Sunday, December 30, 2012

PLAYMATES (1941)


Few, if any, great actors had such a spectacular, sorrowful fall as John Barrymore. From preeminent actor to public buffoon, Barrymore allowed his addictions -- alcohol and sex, among others -- drive him to financial and artistic ruin. By the time of his death in 1942, he had been reduced to playing Rudy Vallee's radio stooge, indulging in self-abasement for the pleasure of the American audience. So far gone was his health that, unlike his co-stars, he had to read his lines sitting from a chair -- there was no way he could stand for the 30-minute duration of the show.

Barrymore's movie career, too, had taken a similar path. The titles alone -- Hold that Co-Ed, The Invisible Woman, The Great Profile -- tell you that his glory days were long gone. His final movie, Playmates, made a year before his death, sends shudders through Barrymore fans even today. Playing, as with Vallee's radio show, a parody of himself, the once-greatest Hamlet of his generation was a willing participant in yet another chapter of his long, public suicide.
Before
After

Or... You can look at Playmates another way: a low-rent comedy with a rollicking performance by an actor trying to make a legitmate living. Until it starts to falter, due partly to the headache-inducing appearance of Lupe Velez, Playmates allows John Barrymore one, final chance at playing comedy like nobody else.


Nice someobdy was amused by the finale.
Taking advantage of his public persona, Playmates presents Barrymore as a washed-up ham taking part in a publicity stunt to revive his career. In giving bandleader Kay Kyser lessons in Shakespeare, the once-great star hopes to get a radio contract and start paying off his debts. Barrymore is appalled to be working with the Southern-born Kyser, calling him, among other things, "that syncopated cotton-picker" and "that nursemaid to a bass tuba." (I don't understand what it means, either.) By distracting Kyser with with the sexy Carmen del Toro (Lupe Velez) and dousing Kyser's throat with a liquid to close his vocal cords on opening night, Barrymore tries to take over their Shakespeare festival himself. Kyser eventually catches on and turns the tables on him, making for what director David Butler thought was a funny sight of the two actors talking as if they just sucked on lemons.



Barrymore wonders how he went from
Shakespeare to Kay Kyser and Lupe Velez.
No, Playmates doesn't wander very near the "classic" territory. The script, as with many 1940s comedies, is both hamfisted and lightweight. (What happened to the sophisticated wits of the 1930s? They couldn't have all been drafted). Kay Kyser has the personality of a pair of loafers. Make that half a pair. (He does, however, feature in a genuinely bizarre nightmare sequence both funny and discomforting.) Patsy Kelly, as Barrymore's sarcastic agent Lulu, is grating enough to shave a wedge of Parmesan into dust. Kay Kyser's band is the '40s version of Herman's Hermits -- borderline novelty, nothing to make you forget Benny Goodman. When Barrymore says, "Some things are too low for even me to stoop to," you know it's a lie -- after all, he's in Playmates, his name below the title and Kay Kyser's above in letters that fill the screen.

Steadying himself on Kyser while the
studio hairdresser goes to work.

But from his first appearance, you know who the real star is. Barrymore is breathtakingly, hilariously over the top. Eyebrows wagging more than Groucho's, bellowing his lines like a bull elephant, he commands the screen the way few actors of his time (outside of his brother Lionel) could. His outraged reaction to Kyser attempting the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech alone is gut-bustingly funny. If only he was working with a script as great as he was.

True, he looks terrible, the bags under his eyes more like steamer trunks. His hair is greasy enough to sautee a herd of cows. The face and body are bloated from an overdose of the alleged good life. And you could pass out from playing a drinking game every time he reads from his cue cards.

"It's come to this -- being groped by
Patsy Kelly?"
And yes, the insults to Barrymore pile up like snowflakes in a blizzard. A young autograph hound mistakes him for Adolphe Menjou. His own agent denigrates him to others. He has to act with a musician named Ish Kabibble! The famous RKO Radio tower that opens Playmates might just as well be signaling a desperate SOS.

But by God, John Barrymore can still act. He knows what's expected of him, giving the audience its money's worth every second he's onscreen. Watch his classic 1934 farce Twentieth Century back to back with Playmates and you'll see very little stylistic difference. The former's script (by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and leading lady (Carole Lombard) are admittedly superior by a country mile -- no, ten miles, a million miles. But to the benefit of both movies, Barrymore ignores the meaning of the word "nuance."

Except for one scene, that is, the most famous in Playmates. Barrymore has been brought over to Kyser's hotel room to give him the lowdown on reciting Shakespeare. As an example, he offers to recite Hamlet's famous soliliquy. Taking a seat (Lulu says, "He always sits down for this"), Barrymore transforms himself into... himself. Using his real speaking voice for the first time, he poignantly muses, "It's been a long time" -- no doubt reflecting on when he was the toast of Broadway. The transformation is as electrifying as that of his starring role in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde two decades earlier.

Shot in mid-close-up, the all-too-brief scene proves that Barrymore still had it in him to move audiences, making them feel they understood the archaic language even if they really didn't. Tears roll down his face -- is he acting, or remembering what once was? -- as he reaches the graceful, quiet climax of a moment as moving as almost any in film history.

