Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Barbara is Strange

On a rainy night, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) meets Martha Smith (Janis Wilson) at the train yard in Iverstown, as they try to escape from the town and all it represents.  Orphaned Martha despises her guardian - her Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson), the town's doyen and tyrant.  The feeling is mutual - Martha's father was a millhand in Miss Ivers mills; upon his death, Miss Ivers grudgingly adopted her sister's child, and forced her to take the name of Ivers.  Escape, however, proves futile; with the police force on alert, Martha (and her beloved cat) are apprehended and returned to the not-so-tender mercies of her Aunt.  But when Martha attempts to escape again, the consequences are such that they will haunt Martha for the rest of her life.

Thus begins The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a film noir classic starring Barbara Stanwyck as the adult Martha, Van Heflin as the grown Sam, and Kirk Douglas (Walter O'Neill), appearing in his first film role. To say that this is an odd picture is not meant as an insult.  The film is complicated and dense. As this New York Times review says, it is a film where all the characters' "sordid deeds are neatly pulled together like so many pieces in a jigsaw puzzle."

Several impressive performances contribute to the film's appeal.  Barbara Stanwyck, of course, is outstanding as Martha.  She plays a woman who wants freedom, but who has spent her entire life in one prison or another.  Does Martha really love Sam, or does she love the freedom that he represents?   Does her warped nature come from the cruelty she faced from her Aunt, or from the blackmail of Walter and his father?  And is she ultimately responsible for the two deaths in the film, or should others take the blame?  Regardless of the answers, we know that Martha has spent her life trying to atone for what she sees as her sins, by trying to make Iverstown and the factory less of the hell that it was when her Aunt was alive.
For Lizabeth Scott as Antonia 'Toni' Maracek, this was only her second film role.  Her character serves as an interesting contrast to Martha, light where she is dark, common, where Martha appears high tone, but, like Martha, she too is a prisoner.  Though Toni's prison is a real one - convicted of a crime she denies committing, she is on probation, but constantly facing the specter of jail.

Lizabeth Scott had a long and complicated life, but a relatively abbreviated career.  With 31 film and TV credits (between 1945 and 1972), she is best remembered for this film, Dead Reckoning, and Too Late for Tears, all film noir classics.  Her looks and her voice are reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, but she didn't really have the versatility of Bacall.  She started her career in the New York theatre; she was Tallulah Bankhead's understudy in the part of Sabina The Skin of Our Teeth (much to Ms. Bankhead's disgust. For more discussion on this, see the Wikipedia article on Ms. Scott)  She did eventually get to play Sabina - when Gladys George became ill.  This performance brought her to the attention of Hal Wallis, the producer of our film. Wallis wanted to bill his find with her name above the title, but Barbara Stanwyck objected (Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars by Bernard F. Dick).  It didn't help.  The virtually unknown Scott still got third billing above the title (it has been alleged that Scott and Wallis were having an affair, or at the very least that Wallis was infatuated with her). 
Scott's troubles began in the 1950s.  Confidential Magazine published an article accusing her of being lesbian.  She sued; the trial ended with a mistrial.  Add in her growing stage fright, and her career was virtually over.  She tried singing; the attempt went nowhere.  So, she segued over to televsion, where she had a relatively decent career.  She also returned to college (at USC).  She married twice - both lasted less than a year; she was linked romantically with Burt Lancaster, James Mason, Helmut Dantine, and Burt Bacharach, among others.  She died in 2015 of congestive heart failure.  She was 92.   To hear more about Ms Scott, try this interview that was done in 1996. 
Kirk Douglas is outstanding in this role, which would be an unusual one for him.  Walter is a weakling, dominated by both his father and Martha.  His guilt and feelings of hopelessness lead him into alcoholism.  In this TCM article, Douglas relays his method for creating a character like Walter:  "when you play a weak character, find a moment when he's strong, and if you're playing a strong character, find a moment when he's weak. I had a moment when I was at the desk - I stood up, grabbed Van Heflin by the shirt, and stared him in the eye. He was amazed at this sudden moment of strength, and it confused him. We shot it, and the director said, 'Very good.' Van Heflin said, 'Let's do it again.' The next time I grabbed him, he just looked down contemptuously at my hand. How smart of him - he took away the strength. Nothing wrong with that. As an actor, it was the right thing to do."  His work was not unnoticed - this AFI Catalog entry notes that Louella Parsons was particularly taken with this "wonder boy."
Several child actors appear in the beginning of the film.  We were particularly intrigued with the performance of Janis Wilson.  Ms. Wilson had a notably short career; between 1942 and 1948, she appeared in only seven films, after which she left show business.  But when you realize that those films include Watch on the Rhine and Now Voyager (along with this film), she  had an impressive resume.  She was 18 when she retired - always a difficult age for teen actors.  Interestingly, she met her future husband (they married in 1955) when she was 12 years old (on the set of Now Voyager.)  She died in 2003. 

