Oh what a tremendous service Turner Classic Movies provides for the civilized of this nation! Earlier this week TCM ran The Magnificent Yankee, an MGM production from 1950 starring Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Ann Harding as his wife of 57 years, Fanny Bowditch Holmes. I had never seen this rather obscure film before and can’t imagine where else I might have seen it other than TCM. Like many historical biopics of the mid-twentieth century, I imagine it probably takes liberties with the true history of Justice Holmes and his career but it’s certainly a more charming and engaging film than most of its kind. Calhern remains Calhern and yet, he seems to capture the spirit of what you would imagine Oliver Wendell Holmes to be like.
The greatest praise I can give to the film is that upon its completion, I made my way to the computer to order a book on Justice Holmes in the hopes of learning more about him. It made me think about the power of film and TV to actually encourage research and learning. We are always anxious to point out the most dreadful product that Hollywood has to offer and with good reason. Film and television production is always good for some truly awful trash whether it be an inane 22 minute situation comedy, a graphically and unnecessarily violent police procedural or a poorly researched news or documentary piece. That said, the truly well done entertainments in those areas are just as worthy of our praise as the flotsam is of our disposing.
Whenever I see Louis Calhern I always think of him as Uncle Willie in the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, MGM’s delightful 1956 musical, High Society, starring Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He was the most charming dirty old man ever on film. Sadly, it was his last film as he died at the age of 61 following the completion of High Society. Throughout his career he played more than a few historical figures including not only Justice Holmes but men like Julius Caesar and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He made his mark in classic comedies like Heaven Can Wait, (1943) with Don Ameche, Blonde Crazy, (1931) with Jimmy Cagney, and as Groucho’s nemesis, Ambassador Trentino, in the classic Marx Brothers comedy, Duck Soup, (1933). He could also play a menacing and imposing heavy when it was called for, as he did in the noir classic, The Asphalt Jungle, (1950).
The Magnificent Yankee includes a long roster of familiar faces of some of the best of Hollywood’s character actors. Any black and white classic of the silver screen is, for me, like looking through an old family photo album. An old movie filled with familiar character actors and actresses fills me with warmth and nostalgia for a youth well spent watching hours of classic films and television. Ann Harding is most recognizable for her role as Mary O’Connor is the holiday favorite, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, (1947) although she worked in films going back to the 1920s and appeared in a number of television programs in the 1950s until retiring sometime in the mid-1960s. Eduard Franz plays Louis Brandeis while Ian Wolfe plays a descendant of the Presidents Adams. Finally, familiar TV faces Richard Anderson and Philip Ober also adorn the festivities.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Costume Design and one for Mr. Calhern as Best Actor in a Leading Role. Calhern lost out to Jose Ferrer for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. It should be noted that Calhern’s physical resemblance to Justice Holmes was quite remarkable.
And the real Justice Holmes.
Jack Carter had a reputation as being one of the more miserable men in show business. He was, what you might call, a chronic complainer. He never felt he was as appreciated as he should be. According to Mr. Carter, he could do it all! Here’s a clip that I think confirms that indeed he could do it all. The question is, exactly what is it that he’s doing? He’s not really funny and he certainly can’t sing. I will give him this – he moved very well. Seriously, I’ve always marveled at the fact that most of the old comics were so light on their feet. Watch the old clips – even Jack E. Leonard, nicknamed “Fat Jack,” could move like a dancer.
In this clip, Carter seems to float along the stage. Impressive, but gliding around the stage is not much of an act unless you’re a ballerina or an ice skater.
Not too long ago, a gentleman named Kliph Nesteroff published a book called The Comedians. It is a great book. If you love old-time show biz, especially the comics, you really should read the book. However, before Nesteroff wrote the book, he had a website filled with interviews he conducted with many old actors, comics, nightclub entertainers, etc., called “Classic Showbiz.” He’s interviewed many wonderful people but perhaps some of his most interesting conversations were with Jack Carter. I can’t do the interviews justice in words so click on the link and get started. They’re a little like a car accident – you don’t want to stop and stare but you just can’t look away. Click HERE.
