Artists and Models (no, the other one)

There is a fairly well-regarded American comedy called Artists and Models.  It has Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in it, and was directed by Frank Tashlin.  This post is not about that film at all, but rather a wholly unrelated comedy from about 20 years previously that just happens to have the same name.

I’d post a link to the next TCM airing of Raoul Walsh’s 1937 Artists and Models if it was on the schedule anytime soon—you’ll just have to keep an eye out for it on the schedule yourself.  But don’t expect it to turn up in any plum primetime slot—this is strictly filler stuff, what TCM jams into the late night hours to avoid having to broadcast dead air.

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Extruded plastic dingus, for kids

Last week I posted here some embarrassing anecdotes about my experiences as a color timer in the early 1990s—and I’d intended to immediately follow it up with a sequel.  The first post was about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—a film I knew was a commercial and critical disappointment, and I thought it was funny trying to pretend I was the reason for its problems.  And so the sequel would flip the story—a Hollywood film I came near, but which soared to great heights because I was kept safely far away from it.

Except when I sat down to start writing this, I was absolutely jaw-droppingly gob-smacked to discover that my whole premise was flawed.  To my utter astonishment, I learned that the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy was not considered a success.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.

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Who’s sorry now

The Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca (airs on TCM this Tuesday night) is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece.  But as longtime readers of mine know, I don’t believe that movies have to be masterpieces to be interesting and worthy of respect—and as dilapidated as this 1946 outing for the Marxes is, it owns a warm and welcoming spot deep in my heart.

My personal history with A Night in Casablanca dates back in many ways to well before I saw the movie.  Let me explain: my parents were the proud owners of the 1968 soundtrack album The Marx Brothers: Original Voice Tracks from Their Greatest Movies, in which narrator Gary Owens introduced selected routines from their Paramount films.  It was a decidedly weird sort of experience, because the inherent anarchy and non-sequiter absurdism of their comedy made even less sense when taken entirely out of context and rendered solely as a vocal track.

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2012 DVD/Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

It is customary at year’s end to publish various “Best of” lists, to sum up The Year That Was as only a list can.  In that spirit, I offer up my own Best Videos of 2012.  These are the discs that genuinely made my heart flutter and my pulse quicken, which I purchased the instant I heard they existed and watched the instant they arrived.  This is not so much a Best Of list as it is a tour through the inside of my head:

DVDs:


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BUSTER KEATON AT MGM TRIPLE FEATURE

The three titles on this set are: Parlor Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily, and Passionate Plumber.  In other words—2/3 of this set has been available before in wretched quality PD editions and 100% of the set consists of movies that even Buster’s fans thinks he shouldn’t have made.  And I’m picking it as my Best of 2012.

Right.

But that’s the genius of Warner Archive—the DVD market is collapsing at large, and even archival releases of this highest profile have trouble.  There’s no way the mainstream marketplace would support this—even among the natural audience for archival releases, these movies are hard to sell.  But thanks to Warner Archive’s oblivious disregard for market realities, people like me who enjoy even Buster’s rougher outings can enjoy a beautiful print of Passionate Plumber, in all its gonzo glory.  (For the record—the rest of Buster’s MGM talkies are also available from Warner Archive as well, in individual editions).

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THE VITAPHONE COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME ONE 1932-1934

What this is, y’see, is 352 minutes of comedy shorts starring either Roscoe Arbuckle or Shemp Howard.  I’d seen some of these on appalling bootlegs before but getting this in a proper DVD (thanks Warner Archive, yet again!) means I now own this:

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Yes, that’s Jimmy Stewart, on the start of his Hollywood career, when no one yet realized his prospects and figured the best thing to do with this gangly stutterer was to drop him into a slapstick two-reeler so he could get slapped around by a Stooge!

Speaking of Stooges:

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THE THREE STOOGES: RARE TREASURES FROM THE COLUMBIA PICTURES VAULT

This has been available before, as a bonus disc included in a Three Stooges box set, but because most Stooge-maniacs bought the individual sets as they came out, and didn’t feel like double-dipping, there was strong clamoring for a standalone release, which Columbia finally granted this year.

