That Thing They Do
The Paramount Summer Film Classics' season of stars
In his 1983 memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, William Goldman recalls a moment of panic on his first screenwriting gig, Harper, a detective story starring Paul Newman. Shooting had already started when the producers called Goldman up one morning: They wanted a brand-new opening sequence, something to roll the credits over, and they wanted it by the end of the day. After he was done pacing the floor and shaking his fist at the screen gods, Goldman says, "[I]n desperation I decided, what the hell, he had to get up in the morning, everybody gets up in the morning, what's special about our guy?"
He then proceeded to tap out a wordless four-minute-long intro in which Newman's down-on-his-luck detective does just that –gets up in the morning. He kills the alarm clock. Stumbles around a beat-up apartment in his boxers and undershirt. Bathes his face in ice water. And then –this is the good part –he realizes he's run out of coffee. He goes to the trash bin and kicks it open, eyeballing yesterday morning's used grinds and filter. Newman looks upward, just briefly, as if to say, "Has it really come to this?" and then he digs the filter out of the trash (yup, it surely has). That's all you need to know about Harper: in that small, ignoble action, right there, the very essence of a character distilled.
Forget the pretty speeches and elaborate plotting: Movies win us over in moments. You've probably already seen a good chunk of the films playing at this year's Paramount Summer Film Classics series,but we happily tap back into them for the pleasure of, well, the trash-can moments –ineffable, indelible, even tossed-off. There's Marilyn Monroe, entering a crowded train depot via a sublime wiggle-walk in Some Like It Hot, and sweet Marie Dubois, exiting the picture by way of a snowy slide toward death in Shoot the Piano Player. There's a curl of the lips – a sunny, swinging smile from M*A*S*H's Ken Prymus when he hits the chorus of "Suicide Is Painless" – and a flick of the wrist –Cary Grant, doing marvelous things with another man's hat in The Awful Truth. And don't get me started on Donald O'Connor's knees. Did that daft human rag doll make us laugh? You bet he did. I don't remember the name of O'Connor's character in Singin' in the Rain, and I certainly don't remember any pretty speeches he made. But those knees? Those knees are gonna last me a lifetime. – Kimberley Jones
For the complete schedule of Paramount's Summer 2009 Film Classics series, see www.austintheatre.org.
Forget Me Not
'My Man Godfrey'
She's a Park Avenue princess in a chichi chiffon gown, only she's soaking wet and jumping up and down on a ritzy chaise, squealing with the delight of a kindergartner on a Halloween candy rush. If Hollywood ever produced a more cockeyed, more irrepressible, more effervescent depiction of giddy romantic glee, I don't need to see it. Carole Lombard's childlike euphoria is bounty enough. It shows just how free and easy this golden-age silver-screen starlet could be onscreen, how effortless in her comedy, how joyous. And our joy watching her here is doubled, because we're as happy as her character is that Godfrey, the bum turned butler for whom she's swooning, has shown his love for her (by plopping her in the shower and turning on the spray, of course). It's a terrifically illogical match in the way of the best screwball comedies – she's the ditzy society swell; he's the sensible gentleman's gentleman she rescued from the city dump – and we want nothing more than to see them in each other's arms. As in so many of her pictures, Lombard here is as luminous as a full moon in summer; like Greta Garbo, she gathers and reflects light in rare fashion. But what keeps you from just being swept away by her beauty is that blissful comic style, tossing off laugh lines as if without a thought. And indeed, her Irene Bullock is a classic ditz whose tongue is typically running about a furlong ahead of her brain; she's Gracie Allen in silk stockings. William Powell, who was Lombard's ex when the film was made, is an ideal foil for her, serving up the dry wit and savoir faire from the Thin Man films but in the starched collar of a valet's livery. And as a "forgotten man" – Depression code for someone who's lost it all – he's unforgettable; his Godfrey is chastened by circumstance, his every act colored by a need to repay his debts and help others, and Powell plays it with just the right air of offhanded humility. It lends an uncommon weight to this romantic fluff, but that just adds to the film's charms. The supporting cast is a treasure, especially Eugene Pallette's father, doing a priceless slow burn in that voice of a gravel truck grinding gears; Alice Brady's mom, a diamond-encrusted flibbertigibbet; and Mischa Auer's moody Russian artiste, who, when he isn't sighing wearily, does a killer chimp impression. Godfrey is screwball at its brightest and most buoyant, a tonic for any economic crisis, then or now. Ya! Ya! Ya! – Robert Faires
My Man Godfrey screens Tuesday, June 23, 7pm, and Wednesday, June 24, 8:50pm.
The Mustache Man
I was 11 years old when I first realized that Vincent Price had appeared in films that didn't feature cobwebs, the American International Pictures imprimatur, Elisha Cook Jr., or some combination thereof. The film was Otto Preminger's proto-noir Laura. It was a revelation, a thunderclap of bewilderment (where the heck did his mustache go?!) coupled with the dawning realization that my favorite horror star hadn't always been the imposingly debonair devil I'd assumed. I'd been devoutly devouring a near-weekly diet of Price's more crepuscular turns (with, often, a side of the actor's bloody delicious ham-on-wry) courtesy of Syracuse television station WSYR, which broadcast a now-legendary Saturday afternoon Monster Movie Matinee. I'd even gone so far as to correspond with Price via the late Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of the monster kid bible Famous Monsters of Filmland. But Price's suavely unctuous Shelby Carpenter – the presumptuous fiancé to Gene Tierney's Laura – gave me my first inkling that the actor could and did work dark wonders outside of the nightmare realm. Price keeps his penchant for theatrical flourishes in check throughout – another first for me at the time – and while the entire cast is nearly overshadowed by composer David Raksin's haunting and unforgettable theme, Price's juicy red-herring role (or is it?) introduced me to not only his other, nonhorror curriculum vitae but also to the entire genre of film noir. Price would go on to co-star in Anatole Litvak's mesmerizing noir The Long Night three years later (while simultaneously voicing Simon Templar, aka the Saint, for CBS radio) before eventually becoming typecast as the king of droll horror. It's his atypical role in Preminger's seminal whodunit that made me realize there was more to the man than madness and mayhem. – Marc Savlov
Laura screens Thursday, June 18, 9:20pm, and Friday, June 19, 7pm.
I Dream of Jean
'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' 'Easy Living,' and 'You Can't Take It With You'
Hollywood's golden age of the 1930s radiates Jean Arthur from every pore. Blown out in black and white, her platinum grin often playing second fiddle to her quirk and chirp, Arthur's comedienne allure and malleability to leading men remain cinematic quicksilver.
A cynical reporter masquerading as the "world's sweetest ingénue" to get an exclusive on Gary Cooper's titular "corn-fed bohunk" of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a newly befallen millionaire, Arthur's Babe Bennett opens with a yo-yo and closes in black velvet across a table. The park-bench scene between the two leads, her laugh while taking a trash-can drum solo, and their moment together on her stoop in the fog neutralize Frank Capra's "Capra-corn," as tries scripter Robert Riskin, who not only wrote both Deeds and You Can't Take It With You but all the director's best films.
Father of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Preston Sturges became a director because he didn't enjoy Mitchell Leisen's handling of his Easy Living script, yet the former set designer streamlined some of the screenwriter's best work into a screwball jewel of the era. Ray Milland's the love interest, but Arthur's chemistry is with her benefactor in the film, played by Edward Arnold, who tosses a sable coat off his Fifth Avenue penthouse that lands on her head. Cinderella's hat size, not her shoe size, enchants Easy Living.
Arnold returns as Arthur's prospective father-in-law in Capra's second statuette, You Can't Take It With You – dated, overlong, and still a George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart Broadway smash about more eccentrics and millionaires – but in blondie's vanity mirror appears Lionel Barrymore. As grandfather and granddaughter, Barrymore and Arthur hit every mark: charisma fission, character invisibility, big-screen hypnosis. You Can't Take It With You? Take it to the bank! – Raoul Hernandez
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town screens Tuesday, June 30, 7pm, and Wednesday, July 1, 9:35pm. Easy Living screens Tuesday, June 23, 9:05pm, and Wednesday, June 24, 7pm. You Can't Take It With You screens Tuesday, June 30, 9:20pm, and Wednesday, July 1, 7pm.
A Heavenly Clotheshorse
'Leave Her to Heaven'
My brother Stephen is my favorite movie-watching partner, always has been. His cinematic tastes – shaped by style and fashion, of course – are inexorably entwined in mine, so that my personal Top 10 reads a good deal like his, except for Mahogany. It was his leading me to Leave Her to Heaven that has provoked hours of discussion over the years, largely having to do with Gene Tierney's film wardrobe. Directed by John Stahl (Back Street, Magnificent Obsession), Leave Her to Heaven is notable for Tierney's severely padded shoulders. An actress with more beauty than talent, Tierney chews up the scenery with her overbite, tackling the role of a jealous bitch whose obsessions turn murderous by dressing like her life depended on it. Here, she is in New Mexico on horseback scattering her father's ashes, outfitted in Southwestern chic, and tossing a bronze urn into the cactus like it was garbage. There she is in Maine, deliberately changing into a pale-blue filmy peignoir set with matching blue satin mules so she'll look suitably lovely when she throws herself down the stairs to induce miscarriage. When invalid younger brother Danny gets too close to his brother – her husband (Cornel Wilde) – whoops(!), he drowns in the lake as Ellen looks on. "Look at her sitting so coolly in a rowboat, dressed to the nines and wearing designer shades," Stephen always comments. And he's right. Tierney's wooden acting works because the fashion is so ludicrously detailed. Too bad the film deprives us of just deserts in a sequel, where Ellen would wear designer stripes and heels as she's sent to women's prison with Ida Lupino in charge. –Margaret Moser
Leave Her to Heaven screens Thursday, June 18, 7pm, and Friday, June 19, 9pm.
Such Great Heights
"Max rhymes with tracks," goes the old saying about film director Max Ophüls, whose lush tracking shots and their restless circumscriptions are the signature motifs of this great film stylist. The opulent Lola Montês was Ophüls' final film and the most expensive movie produced up until that time in France. After a disastrous premiere, Ophüls' swan song was butchered for release by his producers, and the filmmaker died before seeing a somewhat-restored version celebrated in the Sixties by film lovers in America and Europe. Last year, an even more complete restoration was released, and it's this new print – in all its colorful CinemaScope glory – that will unveil on the Paramount screen.
Although based on a novel about the life of the very real and notorious 19th century dancer and romantic gadabout Lola Montês (or Montez), Ophüls' film can also be viewed as his most personal work. Ophüls uses the story of this mistress to kings and artists (among them King Ludwig I and Franz Liszt) to look at the world of artifice and spectacle. Reduced from the palace to the circus tent, the film is anchored by the image of Lola in her latter years as the main attraction in a shabby circus show in America. The camera swirls around her in the center of the ring as a series of tableaux vivants re-enacts her life's scandals. The sumptuous colors and the wide screen are integral to this story's telling, and the theatre-in-the-round aspect of the circus ring provides a perfect atmosphere for Ophüls' encircling camerawork. As the ringmaster, Peter Ustinov also circumnavigates Lola, as he narrates her tale and sometimes propels her throne into a whirling spin. Unfortunately, Martine Carol, as the lurid star of the title, is an expressively limited actress, though Ophüls uses her stolidity as a buffer between legend and reality. "For me, life is movement," Ophüls was known to say of his vertiginous camerawork, which reaches its pinnacle in Lola Montês. Life must have been very fulfilling for Max Ophüls. – Marjorie Baumgarten
Lola Montês screens Thursday, Aug. 20, 9:05pm; Friday, Aug. 21, 7pm; Saturday, Aug. 22, 4:15pm; and Sunday, Aug. 23, 2:15pm.
Tales of Karloff
'The Mummy' and 'The Black Cat'
Compared to Stephen Sommers' manic take on eternal Egyptian love-monkey Im-ho-tep, Karl Freund's 1932 original at first appears positively static. It moves with a leaden, ponderous shuffle that's the polar opposite of Universal's current, frenetic franchise; it's both stately and stagey, and it relies almost entirely on atmosphere to project its theme of undying (and, indeed, undead) love. The dread comes courtesy of Boris Karloff (sporting Jack Pierce's brilliant special make-up effects) and Freund's expressionistic compositions, which make the experience of watching the film today seem less cinematic and more like some half-remembered fever dream. No surprise there: Before fleeing his native Germany for the less anti-Semitic terrors of Hollywood, Freund served as director of photography on some of the masterworks of German expressionist cinema, chief among them Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Paul Wegener's The Golem, the latter of which served as a template of sorts for Karloff's rigor mortis shamble in James Whale's Frankenstein.
For all its low-light, high-art pretensions, there's one truly disconcerting sequence in The Mummy that to my knowledge has never been replicated, ever, in all of horror cinema. Bramwell Fletcher, as excitable archaeologist Ralph Norton, is alone in a room with Karloff's presumed-dead Im-ho-tep, who leans upright and immobile in his sarcophagus. Norton, wild of hair and with the fire of discovery banked low in his eyes, is transcribing the ancient papyrus scroll that will, unbeknownst to him, awaken the long-dormant Im-ho-tep. Freund cuts back and forth between the archaeologist, as he reads the incantation aloud in a barely audible whisper, and the Mummy's desiccated face. First, one cracked and dusty eyelid twitches, then the other, and then all hell breaks loose, not with a scream – or even on camera, for that matter – but with a startled shout, immediately followed by the single most horrific peel of demented laughter ever caught on film. Norton's mind has snapped, instantly, changing his character arc from that of studious archaeologist (and potential leading-man material) into gibbering madman. I've always thought Fletcher, an underrated character actor at the height of his career, should've received an Oscar for that single moment of giddy, onrushing dementia. It's the sound of one mind snapping, and it echoes and disturbs my dreams to this day.
