1/6/23

Sample Hilary Knight at the Rockwell Museum

 


 

ELOISE & MORE: THE LIFE AND ART OF HILARY KNIGHT

Norman Rockwell Museum

Stockbridge, MA

Through March 12, 2023.

 


 


 

I did not grow up reading Eloise stories or having them read to me. Few boys were. I have to remind Emily of that every time she makes some matter-of-fact reference to the books as if I should know what she is talking about. The stories were written by Kay Thompson, but for years I didn’t really “get” her enthusiasm. Then, back in 2017, we saw an exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture book Art that featured Hilary Knight, the man who illustrated Thompson’s work.

 

Still, though I saw in Knight’s work the insouciance that so appealed to Emily, Eloise still held but mild interest. A new show at the Norman Rockwell Museum provides new reasons to get to know the 96-year-old Knight. It should go without saying (though it didn’t for me!) that a man who has made his living producing works on paper would have more than one job. The Rockwell has plenty of Knight illustrations from the Eloise series, but it also surveys his work much more broadly. 

 


 

This one reminded me of Edward Gorey

 

 


 

 

I had not been aware, for instance, that his second most famous project brought to life Betty McDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Nor that he has worked on more than 50 books, Broadway musicals, and magazines ranging from McCall’s to House and Garden. He even did some set design for the Ogunquit Playhouse and took in private mural commissions.

 


 


  

Knight’s parents were also illustrators that understood the need for Hilary to get training–Reginald Marsh was one of his teachers–but as a young man, his first “break” (if you will) was painting ships for the U.S. Navy. I suppose there’s irony in that, given that he is gay, but I came away with the feeling that Knight was attracted first and foremost to projects that allowed him to dust off his wit and puckish sense of humor. He admits a debt to quirky British artist/cartoonist Ronald Searle, who often produced ironic, urbane New Yorker-like images. 

 

 

Knight is also part of that marvelous breed whose work, even when made for a child audience, is smart enough to tickle adult funny bones. He’s also the sort who fretted over detail, not because he needed to, but because he felt each line needed to be there. Illustrators, of course, continue to suffer from the charge that they are draftsmen rather than serious artists. There’s no accounting for taste. Or snobbery.

 

If you can, get to the Rockwell and have a chuckle over Knight’s output. Along the way, you’ll be able to construct your own rejoinder to those reluctant to call it art.

 

Rob Weir

1/4/23

The Apartment a Billy Wilder Classic

 

THE APARTMENT (1960)

Directed by Billy Wilder

United Artists, 125 minutes, Not-rated.

★★★★

 


 

 

Sight and Sound magazine recently rated The Apartment as the 54the greatest film in English. Back in 1960 it won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Billy Wilder) and was nominated for six others. Like many 62-year-old movies a lot about The Apartment is dated, but this rom-com/drama remains vital.

 

It follows the travails of C. C. “Bud” Baxter, a single insurance clerk whose Midtown Manhattan digs are much in demand by superiors looking for a safe trysting place for their mistresses. Bud’s compliance gets him raises and promotions, but the line between mensch and doormat is easily transgressed. Ever wonder what it would take to buy you? Bud sells his soul for a gold executive washroom key and ingratiates himself with his immediate boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Soon so many other execs are queuing to use Bud’s apartment that they are spending more time there than he. (One of them is Joe Dubisch, played by Ray Walston, soon to be famous in the TV comedy My Favorite Martian.)

 

Bud isn’t really a mensch or a doormat; more like a sad sack. He is secretly attracted to Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but his hopes are dashed when he finds out that Sheldrake has his eyes on her and plans to seduce her in his apartment. Sheldrake promises Fran that he intends to divorce his wife (Naomi Stevens) to be with Fran and she is na├»ve enough to entertain such dreams. Bud just can’t catch a break. Sheldrake drugs Fran and Bud has to clean up the mess by contacting a neighbor, Dr. David Dreyfuss (Jack Krushen), who proceeds to berate Bud for his debauched lifestyle. Fran’s cabbie brother Karl (Johnny Seven) also wants a piece of Bud.

 

As it transpires, Fran is a smalltown girl who is content to play cards with Bud. Of course, they will fall in love. Bud will find his mojo in the classic movie formula of you can only push a guy around for so long. Another oft-used device is that you don’t want to PO a secretary. When Sheldrake’s secretary Miss Olsen advises Fran that Sheldrake is a rat with no intention of every marrying her, an outraged Sheldrake fires her. Bad move! She knows all about his extracurricular activities and spills the beans to Mrs. Sheldrake.

