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Rocky

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Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

I have avoided watching Rocky my entire life because I never found anything to respect about it. Being born nine years after it was released, by the time I became aware of Sylvester Stallone, he pretty much seemed like a joke who did nothing but Rocky movies and other action junk. The sequels themselves also seemed to make this man’s movie a source of derision in my mind as well. The movie certainly has its fan following, as evidenced by the ability of Stallone to make so many sequels, but I really cannot find a way to say it stands up over time.

The movie was a Best Picture winner and was nominated for 10 total Academy Awards, but compared with some of the great movies that came before it and since that have earned that honor, I really find nothing to compare. Part of the problem is the performance. I find it hard to relate to or sympathize with a character who is so dumb. Most dim-witted leading characters are at least adorable or funny, but Rocky is not. He is not adorably awkward either. His romantic approaches are painful to watch as his ignorance also apparently extends to interaction with women.

The start of the movie is horribly depressing as Rocky fails to gain respect at the gym, in his work as a loan shark’s leg-breaker and in his romantic approaches to pet shop worker Adrian (Talia Shire). Only once we get to the point where Rocky has accepted a fight for the title with Apollo Creed do things brighten. The training routine and the increasing glamour of Adrian at least lend some pleasantness to the story.

The tale of a down-and-out boxer who is randomly afforded a chance to become somebody should be accompanied with an overwhelming feeling of hope but I felt no overwhelming feelings of any sort. The movie was not terrible by any means. It was fine, but not Oscar-worthy by my assessment. When you consider the other nominees –such as All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver— I find it difficult to understand what the Academy and perhaps audiences saw in the movie, which also lacks any artistic qualities in terms of cinematography/directing. Certainly it was a feat for a near-nobody in Stallone to write and fight to star in the movie, but it was nothing like Robert DeNiro’s accomplishment in Taxi Driver.

I am sure many of you will disagree with me, and perhaps part of the problem is that I am female. I struggle to take pleasure in boxing itself, but that’s not to say I didn’t love Paul Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me and James Cagney’s Winner Take All. Mind you, those films were much older and did not depict the gore that Rocky does. So comment away, and I’ll see if I can rebut any of your opinions!

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Please Don’t Eat the Daisies

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Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960)

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)

I have never really loved Doris Day as an actress and so do not often seek out her movies. In Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, however, she is ideally cast and stellar in her part. I think the star sort of grew into her attractiveness, as I tend to find her on the frumpy side in her earlier roles. In this flick, she is both sexy and a mother, a part that suited her well on screen at a time when she was reigning at the box office.

Day is Kate, mother of four and married to David Niven‘s Larry, all of whom live in an apartment in New York City. With all boys, Kate has perfected the art of child wrangling, thanks in part to a literal baby cage for the youngest. Larry has just left his position as a drama professor to become a prestige dramatic critic. The man promises his students upon his departure that he will not become like the other handful of critics who relish in the opportunity to tear apart a production because of the literary and comedic opportunities it affords.

The first play on Larry’s docket is one produced by his friend Alfred North (Richard Haydn) that happens to be horrible, a circumstance exacerbated by a sexy leading lady “who is no actress.” Alfred is very upset with Larry –as he expresses at the family’s kitchen table the next morning– and the actress is even more incensed. This Deborah Vaughn (Janis Paige) slaps Larry while he is out to dinner with Kate, and does so a second time for the camera.

The additional publicity leads Larry to write a column about how the show’s success is dependent on Deborah’s rear end. Not too much later, while at a party at which Kate finds herself exceptionally bored, Deborah sidles in to give Larry a glance and a chance to reconsider the value of her back side. From here a “friendship” forms between the feuding duo and Deborah begins her attempts to seduce the loyal husband.

In the midst of Larry’s success and transition into a writer of scathing reviews and attendee of snobbish parties, the couple are reminded of their intent to move to a home in the country. The transition comes rather forcefully when they are notified a new tenant will occupy their apartment in a matter of weeks because they indicated their intention some months ago not to renew. Larry is resistant to leaving the city because of the social status he has achieved, but the family nevertheless selects a dilapidated mansion in a small town.

