Sunday, September 27, 2009

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing…” – Robert Benchley

Every Friday, the TCM on Demand service changes a bit of their programming—usually their shorts schedule, as whatever movies they happen to be currently showing demonstrate a longevity not unlike the Energizer Bunny. So they’ve finished with the last three Dogville shorts—Trader Hound (1931), The Two Barks Brothers (1931) and Love-Tails of Morocco (1931)—and have moved on to some one-reel comedies that are a little more palatable to my admittedly finicky tastes, the Robert Benchley series produced at M-G-M from 1935 to 1940, and again from 1943 to 1944. (The date gap is due to the fact that the Benchley shorts moved to Paramount from 1940-42.)

(Incidentally, I ended up taping all of the Dogville shorts—I haven’t come up with an explanation for doing so yet; the closest I’ve come is that I might be able to use them as “guest repellent” in an emergency…an idea I got from Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer. I mention this only because I also need to acknowledge that it was he who provided the quote for this post’s title. And by home recording the Dogvilles, I feel like I saved some money by not having to buy the Warner Archive DVD…though it’s highly unlikely I would have even if I had the extra cash to spend.)

I don’t recall the first time I saw one of the Robert Benchley shorts or even which one it was, but I do know that had I not taken the time to sit down and watch it I would have missed out on a great deal. For it was through these comedies that I became interested in reading his essays, and then later on had the privilege of enjoying his hilarious appearances in films like Foreign Correspondent (1940) and It's in the Bag! (1945), to name a couple off the top of my head. Some of these one-reel comedies are among the best ever produced in Hollywood (I’m particularly fond of jewels like A Night at the Movies [1937] and Opening Day [1938]) but the great thing about the Benchley shorts is that even the poorest ones have something in them to make me smile. (Particularly some of the Paramount entries, which are accessible on a nice Kino collection entitled Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin.)

Things were a bit slow around Rancho Yesteryear last night, so after I finally was able to get the On Demand function working, I watched all four of the Benchley comedies being showcased this week. Two of them I had already seen: the Oscar-winning How to Sleep (1935) and one of my personal favorites, How to Be a Detective (1936—this one has a great closing gag). The other two were How to Train a Dog (1936)—which I found only so-so—and How to Start the Day (1937), another winner whose story was written by Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, the architects of many of the best Bud Abbott & Lou Costello comedies like Hold That Ghost (1941) and The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947). I also get a kick out of watching these shorts because they were often the starting point of several well-known directors’ careers; Felix E. Feist handles the reins on Detective (he would later direct some not-too-shabby noirs like The Devil Thumbs a Ride [1947] and The Threat [1949]) while Roy Rowland (Witness to Murder, Rogue Cop) is credited with the direction on Day—in fact, he may have directed more Benchley shorts than anyone else, and also indulged himself on a number of Crime Does Not Pay efforts. (Veteran silent comedy director Arthur Ripley—who played an important part in the film career of Harry Langdon—flexed his comedy short muscles on How to Train a Dog.)

After the Benchley Fest, I used the remaining time to watch Monster (2003; on IFC on Demand), the critically-acclaimed suspense thriller based on the life of prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos—played here by Charlize Theron, who was awarded the Best Actress Oscar the following year for her performance. Since I didn’t see any of the other nominated performances for that year it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgment on whether or not it was deserved, but since I have seen interviews of the real Wuornos (in the documentary directed by Nick Broomfield, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer [1992]) I have to say Theron pretty much nailed the part. Unfortunately, the Broomfield doc sort of colored my judgment of Monster; director Patty Jenkins seemed to be pushing in a direction that suggested sympathy for the admittedly hard-luck Aileen, but I wasn’t buying it—Wuornos was a dangerous anti-social psychopath and focusing on her affectionate relationship with her lesbian lover (Christina Ricci) did nothing to win me to her cause. I enjoyed seeing Bruce Dern in a small part, and especially TDOY fave Scott Wilson (In the Heat of the Night, In Cold Blood, Dead Man Walking), who practically walks away with the film as the last of Wuornos’ “johns” pleading for his life in a surprisingly tender scene.

Then after taking a break for some Britcoms (including a viewing of Last of the Summer Wine’s “Surprise at Throttlenest”—which finds Truly and Clegg carrying out Compo’s last wish…finding a proper home for his beloved ferrets) I watched The Chocolate War (1988), director Keith Gordon’s fascinatingly surreal allegory (based on the novel by Robert Cormier) about an iconoclastic Catholic school student (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) who refuses to participate in the school’s annual fund-raising drive (selling boxes of chocolates), earning him the enmity of the institution’s head teacher (John Glover, wiggy as always) and a secret organization known as The Vigils, which rules over the other students via threats and intimidation. Gordon—an actor who was the epitome of the modern-day nerd in films like Home Movies (1979), Christine (1983) and Back to School (1986)—turned to directing in the late 1980s, with Chocolate being his feature-film debut and fine follow-ups like A Midnight Clear (1992) and Mother Night (1996) demonstrating he was no flash-in-the-pan. Chocolate is sort of a blending of If.... (1969) and The Lords of Discipline (1983), demonstrating that greed and cruelty are never as far away as your friendly neighborhood private school. A mostly no-name cast (save for Wallace Langham [billed here as Wally Ward], Bud Cort, Adam Baldwin and Jenny Wright) really delivers the goods in this little sleeper, which I caught on Flix on Demand.

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