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.

What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

Wowza!

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.

Gay Purr-ee

Ring a Ding Ding

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.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Wowza!

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

Ziegfeld Follies

Gasser

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

Gasser

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.

Feature: 6 Degrees of Separation

Olivia de Havilland

Judy Garland

Certain members of the Classic Movie Blog Association are engaging in a game of classic actor Six Degrees of Separation by which we try to connect two seemingly unconnected stars through the other actors they have worked with (think of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). The group has moved through several rounds and has landed on Judy Garland and Olivia de Haviland.

The Ambassador's Daughter (1956)

Dawn at Noir and Chick Flicks progressed the connection to Adolphe Menjou and chosen me to keep it going. Although I’m quite familiar with Judy Garland, I am less versed on both Menjou and de Haviland. Menjou engaged in a long list of films that go back into the silent era, but I have mostly seen him in supporting roles, and his work therefore registers less easily. De Haviland has never been an overt favorite of mine, so I have not pursued many of her films. Thanks to the handy dandy Internet, however, I discovered that Menjou and de Haviland appeared in a movie together: The Ambassador’s Daughter from 1956.

Being that I have completed the connection between Garland and de Haviland (It went Garland and Deana Durbin in Every Sunday to Durbin and Menjou in One Hundred Men and a Girl to The Ambassador’s Daughter.), it is now my duty to choose the next pair of stars other bloggers will now have to connect. To make it challenging I’ll select Grace Kelly who only made 14 films and challenge Becky at Classic Becky’s Brain Food to connect the princess to Charlie Chaplin. Good Luck!

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