Tucci for the Money

Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Albert Brooks. Jacques Tati. Sydney Pollack. Warren Beatty. Clint Eastwood. Mel Gibson. Recognize the pattern yet? How about actors who are also famous for directing—many times in films they themselves star in. They played iconic roles like the Tramp, Monsieur Hulot, Dick Tracy, Braveheart and many more. These are huge names that bear much weight whether they are exercising their skills behind the camera or in front of it, but for every big name that crosses the rift from actor to director (or vice versa) there is a sea of smaller names that have also dabbled on both sides. Danny DeVito is remembered more for his appearances in Taxi (TV), Batman Returns (1992), or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (TV) and most Americans probably don’t hear his name and instantly think of the director of Matilda (1996) and The War of the Roses (1989), but even Danny DeVito is still a fairly famous name. Raise your hands if you know and love Mr. Stanley Tucci.

I probably first saw Stanley Tucci in the family comedy about the lovably large St. Bernard, Beethoven (1992). Tucci played one of the sleazy, comic henchmen. Despite his seemingly small role in a quaint little dog movie, he and fellow henchman, (played by Oliver Platt) stole every scene they were in. Tucci is one of those great and talented character actors who you see in every movie, but whose name you always have trouble recalling. From flicks like Undercover Blues (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julie & Julia (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010) and many more, Stanley Tucci is an extremely enjoyable performer to watch. Which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to Big Night (1996) and The Impostors (1998), both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Big Night was co-written by Joseph Tropiano and co-directed by Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, who also has a small role in the film). It is the intimate story of food, family, and all other things Italian (I admit my bias here). Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Tucci) are two brothers who have immigrated from Italy to find a new life in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo is chasing the American dream while Primo cooks tirelessly away in the kitchen of their Italian restaurant. A particularly humorous gimmick comes from Primo’s disdain for change and the simple American palate that cannot appreciate his authentic cuisine. Their restaurant is losing money and to make matters more degrading, their pandering competitors across the street have booming business. Secondo goes behind Primo’s back and makes a deal with Pascal (Ian Holm, Alien), the seedy owner of the other more popular restaurant. Pascal claims he can get jazz singer Louis Prima to dine at their restaurant. All they have to do is invest everything they have left and blow it all on one big night to save them from bankruptcy. The film follows all of the preparations for the big night, from inviting guests and ordering flowers to the meticulous creation of all of the wonderfully appetizing foods. Folks show up from all over as they patiently await the celebrity’s arrival and enjoy mouth-watering Italian dishes: the prized dish being the legendary timpano. They dine and dance the night away and the courses of food and entertainment just keeps on coming. Hearts will be broken, dreams will be crushed, backs will be stabbed, and serious lessons about food, family, and pride will be learned before it all comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Big Night is a quiet and modest film with much substance and subtlety. It creates many small human moments and maintains an endearing intimacy. Big Night knows that a great Italian dinner does not just involve food. It is a delicate sculpture, a calculated symphony of smells and sounds. We start with the appetizers and gradually build until we reach the main course…but it doesn’t end there. More courses of good food come out to ease us out of the dining experience. And then we breath deep. We talk. We laugh. We cry. We play games. We tell stories. We have drinks. Tucci’s film is a bittersweet one and it will be hard not to be enchanted by its good-intentioned charms. The cast includes Tucci, Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Ian Holm (Alien), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Allison Janney (Juno), Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger), Marc Anthony, and Liev Schreiber (Sphere).

