I know, pretty dark headline for a post about a really fun, glamor heavy film fest. All the more so because, at least for me, TCM Fest is the kind of event that can put you in a kind of steel bubble which the daily news can barely pierce. If another Cuban Missile Crisis happened during Comic-Con, what would happen? Maybe if it ended differently this time.
Indeed, even a momentous event like the death of Osama Bin Laden could just barely penetrate TCM’s mix of Hollywood fantasy and scholarship. For me, the news first came as I overheard another filmgoer during an intermission of “West Side Story,” which I had popped in on just to see how good the 70mm print was, say to another. “No, he’s really dead.” I figured it was another classic film star gone forever. George Chakiris, who played Sharks leader Bernardo, had introduced the screening, but how were Jets Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn doing?
It’s another one of those weeks and we’ve lost one of the last surviving greats of the tale end of Hollywood’s classic-era. Indeed, Tony Curtis was a kind of a bridge between the more traditionally manly film stars of the earlier classic era — Clark Gable, John Wayne, Bogart, Cagney — and the eternally young and slightly androgynous stars of today. I’d say it’s safe that say that there’s a bit of Tony in Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and Colin Farrell, among many others.
It’s the nature of the actor to imitate and the nature of the movie star to be imitated. He was doubtlessly imitated by countless young men over the years who borrowed his handsome-man moves for personal use, but he also admitted to borrowing a lot of his movies from Cary Grant back when he was a kid from the Bronx named Bernie Schwartz. With a little help from Billy Wilder, he brought the entire matter full circle and, for once, completely lost his accent in “Some Like It Hot” — for me the best farce ever filmed in no small part because of the then-outrageous pre-post modern conceit of allowing an actor to perform a major part of his role overtly imitating another actor, still very much alive and working at the time. As far as I know, this wasn’t even dared again until Christian Slater spent “Heathers” imitating Jack Nicholson. It was good, but it was no “Some Like It Hot.”
Since I had to wait until later in the day to write this, there’s already a lot of online about Curtis — most of it collated over at Mubi — and there’ll be much more. I trust there’ll be more clips here like the one below over the weekend, and maybe a couple more observations about him here as well over the coming days, as well as the wonderfully inevitable 24 hour tribute to Curtis at TCM.
HBO’s “The Pacific premieres on the West coast as I write this, and it’s time to take a look at two acclaimed films that take a sidelong look, even comic, look at the hardships and danger of war. Both of them, for whatever reason, have “Mister” or “Mr.” in the title.
Our first film is suggested by master cartoonist and my personal consultant on matters relating to World War II, Randy Reynaldo. Directed and co-written by John Huston, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr as a Marine and an Irish nun who are forced to live under the noose of enemy Japanese soldiers when they become marooned on a remote island. Though a hit on its release, it’s become a somewhat obscure film today, despite being one of Huston’s personal favorites and despite the enormous talent and appeal of its two stars. (Kerr was nominated for an Oscar; Mitchum was not, though many feel he was robbed.) I confess to having not seen it myself, but after looking at the trailer below, I really want to. Something tells me I might like it even better than the not-completely-dissimilar, “The African Queen.”
I’ve seen the second film so many times since childhood, it’s kind of fused with my subconscious, though I didn’t think of including it here until almost the last minute. Directed by two of the greatest classic-era directors, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, and featuring four of the greatest stars of three different Hollywood eras, “Mister Roberts” doesn’t break any cinematic ground but that doesn’t matter.
Starring Henry Fonda as an intelligent and humane officer desperate to get off the cargo ship he’s been stationed on and away from its small-minded, tyrannical captain (James Cagney) in order to see real action against the Japanese, it’s easily one of the funniest and most captivating tales of wartime life ever made, right through to its devastating conclusion. There isn’t a single battle shown, but no film I’ve even seen more powerfully conveys the grim seriousness of war in quite the same way. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s still a classic.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, since Warner Brothers has ruled the domestic box office for two years straight while setting new records both at home and abroad, I thought it might be fun to take a look at movie moments which epitomize the Warner Brothers style when it was grittiest and most cost conscious of the major classic era film studios.
Few sequences encapsulate the WB style better than this scene from 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, one of just a few films which set the pattern for the gangster movie for years to come. It’s all here, the crackling, cynical, fast-paced dialogue, the borderline fatalistic pessimism years before the “film noir” genre would be born, and a great star to deliver the goods in Jimmy Cagney.
And as a brief bonus, we have one of the most famous scenes of cozy marital relations every filmed featuring Cagney and Mae Clarke as the gangster’s unhappy wife. According to Wikipedia this scene — easily one of the most frequently excerpted moments ever made from any film — may have begun as a practical joke on the crew.