Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On the Road Again



One of my colleagues at work is a member of the Millennial generation.

She is also a big fan of Audrey Hepburn, who died before my co–worker was born. I learned of her fondness for Hepburn last year when she told me how she dressed like Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for a costume party given by the youth group at her church.

I asked a perfectly reasonable question: Did anyone know who she was pretending to be?

Her answer surprised me: Yes!

In fact, she said, just about everyone knew who she was.

I have always admired Hepburn, too, and I think one of the primary reasons for her appeal is that it wasn't really possible to pigeonhole her. She was an extraordinarily versatile actress who could do many things well. Even so she never seemed like the sort of star who would appeal to the Millennials.

At least that was my take on it. I stand corrected.

One of the best examples of her versatility was the British movie that made its debut on this day in 1967 — "Two for the Road" — which starred another versatile thespian, Albert Finney. They made an appealing on–screen couple.

Just one problem. That seemingly picture–perfect marriage was imploding.

As Roger Ebert observed in his review of the movie, "Love is ever so much more satisfactory in the movies where every other kiss is framed by a sunset, and people are always running toward each other in slow motion, their arms outstretched, while in the background the tide comes in, or goes out, or keeps busy, anyway."

Just about every married couple I know would tell you that isn't what marriage is really like.

That is what courtship is like. That's what going together (or whatever they call it these days) is like.

But when you say "I do," you're saying "I do" to a whole lot of stuff that is not mentioned directly in your vows — like the fact that you will have to work on keeping that spark of romance alive more often and in more ways than you think.

Some marriages can overcome that. Some can't.

That was the subtext of the story, and it was far from certain which way this couple would go. They had their two–seater transported to Northwestern France, and they took off on a road trip to the southeastern corner of the country. Finney played a successful architect, and they planned to participate in a celebration of the completion of a client's project.

The road through France was one they had traveled before, and the current road trip gave them the opportunity to reflect on events in their lives and examine where life had taken them since they met.

It was an intriguing story–telling technique, but the memories weren't always pleasant. There were moments of infidelity on both sides.

If you happen to catch this one on TV, look for Jacqueline Bisset in one of her early roles.

And listen for the title song, "Two for the Road," which was written by Henry Mancini. It wasn't nominated for an Oscar, unlike many of his other songs, but Mancini said it was his personal favorite.

In fact, the movie was all but ignored by the Oscars, receiving only one nomination, even though Ebert was adamant that "Two for the Road" was one of the best movies of 1967.

I thought it was a well–told story, balancing comedy and drama in that poignant way that real life does. To some viewers, the end may seem to be an unrealistic compromise in which the two remain together in spite of all that has passed before.

And there may be something to that.

But director Stanley Donen treated it differently than your typical Hollywood happy ending. He had Hepburn and Finney cross the French border into Italy, something they had never done before.

They symbolically turned the page and began a new chapter, traveling into unexplored territory.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Movie Myth of the Benevolent Birdman



"You best go find out who you are. Come on. Now what's wrong with you, you old buzzard? Come on. Don't be afraid. Out there you can kick up the dust. You can dance to fiddle music. Watch the alfalfa bloom. If you like, you can see gold teeth. Taste sweet whisky and red–eyed gravy. The air breathes easy, nights move faster, and you tell time by the clock. Now you don't wanna be a jailbird all your life, do ya? You're a highballin' sparrow. So you fly high, old cock. Go out there and bite the stars — for me. Find yourself a fat mama and make a family. You hear? Beat it."

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster)

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know of my love of history — and how I feel about the standards for movies that attempt to re–create historic events or tell the life stories of noteworthy people.

But the 55th anniversary of the premiere of director John Frankenheimer's "Birdman of Alcatraz" is an appropriate time to revisit that.

Simply put, I believe that a movie that proposes to tell the story of an actual event or life should be faithful to the facts. Well, most of the facts. I can overlook minor details.

"Birdman of Alcatraz" took some liberties with the truth. For openers, the title implies that Robert Stroud, the convict about whom the movie was made, kept birds at Alcatraz. In fact, he kept his birds at Leavenworth. When he was transferred to Alcatraz, he wasn't allowed to keep pets.

But I suppose you could get around that by saying that Stroud had already established himself as the Birdman before he went to Alcatraz so the title was a reference to his past, not his present, activity.

