Review: Road House (1989)

>> Saturday, September 26, 2009

USA/C-114m./Dir: Rowdy Herrington/Wr: David Lee Henry & Hilary Henkin/Cast: Patrick Swayze (Dalton), Kelly Lynch (Doc), Sam Elliott (Wade Garrett), Ben Gazzara (Brad Wesley), Jeff Healey (Cody), Kevin Tighe (Tilghman)

It’s near impossible to call Road House a good movie and manage to keep a straight face. Road House isn’t a good movie. It’s trash… mullet-tastic, bone crackin’, throat-rippin', beer swillin’, late-80’s trash. The story and dialogue are laughable, the acting is over-the-top, and the direction is mediocre. In short, it’s a mess, but it’s also a hell of a good time.

Patrick Swayze stars as Dalton, a legendary “cooler” (a.k.a. head bouncer) for hire, who takes a job at The Double Duece, a roughneck Missouri saloon with a violent clientele. His job is to get rid of the bad elements in the bar and organize the bouncers into crackerjack security team, which he manages through the application of his three rules to maintain order:

1. Never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.
2. Take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary.
3. Be nice… until it’s time to not be nice.

While trying to whip the bar into shape, Dalton begins to woo a local doctor (Kelly Lynch) and receives a visit from an old friend, another legendary “cooler,” Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott). He also runs afoul of a corrupt millionaire, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), who has been bullying the locals into paying protection money. When Dalton and the few brave locals refuse to play ball with Wesley, businesses begin blowing up and people start getting hurt. It is at that point that Dalton employs the latter half of his third rule. The time has come not to be nice.

Road House isn’t easy to defend, but it is easy to enjoy. Just turn off your brain and wallow in the movie’s ridiculousness and excess. How can you not love a film that expects you to believe in a world where bouncers can become legendary, or that the most celebrated badass of them all is a fluffy-haired, Tai-Chi practicing, NYU Philosophy graduate, who can rip out throats like Sonny Chiba in Street Fighter (1974)? What’s more, how can you turn away from the dueling match of acting styles between Sam Elliott’s underplaying and Ben Gazarra’s unhinged scenery chewing? When you consider that the picture piles on heaping helpings of gratuitous violence, nudity, unintentionally funny dialogue, and unfortunate fashion and grooming choices, Road House is simply irrisistable.

Like a martini made with malt liquor, this cocktail isn’t smooth or subtle. Still, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it should be.

A side note--The band that performs during the opening credit sequence is fronted by Tito Larriva, who would later head up the house band in another great movie bar, The Titty Twister, in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey, beer, vodka (Bloody Mary and on the rocks), and gallons of unnamed cocktails

Intoxicating Effects--Brawling, physical violence, belching, swearing, passing out, public disturbance, and bar tossed

Potent Quotables-- TILGHMAN: Ernie, what’s the story?
ERNIE (the bartender): Whiskey’s running low.
TILGHMAN: I finally get this place just the way I want it, and now we’re running out of booze. I’ve called every supplier I know. Why won’t they deliver?
DALTON: Wesley. Ernie, give me the phone. I’ll take care of it.

Video Availability--DVD and Blu-ray (MGM)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The film inspired a direct-to-video sequel, Road House 2: Last Call (2006), featuring none of the original cast.


The Soused Cinema Library: The Thin Man - Murder Over Cocktails

>> Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails
by Charles Tranberg
©2008 BearManor Media
307 pages

In the realm of classic movie series, the Thin Man films stand alone in terms of quality. Unlike B-programmers like the Charlie Chan, Saint, or Boston Blackie films, the Thin Man pictures starred A-list actors, had comparatively large budgets, and had stories and screenplays by the best writers in the business. They also weren’t cranked out in quick succession, as was the general rule for popular films with series potential. Only six Thin Man pictures were ever produced, with a two to three year interval between series entries.

The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels also had a greater influence on popular culture than other series films. The witty, tipsy, husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles, as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, were an instant hit with audiences. It was only natural that a sequel would follow, which eventually spun into a string of periodic reunions of the actors as the sophisticated (yet down-to-earth) soused spouses. William Powell and Myrna Loy set the standard for sleuthing couples, and the elements that made the series great--sparkling banter, playful sexuality, labyrinthine mysteries, and copious cocktails--were imitated again and again, with and without the names of Nick and Nora attached.

Considering the impact that the Thin Man series of the 30’s and 40’s had on film, radio, and television history, it is astounding that it took until 2008 for someone to produce a book entirely devoted to the series. Nick and Nora had received a handful of chapters in film references such as Tom Soter’s Investigating Couples: A Critical Analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers, and The X-Files (2001) and in James Harvey’s outstanding and essential Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987). However, author Charles Tranberg and small press publisher BearManor Media become the first to commit an entire tome to Nick and Nora’s forays into film with their release of The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails.

