(On Cable TV, October 2019) Backstage musicals have been a part of movie history DNA since the invention of sound, and 42nd Street was part of the genetic mutation that made it so. Adapted from a forgotten (and much racier) novel, it’s a film that codifies several of the clichés we associate with movies about putting on a show, including the last-minute replacement, dying director, casting couch shenanigans and other assorted gags. (Including the writer quibbling about insignificant line readings choices.) It’s a bit technically rough but still quite watchable, although for much of its sprightly 90-minute duration you could be forgiven for thinking that 42nd Street is a well made but not exceptional comedy. Then the “show” begins and we get three Busby Berkley numbers in rapid succession that blow the doors off the film. Suddenly, we’re deep in Berkley’s impossible-to-stage-without-movie-editing numbers, with exploding stages in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” kaleidoscope imagery in which humans become mere abstract figures in “Young and Healthy,” and a dizzying “42nd Street” number making stunning use on an expansive set and a rapid-fire succession of comedy and tragedy. That’s when the film becomes and remains an absolute classic. To riff on the film’s best-known line, 42nd Street began the show as a young example of the musical form and finished as an all-time favourite. The Pre-Code status of the film can be seen in subtle but pleasant touches: the risqué costumes, allusions to casting couch, daring cynical lyrics (“Shuffle off to Buffalo” is particularly funny) and suggestive subplots. Fans of musicals shouldn’t miss it.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) Sometimes, casting is enough to make a film interesting. So it is that Malaya, now an obscure 1940s adventure film, is now worth a look simply because it features both Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy in fine form as the protagonists of the story. Set in the early days of WW2, the story is fuelled by the rubber shortages of the time, and the desperate efforts of American officials to build up the national supply. Suddenly, a journalist (Stewart) walks in with a hot tip: a vast deposit of rubber in Malaya, available to the highest bidder. But it’s not an entirely above-board transaction and so a convicted felon (Spencer Tracy, playing a harder character than usual) is asked to help out. Many adventures follow, especially once the urbane Stewart is out of his element in dangerous Japanese-controlled territory. Malaya isn’t a great movie, but it does have two great actors interacting in ways you wouldn’t necessarily predict from their screen persona, and enough eventful scenes to keep things interesting. The atmosphere of a United States newly embroiled in war is interesting in the film’s first act, then it’s off to a Hollywood-studio’s idea of what Malaysia felt at the time, complete with what we’d euphemistically call a folkloric depiction of the local population. It does end with a bang, and perhaps a plot point that we wouldn’t expect from those actors. Malaya won’t necessarily be interesting to anyone who’s not a fan of Stewart, Tracy or near-contemporary WW2 movies, but it’s serviceable enough as it is.
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2019) For posterity, let us note that the French title of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is Faut pas dire à maman que la gardienne mange les pissenlits par la racine (“Don’t tell Mom that the babysitter is eating dandelions by the roots”) which adds all sorts of added hilarity to it. Still, the title is probably funnier than the film itself—which isn’t as harsh a judgment as you’d think considering that its plot springs from the titular macabre situation to deliver an amusing coming-of-age story with more heart than dark humour. The first few minutes quickly set up the frame: A single mom leaving for Australia for the entire summer, leaving her four kids under the supervision of an elderly babysitter. Two or three scenes designed not to make us sorry for the babysitter’s titular death follow. But then what? The kids don’t want to admit to their mom that the babysitter’s, well, you know—and the babysitter took a summer’s worth of money with her in the grave. With an admirable lack of sense only found in 1990s movies made for teenagers, the kids have no one to call for help and so resolve to get jobs in order to pay for their groceries. One magnificent bluff and a trick of luck later, our protagonist (Christina Applegate, then at the height of her Married with Children fame) finds herself hired as an executive assistant with no idea on how to actually do the job. But the paycheck, and access to the petty cash, is more important. It all predictably explodes, but not without a late 1980s-style take on the corporate world, some mistaken-identity material and a climax that brings all facets of the protagonist identities imploding on themselves. There’s a rather heartwarming lesson at the end. Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is not great art but it’s decently entertaining … even if it doesn’t have any intention of living up to its very specific title.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I only watched The Young Stranger because it was legendary director John Frankenheimer’s debut feature film, and at times it felt as this remained the only reason to watch the film. Completed shortly after Rebel Without a Cause’s success, it’s about the listless ennui of a teenager ignored by his father, which leads him to a scuffle at a movie theatre and then to further issues at the police station and the family home where he seems intent on not accepting a shred of humility or contrition. It quickly leads to a confrontation between the stern father and the rebellious son. (I’m more disturbed than anyone else by the idea that I now identify far more firmly with the father than the teenager.) The teenage protagonist does his best throughout the film to act in an intensely unlikable fashion, compounding one exasperating display of attitude by another. And yet The Young Stranger somehow ends up taking a curious milquetoast position that everybody should learn to understand each other through the curious device of the teenager assaulting an older man a second time. The film is clearly aimed at the teenage audience, and the ways it champions its adolescent agenda is off-putting—it jumps far too quickly to redemption. Still, the film’s technical qualities are better than its muddled message: Frankenheimer keeps control over his tone, and the result is a bit less melodramatic than the James Dean classic, a bit more grounded than other teenager movies of the time, and not a bad watch as long as you can get over the protagonist’s crummy behaviour. Which, admittedly, can be a high bar to clear.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) I’m not entirely convinced that romance has anything new to tell us, but sometimes it’s all in the context and that’s where Children of a Lesser God succeeds brilliantly. Romantic dramas about mismatched lovers trying to work out their differences are a dime a dozen, but even thirty-five years later the setting of this film still stands out: taking place at a school for deaf children, it follows a young energetic teacher as he meets his students and develops feelings for the antisocial janitor, an attractive alumnus of the school who refuses to talk out of past trauma. Setting can be a character of its own, and the fascination exerted by Children of a Lesser God quickly develops from learning about an entirely different world set alongside our own. As our guide in this world, John Hurt has the ingrate task of explaining to hearing audiences what’s going on (through his constant audible translation of signed language), even during intensely intimate moments. Opposite him, however, is the formidable Marlee Matlin, who steals the entire film in a ferocious, layered, compelling performance. Far from being merely a love interest, she plays a fully formed character defined by far many other things than her deafness. She deservedly walked away with an Oscar for her role, and it’s easy to see why even today: this is a performance that, for many, still redefines the frame that we use to evaluate good acting. In between the subject matter and Maltin’s performance, it’s easy to see why Children of a Lesser God remains a striking film even today.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) There’s a lot to love in The Killers for fans of classic noir, whether it’s the unusual structure, archetypical characters, glum script, or good dialogue. Burt Lancaster makes his film debut here, and Ava Gardner ignited her career thanks to her performance. It’s all very twisty with a man consenting to his own murder and the film flashing back to what could possibly explain such an event. The opening moments of the film (directly adapted from a Hemingway story) are immediately absorbing, with manly pursuit such as boxing and robbery being touched upon on the way to the end. In many ways, The Killers is pure noir to a fault—if you’re a fan of the genre as I am, you won’t need anything more to appreciate the film, while those who don’t care for noir (is that possible?) won’t see anything here to make them change their minds.