A Month of Media: December Movies and DVDs
December 31, 2012

Annie Hall (1977)

I very much dislike watching most Woody Allen movies, because his personality colors my take on his work. (Fairly, I think, since so many of his films are about him or someone just like him.) However, I thought I’d better see this one, since it’s possibly his greatest and best-known. Watching it now is bizarre, since I’ve seen so many bits inspired by it or clips elsewhere. Aside from the clothes and similar period touches, the moviemaking approach and the content is still very modern.

Ball of Fire (1941)
A Song Is Born (1948)

I’ve previously written about these two movies, telling the same story of a nightclub singer who shakes up a group of stodgy professors, but I hadn’t before realized that Miss Totten, the funder of the encyclopedia the men are working on, was played by the same woman in both films, Mary Field.

Ball of Fire is the better movie, since Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper spark a lot more than Virginia Mayo and Danny Kaye. Plus, I enjoy the weirdo slang of the first film more than the jazz of the second, although it is neat to hear Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong.

Black Widow (1954)

Slow-paced thriller that starts out as a behind-the-scenes Broadway show business piece. (It’s not nearly as sexy or exciting as the cover art suggests.) Van Heflin is the producer husband of actress Gene Tierney. While she’s out of town, he takes an aspiring writer (Peggy Ann Garner) under his wing. It’s all mentor-ish, although everyone thinks otherwise. The day the wife returns, the girl is found hanged in his apartment. Soon, he’s being investigated for murder — turns out the nice young girl had her own secrets and schemes.

Typical of this era, he has to investigate for himself to clear his name, demonstrating the beginnings of mistrust for authority, but in a very deliberately paced way. Ginger Rogers is a friend of the couple, although I found her nearly unrecognizable in the beginning, with short curly hair and a mannered way of speaking. She’s playing a bitchy actress who tells everyone the gossip without thought of the truth or their feelings. Also typical of movies from this time period, I most enjoyed seeing the clothes and the amazing apartments.

Boys’ Night Out (1962)

James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Duff, and Howard Morris are four commuters who weekly spend an evening in the city, away from their wives. (Only Garner is single, divorced.) However, they’re bored with simply hanging out in the bar drinking, so they hatch a plan: they’ll all pitch in to share a rented apartment and find a blonde to live there for their own little sneaky bachelor pad.

Today’s viewers will laugh sadly at the expenses listed for a “halfway decent” apartment — $450 a month — and the expectations for the usual costs — phone, utilities, laundry, and a part-time maid. Ah, middle class life the way it used to be. Before we got all our own machines. And the movie’s sensibilities … every time the boys tell a naughty story on the train home, another train passes by with too much noise for us to hear! Everyone makes all their decisions while nearly drunk, too.

Anyway, Kim Novak takes the gig as kept woman because she’s really a doctoral student in sociology researching suburban men. She quickly has them all wrapped around her finger. Duff only wants a chance to fix things, when his wife keeps paying handymen for repairs; Morris resents being put on a diet just because his wife wants to lose weight; and Randall simply needs attention, since his wife is stuck on crosswords and other games. The humor frequently comes from watching them try to deal with their fantasies come true, which they are woefully unprepared to cope with. There’s also a certain amount of suburban satire, especially during the Little League game.

Supporting cast include Jessie Royce Landis as Garner’s mother, Patti Page as Duff’s wife, Fred Clark as a private eye, Jim Backus all-too-briefly as a real estate agent, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as a floozy. Director Michael Gordon also made the classic Doris Day/ Rock Hudson sex comedy Pillow Talk. The sensibilities are similar. It’s dated, but boy, that apartment looks great.

Gambling Lady (1934)

Barbara Stanwyck in the title role as a skilled poker player, caught between well-off society boy Joel McCrea and bookie Pat O’Brien. She marries McCrea, but her presence ends up getting him suspected of murder. Surprising twists and turns, including suicide, blackmail, and divorce make this a watchable pre-Code. Claire Dodd is particularly notable as the woman from McCrea’s social tier who wants to take him from Stanwyck at any cost. It’s short, just over an hour, so moves quickly.

Hold Your Man (1933)

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in a con artist tale with a half-naked meet cute. He busts in on her in the bathtub while running from the cops, only to take her place in the tub as an alibi. They’re both very tough cookies, but that makes their falling in love more believable.

As schemes multiply, they end up in jail at various times, only to finally find redemption together. But first, this turns into a female prison film, with Harlow paying the price to become a better woman in the kind of very abbreviated ending/coda typical of old movies.

I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011)

Pure mommy fantasy, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, whom I dislike more the more I see her. In this movie, everyone, no matter what they say, really wants to have kids. Hard-charging executives think you’re so good at your job that they forgive you taking time off for your children. Pierce Brosnan will fall in love with your quirkiness and dedication and scattered behavior in spite of you being married to a guy (Greg Kinnear) who still wants to make out with you and takes on more of the child care when you need him to. The stay-at-home Martha Stewart moms really don’t have it together, and your best friend (Christina Hendricks) will say all the feminist stuff to the camera so you can still look soft and goofy. It’s a completely mommy-focused world — which makes the problem that this film was targeting an audience too busy to go see it. For the rest of us, there’s no point, no good comedy, no insight, no reward. Total waste of a good cast.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I gave this another try after a friend said it was his favorite Christmas classic. I appreciate it more than I did previously — having to make life choices about jobs and family and moving will do that to you — but it still doesn’t tug my heartstrings the way I think it should. Perhaps the alternate universe we see without Jimmy Stewart’s good guy is just too realistic these days.

Or perhaps I’ve seen too many TV versions of the plot. I’m not sure whether shows do A Christmas Carol — humbug-spewing grouch sees ghosts, learns the meaning of the holiday — or this — depressed character gets to see just how much positive effect they’ve had on those around them — more. At least Moonlighting one year got vaguely original in doing the original Christmas story, with a pregnant homeless woman. But I digress.

I miss seeing Potter, the thief, get what he deserves. There’s so much (frankly unbelievable these days) goodwill in the town turning out to save George Bailey, but I wanted to see a bit more of how things settled out. Still, it’s full of excellent performances, and it’s a brisk reminder of the choices we all can and should make.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Another classic movie overtaken by technology. Barbara Stanwyck (she was the star of the month on TCM) is making an operator-assisted call when she’s connected to the wrong number due to a crossed telephone wire and hears a murder plot. She plays a bedridden invalid, and the actress does an amazing job making this unpleasant, demanding character someone you still want to watch. At least she suffers in style, with crystal water glasses for her medicine and a lace bed jacket.

It’s a great movie portrayal of paranoia, with Stanwyck’s character left alone by her condition and the telephone serving as her only means of connection with the world. She becomes increasingly worried by her husband (Burt Lancaster) not coming home when she expects. Lots of the movie is told in flashback, as characters review what they’ve seen or remember. Stanwyck comes to realize that she’s the intended victim, due to her family situation. She was a spoiled rich daddy’s girl, used to using her “condition” to get what she wants. (She has attacks when things don’t go her way.) She didn’t realize the ultimate effects of getting what she wanted when she pushed someone from a different background and social class into marrying her. He’s resentful, being a kept man with a vice-president title for show.

The police department uses an old two-part candlestick phone! And the little boy has such elegant phone manners, the kind that aren’t taught any more. Phone booths, pay phones that cost a nickel … it’s fun just to see how communication worked before cellphones. On top of watching Stanwyck continuing to fall apart in ever-more-histronic ways. It’s a true noir, so don’t expect a happy ending.

Vamps (2012)

Amy Heckerling (Clueless) reteams with Alicia Silverstone for a direct-to-video movie about how exhausting it is to try and stay young and up with the trends and fashions. Silverstone is Goody, a young woman turned into a vampire in 1860; Krysten Ritter is Stacy, her best friend, turned in the 80s. The two ponder love while clubbing and refusing to drink people blood. (They survive on rats.) They constantly try to keep up with slang, hip clothes, tech, and all the minutiae that defines our modern lives, but Goody’s getting tired of having to relearn everything every decade are so.

While the cast is amazing — other stars include Richard Lewis, Sigourney Weaver, Wallace Shawn, Malcolm McDowell, and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) — and I was sympathetic to the theme, unfortunately, the actual movie is slow and unfunny. There are some touching moments, as when the non-aging Goody runs into Lewis, playing her now-much-older love from the 1960s, and the chemistry between Ritter and Stevens is good, but most of the film is just wasting time on scenes you’ve seen before elsewhere. Especially the rants about cellphones.

7 Responses  
Ralf Haring writes:  

I haven’t watched most of Allen’s work (there’s so many!) but I thought two of his more recent films stood out from his usual mold. Match Point is dissimilar to anything else I’ve seen from him, not comedic but instead a taut drama/thriller. Midnight in Paris hews closer to the mold, but Owen Wilson is different enough from his usual stand-ins. Combined with the lush period Parisian setting it was pretty memorable.

Johanna writes:  

I didn’t see Match Point because I saw Scoop, and they sounded too similar to me. I’ve thought I should try the Paris film, but it seemed like the message was solely “things were better then”, and I was hoping for more to the plot than just nostalgia. Am I wrong about that?

Ralf Haring writes:  

It’s been a while since I saw Scoop, but I didn’t think highly of it when I saw it. I vaguely remember it being a pretty zany movie whereas Match Point was a completely no-nonsense dramatic story. Allen himself isn’t in it, nor is there a Woody Allen analogue character. It’s difficult to imagine him making a movie like that, and the stark contrast is partially why it stands out for me.

Nostalgia does play into Midnight in Paris. The Owen Wilson character is enraptured by the idea of Paris in the 20s as he struggles with his writing. While it is amusing for the audience to play spot-the-famous-people when Allen depicts the 20s sequences (Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds are quite enjoyable) it isn’t solely a nostalgia-fest.

Apropos of nothing, it just struck me that there are an unusual amount of comic movie connections to both of them (also speaking to that particular deluge).
Tom Hiddleston – Thor, Avengers
Alison Pill – Scott Pilgrim
Marion Cotillard – Dark Knight Rises
Scarlett Johansson – Iron Man, Avengers
Matthew Goode – Watchmen
Brian Cox – X-Men, Red

~chris writes:  

It’s a Wonderful Life was spoiled for me since I saw it after seeing the 1997 TV-movie It Happened One Christmas (which gets bonus points for starring Marlo Thomas in James Stewart’s role). But at least my first viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life was in a proper movie theater. It does tug my heartstrings. The part about the alternate universe that makes me laugh (since it is so dated) is the then-thought-of-as-sad fate of Mary Hatch.

You can see Potter get what he deserves in this 1986 SNL clip, hosted by William Shatner:

Johanna writes:  

Sad, isn’t it, that it’s a plus when you tell me that an Allen movie doesn’t have Allen in it? I’ll put Midnight in Paris back on the watch list, thanks.

Ralf Haring writes:  

Re: It’s a Wonderful Life, here is John Hodgman’s reedited version. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-december-14-2011/money-talks—the-maopets—wealth-on-film

Janice writes:  

I find most of Woody Allen’s movies overly pedantic, and Annie Hall was one of those, but Midnight in Paris was one of the few I’ve loved. It does revolve around nostalgia, but not in the way you might expect, (especially in a Woody Allen movie, which tends towards self-deprecation). It’s also probably one of the few of his movies to have a truly sweet, uplifting ending.


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