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TopBilled’s Essentials


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Essential: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

JL begins:

Paul Mazursky's big directorial debut (and wonderfully co-scripted by producer Larry Tucker) is basically in the same league as GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, also produced by Columbia, and other quintessential good-if-not-great crowd pleasers of the sixties that tapped into what moviegoers were most curious to see at the time. It may end a bit too abruptly and not milk its subject matter for all it is worth, but I still enjoy it after multiple viewings. Even today, it has plenty to say about relationships and honesty, fidelity versus infidelity.

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Although three of the names in the title commit...gasp!...adultery (more of a no-no back then than today), this is a surprisingly chaste film that lies somewhere in-between a Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy (Dyan Cannon wears as much eye liner and lip gloss as Doris under the sheets) and a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie with just enough bare tops on display, but not involving our star actresses, to warrant an R-rating. As with a number of box office successes, there was a feeble attempt to create a TV series out of it years later.

TB: Yes, I think the TV series was pretty much a flop. Definitely "tamer" since it had to contend with broadcast standards censorship. It aired around a dozen episodes in 1973. A young Robert Urich and Anne Archer played the main couple. Archer obviously was cast on the strength of her resemblance to Natalie Wood.

We should point out that the cast of the original movie features Robert Culp, who had made films, typically in supporting roles. But he was known more to audiences as a television performer in the late 1960s.

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JL: Robert Culp, who was famous at the time due to I Spy but less familiar today than his co-stars, and Natalie Wood, who needs no introduction, play the liberal-minded Sanders, Bob and Carol; he being a documentary filmmaker and she a rather bored, but pampered, housewife. They spend a weekend at a place resembling (and maybe is) the famous Esalem, a California retreat for new age yoga, relaxation, nude sun bathing and psychological therapy.

TB: You gotta love how they fit all the therapies in. It's a one stop place for bourgeoisie healing.

JL: Bob is a trifle skeptical at first but Carol is more open to this getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings that starts out with the soft spoken leader (Greg Mullavey) getting them all to look at each other directly in the face and display total honesty about everything.

Meanwhile, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould play the Sanders' more earthbound (read: uptight) friends, Ted and Alice Henderson.

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At first they merely are amused by this great weekend transformation during a discussion at an Italian restaurant, especially after Carol demonstrates “total honesty” with the waiter (Lee Bergere) by asking if he “genuinely” hopes that their food is satisfactory and even later tries to re-explain herself and apologize to him in the kitchen.

By the way, I absolutely adore Natalie Wood in her blue denim mini-skirt. Not to mention Dyan in her solid yellow with matching hair ribbon, repeated in red/black combo, virginal white, sky blue and as pink as a Playboy bunny in her later scenes.

All continues hunky dory until after a late after-party get-together involving a bit of marijuana smoking and stirred libidos. As the Hendersons leave, Carol bounces out with some all important information. She recently learned Bob had an affair, he was totally honest about it, she forgave him and she thinks it is all “beautiful” and worth sharing with her best friends!

TB: To be honest, this part of the plot seems rather absurd to me. In fact it seems like a sitcom plot, where the main character promises not to lie for a week and is honest to the point of being painful. We've seen it on dozens of shows with Lucille Ball and John Ritter. In this case, Mazursky is doing it as a bit of a device to draw the Hendersons more into the story...so that they are now part of the Sanders' process of "truth" and "discovery."

JL: Ted is amused, but Alice is disgusted beyond belief. I think Alice represents roughly 75% of the moviegoers seeing this in 1969 since most at them were well beyond their thirties and couldn't quite grasp all of the new “freedoms."

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JL: Back in the bedroom, it is obvious that Alice is no longer In The Mood while Ted is feeling frisky. After all, Bob's affair and Carol being so candid and comfortable about it is as traumatic to Alice as her own mother's death! Oh pleeeeeeeze.

Actually I greatly enjoy this lengthy bedroom conversation between these two (a key reason both were nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles) with her at first not wanting him to touch her, then they negotiate about whether or not to “do it” despite all of her rage over Bob and finally culminating with his telling her to not touch him!

TB: I agree the scene works rather well. But one of the problems I have with this set-up is that the filmmakers are not quite sure at times which couple should be most in focus. Or if the two couples deserve equal prominence since they may be reverse images of each other. Despite the "confusion" over which two are the main characters, or if all four are main characters, we do get some satiric moments and the comic potential of the storyline is exploited rather well.

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JL: Later Alice tries to get things out of her system with her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich). He displays a rather stoic reaction as she talks about “my” (instead of “our”) five year son whom she “loves." Meanwhile she only “likes” her husband. She can't handle sex and body parts, using nicknames instead of medical terms. When she has her “Freudian slip” mentioning Bob instead of Ted, it becomes apparent that she is worried her husband will do a no-no like Bob's despite always being faithful to her.

TB: When I watched this particular scene I couldn't help but think of Otto Preminger's SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971) which came out a few years later. Again Dyan Cannon is submerged in an upper class melange of psychological and sexual dysfunction. I guess Preminger was a fan of her performance here in Mazursky's film, causing him to cast her later in his film which covers some of the same "issues." 

JL: On a plane bound for Miami, Bob makes the mistake of suggesting to Ted that his affair was no big deal and, heck, you might as well take advantage of golden opportunities. Intriguingly, Bob himself decides NOT to have a second affair when given the opportunity on another trip at home, but he later confronts Carol herself having one of her own with a much younger and hunkier tennis instructor named Horst (Horst Ebersberg).

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TB: The old "what's good for the goose" routine...! The tennis instructor is a soapy stereotype and since he's so much better looking than Bob, you have to wonder why Carol would even look twice at Bob again.

JL: What I like best about this movie is that it puts the shoe on the other foot so that the man, who takes such things for granted, must now reconsider his own feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. We get Culp's best acting scene but, of course, you know he is a dedicated liberal type who “does not use violence in this house” so he invites Horst to stay for a drink.

TB: I guess this keeps the tone light and prevents the film from descending into histrionics, which is what happens in THE GRADUATE when Elaine learns Benjamin's been having an affair with her mother. But that's another story!

JL: In Las Vegas, where everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Alice has had plenty of time with her shrink and is no longer judging her best friends by “my morals” and the foursome enjoy themselves in the executive suite.

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TB: This of course leads to the film's most "celebrated" and "liberating" image of the four of them in bed together. If you do a Google search of the film, nearly 80% of the images come from this portion of the movie. It's quite the identifier. 

JL: Everybody is now more amused than shocked to learn about Carol being even with Bob with her sex-capade, but then Ted decides to confess to his affair with a mouthful of yummy nuts! This sends Alice through the roof and she instantly starts undressing and demanding to swap hubbies with Carol, insisting that Bob must find her attractive enough to go to the sack with her. The great O word is expressed, which I can't print here.

When they finally all decide to go to the next level, we gets some great comic scenes with Elliot Gould in particular.

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I find him much more more likable in this movie than in M*A*S*H. He fusses in the bathroom in preparation and takes way too long getting his undergarments off... under the covers. He is even more modest about his body than his own wife!

TB: This is where I think the film becomes a very immature thesis on sexual relationships. Yes, this is a comedy and we're supposed to find some of it tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately it's just a bunch of overgrown "kids" who don't know the first thing about real adult interactions.

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And the fact that Ted's confession forces Alice, who has been rather reserved up to this point, to suddenly want to get it on with Bob-- that seems very contrived to me. Like Mazursky and fellow screenwriter Larry Tucker couldn't actually come with a realistic way for them all to copulate together.

And then, ultimately, because they cannot venture into X-rated territory and remain commercially marketable, we don't see them having sex with each other. Plus, I think in this situation, with everyone relaxed, there'd be some bisexuality playing out. But this film, as you said earlier, is chaste. It's timid. And adolescent. Not as frank or grown up or adult as it could have been. It is an American film trying to do what provocative European films do, and not being able to pull it off, pun intended.

***

JL: So did they “do it” or not? A little video segment on YouTube has Quentin Tarantino suggesting that maybe they all all “did it," but I kinda think they “didn't."

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TB: Yeah, they didn't do it. The film leads up to the promise of sexual liberation but then it chickens out and tries to act vague and clever about it.

JL: We get a questionable scene of Bob looking up at the camera as he kisses Alice, which Quentin thinks is him shooing away the audience for more privacy. I think Bob's expression is more along the lines of “maybe I should not go through with this since the concept was more exciting than the reality."

TB: Yep. I'm with you on this interpretation. Ultimately the film needed to have a moral ending for American audiences. Where the two marriages remain intact and their foursome goes nowhere.

JL: In the end, it is all about the Jackie DeShannon song. What the world needs now is love sweet love. Likely these couples won't stray further in the future, but if they do, they will always be honest in true Me Decade fashion (and this does feel more like a seventies film in the end rather than a sixties film). The surreal parade scene is every liberal's dream of a world united in multiple races and genders.

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TB: Sorry to burst your bubble, but I still don't think this film measured up like it should have. It often takes the easy way out. It doesn't allow the characters to become fully fleshed out, faults and all. The characters aspire to nothing basically and become amoral in a glib sort of cute way. What these four individuals are going through, is not presented in a meaningful treatise, examining possible consequences in a realistic light.

It's clear to me they had to keep the characters likable at the end, or else these stars' careers might have come to a screeching halt. I think one of the couples should have gone too far, should have reached the end of their marriage; while the other couple became more reasonable and saved from the debauchery. That is, if they are meant to be true reverse images of each other. Again I think a more mature European filmmaker would have done justice to the story.

Even though it was filmed in the post-code period, it still seems bound by remnants of the production code. And it seems to be too much in keeping with "good taste" which ironically causes a very dishonest version of what this story is. Anyway, since you obviously enjoyed the picture more than I did, I will let you finish things up with a few positive remarks...

***

JL: Much of this film's charm for me personally lies in its time-capsule appeal. So many little things on visual display represent what was so “trendy” back at the time of its principal photography (November-December 1968), but now look like ancient relics of a bygone era. Obviously Las Vegas has changed immensely since then. We get at least two subtle digs at the presidential election with one visitor at the California retreat reading a newspaper lampooning LBJ and Nixon (perhaps this scene was shot just after the latter defeated Humphrey and Wallace), followed later by two minor characters discussing whether or not they should have bothered voting (a question expanded upon later in Hal Ashby's SHAMPOO, set during this exact same time period but filmed post-Watergate).

Meanwhile, a trio of possibly (oh...heck, any modern viewer can see that they definitely are) gay men listen in on a conversation about love and honesty at the restaurant pre-Stonewall. We even get a bit part by Daniel Striped Tiger at a time when Fred Rogers was among the newest faces on TV.

The fashion show is especially impressive, with the false eyelashes and Nehru sweatshirts (not jackets anymore) going out of style between the time cameras stopped rolling and the time it finally hit theaters in September 1969.

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Of course, Bob must make sure his love beads are on, shirt or no shirt. However everything that Natalie Wood wears is hip and ahead of its time, especially the plaid pants in our early scenes that would not take the nation by storm for another two years or so. Plus Bob and Carol's swinging California pad is pretty groovy with a huge dictionary (!?) opened up in the living room. I am guessing that Natalie says “groovy” at least five times on screen, but I will let the experts analyze that specific detail further.

The movie always leaves me with this warm afterglow that is hard to define. I guess it has to do with the wide-eyed innocence of the characters and the movie's intentions, especially in that final scene of solidarity among all kinds of people. What could be worse to watch on screen?

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Ha ha! You are not busting any bubbles here. No, I do not consider this film a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but it is still an interesting and entertaining relic of its era when Hollywood, as you even hint above, was confused and uncertain about how far to push the envelope in “adult” themes. In a way, it only goes a little further than the Doris Day vehicles we venture into next and they are more comfortable in their own “skin” so to speak. Personally I consider Ted and Alice far more interesting than Bob and Carol since those two performers seem more comfortable with each other than the other pair... at least by my overall impression.

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Essential: LOVER COME BACK (1961)

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TB: We thought it might be fun to look at a couple of Doris Day films. Namely, ones where she is playing a career woman and finding her place in the business world. In our first selection, Doris is a single character who finds conflict and love with a rival played by Rock Hudson. It was the second of three pairings for the duo at Universal, and arguably the funniest. Next week we will look at how the formula was revised a bit when she costars opposite James Garner, that time as a wife and mother who begins a new career outside the home.

One thing I enjoy about LOVER COME BACK, as opposed to PILLOW TALK or SEND ME NO FLOWERS, is how much energy Doris' character has. In quite a few respects, she is someone we want to succeed. Especially when Hudson's character tries to outmaneuver her; typically he doesn't play fair. Of course, much enjoyment comes in watching how flustered Doris gets and her resolve to try harder to beat Hudson at his own game. 

The film also has some good supporting players. Notably, it features Jack Oakie in what would be his last motion picture (though he would do some television after this). Also, we have other character actors like Jack Kruschen, Joe Flynn and Jack Albertson. Plus Tony Randall is again along for the ride, like he is in the other two Day-Hudson rom-coms.

JL: We are quickly motivated by the proceedings with some clever animation over the opening credits by Pacific Titles: cute female bird thwarts the advances of frisky male bird in a sequence also showing bees and flowers, the birds-and-the-bees emphasizing that this is a “sex comedy."

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Madison Avenue is presented with buildings resembling honeycombs as our narrator introduces Doris Day's Carol Templeton as a “worker bee” competing with her company against that of Rock Hudson's Jerry Webster, a “drone” who arrives to work with a hangover and some passionate kissing with one of multiple ladies seen with him early on.

TB: Of course we know right away that Hudson and Day will soon clash, and given the conventions of the genre, their clash will lead to romance/love.

JL: Carol resembles Elizabeth Moss' famous character Peggy Olson in that she wants to prove to the world that she is as efficient as any man in the advertising business without having to resort to the sex angle, while Jerry steals an account both are competing for by swaying Jack Oakie's J. Paxton Miller his way with Southern style liquor and showgirls, a method totally foreign to Carol.

