Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week
Our cup runneth over: In one week, three of my all-time favorite films, all made by the same director, the inimitable though much imitated, popular and innovative genius of a filmmaker, especially to be remembered for the irresistible sparkle of his comedies and musicals; that Berliner of Polish and German Jewish extraction who, as no less than Jean Renoir once said to me in the 60’s, “invented the modern Hollywood,” Ernst Lubitsch. By “modern,” Renoir meant Hollywood films from about 1925 through the late 40’s–when Lubitsch died–and even into the 50’s, 60’s and, in unfortunately fewer and fewer apparent ways, to the present. In his day, Lubitsch was probably the most respected director among his peers, and his name was a household word, everybody having heard of that universal phrase of praise, “the Lubitsch touch,” which was a way of describing his often oblique way with dialogue and storytelling, a certain Continental style that was as unmistakable as it was difficult to describe. Today, except for true film aficionados, scholars and aged remaining fans, he is barely talked about. Yet Billy Wilder, perhaps the last survivor from the Golden Age, always used to have a sign on the wall of his screenwriting rooms: “How would Lubitsch have done it?”
The Mayor ought to declare Sunday, April 26, Lubitsch Day because these three of the master’s most wonderful and representative films can and should be seen by anyone who craves real quality or needs to be convinced that there has been a general and pervasive dumbing down of our popular entertainment. Begin with Lubitsch’s sometimes poignant romantic comedy-drama, one of his richest looks at the oddly contradictory and unpredictably diverse traits of human nature, that 1940 masterwork, The Shop Around the Corner [Sunday, April 26, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 2:15 P.M.] . Set in a pre-World War II Budapest department store, and starring three anything-but-Hungarian types, James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan–each of whom is at their absolute best–the picture never for a second stretches credulity, and you soon realize Lubitsch’s unspoken point that regular people are the same the world over, no matter how individually quirky they may be. The main plot–that Stewart and Sullavan, who definitely do not get along with each other in the workplace are, unbeknown to both of them, pseudonymous pen pals of amazing rapport–is so good that it has been used in at least one acknowledged remake ( In the Good Old Summertime ), one Broadway musical ( She Loves Me ) and is currently being shot with Tom
Hanks and Meg Ryan ( You’ve Got Mail ). But with Lubitsch it is only the central motif in a
tapestry of observations on the lives of all the employees at the shop, as well as the owner, whose plight is actually the most touching. Supporting players, like the sublimely funny Felix
Bressart or the brilliantly obnoxious Joseph Schildkraut, get equal weight in this lovely movie, which my family always used to watch around Christmas, maybe because it is one of Lubitsch’s greatest gifts to us.
In the first year of full sound (1929), it was Lubitsch who made the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing musical comedy, The Love Parade , starring Maurice Chevalier (his first American film) and Jeanette MacDonald (in her sexy, pre-Nelson Eddy period). Over the next four years, Lubitsch made four more romantic musicals, the last of which was the best of all (though the least popular at the time), his thoroughly divine 1934 version of Franz Lehar’s famous operetta The Merry Widow [Sunday, April 26, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 4:15 P.M.] . It’s Chevalier and MacDonald for the final intoxicating time, both of them again from another typically Lubitsch Ruritanian country, she the richest woman in the land, he a soldier of the king charged to use his charms to lure her back home after she runs off to Paris. Witty, often hilarious, sometimes bittersweet, but ever effervescent, the picture is also perhaps Lubitsch’s most effectively pointed look at cocksmanship, coming down deeply on the side of monogamous love: “Here they are,” Jeanette tells Maurice at the (thinly disguised) bordello where he is surrounded by adoring courtesans, “all your little tonights, and not a tomorrow among them.” There is an amazing seduction scene that features one of the most glorious camera moves in picture history: as first Jeanette alone, then Maurice with her, dance “The Merry Widow Waltz,” the camera somehow waltzing with them. I try to see this movie at least once a year and it has never let me down.
Lubitsch’s penultimate film was, appropriately, a look at the inevitability of death and a contemplation on the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, all part of an amusing and profoundly human chronicle of one not-very-important man’s life, the 1943 Technicolor production Heaven Can Wait [Sunday, April 26, AMC, 54, 11 P.M.] . Part of the famous Lubitsch style was achieved by the director’s practice of acting out all the roles for all the actors, from the bit players to the stars. Lubitsch was a not very tall, heavy-set man with a very strong German accent, but he had begun in silent pictures as a star comedian, and his sense of timing was impeccable. Jack Benny had been in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and I once asked him how Lubitsch’s acting-out had been. “Well,” Jack said, “it was a little broad, but you got the idea!” And so in Heaven Can Wait , Don Ameche gives the performance of his career, and Gene Tierney is at her spunkiest, yet most beautifully vulnerable. Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, Louis Calhern, Signe Hasso are all terrific in Lubitsch’s most forgiving farewell to “the good life.” Sunday’s (or any day’s) perfect conclusion.
Wednesday, April 22
Go to Harry Shearer’s Web site–www.harryshearer.com–if you want to see something funny. It’s Tom Brokaw doing an emergency lead-in on the death of Frank Sinatra, who ain’t dead yet. “Good evening,” says Mr. Brokaw in the feed, all serious. “Late word from California tonight. Legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra has died after a long and private battle with cancer. We have a look back on his extraordinary life. The voice that touches millions.”…
Mr. Shearer–a writer, comedian, Spinal Tap member, NPR guy and Simpsons voice–discovered the taped bit on a 24-hour satellite feed in February. That was when the rumor of Mr. Sinatra’s demise spread all across the country–well, all through the media, at least; Mr. Brokaw recorded his lead-in so that NBC could have the crummy honor of being first on the air with the scoop. See Mr. Brokaw do his magic every night on NBC at 6:30 P.M. [WNBC, 4, 6:30 P.M.]
Thursday, April 23
Tonight on Tom Snyder’s Late Late Show , Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt reminisces about his New York days as an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, from a table at McSorley’s Ale House on East Seventh Street. Look closely for his actor-writer brother Malachy McCourt in the background. Observer Wise Guy Terry Golway, back to the camera, plays one of Malachy’s drinking buddies: “The highlight was when the director came over to us and said, as if to a bunch of novices, ‘You can just talk amongst yourselves,’ said Mr. Golway. “Malachy starts nodding his head, saying to us, ‘Have you ever noticed that the people in these background shots are the most agreeable people in the world? They’re always agreeing and nodding their head Yes!’ So the director calls 5-4-3-2-1, and all of a sudden he’s shaking his head, yelling, ‘ No ! No! Feck no!’–part of the gritty realism, I guess. I assume they can fix the sound later …” [WCBS, 2, 12:35 A.M.]
Friday, April 24
Let’s say you’re Charlie Rose . You’re the host of an upscale late-night PBS talk show. Sometimes people accuse you of fawning, but you know it’s not true. Let’s say you have on Larry David, the humbly nihilistic co-creator of Seinfeld (as Charlie did last Thursday). During the conversation, Mr. David says: “I felt good, just the fact that the four episodes were produced, because I had never produced four episodes before and, frankly, I didn’t know that I was capable of doing that. So just the fact that we had four shows on the air made me very excited. I didn’t think about the future. I thought, ‘Phew, I got by. I did the four. O.K. Let’s go back to New York. Let’s get on with our lives.” Do you reply:
a. “You don’t have much self-confidence, do you?”
b. “The first four episodes weren’t very good, were they?”
c. “But then they started throwing money at you, and the rest is history.”
d. “This is the reason I like you so much.”
See end of column for the answer .
Tonight with Charlie, it’s David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. [WNET, 13, 11 P.M.]
Saturday, April 25
Tim Meadows thinks his time might be up on Saturday Night Live . “I would do it as long as they would let me,” he said, “but I’ve been on for seven seasons, and you have to leave after a certain point. I think I’m just about there.” …
Mr. Meadows has been incredibly loose this year. He’s been a bright spot in an SNL season that started off nicely, then went straight to hell with the firing of Norm MacDonald from “Weekend Update.” Everyone in the cast looks tentative, and a lot of the writing sounds like stuff out of a college follies. And then there’s Mr. Meadows–sane and always amusing, no matter what they hand him.…
“This season has been my favorite for myself,” he said. “Mainly, I have a lot more fun at 11:30 on Saturday. Before, I felt tight and now I just don’t care anymore. I care about messing up, but I go out there with the attitude that I can do anything I want and I don’t care. I’ve gotten to a place where I think it’s time for me to move on.” To a sitcom? “Well, that’s being talked about right now.” As a writer or talent? “As talent, although I would love to be a writer. Nobody has ever offered, but I think that I could write a really good sitcom.” What about? “A father and son who solve crimes. We would be two guys sitting on a bench riffing.” …
What about Norm MacDonald? “My favorite memory of Norm and myself is going over to his office and talking to him and [writer] Jim Downey and being able to talk about anything and nothing was sacred and you could make fun of anything.” Tonight is a repeat, with Nathan Lane and Metallica. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]
Sunday, April 26
NYTV correspondent Carl Swanson reports: Last Sunday, NBC’s Brave New World included a weird dig at the competition: A committee of the Alphas (think of them as youthful Harvard grads hired to think “out of the box”) who work at the Conditioning Center (think of it as the marketing department at a major network) are asked to figure out why the lower classes–the Deltas–are restive. In this futuristic time, wars have been ended and people spend their time being entertained, though not by network television. An Alpha named Ingram suggests that maybe they need new slogans. He holds up a black-lettered sign on a bright yellow background. It says, Dumb Is Good , a rehash of ABC’s “TV Is Good” slogan. “They say we only use 10 percent of our brains,” says Ingram, in another allusion to the ABC campaign. “That’s way too much.” The leader of the Conditioning Center, who actually turns out to be the bad guy, dismisses Ingram’s idea: “Irony, Ingram? Do you think that the Deltas will get it?” Apparently not, since ABC has more or less canceled its “TV Is Good” campaign after failing to rebound in the ratings.…
Tonight, NBC goes for it again with another event, Merlin , starring Martin Short, Isabella Rossellini, Helena Bonham Carter. Wonder if Sir Lancelot will have anything to say about CBS. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]
Monday, April 27
Jerry Nachman, former New York Post editor and news director at WNBC and WCBS, moved to Los Angeles and now writes for Politically Incorrect . Mr. Nachman was always a tough blowhard who never suffered fools gladly–but it sounds as if the TV business has him cowed: “I’ve never felt dumber,” he said. “The big difference here is how smart the comedy writers are, the average 24- or 30-year-old here is much smarter than their counterparts in newsrooms. They’re dauntingly bright and they’re getting younger. And I think one of the reasons they’re smarter is that the admission price is higher…. It’s not that the people at [channels] 2 and 4 and the Post were dumb, but there were bell curves. It just doesn’t work like that here, and I’ve never seen that before, in all the places I’ve worked all my life. I’m the one who’s barely hanging on…. I feel the pressure here, I get up early and I get the Post and the News on line, and I read The New York Times before I go to bed on line. I’ve got to make sure because people are just reading all the time. The writers also seem to know everything about music and TV and movies; they’re way outta my league. I usually know the cops and robbers stuff, the court stuff, but that’s it.” Tonight, Bill Maher plays host to Al Franken, Star Jones and Elizabeth Wurtzel. [WABC, 7, 12:05 A.M.]
Tuesday, April 28
The Bronx-born former anchor for WCBS and for WNBC’s Live at Five , Tony Guida , has gone to CNNFN. He covers the stock market for about two and a half hours each weekday. “The principal difference is it’s intelligent,” he said. “What makes it real interesting is that, number one, the subject is becoming more and more of a subject because everyone is in the market these days. There’s a bus that stops in front of my house, and sometimes when I’m going to the newsstand, I see that the drivers are reading the financial pages. Business news has become general news.” And Mr. Guida said he doesn’t depend on his old TV colleagues for his news fixes: “The local news I tend to keep up with on the radio.” [CNNFN, 32, 9 A.M.]
* Answer to Charlie Rose quiz: D.