Thursday, July 23, 2015

George Burns, early and late

TCM lists its prime time lineup for tonight as George Burns and Gracie Allen. The two were married for close to 40 years until Allen's death in 1964. The earliest of tonight's movies is the short Lambchops, on at 9:45 PM. This is basically just a one-reeler from the dawn of sound (1929) of Burns and Allen doing one of their routines, and then doing a short musical number. Burns' voice is unmistakeable even if he doesn't have the distinctive glasses yet; Allen's humor is, well, interesting. A one-reeler like this is a good way to learn about that original brand of humor.

Coming up at the end of the night is a movie that obviously doesn't have Gracie Allen in it, as it was made 15 years after her death: Going in Style, at 3:45 AM. George Burns plays Joe, a seventysomething pensioner living in one of New York City's outer boroughs. Joe lives together with fellow pensioners Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg), in order to stretch their meager Social Security checks. This is the New York of a few years after Gerald Ford had told the city to drop dead, and once Ed Koch had been elected Mayor and started to turn the city around. So, it's not as bad as we'd se in some of those early-1970s movies, but it's still not particularly golden years for our three retirees.

Indeed, it seems as though all they do is get up, take care of whatever basic needs to survive they have, and spend their free time at the park. There's not much for them. So one day, Joe gets an idea. Why not spice up their lives by doing something, with the something he gets being the daft idea to rob a bank out in Manhattan? After all, they need something to do with their lives, and they could certainly use the money, too. The worst that could happen is that they get arrested, and get to live off the state in prison while their Social Security checks pile up. Amazingly, Al and Willie pretty much agree to the idea! So we get an extended set-up showing the three elderly men's preparations for the robbery. They need guns, and fortunately, Al has a nephew Pete (Charles Hallahan) who is a bit of a gun collector. (Imagine that in New York City these days.) Al can "borrow" a couple of Pete's guns for a few days without Pete even noticing that they're missing. And as for the disguise? Well, a couple of Groucho Marx masks will do.

But surely a plot this daft can't work! Well, the movie is supposed to be a comedy, so of course the heist goes off more or less without a hitch, but with a few moments of dark humor. The three men get to stuff their bags full of cash, and get home to count that they've raked in something like $35,000, which was even more substantial back in the late 1970s than it is today. But at this point, the movie also starts to turn dark. Crime does not pay, and it's going to turn out not to pay for our three retirees, although not quite in the way you might expect if you've seen some of the great old crime movies.

Going in Style is generally a good movie, although there are some uneven parts. It's a comedy, and up until they rob the bank, there certainly is a fair bit of comedy. But once the heist is pulled off, the movie takes a rather darker turn which some people may find a bit off-putting. The second half of the film also had an extended scene in Las Vegas that I thought really drags the movie. Still, George Burns was about as good here as he was in any of his elderly roles, while Carney and Strasberg are no slouches either. Hallahan seems like an authentic character, although I can't imagine somebody like that in real life knowing his uncle's friends so well.

Going in Style is another of those out-of-print DVDs: you can find old copies on Amazon, but it's not available from the TCM Shop.

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