Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Will McKinley ""

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Will McKinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and old movie weirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies, Sirius Satellite Radio and the TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. He writes about classic film at http://willmckinley.wordpress.com/
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Will is also quite active on twitter and you should really be following(especially if you love classic films):
https://twitter.com/willmckinley
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For my five picks for Underrated Dramas, I’ve selected one film per decade from the 1930s through the ‘70s. I’ve also included information about where you can watch the films. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

THE BOWERY (1933, Raoul Walsh)
Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, so charming together in the 1931 MGM drama THE CHAMP (directed by an uncredited King Vidor) reunite for this delightful Pre-Code yarn about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the Gay Nineties.
Beery plays Chuck Connors (1852-1913), a real life saloon owner and man-about-town in the rough and tumble Lower Manhattan neighborhood. Former “Our Gang” member Cooper is his surrogate son “Swipes” McGurk, and George Raft plays gambler Steve Brodie, the first man to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge (then known as the East River Bridge) and survive. (In the film, Brodie actually takes the leap; in real life there was some debate over his claim, though he lived off the fame until his death in 1901.) Fay Wray is “da skoit” Chuck and Steve fight over and Pert Kelton (later to be the first Alice Kramden on “The Honeymooners”) plays a shrill showgirl, coincidentally named Trixie.
The film opens with a montage of hustlers, hucksters and hookers on “the livest mile on the face of the globe.” When we meet the towheaded Swipes, he’s in trouble yet again for throwing rocks at neighboring businesses.
“It was only a chink’s winder,” he protests, in one of many moments of period-appropriate racial insensitivity (there’s also plenty of casual violence toward women, including rump smacking, conking over the head, and slapping around).
Ironically, Los Angeles native Jackie Cooper is the only one who really pulls off the Noo Yawk accent, even though Raft was born in Hell’s Kitchen. Wallace Beery is his usual affable self, and his competitive bromance with Raft is far more interesting than the romantic scenes with Fay Wray.
Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck and “presented by” Joseph M. Schenck, THE BOWERY was the first release of the newly formed Twentieth Century Pictures (which would merge with the Fox Film Corporation in 1935 to form 20th Century Fox). The film was based on a novel by Michael L. Simmons and Bessie Roth Solomon and the screenplay was co-written by Howard Eastabrook (an Oscar winner for 1931’s CIMARRON) and character actor James Gleason (perhaps best known as Max the boxing manager in 1941’s HERE COMES MR. JORDAN).
THE BOWERY is unfortunately unavailable on DVD, but you can watch it on You Tube in six parts:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_eITT11pew


STEP LIVELY (1944, Tim Whelan)
Six years after the disappointing box office performance of ROOM SERVICE (arguably the Marx Bros. worst film), RKO attempted to recoup their then-record $225,000 investment by turning the farce into a musical vehicle for a young Frank Sinatra.

STEP LIVELY rejiggers the story of the 1937 play, turning the young playwright character (an annoying Frank Albertson in the Marx Bros. film) into the romantic lead and transforming him from a backwoods bumpkin into a mug with a killer voice. It also features some addictively hum-able Sinatra tunes by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, including “As Long as There’s Music” (sung with Gloria de Haven), “Where Does Love Begin” (with Anne Jeffreys) and “Some Other Time,” the theme to Frankie’s first cinematic smooch.

Unlike in ROOM SERVICE, STEP LIVELY brings the show-within-a-show to life and features some inventively staged dance routines and a pitch-perfect performance by George Murphy as the crooked producer. It’s a joyously sharp satire of the entertainment industry with a hip edge decidedly lacking from the Marx Bros. movie.

STEP LIVELY is more of a romantic musical than a straight-up drama, but it’s so underrated – and so good – I hope you’ll forgive me for pushing the boundaries of this list.

STEP LIVELY is available on Warner Archive Instant:
http://instant.warnerarchive.com/product.html?productId=60873


VOYAGE TO ITALY aka JOURNEY TO ITALY (1954, Roberto Rossellini)
I don’t know much about Italian Neo-Realist cinema, nor the work of director Roberto Rossellini, but I do know what it’s like to a be a middle-aged man in a long-term relationship. And VOYAGE TO ITALY hits all the right notes in that regard.

Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play an estranged English couple in Italy trying to sell a villa they’ve inherited from a deceased uncle. The tension in their 8-year marriage is visible from the get-go, as the pair bickers their way across the beautiful Italian countryside. Sanders, dashing at age 48, fantasizes that he is still irresistible to the opposite sex. Bergman, looking matronly at 39, feels forgotten and ignored, questioning their decision not to have children as she is plagued by a parade of pregnancies along the streets of Naples.

Symbolism abounds, as Bergman and Sanders visit a volcano excavation and find the remains of a married couple frozen in time in the hardened lava. Sanders dallies with a young signorina, and propositions a woman he believes to be a prostitute. All the while Bergman stews, hating her husband for his callous abuse, but loving the memory of what they once had.

VOYAGE TO ITALY is a cinematic chess match between two veteran players, and it’s a joy to watch. It’s available in the original dubbed, Italian language release and a new restoration of the English language version from Cineteca di Bologna, which is currently touring the art house circuit. I’ve seen both, and I recommend waiting for the English version. Sanders has such a distinctive voice, half of his performance is lost by not hearing it. Either way, though, this slow, small film will touch viewers who have navigated the rocky terrain of commitment and monogamy.

VOYAGE TO ITALY is available in the dubbed Italian version (known as JOURNEY TO ITALY) on Hulu http://www.hulu.com/watch/406746

The English language restoration is coming to DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection in September, along with STROMBOLI (1950) and EUROPE ’51 (1952)

http://www.criterion.com/boxsets/982-3-films-by-roberto-rossellini-starring-ingrid-bergman


RING OF BRIGHT WATER (1969, Jack Couffer)
I’m not much of an animal movie person, nor am I much of a crier. But this animal movie made me cry. Seriously, the tears steamed down my face to the point where my girlfriend asked me if I “needed a tissue or something.” It was kind of awkward.
Based on the autobiographical 1960 book by naturalist Gavin Maxwell, RING OF BRIGHT WATER tells the story of Graham Merrill (Bill Travers) and his adorable pet otter Mij. Graham adopts Mij from a London pet shop and soon realizes that his tiny, urban flat is no place to raise a proper otter. His landlord realizes the same thing, and soon Graham and Mij are evicted and on their way to a new life in the Scottish Highlands. There they meet Dr. Mary MacKenzie (Virginia McKenna) and her dog Charlie. Mij takes to Charlie and Graham develops a liking for the doctor, and soon they’re an inseparable foursome. And then something really bad happens, which I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say that if I was 10 when I first saw this, I might have been scared for life. As it is, at age 43, I’m still kind of scared for life.
Husband and wife team McKenna and Travers played the leads in James Hill’s nature drama BORN FREE (1966) and would reunite on screen a year after RING OF BRIGHT WATER for Hill’s AN ELEPHANT CALLED SLOWLY (1970). They have an easy, believable chemistry that contributes to the almost documentary-like feel of the film. Travers also co-wrote the screenplay for BRIGHT WATER with director Jack Couffer. But the real star here is Mij who was portrayed by two different Wisconsin otters, both of whom should have won a special Oscar for Best Otter.
RING OF BRIGHT WATER is available on DVD from MGM:
Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Ring-Bright-Water-Bill-Travers/dp/B0001BKBFW/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1371950103&sr=1-1&keywords=Ring+of+Bright+Water


SEIZURE aka QUEEN OF EVIL (1974, Oliver Stone)
Yes, that Oliver Stone. The Academy Award-winning auteur’s directorial debut starred Dark Shadows vampire Jonathan Frid, Bond girl Martine Beswick, former teen idol Troy Donahue, Warhol acolyte Mary Woronov and future Fantasy Island plane! spotter Herve Villechaize, Sounds like fun, right? And it is. So why haven’t you heard of it? Two reasons: first, the film was reportedly a money laundering scheme by the so-called “Scarface of Porn” Michael Thevis, and has never been legitimately released on DVD. Second, Oliver Stone has disowned SEIZURE, which is a shame because it’s not a bad film.
Frid plays Edmund Blackstone, a horror novelist who invites five friends to his lakeside house for the weekend. When supernatural shenanigans begin to happen, we are left to contemplate if they are real, or a fantasy concocted in the misanthropic mind of the author. Beswick plays the sexy, sadistic “Queen of Evil” (the film’s original title) who pits friend against friend, with the inevitable tragic consequences. She and Frid have a sort-of sex scene, which is something that definitely never happened on Dark Shadows.
SEIZURE suffers from a low budget and bad transfer (at least in the version currently available) but it’s a fascinating piece of cinematic ephemera.
SEIZURE is available in an unlicensed, full frame DVD
Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Seizure-Herv%C3%A9-Villechaize/dp/B000PKG8XS/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1371947519&sr=1-1&keywords=seizure

4 comments:

Hal said...

I was 7 when I first saw RING OF BRIGHT WATER, and as you probably guessed, I cried. But I also sought out the book by Gavin Maxwell (finding a Reader's Digest version at Grandma's) and read it over and over again. Mij has stayed with me all these years. When I revisited it last year on TCM I was happy to learn that it still holds up.

Having said all that, I agree, underrated (I prefer it to BORN FREE myself) and probably too intense at a particular moment for most children. A lifelong fave of mine though.

Casey said...

I have to disagree with VOYAGE TO ITALY, a film that is wonderful until that last scene... It completely contradicts everything Rossellini was building up to in his exploration of the marriage, and feels like he took the Hollywood way out, a direct 180 from his neo-realist tendencies.

Agree with all the others, though! From a fellow New York classics fan.

willmckinley said...

Hal - I like the fact that the film version of RING OF BRIGHT WATER holds true to the book (in one particular regard - no spoilers!) and doesn't pull any punches. I can't imagine that would happen if they made it now. Somebody would soften it, I'm sure.

As for age of viewers, I think it has important lessons for kids. If I had a kid I would wait until, maybe, they were 10.

willmckinley said...

Casey - I agree with you about the quick 180 at the end of VOYAGE TO ITALY. In one sense, it does feel tacked on.

In another sense, I know many couples who have had to take the relationship to the brink in order to finally understand what's good about it, or what it means to them. I've seen many couples go from "brink of divorce" to kissyface. It's almost like couples who break up because they enjoy make-up sex so much.

Either way, we can agree that it's the one moment that doesn't feel completely organic!

Hope to see you around the NYC revival houses!