Bing Crosby: A Way with Words

bingopener1Late tomorrow night, the Rat Pack musical Robin and the 7 Hoods will air on TCM at 2:15 am. Set during the Depression, this loose interpretation of the Robin Hood story features Frank Sinatra as Robbo, a gangster caught in a gang war with rival mobster Guy Gisborne. Rumor has it that Rat Pack veterans Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were no longer part of the inner circle by the time this film was made, so Bing Crosby and Peter Falk filled out the supporting characters.

The last musical comedy for both Sinatra and Crosby, Robin and the 7 Hoods features a couple of classic tunes (“My Kind of Town”; “Style”), the cool camaraderie of Frank, Dean, and Sammy, and the occasional funny one-liner—but little else. The musical is loose and lumbering, and the dance numbers so void of actual choreography, they don’t seem like dance numbers at all. Medium long shots in long takes dominate the film, which contributes to its lack of energy. Sinatra had never liked to do more than one take per scene, and by this time, few could convince him to repeat his dialogue more than once, not even for close-ups or coverage. The fewer shots, the less editing, which drags down the pace.

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Comic Relief with Artists and Models (1955)

artistsmodels

This has been a rough week. And when the bad news starts to outweigh the good I like to escape my worries with a great comedy that makes me laugh out loud and allows me to forget my troubles for a few short hours. I recently found some comic relief in my favorite Martin and Lewis film, Frank Tashlin’s ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955). I grew up watching this brilliant musical satire and it never fails to put a big goofy grin on my face. Your own mileage will vary of course but here are 10 reasons why you should consider watching ARTISTS AND MODELS today.
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Spy Games: Frank Tashlin & Doris Day Go Undercover


In the late ‘60s Doris Day starred in two spy spoofs directed by Frank Tashlin, THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1967) and CAPRICE (1968). At the time Day was 43-years-old and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but her career was in decline. Critics seemed to relish taking potshots at the movies she appeared in while launching full-blown attacks on her squeaky-clean image. Day was commonly referred to as “the eternal virgin” and when the sexual revolution heated up the middle-aged actress was unfairly pigeonholed as a perpetual square. The fact remains that while many actresses were regulated to the role of sex object, wife or mother, Doris Day often played independent working-class women with professional careers who reluctantly fell in love. And while Day’s characters may have been prone to clumsy mishaps and verbal blunders, she was usually able to outsmart her male costars. Frank Tashlin seemed to understand Doris Day’s strengths as a performer and in THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT and CAPRICE I think he has lots of fun playing with critical assumptions and expectations.

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Goodnight Phyllis, We Love You.

She was brash, she was bold and she was damn funny. Phyllis Diller took a road less traveled and in the process she helped pave the way for many female comedians who followed in her footsteps including Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and Tina Fey. Comedy is still considered somewhat of a “boy’s club” but Phyllis Diller’s self-deprecating sense of humor helped her crack that glass ceiling and today she’s often credited for making the world a better place for female comedians to practice their craft.

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Spy Games: Matchless (1967)


Following the phenomenal success of United Artists’ early James Bond films many Hollywood studios tried to mimic their crowd winning formula. One of the most successful attempts to cash in on Bond’s appeal was OUR MAN FLINT (1966) starring a tall, lanky and laid-back James Coburn. The film was produced by Saul David for 20th Century Fox and although it spoofed the Bond films with a knowing wink and wide smile, it also had its own kind of charm and wacky appeal. OUR MAN FLINT was followed by a sequel (IN LIKE FLINT; 1967) and there were plans to make more Flint movies but unfortunately they never materialized. Today the Flint films aren’t as popular or well known as the Bond films but they were wildly successful during their day and they’re credited for making James Coburn a star. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the popularity of the Flint films led to them being spoofed as well.

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The King of Comedy: Jerry Lewis at 86

On Friday, March 16th, Jerry Lewis will be celebrating his 86th birthday. Jerry’s been on my mind a lot lately so I didn’t want to let the occasion pass without making note of it. I love Jerry Lewis but it’s not always easy being a Jerry Lewis fan.

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How to offend everybody in one easy step

Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote.  I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response.  I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids.  So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.

This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy.  And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes.  If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive.  Proceed advisedly.

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THE GIRL SAID NO (and so do I)

This is the story of one of the least funny (or most not funny) comedies I’ve ever forced myself to sit through.  A film so profoundly insulting and hateful that it almost exceeds my ability to imagine how anyone ever found it amusing.  But they did, and so this is also the story of changing fashions, in movies and comedies and men.

