Friday, September 30, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for October on TCM

The self-imposed challenge continues with a recommendation of one movie from TCM's October lineup. A word about that line-up, it's a dandy!

The 1949 release The Set-Up is my litmus test for film critics. If it is anywhere on any of their “tops” lists, they pass muster. Local Toronto cable critics called it “an interesting little noir” upon its release in a Film Noir DVD set. Recently, a print critic for the Toronto Sun called The Set-Up a “second-tier boxing picture”.

I approve of labels. They are a fine shorthand for the basis of understanding. However, someone who thinks they know all there is to know about film-noir may be disappointed at not finding a femme fatale in The Set-Up. Someone may read “boxing picture” and think to themselves, “I have seen Rocky.” A label is like a 10 second sound byte on the evening news. It hardly tells the whole story. The most important thing to note about The Set-Up is that it is a fine movie.

The "real-time" element is established at the beginning of the movie.

The Set-Up is based on the epic poem of the same name by Joseph Moncure March. The poem published in 1928, and set in that tumultuous decade, details the story of Pansy, a black boxer with all the odds against him. Doomed not to reach the top because of jealousy and racism, he becomes a pawn of crooked gamblers after a prison term.

The movie screenplay by Art Cohn has the contemporary setting of 1949 and our lead character Stoker Thomson is a white boxer, unable to accept that he is nearing the end of his career. True to his own personal code he fails to see the duplicity that surrounds him.

It is fitting that director Robert Wise chose to film the story in real-time. He used his editor’s eye like a poet, choosing the perfect moments to put across the gritty and dramatic story.

Audrey Totter, Robert Ryan

Prior to directing The Body Snatcher, his first feature film on his own, Wise attended acting classes to better understand the mindset and expectations of actors. The Set-Up provides viewers with a wonderful example of great ensemble performances. All the performers work together to create a cohesive sense of story, yet all get to shine individually.

Journeyman boxer Stoker Thompson is holding on to a way of life he understands, while his wife Julie played by Audrey Totter wants a way out of what she sees as a dead-end street. On the night we meet them, Julie must decide if the way out will be for both of them or only for herself. Her dilemma is heartbreaking.

George Tobias, Edwin Max

At the arena are others whose decisions will impact Stoker. His manager and trainer, played by George Tobias and Percy Helton have made a deal with gangsters for Stoker to throw the evening’s fight. They haven’t let Stoker in on the deal because they don’t expect him to win. Stoker always fights to win and Alan Baxter as the sadistic gangster "Little Boy" is not a man to cross.

David Clarke, Darryl Hickman, James Edwards

We get to know and understand Stoker's co-workers including the punch-drunk "Gunboat" beautifully played by David Clarke, the anxious rookie Shanley played by Darryl Hickman, the sympathetic trainer Gus played by Wallace Ford, and the proud and ambitious Luther played by James Edwards.

Robert Ryan, Hal Baylor

Ryan was a boxer at Dartmouth College and Baylor attended Washington State on an athletic scholarship. His pro boxing record was 15-8. The choreographed match in The Set-Up is a thing of authentic grit and beauty.

Fight fans

The crowd is a major part of the story as presented by Robert Wise. They are the reason the fights go on, the bums in the seats, the profit. They are no part of what goes on behind the ropes, the individual boxer's fight with himself.

Julie - alone

The loneliness in the crowded arena is matched by the loneliness of Julie's wait for another night, another fight to finish. We stroll with her through town, returning to yet another nondescript hotel room as she struggles with the most important decision of her life.

Stoker - alone

The arena deserted after the fight where Stoker's victory places him in danger. The danger and the fear are uncomfortably palpable.

In 73 minutes, we live a lifetime with the myriad characters of The Set-Up. The setting is a boxing arena, yet we all face the same problems with the decisions we make versus the decisions that are made for us. The Set-Up is a movie of heightened emotions; uncertainty, fear, excitement, elation, despair, deceit, greed, ambition, hope, hurt, love.

TCM is showing The Set-Up on October 11 at 4:15 pm.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Donald Duck

“The stars can change their courses, the universe can go up in flames and the world crash around us but there will always be Donald Duck.”
- Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, Brief Encounter (1945)

We are Donald Duck, Donald Duck is us. In close to 200 animated shorts and features, plus comic books and television, the duck known as Donald faced life’s travails in an all too human and relatable manner.

