Saturday, May 16, 2020

National Classic Movie Day: 6 Favourite Films from the Sixties

Today is National Classic Movie Day. Every year in honour of the day, Classic Film and TV Cafe holds a blogathon. For this year's blogathon the theme is "Six Favourite Films from the Sixties." The Sixties is my all time favourite decade when it comes to movies. For that reason, except for A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Dr. Strangelove, it was difficult to narrow down my favourites to only six. Indeed, were I to compile a list of my 100 favourite films of all time, the lion's share of them would be from the Sixties! If you were to ask me to list my six favourite films from the Sixties tomorrow, it might be totally different except for A Hard Day's Night and Dr. Strangelove!

By the way, I am treating the Sixties as taking place from 1961 to 1970. In the Gregorian calendar there was no year 0. This is why The Apartment (1960), which is my second favourite film of all time, does not appear on this list (it appeared in last year's National Classic Movie Day post, for the Fifties). While no movies from 1970 made this list, it is fully possible that they could have by my reckoning (Catch-22 numbers among my favourites).

Anyway, without further ado, here are my six favourite films from the Sixties. For simplicity's sake, I am listing them by year of release.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): To Kill a Mockingbird was the first film I saw in a theatre that would later be considered a classic. In 1973, when I was 10 years old and in third grade, we took a tour of the 4th Street Cinema, which included getting to watch a movie. At 10 years old there were parts of the plot I didn't yet understand, so I didn't quite appreciate the movie at that age. Fortunately,  I would see To Kill a Mockingbird again when I was a teen and I would realise just how truly great the movie is.  It has numbered among my favourite movies ever since.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): I have to confess that ever since I was a kid I have had a somewhat twisted sense of humour. Of course, the Sixties produced a number of comedies that would naturally appeal to someone with a sense of humour like mine. Possibly the best black comedy the decade ever produced was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (hereafter simply Dr. Strnagelove for brevity's sake).  Let's face it, one cannot get much darker or much more twisted than a comedy based around nuclear annihilation! The laughs come non-stop in Dr. Strangelove, with bravura performances from the entire cast.

The Great Escape (1963): When I think of the Sixties, I often think of the many epic World War II movies released during the decade. Possibly the best of the World War II epics of the Sixties is The Great Escape. Loosely based on the real life escape from German POW camp Stalag Luft III in 1944, The Great Escape details an escape from a POW camp. The Great Escape features an all-star cast including Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, Steve McQueen, Donald Pleasence, and yet others. What is more, each and every member of the cast gives a great performance. The Great Escape is not merely an action film, but a tale of heroism with a good deal of depth to it.

A Hard Day's Night (1964): I have been a fan of The Beatles since childhood. In fact, not only cannot I remember the first time I ever heard The Beatles, but I cannot remember the first time I saw A Hard Day's Night. I am guessing it was probably when it first aired on NBC Tuesday Night at the Movies in 1967, although I cannot be certain (I would have only been four at the time). Regardless, there has never been a time that I have not loved this movie and it has always numbered among my absolute favourites. I have seen it numerous times and hosted numerous TCMParties for it on Twitter. As part of Turner Classic Movies' Fan Favourites series, I even introduced it with Ben Mankiewicz in April 2015.

The Loved One (1965): As I mentioned earlier, I have always had a twisted sense of humour, and one cannot get more twisted than The Loved One. Loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's 1948 satirical novel of the same name, the tag line for The Loved One was "the motion picture with something to offend everyone!" And that is just about true. The Loved One lampoons the American funeral industry (much as Evelyn Waugh's original novel did), Hollywood (much as Evelyn Waugh's original novel did), religion, Oedipal complexes, overeating, the rich, the military, the space programme, television, and yet more. Along with Dr. Strangelove and The President's Analyst (1967), it is among the most outrageous comedies of the Sixties.

To Sir, with Love (1967): I have a confession to make. I absolutely hated school. I simply did not like having to stay in a room all day, often studying some subjects in which  I had little interest (to this day I am not a big fan of mathematics). Strangely enough, the "inspirational teacher" genre is one of my favourite genres. Perhaps the first movie I ever saw in the genre was To Sir, with Love and, except for Stand and Deliver (1988), it is still my favourite. To Sir, with Love works on multiple levels. At its most basic level it is about a teacher trying to get students in a school in the East End of London to improve themselves. On another level it is about a black teacher facing such obstacles as racism in mid-Sixties London. On yet another level it is about the students, most of who live in poverty, and the obstacles they face. This makes To Sir, with Love among the most complex of the "inspirational teacher" movies.

