Monkey Business (1952)

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The language is confusing, the actions are unmistakable.  Absent-minded chemist Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) is developing a pill that will defy the ageing process for the pharmaceutical company run by Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn). When a loose chimpanzee mixes chemicals together that produce this effect, Fulton tries some on himself. This prompts him to act like a teenager, making passes at Oxley’s beautiful buxom secretary, Lois (Marilyn Monroe). Soon everyone, including Fulton’s wife, Edwina (Ginger Rogers), is feeling the effects of the formula and Edwina doesn’t enjoy the effects of youth when she finds herself reliving their honeymoon in the exact suite they spent their wedding night.  When Barnaby goes AWOL she awakes to find a baby beside her in bed … Harry Segall’s story was adapted by director Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond and has a lot of bright moments.  It starts in stilted fashion however and the lack of a score (Hawks generally couldn’t abide them) leaves the unpunctuated action wanting. Monroe’s supporting role is underlined by Coburn’s declaration, Anyone can type! when he sends her to find someone to produce a letter; while Grant’s physicality is thrown into relief with a buzzcut. Their day out in his fast-moving roadster as he loses his sight behind his Coke-bottle glasses would be paid homage six years later with Tony Curtis and Monroe in Some Like It Hot.  Never quite reaches the apex of screwball that Hawks himself had pioneered fifteen years earlier but it’s good for filling in a filmography that was at times sheer easygoing genius and there are points here when it recaptures the genre’s extraordinary vitality. Coburn and Monroe would be reunited with Hawks in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail (shot by Burnett Guffey with uncredited work by John Alton). This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons.  Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC.  Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.

All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis is theatre great Margo Channing, whose home is invaded by the unexpectedly venal Eve (Anne Baxter), a scheming no-name tramp who wants to take her place, steal her man and take over Broadway. Writer/director Joe Mankiewicz’ portrait of womanhood, ageing, rivlary, marriage, theatre and performance was based on industry scuttlebutt about the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during the Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth – or Elisabeth Bergner’s trouble with her secretary, depending on who you believe. Davis was in fact accused of imitating Bankhead – whose hairstyle she sports. In fact she had a cold when the film started and her director asked her to keep her voice like that. She only got the role because Claudette Colbert endured a back injury prior to production, in a case of life imitating art. Margo needs a new hit, written by her great friend Hugh Marlowe, whose wife (Celeste Holm) is her best friend. He’s always writing young, Margo’s getting older. Her lover is her director, Gary Merrill, a younger man, who just might up and run to Hollywood. Her ex-vaudevillian dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t trust Eve one little bit and once ingratiated into the group, Eve does her best to alienate everyone and isolate Margo. There are endlessly quotable lines, many from acerbic critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) with a wonderful walk-on from Marilyn Monroe as his latest protegee from the Copacabana Academy of Dramatic Art. Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve was published in 1946 and then adapted for radio three years later. She sold it to Fox and it was then adapted by Mankiewicz but she never received screen credit. She did however get an award from the Screen Writers Guild for Best Original Story. This is usually referred to as a Camp Classic – which is odd in a way because it’s about a woman asserting traditional femininity against a queer attack in an anti-fairytale (as it were). Davis is simply brilliant, whatever, reconciling the two facets of Margo – grand gestural movement (learned from Martha Graham) and closeup emotionality. Just classic.

Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956)

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Two hours into their honeymoon, rocket scientist Hugh Marlowe (one of my favourite leading men) and wife Joan Taylor, experience a flying saucer. That’s not a euphemism. The earth is under attack from mistranslated aliens in one of the era’s best sci fis, cowritten by blacklistee Bernard Gordon, George Worthing Yates and Curt Siodmak from the book Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Major Donald E. Keyhoe (retired from the Marine Corps) and directed by Fred F. Sears. Good effects – particularly at the conclusion and a great sense of urgency! – so it’s a pity it was shot in monochrome.