Comedian George Burns was born 121 years ago today. It seems unfathomable to me that I can have so many distinct memories of a guy who was born well over a century ago but that’s what happens if you live to be 100 years old as Burns did – you transcend multiple generations.
Like most of the old stars, I remember George Burns primarily from the variety shows and talk shows of the 1960s – 1980s. However, George Burns, who had been working as a performer since the first decade of the twentieth century, also became a full-fledged movie star in the seventh decade of the century with movies like The Sunshine Boys, Oh God!, and Just You and Me, Kid. By that time, I was entering my teenage years and so I was able to see all of his movies at the theater or on television.
It’s a well-known story by now but George Burns’ best friend Jack Benny had been cast in the part of Al Lewis for the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys. They had started preliminary work on the film when Benny fell sick. He died soon after of stomach cancer. Burns was distraught over his friend’s death. For many years, Irving Fein had been an agent with one client – Jack Benny. Then, no doubt because of their close relationship, Fein took on George Burns as well. When Benny died, Fein suggested Burns for the role of Al Lewis despite the fact that Burns hadn’t appeared in a film in over 30 years. Burns won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Sunshine Boys and a whole new career opened up for him.
In this clip from a Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1989, George Burns comes on to plug his new book, All My Best Friends. I have stated on more than one occasion that this is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it through every year or two just to brighten my spirits. It is filled with anecdotes of Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, and more. It is one of the great histories of our early show biz giants.
Happy Birthday Georgie. I hope you’re enjoying a cigar and a martini right now.
Tags: Fanny Brice, George Burns, George Jessel, Irving Fein, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Neil Simon, Oh God!, Sophie Tucker, The Marx Brothers, The Sunshine Boys, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson
. . . that people actually paid to see these guys at some point? Just when you thought Jerry Lewis was the most annoying, arrogant man in show biz, someone had the bright idea to team him up with Jack Carter. Oy.
Trust me, this is hard to watch all the way through. Go ahead and try. I dare you.
By the way, I can’t wait to get the e-mail from Dr. Tim saying, “You disappear from the blog for two months and come back with Jerry Lewis and Jack Carter?!?!
Ron Glass died over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at the age of 71. He was best known for his luminous portrayal of Det. Sgt. Ron Harris of the 12th Precinct on the classic 1970s/1980s ABC sitcom, Barney Miller. He was also known for his role in the Sci-fi cult hit Firefly as Shepherd Book.
Glass was born in Evansville, Indiana and graduated from the University of Evansville with a double major in drama and literature. He made his professional theatrical debut at the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the early 1970s he made the move to Hollywood and was soon appearing in hit shows such as All in the Family, Hawaii Five-O, and Maude.
Producer Danny Arnold cast him as Det. Ron Harris in the second version of his pilot for what would become Barney Miller. In fact, Ron Glass would be one of only three cast members who were a part of the Barney Miller ensemble continuously from the start until the end of the eight season run. The other two were Hal Linden as Barney Miller and Max Gail as Stan Wojciehowicz.
Ron Harris was a pioneering African American character for 1970s television. He was intelligent, sophisticated, articulate, and real. He expressed anger, joy, frustration, and hope in equal measure. He was a strong character as opposed to a caricature. Watching Barney Miller today it would be difficult to imagine anyone else besides Glass infusing the same energy and nuance to Ron Harris. His formal training was the foundation of his art and he could perform Shakespeare as easily as a Norman Lear sitcom but he will forever be remembered as a member of the 12th Precinct in Greenwich Village.
Barney Miller was a character study of a diverse group of officers in the middle of a diverse neighborhood in what is probably the most diverse city in the world. The show focused on the interaction between the officers as much as their interaction with the criminals and victims that passed through the station house every week. It provided a stage for comedic lunacy as well as social commentary.
In a Season Five episode entitled “The Harris Incident,” Det. Harris is apprehending a fleeing criminal on the streets of New York when two uniform officers come upon the scene. Assuming Harris is the criminal, they fire upon him. Back at the precinct, Harris is enraged at the fact that he has nearly been killed due to the racial profiling of fellow NYPD officers. Capt. Miller tries to calm Harris down and tells him that the inquiry needs to go through the proper channels to be resolved. Harris storms out of the office to take an early lunch. The scene leaves his fellow officers shaken. As originally written, Harris was supposed to return to the squad room and apologize to his fellow officers for his outburst. During the filming, Ron Glass asked producer Danny Arnold why Harris was apologizing? Glass told Danny Arnold that personally, he would not apologize for Harris’ reaction. Danny Arnold asked him “What WOULD you do?” The discussion that ensued led to this more complex resolution.
