Category: Classic Comedies


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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

Duck Soup

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I’ve had many discussions in this blog about the thin line between great absurdist humor and absurdist humor that falls flat. The Big Lebowski (my practically ur-example of absurdist humor) hits the right notes from beginning to end. Martin & Orloff flails most of its running time without any real direction. And, despite the seeming contradiction there, great absurdist comedies drop jokes with laser-point precision. 1933’s Duck Soup challenges my general premise. It challenges my premise because Duck Soup is an undeniably brilliant and gut-busting comedy, but it takes a shotgun to the idea of “direction” or “meaning” or “themes.” It simply is, and somehow, it makes that work.

If Duck Soup has a raison d’etre, it is an excuse to lay down as many jokes, gags, and slapstick at a machine gun-fire rate that it can. Actually a machine-gun is the wrong metaphor here; Duck Soup fires off jokes like a gatling gun on steroids. Though the film has an expository opening at the beginning (before the Marx brothers show up), once Groucho makes his grand entrance, the film just doesn’t stop. It actually becomes sort of exhausting. If the film were any longer (an hour and eight minutes is the absolutely perfect running time), it would have been too much to handle. But, as the act of comedy distilled to its pure essence, the Marx brothers knew what they were doing.

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What plot that exists in Duck Soup is always in support of the film’s jokes and almost never the other way around, and, against all rules of comedic writing, that works. When the struggling nation of Freedonia needs a loan to stay afloat, the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be appointed as the new prime minister. Of course, Rufus being Groucho, he’s no more fit for the job than the last officeholder, and his zany ideas for proper political behavior get the film’s conflicts rolling.

The scheming ambassador of Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern), wishes to marry the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, who only has eyes for Rufus. And so he hires two spies, the mute Pinky (Harpo Marx) and Chicolini (Chico Marx), to dig up dirt on Rufus T. Firefly. Of course Pinky being Harpo and Chicolini being Chico, they’re no more competent as spies than Rufus is as a government minister. And when Freedonian Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx) discovers Trentino’s schemes, Rufus’s confrontations with the Sylvanian ambassador lead to all-out war between Freedonia and Sylvania.

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Let there be no doubts. Duck Soup is funny. I was belly-laughing from beginning to end. There are bits in the film where it doesn’t work as well. Some of the musical numbers are more ridiculous than funny though that may have been the point. And any second (literally any single frame of the film) where at least one of the Marx brothers isn’t on screen robs it of its power. But, if any single one of them is there, it’s magic. And if they’re all three on screen… it’s divine (Zeppo is also in the film but plays the straight man). Whether it’s Groucho and Chico’s endless non-sequiturs or Harpo’s silent slapstick, Duck Soup fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

Like Bringing Up Baby or Modern Times, Duck Soup makes the convincing case that cinematic comedy peaked in the 1930s and it didn’t really find itself again until Woody Allen’s dramedies burst on the scene. And it’s easy to pinpoint why. Early comedies just didn’t stop. Most modern comedies are lucky to have a handfull of big, belly laugh moments even though they throw tons of weak material at the screen hoping something sticks. The classic comedies are endlessly inventive from beginning to end. It’s a marvel, and more comedy writers need to study the crisp rapid-fire dialogue of the Preston Sturges screwballs and the brilliant physical timing of Harpo Marx/Charlie Chaplin to get how real comedy works.

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I want to work on my screenplay so I’ll draw this review to a close (I haven’t worked on the screenplay in a significant manner in two days now). Let me leave you with this. I will always remember the avalanche of “bits” in this film. Chico, Harpo, and a lemonade salesman switching hats in a zany bit of misdirection; Chico and Harpo pretending to be Groucho and then Groucho arriving; Groucho’s ever-evolving suite of outfits when war finally breaks out until he ultimately looks like Daniel Boone. The jokes never end. And that should be all the invitation one needs to watch this classic comedy masterpiece.

Final score: A

 

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An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.

Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.

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Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.

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Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.

But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.

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I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.

When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.

Final Score: A

 

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When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.

No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.

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Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.

Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.

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To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.

But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.

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Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.

All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.

