Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #28: "Life with Father" (1947)

William Powell's hair isn't quite this red in 1947's Life with Father.

The flick: Life with Father (Warner Bros., 1947) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.1

Director: Michael Curtiz (Won an Oscar for Casablanca; nominated for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain Blood, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Four Daughters)

Actors of note: William Powell (six Thin Man movies with Myrna Loy; My Man Godfrey, Mister Roberts, How to Marry a Millionaire, a great deal more; three-time Oscar nominee, including this very movie!), Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife; five-time Oscar nominee), Elizabeth Taylor (Oscar winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Butterfield 8; nominated three more times; starred in Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, National Velvet, etc., etc.; famously married eight times, twice to Richard Burton), Edmund Gwenn (won an Oscar as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street; worked for Hitchcock in The Trouble with Harry and Foreign Correspondent; so much more), Clara Blandick (Auntie Em from The Wizard of Oz), Martin Milner (Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder; star of TV's Route 66 and Adam-12), Zasu Pitts (Niagra Falls), Jimmy Lydon (worked steadily in TV for 30 years on everything from The Wonderful World of Disney to St. Elsewhere)

The whole brood.
The gist of it: New York, 1883. Blustery Wall Street big shot Clarence "Clare" Day (Powell) has a devoted wife, Vinnie (Dunne), four red-headed sons, and an ever-changing roster of maids. Day is a stubborn, exacting man who likes to have everything just so in his household and is not shy about expressing his discontent. He's really a softie at heart, though, and his "orderly" household is always in some sort of turmoil, as when Cousin Clara (Pitts) comes to visit and brings attractive young Mary (Taylor) along with her. Mary begins a chaste though not untroubled courtship with the Days' eldest, Clarence, Jr. (Lydon), who has inherited one of his father's suits and has seemingly been "possessed" by the personality of his father when wearing the garment. At dinner with Mary, Clare reveals that he was never baptized, scandalizing Vinnie, who then becomes ill and is bedridden. Her condition is inadvertently worsened when one of her sons, John (Milner), spikes her tea with some of the patent medicine he's been selling. The whole family, along with their church's rector Rev. Dr. Lloyd (Gwenn, who has also been attempting to get Clare to donate $5000 towards a new church), tries to get the father to submit to baptism, but he won't budge on the subject until Vinnie seems to be at death's door. He makes a solemn promise to be baptized, but breaks that promise he breaks as soon as his wife is out of bed, and the cycle starts all over again. Ultimately, the proud and independent Clare, who will not kneel in church before God, admits how much Vinnie truly means to him.

Take that, Warner Brothers!
My take: As you might have gleaned from those credits up there, Life with Father is no black-and-white cheapie from Monogram or PRC, filmed in an afternoon for $1.95. This is a major Warner Brothers production in Technicolor (though you'd hardly guess from the faded print I just watched), directed by one of Hollywood's heavy hitters and starring a lot of big-deal, honest-to-god movie stars. At two hours, it's the longest film in this collection. You could watch two Olsen & Johnson or "Dodo Doubleday" flicks in the time it takes to watch this one. So what's it doing here? Well, the sad answer is that Warner neglected to copyright it. Whoops! So if you watch this for free, consider it payback for all those times that Warner Music Group (WMG), heartless scourge of the Internet, took down one of your favorite YouTube clips. 

The TV version
But, anyway, how's the flick? Well, citizens, if you read the last entry in this series, you'll remember that I was having trouble judging the actions of the characters because they were playing by different rules than we are. That's even more true of Life with Father, but part of that is built-in, since this film is set in 1883 and was a nostalgia piece when it was brand new. Old-timeyness is pretty much the whole point of this film. It's no surprise to learn that Life with Father was based on a play, since virtually all of it takes place within the walls of the Days' admittedly magnificent home. It's scarcely more surprising that the play was based on a series of autobiographical short stories, since the film is episodic in nature and deals with the trivial and mundane. Not a great deal "happens" in Life with Father, and yet the film has about seven or eight different stories developing simultaneously.

Appropriately, a Life with Father television series starring Leon Ames ran on CBS from 1953 to 1955. That seems about right. Compared to the more recent crop of "rough and tumble" family comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (2005) or Are We There Yet? (2005), this is practically Downton Abbey. A maid does tumble down a flight of stairs after hearing Clare practice one of his fiery tirades, and John's patent medicine does manage to poison one of the neighbor's dogs. But, generally, this film is all about the minutiae of family life, i.e. the $15 ceramic pug dog that Vinnie has purchased from a local department store or the placement of a particular rubber tree plant or whether or not one son will eat his oatmeal. Ultimately, families are families, and human nature is human nature. The specifics have changed, but the general outline hasn't.

In some ways, even though it's much more genteel, this film reminded me of the TV show All in the Family (another CBS sitcom!), which was also about the domestic life of a hardheaded man. The real gift of that show -- and this movie -- is simply the opportunity to observe a family, up close and personal, as they bicker and negotiate, retreat and advance. Archie Bunker would have been even more ornery than Clare about the baptism issue. I can just imagine him discussing it with Edith.

As an atheist who has struggled with issues of faith all my life, in fact, I was most intrigued by the religious aspects of Life with Father. Frankly, I was with Clare all the way on the anti-baptism issue and didn't want him to give in. Furthermore, I wondered why Edmund Gwenn's character needed a new church. The existing one -- and we see it a few times -- seems a very fancy building indeed. I was shocked by the mention that the Days have purchased a pew at this church for $5000. It seems altogether too close to the selling of "plenary indulgences" for the forgiveness of sins. William Powell and Edmund Gwenn have an amusing scene in which the former argues that the purchase of the pew was a bad investment, since it would only go for $3000 now. Powell's character, while still a believer, is the only one who seems to question the methods and morals of the church, dismissing a lot of the customs and traditions as "folderol." The other characters in the movie obey without question or even curiosity; they're so hung up on the formalities of their faith that it's a big deal when Mary reveals to Clarence, Jr. she's a Methodist, while the Days are Episcopalian. I could not help but think of that marvelous sketch, "Heaven is for Presbyterians" by the Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics.

Is it funny: It's more agreeable than laugh-out-loud funny, but I got some good, solid guffaws out of Life with Father, as when Martin Milner sells $128 worth of fraudulent "medicine" and is paid in... more medicine. Namely, the laughs come from the redoubtable William Powell who seems to be the only one with any sense of integrity in this film. Why shouldn't he live his life the way he sees fit? And why shouldn't his home and his meals be exactly as he wants them? After all, it's his life and his money. Had he lived a century later, Clarence Day, Sr. might well have taken Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" as his anthem. (Too bad George Zimmerman has ruined the phrase "stand my ground.") Perhaps the film's funniest scene occurs when the two youngest Day children discuss whether or not their father is going to Hell. The younger one starts to cry, and his older brother hilariously tries to drown him out by singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

My grade: B+



P.S. - No onscreen black stereotypes here, but there are some remarks about "Hottentots" and "savages" that you wouldn't hear in a modern movie.

Mill Creek comedy classics #27: "The Lady Says No" (1951)

None of these ladies will say no to David Niven.

