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Tag Archives: Stuart Erwin

Flick Clique: April 26 – May 2

Exclusive Story (1936). A DVD that I picked from the screener pool at DVD Talk. I was excited to see this one because a) we rarely get Warner Archive discs in the pool and b) vintage movies are especially hard there. Exclusive Story is an efficiently produced little b-drama from MGM starring dapper Franchot Tone as a lawyer who comes to the aid of a pretty lady (the gorgeous Madge Evans) whose father’s business is being hounded by criminals running an underground numbers game. This film packs a lot of action/story into under 75 minutes in an absorbing (if overly complex) and thoroughly fun romp. When the Madge Evans character seeks help at the local newspaper, it prompts a lot of salty dialogue from the reporter who is trying to seek a scoop on the criminal (played with a hammy menace by Joseph Calleia). Although Tone contributes a lot, the main male lead is really Stuart Irwin as the reporter – it’s interesting to see him in a complex, non-comic role as a decent family man who sincerely wants to help Evans and not exploit her situation. The story mixes gangster drama and domestic theatrics, along with an exciting sequence set aboard a cruise liner set afire with passengers desperately trying to escape. Although the film on the whole is somewhat routine, I found it a brisk example of studio-craft and basically worthwhile (having never seen it on TCM, this one is completely new to me).
Mantrap (1926). The other feature film on my spiffy Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938 DVD set is this recently refurbished Clara Bow comedy in which she plays a flirty city gal who falls for an older country bumpkin. Her Alverna impulsively marries dim but earnest shopkeeper Joe (Ernest Torrance) and moves to the lakeside town of Mantrap, Canada (actually California’s Lake Arrowhead). Flapper Alverna becomes perfectly bored with country life until her prospects change when lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) comes to town on vacation. Smoothly directed and shot by Victor Fleming and cinematographer James Wong Howe, this lightweight fluff is mostly carried by Clara and her charms. If you ever wondered why she was called “The It Girl,” get a load of her coquettish, casually sexy performance here and wonder no longer (no surprise that Bow regarded this as the best of her star vehicles). She makes up for the routine story and the fact that other two actors are rather dull – and homely. This film contains that one famous clip of Bow where she winks and does a little “c’mere” motion with her index finger.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939). Last of the slight yet enjoyable Warner Bros. series of b-movies starring cute ‘n perky Bonita Granville as the iconic teen detective. I believe Hidden Staircase was the only one of the four to be based on one of the books, although apparently very loosely. The story concerns a pair of spinsters, neighbors in Nancy’s little town, living in an old house who are subject to a will that stipulates one of them must stay in the house every night for 20 years to inherit it (yes, this is the stuff that b-movies run on!). People want the property to build a racetrack on, however, so the sisters are subjected to weird stuff happening in the house – including the murder of their chauffeur, a deed which implicates them in the killing. Nancy knows better, so she enlists the help of her skeptical yet game boyfriend Ted (Frankie Thomas) to investigate the mysterious old house. These are silly but film flicks, decently produced and fast paced. It’s kind of amazing, the ballsy stuff that Nancy does in these flicks – lying to the authorities, venturing into weird places alone, etc. I wonder if young girls got into trouble trying to emulate what she did in these films? The Bonita Granville Nancys are all pretty interchangeable; Hidden Staircase ranks as slightly fizzier and more enjoyable than the others.
Showgirls (1996). All-time trash classic? Although I’ve had this one in my queue for a while, we shuttled it to the top after Christopher read the autobiography of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Whatta trip! This “film” is every bit as lousy as I’ve heard, but it’s also strangely watchable and enjoyable in a way that many bad (boring) films never achieve. That might be due to the direction of Paul Verhoeven, who seems clued in to the script’s ridiculousness and amplifies the campy, gaudy awfulness of it all to a huge, eyeball-straining degree. Poorly cast Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi, an ambitious if short-fused dancer who hitches her way to Vegas and eventually (after a series of hilarious mishaps) scores a job as a stripper. That oughta be enough to satisfy any burger- and tacky-nails-lovin’ gal, but instead she sets her sights on the very top – being a showgirl at a big time casino! Thanks to help from sleazy impersario Kyle MacLachlan and lesbian-leaning diva Gina Gershon, she makes it to the chorus in a show called “Goddess” – but can she unseat the show’s vain star? Unintentional hilarity ensues, but it’s also scary how everybody in this movie is either predatory, sleazy or incredibly stupid. In the dimwits’ corner is Berkely’s Nomi, who is utterly anti-sexy and untalented despite what other characters say. She’s also a bitter pill, but it must be a tribute to the woman’s talent (?) that I found myself rooting for her in the end. This despite loads of trashy sets, clothing and food (really, what is it with all the junk food?) and choreography that seemed inspired by diabetic seizures. I actually dug the insane ’90s-ness of it all, an aesthetic that really stands out with a decade or so of distance. Can’t believe I haven’t seen this until now, sorta want to watch it again.
W.E. (2011). Madonna’s artsy ode to Wallis Simpson and conspicuous consumption was pretty roundly blasted by the critics, wasn’t it? Suprisingly, I found it interesting if a strangely verging on luxurious object porn (at times, it looked like an auction catalog). W.E. criss-crosses between the real drama of Britain’s Prince Edward (James D’Arcy) falling for commoner divorcee Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborogh), and a modern day Manhattanite/Wallis fan (Abbie Cornish) stuck in a dreary marriage. The latter’s story has the well-heeled woman being absorbed by the goods in the 1998 auction of Simpson’s personal effects while a flirty Sotheby’s security guard (Oscar Isaac) takes a special interest in her. I found the acting/drama in this film vaguely interesting if not too absorbing. What I thought was funny were the times when Madonna seemed to be visually referencing her own music videos – like “Cherish” (Edward and Wallis frolicking in the surf) or “Oh Father” (Wallis’ string of pears getting flown off her neck in dramatic slo-mo). There’s also times when she’s basically copying the style of Sofia Coppola part and parcel. Still, I enjoyed Risenborogh’s performance as Wallis (the same can’t be said for the vacant-faced Cornish) – she emerges here as a steel-nerved, no-nonsense chick who won’t take guff from nobody. Also an opportunist and a lady who is hung up on her own celebrity – a lot like Madonna, no?

