Archive for March, 2018

Kwai Havoc

What I’ve Been Watching: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Who’s Responsible:  David Lean (director); Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson (screenwriters); William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness (stars).

Why I Watched It:  SILVER.

Seen It Before?  Many times.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  10.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  1.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  10.

And?  The first, and in my opinion best, of the epics that characterized the second phase of Lean’s directorial career—yes, even surpassing its immediate successor, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), followed by the quintessential doomed romance, Doctor Zhivago (1965), the anomalous and critically panned Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984), made after a long hiatus and thus the only one I saw on its original release.  Of course, with Holden and Guinness being among my favorite actors, and WW II being a favorite milieu, this one had more than a slight edge.  Learning that author Pierre Boulle also wrote the novel upon which Planet of the Apes (1968) was based didn’t hurt, either.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

(L-R:  Guinness, Holden, Hawkins)

Guinness appeared in all but Ryan’s Daughter, and had also starred in Lean’s Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).  The editor of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), and the Archers’ 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), Lean had ascended to the director’s chair in a fruitful collaboration with actor, playwright, and screenwriter Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942), which Coward co-directed, This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter (both 1945).  He’d earned Oscar nominations for Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Katharine Hepburn’s Summertime (1955).

Lean finally struck Oscar gold when Kwai won Best Picture, Actor (Guinness), Director, Adapted Screenplay (more on that in a moment), Cinematography (Jack Hildyard), Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Scoring (Malcolm Arnold); Supporting Actor nominee Sessue Hayakawa was the only exception.  This being the era of the Blacklist, one of America’s greatest shames, producer Sam Spiegel gave script credit to Boulle, whose award raised some eyebrows because he did not speak English.  It was not until 1984 that Foreman and Wilson were awarded their retroactive and, sadly, posthumous Oscars (Foreman died the day after it was announced), and their credit was later rightfully restored to the film itself.

Previously a winner for A Place in the Sun (1951) with Harry Brown, and a nominee for 5 Fingers (1952), Wilson suffered the same indignity with his nominations for Friendly Persuasion (1956) and, with Robert Bolt, Lean’s Lawrence, also subsequently granted.  By the time he and Rod Serling adapted Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (both books had been translated by Xan Fielding), Wilson could be credited openly.  Foreman, a WW II vet whose work Lean had Wilson rewrite, earned additional screenwriting nominations—and a place in the BOF pantheon—for High Noon (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer, and The Guns of Navarone (1961), a Best Picture nominee that Foreman also produced.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Himself a former POW, Boulle insisted that his novel (whose English-language title uses “over” rather than “on”) was not anti-British, and I agree, although Guinness was among those who did not, initially making him reluctant to accept the role of Colonel Nicholson. Like the bridge itself (above), the script was built on a solid foundation, with the scenarists wisely retaining most of Boulle’s narrative, which opens as Nicholson’s men are put into a POW camp and ordered to construct a railway bridge that will help link Bangkok and Rangoon.  While written in the third person, it often adopts the perspective of Major Clipton (James Donald), the medical officer alternately impressed and bemused by the C.O.’s behavior.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Nicholson swiftly engages in a war of wills (above) with his Japanese counterpart, Colonel Saito (Hayakawa, below), who thinks the prisoners will be motivated by his “egalitarian” insistence that the British officers perform manual labor alongside them. Enduring various forms of abuse, Nicholson maintains that this contravenes the Geneva Convention, about which Saito doesn’t give a hoot, but also is counterproductive, since they will work better with their officers supervising them.  His life on the line if the work is not completed on time, Saito caves, clearing the way for Nicholson, Captain Reeves (Peter Williams), and Major Hughes (John Boxer) to supervise a proper bridge that will instill pride and raise morale.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Suspense is generated by intercutting these scenes of the bridge’s construction with those of an approaching commando team dedicated to its destruction, sent in by Colonel Green (Andre Morell) of Force 316.  Assisted by Siamese partisans, the group consists of Shears (Holden), old hand Warden (Hawkins), and a young, untested Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne); so far, so faithful, and the foregoing applies equally to page or screen.  But where the scenarists turn a good novel into one of the greatest films of all time—yes, I said it—is by radically transforming Shears from the British leader, a founding member of Force 316, to a reluctant member, a U.S. Navy commander who escaped from the Kwai camp.

