Sunday, September 28, 2014

cinema obscura: Blake Edwards' "The Perfect Furlough" (1958)

"The Perfect Furlough," circa 1958, is that rare Blake Edwards movie that has unaccountably disappeared.

And it doesn't help that no one remembers it.  With reason.

Written by Stanley Shapiro, the films is a mash-up of service farce and sex comedy and, as the latter, anticipates the material that Shapiro would subsequently whip up for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, beginning a year later with "Pillow Talk."  Standing in for Rock and Doris here are Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who were very much happily married at the time.

Anyway, the plot is about an enlisted sex addict, Paul Hodges (Curtis), who wins an Army-sanctioned three-week "date" in Paris with Sandra Roca (played by Linda Crystal), a notorious sex symbol - a dubious idea dreamed up by Army psychologist Vicki Loren (Leigh) to help buoy the morale of enlisted men.  But the catch is,  Paul and Sandra can't sleep together and so Vicki is also dispatched to Paris to keep things platonic.

Shapiro would also collaborate again with Edwards and Curtis on 1959's "Operation Petticoat," a film that unaccountably has never disappeared.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

cinema obscura: Ken Hughes' "Wicked As They Come" (1956)

The joys of moviegoing/moviewatching can be neatly divided into two camps.  First and foremost, there's the guaranteed joy that comes from watching a favored film over and over and over and over again.

No less important, however, is the joy of discovering a new movie - not something current that just opened at your local cineplex but an older title that's been around for some time, without your even knowing about it.

Falling cozily into the latter camp is a little (and little-known) 1956 gem from Columbia Pictures, "Wicked As They Come," directed by British filmmaker Ken Hughes, whose diverse résumé includes Peter Finch's "The Trial of Oscar Wilde" (1960), The Sherman Bros. musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) and the Alan Price remake, "Alfie, Darling" (1972).

"Wicked As They Come" aired on Turner Classic Movies during its annual Summer Under the Stars outing in August as part of a day devoted to its star, Arlene Dahl.  I caught it quite by accident.  My viewing was totally unplanned.  For the life of me, I can't remember how or why I started to watch it - the film was an unknown entity to me - but I'm glad I did.

It's a keeper.

Filmed by Mike Frankovich's production company largely in London with a British crew and a cast of  Anglos and Americans, "Wicked As They Come" casts Dahl as Kathy Allen, née Allenborg, a restless Boston woman from a deprived background with an indifference to all men.


Kathy sets out to rebuild her life, starting with her eye on Miss Stylewear, a local newspaper-sponsored beauty contest that's conveniently fixed in her favor.

She shrewdly exploits the affection that the newspaper's editor feels for her and, once the contest is over and won, she abandons him and, with her cash winnings, moves to London, where she flits from man to man, each progressively older, wealthier and more prominent, scamming them all.

Kathy's advance is witnessed by another American expat, advertising man Tim O'Bannion (Phil Carey), who is both fascinated and repelled by her transparency. O'Bannion at once wants to expose Kathy, punish her, rehabilitate her and ... ensnare her.

His fascination inevitably turns into obsession.

Sound remotely familiar? Well, the basic core of "Wicked As They Come" is nearly a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" from 1964.

"Wicked As They Come" isn't nearly as accomplished as "Marnie," and, true, there are major differences. Still, there are so many small narrative similarities here that it's difficult to believe that Hitch wasn't a fan of Hughes' modest little film from eight years earlier. ( It should be noted, however, that Jay Presson Allen's script for "Marnie" was based on a novel of the same title by Winston Green, while "Wicked As They Come" was adapted from another book, "Portrait in Smoke," by Bill S. Ballinger.)

Dahl and Carey could be playing prototypes for the characters ultimately essayed by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in "Marnie."  Like Connery in "Marnie," Carey's character keeps popping up in the heroine's life, and there's a sequence in which Carey shows up at the office where Dahl is working that could be a template for the same scene in "Marnie." "Wicked As They Come" even comes with a Hitchcock specialty - the final-curtain psychological explanation, a theory for Kathy's troubled behavior.

Not surprisingly, like Marnie, Kathy's damage was caused by a sexual trauma from earlier in her life.

