Monday, February 17, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 3)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description.

1. Unwanted Guest With an Octopus.

2. While the Big Town Stays Awake.

3. The Bubblegun-colored Jungle Animal Visits Again.

4. Hole of Vipers.

5. Authentic Hot Breakfast Food.

6. I Was Rudolf's Double.

7. Pint-sized Roman.

8. Joe & Jerry & Daphne & Josephine.

9. The Kidnapping of Hank McKenna.

10. Incident in Bodega Bay.

11. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

12. Mystery Writer and the Killer Dentist.

13. Cooler King and the Tunnel King (a really easy one!).

14. Expensive Gems Last a Long Time.

15. Captain Spitfire and The Hawke.

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Marty" and the Precision of Dialogue

Ernest Borgnine as Marty.
Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely 34-year-old butcher who lives with his mother in The Bronx. He has made sacrifices for others, especially his family, at the expense of his own happiness. He has all but given up hope of finding a meaningful relationship with a woman. As he tells his mother, he is tired of being hurt.

Marty's life takes a turn for the better when he meets Clara (Betsy Blair) at the Stardust Ballroom. Clara, a quiet school teacher, has been jilted by her date because she's a "dog." Marty asks her to dance and the two wind up spending the night together. They confide the most intimate secrets to one another. At one point, Marty is so excited at talking with Clara that he literally can't stop.

The next morning, Marty is giddy with the seeds of love. However, his mother and best friend both express reservations about Clara, implying that she's not good enough for Marty. When it comes time to call her, he isn't sure what to do.

Made in 1955, Marty is one of those personal dramas that Hollywood used to excel at making before space adventures and superheroes dominated the boxoffice. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, one of the great television dramatists of the 1950s, expanded his own 1953 teleplay. In the book The Craft of the Screenwriter, Chayefsky explained the secret to his naturalistic dialogue: "My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say."

Marty and Clara.
A great example is a lengthy scene in which Marty starts talking about everything and anything as he and Clara exit the ballroom. Realizing he has been dominating the conversation, he tries to stop only to continue again. It's not just what Marty says, but the way he says it and how Borgnine delivers it that make the scene ring true.

Marty provides Ernest Borgnine with the role of a lifetime and he deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar. He had already established himself with strong supporting performances in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Still, it's safe to say that Marty elevated Borgnine to bigger parts (co-lead in 1956's Jubal) and paved the way for an enduring career.

Betsy Blair and Gene Kelly.
Sadly, his co-star Betsy Blair did not fare as well. Actually, Blair almost wasn't cast as Clara due to her left-wing political views. She lobbied hard to co-star in Marty, but gained little ground until her then-husband Gene Kelly got involved. In her autobiography The Memory of All That, she recounts a conversation in which Kelly told MGM executive Dory Schary that he wouldn't make It's Always Fair Weather if Schary didn't help Blair. She wrote: "(Schary) called the American Legion in Washington right there and then, in front of Gene, and he vouched for me. And so I was in Marty."

Although nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Blair lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. That's a shame for Blair is every bit as good as Borgnine. Her post-Marty career is pretty much forgettable, although there were a few bright spots. Interestingly, both she and Borgnine appeared in variations of Othello:  Blair was in the contemporary jazz drama All Night Long with Patrick McGoohan and Borgnine co-starred in the aforementioned Western Jubal with Glenn Ford.

In addition Borgnine's Oscar, Marty won for Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Chayefsky). Rod Steiger originated the role of Marty Piletti in Chayefsky's live TV drama with Nancy Marchand as Clara.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Missing Billy Wilder in "Cactus Flower"

Goldie Hawn as Toni.
I.A.L. Diamond co-wrote some pretty amazing screenplays--his work includes The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Of course, his writing partner on those films was a guy named Billy Wilder. Mr. Diamond also occasionally branched out on his own. That was the case with the 1969 comedy Cactus Flower, which was based on a French stage play.

Walter Matthau stars as Julian Winston, a New York City dentist who has avoided marriage by telling his much-younger girlfriend Toni (Goldie Hawn) that he's married with three children. When Julian misses a date, Toni assumes he has chosen his wife over her and attempts suicide. A concerned Julian decides to marry Toni. The only problem is that Toni now wants to meet Julian's wife!

Goldie and Walter Matthau.
A desperate Julian tries to convince his highly-efficient nurse, Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman), to pose as his wife. Initially, Stephanie bluntly refuses and advises Julian to tell the truth. However, she has second thoughts and meets with Toni to explain she wants a divorce from Julian. Stephanie is too convincing, however--perhaps because she truly harbors some feelings for Julian?

After watching Cactus Flower for 15 minutes, it's obvious how the movie will end. Therefore, it's just a matter of execution: Can Diamond and the cast make the situations funny enough to justify the predictable plot? The answer is no for most of the film's running time. 

Even the usually delightful Walter Matthau displays an atypical lack of energy--though his lethargy succeeds in counteracting the excessive effort that Goldie Hawn puts in her performance. Amazingly, Goldie not only was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she won! (For the record, I don't dislike Goldie. I enjoyed her immensely in Overboard...until it began popping up on television every week.)

Jack Weston with Ingrid Bergman.
There are a handful of amusing scenes and Ingrid Bergman makes Stephanie an appealing character. Rick Lenz also scores as Goldie's next-door neighbor, Igor, in the kind of role typically played by Jim Hutton in the 1960s.

As mentioned above, Cactus Flower originated as a 1964 French stage play, Fleur de cactus, written by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. Abe Burrows adapted it for Broadway in 1965 where it was an immediate hit and ran for almost three years. The Broadway leads were Barry Nelson (Julian), Lauren Bacall (Stephanie), Brenda Vaccaro (Toni), and Burt Brinckerhoff (Igor). Vaccaro and Brinckerhoff were nominated for Tony Awards in the Featured Actress and Actor categories.

As for screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, he teamed up again with Billy Wilder for his next four films, including the offbeat Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the underrated Avanti. He then retired from the movie business.

Monday, February 3, 2020

William Holden Leads the Devil's Brigade

Holden as the brigade commander.
A year after the boxoffice hit The Dirty Dozen (1967), David L. Wolper produced another World War II action film about a band of misfits transformed into an efficient combat unit. The differences are that The Devil's Brigade (1968) was based on fact and paints its story on a larger canvas.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick, who is tasked with forming a special forces brigade consisting of both American and Canadian soldiers. While the Canadian battalion is already combat-ready, the American unit is saddled with former prisoners and AWOL candidates. Plus, friction forms almost immediately between the disciplined Canadians commanded by Major Crown (Cliff Robertson) and the rambunctious Americans led (sort of) by cigar-crunching Major Bricker (Vince Edwards).

Robertson as Major Crown.
To Crown's puzzlement, Frederick encourages the rivalry between the two battalions. Learning that the Canadians were handpicked, one American soldier (Claude Akins) quips: "Where I come from, the only thing we pick by hand is little yellow daffodils."

However, as sometimes happens in action pictures, a barroom brawl--this one started by local lumberjacks--requires the two sides to work together. Having bonded, the men form a cohesive fighting unit. That's a good thing because the Brigade is soon tasked to take a Nazi-occupied mountain in Italy that no one else has been able to capture.

Even with the real-life Robert Frederick (who retired as a Major-General) as a consultant, it's hard to tell what was fact-based and what was created for dramatic intent in The Devil's Brigade. It is worth noting that, according to the book The Devil's Brigade (co-written by one its members), the barroom brawl incident actually took place and did contribute to team-building. The only significant difference is that the instigators were miners and not lumberjacks.

Claude Akins and Andrew Prine as two
of the American soldiers.
The cast is solid, though they are mostly saddled with stereotypical characters (e.g., Carroll O'Connor's blustery general, Jack Watson's straight-arrow corporal). That may be a result of trying to introduce the audience to too many members of the Devil's Brigade. Holden gets the most screen time, which affords him the opportunity to add some nuance to his mission-focused commander.

It's worth noting that Richard Jaeckel appeared in both The Devil's Brigade and The Dirty Dozen. Also, some non-actors of note make brief appearances: Green Bay Packers football star Paul Hornung, champion middleweight boxer Gene Fullmer, and stunt man/future film director Hal Needham.

Veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen (Victor's son) handles the large-scale action scenes with precision. He also make maximum use of the spectacular mountain scenery in Italy and Utah (which stands in for Montana, where the brigade actually trained).

The Devil's Brigade doesn't rank with the best World War II action movies, but it's a respectable effort that won't disappoint fans of this genre. As for the real-life 1st Special Service Force--the official name for the brigade--its surviving members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.