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.

The Broadway Melody

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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.

Feature: Caught in the ‘Tender Trap’

TCM will be playing one of my favorite Sinatra movies this weekend, The Tender Trap. The story is a cute comedy about perpetual bachelor Sinatra and the young woman who ensnares him for domestic life –Debbie Reynolds. The song “The Tender Trap” refers to “love” being the tender trap, but the movie is about marriage being that fate. For that reason I thought the movie a fitting title to use for part of the engagement photos Ryan and I had done last August at an old movie theater in Bexley, Ohio. I convinced the staff to change the marquis for us and below is the result. I couldn’t help but share it!

We’re getting married this October and are planning several Art Deco and movie elements to the festivities, which I’m sure you will appreciate, so I might be sharing more details in the future. Tender TrapPhoto by Chantal Stone Photography

A Ticket for Thaddeus & It’s a Most Unusual Day

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It has been some time since I enjoyed the half-hour “Screen Directors Playhouse” movies created for television airwaves in 1955 and 1956. The shows used big-time directors and often big-name actors to create the mini movies and many have proven to be quite good.

Among the great ones is Director Frank Borzage‘s “A Ticket for Thaddeus”, a drama about a Polish immigrant and his fear of law enforcement. It is evident from the first few minutes that this Thaddeus (Edmond O’Brien) connects all uniformed men with the Nazi soldiers who took him to a concentration camp when he lived in Poland. His wife (Narda Onyx), who was not sent to a camp, assures him America is different, but his fear persists.

After picking up an old dresser for repair, the carpenter collides with an oncoming car that has swerved into the wrong lane of traffic. The other driver, Bowen (Alan Hale Jr.), sees his convertible considerably damaged and accuses Thaddeus of trying to run from the scene because he did not initially stop. Thaddeus is terrified when Bowen says he will call the police and insists the accident was his fault and that he will pay for the damage. When the police arrive, the Polish man is handed a request to appear in court.

Thaddeus assumes the worst –that he will be sent to a concentration camp. He finishes his work on the dresser and packs his suitcase, leaving a note for his wife expressing his expectations. When he appears in court, Thaddeus tells the judge he is guilty, but a police officer provides evidence from the scene of the accident that proves Bowen was driving well over the speed limit and had crossed the center line. Thaddeus is sent home.

The extent and absurdity of Thaddeus’ fear of uniformed men and what he believed his fate to be are comical on paper, but the way O’Brien plays the part gives and entirely different mood to the episode. His performance is stellar and we feel his fear and sympathize with his past and the resulting phobia. The ending is somewhat touching in his exchange with the judge and the spilling of his suitcase of clothes he brought to accompany him to a concentration camp. It is easy to laugh and say, how ridiculous that he would think such things happen in the U.S., but it’s very sad at the same time.

Half-hour TV movies directed by Hollywood's best.

On a much lighter note is Director Claude Binyon‘s story of a romance as recalled through the songs of Jimmy McHugh –”It’s a Most Unusual Day”. The story is told in a manner reminiscent of Penny Serenade with the couple listening to the songs at a night club and recalling in flashback certain parts of their relationship. Fred MacMurray plays husband to Marilyn Erskine. The songs recall their early relationship in college when MacMurray’s Peter confesses a desire to marry Margie.

Next we see the effect of the Great Depression on the couple after two years of engagement. Peter wants to transition from being an auto mechanic to something bigger, and in the next flashback we see him running a trucking company and being seduced by another woman. The story goes on in this fashion until the couple’s son arrives to join them for dinner. We learn he intends to propose to the girl he as brought and the parents initially object to the lack of financial stability their boy can offer. He then reminds them –as the flashbacks have also done– that they also started their life together on the down and out.

The biggest hindrance to “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is MacMurray’s age. He was 48 when the episode aired, and so the flashbacks to his days as a college football player and young mechanic are difficult to see as anything other than a skit put on by the older versions of the characters. Erskine make the transition a bit easier with sometime age-appropriate attire and changing hairdos, but she comes off as not liking her husband all too much.

The best part of the episode are the songs. McHugh –who appears in the episode behind the piano and introducing the songs– was responsible for a number of well-known ditties including “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, and the title song.

What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

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The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.

Phantom of the Paradise

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Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

There is often a fine line between comedy and horror in the movie business. The genres seem like they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but there’s nothing like a bad horror movie to make you laugh. With Phantom of the Paradise I have a difficult time deciding if it was intentionally humorous.

In reality, the movie does not move into the horror genre until perhaps the last quarter. It makes one laugh not because it is poorly made or the acting terrible, but because of goofy plot devices and character decisions. The story is loosely based on “The Phantom of the Opera” but with a theater named The Paradise instead of an operahouse.

William Finley plays Winslow who will become our phantom. The man is a talented songwriter who has composed a cantata based on “Faust”. Philbin (George Memmoli), the handler for famous record producer Swan (Paul H. Williams), passes the sheet music onto the producer promising Winslow he will hear about it soon. Instead of making Winslow a star, however, Swan steals the music and plans to use it as a musical to open his new theater.

In the process of barring Winslow from the Death Records headquarters, Swan also arranges for the man to be imprisoned. While incarcerated, Swan’s company funds an experiment whereby inmates’ teeth are removed because they are shown to be a source of disease. Winslow’s own set is replaced with a metal version. Winslow will escape the aptly named Sing Sing and storm the Death Records headquarters. There he finds the machine pressing the records made of his music and trips, his head landing in the machine and brutally burned on one side.

By this point, Swan has cast the “Faust” musical. Winslow hides out in the theater, borrowing a cape and bizarre helmet to cover his disfigurement. He assassinates members of the cast, which leads Swan to work with the phantom on the show. Winslow requires a girl, Phoenix played by Jessica Harper, to be the lead. He met the woman early in the story and is in love. Swan confines the phantom to a hidden room in the theater to rewrite all the music for her, but defies the man by hiring a singer named Beef (Gerritt Graham) to star in the Faust musical despite the high octave of the music. Phoenix is relegated to the chorus.

Swan continues to betray Winslow’s trust to extreme extents and the phantom takes his revenge on all around him, minus Phoenix.

Everyone in Phantom of the Paradise is goofy except for Harper, who gives her usual adequate performance. Winslow is your typical naive dork who becomes such a bizarre phantom. With grey metal teeth, a hoarse voice and a metallic helmet that reveals only one eye –surrounded by the same black makeup that covers his lips –he is only mildly frightening.  

Williams as Swan, meanwhile, is unnervingly obnoxious in his omniscient role, always getting his way and never losing his cool. Then there’s Graham as Beef, perhaps the most humorous character. Playing the part in a flamboyantly gay manner, Graham makes the most absurd facial expressions and maintains a painted-on beauty mark that changes shape (sometimes a lightening bolt, sometimes a four-leaf clover). Treat yourself to some Beef:

One cannot really say Phantom of the Paradise is a bad movie because it is so entertaining. It’s literally a laugh-a-minute feature that is beyond absurd. The music is quite good as well, all being written by Williams who wrote music and lyrics for many films. If you’re looking for an obscure movie to laugh at, Phantom of the Paradise is it. It’s what you would get if you made “Phantom of the Opera” into a rock opera AND a horror film. Brilliant.

Gay Purr-ee

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Gay Purr-ee (1962)

At some point when I was a kid, my parents recorded off the TV some animated movie about cats in Paris. The VCR recording cut off the beginning of the movie and since we did not know the title, it was merely labeled “Cat Robespierre” on the cassette. I am not sure at what point in early adulthood I actually figured out this movie was called Gay Purr-ee but I quickly hunted down and secured a copy on DVD. As it turns out, this UPA-produced cartoon features the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet that were indiscernible to me as child.

I rewatched this movie from my childhood the other day and although the animation would appear crude to today’s CGI-accustomed children, I am still amazed at the quality coming out of 1962. The movie is not only a romantic tale of two cats and a villain, but a tribute to both Paris and the artists that have revered the city.

Garland’s Mewsette and Goulet’s Jaune Tom live on a farm in the French countryside. Jaune Tom is a world-class mouser with skills that put him in a trance any time he spots a rodent. Mewsette, however, is disgusted by this form of sustenance and upon hearing her owner’s sister speak of the champagne and Champs Elysees to be eaten in Paris, has greater plans for herself. The white-furred beauty skips town in this woman’s buggy and train heading to the capital city. Jaune Tom and his tiny pal Robespierre (Red Buttons) immediately take off after Tom’s love but do their travelling on foot.

Once in Paris, Mewsette meets the slick Meowrice (Paul Frees) who immediately identifies her as a victim for his mail-order bride scheme. He sets her up with Madam Rubens-Chatte (Hermione Gingold) –whose figure is reminiscent of some of painter Peter Paul Rubens’ rotund subjects– who owns a boutique to turn young cats into classy felines. When Jaune Tom and Robespierre arrive in town they spot the same joint as a good starting point in their hunt for Mewsette, but before they can enter, Meowrice’s minions snatch the smaller cat, sending his pal on a chase through the sewers to save him.

The story follows the male cats’ endeavors to find Mewsette and Meowrice’s interference along the way as he prepares Mewsette to be shipped to Pennsylvania as the bride to some old, rich cat named Mr. Pfft.

As a kid, Gay Purr-ee was just some entertaining cartoon about cats full of decent songs. As an adult, however, one can see the tribute the picture pays to the art world. Whether the characters are wandering through Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night” or Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s images of the “Meowlin Rouge”, art history is ever present. Meowrice also narrates a scene in which he sends a variety of paintings of Mewsette to Mr. Phht. He describes the artists’ background as we see recognizable works of art with a white cat inserted in them. It is absolutely fascinating.

I would say that Gay Purr-ee‘s plot seemed much more dramatic as a child and even a bit frightening at times but it does not have the same urgency for me today. Goulet does not convince me as much now of his desperate love for Mewsette, nor does the beginning establish that there was a pre-existing relationship between them. Writing this, however, seems a bit absurd as I am referring to cartoon cats.

I do not know how today’s children would react to the archaic style of animation, but adults would surely appreciate the ingenuity this 50-year-old movie exhibits. Any art history fan would also get a kick out of the many inside jokes the scenery presents and any Judy Garland fan should revel in the opportunity to hear her voice.

The Ice Follies of 1939

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The Ice Follies of 1939

      If the idea of Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart as ice-skating pros excites you, The Ice Follies of 1939 will disappoint you. Despite their characters’ professed careers, the actors do not really do as much on the ice as their body doubles do, nor as much as the International Ice Follies, members of which are included in the cast.

     The Ice Follies is essentially the Ziegfeld Follies –you guessed it– on ice. Stewart’s character Larry Hall is a great skater who has the ambition of creating a show that features skits and songs written just for ice skaters. He starts the film working with his long-time partner Eddie Burgess (Lew Ayres) and newly acquired partner/girlfriend Mary McKay (Crawford). That act quickly gets the axe, however. Larry and Mary foolishly get married despite the financial turmoil, but the woman goes out to find a job in Hollywood and gets picked up as a star.

     The third-wheel position has Eddie hit the road, and it is not long before Larry gets the same idea given Mary’s fame has grown beyond his tolerance. As part of the actress’ contract, she must remain single, so their marriage is kept secret.

     Once on his own, Larry reunites with Eddie and the two work up the funding to back the Ice Follies concept. As time goes by, Mary becomes a sensational star on screen while Larry becomes the king producer of the ice show. The couple tries to reunite but finds the career demands on each member too great to overcome, at least until movies and ice skating unite.

     This black and white picture concludes with a lengthy color sequence featuring our stars watching their on-screen collaboration: a movie starring Mary and featuring Larry’s direction of ice skaters. This ending epitomized what the movie was really about: an excuse to feature the International Ice Follies. True, some of theBroadway Melody and other follies-esque movies were mere platforms to feature certain talents, but it was unfortunate this ploy became part of a movie featuring three really great stars. Stewart, Crawford and Ayres could have held their own in a romantic movie without the backdrop of ice skating, yet there the gimmick is.

     The Ice Follies of 1939 sits among the many frivolous romantic movies Joan Crawford made early in her career. The main actors’ performances were just fine despite their inability to ice skate. The picture could have been a really heart-string tugger had it been developed separately from the Follies’ inclusion. The story of a movie star and the estranged husband who pulls himself up to equal social stature while still failing to reinstate their romance has potential. It just was not realized here.

