Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Musings: Compliments

*Additional comic titles designed by Ship.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

a slutty Barbie
suddenly Flash Gordon's a
rocket scientist

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Lessons Learned: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Screenplay by Charles Lederer; from the musical comedy by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos; Directed by Howard Hawks; Cinematography by Harry J. Wild; Edited by Hugh S. Fowler; Complete Credits. 91 min. 1953.

Like Singing in the Rain, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is better known for its singing and dancing than its story and dialogue. Last week I said that an important test for any film is whether you can take out the pyrotechnics and still have a good foundation for making an alternate pyrotechnic-less version. Just like Singing, Blondes passes that test easily - not totally surprising when you consider that the musical is based on a novel.

Meet Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), Dumb Blonde and Sassy Brunette, respectively. The setup is simple: both are showgirls that have worked their way to the top, and now both would enjoy getting married and living happily ever after. Lorelei won't take anything less than a millionaire, but Dorothy is willing to compromise on the financial part as long as she's in love with the (tall, dark, and handsome) guy.

As it happens, Lorelei is engaged to Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), the goofy son of a millionaire, who's dazed by every kiss Lorelei gives him. Naturally, Mr. Esmond Sr. (Taylor Holmes) suspects Lorelei is a gold-digger and is trying his best to stop the marriage from happening. To that end, he hires Ernie Malone (Elliott Reed), a private detective, to follow Lorelei when she and Dorothy go on a trip to France, with the hope of catching Lorelei in some scandal. They go via lavish ocean-liner, conveniently stocked with the Olympic team for Dorothy's sake and with a British diamond magnate, Sir Francis "Piggy" Beekman (Charles Coburn), for Lorelei's. If there's anything that makes Lorelei weak at the knees, it's diamonds, and she's willing to go to some lengths to acquire Lady Beekman's (Norma Varden) exquisite tiara. Malone has no taste for such a shameless tramp, but he quickly develops a taste for her sassy best friend. A number of complications ensue. Rest assured, love conquers all.

Though the summary makes it sound like these are cheap stereotypes in an even cheaper story, the film avoids all this by a) keeping it short and sweet; b) not resorting to pratfalls to keep things interesting; c) not turning the main characters into caricatures. Lorelei may be one of the best hybrid dumb-blonde/subtle-schemers around, but she's not a heartless bitch by any standards. She actually loves Gus – even if she was only interested in him to begin with because he has money, he's certainly not the only rich guy she could get. And while Dorothy may be the obvious wisecracking relief to Lorelei's bubbly ditziness, she’s never nasty to her.

The two women work together rather than compete – there’s no envy or resentment, and they don’t try to steal men from each other. Lorelei scans the ship’s passenger list for a suitable millionaire husband for an unwilling Dorothy, and Dorothy is always on hand to get Lorelei out of whatever trouble her flirting has gotten her into. It’s also interesting that even though they’re predatory – Dorothy not so much maybe, but Lorelei certainly – each ends up with an unthreatening everyman rather than a jaw-dropping superman. Dorothy marries Malone for love and Gus is such an adorable goofball that you’re glad he lands a trophy like Lorelei.

Just as a side note, despite the fact that Blondes is filmed in (glorious) Technicolor, the production team and costume designer did not go over the top with outlandish sets and gaudy outfits. The various sets look like actual rooms that actual people live in. The showgirl costumes are necessarily glitzy, but off-stage Dorothy and Lorelei are dressed in believable clothing, even when attired in fancy evening gowns. Consequently, the film has a much more natural look, especially when compared to other splashy musicals.

One last thing: Generally I think Jane Russell tends to be underrated, but she deserves all the credit in the world for being onscreen with Marilyn Monroe and completely holding her own. Her impersonation of Lorelei is brilliant in itself. (You can watch it here; starts at 6:07.)

Next week… His Girl Friday, because… do you really need a special reason?

Monday, April 20, 2009


film noir director
in a Technicolor world
you were doomed to fail

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lessons Learned: Singing in the Rain

Screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden; Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; Cinematography by Harold Rosson; Edited by Adrienne Fazan; Complete Credits. 103 min. 1952.

Singing in the Rain is probably better known for its musical numbers than its funny dialogue and solid story. Okay, not probably – definitely. I doubt anyone, when asked to name a movie with a good script, first thinks of Singing. In fact, I doubt anyone would think of it after naming ten or even fifty other titles. It's especially surprising considering that musicals generally have lousy scripts or practically no scripts at all, since the idea is to get in as much singing and dancing as possible – and who cares how slim the justification is. You'd think that would only make the superior writing stick out even more.

For years I thought it had won an Oscar or a Globe, but I was sadly deluded. It wasn't even nominated. Blame the Gene Kelly extravaganza An American in Paris, which came out the year before, if you will. It swept all the major awards, including an Oscar for Alan Jay Lerner's script – which, though better than the usual threadbare pretext for bursting into song and dance – is an adequate job rather than a distinguished one. (I'm not knocking Mr. Lerner's talent. The entire soundtrack for My Fair Lady gets stuck in my head for days at a time.) But I'm getting carried away. I don't know whether Singing in the Rain's writing deserves an Oscar, but it definitely deserves some attention.

First of all, a test of any film should be whether its story holds together even if you remove the pyrotechnics like singing, dancing, costumes, soundtracks, explosions, fight scenes, and so on. Next, if the story is still interesting – that is, if you could theoretically tell the same story without the pyrotechnics, and still have a good film (or book*) – you should be happy. Very happy, because it means you're working with some actual content rather than relying on the smoke and mirrors to provide the illusion of it. Singing passes both tests easily.

Hollywood, 1927 – approximately ten minutes before talking pictures change the industry forever. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are king and queen of the silent screen, the favorite lovers of audiences around the world. As Monumental Pictures’ greatest asset, the publicity department is working non-stop to create (and dispel) the rumor that Don and Lina are on the brink of an engagement off-screen. Like so many other things in tinsel town, this too is pure fiction. Debonair Don is far from interested in shrewish Lina – but just try telling that to her.

Meanwhile, plucky newcomer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) catches Don’s eye, and a couple of weeks and misunderstandings (and a cream pie) later, Kathy and Don are well on their way to falling in love. This would probably bother studio head R.F. Simpson R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) and top director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley) if they didn’t have a bigger problem: sound. That’s right – sound! The Jazz Singer, featuring some spoken dialogue and a song or two, has the nation crazy for talking pictures. Guess what the studio is going to do. The new Lockwood and Lamont picture (which is nothing like the other eight or nine they’ve already made together) is going to be an all-talking sensation! Aside from some difficulties handling the shiny new technology, there is also the problem that Lina has a voice like a screech owl – even when she’s not screeching.

Notice – I have not mentioned the singing and the dancing parts of the film. What you got back there was a decent story that could be rewritten as a straight comedy (or drama, if you prefer). Also, notice how small the cast is. Except for Don’s best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), who I neglected to mention, there are few other speaking parts. Blink and you’ll miss Rita Moreno as Zelda Zanders, one of Lina’s movie star gal pals. Cyd Charisse appears in a gratuitous dancing role – although believe me I’m not complaining. I didn't realize how small the cast was until I started to make a list for this post.

Unfortunately, the majority of clips on YouTube are of the song-and-dance parts, so I can’t link you to scenes, such as the excellent intro, which has Don narrate his rise to stardom to the crowd waiting outside the theater to see the latest Lockwood-Lamont film. I already mentioned this scene because of its use of voice-over in another post – given the comical discrepancy between what Don says and what’s shown as true. But there are a few other interesting things about this as well: first, how naturally they incorporate the exposition – introducing all of the characters and establishing the relationship between them; second, how this sets up the tension between reality and publicity statements which runs throughout the film; last, how this sets up the surprise of gorgeous Lina’s discordant voice. It’s a clever, compact, and entertaining job.

Another scene which I would have liked to link you to is one of the funniest in the film (and one of my favorites in general, as a matter of fact). Scene: Don and Lina are on the set of "The Dueling Cavalier," their new silent film, dressed like they’re about to go to a tea party at Marie Antoinette’s, of course. Just before Roscoe yells for the camera to start rolling, Lina reveals to Don that she made sure Kathy got fired from her job (after an accident with a cream pie – but really, it wasn’t Kathy’s fault – and Don hasn’t been able to find her since). Don is less than pleased and Lina is more than a little jealous. But now we’re rolling! And thank god for films being silent – and for the fact that few people can lip read – because while Don and Lina look like they’re flirting wildly with each other, they are actually having a hilarious argument.

“Believe me, I don’t like her half as much as I hate you.” Don croons softly, kissing Lina’s wrist passionately, “You reptile!”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones.” She breathes ecstatically.
“I'd like to break every bone in your body.” He moves in for the big kiss.
“You and who else, you big lummox?” She throws her head back in Garbo-esque submission.
They kiss passionately as the music crescendos.
“Cut!” Shouts the rapturous director and Don breaks away from Lina in disgust.

But you have to see the whole thing. It’s topped with one of my favorite wisecracks, which I won’t spoil, even though most of the scene is already spoiled. As a final note – since obviously I could go on and on - in last week’s post about Shakespeare in Love, Lord Wessex was cited as an excellent villain of the entertaining variety. The same goes for Singing’s Lina Lamont. Whether she’s trying to be adorable or aggressive, whatever she says reveals how selfish and moronic she is – and it’s too funny.

Special bonus: Moses Supposes, one of my favorite numbers.

Next week… Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, another musical with a showbusiness backdrop.

* I know it always seems like I'm not thinking how these concepts relate to writing that isn't film-related, but I am.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Greta Garbo

Eyelashes lowered -
You vanted to be alone.
(But you should have stayed.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lessons Learned: Shakespeare in Love

Screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; Directed by John Madden; Cinematography by Richard Greatrex; Edited by David Gamble; Complete Credits. 123 min. 1998.

England, the Golden Age. Elizabeth I reigns in majesty; colonies are springing up in the New World; it’s a toss up as to whether men or women’s fashion is the more extravagantly uncomfortable; and Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is pining for a new muse and broke to boot. Unbeknownst to him, he’s about to meet the love of his life, Lady Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow)

Hold your breath. History is about to be made. (With a hey nonny nonny and a ho ho ho…)

I can’t recount the whole plot. It’s too much. There are even more characters than Bullets Over Broadway. Since Shakespeare in Love, like Bullets, manages to keep all the characters in order and interweave the various subplots without dropping a stitch, there’s nothing more to be said on that count other than watch and take note.

The plot intentionally mirrors situations from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night (and references some Hamlet as well), giving us the idea that these events inspired the subsequent plays. However, the stock Shakespearean plot devices - crossdressing, mistaken identities, an aristocrat restoring order, and a shipwreck – which incidentally we rarely believe in an actual Shakespearean play, are made entirely plausible.

Take the crossdressing, for example – by introducing Sam (Daniel Brocklebank), an actor who specializes in female parts and who is so obviously male, the film conditions us to see how Viola could get away with masquerading as a boy in the first place. Also, she doesn’t deceive Will for very long. Humorously, it’s a bit player – the Thames boatman (Roger Frost) - who gives it away early on, “Known her since she was this high.” Adding, with slight ridicule, “Wouldn’t deceive a child.” (And, of course Queen Elizabeth knows Shakespeare came to Greenwich disguised as a woman, because she’s simply not that stupid.)

As for the Queen’s restoring order – it’s already set up in the scenes at Greenwich, but we’re given enough time to forget it. They give her (Judi Dench) a great line for it, “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know something about that.” So the Queen isn’t just useful as the higher authority, but as an element with thematic relevance to the story.

Then there’s Viola’s shipwreck, which is symbolic. (Not that there’s no such thing a surviving a real shipwreck, but there are only so many extreme events you can throw into a story and keep everything believable.) Notice that we don’t see Viola’s face at the end. We watch her walk inland from the water with her back toward the camera. It’s the idea of Viola which is important, rather than the character herself – and depicting the exact expression on her face would get in the way.

Some other notes:

Speak the speech. Given the specific time and setting, the dialogue could have been unintelligibly polysyllabic or bogged down by excessive punning. Instead, the script adopts a midway approach – throwing in enough Elizabethan phrases and syntax to make it sound Shakespearean, but not so much that the dialogue sounds unrealistic or, at the very least, self-consciously clever.

A romantic comedy that doesn’t end in union. It’s worth noting that the film goes against genre conventions by keeping Viola and Will apart at the end. History makes it impossible for them to end up together, but so does story logic. A typical happy end would’ve utterly killed the film by seeming like an artificial resolution. The end is bittersweet without being tragic. I suppose you could argue that since Viola becomes Will’s eternal muse, on some level, they’re forever united, but let’s not go there. (It’s a silly place.)

The great baddie. I love all the supporting players in this movie - they’re priceless one after the next. I’ll just mention Colin Firth’s Lord Wessex not only because I think it’s probably his best work, but because he pulls off something very difficult: being an entertaining villain. Rather than snarl his way through the part of the unsympathetic schemer, Firth deftly underplays by being dignified, uttering his Elizabethan gallantries with confidence and smooth hypocrisy. It would have been so easy to make Wessex a buffoon or a gross caricature, but they make him three-dimensional instead.

Next week… Singing in the Rain, continuing with another movie about being in showbiz.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Big Country

Nice. Another theme
on a loop inside my head.
Now where's my darn horse?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lessons Learned: Bullets Over Broadway

Screenplay by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath; Directed by Woody Allen; Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma; Edited by Susan E. Morse; Complete Credits. 98 min. 1994.

At the heart of Bullets Over Broadway is the question: What is more important: art or life? “If,” as one of characters asks, “you could rush into a burning building and save only one thing – the last known copy of all of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being, which would you save?” You might choose one or you might choose the other, but by the end of this film, you’ll see just how tricky the question can get. Today’s post will be all about parallels, contrasts, ironies, and subtleties.

New York City, the roaring 1920s: prohibition, gangsters, and all that jazz. Aspiring playwright and self-proclaimed artist David Shayne (John Cusack) is trying to convince his producer friend Julian Marx (Jack Warden) to put on his third – extremely serious and so very important – play. Alas, David’s plays are always too heavy and with two flops already on his résumé, Julian says he can’t afford another commercial failure. They could get the funding if a big name director got involved, but David flatly refuses. He’s directing this time. He’s sick of seeing directors misinterpret his work and actors change his dialogue. While he discusses art, humanity, and his own genius with his long-time girlfriend Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker), his good friend Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner), a fellow intellectual playwright and self-proclaimed genius, and some other bohemian friends at a sidewalk café in Greenwich Village, Julian is fortunate enough to get a backer for the play.

Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), CEO of the Don’t-Stick-Your-Nose-In-Other-People’s-Business-And-It-Won’t-Get-Broken Company is putting up the money to give his girlfriend Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly) her Broadway debut. Olive has about as much talent as a lemon and is only slightly less sweet. David and Julian are not blind to either of these facts, but as Julian tells him – if he wants to get his show on, he’s going to have to compromise. Fortunately for everyone, Olive isn’t going to play the lead. Instead, stage legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) is tapped for the part – though only after she throws a hissy fit and her agent Sid Loomis (Harvey Fierstein) talks her into it. Rounding out the performers are Eden Brent (Tracy Ullman), a plucky ingénue with a Chihuahua accessory, and Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), a charming Englishman with an eating disorder. And then there’s Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), Olive’s bodyguard, a thug with a gambling problem, and as it turns out, a talent for playwriting.

