Saturday, November 24, 2007

Keeping Composed

Top Ten films from Hollywood’s Great Era of Musical Biography Schmaltz: 1938 – 1958

I was a bit of an odd duck, as a child. Although no one in my family could read music, play an instrument or even carry a tune, I was crazy about all of those highly-fictionalized biopics about songwriters and composers that Hollywood produced for a couple of decades, roughly 1938 to 1958.

I vividly remember the final scene of that totally bogus biography of Cole Porter, “Night and Day,” when Alexis Smith – shoulders padded half a mile wide – tearfully returned to the arms of Cary Grant as he plunked away the title tune in his lonely room. I could hardly keep my own composure as the music swelled and my mother, sitting beside me in the darkened Tiger Theater in Carthage, Missouri, broke into audible sobs. She loved ‘em too.

I was 12 years old. And although there is very little historical accuracy in the following list of tear-jerkers, they served a very real purpose: introducing wee nibbins such as I, at least the ones from culture-challenged families, to the enjoyment of music both popular and classical.

To attempt to list these mostly-splashy, mostly-technicolor old war horses in any manner except by pure personal preference is folly. And I only make the attempt because, well, it’s simply great fun to make lists – especially of movies – and in my wanderings through cyberspace I haven’t come across such a list before.

Note: There have been a few notable composer biopics released beyond the Ungilded Age of Musical Cinematic Schmaltz – most notably the classy “Amadaeus” in 1984 and “Topsy-Turvy” in 1999 along with the awful “De-Lovely” in 2004 – but they are few in number and sorely lacking in good old fashioned scenery-chewing melodrama.

1. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) Now, George Gershwin’s music, I could understand. Alan Alda reached his peak playing G.G., and I was so impressed I actually went out and bought my first record – a vinyl version of George playing his own Rhapsody. Alexis Smith, again with the padded shoulders, appears along with Joan Leslie (with whom I fell madly and boyishly in love). Making personal appearances are Oscar Levant, George White, and Al Jolson. Gershwin’s mother is played by Rosemary DeCamp. (Little was I to know that 8 years later I’d win the Rosemary DeCamp Playwriting Award.) So for all those logical and illogical reasons, I’ve got to rate R.I.B. as my very favorite musical biography.

2. Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Clifton Webb is perfectly cast as John Philip Sousa in this big, bright cheerful musical that refrains from over-dramatizing his life. Just as stirring and watchable, with Ruth Hussey playing his wife, as it was 50 years ago.

3. Night and Day (1946) Except for his great, great music, this film has almost nothing to do with Cole Porter’s real life. But Cary Grant miraculously carries it off, with Monty Woolley aboard right from the first Boola-Boola. Michael Curtiz, who seems to have directed about half the movies on this list, directed. Who cares about all the tawdry little realities that clutter up a good story? I can watch this film again and again, knowing it’s purity bolognus, and enjoy it to the hilt. That’s what great music’ll do for ya.

4. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Jimmy Cagney sings and dances so fantastically in this movie that you almost forget that George M. Cohan was a great and patriotic American composer. This iconic film is #100 on the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. Who can argue?

5. Words and Music (1948) Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake play Rodgers and Hart. Great music, great cast including Judy Garland (yes, of course she sings a duet with Mickey) Sinatra, Horne, Kelly, Torme, and on and on. Completely ignores Hart’s bisexuality – such things were verboten in movies back then – so Mick is portrayed to be mostly just manic. Some fiction, some fact, but some movie!

6. The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953) Robert Morley and Maurice Evans are equally fantastic as the kings of operetta. Excerpts from a number of their classics fill the screen, so it’s enjoyable on every level.

7. St. Louis Blues (1958) Nat “King” Cole plays W.C. Handy in this elegantly restrained biography that includes performances by most of the popular African-American stars of the era. Seen are Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Mahilia Jackson and Pearl Bailey. Surprising performance by Cole who had always seemed, when he wasn’t singing, kind of stiff. Nice job here.

