Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #8

It’s appropriate enough that our guest here during TV week is emmy-winning writer Elliott Kalan, who has come back to be our first-ever three-timer. (See his earlier picks here and here.) Of course it’s also “The Original Was Better” week, which doesn’t exactly apply to Elliott’s show, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Let’s see what he’s cooked up for us this time in a super-sized post:


Directed by: Ray Enright & Busby Berkley
Written by: Delmer Daves & Robert Lord

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m a big Busby Berkley musical number fan, as I’m sure you all are, too. But even I have to admit that much of the time the actual films around those musical numbers aren’t all that great. That’s what makes me so frustrated that Dames isn’t better known, because it’s one of the few Berkley musicals that would still be plenty of fun without the musical numbers. For one thing, it’s a cavalcade of the Hollywood contract players we all know and love. Sure, you’ve got Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Joan Blondell in there (and incidentally my favorite Blondell performance of all time), but the real story and screentime belongs to Hugh Herbert as the puritanical, prohibitionist millionaire Ezra Ounce (who’s nonetheless addicted to alcoholic nerve tonic) and Guy Kibbee and the immortal Zasu Pitts as the relatives desperate not to get caught doing anything filthy lest he cut them out of his will. The quick zoom-in on Kibbee’s frightened, blinking face as he discovers YET AGAIN that Joan Blondell has found some way into a compromising position in his bed is worth the cost of admission.

This movie is wall-to-wall goofy in the best possible sense, thanks in large part to a sharp-silly script by future tough guy director Delmer Daves. It provides just the right setting to the jewel of some of Berkley’s best work, like the title number, a tribute to beautiful women arranged in geometrical shapes; “I Only Have Eyes For You” (the specific number parodied by Joe Dante in Gremlins 2), and most gorgeously of all in “The Girl At The Ironing Board”, a period musical number of batshit insane genius involving a wild-eyed Joan Blondell, turn-of-the-century laundry practices, hilariously artificial stock footage of birds, and the gayest pair of pajamas ever shown on film. It’s a masterpiece of barely-submerged sexual passion, and really, really funny.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Directed by: Leigh Jason
Written by: Wislon Collison & Philip G. Epstein

If there was one thing rich people in the 30s seemed to do a lot of, it was act silly and stumble into murder mysteries. Both are true of Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton, a fast-paced, sharp-witted (screenplay by Philip G. Epstein of the famous Casablanca-writing Epstein brothers), whirling dervish of a movie. As Melsa Manton, has a hard time convincing anyone there’s actually been a murder, thanks to her reputation as the leader of a pack of chattering rich gals well-known to the press and public for causing trouble. All of these things are true. It only makes it more difficult when Henry Fonda, the reporter she hates for giving her that deserved reputation, loudly falls in love with her, thus inaugurating a classic screwball love-battle.

My only real complaint about the movie is the presence of Hattie MacDaniel in one of her “black dialect maid” roles, but if I didn’t watch any movies with egregious racism in them than I’d NEVER get to enjoy classic Hollywood.

Five Star Final (1931)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Robert Lord & Byron Morgan

What better film for our current era of unruly and ethics-free journalism than Five Star Final, in which city editor Edward G. Robinson is forced against his will to destroy a few perfectly innocent lives in the hunt for a big story. Pushed to increase circulation by his bosses, Robinson (and adoring secretary Aline MacMahon, worlds away from her ruthless mantrap in Gold Diggers of 1933) agrees to dig up the 20 year-old murder committed by Nancy Voorhees (not Jason’s mom), now a domestic housewife living in anonymity with her husband and grown daughter. The best part, though, is the reporter he chooses to do the digging -- creepy ex-seminarian-turned-sleazeball Vernon Isopod, played by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff at his absolute slimiest.

This being a 30s newspaper melodrama, things quickly take a tragic turn, leading to desperate soul-searching by Robinson. As heavy-handed as it is (and as fascinatingly creaky is the acting by former silent star H. B. Warner playing Voorhees’s husband), the story is punchy, brisk, and gets you in the gut. There’s something viscerally moving and repulsive about the final shot of that day’s paper being swept out of the filthy gutter by a street cleaner -- today’s news is tomorrow’s trash, and the people ruined by it are quickly forgotten.

God’s Country (1986)
Directed by: Louis Malle

America is an interesting place. That’s the first thing you learn from Louis Malle’s documentary about the tiny farming town of Glencoe, Minnesota. It’s almost as if the act of pointing a camera at something makes it newly fascinating and unique, even farmers at work, old ladies watering flowers, or middle American weddings. The variety of lives taking place in a seemingly boring place is bewildering, and the minimal narration or viewpoint turn the film into a strange rorschach test of the viewer’s own sensibilities. What comes through most of all is Malle’s wonder at the United States and the people in it.

Of course, that’s only the main body of the film. Most of the footage was shot in 1979, but in order to finish it Malle returned in 1985 to revisit some of the people and places from the earlier footage. The juxtaposition is, at times, jarring -- between back then and slightly-less-back-then the bottom dropped out of the farming economy, making life harder for this bunch of folks previously excited to be leaving behind the strife of the 70s. But there’s also a real joy to how little some things have changed. The old woman is still watering her flowers, life continues, America still exists and the fundamental fact of its character goes unchanged.

Perhaps the thing that’s most striking about
God’s Country is that the point of it seems to be that it has no point. Malle may have perhaps begun shooting with the idea of revealing the closed-mindedness of the American “heartland”, but it soon becomes a series of people telling their stories and revealing themselves as human beings. Aside from some anti-Reagan stuff at the end (which 25 years later feels kind of quaint, if still heart-breaking), there are few political axes or social indictments -- if people are shown being foolish it’s merely because people do foolish things. Like most great documentaries, God’s Country is at its best because it has set out not to explicitly argue a point of view, but just to document something. The beauty of it is how well it documents something that many of us would wrongly assume isn’t worth documenting at all.

The Driver (1978)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill

Ryan O’Neal is a professional getaway driver. The BEST professional getaway driver. Bruce Dern is a detective dedicated to finally catching him. There’s a femme fatale-ish woman, some untrustworthy crooks who’ve contracted The Driver, and assorted other lowlifes. Nobody has any real names, and there’s not a hell of a lot of dialogue. And it’s kind of the best car-based action thriller ever.

Now don’t get me wrong -- I’m not a huge fan of driving movies. I like car chases, but I don’t like movies about cars. The same way that I love westerns, but I lose interest when they spend too much time with the horses. Luckily, The Driver isn’t some pretentious paean to the glory of the open road, like Vanishing Point. If anything, it feels like the feature length spin-off of the slickest, coolest, most car chasingest crime TV series never made. When we drop in on the film, most of the character relationships already exist. The story doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, and there aren’t any big emotional changes. There’s just The Driver being chased by The Detective while he tries to stay somewhat principled in a life of crime. If there was any justice in the world, it would have aired every wednesday night on ABC from 1979 - 1985.

And the car scenes are pretty awesome. My personal favorite is when The Driver, in order to show off his skills to a particularly arrogant crook, methodically demolishes an expensive car by driving just close enough to the pillars of a parking garage to snap off the doors, mirrors, lights, and so forth while never endangering anyone inside. And if a scene where a man methodically destroys a car doesn’t interest you, than I think we have no business talking to each other.

Elliott Kalan
still writes for “The Daily Show”, still co-stars on a very funny podcast called The Flophouse, and still hosts a wildly entertaining monthly screening series at 92Y-Tribeca in New York called Closely Watched Films. But you already knew all that. What’s new is that he’s one of the authors of a new book, and he’s gotten himself married off. Sorry, ladies.

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