Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Joan Gives Him the Axe!

Strait-Jacket (1964) gets off to a shocking start when axe murderess Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) gives the unkindest cut of all to her philandering husband and his younger mistress. Do you recognize the future TV star who, in one of his first professional appearances, plays this lopped-off Lothario? I'll give you a clue: he definitely didn't get paid Six Million Dollars to perform this uncredited bit part.

P.S. Even tawdry affairs were pretty genteel in 1964, wouldn't you say? Can you really make the most of your forbidden passion when you haven't even unbuckled your belt, and your lady is fully dressed? Maybe Lucy should've just given them a really stern warning...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Chaplin's Odd Couple

Not a match made in heaven, you'd say? Indeed, Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) may have bitten off more than he can chew when he ties the knot with brassy, less-than-classy Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye). Much as he admires her healthy bank balance, Annabella's husband will soon learn that getting his hands on it is tougher than he expected.

But off-screen this was a true mutual admiration society. Chaplin thought Raye's facility for slapstick comedy in keeping with the great traditions of silent film days, while she regarded him, her co-star and director, as nothing less than a genius.

Audiences may not have quite been ready for the dark humor and pointed social commentary of Verdoux when it was released in 1947. Decades later, though, it's easy to admire Chaplin's skill as a filmmaker - and the comic gifts he spotlighted in one of Martha's best films.

Find out more in Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Happy Anniversary, Lucy!

The early days of a TV empire.
Hard to believe it's time to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the classic of all TV classics, I Love Lucy. But in fact American audiences were introduced to Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred on October 15, 1951, when "The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub" aired on CBS. Although not the first episode filmed, it was chosen as the best one to help the show find its audience.

Fittingly, anniversaries were the topic of that premiere episode, as the wives clash with their husbands on how to observe the Mertzes' 18 years of marriage. When the girls refuse to celebrate at the boxing ring, Lucy threatens to find escorts who will take her and Ethel somewhere more appealing. Ricky calls her bluff, and says he and Fred will also find dates for the evening. Thanks to some typical Lucy Ricardo scheming, the guys end up with their own wives in disguise, as a hillbilly gal and her Maw.

Not all critics warmed to this new situation comedy, but audiences embraced Lucy and her companions from Day One, and there's seemingly no end in sight to that love affair. Not all TV shows from the 1950s play well today, but you're a stronger character than I am if you can watch an episode of I Love Lucy sixty-odd years later and not crack a smile.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Gracie for President

In the 1930s and 1940s, George Burns and the staff of Burns and Allen (as their radio program was familiarly known) did a great job keeping the show in the public eye with a series of clever publicity stunts, among them a national search for Gracie's supposedly missing brother. One of their biggest brainstorms was Gracie's entry as a candidate in the presidential election of 1940, representing the Surprise Party. Not only did the popular radio star go on the campaign trail, delivering beguiling and bewildering speeches like no one else could, she even had what every candidate needs - a book outlining her political platform. How to Become President was published by the Gracie Allen Self-Delusion Institute.

Even though most listeners caught on that this was all in fun, Gracie did in fact receive thousands of write-in votes that year. Seventy-five years ago, she must have seemed like the nuttiest candidate in political history. Fast forward to 2015, and ... do I even need to say it? Sometimes we just don't know when we're well off.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Let's All Go to the Lobby..."

"Let's all go to the lobby ... let's all go to the lobby..."

Moviegoers of a certain age will almost certainly know this little ditty, which for years exhorted theater customers to spend money at the refreshment stand. Produced in the 1950s (exact dates vary, according to the source), it was made by a company called Filmack Studios, and featured animation by Dave Fleischer, known for his association with Popeye cartoons.

But did you know this short was actually recognized by the National Film Registry in 2000? The National Film Preservation Board described it as "probably the best known 'snipe' or theatrical movie trailer ever produced."

And now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go get a snack...