Movies postsTuesday April 02, 2019
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The New Yorker has an article up on Bill Hader, comic genius and acting savant, which you can see here. It ends with this thought, which I find lovely and wish I could hold on to longer:
“The Russian writers were fascinated by people who kept moving toward being unhappy, despite their intentions. And I do feel like there's a huge balance thing going on in the universe. My happiness level has gone up, ‘Barry’ is a giant success, and I finally get to direct. But I get divorced.” He began to laugh. “I try to remember that all this ends, so just be happy. Del Close”—the father of modern improv—“would tell the story of the skydiver whose parachute didn't open after he jumped out of the plane, and he just kept dancing and doing flips and acrobatics and entertaining people as he fell to the earth. I was incredibly moved by that.” His eyes shone. “Because we‘re all falling to the earth, so what else are you going to do?”
He’s such a good actor it would be a shame if he did less of it, but that's the feeling you get from the piece. He wants to direct. After I read it, with all these actors praising his acting, I went back to my reviews. For “The Skeleton Twins” I wrote, “Hader's a revelation here. He's the real deal.”
With “Trainwreck” I asked “What works?” and answered this way:
Bill Hader, who might be the best actor to ever come off of “Saturday Night Live.” Yes. He was completely believable as the younger, gay brother in “The Skeleton Twins,” and he's completely believable here as a staid, well-meaning celebrity surgeon. He feels like a doctor. I would go to him if I had pain in my knee. I don't know how Hader does that.
May he keep doing it.
Some leftover images from last year—or 110 years ago.
One of the first movies I watched on FilmStruck when I joined in September (two months before its demise) was a short thing from something like ... 1909? I forget and I can't find it now. Anyone know the title?
Anyway, I believe there was a warning about watching it. Contained offensive material, etc.
The focus is an artist, who writes the word “COON” on a big blank piece of paper:
Then he draws this image around that word.
Next, he writes COHEN.
And as you can imagine:
One hundred years ago, this was considered entertainment. It was a laugh. It was clever. I post it as a history lesson. It's less to condemn the past than to remind us of the debt we owe the people who constantly pushed for empathy and reform so we could reach our present moment. Also to remind us that this present moment isn't secure, and never will be. There are still people who would see the above as clever entertainment. Some of them hold high office.
Recognize anyone in the above shot? The movie is “What Price Hollywood?,” a 1932 forerunner to “A Star is Born,” in which the alcoholic mentor and lover roles are divided. Max Carey is the famous director who plucks diner waitress Mary Evans (Constrance Bennett) from obscurity, and then, as she ascends, he descends into alcoholism. Her lover/husband is someone else: Lonny Borden, polo player, above.
It's a good if slight movie—George Cukor's sixth. Constance Bennett, sister of Joan, is lovely in a way that feels contemporary. She was one of the biggest, highest-paid stars in Hollywood at the time, and went on to make “Topper,” etc., and in this I just thought she was gorgeous and combative and sleek and fun.
The guy with her? Lonny Borden, polo player? That's Neil Hamilton. He was Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman TV series and movie.
When young, you kind of assume that the world you came into is the world as it is, was and will be, and maturity is realizing how wrong this is; and while I feel I‘ve become somewhat mature in my 56 years of living, I was still surprised, when I saw this on FilmStruck last fall, that Neil Hamilton, Commissioner Gordon, had once been young and a leading man. Probably because I watched Batman ’66 as a kid. I saw his face and couldn't imagine a past for him. My father's past, my grandparents' past, I came to know in stories and pictures, but Hamilton's Commissioner Gordon had been put away with childish things.
Had I seen him in nothing else? Actually, I had. As a kid, I saw those early Weismuller Tarzan movies, in which Hamilton plays Harry Holt, but I don't remember making a connection between the young face on the screen and the craggy face at the other end of the Bat Phone.
Not only was Neil Hamilton a romantic leading man, I discovered, he was also Hollywood's first Nick Carraway, to Warner Baxter's Gatsby, Lois Wilson's Daisy, and William Powell's George Wilson, in the 1926 silent version of “The Great Gatsby.” Sadly, no prints exist.
