"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

3 Posts from February 2009



Cartoon Bing Crosby in Hollywood Steps Out (1941)

Hollywood steps out this Sunday February 22nd for the 81st Annual Academy Awards.  For most audiences, the excitement over the Oscars is in seeing a menagerie of movie stars all on one live show.  I have never missed an Oscar telecast since I started watching the award show as a little kid and I love seeing all the stars, too.  I am also an unmitigated classic movie fan, a lover of Hollywood history and a buff of cartoons that spoof the movies and their stars.  Some of my favorite examples of this type of cartoon were made by the Leon Schlesinger Cartoon Studio at Warner Brothers.  So, for all of you classic movie fans I have posted some amazing caricatures of Golden Age movie stars from the 1941 Warner Brothers-Merrie Melodies cartoon entitled Hollywood Steps Out, directed by one of the greatest cartoon directors of all time, Tex Avery (credited in this cartoon with his real first name, Fred).  Ben Shenkman was the caricature artist hired by Tex Avery to draw the likenesses of some of filmdom's best-loved stars for Hollywood Steps Out after the director saw Shenkman's caricatures in another Merrie Melodies cartoon Malibu Beach Party (1940), directed by Friz Freleng.  You rarely see this kind of scrupulous level of caricature drawing today, let alone in contemporary animation!  Enjoy . . . .

All the stars go to Ciro's.  Here is a beautiful painting of the famous nightclub where Hollywood Steps Out takes place.  Ciro's was a real Hollywood nightclub that opened in 1940, located at 8433 Sunset Boulevard, and was a hangout for movie people for three decades.


The joke about the cost of dinner at the swanky Ciro's in 1941 seems spot on for dining-out in 2009.


Johnny Weissmuller, a.k.a the original sound movie Tarzan, checking his tuxedo jacket.


Conductor Leopold Stokowski (here being spoofed because of his appearance in Walt Disney's Fantasia from 1940) kicks off the Ciro's band.


Even in cartoon form Cary Grant is always the picture of elegance; with the mysterious Greta Garbo as a measly cigarette girl.


Warner Brothers tough guy, Edward G. Robinson and "The Oomph Girl", Ann Sheridan.


Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland from MGM's popular Andy Hardy series.


(From l. to r.)  Warner Brothers Cartoon Department big shots: assistant producer Henry Binder and producer Leon Schlesinger are the only Schlesinger employees who can afford to dine at Ciro's.


More Warner Brothers tough guys: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and George Raft.


James Stewart nervous over the amorous advances of "The Sarong Girl", Dorothy Lamour.


Sophisticated Nitwits: The Three Stooges -- Curly, Larry and Moe.


20th Century Fox contract players: the dashing Tyrone Power dances with figure-skating movie star, Sonja Henie.


The featured act in Hollywood Steps Out: burlesque dancer Sally Rand - here as Sally Strand - performs her famous bubble dance, much to the overheated pleasure of the male stars in the nightclub.


Band leader Kay Kyser  - caricatured as "The Ol' Perfessor" from his NBC radio show, Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge - takes an academic interest in Sally's bubble dance.


 Standing (from l. to r.): William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Seated  (l. to r.): Wallace Beery, C. Aubrey Smith.


Creepy Peter Lorre's reaction to Sally's dance: "I haven't seen such a beautiful bubble since I was a child".


Google-eyed comedian Jerry Calonna.


Great "Stone-Faces" (l. to r.): Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher and Buster Keaton.


Groucho Marx in drag and Clark Gable puckering up.  Apparently Gable really doesn't give a damn.


To paraphrase Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.: They had faces then!  Hollywood Steps Out is available on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 DVD set.

MUST SEE DVD - For Valentine's Day

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The love story is like the ocean: it’s an essentially elemental genre covering the world of movies, a necessary and vital component that – like human beings – the medium can’t live without.  The cinematic sea of love is most thrilling when the love boat rides on tempestuous emotional waves and only stays afloat if the romantic leads are of equal ballast somewhere in their temperament, ego, or spirit.  This goes for such desparate romances as the fiery relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and the sweetly neurotic coupling of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a spirited love story that expertly navigates the deep, mysterious waters of romance between two unlikely lovers who couldn’t be more similar. 


The story takes place in England, the turn-of-the-last-century.  Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), newly widowed, leaves her controlling in-laws to start a new life with her young daughter.  With her late husband’s money, Lucy purchases a quaint seaside cottage, even though she’s warned that it’s haunted.  Lucy indeed discovers the ghost of the cantankerous Captain Gregg (Rex Harrison) residing in the cottage, but she’s not scared off.  A living (and dead) accommodation is reluctantly agreed upon by Lucy and the Captain.  Rapidly, Lucy’s money runs out.  As their mutual tolerance leads from admiration to fondness, the Captain decides to help out by “ghostwriting” his salty sea-going adventures with Lucy attached as the author.  The book becomes a best seller, saving Lucy and her daughter from financial ruin.  Along the way, Lucy falls in love with a living writer (George Sanders) who manipulates her for his own pleasure, much to the pain of Capt. Gregg.


Rex Harrison roguishly defines the cliché of the crusty seadog who once led a seafaring life of wine, women and song.  Though his ghost wants his home to his own, the Captain is captivated by Lucy’s timeless beauty and then touched by her unsuspecting strength and determination to be neither controlled by irritating in-laws nor frightened by an annoying apparition.  The Captain’s spirit softens as he realizes Lucy is his kindred spirit; two unlikely people from different dimensions align their hearts because they not only share the same characteristics, but they lovingly share what the other needs to voyage through life and the afterlife.


Gene Tierney was one of Hollywood’s great beauties who could act well with good material when guided by a strong director.  Tierney’s feline-like visage exudes an ephemeral quality as Mrs. Muir, which is fitting for this supernatural, film blanc love story – a stunning departure from her erotic and icy cold mask as the evil wife in the great Technicolor film noir, Leave Her To Heaven. 


Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters and directors (All About Eve), elegantly directs from Philip Dunne’s droll script.  Not usually noted as a visual stylist, Mankiewicz displays a graceful directorial style complimented by Charles Lang Jr.’s sublime and haunting black and white photography (of course I believe all ghost stories should be shot in black and white and all love stories exponentially benefit from the same photographic treatment).


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is that rare Hollywood movie that superbly balances romance, wit and genuine sentiment into a completely charming film about deep love transcending the physical plane to arrive at a spiritual solstice. 

For people living in the Vancouver area, you can rent The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from the greatest video store in Canada: Videomatica, located at 1855 West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano. 

In Theatres

CORALINE directed by Henry Selick

  • Opening 06 Feb 2009

With the extraordinary success of Pixar's computer-generated animated films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E and the popularity of other studios' CG animated films such as Ice Age, Madagascar, the Shrek series and Kung-Fu Panda, the classic hand-drawn animation medium - as mastered by the Disney studios - seems to have been crushed by the behemoth of digital animation.  Even the Walt Disney Company, a few years ago, shunted their classical animation division when they heeded the sexy, siren call of CG animation. 

The art of stop-motion animation (hand-drawn animation's tactile cousin in which articulated puppets and models are posed in thousands of minute increments with each position photographed one frame at a time) was seemingly dead and buried by CG.  The basic argument for CG over stop-motion is this: why hand-create a massively labour intensive animated puppet film when it can be replicated with far greater smoothness and infinite detail of motion in the digital realm?  The answer: because it is a painstakingly hand-crafted medium that possesses its own unique qualities.  Stop-motion can offer what many makers of digital animation abhor, imperfection.  Most CG films feel too perfect, almost plastic-like in its motion (though there is no denying this relatively new medium has created some wonderful CG animated films that are now part of film history).  When talented animators are at work, stop-motion's human imperfections can imbue this classic form of filmmaking with a caricature of human movement that feels far more honest, as opposed to "realistic", than any animation created through algorithms.  I guess I am what the kids call "old-school": I prefer the real hands-on approach, whether it is stop-motion, hand-drawn animation or Muppets (I truly believe the Muppet Yoda but only notice how slick the CG Yoda moves).

Well, as the saying goes, everything old is new again.  Disney is in production of a brand new hand-drawn animated feature, The Princess and the Frog (ironically triggered by John Lasseter, the key creative figure of Pixar and now the creative head of the Disney animation department).  And opening in theatres this week is a new stop-motion animated feature - and the first one to be shot in stereoscopic 3-D - called Coraline, directed by Henry Selick who directed the stop-motion animated films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

Based on the Neil Gaiman book, Coraline tells the tale of a young girl who has moved into an old house called the Pink Palace with her mother and father.  Her no-nonsense parents are writers who are too distracted with the writing of their gardening book to give Coraline the attention she needs.  Coraline's frustration mounts as she wishes for the family life that she is being denied.  Eventually Coraline meets the other boarders of the Pink Palace: the wacky Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, two veteran burlesque performers who share a suite with three hyper Scottish Terriers and the stuffed remains of deceased Terriers; and she meets an eccentric Russian, Mr. Bobisnky, a former circus high-wire walker.  Coraline also meets an odd boy named Wybie who gives her a doll, with button eyes, in her likeness that he stole away from his grandmother.

In the course of exploring the run-down house, Coraline discovers a miniature door that opens to a tunnel leading her into a parallel home where her "parents" are gregarious, fanciful, attentive, and overly generous.  Coraline's fantastic parallel home-life is a whimsical place of vaudeville and circus acts performed by the tenants of the Pink Palace.  It's a ton of fun for Coraline and probably too good to be true, but she desires to remain in this alternate world, overlooking the creepy fact that her other "parents" have buttons for eyes sewn to their faces.  She eventually discovers that something wicked this way comes (as if the button eyes were not a giveaway) when her other "mother" is revealed to be a black force with sinister motives (calling Dr. Freud!).   A black feral cat offers potential hints of insight into the dark turn of events.

The story takes it's time to build Coraline's situation, her feelings, and the other character’s personalities. I liked the deliberate build up during the first act before the fantastical elements come to play; it gives the audience time in getting to know Coraline and evolve sympathy for her.  By the time the film enters Caroline's alternate realm, we have become genuinely intrigued by the wonderment she experiences while suspicious about what truly lies beneath this bewitching world.

Coraline is a wonder to behold.  Director Henry Selick's Edward Gorey-esque designs are appealing and funny and the stop-motion animation is astonishing.  The body language and the facial expressions of all the characters believably articulate an inner life that is so rare to find in CG animation.  My only critique about the location design is that the physical house in Coraline's real world looks a little too normal in relation to the beautiful stylization of the character design.  

What is not so wonderful is trying to see all this beautiful hand-crafted work through the 3-D process the movie was photographed with.  Even though Henry Selick mostly avoids throwing things arbitrarily at the audience, the 3-D technique doesn't add anything to the movie.  In fact, viewing the film in 3-D diminishes the experience of absorbing oneself into the story.  Firstly, the overall image looks dim because of the 3-D glasses; a prevailing shade of darkness washes over the entire  picture resulting in film that looks unintentionally murky.  Secondly, many of the visual elements and spatial planes in any given shot seem slightly blurred, or out-of-focus, as if the registration of the imagery in the brain is slightly off.   

At the advance screening I attended, the theatre was packed so I had to sit about four rows from and to the left side of the screen.  I considered the extreme position in viewing the screen may have affected how my brain processed the 3-D, but when I stepped back several rows and centered myself in the theatre during the end credits, which included some animation, to see if the 3-D worked any better, I didn't notice much improvement.  The viewing of the movie was somewhat of a strain as I was constantly trying to reconcile what I was seeing in almost every new shot and thus my immersion into the film was hindered by the 3-D technology.  That is a shame.  The 3-D process affected my full enjoyment of what I perceive to be a charming flight of imagination, perfect for stop-motion animation.

Though Tim Burton did not produce Coraline as he did with Henry Selick's feature-length directorial debut, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick's vision is obviously touched by Burton's Charles Addams-Gothic carnival like sensibilities.  The spooky nature of the film features a haunting scene, beautifully conceived and worthy of Dickens, when Coraline encounters the spirits of three dead children.  The eerie revelation of what the spirit children expose to Coraline climaxes act two of the story with an emotional wallop and produces an unexpected gravitas reminiscent of the early Disney animated classics.  Unfortunately, the third act of Coraline is muddled.  As the story races to its final showdown, character motivation and plot points become sketchy and the resolution is weak.

Aside from its third act story flaws, I recommend Coraline to audiences of 10-years-old (there are too many scary images that may frighten a small child) and up.  We haven't seen a stop-motion animated film on the big screen since Tim Burton's Corpse Bride in 2005.  It's good to see a talented filmmaker like Henry Selick continue to work in this overlooked and delightful medium.  But I strongly suggest you see Coraline in a theatre not projecting it in 3-D.  This Grand Guignol fantasy has plenty of dimensionality in its craft that does not benefit from seeing a humongous nose virtually poke you in the eye.