It's gratifying to see the terrific Carey at last in a rare leading role, and Dahl, an actress who was made for Technicolor, is even more beautiful in black-&-white.

The cinematograher Basil Emmott (a name new to me) achieves a soft, smokey  image here that is gorgeous, and hugely flattering to Dahl, absolutely first-rate.

A little symmetry here:  While "Marnie" is one of those aforementioned favored films that I'd gladly watch over and over and over and over again, and have, its modest doppelganger, "Wicked As They Come," is a decidedly new favorite. Someday, these two will make a terrific double-bill.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

cinema obscura: Michael Hoffman's "Gambit"

I've said it before, but it bares repeating: Hollywood routinely makes and releases awful movies - on  a weekly basis, no less - and spares no expense marketing them.

I reiterate this in preamble to the fact that Michael Hoffman's 2012 remake of "Gambit" (material that hardly deserved revamping) is no better or worse than the junk currently littering your neighborhood cineplex.

Actually, it's my hunch that it's probably much better than the movie you paid $50 (including concession "food") to see last weekend.

But someone at CBS Films, its American distributor - someone apparently overpaid to make dubious decisions - decided that the new "Gambit" is an offensive embarrassment, despite its pedigree.  Two years after it toured the rest of the world,  CBS elected to release the movie last April in a handful of cities in America.  If you live in New York, for example, where the film temporarily played, you probably didn't know where to see it because there were no display ads.  (But a belated New York Times review thoughtfully guided potential moviegoers to the Village East Cinema.)

The original "Gambit," directed in 1966 by Ronald Neame, was a standard '60s caper flick which paired the then-hot Michael Caine with Shirley MacLaine, who was experiencing one of her rare down periods.  (Universal, the film's producer, would next cast her in one of her greatest roles, "Sweet Charity.")  Caine and MacLaine played a cat burglar and a dancer who team up for a heist of a sculpture that exploits both their talents.

It was all fairly tepid.

The remake teams Colin Firth (an apt stand-in for Caine) and Cameron Diaz (who doesn't play a dancer here, but a cowgirl - don't ask) in the heist of a painting.  They are backed by a trio of A-list supporting players - Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci and Tom Courtenay - and they get to read dialogue written by no less than Ethan and Joel Coen.  This version of the material is a step up from tepid, thanks largely to the way the Coens have fiddled with their script; the odd chemistry shared by Firth and Diaz, and especially Hoffman's off-kilter direction. Which is no surprise. At least, not to me.

Hoffman has always marched to a different drummer, amassing a refreshingly eclectic filmmography - "Some Girls," "Soapdish," "One Fine Day," "Restoration," "The Last Station," "Promised Land" and his Kevin Kline-Michelle Pfeiffer "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

He's an original.  His new film - no so much.

Both Firth and Diaz have experienced a few career bumps of late, so it's so surprise that they would bump into each other here.  Diaz made a good film that was dismissed - Ridley Scott's "The Counselor." And Firth has made two good films that were dismissed - Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" and Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man." And both have starred in disappointing comedies - Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight" and Diaz in two, "The Other Woman" and "Sex Tape." "Gambit" is another bump.

But it's really nothing more serious than that.  Honest.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

thoroughly awful

I thought enough time had gone by - yipes! nearly 50 years - that I'd give it a second chance.

I'm referring to George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the 1967 pseudo-musical which Turner Classic Movies has disinterred and will air @ 11 p.m. on Monday, September 8th.

But, no, this disturbing curiosity has decidedly not improved with age.

In fact, it's now much worse, particularly considering that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for throwing away Oscars, once saw fit to hand it seven - count 'em - seven nominations, including one for Carol Channing's amateurish supporting turn. (There's a reason why some stage performers never make it as movie personalities.)

Aside from being a prime example of.•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.forced fun•:*¨¨*:••:*¨¨*:•.
 "Thoroughly Modern Millie" remains jaw-dropping in its blatant racism.

The presentation of Asians here, as personified by the wince-producing performances of Jack Soo and Pat Morita, is unconscionable - almost as unwatchable as Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961).

Of course, this brand of racist entertainment had been tossed off as innocent fun by Hollywood for years.  Consider the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

Of course, it was a different culture 60-70 years ago when "Babes" and "Rose" were produced, but times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made.

