Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The music man, the music man, how I love the music man.

At a hefty 151 minutes long, this film could have continued for another 2 hours and I'd still want more. I don't think I can say the same for any other film, let alone any other musical. I'm not a big fan of the musical. I enjoy the classics--Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Sound of Music (1965)--and the edgier ones that came along later--Cabaret (1972), Victor/Victoria (1982)--but most of the time I avoid them. There's only so much musical sugary one can stomach in a lifetime (of course, anything with Judy Garland is an exception). Having said all of this, The Music Man (1962) has got to be one of the most delightfully enjoyable movie experiences I've ever, well, experienced.

Composer Meredith Willson started his career as a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and eventually landed in radio working on the Burns & Allen and Jack Benny programs. He also received awards for scoring Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and the Bette Davis tour de force The Little Foxes (1941). Incredibly, The Music Man was his first Broadway musical, and he was well into his 50's by that time. My biggest problem with musicals is, appropriately, the music. There are usually a few great numbers, but very rarely is every song a catchy hit that I find myself humming for the next week or so. And more often than not, the love songs leave much to be desired. The drawn out high notes leave me cringing, and the rest leave me drifting off to sleep. Willson's score, however, contains hit after hit after hit. After hit.

I know some people would have preferred Barbara Cook in the role of Marian, who first portrayed the character on Broadway in 1957, but Shirley Jones is fantastic in this role, and her chemistry with Robert Preston is perfection. Speaking of Preston, can I just say thank God plans with Frank Sinatra and then Cary Grant fell through? As much as I love these fellas I can't imagine anyone else but Preston giving the right amount of sneaky panache or flamboyant trickery to Professor Harold Hill.

There are some excellent supporting roles in this film, including an 8 year old Ron Howard (credited as Ronny) and the Buffalo Bills, arguably the best barber shop quartet, then and now. Above is a video of my favorite musical number, "Marian the Librarian". Unfortunately there isn't enough detail to capture Jones's comedic expressions, or even clearly notice the brilliant flick of the wrist that sends her spectacles flying, but hopefully you get the picture. And if you've seen the film you already know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, I hope you enjoy this little theatrical gem and that it inspires you to seek out the film. Honestly, you will be laughing and grinning for over 2 hours.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lewton's Leopard Man!

Someone actually titled this film The Leopard Man. From what I know of classic Hollywood, the decision was probably made by a cigar-chewing bigwig with no experience actually making films, and plenty of experience making money. He might have said, leaning back in his plush chair, feet up on the desk, "Hey! 'The Leopard Man.' That's a much better title than 'Black Alibi'." And he was right. How can you resist with a title like that? Furthermore, when you realize it was directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, well you're even more helpless at this point. This is a terrible film, let's be clear about that from the start. But the title sort of indicates that on its own. It's not trying to hide anything. I've read several reviews of this film, mostly by Lewton fanatics who insist on its greatness. I can't help but shake my head, try as I might to follow their pleeing logic. There's absolutely nothing to analyze or critique, or get into a heated, in depth discussion about. It's pure, silly, dated entertainment. And as long as there's someone to laugh with you, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Noir City no. 6 (aka Eddie Muller bought me a drink)

"Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye." Angela Vickers

Noir City ended last night with George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951). What a beautifully tragic note to end on. As Eddie Muller said beforehand, here are the screen's two most gorgeous people, tormented and suffering and making you depressed. Oh, but those close-ups are worth it. "Tell mama. Tell mama all." 

For me, however, the night didn't end so drastically. I never wanted to blog about personal thoughts or experiences. I wanted this to be strictly a film blog, and I've always been conscious of never crossing that line. However, last night was so special and unexpected, and very closely tied to film and the noir festival in particular that I just have to make an exception. 

As I was getting my ticket outside the theater, dressed in my finest, complete with a black, 1940's hat with veil, and red heels reminiscent of the Victorian Era, I passed by the Czar of Noir himself, Mr. Eddie Muller. We both smiled and he seemed to nod in approval and acknowledgment at my dedication to the evening. The exchange was so quick and brief I didn't have time to thank him for all he has done for classic film. But it quickly dawned on me that that might be a possibility. After all, after attending Noir City for three years now and never running into him once, passing by him now at the start of the evening made another meeting seem not so farfetched. It even seemed to be in the air.

With this hope, my friend Wayde, dressed just as snazzy as I was, and I made our way up to the lounge during intermission. Lo and behold, there was Mr. Muller, who I had never seen in the lounge before. We huddled nearby, waiting for his conversation with another film lover to end. We caught him just as he was on his way back to the stage, and I was able to shake his hand and say thank you. It was rushed, but he listened, and all I wanted to do was say a quick "thanks" anyway. We went back to our seats; I was completely satisfied and expected nothing more of the evening. 

A Place in the Sun was gorgeous and touching and sad, and I wasn't ready for the night to end just yet. So Wayde and I went to a nearby bar and were welcomed by a beautiful interior with a 1940's vibe, and the Andrews Sisters singing "Rum and Coca-Cola" over the speakers. It was perfect, and there were several other fedora wearing customers eager to talk about film once they noticed our attire. One of them joined our table, and not ten minutes later who but Mr. Muller himself came over to us and bought our next drinks. 

He settled down at his own table, directly behind me. We were practically sitting side by side looking in opposite directions, and I had to fight to keep my focus on the rather chatty fellow who had joined Wayde and I. It was quite difficult when I could easily overhear the table behind me discussing Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Raymond Chandler. How close I was to discussing film with Eddie Muller! But I didn't feel right intruding on his party, even if he did buy me a drink. 

It started getting late and Wayde (also my ride home) needed to leave. I was torn. If I wanted to join the party behind me it was now or never. There had already been a quick exchange about this. I admitted I was having trouble ignoring the conversation behind me, and Mr. Muller, who could obviously hear me, suggested I join them. The door was open. After some persistent begging, Wayde (ever the patient and amiable friend) relented and gave me a bit more time-- thank you Wayde! The other fellow at our table and I turned our chairs and were right between Mr. Muller and "The Voice" (sadly, I can't remember his name, but his voice was instantly recognizable). They were discussing the whereabouts of Dashiell Hammett's typewriter. The one, I assume, on which he wrote "The Maltese Falcon". Apparently "The Voice" had actually lived in Hammett's San Francisco apartment at one point, and they were now working to restore it. Perhaps as a literary landmark, I'm not sure. 

Mostly I just listened and enjoyed this moment, hearing these film gurus go through tunnels and down alleyways I hadn't the knowledge or connections to even know existed. There was once a lapse in conversation, and I unashamedly (come on, this was my chance!) asked Mr. Muller what his favorite film noir was. I know he's been asked this question to death, but I wasn't about to pretend originality. I just wanted to know. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "In a Lonely Place". I felt myself smile with approval. I'm not sure if he noticed or not. Wayde and I got up to leave soon after and I thanked Mr. Muller again for the drink. We shook hands, and he said to me, with pure sincerity, "Charmed".

I couldn't have asked for a better finale.

Noir City no. 5: Gloria Grahame

Or, as Noir City called Saturday night's theme, "The Magnificent Gloria Grahame". Lucky enough for this year's noir audience, this was a last minute tribute thrown together when Harry Belafonte pulled out of attending the Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) screening. I assume, then, that this was supposed to be a tribute to Belafonte instead. Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful performer and hardly difficult to look at, but he's not a noir actor. I can't even think of a film they could have appropriately paired with Odds. Grahame, on the other hand, fits the movement (because noir is much more than a genre) like a glove. Her strong-willed floozies with that hint of neglect and sadness behind the eyes are second to none. When it comes to the noir dame, Gloria Grahame is it. (With Ida Lupino, of course, right behind her. As David Thomson said, "If only she [Lupino] and Gloria Grahame could have played wicked sisters".)

As a Grahame tribute this double bill was a bit disappointing. Eddie Muller himself admitted that a Gloria Grahame tribute should never be an afterthought, or something you simply fall back on. Unfortunately, this was the case, and she was hardly done justice with Odds Against Tomorrow concluding the evening. She has no more than two short scenes in this film, and she's so good that you feel jilted for not getting more. Her opening line, while peeking curiously through a neighbor's door, was something along the lines of, "What's going on in here? An orgy?" And this was 1959.

Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954), however, was a perfect showcase for Grahame's talent and magnetism. The print was beautiful, Glenn Ford was his usual great self, and Broderick Crawford gave a spark to Carl Buckley that was missing from La Bête Humaine (1938). If only they had paired this with The Big Heat (1953), another Lang-Ford-Grahame collaboration, or In a Lonely Place (1950), the evening would have been pure bliss.

Noir City no. 4: The B's

Nobody did B movies like noir did. They're almost their own industry and genre. They spawned fabulous posters that unashamedly exploited the exclamation point, and ran a quick 60 minutes or less that allowed no time for wandering or soul searching. You know it's a B movie when the plot and the title are one in the same. These are the good guys, these are the bad guys, and this is the dame who everyone wants. Pure and simple, and pure entertainment.

Noir City no. 3: Richard Widmark

Widmark's night started with the rare 1949 film, Slattery's Hurricane. Along with Road House (1948), this film seemed to cement Widmark's future as a psycho jerk ready to explode at any moment. While not so much the lunatic he played in Road House (no trademark maniacal laughter this time around.....although I do recall some drunken singing that came close) Widmark's Will Slattery is a first-rate douche-bag. Although practically engaged to Dolores Grieves (Veronica Lake), he blatantly flirts with the wife of his best friend, Aggie Hobson (Linda Darnell), while the two couples are having dinner. Apparently, unbeknown to their partners, Aggie and Will have quite a history together. You can imagine where it goes from here. Darnell was a bit flat in this role, though she wasn't given much to work with. Widmark was his usual magnetic self, and handled the overdone narration as best he could. But it was Ms. Lake who really shined in this film. A bit older, a bit wiser, and without her signature bob, she gives a wonderfully subtle and stirring performance. She never gives in to the sentimental whims so many other actresses would have exploited to the max, but she's also not afraid to be completely vulnerable. In fact, director Andre De Toth, also Lake's husband, used this role as sort of a therapy session, forcing Lake to confront issues that were present in her own life. The result is a very beautiful and touching portrayal.

Any tribute to Richard Widmark, even if it's limited to two films like this one was, is not a genuine tribute unless it includes his 1953 classic, Pickup on South Street. By this time Widmark had mastered the hard-edged prick so well you couldn't help but wonder about his real character. Thelma Ritter gives a performance of a lifetime as Moe the informer, and I seriously doubt the tart from the wrong side of the tracks has ever been played as great as Jean Peters plays it here. The cinematography is gorgeous, the dialogue is sharp, and after another 50+ years I doubt it will have lost any of its
appeal. This was definitely one of the highlights of the festival.

Noir City no. 2: John Garfield

An excellent tribute to John Garfield saw the pairing of two of his top roles: the lustful Frank Chambers of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and the instantly doomed Nick Robey of He Ran All the Way (1951).