08 May, 2014

Hey Marvel, It's DC Calling (Part 2)

Okay, time to check your capes at the door again.

There's always continuing news in the Super Hero world, and I don't pretend I'm starting a trend that way, even though this is the second in this series.  But our friend Ben Affleck rears his head.  A few different ways.  (And, see, I’m allowed to say that, "our friend," because I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Affleck on ‘Gone Baby Gone.’  Ahem, moving on …) 
Affleck’s directorial follow-up to ‘Argo’ has hit a delay.  His new film, ‘Live By Night’ (also from Affleck’s own ‘Gone Baby Gone’ author Dennis Lehane;  and he also the author of cinema hits ‘Mystic River’ and ‘Shutter Island’), was going to hit theaters on Christmas Day, 2015, but will now be pushed almost a year to October, 2016.  Reason?  Well, there seem to be two, but the main one is that pesky little thing called ‘Batman Vs Superman’ (and GOD have I prayed they come up with a new title).
Affleck's involvement with both ‘Batman Vs Superman’ and its immediate follow-up ‘Justice League’ (the two films are said to be shooting back-to-back) was the reason The Brothers Warner greenlit ‘Live By Night’ at all.  (See, if you agree to make big-budget comic-book tentpoles, you get to trade them for really good stories!  Do I blame Mr. Affleck for that trade?  Not in the least.  He gets to tell another good story and probably do it really well.  But tit-for-tat is for another entry.  Moving on again ...)  Affleck had already pushed production on ‘Live By Night’ – a period drama – to accommodate ‘Bats’ and ‘Justice’ but now 'Bats'' own delay has required ‘Live By Night’ to delay again.  Is that okay?  I think so.  The Leonardo DiCaprio-produced movie is sure to be an awards contender -- as Affleck's previous films have been -- but the scope and involvement with ‘Bats’ – and, sure, ‘Justice’ right after – has to take precedence.  (Go Brothers Warner!)
But wait, we can’t just cite DC.  On top of the costume carnivals, Entertainment Guru ‘The Wrap’ cites Affleck's commitment to media and press for David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ will also prevent Pre-Production on ‘Live By Night.’  By pushing the project – entirely – to 2016, Affleck at least gets to guarantee he can make the film he wants to.  (Again, with his track record, I say a very fair trade.)  But it does raise the question of his involvement in ‘Justice League.’  Is he officially in?  “Officially,” at press, “it’s not a done done deal.”  Yes, they really do say that.
Look, say what you will about the man’s career as a whole, but Mr. Affleck has without a doubt proven himself as a director, and I genuinely think – given a good script – he’ll make a good Bruce Wayne.  (‘Cause, remember sports fans, it’s all about the actor playing the “alter ego.”  Anyone can put on a costume.)  As long as The Powers That Be focus on the stories – ‘Batman Vs Superman,’ ‘Justice League,’ ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Live By Night’ – I trust will all be worth their wait.  (Go homonym!) 
Continuing Super Hero news, I can’t help but mention what’s going on in ‘Daredevil’ land (granted, only a so-so segue from Ben Affleck, but you probably see it).  Mr. Joe Carnahan was once heavily invested in bringing a gritty, dark reboot to the screen;  he even personally created an impressive sizzle reel for it.  But, alas, those Twentieth Century Foxes passed on what would have been an R-rated project and the rights have since reverted to Disney/Marvel who are now developing the character as “a Netflix series.”  (Good?  Maybe, if they hold to “a gritty vision.”  There’s a hell of a version in Jeff Loeb’s and Tim Sale’s ‘Daredevil Yellow’ that is its own reboot of the classic Frank Miller take.  Either one of those?  We’re blindly in good hands.)  At press the top two names for running the series?  Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight (and I like them both).    
Of course, more details emerge of Carnahan's vision.  The sizzle reel was great;  it definitely gave us a sense that his ‘Daredevil’ would have been something special and definitely unique.  (As good a director as Mr. Affleck is, the best thing that came out of his version was uniting with his lovely wife, Jennifer Garner.  Granted, he didn’t write-direct that movie, so I’m really taking a digression here, sooooo …)  With The Wonderful World Of Disney taking over Marvel, it’s almost a zero chance they’ll produce a movie that dark, but we can’t help but hope for it.  Ugh, what could have been?
In an interview with ‘Movie Pilot,’ Mr. Carnahan gave further details on what his ‘Daredevil’ trilogy – yep, you read that right – would have been.  Carnahan had three distinct themes in mind for his “Man Without Fear.”  He said, “I was going to do a kind of ‘cultural libretto’ and make the music of those eras a kind of thematic arc.  So the first one would be Classic Rock, the second Punk Rock, and the third film New Wave.”
… Interesting.
Though, setting the films in a Period – late 70s, early 80s (versus making the hero contemporary) -- would have fit with the feel of the character.  Taking the tonal cue from the music would also have been … interesting to see on the big screen.  It would have at least allowed for the various characters / costume changes / themes over the years;  roughly 1973, 1979 and 1985 that Carnahan was looking for.
While a Netflix series may be the better medium to share the story arcs that make ‘Daredevil’ great in the comics, I can’t help but feel Mr. Carnahan’s take would have been great in the theatre.  Hopefully Kevin Feige and Disney come to understand that some characters can’t be watered down to a PG Rating.  (Hell, it worked for Mr. Nolan's 'Batman.’)  As I’ve said many times, I like Mr. Feige, what he’s done for Marvel, and the fact that Disney hasn’t watered him down in their buyout.  So I have to continue to believe there’s still hope for all concerned.
What’s next? 
For now, we’ll live by night.

