that he “co-rrected” his wife and daughters, he’s the harbinger of the story’s end when he insists to Jack: “You have always been the caretaker.”

Despite being over-the-top, there’s a small thing Jack Nicholson does that makes me laugh every time I watch the film. It comes when Jack Torrance returns to the gold Colorado Lounge, now filled with party-goers dressed in 1920’s style. After Jack finishes his conversation with Lloyd at the bar, he gets up and, enjoying the sweet band music, tries out a few nimble dance steps before colliding with Grady. It’s totally unexpected. Speaking of the ballroom scene, the ghostly music that accompanies it (actual recordings of bands from that era) couldn’t be more evocative.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I’ve always gotten a bigger jolt from this than the scene in Room 237, and in fact, I think it comes in a close second to “REDRUM” as the most frightening bit in the movie. The detail is astonishing—pages and pages of Jack’s typing, some in narrative, some in verse form, others in script format (The Blu-ray extras reveal that Kubrick had his secretary typing for months to create what Wendy discovers).

Danny’s sliding escape out the bathroom window and the ensuing chase through the maze. It’s so eerily beautiful it almost erases the horror of a man trying to kill his own son. And we finally see Danny take some initiative in making those backward footprints in the snow to throw Jack off the trail.

The end, done in a way that film does best. I wonder if Mr. Ullman will be hiring another caretaker for next winter…and whether Jack Torrance will be there to greet him. Need we say more?

shining2

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

The Man That Got Away

a_star_is_born_blu-ray2

One of my favorite things is returning to a film upon its reissue on Blu-ray. The disc’s extra features show the evolution of the movie, the artists’ thought processes, what didn’t work but, on the other hand, what triumphantly did. No better example of this is the Blu-ray version of 1954’s “A Star is Born,” starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor.

“A Star is Born” is one of the most notoriously maimed movies of all time. Trimmed down to a manageable three hours for its premiere, it then underwent a brutal 40-minute cut at Warner Brothers’ direction (sans input from Cukor) when theater owners complained that the film’s length limited the number of daily showings. The movie was partially restored in 1983 after Ronald Haver, then Director of Film Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, located a complete soundtrack of the premiere version and the three excised musical numbers (about 10 minutes of dialogue footage was never recovered, and Haver was forced to make do with production stills and other photographs). His search for the original film as well as the movie’s troubled production history is detailed in his fascinating book “A Star is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and and It’s 1983 Restoration.”

What makes the Blu-ray release so absorbing is the inclusion of various versions and takes of that classic Harold Arlen torcher, “The Man That Got Away,” for my money Judy Garland’s best musical performance on film. She’s on fire here, but in reality the evolution of that flame took a while.

The number as first shot is prime double-take fodder. This bluesy song, evocative of smoky nightclubs, is sung on a brightly lit set filled with extras seated around small tables. It’s High Noon and everyone, Judy and band included, is wearing pastels. As Haver details in his book, after this was shot a decision was made to scrap all existing footage in order to film “A Star is Born” in CinemaScope, then the latest word in movie technology. And thank heavens, the pastels were tossed.

Version No. 2: One Huge Mistake
Version No. 2: One Huge Mistake

However, the second attempted version of “The Man That Got Away” turned out to be a muddy mess, widescreen notwithstanding. The predominant colors are brown and a muted red. The brunette Judy is defeated by the color scheme as well as the too-visible musicians who pull focus away from her. More than that, the point of the song is somewhat divided between the rehearsal of a musical number and the foreshadowing of Norman Maine’s tragic fate. There’s too much emphasis on the latter, particularly since we’ll see his alcoholism stand in the way of any lasting happiness with Esther. This begs the question: If she never really had him in the first place, how could he get away? Another problem with the early takes of Version No. 2: Esther serving coffee to the boys in the band before she sings. Yes, that’s right. Talk about a mood breaker.

The final version we see in the film today hits on all cylinders. The purpose of the number is now firmly established—it’s a performance piece though the subtext remains. An important bit of business has been added: Esther’s motioning the trombone player over to give her a lead-in to which she harmonizes, setting that torchy mood. With the exception of Danny at the piano, the boys in the band are in shadow throughout the song, a welcome change from the first two versions of the number. And best of all, the predominant colors are now midnight blue and red, far more fitting to the context of the song and exceptionally flattering to Judy Garland (as is the white-collared dark dress she wears, as opposed to the schmatte in Version No. 2). That little nod and wink to the boys as she ends the number put the seal on her pride as a performer, and Lord knows, it’s well-earned.

