Jill Clayburgh in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978)

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By Scott Ross

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An Unmarried Woman, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, was a touchstone for me when it opened in 1978. I kept going back to see it, over and over throughout that spring, and bringing women friends with me. It was a foreign country, kids; they did things differently there. Like making mature, intelligent, sexy and truthful movies about human beings… and especially, about women.

Why Jill Clayburgh did not take home the Academy Award the next year for her fulsome, achingly honest performance I’ll never know. Which would I rather sit through? The earnest, phony pieties of Coming Home again, or the joy of An Unmarried Woman?

Baby, there’s no contest.

Goodspeed, Mr. Mazursky. Thanks for the laughs, and the love.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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By the Great Horn Spoon!: The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)

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By Scott Ross

Revisiting a movie one loved as a child is always a risky undertaking, especially when the object is a Disney movie — and particularly a Disney movie comedy of the slapstick-happy 1960s. Will it be unbearably coy? Unutterably bland? Unendurably silly? Will the very elements that captured one’s youthful, unformed, imagination now reek of cheap, easy immaturity? Or will a return visit reveal new facets, more resonant with adulthood?

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

The remarkable pulchritude of Roddy McDowall in 1967. He never looked better than he did from this period through the mid-1970s.

What a pleasure, then, to revisit The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin! From Ward Kimball’s minimalist, deliciously recherché opening titles to the hilarious climactic bout of fisticuffs, it proves that rare thing: A movie comedy whose tone and style never waver from beginning to end. And for those who, as I do, admire the great Roddy McDowall, the movie provides the additional unalloyed delight of enjoying him near the summit of his attractiveness and personal charm.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball's amusing visual effects.

The 1967 release poster captures the style of the narrative and of Ward Kimball’s amusing visual effects.

I encountered this, and another unusually fine ’60s release, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, which also more than holds up, on the weekly Disney showcase around 1970. It was my introduction to McDowall, who almost certainly pinged something resonant in my nascent, pre-pubescent queer-boy radar.

 

The movie edition paperback of "By the Great Horn Spoon!", re-titled to reflect the movie.

The movie edition paperback of “By the Great Horn Spoon!”, re-titled to reflect the movie.

Two or three years later I greatly enjoyed Sid Fleischman’s 1965 source novel, By the Great Horn Spoon! with its picaresque Wild West narrative and its charmingingly sketchy illustrations by Eric von Schmidt. What I remember best about the novel (in which Griffin is called Praiseworthy, and Arabella is Master Jack’s aunt rather than his older sister) is the perilous sea trip around Cape Horn, jettisoned from a film already plot-heavy without that lengthy but informative diversion.

The adult viewer of Bullwhip Griffin catches, and savors, the story’s fulsome portrait of the raw San Francisco of 1849, the dime-novel excesses that excite young Jack to head West and inspire him to ascribe outlandish attributes for his butler/companion, the effectively melodramatic George Bruns score, the recurrent narrative ballad by Robert and Richard Sherman whose charmingly anachronistic melodic provenance seems to be Paul Dresser’s “Over the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” and spotting the many splendid character actors who provide comic assist. These include Mike Mazurki as the dim-witted Mountain Ox, Harry Guardino as an amiable urban weasel, Liam Redmond’s blustering Captain Swain, Cecil Kellaway’s phlegmatic family retainer, Hermione Baddeley as a slyly house avaricious housekeeper, Joby Baker’s cheerful Mexican bandit, Arthur Malet as a nearly toothless recipient of frontier dentistry, John Qualen as a Frisco barber, Doodles Weaver as a bather in a fast sight-gag, Bert Mustin in an amusing bit as a lynching aficionado, and the peerless Richard Haydn as a florid stage actor, a character and a performer we wish had a larger role in the proceedings.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

The splendid Richard Haydn, abetted by McDowall and Bryan Russell.

Bryan Russell, playing young Master Jack, sounds more like a youth from Los Angeles than the scion of Boston nabobs, but he’s a likable presence. (For many years I misidentified him as Kurt’s brother, an understandable mistake given their similarity of facial characteristics, vocal timbre and boyhood appearances in Disney features.)

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

McDowall and Russell in their ubiquitous red dress-shirts.

Karl Malden, an actor for whom I have scant use, is cannily employed as the movie’s unstoppable villain, the exuberantly smarmy Judge Higgins. Far better at broad comedy than in his more “distinguished” forays into drama, Malden is most effective when chewing all available scenery, as in his riotously frustrated Archie Lee Meighan in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.

Karl Malden as the slippery Judge Higgins. The onlookers are appropriately dubious.

