9/24/12: Africa Screams

“Have you seen a short fat man and a tall thin man running through the jungle?”

Charles Barton’s 1949 farce, Africa Screams, is a mildly funny Abbott & Costello slapstick that finds the duo on an expedition to Africa in search of the legendary Orangutan Gargantua. Lou Costello plays Stanley Livington (yes, the Livington not Livingston) & Bud Abbott is Buzz Johnson. The pair are clerks in the same bookstore, and they con the rich, suave & corrupt Diana, played marvelously by Hillary Brooke, into believing that Stanley knows a great deal about Africa and can reconstruct a map that is included in the book Dark Safari. She tells them she needs it to locate Orangutan Gargantua on her upcoming expedition. Of course, the truth is that Stanley knows little about anything, let alone Africa. But Buzz sees a path to riches, especially once he learns of Diana’s true intentions for the map – to find a cache of diamonds! Buzz renegotiates deals with Diana over & over until she agrees to take him with them on the trip and later cuts him in at 50%. Of course, the two buffoons end up getting caught up in their usual shenanigans in pursuit of their riches. The plot line is silly & thin, but like their two fellow vaudevillians & movie predecessors, Oliver & Hardy, Abbott & Costello are always good for a few belly laughs (or should I say, LOL’s); Africa Screams is no exception.

One of them most interesting aspects of this film is the supporting cast. Diana’s strong arms are Max Baer & his younger brother Buddy, as Grappler McCoy & Boots Wilson respectively. Max was the heavyweight champion of the world from 6/14/34 until he lost a unanimous decision to James “Cinderella Man” Braddock on 6/13/35. In his next fight, he was KO’d by the great Joe Louis. He was also the father of Max Baer, Jr. – Jethro Bodine of the Beverly Hillbillies. Both the elder Max & Buddy had minor acting careers of their own. Buddy also fought The Brown Bomber unsuccessfully – twice, in fact. Max Sr.’s loss is referenced in Africa Screams when Boots & Grappler square off and Boots says, ” I’ll hit you harder than Louis ever did.”. Famed big game hunter Clyde Beatty and adventurer/lion-tamer Frank Buck play themselves as part of Diana’s expedition team. And the 4th & 5th Stooges, Shemp Howard & Curly-Joe Besser, are also in Africa Screams. They’re both hilarious as Diana’s blind gunner, Gunner, and butler, Harry. It’s marks their one & only time on-screen appearance together, including on The Three Stooges.

             

The title, Africa Screams, is a spoof on the 1930 documentary Africa Speaks!  Africa Screams received no Oscar nominations. However, the late great Blake Edwards, who was nominated for Adapted Screenplay for Victor Victoria in 1983 at the 55th Academy Awards and received the Honorary Award 21 years later, was one of the movie’s two Dialogue Directors. He was not credited & it was his first non-acting film role. Director Charles Barton was one of 7 winners of the first Best Assistant Director Oscar in 1934 at the 6th Academy Awards. For that one year, it was awarded by studio, and Barton won for Paramount. For the following 4 years it was awarded by film, and then retired. Uncredited Executive Producer Donald Crisp won the Supporting Actor Oscar in 1942 for his role as Mr. Morgan in How Green Was My Valley. It was one of 6 Academy Awards for the film, including Best Picture and Director. And the following year, Set Decorator Ray Robinson (as Edward R. Robinson) was on the team nominated for Black & White Art Direction for The Spoilers.

Neither Abbott nor Costello were ever nominated for an Academy Award. Although their legendary skit, Who’s on First, was included in the 1945 film The Naughty Nineties, the movie received no nominations. I’d argue that the 6-man Original Screenplay team, in retrospect, deserved a nod for that skit alone given how forgettable the winner, German language Swiss film Marie-Louise & the 4 other nominees (Dillinger, Music for Millions, Salty O’Rourke, and What Next Corporal Hargrove?) are by comparison. While Who’s on First was part of Abbott & Costello’s vaudeville act, its writer is in question. Many people have laid claim to it but none can be corroborated. If you’ve never seen this hilarious play on words, it’s linked below. Watch it! It’s a MUST SEE!! If you have seen it, you’re most likely reading this subsequent to watching the clip. When you’re through, give Africa Screams (it’s on the public domain, so I included it immediately below in its entirety) a look-see. It’s has some very funny scenes & provides a nice glimpse into the Hollywood comedies of yesteryear. 2 Stars!

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9/11/12: Sarah’s Key

“When a story is told, it is not forgotten. It becomes a memory of who we were; the hope of what we can become.”

Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key is a bilingual French film originally released at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s American release first came in the summer of 2011 & then it was re-released early in the holiday season. It has received lukewarm reviews after TIFF, though it was considered to be amongst the best films premiered there – a field that included The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Incendies, and In a Better World.

