Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Champagne for Caesar" (1950) Dir- Richard Whorf

What I remember:

When I wrote about "The Rocking Horse Winner", I told you that my college
girlfriend talked me into watching it. In the case of "Champagne for Caesar", it was my post-college girlfriend who turned me on to it.

We watched it on our huge 19 inch screen Toshiba, which was more than ample for this film. To that point, that TV was the most expensive thing I'd ever bought that didn't help me make music in some fashion; that is until I bought my first VCR, a Panasonic 2 piece unit with separate tuner and video recorder/player.
Ahh, technology of the early '80's. Remember tracking dials? How about having to tune your TV to channels 3 or 4 depending on your local stations? Oh yeah, early Manhattan Cable, with some of the most unintentionally hilarious Cable Access programming you can imagine.

My girlfriend was quite the intellectual, and she was pretty funny too. She
certainly got comedy, and this movie was right up her alley. In order to make
money, a super-intelligent professor goes on a quiz show, and proceeds to clean up. He's got a parrot who gets drunk, and a very acerbic tongue. His arrogance, I think, ends up tripping him up at some point.

What sets this comedy apart from the usual dopey '50's chucklers is the cast, in particular Ronald Coleman as genius Beauregard Bottomley, and a crack supporting crew headed by Celeste Holm, Vincent Price and, gasp, Art Linkletter. Not to mention the great Mel Blanc as the voice of Caesar, the tippling talking bird.

It feels like this one has been all but forgotten. Time to change that, at
least with 5 or 6 of you who will ever read this thing.

After re-watching:

 Happy Hogan: “You have five seconds to tell us the Japanese word for goodbye. 1... 2..”

Bottomey: “Sayonara. Not to be confused with cyanide, which is, of course, goodbye in any language.”


Beauregard Bottomley (Ronald Coleman) is a true intellectual, who sadly for him, is unemployed. He lives with Gwenn (Barbara Britton), his piano-teaching sister in a bungalow in Hollywood. At the unemployment office, he gets wind of a job with Milady Soap, run by the eccentric Burnbridge Waters (Vincent Price). Waters is horrible to Bottomley at the interview, so Bottemley hatches a revenge plan that centers around a trivia based game show sponsored by Milady. Bottomley shows up on the show dressed as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and proceeds to win week in and week out, until he becomes a celebrity. He won't be satisfied, however, until he bankrupts the soap company and Waters to boot. Complications arise when Gwenn falls in love with the quiz show host Happy Hogan (Art Linkletter), and Waters hires a siren named Flame (Celeste Holm) to addle Bottomley’s mind.


There might be a lot more going on here than just your average frothy comedy. It’s confusing that the quiz show is first seen in a store window as a TV show, yet subsequently is referred to as a radio show. Initially it feels like this film is a vendetta by Hollywood against the lowbrow world of TV. But then when you keep hearing that it’s on radio, you start to think that it’s all in your mind. Curiously, the only real dummy in the film is Frosty, the starlet neighbor of the Bottomleys, who is at least quite sweet, and very attractive. Everyone else is quite erudite and well spoken, even Happy Hogan. You want stupidity and ignorance? Try 2012, my friends, not 1950.

The indictment of encroaching ignorance in society, which seems like the purpose of this film, begins to take a back seat to the comedy, which really dominates the proceedings. In fact, much of the comedy is physical, which would seem lowbrow to a lot of people. But really, what makes you laugh harder than such brilliant physical comedy as the opening of “City Lights” (Chaplin and the statue), or the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera” (“and 3 hard-boiled eggs”), or Alvy Singer’s LA bumper cars in “Annie Hall”? You don’t get smarter than those three comedy icons, that’s for certain.

The movie is filled with memorable characters, especially the two male leads.

Bottomley is a snob’s snob, but he is also quite witty and, even though the term is anachronistic, I’d say snarky. His insults aimed at Milady, Hogan and even the listening audience themselves are couched in such wit, that nobody seems to mind. In fact, the audience appears in on the joke. If this were today’s reality TV, a guy like this would be vilified. At one point when leaving Waters’ office, he says “Shall I genuflect, or just face Mecca?” Nobody is put off by his snarkiness, in fact, they applaud his gambling spirit; that he is willing to risk it all solely on the confidence that he feels he can’t be stumped.

Waters is the worst kind of psycho-boss. You have no problem with Beauregard’s vendetta; you want this prick taken down as much as he does. Vincent Price’s read on the character is about as funny as you can imagine. He’s completely unscrupulous, and also as corrupt and crazy as absolute power can make someone.  More on this later. Suffice to say that he makes the bosses in “Horrible Bosses” look like Ben and Jerry. One of my favorite TV comedies is the Aughties British series “The IT Crowd”. The boss in that show, Denholm Reynholm is absolutely insane, and hilarious. I wonder if the writer, Graham Linehan, had ever scene "Champagne for Caesar", because the resemblance of Denholm to Waters is unmistakable.

Look, this is no “Sullivan’s Travels”. You’re not getting a deep message along with your chuckles. It seems like this will happen, but it never really does. That doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.


Richard Whorf had directed a bunch of very unremarkable post-war features up until "Champagne for Caesar", a few musicals and comedies, and one noir, creatively titled “Love From a Stranger”. He went on to direct a ton of television shows, including a bunch of “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” episodes. We’re not talking Raoul Walsh, here, despite the initials being the same. Whorf does a great job with this film, mostly. There is a bit of slowdown in the 3rd act, where there should have been some acceleration in the proceedings.

After Waters hires Flame O’Neill to seduce and confuse Bottomley, their courtship and her use of feminine wiles is more than predictable. As much as I love Celeste Holm, she brings little new to this role, and certainly toils in the shadow of others before her, notably Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur. Ronald Coleman isn’t really great at this kind of humor. While he does a masterful job at the quick retorts and the slapstick, his take on a lovesick professor is lacking. I think of the actors who had this sort of character down; Jack Lemmon, Cary Grant, even Henry Fonda in “The Lady Eve”. I feel that in different hands, the comedy in this section would have been much stronger and believable, and "Champagne for Caesar" would be considered a masterpiece of the genre.

The sets are stellar throughout, particularly the Milady offices. Photography is simple and direct, nothing gets in the way of the humor or story. The score has one memorable theme, and is typical of comic films of that era.


In spite of the flaws of Coleman’s and Holm’s realization of the romance/anti-romance, most of the acting herein is just perfect. Coleman is a revelation as a physical comic. His bit with the Milady arms is as well done as Buster Keaton. As you would expect, his delivery of barbs is low key and yet still stingingly funny. And his frustration with the dumbing down of society comes across with palpable clarity. It is a very different role from the man who played Sidney Carton, Charles Rainier and Robert Conway. 

As for Vincent Price, this film predates his horror genre dominance, and follows his turn as Shelby Carpenter in “Laura”. To my knowledge, other than guest turns on variety hours, this is his only true comic role, and he is brilliant. Right in the middle of a conversation he will go into freeze mode, his assistant insisting that he has “entered another plane”. Suddenly he’ll snap out of it in full conversation. His timing and expressions hit every note pitch perfectly. Who knew? It makes you wish he had done much more like this.

Like I said before, I am a fan of Celeste Holm, and she rarely disappoints. Rarely however, has she been employed as a femme fatale, albeit a comic one. She doesn’t really have that animal magnetism or overt sexuality that the part calls for. She is a fine comedienne, but sadly miscast in this film. Bottomley admittedly wants an intellectual peer for a mate, but there still needs to be some chemistry to make that relationship and his sudden inability to concentrate believable. I think Rita Hayworth could have pulled this off far better.

As for Art Linkletter---it’s so hard for people of my generation to separate him from the TV icon--“Kids Say the Darnedest Things” and all that. When I was growing up, he and Ed Sullivan were the two biggest TV personalities that weren’t animated or on strings. At least as far as I know! It is no stretch for me to see him as a Quiz Show host, especially one as clownish as Happy Hogan. Of course, when Gwenn falls in love with him, uhhhhh, no. Art Linkletter a chick magnet? What the hell? Then again, I totally love dancing ingĂ©nue Dick Powell playing Phillip Marlowe in “Murder My Sweet”, so preconceptions be damned.

And what of our titular character, the parrot named Caesar? His voice was portrayed by the genius Mel Blanc, but given only a few good lines. I guess the concept of an alcoholic talking bird was enough to keep audiences in stitches in 1950. The film would have been fine without him, and his comic part is overshadowed by Coleman and Price. No upstaging by this pet, unlike Uggie in “The Artist”. It’s also kind of hard to understand what he’s saying through Blanc’s voice tricks. Too bad…there could have been a lot more great moments in here.


"Champagne for Caesar" is a great and original comedy, but could have been much, much better. I think there is a reason why it’s been forgotten, and we can point directly to the lack of real romantic tension and chemistry between the two leads.  It’s absolutely worth the time, if nothing else for watching two masterful genre actors go completely outside their milieus, and for some terrific highbrow AND lowbrow comedy.

