By Steven Suskin
29 Jan 2012
"Annie Hall," from 1977, was Allen's 11th film, but this is arguably where he went from being a director of popular comedies to an acknowledged genius — and where he won his first two Oscars, as director and author. Diane Keaton, of course, is the Annie Hall of the title. Tony Roberts plays Woody's friend, as he did for more than a decade, and I wonder if he was at his best in this guise. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Chris Walken and Colleen Dewhurst (as Keaton's mother) add to the joys of the film.
The 1979 "Manhattan" is Allen's love-letter to the city in question, enhanced by the music of George Gershwin and the black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. Has Manhattan — the island — ever looked so romantically evocative? Stars Allen and Keaton are in this instance joined by Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Anne Byrne, Wallace Shawn and soon-to-be-superstar Meryl Streep. Allen shared screenwriting chores with Marshall Brickman, who also served as collaborator on "Annie Hall."
Standing midway between Hitchcock and Allen on the distinctive-filmmakers-with- unusual-but-astonishingly-good-films list is Billy Wilder. How many times can you watch The Apartment? I always find this amoral tale — about a low-level executive who trades the key to his Upper West Side walkup for professional advancement — to be darkly delicious. Here is Jack Lemmon at his comic best; here is Shirley MacLaine at her brightest; and here is Manhattan, circa 1960, without the sort of filters Woody and Willis applied to their picture of "Manhattan." Here, too, are screenwriters Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, razor-sharp. The pair won an Oscar for their screenplay, with Wilder also taking one as director and a third as producer of that year's Best Picture. And let's not forget the sweepingly grand musical theme by Charles Williams. "The Theme from 'The Apartment'" was borrowed music, actually; Williams first used it (under the title "Jealous Lover") in the 1949 British feature, "The Romantic Age." I, for one, quite enjoy Promises, Promises, the Broadway musicalization of "The Apartment." Wilder's film is considerably better, though.
Among this year's Best Picture nominees over in Oscarland is Moneyball [Sony], the immensely entertaining Brad Pitt movie about two major American pastimes, baseball and money. There are any number of pleasures here, including Mr. Pitt and the deft screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Also of interest is the performance by Jonah Hill as the out-of-place Yale economist whose computer reconfigures the sad sack Oakland Athletics into pennant winners. Hill has provided amusement as an awkward misfit in such films as "Knocked Up" and "Superbad." Here he demonstrates that he can act, too.
Of more than passing interest is the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the crusty, old and stubborn manager of the team. Hoffman is just now in rehearsal for the Mike Nichols production of Death of a Salesman which is soon to move into the Barrymore. Is the 44-year-old Hoffman too young to play Willy Loman? Anyone accustomed to watching the actor will already know the answer, but Hoffman's "Moneyball" performance in itself suggests that his Willy Loman will be compelling.
All but lost and forgotten for more than 75 years is Hollywood Party [Warner Archive]. This 1934 opus was one of those "all-star" cavalcades thrown together from time to time when MGM had under contract "more stars than there are in heaven." The stars in question were not from the top tier of the lot; the carelessly thrown-together plot tells of a gala party thrown by a fast-fading movie star desperate to safeguard his career. Schnarzan is his name; if you’re one step ahead of me, you've already guessed that this was Jimmy Durante. That's the main joke, folks. Durante in a hair suit and loin cloth, wrestling an obviously stuffed lion, is actually rather amusing.
This is the sort of all-star party in which people like Laurel and Hardy come to the door as gatecrashers and wind up playing a scene in which they smash raw eggs into the chest of Lupe Velez, who crushes one down Hardy's trousers. At the gates, unable to crash the party, are the Three Stooges getting smacked in the head. Jack Pearl appears in the guise of Baron Munchausen, Charles Butterworth mumbles around the place as an oil millionaire, and there's even a bonafide Broadway star circa 1906 on hand in the person of comedian/lyricist/librettist/director Richard Carle.
Among the guests at the party is a mouse named Mickey (voiced by Walt), who taunts Jimmy — for a moment we even get Mickey with a Durante schnozz — and then introduces a Disney Technicolor short built around the Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed song "Hot Choc'late Soldiers."
Speaking of songs, there are three from the then-struggling Broadway team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The title song is quite catchy, actually; it's sung by Frances Williams — who introduced "As Time Goes By" on Broadway in 1931—and a bevy of girls. These girls are kaleidoscopically used; there are several numbers that seem to want to out-Busby Busby Berkeley. The other two R & H songs are special material for Durante, "Hello" and "Reincarnation." Both are extended, and unusual; the boys wrote more of the same for Jimmy the following year, in the Broadway musical Jumbo.
Let us also add that this film came just before the Code cleaned up Hollywood's act, as can easily be seen in the costumes on the girls. Ms. Velez — "The Mexican Spitfire," they called her — wears a dress unlike any you might have seen, then or even now.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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