Monday, February 27, 2012

The Artist (2011) wins the Academy Award for Best Picture and a Rant

Wiz Pleazuuure

I hadn’t intended to watch the Oscars last night but I got swept up in the glamour of the red carpet, the glitz of the show and all the love for The Artist. I cheered on as I saw The Artist win for Best Picture, Best Score (take that Kim Novak!), Best Actor (Jean DuJardin, YAY!), Best Costume Design and Best Director. I had hoped that God is the Bigger Elvis would have won for best Documentary Short just so I could see Dolores Hart on stage. Actress Elizabeth Banks tweeted her confusion as to why there was a nun on the red carpet. Reading that tweet (which was RTd, I don’t follow her on Twitter), caused me to smack my forehead. Of course Elizabeth Banks doesn’t know who Dolores Hart is! Because a lot of new actors don’t care about film history. Not even the Academy cares very much about early film. Did you notice that in one of the montages showing “classics” they didn’t go further back then Midnight Cowboy (1969) (or at least that’s the earliest film I spotted)? And the Oscars are notorious for skipping over people in their memorial montage, although this year they did a lot better. Now I understand perhaps skipping over Barbara Kent this year because she had only played minor roles in a few films, her last one being released in 1935. But when Penny Singleton (aka Dorothy McNulty) passed away in 2003, they skipped her over in the 2004 montage. Singleton had a very long career in Movie and Television, much longer than Barbara Kent and she also had the Blondie series in which she was the title character! But no one knows who Penny Singleton is so let’s just skip her. If TCM can pay homage to everyone in a few minutes and do a great job at it, a 3-1/2 hour award show can do the same.

The Academy Awards usually throws in some mentions of a few favorites like Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, some Hitchcock, but for the most part it’s all about new new new. We are lucky if we even see Mickey Rooney on the red carpet or in the audience. I’m sure they shove him in the way back even though he’s been attending the Oscars longer than most of those people have been alive. When Kirk Douglas presented the Best Supporting Actress Oscar last year I near fell out of my chair. Seeing him on stage made my heart fill with joy. But idiots on Twitter and elsewhere had different reactions: 1) Kirk Douglas is still alive? and 2) Oh wow, that’s awkward, take the old dude off the stage. Let’s just forget about the fact that the man survived a stroke and has a legendary career in film. Naw, just get him off the stage. And the honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement isn’t even televised anymore. Sad!

This year I was happy for two things. For The Artist and for Hugo (2011). I haven’t seen Hugo but I own and have read the book it’s based on: The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The author/illustrator is Brian Selznick (and yes he is of the famous Hollywood Selznick family) and I got to meet him at Book Expo one year. For me the book celebrated the magic of early film and knowing Martin Scorsese’ appreciation for film history I’m sure the movie did the book justice. As most of you know, The Artist is a silent film (well mostly silent, there is some sound beyond just music and there is a bit of dialogue but not very much). It’s also black and white. How many of us classic film fans have encountered push back because a film is either silent or black and white? “Ew! I only watch films in color and with dialogue.” Well, congratulations! You are king/queen of the world. Silent films and black and white films are so beneath your excellence. What The Artist demonstrated is that a contemporary film doesn’t have to be American, doesn’t have to be color and doesn’t have to be a talkie. A French black-and-white silent film can be just as entertaining and even more so than the interminable dross that’s out there now.

Now it’s not to say that The Artist is a perfect film but it is really good. So before you buy into the Novak controversy, try watching it first. The only issue I had with it was the lack of 1920s/1930s lingo. “Oh my god” was used twice in the film that I noticed. That’s very much a contemporary phrase. They could have had fun with old slang like “on the level”, “and how!”, “Sheik”, “bee’s knees” and “cat’s pajamas”. But they didn’t which is a shame. However, I could tell that they put a lot of attention to the finer details of the era and stayed as true as they could to the period as possible. I definitely appreciated that.

