Friday, April 30, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958)

What happens when a modern American girl enters the London debutante season? That's the question posed by The Reluctant Debutante (1958), a romantic comedy from director Vincente Minnelli with more than a few outdated notions hiding under the hem of its ballgown. Set during the final year of the old debutante season, which was ended by Queen Elizabeth the same year the film appeared, this is a story about clashing generations and cultures that is oddly conflict averse, even to the point of giving sexual assault a pass as more of a nuisance than an actual problem. Redeeming its flaws are charming performances from the leads, with real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall getting top billing but plucky Sandra Dee bringing plenty of youthful enthusiasm to the otherwise dull debutante scene. 

Dee fills the title role as Jane, an American teenager who comes to London to visit her English father, Lord Broadbent (Rex Harrison), and his new wife, Sheila (Kay Kendall). Unfortunately for Jane, Sheila is goaded by her gossipy cousin Mabel (Angela Lansbury) into launching Jane into the debutante season, partly because Sheila never got to be a debutante herself due to World War II. Jane finds the English boys a bore, especially the tiresome David Fenner (Peter Myers), whom Sheila wants Jane to steal from Mabel's daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare) and marry. Instead Jane falls for fellow American and professional drummer David Parkson (John Saxon), a far more attractive contender but not at all what Sheila has in mind.

Much of the humor underpinning the plot revolves around the silliness of the debutante season (though never explicitly addressing its patriarchal treatment of young women as commodities). Jimmy Broadbent is run ragged by the whole affair as his wife whips them from ball to ball in pursuit of  the vicarious social triumph she never had, but the ball scenes run together for the audience as much as they do for the inebriated and sleep-deprived lord. I find it odd that Jane doesn't know anything about debutantes or "coming out" to society, since wealthy Southern families widely practiced this elaborate custom when I was growing up, and here in Huntsville the local symphony guild still indulges in the presentation of well-heeled young ladies as part of its annual events. Jane's ignorance gives the movie an excuse for the exposition, but it hardly seems necessary. Even more troublesome is the cavalier attitude toward David Fenner's attempts to force himself on Jane; it turns out that he's a habitual offender, too, only nobody seems to care because he's exactly the sort of privileged young male who gets away with awful behavior. I'd like the movie better if the ending involved some comeuppance for this repulsive character.

The thin, dated nature of the plot keeps The Reluctant Debutante in the minor leagues of classic movies, but the cast makes it worth watching in spite of its flaws. Harrison and Kendall, who had recently married in real life, have a lovely chemistry together, which the viewer experiences as bittersweet after learning that Kendall would be dead of leukemia a year later, and that Harrison knew she was dying but kept the truth from her. Kendall's Sheila has so much energy and zest for life that she's an irresistible force of nature; Jimmy and Jane never have a chance of withstanding her, and all they can do is go along while trying to nudge her into changing course. Sandra Dee, still at the very start of her film career, has ample sweetness and charm as Jane, and it's easy to see why audiences fell in love with her, while John Saxon is solid if understated as her love interest. Peter Myers is actually quite funny as David Fenner when he's droning on about traffic routes instead of assaulting young women, but most of his later career was in television rather than film. The role of Mabel is a waste of Angela Lansbury's boundless talent, even though she's perfectly capable of leaning into an unlikable character. 

If The Reluctant Debutante leaves you eager for more of Kay Kendall, try Les Girls (1957) or Once More, with Feeling! (1960), which would be her final completed film before her death in 1959. Rex Harrison would go on to marry three more times and win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in My Fair Lady (1964). Sandra Dee and John Saxon also starred together in The Restless Years (1958) before Dee found fame with Gidget (1959) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961), but Saxon enjoyed the more durable career with nearly 200 roles, many of them in horror films, before his death in 2020 at the age of 83. Vincente Minnelli had won his Best Director Oscar for his previous film, Gigi (1958), which appeared the same year as The Reluctant Debutante, but Father of the Bride (1950) might make for a better double feature of his films.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW

Thanks to Disney Plus, viewers can finally enjoy all five seasons of The Muppet Show, and at my house we've been delighted to have access to the long-awaited fourth and fifth seasons, which were never available on DVD. The release has created some controversy about Disney's decision to include content warnings on a handful of episodes (which are, in some cases, painfully necessary), but for Muppet fans the more pressing questions often involve trying to figure out who the guest star is, since some of these folks might have been famous in the 1970s but are truly obscure now. Luckily for classic movie fans, the guest list also includes some fantastic stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and their appearances on the show offer a delightful snapshot of these stars as they appeared in the late 1970s. 

