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Thursday, August 20, 2020

No Time To Push a Downer Button

Street Scene Ushers In a Realist Trend For Stage Drama

Yes, Bert ... But Is It Pleasant?

A Mature George M. Cohan Back on Broadway
George M. Cohan was walking in Central Park and encountered an actor friend, Bert Lytell. Bert was high on a new Broadway play, Street Scene, by Elmer Rice. Best thing he had seen in years, to which Cohan replied, “Yes, Bert, but is it pleasant?” Cohan said Lytell didn’t get his question. “I guess people don’t understand me anymore, and I don’t understand them,” figured George M. as the two parted. Street Scene was a “realist” drama, staged first in 1929 and staying for 601 performances on Broadway. Dealing in despair among NY tenement dwellers, it was pure opposite to everything Cohan stood for by way of entertainment. “It’s getting to be too much for me, kid,” this from a man but in his early fifties when Street Scene and plays like it wrote finis to the Broadway Cohan knew, had in many ways invented. What strikes me of his reverie is that word “pleasant” --- is it pleasant? --- because here is what I ask myself before any-all unspool at Greenbriar. Who needs unpleasant, especially in stress time? Harpo once, and perceptively, said, “If it isn’t comedy, I fall asleep.” Could that be what kept him the cheeriest of Marx Brothers?

Remember The Day On The Road
Toward quest for a pleasant theatre-going experience, George M. Cohan saw a play called Remember The Day in 1935. He had lately enjoyed late-career triumph in Ah, Wilderness!, and afterward a revival of beloved Seven Keys To Baldpate, which he first adapted and starred in back in 1913. Remember The Day was sentimental recall to that era when Cohan was a boy. Its lead character was a schoolteacher whose pupil has a crush on her and is desolated to realize she loves the athletic coach. Twentieth-Fox told the story in 1941, Americana as realized by director Henry King and starring Claudette Colbert. The play had not been an inordinate success, but what it had was something George M. Cohan responded intensely to, as evidenced by his attending over and over. Cohan wrote a glowing boost and encouraged the play producers to use it with their advertising. He wanted everyone to admire this “beacon in a darkening world.” Cohan "lived every word of it. It was my play.” He felt that scribes Philo Highley and Philip Dunning had written Remember The Day just for him. How often, if ever, are any of us so touched by a play or film we have seen? Men of a certain age can be moved where a story transports them back. Are women as susceptible? I’ve adored Remember The Day since syndicated day of the 70’s, even if I never had a teacher so belovable as Claudette Colbert’s “Miss Trinell.” The Happy Years, for its fond recall of prep school shortly after a century’s turn, was meaningful for many. A later generation had American Graffiti and Animal House to transport them back. I’d call anyone lucky who has even one film they could truly call their own, “made just for me.” Many are movies I can live in for their length, but sadly none (so far) upon which to lay such personal claim.

To Cohan’s resolve that entertainment be “pleasant,” in fact his insistence upon it as he grew older, I more and more concur. Where life is fraught, as for many it presently is, who wants to push a downer button where selecting a show? Criterion yesterday announced The Irishman for Blu-Ray. I admired The Irishman, got through its three and a half hours of gloom, but that was nine or so months ago, and things are very different now (talk about fond reminiscence --- there are twelve-year-olds who will look longingly back to carefree days of 2019). Toward preserve of mental health, I now graze among westerns, costume folderol, and careful-vetted noir. To that add melodrama against exotic setting. Over a last two weeks then … two with Joel McCrea … Notice how others around him act, while McCrea just is. Name a player who performs with more conviction, especially upon a horse. Four Faces West is him at a summit, a western where no shot is fired (noted for that), nor fist thrown. Really good, as is Cattle Drive, where brat kid Dean Stockwell learns manly arts from Joel and roughhewn drovers. High among therapists I recommend is Joel McCrea. And Randolph Scott. Then early Hoppys. I have wondered if youth that grew up on westerns had it more together than we do. Now I am satisfied … yes they did, and do.

Also came Arabian Nights and Son of Ali Baba. These are what the greatest generation had between cowboys. Both please for reasons beyond narrative or pace, for each has faces we like to see do things we expect of them. Tony Curtis is Ali-Ali Offspring and Piper Laurie is the slave girl actually a princess. Hopeful contractees sniff around borders. It occurs to me that Hugh O’Brian was almost always mean, because, let’s face it, he had a mean face. Hugh was lucky to ultimately be Wyatt Earp. Arabian Nights was Universal’s first feature in Technicolor and opening round on Maria Montez with Jon Hall. Turhan Bey is also here. There is something always welcome about Turhan Bey. Lana Turner thought so. Shemp Howard plays Sinbad as if in modern day, an inspiration. Uni got so casual about these slipper-with-bell shows that by the late 40’s, even the camels talked. Maybe those will be along soon if Kino does well with Arabian Nights. Double-featured several nights ago was Appointment In Honduras and Escape From Burma, both jungly and with snakes plus tigers that eat bad men. Glenn Ford several times points out “devil fish” that will strip good or bad men clean of flesh, and I wondered if these were the same as piranhas that fed on Karin Dor in You Only Live Twice ("Bon Appetit," says 007). Appointment In Honduras has a cast up to necks in fetid water. Wonder how many got part way through work so grubby to regret taking the job. I might have gone over a hill in the face of such ordeal. Jacques Tourneur directed Appointment In Honduras. I have not yet seen a bad picture by him. Well, not truly bad (even War Gods Of the Deep has adherents, if not many). I thought the other title was Escape From Burma, but it turns out to be Escape To Burma, which suggests people in this movie don’t know if they’re coming or going, and frankly, neither did I. But fun is in the getting there. Benedict Bogeaus produced Honduras and Burma. I suspect he and the casts went to neither place. Occasion where great actors like Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Glenn Ford, and Ann Sheridan really show their greatness is in stuff like these. They knew it too, and we should revere them for it. There is a DVD combo of Honduras/Burma from VCI. Such and others aforementioned will cure what ails you, being all for comfort and decidedly pleasant as I’m sure Yankee Doodle Cohan would agree.


Blogger DBenson said...

"Pleasant" movies are the ones I go back to when needing visual comfort food. Great movies are usually ones that demand your full attention and emotional engagement, and once is usually enough. It's beer instead of champagne, because beer goes with everything. If you're looking for something to watch with a pizza, you don't reach for art.

Take noir. Not a big fan, especially when it edges towards reality (the Maltese Falcon is a fanciful treasure, which gives the whole enterprise a different feel than if they were after a sack of cash. The stuff dreams are made of, indeed.). I like my assembly line whodunits, with less-than-desperate characters tangled not so much in sick and sordid crimes than in Rube Goldberg machines. By chance I watched "Michael Shayne, Private Detective" tonight. It's an outright comedy, with Shayne following every bad idea with a worse one until, somehow, the case is cracked. You know it's not going to turn ugly on you, so you laugh as he all but puts his own head in a noose. BBC detectives like Morse and Lewis are far more earnest and often grim, but ugly reality is usually cloaked by eccentric characters and ingenious puzzles. The beauty of "Knives Out" wasn't that it parodied the whodunit (although it delivers a houseful of comically awful suspects and a colorful detective) but pitched curveballs until you weren't even sure you wanted it solved. And then came more curveballs. Whodunits are in fact cold-blooded murders, in that the murder is often a good thing and the happy ending is nice people proved innocent.

Arabian Nights epics are great fun, because there's never a pretense at history. They're fairy tales with harem girls prettily scattered like throw pillows. Tortures are more outrageous than viscerally painful, oaths and curses are comically overblown, and the only problem is restoring the Rightful Sultan to the throne. This is also the plot of anything with a castle. Even Robin Hood hangs it up once rightful Richard replaces his usurper brother. Then there's that breed of western where Dodge City is as new and immaculate as Frontierland, saloon brawls are ballets of stuntwork and breakable furniture, and a cowpoke's one gaudy shirt always looks clean and untattered. And it's always about a guy trying to buy up land cheap before the railroad comes to town.

Soft-focus nostalgia, recreated from a safe distance, is usually sure fire pleasant. As a late-period boomer I have peers who go on about "how it used to be", when it fact they're remembering happy sitcom suburbs that, at best, represented one narrow slice of postwar America. Even one party whose suburban childhood was hellish and eagerly escaped now recalls the era as being "nice" for everybody. That distance is important. Compare the original "One Sunday Afternoon" with "Strawberry Blonde". The former is plain and dusty, and that's probably how it looked, and how middle-aged small-towners remembered it. The latter is crammed with gingerbread architecture and fancy costumes, rolling out "Old Timey" cliches the way modern 50s movies lard the soundtrack with Golden Oldies.