Whereupon, he slaps the tears from his eyes and reverts to playing the 1941 model of John Barrymore. That he can give two diametrically opposite interpertations of himself within seconds of each other is proof positive of a talent almost unmatched. It makes one yearn to see him in a modern-dress version of Hamlet.

At least he got billing
over Ginny Simms.
Alas and alack, it was not to be. Playmates was his final movie, an ignoble end to what was once the most illustrious of careers. There are far better Barrymore pictures -- Counsellor-at-Law, Twentieth Century and True Confession to name but three. The Great Man Votes, Arsene Lupin and Svengali when the others aren't available. (I find Grand Hotel a little too long and stuffy.) Playmates should be viewed for what it was meant to be -- a silly comedy meant to float its co-star until the next bill came due. If it ever turns up, watch the first half, or at least enough to catch the soliliquy. No actor today, save perhaps Christopher Walken, can take mediocre material and make it compulsively watchable. This, friends, is genius at work.

To put things in perspective, let's compare the three leads of Playmates:

One guy named Kay, the other named Ish.
Kay Kyser: A so-so bandleader/songwriter remembered, if at all, for the radio quiz show Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge -- and giving the world the dopey trumpet-player/comedian with the proto-Jerry Lewis haircut, Ish Kabibble. Retired in 1950, died in 1985.





Ugh.
Patsy Kelly: An obnoxious character actress whose career peaked with a series of two-reelers with Thelma Todd in the mid-'30s, only to devolve into being Tallulah Bankhead's paid companion and assistant. A role in the 1971 Broadway revival of No, No Nanette led to some supporting parts in movies and TV. Died in 1981.






John Barrymore: One of the greatest actors of his time, expert at both comedy and drama, whose unfortunate final years do not make any less stellar at least a dozen cinematic roles that stand the test of time and then some. A man whose very name is still considered the Rolls Royce of acting, John Barrymore worked until the very end of his life in 1942.

If you were an entertainer, which legacy would you prefer?

*********************


The best way to prevent anyone from slipping into alcoholism is to show them this unedited newsreel footage of John Barrymore on his return to Broadway at age 57. Warning: it isn't pretty. Fast forward to the 18-second mark.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD (1950)

How do you like to relax on a lazy Sunday evening? If you're anything like Jack Benny, you invite your A-list showbiz pals over to listen to a priest lecture about fighting communism. At least if You Can Change the World is to be believed. 

Part anti-Commie tract, part do-good message, the 30-minute short You Can Change the World was produced by the Christophers, the Catholic organization founded a few years earlier by Father James Keller.

You wouldn't know any of that by looking at the poster. In fact, the real star, Father Keller, isn't even mentioned. People expecting a mini-musical comedy were probably in for a shock five minutes in. 


Father Keller takes the film noir
approach on the set.
The bulk of the movie consists of Father Keller explaining the Christophers' mission: getting "the little people" involved in education, government, writing and the like, to counteract those in the same professions who have been trying to tear down the USA. From a teacher to "one young Negro student," Father Keller gives example after example of how people's seemingly insignificant acts can change the world for the better. All the while, he stresses the influence that God had on the Founding Fathers when writing the Declaration of Independence. And that's pretty much it.


Rochester is baffled that his
Jewish boss insists on entertaining Catholic priests
in his home.
Now, if you think this would make a pleasant but dull half-hour of celluloid, you weren't alone, which is why director Leo McCarey, a friend of Keller's, rounded up a bunch of his friends to jazz things up. In fact, the short is book-ended in such a way to make it resemble an episode of The Jack Benny Program, right down to the "Love in Bloom" theme and the "cheap" jokes, which are actually pretty funny. (Jack almost has a stroke when Father Keller uses his phone to make a long distance call to Bob Hope in Texas.)

"Hi, this is Bob 'Where the Hell
Are My Hookers' Hope."
Hope, too, gets in a few good lines before turning serious (always a deadly thing): "Seems you don't hear much about the Declaration. All you hear about is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights" -- you know, those pissant papers that he claims "don't add up to much without the Declaration" -- twice neglecting to add the words "of Independence."  One wonders if there's some other agenda going on there. (You Can Change the World lacks a writing credit, but Leo McCarey is said to be one of the three scribes behind it.)

Due to the nature of the movie, McCarey's direction is pretty static. In trying to create some action mid-way through by having Jack Benny and Paul Douglas walk behind Father Keller, McCarey only makes them look like they're playing Follow the Leader. The others remain sitting on or behind a couch, reciting their sparse dialogue with the passion of a steamed clam.



Too hip for the room.
Bing Crosby shows up late, presumably having dawdled a little too long at the 19th hole. As usual, however, he takes immediate command of the screen, his ultra-cool manner making it clear why bandleader Artie Shaw referred to him "the first hip white man" born in America. And as for his musical talent, any song sung by Bing in his prime is worth hearing... except the one written for this movie, "Early American." (It's about American ideals, not the Ethan Allen furniture chain.) As with many songs of its type, the message doesn't exactly make for snappy lyrics:

The dream I'm building is Early American,
Something that won't go out of style.
It makes you feel that life's worth living,
The way they must have felt that first Thanksgiving...

No "Swinging on a Star," this.

The cast follows Leo McCarey's
direction to look constipated.

Come to think of it, I wonder if Father Keller is aware of the company he's keeping. William Holden was a drunk. Loretta Young was the mother of a bastard daughter by Clark Gable. Songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen was a notorious whoremonger. And Bob Hope probably couldn't show up in person because he was schtupping one of the dozens of doxys he had stashed around the country. It makes Keller's observation to the Boston Globe -- "I've always felt that there is a lot of goodness here [in Hollywood]. You hear about the freaks, but the majority are good people" -- seem charmingly naive. After all, Hollywood is filled with actors who are acting.

And for a movement that's all about "the little people," it's interesting that Rochester -- you know, the black servant -- isn't allowed to listen to Father Keller's homily. Make of that what you will. At least he gets his revenge in the opening credits, where his real name, Eddie Anderson, comes first alphabetically.



Between takes, Father Keller weeps as Jack Benny insists on telling yet another story about the good old days of vaudeville.

Leo McCarey and Father Keller: "Look, I directed Crosby
as a priest twice so I know what I'm talking about, goddammit!"
Distributed to church groups in 1950 and television shortly thereafter, You Can Change the World marked a further aesthetic change for Leo McCarey. One of Hal Roach's greatest finds, McCarey was credited with teaming Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, along with directing their best silents. (Coincidentally or not, You Can Change the World was shot on the Roach lot.) During the talkie area, he was responsible for the Marx Brothers' most anarchic movie, Duck Soup, as well as W.C. Fields' wacky Six of a Kind.

Over time, however, McCarey's oeuvre took a sentimental turn -- Make Way for Tomorrow (a slash-your-wrists depressing movie about aging) and Love Affair. Sentiment became intertwined with religion in Going my Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. Religion then got mixed-up with a decidedly conservative political view in Satan Never Sleeps, the infamous My Son John and, of course, You Can Change the World. You'd never know this was the same person who, in 1929, dreamed up the gag of a live crab falling down the front of Stan Laurel's pants.

The cast can't wait for Father Keller to leave so the orgy can start.
Still, only an unrepentant cynic would disagree with Father Keller's desire of encouraging "more good, decent, normal people to take up careers" to positively affect the country -- or as he calls it, finding "a job with a purpose." I have no idea how successful You Can Change the World was, though, as far as, well, changing the world. It seems to me that the handbasket addressed to hell was successfully FedExed some time ago. 

Father Keller, however, had more faith in his fellow man. A 1950 Boston Globe article states that future Christopher productions included Secretarial Work With a Purpose. You can bet when that movie was shot, William Holden was at the nearest bar with the purpose of getting pie-eyed.

Oh heck, why am I being so cynical? The Christophers are all about religious tolerance and good deeds, things everyone can get behind. Father Keller seems to be a fine, sincere fellow. And unlike the religious leaders in today's mega-churches, there's nothing slick about him. He's awkward and nervous. In other words, he's real. Call me a sentimental old dishrag, but I liked the guy. He even gets off a couple of laughs during his brief comedic moments with Jack Benny.
Hey -- they found the lost speech!

And boy, does he love the Declaration of Independence! So much so that, near the end of You Can Change the World, he gives Jack a copy of "Lincoln's lost speech" from 1858 regarding the Declaration, from which Jack reads aloud. It's quite a passage -- poetic, spiritual and patriotic all at once. Extraordinarily well-written even for its time. You can't help be moved.

Yet something bothered me. If this was supposed to be a lost speech, how the heck could anyone quote from it? A little research gave me the answer: they couldn't. Even though it had been circulating for close to a century by then, it was a fraud. Lincoln's son and private secretary said so, as have researchers ever since. Nobody knows what Lincoln said that night in 1858. That's why they call it a lost speech!

Historian: now there's a job with a purpose.
                                                        ******************

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949)


When John Travolta and Sharon Stone submitted manuscripts (a novel and short story respectively) to their publishers, they did so with the proviso that not a precious word of their masterpieces was to be touched. To you, this might be the action of a spoiled five year-old or Keith Olbermann (but I repeat myself). To Ayn Rand, however, they were following their noblest cause – that is, not allowing their ideas to be ruined by the collectivist powers-that-be who, in turn, control every move made by what are now known as “the sheeple.” In fact, after watching the movie version of her novel, The Fountainhead, I’d say Travolta and Stone would have been better off destroying their works rather than letting an editor give them the once-over. Which, we can all agree, would have been a good idea.


