A story of two discounts

The last time I paid children’s rates for anything was when I was 16, and spending a tedious, uncomfortable hot summer afternoon at my grandmother’s while my parents took my younger brother to the doctor.

My grandmother lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not too far from Erasmus High School; she had moved there after my grandfather died some years earlier. There was nothing on television (and anyway, her apartment wasn’t air conditioned, so it was very uncomfortable), I knew nobody in the neighborhood, and I was bored in the restless way that teenagers can be.

I wandered the main shopping street, which was practically deserted — perhaps everyone was away at the beach, or perhaps it was a holiday of some sort, I don’t remember. Just remember the discomfort, the boredom, and finally the conviction that the only thing to do was find an air-conditioned movie theater and camp out there for a couple of hours.

I found it, and it was playing the latest horror film, Williard. I had no objection to seeing that — was sort of curious, actually — but I had exactly $1 in my pocket, enough for a half-price ticket, but not enough for an adult ticket.

So I went up to the box office, pushed my dollar bill through to the lady on the other side of the window and said, “One child’s ticket, please.”

She glared sternly at me from her throne in the booth. “How old are you?” she asked suspiciously.

I dropped my eyes and looked abashed.  “I’m almost 12,”  I muttered.  The woman stared at me for another moment and then gave me the ticket.

I really enjoyed that movie.

So on Monday, Jim and I decided we really needed a break and went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a hot, damp evening and the last few weeks had been really difficult.

We drove over to the Sheepshead Bay Cinema, parked, had some rather good fried fish in the small fish restaurant across the way from the theatre, and then walked in. There was only one other couple on line — Mondays seem to be really slow — and when we asked for the tickets (Imax, 3-D, and yes, air-conditioning), the kid on the other side of the plexiglass window stared at us and asked,  “Senior discount?”

We shook our heads, but then Jim asked,  “How old do you have to be for senior discount?”

“Sixty, ” the kid said.

We looked at each other. “Yes,” Jim said.  “Senior discount.”

I really enjoyed that movie.

Thoughts on a film: Five Star Final (1931)

Five_Star_Final_film_posterNewspapers and reporters were a very popular trope in early talking pictures. And no wonder — not only did the stories usually involve the same sex, crime and scandals that real newspapers (and their readers) thrived on, but many early film writers started out as journalists.

One of the top examples of the genre, of course, was His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Five Star Final, made nine years earlier, is just as cynical but is less forgiving of its reporters and more stark about the consequences of their actions.

The story

This pre-code film, starring Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper editor who goes against his own ethics in order to raise his paper’s circulation, is based on the play of the same name written by Louis Weitzenkorn, a former newspaperman. Asked by his publisher to put more scandals in the paper, editor Joseph Randall unearths a 20-year-old murder case where a woman named Nancy Vorhees shot her unfaithful husband and was acquitted, although it was widely admitted she did it, partially because she was pregnant at the time.

He assigns an unscrupulous reporter to pretend to be a clergyman; the reporter visits the family and finds out that the woman is now happily remarried, and her 20-year-old daughter Jenny (who knows nothing of her mother’s past) is about to be married to the son of a well-off factory owner.

Nancy Vorhees (now Taylor) and her husband realize that the “clergyman” was a fake, and desperately try to get the story quashed, terrified that their daughter’s impending marriage will be stopped by her fiance’s snobbish parents.

The end (highlight following paragraph to view)

Nancy Vorhees tries repeatedly to call the publisher of the newspaper to stop the story; she finally talks to Randall, who has his secretary hang up on her. She calls again, and he tells her that nothing will stop the story. Distraught, Nancy commits suicide by taking poison; when her husband comes home and finds her body in the bathroom, he prevents his daughter and her fiance from finding out and then, when they leave, takes the poison as well. When the suicide is discovered and sensationalized in the papers, the fiance’s parents order him to desert Jenny, but he refuses, and when Jenny finds a gun and takes it to the newspaper office, intending to kill the editor and publisher, he stops her. Disgusted by his own actions, Randall quits the newspaper, followed by his secretary.

How it’s pre-code

Only in the cynicism and frank talk of its reporters and editors about the sex and scandals that they are covering.

T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)

None to speak of. There is some frank language about the various populations that the readership is made up of; one reporter discusses a contest for the best cabbie in which the pre-arranged winners will be “an Irishman, a Jew and a Wop.” And Randall talks about how the readership up in Harlem diminished “when we stopped printing Jack Johnson’s love confessions.”

My verdict

While the storyline here is pretty predictable, and the dialogue sometimes cliche’d, this one is worth watching just for the performances of the actors. Edward G. Robinson is wonderful as the cynical but conflicted editor, and Aline McMahon shines as the secretary who tries to bring him back to his better self. Boris Karloff is a bit over the top as a sleazy reporter, but Francis Starr as the tortured Nancy Vorhees is very fine, and Marian Marsh as Jenny is impressive in the scene where she confronts the newspapermen.