Set in 1943 and shot in Ceylon—now Sri Lanka—the film immediately adds elements to enhance this story when we first see Nicholson’s men, finishing a forced march to Camp 16 and defiantly whistling the traditional “Colonel Bogey March” in spite of their tattered appearance. That and Arnold’s orchestral counter-march are heard separately or together throughout; amusingly, I detect echoes of his work here in every movie I’ve subsequently seen that Arnold scored before or after this one.  The arrival of the British is observed by Shears, separated from his crewmates when the U.S.S. Houston sank, and an Australian, the uncredited Corporal Weaver, the only two survivors from those who built the camp.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

The roles of Nicholson and Shears were intended for, respectively, Charles Laughton and Cary Grant, but it’s tough to imagine anybody better suited than Guinness (billed, believe it or not, below Hawkins, above) and Holden. The latter, in fact, had already won an Oscar for a similar turn in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) as cynical POW Sergeant J.J. Sefton, who will do anything to survive in the camp.  The film also brilliantly visualizes Nicholson’s ordeal, having him confined in “The Oven,” a shack made of wood and corrugated metal that is too small even for him to stand up; Clipton tries in vain to get him to compromise while visiting the C.O. there (below), and Nicholson’s release is jubilantly celebrated by his men.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Meanwhile, Weaver and a British lieutenant are killed attempting to escape, as Shears is presumed to be after he is shot and plunges from a cliff into the water, yet he painfully makes his way through the jungle to a sympathetic Siamese village and eventual rescue. With a pretty nurse (Ann Sears) aiding his recovery at Mount Lavinia Hospital in Ceylon, Shears is confident of a medical discharge, because “I’m a civilian at heart,” and aghast when Green asks if he would consider lending his unique knowledge to the team.  Shears reveals that he’s an enlisted man who stole the rank of a corpse to ensure better treatment, but the Navy, eager to unload its hot potato, has temporarily transferred him to Force 316.

His reaction recalls that of Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) to the similar request in The Great Escape (1963); also echoing my other favorite POW movie is the presence of Donald, who played its senior British officer.  It’s easy, dazzled by Guinness and Holden, to sell short this stellar supporting cast, and Donald completed my personal trifecta as Dr. Roney in Quatermass and the Pit (1967).  Morell, who coincidentally played Quatermass in the original BBC version and made an excellent Watson opposite Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), was a regular in Hammer films, also appearing in Ben-Hur (1959) with Hawkins, whom I recall best as Quintus Arrius in William Wyler’s epic.

An ex-professor of Oriental languages who speaks Siamese, Warden heads up the team, whose fourth member, as in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), dies in the parachute jump. This is one of the incidents with which the scenarists beef up and dramatize their long jungle trek, accompanied by female Siamese bearers with their own “cute” theme, but the interruption of their idyllic interlude at a waterfall has far-reaching consequences. Through Joyce’s hesitation to use his knife in cold blood—a concern from the start—Warden suffers a foot wound that slows them as they race to reach the bridge before the first train, loaded with V.I.P.s and matériel, makes it a doubly tempting target.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Refusing to leave Warden behind in the jungle, Shears delivers this impassioned speech (above): “You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills [i.e., suicide tablets]—they go well together, don’t they? And with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman, how to die by the rules—when the only important thing is how to live like a human being!” For me, that sums up both the essence of his character and the power of Holden’s great performance.

During the night, while Shears and Joyce float the plastic explosives downstream by raft to place the charges on the piles, we see the celebration Boulle had only alluded to, with prisoners cavorting in drag. It allows Nicholson to state his side eloquently (“You have survived with honor. That, and more: here in the wilderness, you have turned defeat into victory”), while in another effective visualization, a sign (below) proclaims that “This bridge was designed and constructed by soldiers of the British Army.” Warden’s wound forces him to remain above as Joyce—the best swimmer among them—lies concealed on the far side of the Kwai with the plunger, and faces the unenviable task of swimming back under fire.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

As in the novel, things fall apart as the river goes down in the night, exposing the wire to Nicholson, whose men have marched off to another camp while he remained to transport the sick men there with Clipton. When the two colonels descend to investigate, Joyce at last uses his knife on Saito (“Good boy!” exults Warden) yet, perhaps understandably, is unable—having identified himself as a fellow British officer—to prevent Nicholson from sounding the alarm by killing him. Swimming across, Shears succumbs to enemy bullets just after being recognized by Nicholson (“You!”), who is struck by Warden’s mortar fire and, asking “What have I done?” (below), collapses onto the plunger, destroying bridge and train.

Image result for bridge on the river kwai

Oh, yes, there is one other tiny change—in the book, the bridge don’t get blowed up, even if Warden’s secondary device does derail the train. It is, in fact, doubly anti-climactic, as Boulle fast-forwards from Nicholson’s “Help!” to sole survivor Warden, telling Green a month later how he’d shelled the group to ensure that Shears or Joyce could not be taken alive (“It was really the only proper action I could have taken”). I’m reminded of another Spiegel production, John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), which ends as the Königen Luise is sunk by the submerged wreck of the Queen, a similar crowd-pleaser not found in the source novel, in that case written by C.S. Forester, the creator of Horatio Hornblower.

Image result for Herbert Grönemeyer das boot

The literal last word is left to Clipton, who surveys the carnage below and can only repeat, “Madness,” also echoing recent SILVER viewing, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981). In a peculiarly German gesture, the silently stricken war correspondent Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a stand-in for author Lothar-Günther Buchheim, falls to his knees (above) as the U-96, having survived so many travails, is sunk by an air raid on the harbor at La Rochelle, and its unnamed captain (Jürgen Prochnow) aptly dies after it slips under the water. Yet one cannot—or at least I won’t—say that Nicholson was totally in the wrong, since even Clipton was forced to acknowledge the salutary effect of building the bridge on the men…

Read Full Post »

From time to time, I’ve commented on the nifty posts presented by fellow Connecticutian Steve Lewis on Mystery*File, an eclectic, enlightening, and entertaining site with a roster of knowledgeable contributors and a multi-media mandate broader than its title suggests. On the most recent occasion, I had already forgotten that he ran the nice Bernie Gunther post by my pal Gilbert Colon, and in sharing a chuckle at my own expense, I learned that Peter Enfantino (of Marvel University fame) had also contributed.  After the requisite round of forehead-slapping and old-home-weeking, Steve graciously invited me to come full circle by contributing a post about Richard Matheson on Screen…but you should keep reading!

Read Full Post »

Monster Mash-Up

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), my favorite novel, has the curious distinction of being adapted more often, but less faithfully, than most, as I was reminded by watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for SILVER.  When Coppola’s version came out, I was dazzled by its audacious virtuosity and comparative fidelity, yet on this umpteenth viewing, I found the former lapsing too often into annoying excess—especially those hideous and inexplicably Oscar-winning costumes—and the latter much more qualified.  Summing up the film’s intrinsic dichotomy, its title suggests that the book was finally filmed as written, while its tagline, “Love Never Dies,” epitomizes the way in which it most diverges from Stoker’s novel.

Image result for bram stoker's dracula

Don’t let this happen to you.

Contrary to what you might have been told elsewhere, if you actually read Dracula, you will see that he is not sexy, that Mina (or Lucy, depending on which Mixmaster version you watch) is not the reincarnation of his lost inamorata, and that she does not call him “my love.”  The fact that Richard Matheson wrote the 1974 version from which Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart cribbed this plot device (which director Dan Curtis in turn freely admitted to borrowing from his own Dark Shadows) does not excuse it, nor is that Curtis’s only drastic divergence.  The novel is admittedly long and complex, so most versions combine, eliminate and/or transpose Stoker’s characters while removing entire locales or sequences from the story.

