Jan 28, 2016

On DVD: The Tricky Racial Issues of General Spanky (1936)

While Our Gang comedies may not be thought of as only appropriate for children's entertainment, we do tend to view them as a family friendly option. Whether that is actually so depends on what you watch and what kinds of conversations you want to have with your kids. 

If you want to see the Gang in something lighthearted and uncomplicated, you'll need to do some vetting, and decide which titles you are prepared to show younger children.  However, if you want to start a conversation with kids about racism and how it is portrayed in our culture, something like the full-length General Spanky, now available from Warner Archive, could be an interesting part of their social education.

And there's no chance you are going to be able to avoid the issue watching General Spanky. We're not talking about a couple of blackface scenes, or the odd shot of terrified children of color darting away from a skeleton. The whole movie is filled with happy slaves, singing as they toil on the docks, sternly telling the baffled Buckwheat to go find his master, and showing no ill will at all about being a white man's property. Here a child cheerfully agrees to become a slave for the adult protagonist of the film, who is equally cheerful when he admits he owns several other slaves.

It's a confusing experience to watch this movie, because Spanky is one of the most charismatic actors to grace the silver screen. In my mind, among the Gang members he's only second to Stymie, who was also blessed with a highly unusual comic timing. You want to sit back and enjoy Spanky's precocious ways and the confidence with which he faces the world. And he somehow manages to pretty much keep his innocence here. 

Sure Spanky volunteers Buckwheat for slavery, but only because he wants his friend to have a warm bed and regular meals. He has no notion of the hateful ways of the men around him. He doesn't know any different.

Against the backdrop of the civil war, the aforementioned jolly slaves, and enough racist comments to twist your insides into bits, the Gang plays at its own war, and engages in familiar high-spirited hijinks. Spanky watches out for the suffering Buckwheat, Alfalfa sings perfectly and hilariously out of tune, and the kids do a better job solving complex issues than the grown ups around them. It's a well-made comedy, with its share of laughs, but you never have a chance to relax. There are vicious, horrid things happening beneath all that mischief.

I'm glad I saw General Spanky: for the chance to get some historical perspective, for the opportunity to think about the various racial issues of the past and how they fit into our overall history, and for a few moments, to laugh at the clever ways of the child actors, but it was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. I'm not ready to show it with my own kids, but I think it is a personal decision whether or not this film is appropriate to share with younger audiences. From a educational viewpoint, and especially given the conversations our society is currently having about race, it is definitely worthy of viewing and discussion.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jan 26, 2016

Book Review--Hollywood Cafe: Coffee with the Stars

Hollywood Café: Coffee With the Stars
Stephen Rea
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2016
Publish date: January 28

Once I recovered from a dorky burst of giggles inspired by the idea of a coffee table book about coffee, I found that I enjoyed the breezy and surprisingly informative Hollywood Café: Coffee With the Stars. When it comes to classic movies, I've found cocktails to be the most mesmerizing onscreen beverage, but now that I think of it, coffee has also had a significant presence in cinema. In this collection of over 150 images, stars of film, television and radio are seen enjoying the drink behind the scenes and on camera.

The opening photo is of java aficionado Preston Sturges drinking from a quart-sized cup. Apparently he has told columnist Rosalind Shaffer that, "he believes coffee drinkers are the real originators of ideas." From there you get Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster getting his caffeine fix and Robert Taylor in knightly garb having some joe with the also lavishly-costumed Ava Gardner.

There are shots of glamorous stars at humble craft services tables, publicity photos, and stills of key coffee scenes in the movies. Ingrid Bergman is menaced by a line of poisoned coffee cups in a promotional image for the Hitchcock thriller Notorious (1946), Eddie Cantor shills for his radio show sponsor's brand, and it seems every actress from classic Hollywood has been snapped at home in an apron, proving to all that she can brew a great pot of Joe and be just as domestic as the ladies in her audience.

While there is no real background here of the history of coffee in Hollywood or the movies, there perhaps isn't much to tell. A cup of java was, and continues to be, an easy way to socialize and revive sagging energy. The drink was simply a fact of life, and here it is shown in galleries organized into categories like the more obvious Silver Service and Waitressing and more intriguing sections like Counter Espionage.

Each photo is captioned with a bit of history about the movie and stars in the shot. Some also include the text from the original archival label on the back. I found lots of interesting tidbits in these descriptions.

It's all good fun; an excuse to see gorgeous stars in beautiful costumes, reminisce about favorite movies and pick up new titles for the must-see list. There's unabashed fetishism for elegant coffee pots with long, curvy spouts and groundbreaking brewing methods like the Chemex pot and the French press. After looking at your twentieth shot of trim stars noshing on cookies and doughnuts, you wonder how they got away with eating all that sugar. Did they even swallow a bite, or was it all for the cameras?

Many thanks to Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 22, 2016

On DVD: Anne of Green Gables and a Pair of Clever Canines

I recently had the opportunity to view a trio of family-friendly films from Warner Archive. Anne of Green Gables (1934), My Pal, Wolf (1944) and The Littlest Hobo (1958), each have their distinct charms and were fun to watch.

In a smoothly-executed, if jam-packed, RKO production the first novel in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series gets a brisk treatment. Abandoning her remarkable previous stage name Dawn O'Day, Anne Shirley stars as Anne Shirley. Inspired by her role in the film, the actress would keep this more easily digestible name for the rest of her career.

Shirley is suitably dreamy and determined as Anne, the girl who is adopted by brother and sister Marilla (Helen Westly) and Matthew Cuthbert (O.P. Heggie). Though the pair had hoped for a boy to help maintain their Prince Edward Island property, Anne tugs at them and they agree to let her stay. She goes to school and falls in love with Gilbert (Tom Brown), the one boy who is absolutely forbidden to her by her new family.

This was the second Hollywood treatment of the book, following a 1919 version starring Mary Miles Minter. Shirley would return to the role again with a completely different cast in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940)

In trying to cram the action of an entire book into 78 minutes, the movie often has feel of an assembly line of plot points whizzing by. Years pass in moments. While the film doesn't accomplish the impossible task of translating all the charm of the books to the screen, it does slow down enough so that you can get to know the makeshift family at its heart. Heggie is particularly magnetic as Matthew, providing ample proof that a man doesn't need words to be a brilliant communicator.

Though similarly brief, My Pal, Wolf (1944) approaches its story with a more leisurely pace. It is the screen debut of the delightfully unmannered Sharyn Moffett, a child actress who had an unfortunately brief film career. She stars as Gretchen, the daughter of a pair of workaholic parents, who spends her time at the family's country estate, cared for by a gaggle of servants and entertained by sympathetic local family of much more modest means.

Known for telling tales, no one believes the girl when she claims she has found a wolf and is caring for the animal. It is actually a highly-trained army dog that has gone AWOL. Despite the interventions of her strict new governess (Jill Esmond, more famous as the first Mrs. Laurence Olivier), she insists on visiting the dog and bringing him food. While this seems generous in theory, it's a little scary to see her face-to-face with such an enormous animal. Highly-trained or not, he's got gigantic teeth.

Moffett has become one of my favorite child actresses. I reviewed her later film Banjo (1947) last year and in both roles I was impressed with her naturalness in front of the camera. Here she seems completely unaware of her movements, letting her body fall into the familiar slouches and sprawling of a restless eight-year-old. She's lovable because rather than trying to play up to her audience, she seems completely absorbed in her own activities.

While a pair of child actors have a prominent place in the plot of The Littlest Hobo (1958), the stars of this addictively charming movie are a brilliant German Shepherd and the lamb he has saved from the slaughterhouse. While that might sound like a cutesy plot for a movie, the result is much breezier and briskly entertaining than you'd think.

The dog is a restless soul, traveling the rails and charming itself into the odd free meal. One day he hops off the train in Los Angeles and jogs around town looking for action. He sees a distraught boy (Chester Anderson) selling his pet to a meat company; the orphanage where he lives can't house the animal.

Coming to the lamb's rescue, the dog chews through the rope tying him to the loading dock at the slaughterhouse, body slams the man who bought the animal to the ground and drags the confused sheep away. For most of the rest of the movie, the German Shepherd drags his new friend around as they evade the cops, missionaries, hungry homeless men and anyone else who tries to capture them.

