Monday, June 27, 2011

Understanding "Overrated"

“That’s so overrated!” “He’s/She’s so overrated!” “They’re overrated!”

If I had a penny for every time I read or heard the word “overrated” as it relates to classic film, I’d be the world’s wealthiest--and therefore best--blogger.

Overrated: To overestimate the merits of; rate too highly.

I don’t know how this term came to such heavy usage. I associate it with people under thirty who happen to see a classic film and come away from it less than impressed. “Yeah, I saw [classic movie title here] and it was okay, but it’s so overrated. Cary Grant is so overrated. John Wayne is overrated. Katharine Hepburn is overrated. Audrey Hepburn is overrated. Bette Davis is overrated.”

This scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan illustrates so much that is wrong with the term “Overrated”:

Yale: “LeWitt is overrated. In fact,
he may be a candidate for the academy.”

Mary: “Right!”

Yale: “Mary and I have invented the Academy
of the Overrated for such notables as

- Gustav Mahler,
- Isak Dinesen and Carl Jung.”

Yale: “ Scott Fitzgerald.”
Mary: “ Lenny Bruce. Can't forget him, can we?”

Yale: “How about Norman Mailer?”
Isaac: “I think those people are all terrific.”

Isaac: “Gee, what about Mozart?
You guys don't wanna leave out Mozart.”

Isaac: “Get her away from me. I don't think
I can take too much more of her.”

What exactly does this “Overrated” stuff actually mean? “That it’s unworthy of its praise”, said a workmate of mine one day last year. He’s a Twentysomething, so you knew that was coming.

There are several reasons why people—mostly young people, but also older people who are unfamiliar with something but when they finally see it they don’t think much of it anyway. Let’s see if I can nail down some of the reasons why something earns the Overrated tag:

1. The Arrogance of Youth. “Unworthy of its praise”, as my colleague said. That’s a hugely arrogant viewpoint, one I take to mean: “My opinion negates all that has come before it! I have spoken!” It’s perhaps an unfair criticism, but it’s natural for the next generation to knock what came before it. However, it’s largely a knee jerk reaction to something but it’s a viewpoint that mellows with time and experience.

2. Overexposure. Take for example Star Wars. A movie which was once considered a towering achievement. It was a box office smash and ushered in new special effects technology, revitalized the Golden Age-style film score, and otherwise entered the popular vernacular. Star Wars profoundly influenced the marketing of movies (for better or worse) and has become a folk tale to people who weren’t born when the movie was released in 1977. However, endless regurgitations of how great it is, with the dialogue endlessly plastered all over pop culture, and its influence over subsequent (lesser) cinematic efforts have made Star Wars into something we take for granted because its presence is so pervasive. The media culture devours and spits out everything new and popular, so all films get this treatment. By the way, I’m of the age group (I’m shoving forty) that grew up worshipping Star Wars, but now I can’t stand it. LOL

Most kids despise their elders’ stories. Imagine having to sit through one’s grandfather reminisce over the Great Depression and how he walked uphill both ways to school every morning, or how about some Baby Boomer’s drug-addled ramblings over how great Woodstock was: “There’s nothing worse than a Baby Boomer reminiscing”, I always say. Isn’t this the same group who said “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” Those Boomers sure remember a lot about something they’re supposed to forget. However, there is something to be said about the reputation of a film diminishing its impact, but that’s more the fault of media overexposure than anything wrong with the movie itself. I can sympathize with a young person’s point of view.

3. People Only Relate to Their Own Time. People tend to ridicule anything that came before their birth, so the entirety of the world as it once was is closed off to them. Many of them don’t have the ability to view something in the context in which it was made. Any movie, no matter how “timeless” it’s supposed to be, is of the era in which it’s made. Most young people today won’t notice the importance of the scene in Casablanca when the Nazis are drowned out by the French singing La Marseillaise. They merely see it as some silly singing contest. A little research into World War II may help one understand the scene’s original context and imagine what it would’ve meant to the audiences of 1943 (besides being a propaganda tool, of course). I often tell young skeptics to wait a few years until their beloved and revered pop movies and music get skewered by the generation after theirs; it’ll happen, just you wait…

4. Special Effects. According to that same workmate, the shark in Jaws “looked so fake.” I asked him if he thought that CGI effects looked more realistic. He said yes. I then asked if he failed to notice how “fake” and unrealistic the movement was of a CGI animal that was supposed to be running. The thing looked huge, but leapt around as though it had no weight to it. It moved like an object much lighter and smaller than it was supposed to be. It also resembled a video game graphic rather than a living, furry beast. His beloved CGI was already dated and horrendously phony looking and it wasn’t even five years old.

My first reaction to people proclaiming something as overrated is to believe that not much thought has gone into that statement and that they’re dismissing all that was before them because they have the notion that something old is already out of date and useless, like a three-month-old gallon of milk. It’s just not so. We tend to believe that anything of the here and now is somehow superior to what came before it. It’s the assumption that newer automatically means better, when in fact there are things from the now and the then that are worth keeping, while both eras also have elements that can be jettisoned.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Guess the Actor!

Here's your clue...the answer will be posted in the comments section of this post:

He was the only actor in Hollywood who posed for more mug shots than publicity photos. The day his mother killed herself in 1960, [] was arrested for breaking down a woman's door and assaulting her boyfriend.

His off-screen antics also continued, and in 1948 he served three months for breaking a student's jaw. Throughout the 1950s, he faced a string of charges from kicking a policeman while drunk and disorderly to hitting a waiter in the face with a sugar-bowl and attempting to choke the life out of a cab driver."

