ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930) – Stan Laurel in drag is not a drag

The following is my contribution to The Butlers & Maids Blogathon, being co-hosted by Rick and Paddy at, respectively, the blogs Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman on Feb. 22 & 23, 2020. Click on the above image to read bloggers’ takes on servility in cinema!

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Laurel & Hardy’s short subject Another Fine Mess is based on a sketch written by Stan Laurel’s father, which was also the basis for their first “team” film, Duck Soup. It’s been well-documented that Stan’s dad disapproved of his son’s version of the sketch, but as Laurel & Hardy pictures go, you could do far worse.

Here, Stan and Ollie are vagrants on the run from an irate cop whom Stan mistakenly addressed as “Ma’am.” Through circumstances beyond their control (as usual), they end up hiding in a mansion and having to pose as the owner, Col. Buckshot (Ollie), and his maid Agnes (Stan!), under the pretext of showing the mansion to potential renters.

It’s the wispiest of premises, and it’s not helped by intrusive music and sound effects. But on the plus side is Ollie’s hammy interpretation of Col. Buckshot (“last of the Kentucky Buckshots”), and a priceless give-and-take between Stan-as-Agnes and Thelma Todd, exchanging some “girl talk.” It goes on a bit long (as most of their three-reelers do) but has its fair share of laughs.

And definitely check out the movie’s opening, where two chorus-girl types walk on-screen and recite the movie’s credits out loud. And you thought Stan in drag was bizarre!

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) – It’s always a dame

The following is my contribution to The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Pale Rider on Feb. 9 & 10, 2020. Click on the above image, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this legendary actress!

In the 1980’s, Mia Farrow not only had a relationship with Woody Allen, but she also appeared in and influenced the tone of his movies as much as Diane Keaton had in the 1970’s. Nearly all of the Allen movies in which she appeared showed the beatific effect she had on him at the time — we’ll here forego any commentary on their relationship’s tempestuous end — and any of those movies demonstrate how Farrow’s gifts complemented Allen’s confident direction. But for the sake of this blogathon, I’ve chosen to discuss the Allen-directed role that is most foreign to our view of the waifish Farrow: Feisty Tina Vitale in Allen’s broad comedy Broadway Danny Rose.

Allen plays the title role, a down-on-his-luck theatrical agent — his acts include a woman who plays drinking glasses, and a parrot that pecks out songs on a keyboard — who always loses his higher-end acts when they get successful and want to move on to more assertive management.

One of Allen’s more promising acts is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), a crooner from the 1950’s who is getting by on the fumes of his past success. When the nostalgia craze comes in the 1980’s, suddenly Lou is hot stuff again, and he lands a gig on a big-time TV special. For his TV appearance, Lou has only one major request for Danny — that he act as a “beard” and bring Lou’s extra-marital girlfriend, Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), to the special’s taping for good luck.

As luck would have it, two-timer Tina discovers that she herself has been cuckolded by another woman, and when Danny comes to pick her up, Tina is in the middle of a volatile phone call with Lou in which she says to forgot about her attending the special. From there, Danny goes into the world’s longest panic attack, as he tries to make amends with Tina as well as keep himself and Tina from getting killed by a couple of Tina’s low-life mobster acquaintances.

As rich as the characterizations and setting are, there are really only two characters you remember vividly after the movie ends. Allen eschews his usual schnook persona, but Danny Rose appears to be a not-too-distant relative. He gesticulates endlessly like a traffic cop gone haywire, and he is forever spouting Jewish homilies to placate his enemies. He’s quite a hoot.

But the real revelation is Farrow (also a million miles away from our usual perception of her) as the gum-chewing, hard-nosed Tina Vitale. According to Allen, he based Tina on an assertive waitress at an Italian restaurant that he and Farrow used to frequent. Farrow casually observed that she’d like to play a woman like that in a movie. The irony is that, when Allen wrote the script and presented it to Farrow, she feared she couldn’t possibly do it justice!

