Monday, August 6, 2012

Best Friends Forever

Cole Porter's 1940 musical, Panama Hattie, is the perfect example of a star vehicle.  Porter gave Ethel Merman another hit song ("Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please") and the original Broadway cast included Arthur Treacher, Betty Hutton, Rags Ragland, June Allyson, and Vera-Ellen.

Although MGM transformed the show into a 1942 movie musical starring Ann Sothern and Red Skelton (and, in 1954, CBS created a made-for-television version starring Ethel Merman and Art Carney for its Best of Broadway series), Panama Hattie has become one of those 'lost musicals" that is rarely revived.

As part of the show, Porter created a charming duet for Merman and eight-year-old Joan Carroll that contains the following lyric:
"What say, let's be buddies
What say, let's be pals.
What say, let's be buddies
And keep up each other's morales.
I may never shout it
But many's the time I'm blue.
What say, how's about it
Can't I be a buddy to you?"
Joan Carroll and Ethel Merman in 1940's Panama Hattie

Porter's lyric for "Let's Be Buddies" came to mind recently as I watched two action adventure stories that take place during World War I. Described by H.G. Wells and President Woodrow Wilson as "the war to end all wars," its horrors have been long since been eclipsed by advances in modern weaponry.

Following the orgy of sentimentality that surrounded this year's celebration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, it will be interesting to see how the media approaches the upcoming centenary of the onset of World War I. The war officially began a month following the June 28, 1914 assassination of Austria's ruler, Archduke Franz Ferdinand with the invasion of Serbia on July 28, 1914.

The United States was drawn into the war after the Cunard liner, RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale as she was rounding the southern tip of Ireland. The 787-foot-long ship sank in just 18 minutes on May 7, 1915 with many Americans aboard.

Ken Marschall's depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania

Whereas the heroes of many modern war epics are portrayed as valiant fighters ready to tackle any challenge, when put into a romantic perspective, few of them are perceived as platonic lovers. Some may return home to a wife or girlfriend who has patiently waited for their return. But precious few movies memorialize one's love for a best friend -- whether that friend is a boy or a beast.

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After Wings opened in August 1927, it enjoyed a two-year run in New York City at higher than normal prices. A road show toured with a 25-piece orchestra. In 1929, at the first Academy Awards, Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture ever given.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen
are the stars of  1927's Wings

Starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen, the film features Gary Cooper in one of his earliest roles. More important, it is a pioneering piece of airborne filmmaking that was shot at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas.

Whereas World War II films are full of bombers attacking targets from Pearl Harbor to Berlin, Wings has frequently been refere3nced as the first major film to seriously tackle the role of airplanes in war. When Paramount Pictures chose a little-known director named William A. Wellman to direct its war story, few people knew about his unique qualification for the job: Wellman was the only film director working in Hollywood at the time who, because of his participation in World War I, had personally experienced aerial combat.

With the help of producer Lucien Hubbard, screenwriter John Monk Saunders managed to secure nearly $16 million worth of post-war military equipment and manpower from the United States to help in the making of Wings. With more than 65 pilots and 3,500 military personnel on hand, the production still had to rely on the weather in order for aerial scenes to be shot against a proper background of clouds. As silent film historian Thomas Gladysz notes:
"Wellman set out to achieve what no one else had attempted and, under his direction, cinematographer Harry Perry and a large number of cameramen shot closeups of flyers from the rear cockpits of planes while following dogfights from a near squadron of camera planes. Wellman and his team of cameramen also devised daring new techniques and, at times, even had the film's stars pilot their own planes while controlling mounted, motor-driven cameras that faced them."

The results were astonishing then and remain riveting 85 years after the film's premiere. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and using a beautiful new digital print from Paramount Pictures, Wings was the opening night attraction at last month’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

In its original form, Wings featured orange tints in some of the gunfire, flames, and aerial dogfights. Because new digital tools allowed Paramount to do some things that would have been impossible to achieve with previous chemical techniques, the restored digital print is thrilling to watch. The DVD is currently available on both and Netflix. Even though Wellman's film is 141 minutes long, there is so much action that it never ever lags.

