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Monday, October 30, 2023

Watch List for 10/30/2023


Watched: It Started in Naples, Screwball Squirrel, and The Reptile

IT STARTED IN NAPLES (1960) --- Clark Gable’s next to last. He crossed the Atlantic and began eating pasta as if it was just invented. Naples and the Island of Capri had been photographed before, used even as feature location, but never like this. No scene goes long without view of vistas, a natural of course for VistaVision. You’d think this was first occasion for VV, so emphasized was scenery (not since initial travelogues showing off the process had Paramount been so invested in sights for their own sake). Hotel conversations move out onto balconies to keep eyes on prize that is natural backdrop. This one comes close to making us hop a plane and see for ourselves, as how much could raw landscape change over sixty plus years? To pasta reference that led, here was indeed Gable’s downfall, for like Columbus in reverse, he discovered what bounty the old world served and couldn’t push heaping plates away. Payoff was getting home for look at completed It Started in Naples and realizing how tubby those treats made him. “Why didn’t you people tell me how fat I’d gotten?” he railed, but who would have interrupted their own bountiful meals for that? CG is the ugly, let’s say impatient, American abroad, basis of jokes at least for a first half before he ties with Sophia Loren, who seems not quite the King’s type, though she can wear heels beside him, not a privilege granted where Loren co-starred with Alan Ladd in Boy On a Dolphin. Story and dialogue pokes fun at foreigns in ways expected then --- we realize the war was fifteen years past and a new generation of provincials had come up since. Gable refers to having been there during conflicts but still watches his wallet and women of the street who might take advantage. He’s an old rooster set in ways, and if that is how you prefer him, OK, which a public must have, else there would have been no Teacher’s Pet and But Not for Me preceding this.

SCREWBALL SQUIRREL (1944) --- Good thing there is spell check, as I could not in a lifetime write "Squirrel" correctly. An HD bonus with The Thin Man Goes Home on Blu-Ray, I watched and was again impressed by Tex Avery’s jape at, in particular, Disney cuteness, plus barbs toward less inspired Metro easels. Did these folk realize Avery was ridiculing them, or was Screwball Squirrel just a good-natured rib? If so, it was with a stiletto, for how could cuddly bunnies survive assault like this? Title squirrel is abrasive beyond funny. We wish at moments for the hapless dog to capture and fry him. Daffy and Bugs had no meaningful competition here, yet SS was a bold invention, reprised a couple more times, but not to survive. Avery needed, very much wanted, a character or characters to protect turf at MGM, Hanna-Barbera walking proudly past him to collect what I assume were higher pay packets. And yet Tex's would be a better legacy, one imitated to present day, his viewpoint catnip for a counterculture. Did colleges host Tex Avery festivals in the sixties or seventies? He thought little enough of past work, figured himself played out in a culture he helped define, along with Clampett, Jones, some of others. To think Avery had to scramble just to do bug spray commercials, yet those were art as well, if in thirty second bites. Too bad we lost cartoons as sustainable product, money available during a Classic Era to make more as a mass audience wanted and waited for them. Such was moment in history gone for good. Even animated features seem imperiled. Has Pixar played out? Thanks to Warners for releasing the Averys on Blu-Ray. Seems most are out by now --- any stragglers left from the MGM group?