"Look out below!"
Martin Scorsese has called The Fountainhead “insane,” and I wholeheartedly concur. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of architect Howard Roark, who refuses to cave in to what potential clients demand of him, even if it means having to work in a rock quarry to make money. It’s a movie where Ellsworth Toohey, the effeminate gossip columnist for the New York Banner (a cross between the New York Post and the Weekly World News) can lead a citywide crusade against Roark’s sleek, modern style -- like cabdrivers and milkmen really care that Roark doesn’t do Beaux-Art. A movie where nutty debutante Dominique Francon tosses a priceless Greek figurine out her high-rise window because it’s too beautiful for this ugly world – and she doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone she might possibly love, either, so there! But most of all it’s where Howard Roark ultimately blows up one of his buildings when, without his approval, the owners add balconies to the apartments. Really. And he’s found not guilty because he gives a swell closing argument! Talk about Objectivist fantasy. (Considering that Frank Lloyd Wright, whose style The Fountainhead apes, was making a pretty good living at the time makes the story all the more nonsensical.)


"Is that you, grandpa?"
The zaniness start right from the beginning. In a brief series of scenes, we see Roark being yelled at by potential employers as if he’d just killed their dogs, just because his designs don’t include Roman columns. Roark, a young man in the novel, is played by Gary Cooper, 47 but looking 60. His typical one-note delivery, beloved by many, sounds like he had difficulty memorizing any sentence more than six words long. (When the Banner’s publisher, Gail Wynard, says Roark reminds him of his youth, you have to laugh. Raymond Massey, playing Wynard, was only four years older than Cooper.) Cooper’s age (and appearance) makes his character’s affair with Francon (played by 23 year-old Patricia Neal) all the more creepy. On the other hand, they were already in the middle of an off-screen affair usually described as “torrid,” so what do I know? (When Francon first glimpses Roark in a rock quarry, it’s done with a close-up of his massive, throbbing drill pounding into cold, white stone. Oh, I get it.)

"Can't I find anyone my own age
in this screwy movie?"
Yet their affair is doomed – she couldn’t bear to see Roark’s talent beaten down like so much porridge. So she marries Gail Wynard because she doesn’t love him. Wynard, on the other hand… well, let him explain it: “What I want to find in our marriage will remain my own concern. I exact no promises and impose no obligations. Incidentally, since it is of no importance to you, I love you.” I'll have to try that one on my wife sometime. 

 So what we have, in the end, is a love triangle involving a criminally-destructive egomaniac, a woman with borderline personality, and a repulsive oligarch. Just who are we supposed to root for here anyway?

In the end, though, it all works out. Roark convinces a jury that a man’s ideas are all he has and, therefore, it’s OK to blow up things. Wynard hires him to build the tallest office building in New York, then commits suicide, apparently feeling guilt for attempting to ruin Roark’s reputation. Roark and Francon – the egotist and the nut – live happily ever after, presumably with the drill.


"And don't call me 'Ann'!"
Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay for The Fountainhead, apparently all in caps with double exclamation marks. “Artistic value is achieved collectively by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority” and “The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing” are two of the pithier zingers. The slogans these characters bray might look good on paper to impressionable teenagers, but when spoken have the subtlety of getting slapped in the face with a dead grouper. Imagine Ed Wood having taken a crash course in philosophy, and you’ll get the idea.


Did I say “characters”? I meant symbols. Roark is a stand-in for Ayn Rand herself – a person who puts the “I” in “idealist.” Wynard, on the other hand, makes Rupert Murdoch look like Padre Pio. (For a time he takes Roark’s side, only to go back to his old ways when riots break out after he fires Toohey. Let me repeat: riots break out after the firing of a gossip columnist.) And as for Dominique – well, Patricia Neal plays her like an intense young Bette Davis, but she’s still a nut. As with the cinematography, there are no shades of gray here, only stark black and white. Max Steiner’s wildly bombastic score only heightens the atmosphere to the point where I wonder if he saw the silliness for what it was and decided to roll with it.


"Objectively speaking, rock beats scissors."
One can only speculate what director King Vidor saw in The Fountainhead. Maybe he was thinking back 20 years, when MGM allowed him to make The Crowd, a small, downbeat movie that producer Irving Thalberg knew would lose money but would be “good for the industry.” Maybe Vidor remembered having the opposite problem when, in 1934, he had to go outside the studio system to make another non-commercial film, Our Daily Bread, which lauded a socialist-style collectivist farm (rather ironic in light of The Fountainhead). Or maybe it was his name. Having everyone call you “King” your whole life has got to give you a mighty powerful sense of self-esteem.


For all its nuttiness – make that because of all its nuttiness -- The Fountainhead makes for fascinating viewing. Vidor’s technical direction, along with the sets, often echoes the great German expressionistic silent movies. His handling of the dialogue, whether deliberate or not, heightens the melodrama to the point of hysteria. I recommend The Fountainhead highly, now that it’s been restored to pristine condition, if only for its sheer bizarreness. It’s a fascinating hybrid of Metropolis, Citizen Kane, Peyton Place and an issue of Architectural Digest

Oh, and the fountainhead never makes an appearance. 
                                                  *****************************
Ayn Rand chews the Objectivist fat with Johnny Carson in 1967:


THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF "THE MALTESE FALCON" (1931)




Long before it became fashionable, Warner Brothers was into recycling in a big way. Not plastics or paper, mind you, but stories. Throughout the '30s and into the early '40s, the mantra seemed to be, If it worked once, it'll work a second time. Or a third, if we don't have anything else on hand. Often a twist was necessary to fool people. Give it a different title. Change the sex of the lead character. Make it a comedy instead of a drama. But keep making it over and over so we don't have to pay for a new story! Celluloid composting, as it were.

And so it was with The Maltese Falcon. First filmed a year after its publication in 1930, Dashiell Hammet's novel was ripe for the pre-code Warner Brothers: fast-paced and sexy, it featured a few murders, a half-dozen fascinating characters and that strange, jewel-studded statuette everybody wants to get their hands on.

Too bad it took another ten years to get it right
Well, not really. Sure, Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade is iconic. Come to think of it, so are the performances by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and the great Elisha Cook, Jr. The screenplay and direction by John Huston are both brilliant. It's even cool to see Houston's dad Walter make his good-luck cameo as the murdered sea captain. Yes, the 1941 Maltese Falcon is pretty much Exhibit A as far as perfect movies are concerned. But the origiNal version... um... well... it's the original!
"Admit it -- ain't I a better
looker than Bogie?
OK, why give it a second (or, for most, a first) look? A couple of reasons. First, Ricardo Cortez as Spade. A Latin lover in silents, it took only a microphone to make clear this was no sweet-talking Spaniard -- he was, in fact, a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz who nonetheless had a face for movies, perhaps moreso than Bogart. Unlike the brooding Bogie, Cortez is a smarmy, sex-obsessed guy who has no compunction about having an affair with his partner's wife (and every woman who crosses his path). His teeth gleam like the grille of a newly-polished Duesenberg. (His slimy demeanor got more than one "Oh yuck!" from my wife during just the first minute of the movie -- a sure sign of a fine performance.) Indeed, we're introduced to Spade just after he's had a roll on his office couch with an anonymous woman. While Bogart's Spade is difficult to know, Cortez dares you to even like him.

I would kill to have a smile like that.
Another thing. Bogart's Spade doesn't even seem to like his job. But Cortez? He's having the time of his life. You can't wipe that smug smirk off his face, even when he's locking horns with Detectives Dundy and Polhaus from the San Francisco Police Department.  He loves calling them "darling and "sweetheart" just to piss them off even more than they are already. (Polhaus at one moment silently mutters "son of a bitch" at Spade through cigar-clenched teeth, a moment the remake never would have been able to get away with.)

What the hell -- let's call the gun a phallic symbol.
A major difference lies in the final third of both movies,coinciding with Spade's dealing with the trio of villians: Casper Gutman, Dr. Joel Cairo and Wilmer Cook. The actors -- Dudley Digges, Otto Matieson and Dwight Frye (the latter fresh off his deranged sidekick roles in Dracula and Frankenstein) are all fine, but no match for their 1941 counterparts. (Mary Astor's portrayal of Ruth Wonderly, too, is more entertainingly neurotic than the inexplicably top-billed Bebe Daniels is here.) The dialogue carried off so splendidly by Greenstreet in the remake sounds merely expository when spoken by Digges, slowing things down as if the brilliantine in Cortez's hair gummed up the movie projector.

Guttman and Cook,
sittin' in a tree...
The original supporting cast, you might say, is merely a rough sketch for a masterpiece to come a decade later. But at the same time, the performances by Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook are so similar to those in the original -- right down to line readings -- that I wonder if Houston screened it for them before rolling film. What Houston was obliged to cut, however, was the gay vibe that the villains give off in the original. When Spade, speaking to Gutman, refers to Cook as "your little boyfriend," he's not being facetious.

But it's the ending where the two versions really deviate. There's no need to recount the now almost-cliched finale of the remake. But, again, the line readings come into play. When Bogart tells Mary Astor, "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck," he makes you feel that he means it. When delivering the same line, Cortez is all teeth and sarcasm -- he's looking forward to seeing her swing from the noose at San Quentin.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a shot of
Bebe Daniels in jail, so I had to settle
for her earlier bathtub scene. Sorry.
Or is he? In the final scene, missing from the remake, Spade visits Wonderly in prison. Just to rub salt in the wound, he tells her that he brings good news: thanks to the way he broke the case, he's gotten a high-profile position in the DA's office. Yet, he still has a soft spot for her, telling the prison matron to provide her with candy, cigarettes, anything she wants -- and to charge it to the DA. It certainly doesn't pack the punch of the jailbars-like shadow passing over Mary Astor's face as she steps into the elevator. But for the only time in the movie, the scene shows that Spade just might have a beating heart somwhere inside him.


Contemporary reviews of The Maltese Falcon were positive -- the Los Angeles Times called it a "gripping melodrama" -- which was enough for Warners to remake it five years later as Satan Met a Lady with Warren William and Bette Davis. Actually, "remake" is the wrong word -- let's call it "execrable rip-off." The story's the same, more or less, but everything else is drastically different, especially the entertainment quality. Changed are the characters'  names, the sex of Casper Gutman -- even the falcon itself (it's become a jewel-studded ram's horn). Drama is replaced by half-witted romantic comedy. I saw it about 30 years ago and still haven't gotten over it. Suffice it to say Ms. Davis considered it one of her worst movies. And that's being generous.
Don't you wish your stockbroker
had a headshot like this?
Interestingly, Ricardo Cortez  slipped into B-movies as Humphrey Bogart leaped into the stratosphere with The Maltese Falcon. One can only speculate what Cortez thought of the remake -- and if he conceded that while his version was a snappy little movie, Bogart's was an instant classic. If so, he probably didn't care much. After making a stab at directing (and a final movie performance in the aptly titled The Last Hurrah in 1958), Cortez returned to New York and, in a move that would boggle the minds of  middle-aged men these days, carved out a second, lucrative career as a Salomon Brothers stockbroker. He died in 1977, outliving Bogart by 20 years.

Remakes have a bad reputation, usually for good reason. Not so with the version of The Maltese Falcon. However, the original is worth a look, if only to compare and contrast, and to see exactly what one could get away with before Will Hayes decided that audiences needed to be treated like children. You know, when movies were the stuff that dreams are made of.

                                          ******************************
Just so you can see what repulsed my wife, here's the first minute or two of the original version of The Maltese Falcon.


THE DEVIL WITH HITLER (1942)



By 1942, Hal Roach was no longer the powerhouse comedy producer he once was. Having lost or sold off his most popular stars -- Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang -- he tried to turn his little studio into one of the majors. Initially, it seemed to work, releasing classy A-list features like Topper (starring Cay Grant) and Of Mice and Men (with an original score by Aaron Copland). But with our involvement in the War, the US Army commandeered the studio to make training films, leaving him only a fraction of the space he needed to continue his cinematic output. For the remainder of the decade, Roach released what he called "Streamliners" -- 45-minute B-movies that were too long to be short subjects but too short to be considered features.









Satan learns there's no severance
package in Hell.
Hands down, the best of these Streamliners has to be the bizarre comedy/fantasy The Devil with Hitler. Hell's Board of Directors has decided that Adolf Hitler would make a swell CEO, being far more evil than the current office-holder, Satan. The Jeff Zucker of his day, Satan begs for another chance, making a deal with the Board: he will visit Hitler and prove that the Feurher is capable of one nice gesture, and thus lacking what it takes to run things down below.




A menage-a-trois I'd rather not think about.
Satan arrives in Berlin and immediately weasels his way into Hitler's inner circle. (Wal-Mart seems to have better a security team than Hitler.) Satan plays on Hitler's feelings(!), getting to admit that, yes, sometimes he feels bad about wiping out villages or sending prisoners to concentration camps. But Hitler snaps out of it in time to welcome his visitors, Benito Mussolini and his Japanese counterpart Suki Yaki. (Apparently the writers hadn't heard of Hirohito.) A visit from a fast-talking insurance salesman, however, convinces the three leaders to secretly take out policies on one another. This leads to a lengthy scene where they discover time-bombs in their beds, forcing them to sleep together, bombs in hand, while trying to sneak out of the room one at a time. (It makes even less sense than it sounds.)
2 Hitlers + 1 bomb = Endless hilarity
They all survive, only to have Satan disguise himself as Hitler and tell the guards that the real Hitler is an impostor. Further mix-ups ensue when they all wind up in an exploding munitions building. Scared out of his wits, Hitler bows to Satan's command to perform one good deed: freeing a couple (the insurance guy and an ex-Nazi agent) rather than sending them to a concentration camp as planned. Hitler is killed in the explosion and sent to Hell. Having watched Hitler's good deed on their proto-HDTV, the Board of Directors realize he's not fit to rule Hell. "That's only the beginning, folks," Satan assures us as the Board takes Hitler out for a beating, "only the beginning!"




A laffing, panicky crowd outside the Globe Theater in Times Square.

If this doesn't make you want to see
The Devil with Hitler, there's something
wrong with you.

Many would posit that The Devil with Hitler is no competition for Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. I'm not so sure. Granted, the latter is more sophisticated in every way possible. (The sets in The Devil with Hitler look like they could fall over if you sneezed near them.) Yet it also takes an extra 80 minutes to make the same point, and without the pathos-laden subplot, either. Heck, you could even say that, at 18 minutes, the Three Stooges' You Natzy Spy outdoes them both. 

In his book Forgotten Horrors 2, Richard H. Price describes The Devil with Hitler as a laugh a minute. While I wouldn't go that far, I have to admit I laughed more than I do at most contemporary comedies, and often for the right reasons.


Even a dictator needsa luffa once in a while.
Bobby Watson's bravura performance as Hitler is worth the price of admission. (Early on, he tells his hapless servant, "You are fired! Report yourself to the Gestapo and tell them to shoot you -- and get me a new valet!") Hitler comes off as simultaneously egotistical, malevolent and effeminate, giving  a vitriolic radio speech while lounging in a bubble bath as an aide plays recorded applause after each sentence. 

Later, he relaxes by  painting a wall while skipping back and forth like a little girl. This stereotypical "pansy" portrayal goes further by having him rammed directly in the rear end three times -- first by a large remote-control toy airplane, then by an artillery shell and finally by the devils' pitchforks.