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She, in turn, tries to get even: first by reporting his unethical behavior to the Ad Council, then she learns from one of Jerry's girlfriends, Rebel Davis (Edie Adams), of a new mystery product “VIP” involving a noted Greenwich Village chemist, Dr. Linus Taylor (Jack Kruschen) in its creation...so she tries to investigate him in order to steal that account from Jerry.

TB: One thing I didn't care for about this part of the movie is that Carol is a bit too righteous and blowing the whistle on Jerry is not going to get her anywhere. Particularly because it is still a man's world and if she screamed bloody murder, would anyone believe her side of things? To some extent her righteous attitude is carried over from the previous film these two stars made together.

JL: Yes. If you have seen PILLOW TALK already, you may sense some déjà vu since this is recycling some plot details. Doris' character is locked in battle with Rock's but doesn't know him on a face to face level at first and he takes advantage of her once he identifies her: as the annoying swinging bachelor aggravating her due to a shared telephone line, he woos her in the earlier 1959 film as an effeminate Texas businessman and, in the '61 film, he fools her into thinking he is Dr. Taylor himself...and is as equally “innocent” of women and dating.

All of this draws out Doris' maternal side. Once she discovers she has been fooled, Hell hath no fury like a woman and she revenges, in the former film, by doing the most outlandish interior design job possible on his bachelor pad and, in this one, woos him to the beach for a midnight swim, only to abandon him in “seaweed shorts” to hitchhike back into the city in a ladies' fur coat truck.

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TB: You have to wonder if things cut from the rough draft of the first film were copied and pasted into the script for this film. In some ways it is a creative "rewrite." They've even repeated the use of the split screens. Also giving LOVER COME BACK that sense of deju vu is the casting of Tony Randall.

JL: Tony Randall pretty much plays the same role in all three Day-Hudson comedies, being single (and super rich in two titles) and sometimes questionable in his, um, orientation. He woos Doris in the first one but she is not interested in him due to a certain lack of sincerity on his part, even though he claims he was married three times before.

In the third film of the Hudson-Day trio, SEND ME NO FLOWERS, he is actually married but we never see his wife and child on screen (?!) and, if that one was remade today, he would more likely have a boyfriend. As Pete Ramsey in LOVER COME BAC, he is the spoiled boss' son who has no interest in girls at all, a bit like the many characters played by Edward Everett Horton. Pete: “Girls again! What's the obsession with girls?” Jerry: “I was a poor kid, remember? I didn't have toys to play with.”

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TB: Good point. And Randall doesn't seem to have a problem, or much aversion, to portraying his characters in the Edward Everett Horton vein.

JL: Providing the “Greek Chorus," observing some of the goings on, are Jack Albertson and Charles Watt as middle-aged shriner club men, who are impressed each time they see Jerry wooing a different woman. “Let's face it, Charlie. Either you've got it or you haven't. He's got it."Later, they react in shock to his hotel arrival in a ladies' fur coat with the line “That's the last guy I would have figured” (a.k.a. it was assumed in 1961 that all cross-dressers were gay).

TB: Yeah, definitely some stereotypes used for laughs.

JL: Meanwhile, when the real Dr. Taylor, a professed “woman hater” whom Carol would not have succeeded with as she does Hudson as his impostor, finally unveils “VIP”, it is revealed as colorful candy that intoxicates like 100% proof brandy.

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When everybody gets drunk, including Carol, we are instantly reminded that this is a Doris Day comedy, so there is this complex situation made in order for Hudson's Jerry to "wed" Carol before he can "bed" her. I am always tickled by such plots (and AUNTIE MAME is another famous example from a few years earlier) because it is highly unlikely a full marriage license and justice-of-the-peace ceremony can be accomplished successfully under the influence and the characters still not remembering anything. Yet there were obvious "rules" that Hollywood still had to follow to avoid the wrath of the Catholic Legion of Decency.

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TB: I agree. It's the most far-fetched element of the whole movie. By the way, the VIP plot device reminds me of the Vitameatavegamin routine in I Love Lucy. I also thought the plot of this movie would have worked as a vehicle for Lucille Ball and Bob Hope.

Care to discuss the director a bit?

JL: Director Delbert Mann previously worked on MARTY and SEPARATE TABLES as one of the most successful TV directors (with over a hundred live dramas between 1949 and 1955 under his belt) making the transition to the big screen; not surprisingly TV becomes an additional “character” quite often in his films and the domination Madison Avenue has over the electronic tube is made quite obvious in the commercial making scenes. The screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning has plenty to say about how advertisers sell you any product regardless if it useful to your life or not. In this case, we see VIP getting commercial treatment before Jerry, Pete and Rebel Davis the VIP Girl even know what it is.

TB: We should mention that Paul Henning would go on to create enormously successful sitcoms on television after this film. The Beverly HillbilliesPetticoat Junction and Green Acres were all just around the corner. Shows that featured backwards characters.

JL: LOVER COME BACK is both ahead of its time...and a bit backwards...in regards to gender relations.

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The wild party of J. Paxton Miller may have been considered a riot at the time, but modern viewers may squirm at the sight of so many ladies willingly becoming men's playthings. On the other hand, Doris Day is again playing a woman fully committed to her career and her secretary Millie (Ann B. Davis, “Alice” of The Brady Bunch) was obviously hired for her work efficiency rather than her looks, unlike Jerry and Pete's (even though sexy Karen Norris and Donna Douglas do make the most of their limited roles).

When Carol and Jerry fuss about “my baby," they do agree in the end as equal partners in a way not often covered in romantic comedies. When the liquor council board-members talk Jerry into buying off the account and halting the production of VIP due to potential damage to liquor sales, Jerry insists that Carol gets 25% of the profit even though she was currently trying to seek an annulment from him. My guess is that, after she finally agrees to have the child and stay married, they both work together with their own created agency. Certainly she can take some time off for child rearing but not give up her work entirely...and I suspect, despite all of his earlier partying and womanizing, Jerry is broad minded enough to allow her to do what she wants.

TB: Given the narrow-minded notions of the era, about women knowing and keeping to their place inside the home, I don't think Carol would have had an agency with Jerry. Jerry would have become the sole breadwinner. Maybe using business ideas that Carol provided for him, but allowing him to claim the credit. She would likely have been pregnant again, with a second and a third child. 

Anything else you want to add?

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JL: This is the one Rock Hudson movie I've seen where his shirt is off roughly ¼ of his screen-time. Hey...you might as well flaunt it if you got it. He is well tanned from the California sun and clearly had some training in the gym. Too bad they did not include a scene of him hitchhiking in his “seaweed shorts."

TB: Funny. Thanks Jlewis. Like always, I've enjoyed discussing an essential with you!

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Essential: THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963)

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“I'm not an actress. I'm a housewife.”

JL: Doris Day as Beverly Boyer, wife of Dr. Gerald (James Garner), says this initially to aging advertising tycoon Tom Fraleigh (Reginald Owen, whom we've seen in quite a few essentials discussed). They had been watching a TV commercial for Happy Soap featuring a blonde Jayne Mansfield imitation (Pamela Currin as Spot Checker, the “Happy Girl”) undressing in a bubble bath. She croons “There are so many things a girl must learn before she can become a glamorous movie star.” Previously Beverly was struggling with her own nudie cutie in a bubble bath, the pint-sized Maggie (Kym Karath, a year and a half before being cast as the youngest Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC).

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Mr. Fraleig's son Gardiner (Edward Andrews) and his wife (Arlene Francis) are both expecting a baby despite advancing middle age. I have to make note of Arlene's wonderful comic timing over the opening credits, expressing how happy (as soap) she is discovering that she is pregnant and taking an elevator full of curious men. (Interesting fashion statement: by late 1962, when this was filmed, most American men had pretty much stopped wearing hats in public due to President Kennedy seldom wearing them. Yet she is wearing one, perhaps suggesting that women were not changing their lives and fashions quite as fast as the men were.)

TB: Or that maybe they were now wearing a hat (as in having a career) outside the home, the way men had done before?

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JL: Overjoyed by Dr. Boyer's aid as the obstetrician in relaxing them (suggesting a romantic cruise and so forth) so that she can officially get “on the nest”, they invite the Boyers to dinner at the big mansion, where Daddy is much impressed by Mrs. Boyer. Of course, her first time for the cameras is a disaster...hard to believe, considering this is Doris Day.

TB: Yeah, talk about miscast! I'm kidding, but maybe Doris could have played it with a bit more awkwardness and less "natural" confidence. She hardly seems the type to not be herself and make a bunch of mistakes on camera.

But of course, we are supposed to understand that the character is venturing into foreign territory outside the home. Particularly how it affects her as well as her husband and children. Especially the husband whose male vanity will be threatened if she becomes a bigger success than him.

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JL: Yes. Being a doctor's wife is “career enough” for opinionated Gerald, who objects to all of this interfering with his life. In hindsight, this could be seen as ahead of the curve as feminist social commentary. Not that I myself consider her new career as a TV spokeswoman for hausfrau essentials (and I didn't quite understand all of the German jokes here a.k.a. Nazi story in a Playhouse TV show, a German housekeeper who replaces Olivia, etc.) much of a deal for that time, compared with, say, being a female obstetrician (more on that below) or the interior decoration and advertising jobs that she was quite accomplished with in the earlier PILLOW TALK and LOVER COME BACK.

TB: I agree. Selling soap is certainly not going to be seen as contributing to society in the same way a more educated and professional career woman would be contributing. Plus we know that her selling detergent is probably going to be short-term.

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She won't be saving the world and can quit at anytime. She can return to being a "normal" housewife again who watches TV when the kids are playing/napping, then goes to the store to buy soap so she can come back and wash her husband's clothes.

JL:As much as I enjoy these Doris Day comedies, they were essentially Disney comedies made for the over thirty crowd and did not intend to rock the boat any more than SON OF FLUBBER.

In fact, I feel that this film took a few steps backward in comparison to her earlier films going back to CALAMITY JANE and including the Rock Hudson co-star hits. It all ends with the man in charge and she is all too happy to return to him as “a doctor's wife."

TB: Exactly. While this is an exercise in comedy, it is also an exercise in the futility of a woman venturing out of her traditional, conservative sphere. The writers are deliberately creating a premise where the woman is only going to be validated by returning to the status quo. Their idea of the status quo. She cannot succeed outside the home, otherwise she won't be regarded as the sort of woman society adores and admires. The sort of woman that gives up her dreams and surrenders to the drudgery of domestic chores.

JL: This is despite all of the interesting talk about “our” money versus “your” money, he being called Mister Beverly by accident after her new-found fame and, most dramatically, she alone delivering the Fraleigh baby in a Rolls Royce. Why not allow her to work alongside him after some additional medical school training? Personally, if I was a little Maggie Boyer watching this, I would be getting mixed messages as to what this movie is telling me what my future holds.

TB: Think of all the little Maggies watching, then and now. Of course, we see it as a counter-productive time capsule. But people today still buy into these notions. Viewings of the film may uphold that mentality.

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JL: Leading to all this is the usual slapstick involving a battle of the spouses. In a fit of anger, Gerald kicks Happy Soap into their built-all-of-the-sudden backyard pool (where he drove the car into previously) and, as a result, we get one of the show pieces spectacle-wise involving soap suds galore. (“It's beautiful... like heaven.” In a film full of references to female anatomy, one sud is commented by the all-male construction crew as resembling a naked lady.)

TB: This segment of the film felt like something out of a Lucille Ball sitcom. And in fact, Lucy did have a similar comedic sequence on her last series Life with Lucy in the 1980s. Proving that feature films in the 1960s were resembling television more and more, Doris' own career increasingly heads in this direction since her last feature, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL, is indeed a glorified sitcom. Which was soon followed by a weekly sitcom called The Doris Day Show. You can see the trajectory and how she was being transitioned into lighter television fare.

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JL: There's a subtle nod to Jerry Lewis, whose comedies resemble this in some ways with the slapstick: a movie shown playing at the marquee is “The Respectful Professor” since Universal-International did not have the rights to showcase the Nutty kind (and intriguingly filmed during the same time as this one but I am sure the studios were well aware of what their rivals were doing).

Gerald must also stoke her jealousy and get her to stay home more by pretending to be “unfaithful."

TB: I found that to be the most objectionable part of the film. It seemed like something Rock Hudson's characters would have done in the previous movies. To manipulate the Doris character and get her back in line.

JL: Although some of the gags here are intentionally far-fetched (a.k.a. he plants a candid of him with some unknown woman at a restaurant and applies lipstick to his clothes), only in a comedy like this would you get a surreal line like “I'm surprised at you letting me go into the shower without my underwear.” Oh...they do sleep in twin beds since two kids are enough for now. This may have been among the last major screen features showing this since the times were a-changing.

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Yet it all works out in the end since Gerald is not all that Victorian of a husband as he states and at least understands her career needs. Would he have survived the seventies revolution? I think so. Gerald appears to be pretty good at adapting to what he isn't used to at first, including a working woman getting more pay than he does.

TB: I would say most of that is down to James Garner's interpretation of the material. In many ways I think he is Day's best costar in these kinds of vehicles. He comes across as realistic, even if the scenarios are entirely preposterous.

Care to discuss some of the supporting players?

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JL: Quite a few other familiar faces in the supporting cast worth mentioning. Carl Reiner, co-writer of this box office hit, gets into the act with some hilarious on-TV cameos and as the cop arresting Gerald for stopping suddenly on a highway. ZaSu Pitts from the earlier Hal Roach comedies and countless other classics plays housekeeper Olivia; sadly she would pass away during the production of IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, which succeeded this. Alice Pearce (another veteran from classics like ON THE TOWN and Bewitched) also appears briefly. Curiously Brian Nash as the other Boyer child only enjoyed limited success as a child actor, not getting blessed performing with Julie Andrews on something seen by the multitudes like his on-screen sister.

