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UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

I think TCM showed Torch Song Trilogy recently because they were doing a Matthew Broderick evening that included 1990’s The Freshman. I feel like I have seen bits and pieces of Torch Song on TV before, but this was the first time in 30 years I have seen the whole thing in one sitting.

Torch Song Trilogy is a two-hour distillation of Harvey Fierstein’s three plays that all told would run four hours. The film covers the early 1970s through 1980. Harvey Fierstein plays Arnold, who makes a living as a female impersonator in a nightclub. In the course of the nine years covered here, he meets two lovers. First, the bisexual Ed (Brian Kerwin) and then Alan (Matthew Broderick). Getting top billing here, though, is Anne Bancroft, as Arnold’s mother. The film opens with Ma looking all over the house for Arnold, only to find him in a closet playing dress up with her clothes. Thus starts a lifelong struggle between mother and son. Arnold is always on the defensive and Ma complains that all he ever talks about is him being gay.

A contemporary critic in 1988 complained that the film “ignores” the AIDS crisis, which was raging unabated at the time. But Fierstein is tacking a lot of issues here–homophobia, gay bashing, closet cases, drag, and gay parents adopting children. All of these issues were alive and well alongside the AIDS crisis and the movie deals in particular with gay men knowing what they want. Arnold does indulge in the promiscuous ways of the 1970s, including having sex in a bar’s back room, but he knows he is gay, he knows he wants a monogamous relationship, and he knows he wants to adopt a child. His first lover Ed claims to be bisexual and is dating people of both sexes, and says Arnold should feel free to see other men. Arnold replies that Ed has no right to tell him he should be out dating if he prefers to be with one person. Alan doesn’t have these problem, and the relationship with Arnold is tested when Ed and his girlfriend Laurel invite Alan and Arnold up to a house in the country, and Ed and Alan with up sleeping together.

On the even of adopting a gay teenager, Alan is killed by a group of gay bashers in a nearby playground. We then cut to Arnold living with his son David (Eddie Castrodad), and Ed has left Laurel and is living with them. It is around this time that Ma shows up for a visit. She is incensed that Arnold buried Alan in the family’s burial plot. This leads to a long-time-coming fight between Ma and Arnold. He unloads about tho horrible it is to have his love ignored. Ma rightly replies that Arnold is wrong to exclude her from his life’s events and then be angry at her for not understanding how important these things are in his life.

Along with the laundry list of issues there is a lot of humor. A joke about shiva that I attributed for years to Woody Allen is actually from this movie. “Why are the mirrors cover” Alan asks. “So we don’t see the pain in our faces,” Arnold replies. “Why are you sitting on boxes?” Alan asks. “To make sure there’s pain in our faces.”

I first saw it in 1988 at a long-gone cinema Movieland 8th Street in the Village. I remember seeing it with my then-boyfriend. (We broke up a year later.) At the time, it was hard to believe that I even had a boyfriend at all. I had not yet even come out to my parents yet. I never imagined that America would have same-gender marriage and that I would be watching this movie 30 years later in my own house with my own husband.

One thing I really love about this movie is that Harvey Fierstein expounds human universal truths as an out loud drag queen. In the 1980s, so many gay men found drag embarrassing and felt that they were already fighting the uphill battle of “not being masculine.” Twenty years after Stonewall, with AIDS ravaging the landscape of gay life everywhere, it still took a female impersonator to show how real gay men are.

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Over the Moon (1939)

I have a bit of a thing for Merle Oberon so it was nice to see that TCM was showing 1939’s Over the Moon. This movie was filmed in Technicolor but it seems like a different Technicolor than 1939’s Wizard of Oz. I am wondering if perhaps this film has not been restored like a more iconic movie might be. The movie almost seems to look colorized. In the end, Merle looked much more glorious in the beautiful black and white of Wuthering Heights, made the same year, than here in Over the Moon.

So, onto the story. Merle Oberon plays orphaned Jane Benson, who is stuck up in Yorkshire looking after the old and infirm servants at an estate. She dreams of traveling to Paris and Monte Carlo, and a country doctor, Freddie (Rex Harrison), wants to take her away, but her grandfather’s will keeps her bound to Yorkshire.

Suddenly, the executors of the estate tell Jane that she has inherited 18 millions pounds sterling and the attention drives away Freddie and attracts hangers on. Some are harmless but some are hoping to marry her. One of the is a man who is clearly gay, telegraphed to us by his wearing fur slippers and his manservant clearly mocking him.

Jane moves to London and spends lots of money and then moves on to other destinations, gambling in Monte Carlo, and going skiing in Switzerland. She crosses paths with Freddie again and while being wooed by someone even richer than herself, she hopes to reconnect with Freddie.

What’s really fun about this movie is that Rex Harrison is young enough to be fun and carefree and not the stern older man we are used to from his roles in the 1950s and 1960s. While the Technicolor today needs work, I imagine that for film audiences, seeing Venice and St. Mark’s in living moving color must’ve been exciting for 1939 audiences at a time you didn’t really have today’s alternatives like the Internet or TV to see foreign countries as they are.

Also interesting is how everyone is moving about Europe quite easily during wartime, but i assume that a movie released in December 1939 was made before Hitler invaded Poland that September.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MOMENT: The film features a musical number sung by Elisabeth Welch, probably because they wanted a musical number in the movie. It sort of comes out of nowhere but it’s a nice change to see a movie from that era without reducing a black woman to a complete stereotype.

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Side Street (1950)

Farley Granger stars here as a mailman with big dreams and no impulse control. In the course of delivering the mail downtown near the courts, he notices where a lawyer has $200 locked up. The next time he goes back to that office, the door is unlocked and he takes advantage of the lawyer’s absence to steal a folder. It turns out there’s $30,ooo in the folder. He immediately regrets his choice and finds himself wanting to return the money but the money is part of a more insidious bit of blackmail and  other crimes and everyone involved in the story find themselves getting murdered.

Also complicating matters: the mailman’s wife is pregnant and just gave birth while he’s running around New York trying to extricate himself from this situation he’s gotten himself into.

The movie is fairly tepid but much of it is filmed on real New York City locations and as a NYC history fan, it was fun to see what corners and buildings are still around and what used to be where. Many nice scenes of the financial district, the waterfront, and the elevated trains. If I had to guess, I would say this film was influenced by Naked City (1948), which also benefited from a true crime story approach with the real New York City doing it’s job rather than trying to recreate it in a California studio.

One thing I noticed was how many shabby old-law tenements lined the streets.

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Lifeboat (1944)

This is the Hitchcock film that asks the question,  “What are we going to do with people like that?” The people in question here are the Nazis.

Lifeboat was released in 1944 while World War II was raging. I saw it at least once or twice more than 35 years ago. This is the first time I am seeing it start-to-finish since then. The entire film is limited to the setting of a lifeboat after an American ship has been torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, which was also hit and sunk. The film starts with Tallulah Bankhead wrapped in a mink coat, alone in the lifeboat with her luggage, a typewriter, and a movie camera. She is a columnist and she loses all of these things in the course of the film. As the lifeboat drifts other survivors wind up on the boat, including some of the ship’s crew, a woman and her dead baby, a nurse, and a member of the U-boat crew.

There is some debate as to what to do with the German, as they are all from democratic countries. Tallulah’s character is the only one who knows German. so she has to translate.

The entire action of the film is limited to the lifeboat so we get to see these folks argue and endure crises, and of course, the German they have picked up (Walter Slezak) is up so something, starting with taking them not to Bermuda but to a German supply ship (he has a compass but the other survivors think it’s a watch). The group fight among themselves and fight against ideologies and fight against the elements. Gus (William Bendix), one of the ship’s crew, is wounded and needs his leg amputated; that is performed by Willi, the German.

I did a little research into this movie and at the time, some critics felt that the movie was too sympathetic to the Germans, to which Bankhead replied, “that’s moronic.” The passengers make the mistake of letting Willi take over the course of the ship, based mostly on the idea  that the has the most experience. I can see how a well-drawn multifaceted view of any German during wartime clashes with propaganda, Willi shows his true colors and the lifeboat undergoes yet another course correction (trying to keep spoilers to a minimum).

I have never seen this on the big screen and I wish I had; a reviewer for the New York Daily News back in 1944 said that you can “imagine you were there,” and the film has no music score. It’s just the shushing of the waves and whatever music the passengers make with a recorder on the lifeboat.

Hitchcock also manages, in this limited set, to eke out some fantastic shots, like a shot of Willi rowing the boat taken from the floor, upward; a group of hands sheltering a lighter while a knife is sterilized for the amputation of Gus’s leg.

