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What to Do on a Date (1951)
Dating is tough. It's tougher when you're dumb.
Nick's in a situation most of us have experienced: he's got a crush on a cute girl but he's too nervous to do anything about it. A little push never hurt in a situation like this, and Nick's friend Jeff is there to goad him into asking Kay out. Before Nick realizes it, he and Kay are off to help set up the local scavenger sale at the community center.
During Nick and Kay's Big Night Out, the helpful narrator gives advice on the types of dates young couples might find enjoyable and appropriate. It seems this community center keeps a running list of activities that Nick realizes would be good date fodder, and how he failed to know about it before is anyone's guess.
There was no community center list of activities when I was dating. I was on the hook to come up with my own events, so I was less interested in the advice this short had to offer than I was in the way they presented it.
Most fascinating is Nick, our leading man and the audience's surrogate on this journey. With his dopey speech and general childlike demeanor, Nick seems to exist in a perpetual state of bewilderment. He probably tested just over the intelligence threshold for public education. I suspect Jeff promised Nick's mother back in first grade to take Nick under his wing and keep him out of trouble. That would explain Jeff's condescendingly paternal attitude toward Nick, a position of power he seems to enjoy. Rather than taking comfort in this association like Steinbeck's Lenny, however, Nick senses he's being patronized and pushes back. Their whole "friendship" seethes with passive- aggressive animosity.
Nick also evinces neediness in virtually every situation. Once the date with Kay is scheduled, Nick begins badgering Jeff with questions about the scavenger sale. He asks Kay several times if she is having a good time, if she's glad she went out with him, etc. I was no ladies' man in my single days, but even I knew that bugging your date for constant affirmation is a good way to inspire her to end the night early.
Nick pushes hard for that second date, despite the fact that Kay really doesn't seem to be much of a catch. She puts the kibosh on the movie he invites her to because she's already seen it. When she gets called away at the scavenger sale, she goes! No "Sorry, I'm with Nick, who invited me here," she just leaves him there with a hammer dangling in his hand. You can hear the "Where did I lose control?" in his voice as she disappears into the kitchen.
I suppose teenagers in the early 50's might have been inspired by this flick to think outside the box when planning a date. I hope it didn't give them the idea to stumble around like someone only dimly aware of his surroundings, constantly at the mercy of others.
I've only ever seen the MST3k version and it's wonderful, but I think even standing alone, "What To Do On a Date" has entertainment value that far outstrips its intended purpose.
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1956)
Requiem for a Honeymoon
Writing music for a television show ought to be a glamorous profession but it seems the songmeisters of yesterday's TV variety shows lived in modest houses with outdated furnishings and crappy appliances. Jeff is one such unlucky composer, but he's in a good mood. He and his wife, Mary, are about to set off on a long-delayed honeymoon. That is, until the phone rings. It seems the diva slated to appear on the show wants a new song and wants it now. No honeymoon until new song is in the can! What's a young musician to do? In the face of this bad news, Jeff is up to smoking the better part of a carton of cigarettes but not much more. Luckily, Jeff's flamboyant guardian angel is loitering on the roof with a bag of nose candy, and Mary's got a fixation with telephones...
Phones, and their place in the interior design of the 50's, are about as close as this short comes to having a point. While Jeff struggles with his new assignment, Mary wanders about the house, wishing for updates to her decor. Every upgrade includes a new phone, although I suspect a phone in the bathroom would be a little weird.
This short is good, if pointless, fun. The songs are catchy, and Mary is quite fetching when she's done up in her evening wear. There's no reason given for why Jeff and Mary went a whole year with no honeymoon. However, given that one of the lines in Mary's wishing song is, "I wish that refrigerator door would close and stay closed," maybe they were waiting for a time when neither of them was down with salmonella.
The MST3k gang give Once Upon a Honeymoon a good working over. This was the short that taught me never to drink water while watching MST3k.
The Days of Our Years (1955)
contrivances in the name of safety
This is one of two train safety films produced by Union Pacific (the other being Last Clear Chance). Ostensibly a primer on the finer points of safety while working on the railroad, it is really more of a subtle propaganda piece. If you suffer an accident as a Union Pacific employee, you are the same kind of idiot as the characters in this short. Further, since the narration is provided by a reverend from the First Church of Union Pacific, your accidents are also evidence of your moral failings.
To drive these points home, we're shown three accidents:
Accident #1: Joe Provides His Own Dead Man's Curve
Joe is in love with Helen. He works as an electrician; she slings hash at the local diner. Come 5 pm, some dark urge overtakes Joe, and his desire to be with Helen overwhelms every other thought, even his own instinct for self-preservation. He drives so recklessly trying to reach her that he ends up rolling his pickup truck right over his spinal column.
My questions start where the reverend's narration ends: Why was Joe driving like a maniac trying to reach a girl who isn't going anywhere? Does he drive like this at the end of every shift? If so, why haven't the guys riding in the back of his truck tactfully threatened to kill him if he doesn't knock it off? If not, why is he doing it today of all days? I'm convinced nothing more than Joe's own lack of impulse control is what did him in.
Accident #2: Dead Man Without a Switch
George and Fred, longtime railroad men, are looking forward to their twilight years. Alas, one day, George's diet of whole milk, fried chicken, and Twinkies catches up with him and he suffers a massive heart attack while guiding a locomotive engine. Alone at the controls, he is unable to keep the engine from smashing into the boxcar on which Fred is standing. Fred tumbles to a gruesome demise on the tracks below, possibly beneath the very steel wheels that propel George's twitching body into early retirement.
George now spends his days sulking in a chair. Faced with the choice of losing some weight and getting some exercise, or waiting for that second heart attack to come finish him off, he seems to have opted for the latter.
Of all the accidents presented, this is the one that actually seems somewhat likely. As such, it is also the one that really tests the reverend's assertion that Union Pacific does everything in its power to prevent accidents. There is no dead man's switch in the locomotive, and there is no one there to take the controls once George keels over. Fred is on top of that boxcar with no safety harness. There's gotta be a lawsuit in there somewhere.
Accident #3: Never Light a Cigar with a Welding Torch
Charlie is about to be a new father. As was done in those days, he drops his wife off at the hospital to handle the breathing and pushing and screaming while he goes to work in the machine shop, cigars in hand. The blessed moment arrives and Charlie immediately makes the rounds of his co-workers, including the welder. Excitement trumps common sense as Charlie barrels into his fire-wielding friend, taking (and taking and taking...) a torch to the face and suffering a case of eyeball brulee that leaves him blind.
Seriously, you want to talk workplace safety? Talk about cost- cutting that leads to faulty equipment and unsafe conditions. Talk about workers who take sloppy shortcuts because they're doing something they've done a million times already. Trying to enjoy your life probably won't turn you into a blithering idiot on the job.
Watch this in its original form and you'll feel condescended to; watch the MST3k version and you'll have a blast.
Out of This World (1954)
Dreyer. Bergman. MST3k.
This short is based on a morality play written by a German baker-turned-soldier, Klaus Erlichmann, who was captured by the French during the Battle of Verdun in the First World War. He wrote it in POW camp to thank God for sparing his life, and upon his release at war's end, the play enjoyed wide popularity in the avant garde theaters of Weimar Germany. Unfortunately, it was targeted by the Nazis in the 1930's during their push to eradicate "degenerate" art, and the only surviving copy was smuggled out of Germany hidden inside, appropriately enough, a loaf of bread. It found its way to the United States just as the war broke out and was revived for the stage by Bertolt Brecht in the early 1940's. A representative of DuPont Chemicals was in the audience one evening and, struck by the complex interplay of light and dark, bought the rights to make the film. This is the result.
A devil, Red, and an angel, Whitey, battle for the soul of Bill, a bread deliveryman. Whitey is confident that Bill will walk the straight and narrow, so much so that she dares try to tempt him away herself. Red is never far off, watching as Bill endures Whitey's assault on his work ethic, waiting to welcome him into bad deliveryman Hell. In the end, Bill emerges triumphant, explaining how a good bread deliveryman does his job and why he will never do otherwise. Light banishes Dark. Hope is restored. Bread is delivered.
