Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Bill and Myrna New Year's Blogathon - Another Thin Man

This post is an entry in The Bill & Myrna New Year's Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame

In my opinion, The Thin Man is kind of an odd duck as movie series go. They often follow the pattern of, first movie's good; second movie sucks; third movie's good; and fourth movie sucks so bad it kills the franchise. I joke, but I could give you examples. Lots of them. The Thin Man series is unique in that all of the films are good and never lose their edge.

If I had to pick my least favorite, it would have to be, The Thin Man Goes Home. It's not a bad film, but in the film, Nick and Nora visit Nick's father, a conservative doctor in a small town, who objects to Nick's drinking. As a result, Nick switches to cider. Don't get me wrong, it's still a good movie, but Nick and Nora being sober just doesn't work for me like the others.

If I had to pick my favorite, simple, Another Thin Man, the third film in the series, mostly because of the cast. It has the best cast of any of the series, and yes, I am taking into account that Maureen O'Sullivan being in the first movie and James Stewart in the second.  Also, there is the nightclub scene, which really has to be the best single scene in any of the Thin Man movies. Finally, it is the last film to have the full creative team of William Powell/Myrna Loy, of course, director Woody Van Dyke,the husband/wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and an original story by Dashiell Hammett.

I think the key element in the creative team is probably Goodrich and Hackett, who wrote the screenplays for the first three Thin Man films as well as It's a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride, and Father's Little Dividend.  Not that the last three films suffered from their absence, but they set the groundwork for what was to come. According to Wikipedia on the first film, Van Dyke encouraged them to use Hammett novel for the plot structure but to concentrate of providing witty banter between Nick and Nora, and that was a formula that just worked. 


**** The following text contains mild Spoilers ****

My  second reason for picking Another Thin Man as my favorite in the series, is the nightclub scene. Nick in typical style ditches Nora to follow up on a lead that ultimately brings him to the West Indies Club. Meanwhile, Nora gets a phone call which leads her to the same nightclub. The scene opens with Nick arriving. The maître d' recognizes Nick and seats him with a bevvy of hot Latino women, who faun all over him, order drinks, food, a steal his cigarettes. 

The scene switches to nightclub entertainers René y Estela credited as Renee and Stella, who headlined a show at New York's Havana-Madrid Club in real life. It is one of the coolest dance routines I've seen in any movie:


After the performance, a waiter hands Nick a note signed with the name of one of Nick's old flames. He asks the waiter who gave him the note. Nick is referred to a table with at least a dozen men hovering around.. Nick calmly moves them out of the way, and there is Nora. The interaction between Nick and Nora here is absolutely hilarious.

Nora is supposed to meet a man who has information in the case they are working on. She doesn't know what he looks like but they have a pre-arranged signal, but as luck would have it, a nightclub patron who knows nothing of the case intercepts the signal. As Nora tries to find out what he knows, the location of a man involved in the case. The patron, a hot-blooded lover type, becomes more and more frustrated that Nora, the woman he thought was making eyes with him is only interested in another man. It soon becomes apparent to Nora, that she has the wrong man, but she has no idea how to get rid of the love-smitten nuisance. Fortunately, Nick steps in and deals with the situation with a style and grace that only William Powell could pull off.


**** End of Spoilers ****

Finally, the cast is perfect. Myrna Loy and William Powell are wonderful as always. Well, maybe not always. The first teaming of the pair was Manhattan Melodrama, a movie so forgettable that I need to go to read a plot summary to remember what it was about, a crime drama with something of a love triangle, between Myrna Loy and criminal Clark Gable and district attorney William Powell. Loy ends up with Powell, but I don't remember much in the way of chemistry between them in that film. Their second outing, The Thin Man was where the magic began, and their best films capitalized on the easy humor between the pair, so evident in The Thin Man series

Surrounding Powell and Loy in Another Thin Man is a virtual Who's Who of Golden Age Hollywood character actors:

Nat Pendleton reprises his role as the none-too-bright Lt. Guild from The Thin Man.

C. Aubrey Smith plays Colonel MacFay, Nora's father's former business partner, who administers her estate and conveniently gets murdered setting the whole thing in motion.

Virginia Grey plays Colonel MacFay's daughter. She's one of those actresses best known for small parts in big movies, or big parts in small movies. You probably know her as the woman who works with Joan Crawford at the perfume counter in The Women.

Otto Kruger plays a Long Island assistant DA who doesn't take the threats to C. Aubrey Smith's life seriously. No wonder they need Nick and Nora to solve their murders for them.

Ruth Hussey plays an ex-con nurse the Charles hire to babysit Little Nicky.

Sheldon Leonard plays Phil Church, one of Colonel MacFay's former employees who went to prison for crooked dealings MacFay was into, and now the main suspect in his murder

Abner Biberman plays Dum-Dum, Phil Church's right-hand man. You probably know him as Louie, the little guy who does all of Cary Grant's dirty work in His Girl Friday.

Marjorie Main plays the landlady at an apartment, where Nick and Nora do some sleuthing. She only has about 2 minutes of screen time but every second is pure gold.

Shemp Howard, probably the least known of The Three Stooges, plays Wacky, one of the dozen or so unsavory types who show up with rented/stolen babies for little Nicky's first birthday party. I'm sure they all have names like Wacky, Dum-Dum, and Creeps. As Nora would say, "Oh Nicky, you know the nicest people."

William A Poulsen plays Little Nicky. Okay, this is nobody you would know. He only made Another Thin Man, and appeared as himself in a documentary short that same year. I only mention him because he is only there to prove that Nick and Nora had a kid, but he doesn't stick around long enough to keep Nick and Nora from drinking, sleuthing, or making wisecracks. There is one scene where Nora encourages him to pull on Nick's mustache while he's trying to sleep. That's about the perfect amount of domesticity that you need out of the Charles family.

And Skippy as Asta. Skippy made about 20 films, including Asta in all six Thin Man movies. Most movie dogs were known for playing just one role, like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, but Skippy also played Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth and George in Bringing Up Baby. Sure, he was typecast to a certain degree but this little dog could act.

Another Thin Man is a great entry in the series, good story, and wonderful interactions between Mr. and Mrs. Charles, and a cast that is just insane. Plus, Nick and Nora get to prove they are a real family with the baby, but he is never around enough to cramp their style.

TCM 2017, a Year of Changes?

The year 2017 saw a lot of changes on our favorite film network. Of course, the biggest and most far-reaching was the passing of Robert Osborne in March. Osborne was not just the face and voice of TCM, but its heart and soul as well. While it was sad news for any classic movie fan, I can't say that it was too much of a shock to me. He had been scaling back his appearances on the network for years and cancelled his appearances at the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) at close to the last minute in both 2015 and 2016.

The death of Robert Osborne has had a ripple effect that is still being felt, though I think some of what we perceive as changes went into place before his death. With Osborne appearing less regularly, TCM had hired host Tiffany Vazquez in the Spring of 2016. Personally, I think Vazquez is coming into her own as a host, though I never had a serious problem with her from the start. Also I was somewhat surprised to see that semiregular feature "Treasures from the Disney Vault" with Leonard Maltin goes all the way back to 2014.

At the Remembering Robert Osborne panel at TCMFF,  Ben Mankiewicz offer some insight into how the network might move forward post-Robert Osborne. He told a story about how he loved music and in particular Bruce Springsteen. When Clarence Clemons of Springsteen's backing band The E Street Band died, the band didn't just hang it up. They didn't want continue without him, but they didn't want to stop either. They ended up getting Clemon's nephew, who also played saxophone, but ultimately, they end up replacing the late saxophone player with three people. He continued that there was no one person who could step into Robert Osborne's shoes. The hosting duties would be spread among several hosts.

And sure enough that's what we're seeing. We are seeing more guest programmer's. I can't say this for sure, but Ben Mankiewicz seems to have expanded his role. Illeana Douglas definitely has expanded hers. Eddie Muller now hosts a permanent show with Noir Alley, and now seems to do the promotional stuff for the wine club. This brings me to, Alec Baldwin and The Essentials.

I seem to remember a lot of complaints about Alec Baldwin on The Essentials, but I like him. He may not be the most knowledgeable person on classic film, but I do get a genuine sense of his affection for classic films, and that's good enough for me. Of the three guests he had this year, Tina Fey was easily the most engaging. As a writer/producer/actress, her insights translated well to classic Hollywood. I also heard a lot of complaints about David Letterman, but I laughed my butt off whenever he was on. Again, he is not the most knowledgeable person, but I do get the sense that he loves old movies. Yes, he is a goofball, but did you really expect anything different from him? Of the three guests on The Essentials, William Friedkin was easily the most qualified to be on the show, but for me the least interesting, though I did appreciate his comments. I just thought the rapport between Tina Fey and David Letterman and Alec Baldwin made them more a better watch for me than Friedkin's superior knowledge.

In August, Now Playing ceased as a print  publication. I'm sure this came as a blow to some. With an electronic version included with TCM Backlot, I assume that eroded subscriptions to the print version to a point where it was no longer viable. I only subscribed to Now Playing once, at a time when I was working a lot of hours, so I really didn't get a chance to read it like I should have. Having it be a purely electronic publication in my inbox twice a month is perfect for me. I read it more than when I subscribed. Of course, that's just me. Your mileage may vary.

One of the biggest complaints I hear all the time is that TCM shows too many new films. I know that Joel Williams (Joel's Classic Film Passion), one of the co-founders of #TCMParty, keeps tabs of the number of films shown, broken down by decade. He has done so since April 2016, and he was kind enough to share his numbers.

The numbers are probably a bit misleading, being based just on the number of titles. I'm guessing that 1900 to 1929 would contain more shorts and fewer feature-length films. Also, older movies particularly from the 1930s can be very short, often under 90 minutes. Because of this, I'm guessing that if this was figured based on running time on the titles shown it would skew heavier to the newer films. Then again, it seems to me that most films that TCM shows from the 1990s and 2000s are documentaries about some aspect of classic film, e.g., Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story was made in 2015, but was about film-makers from classic film.

Era Ave. number of titles each month 2016 Ave. number of titles each month 2017 Total 2016 Total 2017
Era 1
Mostly Silent
Era 2
Classic Talkie (1930-1959)
Era 3a
Era 3b
Era 4

What surprised me was not that the numbers changed, but that they didn't. I converted Joel's numbers to percentages, rounding to the nearest whole percent. The numbers are different but the percentages are the same for 2016 and 2017.

Joel broke down the numbers by decade. I thought that was a little too granular. I decided to break them down by era. I figured that 1900-1929 is mostly the silent era. I treated 1930-1959 as the second era for classic talkies. I broke the third era into two sub-eras, the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Finally, the fourth era was anything after 1980, modern film. I treated the eras this way because what constitutes a classic film depends on whom you ask. Most will agree that films made before 1960 can be considered a classic films.  Others argue that films from 1960s are old enough to be considered classic, and some consider films from both the 1960s and 1970s are old enough to be considered classic. Thus, if your definition of classic film is:

  • Pre-1960, 73% of TCM programming is classic film.
  • Pre-1960 plus the 1960s, 89% of TCM programming is classic film.
  • Pre-1960 plus the 1960s and 1970s, 96% of TCM programming is classic film.

By the way, I fall in the last group and don't see what people are complaining about. Most films from the 1970s are 40 years old. To me, that seems old enough to be a classic. Still, even if you fall in the first group, almost three quarters of TCM programming is classic.

Just for grins, I decided to see how February worked out (if they changed it substantially for 31 Days of Oscar). Joel started tracking this stuff in April 2016, so I only have February 2017 to work from. In February, 5 titles (1%) were from 1900-1929 (the Academy Awards only covers films made from 1927 forward, so a lower number here makes sense); 242 titles (72%) were from 1930-1959; 48 titles (14%) were the 1960s; 30 titles (9%) were from the 1970s, and 13 titles (4%). I do acknowledge that these numbers might be a little skewed. 31 Days of Oscar runs 31 days, duh, but February only has 28 days, so if even a few modern titles were shown in March, that might have a fairly big effect. Looking at just February, the numbers look pretty consistent there too. 

Just for the sake of argument, let's say TCM does show more modern films that they did five or ten years ago. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Say someone tunes into TCM to watch a film form the 1970s or 1980s and gets sucked into a film from the 1940s or 1950s, and maybe becomes a fan of  the network and classic film in general. Isn't that a good thing?

Now, me, I guess my big complaint is that it seems that TCM is replaying films more frequently than they used to. I can't back this up because I've never tracked it. It just seems like lately, TCM will show a film and then show it again a week or two later, and this seems to happen more often than it used to. Possibly, they've been doing this for years and I haven't noticed until now. Possibly, this is done to allow people in different parts of the country to watch films that played in off hours in their time zone. Possibly, this is done to save on licensing costs. Even if the latter is the case, I have to accept that TCM is a business and part of a much larger corporation, which expects that business to perform. 

According to Wikipedia, TCM is part of Time Warner, although Time Warner is in process of being bought out by AT&T, pending government approval. It might have already gone through. Wikipedia isn't always the most accurate source of information in the world. Me, I am convinced that TCM as a company, and the people who work there do care about classic film, but to the parent corporation, Time Warner or AT&T, TCM is a business unit like a ton of other business units in the corporaion. Let's say, TCM makes 7% profit in a year. Now to me, that seems pretty good. I wish I made 7% a year on my money. But corporations don't think like that. Say other business units make 8% profit while TCM only makes 7%. Or TCM made 7% profit one year but made 8% the previous year. To a corporation, that 1% difference is losing them money. As a business, TCM needs to make sure they meet the corporation's goals. If that means TCM needs to show the same film  twice in a two-week period or run the Backlot Promo more often, I can accept that.

I know we all like to think we have ownership of TCM, but we really don't. You own things that you buy.  If everyone who is reading this chipped a million dollars and if that added up to enough to buy TCM, and Time Warner or AT&T was willing to sell it, we could own TCM. Oh, wait, I just looked at my bank balance the other day, I probably don't have an extra million dollars in January, and February and March aren't looking very good either. Maybe in April, but wait, April is taxes. Then again, people who have a million dollars lying around don't pay much in taxes. I kid. I don't really have a million dollars. 

I like to think that I'm a pragmatist. I love classic film and I love TCM, but I do accept that it is a business, a business that makes its money on classic film. If that means they sometimes show a crappy public domain B movie instead of Billy Wilder or Hitchcock, I'm cool with that. If that means, I have to look at the same promo for the Noir Alley Boutique on 20 times a week, I'm cool with that too. I love classic film. I'm addicted to classic film, and TCM is what provides me my fix. When I need a good hit of Joan Blondell, where else am I going to go?

Friday, December 15, 2017

What a Character Blogathon: Charles Lane

This post is part of the 6th Annual What a Character Blogathon, hosted by, Outspoken & Freckled, Once Upon A Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club.

Charles Lane is one of those character actors whom even if you don't know his name, you probably know his work. Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord. A lot of actors complain about being typecast, but probably no one had more right to than Charles Lane. Then again with 361 IMDB credits and a career that spanned 77 years, he had a career that few could boast of.

Born in San Francisco on January 26, 1905 as Charles Levinson, he was one of the oldest living survivors of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As a young man, he spent a short time selling insurance before turning to acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1929. His first film appearance was as an uncredited man in train station in City Girl (1930), F.W. Murnau's second to last film. In 2005, he was honored at the TVLand Awards for his long career and 100th birthday. As he accepted the award, he told the audience, "In case anyone's interested, I'm still available!" He later appeared as the Narrator of a short adaptation of A Night Before Christmas, when he was 101 years old.

