#598) Love Me Tonight (1932)

#598) Love Me Tonight (1932)

OR “Tailor’s Delight”

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Written by Samuel Hoffenstein & George Marion Jr. and Waldemar Young. Based on the play “The Tailor at the Castle” by Léopold Marchand and Paul Armont. Score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Class of 1990 

The Plot: Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) is a tailor in Paris who always has a song in his heart. While trying to collect money from his client, the fast-talking Vicomte Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles), Maurice tracks him down at the chateau of Gilbert’s uncle the Duc d’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith). Complications arise when Gilbert introduces Maurice as the “Baron Courtelin”, and Maurice falls for the Duc’s niece Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). There’s music, romance, comedy, and Myrna Loy as a thirsty Comtesse.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the most original of 1930s musicals”, praising Mamoulian’s direction, the “effervescent” script, and the two leads (apparently Chevalier has “saucy charm”). An essay by movie musical expert Richard Barrios is a love letter to the film’s creativity.

But Does It Really?: While not the most iconic of early movie musicals, “Love Me Tonight” may have been the first musical to crack the code. Previous musicals of the era were typically revues of unrelated songs and acts, but “Love Me Tonight” effectively weaves its songs into the story and characters, creating an enjoyable experience that holds up reasonably well 90 years later. There are more famous musicals on this list for sure, but none of them would be here without the stepping stone of “Love Me Tonight”.

Everybody Gets One: Lyricist Lorenz Hart was introduced to composer Richard Rodgers in 1919, and the two spent the next 24 years writing 26 musicals. Among the songs these shows spawned were such staples as “The Lady Is a Tramp“, “Blue Moon” and “My Funny Valentine“. Unfortunatley, Hart’s frequent bouts with alcoholism led to some tensions with Rodgers, and the two parted ways shortly before Hart’s death in 1943. “Love Me Tonight” was one of several movie musicals Rodgers & Hart were commissioned to write during the 1930s.

Title Track: We’ll talk more about the title number later, but I will take this time to voice my disappointment that nobody in this movie sings the Tom Jones song also called “Love Me Tonight”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Love Me Tonight” was released in August 1932 which, due to the Oscar’s off-calendar eligibility period, meant it couldn’t compete until the 1933 Oscars. Ultimately, “Love Me Tonight” received zero nominations. Paramount’s Best Picture contenders that year were “A Farewell to Arms” and fellow NFR entry “She Done Him Wrong“.

