Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sturges and Slapstick

Watching THE LADY EVE again, I was struck by something about Preston Sturges' technique that I've written about before here. I always hedge about coming out with this outright criticism of his otherwise marvelous films, but after having recently seen both LADY EVE and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, those films have re-enforced my opinion that Sturges simply never mastered the kind of slapstick comedy of which he was so fond of inserting into his films, and that, contrasted with the smooth flow of his dialogue, the slapstick moments stand out for their awkwardness.

The major slapstick moments in THE LADY EVE occur during the part in which Fonda is re-introduced to Stanwyck posing as another woman. He is so distracted by her resemblance to the con-woman he fell in love with on his ocean cruise back from South America that he is continually tripping over himself. Fonda, never a slapstick performer, handles the business admirably, but it feels labored and stiff, not helped by the undercranking to underscore the comic effect. Only his third bit of slapstick in this sequence -- when he brings his head up on a tea tray -- provokes the kind of surprised laughter that the best slapstick earns. It is that element of surprise, created from building up the gags, that Sturges seems to struggle to find in these moments.

In a previous post on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, I'd written that Sturges never seemed to be able to solve the problem of finding a way to get his characters to fall into a swimming pool. As Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake argue, she threatens to push him into the pool, and in the rather chaotic ensuing struggle between McCrea, Lake and the butler, all tumble into the pool. When Sullivan's valet attempts to pull the butler out of the pool, he is himself pulled in, at which point the scene ends. It's funny enough, but feels chaotic and hurried.

That is something I have come to admire all the more about Sturges' contemporaries in film comedy, especially Leo McCarey, George Stevens and Frank Capra, all of whom had come up in silent comedy and understood slapstick staging and timing inside out. These men knew how to make the slapstick sequences organic to the whole and of a piece, whereas in Sturges' films, these scenes stick out and call attention to themselves.

As a contrast with how Sturges handles the pool scene in SULLIVAN, I would point to the famous scene in Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, with the floor of the high school gym opening up to reveal a swimming pool in the middle of the Charleston contest. As Stewart and Reed dance deliriously, blissfully unaware of the potential embarrassment that awaits them, we watch in anticipation of the big moment when they will fall in. It's a cathartic moment they finally do, and is only heightened by the other students diving in. The flustered school principal, watching nervously from the sidelines, finally decides that it looks like so much fun that he dives in, too -- a nice capper to the sequence. A scene like this could easily be out of place and distracting in a film like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but Capra draws on his slapstick training to make it entirely of a piece.

As a final point of contrast, I would point to a scene from another Sturges film I had recently seen, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. This is one of Sturges' most brilliantly conceived and executed comedies, almost like a symphony in its intricate construction. But there is a lengthy and protracted slapstick sequence with Rex Harrison, involving his efforts to retrieve his dictation machine from a top shelf, which brings the proceedings to a halt. Sturges lets this scene play out for minutes on end, and while it was clearly intended to be a comic exercise in frustration à la W.C. Fields, it is instead just frustrating in its failure to build to anything.

I offer this only as an example of how Sturges' contemporaries, who had spent years working in silent comedy for producers like Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, were able to keep the slapstick tradition alive in their films 20 years on. Sturges was unmatched at creating unique comic worlds, populated with his favorite character actors speaking that wonderful concoction of Sturges dialogue that is his hallmark. But when it comes to slapstick, I continue to believe that Sturges never quite mastered finding a way to integrate it into his world of comedy.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Something else about "Saturday Night Fever"

After seeing SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER on the big screen, I was struck by just what a nicely-photographed film it is. I think this gets lost when watching the film on TV, or even on DVD, where some of the definition and detail is lost, but there are some moments that are really quite stunning. The cinematographer, Ralf D. Bode, frequently shoots the closeups of Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney together with a soft, gauzy look that gives them a dreamlike quality, which contrasts effectively with the naturalism of the scenes with Travolta and his friends. He brings a similar quality to the dance sequences (particularly the "Night Fever" number), heightened by the colorful flashing lights and fog on the dance floor. Looking over his filmography, I realize I have only seen a couple other films photographed by Bode, but I do not remember anything particularly unique about their cinematography. In any case, he did really fine work on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, which is greatly emphasized by seeing the film on a big screen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Saturday Night Fever" (1977) Director's Cut

It's an interesting contradiction that a film that is so very much of a specific time and place (late '70s Brooklyn, at the height of the Disco craze) has held up so well for 40 years. It's one of those films that, I imagine, must have seemed hopelessly dated in one sense just a few years after its release. But perhaps now, separated by the distance of time, we can better appreciate its strengths and qualities that keep audiences coming back to it.

The story of Tony Manero, a young working-class Italian-American man in Brooklyn struggling to find himself through the only thing that matters to him -- dancing -- is certainly one audiences continue to identify with. John Travolta's star-making performance, John Badham's energetic direction and the pulsating music of the Bee Gees elevate the film to an experience that still brims with vitality. Norman Wexler's script (based on "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", an article by Nik Cohn that appeared in New York Magazine the previous year) is startlingly honest, granting real seriousness to Tony's struggle to move beyond the world he knows and make a name for himself.

For viewers in the Baltimore area, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is being presented in a Director's Cut on the big screen at the Senator Theatre. Showtimes from the Senator's website are:
11/15 (8pm), 11/19 (10am), 11/20 (1pm) & 11/21 (9:30pm)

Further Reading:
Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", New York Magazine (June 7, 1976)
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" Review of Saturday Night Fever (March 7, 1999)
Variety Review (Dec. 13, 1997)
New York Times Review by Janet Maslin (Dec. 16, 1977)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"The Lady Eve" (1941) at the Charles

Preston Sturges' delightful screwball comedy THE LADY EVE (1941) will be playing at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore for three shows starting Saturday November 18th.

Here are the showtimes from the Charles Theatre's website:

Made just before SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, which many consider to be Sturges' masterpiece, THE LADY EVE might actually be my favorite of his films. Unlike SULLIVAN, which veers sharply between comedy and drama, THE LADY EVE is wall-to-wall laughs, and contains some of Sturges' most understated and funny dialogue, delivered by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in excellent comedic performances. It's one of Sturges' most sophisticated and impeccably witty comedies, made in the period before he began moving into more broad farcical territory with films like THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK. And although it was only his third directorial effort (coming after the double-header of THE GREAT MCGINTY and CHRISTMAS IN JULY the previous year), THE LADY EVE is Sturges' first classic.

Written and Directed by Preston Sturges, based on a story by Monckton Hoffe. Produced by Paul Jones. Photographed by Victor Milner. Art Direction by Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté. Costumes by Edith Head. 94 minutes. B&W. United States.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Jean), Henry Fonda (Charles), Charles Coburn ('Colonel' Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Martha O'Driscoll (Martha), Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike), Robert Greig (Burrows), Dora Clement (Gertrude), Luis Alberni (Pike's chef), with Bobby Barber, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Robert Dudley, Arthur Hoyt, Torben Meyer, Frank Moran, Victor Potel, Harry Rosenthal, Julius Tannen, Robert Warwick.

"The Lady Eve re-emerges as fresh and delightful as ever, and perhaps even funnier than hitherto since American mores and morals seem far more in need of deflating today than they did in the forties." -- William K. Everson

Peter Bogdanovich on THE LADY EVE:


Further Reading:
Original review in Variety (Dec. 31, 1940)
Roger Ebert's Review (Nov. 21, 1997)
Bosley Crowther's Review in The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1941)
"The Scorching Sensuality and Style of The Lady Eve", The Dissolve, by Noel Murray, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Scott Tobias
The Lady Eve in Senses of Cinema, by Peter Tonguette (March 2003)
Only the Cinema: The Lady Eve
William K. Everson, "The Lady Eve" Program Notes from Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society (Sept. 4, 1962)
Andrew Dickos, Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies (University of Kentucky Press, 1985)
James Harvey, Romantic Comedy: From Lubitsch to Sturges (Knopf, 1987)
Jeff Jaeckle and Sarah Kozloff, ReFocus: The Films of Preston Sturges (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)
Alessandro Pirolini, The Cinema of Preston Sturges: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2010)
Preston Sturges and Brian Henderson, ed. Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges (University of California Press, 1985)

