So long, Mickey Rooney

For we classic movie fans, it is impossible not to know and appreciate Mickey Rooney, who we lost yesterday at age 93. I sometimes lament that none of the big stars from Hollywood’s golden age that I like are still alive –only the ones I tend to very much dislike. But Rooney did not fall on the list of disliked stars.

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

I cannot say I have ever been a big Rooney fan, but it is impossible not to respect him. I’ve been exposed to a good number of his work –though a comparatively small portion of the list of 200+ flicks he made–because of the other people he starred with. I think I’ve seen all of the Andy Hardy and other movies he made with Judy Garland, and those films are a good representation of the lighthearted work he did. Then there’s Boys Town and Captains Courageous, which were among those that proved Rooney’s talent for serious performances. Even before he became a box office draw, Rooney made small appearances in comedic and dramatic spots in movies such as Riffraff and Manhattan Melodramarespectively.

His acting preparation backs up his talent. He was not just some cute kid who was cast in movies because he seemed to have a knack for it. Although his family had a vaudeville background and put him on stage reportedly before he could talk, Rooney also attended the Hollywood Professional School, which was also responsible for training Judy Garland and other future stars.

Even as he aged and stopped playing the lovable teenager trying to catch a girl, Rooney made us laugh. Everyone remembers his unrecognizable role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’sHis career in the later years went up and down but he kept on working in films and on stage.

History will never forget Mickey Rooney, though it will probably remember him best for those films of his youth. But I think in some ways those movies have a universal appeal and can continue to entertain future generations of children, just ask I enjoyed National Velvet as a kid.

Champagne

Gasser

Champagne (1928)

Champagne (1928)

The bubbly, golden fluid that is champagne is a standard analogy for all things tied to wealth. It is symbolic of all the glittery things afforded by those people who can in turn afford to order the high-ticket beverage. That is all you need know of the meaning of the title for Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1928 silent flick Champagne.

But to further draw the connection to the title, Hitchcock opens and closes the picture using an innovative technique by which he photographs the scenes through a champagne glass. Taking the view point of a person drinking the champagne, a bubble of glass at the base of the coupe captures dancers aboard a trans-Atlantic ship and the kissing couple at the film’s close. The master of suspense would later use a similar technique to capture the strangling scene in Strangers on a Train, which is depicted as reflected by the victim’s glasses.glass

Unlike his later films, Hitchcock made many non-thrillers in his early years, and Champagne is one of them. A comedy, the story tells of a frivolous millionairess who regularly angers her father by squandering their wealth and running around with a man whom the patriarch believes is only interested in the family fortune. To start the film, a ship headed from America to England makes a swift rescue of two passengers of a small aircraft that has crashed into the ocean. The pilot and the woman aboard are safely escorted to the vessel but not before The Girl (Betty Balfour) powders her nose and sheds the flight jacket, goggles and headgear she wears.

The Girl’s fashionable entrance on the boat was arranged just so she could catch up with her beau, The Boy (Jean Bradin). But when the young woman informs her love that she will arrange for the captain to marry them, The Boy is offended by her take-charge approach and the two part ways. Still on board the watercraft, The Girl finds a companion in a shady looking man that had been making eyes at her since her grand entrance. The two share a rocky meal upon the rough high seas, with The Boy unable to intervene because of sea sickness.

Once in Europe, The Girl carries on her absurdly wasteful lifestyle while her father frowns at the headlines she has made. He interrupts his daughter during a party involving the purchase of several new gowns and informs her he is now broke. The Girl weeps but offers to sell her jewelry.

Jumping forward, the father-daughter couple are living together in a small flat where The Girl tends to the home and endeavors to cook. In the next scene The Father (Gordon Harker), having left the home without breakfast, dines at a fancy bistro. It seems he has not actually been separated from his money but is instead attempting to teach his daughter a lesson.

The Boy eventually finds The Girl again and is still interested in being with her, but she repeatedly spurns him while yet again crossing paths with The Man (Theodore Van Alten) who took a shine to her on the boat. She garners a job distributing flowers to gentlemen at a night club, where she is only mildly successful. The Boy brings The Father to see what lifestyle his daughter has taken up, and he is disappointed to see his trick has resulted in a blow to her dignity. He reveals to her his ruse, and she reacts by being infuriated with both The Father and The Boy for the humiliation she has suffered.

