Walter Slezak

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Call Me Madam Review

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Broadway legend Ethel Merman is known more these days for badgering Milton Berle in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, that blunderbuss 1963 super-comedy that is replayed ad infinitum on cable TV. This is because her brilliant Broadway star turns -- Panama Hattie, DuBarry Was a Lady, Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy -- are all lost to history, the film versions of her Broadway roles played by Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Betty Hutton, and Rosalind Russell, brilliant women all, but no Merman. The exception to the rule was Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, the archetypal Merman star vehicle, for which Merman won a Tony Award. This was one performance where Merman was the whole show and, in 1953, a film version had to have Merman in the lead and Twentieth Century Fox did right by Merman in Walter Lang's breezy and brassy adaptation.

On the surface, Berlin's energetic Broadway show is extremely dated. The Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse book is a gentle satire of the Washington scene circa 1951, so there are a plethora of Harry Truman jokes that may have been hilarious in 1951 but in this post-history millennium may be greeted with obtuseness from viewers whose sense of history expired with Swing Vote. It is also an old-fashioned musical vehicle, the slim plot being a bald excuse to showcase Merman.

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Lifeboat Review

Who would've pegged Alfred Hitchcock for a moral humanist? An appeal to our common humanism is not something we associate with a man whose métier was the psychological horrors perverting the patina of the white middle class. Lifeboat, then, is a rare instance (along with Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, also from this period) in the 51-year directing career of the legendary suspense-master of socially conscious storytelling. In Francois Truffaut's famous interview with him, transcribed in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director recounts how he intended Lifeboat to be a microcosm of the Allied war effort. Working from a story treatment by John Steinbeck and a script by Jo Swerling, Lifeboat became the director's appeal to the Allied nations to put their differences and personal biases aside, join ranks, and fight the Nazis, then overrunning Europe, as a coordinated, united force.

As a polemic, Lifeboat is closer to John Ford's similarly themed and conceived Stagecoach (1939) than to any of the director's own movies. Hitchcock changes the terrain from land to water and replaces Fords' frontier travelers with the similarly disparate survivors of a U-boat attack. We have John (John Hodiak), a working-class American stiff pitted against Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the inveterate capitalist (read: Nazi appeaser), and Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a saucy gadfly/columnist. Meanwhile, a gentle romance simmers between Alice (Mary Anderson), a lovelorn nurse, and Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a humble navigator. George (Canada Lee), a black cook (what else?) with a penchant for the Gospels stands as the group's moral pillar; he is apolitical and totally good-hearted. Hitchcock gives an episodic shape to Swerling's flailing narrative, focusing on the survivors' attempts to rescue one of their own, the wounded and mentally faltering Gus (William Bendix). As they do, they battle the stormy elements, the scorn and suspicion for each other that society has ingrained into them, and, chiefly, their collective mistrust for a Nazi U-boat sailor who's also in the dinghy, and in whom, despite his villainous credentials, they must invest their faith.

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Come September Review

Is there irony in Rock Hudson zipping about on a scooter in an attempt to protect the virtue of a gaggle of American girls being pursued by four horny guys? (Of note: Sandra Dee is one of the girls, and Bobby Darin is one of the guys, and this is where they met.) The convoluted romantic comedy has Hudson as a wealthy American who spends his Septembers at his plush Italian villa. He arrives early this year, only to find his business partner has turned the place into a hotel from October to August. A romance (with the lovely Gina Lollobrigida) ensues, and the younger kids prove they can find a little love in the sun amongst all the good times. Silly and unfulfilling, it's nonetheless a reasonably good time.
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