OK, I guess I can let that one slide.

The thing I find it harder to overlook, though, is the apparently considerable liberty the filmmakers took with Stroud himself. The movie did portray him as a bitter individual given to violent outbursts, but the clear implication was that he mellowed as he aged.

Former inmates have said the portrayal was inaccurate, that Stroud was not the amiable fellow of the movie but a "vicious killer" and troublemaker — and, indeed, the movie was candid about the events that led to his incarceration — but Burt Lancaster's Stroud could be a sympathetic character whereas the real one apparently was not.

Having said that, though, "Birdman of Alcatraz" had its inspiring moments — and a remarkable cast — in spite of its inaccuracies. Besides, the makers of "Birdman of Alcatraz" freely acknowledged, as did the makers of "A Beautiful Mind," that it was not a literal presentation of a life story, merely based on it.

If the movie did take liberties with the truth, though, it didn't gloss over the fact that Stroud was a hothead in his youth.

But Stroud also became an authority on sparrow diseases — all because he found some injured sparrows in the prison yard one day and began raising them.

So, to borrow a Huckleberry Finn observation from Mark Twain's classic novel, the makers of the movie "told the truth — mainly."

The movie received four Oscar nominations and lost all four.

Lancaster was nominated for Best Actor. He was nominated four times in his career — and even won once — but lost this time to Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Thelma Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Stroud's overbearing mother. She lost as well — to Anne Bancroft's magnificent performance in "The Miracle Worker," but I thought the role of Elizabeth Stroud was every bit as demanding as the role of Anne Sullivan.

Telly Savalas was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to Ed Begley in "Sweet Bird of Youth." I'm not sure if Savalas' character was real. Perhaps it was a combination of several inmates who interacted with Stroud in some way — although Stroud spent almost his entire incarceration period in solitary confinement so he couldn't have interacted with other inmates much. Besides he would have been as likely to get into a fight with a fellow inmate as to make friends with him.

The fourth nomination was for cinematography, and "Birdman" lost that one to "The Longest Day."

Karl Malden received no nomination — although I have long believed he deserved one as Stroud's first warden. Maybe it is because his character was entirely fictional whereas most, if not all, of the other primary characters were real, but aspects of their lives were fictionalized.

Was "Birdman of Alcatraz" Lancaster's best? That is really hard to say. He was always good. Some people will cite "From Here to Eternity." Others will say "Elmer Gantry" or "Atlantic City." I would say "Judgment at Nuremberg" or "Seven Days in May." But that's me.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not Much of a Plot, but 'Across the Universe' Made You Feel Good



"Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs."

Roger Ebert

I've been a Beatles fan as long as I can remember.

So I have to ask myself something: How did I possibly miss the premiere of "Across the Universe" on this day in 2007?

OK, today is actually the 10th anniversary of its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. It started showing in the United States about a month later.

All the same, though, I do not remember hearing anything about it at the time — and that really is a shame.

And difficult for me to comprehend because "Across the Universe" actually is my favorite Beatles song. You'd think the movie's title would have left an impression on me.

Now, I have mentioned before that I am not a fan of movie musicals — but this is Beatles music. It isn't the Beatles singing — I have heard that it is quite costly to obtain the rights to use actual Beatles recordings in movies, which is why 2001's "I Am Sam" used cover versions of Beatles songs — and it may be why "Across the Universe" used covers, too, although it seems to me that it really worked better for the movie's plot — such as it was — to have the characters sing the songs.

I liked it better in "Across the Universe," though. "I Am Sam" was shot in sync with the original Beatles songs so even though the versions that were used were covers, they couldn't stray far from the pace of the originals. In "Across the Universe," there were no such constraints, and the musicians had more freedom in their interpretations.

Consequently, if you were a Beatles fan, you would recognize variations, both subtle and not so subtle, in the songs.

(One example that stood out for me was the rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends," which was like a cross between the original version and Joe Cocker's — with a generous helping of the musicians' own spins. The music was very enjoyable — and occasionally surprising.

(Speaking of Cocker, he actually was in "Across the Universe," but he didn't sing "With a Little Help From My Friends." He sang "Come Together.")

I wasn't wowed by the story — it was dialogue loosely connected by the songs, and the names of the characters — Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Prudence, Jojo, etc. — came directly from song titles or lyrics that Beatles fans were sure to recognize.

