Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of life minimum-waged among bloodthirsty department store throngs will resonate with those who’ve worked on the other side of the counter (and that probably accounts for most of us in the 99%).

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The classic 1923 silent comedy follows the misadventures of “The Boy,” who works as a lowly sales associate in The Big City.

It’s so accurate I’m convinced the film’s creators worked at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at some point. Not much has changed since then. That the phrase “Safety First,” which the film’s title parodies, is still used in corny mandatory safety videos just confirms it (John ignored safety first rules and stood on the top ladder rung. Now he’s dead. *Cue ominous music*). And the scene where hordes of sale-crazed shoppers attack The Boy could come straight from a modern-day Black Friday free-for-all.

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It brought back fond memories. There’s this one scene where a matronly patron asks to see every bolt of cloth on the shelves. In the end she leaves with just a tiny free sample. My experience was similar, only it involved king comforter sets and the tallest shelf in the store. Ah, retail. How I … don’t miss you. 

The Boy promises his fiancé, The Girl (Mildred Davis), he’ll send for her as soon as he makes enough money for them to get married. Of course he lies, writing that he’s making gobs of money and ordering peons around when in reality he’s a lowly clerk behind on rent in the ratty apartment he shares with “The Pal” (Bill Strother, who has a fantastic albeit stomach-churning scene reminiscent of Ebbet’s famous photograph).

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To prove his fabulous success, The Boy buys her a pendant — instead of paying rent — then later a matching chain (instead of paying rent). So naturally The Girl takes matters into her own hands and heads on over to The Big City to marry him. Seeing as he’s so wealthy and all…

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This of course presents a problem for our endearing, not-quite-so-honest hero, and he concocts a scheme to attract customers to the store in exchange for prize money. The idea? Have his friend scale the store building. Only he can’t make it at the last minute, so guess who does it instead?

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It’s a fantastic film; witty, true to life (some parts, anyway), and just plain fun to watch.

 

 

Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: James Stewart

Most people think of James Stewart as the upright, fight-for-your-ideals, invite-to-the barbecue-for-a-beer kind of guy. But the iconic actor did play a villain. Twice. Yes, all of TWO times. Not surprisingly, he played the roles early in his career. The films hit the box office in 1936, two years after his debut in the short Art Trouble. In both, he’s so overshadowed by ridiculously famous on (and off) screen couples that he appears as a mere whisker on the cinematic canvas.

Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy fans will remember Rose-Marie, in which Eddy plays a dashing Canadian Mountie pursuing MacDonald’s no-good, on-the-lam brother played by – guess who – James Stewart.

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Stewart led in handcuffs by Eddy, who proves that no one looks good in Mountie breeches.

Then there’s After the Thin Man, a William Powell/Myrna Loy collaboration, but I won’t say more about it, given that it’s a mystery film and all …

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Did I say too much?

James Stewart milk After the Thin Man

On the set of After the Thin Man with a tall glass of milk and looking … not quite so villainous.

Now for all his good guy films. Everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to the film’s copyright issues, or rather, lack of them…

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This is the scene I remember most vividly — when realization sets in and he stares into the camera. Creepy.

That and the pool/ensuing camellia bush (?) scene.

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“I could sell tickets!”

Of course there’s his brilliant work in Hitchcock’s films: Rope (’48), Rear Window (’54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56) and Vertigo (’58)

And my favorites, both Capra films co-starring Jean Arthur: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (’39) …

The filibuster scene. Capra was a genius.

… and the screwball You Can’t Take it with You (’38).

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Stewart discussing photosynthesis and the possibility of solar energy (really!) in You Can’t Take it with You.

Stewart also starred in The Shop Around the Corner (’40), on which In the Good Old Summertime (’49) and You’ve Got Mail (’98) were based. I didn’t care much for it. Due to the bickering star couple, cheating spouses and — spoiler alert — an attempted suicide, I found it pretty downbeat (is that a word?) for a romantic comedy.

For big-band lovers like myself, I recommend the delightfully music-saturated film The Glenn Miller Story (’54).

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Stewart accompanied by Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story.

And Harvey (’50), the hilarious, thought-provoking, poignant film about a rabbit and his visible human companion nominated Stewart for an Oscar (which I think he deserved).

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They had such great chemistry.

As for his personal life, Roger Ebert wrote this tribute on Stewart’s passing in 1997 (Interestingly, Ebert neglected to mention the villainous role in Rose-Marie).

Stewart also starred in a bajillion other movies — including his Oscar-winning film The Philadelphia Story (’40) — of which you and I have neither the time nor patience to read/write about. Suffice it to say, Jimmy Stewart was awesome.

Happy Birthday, Errol Flynn!

Liz, ever informed, told me that today is Errol Flynn’s 104th birthday. If this talented Aussie has never crossed your path before now, let me remedy that at once:

You’re welcome.

Who needs Russell Crowe when you’ve got Errol Flynn?

 In The Seahawk.

Anyway, Beaver and I couldn’t let this day pass without a post (and dessert) in his honor. He suggested cake. We settled for a cupcake instead.

beavererrol Happy Birthday, Errol Flynn!