“Mickey was on a pedestal while the duck could blow his top.”
- Walt Disney

Yes, Donald has a temper. So do we all. We may start out with the best of intentions, but Fate with a capital “F” conspires against us.

In 1938s Self Control Donald does his best to follow the simple, kindly advice of a radio psychologist, but all things that buzz and crawl and peck stand in the way of peace and contentment.

In 1940s Donald’s Vacation it is an inanimate object, a *&*^(*)!!* folding chair that obstinately refuses to work as advertised. We cannot cast stones at Donald for losing his temper. We’ve all run across those *&*&&*Q!j** easy-to-work items that refuse to work, easily or otherwise. Poor Donald!

We all love our families. Donald loves his family. However, sometimes little angels aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Sometimes kids like Huey, Dewey and Louis misbehave. Sometimes. Sometimes the psychology books and all the patience in the world gets you nowhere. Sometimes you have to yell!

"Is there anything we didn't do to poor Donald?"
-Ward Kimball, animator

A little "white magic" in The Three Caballeros had Donald changing shape and size. A couple of gods with too much time on their hands gave Donald powers beyond his ken and abruptly took it away again in Trombone Trouble. Donald was hatched by a condor in Contrary Condor. He was attacked by a rooster in Golden Eggs.

He couldn't enjoy a ball game on a radio because of a music-loving bee in Slide, Donald, Slide. He was beset upon by Chip 'n Dale for no reason at all...well, okay, sometimes it was Donald's fault, but honestly, those little guys were diabolical in Toy Tinkers, Corn Chips, All in a Nutshell, Three for Breakfast, The Lone Chipmunk, etc. Diabolical!

“With all respect to Clarence Nash, I think if he had spoken more clearly, Donald Duck would have been a more popular character.”          
Mel Blanc, actor

Really, Mel? According to the Gallop Research Institute, by the end of the 1940s, the American public ranked Donald Duck as its favourite cartoon character, followed by Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse.

In 1953 when the Disney studio ceased production on most of their cartoon shorts for economic reasons, Donald Duck continued.

Since 1959 Swedish television has aired Disney cartoons on Christmas Eve and any mention by the network of tampering with this tradition is met with outrage. Donald Duck, known as Kalle Anka, has become a Swedish symbol of Christmas.

"On our first date, I bet you wished I looked like Donald in Mr. Duck Steps Out."
- Garry, the man who married Caftan Woman when she was Blouse Babe

"Hi, Toots!"
- My son Gavin learns how to talk to girls from classic Disney shorts

Life, and the Disney animators and directors gave Donald Duck a lot to cope with, but they also gave him friends that stick by him through thick and thin...

...and loved ones that make the journey worthwhile. Yes, we are Donald Duck. Donald Duck is us.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

CMBA GUILTY PLEASURES BLOGATHON: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

"You watched a movie. You knew it wasn't very good. But you loved it anyway."

From September 18 - 20 the Classic Movie Blog Association pays tribute to those guilty pleasures with a movie blogathon.

The premise of the CMBA’s Guilty Pleasure Movie Blogathon makes me feel guilty about my participation in said blogathon because I don’t think The Greatest Show on Earth is a bad movie. I don’t! Plus, I don’t feel guilty about watching and loving it. I don’t! Well, I used to…well, not always…not every time...

Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde 

When I was a kid in what I recall as the sunny sixties and The Greatest Show on Earth came on television, it was an event! In my eyes, it was the most glorious movie. It was big, bold, emotional and exciting. Brad was such a good guy. Sebastian was so charming. Klaus was so bad. Angel was so interesting. Holly was so brave. Buttons was so wonderful. Oh, Buttons was the most wonderful man in the world.

James Stewart, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston

When I was a teen in the seventies I started reading everything I could get my hands on that concerned the movies including those Best and Worst lists. There it was, time after time, in black and white, "worst Best Picture Winner of all-time" into perpetuity, The Greatest Show on Earth. Why? Apparently, because The Greatest Show on Earth was big, bold, emotional, and exciting. Only the words were changed to corny and overblown. While my affection for the movie never changed, guilt and shame wracked my heart. The Greatest Show on Earth was no longer a movie celebration, it was something to be watched on the sly.

