Film Review: The Comic (dir by Carl Reiner)


The 1969 film, The Comic, details the long and not particularly happy life of silent screen star Billy Bright (played by Dick Van Dyke).  Billy Bright tells us his story from beyond the grave.  The film opens with his funeral, which is sparsely attended and features the type of self-consciously mawkish eulogies that are usually trotted out whenever a generally unlikable person dies.  The only sign of life at the funeral comes when Billy’s oldest friend, Cockeye (Mickey Rooney), throws a pie at one of the speakers.  The speaker says that the pie was Billy’s final joke.

Billy Bright was a funny performer but a miserable man.  That’s pretty much the entire plot of The Comic.  We see the young Billy, performing in silent films and winning laughs through the seemingly impossible contortions through which he puts his body and his face.  Off-screen, Billy marries one of his co-stars (Michele Lee) and starts a production company.  When she discovers that he’s been cheating on her, their divorce is a major Hollywood scandal.

Even before the coming of the talkies, Billy struggles with alcohol.  Once the talkies do come, his career is pretty much over.  Billy became a star in silent films and he stubbornly wants to continue to make silent films, despite the fact that there’s no longer an audience for them.  Billy quickly goes from being a star to being forgotten.  He’s reduced to walking down Hollywood Boulevard with Cockeye and looking at the names under his feet.  When he reaches his name, he discovers that someone has dropped their gum on it.

Billy finally does get his comeback in the late 60s but it’s not much of a comeback.  He appears on a talk show and it’s hard not to cringe a little as the clearly infirm Billy duplicates some of his silent era pratfalls.  He’s reduced to appearing in a rather awkward commercial for a laundry detergent called, I kid you not, White-ee.  “That’s White-ee, baby!” his commercial co-star says after a freshly cleaned Billy emerges from a washing machine.

The idea that most funny performers are actually rather serious and depressing off-stage is certainly nothing new.  Judd Apatow has basically built an entire career out of making films about how funny people are actually carrying around tons of emotional baggage.  The thing distinguishes The Comic from so many other films about angsty comedians is that Billy Bright himself never seems to have a single moment of self-awareness.  Usually, films about miserable celebrities will at least have one scene where the main character realizes that his misery is all his fault.  Billy Bright is pretty much a jerk from the minute we meet him and he’s still a jerk when the film ends.  He’s the type of guy who makes a big deal about picking up his son from school but who still manages to grab the wrong kid because it’s been so long since he’s spent any time with his family that he’s really not sure what his son looks like.  Towards the end of the film, we see him watching one of his old films and what we notice is that he doesn’t seem amused at all.  Is he thinking about how he lost it all or is it possible that this man who made millions laugh never really had much of sense of humor himself?  The film leaves it to you to decide.

The Comic was written and directed by Carl Reiner, who undoubtedly knew quite a few Billy Brights in his life.  As such, the film feels authentic in a way that a lot of other films about creative people do not.  The Comic is a well-made film.  It’s hard not to appreciate the film’s obviously affection for Old Hollywood.  That said, Billy Bright is such an unpleasant character that I found the film difficult to enjoy.  Van Dyke is genuinely funny whenever he’s doing Billy’s silent film shtick and he’s genuinely tiresome when Billy’s ego gets out of control.  It’s a good performance as a generally unlikable character.  How you react to The Comic will probably depend on how much sympathy you can summon up for a character who doesn’t really seem to deserve any.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #6: King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (dir by Joseph M. Newman)


The 1961 gangster biopic, King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein, tells the story of two men.

David Janssen is Arnold Rothstein, the gambler-turned-millionaire crime lord who, in the early years of the 20th Century, was one of the dominant figures in American organized crime.  Though he may be best-remembered for his alleged role in fixing the 1918 World Series, Rothstein also served as a mentor to men like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.  Rothstein was perhaps the first gangster to to treat crime like a business.

Mickey Rooney is Johnny Burke, Arnold’s best friend from childhood who grows up to be a low-level hood and notoriously unsuccessful gambler.  Whereas Arnold is intelligent, cunning, and always calm, Johnny always seems to be a desperate.  Whereas Arnold’s success is due to his ability to keep a secret, Johnny simply can’t stop talking.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  They both commit crimes, sometimes together and sometimes apart.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Arnold turns out to be a better criminal than Johnny.  In fact, Johnny is always in over his head.  He often has to go to his friend Arnold and beg him for his help.  Johnny does this even though Arnold continually tells him, “I only care about myself and money.”

