Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Margaret Looks for Magic

An infant is abandoned at a New York City foundling hospital and the matron on duty makes a phone call to the Institute of Child Psychology. Professor Peter Vincent (Philip Merivale) and Dr. Woodring (Alan Napier) arrive to conduct a series of evaluations on the infant; she is adjudged satisfactory, and removed to the Institute for education. The Institute has a theory about education, and have taken on the infant girl, named Alpha (Margaret O'Brien) to test their theories. Alpha will be taught Chinese, music, chess, math and history, but will be removed from the rest of the world, so as to eliminate any corrupting influences. At age 6, Alpha, now fluent in Chinese, able to read complicated books, and an expert in world history, is ready to be tested by Professor Josh Pringle (Henry O'Neill). When word gets out about Prof. Pringle's arrival, reporter Mike Regan (James Craig) arrives at the Institute to do a story on the prodigy. Bemused by Alpha's concrete understanding of the world, Mike tells her the world is full of magic, a concept that has been rejected by her tutors. So the Lost Angel (1944) ventures out of the Institute to find Mike and prove the validity of magic.

This is a truly delightful film, both moving and funny, with a cast that is in top form. Margaret O'Brien is excellent as Alpha, a little girl who is, at times, more mature than her elders. She manages to make Alpha smart without being a show-off, but also to retain Alpha's innocence and child-wonder of the new world she is being revealed. (The character is somewhat reminiscent of Natalie Wood's Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street.)  In 1945, Ms. O'Brien was presented a special juvenile Oscar, for her work that year (including this picture) (AFI catalog) The story of that Oscar did not end in 1945 - it was stolen from Ms. O'Brien's home in 1954, shortly before her mother's death, found 50 years later (for the full story, visit this blog post) and returned to the ecstatic Ms. O'Brien.
But Ms. O'Brien would be lost if it was not for the rapport that she has with both James Craig and Marsha Hunt (Katie Mallory).  Ms. Hunt is particularly terrific, combining a developing motherly affection for the child with a wariness of her. The scene of their meeting at Katie's nightclub is especially funny. The image of the Alpha and Katie staring at one another in a game of visual chicken is wonderful (Katie loses the match!). They would appear in another film together that same year: Music for Millions.

Ms. Hunt, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, began her film career in 1936 with The Virginia Judge; she retired from acting in 2008, following her appearance in the short film The Grand Inquisitor (for more on her appearance in this film, listen to this Film Noir Foundation podcast on Ms. Hunt). A truly underrated performer (watch her extraordinary performance in Cry 'Havoc' (1943), her career was foreshortened when she was blacklisted. Her crime - she was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, and protested HUAC's questioning of the Hollywood Ten.  Offered the opportunity to apologize for her protest, she steadfastly refused, and channeled herself into working for world peace and the environment (Deadline Hollywood). Now retired, there are ongoing efforts to make a documentary on her life.

The film is gifted with a number of fantastic supporting actors. Keenan Wynn had already appeared in four films, only one of which credited, when he appeared as Packy Roos in our film, and he is  wonderful as a gangster who doesn't read very well.  His interactions with Ms. O'Brien are very funny, resulting in several sweet and amusing scenes. Alan Napier, Philip Merivale, Donald Meek (Professor Katty), and Sara Haden (Rhoda Kitterick) also handle their parts with extreme delicacy. It would be easy to make the members of the Institute into villains, something these remarkable actors avoid. Their love for Alpha is apparent from the beginning of the film - though she is their job, she is also a responsibility, and one that requires understanding and affection.

There are a few more actors to watch for - Ava Gardner in an unbilled roll as a Hat Check Girl. Even though you don't get a good look at her, the voice is unmistakable. Robert Blake, as Mike's neighbor Jerry is credited, but Bobby Driscoll (as Bobby, the boy on the train) is not. This was Mr. Driscoll's film debut (TCM article).
Radio versions of the film would appear on the Lux Radio Theatre in  June 1944, with Mr. Craig, Ms. Hunt, and Ms. O'Brien reprising their screen roles, and in December 1946 with Ms. O'Brien again enacted Alpha on Academy Award Theater. The story had been written specifically for Ms. O'Brien at Louis B. Mayer's orders (he wanted her to be the next Shirley Temple).

After reading Bosley Crowther's review of the picture in the New York Times , we wondered if he had seen the same movie as we did.  Variety, however, did enjoy the film, as did my fellow blogger at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. We'll leave you with the meeting of Alpha and Mike, and the suggestion that you settle down in front of the TV with this little gem. It's an evening well spent.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Joan is Constant

Composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) is frustrated with his current composition, an atonal work that does not seem to be gelling. He decides to visit Switzerland, the home of her dear friend Albert Sanger (Montague Love), a musician of sorts and the father of three young daughters, Toni (Brenda Marshall), Paula (Joyce Reynolds), and Tessa (Joan Fontaine). Lewis brings with him a little musical piece he composed for the children; when he plays it for Albert, Albert encourages him to expand on THAT piece, and forget the atonal work. But when Albert dies suddenly, Lewis takes on some of the responsibility for the girls, especially after he meets - and marries - their cousin, Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith).  There is, however, a big problem. The ethereal Tessa is deeply in love with Lewis.

The Constant Nymph (1943) is based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Margaret Kennedy. This was the third iteration of the story to be presented on film - it had been done as a silent film in 1928, with Ivor Novello, Mabel Poulton, and Benita Hume as the three leads (and adapted by Alma Reville), and again in 1933, with Victoria Hopper, Brian Aherne, and Leonora Corbett. This version of the film sticks pretty close to the novel, which in some ways may work to its detriment, especially in our modern age. As is pointed out by fellow blogger at Paula's Cinema Club, it's a bit difficult to look past the fact that, by the film's conclusion, Tessa is about 15 years old. The idea that this so much older man has fallen in love with her is uncomfortable, to say the least. If only screenwriter Kathryn Scola had made Tessa a BIT older, the film would be more palatable.
Yet, when I initially saw the film (on TCM, after it had mostly disappeared from view), it reminded me of a film and a novel that I really love. Because the theme of The Constant Nymph is very much that of an unattainable love. The other film, Portrait of Jennie (1948) and the novel, Tryst by Elswyth Thane, both focused on young women in love with men that time and fate had removed from their grasp. The difference between them and The Constant Nymph is that the characters are just enough older to make the relationships acceptable. As viewers, we really wanted to look beyond Tessa's age, but this was difficult, as she herself kept alluding to it.

Nevertheless, the performances of Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer were excellent. Ms. Fontaine is convincing as a teen-ager (though she does appear to be in her late teens, not really 14), and Mr. Boyer is romantically intense. Ms. Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film (she lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette; the other nominees were Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier,  Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie); she succeeds in creating a characterization that is both young and unworldly, enthusiastic and frail. Boyer was not enthusiastic about the script (TCM article) - he felt Lewis was being booted about by the women and had no real strength. Warner Brothers, however, met his price ($150,000 and top billing) so he accepted the role, and gave a sympathetic performance.
The same cannot be said for Alexis Smith, who is unimpressive as Florence. Ms. Smith affects a rather odd accent which is more snooty than truly English. It's genuinely difficult to understand what Lewis could possibly see in Florence - from the moment we meet her, she is a nag and a shrew. She has no understanding of his music or his ambitions, and is more concerned with the fame that marriage to him might bring her. As a result, her epiphany at the film's conclusion is forced. 

Peter Lorre is delightful in the small role of Fritz Bercovy.  Mr. Lorre plays the part as a man genuinely in love with Toni Sanger (though it's hard to say why. Ms. Marshall's portrayal gives us a woman who is almost as unlikable as Florence!). Fritz also deeply cares for his two little sisters-in-law, and though he is a tad absent-minded, he is also kind. Peter Lorre began his film career in Germany, with the highly-regarded M (1931). By 1933, however, he had left Germany - as a Jew, he knew the dangers that were facing him with the rise of Fascism. He worked in England for awhile, and eventually emigrated with his wife, Celia Lovsky, to America, where he found work, often as a villain. But what a villain - All Through the Night (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942) are just the tip of an impressive resume. Mr. Lorre and Ms. Lovsky divorced by1945; though he would remarry twice, they remained friends, with Ms. Lovsky often serving as his publicist and manager.  Because of chronic pain, he became addicted to morphine, an addiction he fought and conquered, but it did affect his ability to get roles. He died in 1964 from a stroke, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
Music is very much a factor in the film; the lovely score and Lewis' concert piece were composed by Erich Marie Korngold.  Mr. Korngold was on the set, and was involved in the story development and provided the piano dubbing for Mr. Boyer and Mr. Love.  The tone poem, "Tomorrow," became quite popular, and Mr. Korngold published it as his Opus 33 (Korngold Society) You can listen to the suite below.
Charles Boyer was not the first choice for Lewis - the film rights were originally purchased as a vehicle for Errol Flynn.  One wonders if the January-February 1943 trial of Flynn on charges of statutory rape had something to do with the change in the lead (it certainly would have been an even more problematic film with Flynn playing Lewis). Other roles were also in flux - Joan Leslie was, at one point, cast as Tessa, and both Wendy Barrie and Eve March tested for the role. Margaret Sullavan, Merle Oberon, Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland were also considered for parts in the picture. (AFI catalog).  In 1944, the film would be adapted for radio as part of the Lux Radio Theatre, with Charles Boyer repeating his screen role and Maureen O'Sullivan taking on the part of Tessa.
The New York Times review was ecstatic, calling the film "a fine tribute to the virtues that have made the book endure." In many respects, it is an excellent film; we found that we wanted to find ways to mentally change Tessa's age to make the story more acceptable to a 21st century audience.

We'll leave you with this trailer:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Vivien Crosses the Bridge

Colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) is about to leave for the front during World War II. He walks across Waterloo Bridge (1940), and memories of his past enfold before us - memories of Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), the girl he met on the bridge during an air raid in the last war, of their engagement, and of her fate.

The long and the short of our film version discussion was that this was, hands down, a better film. One reason is because of the chemistry between Ms. Leigh and Mr. Taylor. Though she wanted her beau, Laurence Olivier to play Roy (he had a prior commitment and was unable to appear), and stated that Mr. Taylor's casting was "a typical piece of miscasting. I am afraid it will be a dreary job..." (TCM Article), it's clear from the get-go that this was a perfect casting choice.

They had appeared together once before, in A Yank at Oxford (Ms. Leigh was the bad girl). Back in 1938, Mr. Taylor was clearly the star - here, we have equals, and that is one of the reasons this film works so well. We don't have to make allowances for a Roy who is obviously not as convincing as Myra.  Because of their talent, you really watch the couple fall in love.
Ms. Leigh shines as Myra. This film takes the time to give us more backstory to Myra. It also cleans up her story quite a bit (we're not in the pre-code era any longer!). Myra is an innocent in the beginning. A budding ballerina, with a spot in the Kirowa Ballet Company, run by the delicious tyrant Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya). Ms. Leigh is totally convincing as we watch Myra descend into a life of prostitution - desperation and hopelessness reflect in her eyes and in her very posture. It's a beautiful performance from an always amazing actress.

