Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Friday, August 7 at 11:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, September 27 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) is the first of six comic detective films featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. There have been many recurring romantic pairings over the years (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for example), though this may be the most successful pairing involving the same set of characters.

In this first film, the Thin Man is a murder suspect, not the hero, which is why the second film was titled After the Thin Man (1936). By the third film, the distinction was lost, and the name became associated with Nick Charles. A similar misunderstanding occurred with the Frankenstein movies. Frankenstein was the scientist, not the scientist’s creation. The public had associated the name with the monster, and Hollywood wasn’t about to argue the point.

The Thin Man series benefits from dialogue and situations that showcase the urbane talents of Powell and Loy. Unfortunately, the later scripts aren’t nearly as rewarding. Though they’re still worth watching, the quality dropped after the second film.

Here are examples of dialogue from the first film that illustrate the couple’s offbeat relationship:

Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

Nick: How’d you like Grant’s tomb?
Nora: It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes. She’s a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

Nick: Oh, it’s alright, Joe. It’s alright. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

Canine star Asta is another reason for the popular success of the series. The same dog (real name Skippy) played prominent roles in two of the best screwball comedies: as Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth (1937) and George in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Several dogs played the part of Asta over the course of the Thin Man series, which lasted until 1947. Whether they were Skippy’s offspring or Skippy look-alikes is still unknown.

The Thin Man
(1934; directed by W.S. Van Dyke; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (also available in The Complete Thin Man Collection for $59.95)

Tuesday, July 28 at 6:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) is one of the best sports film ever made, though it doesn’t feel like a sports film. Gone is the pure exhilaration you feel when the hero succeeds, or the gritty resolve you experience when the hero faces a temporary setback. Director Robert Rossen’s earlier sports movie, Body and Soul (1947), hews closer to the conventions of the genre. Despite an overlay of self-doubt and personal angst, its story plays out as a competitive match where victory is still all important.

With The Hustler, character is the central focus. For pool hustler Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman in a breakthrough role), winning isn’t just about succeeding in the game, it’s also about succeeding in life. He has the necessary skills to win, but is held back by a lack of character. When Eddie’s manager tells him he has talent, Eddie asks, “So what beat me?” Without hesitation, the manager answers, “Character.” We cheer for Eddie and want him to win, but we also see the tense relationship between an unclear head and a disciplined body, more so in this film than perhaps in any other.

Another strength of this remarkable movie is its ability to focus that same character-defining microscope onto the other strong personalities in the story. This is very much an ensemble piece, which draws equally electrifying performances from George C. Scott (Eddie’s slimy manager), Piper Laurie (Eddie’s troubled girlfriend), and Jackie Gleason (Eddie’s self-assured competitor — Minnesota Fats). The story improves with each viewing, as you pick up the subtle interactions among the characters.

All four actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards (Scott declined his nomination). The Hustler earned nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, but won only for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” and “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black-and-White.” Newman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Fast Eddie 25 years later, in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986). Was it meant to be a reward for his earlier role? Probably, though we’ll never know for sure.

The Hustler
(1961; directed by Robert Rossen; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Sunday, July 26 at 1:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, August 29 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Fury

Fritz Lang’s first American film after fleeing the Hitler regime in Germany, Fury (1936) is a terrifying look at how good people can go bad when swayed by the darker instincts of a crowd. The incredible scenes where the mob tries to lynch an innocent man recall the workers frantically fleeing the city in Metropolis and the angry calls for justice against the child murderer in M.

David O. Selznick brought Lang to MGM in 1934. He languished at the studio for months and was nearly fired. Given one last chance, Lang was handed a four-page outline titled Mob Rule. MGM told Lang and writer Barlett Cormack they would need to develop it into a script for Lang to direct.

Lang didn’t speak English very well at the time, so he looked around for inspiration. He found that inspiration in the form of newspaper clippings, as he explains in a 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I followed a habit I had in Europe (and still have) of collecting newspaper clippings — I have used them for a lot of my pictures. We found a lynching case that had happened in San Jose, California, a few years before I made the film, and we used many newspaper clippings for the script.

Spencer Tracy turns in a gripping performance as Joe Wheeler, a man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sylvia Sidney portrays his loyal girlfriend. The film also provides early roles for long-time character actors Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.

