Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Better Parenting Through Movies

Janet and Gavin

The UK paper The Telegraph published a piece about the top ten films children must see before they are 9-1/2. 

"The line-up, compiled by child psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen, was based not only on entertainment value, but also the films' moral themes in order to teach children “essential life-lessons”.
"The hardest lessons children have to learn are not the sort that fit neatly into the school curriculum or can be found in any parenting guides. These lessons relate to emotion and relationships; both of which lie at the heart of any good film," said Dr Cullen." 

I read the article with interest even though my kids passed the 9-1/2 mark some time ago wondering how my parenting through movies agenda stacked up alongside Dr. Cullen's list.

Sid and Buzz

1.  Toy Story
Check.  We took Janet to see Toy Story when it was released.  Of course, since we were all seeing it for the first time we didn't know what lessons might be gleaned from the movie.  She displayed sympathy for Buzz Lightyear when he came to the realization he was only a toy.  Gavin is still waiting for his Woody and Buzz toys to start walking around on their own. 

2.  The Lion King
Check.  Janet saw The Lion King at the theatre with friends.  She learned the words to The Lion Sleeps Tonight.  Gavin saw the movie (many times) on VHS/DVD.  At an early age he would look at bugs and say things like "Oh, the little cream-filled kind."  When you live with an echolalic autistic/developmentally delayed person it is really important that you know what they are watching.

3.  Home Alone
Check.  I wasn't thinking about the "importance of family" when I made the kids watch this one.  I wanted to share the hilarious slapstick mayhem of the booby-trapped house.  I fulfilled my parental duty by informing them that no actors were harmed in the making of the film. 

4.  Labyrinth
I haven't seen this one.  Sounds good.  Have to check it out sometime.
5.  The Jungle Book
Check.  One of my all-time favourites.  I had the only babies at the park who could scat.  So proud.

6.  Mary Poppins
Check.  The Daddy Man has a thing for Julie Andrews.  Like father, like son. 

7.  The Wizard of Oz
Check.  One of the great perks of being a parent is scaring the bejeezus out of kids by showing them the flying monkeys.

8.  The Neverending Story
I think my daughter saw this on a rental.  I couldn't get through it.

9.  Matilda
Another I think Janet saw without me.  I'm not a big Roald Dahl fan.

10. Up
A 19 year old Janet made me watch this.  We cried and laughed and laughed and cried.  I'm not certain it would have appealed to her in those pre-10 years.

Rita and Gene

During their formative years my kids were exposed to a lot of classic movies through Family Channel Canada regularly showing musicals, comedies and dramas from the Golden Era of Hollywood (a practice sadly long since abandoned) and mom and dad sharing personal favourites.

On their own Janet discovered Singin' in the Rain and an adoration for Gene Kelly while Gavin found Cover Girl and a passion for Rita Hayworth.

Dad Garry enjoys Lilies of the Field and before we knew it Gavin was singing Amen and borrowing the tape to spend time with his pal Homer Smith.

The stuff that dreams are made of

My attempt to share the many joys of The Thing from Another World with young Janet, along with imparting significant life lessons in dealing with hostile extraterrestrials, inexplicably caused nightmares.  She forgave me when I introduced her to The Court Jester.

Another normal day for Donald Duck

The top 3 rentals during Janet and Gavin's toddler-hood were 101 Dalmatians which taught them to beware of smokers, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day which taught them to beware of heffalumps and woozles, and The Three Caballeros.  Donald's surreal adventures in Latin America did not mess with their minds in any way.  I'm pretty sure.  Anyway - too late now.


Monday, July 16, 2012

I Love to Laugh!

A few weeks ago I wrote about Rene Clair’s 1928 classic The Italian Straw Hat, a stage farce turned into a perfect silent film comedy. Today I would like to spread the love to a few favourite shorts and features which highlight the remarkable depth of style of the silent film comedy.

Stan, Ollie, Fin

“The story of a man who turned the other cheek – And got punched in the nose.”

James W. Horne and Leo McCarey directed Laurel and Hardy in 1928s Big Business, the popular team’s last silent short. As door to door Christmas tree salesmen our boys are a bust and yet they persevere. It might have been prudent to change careers when perpetual foil James Finlayson answers the door, but these lads are made of stern stuff. If you are going to bring Christmas trees to doorsteps there is a chance that a branch might get stuck in a door. It might get stuck in a door more than once. So might a coat. The short-fused Finlayson might take exception. A pair of righteous peddlers might reciprocate. Things might get out of hand.

