Beauty and the Beast [La belle et la bête]

(France 1946)

“I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: Once upon a time…”

— Jean Cocteau

I’m familiar with Jean Cocteau. Somehow, I never saw one of his films until this sold out Sunday matinee screening of La belle et la bête, a story I know well and probably would have passed on but for the fact that he directed it.

Belle (Josette Day) loves her father (Marcel André), a merchant who twice loses a fortune, so much that she steps in to save him when he angers the Beast (Jean Marais) by picking a rose from his garden to bring home to her. The Beast abandons his plan to kill her to avenge the sin of her father as soon as he sees her — he’s smitten. He’s so ugly, though, that Belle faints when she sees him.

Belle wakes up inside a room in his castle, where the Beast executes an alternate plan: every night at dinner he will ask her to marry him. As it turns out, he’s filthy rich and wants Belle to be his queen. She develops a soft spot for him as time goes on, but Belle’s answer is always the same: no. Apparently, she doesn’t love him.

When she learns that her father is dying, the Beast allows Belle to visit her family. He gives her a magic glove that transports her wherever she wants to go and the key to his fortune. Realizing how rich the Beast really is, Belle’s conniving siblings, sisters Adélaïde (Nane Germon) and Felicie (Mila Parély) and brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), take Belle on a treacherous turn.

Wow! Entrancing and mesmerizing, Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is an impressively cool film, far from the family-oriented Disney musical version that seems to be the default. At times grotesque, surreal, and very imaginative, it’s a darker telling of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century classic adaptation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original fable (I never thought about where the story came from until I wrote this entry).

The lovely Day is perfect as Belle: kind yet knowing, she plays her character as something of a girl next door fatale. Marais evokes compassion for his character, even with a mask covering his face. Lucien Carré and René Moulaert’s otherworldly sets and Pierre Cardin’s Victorian wardrobe are both tailor made for Henri Alekan’s grizzled, shadowy, and hard black and white cinematography. Something about the time when this came out — immediately after WWII — enhances the overall eerie feel of this film. I can’t come up with enough superlatives to describe it.

Cocteau is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt (http://www.chapelle-saint-blaise.org/html/en/home/home.php). A plaque marking his gravesite states, “Je reste avec vous” (“I stay with you”). It’s a fitting epitaph for the director of this particular version of La Belle et la Bete, which will stay with me. It’s a haunting beauty to behold.

With Raoul Marco

Production: DisCina

Distribution: DisCina (France), Actueel Film (Netherlands), Nederland NV (Netherlands), Wivefilm (Sweden), Internationale Filmallianz (IFA) (Germany), Artfree (Greece), Lopert Films (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

The Last American Virgin

(USA 1982)

“Are you here to interview me or to fuck me?”

— Ruby

It was decades ago — probably the ‘80s — the last time I saw low budget ’80s cable classic The Last American Virgin. I recently noticed it in the “free movies” queue on…where else, cable. I had to know whether it was as good as I remembered.

An odd mix of other teen movies from its day — think of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Losin’ It and Valley Girl all rolled into one — it isn’t something I imagine being made today, not even as a remake. The Last American Virgin starts out all fun and games — centered on sex, of course — but abruptly takes a dark turn about halfway through. Subject matter aside, it ends on a brutally cynical note that leaves one pondering: what exactly is writer and director Boaz Davidson saying here?

None of this is a gripe; on the contrary, it’s an asset that puts The Last American Virgin in a class of its own. Kudos for that.

Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is a Los Angeles high school student. When he’s not delivering pizzas in a ridiculous pink Grand Prix (or similar late ‘70s car), he and his hornball friends Rick (Steve Antin), the cute one, and David (Joe Rubbo), the fat one, are constantly trying to get laid.

Their antics are pretty funny. They pick up three duds at a hamburger joint and snort Sweet ‘N’ Low with them when a party they promise doesn’t happen and the girls want drugs. They wind up together in the apartment of a horny Mexican woman of a certain age (Louisa Moritz) whose sailor boyfriend (Roberto Rodriquez) is away, and she wants all three of them. Later, they get crabs from a bossy Hollywood hooker (Nancy Brock). A dick measuring contest in the school locker room is, well, uncomfortably hot. Somehow, sex happens easily for Rick and David. Not Gary, though: he’s either too nice or too scared.

At school, Gary meets a new girl, Karen (Diane Franklin). He crushes on her, hard. Too bad she’s into Rick, which causes friction: a bizarre love triangle develops, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it reaches a boiling point by winter break.

