Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cagney Day

It's August, which means it's time again for TCM's Summer Under the Stars. To celebrate, Jill at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film are hosting a blogathon. This is my contribution for James Cagney Day (Tuesday, August 14).

As I mentioned up there in italics, it's James Cagney Day on TCM. But this isn't the Cagney Day I want to discuss. Instead, I want to talk about the original Cagney Day (at least in my heart) - Saturday, July 26, 2003, two months after I graduated from high school.

During high school, Cagney had become one of my favorite actors. I'd never seen a performer who could mix intensity and exuberance, joy and wrath like he could. I watched films like The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Yankee Doodle Dandy repeatedly, and I discovered new facets of his charisma with every viewing.

Over the course of that summer, I videotaped six Cagney movies from TCM - all of them new to me - and I decided that I would watch them all in a single day. I dubbed the occasion Cagney Day, and I couldn't wait to sit around alone in my room like a dork. The six movies in question spanned thirty years (and, incidentally, three of them aired on TCM today):

Smart Money (1931), which isn't really a Cagney movie at all. It's Edward G. Robinson's show all the way, with Cagney cast as a lowly henchmen, but it was still a fine start to the day.

Footlight Parade (1933), one of Cagney's many delightful pairings with Joan Blondell, the closest thing to a female James Cagney that has ever existed.

The Roaring Twenties (1939), a movie that's kind of like Angels with Dirty Faces, but isn't as quite as good. Still a lot of fun though. I later rewatched it during my Prohibition-themed 21st-birthday party.

White Heat (1949), one of the most satisfying movie-watching experiences a person can have.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a Ruth Etting biopic where Cagney plays Marty "The Gimp" Snyder, a small-time gangster who's essentially the natural end point of the cocky, charming criminals he played in The Roaring Twenties and so many other 1930s movies. If those guys hadn't died, they'd have grown up to be just as sleazy, horrible, and pathetic as Snyder.

One, Two, Three (1961), Billy Wilder's fast-as-lightning comedy about Communism and Coca-Cola. Cagney didn't make a movie for twenty years after this one, and brother, what a way to say good night!

Like I mentioned, I hadn't seen any of those movies before Cagney Day, and there isn't a stinker in the bunch. Additionally, they offer a nice variety of genres. Four of them are mob movies, sure, but one of those is secretly a musical biopic, and the other two are hilarious comedies. Executed properly, Cagney Day would have been an amazing education in the career of one of our finest actors.

But Cagney Day was not executed properly. Not properly at all!

For the first four-and-a-half movies, everything went exactly as planned. I thrilled to Chester Kent's effortless dancing. I cried at Eddie Bartlett's untimely end. I swooned over Cody Jarrett's love for his mother. But then, halfway through Love Me or Leave Me, tragedy struck -

My mom decided it was time for me to go buy a car.

To be fair to her, we had looked at the car (a $1200 Ford Taurus in an off-putting forest green) a few day earlier, but still, can you believe the nerve of her? A CAR! On Cagney Day! What kind of 18-year-old boy wants to go buy a car when he could watch James Cagney emotionally manipulate Doris Day instead?!

Not this one, that's for sure!

Well, I watched the rest of Love Me or Leave Me and all of One, Two, Three the next day, but it just wasn't the same.

Thanks a whole lot, MOM!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Rains is Regent!

It's August, which means it's time again for TCM's Summer Under the Stars. To celebrate, Jill at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film are hosting a blogathon. I'm honored to make this contribution for Claude Rains Day (Sunday, August 5).

The first time I ever saw Claude Rains must have been in his final movie, George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It's one of my grandmother's all-time favorite movies, and she insisted on watching it every year at Easter. That film has more cameos than The Muppet Movie, but as a child I didn't recognize very many of them. (Exceptions: John Wayne because everyone knows John Wayne, Angela Lansbury and Charlton Heston also thanks to my grandma, and Telly Savalas because of, well, The Muppet Movie.)

I certainly didn't know Claude Rains, but his King Herod left a huge impression on me. He appears at the very beginning of the movie, and his bizarre, fey intensity was like nothing I'd ever seen. In church I'd been taught that King Herod hated Jesus, but Rains seems more like he welcomes the challenge. He plays the role with a constant half-smile plastered on his face, as though he's excited that there's some baby out there will someday stand up to him - after all these years, he has an upstart to destroy, and he can't even wait to do it.

What I didn't realize at the time was that Herod was essentially a reprise of a character Rains had played twenty-seven years earlier in a much better film - Prince John in William Keighley and Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Like Herod, John is a petulant little man who craves power. He sees hero as a threat to his power and decides to devote all of his resources to killing that hero. And Rains plays them in a very similar manner.

In all of classic film, Prince John is the closest thing we have to the more recent tradition of Classy Actors Slumming It In Comic Book Movies. I don't mean that as insult; quite the opposite. It's not necessarily Rains's best work - and it sure isn't very subtle - but he seems to be having the time of his life.

And Rains is tremendous fun for the viewer as well. Prince John doesn't actually do very much in the movie. Mostly he just instructs his minions to do things for him. But the way Rains plays him, that never gets old for him. He's on a constant, delighted power trip, and every order is like his first.

Throughout the film, Rains displays Prince John's joy in a number of sublime moments - grinning haughtily at the archery contest, eagerly ordering his men to bring Robin Hood something to eat when Robin invades the throne, gleefully telling the arrested Robin Hood that Sir Guy's treatment of him will be "Something special, I'm sure!"

Perhaps my favorite moment of his occurs about fifteen minutes into the movie, when he explains that he's seized regency power away from his brother's appointed steward, a fellow named Longchamps. "I've kicked Longchamps out!," he exclaims. Rains's voice jumps up about a half-octave on the verb 'kicked' - Prince John's been living in his brother's shadow all of his life, and now that he's finally in power he can barely contain his excitement.

Claude Rains had tremendous range - befuddled father Adam Lemp in Four Daughters couldn't be farther removed from the unsettling Dr. Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man - but many of his best roles were charming, cultured rogues. That's true of Louis Renault in Casablanca, it's true of Alex Sebastian in Notorious, and it's certainly true of Prince John in his own mind. He isn't charming at all, of course, but you can always tell that he so badly wants to be.

Animated Short of the Day: "She and Her Cat" (Makoto Shinkai, 1999)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

I'm pleased to announce the first-ever guest writer here at Zeppo Marxism. Today's short was suggested by Noel Kirkpatrick. Noel is a very active TV writer who has co-founded two terrific websites - Monsters of Television and This Was Television. He was also one of the very first friends I ever made on Twitter, and you can follow him here.

Since Noel knows far more about this film (and about anime in general) than I do, I asked him to share some thoughts on "She and Her Cat." Even though I once failed him by abandoning Cowboy Bebop after eight episodes, he graciously agreed.  I just watched the cartoon for the first time yesterday, so I'll offer my reactions following his comments.


She and Her Cat is Makoto Shinkai’s first film, a brief short about, well, a woman and her male cat, Chobi. The story is told entirely from Chobi’s perspective and traces a brief portion of his life with the nameless She (and a brief dalliance with an eager young kitten named Mimi).

The short, sold by Shinkai at cons and through the mail in 1999, is...gently animated, more a series of still lifes edited together than anything else. While this may strike some as crude or even typical of anime and its use of limited animation techniques, it fits the film’s perspective from that of a cat, for whom days blend together save for changes in the season, and fits the film’s elegiac tone.

The stillness of She and Her Cat helps convey the routineness and smallness of She’s life in her tiny apartment, with Chobi being the one bright spot (consider that we rarely see She outside compared to Chobi exploring during the summer) in her world by the end after a disastrous but unknown phone call (“This world, I think we like it.”)

She and Her Cat sets the tone for Shinkai’s future films, Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Shinkai is obsessed with the struggle to maintain, re-establish, or move past lost connections (he loves phones of all types), and we see the kernels of that theme here in She and Her Cat.

You likely haven’t heard of Makoto Shinkai, and that’s perfectly okay. Unlike Hayao Miyazaki or even Satoshi Kon, Shinkai hasn’t broken through into the American cinematic scene, be it at your megaplex or your local arthouse (if you even have one). But I hope you enjoy this short from one of anime’s upcoming talents and voices.

Thanks, Noel!

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of an anime fan in general, by which I mostly mean that I don't have much interest in anything outside of Studio Ghibli. It's a bias that I'm trying to overcome, and watching films like this lovely little gem will help me achieve that goal.
Right away, I was intrigued by the calm, measured quality of the narrator's voice (performed by Shinkai himself, if my online research can be trusted). Given the title and the brief running time, I should have assumed that it was the cat, but it didn't even occur to me. I gasped out loud at that reveal, and here's why: Shinkai's dialogue - and his delivery - very effectively portray the relationship between the two characters as a loving, adult partnership between equals. 

When it turns out that he's actually her pet, the reversal of expectations is made even more shocking by Chobi's abstract design. It's almost unthinkable that such complex thoughts could be contained in such a simple, crudely-rendered figure.

The details that Chobi notices about She are exquisitely drawn, revealing the extent to which his world revolves around her. In a way, those sequences reminded me of Pixar's Toy Story. She, like Andy, seems to have no idea that she's being worshipped by her housemate. But Chobi notices everything she does. Even when he's with Mimi, She is his entire world. And her heartbreak becomes his moment of greatest triumph when she turns to him for comfort. It's sad and realistic and peculiarly beautiful.