The power of "Across the Universe" was the merging of roughly three dozen Beatles songs with strong images — like the part where "Let It Be" was incorporated into juxtaposing scenes of two groups of mourners, one white and one black, burying young people. The black casualty came during a protest; the white casualty was the result of warfare.

It produced a stark contrast, to be sure.

Any Beatles imagery — direct or implied — evoked by the group's brilliant lyrics was brought to the screen.

Dana Fuchs, as Sexy Sadie, added a Janis Joplin touch to the story with her Pearl–like performances.

Evan Rachel Wood was the female lead as Lucy. She only recently turned 30 and almost certainly has many film roles ahead of her, but Wood, who performed Beatles songs admirably, has said the role of Lucy is her favorite. That isn't surprising, given that she has said that the music of the Beatles has played a significant role in her life.

I have been working as a journalism professor for several years now, and it never ceases to amaze me when I hear that people — who I know could not have been born yet when the Beatles broke up — say that the Beatles' music influenced them when they were growing up. Nearly all the Beatles songs ever recorded had been on record store shelves for years when those folks were born. The Beatles, of course, continued to record as solo performers, but they were not a contemporary band for recent generations.

Wood is one of those people. The fact that she and so many others are inspired today by the music of the Beatles gives me hope.

And despite the absence of much of a plausible plot, "Across the Universe" was a pleasurable experience.

By the way it did receive an Academy Award nomination — for costume design. It lost.

While I didn't think it deserved nominations for much of anything else, I can't help but wish there was some way to recognize the imagery in the movie. At times it could be quite impressive.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Sins of the Father



"No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget."

Sy (Robin Williams)

Most people probably remember Robin Williams for his many comic and semi–comic roles. Nothing wrong with that. He was a gifted man in that department.

But what is often overlooked is the fact that Williams could do other things, too, as he proved in "One Hour Photo," which premiered on this day in 2002. It just might have been Williams' finest performance — even though it wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

You have heard, I presume, of an actor playing against type? Well, Williams' performance in "One Hour Photo" was the definition of playing against type. Most people, as I say, remember Williams as a zany character who sometimes played dramatic roles — but he never, as far as I can recall, ever played a character like Sy, an introverted film processor at a one–hour photo lab in a shopping mall. Sy was one of those faceless and nameless people who surround us daily, and most live their lives without drawing attention to themselves or causing others harm.

(I know. Robin Williams? Introverted?)

Sy was somewhat given to obsession. He was obsessed with his work and, through it, he became obsessed with a young family. He had been developing their photos for years and had been secretly copying their photos and decorating his apartment with them.

Truth be told, Sy was emotionally involved with everyone who brought in their film to be processed — but he was particularly obsessed with this family, primarily the mother (Connie Nielsen) and her son (Dylan Smith) since they were always the ones who dropped off the film and picked up the prints. The father (Michael Vartan) was only known to Sy through the photographs in the rolls of film he developed.

In his mind they were his family. I suppose a lot of people who live alone are like that. OK, they don't process film anymore, but fantasy utilizes whatever one's reality is and embellishes it. Sy's reality was the solitude of the dark room and his cramped apartment. That was his life ... such as it was.

In Sy's case, his work was his life. It wasn't so odd, really, that the two should merge. If only in his mind.

He didn't really have much of a life, anyway, so he projected his expectations of the perfect life and the perfect family on this young family with whom he was so obsessed. You don't need to be an expert to know that isn't healthy.

But Sy was seen as harmless enough so his ham–handed attempts to get closer to the young family were politely and discreetly brushed aside.

And I guess you don't need to be a trained psychologist to know that when someone is obsessed with someone else and a blemish arises, it can be a shattering experience. So it was with Sy and this young family.

The young husband was having an extramarital affair, and that didn't set well with Sy when he discovered it.

Now, Sy was clearly a disturbed individual, but I wondered when I first saw this movie whether someone like Sy would have done what he did if he had not been dismissed from his job by the store manager (Gary Cole).

Sy's habit of making prints for himself for which he had not paid caught up with him along with some other transgressions. Cole fired him — and that really was the catalyst for a string of events.

Sy tracked down the young husband and his mistress in a hotel and forced them, at knife point, to perform sex acts while he photographed them.

