Archive for the 'comedy' Category

06
Oct
14

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

15
Sep
14

Modern times

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 9.18.43 PM

I loved Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Paulette Goddard. A year ago, I wouldn’t have bothered to watch, but I’ve gotten intrigued, if not hooked on silent films from the Criterion Collection.

Released in 1936, in a time when the Marx Bros. and W.C. Field’s films were full of jokes and dialog, Modern Times isn’t completely silent. A distant boss speaks in broadcasts to alienated factory workers and Chaplin himself sings. Still there’s no dialog and remarks are conveyed with cards. That seems risky for a studio in the 1930s. I hadn’t realized there was such an overlap between silent films and talkies.

As some experts have pointed out, the film is more like a series of short films (2 reelers) rather than a story with one arc. We see Chaplin as his famous Tramp for the last time he’ll play that character. He gets a job in a factory and in scenes that are similar to À Nous la Liberté ecomically exposes the system as dehumanizing as the Tramp gets caught in the gears of the machinery. In another scene the Tramp tests out an eating machine with disastrous effects. (Since workers have taken to grabbing lunch at their desk there’s little need for this machine.) Inadvertently, the tramp gets arrested and mixed up in labor disputes. The cops’ violence against the workers shows us how times were back then. It’s a part of history rarely taught.

Along the way the Tramp meets a “gamine” played by Goddard, who’s stunning and joyful, yet ever bit an outsider. I can’t think of an actress today who could play this role. The gamine has two siblings, who’re rounded up by the police and put into an orphanage, she barely escapes their clutches. There’s a sweetness and affinity between the Tramp and the Gamine, the only two who are on each other’s wave.

The Criterion Collection DVD’s contain lots of extras: a home movie made on a boat during the shooting of the film trailers, commentary and a separate film commentary with more background on the making of Modern Times. Watching that I saw how dapper the gray haired actor was without his Tramp suit. While I expected a certain élan from Chaplain in his real life, I also expected dark hair. Nope he was gray and distinguished in real life.

All in all, it’s a delightful thoughtful film. hard to imagine that Chaplin still entertains.

04
Aug
14

À Nous la Liberté

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Directed by René Clair, À Nous la Liberté (1931) follows the attempt of two convicts to escape. One man succeeds, but his friend is captured. The man who escapes starts a new life selling phonographs on the street. Soon he’s prospered and owns a store. Not much later he owns a huge factory making thousands of phonographs. One memorable scene shows his workers marching in to work, punching in, taking their seats on an assembly line and working like machines, just as the factory owner had when he was in prison. The striking similarity is not accidental.

Later the factory owner’s friend is freed and by chance meets his rich pal. The film is full of such coincidences but they made me smile rather than roll my eyes. At first the prosperous man is leery. Does his old chum want to black mail him?

No. His old friend Emile is far more sincere, more innocent. Despite the soul-killing monotony, Emile wants to continue working at the factory so he can woo a woman he’s infatuated with. As the rich men’s high society friends talk about him behind his back and are stuffy bores, the factory owner opens his life and his wallet to his old pal to help him win this woman’s heart. Then the wheel of fortune turns against this pair of friends.

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The film does use sound, though sparingly. For much of the beginning I thought it was a silent film. It’s a fun, clever film that has an uplifting feel to it. I agree with critic Michael Atkinson who describes as “bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.”

Clair was the first to film a scene where all hell breaks loose when workers can’t keep up with the assembly line. His studio and some critics believe that Chaplin plagiarized À Nous la Liberté when he made Modern Times. Clair didn’t get involved and said since he appreciates so much of what Chaplin’s done, if he did borrow from this film, that’s fine. His studio disagreed and took legal action which dragged on for 10 years. They lost.

À Nous la Liberté has a surprising, positive (or perhaps naive) ending. I can see why the film was on a list of “Most Influential Films” I received at Act One. So glad my library had it.

17
Jul
14

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

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When I was growing up I loved watching Mr. Peabody & Sherman’s cartoons as they traveled to various historical events. Now all the kids who have no idea who this famed pair is can see Mr. Peabody, the genius dog, and his boy Sherman right wrongs throughout time and space. The film, which I saw on a plane, captures the heart and soul of the original. Bravo!

The film moves quickly and is witty enough for adults and offers history with a spoonful of sugar for the young. I’m telling everyone I see that they should check this out whether they have kids or not. It’s just a fun film.

02
Jul
14

City Lights

The Tramp and the Blind Girl

I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.

26
May
14

Frozen

Frozen

I’m sorry for this pun, but I just need to say, “I was tepid about Frozen.” I started watching a few weeks back and that I can let a film languish is a sign that it isn’t a winner for me. I did like the art, the infusion of Scandinavian design and incredible icy landscapes, but the story didn’t grab me. It’s the story of Ilsa, a princess who for an inexplicable reason is cursed so that everything she touches turns to ice. Her parents are at their wits’ end, but can’t find a solution. For my money, I’d expect a king and queen to do more, lots more for their heir. Instead this woman is locked up and her younger sister is in the dark as to why her sister, with whom she was so close avoids her.

When Ilsa is coronated she inadvertently brings winter to the realm in the midst of summer. Ilsa flees to self-imposed exile and her sister pursues her. Her sister soon meets a dashing young ice seller, his reindeer and a live snowman. They’re all very endearing and clearly we’re in for some nice songs, a lesson on love, sisterly and romantic.

As I watched I was all too aware that soon Disney will put this up on Broadway or an Ice Pavilion near you. It seemed too predictable and commercial. Though I thought it could be much better, kids would like it.

18
Mar
14

On Harold Lloyd

h lloydeAfter watching Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, I became curious about what the newspapers of the day said about him. So I went to my library’s website and searched for him and the years 1922 – 1923 (when this film was made and was released in the Chicago Tribune archives.

I was struck by the tone of the paper – very casual. The movie Gal Friday seem realistic. One article I found was “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” I chuckle at the “The Read Inside Dope” phrase. The article begins:

Harold Lloyd is one of those intrepid, joyous young persons who would attempt to dig a transcontinental canal with his fingernails if he thought the effort would benefit anybody. His character has been battered into shape by hard knocks — into such shape as he is spoken of as “the finest chap in Hollywood.”

The article goes on to explain how he isn’t conceited like Conway Tearle, whoever he was, nor a “rounder.” He exemplified the rags to riches archetype as he started work at age 11 selling popcorn at train stations. Later he sold newspapers, was a waiter, and an amateur boxer. As a teen he had the savvy to enlarge his paper route and then hire other boys to deliver segments of it.

Lloyd’s father owned a restaurant, which failed. The family was in dire straits and Lloyd wanted them to move to New York so he could work on the stage. The father thought Los Angeles and movies would be better. The father decided to flip a coin to determine where they’d go. I can’t imagine flipping a coin for such a decision. The coin decided they’d go to L.A.

Getting a foot in the door was tricky. Lloyd couldn’t get past the guards. He figured out that if he put on his grease paint and walked in with the extras returning from lunch, he could breeze by the “fish-eyed guards.” That trick worked and eventually Lloyd was hired for $3.50/day. Opportunities came his way after than and he rose from extra to star. He got the idea for his signature glasses from a comic he saw. His were specially designed so his expressive eyebrows could be seen.

How did he lose his thumb and index finger, I wondered. Seems he was posing for a still ad. The concept required that he be holding a bomb. It was supposed to be fake but wasn’t. Lloyd had a cigarette at the time and BOOM! He was blinded for 4 days and lost his fingers. If you’ve seen him scaling the walls in Safety Last, you can see he didn’t let that stop him.

Next I read the Chicago Tribune’s review of Safety First. I didn’t realize that movies would be shown at Orchestra Hall, a rather posh site. Then again those were posh-er times than ours and the era of the movie palace. The reviewer, Inez Cunningham admitted to not watching the half hour of the film when Lloyd has to scale the building because she was afraid of such exploits and didn’t see why anyone would like them. I’m wondering how such a stick in the mud got a job as a movie critic in the era of Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin. Upfront she writes that she doesn’t generally like Lloyd, but admits that on this film he was on his best behavior and left out his usual vulgarities and “blythe.” I suppose I’ll have to watch some of his earlier films to see these vulgarities.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Inez. “Harold Must Be Good: Even Critic Laughs.” Chicago Tribune. 28 May 1923: Print.

Harpman, Julia. “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Yes, Hard Knocks Made Harold Lloyd What He Is Today.” Chicago Tribune. 3 Aug. 1924: Print.




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