Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Comfort food cinema

OK, you’ve had one of those days. Your boss has scaled unknown heights of sphincterdom. Your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend is making you rethink your stance on celibacy, or at least the possible advantages of inflatable companions. Nothing has gone right and everything is off-key. To make matters just that much more delectable, you come home to find that the cat has been spectacularly unwell on that 11 X 14 lobby card from Daughter of Dr. Jekyll you paid way too much for when you got into that bidding war on eBay a month back—you know, the one you meant to get around to framing, but didn’t.

So after several minutes of attempting to invoke the wrath of strange deities on the persons and animals at the heart of all this misery, what do you do? Well, obviously, I don’t know what you would do, but for me the answer is to go over to the shelves and make a dive for what I call a “comfort food movie” — something tried and true that rarely, if ever, fails to make the unfair world seem at least a bit fairer than it is for a little while. In Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961), James Cagney defends civilization by saying, “Any world that can produce William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal and Stripe Toothpaste can’t be all bad.” While I have nothing against Stripe Toothpaste (except that they don’t seem to make it anymore), I’d probably substitute Zombies on Broadway (1945) — or one of the other titles I’m going to name — for it.

When I jotted down my list of movies that qualify for the comfort food category, the first thing I realized is that only two of them qualify as representative of their makers’ best work. Then I realized that of the titles I settled on, only one also lands in my top 10 favorite films of all time. But quality isn’t the point of movies like these for moments like this. No, here you’re looking for something that produces a feeling — and does it consistently — that’s somehow soothing to your innermost being. It’s probably as inexplicable as someone find gustatory solace in a large serving of tuna-noodle casserole — a notion, I confess, that makes me slightly unwell merely to contemplate.

The list I ended up with required no heavy thinking. It’s based entirely on remembering the handful of movies I’m most likely to default to in moments of cosmic disorder. There have been others that seemed especially apt at one time or another, but these are the faithful few and they’ve been around for years in my own realm of household deities. I don’t think there’s a single movie on here that I hadn’t seen by the age of 17 and there’s nothing on the list that’s newer than 1945. If that makes it sound like nostalgia enters the picture, well, that’s because it does. Wanna make something out of it?

At the top of the list we have Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). This is the oldest film on the list, the only one that qualifies as its creator’s best work, and, for whatever reason, is the movie I’m most apt to grab at such moments. It may also qualify as a singularly odd choice and the only indisputably great film in the lot. Today, Sternberg is little more than a name to younger cineastes, but not that long ago he was, rightly, hailed as one of the greatest of all filmmakers. This is his masterpiece. It’s the fourth in a series of seven movies he made with, about and centered on Marlene Dietrich. Today, we would call their relationship co-dependent and send the two of them for counselling. Back then, it was simply obsessive and resulted in seven remarkable works of art.

Shanghai Express is many things. It’s pulp melodrama, studio-created exotica, and high camp of the finest kind. It’s also a terrific piece of plastic art on the nature of love and spirituality that just happened to come from one of the most arrogant and cynical filmmakers who ever shot a frame of film. That makes it an endlessly fascinating film that serves as a testament (one of many) to the idea that there’s more truth about an artist in his work than he probably realizes.

The movie’s utterly preposterous narrative gathers together a group of singularly bizarre characters on a train journey from Peking to Shanghai. These range from Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) to Dr. Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) to Henry Chang (Warner Oland) to Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) — with subordinate roles taken up by an array of great character actors. Nearly everyone on the train has a secret. This can be as simple as Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) attempting to sneak her dog into her compartment (and we never do learn exactly what kind of “boarding house” she keeps in Shanghai). Or it can be as deep as Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) keeping quiet on the fact that he’s been cashiered from the French army for cowardice. Others include Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz) hiding the fact that he deals in opium and the pompous missionary Rev. Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) concealing the fact that he’s actually a nice guy, who truly believes in redemption and isn’t as judgmental as he first seems (“God remains on speaking terms with everybody”)

The biggest secrets concern Chang, who is in reality a Chinese revolutionary warlord, and Shanghai Lily and Donald Harvey—both of whom are deeply in love with each other, despite a break-up years ago and many transgressions (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”) in between. Neither will admit it, but circumstances will force the issue.

It may just be the single most beautifully photographed black and white film of all time. It did snag an Oscar for cinematographer Lee Garmes, but the best the movie and Sternberg received were nominations. (This resulted in Sternberg resigning from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and petulantly—if not inaccurately—dismissing the organization for having “nothing to do with art and even less to do with science.) Technically, it’s a marvel, but what really makes it special has to do with Sternberg’s ability to turn a silly story into a moving drama that is far more apt to wring a tear from viewers than most soap operas ever get near.