Later, when being interrogated, Sy's remarks strongly implied that he had been sexually abused by his father and perhaps ordered to perform sex acts as a child while being photographed by his father.

That scene has always made me think of Anthony Perkins in the final scene of "Psycho". The stories were different, but they were essentially indictments of what the fathers had done with their children were young.

The sins of the father.

It was a character — and a performance — worthy of Hitchcock.

It reminded me of when I was a young reporter covering the police and crime beats at my first newspaper job. Although the county in which I lived and worked was rather sparsely populated, it had about half a dozen murder trials while I was there — and I covered them all.

On one occasion I covered a murder trial in which the defendant was found guilty — but then, during the punishment phase of the trial, the defense presented evidence of something even the defendant knew nothing about — his mother had been mentally retarded and had been incapable of defending him when his father abused him.

Apparently the mother had been aware that something bad was happening, but the defendant did not understand that she could not come to his defense, and it had planted a seed of resentment within him that was manifested in many complicated ways when he became an adult — one of which was his brutal rape and murder of a young girl.

He was overcome with emotion after hearing testimony about his mother during his penalty phase, and the jury was moved to sentence him to life in prison instead of execution.

Sy didn't commit a violent act, but if his conversation with the detective at the end of the movie said nothing else, it bore witness to the lasting — and tragic — consequences of physical and emotional abuse.

Yes at Its Creative Peak



"To my mind, Yes may be the single most important of all the progressive rock bands."

Geddy Lee of Rush

I was a late arrival to the Yes party, I suppose.

The band's "Fragile" album had been in the music stores for a long time before I acquired a copy, but it was brand–new to me, and I was hooked by the other–worldly music I heard.

I may have been just discovering Yes, but that was far from the band's most current release. Among the Yes albums that were released after "Fragile" (but, again, before I got a copy of it) was "Close to the Edge," which hit music stores on this day in 1972 and marked a bit of a turning point — for the band and for me.

With my first purchase of a Yes album, I entered the world of progressive rock, where I would find the likes of Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Jethro Tull — and others. And, while I listen to other things, too, I've never left that world.

When I bought the "Fragile" album on cassette long after its successor, "Close to the Edge," was released, I had just persuaded my parents to let me have a portable cassette recorder, and "Fragile" was one of the first cassettes I bought. I can't remember now why I bought it. I hadn't heard any of the tracks — and it didn't take long for me to figure out why. In those days radio stations seldom gave much airplay to songs that were longer than about four or five minutes — and many of Yes' recordings were nearly twice as long — even longer on "Close to the Edge."

Needless to say Yes wasn't getting much air time. And if it wasn't played on the radio in those days, chances were good I hadn't heard it.

I must have heard about Yes from someone, but I can't think of who that might have been. I wish I knew because that person was responsible for introducing me to one of my favorite musical experiences, and I would like to express my sincere gratitude.

But the experiences of listening to "Fragile" and "Close to the Edge" were very different.

While many of the tracks on "Fragile" were lengthy, they weren't as long as the tracks on "Close to the Edge," which was like a Yes symphony in three tracks/movements.

For nearly 50 years, Yes has had a distinctive style, but it was never really the same after "Close to the Edge." That was the last album that included drummer Bill Bruford, who joined King Crimson. Bruford was as distinctive in his own way as The Who's Keith Moon; others could take his place after he left, but they could never duplicate his sound.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, Yes has never again reached the creative heights it reached with "Close to the Edge." After 45 years, it holds up where other Yes albums do not — and remains fresh and new even upon repeated listenings.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

About Faces



"You know, it's wonderful when guys like you lose out. Makes guys like me think maybe we got a chance in this world."

Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart)

I like all four of the movies that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together — each for a different reason.

And the reason I like "Dark Passage," which premiered on this day in 1947, is simple. It was the most creative of the four.

For about the first half of the movie, the audience never saw Bogart's face. A few times the viewers saw the figure of a man, but they could not see his face. They saw a photograph of a man in the newspaper who was supposed to be Bogart — but definitely was not Bogart. In fact it was a picture of character actor Frank Wilcox, who made a name for himself on TV.

Bogart played a man who had been convicted of killing his wife and escaped from prison. He got some assistance from Lauren Bacall, who, as it turned out, had been interested in his case and had attended his trial — although Bogart's character hadn't known that at the time.