Now, there have been collections before that billed themselves as Three Stooges Rarities or some similarly phrased notion.  Most of those previous collections focused on the usual suspects of the Three Stooges’ public domain shorts—the exact opposite of rarities.  Well, take note: when Columbia says this is a set of rarities, they mean it.

Most of this material will be absolutely new to even the most ardent and hardcore Stooge-a-phile.  There are lots of solo shorts with Shemp (there’s no overlap with the Vitaphone set—Shemp was a prolific comedian who made solo shorts for more than one studio), solo shorts with Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, cartoons in which Stooge caricatures appear, and a brace of feature films.

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CHARLIE CHASE SHORTS VOLUME 1

http://www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/catalog/catalogDetail_DVD043396418837.html

Well, this is cheating.  It wasn’t even released in 2012 at all—it comes out next week.  And Sony doesn’t seem to be able to spell Charley Chase correctly.  But indulge me—and let me tell you the story behind this.

Back in 2008, I was producing a box set of Chase’s early comedies, and I was trying to coordinate the efforts of several different media companies so that we together, collectively, presented the bulk of Chase’s extant body of work to the public and with a minimum of double-dipping and overlap.

The original plan was this: I was producing Becoming Charley Chase, a 4 disc set that focused on Chase’s earliest films.  Then, between them, Milestone and Kino were going to present Chase’s 2 reel silent shorts from Hal Roach.  The talkie Hal Roach shorts were intended to come out courtesy Serge Bromberg, and the Columbia talkies were going to come from Columbia/Sony.

But it all fell apart.  I got Becoming Charley Chase out, and Kino produced two sets of Hal Roach Chase silent shorts, but Milestone’s Cut to the Chase got stalled for years thanks to the untimely death of Rusty Casselton, and only just arrived in stores this year (and with an unfortunately heavy overlap with Kino’s sets).  The Hal Roach talkies are MIA.  And when Sony’s DVD release of Buster Keaton’s Columbia talkies sank like a rock, the corporate support for continued comedy sets evaporated.

Then a miracle happened—some Chase shorts were scheduled to be screened at Cinecon, and Sony was obliged to strike new prints to accommodate the rental.  As routine archive policy, when the materials were accessed to make the prints, digital copies were mastered as well.  So Sony found themselves with digital masters of several Chase shorts which they’d already paid for—making MOD discs available through their website didn’t take any extra effort or expense, so it was really a no-brainer.

There are still Chase Columbias waiting to see the light of day, and the Hal Roach shorts haven’t been officially released on home video ever in any format, but we can grateful for what we have (and hope that sales of the various Chase sets currently available help prove the viability of future releases)

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BUGS BUNNY SUPERSTAR

Here’s another Warner Archive argument-ender.

On paper, this may sound enticing: Orson Welles narrates a documentary about the origins of the Looney Tunes, with archival footage from behind the scenes at Termite Terrace laced between selected Warner Brothers cartoons.  But in practice even I’ll admit this is slapdash—it seems like a half-finished documentary narrated by Friz Freleng ran into some kind of production difficulty and Orson Welles got roped in to add some additional framing narration to spackle over the gaps.  Which is actually kind of appropriate, when you think about it, given Welles’ own history with unfinished films and the haphazard air at Termite Terrace.  Still, this is a bit of a missed opportunity.  Serious cartoon fans will already have these shorts in other collections (maybe even Blu-Ray), and will probably find the behind the scenes material unsatisfying—it’s a long tease, an appetizer to a menu never served.

That being said, I have powerfully vivid memories of my parents taking me to see this when I was a small child.  I thought it might have been a dream, or a badly remembered experience of some other experience, until I got this disc and was overwhelmed by nostalgia.

Like the Buster Keaton set above, this is Warner Archive marketing something that probably I alone care that much about.  In any business model other than MOD (Made On Demand) DVD, it wouldn’t make any sense.

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JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION

Speaking of cartoons, UPA Studios had the distinction of making high-art ‘toons that won awards and influenced others, but weren’t the laugh-getting trendsetters of Warner, MGM, or Disney.  Their influence is palpable—you can see the moment in Looney Tunes when suddenly the artists loosened up and started making more abstract backgrounds, to compete with the UPA upstarts—but they’ve never been Boomerang mainstays.  In fact, for a too long, they’ve been out of public view altogether—until TCM brought out this sumptuous box set, with bonus material by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck (who are precisely the two people who should have been tapped to do this—nailed it).