After the success of Big Night Tucci returned to the directing chair for a pleasant throwback to classic screwball comedies with The Impostors. Tucci plays Arthur, an out of work actor in Depression-era New York City. When Arthur and his roommate, Maurice (Oliver Platt), accidentally insult a hot-headed Shakespearean drunken hack (played by Alfred Molina) they find themselves fleeing from the police and wind up stowing away on a cruise ship inhabited by a cracked assortment of peculiar personalities. Like Big Night, The Impostors has assembled another great cast of wonderful character actors. In addition to Tucci, Platt (The Three Musketeers), and Molina (Chocolat); Tony Shalhoub (Galaxy Quest) is a Russian spy bent on blowing up the bourgeois pigs aboard the ship; Lili Taylor (The Addiction) is a soft-spoken stewardess in love with a guy who can barely speak English (Matt McGrath); Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) is an abused actor; Campbell Scott (in one of his best roles this side of Rodger Dodger) is a deranged, fascistic German crewman; a shrewish gold-digging Dana Ivey (Home Alone 2) and her exceptionally morose and homely daughter played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt) are the destitute aristocrats; Allen Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) is the timid captain who pines for his lost love; Isabella Rossellini (The Saddest Music in the World) is a deposed queen running away from it all; Steve Buschemi (Fargo) is suicidal crooner, Happy Franks; Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) is an aggressively sexually ambivalent (or perhaps not so) tennis enthusiast; Michael Emerson (Lost) is Molina’s long-suffering assistant; Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) are tough-talking criminals; and Woody Allen (Bananas) is a neurotic New York playwright (what else). The cast alone is reason enough to watch the film. Tucci is a very generous director in that he gives each performer plenty of time to shine and have fun with their screwy roles.

The story is little more than a set-up to get talented character actors to play funny personalities and do slap-sticky things in quick succession. The Impostors is another modest film who finds the most joy in just assembling the characters and having fun (during the end credits the entire cast dances off of the set and into the street). It is very apparent that everyone is having a great time and it’s quite infectious. The gags are clever and refreshing. At times the film is reminiscent of Hope and Crosby, at other times it is like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and there is even a silent movie scene at the beginning that hearkens back to the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Impostors is a fine throwback to classic comedy and the humor is refreshingly gentle and nonabrasive.

Some have complained that Tucci’s directorial work is very stagy (in these two examples as well as in Joe Gould’s Secret and Blind Date). The whole spectacle seems to be rather distant and stagnant at times, as if the material were better suited to a theater performances. This may be the case, but I would never kid you by saying that the simple approach is not effective or enjoyable. Tucci seems to write and direct more for the actors rather than for the razzmatazz of the camera. His camera does not employ grandiose sweeping shots and it is not full of intense closeups. The technical wizardry is minimized completely. Tucci’s films are more about watching the actors create characters using only what abilities God has given them. The photography and editing are merely there to format the story for a cinema screen. I happen to find his technique refreshing and very effective for the flavor of stories he is telling. So maybe Big Night and The Impostors are stagey. Kill me, they’re still wonderful movies. Watch ‘em.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 10, 2011

Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

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What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

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Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

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After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

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Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

Where East is Wes

Wes Anderson. There. I said it. Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Some people hate this guy. Others love him seemingly to a fault. I’m a fan. Not rabid, mind you, but I do think he is a pretty solid and unique filmmaker. Are his films smug? Maybe. But maybe some people just do smug better than others. Sir Ian Richardson is like the beast of smugness in House of Cards and it’s awesome.

The setting is a northeastern forest island notorious for occasional rough rain squalls. The year: 1965.

When young, outcast orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman), runs away from the Khaki Scouts the troops assemble under the distraught supervision of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club). Their mission: bring Sam back alive. The island police officer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) is informed and the manhunt is on. What the characters do not know is that Sam is headed for a pre-planned secret rendezvous with his beloved pen-pal, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam had fallen in love with Suzy a year ago at a Noah’s Ark play and they have been corresponding via secret love letters right underneath the noses of the meddling adults in their life. Sam has no family and Suzy hates her painfully distant family. Both are classified as emotionally disturbed. When Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, and Frances McDormand, Fargo) realize she is gone they call the police and the intimate letters are discovered, but the hunt is now more complicated—the runaways do not want to be found.

Before we reach a rousing conclusion the film takes a borderline Blue Lagoon turn, but handles it far more delicately and with the added human touch of comedy. We also watch as the Khaki Scouts reconsider their role in this adventure; Social Services (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) threatens to send Sam to a Dickensian orphanage; the Khaki Scout Commander (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) forgets his medicine; Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) gets paid in nickels; and our omniscient and typically dry narrator (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps reminding us of a rapidly approaching violent weather system. The abstract inclusion of an all-knowing narrator who has no interest or stake in the protagonists and instead is totally preoccupied with the trivialities of the elements is a particularly humorous touch.