1st Look- 1/2   2nd Look- 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“SE7EN” 1995 (Dir: David Fincher)

I didn't get it.

What I remember:

Dark. Dark darkness darkly dimming dusk peeking into gloomy rain-soaked edifices growing moldy with peeling paint and rot.

This is what I remember from David Fincher’s second feature film. To say that “Se7en” has a mood, would be like saying that “Dumb and Dumber” was silly. Fincher, I felt, tried just so damn hard to announce himself as an auteur with this movie. His intent was to go past the typical police procedural/serial killer genre. His intent, I believe, was to make something that would have the art of Fritz Lang’s “M”, with the power and horror of Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs”.
The truth is, he wasn’t ready yet. He did that a few years later with what I feel is one of the finest of this genre, “Zodiac”. “Zodiac” has everything “Se7en” did not—starting with a believable story. Maybe because it’s a TRUE story.
“Se7en” seems like an impossible tale because it IS impossible. Starting with the level of difficulty of pulling off these murders in the manner they were accomplished; details are lacking in my memory, but I recall thinking that this killer would have to be awake 24-7, and in 49 places at once for 10 years to pull off these elaborate schemes. The other items that are hard to get around are the disparate intelligence levels of the two lead characters. There’s no way a lifelong detective in a city police force is as highly educated and intelligent as Morgan Freeman’s Lt. Somerset, or that Brad Pitt’s Det. Mills could be such a total blockhead. Somerset comes off as a Harvard literature professor taking a sabbatical. Mills resembles a WWF bad guy wrestler.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the audience gave “Se7en” 87% approval, as opposed to a “Zodiac” rating of 73%. Critics saw it a bit more my way, but still had this film rated way higher than the score I would give it. Let’s see if a subsequent viewing makes me change my mind.

After re-watching:

“You're no messiah. You're a movie of the week. You're a fucking t-shirt, at best.” Det. David Mills


Young Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) have just moved to the big city so that David can become a Homicide Detective. He is partnered with erudite Lieutenant William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), and the two bump heads more than a few times. Somerset is about to retire, when a serial killer case develops. It’s clear that the killer is murdering people who each represent one of the seven deadly sins. As the case unfolds, it becomes clear that this killer is in much more control than the police.


Spoiler alert---you must understand that this whole undertaking is rotten with spoilers, but if you haven’t seen “Se7en”, then please stop reading this until you have.

Before I even discuss my feelings about this film, can we just go over one very important item that bugs the hell out of me? Thanks.

OK, so there are 7 deadly sins. He kills the fat guy- Gluttony. He kills the lawyer-Greed. He kills the hooker- Lust. He kills the model-Pride. He kills the junky- Sloth. What’s left?

According to my sources, Wrath and Envy. The last two victims are Tracy and the killer himself, John Doe (Kevin Spacey). Which is which? Wait, so when Mills kills Doe, that’s Wrath. And Doe makes a big deal about how envious he is of Mills and his beautiful wife. Envy. If you think about it for more than a second, it makes zero sense. Shouldn’t the people who are envious or wrathful be punished and killed? Then that means that Doe is a sinner? But I thought he was the right hand of God, smiting the sinners. That makes him wrathful. But Mills kills him in wrath. Now you say, but the man is insane, so of course it makes no sense. I retort, he is way too methodical to be sloppy about who and what represents these sins. The slop, my friends, is in the script and plot.  

The last line of dialogue in the film is Somerset’s voiceover (wow-Morgan Freeman doing a voiceover? Go figure.) quoting Hemingway:
“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for”. Then Somerset says, “I agree with the second part”.

This is our theme, friends. The world is a vile cesspool. But don’t give up! We hope you enjoyed your movie. Now go home, get a good night’s sleep (if you can) and get back to work in your dreary puddle of shit. Try not to get murdered or dismembered on your way home.

I recently saw the film “Shame”, which I immediately labeled “The Worst Date Movie EVER”. “Se7en” is a damn close 2nd.


A friend of mine used to call pitcher Ryan Dempster “Bipolar Boy” because he would be so inconsistent from start to start. That is how I feel about David Fincher. He can give you near masterpieces like “The Social Network”, “Zodiac” and “Fight Game”, and then you get a mess like “Benjamin Button” or “Alien3”. I think this film is a mess, too.

One of the things that makes a chilling horror film so effective is that feeling that it is really happening. Why do “Psycho” and “The Birds” freak us out so thoroughly? Hitchcock leads you to believe that everything is perfectly plausible, and there, but for the grace of God, goes you.