I can think of so many ways this movie could be corny, overly sentimental or too broad, but it rarely is. There's a cheerful naturalness to it, which is helped along by a jaunty, jazzy score and theme song. The mid-century LA locations are interesting from a historical standpoint, and they give the action just the right amount of grit.

It's also so much fun to see this clever dog trotting along, flirting with poodles and trying to do  good. He's actually a much better actor than most of the people in the film. While I did feel sorry for the lamb, who looked a bit miserable being dragged along in some of the scenes, the pair look so funny running around together. I never got tired of watching them.

This pleasant, airy film was popular enough to inspire two long-running Canadian television series about Hobo. I can see why; watching him at work is strangely fascinating. In fact, I've already watched it again and I don't mind that the theme song is still running through my head.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jan 19, 2016

Book Review--Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films

Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingénue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films
Cliff Aliperti

Though I've only seen two Helen Twelvetrees films, I was fascinated by Cliff Aliperti's biography of her life. There wasn't anything in her work in Millie (1931) and State's Attorney (1932) that made me particularly curious to learn more about her, though I liked her well enough. Still, I was eager to read Cliff's book, because he is a respected friend of A Classic Movie Blog and I have enjoyed his posts on Immortal Ephemera for several years. In addition to being a fine writer, he is a stickler for good research, a pursuit that dovetails nicely with his film memorabilia business. This is a man who is immersed in the world of classic Hollywood, and that gives him an interesting point of view.

I didn't know much about Helen Twelvetrees before I read her biography. Aside from an article in Films of the Golden Age by Dan Van Neste and Cliff's profile of the actress on his site, detailed information about her life and career has not been readily available. Very few of Twelvetrees' thirty-two films are available for purchase, and some are believed to be lost.

Helen was famous for her sad eyes
It surprised me to be so entranced by Helen's story. It's not that the things that happen to her are so novel, lots of actresses deal with divorce, toxic relationships, struggling to find work and alcoholism. What intrigued me was how her life seemed to be simultaneously incredibly easy and dauntingly challenging.

Twelvetrees fell into work easily enough. She was confident and determined, and moved fairly gracefully from the New York stage to Hollywood stardom. In fact, the actress would always be able to find some kind of employment in the entertainment industry, when film and Broadway failed her, she could turn to summer stock, radio and even performed in one of the first television productions.

She was also intelligent in many ways about her own affairs. The actress wouldn't overspend, stay too long in a damaging relationship or even abuse alcohol until life truly beat her down. There was never any worry about poverty or providing for her son.

The problem was that she never had quite enough of what she needed. More often or not she would lose a plum role to another actress and her romances would begin with a bang and wither into abuse. She had something, and even critics recognized that she wasn't getting the material she deserved, but there was never a classic role, or an interested producer or director, to help her reach the next level. It's admirable that she had the strength to keep striving for the next opportunity as many years as she did, given all those disappointments.

The first talkie version of The Cat Creeps (1930), thought to be a lost film

Aliperti has arranged the book into two parts. The first is straight biography, the second a more detailed analysis of each of her films. This arrangement worked for me, because so many of Twelvetrees' films are not available that I was interested in learning as much about them as I could, but sharing those details separately gave her biographical profile a smoother narrative flow. I think this is a good format for performers with short lives and brief careers.

While there is some repetition between these two sections, it doesn't tend to be tedious because each part is written in a different tone. The biography is essentially straight-ahead storytelling, while the reviews are more personal. Aliperti shares more of his opinions and research process when he discusses the films, though most of the text focuses on critical reception and the production history.

This was an enjoyable read. I went into it with only mild curiosity about Twelvetrees and now I find my self pining for copies of unavailable, but intriguing films like the pre-code gangster drama Bad Company (1931) and the actress' final film Unmarried (1939), which sounds like a worthy effort that proved she had much more to offer Hollywood. It makes you realize how many lost gems remain to be discovered. I also found her to be an interesting person, someone with untapped potential who nevertheless was savvy enough to make something of herself.