8. Three Little Words (1950) An unlikely pairing of Fred Astaire and Red Skelton playing the Tin Pan Alley duet of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. These guys wrote a bundle of pop hits in the 20’s and 30’s, and the story is lots of fun. Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl are the wives, with appearances by Keenan Wynn, Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds, among others.

9. Deep in My Heart (1954) Ahh, the operettas of Sigmund Romberg – Student Price, Desert Song, all that good stuff! And with Jose Ferrer playing Siggy, everything stays on track.

10 Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) Admittedly an awful adaptation of Jerome Kern’s life, but he’s one of my favorite composers. Robert Walker does what he can with it; on the other hand it’s got a boffo cast and great songs from his Broadway shows. Cameos by a dozen MGM stars is enough to help one ignore the hammy acting.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Ten Best Films of 2006

The Top Ten Films of 2006

1. Little Miss Sunshine
2. Happy Feet
3. Sherrybaby
4. Half Nelson
5. An Inconvenient Truth
6. The Departed
7. Notes on a Scandal
8. Bobby
9. For Your Consideration
10. Bubble

Oscar Predictions: 2007

Actor, Leading: Forest Whitaker, “Last King of Scotland”
Actor, Supporting: Eddie Murphy, “Dreamgirls”
Actress, Leading: Helen Mirren, “The Queen”
Actress, Supporting: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”
Animated Feature: “Cars”
Art Direction: “Dreamgirls”
Cinematography: “Children of Men”
Costume Design: “Marie Antoinette”
Director: Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”
Documentary Feature: “An Inconvenient Truth”
Documentary Short: “Two Hands”
Film Editing: “The Departed”
Foreign Language Film: “Pan’s Labyrinth”
Makeup: “Pan’s Labyrinth”
Original Score: “The Queen”
Original Song: “Listen” from “Dreamgirls”
Best Picture: “The Departed”
Short Film, Animated: “The Little Matchgirl”
Short Film, Live Action: “West Bank Story”
Sound Editing: “Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Mans Chest”
Sound Mixing: “Dreamgirls”
Visual Effects:“Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Mans Chest”
Screenplay, Adapted: “The Departed”
Screenplay, Original: “Little Miss Sunshine”

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Let's watch a war movie, Grandpa

I was a wide-eyed seven year old when World War II broke out, and like most other American children, became a perfect candidate for Hollywood’s beginning flood of propaganda films. We couldn’t actually fight the enemies of our land, but we could help Mom hoe the Victory garden, collect scrap metal, buy War Stamps with our allowances, and vicariously join the war effort at the movies.

Before I turned eight, I had helped John Wayne rescue the friendly, valiant (and always polite) citizens of China from the evil clutches of Japan in “Flying Tigers,” had invaded the Pacific from “Bataan” and “Wake Island” to “Guadalcanal Diary,” tanked across North Africa beside Bogart himself in “Sahara,” and held my breath while Cary Grant cruised, unseen and underwater, into the very mouth of the enemy in “Destination Tokyo.”

The flood of propaganda slowed to a trickle after the war ended, and while a steadily growing doubt crept into my political consciousness, calming my boyish patriotic fervor over the years, my zest for films about warfare never abated.

No one could possibly have seen them all, but I tried, and have continued to reach that unreachable goal. Just last week, for instance, I saw a perfectly dreadful 1943 slapstick comedy starring Alan Mowbray entitled “The Devil with Hitler.” Only my dedication to the cause kept me tuned to Turner Classic Movies for all 53 minutes.

Luckily, the broad genre of warfare films has widened, and some true classics have been made over the years – some of them only peripherally about warfare, of course, and of course not all made by the American film industry.

Two of my grandsons, Jake (age 15) and Matty (10), have become enamored of cinematic warfare of late, and actually asked me for a list of good ones to see. And while I relished the request, the list I sent them was lengthy indeed. Moreover, it didn’t include the films I thought of as the “Best” war films – just those movies I felt would be most appropriate for sub-adult viewers: light on the harsh language and heavy on the action.