The above clip illustrates perfectly Barney Miller‘s ability to make important and insightful social observations while still making the storytelling funny. It’s a more dangerous road to tread but few ever did it better than Danny Arnold and the cast and crew of Barney Miller.
Glass was a private and gentle man. There were only a few people who knew he was in failing health over the last few months. USA Today quoted his longtime agent and friend Jeffrey Leavitt: “Ron was a private, gentle and caring man. He was an absolute delight to watch on screen. Words cannot adequately express my sorrow.”
The members of the Barney Miller cast, as well and the numerous guest stars who appeared on the show, all remembered Ron Glass as a very talented and very generous soul. It’s a gift when an actor can be remembered for a character so richly layered as that of Det. Sgt. Ron N. Harris. It’s only fair since he so graciously shared so many of his gifts with us.
***Ron Glass was also actively involved in his community. Please read this inspiring remembrance of the actor at The Wooten Center homepage, a group that helps inner city youths get an education and become positive role models in their community. Ron Glass volunteered and assisted the center for over 20 years. http://www.wootencenter.org/ronglass
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I read a quote this afternoon from best-selling suspense novelist Scott Turow that addressed a concern I’ve expressed more than once during this baseball postseason. Turow wrote, “It’s character-building, when the Cubs stomp on your heart, and you have to put it back in your chest,” he says. “What will it be like for all of us not to live with the religion of suffering?” My question exactly, “What will Cubs’ fans do now?
The nation is buzzing today with the news of the Chicago Cubs, the perennial bottom-feeders of the National League, emerging last night as the champions of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. It’s a story with a million sub-plots, whether it be about the Cubs’ fans who died without ever seeing their beloved Cubbies in a World Series or the ex-Cubs who got their teams oh-so-close while always coming up just short of victory: Phil Cavaretta, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandburg, etc. And don’t forget the goats, Leon Durham, Steve Bartman and the goat. The actual goat who was barred from entering Wrigley Field with his owner during the 1945 World Series. The Cubs’ fans conveniently chose that goat and his owner’s anger at not being allowed to bring him into the stadium as the reasons for all the Cubs’ failures over the last 71 years. Of course, it’s ridiculous but baseball fans are among the most superstitious in all of sports . . . if not THE most superstitious. I should know. I was once as superstitious as all those crazy Cubs’ fans. For whatever reason, it just comes naturally to the game of baseball and its fans.
I played ball throughout my childhood and into high school. I remember trying out for my high school baseball team. I did not really believe I could make the team but I loved the game so much, I had to try. I had this old button down, dark blue shirt I used to wear under my t-shirt. When I miraculously made the team and we started winning, I had to wear that shirt for every game. I could not play without it. It was everything my mother could do to even get me to allow her to wash it.
I began rooting for the Pirates in the 1971 World Series and they have remained my first team but I have lent my support and good will to other teams through the years as well. Despite the fact that some fans think this is sacrilege, I do not. I tend to believe in rooting for individuals, people instead of mascots, ideas instead of colors. In my 45 years of fandom, I have rooted for the ’72 Tigers, ’73 Mets, ’78 Red Sox, ’83 Orioles, ’85 Royals, ’86 Red Sox and a variety of Twins, Giants, Dodgers teams. It must also be stated that ANY TEAM that ever played against the New York Yankees was my favorite team for the duration of that game. My brother raised me to root against the New York Yankees at all costs and I thank him for passing that wisdom on to me.