Larry and Kate’s relationship is strained by the commute to and from the city for Larry’s work and the constant state of construction the home presents. Larry’s time away is regularly spent with Deborah.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is based on a book by Jean Kerr about her life with her husband Walter and their move to a suburban locale. Similar moves were becoming a trend for many families in the 1960s, so the subject material was apt. Although very amusing, the movie really could have been split into two –one about the strains on a marriage when the husband becomes consumed by fame and the desire to make people laugh and one about the strains on a marriage of moving to a suburban locale while maintaining a life in the city. In fact, the subject of moving to the country is mentioned at the beginning of the film and then not acted on until halfway through the picture at which point we have nearly forgetten about that conversation.

While Day is quite delightful as a capable mother and boy wrangler, deriving plenty of laughs from her interaction with the children, Niven is stiff. He is a suitable dramatic critic and pulls off the transition into an ass well, but his performance makes him quite unlikable in stark contrast to Day. I have never particularly loved Niven in comedies, as he relies on witty dialogue to drive the humor rather than any physical or facial affectations. But that is not to say the role of Larry did not necessarily call for someone on the straight-man side of things, he just does not become someone we root for.

Day managed to fit in a couple songs in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies despite it not being a musical. She throws in a few lines of “Que Sara, Sara” that she popularized in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and sings a song, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, while playing with children in a school yard. The title pertains to a scene in which one of the boys takes off with a bouquet of daisies and we later learn he ate them. The movie was also the last for actress Spring Byington, who plays Kate’s mother.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

The Saint in New York

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The Saint in New York (1938)

By 1938, the Saint had been alive in the novels of Leslie Charteris for 10 years, and although Simon Templar’s adventures largely take place overseas, Hollywood clearly could not resist the opportunity to make the first film adaptation set in its own country. The Saint in New York, RKO’s first of nine flicks based on the Saint, largely did justice to the book of the same title, in some ways seeming to draw the action directly off the pages of the novel.

Simon Templar, played by Louis Hayward, has arrived in New York after being approached abroad by William Valcross (Frederick Burton) who asks him to help clean up the corrupt city, led by cop-killing gangsters. It is that murderer who becomes Simon’s first victim. Jake Erboll intimidates witnesses into getting his case dismissed but does not get far before the Saint, dressed as a nun concerned for the man’s gunshot wound, takes him out. The proximity to the victim his get-up allows, gives Simon the opportunity to place his signature stick-figure drawing in Erboll’s hand.

Erboll was the first on a list of individuals Valcross has asked him to eliminate as a means to clean up the city. Simon will next visit Erboll’s attorney (in the book it was the judge on the case) Vincent Nather (Charles Halton) where, in a scene straight out of the novel, he will employ his ever-so-cool demeanor and abscond with $20,000, which comes with the name Papinoff (Ben Welden). The Saint also listens in on a phone call for Nather from a woman named Fay whose voice instantly enraptures the sleuth. She informs Nather the “Big Fellow” says to stay home tonight. Simon adds this mysterious man to his list.

Before he departs the lawyer’s home, the Saint and Nather are joined by Inspector Fernak, played expertly by Jonathan Hale. In relaying the telephone message, Simon causes the cop to become quite enraged at the attorney as he deduces Nather is under the thumb of the top hoodlum. The Saint joins Fernak in his car for their first tete-a-tete on his mission and gathers information about his next destination –as well as overhear a radio call about the kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.

A guarded nightclub is where Simon seeks Papinoff, who will apprehend the Saint and deliver him to the next man up the ladder, Morrie Yule, who is holed up in a New Jersey house where the kidnapped girl is being kept. Showing his deft physical skills, the Saint kills one of the three men in the room with the knife they failed to discover was strapped to his forearm –a weapon the Saint always carries. In the now-darkened room, he is handed a gun by a woman he assumes to be Fay (Kay Sutton) and by the time he leaves the premises has killed another man and rescued the girl.

Although quite climactic, the scene is far from the end of the story. Simon will go on to meet the remaining men on his list and at one point be delivered to his execution only to be saved by a woman. The identity of the Big Fellow becomes the leading question of the story and his identity is definitely a surprise.

I appreciate that The Saint in New York sticks pretty closely with the book, making only minor alterations to the names of some characters and combining two gangsters into one. The book is so wonderfully suspenseful, however, that it is hard to appreciate the film version when you know more details about each scene than the screen tells you. It is nevertheless a great story, nicely complicated and entertaining.

Hayward does a good job portraying the Saint. He has the coolness of personality required, but probably no actor could portray just as physically skilled a man as Simon is meant to be. I will likely forever prefer George Sanders as the Saint, and had a hard time fully accepting Hayward. Part of this hurdle is because when reading the books I envision Simon as a tanner, blue-eyed Sanders. The character is meant to be particularly tall –as Sanders is– and is British (an accent Hayward lacked) and as witty as only Sanders can convey. Charteris would later say that he thought Sanders and Hayward were “hopelessly miscast” as his hero.

Lastly, Hale as Fernak is a great bit of casting. He is utterly calm and trusting in the Saint, whom he knows by reputation but has just met. The character is the same in the book, one of the cops Simon partners with and always manages to evade when he might actually be tapped for a crime. Hale went on to play Fernak in the George Sanders’ Saint movies that take place in New York –always the on-the-sidelines ally of Simon Templar.

Source: LeslieCharteris.com

At the Circus

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At the Circus (1939)

With most Marx Bros. movies, the story happening for all the surrounding characters is pretty bland and is easily overshadowed by the somewhat unrelated activities of the boys. In At the Circus, however, there is a pretty decent base plot. Chico and Harpo are appropriately cast as members of a travelling circus while Groucho is invited into the action as an attorney.

Harpo plays second fiddle to the strongman in the troupe, played by a nearly speechless and almost unrecognizable Nat Pendleton. Chico, although pals with Harpo’s Punchy as usual, is behind the scenes and helps out the circus manager Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker), who is the protagonist of the movie’s actual story. Jeff left behind a life of luxury via his family’s wealth to run the circus but is now at risk of losing it lest he can pay $10,000 to his business partner, antagonist John Carter (James Burke).

John does not actually want Jeff to be able to pay because he does not wish to relinquish his share of the circus. He conspires with the strongman Goliath to steal the $10,000 in cash Jeff prepared, starting the hunt for the money. Chico, Harpo and Groucho as J. Cheever Loophole fail to regain the money and the latter instead targets Jeff’s rich aunt, Mrs. Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont).

When Loophole arrives in Newport to talk the money out of Mrs. Dukesbury, he is mistaken for the orchestra conductor Jardinet, who is to be entertaining the woman’s massive crowd the following night. Loophole plays along and convinces the woman to pay a fee of $10,000 for his services. When the time comes, however, it is the circus that will entertain Mrs. Dukesbury’s guests.

At the Circus, like all Marx Bros. movies, contains scattered and unamusing musical numbers. Chico does fit in his usual entertaining piano playing and Harpo guides a chorus of black singers with his harpist performance. Most amusing is a scene in which Chico and Harpo search Goliath’s train stateroom for the stolen money. The strongman is asleep, and the boys manage to keep him that way while they push him around and climb into his mattress. Coming in second place, by my estimates, is our first encounter with Loophole. Chico has been advised that no one can get on the train without a badge, and despite his inviting Loophole to intervene for Jeff, he will not allow him on board. Loophole ends up rather wet before he can manage to get inside.

I would not say At the Circus is the best Marx Bros. movie, but it is nice to see one that can somewhat captivate you with its main plot line. As I mentioned, the boys usually just steal the show in these movies by conducting their antics while the unimportant plot takes place. In this case I was intrigued by the struggles of Jeff and girlfriend Julie (Florence Rice) to maintain the circus and their romance.