Although she’s peripheral to much of the movie’s action, Suzanne Pleshette is her usual delight as Jack’s sister. No shrinking Boston violet, this Arabella; she’s as amused as she is appalled by her profligate grandfather’s final joke of leaving her penniless, makes her confident way in San Francisco as a saloon chanteuse, and avidly spars with Griffin in preparation for his ultimate battle with Mazurki.

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The delectable Suzanne Pleshette greets her long-lost brother and her butler-cum-swain in San Francisco.

As Griffin, McDowall does everything he did well, plus. As imperturbable as Ruggles at his starchiest, tolerant of Jack’s boyish impulses, implacable in his sense of honor, unflappable in his determination yet game for whatever opportunities arise, McDowall’s Griffin is thoroughly engaging company. As an added fillip, the movie, smartly adapted by Lowell S. Hawley and stylishly directed by James Neilson, utilizes slapstick devices like under-cranking for sped-up effects and a series of delicious animated assists from Kimball. The best of these is the period Cupid who floats languidly across the screen to the accompaniment of an hilariously under-powered horn solo, whenever Pleshette bestows a kiss on McDowall.

Griffin's terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

Griffin’s terpsichorean display of fisticuffs astounds the Mountain Ox.

The mis-matched boxing championship with which the narrative culminates hinges on these comedic effects, and could easily have been sunk by them. Instead, they, like the inventive choreography of Alex Plasschaert, prove positive assets, done with the complete assurance and the broad smile of the consummate prankster. Far too many Disney comedies of the period, and after, and which utilize similar devices, wedded to cutsey-poo plotting and cartoon characterization, are broad, vulgar, fiascoes of the type that give “family comedy” such a black eye and which so fervently resist revisiting. The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, like The Love Bug and the originals of That Darn Cat and Freaky Friday, are the exceptions one wishes had more often proved the rule.

One of Peter Ellenshaw's superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

One of Peter Ellenshaw’s superb matte paintings, here evoking the 1840s port of San Francisco.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand in “Yentl”

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By Scott Ross

Barbra Streisand, examining the china on Amy Irving’s table (“A matched set/From France, yet”) in her own adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” A beautiful, visually rich evocation of early 20th century Polish-Jewish life, Yentl also boasted a splendid central performance by its writer-director. If a male actor had made this impressive a directorial debut, he would have been showered with praise and given an Oscar. Streisand got neither.

Yentl

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Ellen Greene in “Little Shop of Horrors”

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By Scott Ross

Ellen Greene as Audrey, the hapless salesgirl heroine of Little Shop of Horrors. As fulsome vocally as she was inspired comedically, hers is a musical movie performance to stand with the classics of the genre. Greene’s impassioned release on the “Suddenly Seymour” duet with Rick Moranis sends chills racing up my spine every time I think of it.

 Little Shop
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Kathy Bates and Judy Parfitt in “Dolores Claiborne”

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By Scott Ross

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The great Kathy Bates as Dolores Claiborne.

Although the movie is nowhere near as good as Stephen King’s literary thriller — that the filmmakers did not trust the material is evident in their making Dolores’ daughter, who barely appears in the novel, a central character  — their movie contains two superb performances. As the battered wife of an unrepentant drunk, Bates gave us the flip-side of King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery, as warm and conflicted as Annie was coldly psychotic.

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Judy Parfitt as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan. The central mystery of the story — did Dolores murder the bed-ridden, seemingly unreconstructed rich-bitch Vera, or merely help her only friend end her suffering? — is also central to the role, and the British Parfitt was stunningly good. Her iconic line, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to,” ultimately proves heartbreaking in context.

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Barbara Hershey in “The Stunt Man” and “Tin Men”

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By Scott Ross

Barbara Hershey (formerly Seagull) as Nina in The Stunt Man. Richard Rush, who directed and co-wrote the movie, called her “the dream girl.” She certainly was… even if her most pivotal scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Stunt Man

Hershey in Barry Levinson’s brilliant comic drama Tin Men. As the wife who discovers she’s been used as the ultimate prize in an escalating competition between her car dealer husband and a disgruntled aluminum siding salesman. This is from the lovely scene in the Baltimore rain, where she confronts Richard Dreyfuss with the truth and he, unable to say the words, “I love you” can only stammer, “I wanna… I wanna be with you.” Hershey is stunningly good.

Tin Men

Copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Bonnie Bedelia in “Presumed Innocent”

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By Scott Ross

Every few years, from the late 1960s (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Loves and Other Strangers) through the late 1980s (Die Hard), Bonnie Bedelia seemed eternally poised on the brink of stardom. Why it never happened is one of those mysteries understood perhaps only by casting directors, studio heads and the Hollywood gods.

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As Harrison Ford’s seemingly placid wife in the problematic but effective Presumed Innocent, she had a great monologue sequence at the end that turned into one of the most startling, and emotionally plangent, surprise endings in recent movie memory.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross