Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Ladykillers (1955)

For many Sir Alec Guinness will always be Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise. For others, however, he will be better remembered for his roles in the various Ealing Comedies in which he starred. From the late Forties into the Fifties Mr. Guinness starred in such comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets (in which he played eight different roles), The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and Barnacle Bill.  What might well be the best loved of the Ealing Comedies in which Sir Alec Guinness appeared is The Ladykillers. Released in 1955, the film was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and received nominations for the Oscar for Best Writing, Best Screenplay - Original and the BAFTA awards for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source. It won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress for Katie Johnson in her role as  Mrs Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce.

The Ladykillers centres on Mrs. Wilberforce, an elderly Englishwoman with an overactive imagination who is prone to report any and all suspicious activities in her neighbourhood to the local constabulary. She runs a boardinghouse that is situated over the Copenhagen Tunnel in London,  the second tunnel on the main railway line leaving Kings Cross station.  As fate would have it, she rents rooms to Professor Marcus (played by Alec Guinness) and the men in his string quintet. In reality the "string quartet" are hardened criminals planning a security van robbery. Professor Marcus's crew consists of con man "Major Courtney" (played by Cecil Park),  Cockney Teddy boy Harry Robinson (played by Peter Sellers),  former boxer "One-Round" Lawson (played by Danny Green), and European gangster and all around psychopath Louis Harvey (played by Herbert Lom). While Mrs. Wilberforce would seem to be at the mercy of the criminals, in time she proves more than a match for them.

Even among films as British as the Ealing Comedies, The Ladykillers is a very British, or more precisely very English, film. It is then curious that the film originated in the mind of an American. William Rose was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but migrated to Canada with the outbreak of World War II so he could serve in the military there. Serving in the Black Watch, he married Englishwoman Tania Price and settled in Britain following the war. Prior to The Ladykillers he had already written several screenplays, including the classics Genevieve (1953) and The Maggie (1954).

The idea for The Ladykillers literally came to William Rose in a dream. William Rose told director Alexander Mackendrick about his dream and the two went to work on what would become The Ladykillers. Mr. Mackendrick had already directed such classic films as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Maggie (1955). Sadly during pre-production William Rose and Alexander Mackendrick often found themselves at odds. William Rose eventually left the project, so that Alexander Mackendrick had to finish The Ladykillers without him. After the movie was released, William Rose actually admitted that they had improved his vision of the film.

Of course, much of the film's success rests not only with William Rose's brilliant screenplay, but also with one of the best casts assembled for any film. Oddly enough, while Professor Marcus would become one of his most famous roles, Sir Alec Guinness was initially unsure about the role, even suggesting to Alexander Mackendrick that he hire someone else prior to the start of filming. Fortunately for film buffs everywhere, Sir Alec Guinness went ahead and took the role.  While Harry Robinson would become Peter Sellers's first big role, it was not the role for which he initially auditioned. He read for the part of One-Round Lawson and did not do particularly well in the role. Fortunately associate producer Seth Holt had the idea of casting Peter Sellers as Harry Robinson. As to who was initially considered for the role of Harry Robinson, that was none other than Richard Attenborough.

As to the role of One-Round Lawson, reportedly comedian Tommy Cooper was considered for the role, but could not take the part due to prior commitments. For Herbert Lom the role of Louis Harvey would be his first comic role. He had played Napoleon in Young Mr. Pitt (1942), Dr. Larsen in The Seventh Veil (1945), and Continental heavies in various films over the years. Curiously for an actor who had started out playing dramatic roles, the roles of Louis Havey in The Ladykillers and Chief Inspector Dreyfusin the "Pink Panther" comedies are now probably his most famous roles.

Amazingly enough for a film now considered a classic, The Ladykillers was not universally lauded by critics. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review said of the film, "Everything is done neatly and well, but the material is simply too thin to allow for many bellylaughs." John McCarten wrote in The New Yorker of the film, "Inevitably The Ladykillers brings up comparisons with The Lavender Hill Mob, in which Mr. Guinness was so effective. Alas, the new enterprise is a long, long way from being as refreshing as that." Fortunately, other movie critics found much to like about The Ladykillers. No less than Bosley Crowther of The New York Times commented, "Still and all, Mr. Rose's nimble writing and Alexander Mackendrick's directing skill have managed to assure The Ladykillers of a distinct and fetching comic quality." The film critic for The Glasgow Herald wrote, "Oh, happiest of auguries for this New Year--British comedy is right back on form, and that means outstandingly good, and you will discover it for yourself if you go and see The Ladykillers at the Odeon."

