Thursday, November 20, 2014

AIR RAID WARDENS


In terms of sheer durability and longevity, the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was hard to beat. Both men had made numerous films separately in their careers before they teamed up as a duo on screen officially for the first time in PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP in 1927. 107 films and twenty-three years later, they made their last movie, ATOLL K in 1950.

For the record, these guys aren't my favorite comedy team from the Golden Age of Hollywood. That honor goes to the Marx Brothers, closely followed by, yes, the Three Stooges. Hey, I was exposed to the Stooges shorts at a very young age and their brand of roughhouse, slapstick (literally) humor stuck. They still make me laugh. I've only seen a handful of Laurel and Hardy films over the years and while I've enjoyed each and every one of them, I can't honestly say that I'm a huge fan.

I watched AIR RAID WARDENS last night. I recorded it off of TCM and no sooner had the film began than I remembered seeing  it not long ago when I had previously recorded if off of TCM. But I was in the mood for something light and funny and this one fit the bill. AIR RAID WARDENS (1943) is one of two films the duo made at MGM in the 1940s. In the film, they play failed businessmen in a small American town. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, they decide to enlist only to discover that none of the services will have them. They return home and split their failing bicycle shop with a meek, mild mannered man who sells radios. They also sign up for the local Civil Defense battalion. They proceed to make a mess of that and are finally forced to resign as air raid wardens. Dejected and despondent, the boys eventually turn into heroes when they discover that their mild mannered business partner is actually the head of a Nazi spy ring that plans to blow up the magnesium plant outside of town. Thanks to the intervention of Laurel and Hardy the plot is foiled.

There's nothing new, fresh or original to be found here. You can see every joke, set-up and situation coming from miles away but the pleasure is in the anticipation and the pay off. There's a nice sequence where the boys terrorize Edgar Kennedy who was the master of the "slow burn" comic take. Kennedy's signature mannerism of slowly wiping his face with one hand in frustration was later appropriated by Brian Keith who used the gesture in almost every episode of the 1960s television series FAMILY AFFAIR.

One thing that struck me as odd is how everyone in the film constantly refers to Laurel and Hardy as "the boys" even though they're both grown, middle aged men. AIR RAID WARDENS is light and breezy and fun. No belly laughs to be had here but I did get a couple of chuckles out of it and that's exactly what I wanted.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

OFF TO A GREAT START


I had a great time last night at the first classic film night at Waco's newly reopened, one-hundred-year-old Hippodrome Theater. I had the pleasure of introducing "Marilyn Monroe" at 6:30 p.m. who sang several songs for the audience while they were placing their food and drink orders and waiting for the film to begin.

Then at 7:00 p.m., Marilyn joined me on the stage for some announcements for upcoming events at the Hippodrome and to introduce THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954). The plot of the film was, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, "about as solid as a loaf of bread" but it was a ton of fun to watch and the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

When the movie was over, I took the stage to make some comments about the film and to take questions from the audience for about fifteen minutes. I had to correct one patron who said that Donald O'Connor and Mitzi Gaynor (who co-starred in SHOW BUSINESS) also appeared together in another 1954 musical film, WHITE CHRISTMAS. Sorry, but no. WHITE CHRISTMAS stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney.

Afterwards, Marilyn and I posed in the lobby along with a nifty poster (which I brought home to hang on the wall of the man cave) promoting the event. Marilyn was a doll. Great singer and really into her character. I'm just glad the Hippodrome didn't hire an Ethel Merman impersonator!

There are more classic films scheduled for the Hippodrome including THE CIRCUS (Charlie Chaplin) and the first three original STAR WARS films (STAR WARS, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI). I've written notes for all of these films but dates for screenings have not been announced. Check the Hippodrome website (the address is located on the right hand side of this blog) for more details.

Being a part of film history last night was a dream come true for me. I had an absolute blast. My thanks to Melissa Green, programmer for the Hippodrome, for giving me this wonderful opportunity. A classic film and a classic theater makes for one unforgettable, classic evening.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

"SEE ME. HEAR ME."


This coming Tuesday evening, November 18th, at 7:00 p.m., I'll be introducing a screening of THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954) at the newly re-opened, one-hundred-year-old Hippodrome Theater in Waco, Texas. A talkback will follow after the screening. The Hippodrome website says I'm a "film scholar." I like the sound of that.

This is the first of many classic film screenings scheduled at the Hippodrome. Coming up (dates to be confirmed) are THE CIRCUS (Charlie Chaplin) and the first three original STAR WARS films ( A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI). More will be announced shortly but those are the ones that I've written film notes for.

I had my first meeting with Melissa Green, programmer for The Hippodrome, back in June. I agreed to write film notes for any and all classic films they screen and to provide introductions and talkbacks on an occasional basis. I haven't written about this until now because I wanted to wait until everything was official and the theater was actually open for business.

The Hippodrome has plans to be Waco's home-grown version of Austin's venerable Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. In addition to the occasional classic film, the Hippodrome will play first run feature films, live music, theater (including the Pollyanna Theater Company's production of LIBERTY! EQUALITY! AND FIREWORKS!), etc. The plan is to have something happening every night of the week. The theater has two performance venues, the main theater on the ground floor and an enclosed, more intimate balcony theater on the second level. There's also a full bar and restaurant.

I'm thrilled to be a part of the rebirth of this piece of Texas movie theater history. If you're in the Waco or Central Texas area and want to see a classic film along with yours truly, go to  http://wacohippodrometheatre.com/events to purchase tickets and for more information.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

SHADOWED MILLIONS


1933 got off to a great start with the publication of SHADOWED MILLIONS by Maxwell Grant (the house name that Shadow creator and chief scribe Walter Gibson worked under) on January 1st. It was the 21st published adventure of the pulp crime fighter. That's the 1970s paperback reprint pictured above, published by Pyramid Books and sporting a gorgeous cover by master comic book artist Jim Steranko. I finished reading this book last night and it's a corker.

Alvarez Legira, consul of the newly created South American republic of Santander, comes to New York City to acquire ten million dollars from a group of wealthy financiers and investors. Ten million dollars is a hell of a lot of money in 2014. In 1933, it was an absolutely astronomical sum. Legira secures the loan but it's not clear if he will use the money to boost his country's economy or if he plans to abscond with all of it for himself.

Crooks get wind of the deal and start maneuvering to cut themselves in for either a piece of the action or the entire amount. Legira hires a look-a-like to throw off the bad guys but it's too little, too late. Murders occur and Legira is forced to go into hiding with the money while he waits for a boat to arrive off of the coast of Long Island.

Of course, The Shadow is mixed up in all of this and he races against the clock to prevent a criminal mastermind from stealing the money. There's a terrific gun battle in the third act, followed by a hell-and-gone car chase and shootout before the final showdown aboard a yacht where The Shadow engineers a masterful switcheroo.

SHADOWED MILLIONS is fast paced and fun. It's far from the greatest Shadow novel ever written but it's a good one nonetheless. Thumbs up.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

WONDER BOYS


I have a signed copy of Michael Chabon's 1995 novel WONDER BOYS sitting on one of my bookcase shelves, alongside other Chabon works, some signed, some not. I had the opportunity to meet Michael Chabon several years ago when he spoke at Southwestern University in Georgetown. Judy and I were there to hear him and later, meet him and get some books signed. While he was signing my copy of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY (which remains to this day, the single best book, fiction or non-fiction, that I have ever read), I went into full blown fanboy geek out mode. I started babbling to Mr. Chabon about how much I loved KAVALIER, that it was the best book I'd ever read, that I'd waited my entire life to read a book like it and on and on. He smiled, graciously said "thanks" and shot a quick glance at Judy, which prompted her to add, "he's not kidding, he really loves your books."

I read WONDER BOYS shortly after I read KAVALIER, which would have been sometime around 2001 or 2002. I don't remember all of the details of the novel, but I do know that I enjoyed it immensely (although not as much as I enjoyed KAVALIER, but they're two completely different works and it's not fair to compare them). I also enjoyed watching the 2000 film version which I finally got around to seeing for the first time the other day.

Michael Douglas stars as Grady Tripp, a college writing professor and bestselling novelist with exactly one book to his credit. He's been working on his follow-up effort for several years now. Tripp's problem isn't exactly writer's block. He has no trouble writing. He has a great deal of trouble stopping writing and thus, his manuscript fills several boxes. He's being pressured by his editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), who's in town for a weekend writing conference. Crabtree is in danger of losing his job at the publishing company where he works and he needs Tripp to give him something he can publish and soon.

Adding to the mix is one James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a brilliant, eccentric student in Tripp's writing class. Leer is a remarkably gifted writer but he's also a pathological liar, constantly making up stories about his family and childhood. Leer attaches himself to Tripp and Crabtree for the weekend and all sorts of mishaps occur.

Oh, and let's not forget that Tripp's wife has just left him, Tripp's affair with the married chancellor of the university (Frances McDormand), who discovers that she's pregnant, the fetching young Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), another of Tripp's writing students who just happens to rent a room in Tripp's house, and the pompous bestselling (and sell-out) author Quentin Morewood (Rip Torn) who is the guest of honor at the writing conference.

Much happens over the course of the weekend, so much that it strains credulity slightly to believe that so many wild and wacky events could occur to these people over such a relatively short period of time. A lot of booze is consumed and a lot of marijuana is smoked. Sexual relations (gay and straight) take place. And Tripp drives around with a dead dog in the trunk of his car.

