Monday, March 30, 2009

Movie animals I wished I owned - Part 1

I grew up with cats, and probably because of that, I never encountered a movie cat I truly wanted. I guess they never quite measured up to the ones who already owned us. But dogs... that was another story. We didn't have any of those. I didn't get my first dog until I was an adult. So, I always watched for dogs in movies.

And again this is easy... because there is actually only one movie dog who ever had my heart, the one I still want to this day. That's Dog from from my third favorite movie of all time, Big Jake.

He's a collie (apparently from the Lassie line), but he doesn't have the traditional coloring... or rather he does, but they dyed his coat dark for the movie, which is half of what made him look so cool. Sadly, because it's dyed, it also means I will never ever be able to own a collie that looks like that. Sniff.

Dog was the epitome of what a dog should be to me. Beautiful, big, playful, tireless, quiet and patient, growls a soft warning when anyone approaches, attacks or does other helpful things on command, and is faithful to the end. I adore Dog. There have been other faithful dog companions in films, but none of them affected me quite the way Dog did. Because of Dog, my favorite canines will always be big, dark, and with upright ears. That's what a dog should look like.

One of these days I still might get a collie, though I wouldn't name him Dog, LOL! Most likely, I'd name him Batjac or Jake, but, of course, names depend on personalities, so who knows. My own dog right now is a grey/white Siberian Husky named Maximus. He fulfills a few of those traits I love in Dog, but mostly he's just big, beautiful, and playful (and gets along with the cats). No quiet warning growl, alas. He's got a loud howling bark he uses if anyone's comes around. :-D

(Max... click pic to make bigger)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two birds with one stone

After fellow blogger Hollywood Dreamland wrote this entry about posting a picture of Carole Lombard, I realized I had never actually seen a movie of hers. Not one. I know who she is, I know she was married to Clark Gable, I know about her untimely death, and I can usually recognize her in photos. But I've never seen her in a movie. Now that's shameful!

So, in a convenient piece of timing, she's the female lead in two of the George Raft films I really wanted to see, Bolero (1934) and Rumba (1935), so I got to indulge my continuing love of all things George Raft and see Carole Lombard at the same time!

And I really adored Carole Lombard in both films. I like how comfortable she is on screen. She has such a natural, unaffected elegance about her. Feminine and beautiful and strong. She could rapidly become one of my favorite actresses, except I believe a lot of her movies are comedies. I'll have to see what's out there because I definitely want to see her in more films.

As to the two films themselves, Bolero is apparently considered the better of the two... naturally, I liked Rumba better. LOL! But Bolero's timeline covers many years as we follow arrogant, ambitious dancer Raoul (George) on his rise up to the top. Lengthy rags-to-riches plots (and movies in general that span many years) just don't satisfy me. This is just a personal thing; I need my plots in much tighter time frames with more immediate needs/conflicts. This film also suffers from the There Are No Happy Endings in WWI Movies syndrome. But it was still a good movie, and I still enjoyed it, particularly to watch George's dance routines. It's one of the things that fascinates me about him, how he can be a rather vicious street fighter and also a damned stylish dancer. It's like what the guy in this hilarious What's My Line ep says: "The only tough dancer I know is George Raft." And it's true! In these two movies, he's playing characters just as tough as when he plays gangsters -- he just translates it to his dancing. There's just a graceful, elegant ruthlessness to him in everything he does that intrigues me no end.

On the other hand, Rumba's much tighter plot mostly focuses on the troubled romance between the two leads, with, again, George's drive to make it big as the backdrop. It has much more tension, and because of the year it was made, I actually wasn't sure how it was going to end. I like that a lot. George is more fiery/passionate about his dancing and his women in this one, colder and egotistical towards both in Bolero. I like that passion aspect more too, and the dances in Rumba were longer and more entertaining.

George and Carole make a very appealing couple. They play off each other very believably, and they also dance quite well together. Not Fred and Ginger (who is?), but more than adequate.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wanderer by Sterling Hayden

I finally finished this book. I stopped a couple years ago because I was enjoying it so much, I didn't want it to end. I know, silly reason not to finish a book, but I do that sometimes. Leave things hanging or unfinished just to sort of preserve that feeling of bliss. Just a quirk of mine, I guess.

