Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)


Jimmy Stewart is Buttons the Clown!

Listen, there’s a lot of things that can be said about the 1952 Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.  Not only was it one of three Cecil B, DeMille films to be nominated for best picture (along with 1934’s Cleopatra and 1956’s The Ten Commandments) but it was also the only one to win.  It brought Cecil B. DeMille his first and only nomination for best director.  (DeMille lost that directing Oscar to John Ford but he still took home an award, as the producer of The Greatest Show On Earth.)  The Greatest Show on Earth not only featured Charlton Heston in his first starring role but, with a finale that featured everyone involved in the same spectacular train crash, it also set the standard for the countless disaster movies that would follow.

But, with all of that in mind, the main thing that you’ll remember about this movie is that Jimmy Stewart was Buttons the Clown.

Buttons is a beloved member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.  He travels with the circus across the country, entertaining children and generally helping out wherever he can.  Everyone loves Buttons, despite the fact that no one has ever seen him without his makeup.  (That said, you only have to hear him speak to immediately recognize him as being played by Jimmy Stewart.)  Not even the circus’s no-nonsense manager, Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, naturally), knows what Buttons actually looks like.  Everyone assumes that Buttons is just a dedicated performer, a method clown.

However, it turns out that Buttons has a secret.  Of course, nearly everyone at the circus has a secret but Buttons’s secret is a little bit more serious than just a love triangle or a case of professional jealousy.  There’s a reason why Buttons is surprisingly good at providing first aid to the members of the circus.  Before he was a clown, Buttons was a doctor.  And, while he was a doctor, he killed his wife.

NO!  NOT JIMMY STEWART!

In Buttons’s defense, it was a mercy killing and he feels really bad about it.  That, of course, doesn’t matter to the FBI agent (Henry WIlcoxon) who suspects that the doctor may be hiding among the circus performers.  At first, Buttons views that train crash as the perfect opportunity to escape but then he finds out that many of his fellow performers have been seriously injured.  A doctor is needed.  Perhaps even a doctor in clown makeup….

Even under all that makeup, Jimmy Stewart does a great job of bringing Buttons to life.  Sometimes, we associate Stewart so much with his famous way of speaking that we overlook just what a good actor Jimmy Stewart actually was.  Even before you discover why Buttons is running from the cops, Stewart does a good job of capturing the sadness and the regret that lies at the heart of Button.  He’s truly a tragic clown.

Buttons’s status as a fugitive is just one of the many subplots to be found in The Greatest Show On Earth.  There’s a lot of drama (not to mention parades and performances) to get through before that train crashes.  Brad, for instance, is struggling to keep the circus from going bankrupt.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), is torn between him and the arrogant but charming Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In fact, every woman in the circus — including Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Lamour — is in love with the Great Sebastian.  Sebastian is a bit self-centered but he’s famous enough to ensure that the circus won’t have to be closed.  Or, at least, he is until he’s injured in a trapeze accident.  Will Sebastian ever perform again?  Meanwhile, there’s a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus (Lyle Bettinger) and a crooked concessionaire named Harry (John Kellog).  A local gangster, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney), is trying to muscle his way into the circus’s business.  Is it any surprise that Brad always seems to be in something of a bad mood?  He’s got a lot to deal with!

And yes, it’s all a bit overblown and a bit silly.  And yes, the film really does feel like it was meant to be a commercial for Ringling Bros.  And yet, in its way, the film definitely works.  There’s a sincerity at the heart of the film, one that’s epitomized by Cecil B. DeMille’s opening narration.  “”A fierce, primitive fighting force that smashes relentlessly forward against impossible odds: That is the circus — and this is the story of the biggest of the Big Tops — and of the men and women who fight to make it — The Greatest Show On Earth!”  DeMille was 71 years old when he made The Greatest Show On Earth and he was coming to the end of a legendary filmmaking career.  DeMille was one of the founders of the American film industry and you can argue that, if not for some of his silent spectacles, Hollywood would have always remained just a neglected suburb of Los Angeles.  If anyone understood that importance of that old saying, “The show must go on!,” it was Cecil B. DeMille.  And really, that’s what The Greatest Show On Earth is all about.  It’s a tribute to the performers who refuse to give up.  Love triangles?  Fugitive clowns?  Injured acrobats?  Lawrence Tierney?  No matter what, the show must go on!

