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Weekly Mishmash: November 28 – December 4

poster_lastmileThe Last Mile (1959). The instant watching options on Netflix are still somewhat spotty at this point, but things have been improving over the last few months with a large dump of lesser-known, older flicks that never got a DVD release — including this intense little prison break drama. The film is set almost entirely in a single prison room as several death row inmates ponder their fates and the shabby treatment they’re getting from the guards. The clever use of limited sets, luminous black and white photography, and a soundtrack that is the very epitome of Crime Jazz all work in the picture’s favor, but mostly what elevates this otherwise routine movie is Mickey Rooney chewing the scenery like nobody’s business as a feisty fireplug of an inmate. The better Rooney performances always had an unhinged quality, going back as far as his hyper Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one is no exception: even when the film gets too draggy and overly religious in its second half, the ever hammy Mickey remains at its fascinating center. TCM will be running this one on December 30th as part of their month-long Rooney tribute.
Palooka (1934). Another offering on my 50 public domain comedies DVD set. As I make way through these films in chronological order, 1934’s Palooka arrives at the tail end of the pre-Code era. While this boxing drama based on a popular comic strip doesn’t win any awards for originality, it is pleasantly jazzy and reminiscent of the Warner Bros. product of the time. The film follows nebbishy Stuart Erwin as he goes from country bumpkin to boxing star. His success is due somewhat to good genes (parents are boxing champ Robert Armstrong and spitfire ex-showgirl Marjorie Rambeau), but mostly it’s a result of underhanded doings by gangsters and his manager, played by Jimmy Durante. Also on hand is Lupe Velez as Irwin’s gold-digging hussy of a girlfriend, whose impossibly low-cut gown is the first clue that this is pre-Code stuff. The film gets draggy at times, and Irwin is seriously miscast, but it’s also a good opportunity to see Durante and Velez at their most dynamic. The two share the movie’s closing gag, which is priceless.
album_partridgeuptodateThe Partridge Family — Up To Date. As far as TV’s made-up musical groups go, the Partridge Family have never truly gotten their due. Their 1971 album Sound Magazine is, no joke, friggin’ fantastic. Total bubblegum for sure, but the elements that made them special (David Cassidy’s creamy voice, sharp production, white bread backup vocals and harpsichords galore) were at the top of their game on that particular platter. Up To Date, which preceded Sound Magazine by a season, isn’t quite as diverse or memorable but it does boast the dreamy hits “I’ll Meet You Halfway” and “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.” Other notable tracks include the guitar fuzzy “Lay It On The Line” and the delightful “That’ll Be The Day.” Written by frequent P.F. contributor Tony Romeo, it’s the one track that anticipates the wonderfulness of Sound Magazine. Another thing — Suzanne Crough rocks some good tambourine here.
Seventh Heaven (1927). Classic silent romance from director Frank Borzage and stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The epic story is set into motion when waifish Gaynor is thrown onto the street and taken in by kindly street cleaner Farrell. As the two share Farrell’s humble seventh-floor abode, they fall in love and marry — only to have the arrival of World War I separate them. First impression of this film is that it’s rather long and stodgy (and no match for F.W. Murnau’s contemporary Sunrise), but it’s also charming with a beautifully nuanced performance from Gaynor. Between this, Sunrise and Street Angel, it’s no wonder she was the recipient of the first Best Actress Oscar. I also enjoyed the charismatic Farrell and several of the supporting actors. The petite Gaynor and gangly Farrell always seemed like an odd physical match, but they do have an undeniable chemistry. I suppose this would be considered the 1927 edition of a Chick Flick. Borzage’s direction is assured and passionate, most notable for his still-impressive vertical pan up seven flights of stairs. What a set piece!
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009). Absorbing documentary deals with Disney Animation’s journey from irrelevance and near-death in the early ’80s to its second golden age starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid through 1994’s The Lion King. Surprisingly for a Disney-endorsed product, the film casts an admiring but not entirely flattering view of studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. It also generously uses contemporary news footage and shots of press clippings to show how the studio’s inner dealings were communicated to the outside world. Eisner and Katzenberg come across like canny Hollywood players who are willing to learn but constantly at odds with creatives. It’s a very old story, but the fact that it covers a relatively recent period and all the major players are on hand to speak works in the film’s favor. I was very suspicious that the film might come across as too cozy and complimentary of that era’s offerings (which are entertaining but a shade too Broadway-ish for my personal tastes), but that wasn’t the case at all. Despite all the executive-level turbulence, the film actually makes Disney look like a fantastic place to work!

2 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash: November 28 – December 4

  1. Rosemarie on December 8, 2010 at 1:52 am said:

    Thanks so much for posting that Partridge Family album cover! Up To Date was the first album I ever owned – either a birthday or Christmas gift – and I loved it. I’m pretty sure I still have it, not that I own a record player anymore…

  2. My cousin had one, too! Up To Date must be one of those albums that, like Whipped Cream & Other Delights or Dark Side of the Moon, everybody on earth had at least one copy of.

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