The President's Analyst (1967):  Like Dr. Strangelove and The Loved One, The President's Analyst is another one of the Sixties' outrageous comedies. Released at the tail end of the Sixties spy craze, on the surface The President's Analyst is yet another spy spoof. What sets it apart from the many spy spoofs of the era is that it is also a social and political satire that sends up everything from the United States government to middle class suburbanites to, well, the phone company. In fact, the only people that seem to be treated sympathetically in the movie are either spies or hippies! The President's Analyst certainly deserves to be better known than it is.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

(This post is part of The Great Ziegfeld Blogathon hosted by Hollywood Genes)

There can be no doubt that Flo Ziegfeld Jr. was one of the great showmen of the 20th Century. He was well known for his Follies, a series of spectacular revues that were staged from 1907 to 1931. In addition to the Ziegfeld Follies, he was also responsible for such shows as Sally, Rio Rita, and Show Boat. Despite his success, Flo Ziegfeld lost a good deal of money in the stock market crash of 1929. When he died in 1932 at age 65 from pleurisy, he was deeply in debt. In order to pay off these debts, in 1933 that his widow, actress Billie Burke (now best known as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) sold the film rights to his life story to Universal Pictures. As it turned out, production of The Great Ziegfeld proved too expensive for Universal, who then sold the production, lock, stock, and barrel, to MGM. The Great Ziegfeld proved to be a huge success for MGM. In fact, it was the top film at the box office in 1936. It also won the Oscar for Best Picture. Of course, such success meant that there would be sequels.

The first sequel would not feature the character of Flo Ziegfeld Jr. at all. Instead, Ziegfeld Girl (1941) centred on three young women (played by Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner), who become Ziegfeld girls. Like The Great Ziegfeld, it used some of the numbers from the actual Ziegfeld Follies. The third and final sequel was Ziegfeld Follies (1946). In Ziegfeld Follies, Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell reprising his role from the first film) in Heaven imagines the Follies he could produce if he had MGM's roster of stars. Like the actual Ziegfeld Follies, then, the movie is a revue of unrelated comedy sketches and musical numbers. While the first two movies featured sequences that had originated with the Ziegfeld Follies, Ziegfeld Follies utilized primarily original material. Ultimately, it would be one of the most lavish and most expensive movies ever mounted by MGM.

In fact, it appears that plans were being made for Ziegfeld Follies even before the second sequel, Ziegfeld Girl, was released. In July 1939 E. Y. Yarburg and Jack McGowan submitted outlines for the movie, according to material from the Arthur Freed Collection at at the USC Cinema/Television Library. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter from April 1943, producer Arthur Freed had begun preparations for a film that would be a Technicolor tribute to Flo Ziegfeld. Not only would a good deal of work go into Ziegfeld Follies, but that work would be performed by a veritable army of personnel. There would be thirty writers on the film (only five of which are credited), more than twenty credited performers (and many, many more uncredited) in the film, and a whole legion of composers, choreographers, and arrangers who worked on it. Ultimately, Ziegfeld Follies  would be directed by seven different men. It should prove no surprise that Ziegfeld Follies was an expensive movie to make. It ultimately cost a then staggering $3.2 million.

Shooting on Ziegfeld Follies would take place from April 10 1944 to August 18 1944, with additional shooting occurring on December 22 1944 and between January 25 and February 6 1945. While shooting had ended, Ziegfeld Follies would require an enormous amount of editing, so much so that it would not be released until 1946. Not only would the running order of the various sequences in the film be changed and changed again, several numbers would be cut from the film and then some of those numbers would be restored. Originally clocking in at 273 minutes, Ziegfeld Follies would only be 110 minutes upon its release. 

Given the amount of time it took to make and the sheer amount of money it took to make, Ziegfeld Follies was an enormous gamble for MGM. And unfortunately for the studio, it was not a gamble that paid off. Ziegfeld Follies earned $3,569,000 in the United States and Canada, and $1,775,000 outside those countries. While these are very respectable amounts, the enormous cost of Ziegfeld Follies meant that it lost $290,000 at the box office.