The flick: The Lady Says No (Ross-Stillman Productions, 1951; distributed by United Artists, 1952) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Frank Ross (husband of star Joan Caulfield; this was his only directing credit, but he produced The Robe, Of Mice and Men, and The Devil and Miss Jones)

Actors of note: Joan Caulfield (The Unsuspected, Blue Skies; had an affair with Bing Crosby; reportedly Joss Whedon's favorite actress), David Niven (Oscar winner for Separate Tables; The Guns of Navarone, Murder by Death, three Pink Panther movies, a great deal more), Frances Bavier (The Day the Earth Stood Still; Aunt Bea from TV's The Andy Griffith Show), Henry Jones (Vertigo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, way more), James Robertson Justice (The Guns of Navarone, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Lenore Lonergran (Westward the Women), Peggy Maley (The Wild One, Anchors Aweigh)

The gist of it: Life magazine photographer and man's man Bill Shelby (Niven) travels to Carmel, CA to photograph Dorinda Hatch (Caulfield), author of the best-selling book, The Lady Says No, which is evidently some kind of proto-feminist broadside. Bill is surprised to find that Dorinda is a sexy young woman and not a dried-up spinster, and he's sure that the comely lass was just parroting ideas she got from her stuffy old Aunt Alice (Bavier), whose scruffy, vagabond husband Matthew (Justice) has just returned home from one of his customary lengthy absences.

Bill and Dorinda go into full-on "battle of the sexes" mode, alternately fighting and flirting, and eventually they get another couple, newlyweds Potsie and Goldie (Jones and Lonergran), involved in their shenanigans. It gets to a point where Potsie and Bill have barricaded themselves in a trailer, and it's up to Dorinda and Goldie and the police and the United States Army to get these feuding couples back together. Along the way, there's a lot of shouting from everyone on the subject of gender roles until Dorinda wises up and tosses her book in the ocean. Gloria Steinem, eat your heart out!

Frank Loesser
My take: Y'know, it's tricky to review a "battle of the sexes" comedy from 1951, because men and women were playing by a whole different rule book then. It's tough for me to say what's decent and what's indecent and what's reasonable and what's unreasonable for these people because I don't live in their world. People today expect the art and culture of the past to conform to our modern-day values, and I think that's misguided.

Every Christmas, for instance, I see at least two or three articles (probably more) declaring the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to be a defense of date rape, with the assumption that the man in the song has slipped roofies in the girl's drink and is going to have sex with her when she's unconscious. Now, honestly, do you really believe that the tune's author, Frank Loesser -- the man who also wrote the songs for Guys and Dolls and who originally performed "Baby" with his own wife, Lynn Garland -- was going around drugging and raping women and then writing Christmas songs about it? The drugs we now call "roofies" were not even synthesized until 1972, which is 28 years after the song was written!

We've gotten very jaundiced as a society, and it causes us to suspect the worst in everyone. And when you expect the worst, you're never disappointed.

Joan Caulfield
That being said, the sexual politics of The Lady Says No are fairly repugnant by the standards of any age. At least, I think they are. The characters in this movie are so unrealistic and inconsistent, especially Dorinda, whose personality changes several times per scene, that it's difficult to know what they believe about anything.

And if I were casting the role of a testosterone-fueled, macho adventurer -- a traveling photographer who documented his exploits in a book called I Shot Borneo -- I'm not sure that dapper, gentlemanly David Niven would be my first choice.

Most of the plot of this movie revolves around the contents of Dorinda's book and the effect the book has on its readers. Frustratingly, we never get a solid idea of what's in that book, apart from the fact that the author doesn't approve of men whistling at women on the street.

And besides, the movie is not really interested in letting its characters truly hash out their issues regarding male-female relationships. The Lady Says No is too busy with pie fights, slapstick barroom brawls, and wacky car chases to really concentrate on the matter at hand.

Still in all, it was difficult not to cringe at a scene in which Dorinda visits Bill's trailer and negotiates with him for the return of an embarrassing photo (don't get excited; it's nothing sexual), and Bill uses this opportunity to get Dorinda to kiss him. In another scene, Bill pays for Dorinda's drink and then says he has a "mortgage" on her. By the end, Bill is blatantly telling Dorinda what to think, and she's grateful for it! I rolled my eyes, but I think if I'd been a woman, I might have been violently ill.

Apart from that, The Lady Says No is a swing and a miss, I'm sorry to report.

David Niven's charming as always (oh, for the days when a pencil mustache signaled sophistication!), and Joan Caulfield brings a lot of energy and wit to her character. Cinematographer James Wong Howe films her in a very flattering way, too, which helps the film somewhat. But I couldn't help feeling that Niven was too just old for her. Actually, they're only separated by 12 years, but he looks older than his age and she younger than hers. Or maybe their personalities just don't fit. In Murder by Death, Niven is paired up with Maggie Smith, who's 24 years younger than he is, and they're somehow a perfect fit.

Is it funny: The blogger says no. Maybe one joke in twenty reaches its intended destination. A few of the film's would-be comic setpieces just flop, such as an interminable sequence at a dive bar called the Wharf Rat, where Dorinda flirts with various men, including Potsie, to make Bill jealous. Or maybe that's not what's happening. Her motives and methods change so often, it's tough to be sure.

I sort of liked an early scene in which Dorinda elaborately humiliates Bill in front of an all-female audience at some kind of social meeting, but the scene went on so long I forgot what she was trying to prove and why he was passively allowing her to cut his necktie (symbolism, I wonder?) and draw on his face with lipstick.

The one scene I really enjoyed was a totally bonkers dream sequence set in a fantasy version of Borneo where Bill has a harem and Dorinda is followed around by a little man in a hideous monkey costume. What this scene has to do with anything is beyond me, but it at least got my attention.

My grade: C

P.S. - As for the matter of racial stereotyping, I'll have to plead nolo contendere. The movie has exactly one African-American character, a woman who is seen frantically jitterbugging at the Wharf Rat to the strains of an all-white jazz combo. She seemed to be wearing a waitress' uniform, but she was standing outside the door of the ladies' room. Who this woman was or what she was supposed to be doing was beyond my ken. The movie holds on her for a moment, though, so she must have some significance.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: Frampton comes apart

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful: Peter Frampton at his mid-1970s peak.

I'm in You
The record: I'm in You (A&M, 1977 - SP 4704)

The artist: Peter Frampton

History: It doesn't happen much (or ever) these days, but back in the 1970s, a live album could really turn an artist's career around. It happened for KISS with Alive! in 1975, and it happened in an even bigger way that very next year for journeyman rocker Peter Frampton with the similarly-titled Frampton Comes Alive!

Born in 1950 in Beckenham, England, Peter Frampton had made something of a name for himself as a singer and guitarist in such bands as the Herd, which he joined at age 16, Humble Pie, and Frampton's Camel, and he'd done some prominent session work for George Harrison, Harry Nilsson, and others. He signed with A&M as a solo act in 1972 and released a handful of studio LPs to middling sales, until an album simply called Frampton staggered up to #32 in May 1975 and went gold.

In January 1976, A&M released the singer's first live album, Frampton Comes Alive!, which was recorded at San Francisco's famed Winterland. FM stations took a liking to it, and the LP caught fire. By February 1976, it was the #1 album in the country. In all, it logged ten weeks at the top of charts and sold ten million copies.

Great news, right? Well, yes and no.

The live album made Peter Frampton a household name and brought him to a much larger audience than he'd ever known before, but a hit that big brings with it a certain amount of backlash. To say the least, the stakes were awfully high when Peter and his band returned to the studio to make the follow-up. Though his commercial triumph had been a long time coming, Peter Frampton was an out-of-nowhere sensation to many listeners.

Critics and other rockers were also rankled by Frampton's "pretty boy" image: the flowing blond locks, the delicate facial features, the bare chest -- all of which were prominently featured on the cover of I'm in You. It seemed like everyone was waiting for his star to fall.

Alanis Morissette: The Peter Frampton of the '90s.
I'm in You, while not an outright flop, was the beginning of Peter Frampton's commercial decline and the start of his status as a pop culture punchline. That trend would be greatly accelerated the next year when the singer made the ill-advised decision to co-star with the Bee Gees in the Robert Stigwood-produced mega-flop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a movie musical based on the Beatles' 1967 concept album.

