Monday, April 27, 2015

Shameless Plugs :: The Archive is Going Ape!

In lieu of actual content, here's a link for our sister site, The Poster Archive, where we spent the last month posting the poster campaigns for all five films in the classic Planet of the Apes franchise. So, click on over and have a look you damn dirty boils and ghouls.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #7 (of 200) :: Quipping With Sharks and the Fine Art of Gender Upheaval: Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940)

Originally intended for Broadway, The Front Page was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both former newspapermen from the self-aggrandizing and cutthroat (dark) days of Chicago's circulation wars, basing their characters on themselves and several old colleagues. Produced by Jed Harris and directed by the legendary George S. Kaufman, their play proved a smashing success. Seems audiences were delighted by the intricate plotting and the snarky, slang-filled dialogue of the irascible characters that inhabited the newsroom of The Examiner. Howard Hughes obtained the film rights and Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay for Lewis Milestone's 1931 film adaptation for United Artists, with an assist by Charles Lederer.

Lederer was also a holdover for Howard Hawks' proposed gender-bending remake of The Front Page for Columbia nine years later, who stayed true to Hecht and MacArthur's crackerjack, rapid-fire dialogue, soon to be his director's signature trademark, in perhaps the screwiest of screwball comedies of all time, His Girl Friday (1940).

"I had noticed that when people talk, they talk over one another," Hawks expounded later during an interview with fellow director, Peter Bogdanovich. "Especially people who talk fast or who are arguing or describing something. So we wrote the dialogue in a way that made the beginnings and ends of sentences unnecessary; they were there for overlapping."

To get the right mix for this effect, the director employed several microphones for each take, some hanging from above, others hidden around the set, all going to the same recorder, requiring the sound man to keep the dialogue in-synch with the switch-flipping to keep the right mic hot -- as many as 35 times a take! I'm telling ya, having a conversation in this film is like swimming with sharks in deep water, where multiple characters must keep paddling and defensively flailing to stop from drowning and being devoured simultaneously. And this is why His Girl Friday is one of those flicks that absolutely requires multiple viewings, where a person can pick up something new each and every time and STILL not catch it all.

Now, there are many apocryphal tales surrounding exactly why Hawks pulled this gender switch, making the battling and bickering Walter Burns and Hildebrant Johnson a divorced couple instead of just being an unscrupulous editor and a crack reporter. One catalytic influence that I think gets overlooked is Torchy Blane. See, in-between adaptations, Warner Bros. had unleashed Glenda Farrell in a successful series of films, starting with Smart Blonde (1937), spotlighting a savvy, motor-mouthed female reporter with an acid-tongue who always outwitted, out-quipped and out-reported her male counterparts, and she always, always, got in the last cracked-wise word with everyone, that were truly hilarious.

The most oft told tale on the origin of this switcheroo is how Hawks had his secretary reading the part of Johnson during the pre-production phase (other sources claim it was at dinner party during a dialogue tutorial) and a mental light-bulb clicked on, sending the director scrambling to Lederer for, well, not as massive a rewrite as you'd think because even though the story might've changed the dialogue remained the same as the scheming and cajoling Burns still wants his ace reporter to get him the real scoop on a condemned man (Qualen) destined to be hanged at midnight for his newspaper but this is also part of his overall stratagem to win her back by derailing (the now) Hildegarde Johnson's impending marriage to a doltish (but earnest and completely overwhelmed) insurance salesmen who kinda looks like Ralph Bellamy.

What's a cold hard fact is that Rosalind Russell was about sixth or seventh in line for the role and only got it when Carole Lombard proved too expensive and several other big names -- Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Margaret Sullavan, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunn, and Jean Arthur -- took a pass; a source of bitter contention between the actress and the director, causing a few dust-ups during production. Lombard was Hawks' first choice for Hildy, then Hepburn, whom he had hoped to pair up with Cary Grant again just like in the director's other britches-burning comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Grant was the director's first choice all along for Walter Burns, who had a ball. For once, the actor got to stir the pot instead of being at the mercy of whoever else was pee--*ahem*, sorry, whoever else was holding the ladle.