She runs to The Man and convinces him to take her along on a ship-ride back to America, her home country. It just so happens The Boy is aboard as well, bringing us full circle to the film’s start. There the couple reunites and with The Father’s blessing. The Father also reveals The Man was his friend, who was sent on the original cruise to prevent by any means the marriage of our leading lady and man.

One of the most innovative scenes in Champagne is towards the film’s start when The Girl and The Man dine aboard the boat. The rollicking seas are conveyed by a swinging camera motion and the staggering and leaning of the people aboard the boat. The effect is so convincing it started to make me seasick.

Champagne is full of comical moments and has a decent story to tell. It is superficial and full of back and forth moments for the couple, and it is predictable. Still, any chance to see an early Hitchcock movie should not be passed up, and this one has some visual effects worth enjoying.

View the full film on YouTube:

Event: The Hitchcock 9

Blackmail (1929)

The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, is gearing up to show some rare Hitchcock treats on the big screen. Nine silent pictures from the director’s repertoire will be showcased in October, and I gleefully report will allow me to view several of the master’s flicks I have yet to lay my hands on.

The British Film Institute’s restoration of The Hitchcock 9 is the largest restoration project the BFI has ever undertaken and was made possible by new digital technology, according to the Wex. The films are being made available to venues around the world and have been touring the U.S. since June. They are/were slated to hit Washington, DC, Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, and Boston, among others.

As much as Hitchcock is known for his work in the thriller genre, he spent a good amount of his early British career dabbling in dramas and romantic comedies. One nevertheless can see the early genius of the master of suspense in The Lodger and others.

For those in the vicinity or who would travel to see such rare screenings, the schedule follows. And another gem for you from BFI, the press book for 1928’s The Farmer’s Wife and ones for The Manxman and Champagne. I fully intend to witness Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne and The Pleasure Garden because I have not seen them before.

  • Oct. 10 at 4 p.m. | Film Studies Lecture Tania Modleski: Representations of Women in Hitchcock’s Blackmail
  • Oct . 10 at  7 p.m.  & Oct. 12  at 7 p.m. | Blackmail (1929) Live musical accompaniment by Derek DiCenzo
  • Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. & Oct. 12 at 4 p.m. | The Lodger (1926)
  • Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. | Downhill (1927)
  • Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. | The Ring (1927) Accompaniment by Larry Marotta
  • Oct. 17 at 9:10 p.m. | The Manxman (1929) Accompaniment by Larry Marotta
  • Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. | The Farmer’s Wife (1928) Accompaniment by Sue Harshe
  • Oct. 23 at 9:10 p.m. | Champagne (1928) Accompaniment by Sue Harshe
  • Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. | The Pleasure Garden (1926) Accompaniment by Derek DiCenzo
  • Oct. 25 at 8:45 p.m. | Easy Virtue (1927) Accompaniment by Derek DiCenzo

Blondie of the Follies

Dullsville

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

It is possible I have never seen a movie with more ups and downs in story quality than Blondie of the Follies. At the movie’s opening, it becomes immediately clear that the directorial quality of the flick is on the low side and our characters are hard to immediately relate to.

Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie Dove) live in the same low-rent, uptown Manhattan apartment building and are friends, sort of. Lottie is about to leave with some hot shot men and introduces Blondie, who immediately insults one and storms off. Minutes later the two girls are in an all-out brawl. When Lottie informs her “friend” that she is getting a job in a burlesque joint in midtown, Blondie begs her to stay in touch.

Months later Lottie –now going by the false name Lurlene– is playing the sophisticated socialite, enjoying a swell apartment paid for by a millionaire sweetheart. She is appearing in the follies and opts to deliver a gift to her family on Mother’s Day. While there, Lottie and Blondie reunite in a positive way and the latter joins her friend in an immediate visit of her fancy digs. There she meets the millionaire: Larry Belmont, played by veteran rich cad Robert Montgomery. Larry is immediately interested in the blonde and despite Lottie’s desires to send her home, he insists on taking Blondie to the follies show that night.

