18 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Not My Favourite Sturges Movie
13 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I am a big fan of Preston Sturges and the movies with which he was involved as writer and preferably also as director. In particular, the eight movies that he directed from his own scripts between 1940-44 are all great, and four of these have the touch of brilliance.

I'm sure that all fans of Sturges would closely agree, but whereas "Sullivan's Travels" is seen by some as possible the best of the bunch, that's not MY personal feeling. To me, this is a movie with much to savour in the wonderful characters and dialogue, but there are also elements with which I am not so comfortable.

The big turning point of the movie is when Sullivan is declared dead and ends up in a convict barracks sentenced to six years hard labour. I find it impossible to disregard the big problem with the plot point that leads to Sullivan being declared dead... The tramp who robs Sullivan of his money is run down by a train and mistaken for Sullivan. Why??? Because he is the same tramp that stole Sullivan's boots earlier in the movie, which had Sullivan's ID card in them.

Too much of a coincidence!! And in the film it is not even clear that it is the same tramp. The original shooting script does make that clear, but it must have been too difficult to convey that on screen in scenes that take place at night in an dark train-yard. I'm sorry... but that kind of problem with the narrative distracts me from enjoying a film.

Also - and this my main bugbear - the combination of wild witty comedy with downbeat drama doesn't fit my idea of entertainment. I can hardly stand to watch the scenes showing the hard life of tramps and other homeless, many of whom are grotesques. I start to wonder who all these extras are. Where do they find people who look like that? Are they actors pretending to be tramps, or from a modelling agency... or what? You can tell that these are not the thoughts of somebody absorbed by the story being told on screen.

Give me the wild fantasy of "The Palm Beach Story" or the witty romance of "The Lady Eve" any day!
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Sturges On The Decline
12 August 2006
Between 1940 and 1944, Preston Sturges wrote and directed some of the best film comedy ever produced. His eight movies for that short period are all good, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that four of the eight have the touch of brilliance.

This sequence of movies came to an end when Sturges left Paramount following what he legitimately saw as increasing interference by studio bosses. His high stature at the studio hadn't prevented two of his movies from being taken out of his hands and re-cut against his wishes, one of which - The Great Moment - was never restored to the movie Sturges intended.

At this point, Sturges declined to join a rival studio, and instead formed a partnership with Howard Hughes, hoping to protect his future movies from the interference he could see was becoming more common within the studio system. However, for a combination of reasons, this partnership with Hughes was not a success, and the only film Sturges produces in that period - The Sin of Harold Diddlebock - shows a decline in his work.

The whole look and sound of the movie is inferior. It is impossible to know whether this decline was the result of an inevitable burn-out in his ability after such sustained success, or the absence of support and quality control that Paramount had applied to the benefit of the wonderful movies that had come before.

So... to "Diddlebock" itself! It is difficult to identify why it isn't as funny as we might expect. The film was created as a star vehicle for Harold Lloyd, and by all accounts his comedy instincts did not match those of Sturges. As much as Stuges tried, clearly such a big talent and personality as Lloyd was never going to completely submit to direction with which he didn't agree, and there must be some evidence of that in what we see on screen.

There is a complete lack of the 'sparkle' we have come to expect. The familiar faces around Lloyd remind us of the great Sturges movies, but to me this is like an inferior pastiche of a Sturges movie by a lesser hand, without such a reliable instinct for film comedy. But perhaps that describes what Preston Sturges had become in such a short time.
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A Vital Documentary For Lovers Of Good Comedy
12 August 2006
If any documentary needs to be shown regularly on TV in the English speaking world, this one certainly does. People - especially those who love good comedy - need to be turned on to Preston Sturges, and this will do it for them. Their lives will never be the same!

I remember seeing it on TV here in the UK many years ago, and not knowing who Preston Sturges was, I never recorded it. Damn!! I had to wait over ten years before I managed to see it again as an extra on the Criterion Collection DVD of Sullivan's Travels.

Luckily though, that first viewing heralded a short season of Preston Sturges movies as a Christmas treat on the BBC, so I did manage to record five of his best movies within the same number of days. That's the sort of Christmas we should always enjoy. "I'm dreaming of a Sturges Christmas"

The documentary gives a good account of the life and work of Preston Sturges. It makes it clear how he broke through the demarcation of roles in Hollywood studios, and made it possible for himself and people like Billy Wilder to direct their own scripts, and produce comedy movies with a original vision and point of view.

There are familiar but well chosen clips of his famous movies, but there's also bits from the earlier movies he wrote for other directors. But the big story told by the talking heads is the rise and fall of Sturges, as he went from writing, directing, and producing movies of true genius to essentially a has-been within only a few years.

Watching this documentary may not be as good as watching one of Preston Sturges' best movies, but it certainly beats most movies, and remains worth repeated viewings for me.
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Impressive Holmes... Disappointing Wilder
11 August 2006
I am both a fan of the REAL Sherlock Holmes from the original books of my childhood, and the REAL Billy Wilder of the witty, intelligent, satisfying movies with an original comic vision that I have grown to appreciate as an adult. 'The Apartment', 'Stalag 17'...

I have never before seen a Holmes movie that I didn't hate for the way those cherished characters of Holmes and Watson have been distorted... or more commonly... ridiculed. But I came to this movie willing to trust Billy Wilder until he showed that my trust was misplaced.

I was not disappointed in that regard. Robert Stevens is a good Holmes, and embodies both the intelligence and action of the original character. Colin Blakely as Watson takes the responsibility of keeping the mood light, with solid support from Irene Handel, who milks her time on screen to good effect.

The other players play their parts competently, but without drawing too much attention from Holmes and Watson. The only other star of this movie is the music, which is near perfect and creates great atmosphere.

It is important to appreciate the changes that happened to this film from conception to release. The project was conceived and filmed to be an epic movie, showing different facets of Sherlock Holmes in a respectful way, using humour. Four separate but associated stories would comprise over three hours on screen.

Unfortunately, at this stage of his career Billy Wilder's authority was on the wane, and he was overruled by studio heads. Enough evidence exists to show that the truncated movie that was released and remains available has lost virtually all of his creative objective. The film that we know still has great merit, but it appears that we will never get to see the whole Sherlock Holmes story that Billy Wilder actually wrote and filmed.

Many moments of great power remain. However, the overall feeling is that I'm left with disappointment in terms of seeing a fully-fledged and full powered Billy Wilder conception, but the satisfaction of seeing Sherlock Holmes treated with such care and affection... and as I've said before... respect.
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The Rise and Fall of Boston Comedy
29 July 2006
This is a movie/documentary whose publicity promises more than it delivers. All the same - as a student of stand-up comedy and its history - the DVD will be a welcome part of my collection and is one that I will repeatedly watch with interest.

The story told is the rise and fall of the comedy club scene in Boston USA, from 1978 with the opening of little clubs, to their closure in 1988 when the whole thing collapsed - in parallel with the standard of live comedy in the USA - brought about by the sudden saturation of bland boring stand-up on cable TV.

The culprits were the actors with slick presentation that started to take the place of performers with a true comic sensibility. This is something that is not clearly exposed or explained in the movie, but it is an issue that to a lesser extent is still with us, and has also resulted in a fall in the standard of live comedy in the UK.

BUT... Back to the movie! Along with the director Fran Solomita who also appears in the movie, the key players in this story are Barry Crimmins and Lenny Clarke - the main MCs from that period in those Boston clubs. Both of these guys remind me of characters from the UK comedy scene that I have known and seen. Barry is like the late Malcolm Hardee - always in relaxed control both on and off-stage by the sheer weight of his personality. Lenny is a wild man on stage reminiscent of Alexie Sayle in the early days of the London Comedy Store in precisely the same era.

I'd never heard of these two comedians before this movie, but there are a few big name comedians on board to help to tell this story, although I am not convinced of how big a part they really played in it. Dennis Leary and Jimmy Tingle have much to say in interviews, but we see less than a minute each of them on stage, and we never see them talking in company with the real players in the story.

There is more of Bobcat Goldthwait, both on and off-stage. I've never been a fan, and I'm afraid these fresh clips didn't convert me. Oh... and we see Kevin Meaney doing his "man in the street" routine - taking a mic and camera into the street, bus, restaurant, ladies toilet, etc... He's certainly daring, but there's not much wit on show.

The biggest star name comedian involved is Steven Wright, and at the heart of this movie is the story of how he went from nowhere to making his name on the couch of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. This, and the later dramatic rise of Bobcat to the Letterman Show were the events that revealed the rivalry and ambition that goes alongside the close working and personal relationship between comedians.

This leads to some of the most interesting and serious interview contributions in the movie. Unfortunately much of the interview material does not have the same substance, and makes you look forward to the next clip of stage work. Unfortunately again, many of these clips are of the journeyman comedians of the time who demonstrate why they have remained so anonymous. The occasional clips of open mic oddballs are far more memorable.

One part of this movie appears misplaced. The interviews with Paula Poundstone and Janeane Garafalo seem to be in the package simply to prevent this being an all-male movie. They clearly weren't of the same generation as the key players of this story and are not closely involved with the story being told.

The movie concludes with the present day reunion concert, and it is interesting to see how the key players have weathered over 25 years, including their stage presence. It makes for a fitting end to the story.
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Fields Not Allowed to Save a Poor Movie
10 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I'm so interested in the life and art of W.C. Fields that I try to see as many of his movies as are available to me... WHATEVER the reputation of that movie or Fields contribution to it.

I wasn't expecting too much from 'Big Broadcast of 1938' I knew that Fields had prepared a lot of material for his scenes in the movie... but I ALSO knew that whole scenes of his did not survive as far as the final cut, and his scenes that did remain had been well-trimmed. Fields was a BIG movie star by this time, and certainly the BIGGEST in this movie... so WHY was he treated this way? Well... He should never have been in this movie at all. He was a replacement when other lead players withdrew from the project, and he was too big for the gap he was to fill. There were too many other celebrated performers still to be given their own portion of this movie.

Radio and Broadway star Bob Hope was making his film debut. Popular supporting novelty act Martha Raye was to be in her 11th movie in less than three years. Also in the mix were Dorothy Lamour and another novelty act, the comedian and dancer Ben Blue. AND THAT'S NOT ALL! As the movie progressed, I was to find it also showcased formation dancing, opera singers, and even an animated cartoon.

What sort of plot can accommodate all that, you might wonder. Well... All the players are on board a giant liner, the SS Gigantic, which is taking part in a cross-Atlantic race with another giant liner, the SS Collossus. The presence and actions of Fields causes problems and the SS Gigantic falls well behind in the race. But what do you know??? Everything comes good in the end, and the SS Gigantic wins by a nose. "THE END" comes on the screen, and we're done.

And is this movie as disappointing as I'd been led to expect? In a word - YES! There's probably about 30 minutes of good stuff in it, comprising of the Fields scenes - including his regular golf business, and a return to the pool table - and one surreal confrontation between Bob Hope and Martha Raye. The other hour or so of the movie I could do without.

I like Bob Hope, but he is not yet the great comedy character on film that he quickly came to be. All he has to do here is visually replicate what he did on the radio, and sing "Thanks for the memory" for the first time. He never gets to share a scene with Fields. Martha Raye shows off her big mouth and her flair for horsing around. Dorothy Lamour does a little singing and too much talking. AND Ben Blue... He just keeps popping up, but it would have been better if he hadn't!
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No Great Entertainment.
10 July 2006
This cartoon was included as an extra on the W.C. Fields DVD - "The Great Man", and I watched with great curiosity as to the motivation for its inclusion.

Cartoons of this period can often be great fun to watch, but not this! I can't imagine anyone getting much entertainment from it today, and it's hard to imagine how anyone ever did. No great story or plotting. No great wit in the dialogue. No great artistic values.

Only of interest to me for showing how established movie characters of the time - in this case W.C. Fields - were often irrelevantly inserted in cartoons.
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Preston Sturges Begins His Golden Five Years
9 July 2006
In his golden five years 1940-44, Preston Sturges was the writer & director for eight movies for Paramount, ALL GOOD and MOST of them BRILLIANT.

I first came to know these movies when five of them were shown on the BBC at Christmas in the early 1990's, including my personal favourites 'The Lady Eve' and 'The Palm Beach Story'. Since then I have had to wait for the invention of the DVD, and then last year's Preston Sturges DVD box set, when at last I could check out the other three.

Of those three, 'The Great McGinty' was the first movie to be "Written & Directed by Preston Sturges", and has to go into the GOOD rather than the BRILLIANT category. But for his first such project to be so good has got to be seen as a brilliant achievement for Sturges. I know how long he had to wait, and how hard he had to bargain to get that opportunity. He knew he had to succeed, not in his own terms but in those of his bosses at Paramount. In other words he had to bring in an economical movie that was conventional enough to be popular with audiences and critics alike.

The lead, Brian Donleavy plays McGinty as quite a straight character who has comic moments in set pieces with other players. The best comedy of the movie probably comes from Bill Demarest as "the Politician" and especially Akim Tamiroff as "the Boss", who drives the movie and its plot along, as he pushes McGinty and his career forward.

The second movie in the Preston Sturges golden period would be 'Christmas in July', again not one of his brilliant best, but beginning to include more of the lunacy and eccentric characters of a true Preston Sturges movie. By the time of his third project 'The Lady Eve', Sturges would be at the top of his form and the top of his art, and 'The Great McGinty' has to be seen not only as a good movie in itself, but as the first step in that direction.
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Definitely a Preston Sturges Movie
9 July 2006
I'm a fan of Preston Sturges, and I was brought to this movie by his screenplay credit, not knowing if that would be enough to make this a movie I was going to enjoy. GOOD NEWS! This movie is a real joy from start to finish. From the outset the humour was quite subtle, and the sophisticated dialogue sounded very modern. Clearly, although this Sturges script isn't served by Sturges direction, this is still a Preston Sturges movie. And the script is backed up by sympathetic direction from William Wyler and the performances of the lead players. In particular Margaret Sullavan is fresh and funny as the fish-out-of-water naive young girl leaving her orphanage to join the outside world, determined to do a good deed every day... to be a Good Fairy to somebody. Unfortunately the lies she feels she has to tell, and the resulting problems she's willing to face, lead her into digging a deeper and deeper hole for herself, and into dragging other characters into the hole with her. Those other characters are the Sturges eccentrics we know from his acclaimed movies of later years. The scenes with Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen shouting at each other with Sullavan between them are fabulous. Herbert Marshall is also good, but he or his character can not match the same level of lunacy. Now I've seen this, I just hope it won't be long before I can get to see "Easy Living", the next comedy that Preston Sturges was able to write and exert the same level of influence over.
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Play for Today: Comedians (1979)
Season 10, Episode 3
Comedians... Class Comedy and Class Drama
6 July 2006
Evening. A classroom. Six adult students... there to learn about comedy. The teacher is an experienced comedian... determined to promote comedy as a progressive art form in which real feelings and ideas about life are shared and explored... and equally determined to condemn the abuse of comedy as cheap entertainment based on slick technique, stereotyped characters, contrived wordplay, and prejudice.

That teacher is Eddie Waters, in the Manchester of 1975. It is the play "Comedians", written for the stage by Trevor Griffiths, but also produced in a version by Richard Eyre for BBC television in 1979. I have seen the play on stage, and have read the script, and would recommend others to do the same, as the cuts made for TV - probably for time - includes dialogue which I think is crucial to a full understanding of the piece.

It is a serious play, not completely authentic, but truthful about what it says about the choices that comedians are faced with, and illuminating for anyone interested in comedy. I've probably watched it more than a dozen times, and I still finding it absolutely compelling. I can do no better than leave my own words here, and devote the rest of this comment to Eddie Waters' address to his students, imploring them to take the right choice for their future as comedians. I only wish all comedians were listening.

"...If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. We work through laughter, not for it. If all you're about is raising a laugh, OK, get on with it, good luck to you, but don't waste my time. There's plenty of others as'll tek your money and do the necessary. Not Eddie Waters..."

"...It's not the jokes. It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind them. It's the attitude... A real comedian - that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all about what they want."

"A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension. It has to liberate the will and the desire. It has to change the situation..."

"There's very little won't take a joke. But when a joke bases itself upon a distortion - a stereotype perhaps - and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favour, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of cheap entertainment and slick success... You're better than that, damn you. And even if you're not, you should bloody well want to be..."

"...A joke that that feeds on ignorance starves it's audience. We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the best ones... illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We've got to make people laugh till they cry. Cry. Till they find their pain and their beauty."

"Comedy is medicine. Not coloured sweeties to rot their teeth with."
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