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Burgess Meredith

Review: Day of the Locust

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday Bloody Sunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in Midnight Cowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Day of the Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.

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Review: ‘92 in the Shade’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting Long Goodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in Rancho Deluxe).

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Blu-ray: ‘Second Chorus’

The American musical is anything but a homogenized genre. Second Chorus (1940) is one of the stranger riffs on the genre, not for any stylistic daring or musical experimentation, mind you, but for its weird twist on the buddy film / romantic triangle. Trumpeters Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) are ostensibly partners in a successful college dance band but they harbor such a competitive streak that they become vicious rivals who turn on one another at every turn with a wicked vindictiveness. And it is all played for comedy.

Paulette Goddard, surely one of the most underrated stars of the classical Hollywood era, is Ellen Miller, is a smart, savvy woman who plays on Danny’s vanity to great effect in the opening scene and goes on to manage their band to even greater effect. She shifts personas with every sales call and comes off just as dazzling with each role, more playful than mercenary as she applies her sex appeal to the art of making a deal. Under her management, their college swing band, Danny O’Neill’s Perennials, becomes a hot regional favorite and the only thing that could ruin their success is graduating college, something they been able to put off for years. Sure enough, professional and romantic rivalry sends Danny and Hank sabotaging one another, first in school, then in auditions with Artie Shaw’s band. Ellen is one of these sweet and sexy screen women whose affection for these tirelessly competitive and annoyingly (and unjustifiably) arrogant two men allows her to forgive the most juvenile, self-centered, and cruel behavior, but their feud finally pushes past her limits when they go about sabotaging her own life and career out purely selfish, short-sighted reasons.

That kind of brutal edge is nothing new to comedy partners out of the vaudeville tradition — it’s the foundation of such classic team-ups as Abbott & Costello and Hope & Crosby — and Fred Astaire is no stranger to playing the cocky opportunist, but these boys (and these actors are playing men much younger than their actual years) are utterly self-centered, ruthlessly mercenary, and reflexively destructive. They aren’t pals, they are unstable elements in a combustible relationship that explode upon contact with any outside object or force, be it success, opportunity, or a pretty girl. The only time they manage to work together is when they have mutual goals. In those instances they manage to double-team with the best of them, whether it’s a dual onslaught of double-talk or a scheme worthy of con-artists targeting a patsy.

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Review: Rocky

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Sylvester Stallone’s meticulous job of screenwriting—street-poetry dialogue coupled with a healthy sense of humor and a sharp attentiveness to odd colloquialisms and fight-ring dialect—is largely responsible for making Rocky such an interestingly compassionate treatment of big guys against little guys. You might not think so as the film gets under way—a deliciously seedy venture into the life of a loser, a 30-year-old prizefighter named Rocky Balboa who never made it to the big time and has pretty much lost any hope of doing so. But thenceforth, Rocky tempts us onward and upward towards a crucial and emphatically hope-filled personal resolution in Rocky’s life, and that antagonism between (or perhaps balance of) the big against the little becomes not only Rocky‘s foremost theme but a part of its inner logic. There are the Apollo Creeds against the Rocky Balboas, but there are also the Big Moments against the privileged, nuanced, and seemingly offhand ones.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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