05 May, 2014

Jesse James

            He was born 100 years ago today (5 May, 1914).

            Romance novelist Barbara Cartland once said, "We didn't need sex. We had him."  It's often quoted that his ‘The Mark Of Zorro’ was an inspiration for Bob Kane’s Batman.  And, no small thing here, mmother, a classic lady in the true sense of both words, had a crush on him.  Indeed, not unlike George Clooney today, “Ty,” as he was known, was the man every man wanted to be friends with, and every woman wanted to be with.

            As if that name on a marquee – for God’s sake, Tyrone Power? – wasn’t enough to get you into the theatre ...

            Thank you again, dear readers, for allowing me yet another of my “Top 5 Retrospectives.”  So far we have Bob Hope, Errol Flynn and Danny Kaye.  Today we begin anew, this time with one of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  He was a Cowboy and a Swashbuckler and he surprised no less than Ernest Hemingway and Billy Wilder.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t know Ty, well, you're invited to the best of the best --

            -- Mr. Tyrone Power. 

            Normally I build to the Top 5 list, but this time I'll go ahead and give them to you.  Listed simply in the order the films were released, these are my personal favorites.  

            'The Mark Of Zorro' (1940)
            'The Black Swan' (1942)
            'Rawhide' (1951)
            'Witness For The Prosecution' (1957)

            And we'll start with his own classic (and cue that great Louis Silvers score) --

            'Jesse James' (1939)
            w Nunnally Johnson
            d Henry King 

23 April, 2014

White Christmas

              As you can probably surmise from as often as I write about them, I grew up watching movies.  Starting with my parents, of course, and mostly titles from, say, 1935 to 1960.  When VHS hit in the 1980s, my dad picked up as many as he could;  and when I say "picked up," I mean recorded off TV, so most of those early recordings have great vintage commercials in them;  or, even better, Tom Hatten hosting The Family Film Festival.  We still have about 1400 VHS -- yes, physical tapes -- accumulating about 3000 movies, tv shows, documentaries, serials, et cetera;  and mostly from that era, '35 - '60.  So you can see where my foundation was, happily, built.

             Of the many films we watched together, often multiple times, one we screened traditionally was today’s Danny Kaye hit.  Yes, every Christmas, somewhere during that wonderful week or so before the holiday itself, my parents and I would sit down and sing along to Irving Berlin.  It wasn't even our favorite of Mr. Kaye’s – mine and dad’s was always ‘Mitty’ and mom’s was ‘Court Jester’ – but it didn’t matter.  There was always -- still is, especially seeing it in December -- something wonderfully magical about this movie.

