Make ‘Em Laugh


Awards season in Hollywood usually leaves many great films unrecognized by the legion of golden naked men — classics from David Lean’s Great Expectations through Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas are usually left with no nominations, at best one or two paltry bottom-tier recognitions. Though this year’s Academy Awards have proven to have outlived their usefulness, it’s a crying shame that for a ceremony that celebrates filmmaking, they didn’t recognize a loving tribute to their industry released two years ago — Stan & Ollie.

Centering on the sunset years of immortal comedy duo Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy — cast note-perfectly with Steve Coogan (Philomena) and John C. Reilly (Chicago), respectively — the comics find themselves in a changing landscape of filmmaking and next to no way to find financing for their next feature film. In something of a last-ditch effort for both their careers and to gain said monies, they arrange a performance tour throughout England and Ireland, where their longevity as comedians and friends will be tested by way of opinion, both public and private.

Laurel & Hardy are an integral part of the American comedic zeitgeist — above Buster Keaton, neck-and-neck with Charlie Chaplin and just below the Marx Brothers, in my opinion — and to emulate them is not the same as knowing them. Fortunately, Coogan & Reilly sink effortlessly into their respective roles (to say nothing of makeup playing a great hand in the latter’s resemblance), giving life to the legends of laughter — in addition to their humor, you see Coogan showing the tragic side of Laurel, as he tries to raise money for the film and the spirits of the audience and his working relationship; the man can do it all. Reilly also shows sides unseen of Hardy — his past as a gambler, his reluctance to leave the duo’s work with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, Hitchcock), and an almost childlike demeanor, of which Laurel serves as his guiding conscience, a la Jimmy Cricket. On that note, it was also really quite surprising to see that, despite their films portraying Hardy as the boss of the equation, the opposite was true in real life, with Laurel writing the scripts and calling quite a few of the shots.

Two other major standouts in the picture are in the form of actresses Shirley Henderson (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris), playing Lucy Hardy and Ida Laurel. Almost antagonists to each other (and each other’s spouses), they prove their mettle in the story when Ollie takes a turn for the worse. Arianda does the stern Russian expatriate that Ida is shown to be to a T, cherishing her and her husband’s past and not caring much for the future, while Henderson is the quiet, but extremely tough, American who simply wants the best for her marriage. I haven’t seen enough of Arianda’s work to comment on this in relation to her career, but Henderson is one of the most underrated actresses in English cinema today; she’s far more than “that lady who played Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter,” and this movie proves it.

Director Jon S. Baird keeps the film moving at a clipping pace, which may irk viewers expecting more of a retrospective of the duo’s career, but even so, I never felt anything was glossed over or over-expounded in the film. Further, while a period piece, this isn’t a film that focuses more on the events of the time than the subject(s) at hand; this is their chronicle, and it doesn’t get lost in the set pieces, costumes or various other recreations.

Stan & Ollie was truly more deserving of awards contention on its release, but for whatever reason, come the season, it was shunned save for a sole Golden Globe nomination, and more’s the pity; to honor an industry’s past is to know it. In spite of this, like so many other great films about the art of filmmaking — see also: Hugo, Saving Mr. Banks, Singin In The Rain — it will still exist among a trove of other greats, always there for any aspiring filmmaker to see — I highly recommend it to anyone with such an open mind.



Proving once and for all that a turd can’t be polished, the seminal Hollywood favorite A Star is Born is remade for the third time, and it’s as cut-and-dry as they come.

All the original story elements are here – Jackson Maine, a drunken star on decline (Bradley Cooper, The Hangover), Ally, the talented ingenue he discovers (Lady Gaga, in her motion picture debut), and the love they share while one rises to stardom (heh-heh.) and the other falls flat (hee-hee.). I wondered on the way home why it took two other directors — Steven Spielberg (?!) and Clint Eastwood (?!?!) — to attempt this film before Mr. Cooper made his directorial debut with this, and also how nothing changed at all for these characters. If Warner Bros. & MGM, and by association, the screenwriters, kept the storyline the same for the sake of familiarity, or wanton laziness (you decide), that was a really bad move — If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, you’ve already seen this film. The only changes made are the actors, the songs and the time in which it takes place. Speaking of the former two, the only three actors worth their oats in this film are Lady Gaga, Sam Elliot (Road House), who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod as Jackson’s beleaguered eldest brother-turned-handler, and, oddly enough, Andrew Dice Clay (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane) as Ally’s well-meaning father who can’t keep money even if it were sewed into his pants. Actors like Dave Chappelle (he of the eponymous TV show) are there and then gone; not much else to say about that.

