Tuesday, December 31, 2013

POP ALWAYS PAYS (1940) – A Review

The always enthusiastic Leon Errol plays the titular character here, “Pop” Henry Brewster, an overly protective father who refuses to let his daughter Mary (Effie Anderson) marry Jeff Thompson (Dennis O’Keefe) unless Jeff proves he’s left his spendthrift ways behind by saving up $1000. If Jeff does that, Pop also promises to give the young couple $1000 to help them get started in their life together.

Of course, Pop doesn’t believe Jeff will ever be able to save that much money up – but he does, and catches Pop short personally and financially. This sets in motion a fine little farce that involves a “stolen” bracelet, a bad check, and a great deal of empty oyster cans.

Let’s be honest: Nothing in the script here is particularly original or inspired. (The script is by Charles E. Roberts, who would go on to write a number of the Mexican Spitfire scripts – a series that also featured Errol. Leslie Goodwins, who directed this, also directed that series.) But, even though Pop’s plot and many of the gags are familiar, the script does include some nice characterizations and a lot of laughs within the film’s 67 minute running time.

Much credit for this must be given to the cast, who do uniformly good or better work. Errol, never one to underplay, is a little over the top here, but always interesting to watch. O’Keefe, who usually struggles and often stumbles with comedy, is in fine form here. Dependable supporting players like Marjorie Gateson, Tom Kennedy, and the always amusing Walter Catlett also do their part to raise this B picture up closer to an A in laughs.

Though B movies like this were essentially cranked out without a great deal being expected of them, every so often, the system worked to produce a little gem like this one. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. And I was even more surprised the first time I saw it, because it was an unexpected second feature on a VHS tape of The Affairs of Annabel (1938 – also RKO) I had rented years ago. There was no mention of Pop on the cover anywhere, but when Annabel ended, Pop just started. It was the only time I ever had the experience of finding a whole second movie “hidden” on a VHS tape.

For the record, I thought The Affairs of Annabel was a very mediocre film, so Pop was a very welcome reward after having sat through that disappointing effort. Depending on what film Pop was paired with in its initial theatrical release, it may not have been the first time it “saved” another movie.
In any case, if you like any of the players here, or just enjoy comedies from the 30s and 40s in general, I recommend Pop Always Pays wholeheartedly. It manages to spin corn into gold – or something like that.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


THE DEAD (2010) - A Review
For clarity: In 1987, John Huston released a film called The Dead. This is not about that film.

Anyway, my wife and I just saw a film from 2010, called The Dead, and it's a fabulous, old school zombie movie set in, and filmed in, Africa. It was written and co-directed by the Ford Brothers, Jonathan and Howard, and if you like zombies and haven't seen this, get going. It's good. Very good. And as someone who loves zombie movies, I feel somewhat foolish for never having even heard of it until recently.  

First, some of the technical basics. As mentioned above, this is an old school, classic style zombie film, with slow shuffling zombies, not the rabid, running kind that have become the norm. Personally, I find zombies frightening because they're slow. It's the whole idea of creeping dread. You can run and run and run...But whenever you finally stop running, they're still there. Ever...so...slowly...gaining...on...you. Modern fast zombies are less fear-inducing, or at least less distinctive. I run, you run, in The Night of the Lepus giant bunny rabbits run. Any lunatic in a movie can run. But only zombies have the creepy confidence to simply shuffle.

Also, The Dead was shot on real, honest to goodness 35mm film, and most of the effects were done in camera, and without a lot of CGI. This, combined with the amazing locations (Ghana and Burkina Faso) make this film a sort of beautiful/dreadful travelogue. I don't know if the press about this being the first zombie movie shot (almost entirely) in Africa is true or not, but some of the landscapes captured are truly breathtaking.

It's a good thing the visuals are as compelling as they are, because much of The Dead passes by without much if any dialogue. Certainly very little of the plot is actually dialogue driven - the story is told pictorially and through the actions of the characters. This is not a weakness, but rather a testament to the skill that the Ford Brothers brought to the project.

Like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), this film just sort of jumps right in: The dead are coming back to life, and things look bad, very bad. No explanation is given for this, or even attempted; it's just a given. And, like in NOTLD, the zombies seem to be everywhere.

But much of The Dead plays out like an inverted version of NOTLD. Whereas in the earlier film, the main character is a black man (Duane Jones), trapped in a single house and surrounded by mostly white zombies, here, the main character is a white man (Rob Freeman) who is at sea in the wide open spaces of Africa, surrounded by mostly black zombies. (Though there is a nice bit - no pun intended - with some white missionaries.) Just as it was impossible not to read some sort of political statement into Romero's film in 1968, it's also impossible not to ponder what political messages the Ford Brothers may have been trying to insert in their film. Certainly the sight of a white man running around Africa shooting black people (even if they are zombies) is one intended to rouse some sort of broader discussion.

Whatever the case though, politics or not, I really enjoyed this movie. Though it might seem like it would be a more tense and terrifying situation to be trapped in a house surrounded by zombies, I think this film makes a good case for the extreme terror that can come from wide open spaces. Where do you take shelter? Where do you sleep? What's behind that tree, over that hill, around that corner...There's no real relief from the tension. And there's almost always someone or something shuffling around in the background, getting closer, slowly closer...

And speaking of getting closer...Now that we've seen this, and enjoyed it so much, my wife and I very much look forward to seeing the sequel the Ford Brothers have made, The Dead: India (2013). We watched the trailer online - it looks pretty amazing, too! Go, Fords! I can't wait to see what country they visit next.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

THE COUNSELOR (2013) - A Review Revisited

Now that we’re nearing the end of the year, and Oscar ballots are starting to be returned, I wanted to revisit a film that was unfairly vilified and widely written off when it opened earlier this year. That film is The Counselor.
Let me start by saying that earlier this year we kept seeing the trailer for The Counselor every time we went to the movies - and I hated it every time. I didn't get a sense of what the movie was about, the bland title told me nothing, and it just seemed like a lot of name actors (all of whom I consider overrated and/or uninteresting) involved with something seedy and none too compelling. It left me anxious for the film to come out, just so I wouldn't see the trailer anymore.

Now, stick with me as I digress to tell you that my personal definition of film noir is a film about a character who is driven to self-destruction by obsession. That obsession could be a woman, revenge, money - whatever. But it ends badly for the leading character (or characters).

So, I am pleased and surprised to report that The Counselor is a well done, and very bleak, modern noir. My wife was apparently more intrigued by the trailer than I was, and saw it on her own. She liked it enough to see it again, and take me with her. Despite my initial misgivings and disinterest, I'm glad to have seen it, but still wish it had had a better trailer.

Still, even if that had been the case, this is a film that is dark and bleak enough to have flopped with the best trailer in the world. Because The Counselor is a story about the amazing numbers of people who are complicit in the distribution, selling and, I'm talking to you, America, consumption of illegal drugs, which also makes them a party to incredible levels of violence and cruelty, both here and abroad. Like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a would-be teen slasher film we also saw earlier this year, The Counselor holds the ugly mirror up to America, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems America doesn't want to look at itself in the ugly mirror. Both films somewhat upend genre conventions. Both failed at the box office. But both films are worth seeing.

In many respects, The Counselor resembles one of my favorite noirs, Act of Violence (1948), in which Van Heflin's comfortable life is almost instantly turned upside down by a decision he made earlier, when he had been a prisoner of war. In that film, chaos comes in the form of Robert Ryan, who merely has to appear and Heflin's life implodes.

 In The Counselor, Michael Fassbender is the title character (who has no name), a lawyer who makes a decision to get involved with a drug deal to make a pile of money - only to have things (of course) go horribly wrong, and all that piles up are problems and bodies. Unlike Van Heflin's character, who only had to worry about Robert Ryan, Fassbender finds himself in a situation in which he doesn't know who to trust, what to do, or where to go. He thought he was going to make some fast, big money; instead, he quickly winds up in over his head. For him, paranoia is just the first stop on a road that leads to sorrow and death. Late in the film, Ruben Blades character sums up Fassbender's situation (and offers up a good definition of film noir) when he tells him, "Life is not going to take you back."

It's a great line in what is actually a pretty great film. The performances are strong. A great deal of attention has been paid to details - a too-large shirt collar here, a dirty fingernail there. Multiple characters in multiple locations are presented in a way that keeps things clear, and keeps the story moving forward, in the very strong script by Cormac McCarthy. I even noted the nice, Saul Bass-like credits at the beginning of the film. All in all, a nice piece of work. Dark, yes. Depressing? Possibly. But still, a film that engages and perhaps provokes some thought. The Counselor is the film that the much more successful (and much, much more gorenographic) Prisoners (2013) wishes it was.

