A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

The man who came to dinner

I usually try to scan the TCM schedule, but I missed somehow seeing that “The Man Who Came To Dinner” would be on tonight, and I missed the first half-hour. I’m watching the rest of it now, and TCM will be running it again on Christmas Eve morning, and I have just set the DVR.

Critic and radio host Alexander Woollcott, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, turned up unannounced one day at playwright Moss Hart’s house. He stayed a few days, was unspeakably rude to the household staff, and generally behaved badly, even writing a snarky farewell comment in Hart’s guest book. Hart, who was accustomed to Woollcott’s behavior, laughed about it later with his collaborator George S. Kaufman. Hart commented that it could have been worse – Woollcott could have broken his leg and been forced to stay longer. The two playwrights looked at each other for a second and realized that their next project had fallen right into their laps.

“The Man Who Came To Dinner” is the story of Sheridan Whiteside (played in the movie version by Monty Wooley), an arrogant radio commentator and columnist who is – reluctantly – arriving for a speaking engagement in a small town, in the company of his long-suffering secretary (Bette Davis, who wanted to do a comedy as a change of pace). He’s scheduled to have dinner with one of his hosts, and on the way in he slips and falls on the ice, breaking his leg. He is forced to spend the Christmas season in a wheelchair, taking over his hosts’ home and pretty much making their life a living hell. Christmas gifts for Whiteside pour in from various world celebrities, and the gifts include a flock of live penguins.

Meanwhile, the secretary falls in love with the local newspaper editor, who (like many journalists) fancies himself a writer and has written a play. Whiteside, who can’t bear the thought of losing his right hand, schemes to break the couple up by bringing a glamorous leading lady to town to fawn over the journalist and his play. Meanwhile, his wacky friend Banjo (based on another Algonquin Round Table member, Harpo Marx!) shows up to further liven up the proceedings. Banjo is played in the movie by the inimitable Jimmy Durante.

A revival of the play in 2000 starred Nathan Lane in the role of Sheridan Whiteside, and was broadcast by PBS a few days after the close of its official Broadway run. I remember seeing that, and it was pretty funny. I see on Wikipedia that there was also a 1972 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie with Orson Welles (!) but I’ve never seen that one. From the description, they updated the play to modern times and had Whiteside as a TV personality. It was not well-reviewed, in any case.

If you get a chance, and you’ve never seen this very funny movie before, set your DVR to catch that Christmas Eve airing.

cockeyed caravan

Turner Classic Movies will show one of my all-time favorite movies, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) Thursday night at 9:15 p.m. Central (10:15 for you easterners).

It’s directed by one of my favorite comedy directors, Preston Surges, and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (along with a lot of Sturges regulars like William Demarest). It’s a movie that is, in some ways, more relevant now than when it was first made. I’ve blogged about it before, but (as with “Christmas In Connecticut” earlier in the week) I feel like doing so again.

John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a movie director who spent the 1930s making silly musical comedies like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he yearns to make a Serious Movie about Serious Issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. He’s picked out a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel he wants to adapt for the screen. Sturges, when writing “Sullivan’s Travels,” just made up a title and author for the novel: “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” by Sinclair Beckstein. “Sinclair Beckstein,” of course, is a reference to Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. “O Brother Where Art Thou” is a play on words which would have been funnier as a parody title in 1941, because the phrase “Oh, brother!” was more widely used as an exclamation of shocked annoyance. Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, are big fans of this movie and appropriated Sturges’ made-up title to turn it into an actual movie, released in 2000.

Sullivan pitches his idea for a Serious Movie to the heads of the studio where he’s under contract. They are extremely reluctant to mess with a good thing – Sullivan’s silly comedies have been making them a lot of money. But instead of just saying “no,” and alienating one of their top talents, they try to talk him out of it by pointing out that he came from a well-to-do family and has no first-hand knowledge of poverty.

He agrees with them that he lacks experience – but that only gives him an idea. He’ll go out into the world, dressed as a tramp, with the intention of observing poverty first-hand. Sturges recognizes, and shows us, how absurd that idea truly is, and teaches a very funny lesson about the folly of thinking you know someone else’s pain. But perhaps his primary message is that comedy – like “Sullivan’s Travels” itself – does a greater social good than we sometimes recognize.

But this isn’t a message movie – this is a funny movie, one which only coincidentally has a message or two. McCrea is absolutely perfect, and Veronica Lake is incredibly sexy. What a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes.

Mister Roberts, and miscast Robert

Sunday on Turner Classic Movies, you will get to see one of my all-time favorite movies – and its misbegotten sequel. While the sequel isn’t very good, if you’ve never seen it – and if you’re a fan of the original – it’s worth watching for the train-wreck fascination of it.