The lovers prove their unflappable resilience through many a harrowing obstacle. In spite of all the grownup forces coming down on them, they maintain and fight to stay together through thick and thin. The irony is that their simple and immature relationship proves more hardy and meaningful than any of the snuffed romances of the adults in this universe. It’s pretty adorable.

The film is full of softness. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Anderson’s movies. They have a gentle, calculated current flowing through them. There’s also a charming innocence, best manifested in the story of Sam and Suzy running away to live off the land. It’s cute, quirky, and always a pleasure to look at. I’d say the filmmaker that reminds me most of Wes Anderson might actually be the legendary Jacques Tati. Tati had a brilliant knack for clever shot setups, stillness, suspended moments of comedy trapped in time, and softness. Anderson has a similar style (but quite different as well) and he seems to love showing us something that we will never confuse with real life. It’s a movie, so let us delight in what we can do that we cannot have in real life. His worlds are sort of like living cartoon panels. Perhaps why Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a seamless transition into the world of animation.

Moonrise Kingdom might be more of the same, but it also might be something a little different. It’s got the typical dollhouse cross-section layouts and quirky, unnatural mise-en-scène. Then there’s the pleasingly otherworldly color schemes and ornate clothing and details. There’s also deadpan emotional stand-offishness and quiet, amusing line delivery. All the standard Wes Anderson flair is there. It seems to be his first real romantic comedy (the other films have romantic elements and kooky love triangles but it’s rarely the central focus) and it’s also his first movie about camping. I have to mention this because the camp thing (not campy, but actual camp) it sort of is its own genre. There’s stuff like Bushwhacked (1995), Heavyweights (1995), Camp Nowhere (1994), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Meatballs (1979), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) to name a few (notice not the horror flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp). I daresay, though this list may be on the weak side, some folks still have nostalgic reactions to them. Do we count Space Camp (1986)? All this to say that Moonrise Kingdom is probably the best camp movie. Ever. The romance bit is of note because it is one of the more inventive love plots to come around in a long time. Ignoring that it’s a Wes Anderson movie, it’s a standout camp movie and a standout romantic comedy.

All in all I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom. If you like Wes Anderson already then there won’t be a problem. It feels totally refreshingly un-Hollywood (despite the impressive cast) yet unmistakably American. It’s richly textured and wonderfully shot and the music and song choices are great. If you don’t like Wes Anderson, I don’t know that this will convert you, but maybe it will. It might be his sweetest film yet. Possibly his best since The Royal Tenenbaums.

Woody Allen, Alec Guinness, and Segei Prokofiev

So these two movies I want to mention today have almost nothing in common except that they are both wonderful comedies, star some of my favorite people, and feature Sergei Prokofiev’s effervescent Lieutenant Kijé – Troika (fourth movement) as their theme music. It just goes to show you how filmmakers can take great classical pieces and change their meaning. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in many of his films. It’s hard for many people to hear Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Strauss without seeing weird lunar eclipses and apes bashing tapir’s brains in. It’s hard for many people to hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 without imagining a humble and unprejudiced pig quietly herding sheep around a green. Do you first think Paul Dukas or Mickey Mouse when you hear the uppity bassoons from The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Sometimes movies take great music and make it their own by redefining it and giving it new context.

Me? I can’t hear “Journey of the Sorceror” by the Eagles without thinking the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show is about to come on.

Sir Alec Guinness must have seen the comedic potential in this bouncy Russian tune for his film about a hard-headed artist named Gulley Jimson in the film The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Woody Allen’s use of the same piece might seem more logical as Love and Death (1975) is a satire on great Russian literature. In any event, such good movies, no matter how unrelated, deserve another mention.

The Horse’s Mouth is one of the movies I am sad more people haven’t heard of. Directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Advneture, Hopscotch), The Horse’s Mouth is a splendidly buoyant and enjoyable little British comedy that stars the great Alec Guinness. Guinness is one of the British legends who most people probably only know as Obiwan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movies. In addition to jedi master he was also in many of the equally great David Lean films (Great ExpectationsOliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago) and Ealing studios comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and my personal favorite, The Ladykillers). He was also George Smiley from the miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). The Horse’s Mouth was the film Guinness did right after he won the Academy Award for his performance in Lean’s (best film, so says I) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and it’s also the only film for which he wrote the screenplay. Like another legendary British performer, Charles Laughton who only directed one movie, the amazing Night of the Hunter (1955), Guinness proved he was more than a talented actor with this singular outing as writer.

Prokofiev’s piece gives The Horse’s Mouth an extra does of comic energy at just the right times and fits the film perfectly.

Gulley Jimson is a lovable rogue. He’s eccentric. He’s a drunk. He’s lazy. He lies. He’s pinches women’s behinds. He’s in and out of jail. He lives on a dilapidated boat next to a crazy person. He ignores social parameters. He’s a struggling artist who wants to do things his own way. The Horse’s Mouth was based on a book by Joyce Cary, but Guinness makes it his own. He crafts a very fun character, with gravelly voice and tattered clothes. Despite it being a comedy, there is in fact a lot of pathos. Jimson is old and depends upon his long-suffering barmaid friend, Coker (Kay Walsh). The sparks and animosity shared between these two old souls could only have been founded in feelings of affection from somewhere down deep. Jimson may be eccentric, but he’s a three-dimensional character and we understand his plight. He wants to leave his mark. He sees wondrous artistic potential everywhere, but can’t find money and rarely feels too proud of his work once it’s completed. Life is a neverending wave of brilliant horizons and disappointing sunsets for Jimson. But why go on about the minutiae of the plot? Just watch the movie. It’s wonderful and funny and reveals much about Guinness’s talents as an actor and a writer. Michael Gough (perhaps most famous as Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batmans) and Ernst Thesiger (the incomparable Dr. Septimus Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein) also have supporting roles.

So Woody Allen is still making movies. After making at least one movie every year since 1965, the 76 year old New York intellectual nebbish director, actor, writer is still going. For my money Allen’s best work comes out of the 70s. Titles like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper,  Annie Hall, and Manhattan are just a few reasons why he’s an important filmmaker. His skewering of Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and even, curiously, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is Love and Death. As usual, Allen wrote, directed, and starred in this fun classic comedy. This film was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall and that whole paradigm shift into the realm of mixing realism alongside his oddball style of humor. It followed Sleeper which was a hilarious mixture of Rip van Winkle, science fiction dystopias, and silent comedy. What all of this means is that Love and Death is still just a zany comedy for comedy’s sake (which is totally fine). What makes it work is that it mixes philosophy, theology, and history together so well and the anachronistic Jewish New Yorker with glasses and incessant existential crises just fits in with the philosophies but so humorously against the historical backdrop.

Once again, Prokofiev’s enchanting melody gives us an upbeat tempo and sets the tone. It feels unmistakably Russian but it’s joy and snappy pace are like Allen in that their levity offsets the heavy philosophical and theological quagmires suffered by the characters. It’s comedy.

Allen is Boris, the third son of a proud family or oblivious weirdos. In love with his promiscuous cousin (Diane Keaton, of course), but sent to fight the French in battle, the anemic hero must survive wars, duals, dullards, and cold Russian winters to be with his beloved cousin again. In the end they decide to attempt to assassinate Napoleon (played by James Tolkan from Back to the Future). There are some great lines and wonderful sight gags and clever riffs on classical literature in this movie and it is very funny from start to finish. My one complaint is that it does sort of run out of steam by the third act but the finale is enjoyably underwhelming. It’s about Woody Allen’s two favorite subjects; love and death, and his comedy is always best when it’s subject matter is a little depressing. Interestingly enough, the final lines from Sleeper are a response to if he believes in anything. His answer in Sleeper was, “sex and death.” Coincidental lead in to this movie?

For people who only know Sir Alec Guinness from his dramatic roles and Star Wars I would strongly suggest you check out his comedies. The Horse’s Mouth showcases Guinness’s comedic prowess as well as considerable writing talents. And for those of you who only know Woody Allen from Antz and Midnight in Paris, you should really acquaint yourself with his 70’s work and Love and Death is a pretty good place to start. I liked Prokofiev’s music before, but it’s fun to see it being used in different contexts. Whether it be a rambunctious renegade painter scarpering off into the horizon or Woody Allen dancing with the grim reaper we can all tap our toes along to this familiar, lively piece.

