Monday, December 5, 2016

Arthur Hailey was a British RAF officer who emigrated to Canada after WWII. He became a writer, specializing in aviation stories -- his 1956 CBC-TV play Flight Into Danger became the 1957 Hollywood film Zero Hour, which would later be the basis for Airplane.

In the early 1960s Hailey took an extended stay at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, then owned by the colorful Seymour Weiss, former barber and Huey Long crony. This stay would result in Hailey's bestselling novel Hotel.

Hailey did not use the story of Weiss (son of immigrants, born in the Central Louisiana town of Bunkie). Instead he invented Warren Trent, from an old New Orleans family, to be the owner of the St. Gregory Hotel. His assistant manager, Peter McDermott, is a transplant to the city from the Northeast. Together they attempt to fight off a takeover bid by hotel magnate Curtis O'Keefe (based on Conrad Hilton).

Hailey's contribution to the old Grand Hotel formula was to pay as much attention to the details of running the hotel as the characters and their melodramas. Thus we get page after page describing the routines of washing silverware, disposing of garbage, preparing meals in the hotel restaurant, etc... This stuff is as much a Life magazine article as it is fiction, but it is admittedly interesting.

McDermott, not Trent, is the main character, and we follow the story mostly through his eyes. Other characters include Christine, Trent's secretary (another non-Orleanian, from Wisconsin); Aloysius Royce, Trent's black surrogate son he is putting through law school; the Duke and Duchess of Croydon, a seemingly perfect diplomat and his wife, who turn out to be less than perfect (a nod by Hailey to the fallen nobility of the old Grand Hotel school); Keycase Milne, a burglar working the hotel; Herbie Chandler, a sleazy bell captain; Ogilvie, an equally sleazy house detective; the rather too on-the-nose named Dodo, O'Keefe's mistress; and Marsha Prescott, a local debutante who falls for McDermott.

This sort of story seemed to be falling out of favor with Hollywood, but nevertheless Warner Brothers bought the right and produced a film version.

The old-fashioned, even archaic vibe starts with the credits, which consist of a pan up a drawing of the hotel, an illustration that looks like it was taken from a 1950s magazine ad.

Screenwriter Wendell Mayes (Anatomy Of A Murder, Advise And Consent) wrote and produced, making some interesting changes. The characters of McDermott and Royce have been merged. The film McDermott is now Trent's surrogate son, and a New Orleanian. This gives a sense of bonding and attachment, both to the hotel/city and to Trent, that wasn't present in the novel.

The character of Marsha Prescott was eliminated, while Christine and Dodo were combined into Jeanne, O'Keefe's secretary who has an affair with McDermott. Also, Peter McDermott is already the General Manager, having started at the hotel as a bellhop when he was a teenager.

Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor) greets Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak) upon her arrival at the St. Gregory.

Rod Taylor is solid as McDermott, while as for the performance of Catherine Spaak, let's just say she is very beautiful.

St. Gregory owner Warren Trent is played by Melvyn Douglas, in many ways repeating his Hud characterization as an old-school individualist unable to adapt to the modern American way of doing business. 

Melvyn Douglas

His nemesis is Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy), a Conrad Hiltonish mogul who ostentatiously prays for divine intervention in his business deals and often walks around barechested and slapping himself on his belly, in the manner of General Buck Turgidson.

Kevin McCarthy

These peccadilloes of O'Keefe (taken from Hilton) seem out of place. especially the praying, which doesn't come across as sincere enough to be lampooned. In fact the casting of McCarthy itself doesn't really work. The role demanded a much more aggressive, over-the-top type.

The part of O'Keefe was first offered to Karl Malden, who turned it down to play the burglar Keycase Milne, a role with little dialogue.  This section of the film was apparently intended as light relief, though it isn't funny at all.

The Duke and Duchess from the novel show up, here renamed Lanbourne and played by the underused Michal Rennie with stonefaced Merle Oberon as the Duchess -- you know an actress has thespian limitations when she is outacted by her jewelry. The Duke and Duchess are blackmailed (over the Duke's hit and run DWI) by sleazy house detective Richard Conte -- here renamed Dupere (pointing up a curious fact about the novel, the lack of French surnames -- the hotel owner is named Trent, and even the debutante, dropped from the film, is named Prescott).