Cut before the premiere: Norman and Esther at Malibu
Cut before the premiere: Norman and Esther at Malibu

“The Man That Got Away” is only one of the movie’s key elements. Jack Carson’s performance as Matt Libby, the studio publicity head, is indispensable, a perfect blend of affability and malevolence. His best scenes just sizzle—his joking but later acid opinion of Esther and Norman’s elopement, his explosive confrontation with the newly sober Norman at Hollywood Park. Although his years of frustration covering up Norman’s bad behavior are evident, Libby knows how the game is played. Witness his change of attitude toward Esther at the preview party of her film. At first he orders her around like any contract player (“Now I’ll need you tomorrow for some more publicity shots”), but then realizing that her status as a star has shifted the balance of power, he abruptly changes gears. Pasting on a smarmy smile he adds an obsequious “That is, if you can make it.” Just brilliant.

Norman Maine will always remain an enigma. James Mason plays wounded quite well, but we never learn why the erstwhile Ernest Sidney Gubbins drinks to the extent of destroying himself. Much as I like him, Mason seems too sane for the character he plays, though he plays Norman’s final descent into despair in unforgettable fashion.

Judy Garland’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, is her finest work on film. Under the guidance of George Cukor, she uses her emotive style wisely, letting loose where it counts, as in her final scene with Danny (the excellent Tom Noonan). “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine” may be over the top. but Judy makes you believe. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is our realization that the opportunity to follow-up with other musicals showcasing her talents at their peak would never be hers.

A revisit to “A Star is Born” is well worth your time.

Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Television

Brain Bits for a December Storm

After all the predictions, the first season’s snow has finally started. The weatherman says this afternoon’s effort won’t stick—the bigger show will be tonight when it turns to sleet and then rain. All in time for tomorrow morning’s commute. Winter in the tri-state area; you’ve gotta love it.

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Courtesy of a free weekend of Epix, I finally caught the film “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington who, truth be told, was blown off the screen by a shrewdly underplaying Don Cheadle. While the accident and the events leading up to it made for great suspense and the amusement factor was enormous, given that the co-pilot was played by Brian Geraghty, late (and how) of “Boardwalk Empire,” this movie was a mess.

What really got to me was the threat throughout the film that Whip, the alcoholic pilot, would go to jail for manslaughter when we knew the cause of the crash was mechanical malfunction. Yes, he reported to work drunk, and yes, he snuck several mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice in flight, but he was not guilty of manslaughter—this crime does not occur unless the behavior in question causes the victim’s death. What Whip was guilty of was operating a common carrier under the influence of both alcohol and a controlled substance, which under federal law would buy him up to 15 years in the pen. Hopefully that’s why we see him in jail at the end of the film, although the filmmakers evidently didn’t think it important enough to tell us why he was there.

Getting it right:
The movie court room gold standard: “Anatomy of a Murder”

In its legal inaccuracies “Flight” scores high on my attorney irritation scale. It’s only a notch below “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, which almost drove me out of the theater screaming when I first saw it. If you’ll recall, the testimony of Lindsey Crouse, as the nurse hounded from her profession, is stricken from the record because the medical records she claims were altered are ruled as “best evidence” of the patient’s physical state. While there is indeed a “best evidence” rule, it has nothing to do with the fact that the veracity of every document sought to be admitted is subject to challenge.

This, along with so many other film boo-boos, is explained in fascinating detail in Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow’s “Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies,” a book which belongs on every film buff’s shelf. Some of their rankings may surprise you, some may not (the classic “Anatomy of a Murder” is awarded a well-deserved four gavels, the authors’ highest grade; the Al Pacino film “…And Justice for All,” tanks with only one).

I confess I have a soft spot for films that get both the drama and the law right. My favorites? In addition to the aforementioned “Anatomy of a Murder,” I think “Breaker Morant” may be my Number 1 court room drama. The performances couldn’t be better, and Jack Thompson, as an estate attorney pressed into service as defense counsel for the three soldiers accused of war crimes, is every lawyer who’s ever found himself in over his head. And an old made-for-TV movie, “The Law,” starring a pre-“Taxi” Judd Hirsch, had a tremendous cast as well as some accurate criminal procedure, not to mention a creepy, Charles Manson-like celebrity murder. Great stuff.