It's not surprising that Stanwyck's dresses are spectacular.  Her favorite designer, Edith Head, created them.  Ms. Head would later say that Stanwyck's long waist usually resulted in her costumes being dowdy looking, but Head found ways to camouflage her waist.  As a result, Stanwyck would often request Head design for her (even in private life).  See this review of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 for a brief discussion of their relationship. 

We leave you with the trailer for this fascinating film.  And we send advance birthday wishes to Kirk Douglas, who will reach 100 on December 9th:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Is Kirk Really Bad?

A few years ago, we discussed The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (you can see our prior review here.  You'll also find a detailed description of the plot and characters there).  We decided to revisit the film, this time looking at it from a slightly different perspective - our discussion for this viewing focused on the character of Jonathan Shields, as wonderfully portrayed by Kirk Douglas.

So, the question is, is Jonathan Shields really bad?   We have three characters who are furious at him.  We looked at them in some detail.

Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is angered when Jonathan passes him over for an experienced director on the film of Fred's script, The Far Away Mountain.  Is Fred justified in demonizing Jonathan?   When we first meet Fred, he is working as a professional mourner because he cannot sell a script.  Jonathan teams up with Fred and succeeds in getting them both jobs in Harry Pebbel's (Walter Pidgeon) studio.  Though Fred is not aggressive in blowing his own horn, Jonathan is. The final result, Fred becomes an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, marries the woman of his dreams (to whom Jonathan proposes on Fred's behalf), and has a happy, stable family life. Does Jonathan backtrack on his promise to get Fred the acting gig? Sure.  Would Fred have gotten it, if Jonathan had pursued it further? Probably not.
Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) spends most of her time drinking and sleeping with men.  She perpetually mourns for her late father, a great actor, notable bon vivant, and drunkard.  Georgia however is notable for her beauty and for her inability to act.  Jonathan, who was friendly with her father, sees talent where no one else does, and goes out on a limb to hire her to star in his picture.  She inevitably breaks her promise to not drink and disappears on the first day of shooting.  Urged to replace her, Jonathan instead sobers her up, and keeps her in the production.  It's Georgia who envisions a great romance - Jonathan, a man plagued with his own demons, has no such idea.  However, he attempts to protect Georgia from his relationship with Lila (Elaine Stewart); it's Elaine who makes sure Georgia knows.  And Jonathan makes it clear he is furious at her callous revelation. Did he mislead her romantically? Probably.  Is he really out to hurt her? No.
James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), tempted to Hollywood by a hefty paycheck and by his wife Rosemary's Gloria Grahame) eagerness to sample the bright lights of the big city, signs a contract to write a screenplay of his book.  But Rosemary is a time suck.  We learn that it took him seven years to write his first book, primarily because of her interruptions.  To get the screenplay written, Jonathan asks his friend Victor "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to squire Rosemary to the local hotspots to keep her distracted.  Though we hear only one half of a telephone conversation, it's clear Gaucho has more on his mind than squiring. Jonathan, however, is very clear in his response.  "I said 'squire', Gaucho".  He responds.  Is the fact that Rosemary and Gaucho choose to bring the relationship further than was requested Jonathan's fault? Not really, but perhaps he should have picked less of a Lothario as an escort.
The person who should resent Jonathan most is actually his biggest supporter.  Harry Pebbel becomes Jonathan's employee after Jonathan and Fred strike out on their own (assumedly, without his key writer and director, Harry cannot keep his B picture studio going).   Harry could see Jonathan (and Fred) as traitors, yet he is the one who forces our characters to look inward - to realize that their fame, awards, success all stem from what Jonathan did for them.  He does not defend, but points out truths (like the fact that Jonathan let Georgia out of her contract over Harry's protestations).  As such, Harry becomes the bellweather for our opinion of Jonathan, and he is hard to ignore.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas doing it.  He makes the character a real person - a combination of both the bad and the good. The nuances of Douglas' performance become more visible with each viewing of the film.  Since it's likely that Jonathan was loosely based on real people (see this AFI Catalog entry for some of possible candidates), it is important that Douglas create a real individual, not a caricature, which he does admirably.
When the film opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the New York Times review was not particularly enthusiastic.  Regardless of their opinion, the film won five Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame) and Helen Rose for her splendid costume design (b&w film).  If you've not seen The Bad and the Beautiful in awhile, give yourself a treat and watch it again.  Now, we're not saying that Jonathan Shields is a prince among men, just that, on second viewing, you might find yourself rooting a bit for his comeback.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Kay is in a Jeep

