Saturday, February 25, 2012

Talking Pictures

As you may have noticed, I've updated this blog exactly once in the past 3 1/2 years. I've decided it's time to do something about that. I watch a lot of movies, so I'm going to try to write a short post on each of them, starting with the Seven Chances piece below. If nothing else, it will help me actually improve as a writer. I feel like I've stayed on pretty much the same level since high school.

We'll see how that goes.

Seven Chances (1925)

The IMDb trivia page for Buster Keaton's Seven Chances tells me that, "Keaton later called it his least favorite feature and tried to keep film historian Raymond Rohauer from restoring the only known copy of the movie." I cringed when I read that. I suppose he maybe felt that way because it was based on a play rather being an original idea, but he was being ridiculous - Seven Chances isn't perfect, but it made me laugh a whole lot. If it had been destroyed, it would have been a pretty terrible loss for comedy fans.

The plot is both ridiculous and overly familiar. Keaton's grandfather dies and leaves him $7 million in his will, provided Keaton is married by 7:00 PM on his 27th birthday - the same day, of course, that he receives the news. After a misunderstanding that makes him think his long-time sweetheart Mary (Ruth Dwyer) won't marry him, he frantically tries to find someone - anyone - who will marry him. Meanwhile, his business partner gets an article printed in the afternoon, which leads to the film's most famous image - dozens (hundreds?) of women chasing Keaton down the street, hoping to become his wife and get a piece of the fortune.

You don't get any points for figuring out how it ends. But the ending isn't really the point. The gags are, and most of them hit their marks, especially during the second and third acts. But before we get there, we have to watch Keaton's failed attempt to propose to Mary. It's a standard-issue misunderstanding of my least-favorite type ("the whole plot could have been avoided if people would just communicate with each other"), and it doesn't have many inventive comic bits to raise it above the level.

Things start to pick up once we reach the "seven chances" of the title, which are the seven girls at a country club that Keaton's business partner happens to know. Keaton proposes to all of them and then to every other woman he sees (including a young, brunette Jean Arthur!). This allows for every possible rejection gag Keaton can think, and it's marvelous. Particular standouts include a well-timed bit where he proposes to one girl on his way up the stairs and another on the way down, and an argument/near-proposal with a hatcheck girl (played by Rosalind Byrne in a performance so funny I made a point of looking up her name).

The final act - with the gold-diggers pursuing Keaton through the streets of town - manages to sustain that momentum. Keaton loved staging long chase sequences (see, for example, at least 70% of The General), and he always knew how to keep them from getting boring. In the case, he accomplishes that by switching focus midway through. To avoid the women, Keaton runs down a hill and finds himself dodging an avalanche of rocks instead. Mike D'Angelo of The AV Club discusses that sequence in more detail here, so I'll just say that I was genuinely terrified for Keaton's life and leave it at that.

Seven Chances is only the fourth Buster Keaton movie I've seen (after The General, Go West, and Sherlock Jr.), so I'm not going to pretend that I know where it falls among his larger body of work. But it's very funny, and definitely worth the 56 minutes you'll spend watching it.

Other thoughts:
  • The title is more or less irrelevant. He doesn't have seven chances - he has "number of women that happen to be in the area" chances.
  • I really liked the way the opening sequence tracks the passage of time - by showing how much Keaton's dog has grown since the last time he tried to profess his love to Mary.
  • In the "How did people think like that 87 years ago?!" department, there's a gag where Keaton walks up behind a woman, sees that she's black, and walks away without saying anything. It's not that I'm surprised by casual racism in a movie from the 1920s, but it's completely foreign to me that "Of course he can't propose to her! She has a different skin color than he does!" could constitute a funny joke.
  • As long as I'm documenting the movie's racism, Mary's mother also has a servant/employee that is clearly a white man in black face. It's . . . unpleasant.
  • The joke where Keaton accidentally proposes to a drag queen lands much, much more successfully.
  • For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, the chase sequence reminded me a lot of Monty Python's The Life of Brian. I guess it's the fact that Keaton can't marry all of these women any more than Brian could serve as a savior to all of his followers.
  • I'll probably be watching most of the Buster Keaton movies on Netflix Instant over the next few months (including College, The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr., and Our Hospitality.) I also might try to rewatch Sherlock Jr., which was the first silent movie I ever saw. I tape-recorded an early-morning airing on AMC in about 1999, and it blew my 9th-grade mind.
  • Man, remember those days, when AMC was commercial-free and showed things older than Twister?
  • I am a cranky old man.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Matthau/Lemmon Bowl