Monday, November 13, 2017

"The Movie"

Something that has stuck with me, ever since I first read Roger Ebert's review of CASABLANCA, was his description of it as "The Movie". I knew exactly what he meant by that, and still agree with the assessment. Although I prefer to avoid such hyperbole as "greatest", "best", "most important" and other such ultimately meaningless platitudes in talking about films, there is something about CASABLANCA that has elevated it to a level of enduring cultural iconic status that is, I think, perhaps unique.

It was especially fun seeing the film on the big screen in a state-of-the-art megaplex (the Towson Cinemark theater). We went for the 2pm show but it was already sold out, so we got tickets for 7pm and it played to a packed house. Some of the Bogart cult was in attendance, complete with trenchcoats and fedoras, reciting the iconic lines.

Especially in this day and age, when the moviegoing experience seems to be split between bigger, louder, and emptier Hollywood fare, and the museum-like reverence of the art and revival house, it can be a breath of fresh air to view a classic like CASABLANCA as a living, breathing, vital experience, as fresh today as it was 75 years ago.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Movie Soundtracks & Frame Blow-up Books

Going through my collection of movie soundtrack albums tonight, I came across these two old favorites. One is a collection of recordings of routines by W.C. Fields (subtitled "...His only recording"), also featuring eight songs by Mae West, and the other is a collection of scenes from the films of the Marx Bros., featuring "the original voice tracks from their greatest movies". These albums were extremely popular during the height of the nostalgia craze in the early '70s, and were also quite useful in the pre-home video days, when such albums were the only way to re-visit favorite scenes from these films.

There was also a series of books, many by Richard J. Anobile, that served a similar purpose and included frame blow-ups and dialogue transcriptions from famous films. I have one called Why a Duck?, which consists of scenes from the Marx Bros.' comedies. Anobile wrote others, too, including Who's on First, A Flask of Fields, A Fine Mess, plus individuals volumes on classics such as PSYCHO, THE MALTESE FALCON and FRANKENSTEIN, among others. He even wrote one on THE GENERAL, though it's hard to imagine how his scene-by-scene frame blowups would work for a silent film.

I wonder how many people still collect these? Home video eventually rendered these kinds of books and albums obsolete, but as classic film comedy fans know, it's hard to ever pass up a chance to spend time with your favorite comedians, no matter what the format.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unexpected Audience Laughter

I noticed something interesting at last night's SUSPIRIA screening -- though it was hard to miss, as it was actually quite distracting: sometime around the second half of the film, roughly half the audience began laughing raucously at the film, which totally took me right out of the carefully-crafted, haunting atmosphere of the experience.

It reminded me of my experiences watching VERTIGO, another haunting, dream-like film that often inspires fits of uncomfortable laughter from audiences. At least in that case I can understand the laughter as a nervous response to the increasingly unhinged behavior of the Jimmy Stewart character.

I'll never forget the first time I saw VERTIGO with an audience in film school years ago. There was one moment in particular that got such a strong laugh from everyone in the room but me, and I've never understood it. It occurs when Scottie Ferguson gives the distraught Judy Barton a brandy and tells her to drink it down. That moment got a huge laugh from everyone. The professor, also laughing, said, "Hey, it was the '50s..."

I still didn't get it.

There was another incident I recall, more recently, during a screening of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT at Loew's Jersey City. At the moment of the reveal that Kropp's leg has been amputated, someone in the audience let out a loud burst of uncomfortable laughter, possibly out of surprise. The poor devil was the only person in the entire house to react that way, so it must have been embarrassing.

At least it was an honest reaction.