By Scott Ross
Gaily, Gaily (1969) I first saw this one on television (if you remember when each of the three then-major networks ran theatrical movies on a weekly basis, you are officially old) and remember very little about it except that it was loud and sometimes frenetic, that the very young Beau Bridges was appealing, that Brian Keith was his usual splendid self, and that the production design evoking turn-of-the-century Chicago was impressive. Seeing the picture again I note that it is loud and frenetic, that Beau Bridges is appealing, that Brian Keith is… but need I go on? Sometimes, with movies, one’s adolescent memories offer a more reliable guide than might be supposed.
Considering the gifts of its director, Norman Jewison, and the richness of its nominal source material, there’s absolutely no excuse for Gaily, Gaily‘s being so ephemeral and insignificant. Ben Hecht’s 1962 book of reminiscence is so delightful, so fulsomely reconstructed, so alternately bittersweet and cynical, and so chock-full of possibilities for cinematic adaptation, that the movie’s eschewing nearly every one of them is utterly flabbergasting. The only anecdote Abram S. Ginnes used in his largely witless screenplay — the attempt by a hustling reporter (Keith, in the movie) to abet a quack doctor’s plan of resurrecting a hanged felon via a new miracle injection — is foolishly extended at the climax, in which the dead Bridges gets a shot of the stuff, vibrates wildly on the slab and returns to life. This vitiates the original anecdote, and the movie’s own joke payoff of it. To what end? And what are we to make, at the movie’s finish, of the series of shock-cuts by Jewison revealing the stage-lights and unfinished rafters of the elaborate main whorehouse set?* That it’s all a joke? That nothing is to be believed?
Even Hecht wasn’t that cynical.
Crack-Up (1946) As a filmmaker, Irving Reis was a great radio director. Crack-Up is a mildly diverting RKO mystery in which you are asked to believe Pat O’Brien as a lecturer on art and Herbert Marshall as a cop. Throughout, the effect of Citizen Kane‘s visual palette on lesser moviemakers is obvious (Orson Welles’ old Mercury stalwarts Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins even show up as two of the villains) but nearly every sequence and shot is over-extended, as if Reis was afraid the proverbial illiterate yokel in the back row wouldn’t be able to follow otherwise. The best things in the picture are a scene between O’Brien and an elderly, cantankerous train station agent (Guy Beach… I think) and a sequence set in a Times Square arcade similar to the one immortalized in The Bandwagon, which also has the virtue of one good punchline, spoken by Harry Monty. Marshall, who lost a leg after being shot in the knee by a sniper during World War I, is required to move, in full-shot, rather more often than seems entirely necessary and in a manner that borders on cruelty. The oddest thing about the movie is the way the otherwise effective Leigh Harline score was mixed, either by the RKO sound editors in 1946 — which seems unlikely — or by whoever prepared this one for home video release; every note is blared at you at double the volume, at least, of the dialogue. Why?
The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser’s glorious swashbuckler, cut in twain by its producers and wonderful in any format. The StudioCanal Blu-ray is so sumptuous it may make your mouth water.
Paper Moon (1973) A gorgeous evocation by Peter Bogdanovich of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the beautiful Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray, that looks even better today than it did 47 years ago. Paramount: Why is this essential 1970s American classic not available on Blu-ray?
Nickelodeon: Director’s Cut (Black and white) and Original Theatrical Version (1976) A stylish amalgam of two scripts that really didn’t mesh. It’s that, as well as the compromised casting, that keep that kept this entertaining and often delightful picture about the early days of American movies from potential greatness.
Monster in a Box (1992) As with Jonathan Demme in 1987 (and very much unlike that rank egotist Steven Soderbergh in 1996) the director Nick Broomfield respected his writer and star Spalding Gray, getting out of his way and letting his idiosyncratic style of presentation carry the day. Although perhaps inevitably none of the movies of his monologues after Swimming to Cambodia had the force and feel of originality that attended that landmark picture, Gray was such a genial, intelligent and almost gleefully neurotic figure that anything he had to say was worth hearing. Here he grapples, almost literally, with the expanding bulk of his first — alas, only — novel, Impossible Vacation while contemplating nirvana of a temporary sort (the Los Angeles sun); deliberate anguish visited, as it so often is, upon others by the United States government (the war in Nicaragua); the less lethal battle of writer and subject; and the elation that quickly turns to despair (Gray’s almost universally-reviled performance as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Our Town). And that Gray can eventually find as well as humor some small comfort in an unscheduled incident during the play’s wrenching final scene of projectile vomiting by the young actor playing Wally Webb (Shane Culkin, older brother of Macauley, if it matters) is somehow entirely unsurprising.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) A beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.
Texasville (1990) Peter Bogdanovich’s follow-up to his and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. It doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Jeff Bridges’ pet Queensland Blue in the story, it asks to be taken not for what it might be, but only as what it is.
Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City (1990)
George Hickenlooper’s rather strange documentary about the town that inspired Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and in which Peter Bogdanovich filmed it, and the making of the 1990 Texasville. Timothy Bottoms later claimed he reprised his role as Sonny in the sequel so he could produce this documentary, but aside from some unconvincing ruminations which seem to be undone by Cybill Shepherd’s spontaneous behavior toward him in front of Hickenlooper’s camera, I could detect little of the bitterness the actor supposedly nurtured toward everyone on Picture Show for their alleged nastiness and lack of professionalism. A couple of Archer City residents grouse, with an inarticulate vehemence that smacks of sheer phoniness, about the production company, but as the town is reaping the financial rewards of hosting a Hollywood crew, that too seems weirdly like a put-up job for the documentarians. The DVD was obviously taken from a video source rather than the original film, and its ugliness as an artifact is mitigated only by the self-effacing charm of Bogdanovich and isolated moments such as those of McMurtry’s mother humorously telling tales on herself.
The Legend of Hell House (1973) Perhaps the most genuinely unnerving spook-story of its era. It still packs a wallop.
*A mansion, by the way, whose lush appointments were more likely to be seen in the residence of a Rockefeller than in the digs occupied by a clutch of Second City whores.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross