Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Having Fun With Olivia

Olivia de Havilland, who marked her 100th birthday about three weeks ago, was an astonishingly fortunate woman in her youth.

She was one of those women who always looks younger than she is. Now, that is one of those things that most people attempt but few achieve. The ones who manage it seem to do so effortlessly. Perhaps some do. Perhaps others achieve it only after spending several hours working on it every day.

From what I have heard, de Havilland was one of those people who achieved it with no special effort. As a youth, I guess she was a natural beauty. It isn't necessary to guess, though. You can see it for yourself. She was in her early 20s when she made "Gone With the Wind."

She put that trait to good use in "The Ambassador's Daughter," which premiered on this day in 1956. In reality, de Havilland was 39 when the movie was being made — and turned 40 just before its theatrical premiere — but her character was probably in her 20s and, as the title suggested, the daughter of an ambassador (played by Edward Arnold), the ambassador to France to be specific.

A senator from America (Adolphe Menjou) declared Paris off limits to servicemen due to their misbehavior, and de Havilland's character took it upon herself to prove that U.S. servicemen could be gentlemen. She decided to do this by dating a serviceman who would not know her true identity. The serviceman (John Forsythe) was under the impression that she was a model, and he took her to nightclubs and on a humorous excursion to the Eiffel Tower.

There were some moments of deception on both sides.

Forsythe's character offered to buy de Havilland's character an airplane ticket to America when news of an emergency back in the States reached her, and she was suitably impressed — until she learned that counterfeit airplane tickets were a commonplace scam used by U.S. servicemen to score points with girls.

Forsythe, on the other hand, had been told that de Havilland was a Christian Dior fashion model, but when he went looking for her at a Dior fashion show, he discovered that Dior's staff had never heard of her. Then he saw de Havilland watching the show with the senator — and assumed they had some kind of relationship.

Everything got cleared up at the end when the two attended a performance of "Swan Lake."

Myrna Loy as the senator's wife, in a rather understated role for her, joined forces with de Havilland to persuade the senator to lift his ban. Thus, all was well that ended well.

Director Norman Krasna built his reputation in screwball comedies — which would, understandably, make potential viewers think they would be in for an off–the–wall experience with "The Ambassador's Daughter." But they would be wrong. It was a romantic comedy, but that really isn't the same thing. The dynamics of a romantic comedy and a screwball comedy are different — in often subtle ways but still different.

The cast seemed to have a good time, but as for the audience ... I can only guess.

Well, it would be hard not to have a good time watching de Havilland have a good time.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A New Direction for ZZ Top

ZZ Top's "El Loco," which hit music stores this month in 1981, marked a departure from the ZZ Top the band's fans knew and the emergence of a different ZZ Top, a new wave ZZ Top that, starting with this album, used synthesizers on many of its tracks.

That was a rather startling development for fans who had been listening to that little ol' band from Texas for a decade or so.

The most noteworthy difference in the album's production from the ones that preceded it, according to guitarist Billy Gibbons, the band's lead vocalist, was that, for the first time, the three members of the band recorded their parts separately instead of recording together.

By itself, I didn't detect a huge difference in the music because of that tactic. More likely, the synthesizers were responsible for that.

"Tube Snake Boogie" was the biggest hit on the album, climbing to #4 on Billboard's "Mainstream Rock" chart. It was a satirical sort of song, almost like the band was making fun of itself. Still it had more of a traditional ZZ Top sound to it than the first single to be released from the album, "Leila."
"Leila" was a good example of the direction a lot of music would take in the 1980s. It was just never a very good example of ZZ Top music, either before or after.

When I first heard it, I had to look at the album a couple of times to be sure I was listening to ZZ Top. In fact, the first time I heard it I thought it was Christopher Cross. I kid you not.

I didn't have that problem with "Pearl Necklace," which had a decidedly more ZZ Top feel to it.

The double entendres in "Tube Snake Boogie" and "Pearl Necklace" were impossible to miss, even if you didn't know for sure what the lyrics were saying.

And "Pearl Necklace" clearly showed listeners where ZZ Top would be heading with its next album.

Perhaps no other song on the album better exemplified the direction ZZ Top would be taking in future albums than the synthesizer–heavy track "Groovy Little Hippie Pad."

This wasn't your big brother's ZZ Top.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Movie That Was So Bad It Was Good

Do you remember your first brush with blatant propaganda?

That is probably a relevant question to ask in an election year, especially this one, which is sure to see propaganda spewing from both sides at record–shattering rates until November (with the crescendo coming in October).

And, if I could afford to see a psychologist, perhaps he or she could determine precisely when I was first exposed to blatant propaganda. It may well have been a political commercial I saw when I was small.

The when isn't terribly important, I guess. What is important is to be able to recognize it when you come in contact with it, when it first made an impression on you. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to actually come in contact with it. And there are far too many opportunities in life to come in contact with someone with an ax to grind.

That's one of those things, I suppose, that parents would like to spare their children if they could. But they can't. Life is a series of experiences. One cannot live without experiencing the bad along with the good. At least most of us can't.

One cannot really appreciate the good without being able to compare it to the bad, I guess.

"Reefer Madness," which was showing in the theaters in 1936, may have been as bad as it gets — truly worthy of Ed Wood. And yet, in its way, it was good.

Let me explain.

It did not work as an anti–marijuana film; in fact, it made consuming marijuana look like fun. It had laughable dialogue — and a truly absurd premise that marijuana was a narcotic when anyone with eyes to see could tell it was a plant, a weed, so to speak. And the movie totally ignored the fact that products made from cannabis were better in almost every way than their legal counterparts on the marketplace.

"Reefer Madness" focused solely on what it contended were the dire consequences of consuming marijuana. It asserted that marijuana addiction (of which there is no such thing, based on what I have read on the subject) would lead to all sorts of things — death, sexual assault, hallucinations, descent into madness.

Pretty scary stuff.

Or, at least, it would have been scary for audiences in the 1930s, most of whom probably had never heard of marijuana before.

But audiences who saw it 40 or 50 years later, when it made the theatrical rounds as something of a camp classic, were thoroughly amused by it. They couldn't take it seriously.

It must have seemed to audiences in 1936 that every effort was made to present the appearance of a legitimate public service announcement. The opening and closing narrations were given by someone who was — supposedly — a high school principal. It was in the form of a cautionary tale for attendees at a PTA meeting. Thank you, Mr. Principal, for bringing this to our attention.

The story just reeked of insincerity. The initial villains in the story were a young unmarried couple — "living in sin" in the vernacular of the times — who sold marijuana. The young woman preferred to sell to people her own age. Her significant other favored selling to younger folks and made a pitch for a young, innocent high school couple.

After that the story escalated into a tale of hit–and–run driving, manslaughter, suicide, sexual assault — all brought about by marijuana.

It was pretty clear that the makers of the film (it was financed by a church groups) believed marijuana to be a threat. Even though several states have legalized the use of marijuana to an extent, there are still activists who wish to roll back the clock.

They appear to be losing the fight.

Steven Salzberg, writing in Forbes about a recent study in Health Affairs, observed that "[i]n 2013 alone, when 17 states had legalized medical marijuana, Medicare saved over $165 million. A simple extrapolation suggests that if all states legalize marijuana, annual savings could be triple that amount, $500 million."

"Reefer Madness" was intended to preach about the evils of marijuana use, but it made smoking marijuana look fun instead, especially when young people began to realize that all the horror stories they had been told were a lot of hooey.

It even looked a little daring, perhaps defiant, which is always a good selling point for teenagers.

The movie's original title was "Tell Your Children," and it went under more ominous titles in re–releases on the exploitation film circuit in the late 1930s.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Affluenza of Arthur

Arthur (Dudley Moore): Have you ever been on a yacht?

Linda (Liza Minnelli): No. Is it wonderful?

Arthur: It doesn't suck.

I enjoyed "Arthur," the Dudley Moore–Liza Minnelli–Sir John Gielgud comedy that premiered on this day in 1981 — even though my favorite journalism professor, in his own words, "didn't like it worth a damn." That was a bit of a disappointment to me — but not enough to make me change my mind. I still liked the movie.

I've seen it several times since that first time, and I still like it.

It was an unusual tale — yet familiar in its way. Moore played Arthur, a not–so–young heir to his family's fortune, a playboy who got drunk every day, enabled (in a fashion) by Gielgud, who played Arthur's valet Hobson. Minnelli played Arthur's working–class love interest.

Arthur's family wanted him to marry the daughter of one of his father's business associates. When the family learned that Arthur had been seeing this working–class girl and might want to marry her, a campaign against their marriage began. Arthur was told he would lose his inheritance if he married her. His family wanted him to grow up and assume his rightful place in the world. But the childlike Arthur resisted.

Now, at some point in most of our lives, we have been around people who had had too much to drink. Some of us, at some times in our lives, have been that person who had had too much to drink. Whether you are that person or you are in the company of that person, it seems that person truly believes he/she is the wittiest and sexiest person in the room. Anyone who is reasonably sober will be able to tell you that the person is far from being the wittiest or sexiest person in the room.

But somehow, even though he had probably been drinking for decades, Arthur was. I guess it helps when you have a lot of money — and a professional writer creating your dialogue. And, as I say, he was enabled by Hobson, who served him martinis in the bathtub.

I guess that was part of Hobson's job description, but it almost certainly wasn't part of his job description to be sarcastic about nearly every aspect of Arthur's life. Still one suspected that Hobson was fond of Arthur and vice versa. Arthur's family was more interested in wealth and status than Arthur — and Hobson was clearly something of a surrogate father to Arthur.

"Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to love a drunk like Arthur," critic Roger Ebert wrote, and he was right. You had to appreciate Arthur's directness — and he had a profound sense of things.

"Everyone who drinks is not a poet," he said at one point. "Maybe some of us drink because we're not poets."

Arthur's family, as I say, wanted him to marry the daughter of his father's business associate, but Arthur didn't love her. His grandmother advised him to go ahead with the marriage and see his working–class girlfriend on the side. But most evidence to the contrary, Arthur had his principles, one of which was to wed only for love.

And he didn't love Susan (Jill Eikenberry). He loved Linda (Minnelli).

Hobson apparently knew that Arthur would need someone who truly cared for him to look after him. Hobson was dying. I don't think the audience ever knew what was killing him. I don't think the audience ever knew — definitely — that he was dying until he was hospitalized late in the movie. But he had a conversation with Linda in which the fact was more or less confirmed.

Hobson coughed, and Linda said to him, "That sounds bad. Have you seen a doctor?"

"Yes," Hobson replied in his understated that hinted that he knew so much more and added, "and he has seen me."

Later, as I say, Hobson went to the hospital, and Arthur came to visit him. He wanted to cheer Hobson up, but he wanted to do more than that.

He wanted to care for Hobson, the man who had cared for him all his life. It was a craving the audience learned about from what he told Linda at one point.

"I've never taken care of anybody," Arthur told Linda. "Everybody's always taken care of me. But if you got sick, or anything, I'd take care of you."

That was one of Arthur's genuinely introspective moments, and Linda seemed to realize it.

"Then I'll get sick," she told him.

Lately I have been wondering if Arthur was an early victim of affluenza. Perhaps his character drank not because he wasn't a poet but because he didn't know how to care for people as he had been cared for — and it was something he desperately desired.

In hindsight it seems odd to me how relatively unknown Moore was at the time. He had been making movies for 15 years when he made "Arthur," but it had only been his fairly recent parts in "Foul Play" and "10" that made him into something of a household name. In "Foul Play," he played second fiddle to Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. In "10," the star was the voluptuous Bo Derek.