Four Jills in a Jeep  (1944), based on a book by Carole Landis, tells the true story of the Ms. Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, as they venture from the safe confines of Los Angeles (where all four were deeply involved in the war efforts) to entertain the troops in the war zone - first in England and then in North Africa.  Along the way, Carole and Mitzi find romance - and Martha dodges a smitten Sgt Eddie (Phil Silvers).

By and large, this is a true story - the four women, spent nearly four months abroad lto entertain the troops in the middle of the danger zone (see this AFI Catalog article).  Carole Landis did meet a flyer (Army Air Force Captain Thomas Wallace) on the tour, and married him in 1943 (they divorced in 1945).  The film presents an interesting picture of the war effort from the point of view of those who decided that staying home was not the best service to the troops.  It's an enjoyable film, with great music, and an array of talent from 20th Century Fox studio - Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, George Jessel, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, and even Dick Haymes, playing Lt. Dick Ryan (in his first credited screen appearance.  Of course, he is a singer!).  You can see from the advertisement below that these guests get more prominent billing than our four stars.
Though other wartime revues, such as Hollywood Canteen and Thank Your Lucky Stars (both from Warner Brothers) did well, this film did not, and received an unfavorable review from the New York Times.  Released in 1944 (in April, before the D-Day invasion), audiences (now in the war for over 2 years) were likely dejected by the seeming lack of progress.  But it must surely have been welcomed by the soldiers who were not able to see the Four Jills on their tour.

Of course, the film was shot entirely on the studio lot, resulting in the women riding Central Asian (two-hump, or Bactrian) camels in North Africa (the home of the Dromedary, or one-hump camel).  And though the ladies always look immaculate, the film does capture the flavor of what they had to deal with.  Especially impressive is a scene in which the women perform using only cigarette lighters when the power goes out during a bombing raid.
We sometimes forget what a lovely singing voice Martha Raye had.  This film, luckily, gives her the opportunity to show it off.  Sure, it's a novelty number, in which she gets to clown as well.  Had Ms Raye had the looks of a Carole Landis, it is likely she would have had starring roles in big musicals.  However, that was not to be.  The film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, was apparently not a fan; he commented to director William A. Seiter, "Martha Raye usually talks too fast and too loud. Try to make her play Martha-Raye-off-stage and not Martha-Raye-on-the-screen, if possible."
Ms Raye continued her work abroad after the four month tour.  She was famous for going where the troops were, no matter whether it was 2 men or 2000.  She traveled with the USO during the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.  She was given the honorary rank of Colonel Maggie.  In later years, she would receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with the troops.  She also appeared in numerous films though apparently she was only happy with her work in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux.  When the age of television arrived, she began to work in TV;  she also appeared on the Broadway stage - notably in Hello, Dolly and No, No, Nanette.  Her personal life was not a happy one - she married seven times, all but the last ending in divorce.  Her relationship with her daughter, Melodye Condos, became fraught when Ms. Condos sought to control her mother's money following Ms. Raye's stroke in 1991.  Ms. Raye died of pneumonia, age 78, in 1994, the result of the stroke and serious circulation problems.