Rock, Scissors, Paper Moon

4A rickety jalopy ride down a dusty Kansas road to a former lover’s funeral was all it took to rope conman, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), into meeting one of the most special ladies his puny life might ever know. Shot in glorious black and white and boasting a sharp wit set rakishly against bleak Depression-era Midwestern textures and scenery, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?) weaves up a comical homespun adventure in Paper Moon (1973). Paper Moon is a very welcome departure off the beaten path.

Moses Pray travels the American Midwest and cons recent widows into believing that their dearly departed husbands have purchased Bibles for them. Genuinely touched that their deceased loved ones would have been so piously generous in their final days, they gladly pay the difference (minus the original fictitious down-payment Pray alleges their husbands have already spent). It’s an easy gig with easy money, made easier by Pray’s seeming lack of a conscience, but it gets a lot more complicated after a visit to the funeral of a woman he once loved (she was what some might call a woman of ill repute). Orphaned Addie Loggins (played by 8-year-old Tatum O’Neal) is the spittin’ image of ol’ Moses (no coincidence, they were father and daughter in real life) and the old biddies at the funeral shame the con-artist into taking little Addie with him to her aunt’s house. Reluctantly, he obliges.

5Moses feverishly denies the most probable possibility that he is the girl’s father, but the stone-faced, quick-witted tomboy, Addie, soon finds her way into the conman’s life (he earns money from Addie’s misfortune and she knows it and she demands he pay her back in full). The two form an uneasy alliance and turn out to make a pretty good con team. Addie’s added innocence to Moses’ scam pays off well for the shifty scam (despite Addie’s stubborn moral compass that she employs on certain occasions) and they set their sights higher and con their way across the state. In the eyes of the viewer, these two unlikely and extremely stubborn characters were made for each other.

And can I just say how good this film looks. It is beautiful. And although they are not exactly comparable, some similarities definitely exist and I say I love this movie a lot more than Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

3The movie follows Moses and Addie through squabbles and squalls—as when buxom stripper, Miss Trixie Delight (played by the always enjoyable Madeline Kahn) makes her move to use and abuse an all-too-willing Moses and it’s up to Addie to break it up. Between Moses’ fast-talking and trouble-making, it’s all little Addie can do to keep the plan going and still have time for a smoke. Even if Moses may never admit he is her father, they become a very formidable family unit. At the end of the day they have nowhere else to turn but to each other.

I applaud any movie that makes us fall in love with lowly shysters and crafty vagabonds and Paper Moon is no exception. Moses Pray is plain diabolical (if a bit slipshod), and Addie Loggins proves her precocious mettle against many an odd. Tatum O’Neal is the real star of this picture and her deadpan performance as Addie notably garnered her the Academy Award for best supporting actor (against co-star Kahn and other child actor, Linda Blair for The Exorcist). The cast also includes John Hillerman (in a dual role) and Randy Quaid. Director Bogdanovich makes it all really work. This film earns its sweetness. And it’s got sass too. Paper Moon is fun and sweet and humorous and insanely likable. The script, performances, and the sumptuous cinematography all combine wonderfully well to transport us back to the Dust Bowl era in Middle America, when religion was in and wallets wore thin.

8I encourage you to seek out this smarmy but sweet little treasure. Paper Moon is a charmer that can warm the most cynical of hearts…because that’s what it does to the cynical characters that inhabit the film. It’s an immensely pleasing and satisfying film that will paint a smile across your face that tickles each ear. Keep your sunny side up!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 20, 2009

Marxism = Anarchy

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in "Duck Soup."

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in “Duck Soup.”

Among the classic silver screen comedy teams there are many greats. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, the Three Stooges, and so on all have very special places in my heart, however, there is one team who has, for me, always stood out. I speak of the Marx Brothers. With their quick wit, innovative style, musical talent, and anarchic irreverence, the Marx Brothers have more than earned their places in cinema history. They were a unique blend ripped straight from vaudeville and their powers were only sharpened on the big screen.

