Saturday, April 16, 2022

Step Lively, Jeeves (1937)

After mistakenly trying to swindle each-other, two con artists decide to team up and use a new trick, duping well-off butler Jeeves into believing he's a long-lost descendant of Sir Francis Drake, and must collect on a fortune in America. They create a media storm surrounding the arrival of the new 'Earl of Braddock'. Interested in this news is Babe, a former gang leader turned society lady, who's excited to be entertaining a genuine Earl, and has her goons bring him over, much to the horror of the increasingly nervous con-men...

When it come to bad adaptions, an interesting topic is whether or not they're still good movies in spite of their disrespectful nature. In the case of Step Lively, Jeeves, this is a perfect example. The film itself is actually pretty decent. But when you consider it as a Jeeves movie, it's a total failure, in every conceivable way! Here's how bad it is. 1936's Thank You, Jeeves was an in-name-only adaption that completely failed to capture the tone, spirit, or contents of the books. And yet it is still a more loyal adaption than this!

There are a few things that hold Step Lively from feeling like a true Jeeves story. First up is the 12 minute beginning, which introduces us to the two con-artists, and our favourite gentleman is nowhere to be seen! It takes almost 1/6th of the way through his own movie before he appears! When he finally does Bertie Wooster is nowhere to be found, nor even mentioned. Jeeves is instead in the employ of some random couple.

Next up, the lack of a friendly dope like Bertie means Jeeves' personality is changed completely, to make him into a gullible fool. And last up is the change of setting to America. In fairness the Jeeves stories did sometimes go to the old colony, but when it's such a big element here, at the cost of so much else, it just feels like a typically American move-Poaching a story and changing up the setting to their own backyard.

With all of this you may be wondering, are there any familiar Wodehousian touches? For the most part, no, but there was one part I really liked, and felt would be right at home in a P.G. novel. Patricia has set herself up in the crooks' household posing as a rich girl, and when she and Jeeves meet again, he comments how good it is to see her again...which Babe takes as proof of this fine young girl's high standing.

If there is a benefit to Step Lively, Jeeves being so unfaithful, it does mean it's very easy to switch off and just accept this as its own film. And on those terms it ain't half bad. I can see why it's not more widely loved, and it's not gonna win any awards, but it's fine. Easily on par with the likes of Torchy Blane or Mexican Spitfire.

The characters here are quite decent, with exceptions. One issue is just how many there are. Jeeves, the friendly reporter and her beau, the con artists, and a band of high society crooks. It gets a bit much, especially for a 69 minute long film. It's not often I say this, since 60-70 minutes is such a perfect runtime for these kinds of films, but Step Lively, Jeeves really could've stood to be longer.

Jeeves is an alright lead in places, if you forget who he's supposed to be, but is not the strongest. He's even a bit too passive in the climax (although his honesty does shine through). Taking the action is reporter Patricia, who's a fun dame, and has a nice friendship with Jeeves. She may not trust the two con men, but she can just tell he's on the level. Her boyfriend is your typical 'You should settle down and marry me' guy but isn't too obnoxious about it, and always tries getting his way by helping rather than hindering her.

Onto the villains, the con men are a hoot! Especially the 'Russian prince', who says constant malapropisms. The pair have some great zingers too, like "Stop involving nations and cut some bread!". I like how the Prince never beaks character, almost like he's been doing this act for so long he believes it himself.

The gang of crooks are a fairly amusing bunch. Head honcho Babe is trying to make do in high society, while her hubby is trying to do his best in this ill-fitting world, as are his goons. They're lighthearted baddies, causing problems but never truly evil. The only thing I disliked was the decision to have Babe be the creator of Jeeves' famous pick-me-up! Sacrilege!

The acting in Step Lively, Jeeves is fine all round. One 'upside' to the change in Jeeves' personality is that it means Arthur Treacher gives a more appropriate and subdued performance, rather than the boisterous and bombastic one he gave in the previous film. The character as written here still means he feels unlike Jeeves, but at least his general mannerisms are more befitting.

The rest of the cast are decent enough. Alan Dinehart and George Givot are a hoot as the con artists (with Givot's accent being a particular highlight!), while Patricia Ellis and Robert Kent are serviceable as the heroic couple. The gaggle of guys playing the crooks are pretty good, as is Helen Flint as their ringleader.

Despite their differences in construction, P.G. Wodehouse and Classic Hollywood had many similarities, and these worked best when independent of each-other. Most attempts the Yanks ever made to adapt Plum's stories were groanworthy at best, insulting at worst. Step Lively, Jeeves is proof positive of this, acting as a movie that works well in its own right, but poorly as a representation of Wodehouse's fine craft. It's worth checking out if you're an old Hollywood fan, but not urgently, and it may drive you to a rage if you're a fan of the text. Ultimately, there are easier and better films to find...

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983)

American sitcoms can be a trite and cliched territory when they're not outright garbage (yet bizarrely long-lived garbage), but there are always some that are different, or ones that stand out through sheer quality. I'd always heard of Laverne and Shirley growing up, and knew it had a big reputation, but had never actually seen it until 2014, when I caught reruns on tv. I was instantly hooked, and became a fan overnight. To this day it's one of my all-time favourite shows, and I'd like to explain why...
 Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney are two cheeky but well-intentioned girls out in the wide world of Milwaukee, working at the Shotz brewery day in day out, and hanging out at the DeFazio pizza bowl with their friends (or nuisance neighbours). From Laverne's attempts at finding a fun date, to Shirley's attempts at finding true lifelong happiness, these girls are never short of adventure...