I never knew The Last American Virgin is a remake of Davidson’s 1978 Israeli film Eskimo Limon. He fucking nails it with his depiction of jealousy — better than most films do. It’s hard to watch Gary’s hatred for Rick grow stronger while they’re running around getting into trouble together. Monoson’s acting is good, and so is Franklin’s. Their scenes together are the best this movie has to offer. I would be remiss to mention that for such a minor role, Kimmy Robertson really shines as Karen’s wacky friend Rose, who seems like Katy Perry’s secret inspiration.

The Last American Virgin has its unimpressive moments, but it’s hardly a write-off. Overall, it’s held up well. Sure, it falls into nostalgia, but beyond its soundtrack it’s more memorable for its characters, its plot, and its unexpected turn. It certainly isn’t what it appears to be.

With Brian Peck, Tessa Richarde, Winifred Freedman, Gerri Idol, Sandy Sprung, Paul Keith, Harry Bugin, Phil Rubenstein, Julianna McCarthy, Mel Welles

Production: Golan-Globus Productions

Distribution: Cannon Film Distributors (USA), Citadel Films (Canada)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) B

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

(USA 1974)

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“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.”

— Narrator

 

“Look what your brother did to the door! Ain’t he got no pride in his home?”

— Old Man

I didn’t expect much when I sat down for the low budget slasher classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie that somehow escaped me all these years. I’ve got to admit, it’s not bad.

The premise is simple: five friends in their 20s, three guys and two girls, are driving a van on a road trip through rural Texas in the summer. The purpose of the trip is to check on a few dearly departed relatives of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her disabled brother, Franklin (Paul Alan Partain), after a gruesome grave robbery in the town where they grew up. It’s very Scooby Doo.

They pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) outside a slaughterhouse who grosses them all out talking about killing cattle with a sledgehammer. He passes around a few photos of some he finished off himself. He’s dirty, scabby, and jittery. He snaps a photo no one asked him to, then has the nerve to charge them two bucks for it. He invites them over for dinner (head cheese) with his family before he cuts his hand with a pocketknife. Freaked, they pull over and throw his nasty ass out.

That’s not the worst of it — it’s just the beginning. Working from a screenplay he wrote with Kim Henkel, director Tobe Hooper taps into something pretty fucked up here. Mixing hicks with chainsaws is unsettling enough, but “Leatherface” (Gunnar Hansen), the masked executioner behind that sliding freezer door, is truly frightening. So is decomposing “grandfather” (John Dugan). When you stop to think about it, so is a gas station barbeque.

All the essential elements of horror are here: characters stranded in the middle of nowhere, empty houses, no phones or gas, bugs, bones, rotting corpses, chases in the dark, falling down, power tools as weapons, kidnapping, a faceless menace, and a bunch of blood.

Cinematographer Daniel Pearl creates some surprisingly artful shots, particularly on the highway, in a sunflower patch, and a scene with feathers. They look great. The artful moments, however, are far and few between. The pacing is strange: the first four victims are picked off in quick succession, leaving just Burns, who has nothing to do but run around and scream for nearly the entire second half. Even after all she goes through, no one needs that. Still, for all its flaws, I winced, I snickered, I looked away in disgust. But I saw the whole thing through to the end — no pun intended.

I hate to spoil the ending, but contrary to the movie poster…none of this is true.

With Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Jim Siedow, John Larroquette

Production: Vortex

Distribution: Bryanston Pictures (USA), Astral Films (Canada), New Gold Entertainment (Italy), Succéfilm AB (Sweden), Jugendfilm-Verleih (West Germany), Bac Films (France), New Line Cinema (USA), René Chateau Productions (France), Filmways Australasian Distributors (Australia)

84 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) B-

http://www.thetexaschainsawmassacre.net

Suspiria

(Italy 1977)

“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish! She must vanish. She must die! Die! Die!”

— Madame Blanc

Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria is a perplexing film, and not because it’s scary. It’s pretty ridiculous, tongue and cheekiness aside.

Cowritten by Argento with Daria Nicolodi from Thomas DeQuincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis,” the plot is prosaic: American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrolls at “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” the fictitious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Suzy notices immediately that something about the place isn’t quite right — maybe it’s the two students who are murdered the night she arrives. It doesn’t take long for Suzy to discover that the school is a front for something far more nefarious. Except for a few good lines here and there, the writing is terrible. The acting is even worse. The two exceptions are Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc, both of whom deliver fabulously campy performances as women of power at the school.

None of this matters, though, because this isn’t Suspiria’s raison d’être. No, Suspiria is a sensory masterpiece that places style way ahead of substance. In other words, it’s eye candy.

Argento expresses his vision through his imagery, and it’s unforgettably dazzling and unique. From the opening titles to the last scene, Argento shocks, thrills, and seduces with color, light, shadow, and surreal imagery. His sets are elegant and fake, and his blood is even faker. He lights the screen with bright reds and glowing blues (when it’s not all black from night), and he keeps the perspective distorted to create a trippy dissonance. Plus, he throws in a number of creepy psychological menaces, from maggots to a dog attack to a treacherous room-size wire dustbunny. Luciano Tovoli’s camera work perfectly articulates Argento’s vision.

This is what Suspiria is all about:

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The soundtrack by Goblin is a nice touch, and it goes far in creating the mood here.

For all its flaws — and there are many — Suspiria is a memorable film. We caught a digital restoration of the original print, which is five or six minutes longer. A zealous audience member engaged us in a discussion as we left the theater. He told us that Suspiria is the first of a trilogy known as “The Three Mothers,” and he enthusiastically recommended the second film, Inferno. I’ll see it someday, but it’s not a priority.

With Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Margherita Horowitz, Jacopo Mariani, Fulvio Mingozzi, Franca Scagnetti, Renato Scarpa, Serafina Scorceletti, Giuseppe Transocchi, Renata Zamengo

Production: Seda Spettacoli

Distribution: Produzioni Atlas Consorziate

98 minutes
Not rated (alternate version)

(ArcLight) C+

Hellraiser

(UK 1987)

“Oh, no tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!”

— “Pinhead” (the Lead Cenobite)

Roger Ebert famously derided Clive Barker’s directorial debut, the sadomasochistic horror classic Hellraiser, calling it “without wit, style, or reason” for its “bankruptcy of imagination” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/hellraiser-1987). Well, talk about tearing your soul apart!

Hellraiser isn’t particularly scary, but it is creepy and fucking weird. I certainly don’t find it lacking wit, style, or imagination; quite the opposite. It’s a ridiculous, kinky, and bloody telenovela. Based on Barker’s short novel The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser takes the idea of something in the attic to a place no one else has.

Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins) have a strained marriage. After leaving Manhattan to go live in his abandoned boyhood home somewhere on the Atlantic coast, Julia finds Larry’s brother — who’s her ex lover — Frank (Sean Chapman in the flashbacks and Oliver Smith in the present) reanimated without skin in the attic. The movie doesn’t explain it, but the novel does: Larry cuts his hand and drips blood onto the attic floor, right where Frank’s comeshot dried up in the floorboards. Nice.

An unrelenting hedonist, Frank lost his body and soul to demons in his quest for sexual gratification. It started with an antique puzzle box that opened a portal to hell and summoned the Cenobites, led by “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley), the apparent spokesman for the motley foursome. Now, Frank needs blood, which is where Julia comes in. Too bad Frank’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), keeps getting in the way.

The special effects look cheap and the plot is choppy. It isn’t clear at first whether the cuts to Frank and Julia getting it on are flashbacks or fantasy, so this detail could have been done better. Nonetheless, Hellraiser is totally engrossing (and at points, just gross). Barker makes a silly story bizarre enough to keep you interested in what happens next. Higgins effectively channels a tortured melodramatic ’50s B-movie damsel in distress. And her big ’80s hair and sunglasses are fabulous!

Perhaps the best thing Hellraiser has going for it, though, is its twisted sense of humor: all of this happens — and will happen again — because Frank thinks with his dick. Now that’s funny.

With Nicholas Vince, Simon Bamford, Grace Kirby, Robert Hines, Anthony Allen, Leon Davis, Michael Cassidy, Frank Baker, Kenneth Nelson, Gay Baynes, Dave Atkins, Oliver Parker

Production: Cinemarque Entertainment BV, Film Futures, Rivdel Films

Distribution: New World Pictures (USA), Entertainment Film Distributors (UK), Highlight Film (West Germany), Paraiso Films S.A. (Spain), Prooptiki (Greece), Roadshow Film Distributors (Australia), Toei Classic (Japan), Vestron Benelux (Netherlands)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

Music Box of Horrors

http://www.clivebarker.info/hellraiser.html

Foxy Brown

(USA 1974)

“That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lot of woman.”

— Link

 

“Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.”

— Foxy

To use a term straight from Willie Hutch’s theme song, director/screenwriter Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown is superbad. It’s definitely not something to see for technical or artistic excellence, but it’s cool nonetheless. A sort of reworking of Coffey, it’s a sexy vigilante revenge tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a bodacious woman on a mission to track down the goons who shot and killed her boyfriend (Terry Carter), a government agent who just had plastic surgery to change his identity, right outside her door. Obviously, this is the work of a Los Angeles drug ring.

Foxy quickly figures out who the rat is: her own brother, Link (Antonio Fargas). He identifies her boyfriend’s killers as affiliates of a “modeling agency.” The agency is run by fixers Miss Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and Steve Elias (Peter Brown). Their clients are crooked high profile men of the law like judges and politicians who trade favors for girls.

Posing as a prostitute, Foxy gets inside the operation and does some major damage. It gets her in serious hot water when she’s exposed, bringing her into the center of a lesbian bar brawl and then onto a coke ranch as a junky sex slave. Fortunately, she’s tough and resourceful. No one gets the best of Foxy.

Built on sex parties, chase scenes, shoot outs, and boobs, the plot is structured like a sitcom, and it’s about as complicated and predictable. Naturally, Foxy gets what she wants in the end. Except for the very cool opening titles, there are no effects to speak of. The acting is average at best. However, the action is surprisingly steady, leaving very few dull spots. Plus, there’s real sas here, mostly from Grier, that keeps the whole thing interesting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxy Brown a feminist work, but Foxy is a badass heroine with her heart — and her head — in the right place. It’s a thrill watching her take control, especially in heels and those fabulous frocks. I wouldn’t want to piss her off.

With Harry Holcombe, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown, Sally Ann Stroud, Bob Minor, Tony Giorgio, Fred Lerner, Judy Cassmore, H.B. Haggerty, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Jack Bernardi, Brenda Venus, Kimberly Hyde, Jon Cedar, Ed Knight, Esther Sutherland, Mary Foran, Jeannie Epper, Stephanie Epper, Peaches Jones, Helen Boll, Conrad Bachmann, Russ Grieve, Rodney Grier, Roydon E. Clark, Don Gazzaniga, Jay Fletcher, Gary Wright, Fred Murphy, Edward Cross, Larry Kinley Jr.

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Sociedade Importadora de Filmes (SIF) (Portugal), Film AB Corona (Sweden), Cinema Mondo (Finland)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) C+

Pass the Gravy

(USA 1928)

Every now and then, I come across a literary or artistic work from the past that makes me reevaluate its day as maybe a little cooler than I gave it credit for. The silent gem Pass the Gravy is one such work. It’s longer than it needs to be, but it exhibits a twisted sense of humor that I love.

Schultz (Bert Sprotte) and Davidson (Max Davidson) are next door neighbors who don’t get along. Schultz, a well-dressed pompous ass, raises chickens that constantly eat the seeds Davidson, a far less dapper man, plants in his backyard. Schultz’s prize-winning pet rooster, Brigham, makes him, shall we say, cockproud.

When Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) and Davidson’s daughter (Martha Sleeper) announce their engagement, the two older gentlemen reluctantly agree to set aside their differences and celebrate the occasion with a fine feast. Davidson gives his conniving son, Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell), two bucks to go buy a chicken. Instead, Ignatz pockets the money and steals a bird from Schultz’s yard — it’s Brigham.

The two families sit down at the table. Ignatz realizes what he’s done when he notices a tag that says “1st Prize” hanging off one of the roasted bird’s drumsticks. Hilarity ensues as one by one, each guest at the table realizes what Ignatz did and tries to hide it from Schultz.

Produced by Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy) and directed by Fred Guiol with Leo McCarey, Pass the Gravy sounds like something Family Guy made up. It’s not: it’s real, and it’s actually pretty funny — if only for Davidson’s well played reaction that has to be seen to be appreciated and Schultz’s morbidly ironic quips (“They act like it’s a funeral” and “It’s my chicken and I’m going to eat it!”).

A football pantomime toward the end is shaky, and the joke here wears thin before the whole thing is over. Still, even with its antiquated slapstick silliness, Pass the Gravy is solid humor.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed Pass the Gravy “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B-