I’m in my fifties now and sports barely hold one-tenth of the importance that they once did for me. So much of it seems silly and overdone now. The money, the manufactured drama, the over-produced marketing plans, all succeed in making me less engaged instead of more. But for many years, I poured a great deal of passion and emotion into my love for the game of baseball. As I mentioned earlier, no matter what team I was rooting for, I was ALWAYS rooting against the New York Yankees, the team that represents Corporate America in the sports world. In the 45 years that I’ve considered myself a baseball fan, the New York Yankees have been in the World Series eleven times and have won it seven times. My Pirates lost in heart-breaking and/or frustrating fashion in 1972, 1990, 1991, 1992, 2014, 2015. In fact, the Pirates actually had a losing record for twenty consecutive seasons from 1993 – 2012. I know what losing means and what it feels like to root for losers and underdogs. I’ve done it all my life.
There is something that happens to a fan who roots for a losing team over a period of many years. It’s a little like a marriage, if you can stay together through the difficult times, the heartbreak, the disappointment, the anger, then you can usually come out the other side with a loyalty and a devotion that can only be forged through the fires of adversity. In the case of sports fans, you wear that loyalty on your sleeve, you want people to know that you still root for your team no matter how many times they let you down. You want people to know that no matter what, you stick with your team. You are dependable. You are loyal. I’m not a psychologist but there is obviously some Freudian shit going on there. Somehow, we let our image of ourselves get tied up in our devotion to our sports teams.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll no doubt remember that your family was either a Ford family or a Chevrolet family. Our dads put great pride in which car company received their loyalty. Seems crazy now but I know your father was the same way. My dad was a Chevy/GM guy. I knew others who would never buy anything but a Ford, or a Buick, or a Pontiac, etc. It obviously has something to do with a sense of belonging, being part of something bigger than ourselves.
If you want me to get really psychological on you, one could hypothesize that in times like these when the country is so divided culturally and politically, once again, we’re looking for a way to connect with a group or an idea bigger than ourselves, One where we’re all in it together and our one goal is the same – winning.
Which brings us back to where we started. What will Cubs’ fan do now? The goal they’ve struggled towards for 108 years has finally been achieved. They are the champions of the baseball world. The lovable losers are now the cream of the crop. Cubs players, management, and fans all feel euphoric today and they should. I congratulate them on their hard-fought victory and on their long, relentless struggle to achieve that victory. My only concern is, what happens now to the Cubs who are no longer the underdogs we love to root for but have now been transformed into the team that everyone wants to beat?
I am thinking of three Cubs’ fans today more than any others.
Mr. Cub, the man who wisely preached “patience.”
Speaking of patience, this guy had to wait too long in more ways than one! The Baseball HOF should remain forever ashamed.
Six years after his passing, Ron Santo has achieved both HOF and a World Championship for his beloved Cubbies.
Finally, I first heard this song many years ago. Steve Goodman was a Chicago blues man who wrote songs like “The City of New Orleans” and this one unique song for which he will forever be remembered. Goodman was scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the 1984 playoffs between the Cubs and the Padres. Sadly, he died of cancer just days before the series began. I hope somewhere Steve Goodman’s soul, spirit, or whatever you want to call it is out there and I hope he can enjoy and appreciate what his beloved Cubbies have finally accomplished.
In keeping with old, black and white Hollywood comedies that are just right for Halloween, I offer Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married A Witch. I had DVR-ed the film a while back when it ran on TCM so I could watch it as we got closer to All Hallow’s Eve. It does not disappoint. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it in the past but I can’t remember for certain if I’ve ever seen it all the way through. The two stars are Frederich March, as a somewhat stuffy descendant of a Salem witch burner, and Veronica Lake, in one of her most charming roles, as Jennifer, the witch who was burned at the stake hundreds of years before the story takes place.
As is so often the case for me, the highlights of this film are the character actors and actresses. One actress who I had completely forgotten was in this movie is Susan Hayward. She’s a supporting character in this picture but is only five years away from her breakout film entitled Smash-Up: The Story of A Woman, (1947) for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948 as Best Actress in a Leading Role. However, in I Married A Witch she snagged that less than plum role of playing the fiancee that everyone loves to root against, a familiar old Hollywood stock character.