As for the songs, most are bizarrely cut into snippets, with only three numbers played in full to my immediate recollection — the movie feels like a sampler designed solely to make you buy the soundtrack album, which Lady Gaga devotees will doubtless buy in staggering numbers. Don’t get me wrong, her voice is stellar, and truthfully, her future is not in monotone, drawling autotuned pop songs, but in hard rock. That being said, “Shallows” is the only number that truly resonated with me. Still, to each their own.

I honestly don’t want to be this unkind toward the film, but as it stands, A Star is Born, while a feast to listen to and look at (Matthew Libatique’s luscious anamorphic cinematography will win him the Oscar), is not worth seeing in the slightest. It almost reminds me of the cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby thus far, but with Gatsby, one need only look back to the source novel for the best version; A Star is Born has no good version to look back on, and that was the first of many mistakes with this one.

Rating: 2/5

It Ain’t Necessarily So


Too often, films are left to rot – virtually the entire pantheon of silent films and most early Technicolor musicals are either missing in part or full due to negligence for future generations. It’s also common for the original negatives of 70mm epics to be lost to time and carelessness – from The Alamo to The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, it’s truly a crime to let art dissipate like this. However, some films are neglected due to hatred or disappointment, and sadly, Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess is one such a film to have lost its original TODD-AO camera negative, but not all hope is lost.

I had become fascinated with Preminger’s Porgy when I was browsing through the director’s filmography on IMDb — to think that the white director of Anatomy of a Murder did an almost all-black musical. As I dug further, I found that not all went well with the production, the history of which can be read in historian Foster Hirsch’s book, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, or on the film’s Wikipedia page. Altogether, the film was blackballed by the Hollywood intelligentsia and the NAACP, rendering it a flop and almost forgotten. The rights to the film were split threefold between the estates of the Gershwins, DuBose Heyward and Samuel Goldwyn, rendering any re-releases impossible, even on Turner Classic Movies.

Sheer dumb luck led me to a screening of the film at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Cinemateque last November, and I was ecstatic. The screening was beyond sold out – numerous pop-up seats had to be added to the theater to accommodate demand – and aforementioned biographer Foster Hirsch was at hand, explaining the history behind the film as well as the print used for the screening. It was a 35mm positive from a Finnish film festival, laden with Dutch and Finnish subtitles, and with more than occasional short jumps in the soundtrack — it broke my greasy little heart, and yet I was still blown away.

The film is shot in long, panning takes, exposing the beauty and intricacies of the Catfish Row set, with a very saturated color scheme that brings to mind a Fragonard painting. Further, orchestrations by André Previn of the classic songs are masterful – from “Summertime” to the Finale Ultimo, I hung upon every note. Some may not like the fact that it was filmed on sets, or that the recitative is converted to spoken word, but truly, I feel it keeps the staged quality of the show while bringing it to the level of the general public without pandering for compromise.

Paramount among every facet of the film is the acting and singing. Sydney Poitier (Lillies of the Field) plays Porgy, a role he resents playing to this day, with grace and kindness, but also with the requisite strength we expect from an actor of his caliber, even if his singing is performed by Robert McFerrin (side note: this film has excellent sound-alike casting!). Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) plays Bess, Porgy’s woman with a past always returning to haunt her, and does it extremely well, especially due to the duress she was under during filming. Oddly enough, the singing Dandridge was dubbed by Adele Addison, due to the role being out of her range. Still, the casting holds well.

Supporting women include Pearl Bailey (The Fox & The Hound) as Maria, a restaurant owner on Catfish Row and friend to most everyone — and she gets some of the best slapstick moments I’ve ever seen — and Diahann Carrol (Claudine) as Clara, who opens the film with “Summertime.” Amazingly, two of the background dancers include author Maya Angelou and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)!

Supporting men are headlined by Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird), playing decidedly against type as Crown, Bess’ abusive lover, and veteran character actor Clarence Muse (Broadway Bill) has a small part as Peter, the honey-man. The standout player, however, is Sammy Davis Jr. (Robin and the Seven Hoods) as Sportin’ Life, in a role he was thrilled to play, and it shows! His energy was so infectious that by the end of his standout number, It Ain’t Necessarily So, the audience was applauding and cheering! He further has all the smarm and calculated malice of a cobra in There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York. It’s a crime he didn’t get an Oscar for this role, and it’s even sadder that his voice is not heard on the soundtrack LP, due to contract issues.

