Saturday, May 21, 2022

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1950: Laughs

A lot of life stuff done delayed my writeups, so! We'll get through the 25 remaining films in big chunks. Let's start with the comedies, in no particular order.

Champagne for Caesar sees a stay-at-home genius deciding to bankrupt a soap company by participating in a quiz show they sponsor and winning - way past the point of their ability to pay out. It's a nonsense, over-the-top, with alcoholic parrots and a villain named Burnbridge Waters (nickname: "Dirty"). A commentary on contemporary values - how is an intelligent, well-educated man like our hero unemployable except as a novelty game show contestant? - and a sendup of the twin cultures of television and advertising ("I want to find out what the average man thinks of it, then once we find out what he thinks of it, we'll change his thinking."). Vincent Price runs away with the show, so you know I lapped it up like a cat with cream.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is the memoir of a condemned man, Louis Mazzini, who spends his time in prison reflecting on his life of crime: specifically, of the fact that his mother, born to aristocracy, was disowned for marrying his father, leading him to hatch and execute (heh) a plot to kill every surviving member of the family...and thereby claim his rightful inheritance. What you might call a "dark" comedy, led by snooty-faced Dennis Price as our central sociopath and Alec Guinness as the eight family members standing in the way. I first saw the movie in middle school, hadn't seen it since, but credit to the effectiveness of the filmmaking - I remembered entire scenes and lines of dialogue vividly, even realized I had adopted one line reading into my own life. Makeup and visual effects are convincing, indeed, no one plays the comedy...which is why it's so wickedly amusing. 

Last Holiday is another Alec Guinness flick, this one about a mild-mannered man who discovers he is dying, and so decides to live-live-live by taking rooms at an expensive resort hotel and just...saying what he thinks! The hotel's guests become enamored of this man of mystery, and he's enjoying his life for the first time, even as he knows it can't last. A charming movie with some interesting observations on the class system within the class system (there's a marked difference between how seriously people take one of the upbeat Jewish residents vs. their tolerance for the temperament of snob born into "correct" society). Makes the cynical, though convincing, ending all the more impactful. Fun ensemble.

Stage Fright is Alfred Hitchcock's London-set mystery about a wannabe actress (Jane Wyman) helping the man she loves after he's accused of murdering the husband of a stage star, played by Marlene Dietrich; our heroine does everything in her power to try to prove Dietrich's no-good-ness, and gets romanced by the inspector on the case in the meantime. Mostly hilarious, thanks to a protagonist who's in over her head even when she's just in drama class and some fine comic performances from Alastair Sim, Kay Walsh (compare her appearance her to her lovely head housekeeper in Last Holiday - an actress!), and Joyce "Lovely Ducks" Grenfell. A genuinely chilling climax. And, does it need to be said?, great suspense throughout. Marlene Dietrich, one of the all-time great screen presences, gets to perform a Cole Porter tune, "The Laziest Gal in Town."

Fancy Pants is a semi-musical remake of Ruggles of Red Gap, a film we'll discuss more in the near future (coming attractions!). Here, Bob Hope plays an actor whose mistaken for an English butler, is hired and taken out West by a new-money family that includes Lucille Ball, and is subsequently mistaken for an Earl by the townsfolk. If you like the kind of antics promised by the presence of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, you'll probably like this movie - I do, and I did. Two fine musical numbers: the titular "Fancy Pants" and the catchy group number "Home Cookin'." Plays with its plot in ways that are...surprising, but appropriate given who they're writing for. It works, isn't that all we can ask?

Key to the City is a rom-com between two mayors at a convention in San Francisco. Clark Gable is the former stevedore "man of the people" who loves booze, broads, and bare-knuckle boxing corrupt politicians; Loretta Young is the uptight, organized female mayor who has no time for fun and games, lest she waste her taxpayers' money. Young gets to say some kinky things in the heat of passion. Film climaxes with both parties meeting their chief rivals and brawling it out - you haven't lived 'til you've watched Gable fight Raymond Burr with hooks and Young just beat the crap out of another broad. That's entertainment!

Summer Stock stars Judy Garland at a gal just trying to keep the family farm afloat; Gene Kelly is the leader of a band of theatre collegiates invited by Judy's sister to "put on a show" in their barn. Sparks of various kinds fly, Gene does a hypnotic dance with a newspaper, Judy performs "Get Happy," beautiful sets are struck, and OK-but-unmemorable songs are performed. See it for the chemistry between Gene and Judy, they are terrific together!

The #3 film at the 1950 box office is Cheaper by the Dozen, based on the book of the same name. Like the book, film follows the Gilbreth family, led by father Frank and mother Lillian, efficiency experts who raise a litter of children according to their theories on the subject. Episodic, sometimes fun and funny, sometimes a little odd (the little vignette in which they rub up against a local Planned Parenthood representative seems particularly mean and misinformed). One must give a shout-out to the sets and costumes, capturing early 20th-century America as lived by people trying to be as time-sesnitive and efficient as possible.

A Ticket to Tomahawk is another "musical" (with only, like, three numbers), this one focused on when the stagecoach companies tried to sabotage the railways, and the train to Tomahawk that's going to change things. Dan Dailey stars. I remember having fun...I do not remember much about the film itself, except, of course, one number with Dailey and a bunch of chorus girls.

Borderline sees a woman (Claire Trevor) go undercover south of the border in order to expose a drug ring; another agent (Fred MacMurray) in a separate division is also undercover, and each thinks the other is the real thing. A big shrug of a caper.

Next time, we'll take a look at crime and criminals, including Gun Crazy and The Baron of Arizona.
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