Films: Comedy/Musicals


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


KEEPING MUM. Isle of Man Film – Azure Films – Tusk Productions / Entertainment Film Distributors, UK, 2005. Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Patrick Swayze, Tamsin Egerton, Toby Parkes, Liz Smith. Screenplay: Richard Russo & Niall Johnson, based on a story by the former. Director: Niall Johnson.

   A couple of months ago I saw a French film from 2000, With a Friend Like Harry, about a psycho who insinuates himself into a family. then “helps them” by killing anyone he perceives as their enemies. Imagine my surprise to find the same plot played for laughs — and played quite well — in Keeping Mum, which I recommend if you ever think back to those old Ealing comedies like Lady Killers and Kind Hearts and Coronets where murder was done with such quiet panache as to seen amusing and even tasteful.

   Mum centers around Kristine Scott-Thomas as the beleaguered wife of bemused country ,minister Rowen Atkinson, mother of a libidinous teenage daughter and a bullied son, and sex-object of sleazy lothario Patrick Swayze. Into her chaotic life housekeeper Maggie Smith descends like a lethal Mary Poppins with a perfectly simple philosophy for happiness: kill anyone who gets on your nerves.

   Writer-director Niall Johnson handles this thing with the necessary light touch — he recycles the cell-phone gag from With a Friend Like Harry to highly amusing effect — and the players are competent and sometimes inspired. Scott-Thomas as the wide-eyed adulteress reminded me touchingly at times of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Give this one a look if you enjoy the gentle irony of British Humour at its best.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SWING YOUR LADY. Warner Brothers, 1938. Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, Louise Fazenda, Nat Pendleton, Penny Singleton, Allen Jenkins, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, Ronald Reagan, and Daniel Boone Savage. Screenplay by Joseph Schenk and Maurice Leo, from the play by Kenyon Nicholson and Charles Robinson. Directed by Ray Enright.

   A film that once seen is never forgotten—no matter how hard I try.

   At this stage in his career, Humphrey Bogart had been with Warners for two years and seven films, with noteworthy performances in three of them: THE PETRIFIED FOREST, BLACK LEGION and DEAD END. The star quality was definitely there, but somebody kept shunting him off into nothing parts in big films like VIRGINIA CITY and DARK VICTORY, or leads in things like SWING YOUR LADY.

   Bogart plays a seedy fight promoter, sort of like Adolphe Menjou in GOLDEN BOY, minus Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden. What he’s got is Penny “Blondie” Singleton and lunk-headed wrestler Nat Pendleton, touring the sticks trying to drum up a fight that will draw a crowd and get him noticed.

   Bogie eventually sets up a match between his boy and the local blacksmith (Louise Fazenda) but has to resort to chicanery, first to keep Nat from finding out he has to wrestle a woman, then to break up a romance when they meet and fall in love.

   Help of sorts comes in the form of Fazenda’s rejected beau Noah (Daniel Boone Savage, a professional wrestler using his Hillbilly Bruiser persona here in his only screen appearance.) Bogie arranges for him to fight Pendleton, then true to sleazy form, tells Louise that Nat already has a wife and four kids, then orders Nat to throw the match because the Winner is supposed to marry Ms Fazenda.

   Did you get all that? And did it put you on tenterhooks, wondering how it all comes out?

   Me neither.

   Obviously this is not a film for Bogart fans or those with a taste for sophisticated comedy. SWING YOUR LADY was sold as a Hillbilly Musical, and the story, such as it is, stops for long stretches to showcase the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, who seem to spend all their time singing on the porch at the General Store while Bogie hustles and everyone else tells hillbilly jokes.

   Easy as it is to dump on LADY, I should add that some of the musical interludes aren’t bad at all.

   Penny Singleton (having just changed her name from Dorothy McNulty) had a real talent for dancing — in a showy, Gene Kelley style — and she shows it off here in a couple of novelty numbers choreographed by Bobby Connolly, who worked on the dances in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

   As for the Weavers Brothers and Elviry… well, taken in the proper spirit, one can view them as authentic folk artists leaving a filmed record of their art.