It’s a big cast to juggle, making it no small feat that the script makes it easy to keep track of everyone and gives each character memorable scenes. All of the various subplots intertwine seamlessly and even the smallest detail – such as Eden’s Chihuahua Mr. Woofles and his dog biscuits – are used to great effect. But I’m not supposed to be talking about that.

Take Olive and Helen. Initially, they seem like complete opposites. Olive is a tramp with few brains and no talent – the only smart thing she ever did was hook Nick Valenti as her boyfriend. The only way she’s going to make it on Broadway is if he keeps shelling out money to produce shows for her to star in – or if she miraculously acquires acting skills. Helen, on the other hand, is a bona fide star: charismatic, tasteful, and a towering performer. But if we take a closer look, Olive and Helen are practically identical: loud, controlling, vain, selfish, high-maintenance, and accustomed to using their sexuality to get what they want, the only real difference is that Helen can actually act. This is the only good clip I could find, but it perfectly illustrates the parallels between the two. Just as Olive enters the film howling at Nick that he’s not treating her right, Helen enters howling at Sid that she won’t play such an insipid character as David’s Sylvia Poston. Both women spend the film bullying everyone else and making every scene about them.

Now let's take David and Cheech. David is a college graduate living the clichéd life of the bohemian intellectual. He fancies himself as some kind of artistic genius, but he’s really just a middleweight talent with delusions of grandeur. Cheech is a common mobster who never graduated high school – street-smart and always ready to rub a guy out for Mr. V when it’s coming to him. All he cares about is shooting crap and being a wise guy – until he starts listening to the rehearsals of David’s play. Cheech knows how people talk, he knows human nature – and he’s not afraid to cut through the crap – and eventually he finds himself rewriting David’s play. At first horrified and indignant, David soon recognizes that Cheech is the real genius. For all his erudition and intellectual posing, he simply can’t match Cheech’s talent. What’s more, David finds out that Cheech isn’t afraid to put art before life – something he could never do, whatever he may say in café symposiums.

But aside from the irony of the street thug being the true artist, or the gangster's moll being the evil twin of the Broadway legend, there are other ironies throughout the film: mobsters shooting people and then casually talking about getting some dinner; Helen twisting David around her finger in two seconds, getting him to happily volunteer to change the play after he rails against actors distorting his work; Flender encouraging David to have an affair with Helen because he’s really after David’s girlfriend Ellen. And, of course, the biggest irony of all – getting us to despise Olive so much that we really couldn’t care less when Cheech rubs her out. Did you say you’d save that anonymous person from the burning building rather than Shakespeare’s plays? Think again.

Also notice some of the subtle touches: Cheech pushes around David and everyone else, except for his boss Nick, and you can see he’s terrified when Nick interrogates him about Olive’s death; Nick has no problem threatening whoever gets in his way, but just watch Olive treat him like dirt and watch him take it like there’s no other girl in the world; Olive wants to be a star, but she doesn’t want to learn her lines or rehearse; Warner is urbane and ingratiating, but also markedly self-absorbed – when Helen and Eden practically get into a brawl, all he cares about is rehearsing his soliloquy; and so on. Finally, note that the small supporting players and even the bit parts get the best lines:

Julian, after David refuses to cast Olive: “Life is not perfect, plus it is short, and if you can’t understand that, you might as well go back to Pittsburgh.”

Olive’s maid Venus (Annie Joe Edwards), listening to Olive and Cheech rehearse a ridiculously cerebral scene from David’s play: “Mm mmm. I sure pities the poor folks that’s gonna have to pay to see this play.”

Flender, after David confesses he’s been having an affair with Helen: “Guilt is petit bourgeois crap. An artist creates his own moral universe.”

Next week… Shakespeare in Love, continuing with the theater backdrop.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009