The friendship between Arnold and Johnny is at the heart of King of the Roaring 20s, though it’s not much of a heart since every conversation they have begins with Johnny begging Arnold for help and ends with Arnold declaring that he only cares about money.  At a certain point, it’s hard not to feel that Johnny is bringing a lot of this trouble on himself by consistently seeking help from someone who brags about not helping anyone.  From the minute that the film begins, Arnold Rothstein’s mantra is that he only cares about money, gambling, and winning a poker game with a royal flush.  Everything else — from his friendship to Johnny to his marriage to former showgirl Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) to even his violent rivalry with crooked cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) — comes second to his own greed.  The film’s portrayal of Rothstein as being a single-minded and heartless sociopath may be a convincing portrait of the type of mindset necessary to be a successful crime lord but it hardly makes for a compelling protagonist.

Oddly enough, the film leaves out a lot of the things that the real-life Arnold Rothstein was best known for.  There’s no real mention of Rothstein fixing the World Series. His mentorship to Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel is not depicted.  The fact that Rothstein was reportedly the first gangster to realize how much money could be made off of bootlegging goes unacknowledged.  By most reports, Arnold Rothstein was a flamboyant figure.  (Meyer Wolfsheim, the uncouth gangster from The Great Gatsby, was reportedly based on him.)   There’s nothing flamboyant about David Janssen’s performance in this film.  He plays Rothstein as being a tightly-wound and rather unemotional businessman.  It’s not a bad performance as much as it just doesn’t feel right for a character who, according to the film’s title, was the King of the Roaring 20s.

That said, there are still enough pleasures to be found in this film to make it worth watching.  As if to make up for Janssen’s subdued performance, everyone else in the cast attacks the scenery with gusto.  Mickey Rooney does a good job acting desperate and Dan O’Herlihy is effectively villainous as the crooked cop.  Jack Carson has a few good scenes as a corrupt political fixer and Dianne Foster does the best that she can with the somewhat thankless role of Rothstein’s wife.  The film moves quickly and, even if it’s not as violent as the typical gangster film, it does make a relevant point about how organized crime became a big business.

It’s not a great gangster film by any stretch of the imagination and the lead role is miscast but there’s still enough about this film that works to make it worth a watch for gangster movie fans.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening

Cinemax Friday: Maximum Force (1992, directed by Joseph Mehri)


Max Tanabe (Richard Lynch) is Los Angeles’s biggest crime lord, involved in everything from prostitution to illegal fight clubs.  But, because he’s rich, no one can touch him.  He plays golf with the mayor.  He’s paid off the police commissioner (Mickey Rooney).  The police commissioner spends the entire movie riding around in a limo.  How do you think he was able to afford that?

Captain Fuller (John Saxon) needs some new jack cops to take down a new jack gangster so he goes out and recruits three.  Cody Randal (Sherries Ross) works vice.  Rick Carver (Jason Lively) is a “tech expert” who rigs toy cars with explosives.  Mike Crews (Sam J. Jones) is looking to avenge the death of his partner.  Fuller brings them together and put them through an extensive training course.  At the end of it, he tests their skills and their teamwork by bringing in a secret team of ninjas to attack them.

Which begs the question: If you already have a secret team of ninjas, why do you have to recruit and train three detectives to take down Tanabe?  Why not just have the ninjas do it?

So, logic is not exactly Maximum Force‘s strong point but it still has some good points.  For instance, you have to respect any movie that can bring together Richard Lynch and John Saxon, not to mention Mickey Rooney!  Of course, there’s not really much of a reason for Mickey Rooney to be there.  All of his scenes feature him in the limo and they are edited together so awkwardly that it seems probable the he never actually acted opposite any of his co-stars.  But it doesn’t matter because he’s Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, picking up a paycheck in his twilight years.  As for Saxon and Lynch, they do what they do best and bring gravitas to their otherwise stock roles.

As for the three heroes, they’re adequate even if none of them really shine.  I liked the tech expert the best but that was just because he rigged all of those remote control cars to explode.  Sam J. Jones and Sherrie Ross are both better at throwing punches than showing emotion but that’s what a film like this demands.  Some of the fight scenes are exciting.  There’s a helicopter attack early in the film.  Towards the end of the film, when Mike decides that the team needs some extra help, he calls in an amateur wrestler named Bear who just randomly shows up during the final battle.  Maximum Force knows what its audience wants and that’s the important thing.