Although Clara Bow was the acknowledged star of the film, her ebullient personality is no match for the physical beauty and palpable charisma of Charles "Buddy" Rogers. As an inebriated fighter pilot on leave in Paris, Rogers has a field day with playing off a stream of champagne bubbles. The scene is a tour de force that utilizes every ounce of the actor's charm and comic instincts.

Not only does Wellman’s film show what aerial combat scenes looked like long before CGI scripting came into existence, it follows two fighter pilots -- and small town romantic rivals -- as they attack German aircraft. The following scene between Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) may well be the first bromance ever included in a full-length film.

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Sometimes a theatre critic is faced with a peculiar choice: Should he see an all-star film adaptation of a successful play as soon as it is released or should he wait until he has first seen the play performed before an  audience? As someone whose first love has always been live theatre, I'm more than happy to put a hit movie into my Netflix queue and leave it there until I have time to watch it.

I was certainly glad I chose to experience the theatrical magic of Robert Glaudini's play, Jack Goes Boating, before watching its severely disappointing film adaptation starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Nor have I been in any rush to see the film version of Yasmina Reza's comedy, God of Carnage (starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslett, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz).

It's not always a question of wanting to see particular actors perform specific roles. More often than not, my decision relates to the dynamic of how a cast interacts with a live audience. As soon as I saw the TED talk about the Handspring Puppet Company's contribution to the National Theatre of Britain's production of War Horse, I vowed to see Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Mopurgo's children's book onstage before viewing Stephen Spielberg's film.

Although I have great respect for Spielberg, a very horsey voice kept whispering in my ear, reminding me that:
"A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one can talk to a horse, of course.
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.

Go right to the source and ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse.
He's always on a steady course.
Talk to Mister Ed."
Albert (Andrew Veenstra) with Joey
(Photo by: Brinkhoff/McGenburg)

Not only did the opening night performance of War Horse at San Francisco's Curran Theatre fully live up to my expectations, it provided the kind of puppet experience that captures the magic of theatre when articulated and performed by those who have become master craftsmen in the art of storytelling.

Albert (Andrew Veenstra) riding atop Joey
Photo by: Brinkhoff/McGenburg

The horse puppet weighs approximately 120 pounds, contains nearly 20 major joints, stands eight  feet tall and has an aluminum frame along its spine that allows it to be ridden by an actor. Within the puppet's 10-foot-long body, a harness connects its spine with that of the puppeteer in the "heart" position. In addition to controlling the puppet's front legs, that puppeteer's movements become the breathing of the horse. Instead of making its lips or eyelids mobile, the puppet's tail and ears are moveable because that is usually how horses express themselves.

Albert (Andrew Veenstra) with Joey
Photo by: Brinkhoff/McGenbueg

While the story of War Horse parallels a standard military romance (16-year-old boy from a dysfunctional family meets and falls in love with a horse; the horse goes off to war; as soon as the boy is old enough to enlist, he joins in the military in hope of finding his horse; eventually, a sadder but wiser boy and his horse return home), there are many unexpected delights along the way.

I was particularly impressed with the animation and projection designs by 59 Productions, which provide a surprisingly effective black-and-white background for the play's war scenes. Kudos go to:

While there are outstanding performances by Andrew Veenstra as Albert Narracott and Alex Morf as Private David Taylor, be warned that a goose puppet steals the show throughout much of the first act (the goose even gets a curtain call). Perhaps most touching is the scene in a French trench where two terrified young soldiers share pictures of their loved ones as they try to keep their wits about them.

"Whatever keeps you going," David tells Albert. "I've got my girl, Flossie, and you've got your horse."

War Horse continues at the Curran Theatre through September 9 (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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