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Wodehouse Brazil
31 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Warning, here there be spoilers.

Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to film. The usual reason given for this is that Wodehouse is a literary writer and half the fun is his wordplay. But Wodehouse wrote Byzantine plots that do not translate well to a medium where simplicity is the key to understanding.

Take impostors, for instance. Wodehouse loved what we today would call Identity Theft. He had characters staying in other people's houses under false identities all the time. The plot of "Picadilly Jim" is so involved and convoluted one character is staying in another person's home disguised as himself, and he begs a man who knows him not to reveal his true identity.

On top of all this, Wodehouse's fans know his books too well for short-cut liberties to be taken blithely. When one films Wodehouse, one takes one's life in one's hands, as in an aerialist act performed without a net.

This production started well by choosing a little-known Wodehouse novel, written before his "Golden Age" classics. The Jeeves and Blandings Castle sagas were only just poking their little heads out of their shells when PICADILLY JIM (the novel) was written.

It's a little known book, and not a very important one in the Wodehouse oeuvre. And they give it to you fast and slick. Like the "Airplane" movies, if you don't laugh at one thing, they keep throwing Wodehouse at you until they tickle your funny bone somewhere.

For Wodehouse purists, the adaptation sticks close to the books. Where the script deviates from Wodehouse writ, most of it is justifiable and a lot of new material is funny. And why not? It was scripted by Julian Fellowes, who, as an actor, played many a character that might have tumbled right out of Wodehouse.

Sam Rockwell ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", "Midsummer Night's Dream"), tackling the part of the eponymous Jim, is one of those actors who seem born to play Wodehouse at some point. I'm glad he's playing a minor Wodehouse star.

The rest of the cast is fine, with Tom Wilkinson, another Wodehouse natural, as a standout. Geoffrey Palmer has a good turn as a Wodehouse butler. Frances O'Connor is a trifle too neurotic for a Wodehouse female (the younger Wodehouse women are usually more together than the men, though they become unhinged with age). Her neurosis is firmly grounded in the book; the script flowered out the character flaw out to make her role more interesting. And it makes a darn good scene when Jim finally discovers what's driving this wacky chick.

What is most criticized about this production is its clash of '30s and modern style. And sometimes, not even modern. It's more like Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL than anything human.

Yet the source novel itself is a good example of why this is not a bad policy. PICADILLY JIM came out in 1918. What was going on in 1918? Show of hands. That's right, World War One. Only a few years earlier, the steamship "Lusitania" was sunk by German U-boats. Yet in the book, there is no mention of the war that had been foremost on people's minds for years. Clubs and restaurants in London are populated by young men who are not shell-shocked or otherwise scarred from battle. They are the vapid but well-educated scions of the nobility who had been cannon fodder in the trenches for four years. Characters hop on steamships and go from New York to London and back to New York with no thought or mention of U-boats, mines, or other hazards to shipping.

Therefore, nearly one hundred years after this novel was first written, it does not seem bound to its time. Oh, the idea of traveling to England by steamship may be passé, but readers are not bogged down by the time-specific angst that makes so many "lost generation" novelists unpalatable today. Apart from a few mentions (such as in the novel QUICK SERVICE) no World War One intrudes into Wodehouse. Later on, though Wodehouse was in a German interment camp, England does not endure World War Two and his characters experience neither shortages nor bombings.

Nevertheless, though his characters seem stuck in their Edwardian pleasaunces, they do travel through time and keep up with certain new developments. Updating the book to the thirties made a lot of sense, but throwing in modern styles, while jolting in a Brazilian sort of way, also is not unWodehouse.

Warning: some unWodehouse things do appear, so strap in and be ready for them.

For an even more astute version of Wodehouse, see "Heavy Weather" with Peter O'Toole and Samuel West.
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Entertaining Hodge-Podge of Wells Stories
2 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
H. G. Wells has a sterling reputation based on a handful of brilliant works he composed between 1895 and the turn of the twentieth century. My favorite is THE INVISIBLE MAN, but others may prefer THE TIME MACHINE, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, etc.

Some of Wells' views were noxious. He was a long-time socialist and a believer in eugenics and dominant races. Several of his later books were pedantic over his theories of racial hygiene, as well as his obsession for developing a single world government. All this makes some of his later work unreadable today.

Wells also composed numerous short stories. Though these are of variable quality, some are among the best creepy stories in the English language.

"The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells" is a three-part series culled from Wells' short stories. Wells himself is portrayed as an active participant in these weird events. Sometimes his role is vital to the stories, at other times his presence is tangential. The series has a framing device of Wells as an old man during World War Two, looking back over his long career and relating some of the strange things that occurred to a young journalist -- who herself might not be all she seems.

Wells is presented as an eager young man desperately trying to mature as a successful author, balancing it with his growing love for a woman he calls Jane (though that is not her real name). The unsavory fact that Wells left his first wife for Jane, and he had several affairs and illegitimate children outside of his marriage to her, is fortunately by-passed for this dramatization. Only Wells' sunny side shines through here.

Wells and Jane come off as a likable young couple whose worse strain comes from the bizarre situations they and their friends lurch into.

Though some of the stories contain tragedy, the stories presented here come off as largely comic, as if Wells were a nineteenth century Douglas Adams. The stories are neatly rewritten to accommodate the author, and to make sure most have charming or happy endings. Strangely, one story that originally had a happy ending is played here for tragedy. And just be careful, if you are inordinately fond of dogs.

The series is good for anyone who wants to add a little pleasant and ultimately unimportant weirdness to their lives.

If you want to look ahead an see how the stories are altered from the originals, the stories dramatized include "The New Accelerator", "The Queer Story of Brownlow's Newspaper", "The Crystal Egg", "Story of Davidson's Eyes", "The Truth About Pyecraft" (changed much for the better) and "The Stolen Bacillus."
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Fair Game (I) (2010)
Don't believe everything see in the movies
26 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
The story of how a Democrat CIA desk jockey wangled her husband an expensive junket at taxpayer expense for developing a report he never filed. Sounds like a rather dull movie. So does a flick about a man coming home from an expensive junket to make statements that were proved so unfounded one wonders if he did any research. The only interesting thing is how a couple of greedy little people have enjoyed worldwide adulation and turned lots of moolah by trumpeting a non-scandal, a "leak" that never happened. But Hollywood has always thrived on fiction.

All leftist Hollywood's efforts were poured into this quaint little pack of disinformation, and it's all done very nicely. But for anyone who knows the facts, "Fair Game" is like a hollow Easter bunny. Delicious on the outside, hollow on the inside.

The truth may be out there, but it isn't here.
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Hilariously Violent
19 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
A good rule of thumb is to give a wide berth to movies whose titles are based on feeble puns, especially when the lead character's name has been specifically designed to form the pun.

Forget that rule with "Grosse Pointe Blank" with John Cusack playing the eponymous Martin Blank.

As the film develops, we learn that Blank is also an allegorical name. He has no foundational ethics. He really is an inner blank.

Blank owns and operates a mom-and-pop contract-killing concern, with the help of his ever-loyal secretary Marcella (John Cusack's real-life sister, Joan). Blank likes his loan-wolf lifestyle. It allows him to give his clients personal service at reasonable prices.

But he's not perfect. He botched a recent job and accidentally took out a dog. This has severe ramifications for his near future. To repay for his blunder, he must take a make-up job in Detroit near his original home of Grosse Pointe Michigan, an upscale Detroit suburb.

Coincidentally, his ten-year high school reunion is also coming up that weekend. On the advice of his secretary and his shrink, Blank decides to make the weekend a double-header, fulfilling his contract and attending his reunion -- hoping to meet his old flame, Debi, now a local disk jockey.

Blank faces professional as well as personal problems. A rival contract killer named Grocer (since we know "GPB" is not above cheap puns, is this a Marxist pun at the bourgeois?) is trying to form a union of hit-men. By Grocer's description, it sounds more like a power-grab. Blank, who cherishes his independence, declines to sign on.

Grocer was the original vendor of the Detroit job. When the job is given to Blank, Grocer thinks Blank stole his gig. Grocer betrays Blank to the National Security Agency as an international assassin, which puts a couple of government spooks on his tail. They intend to "wax" Blank, but first they must catch him in the commission of his crime.

Blank, Grocer, and the G-men converge on Grosse Pointe, along with a joker in the deck, another international assassin sent to find Blank and kill him as payback for the dog.

The cast is awash with Cusacks (John is the star, Joan is the secretary, Ann pops up for a cameo, and a Bill Cusack is floating around somewhere). The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Dan Ackroyd plays at full throttle as Grocer. Minnie Driver is the old flame burned out on Blank. Alan Arkin is typically brilliant in his cameo as the shrink who only treats Blank because Blank says "I know where you live."

While some lament the level of sex and violence in the movies, they often fall in two camps. They are troubled more by the sex, or they are troubled more by the violence.

Sex is not an issue in "Grosse Pointe Blank." I noticed no nudity. While hanky-panky is suggested, intimate moments are not flung in our faces.

The violence is high-octane. While some bemoan that movie violence may be imitated, they don't seem to worry about sex. From a personal standpoint, I am DRASTICALLY more likely to be enticed into imitating sexy than violent scenes. I have tried "to kiss like they do in the movies" (amongst other things -- I once tried to duplicate the strawberry moment in "Tess" with disastrous results). But I have never shot anyone.

Violence is a serious issue for me as I grew up on butchered Warner Brothers cartoons. Back in that day, shootin' irons were severely edited. Yosemite Sam only had to step on screen and there was an irritating jump-cut to the next scene.

Of course, the major difference is that when violence is depicted on screen, one knows it's fake. This applies most obviously when Clint Eastwood mows down an entire German army in "Where Eagles Dare." Few people will saunter out of a theater thinking it's real. The same with Luke Skywalker blowing up an entire Death Star full of storm troopers. But when a guy comes on screen to fondle a real woman's really bare breasts and they loll around naked in bed, it's far more likely to inspire imitation.

The violence in Grosse Pointe Blank leans toward the cartoonish, and it is quite excessive. These hit-men are not Oswalds who take out their targets with three shots. They empty their automatic weapons into 'em. Ammunition must be quite an overhead expense in this business. One would think advertising more accuracy with fewer shots would give a contractor a competitive edge.

And it's not just gun-violence. Blank and his peers learn to take out their quarries with whatever comes to hand. Blank tells his shrink, "I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork." This adroit use of atypical tools of the trade is demonstrated on screen, once with very funny results. And I've never read where anyone was killed with a . . . but that's too much of a spoiler. When the gun violence starts, it is wonderfully noisy and unremitting. This may be satirical, but the best humor comes from truth.

"Grosse Pointe Blank" builds to an exciting, noisy climax as all the ragged ends of Blank's life finally come together.

If you're not too stodgy and puritanical to find humor in excessive violence, this is the flick for you. It is cleverly written material well performed and directed.

"Gross Pointe Blank" also perfectly captures the high school reunion zeitgeist. The excitement of seeing familiar faces one suffered through years of school with, but who dropped out of sight immediately after graduation. The bafflement at the way some classmates turned out (for better or worse). And the tie-loosening grinding down of the party, where you've had a good time and one too many, and you'll be just as happy not to see any of these people again for another decade.
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The Trouble with Movies
18 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Warning: Spoilers.

Burt Kennedy (1922-2001) directed two of the funniest American movies, "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969) and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971), spot-on western spoofs which also profited by star James Garner's laid-back charm.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1987, after a mostly western career, Kennedy helmed the spy spoof "The Trouble with Spies." I would like to say Kennedy's spy spoof had "mixed results" but I can't. It's bad nearly all the way through. And since Kennedy is listed as writer, he can't blame the movie's failure on the material. The whole movie plays like an excuse for several people to have a holiday in Ibiza on someone else's nickle.

Donald Sutherland, an unlikely movie star who has never shied from unusual roles, has a confusing character. He's set up as a sort of British Clouseau who is sent on a spy mission in order to get captured and give disinformation to the enemy (this is still Cold War time).

The enemy tries to kill or capture him several times, but he always manages to escape. In fact, he seems to know just what to do in every situation. He does not even, like Clouseau, seem to survive out of sheer stupid dumb luck.

Take for instance the time he and his girl (Lucy Gutteridge) find themselves in a car balancing precariously on the edge of a quarry. Sutherland's character saves the day. One would expect, given the way he was set up, the girl would save the day. Or perhaps they should have fallen into the quarry. If they survived the fall, it might have been funny. If they had not survived the fall, it would have been a mercy for both of them.

Sutherland himself seems not to know how to play the character. Rather than inhabiting the character, as he usually does, he seems to be walking through the movie with it.

After Sutherland, "The Trouble with Spies" has no shortage of good actors. Young Lucy Gutteridge, not long after playing her part in the Royal Shakespeare Company's landmark television broadcast of "Nicholas Nickleby" is Sutherland's love interest. Legendary ditherer Michael Hordern and legendary cranky old bat Ruth Gordon have fairly meaty roles. Ned Beatty, who seemed to be an ubiquitous supporting player in the 1970's and 80's, also appears. Cameo parts are held by Robert Morley, playing the "M" part to Sutherlands secret agent, and Gregory Sierra ("Sandford and Son") as a local policeman.

Beatty's part makes little or no sense. He seems to be there simply to provide another red herring for our spy. But even red herrings should have a reason to exist.

Hordern and Gordon are always fun to watch, and one wonders if the movie might have been better written around their characters than Sutherland's.

Perhaps it was the print I saw, but the movie looks like it was done on the cheap. The whole thing has an under-rehearsed look to it. Good actors like Sutherland and Gutteridge are hard to dampen altogether and both give game performances that try to give us something to look at. But it's almost like they haven't been told whether they're in a comedy or a straight spy drama. The production has a tax-write-off feel to it. Parts of it contain actors who never interact with anyone else in the movie, and one cannot help wondering if they were shot later in a desperate attempt to give the movie sense.
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Hannay (1988–1989)
Not Buchan but Fun
31 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Having seen Robert Powell in "The Thirty-Nine Steps" I bought this DVD set supposing it was a miniseries based on Buchan's other Hannay books.

At first, I was disappointed that it was not. I was likewise disappointed to learn the series was shot on videotape on sometimes cheap-looking sets (though the exteriors always look good).

I became used to that sort of show watching "Masterpiece Theater" in the 1970s, but I thought British television had outgrown that style by 1988.

One sleepless night, starting "Hanny" about midnight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover "Hannay" is by turns fun and exciting.

The series is definitely not Buchan. It's more like a series one would base on the works of E. Phillips Oppenheim or J. Jefferson Farjeon (and it's high time someone did). Still, anyone who delights in that sort of literature will enjoy the series. If all this happened to Hannay, he would hardly be "the best bored man in the United Kingdom." Think of these as the adventures of a cousin Buchan's Hannay doesn't know.

While the series has a few notable guest appearances (Charles Gray, Dennis Lill, Colin Jeavons in an unfortunately wasted part, Joanna David, Bernard Kay, Martin Clunes, Richard Pasco, etc.), most of the then-young actors supporting Powell are quite good.

Perhaps the series is slyly tongue-in-cheek, but it isn't nearly as rude as I feared to the exciting Edwardian literature I am so fond of, and which Buchan exemplified.
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Interesting for Historical Reasons
1 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Who is Brian Reece? He's the star of 1954's "Orders Are Orders." He died in 1962. In this film he is ably supported by the often overlooked, but always invaluable, Raymond Huntley. So much for them.

"Orders are Orders" is about an army base is overrun by motion picture people making a cheap sci-fi flick about an invasion from outer space.

Three show-biz legends have parts in the movie. First, Peter Sellers, just finding success on BBC radio's "The Goon Show." Then, Tony Hancock, who was soon to embark on his own radio series, and would go on to great fame on BBC television. Finally, Sid James, anchor of many "Carry On" movies.

Hancock is the most disappointing. He bumbles around trying to act funny as a military band leader. He does have a few good moments, as when he tries to turn the march his band has been playing into a waltz.

Sellers, on the other hand, is too restrained. Arguably the finest slapstick artist in movies since the silent era, Sellers' modus operandi is often to let characters and jokes develop slowly. In a 78-minute movie chock full of characters it seems unlikely a beginning movie actor in a supporting role would be allowed such latitude. His low-key performance can probably be chalked up to inexperience. It's too bad, because Sellers (still in his early, chunky period) can go high-octane.

Sid James, perhaps because of his role as a flamboyant movie-maker, gives the film the charge it needs. He bustles through trying to steal every scene he's in, and mostly succeeding. From the moment he appears, every time he goes off-screen the movie starts to die.

All three of these stars-to-be have significant if not above-title roles in "Orders are Orders." Their long-time fans may be disappointed, but it's worth seeing these young performers feeling their way to stardom that was waiting just around the corner.

In all this, I have talked little about the film itself. There's not much to talk about. If it were not for the fact that three of its performers went on to major stardom, two on film and one on British television, this movie would probably never see the light of day. Fans of bad sci-fi might enjoy it for insight into the making of those pictures.

Donald Pleasence and Eric Sykes have bit parts. Don't blink.
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Dropped like a Rock
26 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century" often cannot help betraying its 1970s roots. Buck occasionally strolls around in wide "Saturday Night Fever" collars and many of his night spots look just a step away from disco.

Overall, the series started out likable. Gil Gerard, who in these fatophobic days might be considered a bit chunky in his flight suits, came in with a twinkle in his eye and a grin to show that whatever silliness was on hand, we should swallow it easily.

The first season began with a movie-length story (released in theaters). Beginning in 2491, Earth fliers find Buck frozen in his spaceship from 1987. Buck tries to adjust to changing styles and mores, but he always proves the good, old twentieth century way was better. This is especially true in matters of cuisine. One episode has Gary Coleman (hands up, all who remember Gary Coleman) as a leader of a society who also just happens to be from the twentieth century, and who is on a constant search for cheeseburgers, fries, and milkshakes).

The first season has a few interesting guest stars. Lovely Pamela Hensley, the bad guy in the pilot, returns intermittently to make Buck marry her. One wonders why he doesn't want to marry a beautiful princess until, in one episode, she produces the dog-collar he'll wear.

Another episode features Roddy McDowell and Jack Palance. Ray Walston (Uncle Martin from "My Favorite Martian" appears in the Gary Coleman episode. The biggest surprise was Playmate of the Month for August 1979, Dorothy Stratten, playing a beauty-contest winner, just a few months before she was shot in the face by her estranged husband. There is also a welcome appearance by a very young Markie Post, who must have been sewn into her costume.

The first season got very silly at times but it never ceased to be fun.

The second season was another kettle of fish. Instead of being Earth-based, it was set in a "Star Trek" type of format with Buck and his lovely sidekick (Erin Gray, who was a blonde in the the first series and a brunette in the second) looking for human life in the galaxy.

The second series was more serious and adopted a liberal-preachy tone. Instead of one adventure after another, Buck seems to go from one leftist screed to another. It's no wonder it tanked. Shows like this should be for fun, not forums for political indoctrination.

Also in the second series, the show also committed near heresy by not bringing Mel Blanc back to voice the robot Twiki. In the wake of "Star Wars" cute little droids were in, and Buck Rogers had Twiki. Voiced by Blanc in the first series, Twiki's role was to come out with twentieth century expressions Buck had taught him. While the little guy might have been extremely annoying, Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny and most of his friends) was able to make it funny. Apparently there was a scramble to bring Blanc back after viewers quite rightly complained.

The show also changed William Conrad as its opening announcer, but this was a minor, if unsettling at first, point.

The second season also brought in long-time professional ditherer and dodderer Wilfred Hyde-White, who was even more doddering than usual. I suppose he was brought into compensate for the lack of humor in the second series. I've always admired Hyde-White's performances, but he appears out of his element here.

There is also a character who is suppose to be half-hawk but he actually just looks like a man in a feathered hat. The less said about him, the better. And there's a robot who is terminally annoying.

So, thumbs way up for the original pilot. Thumbs mostly up for the first series, though occasionally the thumbs may go a little slack in a few dumb episodes. And finally, middle fingers up for series two, after which "Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century" disappeared into a timely oblivion.

Between "Star Trek" and "Far-Out Space Nuts" this show probably flops closer to the latter. Still, it's worth looking if you like faux-space stuff and have a low threshold for the suspension of disbelief. Or if you want to see Erin Gray in extremely tight costumes.
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Nicely Representative Carry On Cast
22 September 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Carry On" movies come in three basic flavors. Several early ones are heart-warming but still happily silly. The historical and movie spoofs ("Jack", "Spying", "Cowboy", "Cleo", "Jungle" etc.) are preferred by many aficionados. The third kind are set in ('70s) modern dress with scripts containing wall-to-wall double-entendres. And single-entendres.

"Carry on Abroad" is a quintessential example of the third type. Of the long-term "Carry On" repertory company Connor, Williams, Hawtrey, Sims, Jacques, James, Windsor, Bresslaw and Butterworth appear. Adding June Whitfield (making her first "Carry On" since "Nurse" more than a dozen years before) and the twitching Jack Douglas (in his second "Carry On" movie outing) gives the film a nicely representative "Carry On" cast.

"Carry On Abroad" takes its cast on a tour to a foreign resort (actually, the parking lot of the studio), where Murphy's Law is proved at every turn. Kenneth Williams runs the tour agency, Peter Butterworth and Hattie Jacques run the hotel that hasn't been completed, and the rest run rampant.

Some of the attitudes are offensive by today's standards – but some of the attitudes were offensive back then, too. Some of the attitudes will continue to be offensive in the future, whether posterity becomes more Victorian in sentiment, or whether it continues to expand into politically-correct, anti-free speech liberalism. "Carry On" movies of this flavor were made to offend.

"Carry On Abroad" does have a serious bone in its body, too, in the June Whitfield sub-plot, but that doesn't detract us long.

The six stars should be taken in context. "Carry On" movies were made as cheaply as possible and are not meant to be judged in the same way as one appraises, say, "Doctor Zhivago"
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More Than a Carry-On
23 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Carry On Spying" is more than just a "Carry On." Like the previous entry in the series starring Bernard Cribbins ("Carry On Jack"), "Spying" is a good spoof of a film genre in its own right.

"Jack" had upped the "Carry On" ante, with non-"Carry On" actors outnumbering the usual "Carry On" team. It was also the first of the great movie spoofs in the "Carry On" tradition.

"Spying" -- coming on the heels of "Jack" -- is among the best spy spoofs ever.

Kenneth Williams (using his "Hancock's Half Hour" snide voice throughout), Cribbins, Charles Hawtrey, and Barbara Windsor (in her first "Carry On") are inept agents sent out by "The Chief" (Eric Barker) to recover a formula.

Also among the good guys are Jim Dale, as a James Bond type character (looking remarkably like a young Timothy Dalton) who is always being thwarted by his own colleagues.

The sets are fantastic. There is the high-class restaurant where Williams and Cribbins are in black tie and Hawtry is in the clothes of a cycling racer. There's the "Vienna" set (actually a sound-stage at Pinewood) so reminiscent of "The Third Man" one almost expects to see Orson Welles lurking in the shadows (he isn't, worse luck). The have a cross-country train like that where so many espionage thrillers have taken place, and which gives one the feeling of constant, claustrophobic movement despite being stage-bound. They wonderfully capture the spirit of the Casbah in a scene with Eric Pohlmann, who was in several episodes of "Danger Man." And there are the space-age corridors of the underground hide-out of the bad guy, with the futuristic, slightly off-kilter oblong doors.

The timing of the film could not have been better. Made after "Dr. No" and contemporaneous with "From Russia With Love" (which also had an exciting train sequence), "Spying" came out just as James Bond was prepared to explode with "Goldfinger." Because of its black-and-white photography it really seems closer in spirit to the great television show "Danger Man" -- though the Vienna scenes could have been cut out of "The Third Man." It's hard to believe Michael Caine's "Harry Palmer" movies were released after "Carry On Spying."

"Carry On" movies were always at their best with spoofs of specific movie genres. "Carry On Spying" is one of the better entries in the series and can stand on its own as a remarkable spoof of espionage thrillers. Anyone who knows their espionage noir, or loves the "Carry On" spoofs, will dig this flick.
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Might Not Have Been So Bad if it wasn't a Carry On
17 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Two good reasons to watch "Carry on Columbus" are Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins. Dale, who occasionally seems to be channeling Sid Caesar, starred in several "Carry On" movies of the late sixties and seventies. Long-time comedy star Cribbins made enough "Carry On" flicks to qualify as an early regular. These two veterans show up all the young comics shoe-horned into "Columbus" and their scenes together are the best in the movie.

Also showing up to good effect are Leslie Phillips and June Whitfield – another pair of comedy veterans – as the King and Queen of Spain. A bit of the sheen is taken off their glow by rumors that Frankie Howerd and Joan Sims were originally envisioned for these roles. It's too bad Howerd, who died the year "Columbus" was released, was unable to give one last well-honed dithering character as the king, or as – well, see below.

Apart from Dale and Cribbins, "Columbus" is a better bad movie. It is not "bad" in the sense of being shoddy. (Like all "Carry On" movies, it was made as cheaply as possible, but the cheapness underscores the "Carry On" charm and gave "Carry On" movies a feel all their own.) "Columbus" is bad because it is a comedy without enough laughs.

The first few minutes of "Columbus" are rotten, with alternative comedian Rik Myall apparently trying to stand in for the irreplaceable Kenneth Williams. The first scenes prepare one for worse things to come, though they never get truly awful until the end. The movie ends horrifically, after Columbus arrives in America and meets excruciatingly unfunny, Bronx-accented, stogie-smoking natives.

Bookended between these frightfully bad scenes are some fairly funny moments. "There's no mustard on it" should be a "Carry On" classic line. "Will it eat me whole?" even more so. There are several guffaws, just not enough to make the comedy work as a whole, despite some game performances by newcomers as well as the few old hands who signed aboard.

If this same movie had been billed merely as a spoof of the serious Columbus movies released in and around 1992, "Carry On Columbus" might have fared better. It is marginally superior to Graham Chapman's gruesome 1983 sea-going disaster, "Yellowbeard." "Columbus" should have learned from Chapman's shipwreck, which it resembles in too many ways.

"Yellowbeard" boasted three Pythons in the cast (Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle). Several Mel Brooks alumni were on hand (Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars). Notable British actors who had been successes in comedy (Michael Hordern and James Mason) rubbed shoulders with British comedy legend Spike Milligan and America's Cheech and Chong. Not buoyed by a good script, many laughs or a good ending, all hands sailing in "Yellowbeard" sank without a trace.

"Yellowbeard" petered out with unfunny natives in a new land. So did "Columbus." With a better ending (finding several former "Carry On" members being held in a cave, say, or maybe an unbilled appearance by a Frankie Howerd as a native high king), "Columbus" might have been acceptable.

"Columbus" might have turned out as a silly but diverting little comedy along the lines of later Leslie Nielsen flicks (which it resembles more than its "Carry On" predecessors). Unfortunately, "Columbus" had the weighty "Carry On" imprimatur slapped on it.

The "Carry On" label means something. Originally sly social comedies, by the 1970s "Carry On" became wall-to-wall nudge-nudge, wink-wink double-entendres. Ephemeral beauties like Shirley Eaton ("Goldfinger") and Jill Adams ("The Green Man") made way over time to more earthy sirens Liz Fraser ("I'm All Right, Jack") and Barbara Windsor.

"Carry On" starred a host of Britain's finest talents from radio and the movies, including but not limited to Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Leslie Phillips, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor and Eric Barker. None of these actors appeared in all the "Carry On" movies. Some dropped out for a while and came back. Others dropped out forever because of low pay or health problems (including death). Not even Kenneth Williams was in every single "Carry On." But as "Carry On" carried on, the "Carry On" brand acquired a certain undefinable definition.

A naval movie called "Watch Your Stern" (1960) was funnier than that year's "Carry On Constable." Featuring Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Eric Barker, "Stern" also contains cameos by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes. It was probably even more delightful in that it did not have to drag the already heavy weight of the "Carry On" series name. Even though "Constable" was only the fourth "Carry On" and the series had not become altogether scatological, the series was already attaining legendary status. "Columbus" should have been a one-off "from the people who brought you 'Carry On'" rather than trying to resuscitate a dead series.

Though the entertainment quality of the "Carry On" series was probably more nostalgic than real, the actors were at the core of each movie. They did their best with the material they were given, whether it was more serious and heartwarming (early on) or totally risqué (later).

At a first look, "Carry On, Columbus" was wildly different because of its mostly new cast. Star Jim Dale was a welcome face familiar to devotees of the series, but too many "Carry On" regulars had died (James, Williams, Jacques, Peter Butterworth, etc.) or, for whatever reason, chose not to appear (Sims, Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw, Liz Fraser, etc.) No more or less funny than later Leslie Nielsen movies, "Carry On Columbus" was stuck with a brand name. Think of a James Bond movie where they replaced Sean Connery with Charles Hawtrey.

"Carry On Columbus" is probably no worse than "Wrongfully Accused" or "Dracula Dead and Loving It." But as a "Carry On" it did not and probably could not meet the expectations of its audience.
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The Taming of the Shrew (1980 TV Movie)
A Good but Imperfect Shrew
9 August 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This "The Taming of the Shrew" directed by Jonathan Miller and starring John Cleese is probably as good as we'll ever get.

William Ball's 1976 commedia dell'arte version with Marc Singer (shown on "Great Performances" and available on DVD) is fun, but perhaps too freewheeling. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 Taylor/Burton film is no fun at all.

Miller and his excellent cast seem to hit the right note. A few of the actors do fall into that Shakespearean trap of reciting their lines as if they're in a race to finish, rather than speaking them normally. Most of the actors do a good job.

The major flaw in this "Shrew" is that it abandons the Christopher Sly framing device, without which the play becomes impossible to understand. I suppose the Sly device tends to make the play-within-a-play a silly entertainment that cannot be taken seriously, while Miller's intentions seem to be to present the characters as real and believable as possible. Cleese's Petruchio comes off as thoughtful and heartfelt, while the Sly device perhaps forces a rambunctious, over-the-top performance, a la Marc Singer. It strikes me as curious that this "Shrew" can be presented as near-letter-perfect Shakespeare without Sly.

Nevertheless, it's as good as possible, I suppose.
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Centennial (1978–1979)
The Whole Not as Good as Parts
23 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"Centennial" has a superlative (television) cast. It's like the baseball All-Star Game, where every team sends a representative. It seems like very great old t.v. show has a cast member in this stew somewhere.

James Michener's source material is long and boring (one does not have to go through the processes of evolution just to get characters for a novel -- just try to get through that first part of the book).

The long-winded, sanctimonious parts are tiresome. The really good parts commence at the episode "The Longhorns" with a cattle drive led by Dennis Weaver ("Gunsmoke" & "McCloud"). "The Shepherds" brings in a range war between Timothy Dalton's ranchers (yes, James Bond as a rancher) and sheep-herders. "The Storm" continues the story with the herds beings destroyed by global cooling. Really. Look it up.

"The Crime" and "The Winds of Change" begin the most fascinating parts of the drama and I wish they would release these separately from all the boring parts. The main story concerns a sheriff (Brian Keith, "Family Affair") tracking the wonderfully crooked Mervin Wendell (Anthony Zerbe, in the best performance of the series).

"Centennial" drags on to a rather stupid conclusion in the modern day (well, the '70s) with a whole shovel-full of t.v. actors. David Janssen ("The Fugitive"), Andy Griffith, Sharon Gless and Robert Vaughan ("The Man from UNCLE") all make fools of themselves in an anti-climax comparable to Bobby in the shower.

Out of eleven episodes, the five listed above -- in the middle -- are worth watching. The rest are either preachy, silly or historically misleading -- or a blending of all three.

The best part of the whole series is the reason we who were kids in the 70s were fascinated by the miniseries format, seeing so many familiar t.v. actors rubbing shoulders together. Actually, the acting varies wildly. As a man who always looks for the best, I won't mention the disappointments. Anthony Zerbe, Brian Keith and Timothy Dalton shine.
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Cold Turkey (1971)
Pretty Good Satire
16 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Disclaimers are popular these days so I'll start by admitting that I dislike Norman Lear's body of work. And I admire most of the things in his cross-hairs in this satire: middle America, the church, the military, capitalism, the family, etc.

Nevertheless, this film is hilarious.

Liberals of Lear's stamp are usually rotten at satire. They don't understand that a satirist has to understand and even have some sympathy for their targets (NOT empathy -- if you don't understand the distinction, look it up). Lear's work, especially that made for television, shows a tendency to hit his targets with a great big hammer to destroy any mindset he fears because he can't or won't bother to try to understand it.

This satire, about a town that pledges to give up smoking for thirty days, is remarkably subtle. I have not read the source novel for the story, so I can't say how its approach affected the final product.

The main reason this movie is watchable is a remarkable cast that includes some of my favorite performers.

Dick Van Dyke carries the movie as the preacher who sees his mission as getting jobs and prosperity for his run-down Iowa town by making his community attractive for business via good p.r. (back then even Lear knew jobs were created through providing a favorable climate for business, something forgotten in 2010). Van Dyke was not always the best judge of movie material, but he turns in a solid performance in his best movie since "Mary Poppins"

Some of the other actors would become notable after being plugged into some of Lear's television shows, but the old hands are the ones who make the show.

Tom Poston and Edward Everett Horton have too little to do, but they steal every scene they are in. Horton has no lines but, up in his 80s, his face is still wonderfully expressive. Poston is the rich dipsomaniac who has to leave Town because "the booze bone's connected to the smoke bone and the smoke bone's connected to the head bone -- and that's the word of the Lord!" Bob Newhart, as the man desperate to undermine the town's pledge, and Bernard Hughes, as the chain-smoking town doctor, are the highlights of the piece. Newhart shows a comic range beyond his later television persona, and the only character in the movie who comes close to overshadowing Newhart's is Hughes' doctor. Hughes wrings every drop of laughter from his portrait of a man suffering seriously from withdrawal.

And then there's Bob and Ray. These comedians, known primarily from radio, portray satires on important newsmen of that era. Anyone alive when there were only three networks will recognize Bob's "David Chetley" and "Hugh Upson" and Ray's "Walter Chronic" and "Paul Hardly" ["Good day!"]. Every moment Bob and/or Ray are/is on-screen is golden.

So, it's possible to make a good and funny satire without giving undue offense to one's targets. It's a lesson many so-called "funny men" (and women) of today ought to learn.
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Shaggy Dog Story that Scratches in Spots
8 July 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Magic Christian" may have the finest cast ever assembled. If you know anything about the history of post-war British cinema, television and radio, you can see for yourself that this flick has an extremely impressive turn-out. And it is headed by no less than Peter Sellers and the Beatles' own Ringo Starr, who were both on top of the world in the late 1960s.

Even some extremely well-known American stars fall into the mix.

Unfortunately, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

Ostensibly about a father and son who try to show everyone has their price, the movie is comprised of various hit-and-miss skits that fall (broadly) under that rubric.

Instead, "The Magic Christian" is a crass and repugnant study of two grown men with more money than sense. Bored out of their skulls, they make everyone else dance on their strings. They are not people you want to know, unless you sell out easily.

The sketches are only loosely sewn together by the presence of Sellers, Starr, or Sellers and Starr, who are nearly always shown giving the lead actor in the sketch his pay-off.

Some of the sketches work well. Laurence Harvey is delightful in his "Hamlet" take-off. An extremely young John Cleese neatly steals the show from Sellers and Starr put together. Patrick Cargill's turn as the Sotheby's auctioneer is a masterpiece of understatement. In an extraordinarily short -- and unnecessary -- bit of nonsense, Raquel Welch appears to extremely good effect (it was impossible for her to look bad on-camera in those days)

Others do not fare so well. Since the writing and direction and editing are more to blame than the game performances, we will pass over them in silence. Let's just say most of the sketches lay an egg, and not a fresh one.

A few name actors have so little to do their parts might have been played by anybody -- or nobody. Richard Attenborough falls into this category. (Raquel Welch does not; only she could have played that small part -- if "small" is the operative word -- though Ursula Andress might have given it a damn good try)

The film builds toward the maiden voyage to America of "The Magic Christian" (captained by Wilfred Hyde-White, doing the shtick he could perform in his sleep -- and probably did in this case).

All the sketches prior to the ship are self-contained, with their own points -- usually. Actually, it would be more correct to say "The Magic Christian" repeatedly makes the same point in various, if not varied, ways.

During the voyage, the film becomes increasingly disjointed until pandemonium breaks loose. A lot of big stars run around doing silly things. This isn't normally bad. Some of my favorite movies have big stars running around doing silly things. But these things are not particularly funny, and many of them appear utterly utterly pointless.

The film reaches a satisfying (and not unwelcome) conclusion immediately after the voyage. Then it inexplicably lapses into an unfortunate denouement that hammers in its point, just in case we were too stupid to get it after ninety minutes of having it shouted at us.

This movie is a model for talking down to its audience. The makers of this film realize that they are oh, so much smarter than the poor, dumb, uneducated dolts, they (1) gave us a movie that requires no attention span and then (2) hammers the same point home until it's pounded all the way through the wood to penetrate our simple brains.

"The Magic Christian" is worth a peek for Sellers fans (where I fall), or anyone else who wants to see a favorite actor doing a bit that would have died in Vaudeville.

If you want a better movie starring really good actors in disjointed sketches that make various points, try "The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins" (directed by Graham Stark, who has an infinitesimal part in "The Magic Christian").
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World of Pub (2001– )
Love or Leave the World of Pub
28 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"World of Pub" began on radio, where they could do anything and do it quick. It was hilarious (at least, in its first incarnation).

The transfer to t.v. was not altogether successful. For instance, they tacked on a laugh track, so t.v. viewers would know when to laugh (if a show needs a cue to nudge viewers when it's time to laugh, that show should not be on the air). Fortunately, it's a soft laugh track, and one can ignore it and laugh whenever one chooses. A worse problem was the fact that they simply could not present many of the great ideas from radio (the roller-coaster was a big disappointment). On television there must be compromises on imagination.

As for the t.v. show itself -- it's about two brothers, Barry and Garry, who are always trying to drum up business for their pub. And whenever they need anything, they go to their only real regular, Dodgy Phil. After renovations (which often involve Edith Piaf) the pub adopts some new theme that, like Greek tragedy, leads inevitably to disaster.

Without the laugh track, it might have been one of the funniest shows ever. However, it would probably not have been considered universally funny.

I despise the old canard, "You'll love it or hate it." The t.v. "World of Pub" comes close. If seeing the Queen of England on fire, or watching a vomiting contest, tickles your funny bone, this is the show for you. Otherwise, you might want to drink someplace else.
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Best at Starting Post and Finish Line
24 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Roman Polanski's vampire movie ("The Fearless Vampire Killers" or "Dance of the Vampires", hereinafter referred to as "FVK") has a great post-credit start. The sleigh the fearless vampire killers are arriving on is attacked by wolves. They arrive at the inn and meet the wonderful Alfie Bass. They also meet the equally wonderful Sharon Tate, in (of all unlikely things, given the time period and the location) a hot bubble-bath. Can't get better than that.

The first attack of the vampire, the things that happen to Alfie Bass' character (I don't want to give too much away here), the pursuit of the vampire to the castle -- all these things lead you think you're going to watch the best vampire comedy ever.

And the end, from the point where the vampires actually rise and go to the dance (it's in the title so I'm not giving too much away there) to the final credit sequence, is magnificent.

The problem with this movie is its seemingly interminable middle, when the vampire killers are actually at the vampire castle. The castle itself is a beautiful piece of studio work, and it's extremely well-shot. Polanski can be a beautiful director.

Unfortunately, from the time the vampire killers get to the castle and meet Count Krolock, until they get locked up in the tower, nothing much of interest (and certainly little that's smile-provoking) happens. There are some very good ideas thrown out, and, I reiterate, it's all beautifully shot. If nothing else, "FVK" may be the most beautiful vampire movie ever. But Mel Brooks' rather sad and ultimately repellent "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" slings out as many good ideas in half an hour as "FVK" had in its running length (Brooks probably borrowed Polanski's best ideas, anyway).

I saw the 108 minute version. What must it have been like at the original length? Perhaps, when the studio re-cut the movie, they left all the laughs on the cutting-room floor. I'm a person who appreciates subtle humor, but the humor in the middle act of this movie was so subtle it put me to sleep.

By reports, Polanski disliked the studio editing his picture down to 107/8 minutes. An artist is not always the best judge of his own work. Maybe they should have continued reducing the middle section until the movie clocked in at 90 minutes.

The acting is uniformly good. Even Polanski, who seized one of the star parts for himself, turns in a creditable performance. Sharon Tate is radiant.
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A Different Sort of Clouseau, for Better or Worse
1 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
The three necessities for a good Pink Panther film are 1) Peter Sellers as Clouseau; 2) Blake Edwards as Director; 3) Henry Mancini as the writer of the music.

"Inspector Clouseau" contains none of these.

The music is the best of the three. Obviously, "Inspector Clouseau" does not have the "Pink Panther Theme" but neither does (arguably) the most satisfying Sellers/Edwards Clouseau collaboration, "A Shot in the Dark." ("A Shot in the Dark" does have a great Mancini score, especially its opening song). The music here is not Mancini, but it is workmanlike enough; and, in the long run, it's satisfactory. It lacks the Mancini magic, but it will do.

The AWOL Sellers is a more serious problem.

I have not seen the Clouseau re-set films with Steve Martin, but "Inspector Clouseau" seems to suggest that the good Inspector is not a James Bond, into whom any suitable actor may be plugged. James Bond was created in books before his movies were made, and so everyone had a chance to have a slightly different view of him.

Clouseau was created on film. Originally, the part was to be played by Peter Ustinov, but he backed out. Peter Sellers was riding a wave of popularity then, and director Edwards hired him for the first "The Pink Panther" (1963). Clouseau was not the star role, but Sellers stole the show and literally landed the role of a career.

Peter Sellers also may have been the best actor at physical slapstick since the Silent days. Just take a glance at the previews for other Clouseau films on the DVD of "Inspector Clouseau" and compare them with a whole movie full of Alan Arkin playing the same character.

Alan Arkin can be an extremely funny actor (see "The In-laws" [1979]). Unfortunately, his movements as Clouseau leave a lot to be desired. Two scenes spring to mind. In the first, Arkin's Clouseau is in the office of Commissioner Braithwaite (Patrick Cargill, one of the best things about this movie). He moves from chair to chair during the conversation, confusing Braithwaite; and the pay-off (which I won't divulge) is good. Sellers' Clouseau, however, would in small increments have left the office devastated. Later, there is a scene in a gentleman's club where Arkin's Clouseau runs around smashing things left and right with a Geiger counter. Sellers' movements were like ballet. He and Edwards would never have been satisfied with just swinging one instrument around and wreaking destruction with it.

(This is not to say Edwards himself could not be guilty of coarse comedy statements, or serious mistakes in judgment. Compare the scenes of Catherine Schell laughing at Clouseau's foolishness in "Return of the Pink Panther" to the much funnier scene in "A Shot in the Dark" when George Sanders stares on blankly on while Sellers' Clouseau demolishes his billiard room. And then Edwards made the misjudgment of trying to continue the series -- with Ted Wass and later with Roberto Benigni -- after Sellers' death.)

Then, near the end of "Inspector Clouseau," Arkin's Clouseau indulges in the unthinkable: self-reflection. He suggests to someone else that he may have been a failure, confessing that nothing ever goes right for him and he might be to blame.

This is impossible for Sellers' Clouseau. One famous reviewer (I can't think of his name) once mentioned how Sellers' Clouseau looks with sad reproach at a doorknob that has just come off in his hand. It is the doorknob that comes off in his hand that is guilty of a faux pas, not Clouseau himself. Sellers' Clouseau is the ultimate egotist. He always thinks he's right, even when he is forced to admit he was wrong.

There is the occasional moment in the "Pink Panther" films where a look comes over the face of Sellers' Clouseau that suggests nothing ever goes right and he can expect nothing better out of life. But Sellers' Clouseau will never admit his own ineptitude is responsible, neither to himself nor (especially) to another.

Arkin was probably a good selection on paper for Sellers' replacement. Unfortunately, in this movie, at least, he lacked Sellers' panache at physical slapstick.

The direction . . . is passable. The story leaves a lot to be desired, and the director should not have been satisfied with it. There are too many gaps where nothing funny is even suggested.

On the plus side of "Inspector Clouseau":

1) For all its flaws, the script does have some ingenious ideas, and even a few honest laughs. Arkin hits his stride as Clouseau starting with the meeting with Weaver on the train to Switzerland, but he falls out again when he sees Barry Foster's character on the street.

2) The cast is A-list. Arkin is a superb actor; it's too bad he comes off as a good actor "playing" Clouseau rather than being Clouseau. He is supported by Frank Finlay, Barry Foster, Patrick Cargill, Beryl Reid, and Tutte Lemkow (as one of the baddies in one of his patented small performances).

Clive Francis, who would in later years become an extremely watchable actor, lets the side down a bit as Clyde Hargreaves. He doesn't seem to be a comfortable fit for this part.

On the whole, it's easy to see why Sellers declined to take part in this movie. Arkin would have made a better choice to be a Clouseau-clone; but with the script problems, this movie might not have been made without the Clouseau imprimatur.

Whether it would have been better with Sellers, or whether this script and movie would have rung the death knell for Clouseau if Sellers had made it, we'll never know. It's just as well Sellers opted out, or he might not have had his triumphant return as Clouseau in "The Return of the Pink Panther."
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Take What You Can Get
6 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The four plays Shakespeare wrote about the Wars of the Roses is capped by the very famous Richard III. But Richard, taken literally, doesn't make much sense unless one is familiar with aspects of the previous three plays, which deal with the reign of Henry VI.

The series of Henry VI plays presented in the BBC's Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare boasts a powerhouse ensemble cast, including but not limited to: Trevor Peacock, Frank Middlemass, Bernard Hill ("Lord of the Rings"), David Burke (Brett's Watson in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"), Mark Wing-Davey ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), Tenniel Evans ("The Navy Lark") and Ron Cook ("Topsy-Turvy") who goes on to play Richard III.

These Henry VI plays are presented in bare-bones style, probably reminiscent of the way they were done on stage at the Globe Theater four hundred years ago.

This may have been dictated by financial straits. Or it may have been inspired by the Royal Shakespeare Company's successful nine-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" -- which was never boring.

It may also reflect a lack of respect for the source material (even the best actors in this series don't resist the urge to mug and leer and overplay; Julia Foster's Margaret is particularly grating on the nerves -- which is too bad, since once Margaret steps on the stage she dominates Henry VI).

Whether because of money or a lack of respect -- or even perhaps because the people who made them had fundamental misunderstandings about them -- this presentation grows quickly tiresome. If they thought they were doing something clever, they weren't.

It's too bad. The Henry VI plays are not often presented, and the only other notable version done for television and out on DVD (that I know about) is the 1960s series "The Age of Kings", which does all eight plays between Richard II and Richard III in one-hour formats (I think they were live, so the actors are reciting Shakespeare against the clock).

"The Age of Kings" also, due to the limitations of budget and especially the limitations of the television medium at the time, did necessarily stagy productions. The actors of the '60s series (including a young Sean Connery as Hotspur) do their best at just finding their t.v. marks within phony backdrops that seem ready to collapse on them.

It's too bad that the Henry VI plays done by the BBC twenty years later, as part of the Complete Dramatic Works, could not have been opened out like some of the other plays in this series (i.e."As You Like It" or "Henry VIII"). If they had to be done on interior sets, they were worthy of a better design (like "Twelfth Night" or "Much Ado About Nothing" -- even "The Merry Wives of Windsor", a perfectly lousy play with perfectly wonderful sets!) And the material should have been treated with more respect. Not because it's "Shakespeare" as a name to conjure with. "They" knew when they started this complete series of the plays that they were to be something of a touchstone. It's all right to experiment with the more well-known plays; no series could boast "the standard" version of Hamlet or Julius Caesar. But the little-known plays, which most people simply will never see in their lifetimes anywhere else, should have been trotted out in their Sunday best. This includes these Henry VI plays. The Henry VI plays should at least have the interest of a soap-opera -- which is basically what it is. It's a soap with a martial setting. Instead, it's just a confusing lot of sound and fury, signifying, in the long run, nothing.

I don't know where the blame lies. It may be Jonathan Miller, or it may be the director. Perhaps the BBC showed them their empty pockets and told them to do their best. Or maybe no one cared about these plays enough to present them with the respect they deserved.

Like the 1960s series "The Age of Kings" this version of the Henry VI plays had a lot of very good actors (some of whom I have seen performing better with less) ultimately unable to capture a willing suspension of disbelief.

One revelation was Mark Wing-Davey's Warwick. He's looks too young (Warwick was in his forties and Wing-Davey's in his thirties), but he does a magnificent job in the first performance I'd ever seen where he only has one head.

The Henry VI series has other high spots, but taken at a whole it's unnecessary strident; and it's especially wearying since the Henry VI plays are all very long (or does it just seem that way?) and have a lot of characters who are not adequately described. I followed along in my Arden.

Unfortunately, "The Age of Kings" eviscerated Henry VI, Part I, so this particular version is best chance most people will have of seeing the bulk of Henry VI, Part I. We who don't live with an easy access to Stratford have to take what we can get.
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The Busy Body (1967)
Enjoy with Low Expectations
9 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"The Busy Body" has much working in its favor.

First of all, it has a source book by comedy/crime writer Donald E. Westlake. I haven't read the original novel but the script has several amusing elements that perfectly fit Westlake's style.

It also has that "Vic Mizzy sound." Mizzy did music for "Green Acres" and "The Addams Family" as well as Don Knotts vehicles. His work is more typically associated with rural or small-town atmospheres, and it's good to hear that it works just as well in an urban setting. He provides a memorable theme (though not in the way you think).

"The Busy Body" has first-rate comedy line-up. Among those who get laughs are Godfrey Cambridge and Mary Ingles as a couple of inept hit-men; a young Dom DeLuis trying to make a name for himself in a thankless role; and comedy veteran Ben Blue. And Arlene Golonka is always worth watching.

Bill Dana is unable to make much of his blink-and-you'll miss him part (the writers should have given him more business). Now comedic legend Richard Pryor, in his first major film role, does a creditable job playing it straight as a police officer.

The script has many amusing plot twists (probably derived straight from Westlake).

If you are bothered by graves, caskets, the funeral industry, and dead bodies in general, you won't enjoy this movie. If, however, desecrating graves, digging up corpses, and seeing live people trapped with dead people all suits your sense of humor, you'll be more inclined to enjoy this little comedy.

The problems with the feature include its star, Sid Caesar. This is a part that might have been written for Don Knotts (or, in an earlier era, Danny Kaye). Caesar could be a funny man, though one is probably more prone to laugh at his shtick if one grew up with "Your Show of Shows" (I did not, coming along in the next decade). Caesar starred in few movies, and it was questionable whether he ever should have ever tried to carry a feature, since he can give such good support. Dick van Dyke would have been a happier choice for the lead -- or Knotts, who would at least give us his googly eyes.

Robert Ryan's crime boss is played to the hilt -- and that's a bad thing. Don't expect Ryan to turn in the sort of part that would be offered to serious actors in movies like "Airplane" a decade later, where they were able to be serious yet spoofing. Ryan has one note and he seems far too serious and professional a crime boss to hire this gang.

Caesar plays a young man who has just been made a Board Member of his Organization. Unfortunately, the organization is criminal; and when he loses one million dollars (that was a lot of money in those days -- think "Austin Powers") that may be buried with a friend, the crime boss tells him to recover it -- or else. But Caesar has various problems in locating the right body. At one time he has too few bodies; at another time, too many. The movie is helped by DVD -- on television it was always pan-and-scan, and that kills comedy. Director William Castle (a strange choice) doesn't really use the entire frame to full comedic effect, but it's nice to see the movie as it was intended.

It's not one of the all-time great comedies and it's not a hitherto undiscovered classic. It's just a sweet little comedy about dead bodies and grave robbing and I like it.
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Almost Perfect
2 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This "Importance of Being Earnest" is a funny movie derived from Oscar Wilde's best play. There are no clunkers in the cast and hardly a wrong step is made, even when Wilde is altered.

Dame Edith Evans did not make her stage debut until fifteen years after "Earnest" first premiered, so Oscar Wilde could not have had her in mind when he created the role of Lady Bracknell; but she is so perfect it becomes difficult to imagine anyone else in the part, ever. She manages to squeeze every note of the music of human language into simple words like "found" and "handbag."

Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson, two famous and prolific actors of the "British dotty school" come very close to being ideal for their more minor parts of (respectfully) Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble.

For the young lovers, the women are well chosen and make a fine contrast. Sultry-voiced Joan Greenwood has had a solid film career to this point (including the Alec Guiness classic "Man in a White Suit") and she knows how to deliver a comic line. Then new-comer Dorthy Tutin is so good with her lines, you'd think she was an old-hand, rather than a fresh-faced, twenty-two year old newcomer making her first major film appearance.

The "young men" are sometimes thought of as more problematic. Michael Redgrave (unfortunately known these days more for being the father of Vanessa and Lynn than for his great acting) was in his forties. Mainly stage-bound actor Michael Denison was in his thirties. Denison wonderfully limns the all-important character of Algernon Moncrieff. He's young-looking and exuberant and delivers his lines with great care and consideration (Algernon is an easy character to go hammy with and Denison avoids that trap).

For his part, Redgrave compensates for his age by an exquisitely-honed performance. Not only is his delivery spot-on, he practically gives a workshop on how to get a laugh with a slight twitch of a mustache or the roll of an eye. Redgrave and Denison seem to be having a high old time with their roles, while taking them seriously and never overacting.

Also, be on the look-out for long-time supporting actor Richard Wattis as "Seton." Blink, and you'll miss him, as he flits in to raise a supercilious eyebrow or two.

Some Wilde purists may object to the expurgation of lines. Many of the lines cut are the sort of thing that probably just struck Wilde as "a good idea at the time" and no one will miss them. Other lines may have been cut to keep this movie short, light and frothy. Wilde could be very funny, but he could also be unnecessarily cruel. I don't think he would have been a nice man to know, the way he could sling around hurtful lines to humorous effect. All his characters have been accused of "talking like Wilde" -- which is true to different degrees. A few of the missing lines were genuine, polished gems and it was a pity they weren't included. Also, the sub-plot of Grisby, which only appears in longer versions of the play, does not rear its ugly head in this short version (and good riddance). I, for one, am glad they kept the movie light and without a mean bone in its body.

The movie has also been changed subtly from the stage. The stage version has the action taking place on a minimum of sets. The movie remains bound to the sound-stage and never really ventures out of doors (even in the outdoors scenes) but it adds a few more sets and more mobility. For instance, it begins in Jack's flat rather than in Algernon's. For me, this works even better than the stage version and gives Jack a good reason to throw one of Algernon's lines back in his face.

So, you have a good play shorn of overmuch dialogue and a solid cast acting their hearts out. I don't know why I call it "Almost Perfect."
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The Time Tunnel (1966–1967)
Is it Good or is it Nostalgia
28 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Many comments on Irwin Allen's "The Time Tunnel" begin with the commentator revealing how old he/she was when this show aired, which suggests love for it may hinge on nostalgia for the show rather than on its quality. We loved the show when we were kids and have a fond affection for it that may amount to more than the show is worth.

The show is about two physicists, Doug and Tony, who get trapped in an experimental Time Tunnel, a secret government project that has wasted mega taxpayer dollars (for 1966), with nothing to show for it but a defective Time Tunnel. In the first episode, a government bean-counter wants to cut the taxpayer's losses and shut it down. Tony, a young punk physicist (who looks barely old enough to have a degree, much less have been on the project seven years) rather stupidly goes in at night and makes himself a human guinea pig for the Tunnel. When he winds up on the "Titanic" (which the scientists running the Tunnel can see as if someone is out at sea with a camera recording the sinking), an older physicist, Doug, goes to "rescue" him. And the Tunnel scientists are unable to bring them back but continually drop them into precarious historical situations (the eruption of Krakatoa, for instance).

I was five/six and my brother was three years older when "The Time Tunnel" first aired. I liked Tony and he liked Doug, so when we played "Time Tunnel" out in the yard there was never a fight over who would be whom (we were also, considering our ages, about the same *relative* heights of the actors playing Doug and Tony). However, since our historical knowledge at that age was slim-to-none, I doubt our imitative adventures had much depth to them. All I remember is our waving our arms about, playing like we were going through time via the show's beautiful kaleidoscopic effects.

When I watched "The Time Tunnel" on DVD in 2009, I hadn't seen the show in more than 40 years. In the meantime, friends who had also been fans when they were under the age of ten told me they caught the show on cable and it wasn't as good as they remembered. They frankly warned me off it.

The special effects of "The Time Tunnel" are state-of-the-art (for 1966 television). It had that "let's not worry about the logic too much – let's just do it!" attitude, and with that the ongoing notion that viewers could overlook lapses in logic if only the show made enough noise. And occasionally one just has to close one's eyes (as when guest star Carroll O'Connor, with a flimsy English accent, gets caught up in the time-travel special effects and looks shamefully ludicrous).

Well, forty years on, I can see through the paper-thin effects. And my historical knowledge is greatly improved (I did two years of graduate work in history). I'm puzzled that these physicists seem to know an awful lot about history. Perhaps education was better when they were in school, but I've met few scientists who know more than (usually inaccurate) common knowledge about historical events. (Doug and Tony seem to know so much history off the cuff, I was gratified in one episode to learn they didn't know anything specifically about British regimental history from the War of 1812. These physicists are also expert with their fists, and often duke it out successfully against formidable opponents).

Doug and Tony lead strange lives. They never seem to eat much -- and they don't get much sleep (unless they go into a kind of hibernation when time-traveling). And the Time Tunnel itself is a bizarre device. Why bother to travel in time if you can see historical events unfolding in real time as if on a screen in "tunnel-vision"? (There is a serious issue with privacy, too, if the Time Tunnel can see anything happening at any time – as if someone had a camera at the Alamo.) One also worries about the Time Tunnel complex. Built as an underground facility in the western American desert, it goes down in the ground forever and looks a lot like the Death Star (this is actually a good effect). Security seems tight, but there's an awful lot of gun-play in the facility. And the hyper-excited scientists running the thing always seem to be and near the breaking point (obviously overworking and perhaps too much coffee).

Despite all this, speaking just for myself, I still enjoy the show. Those who grew up in the age of CGI might very well be disappointed in the effects. Nevertheless, I think it is a show that should be watched because it does present history – a subject I adore but which others inexplicably shy away from - as the great adventure it is. History is not a dry list of names and dates. As Doug and Tony prove in every episode, history is an ongoing story that deserves revisiting for sheer fun.

"The Time Tunnel" still makes me want run out in the yard and wave my arms about as I travel to some great historical event, with my improved historical knowledge.
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Whole doesn't add up to the sum of its parts
31 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
This gets 5 stars for pretty good special effects and nice production values. (Director Stanley Donen probably got practice for these pre-CGI effects by directing Fred Astaire dance up the walls in "Royal Wedding")

For the rest of it: How can a musical by Lerner & Loewe ("My Fair Lady", "Gigi", "Camelot", "Brigadoon", etc.) directed by Stanley Donen ("Singing in the Rain", "Bedazzled", "Charade", etc.) go wrong, especially if it features a small but notable cast that includes guest shots by Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder? Quite easily, actually.

Perhaps part of the problem is the source material. The young adult book THE LITTLE PRINCE is a sweet but didactic tome. Lerner, arguably the best lyric writer of his time (a time including Oscar Hammerstein III) was also a slow and lazy worker. He was also known for filling his body with large amounts of chemicals. He always had a problem with structure and always did better work when he started with good source material ("Pygmalion"/"My Fair Lady").

THE LITTLE PRINCE has an episodic structure. One would think Lerner would leap at the opportunity to present songs in different worlds, with characters having such various points of view.

Instead, the bulk of the songs are given to the aviator character by Richard Kiley (notable exceptions are Fosse and Wilder). Lerner alters the character of the King and changes the Geographer into an Historian (rendering the character senseless). He drops other promising figures, adds a General to the mix, and makes the whole story even more doctrinaire than the original.

Clive Revill and Victor Spinetti do superb jobs in shamefully short roles, as the Businessman and the Historian, respectively. They do not have unique songs. As they are photographed in exactly the same way (through some weird fish-eye lens -- I'm no photographer so I don't know a more precise term), their characters are not distinctive. One may be forgiven for thinking they're on the same world and might be related.

In slightly longer roles, Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder have unique songs, and also interesting settings. Both play animals. Fosse is the Snake and he has a sinuous dance that might be beautiful if it weren't shown in bits and pieces (there is also a real snake and it plays a large part in the movie for all you Ophidiophobics -- including me). Wilder is the Fox and he's fairly typical early Wilder. But they're lost in the whole of the movie.

And Stanley Donen? Lest we forget, he also directed "Blame it on Rio." To be fair, he apparently helmed only one movie between 1967's "Bedazzled" and 1974's "Little Prince." He may have been rusty.

The main problem here is Lerner. Loewe's music is good in his last outing with Lerner, even if the tunes lack his typical hummability. Lerner's lyrics lack his clever wordplay. They're repetitive, redundant (those two words in juxtaposition give you some idea of what the lyrics are like) and lackluster.

The actors do their best. Richard Kiley is a strong anchor for the show as a whole. But "The Little Prince" leaves one unsatisfied.
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23 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers below! I describe the entire film!

Harry Langdon was one of the great silent comics. He arrived later than Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, following twenty years of success in Vaudeville. His act earned many fans -- including Harold Lloyd, who recommended that his friend and producer, Hal Roach, sign Langdon to a film contract.

In the end, Roach didn't sign Langdon. The successful comic took other bids, and Langdon began his movie career elsewhere.

Over a series of shorts, Langdon gradually honed his movie character. He looked young for his age and he used heavy white make-up to provide himself with a child-like appearance. He gradually developed more child-like mannerisms, until he became like a child in a man's body.

Unfortunately, Langdon's film persona did not prove nearly so elastic as personas of his peers. Keaton's "stone face" (unsmiling but not inexpressive) and Lloyd's bespectacled boy next door fit on almost any rung of the social ladder. They played rich and poor, city and urban alike (see Keaton's historical comedy "The General" and Lloyd's pastoral "The Kid Brother", both of which came out the same year as "Three's a Crowd.")

Langdon's childish character fit nicely in short films; but after a few notable feature films ("The Strong Man" and "Tramp Tramp Tramp"), his finely-honed character's bag of tricks was running low.

With two good films behind him that played to audience expectations in their admirable presentation of his film persona, Langdon may have felt compelled to make his character explore darker and more uncertain regions.

His next feature, "Long Pants", was about an aspiring womanizer who takes the local girl who loves him out in the woods to shoot her to freely pursue the drug-smuggling vamp he lusts for. The movie is extremely funny, though in places Langdon does show his ability to milk a joke too far.

Langdon followed "Long Pants" with his directorial debut, "Three's a Crowd" (Hereinafter "TAC"). So many reviewers have focused on what "TAC" is not, they've done a disservice to what "TAC" is.

**SPOILER ALERT** Here's the movie in a nutshell: Harry is a poor chap working for a low-rent moving company. Though he wants a family, Harry doesn't know how to get one. The film introduces Harry in an amusing vignette of gags that builds to a great set-piece of Harry hanging by a rug from a trap door beneath a very high apartment. In keeping with his character, Harry cannot comprehend the physics of his situation. He keeps climbing up the rug and opening the trap door; and every time the trap door opens, more of the rug slides out and Harry comes closer to falling. It's a good sequence and the image of Langdon hanging by a rug should be iconic.

With Harry's character set up, the weather turns bitter. A woman wandering away from an alcoholic husband is lost in the snow. Harry finds her when she collapses and puts her to bed. When he discovers she's about to have a baby, he rushes out and rustles up every doctor and midwife in town. When the baby is born, Harry believes he has discovered an instant family.

Then he finds a picture of the woman's husband. He's very handsome, and Harry starts to beat the picture up. Having consulted a palmist, Harry is persuaded that he deserves this family and the woman will come to love him.

Though the term "pathos" is overused for the movie, Langdon continues to build his gag sequences -- such as baking a peach pie in a diaper. Langdon always had great eye movements, and his look when he discovers this mistake is a classic moment.

Harry climbs into a crib with the baby and rocks it to sleep -- and himself with it. While he sleeps, Harry dreams that the woman's husband arrives like a stereotypical silent-movie villain to steal Harry's family away. Harry tries to stop him, and they two wind up in a boxing match for possession of the family. After a set-up about a growing boxing glove, Harry loses the bout almost immediately.

When he wakes up, the husband does arrive to take his family home. He's turned over a new leaf. He shakes Harry's hand for caring for his family, then he takes his wife and child away in a fine automobile (circa 1927). Harry has their gratitude and their promise of a reward and continued friendship for all he's done. But Harry, selfishly, doesn't want to see his instant family taken from him.

Harry wanders out into the street to the Palmist's shop. He's about to throw his trademark brick through the storefront window, but he tosses it away instead -- knocking loose a huge, metal drum, which crashes through the Palmist's shop, utterly destroying it. So the movie ends


Though some of the direction is rough, the film has nice moments, as when Harry blows out a kerosene lamp -- and all the street-lamps fade, too. And "Three's a Crowd" lacks any sequence with an overlong milking of a joke, as in "Long Pants" when Langdon tried to get a ventriloquist's dummy to chase him.

"TAC" wasn't the instant classic Langdon wanted. It failed at the box office. And unlike other failures in their day (Keaton's "The General" -- or even "Citizen Kane") critical opinion has not changed in more than 80 years since the film's release. He did remain true to the character he had developed over the years; but perhaps he strayed too far from situations to which his audience were conditioned. "TAC" is worth seeing as part of the continuing development of an artist looking for new ways to peddle his wares. It needs to be accepted on its own uncompromising terms, though it should be seen after his shorts and his other features.
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Long Pants (1927)
Ahead of its Time
14 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Beware spoilers!

Anyone desiring to know the great comedy movies of the "silent" era would be well advised to see Keaton's "The General"; and Lloyd's "The Kid Brother" and "Safety Last." But the notoriously dark comedy "Long Pants"? Yet, strangely, "Long Pants" -- starring the often overlooked comedy genius of Harry Langdon -- is a movie on an edge, with more appeal almost a century after it was made.

Harry Langdon was once mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. He still is sometimes added as a fourth pillar supporting silent comedy. But his position as that pillar is iffy.

Langdon's problem was a limited character. Most of the silent comics were grotesques. Even Laurel and Hardy -- the fat one and skinny one -- were grotesques in a minor way. Chaplin was considered the greatest of the grotesques: a little tramp with a little mustache who lived in an alternate universe. Two of the most popular comic actors of their time -- and today -- were not grotesques: Buster Keaton with his "stone face" (unsmiling but not unemotional); and Harold Lloyd, the boy-next-door. Both these personas proved extremely elastic. The obvious greatness of Keaton and Lloyd as film makers, then and now, throws into question whether grotesques were necessary at all.

Langdon arrived in films at the age of 40 after 20 years of vaudeville fame, and he developed his film persona in a series of shorts for Mack Sennett, the king of freewheeling slapstick. Langdon's character was another grotesque. He looked young for his age, and he used lots of extremely white make-up, making him baby-faced. He also developed wonderfully childlike mannerisms. His child-man persona, however, did not stretch too far. Langdon had a limited bag of tricks (he used the same act, with variations, in vaudeville for two decades). By the time of "Long Pants" his bag was nearly empty. He had to take his character to another level.

Langdon's new direction was to push the envelope on what was acceptable in comedy. "Long Pants" -- directed by the famous Frank Capra but no doubt strongly influenced by Langdon -- stretched the child-man's comedy as far as it could go without deforming it.

Today, it would hardly be shocking. Langdon plays a small-town 18 year old (he's not a man-child but a child becoming a man) who reads too much romance. He seems destined to marry a local girl; but when the car of a cocaine-smuggling vamp breaks down in his neighborhood, Harry wants to make a romantic impression on her. He first tries to impress her by showing off the "long pants" he's wearing for the first time. Then he tries a number of bicycle-riding tricks around her car. When she amuses the boy by kissing him (and knocking him literally off his feet) he is smitten. When Harry finds letter written to the vamp by a lover that gets left behind -- and which Langdon thinks she wrote to him -- he falls head-over-heels in love with her.

The letter makes Harry think the vamp is returning to marry him. She doesn't return, and Harry is pressured by his folks into marrying the local girl.

On his wedding day, Harry sees in the paper that the vamp he's in love with is in prison. Desperately wanting to help her, Harry brainstorms ways of getting out of the wedding, including taking his bride out into the woods and shooting her in the back of the head.

Soon after this vision, Harry, taps at the window where the girl is donning her bridal clothes. He suggests a stroll together in the woods. The bride is game and she climbs out -- and the viewer glimpses the pistol in Harry's pocket.

Needless to say, the dream of calmly taking someone out and shooting them is lots simpler than the reality. Everything goes wrong that can go wrong, including Harry's losing the pistol in a pile of leaves and getting himself tangled up in barbed wire. The girl proves uncooperative as well. And Harry himself gets the jitters. Finally, he gets the girl to cooperate by turning away and counting to 500; and after the count she turns to see Harry, after several little accidents, sitting on a log with his high hat pushed down to his chin and his right leg caught in a bear trap.

There's not really much shocking about the scene these days, in the wake of comedy inspired by the likes of the Farrelly brothers. Considering that the girl is utterly sweet and stupid, a modern audience would probably be cheering Harry on.

If you don't start laughing at Harry's appearance at the window and at the sight of the gun, and not stop until you see Harry with his dreams of murder shattered, with his hat over his eyes and his foot in a bear trap . . . perhaps this movie's not for you.

If it is for you, you'll see Harry arriving at prison just in time to assist his unladylike-love in a jail break. He nails her in a packing crate, where she suffers several indignities. Harry also suffers, at the hands of a dummy policeman -- yes, a *dummy* policeman -- and at the teeth of an alligator.

In the end, the "snow queen" tracks down the woman who betrayed her to the authorities, and there is a cat-fight in a small-room in the back of a dance-hall. Harry's final rejection of his lover is hilarious.

There is a coda where Harry learns a lesson that shocks him out of his day-dreams. The movie ends on a laugh, but it is muted by bitter-sweetness.

The best way to take this movie is to watch how Langdon develops his character through his shorts; then by watching two main-stream Langdon features, "The Strong Man" and "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp."
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