Saturday, November 30, 2013

Modern Movies: FROZEN (2013)

I admit it. I had written Frozen off because of the awful trailers. I wasn't even planning to see it, which is a huge statement given that I'm a lifelong Disney fan. Luckily, early reviews started begging folks to ignore the trailers and see the picture, anyway. If you're still on the fence about Frozen, let me join the chorus of reviewers urging you to see it. Despite what might be one of the worst marketing campaigns in Disney history, Frozen is a visual and narrative delight packed with fresh characters, great songs, and an ending that has been a long time coming for the princess set.

The story, more or less inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Snow Queen, revolves around two sisters. The elder, Elsa (Idina Menzel), was born with magical powers over ice and snow, although she struggles to control them. The younger, Anna (Kristen Bell), is a rambunctious, impulsive people person who doesn't understand why her beloved sister pulls away from her as they grow up. When Anna rushes into an engagement with Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), Elsa is so horrified that she loses control over her powers right in the middle of her own coronation ball, thus revealing to everyone the strange and dangerous ability that she possesses. Elsa flees, accidentally throwing the whole country into deep winter as she goes, and Anna pursues her in hopes of reconciling with her sister and ending the magical ice age. Along the way, Anna gets some help from the rustic Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), as well as a friendly reindeer, an enchanted snowman, and a family of trolls.

One thing that sets Frozen apart from other Disney princess stories is the focus on sisters. Yes, romance develops over the course of the story, but the relationship at the movie's heart is that between Elsa and Anna. That makes Frozen a thoughtful follow-up to Brave, which was about a young heroine's relationship with her mother. At long last, Disney is moving us away from narratives where women only have poisonous, competitive relationships with each other and the goal is to snag the prince and the throne. Elsa doesn't need a prince to be queen; in fact, she doesn't need anything except acceptance of herself and a repaired relationship with her sister. Anna does need romantic love, but her narrative arc also rejects the traditional Disney formula in some very surprising - and welcome - ways.

The voice actors really bring a lot to their characters without being celebrity distractions from them. Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell is a delightful, spunky presence as Anna, and it's great to hear her perform the character's musical numbers. Idina Menzel, however, really knocks it out of the park as Elsa, especially on the power house theme, "Let It Go." Her Broadway voice soars and raises the bar for every Disney heroine song that will come after this, so much so that I'm unclear why Disney felt the need to have Demi Lovato perform a single version for the picture's closing credits. As annoying as Olaf the snowman is in the trailers, he's actually very funny in the film, especially during his ironic musings on the nature of warmth and summer. Josh Gad, who provides Olaf's voice, does a fantastically funny job with "In Summer," which will make you laugh and wince at the same time. Santino Fontana and Jonathan Groff both have excellent voices for their characters, although the scene stealer of the picture is definitely Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton.

The third act contains many shocks and twists, and I'll refrain from indulging in spoilers. I will say that Frozen is good enough and nuanced enough to be worth seeing even if you don't have children. Ignore the trailers, let go of what you think Disney princess movies are like, and make time to see Frozen while it's still in theaters. The excellent and very meta Mickey Mouse short that opens the movie is just the icing on a cold but delicious holiday treat.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SHIP AHOY (1942)

It’s a sad fact that Eleanor Powell isn’t nearly as familiar today as she ought to be, even though male peers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have become reigning icons in the classic movie pantheon. Like those more famous stars, Powell is a terrific dancer, leaping exuberantly in numbers that highlight both her figure and her technique, and she’s clearly the star of her own show. You can see plenty of Powell’s talent on display in Ship Ahoy (1942), a relatively modest wartime musical that pairs the elegant star with funny man Red Skelton as a bumbling hack writer who falls for Powell - literally - during an ocean cruise. Ship Ahoy doesn’t pretend to compete with Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or Top Hat (1935), but it does offer laughs, a fun supporting cast, and some really energetic performances from Powell to reward viewers for their attention.

Powell plays dancer Tallulah Winters, who accepts a secret mission carrying a valuable item for men pretending to be American agents. While sailing to Puerto Rico as part of Tommy Dorsey’s act, Tallulah meets serial author Merton Kibble (Red Skelton), whose hypochondria doesn’t stop him from being smitten by her charms. Tallulah likes Merton, but her friend Fran (Virginia O’Brien) seems less taken with Merton’s pal, Skip (Bert Lahr). Unfortunately, the romantic atmosphere is threatened by misunderstandings and Tallulah’s unintentional involvement in enemy espionage.