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TB: Good points. We should also mention the director.

JL: Despite the fact that Norman Jewison directed this and he would make some interesting forward-advancing features as the sixties progressed (including a most famous Best Picture winner covering race relations), I was a trifle disappointed with this movie much like you were with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON playing it safe with Frank Capra's all-male U.S. Senate. There were, in my personal opinion, some lost opportunities here that could have been developed much further.

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Then again, as I stated above, this film was made merely to please the masses without making them too uncomfortable. It is a sixties film still somewhat stuck in the fifties...and that is what audiences did want at the time, making it an 11 million dollar hit at the box office.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. THE THRILL OF IT ALL is available on home video and it airs occasionally on TCM.

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“feature films in the 1960s were resembling television more and more Doris' own career increasingly heads in this direction since her last feature, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL, is indeed a glorified sitcom. Which was soon followed by a weekly sitcom called The Doris Day Show.”
 

I think you pretty much sum up a decade in Hollywood with these lines. Backtracking to the years 1948-1955, we see Hal Roach, Revue Studios (later absorbed by Universal), Screen Gems a.k.a. Columbia, Disney, Warner, 20th Century Fox and MGM make their first tv shows, followed a few years later by United Artists. Paramount was doing small stuff here and there as early as ‘49, I think, but really didn’t get fully involved until the Gulf & Western/Desilu period. So... by the sixties, these tv shows were basically what was preventing all of the studio backlots from getting bulldozed to the ground right away. Naturally quite a number of the films of that period, including the economical but profitable Doris Day, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley vehicles, looked pretty much like the tv shows using the same sets.

I had referenced Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when discussing Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice due to most of the same patrons attending both films two years apart. The former looks like a tv program with its limited sets while the latter has more outdoor scenery and spiffy editing. This brings me to that one very trendy movie you referenced when talking about the latter. It was pretty obvious that Columbia’s  Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice would not have been made without The Graduate almost reaching a Sound of Music box office level. Ditto other studios like Paramount with Goodbye Columbus, another Graduate offspring. I think this was the point when Hollywood finally departed from its big screen / small screen look and pretty much everything for the big screen had a more “shot on location” look regardless of its budget.

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36 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

“feature films in the 1960s were resembling television more and more Doris' own career increasingly heads in this direction since her last feature, WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL, is indeed a glorified sitcom. Which was soon followed by a weekly sitcom called The Doris Day Show.”
 

I think you pretty much sum up a decade in Hollywood with these lines. Backtracking to the years 1948-1955, we see Hal Roach, Revue Studios (later absorbed by Univeral), Screen Gems a.k.a. Columbia, Disney, Warner, 20th Century Fox and MGM make their first tv shows, followed a few years later by United Artists. Paramount was doing small stuff here and there as early as ‘49, I think, but really didn’t get fully involved until the Gulf & Western/Desilu period. So... by the sixties, these tv shows were basically what was preventing all of the studio backlots from getting bulldozed to the ground right away. Naturally quite a number of the films of that period, including the economical but profitable Doris Day, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley vehicles, looked pretty much like the tv shows using the same sets.

I had referenced Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when discussing Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice due to most of the same patrons attending both films two years apart. The former looks like a tv program with its limited sets while the latter has more outdoor scenery and spiffy editing. This brings me to that one very trendy movie you referenced when talking about the latter. It was pretty obvious that Columbia’s  Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice would not have been made without The Graduate almost reaching a Sound of Music box office level. Ditto other studios like Paramount with Goodbye Columbus, another Graduate offspring. I think this was the point when Hollywood finally departed from its big screen / small screen look and pretty much everything for the big screen had a more “shot on location” look regardless of its budget.

Excellent comment. Coinciding with this is how the old school movie stars begin to transition over to television. Mainly because they do not want to play supporting roles in motion pictures under younger newer stars.

In addition to Doris Day, we see Rock Hudson appearing on a regular series with Susan St. James. And we have people like Jimmy Stewart and Glenn Ford try, but fail, to headline a hit TV show.

The ones who didn't want to do television, they basically went into semi-retirement or full retirement-- people like Cary Grant and Gene Kelly who couldn't even be bothered to do a special episode of The Love Boat or Murder She Wrote.

One old school movie star of yesteryear still going strong on the big screen in the 1970s was John Wayne. Though I am sure if he had lived longer, he would have eventually joined the TV bandwagon in the 1980s...if not a weekly series then in high profile TV movies and miniseries.

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What I especially liked about Wayne, despite his strong polarizing conservative politics and his questionable interviews like the one he did for Playboy (but, hey!... at least he sat for an interview with them!), was his sense of humor. This is something that tends to be lacking in our current, much more polarizing, time. He appeared memorably on Maude opposite "The Liberal" Beau Arthur. Dallas was a another good show for keeping famous stars of the classic era, including Howard Keel. Animation voice-over work also kept many of the formally famous employed, such as those classic Rankin-Bass puppetoons like Santa Claus Is Coming to Town with Fred Astaire and Here Comes Peter Cottontail with Danny Kaye and Vincent Price.

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Coming up:

AUGUST 2020

Foreign animation

August 1: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

August 8: THE TALE OF THE FOX (1937)

August 15: THE EMPEROR'S NIGHTINGALE (1949)

August 22: MAUGLI (1973)

August 29: GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)

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Essential: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926)

TB: For the month of August I asked Jlewis to select a theme and choose five films. He chose foreign animation. I am going to be reading these reviews along with the rest of you...then adding a few comments afterward. Since this is an area of film I know little about, my comments will be more opinion-based, with me stating what moved me or what I felt was effective.

As Jlewis discusses below, the first title he chose, PRINCE ACHMED, is a bit difficult to find online. There are some clips on YouTube, along with a documentary about the filmmaker, Lottie Reiniger. A complete version of PRINCE ACHMED is on the Internet Archive, with the original German titles and Spanish subtitles. That is the version I watched. Anyway, let's turn things over to Jlewis...

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JL: DIE GESCHICHTE DES PRINZEN ACHMED a.k.a. THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) is a very unique, one of a kind motion picture that is unlike anything else you would see, except maybe Michel Ocelot's French efforts made eight decades later... also generally unseen by most reading these posts. It is a 65 minute fantasy made primarily by one woman, Lotte Reiniger, with just a few fellow artists of Berlin's bohemian pre-Hitler scene assisting mostly with the background art and technical needs, among them the legendary Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, Alexander Kardan, Walter Türk and Carl Koch, the last being her husband and key camera operator.

It is pretty much an “indy” film by a female director long before such things became fashionable, a special project that consumed her for three years straight in its making. The third feature length animated production ever made, at a time when animated cartoons rarely lasted more than 20 minutes and probably three quarters of them were under 6 at most, it is also the oldest over-an-hour cartoon still in existence today. Argentina's Quirino Christiani's previous efforts of 1917-18 are still considered lost and one supposedly destroyed by the authorities in power for political reasons.

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The primary technique employed is silhouette cut-out animation, using flat cardboard and paper cut-outs painted jet-black with limbs and other body parts attached intricately to make them movable, then animated frame by frame for the camera. The overall visual effect is inspired by the stick and hand manipulated puppets of European and Chinese shadow plays.

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Among the earliest examples of this technique still surviving is the British short THE CLOWN AND THE DONKEY (1910), made by Charles Armstrong for Charles Urban's company... and it is not even his first since he made an even earlier SPORTING MICE that is now believed to be lost. Lotte Reiniger did her first short silhouette animation in December 1919, making six shorts total before starting this ambitious feature in 1923.

It isn't employed throughout the entire film. Other interesting effects include paint-on glass for the genie coming out of the lamp and other dissolve-like visuals, this being an animation style that Caroline Leaf later popularized in the seventies with her National Film Board of Canada work. Also there appears to be some pioneering optical effects involving photographed fire in one key scene.

Despite being made 11 years before Walt Disney's first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, it is not “primitive” in any way and remains a fresh and dazzling spectacle to view even today. Speaking of Disney, he was well aware of its existence at the time he was making that feature, one that the Hollywood press would dub the first of its kind when it actually wasn't, and studied her early use of a multi-plane system involving glass sheets with scenery painted and figures moving on them, each carefully placed a distance apart to create added depth. In PRINCE ACHMED, the effects are particularly good in the shot of our hero flying a mechanical horse over a vast city-scape.

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The story utilizes the same original sources as THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, ALADDIN (and his lamp) and 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS, all fodder for many live-action and animated features throughout the century; the animated kind also include the popular 1992 Disney feature and a 1959 UPA-Columbia production featuring Mr. Magoo. What all of these films have in common is that they have virtually nothing in common, involving characters sporting the same names but doing totally different activities on screen.

For example, in both the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks and 1940 Alexander Korda Technicolor versions of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, Achmed or Achmad is a lover of the Princess but Reiniger has him as the royally privileged brother of Princess, given the very specific name of Disnarde here. Instead, he falls in love with Pari Banu, the princess/queen of Wak Wak, and saves Aladdin so he can become Achmed's brother-in-law.

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There is a villain in all of these film adaptations who challenges our heroes. In the other films, he is often labeled Jaffar; here, he is merely an “African sorcerer” who creates a flying horse that purposely sends Achmed away so he can take over his father's kingdom. Despite temporarily being imprisoned by Achmed and Disnarde's caliph father, he manages to escape and later abducts Pari Banu to sell off as a future bride for a Chinese emperor (cue some mild but notable ethnic “oriental” stereotyping here) whom Achmed, again, must save her from. Meanwhile, his sister's love interest... Aladdin himself... has adventures of his own, battling a bizarre tree monster whom Achmed rescues him from.

Despite its episodic nature, the story is not terribly challenging to follow, although I was watching an online copy lacking English subtitles. However the action does happen a bit too fast at times. For example, Achmed battles a couple of beasties as well as the sorcerer in very rapid succession, including a multi-headed hydra that grows more heads as each one is hacked off by his sword.

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In later stop-motion spectacles, Ray Harryhausen took his time with his similar battle scenes. At times, Reiniger's battles feel like some drug-induced acid trip with Achmed succeeding even faster than Mighty Mouse. Perhaps she could have spent more time building these up better even if it extended the running time from 65 to, say, 75 minutes.

There is a witch who helps Achmed and she is rather interesting herself. She is a thrumpy, ugly looking dame with curious plants growing from her clothing. Yet she is quite the heroine and I wonder if Reiniger saw a little of herself in this creation as she assists Achmed in defeating the hydra so she can have Aladdin's lamp...and she wants it for positive reasons rather than evil ones like the villain sorcerer. Regarding him, there is a climatic battle of wits between the two that Walt Disney's crew obviously analyzed when they worked on a similar scene in SWORD IN THE STONE between Mad Madam Mim and Merlin: each transforms into different animals (scorpion, giant rooster, etc.) to conquer the other.

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Unfortunately this labored production was not a huge success when it opened in Berlin in May 1926, failing to recoup its costs initially. According to a great documentary on her life, some of her aging friends interviewed in the 1980s after her passing felt that the overall look of this film, so different than the live action features general audiences were used to, may have rendered it too unorthodox for their tastes. She would later attempt a second feature, but DR. DOOLITTLE wound up as a “featurette” instead. Many other short films were made in Germany, France (after she left as Hitler came to power) and finally England where she settled in her later years. Both her and her husband also worked with the great Jean Renoir in several live-action projects of great interest.

Initially this was shown with color tints, but the master nitrate print was lost over time and all copies that were made existed in black and white. Thanks to enough notes taken, the tinting effects could be digitally added a second time around for its 1998-99 restoration for the DVD market.

This documentary excerpt (the full film is a great one to watch but hard to find online) covers the making of this special film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTOe5hCmwB4

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. When I watched the film, it seemed quite lovely. But I also found it somewhat primitive. As you stated, Lottie had been making short animated films for several years before she attempted this longer project; and this film took her three years to make.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of the story is that after she does movement with some of the characters-- whether it's a flying scene, or a battle scene-- the characters suddenly stop. There are pauses each time after the characters move. I feel the film is not edited well; where she should have gone in and snipped out those extra frames where the characters are still for a second or two between actions. It would have felt that the motion was more continuous if she had.

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Perhaps the reason she has these pauses in between actions is that it is meant to evoke the use of puppets, where the puppeteer does a motion with the character on a stick, then stops for the audience to respond, even applaud. But it sort of defeats the purpose of an animated feature, which in terms of action is supposed to resemble live performance. Actors on a stage, or actors in a scene from a movie, do not keep pausing.

Another thing that gets a thumbs down from me is the fact that all the silhouettes are in black. I think she could have been more creative and had some figures in gray or dark green. Or even reversed the effect, and for some sequences, had the background in black, with the figures in white. It got too predictable that the characters were always in black. Also, because they were in black, we couldn't see any specific facial expressions or distinguishing marks to convince us they were real and not cardboard cutouts.

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Now she does present the genie in light blue. He is the only character whose facial expressions we get to see clearly. It would have been nice if other characters had such detailed facial features.

Maybe during the fire sequence, some of the characters could have turned red as if they were becoming part of the fire. Yet, she keeps them in black silhouette. It just seemed too easy, not differentiating the characters' color schemes.

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You already mentioned how some of the action scenes feel rushed. I feel she's jamming too much story into 65 minutes. It's easy to see why the 1992 Disney animated feature limits Achmed and focuses on Aladdin. You cannot really have two main protagonists, and two love stories of equal importance, since it sort of pulls the audience away from one story when the focus suddenly switches to the other story, then back again. A clearer narrative is needed, with one main hero and heroine.

Now if this film was built around the villain, and it was about evil schemes against these different heroes and heroines, then maybe that would have worked better.