Released two years later, Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat was the first pairing of Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Universal's twin titans of 1930s horror. A riff on the "old dark house" genre, Ulmer takes an already-twisted plot – a pair of honeymooners (David Manners and Julie Bishop) find themselves stranded in an Art Deco fortress-cum-mass grave overseen by Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff, sporting what has got to be the ur-psychobilly coiffure) – and warps it into a thing of true, insane genius. Also along for the longest night of their lives is Lugosi's Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who immediately embarks upon an inspired (and scandalously perverse) game of cat and mouse with Poelzig, climaxing with a chess game between the demented pair to determine the fate of the hapless bride. Satanism, war atrocities, strident anti-war polemics, dead spouses displayed in crystal sarcophagi, and the sheer kinetic discharge emanating from Karloff's and Lugosi's mind-warping ego-tripping make this by far the most memorable of Universal's nonfranchise (i.e., Frankenstein, Dracula, et al.) horror pics. Coupled with Charles D. Hall's gloriously over-the-top Art Deco production design – seriously, I'd give a kidney to live on this creep-tastic set – The Black Cat hits heights of pseudo-fascistic surreality that have never been rivaled or, wisely, attempted. – Marc Savlov
The Mummy screens Monday, Aug. 3, 8:40pm, and Tuesday, Aug. 4, 7pm. The Black Cat screens Monday, Aug. 3, 7pm, and Tuesday, Aug. 4, 8:45pm.
'To Kill a Mockingbird'
I actually don't remember the first time I supposedly saw To Kill a Mockingbird. I was a little girl when my then-young mother took my brother and me to the movie theatre to see it.
"We're going to see a movie, To Kill a Mockingbird," she told us. She was excited. Going to the movies always excited her. Her Tejana accent was quite thick back then, so, no matter how many times she repeated the title, we heard, Tequila Mockingbird. Our questions perplexed her: Is it a cartoon? Why do they call it a "mockingbird"? What does it look like? Can we have one? Does the bird drink tequila? Who gives it the tequila?
I think it took a small box of popcorn to finally shut us up.
Going to the movies in those days was a big deal – the majestic red velvet curtains, the luscious seats I could curl up in like a cat, and the upholstery that felt like my brother's crew cut when I rubbed my hand over it. Every once in a while, my mother would lean over and tell me to pay attention to a scene. I never understood what she wanted me to see, and when I asked her to "just tell me," she never explained. She told me to watch or listen more carefully. This irritated me. After a while, I stopped asking and instead studied her expression, trying to divine what she saw and heard. Still, nothing.
My first real memory of actually seeing To Kill a Mockingbird is on TV one summer afternoon. I watched it because it was "that movie" my mother dragged us to many years earlier. The children – Scout, Jem, and Dill – pulled me in, as did the mystery of Boo Radley (played by Robert Duvall in his film debut), but I was mesmerized by the enigmatic Atticus Finch. For years, I chalked it up to being a daddy's girl. It's only recently that I've decided that Atticus has more in common with my mother – quiet, earnest, determined, and unwavering. In that iconic scene when Atticus loses the trial defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman, I was not stunned like Jem or confused like Scout. I expected it. What I didn't expect is how the balcony – the black men and women of Maycomb – rose to its feet as Atticus finished packing his briefcase and left the courtroom. Scout is watching from between the railings when an elderly gentleman tells her to stand because her father is passing. What stunned me was how that moment was scored in silence – no music, no words, just the image of Atticus with all those sad, reverential eyes on him. The weight of that moment smacked me in the chest. It took me out of my body, out of my living room, shaking my demand for a concise, concrete explanation. There were no words. How would one presume to describe a scene that engenders a score of emotions you didn't even know were there?
For me, To Kill a Mockingbird is about many things but most especially the thirst for justice. It may not always prevail, but justice is always – always – worth fighting for. It is the film that most defines me. It was the threshold over which I left the tangible world of primary colors and concrete facts to the place where images say much more than words, and how, if you wait long enough, even an enigmatic, reticent mother will come to make some sense. – Belinda Acosta
To Kill a Mockingbird screens Thursday, July 2, 9pm, and Friday, July 3, 7:15pm.