New Recipe: HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI (AIP 1965)


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HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, the sixth entry in American-International’s “Beach Party” series, attempts to breathe new life into the tried-and-true  formula of sun, sand, surf, songs, and corny jokes. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are still around as Frankie and Dee Dee, but in this go-round they’re separated; he’s in the Navy stationed on the tropical island of Goona-Goona, while Annette has to contend with the romantic enticements of Dwayne Hickman .

Frankie’s part amounts to a cameo, enlisting local witch doctor Buster Keaton (!!) to keep those girl-hungry beach bums away from Dee Dee (while he frolics unfettered with lovely Irene Tsu !). Keaton’s magic ain’t what it used to be, so he has his daughter conjure up a knockout named Cassandra, who first appears on the beach as an animated bikini. All the boys go ga-ga for Cassandra, including a go-go ad man named Peachy Keane…

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My Huckleberry Friend: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (Paramount 1961)


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(“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” airs tonight, 6/12/17 at 8:00 EST on TCM as part of their month-long salute to Audrey Hepburn.)

“You mustn’t give your heart to a wild thing. The more you do, the stronger they get, until they’re strong enough to run into the woods or fly into a tree. And then to a higher tree and then to the sky” – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

From it’s hauntingly romantic theme “Moon River” to it’s sophisticated screenplay by George Axelrod, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a near-perfect movie. The bittersweet comedy-drama stars Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar nominated performance as Holly Golightly, a New York “party girl” who winds up falling for struggling writer George Peppard. That Hepburn didn’t get the Oscar (Sophia Loren took it home that year for TWO WOMEN) is one of the Academy’s greatest crimes. The film has a very personal connection with…

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A Movie A Day #126: Baby Face Nelson (1957, directed by Don Siegel)


The place is Chicago.  The time is the era of Prohibition.  The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison.  A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance.  Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks.  When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones).  Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon).  Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.

While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized.  The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him.  While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit.  (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.)  In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang.  The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader.  Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber.  Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career.  In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.

Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie.  Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.  As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house.  B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.

Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson.  Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Boys Town (dir by Norman Taurog)


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Before writing about the 1938 film Boys Town, I want to share a story that might be false but it’s still a nice little story.  Call this an Oscar Urban Legend:

Boys Town is about a real-life community in Nebraska, a home for orphaned and homeless boys that was started by Father Edward Flanagan.  In the film, which was made while Father Flanagan was still very much alive, he was played by Spencer Tracy.  Boys Town was a huge box office success that led to the real Boys Town receiving a lot of favorable publicity.  When Tracy won his Oscar for Boys Town, his entire acceptance speech was devoted to Father Flanagan.

However, a problem arose when an overeager PR person at MGM announced that Spencer Tracy would be donating his Oscar to Boys Town.  Tracy didn’t want to give away his Oscar.  He felt that he had earned it through his acting and that he should be able to keep it.  Tracy, the legend continues, was eventually persuaded to donate his Oscar on the condition that he would get a replacement.

However, when the replacement arrived, the engraving on the award read, “Best Actor — Dick Tracy.”

That’s a fun little story, one that is at least partially true.  (Tracy’s Oscar — or at least one of them — does currently reside at the Boys Town national headquarters.)  It’s also a story that, in many ways, is more interesting than the film itself.

Don’t get me wrong.  Boys Town is not a bad movie.  For me, it was kind of nice to see a movie where a priest was portrayed positively as opposed to being accused of being a pederast.  In a way, Boys Town serves as a nice counterbalance to Spotlight.  But, with all that said, there’s not a surprising moment to be found in Boys Town.  It’s pretty much a standard 1930s juvenile delinquency melodrama.

The movie opens when Father Flanagan giving last rites to a man who is about to be executed.  (Boys Town takes a firm stand against the death penalty, which is one of the more consistent and laudable stands of the modern Church.)  The man says the he never had a chance.  From the time he was a young boy, he was thrown into the reform school system.  Instead of being reformed, he just learned how to be a better criminal.  Father Flanagan is so moved by the doomed man’s words that he starts Boys Town, under the assumption that “there’s no such thing as a bad boy.”

Father Flanagan’s techniques are put to the test when Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney ) arrives.  Whitey is angry.  He’s rebellious.  He tries to run away every chance that he gets and, during one such escape attempt, he even gets caught up in a bank robbery.  Can Father Flanagan reach Whitey and prove that there’s no such thing as a bad boy?

Well, you already know the answer to that.  As I said, there’s really nothing surprising to be found in the plot of Boys Town.  It’s just not a very interesting movie, though there is a great shot of a despondent Whitey walking past a several lines of former juvenile delinquents, all kneeling in prayer.  As Father Flanagan, Spencer Tracy is the ideal priest but his role is almost a supporting one.  Believe it or not, the film is dominated by Mickey Rooney, who gives a raw and edgy performance as the angry Whitey Marsh.

(That said, it’s hard to take Whitey seriously as a future gangster when he’s always wearing a bowtie.  Then again, that may have been the height of gangster style in 1938.)

Boys Town was nominated for best picture but lost to You Can’t Take It With You.

A Soggy Bowl of PULP (United Artists 1972)


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They had the hook in me, and I was caught like a large mouth bass. The bait was the stuff my dreams were made of, a heady concoction of gangsters and femmes fatale, of faded Hollywood stars and references to Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald. I had let my guard down and plunged headlong into the trap, forgetting you can’t judge a book by its cover, especially one luridly titled PULP.

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It all started so promisingly. I was introduced to Mickey King, a second-rate English hack writing under the pseudonym “Guy Strange”, scribbler of paperback trash like “Kill Me Gently” and “My Gun is Long”. Mick’s paid a visit by a gravel-voiced goon called Dinuccio, a Neanderthal throwback who hires the wordsmith to ghost a biography for his mysterious boss. Next thing Mickey knows, he’s on a tour bus and told he’ll be contacted. An American named Miller could be the one, but Miller…

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The Fabulous Forties #45: Love Laughs At Andy Hardy (dir by Willis Goldbeck)


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I cringed a little when I saw that the 45th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s Love Laughs At Andy Hardy.  

This was because I had never seen an Andy Hardy film before but I did know enough to know that, starting in the 1930s, MGM made a series of films that featured Mickey Rooney in the role of a “nice, young man” named Andy Hardy.  Andy was a well-meaning kid who grew up in Middle America under the watchful eye of his father, Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone).  What little I had heard of the Andy Hardy films led me to suspect that they were very much a product of their time and had not aged particularly well.

Having now watched Love Laughs At Andy Hardy … well, I can confirm that it is a product of its time.  And it is definitely an uneven film, though perhaps I would have felt differently if I had seen any of the other Andy Hardy films.  (Love Laughs was the 15th film about Andy Hardy and it pretty much assumes that the viewer already knows who Andy and all of his friends and family are.)  But I will say this: Mickey Rooney was a really good actor.  In fact, as I watched Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, I was shocked by just how good a performance Rooney gave.  When I think of Mickey Rooney — well, to be honest, it’s rare that I ever do.  But when I do, it’s usually in relation to the exploitation films he made after he was a star.  These were movies like The Manipulator or Silent Night Deadly Night 5, all of which feature an elderly and obviously unwell Mickey acting up a storm.  In contrast to those film, in Love Laughs At Andy Hardy, Mickey gives a totally empathetic and, at times, even subtle performance.   Even by contemporary standards, his performance feels real and, as I watched, I started to understand how there actually could have been 16 separate films about Andy Hardy.  You really do find yourself caring about the little guy,

As for this film, it opens with Andy returning from serving in World War II.  Apparently, he left college to enlist in the army.  Now that he’s back in America, he’s ready to return to college and ask his old girlfriend, Kay (Bonita Granville) to marry him.  However, to Andy’s shock and disappointment, Kay has moved on and has other plans.  Why, it’s almost enough to make Andy want to drop out of school, give up his dreams of becoming an attorney, and try to find work as an engineer in South America!

Fortunately, Judge Hardy is there to talk some sense into his son.

It’s all fairly predictable and, as I said before, definitely uneven.  I get the feeling that a lot of the scenes in Love Laughs At Andy Hardy were meant to serve as call backs to previous films in the series.  Watching this film without a context can lead to a lot of confusion.  But, again, it’s all saved by Mickey Rooney’s performance.  While I can’t really give this film a strong recommendation, I imagine if you’re fan of Rooney’s or the Andy Hardy films, you’ll enjoy it.

Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when Andy is set up on a blind date with a girl named Coffy (Dorothy Ford).  When Andy goes to Coffy’s dorm to pick her up, he can’t understand why all the other girls keep looking at him and laughing.  However, once Coffy shows up, it quickly becomes obvious.  Coffy is 6’2 while Andy is a full foot shorter.

However, when Andy and Coffy arrive at the college dance, they defy all the laughs and the snide remarks.  Instead of surrendering to the expectations of snarky society, they perform a dance to end all dances and I’m going to conclude this review by sharing it below.

Enjoy!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival


Now that Lisa’s finished cleaning out her DVR, it’s time once again for me to clean mine, featuring five fabulous films noir:

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged…

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