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Leo Mccarey (#110 of 10)

The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival
The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival

I emerged out of the train station and onto the roiling snake pit of Hollywood Boulevard this past Thursday afternoon with a singularity of purpose that has served well those who have learned to safely navigate this peril-ridden stretch of tourism and other desperate forms of humanity. Among the mass of logy sidewalk gawkers, shaggily costumed superheroes, and barkers hawking coupons for bus tours and free drinks at comedy clubs, the guy in the Creamsicle-colored tuxedo and matching top hat didn’t even cause me to balk as he moved toward me on the sidewalk. He certainly didn’t seem out of place, even as his lanky, six-and-a-half-foot frame towered above the stumpier heights of most everyone else bobbling down the Walk of Fame. But as we passed each other, this orangey giant suddenly offered up a loud, impassioned plea to the crowd, for no readily apparent reason, which put me at attention: “Remember Bob Hope!” Wondering if a declaration of fond tribute for, say, Mickey Rooney would have been timelier, I moved right along. No matter. There could be no doubt, if there ever was any, that the 2014 edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival, headquartered as always in the very heart of the mythological realm of Hollywood, was now officially under way, a gathering of film buffs vacationing from the real world among the icons and memories of movie-studio glory, where there would be no lack of warm remembrance for Hope or Rooney or any of a hundred other stars whose images and talents would be ceaselessly evoked and reminisced upon over the next four days.

Summer of ‘88: Crocodile Dundee II

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Crocodile Dundee II</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Crocodile Dundee II</em>

The sequel to the runaway Aussie hit of 1986 (which managed to net both $360 million and a surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), opens with Mick “Crocodile” Dundee doing some fishing. Blasting dynamite is his method of choice, and he’s at peace in what seems like a wilderness, until a cut reveals the location to be New York City harbor. Boated policemen arrive mere seconds after the blast, only to give Dundee a pass and a smile unlikely to greet any foreigner handling explosives near downtown Manhattan nowadays. Following this clean and efficient start, scored to Peter Best’s guitar-heavy signature theme, the film starts making its steady way to cinematic hell.

After having peddled the beauty of his native continent to American TV viewers (and before becoming a spokesman for Subaru), Paul Hogan rehashed a number of old movie plots in the first Crocodile Dundee film, which he co-wrote and starred in. Tarzan merged with Mr. Deeds and went to town as a single character. Even though there was some spontaneity to the first movie, by 1988 Hogan’s rugged assembly had calcified into a deliberate look, his leather jacket looking fresh off the rack and the crocodile teeth in his cowboy hat all freshly brushed.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Budd Wilkins’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Bearing in mind the fundamentally mercurial nature of any such list (at least as far as I’m concerned), apt to alter its constituent membership with the swiftness of a weathervane buffeted by hurricane-force winds, I hereby present the 10 films that rank as my current favorites.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but the most creative periods for the movies seem to occur about every 30 years, usually triggered by the advent of some new technology. First came that short burst of experimentation by people like Georges Méliès during the last few years of the 19th century, right after the medium was invented. The latest is the digital revolution that started around the turn of this century, making it possible for almost anyone to make a movie (and enabling a whole new level of intimacy between filmmaker and subject) by eliminating the need for expensive film processing and slashing the cost and size of professional-quality cameras. But my favorite golden age is the one that stretched from the late ’20s to the early ’40s in Hollywood. Old pros who’d cut their teeth on countless shorts showed us what could be done with silent film while upstarts like Howard Hawks and the Marx Brothers played with synchronous sound, that shiny new toy, in movies crammed to the brim with fast, funny talk. That probably explains why half of my 10 favorites were made during a 14-year period that ended as WWII began.

Take Two #16: The Shop Around the Corner (1940) & You’ve Got Mail (1998)

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Take Two #16: <em>The Shop Around the Corner</em> (1940) & <em>You’ve Got Mail</em> (1998)
Take Two #16: <em>The Shop Around the Corner</em> (1940) & <em>You’ve Got Mail</em> (1998)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

Joel and Ethan Coen may have wasted a terrific Tom Hanks performance and some clever ideas in their remake of The Ladykillers, but Nora Ephron bested them on both counts six years prior, when she blandly updated one of Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest romances for the digital age. The Ladykillers ended up a hot mess for want of the Coen brothers’ usual lunatic wit, whereas You’ve Got Mail suffers from the opposite problem: It positively reeks of Ephron. Time and again she sets up a great set piece or exhibits some real insight into how romantic comedies work, then shoots herself in the foot with her unending need to make everything cute and sitcom-y. We’re all familiar with the Lubitsch Touch; Ephron’s style is more like an unintentionally painful elbow jab.