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in "Monkey Business."

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in “Monkey Business.”

One of the things that always separated the Marx Brothers from other comedy teams was their number. Most of the great comedy teams were comprised of only two. One would play more of the straight man (Bud Abbott, Bing Crosby) or bear the brunt of most of the physical pain (Oliver Hardy) while the other would be more infantile and always be getting into trouble (Lou Costello, Stanley Laurel) or sometimes they would just bounce lines off every straight performer in the film (Bob Hope). The Three Stooges (the greatest incarnation of which being comprised of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) changed things up a bit because there were now three and they were all pretty goofy. Moe would try to keep the boys in line, but his ignorance, belligerence, and propensity to get injured would always knock him down to the levels of the slower Larry and the manically infantile Curly. Cartoonish violence would quickly ensue.

The Marx Brothers had a completely different schtick. Originally there were four of them in the films (a fifth, Gummo, left the group before Hollywood and his namesake was seemingly arbitrarily used as the title to the 1997 Harmony Korine film).

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in "Horse Feathers." Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in “Horse Feathers.” Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo (Herbert originally) Marx (1901-1979) was the underused straight man of the brothers, but he only made it into their first five features. Zeppo’s screen time is short and sporadic throughout their movies. He usually played Groucho’s secretary or son or some other minor character who might court the girl or take a letter. It has been said that Zeppo was actually very funny off-screen, but since he did not have a specific comic persona like the other three he got lost in the shuffle. The best Zeppo moments, I think, come in Animal Crackers (1930) when he tries to take a letter that is being dictated by Groucho. My other personal favorite Zeppo scene is the big musical number about going to war in Duck Soup (1933). This number features all of the Marxes at once being equally silly as they sing, dance, strum banjo, beat helmeted guards’ heads like xylophones, and puppeteer an entire room of serious politicos. Duck Soup would be Zeppo’s last movie appearance. Zeppo left as their contract with Universal came to a close.

Chico plays a tune in "Animal Crackers" while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico plays a tune in “Animal Crackers” while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico (Leonard) Marx (1887-1961), renowned for being a bit of a womanizer and gambling addict, was the Italian guy of the group. The Marx Brothers were all Jewish, but in the days of vaudevillian comedy it was very normal to play stereotypical ethnic characters on stage. Chico was the only one of the Marxes who kept the ethnic schtick throughout their film career. His clothing (like Groucho and Harpo) would also stay rather consistent. The same cheap hat and coat would follow him from film to film. His performances consisted of saying dim malapropistic things with a heavy Italian accent, and being a springboard for many of Harpo’s antics. A very fine musician, Chico played the piano in most of their films. His characters were also the most prone to Donald Duck-like exasperation (usually brought on by Harpo). Chico and Harpo were often paired together as lower class vagabonds, thieves, or spies. Some of Chico’s best scenes come when he is with Groucho and his double-talk and mispronunciation carry them down awry verbal tributaries. I think some of Chico’s best scenes can be found in Animal Crackers where he and Harpo play bridge with some unsuspecting ladies (one of which being Marx Brother mainstay, Maragaret Dumont), or when he and Harpo attempt to steal a famous painting during a blackout, or when he and Groucho discuss where the painting might be and after much silly talk Chico asserts that it was stolen by left-handed moths. His best and funniest piano playing scene may also be found in Animal Crackers.

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in "A Night at the Opera."

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in “A Night at the Opera.”

Harpo (Adolph) Marx (1888-1964) was the harp-playing, silent type. Harpo never spoke a word on camera (although he often whistled and honked horns that protruded from his overlarge, tattered trench coats). Always with a shabby top-hat and curly, red wig, Harpo was easily the most clownish of the group. His characters were all happy-go-lucky pantomiming miscreants—often times abused by bad guys or Chico—but he always got the last word (so to speak). Goofy faces (or “gookie” faces for the purists), a far away look in his eye, illiteracy, a voracious appetite, sloppy clothing—containing everything from live animals, perpetually lit candles and blowtorches, coffee, weapons, appliances, etc.—and a strange running gag of loving a horse and the harp were all part of Harpo’s bag of tricks. Some of his best scenes come with Chico in Animal Crackers, and his job interview with Groucho in Duck Soup where after many screwball antics, Harpo reveals his home is a tattoo of a doghouse on his own chest. Groucho leans in to “meow” at the doghouse, when suddenly a real dog’s head pops out and barks at him. Groucho leaps back as Harpo quietly closes his coat and grins whimsically. The most surreal of the brothers, it’s no wonder Salvador Dali was so fascinated by him (Dali actually wrote a script for the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, but it was never filmed). One of Harpo’s other great scenes comes in A Night at the Opera (1935) where he disrupts the opera performance at the grand finale of the film. For all his zany antics, his touch at the harp was always smooth and you could see the significance this instrument had on him.

Groucho's grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in "Animal Crackers."

Groucho’s grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in “Animal Crackers.”

Groucho (Julius) Marx (1890-1977) was the ring leader of the bunch. Unlike Chico or Harpo who were gifted at the piano and harp respectively, Groucho was a guitar player but he seldom displayed his musical talent on screen (he plays the guitar in Go West and briefly in Horse Feathers and promptly tosses it into a lake at the song’s conclusion). He was the wiliest and sharpest of the group. Groucho always wore baggy suits and round glasses and smoked a cigar beneath a thick greasepaint mustache while his painted eyebrows bounced up and down insinuating some sort of sneaky double-entendre. His hunched comic gait was actually a parody of a walking fad from the late 1800s. This absurd walk was another trademark of the Groucho persona. He was usually cast as a shady man of some note who has been brought in to provide temporary guidance to a sinking ship. He was Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of the financially struggling Huxley College, in Horse Feathers (1932), and he was Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, in Duck Soup, and Detective Wolf J. Flywheel in The Big Store (1941). Groucho was very well-read and his intelligence shines through in his improvised dialogue opposite other characters. His wit was so sharp and so quick that actors like Margaret Dumont (his usual foil/counterpart and butt of many jokes) would frequently not understand them. His rapid-fire delivery is reflected best when the other characters can barely keep up with his humorous train of logic. Virtually every time Groucho opened his mouth on camera it was hilarious and it might be difficult to pinpoint his best scenes, although Animal Crackers and Duck Soup features some of his best and sharpest conversations. Duck Soup also features the classic mirror sequence where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, copies his movements to hide his presence and the fact that the mirror is broken.

Margaret Dumont gets a run down.

Margaret Dumont gets the usual once-over.

The Marx Brothers had many classic motifs and running gags, but their brilliant comic timing and talent moved beyond that. They were unique. They were able to be edgier than most other comedians of their day and Groucho made comedy a lot smarter than most. Chico took ethnic caricature to a new level, occasionally mocking his well-known non-Italian heritage in their films. Harpo kept silent comedy alive years after the silent era. Groucho reminded everyone that comedy could be more intelligent than drama if done properly. All having markedly different comedy styles (although all birthed from their vaudevillian New York City roots) they brought comic crassness to new heights when they were together. Whether they’re playing the final football game in Horse Feathers or taking on the gangsters in Monkey Business (1931) they were always innovative and hilarious.

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in "A Night at the Opera."

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in “A Night at the Opera.”

Like most creative minds, they did lose some creative control when they switched studios. Sadly their later films did not have the same spark and fire as their first forays into moviedom. Of their thirteen or so consecutive movies their first six are easily their best and funniest. Their first, The Cocoanuts (1929), is a bit uneven (too much Irving Berlin) but it has some great bits. Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera rank among my all time favorite comedies. Their later films were lacking because they were in want of the real Marx Brothers.  A Day at the Races (1937) and At the Circus (1939) were better than Room Service (1938), The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949) but nothing could measure up to their earlier efforts. Their one period piece, Go West (1940), was probably their last decent one and it’s worth a look.

The jig is up...unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes...which they do.

The jig is up…unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes…which they do.

The studios were trying to control them too much because they failed to realize that what worked in the Marx Brothers was anarchy. They brought anarchy to respectable people and self-important situations when they were at their best. The Marx Brothers attacked aristocracy, art patrons, opera, investors, gangsters, academia, politics, war, etc. Anything that took itself too seriously was deemed a suitable Marx target. I’m still rather fond of that rule. Do yourself an enormous favor and check out some of the greatest comedies of all time; the films of the Marx Brothers.