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The payoff would have been greater when it came time for the sorcerer to do battle with the witch. In some ways, it would have been like Oberon and Titania's story from A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, which might have better unified all the separate story strands.

I don't dislike the film. It's charming and quite visually impressive. But I am reluctant to throw the word pioneer around since I feel that's an overused term and sometimes gives early filmmakers a "free pass" as to why they may not have been more effective. Personally, I think she probably should have spent more than three years on it; and as you say, she could have expanded on some of it, to create stronger pacing and cohesion. It's a valiant effort but ultimately for me, not as satisfying overall as I expected it would be.

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Although animated features may not be your favored choice for movie commentary, you did have plenty to say about this one. In regards to the silhouette animation and every character being black (a "thumbs down"), you do have to keep in mind that audiences of the 1920s were more accepting of its technique overall since most of them were familiar with shadow puppets in their youth. The only difference here is No Strings Attached. I saw plenty of shadow puppet theater in my youth too, but... then again... I had a rather antiquated childhood full of "primitive" entertainment and watched an awful lot of PBS.  The earliest "movies" of the 19th century, intriguingly enough, involved toys like the zoetrope that also focused on silhouettes. Of course, Reiniger did not stick exclusively to this format and did do some color cut-out animation of the non-silhouette kind that may have accomplished some of your suggestions listed here.

I view her as a fascinating singular talent who was a self-made artist first and film-maker second. Think of her along the same lines of the equally unique Norman McLaren, who made many films that didn't even involve a camera! No doubt, Reiniger was too avant-garde for Hollywood tastes, but I do wonder what would have happened had Hollywood saw her as another Disney and gave her a big budget, which this film obviously did NOT have. Plus Technicolor and a special effects team to support her.

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29 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

Although animated features may not be your favored choice for movie commentary, you did have plenty to say about this one. In regards to the silhouette animation and every character being black (a "thumbs down"), you do have to keep in mind that audiences of the 1920s were more accepting of its technique overall since most of them were familiar with shadow puppets in their youth. The only difference here is No Strings Attached. I saw plenty of shadow puppet theater in my youth too, but... then again... I had a rather antiquated childhood full of "primitive" entertainment and watched an awful lot of PBS.  The earliest "movies" of the 19th century, intriguingly enough, involved toys like the zoetrope that also focused on silhouettes. Of course, Reiniger did not stick exclusively to this format and did do some color cut-out animation of the non-silhouette kind that may have accomplished some of your suggestions listed here.

I view her as a fascinating singular talent who was a self-made artist first and film-maker second. Think of her along the same lines of the equally unique Norman McLaren, who made many films that didn't even involve a camera! No doubt, Reiniger was too avant-garde for Hollywood tastes, but I do wonder what would have happened had Hollywood saw her as another Disney and gave her a big budget, which this film obviously did NOT have. Plus Technicolor and a special effects team to support her.

Not sure why you're saying that animated features are not my favored choice for movie commentary. A few summers ago I did a month of Disney animation from the 1990s. So I think that comment is erroneous.

I do think Reiniger's style is primitive but that is not a put-down. It just means she was not as developed as a filmmaker as I expected her to be. She didn't have much experience behind her as a filmmaker when she attempted such a large-scale project. I think her biggest mistake is not narrowing the story down to one couple. Or as I suggested the focus could have been on the sorcerer and witch as a couple waging their own battles that brought in these other couples, like we see in Midsummer Night's Dream. Reiniger was trying to put too much into a 65-minute film and it lacks some focus as a result.

I don't think we need to make excuses about her being an avante-garde artist, since there are plenty of avante-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren and Orson Welles who managed to have hits that are more cohesive. And no, a filmmaker does not need a big budget or Technicolor. It really comes down to the decisions the artist makes and how they execute it. Again, I didn't care for some of Reiniger's decisions, especially since she she kept all the characters in black, with the exception of the Genie, which just seemed a bit lazy. She could still have made them seem like shadow puppets by using grays, dark greens and other darker colors besides black...or as I said, she could have inverted it for one sequence, where the silhouettes were done in white, silver or gold against a black backdrop. 

One thought I had was how this story would have been told, on a truly large scale, if someone like Erich von Stroheim had dabbled in animation. Not saying it would have been another GREED, but I think a more developed and experienced filmmaker in 1926 would have found a way to do this ambitious story in a way that Reiniger wanted to do, but couldn't quite pull off.

Again the film is worth watching and has its own distinct charms, but it just fell short of expectations for me.

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My comment was in regards to yours: "Since this is an area of film I know little about". Yes... yes... YESSSSSSS... I goofed in the way I expressed it. I should not have used the word "favored" since that wasn't exactly the word I was thinking of. My whole point here is that you did quite well with some interesting commentary in multiple paragraphs regardless.

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Essential: THE TALE OF THE FOX (1937)

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Jlewis wrote:

LE ROMAN DE RENARD a.k.a. TALE OF THE FOX has an interesting history. Now...you will have to forgive me here, but I will be dropping some other title references here and there, as well as some video links... which we generally do NOT do with these essential reviews. It is important that everybody here investigate the animation techniques involved and the creativity involved. What makes this film a particularly exciting essential to study is just how it expands the medium of not just animation, but cinema itself, into unexplored territories not conquered previously.

I will begin with a brief career summary of Władysław Starewicz, who was responsible for some of the earliest animated shorts made in Russia (and practically anywhere in the world since there were only a few experiments before then that you can count on one hand) involving the stop-motion process of moving an inanimate figure frame by frame to create the illusion of motion. His earliest effort in 1910 was LUCANUS CERVUS involving actual stag beetles that were deceased and “reanimated” this way.

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Later on, he created more insect puppets, some involving actual insect bodies and others being puppets created from other materials to look like insects and slightly larger in scale. His most popular early effort, shown in theaters all around the world in 1912, was THE CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE (initially titled MEST' KINEMATOGRAFICHESKOGO OPERATORA).

After doing ten or so of these little films featuring insects and other animal and human puppets, he then moved successfully into directing live-action features as one of the major players in the early booming Russian film industry. His career was cut short in 1918 when many involved in that industry suddenly discovered that they were on the losing side of the Revolution. Eventually he settled in post-war France, changing his name to the easier to pronounced “Ladislas Starevich” and setting up a new studio of his own, dedicated exclusively to puppet films. Initially he operated in Joinville-le-pont, then moved by 1924 to Fontenay-sous-Bois.

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With his wife Anna and daughters Irina a.k.a. Irène and Jeane assisting, he had no big team of a hundred employees like Walt Disney in his heyday. The Stareviches were pain staking in their patience and hard work, crafting mini-masterpieces that are still enjoyable today, not to mention quite Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli-like in their attention to detail.

With his early Russian experiments, he was several years ahead of American stop-motion pioneers of the U.S., namely Willis O'Brien and Howard S. Moss, and his French films predate the more famous works of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen by a decade or two as well. These newer films focused more on cute dogs, birds, frogs and humans rather than insects and arachnids, although the first of the post-war bunch was IN THE CLAWS OF THE SPIDER a.k.a. DANS LES GRIFFES DE L'ARAIGNÉE, 1920.

After completing LA PETITE PARADE, which I think it was his 13th film in France but can be corrected here, he then passionately devoted two full years to an all-feature length “talkie” adaptation of the popular French and German fables of Reynard the Fox, who outwits other animals in a medieval animal infested “town” and all sporting human clothes. These classic mini-stories go back pretty far in European literature, appearing in pre-Gutenberg paint-and-ink manuscripts dating to the late 1200s. They were popularized by noted writers over the centuries like Willem die Madoc maecte and Goethe.

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LE ROMAN DE RENARD was far more complicated than all of his earlier projects due to characters having to express actual dialogue for a soundtrack with mouths in motion to match, not to mention very expansive sets created with puppets to match. As a result, the bulk of production consumed all of his time and energy between the autumn of 1928 through early 1931 with additional tinkering during the next six years as it sat in a sort of limbo. Various technical issues plagued its completion, most notably producer Louis Naplas' still primitive sound by disc format being utilized at first.

The Stareviches kept busy...and generating a much needed income...with further shorter films involving much simpler soundtrack recordings and mostly pantomime action. These included a series featuring a cute puppy named Fétiche. Two of these made United States screens with limited fanfare, courtesy of Warner Brothers (re-titling 1933's FÉTICHE MASCOTTE as a “Vitaphone Variety” STUFFY'S ERRAND OF MERCY) and Paramount (1935's FÉTICHE SE MARIE becoming LULU IN LOVE). Then final financing and technical expertise to complete LE ROMAN DE RENARD came from an unexpected source...

…and a source that Starevich would have to downplay later in his life. UFA, the big German power-house now backed by Nazi money, was interested in making an adaptation of the popular fox fables for German screens and was much impressed by his film. They helped him finish it with a newly recorded German soundtrack. LE ROMAN DE RENARD officially premiered in Berlin on April 1, 1937 as REINECKE FUCHS. This was eight months before Walt Disney's SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, making it one of five animated features predating Disney.

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There is some debate as to when the new and improved French soundtrack, featuring a few familiar French actors (Claude Dauphin, Romain Bouquet, Laine, Sylvain Itkine and Léon Larive), was added with producer Roger Richebé involved. Some reference sources claim it was completed before the war started in 1939, but it was not officially released in Paris until April 1941, while the nation was being supervised by the Vichy government and Germany occupying. No doubt much of the confusion was deliberate as so many like Starevich were re-writing their own “histories” after the war, trying to disconnect any possible connections with Germany before or during the war.

Before getting into more history and influence, let me pause to get into the basic plot and cinematic elements of this production...

The storyline is quite episodic, being a collection of mini-stories that finally unify as a cohesive whole by the grand finale.

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Among the various episodes: Reynard outwits a crow in the opening scenes (in a nod to Aesop's earlier Greek tale); he then fools a wolf in some winter fishing (resulting in hunters fighting the wolf and he losing his tail in the process); outwits rabbits in a church setting (?!); during an official “vegetarian only” week, he tricks a bear into getting stuck in a well by pretending he is in “heaven” with the King Lion frequently getting his ambassador, a badger, to unsuccessfully negotiate with Reynard. Comedy is provided with musical interludes...and the queen Lioness is wooed by a Tom Cat (Jaime Plana providing the songs) behind her royal husband's back, fitting in well with so many other French “cheating” stories for the cinema.

Eventually war breaks out between the Lion's kingdom and Reynard, resulting in the fox almost getting hung for execution. The defense of the fox fortress involves plenty of juvenile antics by Reynard “Junior”, a pint size version of his daddy, getting the best of a battling rooster. Ultimately, there is a happy ending when our wily villain-hero is congratulated for his high intelligence and he gets promoted as royal minister!

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With its close ups of very intricate puppets full of facial expression, along with larger mass scenes involving smaller figurines in action against painted backdrops, I guess some modern day viewers will see some resemblances between this and KING KONG, another famous stop-motion masterpiece of the same time period (if also including actual humans and not just puppets and, therefore, not often considered an “animated feature” by most film historians).

Both films make use of multi-glass and partially painted-on forest settings and feature furry characters in rather ape-like poses. We do have a monkey included here, but he serves mostly as narrator rather than a major participant in the action; his voice being provided by veteran actor Claude Dauphin...and his online filmographies inaccurately list this among his earliest works due to the questionable dating of 1930, a key year of animation production but not the year Dauphin contributed his voice since the soundtrack was completed for the French version sometime between 1939 and 1941.

Although this is the most famous adaptation of the medieval Reynard stories, it is certainly not the only one and...yeah...I must do some additional title dropping, starting with one of the most interesting of the bunch: Sarra Mokil and Alexander Ptushko's LISA I VOLK (THE FOX AND THE WOLF) which adapts just the fox and wolf fishing sequence of the feature. Although shorter in length, it was also done in stop-motion animation and benefits greatly with the added novelty of full color, using a system Pavel Mershin developed that was much like Hollywood's Technicolor. Even more intriguing is the fact that it was distributed by Mosfilm to Soviet theaters in April 1937, the very same month the feature debuted in Berlin! (You can watch an incomplete version of LISA I VOLK here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_fChjc5GQ0 )

Just as there had been both German and French versions of Starevich's film, so too were later cel-animated TV adaptations made for French and German viewers, both taking many liberties from the original source and going off in different directions story-wise: MOI RENART (1985) and INSEGRIM IND REINEKE (1989), the latter a co-production with the great Shanghai studios in China. There was also a 2005 Luxembourg version done in CGI and an equally fascinating made-for-online viewing 2014 film featuring clever cut-out paper animation (which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWlur0jdyT4 ).

screen.jpeg

Apparently Walt Disney was also interested in the Reynard tales with preliminary work done around the time that 101 DALMATIANS was still in production. Ultimately Walt favored doing another medieval tale, THE SWORD IN THE STONE, over these instead. However, many story ideas were later incorporated into one of the post-Disney features, ROBIN HOOD (1973), which had its own “Reynard Hood” as the lead character outwitting Prince John, another lion, much like the Starevich feature.

Getting back briefly to Ladislav Starevich's career. Either due to the stress of getting this feature completed or just needing the rest after so many years of hard work, he would take a break from animation for several years, leaving the last of his puppy shorts, FÉTICHE PÈRE DE FAMILLE, unfinished in 1938. After the 1944 liberation, he briefly attempted a stab at Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, which later got made as a puppet stop-motion feature by the Czech master Jiri Trnka (whom we will cover shortly), and then completed his next project, ZANZABELLE A PARIS, in 1947. Six more puppet shorts were worked on before his death in 1965.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 8.58.53 PM 2.jpeg

LE ROMAN DE RENARD remains today as one of those great curiosity pieces provoking quite a few unanswered questions. Why was it not officially distributed in the United States? Was this due to it possibly “tainted” with German money back in 1937 and U.S. distributors being leery of it when it became more accessible after the war? Or was the fact that it was made in black and white a bigger problem? After all, most cartoon subjects made in America by the 1940s were in color, including all of the stop-motion George Pal Puppetoons resembling it. Perhaps there were problems recording an English soundtrack, but I kinda doubt it.

