THE DVD SHELF: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina Find "Love Is Strange" and Revisiting Two Comedies

News   THE DVD SHELF: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina Find "Love Is Strange" and Revisiting Two Comedies
 
This month's column looks at John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in "Love Is Strange," Preston Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story," and the Jackie Gleason/Carol Channing "Skidoo."

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It is difficult to watch John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Ira Sach's "Love Is Strange" [Sony Pictures Classics] without finding yourself in rapt admiration of the two veteran actors. We know how good they can be, having watched them give years worth of fine performances (Lithgow currently at his best in A Delicate Balance, Molina recently as Mark Rothko in Red). Playing a pair of newlyweds — after 39 years of housekeeping — they are both delectable on the one hand, touching on the other hand, and ultimately gripping.

The story is a modern twist on an old plot. Music teacher Molina suddenly loses his job; the modern twist is that he is fired from his Manhattan parochial school — by John Cullum, as it happens — because the bishop has seen photos of Molina's wedding to retired painter Lithgow. With the sudden loss of income, the pair lose their co-op and are forced to rely on the kindness of friends, with Molina crashing in the living room of gay cop/neighbor Cheyenne Jackson while Lithgow bunks with his nephew and family. The aged, separated couple proceed to fall apart through loneliness and despair. The story has parallels to Leo McCarey's revered 1937 semi-classic "Make Way for Tomorrow," in which an elderly Depression-era couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) similarly lose their home and are forced to live apart.

"Love Is Strange" has some weaknesses, yes, namely lags in the action, an awkward deus ex machina, and a soppy final shot; it also has a nondescriptive title. But none of this matters. The film is lovely, effective, and affecting. What's more, the two fine star performances are joined by a third from Marisa Tomei as the supportive wife of Lithgow's nephew. There is also an arresting performance by Charlie Tahan as a sullen teenager who is forced to share his bedroom with the elderly squatter. Young Tahan has a fine scene with Lithgow and an even better one, at the end, with Molina.

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Speaking of movies with ineffective titles, here comes the Blu-ray of "The Palm Beach Story" [Criterion]. Writer/director Preston Sturges is better known for "The Lady Eve," "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," but I place the 1942 "Palm Beach Story" on equal footing. This one has Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a down-on-their luck couple. Claudette decides they must divorce. With financial help from a hard-of-hearing little old man (Robert Dudley) who describes himself as the Texas Wienie King ("don't eat 'em," he advises, "you'll live longer"), she flees Park Avenue for Palm Beach in search of a millionaire. This sets the stage for one of the funniest journeys on film, as the blotto members of the Ale and Quail Club — complete with rifles and bloodhounds — invite the penniless Claudette to ride in their Pullman car. Since the hunters consist of bonafide members of Sturges' unofficial Paramount stock company — headed by the droll William Demarest, shooting skeet (and shooting out the train windows) — this provides unending hilarity.

And then it gets funnier, with Rudy Vallee playing J. D. Hackensacker III, a Rockefeller-like millionaire. Who knew Vallee could be this funny? (I was fortunate enough as a child to see him in the original production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, in which he was good — but nowhere near this good.) He pursues Claudette while McCrea — with help from the same Wienie King — flies down to claim his wife but is instead lassoed by Rudy's sister, Mary Astor (who had just won an Oscar for "The Great Lie"). There is also a gigolo named Toto floating around, and don't ask me to try to explain him. This was played by Sig Arno, a Berlin comedian who fled Germany in 1943. While mostly active in films, he was featured comedian in the long-running 1944 Broadway operetta Song of Norway; won a Tony nomination, along with fellow players Richard Burton and Helen Hayes, in Jean Anouilh's 1958 Time Remembered; and in 1963 created the role of the folksy clerk Ladislav in She Loves Me but was fired during the tryout.

Sturges builds his plot into a whirlwind of hilarity, ending with a blithely ridiculous deus ex machina which wraps things up perfectly. Only, why "The Palm Beach Story"? Apparently, the censors ruled out Sturges' original title, "Is Marriage Necessary?"

Criterion gives us a new 4K digital restoration, with special features including new interviews; a 1943 radio adaptation; and--most intriguingly — "Safeguarding Military Information," the 1941 propaganda short Sturges filmed for the Army. Appearing without credit is Eddie Bracken, in what seems to be a scene from "Hail the Conquering Hero" — only Sturges didn't make that one until 1944.

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Amidst the social turmoil of the late 1960s, many established show folk found themselves caught between two worlds. Do you keep doing what they always do, and risk being labeled old-fashioned? Or do you go all out in an attempt to be "with it," as they used to say? Otto Preminger, a film director/producer ("Laura," "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Exodus") with roots on the stage, decided on the latter. Hence "Skidoo" [Olive], which was more or less the "Ishtar" of 1968: a situation comedy about gangsters and criminals with Jackie Gleason on LSD, an oblivious Carol Channing cavorting in her underwear and nubile girls wearing body paint.

Gleason was one of the major stars of the time, due to his television career; Channing was just off her initial stint with Hello, Dolly! Present day pop-TV was represented by three villains from the TV series "Batman," Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin and Cesar Romero. (Preminger, himself, was a "Batman" villain.) There was a pop singer of the early '60s, Frankie Avalon; a Rat Packer and Kennedy brother-in-law, Peter Lawford; and two '30s movie stars, super-gangster George Raft and America's favorite, Mickey Rooney. What's more, the film costarred Groucho Marx as God. Not God as in George Burns; rather, an inept master criminal. The 77-year-old Marx, in jet-black toupee and in his final starring role, is stridently unfunny. But then so is everything about "Skidoo," a bad idea gone wrong with desperation in every frame. In the prison scenes, the striped uniforms worn by Gleason and the others are tinged with purple — which I suppose is typical of the enterprise. (Costumes are by Rudy Gernreich, the unisex fashion designer who introduced the topless bikini in 1963.) There are also some hippyish songs by Harry Nilsson, including a banal title number which is forced on poor Carol. The film ends with Nilsson singing the credits; not only the actors but the entire crew, including assistant director Erich von Stroheim, Jr. It makes quite a lyric.

Opening as it did in 1968, the movie immediately disappeared. This was a time without home video or cable; when a film flopped, it was quickly withdrawn and all-but-unfindable. "Skidoo" eventually resurfaced with occasional airings on cable TV, and a DVD in 2011. Now, it comes to us on Blu-ray from Olive Films. (Olive is the independent label that brings us interesting films that nobody else seems to want to distribute. These include "A Double Life," an indispensable movie for people interested in Broadway circa 1950, with numerous scenes filmed in and around the legendary Empire Theatre on Broadway at 39th Street. Other Olive films of note include Walter Matthau and Elaine May in "A New Leaf," and John Wayne in John Ford's "The Quiet Man.")

Yes, "Skidoo" is less than successful, but it is more than fascinating to watch; every attempt to be contemporary grandly misfires. Preminger's career never recovered; more interesting, though, is watching Gleason and Channing stuck in a morass of terminally unfunny business. Carol, pro that she is, plays it like she believes it's Ibsen. The other stars — and this is a boatload of washed-up stars — walk through their scenes like they are dreading every moment but, hey, it's a paycheck. So consider "Skidoo" an irremediable film that demands bemused attention, a studio movie unlike any you've seen.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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