The spy plot is unashamedly thin and implausible, taken as it is from one of Merton’s own serials. It does give Red Skelton the chance to do quite a few pratfalls and even play hero a bit, although of course his efforts don’t work out the way he would like. Skelton and Lahr make an oddly amusing comedic pair, both of them pulling crazy faces and having particular fun with a drunk scene inside a well-stocked ship’s hold. Skelton is also appealing enough as a leading man; we like him and want to see him win Tallulah in spite of his clumsy antics. Lahr, on the other hand, seems like the short end of the stick for Virginia O’Brien’s character, since he’s not only older and homely but also an incorrigible skirt chaser.

The comedy shtick winds around the musical numbers, and these are really the reason to see the picture. Powell performs each with tremendous energy, although the best might be the poolside sequence for “I’ll Take Tallulah,” which includes some very sharp drumstick tricks. The matador dance is also a highlight, and it certainly shows off Powell’s impressive legs. Tommy Dorsey’s band gives Powell swinging backup throughout, and you’ll even find Frank Sinatra singing two tunes. Sinatra’s version of “Poor You” gets a typically nutty twist from Virginia O’Brien, which is always fun, and Ship Ahoy might actually be one of the better places to see O’Brien, who made a lot fewer movies than she should have.

Edward Buzzell, who directed Ship Ahoy, also worked with Powell on Honolulu (1939), and his other efforts include the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) as well as the Esther Williams feature, Neptune’s Daughter (1949). For more of Eleanor Powell, see Born to Dance (1935) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). Powell and Skelton both appear in Lady Be Good (1941), I Dood It (1943), and Thousands Cheer (1943). Bert Lahr is best remembered today as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Virginia O’Brien has a noteworthy, if truncated, supporting role in The Harvey Girls (1946).

Ship Ahoy is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant, along with several other Red Skelton films and a handful of movies featuring Eleanor Powell.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doctor Who at the Movies

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who is an excellent time to look back at some of the actors who have played the adventurous Time Lord in the long-running British television series. For many actors who portray the iconic character, the role defines their careers, but you'll find them in some interesting classic movies, as well. As most fans know, the modern version of the series follows the adventures of the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctors (so far), but if we look back at the first four Doctors we find careers that overlap with the classic era and the films of the 1960s and 70s.

Of course, Peter Cushing was the actor who brought the Doctor to the big screen in Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1967), but these two films are non-canonical for Whovians. Cushing was certainly a bigger star than any of the actors who had played the character up until that time, but even Cushing fans admit that these two movies aren't his best work. You're better off seeing him in Hammer pictures like Horror of Dracula (1958) or even the original Star Wars (1977), in which he makes a memorable appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin.

Here are the first four actors who played the Doctor and some of the films in which you can find them.

William Hartnell - The first Doctor has a remarkably long filmography, including a number of credits under the name "Billy Hartnell." His film career dates all the way back to 1932, but many of the British movies in which he appeared are hard to find today. Look for him in The Pickwick Papers (1952), Carry On Sergeant (1958), and The Mouse that Roared (1959), as well as the Richard Harris film, This Sporting Life (1963), for a glimpse of his work before he became the original Doctor in 1963.

Patrick Troughton - The second Doctor is remembered for his bowl-cut mop of hair and his penchant for playing the flute, but the actor who portrayed him turns up in some surprisingly impressive places. Patrick Troughton first appeared in movies in the late 1940s, and his early roles included a part as the Player King in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948). You'll also find him in a bit part in Disney's 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island. Troughton makes additional appearances in The Black Knight (1954), Richard III (1955), and The Phantom of the Opera (1962), but the best and most interesting places to see him are probably in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Omen (1976). Be sure to catch him in another Ray Harryhausen classic, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which also stars Patrick Wayne and Jane Seymour. Although his filmography is filled with memorable work, Troughton really flourished with the rise of the small screen. He was a seasoned television pro by the time he assumed the role of the Doctor in 1966, and he continued to work in television until his death in 1987.