The movie credits John Steinbeck for the story but Steinbeck had complaints about the script and others came in to rewrite it. There were also complaints in 1944 about the African-American character of Joe (Canada Lee), whom Bankhead refers to initially as “Charcoal.”  I have been watching a lot of old movies this year and this is the only portrayal of a black man in the Hollywood system that I have seen that didn’t reduce him to a scared rabbit or a comic figure. But it is hard to totally understand this portrayal in a 1944 context all the way from 2019.

I also have to agree that Lifeboat is one of Hitchcock’s underrated movies. It was the only one he made for 20th Century Fox and it wound up in limited release because of some of the “controversies.” Ultimately, Hitchcock does put his audience into an up-close-and-personal situation where people from a democratic tradition have to deal with fascism.

 

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

I went through a Kurosawa phase back in the the mid-1980s and luckily, so did Film Forum. I haven’t seen this movie in about 30 years and I am amazed at how little I remember of it. In the course of about four years I saw this along with Ran, High and LowKagemusha, Ikiru, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, No Regrets for Our Youth, Red Beard, and many, many more. I went out of my way to see these movies. I would drive out to the New Community Cinema in Huntington; I took a day off to see a Japanese triple feature at Film Forum. The Upper West Side had many rep houses back then and I went to as many old movies as possible. When my alma mater Hofstra screened Dersu Uzala, I made the trip out there.

The Bad Sleep Well is about corporate greed and how the people at the top of the org chart get away with things and expect the underlings to quite literally kill themselves if necessary to keep a cover-up covered up. The film begins as a major executive’s disabled daughter is about to marry her father’s assistant, while the Tokyo press corp looks on and tells us of the company’s felonious past while the best man and brother of the bride threaten the groom with an “I’ll kill you if you ever hurt my sister” toast.

This is a revenge story, with a simple motive and a complex mechanism to get the revenge going. During the wedding, a cake in the form of an office building is delivered with a rose stuck in the seventh-floor window where an employee had jumped to his death–a man believed to have taken kick-backs. This is right out of Hamlet, using a device to flush out a suspect.

I don’t want to give the plot twist away, but the real star here is the storyboarding. TohoScope gives this movie a lovely long rectangular tableau and Kurosawa is a master of mise-en-scene. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s subtle but it always works.

Toshiro Mifune plays the groom, Nishi. Takashi Shimura plays Moriyama, a guilty corporate stooge. These two actors were fixtures at Toho Studios for years. Shimura is equally known for these Kurosawa movies as he is for his Godzilla movies.

 

 

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Wasp Woman (1959)

Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) runs a cosmetics empire that has taken a dip in sales and one of her male employees has the temerity to tell her to her face that her FACE is the reason sales are down–she’s getting older! Around the same time, an older man who seems pretty reasonable about extracting the jelly of queen wasps for cosmetic purposes shows up and he only wants a private lab and credit for his creation.

By the way, Susan Cabot gives a performance in that board room that reminded me of Faye Dunaway yelling “Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” in the Pepsi board meeting scene in Mommie Dearest, and the scene played out here is the same era as Joan Crawford at Pepsi. She even seems to channel the older Crawford a bit.

Well, the miracle youth serum turns a guinea pig into a pup again and it also turns a cat into a kitten. Now it’s HER turn! Hmmm… you think they might want to study this a bit more but Janice suddenly looks 22 again after one injection (in reality, all they did was take off her too-small glasses and make her smile a bit). She gets addicted to the stuff and starts injecting herself, ignoring the horrible headaches she’s been having. And then there’s the scientist, who gets hit by a car before he can warn her about how the cat went nuts and tried to kill him.

In what must be the best healthcare plan in the world, Janice pays all of the scientist’s hospital bills AND moves him into a fully  furnished hospital room in her New York City offices, complete with nurse–until she kills the nurse when she turns into Wasp Woman.

There’s also some hilarious office banter among the secretaries, one of whom is very “hoity toity” but get her mad and she unleashes her Flatbush accent.

Roger Corman directed and produced this one; TCM showed it before The Fly.

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Meet the People (1944)

Lucille Ball stars in this patriotic musical mishmash along with Dick Powell (TCM’s Star of the Month in December 2018). A bit of a mishmash because the main story of Ball becoming a welder at a ship yard gets interrupted now and then by vaudevillian routines and musical numbers along the way.

Swanee (Dick Powell) “wins” a date with Broadway star Julie Hampton, and with her help he almost gets to mount a production of his soldier-brother’s play. But, he doesn’t like the Broadway producer sexing up his work about the assembly line at a shipbuilding yard. He takes his marbles and goes home.

Meanwhile, Julie goes to the shipyard and gets a job as a welder. This leads to some publicity and she winds up in charge of PR at the shipyard. And she produces some shows at the shipyard that pisses off Swanee

Between scenes of this main story, we get “The Commander” (Burt Lahr) doing a bit of vaudeville, and Virginia O’Brien singing a song about domestic violence that is played for laughs but is actually quite horrifying by any era’s standards. I think MGM used this movie to get some of its stars some screen time so they could fulfill contractural obligations.

The odd part of this movie is that the shipyard was putting on shows during lunch hour anyway. In a patriotic wartime moment, Julie and Swanee watch an act where a Mussolini imitator plays an organ grinder with a chimp done up like Hitler. The singers address the chimp as “Schicklgruber,” a common wartime taunt to the F?hrer. [War time propaganda decided that Hitler’s father being born out of wedock to Maria Schicklgruber and extending that to Adolf Hitler was a way to insult him, even though Hitler was born Hitler.]

Lucille Ball is very funny here, delivering sarcastic lines in a way you don’t see in her TV series, and she’s quite beautiful. It’s also pretty obvious they have dubbed someone else singing during her musical number. Dick Powell is effective as the bullheaded man who lets pride lead him around by the nose. As wartime patriotism goes, the movie is pretty patriotic but not too over the top compared to others I have seen.

 

 

 

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Goldie Gets Along (1933)

This relatively short film packs a lot of activity into its 75 minutes. Goldie lives in Crestview, N.J. with a puritanical aunt and her family who never fail to remind her how lucky she is to have been “rescued” from Paris after her mother died. After being berated by everyone in the house for returning from a night out at breakfast time, she storms out without a single possession. Goldie wants to get into the movies but even her fiancé, who has just bought them a house, belittles her ambition. So she decides to hitchhike, if necessary, to get to Hollywood.

While it would be wrong to apply the standards of #metoo to a film made in 1933, it is difficult to determine if Goldie is using lecherous advances to her own advantage or just “using her feminine wiles” to stay a step ahead of the men who would use the body she is offering uo to get ahead.

Either way, Goldie is a quick study and is able to keep out of trouble and makes her way to Hollywood by “winning” a series of fraudulent beauty contests. And even in Hollywood, she plays the game to her advantage. Living as a grifter is difficult, though, and she winds up having some regrets about fleeing her life and her fiancé back in New Jersey. Bill, the boyfriend, tracks her down, but it is difficult to understand what she sees in him, or vice versa. She was doing pretty well on her own. This is a pre-Code movie, but even so, a woman making it on her own, however feloniously, probably doesn’t seem like something a studio would want to promote.

The movie also allows itself to make fun of the movie industry a bit, and there is the almost obligatory montage sequence, but it has a very strange bit where the people seeking fame and fortune in Tinsel Town are interchanged with a variety of papier-mache heads.

Goldie is played by French actress Lili Damita, who was more famous for being married to Errol Flynn than for her career, in the end. (They divorced in 1942, btw.). What is very interesting about Damita is how she looks a bit like Garbo, is lit a bit like Garbo, and sounds a bit like Garbo despite being from different countries originally. Someone even makes a comment about her being like Garbo when she says she likes walking. Damita did make quite a few movies in both the silent and talkie eras. It was a nice little surprise to find this movie on TCM.

 

 

 

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — The Favourite (2018)

I knew absolutely nothing about The Favourite before seeing it. Frankly, all I saw was a poster with three women in period costume and I thought, I AM SO THERE.

After an unpleasant incident with another audience member who has no idea what designated seating means, the movie began and I was delighted to see that I was seeing a menage a trois of power involving an ailing Queen Anne, her lifelong friend Lady Sarah, and Sarah’s poor relation, Abigail. And while not everything depicted happens, these were three real women and we mostly see them on screen and it totally must pass the Bechdel test! [I didn’t see it listed.]

It is sometime in the early 1700s and Queen Anne is the last of the Stuarts on the throne, and she’s ailing. Gout and other mobility issues leave her in a lot of pain. Her longtime friend Sarah has much influence over the Queen despite Anne being a Tory and Sarah a Whig. Often at issue is whether to keep attacking France (Whig position) or not (Tory) and Sarah is there to plead the Whig’s position. She is also close enough to the Queen to tell her when her makeup makes her look like a badger.