Someone online stated that people who will watch The Artist will not decide to then watch earlier silent films. I don’t agree with that. It's not that I think people will be lining up to see the most complete version of Metropolis but I think saying no one will be interested in silent films is too general a statement. Whenever I watch a film I like, I try to find other films like it. And whenever I discover an actor or actress I enjoy, I try to watch other films they’ve done. It’s just how I watch films. It’s a chain reaction. One experience leads to other experiences. While The Artist is a silent film that is more palatable to modern audiences, I think that there will be some people who will be willing to take the challenge of exploring the silents of a bygone era.

Sometimes I write these posts and then ask myself, what’s my point? My point is that films like The Artist and Hugo demonstrate to all those haters out there that classic films matter! These films are our champions and we should be their champions too. They are love letters to the past from the present. They express the same love we have for classic films. So hurray for The Artist for celebrating early film, for entertaining us and for winning those awards. Congratulations!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Love is a Ball (1963)

And just when I had thought I'd seen all the 1960s sex comedies that I could, I discovered Love is a Ball (1963) on Netflix Instant. Love is a Ball is a delightful and fun romantic romp which takes place in the French Riviera. Glenn Ford stars as John Davis, a former race car driver (winner of the Grand Prix in Monaco!) whose down on his luck when he finds his beloved boat in desperate need for repair but he has no money to fix it up and get it back in the water. That's where Charles Boyer comes in. Boyer plays Monsieur Etienne Pimm, a professional matchmaker who takes down-on-their luck aristocrats and matches them with wealthy companions. He devises an elaborate scheme to get the two together, make them fall in love and see them off in a happy marriage of convenience and love. Boyer's latest cause is Duke Gaspard (Ricardo Montalban) who he plans to match up with American heiress Millie (Hope Lange). Millie has $40 million and Gaspard has a title but no charm, poor skills in English and desperately lacking equestrian and motor skills. Boyer hires three men: Ford/Davis who will teach Gaspard to ride horses, play polo and race cars, a linguist who will teach him how to speak English and quote great scholars and poets and a cook who will prepare fantastic meals so Boyer can wine and dine the conquest.

I usually don't like going into too much description of a film. Heck, if you just wanted the summary I would send you to IMDB or Wikipedia. However, the plot of this movie is so much fun that I just had to write it down. Because even just taking about it makes me laugh! Boyer sends his own British chauffeur to work for Millie but when a freak accident puts him out of commission, Ford/Davis is sent off to be Millie's chauffeur instead. Ahh and here is when the wrench is thrown into the works. Millie starts to fall for her new driver even though M. Pimm/Boyer and her uncle Dr. Christian Gump (Telly Savalas) have set designs on Gaspard as her future husband. And Gaspard is starting to have an eye for Boyer's assistant Janine (Ulla Jacobsson).

This is a fun film. Parts of it reminded me of Come September (1961) which was filmed in Italy. The French Riviera is definitely a major character in this film. Love is a Ball has all the classic workings of a 1960s sex comedy.  Hope Lang and Glenn Ford were in a romantic relationship in real life and you can tell there is some chemistry between them. I think Ford and Montalban were both a bit old for their parts but still believable in their roles. Love is a Ball was also spared some of the real bad dubbing that the 1960s were known for.

I highly recommend this film if you are a fan of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson-Tony Randall features like Pillow Talk (1959), or the Bobby Darin-Sandra Dee films such as If a Man Answers or Come September. It's available on Netflix Instant but the quality is so terrible on there that I recommend purchasing the DVD or renting it from ClassicFlix.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Classic Film Bookshelves

In our cramped condo, I have two bookcases filled with books. Two shelves in particular are devoted to classic film books and they are already filled to capacity. If I could have the entire bookcase filled with classic film books I would be happy. But alas, cookbooks, novels, reference guides and books from my college years beg for space too. Looking at these two particular shelves of my bookcase makes me very happy. I smile thinking of of the particular books I've read and the ones that I get to read soon.