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boardwalkempire111013margaretrothstein-578x200

Two weeks after the season finale of “Boardwalk Empire,” I’m still mulling over where we go from here. It’s unusual to see a series rebound the way this one did after the Gyp Rosetti madness, but it did so in style, leaving us wanting a great deal more for next year.

It’s a shame Warren Knox was dispatched by Eli Thompson in what had to be the most brutal bare handed fight in TV history. He was a wonderful villain—that bland baby face hid a truly sadistic side. I bet he tortured kittens in his spare time. I assume we’ll still have Narcisse around next season if only to be under the thumb of J. Edgar Hoover and perhaps be a revenge target for Chalky.

Speaking of Chalky, our last view of him was as a man totally bereft. His favorite child has been murdered, the rest of his family is gone, the Onyx Club is lost and he’s got a price on his head. Presumably he has Daughter, but is this enough?

What of the other characters? Nucky and Sally in Cuba might be fun, but where does he stand with Narcisse and his other (fr)enemies? I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Gillian, prison or not, and the thought of Eli and Van Alden both working for Al Capone should be a trip (have you ever seen such a look of mutual disgust exchanged as when Van Alden picked up the on-the-lam Eli at the train station?).

But what I find most intriguing is the prospect of Margaret and Rothstein working the stock market. Will she become his mistress? Don’t be too sure that ritzy apartment is truly rent-free, Margaret, no matter how many tips you pass. If they do become a twosome, I’d be curious as to Rothstein’s behavior, especially after his chiding Nucky about so openly chasing after Billie. In any event, it wouldn’t surprise me if “Boardwalk Empire” jumps ahead to events leading up to Rothstein’s murder in 1928 and the over-heating of the stock market prior to the Crash.

Speculation is fun, but it’s a long way until “Boardwalk Empire”‘s return. Let’s hope it’s a good one. And bring back Eddie Cantor, please!

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Movie Reviews

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Have I mentioned I grew up at a time when the Broadway musical was still in its prime (not to mention affordable)? Because I was lucky to live in the New York metropolitan area, I was able to see the original productions of so many shows now considered to be classics. One of the best–and loveliest–was Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “A Little Night Music” stands apart from other Sondheim shows. Its music doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, and the wry romance of the story resulted in his wittiest lyrics. There’s no doubt the excellence of the work rests a great deal on what Bergman already created. In style his film is reminiscent of the Mozart/DaPonte operas–it almost begs to be sung. Despite the satisfactory rearrangement of the lovers, you’re left with the impression that all happy endings are evanescent (It’s a safe bet that Charlotte and Carl-Magnus Malcolm will probably grind each other down into dust). But the reward is a visually beautiful film directed by a master, with Gunnar Bjornstrom and Eva Dahlbeck as Frederick Egermann and Desiree Armfelt so ridiculously good together they outdo even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The original production of “A Little Night Music” was a bit sweeter than the Bergman film. Charlotte Malcolm was sharply comic, rather than tending toward tragedy, Carl-Magnus was a barihunk without quite the wit of his film counterpart, Frederick was somewhat less dry, and it was obvious that his relationship with Desiree had ended many years earlier than in the Bergman version (Desiree’s child is a girl who’s about ten years older than the film character’s son). On stage, William Daniels, who had replaced Len Cariou as Frederick Egermann, was wonderful in the role. The sheer theatricality of the show was such fun: “The Glamorous Life” (“Bring up the curtain, la la la”) accented by a harp glissando and Desiree’s sweeping gesture to cue the scenery of the play within the play; the clever design of Charlotte’s hobble skirt, which turned out to be culottes; that breath-taking moment when the curtain rose on the second act, with the cast lounging on the lawn of Desiree’s estate, all dressed in their beautiful summer whites. Not to mention how wonderfully Glynis Johns sang “Send in the Clowns” so late in the show’s run, yet making it sound like fresh thought. It’s hard to think of another show that could match that production in elegance.

Glynis Johns as Desiree
Glynis Johns as Desiree

“Night Music,” musically speaking, is all of one piece. Every song in the score, waltz or not, is in three or its multiple; the unstoppable “A Weekend in the Country” is in 12/8. But your ear is never bored since Sondheim plays with tempo throughout the show and tricks you into thinking he’s doing alternate meter as in “The Glamorous Life.” However, I think the most crucial musical ingredient is the contribution of Jonathan Tunick, perhaps the most gifted orchestrator Broadway has ever seen. He adds warmth to the score with some lovely woodwind writing, especially for alto flute and English horn, and he softens the odd tonality of “Night Waltz I” (“The sun won’t set..”) with those lush strings.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment in “A Little Night Music.” “A Weekend in the Country,” with its busy choruses and Charlotte’s sage advice to Anne about how to outshine Desiree (“Wear your hair down with a flower/Don’t use makeup/Dress in white/She’ll grow older by the hour/And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night”)? And the unique juxtaposition of “Now” “Soon” and “Later,” only to hear them come together in a trio? Which reminds me: there’s an unusual bonus on the original cast album at the point when Anne (Victoria Mallory) and Henrik (Mark Lambert) sing the line “I don’t mind it too much.” Their voices so perfectly mesh that her soprano sounds like an overtone of his tenor (In fact the actors married during the run of the show and their daughter played Anne in the recent revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway cast album still makes the best case for the show. The recording of the revival has its merits—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and the lieder singers are excellent–but the orchestrations, therefore the sound, is leaner, making it “less than” from a musical standpoint And by all means avoid the movie version, which changed the locale from Sweden to turn of the century Vienna and ends up laying the proverbial egg (Diana Rigg is a great Charlotte, but it’s just not worth the agony).

So while Hans Christian Anderson may never be risqué, “A Little Night Music” will always delight.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations

Brain Bits for Late August

While the weather is spectacular and the sunlight has already turned that lovely golden color marking late summer, I’m all a-whimper watching the Mets get decimated by the Detroit Tigers. It’s like the mini-spacemen encountering Agnes Moorhead in that classic “Twilight Zone” episode—“They’re an incredible race of giants!” What a line-up, and with pitching to burn. I’d love to see Detroit cop it all in the post-season.

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Beats Me, Too
Beats me, too

And while we’re on the subject of baseball, I don’t know how much Ryan Braun pays his attorneys and public relations people, but the mea culpa that was cranked out this week on his behalf sure says he isn’t getting value for his money.

Braun’s lengthy statement begs so many questions, it’s hard to know where to begin. If he took PEDs simply to recover from an injury, why didn’t he just man up, admit what he did and take a 50-game suspension two years ago? Instead, with manufactured outrage, he acted like a man with something major to hide, i.e,, long-term PED use. So he gambled that the specimen collector’s failure to return the sample in timely fashion would resonate with the arbitrator, and evidently hoped that once he beat the rap, everything would just go away. That’s either the magical thinking of a six year-old, or the game plan of an ace manipulator. Or acting like Richard Nixon.

And this section of his statement stuck out like a sore thumb: “I sincerely apologize to everybody involved in the arbitration process, including the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Son, if you really want to make amends, why didn’t that read: “….especially the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Given Braun’s past remarks about Laurenzi and his more recent accusations that the collector was both anti-Semitic and a Cubs fan, he should have done far more for the man whose reputation he so cynically impugned.

What a guy.

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“The crew is on instruments!”

HBO is showing “Airplane!” this month, which is not only cause for celebration but an excellent excuse to pop a beer, flake out in front of the tube and howl like a banshee.  For a comedy released in 1980, it holds up spectacularly—only one or two topical references (to Gerald Ford and a particular coffee commercial) may be lost on younger viewers.

But what a great, hysterical riot it still is. Even the sight of “Zero Hour,”its source material, on Turner Classic Movies, is enough to induce a major case of the giggles (This 1957 drama starring Dana Andrews, who plays a pilot named—yes—Ted Stryker, is so bad it’s already a parody).  “Airplane!” just never stops:

“Don’t call me Shirley!”

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

“Stewardess, I speak Jive”

“Auntie Em, it’s a twister!”

Not to mention the battling Girls Scouts, the X-rated seat-back signs, and what happens to the kid’s IV during the communal sing-along (best faces of all time). But I have to say the following is my favorite bit. It’s the departing slap from Leslie Nielsen that just seals the deal:

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For people of my generation and older, the passing of Julie Harris is particularly poignant. Although she gave wonderful performances in now-classic films like “East of Eden” and “The Haunting,” for us her name was synonymous with “theater.”

