COMEDY GOLD #16: Animal and Shapiro from Stalag 17 (1953)

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Birthday boy Billy Wilder’s flair for balancing comedy and drama in the same movie is legendary and revered. And, barring The Apartment (1960), one could argue that this has never been more beautifully demonstrated than in Stalag 17 (1953), the comedy-drama war movie about a group of Americans held in a POW camp, who slowly come to realize that one of them is in an informant. A tense whodunnit based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the comic relief in Stalag 17 comes from Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal (Robert Strauss in an Oscar-nominated role), two prisoners whose genuine, heart-warming friendship, silly antics and ongoing gags about Betty Grable are the antidote to the otherwise unbearable conditions in which they find themselves. Their moments together are like a breath of fresh air (I couldn’t even pick just one!), especially when you consider that they’re among a group of prisoners that include the cynical Sefton (William Holden in an Oscar-winning performance) and Duke (Neville Brand), the angriest of them all, among others. Speaking of Neville Brand, the latest issue of NOIR CITY E-Mag is out and features a REMEMBER ME article about Brand written by myself. If you want to buy the magazine or donate to the Film Noir Foundation (founded by TCM regular Eddie Muller), click on this link.

Why you should be talking about Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn (1950)

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At first, Young Man With a Horn (1950, dir. Michael Curtiz) may seem like a less melodramatic Humoresque (1947, dir. Jean Negulesco), and, in many ways, it is. But despite the similar plot and overall message, Young Man With a Horn benefits from one element that is missing in Humoresque: the character of Amy North, our focus for this year’s Pride Month celebrations here at The Old Hollywood Garden.

Based on the novel by Dorothy Baker and inspired by real-life musician Bix Biederbecke, Young Man With a Horn follows the life, career and downfall of trumpeter Rick Martin, played by Kirk Douglas. Hoagy Carmichael, as the piano-playing sidekick Smoke, breaks the fourth wall by telling us about Rick’s childhood and early success. A rags-to-riches story, Rick’s love for music is at the core of the picture and proves to be the ultimate reason for his downfall. But before that, we have all the usual suspects: a mentor and friend in Art Hazzard, played by the trail-blazing actor Juano Hernandez; a singing sensation who’s also in love with Rick, Jo Jordan (Doris Day in an early dramatic role) and, of course, the femme fatale figure in Amy North, played by Lauren Bacall. The movie enjoys a crisp and precise direction by Michael Curtiz, including some shots that seem to indicate he probably hadn’t gotten over having directed perhaps the most beloved movie of all time just eight years prior and was still trying to re-create it – the ‘train leaving the station’ scene, in particular, is a nice chuckle-inducing inside joke. And while the movie is certainly enjoyable and well-made, one aspect stands out: Amy North. Looking back at it in 2019, we can see that Amy is meant to be either a lesbian or bisexual, and while 1950s Hollywood didn’t allow that to be explicit, there are definitely quite a few moments that leave us with little doubt. Making her entrance as Jo’s friend 47 minutes into the movie, her confidence, intelligence and well-spoken manner have an immediate effect on Rick, who says right away that he loves the sound of her voice – don’t we all! They talk, flirt, exchange opinions about Jo and, soon afterwards, they’re back at her place. We learn that she wanted to be a writer, then an interior decorator, then a pilot and finally a singer. When he brings up the fact that she has decided to become a psychiatrist so she can analyze people, she changes the subject and tells him she has to go to bed and that he should turn out the lights when he leaves. This proves to be a pattern with her. Throughout their initial interactions, she’s the rational one, whereas he’s the emotional one. She’s distant and reluctant to share things about her life, and through subtext, we realize what this means. In their first encounter in the bar, for instance, while talking about Jo, she says that it ‘must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know which door you’re going to walk through’, and later on, she expresses interest in going to Paris with a female friend who’s a painter. When we see said friend, Miss Carson (Katharine Kurasch), at her party later, they seem to be quite intimate with each other and Miss Carson even suggests having dinner and going ‘back to her place’ so Amy can see her sketches. At this point, Rick and Amy are married and he has begun his descent into hell following his friend Art’s death and the realization that his marriage is not what he hoped it would be. They argue, and he calls her ‘sick’ and ‘confused’, perhaps an early example of the misconceptions about LGBTQ+. What’s interesting about this character is that the ambiguity with which she’s portrayed, due to the Hays Code, doesn’t have to mean that she’s necessarily a closeted lesbian who’s trying to fool herself and others. The novel portrays her as having ‘lesbian tendencies’, but perhaps that means she’s bisexual. And looking back at it, this is important considering the continuous under-representation of bisexuality, as well as other identities on the spectrum. I’d like to think this is, at least, a possibility and, if so, how wonderful it is to see it in a film from 1950. As we know, Classic Hollywood was subtle about its portrayals of LGBTQ+, and, yes, downright offensive at times, and while Young Man With a Horn may be guilty of this, Amy North manages to be one of the most refreshing, progressive and well-rounded characters, and a main one at that!

SCREENPLAY BY: I. A. L. Diamond

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Billy Wilder may be everyone’s favorite screenwriter, but one could argue that some of his best screenplays are the ones he wrote with the often overlooked I. A. L. Diamond. And since June is Diamond’s birth month, as well as Wilder’s, today’s SCREENPLAY BY is dedicated to him.

Born Itek Domnici in 1920 in Ungheni, Romania (now Moldova), he moved to Brooklyn with his family at the age of nine. He enrolled in the Boy’s High School, where he competed in Mathematics Olympiads, winning several of them, before going on to study journalism at Columbia, publishing in the Columbia Spectator under the name I. A. L. Diamond. He was also the editor of the humor magazine Jester of Columbia and, perhaps more notably, wrote four consecutive shows for The Varsity Show, Columbia’s oldest performing arts presentation – since 2004, the University has awarded several writers and artists the I. A. L. Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts in his honor.

In the early 1940s, Diamond moved to Hollywood, and in 1944 started working on his first screenplay, Murder in the Blue Room (1944, dir. Leslie Goodwins). The following year, he wrote Never Say Goodbye (1945, dir. James V. Kern), for which he received considerable recognition. He went on to write a string of comedies, including Monkey Business (1952, dir. Howard Hawks) and That Certain Feeling (1956, dir. Norman Panama and Melvin Frank), and in 1957, he began his long-term writing collaboration with Billy Wilder, with Love in the Afternoon (1957), which Wilder also directed. Together they wrote such classics as Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), for which they both won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Irma La Douce (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966) and in 1969, he wrote the screenplay for Cactus Flower (1969, dir. Gene Saks), adapted from the Abe Burrows play of the same name. In 1980, Diamond and Wilder won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Laurel Award for screenwriting, and eight years later I. A. L. Diamond died in California at the age of 67.