Friday, February 17, 2017

"Preposterous, but the laughter dies upon the lips."

Days have gone whizzing by again. Around the time I reached my 40's, I came to the realization that the years were going by quickly, but the days seemed to take forever. Now even the days go by quickly. It's a couple of the hours that have become painfully, agonizingly slow.

True story: I have a friend who comes over quite often. We spend a good deal of time not doing much, talking about the world while watching the news as I make dinner. Then we screen a movie. My friend has difficulty sitting through an entire feature without cigarette breaks, which he takes outside at my request. At any rate, about two weeks into the Trump Presidency, we put a film on hold while he took a cigarette break. As I was expecting a communiqué from someone, I used that pause to check my computer to see if the missive had arrived. When my friend returned, he saw me reading something off of the screen, while my left hand was raised to the side of my head. Without missing a beat, my friend asked, "What's he done now?"

Movies at my place look better in the dark, but this shows off the size of the screen.
On screen, Rod Taylor is about to take off in 'The Time Machine' (1960).

That's how it is now, in this age of the Trumpenstein monster. The news is the circus train wreck from which we can not look away, one of those overlong mid century modern Cecil B. DeMille roadshow spectaculars where they sold souvenir books along with the candy at Intermission. God forbid they stop carrying the souvenir books, you'll hear about it. It is probably worth pointing out that for the 1956 version of 'The Ten Commandments', the voice of God was uncredited. One of the rumors was that it was DeMille himself. My memory suddenly conjures up the early 1930's pre-code DeMille favorite, "The Sign of the Cross", a saga of early Christianity in which the faithful are sent to the lions, and Rome burns. One critic commented, "Preposterous, but the laughter dies upon the lips." That comment is easily applicable to the political situation in which my country finds itself. See, I can't even keep this paragraph focused. Indulging in free association has always been a bit of a hobby of mine, but then again I'm not the President of the United States speaking to reporters or supporters, or allegedly running the show.

Charles Laughton as Nero in "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), which is worth an entire post of its own (and will get one).

I was all set to comment upon some of the many movies I've watched since my last post, but at the moment... nope the thoughts are gone. See this is the problem. Mr. Trump is like some kind of 1950's black and white commie witch hunt paranoia sci-fi creature that sucks all the air out of a room. It would be an interesting phenomenon if we weren't all gasping for air while we slowly choke to death. It's all a roll of the dice.

From Ken Russell's 'The Boy Friend' (1971)

Several nights ago, I watched 'The Boyfriend', one of those Ken Russell movies that seems to have something to say, but which careens out of control, and goes both over budget, and on too long. It's somewhat unsatisfactory as a complete whole, but absurdly entertaining in many other respects. Based on what was supposed to have been a charming off Broadway style revue, Russell's movie tells a story that is pastiche backstage movie musical cliché, concerned with a struggling theatre troupe, and equally struggling actors, their temperaments, and their crushes. There is an on-stage story, with various complications arising from the backstage story, and then there are the imaginings of the actors, sometimes as themselves, and sometimes as their characters. Most of the scenes are photographed with such care to their design that they appear, at first, to be beautifully composed paintings, which convert almost immediately into low camp.

Twiggy as Pirouette in 'The Boy Friend'. 

I've always liked Russell's movies. They're fun entertainments, with frequently memorable images. I think my problem with 'The Boy Friend' is that it promises to say something about movies, or musicals, or whatever you please, but never quite gets there. It just skips off to another idea. Maybe the problem is that the viewer ends up identifying with the Glenda Jackson role of the star with the broken ankle; who can't go on and must sit in the audience the night the big Hollywood movie producer is in attendance. We should be in the show, but we're once removed, helpless in our seats. At any rate, my point in mentioning 'The Boy Friend' was that the morning after viewing it, I read the news, which of course centered on the new President, and immediately could not remember what movie I'd watched the night before.

Twiggy dances with her love interest, a chorus boy played by Christopher Gable.

The night after I watched 'The Boy Friend', I watched 'George Washington Slept Here', adapted from a Moss Hart - George S. Kaufman Broadway farce. I've never read the script, even though I was always fond of the Kaufman-Hart shows. While the movie version wasn't really successful, it wasn't painful either. Jack Benny was the city loving apartment dweller whose wife (Ann Sheridan) uses the family money to purchase a run down country place in Bucks County, PA (where several NYC theatre denizens had homes). Of course, complications ensue. It turns out that Washington hadn't stayed in the house - it was Benedict Arnold. There's a wonderfully taciturn handyman, played by Percy Kilbride to laconic perfection. (There is a story that Kilbride, who had performed the same handyman role on Broadway, and who was hired at Benny's insistence, so cracked up his co-stars that the film was going over budget due to re-takes. Benny allegedly resorted to staying up all night so that he'd be too tired to laugh during filming.)

The highlight of 'George Washington Slept Here' (1942) was Percy Kilbride's performance as Mr. Kimber.
Kilbride would later be typecast as Pa Kettle in a series of films with Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle.

Also involved in the storyline is a rich overbearing uncle in the guise of Charles Coburn. There's the cranky neighbor preventing happiness through any number of means, portrayed by Charles Dingle as though he had just wandered off the set of 'The Little Foxes'. Hattie McDaniel is the housekeeper. There's a bratty kid relative who comes to stay for the summer (his parents are divorcing, and neither want to deal with him). There's an ornery dog (who had played Toto in the 'Wizard of Oz' ). There's the actors who arrive for a summer theatre production of 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' (another Kaufman-Hart play). There's even a plague of locusts. If the house itself seems familiar, it was the set which had just been used for 'Arsenic and Old Lace'. There's plenty of topical jokes which only those versed in the news of 1941-42 will get. (The Lend-Lease program gets mentioned a couple of times, etc.) In the Broadway version of the show, the husband bought the house to the wife's dismay. That set up was changed to having the wife make the purpose to better match up with Benny's miserly, complaining character familiar from his radio show. Which gets a few in-jokes as well.

Of course, everything finally works out, and a letter from George Washington, which quotes Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis", is found and read. It may have addressed the situation of a United States that had been drawn into WWII, but there's enough in that letter that perhaps a revival of the show (maybe set in Vermont) is due:

"We are facing a time of peril so grave in our brief National history, that there is now only the choice of serving the country a little longer, or having a country no longer to serve... In the words of Thom Paine, 'These are the times that try men's souls. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness alone that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.'

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