AS I say, for the first hour of the movie, Bogart's face was not visible, which was a source of considerable anxiety for studio head Jack Warner. Bogart was Warner's most bankable star, but no one saw his face for more than an hour. Either things were seen from his perspective or his face was hidden by bandages after he got plastic surgery, which radically altered his appearance — as long as you believed that picture really was a pre–surgery photo of that character.

Once she helped Bogart remove the bandages, Bacall essentially disappeared from the story. She returned at the very end.

Bogart, meanwhile, had to fend off a blackmail attempt — in so doing, he learned the truth about who had killed his wife and his closest friend. It was Agnes Moorehead, Bogart's spurned lover who had testified against him in court.

Bogart's character wanted to record Madge confessing, and he had an advantage in that she didn't know who he was with his new face. He went to her home, posing as someone with a romantic interest in her acting on a recommendation from a mutual friend.

After he had gained her confidence and been allowed into Madge's home, he revealed his true identity to her. He told her that he had evidence proving her guilt, hoping to coerce her into making a confession, but she ended up falling from a window to her death, never having confessed.

"Dark Passage" was truly an exception to the theatrical rule. I'm not talking about how most of the first half of the movie was seen from Bogart's point of view. I'm talking about how that part was supported by first–person narration, not in the flashback kind of way that was used in movies like "Sunset Boulevard" but as a real–time kind of thing. Few pictures, then or now, could do something like that from start to finish — and, to be fair, "Dark Passage" stopped doing it after the viewers were allowed to see Bogart's face.

But it was effective when it was being used.

Across the Pacific ... or Whatever It Was



Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart): I never saw anybody like you; you never have any clothes on.

Alberta Marlow (Mary Astor): Well if anyone heard you complaining about it they would put you in a psychopathic ward.

Did you ever hear of a novel that was written about 14 years before the catastrophic sinking of the Titanic that, in hindsight, seemed to foretell the disaster with eerie detail?

"Across the Pacific," which made its debut on this day in 1942, was kind of like that. Let me explain.

Originally "Across the Pacific" was intended to be about an attempt to thwart a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was a work of fiction.

Then when the Japanese actually did bomb Pearl Harbor, the script was rewritten to make the location Panama instead. Now that wasn't as implausible as it might seem on the surface. Several years before the U.S. entered World War II, military exercises were focused on defending the Panama Canal, and those activities received considerable attention in the press.

But the first two–thirds of the movie emphasized the hot–and–cold romance between Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, fellow passengers aboard a Japanese ship.

And the script revision actually put all the action in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Never really got close to the Pacific.

I guess "Across the Pacific" was the original title — and, in spite of all the meticulous changes being made to the script, no one thought to change the title.

The script revision wasn't that meticulous, though. Director John Huston apparently had worked out an ending for the movie, but he was called up for military service, leaving it to his replacement, Vincent Sherman, to come up with an ending on his own.

Huston, by the way, thought Sherman's finish "lacked credibility," according to his 1980 autobiography "An Open Book." Maybe he should have shared his vision for the conclusion with Sherman before he shipped out.

At the very least he should have told Sherman how to resolve the predicament in which his filmmaking had left Bogart. If you watch the movie, I think you will agree that Bogart would have had to be Harry Houdini — or Indiana Jones — to get out of that one.

Yet somehow he did.

There were other problems with "Across the Pacific." For one, I have always had an issue with the casting of Astor as the female lead. Now, she was talented. I don't mean to imply that she wasn't. But I thought the role called for more of a beauty. Ingrid Bergman comes to mind. She combined great talent with great beauty.

Would that have invited comparison to Bogart and Bergman's classic "Casablanca"?

Perhaps in hindsight. But "Casablanca" wouldn't have been on the minds of audiences in September 1942 because it wasn't showing on U.S. movie screens until two months later.

The actual cast did invite comparisons to "The Maltese Falcon," especially with Sydney Greenstreet reunited with Bogart and Astor. Greenstreet played an even more villainous character than he played in "The Maltese Falcon."

He showed up in "Casablanca," too.

By the way, Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet reprised their roles in a radio version of the story that was aired a few months later.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

'The Prisoner of Zenda' Was Rousing Swashbuckler



"Fate doesn't always make the right men kings."