I suspect some films become pleasant once you know them. "The Apartment" might scare the first-time viewer with its cynicism and bitterness, but on revisiting you know there's a light -- honest and earned, no "it's a lie" wink -- at the end of the tunnel.

I was going somewhere with all this, and I forget where it was. Sorry.

4:57 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great points, Donald. I probably watch THE MALTESE FALCON more than any noir because it is, as you say, "a fanciful treasure," and the differences you point out between ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON and THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE are incisive. Maybe ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON being made closer to the period depicts has something to do with it, but as you point out, the "plain and dusty" look is far different from the "gingerbread" of ten years later.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Wow...lots to comment here.

I love Bogie's FALCON but enjoy the Cortez black bird just as much.

Just watched THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO, and Hugh O'Brien is not pleasant in this one but does see the light near film's climax.

I love watching Joel McCrea, but if pinned down, would say my favorite Joel is STARS IN MY CROWN.

During covid curtailment have re-enjoyed about 30 Hoppy features and half the TV episodes. Boyd works magic for me. I could watch a three movie of Boyd reading the dictionary and would be on cloud nine.

7:58 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

Fine, thoughtful post (and a great excuse to give Greenbriar attention to pix like ESCAPE TO BURMA and APPOINTMENT IN HONDURAS).

Wonderful musings by DBenson. Pal, wherever you were going, I gladly followed you all the way...

-- Griff

12:05 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

"Let's face it, he had a mean face." Lord love a duck, this is the sort of off-the-wall--yet spot on--comment I come to this site for.

Not only is there a b/w photo of an eight-year-old me in my COMPLETE Hoppy outfit, but I saw every episode I could as long as TV would show them.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

So much to unpack in this particular piece!

First: well written and fascinating as always. I find as I get older I avoid depressing contemporary "entertainment", but, with rare exceptions, have little problem with pre-1960 dramas, especially film noirs. Never liked stories about children in danger, though. ("Night of the Hunter" is brilliant, but once is enough for me.)

I guess Cohan likely didn't go for "Dead End" either. Grimy kids, poor families, criminals hanging around. Just saw the restored movie version on TCM. Joel Mcrae reminds me of Robert Montgomery -- they might not have a wide range, but I enjoy what they do. Really liked Montgomery in "Ride the Pink Horse."

I, too, enjoy the Cortez "Falcon". For some reason, I never think of the Bogart version as film noir. Too polished, perhaps?

7:16 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is one of the very few films that has had and continues to have me on the edge of my seat (as it does most everyone I share it with).

For the life of me I can not understand why Charles Laughton got so taken to task for it.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"It occurs to me that Hugh O’ Brian was almost always mean, because, let’s face it, he had a mean face. Hugh was lucky to ultimately be Wyatt Earp."

I grew up on Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp. For me he was PERFECT in capitals and underlined.

Seeing him as a heavy in THE SHOOTIST was a surprise. Boy, was he heavy.

2:04 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I actually laughed during THE IRISHMAN, when the truck was opened to reveal nothing inside it. I always love watching DeNiro's look of incipient madness, smudged as it was by the de-aging process. Most of us had Grandparents or Great-Grandparents who'd lived in urban slums. How ever did they hold on to become our Grandparents?

9:32 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Just a note on your “is it pleasant?” post.

Aside from the poetry of language (one of your best posts), the topic really hit a nerve with me.

I don’t think of myself as old (I’m only in my mid-50s), but I sure as hell have aged out of unpleasant.

These days, there are a whole slew of criteria that will keep me out of a theater. Violent? Check. Vulgar? Check. Hip-hop music? Check. Will I be preached at rather than entertained? CHECK!

I find that I appreciate the film I love more than ever – they are like revisiting old friends – and the ‘new friends’ I make all seem to hale from the same neighborhood.

Quick note on the Remember the Day Playbill ... is that Frankie Thomas as the boy?

4:14 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Speaking of McCrea and Stanwyck, I watched a minor western called Trooper Hook recently on Starz, no great shakes, but those two stars... they could read the Pony Express timetable to me.

12:06 AM  

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