So far in our “Top 5 Retrospective of Danny Kaye Films,” we’ve had --

‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’
‘Up In Arms’
‘Wonder Man’
‘The Court Jester’

And now, to top them all off --

‘White Christmas’ (1954)
w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d  Michael Curtiz

            The plot is a wonderfully simple one.  Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play nightclub entertainers Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen as singing-sister act Betty and Judy Haynes.  The four travel to Vermont where they encounter Bob and Phil's WWII commanding officer, General Waverly (Dean Jagger) who now runs a rustic old inn.  Discovering that The General is in dire financial straits, Our Heroes give him a hand by putting on a show.  But is everything merry and bright amid the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd?  Well, in the end, there’s love in the air and a Christmas miracle, as everyone raises a glass to toast, “… and may all your Christmases be white.”
            A bit like Flynn’s ‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’ – that that film is probably his most famous;  and, thusly, most written about – ‘White Christmas’ might be Mr. Kaye’s.  (Sure, there’s ‘Hans Christian Andersen,’ of course;  and I know, in some people’s eyes, I’m already approaching heresy for not including it in my “Top 5.”  But, well, sorry.)  Point being, there are several books and articles and (now) websites that talk about this holiday classic, so I’m just going to touch on a few of my highlights;  and, hopefully, share a story or two you may not have heard before.
            For a film that's well thought of as “warm, nostalgic, holiday fare” -- that is, not often considered one of the all-time great musicals -- it certainly commands a lot of star power and pop-cultural significance.  It was the highest-grossing film of 1954 (by a wide margin, the no-slouch ‘Caine Mutiny’ came in second);  it was the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz' career (and remember he’d made ‘Casablanca’);  it co-starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye who were ranked the #1 and #3 box office stars in the country (respectively);  and “White Christmas” (the song) was already the most successful in American history.
            As production began, Berlin wrote in a letter to his friend Irving Hoffman, “It is the first movie that I've been connected with since ‘Holiday Inn’ that has the feel of a Broadway musical.  Usually there's little enthusiasm once you get over the first week of a picture.  But the change in this setup has resulted in an excitement that I am sure will be reflected in the finished job.  In any event, as of today I feel great and very much like an opening in Philadelphia with a show.”

            What I find interesting about ‘White Christmas’ as a holiday movie, especially when ranked against its peers – ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and ‘Miracle On 34th Street’ (and I can’t help but mention the great Mitchum-Leigh ‘Holiday Affair’) -- is the pure fun of the thing.  ‘White Christmas’ is, above all else, fun;  a “holiday classic,” sure, but it simply, wonderfully blends music, romance and humor.  And, often overlooked, it’s its very humor that stays through multiple viewings.  Crosby & Kaye are great together.  In just this one film their snappy repartee -- the ease and easily recognized comfortability between them -- rivales even Crosby & Hope.  Indeed, the entire cast and crew can’t help but sparkle.  Even amid the holiday schmaltz -- and, admittedly, it’s here -- it just plain feels good.  Great timing and delivery by the entire Cast & Crew carry the film over the plot pitfalls.  After all, they’re just a (beautiful) framework for the spirit of the thing.  Nobody sings the title song as does Mr. Crosby, and few croon as well as Ms. Clooney.  And dancing here?  Only Vera-Ellen.  (See her fast-tap with just her toe for nearly a minute?  She does that in ‘Wonder Man’ as well.)  And then there’s Kaye;  the always ├╝ber-talented Mr. Kaye.  And in a film such as this, channeling his dancing, singing, comedy, the works;  well, I hope you can see why I picked it for one of his “Top 5.”  I genuinely feel it showcases his abundance of innate talent.  He’s wonderfully restrained here;  his usual over-the-top wackiness only really comes out when he fakes his injury in the last third.  He knows he doesn’t always have to be Anatole Of Paris;  and his rendering of Phil Davis does -- especially the suave “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” -- shine above even the likes of Astaire and O’Connor (and I love them both).  Indeed, looking at everything that came together so well here, it’s no surprise Mr. Berlin immediately felt the same while they were shooting.  From start to finish, it is warm, nostalgic, holiday fare.  And isn’t that what we want out of Christmas?  Just a little magic right between “ouch” and “boinggggg.”
              Moving on now to this entry’s Behind The Scenes, these will be a bit different in that I won’t focus on our Writers and Director;  only because I already have in previous entries (Panama & Frank in ‘The Court Jester’ and Mr. Curtiz in our “Errol Flynn Retrospective” in ‘Robin Hood’).  Instead, today, I’ll touch on our Supporting Cast, another film altogether, and a song.