This is a cute movie, though not great literature.  Then again, it's not supposed to be. It certainly is worth a look as a glimpse into the lives of those who went abroad to entertain the troops.  Plus, it's one of Alice Faye's last film roles (until she reemerged from her self-imposed exile in 1962), and one of Kay Francis' final roles as well.  We'll leave you with this snippet of Ms. Mayfair dancing the jive.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Robert Loves a Nurse

Robert Montgomery stars as Lieutenant Wally O'Brien in War Nurse (1930).  The film opens at the outbreak of the First World War.  American women from all parts of the country and all walks of life daydream about becoming a war nurse.  Each has their own reason, and their own view of the mission.  The film follows the lives of  Barbara (Babs) Whitney (June Walker), Joy Meadows (Anita Page), Cushie (ZaSu Pitts), Rosalie "Brooklyn" Parker (Marie Prevost), and Marian "Kansas" (Helen Jerome Eddy) as the women venture to France to nurse the wounded. 

Though Mr. Montgomery is given top billing, this film really is about the nurses - all of them.  Sure, Babs is our "heroine", but each of the women has an interesting backstory and a distinct personality.  We grow to like all of them, and to admire their dedication to an awful and dangerous job.  The men in the story are the window dressing; the women are its heart.

Some movies are eternal, and it doesn't really matter when they are filmed.  Some are time capsules of their era.  In a sense, War Nurse is both.  This film looks back 12 years to "the War to end all wars," yet we know what the characters and filmmakers do not.  That, in a scant 8 years, the world will be at war again.  And though the technology may change, the effects of war and the work of the nurse do not.  We can empathize with the characters because their struggle represents the struggle of all nurses in a war zone. 

Based on the book 1930 book War Nurse: The True Story of a Woman Who Lived, Loved and Suffered on the Western Front (AFI Catalog), this is an excellent and compelling story.  We only had one minor complaint with the film, the levity that was inserted into the script felt forced and flat.  Not that one wants the film to be oppressing, but often the wisecracking just didn't belong.  It sometimes seemed to interrupt the flow of the action, and we were eager for the story to continue.
June Walker, in the role of Babs, is just wonderful.  Her scenes with Mr. Montgomery have a real feeling of truth.  We were especially impressed by the scene in which Wally visits her in her small flat.  Their interplay is excellent, and you come out of the scene sympathizing with both of them for different reasons.  Ms. Walker had a long career, in both television and theatre.  In 1926 (after making one short silent and one silent feature), she married writer/actor Geoffrey Kerr.  They had one child, actor John Kerr.  The marriage lasted until 1942, after which Ms. Walker made a few movies, but primarily appeared in television, working until 1960.   She also had a long career on Broadway, beginning in 1919, and working until 1958.  She appeared in 34 plays including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926, as Lorelei Lee), Waterloo Bridge (1930, as Myrna), and The Middle of the Night (1956).  Ms. Walker died in 1966.   

Hedda Hopper is appealing in the small part of Matron Townsend, an experienced, no-nonsense nurse, who looks over both the male patients and her nurses (see this TCM article).  Robert Ames as Robin Neil is also good.  Ames died the year after this film was released.  A severe alcoholic, Ames was trying to recover, but it is suspected that his sudden withdrawal from alcohol resulted in his death (which was attributed to delirium tremens).
We were especially intrigued with ZaSu Pitts as Cushie (her work in the film is briefly noted in this New York Times review).  With her sad face and voice, Ms. Pitts sound career was frequently in comedies.  In the early 30s, she was often partnered with Thelma Todd, in what has often been referred to as Hal Roach's feminine version of Laurel and Hardy (like Stan and Ollie, Thelma and ZaSu also used their real names in these films).  During the silent era, Ms. Pitts received much deserved praise for her work in Greed (1921); in the sound era, a film to not miss is her performance in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).  She worked steadily, easily moving into television in the 1940s (she was a regular on The Gale Storm Show - also known as Oh, Susanna); her last film was released after her death from cancer in 1963: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Ms. Pitts was also an author: she penned a book Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published just after her death. Her unusual name was a combination of her two birth names EliZA SUsan (pronounced "Zay-soo").

Though a precode film, the characters of Joy and Robin are both punished for their sins (for more on the plot, and an interesting discussion, visit this review).  For a modern audience, the lack of background music and special effects (a bombing sequence is very clearly backscreen projection), can be surprising.  Regardless, you are still seeing a grim picture of the war, without viewing a lot of blood and gore.  

We'll leave you with this clip from the film.  We highly recommend it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Barbara Marries Robert's Brother

In His Brother's Wife (1936), Dr. Chris Claybourne (Robert Taylor) is about to go on a several year research project to the South American jungle, in search of the cause spotted fever.  But Chris, a very undedicated young man, intends to spend his last two weeks in New York drinking and gambling.  While at the gambling hall of the rather shady "Fish-Eye" (Joseph Calleia), Chris loses a $5,000 (which he doesn't have), and meets model Rita Wilson (Barbara Stanwyck).  The meeting is fortuitous - a smitten Chris spends the two weeks with Rita; by the end of it, he has resolved to resign from the research project and marry Rita.  But there is still the $5,000 debt to deal with.  When Chris asks his brother, Dr. Thomas Clabourne, Jr. (John Eldredge) for help, Tom's agrees, but at a price - drop Rita, who Tom sees as a gold-digger, and go on the expedition, or deal with the debt himself.  Chris agrees to the terms, leaving a heartbroken and angry Rita vowing revenge on the Claybourne family.

In some ways, the biggest problem with this film is the script's portrayal of  Chris Claybourne, whose switch from debauched playboy to dedicated researcher seems almost too abrupt.  Sure, the deterioration of his relationship with Rita plays a part in the character's change, as does seeing colleagues die in South America.  But, he also goes from heartsick juvenile to bitter old man with the flip of a switch.  As a result, it's really hard to get a handle on Chris.  The prior year, Taylor had become very much a matinee idol in Magnificent Obsession and one wonders if the writers were trying to capitalize on the popularity of that film, by making Chris similar to Robert Merrick.  In this New York Times review, the popularity of Mr. Taylor (following his success in Magnificent Obsession) figures heavily in the commentary. 

At one point, (according to the AFI Catalog), Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were being considered for the lead roles in this film; later, it was reported that the cast included Harlow and Franchot Tone.  However, it was already public knowledge that Stanwyck and Taylor were dating (see this TCM article for more about the film); assumedly, that contributed greatly to casting Stanwyck rather than Harlow. Harlow in the role of Rita would have been very different, as Stanwyck gives Rita an elegance and strength that makes her attractive and likeable.  Given Rita's actions later in the film, it could be hard to retain sympathy for her, but Stanwyck has the skill to make Rita much more sinned against than sinning.
Another handicap is John Eldredge as Thomas Claybourne, Jr.  Simply put, he's a blackmailer, a liar, and a weakling.  Surely, one doesn't sympathize much with Chris' proclivity for gambling and then writing bad checks.  But Tom's carping about the lack of money available when he is standing in a house that could house 30 people rather than 3 seems just reprehensible.  And, on top of that, to then elope with the woman his brother wanted to marry - a woman he all but called a whore, is just despicable.  One wonders why Chris doesn't deck him when he returns from South America.  

Joh Eldredge never seemed to get beyond second banana status, and given his performance here, it's understandable.  The scenes in which he tells his brother about his passion for Rita are over-the-top and rather insincereHe had a respectable film career; then moved into television in his later years.  In fact, he worked up until his death of a heart attack in 1961.   Growing up, I remember him clearly as a frequent Superman villain in The Adventures of Superman.
The costuming is good - Stanwyck has some nice outfits, but by and large, the actors look like they've been dipped in Clorox in the jungle scenes - everyone in white, and not a stain to be seen. And we, as mentioned, had some problems with the set used as the Claybourne home.  It makes it awfully hard to believe there are any financial constraints within the family.

