Sunday, November 26, 2023

The NFR Project: W.C. Fields in 'So's Your Old Man' (1926)

 So’s Your Old Man

Dir: Gregory La Cava

Scr: Howard Emmett Rogers, Tom J. Geraghty, J. Clarkson Miller, Julian Johnson

Pho: George Webber

Ed: George Block, Julian Johnson

Premiere: Oct. 26, 1926

67 min.

W.C. Fields is remembered today as the ultimate flim-flam man, the sly and cynical popper of pretension and dysfunction around him. However, the comedian had one other personality that he displayed in his films – that of the put-upon everyman.

This character is on display, front and center, in this film early in his career. Fields was already a respected juggler and comic artist on stage, but he longed to be in the movies as well. This, his first feature film, gives us the first hints of traits that would define Fields – his fondness for alcohol and his allergy to regular work.

Poor small-towner Sam Bisbee is a would-be inventor who is generally despised by his community for having little couth. His family, too, fails to respect him. He does invent shatter-proof automobile glass, but due to a car mix-up, he loses the chance to impress a bunch of automobile manufacturers. He ponders suicide on his way home, but rejects it . . . then he runs across a beautiful young woman who he suspects wants to end her life as well. She doesn’t, but his kindness makes her want to help him. Being a princess, she uses her influence to make Sam a respected citizen and family man again.

Naturally, Sam doesn’t believe the woman’s royal status, and he looks on her efforts to rehabilitate as part of a bigger scam. That he goes along willingly with the apparent deception speaks to his contempt for the shallow and judgmental society that has kept him down up to that point. Bisbee is happy to put one over on the town. He gets a happy ending, deserved or not.

Shoehorned into the film is the long golfing sketch that Fields had already perfected on stage. As such, it is a valuable documentation of his routine. His battle with recalcitrant objects is a textbook display of the art of slow-boil comedy.

All in all, an excellent initial outinggreat for the comedy . (Fun fact: the famous Roaring 20’s illustrator John Held Jr. did the title illustrations.) The premise was successful; so much so that the film was remade with Fields for sound as You’re Telling Me! In 1934.

 The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Son of the Sheik.

Monday, October 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Mighty Like a Moose' (1926)

Mighty Like a Moose

Dir: Leo McCarey

Scr: Charley Chase, H.M. Walker

Pho: Len Powers

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: July 18, 1926

23 min.

Charley Chase never got his due, until now. The enterprising writer, director, and producer of and performer in comic movies never achieved the critical estimation that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd did. He did not sport an eccentric persona – in all his films he is a regular guy, caught up in humorous yet everyday dilemmas. He never graduated to feature films, save as a featured player. He never indulged in slapstick – his humor is that of character and situation.

Yet his humor is as crisp and clear and vital as ever. Mired in the everyday, it still translates well to the benefit of our modern sensibilities. Recently, his films have been collected and released in various packages, and a biography was written about him as well. Slowly, people are getting to know Charley Chase.

Born Charles Parrott, Chase started out in film in 1912, playing bit parts and juvenile leads for Christie, Keystone, and L-KO Kompany, gradually moving behind the camera as a writer and director. In 1920, he began working for the Hal Roach comedy studio. Soon, he was its director-general. After Harold Lloyd left the studio in 1923, he decided to step back in front of the camera again, in the persona of Charley Chase.

Mighty Like a Moose is a fine example of Chase’s work. (The title is a play on the title of the then-popular song, Mighty Lak’ a Rose, a problematic bit of American culture itself due to it being written in a stereotypical and supposed African-American dialect.) The short takes up with a married couple, the Mooses, the husband of which (Charley) has a clinical case of overbite, and a wife with a ship’s prow of a nose. Each secretly gets corrective surgery to surprise the other. Unfortunately, they run into each other immediately after the operations and don’t recognize each other – and they begin to flirt.