Title card

William Haines was born in 1900—he was a child of the movie age.  At the age of 14, he ran away from home (under circumstances I’ll explain later) and led an itinerant life until he was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn and signed to a movie contract.  This was not a ticket to stardom—he proceeded to work in background roles and bit parts for years, as if destined for also-ran status.

William Haines portrait

Little by little he migrated to the front of the screen, and as he did, critics started to take notice—and as they started to take notice, they started to complain.  Below are some typical descriptions of Haines’ performances, and see if they gradually cohere into a picture for you:

“brash, perennial youth”

“fresh, breezy, overconfident”

“overbearing wisecracker”

“conceited, obnoxious”

1926 was the breakthrough year.  Two important things happened in 1926, of which I’ll only tell you one now (if you get the sense I’m withholding something, you’re right, I am).  He starred in BROWN OF HARVARD, in which he played an obnoxious charmer—a role he inhabited so perfectly, and which audiences embraced so thoroughly, it became his personal niche.  A William Haines movie was a vehicle, a justification for Haines to come on and act like a jackass.  Metro’s ads plugged “the smart aleck of the screen” and “its irrepressible wisecracker.”  Irving Thalberg said that Haines was what modern movie audiences wanted from a comedian—as opposed to the old-hat stuff being offered by the slapstick clowns, now increasingly seen by the big studios as passé.

Critics pretty much hated this act, while audiences embraced it.  Screenland Magazine wrote of one of his flicks, “the star plays another of his cut-up roles that makes the critics gnash their teeth and audiences chortle.”  Haines was his generation’s Adam Sandler.

Before I start to take apart Haines’ THE GIRL SAID NO, which may be one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, let me establish the guy’s credentials: from 1928 to 1932 he was one of the top 5 box office stars.  An exhibitor poll listed him as second only to Lon Chaney in popularity.  When MGM entered the talkie age, the first of their major stars to speak onscreen: Haines.  He may be a forgotten name today, but his work was mainstream American comedy in its day.

Let me also state that while I chose THE GIRL SAID NO as my example to present here, I’ve seen a few other of Haine’s vehicles—enough to feel confident that I haven’t plucked one bad egg out of the bowl to unfairly denounce.

The Girl Said No poster

On the surface, this thing appears to have promise: its comedy pedigree is respectable.  THE GIRL SAID NO was a 1930 feature directed by Sam Wood, just five years away from directing the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES.  It co-stars comedienne Polly Moran and features a showstopping cameo by Marie Dressler (and it is a sign of Haines’ diminished presence in popular culture today that Warner Archive, despairing of selling this DVD on the basis of Haines’ name alone, heavily emphasizes Dressler’s, as if her brief screen time constitutes a major part of the movie).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxgxwNo2QPk]

The scene goes on as you might predict: Dressler gets increasingly drunk, and Haines takes advantage of her inebriated state to sell her some bonds.

In a way, you’ve now got an inkling of what the title means.  In this case, we had a girl, or a woman, Marie Dressler, who was adamant about her desires (I won’t buy any bonds, and I hate Denver, plus I don’t like parks), and in comes Haines who steamrolls over every objection she has—literally forcing her to yield to his will.  Doesn’t matter if she says no, Haines doesn’t take no for an answer.

But. . . buying a bond isn’t a bad thing, and financing a public park isn’t a bad thing, and he confesses to her and she accepts him, and we can leave that scene feeling OK.  He was a good salesman, using his wiles and charm to make a sale.  Society smiles on that.

Too bad the title isn’t referring to Marie Dressler.  No, THE GIRL SAID NO means exactly what you think it does.  This is basically a rape comedy.

Now, Haines doesn’t actually rape Leila Hyams.  But watch this clip and tell me if you think I’m exaggerating:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKiypQAbRiA]

I don’t know about you, but watching him make sport of her crying gives me the willies.  I felt like I needed to shower after watching this thing.  Haines’ behavior throughout the film violates all manner of laws, norms, and social convention regarding sexual harassment.  He cajoles, threatens, taunts, and manipulates Leila relentlessly.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeVHcABwLmo]

This is just a taste of Haines’ idea of courtship.

At any given moment in the film, Leila’s face is contorted with horror or revulsion.  It goes on like this for 90 minutes!  All the way to the damn ending!  In screwball comedies, the playful hostility between boy and girl melts into romance by the final reel, but that moment of conciliation almost never occurs here.  Even as late as THE GIRL SAID NO‘s finale (am I SPOILING this for you?) he literally ties her up and gags her, to drag her unwillingly from her wedding.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eriuPUPVTpc]

And to this we are expected to laugh, and cheer.  By all evidence, audiences in 1930 did.

