July 14th 2005-
Good day to ye.
Let's be positive today. Nary a discouraging word, as they say.
O.K. I'm positive that Hollywood hasn't made ten movies as good and entertaining as "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" in the intervening 57 years since it was made. Yup, I'm positive.
Hollywood is in a slump, according to Variety. People don't plunk it down reflexively at the box office any more. Lots of head scratching up and down the Sunset Strip. Well, let me give you some hints, over there on the west coast, about why we're not buying as much of this piffle as previously: It's because it's crap.
It always was crap, I know. When I was a kid, TV was in black and white, and had three or four channels. You watched whatever was on it. Period. And if you were home sick from school, propped up with pillows in the bed, fortified with those wonder drugs, aspirin and ginger ale, the one treat you got was the 11 inch black and white TV at the foot of your bed, and bad movies all day long.
TV, with only those three or four channels, still didn't know how they could possibly fill all those hours. They'd show any drivel: Candlepin bowling for a couple of bucks, or maybe just a gift certificate. Community Auditions. Anyone who's ever seen Community Auditions can't watch American Idol. Once you've seen the spectacle of an overfed adolescent in a tutu twirling a baton to a lounge combo version of a Sousa march, nothing else will do.
But of all the dreck, Dialing for Dollars was king. Dialing for Dollars was a local show, where a bad radio announcer would host an interminable movie in the afternoon, and occasionally pause to pick bits of a shredded phonebook out of a rotating basket, and call the phone number on the scrap. At first, the available technology didn't even allow you to hear the person being called, making the tableau seem even stranger than it was. If the person was home, and watching the movie, and could identify the movie, and knew the exact amount of cash they were giving away, they won a few bucks. Think of those odds. The unintentional comedy factor was pretty high; picture watching, watching mind you, a bad emcee count on his fingers and intone: One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four Rings...
People would actually answer their phones back then, and talk to whoever was on the line. No call screening. No unlisted numbers. No cold call salesman. No answering machines yet. Hell, the host would still reach party lines occasionally back then. For you youngsters, a party line was a phone circuit that served several homes, because phone lines used to be precious, and expensive. The phone would ring slightly differently for each user, and your neighbors could pick up their phones and listen to your conversations if they felt like it. And so occasionally the host would be talking to three shut-ins at the same time, none of whom were watching his movie.
The host would mostly get elderly ladies, who didn't know what day it was, never mind what the movie was, and started talking to the guy as if they were restarting a conversation they had started in 1936, and he'd sit there, politely trying to get an interjection in edgewise, always failing, and looking at the camera like it was an oncoming freight train. Finally, he'd get the question out, and the women would say:
"What did you say your name was, again?"
And he'd always say: "Buh Bye" sweetly, and they'd add ten bucks to the till, and he'd PUT THE PHONE NUMBER BACK IN THE BIN. Try, try again, indeed.
The more upscale local station tried a bit of class by showing the same dreadful movies at midnight on the weekends, but with a host in a tuxedo. He'd stand on a set reminiscent of a Busby Berkley musical, in bow tie and tails, and try to find something interesting to say about the movie. There was a problem. The fellow hosting the show used to be Bozo the Clown on Saturday mornings, and we all knew it. And try as he might to be urbane, many of us would always look at him and smirk. That poor fellow spent his whole rest of his life trying to be suave and sophisticated, but the greasepaint and fright wig always showed somehow, like a tattoo you got when you were young and drunk, and regretted for every waking moment for the rest of your life.
Off topic perhaps, but I met his son once. I attended a party at the local junior college, the summer between high school and college. The college had always had the reputation as a place where wealthy people send their ne'er-do-well children to dry out and be babysat by the faculty, until they could ram them back into the real college that had expelled them for partying too much. My friends and I were just the poor local schlubs, very out of place, and must have looked like the dead end kids to these little inebriant fauntleroys. We were the guests of a lovely young lady who was dating a friend of mine. The movie host's son was there, drunk as a lord, and began hitting unmercifully on my friend's girlfriend, right in front of him. My friend could have disassembled the little blighter into his component limbs, and stacked them like cordwood if he'd had the mind to, but he was a gentle sort, and slow to anger. The little cretin eventually brought out what I'm sure he thought were his big guns: Do you know who my father is?