Blu-Rays:

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RUGGLES OF RED GAP – MASTERS OF CINEMA BLU RAY

Lord love Masters of Cinema.  If you live in the US and don’t have region-free capabilities, then you may not know of them—I know they’d be annoyed at being called the UK version of Criterion Collection, but that’s the most efficient way of describing them.  Ruggles is one of my favorite screwball classics, and features one of the best single scenes in all of talkie comedy.

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I’ve run this clip before, and I promise I’ll run it again some day.  Here you have one of the great screwballs, directed by Leo McCarey at the height of his powers and an all-star cast, and then all of a sudden supporting players Roland Young and Leila Hyams for no apparent reason commandeer the stage and steal the show.

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INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS – OLIVE BLU RAY

I’ve been giving a lot of love to Warner Archive this week, but there’s another label that deserves attention.  In case you haven’t heard of them yet, Olive Films is an indie label focused on bringing the best of arthouse, foreign, and archival films to Blu-Ray (and DVD).  Plus, they’re based in Illinois—go home team!  They are what I wanted All Day to be—expect they appear successful, rather than ramshackle.  They have a fabulous, eclectic catalog—to quote my daughter, “I want these things in my life.”.  I still treasure my DVD edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—it was signed by Kevin McCarthy—but it’s gonna spend the rest of its existence on the shelf because I’ll be watching this gorgeous high-definition version instead.

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BOUND BLU RAY

Just because most of the things on this list are black and white oldies doesn’t mean my tastes are limited to that. In fact, Blu-Rays of more recent movies are a better use of the format.  And there aren’t many filmmakers more aware of the intricacies and textures of modern cinema than the Wachowskis.

I first saw Bound on laserdisc, and have been patiently waiting for it to show up on DVD, but for some reason this fun early work by the makers of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas became as obscure as some of the lost treasures of the 1920s and 30s I’m usually hunting.  Its appearance on Blu-Ray is way overdue, and very welcome.  Jennifer Tilley plays a mob wife who starts to scheme against her dangerous spouse once she strikes up a lesbian affair with handy(wo)man Gina Gershon.  It’s got the attitude of a 1940s film noir but handles content no 40s film would have dared, and does so with absolute swaggering confidence.

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GOJIRA – CRITERION BLU RAY

OK, maybe it’s a bit egotistical to call this out as a “Best of” when I worked on it, but so what?  My friends at Criterion completely killed with this one, and I’m super-proud of having contributed to this definitive presentation of such an important, influential, and beloved film.  And, just as an aside, I used to say that my commentaries on this set represented my “retirement” from the audio commentary business.  But I may just be getting back in the game for one last big score—keep watching this space through 2013 for details.

Meet Cary Grant

We come upon three men and a naked lady.

The lady is Thelma Todd, denuded as she often was in her brief screen career.

One of the men is Roland Young, a womanizing roué who has brought her home in this state. The other, Charlie Ruggles, is his mostly useless sidekick. The third man? Well, that’d be Thelma’s husband–known to be a fiercely jealous man. He is also an Olympic javelin thrower (Yes. That’s right). Oh, and he has a quiver of javelins with him.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the screen debut of Cary Grant. It is not an especially auspicious performance–Grant is quoted in numerous sources as disliking his contribution to this film. But it is for our purposes an extremely illuminating one.

Here is a film that behaves like a modern dialogue-driven romantic comedy, but which is comprised of the DNA of silent comedy. Here is a missing link between one animal and the other–a glimpse into the evolution of talkie comedy. And it all hinges on Cary Grant.

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Making a Case for Monkey Business

Monkey Business airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of a night devoted to the comedies of Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks, this under-appreciated film was released at the tail end of the original cycle of screwball comedy. Monkey Business has always been one of my favorite comedies, largely because of the cast. Stars Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers were old hands at romantic comedy by the time this film came around, and they tackle the physical and situational humor with the experience and authority of veterans.  Marilyn Monroe is featured in a secondary role, and she plays into her image as a blonde bombshell for comic effect. Familiar character actor Charles Coburn is appropriately blustery as Monroe’s boss, who is too enamored of her physical assets to care about her qualifications as his secretary.