Laverne and Shirley is a conventional sitcom, but what makes it stand out, among other reasons I'll get into soon, is the quality of writing, and the characterization. This is an often hilarious comedy which always has fun stories of the gals getting caught up in one mess or another. The show also displays a level of character and continuity consistency that most sitcoms don't have. The writers here clearly weren't lazy, and never forgot details little or big.

This is not only a very funny show, but also one that brings a smile to one's face, which is extremely appreciated! I love when shows can make you feel happy! While it's not a schmaltzy love-in where everyone is perfect all the time, no-one ever acts truly badly, and it's always enjoyable.

The characters in Laverne and Shirley are all great! The titular duo are hilarious! Both actresses perform them and their quirks superbly, with Laverne being an immature goofball with a knack for mischief, and a hankering for the 'rodeo-do-do', while Shirley is a more reserved and serious girl, usually trying to be prim and ladylike, while at times manic. You really do get the impression that these two ladies are friends, and their relationship is the heart of the show.

As for the neighbouring pests Lenny and Squiggy, they seem absolutely grating at first, but you get used to them pretty quickly, and you even see at numerous points why Laverne and Shirley are friends with these two dopes. Scenes like that really help flesh out the character relationships, which is leagues better than shows where characters hang out with slovenly and irritating people all the time for no reason.

The rest of the cast, from Laverne's gruff but loving father Frank, his spouse Edna, and Shirley's on-again-off-again beau Carmine, are great fun, and the later additions, such as Sonny, and Rhonda, are good too, and don't come across as Cousin Oliver's. There are also really good supporting/minor characters such as the caustic Rosie Greenbaum, who's always at odds with Laverne, sparring both figuratively and literally, but is ultimately friends with her and Shirley, and then there's the tough bruiser Terri Buttafuco, who's character develops very well over her occasional appearances.

While predominately goofy, the show isn't afraid to get serious. There are some dramatic episodes, and they're really good! They don't come across as forced, and some are likely to break your heart! Minor dramatic moments are all handled well too, and the show gives good messages overall.

What's especially awesome is that this show even does gimmick episodes well! First, let's discuss the requisite clip show. Now, there's nothing revolutionary about the framing of this episode, but it has good clips, and its framing story is not only funny, but very well-done, focusing on the title duo's friends as viewpoint characters, giving their thoughts on the gals. Then there's one episode where it pulled that old sitcom staple of doing a take on It's a Wonderful Life. It's handled well here not only because of the genuine pathos the episode delivers, but also because the conceit is just a dream that Laverne has after falling asleep to It's a Wonderful Life, as opposed to other shows that just had legitimate angel visitations despite the otherwise realistic setting (I'm looking at you, Dallas! Family Ties, you get a pass by just thiiis much).

What's fantastic about Laverne and Shirley is that it also never jumped the shark! Sure, some episodes are goofier than others here or there, but they're never to the level of Happy Days' bonkers gimmick episodes (although as someone who's watched a good chunk of Happy Days, I can attest to those episodes being nowhere near as frequent as some detractors like to claim). The goofiest the show ever got was when Laverne gets mixed up in a confusion between Squiggy, and a defecting Russian ballet star identical to him. But even then, that episode is never all that far out, and even shows Laverne and Squiggy's friendship off well.

Some say that Laverne and Shirley jumped the Shark not only when it moved to California, but by that act itself, which I find to be very shaky logic. To me, the show is still just as good at that stage as previous seasons, nor is the move a bad thing. Things didn't need to be freshened up, but it's good that the showrunners decided on the change anyway, as it's never good when shows become stagnant. The sea change allowed for some new stories to tell, and new characters to introduce. As for the entire cast moving to California, well it's not as contrived as it sounds. Frank and Edna go first to open up a business there, and after being laid off, Laverne and Shirley and decide to move there too. Then Lenny and Squiggy get the same idea, and since they're slobs, they're easily able to find cheap accommodation. The only place where it starts getting a bit contrived is when Carmine moves too. That's one character too many, and while the character is still great, he doesn't appear a whole lot, making his moving too be a bit unnecessary.

There were some issues with the show's final years though. First was the departure of Betty Garrett, which was explained by breaking Edna and Frank up offscreen, which I thought was a pretty rotten move. But more infamous than that was when Shirley herself, one half of the title, packed up her bags and departed. This was because of Cindy Williams' pregnancy (among other reasons), and so she was written out, and for the majority of season 8 the show became known informally as Laverne without Shirley. Fans just couldn't take the departure of one half of the duo, understandably so, and the show never recovered from this, eventually ending in a pretty random spot, with an unsuccessful and bafflingly late backdoor pilot for Carmine. While I find the quality itself of season 8 to be fairly decent, it did have some pretty fatal setbacks, that ultimately led to the show's oncoming end.

To finish, I highly recommend Laverne and Shirley! It's a brilliantly funny comedy with likeable characters, and thankfully many (but not too many) episodes to enjoy! Go to it, and why not have a milk and pepsi on the way! C'mon, you know you want to try one! I promise they're not awful...