Many of his roles in the early 1930s were uncredited, playing desk clerks, cashiers, and salesmen, but by the mid-1930s, a pattern starts to emerge as you see more of the parts he would become known for, lawyers, judges, and a state examiner.  He appeared in many of director Frank Capra's best films:

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - Plays Hallor, the crooked lawyer for Deeds' benefactor's commonlaw wife.
  • You Can't Take It with You - Plays Henderson, the IRS agent who informs Lionel Barrymore that he needs to file tax returns.
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Plays Nosey, one of the reporters who dupes James Stewart into making a fool of himself when he first hits Washington. 
  • Arsenic and Old Lace - Plays one of the reporters, who recognizes famous bachelor, Cary Grant, as he is trying to apply for a marriage license. 
  • It's a Wonderful Life - Again with Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) as his rent collector who informs him that he's losing money from the poor suckers who are now leaving his slums to live in the affordable homes built and financed by George Bailey (James Stewart).
Other memorable Charles Lane film roles include, Larsen, the accountant for the Totten Foundation, the organization financing the encyclopedia, being written by Gary Cooper and the other professors in Ball of Fire, the landlord in the Christmas classic, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and the airport manager who tries to keep Buddy Hackett and and Mickey Rooney from waking the drunk pilot/airplane owner, Jim Backus, in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

At times, Lane had so much work that he had to shoot two pictures on the same day. He would show up in the morning for wardrobe say his few lines of dialog on one film and then move to a different set for new wardrobe and another small part on a second film all on the same day. Sometimes, he would go to the movies, not remembering that he had appeared in the film he was watching until he showed up onscreen. 

Charles Lane was also founding member of both the Screen Actor's Guild and the Television Academy. Television turned out to be as much of a boom for Charles Lane as motion pictures had been for him earlier. He was a good friend of Lucile Ball, whom he had met when they were working on musicals at RKO. He appeared on multiple episodes of I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and had a recurring role on The Lucy Show

One of the few times, you will ever see Lane smile a real smile onscreen
in the few seconds he thinks he has a son, before learning otherwise
Charles Lane appeared in one the most viewed episodes of I Love Lucy ever, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," where little Ricky is born. At the time it first aired, over 70% of the people who owned a television in America tuned in to see this episode. He played Mr Stanley, an expectant father in the waiting room with Desi Arnaz. While Desi is a nervous wreck, Lane is calm and collected, he already has six children, all girls. When the nurse comes in to tell him she has a surprise, Lane is excited to learn that his wife has finally given birth to a son, but his elation is short lived. His wife has not given birth to a son, but triplets, three more girls. "Nine girls," he laments in that distinctive growl of his. 

"Well, you can always plan on a girls' softball team," quips William Frawley (Fred Mertz). 

Charles Lane appeared in dozens and dozens of TV shows. The following are just the ones I remember watching either in first run or in syndication:
  • Perry Mason
  • The Untouchables
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Maverick
  • Mr. Ed
  • Dennis the Menace
  • The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • Get Smart
  • The Munsters
  • F Troop
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Wild Wild West
  • Gomer Pyle: USMC
  • Green Acres
  • Petticoat Junction
  • The Flying Nun
  • The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Bewitched
  • The Odd Couple
  • The Rookies
  • Medical Center
  • Rhoda
  • Chico and the Man
  • Maude
  • Soap
  • Mork and Mindy
  • Lou Grant
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Hunter
  • St. Elsewhere
  • L.A. Law

Charles Lane's final feature film was a romantic comedy, Date with an Angel. He played a pot-smoking priest. How cool is that? I would like to say that this was a great capper to a wonderful career, but I can't. No, Charles Lane is not bad in the film. He's perfect as his typical crabby self, but it's a completely missed opportunity to do something different with him. 

Making things worse, Date with an Angel is an absolutely horrible movie. As you watch it, you find yourself thinking, Is this the worst movie I've ever seen? And then you think, No, it can't be. I've seen a lot of bad movies in this lifetime. But then you can't think of anything worse than what you are watching right now. The big problem with Date with an Angel is that it take what might be funny situations and then does absolutely nothing with them, like setting up a joke and not saying the punchline. A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head. And that's it. By the way, the duck says to the bartender, "Can you get this guy off my ass." 

*** Spoilers Ahead, but don't worry about it. Date with an Angel is not worth watching, even for Charles Lane smoking pot. ***

Sorry for the poor picture quality, but it was the best
I could do taking a picture of the TV with my phone,
and I knew you'd want to see Charles Lane toking.
In Date with an Angel, an angel collides with a satellite and crashes into the main character, Michael Knight's, swimming pool. The angel has a broken wing and doesn't speak English. She just makes high-pitched squeaks, sort of like Beaker on The Muppet Show, except not cute or funny like Beaker, just annoying. Thus, she can't tell Michael Knight why she is there, so he takes her to a Catholic Church to ask the priest what to do. He opens the wrong door to the Confessional, the one where the priest is sitting, and there is an 82-year-old Charles Lane, smoking a doobie. Now you would think that this would be awesome, Charles Lane smoking a joint, but no. As with the rest of the movie, it introduces a potentially funny situation and then does nothing with it. Does Charles Lane act stoned? No. Does he offer one of those unique insights that you only think of when you're high? No. He just acts annoyed, like you have seen him do a thousand times. Okay, about 350 times. First, Charles Lane is annoyed that Michael Knight opened the wrong door and then that he's not Catholic and doesn't know what Hail Marys are. Ultimately, Knight tries to show Charles Lane the angel, but Lane thinks it's a joke and threatens to call the police and tells Knight to go to the Baptist Church down the street. It's a typical Charles Lane performance and about the only thing that almost makes it worth watching. It just could've been so much more. 