Hitler fondles the airplane with anticipation.



A suggestion for your next Halloween party.
Other laughs come from the simple ridiculousness of the production. British character actor Alan Mowbray, the poor man's Sir Cedric Hardwicke, plays Satan with what looks like a badly-designed bathing cap with two tampons atop his head. Joe Devlin's buffonish Mussolini sports a burlesque Italian accent ("Hey, whatsamatter for you?!"). George E. Stone, taking a sabbatical from playing Boston Blackie's sidekick at Columbia, is Suki Yaki, the typical buck-toothed, goggle-glasses-wearing, photo-taking "Jap" so prevalent during World War II. (Did the Axis produce equally over-the-top parodies of the Allies? 

The slapstick often provides I-can't-believe-what-I'm-watching entertainment for its very crudeness. I dare you not to laugh when the three despots try to avoid the runaway toy airplane, or when Hitler falls backwards off a painting scaffold. Yet one very brief yet effective dramatic moment of a prisoner being tortured for information drives home that this Nazi business was, in the end, no laughing matter. The rest of The Devil with Hitler reminds us that there was a time when it was OK to make fun of the enemy without even the allies getting offended. Imagine that.

Hal Roach: "I never met a
fascist I didn't like."
Hal Roach admitted to Richard H. Price that both The Devil with Hitler and the Army's occupation of his studio were something of a penance. In 1937, you see, while on vacation in Italy, Roach was contacted by representatives of Benito Mussolini, a serious Laurel & Hardy fan. As Roach explained it to another film historian, Randy Skretvedt: "The first thing I said was, 'The motion picture business is a Jewish business. If you have sanctions against the Jews, forget this talk, because I want no part of it.' Mussolini was not anti-Semitic at that time." Just so we have that straight.


Out of that pleasant afternoon came a deal: Roach would supply American technicians to shoot movies in Italy starring Italian actors. A studio was born: RAM -- short for Roach And Mussolini. As a goodwill gesture, Roach brought Il Duce's son, Vittorio, back to Hollywood to introduce him to the industry movers-and-shakers. (Is this starting to sound like a Coen Brothers comedy or what?) 


Strangely, nobody had any interest in knocking back a beer with a Fascist dictator's son. I guess they didn't get the word -- Benito's OK with you guys for the time being! With RAM now just another broken Hollywood promise, Vittorio returned home empty-handed.  Four years later, Mussolini declared war on the US. Causation or correlation? I leave it to you.


This wasn't Roach's first brush with politics. He was one of the many members of the right-wing American Liberty League, a group of wealthy businessmen who were against the New Deal. I mean, really against. How against? In 1934, Roach and his fellow patriots allegedly tried to engineer a military coup against President Roosevelt. Cue the Laurel & Hardy "Cuckoo" theme.

Hollywood had forgotten these moral detours by the time Hal Roach received a special Academy Award in 1984 (or maybe he just outlived everyone who remembered). He died in 1992, just two months shy of turning 101. To the end, he swore that his Streamliners were the right length for any comedy. And when you consider Adam Sandler movies have been known to run up to two-and-a-half hours, 45 minutes of The Devil with Hitler looks pretty good.
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Memo to the Coens: Russell Crowe as Hal Roach
John Goodman as Benito Mussolini
Seth Rogen as Vittorio Mussolini
Damien Lewis as Stan Laurel
Jack Black as Oliver Hardy
Steve Buscemi as Josef Goebbels

THE IRON PETTICOAT (1956)



Had Bob Hope's plane crashed into the Atlantic as he was flying to the UK to film The Iron Petticoat in 1956, his place in show business would have been assured. No less a personage than Woody Allen named Hope his favorite comedian, and the one he emulated when he started doing stand-up. (And what are Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death if not Bob Hope comedies for a with-it crowd?)


Trust me -- this is how you want to
 remember him.
To watch him in his prime -- roughly 1940 to 1952 -- is a pleasure few funnymen can offer. With his impeccable delivery, a pleasant singing voice and surprisingly agreeable soft-shoe dancing style, Hope was a comedic actor of the first order. Had history taken a different turn, UCLA would be holding retrospectives in his honor. Comedy classes would teach "The Hope Style."  Perhaps there would be an honorary "Bob Hope Award" given each year at the Academy Awards for the most deserving comedic actor.

Fortunately for his family but not the rest of us, Hope arrived at Heathrow Airport safe and sound to start his 47-year freefall into mediocrity and beyond. It was an experience both Hope and co-star Katherine Hepburn would eventually pretend never happened. If only.

