Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tired Of The Old Poll? Try A New One!

Thingy from Pondering Life is calling for the equivalent of the "mercy rule" on the favorite comedy team poll—the Marx Brothers have a comfortable lead over the nearest competition, the Three Stooges.

But we here at the Monkey don't believe in mercy, at least not where the Marx Brothers are concerned. Besides, we got two votes for Our Gang just last night and some interesting information about old radio broadcasts from Uncle Tom down in the comments section—don't want to shut that down.

Still, maybe Thingy will be satisfied if she has a second poll to vote on. This one really has no effect on anything. "What's your favorite Lionel Barrymore performance?" Grand Hotel? You Can't Take It With You? It's A Wonderful Life? Key Largo? Or some other classic movie, such as Captains Courageous, Dinner At Eight, Sadie Thompson, A Free Soul?

Have at it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hollywood Couples/Screen Teams: Burns And Allen

One thing I didn't realize before I set up this week's Monkey poll was the extent to which both of my brothers are fans of the comedy teaming of George Burns and Gracie Allen. My older brother is a fan of their television series which ran on CBS from 1950 to 1958; my younger brother listens to their old radio show (on XM), which ran from 1932 to 1950.

I got to wondering how many people are still aware of Burns and Allen. George Burns, sure; he won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys and lived to be 100. But how many people remember he was primarily a straight man and that it was his wife, Gracie Allen, who was the real star of the show?

Both Burns and Allen began performing at an early age, Burns at the age of seven while he was playing hooky from his job in a syrup factory (we're talking the year 1903, long before child labor laws were in effect), Gracie not much older, performing with her three sisters in an Irish folk dance act called The Four Colleens.

"We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet," Burns said of his days as a child performer. "We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."

The two performers met in 1922 during a vaudeville show and soon formed an act, with Burns feeding straight lines to Allen who had a gift for what was known in vaudeville as a "Dumb Dora" routine.

"Gracie's the kind of girl," Allen explained, "who shortens the cord on the electric iron to save electricity."

Burns and Allen made the jump from the stage to the big screen in 1929 when Warner Brothers began filming vaudeville acts for their new Vitaphone sound system, and signed a contract with Paramount the next year. The team appeared in twenty-seven shorts and feature-length films during the 1930s. The team also were a fixture on radio, first appearing as regular guests on The Guy Lombardo Show in 1932 and headlining their own show beginning in 1934.

"Say good night, Gracie" became the team's signature line.

The team moved from radio to television in 1950 and starred in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS for eight seasons. The show was nominated for eleven Emmy Awards, with Allen herself receiving five nominations for best actress. Ill-health though forced Allen to retire in 1958 and though the show continued on for another season, the show's popularity plummeted without her presence. She died of a heart attack in 1964.

Burns continued to produce television shows and work in nightclubs until 1974 when he replaced an ailing Jack Benny in the movie version of the Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys. For his supporting performance, Burns won an Oscar; at age eighty, he was at that time the oldest Oscar winner ever. Burns continued to work almost up to his death, forty-nine days after his 100th birthday. He was interred next to Allen where at last she received top billing: "Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again."

And now, without further ado, Burns and Allen in the 1931 comedy short 100% Service.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This Week's Monkey Poll

I'm working on my essay for the best director of 1931-32. A thousand words so far and I don't know who the winner is yet.

In the meantime, be sure to vote in this week's Monkey Poll: Who is your favorite comedy team of the 1930s?

Here are your choices:

Burns and Allen

Laurel and Hardy

The Marx Brothers

Our Gang (The Little Rascals)

The Ritz Brothers

The Three Stooges


Remember, every vote counts and the results have no effect on anything. So vote early and vote often.

Laurel and Hardy and The Oscar-Winning Comedy Short, The Music Box

What did E.B. White say about analyzing humor? that like dissecting a frog, you can do it, but both tend to die in the process?

Or maybe the appropriate quote belongs to Mel Brooks who said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

In the award-winning comedy short The Music Box, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, nobody walks into an open sewer and dies, at least not quite, and I'm sure that if I fell down a flight of stairs 131 steps long and had a piano land on me, I wouldn't be the least bit amused, but watching Laurel and Hardy do it, not once but three times, is hysterical, and it gets funnier with each repetition.

