Wednesday, January 31, 2018

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR FEBRUARY ON TCM


Above is the angular silhouette of Jacques Tati and his alter-ego M. Hulot. At a time when slapstick was not considered an art, Tati brought it and his character to the fore in funny films including this 1959 Oscar winner.

Tati has much in common with the mime clowns of an earlier cinema, yet brought his own unique persona to film. Hulot is an outsider, like Chaplin's tramp, yet he blends into the crowd. Hulot is a go-getter like Lloyd's "the Boy", in that he makes things happen, but is ruled by his own inner clock. Like Keaton, Hulot perseveres against the odds, and those odds are found in the objects and people around him. Like Langdon's gentle soul, Hulot is a capricious sort.


Monsieur Hulot is adored by his nephew, and it is no wonder. Uncle Hulot lives in a friendly and raucous neighbourhood, in a room atop a strange and crooked house. The whole atmosphere is organic and humane. Nephew Gerard and his parents live in a most modern abode which is spic and span, and mechanized. Everything must be kept spic and span, and mechanized, even the inhabitants. Gerard wants to run wild with his friends, just like the pack of pooches prevalent throughout the movie. Gerard wants to have adventures with his beloved uncle.


Gerard's mother has plans for her brother Hulot. He must have a good job, a career, like her husband M. Arpel. Hulot must have a wife, just like the stylish neighbour. Mme. Arpel will arrange everything. You would think that after a lifetime she would know that nothing can be satisfactorily arranged where her brother is concerned. The only thing you can truly expect is the unexpected. Highlights in the movie include M. Hulot's encounter with his sister's kitchen, and the party intended to improve his condition.


I assume no actors were harmed in the filming of this motion picture, but I get such a kick out of the scene where the youngsters, and later M. Hulot, trick passersby to bump into a street lamp. (I think of it as a stationary rake.)

The visuals, the colours, the sound effects, and the delicately bouncy score add much to the clever gags in Mon Oncle. If that all sounds a bit dry, do not fear, there is heart in the humour, and a final scene that unexpectedly made me tear up upon first, and even subsequent viewings.


If you haven't yet seen this movie, or Tati, do consider it this month. While commenting on the sterilized consumer society into which the world was rushing, our Hulot remains a whimsical character. You may not think sustained whimsy is your thing, but I'm sure you will enjoy the many pleasures of Mon Oncle.


TCM is screening Mon Oncle on Tuesday, February 13th at 10:00 p.m. as part of their annual 31 Days of Oscar festival. The evening's topic is Best Foreign Language Film winners.









Monday, January 15, 2018

THOSE DREADFUL GIRLS!: The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)


"Searle! We studied him in school."
- Bachelor of Animation grad Janet as the credits rolled by.

Artist/cartoonist Ronald Searle (1920-2011) first published account of St. Trinian's appeared in a magazine in 1941. Searle sadly spent the war as a guest of the Japanese. When the comic strip series reappeared on the scene in 1946 the naughty girls of the boarding school had become hysterically humourous over-the-top delinquents.

The filmmaking team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, having adapted John Dighton's boarding school comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life for the screen in 1950, turned their experienced eye on the Searle series.


The fall term is about to begin and that news, spurred on by the raucous sounds emanating from a busload of students, spreads through the village adjacent to St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. Citizens board up the windows of their establishments and flee for their lives! A police sergeant locks himself in a jail cell. The superintendent of police takes to strong drink. 


Miss Fritton: "You see, in other schools, girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world. But when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared."

When Miss Fritton (Alastair Sim) and Miss Buckland (Mary Merrall) formed St. Trinian's in the 1920s it was a model school of lighthearted abandonment suitable to the era. Miss Fritton blames the subsequent war and its "black market mentality" for the lack of morals and manners that have created such high-spirited girls among the student body. Over the years Miss Fritton has adapted to the changing times. 

Perpetually lacking in funds and behind in payments, the staff grumbles about revolt. However, since most of the teachers lack qualifications and one is hiding from a prison sentence, Miss Fritton need only worry about filling new positions. Take note of how Hermione Baddeley as a solidly soused geography teacher steals focus by simply snoring in a chair.

Among the returning students is one Arabella "Bella" Fritton (Vivienne Martin), niece of the headmistress. Miss Fritton's twin Clarence (Alastair Sim) seeks the return to academia of his expelled, and overage, daughter so that she can pump new student Princess Fatima (Lorna Henderson) for information about her father's race horses. Clarence is a bookmaker and information is his stock-in-trade.


An unofficial member of the staff is "Flash" Harry (George Cole) who acts as a go-between for the girls and their various enterprises, which include concocting homemade gin in the school's lab for sale to the outside world. Very enterprising youngsters! Harry's belief in himself as an entrepreneur and his amusing deference to Miss Fritton is very funny indeed.

Miss Fritton (when asked about Harry's identity): "You know, I'm not absolutely sure. It could be Harry, a boot boy I engaged in 1940. Of course, he was only 12 and didn't have any moustache then, but, apart from that, I see no reason why it shouldn't be Harry."



