Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)

With Russia as popular in the national consciousness as ever, you would think we were back in the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s.  Except now, instead of missile crisis and nuclear escalation, it's election tampering and possible collusion with our current administration. This seems to be a perfect time for CrazyFilmGuy to watch a comedy he's always wanted to watch about the hysteria of U.S./Russian relations during the Cold War called THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966) directed by Norman Jewison (THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, ROLLERBALL).

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING is set on the Nantucket like fictional Gloucester Island.  Watching RUSSIANS reminded me of another madcap film that had a big cast, multiple storylines, and Jonathan Winters (and in a cameo Carl Reiner).  That film is Stanley Kramer's IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963).  The connection to both films is screenwriter William Rose who co-wrote MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and wrote THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.  Rose was a master at juggling lots of characters and comedic action.  Rose wrote another fantastic comedy THE LADYKILLERS (1955) which had multiple characters in a funny heist film. Rose adapted THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING from a novel by Nathaniel Benchley called The Off Islanders. Benchley's son Peter would later write the shark thriller Jaws.

A Russian submarine accidentally beaches on a sand bar on Gloucester Island off the New England coast (with California's Bodega Bay standing in for the fictitious island). While the Captain (Theodore Bikel) and some of his crew remain on board, a small expedition led by Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin) come ashore to find a power boat to push their stuck vessel back into deeper water. Rozanov and his men stumble across a summer beach house rented by an American family. Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) is a comedy writer. Elspeth Whittaker (Eva Marie Saint) is his wife and they have two young children Pete and Annie. Their young son Pete (Sheldon Golomb) alerts his doubting parents that some men are in their garage but it's too late. Rozanov and his men intrude on the Whittaker's, steal their car and leave naïve, nervous crew member Alexei Kolchin (John Philip Law) to guard the family at gun point until they return.

But Whittaker's car runs out of gas (he had warned the Russians the tank was low). The Russians walk the rest of the way to the sleepy coastal town of West Village. They overpower the postmaster Muriel Everett (Doro Merande) and steal her car. They find boats in the marina but there are too many people around. Meanwhile, the Whittaker's young nanny Alison Palmer (Andrea Dromm) arrives at the beach house, distracting Alexei enough for Walt to overpower him.  Alexei flees to a nearby hill. The trussed up Muriel is discovered. She tells her rescuers it was the Russians who tied her up. Police Chief Link Mattocks (Brian Keith) is awakened to the situation (literally and figuratively). He contacts his deputy Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters) to mobilize the rest of the town. Rozanov and his men are trapped.

The town gathers at the local bar to plan but hysteria and anarchy begin to emerge.  An exasperated Deputy Jonas mutters, "We've got to get organized, we've got to get organized." But no one has actually seen the Russians.  Police Chief Mattocks has to contend with the blustery local war hero Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) who tries to wrestle command away from him. Whittaker arrives in town (on a girl's bike) to explain why the Russians have landed on their island. But no one listens to him. A false report that Russian paratroopers have landed at the airport sends a contingent to investigate but they only find a few empty planes and the airport mechanic Stanley (Michael J. Pollard).

With most of the men out at the airfield, the Russians cut the phone lines and Rozanov grabs Whittaker (again).  A few of the crew disguised as locals steal a boat. The Russian sub manages to free itself on its own. The Captain takes the submarine into port to pick up his men. Rozanov races back to the beach house to pick up Alexei with Whittaker in pursuit. The town people return from the airport.  It's a stand off between the patriotic, gun toting Americans of Gloucester Island and two dozen Russian Naval men. Whittaker, his family, and Rozanov return to town just in time to try to deescalate the tension. The Russian Captain believes the town has kidnapped some of his men.  He threatens to blow up the town. Fendall Hawkins manages to call an air force base to send two fighter jets to investigate.  But an unlikely incident will unite the Americans and Russians together better than any politicians or generals ever could.

Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) had been released two years prior to THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. I had read somewhere that RUSSIANS director Norman Jewison was an admirer of Kubrick. The similarities to DR. STRANGELOVE may have attracted Jewison to direct THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.  Both films deal with the Cold War and the icy relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING is more wacky and good natured than DR. STRANGELOVE'S dark humor and nihilistic point of view. Each film has a military authority figure that unnecessarily makes a bad decision.  In DR. STRANGELOVE, it's rogue General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) ordering a U.S. bomber to drop nuclear warheads on Russia. In THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING it's the Russian Submarine Captain (Theodore Bikel) trying to get a closer glance at the American shoreline and running aground by accident.

Hysteria runs amok in both THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING and DR. STRANGELOVE.  Peter Sellers in multiple roles in DR. STRANGELOVE tries to stay calm as Group Captain Mandrake after Ripper starts the nuclear codes before killing himself. Later, as the U.S. President Merkin Muffley, Sellers attempts to soothe the anxiety of the Russian ambassador, the Russian premier (via telephone), and the generals of the War Room ("there's no fighting in the War Room"). Carl Reiner serves the same purpose in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.  As the town of West Village mobilizes for what they think is a Russian invasion, Reiner's Walt Whittaker tries to explain to a panicked, armed militia that it's only nine Russians trying to borrow a boat to dislodge their stuck submarine.  Whittaker, like the Russians, is a foreigner to the island.  Whittaker is from the big city, most likely New York.  The islanders are suspicious of Russians and visitors from the mainland. They don't trust anyone.

Where Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE envisions the world ending in nuclear devastation at the hands of the two super powers, Jewison and Rose see hope between the two countries in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. From composer Johnny Mandel's dueling patriotic anthems accompanying animated Stars and Stripes versus the Hammer and Sickle in the opening credits, we know RUSSIANS will be a comic tug of war. Instead of giving us a high level standoff between American and Russian generals and presidents, RUSSIANS looks at the two differing sides from a smaller microcosm: a small group of citizens on an American island versus two dozen weary seamen from a Russian submarine. In its sublime finale, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING shows that if Americans and Russians can stop their distrust of each other and cooperate to rescue a young boy, why can't it extend globally.  In the end, we're all the same whether you're American or Russian, Jewish or Palestinian black or white. "I wish not to hate...anybody!" Alexei Kolchin tells the pretty young Alison Palmer.  She concurs. "It doesn't make sense to hate people. It's such a waste of time."

The two funniest characters in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING are the vacationing American film writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and the stranded Russian Navy Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin). Reiner's Whittaker is neurotic, trying to meet a deadline for a new musical comedy while dealing with his young, rambunctious kids. Whittaker is hurt when his young son Pete calls him a traitor for answering the Russians questions initially. In one very funny scene, Whittaker is tied up to the heavyset switchboard operator Alice Foss (Tessie O'Shea).  Their escape attempt is hilarious as Reiner's face keeps ending up in uncomfortable parts of Alice or with her on top of him.  Besides acting, Reiner would direct several Steve Martin films including THE JERK (1979) and THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (1983).  Arkin has fun with Rozanov's lack of English.  Rozanov begins to confuse the order of American words and names, calling his captive "Whittaker Walt." Rozanov has little patience. He's tired of dealing with clowns whether it's his commanding officer or an American father. He just wants to get home to Mother Russia.  Arkin has had a lengthy film career, appearing in hit films from Arthur Hiller's comedy THE IN-LAWS (1979) to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006).

Two of my favorite actors are underutilized in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING: Eva Marie Saint and Jonathan Winters.  Saint captivated me in Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) as Marlon Brando's girlfriend and in Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as the cool blonde helping Cary Grant. In THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, she has that unfortunate role of the wife. There are great wife roles but many wife roles are just window dressing. Saint and her on screen husband Carl Reiner have good chemistry but there's not much for Saint to do besides calm down her husband and resist a few mild flirtations from Rozanov. Saint's Elspeth Whittaker does come up with the idea in the finale on how to help the Russians get out of the harbor. I would have liked to see her involved more in the story.

Comedian Jonathan Winters is hard to miss with his big jowls and expressive eyes.  Winters stood out amongst a huge cast in IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. He seems perfect as the ruffled police deputy Norman Jonas, trying to help Brian Keith's Police Chief Mattocks locate the elusive Russians. But THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING never really gives Winters much to do except act flustered (which he's very good at) and mutter constantly, "We've got to get organized!" Winters funniest scene has little to do with dialogue. It's the first time we meet Jonas. He's about to have breakfast with his harried wife and their large brood of children (the funny part is imagining the heavy set Jonas fathering so many kids) when he's called to action.  It might explain his constant agitation. Winters speech to his kids before he joins the local civilian force is priceless.