For many viewers who were kids in the 70s, these guest spots might well have been their first introduction to entertainers from their parents' or grandparents' eras, which means that Gen Xers in particular might have been meeting Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly for the first time. Other stars were much more familiar to the average 10 year old of 1978, including Mark Hamill, Don Knotts, and Rich Little, while many of the British guests would have baffled American children and adults alike (the show was filmed in London, so British guests were much easier to acquire). Of course, today even the "current" stars of 1978 look like classic ones, but every season of the show mixed classic stars, current American celebrities, and British talents to provide a weirdly educational cultural smorgasbord for unsuspecting child viewers. Singers and dancers had obvious appeal, as did comedians, but that didn't stop the show from featuring action stars like James Coburn and Roger Moore or magician Doug Henning. The classic movie stars were just part of the mix.

Each season has at least one classic star, although some were better known in the 70s than others thanks to musical careers, television roles, or later film roles. In Season One, you can see Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Season Two offers Don Knotts, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, George Burns, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, and Bob Hope. Showing up in Season Three are Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Season Four is comparatively light on classic movie stars but includes Liza Minnelli, while Season Five ends the series with James Coburn, Tony Randall, and Gene Kelly. Each of these is worth watching, but the episodes with Moreno, Price, Andrews, and Belafonte are particularly good, so start there if you're a classic film fan but not someone with a lot of previous experience with The Muppet Show

A handful of the classic film stars who appear on the series also have cameos in the original 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, where you can spot Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and James Coburn along with Orson Welles, Telly Savalas, and many younger stars who also appeared as guests on the show. Many of the Muppet films are also streaming on Disney Plus, so if the classic stars on The Muppet Show whet your appetite for more of Kermit and the gang, there's plenty of content available. 


Want to know everything there is to know about The Muppets? Head on over to my friends at Tough Pigs to find news, articles, podcasts, and commentary! You can also check out the essay anthology, Kermit Culture, that Anissa Graham and I edited; it's available in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon. Our second anthology, The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson, looks at films and other productions like The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934)

Adapted from the thrilling tales penned by Baroness Orczy in the first years of the twentieth century, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) is an essential part of the swashbuckler genre even though it's not exactly an action picture. Instead, Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, its stars, are primarily involved in the romantic difficulties that arise when couples keep secrets from each other, but their rocky relationship provides plenty of melodrama to make up for the missing fight scenes. The original novel's themes would become ingrained in later swashbucklers and super hero stories, but the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is enjoyable for its own merits as well as its influence, and Leslie Howard is particularly fun to watch in his duplicitous role as the daring Pimpernel hiding behind the persona of a superficial fop.

Howard stars as the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution. To protect his mission, Percy presents himself as a vain, foolish lightweight in London, where French spies are doggedly trying to unmask the hero and his band. Even Percy's beautiful French wife, Marguerite (Merle Oberon), doesn't know the truth, which leaves her unhappy with her seemingly shallow husband. When the villainous Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) offers to trade Marguerite's captured brother for the Pimpernel, she doesn't know that her husband's life is on the line. Percy, meanwhile, launches his own effort to rescue his brother-in-law and other prisoners of Robespierre's merciless regime.

He might not be engaging in any sword fights, but Leslie Howard is very much the star of this picture, and he gives a delightful performance as both daring, brilliant hero and outrageously refined fop. The playboy act that hides a secret identity is, of course, well-known to fans of Zorro and Batman, but Howard's Percy takes pains to be as vapid and useless as possible. He abandons any interest in preserving his dignity or reputation, even to his own wife, mainly because he believes that she exposed a French family to arrest and execution before her departure from France. The tension between Howard and Oberon crackles as they alternately long for and distrust one another; they duel with sharp glances and burning hearts rather than swords, but they're really the chief combatants in this tale. Merle Oberon is perfectly cast as the passionate, fascinating Marguerite; we understand why Percy loves her even when he thinks the worst of her, and she carries the third act in truly heroic fashion. Sir Percy fights with his disguises and schemes rather than weapons, which makes him a more cerebral hero than some of his swashbuckling brethren, but his penchant for dressing up connects him with Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and other clever tricksters, and the intellectual nature of the Pimpernel's heroism suits Howard really well.

