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JUNE 28, 1999: 

Million Dollar Legs

D: Edward Cline (1932)
with W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming, Lyda Roberti, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Dickie Moore, Billy Gilbert, Hugh Herbert.

When I first really began watching movies seriously, in my mid-teens, W.C. Fields, though a comedy titan, did little for me. I accepted him as one of the great comic talents of the sound era, but I always found the Fields stories and biographies more interesting than his actual filmwork, especially the idiosyncratic Minutes of theLast Meeting by the once legendary, now largely unknown, writer Gene Fowler. I found It's a Gift(1934) perplexing and The Bank Dick (1940) odd. But I was won over by Million Dollar Legs, Six of a Kind (1934), and If I Had a Million (1932), films in which Fields was only one of a number of characters. If I Had a Million is an episodic work, telling different stories of people winning a million. Fields' segment is the classic "Road Hog," in which the newly rich Fields, leading a fleet of cars, goes after bad drivers. In the very funny Six of a Kind, directed by the great Leo McCarey, Fields co-stars with George Burns and Gracie Allen. These efforts led me to the shorts and finally back to the features. Fields' genius work in You're Telling Me (1934), It's a Gift, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), The Bank Dick, and the sound comedy shorts -- The Dentist (1932), The Pharmacist, The Barber Shop, and The Fatal Glass of Beer (all 1933) -- define a genre of American comedy. Fields wrote many of his films under a series of imaginative pen names, including Mahatma Kane Jeeves, who is credited with the original story and screenplay for The Bank Dick. Catching Million Dollar Legs at a Museum of Modern Art screening was where this journey began for me. The other day I noticed the film at Vulcan and couldn't believe that this gem had been reissued on tape. A whacked-out classic Thirties comedy, Million Dollar Legs finds brush salesman Oakie convincing President of Klopstokia (Fields) that the country's way out of debt is to enter the Olympics. Klopstokia hosts both the president's charming daughter (the reason for Oakie's interest) and a citizenry composed of extraordinary natural athletes. Hugh Herbert (I'm sure the inspiration for Tex Avery's Droopy) leads the opposition, which includes a sneezing Billy Gilbert. The rest of the cast is also studded with character actors, including cross-eyed silent star Ben Turpin and Andy Clyde. There is no space to go into my Jack Oakie reverie here, but sometime. Directed by Edward Cline (who later directed The Bank Dick), Million Dollar Legs is silly and charming, featuring Fields at his finest. --Louis Black


Babe: Pig in the City

D. George Miller (1998)
with Magda Szubanski, James Cromwell, Mary Stein, Mickey Rooney.

Babe Pig In A City

How odd that the sequel to the successful Babe bombed at the box office. Considering the first film's commercial and critical success, plus a Best Picture Oscar nomination, it seemed that the little pig that could was a ripe kiddie commodity. But in the three years that lapsed since the first film, young fans either became too cool to handle another piggie film or just didn't care anymore. Too bad, because the second time is a charm, albeit a slightly dark one. As the film opens, we see Babe enjoying life at the Hoggett farm. That is, until kindly Farmer Hoggett (Cromwell) falls down a well and injures himself. Unable to work, he sends Babe and his rotund wife, Esme (Szubanski in a solid comedic performance) to the "city" to earn cash from an appearance at a prestigious fair (after all, Babe is now a renowned shepherd). Upon their arrival to the metropolis (actually a fictitious amalgamation of New York, Sydney, and Paris), they wind up in a hotel that serves as an animal sanctuary of sorts. Chimps, dogs, cats, and a sleazy clown played by Mickey Rooney are housed here. Soon, Mrs. Hoggett and Babe are separated and Rooney's slovenly clown kicks the bucket. Not long after their humans are gone, the animals are homeless and hungry. Even worse, an Animal Control agency is posing a dangerous threat to their freedom. As expected, Babe keeps his head on and leads his new sidekicks through a succession of well-crafted sequences that are engaging, funny, and at times, overly emotional. Director George Miller is no stranger to high-energy direction (see The Road Warrior), but in helming the fast-paced animal scenes, it's apparent he's outdone himself. At times, however, the film becomes too much of a tearjerker for its own good and often employs bleak imagery to pull at the viewer's heartstrings (i.e., animals netted and caged by the Animal Control thugs). A cheap ploy, but fortunately, the film quickly reverts back to comedy relief via cute furry faces. Not quite as inspirational as its predecessor, it's still a worthy follow-up that is filled with great special effects and a sense of heart to match. --Mike Emery


Opera

D: Dario Argento (1987)
with Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi.

The films of Dario Argento have been criticized for their emphasis on style over substance. Can anything be more stylized and overwrought than opera? Opera relies on the broad gesture played to the back row, with all its emotional content blown completely out of proportion. In Argento's film, understudy Bette (Marsillach), a second generation opera singer, is called on to star in a postmodern production of Macbeth after the prima donna diva is injured. The inexperienced Bette shines in the part and works well with the horror director who took on the production as an experiment. But the stage legend, which predicts that all Macbeth productions are cursed, holds true as the members of the cast and company meet grisly fates one by one. The killer closes in on Bette and forces her to watch each murder by taping needles to her lower eyelids, preventing her from shutting her eyes. As with the weird pseudo-science of many of Argento's other plot devices, a vengeful raven helps to find the murderer (a nod to Argento's Poe fixation). In one of the film's more dazzling segments, a raven's-eye-view camera spirals down from the ceiling of the opera house until it swoops inches above the audience's heads and closes in on the killer. After films that ventured into the supernatural, Argento returned full-force to the giallo genre with Opera, a film whose plot holds together better than many of Argento's other efforts. It's also probably his most self-referential film; director Marco seems a direct stand-in for Argento himself (indeed, Argento tried unsuccessfully to direct Verdi's Rigoletto). When a detective questions Marco about his film career, the director replies icily, "I think it's unwise to use movies as a guide for reality. Don't you, Inspector?" As with many of Argento's heroines, Bette is a pretty-but-mousy brunette, seemingly vulnerable but with the reserves to survive and prevail. Full of outrageous plot twists, intricate subplots, and astonishing camerawork (and marred only by a "what the hell was that?" ending), Opera is one of Argento's better efforts. Nicolodi (as Bette's agent) was Argento's longtime girlfriend and collaborator. --Jerry Renshaw


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