              First, our wonderful Supporting Cast.  There’s the always great Dean Jagger as our retiring General.  I’ve always called him my favorite character actor, and whenever I write “a wonderful old grandfather type” in a story I always picture him.  Once you can spot him, you’ll be surprised how often you see him.  Of his 130+ roles between 1929 and 1985, a few stand out.  Certainly today’s film but also ‘Brigham Young,’ ‘Twelve O’Clock High,’ ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’ (and, yes, for those of you keeping track, those last two filmed in Lone Pine).  Then there’s Mary Wickes.  Of her 130+ roles between 1935 and 1997 (her voice of Laverne in Disney’s ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ posthumous) she was the loveably crotchety “nanny.”  You know her from ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner,’ ‘Now Voyager,’ ‘By The Light Of The Silvery Moon’ and ‘Sister Act.’  But did you remember she also tried teaching Lucy Ricardo ballet, and was the animation model for Cruella De Vil in ‘101 Dalmatians?’  And then there’s Barrie Chase.  She gets the great line “Mutual, I’m sure!” here but she’s appeared in more hits unbilled as billed.  A great dancer, you’ve seen her in ‘Scaramouche,’ ‘The Road To Bali,’ ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ (also, of course, with Mr. Kaye), ‘Call Me Madam,’ ‘Brigadoon’ and then gets to act in the Jimmy Stewart classic ‘Flight Of The Phoenix.’  Oh and that recognizable fellow in Rosemary Clooney’s solo number, “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me?”  Yep, George Chakiris, who would go on to win Best Supporting Actor in ‘West Side Story.’  And as Ed Harrison, the TV Host that helps Crosby “reach his audience?”  That’s Johnny Grant, Hollywood’s Honorary Mayor (bequeathed the title by none other than Monty Hall).  Multiple Emmy Award winner, Grant USO globe-trotted with Bob Hope, lived on the 14th floor of The Roosevelt Hotel, and is probably best known for having hosted more than five hundred celebrities inducted into The Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
              Second in these Behind The Scenes, another film altogether, ‘Holiday Inn.’  It’s tough not to talk a little about that other Bing Crosby hit when talking ‘White Christmas.’  Some have said our movie today is loosely based on ‘Holiday Inn’ but not really.  That said, there are a few wonderful connections.  Crosby singing the hit in that, of course, but also the set itself.  Yes, Paramount re-used the physical inn set from ‘Holiday Inn’ in ‘White Christmas.’  And Fred Astaire (co-star of ‘Holiday Inn’) was originally set to start with Crosby in our film today.  But when he bowed-out, none other than Donald O’Connor was cast, but he had to bow-out due to illness.  And that’s when our very own Danny Kaye stepped in.  Oh and, for those of you that have been around a while, you remember that great old chain of motels, Holiday Inn?  Yep, named by founder Kemmons Wilson after this film.

             And third in our Behind The Scenes, the song itself.  Interestingly, “White Christmas” was originally pitched by Irving Berlin to Fred Astaire while filming another of Astaire’s hits, ‘Top Hat.’  Berlin thought the song would be perfect to write-around as a vehicle for Astaire & Rogers.  Then in May 1940, Berlin signed with Paramount to write songs for a film musical based on his idea of an inn that opened only on public holidays;  it, of course, became ‘Holiday Inn.’  And its big hit, and Oscar winner?  Yep, Crosby singing “White Christmas.”  Interestingly, even that wasn’t the first time the famous crooner sang the song.  That was on his NBC radio show “The Kraft Music Hall” on Christmas Day, 1941.  Barely three weeks after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, it became the biggest selling song in history.  (It still holds that title with fifty million copies.  Second in line?  Thirty-three million copies of Elton John’s 1997 “Goodbye England’s Rose,” his rework of “Candle In The Wind” for Princess Diana.)