Flick Clique: April 24-30

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008). A young couple in a small Northern California town deals with inexplicable bird attacks — no, it’s not Hitchcock’s The Birds but James Nguyen’s micro-budgeted Birdemic: Shock and Terror. In many ways, this film is the polar opposite of The Birds. Where the earlier film was genuinely suspenseful, well-paced and eerie, Birdemic lops along with a “romantic” plot involving the cardboard lead characters, a seemingly brain-damaged business shark and a model who goes from strip mall photo shoot to Victoria’s Secret catalog cover within a single day. Nguyen appears to have edited the film himself — with awkward pauses, sound droupouts and other gaffes left intact. He also devotes lots of screen time to irrelevant things like a swanky Asian restaurant, a pumpkin festival, and a guy singing “hanging out, hanging out” to the two robotically gyrating leads. When the birds finally show up, they’re hovering (and hilarious) computer clip art images. Bad Movie Gold, in other words, but there is something charming about how the film reflects this one man’s vision, right down to its ham-handed ecological message. In an age when every Hollywood product seems to be groupthunk and market tested to death, that’s something to chew on. For the non-masochistic among us, this four minute highlight reel of Birdemic action scenes might do the trick:

My Dinner with Andre (1981). I remember first hearing about Louis Malle’s divisive film, basically a long filmed conversation between theatre director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn, when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discussed it on PBS’s Sneak Previews. I also checked it out back then, but I don’t recall much of it except when the two excitedly discuss the subject of electric blankets (a memory that always comes back whenever Christopher rhapsodizes over his own electric blanket, natch). We finally got to revisit the film when Criterion reissued it on DVD. Hmm, this is actually a pretty dull movie. I can respect it for taking chances and addressing topics that are rarely explored on film (the fact that people tend to busy themselves on unimportant matters to avoid facing the crushing blow of their own mortality, for one). The film opens with nebbishy, struggling Shawn dreading meeting Gregory, who is of more comfortable means, at a fancy restaurant. Sure enough, once we get acquainted with Gregory he proves to be something of a pompous ass. His droning on about nature retreats and such dominates the film’s first half; it never fully recovers by the time the slightly more satisfying second half (with the likable Shawn participating more, thankfully) comes. Sadly, I think this film’s most lasting legacy is in providing source material for one of Waiting for Guffman‘s funniest gags. I wouldn’t want to own this film, but I sure do covet those My Dinner with Andre action figures!
poster_ponyoPonyo (2008). Another beatiful Hayao Miyazaki film that we experienced the way it was intended, in its original Japanese. Ponyo centers on a young boy in a picturesque seaside village who finds a mysterious, goldfish-like creature that he dubs Ponyo. Ponyo is actually the offspring of a wizard and a sea goddess who escaped her dad’s undersea lab, however, and befriending a boy has given her a troublesome yearning to become a human being. Such a visual feast, and I loved the parallels between this and The Little Mermaid. The story is more essentially Japanese than other Miyazaki efforts, not quite as accessible but endearing all the same. Of course, the awe-inspiring hand drawn animation is the real reason to catch this — especially wow-able scenes in which the town is flooded with an array of sea creatures. It was also interesting to watch some scenes with the American soundtrack along with the subtitles that accompanied the original Japanese script. Certain details were changed for Disney’s version, such as renaming the adult woman figure “Mom” from the original “Lisa.”
Small Town Boy (1937). Another Joyce Compton flick that just got a welcome DVD release! This was a routine, low budget ’30s “hick does good” comedy with screendom’s eternal bumpkin, Stuart Erwin, as a guy whose world turns upside down when he finds a thousand dollar bill. Compton is a treat as Erwin’s girlfriend, however, and there are several cute/funny scenes. I have a full review of this posted at Joyce Compton News & Notes.
The Wolfman (2010). Benicio Del Toro as the eternally hapless guy who has to deal with a hairy problem every time there’s a full moon. This was just okay. It seemed awfully overproduced to me, from Danny Elfman’s da-da-DUMMMM score to the swampy color palette to the hammy back-and-forth between Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins as his malevolent father. The trials of being a snarling werewolf boil down to basic unresolved Daddy issues, apparently. The creature effects, a combination of CGI and Oscar-winning makeup sorcery, are pretty well done and there is one effective scene of the creature wreaking havoc on 19th Century London’s cobblestone streets. Otherwise, it’s a ho-hum deal.