I have my daughter Lauren for our summer week together and, being the junior cinephile that she is, we’ve already watched a lot of movies. We’re both fans of the double bill concept, a concept being kept alive (in our city) by the Cameo Cinema alone where every Sunday they commit screen 1 to a double feature. There’s a great article on this very subject in SIGHT AND SOUND magazine this month where they reminisce about the heady days of the now extinct Scala Cinema in London, long famed for it’s eclectic and hand picked programmes that included some cracking doubles and all night horror-thons.
The Cameo has put on some good stuff too, a double Antonioni of BLOW UP and THE PASSENGER springs to mind and of course the time they showed GROUNDHOG DAY….. Then showed it again, god they’re clever. If you’re Edinburgh based, you could do a lot worse on a Sunday than breeze along at 1:30, not to see the light of day again until about 5 o’clock. This is particularly good in the dead of winter as it renders your daylight intake for that day to around 20 minutes.
Last night we turned my room into screen 1, Lauren picked the first picture and I selected a second that would hopefully (it’s all about keeping the kids happy after all) compliment her choice.
Lauren: SMALL TIME CROOKS (Woody Allen 2000)
Me: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Sam Wood 1935)
Much is said of Woody Allen’s later work being a sorry comparison to the halcyon ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN period. Whilst I agree that some of his recent work hasn’t been quite to the standard, as a whole, of his earlier pictures, I would argue the point that there’s enough good in his later work to justify the continuation of his filmmaking career. Two examples I can think of off the top of my head would be the wonderful dance scene between Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn at the end of EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (1996) or the Robin Williams “out of focus” scene in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) . These films are both over 10 years old of course but I still think they qualify as recent considering the length of his career. More on his post Millennium output in an upcoming post.
SMALL TIME CROOKS is the story of Ray (Woody Allen) and Frenchy Winkler (Tracy Ullman) who are a couple living in Manhattan. No real surprise there. Ray is a guy who has spent his life running scams, doing jobs and is basically, as the title of the picture suggests, a small time crook. We quickly learn that he’s spent time in the joint (Jail, done bird / porridge) as, on arriving home with a box of ulterior motive chocolates for the long suffering Frenchy in the first scene of the picture, reveals he wants to rob the local bank. Frenchy is vociferous in her complete ridiculing of this idea as he’s 1: Already spent time in jail and 2: involved and working with a less than skilled bunch of collaborators.
In one of the most beautifully photographed scenes in the film, shot on the rooftop just before sundown, he talks Frenchy into staking their life savings on the rental of a shop situated two doors along from the bank to use as a front for the upcoming heist.
How are they going to get into the bank? Think THE GREAT ESCAPE, ESCAPE TO VICTORY or THE NAVIGATOR.
As is usual in Ray’s life, the plan goes awry but the cookie business set up in the shop by Frenchy to conceal the highly shady goings on in the basement turns into an overnight success and becomes a massive money-maker for the couple. This is where Allen flips the picture on its head.
The second half is still comedic but serves as a veneer for a quite tragic parting of ways for Frenchy and Ray. Ray, being true to his roots does not let their new found wealth alter his outlook on life but Frenchy sees the affluence as a gateway to society, the key to being accepted by the upper classes. This is where Hugh Grant comes into the picture. He’s nothing more than Hugh Grant playing the typical Hugh Grant character in any other movie but it definately works here. His foppish mannerisms are in direct contrast to Ray’s, which drives a further wedge between the two as that’s the kind of man Frenchy wants to compliment her reinvented personality. What I love about this relationship dynamic is it’s the opposite of the one seen in MANHATTAN, still my favourite Woody Allen picture.
The scene below is an example of the changing styles, changing personas of Ray and Frenchy. Notice how Frenchy, as much as she tries, is obvious in her superficial attempts to become “one of them”. From wanting the truffles shaved thick, (check the look on the chefs face) to bragging to her guests about her fibre optic rug. Tracy Ullman is fantastic in this movie, as is the whole cast.
The second picture we watched was The Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Produced by then Hollywood wonderkid Irving Thalberg at MGM, who were famed for their musicals, this is a very different but at the same time very familiar Marx Brothers picture. For a start, the musical numbers are longer and more lavish, Lau gasped at the choreography in the number below where circle upon circle of dancers spin in different directions to stunning effect.
There is also a heightened sense of story in this film. As well as the Marx Brothers antics we have the story of Ricardo Baroni, an opera singer played by Alan Jones, struggling to be recognised as a talent and constantly in the shadow of the much revered Rodolfo Lassparri, played by Walter Woolf King. Baroni spends a good part of the picture fending of Lassparri who also has designs on his girl. The love interest is played by Kitty Carlisle who never had a huge movie career, only making 9 pictures. She does turn up in RADIO DAYS (1987) however, as well as being fairly active in both the theatre and opera. It should be noted that the Alan Jones part would usually have been played by Zeppo Marx, the straight man / romantic lead of the act. This was the first picture without him as he quit on account of his talents being under recognised.
In spite of long song and dance numbers, the film moves at a good pace with The Marx Brothers given more than enough room to flex their comedy muscles. There are some magical exchanges between Groucho (Playing Otis B. Driftwood) and Chico (Fiorello) including the scene below where the two discuss Baroni’s contract. Chico is Baroni’s friend and manager trying to cut a deal with wannabe opera mogul Otis B. Driftwood.
I can’t help but post another scene from this film, one of the greatest comedy moments in cinema history. Otis B. Driftwood has been given a less than palatial cabin for a trip to New York and has found Baroni, Fiorello and Tomasso (played by Harpo) stowed in his trunk…. it gets pretty tight in there.