Miss Crawley (Sgt. Gates): "I thought they might like to help the police. I mean, Guide's Honour. We're all Girl Guides, aren't we?"

Miss Fritton: "Are we? Some of us may have aspired beyond that happy state, Miss Crawley."

The Ministry of Education, from which two inspectors have gone to St. Trinian's and disappeared (!!) and Police Superintendent Bird (Lloyd Lamble) of the local district are determined to break the terror that is St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. Sergeant Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) is assigned to infiltrate the school as their new games mistress. Ruby accepts this assignment with the greatest reluctance. She optimistically believes success in the job will assist in moving along her romance with the superintendent.

The under cover name of Chloe Crawley does Sgt. Gates no good with the student body. She rightly predicted the nickname "Creepy Crawley". Her can-do spirit is certainly put to the test in a hockey match that never sees a referee or a second half! Bopped on the head and confined in a locked bathroom, no woman ever suffered for love as did our Ruby.


Miss Fritton (referring to Arab Boy): "It is leaving here in time for the race. I shall see to that."

Clarence Fritton (referring to that same Arab Boy): "And I'll see that it doesn't."

It is not only brother against sister as time nears for the big race upon which Clarence's business is so dependent. The sixth form girls are instrumental in a devious plan to kidnap the racehorse Arab Boy to help Bella's dad, whose horse Blue Prince must win. The just as devious, if not more so, fourth form girls have bet their pin money on new pal Fatima's stable and can purloin livestock with the best of them. Meanwhile, Miss Fritton has thrown caution to the wind and bet the remaining school funds on Arab Boy in hopes of making a killing and paying off the mortgage. 


Miss Fritton: "Girls, girls, you know perfectly well that pets are not allowed in the dormitories, and under the same rule, Mr. Harry, I doubt if you should be here either."

Law enforcement throughout the country is searching for Arab Boy on the very day of the Gold Cup race. It is Parent's Day at St. Trinian's School for Young Ladies. It is also the reunion of the "old girls" at the school. Arab Boy is trapped in the fourth form dormitory by the overwhelming forces of the sixth form. Only a battle worthy of Zulu warriors, and superior ingenuity will win the day.

This laugh-out-loud comedy led to the Launder and Gilliat follow-up movies Blue Murder at St. Trinian's in 1956, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's in 1960, and The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966. 1980 saw Launder directing The Wildcats of St. Trinian's. In 2007 there was St. Trinian's with Rupert Everett in the dual roles of Carnaby and Camilla Fritton, followed by St. Trinian's 2: The Legend of Fritton's Gold in 2009 with Everett taking on three roles. These sequels and revivals fall on various degrees on the laugh metre, but it appears there may be no end in sight for Searle's sadistic students.







Tuesday, January 2, 2018

THE BILL AND MYRNA NEW YEAR'S BLOGATHON: After the Thin Man (1936)


Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame are our hosts for The Bill and Myrna New Year's Blogathon running from January 1 - 3. Talk about starting the new year right! Click on our hostesses' blog names for the entries to the blogathon.

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted Dashiell Hammett's serialized 1933 novel The Thin Man for the screen for MGM in 1934. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke and starring William Powell and Myrna Loy in the first year of their legendary teaming (Manhattan Melodrama), the movie was a popular hit that garnered four Oscar nominations. One of the nominations went to our married screenwriters.

The popularity of The Thin Man made it a particularly excellent candidate for a sequel and that job naturally fell to the Goodrich and Hackett. Their job was to imagine what happened after the thin man case. Aha, After the Thin Man became the title and the template for the titles of further sequels, letting the audience know what to expect in the way of entertainment and stars. Once more, Goodrich and Hackett received an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.

The 1936 release has us catching up with Nick and Nora where we left off. They are on the train bound for California after wrapping up the Wynant case a mere week ago at Christmastime. They have reached their home turf of San Francisco in time for New Year's Eve.

We overlook the fact that Nick and Nora look two years older, and that it took at least a few days after Christmas Day to finally solve the thin man case. We overlook all of this because we are just so darn happy to see them again.


Nick: "New Year's Eve at home. Or would you know that this is New Year's?"
Nora: "I know."
Nick: "I suppose you got ideas, huh?"
Nora: "Very definite ideas."
Nick: "I was afraid so."
Nora: "I'm going to lock the door, plug the bell, cut the telephone, and crawl into bed for a month."
Nick: "Nora, you're my favorite woman."



Beyond the welcoming front door is a riotous welcome home party. Half of the guests are strangers, and all of the staff is being run ragged. The hoped for peace and quiet is nowhere to be found, and capping it off there is a phone call from Nora's Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph). Nick and Nora's presence is demanded at a New Year's dinner at the Nob Hill mansion.