Taking Blondie backstage during the show, Larry also secures a job for the girl. Next they drop in at a neighboring speakeasy where Blondie has her first experience with liquor. She is deposited by the millionaire on her parent’s doorstep some time after dawn, much to her ill father’s (James Gleason) chagrin. Blondie immediately flees back to Lottie’s apartment –despite the growing tension/rivalry between them– to pursue her new career.

When Lottie informs the girl, however, that she is in love with Larry, Blondie agrees to back off. She instead goes along with an older, oil tycoon, who establishes a posh residence for the girl. Larry, meanwhile, is stuck on Blondie and breaks it off with Lottie. Months later, Blondie orchestrates a reunion between the former lovers in the hopes of reuniting them. It is then Larry hints he has only fallen for one girl, and it wasn’t Lottie. Blondie refuses to see Larry, and the dames continue their extravagant lives in and out of the follies.

When Larry prepares to leave for France, he insists on seeing Blondie before his departure. Lottie catches word of this and tries to flirt her way into a boat ticket of her own. Seeing Blondie with the man, however, sends Lottie into a rage thinking her friend has not kept her word about staying away from the gent. The fight plays out on stage when Blondie goes flying into the orchestra pit, breaking her leg.

Now ready to head home and forget the glamorous life, Blondie bids adieu to Lottie, Larry and others at a party. Her leg is disfigured from the break and she is now fit to be no man’s wife, she thinks. Days later, Larry turns up at the low-income flat with a slew of doctors who insist they can rebreak and properly mend the leg. Only now does Blondie concede to marry her millionaire.

The first portion of Blondie of the Follies, during which our two frienemies, to coin a term, have multiple ups and downs and Blondie gets her job, is lousy. Montgomery stands out as the worst ass of his career roles as it becomes apparent he knows all of the girls in the follies and cares for none of them. Only around the time he breaks up with Lottie does Larry become something more genuine to the audience. From here he even goes through periods of endearing romance that make the picture feel like it is on track for a great romantic ending. The writers let us down, however, with Blondie’s pathetic about-face on her anti-Larry stance. She never particularly convinces us she pines for the man, and her reason for agreeing to the union –that the man will fix her bum leg and make her marriage-worthy– is regrettable.

The one thing that does not vary throughout the movie is the acting quality. Montgomery makes no false move, and Davies is as fun and humorous as ever. Dove plays a marvelous snobby bitch and is purely contemptible in nearly every moment of the film, even when she is repeating, “I like you Blondie; I always have.” The relationship between the girls is obnoxious. We feel Lottie never truly likes Blondie, yet the other is constantly moving between love and hate and assuming the same of her pal. Whereas Lottie never has Blondie’s best interest at heart, the latter does mostly maintain her promises to Lottie.

I might have given Blondie of the Follies a better grade if not for that disappointing ending. There is nothing more irritating than a romantic movie that falters at the end of the emotional crescendo. The couple does not even kiss to seal the deal.

Yo Yo

Ring a Ding Ding

Yo Yo (1965)

Yo Yo (1965)

I often marvel at Charlie Chaplin’s ability to find success with silent pictures after the close of the silent era. When 1929 rolled around and with it the sound technology, all studios realized in order to compete they must produce talking pictures. Chaplin nevertheless issued City Lights and Modern Times with no spoken words after the end of the era in which he reigned supreme.

Fast forward to the 1960s and a French actor/movie maker repeated Chaplin’s success. Pierre Étaix with a background in film and clowning wrote, directed and starred in Yo Yo.  The black and white movie begins in 1925 and is absent any dialogue –emulating a silent film by including intertitles. His unexpressive face reminds us perhaps more of old Stoneface Buster Keaton, but his movements emulate the great silent comedians and we cannot help but laugh at his movements and lifestyle as a lonely millionaire.

The scenes are not absent all noise, however, with the sound of a squeak toy used for the opening and closing of every door and the opening of drawers, etc. The sound effects alone drive many laughs. But the picture does not remain dialogue-free. Come 1929, the intertitles tell us talking movies came in, perhaps as a way of justifying the new presence of spoken words. The stock market crash is the next historical event to affect the picture, sending our millionaire into poverty.

