Monday, July 25, 2011

His Girl Friday - Between The Lines Edit

Says hilowbrow:
In this piece of brilliant editing by Valentin Spirik, His Girl Friday, the Cary Grant vehicle, clocks in at only 8 minutes — exactly what remains when all the dialogue goes missing. It’s worth noting that even in a genre (screwball comedy) defined by its witty repartee, the core remains. How much of language is movement? How much of communication is, literally, embodied?

Via Pullquote

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

For your consideration — "Rom-coms at 20,000 feet" edition

Wired: July 19, 1961: Fasten Your Seatbelts, By Love Possessed Will Begin Shortly — Wired commemorates the 50th anniversary of in-flight movies. Bouncing off this summer's success of The Trip, here's a list of The Ten Best Films With No Plot. (I'd add Robert Altman's MASH.) I posted about The Trip here.
Aside: Yes, it's a good list, but can we, the collective Internet, agree that personal, subjective lists labeled "The [x] Best..." or "Worst" anything (especially "... Ever") is a fixation that has run its course? Please. I can name the ten best reasons why this is so.

io9: Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked Sundance (minor spoilers) — See this movie. My own post on Another Earth is here.

The Guardian: The genius of Douglas Trumbull — "He blew minds with SFX work in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he's doing it again in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. In a rare interview, we catch up with a true visionary."

Moira Macdonald (Seattle Times): A summer reading list -- for the movies

Mythical Monkey: The Essential Cary Grant (A Baker's Dozen)

Glenn Erickson: Great Groucho's ghost! The legendary disaster Skidoo is finally on DVD. GreenCine Daily dubbed it DVD of the week.

So is Rango, which GreenCine Daily reminds me I'd like to see again.

Bardfilm: Macbeth: Something Robotic This Way Comes — "A new version of Macbeth may be coming... The twist this time involves an all-robot cast. Shakespeare's text will be retained, though the setting will be altered to 'a Cyber Scotland,' according to Daniel Gallagher, its creator."

Movie Morlocks (TCM): My classic movie gratitude list

Jim Emerson (Scanners) -- About this whole Netflix pricing thing... — What he said.

The Onion: Sadly, Gift Certificate To Loews Cinemas Perfect Gift For Area Man

io9 again: 10 Greatest Unintentionally Hilarious Lines from Science Fiction and Fantasy

Also io9: Everything You Need to Know about Disney's John Carter Movie — As someone who enjoyed those pulpy old Edgar Rice Burroughs' books as a kid, I'm curious (and cautiously optimistic) about this one.

Via The New Yorker

With pie-throwing momentarily the news of the world....

Apparently it's all the rage today, so The New Yorker offers a cinematic and cultural history of the confectionery missile, as does Slate.

In 1939 Hollywood Cavalcade told a highly Hollywoodized story of silent-era cinema and the transition to sound. Mack Sennett was credited as supervisor and Mal St. Clair from the Chaplin stable directed the silent sequences. Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and Jimmy Finlayson all make cameo appearances. Nostalgia trumps historical accuracy throughout, but there's nothing new there.

Buster Keaton, who never staged a pie fight in his own films, was trotted out to show Alice Faye how to receive and throw a pie. This is also uncharacteristic as house rules at Hal Roach studios decreed that everybody took pies except the pretty girl.

These outtakes come with no audio, alas, although check out Buster's smile at :39...

YouTubed by

Naturally, the Three Stooges flung the filling a time or three...

Meanwhile, in Blazing Saddles...

Then there's Jack Lemmon (in two roles), Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Keenan Wynn, and Peter Falk in The Great Race...

And finally, of course, there's...

Related post: For your consideration — bakers edition

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Every day we are alive there are millions of untold stories...."

One Day on Earth - Motion Picture Trailer from One Day On Earth on Vimeo.

This trailer is the first glimpse of One Day on Earth, an ambitious motion picture shot by thousands of filmmakers in every country in the world on a single day: October 10, 2010. The trailer alone includes footage from 90 individuals and organizations. The producer/director Kyle Ruddick is currently editing down 3,000 hours of film and is asking for help via Kickstarter to complete the project. I don't know about you but it gave me chills.

At Vimeo:
ONE DAY ON EARTH creates a picture of humanity by recording a 24-hour period throughout every country in the world. We explore a greater diversity of perspectives than ever seen before on screen. We follow characters and events that evolve throughout the day, interspersed with expansive global montages that explore the progression of life from birth, to death, to birth again. In the end, despite unprecedented challenges and tragedies throughout the world, we are reminded that every day we are alive there is hope and a choice to see a better future together.

