Jailhouse Rock (1957) Richard Thorpe

Many true heart Elvis fans consider “Jailhouse Rock” one of his best films. As a movie, I much prefer “King Creole” with its better cast, script, director and overall a better musical score. However, Elvis never looked as good as he did in “Jailhouse Rock,” young, sensuously dangerous, and still wildly untamed from what would soon become the chain around his neck, his manager Colonel Tom Parker.  It was only Elvis’ third film, first came “Love Me Tender,” a film already in the works at 20th Century Fox before Elvis came on board, and originally was going to be called “The Reno Brothers.” With Elvis’ involvement, the title was changed to one of his hit songs. The film starred Richard Egan and the lovely Debra Paget, Elvis’ credit read “introducing Elvis Presley.” It was a fairly typical low budget western except for the four songs tossed in for Elvis to sing, along with a bit of shaky legs, and some girls in the crowd giving in to some half hearted screams that all seemed totally inappropriate for the Civil War setting.  Then there is Elvis’ horrible death scene, a guilty pleasure all itself, his acting is just dreadful; I believe he really died here of embarrassment and not from the gunshot wound. His next film, “Loving You,” would in many ways mirror Elvis’ life up to that point, that of a young country boy who becomes a big time singing sensation.  The film was a step up from his first feature; it even had an older woman, film noir favorite Elizabeth Scott, getting the hots for the young rock and roller. Still it was all very wholesome, even had Elvis’ mama in the audience for one scene while he is on stage singing, “Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do,” and his true love in the film was the virginal and future real life nun, Dolores Hart.  

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Kitten With a Whip (1964) Douglas Heyes

 

One of the traits of being a cinephile is having masochistic tendencies that seem to never be satisfied. Why else would I sit through torturous atrocities like the Bowery Boys in “Live Wires” or “Bowery Bombshell’, just because they were directed by Phil Karlson? Why would I admit publicly that an unintentional laugh a minute drama like “The Oscar” is a favorite guilty pleasure? Just the other evening I watched an Ann-Margret vehicle called “Kitten with a Whip.” The title itself has celluloid masochism written all over it, a guilty pleasure to be sure.  AM had just exploded on movie screens the previous year in the already dated musical “Bye Bye Birdie”, a fictional version of the Elvis going into the army story. In 1964, The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion were taking over the country, AM meanwhile  was teamed with the real Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas”, another in a production line of low budget flicks that sterilized the former King of Rock and Roll, who was pumping them out at the rate of three films a year. The film studios jumped on this success and AM began a series of her own low budget films. “Kitten with a Whip” was her first post Elvis work and her first dramatic role.

The film is impulsively watchable, you sit their asking yourself “why? why? The opening credits hook you right away, maybe the best part of the film. With a jazzy musical score and title designs reminiscent of Saul Bass; the first scenes set you up for high expectations, which the rest of the film cannot unfortunately sustain. The film proper opens up at night in a train yard with Jody Dvorak (Ann-Margret) in a nightgown on the run. This early scene is actually pretty good, dark black and white photography almost noirish in its quality. However, this all soon changes after Jody, a schizoid juvenile detention escapee, enters an empty home only to snuggle up in a bed with a child’s stuffed monkey. When middle-aged square politician David Stratton (John Forsythe) whose family is away, comes home, he discovers Jody sleeping in his daughter’s bed. Jody cries that she is one of these  kids who has never gotten a break in her life, coming from a broken family. Feeling sorry for her, David buys her some new clothes and a bus ticket back home. Only problem is when he arrives back at his house, Jody is there wrapped in a towel and not much of anything else. David becomes an easy prey for the crazed delinquent who at one moment is vulnerably childlike, then reveals a sexy seductive side, and then switches again to a cat like, claw scratching she-devil when she does not get her way including threats she will scream rape if David attempts to call the police. Jody spends a lot of time pouting, shaking her bootie, smearing lipstick on a photo of David’s wife and speaking  in pseudo  Hollywood hip 60’s dialogue (“I feel so shiny good about you, about everything! Like wonderful.”). She is soon joined by some unsavory friends played by Peter Brown (50’s western “Lawman” and movies like “Foxy Brown”) and Skip Ward (Myra Breckenridge, Hombre) who assist in making David’s life a nightmarish trip to hell.

The plot is contrived to say the least, David is an intelligent middle-aged man wronged by a group of JD’s only because he is unwilling to call the police and risk a scandal. Considering that this man is well connected in the community he could have most likely contacted some friends and ended the entire episode without much damage to his political career. David also honorably fights off Jody’s sex teasing wrestling match while he is on the phone talking to his wife. John Forsthye who portrays David is just a dull actor,  a blank piece of white bread who seems to react innocuously to whatever threats and sexual come on’s are thrust upon him. Then there is our perky star, Ann-Margret playing seventeen-year-old jailbait. Just the previous year AM played high school teenager Kim McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie” and looked too old for the part even then. While she looks great, she does not look seventeen and by the way, nearly never is a hair out of place no matter what trauma or gyrations she is going through. With her eyes at times bulging out of her head to display her fierce determination, her sex kittenish looks seductively vampish one minute, then, overly emoting and clawing like a trapped tigress the next, subtlety is not in her performance vocabulary. Simply out of the sheer force of her sexy personality she overshadows the rest of the cast.  What is worth noting is how far AM has come as an actress. Only a few years later in Mike Nichols “Carnal Knowledge”, AM gave a stunning and a surprising performance deserving all the accolades she received.

Director Douglas Heyes was primarily a TV director, and his flat style reflects this, probably is best known for some “Twilight Zone” and “Thriller” episodes he directed and as a writer for the miniseries “North and South.” Heyes also wrote the screenplay for “Kitten with a Whip” adapted from a novel by William Miller and Robert Wade written under the name Wade Miller released by Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks in 1959.