Stan Laurel was the stage name of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, an English actor, director and playwright who began his career at the age of sixteen as a music hall comedian before eventually emigrating to America where he enjoyed moderate success as a solo act at the Hal Roach Studios in over fifty silent comedy shorts. His partner, Norville "Babe" Hardy, was born in Georgia and took up acting after running his own theater there and deciding he could do better. He took the name Oliver in tribute to his dad and wound up making over 250 silent comedy shorts between 1914 and 1926. Although the two had appeared together in short films before, Hal Roach paired them as "Stan and Ollie" for the first time in the 1927 short The Second Hundred Years. The team was an instant hit and supervising director Leo McCarey (later of Duck Soup, The Awful Truth and Going My Way) suggested they become a permanent team.

Laurel and Hardy made their first talkie in 1929 with Unaccustomed As We Are and, unlike many of their colleagues, discovered that sound improved the act. Hardy's blustery bass voice was a perfect foil to Laurel's squeaky English one; sound allowed them to place the more violent payoffs to their gags off-stage; and because sound made the slapstick more realistic, it forced them to make the gags smaller, letting the team concentrate instead on the comedy of anticipation and frustration, Laurel's forte.

In 1932, Laurel, Hardy, director James Parrott and a film crew drove out to the Silver Lake District of Los Angeles to a public staircase on Vendome Street and dared to ask that age old question, what if Sisyphus had had a partner. The answer not only provided Laurel and Hardy with the plot for one of their best comedy shorts ever, it also reiterated the comedy formula they followed with such success for most of their career together.

Watching The Music Box, unfortunately, isn't nearly as easy as it ought to be. The DVD collections that include it are out of print and even the usually reliable Netflix seems to have been caught napping on this one. I myself happened to have a copy on tape (although finding the tape was an adventure. You know how they say it's always in the last place you look—obviously, since you stop looking after that—well, The Music Box was literally in the first place I looked, the very first tape, except that because of the lighting and the angle and the way it was jammed into the bookcase, I wound up going through a thousand titles, first forward, then backwards, not once but twice, until to my chagrin, I returned to the beginning again. But I digress). But today is the maid's day off, the place is a mess, and I regret I can't be inviting you over to watch it with me.

Fortunately, I found a copy on the internet—a legal copy, at that, which is all the better. I suggest you watch it first and then come back and let me yack about it, ad nauseam. Or better yet, watch it and you yack about it, down there in the comments section.

Watch 03. The Music Box (1932).avi in Comedy | View More Free Videos Online at

The action is simple—getting a piano up a long flight of stairs—but like a composer who takes a simple theme and then builds on it, Laurel and Hardy add variations, play with our expectations, delay the payoff and even go in wholly unexpected directions, for example, that pond at the top of the stairs which you just know is going to wind up with the piano in it, but how it ends up there, long after you've forgotten the pond, is real genius. What starts out simple winds up as baroque and complicated as a Rube Goldberg contraption. And yet it's bright, it's elegant and it's as light as a souffle.

Only funnier.

It had been a while since I'd seen Laurel and Hardy—they don't show up on cable much anymore—and watching The Music Box again, I was struck by how much I had forgotten about the duo. Yes, I knew that Laurel had flawless comic timing and that Hardy could break the so-called "fourth wall" better than anybody in history. But I had forgotten, for example, that Hardy is just as dumb as Laurel, he only thinks he's smart, and that Laurel isn't always a passive recipient of whatever the world dishes out: after all, it's he, not Hardy, who kicks the snotty nurse in the pants.

I was also unaware, before I started watching silent movies and early sound comedies for this blog, just how much all these guys recycled gags, both their own and everybody else's. The Music Box, for example, is actually a remake of an earlier Laurel and Hardy silent film, Hats Off, now lost, which centered around the delivery of a washing machine rather than a piano. The routine with the boys' bowler hats—I suspect a staple of vaudevillian comedy—was later honed to perfection by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup; and Cary Grant did a riff on it as well in his first great movie, The Awful Truth. And of course the Three Stooges filmed their own short, An Ache in Every Stake, on this same flight of stairs. None of them seemed to mind much, and in the case of the good acts at least, the jokes got better each time they retold them.

The Music Box won a well-deserved Oscar for best short comedy subject at the 1932 ceremony, the only award the team ever won—and technically, the award went to the film's producer, the legendary Hal Roach. Stan Laurel was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1961 for "his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy," three years after Hardy's death.

In 1997, the Library of Congress selected The Music Box for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Even as they were filming The Music Box, the popularity of the comedy short was waning. Laurel and Hardy made their first feature-length film, Pardon Us, in 1931, and went on to score such successes as Sons of the Desert, Way Out West and A Chump At Oxford. Altogether, they starred in twenty-three feature films, the last in 1951. They left the Hal Roach Studios in 1940 and made several commercially, if not critically, successful films. Declining health ended the partnership in the mid-1950s. Hardy died in 1957; deprived of his screen partner, Laurel refused all offers to perform for the last eight years of his life, including an offer of a cameo in Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a virtual Who's Who of comedy acts. Laurel died two years later.

In honor of their stellar work together, I am handing Laurel and Hardy a pair of Katie Awards today, one for the best short film of 1931-32, The Music Box, the other a much-deserved Career Achievement Award. Congratulations, fellas.

For more information about Laurel and Hardy, including "the clip of the month," check out "Laurel & Hardy: The Official Website."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Was Born, But ...

No, really, I was born, no ifs ands or buts. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring, of course, to the 1932 silent Japanese classic, I Was Born, But ... (the full title translated from the Japanese is A Picture Book For Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But ...), by perhaps the greatest of all Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu.

If you don't know who Yasujiro Ozu is, perhaps it's time to get acquainted.

"Sooner or later," Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert has written, "everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu. He is the quietest and gentlest of directors, the most humanistic, the most serene. But the emotions that flow through his films are strong and deep, because they reflect the things we care about the most: Parents and children, marriage or a life lived alone, illness and death, and taking care of one another."

This is one of Ozu's earliest efforts, and his first great film. Like everyone, Ozu had to start somewhere. A big fan of Hollywood comedies, particularly those of Ernst Lubitsch and Harold Lloyd, Ozu cut his teeth during the silent era on a series of family comedies with titles such as I Graduated, But ... and I Flunked, But ... The best of them, I Was Born, But ... was a breakthrough that proved to be a harbinger of Ozu's later brilliance.

Despite being produced in 1932, the movie is silent. The plot could be that of an Our Gang comedy—the antics of little boys and the mysteries of their social pecking order—focusing specifically on a pair of brothers, maybe ages six and seven, loveable scamps who play hooky, fake test scores and bribe a delivery boy to beat up the local bully. They play rousing games of one-upmanship—my dad has a fancy car; oh, yeah? my dad can take out his teeth!—they watch home movies, they collect sparrows eggs. The two boys are refreshingly close (they remind me of my own brothers) egging each other on and presenting a united front against the world. Eventually, they take over leadership of the gang and all is right with the world.

But then at a party, the boys discover their dad, far from being the important man they imagine him to be, is in fact a non- entity, the butt of his boss's jokes, a self-confessed "apple polisher." This is where the simple comedy becomes something more, a wickedly funny insight into the human condition.

"You tell me to be somebody," says the older boy, "but you're nobody!" Then he demands to know why his father must kowtow to his boss.

"He pays my salary," his father says.

"Then don't let him pay you," the boy says.

"Yeah!" the little brother adds with the implacable logic of a six year old. "You pay him instead!"

Out of the mouths of babes.

"Are you important?" the boy asks.

"Why are you pestering me with these questions?" the dad snaps.

"See?" says the boy. "He's not."

I'd have paid money to see Beaver Cleaver have the same conversation with his dad, and I'll bet you that like the father in I Was Born, But ..., Ward curled up with a bottle of Hennessy on many an evening after the closing credits rolled.

By the end of the scene, which includes a first-class tantrum, the boys receive well-earned spankings, but the father is deeply chagrined—sometimes truth is a dish best not served at all, especially when it proves indigestible. But don't despair. This is a comedy and all ends well.

I Was Born, But ... has a documentary feel, and in the hands of another director, the effect would be cold, austere, affected. In Ozu's hands, it's as real as life itself and his work here makes the shaky-cam and frenetic editing of today's movies feel noisy, tedious and utterly phony. It's not that nothing happens, it's that nothing feels as if it's made to happen simply to satisfy the mechanics of plot.

Ozu six times won the Kinema Junpo award, the Japanese equivalent of the Oscar for best picture, including one for I Was Born, But ... Despite being the most celebrated director in Japanese history, however—at least in his own country—Ozu's films weren't seen in the United States until 1970, seven years after his death, previously having been deemed "too Japanese" for Western tastes. (Ironically, Akira Kurosawa, who directed such masterpieces as Rashomon and Seven Samurai, lost favor in Japan because he was deemed "too Western.") Since his introduction to the West some forty years ago, Ozu's reputation has risen steadily; his best movie, 1953's Tokyo Story, now routinely make lists of the Ten Best Films ever made. (Assuming I live long enough, we'll eventually get to Tokyo Story.)