The only way to travel.

In 1950 as Cecile B. DeMille neared his 70th birthday, he felt the desire to run away and join the circus. He spent months with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at their Winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida learning all he could about the operation of a circus. He studied the people who populated the big top; their way of speaking, the way they come together year after year as a troupe of traveling players.

Perhaps only DeMille with his expertise in big pictures could relate to that same grandiose quality in the circus and have the guts to tackle the logistics and complications of the location shoot which would not only give his film the air of authenticity he experienced but capture for us all a passing way of life.

Cecil B. DeMille

The Greatest Show on Earth was not only honoured by the Academy with the Best Picture Oscar and Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, but it also received nominations for Costume Design, Color, Best Film Editing, and Best Director. The Greatest Show on Earth was also the Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture and won Best Director and Best Cinematography, Color. Cecil B. DeMille was one of 18 directors nominated by the Director’s Guild that season.

James Stewart, Emmett Kelly

DeMille was making a circus picture. Hollywood was filled with lots of folks with a desire to run away and join him. Jimmy Stewart called. He’d always wanted to be a clown. “We have Stewart,” DeMille told his staff. “He wants to be a clown.” Jimmy’s clown, Buttons, would be the heart and soul of the story. Jimmy Stewart helped to create his own clown makeup for Buttons. He was helped by Wally Westmore but had the final decision. He also learned routines and worked with the best including International Clown Hall of Famer Emmett Kelly and the man known as King of the Clowns, Felix Adler.

Gloria Grahame, Minyak, Lyle Bettger

Lucille Ball was DeMille’s original choice for Angel, the elephant trainer. Under contract to Columbia with one picture left, Harry Cohn offered her a contract breaker, a picture so bad the actor would bail and could be sued. Lucy, anxious to do The Greatest Show on Earth, agreed to The Magic Carpet and her work was completed in five days for $85,000. Lucy and Desi then had to report to Mr. DeMille that she couldn’t take the role of Angel because she was now pregnant. Famously, the director said, “Congratulations, Desi, you are the only person in the world to screw Harry Cohn, Columbia Pictures, Paramount, Cecil B. DeMille, and your wife, all at the same time.”

Gloria Grahame took on the role of Angel, a circus temptress with a heart of gold. I think she deserved a medal for some of her stunts with the huge animals. The girl had guts. There is not one man of my acquaintance who doesn’t look at the Oscar-winning (The Bad and the Beautiful) actress and turn into Bert the Cop. There’s always an exception to the rule and in The Greatest Show on Earth, that exception is circus manager Brad Braden played by Charlton Heston. He’s not immune to ladies, after all, he has a thing for trapeze artist Holly, but the circus comes first. He has sawdust in his veins.

Where's my hat, you damn dirty ape?
Cornel Wilde, James Stewart, Betty Hutton
Charlton Heston, John Ridgely, Gloria Grahame

Heston was driving off the Paramount lot one day and stopped to wave at DeMille. DeMille had met the young actor in the studio dining room once. His secretary reminded him of the actor’s name and the movie he had screened, and had not liked called The Dark City. “Umm, I like the way he waved just now. We’d better have him in to talk about the circus manager.”

The big thing about the character Brad was choosing the hat. DeMille told him “Shoes don’t matter so much…usually, you don’t even see them. But if you wear a hat, it’s in every shot, and featured in every close-up.” They looked at dozens before the right hat clicked, but click it did.

The Flying Concellos

Genuine circus performers such as The Zoppes Equestrian act, The Flying Concellos, and The Alanzas of the high wire are featured in the film and the cast was expected to fit in. Dorothy Lamour learned her iron jaw act. Olympic calibre fencer Cornel Wilde and energetic Betty Hutton worked hard to look plausible on the trapeze. Cornel was doubled in some scenes by aerialist and clown, the son of circus performers, Jackie LeClaire.

The bubbly Hutton was also a woman of fragile emotions, and she found in DeMille a supportive and understanding director. The role of Birdie, the circus wardrobe woman was one of the better ones bestowed on Julia Faye. At one time DeMille’s mistress, she appeared in all of the pictures after that relationship ended.