   It helps. But not enough to redeem a movie that belittles its characters and demeans itself. Or as Bogart himself put it, “If you want to see the worst picture I ever made, get them to screen SWING YOUR LADY.”

HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

LET’S GO NATIVE. Paramount, 1930. Jeanette MacDonald, Jack Oakie, “Skeets” Gallagher, Kay Francis, James Hall and William Austin. Written by Percy Heath and George Marion Jr. Directed by Leo McCarey.

   A silly thing, but outrageously enjoyable. Writers Heath and Marion start with a “putting on a show” story: Jeanette McDonald is a Costume Designer in dire straits whose show is about to launch… if she can just make ends meet till then. That’s adequate, but Director McCarey is more interested in using slap-shtick from his old silent days, while Eugene Pallette, charged with repossessing Jeanette’s belongings, drops and breaks whatever he touches, like a one-man Laurel & Hardy routine.

   Suddenly a title card informs us that the star of the show couldn’t make it, so Jeannette stepped in and is now the star! 10 minutes of show tunes ensue, including one with dancing bears that ends with the warbling lovers encased in snow. McCarey does what he can with a stationary camera, but basically this is just photographed dance routines, in the style of the Marx Brothers’ Coconuts (1929.) Still, those guys dancing in bear suits….

   About this time Jack Oakie shows up as a cab driver named Voltaire McGinnis, and the whole show sets off for South America(!) whereupon Native turns into a shipboard romance, with Jeanette up against Kay Francis (also the vamp in Coconuts) for the affections of bland leading man James Hall. With time out for some more L&H routines and a dance number of course.

   Then there’s a shipwreck and the players are stranded on a tropical island ruled by Skeets Gallagher, a band-leader marooned there years ago, who taught the native girls (there are no native men) to play swing music. So they dress up in Jeanette’s costumes and put on a show till the volcano erupts…. and NO, Jeanette does NOT wake up from a dream.

   Jack Oakie gets most of the comedy time, but the big laugh-getter is William Austin, a British comic I never heard of, who does physical & verbal comedy equally well, mixed with an off-hand manner that downplays his expertise and conversely shows it off. Austin had a mostly bit-part career but is remembered thusly in IMDB:

    “William Austin’s being cast as Alfred the Butler in the Columbia Pictures’ Batman Serial (1943) proved to have a profound effect on the character. Prior to the serial, Alfred had been portrayed as being a very portly character. In order to rectify the disparity between Comics Page and Film, the Editors at DC Comics had Alfred put on a diet; which resulted in a slimmer Butler, who mirrored the movie version.”

   So William Austin paved the way for Michael Gough, Alan Napier, Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons. In these posts I strive to be Educational as well as Entertaining.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Paramount, 1967. James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington, Barry McGuire, Jill Banner, Will Geer, William Daniels and Joan Darling. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

   This will open with a rant, so skip the first few paragraphs and scan down till you see the words “The President’s Analyst” again. Got that? “The President’s Analyst.” I mean the next time you see it. Not now, further down. Okay? Now the rant.

   Last month I cut the cable with ATT DirecTV and switched internet services. Getting the new service hooked up and my TV set switched to Antenna was fairly simple. Getting away from ATT was not.

   Working on instructions from ATT, FedEx handled the return with aplomb, ATT acknowledged receipt of the Modem — but not the Cable stuff.

   My “whuzzah?”call to ATT began an acquaintance with “Brian,” “Jessica,” “Donald” and others (American names must be popular in India.) who said my ATT service was “concert” but they couldn’t credit me for the equipment until the end of the “birring cykor.”

   Turns out ATT policy said I’d be charged for the next month for the very good reason that it was ATT policy to cancer (?) service at the end of the month following notice. After some telephone pinball, someone — “Trixie,” I think — allowed me to speak with a supervisor about this, and after 10 minutes on hold, cut me off.

   To make a long story a little less long, I went through this a few more times, with “Larry,” “Moe” and “Aditya” before reaching a supervisor (“Bonnie”) who said she couldn’t alter ATT “Pohsee” and anyone who could was by definition too important to talk to me.

   So anyway, I related all this to a friend, who responded “Three words, Dan: The President’s Analyst.”

   Aha!

   It took me back to my Senior Year of High School, when adulthood beckoned with a coy wink, and the World was falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of this gaudy chaos, James Coburn was emerging as a movie star, and The President’s Analyst solidified his image as a somewhat off-beat persona in a film that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be about — and is all the better for it.

   It starts out as a one-joke movie: Coburn is retained as the POTUS’ on-call shrink, and finds himself growing paranoid — or is he really being watched? Well of course he is. What kind of movie would you have if he wasn’t?

   So when he cracks under the strain and goes on the run, TPA shifts from Political Comedy to Spy Spoof as our hero finds himself pursued by the Secret Agencies of every government on Earth and takes cover: first with a family of militant liberals (deftly played by William Daniels and Joan Darling) then, less amusingly, with Barry McGuire’s hippie band.

   I should pause here to mention Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden as an American agent and his Soviet counterpart, both roles well written and feelingly played, notably in a fractured and melancholy reminiscence about departed enemies. Later on, Daniels and Darling do a hilarious bit of suburban self-defense, then there’s a balletic sequence of Coburn plucking the gowans fine with a fair young maiden in a field of wildflowers — while being stalked by scores of assassins, agents and assorted men in black.

   All that though is just writer/director Flicker showing off his stylish wit as TPA changes course once again. Finally captured by Darden’s Russian Spy, Coburn realizes that his best weapon is the one he was trained to use, and he sets about escaping from Darden by understanding him — a ploy used earlier in films like Blind Alley and The Dark Past, but never to such humorous effect.

    Whereupon (you guessed it) the movie bounces off a wild wall, and the sinister agency behind the whole thing is revealed as… Well if you didn’t guess it, I won’t reveal it now, but Pat Harrington plays the PR man for Artifice Trapping & Treachery with a cozening cheerfulness just wonderful to watch. Even better, his little show is followed by a noisy burst of gunfire, explosions & derring-do just as satisfying in its own brainless way.

   The President’s Analyst is no classic. It’s just a little too trendy for its own good. But it’s also unlike any other film you’re likely to see, and worth a look.

   And by the way, I found out that BBB trumps ATT, and got a Happy Ending all my own.


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THE WIDOW FROM MONTE CARLO. Warner Brothers, 1936. Warren William, Dolores del Río, Louise Fazenda, Colin Clive, Warren Hymer. Director: Arthur Greville Collins.

   A better than average WB flick is The Widow from Monte Carlo. Good cast, with brightest performances by Hymer (Dopey Mullins) as an American crook “vacationing” in England and Fazenda as a socially ambitious American parvenue who’s not above blackmail to get Del Rio to attend her costume ball.

   William is more interesting when he plays one of his cads, but he makes an amused foil for Hymer and an attentive suitor for Del Rio. A drawing-room comedy based on a play by F. Hugh Herbert (and others). Not memorable but polished and charming.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #106, March 1995.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WORKING GIRLS. Paramount Pictures, 1931. Judith Wood, Dorothy Hall, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Paul Lukas, Stuart Erwin, Frances Dee. Director: Dorothy Arzner.

   A thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code comedy/drama, Working Girls may not have all that much to say to contemporary audiences, but has a lot to say about the time and place in which it was filmed. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to direct a talkie, this Paramount Pictures release tells the story of two sisters from small-town Indiana as they try to balance work and love in New York City.

   June (Judith Wood) and Mae (Dorothy Hall) Sharpe arrive in Manhattan and take up residence at a woman’s boarding house. Within the first day or so, they are out and about looking for employment and for men to date. June ends up working for a Western Union telegraph office and dating a saxophone player (Stuart Erwin).

   Mae, on the other hand, finds work as a secretary for Dr. Joseph Von Schrader (Paul Lukas), who proceeds to fall in love with his much younger employee. Mae, naturally, doesn’t reciprocate the affection. Instead, she’s got her eyes on Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a Harvard graduate working in a Manhattan law firm who seems to really care for her.

   Or does he? It would seem that he’s got a fiancée from the wealthy suburbs who he plans to marry soon and that he is just using Mae for a good time.

   While I won’t tell you how the story turns out, I will let you know that Working Girls is simply a fun movie to watch. It’s loaded with sexual innuendo, has some great comedic moments, and benefits greatly from Judith Wood’s hard-boiled, cynical character who has a quick wit as well as stunning looks.

   For contemporary audiences who are all too familiar with romantic comedy tropes, it may not seem like there’s much new under the sun here, but bear in mind this was filmed in 1931. And if you watch it with that fact very much in mind, you’ll surely find a lot to appreciate in this lesser known pre-Code film.


         February 4.

HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING. Filmways, 1980. Susan Saint James, Jane Curtin, Jessica Lange, Richard Benjamin, Eddie Albert, Cathryn Damon, Dabney Coleman, Director: Robert Scheerer. [Watched on HBO.]

   Essentially a time-waster, and I’m sorry I did. The only moral to this sad story of three suburban ladies trying to cope with double-digit-inflation seems to be that the only solution is to turn to crime. And of course, that way nobody loses but the insurance company.

   It’s supposed to be a comedy,but we have a problem right there, It’s not very funny. There are a couple of scenes worth laughing at. Unfortunately one of them — as Susan St. James tries to hold up a supermarket at the checkout counter — was spoiled by overexposure: I’d already seen it in the coming attractions.

   (One of my favorite spots on HBO, by the way — the best way tp id out which movies to avoid. It didn’t work this time.)

   Dabney Coleman, who was superb as Dolly Parton’s lecherous boss in Nine to Five, plays a lecherous policeman in this one, and he is superb again. Otherwise the movie is essentially Jane Curtin’s; the others are along solely for the ride.

   Rated PG, for bad language again (although not the ‘F’ word, which may be the difference) and (surprisingly) or a brief look at the conclusion of a topless strip tease act, performed admirably by Jane Curtin. (Since it was headless, too, as I recall, the body may actually have been someone else’s. Since we had already seen a panting Richard Benjamin stripped to his shorts earlier in the movie, we do know it was not his.)


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


CROOKS ANONYMOUS. Independent Artists, UK, 1962. Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Pauline Jameson, James Robertson Justice, Raymond Huntley and Julie Christie. Written by Jack Davies and Henry Blyth. Directed by Ken Annakin.

   An unexpected Christmas movie.

   Leslie Philips stars as a smooth thief with a jaunty front, given to cigarette holders, poking people with his umbrella and calling everyone “Sport.” As the film opens, he seems rather good at his trade — there’s a clever scene in his apartment where his stripper girlfriend, Babette LaTour (Julie Christie!) challenges him to show her one thing there that isn’t stolen. He casts about a bit, finally points to her picture on the mantle and adds, “Not the frame of course.”

   Persuaded by love to go straight he enrolls in Crooks Anonymous, an institution that reforms crooks, run by Wilfrid Hyde-White, but the bulk of the job is carried by Stanley Baxter, and quite well too, in a variety of disguises as a nasty “Guardian Angel.” We first see him, disguised as a priest, seating himself on a park bench beside two attractive young ladies, and pulling out a book titled Flogging.

   Phillips’ crash course in Honesty is quite amusing, but the film really kicks into high gear when he lands a job as a department store Santa and gets locked in the store on Christmas Eve, with a safe full of untraceable money.

   I won’t go into details here, but it’s riotous fun, perfectly played by a host of British character actors who get a laugh out of every scene. I particularly liked Raymond Huntley (the unspeakable husband in So Evil My Love (reviewed here ) as a nasty store manager, and James Robertson Justice as his nastier boss.

   The Holidays have peaked and waned, but if you can get a look at this one, I guarantee a Holly-Jolly Post-Christmas.


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:         


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


Next Page »