Some Like it Hot (1959) Billy Wilder

This posting is my contribution to the CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon which runs through Jan. 27th. You can find more contributors here.

 

Do you remember the first film you ever recorded? I do, it was Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” way back sometime in the 1960’s. “Wait a minute!” You say, “How can you have recorded it back in the 1960’s when VCR’s did not come out until the late 1970’s?” Well, it was simple, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I loved this film so much I recorded the entire soundtrack. I use to lay down in bed or on the couch with my headphones on and listen to the entire movie, visualizing all the scenes.

Crazy, weird? Probably, I am sure my parents thought so.

Needless to say, “Some Like it Hot” is one of my favorite movies, it has stood the test of time. Because of this film, I became a lifelong admirer of both director Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. It is a film I never get tired of watching.

Before and since its release in 1959, there have been many films that have used men in drag as a plot device (“I Was A Male War Bride”, “Tootsie”, “La Cage aux Folles”), even TV shows like “Bosom Buddies” got into the act, however none have come close or surpassed “Some Like it Hot” in its farcical humor. The well-known storyline is simple, it is 1929, two Chicago musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre after which they decide it might be best for their health if they leave town. The only jobs available are as musicians in an all girl band heading for Florida. It is at the train station they meet Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) a ukulele player and singer with the band. Continue reading

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Slightly Scarlet (1956) Allan Dwan

“Slightly Scarlet” is one of a few color noirs from the 1950’s (Niagara, Leave Her to Heaven and A Kiss Before Dying to name a few others). A flamboyant Technicolor crime film loosely based on James M. Cain‘s novel, “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit,” the film stars bow-tied John Payne, and two succulent looking redheads, Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.

Publicist Ben Grace (Payne) is a stooge for local underworld kingpin Solly Casper (Ted de Corsia). With an election coming up, Casper wants Grace to dig up some dirt on the anti-crime fighting mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). It turns out the weak link in Jansen’s armor is his beautiful secretary June’s (Rhonda Fleming) ex-con sister Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) who has just been released from prison. Dorothy is beautiful, sexually promiscuous and a kleptomaniac. Ben however falls for June and double-crosses his boss. Casper decides to go after the crime fighting newspaper publisher Norman Marlowe instead, killing him. With pressure mounting from the police, Casper leaves town. Ben, a guy who seems to work both sides of the law, steps in to take over the rackets. He also ends up in the middle of a sexual fantasy with the two sisters hungering for him. It all comes crashing down in a dramatic conclusion when Casper returns to town with a vengeance coming after Ben as he previously promised. 

Shot in lavish widescreen Technicolor, evocative of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the same period (Written on the Wind),  the visuals though drenched in rich color are filled with dark shadows and actors with half-lit faces suggestive of the bleak black and white atmosphere relished in classic noir settings. This is all attributable to cinematographer John Alton who remarkably shot this lush color film as if he were using black and white film stock. Alton, a veteran of B noir classics like “Raw Deal”, “T-Men”, “Border Incident”, all directed by Anthony Mann,  and “The Big Combo” was one of the most original and flamboyant DP’s working during this period.

    Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl create their own style of heat, as the good sister (June) and bad sister (Dorothy), though one has to wonder how does June, a secretary afford a luxurious home and a maid too. Is she providing more than secretarial services to her rich boss Jansen?  Both women are dressed in the tightest clothes imaginable accentuating their assets to the fullest degree allowable by cinematic law. Dahl has the showier role as the kleptomaniac and seductive younger needy sister. She is at times a combination of frightened, vulnerable, flirtatious and deceitful. Fleming is continually trying to protect her sister and her own desires, which seem to bounce back and forth between Ben and the kind-hearted Jansen. With their flaming red hair, the two ladies are convincingly believable as sisters.  John Payne, as Ben Grace has the most ambiguous role in the film. His character seems to be all over the map, nice guy, criminal, double crosser. You never know for sure what he is going to do. Payne was in the middle of a second phase in his career. His first began in the 1940’s when he made a series of musicals (Tin Pan Alley, Hello, Frisco Hello) for 20th Century Fox. Later on, he re-energized and changed his image with a series of crime films (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) and westerns (Silver Lode, Santa Fe Passage). “Slightly Scarlet” also has one of the great character actors of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ted de Corsia as mob leader Solly Casper (what a great name!). Brooklyn born De Corsia will be familiar to many for his roles in such films as “The Lady From Shanghai,,” “The Big Combo,” “Naked City,” “The Enforcer” and “The  Killing” (he is the cop who needs to pay off his wife’s medical bills).

    Director Allan Dwan was seventy years old when he made this work and he would go on to make five more films before retiring in 1961. His first film was way back in 1911! In between, he made more than 400 films.  The eternally constipated New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther once again proved his faulty judgment by trashing this film, calling Dahl’s performance laughable and the film “an exhausting lot of twaddle.”  While the film is not in the same class as Cain’s previously adapted to the screen works such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “Double Indemnity”, this is an entertaining, if not quite a classic piece of work.

The Face Behind the Mask (1941) Robert Florey

    The Face Behind the Mask, a rare film noir, starring Peter Lorre as Jonas “Johnny” Sazbo an immigrant watchmaker who comes to America full of hope searching for the American dream. Through the help of a friendly police officer, Lt. O’Hara (Don Beddoe) Jonas finds an apartment. Unfortunately, his first night their, a fire breaks out and he is hideously burned though he survives. His face totally scarred this talented watchmaker is refused employment repeatedly due to his deformity.  He meets up with a small time thief, Dinky (George E Stone) and turns to a life of crime to survive and make enough money to get a face mask to cover his scars. Jonas becomes the boss of a criminal gang due his uncannily ability to plan robberies and outsmarting the law. Jonah runs into a young beautiful blind woman named Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes) who despite her handicap sells trinket jewelry and has a full life. Jonas falls in love with Helen who sees the good person in Jonas that was there before he turned to his life of crime. They make plans to marry and live out in the country. Jonas tells the gang he’s quitting and wants out but the gang does not like what they are hearing and plan to kill him by blowing up his car, only they kill Helen instead. With this Jonas’ last chance at love and redemption are lost, all that is left is revenge. Jonas gets the gang members on to a plane that they think is taking them out of the country however, Jonas who is the pilot, lands the plane in the middle of the desert where they all slowly die, an unusual ending, which is surprising and unique. All in all “The Face Behind the Mask” is a poignant, yet somewhat twisted noirish look at the American dream. 

    Robert Florey deemphasizes the horror aspects of the film keeping Jonas’ deformed face in the shadows or hidden from the camera. For a good portion of the film, Lorre’s face is not seen until he gets his mask. You should also note the socially conscience details of the film, the immigrant coming to America to start a new life and how people reacted to Jonas’ disability by shunning him, rejecting him in horror which ultimately leads him to his life of crime.    As a director, Florey was influenced by the German Expressionist movement, which is evident in many scenes in this film and in his 1929 short “Skyscraper Symphony”, a study of the geometric patterns of New York skyscrapers.      

    Peter Lorre is perfect as the immigrant Jonas. Lorre has been one of the most interesting and original actors to ever grace the screen. Here he provides a sensitive and engaging performance. It is hard to imagine another actor in this role. The under appreciated Evelyn Keyes is also good in her role as Helen, Jonas’ blind love. Also notable is George E Stone who plays Dinky.

    The movie runs only slightly over one hour and has never been released on home video or DVD. I believe it has been on Turner Classic Movies on occasion so keep your eyes open for it.