There are a few other familiar faces in THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Brian Keith has a nice turn as the doubting local police chief Mattocks. Johnny Whittaker who plays the young red headed boy who inadvertently unites the two sides together at the end would work with Keith soon afterward on the hit TV series FAMILY AFFAIR (1966 to 1971). Fans may also remember Whittaker from the Saturday morning television show SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS (1973-75). Theodore Bikel as the Russian submarine captain would be familiar to audiences from his appearance in George Cukor's MY FAIR LADY (1964) and many other films and television appearances.  Both Keith and Bikel have their moments in RUSSIANS moving finale.

If the plot of THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING depicting foreign countries invading the United States (accidentally or on purpose) looks familiar, Hollywood  has tried the formula a few times since RUSSIANS.  Dramatically, director John Milius made RED DAWN (1984) where the Russians really do invade America.  Not surprisingly, Hollywood would remake RED DAWN in 2012, changing the invaders from Russians to North Koreans. Comedically, Steven Spielberg in 1979 would direct one of his few flops with the ambitious but overdone comedy 1941 about a coastal town in California that mistakenly thinks the Japanese are attacking the U.S. days after Pearl Harbor.  Sounds a little bit like THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, doesn't it?

A few last tidbits about THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING. Both actors Brian Keith and Alan Arkin could actually speak Russian although Keith doesn't need to use it as he play the American Police Chief Mattocks.  Director Jewison films the opening sequence when the submarine becomes stuck entirely in Russian without any subtitles, lending to the film's authenticity and tension at the start of the film. A future film director would work on THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING.  Hal Ashby who would go on to direct the anti-war film COMING HOME (1978) as well as Peter Sellers last comedy BEING THERE (1979) would co-edit THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING with J. Terry Williams. Ashby would edit several Norman Jewison films and won an Academy Award for editing Jewison's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967).

In light of today's climate, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING is a comedy with a simple but clever message that is as relevant today as it was back in 1966. For all our paranoia and hatred and suspicions about people not like us, we're all the same. We may not talk the same languages or have the same skin color but we're all alike. THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING will make you laugh out loud but it will also tug at your heart.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Philadelphia Story (1940) and High Society (1956)

Currently (circa 2018), if you heard someone speak of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, you might think they were talking about the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl in February 2018 and the Villanova Wildcats winning the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship in April 2018 The Philadelphia 76ers made the NBA playoffs for the first time in six years and the Philadelphia Flyers are playing in the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs.  It has been a phenomenal 2018 for Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

But CrazyFilmGuy wants to discuss George Cukor's 1940 classic comedy THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and its star studded musical remake HIGH SOCIETY (1956).  Both films were made under the MGM banner.  THE PHILADELPHIA STORY falls in line with the screwball comedies of the time but also it's a comedy of manners, poking fun at the upper class of Philadelphia society. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is based on a play by Philip Barry.  Films based on plays were all the rage in the 30s and 40s when Hollywood was looking for material to turn into movies.  THE PHILADELPHIA STORY'S remake sixteen years later HIGH SOCIETY re-imagines the story as a musical comedy.  THE PHILADELPHIA STORY showcases three of the hottest rising stars at the time in Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart.  HIGH SOCIETY has musical superstars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and in a supporting role Louis Armstrong as well as songs and lyrics by Cole Porter. Only Grace Kelly is the non-musical lead in HIGH SOCIETY.

Directed by George Cukor (A STAR IS BORN) with a superb adaptation of Barry's play by Donald Ogden Stewart, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY tells us all we need to know in the first thirty seconds. C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and his wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) have a fight. He walks out with his luggage. She breaks one of his golf clubs. He (comically) puts a  hand on her face and pushes her back into the house. Jump ahead two years later.  Tracy Lord, now former wife of C.K. Dexter Haven is engaged to George Kittredge (John Howard), who started out poor, worked hard, and now manages a coal mine. Tracy just wants to find true love. Tracy's ex-husband Dexter returns from Argentina where he's been working for Spy Magazine.  Dexter offers to help Spy Magazine publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) get a scoop on Tracy's wedding. Kidd sends his top writer Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover the wedding, pretending to be friends of Tracy's brother Junius (who we never see in the film). In exchange, Kidd promises Dexter not to run an embarrassing story about Tracy's father Seth Lord (John Halliday) and a nightclub dancer.

Dexter gives Tracy and her mother Margaret Lord (Mary Nash) a heads up regarding the reporters pretending to be Junius's guests.  Tracy and her kid sister Dinah Lord (Virginia Weidler) pretend to be eccentric to throw Connor and Liz for a loop. Tracy even pretends that her Uncle Willie (Roland Young) is really her father Seth.  But then Seth shows up at the house for the wedding. Tracy comes clean with Connor and Liz about who's who and the reporters reciprocate. Tracy begins to fall for Connor.  Liz is in love with Connor. Uncle Willie begins to chase Liz. And Dexter seems to have feelings again for his ex-wife Tracy.

Uncle Willie throw a big Wedding Eve party that night.  Upset by her father Seth's honest comments about her, Tracy drinks more than she should. She dances with George and Connor. Connor borrows a limousine to see Dexter.  Both Dexter and Connor don't want to see Tracy marry the boring and straight laced George.  Dexter's worried about Kidd blackmailing Tracy's father with the dancer story. But Connor reveals he has some dirt on his boss Kidd which he provides to Dexter. Liz and Tracy show up.  Tracy and Connor go for a late night swim.  They even kiss.  When Connor carries a passed out Tracy back to the house, they run into both Dexter and a fuming George. George storms off into the night. All three men seem to be in love with Tracy.

The next morning, almost everyone (except little Dinah) wakes up hung over and confused from the previous night's events. Dinah tells Tracy she saw Connor with her the night before. The wedding guests begin to arrive at the Lord house for the wedding.  But George sends a note that he can't marry Tracy due to her conduct the night before.  Connor clears the air that nothing happened between him and Tracy. George forgives her but Tracy decides not to marry George. But there's still the wedding guests and a priest. Who might marry Tracy now? Will it be the newcomer Macaulay Connor or her ex-husband C.K Dexter Haven?

On the surface THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is a screwball comedy with mistaken identities, multiple love stories, and blackmail. But director Cukor explores the meaning of love and marriage through Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord, one of the great female roles of the 20th Century.  Early on, Tracy is compared to a goddess by her father Seth.  She expects marriage to be perfect with no mistakes.  That's why she divorced Dexter. She wasn't treated like a queen.  But marriage isn't perfect. "You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman except the one essential, " her father scolds Tracy. "An understanding heart. And without that, you might just as well be made of bronze." George compares Tracy to a statue, explains her purity is why he worshipped her from afar. "I don't want to be worshipped," Tracy replies. "I want to be loved."

Tracy's quest for true love is symbolized by the boat that Dexter designed and practically built for Tracy when they were married (Dexter gives her a small replica of the boat as a wedding present).  The boat's name is in fact True Love. Marriage is like that sail boat.  There will be calm seas at times in a marriage but there will be rough patches of water as well.  Tracy and Dexter talk about yare (pronounced yar) when reminiscing about the True Love. How the boat was easy to handle, quick to the helm. But it's also a description of Tracy during their marriage. She started out yare but later Tracy was not easy to handle or maneuver.  She was not yare.  Later, Tracy promises Dexter "I'll be yare now. I promise to be yare." Tracy will change course like her favorite sail boat in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.

When watching THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, I marveled at director Cukor's casting from the three leads Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart all the way down through the Lord family and even the Uncle Willy character.  But it's Philip Barry's characters that are the real stars. Each character is so well written and defined.  Cukor just had to pick the right actor or actress for each role which he performed brilliantly. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY would be the only film that Cary Grant and James Stewart would work on together (they are a fun pair).  Surprisingly, Stewart has the flashier role and would win the Academy Award for Best Actor as Macaulay Connor in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  Stewart's leading man status was just beginning to take off when he went off to fight in World War II.  He would return to films in 1946. Both Grant and Stewart, already emerging movie stars, would find great success separately in some of Alfred Hitchcock's best films later on in their careers.

