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Review of BRINGING UP BABY (Criterion) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Comedy
Would be PG

The dictionary says the noun “screwball” is a baseball pitch or “a crazy or eccentric person.” Baseball may be listed first, but when it comes to the adjective it’s all about film:  “crazy, absurd—relating to or denoting a style of fast-moving comedy film involving eccentric characters or ridiculous situations.”

The dictionary probably should have added, “See Bringing Up Baby,” because Howard Hawks’ 1938 comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, a leopard and a dog is widely considered the quintessential screwball comedy.

Screwball comedies became popular as people could see the light at the end of the tunnel that had been the Great Depression. Often the films involved a romantic couple from different social classes, with one of them a screwball. Plots revolved around an unconventional “courtship” that began as annoyance and ended with attraction. In that respect they’re the quintessential “opposites attract” movies as well.

Screwball comedies are characterized by a flipped social script that featured women as the pursuer and men as passive or befuddled objects of desire. Basically, it was a comic twist on the femme fatale moviegoers saw in the film noir crime movies of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Fast talk and overlapping dialogue were also characteristics of the screwball comedy, as were farcical situations, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, physical comedy, witty and fast-paced plots, and “out-of-uniform” comic situations. What’s more, the “meet cute” that’s become a standard convention in romantic comedies was pioneered by screwball comedies.

This one stars Katharine Hepburn, for whom the screenplay was written. Cary Grant was cast at the suggestion of director Hawks’ friend, the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Bringing Up Baby took four months to shoot, as production was frequently delayed because Grant and Hepburn kept cracking each other up. It was Hepburn’s first comedy, and when she struggled with the fast talk it made Grant laugh, and that made her laugh. They generate an off-the-rail runaway train energy that the best screwball comedies have, and their energy is contagious.

Highly regarded now—it’s #97 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time list—Bringing Up Baby bombed at the box office and ran for only a week after its Radio City Music Hall premier. Moviegoers just weren’t ready to accept dramatic actress Hepburn as a ditzy screwball. And she can be a lot to take.

As the elegant-but-oblivious heiress, Hepburn is the snowball rolling down the hill that gathers mass and speed and knocks poor nerdy paleontologist David Huxley on his rear end—numerous times. An absurd series of events drives the first act as we witness stranger Susan play David’s golf ball, then ruin his car while insisting it too was hers. All David wants is to influence an attorney representing a rich donor so his museum can get a million dollars (the stakes are high), but there seems to be no escaping Susan, as she seemingly turns up to thwart his every attempt. If she’s not tossing an olive on the floor for him to slip on, she’s swerving into a poultry truck and he’s covered with feathers. At one point, in typical farce fashion, David ends up wearing a woman’s nightgown and that lead’s to an improvised line that’s one of the film’s most famous.

Then there’s the matter of the leopard—played in this film by Nissa, who had been working in Hollywood for eight years. Trainer Olga Celeste was always just off-camera with a whip, and while Hepburn had to wear a special perfume to keep the leopard calm she was unafraid to work with the animal. Grant was another story. Most of the scenes showing him interacting with the leopard were shot with doubles. He was scared to death, and at one point Hepburn teased him about it by tossing a toy stuffed leopard through the roof of his dressing-room trailer. Antics involving a precious dinosaur bone, a leopard who responds to the song “I can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby),” and George the Dog, who romps and plays with Baby, the leopard sent to Susan’s rich aunt (May Robson), become central to a plot that also features a not-so-tame escaped circus leopard.   

Will the animals and the silliness make up for the fact that Bringing Up Baby is a black-and-white film presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio? One would hope so. It’s all a matter of adjustment. The more you watch it, the more you adjust to it. When our kids were little we had a 10-minute rule. They had to give a movie a fair chance by watching the first 10 minutes without complaint or distraction. More often than not, they managed to get into the film. And once kids get into this comedy of character and situation, they should find it entertaining.  

Bringing Up Baby remains a likable farce that showcases the talents of two huge stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s great to finally have it available on high-definition Blu-ray—especially in a Criterion Collection edition that preserves some of the original film’s grain and also includes a nice bundle of bonus features.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  102 min. (Black-and-white)
Aspect ratio:  1.37:1
Featured audio:  Digital Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Criterion
Bonus features:  B+
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Rated “Passed” (would be rated PG for adult situations and brief drinking, smoking)

Language:  1/10—“Jesus” and “crap” are about as raw as it gets

Sex:  1/10—The back of a woman’s dress is torn and her undergarments are partially exposed; Grant delivers his famous ad lib about turning gay “all of a sudden” while asked what he’s doing in a woman’s nightgown

Violence:  0/10—The closest thing we get to violence is a leopard-dog tussle where you can’t tell if they’re playing or fighting

Adult situations:  2/10—There is brief drinking and smoking

Takeaway:  Though Howard Hawks was known for his Westerns, he made two of the three most famous screwball comedies:  this one and His Girl Friday (1940); the man knew what he was doing

Review of WILDCATS (1986) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B/B-
Comedy
Rated R

One of my guilty pleasures recently came out on Blu-ray:  Wildcats, starring Goldie Hawn. You know, Kate Hudson’s mom?