Fritz (David Niven)

Several versions of "The Prisoner of Zenda" have been made over the years, and most have been pretty faithful to Anthony Hope's adventure novel.

But the first version I ever saw was one that was made in 1979. It starred Peter Sellers — and if you know anything at all about Peter Sellers, you know that just about everything he ever did was funny. As a result, Hope's novel got a rather irreverent treatment.

If you were familiar with the story, it was funny in the parody style of Mel Brooks. But I wasn't familiar with the original story so I assumed that all the versions of "The Prisoner of Zenda" that had been made earlier were comedies, too.

Regretfully, that led me to ignore the earlier versions for a long time.

That was a big mistake. I have often wished that I had seen the version that premiered on this day in 1937 first. If I had, I would have appreciated the humor in the Sellers version in a way that I didn't back when I saw it. I haven't seen all the movie adaptations of Hope's novel, but that is the best that I have seen.

The best word for it is swashbuckler — quite a rousing one.

And I would have known — as I didn't for a long time — that it was really an adventure story and not the parody that the Sellers version was.

But my mother was a huge fan of Peter Sellers. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that. In fact, I am also a great admirer of Peter Sellers — I don't know how anyone could watch "Dr. Strangelove" or "Being There" and not be a Sellers admirer.

But he simply wouldn't have been the right person to play the lead in a movie that was faithful to the story as it was originally told.

Ronald Colman, on the other hand, was a pretty good choice.

Now, as a Sellers fan, I can understand why he was an obvious choice to play the role. It involved a doppelgänger — the main character was the identical distant cousin of the crown prince of a small country that was unnamed in the movie. Colman played both roles (as he did in "Dr. Strangelove," Sellers played three parts, but you'll have to watch the movie to find out about that third character).

Anyway, Colman's character was drafted to fill in for his cousin at the coronation because his cousin drank some wine that had been drugged by his half–brother (Raymond Massey) who was poised to seize power if his half–sibling did not show up for his coronation. The prince could not be roused, and his cousin agreed to fill in to keep the throne from falling into the wrong hands.

The rest of the movie was entertaining with adventure punctuated by a romance involving Madeleine Carroll as the prince's apparent arranged fiancee, who despite her status had always disliked him but now, having become acquainted with the pretender (but not knowing it was a different person), found the new Rudolf to be very appealing.

It made for a terrific combination of adventure and romance that was rewarded handsomely at the box office, which was hardly surprising. Its cast included the likes of David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Astor.

And it received two Oscar nominations — for Original Music Score and Art Direction.

You know, in hindsight, I'm inclined to wonder if maybe Mom, who was a child when this version of "The Prisoner of Zenda" was in theaters, was drawn to see the Peter Sellers version more because she had seen the Ronald Colman movie and had fond memories of the swashbuckling classic than because of her fondness for Sellers.

Of course, I wouldn't rule out either possibility.

Friday, September 01, 2017

'Bobby-Soxer' Was Entertaining



"The Bachelor and the Bobby–Soxer," which made its debut 70 years ago today, was a silly story, but it had a strong cast that made it worth watching.

And, while it was silly, the story was interesting enough to keep audiences engaged — and the cast didn't hurt.

Cary Grant was one of the hottest stars in America (ranked #2 all time by the American Film Institute). The bobby–soxer was played by Shirley Temple, once the hottest star in the country (when she was a child) and ranked #18 among actresses by AFI. Myrna Loy didn't make AFI's list, but she found fame in the "Thin Man" movies in the years preceding "The Bachelor and the Bobby–Soxer."

All in all, a top–notch cast, and they produced an entertaining movie.

The first character the audience met was Loy, who played a judge at a time when female jurists must not have been too common. They can't be a lot more common today; the American Bar Association reported in 2014 that women made up slightly more than one–third of the American legal profession.

Loy may or may not have been seen as a trailblazer for women who aspired to careers in the law, but her portrayal may have been groundbreaking. I'm not aware of actresses who played judges in the movies before she did — although there may well have been some.

Anyway ...

Loy was presiding over a case in which Grant played a wrongfully accused defendant.

Grant's character was a bachelor artist who was charged with starting a brawl at a nightclub. When it became clear that the fight started between two women, both of whom wanted to be with Grant, Loy released Grant with a warning.

And Grant went on his merry way to deliver a lecture at a high school attended by Temple, who happened to be Loy's younger sister. As I observed earlier, Temple was the bobby–soxer of the story.