Katharine Hepburn is well known for having made nine films with Spencer Tracy but Hepburn and Cary Grant would work together on four films besides THE PHILADELPHIA STORY including George Cukor's SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), HOLIDAY (1938), and Howard Hawks BRINGING UP BABY (1938).  PHILADELPHIA STORY'S playwright Philip Barry wrote the part of Tracy Lord with Hepburn in mind to play the role which she did on stage. Hepburn is luminous and beautiful as Tracy Lord. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY would resurrect Hepburn's career. All the female roles in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY are excellent.  Ruth Hussey (NORTHWEST PASSAGE) as photographer Liz Imbrie is the typical wisecracking news person but she gives Liz a vulnerability we don't often see in that role.  Young Virginia Weidler (THE WOMEN) nearly steals the movie as Tracy's kid sister Dinah.  And Mary Nash as Margaret Lord, the matriarch of the family plays the motherly role with a combination of tenderness and bemusement.

As with the supporting actresses in PHILADELPHIA STORY, the male supporting roles are equally top notch.  Roland Young (TOPPER) as the champagne loving Uncle Willie has several funny lines and scenes.  John Halliday as Tracy's philandering father Seth Lord is solid.  John Howard (LOST HORIZON) as Tracy's fiancée George Kittredge has the toughest role.  Kittredge is the most boring part in the film yet Howard plays George as both earnest and uptight.  He's handsome and you feel for George when Tracy turns him down right before walking down the aisle even though we don't want to see Tracy marry the wrong man.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is about the affluent in Philadelphia and director Cukor makes sure to provide the right ingredients for the tale.  We have lavish homes, butlers, swimming pools, sherry and champagne available at any time, and chauffeurs to take you wherever you want to go.  Tracy and Dexter represent the upper class.  George has worked his way up from the bottom but still feels slightly inferior with the elite. Connor is the everyman between the two classes, observing both sides.  In the end, Cukor reminds everyone that it's not whether you're rich or poor that makes the person.  It's what's inside that counts.

So why would MGM remake a nearly perfect film like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY sixteen years later with HIGH SOCIETY? Because musicals and color film were all the rage in the 1950s. MGM was the King of Musicals.  They were probably looking for a new story to put music to and Louis B Mayer (or his assistant) remembered THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  "What if we made it into a musical?" someone might have said.  There was no reason to try to top it as a straight comedy.  Have Cole Porter write some songs and turn it into a musical comedy.  The 1950s were full of entertainers who could sing, dance, and act.  Crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra inherit the roles of C.K. Dexter Haven and Mike Connor that Grant and Stewart played previously.  Add one of the most beautiful and talented actresses in the 50's Grace Kelly in the Katharine Hepburn role as Tracy Lord. HIGH SOCIETY is born.

But all the music and Cole Porter songs come at the expense of the plot and dramatic framework of the story.  HIGH SOCIETY is like a cliff notes version of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  Screenwriter John Patrick lifts some of best lines from the original but much of the subtext and plot gets pushed aside to fit in the melodious vocal chords of Crosby and Sinatra.  HIGH SOCIETY director Charles Walters (LILI) specialty was musicals but he's not George Cukor.  He shoots much of HIGH SOCIETY in wide shots which was typical for a musical. HIGH SOCIETY is colorful and sumptuous yet it feels more like a stage play than a film.

HIGH SOCIETY moves the location of the story from the blue blood suburbs of Philadelphia to the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby) is now a famous composer/singer. Dexter welcomes jazz trumpet great Louis Armstrong (playing himself) and his band to the Newport Jazz Festival. The weekend festival just happens to coincide with the second wedding for Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) and coal miner owner George Kittredge (John Lund) that same weekend. Tracy's first husband C.K. Dexter Haven lives next door. This time, it's Uncle Willie (Louis Calhern) who's trying to keep Tracy's father Seth Lord's (Sidney Blackmer) infidelities out of Spy Magazine. Spy Magazine promises to not run the story if two of their staff, writer Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm) can get a scoop by covering Tracy's wedding. Tracy's mother Mrs. Lord (Margalo Gillmore) reluctantly agrees.

The film follows the plot of the original for the most part except for cramming in numerous musical duets. We get Crosby and Kelly, Sinatra and Holm, Sinatra and Kelly, and Crosby and Armstrong. Neither Dexter nor Tracy's kid sister Carolyn Lord (Lydia Reed) like Tracy's fiancée George. Tracy and her father Seth trade barbs over their ideals about marriage and fidelity. Peeved by the reporters intrusion, Tracy takes Mike for a drive among the Newport mansions, showing him the true image of wealth - empty mansions and homes donated to become Boys Schools. Mike begins to fall for the upper crust Tracy.

Uncle Willie hosts a pre-wedding party for Tracy and George and all their guests.  Dexter and Louis Armstrong and his band entertain the crowd. Tracy drinks too much and kisses Dexter.  George tries to lock her in a room to sober up but Tracy escapes through a window and runs over to her house with Mike.  They drink some more and go for a moonlight swim.  Dexter and George show up at Tracy's house looking for her.  When Mike carries a passed out Tracy back from the pool, George storms away, fuming.

Tracy, Mike, and Uncle Willie all wake up the next morning hung over.  Tracy doesn't recall much of the night's events.  When George returns thinking Tracy's done more than just swim with Mike, Mike sets the record straight.  He put Tracy to bed and returned to be punched by Dexter (before George could floor him).  Mike and Liz agree to kill any Spy magazine story about Tracy's wedding.  George forgives Tracy it's too late. Tracy decides not to marry George in the end. But with all the wedding guests waiting for the wedding, will Dexter or Mike step in and marry Tracy?

HIGH SOCIETY is a more lighthearted romp than THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (which is saying something as STORY is very funny). The remake is as smooth as Bing Crosby's velvety voice. But it loses some of its serious undertones with changes from the original. The most glaring in HIGH SOCIETY is Crosby's C.K. Dexter Haven is no longer connected to Spy Magazine. There's no sleazy editor Sidney Kidd. There's no hint that Dexter might want to undermine Tracy's wedding to George to get back at her. Dexter is left to making wisecracks about George.  HIGH SOCIETY loses some dramatic effect with this change and Dexter some of his importance in a key role.

Cole Porter's songs, although catchy, come at the expense of some of the plot and character development. The songs relate to the story like True Love (which would become a platinum best seller for Crosby and Kelly) and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The filmmakers had to use a previous Cole Porter song Well, Did You Evah? when they realized they had no song for Crosby and Sinatra to sing as a duet. Louis Armstrong is like a Greek Chorus throughout the film, laying down the background story in the opening title song High Society Calypso and providing commentary throughout the film.

But make no mistake, HIGH SOCIETY is a big time musical for MGM even if it's a remake.  Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were huge stars at the time.  Crosby was coming off the beloved musical WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) and some fine dramatic work in THE COUNTRY GIRL (also 1954) in which he co-starred with Grace Kelly.  Crosby's C.K. Dexter Haven is more easy going, glib than Cary Grant's humorously prickly portrayal.  Not to be outdone, Sinatra proved he was a serious actor, winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1953 for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.  Sinatra had also done musicals already appearing in ON THE TOWN (1949) with Gene Kelly and GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) opposite Marlon Brando. Sinatra's Mike Connor is more streetwise than Stewart's folksy take on the character. But Sinatra has fun with the role.

Grace Kelly is radiant as socialite Tracy Lord in HIGH SOCIETY.  I had only seen Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955). I had never seen Kelly in a comedy before and she relishes the opportunity to be funny, tipsy at times, and flawed.  Katharine Hepburn was a red head in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Grace Kelly is blonde which helps her to break free from Hepburn's imprint on the role.  Kelly plays the part a bit like the princess she would soon become in real life.

The supporting actors in HIGH SOCIETY do not stand out as much as their predecessors did in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  The one exception is one of my favorite character actors Louis Calhern (NOTORIOUS, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) who gets the juicy role of Uncle Willie.  Calhern slightly resembles the rich guy on the cover of the Monopoly board game with his tuxedo and top hat. The least flashy role in both films is George Kittredge, Tracy Lord's fiancée. It has to be a rather dull character for Tracy to want to cancel the wedding to be with either the more interesting Dexter Haven or Macaulay "Mike" Connor. In HIGH SOCIETY, John Lund plays the George role as more of a prude than John Howard in the original. It's a thankless role but important to the story.

For Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern, HIGH SOCIETY would be their last motion picture appearances but for different reasons. Grace Kelly had become engaged to Prince Rainier of Monaco before filming began.  HIGH SOCIETY would be her last performance on the big screen before becoming Princess of Monaco.  For Louis Calhern, he would die of a heart attack in Japan filming THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956). His role in that film would be recast.  HIGH SOCIETY would be his final film appearance.