Other notes 

  • Leave it to the man who directed “Applause” to bring something new to the movie musical. You can see Mamoulian’s influence in the first scene, a non-verbal sequence in which the entire town begins its day in a rhythmic routine crescendoing to the opening number. It’s like they all live in the town from “Beauty and the Beast”.
  • Interestingly enough, I think movie musicals needed the Great Depression to survive and evolve. Moviegoers were looking for escapism once the Depression hit, and who wouldn’t want to escape to a story of romance and royalty in Paris?
  • Maurice Chevalier had been a sensation in both France and America in the 1920s, and became interested in film acting once sound came along. His early films with Paramount were box office hits, with “The Love Parade” and “The Big Pond” even earning him Oscar nominations. His 1932 film “One Hour With You” paired him with Jeanette MacDonald (a stage performer making her film debut) and was the biggest hit of his career. “Love Me Tonight” was tailored to both Chevalier and MacDonald’s talents, hence why they share first names with the lead characters. Side note: Whenever he performed in English, Maurice Chevalier always used a more pronounced embellishment of his natural French accent. He didn’t actually sound like that all the time.
  • I’ve read that all the singing in this film was pre-recorded, but it sounds live to me. Maybe it’s a combo of the two?
  • Charlie Ruggles is one of those actors who I’m more familiar with because of this blog. Before this, I only knew him as the Grandpa from “The Parent Trap”, turns out he had a long career as a comic character actor.
  • Easily the most memorable song from this movie is “Isn’t It Romantic?”, presented in a novel approach. It begins with Chevalier singing in his tailor shop (with the camera showing his multiple reflections in the dressing room mirrors), and the song’s infectious melody travels from character to character until it reaches Jeanette MacDonald in her chateau. Very ahead of its time, and still a memorable number.
  • This is my first experience with Jeanette MacDonald, one of the biggest movie singers of the day. She has that ’30s operatic sound I associate with early films: it’s beautiful, but I have no idea what she’s saying. Also, Jeanette MacDonald kinda looks like Gracie Allen, doesn’t she?
  • I’m enjoying Charles Butterworth as Jeanette’s well-meaning but boring suitor. Apparently Butterworth was Daws Butler’s inspiration for the original voice of Cap’n Crunch. I definitely didn’t see that coming.
  • What’s the deal with the three elderly aunts? Did this become “MacBeth” all of a sudden?
  • Myrna Loy is always worth the trip out, especially here as the man-hungry ingenue, a far cry from the more sophisticated, mature women of her later career.
  • Gabby Hayes is in this? I didn’t realize he made movies where he wasn’t a grizzled prospector in the old west.
  • I’m enjoying the usage of “Lover”, a very romantic song, being sung to a horse.
  • “Mimi” is performed in what I call the “Jonathan Demme Shot”; whenever we cut to Chevalier or MacDonald they are staring directly at the camera. It’s a bit unsettling.
  • “Love Me Tonight” was filmed pre-Code, meaning that the film could be a little more suggestive with its dialogue (I’m still shocked someone says “nymphomaniac”). A re-release of the film in the 1940s (under the Code) saw the deletion of about 10 minutes of the more provocative dialogue and scenes – including Myrna Loy in some risqué negligee. Sadly, these moments have never been seen since their deletion.
  • First rule of ’30s musicals: if someone says a line that rhymes, they’re about to start singing.
  • Thunderbolt, the horse initially selected for Maurice to ride, is described as “fast and furious”. Hopefully that horse knows how to Tokyo Drift.
  • This movie’s romance is a variation of “He’s a jerk but she’s okay with it” called “They’re both jerks but we’re all okay with it I guess”. It must be the music.
  • Ooh, a joke that plays with the film’s frame rate. Rouben you clever bastard.
  • “I’m an Apache” is another simple number filmed artistically: Chevalier regales the crowd while his shadow looms tall in the background. I don’t know what it means, but it looks great!
  • Why do so many movies have a guy kissing a sleeping woman? What is this, a Disneyland dark ride?
  • Interesting choice for the title number; “Love Me Tonight” is an inner monologue song! Maurice dreams the song while he lies in bed, imagining his confession to Jeanette. It makes lip-synching a lot easier, that’s for sure. The last shot is a split screen of Maurice and Jeanette asleep in their separate beds, but composed in a way that it looks like they’re sharing a bed. We won’t see something this suggestive again until “Pillow Talk” in 25 years.
  • “The Son of a Gun Is Nothing But a Tailor” goes on way too long, but wins for best rhyme in the movie: “I’d rather throw a bomb on her/than have her wed a commoner.” Hart earned his paycheck that week.
  • The finale is exciting, and the engineer who refuses to stop the train is my favorite character. “What’s the trouble?” “I love him.” “That’s not a real trouble.”

Legacy 

  • “Love Me Tonight” plays today as the next step in the evolution of 1930s movie musicals. I’d argue that the step immediately after this movie was the Astaire/Rogers musicals RKO cranked out in the coming years.
  • Several of the songs from “Love Me Tonight” became standards, including “Lover”, “Mimi”, and “Isn’t It Romantic?”
  • Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier would make a few more musicals in the ’30s, and we’ll see MacDonald again when she teams up with Nelson Eddy in “Naughty Marietta”.
  • Maurice Chevalier left Hollywood in 1935, returning to his native France. After some (cough) controversies during the war, Chevalier returned to Hollywood (albeit on-location in France) in 1957 to star in Billy Wilder’s “Love in the Afternoon”. Chevalier’s film career peaked in 1958 with “Gigi” and an Oscar for lifetime achievement.
  • Rouben Mamoulian would reunite with Richard Rodgers (following the latter’s teaming with Oscar Hammerstein) not in film, but on the stage. In 1943, Mamoulian directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration for Broadway, “Oklahoma!”, which revolutionized musical theater in a manner not unlike what we see in “Love Me Tonight”.
  • Perhaps this film’s most amusing legacy: Paramount took the film’s most iconic song and used it for the 1948 musical comedy “Isn’t It Romantic?” with Veronica Lake and Billy De Wolfe. Poorly received upon release, Leonard Maltin’s more-recent critique holds the record for shortest movie review: “‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ No.”

Listen to This: The only Rodgers and Hart song on the National Recording Registry is Ruth Etting’s 1930 rendition of “Ten Cents a Dance”. Interestingly enough, neither Maurice Chevalier or Jeanette MacDonald has made the list.

Thanks for reading! For access to bonus posts, join my Patreon!

The Horse’s Head Fifth Anniversary!

In honor of the traditional fifth anniversary gift (wood), please enjoy this abomination of God.

Five years ago I had a dream: a dream to watch a bunch of movies and to write a blog about them. Back then I had no idea how far I’d make it, “but the prospect of the attempt sounds like a lot of fun”. Well, here we are, five years and almost 600 movies later, and I must admit it’s still a lot of fun.

First and foremost: a shameless plug for my Patreon page. That’s right, I finally got around to putting The Horse’s Head on Patreon. I’m enjoying the added challenge of writing bonus posts and engaging with my readers more, and your support over there would mean a lot to me. Thank you. Plug over.

As always, I want to give a shoutout to my fellow NFR binge-watchers: NFR Completist, The Film Patrol, Merry Watches Movies, and Registering the Registry. Bonus shoutout to Merry Watches Movies, who is simultaneously listening to every entry in the National Recording Registry at her second page Merry Merry Listens. I don’t know what prompted this, but godspeed Merry.

I also want to give mention to The National Film Registry Fan Site. Rather than watching and chronicling every film on the list, the NFRFS is a fanmade directory of all 825 movies, and where to view/purchase them online. A very valuable resource for anyone attempting this endeavor. Where were you five years ago?

And finally, thank you, dear reader. Thanks for checking in these last five years and indulging me in my never-ending movie marathon. And as always, let’s keep taking care of each other.

Happy viewing,

Tony

#597) The Maltese Falcon (1941)

#597) The Maltese Falcon (1941)

OR “Follow That Bird”

Directed & Written by John Huston. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

Class of 1989

The Plot: San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is approached by Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to track down her missing sister. When Spade’s partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is shot dead while investigating, the suspiciously stoic Spade takes the case (despite being a prime suspect). Spade soon learns that Wonderly is actually Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in town as part of the search for “The Maltese Falcon”, a jewel-encrusted 16th century statuette expected to be worth a fortune. During his investigation, Spade also crosses paths with two other crooks looking for the Falcon: the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and the intimidating Kasper Gutman, aka “The Fat Man” (Sydney Greenstreet). The ensuing suspense is, for lack of a better word, priceless. 

Why It Matters: The NFR ranks “The Maltese Falcon” as “[a]mong the most influential movies to emerge from the Hollywood studio system”, praising Huston and Bogart for “captur[ing] the true essence of Hammett’s story”. An essay by film critic Richard T. Jameson successfully encapsulates the film and its production.

But Does It Really?: Now that’s a damn good movie. “The Maltese Falcon” is many things – a thrilling mystery, a faithful page-to-screen adaptation, the prototype for all film noir- but above all it is a thoroughly entertaining movie from beginning to end. In his directorial debut, Huston successfully translates the novel’s spirit, while maintaining a relentless pace that always keeps you on your toes. The ensemble is led by a never-better Bogart, to say nothing of the other outstanding cast members, all of whom add to the film’s excitement and mystery. “Falcon” holds up remarkably well 80 years later, and will continue to endure for years to come.

Wow, That’s Dated: Just the usual sexism that I’ve come to expect from the golden age of Hollywood. It’s not overwhelming here, but it’s definitely there. And I still don’t know what to make of Sam’s line to Cairo “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

Title Track: Perhaps to help differentiate this “Maltese Falcon” from its earlier film adaptations, Warner Bros. wanted to retitle this film “The Gent from Frisco”. Thankfully, Huston was able to persuade the powers that be to keep the original title.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “The Maltese Falcon” received three Oscar nominations: Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Sydney Greenstreet. In a field of such strong contenders as “Citizen Kane” and “Sergeant York“, “Maltese” lost all three nominations – two to “How Green Was My Valley“. Although Mary Astor was not even nominated for her work in “Falcon”, she did win Best Supporting Actress that year for her role in the melodrama “The Great Lie”.

