December 10, 2013


Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.


College Coach was the sixth and final movie that William Wellman directed in 1933, right after his Great Depression youth-in-revolt classic Wild Boys of the Road . College Coach looks like a slice of reassuring Americana in comparison, but his portrait of an opportunistic college football coach makes corruption look as American as apple pie. Pat O’Brien plays Coach Gore, a fast talking operator who wins at all costs (and it often costs him a pretty penny). He stacks his rosters through bribes that would make the 1990s University of Miami blush. The money-starved Calvert College is seeking ways to boost revenue after investing heavily in their chemistry department, so they lure Gore away to lead their moribund team. Swiftly importing a trio of jacked up goons to add to their one bonafide star (Dick Powell), Calvert suddenly has a powerhouse franchise, a marketable gimmick, “The Four Aces”, and bursting box office coffers (also keep an eye out for cameos by Ward Bond and John Wayne).

Pat O’Neil has a ball as the con-man coach, massaging his players past academic requirements and ordering game-time hits on the competition’s star player. Reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal when with the New Orleans Saints (players would win prizes for knocking out opponents), in College Coach such an order leads to a player’s death. When confronted, Gore icily responds, “40-50 die every year…that’s football.”  Perfectly encapsulating the attitude that led to concussion research getting swept under the table, as detailed in the Frontline documentary “League of Denial”, Gore sees football as a warzone in which the ends justify the means. What’s remarkable is that Gore somehow remains the hero of the tale, his illegal activities the actions of an engaging roue rather than a hardened criminal. Like so much of Warner Brothers’ pre-code output, criminality is no sin when the whole economic system had collapsed. It was simply common sense.


Made for a reported $245,000, Wellman gooses things along with some snappy montage. Gore’s hiring at the start of the football season is heralded with close-ups from students to janitors that exclaim, “They hired Gore!”. It’s like he had just watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and wanted to experiment with musical dialogue of his own. His other visual flourish is to express characters’ state of mind through the feet . Gore’s much ignored wife (played with verve by Ann Dvorak) is introduced from the shins down, cutting holes in the rug with her nervous walking. Later, Wellman will stage a fight between Powell and a loud-mouthed Lyle Talbot and focus entirely on the ground, their dancing feet telling the tale of the bout. Talbot is keen on wooing Dvorak, so this bit of visual rhyming displays that they might have a future.


As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Victor Mature’s future is all used up in Easy Living (1949), Jacques Tourneur’s melancholy football melodrama. Mature plays the star QB of the New York Chiefs, Pete Wilson, whose image adorns the banner outside the stadium (although he still takes the subway to work). Nicknamed “King Football”, he may have to hang up his spikes after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Having bankrolled his wife’s interior decorating company, and aware of her eagerness to climb the social ladder, Wilson is reluctant to give up the mantle of fame. The story is very punishing towards female ambition, and includes a tacked on ending of casual misogyny. For Tourneur it was a job he was not enthusiastic to take. He had just completed Berlin Express for RKO, and turned down the opportunity to make A Woman’s Secret, which would end up as the second film by Nicholas Ray. Not wanting to push the limits of his power, he accepted the next script offered to him, which was originally titled Inteference. He accepted what would become Easy Living even though he had never seen a football game before. As he is quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nigthfall, Tourneur admitted, “I’m not interested in any sports.” This is evident in Mature’s awkward throwing motion in practice, a short arm heave with no follow-through (although Philip Rivers has made a similar motion work in the pros).

With little interest in the game on the field, Tourneur focuses on the business of the game, as outlined in Charles Schnee’s script. Early on a long-time Chiefs player is cut loose, with no pension or health care to see him through the rest of his days. The team secretary, played with world-weary resignation by Lucille Ball, says the ex-player only has himself to blame. Ball is spectacular in one of her final pre-I Love Lucy roles. Having once been an RKO contract lead player, she was now relegated to supporting status. She could probably relate to the also-ran status of her character, she is widowed by by a deadbeat and now carries an unrequited torch for Wilson. Ball displays her whip-smart timing in acid exchanges with Wilson, as she nurses his hangovers and hurt feelings. She is a mitigating force against the screenplay’s sexism, which focuses its ire on Wilson’s wife Liza (Lizbeth Scott). She is the gold-digging harpy of misogynist fantasy, holding back her husband’s masculine birthright to be the sole breadwinner. Scott does what she can in a thankless role, but it is Ball who walks away with the picture.


Tourneur creates a cramped atmosphere in the locker room, pushing his camera into packed frames of jock straps and high socks. In the city scenes he positions his actors in positions of non-communication, backs turned and looking at cross-purposes. Some of the compositions look like they’re straight out of Antonioni, including one striking image of a magnate’s mistress sitting disconsolately in the foreground, separated from her lover by Liza’s figure in the middle. Later Victor Mature will be separated from Lucille Ball in a similar fashion, this time by an analog boxing arcade game. As hackneyed as the script can get, these are striking images of alienation, and Mature gives a withdrawn, grieving performance as Wilson, as if death would be a release. The egregious Hollywood ending prevents such a peek into the void, but it’s something that Tourneur leads us there. He said of Easy Living that, “This is a very bad film for a reason that I must keep secret.” I would say it is these unspoken secrets that make it worth watching.


August 16, 2011

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To celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday on August 6th, Warner Archive released three films from her time as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO. She appeared in 21 films for the studio between 1938 and 1942, nabbing seven credits in ’38 alone. Made quickly and forgotten even faster, these occasionally flat farces are enlivened by Ball’s bracingly physical performances and the brisk pacing instilled by a trio of talented studio directors.  The Lucille Ball RKO Comedy Collection, Vol. 1,  includes Go Chase Yourself  (1938), Next Time I Marry (1938) and Look Who’s Laughing (1941).

After being let go from Columbia after a string of bit parts, Ball was brought to RKO upon the recommendation of producer Pandro S. Berman, who gave her supporting roles in the Astaire-Rogers musicals Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). She continued in small roles in “A” pictures, memorably in Stage Door (1937), but with her salary bumped to $2,000 a week, RKO ramped up her schedule to include B productions in between her prestige jobs. The first of these was Go Chase Yourself(1938), a Joe Penner vehicle directed by veteran Edward F. Cline, who had started out with Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton.

Penner was a Hungarian-born comic who hit it big on the radio in the early ’30s. In Radio’s Forgotten Years Elizabeth Mcleod described his work as, “utter slapstick foolishness, delivered in an endearingly simpering style that’s the closest thing the 1930s had to Pee-wee Herman.” By 1938 his popularity had faded, and he would die of heart failure three years later at the age of 36.

His shtick does not translate well in Go Chase Yourself, in which he plays a gullible bank clerk who unknowingly gets mixed up in a robbery. He has a slow, mewling delivery that is out of step with the manic tempo, with scenes flitting by before he can land a punchline. And with his shy, shuffling gait he seems to recede into the frame. He is not helped by director Cline’s disinterest, composing everything in flat frontal shots.

Somehow Penner’s foundling has a wife, and Lucille Ball invigorates the drab proceedings with her lightbulb flashing eyes and brassy insouciance. Her character has had enough of the Penner character’s idiocies, understandably, and rails at him with superova-strength nags. It’s a small, thinly sketched role, but Ball enlarges her henpecking wife into somebody more righteous and destructive, an inkling of the chaos Lucy would later unleash.

She gets more room to stretch out in the charming It Happened One Night (1934) knockoff, Next Time I Marry (1938). In this class-jumping marriage comedy, Ball gets her first starring credit as Nancy Crocker Fleming, a dizzy heiress who has to marry an American to earn her inheritance. Her fiancee is the mincingly European Count Georgi (Lee Bowman), so Nancy looks for an All-American doofus to get the cash.

The eye-opening opener finds Nancy cruising by a WPA ditch-digging project in New Jersey, asking each worker if they’re married. She hits her jackpot with Anthony (James Ellison), a philosophical bum (he quotes Omar Khayyam) curious to see where this adventurous dame will lead him. He is friskier than she had expected, brandishing their marriage license and forcing her to go on an RV trip across the Southwest, with Count Georgi and the press corps on their tail.

Packed with incident and surprisingly rich characterizations, it’s a worthy imitator of the Frank Capra classic. The NY Times agreed, saying, “No student of the motion picture in its more thoughtfully budgeted branches can afford to miss it.”  Ball is given a juicy screwball character and she runs with it, flipping from an impudently immature socialite into a lovestruck klutz with aplomb. Both run on nervous energy, they just flow in different directions. James Ellison’s rough-hewn masculinity is a good foil for Ball’s machinations, the calm before her storm. Next Time I Marry was Garson Kanin’s second film as a director (he would be best remembered for his screenwriting career with his wife Ruth Gordon, which produced Adam’s Rib), and his work is swiftly paced and sensitive to his performers’ talents. In her biography Lucille, Kathleen Brady interviewed Kanin about the film:

She [Lucille Ball] was extremely inventive to the point I was surprised she didn’t want to write. Like most good actresses, she did not like to be directed. She did not need to be. She was her own self.

This self isn’t very evident in Look Who’s Laughing (1941), a radio star corralling exercise for ace director Allan Dwan. Ball is shunted into an admiring girlfriend role here, as Edgar Bergen and “Fibber McGee and Molly” take up most of the screen time. Here is Dwan in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

“M.C.A. wanted to get their people into motion pictures – they were beginning to build into this giant outfit they eventually became. And they did it by making packages. Instead of just representing people, they put people together. They had Edgar Bergen and ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ – big radio stars – and they bought me away from my agent so I’d be one of their clients and part of a package. And so when they went to RKO, they supplied the whole works – stars, director and everything.”

After the studios were divested of their movie theaters in the 1948 Paramount Decision, this became the normal way of doing business, and remains so today. The agency delivered RKO a package, and the studio agreed to fund it. Look Who’s Laughing is an excuse for viewers to see these still wildly popular radio personalities in the flesh, so the plot conceives a way for Bergen (playing himself) and his dummy Charlie McCarthy to crash the world of Fibber McGee and Molly in Wistful Vista, somewhere in the Midwest.

After wrapping up another season on the radio, with Lucille Ball as his loving assistant Julie, Bergen and McCarthy fly out on vacation, but crash land in Wistful Vista. Fibber McGee is scheming to get an airplane manufacturer into the town, and Bergen’s business contacts could be the deciding factor. But of course there are some backdoor shenanigans by the theatrically villainous Gildersleeve (Harold Peary), and it takes a bit of deceptive seduction from Julie to right the wrongs.

The leads were radio stars for a reason. The Charlie McCarthy doll has more screen presence than the mono-tonal Bergen (and says the best line, “What fools we morons be”, to a soda jerk), while  Fibber McGee and Molly’s gentle bickering couple routine is anodyne and forgettable, the template for so many of today’s sitcoms in which a incompetent husband is indulged by a wise woman (they are the real life husband and wife Jim and Marian Jordan). I have no doubt their work is stronger over the airwaves.

Lucille Ball, while given little to do except look alluring in a nurse’s outfit and yearn after Bergen’s dead-eyed stare, pushes against the boundaries in her character. As with the other titles in the box set, she was assigned a type and invigorated it, this time injecting a frank sexuality and clumsiness to the stock “His Girl Friday” character. Lucille said, “I started as a model because I looked like a model, and ‘the other woman’ or ‘the career girl’ because I have a deep aggressive voice that has no softness or romance to it.” She took the talent at her disposal, sharpened them, and then tripped over them for a laugh.