Moore was the star of "Arthur" and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Henry Fonda in "On Golden Pond"). Steve Gordon was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to "Chariots of Fire." There were a lot of good movies in 1981.

Gielgud was nominated for — and won — Best Supporting Actor. And "Arthur's Theme" won Best Original Song.

Two out of four isn't bad.

Sadly, Gordon, who directed the movie, died of a heart attack the following year. My guess is that the sequel to "Arthur," which was made in 1988, would have benefited from having Gordon around to direct and write. As it was the sequel was such a washout that Moore disowned the franchise, and no other sequels were made — thankfully.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Getting a Second Chance

Mike Nichols' "Regarding Henry," which premiered on this day 25 years ago, was about an unlikely second chance — and, in my opinion, it was Harrison Ford's finest performance.

I know, Ford is mostly known for his iconic roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones — and, the more I think of it, Ford's performance in "Regarding Henry" may not have been his finest. Perhaps the better word would be challenging. I thought he did a remarkable job in meeting that challenge.

Ford played Henry, who was, at the start of the movie, a narcissistic lawyer (is that redundant?), too absorbed in his career to pay any attention to his wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Mikki Allen). But then he got shot in the head when he interrupted a robbery at a convenience store, and the rest of the movie was about his struggle to regain his memory and his mobility.

And, as anyone in such a position would be expected to be, Ford's character was a changed person — not in that near–death experience kind of way in which the victim holds life to be more precious than he did before (and has been overdone on TV and in the movies) but in the sense that he was a completely different person.

(Roger Ebert wrote that Ford's former character had been a "taciturn taskmaster who treats his young daughter as if she were a balky client and his wife as a partner with whom he is friendly but not intimate. After the grievous wound to his brain, Henry recovers into an altogether more pleasant person.")

So, while Ford played a single character, it had two distinct and different personalities and tastes. In effect, they were two entirely different characters.

For example — and on a very basic level — the original Henry loved eggs for breakfast, but the post–shooting Henry didn't care for eggs at all.

On more significant levels, Henry did not recognize anyone he had known before the shooting — his wife, his daughter, his associates at the law firm, his mistress ...

You read that right. Mistress. A young woman from his office. As it turned out, Henry's wife had been having an affair with one of his colleagues. It was that kind of relationship — if you can call it a relationship.

But things were different between them after the shooting. Henry's personality was almost childlike, dependent on and trusting of everyone. When he was told by his family that he loved eggs, he obediently ate the eggs that were given to him — even though the new Henry despised eggs. And he noticed — and appreciated — things he never noticed before, like his surroundings and the people in his life.

His discoveries about the kind of person he had been before the shooting were powerful moments. The movie was filled with powerful moments — yet after I had seen it, I felt that the movie was emotionally manipulative. Ebert appears to have agreed with me.

"There is possibly a good movie to be found somewhere within this story, but Mike Nichols has not found it," Ebert wrote. "This is a film of obvious and shallow contrivance, which aims without apology for easy emotional payoffs and tries to manipulate the audience with plot twists that belong in a sitcom."

It was telling, too, as Ebert observed, that Ford's personality and mental sophistication were conveniently childlike when they needed to be but almost as conniving as before the shooting when it suited the story.

For example, before the shooting, it had been arranged that Henry's daughter would be going to a boarding school — a plan that the family at least attempted to carry out. The daughter was resistant, but Henry talked her into going ahead with it by telling her of a similar childhood experience he had on his first day of school and how everything worked out beautifully.

"That's sweet," his wife said after their daughter went off to join her new classmates. "I didn't know you remembered that."

"I don't," Henry replied.

It was an entertaining movie — but blatantly manipulative. Now, I don't have issues — in general — with manipulation, but it seems to me that you have to do some work to justify its use. As Ebert wrote, "Regarding Henry" went for "easy emotional payoffs." It wasn't above bending the facts (inasmuch as a fictional story can have any facts) to suit the purpose.