 

The Apartment came hot on the heels—pun intended—of Some Like It Hot and though it did not do as well at the box office, it was also a hit and another feather in Jack Lemmon’s cap of stardom. He is superb in the film and funny without dressing in drag. His improvised scene of using a tennis racket as a spaghetti strainer is a hoot. Mostly, though, Lemmon impresses by milking pathos. Lemmon makes the transition to assertive self-confidence, and we want to cheer when he gives smarmy privileged executives a metaphorical kick in the keister. He is Everyman calling out the bullies. MacMurray makes a good bully; before he starred in TV’s My Three Sons he was often cast as a heavy.


 

Director Billy Wilder excelled in connecting with audiences, which is why seven of his films were cited as culturally significant by the National Film Registry. He masterfully mixed comedy and respect for the underdog, and delivered messages without resorting to Western Union. Rumor holds that Wilder didn’t like his actors to go off script, but Lemmon did so at least twice and Wilder didn’t let his ego get into the way of improvement.

 

The Apartment’s conquering male ethos outlived any nod-nod wink-wink charm it ever had, but it’s not hard to see how women are still viewed as sexual conquests in the modern workplace. The Apartment suggests that bullies should beware of enraged secretaries and of a mensch tiring of being trod upon.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

1/2/23

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming

 

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966)

Directed by Norman Jewison

United Artists, 126 minutes, Not-rated

★★★

 


 

 

Comedy is frequently timebound, especially when it wrings laughs from concerns of the moment. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming came out in 1966, during the Cold War. It was viewed as hysterical at the time–it won two Golden Globes and was nominated for four Oscars–though today it seems awfully broad. It does, however, pack a serious message: the dangers of hair-trigger nationalism.

 

A Russian submarine, the Cnpyt (Octopus) runs aground when its overzealous captain (Theo Bikel) wanted to get a close look at America. If he can’t free the sub, we’re talking major international incident and maybe a gulag for the captain. Luckily, the sub is stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New England near the tiny island of Gloucester, population 200. (It’s a fictional place and was actually filmed near Mendocino, CA.) The captain needs a tow, but would prefer to get in and out surreptitiously. (Like that will happen!) He sends a nine-man party to shore under the leadership of Lt. Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin in his first movie). First contact is with the Whittaker family, Walt (Carl Reiner), Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), their kids Pete and Annie, and nanny Alison Palmer (Andrea Dromm). They deny that they are Russian, but it’s pretty obvious that they are. But try convincing anyone else on the island that there are Russians on Gloucester Island.

 

Incredulity leads to a comedy of errors, a postmistress tied up by Russians whose husband is too deaf to hear her, a police chief (Brian Keith) who thinks everyone on the island has gone nuts, the alarmist Norman Jonus (Jonathan Winters) who could exaggerate the Apocalypse, Walt trying not to be crushed by the rotund telephone operator (Alice Foss) to whom he is bound, and an improbable romance between Alison and Russian sailor Alexi Kolchin (John Phillip Law, who was a stud for a season). If the Russians are actually on the island, where are they? Like ships passing in the night, of course; Rozanov and Kolchin are doing recon ashore and the other seven are scouting for a powerful boat to pull the sub off the sandbar. Wild goose chases ensue and the Russians, except for their impetuous captain, don’t want to harm anyone.

 

The crisis point comes when the captain threatens to level the island if his seven missing crewmen are not handed over. He assumes they are prisoners, though they are not. At the last minute, an incident draws the Russians and Americans together in a cooperative venture. Now the problem is how to get the Russians on their way before the U.S. military intervenes.

 

Some might recognize the subtle political message/moral embedded in all of the silliness. During the 1950s/60s there were several Cold War satires with similar themes, including The Mouse That Roared, The Best of Enemies, and Dr. Strangelove. The Russians Are Coming isn’t on par with those three, but it was another reminder that most people are people, not nationalist pawns. That didn’t always play well when US/USSR tensions rose, but directors and script writers were careful to emphasize human angles and leave politics in a twisted heap of goofiness. In fact, “goofy” is the descriptor I think most fits The Russians Are Coming.

 

Some of the movie is shopworn. (Was Jonathan Winters ever funny?) It would be intriguing to see what the Coen Brothers would do with a refashioned sequel. You can rest assured it would be sharper, darker, and funnier. But, again, The Russians Are Coming is a quintessential Cold War comedy and a no-pain way to absorb a small history lesson. Plus, you sure can see why Alan Arkin’s career took off; few have ever done droll as well as he.

 

Rob Weir