The book begins with concise, chapter-length biographies of series stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. The only other actor to appear in all of the films, Skippy, who played Asta, the Charles’ Wire-Haired Terrier, doesn’t rate a chapter of his own. However, the dog does receive a brief bio and is the subject of anecdotes later in the book. Following the biographies are individual chapters on each of the six films in The Thin Man series. Each of these chapters follow the same format--1) Cast and production credits; 2) An in-depth synopsis of the story; 3) A representative line or two of witty dialogue; 4) Brief biographies of key members of the production staff, such as the director and writers; 5) Behind-the-scenes stories of the production of the film; 6) Additional biographies of several members of the supporting cast; 7) And finally a selection of excerpts from reviews of the picture. Each chapter contains a few film stills or advertising materials from the specific film discussed, and the book wraps up with a photo gallery of character actors that added color to the series.

Fans of The Thin Man and its sequels have been waiting for a book like this for a long time, but after reading The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails, they will probably wish they had a book “like this” rather than the actual book that they hold in their hands. All-in-all, the book is unexceptional. Charles Tranberg fulfills his meager goal of providing a guide to the six movies in the popular series, without really giving readers a feel for what set the films apart or for the impact they've had on motion pictures and entertainment as a whole.

On the positive side, one comes away from the book feeling that they have truly gotten to know Powell and Loy through the biographical chapters and anecdotes scattered throughout the book. Tranberg has also gathered together many amusing behind-the-scenes stories from a variety of previous publications and interviews. Finally, film fanatics are bound to appreciate the capsule biographies of the series’ supporting cast members, including many of the greatest character actors to ever appear on celluloid, such as Edward Brophy, Sam Levene, Joseph Calleia, George Zucco, and Marjorie Main. Most of these familiar faces have not rated full-length biographies of their own, so these mini bios are appreciated. However, the cast and crew biographies also prove to be a liability, because they represent about half of the volume’s 307 pages. Many readers will grow weary waiting for the author to get back to the actual Thin Man films, as they wade through pages of acting and production credits from the films’ participants.

Another failing of the book is that Dashiell Hammett, the author of the novel upon which the series was based (as well as the writer of the storylines of the first two sequels) doesn’t receive much coverage. The personalities of Nick and Nora, as well as many of the best lines in the original film, were lifted directly from Hammett’s novel; so both the pulp master and his novel deserved more exposure in Tranberg’s film guide. Thin Man fans would have been interested in an exploration of the similarities and differences between the novel and the 1934 film, as well as a discussion of details about the characters that were left out of the movie (such as the fact that Nick Charles is the son of a Greek immigrant and that his real last name is Charalambides). Readers also would have likely been interested in the fact that Hammett’s story for the first sequel, After The Thin Man (1936), has been published (1986, The New Black Mask, Nos. 5 and 6), but his story for Another Thin Man (1939) has yet to appear in print. One comes away from the book wondering how much Tranberg actually knows about Hammett, as he refers to the author’s series character, the Continental Op, multiple times as “the Continental Ot.”

“The Continental Ot” is likely a typo, which is another mark in the book’s negative column. Throughout The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails there are examples of poor editing. In addition to misspellings, there are missing words, bits of contradictory information (for example, Another Thin Man is described as both Sheldon Leonard’s “film debut” and “his fourth film”), and inaccuracies (character actor Lloyd Corrigan is misidentified as Edward Brophy in a photo from The Thin Man Goes Home). While most of these errors are minor, they cast doubt on the accuracy of other information in the book.

Finally, and most disappointing, is the fact that the book displays little feeling for the impact that the Thin Man films had upon pop culture. Apart from a single paragraph in the foreword--which mentions that the film spawned movie imitations, led to a brief two-year Thin Man television series, and went on to influence TV shows such as Hart to Hart--the book sticks strictly to the six films in the movie series. It is surprising that a book celebrating the Thin Man films would fail to mention that William Powell and Myrna Loy reprised their roles as Nick and Nora in Lux Radio Theater adaptations of the first two films or that the movies inspired a radio series with other actors entitled The Adventures of the Thin Man, which enjoyed a nine-year run (1941-1950). There is also no mention of the Dick and Dora Charleston parody in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976); the failed Broadway musical, Nick & Nora (1990), which ran a dismal nine performances; the sleepwear company that adopted the names of the tipsy twosome; or the homage to the Charles’ in the title of the recent film Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008).

All of these quibbles aside, I ultimately have to recommend The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails for die-hard fans of The Thin Man and its sequels. Fans of Nick and Nora are likely to find information in Charles Tranberg’s book that is new to them, and they won’t want to miss the amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes concerning the making of one of the most satisfying film series in movie history. It’s just a shame that Charles Tranberg’s book isn’t nearly as satisfying as the films it celebrates.

The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails (Trade Paperback)

The Complete Thin Man Collection (The Thin Man / After the Thin Man / Another Thin Man / Shadow of the Thin Man / The Thin Man Goes Home / Song of the Thin Man / Alias Nick and Nora)


Reviews: The Pharmacist (1933)

>> Monday, September 7, 2009

USA/B&W-20m./Dir: Arthur Ripley/Wr: W.C. Fields/Cast: W.C. Fields (Mr. Dilweg), Elise Cavanna (Mrs. Dilweg), Babe Kane (Younger Daughter), Lorena Carr (Older Daughter), Grady Sutton (Cuthbert Smith)

Although considered a comedy classic today, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), W.C. Field’s second short for comedy kingpin Mack Sennett, was too bizarre for viewers of the time; and it was a failure with critics and audiences alike. Consequently, the Great Man stuck to safer territory for the final two shorts of his Sennett contract. Both The Pharmacist (1933) and The Barber Shop (1933) were based on popular sketches the comedian had performed on the stage. These sure-fire laugh-getters both featured Fields as a put upon family man who suffers indignities at home and in the working world--a formula the Great Man would exploit off and on for the rest of his career.

