Tag Archives: hollywood

Merton of the Movies (1947)

“I feel I belong in a costume.”

merton of the moviesMerton of the Movies is a light-hearted look at Old Hollywood and the silent film era, and what’s so interesting about the film is that it seems to debunk the Hollywood Myth of the newcomer becoming a success, and then proceeds to reverse itself to reinforce the rags-to-riches Hollywood dream.

Cinema usher, Merton Gill (Red Skelton) loves film and longs for the day he can go to Hollywood. To prepare himself for his big break, he’s taken a correspondence course in acting, uses the stage name Clifford Armytage,  and even has the certificate to prove that he looks like an actor. But in spite of Merton’s enthusiastic desire to go to Hollywood, it looks as though he’s stuck in Tinkerton, Kansas until one day fate intervenes….

One night while working as an usher, Merton inadvertently appears to foil a robbery, and he subsequently makes the headlines. In Hollywood, dashing but fading actor, Lawrence Rupert (Leon Ames), needs all the publicity he can get, and Lawrence’s agent arranges to bring Merton from Kansas to Hollywood. To Merton, this represents a lifelong dream, and he’s excited to meet one of his screen idols. But when Merton gets to Hollywood, Lawrence Rupert uses him for a few publicity shots and then ignores him. Merton, however, is determined to become a star and begins haunting the studio lots for work as an extra. Eventually he meets the kindly Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) who works as a stunt woman for glamorous star Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame).  

I’m not a Red Skelton fan, but I did enjoy Merton of the Movies. Skelton plays the good-hearted, innocent country boy who lands in Hollywood and has the sort of misadventures you’d expect given the plot. It’s a role Bob Hope could play–the guileless, idiot bumpkin whose innocence acts as a sort of protective armour against the harsh realities of life. While other people would end up bitter at the bad treatment meted out by Lawrence Rupert, Merton simply doesn’t get that he’s been used and then snubbed. And this basic innocence makes for a great deal of the film’s humour. Some of the film’s funniest scenes show Merton working at the Good Fellows Club in Hollywood in the “Over 70s Room,” a place where the club members are so sensitive that, of course, it’s only a matter of time before Merton creates a disaster. The club members are mostly stone deaf, and yet at the same time, they’re annoyed by the noise made by Merton’s corduroy trousers.

Gloria Grahame, the reason I sought out the film, only appears in a few but delightful scenes as silent screen star Beulah Baxter. Beulah is a good-natured air-head, but in spite of her dimness, she’s a man-eater, and the scenes at her home when Merton tries ‘fruit juice’ are hilarious. Directed by Robert Alton, Merton of the Movies is innocent, good-hearted fun.

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Bombshell (1933)

bombshellI’ve never seen a Jean Harlow film I didn’t enjoy, but I think Bombshell may very well be my favourite, and that surprises me a bit as I really enjoy the pairing of Harlow-Gable in some of her other major films. Perhaps the film’s success lies partly in the fact that it’s pre-code, and the perfectly timed performances mesh with a sparkling script that matches Harlow’s talents. Bombshell is a thinly disguised homage to Harlow and the cult of celebrity, yet at the same time, Harlow so seems to enjoy taking a sly dig at her own real-life career.

Bombshell begins with images of actress Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) and then clips of Harlow’s real-life films mingle with shots of adoring, fixated fans as they stare at the big screen. Quickly establishing the way in which Burns is seen on the big screen and how she is idolised by her fans, the film then cleverly leads into the way Lola Burns really lives.

The film opens with a very typical day-in-the-life of Lola Burns. It’s morning and she wakes up in her splendid mansion in a bedroom complete with frills, silk and feathers for that despotic harem-brothel look . Even though she’s a wealthy woman and surrounded by servants, Lola’s life is a mess. Both Lola’s drunken brother and her obnoxious gambler father sponge off her while trying to manage her career, and this translates to ensuring she stays in harness, earning the money they spend. To make matters worse, she’s surrounded by out-of-control servants who take advantage of her good natured generosity. Lola’s chaotic life even follows her to the studio, and the fact that everywhere she travels she’s accompanied by her three Old English Sheepdogs doesn’t exactly help matters. If she’s not tripping over dogs, she’s juggling interviews, fans and gossip-hungry reporters. And on top of all this, the studio’s publicist, E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) exploits every angle of Lola’s personal life in order to keep her on the front page. There is literally nothing that Space wouldn’t sink to in order to get a headline. 

Merging real-life with fiction, Lola is filming Red Dust with Gable while she has a romance with slimy Hugo, the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). The Marquis, a notorious gigolo (also called a “fungi,” a “rummage sale Romeo,” and a “glorified barber“) sponges off of vulnerable female Hollywood stars who are impressed with his foreign accent and his title. Of course, to the Marquis, Lola is a perfect target.

The plot follows Lola’s romance with the Marquis, her various whims (such as adopting a baby) and her romance with snotty poet Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone). Meanwhile Space subverts snd sabotages Lola’s decisions about her life turning everything into a smutty headline for the studio. While the film keeps an even beat and a steady stream of comedy, some of the film’s funniest scenes occur when Lola meets blue-blood Gifford and his family. Tone’s romantic lines are priceless: “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!” Tone, of course, gained a great deal of notoriety a few years later in 1951 when he was in a fight with actor Tom Neal over the beautiful, self-destructive actress Barbara Payton.

The very lovely, luminous Jean Harlow is marvelous as the blonde Bombshell. She was just 22 when the film was released and tragically died just four years later in 1937. She’s so young in Bombshell and yet she delivers the performance of a confident, seasoned performer, never missing a beat, full of life, and simply perfect for this role.

This precode film includes a few hints at sex. For example, early in the film, Lola wonders what happened to the negligee she just gave to her maid, and the following exchange takes place:

Lola: I didn’t give you that for a negligee. That’s an evening wrap.

Loretta: I know Miss Burns, but the negligee you gave me got all tore up the night before last.

Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.

And in another scene, Lola is planning to adopt a baby but Space jumps to the wrong conclusion and thinks that Lola is about to be an unwed mother. Then horror of horrors, the dialogue leads Space to think that Lola doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. It’s a funny scene and of course the audience is on the joke, but when the Hays Code came into power, this exchange simply wouldn’t have happened.

Anyway, if you want to watch a Harlow film and don’t know where to start, Bombshell is a marvellous film and showcases Harlow at her glittering best. Directed by Victor Fleming.

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The Dying Gaul (2005)

“I’m not asking you to jettison any of your principles.”

Struggling screenwriter, Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) writes a screenplay called The Dying Gaul. Based on autobiographical events, it concerns the relationship between two gay men. Hollywood executive Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott) offers the desperate and emotionally fragile Robert a million dollars for the screenplay–BUT–Robert must agree to change the two main characters to a heterosexual couple. This presents a dilemma for Robert–he really needs the money; he’s trying to support an ex-wife and a child, but since the play is based on his relationship with his now deceased lover, Robert feels that altering the story from its focus on a gay relationship will be betraying his dead lover and what they once shared.

From director/writer Craig Lucas, The Dying Gaul is full of twists and turns. Part thriller, part mystery, the film is never boring, but the story isn’t pleasant, and some of the twists are less-than-believable. The film explores the bizarre triangle that forms around Robert, Jeffrey and his wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson)–a former screenplay writer who now lolls around the pool all day long. Sympathies shift as characters reveal their nasty sides, and just who is pulling the strings here isn’t always evident. The film’s beginning is extremely strong, and there’s something not quite nice about the manner in which Jeffrey manipulates Robert into abandoning his principles. Jeffrey espouses a morally bleak position, and then begins to seduce Robert into it–after all, Jeffrey argues, no one goes to see a film “to learn anything.” Peter Sarsgaard, who seems to delight in taking difficult roles, delivers a fantastic performance. Is he a victim, a user, or a catalyst for disaster? Well watch the film (along with the alternate ending) and decide for yourself.

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A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine/The Brick Dollhouse 1966/1967

“Get away from me you pervert.”

It’s easy to see why Something Weird Video packaged these three films together for a triple feature–they’re good examples of 60s ‘adult’ films. Obviously very low budget, with terrible acting, and thin plots, all three films cash in on theoretical sexual naivete, underwear and endless bathroom scenes. All three films use any excuse to show the female ‘stars’ undressing, stretching, dancing and generally jiggling at the camera.

There’s the title film–the strongest of the three–A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine (1966) which concerns Sharon, a young girl who teases men and then when she pushes them far enough, she calls the police and files assault charges. The film follows the games Sharon plays until the one night she meets her match. From director Bryon Mabe.

A Sweet Sickness (1968) is supposed to be a morality tale about tinsel town (“Hollywood. Where a beautiful body isn’t enough”). A naive young girl arrives from Kansas (of course!) and hopes to hit the big time. She takes a job in a strip auction and eventually ends up as a drugged participant in a whipped cream party. The Big Bertha scene was the highlight of the film. From director Jon Martin.

The third feature, The Brick Dollhouse (1967) is the only one of the three films in colour, and it truly has a swinging 60s feel. The film begins with three roommates coming home to find the fourth girl–a stripper complete with a cheap red wig–topless and shot to death–sprawled out across her bed. Detectives question the three nonchalant roommates (one files her nails). A wild party life emerges involving spin-the-bottle, scenes on the billiard table and even a few peeping through keyhole shots. From director Tony Martinez.

All three films take advantage of every moment to show endless shower and bath scenes. The girls go around half dressed (even answering the door topless at one point). It’s mainly a lot of silly naughtiness, and your tolerance for that may vary. This triple feature is not as campy as many of the Something Weird titles (my all-time favourite is Satan in High Heels), and these three films definitely lean towards the adult film industry. With Something Weird Titles, I seek a High Camp Factor (HCF) but here it’s unfortunately drowned by all the topless frolicking, and ultimately the occasional inadvertent humour isn’t much of a payoff.

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