Friday, April 29, 2011

Film Review: THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING (1935)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 58

THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING (1935 Columbia) Starring Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Wallace Ford, Donald Meek, Arthur Hohl, Arthur Byron, Paul Harvey.  Directed by John Ford.

Robinson is "Jonesy", a milquetoast who works at Harvey's accounting firm and has an unrequited crush on co-worker Arthur.  He's such a straight arrow that he not only has zero absences for 8 years, he's never even been late to work.  But Jonesy's attendance record is broken when the incompetent police apprehend him one morning, mistaking him for the town's most notorious criminal Mannion (also Robinson), his doppelganger.  Achieving some measure of celebrity from this coincidence, Jonesy is pursuaded by his boss to begin ghost-writing Mannion's "autobiography", not knowing that the racketeer has learned about his "dead ringer" and plans to frame his mild double for crimes upcoming.

John Ford was known for his westerns, Robinson for his serious mafiosos. These unlikely sources teamed to tweak Robinson's image and gangster films in general, both of which were ripe for it by 1935.  It would be a mistake to say it is all fun and games (it is chilling to realize Jonesy is actually ordering a hit while impersonating Mannion) but any serious undertones are presented very subtly.   Predictably the timid accountant finds his assertive side as his lawless double, and uses this newfound assuredness only to woo Arthur and pursue his dream vacation with her (Shanghai).

Robinson is marvelous in his dual role, and his performances here and in THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934) proved the actor was far too talented to be pigeonholed as a gangster.  Arthur's role here was also a breakthrough, as not only the first of her many screwball comedies but her screen debut as a blonde as well, a look she would keep for the rest of her career.  Arthur had been directed by Ford in her very first film a dozen years prior, in the silent CAMEO KIRBY (1923).

Ford was a few months away from the first of his four Oscars (THE INFORMER) and maximizes the script's comic potential while deftly keeping your mind off the wild implausibilities.   Ford does show that even the greatest aren't perfect with one very noticeable continuity goof, as Jonesy should be returning to a flooded apartment after that closeup on the still-running faucet as he leaves.  But yeah, I'm nitpicking.  Three of Hollywood's all time greats teamed up to really put on a show here, and it's another in the TCM rotation that is well worth your DVR space.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

Beats me.  It undoubtedly would be if it were Warner's property, but Robinson was on loan to Columbia for this crowd pleaser, and so it remains inexplicably missing, with only a VHS release to date.

Why it should be on DVD:

Robinson.  Arthur.  Ford.  All in top form, with Eddie G. and the old master doing so while giving their fans a change of pace.  Enough said.  This one richly deserves wider availability.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Missing No Longer: DON'T MAKE WAVES (1967) and NEVER SAY GOODBYE (1946)

The Missing No More list grows larger, thanks to the Warner Archive.

No, they haven't been perfect; they still haven't put MAVERICK out in single season sets yet, only a 3 episode sampler.  With THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW now out there, MAVERICK and LOVE THAT BOB! are unquestionably the 1950's series most in need of the Complete Season treatment.  

Television quibbles aside, the folks at Warner continue to make us happy with their film selection, bringing for the first time to DVD two more longtime M.I.A.'s reviewed during The Horn Section's debut year online in 2006.

Warner Archive's latest release is 1967's DON'T MAKE WAVES, reviewed at the Horn Section here.  The late Tony Curtis was reunited with his SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS director Alexander Mackendrick in what would sadly turn out to be the latter's swan song.  It was arguably Curtis' last good comedic role as a leading man (unless you want to count William Girdler's legendary THE MANITOU) and probably Sharon Tate's best performance.  The term "eclectic cast" was meant for films like this: Claudia Cardinale, Mort Sahl, playmate China Lee (at the time Mrs. Sahl), Robert Webber, Dave "Mr. Universe" Draper, Edgar Bergen, and, playing themselves, Jim and Henny Backus!

Comedy was never considered Errol Flynn's forte, but the action star acquitted himself well in NEVER SAY GOODBYE (reviewed here) despite a weak script.  Warner Archive has been releasing much of the star's neglected post-WW2 output, and while GOODBYE isn't a great film, it does have several points of interest:  Forrest Tucker showing off his comedic chops long before AUNTIE MAME, the eternally gorgeous Eleanor Parker as the lady both men are wooing, and Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel.