Jean Hersholt as Professor Pop Fahrenheim, Chris' supervisor and mentor on the expedition, is very good, as usual.  He is able to provide an amount of gravitas to that role, without making him pious.  However, Samuel S. Hinds as Dr. Thomas Claybourne, Sr. is totally wasted. He has, perhaps two scenes, and does little except worry about Tom, Jr. 
Some amount of the film concentrates on the aspect of heroic medicine, which is very reminiscent of Arrowsmith.  Of course, in 1936, vaccines were a relatively new concept, and there is a convention in films of this era that the noble physicians (Pop and Thomas, Sr.  - who is pouring all his money back into his hospital) are willing to sacrifice their very lives to save mankind.  Chris' father wants Chris to become that kind of physician. That Chris is eager to risk himself to prove the efficacy of his vaccine shows the growth of the character, and that he has indeed become ennobled by his work in the tropics.  In this day and age of controlled clinical trials, and IRBs (institutional review boards that verify that studies are both necessary and will minimize harm), this method of medical research seems outlandish.  But take a look at this brief article on Joseph Goldberger - it was the way of the world at that time.

We will leave you with this trailer from the film.  Next time, we'll be looking at an early movie about the medical profession.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Historical Barbara

This is My Affair (1937) marked the second teaming of Barbara Stanywck and Robert Taylor.  Set during the presidential term of William McKinley, Taylor plays Navy Lt. Richard L. Perry, who is asked by President William McKinley (Frank Conroy) to go deep undercover to investigate the "Mr. Big" behind a series of bank robberies.  Only the President will know that Perry is really working for the government, as McKinley is convinced that the key player is high in his own administration.  Perry starts by investigating Batiste Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and his cohort Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).  To get close to them, he begins seeing Batiste's sister, Lil (Barbara Stanwyck), but quickly finds that he has feelings for the young lady.  As a result, he begins to regret his mission.  Will he stick it out? Or will history itself cause his downfall?

The story of Richard Perry and Lil Duryea is, of course, fictional, albeit set during actual events.  It doesn't take a scholar to realize about five minutes into the film that Perry is getting himself into really hot water by taking on a secret assignment from McKinley, who is not long for this world.  Since our first glimpse of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer) presents us with a man who appears to be a buffoon, a lot of head shaking can occur before the story really begins.  But the real problem is that the movie can't decide what it wants to be - romance? espionage story? historical piece?  musical?  The film never really decides, and as a result we have a bit of a mishmash. 
That our co-stars were romantically involved at the time is perhaps the main reason for this mess.  According to this article from the AFI Catalog, Darryl Zanuck (who wrote the short story on which the screenplay is most likely based under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman), wanted to capitalize on the highly publicized relationship.  So, what might have been a decent espionage story became muddled with the romance between Richard and Lil.  Plus, when you have a star of the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, you want her to shine.  As a result actors like Brian Donlevy and Victor McLaghlen get shortchanged, as their (more important) storyline, gets abridged to almost nothing.  A waste of two fine talents, and not a great use of the Ms. Stanwyck, either.

It's really Robert Taylor's movie, though he doesn't have much of a script to work with.  As a result, his performance is somewhat lackluster, and there is suprisingly not much chemistry between him and Ms. Stanwyck.  There's a lot more chemistry in both The Night Walker and His Brother's Wife, so it is certainly not THEM.  

Taylor had met Stanwyck after her divorce from Frank Fay, in 1935, about a year before they filmed His Brother's Wife (1936) (see A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940)   She was a bit older, and certainly had more experience in the film industry, and what began as a mentorship morphed into marriage in 1939 (a marriage that was somewhat forced on her.  That they were living together became public when Photoplay magazine outed them - along with Gable and Lombard, and Chaplin and Goddard - resulting in MGM encouraging to formalize the union).  They were together until 1952.  Separated by the war (Taylor served United States Naval Air Corps as a flight instructor) and then by work, the marriage suffered.  When Stanwyck discovered that Taylor was involved with a starlet, she asked for a divorce.  Later, Taylor married actress Ursula Thiess (they had two children).  He died of lung cancer in 1969.
It's hard to discuss Taylor without talking about his involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist.  Suffice it to say, when subpoenaed by HUAC, he appeared and testified.  He considered the proceedings to be a circus, but when asked for names, he supplied two.  (You can read a transcript of his testimony or see an excerpt.)  Did he have a choice? Perhaps.  But, to quote Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the evils of the blacklist:  "The blacklist was a time of one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil...[Looking] back on this will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."

