Archive for July, 2017

Film moment #17: Monkey Business (1952)

30 July 2017

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I’m not sure if Monkey Business quite counts as a screwball comedy, since there’s not really enough about money in it, and the plot lacks the relentlessness of the true screwball, in which each turn tightens the storyline.

But it is certainly an oddball comedy. It is directed by Howard Hawks, and stars Cary Grant as research chemist Dr Fulton, Ginger Rogers (in an acting role) as his wife Edwina, Charles Coburn as the boss, Mr Oxly, and Marilyn Monroe as Oxly’s not-completely-competent secretary, Miss Laurel. As Oxly says, “Anyone can type.” The screenplay is by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I. A. L. Diamond.

Fulton is working on a formula that makes people younger again, and pretty much all of the jokes in the film are variations on this. Maybe there’s something of the era in this plot, since it was made just as the idea of the “teenager” is about to transform post-war American society. As he explains to Edwina after he’s tried it out on himself:

“I took a dose of the formula and within twenty minutes I started behaving like a college boy.”

Anyway, the moment: having taken his own experimental formula, Fulton has to go out and buy a jacket and a new car. Sure, there’s a lot of back projection here, but it’s a fine sequence, with some good truck-based gags and a sense of jeopardy, and reprised shortly afterwards, with more jeopardy, as the formula wears off.

Rogers turns out to be a comedienne with good timing, as when she enquires about the lipstick that Miss Laurel has planted on her husband’s cheek during their afternoon away from the plant:

EDWINA: By the way, who’s lipstick is it?
FULTON: What’s her name’s, you know, Oxly’s secretary.
EDWINA: Oh, you mean that little pinup girl? Very cute.
FULTON: Sort of, but half infant.
EDWINA: Not the half that’s visible.

The whole film is online here.

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Paying it back

24 July 2017


On the David Bowie documentary Five Years, made before his death, and rescreened recently by the BBC, his former bass player Trevor Bolding, one of the Spiders from Mars, says of Bowie and Ziggy Stardust

He’s good at stealing. You’ve only got to look at Ziggy, really, there’s a lot of Lou Reed in there, a lot of Iggy Pop in there, a lot of all sorts of influences in there. He would steal them. 

Bolding has a little bit of an axe to grind, since he was part of the band that was famously fired onstage at Hammersmith Odeon at the end of the Ziggy Stardust tour. But of course, he’s also telling the truth. Bowie was a magpie, albeit a magpie who seemed to listen to everything, and especially the stuff at the edges.

If he did steal from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, he also repaid them both handsomely. He co-produced Transformer for Lou Reed, Reed’s most commercially sucessful record, though without much thanks. And as Hugo Wilcken reminds us in his book on Low, Bowie launched Iggy’s solo career by co-writing and producing The Idiot in the sessions in France that also produced Low.    

Image: BBC.  

Film moment #16: Grease (1978)

18 July 2017


I stumbled across Grease on TV this week, and didn’t realise until I started to watch it again how much I hated it as a film. There really is nothing there. It is an empty shell propped up by American High School film cliches inserted to connect a string of songs and dance sequences (some, admittedly, not too bad). It is an utterly cynical piece of film making.

First day of term? Check. Girlie pajama party? Check. Cheerleaders and sports jocks? Check. The diner? Check. High school dance? Drive-in cinema? Check. Check. Drag race? Of course. Last day of school. ZZZZZ. You get bored just typing the list, and I bet I’ve missed one. Not that it would matter.

And nothing in the writing. No flash, no flair, no wit, no irony, not even a complicit knowing moment with the audience where writer and audience can agree that what they’re watching is a piece of nostalgic tosh and get on with it. The plot, if that’s what it is, is utterly predictable story-by-numbers stuff.  (According to Wikipedia, the original stage musical was tougher.)

I mean, even that moment when bad girl Stockard Channing thinks she might be pregnant and suddenly everyone in the year knows, well, y’know, it turns out five minutes later she’s not and everything’s just fine. Flat, flat, flat. (Stockard Channing, who is a terrific actor, is wasted in Grease. Go find her in the admittedly obscure Sweet Revenge if you want to see her at her best.) And while I’m at it, “Thunder Road” as the name of the drag strip? Three years after Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run?

The only saving grace: at least John Travolta can dance and Olivia Newton John can sing.

But there’s a deeper story as well. By 1978, America had been buffeted by failure in the Vietnam war, the turmoil of the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the ’70s oil shock. The story in Grease airbrushes 20 years out of American history, harking back to an idealised moment before all that bad stuff happened. Idealised for some. For although late-’50s Rydell High School looks at first sight like anywhere in the USA, it’s not: it’s anywhere white in the USA. In other words, it’s part of the same rhetoric (“Make America great again”) that propelled Reagan into the White House by both pretending that the past 20 years never happened, and then ensuring that nothing like it ever happened again. (I could go further, and riff on how formally conservative films are also politically conservative, but not today.)

The rules here on the Film Moment series are supposed to be that no film is so bad that it doesn’t have one moment that’s worth watching. I’m supposed to mention that moment. I can barely bring myself to do it, but here’s Stockard Channing just after word gets out that she’s pregnant, an actor making something out of nothing. If you want to see John Travolta dance, go and watch Saturday Night Fever, altogether a richer, darker, and better film.

Bernie Gunther, post-war

17 July 2017


I’ve stayed away from Philip Kerr‘s crime novels. This wasn’t because I doubted the universally positive judgment of readers and reviewers as to the excellence of the writing or the depths of the character, Bernie Gunther, but more because you get too much Nazi history in real life, even in 2017, without having to turn to fiction for it. (And maybe I get weary and wary when people compare other writers to Raymond Chandler.) 

So I was pleased to find in a second hand stack in the corner of a cafe a copy of one of his post-war Gunther novels, The One From The Other, set in the ambiguous demi-monde of reconstruction Germany and Austria, with war criminals trying to escape from justice, identity and personal history written in shades of grey, the “Amis” army of occupation resented, and Gunther played for a fool, and painfully, by people who are almost always one step ahead of him. Beautifully plotted, well written. 

The next one, no spoilers, looks to be set in Argentina.  I’m looking forward to finding it. 

Film moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.