Hint: It ain't Shia Leboeuf!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Husband & Wife Detectives: Fast and Loose (1939)

Fast and Loose (MGM, 1939; Director: Edwin L. Marin) is the second of three entries in the sleuthing saga of husband and wife rare book dealers Joel and Guarda Sloane. This one stars Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell as the sleuthing couple. The studio was still trying to replicate the success of their Thin Man series with a similar-themed married detective duo when their star, William Powell, was out of action for two years while undergoing treatment for Cancer (all of which is chronicled in Replacing the Thin Man.)

Note: Forgive me when I interchange the actors’ names and that of their characters. Joel=Bob; Guarda=Roz. We’re also spoiler free as always, these reviews merely splatter some scattered thoughts and impressions of the movie seen.

The Story: Joel and Guarda Sloane are in an expensive line of work, but seeing as there’s a Depression on, they’re finding themselves in dire financial straits. Luckily, they get the chance to sell a Shakespeare manuscript, but when its owner winds up dead, Joel and Guarda find themselves working another murder case.

The fact that the Sloanes have creditors nipping at their heels doesn’t stop them from engaging in Nick-and-Nora like revelry as Fast and Loose opens, with the camera panning along the floor with various undergarments strewn about the room and finally settling on our heroes sleeping off their hangover—in separate beds, naturally. They also have “cute” signs hung on their front door, like “Milkman, please leave 1 quart of aspirin tablets”, things that would appear in later Thin Man movies, when that series’ sophisticated banter occasionally gave way to attacks of the cutes. More Nick and Nora-style witticisms continue as Joel and Guarda’s phone rings, with the couple “talking” to it as if that will get it to stop. It’s all Thin Man by association as well as execution.

Montgomery has an amusing bit when he talks to his bleary-faced reflection in a gorgeous Cedric Gibbons-designed bathroom set, with the round mirror and Deco shower stall being quite impressive; it’s a shame we only see it in that one scene and the shower stall only in passing!

“I don’t know who you are my friend, but if you stand still I’ll shave you.”

Robert Montgomery is quite good in Fast and Loose. Bob in light comedy mode is always a treat and he’s fun to watch here. He avoids any comparisons to William Powell’s Nick Charles and inhabits the Joel Sloane role with his own pleasant style (and he wears a porkpie hat, too). Montgomery has several impressive scenes, all in keeping with the breezy tone of this “light” murder mystery.

Rosalind Russell’s Guarda Sloane, however, is a bit too much like Nora Charles, only with a jealous streak. In fact, Roz’s speaking tones in the film’s first half hour are very much like those of Myrna Loy’s. It’s as if Russell is aware of the limitations of her character and that it’s all been done already—by Myrna Loy. That doesn’t keep us from enjoying her go at this role. Only in the scenes where she plays things with a broader comic range does she emanate her trademark Rozness. It’s also interesting to note that she wears low-heeled shoes in Fast and Loose, because the 5’8’ Russell towers over Montgomery!

Montgomery and Russell have solid on-screen chemistry, though they have comparatively little screen time together. The bit where Guarda is tying a ribbon into the brainstorming Joel's hair is amusing.

The Supporting Cast: All are quite good, despite my never having seen most of them before. The entire group is paraded early on in the film, giving the viewer a chance to see a bunch of contract players act guilty. Most notable are Etienne Giradot, who plays the absent-minded Mr. Oates. One of the ongoing jokes in Fast and Loose is Guarda’s correcting Oates’ mangling of clichés. She has more time with Oates than she does with her own husband.

There’s also a fine performance by Sidney Blackmer (Lucky Nolan), the mob boss who’s a combination of polished villainy and menace. Nolan’s the kind of bad guy who’s smooth and calculating but isn’s above slapping a dame in her yap for mouthing off. Blackmer would later enjoy a long career in several TV guest appearances, including Robert Montgomery Presents, appearing in that program three times. Blackmer gets the best line in the movie: “May I have the pleasure of your absence?”

One cast member of particular interest is the role of Phil Sergeant, played by Anthony Allan (though credited as “John Hubbard; that’s Hollywood). Allan looks like he could work as Bob Montgomery’s stand in or stunt double, as the two look alarmingly alike! They even have similar-styled hair. There’s a shot of the two standing face to face and they resemble mirror images of one another. Bob even says (as Sergeant is hauled away as a suspect): “There goes the only protégé I ever had!” Is that an in joke?

“I worry when someone shoots you.”

Other Thin Man-style touches include the Lucky Nolan gambling den scene, where many comedic shenanigans occur. Joel performs an amusing hidden coin trick on one of Lucky’s thugs which he punctuates with a bored “Ho hum.” Joel says that twice in the movie, as if they were trying it as a catchphrase. After a violent fracas injures our heroes, the couple sport matching steaks for their matching black eyes. Guarda mentions that her appetite is intensifying as she’s got food on her face.

The murder mystery element takes a turn for the brutal when one of the suspects is murdered and found stuffed inside a standing suit of armor that all wealthy people in the ‘30s had.

I love how in 1930s and ‘40s films, the cops look like cops and the thugs look like thugs. Nowadays, they’re apt to resemble those ivory-fleshed teen vampire people that have addled the brain of a generation.

All in all, Fast and Loose is a fun seventy-five minute distraction from the present day, with enough star power and charisma from the two leads to make it all worthwhile. None of the three “Fast” movies are yet available on DVD, but it looks like an ideal project for the Warner Brothers Archive. These would make a fine addition to my growing collection of Husband and Wife Detective movies.

A special thanks to Carrie of
Classic Montgomery for providing some of these pictures.