Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fred Steiner (1923-2011)

I confess I rarely read the obituaries—the story inevitably seems to end in death—but I did notice while sifting through the dregs of this morning's Washington Post that composer Fred Steiner passed away recently.

Among other things, Steiner composed the piece "Park Avenue Beat," better known as the theme of the Perry Mason television series. If you've been following this blog from the very beginning, you know that I took my nom de plume from the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Mythical Monkeys, and probably went to law school for no better reason than that I was a fan of the series.

In Fred Steiner's honor, grab a "hamburger sandwich," jackknife yourself into your favorite chair, and give "Park Avenue Beat" a listen:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

And Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!

Mark Bourne of Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal has just informed me that today is also Ray Harryhausen's birthday.

Let's celebrate the greatest special effects artist of all time with this excerpt from Jason and the Argonauts, the greatest special effects sequence in movie history ...

Oh, And Happy 100th, Bernard Herrmann

Even if somehow you've never heard of him, you've heard him—he wrote classic scores for such films as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and Taxi Driver, among many others.

Somehow the only one he won an Oscar for was The Devil and Daniel Webster in 1942. Go figure.

Did you know he had to talk Alfred Hitchcock into using the famous strings score during the shower scene in Psycho? Hitch thought silence would play better. Which only goes to show that Hitchcock didn't know everything.

Trying to pick my favorite Bernard Herrmann score is futile, so instead, here's one you don't hear as much about, but which is every bit as important to the product on the screen as anything else he ever wrote, The Day The Earth Stood Still.

Happy Birthday To All The Rebeccas Everywhere

Today is my sister-in-law Rebecca's birthday. As far as sisters-in-law go, I've been very lucky—both my brothers married well, Katie-Bar-The-Door's sisters are great people, and even her brothers married well—but I owe Rebecca, so today's blog entry is in her honor.

I was going to embed a copy of Mary Pickford's 1917 classic Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm for her, but it's in seven parts on YouTube which is kind of messy and in any event I'm not 100% sure it's a public domain copy.

So instead, here's a brief run-down of some of the great Rebeccas of history. Let me know if I missed your favorite:

Rebecca from the Bible—the wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau. No one knows for sure what the name "Rebecca" means or even its linguistic origins; the best guess is that it's derived from the ancient Hebrew word for "snare" but it could also be Aramaic and might mean something else entirely. Anyone who knows for sure is long dead.

Happy to clear that up for you.

Pocahontas—You've no doubt heard of Pocahontas, if only because Disney made a movie about her a few years ago. The daughter of a powerful Indian chief in Tidewater Virginia, she lent a helping hand to the early settlers at Jamestown, particularly John Smith, whom she saved from execution.

But did you know that she later married English settler John Rolfe and adopted the name Rebecca Rolfe? No, I didn't either, but Katie-Bar-The-Door did, one of the many facts that has stuck in that amazing brain of hers.

Rebecca Nurse—an elderly nurse accused of witchcraft and executed during the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692. Believe it or not, there was no credible evidence against her. But you know how it goes when people have made up their minds.

She figures prominently in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and Shirley MacLaine portrayed her in the 2002 CBS miniseries Salem Witch Trials. Considering she'd be dead by now anyway, maybe it wasn't such a bad way to go.

Rebecca Harding Davis—19th century writer and pioneer of literary Realism, she wrote about the plight of women. Well, so I hear. I confess I've never read her. But now I'm almost obligated to.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm—The story of a girl who goes to live with two stern aunts in a small Maine village, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was first a novel published in 1903 by Kate Douglas Wiggin, then later a star vehicle for movie actresses Mary Pickford (1917) and Shirley Temple (1938).

Rebecca—A classic novel by British writer Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca was also an Oscar-winning movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock (with lots of interference from producer David O. Selznick). Also featuring Laurence Olivier, George Sanders and Judith Anderson as the demented Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca made Joan Fontaine a star.

Ironically, the one person who never makes an appearance in either the book or the movie is Rebecca herself.

My tenth grade English teacher—This is what she wrote in my yearbook: "You could have made A's in my class if you'd wanted to."

"But I did make A's in your class," I told her, puzzled.

"You did?" she said. "Well, you didn't deserve to."