For movie audiences, which film is their favorite is probably split 50/50.  HIGH SOCIETY is a big time musical comedy with A list stars (Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Celeste Holm were all Academy Award winners) and punctuated with Cole Porter songs. It's a glossy remake of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But I think HIGH SOCIETY loses some of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY'S dramatic undertones with its lightheartedness. For CrazyFilmGuy, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is very funny comedy but with some key dramatic observations sprinkled in.  The trio of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart is cinematic nirvana. In the movie universe, we are lucky to have two film versions of a great play to compare and contrast and ultimately, enjoy.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

The first time I heard the name Charles Lindbergh was when he died in 1974 on the island of Maui. I had just been to Maui on vacation for the first time with my family the year before.  I was more intrigued that someone famous had died on a Hawaiian island I had just visited than who Lindbergh actually was. The second time I heard the name Charles Lindbergh was after I read the Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express. The background plot of the mystery was borrowed from the real life kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's young son Charles Jr in 1932. But those two encounters with the name Charles Lindbergh, although important, are not what Lindbergh is most famous for. Charles A. Lindbergh's biggest feat that brought him fame was that he was the first person to make a solo flight 3,610 miles in 33 and a half hours across the Atlantic Ocean from Roosevelt Field in Long Island, New York to Le Bourget Aerodrome in Paris, France in 1927.

Naturally, these kind of heroic record setting endeavors are tailor made to be turned into a motion picture.  Who better to play the All-American aviator Lindbergh than the All-American actor (and also a pilot) James Stewart (VERTIGO, HARVEY). What's surprising about this biographical film about Lindbergh called THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957) is that it's directed by the great Billy Wilder. Wilder is much better known for his darker, cynical films like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), and STALAG 17 (1953).  A film about Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in an single engine airplane seems a little too mainstream and dull for Wilder.

But maybe that's why Wilder made the film.  Perhaps he challenged himself to make a more mainstream film.  THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is Wilder's second color film after THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and he made it at Warner Bros who were the kings of All-American films like YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) about composer Irving Berlin or JIM THORPE - ALL - AMERICAN (1951) about who else but the All-American athlete Jim Thorpe. Based on Charles Lindbergh's own 1953 book about his historic flight, Wilder and co-writer Wendell Mayes and scenarist Charles Lederer break Lindbergh's flight into two sections. The first hour is the preceding night before Lindbergh taking off for Paris (let's call it pre-flight). The second half is the epic flight itself as Lindbergh attempts to cross the Atlantic solo. Interspersed throughout both halves of the film are flashbacks of how Lindbergh became an aviator: his early days as an Air Mail pilot flying in dangerous weather in the Midwest; his halcyon days as a barnstorming daredevil pilot with his buddy Bud Gurney (Murray Hamilton); and even his stint as a flight instructor. It's a clever way for Wilder to break up the rather straightforward story and also show Lindbergh had the right stuff to endeavor such a perilous journey.

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (which happens to be the name of the single engine Ryan monoplane that Lindbergh flew) begins with Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart) trying to sleep upstairs in a hotel the night before his historic flight as newspaper reporters type all night below, filing their stories.  Lindbergh is waiting to take off on his flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France the next morning. Nicknamed "Slim" for his slight build, Lindbergh reflects back on how he scrapped together $2000 of his own money and $13,000 from a group of investors to embark on this life or death solo Trans-Atlantic flight to win the Orteig Prize and its $25,000 prize money. Lindbergh travels to San Diego and visits Ryan Airlines. He meets with airplane designer Ben Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) and his chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space) who agree to build Lindbergh's long range air plane. They rush to complete the plane in sixty-three days. American and French pilots are already attempting the risky journey ahead of Lindbergh.  All have perished or been injured trying.

Lindbergh's backers want him to call off the flight. They don't want to see him killed. Lindbergh refuses. The next morning, the weather clears enough that Lindbergh makes the decision to go. Before a small crowd of people including Mahoney, Lindbergh takes off on his own, barely making it over telephone wires and trees, to begin his historic flight.  Lindbergh will battle fatigue, cramps, fog, and cold in his cramped little cockpit.  At one point, his wings begin to ice up and he nearly bails out of the plane before finding a warmer altitude.  Another instance, Lindbergh falls asleep and almost spirals into the ocean.

Using dead reckoning (a previously determined position) to navigate, Lindbergh finally sees signs of life below after endless miles of ocean.  He flies over a group of fishing boats. Lindbergh realizes he's reached Ireland.  Next, he flies over England.  Finally, he crosses the English Channel headed for Paris.  Lindbergh sees the bright lights of Paris but he has to find the landing field.  Bright spotlights nearly blind him as 200,000 Parisians await Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis to touch down and make history.

I see THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS as a test for Billy Wilder.  Like Alfred Hitchcock setting LIFEBOAT (1944) entirely in a lifeboat or filming ROPE (1948) in single ten minute takes, Wilder challenges himself to make Lindbergh's mostly solitary journey cinematically interesting.  Wilder has Lindbergh talk to himself at times (or narrate inner monologues), even gives Lindbergh a common house fly to converse with for part of the flight. The flashbacks break up the solitude, providing us with background of the young aviator.  We see Lindbergh's courage as an Air Mail pilot flying in horrible conditions.  We see Lindbergh's daredevil spirit as an aerial stunt flyer. And we see Lindbergh's independent side as he trades in his Harley Davidson motorcycle for his first plane.

The original Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 2014)

Director Wilder manages to make THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS tense and suspenseful from the moment Lindbergh barely makes it into the air from Long Island to his final landing in Paris.  The sequences with Lindbergh fighting to stay awake and almost spiraling to his death or encountering ice on his wings are hair-raising. Even when he reaches Paris, there's a sense of dread that something could go wrong before he lands and makes history.  He can't locate the airfield right away and when he does, it's covered with thousands of people with spotlights momentarily blinding him.

It's obvious that James Stewart is much older than Charles Lindbergh was when he made his historic flight.  Lindbergh accomplished the Trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25.  Stewart was 47 when he made THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS portraying a 25 year old Lindbergh.  But Stewart does resemble Lindbergh with his lankiness (Stewart dieted for the role) and bleached blond hair. Although younger actors were considered, Stewart was a bigger name and star. Stewart is fine in the role except for a couple of moments where he sounds like George Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) yelling down from his cockpit to a group of fishermen below. Even with Stewart in the lead role and Billy Wilder directing, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS would be a box office flop when initially released.

James Stewart and Murray Hamilton are the only familiar faces in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS but Wilder has a great knack for casting bit players with unique faces and voices that make them stand out in their small parts. No one can mistake Richard Deacon's (TV'S THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) deep voice in a small role as the President of Columbia Aircraft or Dabbs Greer (TV'S LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) mellow voice as a Ryan Airline mechanic or the gregarious Charles Watts as O.W. Schultz, a suspender salesman Lindbergh meets on a train.  There is no love interest for Lindbergh.  The only significant female role is Patricia Smith as the Mirror Girl.  She loans Lindbergh her small pocket mirror so he can read his compass which is located at an awkward angle in the cockpit. But all of the supporting characters in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS play some kind of role in Lindbergh's success.

Charles Lindbergh's popularity would be at an all time high after his historic accomplishment but his life would be a series of misfortune and controversy afterward. His first child Charles Jr. would be kidnapped and later murdered by Bruno Hauptmann in 1932.  During World War II, Lindbergh would be criticized for his Pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic views.  And after both Lindbergh and later his wife Anne had died, it was discovered by their children that Lindbergh had fathered several more children with three different women in Europe. Not all heroes are as All-American as we think.

But THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS does not take any political or moral views on Lindbergh's life.  The film is about his American independent spirit to have a dream and accomplish it. Composer Franz Waxman provides a rousing musical score with a wonderful soaring motif for Lindbergh and his plane.  Wilder shows American ingenuity at work with a nice montage (enhanced with Waxman's music and Arthur P. Schmidt's editing) showing the Ryan Airline workers racing to put The Spirit of St. Louis together in record time. Wilder uses Hitchcock's favorite Director of Photography Robert Burks (along with J. Peverell Marley) to provide widescreen splendor for Lindbergh's journey and flashbacks.

As I've stated previously, director Billy Wilder is credited with possibly making some of the best genre films ever.  Best film noir: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Best war film: STALAG 17.  Best film about Hollywood: SUNSET BOULEVARD. THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is Wilder's only biographical film about a real person.  Although not as critically acclaimed or financially successful as many of his other pictures, Wilder lays the ground work for how a bio-pic should work in his telling of Charles A. Lindbergh's historic solo Trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Young Frankenstein (1974)

I still remember the night my parents returned from a date at the movies in 1974. They had just seen YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN directed by Mel Brooks, fresh off his success with the western spoof BLAZING SADDLES (1974).  My parents couldn't stop giggling.  My mother kept calling my Dad her "little zipper neck."  I was very impressionable.  I wanted to see this funny film that made my parents laugh.  It would take a few years before I did finally watch it. I wasn't disappointed.

For those of you who have seen Gene Wilder's manic performance as Frederick Frankenstein ("that's Fronken-steen") in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), you would think that Wilder had created his humorously crazed performance all on his own.  I'm sure most of it was Wilder's creation.  But if you were to watch Rowland V. Lee's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), you would realize that it's Basil Rathbone's over the top performance as Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein that inspired Wilder. Rathbone is possibly more crazed than Wilder. Initially, I thought YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was a spoof of James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931).  But YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN owes more to the plot and characters of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN with a Frankenstein returning to his ancestral home, the appearance of Igor the humpback, and the Frankenstein grandson picking up where his grandfather left off resurrecting life from the dead.  Brooks does throw in several bits and spoofs of FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) but YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a humorous homage to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and all the FRANKENSTEIN movies.

FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (both directed by James Whale) have always garnered critical praise as two of the finest early horror films. But SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a worthy third installment in the FRANKENSTEIN franchise.  SON OF FRANKENSTEIN boasts an impressive horror cast made up of Boris Karloff reprising the role of the Frankenstein monster for the third and last time, Bela Lugosi (DRACULA) with perhaps a better performance as Ygor than his more famous Count Dracula role, Basil Rathbone (numerous SHERLOCK HOLMES films) as the handsome but increasingly frazzled Wolf von Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill (MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM) as the suspicious one armed police inspector. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN also has some amazing production design influenced heavily by earlier German Expressionism films with enormous sets, a crooked staircase, and houses and castles at odd angles. It all makes for an enjoyable, atmospheric horror story.

Directed by Rowland V. Lee with a screenplay by Willis Cooper, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN begins with Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returning to the town of Frankenstein in Eastern Europe with his American wife Elsa von Frankenstein (Josephine Hutchinson) and his young son Peter von Frankenstein (Donnie Dunagan). The town locals are not thrilled to have a Frankenstein back in the fold, the memory of Wolf's father's experiments and rampaging monster still fresh in their minds. Wolf and his family move back into his ancestral castle.  Wolf is presented with his father's papers. Wolf has a chip on his shoulder about his father's legacy. Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the town's one armed lawman (his other arm is wooden) warns Wolf to stay clear of his father's experiments.

Wolf takes a visit to his father's laboratory next to the castle. Wolf discovers lab equipment and a steaming sulfur pit.  Skulking around the laboratory is Ygor (Bela Lugosi), a local grave robber who was hanged by the town locals for his crimes but survived (granted with a deformed neck). Ygor takes Wolf to a secret crypt where Frankenstein's monster (Boris Karloff in a cool woolly vest) sleeps.  Ygor tells Wolf that the monster lives but he's sick. Ygor wants Wolf to make the monster better. Wolf battles with himself on whether to kill the monster or carry on his father's work and keep the monster alive. Despite his best intentions, Wolf decides to help Frankenstein's monster survive.

The locals begin to suspect Wolf is up to no good in the laboratory.  Inspector Krogh visits Wolf and Elsa to see for himself.  Young Peter meets Krogh.  Peter complains he's not sleeping well and recounts a visit from a giant one night, raising more suspicion from Krogh.  Wolf keeps Krogh at bay while helping to keep the monster alive.  Frankenstein's monster wants a better face, to be handsome like Wolf. Wolf wants to give the monster a better, smarter brain.  But Ygor still has the most control over Frankenstein's monster.  Ygor sends the monster into town to dispatch the town council who condemned him to death.

With two more deaths in the village, the town folk (with their pitchforks and torches) race to the gate of Frankenstein's castle seeking justice.  Krogh begs Wolf to either hand over the monster or kill it. Frankenstein's monster sneaks into Peter's bedroom and steals the young boy away to the laboratory.  Wolf and Krogh race to save Peter.  While Krogh tussles with the monster (leading to the monster ripping Krogh's arm off a second time), Wolf battles with Ygor, forced to shoot the hunchback.  Wolf then races to save Peter, grabbing a rope and swinging into the laboratory, knocking Frankenstein's monster into the sulfur pit. Wolf and his family apologize to the town and turn over the castle to them before taking a train back to safer confines.

For a horror film, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has plenty of subtext.  We've got Wolf von Frankenstein, son of the man who created the terrible monster, trying to reclaim the good  Frankenstein name and honor yet succumbing to the same ego and ambition that destroyed his father. We've got Ygor, a creepy hermit, who helped Wolf's father to create the monster and paid for it with a broken neck. Ygor appears to be friendly as he asks Wolf to make Frankenstein's monster better. But Ygor has revenge on his mind.  Ygor's the master manipulator, using the monster to kill the town elders who tried to hang him.  And, we have Inspector Krogh.  The monster tore off his arm the first time, in essence, taking away Krogh's manhood. Wolf lies to his son Peter, telling the boy Krogh lost his arm in the war. He calls Krogh a great soldier. But Krogh's impotent, a figure head authority, powerless as the law.

Besides a stellar horror cast, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN boasts a production design that is supernaturally fairy tale like and inspired by German Expressionism. We get our first taste of it as Wolf and his family draw closer to the town of Frankenstein on the train. The landscape begins to change. Gnarled, dead trees fill the train compartment window like scarecrows warning them to turn back. Both the main hall with its twisting wooden staircase and Peter's bedroom are enormous. Art director Jack Otterson and director Lee did not have child safety in mind. The staircase barely has any railings and there's a huge fireplace with a roaring fire in Peter's bedroom with no gate to deflect burning embers.  But both sets look fantastic. The exterior of Frankenstein's laboratory is slightly futuristic looking, dome shaped like a mini-Griffith Park observatory. The laboratory's interior is more open than FRANKENSTEIN'S claustrophobic lab. But the filmmakers save the best for last. The laboratory was built around a sulfur pit that bubbles and spews smoke. Somebody is going to fall into that bubbling abyss.

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi would star in eight films together.  Besides Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT (1934), SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is probably Karloff and Lugosi's best film together and certainly one of Lugosi's finest performances as Ygor. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN would be Boris Karloff's third and last time playing the monster based on Mary Shelley's 19th Century story. Karloff previously played the monster in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. In SON, Karloff spends the first half of the film lying on a stone slab as Wolf and Ygor try to heal him. Later, Karloff shows why he's the best Frankenstein of them all with his subtle facial expressions and hand movements. It's pantomime but nobody expresses emotion under all that monster make up better than Karloff. Karloff would appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) but not as the monster. He would play an evil scientist who encounters not only Frankenstein's monster but Dracula and the Wolf Man.

The real revelation is Bela Lugosi as Ygor. Lugosi's best known for his iconic portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning's DRACULA. Apparently director Lee liked Lugosi's performance and kept making Lugosi's part bigger and bigger in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Lugosi steals the picture from Karloff and Rathbone. Initially, Ygor is a sympathetic character. He's survived a hanging by the town burghers that left him with a partial broken neck. He seems like an eccentric recluse. He wants Wolf to use his skills as a doctor to heal his only friend, the monster. But slowly, we learn that Ygor is a puppet master, pulling the strings of this horror tale. He wants Frankenstein's monster healthy so he can send the creature into town and dispatch the town council, all eight of them who convicted him for body snatching. Even with a shaggy head of hair and thick beard, Lugosi's Hungarian accent is hard to miss. Lugosi would reprise the role of Ygor in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942). Ironically, Lugosi would get his chance to play Frankenstein's monster in the aptly named FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

Basil Rathbone is best known for playing either roguish villains in film like Michael Curtiz's CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) or heroes like the world's greatest detective Sherlock Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLE (1939) and thirteen other Sherlock Holmes films. Rathbone's role as the prodigal son Wolf in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a great opportunity to play a flawed man. Wolf returns to his home town to resurrect the family name. He wants to do good for the community. But he's got that Frankenstein curse of playing God. When the opportunity arises to improve upon the monster his father created, Wolf cannot resist. Rathbone's performance begins to border on frenzied as he tries to keep Inspector Krogh and his family from the truth while resurrecting Frankenstein's monster with his experiments. It's this over the top crescendo by Rathbone that Gene Wilder would feed off for his comic performance as Frederick Frankenstein in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

