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Rancid Popcorn » 2009 » January

Programming Note

Posts will be few for the next two weeks, due to work issues. No, I’m not quitting already.

Please To Enjoy…#4

The Dance “One Alone” from Deep In My Heart (Donen, 1954)

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As the musical was such a successful genre for MGM in the 40s, they looked for new and different ways to exploit it. The idea of a review based on the work of a given songwriter or songwriting team wasn’t necessarily new, particularly on stage, but it was appealing to a studio with a flock of musical talent under contract. Instead of a musical starring two or three such people doing 10 songs, you could have 10 or 12 stars combining to do one or two each. So far so good; where things got perilous was when they decided to tie the songs together by turning the films into biographies of the songwriters in question, which they could hang the songs on – “And then Rogers and Hart wrote this, and then they wrote that, etc.”

These were typically not very interesting people to make movies about, and in those areas where maybe they were a little interesting (say, the sexuality of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter) the films had to ignore or whitewash. There was Til The Clouds Roll By for Jerome Kern songs, Words and Music for Rogers and Hart. The Ziegfeld Follies was along the same lines. By 1954, as the MGM musical was getting a little passe, they were scraping the dramatic bottom of the barrel, trying to make us care about the life of composer Sig Romberg in Deep In My Heart. At least he was dead and didn’t have to watch Jose Ferrer’s cavortings in his name. Frequently the subjects of these things were still living. A lot of the big MGM names that had peopled these films in the past had moved on or had bigger fish to fry at the studio – No Judy Garland, no Fred Astaire. People like Tony Martin and Jane Powell were supposed to take up the slack, but it wasn’t the same. Although he composed some lovely things, much of Romberg’s music sounds a little old fashioned, even within the realm of old Hollywood musicals. Much of it is rendered in the style my wife happily calls “scream singing” – a sort of faux opera approach.

The dancers fare a little better. Gene Kelly appears, hoofing onscreen for the first and only time with his brother Fred. And Cyd Charisse dances a pas de deux with James Mitchell. This is the piece I want to highlight. Ignore the rest of the film if you must – you won’t miss much. But I think this Charisse/Mitchell sequence is one the very top tier achievements of the MGM musical. It’s obviously not as ambitious as half the stuff from Singin’ In The Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon – but the simplicity itself is part of what I feel makes it the equal or near-equal of anything from any of those films.

Simplicity, plus some straightforward excellence in costuming and set, and something quite unexpected – eroticism. Again, this is MGM. This is not not NOT in a million years where you’d expect to see the likes of this. Maybe some hotblooded Mediterranean musical cinema that never quite existed, but not MGM. Romance sure, but not sex – not the studio of the virtually sexless Garland, Astaire, both Powell girls, Kelly, Rooney, Reynolds, O’Connor, and on and on.

Cyd Charisse was the exception. Whenever partnered with Astaire or Kelly, they always looked a little scared to death of her, Astaire especially. She looks like she’d eat them alive, which of course is the vibe they play up and which made her famous in Singin’ In The Rain. She’s partnered here with James Mitchell, who did lots of small dance parts and supporting work in the 50s, but was never what you’d call a star. I always associate him with playing the Chamberlain, Yul Brynner’s main man in The King And I. I’ll bet he wished he could have had a crack at playing the King himself. He’d probably have made a pretty fair job of it. There’s two parts to this number – first Cyd sings “One Alone”, taken from Romberg’s Broadway show and film “Desert Song”. I say she “sings”, but as usual she’s just lip-synching to what someone with the actual skill set had already recorded. The singing part is over quickly, James Mitchell enters and then we get to the business:

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I don’t really know many details of the story for Desert Song, or if it’s representation here is even trying to be faithful. Either way, what’s happening on screen isn’t hard to interpret. The Woman arrives at this grand residence in the desert. She removes her cloak, moves around the place, waiting (which enables the song). The Man arrives, no doubt keeping a date. I suspect their meeting is supposed to be on the downlow.