Jon Pertwee -  The third Doctor made fewer film and television appearances than either of his predecessors, but his first role was as early as 1938, when he had an uncredited part in A Yank at Oxford. Fans of the British Carry on films will recognize Pertwee in several of those pictures, including Carry on Cleo (1964), Carry on Cowboy (1966), and Carry on Screaming! (1966). You can also find him in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) and The House that Dripped Blood (1971). In addition to playing the title role on Doctor Who, Pertwee starred as Worzel Gummidge in two different television series.

Tom Baker - The fourth Doctor is probably the most recognizable of the original incarnations, thanks to his trailing scarf, wild curls, and appetite for jelly babies. By the time Tom Baker began acting in the late 1960s, television was already a huge medium, and most of his roles would be on the small screen. Baker does, however, make a few interesting film appearances. In the 1971 movie, Nicholas and Alexandra, Baker plays Rasputin! The very best movie in which to see Baker is undoubtedly The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973); he has a great villain role as the evil magician Koura. Fans of British television will also know Baker as the narrator of Little Britain, and he had a recurring role on the popular series, Monarch of the Glen.

Some fascinating tidbits reveal themselves when we look at the early Doctors and their film careers. While they were mostly television actors, they were clearly active in the British film industry, making both "serious" pictures like Shakespeare adaptations and cult films like Hammer horrors. Ray Harryhausen's fantasy adventures also proved fertile ground, with both Troughton and Baker acting in Sinbad pictures. Today most viewers only know them for their role on Doctor Who, if they remember them at all, but each of the first four Doctors had a much richer and more diverse career than his stint on that one series. These actors costarred with big names, including Laurence Olivier, Richard Harris, Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, and Gregory Peck. As we celebrate fifty years of Doctor Who this month, let's also celebrate the actors who played him first, and take time to catch them in a few of their other memorable roles.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (1950)

All of the classic swashbuckling stars had good looks and charm, but few, if any, could rival Burt Lancaster for sheer physical prowess. Lancaster earned his Oscar nominations and Best Actor win for dramas, but early in his career he put his background as a circus acrobat to good use in a handful of high adventures, including the 1950 Technicolor spectacle, The Flame and the Arrow. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and costarring Virginia Mayo, as well as Lancaster’s childhood friend Nick Cravat, this old school swashbuckler takes many of its cues from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The main attraction, however, is the acrobatic skill of Lancaster and Cravat, who perform a dizzying array of jumps, stunts, and circus tricks as they attempt to save medieval Lombardy from its Hessian overlords.

Lancaster plays the free spirited Dardo, who has been left to raise his son, Rudi (Gordon Gebert), by himself after the defection of his wife, Francesca (Lynn Baggett). When his wife returns to Lombardy with her Hessian lover, Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), Dardo gets himself and his friends into trouble by showing his contempt for the powerful lord, who seizes Rudi in retaliation. Dardo then leads his men in an effort to overthrow the Hessian oppressors and reclaim his kidnapped son, but his actions bring him unexpected company in the form of Ulrich’s lovely niece, Anne (Virginia Mayo).

Tall and powerfully built, Lancaster certainly looks good in tights, and he performs acrobatic feats almost casually, making them seem deceptively easy. The movie benefits from Lancaster’s skill in action scenes that would normally have to hide a stunt double’s face, and the camera stays close to assure us that Lancaster is, indeed, the heroic figure executing those jumps and swings. Nick Cravat makes a perfect foil to his friend and partner; short, funny, and mute because of his heavy New York accent, he plays a sort of swashbuckling Harpo Marx to Lancaster’s Lombard Robin. The two really get to show off their skills in the climax, when the Lombard rebels infiltrate the castle disguised as members of a traveling circus.

The supporting cast boasts fewer famous faces than the 1938 Robin Hood film, although its characters tend to fill the same functions. Frank Allenby is credibly snide as the Hessian count known as “the Hawk,” and Robert Douglas oozes moral ambivalence as the self-interested Marchese. Child actor Gordon Gebert has a few good scenes as Rudi, although a little of him goes a long way, while Lynn Baggett’s role as faithless Francesca could be more robust. Norman Lloyd proves something of a scene stealer as the wry Apollo, a minor character who obviously stands in for Sherwood’s Alan-a-Dale. Dardo’s Maid Marian is charmingly played by Virginia Mayo, who brings plenty of energy and a pair of well-displayed legs to her role as Anne of Hesse. While she appears in several stunning gowns requisite for this kind of historical pageant, Mayo looks best in the boyish costumes she adopts when riding or being held prisoner in the forest. Her experience as a bad girl in films like White Heat (1949) also gives her an edge in playing the scenes where she attempts to manipulate the Marchese and Dardo; we’re not always sure which side she’s really on, and that makes her character more interesting.

