By all accounts, Emma Hamilton was quite an interesting person. A daughter of a blacksmith who died when she was two, she was a girl of the 1700s who had limited options. So she pushed past these limitations by pushing aside convention. At the start of That Hamilton Woman, the audience is teased with her history, a history presented so colorfully and cheerfully that we think it must be a tall tale or outlandish gossip. In reality, it barely touched on the truth. This whole movie barely touches on the truth. But it does a good job of providing the audience a sense of the deep, unrelenting love between two people whose combined remarkable talents were drawn upon by their country, and feel the sorrow of the tragedy that befalls even the most common of people. While the movie may not accurately reflect what actually happened, viewers can empathize with its dramatization as well as they can empathize with the secret lives unknown to history.
The Home of the Creative Mind
Welcome to PooBahSpiel, the online voice and home of the creative mind of Mark Monlux, Illustrator Extraordinaire. Prepare yourself for an endless regaling of art directly from the hand of this stellar artist. And brace yourself against his mighty wind of pontification. Updates are kinda weekly and show daily sketches, current projects, and other really nifty stuff.
Monday, August 13, 2018
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
Northwest Passage is one of the lesser-known great Epic pictures. Its budget was larger than the previously more costly epic, Ben-Hur. They would have spent more money, but the studio pulled in the reins. Northwest Passage was based on the book written by Kenneth Roberts in the ‘30s. It competed strongly with “Gone with the Wind” for the best-seller slot, but never managed to dethrone “Gone with the Wind.” MGM decided to cash in on the book’s popularity. Originally two movies were planned. The first movie, or “Book 1,” would cover Rogers’ Rangers’ various skirmishes at the time of the French and Indian war. “Book 2” would cover Rogers’ Rangers as they searched for the Northwest Passage. Kenneth Roberts accurately portrayed the thoughts and feelings of the settlers towards the Indians. It’s not pretty in the book and it’s not pretty on the screen. Even by 1940s’ standards, the racist stereotypes in Northwest Passage were a bit over the top. Roberts thought the fix was in for not making a sequel because one key character to both stories was left out of the movie. He was also very unhappy with how the movie was adapted. Maybe the fix was in, or maybe it became clear to MGM that Northwest Passage was not going to have a strong enough return to merit a second movie. Regardless, what we have is a grand epic that is an embarrassment to the populace that would like to think of itself as culturally sensitive—and a misleading title because the only mention of the Northwest Passage is at the end of the movie. So, if you can stand a grand Hollywood epic which depicts a massacre of Indians in outrageous Technicolor, this is the film for you.
Monday, July 30, 2018
When I watched Stage Fright, I was immediately struck that Alfred Hitchcock started the story with exposition dialogue. Immediate exposition is not something you present unless you are trying to set a tone. Think of the running paragraph of words that fade into the universe at the beginning of Star Wars, or fairy tales that begin, “Once upon a time, in a land, far, far away…” But the start of Stage Fright wasn’t like that. So I’m wondering just what Hitchcock is up to, and that thought nags at me throughout the film until, of course, Hitchcock does his reveal. That nagging little feeling keeps you unsettled all through the movie, and it makes you suspicious of all the characters. And some of the characters are put in the film for sheer fun. A good example is the “Lovely Ducks” lady. There’s really no reason to have her in the movie at all, except that the audience is treated to a wonderfully orchestrated moment of humor and setting that backhandedly builds suspense. Another lovely character in the movie is the father. Played by one of my favorite character actors, Alastair Sim, is so quirky and comfortable with being himself that the mother, played by Sybil Thorndyke, and he obviously live separate lives, but remain married. Hitchcock provides richness to even casual characters, which with the level of suspicion he’s introduced into Stage Fright, has you questioning whom he going to go deeper with, and what clues you will discover along the way. Once you get to the end of the movie, you realize it has been filled with Easter Eggs and clues throughout, and you want to go back and count them all as you view Stage Fright again.
Thursday, June 28, 2018
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the first of David John Moore Cornwell’s novels to be made into a movie. When he began writing, he was still working with the Secret Intelligence Service and wrote under the pen name of John le Carré. Then there was a huge political scandal when a spy revealed the identities of British operatives to the Russians. David John Moore Cornwall was “outed” along with many others. He kept writing under his pen name. Anyway, the author was more than a little familiar with the inner working of how intelligence is gathered in the real world. His approach was to focus on the art of deception. The John le Carré novels do have sex and violence in them, with even the occasional explosion. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released in an era when film censorship was still a concern. The writer had more than enough excellent cerebral material to create a high level of suspense to keep the audience entranced and without too much risk of the film not receiving the rating for which it was shooting. Le Carré commented that he was pleased with how well the film’s story kept to the book, and his presence on set was more of a sign-off as it involved only a modest amount of work. When The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released, television was filled with secret-agent-themed programming. The Berlin Wall had only recently been built, and the Cold War had a very public face. Spy-themed television shows and movies provided an outlet for the high nervous tension of potential nuclear war to be released through escapism. The mood of the day leaned heavily to why The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was so popular. While The Spy Who Came in from the Cold received a few Oscar nominations, it didn’t win any. However, in England, a little closer to the front lines of the Cold War, it won four of the six British Academy of Film and Television Awards for which it was nominated. The age-old story remains of how transgressions with deception and lies affect the human spirit and explains, even now, long after the Wall has fallen, why this movie still holds up.