In 1979, Peter's last year as a hit-maker, Frank Zappa released his most successful album ever, Sheik Yerbouti, whose opening track, "I Have Been in You," was a direct swipe at the title track from Frampton's record. In his failure to top Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton might seem similar to Michael Jackson, who was haunted by Thriller for the rest of his life. But Jackson scored major hit albums before and after that career milestone.

To me, the Peter Frampton story is analogous to that of Alanis Morissette. A former child star, Alanis had been a pop singer for a few years in the early 1990s, with two albums that had been successful in her native Canada before she released Jagged Little Pill (1995), the worldwide #1 smash that ultimately sold 33 million copies. That album was Alanis' Frampton Comes Alive! and inspired a similar backlash. Its follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998), was her I'm in You -- the pretty successful sequel that still felt like a commercial disappointment and signaled a popular decline.

Ultimately, both Peter Frampton and Alanis Morissette adopted the old philosophy of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and simply revisited their past triumphs. In 2005, Alanis released an acoustic remake of Jagged Little Pill and managed to sell 300,000 copies. In 1995, the very year of Alanis Morissette's greatest popularity, Peter Frampton finally released Frampton Comes Alive! II. A deluxe, 25th anniversary edition of the original would come out six years later. Their chart-busting days are over, but both Peter and Alanis have endured as touring acts whose fans still turn out, albeit in smaller numbers.

All Music Guide says: Four stars. "A surprisingly laid-back album steeped in lyricism and craftsmanship, particularly in the use of overdubs on even the harder rocking numbers." - Bruce Eder [link]

Was it a hit: Yes, but not the success Frampton and his label were hoping for. It peaked at #2 on the album charts, was certified platinum, and landed three singles on the charts -- the title track (which also hit #2), "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" (#18), and "Tried to Love" (#41). By most standards, that would be cause for celebration, but after Frampton Comes Alive!, it was a letdown. After one more modest hit album and single in 1979, Peter never reached the Top 40 on either chart again. What went up had come down.

Cameron Crowe
Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe, years away from directing Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous (and, uh, We Bought a Zoo), acknowledges that Peter had a daunting task ahead of him when recording the follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive!, but the critic assures us that "Frampton has risen to the challenge of his incredible success with authority. From sweeping acoustic melodies (played in part on his idol Django Reinhardt's original acoustic guitar) to all-out electrical virtuosity. There is a new vibrancy about this music."

The album's fancy inner sleeve contains further liner notes from Peter himself. He dedicates the album "to all of You" for"the confidence" you've given him, but he still sounds a little nervous. "I was bubbling with ideas and trying not to compete with myself," he writes. "Even so, subconsciously there was an underlying pressure to 'out do' the last album." Underlying Pressure might have been an excellent alternate title for this LP.

Frank Zappa: "I'm in you!"
The listening experience: Not nearly as painful as I'd feared. I'm not a Peter Frampton fan; this album was one I got from (I think) my aunt and uncle's collection. Before this, my knowledge of Frampton was pretty much limited to the misbegotten Sgt. Pepper movie. That notorious flop holds a grim fascination for me; I own the DVD, the soundtrack on CD and vinyl, and the tie-in paperback book. I also knew Frampton from his guest appearance on The Simpsons, where he gamely mocked his image as a rock dinosaur, and Frank Zappa's scathing parody.

Onstage, Zappa would preface "I Have Been in You" with a monologue about Peter's exploits with teenage groupies, and the phrase "I'm in you," always uttered in a taunting, cartoonish voice, became a running joke in Zappa's show. After that, I feared I'm in You would be a wussy, pseudo-rock embarrassment. It's not that at all. Well, it is that just a little in spots (the title track), but I'm in You definitely didn't deserve to be a career-killer.

Bruce Eder was right; this is a laid-back album, as mellow as lime Jell-O. Frampton was under the gun when he made this LP, but you can't hear it in the songs, which mainly just plod along quite amiably. A few go on too long, particularly an eight-minute slog called "Won't You Be My Friend," but that's to be expected of a 1970s rock album.

Eder was right about the "craftsmanship" part, too. I'm in You is one slick endeavor. Frampton and his band have a tight, cohesive sound, and the production work -- by Frampton himself -- is very professional. I'm in You has a rich, satisfying sound I found very gratifying. As Michael Parks said in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, "Well, a sure and steady hand did this. This ain't no squirrelly amateur."

Frampton's singing is a lot like his guitar playing: strong, supple, melodic, and kind of anonymous. His songs, too, are pleasant and tuneful, but for the most part, they soon fade from memory. One track in particular, "St. Thomas (Don't You Know How I Feel)," seemingly takes its inspiration from two of the most famous songs from Frampton Comes Alive!: the title from "Do You Feel Like We Do" and the melody from "Baby I Love Your Way."

On Side Two, Frampton calls in the cavalry. Mick Jagger makes an uncredited but unmistakable cameo on "Tried to Love." (Frampton thanks "Mick" in the liner notes but doesn't give a last name.) And then Stevie Wonder lays down one of his intricate harmonica parts on "Rocky's Hot Club," one of I'm in You's catchiest songs.

The album closes with a double shot of very credible Motown covers: "(I'm a) Road Runner" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)." There are no real stinkers on this LP, no major missteps; all it needs is a sense of urgency or a strong reason to exist. Frankly, a live audience might have provided just that.

What probably doomed this album more than anything else, though, was its terrible cover: Peter in a coquettish "seductive" pose, wearing shiny pink pants and an unbuttoned blouse with lace cuffs. Coupled with the implied sexual boast (masquerading as sensitivity) of the album's title, that cover would be enough to kill anyone's career.

Overall grade: B

Mill Creek comedy classics #26, "I'm from Arkansas" (1944)

No Iowans or Missourians here! Slim Summerville and pals proudly declare I'm from Arkansas.

The flick: I'm from Arkansas (PRC Pictures, 1944) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.2

Director: Lew Landers (The Raven, Return of the Vampire)

Slim Summerville
Actors of note*: Slim Summerville (Niagara Falls), El Brendel (the first-ever Best Picture winner Wings; The She-Creature), Iris Adrian (The Odd Couple; appeared in many live-action Disney comedies including The Love Bug, Freaky Friday, The Apple Dumpling Gang and more), Bruce Bennett (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce), Arthur Q. Bryan (the voice of Elmer Fudd; also appeared in The Devil Bat, The Greatest Show on Earth, etc.); Maude Eburne (To Be or Not to Be, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), Flo Bert (wife and comedy partner of El Brendel; they did their act in The She-Creature, too); Danny Jackson (Kings Row, My Little Chickadee), plus a whole host of musical acts including Carolina Cotton aka "The Yodeling Blonde Bombshell," Jimmy Wakely (one of the last popular singing cowboys), the Pied Pipers, the Sunshine Girls (a trio featuring Mary Ford), and the Milo Twins.
*Near as I can tell, none of the major cast members are from Arkansas. The director was a New Yorker, and the story was written by a Hungarian. The film, naturally, was shot in California. Among the music acts, Jimmy Wakely and Carolina Cotton are genuine Arkansans, though.
The gist of it: Slow-paced Pitchfork, Arkansas gains national attention when one of its sows, Esmeralda, gives birth to a litter of 18 piglets, thanks to the town's miraculous mud. An all-girl dance troupe, including brassy Doris (Adrian), travels to the town to play their local theater... only to find that there isn't one. At this same time, radio cowboy crooner Bob (Bennett) decides to return to Pitchfork, his hometown, bringing his band (including Wakely) with him. Bob takes a shine to Doris and decides to have a little fun with her by pretending he and his fellow musicians are hillbillies.