The Flame and the Arrow earned two Oscar nominations, one for Best Color Cinematography and one for Max Steiner’s score. Lancaster won his only Oscar of four Best Actor nominations for Elmer Gantry (1960). See more of Lancaster and Cravat’s acrobatics in The Crimson Pirate (1952), but don’t miss Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and The Professionals (1966). Virginia Mayo also stars in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and you'll find Gordon Gebert in Holiday Affair (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). For more from director Jacques Tourneur, see Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and Night of the Demon (1957). For even more swashbuckling action, try Captain Blood (1935), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Three Musketeers (1948).

The Flame and the Arrow is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Six Books for Your Classic Movie Christmas List

It's time to start the Christmas shopping in earnest, and your friends and relations are asking you what you want this year. Maybe you're doing some Christmas shopping for fellow cinephiles, as well. DVDs can be tricky, since everyone with a serious film obsession already owns enough movies to restock a closed Blockbuster location. Whether you're looking for gifts for yourself or others, books can be a great choice. Here are six relatively new books about classic movie topics that you might consider.

VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT - By Kendra Bean, with forward by Claire Bloom

This newest biography of the iconic leading lady is getting great reviews, and I have it at the top of my own wishlist this year. Plenty of  photos enhance the story of Leigh's life and career. The book is currently available in hardback for $22.89 on Amazon, which I think would be preferable to the cheaper Kindle edition because of the illustrations.

A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940 - By Victoria Wilson

This biography of Stanwyck just came out on November 12, 2013, which means that even hardcore classic movie fans probably don't have it yet. The actress certainly lived an interesting life, so any biography ought to make for exciting reading. Although it retails for $40, you can get the hardcover edition on Amazon for $29.70, while the Kindle edition is just $14.99.


If you're looking for a new biography of a more obscure star, you might try this account of the life of Ann Dvorak, perhaps best remembered today for her role in Scarface (1932). This is the first full-length biography of the actress, so it should offer plenty of new information to fans of her films. Published by the University Press of Kentucky, the book retails for $40 but is available in hardcover on Amazon for $35.23. The Kindle edition is $22.99, rather steep for a Kindle ebook but typical of an academic publisher's pricing.


Having published two books with McFarland myself, I'm always happy to help get the word out about their authors' publications. James Zeruk is a fellow classic movie fan whose biography of the tragic Peg Entwistle ought to please seriously hardcore classic movie enthusiasts.  Like most McFarland books, the paperback is pretty expensive; Amazon has it for $37.95, but you can get the Kindle edition for $17.99. This book was just released in October, so it's still quite new.


If you want to get really deep into the obscure people of classic cinema, try Kerry Segrave's account of Hollywood extras. This is also a McFarland title; it was released in April 2013, but it looks like it has flown beneath the radar enough to be something even avid film fans might not know about yet. (McFarland mostly sells to libraries and doesn't really promote its titles to general readers.)


My own book came out just a little over a year ago, and people who have bought it tell me they enjoyed it. Beyond Casablanca is meant to be a guide book for both newcomers and veteran fans; as the title suggests, I try to get beyond the most obvious classic movies to discuss films that people might not be as familiar with today. It's available in paperback on Amazon for $16.20 and on Kindle for $4.99.

What books are on your classic movie Christmas wishlist this year?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: HELLO, FRISCO, HELLO (1943)

San Francisco’s Barbary Coast always makes for a colorful setting, and in Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943) Fox capitalizes on the opportunities that the backdrop presents for lavish costumes, lively stage numbers, and an anything goes ambience. This splashy Technicolor musical is primarily a showcase for the talents of Alice Faye, and it’s actually a remake of an earlier Faye picture, the 1936 musical drama, King of Burlesque. The 1943 film reunites Faye with King of Burlesque costar Jack Oakie, but it also brings in John Payne as the love interest and June Havoc as the female sidekick. Faye, however, is the main attraction throughout, and fans of the star will find her in top form, looking especially lovely in a dazzling array of period costumes. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, Hello, Frisco, Hello is also worth watching for the supporting performances from Oakie, Havoc, and Laird Cregar, as well as Faye’s rendition of the Oscar-winning song, “You’ll Never Know.”