The movie resonated throughout the world of international cinema immediately. Only a year after the film's premier, Carl Theodor Dreyer unveiled his own meditation on the dichotomy of faith, "Ordet". Ingmar Bergman cited "Out of This World" as a heavy influence on 1963's "Winter Light" in an interview with an obscure Latvian film magazine. And finally, its immortality was ensured when it was picked up by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew for some hilarious ribbing.
Mr. B Natural (1957)
tween angst sells instruments
Gloryosky, this is a weird film. We've got creepy kid Buzz desiring to fit in with the hep cats in his junior high school. His moping about conjures up the androgynous Mr. B Natural, channeling Peter Pan both in outfit design and by having a woman portray a man a la Mary Martin. Mr. B turns Buzz on to playing a musical instrument as a way out of his social rut, chirping and squealing her dialogue like a tour guide on a massive dose of uppers. And all this is meant to sell Conn musical instruments. Yep, this is another one of those films where the commercial premise comes slathered with a sticky layer of "story", and we take a quick detour through the process of creating a musical instrument the Conn way. So Buzz gets his trumpet, blows through the 10,000 hours it's supposed to take to get good at something (no pun intended), and starts laying down honey- sweet tones while still in jr. high.
The real issue I have with "Mr. B Natural" is that it completely undercuts its own premise. Buzz doesn't have a problem that can be solved by a musical instrument. The hip kids are perfectly willing to have Buzz along with them the way he is. The tipping point of the film is when Jeanie, the one Mr. B identifies as the cutest girl in school, personally invites Buzz to come dancing with her and her friends. She even presses the issue a little when he demurs. The fact that Buzz not only turns down her invitation but also waves off his mother to go be alone in his room tells me his real problem is cataclysmic social withdrawal. We're lucky he's only visited by a musical pixie and not by a shadowy figure that tells him to murder his parents and then move on to his classmates.
Anyway, I'm like Homer Simpson in that when I don't like a movie, I make up my own. My cut of "Mr. B Natural" goes like this:
Jeanie, the cutest girl in school, invites Buzz to come to her house and dance with her friends. He accepts, turns on the ol' John Travolta, she invites him back next weekend, and so on, until he's part of the gang. Buzz and Jeanie cut a rug at all the school dances over the years and even go to the senior prom together. They get married after graduation and Buzz starts a prosperous construction company. 25 years later, he gets the contract to demolish their old middle school and build a new one. The night before the project is set to start, he and Jeanie take a last walk through the old halls, stopping at the bank of lockers where it all began. Jeanie says, "Do you ever wish you'd taken up a musical instrument when you were a kid?" Replies Buzz, "I never really thought about it. I had plenty going on back then." They kiss. The end.
This short was extremely low-hanging fruit for MST3k. It's one of their classic outings.
Uncle Jim's Dairy Farm (1960)
down on the farm
It's funny how some entities back in the day took the roundabout approach to swaying public opinion. This short is sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the underlying point of it seems to be that milk and other dairy products come from a clean, wholesome environment and should be consumed without reservation. To convey that message, however, we get to sit through the saga of George and Betty's Summer on the Farm.
George and Betty, city kids whose parents apparently REALLY need a break from them, exchange a summer of the usual activities (parks, libraries, movies, endless TV) for a vacation at hard labor fantasy camp in the form of Uncle Jim's dairy farm. George and Betty may have the kind of boundless energy that only farming can burn out of them, or maybe Mom and Dad need some marriage rehab. Anyway, we're headed for the provinces to roll around in hay, good food, and cute baby animals.
I'm sure there's some merit in living close to the land and developing a good work ethic. I didn't grow up on a farm so I have no idea how close to reality this short is. The other reviews here have been enlightening. We never do see Uncle Jim mucking out a stall or calving or butchering one of his cows after it gets hit by a train. We can only speculate if the song "Country Comfort" by Elton John sent George into a violent rage the first time he heard it while on R & R in Saigon.
Watch this one for the MST3k riffing, which is hilarious, and spend a few minutes imagining what George and Betty's parents did while the kids were away for three months.
Is This Love? (1957)
Love is a burning thing, marriage not so much
You know what the old-timers say: Marry in haste, repent at leisure. This short film is the celluloid embodiment of the sampler that hung in your grandmother's living room.
Half the focus of this short is on Peg, the impetuous, thin-skinned young lady with an overwhelming desire to marry Joe, the football player she's known a whole semester. Peg suffers from a raging case of "only child syndrome", demanding the world see things her way or she's going to get ugly. I suspect she would have done better if she'd had siblings, but considering her parents' advanced age, she was probably a late arrival to the family and the doctor advised against having more. She's spoiled but conflicted over it; while she wants what she wants when she wants it, she also lashes out at her father for thinking he can buy his way out of any situation. It's possible that Peg and the girl whose father bought her a house in the movie "Psycho" grew up in the same neighborhood.
Red flags abound in the Peg-Joe relationship: Peg tells Joe the story of how she defied her parents when they wouldn't let her go to a dance. If he was even half-listening, he'd know this is a girl who doesn't like to hear "no" from anyone, and that's going to include him too. Likewise, Joe shows no interest in meeting Peg's parents, despite the fact that they're in town because of him and they're going to be his in-laws. Running off to marry a girl after blowing off her folks is going to make for some icy silences around the dinner table next Thanksgiving.
On the other side of the coin, we have Liz and Andy, the couple who are taking it slow, getting to know each other (and presumably their future in-laws as well). They talk, they argue, they play tennis, they keep a respectable distance between them when they dance, Liz hectors Andy about his homework, all the hallmarks of a good relationship. The movie comes down pretty solidly on their side.
While there is something to be said for starting warm and growing hot as opposed to starting hot and growing cold, this movie really sets up a straw man target in Peg and Joe. It seems the desire to jump the gun on marriage comes from basic selfishness and hormones rather than love, whereas the measured approach of maturity will keep you from making the wrong decision. I say maturity because, as other reviewers have pointed out, the actress playing Liz is way too old to be portraying a college student. Unless, of course, she has gone back to school after getting a divorce and Andy is going to be her second marriage. Maybe she learned the lesson of this short the hard way. Maybe she's living in the dorms as the house mother. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.
Anyway, everyone jumps on the matrimony pony in their own way. Whether you move fast or slow, do it with your eyes wide open and don't worry too much about what Liz, Andy, Peg, and Joe have to tell you. Unless you're watching the MST3k version. You can learn a lot from that one.
Body Care and Grooming (1947)
Kurt Vonnegut is supposed to have suggested to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys that even people who work hard to make a bad movie deserve some respect. As much as I love MST3k, I'm inclined to agree...except in the case of the industrial/educational shorts from the 40's and 50's. Centron, Jam Handy and Union Pacific can bust a gut putting out the best product they're capable of, but when their aim is to educate rather than entertain, they risk veering into the insultingly pedantic. This where you feel someone really needed to push back, and MST3k is up for the job.
Hygiene films are the worst. Most of the other shorts MST3k has skewered deal with topics that, for all their ridiculous presentation, give a fairly benign and inoffensive take on an issue: "Cheating" (it's bad), "Last Clear Chance" and "Days of Our Years" (don't muck about with safety or you'll get killed), "Mr. B Natural" (playing a musical instrument is enriching), "Chicken of Tomorrow" (eat 'em), and so on. However, shorts like "Body Care and Grooming" (and its kiddie version, "Keeping Neat and Clean") make the very plain statement that your personal and social worth are inextricably tied to the degree to which you keep to a certain ideal.
In this short, we're taught the importance of showering, washing hands, keeping our clothing nice, and many other things that really don't need to be explained in a developed society. What they're really saying is that not doing these things will prevent you from being happy, productive, and acceptable. I suspect it was exactly this point of view that led to the development of scruffy, unwashed counterculture types a generation later. The filmmakers must have anticipated just such a movement and, in their efforts to stave it off, ended up fulfilling their own prophecy.
The Saratov Approach (2013)
one of the better LDS movies
I think the problem with reviewing an LDS movie is that the people most moved to comment tend to fall into two camps: people who don't like Mormons or Mormonism and therefore would never say anything good about anything featuring either, and Mormons who speak from the other end of the spectrum and defend everything LDS to the hilt. I am LDS so take my comments as you will.
I am not too keen on Mormon cinema, though, and only watched "The Saratov Approach" reluctantly. I have to say, the joy of low expectations is that they are sometimes exceeded, and that was the case here.
This is the true story of two Mormon missionaries in Russia who are kidnapped and held for ransom. Throughout their ordeal, they attempt to make the best of the situation while coming to terms with the possibility that they might be killed. We also see the agony their families go through, and how all the resulting diplomatic effort and posturing eventually leads to the fact that no one is going to pay the ransom.
There might have been a bit more tension had this not been based on a true story. If you're familiar with the actual case (let me google that for you!), you know how the movie is going to end. That makes it less of a thriller and more of a study that leads you to ask how you would respond in a similar situation. It made me think of the French film "Of Gods and Men", another true story which tells of monks in Algeria who are threatened by Muslim extremists and the choices they make in response.
Corbin Allred and Maclain Nelson may seem a little old to be playing 20-year-olds, but that's nothing new in filmmaking. Have you watched "Grease" lately? They do a great job conveying initial terror and the gradual change that comes over them the longer they spend with their captors.
For those who take exception to the supposed preachiness of this movie, you have to remember that it's telling the story of two men who were kidnapped while serving their church full-time. Of course there will be a strong element of spirituality, expressions of faith, and mention of beliefs. All of this may resonate more with the initiated, but it rings true to the characters and where they were at that point in their lives.
Finally, a word to the filmmakers, in case they ever film again: USE A TRIPOD! I understand that the hand-held camera effect adds to the cinema verite and also creates an atmosphere of unease, but there's no reason why an establishing shot of a house has to shake so much! I'm so glad I didn't see this in the theater or I'd have puked in my lap. It was tough enough on my TV. Others have mentioned "The Blair Witch Project", which I did see in the theaters, and I was sick as a dog afterward. So watch "The Saratov Approach" but watch it on a laptop or something.
Middle of the Night (1959)
flawed love story
I first caught this movie on Antenna TV one morning, and I was immediately struck by its moody atmosphere. I was also curious about the female lead (yes, I admit I didn't know who Kim Novak was at the time). She looked a little like Vera Miles, which is always nice, but I didn't think it was her. Plus, the presence of Martin Balsam got me interested because he did some great stuff in that era. Because I was working from home, I couldn't watch the whole movie, but I popped in a few times and caught random moments: Betty tries to break it off with Jerry, Betty freaks out at Jerry in the car, Jerry meets Betty's mother. It was intriguing, this love story. I had to know more.
I eventually tracked down the title and found out it was a Delbert Mann/Paddy Chayefsky joint like "Marty". That got my hopes up; "Marty" was a great film that I'd related with very strongly. So I got myself a copy of "Middle of the Night" and watched it through.
Well, you know the problem with high expectations; they're hard to meet, and that's what happened with "Middle of the Night". My assumption, despite the stormy snippets I saw, was that at least these two people genuinely wanted to be together, the same as it was in "Marty". I mean, it's a romance, right? You expect certain things of certain genres. They're together because they truly love each other, right? After watching the whole thing, I was left with the opposite impression. Jerry wants Betty because of what she does for him; she makes him feel young again, and makes him feel like a stud without the tawdriness of running around with the "tootsies" his friend Lockman is always bragging about. Betty I never felt like she really wanted to be with Jerry. Like I said before, she tries to break it off with him, and she's not bowing to peer pressure or anyone's disapproval. That comes later. She's simply not interested in him. Watch how he responds to it a few minutes later and you'll see why nothing in the film rings true for me after that point.
Chayefsky seems to be exploring the same themes he did in "Marty": lonely people who find fulfillment in each other despite the objections of their group. However, Betty's not so much lonely as she is emotionally haywire, and Jerry's loneliness is based on his ego. The point of the movie seems to be, grab whatever happiness you can, no matter how flawed, because it's better than nothing. Those flaws don't just go away, though, and the story after the movie ends is where I flash on heavy weather ahead for Jerry and Betty. For me, it turned out to be a pretty unsatisfying love story.
P.S. Martin Balsam didn't disappoint, though. He plays Jerry's son- in-law, a mellow guy whose wife takes him for granted until he finally gets fed up. His big blow-out with her made the movie for me.