So astonishing is Esmeralda that the Commissioner of Agriculture (Bryan) visits the town to bestow a blue ribbon on the pig, who mysteriously goes missing until local layabout Pa Jenkins (Summerville) uses his hog calling skills to summon her. Meanwhile, Pitchfork and its mud have attracted the attention of the Slowe Packing Company, which wants to buy the land away from Ma Alden (Eburne) simply to increase its pork production, even though the mud could be beneficial for humans with rheumatism, too. She's just about to sign the land over to the meat packing company, but since Ma Alden has just married Pa Jenkins as a reward for the return of Esmeralda, ownership of the property has shifted to Ma's daughter, Abby (Cotton). The governor of Arkansas agrees to turn Pitchfork into a health spa, and everyone participates in a celebratory concert which is broadcast over the radio.

Come play with us, Danny!
My take: See all that plot I just described in the previous paragraph? Well, the only reason any of it exists is to provide an excuse for lots and lots of musical numbers and a few comedy routines. I'm from Arkansas is more of a hillbilly-themed variety show than it is a narrative. There's plenty of yodelin', fiddlin', pickin' and grinnin' in this movie, plus some cornpone humor on the side. For some reason, the filmmakers have decided to shoehorn in the Swedish dialect comedy of El Brendel and Flo Bert, too. MST3K fans caught their act in The She-Creature, and it's pretty much the same here, except this time El gets to show off his ventriloquist skills, too, with a hideous female vent figure he calls "Clunky."

As for the music, well, it's mostly the glossy, sanitized Hollywood approximation of mountain music. Only the slightly-unnerving Milo Twins seem to be the genuine article. Slim Summerville is shown yawning during one of Jimmy Wakely's big numbers, which pretty much sums up how I felt about Wakely, too. For me, the main musical event was the opportunity to see and hear Mary Ford (then going by her real name, Colleen Summers) as part of the Sunshine Girls trio, who do a very nice "You Are My Sunshine." Ford was just a few years away from joining Les Paul both as his wife and musical partner, and together their meticulously studio-crafted singles, among the first to use extensive overdubbing, would revolutionize the recording industry and influence a whole generation of musicians. The marriage didn't turn out so well (mutual charges of infidelity, cruelty, and more), but the records still sound great. In this movie, Mary harmonizes with two other girls. Soon, thanks to Les Paul's studio wizardry, she'd be doing all three parts by herself.

Largely, though, I'm from Arkansas is a lackluster affair in which neither the music nor the comedy feels particularly inspired. Even Esmeralda is a disappointment. She's repeatedly referred to as "a pig with personality," which of course reminded me of a famous discussion from Pulp Fiction (1994).



Is it funny: I didn't laugh much. Sass-mouthed Doris just grated on my nerves, and Summerville and Eburne's characters seemed like ripoffs of Ma and Pa Kettle or Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Summerville does raise some smiles with his extremely low-key, laconic delivery, but he was much funnier in Niagara Falls. The Swedish humor didn't do a thing for me, and El's ventriloquist act (though impressive) is the very opposite of funny. The appearance of Arthur Q. Bryan should give this flick a shot in the arm, but he's given nothing funny to do except say things like, "This is highly irregular!" Bryan's presence is kind of intrinsically humorous, though, and he really looks like Elmer Fudd. But he can be way funnier than this.

My grade: C

P.S. - No negative black stereotypes here, which demonstrates some restraint on the part of the filmmakers. There are so many negative hillbilly stereotypes here, though, that there wouldn't have been room anyway. Pa Jenkins and his even more worthless son Efus (Jackson) move, think, and talk slowly, and neither is able to count past three. Sorry, Arkansas. That's what Hollywood thinks of you.

Mill Creek comedy classics #25: "His Private Secretary" (1933)

The Duke himself, John Wayne, stars in the romantic comedy His Private Secretary.

The flick: His Private Secretary (Showmen's Pictures, 1933) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.4

Director: Phil Whitman (A Strange Adventure, The Girl from Calgary, and 28 other films you haven't heard of; dropped dead at age 42 just two years after making this movie)

Actors of note: John Wayne (The Searchers, The Longest Day, Rio Bravo, too many others to list; won an Oscar for True Grit; one of the top-grossing stars in Hollywood history with a box office reign lasting 25 years), Evalyn Knapp (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Reginald Barlow (King Kong, The Bride of Frankenstein, the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers), Alec B. Francis (Mata Hari), Mickey Rentschler (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), Natalie Kingston (made 59 obscure B-movies in ten years and then disappeared; this was the second-to-last of them), Arthur Hoyt (It Happened One Night, Sullivan's Travels)

Cutie-pie Evalyn Knapp
The gist of it: Dick Wallace (Wayne) is the irresponsible, hard-partying, womanizing son of a grouchy, money-minded businessman (Barlow) who wants Dick to finally become a responsible adult. In order to make a man out of his son, wealthy Mr. Wallace gives Dick a job at the family company, collecting debts. The son's first assignment takes him on a 100-mile drive to tiny Somerville (pop. 407) to collect from kindly, hard-of-hearing Rev. Hall (Francis) who just happens to be the grandfather of Marion (Knapp), a pretty young lass Dick had been trying to put the moves on all day. Dick gives Rev. Hall an unauthorized extension on his loan, an act which causes Mr. Wallace to give his son the boot.

Newly unemployed, Dick buys a small garage in Somerville and tries to win Marion over through various tricks and schemes, abetted by crafty youngster Joe (Rentschler). Nothing works, until Marion learns that Dick lost his job over the loan extension. She agrees to marry him, only learning his true identity after the fact. Dick is hesitant to introduce Marion to his disapproving dad, but Marion has a plan. Posing as "Miss Boyd," she becomes Mr. Wallace's private secretary and one of the few competent, responsible employees he has. Marion promises her boss that Dick really can be a success, and Wallace agrees to give him $1 million to start his own business. But Dick temporarily falls back into his old, bad habits of drinking and partying, a relapse aided and exploited by shameless gold-digger Polly (Kingston) who desperately wants to get her lunch-hooks into the Wallace family fortune.

My take: Not long ago, I wrote about The Music Man (1964) and Groundhog Day (1993), two stories about smart-alecky, worthless guys who travel to small towns for business reasons, end up staying longer than originally planned, and find love and redemption there. For about the first two-thirds of its running time, His Private Secretary is that kind of a story. I thought John Wayne was going to stay in charming little Somerville, make a go of his garage business, and find his true purpose in life with Marion in this off-the-grid locale, perhaps working for kindly Rev. Hall in some capacity.

But the script brings Dick and Marion (whose name is uncomfortably close to John Wayne's original moniker, Marion Morrison) back to the world of high stakes and big money. It's nice to see Marion succeed at the company where her new husband has repeatedly failed, and I'm glad she brought out the softer side of crotchety Mr. Wallace, who says "You're fired!" as often as most people say "hello." But I kind of missed Somerville and wished the movie hadn't abandoned it. His Private Secretary is clearly a modest, small-potatoes production.

Besides Wayne, none of the cast made it out of B-movies, at least not for long. The film has three credited production companies, but all of them were short-lived. Were it not for the presence of "The Duke," it's likely that this film would have been completely forgotten decades ago. But you know what? I actually liked this one more than I expected to. It moves at a brisk pace, most of the jokes land, and the cast is up to the job. Top-billed Evalyn Knapp has a warm, sunny presence, and it's conceivable that a playboy like Dick Wallace might give up his carefree, carousing ways for her. In fact, she's such a catch that his near-relapse seems implausible.

And how is John Wayne in this film? Well, at 26, he'd been a movie actor for seven years and had done about 42 films by then, though he'd only been getting screen credit for three years. He's still a little green, and his future clearly wasn't in drawing-room comedies. He looks so much more comfortable at the garage in Somerville than he does wearing a tux or working behind a desk. John Wayne's just not an "indoor" kind of actor. But he knows how to deliver a line and how to sell a joke, and he already has the imposing physical presence that would serve him so well in the Westerns and war films which made him famous.

Sam Katzman
By the way, His Private Secretary did launch another major Hollywood player. It was the first of 243 films in a 40-year career for producer Sam Katzman, whose name should be familiar to all B-movie junkies. Among many other things, he produced the sci-fi perennials It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucer (1956), both with effects by the late Ray Harryhausen, plus a few of Elvis Presley's later movies (Kissin' Cousins, Harum Scarum), some quickie rock-sploitation flicks for the drive-in crowd (Rock Around the Clock), and (sigh) a bunch of East Side Kids movies, including Boys of the City.  MST3K fans will know him for The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955). One of my favorites in his filmography is the nutty but compelling Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin' Heart (1964), starring a very unlikely George Hamilton as the country music legend.

Sam Katzman is the kind of guy who probably didn't know the meaning of the word "art" but certainly knew the meaning of the word "money" and aimed to give the public what it wanted... while spending as little as possible. His picture makes him look like a mobster, and I'm sure he was a fierce negotiator when he needed to be.

Is it funny: Yes, frequently. I started laughing out loud during the film's opening sequence in which Dick comes home drunk and mistakes his irate father for the butler. When the father accuses his son of drinking like a fish, Wayne corrects him: "Fish drink water." Mr. Wallace's continual crabbiness is amusing, too. He's sort of a cross between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Monty Burns. Like Mr. Burns, Wallace has a sycophantic, Smithers-type employee, the appropriately-named Little (professional milquetoast Hoyt) who has to work overtime to avoid his boss's wrath. I won't spoil it, but there's a nice payoff to a scene in Somerville when Dick trades his car for ownership of the garage. His Private Secretary won't lower your cholesterol or take any strokes off your golf game, but it's well worth a watch.

My grade: B+

P.S. - Not a stereotype in sight.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #24: "Heading for Heaven" (1947)

Add captioStuart Erwin wags his finger at Glenda Farrell in Heading for Heaven.n

The flick: Heading for Heaven (Ace Pictures, 1947; numerous distributors including PRC) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.7

Director: Lewis D. Collins (directed an average of three or four B-movies a year for 32 years, half of them Westerns and none terribly famous)

Actors of note: Stuart Erwin (The Bride Came C.O.D., Son of Flubber), Glenda Farrell (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Little Caesar), Russ Vincent (Gilda), Irene Ryan (Mighty Joe Young; played Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies; rumored to have died on stage), Milburn Stone (Invaders from Mars, Young Mr. Lincoln), George O'Hanlon (voice of George Jetson for almost 30 years*; also appeared in Rocky and a whole series of "Joe McDoakes" shorts), Janis Wilson (Now, Voyager, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers; retired from acting as a teenager because she wasn't photogenic enough)
* Jetsons: The Movie was his swan song. It was released posthumously in 1990.
The climactic seance from Heading for Heaven.
The gist of it: The Elkins family has been holding onto a seemingly worthless piece of property for generations in the hope that one day it would bring a fortune. Beleaguered family man Henry Elkins (Erwin), inheritor of the property, has turned down offers to turn it into an amusement park and a garbage dump because he has his heart set on transforming it into a housing development called "Elkins Eastern Acres." But due to one of those typical 1940s movie comedy misunderstandings, Henry thinks he only has four months to live and must provide financially for his wife Nora (Farrell), daughter Janie (Janis Wilson), and no-account brother-in-law Alvin (O'Hanlon).

An airline wants to buy Henry's property and turn it into an airport, but various schemers and con artists -- including a fake swami (Vincent) with whom Nora is infatuated -- conspire to keep him from getting a fair price for the land by sending a phony telegram, supposedly from the airline, withdrawing their offer. The increasingly desperate Henry resorts to dishonesty to unload the property (which he thinks is worthless again) on a local banker but is quickly found out. Scandalized, Nora threatens to leave Harry. Instead, he voluntarily leaves home and becomes a hobo. Thinking he's dead after his pants are discovered in a river, Henry's relatives, friends, and business associates try to contact him in a laughable "seance" presided over by the pseudo swami, setting up the film's farcical conclusion.

Korla Pandit: Fake Indian..
My take: Basically a domestic sitcom in movie form, Heading for Heaven would be perfectly accentuated by prerecorded chuckles on the soundtrack. In fact, the film's cast has two patron saints of laugh-track-saturated reruns: George O'Hanlon of The Jetsons (about which I once wrote a quite brilliant article) as a layabout who claims to be an insurance salesman but sleeps 16 hours a day, and Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies as an ornery maid who does nothing but complain about her employers and make empty threats to quit. Stuart Erman is your typical harried, slightly dim TV husband and father. The plot, too, is built around the coincidences and miscommunications typically found in such shows. If you like old -- or shall we say, vintage -- sitcoms, Heading for Heaven will be an enjoyable experience. Fortunately, I do... and it was.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there's not much upon which to comment. It's a serviceable, competent job, but nothing special. The film was adapted from a stage play, For the Sake of the Family by Daniel Brown and Charles Webb, and I can imagine it working fairly well as dinner theater entertainment. (On stage, they'd have to up the energy level and the pace a bit.) If there's anything of particular interest in this plot, it's the presence of a fraudulent swami. Russ Vincent, the actor in this role, is not even remotely Indian but he has charmed the housewives of the community in this film by presenting them a vague, romanticized version of the Mysterious East. This puts him in close company with Korla Pandit, (about whom I also wrote a quite brilliant article). Like Korla, the swami in this film favors snazzy suits and bejeweled turbans.

Is it funny: I'd say so, yeah. While no masterpiece, it appealed to the rerun-loving part of my brain. I especially enjoyed the opening sequence in which generation after generation of Elkins men tell their children never to sell the family's sure-to-be-valuable property, foolishly putting their trust in Democrats, then Republicans, and finally Democrats and Republicans. At his lowest ebb, Henry has an amusing, slightly trippy scene in which he is visited by the spirits of his ancestors who, later in the film, literally turn over in their graves. Moliere it ain't, but I'll admit I laughed.

My grade: B



P.S. - Stereotype-free again, folks! Well, uh... except for the swami, who is the recipient of a couple of "towelhead" jokes.

Joe's Record Collection: Stan Freberg takes dead aim at the entire Top 40

Comic, actor, writer, singer, puppeteer and ad man: Stan Freberg has done it all.

The record: A Child's Garden of Freberg (Capitol Records, 1957 - T-777)

The artist: Stan Freberg

A Child's Garden of Freberg
History: The California-born son of a Baptist minister, Stan Freberg (1926-2015) is one of America's great satirists. Though I certainly don't agree with all his opinions, there are moments when I think he should be added to Mount Rushmore. He was a voice actor for Disney and Looney Tunes (the latter most prominently in 1957's Three Little Bops) and a regular on one of the first successful television series ever, the groundbreaking puppet show, Beany and Cecil (he was Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent). Beyond that, Stan more or less invented the "funny commercial" with a series of distinctive print, radio, and television ads that employed a humorous, "soft sell" approach. Freberg credits his success in the advertising game -- where he was employed for decades -- to his contempt for "real" commercials.

Stan also had the good and bad fortune to be, in his words, "the last of the network radio comedians" with a short-lived but influential series of his own, CBS's The Stan Freberg Show, which lasted all of 15 weeks in 1957. (America had long since moved on to television by then.) For about ten years in the middle of the last century, Stan Freberg was also a Capitol Records recording artist with a string of hit singles, often employing the talents of cartoon legends June Foray (aka Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Daws Butler (aka Yogi Bear) in elaborate sketches that lampooned popular culture, usually television or music. A Child's Garden of Freberg, whose title is a spoof of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, is Capitol's belated attempt to gather Freberg's hits (and a few B-sides) into a single compilation.

Four years later, still recording for Capitol, the comedian did reach the Top 40 with his unprecedented, massively-ambitious concept album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years. (Volume Two didn't come out until 1996.) Freberg headed back to Madison Avenue to pay the bills, but his records had a second life thanks to radio's The Dr. Demento Show, where a new generation of listeners, including "Weird Al" Yankovic, heard them.

All Music Guide says: Five stars. "A Child's Garden of Freberg remains an excellent overview of Freberg's early years and is well worth the purchase, if you can find it." - Sean Carruthers [link]

Was it a hit: The album doesn't seem to have been one, no, but most of the songs on it reached the charts. In fact, "St. George and the Dragonet" hit #1 in October 1953 and stayed there five weeks. "C'est si Bon" peaked at #13 in January 1954. "Try" topped out at #15 in April 1952. "Heartbreak Hotel" got as far as #79 in July 1956. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" rose to #16 in October 1955. "John and Marsha," Stan's first hit, climbed to #21 in February 1951. "That's My Boy" landed at #30 in August 1951. "Rock Island Line" missed the charts here but was a #36 hit in England in July 1956. "Sh-Boom" was a success in America and England, hitting #14 here and #15 there. All told, Stan had 16 chart hits over a nine-year period (1951-1960). Not a bad track record for a comedian.

Al Capp: An influence on Stan.
Choice excerpt from the liner notes: Already an ace copywriter, Stan composed his own liner notes in the form of an essay called "To Those Persons Fingering This Album in the Record Shop and Wondering Whether to Buy Bach Fugues Instead." He makes wisecracks about the album ("Hey, you guys, here's a forty-minute wad of Freberg. Take it or leave it."), thanks his collaborators, pointing out that orchestra leader Billy May wears a "great, flapping Hawaiian shirt" when he conducts, and boasts a little about his record sales ("The good fairies must have come in the night and bought all those records.") and his international success. ("To my amazement, people of other countries, while at times comprehending only 50% of the real satire, laugh as loudly as  Americans," he says.) Most interestingly, he reaffirms his hatred of rock & roll ("a musical trend that I personally loathe") and gives a definition and a heartfelt defense of satire, quoting fiercely conservative Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp  ("a man who has influenced me a lot") in the process. "The fifth freedom," according to Capp, "is the freedom to laugh at ourselves."

An odd couple; Daws Butler and Stan Freberg.
The listening experience: Impressive, though I've heard most of these songs a hundred times at least. In fact, I already owned most of the tracks on A Child's Garden of Freberg, but I purchased it for the handful of rarities and the Freberg essay on the back cover. It's still a very entertaining and funny record. Unsurprisingly, it starts with Freberg's all-time biggest hit, "St. George and the Dragonet," one of only two spoken-word pieces on the LP. (The rest are songs.) "Sgt. George" is a Dragnet parody with Stan as a Joe Friday-type, humorless, monotone knight who arrests a dragon for "devouring maidens out of season" and interviews witnesses, including Butler (who imitates Jerry Lewis) and Foray, with Jack Webb's usual brand of dull, bureaucratic professionalism and barely-concealed contempt. Particularly corny jokes, a Freberg trademark, are punctuated with the famous four-note Dragnet theme.  ("How ya gonna catch him?" "I thought you'd never ask. With a dragon net." DUN DA DUN DUN!

Most of the other songs on the album are parodies of popular songs of the era. Unlike Allan Sherman and "Weird Al" Yankovic, though, Freberg's method of parody is not to change the lyrics of the original song but to exaggerate and distort their most outstanding qualities. Generally, these parodies are little musical skits in which a singer is trying to record a hit record but keeps being interrupted by pesky background singers, disobedient musicians, and skeptical executives. The first of these on the album, a spoof of Eartha Kitt's "C'est si Bon," is a modest example of the form. With a breathy faux-French voice, Freberg himself plays Ms. Kitt, whose detached coolness is put to the test by a chorus who won't wait for the "cotton pickin' signal" to come in at the desired moment.

Elsewhere on Side One, Freberg plays a petulant, pouting Elvis Presley whose attempts to lay down "Heartbreak Hotel" are sabotaged by ripped jeans, an uncooperative guitar, and an out-of-control echo effect. On Side Two, Freberg laces into Mitch Miller's bombastic (and massively popular) version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Though Miller himself was a New Yorker, Freberg portrays him like a Civil War-era Kentucky colonel who struggles in vain to suppress a "smart-alecky Yankee snare drummer" who tries to hog the spotlight. Freberg also has some fun with the so-called "skiffle" craze (basically, British folk music) with his version of Lonnie Donnegan's "Rock Island Line." Poor Lonnie can barely get a word in edgewise due to the frequent interruptions of an impatient record business honcho (Peter Leeds) who objects to the nonsensical lyrics, the singer's imprecise diction, and what he sees as an unnecessarily long intro.

"Try," a reworking of "Cry" by Johnnie Ray, is one of the few Freberg songs that does change the lyrics of the original. Giving a wildly exaggerated, ridiculously emotional performance, Stan sends up Johnnie Ray's weepy, melodramatic style with a song that extols the virtues of misery. ("You, too, can be unhappy if you tuh-ryyyyyyyyyyy!")

The enemies: Elvis Presley as Marlon Bando.
Freberg's most vicious parodies are of the new teenage music that had taken the pop charts by storm. A lifelong fan of jazz, swing, and big band music, Stan Freberg utterly despised rock & roll, which he considered crude, repetitive, and moronic. Instead of just dismissing it as just another fad, though, Stan truly deconstructs the music and finds out what makes it tick. In doing so, he is the first true rock satirist, beating Frank Zappa to the punch by a decade.

Even though I adore the primitive, early rock of the 1950s and completely disagree with Freberg about the merits of the music, I still get a kick out of Stan's intricate and inventive parodies of the genre. In his version of the Platters' "The Great Pretender," a beatnik piano player (Freberg) resents having to play the same chords over and over throughout the whole song and keeps trying to turn the rock ballad into a jazz number, driving the frantic lead singer (also Freberg) to distraction. "You play that 'clink clink clink' jazz or you don't get paid!" he threatens. Instead of raising moral objections to rock & roll, like so many other cultural critics of the 1950s, Freberg raises musical objections and uses this record to state his case as plainly as possible.

The album's last song, "Sh-Boom," is a takeoff on an R&B number by the Chords (not the sanitized white version by the Crew Cuts). Here, Stan equates the rise of rock music to the concurrent rise of "method acting" that was then making its presence felt in Hollywood. The lead singer on this track is Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, as imitated by the comedian. The faux Brando insists on mumbling his way through the song, occasionally interrupted by a shrieking Stella. The song builds in intensity as "Stanley" works himself into a lather, and the background music morphs into a mash-up of "The Campbells Are Coming" and the Dragnet theme, bringing A Child's Garden of Freberg full circle.

Two more tracks on the album are pastiches of the rock style: an incoherent 12-bar blues song called "Widescreen Mama" and a moronic medley called "Rock Around Stephen Foster." On these songs, Freberg exaggerates the distorted guitar and saxophone sounds of the music he "personally loathes" and, in doing so, ironically creates two excellent rock records in the process. If he didn't hate the music so much, he could have made a fortune cranking it out. One special side effect of Freberg's rock parodies is that they are loaded with references to once-familiar, now-mostly-forgotten public figures, including Carrie Jacobs-Bond, Nick Lukas, Hunter Hancock, Hugo Winterhalter, and Gayelord Hauser. In all, about half of this album is devoted to spoofing rock music -- more than half if you expand the definition to include Lonnie Donnegan and Johnnie Ray.