And so now, as more of an exercise in self-indulgence than an aid to youthful fans, I have put together my own list of the Best War Movies – ones that I feel convey a more thoughtful message, ones that will last, ones that I will watch again. In order of personal preference, they are:

1. A Walk in the Sun. This great little mostly-forgotten film starring Dana Andrews and a gaggle of character actors circa 1945 puts warfare into a nutshell. It’s carefully based on Harry Brown’s slim and powerful novel by the same name, and enhanced by Woodie Guthrie singing Millard Lampell’s rousing theme song.
2. Casablanca
3. Lawrence of Arabia
4. Band of Brothers
5. Gettysburg
6. Battleground
7. Glory
8. Saving Private Ryan
9. Das Boot
10. The Bridge on the River Kwai
11. Sahara (1943)
12. Apocalypse Now
13. From Here to Eternity
14. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968 version)
15. Paths of Glory
16. Zulu
17. Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande (Ford’s Indian Wars trilogy)
18. Patton
19. The Longest Day
20. Spartacus
21. The Deer Hunter
22. Memphis Belle
23. Gunga Din
24. Destination Tokyo
25. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Greatest Ten Zillion Movie (and TV) Lines Ever Written

Yes, comedy is hard. Hard to write, hard to time, hard to act and almost impossible for a director. And what’s more, it’s fleeting. Most humorous scenes or lines have the lifespan of a gnat in the public memory.

Occasionally, however, comic lightning strikes, and a memorable line will push your buttons so squarely you’ll be able to recall it years later, and smile in remembrance of when and where you first encountered it.

I hereby submit a few of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard (along with a brief description of the setting – for the best humor arises from situation), and invite you to add your own favorites.

1. My absolute favorite line actually comes from television. It was in an old “Odd Couple” episode, when Felix had to come up with a substitute band for some gala affair. After searching frantically, he was talking on the phone with Oscar, and exclaimed, “Ma Gump won’t work on Gabby Hayes’ birthday!” I literally fell off my chair the first time I heard that line.
2. One could fill a whole article with the humorous lines from Mel Brooks’ classic “Young Frankenstein,” but the one I liked best was when Cloris Leachman, as Frau Bleucher, admitted her relationship with the old Dr. Frankenstein by shouting dramatically, “He vas my boyfriend!” Followed by a horse whinnying.
3. Who can forget the great line from “When Harry Meets Sally?” After Meg Ryan demonstrates her ability to fake an orgasm in a deli, a sweet little old lady (who was actually portrayed by director Ron Howard’s mom) tells her waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
4. Remember the very last line of “Some Like it Hot?” When learning that his intended was a boy instead of a girl, he shrugged and said, “Well, nobody's perfect!”

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Who would YOU cast in "Jaws"?

After the release of Steven Spielberg’s masterwork “Jaws” in 1975, Hollywood made a gaggle of crappy sequels (each worse than the last) as it normally does for successful films. It’s time to go back to the beginning and do a remake of this great flick the right way – and win yourself a movie theater gift certificate along the way.

Actually, it’s been several years since we’ve come up with another entry in our popular film buff contest, so please sharpen your wit, wisdom, and movie imagination, and step into the leather boots of an all-powerful Hollywood Casting Director to enter:

The Fifth Annual Carly-at-the-Movies Recasting the Classics Contest

The prizes:

First prize: A $20 gift certificate to the movie theater of your choice (either ANY Regal cinema in America, the Dixie Theater, or the brand new Visulite in Staunton, VA.)
Second prize: A $10 gift certificate to one of the theaters
Third prize: A $5 gift certificate to one of the theaters
The Rules:
You are the Casting Director for a remake of the classic Steven Spielberg film, “Jaws.” For each of the 9 roles listed below, you have the power to cast ANY actor, living or dead, real or imaginary, human or animal.
Be sure to include your name and email address with each entry. And yes, you CAN enter more than once! Just make sure each entry contains nine cast members.
Email your cast list(s) to me at: by midnight, April 14, 2006. Then you can just sit back and wait to rake in one of the semi-grand prizes, plus the adulation of all our readers. And even more thrilling, you’ll see your cast featured in our April 17th edition of “Carly at the Movies.”
Everyone on planet earth is eligible to enter, with the obvious exception of our distinguished panel of judges which includes: Me, my wife, the ghost of Cecil B. DeMille, and Al, the guy across the street from me.
The Cast:
Here’s the list of characters you are to cast for the remake, along with a brief description and the actor who originally played the role.
1. Martin Brody, Police Chief. Played by lanky leading man Roy Scheider in the original.
2. Quint, the professional shark hunter. Robert Shaw was great in this role, especially his grim monologue about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
3. Matt Hooper, the cocky little marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss.
4. Ellen Brody, the wife of the police chief, played by Lorraine Gary.
5. Larry Vaughn, the slick and slimy Mayor of Amity Island, done to perfection by Murray Hamilton.
6. “Bruce,” the big mechanical shark himself.
For cast members 7., 8., and 9., we offer a special treat. Pick your three least-favorite (or most appropriate) actors for three of Bruce’s victims. 7. will of course be someone to play the pretty gal who takes a dip at the beginning of the film and gets et, 8. is a teenage or child actor to appear as the little kid who also shows up on the shark buffet (his mom slaps Sheriff Brody), and 9. would be one of the greedy fishermen trying to snag Bruce with a roast beef on a meat hook.

The name and cast list of the winning entries will appear in this column on April 17, and the winners will be notified. Nothing to buy, no gimmicks. The whole thing is just a low-key fun contest for movie fans.

Enter as many cast lists as you please – we hope to get so many entries that, well, we’ll need a bigger boat.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Day My Wife Became a Football Fan

Don’t believe in payback, eh?

Well, my darlings, like they say: be careful what you wish for, because there’s a price tag on everything.

Like every other virile young married man, my fondest wish was always that my wife enjoy the same things I enjoyed. You know, the Togetherness Syndrome. She loved movies, which was great, but didn’t much care about either beer or football. So, through the first couple of decades of our marriage, I followed football accompanied only by my growing tribe of ugly little children, while my wife occasionally wandered through the living room when an exciting game was on the tube, only to shake her head in sadness over our moronic devotion to a bunch of big apes running around knocking each other down.

But, as the Fundamentalist Rightwing Conservative Republican Religious Fanatics constantly assure us, miracles do happen. Indeed, they do. Because sometime between the day we moved to Pittsburgh in 2003 and the dawning of 2006, my wife became a football fan.

Like all well-bred, reasonable, highly-intelligent humans, she fell in love with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (I will not belabor the reasons for this. They are self-evident.)

My wife began to recognize which player was which from their photos. She began asking questions about the game itself. Like all women with so much as a beating pulse, she lusted after Troy Polamalu. And when the 2005 season began, she started actually cheering for the team and talking about them and most-importantly watching the games with me.

She was succumbing to a general malaise that runs rampant amongst the surrounding hills, one known as Steeleritis. She began to wear Steeler paraphernalia and came to the realization (as did all of America, after the Football Writers Association voted him Mr. Nice Guy) that, along with Mother Theresa and the Social Security Administration, Jerome Bettis is on the brink of canonization.

“The man is a God,” she solemnly intoned, “and Hines Ward is his Moses, leading his Chosen People to the Promised Land, across the desert, to the shores of the Red Zone.” Her words seem to have been somewhat prophetic, considering the outcome of the apocalyptic Super Bowl XL, known hereabouts as “The Rapture.”

Could I possibly ask for a wife more wonderful?

Here it comes, dear reader, the other shoe dropeth.

When the Winter Olympics came along, my wife casually mentioned that it might be fun to “watch some of it.” Such nonsense generally leaves me cold, but I nodded in pleasant agreement. After all, this most perfect of all women, sent down to me as a reward for an exemplary life, had become the girl that all male football fans (and probably some female ones as well) dream of marrying. For her wholehearted embrace of my own passion, I owed her big time. No big deal.

And. Then. For. Seventeen. Agonizing. Days. We. Watched. The. Winter. Olympics.

Poor idiot-boy that I am, I thought perhaps I could live with it for four hours a night, during prime time.