Regardless of what critics thought of The Ladykillers, audiences loved the film. The Ladykillers proved to be a hit at the box office in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The film industries in both countries appreciated the film as well. As mentioned earlier, The Ladykillers was nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA awards, while Katie Johnson won the BAFTA Award for Best British Actress. Along with Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob, it has become the best loved of the comedies Sir Alec Guinness made at Ealing.

The success of The Ladykillers has guaranteed that it would be adapted to many media over the years.  Czech composer Ilja Hurník adapted the film into an opera in 1966.  BBC Radio 4 adapted the movie as a radio play in 1996. The Coen Brothers remade The Ladykillers in 2004, moving the action to the 21st Century United States. In 2011 playwright  Graham Linehan adapted the film as a stage play that premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse.

Aside from the fact that it is a very funny movie, it is not hard to understand the appeal of The Ladykillers. In many respects at its core it is an bit of an underdog story.  Mrs Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce is seemingly nothing more than a sweet, good hearted, and ultimately harmless, old lady. Despite this (or perhaps even because of it) she proves more than a match for Professor Marcus and his band of criminals. As played by Katie Johnson, Mrs. Wilberforce is a remarkable woman, and made of sterner stuff that what she appears to be on the surface.

Beyond its basic premise of a kind old lady getting the better of hardened criminals, the appeal of The Ladykillers may go even deeper, at least for older British viewers. In his book  On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, Alexander Mackendrick writes, "The fable of The Ladykillers is a comic and ironic joke about the condition of postwar England." For Mr. Mackendrick Mrs. Wilberforce is "...a diminished Britannia..." and her house is "... is Edwardian England, an anachronism in the contemporary world." Meanwhile Professor Marcus and his gang are "... a composite cartoon of Britain's corruption." Considering Mr. Mackendrick's observations about The Ladykillers, the film could be viewed as one in which traditional Britain (portrayed by Mrs. Wilberforce) is victorious over the forces that seek to destroy it or, at least, change it (Professor Marcus and his crew). For many British audiences in 1955, that may have been a very reassuring message!

Contrary to popular belief, The Ladykillers was not Ealing's last comedy, although it was most certainly their last important one. In the wake of its success director Alexander Mackendrick would move to Hollywood where he would direct such films as Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Don't Make Waves (1967) before retiring to take up teaching. Sir Alec Guinness would continue to be an international star, appearing in such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Peter Sellers went onto international stardom, starring in the "Pink Panther" series, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), and many other films. Sadly, The Ladykillers would be Katie Johnson's penultimate film. She made only one more (How to Murder a Rich Uncle in 1957). She died on May 4 1957.  The Ladykillers continues to be her most popular film.

Almost from the very beginning The Ladykillers has had a rather large and loyal cult following. Today it is regarded as a classic. Indeed, I have to rather suspect that if Obi-Wan Kenobi is the first role played by Sir Alec Guinness that comes to someone's mind, it is only because he or she has never seen The Ladykillers.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Second Annual British Invaders Blogathon

The Second Annual British Invaders Blogathon has arrived! For those who did not see the initial announcement regarding the blogathon, the British Invaders Blogathon is meant to celebrate the best in British classic films. While many think of Hollywood when they think of movies, the fact is that many classic films originated in the United Kingdom. From the Gainsborough melodramas to the Ealing comedies to Alfred Hitchcock to Tony Richardson, the United Kingdom has made many contributions to classic film. The British Invaders Blogathon will last from today (July 31 2015) to Sunday (August 2 201t).

I am glad to say we have a wide range of posts lined up that span the history of British film from the Silent Era to the Eighties. For those participating in the blogathon, simply let me know in a comment here, a message on Twitter, or an email and I will add it to the list. And please remember to link to this page using one of the images from the introductory post! I want to thank everyone who is participating!

Anyhow, without further ado, here are the posts:

Defiant Success: Victim, Sunday Bloody Sunday, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Maurice

MovieMovieBlogBlog: "A Hard Day's Night (1964) – A beautiful cinematic scrapbook of The Beatles" and "The Beatles in Help! (1965) – No Hard Day's Night but a nice ticket to ride"

Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Powell and Pressburger entrance with... The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) 

Pop Culture Reverie: The Lion in Winter (1968); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Noirish:  Whistle Down the Wind (1961) 

Speakeasy: The Damned (1963) 

The Stop Button: Hope and Glory (1987, John Boorman) 

Crítica Retrô:  Zulu (1964)

The Wonderful World of Cinema: The Importance of Being Earnest

Voyages Extraordinaires: "The Edwardian Scientific Romances of Amicus Productions"

Sacred Celluloid: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog:  Where Eagles Dare

A Shroud of Thoughts: The Ladykillers (1955)

portraitsbyjenni: The Wicked Lady (1945)

Sister Celluloid: "The Holly and the Ivy Make for a Prickly Christmas"

Movies Silently: "The Lad from Old Ireland (1910) A Silent Film Review"

CineMaven's: ESSAYS from the COUCH: Night and the City

litlover12: The Scapegoat (1959)

Moon in Gemini: "A Fish Called Wanda: an English/American Love/Hate Story"

Back to Golden Days: The End of the Affair (1955)

In the Good Old Days of Hollywood: I Could Go On Singing (1963)

The Joy and Agony of Movies: Get Carter, The Long Good Friday, The Hit, and Mona Lisa

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stop Worrying! The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' Help! (1965)

It was fifty years ago today, on July 29 1965, that The Beatles' film Help! premiered at the Pavilion in London. Since its premiere Help! has largely been in the shadow of The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night. While A Hard Day's Night is widely regarded as a classic that had a lasting influence, Help! is sometimes dismissed or ignored entirely. Despite this in my experience Beatles fans themselves are divided as to which of the two films is their favourite, and there are very many that cannot make up their minds as to which film they prefer. Even if Help! is not a better film than A Hard Day's Night, it is a classic in its own right that also had a lasting influence.

Here it must be noted that Help! emerged as part of a three picture deal that The Beatles manager  Brian Epstein had signed with United Artists. A Hard Day's Night was the first film in the deal, while Help! would be the second. The animated film Yellow Submarine was meant to fulfil the deal, but since it did not actually star The Beatles, it was decided that it did not. As a result The Beatles then made the documentary Let It Be.

Although both starred The Beatles and both share the same off-kilter humour, in many respects A Hard Day's Night and Help! are very different films. A Hard Day's Night portrayed The Beatles as they journeyed to London to shoot a TV programme and their experiences at the TV studio. It was shot in black and white in the style of cinéma vérité. Help! had what was in some respects a more traditional (if very loose) plot, one in which Ringo finds himself in possession of the sacrificial ring of the cult of Kaili who are now pursuing him. It was also shot in colour and its style owed a good deal to the spy thrillers of the era. Of course, in both films The Beatles essentially played, well, The Beatles.

Regardless, early in its pre-production Help! was simply referred to as Beatles 2. Eventually it was given the title Eight Arms to Hold You. That title, like A Hard Day's Night, came from Ringo Starr, who had a knack for coming up with such odd phrases. The title would remain Eight Arms to Hold You very late in the film's production. The initial American release of the single "Ticket to Ride", released on April 19 1965, even stated the song was from the "United Artists release Eight Arms to Hold You." Eventually director Richard Lester and The Beatles changed the title of the film to Help!, taken from a song that John Lennon had written as a reaction to the stress he felt after The Beatles' rapid rise to success. The Beatles did not particularly care for the title Eight Arms to Hold You, and in an interview Paul McCarntey joked,  "I just don't think anybody will want to hear a song called, 'Eight Arms To Hold You.'"

Much like A Hard Day's Night before it, Help! drew upon multiple sources of inspiration. The Beatles themselves said the film was inspired by The Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933). Not only did the comedy in the film owe a good deal to the Marx Brothers, but it also owed a good deal to the classic British radio comedy programme The Goon Show starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers. This should perhaps come as no surprise, given Richard Lester had directed The Goon Show movie short "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film" (1959) and The Beatles were huge fans of the show (here it must also be noted that The Beatles producer George Martin produced albums featuring both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers). Another source of inspiration were the then popular spy thrillers, particularly those featuring superspy James Bond. In many ways Help! can be considered a parody of the James Bond movies and similar spy thrillers.

Due to the success of A Hard Day's Night, director Richard Lester was given a much larger budget for Help!. Not only was Help! then shot in colour, but it was also shot at various locations around the world. In the film The Beatles appeared in such locales as London, the Austrian Alps, Salisbury Plain, and the Bahamas. Help! would also have much more extravagant sets than A Hard Day's Night, including the temple of Kaili.