Founded in 2008, ONE DAY ON EARTH set out to explore our planet’s identity and challenges in an attempt to answer the question: Who are we?

via Christopher Jobson

Pic pick: It's a mad, mad, mad, mad Hendrix

It's not movie-related, but there's too much to love here to not share it. That's the Sept. '67 issue, by the way.

Via LIFE archives

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) — Whaddya hear, whaddya say?

It's the same every time. My recent annual re-watching of Yankee Doodle Dandy only whetted my appetite for more James Cagney. (Is he my favorite actor of the "classic" Hollywood era? He may have to arm wrestle Cary Grant for the title. Certainly both occupy a shifting cloud of my top-of-the-tops from the 1930s-'50s.) This time, though, I was ready for that whetting and so had a neighboring DVD already pulled from the shelf. It's one I hadn't seen in years, and I was pleased to discover that it still holds up to my memory of it.

In 1938 Warner Brothers took a stand in the nature/nurture debate, pointing a gangster melodrama, Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces, squarely at the poverty, social dysfunction, and ineffectual judicial system that mold and ultimately doom gangland's Rocky Sullivan, memorably played by Cagney because, hey, who else?

It's a random dice-toss of chance — Rocky, a boy from the New York City slums, can't run as fast as his best pal Jerry on the day it counts most — that preordains the boy to come of age in reform schools and prisons, which educate him only in how to become a top-dog hoodlum.

Fifteen years later, Rocky is a natty, snazzy, hardened gangster newly released from prison when he visits his old tenement neighborhood to reunite with his boyhood pal Jerry, who's now a priest (Pat O'Brien, Cagney's real-life friend and frequent co-star).

Even through its contrived sentimentality and its position as the ground zero for generations' worth of Hollywood tropes, Angels remains a pinnacle achievement from the heyday of the Hollywood gangster cycle. Rocky Sullivan, like other toughs played by the charismatic Cagney in The Public Enemy and other hits, so sculpted the actor's public image that not even his footloose spin playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy could shake it. The way Rocky hitches his shoulders remains a staple of Cagney impressions. Cagney took the mannerism, along with Rocky's catch-phrase "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?," from a streetcorner pimp he recalled from his own hard growing-up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen.

When Rocky returns to his old haunts, he encounters the new generation of young street thugs, played well by the Dead End Kids. It isn't long before the ruffians take the dapper, famous, and (in their eyes) enviably successful Rocky as a role model. Like Cagney himself, Rocky is spirited, often funny, and entirely self-directed. There's nothing false about his cocky swagger and rat-a-tat delivery.

His yin/yang equal is Father Jerry, now an activist social reformer as savvy and resolute as Rocky, and who's willing to manifest his compassion for his old pal through a right hook when the occasion calls for it.

While Rocky enjoys his Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster celebrity, Father Jerry is doing his best to keep the kids' hearts and minds out of harm's way. Therefore he's duty-bound (and divinely sanctioned) to disapprove and try to influence his friend — even while admitting that in the crap shoot of life Rocky has, outwardly if not inwardly, won the toss. Although fate split Rocky and Jerry on their divergent destinies long ago, the kids can still choose which path to take, and nobody sees that better than Jerry.

Meanwhile, Rocky attempts a hard-boiled romance with steely Ann Sheridan (another reunion from the old hood), and catches up with the racketeering gang that he took the fall for years ago. That's when he runs afoul of Humphrey Bogart as the slick, crooked lawyer who owes Rocky a hundred G's in stolen loot. When Bogart's bad-bad guy sets out to bump off Cagney's good-bad guy, we're rooting for Rocky all the way.

However, as the kids trade basketball in the parish church gym — Rocky's tough insistence that they play by the rules makes for one of my favorite scenes in '30s cinema — in exchange for high-profile living with ill-gotten dough and racking 'em up at the pool hall, we see that Father Jerry is correct and Rocky's influence on the vulnerable street kids can make a literally life or death difference.

The way Rocky takes care of his former cronies puts the cops on his tail. New York is gripped with gangster panic, the kids following his headline exploits as if he's a sports star. A blazing gunfight dovetails smoothly into one of the great Hollywood endings: Rocky's "last mile" walk and Jerry's appeal to his humanity for the sake of the kids who worship him as a hero. Rocky's final moments before the electric chair's sizzle — all shadows and the sound of Rocky's last words — pump up a climax that's as riveting as it is famously ambiguous.