The film is mainly in French with its basic plot about the July 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris as it impacted the Jewish Starzynski family through the eyes of the eldest child in the family, 10-year old Sarah, played wonderfully by Mélusine Mayance. Before she was arrested, Sarah hid her younger brother Michel, Paul Mercier, from the Vichy directed police by locking him in their bedroom closet & keeping the key. She made him promise not to leave or make a noise until she returned. The subplot is mainly in English as American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) moves into the Paris apartment in which her father-in-law, Édouard Tezak (Michel Duchaussoy), grew up while she researches Vel’ d’Hiv. The story becomes very personal to her when she finds out that the Starzynskis lived there immediately before the Tezaks. Julia finds out she’s pregnant as she learns about the fate of the Starzynskis & thousands of other Jews who were being persecuted, tortured & killed as a result of the Vichy Roundup. To complicate matters, Julia’s publisher husband Bertrand, played by Frédéric Pierrot, wants her to have an abortion – a decision with which she absolutely disagrees!

    

Sarah’s Key is based on French journalist & author Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 novel of the same name. The screenplay was penned by Paquet-Brenner & Serge Joncour. Tatiana also makes an uncredited cameo in the film. Max Richter’s score helps weave the two plot lines together nicely. One of the best performances in Sarah’s Key comes from Niels Arestrup (Grandfather in War Horse) who, as Jules Dufaure, helps Sarah get free after her break from Beaune-la-Rolande Deportation Camp. And Aidan Quinn plays an important brief role as William in the film. Elaborating on his impact on the plot would be a spoiler but, as usual, he doesn’t disappoint. The lone Oscar connection in Sarah’s Key is Kristin Scott Thomas’ 1997 Best Actress Nomination as Katharine in The English Patient at the 69th Academy Awards.

Sarah’s Key is an examination of the consequences of one’s decision, the bonds that connect us all, the simultaneous strength & frailty of the human spirit, and the importance of human dignity & life itself. If you have the time & like World War II history, rent Sarah’s Key. I think you’ll like it. All in all, I agree with the post-TIFF reviews: Sarah’s Key is a good film, not a great film. It stumbles, not so much in the back & forth interaction between the two times, but in the final transition from Julia’s research world to her present day world. 3 stars!

9/10/12: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)

“Would you mind explaining what an Earl is? If someone is going to be one, he should know what one is, don’t you think>”

John Cromwell’s Little Lord Fauntleroy was released in 1936. It’s adapted from British playwright & author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1886 novel of the same name. She originally published it as a monthly serial, like many of Charles Dickens’ pieces. She was 20 when Dickens died & Fauntleroy is in some ways reminiscent of A Christmas Carol.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is the story of 9 year old Ceddie & his mother who he calls Dearest in homage to his father before him. The film opens in Brooklyn in 1880 & Ceddie’s father just passed away. He’s a polite, kind, loving & charming boy, played nicely by Freddie Bartholomew. They live modestly. Dearest is played the gorgeous Dolores Costello Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s grandmother, known as the Goddess of the Silent Screen in an earlier time. Her father, Maurice, was the most popular matinée idol of the decade of the 1900’s & 1910’s. He helped Dolores get into pictures and her film debut was in 1909 at 6 years old as a Fairy (along w/ her 3 year old sister Helene) in the short A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Maurice played Lysander in the film. She was so popular that Lou Costello changed his surname from Cristillo to honor her.

Okay, so back to fauntleroy: Shortly after Ceddie’s Dad’s death, he learns that he the last living male heir of his paternal grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt (C. Aubrey Smith). He immediately becomes Lord Fauntleroy & his life is changed dramatically. Ceddie’s father was disowned by the Earl for marrying Dearest, an American. He’s a misanthrope but truly hates Americans, who he considers to be crude, rude, base & uneducated . So intense is the Earl’s bigotry toward Americans that, while she can move to England with Ceddie, Dearest isn’t allowed to live in or even visit him at the Dorincourt Castle. However, Ceddie’s kindness, optimism & boyish charm melt the Earl’s cold heart rather quickly revealing his true character – a kind & generous man! Watch for a 15 year old Mickey Rooney as Ceddie’s good friend Dick. He’s just as funny & endearing as a teenager as he was a seasoned actor. Other good performances include character actress Uma O’Connor as Mary – you’ll recognize her right off the bat – and Henry Stephenson as Attorney Havisham.

The film was produced by the brilliant David O. Selznick, who won two Best Picture Oscars as head of Selznick International Pictures in 1940 at the 12th Academy Awards for the Fleming, Cukor & Wood masterpiece, Gone With the Wind, and the following year for Hitchcock’s Rebecca. He also received the Irving G. Thornberg Memorial Academy Award for Creative Producers in 1940. The music in Little Lord Fauntleroy is composed by 3-time Oscar Winner Max Steiner. He worked with Selznick on & was nominated for an Oscar for  Gone With the Wind.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is a rags-to-riches film about the love of a mother & son, and learning to overcome one’s prejudices. I think you’ll really enjoy it. I’ve attached it immediately below for your convenient viewing. 🙂