Saturday, October 04, 2014

So Long, You Ancient Pelican

McNeil came to town for the Third Annual McNeil's Movie Korner Film Festival. The Second Annual McNeil's Movie Korner Film Festival took place in 2010. So you can imagine our eagerness to get the latest installment of the festival up and running. We got out a statue of John Wayne that Megan Abbott sent me for my birthday and put him on the TV tray to watch over us. It was pretty late and McNeil was barely off the plane himself when we watched the John Wayne airplane drama THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY. About 30 minutes in, we noted that John Wayne hadn't really done anything. An hour in, John Wayne - still not having done much of anything - announced his intention to take a nap! I forgot to tell you about the scene where a grown man gives a long speech about John Wayne's character, all the while licking an ice cream cone for reasons that remained unclear to us. I mean, I know why someone might enjoy an ice cream cone, but it was a peculiar decision dramatically. McNeil and I argued over whether or not it was the director William Wellman's idea. McNeil said no way, but I said if Wellman didn't like it he would have walked over and knocked the ice cream cone out of the guy's hand. I suppose it was just to give the actor something to do with his hands, some "business," while he delivered his monologue, a variation on the old "acting with your pipe" trick. I joked that next time we saw him he'd be eating a candy apple. That reminded McNeil that he had just seen candy apples for sale at the airport. "Eight dollars!" McNeil reported indignantly. Eight dollars for a candy apple. What a world. John Wayne didn't get to take that nap because the plane he was copiloting got into some trouble and he had to go back and explain things to the passengers. He made a really long speech about airplane emergency procedures - no, not a speech, really. It was like a brochure. "He's not acting, he's talking!" McNeil said. But he said it with admiration. It was true that John Wayne efficiently and clearly outlined what to do when your airplane is probably about to land in the ocean. It wasn't until OVER TWO HOURS INTO THE MOVIE (it was a long movie) that John Wayne finally slapped around Robert Stack. Action! At the end of the movie John Wayne walks away and some guy says, "So long, you ancient pelican." We talked about what that might have meant for a while and then we stopped. Next up: the Dean Martin sex comedy WHO'S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED?, in which Carol Burnett does some strongly implied proto-twerking, though she is shot from the waist up like Elvis to shield the audience from lewdness. Going on to THE BIG MOUTH, we realized that an unfortunate theme of our selections was "offensive Asian stereotyping," an element shared by all three movies we had watched so far (though the deadpan genius Jack Soo managed to decimate some of it in WHO'S BEEN SLEEPING IN MY BED?). McNeil's visit was to be a short one! We had to keep cramming movies in! The next one was MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, starring Jack Oakie and W.C. Fields. It had Ben Turpin in it! One subplot was child star Dickie Moore shooting people in the butt with arrows. You know what else it had in it? A guy who put on a goat suit and ran really fast (pictured). As you can see from the frame above, at times this goofy slapstick figure resembled a nightmare apparition from an Ingmar Bergman film. BACHELOR IN PARADISE capped things off. Some easygoing back-and-forth between Bob Hope and Lana Turner in a bar got us thinking about a key difference between Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis: Bob, as producer, tended to pick leading ladies who could really challenge him, like Lana Turner, Eva Marie Saint, Lucille Ball, Virginia Mayo, Katharine Hepburn, and so on. Jerry, as director, seemed to favor inexperienced ingenues that (maybe he was thinking) he could "mold." Obviously, there are exceptions, most notably Stella Stevens doing her best to break that mold in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and Jerry's longtime friend Janet Leigh in THREE ON A COUCH, though, come to think of it, he does stack the rest of that cast with ingenues. (Going back to before he was a director, he meets his truest equal in Shirley MacLaine in ARTISTS AND MODELS.) But I have to reluctantly agree with the Shawn Levy book when it says that THE BIG MOUTH's Susan Bay "reads her lines as if they were random strings of words." McNeil chalked it up to Bob's unsurpassed "security" as a performer (he's so secure it's almost sociopathic) and Jerry's "insecurity." We furthermore agreed that Bob's security and Jerry's insecurity are the qualities that make them such fascinating artists. Jerry's weirdly amorphous "problem," the nature of which he keeps failing to communicate to the other characters in THE BIG MOUTH, writes Chris Fujiwara, is "posed in the most general - indeed, universal - terms... a formality, a MacGuffin." McNeil says it's sexual. I leave you with this clip from MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, featuring the delightful Lyda Roberti, in which she proclaims, "I'm just a woman made of gelatin/ I have a torso like a tambourine":