Speaking of wigs… the men here are often done up in lots of make up and powdered wigs and seem to be parodies of themselves.

Abigail (Emma Stone) is unceremoniously assigned to the kitchen staff but she is shrewd and takes to the woods to concoct a natural herbal plaster to help ease the Queen’s pain. She is a bit presumptuous, going into the Queen’s bedroom and applying the potion on her person without asking, but this is enough to give Abigail an opening and a be the wedge that causes a rift between Sarah and the Queen. Plus, Abigail is NICE to Queen Anne. Never calls her a badger, for example.

Much of this is reminiscent of All About Eve, one of the bitchiest films ever made, plus a great example of social climbing and hangers on.

The writers and director Yorgos Lanthimos take some liberties. For example, Anne has one rabbit for each child she has lost (seventeen lost to miscarriages, stillbirths, smallpox and the most difficult, losing a son who lived to see his tenth birthday). In real life, Anne did not keep rabbits as pets… they were more likely dinner fare. But Lanthimos does a great job of humanizing a monarch who is supposed to be remote and the head of the Church of England. There’s a great “Don’t look at me!” scene between Anne and a footman.

Queen Anne was  the last of her line. The Glorious Revolution that put her sister (Mary II) and brother-in-law (William III) on the throne after deposing their Catholic father (James II) also mandated no non-Protestants on the British Throne. So Anne’s passing was an end of an era, as 50 Catholic heirs in the line of succession were passed over in favor of George of Hannover, whose descendant is on the throne today. It’s sort of incredible that this woman was at the head of an empire in two continents, the head of a church, but made quite malleable by her physical pains and whomever was nicest to her.

There is no real evidence of any lesbian aspects to the relationships of Queen Anne with Sarah or with Abigail, but there was a strong rumor at the time to that possibility. Also, men don’t really get the friendships of women.

The problem with “based on a true story” is that movies just do what they want to do to make an entertaining movie, and this is no exception, but the point of the movie seems very true to the power triangle here as Abigail (a Tory) gained more and more power at court. Also, the lives of women of that era were often not recorded or cared about, and it’s always great to see the lives of women of other eras faithfully portrayed on screen.

 

UNDEREMPLOYMENT CINEMA — Horror Hotel [City of the Dead] (1960)

I saw this movie as a child and for many years all I remembered about it was that when the clock struck THIRTEEN, a woman was about to plunge a knife into a blonde student’s heart and the film suddenly cut to Susie slicing into her birthday cake. And that was all I remembered. I think I was about ten when I saw this on either Creature Feature on channel 5 or Chiller theater on on channel 11.

Then I spoke to a co-worker about it in 2000 and he said it sounded like Horror Hotel and finally 18 years later it was on TCM!

The only actor I recognize at all here is a younger Christopher Lee. The film is in black and white but possibly the most atmospheric b/w I have seen. John Moxey sets up an atmosphere of encroaching danger nicely as a mob comes through the fog to “burn the witch!” As a horror film, it works really well, quite likely because there are not a lot of bodies piling up and the action moves quickly and logically. There aren’t a lot of jump scares or twists and turns here. And not a lot of stupid stuff happens here, either, like going upstairs when you should run screaming to safety elsewhere.

The witch burning scene that opens the film is actually a dramatization of a history about the witch Elizabeth Selwyn being read by Professor Driscoll to his class. Student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is interested in doing more research into witchcraft and the witch Elizabeth Selwyn. Driscoll recommends she go to the tiny town Whitewood, and recommends an inn.

There is a LOT of FOG in Whitewood and a lot of extras with no dialogue staring at Nan as she walks around town, and it gets even creepier when her brother comes looking for her after she mysteriously disappears. It’s also hard to imagine this movie in anything but black and white. It just aids the creepy goings on at the Inn, like people dancing in the lobby but disappearing once Nan opens the door and decides to join them.  And of course there’s a mute woman. And the innkeeper looks so much like the witch killed back in the 1600s!

There are some stupid moments as most horror movies have, like picking up creepy hitchhikers. But people did stuff like that in 1960. Horror Hotel is a very effective horror movie without a lot of slashing or gore (if you don’t count three dead birds and a human sacrifice). And like Psycho, which came out the same year, the blonde heroine of the movie dies in the first half of the movie and is never seen again.

Some actors sound very British; the film was filmed in England. The actual title of City of the Dead, based on the notion that during Satanic holidays the dead rise up and take over the town.

LAST SEEN: 1973.