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

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

My viewing experience with the second installment in the original STAR WARS trilogy THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) was much different than STAR WARS (1977). With STAR WARS, I waited in long lines, convinced my parents to join me the first time, and saw the film three times overall.  For THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, I waited a few weeks after it was released.  I was taking a Driver's Education class in the morning that summer. One day after class, I walked over to my favorite Westgate Theater and bought a ticket for EMPIRE.  It was playing in the same large theater as STAR WARS had.  But this time, the theater was empty.  Or so I thought.  As the film began, three young rascals sat behind me.  They started lobbing popcorn at me.  I put up with it for a few minutes but eventually either turned and scowled at them or moved. It was not the glorious viewing experience that I had with STAR WARS.

Over time, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has been championed by some critics and fans as the best STAR WARS film of the original trilogy. For CRAZYFILMGUY, nothing will ever replace the euphoria and joy when I saw STAR WARS. But as I've grown older and revisited the three films, I can see why THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has grown in popularity.  EMPIRE has bigger battles and set pieces.  EMPIRE introduces us to new characters in the STAR WARS universe like Jedi Master Yoda, scoundrel Lando Calrissian, and bounty hunter Boba Fett.  Creator George Lucas turned the directing reins over to Irvin Kershner (THE EYES OF LAURA MARS) while remaining completely involved as producer. And EMPIRE gives much more screen time to one of my favorite characters in the STAR WARS universe Han Solo played by one of my favorite actors Harrison Ford.

Han Solo was a supporting character in STAR WARS.  As played by Harrison Ford, Solo nearly stole the film from Luke Skywalker as the wisecracking mercenary pilot (along with his furry sidekick Chewbacca) of the Millennium Falcon.  THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK expands on the Han/Leia relationship barely touched on in STAR WARS.  It plays up the developing brotherly bond between Luke and Han.  It has fun with Han's coolness under pressure or when one of his plans fails to work.  And THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK introduces us to one of Han Solo's so-called friends, the suave but mysterious Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams.

Following in the footsteps of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), we now have SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) directed by Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND) that provides Han Solo's back story and how young Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) first crossed paths with Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and the Millennium Falcon. Interestingly, both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and SOLO were co-written by the legendary writer/director Lawrence Kasdan.  Kasdan co-wrote EMPIRE with Howard Hawks' favorite screenwriter Leigh Brackett (based on a story by George Lucas) and he co-wrote SOLO with his son Jake Kasdan.  A year after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was released, Kasdan would write Steven Spielberg's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Now Indiana Jones and Han Solo are different characters but both were played perfectly by Harrison Ford.  Kasdan may have seen what Ford could do with a character like Han Solo when creating Indiana Jones for RAIDERS.  I think George Lucas saw the potential too.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK jumps right into the midst of the rebellion, barely resembling STAR WARS except for its characters. Instead of the arid landscapes of Tattooine in STAR WARS, the film opens on the isolated icy planet of Hoth. Imperial troops have pushed the Alliance to the fringes of the galaxy.  Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are all part of the freedom fighters or Rebels. On a routine patrol outside their base, Luke is attacked by a snow monster known as a Wompa.  When Luke doesn't return, Han rides out into a blizzard to find his friend.  Han locates Luke who escaped the snow creature by using the Force. But remote space probes sent by Darth Vader (David Prowse) locate the rebel base.  As Han and Leia prepare to evacuate the base, Luke and his team begin an aerial assault on giant Imperial Walkers (think space tanks).

The rebels manage to push several transports through the Empire blockade.  Han, Leia, and Chewbacca follow last in the Millennium Falcon. Luke and the rebel fighters hassle the Walkers. But Luke has a vision from the departed Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to go seek a Jedi Knight known as Yoda on the planet of Dagobah. Luke and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) deviate from the escape plan and venture out to locateYoda. Unable to shake Vader and the Imperial Tie Fighters, Han hides in a dangerous asteroid field. Luke lands on the swampy, primeval Dagobah. He finds a small, old green creature who turns out to be Yoda (Frank Oz). After some resistance, Yoda begins training Luke in the ways of the Jedi and harnessing the Force for good.