The Greatest Show On Earth is often described as being one of the worst films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  That has more to do with the quality of the films that it beat — High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rouge, and Ivanhoe — than the film itself.  The Greatest Show On Earth is old-fashioned and a bit silly but it’s still entertaining.  Should it have beaten High Noon?  That would be a definite no.  But it’s still better than Crash.

Film Review: Invasion U.S.A. (dir by Alfred Green)


Here’s how Invasion, U.S.A. opens:

A bunch of strangers sit in a bar.  On the television, a blandly handsome anchorman delivers the news.  He talks about foreign wars.  He talks about domestic conflicts.  One of the bar patrons asks the bartender to turn off the news.  Who cares about all of that stuff?  All he wants to do is have a nice drink before heading home to his cattle ranch.  Can’t he just do that in peace?  The bartender agrees and turns off the news…

That’s a scene that gets played out a lot nowadays.  No one wants to watch the news.  Certainly not me.  I guess we all know that we should because it’s important to know what’s going on in the world and blah blah blah.  But seriously, people who spend all of their time watching the news inevitably seem to end up going insane and ruining twitter.  I’ve got no interest in doing that.

Here’s the thing, though.  Invasion U.S.A. may open with a contemporary scene but it’s hardly a contemporary movie.  Instead, it was made in 1952 and it serves as proof that we’re not the first Americans to get sick of watching the news and that our current crop of politically minded filmmakers are not the first to try to change our mind with heavy-handed propaganda.

Everyone at the bar has a complaint.  The Arizona rancher resents having to pay high taxes just to support the defense department.  The Chicago industrialist is upset that the government wants to use his factories to build weapons.  Congressman Haroway (Wade Crosby) is a drunk.  Socialite Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle) worked in a factory during World War II but she no longer follows the news.  Newscaster Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr) is a cynic.  Tim the Bartender (Tom Kennedy) is too busy selling cocktails to worry about the communists.

Only the mysterious Mr. Ohman (Dan O’Herlihy, who would later play Conal Cochran in Halloween III) seems to care.  While holding a conspicuously oversized brandy glass, Mr. Ohman explains that he’s a forecaster.  What’s a forecaster?  A forecaster is … oh wait!  There’s no time to explain it because the communists have invaded!

Everyone sits in the bar and watches as the news reports on the invasion of the U.S.A.  (Everyone except for Mr. Ohman, who has mysteriously vanished.)  In the tradition of all low-budget B-movies, the invasion is represented through stock footage.  Lots and lots of stock footage.  Planes drop bombs.  Soldiers run out of a barracks.  Cities burn.

When everyone leaves the bar, they discover that America has been crippled by people like them, people who never thought it would happen.  Some of our bar patrons die heroically.  (Not Tim the Bartender, though.  He’s still making dumb jokes and cleaning beer mugs when the bomb drops.)  Some of our patrons regret that they didn’t care enough when it would have actually made a difference.  The industrialist discovers that, because he wouldn’t let the government take over his factory, he now has to take orders from sniveling little Marxist.  The rancher discovers that taxis get really crowded when everyone’s fleeing the Russians.  And others discover that better dead than red isn’t just a catch phrase.  It’s a way of life.

Of course, there’s a twist ending.  You’ll guess it as soon as you see Mr. Ohman with that brandy glass…

Invasion U.S.A. is often cited as one of the worst films ever made but I have to admit that I absolutely love it.  I have a soft spot for heavy-handed, over the top propaganda films and they don’t get more heavy-handed than Invasion, U.S.A.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film.  You have to love any film that features character authoritatively declaring that something will never happen mere moments before it happens.  Best of all, you’ve got Dan O’Herlihy, playing Mr. Ohman with just a hint of a knowing smile, as if he’s as amused as we are.

Politically, this film is a mixed bag for me.  The film argues that you should trust the government and basically, shut up and follow orders.  I’m a libertarian so, as you can imagine, that’s not really my thing.  At the same time, the villains were all communists and most of the communists that I’ve met in my life have been pretty obnoxious so I enjoyed the part of the film that advocated blowing them up.  The only thing this film hates more than communists is indifference.

In the end, Invasion U.S.A. is a real time capsule of a film, one that shows how different things were in the past while also reminding us that times haven’t changed that much.  Though the film’s politics may be pure 1952, its paranoia and its condemnation of apathy feels very contemporary.

(For the record, apathy is underrated.)

Seen today, what makes Invasion U.S.A. memorable is its mix of sincerity, paranoia, and Dan O’Herlihy.  Unless the communists at YouTube take down the video, you can watch it below!

 

 

Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane: RIP NOEL NEILL


cracked rear viewer

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She was never a major Hollywood star, but for millions of kids who grew up watching reruns of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, Noel Neill was a true icon. She was the first TV crush for many of us… after all, what kid could resist an attractive, plucky girl reporter who just happened to be a close, personal friend of the mighty Man of Steel?

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Noel Neill was born in Minneapolis in 1920, daughter of a journalist, foreshadowing her future screen occupation. Her mother was a dancer, and young Noel had a knack for performing. She got a gig singing with Bob Crosby’s orchestra, and did some modeling. Noel was ranked the #2 pin-up girl by GI’s during World War II, second in popularity to only Betty Grable. Hollywood came calling, and she was signed by Paramount Pictures. But her screen career went nowhere, and eventually Miss Neill moved to Poverty Row Monogram Studios.

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The Fabulous Forties #14: The Stork Club (dir by Hal Walker)


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For the past two weeks, I have been reviewing all fifty of the films to be found in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties DVD box set!  It’s been four days since I reviewed the 13th film in the set, Scared Stiffwhich is probably the longest bloggng break that I’ve ever taken in my life.  However, I am proud to say that I am back and ready to review the 37 remaining films!

Yay! Lisa’s back!

Now, I know what you’re asking.  Why, if I am about to review a film from the 1940s, am I sneaking a random Degrassi GIF into this review?  Well, unfortunately, the movie that I’m about to review isn’t that interesting and there’s not a whole lot to be said about it.  I’ve found some enjoyable and interesting films in the box set — The Black Book, Trapped, the original Jungle Book — but I’ve also found a few that are pretty forgettable.  So, why not liven things up with a shout-out to my favorite show?

Anyway, the 14th film from The Fabulous Forties Box Set was 1945’s The Stork Club.

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When I saw that this film was called The Stork Club, my first thought was that it would be a comedy about pregnancy.  But it turns out that I was totally wrong.  Apparently, The Stork Club was a very popular New York nightclub in the 1940s and this film was meant to take advantage of that popularity.  (That said, according to the imdb, The Stork Club was not filmed at the actual Stork Club but instead on a Hollywood soundstage.)

As for the film’s story — well, this isn’t going to make much sense but here’s what happens.  A millionaire named J.B. (charming, Irish-accented Barry Fitzgerald) falls into a pond and nearly drowns.  Fortunately, his life is saved by Judy (Betty Hutton).

J.B. wants to reward Judy but, for some reason, he doesn’t want her to know that he’s rich.  So, with the help of his lawyer (Robert Benchley), he anonymously arranges for Judy to get both a new apartment and an unlimited credit line at all of New York’s best stores!

