Happy New Year, dear readers! The Retro Set wishes all of you a very happy 2015 full of health, happiness, and of course, movies. For our first Warner Archive Instant column of 2015, we are taking a look back at the archive’s offerings from 2014 and have rounded up some of our favorite discoveries. The following are hardly “great” movies, but the experience of watching them made a big enough impact to stay with us all year. We hope the same will be true for you.
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This week we bring you three films that couldn’t be more different in they tried. There’s the child from hell in the deliriously campy cult classic The Bad Seed, Rita Moreno as a hack singer in a gay bath house called The Ritz, and Audrey Hepburn as a romantic young cellist with a yen for over-the-hill playboy Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.
Wade’s Pick: The Bad Seed (1956)
Filed under the “So Bad It’s Good” department, The Bad Seed is based on the (then) shocking play, which itself was based on the (then) shocking book about the creeping dread a mother experiences when she slowly realizes her blonde-haired, pony-tailed angel is a sociopathic killer. Little Rhoda Penmark (little Patty McCormack) comes home after a boy mysteriously dies at a school picnic. Her worried mother, Christine Penmark, (Nancy Kelly) questions Rhoda about the boy’s death, and finds her daughter strangely cool about the whole affair. Further investigation reveals many people (children, neighbors, dogs) fear Rhoda, and her penchant for lying and worse … for violence. The more Christine digs, the more she discovers a path of unexplained thefts and deaths that leads with bloody footprints to cute, polite little Rhoda.
This overwrought melodrama brought most of the stage actors to the screen, in a somewhat successful (depending on your expectations) film adaptation that too often shows its stage roots with a claustrophobic, one room setting. Still, Nancy Kelly as Christine gives such an “over-the-top,” “anything goes” performance, it’s a marvel to watch while hoping she doesn’t pop a blood vessel before the credits roll. No spoilers, but the Hays office predictably changed the ending in a laughable way. The biggest kicker of all is the “curtain call” the film replicates from the play, with a painful “all is forgiven” routine between mother and daughter that will make you “spit-take” and maybe even cough up a popcorn kernel.
If Baby Jane is your speed, you absolutely must check out The Bad Seed.
Carley’s Pick: THE RITZ (1976)
Ensemble comedy is a very easy thing to get wrong, yet director Richard Lester seems to have been born for nothing else. He corralled the vitality and talent of The Beatles into the groundbreaking A Hard Day’s Night, and managed to keep Zero Mostel on track amidst the raucous anarchy of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The man knows what he’s doing, a fact that is obvious with his curious ’70s comedy The Ritz, starring Rita Moreno and Jack Weston. And F. Murray Abraham. And Treat Williams. And Jerry Stiller. And … you get the picture. (There’s also a walk-on by a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger.)
“The Ritz” is the name of an in-the-know bath house for New York City’s gay community, a demographic to which straitlaced Jack Weston does not belong. But Weston is dodging his incensed brother-in-law (Stiller) who is trying to kill him. Stiller has assigned a prepubescent-voiced private eye to follow him (Treat Williams. I kid you not), and Weston is certain that the The Ritz is the last place on earth anyone would think to look for him. Of course, he’s wrong, and what ensues is a series of you-gotta-be-kidding-me misadventures straight out of a silent slapstick comedy: from Keystone Cop-ish foot chases to mistaken identity ruses. It’s a hot mess of crazy, this film, but Lester tries his best to keep the action as tight as possible. He tries very hard to reel everything in, but he does appear to lose the reins by the third act as the actors have absolutely take over– wreaking havoc and not giving a damn about it.
The overt ridiculousness of it all is actually OK due to the fact that the cast is obviously having a riot of a good time. When Rita Moreno marches onscreen, rain-soaked, with an issue of Variety over her head, mumbling “Fucking weatherman! Little maricon” you know you’re in for something … different. Turns out, Moreno is the main reason to watch this film. She is a delicious hellcat as the hack nightclub singer who performs in the bath house nightclub (yes, it has a nightclub) and she blows everyone else out of the water, making you wish the film was more about her instead and less about Weston/Stiller. (OK. Moreno and F. Murray Abraham. They seriously needed their own ’70s sitcom.)
But The Ritz comes a disclaimer. It is important to remember that this film was made in 1976, before the AIDS crisis, and at a time when many films attempted to address the homosexual community with toe-in-the-water hesitation, and most often with ‘comedic’ stereotyping meant to ease into the subject through laughter. Not every GLTB film in the 70s was a Death in Venice or a Cage Aux Folles. Therefore, The Ritz is very much a product of its time, and should be viewed as such. Which means, yes, the flamboyance of the F. Murray Abraham character embodies the absolute worst of all the gay stereotypes of that era … and yet, in one wonderful moment, he predicts the future in one liberating yawlp. Jack Weston is reticent on using the “g” word, explaining to Abraham that he isn’t … well, you know. Abraham stops. Looks at him with a bemused smile. “That you’re not what?” he asks, inhales and screams the word “GAY” at the top of his lungs. He then smiles, triumphantly. “See? It’s not a hard word to say after all, is it?”
Jill’s Pick: Love in the Afternoon (1957)
Billy Wilder had a knack for giving sophistication, class, and sentimentality to situations that, under typical circumstances, would be considered sordid. In his 1957 romantic drama Love in the Afternoon, Wilder cleverly dodges the Production Code to tell the story of a young woman’s “sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight” affair with a much older playboy. Our lovers, Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) and Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), meet under rather strange circumstances. Ariane’s father, Claude (Maurice Chevalier), is a private detective specializing in cheating spouse cases. He lives and works out of the apartment he shares with Ariane, his only child. Claude has recently been hired by a distraught husband who suspects his wife is having an affair with someone in Paris. The wife is involved with the notorious ladies man Flannagan, who makes regular trips to Paris for business…and pleasure. Claude is very familiar with Flannagan and his exploits, as he has been involved with many other women that Claude has been hired to investigate. Once the distraught husband, Monsieur X (hilariously played by John McGiver) is told of the affair, he confides in Claude that he is going to kill Flannagan. Despite Claude’s efforts to protect his daughter from the seedy goings-on of his business, she overhears Monsieur X’s plan and decides to warn Flannagan.
All it takes is one face-to-face with Flannagan to send her in a romantic tailspin. The two set a date to meet, in his hotel suite, for the following afternoon. To protect her identity, Ariane refuses to disclose her name, so Flannagan gives her a nickname: Thin Girl. Ariane falls in love with Flannagan, but she must never let him know, because the commitment will scare him away. To keep him interested in her (and jealous), Ariane portrays herself as Flannagan’s female equivalent. She recounts the elaborate details of affairs with a multitude of men, ranging from an importer/exporter…to a bullfighter…to an artist. Of course she can weave these tales because she has access to a rather impressive “library” in her father’s office.
Love in the Afternoon is a charming film that is romantic, heartbreaking, and at times quite funny. The Parisian location, story, and music are all reminiscent of many of the films made by the great Ernst Lubitsch. This is no coincidence; Wilder co-wrote screenplays for Lubitsch comedies such as Ninotchka and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Wilder’s Afternoon is the perfect homage to one of the best. Audrey Hepburn is at her most charming as the young, naive Ariane. She is perfectly cast for the role. As for Coop’s Frank Flannagan, well, let’s just say he doesn’t have the same romantic appeal as he did in his earlier days. Not to mention the huge age gap between him and Hepburn (why did they always pair her with the old guard? Maybe she was just too sophisticated for her contemporaries). Supposedly Wilder’s first choice for Flannagan was Cary Grant, but he was never able to convince Grant to take the role…or any role for that matter. Wilder once commented on Grant’s “unavailability”: “It was a disappointment to me that [Grant] never said yes to any picture I offered him. He didn’t explain why. He had very strong ideas about what parts he wanted.” Oh, what could have been (yes, he was older, too. But Cary Grant never really aged on-screen). Even Grant-less, Love in the Afternoon is a sweet movie that, if you weren’t already, will make you fall in love with Audrey. And the way she looks at Coop will make you forget the not-so-good casting.