There are a couple of oddball tracks on A Child's Garden of Freberg that deserve mention, too. "John and Marsha" is a two-character soap opera with a pair of lovers (both played by Stan) saying each other's names over and over in various tones of voice while sappy "romantic" music plays in the background. This famous bit, simple but ingenious, was referenced by Bugs Bunny, imitated by John and Yoko, and even resurrected on Mad Men. The lushly-orchestrated "That's My Boy" is a song in which a proud papa boasts about his son, who sounds like a violent and destructive brat. "He'll talk to you in words just as plain," Freberg brags. "See how clear he says 'derail the train?'" This track is a reminder that the supposed innocence of children is merely a figment of adult imaginations. This was South Park half a century early.

Overall grade: (what else?) A*

*Don't worry. I'll eventually do some albums I hate in this series, too.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #23: "The Groom Wore Spurs" (1951)

Ginger Rogers and Jack Carson in The Groom Wore Spurs, as depicted in this Punch cartoon from 1951.

The flick: The Groom Wore Spurs (Universal release of a Fidelity Pictures production, 1951) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.6

Director: Richard Whorf (Till the Clouds Roll By; lots of TV series, including The Beverly Hillbillies [he directed about one-fourth of the 274 episodes], Gunsmoke, and My Three Sons)

Actors of note: Ginger Rogers (Top Hat, Monkey Business, Swing Time; beloved screen partner of Fred Astaire; Oscar winner for Kitty Foyle), Jack Carson (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace), Joan Davis (star of TV's I Married Joan, which has the catchiest theme song ever), Stanley Ridges (Sergeant York, To Be or Not To Be), John Litel (The Sons of Katy Elder, Key Largo), James Brown (The Godfather of Soul... nah, this one's a white character actor who appeared in Irma La Douce and Targets and was a regular on TV's Rin Tin Tin and Dallas), Victor Sen Yung (The Good Earth, Flower Drum Song)

The gist of it: Lady lawyer A.J. Furnival (Rogers) is thrilled that her new client is cowboy movie star Ben Castle (Carson). She becomes a fawning fangirl in his presence, though she tries to maintain her professional composure as an attorney. It seems Mr. Carson has run up a $60,000 gambling debt he can't pay to vicious gangster Harry Kallen (Ridges), and he wants A.J. to negotiate a settlement with the crime boss. Against the advice of her nosy roommate Alice (Davis), A.J. accompanies Ben on a private plane to Las Vegas to meet Kallen face-to-face. Once they arrive in Sin City, Ben goes into his well-rehearsed seduction routine, and the two abruptly decide to get married. Later, when A.J. learns that Ben was using her because her father was a famous attorney who had defended Kallan, she is understandably upset and goes back home to get an annulment. But Alice advises her to move into Ben's place and start playing the role of his wife. She does, and before long she realizes that Ben is nothing like the character he plays in the movies. He's just a spoiled actor who can't ride a horse or play a guitar to save his life. But Ben has genuinely fallen in love with A.J., and the two do have a certain romantic chemistry. When Ben is wrongly suspected in Harry Kallen's murder, A.J. uses her legal smarts to get him out of a jam and find the real killer in the process.

The film's misleading poster.
My take: This is the second behind-the-scenes Hollywood comedy I've seen in this set, and like Hollywood and Vine, it's a lightweight affair without any real sting to it. Ginger Rogers was on the downward slope of her career when she made this flick,  having committed the unforgivable movie industry sin of turning 40. The glory days with Fred Astaire were long over, and she was appearing in low-budget, low-ambition films like this one, still radiating the charm that made her famous but not getting scripts that were worthy of her. After a few more years of this, she moved further down the Hollywood ladder to television, guest starring in various anthology series but never actually landing a recurring role on any program. These roles dried up in the mid-1960s and Ginger concentrated on stage work both here and in Europe for the last two decades of her career, emerging occasionally to judge a beauty pageant or appear on The Love Boat. So there's a cloud of disappointment hanging over this film from the get-go.

The direction feels a little flat, and the jokes mostly land with a dull thud. I wish Ginger's character, A.J., had been written a little more worldly and less trusting. That would have allowed Jack Carson to be even more of a selfish, womanizing slob than he already is. Carson provides what little pep the film has, getting some comedic mileage out of his role as a phony "Hollywood cowboy" who effortlessly slips into the role of a strutting Western hero whenever he appears in public but is utterly useless behind closed doors. Probably my favorite scene in the film is the one in which Ben Castle registers at a hotel in Vegas and manages to say everything a Western hero should say under those circumstances. The film's longest comedy sequence takes place when A.J. cheerfully barges into Ben's room when the actor is suffering from a terrible hangover. The scene eats up many minutes of screen time but it never quite rises above "moderately amusing." A subplot with a disgruntled, hard-drinking maid is basically a non-starter, too.

Comedienne Joan Davis -- a woman born to play the heroine's wisecracking best friend -- was a star on the rise at this point in her career. Her character, advice-giving busybody "Aunt" Alice, reminded me a lot of another Alice -- the maid played by Ann B. Davis on The Brady Bunch. Joan has a rather mannish appearance in this film, and I was surprised when she openly acknowledged this fact. Evidently, this was an actress without vanity.

Meanwhile, the plot kind of breaks down at the three-quarter mark. Apparently realizing that the "romantic comedy" aspect of the story was going nowhere, the filmmakers decided to turn The Groom Wore Spurs into an "action comedy" for its noisy, chaotic conclusion. Speaking of giving up, the film's score is credited to Emil Newman, but Emil must have had better things to do that day because the finale is set to well-worn classical chestnuts by Rossini and Von Suppe*. This makes the movie feel even more cartoonish, and the story loses whatever connection it had to humanity or the real world. By the way, The Groom Wore Spurs was based on a short story by Robert Carson (no relation to Jack) called "The Legal Bride." It was serialized in Collier's magazine in 1949, and you can read some of it if you care to.

Is it funny: Oh, it'll do in a pinch, I guess. I might have chuckled dryly once or twice. Given the ripe premise, however, this could and should have been much funnier. The cast is game, but this film needed a better, more focused script and livelier direction. As it is, The Groom Wore Spurs is as potent as room-temperature ginger ale. Everyone looks a little bored, as if they'd all rather be somewhere else, and the film kind of plods along until a hectic climax that marks a drastic change in tone from the rest of the movie. This is the cinematic equivalent of a homework assignment that's completed aboard the bus on the way to school.

My grade: C+

* To be fair to Emil, though, he did write a pretty cowboy ballad for this film.

P.S. - The film has no negative black stereotypes, but it sure does have a negative Asian stereotype. Victor Sen Yung, who was born in San Francisco and lived in America all his life, plays Jack Carson's obedient houseboy, Ignacio. The servant's rapid, unintelligible speech is one of the movie's lamest running jokes. Worse yet, there is one cringe-inducing scene in which Victor Sen Yung lip synchs to a sped-up recording of a song from one of Ben's movies, under the assumption that this is what Chinese people's voices sound like.

Joe's Record Collection: The Beastie Boys and De La Soul were on the cutting edge of nostalgia, if that's possible

In 1989, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul took hip hop someplace it hadn't been before -- the past.

