Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #13

I’ll be honest with you—I haven’t done a lick of anything resembling work since I got the new DVD recorder. TCM and I have been constant companions over the past few days, in between revisiting old favorites (On the Town, The Caine Mutiny, Key Largo) and getting a gander at a couple of flicks that I have not previously seen:

King Creole (1958) – Many critics believe that Elvis Presley could have been a contender in films provided that he had made more movies like this one. I don’t entirely agree, though it might be because I always found it difficult to take the King seriously after watching too many of those bad 60s flicks as a child—but I do believe he was capable of appearing in good movies, with Jailhouse Rock (1957) and Flaming Star (1960) among my favorites. I watched Creole solely on the basis of an interesting review by Gerald Peary (Danny’s bro) published in the recent tome The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Gender-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love. (Note: While this is a worthwhile book to thumb through, many of the movies reviewed within its pages are not B-films—you’d be better off hunting down copies of John Cocchi’s Second Feature and Don Miller’s B Movies [not to mention Hollywood Corral] for films that constitute true B’s.)

Creole, based on the Harold Robbins potboiler A Stone for Danny Fisher, stars Elvis as a would-be N’awlins delinquent who, having failed to graduate high school a second time, uses his vocal talents to secure some lucrative nightclub work from friendly Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart, as a good guy for a change), whose gin joint begins to do extremely well after El is hired. Rival nightclub owner and all-around thug Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau, in his gangster phase) is determined to hire Fisher away to work at his joint; he’s got a finger in every pie in town and uses both his moll Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) and lackey Shark (Vic Morrow, j.d. attitude on loan from Blackboard Jungle) to convince him to change his mind. Ronnie, the dictionary definition of bad girl, has developed a thing for Danny…but since he’s the type of guy who likes to roam around he’s also started up a relationship with virginal Walgreen’s clerk Nellie (Delores Hart). Fisher’s milquetoast dad (Dean Jagger) is against Danny’s career choice—and at one point in the film is laid up in hospital as a result of a beating administered by Shark and a few assorted goons—but by the film’s end, he’s come around to rooting for his son…who ends up with neither of the two girls but pretends everything’s jake.

Apart from Jones’ performance (she is the most interesting character in the film), Creole features competent work from the rest of the cast—the only thing that hampers the actors is that their characters are written as one-dimensional stereotypes. Were it not for the attempt by director Michael Curtiz to make the surroundings dark and foreboding, Creole would play like the average 60s Elvis flick: he’s a country boy who bristles under the thumb of authority, he answers obnoxious jerks with his fists and he’s able to get where he eventually arrives by having a primo set of pipes and an overactive pelvis. Creole runs about two hours…but it seemed to me that it was twice that length; as always, your mileage may vary.

Where’s Poppa? (1970) – Speaking of Danny Peary—I first learned about this film from his classic movie reference book Cult Movies…but I don’t think I ever dredged up the interest in seeing it after reading what it was all about. Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) is a NYC attorney who’s saddled with his batshit-crazy mother (Ruth Gordon) after promising his father on his death bed that he wouldn’t put in her in an old age home. So Gordy ends up having to hire a lot of nurses for Ma—most of whom have quit because they can’t put up with her bizarre antics. He thinks he’s found a winner in Louise Callan (Trish Van Devere)—with whom he also falls in love—but soon she’s as repulsed as all the other candidates before her. Gordon realizes that his one chance at happiness depends on hooking up with Louise, and when an appeal to his brother Sidney (Ron Liebman) to take care of Mother fails, he ends up putting her in a home. (Yes, had he done this in the beginning the movie would have been about five minutes long.)

Poppa has acquired quite a cult following over the years, but your enjoyment of the film will depend on your tolerance for bad taste and the comedy of embarrassment. Contrary to the poster, the tush scene is not worth the price of admission—in fact, the only time I truly laughed out loud while watching the film was in a sequence where Segal’s character defends in court an anti-war agitator (played by Rob Reiner, whose father Carl directed the film) accused of assault and battery against an Army colonel (Bernard Hughes, in a hysterical performance). When Segal learns that Reiner cut off Hughes’ big toe to keep the colonel from returning to Vietnam, Hughes snaps: “I don’t need a big toe to kill gooks.” There are other inspired moments from Vincent Gardenia (as a football coach who apparently kidnapped young boys to play on his team) and Paul Sorvino (in his film debut; he plays the owner of a truly tawdry and disgusting rest home), and I can’t help but wonder if more of this kind of material might have made a better movie than the end result.

It Happens Every Spring (1949) – It’s been a long while since I’ve watched this marvelous little baseball comedy, which stars Ray Milland as a chemistry professor who accidentally creates an agent that causes a baseball to repel against wood. Milland then wangles a job with the St. Louis team (the film doesn’t mention that he’s playing for the Cardinals because Happy Chandler, the commissioner of baseball at that time, disliked Spring intensely, calling it “cheating”) and becomes their ace pitcher—all the while trying to keep his new career secret from his fiancée (Jean Peters) and her parents (Ray Collins, Jessie Royce Landis). Spring was one of a successful series of baseball romps that appeared on movie screens in the late 40s/early 50s, and it’s interesting to note that the one thing they have in common is that actor Paul Douglas is in all three of them. (Douglas plays the foul-mouthed manager in Angels in the Outfield [1951], and has a hilarious gag cameo in Rhubarb [1951].) I think Spring features his best performance, as the team’s catcher and appointed roommate/bodyguard to Milland…who’s considered a bit of a “screwball”—and not of the pitching variety. This movie was scripted by Valentine Davies, who nabbed an Oscar for another fantasy-comedy (Miracle on 34th Street) and features a first-rate supporting cast: Ed Begley, Ted de Corsia, Alan Hale, Jr. (I wonder if this was the first time he got to utter the phrase “Oh Professor!”), Bill Murphy—and OTR fans with sharp ears will recognize Sandra Gould as Douglas’ nagging wife on the telephone. (Spring gets an encore showing on TCM at the end of February, so if you missed it Friday night make a reminder to see it then.)

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