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Sultry dancing, back and forth. Well, it looks like dancing, but is there much chance it’s representing anything other than fornication?
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Eventually he seems to lose interest in her. He lies back prone on the floor, contemplating the ceiling. If he had a cigarette, he’d undoubtedly be smoking it right now. After a moment’s pause, she seems to accept that. She retrieves her cloak and leaves, back into the desert night.

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I feel wholly on my own rating this as high as I do. I can’t find anyone championing this number as being overly special. And three whole volumes of That’s Entertainment! didn’t come within a million miles of sniffing at it. I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. As luck would have it, I think it probably is art.

 

Mouse On Cat Violence #3

The Bowling Alley-Cat, 1942

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Posters We Don’t Own #7

Change We Could Not Believe In, In 1972

The Man (Sargent, 1972)

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The Bit I Like More Than Maybe I Should #3

The Apache Dance scene, from Charlie Chan In Paris (1935):

The apache dance is downmarket Parisian in origin, named after gangs of the time. According to Wikipedia, that Keeper of Truth, some say it is an interpretive dance version of a conversation between a prostitute and her pimp. Maybe – it’s definitely an interpretive dance of being a spectacular jerk. If you called it “The Misogyinist Dance” you wouldn’t be far off.

Charlie Chan In Paris is a pretty dreary entry in the Fox series of adventures of the Chinese detective starring Warner Oland, as dull as any I’ve yet seen (many are quite fun). It does have Erik Rhodes, one of the very fruitiest of 30s actors, and early on it features an alarming Apache Dance. Other than that, it sort of puts me to sleep. So let’s go to the dance!

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Charlie and some Paris friends go to a nightclub. He’s gone along because an undercover operative who works as a dancer there has a message to slip him. Charlie makes eye contact with her.

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The girl sees Charlie, and then her act begins. Let the violent girl-tossing begin!

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Some creepy dude in a ludicrous disguise watches from a back window of the joint, the dancers silhouetted through frosted glass.

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Just dumping a girl on the ground is not a move you see much of. Dancing With The Stars should look into it.

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Ok I think the overhead shot is a helicopter ride, and then when he’s spinning her by an arm and leg, that’s an airplane ride, right? If she forgot to wear panties, this is where it would be a big problem.

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This is how I remember most airplane rides ending when I was a kid.

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After you’ve flung a girl across the floor, just to make sure she knows who’s boss, lift up her foot and strike a match for your ciggy off her shoe. Since smoking makes you look cool, it’s probably about time in the dance to light up anyway.

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When she crawls after you, give her a kick in the face! Ah just kidding around…haul her back up.

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Flip her, toss her, make sure she lands awkwardly in the crowd. Honestly, the difference between this and an uneven bar fight is hardly worth mentioning.

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One last overhead lift, and then we end the way all classical dances and barfights do – by heaving the girl feet first out a glass window. The crowd applauds, knowing klassy Paris culture when they see it.

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She lands as she must after every performance (what a window bill this place must have!), on a cot outside. Only tonight, the groupie waiting is the murdering kind.

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Knife is thrown, inside her scream is heard. Charlie and the crowd jump up. I think it’s very sweet that her dance partner, having just concluded artistically beating the crap out of her, runs out to hold her quite tenderly as she dies.

And that folks, is how you do the Apache Dance!

Iron Chef Television #2

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                 UNCLE CHARLIE              Versus                    ALICE

In Battle: Cream Of Wheat!!

 

20 Favorite Actress Performances

I was having a hard time settling on 20 favorite actresses, a good deal moreso than with the men. Hard to say why, but I think it might have something to do with longevity – leading men in Hollywood have a better shot at multi-decade careers in the spotlight, in “A” productions; that is and was the sexist truth of it. The John Waynes and Sean Connerys and Harrison Fords of the world are more common than the Katherine Hepburns.