I would have loved to have seen her on stage during the 1950’s, when she starred in “The Member of the Wedding.” “I am a Camera,” “The Lark,” and “The Country Wife,” among others. Fortunately some of her best work appeared on television—“Little Moon of Alban,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Belle of Amherst.” Her unique voice, which served her so well, made her perfectly cast as Mary Chestnut, one of the narrators in Ken Burns’ documentary series “The Civil War.”

I only saw her on stage once, in the comedy “Forty Carats,” when I was a teenager. The wonderful Murray Hamilton played her ex-husband, and even though this was the epitome of lightweight comedy, these two pros gave a virtual seminar on stage craft. Her comic timing and his ability to get the best out of a thrown away line turned a really brainless play into a memorable event.

A true artist. May she rest in peace.

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Television

Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

Given the stresses of our times, are we surprised that “end of the world” scenarios exercise such a strong pull on the imagination? No matter the method—mass death by unleashed viruses, unstoppable zombies or murderous invaders from space—the story always forces us to think “What would I do?” Because my movie-going started with Saturday matinees during the 1950’s—an era dominated by The Bomb—I cultivated an early appreciation of the threatened mass wipe-out. I’m not talking about morality tales like “On the Beach” or “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” as absorbing as they may be. I’m talking “It’s our last chance to save the Earth!” My not-so-guilty pleasure.

deep-impact-1998-05-g
“Deep Impact”: Heroes All

Premium cable is currently showing a better than average example of the genre, 1998’s “Deep Impact,” featuring a massive comet on a collision course with Earth. Now, I should warn you: this is a slightly cheesy movie. High quality cheese to be sure, what with Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall and Maximilian Schell gracing the cast. Unfortunately, though, there’s also an incredibly wooden Téa Leoni as the MSNBC reporter who uncovers the true threat the comet poses to the world. Her facial expressions change not one whit during the entire course of the film, though her drunken scene with her father and his new young bride after learning that humanity is pretty much doomed is a nice bit of black humor. Fortunately the supporting cast makes up the difference.

Reviewing all the plots in “Deep Impact” is basically a waste of time, since you’ve seen nearly all of them in other sci-fi movies anyway. Let’s just say the highlights are Morgan Freeman as one terrific U.S. President, Charles Martin Smith in a quintessential Charles Martin Smith role as the astronomer who confirms the existence of the deadly comet, Vanessa Redgrave just for being Vanessa Redgrave, and best of all, the crew of the spaceship Messiah launched to plant nukes within the comet to blow it off course. There’s a great subplot involving Robert Duvall as the veteran astronaut, at least 25 years older than his crewmates, who’s treated as virtual surplusage by the team. That is, until disaster strikes and his savvy makes all the difference to their mission. Prepare to blubber as you watch the crew’s good-byes to their loved ones, and hear the brief, gallant exchange between Co-Pilot Mary McCormack and Commander Duvall: “May I say it was a pleasure serving with you, Captain?” “The pleasure was all mine, Andy, the pleasure was all mine.” Sob.

There’s another collision course in Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman,” the first volume of a projected trilogy. Though nominally a mystery, the book’s backdrop is the impending strike of a massive asteroid which may wipe out the planet. Our hero, a cop in southern New Hampshire, is coping with the disappearances of people headed off to fulfill their Bucket List fantasies and the suicides of those who see no point in waiting for the end.  Winters is an excellent writer, and while the central mystery of the novel is somewhat of a no-brainer, the characterizations and dialogue are spot-on. Best of all, that looming asteroid and the human reaction to its doomsday effect keep you turning the pages. The second volume of the trilogy, “Countdown City,” has just been published, and the disaster clock is still ticking.

UnderTheDomeI’m also enjoying “Under the Dome,” the CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. While the author doesn’t threaten total doomsday, the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, cut off from the world, are now coping with shortages that may see their end. The town is populated by folk totally familiar to anyone who’s read more than one King novel—the psycho kid, the slut, the upstanding cop, the crooked politician, the studly guy with a mysterious past (Throw in a goodly dose of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and you’re all set).

But this one’s got some interesting wrinkles. The upstanding police chief is dead, and the law in town is a young Hispanic female officer who unfortunately has just deputized the village psycho. The hippest kid under the dome is teen-aged Norrie, who was caught in town along with her two moms when disaster struck. She and young Joe McAllister are prone to some type of contagious seizure caused by the dome. When afflicted, these two chant something about pink stars falling. In a recent experiment they deliberately induced this state while a smart phone recorded their seizures. And the playback showed one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a very long time—Joe sitting up, while still in an altered state, to look squarely into the camera and gesture “shhhh.” Hoo-boy. Good times ahead.