Image result for bram stoker's dracula

So I hit on the latest in the list of things I would do if I had all the time and money in the world, meaning they will never happen. First, I would create—or commission someone as diligent as my friend Gilbert, assuming another such person exists, to create—a detailed summary and transcript for each of my personal Top Ten adaptations of Stoker’s novel (in chronological order):

  1. F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)
  2. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931)
  3. Terence Fisher’s Dracula (aka Horror of Dracula, 1958)
  4. Jesús Franco’s El Conde Drácula (Count Dracula, 1970)
  5. Dan Curtis’s Dracula (1974)
  6. Philip Saville’s Count Dracula (1977)
  7. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
  8. John Badham’s Dracula (1979)
  9. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  10. And—partly to make it an even ten, although it’s not an adaptation per se, but mostly because I believe it dramatized a key scene for the first time—Fisher’s sequel Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).

Then, I would put each one side by side with the novel, highlight every line or scene they have in common, choose from among them the most faithful rendition of each element, and edit them all together into a monster mash-up that would represent the book far more faithfully than any version filmed to date. Gee, you suppose I could crowd-source that…?

Make no mistake, I still like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I just like it less than I did.

Read Full Post »

The Donald

No, not that clown.  The real one.  Sutherland.

First, thanks to the mighty Turafish for drawing the attention of our little circle to Sutherland’s Honorary Oscar acceptance speech.

Second, thanks to the Host with the Most for pointing out, before I’d even heard the speech, that Donald gave a shoutout to Brian G. Hutton, who directed Clint Eastwood in what is probably my favorite Sutherland film, Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—with Donald playing that rare thing, a World War II hippie, Oddball (below)—as well as my favorite film of all, Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Image result for donald sutherland kelly's heroes

Third, thanks to the wonderful folks at Cinema Retro, who made the speech available.

Finally, and foremost, thanks to Donald Sutherland himself for more than a half-century of indelible performances.  And what a treat it is to look back over them on the occasion not of his death, but of this long-overdue and richly deserved honor, which he accepted in a speech that is commendably funny, gracious, and humble.  I don’t watch the Oscar telecast any more, for various reasons, but imagine I would probably have enjoyed these nine minutes more than that whole shebang anyway.

Given the impressive length and breadth of Sutherland’s filmography, I’ll restrict myself to a relative few that are personal favorites and/or significant to me in other ways.

  • The Castle of the Living Dead (1964):  An early genre credit for Sutherland, who plays multiple roles (one of them in drag, below), and named his eldest son after director Warren Kiefer; a career-advancing opportunity for uncredited second-unit director Michael Reeves; and a typical Euro-horror outing for Christopher Lee.
  • Image result for donald sutherland castle of the living dead
  • Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965):  The first of the Amicus anthology films, with Sutherland as an ill-fated doctor in the “Vampire” segment.
  • Fanatic (aka Die! Die! My Darling!, 1965):  In one of his trademark, um, oddball roles as retarded handyman Joseph in one of Richard Matheson’s finest scripts.
  • The Dirty Dozen (1967):  A perfect example of Robert Aldrich’s brilliant casting in this seminal ensemble film.  “Never heard of it.”
  • M*A*S*H (1970):  As the original Hawkeye Pierce in what may be Robert Altman’s best film.
  • Klute (1971):  In the title role of detective John Klute, Sutherland is the perfect balance to Jane Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance as prostitute/stalkee Bree Daniels; that and the conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974) are my favorites among Alan J. Pakula’s directorial credits.
  • Don’t Look Now (1973):  I did one of my biggest volte-faces on this film, which my Dad and I hated when we first saw it, and I now recognize as outstanding.  Co-starring Julie Christie, it’s an unsettling horror tale based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, whose work formed the basis for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), and The Birds (1963).  Like the BOF fave Walkabout (1971), it was directed by Nicolas Roeg—formerly the cinematographer of films ranging from Roger Corman’s Poe-based The Masque of the Red Death (1964) to François Truffaut’s Bradbury-based Fahrenheit 451 (196), also featuring Christie—after whom Sutherland named another son.  But, as usual, I digress.
  • 1900 (1976):  It’s been decades since I saw and loved Bernardo Bertolucci’s generational epic, co-starring Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, and Sterling Hayden; I’m ripe for a re-viewing.
  • The Eagle Has Landed (1976):  John Sturges ended his BOF-hall-of-fame directorial career with this solid WW II espionage thriller, based on the bestseller by Jack Higgins and featuring Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Walkabout beauty Jenny Agutter (below, with David Gulpilil in Roeg’s film; hey, it’s my blog).
  • Image result for agutter walkabout
  • The Great Train Robbery (1978):  This period caper film starring Sean Connery was adapted by writer-director Michael Crichton from his own novel.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978):  Insufficient space here to express my full admiration for this exemplary remake, directed by Philip Kaufman and written by W.D. Richter, whom I was blessed to interview at length for various editions of the IOTBS tribute book.  Below, Sutherland exclaims, “Abel Ferrara, you’re just gonna hear from our lawyers!”
  • Image result for sutherland body snatchers scream
  • Bear Island (1979):  A lesser Alistair MacLean adaptation, directed by Hammer vet Don Sharp—whose second-unit work on the Amsterdam boat chase enlivened MacLean’s Puppet on a Chain (1971)—and featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, and Christopher Lee.
  • Ordinary People (1980):  Not sure how well Robert Redford’s directorial debut would hold up now, but it was a big deal back in the day.  Sutherland, a cast-against-type Mary Tyler Moore, and the young Timothy Hutton (with Donald below) play a family dealing with tragedy; also popularized Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.”
  • Image result for sutherland ordinary people
  • Eye of the Needle (1981):  Another bestseller-based (Ken Follett this time) WW II espionage thriller, and another Nazi spy role for Sutherland (below, in a promo shot with the luminous Kate Nelligan); director Richard Marquand is, of course, best known for Return of the Jedi (1983).
  • Image result for sutherland eye of the needle
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992):  Never got into the convoluted TV series, but quite liked Joss Whedon’s original film.
  • The Puppet Masters (1994):  A very underrated (as I recall) adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, previously filmed uncredited as The Brain Eaters (1958).