Looking back, I realize the Monkey was something of an acquired taste even then.

Rebecca De Mornay— An American actress, her performance as a hooker with a heart of gold, brass or possibly stone in the 1983 comedy Risky Business was an eye-opener for many a schoolboy. Hollywood has never quite figured out what to do with her—the combination of brains and beauty seems to scare directors, and maybe audiences, too—but she was excellent in The Trip To Bountiful and had a big hit with The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Rebecca Howe— Played by Kirstie Alley, Rebecca Howe was the fictional manager of the television bar Cheers, arriving at the beginning of season six to make life miserable for ex-Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone (Ted Danson). I admit, I never thought Cheers was as good after Shelley Long left, but Kirstie Alley was actually in more episodes, 149 to 124, and won an Emmy for her performance. So there you have it.

Bellotoot's daughter—she was born the day before I started my first job in Washington, D.C., a job I got, if you will recall, when Bellotoot and I spent forty minutes talking about the Marx Brothers. I arrived at the office, met the other bosses, none of whom were Marx Brothers fans, and immediately asked, "Where's the other guy?"

Read all about it here.

Rebecca Romijn—an actress of sorts, I think. Played Mystique in X-Men.

Rebecca Malope—born on a tobacco farm in South Africa, she ran away to Johannesburg with her sister, won a talent contest and is now known as South Africa's Queen of Gospel.

That's about it. There have been other Rebeccas—a singer, some beauty contestants, a lot of writers—but let's face it, none of them can hold a candle to my sister-in-law, and besides, the dog is agitating to go out, so enough of this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #9: A Contest At Out of The Past—Your Favorite Cary Grant Movie, And Why

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

Raquelle at Out of the Past is celebrating her fourth "blogiversary" with a contest/giveaway, a copy of Jennifer Grant's memoir, Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant, about, yes, her father, screen legend Cary Grant.

To enter, all you have to do is zip over to her site (here) and tell her your favorite Cary Grant movie and why. But hurry—the deadline is this Thursday, June 30.

And what
is my favorite Cary Grant movie? That turns out to be a simple question to ask, a hard one to answer, especially if you, like the Monkey, are an obsessive film nut.

For example, which is my favorite depends in no small part on whether we're talking about a movie with Cary Grant in it, or a
Cary Grant movie. I mean, I love The Philadelphia Story, but it's primarily a Katharine Hepburn movie, and after that a Jimmy Stewart movie. Yes, Cary Grant was in The Philadelphia Story, and Cary Grant was wonderful in it, but the truth is Cary Grant was no more than a passive bystander in his own pursuit of true love.

The same is true to greater and lesser degrees of, say,
Charade or Notorious or Suspicion, which are really Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine movies, respectively.

But then I thought about such quintessentially Cary Grant movies as The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday and realized those are also very much Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell movies, where each of those actresses give what are arguably the best performances of their careers—they're Cary Grant movies, sure, but they're not just Cary Grant movies.

But even in
North By Northwest, where he's on screen for nearly every frame of the movie, Cary Grant allows actors as different as James Mason, Martin Landau and Eva Marie Saint room to dominate the screen, even tailoring his performance to fit the style of each of those actors—across from the cool, sleek Mason, Grant is animated; with the scenery-chewing Landau, Grant is very nearly still; and sharing the screen with the silky Saint, Grant is as overtly sexy as he ever was in his career.

Which made me realize that maybe Grant's most under-appreciated skill as actor was his almost preternatural ability to play well with others. I mean, is there anyone who didn't turn in a great performance while working with him? I doubt that in the history of Hollywood there's ever been a star so well-known and so well-loved who when it counted—which is to say, when the cameras were rolling—was more generous with his co-stars.

So as my favorite Cary Grant movie, I'm choosing the one where the character he played was as generous as the man playing him, Holiday, the wonderfully bittersweet romantic comedy co-starring Katharine Hepburn.