Final Score: B

 

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Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+

 

How to Murder Your Wife

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Occasionally, this blog does some really weird stuff. I.e., for the first 300 and so films of my blog’s existence, Jack Lemmon didn’t make a single appearance, but after his arrival in the masterful Glengarry Glen Ross, he makes his return just four films later. Pacino did the exact same thing. He hadn’t been any movie prior to the flaccid Scarface last week, but he came roaring back for Glengarry Glen Ross a couple days later. And that’s odd because those are two of Hollywood’s most beloved actors of all time. It’s so weird that it took them this long to show up in the first place. And after two films (when I wasn’t that intimately familiar with Jack Lemmon’s non-Grumpy Old Men roles), I get the allure surrounding this Hollywood legend. Because ten films into my current 50 film line-up for this blog (cause I break my awards down into 50 film chunks), Jack Lemmon is the front-runner for both Best Actor in both Drama and Comedy (though there’s plenty of time for him to be dethroned for both).

That isn’t to say that my current movie, How to Murder Your Wife, is half the movie that Glengarry Glen Ross was. It’s not even operating in the same galaxy of excellence. Actually, to be honest, it’s sort of bad. Jack Lemmon is just brilliant in it. He’s apparently one of those actors like Meryl Streep who can make even subpar material good in the wake of his terrific acting. I’m sure that for the time this film felt revolutionary with its almost counter-culture message about marriage, 50 years later, How to Murder Your Wife seems almost virulently misogynistic and the laughs don’t come often enough to justify it’s overly long two hour running time. The movie has some great comic bits, but for the most part, How to Murder Your Wife is a bore that hasn’t aged well.

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Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is America’s most beloved comic strip artist. His daily Dash Branigan series chronicling the adventures of a secret agent is read by 80 million people every day. He lives in a gorgeous New York City town house with his butler Charles (Terry-Thomas), and Stanley’s life is the very model of content bachelorhood. When a stag party ends with Stanley married to the dancer that jumps out of the cake (the absurdly gorgeous Virna Lisi), his life becomes everything he fears from domestication. His cartoon hero becomes a domestic marriage satire, and Stanley even begins to put on weight and lose his cocky swagger. Angry with his new lot in life, Stanley decides to have Dash Branigan murder his fictional wife. But when Mrs. Ford finds out about Stanley’s cartoon plans, she runs away and everyone else begins to suspect that Stanley actually murdered her.

Similar to the screwball action at the heart of The Palm Beach Story, this movie actually sounds pretty funny on paper. And if more of the film had been devoted to Stanley’s harmless escapist fantasy of murdering his fictional wife and it avalanching out of control, this could have been a great movie. Sadly, the film spends too much time as a terribly dated family comedy where they try to play on dated gender stereotypes for as many laughs as possible even though the laughs don’t actually arrive. Most of the women are unbearable, unlikeable nagging hags. Mrs. Ford isn’t even given a real name. She’s not necessarily unlikeable but her stupidity and naivete is almost unending. And Stanley’s lawyer, Harold Lampson (Eddie Mayehoff) is a paragon of male boorishness and a picture of the emasculated henpecked husband. But, it’s not funny. It’s just pathetic.

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Thank god for Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas then. Anyone wanting to be a comic actor should just go back and watch old Jack Lemmon roles because he is a master of comedic timing. He just knows the exact right moment to deliver the punchline. And the way he can roll his eyes or sigh or become deflated after his plans fall apart is just wonderful. And despite the awful situation he believes he’s found himself in and the almost unsympathetic figure that the script paints him as, Lemmon has such a natural joie de vivre that you can’t help but root for this scheming weasel whose dick got him into more trouble than he could afford. And Terry-Thomas helps to obliterate all of the tropes and cliches associated with the wise and mature butler. He’s as sexist and scheming and hard-willed as Stanley and honestly, the film could have used more of Charles the Butler.

How to Murder Your Wife is not a good movie. It has some great moments. And when they let Jack Lemmon just be Jack Lemmon, it can border on brilliant. He gives a speech towards the end of the film is absurdly offensive in its sexism, but coming from Jack Lemmon’s mouth, you almost don’t want to realize what he’s actually saying. That’s how good he is. He’s like the D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl of sexism in this film. If you like classic comedies, you might enjoy this film. I love classic comedies though, particularly the classic screwball films, and How to Murder Your Wife did not prove to be one of them.