Darth Vader is summoned by the Emperor (Clive Revill) who alerts Vader about a disturbance in the Force. He warns Vader to be weary about Luke. Vader pledges to turn Luke to the dark side when he captures him.  Vader hires a group of bounty hunters including fan favorite Boba Fett to find Han Solo. Imperial forces drop sonic charges onto the asteroid Han and Leia are hiding on. Han and Leia discover they're hiding inside a large eel like creature. The Millennium Falcon barely escapes from its jaws.  Han decides to head to Vespin and a floating mining colony called Cloud City where an old "friend" of his named Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) seems to be running the place.  Han hopes for safe haven with Lando.  Luke discovers he can sense things in the future.  He senses Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) may be in trouble.  Yoda warns Luke he's not ready to use his skills yet but Luke takes his X-Wing Fighter and droid and plots a course for Cloud City.

Han, Leia, and the gang are greeted by Lando who seems accommodating enough.  But then CP3O disappears.  Lando takes them into a dining room where Vader and his stormtroopers await.  Lando tells Han Vader arrived just before the Millennium Falcon. Vader plans on using Han and his friends to lure Luke to him.  Vader gives Han to the bounty hunter Boba Fett who puts Han in carbon freeze to take back to the gangster Jabba the Hut.  Luke arrives and squares off with Vader in a light saber duel. Lando breaks Leia and Chewbacca out of their detention.  The three of them manage to rescue Luke before he falls off the floating colony after failing to defeat Vader. Fans and critics alike cried foul regarding the unresolved cliffhanger.

Never before had a film like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK ended so abruptly and without a satisfying conclusion.  But let's remember.  The STAR WARS series was a trilogy. EMPIRE was EPISODE V (or Part II in the trilogy). THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is like a Saturday morning serial. EMPIRE was meant to be the bridge between STAR WARS to the third installment THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). But what a bridge.  With a bigger budget, Lucas and his team were more emboldened to expand the plot, the characters, and the STAR WARS universe in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. We learn more about the mystical Force and that Luke may possess it. We meet our first Jedi Knight since Obi-Wan Kenobi in the diminutive pointy eared Yoda. And, we learn there may be more to the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader relationship than just colorful light sabers. No spoilers here but when Luke faces down a Darth Vader apparition on Dagobah and seemingly beheads it, Vader's helmet explodes revealing Luke's image inside looking back at the real Luke. What does it all mean? EMPIRE'S duel between Luke and Vader will explain all.

The best part of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for me was Han Solo's larger role and expanding on the relationship between Han and Leia.  Luke Skywalker's story is the soul of the STAR WARS trilogy but Han Solo has the cool Wookie sidekick, the gnarly space ship the Millennium Falcon, and that devil may care grin that can disguise danger or win a girl's heart like Leia's. In a way, Han and Leia are one of those couples in a Howard Hawks screwball comedy like BRINGING UP BABY (1938) or HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) trading insults with one another as they fall in love.  That might explain why co-writer Leigh Brackett worked on the film. She co-wrote some of Hawks best films with bickering couples in love.

STAR WARS was knocked a bit for lacking in racial diversity when it was released. James Earl Jones was the only African-American actor in STAR WARS and it was only his voice as Darth Vader (British actor David Prowse wore the suit).  So Lucas gives us our first visible black character with smuggler Lando Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I wasn't a big fan of Lando Calrissian (or Billy Dee Williams) when I first saw the film but Lando has grown on me over the years.  It's fun to have another roguish character to play off Han Solo.  Lando is more urbane than Han's blustery style.  THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK gives us tantalizing tidbits about Han and Lando's backstory.  Lando claims the Millennium Falcon is his ship.  So how did Han wrench it away from him?  Lando's portrayed as a traitor soon after we meet him but we learn that he's not part of the Empire.  In a way, he's an intergalactic Humphrey Bogart from CASABLANCA.  "I stick my neck out for no one," Bogart's Rick Blaine would tell the French police officer Renault and the Nazis.  Lando appears to follow that same mantra but he will end up rescuing Leia and Chewbacca in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Lando returns in the third film THE RETURN OF THE JEDI to bail out his old friend Han Solo from Jabba the Hut's palace.

After THE RETURN OF THE JEDI, we never saw the further exploits of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian.  Yes, they lived on in STAR WARS comic books and novels but when George Lucas returned with THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), and THE REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005), those films preceded the original trilogy.  Han and Lando didn't even exist. Finally, in 2015, Han Solo, Luke, and Leia appeared in THE FORCE AWAKENS but as their current older selves (no Lando Calrissian).  We learn Han did marry Leia and they had a son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Chewbacca is still hanging with his pilot/smuggler friend. And Luke Skywalker had become Obi-Wan like, hiding out on a monastic island.  I had my Han Solo fix but no flashbacks to his past.