These two aren't nearly uncomfortable
as you'll be while watching
The Iron Petticoat.
Pretty much a rip-off of Greta Garbo's superior Ninotchka, The Iron Petticoat tells the story of Major Chuck Lockwood's (Hope) attempt to "flip" Soviet flyer Captain Vinka Kovelenko (Hepburn) when she unexpectedly lands her fighter jet on an American military base in Germany. Her reason for landing is either because she was angry at getting passed over for a promotion, or to flip the guy who was going to be her handler. I couldn't tell because Hepburn's Russian accent is so thick that I couldn't make out what she was saying and, after only five minutes into the movie, I couldn't bother to rewind the DVR. Lockwood would rather go on leave to visit his rich aristocratic fiancee. But in no time, Chuck and Vinka fall in love. And when Soviet spies arrest Vinka for treason, Chuck risks his life to rescue her. When he's captured, too, they're taken to the USSR -- only to be treated as national heroes while the Russian spies are arrested for... well, again, I'm not sure. By this time, I was just waiting for THE END to appear so I could say that I watched The Iron Petticoat and survived.


Where to begin? Well, you can blame the script, but that's a tricky thing. Ben Hecht, who wrote the original version of the screenplay, was no hack. He and his former writing partner, Charles MacArthur, were responsible for The Front Page, one of the all-time great Broadway shows, as well as two of the most underrated movies of the 1930s, The Scoundrel and Crime Without Passion. Hecht wrote The Iron Petticoat specifically for Katherine Hepburn. It might have made a fine movie for she and Spencer Tracy, but Ol' Ski Nose got his fingerprints on it first. Or rather, his gag writers' fingerprints. 

Kate thanks Bob for his
contributions to the movie.
And thereby lays the problem. Hope's great movies were written for him. No matter who he was playing -- Chester Hooten, Orville "Turkey" Jackson, Hotlips Barton, Monsieur Beaucaire -- he was always Bob Hope, Comedian. (The exceptions were The Seven Little Foys and Beau James, but those were straight biopics).
One-liners that might have worked elsewhere drop like Wurlitzers off a rooftop here. (When he asks a Russian with a large fur hat, "Who does your hair?", your first thought is Why did he say that?) His response to a spy who calls him "dog nose" -- "Oh, so you've got Crosby blood in you" -- not only makes no sense in context of the film, but calls attention to just what was wrong in hiring Hope to begin with. His dated references to Estes Kefauver and the like further harm the movie. Hecht's script -- presuming the gag writers didn't touch anyone else's dialogue -- isn't perfect to begin with. A cliched Southern senator and some badly-directed slapstick with the Soviet spies aren't as funny as they might have appeared on paper. But without a doubt, Hope's awful one-liners further spoil an already questionable brew. 


Bob turns to drink when
discovering he has to pick up the check.
You can bet your silver nitrate print of Road to Rio that Hope's gagmen  didn't get a bonus for working overtime on The Iron Petticoat. As John McElwee put it on his Greenbriar Picture Shows site, "Bob used his writers like Kleenex, but underpaid loyally for those many years they toiled in the vineyards."

Katherine Hepburn is game, but dialect comedy isn't her forte. Her stern looks certainly resemble those of a Russian officer, and she actually looks good in her military uniform. But once she switches to "capitalistic" feminine items -- negligees, gowns, lacy underwear -- she's, frankly, unattractive. Maybe it's the fashions of the day, maybe it's the fact that Hepburn was never particularly feminine to begin with. Whatever it is, it puts to lie, as do her movies with Spencer Tracy, the idea of Hepburn as an icon for liberation. Because by the final reel in these movies, all she wants to do is give up her career and make breakfast for hubby. And in The Iron Petticoat, she wants to do it in Indianapolis, Indiana for no better reason than Hecht thought it would sound funny in a Russian accent.

 

Really, don't you want to slap him silly?
The Iron Petticoat also marks, I believe, a major turning point for Hope, one that forever changed how he regarded his audience. His once ingratiatingly sly grin transforms here to a permanently contemptuous sneer. It's as if he's telling us, This might be crap but I don't care -- I'm Bob Hope, and you'll take whatever I dish out. How wrong he was.



No matter what the language,
The Iron Petticoat is appalling.
Despite The Iron Petticoat's flaws, Ben Hecht had an otherwise good track record and a reputation to go with it. Once he saw what happened to his script, he demanded, quite loudly in the press, that his name be removed from the credits. Neither Hope, Hepburn nor critics were happy with the result. Hope, in fact, pulled the movie from circulation in the mid-60s, while Hepburn never mentioned it again. That TCM helped to recently engineer The Iron Petticoat's first TV airing in well over 40 years (with Hecht's writing credit intact) was something of a coup. But as we saw with Russia, coups aren't always what they're cracked up to be.
Bob Hope winds up his career in
The Road to Zombieville.
Katherine Hepburn's career wasn't tarnished by this ungodly waste of celluloid. But, like the curse it was, The Iron Petticoat marked the beginning of the final, unfortunate phase of Bob Hope's career. With the exception of the aforementioned Beau James, there was nothing ahead but sitcomish movies, retreads of earlier hits and, more than anything else, a futile desire to remain the light romantic leading man of yore. (Near the end of his career, he was playing 35 year-olds while in his 70s.)

His TV specials were even worse, with titles like Bob Hope's Pink Panther Thanksgiving Gala. And his writers were still force-feeding increasingly stale jokes into pathetic scripts hoping for foie gras. What ultimately emerged at the other end, instead, was something far more odious.


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