I butted in: "I sure do. He's Bozo!"
This was not the answer he was looking for. He withdrew.
Anyway, eventually you saw every movie ever made- good, bad or indifferent. Occasionally they'd show a good movie like "Blandings," by mistake perhaps. And you got a perspective on how hard it is to make a really good movie. It must be difficult, there's so many of them, but so few worth watching.
What I suspect, however, is that recently they're not really trying to entertain us anymore. They really don't seem to care that a vast majority of potential viewers, me included, don't need to see another movie about a hit man with a heart of gold. Forty five of them a year for the last ten years has fulfilled my need for comic murderers, thank you. I'd rather see stories about interesting and attractive people, like the Blandings.
"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" was made in 1948. It was essentially remade in the 1980s, with uneven effect, but still with enough of the original's luster to shine on through, as "The Money Pit." Tom Hanks and Diane from "Cheers" made a good comic team, and we own that one too and wqtch it occasionally. But Blandings is king.
Cary Grant is da bomb. Cary Grant is a movie star. Picture Tom Cruise sitting on a couch across from Jay Leno. That's a very small picture, even if you have widescreen television. Now picture Cary Grant sitting across from Johnny Carson. They're both too big for the screen, no matter how big it is.
Everybody in Hollywood is a homunculus compared to Cary Grant. He's dead, and in black and white, and my wife still reminds me: "You know, Cary Grant is a babe."
Grrr. Yeah, I know.
And unlike modern actors, he can act. Not Olivier acting. I mean, "Hamlet" isn't in danger of breaking out in the middle of one of his movies. But you only need so much Hamlet in your life; somebody tell a joke, will ya? Cary Grant knew how to.
And Myrna Loy was a babe. She had the looks of the woman you would marry, and stay that way. She started her career as a vamp, but morphed into a matron eventually. The vamp always showed, though, like a glimpse of garter, and I still remind my wife: "Myrna was a babe, you know."
Grrr. Yeah, I know, she says.
And Myrna knew how to deliver her lines for their full comic effect. Most actresses today sound like they're reading that shredded phonebook I mentioned earlier, aloud. Without their glasses.
The story is and interesting cultural artifact about city folks building their house out in the countryside. It's funny to hear them talk about Western Connecticut like it's out on the prairie, and bucolic as Vermont. Mr. Blanding's house would fetch tens of millions of dollars today. But the story is universal, for anybody that builds a house, and raises children, and works at a job. The humor is the sort that's a lost art these days. It's quiet, and self effacing, and subtle. Mark Twain used to rail against people that "told jokes." He knew how to be funny, which is to tell a story in a humorous way, and avoided punchline fodder. And a movie, a comic movie, is just telling a story in a humorous way, isn't it? It should be. This one is.
And it's interesting to look through the actors who have small parts in the movie. They all know what they're doing, and push the story along nicely. Only a a fetishist would recognize more than a few of them by name, but they all look familiar. Then you look up their resumes, and are amazed:
Louise Beavers, who plays their maid, and comes up with the advertising slogan that pays for that house, was in 163 movies!
Harry Shannon, the well driller, who has the best scenes in the movie, appeared in 149 movies. I vaguely remember him shooting at John Wayne, or shooting at the someone else with John Wayne, a few times.
Nestor Paiva, who plays an appraiser for 30 seconds in the movie, was in 186 movies.
And Jason Robards (Senior) knew how to work. He appeared in no fewer than 206 movies, and then had a son to be in a few hundred more.
And you know why they worked like that. They were professional, and people that knew how to write and produce movies knew enough to use accomplished and dependable actors, and tried mightily to entertain us. They still do entertain us, though they're all dead now.
It's the live people in Hollywood that have forgotten how, or never knew.