Thursday, January 23, 2020

a fan's notes

A trio of observations, pronouncements, insights or whatever...
First up... "A Face in the Crowd," the compulsively biting character study from 1957 by scenarist Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, was impressively prescient in its improbable, hugely disturbing national prognosis. In retrospect, it remains exactly the same. Except in one area.

Ostensibly, the film's chief (and only real) focus had always been its lead character, Lonesome Rhodes, given a lustful reading here by a riveting Andy Griffith, a performance driven by Lonesome's  narcissistic, power-driven appropriation of the country. But, arguably, more unsettling is the "journey" of Patricia Neal's Marcia Jeffries, created by the collaborating auteurs.

Initially a small-town journalist who works for her uncle's modest media outlet in Pickett, Arkansas, she produces a popular, raggy radio show titled "A Face in the Crowd" that exploits Lonesome's conservative radicalism and, by extension, celebrates Marcia as his most enthusiastic benefactor/enabler. 

At the outset, oblivious to his danger, Marcia wears a little straw hat (photo above) and brandishes a tiny, hand-held tape recorder. She's rather quaint. Towards the end of the film, her transformation/makeover into a Martini-sipping sophisticate who hangs out in dark bars is complete (photo below).

And the process doesn't take very long.

Punctuation Police...  For close to 30 years, I've engaged in a running battle with copy editors about the absence of an apostrophe in the title of D. A. Pennebaker's 1965-67 Bob Dylan documentary. It's "Dont Look Back," not "Don't Look Back." Editors have invariably added the apostrophe.
As explined on Wikipedia, "The original title of this film is Dont Look Back, without an apostrophe in the first word. D. A. Pennebaker, the film's writer director, decided to punctuate the title this way because 'It was my attempt to simplify the language.'"

Despite the DVD's title, Dylan never never recorded a song titled "Dont Look Back," per reader Bill Wolf in his response below.

In the commentary track to the DVD release, Pennebaker said that the title came from the Satchel Paige quote, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you," and that Dylan shared this view.

That voice!: And it's rarely noted, but director Morton Da Costa provided the voice of Edwin Dennis reading his last Will and Testament during the opening moments of Da Costa's film of "Auntie Mame."

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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 (from top)

 ~Still shots of Patricia Neal in "A Face in the Crowd"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1957©

 ~D. A. Pennebaker
 ~photography: Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. 1965-67©

 ~Morton DaCosta 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

Monday, January 20, 2020

cinema obscura: J. Lee Thompson's "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!" (1965)

No one would ever mistake J. Lee Thompson's "John Goldfarb, Please Come One" for a good movie.

Aside from being director Thompson's second back-to-back collaboration with star Shirley MacLaine in 1965, its only real claim to fame during its brief life in theaters during the spring of  '65, was that Notre Dame University threatened Twentieth Century-Fox with a lawsuit for defaming both the school's name and its football players (as buffoons, no less).

"John Goldfarb, Please Come One" is a mess but it's an eccentric mess. It's certainly better (just barely) than the previous Thompson-MacLaine pairing - "What a Way to Go!," a bloated, conventional pseudo-musical dud and shameless vanity production for MacLaine from the year before.

But you have to love a D-level film like "Goldfarb" that conjurs up a buffoonish CIA Chief, names him Heinous Overreach and casts the great Fred Clark in the role.

The plot, concocted by no less than William Peter Blatty, involves a dim-witted U-2 pilot for the USAF, nicknamed Wrong Way Goldfarb, played by Richard Crenna (in his first major film role following decades on television). While en route to the USSR on a spy mission, former Notre Dame football star Wrong Way Goldfarb crashes in a mythical Arabian country called Fawzia. He is apprehended and held captive by King Fawz (Peter Ustinov), who happens to be a football-obsessed tyrant and who wants Goldfarb to organize a local team for him.

MacLaine plays a mouthy reporter for Strife magazine who happens to be on assignment in Fawzia and unwittingly ends up in Fawz' harem and in Wrong Way's arms.

Aside from Clark, the supporting cast consists of such ace character actors as Jim Backus, Harry Mogan, Richard Deacon, Scott Brady, David Lewis, Jackie Coogan, Chalres Lane, Leon Askin, Jerome Cowan, Milton Frome and the great Wilfred Hyde-White. And keep an eye out for a young Jerry Orbach.

Yes, the film is awful, but this cast is compulsively watchable.

MacLaine, meanwhile, plays her character as a fractured cross between an over-aged cheerleader and an over-heated harem contestant.

By the way, Blatty and MacLaine worked together in the 1960s and, when he wrote "The Exorcist," Blatty modeled the character of Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn in the film) after MacLaine, a dubious tribute of sorts. Bottom Line: This film was made for Frank Tashlin to direct. Period.
Note in Passing: Oh, yes, John Williams' score for the film, never recorded, was released belatedly in 2007 in a limited-edition CD. Shirley MacLaine, ever the good sport, honks out the cacophonous title song.

Blatty also attempted to adapt "Goldfarb" into a musical comedy back in 2007, with music and lyrics by Michael Garin, Robert Hipkens, and Erik Frandsen, choreography by Jennifer Schmermund and Anahid Sofian, and direction by Jeffrey Lewonczyk. It was staged for four performances only in August of that year at The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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 (from top)

 ~Poster art for "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965© 

~Publicity shot of Fred Clark in "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home" 
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965© 

~Two still shots of Shirley MacLaine in "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965©

Saturday, January 04, 2020


Something different. A "cinema obscura" entry that's a true original - a modern screen comedy that compels one to continue smiling in retrospect, days after its closing credits have expired. Not surprisingly, the movie itself - shot and released back in 2011 - is largely, sadly forgotten now.

Cinema obscura - the price paid for being ... different.

The film is Jim Field Smith's "Butter" and, in terms of its "style" - which is blissfully scattershot, anarchic and irreverent - one would have to wander back to 1980 and to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's ”Used Cars” in a bedazzled state to locate a screen comedy this delightfully addelpated.

Smith, a British name new to me, made only one feature prior to "Butter" (the Jay Baruchel 2010 comedy, "She's Out of My League") and seemingly has worked in TV exclusively ever since. So, until I have the opportunity to experience any of his future work, I'll binge on "Butter" indulgently.

Its plot, solipsistic to the extreme, centers on a butter-sculpting event in suburban Johnson County, Iowa whose piddling four contestants are soon reduced to two - Laura Pickler, an ambitious, uptight conservative who sees her win as a rare political opportunity, and Destiny (just Destiny), a foster-care child looking for a forever home. On paper, it sounds like the stuff of an arch Hallmark/Lifetime movie or, at the very least, a spoof.

But Smith is ruthless, playing it for dark, wicked laughs and buoyed by a game cast driven by Jennifer Garner as the twitchy, shameless Laura.

Garner has carved out a curious niche for herself, excelling as compulsive, type-A, genuinely frighteningly women (see HBO's "Camping") who double down and dig in, eschewing any hint of weakness. Somehow, she manages to make her scary machinations downright hilarious. Garner is an original.

Ty Burrell plays Laura's husband Bob, also a butter artist who has won awards for his specialty, namely religious-right sculptures based on The Last Supper and The Passion of the Christ, among others. He's also been lauded for his carving of a Newt Gingrich likeness. You get the picture.

Laura has talent but she's no match for Destiny, played here by the preternaturally gifted child actress Yara Shahidi, who was 9 at the time of filming and is now a grown 19. Destiny has true vision, and there's some warm, lighthearted chemistry between Shahidi and  the very good Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry, who play Destiny's latest foster parents and who are, of course, the polar opposites of the hypocritical Picklers.

"Butter" is one of those films which showcases every bit of talent on screen, and Corddry gets a prime shot with an anxiety-ridden diatribe/monologue against the evils of butter, while a most companionable Silverstone shrewdly exploits her off-screen status as a practicing vegan.

The always welcome Kristen Schaal plays one of the other contestants; Phyllis Smith (of "The Office") is Nancy, the calming presence who oversees the event; Ashley Greene ("Twilight") is Bob's teenage daughter from his first marriage, and Olivia Wilde is a, well, wild as an aggressive prostitute to whom Bob still owes $600 for services previously rendered.

Finally, Hugh Jackman does a witty turn as Laurel's old high-school crush, an illiterate lummox who agrees to help her rig the contest. Her entry for the latest competition? A butter reproduction of something I could not possibly invent: "Wait!," I said to my wife as the sculpture took form. "Is that Jacki Kennedy crawling on the trunk of a convertible trying to save Jack? Has she actually carved a butter rendering of the JFK assassination?"

Scenarist Jason Micallef is credited with the film's quick-witty, gutsy, and at times tasteless script, but whether the culprit is Smith or Micallef  - or the two working in tandem - the various sculptures here are at once hideous, hilarious, delicious and actually quite artful. They still have me smiling.

Click on photo to enlarge

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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(from top)

 ~Poster art for "Butter"
 ~photography: TWC/Radius 2010©

   ~Laura's novel, notorious butter rendering of the Kennedy assassination
 ~photography: TWC/Radius 2010©

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

over & out. at long last.

"Ring out the old year, ring in the new. Ring-a-ding-ding"
- Fran Kubelik's sarcasm on New Year's Eve.
- From Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), an apt quote to end 2019.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

joe's dreaded genre

Since the passing of Robert Osborne in 2017, Turner Classic Movies has taken on a new dynamic, diversifying its features via the showcasing of its chief host - the intrepid, amiable Ben Mankiewicz, who brings brio to every new addition to TCM's line-up and achieves it with an easy-going mastery.

These days, everything seems essential on Turner, not the least of which is a new feature titled Pets on Sets, which examines the role of animals in film and how their participation is manipulated and achieved. The segment works largely because of Mankiewicz who brings it off effortlessly with a concern for the animals being exploited that seems genuine and heartfelt.

Is Ben an animal advocate? I have a hunch that he is. Me? Count me in. But my love of animals is equaled by my dislike of movies about them. I don't want to see any movie that's about a dog, cat, horse or lion. Have you noticed that movies about animals are always - always - sad and disturbing?  Awful things traditionally happen to the animal star.

Movies about animals have become my dreaded genre.
The MGM/Lassie films are the worst. "Old Yeller" is the pits. (Blasphemy, I know!) I do like Asta in the "Thin Man" series and Pyewacket in "Bell, Book and Candle," but those films really aren't about them, are they?

David Frankel's “Marley and Me” is the one rare exception - for me. And it remains a great film in general because it is about a life - in this case, the life of a dog from puppyhood to death - and also because of its complete, unapologetic empathy for the animal. All of this occurred to me belatedly after I wrote a previous essay on a potential remake of ”Born Free.”

Sorry, Elsa.

Throughout this December, Mankiewicz has been hosting Pets on Sets in tandem with Carol Tresan, who with her husband Greg, is  owner and operator of Animal Casting Atlanta, which trains animal actors. And while their Wednesday evening get togethers are dominated largely by discussions of animal performances in finished films, Ben, Carol and Greg do not hesitate to consider what it took to achieve those performances. Was it done with ease? Or - and I hate to ask - was cruelty a factor in the process?

Ben asks all the right questions. No surprise here. And Carol and Greg provide invaluable insight, as well as an inside look into the system. Neither pulls any punches. They educate us. We learn a lot about a movie subject that has never been addressed openly - or, if so, only rarely.

No, this trio does not skirt the tough questions. So, again, is cruelty indeed an occasional factor?

This subject came up back in 1995 when I interviewed the late
Pat Derby and her husband and partner Ed Stewart at their PAWS
facility (Performing Animal Welfare Society) in Galt, Ca.

Pat had worked for almost her entire adult life as an animal trainer (specializing in elephants, bears and tigers). but had a change of heart - as well as a carer change - becaming an outspoken crusader for animal rights on movie sets. Pat had a lot to say. Her story about the orangutan that worked in the 1978 Clint Eastwood film, "Every Which Way but Loose" was particularly disturbing. It precipitated her about-face enlighetnment.

A personal case in point: My wife adores George Stevens' "Giant."  Yes, it's a great movie in every way.  But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides.  It's an ugly scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"?  Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, haunting moment.

But wait!

For decades, I've wondered exactly how the filmmakers got that horse to limp on cue.  Was it "acting" or real?  It's important to remember that "Giant" was made in less enlightened times when it was routine to trip horses (often crippling or even killing them) for action scenes. My guess is that the horse being bludgeoned with spurs and later limping wasn't "acting." Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch) is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal (justice not served).

Finally, I always wanted to interview Doris Day, something that evaded me during my career. One subject that I specifically wanted to address was about a film she made in 1962 - "Billy Rose's Jumbo," a musical named after its elephant star.  The animal is forced to do silly routines that are humiliating for a creature as magnificent and sentient as an elephant. What did it take? Again, was there any cruelty involved?  Doris, of course, was a vocal animal activist and this is one area of her career I would have loved to discuss with her.

That said, thanks Ben and Carol for the observation.

Note in Passing: Getting back to Frankel's "Marley & Me"... The film works beautifully as an intelligent, acute depiction of what's like to have a relationship with an animal and how the sudden absence of an animal companion can make one feel so terribly desolate because, well, the animal is always, reliably there - a point driven in the scene where stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson watch videos after Marley's passing.

In one of the videos, Aniston is standing at a kitchen counter talking to a friend.  She has a baby on her hip and eating food off the counter.  Marley is behind her and, almost absent-mindedly, without thinking, she gives Marley some of the food - because she just knew he would be there.

But, now, he isn't. No longer.

"Marley & Me." A truly under-appreciated film, the only "animal movie" I can tolerate.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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(from top)

~Ben Mankiewicz 
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2019©
 ~Marley, as a pup in "Marley & Me"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 2008© 

~Animal trainer Carol Tresan who works in tandem with her husband and partner Greg
~photography: Animal Casting Atlanta 2019©

 ~Animal trainer Pat Derby and friend
~photography:PAWS 1995© 

~Opening title card for the film "Giant"
~photography: Warner Bros.1956©    

~Doris Day and Jimmy Durante in "Billy Rose's Jumbo"
~photography: MGM 1962©  

~Marley, as a young adult in "Marley & Me"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 2008©