What's disconcerting is that "Millie" was produced by Ross Hunter who presented Asians in such a fabulous light six year earlier in Henry Koster's film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" (1961), a movie musical whose entire cast (except for one Caucasian in a brief supporting role - Herman Rudin, who played the vagrant who robs Benson Fong) is composed of Asian performers exclusively,  Soo among them.

In "Flower Drum Song," Hunter and Koster nudged the talented Soo towards a winning performance that's best described as Martinesque (as in Dean Martin). One can only guess why Hunter and Hill elected to diminish Soo (and Morita) in such a cruel way in "Millie." It remains unacceptable.

Anyway, it's still a lousy movie and its brand of casual racism simply exacerbates matters. And the same goes for "Babes in Arms" and "My Wild Irish Rose."

Thursday, September 04, 2014

joan

I spent most of my decades as a working film critic single-mindedly resisting interviews with movie stars.  It's not that I didn't want to meet and talk with them - I didn't want to meet and talk with them and then critique the movie each one was hawking.  Too awkward.  Impure.

On the other hand, I wouldn't give up the memories of some of the wonderful people I met during this conflicting process and, when pressed, I always mention Joan Rivers as my favorite interview - and without missing a beat.  Hands-down, she was the nicest person I met during an interview situation (David Niven runs a close second), largely because our time together took the form of a conversation, rather than an interview.

Joan asked me as many questions as I asked her. Perhaps a few more.

OK, I'm going to seriously date myself here...

It was April of 1978 and Joan came to Philadelphia to promote "Rabbit Test," the first and last feature film that she would direct.  It was a comedy (natch) about a pregnant man (played by Billy Crystal) and Joan got the chance to be a one-time auteur on the basis of her teleplays for two popular TV movies, "Husbands and Wives" and particularly "The Girl Most Likely," which provided Stockard Channing with her breakthrough role.

I was Joan's last interview of the day.  She was speaking to a student assembly at the University of Pennsylvania (to talk comedy and also gently nudge them to see "Rabbit Test") and it was arranged by Sam Bushman, the outsized Philly publicist handling Joan that day, that I would meet her afterwards in the student lounge on the Penn campus.

It was very informal, noisy and quite unforgettable.

More than 35 years later, much of our conversation is now a blur.  But I do remember that "Rabbit Test" was hardly discussed and two other points of conversation have also stayed with me.

Joan discussed the plight of her good friend Roddy McDowall, who was allegedly being harassed by the FBI for film piracy.  McDowall's hobby was collecting 16mm prints of major Hollywood titles.  The authorities were threatening to out McDowall who was closeted at the time.

And she was absolutely animated about what she saw as her next movie project - a collaboration with Jim Henson.  Joan had this idea for a black comedy in which The Muppets are kidnapped and tortured. Obviously, that film was never made. But Henson delivered his first feature, "The Muppet Movie," directed by James Frawley, a year after "Rabbit Test's" release.

Our interview ended when Sam reminded Joan that it was time for her drive back to New York.  She offered me a ride to the newspaper office and, as her limo pulled away, Joan lowered the window and shouted in her trademark raspy voice, "Study hard!," hectically waving to the kids in the immediate area.  She had a great voice - something that's rarely mentioned whenever someone writes about Joan Rivers.

A week later, after "Rabbit Test" opened, I received in the mail a photocopy of my (negative) review of the film. It was from Joan.  There was a handwritten note from Joan scrawled across it in red ink.

Seemingly unfazed by the review, she wrote: 

Dear Joe, 

It was lovely meeting you and spending time with you – you were one of the few people I was able to talk to about something other than “Rabbit Test” (death & saving animals, in case you’ve forgotten).

Anyhow,  again,  many thanks.  RT hit #1 in box-office grosses this week – and part of it is due to your kindness.

xxxx.

Joan

Note in Passing: Beyond "Rabbit Test," in which she also appeared, Joan Rivers enjoyed only a scant movie career, usually playing herself.  However, she did have one notable role in 1968 - co-starring in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" as one of the people he meets as he spends an afternoon swimming across suburbia. I'm not sure if her scene was directed by the original filmmaker, Frank Perry, or Sydney Pollack who replaced Perry on the troubled production.  Her character's name?  Joan.