Complications ensue. Enlisting expert timing, the two prepare separately for their illicit date at their home, narrowly missing seeing each other, in an intricate comic dance. They go to a party together; the wife is quickly danced away with, so the husband is left to encounter (with a sly, slow pan to the right) a grotesque-looking woman who only knows how to dance the polka. We see their awkward dance three times . . . the third time shot just legs and feet, a witty and remarkable shorthand that the audience can easily understand and participate in, filling out the rest of the image with their imaginations.

The film ends, slightly improbably, with Mr. Moose testing his wife’s fidelity by alternating between the roles of husband and would-be lover, finally staging a drag-out fight for his wife’s benefit. The action is fast and inventive, and ends with a knock-down punch administered by Mrs. Moose.

The film is also a fine example of the early work of director Leo McCarey, who would go on to win three Oscars. McCarey credited Charley Chase as his mentor, stating that “whatever success I have had or may have, I owe to his help because he taught me all I know.” McCarey is noted for his creation of the team of Laurel and Hardy, and he also directed such comedic personalities as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Mae West. In the sound era, he crafted such classics as the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, Going My Way, and An Affair to Remember. Even this early, his style peeks out – the economy of motion, the clear underlining of character, and that unteachable comic skill, timing.

As for Chase, he continued to make comic shorts, into the Sound Era. In 1936, he stopped making his own films, moved to Columbia, and started supervising the short-subject comic output of that studio (yes, he directed the Three Stooges as well. Unfortunately, Chase was a depressive and a severe alcoholic. His heavy drinking led to his premature death in 1940, at the age of only 46.

It took six decades for his work to be reconsidered by the critical community, and now he is perceived properly – as one of the primary craftsmen of American comedy.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: So’s Your Old Man.





Sunday, October 8, 2023

'She Came to Me': A movie for grown-ups

 She Came to Me

Dir: Rebecca Miller

Scr: Rebecca Miller yeah

Pho: Sam Levy

Ed: Sabine Hoffman

102 min.

These days, films are all too easily shoved into slots of genre, their edges beveled down smoothly. The formulaic blockbusters of today resemble nothing so much as well-oiled machines, without quirk or reflection. This is not a new development: there have always been less than challenging films out there, films designed by large crews of people to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Then there are the independent films. Films not adapted from another medium. Films made because they are works that can only be made as a film. Such a one is the rare treat from writer and director Rebecca Miller, She Came to Me. It’s a lovely throwback to the Silver Age of American cinema (1967-1977), when studios took chances on idiosyncratic, personal movies, without gimmicks, bells, or whistles, that actually found interested viewers.

It is doubtful this film will make a lot of money. It wasn’t advertised at all, as far as I can tell. Somehow Miller wielded some clout to get this made, and I’m glad she did. She has created a lively yet understated comic universe filled with interesting characters that travel through a completely unpredictable plot. In other words, a STORY. What a concept!

She attracted top-notch talent to the project. Peter Dinklage stands at the center of the film, in the hilarious role of a hang-dog opera composer who’s got a creative block. He is married to his former therapist (Anne Hathaway, who really gets a fun character to work with), and he miserably gets through each day with her therapeutic assistance.

Cajoled into taking a walk by his wife, the composer stops in a bar and runs into a female tugboat captain with attachment issues (Marissa Tomei, also great). What follows has little logic on the outside, but the film’s emotional logic is impeccable, as everyone caroms off each other, sending each other into entirely unfamiliar new trajectories.

There are no heroes or villains in the piece (OK, maybe Brian D’Arcy as a controlling husband and stepfather is the boogeyman the piece needs to propel its plot). There are no overwhelming moments of action-packed adventure, no fist-pumping affirmations. It’s simply an amusing and involving tale of real people in complex situations, and as such is a completely enjoyable experience.

I challenge you. If you can really digest grown-up fare, watch this movie. It will reward you deeply, not least through the fact that it proves that movies like this can still be made, and still can find appreciative audiences.