What does your classic film bookshelf/bookshelves look like? Share a picture! Post it on your blog, tell me about it and I'll add a link to this post (and tweet it too).

Edit - Here are some that were shared:

Here is the list of the books, from left to right and from top shelf to bottom shelf. I've also included links to my reviews (and marked them with a *) or to B&N if I haven't reviewed them yet.

First Shelf
Second Shelf
A few things I noticed about my bookshelves after listing these books: 1) I don't have a lot of books about classic film actresses, 2) Several titles had very long subtitles and in some cases more than one subtitle, 3) I have 3 books about the Marx Bros! 4) I can remember the story of how I came to adopt/acquire each and every one of these books 5) I don't alphabetize any more and 6) I have a lot more reviewing to do!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Flirtation Walk, Hawaii, Escape and Gettin' No Respect

I’m just going to preface this by saying that this is going to be a very strange post.

Flirtation Walk (1934) arrived to me as a rental from ClassicFlix. While I have an ordered queue on ClassicFlix, I often forget what I put on there or the next title shipped to me is something much further down the list. So when Flirtation Walk had arrived, it was a surprise as most ClassicFlix rentals are. I had some free time on Sunday, which is a rare thing these days, so I popped the DVD player into our BluRay player. The player has been having issues and it’s been displaying diva-like behavior. It likes some DVDs and BluRays and dislikes other. It angrily spins Ocean’s 11 (1960) making a weird buzzing noise of discontent. This makes me want to kick it because gosh darn it I need to watch Ocean’s 11 sometimes! The player seemed to like Flirtation Walk so I called a temporary truce.

I must have chosen Flirtation Walk because it’s one of the 16 films Ruby Keeler made, and I just love me some Ruby Keeler no matter what you haters say. It also has Dick Powell and the added surprise bonus of Ross Alexander, the tragic actor who never saw a long life or a successful Hollywood caree. Dick Powell plays Dickie Boy Dorcy, a private in the army who gets pushed around by Sgt. "Scrapper" Thornhill (Pat O’Brien) while they are stationed in Hawaii. What makes matters worse is that Dorcy has been assigned to escort Kathleen Fitts (Ruby Keeler) the daughter of a general who happens to be engaged to someone in the army (of higher rank than Dorcy of course). When Dorcy isn’t being pushed around by Scrapper he’s being pushed around by Kathleen. He can’t get no respect! I can sympathize with him. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t feel disrespected by someone. Maybe I’m too paranoid or sensitive or maybe I just have “pushover” stamped permanently on my forehead. Who knows? Anyways, I know what Dorcy feels like and I don’t blame him when he packs up his things, heads to West Point Military Academy to make something of himself.

Private Dorcy and Kathleen (“Kit” Fitts, wow what a name) have a private little rendezvous while in Hawaii. She forces him to take a detour while they are on their way to a party. They stop to watch some native Hawaiians dance and sing. Of course Dorcy is asked to sing because heck he’s being played by Dick Powell. A 1930s Dick Powell must sing! This scene was interesting for a few reasons. Kathleen shows Dorcy utter disrespect by forcing him to take her there, forcing him to sing and forcing him to lay down with her for a romantic moment together, even though she knows all of this will get him in trouble. Disrespect! (Also a curious gender role reversal that becomes very important later in the film). Another interesting point about this scene was the Hawaiian hula dance. So very different from a contemporary depiction of Hawaiians performing for tourists, these Hawaiians sang in their native tongue, most didn't speak English and they were performing for themselves (at least they thought they were until they discovered Kathleen and Dorcy were watching).  Now I know little to nothing about the history of Hawaii but I started to compare this scene with a contemporary movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). I know what you are thinking. I've gone off the deep end. But I assure you I haven't. Sometimes I like to watch contemporary comedies and that's okay! The Hawaii in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a touristy haven, the locals may know a few words of Hawaiian, but don’t speak it fluently, and a few of the locals in the movie have come to Hawaii to escape something in their lives (whether it’s a desk job, an old life, a rough neighborhood, etc.) and the tourists escape there for a vacation or as is the case for the main character, to forget about Sarah Marshall. In a way, both films, while depicting different Hawaiis, are both about escaping.