I’m not entirely sure how he does this, but I suspect that it rests primarily on it working towards a positive sense of romance and humanity—that and the fact that he keeps the surface cynical and absurd. This, after all, is a movie that dares to have its hero utter the immortal line, “What good is a watch without you?” Moreover, its final, inevitable kiss involves the heroine taking the price tag off that watch (now on her lover’s wrist) as if she’d just bought him and then taking charge of his riding crop. Neither bit of sybolism is accidental, but they magically serve to make the film more romantic, not less so. In any case, it’s never failed to improve my mood.

Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934) is the first Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers picture that was designed specifically for them. No one would debate that it’s a good one—maybe a great one—but no one is very likely to rate it as their best. Neither would I, but it’s the film of theirs I’ll opt for as a boost to flagging spirits more than any other. It may simply be that it was first one I saw. I’m not going to dig too deeply into my reasoning here—or lack thereof.

The plot is typical of the type of film it is. Fred and Ginger meet cute (her dress is caught in a steamer trunk by ditsy aunt Alice Brady). He’s immediately smitten. She isn’t—or maybe she is, but she has issues (getting divorced from dreary husband William Auston). As luck and clever scripting would have it ditsy aunt takes Ginger to Fred’s best friend, lawyer Edward Everett Horton, to obtain said divorce. Complications ensue—not in the least because Fred impresses Horton by quoting a line from his last play (“Chance is the fool’s name for fate”), which Horton appropriates as the password for Ginger’s paid correspondent (Erik Rhodes). Not only can the Italian correspondent not remember the line correctly, but Fred, of course, uses it on Ginger, who mistakes him for the correspondent. It’s silly stuff, but it’s divinely silly stuff—and a lot of it remains funny.

What you’re really after in one of these movies, though, are the musical numbers and there’s no shortage of those. Frankly, I like all of them—including the probably objectively dreadful “Let’s K-nock K-nees,” a specialty number for Edward Everett Horton and then-unknown Betty Grable. The first Fred-Ginger dance number is nothing less than Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” the only holdover from the stage version of the film, The Gay Divorce (the title was changed to appease the production code’s shock at the idea that a divorce could be gay). The dancing is … well, it’s Fred and Ginger, so it simply doesn’t get any better. It also had a huge impact on home decor at the time. Director Sandrich shot part of the number through Venitian blinds, increasing their popularity no end.

The big number, however, is the one that’s truly amazing—“The Continental.” It’s not big, it’s enormous. It’s also a joy to behold and—since bits of the plot are worked into it—it goes on for over 17 minutes. That “The Continental” won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Song is hardly surprising. After such a massive dose of it, there’s no way anyone was ever going to forget it.

Of course, there are times when mood dictates something a little heavier than Fred and Ginger. Some frames of mind require the “misery loves company” approach—if only so you can enjoy the spectacle of characters far worse off than yourself. For those times, my choice is invariably John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934). Though virtually forgotten today, Stahl was at one time the second most important director Universal Pictures had (the first was James Whale). He specialized in prestigious soap operas, of which Imitation of Life is probably the best, but the jury’s still out on that. In any case, this is my pick.

The reason Stahl’s soap works as well as it does lies in the fact that he completely respects the material—and the audience. He obviously cares about his characters and his target audience. Don’t come to Stahl’s Imitation of Life with visions of the self-reflexive contempt and sense of superiority that pervades Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake. Stahl believes in Fannie Hurst’s source material about the parallel lives of two women—Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers)—and their daughters—Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) and Peola (Fredi Washington). As a result, so do we.

The story covers a span of about 16 years. Bea Pullman is a single mother, who is trying to pick up her late husband’s business selling pancake syrup—not with much luck. Delilah Johnson is in the same boat, but with no career to try to carry on. She merely wants a job as a maid/housekeeper so she can keep her daughter—a situation made worse by the fact that most people don’t want them both, especially since the child could pass for white, raising the then-taboo specter of miscegenation. Delilah ends up “working for” Bea for free, but, in reality, they’re pooling their resources.

The crux of the plot centers around Delilah’s secret recipe for pancakes, which leads to a restaurant and then to a huge industry when a broke customer, Elmer Smith, trades a “million dollar idea” for a stack of pancakes. The idea? “Box it,” he tells Bea—package the pancake flour and sell it. (Yes, it’s all very Aunt Jemima.) The three of them grow rich, but there’s trouble with the fact that Peola can pass for white and becomes ever more determined to do so, rejecting her doting mother in the bargain and only openly acknowledging her at her funeral. It’s very much of its time, of course, but it was also a huge breakthrough for that time—and as drama, it’s hard to beat. I’ve yet to meet the person who could remain dry-eyed through the funeral sequence. I’m not sure I’d want to meet that person.

There’s actually even more trouble in a separate plot where Bea has to give up the man she loves (Warren William) because her daughter’s in love with him, too. The real surprise to this aspect of the film lies in the fact that Stahl and Claudette Colbert manage to induce tears with the line, “I want my quack-quack.” Think I’m kidding? Try it for yourself. Regardless, you’ll feel better about your life afterwards.

I’ve admitted on several occasions that I’m a huge fan of the “Road” Pictures with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, so it’s hardly a surprise that one of them would qualify for this list. What may be a surprise, however, is that it should be the first entry in the series, Road to Singapore (1940), which is, by any critical standard, one of the lesser titles in the set. This isn’t a case of nostalgia, though, because I’d already seen Road to Hong Kong (1962), Road to Rio (1947) and Road to Zanzibar (1941) when I caught up with this one. If I had to pick a best, it’d be Road to Zanzibar, but in need of a pick-up, my hand goes straight to Road to Singapore.

There’s a nice unassuming quality to the film. It’s really nothing more than a B picture that got out of hand. You’ll notice that the pecking order isn’t even established yet with Dorothy Lamour getting billing over Bob Hope. That’s not surprising. Paramount picked up Hope in 1938 and gave him one of the best debuts imaginable in The Big Broadcast of 1938, whereupon they proceeded to stick him in a lot of junk simply because they didn’t know what to do with him. That changed in 1939 when they dusted off the comedy-mystery thriller The Cat and the Canary and turned him into a bonafide star—but the transition hadn’t sunk in at the time of Road to Singapore, even though his role is clearly more central to the film than Lamour’s.

The chemistry between Bing and Bob is immediate and unforced. Onscreen, they’re natural, and that perfectly suits this male-bonding comedy that has Crosby running away from his millionaire background, responsibilities and arranged marriage to live in a hut on the island of Kaigoon (presumbly on the road to Singapore) with Bob. Oh, yeah, there’s subtext aplenty here—and in all the other entries—but it’s all leavened by the addition of Lamour as a girl for them to fight over.

The results are a little creaky and very obvious. Lamour almost seems to be in a different movie—apart from one musical number and another scene also involving trying to sell Hope’s disastrous spot remover, Spotto. She plays her character straight—as just another of her South Sea exotics. (By the next film, she’s in on the joke.) The thing is she’s surprisingly appealing and believable in the role, which may lessen the fun, but gives Singapore a human angle that’s not in its successors.

It’s also a very good looking movie and the songs—there are more here than in any other entry, I think—are all excellent. The sequence where Lamour sings “The Moon and the Willow Tree” is actually beautifully done and oddly moving. There’s nothing like anywhere else in the series, while “The Sweet Potato Piper” has a truly off-the-cuff feel that’s irresistible—even if one might rightly wonder how Lamour’s guitar keeps playing when she sets it aside. (Well, you don’t go to a movie like this for realism.) I suspect it’s the freshness—the complete lack of formula that—that draws me to this one. It doesn’t hurt that large chunks of it—especially the scenes with Jerry Colonna—are very funny, no matter how sour your mood.

All that reasonable quality to one side, I have to admit that there are times when nothing works like pure junk—especially if that junk includes Bela Lugosi—and that brings me to the final film on my list, the aforementioned Zombies on Broadway. Though it’s reasonably well made—by the generally workmanlike Gordon Douglas—and has some interest as a kind of follow-up to Jacques Tourneur’s horror classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), this is a pretty darn indefensible movie.

Lugosi gets third billing under RKO’s dismal comedy team Wally Brown and Alan Carney. These boys were RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello. I’m not sure who asked them for an answer, but whoever it was needs a sound trouncing. The dubious duo journey to the island of San Sebastian because they’ve stupidly promised to produce a “real live zombie” for gangster Sheldon Leonard’s new nightclub, the Zombie Hut. Said gangster wants a zombie or else. This, of course, runs them afoul of Dr. Paul Renault (Lugosi), who is on San Sebastian trying to scientifically create zombie (God knows why, because the script does). Naturally, the boys are prime candidates for such an experience.

The results are standard, lowbrow comedy scare stuff that is not enlivened by Brown and Carney, but which holds somewhat unexpected appeal from a surprisingly robust Lugosi performance (the man was not well at this point in his faltering career) that walks a fine line between real villainy and the realization that it’s all a joke. Lugosi can switch from pure mad scientist (“How can the natives do with their silly voodoo what I cannot accomplish by scientific means”) to comedy (brushing off the fact that his assistant has said he’s studying a cocoanut blight, while he’s said it was a banana blight by offering a terse, “Oh, Joseph is color blind”) without a pause. He even indulges in some fairly inspired knockabout—and any movie that pits Lugosi in a battle of wits with a capuchin monkey gets bonus points.

It’s a dumb movie with just enough going for it that it serves as a pretty good mood elevator—and the title alone cheers me up. It doesn’t cheer me up nearly as much as the title Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), a kind of half-assed rehash of similar material that foists a pair of Martin and Lewis imitators (worse than an ersatz Abbott and Costello) named Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo on Lugosi. It’s a great title, but there are limits on how far a title can go in goosing a movie’s actual value. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla more than exceeds those limits.

So there, for better or worse, you have the list of the movies in which I’m most apt to seek solace. Without being actually inside my head, they may seem a baffling selection. I’m sure most people have titles of their own that would perplex me just as much.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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9 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Comfort food cinema

  1. Ken Hanke

    I know posts are being made here, but they aren’t showing up near as I can tell…

  2. Kevin F.

    I made a post saying that this must be very generational, because my “comfort” films have become THE RUTLES: ALL YOU NEED IS CASH, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, and HOT FUZZ.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Great snakes! Our Webmeister has worked his meisterliness and fixed things. We are back to normal — or what passes for it in these parts.

    In response to Kevin, yes, I’m sure this is generational, though I notice in my case that it also relates to movies that were known to me in childhood (loosely defined). I’d actually tried to address this — or a tangent of this — in a post that vanished.

    Not long after this article appeared an old friend of mine, Greg (survivor of the 16 film MGM marathon of 1973), wrote to me with his list of potential comfort movies — Charlie Chan’s Secret, The Cocoanuts, Mark of Zorro, The
    Old-fashioned Way, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Isle of the Dead, Way Out West, Yellow Submarine, Revenge of the Zombies, The Black Raven
    , and some episodes of You Bet Your Life. But his contention was that he would get more from dredging up the audio cassettes he’d made of these back in the early 1970s. That probably sounds strange to younger readers, but in those pre-VCR days, quite a few of us did indeed make audio recordings of movies on television (carefully excising the commercials, of course). I know at least one of our readers, Chip Kaufman, has not only admitted to this ancient practice, but once said to me, “That’s how you learn the dialogue.”

    He’s right, of course, and this, I suspect, has something to do with my choices. Greg, I think, is more actively seeking nostalgia for a time long past, but all of my choices are films I had the soundtracks of long before I had the films. They’re all “good listens.” And if the truth be told, I’m very apt to put these movies on and more listen to them than sit down and watch them (I rarely have the time to just do that). This likely explains the complete absence of silent and foreign language films. My choices might be nostalgia-tinged, but there’s a bit of practical consideration involved, too.

  4. Dionysis

    While I am of your generation, my list would include some movies that are somewhat more contemporary. Of the older films that I would describe as ‘comfort movies’, I would include Preston Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, the Marx Brothers ‘A Night at the Opera’, Val Lewton’s ‘Bedlam’ (I love the archaic but civil dialogue) and probably ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (it offers real life lessons). More recent comfort films would include some comedies such as Danny DeVito’s ‘Mathilda’ and the British made-for-television film ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. Oddly, I would also include a couple of classic science fiction films, such as ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ (one of my all-time favorites) and the original ‘War of the Worlds’.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I could easily see Sullivan’s Travels, though I think my Marx Bros. choice would be The Cocoanuts. And I’ll freely admit that Bedlam bores me stiff. When you say the made-for-TV Cold Comfort Farm are you talking about the one with Alastair Sim from the late 60s-early 70s or the more recent John Schlesinger film? Both were made for TV, but the Schlesinger was released theatrically as well. (I have a strong preference for the earlier one.)

  6. Dionysis

    “When you say the made-for-TV Cold Comfort Farm are you talking about the one with Alastair Sim from the late 60s-early 70s or the more recent John Schlesinger film? Both were made for TV, but the Schlesinger was released theatrically as well. (I have a strong preference for the earlier one.)”

    I was unaware there had been a previous version; the one I am referring to the later, 1995 Schlesinger film. I’ll just have to check out the earlier, 1969 version though.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I was unaware there had been a previous version; the one I am referring to the later, 1995 Schlesinger film. I’ll just have to check out the earlier, 1969 version though.

    It’s much cruder and done in a very 1960s British Invasion “art film” style, but it’s also closer to the source novel in content. Last I knew, it was only available on VHS. If you have trouble locating it, contact me and I can set you up with a DVD-R from the tapes.

  8. Dionysis

    “If you have trouble locating it, contact me and I can set you up with a DVD-R from the tapes.”

    Thank you very much, Ken. I appreciate the offer.

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