If you're at all interested in Ozu, silent movies or family comedies, you'll want to see this early step in the master's development. But only watch it with the kids if you're a very self-confident father.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hiatus? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Hiatus!

Well, Katie-Bar-The-Door's trip to New York has been abruptly re- arranged to this Spring, so no hiatus for the Monkey. No Thin Man walking tour either. But plenty of time now for blogging, and after the outpouring of grief at my absence, I better get to it.

Uh, there was an outpouring of grief, right?

Anyway, I figure short reviews of a couple of 1932 films, Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But ... and the Oscar-winning short The Music Box, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. And then the essay on the best director of 1931-32. Howard Hawks has a 2-to-1 lead over Edmund Goulding with the poll ending tomorrow, so he's looking like the probable winner, but you never know, there might be a late surge for one of the other candidates.

If you haven't voted, I strongly encourage you to. Even if you have no opinion and have to make it up as you go along. And why not? It's an Oscar tradition!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Hiatus ...

... at least until March, I would think.

You have until Friday afternoon to vote in the poll. This week's question is "Of these nominees, who would be your choice for best director of 1931-32?" and your choices are René Clair (À Nous La Liberté); Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel); Howard Hawks (Scarface); Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde); and James Whale (Frankenstein).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nominees For Best Director Of 1931-32

And don't forget to vote in the new poll!

René Clair (À Nous La Liberté)

Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel) (here on the set with Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford)

Howard Hawks (Scarface) (on the set of 1959's Rio Bravo with Angie Dickinson)

Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)

James Whale (Frankenstein)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Child Stars: Jackie Cooper

Between Jackie Coogan's turn in Charlie Chaplin's 1921 comedy classic, The Kid, and the advent of box office phenomenon Shirley Temple in the early 1930s, no child star was bigger or better than "America's Boy," Jackie Cooper.

Born in 1922, Cooper broke into movies at the age of seven, working in the Our Gang comedies at the Hal Roach Studios for $50 a week. Cooper became a star just two years later when he landed the lead role in Skippy, a film version of the day's most famous comic strip. (So popular was the strip, in fact, that Skippy brand peanut butter was named for it—or was it? Strip creator Percy Crosby filed suit and won a decision in the U.S. Patent Court, yet seventy-six years later, Skippy is still my peanut butter of choice.)

Skippy—the movie not the peanut butter—was the one where Cooper's uncle, director Norman Taurog, famously threatened to shoot Cooper's dog if the boy didn't cry on cue, then sent a production assistant outside with a gun loaded with blanks. Cooper heard the shot and predictably cried buckets. Only nine years old at the time, he's still the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar in a lead role.

Like most of us, he slept through the ceremony, although in his case, in Oscar-winner Marie Dressler's lap. "I was much more interested in not having to go to school that day than I was in the ceremony," he later admitted.

Cooper was even better a year later in the award-winning boxing movie, The Champ. Directed by King Vidor, The Champ is an unabashed tearjerker of the first water and turned Cooper and co-star Wallace Beery into the unlikeliest of screen teams. The pair made four feature-length movies together between 1931 and 1935.

Beery won an Oscar playing an alcoholic, over-the- hill boxer with delusions of grandeur, the kind of guy who wins a horse for his son in a crap game, then promptly loses it back again—twice! When he's not gambling, he's hungover in a fleabag hotel room over a saloon, haunted by what might have been and fueled by pipe dreams of another shot at the title. Cooper is the champ's son, who even at nine years of age is a classic enabler. He adores his father but has been disappointed too many times to lie to himself anymore, even as he lies to the Champ.

Cooper more than holds his own in his scenes with the more experienced Beery, for example, in an early scene when fight promoters call his father a drunk and a "palooka." Eyes glistening with a mixture of rage, disappointment and humiliation, Cooper holds his defiant pose for a moment, then his shoulders slump and he turns away.

"You don't believe what they said about me being drunk the night I lost the championship, do ya, Dink."

"No," says Cooper, slump shouldered, not looking at his father, and starting to clean up after him like he always does.

It's a formula that has served Hollywood well, right up to and including Mickey Rourke's 2008 comeback in The Wrestler, and won Frances Marion an Oscar for the screenplay, her second.

Cooper himself was rather dismissive of most of his early screen roles. "Very often on some of this stuff when I'd have to go to work. I'd just give the script a cursory glance. I had no training, and I was a quick study, so nobody knew how involved or not involved I was. But I look at that stuff now and I can see I wasn't involved, and I wasn't very good."

Cooper and Beery made three more films together, including Treasure Island. "They kept me in short pants as long as they could," Cooper said of his days as a child actor, "until they were shaving the hair on my legs because it was beginning to photograph."

Ironically, because of his own experiences, Cooper grew up opposed to children working full-time as actors. "No amount of rationalization, no excuses, can make up for what a kid loses—what I lost—when a normal childhood is abandoned for a movie career.

His 1981 autobiography was entitled Please Don't Shoot My Dog.

Cooper left Hollywood during World War II, serving in the United States Navy where he attained the rank of Captain. After the war, the transition from child star to adult performer was difficult for Cooper, but he eventually wound up in television, both as an actor and as a director. As the latter, he won two Emmys for directing episodes of MASH (one of the funny ones) and The White Shadow. Maybe his most famous movie role after childhood was that of Daily Planet editor Perry White in four Superman movies between 1978 and 1987.

Cooper retired in 1989. He has four children and lives in California.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Join Me At The Premiere Of Grand Hotel

The day after winning the Katie Award for best supporting actor of 1931-32, Lionel Barrymore attends the premiere of Grand Hotel ...

Our Dancing Daughters

For all you snow-bound shut-ins on the east coast of the United States, Turner Classic Movies is showing Our Dancing Daughters tomorrow, Friday February 12 at 10:30 a.m.

I, for one, will be lounging on the couch with Anita Page, Joan Crawford and their gang of rich, rowdy flapper friends. Why don't you join us?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Best Supporting Actor of 1931-32: Lionel Barrymore (Grand Hotel)

"Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."

I think most people hear that line, spoken at the beginning and again at the end of the Oscar-winning movie Grand Hotel and assume it's meant ironically, that we've just seen the tragic collision of five desperate people—a has-been ballerina who wants to be alone, a bankrupt aristocrat turned unwilling jewel thief, a haughty plutocrat with a failing business, a secretary willing to turn tricks for a new frock, and a dying nebbish who wants to see what he's been missing—and we know that in fact a lot happens at the Grand Hotel.

But maybe if he'd said the same thing differently—"There's nothing new under the sun"—we'd appreciate what he's really driving at.

That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one might say,
"See this, it is new"?

Already it has existed for ages

Which were before us.

That's the Preacher, by the way, writing in the Book of Ecclesiastes and for those of you who remember their Old Testament, you know Ecclesiastes is one of the most morose and fatalistic works of literature ever written, a meditation on the futility of, well, everything, that makes Kafka feel whimsical by comparison.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. ... One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

It's telling that the character who speaks the famous last lines of Grand Hotel is a war veteran (Lewis Stone) who lost the right side of his face to a grenade. For him, Berlin's Grand Hotel is not so much a residence as a sort of limbo where he waits to pass from this world into the next, and while he waits, he watches, he and the generation of men buried under the poppy fields of France. He and they wait, they watch and they pass silent judgment on these five desperate people who have so much and savor it so little.

To pay a debt owed to vicious gamblers, "The Baron" (John Barrymore) intends to steal a strand of priceless pearls from the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) but falls in love with her instead. In the next room, factory owner Preysing (Wallace Beery) schemes to hold on to his failing business by telling a whopping lie, while his secretary (Joan Crawford) hopes to leverage some nice clothes and a little rent money out of him before giving her lovely body to her piggish boss; frankly, she'd rather be with the Baron. And clinging to them all, hoping to partake of the crumbs from their table, is Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), an invisible little bookkeeper who has just received a death sentence from his doctor.

The faintly ludicrous story—"too melodramatic," Katie says—was first a novel, Vicki Baum's German-language Menschen im Hotel, then William Drake's Broadway play, and sometimes it creaks with the contrivances of the source material. But Grand Hotel was perhaps the first movie ever to boast an all-star cast, and boy genius producer Irving Thalberg determined that it be as glitzy and glamourous as the MGM movie machine could make it. It still works as a time capsule of that era's star power.

Thalberg always conceived of the story as a showcase for Greta Garbo, MGM's biggest star. Director Edmund Goulding suggested Buster Keaton for the part of the dying nebbish; Thalberg wanted rising star Clark Gable for the Baron. Louis B. Mayer vetoed both ideas. He wanted to sign John Barrymore to a long-term contract and with John's brother Lionel already working for MGM, thought by casting the one he could entice the other. Thalberg cast Joan Crawford, another MGM contract player and veteran of many shopgirl roles, to balance the increasingly esoteric Garbo. And with a lot of arm-twisting, he got the popular Beery to consent to play the unpleasant Preysing.

