Monday, March 18, 2019

Kay Cruises

After escaping from San Francisco following a murder conviction, Dan Hardesty (William Powell) is arrested in Hong Kong by Steve Burke (Warren Hymer), a police officer tasked with returning Dan to the U.S. for execution. Dan is determined to escape from the ship during the voyage home, but a complication arises in the form of Joan Ames (Kay Francis), a pleasure cruiser to whom he is immediately attracted. But there is a further complication - Joan is dying, and this cruise is, for her, a One Way Passage (1932)

This is perhaps one of Kay Francis' best dramatic roles. She sympathetic as a woman who has little time to live, and has decided to live a shorter, more interesting life, rather than just sit in bed and wait for the inevitable. Ms. Francis, without any backstory, provides that history to the audience simply with her demeanor. We know that Joan has heretofore lived the life an an invalid; informed that the end is now truly near, she has one last chance to experience the world before she leaves it. It seems the film was a favorite of Ms. Francis' as well - it was one that she would regularly show to her beaus to acquaint them with her work (Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage by Scott O'Brien). 
Equally excellent is William Powell as a decent man about to be executed for murder. Dan Hardesty has killed a man, though according to his friend Skippy (Frank McHugh), the victim "needed killing". We get no more information than that. But, we know that Dan is ethical - while attempting to escape from Steve, he plunges them both into the water. But when he realizes that Steve cannot swim, he puts off his escape attempt to rescue his captor. With that simple gesture, we know all we need to know about the integrity of Dan.
In their sixth film together, Ms. Francis and Mr. Powell are a dynamic team. Their chemistry is palpable, and their camaraderie is apparent.  This film would prove to be their biggest box-office hit, yet it was also their last film together (TCM article). Powell would soon leave Warner Brothers for MGM, and The Thin Man series, while Ms. Francis remained at Warners. If you are interested in some of their other films together, start with Jewel Robbery (1932) - their interplay is remarkable.
One Way Passage also has the advantage of co-starring the remarkable Aline MacMahon (Barrel House Betty aka Countess Berilhaus) in the cast. As a con artist who starts off using her wiles to distract Steve from Dan, but ends up falling in love with Steve, she's terrific. Ms. MacMahon is an actress who makes everyone around her look better. As a result, Warren Hymer (who is usually, to my mind, an uninteresting actor) shines as Steve. He becomes more than just the dumb cop he usually plays.  In his book Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids: Twenty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, Axel Nissen says that "because she didn't look like anyone [Aline MacMahon] could play everyone" and that is certainly the case here. You believe that she is could be a countess, even though you know almost immediately that she is not. Ms. MacMahon can play anything or anyone.  For a brief bio on this wonderful actress, visit our post on Heroes for Sale (another film in which she basically stole every scene).
The screenplay for One Way Passage won the Oscar for Best Writing - Original Story in 1933 for Walter Lord. Director Tay Garnett allegedly felt he deserved credit for some of the writing, which he did not receive (AFI catalog).  The costuming by Orry-Kelly is lovely; he was also tasked with making Kay Francis look ill, which he succeeds in doing by giving her lovely, flowing gowns that hint at frailty. Mr. Kelly would return to costume the 1940 remake, 'Til We Meet Again, this time starring George Brent and Merle Oberon as the doomed lovers.  Also returning for the remake - Frank McHugh!.
Surprisingly, the New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall actually praised the film, stating that it "offers quite a satisfactory entertainment. It has an original idea and the characters stand out..." We would be much more effusive in our praise, but regardless, this is a film for fans of both Ms. Francis and Mr. Powell.  We'll leave you with a brief scene - the meeting of  Joan and Dan:

Monday, March 11, 2019

Dorothy's Getting Married

Louanne (Dorothy Mackaill) has finally hit the big time, only it's not the Bright Lights (1930) of Broadway. She's landed herself a rich husband - Emerson Fairchild (Philip Strange), the son in a wealthy - and scandalized - family. Louanne is leaving her longtime partner  Wally Dean (Frank Fay) behind, and he is supportive of her move. But things get difficult when Miguel Parada (Noah Beery) arrives. He tried to rape Louanne years before, and he is planning to try again.

Bright Lights is a film that really doesn't know what it wants to be - it has romance, mystery, nudity (in silhouette), rape, violence, murder, AND music! Interspersed throughout the film are musical number, most of them repetitive. There is, however, a unique musical interlude - a VERY strange song celebrating cannibalism. In spite of all of this, it's a short film - only 69 minutes (thank heaven!).