But J.B. also wants to keep an eye on Judy and make sure that she’s happy.  But he still doesn’t want her to know that he’s a millionaire or that he’s her benefactor.  After he finds out that she’s a hatcheck girl at the Stork Club, he arranges to get hired on as a busboy.  However, he gets fired after just one night and, believing him to be poor and homeless, Judy invites him to stay at her new apartment.

J.B. agrees and, in the film’s best, non-musical moment, he watches as Judy recklessly spends his money on new clothes.  It turns out that Judy thinks that the apartment and the credit line are all gifts from the owner of the Stork Club and she’s offended because she thinks the owner is trying to steal her away from her boyfriend, Danny Wilson (Don DeFore).

Danny is a bandleader but he’s been serving in the U.S. Army.  When Danny finally returns home, Judy is excited about arranging for him to get an audition to play at the Stork Club.  However, Danny is more concerned about the fact that Judy has a mysterious benefactor and that she’s now living in a luxury apartment with a mysterious old man.

Could Judy be a kept woman!?  Both Judy and J.B. insist that she is not but Danny refuses to believe them because Danny is kind of a jerk.  Of course, Danny isn’t meant to be a jerk but, by today’s standards, he’s definitely a jerk.  Judy could do so much better!

Anyway, the plot’s not really that important.  It’s mostly just an excuse for Betty Hutton to sing a few songs and that’s when the movie is at its best.  Check out some of Betty’s performances below:

Anyway, The Stork Club was pleasant but not particularly memorable.  When it works, it’s largely due to the endless charm of Betty Hutton and Barry Fitzgerald.  It may not seem like much today but I’m sure that, for audiences dealing with the contemporary horrors of World War II, The Stork Club presented a nice diversion.

Cleaning Out The DVR #27: An American In Paris (dir by Vincente Minnelli)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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I can’t believe it took me this long to see the Oscar-winning 1951 film, An American In Paris.  Seriously, I love dancing.  I love Paris.  I love Gene Kelly.  Though this film was made decades before I was born, it still feels like it was literally made for me.  And yet, until last night, I had never seen it.  Thank God for TCM (and thank God for the DVR that I used to record the movie when it aired on TCM).

Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American veteran of World War II who, now that he is out of the army, is making his living as a painter and living in Paris.  (The real Paris is only seen in a few establishing shots.  Most of the film takes place on sets that were clearly designed to look more theatrical than realistic.  This is the Paris of our most romantic fantasies.)  Jerry’s roommate is Adam (Oscar Levant), a pianist who fantasizes about playing before a huge audience.

When the movie begins, Jerry gets his first patron, the wealthy and lonely Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).  Though Milo is in love with Jerry, Jerry falls in love with an innocent French girl, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron).  Although Lise falls in love with Jerry, she feels obligated to marry French singer Henri (Georges Guetary) because Henri helped to keep her safe during the Nazi occupation.  And, of course, Henri is friends with Adam who is the roommate of Jerry who is in love with Lise who is engaged…

It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is.  If anything the plot of An American In Paris is too simple.  (Just compare An American In Paris to Singin’ In The Rain.)  But ultimately, An American In Paris is not about the story.  It’s about George Gershwin’s music and Gene Kelly’s dancing.  It’s a triumph of pure style.  It was said that Fred Astaire made love through dancing and that’s even more true of Gene Kelly, who is literally a force of masculine nature in this film.  So impressive was his choreography that it received a special, noncompetitive Oscar.

Check some of this out:

It all eventually ends with the incredible 17-minute The American In Paris Ballet, which sees Gene Kelly and Leslie Carson dancing through a series of sets that were modeled on Impressionist paintings.  It’s one of those great movie moments that simply has to be seen.

How impressed were the members of the Academy with An American In Paris?  They were impressed enough to name it the best film of 1951.  I don’t know if I would go that far because I’ve seen both A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place In The Sun.  (And An American In Paris‘s victory is considered to be one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.)  But, with all that said, An American In Paris is still an incredibly enjoyable film to watch.

It is pure joy.