Category: Comedies

Sirk #3: Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (US 1952)

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

This is the first title in Universal’s ‘Directed by Douglas Sirk’ box-set. After an unhappy time at Columbia, Sirk signed a seven-year contract at Universal and settled down to make a couple of pictures a year for the studio. He was generally happy at Universal but he thought that this was the smallest of the major studios (smaller than Columbia – Universal and Columbia were the ‘mini-majors’ during the studio period since they didn’t own any cinemas). Consequently, most of Sirk’s productions would be superior ‘B’ productions, going against trend in the early 1950s. This meant that the stars  to attract an ‘A’ budget were not available to Sirk and the use of colour was dependent on genre.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? was Sirk’s fifth Universal picture, a family comedy with several musical numbers eligible for Technicolor under Universal’s policy. The film is significant because it teamed Sirk with a young Rock Hudson for the first time (it also features a brief appearance by James Dean). Hudson gets top billing in retrospect – the film also appears in a Rock Hudson box-set – but he has only a supporting role. The central focus is on the veteran actor Charles Coburn (already in his 70s) with whom Sirk had already worked (on Lured in 1947). Coburn plays an eccentric millionaire in the early 1920s who decides to bequeath his wealth to the family of the girl he loved, but didn’t marry fifty years earlier. He inveigles his way into the Blaisdell family home under an assumed name and literally ‘checks out’ the family. Satisfied that they have the makings of acceptable beneficiaries he attempts to test them by arranging for them to come into a large sum of money – which reveals that there is a weak link in the family group leading to a crisis. Universal’s rules meant that there had to be a happy ending, but Sirk did manage to expose some of the flaws in American bourgeois society even if the ‘feelgood’ aura round the film militated against the satire.

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

I enjoyed this film very much. Sirk whisks us through 89 minutes with hardly a pause for breath. Small-town New York state is presented in bright colours and the costumes of the women in the ‘flapper’ era add to the visual punch. Most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were Universal regulars whose usual commissions ranged across Westerns and Abbott and Costello movies, but they all put in good shifts for Sirk. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a similar background but also more chances to work on bigger budget films. He would become part of Sirk’s team over several films. Henry Mancini is listed by IMDB as a ‘uncredited composer’.

The film’s title comes from the song and there are other well-known songs sung by the cast including The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along’. Piper Laurie at the start of her career is very good as Millicent, the Blaisdell’s older daughter and the grand-daughter of the woman the millionaire loved as a young man. Truly vivacious, Piper Laurie immediately recalls the impact of seeing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. (Laurie followed Reynolds into cinemas just a few weeks later). Her younger sister in the family, played by 9 year-old Gigi Perreau, is the other standout player. She was an established child star of the period and gives a lively performance – taking Coburn’s character at face value. Sirk told Jon Halliday that he couldn’t remember much about the film – apart from meeting Rock Hudson. I think he should have been pleased to make such a fresh version of a rather formulaic story. He was helped by a sharp script by Joseph Hoffman from a story by Eleanor H. Porter (best known for 1913 children’s novel, Pollyanna). If you want some heartwarming entertainment, this fits the bill.

Café Society (US 2016)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Woody Allen is still making movies at nearly 80. Is that a good thing? Some directors make important films in their last decades. Ken Loach (the same age as Woody) has just won the Palme d’Or for an angry cry out against austerity and neo-liberalism, but Woody seems to just keep going without any real purpose except to just keep going. I’m making this judgement based on reviews I’ve read since I’d only seen one of his films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2009, in the last twenty years before I caught his new film as a holiday treat. Despite a strong cast I thought that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was deeply flawed. Café Society has a similarly strong cast, but it is at least an enjoyable entertainment.

Opening Cannes this year, Café Society went straight into a French release. It offers us Jesse Eisenberg in a familiar role not dissimilar to the twin roles he played in The Double by Richard Ayoade. His character Bobby Hoffman begins as a shy, socially inept young man from the Bronx thrown into Hollywood society in the late 1930s and working for his uncle (Steve Carell) an important agent/wheeler-dealer. Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) his uncle’s secretary, falling in love and unwittingly creating a family problem as well as learning a whole range of new skills. Transformed by his Hollywood experience Bobby returns to New York and becomes a successful house manager at the night club owned by his gangster brother. Having been forced to leave Vonnie in Hollywood, the plot sets up the possibility of a later meeting in New York. But now Bobby is also able to woo other women in New York.