Sunday, June 17, 2018
A Letter to Three Wives is one of the few movies in the forties that pass the Bechdel Test. Perhaps that’s because Vera Caspary did the screen adaptation from a Cosmopolitan Magazine novel by John Klempner. Caspary, a writer of movies and novels, also wrote the movie Laura. Perhaps her influence is why this movie is dialogue driven, with even casual remarks bearing weight and meaning. A Letter to Three Wives is all about wants and desires, and how to people rationalize, pursue, and achieve them. A Letter to Three Wives pulls everything from the shadows. Consumption, advertising, and financial security are all dragged into the open. It’s a dialogue-driven movie because it’s through dialogue that fears, secrets, and concerns are revealed for the purpose of creating better relationships. This is what brings the drama because we know from the beginning of the movie that one relationship has been betrayed, doomed by closeted secrets and feelings. A Letter to Three Wives is meant to have people take a second look at both their desires and how they are pursued. A Letter to Three Wives might get a little preachy in places. But soapbox rants are just as much a part of relationships as words or cooing love or snarky teasing. The movie holds up well and even if the trappings of the world have changed, the same dialogue could be played out today, just as relevant now as in 1949.
Monday, May 21, 2018
The script for The More the Merrier was custom written as a vehicle for Jean Arthur. And while she was nominated for Best Actress, it was Charles Coburn who walked away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance of the rapscallion Mr. Benjamin Dingle. Coburn tended to be given the same type in all the films he was featured, but in The More the Merrier, his character is given more room than normal, taking an impish delight in outwitting those around him while playing matchmaker. The movie does its best to show how crowded Washington, D.C. was during WWII. The actors are tripping over each other in their apartment, and when we see their characters anywhere outside their apartment, there’s a crowd of people in every scene, in every room, at every table, even on every rooftop. You will also notice that throughout the movie, the camera draws closer to the couple as their feelings for each other become closer. The madcap comedy does a great job of holding up over seven decades. Mr. Dingle’s antics and audacity remains fresh and entertaining. While I couldn’t capture the antics in the comic, I did my best to make it look crowded by filling each frame with a different character from the movie.
Received an Academy Award out of six nominations.
Monday, May 14, 2018
Cat Ballou is the name of this movie and the name of Jane Fonda’s character, a schoolmarm she plays straight. Her straight acting is necessary as she strikes the perfect counterbalance for most of the other main characters, who are provided comedic roles. Lee Marvin, who’s given the chance to overact in not one but two roles, gets most of the laughs. Historically, the gimmick of a double role, while interesting, doesn’t enhance a movie very much. But that isn’t the case in Cat Ballou. Had the writers decided to write the movie as a straight-up traditional Western, the gimmick would have been stale and lonely in its presentation. But they gave up on making Cat Ballou a classic Western and instead decided to make a Western that parodies Westerns. And that is why Lee Marvin was given full rein to be as broad as he wanted. Few actors get this chance. Marvin was deeply familiar with Westerns. He knew which subtle quirks would poke at audiences’ experience of Westerns. As a result, filled theaters roared each time Marvin hiked up his belt. Cat Ballou became the breakaway hit of 1965 and audiences ate up Marvin’s performance as he walked away with the picture. Not that Cat Ballou is a particularly tight picture. One of the plot holes is Cat Ballou herself. Fonda is introduced as a rancher’s daughter returning home from boarding school where she’s learned to be a schoolmarm. But the town takes little to no notice of a returning citizen, let alone the arrival of a new teacher. In fact, Fonda never steps foot in a schoolhouse. The schoolmarm is there because there’s usually a schoolmarm in Westerns. Just like there are usually horses, fancy shooting, sheriffs, trains, and other trappings. The story’s inconsistencies are overlooked because the movie doesn’t take itself, nor the genre it parodies, seriously.