Two down, but many more out there...Number 58 is on the way.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Film Review: HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 57

HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941 Universal) Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Shemp Howard, Elisha Cook Jr., Martha Raye, Mischa Auer, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Richard Lane, Clarence Kolb.  Directed by H. C. Potter.

Olson and Johnson return to Tinseltown with the longest running musical in the history of Broadway with HELLZAPOPPIN’,  but Universal insists on changing everything while translating it to the silver screen.  “This is Hollywood.  We HAVE to!”  Thus the literally plotless play must now have structure.  For starters, this means dual love stories crafted by writer Cook: for Raye and Auer, and for Frazee and Paige.  Meanwhile Olsen and Johnson resist the studio impositions in their unique way, shouting their own instructions at hapless projectionist Howard. 

This quintessential Olson and Johnson vehicle is often compared to other kitchen-sink comedies: from the pre-Code DUCK SOUP and DIPLOMANIACS to the more modern groundbreakers BLAZING SADDLES and AIRPLANE!.   However HELLZAPOPPIN' is the most anarchic and surrealistic of them all.  Breaking the fourth wall?  How can you break it when it never really gets established here.  Screenwriter Nat Perrin had the requisite background (he got his start working with the Marx Brothers) and Olsen and Johnson appear only too happy to be skewering  Hollywood and the conventions of film.  The suits out west never really got their unrestrained comedy, and the team had been rejected by movie audiences for a decade.

“Any similarity between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”   Potter, Perrin and company take all of five seconds to demonstrate this.  The film opens with your normal production number with costumed dancers meticulously making their way down stairs...which quickly flatten, causing everyone involved to slide all the way down to Hell!  Which is, of course, a Poppin', with devils canning males and females until a taxi arrives to drop off Olson and Johnson.  "The first cab driver to go straight where I told him to!"

Whether making sly allusions to then current films like CITIZEN KANE, getting creative digs in at the Hays Office, or making subtle points about the merits (superior in the team's view, clearly) of a live performance, HELLZAPOPPIN' is consistently mind-bending and inventive for a just-right 84 minutes.  When Olson and Johnson are watching themselves onscreen and commenting with their backs to us, it's hard not to think of MST3K. 

HELLZAPOPPIN' is helped considerably by musical numbers that are actually enjoyable. Whitey's Lindy Hoppers all but steal the show with a truly amazing number, even by the Hoppers' standards.  But the other songs are also enjoyable, and typically serve as backdrops to the continued lunacy, such as a deliveryman's incessant attempts to deliver Mrs. Jones' new potted plant and messages for children in the audience.  By 1941 standards, Mother probably didn't want them watching this anyway. 

So....why isn't this on DVD yet (in the U.S.)?

Apparently only one reason: legal issues.  Specifically, over the rights to the play and film versions and. apparently, between the Olson and Johnson estates.   The latter is especially disappointing, not to mention short-sighted, as this is the team's signature work and deserves a wider audience.

Why it should be on DVD:

Well, OK, it is--in the U.K. and Australia only.  But everywhere else,  HELLZAPOPPIN' is largely unknown 70 years after its release.  The legal issues have kept the film off cable television and off VHS and Laserdisc for decades.  While the film stays in obscurity, so does the comedy team of Olson and Johnson, which is a real shame.  If the story of feuding between the estates is true, someone get these folks together!  It has to be easier than your typical sports labor deal.

A lost comedy masterpiece, and by far the prime example of "anything goes" film comedy in the period between the pre-Code early Thirties and the Mel Brooks and Monty Python era forty long years later.

The jaw-dropping, gravity defying performance by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers (billed here as the Harlem Congaroo Dancers) which is arguably the best dance number ever committed to film.  The Hoppers were great in A DAY AT THE RACES (which had the added bonus of vocals from the incomparable Ivie Anderson) and the Nicholas Brothers were fabulous in STORMY WEATHER, but the HELLZAPOPPIN' jitterbug probably tops them all.

Bottom line: make this lost classic available in the U.S. on a remastered DVD!  Currently available at Amazon Instant for a fee.