             Okay, quick trivia question.  Crosby actually sang “White Christmas” in three films.  You already know ‘Holiday Inn’ and ‘White Christmas.’  What’s the third?  (Here’s a hint, it’s also an Irving Berlin show.)  Enjoy the hunt …

            For now, we’ll stay on songs for a bit, but back in our Danny Kaye hit today.  Going chronologically, at least as they appear in the film, there’s “Sisters,” first “straight” with Clooney & Vera-Ellen, then “camp” with Crosby & Kaye.  Regarding Crosby & Kaye’s send-up, it was not originally in the script, but they were clowning around on the set and Curtiz thought it was so funny he added it.  And on a DVD Commentary track, Clooney reveals Crosby’s laughs in it are genuine;  he simply couldn’t hold a straight face to Kaye's comedy.  (They obviously had a good time as we can see Kaye laughing as well.)  The song “Snow” was originally written as “Free” for ‘Call Me Madam’ but was dropped in out-of-town tryouts.  For ‘White Christmas,’ its melody was kept, but the lyrics were changed to be more “festive.”  (For those interested, a composer's demo of the original song can be found on the CD ‘Irving Sings Berlin.’)  “Count Your Blessings” was nominated for Best Song but didn’t win.  Also interesting about that scene – Crosby and Clooney talking sandwiches and buttermilk – was, Clooney remembers, mostly improvised.  The song “What Do You Do With A General?” – which Leonard Maltin has famously called Berlin’s least memorable – was originally written for an un-produced project called ‘Stars On My Shoulders’ (which Berlin wrote with Norman Krasna, hence his pseudo Writing Credit here).  And at some point for our film today, Berlin wrote "A Crooner, A Comic" for Crosby and his then-planned co-star Donald O’Connor, but when O'Connor left the project so did the song.  Crosby and Kaye also recorded (another Berlin song) “Santa Claus” for the opening WWII Christmas Eve scene, but it was cut during filming.
               We should also – at least briefly – touch on the fact that – Paramount was so proud! – this was the first movie released in Vista Vision.  What is that, you ask?  Simply their answer to Cinerama;  that is, in the early fifties, studios were battling the popularity of Television by trying to get audiences back into theatres.  How?  Because movies were bigger, and therefore had to be shown that way.  There was ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Strategic Air Command,’ ‘To Catch A Thief’ (Hitch loved the format) and ‘Richard III’ to name a few early ones.  But by the late fifties the process was more or less obsolete.  Sure, “wide screen” was the new hit, but the last film to use Vista Vision specifically was 1961’s ‘One Eyed Jacks.’
              When ‘White Christmas’ was released, it was wildly successful, earning $12M at the box office.  To put that in perspective, that’s about $103M today.  In fact by last count – this would include international theatrical – it was $30M (or about $255M today).  It’s remained so popular that, from 2004-2011, it became a worldwide Tony Award-nominated musical;  and, in 2010, Paramount released the first Blu-Ray of the film, from a brand new HD Transfer.  Needless to say, even modern day reviews were ecstatic.  From, “You can tell Paramount loves this movie as much as we do, because they put time and money into it.  It’s magnificent.  And hard to believe it’s over fifty years old!”  To, “While watching it, I felt like the first time I saw it.  I felt like a kid again.”  To, “I grew up watching this movie every year and have subjected my kids to the same tradition.  Schmaltzy?  You bet!  Dated?  You bet!  Glad some things never change.”  To, “The performances cannot be bettered;  Bing and Rosemary make a delightful singing screen couple;  while Kaye and Vera-Ellen make the perfect matchmakers heckling on the sideline.  Mary Wickes is hilarious and Dean Jagger elegantly strong.”  To, “‘White  Christmas’ remains the all-time classic Christmas movie.  Featuring a fantastic cast and superb Irving Berlin score, it's a heartwarming and lavish musical.”

              I opened this retrospective talking about how my parents and I watched this movie every year;  that -- for all the movies we watched together, often second and third and fourth times -- this was one that, as it did for so many others, became a tradition.  So I can’t help but share that Diana was kind enough to get the two of us tickets for it;  it being part of The Academy’s wonderful Oscar Outdoors series (this was December, 2012).  And as I wrote of seeing ‘Chaplin’ and ‘The Kid’ “live,” with an audience, well, this was just as magical.  (Honestly, if you have any favorite “old movie” – be it ‘Sunset Boulevard’ or ‘Back To The Future’ – and you get the chance to go see it with an audience, a crowd just as excited as you to be there?  Please do.)  My parents have both passed, but that didn’t matter.  They were there with Diana and me.  In fact, so magical was this Academy screening of ‘White Christmas’ that, at the end, when the inn doors are opened and General Waverly gets his Christmas miracle, so did we.  Yes, The Academy blew real snow out over us.  Again, “schmaltzy?”  You bet.  And, yeah, I too am glad some things never change.