Tuesday, December 10, 2013

a fan's notes

Parker's Baroness made "The Sound of Mucus" bearable for at least one viewer - ok, me.

My friend Carrie calls me The Contrarian because I agree to disagree.

Particularly about movies.

Case in Point: For some reason, which even I can't explain, I don't like "Casablanca." I simply can't get through it. I've tried innumerable times, often under the most ideal circumstances. One time, I saw a newly restored print at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, located along the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame. My appetite was whetted but, as usual, I was bored. Couldn't get into it. Perhaps my tendency to keep the film at bay has something to do with the fact that I have an aversion to Humphrey Bogart. I know. Blasphemy.

Another:  When "The Sound of Music" opened on Broadway in 1959, it was billed not as "a new musical comedy," but tellingly as "a new musical play."  That's because it was serious.  By the time it hit the big screen in 1965 under Robert Wise's dubious guidance, it had morphed into an elephantine Disney film. I disliked it the minute that Julie Andrews came twirling and trilling over that oh-so-picturesque mountain top.

And it got worse as Wise poured on heaps of  sugar and included those insufferable Von Trapp kids in way too many scenes, far more than the characters had on stage. (Yes, I prefer the recent live TV version with Carrie Underwood, but more about that on another day.)

I made it through only because of the wicked humor of  Richard Haydn and especially the regal, witty villany of Eleanor Parker, who died yesterday at age 91. Parker in particular makes the film watchable for me.

Thank you, Eleanor.  Sleep well.

Along similar lines, I spent most of "Independence Day" cheering on the interloping aliens against the intolerably smug Will Smith, an unpopular stance that got me into trouble with my readers at the time.

Finally, there's "West Side Story."

Regular readers of this site know by now how I feel about this classic. Yes, the music is legendary and the dancing is great, albeit kind of riduculous when staged in realistic settings. It's what comes in-between that's bad. My problem has always been with Arthur Laurents' original stage script which adapter Ernest Lehman honored too closely. By 1961, four years after the play opened, the material already sounded dated.

Critic Sam Adams put it best in his critique of WSS (in one of its DVD incarnations) for Philadelphia's City Paper: "The new disc includes a booklet featuring Ernest Lehman's script in its entirety, though it's a mixed blessing at best since the cornball book (by Arthur Laurents) of the original stage musical has always been West Side's Achilles heel. Being stuck with Laurents' dialogue probably cost Lehman the screenplay Oscar, the only one for which West Side was nominated and didn't win."

Amen, Sam.

Adams also questioned with the decades-long unfair lambasting of the film's two romantic leads, particularly Richard Beymer as Tony. And, of course, it also doesn't help that both Beymer and Natalie Wood are saddled with Laurents' worst dialogue (which Lehman slavishly preserved). I think both Wood and Russ Tamblyn are terrific in the film and that the unfairly maligned Beymer does wonders with a character that's virtually unplayable (and actually makes no sense whatsoever).

On the other hand, there are Rita Moreno who, at 30, was simply too old for her role, and George Chakiris, who, well, simply can't act - and yet these two won Oscars, inexplicably beating out Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg."

In one of her many recent interviews about WSS, Moreno - who apparently is still busy promoting the film, even though it's more than 50 years old - commented that everyone expected Garland to win out of "sentiment."  No, everyone expected Garland to win because she's actually great in the film.  Moreno's win had everything to do with popularity - not her popularity but the film's, which swept the Oscars that year.

She was conveniently caught up in the sweep. Had Natalie Wood been nominated for "West Side Story" instead of "Splendor in the Grass," I have every confidence that she would have won, too.

Also, there have been years of complaints about the fact that the singing voices of both Wood and Beymer were dubbed. True. But wait! Everyone's singing voice in the film is dubbed, thanks to associate producer Saul Chaplin's weird hang-up about having only perfect singing voices on screen. Tamblyn, an accomplished musical-comedy star, was dubbed by co-star Tucker Smith, who plays Ice in the film. It's odd to hear Tucker's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth in "Cool." Betty Wand, who also did the singing for Leslie Caron in "Gigi," dubbed Moreno.

Of course, Boris Leven's production design for the film is a masterwork, as is Saul Bass' still-arty titlework. But this film is no classic.

End of tirade.


Ken said...

Please let the tirade continue, Joe! It's refreshing not reading the same old rehashes. You are a most eloquent detractor.

joe baltake said...

Tirades are fun.

The Legendary Black Marquis said...

More! Could you give Schindler's List the kapow treatment?

I for one love Casablanca, but that is despite itself. It is very contrived and unforgivably sentimental, but it has a verve that somehow pulls it through.

Stephen D. said...

Regarding West Side Story: Okay, Rita Moreno's too old, and George Chakiris can't act, but they're otherwise fabulous. For me, WSS's flaws are more than made up for by its strengths, i.e. its wonderful, energetic songs and the intoxicating (and well directed ) dancing. But yes, the stuff in between is weak/herky jerky, and I really do think that Beymer is weak, though you're probably right that much of this has to with the book/screenplay.

And count me as someone who enjoys The Sound of Music in spite of myself. I mean, I really don't quite WANT to like it, but the catchy songs, the great direction (Do Re Mi) work for me. And while Julie Andrews' Maria may be a little too pure as the driven snow, the performance itself is fantastic. Manipulative, schmaltzy, to be sure...but I think there's also a genuine dark streak under the surface (for instance, Rolf's defection, which reflects back on both Maria's and the Captain's story) that gives this ballast. A song like "Climb Every Mountain" gains even more poignancy when traced from a dark place.

Anyway, Joe, glad to see you insist on thinking critically. I do as well, but with these two movies I nevertheless come out on the other side.

Jay said...

The music, lyrics and dancing are so good in West Side Story that I guess its flaws just recede for me. Never had a problem with it.

Casablanca boring? That's crazy talk, Joe! Curtiz's pacing can be almost MTV-like. Eh, different strokes.

We definitely agree that George Chakiris shouldn't have won his Oscar, but he should've been beaten by George C. Scott in The Hustler, not Clift. IMHO, of course.

Jesse said...

I beg to differ about George Chakiris not being able to act. He's a marvelous, and very underused performer. His portrayal of Chopin in Masterpiece Theater production of Notorious Woman is marvelous. He's been in some clunker films but not because of any fault on his part. As far as his work in WSS in my opinion, he not only won the Oscar for his dancing, but precisely because he was able to pull off a character like Bernardo, with dialogue that was stilted and not that great. It's easy to be a "great actor" with great material, but he didn't have a lot to work with apart from the fabulous dancing. His inner spirit made it happen and he deserved the Oscar. Overall, I think all the performers in WSS were very very good considering what they had to work with from a dialogue standpoint. They brought it to the screen, they made it happen, and that's why it's a classic.

Brian said...

For some reason, my sixth grade teacher - an otherwise wonderful educator - assigned our class the chore of watching "West Side Story" when it aired on TV. (As I write this, it occurs to me that 1970, when I was a sixth grader, was probably the first time it was shown on the air. Given its prestige as multiple Oscar winner, I suppose I can see why she had us watch it.) In any case, my best friend and I hated it so much, it took me about a decade and many Astaire/Rogers movies to realize I actually like musicals. I just didn't like THIS musical. Every time the gang members start dancing and singing, I can't help but laugh. I mean, I'm all for the suspension of disbelief, but this would require the guy who designed the Golden Gate Bridge and many miles of steel cable to suspend my disbelief.

joe baltake said...

On stage, WSS works because one is aware of the artiface. On screen, realism makes it look ridiculous.

Neal said...

Re Ken's comment on Joe's tirades, I like them, too. As an avid reader of Joe's reviews when he was with the Bee, I must say that his most entertaining reviews were the ones that he tore the movie apart. And the best of times for responses from readers was when he panned a movie that was a hit at the box office, namely "Pretty Woman".

Tammy said...

Did not know about Tamblyn and Moreno being dubbed. Incredible. If only most of the casts in Sweeney Todd and Momma Mia! had been dubbed.

Marlene said...

I have always had a problem with Bogart. He does nothing for me. He was too old for half the roles he played. He was not charming, sexy, interesting or good looking. His acting always bothered me. Casablanca was good but I sure cant figure out why it's a classic. I watched it again a month or so ago and liked it more than the times before. But here's looking at you was so misplaced that it became comical.

joe baltake said...

Marlene- Your reaction to Bogart is identical to mine. I've never understood his appeal. Dare I say it? But I think he was a really bad actor. There! Done.