Over the years the film has gained a bit of a cult status mainly due to AM’s sexy snarling performance and bad dialogue. The film has been selected as one of “The 100 Most Amusing Bad Films Ever Made” in the “The Official Razzie Movie Guide.” Finally, there are rumors going around that Lindsay Lohan may be interested in doing a remake. Oh, the horror, the horror!

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Barefoot in the Park (1967) Gene Saks

 

In 1962, “Barefoot in the Park” was the Broadway second production for a fairly new playwright at the time by the name of Neil Simon. Simon already had a previous hit show with “Come Blow Your Horn” and a well-earned reputation as one of the team full of writers on  the classic TV show “Your Show of Shows”, whose madhouse stable included  Neil’s brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. The play starred a young upcoming actor by the name of Robert Redford along with Elizabeth Ashley as his kooky wife Corie. This would be Redford’s last Broadway play having previously appeared in “Sunday in New York”, “Tall Story” and a couple of others.  Also in the cast were Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother and Herb Edelman as the Telephone Man, both would repeat their roles in the 1967 film. The stage version of “Barefoot in the Park” was a huge success running for more than three years. It was  Mike Nichols first Broadway production as a director and the beginning of a string of theatrical hits. At one point, Nichols had four plays he directed running on Broadway simultaneously, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Luv”, “The Odd Couple” and “The Apple Tree.” Nichols first taste of success came as half of the sophisticated comedy team of the 1950’s Nichols and May (Elaine May) who earlier had their own on stage success on Broadway with “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

    At the time, it was a common practice that the movie version of a play could not be made until the Broadway production closed or was close to its final performance. The fear was that if people saw the movie the play would lose its audience. Subsequently, “Barefoot in the Park”, the movie opened at Radio City Music Hall in May 1967 one month prior to the closing of the play.

Redford had been a frequent visitor to the world of TV shows and had already made a few films (War Hunt, Inside Daisy Clover, This Property is Condemned, The Chase) though with little impact on his career.  Therefore, it is surprising that he actually received top billing over Jane Fonda in the film who was already a more established star having appeared in both European films, most by her then husband Roger Vadim (Circle of Love, The Game is Over), and in U.S. films (Sunday in New York, The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report, Cat Ballou). Nichols was passed over to direct in favor of the more vanilla Gene Saks, a Broadway veteran director himself. Simon adapted his own play for the screen, his first.

    The film is sort of an earlier version of “The Odd Couple”, focusing on opposites, in this case newlyweds Corie Bratter (Fonda), an unconventional free spirited young woman and her husband, the uptight legal eagle Paul (Redford).  If this sounds familiar, that is because, yes, Corie and Paul are the original “Dharma and Greg.” After a honeymoon spent at the Waldorf where Corie embarrasses a stodgy Paul, heading to the elevator as he goes off to work, by insinuating she is a hooker he spent the night with (Fonda is standing outside their hotel room dressed in only the top half of a man’s pajamas). Corie goes off and rents a top floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Paul, the ever constipated young lawyer isn’t that crazy about having to climb several flights of stairs to reach the apartment, nor is he happy about the hole in the skylight where a cold front followed by snow easily passes through. Then there is the eccentric neighbor who can only access his attic apartment by going through the Bratter’s apartment.  Corie, on the other hand sees it all as an adventure. When Corie attempts to seduce Paul for a little romantic interlude that first evening in the new apartment, he is too occupied with his first big legal case and the cold air coming in from the skylight. Before you can say sing the first verse of Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Corie is declaring the marriage a failure.

    It is all very light, sit-comish and unbelievable. That said, Fonda and Redford make a good team; their charisma together is plainly evident and the film is fun. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this film, one of only three I ever saw at Radio City Music Hall. It remains a guilty pleasure.

Redford came away from this film a movie star; set to explode into superstardom a couple of years later with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” At this point in her career, Fonda’s dramatic roles (The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report) did nothing to dispel the notion that she did not have any depth as a dramatic actress. Her European films were known more for their sexiness and nudity than for her talent as an actress. This would all change in a couple of years, after one more film with Vadim (Barbarella) Fonda would display her serious acting chops in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for which she would receive her first Academy Award nomination.  It would take almost 10 years before she would return to a comedic role in “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The supporting cast is also entertaining with Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother, Charles Boyer as the eccentric attic living neighbor and Herb Edelman providing some laughs as the telephone repairman.

   This was Gene Saks first film and like 99% of his films they are adaptations of stage plays, and like most of his other films they are all stage bound. The film is not cinema; it is a pop corn movie and in between the tired jokes about climbing five flights of stairs to reach the apartment there remains a bit of charm to the movie. The two leads win you over.

I use to like Neil Simon more than I do now. Other than “The Odd Couple”, “The Goodbye Girl” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, I find much of his work tired and generally less funny than I use too.  I imagine much of today’s audience would find the film a little too cute, dated or both, still if compared to some of the so-called romantic comedies that the studio’s release today, this film looks good. For one thing too many of the “romantic” comedies today seem to be funny at the expense of the female character’s integrity where they are either desperate (Knocked Up) or bitchy (The Proposal) or just plain stupid (All About Steve).  While I generally enjoyed “The Proposal”, the scene where Sandra Bullock had to get down on her knees in the middle of a Manhattan street to propose was pretty degrading. If nothing else, Simon was never degrading to any of his characters.

   As a play,  “Barefoot in the Park” was revived on Broadway in 2006 with Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson in the newlywed roles and with Jill Clayburgh as Corie’s mom and Tony Roberts as Victor Velasco, the eccentric neighbor in the leading roles. It ran for only 109 performances.

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