But I love this book on every level. I actually can't even find the right words to describe why this book moves me so much. I simply love everything about it. I love his voice and various styles of writing. I love how clearly his love of the sea shines through, how disparaging and bitter and honest he is about his own life, and yet how glorious some moments are despite (or because of) that. I love his writing. I talked about how much I loved his writing back when I was first reading it, and, if anything, my appreciation has only grown. I wouldn't mind owning a second copy, just so I could read it again and highlight all the phrases I liked. (I have issues with writing or marking books, but maybe if I had a specific copy just for that....) There were so many sections I admired that I wanted to write down in my notebook, but I realized if I stopped every few minutes to jot something down, I'd lose the greater flow, and on the first reading, I simply wanted to enjoy the entire story. I've never tried creating a favorite list of books, but this one is right up near the very top of it. It's so much more than just an autobiography.

I'd never seen Sterling Hayden in any films before I originally started reading his book. I knew him as a writer first, actor second. I think he would have liked that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

George Raft - quicky film reviews

I don't currently have any of the more famous George Raft films handy at the moment, but thanks to Netflix's instant viewing capability, I was still able to indulge my current obsession. I watched a bunch of his later movies that nobody's probably ever heard of and probably doesn't want to! But George aged really well, as far as I'm concerned. He stays a fit, active, and very handsome man all through his life. These roles are, for the most part, quite undemanding, and George gets a lot of criticism for being wooden, but really... there's nothing truly interesting for him to do in these later third-rate films. Just run around dodging trouble and solving mysteries. Nobody else is going to do much with the roles either, and personally, I'd rather watch George over a lot of other actors.

Whistle Stop (1946) -- Okay, if you leave your brain at the door, this movie is rather entertaining. Otherwise, it makes no sense. Ava Gardner returns to her tiny home town where George is wasting his time unemployed, drinking, and playing cards. They had a thang in the past, and both wouldn't mind having a thang now. But George is now an idle layabout, and she wants more out of life, so there's the town rich guy -- but he's a rotten louse. And that's where it devolves into wacky plot land. Victor McLaglen's running around, stirring up trouble. He tries to get George to join him in a plot to steal Rich Guy's money, then there's this whole weird frame up for murder, and they're forced to run. There's also George's other girlfriend who naturally reacts badly to Ava Gardner's return, except her fate is... um... illogical. There's so much plot in this movie that simply doesn't add up. However, George Raft, Victor McLaglen, Ava Gardner -- they're all fun to watch, even if the story's dumb.

Would I watch it again? Probably, just for the cast.

(Oooh, and a personal highlight was watching George and Victor play Casino in this movie! Another card game, (like klaberjass or klobiyash, however the hell you want to spell it) from my youth. I love playing Casino, and I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone ever play it in a movie before! Speaking of klob (which is still the best two-person card game ever)... my parents caught a film with James Cagney where they were playing it! I need to get the name of that film and watch it. It was with great joy that I discovered Dana Andrews LOVED playing klob. Sigh. Oh, to go back in time, put some opera on, and play klobiyash with him. And catch a couple of fifties and set him and beat his pants... mwahhahhah. Sadly, the only people I know who play this game nowadays are my own family. I really am living in the wrong decade.)

The Man From Cairo (1953) -- Best parts of this movie are the bookends. I laughed outloud at the expected, but still delightful last 30 seconds of this movie. In this one, George is visiting Algiers and gets mistaken for an American detective who's being sent there to find out about a missing gold stash from the war. Oddly George doesn't protest this mistaken identity problem. No, instead he runs with it, particularly after getting drugged, accused of murder, and finding out there's a gorgeous dame involved (Gianna Maria Canale, who really is drop-dead gorgeous in this film). Naturally, he goes on to solve the problem of the missing gold. A straightforward, routine, but fast-paced sort of film. Amusing enough.

Would I watch again? If I was really bored and had nothing else to do.

Loan Shark (1952) -- Probably my favorite of the bunch. George gets out of prison (what, again? LOL!), and goes undercover hunting for the leader of a nasty bunch of loan sharks who are preying on the employees of a tire factory after they murder his sister's husband. He joins the bad guys and quickly makes himself indispensable. He has to reject his sister, friends, and a new girlfriend to do it. This one's got a bunch of character actors I like, the kind of guys who show up in everything back then: John Hoyt (I mostly know him from tv: " Star Trek," "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," "Big Valley," etc.) Paul Stewart (Kiss Me Deadly, King Creole, 12 O'Clock High), and Henry Slate (The Frogmen, Somebody Loves Me, Miss Sadie Thompson). Paul Stewart looks and acts just like he stepped out of Kiss Me Deadly. Same delightfully smirky expression. He should have that look patented. Love them all! This one is more lively than the others. It had a pretty tight script, pretty decent dialog, some nice fist fights (George sure throws a vicious punch), interesting bad guys, and a satisfying (if predictable) ending. Oh, speaking of the ending, I made the mistake of reading a couple reviews before watching the film that claimed there was a twist at the end... they LIE! I spent the movie second-guessing characters and motives, waiting for some kind of cool plot twist to spring up because there was so much room for one or even two... and there was absolutely nothing. Grrr. And this is precisely why I don't read reviews before I see a movie. Nothing worse than setting up false expectations.

