Saturday, January 28, 2017

Lou Grant's Office

A few weeks before Mary Tyler Moore's passing, my wife and I began revisiting episodes of her show, which ran on CBS from 1970-77. We were doing it for enjoyment -- they still stand out as some of the best sitcom episodes ever -- but we were also watching for a kind of emotional sustenance as we faced our first Trump Winter.

As we watched, it dawned on me that inside this sanctuary the show represents is yet another sanctuary -- Lou Grant's office.

It's a little cubbyhole of fake wood inserts, frosted glass and no ceiling, but it's Lou's confessional and a lot of significant things happen there. It's where Mary Richards has her job interview (Lou: "You've got spunk. I hate spunk.") and it's where Mary and Murray come for advice, and Ted tries to come for advice, and it's such a safe space that even Lou pours out his heart there every so often. In one of the episodes we watched the other night, "Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?," it's the only place Mary feels safe enough to
finally break down (in that funny-cry way Mary Tyler Moore had patented) about her fear of being incarcerated, as Lou tries his best to console her. It's also Lou's sacred sanctuary -- in "You Sometimes Hurt the One You Hate," we know Lou is really guilt-stricken about injuring Ted by throwing him through a door because he ends up letting Ted share his office.

The thing that I love about Lou's office, though, is that it's only a small part of the show's much larger heart. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" endures -- and is reflected in the outpouring of sorrow over Moore's passing -- because, as the theme song always reminded us, love was all around. And it was all around because it was fostered by the way Mary treated people. In the first episode, there was someone who would have been easy to dislike -- Rhoda. She was abrasive and bossy, which was justifiable because Mary was displacing her from what Rhoda thought would be her apartment. Despite that beginning, they ended up as something very rare on TV at the time -- adult women who had a healthy friendship.

In fact, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was about friends who became family, in the best sense. Mary talked about it in the final episode, after Mary, Murray and Lou had gathered in Lou's office (of course) to learn they were being let go -- along with everyone else in the newsroom except Ted. Here's what she says: "Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me, and I tell myself that the people I work are just the people I work with. And not my family. And last night I thought, 'What is a family, anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone ... and really loved.' And that's what you've done for me. Thank for you being my family."

The humor on the MTM show came from the very hardest place to produce comedy -- from character. It came from recognizable people with common, if sometimes exaggerated, quirks. And for the times we are living in right now, like it or not, it's a reminder of our humanity when things seem to turn inhuman on a daily basis. Lou Grant's office is a reminder of that humanity -- a sacred place, that has nothing to do with organized religion, where people take care of each other. That's a message with special emotional resonance during this first Trump Winter.











Friday, November 11, 2016

"Torch Song," or the Lone Arranger

OK, I think we can all agree it's been a tough week. But buck up and ditch those silly thoughts of impending fascism! If there's one thing we understand here at Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions, it's that nothing puts a positive spin on the world like a ... Joan Crawford musical?

In this 1953 film, Joan Crawford plays Jenny Stewart ... 


... a Broadway star of such hit musicals as "Evening with
Jenny," "Another Evening with Jenny," "Yet Another Evening
with Jenny," "Oh My God It's Jenny Again" and
"Go Home, Jenny, You're Drunk." 


She is loved by all and is a big star -- so big that
her eyebrows have their own dressing room.



Jenny is a hard-driving pro onstage and off -- she even makes
sure her robe matches the pencils on her nightstand.     


But her hard exterior covers a yearning soul of
molten lava, cotton candy 
and unfinished Lisa Frank
coloring books.
 


The only person who can, you should excuse the expression,
penetrate Jenny is Ty, her blind arranger.  


They get along splendidly.

Jenny even starts trying to learn braille until she realizes
she's just turning the radio on and off.


But Ty turns his back on Jenny. He walks out during her
big blackface number, a toe-tapper called
"Staggering Multicultural Insensitivity." 


Still, Jenny can't stay away. She presents herself to Ty with
an outfit that's a stunning salute to autumn, which she
describes to him because he can't see. 


Even an eye massage doesn't help.


Neither does Jenny's attempt to clone herself as a
larger, easier-to-see person.


But in the end it doesn't matter, because as well all know,
love is disabled. I mean blind.








Wednesday, October 19, 2016

CMBA Fall Blogathon: "Make Me a Star," or Tom Nix



This is part of the CMBA Fall Blogathon: Hollywood on Hollywood! Check out all entries!

If "Merton of the Movies" isn't the first spoof of Hollywood, it comes close.

Harry Leon Wilson's 1919 novel about a naive small-town clerk who goes to Hollywood with a correspondence course in film acting under his belt and not much in his head was adapted for the stage in 1922 by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. It was made into a movie in 1924 (with Glenn Hunter as Merton) and again in 1947 with Red Skelton in the title role.

In between, there was another version, 1932's "Make Me a Star." The cast alone is a Who's Who of early Hollywood -- Stuart Erwin, Joan Blondell, Ben Turpin, Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts and Charles Sellon. William Beaudine directs -- a guy who began his career with Mary Pickford and ended it with the Bowery Boys.

In addition, there are fleeting, almost incidental cameo appearances by the biggest stars on the Paramount lot at the time -- Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March. Jack Oakie, Charles Ruggles, Sylvia Sidney and Clive Brook, among others.

We begin in the hamlet of Simsbury, two thousand miles and a world away from Los Angeles. Merton Gill (Erwin) is a rather preoccupied clerk who works for Mr. Gashwiler (Sellon) in the local emporium. Movies are on Merton's mind constantly, particularly B-grade westerns with humorless hero Buck Benson (Dink Templeton) -- so much so that Merton is given to whispering things to the horse pulling his delivery cart like "Let's get goin', Pinto, old pal -- we gotta make Red Gap before sundown."

Unfortunately, Merton's daydreaming leads to havoc at the store, what with messed-up deliveries and such. A frustrated Mr. Gashwiler finally gives Merton the boot and California, here he comes.

Merton goes directly to Majestic Studios, home of Buck Benson. He re-christens himself as Whoop Ryder and is befriended by stuntwoman "Flips" Montague (Blondell) and the studio's hard-bitten-but-kindly switchboard operator, The Countess (Donnelly). (One of the joys of this movie is listening to Donnelly say, in that testy manner of hers, "Now listen, Whoop.")

Flips helps Merton get a walk-on in a Benson picture; he blows his chance and is fired. But he won't leave the lot because he's afraid he'll never be let back in, and it's not like he has anywhere to go -- he's been kicked out of his apartment. By the time Flips sees him again, he's been sleeping on empty sets and is slowly starving.

Flips stakes Merton to a meal and gets an idea -- because Merton is such a straight arrow, he would make a perfect parody of Buck Benson. She sells it to a Mack Sennett-like producer and filming begins. Just one problem -- Merton thinks he's making a straight picture. He hates comedies and can't figure out why the cross-eyed Ben Turpin (playing a guy named Ben) is playing his sidekick.


On the eve of the premiere, Flips feels guilty.
She's fallen for Merton -- she calls him Trouper -- and can't bring herself to tell him the truth. So he faces it himself -- a theatre full of people laughing at him. He comes back to Flip and bursts into tears.

By now you may be getting the idea that "Make Me a Star" isn't quite a romantic comedy, or a slapstick comedy, or really much of a comedy at all. And I believe at least part of the fault lies with Erwin -- he's too vulnerable as Merton. You pity him, which isn't a good look for a hero. He's also frustratingly dense and a bit pompous.

On the other hand -- and this may be accidental -- "Make Me a Star" illustrates what it takes to be a success in Hollywood: sometimes the price is that you leave your real self behind. The movie leaves us up in the air -- we don't know if Merton makes another Whoop Ryder picture or not. And we're never quite clear just what the self-assured pro Flips sees in Merton.