The location of Dunleer Drive in Los Angels in 1928 was a sweet neighborhood of cunning little bungalows, as well as the site of deliberate and delicious slapstick mayhem. Finn methodically begins wrecking the boy’s car and the boys, in turn, destroy Finn’s house. A curious crowd gathers and a cop takes notes from the sidelines as the destruction escalates to an emotional and cynical climax. What’s so funny about the destruction of private property, you may well ask. I will tell you that it is all in the attitude with which the deeds are committed, the sense of purpose and imagination behind the acts, plus the physicality. I am convulsed with laughter at the sight of Finn wrestling the Christmas trees. I am supposed to be convulsed with laughter. Mission accomplished. 
Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox

Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline 1920s Neighbors is a back alley Romeo and Juliet story that is a sublime showcase for leading man Keaton. The Boy (Buster) and The Girl (Virginia Fox) are in love, but kept apart by their feuding folks. Buster incorporates thrilling and funny stunts involving the fence that separates him from his girl, the clothesline and a telephone pole. The neighborhood is filled with feisty folk and there’s always a cop around when you don’t need one. The whole kit and caboodle end up in court where a judge convinces them to give up their shenanigans and let the kids marry. Please note the table of wedding gifts which includes an instruction book by Gentleman Jim Corbett! The wedding day brings its own problems including and especially wardrobe and jewellery malfunctions leading to a daring acrobatic and romantic finish. I first saw Neighbors at a theatrical presentation where the full house laughed and cheered. It is the perfect introduction to the genius that is Buster Keaton.

Bessie Love, Johnnie Walker

Perhaps you’re looking for a little more tenderness in your romantic comedy than Buster usually provides. You want Frank Capra’s 1928 feature The Matinee Idol, a charming comedy/drama/romance with an intriguing backstage setting. The film stars the wonderful Bessie Love as the daughter and leading lady in a family of troupers. A very likeable Johnnie Walker co-stars as a successful actor taken with Miss Love. Consequently, he takes up with the small town thespians, throwing himself into their sincere, yet corny theatrics.

When the troupe’s melodrama is brought to the big town and faces scorn from the critics and sophisticated audiences, romance is there to ease the sting of rejection. The movie is a delightful look at another time and place, filled with director Frank Capra's insights and affection for all types of people.

Buddy Rogers, Mary Pickford

Another gem in the romantic comedy line is Sam Taylor’s 1927 starring vehicle for Mary Pickford, My Best Girl. The boss’ son (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) goes to work in the shipping department of his family’s department store and falls for poor, but honest and totally beguiling Maggie Johnson (our Mary). The fact that Maggie’s beau isn’t who she thinks he is may be the least of the complications in the road to their happy ending. There’s “Joe’s” high society mother and fiancée. There’s Maggie’s problematic family including her theatre-mad flapper sister, overbearing Mom and indolent Pop. My Best Girl is sweet without being cloying and funny in its ring-true characterizations. The chemistry between Mary and Buddy is touching and joyful.

William Boyd, Louis Wolheim

Lewis Milestone’s 1927 feature Two Arabian Knights is an Oscar winner in the unjustly long abandoned “Best Director, Comedy Picture” category. A buddy movie and an adventure comedy starring handsome William Boyd and rough around the edges Louis Wolheim as, respectively, W. Dangerfield Phelps III and Sergeant Peter O’Gaffney. These two opposites are WWI POWs who escape their captors and end up on board a ship with a lovely Arabian princess played by Mary Astor. PS: Don’t blink as they leave the ship or you’ll miss Boris Karloff!

The beguiling princess is betrothed to the powerful and jealous Shevkit Ben Ali played by Ian Keith. Many comedies through the years have been described as a “romp” and I don’t think many fit that description better than Two Arabian Knights. The rollicking humour comes from the personalities and performances of our two Yankee daredevils as they battle each other and everyone else they encounter in their bid for freedom and the pursuit of romance. Boyd and Wolheim make quite a team and Two Arabian Knights is quite a picture.

Everything you look for in a talkie and more can be found in a silent comedy. What more could you need after a good laugh?

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon: Experiment in Terror (1962)

Suspense! Thrills! A lovely and resourceful heroine. A beautiful city location that becomes a character in the movie. A familiar director and composer combination. An intriguing villain. An ordinary setting made frightening. Sounds like a Hitchcock film to me, but it’s not. It is Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror.

Blake Edwards? Operation Petticoat Blake Edwards? The Pink Panther Blake Edwards? The Great Race Blake Edwards? Victor/Victoria Blake Edwards? That’s the guy. Blake Edwards who also gave us TVs Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, and Days of Wine and Roses and Wild Rovers and The Tamarind Seed. Blake Edward who could do it all. He was a bit actor in films (“Corporal at counter” in The Best Years of Our Lives).  A young man with a vision and a distinct comic attitude who became a well known and popular writer/producer/director. Experiment in Terror falls between Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Days of Wine and Roses in Edwards’ directing career. 

