Thursday, August 30, 2007


Item #1: It took a TV Guide article to make me realize that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who. That did not make me feel smart.

Item #2: The new Carl's Jr. "I like flat buns" commercial leads me to believe our society has, against all odds, sunk to yet another nadir.

The ad wizards behind Carl's Jr.'s campaign for the past decade or so should be beaten to death with rakes. I have never hated a company so very, very much based solely on its advertising. Carl's Jr.'s commercials make me want to set the local franchise on fire.

Item #3: This week, I've been watching a lot of the Turner Classic Movies channel, or TCM as they call it on the street. God, I love that channel to pieces. There is literally not a better run channel in all of television. There's clearly so much care and love put into all the programming. There's not always a lot that draws me to watch the channel -- what can I say, I'm just not always in the mood for settling in to watch a full black and white movie or three in the middle of the day, especially during Dodgers baseball season -- but when there is something I want to check out, they present it better than any other channel can possibly approach. Even the pay channels like HBO and Showtime have started screwing up their movie presentations by running commercials during the end credits of movies, smooshing the credits over to the side or to the bottom like any other channel does these days. Hey, if you're going to advertise uncut, uncensored movies, then you can't screw with the credits. They're part of the movie, too.

But I digress.

Yesterday was Mary Astor day on TCM. I watched 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda, which I had never seen before. I loved the original Anthony Hope novel, when I read it a couple years ago, and I loved the movie, too. Ronald Colman stars in a dual role, and he's so damn charming and rakish, he just rivets you to the film instantly. And then Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., appears, and Colman seems like a faint shadow in his company. What a powerful presence that guy had! Also of note: a baby-faced David Niven.

Astor didn't have a huge part in that picture, but she did in the next one I watched, the brilliant The Maltese Falcon. As TCM host Robert Osborne noted before the film, Astor here may be the greatest "shady lady" in all of film noir. I haven't seen Falcon for a while, and it dazzled me all over again. Astor is amazing, layering lie upon lie upon lie, coolly inventing new lies as the old ones are exposed, all in a dizzying machine gun delivery. And Humphrey Bogart is pure genius, cruelly, cockily laughing as he pokes holes in every one of her stories, relentlessly digging his way to the truth.

Today was Buster Keaton day, and I was glued to the set for a large part of it. First up was Free and Easy, which I believe was Keaton's first talkie. There's a lot of funny stuff, but I was a little disappointed. The gags aren't nearly as funny and inspired as I was expecting from Keaton's reputation -- which is mostly how I know Keaton; I haven't seen much of his work.

Frankly, the advent of sound didn't serve Keaton well; his genius is definitely more in physical humor, not verbal. Nor did the MGM studio serve him well; as outlined in the TCM short documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, MGM smothered the wild improvisational style Keaton had used to such great success in his independent films, and generally forced him away from all his strengths to fit into the MGM mold. As the doc notes, under MGM's thumb, Keaton went from one of the most marketable talents in show business to practically unemployable in five years.

Fortunately, TCM had several Keaton silent masterpieces lined up for later in the day. I caught The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General, which has been called the last great film of the silent era, as well as one of the greatest silent films, period. (It ranked #18 on AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movies" list, as I recently noted.)

The Cameraman features some incredible setpieces, as is only to be expected. The one that really sticks with me is Keaton's mad dash across the city, from his telephone to that of the girl who is calling him (played by Marceline Day); before she even realizes he's not on the line anymore, he's standing right behind her. Keaton races like a track star through blocks and blocks of traffic; that man was a hell of an athlete! Another hilarious, jaw-dropping sequence comes when cameraman Keaton gets caught in the middle of a Tong War, and manages to film the action while barely avoiding death at every turn. Just spectacular. Also of note is the pre-code nature of the film. When Keaton and Day visit the public pool for a swim, once Day hits the water, her nipples are clearly visible through her bathing suit. And when Keaton loses his bathing suit, his bare behind can be seen more than once. Naughty!

Steamboat Bill, Jr. features one of the most amazing action sequences ever filmed, the raging windstorm which topples buildings left and right, narrowly missing Keaton with each deadly crash. This includes possibly the most iconic image of the entire silent film era (aside from, perhaps, Charlie Chaplin eating his boot in The Gold Rush): the facade of the two-story building collapsing directly onto Keaton, which he survives by passing through a narrow, perfectly-placed window.

It's still utterly breathtaking, nearly 80 years later (as are many of Keaton's stunts -- you gasp in anticipation of dire injury, as much as shock or humor). If that hadn't been staged to absolute perfection, it very likely would've meant Keaton's death. Now that's commitment!

In my posts about the AFI list, I lamented never having seen The General; I've seen it now, and I am all the richer for it. What an incredible work of art. I really can't do justice to the wonderful, uproarious comedy or the spectacular, heart-stopping stunts showcased throughout. I was in awe. This is a marvelous, brilliant film.

I have to admit, I was a little thrown by the fact that in this Civil War period piece, Keaton is on the side of the Confederacy -- this wasn't going to be another Birth of a Nation-style apologia for the South, was it? But, as noted on IMDb's trivia page, the film is inspired by a true story; the Union really did steal a Confederate train called the General, and the General's engineer really did run after it to try to get it back. Fair's fair, I guess; if you're going to use the story, you might as well be accurate.

Tomorrow is Sean Connery day on TCM, but instead of watching The Wind and the Lion or Murder on the Orient Express on TV, I'll be going out to the theater, to see what is sure to be a future staple of the channel: Rob Zombie's Halloween. I look forward to it on the inevitable Malcolm McDowell day!

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