Would I watch again? Oh yeah.

I'll Get You (1952) -- Yeah, sure, and who came up with that brilliant title? Not even sure what the title has to do with the movie. This was the worst of the bunch, which is too bad, cuz the basic idea is sound: hunting for bad guys smuggling scientists through the Iron Curtain. It's just that they don't do anything with it and nobody really seems in danger and nothing personal's at stake. Sigh. However, this movie surprised me because it actually featured a capable female character played by Sally Gray. She plays a British Intelligence agent who seemed surprisingly realistic for a film made in the early 50's. She's cool-headed, she gets the drop on George, she's good at what she does, lies her way into wherever she needs to go, her boss trusts her, etc. -- and all without ever turning into some lame "kick-ass superwoman" caricature that she'd probably be nowadays. She's just a girl doing a job to the best of her ability. It was a very welcome surprise. Of course, the script requires she fall in love with George. And they were doing so well with her character up until then. Sigh. Does every story have to have a romantic element??

Would I watch again? Doubtful. Except maybe the part where he vaults over a high railing and lands lightly on his feet. At age 57. I like that part.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Those (im)Pervious Cars

You know how things always come in threes... Well, I've had a run on old-time car chases lately, and what I've noticed is that 30's and 40's cars seemed to provide little protection against someone shooting at you. (Warning... minor spoilers follow...)

In Invisible Stripes, Bogart gets his leg wounded by police bullets fired from behind that go right through the trunk and backseat. In Whistle Stop, George Raft gets nailed the same way -- and he's all the way up in the front seat. And in Scarface, as he moves up the gangland chain of command, one of the first things Tony Camonte does is get himself a car with bulletproof glass and a steel body which, sure enough, comes in handy during an assassination attempt on his life later. Clearly, cars provided little protection from all those flying bullets and he knew darn well to take some precautions up front.

Naturally, I dig this threat immensely. It increases the tension to know characters are hardly safe just because they made it to their car and are speeding away. In fact, Invisible Stripes and Whistle Stop caught me a bit off-guard, particularly the latter. I was not expecting anybody to get shot like that because I've been conditioned by current films to think that can't happen that way. And in both films, other characters actually have to ask the suddenly grimacing, wounded men, "you hit?" because it's not obvious what's happened; there's been no sound of shattering glass, no holes appearing in their rear view mirror panorama. And there's something a bit scary and cool about that.

So, what is up with modern cars? Are their chassis materials that much stronger? I swear the only time people get wounded in modern car chases is when they get shot through the windows. People are always ducking low beneath the windshield in movies, yelling, "Get down!" Like that's the only danger: bullets through the glass. There's probably some exceptions, but right now, I can't think of any. It seems like if you get in your modern vehicle and stay low, you're safe! (unless the shooters hit your gas tank and your car goes boom.) But those lovely old cars...? You'd better drive like a bat outta hell because you're still a hittable target.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Perfect Henchman

That's how I'd define George Raft's character of Guino Rinaldo (what a great name!) in Scarface (1932). At least he's everything I'd want in my right-hand man were I a gangster. Unflappable, fearless, loyal, follows orders without question, will happily do the dirty work or guard the door while you do the dirty work, it's all the same to him. And most importantly - he's not ambitious. That sort of goes with the loyalty part, but it's important. You don't want your henchman getting ideas and bumping you off to take over, (like you're doing to your own bosses), and that's just never going to happen with Rinaldo. He has his place and he likes it. Also, he doesn't talk much, which I like in a henchman, though that ends up being his personal downfall. (There are just some occasions where standing there looking smug and flipping your gold coin is NOT a good idea. Speak up fast, you damned fool!) I'd also add good-looking as a quality, though I don't necessarily need that in a henchman, I just appreciate it from the comfort of my couch. (Why, is it spring? It must be! I'm definitely having a bit of a fling! :-D)

Alas, this movie isn't about Rinaldo, it's about Paul Muni's character, Tony Camonte, a colorful, ambitious lug whose rise up the gangster chain is as much a result of his own violent stupidity (ie: he's too dumb to realize what he's up against, therefore he doesn't fear it, therefore he actually succeeds where a smarter man might not) as his willingness to break all rules to get there. He's quite the amoral despicable character, and yet, Paul Muni plays the ugly mug with just enough naïveté and boyish enthusiasm that I actually grew to like him a bit. Not enough to want him to succeed or live (particularly after #*$(#*%# spoiler, grrrrrr), but enough to keep my interest when Rinaldo wasn't around.