The whole Duke & Duchess subplot is pretty boring, as is Keycase Milne's burglary adventures. This leaves the takeover plot, involving not only O'Keefe and his mistress Jeanne but a Jimmy Hoffa-ish union boss and a section depicting an attempt to desegregate the hotel (the clerk refusing to register a black couple is played by Roy Roberts, who 20 years earlier had refused to register Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement -- was this casting intentional? In GA Roberts was a straight heavy, but here the situation is softened by making his handling of the situation almost comically inept). In the novel this section involves a black dentist at a convention being denied a room, and is unplanned; in the film, the incident is orchestrated by O'Keefe to publicly embarrass the hotel and scare off its financing.

Another of O'Keefe's ploys is using Jeanne to romance McDermott.

McDermott and Jeanne at Pat O'Brien's restaurant, one of the very few scenes shot in New Orleans.

McDermott takes Jeanne to his awe-inspiring French Quarter apartment.

That apartment reminds us mention must be made of art director Carey Odell and set director George James Hopkins, who also gave us the St. Gregory lobby.

Eventually there's a deus ex machina plot device involving an elevator crash at the hotel, giving director Richard Quine the chance to shoot some Vertigo-inspired shots.

The fate of The St. Gregory is resolved when Trent "defeats" O'Keefe and sells out to a conglomerate tat will tear down the hotel and put up a parking lot -- a strange "happy ending" even for the '60s, and perhaps Mayes' oddest alteration of all. In the novel the hotel is actually saved, deus ex mach-style, by a benefactor who wants to repay the hotel for treating him well during his time as a guest.

Hotel must have seemed old fashioned even when it was first released. Even Hailey's next and biggest success. Airport, would emphasize not royal couples and four star hotels, but the workers of an airline company. Just how out of date Hotel was would be shown by another Warners release a few months later. Bonnie & Clyde. Jack Warner had sold the sudio earlier, to Seven Arts, who a couple of years later would sell to Kinney, a company that made its money in parking lots.

If you want to read more about Hotel, check out my favorite movie blog,  John McElwee's always fascinating and superbly illustrated Greenbriar Picture Shows . Even the comments there are interesting; see Dan Mercer's perceptive analysis of why Rod Taylor never became a bigger star.


If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Who" Done It

From the New York Post:
‘Who’s on First?’ copyright suit tossed again on appeal
A federal appeals court Tuesday called out a lower-court judge for tossing a copyright infringement lawsuit over the 80-year-old sketch “Who’s On First?” — but upheld the dismissal anyway.  
A three-judge panel from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said Manhattan federal court Judge George Daniels erred in throwing out the lawsuit brought by the kin of Abbott & Costello, who claimed they owned the copyright to the famous comedy routine. Last year, they sued the producers of dark comedy play “Hand to God” for allegedly illegally using the rapid-fire sketch in Act 1 – but Daniels said the reproduction constituted fair use.  
In a 62-page ruling, the appeals judges disagreed with Daniels but nonetheless dismissed the suit in finding that the heirs of William “Bud” Abbott and Lou Costello didn’t prove they had a valid copyright over the work.  
Jonathan Reichman, an attorney for the Abbott and Costello families, said the judges’ decision came “out of left field” and plans to ask them to reconsider. “We’re obviously gratified that the court agreed with us on the fair use issue,” said Jonathan Reichman, an attorney for Abbott and Costello’s family. “But we were surprised and disappointed with their decision in respect to the copyright ownership and status because it was not the focus of our appeal.” 
“Hand to God” depicted an awkward Texas teen and his foul-mouthed, alter-ego sock puppet. It ended its Broadway run last January and had been nominated for numerous Tony Awards. About 15 minutes into the play, the main character Jason uses his puppet named “Tyrone” to impress a date by reenacting “Who’s on First?”  
Producers argued that the sketch fell into public domain.
Abbott & Costello first performed the silly famous routine — a humorous exchange about baseball players named “Who,” “What” and “I Don’t Know” — on the radio in 1938.
That 1938 date is actually the first time Abbott and Costello performed the routine on  radio (on The Kate Smith Show, to be precise). The pair had begun doing it in burlesque and vaudeville shortly after teaming up in 1936.

Wikipedia cites several predecsessors for the sketch:
"Who's on First?" is descended from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches that used plays on words and names. Examples are "The Baker Scene" (the shop is located on Watt Street) and "Who Dyed" (the owner is named "Who"). In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: "What is next to Which." "What is the name of the town next to Which?" "Yes." In English music halls (England's equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye. By the early 1930s, a "Baseball Routine" had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States. Abbott's wife recalled him performing the routine with another comedian before teaming with Costello
Bud Abbott himself admitted it was based on a previous routine called "Who's The Boss". A performance of "Who's The Boss", from a 1946 episode of the radio series It Pays To Be Ignorant, can be heard at this page.