Well, that’s more than enough.  Way to go, Donald!

Read Full Post »

Continuing our overview of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers canon.


Title:  Top Hat (1935).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; original story by Dwight Taylor; screenplay by Taylor and Allan Scott.  “What is this strange power you have over horses?”  “Horse power.”

Image result for top hat movie

Mistaken Identity?  Yep.  On the eve of his debut in London—where Fred himself had achieved stardom with older sister and first partner Adele before going solo—U.S. hoofer Jerry Travers (Fred) is instantly smitten with Dale Tremont (Ginger).  But through the most monumental contrivance, she confuses him with his producer, Horace Hardwick, who occupies the hotel room above hers.

Edward Everett Horton?  Yes, in rare form as the mildly philandering Horace, who wrongly concludes that Dale is up to no good, and takes far-reaching steps to ensure that not a breath of scandal is attached to his show.

Eric/k(s):  Erik Rhodes basically channels The Gay Divorcee’s Tonetti as dressmaker Alberto Beddini, who is rumored to be “keeping” Dale, but really just wants her to model his creations in Venice.  His faux-Italian stereotype led to both films being banned by the Mussolini regime; man, who wouldn’t wear that as badge of honor?  Eric Blore has a wonderful love-hate relationship with EEH as Horace’s valet, Bates, who humorously introduces himself to Jerry in the first-person plural and, once again, is vital to resolving the romantic crisis.  Ordered to shadow Dale, he adopts a variety of identities, and just after she has wed Beddini in frustration, Bates is revealed to have been the “clergyman,” so they’re not legally married.  Happy ending.

Other Colorful Characters:  Helen Broderick (below) joins the Dream Team as Horace’s wife.  It seems odd that despite being Madge’s friend, Dale has never met him, but…well, that’s Hollywood.  Her putdowns and generally amused tolerance of Horace are just priceless.

Image result for helen broderick top hat

Usual Suspects:  Taylor’s early script drafts make the oft-noted similarities to TGD no coincidence.  Brought in by director Mark Sandrich (who, amusingly, worked with Fred to create elaborate charts with which they precisely timed out each entry’s musical and dramatic elements) for rewrites, Scott was a series mainstay starting with Roberta, also working on Fred’s Blue Skies (1946) and Let’s Dance (1950).  As on TGD, Van Nest Polglase and associate Carroll Clark were Oscar-nominated for their typically sumptuous Art Direction, including the obligatory budget-devouring “Big White Set,” in this case an Art Deco vision of Venice’s Lido—complete with canal and bridges (below)!  The prolific head of RKO’s design department, Brooklyn-born Polglase was also nominated for Carefree and Citizen Kane (1941), among others.

Image result for top hat movie
Image result for irving berlin top hat

Immortal Number(s):  The great Irving Berlin (above left), who met Astaire during the production of this picture and became a lifelong friend, stated that he’d rather have Fred introduce a new song than anyone else.  Since Berlin (whose first major hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” is briefly quoted in the opening-credits “overture”) wrote the words and music for all five tunes here, they constitute an embarrassment of riches.  Even “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free),” perhaps the least memorable melody, gives Fred a splendid solo, which Jerry, spreading sand on the floor, converts into an actual soft-shoe number after his taps keep Dale awake below.  Bringing them together, it is also the romantic raison d’être, ironically just as he is literally singing the praises of bachelorhood.  And, typically, there’s a second-tier song that is disproportionately dear to me, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?,” with its high-octane gazebo-set tap duet.  But the Oscar-nominated “Cheek to Cheek” (below) presumably gets bragging rights—even though, as I constantly misremember, its title was not used for a later entry—with its duet featuring the notorious Ginger-designed ostrich-feather dress, which looks great, as even Fred later admitted, despite driving him crazy by shedding.

Image result for cheek to cheek top hat

Bonkers Number(s):  Borderline.  Jerry’s second-act opener, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” (below), helped make this the quintessential (and most successful) entry, but incorporates an unusual feature as he uses his cane like a rifle with which he “shoots” down the male chorus members, the reports naturally provided by his taps.

Image result for top hat movie

New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Once things have been set to rights (and I find it interesting that the script basically concedes its own absurdity, having both revelatory conversations—Jerry/Dale and Horace/Madge/Beddini—take place offscreen), the stage is set for “The Piccolino.”  It inverts the structure of “The Continental,” putting F&G’s climactic duet after the massive production number rather than before, and is, yes, “catchy” despite its somewhat eye-rolling rhyme scheme, e.g., bambino, vino, scallopino.

White Tie and Tails?  Duh.

Unique Aspect(s):  First entry written specifically for F&G, and first to earn “ensembles stager” Hermes Pan—who usually danced Ginger’s roles in rehearsal while she was off acting in other films—an Oscar nomination for Best Dance Direction, as did Swing Time (he later won for Fred’s A Damsel in Distress); also nominated for Best Picture.  This disc has an audio commentary by Astaire’s daughter, Ava, and “bio-bibliographer,” Larry Billman, which discusses how he rebutted the quick-cutting style of Busby Berkeley’s Warner Brothers musicals, focusing on performance-driven numbers with the camera subservient to the dancers, who were shown full-frame and in extended takes.


Title:  Follow the Fleet (1936).

Based on Stageplay?  Shore Leave by Hubert Osborne (also filmed under its own title in 1925, and as Hit the Deck in 1929 and 1955).

Mistaken Identity?  Quite the reverse.  Sherry Martin (Ginger) and gum-chewing swab “Bake” Baker (Fred) are ex-partners—“High-Class Patter and Genteel Dancing”—who haven’t met since she turned down his proposal, but she gets to reconsider when he’s on leave in San Francisco, where she’s performing at the dime-a-dance Paradise Ballroom.

Edward Everett Horton?  No.

Eric/k(s):  Neither.

Other Colorful Characters:  Incredibly, Randolph Scott is back as Bake’s shipmate, Bilge Smith, now paired with Harriet (as in “Ozzie and”) Hilliard in her feature-film debut as Sherry’s spinsterish sister, Connie, and again sharing the romantic spotlight with F&G, who at least regain top billing.  Replacing an unavailable Irene Dunne, Randy’s equally unlikely co-star in Roberta, Harriet even gets two solos, one with the surprising title of “Get Thee behind Me, Satan,” written for Ginger but dropped from Top Hat.  Living down to his name, Bilge balks when Connie drops the “M word,” again requiring Fred to extricate him from the arms of another, divorcée Iris Manning (Astrid Allwyn).

Image result for randolph scott harriet hilliard follow the fleet

Usual Suspects:  Scott (Allan, not Randolph) and Taylor adapted the play.  I hadn’t realized that RKO contract player Lucille Ball was rising through the ranks over the course of this series, from her (cat)walk-on in Roberta and morceau of dialogue as a flower-shop clerk in TH to actual billing—last, but still—here as Kitty Collins.  When Sherry asks her to give Connie a makeover, initially shifting the changeable Bilge from indifference (above) to hot pursuit, there’s a striking shot (below) of the future Harriet Nelson regarding her new self in the mirror, flanked by the future Lucy Ricardo and the once and future Betty Grable, an unnamed member of Sherry’s vocal backup trio on “Let Yourself Go.”

Image result for follow the fleet betty grable

Immortal Number(s):  No contest.  The clear favorite among Berlin’s “7 salty songs” (per the trailer) is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” both musically and in a pas de deux that marks the film’s only digression into TH territory.  And, aptly, it engendered another Costume Contretemps, as Fred was hit so hard in the face by the heavy sleeve of Ginger’s beaded dress that he reportedly thought he’d been punched, yet manfully sailored—uh, soldiered on in the take that was eventually used.  A self-contained mini-drama with no connection to the plot, it’s the highlight of the “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” sequence, set aboard—and raising funds for the refurbishment of—the sailing ship Connie Martin, left to her by her father.  Told entirely in pantomime, except for the lyrics, it begins with Fred losing all of his money at the gambling table; when the curtain reopens, the camera becomes the proscenium of the makeshift stage, revealing a rather unlikely Big White Set against which he contemplates suicide until he encounters the equally despondent Ginger, whom he persuades to face…well, you know.  Obligatory BOF Underdog Number:  “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” (below), a light romantic duet followed by a comedic dance.

Image result for follow the fleet movie

Bonkers Number(s):  No, although the opener, “We Saw the Sea,” deserves mention as Berlin’s clever commentary on the tedium of Navy life, which amused Madame BOF.

New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Nope.

White Tie and Tails?  Squeaked in via “LFTMAD” (below).

Image result for let's face the music and dance follow the fleet

Unique Aspect(s):  If some found TH overly familiar, then Sandrich & Co. have retorted with a distinct departure, grafting F&G onto the kind of service comedy that Abbott & Costello would master a few years hence.  Tony Martin, in his feature-film debut as an uncredited sailor, was the romantic lead in the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941) and, ironically, the 1955 Hit the Deck.  Also affords Ginger her only solo tap number in the series (albeit in the hideous outfit below), reprising “Let Yourself Go” to audition for a new gig.

Image result for follow the fleet


Title:  Swing Time (1936).

Based on Stageplay?  Nope; screenplay by Howard Lindsay and Scott, from a story by Erwin Gelsey (a veteran of Flying Down to Rio).

Mistaken Identity?  No, but I might even have preferred that.  Following a vestigial opening number—the aptly titled “It’s Not in the Cards,” largely excised after the film’s premiere—John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred) is royally screwed by his colleagues during a tour stop in his hometown, where he tries to quit The Great Cardetti & Company and marry Margaret Watson (future Westinghouse pitchwoman Betty Furness).  Now, I know we have to get him together with Ginger, which duly occurs when, after his “friends” conspire to abort the ceremony, his would-be father-in-law insists that he go to New York and make good before regaining consent.  But I’ve never been amused by such deliberate cruelty, which is why I dislike so many screwball comedies, so for me, if you’ll pardon the pun, the film starts off on the wrong foot.  Magician Edwin “Pop” Cardetti, who tags along when flat-broke Fred hops a freight train to NYC, compounds the error, unjustly embroiling Penelope “Penny” Carrol, a teacher at the Gordon Dancing Academy (“To know how to dance is to know how to control yourself”), in a kerfuffle with a beat cop.

Edward Everett Horton?  No.

Eric/k(s):  Energizer Bunny Blore returns as Penny’s officious, mustachioed boss.

Other Colorful Characters:  To see Broderick sans EEH, with whom she interacted so brilliantly in TH, seems like a missed opportunity, but in her only other series entry as Penny’s friend and co-worker, Mabel (sic) Anderson, she helps to offset the character-actor drought.  For better or worse, vaudevillian Victor Moore, whose only other film with Fred was Ziegfeld Follies (1945), gives the role of Pop his trademark eccentricity.

Usual Suspects:  Scott once again heavily rewrote the first draft, this time—in his only series entry—by Lindsay (whose longtime partner, Russel Crouse, named his actress daughter Lindsay Crouse).  Per the IMDb, Ben Holmes was uncredited as a contributing writer here and on Holiday Inn; a “contributor to treatment” on TH, in which he also had a minor role; third-unit director on FDTR; and dialogue director here and on TGD.  Yow.

Immortal Number(s):  Some consider this a series highlight (it was reportedly Ginger’s favorite in the canon), particularly for its dancing, but to me it’s more like a bunch of nice numbers in search of a good movie.  My favorite of the songs, all with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Field, is the Oscar-winning “The Way You Look Tonight,” which has a marvelous set-up:  serenading Penny from the piano in another room, Lucky only sees at the end, as she comes up behind him, that her hair is full of shampoo.  Barack Obama paraphrased the old standby “Pick Yourself Up” in his first Inaugural Address (“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America”).  It leads into a delightful dance (below) when, after inadvertently getting Penny fired during the free trial lesson he wangles in order to get acquainted, he saves the day by demonstrating to Mr. Gordon how much she has “taught” him.  The dance floor is encircled by a knee-high fence that makes it look like a riding enclosure for Shetland ponies, which they brilliantly incorporate into the number, repeatedly leaping over them.

Image result for top hat movie

Bonkers Number(s):  I feel we must count “Bojangles of Harlem” (below; nominated for Pan’s Dance Direction), Fred’s blackface tribute to tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, if only for the supremely WTF opening as a towering, stylized face is revealed to be built around the sole of a giant shoe, one-half of a pair attached to a seated Astaire on wildly oversized “legs.”  The number utilizes special effects—rare for straight-ahead Fred—in a distractingly obvious process shot allowing him to dance with three shadows of himself.

Image result for bojangles swing time

New Dance Craze Allegedly Sweeping the Nation:  Yes, if you count swing itself, and by extension the “Waltz in Swing Time,” providing the film’s final title.  The melancholy “Never Gonna Dance,” whose climactic pas de deux required 47 takes and left Ginger’s feet bleeding, was considered for title-song status.  Another working title was I Won’t Dance, that of the Kern hit from Roberta, but the suits feared their implications would discourage ticket sales (which, ironically, did indeed decline from here on).  Now that’s selling your audience short, especially when the film stars F&G; even their upcoming biopic had dancing!  The waltz serves as a night-club audition for Penny and her prize pupil, delayed by the recalcitrance of his romantic rival, bandleader Ricardo “Ricky” (!) Romero (Georges Metaxa).  “A Fine Romance” is Penny’s lament when Lucky suddenly gets cold feet, hesitant to tell her about Margaret, who shows up during “Bojangles,” only to confess soon afterward that she loves another.  The way thus cleared, Penny shifts her marital intentions from consolation-prize Ricky (shades of Tonetti) to Lucky, who—in an ending that I absolutely loathed—joins with Pop to pull the same shabby trick on Romero that was pulled on him (below), leaving the four leads dissolved in laughter; needless to say, I was not amused.

Image result for swing time movie

White Tie and Tails?  Just in the nick of time, for “Never Gonna Dance.”

Unique Aspect(s):  Only entry directed by two-time Oscar-winner George Stevens (as was ADID), whose Gunga Din (1939) is a BOF favorite, and whose father, Landers, has an uncredited role as Judge Watson.  Only series entry for uncredited writer Anthony Veiller, a frequent collaborator of John Huston’s.


To be concluded.

Read Full Post »

Happy 90th…

…to the one and only Bill Nolan (seen below at left with the late, great Ray Bradbury), who’s probably just getting warmed up!  Be sure to check out his website.  Way to go, Bill!

Image result for william f. nolan

Read Full Post »