Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Copacabana (1947)

Groucho, too bad you couldn't have brought your brothers along.

Chico had a heart attack the same year as this film and announced his retirement. Copacabana marks the first time Groucho appeared on the big screen without his siblings.

Copacabana has its moments, but real good laughs are sparse. Heppo, Chico, Zeppo and Grocho foil, Margaret Dumont, I miss you all.

Times are tough in New York City for Lionel Q. Deveraux (Marx) and his girlfriend Carmen Novarro (Carmen Miranda). They're behind in their rent, threatened with eviction and have hardly anything to meet.

Their situation improves tremendously when Copacabana manager Steve Hunt (Steve Cochran) warms to Novarro's voice and that of Mlle. Fifi, also Novarro. The two singers perform on different floors at the nightclub. Deveraux tries to keep her singing obligations straight as she slips from character to character and not catch Cochran's suspicions. Fifi wears a kerchief covering most of her head, which apparently is enough from keeping her audiences and co-workers in the dark about her dual identity.

This kind of charade can only get more complicated - and it does. Steve takes a shine to Mlle. Fifi.

Deveraux, not impressed with his girlfriend's boss making moves on her, tries to get Steve matched up with his secretary, Anne Stuart (Gloria Jean). She is crazy about Steve and he's completely oblivious about her.

Crooner Andy Russell appears as himself and sings three numbers (My Heart was Doing a Bolero, He Hasn't Got a Thing to Sell and Je Vous Aime). He gets to sing this memorable line: "My heart jumps like a Mexican bean." Ouch. Russell's acting chops don't match his pipes. Cochran is a wee bit stiff too. Jean was trying to make the transition from child to adult star.

There are some good lines here, just not enough.

Carmen to Grouch: "Out of my way you broken down Casanova."

Groucho to Andy: "My plan is just as simple as you are."

Police detective to Marx: "What's the Q for?"
Marx: "My father used to hang around a pool room."

Director Alfred Green (The Jackie Robinson Story , The Jolson Story ) sets up several very sharp shots, including the film's opener. There's a rather bizarre scene where Marx tries to impress manager Hunt with an act who's ... Groucho Marx. There's no further explanation about how the two men look exactly alike. I wonder what audiences back in 1947 thought.

There are better films starring Marx that this site has reviewed. Pick them ahead of Copacabana.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: That's Groucho's then wife, Kay Marvis, who trades quips with him as a cigarette girl.

That's real life media folk Abel Green, Louis Sobol and Earl Wilson checking out Mlle. Fifi's performance.

Gloria Jean, who was a child star, appeared with W.C. Fields in Wc Fields - Never Give A Sucker An Even Break [DVD]. She's still alive, as of this writing in February 2014.

Amazon has several CDs featuring Andy Russell's music including Spotlight on Andy Russell (Great Gentlemen of Song)

Groucho on Copacabana, as quote in Hector Arce's : "I played second banana to the fruit on Carmen Miranda's head."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Just how much thinking does John Ford want us to do with Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The?

Outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) terrorizes the western town of Shinbone. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is the only one brave enough, and with a good enough shot, to kill him. But he doesn't. Why?

Fresh out of school lawyer Ransom Stoppard arrives in Shinbone from the eastern United States. He wants the law to deal with Valance. But Marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is afraid of his own shadow and jumps whenever someone comes up to him unexpectedly. Doniphon suggests Stoppard needs to start packing a gun if he wants to put an end to Valance's reign of terror. What's Ford suggesting about the rule of law in the wild west? "Out here a man settles his own problems," Doniphon tells Stoppard.

Does Doniphon, who suggests might makes right, deep down the most progressive person in Shinbone? The girl he fancies, Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles), runs a restaurant. She earns her own living. Doniphon tells her more than once she looks great when she's mad. Hmmm, does he have a soft spot for women who speak their mind? That would be a different mindset to have in the 19th century. And how about his friend Pompey (Woody Strode). Pompey's black, the only black person we see in Shinbone. Is Doniphon more accepting of equal rights for blacks? When a bartender refuses to serve Pompey, it's Doniphon who speaks up for that rule to be dropped.

The film opens with Stoppard returning to Shinbone for Doniphon's funeral. His old friend was so destitute the undertaker pinched his boots for some form of payment. Just what kind of life did Doniphon have after Stoppard went on to greater success?

Is Doniphon willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good? Some residents of Shinbone, such as Stoppard, see benefits in the territory becoming a state to help the little guy and thwart the plans of cattle barons. He sees Hallie, the woman he plans to marry and who he has added an extension to his home, falling for Stoppard. But he doesn't stop the relationship. Why?

Was Ford giving a sly wink to modern politics when a cowboy on a horse enters a political meeting and does a trick on stage. Is this an early example of a photo opportunity, a way to add some sizzle to a political hopeful?

How about Doniphon continually calling Stoppard "pilgrim." Is it a reference to Doniphon making the long trek to Shinbone? Is he suggesting Stoppard is on a quest of sorts - to see law and order in the west? Or, his goals will have to take him beyond Shinbone?

Wayne's character is fascinating to watch. He's a man's man, but he hurts when Hallie falls for Stoppard. Doniphon can lay claim to an amazing accomplishment, but he keeps quiet for years to his own detriment. Why?

Marvin makes a great villain. This guy is ruthless. He beats people with his whip. Valance will have nothing to do with Stoppard's talk of law. "I'll teach you law, western law," he thunders when the two men first meet.