So what the heck is my point? Sometimes a film comes into your life at the very exact moment you need it. Flirtation Walk is NOT a great film. It’s a film with several enjoyable parts and the kind of disappointing gender fix that's so common in films from that era. But for some reason, it came to me at a time in my life when I desperately need respect (like Dorcy does) and I desperately need an escape (like Dorcy and all the characters in Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Sometimes you realize that your soul needs something to speak to it and you chose a film for that purpose. Other times that film finds you.

Has a film ever come to you at a time you most needed it to? Do you ever watch specific films out of emotional need or for comfort?

Flirtation Walk (1934) is available on DVD from Warner Archive and for rent and sale on ClassicFlix!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Interview with Bill Marx, author of Son of Harpo Speaks!

I've had the absolute pleasure of getting to interview Bill Marx, the adopted son of actors Harpo Marx and Susan Fleming and the author of the book Son of Harpo Speaks! which I reviewed yesterday.

I tried to keep the questions spoiler-free so that you all will be encouraged to pick up the book yourselves and dive on in! A big thank you to Jaime from Hal Leonard for coordinating the interview and also to him and to Bill Marx for allowing me to post one of the never-before-published images from the book. I hope you enjoy the interview!


Raquelle: What is your favorite memory of your dad, Harpo Marx?

Bill: I have no real singular "favorite" memory of dad. He always made you feel comfortable with him, even on the occasion when he was angry with my behavior. (Of course, those times were fortunately very rare...heh, heh). So really, all of my memories are all my "favorites" because if you knew him, there were no surprises. Whatever it was, he always came straight from his heart. I suppose my most ingrained image of him was the vision of him after breakfast, practicing his music in front of the living room bay window, his harp resting gently on his shoulder as he transported himself to his other kind of surreal world.

Raquelle: What is your favorite memory of your mom, Susan Fleming?

Bill: Lots of good memories of mom as well. Aside from her natural beauty, I remember she had the toughest gig in the family as the Sergeant At Arms of the household. She was more practical than an idealist, strangely unsentimental, though with a great sense of humor, and had an opinion on just about everything, except that she would never talk about herself and her own feelings. But whenever I think of her, I think of the time that dad would come home at the end of the day, I can still remember the sight of the two of them performing their daily ritual of a big kiss on the lips, one that you could also hear the sound of way down the hall. The memory that is my most bittersweet is the time she suffered her final heart attack, and as the paramedics were wheeling her out to the ambulance, she looked up at me, with a loving smile and whispered, "Take good care of yourself, Willie......It's your turn now."

Raquelle: Out of all or your famous uncles, who were you the most close to and why?

Bill: Gummo was the easiest to be with. He was soft spoken and pretty mellow. Groucho was the most intriguing of my uncles because he was a very unpredictable character. You had to be on your game at all times with Groucho. Though I toured with Chico and dad when I was but twelve, I believe maybe because of the 50 year generation gap between us, he was more or less indifferent to me, as he was usually in his own world with his peers, and rarely in good health, except when re-energized by any available Gin or Poker game. Zeppo, too, was usually in his own world with his peers and was difficult to get to know. However, my mom did have a wonderful relationship with his first wife, Marion.

Raquelle: Tell us about a little about your dad’s musical talents as a harpist?

Bill: Dad was a self-taught musician. No academic training. He had to pick up everything either by ear or reading a system of musical notation that I created for him to be able to learn new songs or arrangements. I would write out the letters of the alphabet in place of the corresponding musical notes. Aside from the harp, he could play piano, clarinet, and chromatic harmonica, learned by the hunt and peck, search and destroy methods he used for his constant, creative discoveries.

Raquelle: For those who haven’t read your book yet (which they should soon!), could you tell us a bit about your own musical career?

Bill: Nutshell career as a musician: Juilliard trained in composition; composed concerti for violin, flute, alto saxophone, piano, harp, and double harps, plus various other symphonic works, Motion Pictures, Television, Records, and concertized all over the country as a jazz pianist. More than anything else in music, I enjoy the energy and excitement of live performance when playing the piano, being able to communicate with audiences right then and there, instantly.

Raquelle: How did Son of Harpo Marx Speaks! come together and why did you decide to write it?

Bill: I wrote Son of Harpo Speaks! for two reasons. Siblings of Groucho's and Chico had written books about their father, but no one from Harpo's family had done so. I thought it was time to complete the trifecta. Yes, there are new stories about the Marx Brothers never before published, and the close father/son and professional relationship dad and I shared together. But the book has another story that I hope people find very compelling; that of the "too Hollywood to believe" way I came to become a part of Harpo's and Susan's lives. I chose to write about that only after mom's passing in 2002, carefully respecting her lifetime role as my mom, the parent. It is a weird story about rejection, abandonment, adoption, and acceptance that I believe many can relate to and understand the accompanying feelings attached to these issues that can affect a lifetime of one's behavior.

Raquelle: You have so many wonderful photographs in your book. I especially love the one of your dad Harpo with yourself and your three siblings at Christmas time. You are all wearing big grins and look so happy to be together. How did you select which pictures to include and did these pictures come from your own collection or from other sources?

Bill: All of the photographs and images come from my collection and have never previously been published. I selected them for the book primarily to connect with and/or advance the plot lines. I also wanted easy access for the reader to see the people and things I was referring to at the time they were reading about them.

Raquelle: You have met a lot of famous people in your life. I loved reading about how you worked with Doris Day and when you played piano at a party with Jack Lemmon. Who was your favorite celebrity (besides your Dad and your uncles of course!)?

Bill: I suppose George Burns was the most remarkable celebrity I have ever met. The last time I saw him he was about 98 years old. He saw me and walked toward me with conviction, and then we hugged each other for at least a good 15 seconds. I shall never forget the moment, nor the feeling I had in my arms while holding his frail, skeletal body to me. He was unique, special, a comedic genius.
Maybe the most gifted celebrity that I would see from time to time was Jack Lemmon. Not only a superb actor, he was a very good piano player, and great fun to be around, just like my secret idol, Steve Allen, who I had the great pleasure of working with for a number of charity events.

Raquelle: In your book, you mention that your mother and actress Gloria Stuart were best friends. You even likened them to Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple (which is one of my favorite TV shows!). Could you tell us a little more about their friendship?

Bill: The Odd Couple (1968) was a wonderful movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and later became a smash TV sitcom. It revolved around the comedic formula of putting two people of opposite behaviors together, (the slob, Felix Unger, and the anal retentive, Oscar Madison) hoping they will somehow eventually learn to live together by tolerating one another, and maybe ultimately even get to become loving friends. Mom's look at life was closer to Felix's, more orderly. Gloria Stuart, mom's dearest friend for over fifty years, was pretty much the free spirited, creative but non-domesticated Oscar. In other words, as I write in my book, pretty much exact opposites...and they did attract.

Raquelle: What do you hope readers come away with when they read your book?

Bill: I hope that there will be something for everyone in Son of Harpo Speaks! that will strike a positive note about Fate, and how it can play a profound part in our lives on this tiny planet in our universe. It sure has with me, and I hope everyone will finish my book with a big smile and warmth in their heart.

P.S. For more about Harpo Marx and his family, go to: 

Thank you Bill!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Son of Harpo Speaks by Bill Marx

Son of Harpo Speaks!
by Bill Marx
February 2007
Applause Books – Hal Leonard
315 pages

My dad’s wonderful impact on people’s lives had given me an entree into a world I’m sure I would have otherwise never known.- Bill Marx

Whenever I think of classic film biographies written by the children of famous stars, books like Mommy Dearest and My Mother’s Keeper pop into mind. Those books, which may or may not exaggerate the truth, do not put the classic film stars in a good light. Son of Harpo Speaks! is not like that at all. Bill Marx, the oldest adopted son of Harpo Marx and actress Susan Fleming, wrote an autobiography which does double duty in that he talks about his own life journey while also paying tribute to his beloved father and mother. It’s a very charming book, written with a lot of respect and admiration and you can’t help but fall in love with Harpo Marx after reading it.

Harpo Marx married Susan Fleming in 1936 after much chasing on Fleming’s part because Harpo was very content to remain a bachelor. They had a long happy marriage which lasted until 1964 when Harpo Marx passed away. In 1938, Harpo and Susan adopted Bill in 1938 and adopted three more children (all at the same time!) several years later. They decided to adopt children when it was discovered Susan couldn’t bear children.

In the Son of Harpo Speaks! (a play on the title of his dad’s autobiography Harpo Speaks!), Bill Marx chronicles his life with his adopted parents Harpo and Susan, his adult life, career in the music industry and the story of his birth parents. I wouldn’t call it an autobiography per se but more a memoir. Although it reads chronologically and covers his life from beginning up until the present time (circa 2007), it’s focus is very geared towards Harpo Marx’s influence on Bill as a parent, friend and musical inspiration. Bill went on to become a composer and pianist. He even arranged and conducted the song "Please Don’t Eat the Daisies" which was the theme for the movie with the same name and sung by Doris Day!

To be honest, at first the book was a bit difficult to read. I felt that Bill Marx was trying too hard to be as funny as his dad. Also, at several points in the book the ghost of Harpo Marx speaks to his son and at first I found this odd but eventually I came to realize that this was Bill’s way of remembering his dad, dealing with some of his abandonment issues and imagining what he would have thought of Bill’s life after Harpo left it. A few chapters in, Bill Marx really finds his voice and the writing becomes a lot more natural and a lot less forced. It’s a quirky, charming book and it’s very clear that Bill loved his dad. Harpo wasn’t perfect, Bill acknowledges his dad’s his character strengths and flaws in a portrait that makes Harpo look like a loving father, talented and devoted performer and a good friend.

When I was young, [my dad] told me that it wasn’t what you do in life that’s important; it’s how you feel about yourself while you are doing whatever it is you are doing. As long as you aren’t hurting someone else in the quest of your dreams, always look for things to do that can bring you pleasure and personal fulfillment. – Bill Marx

I loved reading stories about Harpo, Susan and Bill. I laughed out while reading about the story of Harpo playing golf in the nude. Reading about Harpo’s death broke my heart. You’ll need to keep some tissues handy when you get to that part. The book is filled with never-before-published family photographs of Harpo, Susan, Bill, the Marx Bros., Harpo’s celebrity friends and many more. There are plenty of these pictures and they are a delight to look at. They are found throughout the book and placed in the appropriate context within the text rather than all grouped in the middle. There is not a lot about Bill’s adopted siblings in the book and there are a few parts of Bill's life that feel left out (although he acknowledges certain omissions like his second marriage). It’s not a salacious read by any means although Bill does devote one chapter to the Marx Bros.’ penchant for nudity and the ladies. In other parts of the book he discusses dating actress Marlo Thomas, some crazy stalkers he had and some interesting events that happened during his life travels. But if you are looking for gossip, look elsewhere.

There is a lot in this memoir to cherish and if you are a Marx Bros. fan with a particular love for Harpo, you need to read this book!

Full Disclosure: Thank you so much to Jaime from Hal Leonard for giving me the opportunity to review this book!

Stay tuned because tomorrow I will be posting an interview with Bill Marx himself!

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