Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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1950: Catskill Honeymoon (and other historical documents)

We're gonna hitchhike up to the Catskills
Get on the highway to 17
We're gonna hitchhike up to the mountains
Up to the finest resort we have seen!

A group of ladies against a painted backdrop mapping the way to Young's Gap Resort, a montage of holidayers enjoying the amenities such a vacation offers. You've seen Dirty Dancing, now experience for yourself the entertainment offerings of the Borscht Belt in Catskill Honeymoon. Less a film than a document (even the contemporaneous New York Times review notes this) of popular Yiddish acts, a niche within a niche. Musical performances range from a nice young man singing dire ballads to a female cantor smoothly transitioning between Hebrew prayers and Pagliacci; sketches touch on subjects from overpriced food to linguistic differences between Lithuanians and Galicians.

Now, can I follow even half of these jokes? Not at all. And the musical numbers, while employing impressive singers, are not exactly dynamic in presentation: a static camera captures most of the action in either wide or medium shots, closeups so rare they are jarring when used. Transitions are inconsistent: the frame story of songs and sketches being presented for the amusement of a couple celebrating its 50th anniversary is quickly dispensed with; so, too, is the emcee introducing each act suddenly shuffled off-screen; cards on easels are suddenly used to introduce each act, then the emcee returns, and suddenly there's a big group number at the end...though not everyone in the film gets involved. Even as a document, it's oddly assembled.

And yet, I find it compelling. Here is a group of performers that the film's intended audience would know intimately - the casual references they make to each other suggests as much - but to a general public are obscure, if not downright nonentities. Now, we get to see them in their element, commanding the stage like the stars they are. I couldn't tell you two months ago who Henrietta Jacobson and Dina Goldberg were, but now I can type such a sentence without even double-checking the names (Jacobson, whose brother Hy wrote many of the songs, appears in most of the sketches, and she and Goldberg appear in the aforementioned linguistics sketch). The jokes I do get are genuinely amusing and the singers are, as I said, impressive. I don't think it's for everyone, but if you're interested in Yiddish theater, comedy history, and watching people haggle over 10 cents for a bagel, it's a must-see.

Other Historical Documents of 1950

The Jackie Robinson Story is a too-brief biopic with not enough of Louise Beavers and Ruby Dee, a lot of scenes where racism is expected to be a problem but - TWIST - turns out not to be, and one harrowing sequence where a group of hostile whites waits outside a stadium for Jackie to come out. At the center of the film is the lead performance by Jackie Robinson himself - we don't just get to see him play, we get to watch him recreate the emotional moments, the highs and the lows, walkin' and talkin' and just being himself. As far as compelling actors go, Robinson's a heck of a baseball player.

Love Happy stars and was written by Harpo Marx. The need for financing led to two important historical marks. First was the casting of Harpo's brothers Groucho and Chico, making this the final film featuring the Marx Brothers (though they never share the screen at the same time). The second is a long sequence at the climax of the film where Harpo uses the neon ads of Times Square to elude a gang of, I don't know, jewel thieves? It's not a very good movie, I don't know. Anyway, it's a significant moment in product placement history, and what a gas, to see what the big brands of the day were!

Mystery at the Burlesque (original British title: Murder at the Windmill) must be the world's shortest mystery-musical, but plot is clearly secondary to the thrill of seeing London's Windmill Theatre and its actual (though clothed) performers and numbers of the time. The infamous nude revue theater is best known to modern audiences, if it is, as the subject of the Oscar-nominated Judi Dench vehicle Mrs. Henderson Presents. Mr. Vivian Van Damme, played in that film by Bob Hoskins, even makes an appearance here, albeit as a character portrayed by actor  Jack Livesey.

Three Came Home is a terrific Claudette Colbert starrer adapted from the memoir by Agnes Newton Keith about her time in a Japanese internment camp in Borneo. A lot of triumph of the human spirit here, you know the type of film, though it extends its empathy to the Japanese, too: in one haunting sequence, the general running the camp (the great Sessue Hayakawa), upon learning of his children's deaths in a bombing by the Allies, rounds up the children in the camp and takes them to his house...just to watch them play and be away from the war for an afternoon. The film (or so it claims in a prologue in the opening credits) was filmed on location in Borneo, at the actual sites where Ms. Keith experienced her hardships.

Tomorrow, we take a look at Cheaper by the Dozen and a handful of other "light" studio fare from 1950.

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