In The Pharmacist, Fields portrays Mr. Dilweg, a drug store proprietor, who gives away expensive painted vases with every purchase, despite the fact that those purchases mainly consist of individual postage stamps (and a few borrowed matches). When not meekly waiting on demanding customers and avoiding lawmen intent on catching him illegally dispensing alcohol, Dilweg tricks his bratty daughter into mixing him up martinis by attaching his cocktail shaker to her pogo stick.

The Pharmacist was based upon Fields’ stage sketch, “The Druggist,” from which he had previously borrowed material for his silent feature It’s the Old Army Game (1926). It’s interesting to compare the two films as many of the jokes are identical. In It’s the Old Army Game, Fields’ character was also a druggist whose trade mainly consisted of selling stamps and who also gave away expensive souvenirs with every purchase. Fields also repeated a Prohibition-based gag from It’s the Old Army Game in The Pharmacist. When a man walks into the shop and whispers in Dilweg’s ear that he’d like to buy some booze, the druggist uses an electric fan to blow the man’s coat open, revealing a police badge under the man’s lapel. These gags work even better in sound short than they did in the silent feature, due to the addition of the comedian’s distinctive nasal line readings.

Fields also goes further in The Pharmacist than in It’s the Old Army Game in exploring the soused aspects of his comic character. In addition to the electric fan gag, Fields mixes up his luncheon martinis by attaching the cocktail shaker to his daughter’s pogo stick, and later when an unconscious woman is carried into the store, Dilweg’s initial reaction is “Is she blotto!” Fields garnered big laughs from these liquor jokes, and the alcohol references would only increase in the comedian’s later starring features.

In the filmography of W.C. Fields, The Pharmacist is an interesting anomaly. The comedian tended to shift between two distinct personalities from film to film--in one movie he would portray an aggressive, cantankerous con man, and in another he would play a meek family man who mumbles curses at his various indignities. In The Pharmacist, Fields played both parts at once. In the scenes with his family, Mr. Dilweg is a cranky, outspoken lion, but with his customers, he is a submissive mouse. It’s a strange Jekyll and Hyde act, but the jokes are so good, Fields manages to make it work.

Wisely, the Great Man would never again revisit this split personality take on his comic persona. Although The Pharmacist is undeniably funny, Fields’ character was funnier when he was less aggressive, and therefore less deserving of the aggravations that he suffered. He toned down his character’s antagonism for his next domestic (and alcohol-free) comedy, The Barber Shop, and he continued to display a more milquetoast temperament in his later comic masterpieces, It’s a Gift (1934), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and The Bank Dick (1940).

Drinks Consumed--Martinis (gin)

Intoxicating Effects--None

Potent Quotables--MR. DILWEG (to an undercover lawman in response to his request for alcohol): Certainly not! You don’t think I’d break the laws of this of this great and grand and glorious United States of ours just to satisfy your depraved tastes? A thousands no’s. I’ve never had or sold a bottle of liquor since I’ve opened this place.
LAWMAN: No? Well, you’re not foolin’ me. I’ll get you yet.
MR. DILWEG: Huh? Maybe and maybe not.

Video Availability--Fields shorts are in the public domain and have been released by multiple companies. The best presentation can be found on the Criterion Collection DVD, W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films (Criterion).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields previously purloined bits from his “Druggist” sketch for his silent feature It’s the Old Army Game (1926).


Booze News: Hunter S. Thompson Video Blog

>> Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fans of Dr. Gonzo, Raoul Duke, and the late, great Hunter S. Thompson take note! Wayne Ewing, the documentary filmmaker that gave us the HST docs Breakfast With Hunter (2003), When I Die (2005), and Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver (2006) has started a video blog dedicated to the founder of gonzo journalism. Mr. Ewing describes the blog as follows:

I will be writing weekly stories about life with Hunter and the making of the films along with exclusive clips from the archives. Not unlike my old Sundays with Hunter, when for years I helped him write columns for the San Francisco Examiner and, except a bit less frustrating for me.

But I still miss him like many of you, especially since I'm editing a scene right now I shot with him writing one of his last columns in 2004. There are three new pieces up already one about taking Hunter to DC for George McGovern's birthday, another about the original "Breakfast with Hunter" project and also the real story of what happened that fateful day when Hunter shot Deborah.

You can access the HST video blog at:


P.S. - I know this site has been light on posts as of late, but I've been feeling beneath the weather. I'm still recovering from a particularly hard bout with the flu. However, while I was laid up, I received several videos, including the W.C. Fields Region 2 DVD box set containing 17 of the Great Man's films, many of which have not been released in the U.S. Consequently, new reviews will be up soon. Stay tuned and stay stewed.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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