Our movie follows the fortunes of The Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus from the opening of their season. As long as the manager, Brad, can keep the finances in the black they can play a full tour including the smaller cities. A gangster played by the genuinely frightening Lawrence Tierney plants John Kellog with a crooked sideshow game on the lot to mess up the works and cheat the rubes. He’s got plans to take over the whole operation.

Another guy with plans is elephant trainer Klaus played by Lyle Bettger (Has anybody ever seen him play a good guy?), but as his plans involve pretty Angel and her plans involve Brad…well, you can see trouble coming. Brad’s girl, Holly is distracted by fellow flyer Sebastian. First, she wants his centre ring, and then she’s not so sure it isn’t something more personal.

Buttons the perpetually made-up clown is a doctor on the run. He killed the thing he loved. (Oh, heartbreak!) All of this angst and intrigue is but a background to the day to day work of putting up, taking down, and putting up again the greatest show on earth. The movie is the circus.

The real audiences caught coming and going are moments in time that are a joy to share. Those Hollywood folk who didn’t get to be clowns or barkers like Edmond O’Brien got to be spectators. It is especially fun to see Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as their Road picture comrade Dorothy Lamour does her stuff.

William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy leads a parade. He first worked for DeMille in 1927's King of Kings. Among the spectators, it is fun to spot or try to spot many favourite character actors including Kathleen Freeman, Mary Field, Dorothy Adams, Clarence Nash, Arthur Q. Bryan, Stanley Andrews, and Peter Hansen. Pretty leading lady Nancy Gates makes an impression. Yes, that is her. You’ve been right all these years.

This poster simply screams "melodrama". I love it!

DeMille does nothing small. The gangster plot crosses with the thwarted lover plot and that can only mean one thing, a train wreck. A circus train wreck with wild animals on the loose and ruination in the offing. Also, there is a paralyzed Sebastian, a detective closing in on Buttons, and fateful decisions all around. Ooh, it’s good stuff. Yes, it is. It’s good in the way a banana split is good. A banana split with extra whipped cream. Extra! Why I feel no more guilty about watching The Greatest Show on Earth than I do about eating a banana split with extra whipped cream. And I don’t feel guilty about the ice cream. I don’t. Well, I used to…well, not always…not every time...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

All Around the Town

Yes, this is my town. It's not new to you. You've read books about it, you've seen movies. People are always talking about New York. It's the most exciting city in the world they say - the most glamorous, the most frightening and, above all, the fastest. You hear a great deal about the tempo of this city - its speed, its pace, its driving heartbeat. Perhaps it's true for visitors, but I was born here, I live here. The only pace I know is the pace of my own life. The only beat I hear is the beat of my own heart. For me, and for millions of others, New York is home. The days follow each other quietly as they do in most places. Only rarely does any one time stand out so that we remember it and say "That's when everything changed. After that nothing was the same."

Barbara Stanwyck as the character Jessie Bourne reads the above narration to begin Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 crime romance East Side, West Side based on a Marcia Davenport novel with a screenplay by Isobel Lennert.

I am one of those visitors Jessie mentioned. For me, New York City is a place of learning, a place of fun, a place to glut myself on theatre and a place to honeymoon. All of those memories are augmented by those books and movies she mentions, the titles of which conjure up enduring feelings that make New York City an emotional home to many who reside outside its boundaries.

Classic movie fans were brought up in the nostalgic glow of Henry King's Little Old New York and Michael Curtiz's Life With Father, with Raoul Walsh's The Bowery and The Strawberry Blonde. We learned harsh lessons through William Wyler's Dead End and Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces.

We enjoyed and were inspired by the endless show business stories such as Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street and Robert Mulligan's The Rat Race. We glimpsed the business world in Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything and Woman's World, as well as Billy Wilder's The Apartment and Fielder Cook's Patterns.

We reveled in NYC noir of Otto Preminger's Laura, Alexander Mckendrick's Sweet Smell of Success and Samuel Fuller's Pick Up on South Street.

Of course, to the annoyance of sports fans from other cities, there is the New York as centre of the universe in movies like Sam Wood's Pride of the Yankees.

