Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Devil is a Sissy

I love Turner Classic Movies. Even when it's not showing "good" movies, it's showing things I at least find interesting. Like a marathon of movies starring "Maisie", whoever that is.

In this case, it's a 1936 movie chosen by Harvey Fierstein called The Devil is a Sissy. It stars the three big child stars of the day: Freddie Bartholomew, Jackie Cooper, and Mickey Rooney. That's a pretty good cast!

The plot involves Freddie Bartholomew as a British transplant trying to join the New York gang run by Rooney and Cooper. Now, you have to remember that Freddie Bartholomew is extremely -- well, let's put it this way. You know when you call someone "Little Lord Fauntleroy"? That was Freddie Bartholomew. So he's about ideal for the part of "prissy British kid in over his head with the tough guys".

The plot is pretty much by the numbers: Bartholomew gets into trouble trying to join the gang and then they get in trouble, and blah blah blah. It's not actually that good a movie. I found it fascinating, though.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Three Musketeers (not one of the good versions)

The Three Musketeers

I'm a big fan of swashbuckling. If your movie has people jumping on tables and swinging on chandeliers and getting in swordfights all over the place, I'm probably going to love it. This applies whether it's a good movie (The Sea Hawk or Errol Flynn's Robin Hood) or a bad movie (Cutthroat Island, say. Or Yellowbeard). I'm also a fan of Alexandre Dumas, so I've seen all the Three Musketeers adaptations I can find.

This is not the best version. That would be the Richard Lester one from 1973 with Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, and Racquel Welch. It's not even that Charlie Sheen/Keifer Sutherland one from 1993. I wasn't crazy about that one, but at least it had Tim Curry as Richelieu. It's not the 1948 version I haven't seen even though it has Vincent Price, Lana Turner, and Gene Kelly.

Nor is it the 1933 John Wayne version that's really a serial about the French Foreign Legion. That one was weird because it was a really early talkie and they hadn't thought of sound effects yet, so the fight scenes all take place in an eerie silence.

No, this is the 1939 musical comedy version starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. So I'm actually watching it because of my fascination with the Ritz Brothers. Unlike proper comedy teams like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Three Stooges, or the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers are completely indistinguishable. There's no "fat one" or "angry one" or "funny one". There's especially no "funny one". It is hard to tell from here what exactly their act is supposed to be. They just mug and fall over a lot. And this is in 1939, a year that also gave us such cinematic masterpieces as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Moto in Danger Island.

There was a time when the Ritz Brothers were very highly regarded, especially Harry. I should note at this point that although I've seen three or four Ritz Brothers movies, I have no idea which one is Harry. However, here's a 1976 Esquire article in which Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, and Jerry Lewis all claim that Harry Ritz was a brilliant comedian in nightclubs. A careful look at that list of comics will suggest that Harry wasn't, um, subtle.

Here are some of the things presented as evidence in that article:

They were masters of movement and, in addition to dances so extraordinarily well timed that the three of them looked as if they were sewn together, they were capable of a dozen comic walks and runs.

Mm, yes. It's been awhile since comics were graded based on how many different comic walks they had.

Though theirs was ensemble comedy they almost always dressed the same and were generally indistinguishable as characters- Harry, the one in the middle, always had the most to do. He rolled his eyes better than the other two, and walked funnier, and did funnier pratfalls.

Oof. Yes, he was apparently a master of the eye-rolling, funny-walking pratfall. Fantastic. Maybe the problem with Ritz Brothers movies is that they don't have rimshots after every bit of business.

As a Three Musketeers adaptation, this is surprisingly accurate. It hits most of the major plot points from the book, which is more than most adaptations do. As anexample of comedy that hasn't lasted, it's awesome. I think I laughed precisely once.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Jazz Singer vs. The Birth of a Nation

From a letter in the most recent Entertainment Weekly, with Johnny Depp on the cover:

A Case of Black and White

Thanks for showing some class and justifiably castigating The Jazz Singer (DVD). Like The Birth of a Nation, it may have been a milestone in filmmaking, but that doesn't make it any less abhorrent.

Okay, look. The Jazz Singer has one unfortunate scene. The problem is that's the scene you always see. He's not in blackface the whole movie (he's playing a Jewish boy who disappoints his father by becoming a jazz singer instead of a Cantor), and even that scene isn't really about blackface. Al Jolson's character is performing a minstrel number.

Yes, obviously, that's a problem. It's not unique to The Jazz Singer, though, because movies from the twenties and thirties are rife with uncomfortable performances. The Big Broadcast movies are full of accent humor, where the entire joke is "Lookit the foreigner! He's got a German accent! Haw haw!". Incidentally, they go with Dutch accents a lot more often than you would think. Apparently the Netherlands used to be hilarious.

So that's The Jazz Singer: a scene in which Al Jolson sings a song in blackface. Like Bing Crosby does in Holiday Inn and Fred Astaire does in Swing Time -- not actually playing a black person, but, for some reason, blacking up before singing a song on a stage. In Astaire's case, he's actually doing a "tribute" to Bojangles, but that doesn't help all that much.

Now, let's compare that to The Birth of a Nation, which is three hours of black people being portrayed as subhuman animals and the KKK as noble saviors of civilization. That's abhorrent. Even by the standards of the time, it's explicitly racist down to the core. It does no one any good to lump movies together.