Beyond that imposing front door Nora's elderly relatives form as unpleasant a gathering for a New Year's Eve party as you are likely to come across. Bossy Aunt Katherine, sly cousin Lucius, deaf Aunt Hattie, pompous Uncle Willie, cousin Helen, cousin Emily, and 83, and darn proud of it, and Aunt Lucy. The entire group disapproves strongly of Mr. Nicholas Charles.


Nora: "Nickie, pull yourself together."
Nick: "One squint at Aunt Katherine would sober anybody up."

The only relative Nick can stand is Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi). It is for Selma's sake that Nick and Nora have been summoned. Selma's ne'er-do-well husband Robert (Alan Marshal) is off somewhere on a toot, and Aunt Katherine wants the waistral found before any untoward publicity.


Selma: "Can you indefinitely go on caring for someone who doesn't care for you?"
David: "Well, it's been done."

The evening almost looks like it can be salvaged when Selma's former beau, David (James Stewart) put in an appearance. Nick and Nora almost get the younger folks to join them on the town, but Selma backs out because she is nearing hysteria over her worry for Robert. The only clue they have is a vanity case that was mailed from a Chinese restaurant/night club.


Dancer: "Oh, Mr. Charles, how are you?"
Nick: "Hello, Dancer."
Dancer: "I want you to meet my partner. This is Lum Kee, Mr. Charles. You sent his brother up, remember?"

The quiet night at home had morphed into a night with the waxworks, and now a night of clubbing . Nick and Nora head to a place called The Lichee, and it is hopping this New Year's Eve. Nick runs into all sorts of people from his old live. Some of them may hold a grudge. One of the owners of the club (William Law) has a brother that Nick put away. And the other (Joseph Calleia) is only too happy to make Mr. and Mrs. Charles comfortable.


Dancer: "Is he a friend of yours?"
Nick: "On the contrary, a relative."
Dancer: "He's been hanging around here for three days, drunk. Got a case on our prima donna."

The woman in the case, and Robert's life, is the club's entertainer, Polly (Dorothy McNulty, later Penny Singleton). The audience is treated to a couple of numbers from the ebullient vocalist before she hustles Robert out into the night. They aren't the only ones traipsing the foggy streets at midnight. Lum needs to take a drive. Dancer is missing from the club. David walks the night alone. A late visit from a dismissive Robert has a distraught Selma roaming the neighbourhood, and armed.


A shot rings out putting an end to Robert Landis' sordid life of entanglements.

David: "Selma, what's happened?"
Selma: "He was going away and I tried to stop him."
David: "Now, Selma, listen to me. Now listen. I want you to go back to the house. You've never had a pistol, you understand? You hear me? You've never been out of the house tonight."



Aunt Katherine: " Mr. Abrahams, how dare you question my servants?"
Lt. Abrams: "Lady, a man's been killed. I got to find out who did it."
Aunt Katherine: "Surely you don't think..."
Lt. Abrams: "How do I know what to think if nobody will tell me anything?"

Now the fun starts with Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) torn between two investigations, one back at the Lichee with Nick incharge, and one dealing with Aunt Katherine on Nob Hill. Abrams can't even interrogate his prime suspect, Selma, as she is under the care of an eminent nerve specialist, Dr. Kammer (George Zucco). Lt. Abrams is going batty!


Nick: "Well, this is a fine way to start the New Year."
Nora: "Get me out of here."

What a delicious way to start the new year, at least movie-wise. A murder on a fog-bound street at midnight. A boatload of suspects and persons of interest, each with their own conflicting intentions. And Nick Charles on the case. At one point our lovely Nora ends up in the slammer. Once back home, Nick and Nora have to wrestle with Asta over a clue. The press is all over the case and Aunt Katherine is appalled by the publicity because Selma is the prime suspect. Polly, the singer, has a close relative (Paul Fix) who knows too much and ends up another victim.


In The Thin Man (1934) we spent some time in silence as Nick sleuthed his way around Wynant's laboratory and offices. It was where he made a major discovery and formed a theory on the case. In After the Thin Man we enjoy a similar scene as Nick investigates an apartment which was a lover's hideaway for Polly and Robert. What else does he find there that leads to a shocking discovery, and an attempt on his life?


Nora: "Go on, Nicky, it's just getting good."

As is his wont, Nick gathers all of those involved in the case in one spot, the apartment. There he boldly confronts one and all with their crimes. The assembled suspects don't take it too well. Punches and threats are thrown. None of this phases our Nick. William Powell is equally engaging whether he is walking around a room looking for clues, or holding court with a captive audience. Myrna Loy as Nora always has his back. We know they are a team.


Nick: "What's that?" (Nora's knitting) "Looks like a baby's sock."
Nora: "And you call yourself a detective."

After clearing Selma and handing the real killer to the police, we are right back where we started. Nick, Nora, and Asta are back on a train heading who knows where? I suppose they are looking for that elusive peace and quiet. Do you think they'll find it? I think they'll find Another Thin Man.


"I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman."
- Myrna Loy
Being and Becoming








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