In Search of the Mysterious Mr. Moskowitz

Clockwise from upper left: Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Milton Wallace and Walter WinchellOne of the joys of being an old-movie buff is when an actor in a bit part sparks your interest and you start to do a little research on him or her, which causes you to tumble down a rabbit hole of odd facts and coincidences. Sometimes one finds unlikely connections between that unfamiliar performer and some much bigger names—such as when, say, Groucho Marx, Lee Tracy, Walter Winchell have a connection to…Milton Wallace?

We recently attended a screening of Blessed Event (1932), a classic precode comedy in which Lee Tracy plays a character that is obviously inspired by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was all the rage back then.

We were especially excited to attend the screening, as we had been informed that some footage that had long since been excised from the picture was back in. Reportedly, it had been there all along, but only in the print that belonged to the Library of Congress. Virtually no one knew about it till Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, screened the print at the TCM film festival and realized what a find he’d uncovered.

For those not familiar with Winchell, we’ll catch you up just a bit: A former vaudevillian, he turned to a scandal-mongering form of journalism when his performing career wound down. His popular newspaper column was syndicated and he had a huge following on national radio, too. He was known for coining any number of phrases still used today, including the above-cited “blessed event” used to signal the pending birth of a baby (the guardians of broadcasting decency in those days were convinced that American ears were too tender for that oh-so-coarse term “pregnant”).

Winchell’s broadcasts included remotely broadcast performances by bands and singers around the country, and right before switching to those remote locations, he would blow a siren whistle and say, “Okay, America!”

In the film, as the title suggests, Tracy’s Winchell-esque character relies on the same “blessed event” catchphrase that Winchell used. But in the restored scene, a short, middle-aged, somewhat stereotypical (though not, in our opinion, disparagingly so) Jewish man, played by one Milton Wallace, shows up at the newspaper office to give Tracy a “blessed event” tip: He, Mr. Moskowitz, and his wife are soon going to have their seventh child and he thinks maybe Tracy would want to put that into his column.

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Naruse in the Wee Hours

“MikioWe are devotees of classic Japanese cinema, from the 1920s into the ‘60s. There are many great directors of that era, a number of whom are familiar names here in the US: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. But our personal favorite (it’s a close race with Kurosawa) is Mikio Naruse, whose directing career spanned nearly 40 years, from the silent era into the late 1960s.

Naruse made quiet, leisurely paced movies, pictures about (mostly) middle- and lower-class families and especially the women who keep those families afloat in the face of challenges and obstacles.

In 2005, NYC’s Film Forum ran a month-long Naruse retrospective that included some 35+ films. We had never seen one of his movies before, but we were interested in learning about him, so we made it a point to see the first film in the retrospective, followed quickly by the second, the third and most of the rest. (Over the course of that month, we missed just one movie, a film that was shown just once, at a time when I had to be at work.)

And at the end of that month-long retrospective, we were commiserating with a Film Forum employee who’d seen most of the movies, too, and we wondered together: How often could one see more than thirty films by a single director over a span of just four weeks and be sorry to see the retrospective end? How many directors’ work could stand up to that sort of total immersion and leave one wanting more?

Not many, we figure. So it’s with no hesitation at all that we recommend to you the two Naruse films that Turner Classic Movies is airing late tonight. Ginza Cosmetics (1951), which airs at 2:45 am ET, is the story of a young mother who is struggling to raise her young son while working as a geisha, and Wife (1955), which follows at 4:15 am, is about a couple that is struggling after ten years of marriage. The wife feels her husband isn’t a good provider and the husband is tempted by the prospect of a fresh start with an ex-colleague, a widow with a small child.

Set those DVRs, friends.

Our Evening with Kitty Carlisle

Did we ever tell you about the time we met Kitty Carlisle? No? Well, let’s rectify that right now.

In 2005, we attended a screening of June Moon at NYC’s Film Forum. It’s a 1931 adaptation of a play written by George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner that hadn’t been screened since its initial run more than seventy years prior.

To mark the occasion, Anne Kaufman Schneider, Kaufman’s daughter, and James Lardner, Lardner’s grandson, were on hand.

And so was Kaufman-Schneider’s pal, Kitty Carlisle-Hart, who was then just two months away from turning 95. She was, of course, the widow of former Kaufman collaborator Moss Hart.

We thought the world of Hart (still do)—Kitty was one of our favorite New Yorkers, and, since she was seated directly behind us, we decided to turn around and tell her as much.

“Thank you, dear,” she said when we told her it was an honor to be sitting in front of her. “I do hope you’ll try to scrunch down in your seat so I can see the movie.”

We promised to do our best.

A few minutes passed, and we felt a finger tapping on our shoulder. We turned around.

“May I have some of your popcorn,” Ms. Carlisle-Hart asked, pointing at the nearly full bag of popcorn on the floor next to our seat (we were both seated on the aisle).

“By all means—have just as much as you like.”

And she did just that, reaching over and grabbing a handful of corn several times through the course of the picture.

We were thrilled. Someone who once starred opposite the Marx Brothers was sharing our popcorn! And we were impressed, too—we hope, when we’re 95, we’re still up to bending over and snagging some popcorn from a bag on the ground.

We spent most of the movie contorted every which in order to keep our fat head from blocking Ms. Hart’s view of the screen, and after the final credits, we turned around and asked her if our efforts had been successful.

“I didn’t miss a thing,” she said effusively. “Thank you so much!”

We chatted briefly for a moment or two more, and we screwed up enough courage to ask her if she would consent to our conducting an interview with her one day soon, if we could find a publication interested in running it, and she readily agreed, telling us how we could contact her if and when the time came.

Later, we spoke to Ms. Kaufman-Schneider, thanking her for the Q&A she had participated in after the movie. She was great—whip-smart, opinionated (she hated the movie, and wasn’t afraid to say so), frank, and witty.

She asked me if we weren’t the young fellow whose popcorn Kitty had been filching; we admitted that we were.

“I don’t know what to do with her,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “She said to me, ‘I’m hungry, and this nice young man has some popcorn,’ and I couldn’t talk her out of it.”

We assured her that we had been pleased to share our snack and thanked her again.

We never managed to conduct that interview with Kitty; she passed away just short of two years later and we somehow didn’t manage to get our ducks in a row in time. But we’ll always treasure the memory of our encounter with her.

And we figure that, if there’s an afterlife (and we’re inclined to think there is), we’ll have someone to show us around a bit. Surely she won’t mind introducing us to the Marx Brothers, for starters, and to our favorite What’s My Line panelist, Arlene Francis. Kitty, of course, was a regular panelist on To Tell the Truth, but she was a guest panelist on What’s My Line more than once, and we’d bet our bottom dollar that she and Arlene got along like two peas in a pod.

We figure it’s the least she can do. After all, we shared our popcorn with her, right?

Jimmy Conlin’s Timeless Comedy

Jimmy Conlin is a face (if not a name) familiar to most movie buffs, thanks to his appearances in more than 150 features and shorts in movie career that spanned three decades.

Conlin, born October 14, 1884, in Camden, New Jersey, is perhaps best remembered today as a key member of Preston Sturges‘ stock company; he can be seen in nine of that director’s pictures, among them classics such as The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

His scrawny physique and odd countenance made him well-suited to comedy, but it wasn’t just his appearance that got laughs. He and his first wife, Myrtle Glass, toured extensively in vaudeville, honing their comedic chops in a rough-and-tumble song-and-dance act called, appropriately enough, Conlin and Glass.

And what an act it was! The diminutive Conlin definitely got the worst of it from the more imposing Glass (she’s no taller than he is, but you’d swear she was).

The duo appeared in two Vitaphone shorts, Zip! Boom! Bang! (1929), that seems to be a lost film (though Vitaphone shorts are being recovered and restored with some frequency nowadays, so keep your fingers crossed) and Sharps and Flats (1928), which, fortunately, still exists.

I’ve been on hand for several different screenings of “Sharps and Flats” at NYC’s Film Forum during evenings devoted entirely to Vitaphone shorts, and the response has always been overwhelmingly positive. The uproarious comedy stylings of Conlin and Glass don’t seem remotely dated; they get huge laughs from the Film Forum crowds.

Ideally, you’ll one day have the opportunity to see this short in a theatre as part of an appreciative audience, but we’re confident you’ll enjoy it from the privacy of your home or office, too. Enjoy!

P.S. If you enjoyed this Conlin and Glass short, consider supporting The Vitaphone Project, a truly worthy organization devoted to the preservation of these wonderful shorts.

Happy 106th birthday, Fay Wray!

The great Fay Wray was born 106 years ago in Cardston, Alberta.

Here’s the story of our one personal encounter with Ms. Wray. She was a patron and paying member of Film Forum here in NYC, and every now and then she would attend a screening there.

We were waiting in the lobby one evening when one of her movies was on the bill—it might have been King Kong, we can’t be sure—and as the credits rolled on the previous screening, we heard a round of applause from within the auditorium. That’s not unusual at Film Forum; old-movie fans often show their appreciation at the end of a picture they’ve enjoyed.

But perhaps thirty seconds later, there was another, more boisterous round of applause. Why would they be clapping again?, we wondered. But then it occurred to us that there was likely an actor in the house who was being introduced to the audience, and we guessed—correctly, as it turned out—that it must be Ms. Wray.

The funny thing was, no one else waiting in line in the lobby was paying attention to these rounds of applause. They were in pairs and threes and were chatting among themselves, so we were, seemingly, the only ones aware that Ms. Wray might be on the premises. And when she left the auditorium, we were the only ones who took any notice whatsoever of the elderly lady making her way through the lobby.

“Hello, Ms. Wray,” we said as she drew near, and she, still on an emotional high from the ovation she’d just received in the theatre, said, “God bless you!”

“God bless you, too, Ms. Wray,” we replied, and she was off.

Happy birthday, Fay Wray, wherever you may be!

Fay Wray