"You've got no faith in Johnny, have you, Julia? His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well, so it may, what if it should? There'll be another. Oh, I've got all the faith in the world in Johnny. Whatever he does is all right with me. If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

But you ask me again tomorrow and I'll probably pick something else—
Only Angels Have Wings or To Catch A Thief, maybe. In fact, maybe that's the answer: my favorite Cary Grant movie is whichever one happens to be on at any given moment.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1917—Part One

winner: The Chaplin Mutuals (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer) (prod. Charles Chaplin)
nominees: The Poor Little Rich Girl (prod. Adolph Zukor); Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (prod. Mary Pickford); Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was (prod. Charles Magnusson); Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan (prod. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov)
Must-See Movies: The Adventurer; The Cure; Easy Street; The Immigrant; The Poor Little Rich Girl
Recommended Films: The Butcher Boy; Coney Island; Down To Earth; His Wedding Night; Oh Doctor!; Reaching For The Moon; Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm; A Romance Of The Redwoods; The Rough House; Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was; Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan; Wild and Woolly
Of Interest: Das Fidele Gefängnis a.k.a. The Merry Jail; Furcht; The Heart Of Texas Ryan a.k.a. Single Shot Parker; A Modern Musketeer; Over The Fence; Straight Shooting; Teddy At The Throttle

winner: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Roscoe Arbuckle (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts); Harry Carey (Straight Shooting and Bucking Broadway); Elliott Dexter (A Romance Of The Redwoods); Douglas Fairbanks (Wild and Woolly, Down To Earth and Reaching For The Moon); William Farnum (A Tale Of Two Cities)

winner: Mary Pickford (The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm)
nominees: Vera Karalli (Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan); Doris Kenyon (A Girl's Folly); Ossi Oswalda (Das Fidele Gefängnis a.k.a. The Merry Jail)

winner: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Yevgeni Bauer (Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan); Victor Sjöström (Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was); Maurice Tourneur (The Poor Little Rich Girl)

winner: Buster Keaton (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts)
nominees: Eric Campbell (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer); Sam De Grasse (Wild And Woolly)

winner: Edna Purviance (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Bebe Daniels (The Harold Lloyd Comedy Shorts); June Elvidge (A Girl's Folly); ZaSu Pitts (A Little Princess); Florence Vidor (A Tale Of Two Cities)

winner: Frances Marion, from a play by Eleanor Gates (The Poor Little Rich Girl)
nominees: Anita Loos and John Emerson, story by Horace B. Carpenter (Wild and Woolly); Frances Marion, from a play by Charlotte Thompson and a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm)

George James Hopkins (Cleopatra) (Costume Design)

A Landmark Year
In the last decade of the 19th century, if you wanted to make a movie, you pretty much had to build a camera from scratch. In the first decade of the 20th century, all you had to do was buy a camera and point it at something. In either case, the product on the screen was primitive, amateurish, and with a few notable exceptions, barely distinguishable from the sort of home movies you might find these days on YouTube—except maybe not as good.

But by 1917, as film's third decade came to a close, movies had evolved into a purely professional medium. The moguls who would dominate film's Golden Age, men such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Jack Warner, among others, were already running Hollywood studios. With the screen debut of Buster Keaton in April 1917, the stars who would dominate the Silent Era—Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford, Gish, Chaney and even Valentino (indeed, all but Garbo and Clara Bow)—were present and accounted for.

Perhaps most importantly, the movie industry as a whole had settled once and for all on a film "language"—the methods by which directors, editors, cinematographers and actors conveyed action and information to evoke an emotional response in their audience. Since the middle of the century's first decade, directors such as D.W. Griffith had been experimenting with intercutting between different locations to show simultaneous action—for example, a thief breaking into a home, the frightened woman inside it, her savior riding to the rescue. But intercutting within the same location—to establish, say, a room and the players in it, then cutting to close-ups of the various actors as the action focused on them, all while keeping clear where each actor is in relation to each other—was relatively rare before 1917, with directors still relying heavily on what is referred to as a "tableaux" or "proscenium arch" technique, where the camera stayed locked in place and the entire set and all the actors remained visible throughout the scene.

By 1917, however, it seemed that (in America at least) every director was using set-ups and close-ups and intercutting—what is called classical Hollywood continuity editing—and what was once rare was now so commonplace, it was taken for granted.

Which is to say that, visually- and narratively-speaking at least, movies from 1917 are indistinguishable from what directors now turn out every day on television and in theaters, and from this point forward, as a critic you can no longer shrug off a film's technical incompetence as an inevitable consequence of its age.

While the production of a film hadn't yet hardened into the assembly-line approach of the studio system, and while innovators such as Orson Welles would come along to shake things up, for all intents and purposes, film's frontier was closed.

Click here to continue to Part Two, "Little Mary Takes Charge."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Jane Greer Night On TCM

It's Jane Greer night on Turner Classic Movies, starting with Out of the Past at 8 p.m., the quintessential film noir also starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. If you've never seen it, well good god, man, why not? When I say Jane Greer is the only femme fatale in movie history I'd let shoot me, this is the film I'm referring to.

At 10 p.m. is the second of Greer's two movies with Robert Mitchum, The Big Steal, a romantic-comedy noir directed by Don Siegel who went on to direct the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry. The Big Steal was Mitchum's first movie after the infamous marijuana bust and the actress orginially cast, Lizabeth Scott, backed out at the last minute, fearing the publicity might damage her career. Greer, on the other hand, jumped at the chance and the result is one of the most underrated films of its era.

The complete line-up, from TCM's website:

8:00 PM Out of the Past (1947) A private eye becomes the dupe of a homicidal moll. Dir: Jacques Tourneur Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. BW-97 mins

10:00 PM The Big Steal (1949) Seduction and murder follow the theft of an Army payroll. Dir: Don Siegel Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix. BW-71 mins

11:30 PM The Company She Keeps (1951) A lady con artist sets out to steal her parole officer's fiance. Dir: John Cromwell Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Jane Greer, Dennis O'Keefe. BW-83 mins

1:00 AM Station West (1948) A federal agent takes on a gang of gold thieves. Dir: Sidney Lanfield Cast: Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead. BW-80 mins

2:30 AM Run for the Sun (1956) A British traitor hunts humans in the jungles of Mexico. Dir: Roy Boulting Cast: Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard, Jane Greer. BW-99 mins

4:15 AM Desperate Search (1953) A man fights to find his children after their plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Dir: Joseph Lewis Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Greer, Patricia Medina. BW-71 mins

Remember, all times are Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

No rest for the weary tonight, huh.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mary Pickford In The Poor Little Rich Girl

I'm back in my office after a week of nursing the family dog—we had the torn ligament in her knee surgically repaired—and I'm working away at my essay on the films of 1917.

In the meantime, why not check out this public domain copy of The Poor Little Rich Girl, arguably the most important film Mary Pickford ever made.

"Why is that, Monkey?"

Glad you asked:

● Her insistence that friend Frances Marion write it over Cecil B. DeMille's objection led to what may have been the first instance of a star firing a director.

● Despite the studio's certainty that it would flop, the film was a huge success and enable Pickford to renegotiate her contract, giving her $10,000 a week, 50% of her film's profits and complete creative control.

● And finally, Pickford also invented "indirect lighting" for this film—while putting on her makeup, she noticed that light shining from a hand-held mirror created a flattering effect, an effect she insisted director Maurice Tourneur recreate on the set. The technique soon became the industry standard and moviemakers have been lighting films in this manner ever since.

Well, at least that's what they tell me. In any event, without further ado, The Poor Little Rich Girl.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #8: Unquotable Quotes

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

No time for blogging today, but here's a quote I like that I'll never be able to work into a post:

"I haven't seen so much activity since the night I hid the hornet's nest in Aunt Phobia's sleeping bag."—Gomez Addams

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hotter Younger Sister Turns 100 Today

Today is Gail Patrick's 100th birthday. And even though I am away from my computer, I'm too big a fan not to at least mention her on her big day. This is what I wrote about her last year:

Born Margaret LaVelle Fitzpatrick in Birmingham, Alabama, Patrick was the dean of women at Howard College and was studying law at the University of Alabama when she entered a nationwide contest for a part in a Paramount film. She didn't win, but she was offered a film contract and moved to Hollywood.Patrick made her film debut in the 1932 film If I Had A Million, starring Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and George Raft. She typically played arrogant socialites and femme fatales and is best known for three comedic roles—Carole Lombard's scheming sister in My Man Godfrey, a haughty wannabe actress who clashes with Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door and Cary Grant's not-so-favored bride in My Favorite Wife.

Patrick appeared in sixty-two movies between 1932 and 1948.She abandoned acting when she married her third husband, literary agent Cornwell Jackson. One of Jackson's clients was mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner who created the fictional defense lawyer Perry Mason. Patrick (credited now as Gail Patrick Jackson) obtained the rights to Perry Mason and for nine seasons produced one of the most successful television series in American history.

Patrick died of leukemia in 1980 at the age of sixty-nine.

And now because I love you, I offer up once again this public domain copy of her best movie, My Man Godfrey. Enjoy.

Thumbnail Reviews: Douglas Fairbanks In 1917

Not counting a short film promoting the sale of war bonds, Douglas Fairbanks made six movies in 1917, five of which are readily available on DVD. (The sixth film, In Again, Out Again, is a comedy about a young man who gets himself thrown into prison to be near the jailer's daughter, only to find himself facing execution. A print of the film exists in an archive somewhere, but is not currently available for viewing.)

My thumbnail reviews of the five films I have seen.

Wild And WoollyHoping to convince a railroad baron to build a potentially lucrative branch line to their location, a thoroughly modern Arizona town redresses itself as an Old West frontier hamlet to fool the baron's gullible son, Jeff (Fairbanks), who finds the staged gunfights and faked Indian attacks as exciting as the ones of his over-active imagination. But when a corrupt Indian agent (Sam De Grasse) takes advantage of the situation to launch a real attack, Fairbanks rides to the rescue.

Written by the legendary Anita Loos, who later penned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the screen adaptation of The Women, this may be the best of the pre-swashbuckling Fairbanks features and is a National Film Registry selection.

★★★★½ (out of 5)

Down To EarthHere, a robust young man (Fairbanks) seeks to rescue his ex-fiancee and her fellow patients from a quack doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz, in his screen debut) whose sanitarium caters to wealthy hypochondriacs. Comic possibilities abound when Fairbanks contrives to strand them on a desert isle where he sets about to convert them to the pleasures of hard work and clean living. Fairbanks delivers a typically engaging performance, but it was the intertitle writing of Anita Loos that Katie-Bar-The-Door and I thought really gave this film its comic punch.

Note: Down To Earth is so much like the 1919 Gloria Swanson drama Male and Female, I have to wonder whether Loos was inspired by the latter's source material, the 1902 stageplay The Admirable Crichton ...


The Man From Painted PostA straight western filmed on location in Wyoming, in this film Fairbanks plays a detective who disguises himself as an Eastern tenderfoot to get close to a band of cattle rustlers. Not much humor but some good opportunities for Fairbanks to show off his athleticism.

The love interest is played here by Irish-born Eileen Percy, who had a brief silent film career before marrying Harry Ruby of the famed Ruby-Kalmar songwriting team.


Reaching For The MoonAccountant by day, hopeless dreamer by night, Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown (Fairbanks) turns out to be heir to an Eastern European throne. At first he's thrilled, but soon Alex finds that dodging assassins' bullets and wooing ugly princesses is not all its cracked up to be. The ending is a bit of a letdown, but there's plenty of comedy and action beforehand to recommend it.


A Modern MusketeerBased on the novel D'Artagnan of Kansas, Ned Thacker (Fairbanks) dreams of fighting knaves and rescuing maidens like his favorite literary hero. Unfortunately, the sleepy midwestern town of his birth hasn't much call for a modern-day musketeer, so Ned hits the road, looking for romance and adventure and finding it.

The film's prologue finds Fairbanks in full period costume, wielding a rapier and anticipating his 1921 adaptation of the original Three Musketeers story.

Note: The ending of this movie was long thought lost, but was recently rediscovered and is available only as part of the DVD box set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Best Actors Of 1917

Roscoe Arbuckle (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts)

Harry Carey (Straight Shooting and Bucking Broadway)

Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals)

Elliott Dexter (A Romance Of The Redwoods)

Douglas Fairbanks (Wild and Woolly, Down To Earth and Reaching For The Moon)

William Farnum (A Tale Of Two Cities)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Best Actresses Of 1917

Vera Karalli (Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan)

Doris Kenyon (A Girl's Folly)

Ossi Oswalda (Das Fidele Gefängnis a.k.a. The Merry Jail)

Mary Pickford (The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm)