Saturday, February 25, 2012

Audrey of the Month

Here's the lovely Audrey wearing a Givenchy dress on Oscar night April 10, 1968. She was nominated for the fifth time as best actress for her performance in "Wait Until Dark."

Speaking of Oscars, I'm happy to report that my streak is still alive! What streak, you may ask?? This is the 31st consecutive year that I've seen all of the best picture nominees before the Oscar ceremony. And it wasn't easy this time. I've been so darned busy the past six months, but last night we got to "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and this morning I watched "Tree of Life." Whew!

May everyone have a Happy Oscar Day tomorrow -- why doesn't Hallmark have cards to commemorate this holiday??

Sunday, February 19, 2012

'The Racket': A Gangster Groundbreaker

"The Racket" is a silent gangster flick released in 1928. It's most notable asset is that it was nominated for best picture for the first Academy Awards, and I can now say that I've seen all five best picture nominees for those awards. How fitting a week before the Oscars in which a silent film is nominated!

The inclusion of "The Racket" was a reflection of its popularity. While it received no other nominations, the film is considered by some to be the first major gangster movie and one that inspired the popularity of the genre during the 1930s. "The Racket" also was the fourth film produced by a young Howard Hughes. In fact, Hughes produced a remake that was released in 1951 starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, and for many years the silent version was considered lost.

Today it's an enjoyable yet not terribly exciting movie, considering where the genre would go in just a few years. The film stars popular silent screen actor Thomas Meighan as Police Captain James McQuigg, whose nemesis is Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), powerful leader of a gang of bootleggers. The two are friendly - to a point. However, Scarsi gets out of one too many scrapes on McQuigg's watch, and McQuigg is demoted to a far-off precinct, where he proclaims vengeance against Scarsi.

The viewer is pushed into the action, and while the plot isn't complex, it takes a little time to figure out the main players and their relationships with each other.

Director Lewis Milestone keeps the action moving along, although considering how sophisticated silent filmmaking had become, the scenes feel a bit stagy like the early sound movies of the next two years. Even though the film is based upon a play by Bartlett Cormack, you would expect it to have more of a visual flair.

Interestingly enough, Cormack based the story on real events in Chicago. The result was both the play and the film being banned in the city. Still, the play was immensely popular on Broadway and starred Edward G. Robinson, who was shortly thereafter signed by Warners and became a megastar with his appearance in "Little Caesar" - a gangster film.

There are a few excellent sequences in "The Racket," such as the tense showdown between rival gang leaders. As Scarsi and his men are enjoying a night at a speakeasy, Spike Corcoran's posse comes in, breaks into pairs and slowly begin sitting at tables that surround Scarsi's. The tension builds as both gangs defensively eye each other, ready to jump if something happens.

Oddly enough, there's not much of a love interest here. Marie Prevost plays Helen, a club singer who sets her sights on Scarsi's younger brother Joe simply to get back at Scarsi, who threatens her when she flirts with Joe. Otherwise, the show belongs to McQuigg and Scarsi.

As for the two stars, the youthful Meighan doesn't look at all like he's nearly 50 as the police detective. Wolheim is a joy to watch as the villainous yet charismatic Scarsi. In real life, he was highly intelligent, earning a degree in Engineering from Cornell and teaching mathematics there for six years. He would star in Milestone's classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" two years later and was preparing for the lead in Milestone's "The Front Page" when he died from cancer. (The role was played by Adolphe Menjou.)

"The Racket" was nominated for an Academy Award against "Sunrise," "Seventh Heaven," "The Last Command" and "Wings." It's arguably the weakest film of the bunch, but for film buffs it's worth checking out.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lubitsch and 'The Love Parade'

The more Ernst Lubitsch films I watch, the higher he moves up on my list of all-time great directors.

And with “The Love Parade,” his first sound film released in late 1929/early 1930 (depending on the source), he demonstrates that renowned touch with a visual wit that was lacking in most musicals at this time. In fact, when you compare this to “The Broadway Melody” released by MGM just one year prior, Paramount’s “The Love Parade” makes “Melody” look like an ancient relic.

That’s partly due to the rapid increase in sound technology, partly due to the lavish production values and mostly due to Lubitsch’s expert direction, which makes you forget how few sets this film really has.

The film also features Maurice Chevalier in his first Hollywood sound film and Jeannette MacDonald in her film debut. The only thing lacking is the story itself, which is pretty thin and pretty predictable, despite being based on a play called “The Prince Consort.”

Chevalier plays Count Alfred Renard, the playboy ambassador to France from Sylvania. His numerous love affairs result in his being called home by Queen Louise (MacDonald). Everyone wants to know when the queen will marry, and when she meets the suave Renard, she falls for him – and he for her.

But while Renard doesn’t mind being a prince, he soon learns that he doesn’t like being subservient to the queen.

Lubitsch has fun from the beginning, when Lupino Lane sings a short opening song that’s punctuated by his character pulling away a napkin off a table and leaving the dishes on top of it unmoved. It’s that kind of rhythmic wit that runs through the film. One of my favorite scenes is the first date between Renard and the Queen. Instead of showing the date, the action is narrated by three separate groups peering through the windows or listening at doorways – the queen’s advisers, the queen’s ladies in waiting, and Renard’s valet and the chambermaid he’s wooing. It’s an inventive way of moving along their affair.

Audiences flocked to the film because its sophistication was different from most of the early movie musicals, which were backstage affairs. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best actor and best director, but did not win anything.

Lubitsch would continue that marvelous wit for years to come, working with both stars several more times (including “The Merry Widow,” which I reviewed a few years ago). MacDonald eventually moved to MGM where she successfully teamed with Nelson Eddy, while Chevalier put his amorous movie persona to good use for several more years before returning to France.

Monday, February 6, 2012

'Pillow Talk' Pizza Party

Thought I'd share the group at my 'Pillow Talk' Pizza Party from Saturday night. I snapped this shot after we stuffed ourselves on homemade pizza and before the movie began. Everyone enjoyed the film and had a great time! Looking forward to the next get-together :)