Any place, but especially a place like New York City, changes us and changes with us. Neil Simon gave us his optimism in Barefoot in the Park, laughs in Come Blow York Horn and The Odd Couple, memories in The Sunshine Boys and nightmares in The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Out of Towners.

In East Side, West Side Jessie Bourne spoke of the one time that changed everything. Ten years since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre have brought changes to each of us personally, and to the world we live in. What has not changed is the resilience of New Yorkers and the affection and support from those of us with mythical ties to the city that never sleeps.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for September on TCM

Turner Classic Movies - Heaven on Earth for classic movie fans or a cog in the evolutionary wheel which will see us one day morphed into a wide-bottomed cyclops with one rectangular eye in the middle of our foreheads?

I've been intrigued by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz's task of recommending one movie per month from the schedule for the print schedule. A lot of film fans find it difficult to choose one movie for any sort of purpose. There is the nagging feeling that you are being disloyal to all of the other films you love with equal fervor. Nonetheless, I decided to challenge myself with that very task. No hemming, hawing, or honourable mentions. One movie.

Frank Capra's 1932 release American Madness is scheduled on TCM for Saturday, September 29 at 6:30 pm est. Capra was a very busy director at Columbia in the 1920s and early 30s. Just prior to American Madness his output included the action-adventure romance Dirigible, the social commentary drama The Miracle Woman, the class conscious romance Platinum Blonde and the woman's picture Forbidden. His success with these varied pictures represents Frank Capra's mastery of his calling.

American Madness was among the first collaborations between Capra and talented screenwriter Robert Riskin which would give us such well-remembered titles as Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Broadway Bill, and Meet John Doe. The goal with American Madness was to meet the Depression head-on and kick it in the pants while addressing the fears as well as the optimistic spirit of everyday people.

Walter Huston stars as a bank president, respected by his workers and often at odds with his Board of Directors. His business success has come from his belief in the character of his customers and the simple idea that money must be put to work if it is to do any good. What has made him a success is considered a great failing by the Directors, too frightened to take chances in an iffy economy and too enamored of an offer of quick profit on a deal which would close out Huston and his brand of banking.

A bank employee played by Gavin Gordon is in debt to local gangsters and can only save himself by becoming the inside man on a robbery. The plan goes awry when a watchman is murdered and blame is placed on an ex-con, Huston's protege played by Pat O'Brien. Gordon, a roue as well as a gambler, uses his boss' wife, lovely Kay Johnson as an alibi further complicating the situation.

Capra really grabs a hold of the pacing in this film with overlapping dialogue and quick cuts. It moves. The grapevine scene which starts with the robbery and from telephone call to telephone call leads to a run on the bank is top-notch. You feel for Huston and Johnson as their personal relationship gets mixed up with banking and legal disaster. Can nothing save Pat O'Brien and his trusting girlfriend played by Constance Cummings? The only distraction in the cast may be Gavin Gordon's drawn-on eyebrows, but the story gathers steam that carries the audience along and makes them easy to overlook (eventually).

American Madness
The run on the bank.

Two other frequent Capra collaborators worked on American Madness with great skill. Architect and Oscar-winning (Lost Horizon) set designer Stephen Goosson, with his incredibly detailed eye, created the bank set that is breathtaking as we take in the lobby, the offices, the safe. It's a perfect setting for the drama and a reminder of the reverence with which our institutions were built. Innovative Hall of Fame cinematographer Joseph Walker works his usual Black and White magic with his hypnotic images.

A few years ago, along with one of my movie-loving sisters, I caught a theatrical screening of American Madness thanks to Cinematheque Ontario. A couple of young fellows were sitting in front of us, a film student and his friend. After the movie, the friend commented that he had only come along out of curiosity, but he became really caught up in the story and wanted to see more movies like it.

I think that whoever coined the phrase Capra-corn has done an injustice to the director. Frank Capra was, first and foremost, a gifted storyteller and one who knew how to tell his stories cinematically. He knew how to move an audience. He did it all with gentle, insightful humor and true affection for all kinds of people.

Timely and engrossing, American Madness is worth watching on TCM this month, whether it be for the first time or a re-visit.

For more suggestions on our favourite channel check out Laura's Miscellaneous Musings for worthy titles on the September line-up on TCM.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...