Until news arrived that there was finally going to be a new Han Solo film about his early years. Two up and coming young directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (LEGO: THE MOVIE) were going to direct with a script by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Lawrence Kasdan.  All seemed right in the STAR WARS universe.  Until directors Lord and Miller were fired three quarters of the way through the filming of SOLO.  Director Ron Howard (APOLLO 13) was brought in to replace them.  Reportedly, Howard reshot most of the film. Howard starred in the George Lucas film AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and would later direct WILLOW (1988) which Lucas would produce. Could Howard salvage SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY?

The answer is yes. We first meet young Han on the grimy, gray streets of planet Corellia (he's an orphan and doesn't have a last name yet).  Han and his first love Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) are trying to escape the planet and the clutches of the worm-like slaver Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) who runs the streets. Han dreams of becoming a pilot. Han and Qi'ra bribe their way onto a transport leaving Corellia but Proxima's goons snatch Qi'ra away at the last moment. Han enlists with the Empire (where he's given his last name Solo by the recruiting officer) so he can become a pilot but he's quickly kicked out of the academy. Han's forced to serve with the ground forces. Han stumbles across a group of rogue marauders led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau). They want to steal an Imperial ship so they can use it to hijack a monorail transporting coaxium fuel.  It's exactly the group of people Han wants to be associated with.

The monorail train is transporting the coaxium through a dangerous mountain pass.  Beckett, Han, and the gang hijack the train but they're interrupted by a group of space pirates led by Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman) and her Cloud Riders.  Rio is mortally wounded in the attack. Han takes over flying the ship, rescuing Beckett but ultimately losing the precious fuel. Han and Beckett return empty handed to the space yacht of Beckett's boss, the red eyed gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Beckett), part of the Crimson Dawn Crime Syndicate. Working for Vos as his lieutenant is Han's old flame Qi'ra.  Vos wishes to kill Beckett but Han convinces Vos they can steal unrefined coaxium from the mines on Kessel.  He just needs another ship. Vos agrees with the plan but insists Qi'ra tag along.

Han seeks out the smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).  He hopes to win Lando's ship the Millennium Falcon in a card game.  Lando cheats and keeps the Falcon but agrees to fly Han, Chewbacca, Beckett, and Qi'ra to Kessel for a cut of the profits.  On Kessel, they find the coaxium but Lando's droid pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) starts a riot. L3-37 is damaged and Lando injured. Han flies the Falcon past an Imperial blockade, heading for a planet called Savareen to process the coaxium.  Once again, the pirate Enfys shows up to grab the fuel.  Instead of aiding Han, Lando takes off with the Falcon leaving Han to face Enfys alone. Only Enfys and her team are rebels fighting the crime syndicate and the Empire. Enfys just wants to keep the coaxium out of their hands. She wants Han to join their cause.

The third act of SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is a series of double and triple crosses between Han, Vos, Beckett, Lando and Qi'ra.  In a way, SOLO is a western, gangster film, and film noir all rolled into a space fantasy.  Han will face off with Beckett like two gunslingers. Qi'ra will have her revenge on kingpin Vos but we learn she's working for another familiar STAR WARS villain (no spoiler here!). Han helps Enfys and her Cloud Riders keep the coaxium from the Syndicate and the Empire.  Han and Chewbacca return to gamble with Lando for the Millennium Falcon again.  Only this time, they're ready for Lando's sleight of hand.

Overall, CRAZYFILMGUY found SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY an enjoyable summer adventure with engaging characters and some decent action sequences. SOLO provides details on Han Solo's back story hinted at throughout the original STAR WARS films: how did Han meet Chewbacca?  How did Han come to own Lando Calrissian's ship the Millennium Falcon? How did Han make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs?  My favorite reveal is how Han and Chewbacca met.  I expected them to meet in a space bar, arm wrestling or challenging each other to shots of some exotic beverage.  SOLO reveals that Han is thrown into a fight pit after he's accused of desertion. Believing he's about to fight a ferocious, man eating monster (a homage to Luke Skywalker fighting Rancor in THE RETURN OF THE JEDI), a filthy, muddy Chewbacca emerges from a cave to battle him. Han speaks Wookie and convinces Chewbacca to escape with him.  It's a funny scene, not what I expected for the origin of their relationship.