While it would be easy to dismiss Fury as a transitional film where Lang is learning how to deal with the restrictions of the Hollywood studio system, I find it has an unusual rawness and intensity. Lang must have seen something in it. Fury was his favorite film among the ones he directed in the U.S.

Fury
(1936; directed by Fritz Lang, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, July 19 at 11:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, July 19 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

King Kong

When a film (or its star) rises to the status of cultural icon, it’s easy to forget why it became a part of the social fabric. We may forget Fay Wray’s scream is almost primal in its intensity. We may forget the feverish pace at which the story unfolds once Kong appears. What we don’t forget is the remarkable moves and expressions of the giant ape. Unlike the other popular film monsters of the era — most notably Dracula and Frankenstein — Kong was created entirely by visual effects. The is it real, is it not real quality of the film continues to capture our imagination.

The granddaddy of all big-creature visual-effects movies, King Kong (1933) is still studied today for its impressive layering of techniques to achieve the most convincing look for that particular shot. Chief technician Willis H. O’Brien (“O.B.”) used combinations of stop motion animation (Kong consists mostly of this technique), glass shots (literally paintings on glass), rear projection (sometimes multiple screens used simultaneously), and miniatures (often mixed with full-sized objects to enhance the sense of distance).

To the viewer, none of this matters. What matters is the willing suspension of disbelief, and the sense that Kong has a real personality. If you feel sorry for Kong and his inability to fit in with the modern world, it’s because you believe at some level he is a sentient being with real emotions.

This newly mastered print of King Kong should help restore the movie to its rightful place in film history. Even in a scratchy third-generation television print, we responded to Kong as a believable character. With the remastered print, we can clearly see his surroundings. The jungle looks as though it might have leaped from a Gustave Doré illustration. The intricate multi-plane compositions enhance the dramatic tension as the hero and heroine flee for their lives.

RKO took a big chance on this film. Near bankruptcy, the studio bet everything on the success of its “ape picture.” Fortunately, King Kong was a monster hit. Depression-era audiences responded just as we do today to visual-effects monsters (think Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy). If the effects are innovative enough, and the creatures are believable enough, we’ll keep coming back for more.

The new Blu-ray edition has the movie and special features on a single disc. The special features include two first-rate documentaries: I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper, as well as RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World. The Blu-ray looks great and is very close to how the movie must have looked in the theaters back in 1933.

If you buy the Blu-ray or DVD, try advancing the Kong action scenes one frame at a time. There are a few places within the film where you can see a metal stand or measuring apparatus positioned next to Kong — but only for a single frame.

King Kong
(1933; directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (Collector’s Edition DVD), $26.95 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Tuesday, July 14 at 1:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, July 12 at 4:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Shop Around the Corner

Some stories are so good, they’re worth telling over and over again. Take, for example, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it was converted into a Broadway musical, titled She Loves Me. And more recently, it was remade as yet another movie, You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

At its core, the story is quite simple, which is why it’s so easily adapted. A man and woman, who dislike each other intensely in person, have each found love anonymously in a correspondence with a stranger. What they don’t know – and we do – is that they’re corresponding with each other.

The plot wasn’t entirely original to Lubitsch. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson adapted it from a Hungarian play. Even though Lubitsch isn’t credited with the screenplay, he and Raphaelson worked closely to write the dialogue on all their collaborations. Here’s an example of the dialogue from the film:

Marton: Remember the girl I was corresponding with?
Pirovitch: Ah, yes . . . about those cultural subjects.
Marton: Well, after a while, we came to the subject of love, naturally, but on a very cultural level.
Pirovitch: What else can you do in a letter?
Marton: Pirovitch, she’s the most marvelous girl in the world . . .
Pirovitch: Is she pretty?
Marton: She has such ideals, such a point of view on things . . . She’s so far above the girls you meet today, there’s simply no comparison.
Pirovitch: So she’s not so very pretty.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg (written on July 10, 1947 — just months before his death), Lubitsch suggested his three best films were Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch cited The Shop Around the Corner as his best “human comedy.” He wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” He chose Trouble in Paradise for its style and Ninotchka for its satire.