Now without going into too much detail — but for the benefit of any folks under 75 who are reading this — a bobby–soxer was a teenage girl — specifically one easily influenced by social trends or fads. Each generation has its own names for specific types of people, and bobby–soxer was the term used for impressionable teenage girls in the '40s.

Temple's character was susceptible to the messages — both real and imagined — from guest lecturers, and she fell in love with Grant, whom she (literally) saw as a knight in shining armor as he delivered his lecture on art.

Now that kind of puppy love has been around for a long time, and teenage girls, whatever your generation called them, always seem to be especially vulnerable to it.

Temple's character was a rather extreme case — even for a bobby–soxer. She manufactured a reason to be with Grant — as a model for one of his paintings. In a complex screwball comedy kind of way, Temple was discovered at Grant's apartment by Loy; Grant was arrested — and offered a deal. If he would pretend to date Temple and let the infatuation burn itself out, the charges would be dropped.

So he agreed.

But as the scenario played out, Grant and Loy began to fall for each other, much to the dismay of the assistant district attorney, who wanted Loy for himself. To get Grant out of the way, he agreed to drop all charges against Grant, thus freeing him of any further obligation to see Temple.

In the end, all the right people ended up with each other — as inevitably they must in a screwball comedy. Temple went back to her long–suffering high school boyfriend, and Grant and Loy were together as well.

Comedies, especially screwball comedies, are seldom rewarded with Oscar nominations, but "The Bachelor and the Bobby–Soxer" didn't just receive a nomination. It had an even rarer achievement when it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

An Often Overlooked Crime Thriller



"Well, Cinderella, I was beginning to think you'd never come for your shoe."

Mal Reese (John Vernon)

1967 was a rough year for crime films.

Any crime film that was in the theaters in the same year as "Bonnie and Clyde" almost had to take a backseat.

There were lots of other crime films that year — both fiction (most notably "Cool Hand Luke" although there was also "Wait Until Dark") and nonfiction (i.e., "In Cold Blood") stories — that are remembered by film buffs today, but "Bonnie and Clyde" really sucked up most of the oxygen in the room at the time and continues to demand a lot of the attention.

Consequently, a pretty good crime film like "Point Blank," which made its debut on this day in 1967, was forgotten practically from the start. It was far from a box–office smash, and today it is a hidden gem that you will seldom find shown on television. If you want to watch it, you may have to buy the DVD.

Which may not be such a bad idea. The movie was declared "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and chosen for preservation in its National Film Registry last year. My guess would be that was the first time that many people ever heard of it.

It got good reviews when it was released half a century ago and deservedly so. But "Bonnie and Clyde" (which was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992) had been in theaters only a couple of weeks when "Point Blank" premiered so it was all but ignored by the moviegoing public.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

If you ever saw "Animal House," you must remember John Vernon. He played Dean Wormer.

But more than a decade earlier, Vernon played a character who teamed up with Lee Marvin in "Point Blank" to steal a lot of money from a courier for a gambling operation — then he double–crossed Marvin, shooting him and leaving him to die. He took the money and Marvin's wife with him.

But Marvin didn't die, and he recovered with the help of a perplexing character played by Keenan Wynn. A few years after being shot he popped up to take revenge, aided by his sister–in–law (Angie Dickinson), and get his money (an objective he mentioned several times). Carroll O'Connor had a supporting role in the years before he found fame as TV's Archie Bunker.

Part of his revenge involved killing Vernon's character in a particularly brutal way.

I guess the moral of that story is — if you're going to kill people, don't wound them and then leave, assuming they will die. Finish the job. Don't leave the ultimate witness still breathing.

If you do, in keeping with Murphy's law, they will survive, and, at the very least, they will identify you.

At the very worst, well, they will do something like what Marvin's character did. As I say, it wasn't pretty.

But I suppose it is true what they say — No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of criminals.

Even in the movies.

That brings me to one more point.

Film critic Roger Ebert had a few questions of his own, most of which seemed to deal with plot logic. But, in the mostly make believe world of the movies, it is not wise to expect too much logic.

Still, if you like suspense thrillers, "Point Blank" is pretty good. As I say, it was ignored at the time — but it has come to be regarded as one of the best of its kind in the '60s.