Hayward was actually five years older than Veronica Lake but the impish young blond, not yet twenty years old, was just coming off three classic films for Paramount: This Gun for Hire, (1942), The Glass Key, (1942) and Sullivan’s Travels, (1941). She was on a hot streak that sadly would not last. Hers was a star that burned bright but went up in smoke by the early fifties. Lake would die in 1973 at the age of 50. Hayward would go on to garner a total of five Oscar nominations before finally taking home the little gold statuette in 1959 for her leading role in I Want to Live! Unfortunately, Hayward would also die too young, succumbing to cancer in 1975 at the age of 57 years of age.
For this movie fan, the highlight of I Married A Witch is the presence of Robert Benchley and Cecil Kellaway. The literati among us classic movie fans should recognize the name of Benchley if for no other reason than Peter Benchley, the grandson of Robert, was the screenwriter of the 1975 blockbuster film, Jaws. Robert Benchley was one of the great wits of the first half of the twentieth century and a founding member of The Algonquin Round Table, an informal collection of writers, directors, journalists, producers, and actors who would gather for lunch in the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s and 1930s trading bon mots with one another over a liquid lunch. For the who don’t know, a “bon mot” was a wittier version of a tweet, 1920s style.
Robert Benchley was certainly a wonderful writer but few screen comedians bring as much delight to my heart as Robert Benchley. His character was usually some combination of a know-it-all and a put upon schnook. Whichever film or role he was in, things just never seemed to work out quite right for Benchley. Nevertheless, he was as cute as a button and had such a sharply dry sense of humor that he could coax a laugh out of a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In I Married A Witch, he plays Dr. Dudley White, the best friend of Frederic March who, as Wallace Wooley, is running for the office of Governor in an unnamed state. As a best friend he tries his best to shield March from scandal. As a doctor, his most common prescription is a tumbler of brandy. It seems that Dr. White, like Mr. Benchley, took great joy in a snifter of the grape wherever and whenever he could get it. Sadly, his fondness for spirits also caused his early demise and Benchley died in 1945 from complications of cirrhosis of the liver.
Cecil Kellaway who plays Daniel, Jennifer’s fiery father, is probably best remembered these days for one of his last film roles as Monsignor Ryan in Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” (1967). Nevertheless, Kellaway’s career reaches all the way back to the early thirties. He can be found in such screen classic as Wuthering Heights (1939), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1942), and A Portrait of Jennie (1948). I had forgotten just how many dramatic roles Kellaway played because I usually think of him as a comedic actor in films like Brother Orchid (1940), Practically Yours (1944), Harvey (1950), and The Shaggy Dog (1959). Kellaway had the face of a pixie which actually plays perfectly against his character of a vengeful spirit in I Married A Witch.
This film has often been identified as a precursor to the film Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and the TV series Bewitched (1964 – 1972). The similarities are hard to miss. However, are far as I can tell, this was the first film or TV show to play with the idea of mixing mortals and witches in marital bliss. Any way you slice it, it’s no trick that this treat is just perfect for Halloween viewing!
The answer to the above question is, “No, he can’t.” However, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady apparently can. They are listed as the directors of the PBS American Masters special from last night entitled, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself. I just finished watching the program and it was, surprisingly, a disappointment. I say surprisingly because I’m someone who not only has a favorable opinion of Mr. Lear and his accomplishments but an active curiosity to know more about him. I tend to enjoy documentaries, particularly those about people in entertainment, politics, and/or sports whom I admire. I seek out such programs to learn more about the subject and, in some ways, to celebrate them. I do not watch a documentary on Norman Lear, or anyone else, because I’m interested in the director’s cinematic aspirations or bag of tricks. Sadly, that’s what we get from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself.
Watching this documentary, you may get the impression your watching an entry in the “Why I Want To Be Ingmar Bergman” contest. The deep, dark silences, the staged shots in silhouette that are supposed to represent the boyish version of Norman Lear, the numerous shots that are related to . . . nothing! This documentary is an exercise in frustration. I would assume Norman Lear approved the final product but I sure hope not. Pure and simple, the final product is a practice in poor storytelling.