To Mr. Ebert on His Death

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I meant to send you a letter a month ago, but in the jumble of everyday rituals and goings-about, it slipped my memory.

I confess I was also intimidated by the thought of writing to you, the humble amateur blogger fan scribbling away to a witty Pulitzer prize-winner. How I regret that now.

I’ve been reading your reviews since the age of twelve, when I eagerly scrambled for the local newspaper’s tiny entertainment section every Friday before my sisters could get to it. I didn’t always agree with you – you like boobs and the occasional Nicholas Sparks adaptation – but you always write with wit, knowledge, insight and passion. Your writing has soul. No one who has read your work could doubt this one fact: you truly love films.

Because of you, I gained a greater appreciation for the art of film, even seriously considered majoring in it. I opted for science instead: I wasn’t sure I could endure watching movies like Mad Dog Time. Then again, your reviews of horrible excuses for films were some of your most entertaining. So there may be hope for me yet.

Your blog posts, too, are thought provoking and a delight to read. I wish I could have seen the end product of the many plans you had as you mentioned in your last post.

There is so much more that could be said about your accomplishments, your life, your influence on the film industry. I leave others to the daunting task. Never has the death of a complete stranger moved me so much. To your wonderful wife, Chaz Ebert, I offer my condolences.

You will be missed.

Roger Ebert, blogger, journalist, film critic, died today after a long fight with cancer. He was 70 years old. 

Westerns: The Big Country

Gregory Peck Jaz on The Big Country

It’s raining outside and I’m curled up on the couch with a cup of jasmine green tea and my laptop. I’m contemplating Westerns. Obviously — as evidenced by a previous post — Westerns aren’t my thing. The Big Country is an exception. Also Cowboys and Aliens. Because who doesn’t like a stubble-perfect, cowboy hat-clad Daniel Craig shooting down evil, slimy green extraterrestrials?

But back to The Big Country.

Starring Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston As Himself, The Big Country is all about standing up for human rights and finding whimsical objects hidden in tree nooks. Okay, maybe not the latter, but the film’s hero is a flawless, incredibly honorable and good-looking guy who wants to do the right thing by everyone even when what some people truly deserve is a good punch in the face.

The film starts as most Westerns do: a stranger comes into town and immediately ruffles the townsfolk’s carefully cultivated feathers. Land is at stake. More specifically, water. Two feuding families, the Terrills and Hannasseys, stand on either side, vying for control and trying to convince its owner, spunky Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons of Guys and Dolls fame), to sell. She refuses, knowing what will happen if she does.

What does the stranger have to do with all this? Nothing at first. James McKay (Peck), a retired sea captain, simply came out west to marry the ditzy blonde he met up north, not stir up trouble.  But she just so happens to be a Terrill … not to mention Heston’s – her father’s right hand man – love interest. Sparks fly. Guns shoot. Horses gallop. And Heston, thankfully, gets a good punch in the face.

Liz on The Big Country

“Have you ever seen anything so big?”

“Yes.”

“You have? What?”

“A couple of oceans.”

“Oceans? Humph,” the local mutters as newcomer and ship’s captain Jim McKay walks away.

Brief Summary of The Big Country: Ship’s captain comes to fiancé’s western community and gets caught up in a feud between her wealthy family, the Terrills, and the despised and uncouth Hannasseys. Also caught between the groups is the fiancé’s friend Julie Maragon, who owns a large ranch with a year round water source both families want exclusive access to.

Gregory Peck (as Jim McKay) brings to the little western community where his fiancé Pat Terril lives everything from a new look with his fancy bowler hat to a new perspective on how big the country really is and why the notable citizens act as they do.

McKay’s father was killed in a duel, leaving McKay with a firm belief that a “good name needs no defense.” He accepts hazing from the Hannasseys (the “local trash” family hated by his wealthy fiancé’s family), declines riding bronco Old Thunder in front of everyone, even refuses to fight jealous foremen Charles Heston. McKay simply refuses to prove himself to anyone. Anyone but himself, that is. When watching the movie, I always want him to fight, to defend himself, to make sure everyone knows he’s not a coward. But I understand what he’s saying. You can’t go through your life proving yourself to others, getting your feather ruffled every time someone insults or mistreats you. In my opinion, this attitude can be taken too far, like by those who expect people to accept everything they do as right. Watch a few adventure movies, especially seafaring ones, and you’ll see the arrogant captains or adventures ordering their men to do dangerous or seemingly nonsensical things without explanation. It’s humbling to explain your actions, but sometimes a certain amount of “proving yourself” is a good thing.

An interesting angle to the caring what others think about you topic is McKay’s fiancé Pat’s response to the implication that he’s a coward. She expects him to fight and is humiliated when he doesn’t (“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life” is a comment she makes to him more than once), leading to tension between them. Her friend Julie even asks her “How many times does a man have to win you?”