Russell would have the last laugh on the director, though, beating him at his own game. Knowing Hawks favored a loose script, spontaneity and improvisation, Russell hired her own gag writer to punch-up her dialogue to match Grant, barb for barb and double-entendre for double-entendre. Grant soon caught onto this but played along and didn't rat her out. And in the end, with the crackling chemistry these two show as they spark off of one another, we should all be grateful that those casting dominoes fell that far. Also, major kudos must be given to Bellamy as the never-say-die but never-had-a-chance corner of this love-triangle. And how 'bout a big hand for the gaggle of reporters at the courthouse, who proved this gender identity switching goes both ways. I mean, that poker game is one of the most gossipy hen-parties I've ever witnessed onscreen.

I'm always kind of amazed that it took until the 1970s before Hawks conversational style really caught on, cinematically speaking. (Remember, Robert Altman was fired off Countdown in 1968 because the studio charged his actors were all talking at the same time.) But right here is where it really started, a veritable well-stocked vocabulary bar, brash, brassy, rowdy, and ballsy that'll leave your ears a little punch-drunk. And if you haven't seen it yet, the film is (quite inexplicably) in the public domain; and thus, available to stream almost everywhere, so give it a whirl. Just be sure to hang on to something after you push play because there's a gale-force storm of comedy primed and ready to run you over -- and then back up and run you over again. And again. Aaaaaaand again. 

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"Hawks immediately recognized that with Hildy as a woman the story takes on a new, interesting dimension: the characters play for higher stakes. In The Front Page, Walter wants Hildy to remain with The Morning Post instead of marrying Peggy and taking a higher paying advertising job. This is as much out of spite (as Peggy points out) as out of fear of losing his ace reporter. (In the play, there is additionally a subtle homosexual bond between Hildy and Walter.) In His Girl Friday, Walter, who becomes the lead male character, needs Hildy (as all Hawks' heroes are incomplete without women of equal intelligence, wit, and strength of character) because he loves her and because she is a crack reporter -- not necessarily in that order."

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The Fine Print: His Girl Friday was watched via Amazon Prime's streaming package. Watched as a Howard Hawks double-feature with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's seven down, with 193 to go.

His Girl Friday (1940) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Howard Hawks / D: Howard Hawks / W: Charles Lederer, Morrie Ryskind, Ben Hecht (play), Charles MacArthur (play) / C: Joseph Walker / E: Gene Havlick / M: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills / S: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Abner Biberman, John Qualen

Friday, April 17, 2015

Blogathon Alert :: Keep Watching the Skies!

Listen up, Boils and Ghouls!

Once again the fine folks at Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark are hosting another For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon to raise money to help preserve our film heritage for future generations. This year’s theme is Sci-Fi, HOORAY! Thus and so, the Brewery is giddily answering the call to participate. And what will I be putting under the microscope? Oh, just this little nugget of the awesome:

It's better than you'd think. Honest. Well, sort of.

I'm participating. Are you?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Memoriam :: Happy Trails, Herb.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, my comic book buying was very sporadic. Purchases were usually made every six months or so, basically whenever the whole family was hauled to the barbershop for a mass haircut, which was located right next to the Central News Stand, which had a wall of comics to peruse through. (Also, a huge amount of porn, which brought tri-annual picket lines from the local demagogues. Lines I remember defying and breaking through. Even the Lord Almighty couldn't keep me from my funny books. Anyhoo... ) A virtual 4-color Nirvana it was, and if you behaved in the barber's chair, your reward was a comic book. And whenever, by some miracle, I behaved, I usually blew my reward on a copy of The Incredible Hulk -- because what child can resist the story of a gentle giant that no one understands but his woman with a penchant for city-leveling temper tantrums and the mass of army men charged with capturing him, amIright?

Thus and so, began a decades long love of old Jade Jaws. Sure, my version of the story was severely truncated but at least some effort was made back then to treat each issue as if it was the very first one you read, allowing new readers to get up to speed and others, like myself, to get caught up on what we'd missed. (As usual, my timing sucked enough to miss out on issues #180 and #181, which could've helped pay off my house, but, no. Of COURSE I got #182... ) And if you were really lucky, and good at the con game, you could get your hands on one of those Treasury Editions, which were super-sized reprints featuring whole story arcs of your favorite characters. Hell yeah!