Back in the day, Hawn was a huge star, and it didn’t take her long to get there. After a failed TV series (Good Morning World) and two minor roles in films, she landed a plum role opposite Walter Matthau in Cactus Flower and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Piece of cake, right? Except that after that she was cast in a succession of make-a-buck films that tried to capitalize on her popularity and personality in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Along with Private Benjamin (1980), Seems Like Old Times  (1980), and Overboard (1987), Wildcats is one of the better formulaic light comedies that Hawn made. In it, she plays the daughter of high school football coach who finally gets the chance to realize her own dream of coaching football . . . at an inner city school.

Right . . . to use the catch-phrase of comedian Nipsey Russell, who plays the principal at that school.

Wildcats would be fun viewing for the entire family if it wasn’t rated R for language (F-bombs included), teen drinking and drunkenness, and brief nudity, because the whole high-school setting and fish-out-of-water, win-them-over storyline is meant to be as upbeat and warm-hearted as it is humorous. It’s hard not to root for Molly as she endures sexism in the workplace, resentment and disrespect from her players, and meddling/bullying from an ex-husband en route to trying to coach a bunch of losers into lovable winners.

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Review of MY FAVORITE BLONDE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

Comedian Bob Hope received a record five honorary Oscars and also has a record four stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But those awards are dimmed by the Congressional Gold Medal he received, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him, the Medal of Liberty he got from Pres. Ronald Reagan, the National Medal of Arts he received from Pres. Bill Clinton, the knighthoods he received from two Popes, and the honorary knighthood that Great Britain bestowed upon him. In fact, Hope has almost as many high honors as he does films—and he starred in 54 of them during a career that spanned nearly 80 years.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking, but are his films any good? For the most part, Hope’s films fall in the three-star category (out of four). And speaking of stars, five-star Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Hope with the Medal of Merit “in recognition of his wartime contributions to morale on the homefront as well as on virtually every war front.” Which is to say, besides entertaining the troops, as he did his entire life starting in 1941, Hope also starred in a number of wartime films that both entertained audiences and reinforced patriotic themes.

My Favorite Blonde is one of those WWII-era films. This 1942 black-and-white comedy features Hope in a familiar role: a vaudevillian who unwittingly finds himself in the middle of an adventure or intrigue. This time Larry Haines (Hope) and his trained roller-skating penguin Percy are headed for Los Angeles, where the movies want to sign the penguin—not his trainer. But that was before he ran into British secret agent Karen Bentley, or rather she planted a scorpion brooch on him containing the flight plans for 100 American bombers. Back then Americans weren’t as paranoid as they are now, but there was still a sense that a “fifth column” might be operating as underground spies in the U.S.A. German agents (led by screen veteran Gale Sondergaard) are in pursuit, and as irrational as it seems for plans for a European war to start out in New York City, move to Albany, then Chicago, and finally L.A., what entertains about Bob Hope movies is less the plotting than it is Hope’s character, antics, and interaction with a woman that he eventually gets—if Road picture crooner-crony Bing Crosby isn’t co-starring. More

Review of THE COURT JESTER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+/A-
Adventure Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered. More

Review of MISTER ROBERTS (1955) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Comedy-Drama
Not rated (would be PG)

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones. More

Review of TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Western comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

In his 1966 review of Texas Across the River, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “Trying to make fun of Westerns is an aberrant Hollywood stunt that’s as fraught with folly and possible disaster as challenging John Wayne to draw. Either you score a clean hit on that first shot or it’s goodnight you. Well, they do not score a clean hit with Texas Across the River. . . .”

Not that it can’t be done, mind you. Wayne himself starred in two successful Western comedies—North to Alaska (1960) and McLintock! (1963)—but both of those were comic Westerns that still leaned heavily on Western conventions. Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway had a runaway hit with Little Big Man (1970), a comic epic of the Old West that fell into the revisionist category because of its more favorable treatment of Indians. Then Jerry Paris and Mel Brooks scored bulls-eyes with Evil Roy Slade (1972) and Blazing Saddles (1974), but those were true parodies that poked fun of the genre while also clearly admiring it. And likable TV everyman James Garner charmed audiences with his Maverick-style antics in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).