I admit that I am a strange combination of traditionalist and iconoclast. I like questioning the establishment and authority but I prefer it to be done in an organized, articulate fashion. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself, was disjointed, confusing and incomplete. There is a lot of interviewing Mr. Lear that goes on within the film. That’s okay except that it felt to me that perhaps that should be a different film. You could certainly do a piece entitled, quite simply, “A Conversation with Norman Lear.” However, if you’re doing a documentary about his life and about his work then you need more interviews from his friends, family, and associates. Those people were all present in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of Myself but in disproportionate balance to Mr. Lear and the filmmakers artsy heavy-handedness.
For example, I was fascinated by the interview with John Amos and the discussion of the Black Panthers and what the African American community’s opinion was of Good Times. However, just as the filmmakers were getting into this question, we jumped to The Jeffersons as an explanation of how Mr. Lear responded to critics of Good Times. That’s all well and good but they seemed to cut off the Good Times discussion before they had clearly defined the issues and complaints. Did viewers complain about it or just the actors? Did Lear agree or disagree with the complaints? Did Amos leave the show because of it? What was Esther Rolle’s opinion of the show after it was over? They show a clip that seems to indicate she felt it was a stereotyped version of the truth but, if so, why did she do it? The intercutting of current interviews with older interviews of those individuals who are now deceased was helpful but like almost everything in this film, handled in a less than coherent fashion.
By the way, the only Lear shows that were really discussed in ANY fashion were All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. There was little or no discussion of Fernwood Tonight, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, One Day At A Time, or Sanford and Son.
The entire first 20 years of Lear’s career were covered in a sequence that lasted roughly two minutes and forty-five seconds. You can certainly argue that making a documentary can be similar to making a narrative film in the sense that you must tell a certain story, a piece of the whole instead of trying to cover everything. However true that may be, when you sit through as much empty, wasted time as you do in this film, you wonder about all the other information that could have been covered by losing what seemed like 20 minutes of a little kid walking around in shadows wearing Norman Lear’s signature white cap. In the end it felt like we received 30 minutes of information in 90 minutes of screen time.
Norman Lear is probably one of the most fascinating men in American popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. He is certainly one of the most important and influential artists in the medium of TV, film, and storytelling. Sadly, this story doesn’t seem to do his story justice.
Tags: "Good Times", "The Jeffersons", All in the Family, Amy Poehler, Carl Reiner, Carroll O'Connor, Ed Simmons, Esther Rolle, George Clooney, Heidi Ewing, Ingmar Bergman, Jimmie Walker, John Amos, Martin & Lewis, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, PBS, PBS American Masters, Phil Rosenthal, Rachel Grady, Rob Reiner
Just watched Cat and the Canary (1939) for the first time that I can remember. I may have seen it years ago but I don’t think so. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was really starting to cultivate my love for classic films I watched pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I cut my teeth on the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s but soon spread out into the comedies of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Cary Grant.
I’ve known a few people who have been surprised to read interviews with Woody Allen over the years in which he praises the early films of Bob Hope and credits him as an influence on his (Allen’s) work. However, watch a bunch of Hope comedies from the 1930s – 1940s and the influence is clear particularly on the first 15-20 years of Allen’s film work. Hope perfected the character of the boastful, vain coward. And as unfunny as Mr. Hope was in his formulaic NBC specials of his last three decades, he was decidedly brilliant in these early film roles. His rapid-fire delivery keeps the pace of the film moving along and often makes the “punchline as an aside” even funnier than it would have been if given full attention. Whether you liked the Bob Hope of the 1970s or not, he was an intelligent performer. He knew his audience, knew his style and knew how to deliver the joke. Like so many of his fellow comedians of the pre-WWII era, however, he was unable to successfully adept his style and material to a new generation of baby boomers. The Vietnam War and his hawkish politics certainly did not help matters.
The Cat and the Canary is one of Hope’s earliest narrative films and it benefits from a tight, sharp script. At 1 hour and 15 minutes there’s not a stagnant moment to be found. Another treat is the fact that Hope himself is still playing an actual character. While we are shown glimpses of the “Bob Hope stock character” to come, the individual that Hope portrays in The Cat and the Canary is still one who is a flesh and blood person. He has fears but knows he must face them. In the years to come, particularly in the Hope-Crosby era, Hope’s cowardly nature trumps (you should pardon the vulgarism) all other aspects of his character turning him into more of a caricature than a character.