After their national exposure on The Kate Smith Show, Abbott and Costello's rise was swift, thanks in part to "Who's On First". Within two years they were in the movies, doing an edited version of their most famous routine in the Universal musical A Night In The Tropics. In 1945 they did the complete version as the stars of The Naughty Nineties:

Around this time they also did the routine for this newsreel intended for WWII military personnel. I include this (colorized) version because it features the uncensored punch line:

By the '70s "Who's On First" was so famous it was reworked by the L.A. radio team The Credibility Gap (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and David L. Lander), using the names of rock groups instead of ballplayers. The last line is an amusing tip of the hat to the previous sketch.

This version was in turn reworked by SCTV (forgive the awful  picture quality):

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Go West

The western is America's myth, America's
drama, what opera is for the Italians or
kabuki/noh for the Japanese. It's the
framework for our national narrative.

I missed the golden age of the western
(roughly the '50s through the early '60s) as
I wasn't born yet. But I tried to make up for
that accident of timing later. In the '80s Pat Robertson's CBN channel would show old western TV shows on weekend afternoons. That's how I discovered classics like Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bat Masterson, The Virginian, Alias Smith & Jones, etc...

At the height of the form's popularity in 1959, one quarter of all prime time TV programs were westerns. Of course the great majority of this output was no better than workmanlike filler, but occasionally the TV sausage factories would turn out something extra special, worthy of comparison to the best western films. Here are a few of my favorite western episodes (in no particular order):

The Westerner - "Line Camp"

The Westerner was a short-lived TV series that aired in the fall of 1960. It starred Brian Keith as itinerant cowboy Dave Blassingame, who drifted around the West accompanied only by his loyal dog Brown (played by Spike, who had previously essayed the title role of Ole Yeller).

Created and produced by Sam (The Wild Bunch, Ride The High Country) Peckinpah (who had earlier created The Rifleman, but was screwed out of the credit), The Westerner presented a protagonist who was far from the typical Knight of the Sagebrush.

This episode was written and directed by Tom Gries. It memorably shows the gritty, mundane, unglamorous world of the cowhand.

Some of you western fans may recognize the story. Gries later expanded it into a feature script and directed it as the classic Will Penny.

Bonanza -- "The Crucible"

After being robbed in the desert, Adam stumbles onto the isolated camp of a seemingly chivalrous prospector named Peter Kane, who offers him a mule and supplies for three days work. However, Kane is in fact a demented madman who imprisons Adam and starts a dangerous game of psychological cat and mouse...

I'm not the world's biggest Bonanza fan -- it had too much soap opera, and Michael Landon gets on my nerves. This is probably my favorite episode (supposedly Pernell Roberts' favorite as well), with an intriguing premise and the great Lee Marvin at his Lee Marvinest.

The Big Valley, which imitated Bonanza in so many ways, did a similar episode entitled "Journey Into Violence":

Heath is kidnapped by a religious sect who accuse him of murdering one of their members. Acting as their own judge and jury, they convict Heath and he is sentenced to a life of slavery to atone for his crime.

A premise reminiscent of "The Crucible", but this episode emphasizes romance -- a girl from the cult (as it happens, the widow of the man he killed) falls in love with Heath and tries to help him. She's played by Quentin Dean (yes, that's her name -- she's best remembered from the Oscar-winning In The Heat Of The Night).

Daniel Boone - "Nightmare"

On the trail returning home to Boonesborough, the Boone family is attacked by renegade Shawnees. When Daniel is captured, his young son Israel must somehow rescue him.

One of the best episodes of the series, an action-filled classic that is basically one long chase. Direction credited to veteran George Marshall (The Blue Dahlia, Destry Rides Again).

An intriguing, seldom-discussed aspect of the early TV westerns is how some used their B&W photography to create a kind of noir ambience.  

The half hour Gunsmoke certainly did this in many night scenes of Dodge City, and The Rifleman became iconic for its nighttime showdowns, kettledrum booming on the soundtrack, between Lucas McCain and the heavy of the week.

Perhaps the noirest western of all was Rawhide, which was also notable in that it emphasized supernatural aspects far more than any other TV western. A number of episodes such as "Incident of the Executioner" and "Incident of the Blue Fire" deal with the drovers facing strange phenomena on the trail that they cannot explain.