The 1947 remake of "Merton of the Movies" takes place during the silent era, which with its outsize personalities and exaggerated acting styles is much easier to make fun of. The way Skelton plays Merton is easier to make fun of, too -- he's a genial dope who wins a contest and comes to Hollywood. In "Make Me a Star" Merton has been dreaming of coming to Hollywood all his life, which makes his failure even more poignant. All in all, "Make Me a Star" has a wistful sadness about it, and dares to float the idea that a Hollywood career doesn't guarantee a happy-ever-after ending.

Friday, August 26, 2016

What's the Best Way to See the TCM Film Festival? Asking for a Friend (Me).

Greetings, blog people. I am considering attending the TCM Film Festival next April and I would welcome any/all knowledge/hints/weird experiences to help guide me. Hotel or Airbnb? Spotlight Festival Pass or Essential Festival Pass? Many thanks.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

CMBA Spring Blogathon: "Adam's Rib," or Court and Spark

This is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon: Words, Words, Words! Check out all entries!

SCENE: Upper middle-class New York City apartment, evening. Wife waits patiently by door. Husband enters.

Husband: Hello, thing.

Wife: Hello at last.

Husband: Well well well.

Wife: Well well well what?

Husband: Here we are.

Wife: How true.

Husband: Home at last.

Wife: You took the words right out of my mouth.

You have just read great screenwriting.

The movie is 1949's "Adam's Rib," a film about a married couple, inspired by a story about a married couple, and written by a married couple, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. The married couple in the film is played, of course, by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who were an all-but-married couple in real life, and this is, to my mind, the Tracy-and-Hepburniest movie of all.

That is: When we think of the unique give-and-take that we associate with a Tracy and Hepburn movie, the immovable male (who ends up moving) versus the edgy female (who loses some of her edginess), we think of this movie. Or I do, anyway -- so there! I'm also hazarding a guess that this movie comes closest to echoing their offscreen relationship, but maybe that's just a wish and not a fact.

Beyond that -- and adding to its greatness -- "Adam's Rib" captures, better than just about any American movie I can think of, what it's like to be married to someone in the best possible way -- sharing an easy, everyday intimacy that enriches your life and yet can still drive you crazy. No doubt Gordon and Kanin had this kind of relationship -- if they didn't, and they were still able to write a script like this, it's some sort of freaking miracle.

Even the way the story for "Adam's Rib" came about sounds like something that could happen in the movie -- Gordon and Kanin were driving through a frightening storm, and Gordon wanted to concentrate on something else. So she asked Kanin to tell her a story. He told her the true story of actors Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen. Once upon a time, they were married to each other, and they decided to split. Their attorneys were married to each other. During the legal proceedings, each of them fell in love with their attorneys, so both couples split and then everybody got married to everybody else.

From that, "Adam's Rib" began its gestation.

On the surface, of course, "Adam's Rib" is about a courtroom battle between two married attorneys on opposite sides of a case who almost divorce -- Amanda Bonner (Hepburn) is in private practice, and Adam (Tracy) is an assistant district attorney.

The case they get mixed up in involves Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a wronged wife. One afternoon, she buys a gun and follows nogoodnik husband Warren (Tom Ewell) to an assignation with lady friend Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). Doris barges in and shakily aims her gun at Warren, winging him. Then Doris breaks down and is arrested.

Something about Doris's case awakens the crusader in Amanda. She visits Doris in jail and gets her story, in a scene that also acts as a kind of unofficial screen test of Holliday for the Billie Dawn role in "Born Yesterday":


To paraphrase Carl Laemmle, good writing is worth repeating -- especially since this blogathon is about words. So dig the dialogue between Amanda and Doris. Notice how it's witty, yet appropriate and informative.


Amanda: Now, you would help us very much if you could reconstruct the day. All of yesterday.

Doris: Well, first thing in the morning ...

Amanda: Yes?

Doris: ... I woke up.

Amanda: Yes?

Doris: And I see he didn't sleep home.

Amanda: You were shocked and surprised.

Doris: Oh, no. Not shocked, not surprised. He used to not do that a lot, come home.
...
Doris: So then I bought some chocolate nut bars ... and I went outside of his office and I waited the whole afternoon. And I kept eating the candy bars and waiting until he come out. And then I followed him. And then I shot him.