The man reunites with his ex-lover, a bareback rider (Luce Klein), and their young son (Philippe Dionnet) –of which the millionaire was unaware–and joins the traveling circus that employs them. The son, Yo Yo, maintains a photo of his father’s mansion and dreams of restoring the wealth he witnessed there. Time goes on and Yo Yo grows up (also played by Étaix) and becomes a star of stage and screen. When he finally secures the old mansion and throws a party for his parents, they refuse to enter, preferring instead to stay in their trailer and with the circus, thus leaving Yo Yo as alone and miserable as his father once was.

The films of Étaix have recently become available after a long-standing legal dispute with his distribution company. The man is wonderfully entertaining to watch and it is delightful to see a filmmaker embrace the silent way of life as late as the 60s.

The Pink Panther

Wowza!

The Pink Panther (1964)

The Pink Panther (1964)

It is not my favorite of the franchise, but The Pink Panther is a treasure all on it’s own. This first in the series brought to everyone’s attention Peter Sellers‘ brilliant character Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But the part of the bumbling French detective almost belonged to someone else. Peter Ustinov turned down the part at the last minute, making way for Sellers. The production crew was so impressed with Sellers’ work that the movie was retooled to involve more screen time for the character and paved the way for the actor to steal the show from the movie’s intended leading man: David Niven.

Niven is Sir Charles who happens to also be a mysterious jewel thief known only as The Phantom. The criminal changes his M.O. with every theft but always leaves behind a white glove with a P embroidered on it. Sir Charles is in the Swiss Alps at the same time as middle eastern Princess Dala, played by the ever-captivating Claudia Cardinale. She owns the most glorious diamond in the world, known as the pink panther because of a cat-shaped flaw in the rosy stone. The Phantom thus plots to get his hands on the gem.

Knowing that where the pink panther is the Phantom is surely near, Inspector Clouseau has taken up residence at the same hotel as the thief and the princess. Little does he know, however, his wife Simone (Capucine) is having an affair with Sir Charles and is helping in the criminal plot.

After gaining an in with the princess by failing to rescue her kidnapped dog, Sir Charles attempts a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Charles’ nephew, the equally deceptive George (Robert Wagner), arrives at the hotel and stays in his uncle’s suite, unaware of his guardian’s secret identity or his affair with Simone.

The plot to secure the diamond climaxes at a Rome-based costume party hosted by Princess Dala. Two gorilla-dressed men –at one time being Sir Charles and George– attempt to empty the princess’ safe, but she steals the diamond first. The men are nevertheless arrested for the crime and must find someone else on which to pin the robbery. A certain bumbling inspector makes the perfect mark.

The Pink Panther lacks some of the mainstay characters that would come to occupy the later films, such as Kato and Chief Inspector Dreyfus. But the movie succeeds in preempting them with a wife for the clutz. As we see in the later films, no woman is really interested in Clouseau despite his best efforts. With Simone, Jacques repeatedly tries to make love to her only to have his every effort foiled. Her feet are too cold, she needs warm milk, she accidentally uncorks a bottle of champaign beneath the blankets, etc. Capucine plays the role so straight-faced, showing just how patient a relationship with Clouseau has made her.

In one particularly enjoyable sequence, Simone has let Sir Charles into her room via a door adjoining their suites. Clouseau unexpectedly returns and the door between the rooms now being locked, Charles ducks under the bed. Entering under the ruse of a bell boy is George, who has been kept unaware of the affair his uncle is having. Simone hides him in the bathroom, which is sufficient only until Clousseau opts to bathe. Simone takes a bath first, hiding George under the suds. Once Charles as moved to a spot behind the window curtains, George ducks under the bed. This is where Jacques attempts to get frisky, driving Charles onto the balcony from which he ultimately falls into roughly 10 feet of snow. George slips out through the room’s front door once that champaign bottle goes off.

It was not until the second movie, A Shot in the Dark –my favorite– that Sellers amped up the French accent to make Clouseau’s dialogue all the more ridiculous. So some might view his performance in The Pink Panther as much more subtle than the later films. He still stumbles about with the greatest of ease (one cannot forget the spinning globe gag) and dryly accents his every fumble. For instance, when retrieving a sleeping pill from the bathroom for his wife, we hear off screen the spilling of a multitude of pills on the floor. This is followed by crunching footsteps as Clousseau returns to the bedroom. He then walks back to replace the glass of water, again crunching on those pills. Lastly, he steps on his violin on the floor.

Much credit for the comedy belongs with Director and Co-Author Blake Edwards. An expert of comedy in the 60s and beyond, Edwards shows us just how masterful he is in this spot-on comedy. As usual with the director, the opening credits for The Pink Panther are just as humorous as the rest of the film. Done in the cartoon form he would become known for, we feel we are watching an animated episode of the Pink Panther. And no review of a Pink Panther film would be complete without mention of Henry Mancini’s awesome score. Seeing the film’s only Oscar nomination, Mancini creates that unforgettable Pink Panther theme tune and composes with Johnny Mercer the equally infections “Meglio Stasera” song performed throughout the film.

  • The Pink Panther is set for midnight ET March 27 on TCM.

The Broadway Melody

Gasser

The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Looking again to a movie that earned Hollywood’s top award but fails to shine against most flicks given that prestige, I bring you The Broadway Melody. Taking one of the early Oscars for Best Picture, the musical contended with a handful of movies that for the most part have failed to maintain their place in history. Had 1929 been a year with a better stock of movies to choose from, The Broadway Melody would not have stood a chance to win.

The movie tells a story that became too common a plot in the years that followed. We meet a performing team who come to New York hoping to make it big on Broadway. One of the set does make a splash but more so with wealthy members of the audience than with general stardom. Falling into the role of a showgirl mistress drives concern and conflict with the remaining member(s) of the troop.

So goes The Broadway Melody. Queenie (Anita Page) is the prettier, bustier and blonder of the sister duo, the remainder of which is occupied by the talented “Hank” (Bessie Love). The sisters have been travelling the country with their song-and-dance show and have landed in New York where Hank’s boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) is prepared to help them make it big with the use of a song he has written: “The Broadway Melody”.

Eddie is immediately spellbound with Queenie even though he is fairly devoted to Hank. He helps the girls get into a show produced by big shot Zanfield (Eddie Zane). As the show opens to audiences, Queenie garners the attention of one of Zanfield’s backers, Jacques Warraner (Kenneth Thomson), who takes her to fancy dinners and gives her expensive gifts. Queenie is moderately resistant to his advances but enjoys the lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, Hank cannot stand to see the life her sister is leading.

Once Jacques sets Queenie up in her own apartment, the tensions get high among the players and both Hank and Eddie argue to keep the blonde from running off to such an unsavory lifestyle. During these arguments, Hank notices how Eddie feels about Queenie and casts him aside so that he feels free to run after the sister. The two wed, leaving Hank glad she has saved her sister but solemn for her own romantic prospects.

Bessie Love gives one hell of a performance, but nothing so kind can be said for the rest of the cast. Although Love gives appropriately dramatic and heartfelt displays, Anita Page leaves us wondering if she is acting at all, or just delivering lines. Charles King make a decent, friendly man to root for, but he offers nothing special. None can be commended for his or her singing talent.

The Broadway Melody really fails to produce a satisfactory conclusion. Love’s performance has us rooting for her to have a happy ending with her man, and her dramatic display upon giving him up makes us think that any other coupling would be cruel. Page equally fails to convince us Queenie deserves Eddie or that she has anything to offer besides her supposedly good looks. She has an upleasant personality and nearly no talent, so it is a wonder why Eddie want to be with her in the first place. Queenie is such a brat throughout the story that one almost wishes she would get what she deserves from her unsavory relationship with Jacques.

Although some of the costuming is splendid in terms of Hank and Queenie’s stage attire, the production crew really dropped the ball on Queenie’s other aesthetic appeal. She is meant to be shades more beautiful than her sister, but she is nothing special. Her hair often looks more like bed head than an attempt at a fashionable finger wave, and her whole character comes off as sloppy.

The future certainly held much better incarnations of the corrupted-then-redeemed Broadway star story, so there is no sense wasting time on The Broadway Melody even if it is a Best Picture winner.

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