Yes I understand that Fincher was going for a modern day chiaroscuro effect, where things are hidden and poorly lit. Done in the right amount, this is very gothic and can give the audience just enough of a sense of uneasiness. The extent to which it’s done in “Se7en”, sad to say, is absurd. I mean, the Public Library looks like some kind of dimly lit sex club. Not that I’ve ever been to one, but I’ve seen them on the news. The police station looks like one of those old banks that they’ve turned into a chic restaurant, with marble staircases and columns all lit artfully.

Then there’s the rain—where is this supposed to take place, anyway? Tracy at one point says they moved from upstate. Well it’s New York then, right? Where else is that a term? And it rains all the damn time. Maybe it’s Seattle. Nope, no hills. At the end, they drive to a desert, obviously California somewhere.
Back to the rain; at one point it is pouring outside, but when they go into a building to investigate a murder, the sun is streaming in from the outside windows. Come on! Sloppy is as sloppy does. Or Sloppy John Does.

I will admit that the first time I saw it, the end was both shocking and powerful. Kind of like the twist in “The Sixth Sense”. It made up for a lot of what bugged me in the movie. But just think how powerful and shocking it could have been, had they taken the care to make this a truly credible and slightly more realistic film.


I’m not going to say that Fincher is the modern day Hitchcock, in that he views his actors as cattle. Truth be told, the acting is somewhat secondary in his films, although there were a few standout performances sprinkled throughout. I loved Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson in “Button”, and John Carroll Lynch in “Zodiac” was unforgettable.

Brad Pitt seems to be finding his way as an actor, finally. “Moneyball” was a breakthrough performance, and I am hoping there will be more to come. For me, the early roles are just without subtlety and depth. It’s a hole in the middle of “Benjamin Button”, and a huge problem in “Se7en”. His role model here seems to have been Mel Gibson’s performances in the “Lethal Weapon” series. Bluster and frustration are combined, but there is little intelligence and humor.

Morgan Freeman is universally beloved, and as hard as it is to believe his character, he gives it the old college try. His scene with Gwyneth is solid, and his reactions during the film’s climax are convincing. It’s nowhere near the level of his parts for Clint Eastwood, or even his supporting turn in “Shawshank Redemption”. Gwyneth herself has very little to work with, but she is lovely to look at, of course.

It’s worth mentioning Kevin Spacey’s creepy John Doe, since it is obviously the template for Verbal Kint in “The Usual Suspects”. Slightly effeminate, and quite subdued, he uses this singsong voice pattern, and there is just enough of a sense of superciliousness that makes it work. A touch of crazy inches in near the end of his big scene in the squad car, and he handles it well.


I do have a list of “one-timers”, movies that I liked but never really want to see again, because they were tough to watch.
“Midnight Express”, “Shame”, “Jesus’ Son”, and “Requiem for a Dream” all are on this list. So was “Se7en”, but for the blog I will do anything!!

This is not a film you want to revisit. It is a thoroughly uncomfortable experience, like recalling a terrible error in judgement that you made years ago. You know it will be interesting to go there, but you can’t change it, and it will make you a bit sick to your stomach. It’s a one-timer, and I am sorry I didn’t keep it that way.

On First Look: 1/2   On Second Look:

Friday, August 24, 2012

“THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE” (1941) Dir: Raoul Walsh

What I remember:

I saw this movie, believe it or not, in a film class. I think. Damn, my college memories are miniscule. I wonder why? But, seriously, what the hell kind of film course shows “The Strawberry Blonde”?
It’s not an auteur piece. It’s not a genre piece, unless you want to call it a costumer. What it is, is a “Picture”. “Hey, you hear the rumpus about that new Cagney picture? It’s a doozy with a hot redhead named Hayworth. Warner’s really done it THIS time!”

I learned two very important lessons watching this movie.

First, talented people can be versatile even if you’ve got them totally pigeon-holed. As far as I knew, Cagney never showed much of a flair for comedy unless you call shoving a grapefruit in a moll’s face funny. I thought of him as a tough guy. Oh yeah, but then there was “Yankee Doodle Dandy” where he showed off his considerable dancing chops. I’d call him a song and dance guy, but he couldn’t sing a lick, and of course, being a tough guy, he never would sing no matter how brutal the Coppers got with him. As for comedy, Cagney later on showed how great a comedian he could be with his amazing Gatling Gun delivery of Billy Wilder lines in “One, Two, Three”.
My second lesson was obvious, but to a college student it was still a lesson; no matter what era you are in, there will be nostalgia for another era. “Midnight in Paris” hammers this point home, of course, but I saw “The Strawberry Blonde” in 1974, 30 plus years before Woody’s opus.
In 1941, they were pining for a time before the Great War, especially with another huge conflict already in motion, and about to sweep the U.S. into its maelstrom. The turn of the century seemed simple, not very scary, a bit wholesome, and worth a bunch of laughs at how ridiculous the clothes and hair and vernacular were.