The records: Love American Style EP (Capitol Records*, 1989 - V-15483); Buddy & Ghetto Thang (Tommy Boy, 1989 - TB  943)
* The Capitol logo is altered to read "Beastie Boys Records"
The artist(s): The Beastie Boys; De La Soul

Love American Style EP
History: The Beastie Boys were coming off an incredible high in 1989 when they recorded Paul's Boutique, their sophomore release on Capitol Records. Their first full-length rap LP, Licensed to Ill (1986), had been a mammoth #1 hit in America, selling nine million copies and becoming the first rap album ever to top the Billboard charts. After half a decade as a punk and experimental band, the Beasties were now among the most popular acts in the country. The key to their success had been following the lead of Run-D.M.C., who had combined rap with heavy-metal-style guitars on singles like "Rock Box" (1984), "King of Rock" (1985), and their genre-bending Aerosmith collaboration "Walk This Way" (1986). The Beasties took this even further with the party-hearty frat anthem "Fight for Your Right," a Top 10 smash which was closer in spirit to mid-1980s hair metal like Motley Crue than hip hop. Their album, too, relied heavily on rock and metal samples, particularly Led Zeppelin, in addition to the funk and soul songs which normally provided the foundation on rap records. The first sound listeners heard on Side One of Licensed to Ill, in fact, was John  Bonham's pounding drum intro from the Zeppelin classic "When the Levee Breaks." Commercial expectations were high for the follow-up album, but the Beastie Boys were not interested in repeating Licensed to Ill. Instead, Paul's Boutique was a heady, densely-layered sound collage, its lyrics jam-packed with arcane cultural references and in-jokes. The Beasties announced their new direction with the Adam Bernstein-directed video for "Hey Ladies," the first single from the album. Gone were the sneakers, jeans, and ballcaps of the "Fight for Your Right" era. In their place were vintage 1970s leisure suits and platform shoes. They'd ditched "rock & roll" image and sound, too. "Hey Ladies" was built around a sample from "Machine Gun," a 1974 funk single by the Commodores. Initial commercial reaction to Paul's Boutique was underwhelming, and the commercial triumph of Licensed to Ill was never to be repeated, but the quirky 1989 LP had a long shelf life, eventually becoming widely acknowledged as a modern classic. Instead of burning out quickly as a one-joke fad, the Beasties enjoyed two more decades of productivity and success, and their second album was the first step in that new direction. Their Love American Style EP, characteristically named for a campy early 1970s TV series, is an interesting artifact from the Paul's Boutique era, when the Beasties were paradoxically looking forward by looking back. Nostalgia for the 1970s was still a fairly novel concept at the time. The decade had not yet been strip-mined for parody and imitation quite yet.



Buddy & Ghetto Thang
Meanwhile, that very same year, a Long Island hip hop trio called De La Soul was offering the American public something radically different than anything it had ever seen from a black hip hop act. Rap had its gangsters (N.W.A., Ice-T), its politicized crusaders (Public Enemy, KRS-One), and its braggarts (LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane), but it didn't have whimsical, nerdy pacifists like Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and P.A. Mase. That is, until De La Soul's debut LP, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out in 1989. The fact that the album took its name from a Johnny Cash lyric was indicative of just how different it was from everything else in hip hop at the time. The press was quick to label De La Soul as hippies and their music as "hippie hop," but the group bristled at this snap judgment and said so in their first hit single, "Me, Myself, and I." Like the George H.W. Bush-era Beastie Boys, De La Soul's sound was rooted in the wacky, tacky 1970s more than the dippy, trippy 1960s anyway. For example, "Me, Myself, and I" was built around a groove from "(Not Just) Knee Deep," a 1979 track by Funkadelic from their Uncle Jam Wants You album. The album's first song, "The Magic Number" was a take-off on "Three is a Magic Number," a 1973 educational tune from the animated Schoolhouse Rock! series. And "Eye Know" borrowed heavily from "Peg," a 1977 Steely Dan number. In short, the trio raided their parents' record collections in search of soundbites with no regard for the usual "rules" of hip hop. This wasn't the only way they broke the mold either. While hip hop is famous for its "beefs" -- often-violent rivalries between acts (think Biggie vs. Tupac) -- De La Soul joined like-minded rappers Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, and A Tribe Called Quest in a mutually-supportive collective called the Native Tongues. Several members of the Native Tongues, in fact, guest star in the extended remixes which appear on Buddy & Ghetto Thang, a maxi-single release of two standout tracks from 3 Feet High. The record stores at my local mall, the Genesee Valley, didn't carry vinyl EPs, so I purchased both the De La Soul and Beastie Boys records during one of my family's occasional visits to Detroit's Greektown district which at that time had some slightly hipper, more eclectic disc boutiques. At the time, it blew my mind that these groups were issuing alternate, remixed versions of their songs that weren't included on the regular albums. "What will they think of next?" I wondered. This was before pop culture became one big remix, of course.

All Music Guide says: (Beasties) Three stars. No full review. [link]; (De La Soul) No review, just a generic listing. [link]

Was it a hit: (Beasties) Tough to say. "Hey Ladies" hit #36 in America and charted in Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand as well. But according to this discography, the extended play single was only released as Love American Style in "several territories." The EP did reach #76 in England, so it was a minor hit in at least one country. (De La Soul) Nope. The Buddy & Ghetto Thang maxi-single does not appear to have charted anywhere. But "Buddy" did appear as the B-side to "The Magic Number," which hit #18 on the R&B charts, #27 on the club charts, and soared all the way to #7 in England.

Choice excerpt from the liner notes: (Beasties) Love American Style EP has no notes to speak of, but the credits on the back cover list Adam Yauch's alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower as the photographer and Ricky Powell (memorably name-checked in the Paul's Boutique song "Car Thief") as a photo assistant. (De La Soul) Buddy & Ghetto Thang is similarly note-less, but the words "Real Dan Stuckie" (a silly, made-up slang expression frequently used by De La Soul in those days) plus the initials "CG" and a peace sign are etched into the inner groove on Side A. Many records have writing etched into the vinyl; generally, it's just the catalog number but some acts like to use that space for personalized messages. "Weird Al" Yankovic did this habitually in the 1980s, hiding little jokes like "Don't forget to eat your broccoli!" on his vinyl albums for eagle-eyed fans to discover. Try doing that with an MP3!

Robert Blake as TV's Baretta
The listening experience: (Beasties) Revelatory. The Beasties were always big proponents of vinyl ("I'm still listening to wax/I'm not using the CD," they would later attest on "Sure Shot"), and Love American Style EP shows why. The format is inordinately kind to their intricate, bass-heavy music. Side One contains the album versions of two tracks from Paul's Boutique, "Shake Your Rump" and "Hey Ladies," and even on my rather primitive system, these songs pack a wallop that my iPod can't touch. Side Two consists of two very worthy instrumental remixes. "33% God," its very title a reference to the 33 1/3 RPM speed at which vinyl records are played, is an extrapolation of "Shake Your Rump," while "Dis Yourself in '89 (Just Do It)" extends the groove of "Hey Ladies." Both tracks on Side Two are opportunities for the Beasties to shoehorn in even more soul, funk, and hip hop samples and get more mileage out of the ones they've already appropriated, like the theme song from Baretta. Why these two fun little tracks were not included on the Paul's Boutique reissue a few years back, I do not know. (De La Soul) Enjoyable, if a little repetitive. The EP contains three incarnations apiece of "Buddy" and "Ghetto Thang" -- the standard LP versions plus remixes presented with and without their lead vocals. The extended version of "Buddy," a double-entendre-filled sexual anthem, is a lot of fun. De La Soul use their extra disc space to add a feisty verse by Monie Love (who offers the often-ignored female perspective on sex), a little playful repartee with Queen Latifah (who speaks with a Puerto Rican accent for some arcane reason), and few more eccentric samples, including a chldren's record extolling virtues of the dictionary and a cool little quote ("In order to make his cavegirl smile, he had to improve his whistle style!") from Disney's 1953 short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. "Ghetto Thang" does not benefit much from the remix treatment, however. The song is De La Soul's serious look at inner city strife, and the spare, no-nonsense beat used on the LP version suits it perfectly. On this EP, though, the rather somber vocals are overlaid on top of a funky "party" groove, and the disconnection is jarring. The two instrumentals may prove valuable to DJs and freestyle rappers, but they're not too compelling as standalone recordings. One last note: I'm not sure if Capitol used higher-quality vinyl or what, but these records are of the same vintage and have endured similar treatment, and Love American Style EP still sounds crisp and clear while Buddy & Ghetto Thing is scratchy and dull.

Overall grades: (Beasties) A-; (De La Soul) B