The resulting clash of personalities may have made for an unhappy set—with Crawford blasting out Bing Crosby records in her dressing room, Beery taking constant lunch breaks, and Garbo sitting silently in a corner—but audiences ate it up, turning Grand Hotel into one of the year's biggest hits. It won the Oscar for best picture despite receiving no other nominations.

Still, the all-star cast, while selling tickets, actually works against the cohesiveness of the movie as a whole. These five great actors have five very different styles and it's the rare viewer who responds to each of them equally. Leslie Halliwell cites John Barrymore, Daniel Eagan prefers Wallace Beery, Danny Peary likes Joan Crawford and TV Guide praises Lionel Barrymore. (The only one they all seem to agree on, perhaps a little unfairly, is Greta Garbo—"Revival house audiences laugh today at ... her permanently furrowed brow," says TV Guide—which is unfortunate since this may be the film most fans first see her in. If you don't know her work, I recommend you start with the more accessible Flesh and the Devil, Camille or Ninotchka then branch out from there.)

The character and storyline you focus on may depend on which actor's style you're most comfortable with. Personally, I find myself drawn to Lionel Barrymore's Otto Kringelein and his interaction with the Baron (uncharacteristically underplayed by brother John).

After a lifetime of anonymous devotion to a heartless corporation, Kringelein learns he has a terminal illness. With no family to look after him and no heirs to the nest egg he's been scrimping his whole life to save, Kringelein determines to spend every last dime on a spree at the best hotel in Berlin, the Grand Hotel of the movie's title. But Kringelein is a cringing mouse of a man, and the habits of a lifetime prove difficult to break. He wants to live but has no idea how.

Enter the Baron who despite the gulf between their social standing takes Kringelein under his wing. Kringelein gives the viewer a rooting interest among these otherwise self-absorbed and self-destructive characters, and the interaction between him and the Baron lends Grand Hotel a poignancy it would otherwise lack. Writing for the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall said after the film's premiere that "Mr. Barrymore brings out every possible note of this sensitive person" and that "[i]f ever an actor got under the skin of a character Mr. Barrymore does here."

Barrymore's Kringelein becomes a rumination on what it means to be alive and it's ironic that he's so busy trying to make up for lost time—"living," he calls it (gambling, dancing, pouring champagne down his throat)—he doesn't notice the life-and-death predicament of his one true friend, the Baron. Not until Kringelein abandons his self-absorption does he begin to live. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would later mine this same theme to great effect in the 1952 movie Ikiru.

Let's face it. Grand Hotel is a pretty depressing movie. Despite the glamourous stars and Cedric Gibbons's fabulous art Deco sets, it has more in common with Kafka than Astaire and Rogers, and when it's all said and done, the film turns out to be something of a cold bottle of champagne served lovingly to a cockroach. It did, however, set the pattern for a whole series of potboilers from Stagecoach to Airport about a diverse group of strangers having a bad day.

And it did give us what is arguably the best performance of Lionel Barrymore's long career.

Barrymore, by the way, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1878, the eldest sibling of an acting dynasty that included John and sister and future Oscar-winner Ethel. He began acting on Broadway in his early twenties and made his first movie in 1911, the first of more than two hundred films.

Barrymore won an Academy Award for acting in 1931's A Free Soul and was nominated as a director for the Gloria Swanson vehicle Madame X, but he's best known, in America at least, for his role as George Bailey's nemesis, Mr. Potter, in the Frank Capra Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life.

Crippling arthritis confined Barrymore to a wheelchair in 1937 but didn't derail his career; he played key roles in such films as Key Largo, You Can't Take It With You, Dinner At Eight and Captains Courageous, and portrayed the recurring character Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in fifteen movies.

"I've got a lot of ham in me," Barrymore once admitted. A lot of talent, too.

He died of a heart attack in 1954. He was seventy-six.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

External Reviews

Some of the Monkey's movie reviews have started to show up on the Internet Movie Database, linked to the specific movie under "External Reviews."

I'd like to tell you sought them out because they're so brilliant. Not so. Anybody with an account there can submit a link to any review on the internet. Being a complete narcissist looking to expand the reach of the Katie Awards, I submitted some of my own for consideration. So far, I think, there are links to eighteen of them.

It's easy to submit your own. Find the movie in question, scroll down to the bottom of the page, click on the yellow box marked "Updates," scroll down to "External Reviews," change the section marked "No change" to "Add 1 item," click continue, submit the URL of the review and the name of your blog, click continue and if the info is correct, click submit. Imdb should take action one way or the other within a week.

So Zoe, KC, Avalon and everyone else here who writes their own reviews, get cracking and get famous.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Well, I'm Standing Next To A Mountain ...

We got 30.2 inches of snow between lunchtime Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Woke up this morning to find this in my front yard. And there's another one right next to it. So no blogging today, but lots of shoveling.

The neighborhood kids have turned the taller of the two into the best combination snow fort/slide you've ever seen. We've never had a mountain named after us before.

Life is good.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Nominees For Best Supporting Actor Of 1931-32

John Barrymore (Grand Hotel)

Lionel Barrymore (Grand Hotel)

Boris Karloff (Frankenstein)

Roland Young (The Guardsman and One Hour With You)
Hmm. Not quite as cheesecake-y as the supporting actresses ... but fine actors, all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Best Supporting Actress of 1931-32: Miriam Hopkins (The Smiling Lieutenant and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)

Largely forgotten now, Miriam Hopkins was one of the sauciest actresses of the pre-Code age, excelling in light comedies and lurid melodramas alike and nabbing an Oscar nomination along the way. Her early sound movies are some of the best of the era, yet often proved too scandalous to be re-issued once censors began taking scissors to Hollywood's past. Coupled with the years lost while she languished on the McCarthy-era blacklist, and even film fanatics can admit to having rarely seen her work.

That's a situation we here at the Monkey will try to correct.

Hopkins was born in Savannah, Georgia, and grew up in a small town on the Alabama border, but she was acting on the Broadway stage by the age of eighteen with her turn in the stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy in 1926 really making audiences sit up and take notice for the first time. She made her feature-film debut in the 1930 comedy Fast and Loose, and within a year turned in two of her best film performances, in Ernst Lubitsch's musical comedy The Smiling Lieutenant and Rouben Mamoulian's adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the first of these, Maurice Chevalier plays a randy lieutenant in the Austrian army who beds down with an equally randy violinist played by Claudette Colbert. (Her band's name? "The Viennese Swallows." Ahem.) The two make beautiful music together, literally and figuratively, until by accident, Chevalier finds himself mistakenly flirting with a visiting princess—the prim, virginal Hopkins—instead of Colbert, threatening an international incident.

"When you winked at my daughter," asks the king, "were your intentions honorable?"
"They were," says the lieutenant.
"Well, then naturally you'll marry her."
"My intentions were dishonorable!" the lieutenant says quickly.
"Then you'll have to marry her!"

Hopkins's princess is as naive as Colbert is worldly, and when a marriage is hastily arranged, she has no clue what to do with her unwilling husband. For his part, Chevalier can't wait to get back to Claudette Colbert.

Variety in a contemporary review praised Hopkins as the more experienced Colbert's equal, while eighty years later Dan Callahan noted, "Hopkins gives an expertly timed comic performance as plain-Jane royalty with Princess Leia buns on her ears who makes a play for Chevalier."

By the way, those looking for an example of the "Lubitsch touch" need look no further than The Smiling Lieutenant. On the royal couple's wedding night, a manservant and maid prepare the bedchamber—the man puts two pillows on the bed, the maid studies the arrangement, then moves the two pillows together so they're touching; the man looks it over, thinks a moment, then plops one pillow on top of the other. The man and woman look at each other, smile knowingly, then declare the royal bed ready.

All quite clean yet oh so dirty and served up without one extra word, glance or gesture. That's the Lubitsch touch.

A movie fan of today who knows Hopkins's pre-Code work waits a little impatiently for the princess to bust out—knowing that when she does, it'll be worth it. But an audience of the time, not knowing Hopkins and what she was capable of, must have found her transformation from a prudish virgin to a cigarette-smoking, jazz-playing temptress just as shocking as Chevalier's lieutenant does.

It's a fun movie, loaded with double entendres and sexy situations, served up with the director's typically light, frothy style. I tell you, it's as bracing and intoxicating as cold champagne.

Hopkins followed up her success in The Smiling Lieutenant with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a movie that is the polar opposite of Lubitsch's comedy in every sense but quality. Both pictures received Oscar nominations, the former for best picture, the latter for actor, cinematography and screenplay.

The basic outline of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is familiar to us all—a scientist drinks a potion that turns him into a murdering beast with hairy hands and bad teeth. What tends to be forgotten is the why. Dr. Jekyll (here pronounced with a long "e," as in "gee whiz" rather than the familiar rhyme with "heckle") is striving for the perfectability of man, using science to distill out our bestial dark side, freeing the angels of our better nature to pursue more virtuous callings.

As in the other great horror picture of 1931, Frankenstein, the hubris of playing God leads to disaster.

Here, Hopkins plays Ivy Pearson, saloon singer, prostitute, and physical embodiment of Jekyll's base desires. The character is not in the novel, but is so perfect, you wonder why not. Taking full advantage of the pre-Code era's permissiveness, there's no question that Ivy is a prostitute and Hopkins doesn't try to soften her. Her Ivy is both lovely and—what is the word?—skanky at the same time. Her play for Jekyll is coarse and obvious, pulling up her skirts to show her legs, offering to be his slave. Even the priggish and pompous Jekyll feels the pull of the animal, and his shame is what drives him to try to cleanse himself of his base nature, resulting in the experiments that divide him.

That's the flaw, by the way, in the great Ingrid Bergman's performance as the same character in the 1941 remake. Her Ivy may live in low economic circumstances, but Bergman can't convince us that even on her worst day she was ever low or common, and thus Jekyll's revulsion at himself for wanting her makes no sense. But Hopkins? Well, she's very convincing as someone who'd inspire you to both sleep with her and then scrub yourself with lye soap and a wire brush afterwards, so different from the prim and proper princess of The Smiling Lieutenant you wonder that it's the same actress.

When Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was re-released just five years later, by the way, it required eight minutes of cuts to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Production Code and the best of Hopkins's performance wound up on the censor's cutting room floor. It was decades before audiences would rediscover Hopkins in the restored print.

After the triumphs of 1931, Hopkins would top herself in two more Lubitsch comedies, Trouble in Paradise, in which she plays a con artist who teams up romantically and professionally with Herbert Marshall's master thief, and Design For Living, in which she scandalously resolves a love triangle with Fredric March and Gary Cooper by living with them both.

Even more scandalous was 1933's The Story of Temple Drake. Based on William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, the story of a flighty debutante's rape proved so shocking, it was banned in many states; Joseph Breen, who succeeded Will Hays as the head of the Production Code Office, later ordered it withdrawn from circulation and it remained unseen for decades.

In 1935, Hopkins received her only Oscar nomination, for playing the conniving title character in Becky Sharp. Being a fellow Georgian, she was Margaret Mitchell's choice to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, but of course it was David O. Selznick's opinion that mattered.

Despite her success on screen, Hopkins was not well-liked by her Hollywood peers and she bounced around several studios in a short number of years. She had several well-publicized battles with Bette Davis on the sets of The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance, Davis later declaring, "Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!" (That Davis was having an affair with Hopkins's husband, Anatole Litvak, was no doubt a primary cause of the friction.) Hopkins also disdained Hollywood society, preferring the company of writers such as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser and William Saroyan. And even her sympathetic biographer Allan Ellenberger admits she had a volatile temper, waging on-set and behind-the-scenes battles with producers, directors and co-stars alike. She was also well-known for her eccentricities, for example, always consulting a psychic before accepting a new role, leading her to turn down the lead role in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, a part that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar, proving once and for all that the stars may control our fates but they don't know a damn thing about the movies.

Hopkins grew in- creasingly unpopular as the decade wore on—in 1940, the Harvard Lampoon dubbed her "the least desirable companion on a desert island"—and she retired in 1943. She didn't appear in another movie for six years, then made her comeback in The Heiress as Olivia de Havilland's aunt, a performance the Golden Globe awards recognized with a nomination for best supporting actress. In 1952, however, Hopkins was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and again she was out of the movies, this time for nine years.

In all, Hopkins made only thirty-three movies in her career, twenty-two of them by 1937.

Hopkins launched yet another comeback in the 1961 film, The Children's Hour, playing Shirley MacLaine's ditsy aunt to good reviews. (Coincidentally, Hopkins had played the MacLaine role in the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play in 1936 when it was produced under the title These Three.)

Hopkins also did a lot of television back when that meant appearances in live theater productions on shows such as Studio One and Lux Video Theater. She continued to work almost up to her death of a heart attack in 1972.