Why is the melody for “Take on Me” suddenly screeching it’s falsetto in my mind’s ear? Wait, now it’s “I Ran so Far Away”…..


“Well, that completes the picture. I've been around, they can say an awful lot of things about Biff Grimes, but not that he ever gave a cigarette to a girl.”- Biff Grimes


Biff Grimes (Jimmy Cagney) has been jealous of his childhood friend Hugo Barmstead (Jack Carson) his entire life. When Hugo invites Biff on a double date with the beautiful Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) and a friend, Biff is led to believe that it is he that will be paired off with Virginia. But, as usual, Hugo pulls a fast one and Biff ends up with free-thinking Amy Lind (Olivia DeHavilland) instead. Biff does end up getting a date with Virginia, but she eventually runs off to marry Hugo, leaving Biff with the suddenly attractive Amy. A few years later, Hugo sets Biff up to be his fall guy in a shady business deal, and Biff ends up in jail. He gets his chance for revenge as the film winds up.


Well, maybe the comedy in this film isn’t really centered around Cagney. He gets a few laughs, allright, but most of the best moments belong to Alan Hale, as Biff’s neer-do-well father. Even though our hero is kind of a shit, and not too smart either, Cagney makes him likeable. He’s a tough guy, for certain, but there is definitely good there, despite the fact that he constantly refers to himself in 3rd person. Carson’s Hugo is much more affable on the outside, with a black heart inside. He gets the girl that everyone wants, but you find out that it’s a hollow victory.

The idea that inner beauty trumps outer beauty is as old as the hills. Also, it is as false as a Billionaire’s tax return. I love that episode of “30 Rock” wherein Jon Hamm gets all these amazing perks and deals just because he is so incredibly handsome. Everyone wants to date Virginia, and all other women look unattractive in comparison. The funny thing is, what makes the lovely Amy seem even more of a dog to Biff is her “free-thinking” progressive suffragette attitude. This must have seemed so quaint to the ladies of the ‘40’s, and eventually she does come to be seen as more of a posturer than an actual Libber. When Biff realizes that she isn’t anywhere close to as open-minded as she acts, is when he starts thinking of her as attractive.

All of this subject matter; the beauty inside issue, the women’s liberation front, even our double-dealing/revenge plot, takes a backseat to what is really going on, however, which is full-fledged, no holds barred nostalgia. For the older folks in the theater, this must have been a wonderful excursion, and for the younger folks, a light-hearted escape. Even now, it is entertaining to watch the filmmakers poke good-natured fun at the past. There’s a nice little slapstick scene with the two couples trying to eat spaghetti for the first time, as they make a big deal about Hugo and Virginia’s Italian chef. It’s hard to believe that nobody ate pasta in America in those days, but I guess it must be true. Italians and Jews did make it over here a bit later than the Irish and Germans, and their food and customs had yet to permeate New York culture in the 1890’s.

As with all nostalgia pictures, music is front and center. Nothing brings back the feel of an era quicker and more effectively than its music does. The title of the picture comes from the great waltz “The Band Played On”.  Just the sound of that song conjures straw boaters, striped shirts with armbands, hoop dresses and handlebar mustaches.
Hoop dresses and handlebar mustaches? Why did “The Lumberjack Song” just come into my head? 
There’s also a barbershop quartet moment that actually takes place in a barbershop (in case you didn’t remember how the genre got its name). Apparently everyone in the Gay ‘90’s could sing their bustles off. And perpetually off camera is “Schultz”, with his brass band playing all the favorites outside in the park.


Raoul Walsh, eye-patch wearing Hollywood legend, was at the helm of this lighthearted romp. One generally associates him with macho crime fare such as “White Heat” and “High Sierra”, but over the course of his career he directed a good amount of comedies and musicals, like “Artists and Models” with Jack Benny, and “Every Night at Eight” with Alice Faye. With 139 films to his credit, you must assume that he rarely turned anything down. Norman Mailer said that Walsh was pulled off his death bed to direct Mailer’s war epic “The Naked and the Dead” in 1958. Walsh lived another 22 years, so that might not be too trustworthy!