Angels With Dirty Faces sure has aged well. There's a bowlful of old chestnuts in this pulpy parable where hardcore street toughs are named Soapy, Swing, Mim, Patsy, Hunky, and Crabface, but it's saved from the terminal trites by its prime-rib casting and ear-pleasing screenplay, to which Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur contributed without credit. One of my favorite exchanges is apparently also one of Quentin Tarantino's, who modified it only slightly for the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs:

Soapy: "Hey! Call a fair game or I'll slap you right in the kisser!"
Rocky: "You'll slap me? You slap me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize."

It all moves crisply forward under the gifted hand of director Curtiz, who kept the pace lively and the imagery genre-perfect. (1938 saw four more Curtiz films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.) Even clichés such as the kids' dime paperback street patois ("I didn't say a woid!") and the newspaper headlines rushing toward the camera still somehow feel fresh and appropriate.

I want to give a special shout-out here to actor Frankie Burke, who at the old age of 23 appears in the early scenes playing young Rocky as a boy. Although he made other films after Angels, this is the role he's remembered for. And there's no wondering why — the guy's such a dead ringer for Cagney that I found myself wondering if the part was actually Cagney somehow playing Rocky as a teenager. The look, the talk, the mannerisms, it's all there and there's no question that this kid is going to grow up to be Cagney's character. Apparently it was a role Frankie (real name Francis Vaselle Aiello) was born to play. According to his IMDb bio, he was a Brooklyn kid who grew up hooked on Cagney in the movies.
"He imitated Cagney for a long time to his friends and family, much to their approval, before deciding to hitchhike to Hollywood to get an interview with Cagney, but this attempt failed, so he returned home to New York. Later he tried it again, and this time he landed a job on the vaudeville circuit doing impressions of Cagney. A Warner Bros. talent scout saw his act and hired him for the role of the young version of Cagney's Rocky Sullivan' in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)."
Some 17 mostly forgotten films later, his story takes a spin toward the peculiar:
"His whereabouts from 1941 to about 1961 are unknown, but sometime in the early 1960s, he decided to ride the rails as what he, himself, called a 'Hobo' until he became too ill and was taken from a train when it pulled into Junction City, Kansas. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and sent to a long term care facility in Chapman, Kansas where he passed away only weeks later on April 7th, 1983."
The bio is hardly official and not what we'd call professionally written ("he sat in the lobby for weeks every day"). It was apparently provided by the proprietor of a (rather, the) Frankie Burke fan site, so while there's no other way to authenticate the info, there's no doubting its earnestness — or Burke's uncanny turn in the role.

Then there's Leo Gorcey, the pugnacious leader of the original Dead End Kids, who almost gained another vector of immortality by almost making it onto the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover, complete with his Angels Jughead hat. It seems that a paltry fee of $400 demanded by either Gorcey or his agent (accounts differ) was the sticking point.

Angels With Dirty Faces shows that the studios — particularly Warner Bros. with its distinctive house style and contract players — could produce good work even when knuckling under to the Thou-Shalt-Nots of the Production Code's killjoy moralizing (the original conformist "PC"). There's plenty of gunfire, but no blood or corpses; the "coppers" are shown as embodiments of Law & Order while Rocky and the other criminals are punished by early death and ignominy. It's suggested that Ann Sheridan's Laury didn't exactly live the wholesome life before her husband got gunned down and Father Jerry rescued her, but the script dodges any unsavory details.

And yet that obeisance to the Code pushed the screenplay toward its most interesting highlight — the unveiling of murderous thug Rocky Sullivan's layers and nuances, the "good kid" he could have been showing through the hardened outer shell he grew while bouncing in and out of the joint. His final seconds in the Death House, and the sacrifice they represent, turn the character inside out, potentially making this brutal gangster one of Hollywood's great screen heroes.

Cagney leaped at the role as a means to stretch his range on the screen, and everybody noticed. It earned him the New York Film Critics Award and his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

As a Cagney gangster picture with a marshmallow center, it contrasts in interesting ways alongside The Public Enemy from seven years earlier and especially White Heat eleven years later. What a fine triple-feature DVD night that would be.