While it eschews the violence of duels, The Scarlet Pimpernel endeavors to convey the horrors of the French Revolution as poignantly as possible, especially in the opening scenes of the film. You won't actually see heads chopped off and held high for the cheering crowds, but you might think you did because of the careful way the shots are constructed. The most powerful scene unfolds in the prison where the former aristocrats await their fate; the camera lingers especially on women and young children, some innocently playing or passing the time, others posed like martyrs with their eyes turned toward Heaven. Here we are introduced to Suzanne de Tournay (Joan Gardner) and her parents, whom the Pimpernel risks his own life to save. They help us invest in the plight of the overthrown aristocrats and sympathize with Sir Percy's cause even if we know the gross inequality and lofty ideals that first set the Revolution in motion. The movie ends with the Revolution still underway, but most people know that the mastermind, Robespierre, who in the film gives the fictional Chauvelin his orders, would meet the guillotine himself in 1794. By the end of the Reign of Terror, almost 17,000 people had been executed. 

A TV movie adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared in 1982 and is beloved by many Gen Xers; it's well worth tracking down if you want a different take on the story. If you enjoy seeing Leslie Howard in quirkier roles, see It's Love I'm After (1937) and Pygmalion (1938). Howard returned to a Pimpernel inspired role in Pimpernel Smith (1941), this time rescuing victims of the Nazis in Germany. Don't miss Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Lodger (1944). Harold Young, who directed The Scarlet Pimpernel, is not particularly well known today, but his career includes some minor horror entries like The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Frozen Ghost (1945), and The Jungle Captive (1945). 

 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)

The notorious Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare supplied the insatiable cadaver market with "made to order" corpses in the early 19th century, and they've been nightmare fuel for popular culture ever since, with multiple horror films revisiting their crimes. Among these is The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), which benefits from the presence of Peter Cushing as the cadaver purchaser, Dr. Knox, and Donald Pleasence as the relentlessly amoral William Hare. Although the title is ultimately more lurid than the actual film, the continental cut of The Flesh and the Fiends justifies its X rating with plenty of topless female flesh and a couple of extended murder scenes that emphasize the victims' plight. It's not as glossy as some of the better Hammer horrors where Cushing became a genre icon, but this Triad version of a Hammer picture is worth watching if you're interested in historical horror or enjoy the particular appeal of a really devilish Donald Pleasence villain.

Cushing plays the real life receiver of the corpses, Dr. Knox, who doesn't much care how he gets the cadavers that supply his medical students with "subjects" for study. Knox's constant demand for fresh bodies keeps the local grave robbers busy, but Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Pleasence) stumble into the trade when one of Burke's lodgers dies still owing the rent, and Hare realizes that there's an easy way to turn the loss into a gain. Soon the pair are dispatching lodgers and locals at a brisk pace and lining their pockets with Knox's guineas, even as Knox's assistant, Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) begins to suspect the cadavers' origins. Meanwhile, Knox's troubled student, Chris (John Cairney), discovers a different part of Edinburgh's underbelly when he begins a romance with prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), but the lovers prove to be too close to the murderers' orbit for their own good.