Alice Faye stars as Trudy Evans, a gifted chanteuse whose voice brings success to Barbary Coast showman Johnny Cornell (John Payne) even though he takes her devotion to him for granted. When Johnny’s social ambitions lure him into the arms of Nob Hill heiress Bernice (Lynn Bari), the heartbroken Trudy departs for fame on the London stage. Johnny eventually regrets his union with the gold-digging Bernice, but his fall from the height of success leads him to drive away his old friends, including his vaudevillian comrades Dan (Jack Oakie) and Beulah (June Havoc). When Trudy returns to San Francisco, she must find a way to help Johnny without hurting his stubborn pride.

Faye has plenty of musical numbers to keep her busy, including the title song and “You’ll Never Know,” but she’s also very good at projecting Trudy’s unrequited love for the business-minded Johnny. Trudy is certainly something of a sap for mooning over a man who only uses her to get rich, but Faye has so much appeal that we’re inclined to forgive her heroine for her starry-eyed faith in someone who really doesn’t deserve her. As Johnny, John Payne mixes the smoldering intensity of Tyrone Power with the showbiz charisma of Don Ameche, although he’s not quite as memorable as either of those leading men, both of whom starred with Faye in other films. He’s best in the darker segments of Johnny’s narrative, especially with Lynn Bari as the seductive socialite who fascinates him with her high class charms.

The supporting cast provides comedy to lighten the rest of the narrative’s sentimental drama. Jack Oakie is particularly fun as Johnny’s sidekick, Dan, and he gets several great stage numbers that show off his vaudevillian style as a comic song and dance man. June Havoc keeps up with the energetic Oakie as his performing partner; although she’s usually playing second fiddle to Faye in the production numbers, she and Oakie really shine in a sailor-themed segment late in the film, and Havoc shows both the spunk and the legs that one might expect from the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. Laird Cregar has a small but memorable role as the bearded gold prospector Sam Weaver; although he was usually cast as a villain, Cregar proves yet again that he was equally capable of tackling comedic roles, and he gives his bit character a wonderfully Falstaffian quality.

Don’t miss Ward Bond making a brief appearance as saloon owner Sharkey; his hairstyle alone is worth watching out for. For more of Alice Faye, see In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and That Night in Rio (1941). John Payne and Jack Oakie also star with Faye in Tin Pan Alley (1940) and The Great American Broadcast (1941), although Payne is best remembered today for Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Oakie is known for his role in The Great Dictator (1940). Catch Lynn Bari in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944) and Shock (1946), and see June Havoc in Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). For more of Laird Cregar’s comedic roles, try Charley’s Aunt (1941) and The Black Swan (1942). H. Bruce Humberstone also directed I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Happy Go Lovely (1951), and a number of Charlie Chan pictures.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Although it’s often compared to The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), which came out the same year, Diplomaniacs (1933) proves a far more difficult picture for a modern viewer to engage, and that difficulty helps to explain why The Marx Brothers are icons while Wheeler and Woolsey have been relegated to obscurity. This wild - and wildly inappropriate - satire of international politics certainly has its funny moments, but it’s probably best appreciated by serious classic film enthusiasts who are prepared to handle a manic 62 minute musical that packs in just about every racial “face” stereotype of 1930s Hollywood. Diplomaniacs is also rife with racy pre-Code sexual energy, so put the kids to bed before you attempt to fathom the appeal of this picture and its truly nutty stars.

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey star as Willy and Hercules, a couple of barbers who fruitlessly set up shop on an Indian reservation, where, supposedly, their services are never required. The locals hire the pair to be their representatives at a peace conference in Geneva, but a scheming ammunitions tycoon (Louis Calhern) tries to sink their efforts because his business depends on countries trying to kill each other. He unleashes a vamp, Dolores (Marjorie White), to seduce the boys, and later he also hires Fifi (Phyllis Barry) to thwart them, but the duo’s own ineptitude seems equally likely to undermine their mission.

