More Than Meets The Mogwai

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Image(s) and Quote(s) of the Day: Robert Aldrich and VERA CRUZ (1954)

“VERA CRUZ was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that that’s the right way to work. It’s easier, perhaps, on a western or a big, sprawling, physical picture. But not on a small and tense personal picture. I think you get much more range of character if you know the whole thing before you start and you sit down and examine it and build it layer by layer rather than discover three-quarters of the way through the picture that he’s not that kind of feller at all.”

“On VERA CRUZ you did it as well as you could, and then you got it and shot it, and then you’d move on.”

--director Robert Aldrich, interviewed by Ian Cameron and Mark Shivas, Movie 8 (April, 1963)

“I’m sixty-three and I’ve had hits every ten years and I just hope I can function long enough to have one in the ‘90s.”

--Aldrich to Roderick Mann, “Los Angeles Times Calendar”, 11 October 1981

Both interviews reprinted in “Robert Aldrich: Interviews”, editors: Eugene L. Miller, Jr. and Edwin T. Arnold (2004: University Press of Mississippi)

VERA CRUZ recently (re)released as part of the Gary Cooper: MGM Movie Legends Collection, along with the silent THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (Henry King, 1926), THE COWBOY AND THE LADY (H.C. Potter, 1938, with a story credit by Leo McCarey), and THE REAL GLORY (Henry Hathaway, 1939).

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Myrt and Marge (Al Boasberg, 1933)

Myrtle Vail (left) as Myrt and Donna Damerel (right) as Marge.

Myrt and Marge” began as a popular radio show sponsored by Wrigley’s chewing gum (with the leading character’s last names being that of their popular products: Spear and Minter); the series later featured STRANGER ON A TRAIN’s favorite psychopath Robert Walker between the years of 1940-42.

The story in the film, as from what I know about the radio show, concerns a failing vaudeville troupe, and the new blood (represented by Marge, first introduced here to Myrt, making it an "origins" tale) hired to shake and whip things up into a success once again. This is where the similarities between the two end, as Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up as knockabout, knuckleheaded stagehands, and Ray Hedges essays the role of costume handler Clarence, an effeminate who needs to be told not to try on the women’s clothes (“Selfish!” he playfully intones to the girls).

Regrettably, this innocuous programmer that’s barely over an hour and marks Myrt and Marge's only feature film, is not as frenetic/free-wheeling, or as funny for that matter, as LOOK WHO’S LAUGHING and HERE WE GO AGAIN, Allan Dwan’s two radio-to-film adaptations of the Fibber McGee & Molly show (with both films featuring memorable turns by ventriloquist Charlie McCarthy). Here, the most conspicuous problem may be the incongruously contrasting tones that rub up against one another: namely, the unfortunate lapses into heart-tugging territory (the attendant feelings that come with growing older, with Myrt realizing that she’s the reason the troupe’s not doing as well as before) that are followed in short proximity by routine eye-gauging courtesy of Moe, Larry and Curly.

The most curious factoid here – indeed, why I watched the film in the first place - is Myrt and Marge’s relation to cult cinema royalty: Myrt being Myrtle Vail, grandmother of Charles B. Griffith, Roger Corman’s treasured scriptwriter back in the day, and Donna Damerel (Marge) being Griffith’s mother (tragically, she passed away after giving birth to her third child in 1941). Myrtle later turned up in the Griffith-scripted A BUCKET OF BLOOD and occupied a sizable role (and unforgettable performance) as the pill-popping nuisance of a mother to Seymour Krelboyne in the THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Always actively involved in her grandson’s contributions to low-budget exploitation filmmaking, she even mailed the script for CREATURE OF THE HAUNTED SEA to Puerto Rico when Corman requested Griffith do another reworking of NAKED PARADISE (Corman, 1957). Myrtle passed away in 1978 at the age of 90.

I’ve never heard of co-writer/director Boasberg, but even though his direction isn’t particularly remarkable, it’s interesting to find out that he began as a writer for Buster Keaton and others, and continued to work in this capacity even when he moved into directing, something not entirely widespread during this period in Hollywood.

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More information on director Al Boasberg, from a subsection of the Library of Congress’ website that deals exclusively with vaudeville and variety show comedy (the link also contains copies of actual telegrams of gags written by Boasberg and sent to Bob Hope!):

“Al Boasberg (1892--1937) was one of the most prolific comedy writers for variety acts. He wrote for vaudeville, nightclub appearances, motion pictures, and radio. At one time Al Boasberg was said to be receiving royalties from 150 different acts. Boasberg wrote for Bob Hope's acts in 1930 and 1931. Among his other clients were Block and Sully, the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. Boasberg was responsible for the treasured Burns and Allen routine, "Lamb Chops," and the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. At the time of Boasberg's death, Jack Benny called him "America's greatest natural gagman.”

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Choosing Gods: Jacques Tourneur's CANYON PASSAGE (1946)

Atmospheric shadows and stylings reminiscent of Tourneur's Val Lewton period abound.
One of the greatest strengths of CANYON PASSAGE, Jacques Tourneur’s superb first western, produced by Walter Wanger for Universal Pictures in 1946, and recently released as part of Universal’s 2-disc, four film set (and sillily titled) “Western Movie Round-Up, Volume One”, is the general sense of ease and gentility in which Tourneur bestows upon the proceedings, guiding the viewer into the narrative with sparse broad strokes of the familiar givens of the genre; I’m thinking mainly of the preemptive Native American attack at the close of the cabin-raising scene and how the feud between lead Dana Andrews and perennial tough-guy Ward Bond feels loosely cordial -- at least until their strong words and flying fists lead them into a sprawling barroom brawl. Here, violence almost seems incidental, until it forcibly erupts in the last act. But even then, the film digs its heels into a treatise about due process in the makeshift courtroom sequence, with Lloyd Bridges pontificating on why he thinks a central character is a duplicitous murderer.

The film’s not heavy on preachy sentiments, though it’s privy to wearing its enchanting heart on its sleeve, but early on, even before we’re introduced to banker Brian Donlevy and his fiancée, played by a simmering Susan Hayward, Dana Andrews utters to a store owner after finishing a business transaction (fittingly, the bespectacled man doesn’t hear him):

“A man can choose his own Gods, Cornelius. Which Gods do you choose?”

Andrews may just as well have been addressing any of the residents in Jacksonville, Oregon - circa 1856 – considering the degree of ambiguity presented in each and every minor character’s freedom of choice, with the usual frontier vices of liquor and gambling and gold mining laid front and center for the picking, or more commonly, for the double-dealing. These are the omnipresent choices with which they singularly devote their lives to.

Songwriter/performer Hoagy Carmichael ambles his way through the proceedings relatively unscathed, but there’s a touching scene between he and a Native American in the aforementioned cabin-raising scene, with the latter plucking and clinically studying Hoagy’s fiddle before ripping off the strings for presumably a more practical use; a small connection between two warring races, even if Hoagy’s feelings may be temporarily hurt. Perhaps baby steps into a better understanding of one another's culture?

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