Amanda: And after you shot him, how did you feel?

Doris: Hungry.

The Attinger Affair opens the movie with unexpected drama, with Manhattan location filming and a slight seediness that calls to mind "Naked City." The Attingers, even if they were getting along, are loud and unsophisticated -- they're a world away from the Bonners in several significant ways, and the script expertly conveys the way each couple lives, talks and fights.

Meanwhile, Adam has found out that Amanda will be his adversary in the courtroom. He steadfastly sticks to the idea that Doris Attinger deserves justice for what she did, but Amanda wants to make Doris more than a defendant -- she wants her to serve as a symbol for wronged womankind. But their argument about it never descends to Attinger territory -- they exchange words and then use their pet name for each other.

Adam: I am going to cut you into 12 little pieces and feed you to the jury. Good night, Pinkie.

In the courtroom, Amanda is intent on defending her client by skewering gender assumptions while Adam steams. And the headlines come at Adam's expense -- especially when a female weightlifter (Hope Emerson) lifts Adam in a show of strength.

That night, it's impossible for Adam to just make nice. He and Amanda are going to give each other massages, but his anger slips out, and an affectionate pat on the fanny is delivered with a smidgen of force, to which Amanda takes offense:



Adam: What are ya? Sore about a little slap?

Amanda: No.

Adam: Well, what then?

Amanda (outraged): You meant that, didn't you? You really meant that.

Adam: Why no, I ...

Amanda: Yes you did. I can tell. I know your type. I know a slap from a slug.

Adam: Well, OK. OK.

Amanda: I'm not so sure it is. I'm not so sure I care to expose myself to typical instinctive masculine brutality.

Adam: Oh, come now.

Amanda: And it felt not only as though you meant it, but as though you felt you had a right to. I can tell.

Adam: What've you got back there? Radar equipment? 



When the verdict is announced, the photographers for the newspapers (remember them?) want everyone to kiss and make up for the front pages -- the Attingers awkwardly acquiesce, but the Bonners? Not so much.

That night, Amanda is back at the apartment with her willing accomplice, next-door neighbor Kip Lurie (David Wayne), a songwriter in the Cole Porter mode (the song he writes, "Farewell, Amanda," was in fact written by Porter). Kip covets Amanda, and he's more than happy to console her while Adam isn't around.

But suddenly, Adam is around -- with a pistol:


Amanda: Adam. Listen to me.

Adam: Don't you handle me, lady. I'm not nutty. Not any more than the average. You said it yourself today. You said anyone is capable of attack if provoked. You bet, including me. Yes. (To Kip) Don't you move, young man. You stand as still as you can be.

Amanda: Now, Adam. Adam.

Adam: You said that before.

Amanda: You're sick. Please. What are you doing?

Adam: Teaching a lesson. Him first. Then comes yours. Get away, Amanda.

Amanda: Adam, stop.

Adam: Get away, Amanda!

Kip (intense, terrified): Don't do it, Amanda.

Amanda: Stop it! You've no right. You can't do what you're doing.

Adam: What?

Amanda: No one has a right to ... (realizes what she's saying)

Adam: That's all, sister. That's all I wanted to hear. Music to my tin ear. (Puts gun barrel in mouth as Amanda and Kip scream; Adam eats the barrel) Licorice. If there's anything I'm a sucker for, it's licorice.

Amanda (furious): I'll never forget this! Never!

Adam: Me neither. I'll never forget that no matter what you think you think ... you think the same as I think. That I have no right, that no one has a right to break the law! That your client had no right. That I'm right and you're wrong.

Then Amanda and Adam split up. The end.

Nah, just kidding.

But to indirectly prove Amanda's point -- that men and women are fundamentally equal -- Adam wins her back through a traditionally (at least in 1949) feminine method: by fake crying.

In the film's final scene, Amanda and Adam have made and they're heading to their house in Connecticut for the weekend -- but not before a final conversation that kind of serves as the movie's benediction for a fulfilling marriage.

Adam: Say!

Amanda: Speaking to me?

Adam: You were pretty good.

Amanda: When?

Adam: All the way through. Especially the summation. You had me.

Amanda: You weren't so bad yourself.

Adam: I didn't think so either. We got a big thing to talk about tomorrow.

Amanda: What?

Adam: They want me to run for that county court judgeship. The Republicans do. It's a sure seat, practically.

Amanda: Pinky!

Adam: Yeah, that's me. County Court Judge Pinky.

Amanda: I'm real proud of you.

Adam: I'd rather have you say that than anything.

Here's the trailer for "Adam's Rib":







Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pre-Code vs. Post-Code: "Grand Hotel" and "Week-End at the Waldorf"







Vicki Baum's 1929 novel (and play) "Grand Hotel" was purchased by MGM, and in 1932 the studio released a film version featuring all the big shots on the lot -- Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery, with Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt thrown in for good measure.


Then in 1945 came "Week-End at the Waldorf," also from MGM, also based on Baum's work, featuring all the big shots on the lot -- Walter Pidgeon, Lana Turner, Van Johnson, Edward Arnold and Keenan Wynn, with Ginger Rogers (in her first film for MGM), Robert Benchley and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra thrown in for good measure.

"Grand Hotel" takes place in Berlin just before the Nazis come to power, and that setting -- along with the fact that the world seems to be closing in on several of the characters -- gives the film an air of melancholy. In typical pre-code fashion, there are several adult relationships and a cynicism that, by contrast, is almost totally missing from "Week-End at the Waldorf." World War II informs the latter film, which is understandable because it was happening at the time, but everything is covered with that slick, impenetrable MGM sheen. While "Grand Hotel" ends with a sense of disquiet, there's never really any doubt that everyone and everything in "Week-End" exists solely to steer the film toward a multitude of happy endings.

To see how vivid the contrast can be, consider the character who acts as a kind of philosophical narrator in each film -- in "Grand Hotel" it is the doctor (Stone, seen at left), whose face was horribly disfigured by a grenade during World War I. The good doctor is morose, to say the least. He haunts the lobby and is given one of the film's most famous lines: "Grand Hotel. People coming, people going. Nothing ever happens." But he's also given lines that hint at his loneliness and emotional desolation, like "A man who is not with a woman -- is a dead man."

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," on the other hand, our narrator is Randy Morton, played by Benchley. He's a superficial, silly-ass Broadway columnist who spends the whole movie worrying when his precious pooch is going to pop out pups.

Most of the characters of "Grand Hotel" are as alienated as the doctor -- Garbo plays prima ballerina Grusinskaya, whose physical and emotional exhaustion is affecting her work and draining her of life. The Baron (John Barrymore) is all hat and no cattle -- a gentleman with an empty title who resorts to petty theft to keep up appearances. The unfortunately-named Flem (Crawford) is a plucky stenographer who isn't above selling herself to get ahead. Preysing (Beery) is a bullying, hypocritical industrialist trying to set up a shady merger to save his Teutonic tush. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a lowly clerk in one of Preysing's factories, visiting the hotel for a last fling before being felled by a terminal illness. And Senf the head porter (Hersholt) is anxious because his wife is having a difficult labor offscreen.

But the real tragedy at the heart of "Grand Hotel" lies in the doomed romance between the Baron and the ballerina. They've seen each other around the hotel -- everyone has seen the Baron -- but they've never spoken.

One night, while she is performing, he slips into her vacant room to lift a string of pearls. She enters unexpectedly and he starts a slick line of patter that soon turns sincere. They Hit It Off.

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," the ballerina has been turned into unhappy actress Irene Malvern (Rogers) and the Baron has become war correspondent Chip Collyer (Pidgeon). In one of the best touches in Bella and Sam Spewack's script, their romance parallels that of Garbo and Barrymore, but with a much lighter tone -- and with lines of dialogue that even reference "Grand Hotel," not to mention a couple other MGM movies.

Chip to Irene: "I'm the Baron, you're the ballerina and we're off to see the wizard!"