Here is a Drawing I Made of The Reptile After Seeing It at the Liberty in 1967

THE REPTILE (1967) --- Among “Cornwall” cycle of Hammer films, done economically and in pairs to save precious funds, the company as always on knife-edge of solvency. The Reptile was shot in 1965, played to US audiences over a year later, the Liberty getting it more like 1967 and a few weeks after intended co-feature Rasputin, The Mad Monk. Hammer differed from mainstream features of the time. Even imitators like Amicus out of England could not truly duplicate their singular brand. I saw recent where Merchant/Ivory used Hammer as visual model for their lush literary adaptations. Smart Boys. Cuts were made to Hammer output we did not know about at the time, even as monster magazines sort of hinted at highlights seen only in Japan or far-flung elsewhere. The Reptile is of a snake woman and her victims buried, then exhumed, repeatedly so, for no discernable reason other than to present us with varying views of decay. There was intelligence in these yarns almost despite themselves. I felt flattered that Hammer never played down to me. Behind-scene stills show sets little bigger than closets. What this company did with not a lot was remarkable. Fans turned scholar have made careers, written books by score, about this little UK engine that could, and did. The Reptile like others of Hammer was more mystery than monsters, a riddle to be unraveled and let poster-featured fiends stay in background until reveal is appropriate and necessary. In other words, Hammer practiced more restraint than they were given credit for, especially by compare with what would come soon after (Night of the Living Dead ... yecch). People of Hammer, both acting and producing/directing/doing design or make-up, were like family gathered for gardening or picnic, all upon shared mission to scare, but keeping us comfy during the doing. I like Hammer the more for each of endless repeats. Nostalgia factors in, plus fact they're plain well-made and eternally satisfying.


Blogger Rodney said...

There are still about half a dozen Avery's that haven't been released, and likely will not be due to blackface gags and that sort of thing.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I have attended two all-Tex Avery MGMs festivals--in years now long past--and peculiar thing was, neither of them worked nearly as well as similar evenings devoted to other cartoon directors, studios and characters. Sitting through a dozen or more Avery cartoons seemed to exhaust the audience in a way that a similar string of shorts devoted to, say, Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett didn't. Maybe it was the relentlessly high energy level the Avery's tended to maintain. Maybe it was the repetition of gags and situations, reworked again and again.

I do remember that both Avery-MGMs evenings stumbled by including one of Avery's stereotype-heavy shorts, "Uncle Tom's Cabana" in one and "Half-Pint Pygmy" in the other. I say "stumbled" in that both cartoons were met with a very self-concious, uncomfortable silence from the audience, and it took a couple of cartoons for things to get back up to speed. Maybe the presence of so many blackface gags in Avery cartoons is one of the reasons there haven't been more evenings devoted to his work. Certainly it's been a point of conention for Warner Archive, who, on one hand, have Avery fans demanding ALL of his cartoons, complete and uncut, but on the other, have to be aware of a marketplace that's much more sensitive to and less tolerant of such material than it used to be.

2:20 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

After Bugs Bunny, Avery's most enduring stars were the least Avery-ian. The deadpan Droopy evolved into cuteness, but from the get-go left his opponents to do the wild stuff. The sexy Red rarely did more than her musical numbers; the comedy was the horny wolf (sometimes pursued by a horny old lady). And cute li'l Chilly Willy was akin to the Roadrunner, his cartoons being mostly about the large, dumb animals trying to block his way.

Maybe that's WHY they fared a bit better than relentless Screwy Squirrel, or the funny but oddly generic Lenny and George. Equivalent to the romantic subplots afflicting the Marx Brothers and other comedians in features -- maybe that dilution of crazy was really necessary to contemporary audiences.

3:35 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The mind whirls at the thought of dozens of Screwy Squirrel cartoons on the order of Road Runners or Woody Woodpeckers! Oh, well. He may have worn out his welcome fast, but his handful of appearances are pretty hilarious - THE SCREWY TRUANT is, by far, my favorite. So much to love in the Avery output; WHO KILLED WHO which seems to star Fred Kelsey reincarnated as a bulldog, SYMPHONY IN SLANG that's literally a one joke affair, I mean, really literally and LUCKY DUCKY where the George and Junior prototypes are even more generic than what DBenson indicates, but the laughs are non-stop (including, alas, one black face gag that kept this one off the air.)

Saw that great Hammer double feature on first release and, no, our theater did not hand out Rasputin 'Weird Beards' to the patrons! At the time I really loved THE REPTILE but even my non-critical teenage eyes saw budget constraints in the Hammer depiction of the last days of imperial Russia (that was okay... I loved that one too!)