Herb Trimpe was the artist on the Hulk when I got hooked. Trimpe is probably best known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, which, for my money, was the best rendition of the character ever put on paper -- especially if John or Marie Severin were doing the inks. The artist drew the mag for nearly seven years straight, where he famously rendered the first appearance of Wolverine (in those aforementioned missed issues. No. I AM NOT BITTER. AM NOT! AM NOT! AM NOT!)

And while the stories were cool, full of monsters, and kind of a head-trip, it was the art that kept bringing me back. Trimpe's drawings simply exploded off the page, with fists or feet or whole bodies breaking through the panel and plane. His art was fluid and you'd swear you could see it move from panel to panel and feel each landed punch. I loved his splash pages, and would spend hours perusing all the details in his massive double-spreads.  He was also amazing at depicting tech and military equipment. Trimpe was instrumental in the formation of the Hulkbusters, who constantly hounded our hero, even though he usually made short work of their tanks, aircraft and artillery.

After he left the Hulk, Trimpe sort of became Marvel's go-to artists for their licensed properties and toy-lines, including Godzilla and the Shogun Warriors (and he later helped launch G.I. Joe), where his layouts and forced perspective work to give the King of the Monsters and those giant battle-bots size and scale were pretty damned amazing in my book.

In fact, I think Trimpe runs second only to King Kirby, himself, when it came to these kind of nightmare creatures, kit-bashed doodads and cosmic whiz-bangery. And I kind of bristle when Trimpe is tagged as the Poor Man's Kirby or Kirby-Lite. It's funny, but I found out later that the artist actually favored the work of Jack Davis and the boys at EC Comics. So much so, that Stan Lee had some of his first work redone and told him to be more like Kirby in the future. And so, being a good employee, that's what Trimpe did, to great effect.

I could go on rambling, but I think I can bring this tribute down to a succinct point. I grew up with this artist. He was the first artist whose style I recognized. He was formative. He will always be one of my favorites. He was my Kirby. Rest in peace, sir. And thank you.

Herbert W. "Happy Herb" Trimpe

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #6 (of 200) :: No: A Girl is a Girl's Best Friend in Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

If I could sum up this raucous musical comedy in one word it would probably be "payload" -- of which our two headlining bombshells bump and wiggle and sing and quip to maximize the delivery for a resulting impact that is devastatingly awesome and then some. A Technicolor spin on the old Warner Gold Digger films of the 1930s, with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell taking over for Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) showcases our two starlets as friends to the end trying to snag the right sugar-daddy and avoid some wagging tongues and the private dick hired to shadow them while blasting their way through a succession of ever-escalating musical interludes.

This whole notion began as a novel penned by Anita Loos, who later adapted it into a play with Joseph Fields in 1928, and then a Broadway musical in 1948 with a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. With Carol Channing as the preferred Blonde, the show was a smashing success and opened a bidding war in Hollywood between Columbia's Harry Cohn, who wanted it for Judy Holiday, and 20th Century Fox's Daryl Zanuck, who hoped it would reignite the career of Betty Grable. Grable had campaigned hard for the role of Lorelei Lee, but Zanuck soon pushed her to the side, opening up the role for his latest blond bombshell, whose popularity was currently going through the roof.

Also of note (and one cannot discount the fact that) Monroe's salary would be a fraction of what Grable would cost. Top-billed Russell's paycheck was four times the amount of Monroe's, which officially opened a rift between the star and the mogul over contracts and assignments that would only get wider and worse until the whole thing blew up in 1955 and Monroe walked out on Zanuck and Fox altogether.

Despite the gap in pay, and the gossip columns beating the war drums for the expected battle between "The Bossum" and "The Behind", the claws never came out. In fact, according to nearly everyone involved, the pair got a long great, which bleeds over onto the screen to the film's betterment. Director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer made the right decision to make the film not about the relationships our heroines brazenly pursue but about the rock-solid friendship Lorelei (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) share. They are just a couple of gals from Little Rock after all.

