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.

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Last Picture Show: Saying goodbye to the drive-in


I knew I was close when I could smell the diesel fumes.

The prosaically named 88 Drive In is the last existing drive-in movie theater in the Denver metropolitan area. It sits at 88th and Rosemary Streets, northeast of the city, lodged in an industrial pocket called Irondale, part of Commerce City. Its distance from the hum of gentrification in the region spared it for decades from decease.

Now, at last, with the explosion of growth in the city, even condemned and inconveniently placed parcels of land are being sold, for ridiculous prices, to the highest bidder. And the Kochevar family, which owns the drive-in, finally felt it was justifiable to sell the land. It has become economically unfeasible for them to run the business, which would also require substantial capital improvements in the off-season.

Relics at the concession stand.

So they sold. By this time next year, the theater’s lot will be crowded with warehouses.

So, this is the end of the line for the 88, and I just had to go one last time.

Fun facts: the theater opened in 1971, and was distinctly unprofitable. Therefore, the next season it started to show X-rated movies. This did not go over well with the neighbors, and they had to build a fence on top of a nearby school so that students couldn’t clamber up at night and watch porno.

On February 11,1973, someone set off a bomb in the concession stand. The city and the neighbors crusaded against the theater. Finally, it was sold to another party and the X-rated films stopped. After a few changes of owners, Bill Holshue, who also managed my beloved Lake Shore Drive In in Edgewater, bought the place – his daughter Susan still runs the 88.

The screen -- fighting light pollution.

The Kochevars have run it since 1976, which is when I finally got my driver’s license and started going with gangs of friends or on dates. I have kissed many girls at the 88 over the years. (Note to my wife: OK, really not that many.) Back then, cars were a passport to freedom, and drive-ins were among the very few places where we teenagers could go and do what wanted, without dreaded parental or institutional supervision. God knows how many children were conceived there.

I chose to go on the night of a triple horror feature, the best possible way to say goodbye to the old place. These movies weren’t completely current – the evening started with the kid-frienddly animation Monster House (2006), then drifted into the Marvel misfire Morbius (2022), and concluding in cheesy greatness with The Nun II (2023).

The entrance was still somewhat obscure to locate, but soon I found myself at the cinderblock hut that held the ticket-taker. He gave me a handy snack-bar menu and list of rules and instructions. “Park by any blue-striped pole,” he informed me, and off I went.

Unfortunately, I can’t see that well at night and I’m color blind. The main body of the lot is row upon row of hummocked spaces, dotted by posts that used to hold the theater’s speakers (now, you run your car’s battery down listening to the movie on 93.7 FM). You pick at post, you park next to it. I finally gave up and stayed in the back, among the trucks and SUVs.

Now, the visuals of the 88 have always been somewhat compromised. The backdrop of the screen is the well-lighted facades of warehouses, which tends to wash out the image in front of it. If a scene is exceptionally dark, and since this was horror there was, it becomes incredibly difficult to track it. Ironically, this leaves the viewer riveted to the action in front of them, if only to keep track of what the hell was going on.

There is a major highway and rail route next to the theater, so the rumble of vehicles and the bray of horns routinely punctures the night. You get used to it. But you can see how the site is aesthetically challenged.

I cruised the concession stand one last time. (The long trough in the urinal was still there.) The family was grouped behind the counter, prepping food, making sales. I checked out the offerings, but since I pride myself on being cheap, I didn’t get anything. Then I broke down and got a commemorative T-shirt.

Having done my part to contribute to the welfare of the Kochevar family, I returned to my vehicle. Things were not going well onscreen. Monster House was surprisingly good, though definitely family fare. Morbius? He takes serum that cures his life-long physical disabilities, but also turns him into a vampire. Darn it.

I think that’s what it was. The action was getting darker and darker, and Jared Leto was bashing the hell out of Matt Smith (English, unnaturally large head, former Doctor Who). He kills him, I think. But his girlfriend gets killed, too. So he flies off all perturbed, surrounded by bats.

But oh! Dear Reader! The Nun II! Like The Nun (which I’ve not seen), only nunnier! It’s a classic B-movie, run-of-the-mill horror just the way you like it with jump scares and music that tips you off when to pay attention. It’s Saints versus Demons in a somewhat-scary showdown. This movie was made for the drive-in – simple enough to follow, blatantly entertaining, and easy to summarize for your parents so they won’t think you spent all your time there making out.

Demons defeated, the good restored to stability. I made it to the end. The full moon had arced long up into the sky. It was 1 a.m., time to go.