10:18 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

From his grating laugh to his disgusting nasal congestion and strident voice, Screwball Squirrel is the most obnoxious cartoon character ever. I love him for it.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I ran an all Avery program to an audience of a couple of hundred with not one out loud laugh. I thought the audience would be gutting themselves into hysteria. It was shocking. But when they walked out after everyone said, "Wow! Those were brilliant!" They loved them just not the way I thought they would.

As for Hammer, a little Michael Ripper goes a long way. Nonetheless, you are right, at their lowest they still beat the competition.

Been acquiring the Blu-rays (especially the European ones). Bought the latest HORROR OF DRACULA release with the footage from the Japanese version restored. An already great film goes through the roof.

Still, for me, while Lee is great Hammer's version is a fairy tale set in the past.Stoker set the story in what was then modern day England. The Universal 1931 version does the same. Bela gets those wonderful lines which he delivers wonderfully. Lugosi IS Dracula.This is entirely personal. I had read the book before I saw the 1931 film. Was really let down by it. Took me years to accept it on its own terms. Once I did that the film opened itself up to me. Browning's understated direction for me is perfect.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

There are a few MGM Tex Avery cartoons yet to hit Blu-ray including UNCLE TOM'S CABANA which probably won't make it. A 4th Tex Avery Blu-ray could be augmented with his Warner Brothers material.

7:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers NOT seeing Hammer output during his boyhood:

Somehow the Hammer horrors were not a part of my movie-going experience growing up. They never seemed to find a place on the programs of the local theathers in southern New Jersey, not in the regular showings, so far as I knew, and certainly not at the "kiddie matinees" I frequented. Was there some strange idea among the showmen of our area that the minds of adolescent boys would not be fascinated by "varying views of decay"? I'm sure that my perspective was no more enlightened than yours, if not as sophisticated and nuanced for the experiences you were provided. Instead, I had to be satisfied with the like of "The Time Machine," "War of the the Worlds," "Kronos," "When Worlds Collide," "The Blob," and "Twenty Million Miles to Earth," with a few Japanese men-in-rubber-monster-suit movies thrown into the mix for seasoning. Perhaps the deciding factor was the rental cost, between the current Hammer offerings and Hollywood features from several years before. So, there were no earnest school yard discussions with my chums about the relative merits of the Lugosi and Lee interpretations or whether the James Bernard scores had become somewhat repetitive. I do recall overhearing one boy talking about the previous evening's telecast of "Bride of Frankenstein," saying "I laughed my a__ off," the first time I had heard that expression, but suggesting that such discussions might not have been especially edifying.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"I laughed my a__ off." More than a few fail to see the humour is intentional not just with THE BRIDE but with mainstream films as well. James Whale told of seeing BRIDE in a diner where he as told to leave if he could not control his laughter.

9:32 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

A question for Dan Mercer; Was Hammer's 'Phantom of the Opera' shown in you area? I also never experienced Hammer horrors while growing up on sixties Long Island. I don't remember Hammers showing up in our local theaters with Phantom being the one exception (and I missed it). But I do remember that Phantom did play at the local theater which resulted in many schoolyard discussions, most probably the fate of the ratcatcher. No other Hammers were discussed as I recall. I used to wonder what were these movies I saw in the pages of Famous Monsters.

9:50 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer answers MikeD regarding Hammer's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA:

If Hammer's "The Phantom of the Opera" played at any nearby theaters in 1962, it quite eluded me. I didn't see it until years later, and then on television. Having done so, I was moved to write a letter to "Photon," that rather terrific fanzine published by Mark Frank, complaining about the movie's anachronistic over emphasis on the class struggle, as though we should have expected to see picketers depicted with signs emblazoned, "Lord Ambrose Unfair to Poorly Paid Musicians."

7:49 PM  

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