Raoul Walsh was born in 1887 in New York City, so I have to assume that he has some very authentic and strong memories of this era. I grew up in New York City in the ‘60’s, so when I watch “Mad Men” I can tell you exactly where they are on target, and where they stray a tad from time specificity (and those are rare moments—the show is amazingly accurate in its depiction of the era).

Walsh and Cagney know how to portray a tough guy, and Biff is certainly that, if none too successful at it. He gets in, and loses, a lot of brawls, many of his own instigation. The fact that he is basically an honest sort helps you to identify with him. Walsh keeps the fights brief, and somewhat off-camera, spending more time on Biff’s shiners (“you shoulda seen the other guy”) than on the actual fisticuffs. That works just fine in a film that centers more on the time, place and people than on the story.

Cinematography was by the genius James Wong Howe, a good friend of Cagney’s, and the man behind the lens for such classics as “The Thin Man”, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and his Oscar winning efforts for “Hud” and “The Rose Tatoo”. Howe captures the place and the era beautifully despite probably having zero familiarity with it. His lighting was always perfect, and he makes Hayworth’s striking looks even more lustrous. The scenes that take place in the park at evening are particularly evocative.

There’s not much more to say about the music, other than the score was overseen and original music written by Heinz Roemheld, who was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for the film. He was probably a bigwig at Warner’s music department, and he provided this picture with the perfect selections and orchestrations.


The chemistry between Cagney and DeHavilland is the thing that elevates this lightweight to a higher class. They are funny as can be when sparring over her free-thinking, even though it’s obvious to both of them that Biff’s real problem is not getting a chance with Virginia. When Biff finds out that Virginia has stood him up on a date to elope with Hugo, the way he enlists Amy to lie that SHE was the actual object of his affections, and the way she carries it through is a master-class in subtext. There is so much going on under the surface, and you catch it all. Later on, when Biff returns from jail, they meet in the park instead of at the train station. It is possibly one of the most moving, touching moments in a film of this order that I can think of, and that is thanks principally to the actors.

Hayworth shows a great sense of comedy, when she turns shrewish after years of being married to a jackass like Hugo. I am always impressed by a glamour girl who can pull off an ugly personality, and she does it marvelously. Jack Carson’s Hugo is typically one-dimensional. He is the braying ass of a foil, and is exactly what’s needed. I remember him doing the same role as a used-car salesman in a Twilight Zone Episode I loved. Though 20 years later, it’s the same guy!

Supporting cast members, especially Alan Hale, are all exactly right. Hale’s comic presence has just enough pathos and humanity, and you can see why Biff loves him even though he is a no-account. Also in the cast is a very young George Reeves, 15 or so years before he was Superman on the TV series. Whatever happened to the great Urban Myth that he jumped out a window thinking he could actually fly? He did commit suicide, but by gun. Rumors back then had him being knocked off by an MGM executive whose wife and Reeves were having an affair. That’s a picture idea right there! Get me Jack Warner on the horn!!


“The Strawberry Blonde” is a sweet piece of nostalgia, that is lifted by the professionalism and artistry of it’s cast and crew. Compare this to “Hot Tub Time Machine” or “The Wedding Singer”. On second thought, don’t put yourself through watching that trash again. This one is worth your time, even if you have no idea what many of the references mean. What I am trying to say is, these folks really knew how to make a picture!

On First Look:            On Second Look:

Monday, June 11, 2012

"How To Murder Your Wife"- 1965 Dir: Richard Quine

What I remember: 

This was a film that was released at the height of the British invasion. I was 10 or so, and like all kids my age, obsessed with the Beatles, Carnaby Street, Petula Clark, the Mersey beat. Oh yeah, and the early James Bond movies! Vietnam and civil rights were on the radar, but I was 10. Bachelorhood was being celebrated with vigor, thanks to the Playboy phenomenon.  The overriding idea was that single, wealthy men could have all the nubile starlets they wanted. If you were married, then you were stuck with Bertha and her curlers and rolling pin. To quote Richard Pryor, " I'll be standing in that LOOOONG mufuckin' line"!"  

               The story I remember is that Jack Lemmon plays a wealthy cartoonist (impossible, unless you were Charles Schulz). He is perennially single, a New York bachelor, with a "man's man" as a servant, played by veteran Brit actor Terry-Thomas.  He gets drunk at a party, and ends up eloping with a gorgeous blonde from Italy,  who it turns out speaks no English. Upon waking up, and seeing all the detritus from a hasty honeymoon, he freaks and realizes that he has blown his happy bachelorhood. The rest of the film is him plotting the perfect murder of his gorgeous wife, played by Virna Lisi.  Even in my almost pubescent state, I could only shout at the screen in my mind, saying, "Are you crazy? This woman is sexy and willing and indulgent, and best of all, you don't have to listen to a thing that comes out of her mouth! This is the perfect woman! And you want to knock her off?"  Yeah I was frustrated! And jealous! 

               So why did I love this movie so much? Besides the fantasy stuff that obviously would appeal to someone in my age group, there was a lot of comedy, that great Lemmon-y self-effacing humor that he mastered. Also, his comics tell the story of what he wants to do, and you're not really sure I he's going to really kill her, or if it's just for his comic strip. It was almost like they liked the story-board so much, they put it in the film.  Anyway, this is a completely forgotten '60's treasure. Or at least the 10 year old me thought so.

After re-watching:

“Been married 38 years myself. And I don't regret one day of it. The one day I don't regret was... August 2, 1936. She was off visiting her ailing mother at the time.”-
Judge Blackstone.


Syndicated cartoonist Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) has a happy bachelorhood, living in a midtown Manhattan townhouse with his man-servant Charles (Terry-Thomas). His comic strip is about a James Bond type hero named Bash Brannigan.  Ford acts out all of Bash’s capers before he draws them, while Charles takes pictures that help him capture the story visually. One night at a friend’s bachelor party, he falls in love at first sight with a girl (Virna Lisi) who comes out of a cake. He wakes up the next morning to find that he is married to her, and he and his butler are horrified. As he becomes domesticated, so does his cartoon alter-ego, and he begins to plot how the cartoon can knock off his wife and regain his previous studly lifestyle.


Well….isn’t this a misogynist piece of work? Yet there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Obviously, the concept of a “Tender Trap”, a woman using matrimony to enslave a man is not only dated, but horribly incorrect. Back in the days before the Women’s Liberation movement, it was of course the women who were slaves, so many stuck in loveless marriages with unfaithful husbands. But there were also men who felt imprisoned by the concept of family and domestication. This movie speaks directly to them. Comically, of course.

George Axelrod wrote and produced “How To Murder Your Wife”. Yes, the same man who co-wrote “The Manchurian Candidate” with Director John Frankenheimer. However the rest of his output seems to reflect our film, in that the majority of it is RomCom, or at least what used to be considered Romantic Comedy. “HTMYW” was a cute piece of fluff, meant to be in the mold of some of Axelrod’s other breezy products; “Secret Life of An American Wife”, “The Seven Year Itch”, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”.

The Stanley Ford/Bash Brannigan duality of the lead is fascinating in a lot of ways. Ford constantly says that he would never ask Bash to do anything he hadn’t done himself. So Ford acts out the capers that he eventually draws, with Charles photographing all the action. Of course Ford isn’t actually risking his life at any time, and it all feels like a spoiled little boy who hasn’t given up playing spy well into his 30’s. Again, the entire concept appeals to the tween male.

When Ford marries, he is quickly domesticated, and all the foibles of the henpecked boob that he has become also become part of the comic strip. "Bash Brannigan" becomes “The Brannigans”, sans sexy vignettes that the film audience gets to infer. His readership booms, because now women enjoy the strip. Ford finally decides to take a stand when his wife crashes the all-men’s athletic club he belongs to. But he takes a stand as Bash, not Ford.

So when the plot to kill his wife is illustrated clearly in the strip, and of course, she sees it and leaves him, he gets accused of the murder he only committed in make-believe. Her disappearance causes Ford to be on trial (despite there being no body), and he manages to acquit himself by appealing to the all male jury, ADMITTING that he killed her, but explaining it as “Justifiable Homicide”.

EXCUSE ME? He admits he murdered his wife, and gets off scot-free? I mean, I know this is a fantasy, but that’s pretty horrific, if you ask me. Sure, we know he didn’t ACTUALLY do it, but the jury doesn’t know this. What seemed kind of edgy, quirky and charming back then, is today kind of repellant, now that we have seen the terrors of domestic violence all over our TV and Movie screens.


Yes, I have been a tad harsh on this cotton candy of a movie, so let’s praise what really is good about it. There are a lot of very quick sight gags throughout, and set design has a lot to do with it. The single man’s pad, and it is quite a place, right near The Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan, is decorated in a very leather, chrome and mahogany style. Basically it’s a Cadillac Fleetwood up on the blocks, and on steroids. When the wife takes over, it quickly transforms into the typical married household. But it’s the artwork that really does a 180; paintings of medieval soldiers and the like become big-eyed children. These changes are subtle and hilarious for the observant audience members. There is another artwork moment that is priceless; when Mrs. Ford is going wild at the big party, Lemmon is observing mouth agape, exactly mimicking the expression of someone in a painting right above his head.