I realized that many of the actresses I was throwing around as possible favorites didn’t neccessarily have such deep resumes. I decided to try another tack, and instead list 20 favorite female performances. This was much more fun. Perhaps not easier, but more fun. So here are 20 favorite performances. The only real rule was no repeats, only one slot per actress. I notice there’s more than a few one-hit wonders that made it. As with the men, presented in no particular order:

Helen Mirren, The Queen
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In purely Oscar terms (eeeugh), she’d been building to this sort of “we’re not worthy” industry genuflection for some time. That’s meant to be figurative of course, but Daniel Day-Lewis thought it was literal – he actually went down on his knees to receive his Academy Award from her. It’s quite a career trajectory for Helen. Her early c.v. is littered with wantons and fallen women (she was in Caligula, for criminy sakes). At some point, the floodgates of classy and powerful parts started bursting open for her. For no good reason at all, I trace that to the mid-80s, playing Russians in the reasonably high-profile 2010 and White Nights.

Now she is the officially trademarked Queen of England. If you need a Q of E portrayed, from any period in the history of Old Blighty, you are required by custom and good manners to call Helen Mirren first. Luckily, and I imagine it hardly needs to be said, the performance here is great. I accept her fully as the old snoot.

Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles

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I went back and forth between Lili Von Shtupp and Eunice Burns in What’s Up Doc? – if it wasn’t for my one per actress rule, both performances would be listed here. “Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome. C’mon in.”

Barbara Steele, Black Sunday

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There’s something of the Grand Gesture to Barbara Steele in her Italian horror movies, especially in this iconic part. There’s barely contained histrionics that put me in mind of silent cinema. Maybe because she reminds me of Louise Brooks, an emigrant to the continent making her name in a strange land. And the wild, huge eyes, nothing subtle about those.

Joan Fontaine, Rebecca

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We have a dog in our family. A little bichon. Now we love our dog, really we do, but he often strikes me as looking needy, neurotic, pathetic. I have not-so-secret daydreams of giving him a swift kick for no reason, just because of those neurotic looks. I’d never do it, mind you, but it’s one of my two little nods to fantasy sadism. The other is watching Joan Fontaine getting belittled over and over by everyone in Rebecca, especially of course by Mrs. Danvers. Joan Fontaine, as er…whatever her name is: the cinema’s great Neurotic Bichon.

Holly Hunter, Broadcast News

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Big Boss Man: “It must be nice to believe you always know better – to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.”
Jane Craig: “No. It’s awful.”

Ann Savage, Detour

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The character of Vera is just a big old bowlful of mean, and Ann Savage wallows in it.

Faye Dunaway, Mommie Dearest

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Essential.

Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes

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The fact that she can actually dance helps a lot. Being a novice actor herself somehow squares nicely with portraying a ballet newcomer moving among a group of old pros who are constantly sizing her up and trying to manage her. Moira was living out Victoria Page’s ups and downs just by agreeing to play her in the first place. One also wonders if she wasn’t partially cast for her hair – this is one of the ultimate Technicolor productions, and that is some technicolor-friendly hair on her.

Kathleen Byron, Black Narcissus

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This is really it for her, isn’t it? Yes, she also was the leading lady of The Small Back Room and was quite good/different in it, but Sister Ruth is her calling card. Ms Byron should have been a bigger star, I think – even within Michael Powell’s universe, whom she did three films for (that I can think of – the two mentioned above plus a memorable cameo as an adminstrative angel in A Matter of Live and Death). I think she would’ve done a better job than Jennifer Jones in Gone to Earth, and would have given Wendy Hiller a run for her money in I Know Where I’m Going.

But that’s all make-believe. What we’ve got is Sister Ruth, and she is unforgettably unstable, murderous, repressed, depressed. There’s a bit where she zips up a staircase in shadows like a scuttling bug – plain crazy, that Sister Ruth.

Katherine Hepburn, The Lion In Winter

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I’ve watched this a lot and hope to do so many more times.

Vera Clouzot, Diabolique

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The director’s wife – if it’s nepotism, it certainly worked this time. She only did two other films, both supporting parts also for Henri-Georges. Clearly it wasn’t for lack of talent.

Marilyn Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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It’s a great comic character, that particular strain of dumb/not so dumb blonde Monroe invented, and this is the purest distillation.

Gloria Holden, Dracula’s Daughter

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Holden was active throughout the 30s and 40s, but I don’t think I’m too far out on a limb to suggest that this is what she’s remembered for. This is to me the most watchable of the Universal Dracula films, moreso than the Lugosi original, and it’s down to this performance. While Dad Dracula evoked the foreigner to be suspicious of, Daughter seems like she’s come from an entirely different planet. She suggests otherness and a lack of belonging; the film ends up being readable as about alienation as much as anything else. Not very horrific, but haunting.

Tatyana Samojlova, The Cranes Are Flying

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This is all the evidence I have to go on, but she seems immensely talented. Her character is set up to be mostly a victim, but she’s too hard and willing to be mean right back for that to stick. A full-blooded performance.

Marlene Dietrich, Morocco

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Entertainer, fashion-forward challenger of morals, fearless quester for true love, French Foreign Legion groupie – all in one movie. I just wonder if there’s anyone else who could have pulled this off.

Lee Remick, Anatomy Of A Murder

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There’s an awful lot of trollops and ne’er-do-wells on this list aren’t there? I hope that says more about the movie business than me, but possibly not.

Miss Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

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Changing light bulbs, baking pies…for most actresses, this is not the raw material Oscars are made from. Of course, most actresses are not Shining Stars In The Cinema Firmament!

Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra

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I’m not going to suggest that Cleopata isn’t boring. A lot of it is. But Liz does spend a lot of time offscreen, you know. Things perk up when she comes back around. I like a lot of Liz performances – her good ones, her bad ones, her laughably risible ones. Most of all I like it when she’s playing some version of herself, and there’s no way to get around the history of the film and the Taylor/Burton drama. The fact that it’s easy to imagine the similarities in the everyday life of Cleo and a Hollywood megastar helps as well.

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

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Betty looks like a French aristocrat in drag who better hope the Scarlet Pimpernel hops along any minute. It’s a tart, bitchy story with a tart, bitchy character played by the actress who sold tart and bitchy in lovely little scented pink pouches, crushing all competition in the tart and bitchy business. Bette Davis + Regina Giddens = match made in heaven!

Peggy Cummins, Gun Crazy

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Trick shot artist Annie Laurie Starr is about as Fatale as the Femmes ever got. Cummins makes palpable the sense that this is as much a romance about loving danger and fatalism as much as a romance between two people. Although crime films were and are popular, I suspect some audience members in 1950 might have sensed they weren’t escaping into entertainment – there’s anarchy and desperation in the world.

The near-misses are a long, long list, including performances from Agnes Moorehead, Talia Shire, Setsuko Hara, Scarlett Johansson, Anna Karina, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Miller, Maria Casares, Audrey Tautou, Kate Winslet and on and on blah blah blah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be Seeing You, Number Six

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Patrick McGoohan, star, writer, director, progenitor, auteur, dammit of the classic series The Prisoner died today at age 80. Although that series will inevitably be the locus of the discussion of his career, I’d like to take a moment to consider one of his films, one that shows what a broad talent McGoohan was.

The film is All Night Long, 1961, directed by Basil Dearden. The story is an updating of Othello (no Shakespearean dialogue), regarding a black London jazzman and his white singer wife. McGoohan plays their ambitious drummer, Johnny Cousin,the Iago character. The film is/was notable in jazz circles for the appearance and performances of quite a few jazzmen of the time, some giants – Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth.

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Ladies and gentlemen, Charles Mingus. The thing that startled me is that McGoohan played the drums himself for this. He manages to convince that he belongs with these people.

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This is a 2 or 3 minute solo. Now, maybe the soundtrack was actually done a second time in post, but either way I think he’s really doing this. Impressed, I am.

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Godspeed, Pat. Thanks for everything.

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Great Punches In Cinema History #4

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It’s A Wonderful Life

George Bailey gets socked by Mr. Welch, the schoolteacher’s husband.

“Muh mouth’s bleedin’ Bert! Muh mouth’s bleedin!”

Everyday Bava #3

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Danger: Diabolik (Bava, 1968)

LouiseBrooks theme byThemocracy