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Cloris Leachman

Review: Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

The best thing about Happy Mother’s Day—Love, George is some yeah-that‘s-the-way-it-looks nighttime photography by Walter Lassally. A minor technical footnote, to be sure, and not enough to redeem the sloppy ugliness of Darren McGavin’s directorial debut. The plot is very confused, and the leaking of that plot to the audience is even more contused and slew-footed (the absence of several performers listed in the credits—e.g., Thayer David as a minister—suggests that some desperate wholesale cutting has taken place at the last moment). Central to the enterprise is Ron Howard (American Graffiti‘s Steve) as a mysterious gangling youth who hops off a truck in a Maine coastal village early one morning and starts making several people uncomfortable just by his presence. Cloris Leachman drops her oatmeal because he looks like the illegitimate son she farmed out to a family of religious freaks years before. Bobby Darin goes on the prod because he’s been keeping company with Leachman, his employer at the dockside diner, and the encroachment of a new male threatens him. Patricia Neal, Leachman’s sister, starts snarling because (1) she snarls at everybody, (2) she snarls especially at males, and (3) her dewy-eyed daughter Tessa Dahl is given to staring out the window at the boy.

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Review: Dillinger

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.

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Daisy Miller: An International Episode

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Henry James took as one of his major themes the amusing—more often, tragic—encounters between representatives of the Old and New Worlds. His Americans were brash, uncomplicated, crudely ignorant, or gloriously innocent. He pitted them—sometimes on their own ground, sometimes overseas—against European complexity and wisdom that occasionally ran to decadence. If the New Worlders looked optimistically towards a utopian future, the denizens of the Old were the products of an immensely rich past, and layers upon layers of civilization provided them with a patina of cosmopolitan sophistication and worldliness that the parochial inhabitants of the new Eden could either admire or outrage, but never hope to equal. In a sense, Peter Bogdanovich is similarly caught between two worlds: as a director who admittedly admires the great filmmakers of the past—Ford, Hawks, Welles—his films have been, to a greater or lesser degree, hommages to classical direction, to genres made generic by Pantheon auteurs. But Bogdanovich also lives in the here and now, and his work must look to its future. For he can never really reattain the innocence of those early halcyon days of making movies: he knows too much, is too selfconscious to successfully recreate what the masters originally conceived. Howard Hawks made movies for the fun of it long before the French critics “discovered” and enshrined his films in learned exegesis—and the tone of director-critic Bogdanovich’s films, for me, has always been less fun, more learned.

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Review: Young Frankenstein

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.

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The Gangster Mamas (and Other Lady Outlaws) of Big Bad Corman – DVDs of the Week

Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature
(Shout! Factory)

One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.

Angie Dickinson in the driver's seat of "Big Bad Mama"

Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.

Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.

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Review: High Anxiety

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The consistency of Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie have served to make us forget how embarrassingly unfunny Mel Brooks can be when he’s off his feed. It’s a long, hard road to the first genuinely good laugh in High Anxiety; and, though the film picks up after that, it never gets consistently good. In this heavily promoted Hitchcock sendup, Brooks is on safe ground only when specifically kidding Hitchcock’s camera style—like the low-angle camera that watches two characters through a glass coffee table, but keeps losing them amid a jungle of cups, saucers, and trays; or the overhead shot that ends with everyone suddenly looking straight up at the camera; or the shot-for-shot parody of Psycho’s shower scene. There are a half-dozen or so delicious moments like these in the film; but when Brooks relies on dialogue for laughs he goes juvenile on us, choking off most of the laughs. In attempting to lampoon Hitchcock’s plotting and thematic content, all Brooks is able to do is reduce the elegant, dry wit of the Master of Suspense to pasty, cream-pie level. Typical of the film’s ubiquitous failures is the climactic scene, a fusion of the tower scene from Vertigo with the return of John Ballantine’s memory in Spellbound: the way the scene is shot—with an impossibly blond Madeline Kahn and an impeccably dressed Mel Brooks caught on the ancient stairs—is hilarious; but the dialogue is so absurdly puerile that the comedy is diluted to water-thinness. At its unfunniest, High Anxiety is embarrassingly, even boringly limp; at its funniest, it’s never as funny as Hitchcock’s own work. “A Mister MacGuffin called,” indeed!

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