The performances of the main characters drive the interest here, with Rose and Pleasence like a comedy duo from hell as the opportunistic killers. They're almost cartoonish in their exaggerated appearance and mannerisms, but once they start knocking off their neighbors they become really unnerving. The attacks on Mary and Daft Jamie (both real victims of the historical killers) drive home the violence of the acts but also highlight the differences between the two murderers, with Hare feverishly unhinged and Burke brutally cruel. Both men are monsters without any humanity in them, but they're fascinating monsters nonetheless. Cushing provides some contrast to the pair as the erudite but ethically questionable doctor, with the actor as reliable as ever in his role. Still, the film pulls its punches with Knox, trying to invest him with some redeeming qualities through the devotion of his niece (June Laverick), his assistant, and his many students. Neither the situation presented in the picture nor the historical record justify Knox's escape from punishment for his part in the crimes, and the scenes of Knox's domestic life do nothing to advance the plot. Of the secondary characters, Mary is the most interesting and tragic, even though every viewer starts the picture knowing that a hard-drinking prostitute has very little life expectancy in this kind of story.

The Flesh and the Fiends would be a better picture without the niece's romantic subplot and with more emphasis on the other characters who aid or fall victim to the killers' schemes, and its artificial studio atmosphere doesn't do the sublime creepiness of period Edinburgh justice. The nudity of the continental cut was provocative for 1960 but pretty tame even by the standards of the 1970s and thus not a real concern for a modern audience. The horror of the murders and the sad fate awaiting the victims are the compelling elements of the story, although the rough justice meted out to the killers provides some satisfaction while also highlighting the extreme privilege that protects men like Knox. In short, this isn't the best Burke and Hare picture of the lot, and it's certainly not the best of Cushing's horror roles, but there's enough here to warrant a viewing for fans of the genre and its primary players. Pleasence alone is worth the time and effort required.

John Gilling, who wrote and directed The Flesh and the Fiends, also made The Gamma People (1956), Fury at Smuggler's Bay (1962), and The Mummy's Shroud (1967). If you're interested in more horror inspired by Burke and Hare, try The Body Snatcher (1945), Horror Maniacs (1948), Burke & Hare (1972), or Burke and Hare (2010). A visit to modern Edinburgh reveals the enduring appeal of the gruesome history of Burke and Hare, where you can find their crimes recreated at The Edinburgh Dungeon or see the actual skeleton of William Burke on display at the Anatomical Museum. You can also find walking tours devoted to tracing the steps of the murderers and their victims.

 

As of February 2021, The Flesh and the Fiends is available for streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.

Friday, January 29, 2021

2020 Movie Log in Review

As we all know, 2020 was a year unlike any other. With the pandemic raging and constant political crises unfolding, we needed movies to comfort us more than ever but couldn't leave the house to enjoy them. My 2020 movie log reflects the fact that I usually had company on the couch and that our collective tastes leaned toward movies that took our minds off the overwhelming problems of the day. With that in mind, here's the log for 2020.

 

January 

The Black Cauldron (1985)

But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Troop Zero (2019)

MIB International (2019)

Blinded by the Light (2019)

Master of Dark Shadows (2019)

Payment on Demand (1951)

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Old Acquaintance (1943)


February

Big Business (1988)

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Night of the Comet (1984)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You (2020)

Birds of Prey (2020)

The Fog (1980)

Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon (2019)

Tremors (1990)


March

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Casablanca (1942)

Onward (2020)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Tremors (1990) - yes, again

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)


April

Smoke Signals (1998)

Jaws (1975)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The More the Merrier (1943)

Willow (1988)

Rashomon (1950)

The Women (1939)

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)


May

The Half of It (2020)

Tangled (2010)

Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Escape from New York (1981)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Emma (2020)

Soap Dish (1991)


June

Rocketman (2019)

The Vast of Night (2019)

Batman Forever (1995)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Heartbreakers (2001)

Marty (1955)


July 

Knives Out (2019)

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Hamilton (2020)

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Madam Satan (1930)

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The Avengers (2012)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic World (2015)


August

Extra Ordinary (2020)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Feel the Beat (2020)

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Jumanji: The Next Level (2020)

Emo - The Musical (2016)

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)


September

Countess Dracula (1971)

Twins of Evil (1971)

Stage Mother (2020)

Wonder Man (1945)

The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010)

Fade to Black (1980)

Poltergeist (1982)

Disclosure (2020)

Valley Girl (1983)

Suburban Gothic (2014)

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)


October

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Paris is Burning (1990)

Theater of Blood (1973)

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

The Monster Club (1981)

Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)

The Addams Family (2019)

The Selling (2011)

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The Red House (1947)