Other notes

  • John Huston began his show business career as a screenwriter, writing and polishing screenplays for Warner Bros. starting in 1937. When Huston wanted to start directing his own scripts, Jack L. Warner agreed on the condition that Huston’s next screenplay was successful. The script was “High Sierra”, a hit upon its release in January 1941. Huston chose to adapt “The Maltese Falcon” as his first movie, a risky choice given that Warner Bros. had adapted the novel to film twice in the last decade (a pre-code version in 1931, and again in 1936 as the comedy “Satan Met a Lady”). The story goes that Huston’s first draft of the screenplay (a straightforward write-up of the novel’s events) was prematurely sent to Warner and the film’s producer Henry Blanke. To Huston’s surprise, the script was immediately approved and put into production.
  • With the budget of a B-movie and only six weeks to film everything, Huston maximized his shoot by storyboarding the entire movie in advance, and writing detailed camera instructions into the script. The shoot was by all accounts an enjoyable one, with Huston and the cast engaging in practical jokes between set-ups. Thanks to Huston’s preparedness, shooting wrapped under budget and two days ahead of schedule.
  • George Raft was the first choice to play Sam Spade, and turned it down (allegedly he did not want to work with a novice director). Thankfully, second choice Humphrey Bogart accepted the role. With a string of supporting parts in gangster pics under his belt, you can see how Bogart became a star after this: Sam Spade is the ruler of all he surveys in this movie. Totally in control, cryptic yet always charismatic, a star turn if ever there was one. Plus the character’s constant jadedness provides an entertaining running commentary.
  • The corner of Bush and Stockton where Archer is shot is a real-life San Francisco location, and today is commemorated with a plaque featuring a major spoiler.
  • I always forget how fast everybody talks in old movies. It’s not at an overlapping Hawksian speed, but it’s still fast. No wonder this movie is so short. Despite this, Huston already knew a pivotal rule of filmmaking from the beginning: shoot the most important dialogue either in close-up or from a new angle; this subliminally tells your audience to pay attention.
  • Mary Astor’s great in this. Her Brigid is a complex spinning coin who never truly lands heads or tails until it’s too late. You can see the gears turning in Brigid’s head as each of her lies is called out. It’s method acting before the term existed. 
  • And then we get to Peter Lorre, one of filmdom’s greatest character actors. You never forget a Peter Lorre performance, especially here as a sophisticated, neurotic criminal. The character’s homosexuality had to be toned down, but come on; the gardenia scented card, the phallic umbrella handle. We all know what’s up.
  • I’ve always wondered if you could ever replicate taxi cab chases in a modern movie. It’s not like you can tell your Lyft driver to “follow that car and step on it!” Too many insurance risks. And oh, the awkward small talk.
  • He doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, but Sydney Greenstreet is worth the wait. A stage actor making his film debut, Greenstreet nearly steals the show with his menacing theatricality. He’s so good you forget that his story of the Falcon’s history is just him talking for seven minutes!
  • My favorite moment is when Spade, while being interrogated by the district attorney, rattles off what he knows about the case at a break-neck pace, stopping only to check in with the stenographer to ensure he’s getting it all down. It’s hilarious.
  • I spent a lot of this movie trying to remember where I know Elisha Cook Jr. from, his boyish good looks standing out against his angular features. After some research, my conclusion is that I’m recognizing him from other NFR films I covered early on, including “The Big Sleep” and “Rosemary’s Baby“.
  • Perhaps the greatest walk-on cameo in film history: John Huston’s father Walter (already a well-known stage and film actor in 1941) as the ill-fated Captain Jacoby. The elder Huston stumbles into Spade’s office, his hat tucked down to obscure his face, delivers the package, mutters his line, and falls down dead. 
  • I realized that “Maltese Falcon” shares a lot with “Treasure of the Sierra Madre“, Huston’s later film that I admired but couldn’t fully get into. Both are movies about a group of strangers on a quest for an alleged fortune. While both show the dangerous extents greedy people will go to, “Falcon” meditates more on perceived value vs. actual value. Of course, now that I think about this, you can apply that to pretty much all of Huston’s movies.
  • The only weak link in this ensemble is Gladys George, sporadically popping up as Archer’s widow, an overdramatic Miss Havisham-type clad in black. It’s a very one-note performance, not aided by the deletion of most of Ida’s characterization from the novel.
  • [Spoilers] The last act of the movie is a surprisingly intense summation of events, expertly handled by Huston and his ensemble. The highlight is – of course – the awaited arrival of the Falcon, and the revelation that it is fake. This is followed by Cairo going full Peter Lorre on Gutman. With his bulging eyes and gritted pronunciation (“You bloated eediaht! You styupid fat-head!”), it’s like he’s turning into Ren from “Ren and Stimpy” right in front of us.
  • The film’s most iconic line is a paraphrase from “The Tempest” (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”), and is original to the movie. My favorite part is that “The stuff that dreams are made of” is technically not the last line. That distinction goes to Ward Bond’s follow-up: “Huh?”