War! The finale of "Duck Soup" pulls out a lot of zany gags.

War! The finale of “Duck Soup” pulls out a lot of zany gags.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 4, 2010

A Man’s Best Friend is His Invisible Rabbit

Everybody loves James Stewart. It’s a fact. Look it up. He’s just a likable guy. The star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) picked up many fans. In an old interview James Stewart revealed that his favorite role he ever had was that of Elwood P. Dowd in Henry Koster’s light-hearted comedy, Harvey (1950). And it is surely worth a look.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

Perhaps James Stewart’s soft, gentle demeanor made him a natural for the role of the innocent and gregarious star of HarveyHarvey itself is a great movie with a wonderful cast. Victoria Horne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) is splendid as his love-hungry niece and the incomparable Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace) in her Academy Award winning role steals most of the show as his well-meaning, long-suffering sister at wit’s end. The real charm of Harvey lies with its sweetness and pleasantness that finds its root in the perplexing relationship between Elwood (Stewart) and his best friend, a giant invisible rabbit, six-foot one and a half inches tall.

Josephine Hull and

Josephine Hull and Victoria Horne in two wonderful performances.

After living many years with her brother and his long-eared hallucination, Veta Louise Simmons (Hull), can stand it no more. Veta is going crazy trying to keep Elwood away from the house so she can entertain and throw parties for her upper-class friends, but Elwood continuously comes home from the local bar early and—very earnestly attempting to introduce Veta’s friends to Harvey—unwittingly chases them all away.

Veta cannot have this. She loves her brother, but he is making it very difficult for her to get her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Horne), to meet young men. With no alternative Veta makes plans to commit Elwood to a sanitarium…but once there, her emotions take over when she’s describing how Elwood’s invisible rabbit friend is ruining her life and she winds up getting committed instead and the affable, oblivious Elwood wanders off with his head cocked up and to the right (to acknowledge his unseen friend) and an extra coat and hat (with two holes cut in the crown) over his arm.

You can't see him?

You can’t see him?

Once the well-meaning Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and the nurse (Peggy Dow) realize their mistake of locking up a sane woman and sending the would-be patient off on his way they do whatever they can to fix it. Veta is released and gets her old family friend, Judge Gaffney (William Lynn), in an attempt to sue the sanitarium. The less-than-compassionate sanitarium orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), is sent to find Elwood and bring him in, but gets sidetracked when he bumps into a romance-desperate Myrtle Mae. Meanwhile sanitarium director, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), is making plans to fire Dr. Sanderson and convince Veta to reconsider her charges.

The amiable Elwood P. Dowd seems to be harder to apprehend than originally suspected…almost as if something (or someone) is protecting him as he blissfully saunters along on his merry way. If he really is crazy (however harmless) then he also might be invincible, but there seems to be clues that the ambiguously ambivalent rabbit, Harvey, might be more than just a figment of his imagination. Even if Harvey is make-believe, he’s real enough to the kind and gentle Elwood who will pull him out of traffic and hold doors for him.

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

Elwood eventually is found, but he goes peacefully (he hasn’t an unpleasant or disagreeable bone in his body), but the “sane” people who have been running around crazy for the entire film want Elwood to take a serum that will make him not see Harvey anymore. Sad that he will never see his best friend again, but not wishing to hurt his sister or niece, he agrees to take the treatment, but Dr. Chumley has something to tell Elwood in private first.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

Elwood and Dr. Chumley have a long talk about Harvey and much is revealed about Harvey and about Elwood’s life philosophy. Elwood’s gentle behavior may appear simple and possibly insane, but he has this to say to the good doctor, “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

In the end it doesn’t matter if the rabbit is real or not. The important thing is how people treat one another, and if it takes a magical, invisible rabbit to change people then so be it.

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, but hopefully I have whet your whistle enough to watch the film for yourself. Harvey is funny, touching, and beautifully written and might be one of the most pleasant movies ever. Harvey is wonderful, charming fun for the whole family.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 12, 2009