Ms. Leigh was born in India in 1913, and sent to England for schooling at age 6 (her parents didn't return to the UK until 1931). By 1932, she was married to Leigh Holman (they would remain friends until her death); the following year, she gave birth to her only child, Suzanne. Though Mr. Holman was not a fan of acting, Ms. Leigh returned to the theatre in 1935; her work there resulted in her receiving a contract from Alexander Korda. It was while she was appearing in the film Fire Over England (1937) that she met Laurence Olivier. The relationship - both theatrical and personal would endure beyond their divorce in 1960. Her career was a series of magnificent performances - both with Olivier and without. Her work with him in That Hamilton Woman (1941) is inspired, as is a wonderful performance in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) with Claude Rains. Her theatrical roles also gained her much praise, most of it on the West End (often appearing opposite her husband). Ms. Leigh, however, was plagued by bouts of depression - her inability to become pregnant with Lord Olivier's child only exacerbated the condition. After their divorce, she began living with Jack Merivale; he was with her when she died of tuberculosis at age 53. Lord Olivier, who was in the hospital being treated for prostate cancer, rushed to her apartment, and helped Mr. Merivale plan the funeral. At a recent visit to England, I was able to see an exhibit with some of her papers - the Victoria and Albert Museum received the donation of her papers from daughter Suzanne Holman Farrington.
Similarly, Mr. Taylor is both charming and strong. The opening scene tells us so much. Though he is a good and forgiving man, and years have past since their love affair, we know that he still blames himself for Myra's fate. It is as though, when she gives him her good luck piece, she gives away all her luck. Roy has survived, but we know from Taylor's eyes that he is still married to Myra in his heart.

If there is anything that is a bit hard to believe, it is that Myra can't get a job. First of all, this is during wartime - fewer men should mean more jobs for women. Unlike Mae Clarke's Myra, this Myra makes it clear that she is not just looking for jobs as a performer. She's tried a restaurant and a dress shop. Can one imagine a dress shop turning away someone as stunning as Ms. Leigh because she has no experience? That one plot point is a bit of a stretch.
The film is also gifted with amazing character actors - Lucile Watson as Roy's mother, Lady Margaret Cronin is excellent. You yearn for Myra to confide in her - Ms. Watson transmits warmth and sympathy in her performance, and her hurt is palpable when Myra all but shoos her away. 

We also loved Maria Ouspenskaya turn as the nasty ballet school teacher. She all but spits out her venom towards her students, who are merely cogs in her company and not real people at all. As the instigator of all Myra's and Kitty's (Virginia Field) pain, she is an evil delight.

The New York Times review was rapturous in their praise for Ms. Leigh  - this was her first picture after Gone With the Wind (AFI catalog), and she did not disappoint them. They also spared some praise for Mr. Taylor, Ms. Watson, Ms. Field, and C. Aubrey Smith (as The Duke). If you only want to watch this story once, this is the one to pick (they even managed to get around the PCA's objections to the plot without degrading the plot). We'll leave you with Roy and Myra's encounter on Waterloo Bridge:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mae Crosses the Bridge

England is under siege from the Germans in World War I. As civilians scramble for cover during a raid on Waterloo Bridge (1931), prostitute Myra Deaville (Mae Clarke) assists, and then attempts to seduce a young soldier, Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass). Roy, an innocent if ever their was one, is immediately attracted to Myra, not comprehending what she does to pay her rent. He pursues her and brings her to his parents' home. Myra, however, resists - she loves him deeply, but knows her past will be a barrier to their happiness.

Before we started this blog, we viewed this version of Waterloo Bridge with a group of other Pre-code films. We decided to revisit it, but will be pairing it (next week) with the 1940 remake starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. Given the conclusion of this film, it's almost hard to believe that it is a pre-code film, as there is a sense of cosmic punishment being visited on Myra for her actions. Since Myra is a good person who has made some really poor decisions in her life, the ending is quite shocking and unexpected.
Based on a play by Robert Sherwood (which was based on an encounter in his own life in London during the WWI. See this TCM article  for more on the story) that ran for 64 performances on Broadway, Waterloo Bridge has been on the screen three times - this film, the Vivien Leigh version we'll discuss next time, and Gaby (1956), starring Leslie Caron. It was also done as a radio play in 1941 with Brian Aherne and Joan Fontaine, in 1946, with Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles; and in 1951 with Norma Shearer as Myra. 

Mae Clarke is quite good at Myra. Ms. Clarke does not try to whitewash the character a bit. When we first see Myra, she is quitting her job in the chorus of a West End play to take up with a wealthy man. He's given her a fur wrap, and she expects more gifts from him, as well as support in the style to which she would like to become accustomed. But, in the next scene, we see that play that she left is still running, but Myra's affair is not. Unable to get a job in another show, she has turned to the streets to support herself. Ms. Clarke plays Myra as selfish and ignorant. She doesn't like working the streets, but primarily because she wanted wealth and leisure for herself and doesn't have either. The morals - or lack thereof - of working as a prostitute does not bother her until she falls in love with Roy. And Ms. Clarke makes that transformation realistic and understandable; we watch the Myra lose her gold-digging instincts to become the person that Roy envisions her to be. Ms. Clarke was not the first choice for Myra - Rose Hobart was originally considered (AFI Catalog); to our thinking, the right casting choice was made.
That we believe Ms. Clarke's love for Roy is a credit to her ability as an actress. Kent Douglass, however, is not a great actor, and we have to believe that Roy is so obtuse he can't see what Myra does for a living. Mr. Douglass would later change his name to Douglass Montgomery, the name he'd used on the New York stage (MGM didn't want him using Montgomery to avoid confusion with Robert). With 32 credits to his career, he did not have a wide range of roles, though he is remembered today as Laurie Little Women (1933). In 1934, he was the victim of an attempt on his life, when someone sabotaged his car; no suspects were ever found. Following service in the Canadian infantry during World War II, Mr. Montgomery relocated to the UK. He returned to the US in the 1950s, to do some television. In 1966, at the age of 58, he died of spinal cancer (he was living in Connecticut at the time). He was survived by his wife of 14 years, British actress Kay Young.
Bette Davis has a small part (this was her third film appearance) as the generous Janet Cronin, Roy's sister. The whole Wetherby/Cronin family are shown as loving, caring people - not only towards Myra and Roy, but for each other. Though we are informed early on that Mrs. Wetherby (Enid Bennett) remarried and moved with her children to the UK to be with her husband, Major Wetherby (Frederick Kerr), there is no wicked stepfather here. The affection between the Cronin children and their loving - and rather dotty - stepfather is apparent immediately. It makes a nice touch, and helps to explain Roy's rather innocent attitudes.

