Tuesday, September 19, 2017

William Has The Key

Paedar Conlan (Donald Crisp), a Sein Fein official, is on the run from the British military in 1920s Dublin. He's being sought by Captain Andrew Kerr (Colin Clive), an officer in the Secret Service. Andrew and his wife, Norah (Edna Best) have a good marriage, though Andrew knows that she once loved another. Their life becomes more complex with the arrival of Captain Bill Tennant (William Powell), Norah's former love. Thus begins The Key (1934).

A compact film, The Key proved to be interesting plot, if a bit weak at times. We discussed the rather oblique title at some length (was it called The Key because of Powell's entry into his commander's office? Or was Paedar Conlan The Key to all the problems? It's a mystery; and not a very revealing title). We were also bemused by an ending that felt tacked on.  Released in 1934, we suspect that concerns with the code may have altered the original ending. Regardless, it felt abrupt and slapdash.

The actual key to this film is William Powell. With the twinkle in his eyes, and his devil-may-care attitude, Powell saves the film from being a bore. When he is on the screen, you can't take your eyes away from him. Particularly nice were his interactions with a flower girl (played by Anne Shirley, back when she was still Dawn O'Day). We know that Tennant is a ladies' man, but his conversations with Ms. O'Day are gently flirtatious, an acknowledgement of her youth and obvious naivety. A consummate actor, Mr. Powell is never better than when he is a bit of rogue; he's always able to let you know that there is a gentle side to nature.
Colin Clive proves a good foil to Mr. Powell. His character is very straight-arrow; this allows Powell to give the action some much needed bounce. Mr. Clive had a very brief film career - only 18 movies between 1930 and 1937, the most famous of which was his role as Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 Frankenstein. During the same period, he appeared in 4 Broadway plays, including Libel, which would be made into a film in 1959. Whether Mr. Clive could have broken away from the super-serious plotlines into which he was being cast will never be known. He died in 1937 of tuberculosis complicated by alcoholism; he was 37.

This was Mr. Powell's last picture at Warner Brothers. He'd not felt well-used there; he selected The Key over another Philo Vance film and a movie called Dollar Wise (which does not seem to have ever made it to the screen). When his contract ended, he headed down the road to MGM, where he was teamed with Myrna Loy and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). That paring with Ms. Loy was such a success that they appeared in another film that same year, for which Mr. Powell was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - The Thin Man. Ultimately, Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy were in 14 films together. (TCM article; William Powell The Life and Films by Roger Bryant).
Mordaunt Hall in his New York Times review called The Key "a sturdy and effective melodrama" which is perhaps more praise than it deserves. He was particularly impressed with the performances of Mr. Powell and Mr. Clive; he even singles out Ms. O'Day for praise. While not a bad film, it's not Mr. Powell's best. But even his least is worth a quick view. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Barbara's in Jeopardy

The Stilwin family, Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), Doug (Barry Sullivan), and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are in a deserted area of  Mexico to enjoy a long anticipated camping expedition. But when an accident places Doug in Jeopardy (1953), it's up to Helen to find assistance before the rising tide drowns her husband. There is, however, a complication - an escaped murderer (Ralph Meeker as Lawson) is in the area, and will stop at nothing to get away. 

The poster art for the film is rather peculiar. Yes, Helen does end up in jeopardy, but there are two people in real danger. The posters make it look as though the title of the film is A Woman in Jeopardy, when it is not.  This, of course, does make the art a bit more lascivious, but it doesn't prepare the viewer for the real story.

We were a little taken aback that Doug would bring his family to such a remote and really dangerous area, especially since they are in a country where none of them speak the language (Doug does have a modicum of Spanish). The conversations between Doug and Helen, however, remind us that this was an area in which Doug spent some happy times during the second World War, fishing with his army buddies. We can assume that, after facing combat, Doug found the isolation of this area attractive, and he remembers it colored by his other thoughts about his time in the service.

Barry Sullivan is quite good as Doug - you may shake your head at his decision to take his family to such an odd vacation locale, but you cannot doubt his regard for his wife nor his love for his son. Sullivan's scenes with young Lee Aaker are especially moving; as Doug loses hope of Helen's timely return, he begins to carefully prepare the boy for his death. Sullivan does it tactfully, and without any self-pity. It's a picture of a good father wanting what is best for his boy.
Mr. Sullivan was particularly complementary about Ms. Stanwyck in the film, stating that "of the films I did with Miss Stanwyck only Jeopardy sticks in my mind as having any merit, but all three occasions (the others were The Maverick Queen and Forty Guns) cling to my memory as fun experiences."  Part of the credit for the success of the film goes to director John Sturges, who enticed Ms. Stanwyck back from a one-year attempt at retirement. (TCM article)