While Lubitsch is the master of the sophisticated comedy, you don’t always identify with his characters in the same way you identify with the characters in the comedies of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. That’s certainly not the case with this film. With its sparkling dialogue, winning performances, and measured pacing, it’s one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

The Shop Around the Corner
(1940; directed by Ernst Lubitsch, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, July 11 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, July 8 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, July 8 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, August 19 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Singin' in the Rain

Is there anyone into classic films who doesn’t like Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Given that 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds had never danced before, and the script had to be written around a group of songs with little in common, it’s a wonder (and a tribute to those involved) that this would turn out to be the greatest Hollywood musical.

Reynolds received six months of intensive dance training before the production began. She had already shown her singing ability and plucky appeal in her previous films (most notably in Two Weeks with Love, where she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter).

Famed creative team Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the near impossible task of crafting a storyline around a diverse selection of tunes from the 1920s and 1930s. Two songs, “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” were new to this production. “Make ‘Em Laugh” was adapted from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Gene Kelly performed in The Pirate (1948). The others were part of a catalogue of songs, acquired by MGM, that had been written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

Singin’ in the Rain is filled with references to other films. The story centers around the period from 1927 through 1929 when the industry transitioned from silent films to “talkies.” There are allusions to particular films from that period. For example, the fictional film the characters are producing (titled The Dueling Cavalier) is based on an actual film, titled The Cavalier (1928). Like its fictional counterpart, it began as a silent film but was hastily transformed into a sound film, largely through the addition of poorly dubbed musical numbers. And in the Hollywood premiere sequence, the character Zelda Zanders, known as the “Zip Girl,” is meant to evoke the real-life Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl.”

Just as they borrowed songs and plot devices from earlier movies, co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly scavenged the back lot for suitable props from previous MGM movies. Debbie Reynolds’ car is Andy’s old jalopy from the Andy Hardy series. And the mansion where Gene Kelly lives is decorated with furniture and fixtures from Flesh and the Devil (1926).

The movie references extend to the musical numbers and film-within-a-film scenes. The “Gotta Dance” number echoes previous MGM musicals, including Words and Music (1948), The Pirate, Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). Gene Kelly’s musketeer movie at the beginning of the story recalls his earlier film, The Three Musketeers. And when Kelly brings Reynolds onto an empty sound stage and turns on the lights, it mimics his earlier film, Summer Stock.

While the movie references are fun for film buffs, the real joy comes from the memorable songs, exuberant dance numbers, and snappy dialogue. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed to find how good a movie musical can be. Even if you don’t like movie musicals, you’ll probably like this one. Nothing else comes close.

Singin’ in the Rain
(1952; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, July 8 at 2:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, August 23 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Red Shoes

A great film depends on everything coming together into an unlikely alignment. If a director, actor, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, or other essential component is lacking, you may end up with only an interesting film that shows promise.

With The Red Shoes (1948), so many things that could have gone wrong, didn’t. Michael Powell could have chosen to use actors who could dance, rather than dancers who could act. His strategy was high risk, but promised to pay off big — if he could find the right dancers. Basing the story on a dark fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson was equally perilous, unless Emeric Pressburger’s script could successfully emphasize the warmth and humanity of the ballet company, as much as their artistic spirit and integrity of purpose. And inserting a 17-minute ballet sequence, not at the end of the movie as an emotional climax, but near the middle to place the emotional conflicts into stark relief, would have been commercially foolish if not handled skillfully. That all these things succeeded so spectacularly, when any one of them could easily have failed, is a credit to those involved, but also a fortunate happenstance that all the participants agreed to come onboard.

Much of the audience’s empathy is dependent on the acting talent of Moira Shearer, who was just 21 years old at the time. A dancer at Sadler’s Wells (later renamed the Royal Ballet), Shearer wasn’t eager to put her dancing career on hold, as she explains in this 1994 interview with Brian McFarlane for An Autobiography of British Cinema:

I held out against that film for a whole year. The director Michael Powell was extremely put out by my continued refusal. It never occurred to him that a young girl wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his offer. But I didn’t like the story or the script, which seemed a typical woman’s magazine view of the theatre, and I also realized he knew very little about the ballet. Also, at that time, 1946, I had just started to dance the ballerina roles in the big classics and the last thing I wanted to do ‘was to interrupt this difficult work with a sugary movie.’ Powell bombarded me for weeks in 1946 and I remember thinking, ‘I have to get rid of this man.’ However, he finally got the message and went off in a huff, saying to me, ‘I am now going around the world to find the perfect girl for this part.’