At one point in the film, allusion is made to the practice of women marrying several times to collect the salaries (and hopefully death benefits) of their soldier husbands. We found it interesting that the practice would be discussed regarding both wars, as we saw in Allotment Wives.

The New York Times review was complimentary of both Mr. Douglass and Ms. Clarke, and enjoyed the story. Danny at Pre-Code.com did not; however we agreed wholeheartedly on Ms. Clarke's inspired performance. As promised, next week we will look at the Vivien Leigh version of the film, which you'll find has a lot more exposition. We'll leave you with this scene from the start of the film, and hope you will join us again next time.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Barbara's Christmas

Assistant District Attorney John "Jack" Sargent (Fred MacMurray) knows how to get convictions. He knows that putting an attractive woman on trial for shoplifting a few days before Christmas is going to result in a not guilty verdict. When presented with such a case just before the holidays, he maneuvers to postpone the trial until the new year. Jack is about to take a long-promised vacation to visit his mother and aunt on their farm in Indiana. Thus, he feels sorry for defendant Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), as his actions will force her to be incarcerated over Christmas and he bails her out of jail. When Jack discovers that she is from a town near his home own, he offers to bring Lee to visit her mother.  Remember the Night (1940) is the story of their journey.

I discussed Remember the Night four years ago after seeing it in a theatre, so I was pleased when our Movie Group decided to view it for the holidays. This is a lovely film, blending comedy and drama expertly. With a script by Preston Sturges, and direction by Mitchell Leisen, the movie glides along at a brisk, but engaging pace. This was Mr. Sturges last film in which he only provided the script (thereafter, he would direct his own screenplays), and Mr. Leisen cut the script, much to Mr. Sturges' dismay. (AFI catalog) That being said, it is hard to believe that a longer film would have been half as affective, or that Mr. Sturges' original concept of Jack would have been any better than the one we have today.

In the first of his four films with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray is sympathetic and engaging as a serious lawyer with a big heart. According to this TCM article, Mr. Sturges originally conceived Jack as "almost heroic". Mr. Leisen, however, felt the focus of the film should be shifted slightly away from Jack, and from the "certain articulate quality" that he felt would not compliment Mr. MacMurray's abilities. Mr. Leisen's vision of "gentle strength" is what remains in the film, and Mr. MacMurray is perfect as a man whose emotions and goodness conflict with this part of his job.
Barbara Stanwyck sparkles a Lee, a woman who has been diminished by her mother and her upbringing (more on that later). She escaped to New York City, and ended up a shoplifter, stealing high-end jewelry to support herself. We know that she has tried to work - she mentions a job as a song plugger (like Jack, she can play the piano, but she is a far better pianist than him). But with no real job skills, and no self-esteem, Lee has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It would be easy to make Lee either rock-hard or pitiable. Stanwyck does neither; her Lee is genuine. She doesn't like what she has become, but she knows nothing else. When she learns there is another way of life, she embraces it.

The film does a beautiful job in comparing and contrasting the upbringing of Jack and Lee, primarily through the characterizations of their mothers. On the one hand, we have Lee's Mother, expertly played by Georgia Caine as a cruel and unaffectionate woman who has no desire to be a mother to her child. On the other, we have Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Sargent - warm, loving, and understanding of her son, and of Lee. The children, both raised in small towns in Indiana by widowed mothers, both relatively poor, have turned out so drastically different because of their mothers' attitudes. But the film does not present a hopeless view - there is a road to redemption through love.
Georgia Caine has one scene in the film, but she is unforgettable.  Ms. Caine, the child of actors, began her career with a Shakespeare troup. By 1899, she was on Broadway - she had appeared in 28 plays and musicals by 1935, and was at one point called "the queen of Broadway musical comedy". She began her film career in 1930; by the time she retired, she had appeared in 86 films, many of them uncredited. Thanks to her appearance in Remember the Night, she became a part of Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in a total of 8 of his movies, including Hail, the Conquering Hero (1944), where she was the mother of Eddie Bracken. She was married twice - her second marriage to Alphonzo Bell Hudson lasted for 30 years. Ms. Caine died in 1964, at the age of 87. (For more on her life and career, check out Accustomed to her Face: Thirty-five Character Actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood by Axel Nissen).
The film would reappear in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast in March, 1940 with Mr. MacMurray and Ms. Stanwyck reprising their roles.  In July, 1951 another radio broadcast from the Screen Director's Playhouse starred William Holden and Nancy Gates as the leads.  In May of 1955, television, in an episdode of Lux Video Theatre featured Don Defore and Jan Sterling. And finally, in 1969, Ms. Stanwyck's own The Big Valley had an episode - "Judgement in Heaven" (Season 1, Episode 15) with a plot remarkably like Remember the Night.

The New York Times review by Frank S. Nugent was glowing - he stated that, though it was "a bit too early in the season to be talking of the best pictures of 1940 [the picture was released in January] it is not too early to say that Paramount's nomination is worth considering." (It received no nominations, unfortunately).  Mr. Nugent praised not only our two stars, but also, Ms. Caine, Ms. Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson (as Jack's Aunt Emma) and Willard Robertson (as Lee's attorney, Francis X. O'Leary). He said "In a cast of such unusual competence the difficulty is not in finding players worthy of special mention but in being able to keep the list within a single paragraph." 

If that doesn't convince you, we'll leave you with the trailer from this exceptional motion picture. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Greer's Home for Children

After a whirlwind romance, Edna Kahly (Greer Garson) becomes engaged to Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon); Edna and her adopted sister Charlotte (Marsha Hunt) are planning a double wedding. But Charlotte's discovery that she is a foundling - and therefore illegitimate - changes everything. Her fiance's family rejects her, and while Alan (William Henry) reaffirms his love for her, Charlotte leaves the room and commits suicide. The horror of this will haunt Edna Gladney, as does the death of her only son.  Blossoms in the Dust (1941) is the story of the Edna Gladney's work in Texas to help foundlings such as her sister find loving and secure families.

Though we uniformly enjoyed this film, we have some issues with the script. First off, the opening implies that the film is going to be a romance, but the story takes a rapid about face within about 10 minutes.  And while we welcome stories with pep, at times Blossoms in the Dust moves almost too quickly. There are no real transitions as the action moves through the events of Edna's life. One minute we are in her Wisconsin home, seeing her reaction to a pistol shot, the next we are in Texas and it is Edna's first anniversary. We rather missed the depth that we felt some scenes really deserved. We place the blame on director Mervyn LeRoy; in the book, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson by Michael Troyan, Marsha Hunt describes pleading for a few minutes of screen time prior to Charlotte's suicide: "Please shoot it my way, with the camera observing my emotions as I mount the stairs. It will make the episode clearer to the audience..." LeRoy refused, and shot only a brief view of Ms. Hunt's legs running up the stairs.  Too bad; Ms. Hunt is an actress who could have conveyed much in that momentary scene.
Likewise, the scenes following the death of Edna's son seem equally abrupt.  Partially, the quick transition demonstrates the futility of Edna's life to that point, but it does have an almost whiplash feel to it. Without Greer Garson's masterful handling of the role, Edna could have come across as trivial and unfeeling, but Ms. Garson is able to convey the depth of Edna's feelings in a short time. Even a brief nod of the head in a courtroom scene towards the end of the film tell us volumes about the character. Ms. Garson was not particularly enthusiastic about doing the film; she had reservations about working with so many scene stealing children (TCM article). Despite that, she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (she lost to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion. It was another one of those tough years. Also nominated were Bette Davis in The Little Foxes; Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn; and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire!)
The screenplay, written by Anita Loos, is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Edna Gladney. Ms. Gladney had no foundling sister; in fact, Ms. Gladney was illegitimate (her mother later married Mr. Kahly, and Edna was given his name). Nor did she have a small son who died (See this Wikipedia article on Edna Gladney). However, Ms. Gladney worked long and hard for many years to find homes for orphaned and illegitimate children, and lobbied for legislation that would remove information from Texas documents that labeled children as illegitimate.  She would also (after this movie) work to get adopted children the same rights as natural children. Ms. Gladney attended a special preview of the film, as well as its opening in Fort Worth. She was complimentary about the film (especially enjoying the Walter Pidgeon's portrayal of her late husband), and stating that the film "would stimulate interest in children and child placement agencies".  The Edna Gladney Center for Adoption was named in her honor.
We would have liked to have seen more of Walter Pidgeon, here in his first of nine pictures with Ms. Garson (AFI catalog) - as a result, she was called the "daytime Mrs. Pidgeon" on the MGM lot. Mr. Pidgeon portrays a good, kind, and understanding man, who loves his wife with all his heart.  The affection that the two had for each other in real life is apparent in their on screen relationship. According to Ms. Garson's biography, Mr. Pidgeon lightened the grind of work with his humor - he would try to make her laugh in serious scenes, and would joke about her perfume (she was, it seems, a great lover of scents).  It's possible she got her revenge by teasing him about his dancing - they had to build a platform on roller skates so that the dancers could whirl about them, as Mr. Pidgeon kept forgetting the choreography!
The film itself opened at Radio City Music Hall to a positive review in the New York Times positive review. Along with Ms. Garson, the film would be nominated for a total of 3 Oscars. It was also nominated for best film, and won the Oscar for best Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary, set decoration by Edwin B. Willis). It was broadcast on the Lux Radio Theatre in February of 1942 with Ms. Garson, Mr. Pidgeon and Felix Bressart (Dr. Max Bressler) reprising their roles.  

Blossoms in the Dust is well worth your viewing - we'll leave you with the trailer to the film.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Robert is Eager

Johnny Eager (1941) (Robert Taylor), having served his time in prison, has been released on parole. He's working as a cabbie, and regularly visits his parole officer, Mr. Verne (Henry O'Neil), who firmly believes Johnny is on the straight and narrow. But Johnny has no intention of going straight, and uses his cousin Peg Fowler (Connie Gilchrist) and her daughter Matilda (Robin Raymond) as cover against discovery that's he's trying to open a dog track.  The venture is being held up, however, by D.A. John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold). Johnny sees a way out when he meets Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner), Farrell's much loved stepdaughter; her growing love for Johnny presents an opportunity to get the D.A. off Johnny's conniving back.

Johnny Eager is an engaging and entertaining film, primarily because of Robert Taylor's excellent portrayal.  He plays Johnny as a man on a journey to humanity.  At the beginning, Johnny is an actor, convincing one side that he is an upright citizen, and convincing the other that he is a heartless villain. The reality is somewhere in the middle, though Johnny himself considers he is the villain. Yet, early on, when he sends Garnet (Patricia Dane) away because he is not interested in her any longer, there is a kindness in his manner. Sure, he's setting her up for a fall, but he is genuinely trying to make it as painless as possible. He believes (and makes the audience believe) that he will return to Garnet once his fling with Lisabeth is over.  Taylor's genuineness makes him persuasive.
Van Heflin as Jeff Hartnett, Johnny's alcoholic best friend, won an Oscar for this portrayal. A decent actor, we still were not convinced that the performance was worthy of an Oscar. Still, in looking at the competition, which included William Bendix in Wake Island, Walter Huston in Yankee Doodle Dandy,  Frank Morgan in Tortilla Flat, and Henry Travers in Mrs. Miniver, we didn't strongly feel that there was a worthier performance among the nominees (though it was a mystery as to why Claude Rains wasn't nominated for Now, Voyager). Regardless, Mr. Heflin does a good job with a character who is hard to make engaging. Jeff is a weakling, and while his affection for Johnny is obvious, his willingness to tolerate Johnny's actions when he clearly believes them wrong, makes Jeff a character who is more despicable than the sociopathic Johnny. Mr. Heflin would later call this his favorite role (AFI catalog).
The film depends very much on the chemistry between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Turner (or TnT as they were called in the ad below). It certainly is there, but the idea of Ms. Turner's Lisabeth as a student social worker is a bit of a stretch.  According to this TCM article, the romance between the two stars was real (though Ms. Turner denied an actual affair). Mr. Taylor allegedly told his wife, Barbara Stanwyck that he was in love with Ms. Turner, but Ms. Turner broke up the relationship before an actual divorce took place.

We especially enjoyed a brief appearance by Glenda Farrell as Johnny's ex-girlfriend Mae Blythe. Now happily married, Mae comes to Johnny to request that Johnny use his influence to get her husband, a beat cop, a better assignment. We know what Mae does not, that it was Johnny who had her husband shipped to the boonies. Ms. Farrell takes the small role, and makes it quite memorable.
The New York Times review was positive; the Lux Radio Theatre would reprise the film in 1946, with Mr. Taylor and Mr. Heflin repeating their films, and Susan Peters subbing for Lana Turner.  We'll leave you with a scene featuring TnT together.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Ingrid's Bad Marriage

Following the murder of opera star Alice Alquist, her young niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is sent to Italy to live and work with Alice's dear friend and former voice teacher Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau). Ten years later, Paula has fallen in love; her mentor encourages her to follow her heart. After some indecision, Paula elopes with Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), whom she has known for a scant two weeks. Gregory confesses to Paula his desire to live in London, and Paula decides it is time to re-open her aunt's home and give Gregory his dream. That dream turns into a nightmare for Paula, as Gregory slowly and systematically begins to Gaslight (1944) her.

AFI Silver presented Gaslight as part of a program recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October).  If you've heard of the term "to gaslight," it originated with the 1938 stage play from which this play was adapted. Gaslighting is defined as " to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation)" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And if anyone is the personification of the gaslighted woman, it is Ingrid Bergman. With merely her eyes, and by changes in posture, Ms. Bergman is magnificent as a woman being continually cowed by the man that she loves. We first see Paula around the age of 12 - and you believe Ms. Bergman IS a child (it helps that she doesn't talk - director George Cukor knows that her voice would reveal her age, and so he lets her tell her story just with the stunned look on her face.  We then watch her become a woman who goes from independence to fearful dependence. It's a phenomenal performance, certainly worthy of the Oscar that was given to Ms. Bergman. (She was up against stellar competition: Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away; Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington; and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Not a decision I want to make!) In an interview of the American Film Institute, Lynn Redgrave focused on Ms. Bergman's expert handling of this role.
Charles Boyer certainly makes a case for citing this film as one about domestic violence. Yes, his goal is to find the jewels that the late Alice Alquist hid somewhere in the house. But Boyer paints a picture of a man who likes the power that his manipulation is providing. When Paula finally rebels against him, Boyer initially cringes as he sees his control ebbing. But then his eyes change - he's discovered a better way to humiliate her; there is triumph, pleasure, and satisfaction in that look. Boyer, like Berman, can do much with just the briefest glint in the eyes. We know there is no reason for him to pull this subterfuge - all he needs to do is tell Paula he would like to prowl through Alice's costumes. But Boyer demonstrates that Anton's actions are about power over Paula and a revenge against Alice for complicating his life. On a personal note, Boyer's wife was pregnant with their only child during the filming of Gaslight. Though it was believed the child would be born after filming ended, Patricia Boyer delivered a few weeks early. The cast celebrated the event with champagne! (TCM articles)
Angela Lansbury, in her first film role (she also appeared as the older sister in National Velvet that same year), was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. She is marvelous as Nancy Oliver, a servant girl, who has delusions of seducing the master of the house and supplanting her mistress. In the video below, she discusses her experiences on the film, including the celebration of her 18th birthday on the set. Nominated three times for the Oscar (including a nomination for The Manchurian Candidate, which is arguably her finest film performance), Ms Lansbury was not awarded an Academy Award until 2013 when she was (finally) given a Special Oscar. Though her film roles were varied, Ms. Lansbury's greatest impact was felt in the theatre. She currently has 5 Tonys to her credit, with an additional two nominees. She was also nominated 18 times (including TWELVE consecutive nominations for Murder She Wrote) for the Emmy Award. She was married for 54 years to Peter Shaw (until his death in 2003), and has two children. You can see Ms. Lansbury next year, as the Balloon Lady in the remake of Mary Poppins.
Joseph Cotten is also very good as Brian Cameron (in the stage play, the character was named Rough, and there was no romantic attraction between him and Mrs. Anton. In the American production, Angel Street, the part was played by Leo G. Carroll). Mr. Cotton brings just the right amount of gravitas to the role, but there is also a twinkle in his eye as he describes to Mrs. Anton his interest in her and her Aunt Alice. His interactions with Constable Williams (Tom Stevenson) are wonderful, as they converse about both the case and Nancy. And the scene in which he asks Lady Dalroy (Heather Thatcher) to seat him next to Mrs. Anton at dinner is wonderful. It is unclear as to whether he is attracted to Paula, or to the fact that she so much resembles her aunt. But, at the point at which Brian enters her life, Paula very much needs a friend, and Brian has already been shown to be a kind and sympathetic figure.

Is there anyone who can play dotty canniness like Dame May Whitty? The character of Miss Bessy Thwaites was an invention of the film (she's not in the play or the British film), and she is delightful, though a bit scary as a murder stalker. Sure, she adds a bit of comic relief, but multiple viewings help you realize that SHE is a key factor in Paula's marriage to Gregory. Had she not brought up Alice's murder on the train, would Paula have fallen so readily into Gregory's arms? True, she supplies valuable information to Brian about the goings on in the house, but on many levels it is disturbing that she knows so much ABOUT the Antons' lives.

The original play, Gas Light was produced on the West End in 1938; in 1941, it opened on Broadway as Angel Street, with Vincent Price as the Anton character (called Manningham in the play). I was lucky enough to see an excellent 2007 off-Broadway production by the Irish Repertory Company (you can see a review here). There was also a British film, called Gaslight (1940), starring  Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. It is still available for viewing, despite an MGM's efforts to destroy all copies of the film. There have also been six teleplays of the story (see the AFI Catalog for a listing of the tv versions and their casts) and a 1946 radio version in which Ms. Bergman and Mr. Boyer reprized their roles.

Gaslight was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning two (the other was for Cedric Gibbons Art Direction). The other nominees were Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer; this was his third of four nominations. He never won), Best Writing, Best Black and White Cinematography, and of course, Ms. Lansbury's nomination. (Though not costume design. A shame - Irene's costuming work is impressive in the film).  In the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills, Gaslight placed at #78. 

If you've never seen the film, treat yourself with a viewing (keep the lights on!). In the meantime, we'll leave you with this trailer.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Greer's Bad Marriage

Told in flashback after the death of Philip Bosinney (Robert Young), That Forsyte Woman (1949) introduces us to Irene Herenford Forsyte (Greer Garson).  Irene's husband, Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn) decided he wanted Irene as a wife - she was beautiful and dignified, and Soames is a man who gets what he wants. So, despite the fact that she is honest and tells him she does not love him, Soames cajoles her that love will come and she consents. But love does not come, primarily because Irene feels controlled by Soames: he picks her clothing, tells her where to go and when, and who to meet. For this Man of Property, Irene is one of his treasured possessions - she is a fine piece of art that he has purchased and now displays with pride.  Irene's one joy is her relationship with her niece June (Janet Leigh), who is madly in love with architect Philip Bosinney. The problem - Irene is falling in love with Bosinney as well.

This is an excellent film with a great deal of nuance. The script, which is taken carefully from John Galsworthy's first novel in The Forsyte Saga, The Man of Property, deals only with the marriage of Soames and Irene (whereas the 1967 and 2001 BBC series covered The Man of Property (1906), Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918), In Chancery (1920), Awakening (1920) and To Let (1921), and A Modern Comedy (1928)). The story of Irene and Soames' marriage is fraught with problems in the novel - Irene has an affair with Philip, and Soames rapes Irene - issues the film could only suggest (or raise the ire of the censors!). But the hints are there; it only takes a little imagination to understand exactly what is going on.
Errol Flynn was borrowed from Warner Brothers to play Young Jolyon Forsyte (the role that ultimately went to Walter Pidgeon). (In exchange, Jack Warner got William Powell for Life with Father (AFI catalog). Once at MGM, Flynn refused to play young Jolyon. He was then offered the role of Bosinney; again he refused. Flynn wanted to play Soames - a drastic change from his usual swashbuckling roles (TCM article).  MGM finally agreed, and Flynn gave an impressive performance as a man who is involved only with the financial value of everyone and everything in his life. Once finished with this film, he was back to Warners, again making westerns and swashbucklers. It's amusing that he ends up in the video of the MGM 25th Anniversary Lunch, chatting happily with Greer Garson. Jack Warner must have been furious!

Greer Garson is intriging as a woman who is torn between an unhappy marriage and financial security. Irene is down to her last cent - she can only survive teaching piano, and her only client is her landlady. Soames' campaign to win her (he enlists the help of the landlady) catches her at a low point in her life and she succumbs. Likewise, Philip catches her as she begins to doubt her decision to marry Soames; it seems that her love for Philip really is a remembrance of the love she lost many years before. She comments that Philip is much like that idealist and untidy young man. Irene is a woman who wants to be strong, but often lets herself be led, against her better judgement.

Philip, however, comes off as thoughtless, at the least, and insincere at most. He pursues June when he first meets her; likewise, he is hot on the heels of Irene after their first encounter. We felt that, once Irene accedes to his advances, he will fall in love with someone else. We found it difficult to believe Philip, much less sympathize with him, he is so flighty.

Janet Leigh is lovely as June. She plays a genuinely nice girl, who is blasted into anger by betrayal. The character certainly deserves better than Philip! Ms. Leigh literally burst into stardom after Norma Shearer saw her photo on her father's desk at the ski resort where he worked. Her first film, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) starred her opposite MGM heartthrob Van Johnson, and she starred in a succession of films afterwards, including Little Women (1949), Holiday Affair (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), and Scaramouche (1952). But it was Psycho (1960) that most people remember today. Among my personal favorites is her performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). (In a recent discussion of the film, William Friedkin posited that Rosie is a double agent. I'm never going to watch that movie again in the same way!) Ms. Leigh was married 4 times, most famously to the father of her daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee, Tony Curtis (the marriage lasted 11 years). She wrote four books (two novels, a memoir, and a book about Psycho). By the 1960s, she was making frequent television appearances (including another of my favorite, the sadistic Miss Diketon in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode, The Concrete Overcoat Affair). She died in 2004, aged 77, three years after the death of her fourth husband, Robert Brandt - they had been married for 38 years.
This was the last filmed performance of Harry Davenport (Old Jolyon Forsyte), a remarkable character actor who is probably most remembered as Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939) [Two films would be released after this: Tell it to the Judge (1949) and Riding High (1950)]. The descendant of a long line of actors, Mr. Davenport began his career at the age of five (he was born in 1866). By 1894, he was appearing on Broadway. By 1934, he had appeared in 37 Broadway plays.  His film career began in 1913; he transitioned from silents to talkies, and spent much of his sound film career playing kindly grandfathers and professional men. In 1913, he co-founded (with Eddie Foy) the Actors' Equity Association. When his marriage to his first wife ended after three years, he married actress Phyllis Rankin - they were together for 33 years, until her death in 1934. They had three children together (Harry also had a daughter with his first wife, and Phyllis had a son - who would become the father of Arthur Rankin, Jr.). Mr. Davenport died of a heart attack in 1949, at the age of 83 - he was in the process of securing a new screen role when he died.
With exquisite costumes by Walter Plunkett (for the women) and Valles (for the men), lush technicolor photography by Joseph Ruttenberg, and art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Daniel Cathcart, this is a truly beautiful film. While the New York Times review was not kind to anyone but Ms. Garson, we enjoyed the film immensely. (It opened at Radio City Music Hall - definitely a prestige venue!). We'll leave you with the trailer, for a quick look at this lovely film.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Myrna's Married?

Magazine editor Margo Sherwood Merrick (Myrna Loy) is celebrating her first wedding anniversary alone. Or so her colleagues believe. The truth is, Margot is not married. Offered a promotion, Margot faked the marriage to discourage flirting by her boss Ralph Russell (William Halligan) and eventual firing at the instigation of his jealous wife (Marjorie Gatson). Her faux marriage also protects her from a number of unwanted suitors, including Philip Booth (Lee Bowman) and Hughie Wheeler (Sidney Blackmer). But when she meets artist Jeff Thompson (Melvyn Douglas), she begins to wonder about the benefits of that fictitious ring on her Third Finger, Left Hand (1940).

When it's a Myrna Loy movie, you really WANT to enjoy it. She is always so wonderful. Add the engaging Melvyn Douglas to the mix, and you SHOULD have an delightful film. But good as they are, even these actors need a script, and Third Finger, Left Hand really doesn't have much of one. The initial idea is good - a woman who pretends marriage to deflect unwelcome male advances on the job (surely a timely plot!) - but at a certain point, the screenplay runs out of steam and the picture just gets stupid.  For example, Margo has been carrying on this deception for a year, but she doesn't have a concrete description of her alleged husband, and each time she is asked, makes up a  new (rather asinine) one. Her father (Raymond Walburn) and sister (Bonita Granville as Vicky) never asked to see a picture or to know what he is like?  Margo should be smarter than that.
As a result, these two entertaining actors become irksome after a while, as they try to best and humiliate the other. If Margo is interested in Jeff, it's hard to imagine her as a simple housewife in Wapakinetta, Ohio. (We surmised that she will end up handling the business end of his art sales. He's really not all that good at it). Late in the film, the couple run into his neighbors from Wapakinetta, and Margo starts talking like a Brooklyn B-girl. Several members of the group were very distressed at her actions, though I myself found it fit revenge for his earlier behavior. Yet, there is so much plot between his actions and hers that it did, on many levels, seem out of place and inappropriate. It's as though the early chemistry between the two actors vanishes.

Not that there is any particular chemistry with any of her other suitors. Hughie, seen briefly, is a drunk, and Philip is boring. It's hard to imagine the intelligent Margo with any of them. In the long run, she would have been better off single.
There are several underused actors in the production, including Felix Bressart (August Winkel) and Bonita Granville. It's a shame to waste such talented people; when you see them in the cast, you expect them to be integral to the plot. Regretfully, they were not.

We thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with Ernest Whitman, as Pullman conductor Sam. Viewed from a 21st Century perspective, Sam is a wonder. A man eager to stimulate his mind, Sam has a law degree, which he pursued to alleviate the sameness of his job. Sam, as a matter of fact, is a far better lawyer than Philip, and proves an able adversary to Philip when Jeff solicits his assistance. Sam is also African-American.  Mr. Whitman spent most of his career, not surprisingly, playing bathroom attendants and African natives (The Road to Zanzibar). But he also had a stage, radio, and a brief television career, appearing as Bill Jackson in the radio and television versions of Beulah. He died in 1954, at the age of 61.
According to this TCM article, Ms. Loy and Mr. Douglas became lifelong friends. Their liberal politics and social activism united them.  Ms. Loy supported Helen Gahagan Douglas when she ran for the U.S. Senate against Richard Nixon (Nixon accused Congresswoman Douglas of being a Communist. She was not, but it worked. He won the election. For more concerning the election, visit this New York Times article.)

Though reviews were not generally enthusiastic, this New York Times review was actually complimentary towards Ms. Loy and Mr. Douglas.  The story was reused by the Lux Radio Theatre in September 1941 when they presented a radio version starring Martha Scott and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (AFI catalog).  We'll leave you with the trailer from the film.