The Gay Falcon

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The Gay Falcon (1941)

Despite the middle-of-the-road rating I feel compelled to give The Gay Falcon, the movie about retired freelance sleuth Gay Lawrence is far from dull. George Sanders brings a fun liveliness to the lead character who is comically rude to the women in his life and amusingly insulting to those around him.

The Gay Falcon was the first of four movies about the crime solver known as The Falcon that would star George Sanders (The later nine movies would start Tom Conway, Sanders’ brother, as Tom Lawrence, The Falcon’s brother.) But the origin of The Falcon character is suspiciously linked to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint. This movie was made after Sanders made five films as Simon Templar aka The Saint, who was a rogue crime solver who although on the side of the law, worked independently of the police. The story about Gay Lawrence not only featured Sanders and costar Wendy Barrie again but also the same writing crew at RKO that was responsible to the Sanders Saint movies. Charteris sued RKO claiming it had stolen his character. The final disposition in the suit has not be discovered.

But onto the story. Sanders’ Gay Lawrence is attempting to hold down a legitimate office job to appease his fiancée Elinor (Anne Hunter). When the duo go to a party, however, Lawrence is drawn into a case involving jewelry thefts all occurring during parties hosted by Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper). While dancing with everyone but his fiancée, Lawrence is slipped a large diamond ring from Mrs. Gardiner (Lucile Gleason) and told to protect it from criminals who wish to nab it. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Gardiner is killed.

Helping Lawrence on the case is Maxine’s secretary Helen (Barrie), who is more interested in nabbing the Falcon as a romantic partner than in accomplishing anything. Her continual presence at Lawrence’s apartment and her answering of the phone there, drives Elinor into a constant furry, and she chums up with a Manuel Retana (Turhan Bey) to make her beau jealous.

Meanwhile, The Falcon’s sidekick Goldie Locke, played by Allen Jenkins, is arrested for the first murder for being the only witness on the scene, and for the later killing of one of the suspects. Lawrence also gets himself on bad terms with the police and eliminates his snazzy manner of dress in exchange for a slobbish disguise. The Falcon will solve the case and make his choice of a female partner.

The Gay Falcon brings all the usual elements we expect in a detective (or in this case non-detective) story, but adds a great degree of humor. Although probably not as witty as The Saint, The Falcon sure knows how to toy with women. Barrie is extremely amusing as the sort-of-dumb and definitely worthless partner ever at Lawrence’s heels. Much of the dialogue is outright laughable, but in a good way. Compared to Sanders’ The Saint movies, I would say The Gay Falcon is far less serious, with Sanders having more fun in the role. I will still always prefer his Simon Templar pictures as being of just overall higher quality in terms of plot and performance.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes can only receive this mediocre rating if you conclude that you are meant to be laughing at certain points. Like Phantom of the Paradise, it blurs the line between horror and comedy. Although it is about grotesque murders, it also is full of humorous dialogue that one cannot help but conclude is meant to make us laugh. Other instances of absurd plot points and bad acting make us laugh for unintentional reasons.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Phibes, a man who is thought to have died in a car accident following his wife’s death on the operating table. The man is very much alive, however, though horribly disfigured. He pastes on a false face to hide his scars and is able to talk only via a cord attaching his neck to a speaker. When it comes to eating/drinking, he seems to do that via a hole in the back of his neck (cue laughter).

Dr. Phibes lives in an old mansion with a beautiful young woman  (Virginia North) who also fails to utter a word and whose relationship with the doctor is never explained. The man plays an organ and directs a “mechanical” orchestra while also taking time out to waltz with the woman. It all seems to be part of a ritual that leads up to the duo hitting the road and murdering surgeons.

Investigating the crimes is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is assisted by the head doctor on Mrs. Phibes operation, Dr. Vesalius, played by an older Joseph Cotton. The two discover in their inquiries that the murders –via means such as bats, rats, and bees– are all related to the 10 plagues that preyed upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. The crime-fighters fail to avert any of the deaths, however, until we reach the final plague: death of the first-born. Dr. Vesalius, with a teenage son, is the recipient of that torment. He is forced to operate on the boy to save his life and in a manner that could have inspired the modern Saw movies.