Starring Gregory Peck, Carrol Baker at Pat Terrill, Jean Simmons as Julie Marragon, Charles Heston as the Terrill’s foreman, and Burl Ives as Rufus Hannasseys, and directed by Willim Wyler of Mrs.Miniver and Ben Hur fame, The Big Country is a must see. Whether its an aerial shot of riders snaking their way through Blanco Canyon or dust clouded wheels rolling to the fabulous score, The Big Country is, as Motion Picture Herald calls it, “a work of art.”

There are at least two great foreshadow lines in this movie. One of those happens at the beginning and the other near the end. I didn’t mention them to prevent spoilers, but if you want to whisper them in the comments section, I’d love to know if anyone else caught them.

Don’t forgot to leave a comment on this previous post for a chance to win two Robin Lee Hatcher Books!

Halloween Movie Lists!

Happy Halloween! In celebration, Liz and I have jotted down literature and film suggestions for the ghoulish holiday.

Liz: Here are some movies and a few books that would go great with a cool and windy fall night.

Films:

  • The Mummy’s Hand
  • The Phantom of the Opera
  • Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Rebecca
  • The Wolfman
  • The Blob
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon
  • The Uninvited
  • The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
  • The Canterville Ghost
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy
  • Ernest Scared Stupid
  • Topper Returns
Books:
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
  • Dracula by Brom Stoker
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jaz: I concur with Liz on the second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh and last films. Also Jane Eyre. The rest I can’t say because — I’m ashamed to admit this — I haven’t seen/read them.
I will only add:
  • For Jane Austen fans, Northanger Abbey (satire of gothic romances, containing a dark gloomy abbey, a mysterious death, a tyrannical father and a damsel in distress … sort of). Watch the latest BBC adaptation starring Felicity Jones if you’re watching the film version.
  • The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Feeeed me. FEEEEED MEEE!!!
  • The Thing from Another World (1951). Great film and unintentionally humorous, as is the case with many classic horror films.

There would be more, but the truth is many horror films frighten me with so little effort that I generally avoid them, even black and whites. But I see a few classic horror B films in my future … maybe. I’ll leave the light on.

September Swashbucklers: Captain Blood

This month’s theme will be (drumroll, please) … Swashbucklers! We’ll start with the 1935 film Captain Blood, a highlight of the genre starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

 

Liz: “Will you be back for breakfast?” the housekeeper asked.

“Who knows, my pretty one? Who knows?” Peter Blood replied.

Who knows what will happen next to quick talking, quick thinking Peter Blood in this movie based on Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name. Peace loving physician to Jamaican slave to feared pirate captain, Blood goes from one adventure to another.

I love the witty remarks of Peter Blood (a perfect role for Errol Flynn) and the intelligent, bold way he plots and executes the escape of himself and his fellow slaves. Stealing the all but abandoned Spanish pirate ship as the pirates raid the town is brilliant. As is the way he later sails between two French ships with a French flag flying until just before he attacks them to once again save Port Royal.

I didn’t care for Peter and his friends becoming pirates and frequenting Tortuga, but I understood why the bitter Peter chose to do so. It is also fitting to the story that Peter should buy and then fight for Arabella Bishop, while pretending to ignore her.

Quick moving plot with many unexpected turns, sword fights and naval battles, memorable characters, romance, and a happy ending make this one of my favorite adventure movies. The actors themselves—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone (the often featured swashbuckling villain) and many other familiar character actors—also greatly add to the enjoyment.

Favorite quotes:

“Hi ho for the Governor’s foot!”

“Do you think you could find a piece of timber about this long and this high?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Lash it to your spine; it needs stiffening.”

Jaz: Errol Flynn forever ruined my impression of pirates. It’s entirely his fault the mere mention of the word conjures images of an impeccably dressed, sword-fighting gentleman with a debonair smile. Especially the smile. And Captain Blood started it all.

The film follows the main character, Peter Blood, as he goes from being an honorable physician to a slave in the West Indies to a – surprise! – pirate captain and then to a –

But I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t watched it. And yes, I do realize I’ve spoiled the ending for pretty much every movie we’ve discussed. I couldn’t help it.

Colonel Bishop, the detestable evil despicable slave owner (played with a zest by Lionel Atwill), just so happens to be uncle to beautiful Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), who just so happens to fancy the impertinent Blood, who just so happens to be a slave for sale after being convicted of treason for treating a wounded man, who just so happened to be a soldier in the Monmouth rebellion.

Arabella buys Blood for 10 pounds, partly to spite her uncle, partly to rescue him from working in the mines, but mostly because he’s Errol Flynn. Of course we all know what ensues. Later, the brilliant Blood manages to escape on a ship with his companions and becomes the most well-known and respected pirate on the high seas.

Throughout Captain Blood, there’s enough swashbuckling action to satisfy even the most demanding classic action film fan: sword fights, explosions, raids, commandeerings, more sword fights, and … sword fights! The special effects are convincing and the fights intense. The film’s main death, shot on a rocky shore awash in foaming waves, was quite dramatic. I also liked the use of light and shadow, particularly in the opening scenes.

I love this film, partly because of the above-mentioned content, partly because I like the main character … but mostly because he’s Errol Flynn.