Archives For September 2015

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in the very definition of "meet cute" -- from Ernst Lubitsch's NINOTCHKA (1939, MGM)

Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in the very definition of “meet cute” — from Ernst Lubitsch’s NINOTCHKA (1939, MGM)

NINOTCHKA (NR, 110 min., B&W, MGM, Nov. 3, 1939)

“This movie is the most sublime and passionate political picture ever made in Hollywood.” This was the assessment of Maurice Zolotow in his 1977 book about Billy Wilder. In later years Wilder would speak insightfully and passionately about “The Lubitsch Touch”. NINOTCHKA was the film that gave him (along with his writing partner at the time, Charlie Brackett) his first up close look at Ernst Lubitsch at work.

It’s the standout comedy in Hollywood’s standout year. Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett would be enough any given day but what makes NINOTCHKA an embarrassment of riches is the cast. Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire sublime, every one. The supporting cast – fantastic. “Garbo Laughs!” MGM’s publicity department came up with NINOTCHKA’s tagline as an obvious nod to the one it used to announce her first talking picture, ANNA CHRISTIE (1930). Greta Garbo does indeed laugh. And so do we.


Director: Ernst Lubitsch, Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch (Screenplay), Melchior Lengyel (Story), Producer: Ernst Lubitsch, Cinematographer: William Daniels, Composer: Werner R. Heymann, Editor: Gene Ruggiero

CAST: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Rugman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach


Watched on DVD (Warner Bros. Home Video)

*Most Mondays I watch a classic or historically significant movie that falls into one of these categories: 1) Have never seen it, or 2) Have never seen it uncut, or 3) Have only seen it once, or 4) Haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Some information from: IMDb Pro, BoxOfficeMojo


John Wayne's Choices

John Wayne submitted this to The People’s Almanac as his list of the best 5 motion picture actors of all time. Pretty salty list. What’s yours? (For more on the backstory of why John Wayne was asked to come with a list in the first place — check out this post at Stars & Letters.)

Have a great weekend!

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE (UA, 1973)

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (UA, 1973)

THE LONG GOODBYE (Rated R, 112 min., Color, Aspect: 2.35:1, United Artists, March 7, 1973)

Dan Blocker (Hoss from TV’s Bonanza) and Robert Altman are one of those Hollywood pairings that doesn’t make sense on paper but makes perfect sense in the broader context of the fellowship of creative people. Altman and Blocker met when the director helmed a few episodes of that very un-Altman-like TV series. Altman wanted his friend to play the role of Roger Wade in THE LONG GOODBYE — and was ready to scrap the whole project when Blocker died suddenly in 1972. (The film is dedicated to Blocker.) Enter Sterling Hayden. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Roger Wade. Hayden’s performance feels both powerful and timeless upon every viewing.

In the hands of a lesser script, actors, or director, the conceits of this film would be gimmicky. Blessed with this cast, crew and screenplay — THE LONG GOODBYE is a master work. It’s a testament to how talented artists and craftspeople can break the rules   (the constant, unmotivated camera movement), create inside jokes (the ever changing treatment of the movie’s theme song as both score and source music), play with a sacrosanct genre, and still achieve something sublime.

If nothing else, THE LONG GOODBYE is a time capsule of early 1970s Los Angeles — and a grand, gritty one at that.

Director: Robert Altman, Writers: Leigh Brackett (Screenplay), Raymond Chandler (Novel), Eric Maschitz (Screenplay), Producer: Jerry Bick, Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond, Composer: John Williams, Editor: Lou Lombardo

CAST: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton


Watched on Bluray from Kino Lorber (20th Century Fox, MGM)

*Most Mondays I watch a classic or historically significant movie that falls into one of these categories: 1) Have never seen it, or 2) Have never seen it uncut, or 3) Have only seen it once, or 4) Haven’t seen it in a very long time.

Some information from: IMDb Pro, BoxOfficeMojo


This Labor Day weekend I’m thinking about HOFFA. Not the long disappeared Teamsters leader, but the 1992 movie about him. I think about this film every Labor Day – and it’s not uncommon for me to watch some or all of it before the holiday is over. Simply put, Danny DeVito’s HOFFA would easily land in my Top 10 list of vastly underrated American movies – probably in one of the top three spots.

The argument could be made that this was Jack Nicholson’s last tour de force in a lead role. (One could make the same case for 1997’s AS GOOD AS IT GETS.) Not to say that Nicholson didn’t do memorable and/or good work after his portrayal of Hoffa but this is the last time he seemed to fully lose himself in a character. The nuanced humanity he brings to the role in spite of — not because of — the prosthetics and make-up is a sight to behold.

The NYT’s Vincent Canby observed the following in his thoughtful review

“Hoffa” is a remarkable movie, an original and vivid cinematic work, but is that enough? I think it is. Others will have legitimate objections to the ways the film operates.

Indeed, others objected – with a typical list of nit-picky items that usually accompany historical biopics. But with HOFFA the objections seem to me more rote than applicable. Critics were split, box office was dismal. Regardless, the film is a collaborative work of art worthy of (re)consideration.

David Mamet’s screenplay is both epic and personal. It is neither sentimental nor defensive. It plays fast and loose with the facts but it is truthful in its portrayal of the shades of grey that have always colored American politics and business.

Danny DeVito came to HOFFA already an accomplished director, having helmed two dark comedies – THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Here he created a film that one critic called “almost impressionistic.” And that’s a fair assessment. DeVito is not afraid to create fly-away sets, use forced perspective, move the camera grandly, and shoot exterior scenes inside a soundstage, in order to create powerful, memorable images.

This from Roger Ebert’s original review

“Hoffa” shows DeVito as a genuine filmmaker. Here is a movie that finds the right look and tone for its material. Not many directors would have been confident enough to simply show us Jimmy Hoffa instead of telling us all about him. This is a movie that makes its points between the lines, in what is not said. It’s not so much about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, as about the fact that something eventually would.

David Newman’s score is one of the best examples of classic movie music that hits all the right notes without veering into cliché. The last cue in film, “Jimmy’s Last Ride”, is one of my favorite pieces of film music ever. This was an era when it was not uncommon for a track to be created specifically for the trailer. Newman composed a 2minute 15second track for HOFFA’s trailer that still gets my full attention when it pops up in my iTunes library.

So, to all the people who worked so hard to make this film – I salute you this Labor Day and thank you for your effort. I’ve enjoyed the fruit of your labor for many years.