These days, we note wryly that this Depression-era film's "society is to blame" text, and the Code's dictates on how lawmen and criminals must be portrayed, make a perhaps humbling red-state/blue-state unity. The whole "crime doesn't pay" trope has never felt more quaint than it does today, but the way Angels With Dirty Faces balances hard-bitten gangster drama with warmly stage-managed religiosity gives us an entertaining period piece, one which shows that after more than seventy years you still can't go wrong with a Jimmy Cagney movie.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harlan Ellison's "Brain Movies"

From J. Michael Straczynski, via Neil Gaiman:

I don't have to tell you who Harlan Ellison is, or that he wrote some of the most seminal episodes of science fiction television in the history of the form. His scripts for The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Twilight Zone and others have won countless awards and are considered landmarks of the genre.

A while back, I got wind of a top-secret project being developed by Publishing 180, the company that publishes the Babylon 5 script books, involving Harlan's scripts for these series. (Important note: I do not own any part of P180 nor do I receive any financial remuneration of any kind from this project. My involvement here is strictly as a fan and admirer.) I now hold in my hand a preliminary copy of that book, and I wanted to give everyone a heads-up because folks, this is a doozy.

The book, entitled BRAIN MOVIES, contains Harlan's scripts for “Soldier,” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” from THE OUTER LIMITS, “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich” from the TWILIGHT ZONE, “Memo from Purgatory” from ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, “The Face of Helen Bournouw” and Harlan's near-legendary manifesto on how to write good science fiction, written exclusively for incoming writers on BABYLON 5. (The scripts for Paladin and Demon received the prestigious Writers Guild Award.)

In many cases, the book contains both the script and the treatment for the script, something almost never seen outside the studio. Most amazing of all, the book contains not just the shooting script for Harlan's HITCHCOCK episode, it contains an earlier draft filled with his handwritten annotations and changes.

When an episode is broadcast, you don't get to see the writer's mind at work, don't have the opportunity to experience the moment he decided to make a line of dialogue or a scene go thisway instead of thatway, how a turn of phrase was altered in just the right way at the last moment, you see only the end product. By including the draft with the handwritten annotations, you can see the creative process being enacted right before your eyes. The opportunity to see inside the writer's mind is unspeakably rare.

Best of all, these are not re-typeset versions of the script, they are painstakingly scanned reproductions of the ORIGINAL SCRIPTS, exactly as they were written.

And for the budding science fiction writers out there, what better than having Harlan Ellison break down in his manifesto how to write effectively in the genre, how to avoid various kinds of traps and make your writing better?

The value of this book to up-and-coming writers, academics, collectors, fans, and just plain folks who love science fiction television is inestimable. This isn't just a book of scripts, it's an important piece of history.

When I heard that Harlan was going to include the B5 manifesto (entitled “A Terrifying List of Things Not to Do When Writing For Babylon 5”), I offered to write an introduction to the volume, entitled “Touching Magic.” That introduction is now also in the book.

Last, and maybe coolest of all, because of the presence of B5 material, they are doing a limited number of books that are DUAL AUTOGRAPHED by both myself and Harlan. With only one prior exception, this is the ONLY time that Harlan and I have autographed something together, and never before for a published book. Once those signed editions are gone...they're gone.

Because Publishing 180 is a boutique publisher, they do not generally release information on its upcoming titles until right before publication. But this volume is so important, so extraordinary, that I asked if I could give the B5 fans out there, and the fans of Harlan Ellison who are also in that group, a heads-up on this event. This way we reduce the risk of missing the chance to get one of the double-signed editions.

The book will go on sale in a couple of weeks – I think it's somewhere around the 20th and those already on the B5 mailing list will get the announcement automatically – but I'll be sure to post the info here the second it goes online. If you want to be sure not to miss it, a signup page is up at

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Once again...

... another unsatisfying game of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Death Star Laser.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Holy smokes, my friends! I'm so pleased you're not dead!"

Today's my birthday. Remarkably, it happens the same day every year. And that's not just me being flip, because if events had played out according to expert opinion at the time, the mere fact of my having another birthday after July 10, 2009 would peg the Remarkable-o-Meter into the red zone. Today, as Elizabeth reminded me here at our weekend cabin getaway half-way up Mt. Rainier, is my second "rebirthday."

As I mentioned in my post from this day last year — "Yeah, I know, and such small portions" — and the March 2010 post that initiated this blog in the first place, on my birthday two years ago I survived an incident that feels like a Very Special Episode of House or else a discarded scene from the Final Destination series. And yet here I am, having not merely endured but prevailed. (Hat tip to William Faulkner.)