The screenplay by Steven Kloves does an admirable job of adapting Chabon's novel. As usual, the book is better but this is certainly a worthwhile transition from page to screen. Director Curtis Hanson (who did a magnificent job with L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) gets great performances from a powerhouse cast of talented actors and actresses. Douglas is outstanding as a writer going through a mid-life crisis and there's plenty of sly humor (and a few belly laughs) along the way.

As a comic book fan, I couldn't help but notice that four of the stars would later appear in comic book based, superhero films. Douglas is set to play Henry Pym in next year's ANT-MAN, Tobey Maguire played Peter Parker/Spider-Man in three Sam Raimi films, Katie Holmes was Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) girlfriend in BATMAN BEGINS while Downey has starred as Tony Stark/Iron Man in three IRON MAN films and two AVENGERS movies.

WONDER BOYS is a smart, funny film which somehow never found the audience it deserved. Although a failure at the box-office on first release, WONDER BOYS is well worth seeing. It does right by the work of Michael Chabon and makes this boy wonder: hey, are we ever going to see the long talked about film version of KAVALIER AND CLAY?

Friday, November 7, 2014

SYRI-YAWN-A


It' s beautiful fall day. Too beautiful to waste it watching SYRIANA (2005). I gave this film one hour and turned it off. I had no idea what was going on in this convoluted and snail paced "thriller". Something to do with a merger between two American oil companies, middle east terrorists, a CIA assassin and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. George Clooney won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a CIA operative. I kept watching, thinking that any minute now, in the next scene maybe, surely the pieces of this puzzle will start to come together and make sense. Are any of these various characters ever going to meet? Do any of the multiple storylines ever converge? Who cares?

SYRIANA is an unmitigated mess of a film and it's hard to believe that it got made with such high profile talent attached to it. I can usually make it through even the worst of movies (and lord knows, I've watched a lot of low budget trash over the years) until the bitter end but this? A major motion picture from a big Hollywood studio? Absolutely impossible to figure out what's going on and where the story (if you can call it that) is headed.

 I'm going outside for some fresh air.


CARNIVAL OF SOULS


Every year at Halloween time, Turner Classic Movies runs a bunch of horror films. I record as many of them as I can with the hopes of having the time to watch some of them. Some of the films I've seen before, while others are new to my eyes. One of the films I recorded this year was CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). I saw this one way back in the 1980s and watched it again for the first time in thirty-some-odd years last night.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS, as it exists today, comes with a couple of pedigrees it didn't have in 1962. For one thing, the film is now distributed by Janus Films (the print I watched had this title), which is known for distributing both foreign and domestic films of classic status. COS has also been released on DVD by the prestigious Criterion Collection, which does a first rate job with all of their releases when it comes to print quality and archival material. So, CARNIVAL has more standing among film buffs today than it did when it was first released fifty-two years ago.

The story concerns a young woman (Candace Hilligoss) who somehow survives a fatal traffic accident (her car goes off of a bridge into a muddy river) at the beginning of the film. She emerges from the river, wet and covered in mud and she is, not surprisingly, shell shocked by the whole experience. She leaves her small Kansas town and travels to Salt Lake City, Utah where she has accepted a job as a church organist. Driving along the desolate highway at night, she sees a creepy man (Herk Harvey) outside of her car and in the roadway. Once settled in the city, she continues to see this mysterious, ghoul faced man at various times and places. Is he real or a figment of her disturbed imagination?

Hilligoss becomes more isolated and distant from the people around her and she becomes obsessed with the deserted and dilapidated carnival grounds situated on a dried up lake bed outside of town.. She journeys there alone to find answers but to no avail. She suffers several hallucinatory, disorienting episodes involving the pavilion, the ghoul man and other resurrected dead people. There's a nightmarish climax and a final shot that brings everything full circle.

Director Herk Harvey shot CARNIVAL OF SOULS entirely on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah with a budget of $33,000. The use of real locations and real people as actors adds a great deal of atmosphere to the film. This isn't some Hollywood production filmed on sound stages and back lots. There's a cinema verite feeling to the action and the camera work, framing and editing make CARNIVAL at times feel more like a European art film than a drive-in theater exploitation pot boiler.

Hilligoss is effective as the haunted lead and Hervey is creepy as the silent ghoul. The film has similarities to the classic first season TWILIGHT ZONE episode "The Hitch-Hiker" (air date January 22nd, 1960) which featured the lovely Inger Stevens as a blond motorist plagued by a mysterious hitch-hiker with both the film and the television show having roughly the same ending.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS also prefigures Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965) which starred the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve as a haunted young woman. And the low budget, shot-on-location, amateur actors, do-it-yourself ethos of CARNIVAL is a clear inspiration for George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a good little horror film. The atmosphere is suitably creepy and Hervey shows real flair as a director. He managed to get a lot of bang for his buck with this disturbing and haunting tale. Recommended.