I was so appalled by all this, I pulled out  The Funsters, edited by James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, to get some background and context on Haines.  I needed to understand, seriously, how did anybody ever enjoy this?  The biographical essay didn’t help much in answering this question—reading those things about Haines being a top box office star, hailed by Thalberg as the Next Big Thing in Comedy. . . I mean, it just got me depressed.

At the same time, the book’s entry on Haines asked a new question, one that hadn’t occurred to me before.  There was something more to Haines, that Parish et al found problematic.  They clearly didn’t want to address it but couldn’t entirely avoid it–so they did the literary equivalent of mumbling something under their breath and coughing into their collective hand.  There it was–a fleeting aside in a throwaway sentence–and it changed my impression of Haines.

That passing comment prompted me to do some more research, some more digging—because I was realizing that it wasn’t just that THE GIRL SAID NO seemed to wallow in the obsolete sexual mores of a different age, the fate of Mr. Haines overall did.

Screen grab

When Haines ran away from home at the age of fourteen, he did so in the arms of another boy, a lad Haines called his boyfriend.  When he was discovered by Goldwyn in 1922, Haines was working as a model, living in the nascent gay community of Greenwich Village.  The second important thing that happened to him in 1926 was that he met Jimmie Shields, who became his committed partner.  They lived together for nearly fifty years.

Haines’ homosexuality was no secret to the studio, but the studio hoped to keep it a secret from audiences.  His oversexed screen persona was one way of projecting a straight image onto comic mannerisms that, if you rewatch the clips above with this new information, may now seem effete.  Studio PR hacks invented gossip linking him with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Barbara LaMour.  To which Haines told the press, he preferred the company of Polly Moran.

Let’s run a clip of Polly Moran to clarify that reference:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76cYqvbH1n8]

I don’t doubt that Haines enjoyed Moran’s company.  I don’t doubt the experienced comedienne would have been enjoyable company for anyone—but for studio publicists trying to establish Haines’ heterosexual bona fides, he wasn’t helping.

Nor was he helping when he was arrested for soliciting sex with a sailor in a YMCA in 1933.  Newspapers got wind of this, and MGM realized the genie was out of the bottle.  Haines was presented with an ultimatum: he could maintain his career if he squelched these “rumors,” and the only way to do that definitively (in the studio’s estimation) was a sham marriage.  To his credit, Haines didn’t blink.  He walked out of the studio, forever, with Shields’ hand in his, and never looked back.

Now, none of this changes the fact that THE GIRL SAID NO tries to make jokes out of ignoring that a girl said “no” (and even puts it in the title!)  None of it makes Haines’ excessive mugging funny.  But, it does put Haines’ behavior into a social context: he lived in an age where America was much more comfortable with joking about rape than it was admitting that two men could be in love.  And in a world of such upside-down values, he stayed true to who he was–and accepted the consequence of his decisions.

So, I’ll still rank Haines as one of the least funny and most annoying screen comedians of all time, but he another side as well: he and Shields founded an interior design company, and among their clients were such Hollywood luminaries as Joan Crawford, Constance Bennett, Nunnally Johnson, and Jack L. Warner.  Their firm still exists: www.williamhaines.com, and it seems all his talent was in design.  He wasn’t funny, but he had a good eye.

In Praise of Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers was one of the most talented character actors and comedians of his generation. Many of his best roles were improvised and he used his quick wit, Chaplinesque finesse and chameleon-like abilities to transform modern comedy. Although his career really began in the 1950s, Sellers seemed to embody the rebellious and hedonistic spirit of Swinging London but he was more than just a talented performer. Sellers was a “Happening” that everyone wanted to take part in. He partied with rock stars and slept with a bevy of beautiful women. But in the end he seemed to burn out as quickly as the generation that spawned him. By 1980 Peter Sellers was dead but he left behind an incredible legacy that reached its peak in 1979 while making Hal Ashby’s seminal film Being There. In Being There Sellers is no longer just the insightful clown or bumbling ne’er-do-well that made him an international superstar. As Chance the Gardener, Sellers became the sparkling reflection of everything that audiences had invested in him during his brilliant and brief career. It was an astonishing farewell and one of the finest curtain calls an actor could possibly offer his critics.

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Missing Mad Men?

Like a lot of people, I’m a big fan of the AMC series MAD MEN and ever since the fourth season of the show came to an end a few weeks ago I’ve been eagerly awaiting season five. MAD MEN is one of the most highly praised dramas currently playing on television and I think the awards it has won have been well deserved. It’s a smart and occasionally very funny show with some of the best writing on television, but I also appreciate the look of the series. The impressive wardrobe design and stylish sets manage to perfectly convey the various moods and atmosphere of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that I’ve come to love thanks to watching lots of movies made during the same period that MAD MEN is trying to emulate.

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