Given that this is a Mostly Movies blog, and in lieu of another original post on the incident (after all, Rainier awaits, to say nothing of Elizabeth and the dog), here are a few relevant movie quotes to commemorate the occasion of yours truly still being here to press Publish and go climb a mountain:

"Sometimes a little near death experience helps them put things into perspective." — Something To Talk About

"It's alive! ALIVE" — Frankenstein

"'Ere, he says he's not dead." — Monty Python and the Holy Grail

"Has it ever occurred to you that how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life?" — Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

"Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. It's contrast." — The Hours

"Funny how gentle people get with you once you're dead." — Sunset Blvd.

[In response to Death coming for Jonas Skat]: "Is there no exemption for actors?" — The Seventh Seal

"Honey, we all got to go sometime, reason or no reason. Dying's as natural as living. The man who's too afraid to die is too afraid to live." — The Misfits

"If a man doesn't know death, he doesn't know life." — Grand Hotel

"No man can walk out of his own story." — Rango 

"I don't like things that finish. One must begin something else right away." — Last Tango in Paris

"Bad things happen, but you can still live." — Super 8

"Get busy living or get busy dying." — The Shawshank Redemption

"Do I know what I'm doing today? No. But I'm here, and I'm going to give it my best shot." — Zoolander

"And then ol' Danny fell, round and round like a penny whirly-gig. 20,000 miles. It took him half an hour to fall before he struck the rocks. And you know what they did to Peachy? They crucified him, sir, between two pine trees, as Peachy's hands will show. Ol' poor Peachy, who never done them any harm, just hung there and he screamed, but he didn't die. And the next day they cut him down and they said it was a miracle he wasn't dead and they let him go, and Peachy come home in about a year." — The Man Who Would Be King

"Your life's 'To Do List' must be a baffling document." — Get Him to the Greek

"There are times when suddenly you realize you are nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if you've made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know if that kind of thinking is very healthy; but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time." — The Bridge on the River Kwai

"If the sky were to suddenly open up, there would be no law, there would be no rule. There would be only you and your memories, the choices you've made and the people you've touched." — Donnie Darko 

"I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle." — Citizen Kane

"Just steer the ship, Captain. Don't speculate." — Around the World in Eighty Days

"Live every day as if it is your last, for one day you're sure to be right." — Breaker Morant

"There's nothing sadder than getting to the end of your life and saying, 'I didn't do it right'." — All of Me

Grim Reaper: "A hit. You have sank my battleship!"
Bill, Ted: "Excellent! Yeah!"
Ted: "I totally knew he put it in the J's, dude!"
Bill: "Good thinking, Ted."
Grim Reaper: "You must play me again."
Bill: "WHAT?"
Grim Reaper: "Um, best two out of three."
Ted: "No way!"
Grim Reaper: "Yes way."
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

"I was dead too long this time. The anesthetic almost destroyed the regenerative process." — The Doctor (Paul McGann), Doctor Who TV movie

"In that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite.  That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's.  And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing.  My fears melted away, and in their place came acceptance.  All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something.  And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist." — The Incredible Shrinking Man

"Life's like a movie. Write your own ending." — The Muppet Movie

::Squiggly swirly light thingy:: — The Tree of Life

And since I began last year's post with a Woody Allen quote, how about I end this one with another:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For your consideration — "Press Play" edition

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) — Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). Screenplay by Tomas Alfredson, based on the bestseller by John le Carré. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney and Tom Hardy. There's so much I like packed into those lines I don't know where to start. Release date: September 16. Trailer at The Guardian.

Via indieWire: Kim Morgan and Matt Zoller Seitz are the forces behind this smartly put together video essay on Mike Figgis' hardboiled 1988 debut film, Stormy Monday. Moreover, it's "not just about a certain film, but a certain review of a certain film: Roger Ebert's appreciation of Stormy Monday." Matt edited and Kim narrates using Ebert's words in precisely the voice I've always imagined her having, which is precisely how she writes. I swear, she could convince me to take up smoking.

DEEP FOCUS: Mike Figgis' STORMY MONDAY, as reviewed by Roger Ebert from Matt Zoller Seitz on Vimeo.

I hope they keep on making these. Oh, wait — they will!