Sadly, the film was a bomb at the box office, and neither the Gershwins, Heyward or Goldwyn enjoyed the final product. The original negative is worn-out and just about gone, but thanks to Foster Hirsch, the film was given a new lease on life in 2007, when he negotiated a 35mm screening in New York City, with Brock Peters in attendance. Hirsch was also instrumental in getting the film rescued by the Library of Congress, who possess a 70mm positive of the film, and since the film is so hard to screen, the Cleveland screening got by because Dorothy Dandridge was a Clevelander and it was the 50th anniversary of the Cinemateque! How’s that for luck?

Hirsch was on hand during the intermission and after the film to answer any questions. In conversing with him, he mentioned that he was entering talks with Criterion to try and get the respective parties to allow a home video release. Here’s hoping, and I leave you all with a quote from Foster Hirsch, which he said just before the film started:

“I was having lunch with [Stephen] Sondheim the other day, and he told me, ‘When the world ends, nothing I’ve done will mean anything! Nothing in Musical Theatre will mean anything… except for one work, and that is Porgy and Bess!'”

No Skies of Gray on that Great White Way

SIDENOTE: This is (hopefully) to be the first in a weekly series through July, reviewing classic films that often get brushed under the rug. Enjoy and encourage!

A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

A triumph! A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

As renowned actor Ciarán Hinds said in a January 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, movie heaven is “anything with James Stewart or Cary Grant, plus regular doses of Singin’ in the Rain.” What that wonderful man seemed to forget was most of the MGM musicals, even before Arthur Freed’s arrival at the studio, are enjoyable romps that, at the very least, come close to the glory that is Singin’. The film in question for this week’s lesson is one that, in this reviewer’s eyes, equals it — Broadway Melody of 1940. The final completed film in MGM’s Broadway Melody series, 1940 strikes a tone that seamlessly blends Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Miller and Spike Jones in a bright and joyous trip down Melody Lane.

Two down-on-their-luck dancers, Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn) and King Shaw (George Murphy, later a California Senator) are both dancing for peanuts and actively avoiding the long arm of the IRS when talent agent Bob Casey (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz) asks to meet with Brett, the better of the two dancers. However, Casey doesn’t know Brett from another, and when the latter mistakes the former for a tax collector, Brett introduces himself as King Shaw. In the days to follow, the actual Shaw accelerates to the top of the dancing world, gaining ground with Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell, TV’s The Faith of Our Children), a rising dancer whom Brett is quite sweet on, causing a rivalry that builds as many bridges as it burns.

Truly, 1940 is the first of my viewing any of the Broadway Melody series, but unlike The Big Broadcast, Paramount’s competing series of yearly musical revues, MGM’s is focused on telling a story first, whereas Paramount seemed to build up the ensemble and songs first, then tack on a story to link them all together. The difference between them is akin to Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom and Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera — one expounds, the other extends. That being said, 1940 is cute, fluffy stuff that makes one laugh and cheer at all the right moments.

Astaire is in fine form, as usual, in dancing up a storm and, on occasion, singing sweet tra-la-las between taps. He also brings a fair amount of pathos in playing Johnny Brett, clearly jealous of his partner’s rise to fame and quite angry at himself for giving Shaw’s name to Casey. Powell, purportedly one of the few dancers who could out-dance Astaire (causing him to fear her), performs on equal footing with her leading man, and they share some impressive routines together, from a tap number in a café to a luscious Harlequin masquerade waltz toward the end of the second act. As for Murphy, the only thing I had seen or heard of his work was a bitingly funny song named after him, composed and sung by Tom Lehrer, so while it feels wrong to criticize him, I will say this: he is no Astaire or Powell, but anyone who can keep up with either of them in a number is respectable in that regard. Morgan gets some of the best gags I have seen in a musical revue, usually having to do with the absurd talent he attempts to bring in for his shows, the best of which is a thoroughly mutilated take on Il Bacio akin to a performance by Spike Jones and his City Slickers — I want more.

After Broadway Melody of 1940, a planned Technicolor installment was planned for 1943 (bizarrely enough, 1940 was designed to shoot in color, but was filmed in black and white). One tap number was filmed with Powell, but the film was cancelled not long after, and the footage was reworked into another ensemble picture, Thousands Cheer. A shame it never came to fruition, and an even bigger shame that musical revues are shunned from Hollywood today, barring jukebox musicals filled exclusively with creations of the last fifty years (i.e.: Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe), because if they would only go back a few decades further, they would find a myriad of brilliant compositions in film and music that could only help the film and music industries as a whole. Why settle for “Wrecking Ball” when you could “Begin the Beguine?”

Rating: 4.5/5

Buy the DVD from Warner Archive