Funny thing about Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The. In some ways, viewers can see where the story is going. But, boy, do a little digging and things get a little hazier.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The received an Oscar nomination for costume design (Edith Head).

Vera Miles was also in another very fine film directed by John Ford, The Searchers. Wow. She was also in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Woody Strode squared off with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. His film debut was in another John Ford film, Stagecoach.

Jeannette Nolan, who appears here with John Qualen as Nora and Peter Ericson, made her last film appearance in The Horse Whisperer.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

All The President's Men (1976)

Here's a great thriller with no car chases or explosions.

In his commentary, actor and producer Robert Redford notes the talent behind this fine 1976 drama feared audiences would find a story about two newspaper reporters digging into the Watergate break-in to be too boring.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Director Alan Pakula's All the President's Men rolls right along thanks to a great cast and crackerjack storytelling.

New Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Redford) senses something is up after the Democratic national headquarters is broken into. He drops by the courthouse and sees a bigshot attorney (Nicolas Coster) is in the gallery. Such high-priced talent seems at odds with a bungled break-in. The story keeps getting more interesting. All the accused have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. The name of a special counsul to President Richard Nixon enters the fray.

Woodward gets teamed up with more experienced writer Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to keep digging. The pressure the two reporters is under is significant. Few other reporters in Washington are paying attention to the Watergate break-in. Post brass want political writers to take on the story. Plenty of people Bernstein and Woodward want to speak with are keeping their lips tightly shut. Many doors are shut in their faces. The New York Times is also sniffing around, covering the same people. The two Post reporters don't want to lose a scoop - the most important thing for a working journalist.

Their determined efforts yields occasional paydirt - people associated with the Republican party and a committee to re-elect Nixon who are willing to talk off the record, to a point. A bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) is the first to speak. A lawyer, Donald Segretti (Robert Walden), who has helped the Republicans mess up the efforts of Democratic candidates also talks. Woodward also has Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), an insider who also offers limited guidance and points out where the Post's efforts are wrong - or not digging deep enough.

This film, winner of four Oscars, boasts a stellar supporting cast including Jason Robards as Post publisher Ben Bradlee. He's interested, to a point, in what Woodward and Bernstein are doing, but keeps demanding more sources to back up their story. Jack Warden and Martin Balsam are also very fine as newspaper managers.

All the President's Men is one of those films where viewers must pay very close attention to keep connecting the dots in the plot. Redford's reaction, at several points, is impressive as he realizes the scope of his story keeps getting bigger and bigger.

What a great joy - as a newspaper reporter - to see a bustling newsroom and big stories being chased. I love the final shot of Nixon celebrating his re-election with Redford in the background pecking away at another story that would eventually force Nixon to resign from office.

All the President's Men is a great film.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Stephen Collins, who appears as Hugh Sloan, starred in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Wow. F. Murray Abraham is one of the police officers who nabs the Watergate burglars.

Nicolas Coster was a seaman in 1953's Titanic.

That's television mom Meredith Baxter as Sloan's wife, Debbie.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Harvey (1950)

Hop to it and see Harvey. This is a very funny comedy.

The laughs are numerous, and usually prolonged, with this fine film version of the Broadway play by Mary Chase.

Josephine Hull is the real gem here in a role that earned her an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

As Veta Louise Simmons, she's at the end of her rope with younger brother Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart). Simmons and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) returned to live with Dowd after their their mother's death. Mom left all of her estate to Dowd.

It's then, Vera notes, that Elwood was acting "different." His best friend, and constant companion, is a white rabbit that stands more than six feet tall and is invisible to just about everyone by him. Harvey, he says, is a pooka, a fairy spirit that appears in animal form at times. Simmons is trying to get her daughter married off, but ladies of high society stay away in droves from her home because of Dowd's odd behaviour. Veta isn't keen about Elwood's habit of inviting "a lot of riff raff" to dine with them at his home. That includes bar patron Mr. Minninger, who tells Elwood he's been away a couple of times in recent years with "a job for the state" making licence plates and constructing roads.

When Simmons decides to commit Dowd to a home for the mentally ill, she ends up behind bars. It seems her stories about Harvey convince Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) that she's the one who needs help at Chumley's Rest. Meanwhile, Dowd, who was originally checked in, is sprung free. It's only after he leaves the property that Sanderson and his boss, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) realize they've mixed up the sibling who should be in care. They fear lawsuits and race to find Dowd.

He's not too hard to find, since he spends a lot of time in bars. But Harvey might not be the creation of Dowd's memory everyone thinks. Even Veta, on occasion, will acknowledge his unseen presence. Chumley sees possibilities in his own life where he'd like to be friends with Harvey.

While Sanderson and Chumley like to speak softly and talk in medical terms, orderly Wilson (Jesse White) is more than willing to use brute force to get patients under control. He strikes fear into Veta. She is convinced he's "a white slaver." But even he manages to notice Myrtle Mae. Romance blooms.

There's a fun, if a little strange, passive/aggressive subplot involving Samuelson and Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow). She's keen on him, but he's oblivious to her interest. It's Dowd who shows an interest in her and gives her the attention missing from Samuelson's daily rounds.

Harvey is a very funny film about someone who's a little different. It boasts a great cast, with fine support work from William Lynn as Judge Gaffney. See this film.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Wallace Ford, who appears here as The Taxi Driver, made his last screen appearance in A Patch of Blue. That film was also reviewed on this site. It's a must see.

Charles Drake appeared as a reporter in The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart.

Jesse White had a long stint as advertising personality Maytag Repairman. He also appeared in Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. I have to see this film!