This edition of Short Takes includes one underrated fairly new film, from 2011, a made for television movie along with communists, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Joan Blondell and Jayne Mansfield.
Trial (1953) Mark Robson
A courtroom drama, filled with hot topics like racism, vigilantism, the Klu Klux Klan, communism, police brutality, paranoia and the influence of the media. On trial, a Mexican youth accused of murdering a local white girl. One of his lawyers (Arthur Kennedy) is more interested in using the boy as a martyr to raise money for the communist party while the other (Glenn Ford) is an idealistic young law professor who never tried a case before. Made during the McCarthy witch hunt era the story line has a strong anti-communist feel to it, but still manages to reflect some of dark sides of the American dream.
The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998) John Gray
Good TVM based on Jim Bishop’s famous book and an accurate retelling of the 12 days hunt for Booth and his cohorts. I got the impression Booth might have done more harm to the South in the long run by assassinating Lincoln who was going to be reconciliatory during the post war reconstruction while his replacement Andrew Johnson struck a more retaliatory position. Lincoln buffs with find nothing new here but it is well done.
Margin Call (2011) J.C. Chandor
Margin Call (****1/2) Arguably the best film ever about Wall Street. Complex tale of two young analysts who open up the door to financial disaster. Morality, if there ever was any, is set aside as high stakes market wizards fight for the survival of their firm. The weak spot in the film are a couple of unnecessary scenes involving Kevin Spacey’s dog dying which only distract from the story. Jeremy Irons is a superb SOB. Kevin Spacey is never less than stellular. Ironically, I watched this on the same day J.P Morgan Chase announced they lost two billion dollars of their own money in risky investments.
The Racket (1951) John Cromwell
The Racket (***1/2) The two Roberts of film noir, Mitchum and Ryan, face off in this decent film about cleaning up the town of organized crime. Ryan is an old school, an almost Neanderthal hoodlum. The new style ‘organization’ has moved in, headed up by a boss known only as ‘The Old Man’ who does things in a more ‘business’ like way. Mitchum plays an honest cop who after being sent to the hinterlands for being too honest is back to help clean up the mess. Pure magic to see these two guys together but the film overall never achieves greatness. Also stars sultry Elizabeth Scott.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) Frank Tashlin
Entertaining satire on Madison Avenue, advertising, Hollywood and television, especially television! By 1957 when this film was in theaters, Hollywood was in a panic, not only over the home screen but also the birth of a powerful new audience of baby boomers, now teenagers, and recent court cases involving distribution. This anxiety is brought to the screen by writer/director Frank Tashlin who used George Axelrod’s play as a source but redirected the entire story into Hollywood’s own hellish nightmare. Many of Tashlin’s films combined sophisticated satire and sexual humor with cartoon imagery reflecting his background in comic strips.
Rock Hunter (Tony Randall) is an advertising writer desperate to save his company, and his own job, who comes up with a new ad campaign for “Stay-Put Lipstick.” In Hollywood, sexpot film star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) is looking to dump her current lover Bobo Branigansky portrayed by Mickey Hargitay, Mansfield’s soon to be husband and father of Mariska, by hiding three thousand miles away in New York City. Rock’s idea is to get lovely Rita to endorse Stay-Put with her “ohhhhh, so kissable lips!” In order to sign Rita though, she wants something in return. Rock has to agree to play the role of her latest lover in order to make Bobo jealous. In the process, Rock finds himself caught up in a gigantic groundswell of publicity by the news media where he becomes known as Rita’s “Lover Doll.” Rock also finds himself a hotshot executive not just climbing but running up the corporate ladder. Left in the dust is Rock’s true love, Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake).
Tashlin shows no mercy saving most of his barbs for the boob tube and Hollywood. Rita Marlowe is an amalgam of every sexpot Hollywood produced from Harlow, Van Doren, Monroe and even Jayne Mansfield herself. Tashlin incorporates Mansfield’s own films “Kiss Them for Me” and “The Girl Can’t Help It” into the mix. Add to this some nice performances from supporting cast members Joan Blondell and character actor Henry Jones.
Really enjoyed your Short Takes, John, and have noted several to put on my must-see list. I somehow missed Margin Call, but anything with Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci in it is for me! I’ve seen the first few minutes of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but never gave it a chance, and I will now. I also want to see The Trial — I’ve heard that it was good, and I actually taped it a few years back, but still haven’t gotten around to watching it. Good stuff!
The cast of MARGIN CALL is excellent, definitely worth seeing. Very timely considering what has been going down on Wall Street. TRAIL, not to be confused with Welles THE TRIAL, is another look at the not so quiet 1950’s. You sometimes think of the 1950’s as all suburbia and white picket fences but there was a lot going on, good and bad. ROCK HUNTER is enjoyable.
Frank Tashlin was an interesting filmmaker, his mix of cartoonish type characters and some sharp satarical humor are a unique blend. Thanks!!!
Trial is a gripping story. I think the 1951 version of Racket is a remake of an earlier silent (1928?).
Agree with you about TRIAL, Kim. You’re right about THE RACKET, it was a silent film from the late 1920’s. Just looked it up on IMDB, made in 1928 and directed by Lewis Milestone.
Regarding Booth and Reconstruction, that’s how a lot of people felt immediately after Lincoln’s assassination, especially since Johnson supposedly hated the rich planter class anyway, but his racism won out over his class consciousness and he went soft on the South. The idea that Booth made things worse goes back on film at least as far as Birth of A Nation, but to the extent that things got “worse” for the South, it was due to “Radical Republicans” in Congress rather than Johnson, who got his own sympathetic biopic, in which Van Heflin played Tennessee Johnson, in 1942. Couldn’t resist the temptation to give a history lesson!
Samuel, I appreciate the information and the lesson. Thanks, my friend!
John, “Margin Call” has been on my watch list since its release last year – thanks for the reminder. I’ve always wished someone other than Jayne Mansfield played the “Rock Hunter” sexpot – she’s always been a real turn-off for me (a sort of grotesque MM knock-off) – because it’s an enjoyable film.
Eve, ROCK HUNTER is enjoyable and I am on board with you about JM. She was really a caricature. Do hope you get to see MARGIN CALL.
Excellent ‘Short Takes’ highlight here John! Great point about Booth doing more harm to the south by eliminating the one person who would have surely shown clemency. I agree with you synopsis and summary judgement. I know I like MARGIN CALL less, but still appreciate your perceptive analysis. And similarly great work on ROCK HUNTER and THE RACKET.