Last year, my wife and I established a new tradition of watching a bunch of movie comedies on Super Bowl Sunday, and this year we continued that tradition. Last year, it was just a hodgepodge of (all excellent) stuff from the 30s-40s, but this year we had a more coherent theme - 4 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movies, three of which I'd never seen before.

The Fortune Cookie was I had seen, and it's still great. One of Billy Wilder's most underrated movies. Walter Matthau won his only Oscar for it, which I think is all kinds of delightful. It's a very comedic performance - not at all typical Oscar bait, certainly not in the year that A Man For All Seasons won Best Picture - so it's nice that the Academy could recognize how stellar it is.

The Odd Couple is easily one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had watching a movie. I love the sitcom a lot - I own the first two seasons on DVD, and I've been meaning to buy the others - so it was strange to see the film after all these years. And on the same set as the first season of the TV show, I think. (Does anyone know if that's accurate? It sure looked the same to me.) That said, the character Lemmon's playing isn't quite the same one Tony Randall played. He's newly divorced, so he's a lot sadder and more conflicted. Still, not bad if you like Neil Simon. I do, most of the time. And it's always nice to see the Pigeon Sisters!

In a strange way, the movie The Odd Couple reminded me of most was Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I have an enormous amount of affection for the TV show, and I viewed it as something of a not-quite-in-continuity origin story.

Billy Wilder's The Front Page from 1974 isn't as good as Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (based on the same play by Ben Hecht, but in a vacuum it's pretty terrific. It moves like lightning, the performances are all strong, and it has a wonderful period flavor. The update of the script mostly involved adding a lot of profanity, which was par for the course in 1974, I guess. I didn't think it was too distracting, in any case. My wife has never seen His Girl Friday, and she thought Front Page was "such a great movie," and I had to agree. I'd always dismissed it, but that was silly of me. It's definitely worth watching if you're a fan of either Hecht or Wilder.

Also, it features maybe the funniest epilogue text I've ever seen. Every single character's fate is revealed in a different, funny joke. And it has both Austin Pendleton and Charles Durning in it, five years before The Muppet Movie! You can't beat that!

Finally, the best word I can think of to describe Grumpy Old Men is "cute." It's probably the worst of these four, but I enjoyed it. It helped to watch it right after those others, because the age on Matthau & Lemmon's faces really jumped out at me. They're supposed to have a history going back decades, and I believed it more because I'd just watched them age 27 years in an afternoon. I've never seen any of the three movies they did together after this one, but I imagine that "It's Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau together! But they're old!" was probably fun exactly once.

A nice touch for us Northerners: Lemmon's character has a "Legalize Lutefisk" magnet on his fridge.

One thing I noticed that all four of those movies have in common - they're billed pretty much equally, but Jack Lemmon is always the actual lead. His characters drive the story and show actual growth, while Matthau is always the colorful support. Even The Odd Couple is the story of Felix learning to be okay with his divorce. Oscar's growth consists entirely of learning to be okay with picking cigarette butts up off the carpet.

I'm not complaining - that Matthau character would get awfully tiresome in a lead role, whereas he's used very well in all four of these movies - but it seems like no one ever really talks about that dynamic between the two of them, so I thought it was worth noting.