Legacy

  • “The Maltese Falcon” was a hit and jumpstarted the careers of both John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. While it predates true film noir by a few years, “The Maltese Falcon” is often cited as the genesis of the genre.
  • Warner Bros.’ proposed sequel, “The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon”, quickly stalled due to Huston’s salary demands and the cast’s unavailability. Huston would write a pseudo-sequel a few years later called “Three Strangers”. When it was discovered that the film rights to the character of Sam Spade had reverted back to Dashiell Hammett, the script was re-written as a separate entity (though the final film does star Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre).
  • John Huston would continue to direct movies for the next 46 years! His filmography has plenty of classics in it, and span a wide array of genres. He even directed “Annie”!
  • “Maltese” was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (if you will) for Huston and Bogart. The two collaborated on five additional films, including “The African Queen“, which earned Bogie his long overdue Oscar.
  • Film noir got a bit of a resurgence in the ’70s (I blame “The Long Goodbye”), which ultimately devolved into parody. The 1975 comedy “The Black Bird” saw George Segal as Sam Spade Jr., inheriting his father’s detective business and getting mixed with criminals still trying to find that damn bird. Despite appearances by original “Falcon” actors Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. reprising their roles, “The Black Bird” failed to take off.
  • As for the prop Maltese Falcon itself, the statuette used in the film has become – somewhat ironically – one of the most valued and sought after movie props in history. At least three Falcon statuettes made for the film are known to exist, and have had their share of owners over the last 80 years. The only one verified to have been in the final film (noted for its bent tail after Bogart dropped it) was sold at auction in 2013 for over four million dollars! That’s over 10 times the budget of the original film!

Thanks for reading! For access to bonus posts, join my Patreon!

#596) WALL-E (2008)

#596) WALL-E (2008)

OR “Robot-son Crusoe”

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Written by Stanton & Jim Reardon. Story by Stanton & Pete Docter.

Class of 2021

The Plot: In the early 2800s, Earth has become a massive garbage dump, abandoned by humans 700 years earlier. While a series of robots were sent to clean up the mess in anticipation of humanity’s return, only one has survived, a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth class – or WALL-E for short (voiced by Ben Burtt). WALL-E spends his days collecting junk he finds interesting and rewatching his VHS copy of “Hello, Dolly!”. Upon the arrival of an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator – EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight), WALL-E is immediately smitten. Once EVE discovers a single seedling in the dirt, she returns to the humans’ starliner the Axiom, with WALL-E secretly tagging along. From there we get a warning about the negative effects of consumerism and our impact on the environment, mixed with a surprisingly touching and optimistic love story.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a] triumph even by Pixar standards”, praising the film’s “skillful animation” and “imaginative set design”.

But Does It Really?: Ever since seeing this film in the theater in 2008, I have considered “WALL-E” one of the best movies ever made, animated or otherwise. At a time when Pixar was creatively infallible, “WALL-E” pushed the envelope by being cautionary without condemning, sweet without being over-sentimental, and funny without relying on crudity or pop-culture. I agree with the AFI’s summation of “WALL-E”, which declared this film proof that “the film medium’s only true boundaries are the human imagination.” Although I would have selected Stanton’s earlier Pixar hit “Finding Nemo” to make the Registry first, “WALL-E” is a near-perfect movie and no less deserving of its NFR induction.

Shout Outs: References throughout to “2001“, plus an allusion to “Alien” (Sigourney Weaver voices a Mother-esque computer). And keep your eyes peeled for a clip from “A Corner in Wheat“, as well as a few nods to “Toy Story“.

Everybody Gets One: Co-screenwriter Jim Reardon is best known for helming over 30 episodes of “The Simpsons” during its early years. Reardon left “The Simpsons” in the early 2000s to work on “WALL-E”, and has since co-written “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Zootopia”. Pixar employee Elissa Knight often voiced character temp tracks to help animators before the official voice-actor had been recorded, but Andrew Stanton loved her temp track for EVE so much that she became the final voice for the character. Knight still works for Pixar as a producer’s assistant.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among WALL-E’s possessions are such mid-2000s technology as the iPod mini and the Big Mouth Billy Bass. Speaking of the mid-2000s: President Forthright uses the phrase “stay the course”, used by then-President George W. Bush in reference to the war in Iraq.

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and box office hit upon release, “WALL-E” received six Academy Award nominations, tying “Beauty and the Beast” for the most nods by an animated film. “WALL-E” took home Best Animated Feature as expected, and lost its other five nominations to “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Milk”, and fellow NFR inductee “The Dark Knight”. The exclusion of both “WALL-E” and “Dark Knight” from Best Picture is rumored to have inspired the expansion of that category from five nominees to ten the following year.