Then again, it is rather macabre entertainment for most Americans. For example, many cartoons of the era depicted foxes seducing barnyard fowl to their doom but not in quite so much gruesome detail. A rooster brings the actual skeleton of his wife as “evidence” of the fox’s crime and cute chicks call out “mommy!”

In any case, most American animators and art fanatics had to seek it out in either 16mm form or bootleg video since only Europeans had access to it even as late as the 1990s. Among these was a much impressed Wes Anderson whose FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009), based on a Roald Dahl book from 1970 instead of the medieval fables, paid homage to it with his own stop-motion and plenty of advanced-with-the-times cgi effects work. Too bad Criterion didn't handle this one on DVD like they did the Anderson film.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 9.05.00 PM

Despite its age, it holds up surprisingly well and continues to fascinate with repeated viewings. Like the Jiri Trnka films we will cover next, it opens the door to the expansive imagination and creativity of cinematic story telling. I am sure the story tellers of Reynard over the centuries would have loved a Starevich visualization, presented in such a unique way.

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For those who need a crash course in stop-motion animation, here is a quickie refresher. This video, like many others, goofs a bit with film dates: for a time, the imdb.com site used the year 1930 for our featured feature until it was corrected.

 

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Thank you Jlewis.

I thought I'd let you take over this week. 

I didn't provide any comments about THE TALE OF THE FOX, above, but these were a few of my thoughts:

1. The film was certainly innovative for its time.

2. I find it interesting how some filmmakers did have financial ties to the Nazi government, then tried to downplay that after the war.

3. I sort of wish he had done a feature length film on insects. That would have been cool!

4. I know people like to compare other animation to Disney's, but I feel Disney ripped off a lot of other sources and doesn't deserve to be used as a benchmark. My personal opinion, which I am sure others don't share.

5. One take away for me, reading your review, is how many years go into making animation films. Even now, with large creative teams. But these pioneers often had limited budgets and less staff working for them, than was ideal.

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Regarding your number 3: in 1998, Pixar and DreamWorks both released humanized insect flicks (A BUG’S LIFE and ANTZ) competing with each other and with production teams far larger than this fellow could have ever imagined. He only worked with his wife and daughters pretty much and spent every day solo moving these figures one frame at a time and having the patience for mistakes and accidents that required a re-do. This is why I tend to be less critical of animated films in comparison to their live action counterparts since they are truly labors of love, especially when the makers are limited in their help and resources. The whole computer generated effects revolution that began in the 1970s and exploded with Pixar industrializing it in the ‘90s (much as Disney did the cel animation) pretty much ended this laborious art form.

Most of us who actually take the time to study animation and film history will agree with your number 4, but we all know that the mass majority of average Americans who have limited time and interest in such matters will consider Disney the benchmark to all things animated and otherwise... so, yes, we are often forced to make reference to him regardless. Just like Shakespeare being the only writer of plays most average Americans can name off the top of their head.

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On 7/11/2020 at 9:06 AM, TopBilled said:

Essential: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

JL begins:

Paul Mazursky's big directorial debut (and wonderfully co-scripted by producer Larry Tucker) is basically in the same league as GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, also produced by Columbia, and other quintessential good-if-not-great crowd pleasers of the sixties that tapped into what moviegoers were most curious to see at the time. It may end a bit too abruptly and not milk its subject matter for all it is worth, but I still enjoy it after multiple viewings. Even today, it has plenty to say about relationships and honesty, fidelity versus infidelity.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.39.43 AM.jpeg

Although three of the names in the title commit...gasp!...adultery (more of a no-no back then than today), this is a surprisingly chaste film that lies somewhere in-between a Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy (Dyan Cannon wears as much eye liner and lip gloss as Doris under the sheets) and a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie with just enough bare tops on display, but not involving our star actresses, to warrant an R-rating. As with a number of box office successes, there was a feeble attempt to create a TV series out of it years later.

TB: Yes, I think the TV series was pretty much a flop. Definitely "tamer" since it had to contend with broadcast standards censorship. It aired around a dozen episodes in 1973. A young Robert Urich and Anne Archer played the main couple. Archer obviously was cast on the strength of her resemblance to Natalie Wood.

We should point out that the cast of the original movie features Robert Culp, who had made films, typically in supporting roles. But he was known more to audiences as a television performer in the late 1960s.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.37.09 AM

JL: Robert Culp, who was famous at the time due to I Spy but less familiar today than his co-stars, and Natalie Wood, who needs no introduction, play the liberal-minded Sanders, Bob and Carol; he being a documentary filmmaker and she a rather bored, but pampered, housewife. They spend a weekend at a place resembling (and maybe is) the famous Esalem, a California retreat for new age yoga, relaxation, nude sun bathing and psychological therapy.

TB: You gotta love how they fit all the therapies in. It's one stop place for bourgeoisie healing.

JL: Bob is a trifle skeptical at first but Carol is more open to this getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings that starts out with the soft spoken leader (Greg Mullavey) getting them all to look at each other directly in the face and display total honesty about everything.

Meanwhile, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould play the Sanders' more earthbound (read: uptight) friends, Ted and Alice Henderson.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.49.29 AM.jpeg

At first they merely are amused by this great weekend transformation during a discussion at an Italian restaurant, especially after Carol demonstrates “total honesty” with the waiter (Lee Bergere) by asking if he “genuinely” hopes that their food is satisfactory and even later tries to re-explain herself and apologize to him in the kitchen.

By the way, I absolutely adore Natalie Wood in her blue denim mini-skirt. Not to mention Dyan in her solid yellow with matching hair ribbon, repeated in red/black combo, virginal white, sky blue and as pink as a Playboy bunny in her later scenes.

All continues hunky dory until after a late after-party get-together involving a bit of marijuana smoking and stirred libidos. As the Hendersons leave, Carol bounces out with some all important information. She recently learned Bob had an affair, he was totally honest about it, she forgave him and she thinks it is all “beautiful” and worth sharing with her best friends!

TB: To be honest, this part of the plot seems rather absurd to me. In fact it seems like a sitcom plot, where the main character promises not to lie for a week and is honest to the point of being painful. We've seen it on dozens of shows with Lucille Ball and John Ritter. In this case, Mazursky is doing it as a bit of a device to draw the Hendersons more into the story...so that they are now part of the Sanders' process of "truth" and "discovery."

JL: Ted is amused, but Alice is disgusted beyond belief. I think Alice represents roughly 75% of the moviegoers seeing this in 1969 since most at them were well beyond their thirties and couldn't quite grasp all of the new “freedoms."

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.02.04 AM.jpeg

JL: Back in the bedroom, it is obvious that Alice is no longer In The Mood while Ted is feeling frisky. After all, Bob's affair and Carol being so candid and comfortable about it is as traumatic to Alice as her own mother's death! Oh pleeeeeeeze.

Actually I greatly enjoy this lengthy bedroom conversation between these two (a key reason both were nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles) with her at first not wanting him to touch her, then they negotiate about whether or not to “do it” despite all of her rage over Bob and finally culminating with his telling her to not touch him!

TB: I agree the scene works rather well. But one of the problems I have with this set-up is that the filmmakers are not quite sure at times which couple should be most in focus. Or if the two couples deserve equal prominence since they may be reverse images of each other. Despite the "confusion" over which two are the main characters, or if all four are main characters, we do get some satiric moments and the comic potential of the storyline is exploited rather well.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.04.44 AM.jpeg

JL: Later Alice tries to get things out of her system with her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich). He displays a rather stoic reaction as she talks about “my” (instead of “our”) five year son whom she “loves." Meanwhile she only “likes” her husband. She can't handle sex and body parts, using nicknames instead of medical terms. When she has her “Freudian slip” mentioning Bob instead of Ted, it becomes apparent that she is worried her husband will do a no-no like Bob's despite always being faithful to her.

TB: When I watched this particular scene I couldn't help but think of Otto Preminger's SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971) which came out a few years later. Again Dyan Cannon is submerged in an upper class melange of psychological and sexual dysfunction. I guess Preminger was a fan of her performance here in Mazursky's film, causing him to cast her later in his film which covers some of the same "issues." 

JL: On a plane bound for Miami, Bob makes the mistake of suggesting to Ted that his affair was no big deal and, heck, you might as well take advantage of golden opportunities. Intriguingly, Bob himself decides NOT to have a second affair when given the opportunity on another trip at home, but he later confronts Carol herself having one of her own with a much younger and hunkier tennis instructor named Horst (Horst Ebersberg).

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.10.57 AM

TB: The old "what's good for the goose" routine...! The tennis instructor is a soapy stereotype and since he's so much better looking than Bob, you have to wonder why Carol would even look twice at Bob again.

JL: What I like best about this movie is that it puts the shoe on the other foot so that the man, who takes such things for granted, must now reconsider his own feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. We get Culp's best acting scene but, of course, you know he is a dedicated liberal type who “does not use violence in this house” so he invites Horst to stay for a drink.

TB: I guess this keeps the tone light and prevents the film from descending into histrionics, which is what happens in THE GRADUATE when Elaine learns Benjamin's been having an affair with her mother. But that's another story!

JL: In Las Vegas, where everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Alice has had plenty of time with her shrink and is no longer judging her best friends by “my morals” and the foursome enjoy themselves in the executive suite.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.27.47 PM.jpeg

TB: This of course leads to the film's most "celebrated" and "liberating" image of the four of them in bed together. If you do a Google search of the film, nearly 80% of the images come from this portion of the movie. It's quite the identifier. 

JL: Everybody is now more amused than shocked to learn about Carol being even with Bob with her sex-capade, but then Ted decides to confess to his affair with a mouthful of yummy nuts! This sends Alice through the roof and she instantly starts undressing and demanding to swap hubbies with Carol, insisting that Bob must find her attractive enough to go to the sack with her. The great O word is expressed, which I can't print here.

When they finally all decide to go to the next level, we gets some great comic scenes with Elliot Gould in particular.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.38.12 AM.png

I find him much more more likable in this movie than in M*A*S*H. He fusses in the bathroom in preparation and takes way too long getting his undergarments off... under the covers. He is even more modest about his body than his own wife!

TB: This is where I think the film becomes a very immature thesis on sexual relationships. Yes, this is a comedy and we're supposed to find some of it tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately it's just a bunch of overgrown "kids" who don't know the first thing about real adult interactions.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.37.50 AM

And the fact that Ted's confession forces Alice, who has been rather reserved up to this point, to suddenly want to get it on with Bob-- that seems very contrived to me. Like Mazursky and fellow screenwriter Larry Tucker couldn't actually come with a realistic way for them all to copulate together.

And then, ultimately, because they cannot venture into X-rated territory and remain commercially marketable, we don't see them having sex with each other. Plus, I think in this situation, with everyone relaxed, there'd be some bisexuality playing out. But this film, as you said earlier, is chaste. It's timid. And adolescent. Not as frank or grown up or adult as it could have been. It is an American film trying to do what provocative European films do, and not being able to pull it off, pun intended.

***

JL: So did they “do it” or not? A little video segment on YouTube has Quentin Tarantino suggesting that maybe they all all “did it," but I kinda think they “didn't."

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.44.58 AM

TB: Yeah, they didn't do it. The film leads up to the promise of sexual liberation but then it chickens out and tries to act vague and clever about it.

JL: We get a questionable scene of Bob looking up at the camera as he kisses Alice, which Quentin thinks is him shooing away the audience for more privacy. I think Bob's expression is more along the lines of “maybe I should not go through with this since the concept was more exciting than the reality."

TB: Yep. I'm with you on this interpretation. Ultimately the film needed to have a moral ending for American audiences. Where the two marriages remain intact and their foursome goes nowhere.

JL: In the end, it is all about the Jackie DeShannon song. What the world needs now is love sweet love. Likely these couples won't stray further in the future, but if they do, they will always be honest in true Me Decade fashion (and this does feel more like a seventies film in the end rather than a sixties film). The surreal parade scene is every liberal's dream of a world united in multiple races and genders.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.46.17 AM.png

TB: Sorry to burst your bubble, but I still don't think this film measured up like it should have. It often takes the easy way out. It doesn't allow the characters to become fully fleshed out, faults and all. The characters aspire to nothing basically and become amoral in a glib sort of cute way. What these four individuals are going through, is not presented in a meaningful treatise, examining possible consequences in a realistic light.

It's clear to me they had to keep the characters likable at the end, or else these stars' careers might have come to a screeching halt. I think one of the couples should have gone too far, should have reached the end of their marriage; while the other couple became more reasonable and saved from the debauchery. That is, if they are meant to be true reverse images of each other. Again I think a more mature European filmmaker would have done justice to the story.

Even though it was filmed in the post-code period, it still seems bound by remnants of the production code. And it seems to be too much in keeping with "good taste" which ironically causes a very dishonest version of what this story is. Anyway, since you obviously enjoyed the picture more than I did, I will let you finish things up with a few positive remarks...

***

JL: Much of this film's charm for me personally lies in its time-capsule appeal. So many little things on visual display represent what was so “trendy” back at the time of its principal photography (November-December 1968), but now look like ancient relics of a bygone era. Obviously Las Vegas has changed immensely since then. We get at least two subtle digs at the presidential election with one visitor at the California retreat reading a newspaper lampooning LBJ and Nixon (perhaps this scene was shot just after the latter defeated Humphrey and Wallace), followed later by two minor characters discussing whether or not they should have bothered voting (a question expanded upon later in Hal Ashby's SHAMPOO, set during this exact same time period but filmed post-Watergate).

Meanwhile, a trio of possibly (oh...heck, any modern viewer can see that they definitely are) gay men listen in on a conversation about love and honesty at the restaurant pre-Stonewall. We even get a bit part by Daniel Striped Tiger at a time when Fred Rogers was among the newest faces on TV.