The humor of drunkenness is also beautifully done. The bachelor party that starts as a wake (all mourning the man’s loss of bachelorhood) and turns into a wild bash (pun intended) when he realizes that his fiancĂ© is calling things off, has a great scene with the Judge and Ford both bracing themselves with wide stances on opposite walls.

The funniest of these scenes comes when Ford drugs his wife to induce unconsciousness, and at first she gets so high that she dances on the piano before passing out. After spiriting her away from his party, his lawyer’s old henpecking wife gets nosy, and Ford slips her the Mickey too. When SHE gets up on the piano, imitating the scene the young sexy wife just enacted, it is sidesplitting.

Virna Lisi is photographed so alluringly, that there is never a question of why Ford succumbs to her charms. She is a goddess, and her eyes in particular are highlighted by the camera and light work of the crew.  

There are some really inane moments however, and none quite so dumb as the cement mixer that makes a “Gloppita-gloppita” sound. Rather than just using the natural sound of the mixer, they dub in some guy’s voice actually saying “Gloppita-gloppita”, and it is simply annoying and puerile.

The finale (spoiler alert, right?) when Mrs. Ford (we never actually learn her first name) returns and Stanley succumbs back into marital bliss, seems so forced and unreal, that it reminded me of the recent bomb “The Switch”. That Aniston/Bateman vehicle wasn’t too awful a RomCom,  until the pasted on happy ending that destroyed the movie in a mere 30 seconds. Why does Mrs.Ford forgive Stanley? Why does he want to slip back into the domesticated state? It’s all very sloppy and obviously was just there to mollify the studios and the women in the audience. 

The score, by the great jazz composer and arranger Neal Hefti, predates his classic music for “The Odd Couple”, and sounds very much like it. There is a lot of jazz throughout, which, for me makes the movie much more watchable.


What can I say about Jack Lemmon at this stage of his career? He was the Chaplin of his time? Not really. He was the Cary Grant of his time? No, not anywhere as handsome. He is definitely his own man. The same great comic delivery and physical timing that made him so perfect for two Billy Wilder classics, “The Apartment” and “Some Like It Hot”, is on display here. There are moments that are very Wilder-esque, thanks mostly to Lemmon. The question remains as to whether he is believable as the action-ready playboy. We know he pulls off the henpecked boob rather easily.

Terry-Thomas has his moments, especially when he can barely contain his glee on the witness stand and off when he realizes that it is actually possible that Ford may have killed his wife. The opening of the film has Terry-Thomas addressing the camera/audience and describing exactly how ideal the life is that he and his boss have. It seems forced from a plot/exposition point of view, but his aplomb and demeanor pull it off effortlessly.

  Lisi does a fine job with the role of cute and endearing language mangler, and is simply drop-dead gorgeous throughout. She has a scene that is a direct forerunner to Darryl Hannah in “Splash”. Both use TV to learn English, and both begin spouting dialogue from commercials as if that is the way normal people speak. It is funny both times, but I wonder if the great ‘80’s screenwriting team of Ganz and Mandel that brought us “Splash” had seen “HTMYW” and stolen this idea from it.
Lisi, by the way, is in full make-up at all times. Her amazing eyes are even more lustrous than would seem possible. It’s also interesting to observe that what passed for normal eye make-up back in 1965, is only acceptable on a porn-star in 2012. Her mascara looks like it was applied by the “gloppita-gloppita” machine.

Wonderful support is given by the lawyer and his wife played by Eddie Mayehoff and Clare Trevor respectively. Mayehoff is doing his best Jim Backus, complete with “Lovey” Larchmont lockjaw. Trevor, who has played some great moll roles in films like “Key Largo” and “Murder My Sweet”, does a superb send-up of the spoiled suburban wife, reminiscent of a type we saw in tons of sitcoms during the period. Like I said, she is amazing in the party scene, and also has some great outbursts in the courtroom scene.


I have certainly outgrown this film, and probably outgrew it by the time I was 16. As a piece of era-centric comedy, it still has its moments. Gazing at the beautiful Virna Lisi is an added benefit, as is the lively score by Hefti. Unfortunately the movie is so very dated, and all of its hipness seems faded and lowbrow nowadays.

On First Look:  ✭✭✭          On Second Look: ✭✭