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Looney Tunes (#110 of 5)

Sinful Cinema Disorderlies

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Sinful Cinema: Disorderlies
Sinful Cinema: Disorderlies

You gotta love Ralph Bellamy. In addition to having a reputation as an all-around nice guy and consummate professional, he ended his career on an odd, fascinating note. First, he was the guy who never got the girl in the 1930s. Then, in 1958, he became the quintessential interpreter of FDR on stage and screen. Finally, he ended up one of the few studio-system, Hollywood character actors a teenage Black kid in the ’hood could immediately identify. He showed up in a memorable role as one of the Duke brothers in Trading Places, a role he reprised in Coming to America, and between those two films he appeared in Michael Schultz’s live-action cartoon, Disorderlies. It’s here that Bellamy not only bronzed his ghetto pass but proved that he’s game for working with just about anybody. Disorderlies has both a novelty rap act AND Luke (Anthony Geary) from General Hospital. How can a connoisseur of trash not love this man?

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

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

List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best. Over 10 brief bullet points, one maps out a condensed history of personal taste, a cartography of the canon made one’s own. I found it taxing and, by the end, exhausting, struck at every moment with crippling self-doubt. I wondered: Is my list exhaustive? Am I a victim of my own myopia? My confidence in these choices—which, truly, I love with all my heart—began to crumble under the pressure of a (I think universal) desire to not only be, but to seem worldly and omnivorous, to appear to have taken in everything and to conclude, finally, that these 10 films are definitively the best of all time. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I felt compelled to trade out canonical classics for idiosyncratic curveballs (though in the end I included a couple of both), but that while thinking through my favorites I couldn’t help but criticize myself for what was surely missing. Doubt gnaws away at you always, often like so: How much did I know about African cinema? Why are none of these 10 films directed by women? (Vagabond was a late and regrettable cut.) Why are there no silent films on my list? Are these films generally too recent? Should I feel guilty—and I mean this seriously—that each of these 10 films is an English-language narrative feature directed by a white male? What does that say about me as a person? Should I trade one of these films out for, say, Close-up, Paris Is Burning, or A Brighter Summer Day, each of which came extremely close to making the final cut but, alas, did not? The truth is that I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a shitty white critic with blinders on. But what I do know is this: I love these 10 films more than any other films in the world. I hope that’s enough.

Take Two #14: The Ladykillers (1955) & The Ladykillers (2004)

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Take Two #14: <em>The Ladykillers</em> (1955) & <em>The Ladykillers</em> (2004)
Take Two #14: <em>The Ladykillers</em> (1955) & <em>The Ladykillers</em> (2004)

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

True Grit has been rightfully celebrated for the last few months, though few critics have expressed the appropriate surprise at how well this remake turned out. Lest we forget, the last time the Coen brothers remade someone else’s movie, they churned out their unquestionable worst, a juvenile reimagining of Alexander Mackendrick’s scabrous Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. Technically, True Grit is less a movie remake than a second try at filming the wonderful Charles Portis source novel, but the irony here is that the Coens’ Ladykillers is a more ambitious, clever concept for a film than their admittedly beautiful western. Alas, the movie itself is utterly half-assed, the only time that can be said of a Coen brothers picture.

The Mackendrick film’s plot and imagery both rely on the timely, English steam trains that always seem to be within earshot of the action, and the Coens found a wonderful cultural-historical parallel by setting the new movie along the Mississippi River. It was equally thoughtful to cast Tom Hanks, a kind of American Alec Guinness, to play the Guinness role, particularly since both actors clearly relish every ludicrous line of dialogue as they play scheming villains against type. And the occasional performance scenes of a black gospel choir are some of the most purely joyful, documentary moments in any Coen brothers film. But the filmmakers apparently made a few excellent artistic decisions and then phoned everything else in.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

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And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: <em>Alfred Hitchcock Presents</em>
And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: <em>Alfred Hitchcock Presents</em>

When people speak of Hitchcock, they usually refer to the Master of Suspense’s movies. No one sings the praises of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the TV show he hosted from 1955-1962. If Hitch’s cinematic work cemented his legendary director status, his portly silhouette beamed into millions of households every week made him a celebrity. Before Rod Serling submitted Twilight Zones “for your approval,” and the Crypt Keeper bloodied up HBO, Hitch presented the types of twisted tales you’d expect from him. Like Serling’s masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had a famous opening sequence. As Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” played, Hitch would step, in silhouette, into his outline drawn on the screen. It was simple, yet mysterious, and more than a little creepy.

At the movie theater, Hitch let his camera do the talking for him, revealing his macabre sense of humor and morbidly perfect comic timing. On TV, with far less screen time and budget, Hitch did the talking himself. “Good eeeeve-ning,” he would always begin before buttering us up for the night’s deviltry. He would tell us about tales of suspense and “murrrr-der” written and directed by people like Arthur Hiller, Charles Beaumont, Ida Lupino, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch; and seemed genuinely pissed off that he had to stop for commercials. “And now…a word from our…SPON-surrrrr,” he would say disapprovingly. His mock disdain (or was it real?) made for some funny comments at the expense of his benefactors.

5 for the Day: Looney Tunes

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5 for the Day: Looney Tunes
5 for the Day: Looney Tunes

1. “I Love to Singa” (1936). In which jazz crooner Owl Jolson (voiced by Our Gang bully Tommy Bond) runs afoul of his classical musician father and performs on Jack Bunny’s amateur radio show. The characters’ eyes are profoundly expressive—the little triangles of white light that reflect in their pupils rotate a full 360 degrees and add to these deceptively cheery protagonists a sobering touch of the manic-depressive. “I Love to Singa” is about stalwart determination, not to mention the simultaneous insanity and importance of artistic pursuit (and Owl returns as a genius sight gag in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.”)

2. “Russian Rhapsody” (1944). In which Adolf Hitler, after spewing his way through a fiery Reichstag speech about deli condiments, sets out to bomb Moscow and comes face to face with musically inclined “Gremlins from the Kremlin,” not to mention a very stern-looking mask of Josef Stalin. That the cartoon manages to both viciously lampoon Hitler (whose portrayal here complicated my childhood perception of him as a demonic historical bogeyman) and also make him something of a sympathetic protagonist is a tribute to the oft-unsung talents of director Bob Clampett, whose every hand-drawn frame is a virtuoso, stand-alone grotesque.

3. “Rabbit of Seville” (1950). Jean-Luc Godard described Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar as “life in 90 minutes.” Chuck Jones’s “Rabbit of Seville” (in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd square off to a brilliantly mangled Rossini libretto/accompaniment) is life in seven.