We start the picture with white chorus girls dressed up in some very skimpy - and utterly fake - Native American costumes, along with Edward Cooper as the tribe’s Oxford-educated chief. After a series of “red man” shenanigans, the action moves to Europe, where the villain’s henchman is a Chinese pseudo-philosopher played by Hugh Herbert. He spouts plenty of fortune cookie nonsense before abandoning the plot and rowing back to China. Left in Europe, Willy and Hercules avoid the embraces of the two women but wind up part of a huge black face musical number when a bomb explodes in the peace conference. That gives us red face, yellow face, and black face all in about one hour, if you happen to be keeping count.

For casual modern viewers and youngsters, that much racial humor is probably a deal breaker already, but Diplomaniacs also revels in the kind of saucy comedy that only pre-Code pictures could get away with, at least until many decades later. The chorus girls show up again in some eye-popping French maid outfits, and the running gags involving both Dolores and Fifi reveal their one-note function as sex objects. More subversive is Wheeler’s frequent positioning as the “female” half of the comedy pair; the joke is most obvious when the two protagonists wake up in bed together and Willy promptly dons a lady’s dressing gown.

An academic viewer might well find it worthwhile to parse the meta, satiric, and even carnivalesque aspects of this picture, and experienced classic movie viewers might enjoy it for its parallels to Duck Soup and its instructive glimpse of the Wheeler and Woolsey style. For a quick tour of all the crazy things pre-Code movies could get away with, it’s certainly an effective example, but you have to be prepared for what you are going to get. Many viewers are likely to be too offended by the movie’s caricatures to enjoy its gags, and that’s a valid response, especially if you happen to belong to one of the groups being misrepresented.

Wheeler and Woolsey can also be found in Caught Plastered (1931), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and Kentucky Kernels (1934). William A. Seiter, who directed Diplomaniacs, is best remembered today for Fred Astaire films like You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and Shirley Temple vehicles like Stowaway (1936). Look for Louis Calhern in Duck Soup (1933), Notorious (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). You'll find Hugh Herbert in Dames (1934), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), and Hollywood Hotel (1937).

Diplomaniacs is one of a handful of Wheeler and Woolsey films currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934)

Wheeler and Woolsey are not as familiar today as some of classic comedy’s other leading teams, but they have plenty to offer to fans of The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy in terms of loaded lines, nutty plots, and goofy sight gags. Kentucky Kernels (1934) comes from the second half of their career, with George Stevens working as their director, and it makes a perfectly serviceable introduction to the duo’s comedic style, even if it suffers from the dated images of the South that one might expect from a picture with such a title. Along with supporting performances from Mary Carlisle, Noah Beery, and Margaret Dumont, Kentucky Kernels offers additional appeal in the adorably destructive form of child star Spanky McFarland, best remembered today for his recurring role in the Our Gang series of shorts.

Our story opens with Jerry Bronson (Paul Page) trying to commit suicide but being saved by down and out magicians Elmer (Robert Woolsey) and Willie (Bert Wheeler). They convince Bronson to adopt an orphan to cheer himself up, but Elmer and Willie quickly find themselves in charge of the tyke when Bronson elopes. After lawyers pronounce the newly adopted Spanky Milford (Spanky McFarland) heir to a vast Kentucky estate, Elmer and Willie escort him to his inheritance, unaware that the property lies in the middle of an ongoing feud between the Milfords and the Wakefields.

There’s a fair bit of set up before our boys arrive in Kentucky, but that’s where the action really gets going. Much of the “local color” depends on regional and racial stereotypes, some of which are more problematic than others. Wheeler and Woolsey strut around in long coats putting on some ridiculously affected Southern airs, as if their only idea of the South has come directly from equally stereotypical motion pictures, but Noah Beery’s Colonel Wakefield does nothing to dispel the image of the old Southern patriarch. Mary Carlisle, as the Colonel’s daughter, Gloria, makes a pretty love interest for Wheeler’s tender-hearted Willie, although her accent is seriously overdone. Lucille La Verne, a Nashville native, does greater justice to Southern womanhood as Aunt Hannah, who turns out to be one of the most compelling characters in the whole movie. The thorniest element of the picture is certainly Willie Best as the egregiously racist character, Buckshot; Best is credited for the role as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat,” a name he used for several of his earlier films. As successful as Best might have been with the Stepin Fetchit style in the 1930s, it’s almost impossible for viewers to laugh at it today.

Despite these problems, there’s still plenty of funny stuff going on in Kentucky Kernels. The opening gag, with Willie and Elmer arguing like a married couple, is ripe with subversive humor. Willie’s later turn in drag comes as no surprise after that introduction, although he ironically also plays the Romeo to Gloria’s drawling Juliet. Spanky’s penchant for breaking anything made of glass provides an ongoing opportunity for comic mischief, and Elmer’s magic tricks set up several good jokes, as well. The song number that dominates the middle act might go on too long for some viewers’ tastes, but you have to appreciate the increasing absurdity of the auditors, especially when Woolsey sings the romantic ditty to the long-eared object of his affection. There’s also an amusing sequence with a drunk horse and a strangely bifurcated carriage, and the finale boasts a wild siege at the Milford estate with Spanky creatively indulging his destructive appetite to his heart’s content.

Be sure to appreciate Marx Brothers regular Margaret Dumont in a small role as the head of the orphanage. For more from Wheeler and Woolsey, try Caught Plastered (1931), Diplomaniacs (1933), and Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934). Spanky McFarland takes the title role in General Spanky (1936), while Mary Carlisle also appears in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). You’ll find Noah Beery, the brother of Wallace, in The Mark of Zorro (1920), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934). Lucille La Verne appeared in numerous silent films, including Orphans of the Storm (1921), but if you close your eyes you might also recognize her as the voice of the evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). See more of George Steven's directorial work from the 1930s in Annie Oakley (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Gunga Din (1939).

You'll find Kentucky Kernels available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant. Other Wheeler and Woolsey films currently on the Warner site include Diplomaniacs (1933) and On Again - Off Again (1937).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Good Stuff on Warner Archive Instant

Warner Archive Instant has quickly become my favorite streaming service for movies. Since the site went live some months ago, it has continued to add new titles to its catalog, and every batch of new arrivals contains surprises and delights. I love not having to weed through great reeking piles of junk to find high-quality classic movies that look and sound great, even if they're cult classics instead of Oscar contenders, and for $10 a month I am really getting my money's worth out of the service.

This month I'm particularly excited by some of the newest additions. Here are a few of the movies I hope to watch and review in November!

ANDY HARDY MEETS DEBUTANTE (1940) - I love Andy Hardy films, and I have yet to see this one, so I am really pleased to see it in the new arrival bin. The Judy/Mickey combo is always fun, so this is a good choice for something to watch with the kids during the upcoming Thanksgiving break. I'm hoping Warner will add some of the other Hardy family films soon.

3 GODFATHERS (1948) - OK, I actually own this one on DVD and have seen it before, but I'm delighted that Warner added it just in time for the holidays. After all, it IS a Christmas movie! John Wayne joins a cast of terrific Western regulars for this sentimental story of outlaws who rescue a baby in the desert. Its appearance on Warner also reminds me that I need to rewatch 3 GODFATHERS and get a review posted in time for December.

JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) - This one has been on my to-watch list forever, and now I can finally check it off! Jane Wyman stars as a deaf-mute girl in a much-lauded drama from director Jean Negulesco.

HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1938) - When I'm sick or feeling down, I turn to Busby Berkeley for a lift, and this is one I have yet to see. Thanks, Warner, for helping me combat the winter blues with Dick Powell, Lola Lane, and Benny Goodman!

DIPLOMANIACS (1933) - I need to get better acquainted with Wheeler and Woolsey comedies in general, so I'm thrilled that this film and KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934) are both now available on Warner Archive Instant.

Other new additions include CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), THE FALCON'S BROTHER (1942), THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), and DANCING LADY (1933). There are also several new Charlie Chan pictures in the catalog, two with Sidney Toler in the title role and one with Roland Withers.

If you haven't signed up for Warner Archive Instant, you should certainly pay the site a visit and take advantage of the 2 week free trial offer. With the slow nights of winter ahead, you'll find plenty to keep you cozily entertained.