There was a great deal of discussion about Ralph Meeker, who presents an interesting and complicated character. Two of our members wondered if providing a backstory for Lawson would have been beneficial. What did he do? Why was he in Mexico? I'm convinced it would not have added anything. We know Lawson is a murderer. We see a dead man that he killed, and we see him shoot a police officer. That, for me, was enough. By the end (no spoilers on this one), we do have to look at Lawson as a human being rather than just a malevolent villain. Lawson is a complex individual who you won't like but will appreciate.
Lee Aaker, who is very good as Bobby, had a relatively short film and television career. He's probably best remembered today for his role as Corporal Rusty in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959). Many of his film roles were uncredited (like A Lion is in the Streets (1953)), but he also had the role of Red Chief in "The Ransom of Red Chief" segment of  O. Henry's Full House. When acting roles were not available to him any longer (as so frequently happens to child actors), he went into the production arena. He finally left Hollywood, settling in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Based on a radio play A Question of Time (AFI catalog), the film was expanded a bit, but is still relatively short - 69 minutes, which affords the film a lot of tension. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed by the film; regardless it did well at the box office. In 1954, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sullivan reprized their roles in a 48 minute broadcast.

In a recent introduction on TCM's Noir Alley (to Stawyck's Crime of Passion), Eddie Muller called Ms. Stanwyck "greatest actress in the history of motion pictures." He went on to say:
Not only did Ms. Stanwyck possess the greatest range of any movie actress, being equally adept at screwball comedy and gut-wrenching drama, she could easily lay claim to being the most essential actress in the development of film noir. After all, dark crime thrillers were not really a movement until Stanwyck created a sensation as the duplicitous  Phyllis Dietrickson in 1944’s Double Indemnity. At that time she was the highest paid woman in the USA and the box office success of that film was the single most critical factor in the rise of what would later be called film noir.  And she didn’t stop there; during the 10 years following Double Indemnity, she could lay claim to the title The Queen of Film Noir: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong NumberThe Two Mrs. Carrolls, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, Witness to Murder,  as well as noir-stained dramas like The Lady Gambles, Clash by Night, and Jeopardy. Stanwyck took a long Walk on the Wild Side. For years however, few of those films were mentioned when experts talked about film noir. The reason is simple. Film scholars were mostly men and they rarely felt a female protagonist fit the mold they’d established for film noir.  No one, man or woman, portrayed this angst and agony better than Barbara Stanwyck.
Thank you, Mr. Muller for saying so eloquently what we've been attesting to in our own modest way about this most glorious of actresses.  We'll leave you with this opening scene for the film.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Jane Sells Haute Couture

When a rainstorm floods out a train trestle and strands her in the boom town New City, Texas, Lucy Gallant (1955) (played by Jane Wyman) realizes she can make her fortune by selling the nouveau riche clothing from New York and Paris. With the help of local banker Charlie Madden (William Demarest), the owner of the local brothel Lady "Mac" MacBeth Claire Treveor), and rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston), Lucy opens a store. But the success of the store creates a barrier between her and Casey - he wants a stay-at-home wife, and Lucy loves working.

I try to not give away the ending of films as a rule, but as our major issue with Lucy Gallant was the ending, I'll have to do a bit of a spoiler. We had thoroughly enjoyed it up until the last scene, but the standard 1950s woman as "handmaiden to her man" routine was irritating. The character of Lucy Gallant is so attractive - she's smart, clever, imaginative, kind, and loyal - it's hard to see her giving up her dream because some man doesn't want his wife working.  We found ourselves coming up with a five years later scenario in which Lucy was back running her beloved store.

Based on a novella, The Life of Lucy Gallant by Margaret Cousins, this is an interesting portrait of the women in New City.  The characters of Lucy, Molly Basserman (Thelma Ritter) and Mac are carefully drawn. All are strong characters, well able to take care of themselves (and often having to do so). The script is not so careful of the the men.  Casey begins as gentleman-ly and rather attractive, but deteriorates into a petulant, chauvinistic caricature. Gus Basserman (Wallace Ford) may have found oil, but he remains a crude drunk, Jim Wardman (Tom Helmore) is your typical northern carpetbagger, and Charlie Madden is a weakling. In fact, the only reliable male here is Summertime (Joel Fluellen), who remains loyal to Lucy through every crisis, but as an African-American is relegated, per the mores of the time, to being the doorman at Gallant's.
Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Women's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 posits that the film equates Lucy's life in the department store as a prison, where freedom is marriage and children. But I would suggest there is another subtext in the film, much more hidden, and possibly more critical of the role Lucy assumes at the film's conclusion. The biggest advocate for Lucy's marriage to Casey is Molly Basserman. At the beginning of the film, Molly runs a boarding house while her husband wildcats for oil. Later in the film, we see Gus Basserman drinking and whoring. Finally, Lucy discovers that Gus has purchased a very expensive fur coat for another woman, and it appears that Molly is blissfully unaware of her husband's infidelity. With this the only symbol of a "happy" marriage in the film, just WHAT is Lucy getting herself into?