Unfortunately, we may never have a chance to see more of young Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. A STAR WARS hangover may have finally hit audiences. Although SOLO made over $350 million dollars worldwide, it cost $300 million dollars to make, mostly due to the extensive reshoots when director Howard replaced Lord and Miller.  Some wondered did SOLO come out too soon after STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) which was received with mixed reviews by critics and audiences alike. When I was kid, the STAR WARS films came out about two years apart and each one was an event. SOLO was released five months after THE LAST JEDI. Did the STAR WARS filmmakers and studio get greedy?  Should they have waited a few more months?  The answer is possibly yes.  For me, I was ready and eager to see the SOLO movie about my favorite character in the STAR WARS universe.

There were questions about the casting.  Was Alden Ehrenreich the right choice as young Han Solo?  I liked the choice.  Catch Ehrenreich in the Coen Brothers HAIL CAESAR! (2016) and he handles deadpan comedy very well as the naïve Western movie star Hobie Doyle.  I think anyone who has to follow in the footsteps of Harrison Ford has big shoes to fill.  Ehrenreich has the cocky grin and the sly sense of humor to pull off his interpretation of a young Han. He won't make us forget Harrison Ford but he's fine as the younger version of Solo.

The supporting cast is good with recognizable faces but SOLO seems to be missing a little pizazz with its casting choices.  Woody Harrelson as Beckett and Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos are solid but not flashy.  Beckett is the father figure for the orphan Solo. Beckett's larcenous code will stay with Han Solo in future STAR WARS films although Solo will mature into a better person than Beckett. Bettany as crime boss Vos won't make us forget the slug like gangster Jabba the Hut from STAR WARS but he does have blood leak from his eyes when he's angry. Bettany has become accustomed to appearing in blockbuster films serving as the robot voice Jarvis in the IRON MAN films and more recently the android superhero Vision in THE AVENGERS:INFINITY WAR (2017).

Emilia Clarke (GAME OF THRONES) is seductive as Han's mysterious girlfriend Qi'ra but even she didn't entirely knock my socks off (and I'm a huge Clarke fan).  The two supporting actors who stand out in SOLO are Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando's sarcastic droid pilot L3-37 and Donald Glover as pilot/gambler Lando Calrissian.  The STAR WARS filmmakers have done a superb job giving their robots and droids personalities whether it's C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) in STAR WARS or more recently K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in ROGUE ONE.  L3-37 is the latest STAR WARS droid with a feminist twist. She nearly steals SOLO in her brief appearance.

Like a lot of the characters in SOLO (like L3-37 or Beckett's crime partner Val), I would have liked to have had more scenes with Lando Calrissian.  Glover plays Lando as a cool cat in the galaxy.  Like Beckett, Lando's gambling personality and thieving nature will influence Han later on in his adventures.  But I wanted more of Lando. Lando was barely in the original STAR WARS films so I was hoping to learn more about him in SOLO.  I guess I'll have to wait for the SOLO sequel.  If there is one.  Joonas Suotamo who first played Chewbacca in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI returns for SOLO.  SOLO gives Chewbacca much more screen time than THE LAST JEDI did and Chewy's scenes with Solo are some of the funniest in the film.  Suotamo took over wearing the hot, sweaty Chewbacca suit from Peter Mayhew who wrapped up playing the Wookie in THE FORCE AWAKENS.

Han Solo may be my favorite character in the STAR WARS saga because he's blue collar.  He comes from humble roots (orphaned at a young age and fighting to survive on the streets of Corellia).  Solo's got a chip on his shoulder against authority (the Empire) or anyone who doubts him (Beckett and his crew in SOLO).  When he first encounters another type of authority (royalty) in the guise of Princess Leia in STAR WARS, Solo's not impressed. In THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, he mocks her, calling Leia "her worship." But deep down, Solo is impressed with Leia and her feistiness and resolve. Leia may remind Han of his first true love, Qi'ra.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY should satisfy fans like CrazyFilmGuy who have been craving to know about the Han Solo that we grew up and loved in the original STAR WARS trilogy including THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Solo's backstory may go some directions that no one would have imagined but that's the reality of an origin story. Whether we get to see more of Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and Qi'ra remains to be seen.  For now, we'll always have THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and SOLO to help fill our Han Solo craving from time to time.

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.