Monday, February 2, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #19 (31 Days of Oscar edition)

I suppose I should issue a heads-up, seeing that this is the early part of February and all, that capsule reviews of recent classic flicks I’ve caught on TCM will be a bit spotty due to the cable channel’s “31 Days of Oscar” promotion. I’m not boycotting TCM, you understand; it’s just that I’ve always been a bit jaundiced in my views when it comes to the Academy Awards—I truly believe that some of the pictures honored simply weren’t the best that the movie industry had to offer in any particular year, and that in many cases movies don’t demonstrate their staying power until after a sell-by date of, say, ten years or so. (I’ve written about this before, but if you really want to peruse a more comprehensive take on the subject, track down a copy of Danny Peary’s Alternative Oscars.)

Nor does this mean that I disagree every time with those films chosen to receive the coveted gold statuette—it just that in browsing through the TCM listings this month, most of the either nominated-and-won or just-plain-nominated offerings I’ve already seen. But there’s a smattering of flicks I haven’t checked out, and I’ll certainly write about those when I can—but I’ll probably be supplementing this material by selecting some titles from the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.

My Favorite Year (1982) – TCM officially kicked off their Oscar festival with this gem of a picture that I was only too happy to revisit. It’s 1954, and one of television’s top comedy shows—Komedy Kalvacade, hosted by Stan “King” Kaiser (Joseph Bologna)—is playing host to movie idol Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), now an incorrigible drunk who’s only doing the telecast because INS is threatening to deport him. Swann’s first meeting with the program’s producer (Adolph Green) and writers (Bill Macy, Annie DeSalvo, Basil Hoffman) doesn’t go too well (he shows up completely potted) but junior writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) talks the staff into not canning the actor…only to discover he’s been made responsible for Swann up until the show airs. Year, inspired by a series of events when Errol Flynn made an appearance on a live comedy program, was one of the best films of that year (and naturally, wasn’t nominated for anything except O’Toole’s peerless performance)…though I’ll confess I’m biased because it deals with a subject that’s always fascinated me. While O’Toole has the showier role, I’ve always been furious that Bologna’s turn as a Sid Caesar-like comic was completely ignored; it’s one of my all-time favorite performances by any actor. Written by Dennis Palumbo & Norman Steinberg and directed by actor Richard Benjamin, Year also features first-rate contributions from Jessica Harper (as Linn-Baker’s romantic interest), Lainie Kazan (as Linn-Baker’s ma), Lou Jacobi, Tony DiBenedetto, Cameron Mitchell, Selma Diamond…and Gloria Stuart who, before her Titanic comeback, plays the woman whom O’Toole dances with as a favor to her husband while celebrating their wedding anniversary in the Stork Club.

The Sunshine Boys (1975) – Another favorite of mine, and one I hadn’t caught in a few years or so. Famed vaudeville team (Al) Lewis (George Burns) and (Willy) Clark (Walter Matthau) haven’t been on speaking terms for a decade…so when ABC wants them to appear on a special celebrating comedy, Clark’s nephew/agent (Richard Benjamin) has his hands full trying to reunite them for this last hurrah. Neil Simon wrote both the play and screenplay for this entertaining film, loosely based on the career of Joe Smith and Charlie Dale, and as everyone knows Burns’ part was originally to be played by Jack Benny, whom I bet would have been sensational in the role (sadly, the only film remnants of Benny’s participation are a series of make-up tests shot silent in September of 1974; which appear on the Sunshine Boys DVD). Again, because of my insatiably curious interest in the film’s subject, I have more of an affinity for this movie than some; Burns and Matthau make a sublime team and George garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance (a textbook example of underplaying, allowing Matthau to be the dominant one). Also on hand are Lee Meredith, Carol Arthur, F. Murray Abraham, Howard Hesseman and Fritz Feld (who, naturally, does his patented mouth-pop).

The Last Angry Man (1959) – This one was on early this a.m. but thanks to the magic of the Toshiba I put it on this afternoon, a movie that has eluded my attention for some time now. Elderly general practitioner Dr. Sam Abelman (Paul Muni) helps out a girl (Cicely Tyson, unbilled) left on his doorstep, and when the story is leaked to the local paper by Abelman’s nephew (Joby Baker) it catches the eye of television producer Woodrow Wilson Thrasher (David Wayne)…who pitches the idea of dramatizing Abelman’s life story to the potential sponsor of a TV series without fully obtaining Abelman’s cooperation. Thrasher leans on Abelman’s nephew Myron, wife Sarah (Nancy R. Pollock) and colleague/best friend Dr. Max Vogel (Luther Adler) to convince Abelman to okay the project—but the show is threatened by Abelman’s too-honest observations about the medical profession and Big Pharma (the show is sponsored by a drug company) and his concern for a juvenile delinquent (Billy Dee Williams, in his film debut) whom he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Because I read John DiLeo’s Screen Savers and thoroughly enjoyed his essay on Paul Muni, I was pumped about seeing Muni in what was his final film (and for which he nabbed a Best Actor Oscar nom). John makes the case that Muni’s finest hour on screen was in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and that as talented as Muni was, many of his film roles were of the overstuffed biographical variety that was frequently the bailiwick of George Arliss. (Indeed, of the six times Muni was nominated in the Best Actor category, the picture he nabbed the Oscar for was the Arliss-like The Story of Louis Pasteur [1935].) I don’t disagree with John on this point (I prefer Muni’s more down-to-earth showcases, like Chain Gang, Bordertown, Dr. Socrates and Black Fury—though I probably hold his turn in Scarface in higher regard than John) but I will confess that I hold Muni in high regard because he’s one of those actors who, whenever he’s on-screen, you just can’t take your eyes off of him (particularly a paint-by-numbers biopic like A Song to Remember [1945], in which he plays Frederic Chopin’s mentor, Joseph Elsner).

If you like Muni, you definitely will want to check Angry Man out (I love movies that allow actors/actresses to go out on a high note, and despite the actor's rep for being a real pain-in-the-tuchus he's simply amazing) although the movie wants to be a little more important than it actually is. The all-too-obvious conclusion is annoyingly prolonged…and I was curious as to why Sarah Abelman (who mentions that she and her husband came over to the U.S. as Russian immigrants) has no trace of a Yiddish accent while her husband is lousy with one. A good supporting cast includes a young and thin Godfrey Cambridge (also in his film debut), Betsy Palmer, Joanna Moore, Claudia McNeil, Dan Tobin and Russell Thorson.

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