In their review of the film, the New York Times comments that Charlton Heston is "not believable" as Casey. We tend to agree. He plays the role as though pouting for the whole film. While at first, Casey seems like a gallant gentleman, after awhile he is merely annoying. He seems to have no regard for Lucy's happiness, and he is unable to compromise on anything. We expected that the character would grow, but he did not. Heston was allegedly dissatisfied with his performance - his mind was elsewhere. When Lucy Gallant wrapped, Heston flew off for his next role - in The Ten Commandments!

The film is very much about fashion, and there are some lovely outfits (though most have a 1950s vibe, even though much of the action takes place before the second World War). We also get treated to a Vista Vision fashion show, emceed by the one and only Edith Head (who designed the dresses for the film). 

The film demonstrates that the growth of Gallant's mirrors the growth of the town of New City, and the dominance of the female clientele in the town. We see other stores begin to appear near Gallant's, including a high-end jewelry story. The women in the town dress better, and there is a decidedly more cosmopolitan air to New City by the conclusion of the film.
According to the AFI catalog, Joan Crawford was at first interested in the part of Lucy. The Hollywood Reporter had also announced that Jody McCrea (son of Joel and Frances Dee) and Julie Dorsey (daughter of Jimmy) were to have made their film debuts in Lucy Gallant; neither however made it to the final version of the film. 

We'll leave you with an early scene, in which Lucy meets some of the local ladies of New City:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Harry's First Year


2001 is a rather recent film for this blog to cover, but I had the opportunity to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again with a friend, so it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my focus a bit and discuss this rather lovely movie. I'm a big fan of Harry Potter (both the books and the films), so I was pleased when my friend decided we should make that a "movie night" selection.

The basic plot: Baby Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of his Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) Dursley. He endures 11 years of neglect, living in a cupboard under the stairs in the Dursleys' home, belittled by his guardians and their obnoxious son Dudley (Harry Melling).  However, on his 11th birthday, letters begin to arrive, not just by post, but down the chimney, delivered apparently by a flock of owls.  Harru's uncle tries to destroy them, but a visit by giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) results in Harry being taken from the Durleys for enrollment in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry, it turns out, is a wizard, whose parents were killed defending him from a dark wizard, Voldemort. Voldemort disappeared after being unable to kill Harry, and Harry is famous in the wizarding community as The Boy Who Lived.

I was dubious when I read the first Harry Potter novel. It was a children's book after all, and I was a grown-up. I read the first three chapters, muttering under my breath "children's book." And then I became so engrossed that I stopped categorizing it.  As more books were released, I snatched them off the shelf; attending parties in Barnes and Nobles (one treat was listening to Jim Dale read from the prior book), waiting for my book to arrive in the mail, and spending the next few days savoring the new story. I don't often cry when reading books, but the Harry Potter made me cry three times. Thankfully, the movies lived up to the novels, primarily due to the excellent casting of the key characters.
Richard Harris was the perfect Albus Dumbledore.  Sorry, Michael Gambon, good as you are, you will always be second best.  Mr. Harris was not keen on taking the role - he turned it down THREE times and only accepted it when his granddaughter told him she would never talk to him again if he didn't do the part (The Guardian). Sadly, Mr. Harris died after the second film, and the role was assumed by Mr. Gambon.

The part of Severus Snape, as played by the amazing Alan Rickman is really a minor character in this film. He is quite disagreeable, and of course, we won't find out for some time just what Snape's problem is with Harry Potter. Mr. Rickman was at first reluctant to take on a part that, in the first script really just appeared to be a standard child's villain, but author J.K. Rowling told him what was planned for later in the film (Vanity Fair). Once you've read all the books (or seen all the films), you realize how marvelous Mr. Rickman makes Snape - he is a character it is hard to hate.
This is, however, a film about children: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the enduring friendship and partnership that develops during their years at Hogwarts. I've always felt that Harry falls in love with the entire Weasley family, not just Ginny (spoiler - that's in a later book). The Weasleys represent for Harry the family that he lost. 

Mr. Radcliffe is especially good as Harry in this first film. The scene in which he encounters the Mirror of Erised is especially moving. As this child, who has never known love, looks into the mirror and sees the affection in the eyes of his dead parents, it's hard not to cry for him. As he has grown, Mr. Radcliffe has become an impressive actor. I had the opportunity to see him in Equus on Broadway, and recently in a NTLive broadcast of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Look also for the performances of Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom, who will grow to become a fierce and fearless warrior for good). It's an exceptional cast in a movie that I can watch over and over - would that I had the time to binge all 8 of them!

I'll leave you with a trailer of the film. Next time, an earlier classic!


Lawyer Elsie

Scarlet Pages (1930) opens as a baby is being taken in by an adoption agency. The mother, whose name is revealed by the forms she signed, has relinquished all rights to her child. Years later, we meet the mother, Mary Bancroft (Elsie Ferguson), now a successful lawyer with political ambitions. She is romantically involved with district attorney John Remington (John Halliday), who, though Mary loves, she has refused to marry. Their lives are complicated when Mary takes the case of accused murderer Nora Mason (Marion Nixon). Nora has murdered her father, an act she acknowledges, but for which she refuses to give a reason, and John will be prosecuting the case.

Scarlet Pages is a surprisingly enjoyable film. That Nora is Mary's daughter is no surprise; from the moment she appears, the viewer is pretty sure that eventually the two will discover they are related. But the getting there is a real pleasure; the story moves along at a good pace, and the reveal at the end of the film is an amazingly impressive one. Given that this is sound film in its infancy, the movie has an abundance of competent actors and a nicely related story. It's also impressive that it is a film about a professional woman, who worked her way up in her career, probably starting before women could even vote in the U.S.
Elsie Ferguson spent most of her career on the stage, both in New York and London. Considered one of the great beauties of her time (TCM article), she appeared in a total of 29 Broadway plays between 1901 and 1944. One of those plays was Scarlet Pages, which ran for two months 1929. Of the 25 films in which she appeared, only Scarlet Pages and The Witness for the Defense (1919) survive. Our film is the only sound film in which Ms. Ferguson appeared. She appeared in one final Broadway play after Scarlet Pages, 1943's Outrageous Fortune.  After that, she retired with her husband to their farm in Connecticut (with trips to another home in Cap d'Antibes). Ms. Ferguson died at the age of 78. Though she was no youngster at this point in her career, her poise and dignity serve her well in Scarlet Pages; her final scenes in the courtroom are exceptionally done.


John Halliday is also excellent in his role as Mary's closest friend and most vehement opponent in the courtroom. Halliday gives the character both dignity and deep affection. His respect for Mary, both as a person and as someone he loves dearly, is apparent. We were especially impressed that at no time does John suggest Mary quit her profession to become his wife alone - a far cry from Herbert Marshall in The Flame Within!

The other male part (a small but important role) is played by Grant Withers, as Nora's fiance, Bob Lawrence. Mr. Withers had a long career, though he is probably best known as Loretta Young's first husband. The pair eloped, and the marriage was annulled almost immediately. Best remembered as Ike Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946), Mr. Withers frequently appeared in films with his friend, John Wayne. He segued over to television in the 1950s, appearing in shows such as Lassie and Perry Mason. In intense pain, and in failing health, he died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1959.

In their review, the New York Times proved to be underwhelmed by the film, though they reserved some praise for Ms. Ferguson (a "modern Portia") and for Ms. Nixon.  We think this is a film worth visiting, and recommend it highly.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Barbara's Secret Marriage

Ruth Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) and State Attorney General Robert Sheldon (Warren William) elope. When the ceremony ends, they look for a phone - he to call his office; she to contact her father, Governor W. H. Vincent (Arthur Byron) with their good news.  But Robert's call results in a roadblock to their happiness; Ruth's father has been accused of taking a bribe, and the only way for Robert to investigate the charges is for Ruth to remain The Secret Bride (1934).

Audiences at the time of release would have known from the trailer the serious nature of the film, though the title really makes one believe this is a romantic comedy. Based on an unproduced play, Concealment, by Leonard Ide, this was not really a movie anyone wanted to make (except producer Hal Wallis) - William Dieterle later said "the script was bad..." (TCM article).  Both director Dieterle and Ms. Stanwyck were under contract to Warner Brothers, however and neither could afford to be suspended  - Ms. Stanwyck was supporting herself, her son, and her then husband Frank Fay, and the Fays were having financial issues with the Internal Revenue Service [A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: True Steel 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson]. So, rather than go on suspension, Ms. Stanwyck apparently grit her teeth and took on a role that was certainly beneath her talents.

The role of Ruth is really not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best - the part is under-written and she has little to do except be morose about her hidden marriage. She's only given one really good scene - Ruth goes to confront her father with evidence that his personal typewriter was used to write a letter demanding bribe money. Ruth, who has a close and loving relationship with her father, is distraught and feels betrayed by her suspicions about her father's actions. His denial of the charges, and her reactions to his protestations of innocence are strong and convincing. It's interesting that Dan Callahan in his biography, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, felt exactly the opposite. We, however, thought that Ms. Stanwyck played the scene perfectly. Stanwyck plays her as young and inexperienced, making the scene strong and appropriate for what little we know about Ruth.
Also wasted is Glenda Farrell as Robert's secretary, Hazel Normandie. She SHOULD have a pivotal role - she's romantically involved with one of the villains (she doesn't know he is a villain), and she is accused of a murder. But by the end of the film, she's all but disappeared from view. She doesn't even really figure into her own murder trial. A shame really, because Ms. Farrell is able to deliver a clever line like no one else.
Grant Mitchell's Willis Martin, the pawn in the scheme, should be a more interesting character, but that role too is poorly outlined. As a result, Martin, with his constant weeping and quivering, is merely annoying. You really want to shake him and tell him to get a grip on himself. It's a shame because, again, Grant Mitchell is a strong character actor who is given no opportunity to grow his characterization. (To see him in better form, try The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
The only actor who really gets to do anything in the piece is Warren William, and he runs with it. He does appear a trifle old for Ruth, but he's clearly well established in his political career, so the age difference is consistent with character. Mr. William started his acting career on Broadway (as Warren W. Krech  - he was born Warren William Krech) in 1920. The advent of sound brought hime to Hollywood and a contract with Warner Brothers. With his impressive speaking voice, he was likely a godsend to the studio, and was a leading actor in many pre-code films, including Three on a Match (1932)  and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He also was cast in several series - Perry Mason and the Lone Wolf among them. Besides film work, he also did some radio, specifically a series entitled Strange Wills.  He died in 1948, at the age of 53; his wife of 25 years died a few months later.

There is a very nicely done scene which features 1930s criminal forensic science - an analysis of the typewriter used to type a bribery note. Of course, it helps if one knows what a typewriter is! 
The costuming by Orry-Kelly is stunning, especially a fur-trimmed dress that Ms. Stanwyck gets to wear (you can see it in the trailer). She also gets several really stunning hats. But Ms. Stanwyck deserves more than nice clothing - a script would help. We'll leave you with the trailer to the film:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

We'll Alway Have Paris

It is the 75th Anniversary of Casablanca (1942) and to celebrate AFI Silver featured the film for several days. I've seen the film more times than I can count on television and home video; I've also seen it several times on a big screen, but when your friend tells you that she's NEVER seen the film, what can you do but go again? The opportunity to see the # 1 film on AFI's list of 100 Years, 100 Passions, not to mention #2 on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Films list with a neophyte is just too good to resist. It really is like getting to see the film AGAIN for the first time.

If you are like my friend, and have never seen Casablanca, a quick plot rundown is in order (then again, if you've never seen Casablanca, stop reading this blog, and go watch the movie!)  It's December 1941, and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns a successful cafe and (illegal) casino in Casablanca. The cafe is inhabited primarily by refugees, trying to get to America. But, on the night when black marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is arrested for the murder of German couriers (they were carrying non-revocable letters of transit), Rick's past catches up with him, in the form of his lost love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).
It's likely that Casablanca is one of the most written about films in movie history - I know of four, one of which was just released: We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg (2017); The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II by Aljean Harmetz (2002), Casablanca: Behind the Scenes by Harlen Lebo and Julius Epstein (1992); and Casablanca: Script and Legend by Howard Koch (1995). As a result, it has a much storied history.

For example, the rumor (fed by a Hollywood Reporter news item) that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were to play Rick and Ilsa has been debunked by numerous sources (including Ms. Harmetz). Ms. Harmetz also clarifies the rumor that George Raft was offered the role - his name was suggested, however producer Hal Wallis wanted Humphrey Bogart. Ms. Harmetz also relates Paul Henried's (Victor Laslo) later antipathy for the part of Victor Laslo, and his disregard for Humphrey Bogart. He told the author in 1992 that "Mr. Bogie was nobody.... Before Casablanca he was nobody...he was a mediocre actor." To give him credit where credit is due, he had had a successful theatrical and film career in German before the rise of the Nazis, and had appeared on the New York stage as well.
Though Casablanca is really a fairly simple story of love and loss in time of war, what makes it unique and so thoroughly re-watchable is the dialogue. In AFI's list of  100 Years, 100 Quotes  for SIX of the 100 quotes, starting at #5 with "Here's looking at you, Kid."  The rest of this amazing list is: #20 - "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," #28 - "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'," #32 - "Round up the usual suspects, #43- "We'll always have Paris," and #67 - "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."  It doesn't include the lines like "I was misinformed" (see the clip at the end), or "Are my eyes really brown?" I could go on, but you get the point. Check out these TCM articles for some quote that did not make the film!

Some of the more clever lines are uttered by that master of delivery Claude Rains as Louis Renault. Both my friend and I love "Serves me right for not being musical," said when Louis discovers where Rick hid the letters of transit, or "I'm shocked, SHOCKED to find out that gambling is going on in here," as Louis collects his gambling winnings. As always, Mr. Rains is an amazing actor; it is hard to keep your eyes from him when he is working - even in his stillness there is wit shining through.
The other actor who is impressive (besides our key three players, of course) is Conrad Veidt  as Major Strasser. A star of German cinema (Veidt is perhaps best remembered from his amazing performance as the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)), Veidt left Germany in 1933. His wife was a Jew, and Veidt despised the Nazis. He emigrated first to England, then to the United States, where it seems that his most memorable roles were as Nazis (such as All Through the Night (1942) and Escape (1940)). He donated large sums of money to the war effort (TCM article); Veidt also required that, if he were cast as a Nazi, that character must be a villain (Casablanca: As Time Goes By: 50th Anniversary Commemorative by Frank Miller). Unfortunately, Mr. Veidt did not get a chance to escape from the Nazi typecasting - he died of a heart attack in 1943, shortly after he finished filming Above Suspicion.

Of course, Mr. Veidt was not the only refugee appearing in the film: Madeline LeBeau (Yvonne), S. Z. Sakall  (Carl), Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio (Emil the Croupier), Helmut Dantine (Jan Brandel), and Paul Henreid were among the actors who escaped from German and the occupied nations to work in Hollywood. (AFI catalog)

In 1944, Casablanca won 3 Oscars in 1944 (Film, Michael Curtiz (Director), Adapted Screenplay (Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch)) and was nominated for 6 others including Best Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Rains), Score (Max Steiner), Editing, and Cinematography. It appears on several other AFI lists:AFI 100 Years, 100 Cheers at #32, AFI's top Heroes, with Rick Blaine at #4, and 100 Years, 100 Thrills at #37. But the true test of the film is watching it again and again (which I have). It's a picture which you decide you will watch JUST this one scene and end up watching the whole movie.  I'll leave you this this conversation between Rick and Louis, and another wonderful Rick quote:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Robert and Norma Dance

The Marletts seem like a happy family. Daughter Lucia (Norma Shearer), or Lally as she is fondly called, adores both her parents, and they seemingly have a strong marriage. But all is not as it appears; Henry (Hal) Marlett (Lewis Stone) leaves his wife Harriet (Belle Bennett) for Beth Cheevers (Helene Millard). The separation alienates Lally from her father, and sours her on men. She decides (at the urging of her mother) to never marry. But that resolve is short-lived after meeting Jack (Robert Montgomery) at a party. Their Own Desire (1929) tells the story of what may be a doomed relationship.

Both Ms. Shearer and Mr. Montgomery are quite good as the young lovers. Ms. Shearer was already an experienced silent actress, and this was her third talking film; Mr. Montgomery came to film directly from the New York stage, and seems comfortable in what is for Hollywood a new medium.  He and Ms. Shearer would eventually appear in five films together (this was their first). Their acting (and that of Lewis Stone) is surprisingly subdued, given the film's proximity to the silent era. Ms Shearer would be nominated for an Oscar for her work as Lally, however she lost to herself in The Divorcee (TCM article).
Belle Bennett, however is still acting as though she is in a silent film - there is much emoting, much throwing her body around to convey emotions she has just spoken. As a result, the character of Harriet appears emotionally unstable. But Harriet is also written as being quite selfish. Certainly, she's had a hard blow with her husband's betrayal, but to force a promise from her young daughter to never marry and stay always with her is tantamountly unfair. Ms. Bennett had had a long career in silent films - her first was in 1913. Whether she would have ultimately made the transition to sound is unclear - she died of cancer in 1932, at the age of 41.

The part of Beth Cheevers is horribly underwritten. We have no clue as to why Hal would love her. At first, one wonders if she is a gold-digger, but as the story unfolds, we are informed that her former husband (whom she divorced to marry Hal) was quite well off financially. As written, Beth seems an unconcerned mother, a cold wife, and a nasty rival. All and all, Helene Millard is given little to work with, and nothing she does makes Beth relate-able.
Though based on a novel that was released the year before the film (AFI catalog), the script leaves something to be desired. Some plot aspects are problematic, as if the writers don't seem to know whether to concentrate on our young lovers, or on their parents. There is a scene in which Hal and Beth go to the country club and are shunned by their former friends. It's one scene, and it goes nowhere. The audience is going to find it hard to sympathize with either of them, so it is unclear why time is taken up with it. This is, however, definitely a pre-code film - witness that our adulterers are never punished for their actions, and there is a suggestion that Lally and Jack spend a night of passion together.
While the script is no great shakes, and some of the acting is dated, the interactions between Ms. Shearer and Mr. Montgomery is certainly worth the short running time of the film.  We'll leave you with this early scene, in which Lally and Jack share a dance.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joan Meets Greer Again

When Jimmy Lee's (Robert Taylor) proposal of marriage to Mary Howard (Joan Crawford) is rejected, Jimmy begins to suspect he has been replaced in Mary's affections. He is distressed to discover that his rival is the very married publisher Rogers Woodruf (Herbert Marshall). Based on Mary's theory (as purported in her new novel) that the rejected wife and new lover can have an intelligent conversation about the affair, Jimmy maneuvers Clare Woodruf (Greer Garson) into a meeting with Mary, without either knowing about their mutual lover.

We discussed When Ladies Meet (1941) several years ago, but with the opportunity to discuss it in the context of the Harding/Loy version, we decided to view it again. As with the prior film, the plot hinges on the relationship between Clare and Mary. One real problem with this verson is that Joan Crawford's Mary becomes quite annoying.  The film requires that you be able to like both women, but it is hard to like Mary. She's snobbish and affected (taking on the personality of Rogers). As a result, you begin to wonder why anyone would like her.  Plus, where Ms. Loy appeared innocent and somewhat naive, Ms. Crawford SEEMS more knowing, and that sophistication works against her characterization. With Mary and Clare more obviously played as contemporaries (where there seemed almost a big sister-little sister affection between Ms. Harding and Ms. Loy), Mary should know better than to be taken in by a cad like Rogers.
That the first film was pre-code, and this one is firmly within the Code era makes very little difference. The stories are exactly the same, and we still have little bits of double-entendre (primarily from Spring Byington as Bridget Drake). The character of Walter del Canto (Rafael Storm) is played as though the actor intends him to be gay (which was not the case in the original). The racy plot is still not all that racy.

Spring Byington  is a marked improvement over Alice Brady. She plays Bridgie as a tad risque, but essentially sweet. She has a much lighter touch than Ms. Brady, and is able to make the character very appealing.  Interestingly, Ms. Byington had originated the part on Broadway (AFI catalog); why she was passed over in the first iteration of the film is puzzling - she had appeared the same year that version was released as Marmee in Little Women (1933). Ms. Byington had a long and varied career.  From 1924 to 1935, she appeared steadily on Broadway, appearing in 20 plays (including The Merchant of Venice, in which she played Nerissa). Her film career really started in 1933 (she had appeared in one short film in 1930); after she left Broadway for good, she worked steadily in films, television, and radio (her show, December Bride was first a radio, then a television show).  She married once, (she was engaged for a long time, but her fiance died before they wed) and she had two daughters. She was close to actress Marjorie Main, but their relationship is unclear. She loved science fiction and at one point took flying lessons (the studio made her stop). She died of cancer in 1971 at the age of 84.
Even with a second viewing, we were unimpressed with either of the men in this version. In the earlier film, Robert Montgomery's youth played in his favor. His attempts to convince Mary of Rogers duplicity seemed innocent, if somewhat artless. Robert Taylor, however, is much older and more mature in appearance. His wooing becomes almost stalker-ish, making him unappealing. If there is any chemistry at all, it is between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Garson. Their scenes on the boat are humorous and convivial. He never seems to have even a moment of camaraderie with Ms. Crawford. By the end though, we felt the women would be better off alone than with either Mr. Taylor or the self-absorbed Rogers.
The performance that really stands out in this film is that of Greer Garson, who, according to this TCM article was being groomed for stardom by MGM (following an Oscar nominated performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Ms. Garson started her career on stage and television in the UK, and that was where Louis B. Mayer discovered her. Following her small, but important part in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), she appeared in Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier, and in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), the first of FIVE consecutive Oscar nominations as Best Actress. She would ultimately be nominated seven times, winning for Mrs. Miniver (1942).  [She currently holds the record for the longest Oscar speech - 5 minutes and 30 seconds].  Her 1943 marriage to Richard Ney, who had played her son in Mrs. Miniver and was 27 years younger than Ms. Garson created a bit of a scandal; the marriage lasted until 1947.  Some say the problems in the tumultuous marriage resulted from the age difference. However, the couple were separated almost immediately after their marriage when Ney was called up to serve in the military. When he returned, he found work hard to come by, while his wife was still quite popular, resulting in dissension (Michael Troyan, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, 1999). Following that divorce, Ms. Garson married Buddy Fogelson. She worked sporadically after that, eventually retiring with her husband to his Texas ranch. They were together until his death in 1987. Ms. Garson died in 1996 at the age of 91.