Ziegfeld Follies

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Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

     This post will be short because how much can one really say about a movie without a plot? Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was world-known for his lavish stage shows that lacked a plot but entertained spectators with one song, dance or comedy vignette after another. The movie Ziegfeld Follies does the same.

     The film was originally completed in 1944, 12 years after Ziegfeld’s death. Some audiences found offensive the opening that features William Powell reprising his role as the showman –previously having played him in The Great Ziegfeld– in heaven devising a new revue. Not having been around to be a fan of Ziegfeld when he was alive, I could not care less as the scene endures for a few minutes before we never see him again.

     There is nothing particularly appealing to me about a movie that strings together unrelated songs, dances and visual effects. Ziegfeld Folliesis not without its gems, however. The movie featured the only time outside of That’s Entertainment II that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together. The two were masters in their own way, but their styles are very different, so it is nice to compare and contrast them here. Where Astaire is lanky and fit, Kelly is muscular and nimble. I will always choose Kelly over Astaire for multiple reasons –voice, dance style, looks– but the two are well matched when dancing together.

     Really the one reason I sought to watch Ziegfeld Follies was for Judy Garland‘s appearance in it. She acts and sings in a comedy sketch as “The Great Lady”, a character very different for her. The scene was originally planned for Greer Garson to mock herself, but the actress had turned it down. Garland, therefore, plays a snooty, self-loving super actress with a refined, Garson-esque voice that shows yet another facet of her acting talent. She welcomes a group of reporters and puts on a dramatic show of flitting about her apartment and posing for any photos that might want to be snapped. The scene is fun, absurd and makes Garland look absolutely stunning. We can probably thank Director Vincente Minnelli for that.

     The movie is packed with a long list of other stars, some more entertaining than others. If you enjoy just watching a bunch of talent paraded about for two hours, then Ziegfeld Follies is for you, but as far as I am concerned, a plot is necessary to keep me from getting distracted.

Source: TCM.com

Pigskin Parade

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Pigskin Parade (1936)

     On the whole, there is nothing particularly notable about Pigskin Parade and its plot. The movie, nevertheless can be distinguished as earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and being Judy Garland‘s feature film debut. Although the young woman had appeared in some short subject spots on the big screen, this was her first real picture. The movie is a musical of sorts with only moderately notable songs, but Garland sort of knocks you over with that mature voice and such innocent and immature face.

     Garland does not arrive until at least a third of the picture through. First, Yale University will accidentally chose Texas State University –instead of the intended University of Texas– for a charity football game that is of great importance to the school. They do not want a team that is too skilled but also do not want the tiny state university whose team is no contender. TSU happens to have just hired a new coach coming off a successful high school job. This Slug Winters (Jack Haley) brings with him wise-cracking wife Bessie (Patsy Kelly) and is immediately in over his head. He soon teaches the team, which is primarily made up of great basketball players, to play football like the other sport. All is great until Bessie injures the star quarterback.

     Luckily for Bessie’s neck, she stumbles upon a redneck who can accurately chuck a watermelon an incredible distance and has large feet great for running and kicking as well. This Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin) agrees to enroll in the university on the promise of pretty girls. He brings with him kid sister Sairy (Garland) who wants to get some proper singing lessons. The football team again becomes a hit although the interference of a certain college co-ed (Arline Judge) makes Amos unsure he wants to stick around. The team heads north for their game against Yale and the players find themselves in a snow storm. Nevertheless, the team predictably prevails.

     Pigskin Parade is marked by entertaining musical numbers not only by Garland –whose character is repeatedly offering to sing for people only to be turned down until the movie is more than half over– but by the Yacht Club Boys and their original ditties. This group of men are great singers and wonderfully expressive making their performances eye-catching. The songs contained in the picture are nothing to write home about, but they are well delivered.

     Garland gives a cute performance as a dirty country bumpkin, crinkling her nose and talking in broken English. It is Erwin who earned the Oscar nod playing an even more ignorant Texan than Garland. He is entertaining but there were certainly more deserving performances in 1936.

  • Pigskin Parade is set for 10 a.m. ET April 22 on TCM.
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