After having his fun with the western genre in BLAZING SADDLES, director and writer Mel Brooks and co-writer Gene Wilder decided to tackle classic horror movies by parodying the FRANKENSTEIN films in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. It's a loving homage to the horror genre.  Old castles, cob webbed laboratories, mist shrouded forests, town squares with cobblestone streets, and graveyards are lovingly recreated. Brooks even shot the film in glorious black and white and used some of the original FRANKENSTEIN laboratory equipment. Frankenstein's monster (wonderfully played by Peter Boyle) is playfully altered with a higher receding hairline and yes, that zipper on his neck.  YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN uses the SON OF FRANKENSTEIN plot but poaches scenes from FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN too.  But YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN becomes its own FRANKENSTEIN film, original in how it uses its source material.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN introduces us to Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), an academic doctor teaching anatomy at a university. After a lecture, he's visited by Herr Gearhart Falkstein (Richard Haydn) who brings him his grandfather's will. Leaving his fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) behind, Frederick travels to Transylvania to visit the Frankenstein castle.  He's met at the train station by Igor (Marty Feldman) with movable hump and Inga (Teri Garr), a pretty lab assistant. At the castle, Frederick meets his grandfather's housekeeper (and former girlfriend) Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). But don't say Frau Blucher's name around horses (Neigh!).

During Frederick's first night in the castle, he hears the sound of  a violin playing. Frederick along with Inga investigate the origin of the strange music and discover Frederick's grandfather Victor's private library. They find his book titled "How I Did It." Further investigation leads them to Victor's laboratory.  After reading the manual, Frederick begins to plot on how to create life from dead tissue. Frederick and Igor dig up a dead criminal's body and bring it back to the castle.  Frederick than sends Igor to steal the brain of a scientist named Hans Delbruck.  But Igor drops Delbruck's brain and grabs an abnormal brain to replace it.

Frederick with Igor and Inga attempt to bring life to the dead criminal's body during a terrifying electrical storm. At first, it appears the experiment has failed.  As Frederick and his assistants lament their failure, they hear groaning from deep in the castle. They rush down to find the monster (Peter Boyle) is alive.  But their joy is short lived as Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) visits the castle to investigate if Frederick has picked up his grandfather's bad habits of playing God.

The monster escapes into the countryside, terrorizing a local girl and briefly sharing a cigar with Harold (Gene Hackman), a blind hermit.  Frederick and Igor lure the monster back into town with violin music. Frederick is convinced his creation can be sophisticated.  Frederick rents out the Bucharest Academy of Science. Besides showing the audience the monster's coordination, Frederick and the monster perform a song and dance routine to "Putting on the Ritz." But an exploding stage light scares the monster and he jumps into the audience.  The monster's taken to jail and placed in chains. Elizabeth arrives in Transylvania, complicating Fredrick's relationship with Inga. Tormented by a sadistic jailor (Oscar Bereji), Frankenstein's monster breaks out of jail and heads to the castle where he kidnaps Elizabeth. Frederick and Igor lure the monster back to the castle one more time. Frederick decides to give the monster a piece of his brain to save his creation.

Brooks and Wilder borrow the blueprint of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN for their YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN but take some comedic liberties.  Igor changes from Lugosi's vengeful broken necked shepherd to Marty Feldman's wisecracking humpbacked sidekick to the good doctor Frankenstein. The wooden arm of Atwill's Inspector Krogh becomes a comic prop for Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp. Kemp's arm, at times, has a mind of its own. The dart sequence between Wilder and Mars is lifted directly from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's match between Rathbone and Atwill (minus Rathbone missing the dart board like Wilder). Even a giant door knocker in SON is fair game in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  As Frederick helps Inga out of the cart, Igor bangs on a giant door knocker to the castle.  "What knockers," Frederick exclaims. "Oh thank you doctor," Inga replies, glancing down at her cleavage. Yes, the difference between a classic old horror film and horror spoof.

Beyond all the one liners, double entendres, and sight gags, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN offers a sweet message about compassion that the original FRANKENSTEIN movies never did. Think of the monster as someone with autism or handicapped or of a different sexual orientation or a different race or color. The monster is different.  The angry villagers represent the bullies and racists who persecute those that are not like them.  The monster says it the best (with the assistance of part of Frederick's brain) when he tells the angry mob toward the end, "For as long as I can remember people have hated me. They looked at my face and my body and they ran away in horror. In my loneliness, I decided that if I could not inspire love, which is my deepest hope, I would instead cause fear. I live because this poor half-crazed genius, has given me life. He alone held an image of me as something beautiful..." Beautiful words from Brooks and Wilder.  Frankenstein's monster spoke briefly in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Brooks makes a wise choice to have his Frankenstein's monster speak toward the end of the film, giving us a profound message about tolerance and acceptance.

Mel Brooks often acts in his own movies (like Woody Allen), playing supporting roles in BLAZING SADDLES or the lead role in HIGH ANXIETY (1977). Brooks makes a wise choice by not appearing in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (not even a cameo). The film looks and feels so much like an old classic Universal horror film that Brooks' appearance would disrupt the illusion.  The star of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Wilder had made a name for himself in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) and stole his scenes in BLAZING SADDLES. But YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN would make Wilder a bona fide comedy star. With his Albert Einstein like hair and expressive eyes, Wilder is literally the heart, soul, and brain of the picture.

Another breakout performance comes from comic Marty Feldman as the lovable Igor ("that's Eye-Gore!"). Feldman (with those unforgettable bulging eyes) had mostly been on  British television doing sketch comedy but he found his calling with both Brooks and Wilder. Brooks favorites Madeline Kahn (BLAZING SADDLES) as Frederick's touchy fiancée Elizabeth and Cloris Leachman (HIGH ANXIETY) as a horse's worst nightmare Frau Blucher turn in delightful comic performances. Teri Garr (TOOTSIE) as Frederick's assistant Inga shows she has comic chops as well.

The success of the FRANKENSTEIN films including SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was Boris Karloff's nuanced, child-like performance as the monster. If Karloff doesn't both scare the audience and make them take pity on him, the FRANKENSTEIN films don't work. Future Frankenstein's including Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange never pulled off performances like Karloff could.  Peter Boyle (TAXI DRIVER) who plays the monster in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN manages to mix fright, pathos, and comedy.  Boyle takes a page out of the Karloff playbook and makes his monster both a homage to Karloff but his own invention as well. Kenneth Mars (WHAT'S UP DOC?) does the same thing with Lionel Atwill's part as the wooden armed Inspector Kemp.  Atwill's Krogh is a tragic character.  Mars has fun with the character, turning the wooden arm into a character of its own, sometimes with a mind of its own.

With the success of BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the world (or at least I) wanted another collaboration between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Sadly, the two would not work together again.  The closest YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN reunion we would get would be Wilder's directorial debut (right after YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN), the clunky, disjointed comedy THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER (1975) reuniting Wilder with Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn. Brooks would reunite with Feldman one more time on the Silent Film comedy SILENT MOVIE (1976) before spoofing Hitchcock films in HIGH ANXIETY and the STAR WARS films in SPACEBALLS (1987). Feldman would try his hand at directing and co-writing a Brooks/Wilder type comedy called THE LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE (1977). But none of the YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN group including Mel Brooks would ever quite attain the popularity and critical acclaim of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  A great comedy is often lightning in a bottle, fleeting and hard to duplicate.

I guess what blows me away about YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the attention to detail and genuine love for its source SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and the other FRANKENSTEIN films. Brooks and Wilder love the characters, the atmosphere, and the classic horror film genre.  Like any spoof, they fondly take the SON OF FRANKENSTEIN characters and have fun with them, showing a more humorous side than SON OF FRANKENSTEIN could do.  I would love to see a movie theater some day run a double bill of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to watch the two films side by side and enjoy their similarities and uniqueness.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Before CrazyFilmGuy discovered the hilarious British Comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus as an adolescent, he was giggling at the madcap comedy of four siblings known as the Marx Brothers in their classic farce DUCK SOUP (1933) directed by Leo McCarey. The Marx Brothers were made up of Groucho Marx (fake black moustache, cigar, and one liners); Harpo Marx (manic personality, frizzy afro, mute); Chico Marx (Spanish accent, prince of malapropisms, pointy hat), and Zeppo (supposedly the heartthrob of the group which means the least talented).  Karl Marx was not the fifth Marx Brother.

The appeal of the Marx Brothers besides their wonderful one liners and crazy antics was their anarchy toward the establishment: the rich, the powerful, highbrow institutions like colleges and opera, gangsters, bullies, and the police.  They were the champions of the underdog. They also had a perennial foil in actress Margaret Dumont who put up with the Marx Brothers antics and insults in seven Marx Brothers films including ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), DUCK SOUP, and A DAY AT THE RACES (1937). Unusual for comedies, the Marx Brothers films usually have one incredibly funny set piece that filmgoers still laugh out loud watching even today.  The final football play in HORSEFEATHERS (1932).  The mirror scene with Groucho and Harpo in DUCK SOUP.  Or the stateroom scene on a ship in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935).  It is that scene which compelled CrazyFilmGuy to watch A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.

I'm not sure I had ever seen A NIGHT AT THE OPERA in its entirety.  I have to admit I'm not sure I've seen any Marx Brothers film from start to finish except for HORSEFEATHERS and DUCK SOUP (which my wonderful aunt took me to see at the Portland Art Museum theater back in the 70s).  I had seen clips of their best scenes and read quotes from their best one liners. Directed by Sam Wood (who would also direct the Marx Bros A DAY AT THE RACES) and written by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind based on a story by James Kevin McGuiness, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, besides offering the usual Marx Brothers combination of madcap hijinx, music, and irreverence, turns out to be a sweet film with the Marx Brothers playing match makers for two young lovers.  Oh, and then there's that stateroom scene, unparalled in cinematic comedy.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA begins somewhere in Europe (possibly Milan, Italy). Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) is looking to bring the world's greatest tenor , the arrogant Rudolfo Lasspari (Walter King) back to America to perform at the New York Opera Company.  Driftwood is also wooing the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) to be a new patron for the New York Opera Company. Lasspari wants to make love to his co-star Rosa Castaldi (Kitty Carlisle) who is not interested.  Rosa is in love with unknown tenor Ricardo Baroni (Allan Jones) who's in the chorus.  Lasspari's dresser Tomasso (Harpo Marx) and Baroni's friend/manager Fiorello (Chico Marx) try to convince Driftwood to pick Ricardo over Rudolfo to go to America with Rosa.  Driftwood's boss Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman), managing director of the Opera, chooses Rudolfo to be the new tenor in New York.  The company heads off to New York via ocean liner leaving Ricardo, Tomasso, and Fiorello stranded behind.

But Ricardo along with his two goofy friends stowaway in Driftwood's enormous travel trunk, hiding in Driftwood's stateroom.  The ship heads to New York.  Tomasso and Fiorello hang out with the 2nd and 3rd class passengers on the ship's top deck, entertaining them with music. The ship's authorities catch the three stowaways and throw them in the brig. Tomasso escapes and sneaks into the room of three famous aviation pilots with long flowing beards. He cuts the beards off the sleeping pilots, disguising himself, Driftwood, and Fiorello as the esteemed aviators when they reach New York. The three men flee the ship pursued by Police Sergeant Henderson (Robert Emmett O'Connor).

Ricardo and Rosa reunite in New York. Rudolfo makes another pass at Rosa but Ricardo steps in, punching Rudolfo. Gottlieb fires Driftwood and won't allow Rosa to sing in the opera since she's associated with Ricardo and Driftwood. While hanging out in Central Park unemployed, Rosa walks by and tells them the news. The Marx Brothers decide to fight back against Gottlieb and help Ricardo and Rosa get on that New York opera stage.

Driftwood, Tomasso, and Fiorello plan on hijacking opening night at the opera. They knock out Gottlieb and switch the music from Verdi Il Trovatore to Take Me Out To The Ball Game. They kidnap Rudolfo and insert Ricardo in his place. Pursued by Gottlieb and Henderson, Tomasso and Fiorello disguise themselves as women and sneak onto the stage during the opera.  Ricardo and Rosa perform to a standing ovation by the crowd. Rudolfo escapes his bondage and returns to the stage where he's booed during the encore. Gottlieb offers Ricardo the leading role in all productions. Ricardo won't take the offer unless charges are dropped against his friends. Gottlieb gives in. Ricardo, Rosa, and the Marx Brothers all live happily ever after.

So what about the famous stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA? Why is it so hilarious? It's a simple premise.  See how many people you can jam into a small room with an oversized travel trunk. Besides Driftwood, Tomasso, Fiorello, and Ricardo in the room, joining them are two chambermaids, an engineer, the engineer's assistant, a manicurist, a young woman looking for her aunt, a cleaning lady, and four waiters (for a total of 15 people) climbing over one another to either offer their services to the Marx Brothers or repair something in the room. Finally, Mrs. Claypool opens the door and all the occupants spill out into the hallway.  John Landis's ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) would try a similar gag in an alley involving a marching band and the parade following. Check out this clip to see why the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is pure comic genius.

When you get right down to it, most Marx Brothers films have a fairly simple plot with several interludes for songs and music.  A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is no exception. Whether it's Ricardo singing Alone or Chico playing the piano or Harpo the harp (he is called Harpo afterward), Marx Brothers films are an extension of their vaudeville days with equal measures of pratfalls, music, and one liners. When Driftwood finds Tomasso sleeping in one of his trunk drawers, Fiorello tells him, "Don't wake him up. He's got insomnia. He's trying to sleep it off."

What's surprising is underneath all the one liners, sight gags, and comic mayhem, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is a sweet film where the Marx Brothers play cupid to Ricardo and Rosa.  They just want to help the young opera stars and lovers be together on stage and off. Driftwood even delivers a love letter to Rosa from Ricardo. It's David (or in this case Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) against Goliath.  The Marx Brothers fight for the little guy, battling a greedy opera director, an overbearing opera patron, a vain opera tenor, and the New York police department.  A NIGHT AT THE OPERA both salutes opera and pokes fun at the seriousness of opera. If it's a sacred institution, the Marx Brothers will have fun at that institution's expense. Conductors dueling with their batons, Harpo hanging from the backdrop, and a tenor kidnapped right before a performance.  Yes, it sounds like a Marx Brothers movie.

I mentioned at the beginning that Zeppo Marx was the fourth Marx Brother. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is the first Marx Brothers film that Zeppo does not appear.  The film doesn't miss a beat with Allen Jones taking Zeppo's place as Ricardo, the young tenor in love with Rosa.  Jones fits right in with the three zany brothers.  Jones even resembles Zeppo.  Movie fans my age and slightly older may remember Kitty Carlisle who plays Rosa but not from A NIGHTAT THE OPERA.  We remember the older Kitty Carlisle from the night time game show TO TELL THE TRUTH? where she was a  panelist on the show in its many incarnations from 1957 to 1977.  She's beautiful in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  Carlisle was actually an opera singer early in her career. In her later years she became, like Mrs. Claypool, a patron of the arts in New York, but much nicer.

Besides Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool appearing with the Marx  Brothers in seven films, actor Sig Ruman, who plays their other foil Herman Gottlieb in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, did a total of three films with the Marx Brothers.  Ruman would go on to play some great character roles in classics like Howard Hawks ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) and  Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953). As for the Marx Brothers, there's really nothing to add. They are as funny and outrageous as ever. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo all have their comedic moments in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  Not every gag works (disguising themselves as the bearded aviators when they arrive in New York is too long and unfunny). But the stateroom scene along with a set piece involving Police Sergeant Henderson chasing the brothers around two adjacent hotel rooms and the opera finale are comedy gold.

Ironically, Sam Wood who would direct A NIGHT AT THE OPERA was reportedly an unfunny man who drove the Marx Brothers nuts.  He apparently did not have a sense of humor in real life and did not find the Marx Brothers off screen shenanigans around the set funny.  Yet, opposites do attract and with the success of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (the Marx Brothers first film with MGM after leaving Paramount where they made their previous films), Sam Wood would direct another Marx Brothers movie A DAY AT THE RACES (1937).

Before watching A NIGHT THE OPERA, Harpo Marx was probably my favorite Marx Brother followed by Groucho.  But after watching OPERA, Chico Marx may have risen to the Number One position. I found Chico both funny but touching as well. He's the bridge between anarchy and compassion in the Marx Brothers.  But whichever Marx Brother is your favorite, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA is another notch in the Marx Brothers canon of comedy films.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Christmas Story (1983)

We all have stories from our Christmas past. Funny stories about family and relatives at Christmas time. Stories about the gifts we loved and the gifts we hated and the gifts we wanted but never received (like that PLANET OF THE APES board game I craved). I have fond memories of my past Christmas's.  But I don't really have a story or two that stands out.  There was one year I received some new pajamas that made me itch all night.  Or the Christmas my parents and sisters and I moved into a new house. We had a Christmas tree but no carpet.  But for the most part, all my Christmas's have been normal and pleasant.

But one man did remember his Christmas youth. Author Jean Shepherd turned his memories of his family and town during Christmas into a book called In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Almost Norman Rockwell like, Shepherd's stories are slices of Christmas Americana. His recollections are funny but not farfetched.  They're grounded in truth.  We all see bits of ourselves and our parents and siblings in Shepherd's tales.  Director Bob Clark would turn Shepherd's book into a holiday movie that has now become a yuletide classic called A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983).  Clark would not seem like the obvious choice to make A CHRISTMAS STORY.  His previous film PORKY'S (1981) was one of the early gross out comedies following in the footsteps of ANIMAL HOUSE (1978). Yet Clark made the jump from raunchy comedy to family Christmas comedy with considerable ease.

I kept hearing about A CHRISTMAS STORY from friends during college and beyond but never found the urge to find it on television.  If it wasn't IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), I wasn't going to watch it.  But then TBS decided to show a twenty four hour marathon of A CHRISTMAS STORY one December. How could I resist? I didn't have to try and figure out what time it would be on. It was going to be on over and over again. The marathon is where I became bewitched by the little film that is A CHRISTMAS STORY.

One misconception I had about A CHRISTMAS STORY is that both the author and the director were Canadian and the story took place in Canada.  Boy was I wrong.  Both Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd are as American as can be and A CHRISTMAS STORY although set in the northeast was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio (with a few parts shot in Toronto, Canada). Where I got the idea that this great American holiday film was really Canadian, I'll never know. I might blame it on too much maple syrup and Labatt's beer. The CHRISTMAS STORY screenplay is by Bob Clark, Jean Shepherd, and Leigh Brown based on Shepherd's book and short stories.

Set in Shepherd's hometown of Hammond, Indiana in the early 1940s, A CHRISTMAS STORY is a series of holiday vignettes set around young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) and his quest to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.  Ralphie's Mother (Melinda Dillon) won't hear of buying Ralphie the BB gun.  "You'll shoot your eye out," is her motherly advice and warning.  Ralphie schemes alternative ways to own that rifle.  He writes a theme paper about the Red Ryder BB gun assigned by his teacher Miss Shields (Tedde Moore) hoping to win her over. Miss Shields gives him a C on the paper. When Ralphie and his younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella) visit Santa Claus (Jeff Gillen) at Goldblatt's Department Store, Ralphie forgets to ask Santa for the BB gun before he's pushed down a curvy slide by a disingenuous elf. It seems like Ralphie's Christmas wish will fall on deaf ears.

It's a busy, hectic time in Ralphie's young life over the holidays.  When he and his brother Randy and best friend Flick (Scott Schwartz) aren't avoiding the neighborhood bullies Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and his pint sized partner Grover Dill (Yano Anaya) or a pack of dogs that roam the streets, Ralphie is the older sibling in the Parker household dominated by his eccentric father known as the Old Man (Darren McGavin). The Old Man is never happy or satisfied with anything whether it's fixing the furnace or putting up the Christmas tree.  The Old Man is thrilled however when he wins a prize from a local newspaper contest. It's a sexy burlesque leg lamp which he proudly displays in his living room window much to the distress of Ma Parker.

Christmas night. The boys race to bed as the Old Man and Ma Parker put out the Christmas presents before retiring to bed. Christmas morning arrives. Ralphie and Randy open their presents as the parents watch.  Ralphie receives a hideous pink bunny suit from his Aunt Clara that Ma Parker forces him to try on. Randy rips open all his presents gleefully.  It seems all the presents have been opened.  No Red Ryder BB gun.  But there's one present left, nearly forgotten, stuffed next to a desk behind the tree. It's for Ralphie and it comes from an unexpected source.  Could it be the Red Ryder BB gun? I dare anyone to watch the end of A CHRISTMAS STORY without a tear in your eye or a chuckle rolling around in your throat.

A CHRISTMAS STORY never veers into too much chaotic mirth like CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) or JINGLE ALL THE WAY (1996). Director Clark sets up several key plot points throughout the film and rewards us with the pay off near the film's end. The pack of dogs.  The Red Ryder BB gun.  The mantra "You'll shoot your eye out!" It all comes together perfectly.  A CHRISTMAS STORY also has just wonderful oddball holiday moments. Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Sticking your tongue on a frozen flag pole.  Ma Parker bundling up Randy in so many jackets that he looks like the Michellin Man.  The Old Man's obsession with the leg lamp.  The Parker's are a dysfunctional family but they're a family. That's the point.  Families are all dysfunctional in some way but that's what makes being a family unique.

Much of the humor that I like in A CHRISTMAS STORY at just little off the cuff jokes and references.  Nothing over the top.  Bits like Ralphie attending Warren G. Harding School.  The Parker family singing Christmas songs off key. The coonskin cap that red headed bully Scut Farkus wears. The Chinese restaurant waiters who can't sing 'Fa La La La La' instead singing 'Fra La La La La.' The less than jolly Santa and his grumpy elves at the shopping center. One of the key elements to A CHRISTMAS STORY'S success is the narration by author and co-screenwriter Jean Shepherd.  His tone and delivery matched with the actions on the screen are perfect. You feel like you are inside the adolescent head of Ralphie Parker, Shepherd's alter ego in the film.

Sometimes the success of a film is because there are no big stars in the film.  Just actors playing their parts to perfection like the actors in A CHRISTMAS STORY.  The Old Man seems like it was meant for Darren McGavin.  I had already loved McGavin as the crotchety newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak chasing supernatural stories in my favorite television show of the 70s KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974-75). But McGavin tempers the Old Man's gruffness with specks of humanity and humor. He loves his wife and sons. He's just not good at showing it. The burden of life and working grinds him down during the day. Only as the film progresses does the Old Man's soft side start to peek out. Melinda Dillon as Ma Parker was a popular actress in the late 70s and early 80s.  Pretty but not striking, Dillon looks like a 1940s actress.  She had played a mother in Steven Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). In  A CHRISTMAS STORY, she has slightly older boys to take care of in Ralphie and Randy. Ma Parker is the engine that runs the Parker family. They're not rich but she treats her children like royalty (unless they swear. Then, she'll wash their mouths out with soap but feel guilty afterward).

The real star of A CHRISTMAS STORY is Peter Billingsley who plays Ralphie. With his pink cheeks, snow white hair, and black rimmed glasses, Billingsley steals the movie by just playing Ralphie like he is - a kid enamored by Christmas and all its trimmings. Everything that Ralphie experiences during A CHRISTMAS STORY we have all experienced at one time or another. Waiting in long lines for Santa Claus at the shopping mall. Dealing with bullies. Trying to figure out if our parents are angels or lunatics. The agony and ecstasy of opening presents on Christmas morning. Billingsley captures it all with his naturalistic acting. A CHRISTMAS STORY would be Billingsley's most well know film. He would continue making a few more movies and appearing on television like THE WONDER YEARS during his youth. As an adult, Billingsley is now a producer with Jon Favreau's IRON MAN (2008) among his credits.

Director Clark has a knack for casting unique kids for A CHRISTMAS STORY.  Besides picking Billingsley as Ralphie, Clark's other excellent kid casting choices are Zack Ward and Yano Anaya as the neighborhood bullies Scut Farkus and Grover Dill.  Ward sneers and looks like a wolf from a Tex Avery cartoon.  Yano is the typical short kid with an attitude. The kids all look like they could be from a Norman Rockwell painting which might have been Clark's goal.  The film takes place in the early 1940s when Rockwell's art work for The Saturday Evening Post was at its most popular.

What's most appealing about A CHRISTMAS STORY is that it's a small film that has touched and tickled audiences all over.  If you ask most adults my age (around fifty) or older, they will tell you their favorite Christmas movies are from the 40s and 50s like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.  It's hard to find a more modern holiday film that is both well done and entertaining.  Jon Favreau's ELF (2003) or Robert Zemeckis's THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004) are two that come to mind.   But A CHRISTMAS STORY is both.  Made in the early 80s but set in the early 40s, the film captures a Christmas as seen through the eyes of a precocious, imaginative young boy. It's never crass or gross.  A CHRISTMAS STORY is the best holiday gift to watch this or any holiday season.