The plot of Monkey Business turns on a farcical situation that exploits the differences and tensions between men and women, which is typical for screwball comedies. Grant stars as the brilliant but absent-minded Dr. Barnaby Fulton, a chemist who works for a big drug company run by Oliver Oxley, played by Coburn.  Barnaby’s latest experiments involve the search for a youth serum. Oxley’s motives for wanting an elixir of youth go beyond just making money. They likely have something to do with his interest in his sexy, young secretary, Lois Laurel, played by MM. Lois can’t type, take dictation, or do anything else a secretary is required to do—a running joke in the film. At one point Coburn hands Miss Laurel a memo, adding, “Find someone to type this.”

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The Love Song of Capt. McGloo

Hollywood’s fascination with itself has generally meant that movies about movies–or, more precisely, movies that celebrate movies–tend to be overvalued by the film establishment relative to their actual merits. For example, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels tends to show up on a lot of classic movie lists, it was singled out for the Criterion treatment back before Criterion’s management really cottoned on to the idea that comedies can be classics, and when writers try to summarize why Preston Sturges is important, Sullivan’s Travels is almost always cited as his one or two most significant accomplishments. What Sullivan’s Travels is not, however, is terribly funny–it is one of Sturges’ tamer works. If you want to ask me what Sturges should be most remembered for, I’d have to say Palm Beach Story–a profoundly anarchic comic masterpiece that wholly abdicates any responsibility to make a lick of sense.

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Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle—a fairly forgotten romantic comedy from 1938, a passable entertainment but not the sort of movie likely to inspire much deep discussion.  Or is it?

Too Hot to Handle

See, this unassuming movie ties together many of the themes we’ve been working with since the end of December—this is a movie about movies, specifically about how movies lie, and how people who lie tend to make movies.  Like Melies’ faked coronation of King Edward VII, these are newsreels that lie—documentaries that are secretly fictional (which is the sort of thing we had on our minds at that very first film show in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers’ very first film being a staged “documentary”).

The film in question is by Jack Conway, whose virtues I sang back on February 4, and is a quasi-remake of a Buster Keaton silent classic—one that calls into question the conventional wisdom of what happened to the silent clowns when the movie started to talk.

That’s a lot to pack into one movie—so let’s get started unpacking it.  This week, Too Hot To Handle!

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A Woman of Paris

[Slapsticon, the greatest film event of the year, has been canceled this year.  To grieve it, I am devoting the entire month of July to posts about slapstick comedy.]

A Woman of Paris. Not a title that stirs your soul, is it? Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. Or you’ve heard of it but just never cared. Or like me you cared but still avoided it because you thought it was the movie equivalent of spinach–something good for you, but not fun.

Well, I’m here to testify. Brothers and sisters, I was once like you, but then I saw the light.

And I’m here to tell you, you need to put this movie high on your to-watch list. And I’m gonna tell you why.

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Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild

I love the camaraderie among movie lovers who live to share discoveries of forgotten classics, overlooked new releases, and unsung foreign films. Movie lovers are an eclectic group who are diverse in age, race, and class but are united in their passion for watching films from any era, genre, or country. Recently, when I was stewing over what to write about for this blog, my cousin Britain Callen suggested I pen something on Irene Dunne. Brit is an intelligent twenty-something currently studying criminal justice in grad school. While most members of her generation have never heard of Dunne—let  alone want to read something about her—Brit  is a classic-movie buff and a diehard fan of TCM. At the mention of Dunne’s name, I thought of Theodora Goes Wild, which is my favorite film starring the Golden Age actress. Theodora Goes Wild was the film that made me a true fan of Dunne’s. Prior to watching it, I was appreciative of her but not particularly interested in her star image as the prim and slightly priggish woman too proper to let her hair down. However, when fellow cinephile and film historian Stephen Reginald presented Theodora Goes Wild for the midnight movie series at Facets Multi-Media, I was influenced by his passion for this unsung screwball comedy, which helped me see the appeal of Dunne’s star image and her talent for this type of material. In the spirit of spreading the word about a great film, I share this discovery with Brit and other movie lovers who are always in search of a cinematic adventure.

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