I ended up watching the rest of Date with an Angel, in hopes that Charles Lane might show up in another scene. No such luck. I did learn one thing though. How do you know when a romantic comedy is not working, when you're hoping that Charles Lane will come back for another scene.

I want to end with something that speaks to Charles Lane's influence on movies, TV, and pop culture in general. The longest running animated TV show in U.S. history is The Simpsons. Over the years, over a hundred celebrities have appeared on the series, as themselves or in parodies of their work. Limiting myself to just classic film people, The Simpsons have featured the following:

  • James Stewart
  • Ernest Borgnine
  • Mickey Rooney
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Mel Brooks
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Claude Rains
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Clark Gable
The blue-haired lawyer is a character first introduced as one Mr. Burns many lawyers in Season 2. In one of the DVD commentaries, animator Jim Reardon said that the character was designed to look like none other than Charles Lane. The blue haired lawyer has never been given a name. In one episode he worked for the legal firm of "Luvum & Burnham: Family Law," so possibly his name is either Luvum or Burnham. In another episode, he is revealed to be the author of a science fiction novel, The 60 Foot Baby, but on the book cover, he is credited as, Burns' Lawyer. The blue-haired lawyer has appeared in dozens of episodes without being given a name, a perfect tribute to Charles Lane.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Billy Wilder and Film Noir

I just thought of something. One of my favorite film directors is Billy Wilder, and the main reason for this is that he is so versatile. He could do drama. He could do comedy. He could do could do film noir. He could do a courtroom drama or a war movie, but more importantly he could move freely between these genres and mix and match as the story demands.

Often what makes a Billy Wilder movie great is they way it touches on many genres. Some Like It Hot is not just a comedy, it's also a drama and a gangster movie all rolled into one. And it probably says more about sex and gender roles than many films would for years to come.

If you asked me about the quintessential film noir, I would have to say The Maltese Falcon, but running a close second would have to be Double Indemnity. Both are great examples of films noir. In a way, I think I prefer, Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson lends a level of humanity that is somewhat lacking in The Maltese Falcon, but at the same time Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson are every bit as corrupt or corrupted as anyone in any film noir ever.

But let's look at some of his other films, ones that you may not think of as film noir.

*** Warning Spoilers Ahead ***

Sunset Boulevard is a drama about a down and out screenwriter, not really a film noir or is it?  William Holden is no criminal unless you count trying to keep his car from getting repossessed, but there are lies and betrayal, done, not out of greed or avarice, but out of love or at least empathy. Oh yeah, and you do have Holden face-down in the pool at the end.

Ace in the Hole is newspaper story about a reporter who will do anything to get back on top and the media circus that erupts around a trapped miner in a cave-in. The miner doesn't do very well, not as the result of lust or greed but for a byline. The end result is the same. No film noir there. Right?

Stalag 17 is a war movie about a scammer/borderline con man POW, who is framed for something he didn't do. The real traitor is a trusted member of the team flourishing in the midst of the other POWs. It's a war movie, right. Film noir is something totally different.

Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom drama, but what happens. A man on the fringes of society kills a woman for her money and uses his wife as an alibi. Then ultimately he betrays his wife for another woman and gets his just desserts. Okay, that one sounds a bit more like film noir, but you don't really think about it because of the distraction of the trial.

Billy Wilder films are rarely just one thing. They take comedy and turns it into a drama. They take the elements of film noir and throw them into a drama or newspaper movie or a war movie or courtroom drama. And the end result is often much more than the sum of the parts.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Pitch Forks and Torches, Don't Count on It.

We have a lot of problems in this country. I'm going to look at one of them, but before I start I want to look at problems in general and how they get solved. Let's say your problem is you want to lose 50 pounds, a problem that I'm sure a lot of people can relate to.

First, I want to look at how you do not solve this problem. You do not solve the problem by doing nothing. The only makes most problems get worse. You do not decide that it is too soon to start solving the problem, that there needs to be a grieving period for the 50 pounds you want to lose. You do not solve the problem by blaming it on something else, like the NFL, players taking a knee are disrespecting your desire to lose weight.

To solve the problem of 50 extra pounds, you need to take steps. Say the first step is taking a 15 minute walk everyday. You do that for six months, and you lose 15 pounds and feel a lot better, but you still want to get rid of the other 35 pounds. The second step might be to stop eating fried food and eat more fruits and vegetables. Maybe that gets you there. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you need a third step or a fourth and so on to get to where you want to be. The point is you need to start somewhere.

With the massacre in Las Vegas, let's look at the problem of assault rifles. We've seen how much death and devastation that can be caused by one person with these weapons. In the 1930s, there was a similar problem with machine guns, which were legal at the time. The machine gun was the weapon of choice for high-profile criminals, like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson. Police often armed with only pistols were completely outgunned.

How did America address this problem? Did they make sure that every law enforcement officer in the nation was issued a machine gun? No. Did they decide that the best way to stop a bad guy with a machine gun was a good guy with a machine gun, so that Old Man Johnson and Miss Simpson could take on the Bonnie and Clydes of this world. No.

Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934. Though not entirely banning the weapons, the NFA regulated certain types of weapons, requiring extensive background checks including fingerprints and photographs, and regulated how they were sold, transferred, and transported. In addition, these weapons were taxed at a prohibitively high rate of $200 (over $3600 in 2017 dollars). The NFA covered machine guns (guns that can fire more than once with a single trigger pull), short-barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, silencers, destructive devices, such as hand grenades and explosive missiles, and non-shotgun firearms with bores larger than 0.5 inches, and certain other weapons such as cane guns and umbrella guns. I'm sure that machine guns did not disappear after the NFA was passed, but in time, law enforcement in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s didn't have to worry about criminals wielding machine guns like they had in the early 1930s.

Fast forward to now, the AR-15 assault rifle is the civilian version of the military M16 rifle. The AR-15 is equipped with a 30-round clip and is semiautomatic, meaning you can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger. This comes out to about three rounds a second, though most people will not be able to maintain three trigger pulls per second for an extended period of time. Assuming two trigger pulls per second and 5 seconds to change 30-round clips, an average person could fire 90 rounds per second from an AR-15 without any modifications. Think about someone shooting 90 times a minute in a crowded shopping mall or at a sporting event. How many people could be killed and injured in that one minute with those 90 shots?

The M16 military version is fully automatic and fires 700-950 rounds per minute. With modifications, an AR-15 can be made to fire at much higher rates. In addition to things like 100-round clips, which would save the time reloading, devices such as hand cranks and bump fire stocks, can easily make an AR-15 fire similar to a machine gun. These are fully legal aftermarket accessories that almost anyone could install. You don't need to be a gunsmith to do it. According to The Washington Post, at least, a dozen of the 23 guns that were recovered from Stephen Paddock's Las Vegas hotel room were modified to fire like a machine gun. Here are two of these devices that can do this:

Bump fire stock (this was specifically mentioned):

Hand crank (not mentioned, but I included it because it is a very cheap and simple device that can make an AR-15 fire like a machine gun):

According to CNN, the Las Vegas shooting lasted 9 to 11 minutes. In that time 58 people were killed and over 500 injured by gunfire and trying to escape the scene. Now, I'm not a gun person, but my older brother is. I can understand that if you like shooting guns, things like a bump fire stock would make it a whole lot more fun to do so, but these devices effectively make machine guns legal and allowed a psycho to unleash this much carnage in roughly 10 minutes. 

I live in California, where assault rifles were banned in 1989. My brother is kind of a redneck, and he bought an assault rifle before the ban went into effect. He has never committed a crime with his guns. He always kept his guns locked up, mostly because he didn't want his kids shooting the neighbor kids or vice versa but also because his guns were worth a lot of money.

My brother retired to Maui about three years ago. He now spends most of his time paddle boarding, roller skating, and taking pictures of the sunset (he posts them on Facebook all the time). I honestly don't know whether he still has his guns. I'm guessing he still has at least some of them. That's right. My red-neck gun-toting brother now spends most of his time paddle boarding and taking pictures of the sunset. He's also pro-union. Ain't America grand?

Now, if we banned assault rifles and things like bump stocks tomorrow. Not gonna happen, but let's say we did. That doesn't do anything to prevent more mass shootings with assault weapons already out there, but like the 15-minute walk, it's a start. Maybe 20 years from now, things would be safer. Banning assault rifles also does nothing to prevent shootings with other types of weapons. Again, it's a start. The first step of many. I honestly don't see anything happening. The government has its head so far up the NRA's butt, they can tell whether they need to floss more often. 

As far as I know, my brother and I don't agree on gun control. I  can't imagine he's done an about-face on the issue in the last few years, though the sunset thing does give me pause. We do agree on a lot of things. My brother is not a fan of the government. I'm not either. For both of us, it's because the government does not care about ordinary people. They care about big corporations, the very rich, and special interest groups like the NRA. 

My brother is always talking about how he can't believe people don't take to the streets with pitchforks and torches. This is something else that my  brother and I disagree on. It wouldn't surprise me if people took to the streets, but it won't be with pitchforks and torches. It will be with guns, lots and lots of guns. Maybe, the government should think about whether it's a good idea to ignore the needs of the vast majority people while giving them almost complete unfettered access to guns. It just doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy to me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Charade Chord Melody Solo Tabs

My take on the Theme to Charade for ukulele. In the video, I probably don't play it exactly the same as the tab, but the tab will get you there.

Charade Tab pdf

Hit a Major Milestone

The other day I hit a major milestone. My mother-in-law had her 94th birthday. That's not the milestone. That's just why it happened. We were taking her out to celebrate. The kids wanted to have breakfast in the middle of the day, so we went to IHOP. It was kind of cool. With picking up my daughter from school, we got there about 3:00, and the place was almost entirely empty.

Now, I've been trying to get back on my diet, so I wanted to find something on the menu that was fairly low calorie. I looked over the menu, and it turns out the short stack of three buttermilk pancakes was 430 calories, about two thirds the calories of any of the sandwiches. Yeah, I know that doesn't include butter and the boysenberry syrup. Shut up. Further, it turns out the short stack was on the 55 or older Senior Menu. 

I just turned 55 last month, and though, it pains me to admit I'm a senior, I'm also out of work. And cheap, so I ordered the short stack off the Senior Menu. While I was enjoying my low calorie pancakes with generous amounts of whipped butter and syrup, shut up, I noticed something. The music they were playing was music that I listened to as a kid. 

This is not really new. It's been going on for a long time. When I was a kid, the music they played in places like in IHOP was Muzak, soft pop songs played with strings and piano, so it wouldn't offend anybody. Muzak went away some time ago. Actually, it probably didn't. Some quick research tells me that it just switched to playing real music about twenty years ago. 

I honestly don't know how it works. I know that when it first switched over, it was a mix of 50s through 70s pop/rock. For the last about ten years, it seems to have switched over to 80s music. In IHOP, it was all 70s, like we were listening to the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 soundtrack. Maybe, there are different channels. 

Though getting old sucks, at least I can take solace in hearing music I like in places like IHOP. To be honest, the age I don't mind so much. It's just a number. What bothers me is being overweight. Hence, the diet and my low-calorie pancakes. Shut up.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock – A One-Trick Pony?

Ever since college, my favorite film director had been Alfred Hitchcock. In recent years, I began to think that maybe Billy Wilder might have supplanted The Master of Suspense, because Wilder was so versatile. Billy Wilder could do film noir. He could do comedy. He could do drama, war movies, and even one of my favorite courtroom dramas. I know I already mentioned comedy, but he could do comedy with a sense of tragedy and pathos like no one else, whereas Alfred Hitchcock seemed like kind of a one-trick pony.

Now, when I say, one-trick pony, I mean this is the absolute best sense of the word. To be truly successful as a one-trick pony, two things need to happen. First, it needs to a hell of a good trick, and second you need to do that one trick better than anyone else. This describes Hitchcock to a tee.

Over the last six weeks, I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class at In college, back in the early 1980s, I also took a class on Alfred Hitchcock. While my college class was good, I'm getting a lot more out of the 50 Years of Hitchcock class. For one thing, in my college course, the professor wanted to see you parrot his ideas back to him. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it's more here's what I think is important, you look at it and see if you agree or if you have anything new to add.

Another big difference is the technology. In the early 1980s, VCRs existed, but as a student, living on top ramen and macaroni and cheese a lot of the time, an expensive VCR was not in the cards. Also, while VCRs existed, large screen TVs did not. In class, we would watch the movies on 16 mm film. For the most part, you got one shot at it. You can't really fast forward, rewind, and pause a 16 mm film. Okay, you might be able to, but you would need to really know the film and have a projectionist, who really knows what he or she is doing.

With films on DVR and DVD and clips online that you can watch over and over again, you can really study them. You can watch them different times to look for different things, like objects in the background or just listening to the music and sound effects or even with the sound off to get just the information in the visuals.

Now back to my original premise, Alfred Hitchcock as a one-trick pony, that opinion hasn't really changed. What has changed is my appreciation of that one trick. While he is mostly known for suspense thrillers, he also made a handful of comedies, and most of his suspense thrillers had elements of comedy. He made a handful of movies that are best described as horror, but incorporated elements of his suspense thrillers, and often the suspense thrillers had elements of horror.

He learned his craft in the silent era, and often he would have long sequences in his sound films that advanced the story without the use of dialog. He used experimental and subjective techniques to manipulate the audience and explore the psyche of the characters. His films featured ordinary people as protagonists and sophisticated cultured villains. His films looked at marital relationships, extramarital relationship, parent-child relationships, and as much as was possible at the time homosexual relationships. Even his silent and early sound films that are often dismissed as un-Hitchcockian have elements he returns to in his masterworks:
  •  In Downhill, a man helps a friend, is betrayed by the woman he loves, and ultimately loses everything including his sanity. Isn't that more or less what happens in Vertigo.
  • In The Manxman, a woman marries a man she doesn't love out of a sense of obligation when she loves another. Isn't that kind of what happens in Notorious?
  • The Farmer's Wife, Rich and Strange, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are romantic/sex comedies, but aren't Rear Window and The Trouble With Harry romantic/sex comedies with a dead body?
That one trick is built on a whole bag of little tricks, and that bag kept on getting bigger throughout his career. Though most of his films were suspense thrillers, they integrated elements of espionage, romantic comedy, murder, betrayal, and mental illness, but all bore his personal stamp. In looking at that one trick or at Alfred Hitchcock as a one trick pony, I think it's important to ask yourself, did he repeat himself. Examine the following:
  • In 1927, The Lodger examined a serial killer and the preoccupation that society and the media have with serial killers. Later, he would re-examine the serial killer in Shadow of a Doubt, pulling him out of the dark alleys of London and bringing him into for broad daylight of small-town America. As the Production Code broke down, he brought the serial killer into the modern era with Psycho.
  • In the 1930s, he virtually invented the espionage movie with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. He would return to the spy thriller in Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Notorious, and North by Northwest. In the 1960s, his somewhat less than thrilling Cold War spy thrillers, Torn Curtain and Topaz, treated espionage realistically in era ripe with the pure fantasy of the 007 films. Even though unsuccessful, Torn Curtain and Topaz have moments of brilliance, such as the deaths of the East German agent in Torn Curtain and Karin Dor in Topaz.
  • In 1944, Lifeboat experimented with a film set entirely on a small boat. Later Rope would all be set in a single apartment, this time adding the technical challenge, having the entire film shot as if in one continuous shot. In Rear Window, he would create a masterpiece with intricate subplots set entirely in one apartment, and what could be viewed out of the window of that apartment.
  • In 1948, Rope features a pair of gay men who committed murder for the intellectual thrill of doing so. He would later revisit homosexual subtext in Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).
  • In Saboteur (1943), he created an enormous model of the Statue of Liberty for the last scene where Norman Lloyd falls to his death. In 1954, Rear Window used an enormous set with 31 apartments, many of which were fully furnished with working electricity, modeled after real apartments in Greenwich Village, New York. Later, he would use enormous set pieces and matte paintings to replicate Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. 
  • Often Hitchcock is criticized for his use of rear projection, but what about the truly innovative uses? In the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent (1940), he projected the footage of the ocean rushing up on the back of a screen made of rice paper in front of the cockpit set. Then on cue, he had hundreds of gallons of water crash through the screen and into the cockpit set to simulate the plane crashing into the ocean. In 1963, The Birds became his most technically demanding film ever,  with the film's final shot being composed of 32 separate film elements.
Yes, he often returns to the same or similar material, but is he repeating himself. I say, no. Not only did he stay ahead of trends in his films, he created them. In the late-1950s and early-1960s, when films like Desk Set and That Touch of Mink were using computers for comic effect, making boop-boop-a-doo noises and spitting punch cards on the floor, Hitchcock was using a real computer to create graphics for the credits of Vertigo and a predecessor to the modern electronic synthesizer to process the bird sounds in The Birds

In 1946, 13 months after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Notorious was released featuring Nazis in Brazil trying to refine uranium ore. Technically, Hitchcock considered the uranium a MacGuffin, an insignificant plot detail that just as easily could be changed to industrial diamonds. Yet I find it significant that the atomic age was just over a year old, and he was already using it as a plot device.

I purposely left off Frenzy in the above. I did so because it helps bring me back to something I said at the very beginning of this piece. I have often heard that the period between 1967 and 1977 being a renaissance in American film. This is the era that gave us Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The French Connection, Deliverance, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alfred Hitchcock's best film in this period is clearly, Frenzy. In the 50 Years of Hitchcock class, it was mentioned numerous times that Francois Truffaut called Frenzy a young man's film. Hitchcock made it when he was in his 70s. When I look at Frenzy, it seems perfectly at home with the other films of the 1960s and 1970s I just mentioned. 

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned Billy Wilder, but when I look at Billy Wilder's later films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Front Page, and Fedora (I haven't seen Avanti! or Buddy Buddy), I don't feel like they are at home with other modern films in the way that Frenzy is. I know that this is an unfair comparison, but now that I've had a chance look at Hitchcock with fresh eyes, I think I'll take Hitchcock's one trick over Billy Wilder's versatility. Sorry, Billy, I love you, man, but Alfred Hitchcock is the man.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Flash in the Upstairs Rear Window Apartment

I've been taking the TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock class on One of the features of the class is a Daily Dose, a short clip from one of the films under study that is used to discuss certain aspects of the film. In one of the Daily Doses, the opening of Rear Window is shown. I have seen Rear Window somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 times, and there is something I had never noticed until I watched the Daily Dose this morning. 

It occurs approximately 1:30 measured from when James Stewart's name appears in the opening credits (Stewart's name appears before the title and is the first text in the opening credits). I chose this timing because I figured that different versions of the film would have different company logos tacked onto the front of the film. Anyway, at this point the film there is a slow pan of the apartments outside Jame Stewart's Rear Window. During the pan, there is a flash in the window, diagonally above the window where the couple is sleeping on the fire escape. 

I know that the apartments on the set were furnished and had working lights. It's possible that at just that moment a light bulb burned out. Possibly this was noticed and possibly not.  Maybe it was noticed but by the time they noticed it was too late to retake the shot, but I like to think that nothing in an Alfred Hitchcock film happens by accident. So if that flash was not an accident, that means that possibly there was another photographer living in the apartment across the way from James Stewart.

Now what would a photographer running a studio out of his or her apartment in Greenwich Village in 1954 be doing as a means of support? Taking portraits of the neighborhood kiddies? Well, considering there aren't many children in the neighborhood, it seems more likely that the other photographer might be doing something else that paid a little better, like girly pictures. Still, this seemed like a bit of a stretch, but you never know with Hitchcock. 

Then I decided to watch a little further. At  approximately 3:50 to 4:10 (again from James Stewart's name in the opening credits), while James Stewart is talking on the phone with his editor, you see this apartment again. Two women come out on the balcony wearing robes. They lie down on the balcony deck, and you see them drape their robes over the railing above the brick wall that borders that balcony. No indication is given as to whether the women are wearing bathing suits or birthday suits, but they are scantily clad enough to make a passing helicopter come what seems dangerously close to the roof of the building. So does that make the girly pictures thing seem a little less far fetched?

Motivated by this I decided to rewatch the whole film again in fast forward, looking for that window. It is shown again a number of times, but I didn't see anything that would lend more credence to my girly pictures theory. That window appears when the dog is killed. Two man-woman couples are standing in that window, when the woman is yelling about her dog. Nothing indicates that anything unusual is going on. Just two couples having dinner or whatever. Possibly, I'm just imagining things. Possibly, it is Hitchcock's private joke to himself. Likely, we will never know. 

But let's just say that I am right about this girly pictures thing. That means that the whole time James Stewart was obsessing over Miss Torso and worrying about Miss Lonelyheart's love life. He should have been looking in that top floor apartment, where the real action was going on. Then again, if he did that, Raymond Burr might have got away with murder.