Experiment in Terror was adapted by The Gordons from their crime novel Operation Terror featuring their recurring character FBI agent John “Rip” Ripley. Gordon Gordon was an editor and 20th Century Fox publicist as well as an FBI agent during World War 2. Mildred Gordon had been a teacher and editor when the couple combined to write novels and screenplays. Their character Agent Ripley had been portrayed previously on film by Broderick Crawford in 1954s Down Three Dark Streets. The Gordons also gave us the 1965 feature Disney’s That Darn Cat! based on their story Undercover Cat, which is another of their recurring characters.

The first character we get to know in Experiment in Terror is the city of San Francisco (think Hitch’s Vertigo), this time in gleaming black and white. The city gleams at night with a pristine sheen courtesy of talented cinematographer Philip Lathrop. The city in the day is bright and harsh, without a hint of warmth even in the innocent setting of teens at a swimming pool. Lathrop received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1992 and in 1999 the Society of Camera Operators awarded him the Historical Shot award for his work as a cameraman on the famous opening shot of Touch of Evil. Lathrop’s two career Oscar nominations were for Earthquake and The Americanization of Emily.

Lee Remick, Ross Martin

The opening of the film shows us Miss Kelly Sherwood, bank cashier, involved in the routine activity of driving home from work. The city lights are as beautiful as stars around her, but there is a sense of unease heightened by Henry Mancini’s memorably moody score. Kelly is accosted and intimidated by an unseen man who is an intimidating presence and an eerie voice in the darkness. He knows everything about her and she will be his partner in robbing her employer or Kelly and her teenage sister will come to harm.

Glenn Ford

Kelly is played by the Lee Remick, an actress with talent and looks to spare. Like many of Hitchcock’s leading ladies (think Madeline Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint, etc.) she seemingly effortlessly conveys intellect as well as emotion. Along with Hitchcock’s gals (think young Charlie, Iris Henderson, and Lisa Fremont) Kelly is a resourceful and canny woman. Despite warnings and physical harm, she contacts the FBI.

Agent Ripley as played by Glenn Ford is a no-nonsense yet compassionate man. Ripley is also a busy man. Perhaps his other case of lonely Nancy Ashton played by Patricia Huston involved with a man who may be about to commit a crime has something to do with the Sherwood file. Miss Ashton works from home and her studio apartment filled with department store mannequins is the setting for a scary and shocking scene (think the carnival in Strangers on a Train or the windmill in Foreign Correspondent).

The FBI has little to go on except Kelly’s recollection of her tormentor’s asthmatic breathing. The agents keep an eye on Kelly and her sister Toby, played by 20-year-old Stefanie Powers in her first big role, while investigating cases with a similar M.O. Like the FBI, the viewers learn more of the villain as time passes. At first, we see only the dark shadow and hear the voice. Later, we see his mouth during a phone call. Eventually, we see the full face of the villain in time to let us know that the man who picks Kelly up at a bar is not the man the FBI hope to apprehend.

Agent Ripley finally gets a name for the murderer, Garland “Red” Lynch, and gets promising leads on this villain. Ned Glass plays a quirky little police informant who knows a thing or two and plays by his own rules. Anita Loo is Red’s on again – off again girlfriend who refuses to co-operate with the authorities because of Red’s kindness and financial support to her disabled 6-year-old son.

Ross Martin

Red Lynch is played by Ross Martin from Blake Edwards’ Mr. Lucky TV show. Ross Martin was one of those guys. You know the type. You’re watching a scene with half a dozen actors acting their heart out and Martin comes into the room, leans against the wall and gives them the once over with those baleful eyes and he’s the guy you watch.

Ross Martin had been an actor since his teen years and with a talent for dialects became in demand for radio and moved to television easily. The road to movie stardom was strangely closed to him despite his association with Edwards in Experiment in Terror and The Great Race. The studio build-up for his engrossing performance included keeping his identity secret until the end credit “Red Lynch played by Ross Martin”. He received excellent notices and a Golden Globe nomination. Unfortunately, a heart attack at age 38 may have frightened producers away from offering Ross Martin the large roles suitable for his large talent. Luckily, television fans can still enjoy Ross Martin’s talents in a variety of guest spots and his signature role of Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West. Costumes, largely of Martin's own devising, played a large and fun part in that television role, and a little old lady disguise is a shocker in Experiment in Terror (think Mrs. Bates from Psycho in the flesh).

"Red" Lynch

Knot in the stomach plot twists lead us through the crime to the climax in a crowded Candlestick Park during a Dodgers vs. Giants night game (think the music hall in The 39 Steps, the ballroom in Young and Innocent and the Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much). The audience is placed on tenterhooks wondering when Lynch will make his move, but we can be distracted by Don Drysdale on the mound, Harvey Kuenn at the plate and Willy McCovey in the outfield. And wait, isn’t the stadium organist playing the theme to Mr. Lucky? I think of that cheeky nod to his other collaboration with Henry Mancini and Ross Martin as Blake Edwards’ Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in the film.

The psychotic Red Lynch is reduced to a snarling animal and the girls are safe, as well as the bank’s funds (think “MacGuffin”), but you knew just looking at the stalwart Agent Ripley that it couldn’t end any other way. And it sure feels good to get that knot out of your stomach.

I think Experiment in Terror is the best of The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made, but if you click on that phrase you’ll find different opinions and movies in this dandy blogathon hosted by Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for July on TCM

Ever since the beginning of Hollywood, the actual location or state of mind, Hollywood has enjoyed giving us an insider's view of itself. Sometimes heartbreaking as in the various versions of A Star is Born. Sometimes in the vein of an expose as in 1957s Four Girls in Town or 1952s The Bad and the Beautiful. The nostalgia of 1952s Singin' in the Rain or 2011s The Artist has proven a winning approach for filmmakers and audiences. The dark humour behind 1950s Sunset Boulevard is truly classic. Most often, Hollywood likes to poke fun at itself as in 1928s Show People, 1932s Make Me a Star and 1938s Boy Meets Girl.

The 1937 feature Stand-In is based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Clarence Budington Kelland, a writer who gave us many familiar movies including Speak Easily with Buster Keaton, The Cat's Paw with Harold Lloyd, Strike Me Pink with Eddie Cantor, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper, Arizona with Jean Arthur and Sugarfoot with Randolph Scott. The director is Tay Garnett of The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Valley of Decision, Bataan, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Cause for Alarm!.

Atterbury Dodd, man of science

Stand-In is equal parts goofy and adorable, and a wonderful showcase for its leading players the perpetually popular Joan Blondell and TCM Star of the Month for July, Leslie Howard. Howard plays Atterbury Dodd, a man dedicated to the beauty and logic found in science. Dodd is convinced that it is illogical for his banking employers to sell Colossal Studios because he knows he can turn the studio around and make a profit for the shareholders.

The ancient head of the bank played by Tully Marshall is equally convinced that Dodd is wrong in his assumption because he is not taking the human factor into account. Hollywood is run by people and most of the people are crazy. The rambunctious senior citizen sends Atterbury Dodd to Hollywood with complete power over the studio where he is sure to learn a thing or two.

Atterbury Dodd goes to Hollywood but does not "go Hollywood" much to the dismay of an overbearingly obnoxious studio PR man played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Studio executive C. Henry Gordon (The Charge of the Light Brigade, Charlie Chan at the Olympics) is the mastermind behind a plan to unload Colossal at a profit to himself and the demise of the studio. Collaborating on this bit of corporate sabotage is the public relations man, an over-the-top Russian director played by Alan Mowbray (My Darling Clementine, I Wake Up Screaming) and a cigarette girl now quickly fading movie queen played by beauty pageant contestant turned actress Marla Shelton.

They plan to keep Atterbury Dodd occupied with glitz and glamour and away from the company books. Unfortunately for the crooks, Dodd is not only a man totally dedicated to his career, but he also has no interest in nightlife and has never even heard of Shirley Temple or Clark Gable. He is also increasingly frustrated when each example of stupidity and excess is explained away with "That's the picture business."

How often do we see Bogie this relaxed on screen?

Luckily for Dodd, there is one person of integrity he can turn to on the studio lot in producer Douglas Quintain played by Humphrey Bogart. Currently, Quintain's integrity is slightly compromised by his undying love for the glamour puss who has aligned herself with the crooks to revive her fading career, but his heart is in the right place if booze doesn't get in the way.

Miss Plum pulls out all the stops!

More good fortune comes into Atterbury Dodd's life on his first day in Hollywood when he is befriended by Miss Lester Plum played by Joan Blondell. Miss Plum is a former child star who is currently employed as a stand-in for the aforementioned glamour puss. She also is the graduate of a night school secretarial course and has a more than motherly interest in fish-out-of-water Atterbury Dodd. Miss Plum certainly has her work cut out for her in cluing Dodd into the intricacies of the picture business and romance. How can a guy be so smart about some things and so dumb about others? The big lug! Will Atterbury Dodd ever come to his senses, save the day and win the girl? The ending of Stand-In, like the rest of the movie, is equal parts goofy and adorable.

Atterbury Dodd, man of the people

TCM is airing Stand-In Tuesday, July 3rd at 12:00 a.m. as part of the first evening of the month-long salute to Leslie Howard. It is a charming little diversion after the prime-time screening of the emotionally charged Gone With the Wind.

Bonus:  If you are one who scours classic films for a sight of Esther Howard, Olin Howland, and Pat Flaherty then this is the movie for you!


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