Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Laurel & Hardy Project #6: Jewish Prudence

The next film in the set is the first (only?) to star neither Stan Laurel nor Oliver Hardy.  Instead, it was written by Laurel and directed by Leo McCarey, the third most important member of the team.  The film stars comedian Max Davidson, who started in features in 1915 (he had a small role in DW Griffith's Intolerance) and lasted until 1945 (the Clark Gable film Adventure was his last appearance).  At the Hal Roach Studios, Davidson specialized in a comic Jewish character, hence the title of this short, which for some reason is changed to simply Prudence on the title card of what I assume is a rereleased print.  Removing the pun makes the name of the film pretty nonsensical, since the movie's about a court case, not moderation.  Maybe they changed it for anti-semitic reasons to make the film palatable to a non-Jewish audience, I don't know.  Davidson's character is a bit of a caricature, but a sympathetic one, certainly not any more offensive than any random five minutes of Jon Stewart or Larry David.

That last comparison is particularly apt here, because the film is a perfectly structured twenty minute comedy, the kind David, the best comedy writer of the last 25 years, has mastered.   Thus this film highlights Laurel's ability not just as a performer but as a writer.  It was Laurel who was the driving creative force behind the team, Hardy was much more laid back (and/or lazy), contrary to their on-screen personae, and I expect to see that their later films will show the kind of carefully designed structure that this film displays.  Like a good episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's built around multiple plot threads that seem disconnected until they neatly unify at the end.  Also like those TV shows, the main character is a scoundrel, willing to lie and cheat to get ahead, while drawing the line at actually hurting any people (insurance fraud, though, is OK).

Davidson is a middle class father with two sons and a daughter.  The daughter wants to marry a lawyer, but Davidson withholds his permission until the young man can win his first case.  He wants the lazy and goofy sons to get rich, so he buys one of them a truck.  But the kid doesn't know how to drive and manages to destroy an entire set (memorably taking out half a building) before crashing the truck into another car.  At the scene of the accident, Davidson gets his other son to fake an injury, hoping to make some money on insurance and sue the other driver.

Later, Davidson and his son attempt to convince some insurance men (one of whom is played by the great character actor of the 30s and 40s, Eugene Pallette, most recognizable as Friar Tuck from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood) that the son is paralyzed by lying him on a couch and hiding his good leg in a hollow cushion and replacing it with a wooden one, which they then stick with needles and such.  This, of course, goes comically wrong, for a while the son has three legs, another time he's almost caught dancing (his dream is to be a professional Charleston dancer).  Eventually, Davidson and the son end up in court (suing that driver), where the daughter's boyfriend wins the case for the defense (exposing Davidson as a liar and fraud) and gets the girl.  Davidson drives away in disgust, only to have his car hit by the truck driven by his other son.

The film is pretty funny throughout, the two major set pieces, the truck destruction and the wooden leg, are slapstick gems, but what elevates the film and makes it the best of the shorts I've seen thus far, is that escalating series of callbacks that brings everything to such a nifty conclusion.  At the end it all seems so obvious and inevitable, but that's the genius of it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This Week in Rankings

My watches and rewatches from the past week, with each film's rank on The Big List.

In Old Arizona - 14, 1928
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang - 7, 1932
Captain Blood -12, 1935
A Star is Born - 13, 1937
The Devil and Miss Jones - 21, 1941
The More the Merrier - 13, 1943
Objective: Burma! - 9, 1945
The House on 92nd Street -  22, 1945
All the King's Men - 29, 1949

Along the Great Divide - 18, 1951
The House on Telegraph Hill - 27, 1951
The Bad and the Beautiful - 13, 1952
Marty - 32, 1955
Gigi - 17, 1958
Oliver! - 17, 1968
Midnight Cowboy - 14, 1969

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Now that the Oscars are done with, it's past time I release a best Films of 2011 list.  This is even more preliminary than usual this year, as I haven't had much chance to see new movies and I missed the Vancouver Film festival for the first time in several years.  Thus, I've only seen 24 films from 2011 so far, but that will change and this list will be updated as it does.  I've included links to reviews of the films I've written about.  Eventually there will be something for everything, but that's a long-term project.

2. Drive
3. The Muppets
4. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown
5. Hugo
8. The Adventures of Tintin
9. Winnie the Pooh
11. Moneyball
12. Super 8
13. The Guard
14. Thor
15. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
16. Fragments: Surviving Pieces of Lost Films
17. Attack the Block
18. Don't Expect Too Much
19. The Adjustment Bureau
20. Page One: Inside the New York Times
21. Cedar Rapids
22. Rango
23. Captain America

Oscarfever! 2012: Predictions and Endy Award Winners

It's once again time for my annual highly mediocre, guaranteed to finish in the top 5 but definitely not win your pool Oscar Predictions.  As always, my guess are paired with my own personal award for each category, The Endy.  The Endys follow different rules than the Oscars because only actual 2011 films are eligible, which excludes such luminaries as Certified Copy, Meek's Cutoff, Carlos, Mysteries of Lisbon, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and many others which all first saw release in 2010.  This year was an unusually light one for me movie-wise, as the Best of the Year list (to be posted this evening) will attest, and some of the Endy categories (I haven't seen any 2011 foreign language films!) are a bit lacking.

Best Picture:

Endy: The Tree of Life
Oscar: The Artist

Best Director:

Endy: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Oscar: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist


Endy: Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
Oscar: Jean Dujardin, The Artist


Endy: Marion Cotillard, Midnight in Paris
Oscar: Viola Davis, The Help

Supporting Actor:

Endy: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Oscar: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Supporting Actress:

Endy: Helen McCrory, Hugo
Oscar: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist

Original Screenplay:

Endy: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, The Muppets
Oscar: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Adapted Screenplay:

Endy: Craig Schultz & Stephan Pastis, Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown
Oscar: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants

Foreign Language Film:

Endy: NA
Oscar: A Separation

Documentary Feature:

Endy: Fragments: Surviving Pieces of Lost Films
Oscar: Paradise Lost 3

Animated Feature:

Endy: Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown
Oscar: Rango

Film Editing:

Endy: The Tree of Life
Oscar: The Artist


Endy: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
Oscar: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life

Art Direction:

Endy: Hugo
Oscar: Hugo

Costume Design:

Endy: Midnight in Paris
Oscar: The Artist


Endy: Super 8
Oscar: The Iron Lady

Sound Mixing:

Endy: The Tree of Life
Oscar: Hugo

Sound Editing:

Endy: Drive
Oscar: War Horse

Visual Effects:

Endy: Hugo
Oscar: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Original Score:

Endy: Alexandre Desplat, The Tree of Life
Oscar: Ludovic Bource, The Artist

Original Song:

Endy: "Man or Muppet", The Muppets
Oscar: "Man or Muppet", The Muppets

Documentary Short:

Oscar: Saving Face

Animated Short:

Oscar: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Live Action Short:

Oscar: The Shore


Endy: The Tree of Life