We’re given a flash of another side of the future Hope in The Cat and the Canary when character actress Nydia Westman asks him: “Do you believe in reincarnation? You know, like dead people come back?” Hope’s reply: “You mean like Republicans?” In the years to come, Hope will weave more and more contemporary jokes of the day into his scripts. Hope and Crosby’s “Road pictures” were particularly famous for breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience by speaking right into the camera. It’s an effective comic device when used sparingly but it became a trademark for Hope. If the joke is timeless, it’s probably okay but many of Hope’s quips referred to current events or culture of the day and fail to hold up through the passage of time. Too many of the references to the current events of the day are now things that happened 60+ years ago.
The general plot of The Cat and the Canary pertains to a group of distantly related individuals who are called to a spooky old house in the Louisiana bayou on the 10th anniversary of the death of their long lost relative to hear the reading of his will at midnight. The melodramatic nature of the set up is accented by Hope’s character who is introduced as a vaudevillian and radio comic who points out each of the corny details of the set up as though it were a hackneyed radio drama. When he guesses that Paulette Goddard will inherit all the dough, the others regard him with suspicion especially after his prediction comes true. He’s then forced to explain that he just assumed she’d inherit the fortune because she was the pretty young ingenue in the group and that’s how “it always works” in these stories.
One of the odder circumstances of the story is the obvious romance that develops between Hope and Goddard despite the fact that they were supposed to be distantly related. Then again, it was 1939 and the President and First Lady of the United States were fifth cousins so, apparently, that wasn’t a concern.
The rest of the film is the old story of surviving the night in the haunted house with a homicidal maniac on the loose. However, this film proves that even the most over-used plot devices can entertain if handled correctly. Paulette Goddard is stunningly beautiful, Hope is fresh, young and funny and the legendary Gale Sondergaard is at her creepiest best. Elliot Nugent, the film’s director, deserves credit for the brisk pace of the film which only works to enhance the comedy. This is a great holiday treat for Halloween lovers of old Hollywood.
This election has been a smorgasbord of delights for our nation’s comedians. Normally, there are few jobs in the entertainment world more difficult than writing comedy. The past few months, however, have been like shooting fish in a barrel for our funny men and women. Colbert’s comedic coverage of Donald Drumpf has been excellent.
The fruit is so ripe on tree that Colbert doesn’t even want to wait until his vacation is over to seize upon the moment. And again, what do you really need to write to accompany a video of a Presidential Candidate who says he hasn’t spoken with his running mate and disagrees with him! I mean, good God! Talk about your softballs!
At this point, I always expect John Oliver to be brilliant because, well, he is always brilliant.
And even Trevor Noah, although he seems to get very little love, has done some good work covering this circus too.
But one comedian/commentator who was all but forgotten has, in my opinion, come back strong amidst the shitstorm that is Donald Drumpf and his campaign and that person is Seth Myers. Here’s a guy who was pretty terrific on SNL as the host of Weekend Update but didn’t seem to really hit his stride as host of his own late night talk show. However, once they moved him back to his desk and did away with a “stand-up routine” of jokes at the beginning of his program, he began to find his comfort zone again. Then, all of a sudden, Donald J. Drumpf started lobbing these grapefruits and Myers pounced on them like Hank Aaron on a hanging curve ball! In recent weeks, Myers has put together some really great moments on his “A Closer Look” segments.
And my favorite of all the “unprecedented moments” inspired by the lunatic in the big red hat is the fact that in all of my years of really watching comedians whether live, or on TV variety and/or talk shows (and that’s 40+ years), I DON’T EVER REMEMBER comedians as genuinely angry at their target as they are with Drumpf. For me, that only makes me love what they’re doing more. They are, in fact, doing what many of the Court Jesters of old did. They’re working within the system but they’re also mixing commentary into their humor to say, “Will you look at this guy? The clothes you’re oohing and ahhing over are rags! There isn’t anything there! This demagogue is bat-shit crazy and you better do something about it fast or else we’ll all end up on the chopping blocks!!”
Thank heavens for comedians and the one, still-shining aspect of American democracy, freedom of speech.