He came back a year later; presumably he hadn’t found his perfect girl, though he had now engaged Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann, both of whom I knew well, as dancer-actors and to arrange the choreography. Powell went on and on at me and I think he must have bombarded Ninette de Valois because she called me to her office and amazed me by saying, ‘For God’s sake, child, do this film and get it off your chest — and ours, because I can’t stand that man bothering us any longer!’ I asked one question, ‘If I do it, can I come straight back to Covent Garden when the film is complete?’ and her answer was, ‘Yes, of course you can.’ And I did — but not happily. There was a lot of jealousy and bad feeling. I’m afraid I was very naive. Helpmann told me later that the only reason de Valois wanted me to make the film was to give advance publicity in America for the first coast-to-coast tour of her company in 1949. Which, of course, is what happened.

Jack Cardiff also wasn’t eager to join the project. He had worked as the cinematographer for Powell on A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), but wasn’t enthralled with the idea of photographing a movie about a ballet company. Powell asked Cardiff to regularly attend the ballet at Covent Garden, where he saw the possibilities of what he could bring to the film. One example was a special camera Cardiff designed that let him vary the film speed while the dancers performed. By slowing down their movements imperceptivity, he enhanced the visual impression they were soaring through the air or reaching extreme heights. Cardiff was probably the finest Technicolor cinematographer ever, and two of his films — Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — are often cited as the best examples of what can be achieved with the Technicolor process.

Though risky, The Red Shoes was a financial success. In the U.S., it began quietly with a 110-week run at The Bijou in New York City and was then picked up for national distribution. It had a strong influence on Hollywood musicals. The extended ballet-like sequences in An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) might never have been approved without proof there was an eager audience for this merging of art forms.

The Red Shoes
(1948; directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Tuesday, July 8 at 11:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Duck Soup

Marx Brothers fans usually fall into two camps: those who think Duck Soup (1933) is their best film, and those who think A Night at the Opera (1935) is their best film. The strongest argument in favor of A Night at the Opera is the stateroom scene. It’s the funniest sequence the Marx Brothers ever created. I’m in the Duck Soup camp. I think the slow portions of A Night at the Opera tend to drag it down a bit. And while no single sequence in Duck Soup quite matches the stateroom scene, it’s more consistently entertaining.

Much of the credit has to go to Duck Soup’s writers. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby worked together on the story, and Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin provided additional dialogue. It also didn’t hurt to have Groucho (Rufus T. Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Teasdale) to deliver the lines. Here are some examples:

Rufus T. Firefly: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Mrs. Teasdale: Why, he’s dead.
Rufus T. Firefly: I bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: I was with him to the very end.
Rufus T. Firefly: No wonder he passed away.
Mrs. Teasdale: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Rufus T. Firefly: Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Mrs. Teasdale: Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.
Rufus T. Firefly: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle any more.

Rufus T. Firefly: Now, what is it that has four pairs of pants, lives in Philadelphia, and it never rains but it pours?
Chicolini: Atsa good one. I give you three guesses.
Rufus T. Firefly: Now let me see. Has four pair of pants, lives in Philadelphia… Is it male or female?
Chicolini: No, I no think so.
Rufus T. Firefly: Is he dead?
Chicolini: Who?
Rufus T. Firefly: I don’t know. I give up.
Chicolini: I give up, too.

Prosecutor: Chicolini, when were you born?
Chicolini: I don’t-a remember. I was just a little baby.

Prosecutor: Something must be done! War would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes.
Chicolini: Hey, I got an uncle lives in Taxes.
Prosecutor: No, I’m talking about taxes — money, dollars!
Chicolini: Dollars! There’s-a where my uncle lives! Dollars, Taxes!

Duck Soup benefits by having a first-class director at the helm. Leo McCarey had directed many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent comedies. His previous sound comedies, especially Let’s Go Native (1930) and The Kid from Spain (1932), show an inventive and improvisational style that would blend well with the Marx Brothers. Unfortunately, Duck Soup was a flop at the box office. As a result, it was their last film at Paramount. MGM gave them another chance, though their freewheeling approach would prove to be at odds with the MGM factory system. Their comedies following A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are pale imitations of their earlier classic films.

Duck Soup
(1933; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Universal Studios
List price: $19.98

Sunday, July 5 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, July 11 at 8:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Friday, August 14 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, July 4 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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