Received one Academy Award out of five nominations.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Lee Marvin might have fallen into his acting career, but he was a natural as a hardboiled tough guy. He became one of Hollywood’s iconic leading men and parlayed the power he wielded to work with the directors he wanted on the projects he wanted. Point Blank was one of those projects. Filmed in the Sixties, the movie hyper-focused on a particular look, Mod, from the word Modernist. The clothing, furniture, and art were the most recent in style and production. Clean sharp lines, shapes, and textures created the look. The mod scene consisted of coffee houses, jazz music, cocktails, and a desire to look graceful with simplicity, fueled by America’s post-WWII economic boom and mass production. It’s in this glossy utopian world that Point Blank is set. The clothing, props, and buildings show little of the past nor any hint of the emerging hippy esthetic. When such breaches do occur, they are for a reason. Alcatraz, from which our hero emerges at the beginning of the movie, sits on the bay like a tombstone of past mobsters in a cemetery. A careful viewing of Point Blank will show the importance of the imagery to the underlying tone and message of the film. The creative world-building is just one of many elements that turned a fairly decent, hardboiled thriller into a cult classic thoroughly enjoyed by film critics and fans. Point Blank might be a time capsule to a specific look from the ‘60s, but the underlying story in this work of thrilling suspense gives it legs. And it is one of several films that provide a worthy legacy to Lee Marvin and the others involved in its production.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Cleopatra is the movie that nearly destroyed 20th Century-Fox. About everything that could go wrong during production went wrong. The script kept getting rewritten. Actors and actresses were replaced. Monumental salaries kept getting bigger even as production scheduling dragged on. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s relationship developed from a mere movie relationship into an epic in its own right. Elizabeth Taylor became deathly ill and had to be hospitalized. A new director was brought in. Several factors led to a new shooting location, and with scenes incomplete, this meant the huge sets and props had to be completely and perfectly reconstructed there. The new director, Joseph Mankiewicz, tried to convince the studio that their story was huge, and they had more than enough material to produce two films, Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra. The studio, however, was well into financial crisis by then and wanted to take advantage of the public’s infatuation with Taylor and Burton’s romance. So they pushed for the story to remain one single film. As a result, the final editing was brutal and removed large sections that would have made for a truly compelling story. Taylor was not pleased and said that they gutted key scenes from the film and kept war scenes to placate the audience. Watching Cleopatra, you can feel how Mankiewicz was right: Cleopatra should have been two films. Cleopatra is still a wonderful spectacle, but as daring and ambitious as it was, it would be the last in a long series of movie epics. The likes of it would not be seen again until the advent of CGI would allow grand shots on a reasonable budget.
Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Woman in the Dunes is filled with allegories. They are layered over each other. Some are obvious and others construct the full meaning of the film. There are so many interesting possibilities that cinemaphiles spend hours discussing them. Woman in the Dunes has always been an art house film. For its very skillful use of sound, cinematography, and story, it received a nomination for Best Foreign Film from the Motion Picture Academy. However, an average viewer might find the film dull in places. Dry sand flowing like water might have deep meaning to the narration, but its constant appearance might be boring to an audience more accustomed to explosions and jump scares. There are moments of high tension to be had. But they cycle back into an ever-growing feeling of frustration and exhaustion that is a good portion of the story. While you watch Woman in the Dunes, you should prepare yourself for a full meal of hidden and obvious meanings behind situations, objects, how the objects are shown, and the sound. The sound is one of the best things about Woman in the Dunes: it creates a narrative onto itself. Viewers might be tempted to re-watch it just to capture the narrative of the sound and how it changes, just like our hero does throughout the movie.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Topper is filled with so many goodies; I hardly know where to start. All of the actors and actresses are familiar faces. Some of them are mid-career, others are just starting out, and others will go on to achieve fame outside of acting. The success of Topper set Cary Grant up as a leading man in screwball comedies. The actor who plays the elevator-operator-turned-bellboy would go on to play Dagwood Bumstead in a series of Blondie movies. The birdlike voice of Billie Burke, who plays Mrs. Clara Topper, is instantly recognized as belonging to Glenda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. Alan Mowbray’s portrayal of Wilkins the Butler would land him dozens of similar roles to the point that his onscreen character and delivery would be quoted by Raymond Chandler. One of Hoagy Carmichael’s movie appearances, this one goes uncredited—but it’s hard to miss as he’s singing his Old Man Moon with the two leads leaning on his piano. And Roland Young presented Cosmo Topper’s dry delivery so elegantly that he received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, which was quite impressive as that was unheard of at the time. Oh! And don’t get me started about the car. The car is practically a character itself. Do some research and you will find a whole history of car customization you’d never heard about. Topper is light-hearted and gay. Topper was well received because the actors and characters they played endeared themselves to audiences.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Hell is for Heroes is a unique war movie. It doesn’t play up war in the least. There is no significant objective mentioned. No general provides us with a clue of strategy. There’s just a squad of men hoping to go home and not face the terror of being on the line. That hope is dashed, along with the private plans the soldiers have made. The men are sent to the front. They don’t know why. They don’t really care. They just want to survive. Only a few of the men are fully up to the task of being a soldier. But Hell is for Heroes shows how most of the soldiers are out of their element. In case the cruel comedy of this is somehow lost on the audience, we are given Private Driscoll. Played by comedian Bob Newhart with his now well-known deadpan delivery, Pvt. Driscoll blunders onto the front with a jeep full of typewriters, a clerk plunged abruptly into the life-and-death struggle on the front line. All the men are trying to make the best decisions that their own experiences have given them. But with its unrelenting deadly nature, war is cruel, taking any decision and turning it into one that cost lives. Hell is for Heroes’ message is that war is men killing and dying. And not much else.