Although one would not know it from watching the film, The Beatles did not particularly enjoy making Help!.  At the height of their success and with a busy schedule of recording, touring, and appearances on television, The Beatles were suffering from exhaustion as a whole by the time Help!  began shooting. While the band had a good deal of input on A Hard Day's Night, according to John Lennon, "...with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about." John would later complain that The Beatles felt like extras in their own film. It is because of this that Help! was shot in what has been called "a haze of marijuana". According to Paul McCartney in an interview, "We showed up a bit stoned, smiled a lot and hoped we'd get through it." In the documentary The Beatles Anthology Ringo Starr admitted, "A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film."

While The Beatles did not enjoy making Help! and were apparently stoned throughout its production, the film itself was very well received. While most critics at the time did not declare Help! a masterpiece, most of them did regard the movie as being a good deal of fun. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, while somewhat unimpressed by The Beatles themselves, referred to Help! as "...90 minutes of good, clean insanity." Leo Sullivan of The Washington Post admired Richard Lester's utilisation of camera movement. The critic at Time was less impressed with Help!, saying, "Help! is The Beatles‘ all-out try at carving a new career as a screen team before their long love affair with the squealers dies out.” Needless to say, in the years since the critic at Time has been proven wrong both by The Beatles and the movie Help!. Movie goers certainly disagreed with the Time critic regarding Help!. The film did well at the box office, taking in $12,066,667 in the United States alone.

While much has been written about the lasting influence of A Hard Day's Night, less has been written about the lasting influence of Help!. This is a shame as Help! had as much influence as A Hard Day's Night. While The Beatles were initially a bit unhappy with the end result of the film, John Lennon himself would later admit, "I realise, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor to the Batman 'Pow! Wow!" on TV—that kind of stuff. But (Lester) never explained it to us." It is hard to argue with John's assessment of the film. Help! relied on a camp, pop art sensibility that drew heavily upon Anglophonic pop culture (everything from the Marx Brothers to James Bond). It would be precisely that sort of sensibility that would come into vogue only a few months later with the TV show Batman and movies such as Smashing Time (1967) and  Barbarella (1967). Indeed, much as the spy thrillers of the early Sixties influenced Help!, Help!  would have an influence on such spy spoofs of the late Sixties as the Matt Helm movies, Our Man Flint (1966), and The President's Analyst (1967). Like Help! they were shot in colour, utilised a number of sight gags, and possessed a nearly camp, pop art sensibility.

Indeed, the influence of Help! can clearly be seen on one particular TV show. It has often been written that the classic TV show The Monkees drew upon The Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night for inspiration. In truth, The Monkees drew much more from Help!. Like Help! most episodes of The Monkees placed the band in some sort of stock plot (The Monkees spend the night in a haunted house, must save their favourite restaurant from gangsters, et. al.) that drew heavily upon popular culture. Like Help!, The Monkees also relied a good deal upon sight gags, throwaway bits, non-sequiturs, and chases. That The Monkees owed a good deal to A Hard Day's Night there can be no doubt, but it owed much more to Help!.

Of course, Help! would also have a lasting impact on music video. Certainly A Hard Day's Night also had an enormous impact on music video, but with Help! Richard Lester took what he had learned on A Hard Day's Night to a whole other level. Indeed, there are music sequences in Help! (such as the one for the song "Another Girl") that entirely break with the cinematic tradition of portraying a band playing instruments throughout a song.

Help! is hardly a perfect film. Certainly its plot is so loose as to be disjointed. That having been said, Help! is so filled with fun and good humour that it hardly matters. The film moves forward at a right good clip, with enough sight gags, funny lines, throwaway scenes, and great songs to fill any two other movies. Ultimately Help! is a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is an immensely enjoyable film despite any of its weaknesses, and one that had as much influence as its precursor. It deserves every bit as much to be counted as a classic alongside A Hard Day's Night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Al Checco R.I.P.

Al Checco, a character actor who appeared in dozens of TV shows and served in the U.S. Army with Don Knotts, died July 19 2015 at the age of 93.

Al Checco was born on July 21 1921 in Pittsburgh. During World War II he served in the United States Army. Eventually he was assigned to a unit meant to entertain the troops. Among the other men in the unit was Don Knotts, whose ventriloquism act often followed Al Checco's singing act. The two men would remain friends for their rest of their lives. Following the war Mr. Checco attended Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh where he received a degree in drama. He made his debut on Broadway in 1948 in An Inspector Calls. He also appeared on Broadway in the Forties in Lend an Ear.

In the Fifties Al Checco made his television debut on an episode of Tales from Tomorrow in 1952. He guest starred on such shows as Robert Montgomery Presents, The Phil Silvers Show, and Playwrights '56. He appeared on Broadway in the productions Buttrio Square and Carnival in Flanders.

In the Sixties Al Checco had a recurring role on Mister Ed as newspaper editor Joe King. He guest starred twice on The Andy Griffith Show, playing opposite his old Army buddy Don Knotts. He also guest starred on such shows as Bronco, The Donna Reed Show, Dobie Gillis, The Munsters, Gomer Pyle USMC, Perry Mason, Run for Your Life, Batman, The Flying Nun, The Big Valley, and The New Doctors. He appeared in the films The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Hotel (1967), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), The Party (1968), and Bullitt (1968).

In the Seventies Mr. Checco appeared on such shows as Medical Centre, Mod Squad, Bonanza, The F.B.I., The Streets of San Francisco, The Rookies, Adam-12, Ironside, Here's Lucy, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files, and Quincy M.E. He appeared in the TV movie Helter Skelter. He appeared in such movies as Skin Game (1971), The World's Greatest Athlete (1973), The Terminal Man (1974), and How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980).

From the Eighties to the Naughts Al Checco guest starred on such shows as Dallas, Knight Rider, Highway to Heaven, Kate & Allie, Growing Pains, Becker, and Scrubs. In the Nineties he appeared in Crazy For You on Broadway.

Al Checco was a true character actor, playing a wide variety of roles throughout his career. He was the newspaper editor on Mister Ed, a bank robber on The Andy Griffith Show, one of The Penguin's henchmen on Batman, a pool room owner on The Streets of San Francisco, and real life supermarket executive Leno LaBianca in the TV movie Helter Skelter (based on the Charles Manson case). The parts he played in movies and even TV shows were often rather small, but he always gave a fine performance and left an impression.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bugs Bunny: The 75th Anniversary of "A Wild Hare" (1940)

It was 75 years ago today, on July 27 1940, that the classic Warner Bros. animated short "A Wild Hare" was released. The cartoon is significant as it is considered the first official cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. It is the first cartoon in which Mel Blanc used the familiar "Bugs Bunny" voice and the first in which Bugs uses his catchphrase, "What's Up, Doc?". In 'A Wild Hare" Bugs is simply an unnamed rabbit. He would not be called by the name "Bugs Bunny"until his following, full-fledged cartoon appearance in "Elmer's Pet Rabbit" (1941).

Here it must be stressed that Bugs Bunny was not the creation of one man, but rather a character that developed over time. In fact, the genesis of Bug Bunny at least goes back to 1938 with the Porky Pig cartoon  "Porky's Hare Hunt", which featured a hare who looked very different from Bugs, but did have some of his personality quirks. Other prototypes for Bugs Bunny would appear in the shorts "Prest-O Change-O" (1939) and  "Hare-um Scare-um" (1939).  "Hare-um Scare-um" (1939) is very significant in that the hare featured in the cartoon looks a lot like Bugs Bunny, although with a personality closer to the early Daffy Duck and a voice that was entirely different (complete with a Woody Woodpecker type laugh). A slight different version of this particular rabbit appeared in the Elmer Fudd short "Elmer's Candid Camera" (1940). In "Elmer's Candid Camera" the rabbit looks even more like Bugs, although he still has a completely different voice.

That brings us up to "A Wild Hare". "A Wild Hare" was directed by the legendary Tex Avery with animation by Virgil Ross, Robert McKimson, and Rod Scribner. "A Wild Hare" proved very successful, even earning a nomination for the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Cartoon).  It lost to the MGM animated short "The Milky Way". By the way, the third nominee for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) was another historic cartoon, 'Puss Gets the Boot"--the very first cartoon featuring Tom and Jerry (although Tom is called "Jasper" throughout the short). Regardless, the success of "A Wild Hare" would guarantee Bugs Bunny a place in Warner Bros.' stable of characters. He would go onto become one of the most popular animated characters of all time, if not the most popular.

For those who would like to see "A Wild Hare", here it is, courtesy of DailyMotion.

Merrie Melodies - A Wild Hare (1940) by Cartoonzof2006