NOTE: The title of this post comes from that Guy Lombardo evergreen, which is still played by bands everywhere on New Year’s Eve. Take heed.

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Music

I Hereby Dub Thee…

marni-nixon-cover-webOne of the best half-hours in radio these days is “Operavore,” which precedes the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on New York’s WQXR. And without fail, the most interesting feature of the show is always Marilyn Horne’s interview with a singer or conductor of note. A few weeks ago the Fascination Meter hit an all-time high when she entertained an old friend, soprano Marni Nixon, best known as the “Ghostest With the Mostest.” As the singing voice of leading ladies in a number of classic Hollywood musicals, Ms. Nixon swapped some wonderful anecdotes with her old pal (Marilyn Horne is also a veteran ghost, having enjoyed her first professional success at age 20 by dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones”). If you missed it, never fear—you can catch up via Marni Nixon’s memoir, “I Could Have Sung All Night”, which chronicles her career as the voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention the source of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Ms. Nixon reminds us that when talkies arrived, so did dubbing. The Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s films frequently featured at least one scene set in a nightclub, with some chanteuse (make that “shan-toosy“) burning away in a torch song. In musicals the star dancers, such as Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen and Rita Hayworth, were always dubbed, as were six each, respectively, of the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

But it didn’t stop there. Check out Ray Hagen’s “Movie Dubbers” site for an astonishing list of dubbers and dubbees. That’s not Joan Blondell pouring her heart out in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” On the other hand, it is Lauren Bacall, not the teen-age Andy Williams, singing “How Little We Know” in “To Have and Have Not.” While some of these substitutions were publicized at the time (Larry Parks’s performing to Al Jolson’s soundtracks in two films about the singer’s life, Eileen Farrell’s singing for Eleanor Parker in “Interrupted Melody”), most were hidden behind the walls of the studio system and the confidentiality provisions that kept contract performers quiet.

The roster of dubbers includes such singers as Benny Goodman’s Martha Tilton and Anita Ellis, a fabulous jazz singer in her own right (and Larry Kert’s big sister), whose “Put the Blame on Mame” comes out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth in “Gilda.” Not surprisingly, “White Christmas” has Rosemary Clooney dubbing Vera-Ellen in “Sisters,” resulting in her singing a duet with herself. But my all-time favorite has got to be Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in the looping session featured in “Singin’ in the Rain,” because Hagen, a former stage and radio actress, had the cultured speaking voice needed for “The Dancing Cavalier.” Lina Lamont’s revenge!

Who's dubbing whom?
Who’s dubbing whom, anyway?

Marni Nixon, who began her career as a classical musician, has an incredible list of credits. Possessing that invaluable asset, perfect pitch, she had the good fortune to perform with a number of the so-called Hollywood exiles—composers and musicians who had fled Nazi Germany and settled in California in the 1940’s. She started her dubbing work while still in her teens, but her first big assignment was working with Deborah Kerr on “The King and I.” Nixon’s description of their intense rehearsal process is fascinating, and when it came time to shoot “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” (unfortunately cut from the film), Nixon was able to imitate her perfectly.

My favorite Marni Nixon movie moment occurs during another ghosting job she did for Deborah Kerr, this time in “An Affair to Remember.” Her rendition of “Our Love Affair” in the nightclub scene is flawless. The way she plays the subtext of the song (don’t forget, this is the night before the appointment at the Empire State Building), her phrasing, and most amusingly, the way she can sing in Deborah Kerr’s accent, all add up to a stunning performance (And speaking of stunning, Ms. Kerr never looked more glamorous on film than she does in this scene).

Marni Nixon’s Hollywood career also included “West Side Story” in which she sang for Natalie Wood in addition to dubbing a few of Rita Moreno’s phrases in the “Quintet” (“We’re gonna mix it tonight”). Of course, the job that brought her the most notoriety was dubbing Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” in a role that every one in the world with the exception of Jack Warner thought should have gone to the woman who originated it on stage, Julie Andrews. Nixon relates all this with a refreshingly objective eye, and it’s wonderful to learn that she later “came out” by playing Eliza Doolittle, as well as Anna Leonowens and “The Most Happy Fella”‘s Rosabella, among other roles, on stage.

As a change of pace, here’s a chance to experience Marni Nixon’s artistry as a classical musician. Her appearance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at a time when his “Young People’s  Concerts” was teaching a generation (namely mine!) about music is wonderfully exuberant and a pure pleasure. Enjoy!

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemarys Baby

He has His Father’s eyes.

—Roman Castevet

Has there ever been a better plotted thriller than Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby”? Or a better adaptation than Roman Polanski’s 1968 film? Everybody’s favorite satanic offspring recently received the Criterion Collection treatment, and the result proves this movie still retains its punch, 45 years later.

I remember reading the novel in practically one sitting. Levin’s pacing is phenomenal—he knows exactly when, where and how to drop just enough information to enable you to keep pace with Rosemary as the plot unfolds, yet never for one instant let you get ahead of her. Only when she becomes suspicious do you become suspicious, but not before. It’s a delight to re-read it the moment you finish just to enjoy how easily you were fooled. Although the novel falls into the horror genre, it’s not the idea of Satan’s spawn that really puts it there. Levin is more subtle—it’s poor Rosemary’s painful pregnancy and her husband’s trading her well-being for fame that create the nightmare. The suspense is marvelous, yet the book is also incredibly funny and sly, and of course irreverent. Just a terrific read.

Levin’s image of Rosemary–Piper Laurie

Roman Polanski’s screenplay is as close to a word for word adaptation as possible (According to the extras in the Criterion package, Levin thought the director was under the impression he was barred from making any changes. How fortunate for us). In its movie form, “Rosemary’s Baby” not only brings the printed word to life, it enhances the experience in ways that only film can. Sometimes it’s the little things, such as the coven’s flat chant, almost a group moan, with its accompanying whistle that Rosemary and Guy hear through their bedroom wall. I don’t know about you, but it makes my skin crawl every time I see the movie. And though this is a key scene in the book, it’s Polanski who creates the hair-on-end atmosphere of Rosemary’s attempt to solve the riddle of Hutch’s anagram reference. When she finally forms the name “Roman Castevet” out of “Steven Marcato” with those Scrabble tiles, it’s impossible not to gasp.

I wouldn’t have thought to cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary, given that another character in the novel says she looks like Piper Laurie, but she makes it work. Yes, Farrow was the eternal waif at that stage of her career, but her newly-created Vidal Sassoon hair cut beautifully sets off those hollow cheeks during Rosemary’s first trimester from (literal) hell. And I love that enigmatic smile at the end of the film. The ambiguity is perfect.

Where I think the film disappoints somewhat is in the casting and depiction of Guy Woodhouse. The Criterion materials state that both Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson tested for the part, and either would have been so much better than John Cassavetes. He’s too ethnic, he’s too old and he’s too saturnine.  He’s as obvious as Jack Nicholson would be in “The Shining” a few years later. In fairness, though, Cassavetes is not really helped by either the script or the direction. In the book it’s clear Guy is shocked when the coven’s spell blinds his rival actor, Donald Baumgart. But you don’t feel that watching the movie. And Levin makes it obvious that Guy is initially troubled by the proposition that he in essence trade his wife for success. There’s no such scene in the film, let alone a hint that Guy ever has a second thought—he’s all in from the get-go.

On the other hand, Polanski seems to delight in the turning points of the plot–those stages in the narrative where things could have gone so differently had the characters chosen another path. Rosemary’s quiet insistence that she and Guy have dinner with the Castevets, though he clearly doesn’t want to go. Her concern over Dr. Hill’s request for an additional blood draw, which ultimately steers her straight to Dr. Sapirstein. Her forgetting to show Sapirstein’s pills (no doubt 100% tannis root) to Hill when she tells him about the coven, only to have Sapirstein immediately pocket the vial before Hill has a chance to notice. Of such small moments are absorbing stories made.

While Ira Levin sustained his success with “The Stepford Wives” and the play “Deathtrap” in the years after “Rosemary,” his sequel “Son of Rosemary,” published in 1997, was a huge mistake. After the first chapter, it’s all downhill, and the ending is absurd. Do yourself a favor and avoid it at all cost. Instead, why don’t you just take “Rosemary’s Baby” off the shelf or pop in the Blu-ray? Nothing but nothing can beat the original.