Despite the fact that The Counselor is a very dark and violent film, I personally don’t think it’s dangerous the way that something like Prisoners is. In Prisoners, the audience is meant to sympathize with, identify with, Hugh Jackman’s vengeful father. We’re supposed to root for him to get the (assumed) “bad guy” to talk, even if it means Jackman has to beat and torture him – which he does, at great length. Though it’s never stated as such, it’s clear that we’re supposed to believe that the hoped for ends (Jackman getting his kidnapped daughter back) will eventually justify the means (Jackman torturing the info out of the person he has kidnapped) used. Of course, in many respects, there is no difference at all between the “good guy” and the apparent “bad guy” in this scenario.

But in The Counselor, no one seems to be operating under any illusion that they’re doing anything other than something morally wrong - but financially lucrative. There may be no “good” character to root for, but we are at least spared the fraud of a villain pretending to be (or presented to be) a hero of any sort. The dark heart of the film was neatly summed up for me during John Leguizamo’s unbilled cameo, when his character explains that presence of a body in a barrel included in a shipment of drugs counts as a practical joke among drug smugglers. Does it need to be said that in any other context, such an item would count as a horror, not a joke?

Though, as stated above, I am not a fan of any of the actors in The Counselor per se, I thought they all did excellent work here. Cameron Diaz is open about her predatory ways – so open that those around her don’t seem to entirely believe her. Javier Bardem is in over his head and knows it, but is trying to enjoy the ride. Even Brad Pitt is good, with his nervous, ever-shifting eyes.

On the other hand, I am a fan of several of the actors in Prisoners, but, overall, they had little to do. Jackman rages. Terrence Howard stands around looking stunned. And Melissa Leo has to act through one of the worst, most amazingly fake “old lady” make-up jobs I’ve ever seen.

Prisoners tries to both build audience identification with a violent character, while at the same time giving the audience the “out” of being able to say they’re not culpable in any of the violence – just the crazy, violent individuals out there are.

But The Counselor implicates a whole lot of people in the business of making, shipping, selling, and using drugs – as well as those (like the Counselor himself) who protect and defend them legally. This is a much wider net, and one that’s harder for the audience to escape from. At one point in the film, Pitt’s character, Westray, asks the Counselor if he’s ever seen a snuff film. The Counselor answers no. Westray then asks if he would see a snuff film. Again, the Counselor says no. Westray replies, “You might want to think about that the next time you do a line.”


RARE EXPORTS (2010) - A Review
Perhaps I should start by saying I don’t do Christmas. I’ve often joked that every year at Halloween I become Jewish and stay that way until the New Year – just to be sure. That being the case, generally I’m not a big one for Christmas movies.
But this year, our local independent theater played a Christmas movie that was well worth seeing. I’m talking about the up-and-coming cult Christmas favorite from Finland, Rare Exports (2010). This is a film I recommend seeking out no matter what time of year it is.
I went into this knowing just a bare (and somewhat incorrect, as it turned out) sketch of the plot, and assumed it would be a somewhat campy creepshow. Well, oops! It is, in fact, a very engaging and polished creepshow, with occasional touches of dry humor, and is very much more spooky than kooky.
The plot (minus some spoilers) goes essentially like this: Evil corporate interests find the site where the actual physical remains of Santa are buried (Korvatunturi Mountain), and start digging. Only, it turns out that, despite being buried for centuries, Santa’s not dead (“There’s a heartbeat!”) and, once his burial mound has been breached, the children in the nearby village start disappearing. Santa, it seems, is not the jovial, child-friendly personality we’ve been led to believe he is.
Now, I don’t know if some or any of the supposedly ancient lore about Santa presented here is real, but I do know that the creativity and talent that went into making this film is. Co-writer and director Jalmari Helander has turned out a film that is original, scary, dryly funny, and visually striking – all on a budget of around $3 million dollars. (And Hollywood has taken notice, since next year we can see his “big” picture debut, Big Game, an action film starring the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson - as the President of the United States - as well as the young star of Rare Exports, Onni Tommila.)
Rare Exports straddles a couple of genres that don’t often end up in the same neighborhood. On one hand, with young Tommila as the main character and the hero, this is very much a kid’s film, full of adults that have to learn to believe what the children already know. On the other hand, this is a dark and somewhat disturbing horror film, with a fair amount of blood and some genuinely creepy moments. It’s not a grim film, but it is spiritual kin to the darkest of Grimm’s fairy tales. I think that children below a certain age would find it pretty upsetting. But for kids who are all grown up, and who aren’t sensitive about the portrayal of Christmas (Fox News viewers beware!) this is a film that offers much to enjoy.
I need to say it again: I was so struck by the creativity of the storytelling here. It is in such stark contrast to the soul-deadening formulaic crop of crap that American studios churn out so relentlessly. Yes, there are explosions here. Yes, there is some CGI work here. But it’s done in the service of a genuinely original vision, not some remake with a number at the end of the title. Hopefully Helander will be able to maintain some creative control of his projects as he moves up in the world, and not become just another talented foreign filmmaker that ends up making studio slop for Hollywood. We’ll see.
In the meantime, I can’t recommend this film enough. Yeah, you missed it for Christmas this year, but it’d make a great holiday gift – or viewing party! – for next year.
MOVIE MATH FOR RARE EXPORTS: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) plus The Gate (1987) plus the first 10 minutes of The City of Lost Children (1995) divided by Aki Kaurismaki equals Rare Exports.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I was saddened by the recent death of Eleanor Parker. I was very saddened by the recent death of Audrey Totter. And now, Peter O'Toole has died, and the news hit me like a punch in the belly. O'Toole was one of my favorite actors, my favorite artists, and losing him truly does feel like a loss to the world.

To be sure, his death (at age 81) isn't that surprising. His history of carousing and unhealthy behavior is already legendary, and he has been clearly, visibly frail for at least the last decade. But still...His talent was so very much larger than life, it could lead one to have hope that such a fierce talent would somehow sustain, somehow keep going for...If not forever, at least for longer. Now he is no longer. But what a legacy he has left behind.

But let me begin by speaking heresy: Despite my deep appreciation for his work overall, I am not particularly a fan of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Yes, yes - I know it's supposed to be his keynote performance, and a great film. I'm not denying that, or the film's place in cinema history. (It was one of the first films I showed when I had my Classic Matinee series at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Washington years ago.) Though I can happily watch movies all the day and all of the night, I have never done well with long films - and Lawrence, at nearly four hours, is a very long film indeed. It will be discussed and examined everywhere for all eternity, so I won't dwell on it here.

And, let's also be honest: Like any artist, Peter O'Toole had projects that are best left unremarked and barely remembered. How to Steal a Million (1966) is a would-be lightweight comedy caper that drags like a car with three flats and is about as light and airy as an unleavened poundcake. Which is still better than Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Rainbow Thief (1990), which I couldn't even finish. King Ralph (1991) and a little gem called Caligula (1979) are also ones that O'Toole himself probably didn't keep on his resume for too terribly long.

But when he had material that fit him, he could be radiant, transcendent, immortal. As I've thought about O'Toole and his body of work over the last twenty-four hours, it struck me that the films of his that I enjoy the most, and that I think show him at his best, are all stories that allow his character(s) to make a broad arc from mirth to madness.

In The Ruling Class (1972), O'Toole plays Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who is considered quite mad, simply because he believes he is Jesus, and wanders the family estate preaching peace among men. This type of behavior is quite unacceptable to his family, and, long story short, by the end of the film, he is "cured." Jack is back to being Jack - Jack the Ripper, that is. There is more to it than that, of course, but the brilliant screenplay by Peter Barnes (based on his play) allows O'Toole to not only run riot, but also to run through a full range of human emotions and motivations (from good to evil) and even to sing and dance a little. It's a big, big role, bursting with energy and big ideas, and I can't think of anyone but O'Toole who could have done it. The last scene, in which Jack ascends to the House of Lords, and we see the world as he sees it - his fellow Lords are all cobweb covered corpses - is one of the most chilling scenes ever. And O'Toole conveys both the wonder and the horror of the moment almost entirely with his eyes - there is no dialogue, just a close-up of his face.

Nearly a decade later, O'Toole made The Stunt Man (1980), a film about making films. He played Eli Cross, the director of the film within the film, who puts the title character, a stunt man played by Steve Railsback, through his paces. Cross makes an excellent stand-in for Hollywood, half Angel, half Devil, forever beckoning Railsback's character deeper into a world of sex, violence and make-believe. Eli Cross is not so much a director as a manipulator, and O'Toole plays him to the hilt, charming as can be one minute, cold as ice the next.

However, my favorite O'Toole film, and one of my very favorite films, period, is My Favorite Year (1982). It's a film I've probably watched at least once every year since it came out. Though some find it corny, or old-fashioned, or overly sentimental, I think it's a near perfect film, utterly charming and very funny. As the drunken, has-been movie star Alan Swann (loosely based on Errol Flynn), O'Toole, already showing the ravages of time, is in his element, working from a strong script, and supported by a great cast. Once again, this is a role that is difficult to imagine anyone else playing. Even Peter O'Toole doesn't so much play Swann as inhabit him. The role allows him to range from nearly full-on slapstick to drunken tragedy, and he does it all without missing a beat. I personally think that in many ways it's his best work. The fact that he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the film bears this out. My Favorite Year is, at the end of the day, very much a comedy, and it is extremely rare for actors to get Oscar nominations for performances in comedies. (Ben Kingsley, who played the title role in Ghandi, won Best Actor that year, so O'Toole didn't really have a chance.)

Though there are many great lines from My Favorite Year, the scene that always gets me, the part where I cry every single time I see the film, comes near the end. Swann, drunk and in danger of being deported, has seemingly blown his last shot at redemption - a guest appearance on a comedy TV program. Said program is currently being demolished by local racketeers, on live TV, and the young writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) who got Swann signed for the show has come looking for the washed-up swashbuckler, hoping he'll help, hoping that he'll do something. Swann, afraid, refuses, and I think the dialogue that follows sums up the curious and emotional relationship that exists between performers and their audience:

 Benjy: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?

Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I'm flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I'm not that silly goddamned hero. I never was!

Benjy: To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don't tell me this is you life-size. I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them. And let me tell you something: You couldn't have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you you had that courage! Nobody's that good an actor. You are that silly goddamn hero!

So if the roles that Peter O'Toole so memorably and immortally inhabited are larger than life, it's probably because the man himself was in many ways larger than life. When he truly burned, he burned bright, and the lights and shadows he brought to life will beguile and entrance people for as long as there is a human race. Coming from humble roots, Peter O'Toole was truly one of the greats. As Alan Swann so memorably said in My Favorite Year, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" Peter O'Toole was both, and we are richer for having had him among us.

Rest in peace, Mr. OToole. Those silly goddamn heroes (and villains) meant a lot to me. Thank you.
December 16th, 2013


Following closely on the heels of the passing of Eleanor Parker comes the loss of one of my favorite Bad Girls, Audrey Totter. She just died at the age of 95, and just a week shy of her 96th birthday, which certainly shows that being Bad doesn't necessarily shorten your lifespan.

Usually very blonde, and often playing someone very, very bad, Audrey Totter was always very enjoyable to watch. Though there were other dangerous, bad blondes in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, Audrey was the one for me. And even though she never really made it to A-list stardom, she did more than alright in her onscreen career, finding places in several undisputed classics.

After a supporting role in the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Totter's career kicked into gear, and she followed up with leads in the underrated High Wall (1947) and Lady in the Lake (also 1947). Lady in the Lake had Robert Montgomery top-billed, and he directed it as well, but, since it was shot from the point of view of his character (Phillip Marlowe, private eye), he got little onscreen time, which made second-billed Audrey, for all intents and purposes, the central star of the film. She was more than up to the task.

But what is probably her finest hour, and best film, came in 1949, when she co-starred with Robert Ryan in the boxing/film noir classic The Set-Up. Where in Lady the "gimmick" was that the entire film was seen through the eyes of the character of Phillip Marlowe, in The Set-Up, the entire film plays out in real time. The film runs 73 minutes, and thus we see an unbroken 73 minute chunk of the life of Robert Ryan's washed up boxer, Stoker Thompson. Playing somewhat against type, Totter is his caring and understandably worried wife, Julie. The film is a short, taut masterpiece - one of the very best boxing films and/or noirs ever made, and again, Totter is absolutely on the mark and part of what makes the film so notable. I personally think Robert Ryan was the best dramatic actor in film in the first half of the 20th century, and in The Set-Up, Audrey Totter more than holds her own with him.

The Set-Up proved to be the high water mark for Audrey Totter, though she kept working (in films and TV) for decades to come. Like many other actors from that era, her last appearance was on an episode of Murder, She Wrote, in 1987. And, like many other almost-but-not-quite legendary performers from that era, I find her work ethic, and her ability to simply keep working, very admirable. It's easy to imagine her saying: Yeah, yeah, I was almost a superstar - but I gotta pay the bills, y'know?

Last night, my wife and I watched her in Tension (1951), an underwritten B with a great cast, featuring Totter, Richard Basehart, Cyd Charrise, Barry Sullivan and William Conrad, among others. Audrey plays the extremely less-than-faithful, no good wife of nice guy pharmacist Basehart, who is, of course, knocking himself out trying to make her happy. She, meanwhile, is ever on the prowl for a better offer, or just a good time. In one brief moment at the drug store soda counter, when an interested party makes an approach to Totter, she sizes him up with a withering glance, and sends him packing with one snarled word: "Drift!" One glance, one word, and one charismatic actress that brought it to life.

Now that Audrey Totter has drifted away herself, she will be missed.

December 15th, 2013

Sometimes movies become known as "sleepers," the ones that commercially or otherwise slip under the radar, but achieve some sort of notable success with time. The recent passing of the lovely and talented Eleanor Parker makes it clear that sometimes performers have entire careers that are sort of sleepers. Much of the press about Parker's passing have touted her as being "best known as The Baroness in 1965's The Sound of Music." This declaration distorts as much as it clarifies.

Yes, she was in The Sound of Music, and yes, it is probably the most recent of her films to make a big splash commercially. But to focus on that as some sort of pinnacle of her career is like saying that Judy Garland is best remembered for her acclaimed performance in 1963's A Child is Waiting. Parker's work in the 40s and 50s is much more notable and interesting than her being a Baroness.

For one thing, she was nominated for Oscars three times - in 1950, 1951 and 1955. She played equally well in comedy, drama and romantic films. And she played opposite a truly impressive collection of the Golden Age's great leading men, including: John Garfield, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Kirk Douglas, Robert Taylor, William Holden, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews and even Maurice Chevalier.

She had leading roles in some truly classic films, such as Caged (1950 and her first Oscar nomination), Detective Story (1951 and her second Oscar nomination) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), as Frank Sinatra's crippled wife, who supplies a memorable twist to the plot. She also made a memorable cameo appearance (as herself) in one of my favorite comedies, 1949's It's a Great Feeling.

Eleanor Parker was a beautiful woman, but not so earth-shatteringly beautiful as to be remembered as one of Hollywood's Great Beauties. She was versatile and talented, but seemingly not so hungry for success that she tried to tailor her career around "important" roles. She worked, and kept working, and, in many ways (Oscar nominations or no Oscar nominations) doesn't seem to have left any sort of remarkable legacy behind. Thus we end up with The Sound of Music being trotted out to represent her work, when in fact, it doesn't.

If I had to choose one film that best captured the appeal and essence of Eleanor Parker, it would be 1947's The Voice of the Turtle. As a guy, even a film geek guy, this one would seem to have several strikes against it. One is that it's very much a romance, a 1947 chick flick. Then there's that cutesy-but-what-does-it-mean title. And then there's the fact that Parker's romantic leading man is...Ronald Reagan, who, despite whatever talent he may have had, was never exactly an actor to set hearts throbbing.

And yet...I think it is a remarkably charming film, a fact due almost entirely to Parker. She is sweet, silly, shy and very believable. She even makes you believe she's daffy about Reagan. (I would rate this as one of his two or three best films as well...) It's based on a play, and thus a little set-bound, and the World War II setting is, of course, dated - but it works. Rather, Eleanor Parker makes it work. Yes, she's excellent in the much heavier Detective Story, and other meatier works, but the fact that this piece of romantic fluff works and endures is an accomplishment due almost entirely to Parker. As the saying goes, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Put another way, it's easy to be dramatic with Kirk Douglas screaming at you, but making us believe you're head over heels with Ronald Reagan is hard. But Eleanor Parker was up to the task.

As is our way when a performer of note passes away, my wife and I watched an Eleanor Parker movie last night. We watched A Hole in the Head (1959), a mostly forgotten comedy/drama starring Frank Sinatra and Edward G, Robinson. Parker doesn't even appear on screen until the movie is half over, playing the underwritten part of a widow who may be a romantic interest for Sinatra. The movie is uneven, unsure of what it wants to be, and her part is barely sketched out through the dialogue. But still, Parker brought a depth to her character that wasn't on the pages of the script. A true professional, she was able to create something out of practically nothing.

As a result, A Hole in the Head was a richer film for having her in it. And her career is far richer than The Sound of Music, for those willing to dig a little deeper. Rest in peace, Eleanor. You might not have been one of the flashiest stars, but you were absolutely one of the greats. You'll be missed, and you'll be remembered.

December 10th, 2013