Renown for the sense of camaraderie he brought out with the male characters in his previous films, Hawks proved just as adept at doing the same with women, allowing them into the inner-circle of his he-man protagonists. Here, is a rare opportunity where the women allow men into theirs. Sadly, the only other example I can think of that comes close to this are the Blondell and Farrell vehicles Havana Widows (1933), Miss Pacific Fleet (1935) and Kansas City Princess (1935) and William Wellman's Lady of Burlesque (1943).

Hawks later admitted the film would not have worked if Russell hadn't befriended Monroe. Already forged over the fires of sexpotism by Howard Hughes, Russell took an advisory big sister approach with Monroe, whose neurotic behind the scenes behavior, here, already showed the faults in the filament that would eventually burn the light out prematurely after reaching such incandescent heights so rapidly. Between her fits of temper, demands for retakes, and retreating into her dressing room and holing up, a protective Russell was always there to coax her back, explain what Hawks wanted, reassure her, and escort her to and from the set. As the production dragged on, Hawks infamously quipped the film would be better if they replaced Marilyn, rewrote the script and made it shorter, and got a new director. Luckily for us, they did none of the above.

Now, I for one despise the Cult of Marilyn and don't give two-sh*ts for all the myths and scandals off-screen because it detracts way too much from what we got onscreen. Here, she shows great comedic timing, self-depreciation on her looks and perceived lack of intelligence, and passable music skills. (According to legend, Monroe ad-libbed the line "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." I hope it's true.) And while Monroe's "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" is a bona-fide showstopper, my favorite scene in the whole movie is when she gets stuck in the porthole on the boat and gets rescued by little Georgie Winslow. I love that kid here, and in Monkey Business (1952), and in Room for One More (1952) and in Artists and Models (1955). 

And it's funny, now that I think about it, aside from Winslow and Charles Coburn bringing the irascible-fudd something fierce as Piggy Beekman, is how utterly forgettable the suitors are -- even the ones our gals wind up marrying! 

Sometimes lost due to the fervor of that Cult of Marilyn, one tends to overlook how good Russell is in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, too. I just love her "Ain't there Anyone Here for Love" number on the boat with the Olympians (-- apparently, Russell getting knocked into the pool was an accident that Hawks loved and left in the picture. Watch as Russell just rolls with it and finishes the scene.) And at the end, when Russell impersonates Monroe at the courthouse during the climax always leaves me giggling. One could even argue that Russell almost steals the movie from Monroe, but graciously took a step back and let her co-star take the spotlight.

Upon its release in 1953, 20th Century Fox had a huge hit on its hands and Hollywood's hottest star. And so thrilled were they by these results the studio immediately wanted to pair Monroe and Russell together again in How to Be Very Popular (1955). But the growing feud between Zanuck and Monroe derailed any notion of this and the film eventually was assigned to, ironically enough, Betty Grable and Sheree North. Russell would, however, team up with Jeanne Crain in the similarly themed Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). Both follow-up films have their moments but definitely lack the spark that Russell and Monroe managed to ignite, flamed by Hawks, and the resulting comedic conflagration that all could and should enjoy. My only complaint is that Gentlemen Preferred Blondes just missed out on CinemaScope. I know the "Diamonds" number was re-shot in the widescreen process, but can you imagine the whole film broadened out? I sure can.

Other Points of Interest:

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"The film is properly about the relationship between Lorelei and Dorothy. They are among the most loyal, protective, supportive female friends in movie history. They each regard their friendship as more important than their love lives. It may seem ridiculous to praise a film just because it presents women as friends, but think how few American films have two good female roles, much less two pretty women of the same age as friends. So female friendship in films is not to be taken for granted."

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The Fine Print: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was watched via Netflix Instant's streaming package. Watched as a Howard Hawks double-feature with His Girl Friday (1940). What's the Cult Movie ProjectThat's six down, with 194 to go.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Sol C. Siegel / D: Howard Hawks / W: Charles Lederer, Anita Loos (play), Joseph Fields (play) / C: Harry J. Wild / E: Hugh S. Fowler / M: Leigh Harline, Lionel Newman, Hal Schaefer, Herbert W. Spencer / S: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn, Elliott Reid, Tommy Noonan, George Winslow
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