This isn’t something that is easy to find, but if you do come across it, Five Star Final is worth checking out. (Apparently, it was remade in 1936 as Two Against the World with Humphrey Bogart in the Edward G. Robinson role, but set in a radio station rather than a newspaper.)

Thoughts on a film: The Little Giant (1933)

The LIttle GiantThe Little Giant is a just-under-the-wire pre-code film that I’d often heard about, but never actually seen. I had assumed that it was one of those earnest, violent mobster films, but it’s actually a light comedy — and not a bad one, all told.

The story

Bugsy Ahearne is the head of gang of mobsters who has been running a lucrative illegal beer running operation during Prohibition. (He’s known as the Beer Baron of Chicago.) He’s not a bad guy, signalled by the facts that his gang is very loyal to him and that he dealt only in beer and not harder liquors.

It’s 1933, FDR has just won the election, and Prohibition is about to end. Bugsy decides that the ride is over and he’s pulling out while he’s still got a large bankroll.

Now that he has to go straight, Bugsy wants legitimacy; he dreams of hanging out with the upper crust. He and his best buddy Al Daniels go off to Santa Barbara, California. After some unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the high life, he falls in love with Polly Cass, whose family has made its money by swindling people into investing in their fake bond business, and who accepts his marriage proposal so that Bugsy will invest in her family’s business, after which she intends to call it off.

In order to impress her, he buys a huge estate, formerly owned by the down-to-earth (but very pretty) Ruth, whose father was swindled out of his fortune by the Cass family.

The end (highlight following paragraph to view)

When the Cass family finds out who Bugsy really is, they haughtily break off the engagement. Rush tells Bugsy what the Cass family did to her father. Bugsy calls in his mob, they force the members of the board of directors of the company (all of whom are in on the swindle) to cough up enough money to pay back those they’ve swindled, and Bugsy realizes he really loves Ruth.

How it’s pre-code

Not much overt sex here, but on the other hand, sex before marriage is not terribly shocking either. Bugs makes it clear that while he’s never proposed marriage, he’s had a number of lady friends for whom marriage wasn’t an issue; when he says goodbye to the last of them, she is portrayed as being a good sport and generally nice person.

There’s also a somewhat startling drug reference: One of the gangsters says of a modern painting that he hadn’t seen anything like that “since I stopped using cocaine.”

T’aint funny, McGee (offensive segments)

Bugs is upset that he’s been bamboozled by the upper-crust family and refers to them as “fags.”

My verdict

This was a pleasant-enough comedy and I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s not a film that I’d necessary go back to. The filmmakers are so intent on making Bugs likable to the audience that you don’t believe for a moment that he spent years as the head of a bootlegging gang (even if they were only dealing in beer). The humor is gentle and the story enjoyable; the moral, as in many early Depression-era films, is that good sense and morality trumps wealth (even if you have to beat somebody up to do it).

I also thought that the whole plot reveals some fairly wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers: That when Prohibition ended, the organized crime syndicates that it engendered would disappear as well. Unfortunately, as we all know, the mobs simply moved on to bigger – and worse — things.

In honor of St. Crispin’s Day: 4 versions of Shakespeare’s speech

Today is St. Crispin’s Day — not a day that I would usually celebrate, being neither Christian nor English. But I do love my Shakespeare, and one thing I really enjoy is how the same speech can be interpreted in a variety of ways by different actors. So here, in honor of the day, are four different interpretations of the well-known St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V — all interpreted differently depending on the actor, the director, and what was going on at the time the scene was filmed.

1944 with Laurence Olivier

1989 with Kenneth Branaugh

1997 with Mark Rylance (at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre)

2012 with Tom Hiddleston (only a portion of the speech)

Watching Gravity: Science fiction, Oscars & other discussions

One of the first things my friends and I argued after we saw the new film Gravity last night was whether or not it qualified as science fiction (and therefore should be up for a Hugo or Nebula award). Is it a thriller/adventure tale that takes place in space using today’s science but with no futuristic or speculative elements (well, mostly; apparently there are some things that really aren’t quite scientifically accurate, but hey! It’s a movie!)?

Or is it “science” fiction in the purest sense — fiction derived from current knowledge of science — and therefore absolutely admissible?

We never actually came to any conclusions — except that, whatever we decided, it was going to be nominated for a variety of awards, including both the Hugos and the Nebulas. We also debated what it’s chances were at being nominated and/or winning various Academy Awards (Best Actress? Best Supporting Actor? Special effects?)  which led in turn to a discussion about who would be nominated for 12 Years a Slave, a movie that we haven’t seen yet but fully intend to.

My point? Only that Gravity is a great film with two really good characters (I don’t know if Gravity’s Ryan Stone will replace Aliens‘ Ellen Ripley in my private pantheon of great science fiction film heroines, but she comes pretty close), fantastic special effects, and the kind of story that keeps you talking for hours after you’ve seen it.