Friday, November 15, 2013

Short Takes with Charles Laughton, Cowboys & Dinosaurs, and Neil Simon

This Land Is Mine - When the Nazis invaded France during World War II, acclaimed filmmaker Jean Renoir relocated to the United States. Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, had already completed what would become his masterpiece, 1939's Rules of the Game. Unlike fellow refugee director Fritz Lang, Renoir never found his groove in Hollywood. Still, his first English-language film, This Land Is Mind, is a heartfelt, patriotic story of a timid schoolteacher (Charles Laughton) in a small European village occupied by Nazis. Maureen O'Hara, George Sanders, and Una O'Connor lead a strong supporting cast.

The Valley of Gwangi - Ray Harryhausen's imaginative mix of Western and fantasy overcomes a leisurely first half en route to 45 minutes of almost non-stop cowboys vs. dinosaurs action. While it can't stand alongside Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts, the special effects in 1969's Gwangi are excellent--especially the climatic T-Rex rampage. The scene where the cowboys lasso the T-Rex took stop-motion animator Harryhausen five months to film. Willis O'Brien, King Kong's creator and Harryhausen's mentor, conceived Gwangi in 1942, but RKO abandoned the production.

The Goodbye Girl - Playwright Neil Simon penned this winning romantic comedy as a vehicle for his then-wife Marsha Mason. She plays the title character, a single mother recently jilted by her latest lover. To make matters worse, she learns that her NYC apartment has been subleased to Dreyfuss, a struggling actor. Simon wisely keeps sentiment to a minimum, while allowing his outwardly brash characters to reveal their inner insecurities. Mason is good, if a bit too theatrical, but Dreyfuss hits all the right notes in his Oscar-winning performance. Quinn Cummings, as Mason’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter, delivers most of Simon’s trademark zingers. She, Mason, Simon, and the film all earned Oscar nominations. David Gates, formerly of the rock group Bread, wrote and performed the memorable title tune, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard chart.

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