But when members of the Rat Pack tried their hand at the comic Western, the screenplays they were given leaned more toward farce than fans of the genre seemed to prefer. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin teamed up in 4 for Texas (1963), while Martin paired with Joey Bishop in Texas Across the River (1966). Neither film was successful, though the latter is the stronger one—the kind of gentle farce that appeals to children and people in the mood for something silly because of the level of humor—even though some of the material is very slightly risqué. It’s the plot that’s fun because it’s a little different from the standard Western fare. More

Review of THE OPENING ACT (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film. More

Review of TWINS (1988) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+
Action comedy
Rated PG

Bodybuilder turned actor turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a straight-up action hero in most of his films, but he also appeared in four comedies: The Kid and I (2005), Jingle All the Way (1996), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Twins (1988). Of those, two are stinkers and the ones shot within two years of each other fall into the category of guilty pleasures—though audiences that first saw Twins in theaters weren’t feeling guilty at all. Twins grossed $216 million worldwide and provided Schwarzenegger and co-star Danny DeVito with a financial windfall, as the two had agreed to take 20 percent of the profits in lieu of their usual fees. Twins was also popular enough on home video releases that a sequel—Triplets—is now in preproduction.

The comedy’s basic premise easily could have been one that drove a sinister conspiracy film instead: research doctors seeking to create the perfect human recruited a woman to father a child that was the DNA-engineered product of six men. When the baby was born, doctors were surprised that the embryo had split somehow and a second baby followed. One (Schwarzenegger) had all the desirable elements of the six fathers’ DNA, while the other (DeVito) was the product of genetic leftovers.

The mother (Bonnie Bartlett) was told her baby died in childbirth, when really the boy had been shunted to a tropical island to be raised by one of the scientists. And the other? He was given to an orphanage, and turned out to be as the nuns predicted: a small time criminal whom you could most likely find in jail.

The plot starts in motion when the scientist raising the near-perfect Julius finally tells him about his brother, and Julius instantly sets out in a rowboat across the ocean to find him some 30 miles away in L.A. Meanwhile, our introduction to brother Vincent comes when we see the diminutive balding man with a pony tail rolling out of a second story window after the husband of a woman he’d been sleeping with came home unexpectedly and caught them. Apparently Vincent had seduced a nun when he was 12 and has had some sort of power over women ever since—which is harder to believe than the film’s basic premise. Get past that, though, and the plot plays out with the kind of light amusement you’d expect from a guilty pleasure, with a surprising amount of action involving two sets of bad guys that are after the twins. Some of them are loan sharks, while others are thugs hired to deliver some illicit merchandise that is inadvertently “detoured” by Vincent.

Twins relies on the contrast between brothers for its humor and interest. Julius has the kind of strength (and body, which we see bare-chested several times) needed to protect his ne’er-do-well brother, but Vincent has the street smarts. Not surprisingly, there’s a double character arc, with one brother so naïve that he has to learn about the basics of life (including sex), and the other so cynical and unscrupulous that he has to learn that family and people in your lives are worth being good for. Chloe Webb and Kelly Preston play two sisters that share the twins’ journey, and fans of old TV Westerns will also enjoy seeing an older but fit-as-Arnold Hugh O’Brian as one of the twins’ fathers. O’Brian played Wyatt Earp and still looks like he could handle whatever bad guys might jump him. More

Review of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend. More

Review of MR. TOPAZE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B/B-
Comedy
Not rated (would be PG)

The British Film Institute called Mr. Topaze “essential viewing for all Sellers fans,” and I agree. For one thing, I Like Money, as this 1961 film was later retitled, was the first theatrical feature directed by comedian Peter Sellers . . . and also his last, because he was so stung by its failure and critics’ barbs.

It’s of interest for that fact alone, but more importantly, Mr. Topaze gives viewers an interesting glimpse into an evolving dynamic between Sellers and actor Herbert Lom that began with The Ladykillers (1955) and continued with this film, The Pink Panther (1963), and four more Inspector Clouseau comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). Fans of those detective comedies especially will enjoy seeing Sellers and Lom play off of each other in Mr. Topaze as a kind of warm-up for their later rivalry as Clouseau and Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus.

Like Clouseau, Mr. Topaze is French, earnest, a little naïve and awkward, easily manipulated, slightly clumsy, seemingly feckless, and totally meek compared to most of the males he encounters. Topaze, whose prize possession seems to be a stuffed skunk he keeps on his desk, doesn’t have a commanding presence or one that inspires respect—not even among his students, who prank him without fear of repercussions. But he’s a genuinely nice guy with scruples, a dedicated teacher who loves his profession and hangs inspirational mottos all over his classroom—including one that cautions how money is a test of friendship. “I see you take my kindness for weakness,” he tells one of the pranksters. “I may look like a complete fool,” he says, “but I am not, I assure you.”

That’s debatable, of course. He leads the kind of quietly dull life that prompted James Thurber’s Walter Mitty to escape into fantasy. In love with the daughter of his school’s headmaster (Michael Gough), Topaze makes little headway, partly because of his personality and partly because of hers. As Ernestine (Billie Whitelaw, who looks a bit like Janet Leigh) tells her father after he learns that she got Topaze to grade a huge stack of her papers for her, “If I can find a man who’s fool enough to do my homework for me,” what’s the harm? More

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