The cast is chock full of wonderful actors, most of who are wasted.  Brian Donlevy makes the most of the little screentime he has, but Victor McLagen is seems completely out of place - he hams up most of his scenes, making a character who should be menacing rather stupid.  Why an actor of his caliber was placed in this really inferior part is a mystery.  Sidney Blackmer is almost unrecognizable as Roosevelt, but he does get an opportunity to grow the character.  He makes Roosevelt very broad (but Roosevelt was a man who lived life large), but he also shows him to be no fool, and very tenacious.  By the end of the film, he is almost likeable (as much as any other character in the piece!)
According to this TCM article, Stanwyck, who started her career on the Broadway stage (she appeared in the Broadway musical Tattle Tales in 1933, with her then husband Frank Fay), was quite nervous about singing in the film - and asked that Taylor not be on the set while she sang.  Stanwyck has a deep, not unpleasant voice, but these "musical numbers" are really more of a distraction, and add little to the story.

All in all, not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best efforts.  We will circle back to her first film with Robert Taylor next time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Barbara is Mad!

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda team up for the first time in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a delightful screwball comedy.  Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, a wealthy society girl, and a member of the Park Avenue Pranksters, a group of nine young ladies with too much time on their hands, who inevitably end up getting into hot water.   After a late night of partying, Melsa takes her little dog out for a walkShe spies an acquaintance, Ronnie Belden run from an empty building.  Curious, Melsa wanders inside and finds a dead body.  She races to a phone, calls the police, and returns to the house.  But when Lieutenant Mike Brent (Sam Levene) arrives, the body has disappeared, and he's convinced that Melsa is having a joke at his expense.  The next day, newpaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) prints an article condemning Melsa.  Incensed, Melsa and her merry band decide that they will find the missing body and solve the mystery of the murder.

This is a hysterical romp, it's delightful and enjoyable - a little candy confection of a movie.  Instead male bonding movie, we have a dynamic young woman and her Scoobies.  It's not great literature, but it is silly and funny and totally relaxing. Watching Stanwyck is a screwball heiress is great fun; nicest of all is that, while Melsa is a bit of flake, she's a SMART flake.  She's brave, and she's always in control  One realizes quickly that her lunacy is based on boredom - give her something to do, and she takes it on and runs with it.
Henry Fonda, in his first of three films with Stanwyck, was allegedly not thrilled with the part of Peter Ames.  He particularly did not like the scene in which the Park Avenue Pranksters overpower him, and tie him to a bed.  On loan from Walter Wanger, Fonda was furious during the shoot, and ignored everyone as much as possible  (see this TCM article).  Luckily, his dissatisfaction with the picture did not sour him on performing with Ms. Stanwyck, or we would not have the magnificent The Lady Eve!  Regardless of his annoyance, Mr. Fonda turns in a good performance, in a role in which he is clearly a very second banana.

Another performance that really stands out (not surprisingly) is that of Hattie McDaniel as Melsa's maid, Hilda.  As is to be expected. her part is small, but she makes the most of what she has.  According to Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton Jackson, some audience members had a problem with Hilda tossing a vase of water in Peter's face (on Melsa's orders).  We personally, thought it was a hoot (she did use "distilled water")  Ms. McDaniel can do with a raised eyebrow what other actors cannot do with their entire body.  Her retorts to Melsa are brief and pointed (Melsa: "Miss Beverly is our guest.".  Hilda: "I didn't ask her"), but there is an affection between the two that is undeniable. 
The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, which speaks to a film from which the studio expected a great deal of interest. The costumes by Edward Stevenson are quite lovely, especially considering that he is having to gown nine girls in stunning clothing. Interestingly, in 1944, when Dick Powell walks past a movie marquee in Murder, My Sweet (1944), this is the film being shown.

The screenplay was based on an unpublished novel by Wilson Collison.  The role of Melsa was also considered for Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne; Stanwyck took the part to fulfill requirements in her non-exclusive RKO contract (AFI catalog).  She became ill during production, but despite her having to stay home for a week's recuperation, her director, Leigh Jason, said of her: "I've worked with perhaps eight or nine hundred actors and actresses. Barbara Stanwyck is the nicest." 
We will leave you with the scene in which Peter and Melsa meet at the newspaper office, after his article comes out.  Next time, more Stanwyck, but with another actor with whom she appeared in multiple films.