The fashion show is especially impressive, with the false eyelashes and Nehru sweatshirts (not jackets anymore) going out of style between the time cameras stopped rolling and the time it finally hit theaters in September 1969.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.38.41 AM.jpeg

Of course, Bob must make sure his love beads are on, shirt or no shirt. However everything that Natalie Wood wears is hip and ahead of its time, especially the plaid pants in our early scenes that would not take the nation by storm for another two years or so. Plus Bob and Carol's swinging California pad is pretty groovy with a huge dictionary (!?) opened up in the living room. I am guessing that Natalie says “groovy” at least five times on screen, but I will let the experts analyze that specific detail further.

The movie always leaves me with this warm afterglow that is hard to define. I guess it has to do with the wide-eyed innocence of the characters and the movie's intentions, especially in that final scene of solidarity among all kinds of people. What could be worse to watch on screen?

 

On 7/11/2020 at 9:06 AM, TopBilled said:

Essential: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)

JL begins:

Paul Mazursky's big directorial debut (and wonderfully co-scripted by producer Larry Tucker) is basically in the same league as GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, also produced by Columbia, and other quintessential good-if-not-great crowd pleasers of the sixties that tapped into what moviegoers were most curious to see at the time. It may end a bit too abruptly and not milk its subject matter for all it is worth, but I still enjoy it after multiple viewings. Even today, it has plenty to say about relationships and honesty, fidelity versus infidelity.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.39.43 AM.jpeg

Although three of the names in the title commit...gasp!...adultery (more of a no-no back then than today), this is a surprisingly chaste film that lies somewhere in-between a Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedy (Dyan Cannon wears as much eye liner and lip gloss as Doris under the sheets) and a Russ Meyer nudie-cutie with just enough bare tops on display, but not involving our star actresses, to warrant an R-rating. As with a number of box office successes, there was a feeble attempt to create a TV series out of it years later.

TB: Yes, I think the TV series was pretty much a flop. Definitely "tamer" since it had to contend with broadcast standards censorship. It aired around a dozen episodes in 1973. A young Robert Urich and Anne Archer played the main couple. Archer obviously was cast on the strength of her resemblance to Natalie Wood.

We should point out that the cast of the original movie features Robert Culp, who had made films, typically in supporting roles. But he was known more to audiences as a television performer in the late 1960s.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.37.09 AM

JL: Robert Culp, who was famous at the time due to I Spy but less familiar today than his co-stars, and Natalie Wood, who needs no introduction, play the liberal-minded Sanders, Bob and Carol; he being a documentary filmmaker and she a rather bored, but pampered, housewife. They spend a weekend at a place resembling (and maybe is) the famous Esalem, a California retreat for new age yoga, relaxation, nude sun bathing and psychological therapy.

TB: You gotta love how they fit all the therapies in. It's one stop place for bourgeoisie healing.

JL: Bob is a trifle skeptical at first but Carol is more open to this getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings that starts out with the soft spoken leader (Greg Mullavey) getting them all to look at each other directly in the face and display total honesty about everything.

Meanwhile, Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould play the Sanders' more earthbound (read: uptight) friends, Ted and Alice Henderson.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.49.29 AM.jpeg

At first they merely are amused by this great weekend transformation during a discussion at an Italian restaurant, especially after Carol demonstrates “total honesty” with the waiter (Lee Bergere) by asking if he “genuinely” hopes that their food is satisfactory and even later tries to re-explain herself and apologize to him in the kitchen.

By the way, I absolutely adore Natalie Wood in her blue denim mini-skirt. Not to mention Dyan in her solid yellow with matching hair ribbon, repeated in red/black combo, virginal white, sky blue and as pink as a Playboy bunny in her later scenes.

All continues hunky dory until after a late after-party get-together involving a bit of marijuana smoking and stirred libidos. As the Hendersons leave, Carol bounces out with some all important information. She recently learned Bob had an affair, he was totally honest about it, she forgave him and she thinks it is all “beautiful” and worth sharing with her best friends!

TB: To be honest, this part of the plot seems rather absurd to me. In fact it seems like a sitcom plot, where the main character promises not to lie for a week and is honest to the point of being painful. We've seen it on dozens of shows with Lucille Ball and John Ritter. In this case, Mazursky is doing it as a bit of a device to draw the Hendersons more into the story...so that they are now part of the Sanders' process of "truth" and "discovery."

JL: Ted is amused, but Alice is disgusted beyond belief. I think Alice represents roughly 75% of the moviegoers seeing this in 1969 since most at them were well beyond their thirties and couldn't quite grasp all of the new “freedoms."

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.02.04 AM.jpeg

JL: Back in the bedroom, it is obvious that Alice is no longer In The Mood while Ted is feeling frisky. After all, Bob's affair and Carol being so candid and comfortable about it is as traumatic to Alice as her own mother's death! Oh pleeeeeeeze.

Actually I greatly enjoy this lengthy bedroom conversation between these two (a key reason both were nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles) with her at first not wanting him to touch her, then they negotiate about whether or not to “do it” despite all of her rage over Bob and finally culminating with his telling her to not touch him!

TB: I agree the scene works rather well. But one of the problems I have with this set-up is that the filmmakers are not quite sure at times which couple should be most in focus. Or if the two couples deserve equal prominence since they may be reverse images of each other. Despite the "confusion" over which two are the main characters, or if all four are main characters, we do get some satiric moments and the comic potential of the storyline is exploited rather well.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.04.44 AM.jpeg

JL: Later Alice tries to get things out of her system with her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich). He displays a rather stoic reaction as she talks about “my” (instead of “our”) five year son whom she “loves." Meanwhile she only “likes” her husband. She can't handle sex and body parts, using nicknames instead of medical terms. When she has her “Freudian slip” mentioning Bob instead of Ted, it becomes apparent that she is worried her husband will do a no-no like Bob's despite always being faithful to her.

TB: When I watched this particular scene I couldn't help but think of Otto Preminger's SUCH GOOD FRIENDS (1971) which came out a few years later. Again Dyan Cannon is submerged in an upper class melange of psychological and sexual dysfunction. I guess Preminger was a fan of her performance here in Mazursky's film, causing him to cast her later in his film which covers some of the same "issues." 

JL: On a plane bound for Miami, Bob makes the mistake of suggesting to Ted that his affair was no big deal and, heck, you might as well take advantage of golden opportunities. Intriguingly, Bob himself decides NOT to have a second affair when given the opportunity on another trip at home, but he later confronts Carol herself having one of her own with a much younger and hunkier tennis instructor named Horst (Horst Ebersberg).

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.10.57 AM

TB: The old "what's good for the goose" routine...! The tennis instructor is a soapy stereotype and since he's so much better looking than Bob, you have to wonder why Carol would even look twice at Bob again.

JL: What I like best about this movie is that it puts the shoe on the other foot so that the man, who takes such things for granted, must now reconsider his own feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. We get Culp's best acting scene but, of course, you know he is a dedicated liberal type who “does not use violence in this house” so he invites Horst to stay for a drink.

TB: I guess this keeps the tone light and prevents the film from descending into histrionics, which is what happens in THE GRADUATE when Elaine learns Benjamin's been having an affair with her mother. But that's another story!

JL: In Las Vegas, where everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Alice has had plenty of time with her shrink and is no longer judging her best friends by “my morals” and the foursome enjoy themselves in the executive suite.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.27.47 PM.jpeg

TB: This of course leads to the film's most "celebrated" and "liberating" image of the four of them in bed together. If you do a Google search of the film, nearly 80% of the images come from this portion of the movie. It's quite the identifier. 

JL: Everybody is now more amused than shocked to learn about Carol being even with Bob with her sex-capade, but then Ted decides to confess to his affair with a mouthful of yummy nuts! This sends Alice through the roof and she instantly starts undressing and demanding to swap hubbies with Carol, insisting that Bob must find her attractive enough to go to the sack with her. The great O word is expressed, which I can't print here.

When they finally all decide to go to the next level, we gets some great comic scenes with Elliot Gould in particular.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 10.38.12 AM.png

I find him much more more likable in this movie than in M*A*S*H. He fusses in the bathroom in preparation and takes way too long getting his undergarments off... under the covers. He is even more modest about his body than his own wife!

TB: This is where I think the film becomes a very immature thesis on sexual relationships. Yes, this is a comedy and we're supposed to find some of it tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately it's just a bunch of overgrown "kids" who don't know the first thing about real adult interactions.

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 11.37.50 AM

And the fact that Ted's confession forces Alice, who has been rather reserved up to this point, to suddenly want to get it on with Bob-- that seems very contrived to me. Like Mazursky and fellow screenwriter Larry Tucker couldn't actually come with a realistic way for them all to copulate together.

And then, ultimately, because they cannot venture into X-rated territory and remain commercially marketable, we don't see them having sex with each other. Plus, I think in this situation, with everyone relaxed, there'd be some bisexuality playing out. But this film, as you said earlier, is chaste. It's timid. And adolescent. Not as frank or grown up or adult as it could have been. It is an American film trying to do what provocative European films do, and not being able to pull it off, pun intended.

***

JL: So did they “do it” or not? A little video segment on YouTube has Quentin Tarantino suggesting that maybe they all all “did it," but I kinda think they “didn't."

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TB: Yeah, they didn't do it. The film leads up to the promise of sexual liberation but then it chickens out and tries to act vague and clever about it.

JL: We get a questionable scene of Bob looking up at the camera as he kisses Alice, which Quentin thinks is him shooing away the audience for more privacy. I think Bob's expression is more along the lines of “maybe I should not go through with this since the concept was more exciting than the reality."

TB: Yep. I'm with you on this interpretation. Ultimately the film needed to have a moral ending for American audiences. Where the two marriages remain intact and their foursome goes nowhere.

JL: In the end, it is all about the Jackie DeShannon song. What the world needs now is love sweet love. Likely these couples won't stray further in the future, but if they do, they will always be honest in true Me Decade fashion (and this does feel more like a seventies film in the end rather than a sixties film). The surreal parade scene is every liberal's dream of a world united in multiple races and genders.

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TB: Sorry to burst your bubble, but I still don't think this film measured up like it should have. It often takes the easy way out. It doesn't allow the characters to become fully fleshed out, faults and all. The characters aspire to nothing basically and become amoral in a glib sort of cute way. What these four individuals are going through, is not presented in a meaningful treatise, examining possible consequences in a realistic light.

It's clear to me they had to keep the characters likable at the end, or else these stars' careers might have come to a screeching halt. I think one of the couples should have gone too far, should have reached the end of their marriage; while the other couple became more reasonable and saved from the debauchery. That is, if they are meant to be true reverse images of each other. Again I think a more mature European filmmaker would have done justice to the story.

Even though it was filmed in the post-code period, it still seems bound by remnants of the production code. And it seems to be too much in keeping with "good taste" which ironically causes a very dishonest version of what this story is. Anyway, since you obviously enjoyed the picture more than I did, I will let you finish things up with a few positive remarks...

***

JL: Much of this film's charm for me personally lies in its time-capsule appeal. So many little things on visual display represent what was so “trendy” back at the time of its principal photography (November-December 1968), but now look like ancient relics of a bygone era. Obviously Las Vegas has changed immensely since then. We get at least two subtle digs at the presidential election with one visitor at the California retreat reading a newspaper lampooning LBJ and Nixon (perhaps this scene was shot just after the latter defeated Humphrey and Wallace), followed later by two minor characters discussing whether or not they should have bothered voting (a question expanded upon later in Hal Ashby's SHAMPOO, set during this exact same time period but filmed post-Watergate).

Meanwhile, a trio of possibly (oh...heck, any modern viewer can see that they definitely are) gay men listen in on a conversation about love and honesty at the restaurant pre-Stonewall. We even get a bit part by Daniel Striped Tiger at a time when Fred Rogers was among the newest faces on TV.

The fashion show is especially impressive, with the false eyelashes and Nehru sweatshirts (not jackets anymore) going out of style between the time cameras stopped rolling and the time it finally hit theaters in September 1969.

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Of course, Bob must make sure his love beads are on, shirt or no shirt. However everything that Natalie Wood wears is hip and ahead of its time, especially the plaid pants in our early scenes that would not take the nation by storm for another two years or so. Plus Bob and Carol's swinging California pad is pretty groovy with a huge dictionary (!?) opened up in the living room. I am guessing that Natalie says “groovy” at least five times on screen, but I will let the experts analyze that specific detail further.

The movie always leaves me with this warm afterglow that is hard to define. I guess it has to do with the wide-eyed innocence of the characters and the movie's intentions, especially in that final scene of solidarity among all kinds of people. What could be worse to watch on screen?

I enjoyed this discussion.   Yes, the film was a compromise.  I also think it was prescient in showing adult ennui, which of course toady is played out in adults trying to act like teenagers, with outlandish social media behavior.  The best parts of the movie are the comedic ones;  Dyan Cannon and Natalie Wood have some hysterical scenes.  At the very least,  it showed that there's hope for philistines like Ted and Alice.     

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A lot of these movies are time capsules and that is the best way to judge them. As mentioned, this and GOODBYE, COLUMBUS were cashing in on THE GRADUATE, all trying to be as edgy as the former blockbuster without tumbling into too-too provocative Andy Warhol/Russ Meyer/Radley Metzger territory. The plots are all different, but they all share a basic theme of "shall we try something new that our parents wouldn't have dared doing?" Of course... in turn, the characters' own children and grandchildren would be trying a lot more new things in the future and would, therefore, view such movies as quaint relics of a bygone era.

By the mid-1970s, divorce had become commonplace and relatively easy to get, but this was not quite the case a mere 5-7 years earlier unless you had connections with elite society or lived in the Hollywood bubble. Also there was still a taboo of living together without a wedding ring as late as the sixties as well. One girl famously got thrown out of a college dorm for "shacking up" with her boyfriend in 1968 and made a big fuss over it to the national press. A few years later, the whole attitude would change dramatically.