Happily, Farrow was wrong, as she fully inhabits her role — bleached blonde hair, dark glasses, and all — and makes Tina funny and touching, even when she’s at her loudest and least sympathetic. In fact, she dons the role so well that the only time we’re aware it’s Farrow is when she takes off those big glasses and we see Farrow’s delicate features beneath.

Broadway Danny Rose is Allen’s happy valentine (probably unintended) to those fans who prefer to see him being just plain funny. He provides the movie’s laughs, and Farrow provides its heart.

ANNIE HALL (1977) – Still Woody Allen’s best movie

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

When all of the hype and the infamous history of its writer-director-star is removed, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall remains a superb comedy and a charming look at a romance that doesn’t last through the ages.

The core story involves the relationship between stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen in, if not an autobiographical role, then surely a recognizable version of himself) and timid, flighty Annie Hall (Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The relationship has its ups and downs — first their meeting and courting (Alvy deftly manages his first kiss from Annie), their separation, their reunion at her behest, their growing apart from each other, and finally their non-reunion despite Alvy’s best efforts.

Two aspects of the film are most noteworthy. One is that, while Allen is usually adamant about not worrying whether or not he pleases his audience, here he uses just about every trick in the book to draw viewers into the story — trick photography, split screen, animation, and subtitles, among other methods. (Happily, the tricks all work.)

Secondly, while no one would mistake Allen for George Bernard Shaw, there is at least a thread of Pygmalion (or in a more populist mode, My Fair Lady) running through Annie Hall. The movie is subtle yet unflinching in its view of Alvy’s initial condescension towards Annie — making fun of her Midwest origins, urging her to read more serious books and take college classes — and in the way that Alvy starts to lose Annie as soon as she becomes more thoughtful and assertive.

Also noteworthy is the film’s supporting cast. Whereas in his earlier movies, actor Allen seemed to operate in a vacuum with anyone other than Diane Keaton, here Allen bounces off a noteworthy cast of contemporary performers — Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane — and future stars such as Jeff Goldblum, Sigourney Weaver, and (in a particularly riotous cameo) Christopher Walken.

Detractors have stated that Annie Hall feels like a group of disparate elements randomly thrown together. (One reviewer said the movie was edited in the manner of “a nervous wreck packing” for a trip.) Yet this is obviously a reflection of Alvy’s declaration, in the movie’s opening monologue, that he is “sifting through the pieces of the relationship” to find out where it failed. And covering all of those bases makes the movie very satisfying — even from Alvy’s point of view. Although critics and viewers are quick to point out how bittersweet the ending is, by movie’s end Alvy feels richer for having had Annie in his life, even if she doesn’t remain there.

Is Annie Hall the Woody Allen movie for people who otherwise don’t like Woody Allen movies? Could be. It’s certainly a rare comedy that works to win over its audience by playing up to their intelligence rather than against it.

(For an in-depth look at the making of this movie, I highly recommend the out-of-print book When the Shooting Stops…the Editing Begins, written by Allen’s long-time [and Annie Hall] editor Ralph Rosenblum.)

R.I.P., Terry Jones

I was briefly in the hospital this week (nothing major), so I was unable to address this topic in a timely manner. But I’d like to add mine to the chorus of voices mourning the death at age 77 of Terry Jones, who was one-sixth of a comedy conglomerate known as Monty Python.

Jones was an Oxford alumnus and a well-respected medieval historian, though you’d never know it from the over-the-top work he did on behalf of Python (although it was Jones’ knowledge of medieval times that served as an impetus for Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Although he (like the other Pythons) played a variety of roles, Jones’ most memorable characterizations were mostly milquetoasts who were clueless about the situations they were dragged into — the straight man in the immortal “Nudge, nudge” sketch with Eric Idle, the beach visitor who keeps getting caught undressing and cheerily resigns himself to doing a stripping routine.

In addition to Python, Jones’ oeuvre includes a TV show (“Ripping Yarns” with long-time friend and fellow Python Michael Palin), countless books, plays, and screenplays, and several movie-directing turns. Sadly, the last years of Jones’ life were riddled with dementia that robbed him of his ability to think and communicate — a huge loss for any person, but doubly so for such a prolific scholar and creative being.

Thank you, Mr. Jones, for all the outrageous laughs. Here is probably his most memorable movie routine, from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Happy birthday, Oliver Hardy (1892-1957)

The following blog entry was previously posted one year ago today.
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Today is the 128th natal anniversary of Oliver Hardy. Only instead of us singing “Happy Birthday” to him, we’ll better honor this day by letting him sing to us! Here is a compilation of Hardy’s wonderful singing scenes from Laurel & Hardy movies.

From Brats.

From Pardon Us. (The singing is wonderful — the blackface, not so much.)

From Beau Hunks. (I couldn’t find the song by itself, so here’s the complete movie. Ollie’s singing begins at the 0:30 mark.)

From Way Out West.

From Swiss Miss.

From The Flying Deuces.

And last but not least, from Them Thar Hills.

#SatMat for Sat., Dec. 7, 2019 – Preston Sturges’ comedy classic THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944)

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (reflect on that name for a moment) is torn. Trudy (Betty Hutton) wants to give a good time to the soldiers who are having a farewell party before leaving to fight in the war. But the small-town part of her regrets once again turning down a date with well-meaning 4-F-er Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has longed for Trudy ever since they were kids.

(And Trudy’s brusque father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker [William Demarest], would prefer to see Trudy and her younger sibling Emmy [Diana Lynn] locked up in chastity belts until their honeymoons.)

Trudy takes the worldly way out and wishes the soldiers well all night long. This results in a bump on the head, a quickie marriage to some soldier whose name she can’t quite place (“Ratzkywatzky? I know there’s a ‘Z’ in it somewhere”), and yet another bump — the kind that’s the outcome of a marriage you can’t quite remember. All of this quite rattles the good citizens of Morgan’s Creek — particularly Norval, who usually has a bad case of the nerves on his good days.

All of this results in risque, just-this-side-of-bad-taste comedy that left many contemporary censors, critics, and moviegoers in (often delightful) shock (it’s stated that the movie often played to SRO houses in its day) and still leaves you wide-eyed and laughing with its refreshing frankness. This movie looks as though it was filmed for about 50 cents, and it really doesn’t matter — because, as with the best movie comedies, all you really want is a camera to follow the characters around and watch as they get deeper and deeper into their mess. And that’s pretty much what writer-director Preston Sturges does; you can almost see him behind the camera, licking his chops as his actors make the most out of every situation and pratfall.

As for those actors, what’s not to like? Hutton and Lynn are thoroughly winning as they hatch their schemes under the lurking eye of their assertive father. Bracken takes a character who’s potentially grating and gives him an undercurrent of naive charm. Demarest is superbly blustery (and who knew he could take such falls over and over?). There’s always one scene in each of Sturges’ movies that ensures it for posterity. I couldn’t resist embedding this movie’s highlight/scene below. It’s the one where the constable/father gives a very threatening speech to his potential son-in-law, who is already near hysterics from all of the movie’s goings-on.

Sturges brings the story to a head right on Christmas Eve. That’s enough for me to qualify it as my favorite Christmas movie ever. It’s a miracle, all right — a miracle of comedy.

Want to watch this comedy gem with some fellow fans? Join us on Twitter on Sat., Dec. 7, 2019 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time. Use the hashtag #SatMat to watch the movie with us (for free) and comment on it as it goes along. See you there!

A Twitter Thanksgiving: Laurel & Hardy in MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS

If WPIX can do it, so can we! Start your Thanksgiving right with our Laurel & Hardy Live Tweet, starting at 11:30 a.m. ET on Thanksgiving morning. Use the hashtag #LHThanksgiving to find the movie on Twitter and to tweet along with fellow movie-watchers.