The New York Times wondered in their review why this "Hoover-vintage comedy" was "resurrected". We wondered the same thing. It's not really a showpiece for any of its actors - quite frankly, it does most of them a disservice. It's worth a look to see Greer Garson and Spring Byington, though. We'll leave you with this trailer, which introducess several of our key characters:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ann Meets Myrna

Reporter Jimmy Lee (Robert Montgomery) is deeply in love with novelist Mary Howard (Myrna Loy). But despite his numerous proposals, she refuses to marry him. Jimmy discovers that Mary has fallen in love with her married editor, Rogers Woodruf (Frank Morgan). Having read the novel on which Mary is currently working - in which she proposes that her heroine, in love with a married man, has a calm discussion with his wife, to talk about her desire to wed her lover - Jimmy knows what Mary has in mind. He decides the best course of action is to introduce Mary to Claire Woodruf (Ann Harding), without revealing to either of them their mutual relationship. When Ladies Meet (1933) will determine the future of both women's relationships.

Though a pre-code film, this one is not really all that shocking. There's a lot of talk, but very little action. Mary has heretofore resisted Rogers' desire for a sexual relationship; just as she is about to give in, Jimmy blunders in and breaks up the rendezvous (certainly his intention!) We later discover from Clair that Rogers is a serial philanderer, and that Claire has turned a blind eye to it because she believes he really loves her. With the exception of some double-entendre blathering from Mary's friend Bridget Drake (Alice Brady), this is a pretty tame film.
That being said, this is an interesting and thoughtful movie, primarily because of the performances of Ann Harding and Myrna Loy.  Ms. Harding presents a woman who is both dignified and understated. Even when confronted by betrayal, there is no hysteria, no over-emoting, just a quiet sorrow that is signified only with her eyes and her stance. Ms. Harding can break your heart with a glance.

Ms. Loy mirrors her in dignity playing a woman who is the ultimate idealist. When confronted with the realities of life, she too remains stoic. Her determination lets you know that her life will go on, and she will remake it. But we came away wondering how her new novel would end, with the author enlightened about the truths of life. We come to realize, thanks to the talents of these two excellent actresses, that Mary and Claire are very much alike in their attitudes and emotions. Interestingly, Ms. Loy became great friends with Robert Montgomery and Alice Brady on this production.  Ann Harding remained distant from the "coterie of three." (TCM article)
Growing up with Frank Morgan as The Wizard does make it hard to see him as a romantic figure, especially one who is so deeply loved by these two remarkable women. It is certainly his skill as an actor that makes it obvious to the audience that Rogers is a cad. That he is so awfully unloving - more interested in the chase and in sex - becomes apparent later in the film. But Mr. Morgan does a good job in preparing you for this revelation.

Alice Brady seems to be present to provide the comic relief. Unfortunately, she becomes rapidly annoying.  An Oscar-winning actress - she was nominated twice, and won for her role in In Old Chicago (1937) - in this film, it feels as though she is doing screwball comedy, while everyone else is playing subtle humor and high drama.  We felt that Bridget was too shallow a person, where the other characters are fully developed. It felt as though Ms. Brady was in a different movie.  We wondered if a different actress in the part would have made a difference, and we may find out next week.

The film (based on Rachel Crothers' play, which was produced on Broadway in 1933) would be remade twice: once in 1941, with Joan Crawford, and again on 11 June 1952 as a ABC television presentation with Patricia Morison and Richard Carlson in the leads (AFI catalog). This film was nominated for the Best Art Direction Oscar, for Cedric Gibbons, whose sets are gorgeous (We were especially impressed with Mary's apartment).  We'll leave you with this scene, featuring appearances by our four leads. Next time, we'll be viewing the 1941 version.