My Week in Movies: March 24-30

Chicago (1927) I’m familiar with Chicago as a musical and not at all familiar with any of the earlier takes on the Roxie Hart legend, which may explain my reaction to the 1927 silent version: I felt the bits I knew weren’t as good as they were in the 2002 film, while the parts I didn’t know, ideas abandoned by the time music was added to the story, were plenty fascinating. This original version puts a greater emphasis on Roxie’s husband Amos, who’s far from Mr. Cellophane here. Instead, he’s a charismatic everyman and ultimately the movie’s hero, with the movie juxtaposing his decency against his wife’s wickedness. For all the film’s satire, which has big bite and earns plenty of laughs, it never fully asks us to think of Roxie as anything other than the villain; she’s afforded a comeuppance missing in the musical remake, and while I prefer the musical’s ending, the silent version’s finale works very well on its own terms.

The Golden Twenties (1950) Discovered as an extra in the Chicago DVD set, The Golden Twenties is a curious documentary that uses newsreel footage (most of it surprisngly well preserved) to highlight the decade’s biggest stories in news, sports, and entertainment from a 1950s perspective. Think of it as I Love the 20s, rocketing through the headlines in a way that doesn’t educate so much as it jump starts nostalgia for older audiences during its release. It’s breezy history-lite uninterested in heavy analysis, occasionally punctuated by some peculiar political commentary that mocks Harding, celebrates Hoover, and takes a right-wing slant in describing labor disputes, prohibition, and the stock market crash. This makes it a double time capsule, the twenties as remembered by the fifties, done up in a history-as-entertainment style that’s mostly enjoyable.

Octopussy (1983) and Never Say Never Again (1983) Ah, the dueling Bonds of ’83. I won’t get into the complicated and frankly insane story of how Connery returned to the role in a rival 007 picture (long story short: two decades of grudges and egos); there’s not enough space here to detail that madness. Instead, I’ll simply bemoan the results, a clustercuss of a movie that bounces between Golan-Globus-esque adventure (cheap, broad, dopey) and ill-fitting self-parody (the screenplay, by campmeister Lorenzo Semple, Jr., sneaks in some great one-liners, but overall it’s a weird, winking, over-the-top approach to Bond that makes Roger Moore seem austere by comparison). The effect is heightened by watching Never Say Never Again immediately after Octopussy, which I did. Octopussy is by all accounts a ridiculous movie, possibly the Roger Mooreiest of the actor’s Bond efforts, but it’s also a damn great adventure, its occasional silliness not once overpowering the tense and exciting storytelling. Bond producer Cubby Broccoli threw everything he had at Octopussy, knowing comparisons to Connery’s outing would be made, creating a film that impresses with its scope at every turn. The grand locations, thrilling set pieces, memorable characters, and eye-popping set design all conspire to make Never Say Never Again look chintzy and dated. It doesn’t help much that Moore looks like he’s having the time of his life while Connery appears bored with the whole thing. And don’t even get me started on comparing the music. There are times my camp sensibilities and a heavy dose of nostalgia allow me to enjoy Never Say Never Again. This was not one of those times.

Muscle Beach Party (1964) No Eric Von Zipper, but we do get Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett, and that ain’t bad. The full write-up’s here.

Something Always Happens (1934) An early effort from a pre-Pressburger Michael Powell, and while I’m tossing out names, I’ll call this one Capra-esque. The first half, in which an unemployed schemer and a homeless boy charm their way through life, is an absolute delight, the sort of feel-good storytelling that’s short on plot but long on smiles. But then the plot turns too soon in making our hero a success, and things begin to lose their charm. It’s one thing to root for the underdog, but it’s another to spend too much time after the victory. He’s too rich, less of a rascal, his confidence now playing as cockiness. He’s still likeable but not as relatable, and that makes a big difference.

The Scarlet Clue (1945) By this point in the seemingly endless Charlie Chan series, with Monogram producing and Sidney Toler starring, was anyone trying any more? Here, Chan half-assedly follows a wartime espionage operation to a local radio and television station, and the movie is more interested in whatever comedy it can dig up in the surroundings than in crafting a challenging – or even interesting – mystery. The script finds ample room for such shtick as a lengthy “drunk walk” bit, a running gag involving an assistant who never talks, an arbitrary parody of Boris Karloff, and, most notably, Mantan Moreland’s “interrupted talk” stage routine with Ben Carter, which we get twice, because, hey, filler! Meanwhile, Toler constantly looks like he’s five seconds away from a heavy nap, as, I’m sure, did I.

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