This movie is chock full of colorful characters, and all of them leave a memorable impression. From Osgood Perkins (Anthony Perkins' father!) as Tony's not-ambitious-enough boss (all too briefly), to Vince Barnett as Angelo, the other faithful henchman who has some hilarious scenes when he attempts to function as Tony's secretary, to Boris Karloff as a rather refined (though bloodthirsty) Irish gangster, to beautiful Ann Dvorak playing Tony's free-spirited (understatement) sister. Her sexy dance (in public, no less) as she tries to get Rinaldo's attention -- Ay caramba! (The fact that she's unsuccessful just shows once again why Rinaldo is the absolute perfect henchman: the boss's sister is off-limits, and that's all there is to that.) One of my favorite screenwriters, the brilliant Ben Hecht, wrote the script, and Howard Hawks directs. It's a great combo all around and there's so many interesting things going on in this film, when I went back to watch just a few parts, it was difficult not to get sucked back into the movie and keep watching all of it. It's very well done.

Coolest shot: the tommy gun blowing away the calendar pages.

I intended to start a database at some point of opera used in movies, so I might as well start here... Tony likes to whistle the sextet from Lucia di Lamermoor before he's about to murder someone.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Invisible Stripes (1939)

How odd to see my first movie headlining George Raft, and he's mostly playing a good guy. Interestingly, I watched Black Widow not too long ago and did not even realize he played the detective in it... but that would make two "good guy" roles. I'm starting out all backwards! I rather like him, at least in this film. His character genuinely tries to make a go of a straight life, but those eponymous "invisible stripes" haunt everything he does. Employers won't keep him on, his girlfriend dumps him because she doesn't want to be seen with an ex-con. He can't win, and you know where that's eventually going to lead him.

George Raft filled this role very nicely. I don't have anything to compare him to, so I think I may have to check out a couple of his gangster flicks, but he had a suitable solid earnestness here that was very appealing. There are flashes of his gangster side, when he loses his temper or when he starts working the angles and slides into wary and clever. And boy, he can switch from a pleasant "yes, sir!" good son to calculating and cold at the snap of a fingers. Not someone you want to cross! (And a random aside: he has the most lovely eyes. They remind me very much of Rudolph Valentino's eyes. Same shape, very dark, very Italian-looking (even if he isn't). Mmmm.)

Then there's William Holden, playing Raft's younger brother. He mostly alternates between sincere and angry, with only a touch of the cynical bitterness he does so well later in life. This role's similar in flavor to his Golden Boy character (and made the same year, so once again he's super young and cute), but without the nuance or complexity. He wants to get ahead in the world, needs money to do it, seriously considers getting it the "easy way" by following in big brother's footsteps. Raft tries to dissuade him from those notions verbally several times, culminating in possibly my favorite scene, when Holden admits to starting down the wrong path. Raft listens to him silently, then locks the door so their mother and Holden's girlfriend can't intrude, and proceeds to knock some sense into him. Literally. Holden's all wild, uncoordinated anger; Raft is calm and precise. Holden doesn't stand a chance. LOL! As the older sibling in my family, I can't help but relate to Raft here. I don't think there's anything quite as frustrating as being older, having been there, done that, then watching a younger sibling ignore everything you tell them and start to make the same mistakes you did. Fortunately, none of my mistakes included anything criminal, but nonetheless! LOL!

The third star in this film is Humphrey Bogart, and while he's supposedly only a supporting actor here, he steals every scene he's in. I never appreciated him growing up, but he sure has been growing on me. In this film, he's the counterpoint to Raft. Raft wants to go straight; Bogart is completely unrepentant and can't wait to leap back into his previous life. Of course their paths inevitably tangle again, and the climax with the two of them is probably my second favorite scene. I do so love characters who give their word and keep it, no matter what.

I enjoyed this film a lot. It's nothing outstandingly special, but nicely diverting, with quite a bit of eye candy.