Final Score: C+

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Over this blog’s nearly two year history (our official two-year anniversary arrives this Thursday which really wigs me out), I’ve reviewed a lot of movies based off of books that I’ve never read. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Choke (although I wound up reading Chuck Palahniuk’s superior book later), The Help, About Schmidt. I could go on for a while. But there are few novels as essential to the American canon of literature that I haven’t actually read as Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) had the unenviable task of adapting one of the most celebrated novels of the 1960s. And while it was easy to spot without having read the book that screenwriter Buck Henry had to condense many larger, more complicated storylines in ways that didn’t work so well on the big screen, Catch-22 finally found its footing by film’s end and became an anti-war farce to rival the film version of M*A*S*H.

Captain Yossarian (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming‘s Alan Arkin) is a U.S. Air Force bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. Having watched a comrade die in his arms as Yossarian survived a crash landing, Yossarian wants to be grounded and to not have to fly any more combat missions. And to do that, he has to convince his superior officers that he’s crazy. But there’s a catch. Catch-22 (and the origin of that ubiquitous phrase into the American lexicon). In order to want to fly those suicidal missions into enemy territory, you’d have to be crazy. But, if you ask to be grounded on the basis on insanity, you’re sane for not wanting to fly those dangerous missions. So, you either fly the missions cause you’re crazy or you ask to not fly them but have to fly them because you’re sane.

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Catch-22 becomes a consistently non-linear look at the events leading up to and following the stabbing of Captain Yossarian by an unknown assailant that opens the film. The movie is as much a snapshot of the lives of the large crew of pilots and officers that make up Yossarian’s division as it is a scathing satire of the senselessness and futility of war. We see the enterprising and ambitious Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voigt) as he trades away half of the base’s goods to make everyone rich (although he gets many killed in the process). You meet Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel) who’s in love with an Italian prostitute. There’s the seemingly stable Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin) who reveals a darker side. And a multitude of other big, or soon to be big name actors, including Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles (Othello), Martin Sheen, and a super young Bob Balaban (Gosford Park).

My feelings toward the acting in the film are a little complicated, particularly in regards to the lead performance from Alan Arkin. He’s a little over-the-top and not always in that good Jack Nicholson way. There are plenty of moments where Yossarian is confronted with the insanity of his condition that Alan Arkin channels the sense of hopelessness and futile indignation that any man would have in that situation. But, there are also plenty of times (especially early in the film) where he just seems to be hamming it up. There’s a moment where Orson Welles’ General Dreedle brings his wife to a meeting where all of the men collectively lose their shit over how attractive she is, and Arkin’s moaning and panting is just cartoonish. But, for the most part, he sticks to a believable mode of acting and one can only wish that he had stayed there the whole film.

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And if you couldn’t tell from that list of supporting actors earlier, the film has some seriously heavy hitters in its ranks. Sadly, the Orson Welles in this film is late-career balloon Orson Welles so he was certainly past his prime as a performer (or artist period). Thankfully, though, the rest of the cast was eager and in peak condition. One of the real, pleasant surprises was the performance from the baby-faced and naturally talented Art Garfunkel. He should have done more acting. This is also easily the earliest roles that I can remember seeing either Bob Balaban or Martin Sheen and they both brought something energetic and truthful to the table. But, of course, the real scene-stealers from the supporting cast was the greedy but not malicious Jon Voigt as Milo and the sensitive and conflicted Anthony Perkins as the camp chaplain.

Catch-22 is without question one of the darkest comedies that you’ll ever watch. The humor here is even more pitch-black than Fight Club (though Fight Club is a better movie). Here is a film that makes a mockery of the military bureaucracy, the competency of high-ranking officers, and the need for war in the first place. In one scene, Yossarian’s squadron is about to bomb a town devoid of any actual strategic value to the U.S. and he decides at the last minute to drop their bombs over the ocean rather than kill civilians for no reason. And for his insubordination, he gets a medal so that the military doesn’t have to look bad. And even though he accepts it bare-ass naked, the high officers don’t punish him because they honestly don’t know what to do in the face of a man who is truly beginning to lose his mind.

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Catch-22 has its share of flaws, most notably an opening 20 minutes that confused the hell out of me (although perhaps it will all make more sense during a later viewing now that I know what was really happening), but when the film really begins to assert itself as a darkly comic satire of the horrors and stupidity of war, it shines like few other films. And the extended sequence that serves as the film’s turning point where Yossarian confronts the culmination of all of the greed and incompetence that has occurred thus far is one of the most brilliant bits of political satire I’ve ever seen. And while the film can’t maintain that high a level of insight for its entire duration, it is a fantastic reminder of all of the great counter-culture literature and cinema that were coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s. War is hell but Catch-22 reminds you that it can be both horrific and hilarious.

Final Score: A-

 

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As a political science major, movies, books and TV shows that are about politics tend to hold a special place in my heart. Whether it’s The American President (which romanticizes the White House and idealistic government) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The West Wing, I have a fondness for fiction that does politics right. And the early days of cinema were rife with great political satire from the aforementioned Mr. Smith all the way up to the 1960s and DrStrangelove (which is coming up soon on my list to review for this blog). When the 1940s Preston Sturges Oscar-winner The Great McGinty wound up near the top of my Netflix queue, I had never heard of the film before. And that’s a shame because The Great McGinty was an uproarious satire of the graft and corruption at the heart of American party politics in the 1930s and 40s that I enjoyed almost every minute of.

Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is an American expatriate living in an unnamed Banana Republic when the film begins. After another cast-off from the states attempts to kill himself in McGinty’s bar, Daniel takes the time out to explain his life story and how he wound up on the run. A couple years earlier, McGinty was just another bum on the breadline. But when a local hand in the party machine pays McGinty to vote under an assumed name, McGinty shows such a knack for voter fraud and has enough guts that the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides to hire Daniel as an enforcer in his racketeering schemes. And it isn’t long before they decide to have Daniel run for mayor and have him win. But when Daniel’s arranged marriage to his former secretary (Muriel Angelus) turns into a real romance, her morality and his own essential decency prove to be his down fall.

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Unlike other Preston Sturges screwball comedies, The Great McGinty isn’t quite a straight comedy, and although I referred to the film as uproarious earlier, that’s more of an indication of the wit and energy of the film rather than how much time I actually spent laughing. Although perhaps it is more like the screwball comedies than I give it credit before, because like those films, The Great McGinty proves to be a series of snowballing incidents that avalanche one after another until the film’s final moments. For the most part, The Great McGinty is a non-stop reminder of how flavorful and smart the classic comedies used to be while operating under the strictest morality codes thanks to being part of the Hays Code era. Although the film doesn’t prove to be quite as insightful as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a wonderful, character-driven comedy.

This may be the only role that I’ve ever seen Brian Donlevy in and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he wasn’t a bigger star in his day. He brings such life, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of Daniel McGinty. Whether he’s fighting in the back seat of a town car with the corpulent Boss or reading a bed time story to the children of his newly wed wife (which she had from a first marriage), Donlevy taps into the basic humanity of McGinty while still reminding you of his toughness in the scenes where he coerces and intimidates others to suit his political needs. I’m not saying Donlevy was on par with the Bogies or Grants of the day, but I’m legitimately shocked that this actor had totally escaped my attention until just now. Throw in his wonderful romantic chemistry with Muriel Angelus, and it was a film with delightful lead performances.

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I love raunchy modern comedies (Horrible Bosses, Harold & Kumar, etc) but there’s just something so appealing about the wit and innocence of the classics like this. Even when they make dirty jokes (at least for the time) or allusions to sex, it is handled with such an agile subtlety and grace that it reminds you how heavy-handed even the best modern raunchy films can be. There was a scene where McGinty’s wife is helping him undress after he’s had too much to drink, and he grabs her hand as she’s taking his money-roll out of his coat. He then more or less implies that he’s had a prostitute try the same trick on him. And The Great McGintis simply bursting with that kind of understated humor and sly references. It may not be an all-time classic, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t soak up as much fun as possible in this screwball of a ride.

Final Score: B+

 

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Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s  Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.

When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.

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Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.

Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.

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The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).

Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.

Final Score: B