Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sam Goldwyn, W.C. Fields & Bitch Slap

I caught three films from the recent Samuel Goldwyn series at the Castro.

They Got Me Covered starring Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; (1943)
They Shall Have Music! starring Joel McCrea, Walter Brennan and Jascha Heifetz; (1939)
The Best Years of Our Lives starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo; directed by William Wyler; (1946)

I have seen They Got Me Covered before (most likely on Tom Hatten's Family Film Festival in the 80's). I recall enjoying it but I must have gotten it confused with another Hope film. His jokes were flat in They Got Me Covered. He played the cowardly protagonist like most of his films (Paleface is my favorite incarnation) but I didn't laugh as much as I remembered. Dorothy Lamour was as beautiful as I remember and They Got Me Covered had the added bonus of Otto Preminger playing a Nazi but the film is one of Hope's lesser work.

I'm currently reading a book about WWII and the film made comic reference to Quisling as in Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian politician who collaborated with the Nazis. The book I'm reading devotes a fair amount of space to Quisling. At the time of the film, the reference was probably to the man or the nascent synonym of traitor that his surname came to represent. What is the word that means to make a verb or noun out of a personal pronoun?

They Shall Have Music! is a film that I was completely unaware about. The main character is portrayed by Gene Reynolds who is best known for his role as a director and producer of the television series M*A*S*H. On screen, his most famous role is probably Boys Town (1938) starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.

They Shall Have Music! is a formula film about poor kids overcoming long odds to triumph over hard-hearted capitalists. In this case, Frankie (Reynolds) is a street punk that runs away from home but happens to hear Jascha Heifetz play the violin. He is so moved by the experience that enrolls in a music school that caters to underprivileged kids. It helps that Frankie has perfect pitch and learns the violin with admirable speed. The school (run by Walter Brennan and his fetching daughter played by the relatively unknown Andrea Leeds) is on the brink of financial ruin. The school rents the musical instruments from a store and the owner wants the rent paid in full or he'll repossess the instruments before the big concert (The Barber of Seville's overture). The only solution is to get the great Heifetz to play at the concert.

The film was mildly entertaining - Walter Brennan has to rank among the all-time character actors that steal every scene they are in (along with Strother Martin and Steve Buscemi among others). The film also gave generous time to Heifetz's performances which were amazing. Andrea Leeds was awfully beautiful too. Terry Kilburn, best known as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1938), was a bit annoying as the cockney accented sidekick. According to IMDB, William Wyler directed the scenes of Heifetz playing.

Speaking of Wyler, his The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that I have never seen in the movie theaters. I had not seen it in one sitting on television either. I watched bits and pieces out of order from repeated screenings on television. Two scenes stood out from memory - a scene where Dana Andrews and Fredric March have a confrontation about Andrew's relationship with March's daughter and towards the end, a scene where Andrews is roaming around an airplane graveyard. Also, all the scenes with double-amputee Harold Russell stuck in my memory as it is still unusual to see actors with physical injuries on screen.

Having watched the film from start to finish and on the big screen, Myrna Loy's performance as Fredric March's patient and supportive wife stands out. In her early 40's at the time of the film, Loy's beauty still shined bright but she was perfectly cast as the tremendously endearing wife of a banker, antiquated portrayed by March. Meant to be a pseudo-comic representation of upper middle-class, I found his character to be the poster boy for functional alcoholism. Teresa Wright as Peggy, their daughter and Dana Andrew's would-be love interest, delivered a congenial performance also.

Dana Andrew was cast as Fred Derry, a man of modest stature before the war but an officer and a gentleman and a decorated bombardier during the war. Derry is forced to confront the unappealing realities of his post-war life. He has to take a demotion from his old job in a drug store. His wife (the delicious Virginia Mayo in a very good performance) fell in love with an Army captain and doesn't enjoy being married to a soda jerk. She also enjoys the nightlife and the company other men; both of which Derry cannot afford.

Rounding out the trio is Harold Russell as the ex-sailor (March's character was in the infantry and Andrews in the US Army Air Corp). In real-life, Russell lost his hands in a grenade accident; in the film, Homer Parrish lost his to a fire. Parrish was a football star before the war and now he is a freak and the object of pity. He does have a sweet girlfriend but he is pushing her away because he doesn't want to saddle her as his caregiver.

The performances were dated but Wyler deserves credit for confronting issues that I haven't seen elsewhere from movies of the time - disable veterans, the difficulty servicemen had in reintegrating into society and coping with the death of comrades.

I enjoyed The Best Years of Our Lives quite a bit.


At the YBCA, they screened It's a Gift (1934) starring W.C. Fields with Baby Leroy getting equal billing. The plot was vaguely similar to most Fields vehicles not co-starring Mae West centers around Harold Bissonette's (pronounced Bee-zon-nay) goal of owning an orange orchard. First, he must convince his shrewish wife, spoiled daughter and bratty son to go along with the idea. Then he must survive his last day at the general store he owns. This featured an extended scene with Charles Sellon as Mr. Muckle, a blind and deaf customer who nearly destroys the store. What Muckle doesn't break, Baby Leroy covers in molasses. All the while, Morgan Wallace keeps bellowing about his kumquats (although he spells it cumquats).

Next up is the cross country drive with expected mishaps to the ramshackle house on a dusty stretch of land not fit to grow a tumbleweed much less an orange grove. In the end, Fields lucks out because a land developer wants to build a horse racing track on the property; he holds out for top dollar.

The film is a series of slapstick scenes for Fields to strut his comic stuff. I liked the scene where Fields has to gyrate around a hanging mirror to shave because his vain daughter is hogging the mirror. Another standout scene was Fields sleeping on a balcony in a broken swinging bench while every conceivable noise keeps him from his slumber.

It's a Gift has supposedly been re-discovered as one of Fields' masterpieces. It was amusing but to me it seems like Fields keep going back to the same comic well in all his films. I thought it was funny but no more or less than his other films.


On January 8, Bitch Slap opens at the Landmark Theaters in San Francisco.

Bitch Slap is a post-modern, thinking man's throwback to the B movie/exploitation films of the 1950s though 1970s, as well as a loving, sly parody of them. Inspired by the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Kung Fu Nun and the pantheon of Blacksploitation films, Bitch Slap mixes hot girls, fast cars, big guns, nasty tongues, outrageous action and jaw-dropping eye candy with a message: Don't be naughty! At its core, the action follows three bad girls (a down-and-out stripper, a drug-running killer and a corporate powerbroker) as they arrive at a remote desert hideaway to extort massive booty from a ruthless underworld kingpin. Things quickly spin out of control as allegiances change, truths are revealed and other criminals arrive for the score. With "cult classic" written all over it, Bitch Slap is a cat-fighting, pile-driving, go-go dancing, bronco-busting, bumping & grinding, philosophy-touting, breast-augmenting, femme-tastic fight-fantasy of epic proportions!

They had me hooked when I read the name of the film.

No comments: