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Rhubarb (1951)

Rhubarb_1951When I mentioned to my grandfather that I was reviewing a movie named Rhubarb and was explaining (not to him) that a rhubarb was a baseball term for a fight, he said it was a bit like a blast from the past. He hadn’t heard that word used in thirty or forty years. The only reason I knew the term was because of the movie; I’ve never heard the word used once during my fifteen years of baseball enthusiasm.

In the 1951 film Rhubarb, the word rhubarb not only refers to a scrap between ball players, but is also the name of a cat, who is given that name because he is a fighter. As millionaire T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart) says:

“I like things that fight back – whether it’s animal or vegetable. That’s why I eat artichokes all the time. An artichoke doesn’t just lie on a plate like a mess of spinach waiting to be devoured. It gives you a battle. It doesn’t give up ‘till you eat its heart out.”

The film is a bit episodic, but it follows the fortunes of Rhubarb, a mangy, vicious cat that can defeat two dogs in pitched battle and likes to steal golf balls from the over-privileged at play. Banner is so taken with him that he adopts him and the two develop an unexpected bond, with Rhubarb taking the place of Banner’s unaffectionate daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes). It’s actually incredibly sweet.

But soon that phase of the story is over when Banner dies, unexpectedly leaving everything to Rhubarb and cutting Myra out almost entirely. Rhubarb even inherits the Brooklyn baseball team that Banner owned (a team so bad they are derisively known as the Loons). Press agent and long-time friend Eric Yeager (Ray Milland – the man who had to do the dirty work in trapping Rhubarb so Banner could adopt him) is appointed Rhubarb’s guardian, an unenviable task since he now has Myra on his case, as well as the entire Brooklyn team, who refuses to play for a cat.

Rhubarb at the baseball game - a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

Rhubarb at the baseball game – a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

The film actually has a strong Damon Runyon feel to it. Even Milland talks a bit Runyonesquely, calling girlfriend Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling) “doll” and “dame” and generally talking more like a mug (not always convincingly) than a gentleman. There’s a little of everything in the film: baseball, gangsters with names like Pencil Louis and Cadaver, betting, Myra’s attempts to take the fortune away from Rhubarb, a little romance, cat allergies, picturesque characters and language, the rivalry between Brooklyn and Manhattan, cops. The film is often tongue-in-cheek, but with feeling.

After Yeager manages to snooker the baseball team into believing that Rhubarb is actually good luck for them, suddenly they start winning. But Yeager is a victim of his own success, because now the team won’t let him or Rhubarb miss a game and all he wants to do is get married. He and Polly try at least four times. To make things more complicated, Polly discovers that she’s allergic to Rhubarb…though it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. But Yeager can’t come near her without first cleansing himself of all cat hair.

The cast includes William Frawley as the manager of the team, a man whose only focus is the team (“I don’t know. Ballplayers ain’t like people…exactly.” he mumbles to himself when he learns that Rhubarb has inherited the team, speculating that the team will react badly). If you look carefully among the ballplayers, you can also see an extremely young Leonard Nimoy. He even gets a line. Jan Sterling plays Polly, a baseball fan who keeps having to put off her marriage for the sake of the team. Her real-life husband at the time, Paul Douglas, also gets a cameo at the end. He’s the man with the newspaper who watches as Rhubarb walks down the street, followed by a dozen kittens (“What a cat!” he says admiringly. “A litter from three wives.”).

rhubarb-1951-02-gRhubarb the cat is played by Orangey, who was something of a movie star. His debut came in Rhubarb, but he also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’sThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Comedy of Terrors. He was apparently a rather vicious cat in real life, but he had the happy knack of being willing to stick around longer than most cats during filming, though he would still get fed up and run off the set (as I suspect most cats would do). Many cats were used during the filming, however, often for specific stunts.

In truth, Orangey often looks distinctly peeved in the film. His tail is always swishing and his ears frequently flatten and his general demeanor is of a cat barely tolerating the humans around him. Ever since adopting a cat, I’ve been paying more attention to cat behavior in film and often what I see is a swishing tail. A happy cat is usually one with ears forward and alert, tail straight up with a little curl at the end, slowly blinking eyes and a general willingness to expose their stomach or stretch out. Still, Orangey despite his evident irritation, can’t help looking seriously cute.

The baseball part of the story was filmed at Wrigley Field (in Los Angeles, not Chicago – it was home for a minor league team). I have to believe that the Brooklyn team is supposed to be the Dodgers and Manhattan represents the Yankees. Sadly, the Dodgers would leave Brooklyn for LA only seven years later. Brooklyn fans – such as Doris Kearns Goodwin – never have forgotten their beloved team or ceased to mourn for them.

This post is my contribution to the Animals in Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a list of all the wonderful posts for this blogathon, follow this link.

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And just because I have too many pictures, here is a montage of some scenes from the film.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2016 in Movies

 

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Blogging, Cats and Ragtime

Sometimes I just have one of those Fridays…you know, the kind of Friday were absolutely no inspiration strikes. So I thought I would cheat and share a video I found on youtube, demonstrating the hazards of working at home (or blogging) with a cat around.

My cat’s not quite this active, but she definitely makes her presence known. I’ll be sitting in intense thought, typing something up, when I’ll feel something knock against my chair. That is the preliminary “head bonk,” the initial signaling of her presence. Then she meows and gets up on her back paws and pats me on the arm. Next is the jumping up on the desk and walking over my keyboard, sometimes going so far as to plop herself on my lap and purr intensely. She also likes to roll on her stomach and look as cute as possible so that she can distract me and possibly lure me into playing with her. She’s like a femme fatale, using her cuteness as a weapon. She’s even stolen my chair and reduced me to sitting on the floor while I work.

Incidentally, the music that accompanies the video is called “Fig Leaf Rag,” written by Scott Joplin in 1908, though it does seem to be played a little fast. My piano teacher told me years ago that rag is often played too fast nowadays. Most people I know (including myself) tend to associate rag with very fast, fun loving music, but that’s not entirely accurate. Rag can also be poignant, sad, dreamy, many things.

And actually Scott Joplin did not intend his music to be taken as light entertainment. He considered himself a serious composer who was conversant with classical music and wanted his music to be taken as seriously as classical music. Unlike previous ragtime composers, he meant for his music to be played exactly as he wrote them, without improvisation, like any other classical work.

Here is an example of the same song, “Fig Leaf Rag,” played at a slower pace by Joshua Rifkin, who helped to re-popularize ragtime in the 1970s (following the success of the film The Sting, which employed a lot of ragtime in the soundtrack).

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2016 in Music

 

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The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

downloadVincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).

Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.

Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).

Sitting: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).

The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.

Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black

And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.

Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.

Poster - Comedy of Terrors, The_05But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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