The first movie is “Mister Roberts” (1955). I played a minor crewman, Gerhart, in a stage production of the play in Tullahoma some  years back. I love the play, and I love the movie. I can’t believe that any of you have never seen it, but just in case (and because I love Explaining Things) I’ll summarize.

Lt. (jg) Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, who originated the role on Broadway) is the cargo officer on a ship in the safe part of the Pacific during the last year of World War II. He feels as if he should be in combat, as if he would be doing more good in the heat of battle. But he’s stuck on a cargo ship, interceding between the exhausted crew and the merciless, small-minded captain (James Cagney). The crew adores him. He has two confidantes in the ship’s doctor (William Powell) and Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon).  Pulver, like the crew, looks up to Roberts, and is always boasting about how he’s going to play some prank on the captain or stand up to the captain in some way. But he lacks the courage to follow through.

Fonda, Cagney, Powell and Lemmon are all perfect, and the story is a great one.

That brings us to “Ensign Pulver” (1964), released nine years after the original. I have to admit I’ve seen parts of it but not the whole thing. But, from what I have seen and from the general critical reaction, I think I’m justified in saying this isn’t anything close to the original. Like “The Sting 2,” it’s got an entirely different cast trying to play some of the same characters. Robert Walker Jr. (“Charlie X,” for you fans of the original “Star Trek”) spends the movie not being Jack Lemmon in the title role. Burl Ives spends it not being James Cagney as the captain, and Walter Matthau (!) spends it not being William Powell as the doctor. Dolan, one of the crew, is played by a young Jack Nicholson (!!). The cast includes the master of the Hollywood Squares, Peter Marshall, playing a character named Carney; Larry Hagman; and George “Goober” Lindsey.

“Mister Roberts” airs at 7 p.m. Central (8 for you Easterners) on Sunday, while “Ensign Pulver” follows it at 9:15 (10:15). The first one is required viewing; the second is an optional curiosity.

By the way, there was a live TV performance of the stage play in the 1980s which was surprisingly good (not Henry Fonda good, but few things are). Robert Hays of “Airplane!” fame played Mister Roberts, with Charles Durning as the captain, Howard Hesseman as the doctor and Kevin Bacon as Ensign Pulver. The TV version preserves the slightly saltier language of the stage play. It’s also quite a bit better than “Ensign Pulver.”

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Have you ever stumbled across a movie in a style or genre in which you would normally have no interest whatsoever, but for some reason you start watching and you are sucked in?

That was me the first time I ran across “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964). I’ve wanted to see it again ever since, and it will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight, as part of Catherine Deneuve day in “Summer Under The Stars.”

When I start describing this movie to you, your first impulse will be to ignore it completely. Please don’t — it may be that, like me, you’ll be drawn in. If nothing else, it’s a unique cinematic experience

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is not a traditional movie musical — it is, for all intents and purposes, an opera, or at least an operetta. All of the dialogue is sung — in French, with English subtitles. (No! Come back here!) The plot is right out of a soap opera. A young woman, who works in her mother’s umbrella shop in Cherbourg, France, falls in love with a young man. The young man is drafted, goes off to war and is incommunicado, and the woman then discovers that she’s pregnant. Her mother urges her into the arms of a successful, middle-aged man — much older than the girl, but he adores her, regardless of her condition. Will she marry the older man? Will the young man return?

The movie’s theme song, a melody which is returned to again and again, was given English lyrics and became a standard, “I Will Wait For You,” sung by Tony Bennett, among others. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you’ll recognize the tune when you hear it in the movie.

This is, in some ways, the least likely movie for me to ever be interested in, but somehow I got sucked into it.

Summer Under The Stars

I should have posted earlier in the week about Turner Classic Movies’ annual “Summer Under The Stars,” which started on Thursday. It’s an annual event in which, for the entire month of August, TCM spotlights a different star each day. Thursday was Humphrey Bogart; Friday was Doris Day; today is Alec Guinness. You can get the full schedule here.

Each day, you get 24 hours of movies featuring that star. The salutes run from 5 a.m. Central time to 5 a.m. the following day.

What makes the festival fun are some of the unexpected choices. Not all of the featured stars are leading men or women; some are character actors or supporting players. This year, for example, Hattie McDaniel and Charles Coburn are among the chosen stars. Sometimes, you’ll look for a classic movie under one of its stars and it won’t be there, but it will be airing later in the month under someone else’s day.

It’s always fun – the drawback being that if there’s a star you don’t really care for, especially if that star is associated with a genre you don’t really care for, you’re out of luck that day. By the time August draws to a close, I’m usually ready for them to get back to their normal format.

Paris in the springtime

“Breathless” is on TCM right now. I started watching it, but my mind keeps wandering – and with a subtitled, foreign-language film, you really have to pay attention. My main impression is that Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character is a jerk. Fortunately, I can just look at Jean Seberg, who is incredibly beautiful. (Run away from him, Jean! He killed a guy, and hasn’t told you. This can’t end well.)

Mainly, though, the movie makes me wish I were in Paris. I’ve always wanted to see Paris, and London. On my first Africa trip, we changed planes at Heathrow Airport in London and it just about killed me – here I am, stuck in the airport. All of the rest of the Africa trips, we changed planes at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, a great airport. On two of those occasions, we had long enough layovers to be able to take the two-hour bus tour of Amsterdam that leaves from Schiphol, and so that’s the only European city I can legitimately say I’ve been to.

Duel In The Sun

“Duel In The Sun” (1946) comes on in prime time on TCM tonight. Whether or not you consider it a good or bad movie may depend on your own personal preferences, but it’s famous as a disappointment.

You see, it’s the first epic-scale movie David O. Selznick produced after World War II, which means it was considered his followup to a movie he’d made in 1939, right before the war. You may have heard of it: “Gone With The Wind.” Obviously, anything would pale in comparison to “Gone With The Wind.”

The movie also takes some criticism for the performance of Jennifer Jones. Selznick was enamored of Jones – in fact, they were married. She was a popular classic-era star, and has her fans even today, but she doesn’t really have the charisma to carry this movie the way Vivien Leigh carried … well, you know. This movie, like GWTW, has some cheesy, over-the-top melodramatic elements. GWTW was strong enough to make you overlook those; “Duel” … isn’t, really.

The movie has a western setting as contrasted with the Civil War setting of GWTW. Jones, a mixed-race foster child, is at the center of a love triangle between two men – idealistic Joseph Cotten and nasty, self-centered criminal Gregory Peck. In a plot reminiscent of “King Lear,” father Lionel Barrymore disowns Cotten while continuing to forgive and enable Peck’s bad behavior.

Definitely worth seeing if you’ve never done so, if only for the curiosity / film history aspect of it.

Ball of fire

When I was a young person, before I had discovered the wonders of the golden age of movies, I knew of some golden age movie stars as boring old people appearing on television. The Bob Hope who appeared on TV specials a few times a year was a far cry from the quick wit of a few decades previous. Never having seen the genius that is “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ In The Rain,” I had no idea why I was supposed to be impressed by pudgy old Donald O’Connor as a guest passenger on “The Love Boat.”

Barbara Stanwyck was the grand matriarch of “The Big Valley,” a show that looked like it was probably boring and which my family never watched. Even as a child, I could tell it was supposed to be a copy of “Bonanza,” which would make Barbara Stanwyck the female equivalent of Lorne Greene.

Later, when I became slightly more aware of classic film, I learned that Stanwyck was the star of “Double Indemnity,” a classic film noir. I have since developed some appreciation for “Double Indemnity,” but I have to admit I’m not one of these noir fanatics, and so that didn’t really impress me either.

Then, over the past seven or eight years, and largely thanks to TCM, I’ve discovered Stanwyck the comedienne, especially in three terrific comedies I’ve blogged about here before.

The Lady Eve,” which aired tonight on TCM, pairs Stanwyck with Henry Fonda under the direction of one of my all-time favorites, Preston Sturges. He is a brewery heir, more obsessed with science than anything else, returning from an African expedition in the company of his valet/bodyguard (William Demarest, who’s always wonderful, especially in a Sturges film), and his pet snake. She is a con artist who happens to be on board the same ocean liner and sets her sights on him. It’s funny – and it compresses what would be the normal story arc into the first half of the movie, taking an unexpected but equally funny left turn for the second half.

I missed seeing “Christmas in Connecticut” this holiday season; TCM didn’t air it, although I think it may have been on another channel and I missed it. Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart-like magazine columnist (the real Martha Stewart was four years old at the time) who is actually a fraud. She can’t cook, and she doesn’t have the Connecticut farm, husband or baby about which she writes with such charm. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet)  doesn’t know she’s a fake, and asks her if she and her husband can host a recuperating war hero (Dennis Morgan) at the farm for the holidays. If you know anything about Hollywood, you know where this story is headed, but that doesn’t make the journey any less hysterical.

One of my brothers recently saw “Ball of Fire” for the first time after reading my previous blog posts about it. Gary Cooper and a phalanx of character actors play ivory-tower academics, living together in a big house as they work on a  reference book. When they begin to talk about slang, they realize their cloistered lifestyle has left them completely ignorant of modern-day culture. By happenstance, they end up taking in a nightclub singer (Stanwyck, of course) who is in hiding due to a mob connection. Director Howard Hawks thought of the story as a sort of grown-up version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and there’s even a publicity still of the professors (other than Cooper), each one standing in front of his Disney counterpart.

Taken together, these movies show that Stanwyck was a lot funnier and more vital in her prime than the western matriarch I remember from my childhood.