Also via indieWire:

NYRB: The Variety of Movie Experience — In the same way that William James applies the tensile force of his logical prose toward the evocation of an imperceptible bridge beyond logic that must, somehow, be there, Malick has continued to muster the resources of film toward embodying what cannot actually be embodied.

The New Republic:  David Thomson on Films: Why I Loved Peter Falk as Columbo

Movie Morlocks (TCM): No, No, That’s Not Your Movie, This is Your Movie!

NPR: Marlon Brando's Lost Musical Innovation — The actor was also an amateur drummer, as well as an inventor with four patents to his credit. His lost prototypes for tuning conga drums were recently uncovered in a West Los Angeles storage facility.

Via Glenn Erickson: A vintage '60s commercial for Sun Sweet prunes, featuring Ray Bradbury in an ad campaign crafted by Stan Freberg. Some context at Wikipedia. (I posted about the time I worked with Mr. Bradbury here.)

Cracked: Storyboards from Michael Bay's The Great Gatsby

On taste, perspective, brains. This applies to movies as well as to anything else:

 via XKCD

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) — It's a grand ol' film

This movie, on this particular U.S. national holiday weekend, is such an obvious title I'm almost embarrassed. Still, this musical biopic's apple pie Americana is to Independence Day what It's a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. Turner Classic Movies once again has it scheduled on the big day, as traditional as turkey at Thanksgiving.

Far be it from me to knock such a fine tradition.

It may be as corny as the Uncle Sam on stilts leading a Flag Day parade, but Yankee Doodle Dandy stars the irresistibly watchable James Cagney in a high-flying hagiography of actor-hoofer-songwriter-playwright George M. Cohan, the vaudevillian child star who grew into the brassy toast of the Great White Way. Today he's best known for composing standards such as "Give My Regards to Broadway," "Over There," "Grand Ol' Flag," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," songs that helped a nation get through World War I and beyond.

Now, in any alternate universe where this movie was never made, I wouldn't give George M. Cohan a second thought. Even a first would be a peculiar occurrence. And my personal patriotism, which comes with a benign foundation of measured cynicism, desires little truck with the sort of treacly sentiment that comes thick as Vermont molasses in January.

And yet. Every year at this time I give Yankee Doodle Dandy a spin and there's Cagney getting me to sing along — or at least hum and toe-tap — with his only-in-Hollywood incarnation of that bygone era's Broadway triple threat. It doesn't hurt that he comes packaged in the high level of movie-making craft that you expect from Warner Brothers in its era of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Hollywood never let facts get in the way of a good story (e.g., Cohan had two wives, neither first-named Mary), and this is Hollywood at its myth-making, revisionist best. Yes, the material is hackneyed. The opening setup with the the gray-haired, long-established Cohan meeting with FDR in the White House includes both a discomfiting black servant stereotype and FDR's voice unconvincingly overdubbed by an uncredited Art Gilmore. The way that scene kicks off the remaining film's structure — "It started with a pretty funny incident about sixty years ago..." cue flashback — might elicit a stifled chuckle.

But you can't take your eyes off that powerhouse Cagney for a second. He reached back to his Broadway roots to play song-and-dance man Cohan. He infuses his interpretation of Cohan with the ka-pow! energy and charisma that make his gangster roles so memorable. Favorite scenes include Cohan and his future wife Mary (Joan Leslie) meeting cute, the deathbed moment with his father (Walter Huston), and Cohan taking Broadway by storm.

Production began the day after Pearl Harbor, which the cast heard about huddled around the studio radio. When the movie premiered on Memorial Day 1942, the war was not going well for U.S. forces, so the upbeat story and musical numbers were the Fourth of July sparklers that World War II audiences needed. Yankee Doodle Dandy became Warner Brothers' top-grossing movie of the year and its top-grosser to that time.

Directed by Warner's versatile workhorse Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy is as much a part of America-at-war 1942 as Curtiz's Casablanca, which premiered the same year. Like that Bogart classic, Yankee Doodle Dandy represents the best of its breed, in this case the rags-to-riches, feel-good story of success achieved through equal parts determination, talent, and good ol' American pluck.

Because Curtiz allowed him to improvise while the cameras rolled, Cagney proved that he was more than just the hard-bitten gangsters that had made him a top screen tough guy in hits such as The Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces.

At only 5'-6" he was a nimble and agile dynamo. When his Cohan performs "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on Broadway we get one of the great Hollywood musical numbers. During the scene in which Cohan says goodbye to his dying father, Cagney's performance so moved the typically imperturbable Curtiz that the director began bawling and ruined a take.

A clear moment of Cagney's spontaneity occurs at the end when George, descending the White House stairs after a happy meeting with FDR, glides effortlessly into a tap-dance.

Said Cagney about it later, "I didn't think of it till five minutes before I went on. And I didn't check with the director or anything; I just did it." It's said to have been Cagney's personal favorite bit in the film. (I've stopped trying to replicate the moves while going down the steps to my Movie Room. It frightened the dog.)

Granted, besides Cagney the rest of the movie can be ... well, not a slog, really, but there is a reason why nowadays I do the Favorite Parts shuffle by fast-forwarding or chapter-skipping between the scenes where Cagney shows his stuff. Much of the narrative is too pat and by-the-book, and the hokum can get layered on like the dessert special at Applebee's. The romance between George M. and Mary is perfunctory, with Cagney and Joan Leslie generating little spark while still charmingly and obligingly fulfilling that requisite part of the plot.

Toward the end, the musical extravaganzas "Over There" and (the most shameless) "Grand Ol' Flag" (TCM clip) are magnificently produced but plainly aimed at rousing a movie-going audience to full-throated patriotic singalong — which is nice and "rah rah" and successful in their wartime, flag-waving, "America, Fuck Yeah!" aspirations, but they do shovel the corn into our laps while simultaneously hoping we stand up and cheer.

No matter. They're worth having if it means we also get Cagney's electric, spring-loaded, tour de force Broadway number surrounding the title song and "Give My Regards to Broadway," a scene that never fails to jolt me out of any torpor I might be in. A partial TCM clip is here.

I always love seeing S. K. Sakall again, the same year he immortalized Carl the headwaiter at Rick's Cafe.

As George M.'s showbiz family, the Four Cohans, rises from a traveling vaudeville act to bright lights fame and acclaim, Cagney's contribution to our collective Movie Quotes memory — "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you" — is a moving leitmotif, especially during Walter Huston's final scene, when George becomes the last of the Four Cohans left.

In George and Mary's "Harrigan" audition scene (TCM clip) Richard Whorf plays Sam Harris, Cohan’s long-time partner who ultimately became a famously prodigious Broadway theatrical producer. (My wife Elizabeth's mother, who as a young woman was a sometimes actress alongside Henry Fonda and Lloyd Bridges at the Westchester Playhouse summer rep, received an invitation to audition for Sam Harris, but her starched and conservative family forbade it; it's now one of our family's great "What if?" ponderables that always comes up during Yankee Doodle Dandy.)

Its eight Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Director, and Writing. It won three, with Cagney's only Best Actor statue being the biggie.

Cagney regarded this as his favorite film. The Budapest-born, English-challenged Curtiz described it as "the pinochle of my career."

Quaint and nostalgic and with no hint of postmodern irony, Yankee Doodle Dandy points to that More Innocent Time™ we keep hearing about but that never really existed outside of selective, revisionist memory. It delivers its red-white-and-blue patriotism to you by the exuberant bushel, yet this grand old film reminds us that there was a time when, for some, patriotism was more heartfelt and joyful than bullying and teabagged.

As a DVD, Warner Brothers' two-disc Special Edition stands up and salutes with a gorgeous print and transfer that make the black-and-white cinematography, by the masterful James Wong Howe, a thing of beauty all by itself. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio has been cleaned and bolstered to the hilt. (The film won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording.)

The disc's list of supplements starts with film historian Rudy Behlmer's enthusiastic, info-packed commentary track. 

James Cagney: Top of the World is a fine biographical documentary hosted by Michael J. Fox.  

Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy offers a comprehensive production retrospective with insights from Joan Leslie, John Travolta, Joel Grey, film historians Behlmer, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne, biographer David Collins, and more.

In a five-minute solo piece, Travolta movingly reveals how Cagney influenced his life professionally and personally.

Finally, Warner Night at the Movies takes us back to 1942, when a ticket stub bought you Looney Tunes shorts (in this instance a theme-matched pairing, Yankee Doodle Daffy and Yankee Doodle Bugs), a newsreel, and coming attractions before the feature. You, John Jones is an inspirational wartime propaganda short starring Cagney and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Music: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2
Near at hand: Pub sign reading "The Sherlock Holmes
, London, England"

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Yippee ki-yay

Click to embiggify.

Another fine product from xkcd.