Irene to Chip: "Goodbye, Mr. Chip -- Collyer."

Ginger Rogers is starting to do that raised eyebrow thing that
would become much more common in her later movies.
Irene isn't nearly as depressed as the ballerina, and Chip is no thief, although he's mistaken for one at first. The give-and-take between the two characters is geared more to romantic comedy than high drama, but so what? Rogers is great at romantic comedy and Pidgeon more than meets her halfway. When they end up having to pretend to be married, we just go along for the ride.

In "Grand Hotel," the ballerina and the Baron spend the night together, and he tells her his simple and cynical story.

Baron: "When I was a little boy I was taught to ride and be a gentleman. Then at school, to pray and lie. And then in the war, to kill and hide. That's all."

That is not a speech you would hear in a movie released in 1945.

The Baron and ballerina share a room -- hell, they share a bed. Hell, they may even have shared more than that!

In "Week-End at the Waldorf," Chip spends the night in Irene's suite because the house dicks think he's a thief and he has to hide out. But you can bet your bottom dollar that they stay in separate rooms, mister! They even make a big deal out of piling furniture against both sides of the door. We get it, 1940s people!  

In other remake news, Lana Turner takes Crawford's role as the stenographer and Lionel Barrymore's character is played by -- Van Johnson? Yep. Turner is Bunny -- that's her name -- and Johnson is Hollis, an Air Force Captain who will soon undergo a dicey operation to remove a piece of shrapnel that's dangerously near his heart (!). Bunny dreams of a nice place on Park Avenue, while Hollis just wants to get well and go home to small-town California. Oh -- and he also is carrying a song, written by a dead war buddy, that he wants Xavier Cugat's orchestra to play. You can pretty much guess what happens there.

Bunny, meanwhile, is torn between Hollis and the shiny things dangled in front of her by Edley (Arnold), an unscrupulous entrepreneur. And Wynn is a cub reporter snooping on Edley's shady doings.

Nice interacting there. Baron.
In the 1932 film, the plot threads are much more intermingled than in the 1945 film. The Baron, in fact, pretty much interacts with every character in the movie, and he is the real heart of "Grand Hotel." His death at the end of the film is genuinely affecting, devastating the ballerina, who loved him, and Kringelein, the odd duck whom the Baron befriended while everyone else dismissed him. The last indication of the Baron is his beloved dachshund, left behind to be cared for by the staff.

There's also a dog in "Week-End at the Waldorf," as we mentioned, but it's just a symbol of silly rich people. That's just one of the many reasons why "Grand Hotel" seems to have more of a heart -- even if it's a sad heart -- than its remake, which is entertaining enough, even if it has a whole lot less on its mind.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The "Killer Is Loose" Guide to a Happy Marriage

Greetings, fellow married people and others. My name is
Detective Sam Wagner. My first name isn't "Detective," ha ha!
Anywho, I'm here to give you some excellent tips on how
to be hitched -- and happy! 


First, get yourself a smoking hot wife.
This is mine, so slow your roll.


My wife's name is Lila and she's a tiger in the kitchen and
a worker bee in the bedroom. Or maybe it's the other
way around -- I never can remember.   


Oh, little problems come up now and again. Like the
 time I accidentally killed Warby Parker's wife
and he swore revenge on me by targeting Lila. 


Warby Parker was in prison, but he was paroled for
good behavior and so he headed our way. 


Lila was in real danger, so I did what any considerate
husband would do. I hypnotized her. Ha ha! Just kidding.
I didn't tell her anything at all. 


She just thought she was being shadowed by Buddy Holly.


Lila didn't understand how great I was being by keeping her
completely in the dark about being stalked by an armed
psychotic. She got mad at me and walked out. 


Buddy -- I mean Warby -- saw his chance and moved in on
Lila, who was wearing an outfit designed to blend in.


Warby disguised himself as a stadium blanket.



Of course, we stopped him in a peaceful manner and
Lila is safe.


Her trust level, on the other hand, is something she
needs to work on.