But it was being telecast a lot more than that. On NBC. And CNBC. And USA. And some other toady little network, obviously also owned by Satan himself.

So we did nothing else. We neither ate nor slept. We sat, fixated, while princesses (some actually wearing tiaras!) and princes as well, pranced about on ice and snow like a demon pack of precious little Tinkerbell fairies.

In my dreams, during those few scattered moments that I dozed off in front of the relentless tube, grown men rode sleds down mountains pretending it was serious stuff – sometimes even on top of one another – and warlocks with brooms swept frantically at perfectly-clean ice while huge rocks drifted willy-nilly. Curling, they called it. It curled my toes.

I could not get away from it. People with unpronounceable names, each following the last, skied and tumbled and snowboarded and jumped in identical patterns like a pointless short film on a loop playing over and over and being carefully timed down to the zillisecond.

The only fun was on those rare occasions when someone either crashed through a fence or plopped unceremoniously on their butt. I always woke up for the instant replay.

You may be suspecting that I am not a big fan of outdoor winter sports. Anyone with more than a dozen brain cells is indoors watching television while snow snows, temperatures drop, icebergs form, winds whistle, and blizzards bliz. There are only two legitimate reasons for being out of doors during the winter: either you do not have indoor plumbing, or you are delivering pizza.

The Winter Olympics went on and on and on, my wife’s enthusiasm and love for the most ghastly events of all – the figure skating crap – never flagging. Through endless hours of triumph and heartbreak, of women wearing dinky little dresses (but also clad in little-girl bodies that would quicken the pulse of pedophiles only), we sat while they swished and twirled and spun without end, interrupted only by flouncy pair-skating couples reenacting vague mini-dramas about as subtle as characters in a Japanese Kabuki play.

My wife loved every moment of it.

While I, as puzzled and woozy as a White House Reporter after a Bush press conference, longed only for the final Gold Donut to be awarded to the final foreigner-with-an-unpronounceable-name. And when that came, the God of Revenge had one more cruel trick to play on me.

All the ice skating was done.

Except, of course, for the Figure Skating Champions GALA. (Which must stand for Gawd-Awful-Long Act)

I felt like the guy who had rowed a paper raft across Hell, only to hear someone yell, “One more time!”

In this world, some people win the lottery and some people get runned over by a beer truck. There’s no logic, there’s no justice, there’s no rules – except for payback.

For seventeen days, I staggered across a Sahara of Hurt, all because of my love for my darling wife, and in appreciation for her devotion to football.

Clearly, a man such as I should ascend directly into Heaven without having to go through the inconvenience of dying.

My only regret is that, alas, I can never reclaim those seventeen days.

24,480 endless minutes.

Enough time to watch, from opening kickoff to final whistle, the next 136 Steeler victories.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Hollywood Obits

On June 10, 1971, I realized I was going to die.

We all make that realization eventually, of course, but I had managed to live into my mid-thirties without really thinking much about it; embracing that often-cited childhood conceit that I was immortal. But that day it all changed, and I remember it quite clearly.

I was living in Manhattan and on my way to work when I saw the article in the New York Post. Michael Rennie, one of my favorite actors had passed away. I had followed his career casually for twenty years, dating back to The Day the Earth Stood Still, a film I still count among the very best science fiction flicks ever made.

And although I never knew him personally, I felt a sudden sense of shock, of loss – a feeling that, somehow, the world had diminished in a way I’d never expected it to. His films remained, and in that way he was frozen in time and I could enjoy his work again and again.

Since then I’ve relived that experience with other actors quite a few times, and always, as with the passing of my close friends and relatives, comes the sense of loss, of a whole world slipping farther and farther into the hands of the bland and talent-challenged. Gradually, bit by bit, little pieces of my own past seemed to be chipping off. Jack Soo died in 1979. William Holden in 1981. This list goes on.

I am adding this to my blog simply because that old feeling came home to roost once again recently, with the death of Pat Morita, and I am sure other film aficionados must have had a similar experience.

I want you to know you are not alone.