Monday, February 19, 2018
During World War II, a Finnish writer by the name of Mika Waltari explored an ancient Egyptian text known as the Story of Sihuhe. Waltari’s goal was to create a narrative so thoroughly researched that it would entertain not only a casual reader but also bring a smile to the lips of Egyptologists. The book “Sinuhe egyptiläinen” was published in 1945. The book became very popular and was printed in English in 1949 under a simpler title, “The Egyptian.” Its tale of the hero’s disillusionment and war-weariness impressed readers who had just endured a world war. 20th Century-Fox thought The Egyptian perfect for CinemaScope. Never to let a good thing go to waste, another studio, Paramount, would reuse The Egyptian’s wardrobe, props and sets two years later for The Ten Commandments. And, as was often the case in the studio era, some of the actors and extras appeared in both movies. Also, two well-known studio composers shared the workload to create the score for the soundtrack. The Egyptian fared well at the box office. And was nominated for an Academy Award for its cinematography. While it didn’t win an Oscar, Bella Darvi did receive a New Star of the Year - Actress award at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of Nefer, the seductive Babylonian courtesan. I always loved watching The Egyptian. I saw it regularly on television when I was growing up. And it was in our family’s collection of books, where I discovered a copy of the novel that inspired the movie. I was overjoyed to read a lavishly expanded version of the story where I envisioned Victor Mature, Peter Ustinov and others in their designated roles. When I discovered the musical score was available digitally, it didn’t take me long to find my wallet. It’s hard to explain why The Egyptian captivates me so much, why I’m such a fan. I’ve been rattling off trivia about the film, but not going into the story. I guess the same chord that struck readers in 40 countries through the novel and millions via the box office struck me, too.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Citizens Band Radios were another craze that swept the country during the seventies. When technology reduced the size and cost of transistors, suddenly owning a citizens band radio became affordable. Truckers were the first to make use of mobile CBs for practical reasons. With gas shortages a serious problem, truckers were able to network and locate stations that had supplies. And it wasn’t long before average citizens started to take to the CB airwaves. Their popularity was so high that what little licensing was required was eliminated altogether as enforcement become impossible. C.W. McCall, aka Bill Fries, wrote the song “Convoy” to perfectly capture a slice of America, that of the American trucker dealing with the economic and fuel crises gripping the country. The use of CB jargon was a hook that set deep with the radio listener. While it’s common for books to be made into movies, songs doing the same thing are a bit more rare. When Convoy was released, the storyline of the movie didn’t quite match that of the song. Knowing when to adjust to a good thing, Bill Fries rewrote the lyrics to match the storyline of the movie and re-released the song. Trucker movies like Convoy, employing car chases, out-witting police, and heavy use of CB radios would remain a staple through the ‘70s, with homage paid to them in subsequent films. And later, CB radios would remain in basements, rec rooms, dens where they would eventually gather dust as the Internet and cell phones became the next big things.
My copy editor John Markuson would like you to know:
[Fries was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.]
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Becket is one of those historical movies created more for entertaining audiences than for being accurate. In the movie, Henry’s mother is alive; in history, she’s dead. In the movie, he has three children; in reality, it was eight. In the movie, the wife says she will return to her father; in reality, he’s been dead for some years. In the movie, both women torment him; in reality, he relied on their counsel. And perhaps the most glaring inaccuracy is portraying Becket as a Saxon when he was, in reality, a Norman. But film writers were never ones to adhere to facts when a good rewrite would create drama to intrigue audiences, who probably forgot all their history lessons and now hear the name Becket only in plays and dramas. And audiences came to the theater because two of the best actors of the day are the leads and all the talented filmmaking professionals are doing their best to make Becket an award winner. Both Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton give tremendous performances. But it is the ever-talented, history-revising writers who would walk away with the statue.
Received an Academy Award out of eleven nominations.