Allen riffs on two distinct genres that he has ‘played’ before. A musical analogy is not inappropriate since the setting is the period of Woody Allen’s early childhood and he fills the soundtrack with sublime music (matching the equally sublime cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) mainly performed by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. A New York Jewish family comedy-drama is melded with a romantic drama. Bobby also has an older sister married to a socialist ‘intellectual’. His mother is the driving force in the family with Ken Stott a surprising but pretty effective father in the background. The setting also brings to mind Some Like it Hot – and perhaps the Viennese comedies that Wilder himself was riffing on. Because of the gangster angle we get some very dark comedy moments but mostly Allen seems to be reworking material he’s done before. My interest in the film was mainly the chance to see the further development of Kristen Stewart as a compelling performer. I thought she was the standout in a very good cast. She manages to make believable a character who wears an alice band, white socks and short 1930s dresses but who is also clearly bright (a literature Masters) and more than capable of negotiating the twists and turns of Hollywood insider life. I suspect that in choosing a Barbara Stanwyck clip to set up Vonnie as a ‘player’, Woody Allen was going with Stewart’s own preference.

This was a pleasant way to pass 96 minutes. The story was interesting enough to engage us, the performances were all good and the technical credits were excellent. Woody Allen himself did the voiceover narration – which I know many people don’t like, but it worked perfectly for me. It was worthwhile Woody. As long as actors (young and old) want to work with you, there is still a market for films like this.

Here’s the French VOSF trailer:

¡Viva! 22 #7: Truman (Spain-Argentina 2015)

TRUMANposter

Truman didn’t turn out to be quite the film I was expecting. I usually choose ¡Viva! screenings because of which day and what time they are playing. I might briefly skim the blurb in the brochure but then quickly forget it and I usually like the surprise I get when I’m in the screening. This was certainly the case with Truman – an entertaining and enjoyable film with high-quality contributions all round. However, there isn’t as much use of Truman, the dog played by ‘Troilo’, as I expected – and this might disappoint those who go to the film expecting a canine-centred story.

I’ll outline the simple plot since there isn’t much chance of ‘spoiling’ the narrative. Tomás (Javier Cámara) flies into Madrid from Canada to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), a theatre actor. Julián is terminally ill and focused on finding a home for his dog Truman. This involves auditioning possible ‘adoptive parents’ for Truman and visiting the vet etc. to find out about Truman’s health and psychological well-being. But Tomás has come a long way to spend four days with Julian and there are many other things to do in order to get Julián’s affairs into some kind of order. We quickly realise that Tomás is there as the calm, reasonable character who will allow himself to be hoodwinked, up to a point, and relieved of quite a lot of money to satisfy all of Julián’s demands. The other major character is Paula (Dolores Fonzi), Julián’s cousin, who is much more visibly angry about Julián’s approach to his impending demise. What follows is a form of comedy drama that delicately and adeptly treads a fine line between acerbic wit and sentimentality. As the director says in the Press Notes:

Truman is an attempt at overcoming the panic we all feel in life when faced with illness and impending death: our own or that of a loved one. It is an exploration of how we react to the unexpected, to the unknown, to grief.

I found myself with a wry smile one moment and then immediately afterwards realising the import of what was going on the next. Julián is an actor and a rogue and the centre of the narrative features three encounters with colleagues in the business, each involving Julián in a kind of guessing game – what do they know about his position, what should he tell them? What is the right thing to do? All of this is watched by the calm Tomás who has to decide how to respond to his friend – to console him or get him to face reality. I don’t think there is anything new or surprising about the narrative but I agree with some reviewers who think that Tomás is involved in a sequence towards the end which is unnecessary and detracts a little from the narrative’s resolution (though I suspect I could change my mind).

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomas enjoy Julian's performance at a Madrid theatre.

Paula (Dolores Fonzi) and Tomás enjoy Julián’s performance at a Madrid theatre.

The success of the film depends firstly on the two male leads and their performances. The rest of the cast is good as well (with the dog effortlessly stealing his scenes) and the script is excellent. The director and co-writer is Cesc Gay whose previous work I don’t know, but who seems to have been successful since writing and directing his first feature in 1998. IMDB reports a budget of €3.8 million which I would argue has been spent sensibly. Apart from a trip to Amsterdam, the story stays in Madrid (though some scenes were shot in Barcelona – presumably for funding purposes) and the locations are all effective. The trip to the funeral services company was a standout for me, lending an air of surrealism.

Truman is interesting in bringing two Argentinian stars to Spain. Ricardo Darin is arguably Argentina’s leading male star and Dolores Fonzi is a very well-known figure in Argentina, a model before becoming an actor and for several years part of a celebrity couple with Gael García Bernal. She was the lead in Paulina, the festival prizewinner of 2015. I presume that Spanish audiences will detect Argentinian accents so both Julián and Paula are written as Argentinians in Madrid. I’m not sure if it was spelt out in the film but I assume that Julián would have come to Madrid as a student and met Tomás at that point. Javier Cámara is seen as a Madrid actor (and he has featured in Almodóvar’s films, most notably I’m So Excited (Spain 2013)). Truman opened in Spain and parts of South America in Autumn 2015 (generating around €6.5 million at the box office) and is rolling out across Europe at the moment. StudioCanal have the film for the UK and it should open later this year. I think it could do well, especially since Wild Tales, the Argentinian film in which Ricardo Darin features, was the biggest non-Hindi subtitled film in the UK in 2015 (though it was the worst year for subtitled films for some time). It should appeal to older audiences for whom the dilemmas will be more meaningful. It might work in a different way for younger audiences. In Manchester, the film attracted a healthy audience and proved a fitting climax before the Saturday night party began.

¡Viva! 22 #1: Carmina y amén (Spain 2014)

Maria Leon and her mother Carmina Barrios as 'Maria' and 'Carmina'.

Maria León and her mother Carmina Barrios as ‘Maria’ and ‘Carmina’.

Carmina and amen‘ is a title that plays on/with several aspects of this very funny black comedy rooted in the working-class culture of Sevilla. On one level it refers to the way in which the matriarch Carmina is decisive about what she has to do. And when she’s done it, that’s the end of it. At one point she says to her daughter “I never lie, when I say something, it becomes true”. The central example of this is how Carmina handles the sudden death of her husband Antonio. He dies on a Saturday morning, but his wages bonus is due on Monday morning – so the death won’t be reported until after the bonus has been collected. Since Carmina lives in a tenement building with lots of neighbours popping in, keeping Antonio’s large corpse from the public gaze is the basis for the perfect farce plot.

HOME’s brochure promises us that the film will be enjoyed by anybody familiar with UK TV series such as The Royle Family or Shameless. I think that’s right and Mrs Brown’s Boys might be a more recent model of the same kind of thing. It’s also the case that Carmina y amén resembles a TV sitcom in its use of Carmina’s flat as its central location with only three short trips out to other locations. According to this useful Hollywood Reporter review, the film is a follow-up to Carmina or Blow Up (Spain 2012). Both films were written and directed by Paco León and feature his mother Carmina Barrios and his sister Maria León and like those British sitcoms there is a real sense of a tightly-knit family within a similarly tight working-class community. The HR reviewer Jonathan Holland raises the important question as to whether or not this is one of those ‘Spanish comedies’ that don’t travel, especially to the UK. He also notes that there are resemblances to the early comedies of Pedro Almodóvar such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – the film that in many ways ‘broke’ Almodóvar in the UK. I agree, and on that basis Carmina y amén might work with careful handling – certainly a large ¡Viva! audience laughed heartily. But Holland also points out that there are jokes that only Spanish audiences will get.

It seems to me that what is recognisable to any audience is the excellent observation of tight communities and the real star quality of Carmina Barrios and her portrayal of the matriarch who knows best. There is a hint of ‘gypsy magic’ – the detailed mise en scène of the kitchen includes a witch doll and a publication about ‘African spirituality’, and at one point Carmina utilises a ‘spell’. But otherwise a group of women sit around with coffee and biscuits discussing sex while the now declared dead husband lies in repose. Sounds familiar? There is a twist to the story – though I think most audiences will have seen it coming. Holland thinks it ‘over sentimental’ but I think it works to make for a satisfying black comedy. I hope more people get to see the film and it plays again at ¡Viva! on Saturday 16th at 17.50.