Buster Keaton in SEVEN CHANCES (1925) – Funny in spite of itself

The following is my first of two entries in The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 18-19, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this silent-film comedy master!

(Above is one of several lovely paintings that artist Julia Hutchinson has contributed to this blogathon. Check out more of her colorful artwork at www.juliahut.com.)

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Based on a popular Broadway play, Buster Keaton had Seven Chances foisted upon him by his brother-in-law and producer Joe Schenck. Keaton never liked farce, and he always regarded Seven Chances as the worst of his 1920’s movies. But there are far unfunnier things in the world than Seven Chances.

For one thing, Keaton, who usually worked in a vacuum where getting laughs was concerned, here had a couple of co-stars who were amusing in their own right. The story is that rich man Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) is facing financial ruin, and he and his partner (T. Roy Barnes) are doing their best to evade a lawyer (Snitz Edwards) who is stalking them. The lawyer finally tracks them down and gives them the great news that Jimmy is to inherit $7 million from a late relative. But there’s a catch: Jimmy must be married by 7:00 p.m. on his twenty-seventh birthday – which, it happens, is that very day – or he must forfeit the inheritance.

Barnes and Edwards are perfect matches for Keaton comedically. In particular, Edwards, a prune-faced silent-movie veteran, adds much laughter to the proceedings. Also, the movie’s laughs rely on title cards far more than in any other Keaton movie, but funny they are. At one point, Jimmy has inquired with numerous women at his country club, and all of them have turned down his abrupt marriage proposal. Jimmy turns to his partner and (via inter-title) asks, “Who bats next?”

Keaton also adds some interesting directorial touches. When Jimmy drives to his potential fiancee’s house and then drives back home defeated, we never actually see him driving the car; instead, the movie fades from Jimmy’s car sitting in his own driveway to showing the car sitting in front of the girl’s house, and then back again. Seen in retrospect, Keaton might have conjured up this bit of editing due to his boredom with the rest of the movie; nevertheless, it makes for an interesting, attention-getting visual.

The movie’s one unfortunate aspect is the “laughs” that it derives at the expense of African-Americans. To give just two examples: Jimmy is walking down the street when he sees a potential “bride” walking ahead of him. He catches up with her and starts to chat with her, but then he sees that she is black and quickly jaunts ahead of her. Also, there is a black man who is given a message by Jimmy’s erstwhile girlfriend Mary and is told to rush the message to Jimmy; the movie keeps cutting back to the man to show him leisurely sauntering to Jimmy on a horse, Stepin Fetchit-style. There is the lame excuse that such “black humor” was the norm in the ’20s, but it does nothing to endear Keaton to African-Americans today.

The movie’s famous climax shows hundreds of Amazonian brides giving chase to Jimmy through the city streets. The climax is part of Keaton folklore, in that the never-ending chase was a dud until it got Keaton some unexpected laughs from a preview. Keaton and his crew re-ran the movie and noticed Jimmy getting “chased” by some pebbles as he runs downhill. Keaton ordered 1,500 papier-mache boulders of various sizes to be built and then re-filmed the ending with Jimmy dodging the various rocks. Seen today, the chase is funny enough on its own, but the boulders certainly punch up the joke. (George Lucas later paid homage to this scene in Star Wars – Episode I, when inept Jar-Jar Binks dislodges some lethal orbs from a cart and then runs away in fear of them.)

If nothing else, Seven Chances shows that Keaton could take even generic Broadway material and stamp it with his personal style. For simply mining laughs, it stands as one of Keaton’s funniest movies.

Bachelor

(Footnote: In one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, Seven Chances was remade three-quarters of a century later as The Bachelor [1999], starring Chris O’Donnell as the rich boy, Renee Zellweger as the jilted girlfriend, and Hal Holbrook as the rich man’s lawyer trying to pimp his own daughter to the potential millionaire. It only proved that nobody could do Keaton’s kind of material but Keaton.)

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my second entry, about Keaton and Lucille Ball appearing together on TV in 1965.)