So Shinkai's other movies are a lot like this, huh? I should get on those.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "The Bear That Wasn't" (Chuck Jones, 1967)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

If you're reading a blog post about short cartoons, you almost certainly know who Chuck Jones is. He directed dozens of the funniest and most famous Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, not to mention a couple of very well-regarded Dr. Seuss adaptations.

It's also quite likely that you know who Frank Tashlin is. He too was an animation director at Warner Brothers, for two separate stints in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After he left he moved into live-action, where he had a long and successful career directing films starring the likes of Tony Randall, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope.
The two were co-workers at Warner Brothers for years, where they were both heading their own units. They both made a whole bunch of hilarious cartoons with Daffy Duck in them. But "The Bear That Wasn't" is the only time the two of them ever collaborated in the production of a film. It was made at MGM in 1967, twenty-three years after Tashlin left WB to begin his live-action career.

And it really was a true collaboration. The short is adapted from Tashlin's 1946 children's book of the same name, and it follows the book's story almost exactly. If a viewer didn't know better, he or she could easily mistake Paul Frees' narration for a segment from Reading Rainbow. This is a good thing, because it means that the cartoon retains the book's sharp satire of those who lets others to define their identity.

But the visual style is pure Jones - it hardly resembles the book. Jones's figures grew most distinct over the course of his career. By 1967, they had become instantly recognizable. One look at the bear and you know instantly that this is from the same man who, just the previous year, had reshaped Dr. Seuss's Grinch in his own image.

Jones is aided immensely by his frequent production designer Maurice Noble, whose backgrounds are so striking that he receives a co-director credit on the cartoon. I've always been especially impressed with the way that Noble makes the corporation settings seem just as vast as the outdoor ones. This really seems like a place where the bear could get lost and never escape.

The cartoon is also hilarious, albeit in a very different way from the fast-and-frantic cartoons the two gentlemen had made at WB. This is a very low-key, almost wistful cartoon, with most of the laughs coming from details (the image of a cigarette hanging out of the bear's mouth) or the repetition of the phrase "You are not a bear. You are a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat," which gets funnier to me every single time it's said. It's a far cry from "Duck Amuck" or "Porky Pig's Feat."

"The Bear That Wasn't" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, both of which are a lot prettier than this YouTube video.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Love's Labor Lost" (Vernon Stallings, 1920)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

Admission time: I've never quite understood the appeal of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which knowledgeable people often list among the greatest comic strips of all time. Oh, I respect it. I recognize that Herriman was a tremendous artist with a great talent for laying out an adventure across an entire page. And I appreciate how sexually ambiguous it was allowed to be, something that wouldn't have flown in newspaper strips just a couple of decades later.

But I don't actually enjoy it. In college, I read the entire 1946 hardcover collection (with introduction by E. E. Cummings!). It felt like homework, I didn't laugh, and it mostly just left me puzzled.

My initial explanation for why I didn't like it was that maybe the strip's unique dialect just hasn't aged well. Every strip has an awful lot of clipped words that need to be sounded out. But I love E. C. Segar's Popeye and Walt Kelly's Pogo, and none of the characters in those strips talk like any human being ever has or ever will. So I disregarded that theory.

I made peace with my dislike of the strip, deciding that I'm just a whippersnapper who can't appreciate great things from the days when cartoonists drew for a living instead of Xeroxing a bunch of talking heads. Whatever the reason, I always felt like I missed out on Krazy Kat, and that made me sad.

And then I saw "Love's Labor Lost," which has a gag where Ignatz Mouse hits Krazy over the head with a mandolin and then strolls away, playing and singing joyfully. I guess the dialogue might have been my problem after all, because this cartoon doesn't have any. And it's hilarious.

Actually, Krazy himself makes little more than a cameo in this cartoon. He has scenes totaling almost exactly one minute of the three-and-a-half minute running time, and the strip's other regular character, Ignatz's oppressor Offissa Pup, is nowhere to be found. The focus is on a completely different love triangle, with Ignatz and an elephant vying for a hippo's affections.

Perhaps the single most interesting element, for me, is the way it foreshadows a cartoon icon of the following decade. Popeye didn't make his comic strip debut until 1929 - or his first film until 1933 - but the elephant's story here almost plays like a Popeye spoof. After drinking the entire barrel of "Beevo" (what a great name!), he gains super-strength and even flexes his forearms. Then he heads off to defeat the bully who stole his girl.

But, see, it's funny because the bully is a tiny mouse and he's a big giant elephant. And also, when he goes back to get his revenge, he straight-up kills Ignatz (or so it seems in the moment). I know that "Bully steals girl from little guy" wasn't invented for Popeye or even Charles Atlas, but it feels so specific here. Both of those elements play exactly like subversions of the Popeye formula.

And then Krazy's tears of sadness cause a flower to grow, and that flower sprouts Ignatz Mouse, and that mouse throws a brick at Krazy's head.

That's seriously so wonderful that it makes me want to go read three hundred pages of the Krazy Kat comic strip.