Rawhide - "Incident of The Prophecy"

This is an especially eerie episode where a preacher puts a curse on the drovers for killing his brother. The great guest stars are Dan Duryea as the vengeful preacher and the inimitable Warren Oates as a jittery object of the curse.

That's just a few of my favorite western TV episodes (if you're wondering why I chose these, it's because they're the ones available on YouTube). I hope in future blog entries we can explore the subject further.

 If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Selected Shorts

By the early 1920s sound film was coming ever closer to fruition. Lee DeForest, whose audion tube made commercial radio possible, was producing sound shorts with major names of the theatre, opera, and vaudeville worlds.

An early example features Eddie Cantor, who by this time had worked his way from vaudeville child actor and Ziegfeld comedian to star of his own Broadway vehicles like Kid Boots.


Cantor's energetic likability is clear even today, and the short is pleasant enough. His material however is not terribly strong, and he comes off best when singing comic songs, like the one about preferring dumb girls because they make better lovers. Cantor actually made a silent feature (Kid Boots, with Clara Bow yet) but his appeal owed too much to his voice (he was a major recording artist of the era). He wouldn't make a significant impact in films until the talkie Whoopee in 1930.

By the later 20s Warner Brothers release of The Jazz Singer proved talking pictures commercially viable. Along with sound features Warners also made talkie shorts through their Vitaphone subsidiary, In addition to the usual operatic sopranos and tenors, these Vitaphone shorts included some very intriguing vaudeville acts.

Conlin and Glass were a married couple who'd been in vaudeville for years:

In 1928 Vitaphone filmed their stage routine "Morning, Noon, and Night" as Sharps and Flats. Here are two brief excerpts:

Miss Glass doesn't really add much to the comic proceedings, her role being to irritate Mr. Conlin and allow him various fits of annoyance.

She also comes close to ruining the later scenes by laughing at Conlin's shenanigans (when will people learn laughter is not funny?).

Conlin still manages to amuse while playing the piano or fighting against a curtain that seems to hate him -- one of some surrealistic touches that give this a cinematic quality miles ahead of the Cantor short.

Jimmy Conlin would go on to a long career as a movie character actor (he's even in Anatomy of a Murder). He's best remembered as a member of Preston Sturges' stock company -- he's the con who laughs at Mickey Mouse beside Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels.

Another Vitaphone short from 1928 features the veteran vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee.

While there were a few unorthodox touches in Conlin and Glass' film, their act itself was pretty straightforward -- straightwoman and eccentric comedian. But Shaw and Lee's act is quite unconventional, even downright odd:

Shaw and Lee - The Beau Brummels

They barely move for most of the footage and when they do move it is quite mechanical, like automatons. They seldom change facial expressions and speak mostly in monotone, occasionally even speaking in unison. Their material is mostly a non-sequitur style known at the time as "nut humor".

Many of their jokes are just okay, but they are made funny by the deadpan delivery and the duo's pod-people, Stepford Wife eyes.

Although a classic routine, this proved a dead end for the team. How can you have a film career out of being so unanimated? I've seen a later Shaw and Lee film appearance from the 1940s, and in that they predictably behave in an anarchic Stooges and Costello manner.

One more short for lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. James Sibley Watson was a physician and wealthy patron of the arts who co-edited the avant-garde literary magazine The Dial. He also worked in film, making an expressionistic adaptation of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher that attracted some attention. But his next film was an oddity that makes The Beau Brummels seem positively mundane. Tomatos Another Day (1930) is a spoof of early talkies and their staticly expository style.

Although you could make a case it's distantly related to the Beau Brummels (sort of a parody of vaudeville teams, the way Rodney Dangerfield was a parody of Borscht Belt comics) it reminds me of Groucho Marx's lampoon of Strange Interlude in Animal Crackers. The difference is while that monologue had non-sequiturs and puns and other styles of humor, there's one joke here: the over-descriptive dialogue of early talkies. A guy leaves the room, and the girl says, "He's gone". Then after a long pause: "I am alone".

Allegedly Tomatos Another Day was shown once at a Boston theater to extremely negative reaction and never shown again. Watson himself deemed it a total failure. I can kind of understand it not going over well at the time -- audiences had abandoned silent film for dialogue, no matter how inept, and didn't want to see their preferences insulted. It plays better today, and can actually be seen as part of the parody sub-genre, along with such films as Buster Keaton's The Frozen North, Blazing Saddles, and Airplane.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.