While Ziegfeld Follies failed at the box office in 1946, it offered audiences a chance to see nearly every major MGM star in one film and it remains beloved by fans of classic MGM musicals because of that today. As mentioned earlier, only one number was actually taken from the Ziegfeld Follies: "A Sweepstakes Ticket" featuring Fanny Brice (who also happened to be the only star to appear in the actual Follies). In "A Sweepstakes Ticket," Miss Brice played a woman whose husband had given their winning Irish Sweepstakes ticket to their landlord. The skit also featured Hume Cronyn as Miss Brice's husband and William Frawley as the landlord.

While none of the other sequences originated with the actual Ziegfeld Follies, many of them were impressive nonetheless. "The Babbit and the Bromide" would mark the first time that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced together (they danced together again briefly in That's Entertainment, Part II). The comedy sketch "When Television Comes" featured Red Skelton as a television commercial spokesman hawking "Guzzler's Gin," who gets progressively more drunk with each commercial. "The Great Lady Has An Interview" featured Judy Garland as a prestige movie star who has won Oscars, but longs to play sexy roles. 

One of the longer and certainly the most bizarre numbers is "Here's To The Girls/"Bring On the Wonderful Men." "Here's to the Girls" is sung by Fred Astaire and features a dance solo by Cyd Charisse. It is following Miss Charisse's solo that the number takes a turn towards the outré. Quite simply, we get to see Lucille Ball,,  clad in pink and cracking a whip towards a group of chorus girls dressed as panthers. It then shifts to Virginia O'Brien, singing the song "Bring On the Wonderful Men."

The longest and among the most impressive of the sequences is also one that could prove to be problematic for most modern viewers. "Limehouse Blues" features Fred Astaire as a poor Chinese labourer and Lucille Bremer as his love interest. While beautifully staged and beautifully performed, the fact remains that it is a prime example of yellowface during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

 Because of its very nature as a revue of unrelated sequences, directed by several different people at that, Ziegfeld Follies is uneven, with some sequences playing better than others. That having been said, it certainly has the most impressive cast of any MGM film, featuring Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Fanny Brice, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Virginian O'Brien, and Esther Williams, among many, many others. It is also a sumptuous looking film, quite possibly the biggest spectacle ever staged by MGM. While it did poorly at the box office on its first release, it remains one of the best ways classic movie buffs can see the many stars in the MGM firmament during the Golden Age.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Late Great Jerry Stiller

Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller
Jerry Stiller, one half of the comedy team of Stiller and Meara with his wife Anne Meara and a regular on such television shows as Joe and Sons, Tattingers, Seinfeld, and The King of Queens, died yesterday, May 11 2020, at the age of 92.

Jerry Stiller was born on June 8 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up, he saw performances of both Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante in person, which inspired him to go into entertainment. He was still attending Seward Park High School in Manhattan when he started performing at the Henry Street Playhouse. During and immediately following World War II, Mr. Stiller served in the United States Army. After his service ended, he studied theatre at Syracuse University and received a bachelor's degree in Speech and Drama in 1950. Following his graduation, Jerry Stiller began working in summer stock

It was in 1953 that Jerry Stiller met Anne Meara. The two married in 1954. Jerry Stiller appeared in Off Broadway shows and made his debut on Broadway in 1954 in The Golden Apple. In the Fifties he also appeared on Broadway in Threepenny Opera, The Carefree Three, Diary of a Scoundrel, The Good Woman of Setzuan, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Power and the Glory. He made his television debut in an episode of The Big Story in 1957. During the decade he also appeared on the television shows Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Camera Three.

Jerry Stiller convinced his wife, Anne Meara, to become part of a comedy team with him, even though she had never considered comedy. She agreed because at the time work was hard to find. The two of them joined The Compass Players, the legendary comedy troupe which over the years had boasted  Theodore J. Flicker, Nichols and May, and others as members. Eventually they struck out on their own as the comedy duo of Stiller and Meara. . Among their best known routines was a whole series involving the relationship between Hershey Horowitz, a short Jewish man, and Mary Elizabeth Doyle, a tall Catholic woman, who met and fell in love. By 1961 Stiller and Meara were playing nightclubs in New York City. By 1962 they were one of the biggest comedy teams around.