Hamilton was born in September 1899 in Lynn, Massachusetts. Here's his IMDb mini-bio:
Neil Hamilton's show business career began when he secured a job as a shirt model in magazine ads. He became interested in acting and joined several stock companies. He got his first film role in 1918, but received his big break from D.W. Griffith in The White Rose (1923).
After performing in several more Griffith films, Hamilton was signed by Paramount in the late 1920s and soon became one of that studio's most popular leading men. His rugged good looks and sophisticated demeanor kept him steadily employed, and he worked for just about every studio in Hollywood, from glittering MGM to rock-bottom PRC. Hamilton worked steadily over the years, and grew gracefully into mature supporting parts. He is probably best known to modern-day audiences, however, as Police Commissioner Gordon in the TV series Batman (1966).
Knowing this history makes me realize, retroactively, just how good he was as Commissioner Gordon. Before, I assumed that's who he was. It's not, of course, and he nailed it. At 67, it must've been fun to play.
His last acting credit, out of 163, came in 1971: the appropriately titled: “Vanished.” That, and no more. He died in 1984.
Boats against the current.
What's Your Establishing 1938 Newspaper Headline? 1938 Has Its Answer
More on “Angels with Dirty Faces,” which I rewatched last weekend. This has to do with our two-part intro to the lower east side.
The first time Rocky and Jerry are kids, and director Michael Curtiz and DP Sol Polito's give us a sweeping shot of the neighborhood: beginning with a man reading a newspaper on a fire escape and slowly panning left to take in the women with their laundry and then all of it. It's supposed to give a sense of the world Rocky and Jerry come from.
It's an establishing shot in two ways, place and time, and the time is provided by the newspaper headline. Here's how they let us know it's 1920:
As for the second headline? The movie was filmed in 1938 and released in late 1938, and it's supposed to be contemporary. So they needed a newspaper headline reflecting that. What would you choose? It's gotta be either 1937 or early 1938. Kristalnacht is out—that's late ‘38. Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” too. From a vantage point 80 years later, I would‘ve gone with the Anschluss: Hitler taking over Austria, which was a prelude to WWII, and which happened in March. But maybe that didn’t sit with the summer locale. Or with the Hays office that did its best not to rankle the Germans.
This is what they chose:
You‘re like, “What?” It’s almost a non-event now but apparently it was a big deal then. More interesting is who the unnamed “Flyer” was: Howard Hughes. Did he go unnamed here because he was a rival to Warners? The last movie he produced before this, “Scarface” in 1932 for United Artists, was as close to a 1930s Warner Bros. picture as there was. Did they not want to give him credit?
Anyway, I found all that interesting.
One wonders what future movies will use as establishing shots—particularly as physical newspapers disappear. YouTube videos? iPhones versions? My great fear is we won't care enough. Chronology, he dead, Mr. Kurtz.
At the bottom of its trivia section for each movie, IMDb includes facts with spoilers. They use this warning:
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
And sometimes very suspect plot points. This was among the trivia items for “Angels with Dirty Faces”:
For years, viewers have wonder whether or not “Rocky” Sullivan (James Cagney) really turned yellow as he was being strapped into the electric chair. Some have wondered if he was faking it in order to keep his promise to Father Jerry. When asked about the scene years later, Cagney says he chose to play it in such a way so that the audience could make their own decisions as to whether or not he was faking.
I shouldn't slam IMDb alone since others, including film scholars, have said the same. But what idiot watches “Angels with Dirty Faces” and thinks Rocky actually beccomes scared at the sight of the electric chair—that he isn't pretending to turn yellow to help Father Jerry, who wants to make sure the Dead End Kids don't idolize him into death and possibly follow his path (into crime and death). The movie is almost pointless if you think he's actually scared; his sacrifice is the point. He's not only giving up the one thing that matters most to him but the only thing he has left: his honor, his street cred, all of it. That's why Father Jerry looks heavenward with tears in his eyes: He knows the sacrifice his long-time friend has made for him and the kids. Forgive him, Lord, for he knows what he does.
Good god, people, it's not close to ambiguous.
“Angels”' trivia page also includes this: “The film takes place in 1923 and 1936.” It's actually 1920 and 1938. I‘ve submitted a correction to IMDb. We’ll see if it takes. (Reader: It did!)
Walking the last mile. The question is “Will he fake it?” not “Is he faking it?”