Certainly spouse swapping was a huge curiosity to the masses at the time of BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE and that was enough to sell it, despite the clumsy way the characters attempt it and, from the way I was viewing it, didn't quite go through with it. Radley Metzger, one of the more "adult" oriented directors working outside of mainstream Hollywood at that time (he was making CAMILLE 2000 during the same period as this one), would push the basic theme further by 1972 with his classic SCORE and have husband hooking up with husband and wife with wife, something that I am sure the strictly hetero Sanders and Hendersons wouldn't dream of doing.

I recently re-watched PSYCHO for the umpteenth time, this being the 1960 version instead of the remake or sequels, and it too is always a fascinating study. Marion must pay for a hotel room just so she can be with Sam... and she feels so much guilt and shame because they are not married. Even though Sam divorced his wife and is merely paying her alimony, he is still a man of the fifties who feels he must be the bread earner and, therefore, can not afford to marry Marion so she can give up her secretary job at the real estate firm to become a happy housewife. No, they don't specifically say that on the soundtrack but you know movie audiences at the time were assuming that. After Marion is murdered, her sister Lila joins Sam to investigate Bates Motel and they sign in under a bogus "Mr. and Mrs.", which is the same way that Marion and Sam did in their previous hotel rooms because, well, that is what you did back then! Hoping nobody would notice you weren't being honest and do a back-check on you. I also find it amusing in another scene how this same two, even though there is nothing going on between them, must wait outside a church to talk to the sheriff and his wife as if they feel too "sinful" to enter it. Yet the wife invites Lila to breakfast and, knowing Lila is a probably a good girl who doesn't have an active sex life like Sam, still does her duty by saying "you too, Sam". Poor Norman Bates is still a virgin despite mommy being dead for ten years... that very same ten years that Marion worked for the real estate firm, living with her sister and probably not knowing Sam until the last few months... and certainly not thinking of stealing money out of sexual frustration and a need to have Sam. Achieving satisfaction with sex is just as difficult as harming an insect (i.e. one customer at Sam's store is concerned about an insecticide causing pain to the little critters, while Norman's mother insists  that she "would not even hurt a fly...")

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Essential: THE EMPEROR'S NIGHTINGALE (1949)

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TB: I have to admit I enjoyed this film a bit more than the previous ones. And I suspect it's because the filmmaker is borrowing from a story by Hans Christian Anderson which is vividly defined with memorable characters. So even an amateur wouldn't be able to mess this one up too much!

It also benefits from a smart framing sequence, though I wouldn't have minded if the framing sequence became a subplot and we had occasionally cut back to the boy taking little breaks or pauses from the main story, so we could learn more about his life. I know he's supposed to be dreaming much of this, but instead of having him asleep, he could be daydreaming it.

Anyway, it could have been expanded. I agree with Jlewis' comments below that the scenes unfold a bit slowly but I like more leisurely paced films and this aspect didn't trouble me like it did some reviewers on the IMDb. Jlewis also comments about the stereotypes, and you really cannot deny the film is loaded with Asian stereotypes. One has to wonder why eastern Europeans would be interested in an Asian-themed story and not a story about their own specific culture.

Meanwhile there is a voice-over narration by Boris Karloff which to be honest, I disliked. Around the 12-minute mark, I muted the sound and watched the rest of it in silence. The visuals do not need Karloff's highly intrusive narration, spelling out the action for us. Narrating should have been kept to a minimum. Let the story speak for itself.

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My favorite sequence is the one where the emperor marches along a wall that is decorated like a huge lace doily, with holes forming windows through which the emperor's courtiers watch him. It's an inspired visual and felt like something that could be replicated on stage if this were turned into a stage production. I also liked the amusing scene with chopsticks, which Jlewis details below.

In some ways, the story is about stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing what the rest of the world has to offer. It contains a simple yet magnificent message.

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JL: CÍSARUV SLAVÍK a.k.a. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE may not “wow” first time viewers in quite the same way as LE ROMAN DE RENARD a.k.a. TALE OF A FOX since the puppets animated here don’t display a lot of facial expressions and there is no talk. The story also moves at a much slower pace and is much more basic with hardly any drama and cut-throat action. It is just a simple adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s popular fairy tale (1843 publication), done in animation before numerous times, that adds the additional side-story about a lonely little Czech boy (played in live-action sequences by Jaromir Sobotoa, with Helena Patockova as his girl interest) who sees himself as no different than an ancient Chinese emperor.

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Both are restricted to a confined life full of rules and rituals and needing an outlet. In the emperor’s case, relief comes in the form of a singing nightingale who livens up his humdrum existence. That is, until he is distracted by a robotic mechanical bird that is given to him as a gift: its theme within a theme relates well to our modern society that is constantly distracted by new technical “toys” and often overuse them until they wear out.

If you are a Baby Boomer or Generation X-er who remembers entertainment before home video, you may remember seeing this particular title in school during the sixties or seventies on a 16mm motion picture projector, often in rotation with other popular films like Albert Lamorisse’s THE RED BALLOON, Robert Enrico’s AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE and the Disney cartoon educational DONALD IN MATHMAGICLAND.

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At the time, there was still some novelty in seeing a stop-motion puppets move about because the classic George Pal’s Puppetoons were largely inaccessible (due to the Jasper controversy) and primarily the Rankin-Bass holiday specials on TV were the major alternative at the time, along with the occasional Ray Harryhausen effects enhanced live-action fantasy that would appear in theaters. Today, you can see all the old-time pre-CGI stop-motion you want on YouTube.

The decades between the 1940s and ’80s were, in fact, a golden age for stop-motion puppet films despite limited viewing availability in the U.S. Quite a large number were made by Prague’s great Bratri v Triku (“The Brothers of Tricks”) studio which produced this title, followed in the fifties by East Germany’s DEFA and the mighty Soyuzmultfilm of Moscow, adding to its already prolific schedule of cel-animated Disney knock-offs. Japan also had quite a few to contribute (i.e. the Rankin-Bass U.S. co-productions were mostly produced there), since its culture was equally puppet-oriented (unlike the United States). Despite the popularity on Soviet TV of puppet star Cheburashka, a Cold War was still in effect and he did not make inroads into American TV like Japan’s Astro-Boy.

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THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was among the selected, popular cross-over hits. It was mostly completed in 1948 and released in Czechoslovakia in April 1949, then successfully distributed to U.S. theaters in May 1951 by Rembrandt Films. It received particular praise in the New York Times and other vintage periodicals for Boris Karloff’s delightful narration that was added for the English soundtrack. Although a major screen star, Karloff was equally praised for his excellent work in radio dramas of the era, perfect training for cartoon narration. It was the success of this feature that made him much sought after by cartoon producers like Terrytoons (i.e. THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY) and Chuck Jones (responsible for the most popular adaptation of Dr. Seuss, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS).

Jiří Trnka, the director and primary animator (but with a small team of assistants, Jiří Brdečka and Vítězslav Nezval collaborating on the screenplay and Miloš Makovec getting co-director credit for the live-action scenes), grew up with puppets and made the easy transition to stop-motion after starting out with some cel-animated cartoons initially in 1945, beginning with ZASADIL DĚDEK ŘEPU (GRANDFATHER PLANTED A BEET). ŠPALÍČEK (THE CZECH YEAR, 1947) was both his first puppet film and, at 75 minutes in length, his first feature that directly preceded this one.

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He went on to make numerous shorter films in addition to the features, several of which were included in the VHS and DVDs put out by Rembrandt with this film. Most notable was his last major effort, RUKA (THE HAND, 1965), with its pessimistic anti-conformity message that caused quite a bit of censorship trouble with the authorities in power back in its day; a concept not unlike THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE with its lead character almost dying of suffocation within the confines of his structured existence. Trnka probably felt trapped and confined psychologically during much of his life, both due to poor health (like the little boy in our movie feature here) in addition to the socialist environment he worked in; he was forced to retire earlier than he wanted to and died at the end of 1969 an unhappy man.

Nonetheless, he was widely praised internationally as the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” and earned numerous prizes… even an official Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration a year before his death (since, after all, this movie was his biggest hit). The Bratri v Triku studio he worked at was later renamed after him in his honor.

There are murky copies of this film online, but it is best to find the DVD of the gorgeous Agfacolor print in order to fully appreciate it. Unlike TALE OF A FOX with Władysław Starewicz/Ladislas Starevich, which features very expressive Disney-esque facial movements and dialogue, the characters do not have moving mouths but express emotion from very specific staging for the camera and special lights using different color filters. The puppet used for the emperor is a gray-ish white that reflects warm golden and red hues when he is enthusiastic, blue cast when moody and is presented in stark shadows when sick during the major near-death climax.

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Some viewers may object to the slightly “oriental” appearance of the emperor and his royal court (with slanted eyes and pale complexions), but I sense that Trnka and his key animators (Zdnek Hrabé, Jan Karpas, Stanislav Látal, Bretislav Pojar and Bohuslav Srámek) saw little or no distinction between races in different countries other than the cultural ones.

I also sense that the overall designs were intended to emulate the 19th century porcelain figurines in the live-action boy’s bedroom, rather than intentionally try to typecast Chinese in general. Curiously the chamber maid of the royal court, who leads the prime minister to the all important bird in the bamboo forest, is not designed “oriental” but resembles the live-action girl (the one who leads our little boy counterpart to the emperor outside his enclosed mansion) with a freckled face and auburn hair. The European sailor, a clever spoof on Scandinavian explorers, sports a tight mustache and oval face; humor is provided in his struggle to use chopsticks.

One interesting minor character who is (unfortunately) not developed further is the astronomer/scientist whom the royal court questions initially about the nightingale. He is a grizzled all-white figure, a bit too simian-like for modern eyes perhaps, but probably no different than zany eccentric characters featured in other cartoons and kids pictures. He is busy counting all of the stars with his telescope and recording them merely with a star-stamp and ink. No writing! After setting off fireworks for the emperor, he loses his book in a fire accident.

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One scene that often makes kids laugh, including myself as a tyke, involves a goofy frog holding a Chinese fan. Why the prime minister would be more curious about him than the bird that the chamber maid is helping him seek is not officially explained, but he reminds me a little of the frog featured in TUBBY THE TUBA, made a year earlier in stop-motion by George Pal in Hollywood. As is sometimes the case, certain characters in these films seem a bit out of place in their story set-ups. Also out of place are the curious cactus shown in one scene, foliage recycled a year later in a western spoof of Trnka’s, ARIE PRAIRIE (SONG OF THE PRAIRIE).

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This feature may not be Trnk’a best work but it was his most successful financially and internationally, a good introduction to his twenty year career in animation as one of its great masters. It is also the most kid-friendly. Some like OLD CZECH LEGENDS (STARÉ POVESTI CESKÉ, 1953) are more adult-oriented with a bit more violence and a darker edge to the proceedings. Then again, viewers who think this one is too juvenile for their personal tastes may get a kick out of that one and others. Or not? Hard to tell with many modern viewers accustomed to channel surfing and online surfing. Trnka is more methodical in his story telling and may test a few viewers’ patience, much like the mechanical bird toy playing the same tune over and over for the emperor.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. THE EMPEROR'S NIGHTINGALE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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I do like the Boris Karloff narration a bit better than you do, but I do agree that this film works best with no narration at all. In fact, I think the original Czech version is devoid of it, but would have to confirm it with a viewing. Unfortunately all DVD and online copies feature Karloff.

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4 hours ago, Jlewis said:

I do like the Boris Karloff narration a bit better than you do, but I do agree that this film works best with no narration at all. In fact, I think the original Czech version is devoid of it, but would have to confirm it with a viewing. Unfortunately all DVD and online copies feature Karloff.

I think the inclusion of the narrator was done so that there would be some English for American audiences to hear. But it was not necessary. If anything, we should have heard some of the characters speaking in Chinese (with subtitles). So Karloff wasn't the problem...he did fine. I would have objected to the narration no matter who had done it. If it had been used more sparsely, then maybe I wouldn't have minded it so much. But it's overdone and gets in the way of one's enjoyment of the visuals.

Incidentally, I also have this issue when I watch THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1958). It's like the producers were afraid the audience would get bored stiff during those long stretches when the old man is out on the boat all by himself. So they give Spencer Tracy large chunks of narration to "sustain" our interest. In that case, they use passages from Hemingway's text and it feels like he's reading the book to us!

As I said, the filmmakers should be confident enough to let the characters' actions (and the visuals) tell the story itself.

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Bosley Crowther of the New York Times (May 14, 1951: https://www.nytimes.com/1951/05/14/archives/the-screen-in-review-emperors-nightingale-fantasy-made-in.html) considered Karloff's narration "intriguing", as audiences did at the time. He also observed, as I did, that the design of the characters resemble vintage porcelain figures: Chinese characters designed from Chinese art. Think of it along the same lines as... oh, just to use two examples that come to my mind... the animators recreating a Nigerian folk tale with bronze Oba Benin pieces from centuries ago as inspiration or a Greek myth with the characters presented in a flat and angular fashion like pottery designs of the times. In regards to the Asian stereotypes, maybe both of us are hyper-sensitive because we are living in hyper-sensitive times in which everything in old movies, even something as popular and mainstream as Gone With the Wind, must be questioned and examined with a fine comb. My primary issue here has to do with the fact that most of Trnka's puppets of Caucasian characters resemble each other in a certain style (the chamber maid who takes the royal court to find the nightingale is obviously this design) but these characters look too different for my comfort: slanted eyes, pale white faces and over-all pumpkin shapes.