Other notes 

  • Andrew Stanton first came up with “WALL-E” during a lunch meeting in 1994 that also spawned the creations of “A Bug’s Life”, “Monsters Inc.” and “Finding Nemo”. Stanton and Pete Docter worked on the script for two months, but hit a roadblock and moved on to other projects. Following the success of “Finding Nemo” in 2003, Stanton returned to “WALL-E”, adding the love story and its environmental message. The project was green-lit shortly thereafter.
  • While the film’s concerns for our environment definitely rang true in 2008 (this was two years after “An Inconvenient Truth” after all), these cries definitely stick out more in a COVID-era viewing. We are so royally screwed.
  • As much as I love movie musicals, I have tried and failed twice in my life to watch “Hello, Dolly!” all the way through. You’d think something with Gene Kelly at the helm wouldn’t be so flat and boring, yet here we are. The film’s archival inclusion within “WALL-E” is as close to the Registry as that movie will ever get. And for the record, “Dolly” composer Jerry Herman loved the use of his songs in “WALL-E”.
  • After finishing his work on the “Star Wars” prequels, legendary sound designer Ben Burtt vowed to never work on another movie with robots, but changed his mind after being inspired by Stanton’s pitch of “WALL-E”. Burtt used the same sound design techniques he had implemented 30 years earlier for R2-D2 (vocal intonation processed through a synthesizer), as well as many in-house items from Disney’s sound department. He even bought a 1950s electrical generator on eBay to get the right sound for WALL-E’s movements.
  • WALL-E kinda looks like Johnny 5 from “Short Circuit” – though Andrew Stanton has always stated that this was coincidental.
  • “WALL-E” showcases some of the best visual storytelling in film since the silent era. The first 30 minutes or so are near-flawless, with every movement aiding in developing the story and/or characters, with sparse dialogue supporting these visuals. Each composition is so clean and precise, you get the sense that no stone was left unturned in the filmmaking process.
  • Originally WALL-E was to encounter a race of gelatinous aliens in space, but this evolved into the equally gelatinous humans of the final film. I fully acknowledge the irony of me sitting in a reclining chair watching a screen showing a movie of people sitting in reclining chairs watching their screens.
  • Is it me, or does the inside of the Axiom look a lot like the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport?
  • John Ratzenberger makes his trademark Pixar appearance, this time as the aptly named John. It’s nice to see that Bostonian accents survive centuries of human evolution in space. Also lending their voice to one of the humans is comedian Kathy Najimy as Mary. That story again: Peggy Hill’s on the NFR.
  • It wouldn’t be a Pixar movie with a reference to A113, the CalArts classroom from which many top animators got their education. “WALL-E” marks the first time A113 is a major plot point, rather than a throwaway easter egg.
  • Man do I miss Fred Willard. Even as the inept Buy-n-Large CEO/President of Earth he’s just so endearing.
  • Original “SNL” cast member Laraine Newman provides several “additional voices” in the film (some sources credit her as the “Beauty-Bot”). I was once in a car with her, but that’s another story.
  • Easily my favorite scene in the movie (as it is for many others) is WALL-E and EVE dancing in space. It follows the logic of old movie musicals: when you feel so much that you can’t express it in words, dance. These two robots harmoniously moving through space is just beautiful, though the “define dancing” moment at the end is a bit on the nose.
  • Also technically making their only NFR appearance: MacInTalk, Apple’s text-to-speech program, as the voice of AUTO. The acting unions must have been pissed about that one.
  • Honestly, I didn’t write a lot of notes for this one. I’ve seen “WALL-E” several times over the years, and every time I’m just so entranced by it. Much like the film’s “irrational love defeats life’s programming” thesis, my attempts to deconstruct this film are always upended by my appreciation for its artistry.
  • Cool, Peter Gabriel! The former Genesis frontman was apparently a big fan of “Finding Nemo”, and co-wrote and performs the song “Down to Earth” during this film’s closing credits. The song is paired with animation covering the rehabilitation of Earth after test audiences were concerned that the humans of “WALL-E” would destroy the planet again.
  • As always, the Pixar credits are filled with nuggets of trivia, including “Production Babies”, who are now all in their awkward teen years. Stick around at the very end when WALL-E updates Luxo Jr. with a CFL bulb.

Legacy 

  • “WALL-E” was a success right from the start, earning a heap of critical praise and year-end trophies, ultimately becoming the 5th highest grossing film of the year at the U.S. box office. In the ensuing years, “WALL-E” routinely shows up on lists of the best films of the 21st century (so far).
  • Andrew Stanton followed up “WALL-E” with his first live-action film: 2012’s “John Carter”; one of the most expensive movies ever made, and one of the biggest box office bombs. Stanton returned to animation with 2016’s “Finding Dory”, and continues to serve as part of Pixar’s Senior Creative Team.
  • Like many a Pixar film before it, “WALL-E” doesn’t so much get parodied as it does get referenced in other Pixar movies. That being said, I did track down this amusing parody from 2010 that combines “WALL-E” with “The Terminator“. A bit sophomoric, but it’s “Mad”, what did you expect?
  • You don’t see too much “WALL-E” representation throughout the Disney synergy machine. WALL-E is produced more often as a figurine than a playable action figure, but he does occasionally show up as an interactive animatronic character in the theme parks.
  • When NASA launched “Mars Cube One” (a flyby of the red planet) in 2018, the two nano-spacecraft were nicknamed “WALL-E” and “EVE” as a tribute to the film. After losing contact with the two craft in January 2019, NASA officially ended the mission. Like their namesakes, “WALL-E” and “EVE” are still floating out in space somewhere.

Prior Viewing: “WALL-E” was preceded in its theatrical run by the short “Presto” by Doug Sweetland. With its quick pace and magic-inspired lunacy, “Presto” is like “Magical Maestro“, minus the racial insensitivity.

Thanks for reading! For access to bonus posts, join my Patreon!

#595) The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

#595) The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

OR “Monkey Business”

Directed by Otto Preminger

Written by Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer. Based on the novel by Nelson Algren.

Class of 2020 

The Plot: Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) returns to his Chicago neighborhood following a stay at a Narcotic Farm. Having finally kicked his heroin addiction (which he refers to as the “forty pound monkey on my back”), Frankie has aspirations to get his life together and become a professional drummer. Frankie’s plans are constantly put to the test by his berating, wheelchair-bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker), his old drug dealer Louie (Darren McGavin), and gangster Zero Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), who wants Frankie and his “arm made of pure gold” back dealing his illegal card games. With only his old flame Molly (Kim Novak) and sidekick Sparrow (Arnold Stang) by his side, will Frankie finally get the monkey off his back? And will any of this get past the censorship restrictions of 1955?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Preminger’s treatment of the subject matter, as well as Sinatra’s “unvarnished” performance, Saul Bass’ “eye-popping” credits and Elmer Bernstein’s “remarkable” score.

But Does It Really?: “The Man with the Golden Arm” is on this list as representation of an early attempt to break down the Production Code, pure and simple. As a film viewed 65 years later, it’s…fine. Sinatra is good as always, and the film’s frank (forgive me) portrayal of drug addiction holds up well, but the film occassionally veers too close to melodrama to be viewed with total seriousness. “The Man with the Golden Arm” deserves to be on this list for its historical significance, and its 31 year wait to make the cut is not surprising or unwarranted.

Wow, That’s Dated: The Narcotic Farm that Frankie stays at in Lexington, Kentucky was a real place, one of two commissioned by the US Government in 1929. The legislation was repealed in 1944, with both farms ceasing operations by the 1970s in favor of more advanced treatment in rehabilitation centers.

Title Track: Despite this movie’s dour subject matter, Sinatra actually did record a title song, which was ultimately rejected by Preminger. The song went unreleased until 2002 as part of a collection of Sinatra’s Hollywood career.

Seriously, Oscars?: A controversial success upon release, “The Man with the Golden Arm” received three Oscar nominations. Frank Sinatra lost Best Actor to Ernest Borgnine’s more endearing work in “Marty“, while the film lost Art Direction and Score to, respectively, “The Rose Tattoo” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”.

Other notes 

  • Following the release of Nelson Algren’s novel in 1949, the film rights to “The Man with the Golden Arm” were purchased by producer Bob Roberts with the intention of making a vehicle for John Garfield. This attempt was repeatedly discouraged by Joseph Breen and the Production Code, who stated that no film centering around drug addiction would receive a PCA seal of approval. Following Garfield’s death in 1952, the film rights were purchased by Otto Preminger. After his 1953 film “The Moon is Blue” (the first American movie to be released without a PCA seal), Preminger was confident he could make and release “Golden Arm”; funding the project with his own production company and giving distributer United Artists the option to bail if the film didn’t receive the Code’s approval.
  • As always, Saul Bass knocks it out of the park with his opening credits. His trademark minimalist lines (with a stylistically crooked arm) makes a memorable visual, matched by Elmer Bernstein’s fervent jazz score (an early success for the young composer).
  • It’s so weird seeing Darren McGavin playing the heavy after associating him with his later, more lighthearted work in “A Christmas Story“. And Louis is such a menace to Frankie, pushing him to relapse throughout the movie. Don’t you know how fra-jee-lay Frankie is right now!?
  • Also in the “Not expecting them in a drama” category: Arnold Stang. With his rough, caricatured New York accent and his turtle-without-a-shell appearance, Stang works surprisingly well here as Frankie’s ever-faithful wingman. And so help me, I will get Arnold Stang’s other great film role on this list one day.
  • Preminger’s version of “The Man with the Golden Arm” differs enough from its source material to cause a falling out with (and a later lawsuit from) novelist Nelson Algren. For starters: in the novel, Frankie is addicted to morphine as a result of injuries sustained during WWII. In the film, Frankie is addicted to heroin (though it’s never mentioned by name), and his wartime service is barely mentioned.
  • It’s nice to see both Kim Novak and Eleanor Parker in roles more versatile than the parts they are permanently identified with. As Molly, Novak is taken down from the voyeuristic pedestal “Vertigo” placed her on and gets to play a more realistic, flawed figure. And while it’s refreshing to see Eleanor Parker in anything beyond her thankless role in “The Sound of Music“, her overly dramatic work as Zosh is one of the reasons this film flirts with melodrama as often as it does.
  • To get around much of the more scandalous dialogue, there’s a lot of unspoken things happening between the lines. A few times throughout the movie, someone asks Frankie, “How are you? I mean -” followed by Frankie nodding his understanding while simply replying, “I’m clean.”
  • Sinatra is, of course, quite charming in this role. It takes an actor with that much charisma to make your feel for him when he hits rock bottom. The scene where Frankie finally relapses is a gut punch, amplified by an extreme close-up on Sinatra’s face as the soundtrack intensifies the main theme.
  • A hallmark of any low-budget production: plenty of single-take shots to save time on set (exquisitely orchestrated by Preminger’s go-to cameraman Sam Leavitt). One of the more unfortunate side effects to this, however, are the frequent appearances by the camera’s shadow at the bottom of the screen.
  • This film would pair well with fellow NFR entry “On the Bowery“. You could swap either movie’s background characters and not notice.
  • Today in workaround censorship: “You miserable piece of humanity”. Subtle.
  • The bandleader at Frankie’s audition is real-life jazz musician and arranger Milton “Shorty” Rogers. He is no actor, and it deflates what is an otherwise heartbreaking scene.
  • [Spoilers] As is often the case with Code era films, the movie starts to go off the rails the more it deviates from its source material. In the novel, Frankie does in fact kill Louie, and his run from the police ultimately leads to his suicide in a flophouse. The film opts to make Zosh the unintentional murderer, as well as making her paralysis a manipulative charade rather than psychosomatic. It definitely robs the film of its drama, and the obviously fake dummy of Louie as he falls does not help.
  • Being more familiar with Sinatra’s Vegas/”Chairman of the Board” years, it’s so odd watching him play someone who lacks any control in his life. Frankie’s struggle to go cold turkey at the end is harrowing to watch.

Legacy 

  • Despite the constant objections from the PCA during production, United Artists stood by “The Man with the Golden Arm”, with UA president Arthur Krim calling the film “one of the most important pictures ever handled by the company”, and publicly hoping the PCA would see the film’s “immense potential for public service”. Despite rumors that the PCA would revise their rules in the lead-up to their decision, the Code did not grant “Golden Arm” their seal of approval. More surprisingly, the National Catholic Legion of Decency (Hollywood’s other major censor hurdle) only gave the film a “B” or “morally objectionable” rating, marking the first time the Legion did not give a “C” or “condemned” rating to a film that didn’t receive a PCA seal. This slight discrepancy, mixed with several large theater chains showing “Golden Arm” despite its lack of PCA approval, led to a revision of the Production Code for the first time in over 25 years. Under these more relaxed provisions, “Golden Arm” received a PCA seal of approval in 1961 (along with “The Moon Is Blue”).
  • Otto Preminger continued his run of taboo-laden films throughout the ’50s and ’60s, including “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Advise and Consent”. Totally unrelated but equally noteworthy: Preminger played Mr. Freeze on two episodes of the ’60s “Batman” TV show. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without mentioning that!
  • I can’t find any conclusive evidence that Ian Fleming named his 12th (and ultimately final) James Bond novel “The Man with the Golden Gun” after this movie, but it was published in 1965, so anything’s possible. The only thing I remember about the 1974 film adaptation is its catchy title song.

Thanks for reading! Sign up for my Patreon to access even more write-ups!