Then Playing — Murder By Death; The Purchase Price; The Gold Rush

Murder By Death (Robert Moore, 1976). There’s always a risk in watching an adored movie from childhood, especially if the feature in question is a comedy that relies in part on some painful stereotypes. Murder By Death was a favorite of mine as a kid, but I’ve long resisted checking it out again, knowing full well that there’s a broad turn by Peter Sellers as a Charlie Chan stand-in lurking in it like a poison. It’s about as bad as I feared and not reasonably excused by the context of the times. Unfortunately, the remainder of the film also falls a little flat, the humor usually more labored than inspired in this spoof of famed bigscreen detectives such as Hercule Poirot (renamed Milo Perrier and played by James Coco) and Nick and Nora Charles (Dick and Dora Charleston, played by David Niven and Maggie Smith, respectively). The only real highlight is Peter Falk putting his distinctive rascally English on Humphrey Bogart’s mannerisms as Sam Diamond, a part in which he’s ably backed up by Eileen Brennan, playing his beleaguered assistant, Tess Skeffington. Writer Neil Simon and director Robert Moore evidently agreed somewhat with that assessment; they teamed up two years later to give Falk a full-length showcase to do roughly the same schtick in The Cheap Detective. I loved that one as a kid, too. I’m a little leery about another excursion into revisitation.

The Purchase Price (William Wellman, 1932). Based on an Arthur Stringer novel released the same year, The Purchase Price follows Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck), a torch singer who tries to slip away from unwanted associations with sketchy characters in the big city by agreeing to arranged marriage with a North Dakota farmer (George Brent). As might be predicted thanks to countless films since, Joan’s initial uncertainty about her new predicament eventually gives way to appreciation for the rural life and love for the fellow who was initial nothing more than an escape hatch in overalls. The narrative is sometimes a little wobbly in its credibility, but Wellman renders the film with such frothy energy — including a surprising willingness to depict the bad behavior of overheated men with casual condemnation instead of excuses — that the shortcomings fade in importance. Stanwyck is characteristically terrific as the lead, grounded and charismatic at the same time.

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925). Charlie Chaplin’s second feature for United Artists, the studio he co-founded with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, is properly celebrated as a masterpiece, probably his first that decisively merits that grand designation. In his familiar guise as The Tramp, Chaplin plays a character officially called the Lone Prospector, who ventures into Alaska to make his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush of the latter half of the nineteen century. Acknowledging that the still developing art form means that The Gold Rush sometimes feels like its going from set piece to set piece while relying on occasional maudlin drama to fill in the journey, it’s remarkable just how unified the film often feels. And those set pieces are nothing to dismiss either. They include some of Chaplin’s most famous — the boiled shoe for dinner, the dinner roll dance — and some that deserve equal reverence, led the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in a dance hall as the camera lingers on the expressive, often melancholy faces of gathered New Year’s Eve celebrants. Watching The Gold Rush is to see cinema being invented, frame by frame.

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