Stiller and Meara appeared on the majority of variety shows and talk shows in the Sixties. They made their television debut as a comedy team on The Merv Griffin Show in 1962. Throughout the decade, Stiller and Meara appeared on such variety shows and talk shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Danny Kaye Show, HullabalooToday, The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, The Mike Douglas Show, The Skitch Henderson Show, and The Tonight Show. They provided voices for episodes of the classic Saturday morning cartoon Linus the Lion Hearted. They appeared in the film Lovers and Other Strangers (1970).  Jerry Stiller guest starred without Anne Meara on the shows Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Lamp Unto My Feet, The Defenders, General Electric Theatre, and Brenner.

Stiller and Meara continued to appear on variety shows and talk shows in the Seventies, The Kraft Music Hall, Flip, The Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and Tony Orlando and Dawn. They appeared on the game show Hollywood Squares. Stiller & Meara guest starred on the shows Love, American Style; The Courtship of Eddie's Father; The Paul Lynde Show; Time Express; and The Love Boat. They had recurring roles on Rhoda. They appeared in the film Nasty Habits (1977).  He guest starred on his wife Anne Meara's show Kate McShane. Without his wife, Jerry Stiller was a regular on the show Joe and Sons, and guest starred on Phyllis, Jerry Stilller appeared without his wife in the movies The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), The Ritz (1976), and Those Lips, Those Eyes (1980).

In the Eighties Stiller and Meara appeared in the unsold pilot The Stiller and Meara Show. They guest starred on the shows The Love Boat, Breakaway, Saturday Night Live, and Monsters. He guest starred on Archie Bunker's Place, on which his wife was a regular. Without Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller was a regular on the show Tattingers and guest starred on the shows Hart to Hart; Private Benjamin; Simon & Simon; Alice; Reading Rainbow; Trapper John, M.D.;The Equalizer; Tales from the Darkside; Screen Two; and Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in the TV movie Sweet 15. Mr. Stiller appeared in the movies Seize the Day (1986), Hot Pursuit (1987), Nadine (1987), Hairspray (1988), That's Adequate (1989), and Little Vegas (1990).

In the Nineties Stiller and Meara appeared in the films Highway to Hell (1991), Reality Bites (1994), Heavy Weights (1995), A Fish in the Bathtub (1999), The Independent (2000), and Chump Change (2000). They appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Anne Meara guest starred several times on her husband Jerry Stiller's TV show King of Queens. Without Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller played George Constanza's father Frank on Seinfeld and Arthur Spooner on King of Queens. He guest starred on L.A. Law, In the Heat of the Night, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Eddie Files, Deadly Games, Law & Order, Touched by An Angel, and The Larry Sanders Show. He was a regular voice on the animated series Teacher's Pet. He appeared in the films The Pickle (1993), Die Story von Monty Spinnerratz (1997), Stag (1997), The Deli (1997), Secret of the Andes (1998), The Suburbans (1999), and My 5 Wives (2000).

From the Teens into the Naughts, Stiller and Meara had their own TV show, Stiller and Meara. They appeared on the game show Hollywood Squares, on the show Sex and the City, and in the film Zoolander (2001), which starred their son Ben Stiller.  Without Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller continued to appear on The King of Queens. He guest starred on the shows Odd Job Jack, Mercy, and The Good Wife. He was a regular on the animated series Fish Hooks.

Stiller and Meara were one of the greatest comedy teams of the late 20th Century. It is with good reason that they were so popular in the Sixties and Seventies. Their routines focused on male and female relationships, and the similarities and differences between the sexes. Their routines were always filled with insight, but also with a good deal of humanity. Of course, even without Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller was a force to be reckoned with. As a comedian he was naturally known for his comic roles, such as Frank Constanza, Arthur Spooner, and yet others. At the same time, he could play dramatic roles. He played Police Lieutenant Patrone in The Takign of Pelham One Two Three and appeared in dramatic roles on shows from The Defenders to In the Heat of the Night. Both as one half of Stiller and Meara and as an actor on his own, Jerry Stiller will always be remembered.