Take Two #9: Love Affair (1939) & An Affair to Remember (1957), with Some Unavoidable Complaining About Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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Take Two #9: <em>Love Affair</em> (1939) & <em>An Affair to Remember</em> (1957), with Some Unavoidable Complaining About <em>Sleepless in Seattle</em> (1993)
Take Two #9: <em>Love Affair</em> (1939) & <em>An Affair to Remember</em> (1957), with Some Unavoidable Complaining About <em>Sleepless in Seattle</em> (1993)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

The stereotype that “men like action movies and women like romances” has, I think, less to do with the genders’ respective love for action or romance per se, and more to do with our different beliefs in what makes a character complete. Action movies will always require heroes and romances will obviously require at least two characters to qualify as such, so while it might be similarly crude to say so, I’m slightly less queasy about a stereotype that posits, “Men like to celebrate great individual accomplishments and women prefer to consider the ways individuals interact.” But a great romance, one between two fully self-contained people that requires them both to grow and change, can theoretically satisfy both these urges. This is what Leo McCarey understood, and he managed to think up such a perfect story to illustrate the point that he had to tell it twice.

Late Leo McCarey and His Deformed Son John

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Late Leo McCarey and His Deformed Son John
Late Leo McCarey and His Deformed Son John

When a great director goes wrong, they usually don’t go wrong in a small way; they go spectacularly wrong, ambitiously wrong, prodigiously wrong. In the case of Leo McCarey, his own innate talent for spontaneous, behavioral observation remained constant after 1940, but his intellect, taste and judgment flew off to cloud-cuckoo land. He left us with some of the most maudit of film maudit, movies that only the most hard-boiled auteurist could argue are successful in their totality, and the recent TCM airing of McCarey’s notorious, riveting anti-Communist My Son John (1952) opened up a whole slew of questions for me, especially in how it seems to directly relate to parts of his unquestionably major films, like The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow (both 1937). The movie hadn’t been seen on television since 1970, and it remains a hot potato, not only because of its impossible-to-follow right wing politics, but because of its often uncomfortable stylistic choices.

I recently watched two McCarey problem pictures from the forties, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) and Good Sam (1948), both of which gave me an idea of what I’d be dealing with when it came to My Son John. McCarey was known for improvising a lot of his movies on the set; he’d go over to play some piano for a while, dream up scenes and then give them to the actors. This had a salutary effect on Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, two complementary players wrapped in their own bubbly world of romantic comedy, but Honeymoon falters in its first labored, tasteless scenes between Grant and Ginger Rogers, who plays a former Miss Flatbush gold-digging a Nazi official (Walter Slezak). The stars don’t seem to know what they’re doing for a while, but then comes an extraordinary scene where they get drunk together at a restaurant; McCarey keeps his camera on them steadily as Rogers unexpectedly observes that “Schopenhauer is too cynical,” and gets a bit teary while Grant burrows deeper and deeper into lyrical tipsiness. Suddenly, two unlikely characters and mismatched actors become real and believable, and there’s no way that Rogers and Grant could have hit such exalted emotions without McCarey’s willingness to experiment and his Irish sense that alcohol can sometimes unlock our most fruitful feelings (see especially the wondrous drunk scene between Paul Newman and Joan Collins in his also-problematic Rally Round the Flag, Boys! {1958}).

You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

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You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

RKO Radio Pictures

You Must Change Your Life: The Films of Roberto Rossellini & Ingrid Bergman

“My father was a genius,” says Isabella Rossellini, in her searching Guy Maddin-directed short tribute to her father Roberto, My Dad is 100 Years Old, which marks his centenary. After this statement, she pauses briefly, then says, “I think.” Her confusion is sweet and quite understandable. Rossellini has had passionate fans, especially the directors of the French New Wave like Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, all of whom wrote heady tributes to his difficult, ambiguous films. One can’t imagine Breathless (1960) without Rossellini’s example, and surely Antonioni was influenced, especially by Journey to Italy (1953). Martin Scorsese devotes long passages to Rossellini’s key early works in his documentary on Italian cinema, My Voyage To Italy (1999), and there’s an air of special pleading in his endorsement, particularly when he talks up Europa ’51 (1952), as if he knows that many people won’t give it a chance because of its out of synch soundtrack.