Even the brutal deaths in The Abominable Dr. Phibes seem to employ a degree of comic timing. Having just located one doctor, the authorities lead him out of a building only to have a brass unicorn head catapult through the open door and impale the victim. A concentrated brussel sprout syrup entirely coats the head of a sleeping nurse, whose sleeping pills keep her unconscious during the eating of her face.

Jeffrey, whom I remember as being equally comical in The Return of the Pink Panther, certainly lightens the mood throughout by being fairly incompetent –leaving the critical thinking to Dr. Vesalius– and prattling off humorous lines here and there. Cotton, meanwhile, gives a superbly appropriate performance. A reader commented last week on the post about Cotton’s Walk Softly, Stranger that he has never seen the man give a bad performance. I cannot agree more. Like Bette Davis, Cotton was not immune to appearing in a bad movie, but he always gave a great show, here avoiding the melodrama Price tends to bring to his parts. I think it’s safe to say we expect a certain degree of camp from Price, however, and he certainly delivers that here.

White Zombie

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White Zombie (1932)

Zombies certainly are all the rage these days. Made a weekly activity by “The Walking Dead” and further celebrated through marathon/obstacle course events involving zombie attackers, even I sometimes think ahead to the zombie apocalypse. But before zombies were flesh-eating, contagious, reanimated dead, they were dormant individuals affected by voodoo magic. Movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow classify themselves in the horror genre, but flicks about voodoo zombies don’t bring with them the same gore as our contemporary concept of the living dead.

White Zombie is the same way. Rather than creatures to be feared, the zombies in this picture are made into such creatures to work as indentured servants without causing a fuss. The monster in this movie is Bela Lugosi‘s voodoo priest who threatens to transform you into such a soulless, mindless form.

As with other of these classic zombie concept movies, the setting is Haiti. Here a betrothed couple has newly arrived. They had planned to be married upon leaving the boat, but were persuaded by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to wait. Beaumont desires the young Madeline (Madge Bellamy) for himself and will go to extreme lengths to secure her.

Madeline and fiance Niel (John Harron) encounter their first set of zombies on the way to the home of Mr. Beaumont. A group of the mindless men march in the darkness having just finished a day’s work at “Murder” Legendre’s (Lugosi) sugar mill. They, along with an encounter with Murder, frighten Madeline, whose scarf is snatched away by the voodoo master.

Neil and Madeline are married in Beaumont’s home, but the girl is given a potion that causes her to seemingly drop dead at dinner. Murder and Beaumont exhume her body and transform her into a zombie. Beaumont does not like the creature Madeline has become, however, and asks Murder to bring her back to life. Murder refuses, having his own ideas for the girl whom he will later command to kill Neil. A battle will ensue among the various parties until we discover the only way to break a zombie trance is to kill the one who holds power over the undead.

In some ways I think the voodoo concept of a zombie is more personally frightening than the undead we see in today’s films. Whereas the contemporary zombie is a person who has died and whose body merely comes back to life with only animalistic instinct remaining, the Haitian approach conveys the torture of losing control of your body via a spell. I think most mythology along these lines suggests the person never really dies but appears to have passed, leading to their burial (In The Serpent and the Rainbow a potion “kills” a person for 12 hours and when he regains his senses is already buried. The lack of oxygen causes brain damage, so when exhumed, the person is quite different.). Madeline retains all her beauty and vibrancy but her eyes are blank of emotion or acknowledgement of those around her.

Whereas the grotesque zombie of today is required to be written off by loved ones as no longer the same person, Neil is ever-more frustrated because his wife looks the same but refuses to acknowledge him. He knows there must be some way to revive her but cannot find the way himself, so the voodoo approach is also much more emotionally draining for loved ones.

  • White Zombie is set for 5:15 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.
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