Many thanks to Cliff Aliperti for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 12, 2016

Book Review--Ziegfeld and His Follies

Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway's Greatest Producer
Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson
University Press of Kentucky, 2015

Though he only produced two films himself, movies would have been much different without the influence of legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.. The high class, but unpretentious style, songs and stars of his shows would all have an immeasurable effect on Hollywood, adding to the glimmer, excitement and timeless feel of many classic productions. Twin authors Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson draw out many rich details from the life of this unparalleled showman in their substantial biography of the producer.

Florenz Ziegfeld was a reserved, shy man who would only fully reveal his charm and sense of humor to those closest to him, like his second wife Billie Burke, daughter Patricia and his stars and best friends Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. He saved most of the show for the stage. Perhaps for this reason, the Bridesons wisely focus much of their attentions on the colorful people in the producer's life.
Ziegfeld in 1920

Ziegfeld stars like Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, and to a lesser extent Lillian Lorraine set the template for glamour and stardom on the American stage. Comedians Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields made their names in the great producer's follies and would go on to achieve immortality in the movies. The book is as much their biography as it is his, and it makes sense. Their stories are so tightly intertwined that they must be told in tandem. These characters give the book its endless sparkle. It is never dull.
Ziegfeld's first wife (common law) and star Anna Held

I was surprised to find that Ziegfeld was such a devoted family man. While he had his share of affairs and obsessions with show girls, once the producer became a father, he settled admirably into family life. While he was often absorbed by work, and his excessive gambling troubled Burke, his wife and daughter were the most important women in his life. He made up for his absences, at least enough to build an enduring partnership with Burke, who was equally devoted to family, and raise a surprisingly well-adjusted daughter given the luxury and chaos of her early life.

Ziegfeld star and friend Eddie Cantor and the producer's second wife Billie Burke in a 1948 promo photo for a radio show
While I was fascinated by all of Ziegfeld's story, I was particularly interested to learn about the producer's experiences with Hollywood. While he never believed that movies could replace the spectacle of the stage, Florenz was open to using them as a promotional tool. However, making his own films was not to be a satisfactory experience. His first production, Glorifying the American Girl (1929) was only a modest success, and while he was much more satisfied with the transfer of his popular Whoopee! (1930) to the screen, he found himself in a constant power struggle with co-producer Samuel Goldwyn.

More significant, though less profitable for Ziegfeld, was the producer's influence on film. He sold the rights to several of his stage productions, which were then made into popular films like Sally, Rio Rita and Show Boat (all 1929, the latter was filmed again in 1936 and 1951). He also debuted many songs in his Follies that would become standards via films, from Me and My Gal and Look for the Silver Lining to My Man and Blue Skies. Songwriting legends like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin who found fame with the producer would make their mark in films as well. The style of his productions would also influence movies, from his stately, elaborately-costumed showgirls to the opulent look of his sets.

Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller
All of these elements are explored in great detail, and strung together nicely, but the text relies heavily on quotes from other Ziegfeld biographies. Though I haven't read any other bios about the producer, the frequent excerpts made me wonder how much new insight there was in Ziegfeld and His Follies. It isn't until the latter half of the book, when the aging Florenz begins to settle down and embrace family life that the Bridesons begin to rely more on their own analysis of their subject.

A dancer performing on a glass platform above the audience of Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic of 1915

The authors are most adept at creating a sense of the times in which Ziegfeld lived and exploring how he adapted at the different stages in his career. Their descriptions of the many shows he produced, accompanied by several photographs of his shows and stars, are also excellent and highly evocative, giving a strong sense of what it must have felt like to be in the audience.

Though Ziegfeld often did not have faith in the success of his productions, the showman had an undeniable knack for picking talent and could lend his shows an aura of class that eluded his competitors. While he spent most of his career struggling to stay ahead of debts, he had the common touch and knew how to please an audience. Ziegfeld and His Follies uncovers a bit of this magic and vividly describes the sweat required to bring the fruits of his intuition to the stage.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jan 10, 2016

Quote of the Week: Jerry Lewis on Comedy

Image Source

My philosophy of comedy is a man in trouble. There but for the grace of God go I.

-Jerry Lewis

Quote Source

Jan 7, 2016

On DVD: Wartime Laughs In The Doughgirls (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945)

In a time where laughs didn't come easy, Hollywood found ample material for humor in the World War II era housing shortage. The mini-genre met with varying success, from the entertaining but laugh deficient Government Girl (1943) starring Olivia de Havilland to the bona-fide Frank Capra classic The More the Merrier (1943). Now available from Warner Archive, The Doughgirls (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945) fall somewhere between these two. They approach the scramble for housing with relentless good cheer and undoubtedly succeeded in raising wartime audience moral.

Pillow to Post is the least substantial of the two, but it is a consistently entertaining effort. With the exception of some icky sexual politics that could not be laughed off so easily today, it is never less than pleasant. Pre-noir Ida Lupino is endearing as the daughter of a wealthy oil-drilling equipment tycoon who wants to help the war effort by becoming a salesperson for her father.

Lupino hits the road, and finds she has a hard time being taken seriously. When she finally does make a sale at a company near a military base, it is on the condition that she go on a date with the executive making the buying decision. In typical 1940s fashion, this is approached lightly, but at least Lupino manages to keep her dignity and avoid being pawed.

While she is closing the deal the sleepless saleswoman needs a place to stay. After exhausting all her options, Lupino chances into an auto-court near the military base that is strictly for married couples. Desperate to get some sleep, she takes a room before producing a husband. A chance meeting with a helpful Lieutenant (William Prince) solves that problem when he agrees to pose as her spouse to secure the room, but leads to several more.

Of course Lupino and Prince butt heads a bit and then become fond of each other. They are a charming pair; not hilarious together, but amusing enough to make you smile. Though it turns out I've seen a few of Prince's films, I couldn't recall seeing him before and I enjoyed him here. He's one of those handsome, light-hearted actors who pinch-hit for the studio stars who went off to fight in the war. The actor would later thrive in a lengthy television career.

With an appealing pair of romantic leads and lots of activity at the auto-court, Pillow to Post could rate as a light entertainment, but there are a couple of unusual elements that elevate it to must-see for noir and music fans. The first is the fascinating novelty of seeing eternal villain Sydney Greenstreet in a comedy role. Though he is still plenty menacing as Prince's base commander, the actor gets a chance to be silly and it suits him. The other high point is a criminally brief appearance by 22-year-old Dorothy Dandridge in a nightclub scene with Louis Armstrong. Their bubbly rendition of Wat'cha Say? could have been slotted into most any other comedy of the age, and here it is a sublime moment in an otherwise mildly amusing film.

While it can be hit or miss in its chaotic pursuit of laughs, The Doughgirls benefits from bigger comic talents. It's got an enormous starring cast, with Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith, and Jane Wyman as former showgirls, Jack Carson as a sexually, and otherwise, frustrated newlywed husband of the latter, Charlie Ruggles as his boss and Eve Arden as a Russian guerilla fighter. All of these people and more crowd into the Washington D.C. bridal suite of Wyman and Carson, most of them desperate for a place to stay.

There's never a moment to breathe as the characters scramble to fulfill their needs, which are inevitably at odds with just about everyone else. Wyman is equal parts amusing and irritating as the more boneheaded than blushing bride, but Ann Sheridan and Alexis Smith are sharp and hilariously entitled as her couch-surfing friends. The three of them were exhilarating to watch: slim, elegant, with perfectly groomed hair, nails like talons and impeccable suits, looking like they are outfitted for a war of their own which they are certain to win.

While the cast is uniformly good, Sheridan and Smith are the highlights here. They plunge into their roles with fearless comic glee, taking control of every situation and making certain they have a good time along the way. Sheridan is at her best when she's bold and confident like this, demonstrating that it is only a man's world in name. And why wasn't Smith given more comic roles? Maybe she had the features of the girl who would try to steal your boyfriend, but she had the chops to make people laugh and adore her much like Lombard. Though Eve Arden's Russian soldier speaks in that simple-minded idiotic way that every character with a foreign accent seemed to in classic Hollywood, I found myself laughing anyway. She practically insists that you humor her; I don't think this role would have worked with any other actress.

You get caught up in the energy of all that activity, and it is all helped along by a cast with great comic timing and chemistry.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.