However I don't get a sense that the presentation intentionally tries to belittle another culture in any way. The emperor is really no different than other kings in fairy tales, equally smart and equally sensitive, and the fact that the Czech boy relates to him is an important theme to the story, over-riding any cultural and racial differences between them in distant lands and different times. Of course, I am also assuming that the animators working on this film in Prague were all the same race and cultural background and no actual Chinese artists were involved and giving their expertise, much like the Los Angeles and New York City based animators supplying cartoons for the Hollywood studios in the 1930s-40s were virtually all Caucasian living in a racially segregated America and, as a result, sometimes their depictions of "black" people (obviously without actual black artists contributing) could be tolerable, as in the imaginative spoofs of swing-time jazz with Fats Waller and Cab Calloway prominent, and, other times, can be very offensive as in any "Down South rural shack" setting with Stepin Fetchit-types talking in a slow-drawl and looking stupid, as many white citizens living south of the Mason-Dixon line expected their fellow black citizens to behave.

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Essential: MAUGLI (1973)

TB: I am going to let Jlewis take the spotlight here, since he has a lot of interesting information about this film. I do like the fact that he selected something that is basically a compilation piece, where previously produced segments of Soviet animation are put together to make a coherent feature involving most of the same characters. So it feels a bit serialized but yet epic.

I found it interesting when he talked about the socialist aspects of how men and women (co)operate in the Soviet culture; and how that affects the way female characters are depicted on screen in Soviet animation. That gives us a lot to consider, historically, especially compared to how the more traditional roles of men and women in western culture typically play out.

Anyway, I think you will enjoy reading what follows. And if you haven't seen MAUGLI, you can find it on YouTube.

***

JL: TALE OF THE FOX and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED were essentially independent animated features involving one primary artist working with only the most limited number of assistants. Ladislas Starevich operated on the former with just his wife creating puppet costumes and daughter co-directing, making it a family affair. THE EMPEROR'S NIGHTINGALE was a little more involved but head director Jiri Trnka still only had five stop-motion animators working under him at the Bratri v Triku studio while he supervised a.k.a. Orson Welles style.

MAUGLI (MOWGLI), a series of five 20 minute short films later stitched into a feature, differs from that trio in that it was the creation of a big animation factory roughly the same size as, if not bigger than, the contemporary Disney or Hanna-Barbera in the United States with no fewer than 16 key people working on the animation alone, even though they did not all work on the same individual films-within-a-film.

It is more challenging to single out one specific “artist in charge” here, but Roman Davydov is credited as director, Leonid Belokurov with script adaptation, Pyotr Repkin and Aleksandr Vinokurov as primary art directors involved with its unique post-UPA style and Sofia Gubaidulina providing the haunting musical score. A few of the animators later had successful careers as director-supervisors themselves, among them Aleksandr Davydov, Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin, Lyudmila Kasatkina and Nikolay Fyodorov.

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The film was made by Soyuzmultfilm, a company that still exists today. According to Wikipedia, it has 300 employees and has made 1500 or so individual films and TV shows to date. It was, in fact, launched with Josef Stalin's approval as the Soviet Union counterpart to Walt Disney way back on June 10, 1936. It differed from Disney somewhat during the first eight years or so in that its product was exclusively in black and white since only a small handful of Soviet cartoons were in color during the decade of 1934-44, but these did include some fascinating Alexander Ptushko stop-motion shorts made at Mosfilm.

After the Russians took charge of the German film studios and all of that wonderful “UFA color” stock during the final year of the war, the great Disneyfication of Soviet animation was complete with a succession of all-color shorts, 20 minute featurettes and major epics running over an hour, beginning with THE LOST LETTER (ПРОПАВШАЯ ГРАМОТА / PROPAVSHAYA GRAMOTA) in 1945. These were now more-often-than-not fairy tales populated with fluidly animated furry stars and often rotoscoped humans, some multi-plane camera work and always highly detailed background paintings.

If there was any criticism of the unique “Soviet style” it was that it was a bit dry and serious in tone during the later '40s and '50s period with only limited “gags” involved (hardly any Looney Tunes humor) and much of the overall look was way too consistent at times, making it hard to “date” individual titles (even if the Soviet system slapped the years of completion on the opening title cards). It wasn't until the early 1960s when, after several years of the nation loosening up some of its artistic creativity under Nikita Khrushchev, the studio animation displayed more variety of graphics akin to the National Film Board of Canada and the Zagreb school elsewhere.

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Many of the truly great cartoons of Soyuzmultfilm that we cartoon buffs love so much tend to be products of the mid-sixties through early eighties period rather than earlier. Despite a cold war raging between two nations, a surprising number of Soyuzmultfilms made United States theatrical screens and smaller TV screens during and before the Sputnik era. A few anti-American films never made it over for obvious reasons, but the vast majority was focused on inoffensive juvenile entertainment with little or no “commie” subliminal messaging involved. The studio’s adaptation of THE SNOW QUEEN was its biggest  international hit.

Charlton Heston narrated the American television debut of MAUGLI in 1996 (on PBS). Personally I favor the subtitled Russian original that I have on DVD, put out some years later. Both are available online currently for those who want to view both. Unfortunately too many changes were made to the U.S. version, including the loss of that wonderful Sofia Gubaidulina music and some sappy kid-oriented songs added.

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MAUGLI may seem a bit too dry for some tastes, but it is still entertaining and artful in its own right. The first installment of these Jungle Boy stories, titled RAKSHI, appeared in Russian theaters in December 1967, just two months after Disney's THE JUNGLE BOOK opened thousands of miles away, but took on a different route of staying fairly close to the original Kipling.

It was given four follow-ups released annually before becoming a compilation feature in July 1973.

  • After establishing Mowgli's adoption by the wolf pack in the first film, we see him grow up and deal with a mob of monkeys in POKHISHCHENIE (THE KIDNAPPING, 1968).
  • He then aids the dying wolf leader and frightens Shere Khan the tiger with his “red flower” (fire stick) and “iron tooth” that Kaa the python helps him obtain in POSLEDNYAYA OKHOTA AKELY (AKELA'S LAST HUNT, 1969).
  • A battle with a pack of dholes (smaller but ferocious red wolves) highlights BITVA (THE FIGHT, 1970).
  • After finally settling a to-the-death score with Shere Khan after he breaks a jungle law during drought time, Mowgli realizes with great emotion and tears, that he has grown into an adult and must now leave the jungle for an ominous return to human civilization in VOZVRASHCHENIE K LYUDYAM (RETURN TO MANKIND, 1971).

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One common theme in children's books is growing up and leaving the world you are most comfortable with behind to face the unknown. Sometimes this theme is rather subtle, as with Wendy leaving the nursery setting in the Peter Pan story and Christopher Robin going to school in Winnie-the-Pooh. Both this film and Chuck Jones' MOWGLI'S BROTHERS do a fine job in the final moments when Mowgli goes through great emotional anguish deciding what to do and Kaa observing that “it is hard to shed one's skin until one is truly ready” (a reptilian reference in the English dubs).

The Disney version lacks a bit of depth here by comparison, since we have Sebastian Cabot's Bagheera making a full commitment to “taking the man-cub back to the village where he belongs” rather than having Mowgli decide for himself as most kids favor. Likewise, the Disney version of Mowgli is quite obstinate up until the very end when he falls all a gaga over a water collecting maiden (a.k.a. Baloo quipping to Mowgli's first sight of her: “Forget about those, they ain't nothin' but trouble”).

The Soviet adaptation, but not the Chuck Jones' version, has him glimpse multiple women from a distance, then he catches the eye of one by herself later and she flees him in great fright while he stares at her with intensive awe, an interesting alternative to the usual teenage sexual awakenings we are accustomed to in mass entertainment.

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Among the few major liberties taken with Kipling is the change in gender for Bagheera the black panther, now a female with cubs briefly shown in one episode, This I find a novel idea since the original book is too bro-buddy oriented and needs a strong female character for female readers and viewers to identify with besides Mommy Wolf. Although rather sexy in voice (popular Soviet actress Lyudmila Kasatkina does great here, resembling Eartha Kitt as Catwoman), the way she is animated with great stealth and athletic ability makes her one tough force.

This is the key trademark of many Soviet films of that period, both live action and animated. Not that American screens didn't have their own female super heroes, but the whole socialist set-up in that Enemy Country had both genders working a lot together in major industrial projects and occasionally during wartime conflict as well. Girls simply had more opportunity to be just like the boys over-there than in the United States and this was reflected in the screen entertainment.

I absolutely love the visual style that remained very consistent during a five year production-and-release period, enough for the shorter films to be seamlessly compiled together as if they were made all at once like the Disney version. Although the animators changed over the course of the five individual films, there was a strict adherence to model sheets to prevent the characters from changing.

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The designs are rather angular, a bit like UPA and Japanese anime of the sixties, with very bright colors and especially thick ink outlines bordering the animal bodies. Bagheera often resembles some peculiar vase when she is sitting upright and, when leaping from a tree with Mowgli on her back, she literally becomes Plastic Man of DC Comics.

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Both she and Baloo, a fellow black character, feature a mix of white and gray ink outlines in the night scenes and when walking together briefly, creating a shimmering effect. The backgrounds employ a great deal more watercolor in their creation that was typical during that period in world animation, although I am reminded of Ryan Larkin's contemporary work in spots.

It looks like some attempt was made to do actual zoological research into India's wildlife. (Likewise, their version of RIKKI TIKKI TAVY features a native India family instead of a British colonial one like the book and Chuck Jones' adaptation.) There is no orangutan like the Disney version since they are not found in India outside of a zoo.

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However, we get the usual wolf pack, elephants, tiger, black leopard, an Asiatic black bear (although a sloth bear may be more suitable since it is the more common species south of the Himalaya), dholes, golden jackal (but with an odd mask, making him resemble the Russian raccoon-dog a bit), an India python much bigger in size than he should be (but that is due to Kipling making him too big to begin with), gaur (Rama the bull), eagles, peacocks and other local fauna (cranes, storks, water buffalo and sambar deer included, as well as an India lion and lioness cameo), plus a huge “herd” of langur monkeys that required a lot of animated en-masse motion and intricate cel painting frame-by-frame.

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Personally I consider Mowgli as the least inspired design. His toddler appearance with big oval eyes is absolutely adorable. But his later teenage version is too muscular like a comic book (and later Saturday morning TV Filmation) version of Tarzan, a problem I also have with the male human lead in THE CAT WHO WALKED BY HIMSELF (or herself). In this regard, I favor the look of Disney's Mowgli better since he fits a small boy growing up in a jungle better.

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The stories are a lot of fun, even if they may lack the high comedy with Phil Harris' talents and use established Russian actors (with comic star Sergei Martinson featured in all but one installment as Tabaqui the jackal, in addition to sultry Kasatkina and Lev Shabarin doing the older Mowgli) taking it all so seriously. Although a large portion of the audience may have been juvenile, this production is made for all age groups and can be quite dark and violent at times, the dhole pack scenes in THE FIGHT being the most graphic.

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By comparison to that action packed episode, the finale's death of Shere Khan is presented rather too quickly with mere flashes of bright red dominating the screen, followed by his stripped skin draping the rocks. One short part in AKELA'S LAST HUNT, involving Mowgli's search for the “iron tooth” gets a bit psychedelic in its visuals and it is possible that the Russian artists were observing the whole counter culture scene out west with considerable curiosity; likewise, the peacock spreads that open and close the episodes can invite referencing to the whole “peacock” fashion scene of Swinging London.

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One minor weakness in regards to the animation is that there are too many animals in this jungle at times. The overall effect is particularly odd in THE FIGHT when the dholes appear to swarm like hungry ants, when the real canine pack would have less than fifty individuals instead of what appears to be thousands. Some of the same issues apply to the hoard of monkeys in the second film, THE KIDNAPPING.

I do consider the ending a little too compact and slightly disappointing. Our hero is merely bidding farewell to the jungle he was raised in with just a simple waving goodbye as the final credits end it rather abruptly. Emotional depth is not as strong here as it may be in other Russian entertainment. Nonetheless I adore the music score and atmospheric settings here, the former getting lost in the nineties upgrade for U.S. TV audiences.

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1 hour ago, TopBilled said:

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.59.38 AM

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The artwork is absolutely gorgeous. Pity this version isn't familiar to the masses like the Disney versions... a.k.a. there were at least three, animated, live-action and mixed with cgi effects. Note the watercolor emphasis in the backgrounds. Also Soyuzmultfilm was still employing inkers outlining the characters in paint instead of using the economized Xerox process that Disney had been emphasizing since 1959's Donald in MathmagicLand. Granted, this sketchy look worked well with some Disney cartoons like their Winnie the Pooh featurettes, emulating Ernest Howard Shepherd's original illustrations. Consequently, Soyuzmultfilm also tackled Pooh... and also in a rather unique way; a topic for possible future discussion.

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18 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

The artwork is absolutely gorgeous. Pity this version isn't familiar to the masses like the Disney versions... a.k.a. there were at least three, animated, live-action and mixed with cgi effects. Note the watercolor emphasis in the backgrounds. Also Soyuzmultfilm was still employing inkers outlining the characters in paint instead of using the economized Xerox process that Disney had been emphasizing since 1959's Donald in MathmagicLand. Granted, this sketchy look worked well with some Disney cartoons like their Winnie the Pooh featurettes, emulating Ernest Howard Shepherd's original illustrations. Consequently, Soyuzmultfilm also tackled Pooh... and also in a rather unique way; a topic for possible future discussion.

I don't see Disney as a benchmark to compare any of these films to...other companies in other countries have undertaken their own adaptations of Kipling's work, quite successfully. There's the 1942 British live action film. There's a 1989 Japanese animated television series. And Warner Brothers did a live-action version with American and British actors in 2018 called MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE. So Disney's contribution, while important to Disney enthusiasts, is but one part of the overall picture when looking at how Kipling's work has reached the screen. Plus there have been adaptations of Kipling's follow-up work The Second Jungle Book.

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