Friday, December 12, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #6

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – This is one of those movies that it’s been so long since I’ve seen it “it’s new to me.” David Niven plays a bishop heckbent on completing the plans for the construction of a massive cathedral (backed by wealthy dowager Gladys Cooper)—at the expense of brittle marital relations with Mrs. Bishop, Loretta Young. He prays for guidance…which comes in the form of angel Cary Grant; Grant as “Dudley” charms everyone he meets but Niven begins to gets concerned that the angel is competing for Young’s affections. (Hey—if an angel resembling Cary Grant started macking around my wife, I’m sure I’d be a bit steamed, too.) Wife gets quite the workout during the holidays on TCM (and since I didn’t start getting the channel until May I rarely got the opportunity to see it—except in its loathsome colorized version) and it’s not hard to see why (it’s a marvelous depiction of the true spirit of Christmas); it’s scheduled for next Friday (the 19th) at 8pm and on Christmas Eve at 6pm, so if by some odd chance you’ve never caught up to it you owe it to yourself to take a peek. The justly famous sequence when Grant takes Young ice skating (along with cab driver Laughing Gra—er, I mean James Gleason) is the film’s highlight, but my personal favorite is when the two of them visit Young’s old friend, an atheist professor (played by the always delightful Monty Woolley) who’s positively gobsmacked at the fact that the sherry they’re drinking seems to magically refill itself—which it does, with a little help from Grant (Woolley: “We don’t seem to be making much headway”). Wife was directed by Henry Koster (who also helmed the offbeat fantasy Harvey, featuring one of Jimmy Stewart’s finest roles) and also features performances from Elsa Lanchester, Sara Haden, Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes, Regis Toomey and The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir (whose rendition of Charles Gounod’s “Noël” is positively exhilarating). This film was later remade with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance as The Preacher’s Wife (1996)…the less said about that the better.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – Both this film and Bishop’s Wife were featured as part of guest programmer Frank Miller’s lineup this past Tuesday night (as were The Naked City and High Noon) and though I own a copy on DVD I stayed up late to see it because as Vince Keenan has always stated, it’s one hell of a film. A group of hijackers led by master criminal/mercenary Robert Shaw (the other members in his “gang” are Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Earl “Wilson” Hindman) steal a New York subway train and announce to Transit Authority head Walter Matthau that unless their demand of a million-dollar ransom is met, they’re going to start tossing out dead hostages at a rate of one-per-minute. Pelham is a classic “heist” film that delivers the goods on both action and suspense…but it’s also one of the most perversely funny films in movie history—a veritable primer on Noo Yawk attitude. Matthau, Shaw, Balsam and Elizondo get top billing but there are other talented Big Apple performers in this as well: James Broderick, Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller, Kenneth McMillan, Doris Roberts, Julius Harris and Woody Allen crony Tony Roberts (and if you listen carefully, you can hear the late Dolph Sweet on a police radio), just to name a few. This was remade as a TV movie in 1998 and another is scheduled for next year; I can’t help but think of Miller’s response to Bobby Osbo when he was asked if he’d ever remake High Noon: “Remaking High Noon is not worth your time, and it certainly isn’t worth mine.” Well put, and the same goes for Pelham as well.

High Society (1956) – Now here’s the point in the narrative where I break my “no remake” rule and suffer the slings and arrows of disapproval in the comments section. I actually prefer this musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (1940) to the original; I’ve never cared much for Philadelphia since I have difficulty warming up to it—my take on the movie jibes with James Stewart’s pungent observation: “The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges” (a line spoken by Celeste Holm’s character in Society). For those of you unfamiliar with either film, here’s the plot: wealthy ice-goddess Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly) is planning to wed stuffy George Kittredge (John Lund); though they're determined to keep the wedding low profile, the family Lord reluctantly allows a gossip rag known as Spy magazine to send a reporter, Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and a photographer, Liz Imbrie (Holm), to cover the nuptials by threatening to publish sordid details of an affair in which Tracy’s disreputable father (Sidney Blackmer) is engaged. In the meantime, Tracy’s wealthy ex-husband, jazz musician C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby), attempts to do what he can to put the kibosh on his ex’s intentions to marry George the wanker. (With a moniker like that, no wonder he became a jazz musician.) There's no argument that Society’s parts are greater than its total, simply because there are so many wonderful musical moments: Crosby and Kelly’s duet of True Love; Der Bingle and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong cutting loose on Now You Has Jazz; and the show-stopping Well, Did You Evah? sang by Ol’ Blue Eyes and Bing (a Cole Porter tune originally written for DuBarry Was a Lady). (I even love the duet between Celeste and the Chairman of the Board, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) (Sorry about dropping the Philadelphia Story bombshell…if it’s any consolation, I still adore Grant and Hepburn in Holiday.)

Double Dynamite (1951) – Speaking of Sinatra, I just finished watching this a couple of hours ago—it’s been a long time since I viewed it but unfortunately it’s still as stale as when I saw it the first go-round. Sinatra made this flat musical comedy at a time when he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood (he’s billed third, so that should tell you something—and he’s doesn’t even rate an appearance on the movie poster); he plays a bank teller who saves a gangster from being pummeled and the hood is so grateful he lends Ol’ Blue Eyes a grand to play the horses…which he runs up to a nice little nest egg of sixty large. (One of the unintentionally funny things about this movie, by the way—Frankie’s character is completely foreign to the ways of the Mob.) He intends to spend it like water and marry his girlfriend Mildred (Jane Russell)—but then word gets out that there’s been some money embezzled from the bank, and Frankie is unable to find anyone who can square his story. If Dynamite has anything to recommend it, it’s that Groucho Marx plays Sinatra’s sidekick; Russell, on the other hand, has an unusual role as the fiancée in that she plays a naïve “good girl” who delivers her dialogue in sort of a Marilyn Monroe-ish whisper. Written by Mel Shavelson, Dynamite features support from Don “Congo Bill” McGuire (who later became a director of films like Jerry Lewis’ The Delicate Delinquent), Howard Freeman, Nestor Paiva, Harry Hayden, William Edmunds, Frank Orth and Russell “One Man’s Family” Thorson.


Pam said...

And a new remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 is in post-production as I type.

This one has Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzmán, John Turturro and James Gandolfini.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

(shaking head) Madness...madness!

(light bulb over head) Hey! Let's remake that one! The Bridge Over the River Kwai!

Vince said...

You know how I feel about Pelham. Here's how I feel about High Society: I also prefer it to The Philadelphia Story. Is there a more thankless part than George Kittredge, no matter what version you're watching?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I'm also casting my vote for Society over Philadelphia. They couldn't completely get rid of the loathsomeness of the original premise -- if a woman's father cheats on her mother, and her husband gets drunk and hits her, it's her own fault for being such a cold fish -- but at least they toned it down.

The thing that keeps the movie from really taking off, apart from the almost total lack of dancing, is that it's imbalanced: Crosby gets the better part and most of the best numbers, leaving Sinatra looking a bit lost. Of course, Bing was a better movie-musical performer than Sinatra anyway, so maybe that imbalance was inevitable.

Brent McKee said...

As far as High Society and Philadelphia Story, I really can't pick between them; I love them both. It's a bit difficult to believe Bing Crosby being married to Grace Kelly (even though I know that they had an affair - Grace was far more round-heeled than anyone during her lifetime gave her credit for), while the Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn chemistry is immaculate as always. On the other hand I prefer the Crosby-Sinatra relationship to Grant and Stewart. I just wish we could have seen more of Louis Armstrong and his life long friend Bing Crosby together. (Did you know that Pops turned the Groaner onto Pot back in the '30s? Now you know what he had in that pipe!)

Sam said...

Tomorrow, I get my TCM returned to me since I'm getting my Dish Network hooked up again just in time for the holidays. The best part is I'll get to sit back in bed after surgery and enjoy some really good films (and
Skidoo )