Tremors: Shrieker Island (2020)

Paranorman (2012)

The Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting (2020)


November

Now, Voyager (1942)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

The Late Edwina Black (1951)

Holidate (2020)

Sabrina (1954)

Hello, Dolly! (1969)

That Touch of Mink (1962)

Return of the Jedi (1983)

White Christmas (1954)

 

December

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Jingle Jangle (2020)

Barbarella (1968)

Rogue One (2016)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Mank (2020)

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

A Christmas Carol (1938)

The Prom (2020)

Scrooged (1988)

Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)

A Christmas Story (1983)

Die Hard (1988)

Soul (2020)

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Two Towers (2002)

(And the first movie of 2021 was, of course, The Return of the King!)


Total movies watched in 2020: 128

Side note on 2020 viewing: We also watched all four seasons of Star Wars: Rebels this year, which was time well spent. Other TV series for 2020 included Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Lower Decks, The Mandalorian, Bridgerton, and the British comedy/quiz series, QI, which became a favorite bedtime show for the whole family.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

2020, The Year Without Movies

2020 - a year of masks, not movies.
The last movie I saw in a theater was Onward back in March of 2020. It was spring break for my college freshman, who had brought a friend home for the holiday, and that week we were also finally closing on the sale of our old house, six months after moving into our new one across town. It should have been a celebratory week, but instead the pandemic loomed over us. The small talk at the closing was all about the virus, but in vague terms; nobody had really grasped what was about to happen. We had been to our usual theater earlier that week to see Onward with the kids, but it was never crowded there, and I didn't really think about it. By March 12th, when we closed on the sale and went out to dinner to mark the occasion, I was suddenly terribly aware of how crowded the restaurant was and for the first time felt a sense of panic about other people that has now become all too familiar. By the end of the week we were making a headlong rush back to the college in Florida to clear out the kids' dorms because the school was shutting down.

I haven't been inside a movie theater or a restaurant since then, and I don't know when I'll be back. The restaurant is still there - we've enjoyed their curbside service several times - but the movie theater is gone. I haven't driven by the spot where they're now demolishing it, but I feel its absence. I wonder what the friendly ticket seller we always chatted with is doing now. I hope she found another job before they officially closed the place and sold it. There are other theaters in town, farther from our house and more expensive, but I have no idea when I'll consider going to one of them. Vaccination is probably still months away for me, and by then, who knows what will be happening with all these new variants of the virus?

One of the last movie days with the retirement community.

2020 was a long year for a lot of reasons, but among the things we've lost are the movies. I don't mean streaming, of course. The streaming services had a banner year, and right now they're betting on another one. What we lost was the communal experience of movies that happens in a theater when people who might have nothing else in common gather to laugh, cry, scream, and shout at flickering images on a big screen. Somehow that seems even more precious when I consider the broken, divided state of our nation. We had movies in the Great Depression and World War II to see us through the dark days. They lifted spirits, brought people together, and showed us how to be resilient and brave. In 2020, when we really needed that experience more than most of us could remember, we couldn't have it. All of my film programs with lifetime learners and retirement communities were suspended indefinitely as the virus locked us down. The movie theaters closed, some forever. We had to watch our movies by ourselves, at home, and it isn't the same. 

Some of the new releases have been delayed again and again, waiting for the expected return to normalcy. Others were dropped to streaming services instead, either to lure new subscribers or to get some return on the investment through premiere access fees. Many movies that were in development had to shut down, which means the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. Right now, as we complete the first month of 2021, we really don't know when movies or moviegoers will return. We don't actually know IF they will return, either. It's possible that the future will always be different from the past we've left behind. Perhaps I'll look at this blog post a year from now and feel relief. Perhaps I'll read it and laugh ironically at my naivete. Only time will tell.

I've missed the movies this last year. I've missed the people I shared classic movies with at the library and the retirement community. I've missed being able to think about movies and write about them, but the pandemic and the upheaval in the country have fractured my attention into sharp bits of crisis all coming down like glass. I'll post my 2020 review of films watched soon, but my comforts this last year were more cinematic popcorn than brain food. We'll see if 2021 restores our collective sanity.