Movies watched: Harvey (home – 104 minutes), Panic in the Streets (home – 96 minutes), Born Yesterday (home – 103 minutes), The Secret Life of Pets (Bonney Lake Regal Tall Firs 10 – 90 minutes).
Total cumulative time: 4 days, 5 hours, 57 minutes
Boy, am I behind on my movie journal. Work, vacation, more work and all of a sudden a month has passed. So time to get caught up.
Harvey is a movie I first saw as a child. Anybody in my general age group who grew up in California will remember the “Family Film Festival” on KTLA 5, hosted by Tom Hatten. This is one of hundreds of movies that I was first exposed to watching that program. The movie is based on a play by Mary Chase, and the film retains much of the dialogue and pacing of the play. In the film, Jimmy Stewart plays a man named Elwood P. Dowd, an affable gentleman, who has a 6 foot tall invisible rabbit for a best friend. His sister and niece, who are living with him, want to have him committed, because of his imaginary friend. Much of the movie involves the sister’s attempt to have Elwood committed to a mental hospital. The movie mixes comedy with moments of genuine affection, made all the more believable by Jimmy Stewart’s perfect performance.
It is a movie so gentle in tone, that I’m afraid it would be lost on many people today. That’s a shame, because it still plays very well. In addition to Stewart, there are several other standout performances. Stewart’s sister is played by the great stage actress Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Veta Louise Simmons in this movie. Hull played a similar character in Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, equally well.
There are several other great performances, including a couple of character actors that nobody else would probably know or recognize. But I would be remiss if I did not mention the great Jesse White. Jesse is spectacular in this movie, making the most of every moment he is onscreen. He also provided what is arguably the funniest moment in the movie, when he is reading the definition of “Pooka” in the encyclopedia. His line delivery is perfect. If you watched any TV shows made between 1955-1975 then you know Jesse White. Check out his credits, you’ll be amazed at how prolific he was. The man did not stop working for over 40 years. He guest starred on “The Andy Griffith Show”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Bonanza”, “The Munsters”, “Perry Mason”, “The Love Boat”, “Happy Days” and even “Seinfeld” (his last appearance before his death in 1997).
If you want a simple, funny, good-hearted movie, you could certainly do worse.
Watching Harvey got me thinking about what a great year for movies 1950 was, so I decided to watch another one: Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets. So first of all, Kazan was a very solid director who made at least 4 or 5 outstanding movies. Yes, I know he named names. But the man is dead, so let’s celebrate his art and forgive him his tresspasses. Remember the 1999 Oscars, though? When Kazan got his Lifetime Achievement Award? Remember how uncomfortable Scorsese and DeNiro looked flanking Kazan on stage, like they would rather be somewhere else? Some people made a point of standing and applauding loudly, others pointedly did not clap. (You would think not clapping is the same as just sitting, right? But no. Not-clapping is a distinct action. If you don’t believe me, just look at Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in the audience shots. They are the living embodiment of “not clapping.”) Then of course there is Spielberg, who tried to appease everybody by clapping, but not standing up. Jeez, he really pisses me off sometimes.
I guess I’m more interested in talking about things peripherally related to the movie, so I’ll be brief about it: it’s good. There is a potential epidemic breaking out in New Orleans. A contagious disease that could kill lots of people. Richard Widmark is the man trying to track down an infected man. But gangster Jack Palance and his henchman Zero Mostel (yes, I said Zero Mostel) are after the same man. Who will find him first?
This is a magnificent movie, with elements of noir, but also a bit of documentary feel, as many scenes were shot on location. Kazan was one of the first directors to do so regularly, which brought a rarely-seen gritty realism to his movies. “Ahead of it’s time” is an over-used phrase, but I think it applies to this movie. I’ve seen it three times now, and I like it more with every viewing. I don’t remember what I first saw Richard Widmark in, when I was a kid. It might have been the episode of “I Love Lucy” he guest-starred in. Then I probably saw him in Murder on the Orient Express. I just know that I didn’t like him. He seemed odd-looking and blustery. Now that I’m older, I still think he’s odd-looking and blustery, but he was a versatile actor who gave some great performances (Judgment at Nuremberg, anyone?) His occasionally manic performance in this movie suits the material.
Of course Palance was almost always typecast as the bad guy. He came to resent that, but he could play a bad-ass as well as anybody. Of course he was helped by his angular face and whispery voice. It made him seem more threatening. His character in this movie, Blackie, recently appeared on Empire magazines’ “50 Greatest Villians” list, and I can’t really argue with that. Zero Mostel is good too. And lest I forget the lovely Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Widmark’s wife. I absolutely love Barbara. Most people know her as “Miss Ellie Ewing” from Dallas. To me she will always be Midge, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. She never disappoints.
I was having so much fun in 1950 that I decided to stay there for one more movie: Born Yesterday, directed by the George Cukor. This movie was based on the popular Broadway play of the same name. The plot involves an uncouth tycoon (really just a gangster who struck it rich), who comes to Washington D.C. to hobnob with some politicians, and see if he can tuck a few votes in his back pocket. He is played by Broderick Crawford, another character actor with a very prolific career who is primarily remembered for one movie, All the King’s Men. He was also in one of the most embarrassingly bad movies ever made, Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. (Look it up. It’s one of those rare movies that is such a train wreck, you can’t stop watching. It has cameos from dozens of actors well past their prime. Everyone from Billy Barty to Stepin Fetchit. Seriously. I’ll have to review it later this year. Maybe a week’s worth of bad/good movies).
Broderick Crawford’s girlfriend (played by Judy Holliday) comes with him to D.C. She appears as a typical ditzy blonde, with an annoying high-pitched voice. But there is nothing typical about her performance. She practically originated the character. It has been imitated, but never equaled. And don’t even mention the God-awful remake with Melanie Griffith. If you do, I will come to your house and pee on your car. Judy Holliday gives one of the best performances ever captured on film. Male or female. Ever. You got a problem with that? You seen the movie? Didn’t think so. She mixes tone so well. She makes you laugh at her character at the same time she is endearing herself to you. Then a little later she breaks your heart. It is a rare performance that can have you laughing so hard your chest hurts, then later wiping away tears. She does it all without every being a caricature. She is a real, honest-to-God woman, something today’s movies could use more of.
Judy Holliday won the Oscar for Best Actress for this role, beating both Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, two of the most iconic female roles of all time. And guess what? Judy deserved it. Judy died of breast cancer at the oh-so-young age of 43, leaving this one indelible performance to define her career. And let’s forget William Holden. His character is hired by Crawford to “educate” Judy Holliday. Do you think they fall in love along the way? Holden is a personal favorite of mine, in this movie, and just about everything else he did. I think you could make a strong argument for him in “best actor of all time” discussion. This movie deserves a bigger audience; I only wish the remake could be “unmade.”
I don’t really have much to say about The Secret Life of Pets. I watched it. It was mildly entertaining. A child would probably enjoy it more than I did. I was aware of who did the voices, but thought that any of them (except maybe Kevin Hart) could have been interchanged with about 87 other people and it would not have altered the movie in any way. Remember when animated movies had real voice talent? Give me Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway any day. Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety old man. While we’re at it, get off my lawn.