Dorothy Mackaill is wasted in this movie. She is so much better than the film. While she was part of the original casting, she was eventually elevated to star billing, with Frank Fay downgraded to co-star billing (AFI catalog). She does get to sing (she has a pleasant, throaty voice) and dance (in that rather all-legs style of the early 30s), but her plot-line is slim. She's trying to keep her fiance from running off, while still hinting to the audience that she has feelings for her co-star. She more or less succeeds, but I think the viewer would have wondered why she was wasting her time with either of them. (The film is briefly touched on in this New York Times article on Dorothy Mackaill's films).
Much of our discussion focused on Frank Fay. A highly-paid personality on the New York stage, Fay was lured to Hollywood with a tidy contract. It quickly became apparent that whatever talent he had did not translate to the screen. It also didn't help that he was a fairly despicable man - a racist who made his antisemitism well known. An oft-repeated story involves an altercation with Milton Berle. Fay was on stage at the Palace, and Mr. Berle was watching from the wings. When Fay shouted an ethnic slur in Berle's direction, Mr. Berle hit him with a stage brace. Sympathy was on Mr. Berle's side (The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff). But Mr. Fay had one ace - he was married to the up-and-coming Barbara Stanwyck, who was highly regarded and loved by all who worked with her. As Ms. Stanwyck's star rose, however, Fay's plummeted (It's been suggested that their marriage was the basis for A Star is Born (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson)). Mr. Fay drank more heavily, became abusive to his wife, who finally left him when he threatened their child. He made a few movies in the 1940s, but his film career was essentially over. He would return to Broadway in 1944, when he starred as Elwood P. Dowd in the Broadway premiere of Harvey. (The film role would, of course, go to James Stewart. This January 8, 1945 issue of Life magazine featured an article about Fay's life.) But Harvey was pretty much the end for him. He died in 1961.
One reason to watch this film is to see a sound film featuring Noah Beery, Sr. The father of Noah Beery, Jr. (of The Rockford Files fame) and brother of Wallace Beery, Noah, Sr. had an extensive silent film career. He began his career in vaudeville. By 1915, when he ventured out to Hollywood, he had already appeared in one short; he proceeded to appear in over 200 films primarily in character parts. He was the original Sgt. Gonzalez in the 1920 The Mark of Zorro and Tabywana in Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man (1918). When his son began a film career, Mr. Beery billed himself as Noah Beery, Sr. He was visiting his brother (for Wallace's birthday) in 1946 when he suffered a fatal heart attack - the brothers were planning a Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "Barnacle Bill" in which they would have appeared together.  You can hear a rehearsal tape here

Frank McHugh also appears as the newspaper reporter, Fish. The character is, for the most part, annoying, but his part is pivotal to the action. Also appearing in a bit part (as a photographer) is John Carradine. He's unbilled, so you have to look hard to see him.
A later of the release of the film would re-title it Adventure in Africa (probably because of the short incident with Parada. The new title makes absolutely no sense). It's a pretty awful movie (as was noted by my colleague at in his review). There are just too many musical numbers and not enough a story. However, for a look at Noah Beery, Sr. and Frank Fay, this might be worth an hour of your time (you can always fast forward through the numbers).  We'll leave you with this clip from the film.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Robert is Not Guilty

Rising young architect John Smith (Robert Young) has a secret. His real name is Marco Ricca, and he is the son of underworld boss Tony Ricca (Boris Karloff). John has managed to stay clear of his father and his associates, but John's life becomes accidentally entwined with the mob when he is invited to a party, given by Mike Palmero (Leo Carrillo) for his daughter,  Maria (Constance Cummings). Mike is Tony's rival in the mob, and a war is ongoing between the two factions. This week's film is The Guilty Generation (1931).

The story is a gangster style Romeo and Juliet, with a different, but shocking conclusion. Filmed and released while Prohibition was still in effect, the movie paints a frightening picture of the gangster wars of the 1920s and early 1930s. In the opening sequences, when we meet John, the entrance of Tony is terrifying. For a few minutes, you are convinced that John has somehow angered this underworld figure, and is about to be beaten or killed. It's stunning when you realize that these men are father and son.

We always enjoy Robert Young, an actor with whom we grew up in his various television incarnations (Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD). It's intriguing to see him at the beginning of his career - he had already made two short films and had roles in two other features. Seeing him with a mustache was also novel; we suspect this was done to make him appear a bit older and a little more Italian. He's engaging as John/Marco; the part is secondary to that of Mike, but it's important that John be both strong and likeable. Mr. Young provides us with a portrait of a determined and ethical young man.

Leslie Fenton, as Maria's brother Joe, portrays the character as a maniac. He is a murderer, and is almost worse than his father Mike, who at least tries to present a civilized demeanor. (It's believed that Mike was patterned on Al Capone (AFI catalog)). Joe has no control at all - he willy-nilly tosses people into the family swimming pool, and then waves his gun around. Never mind he ruins his sister's birthday, he endangers both her, his father, and his grandmother.
An actor whose career began in the silent era, Mr. Fenton appears to have moved easily into talking pictures. He acted steadily until 1938, then switched to directing.  He returned to his native England when World War II broke out and was severely injured during the St Nazaire Raid in 1942. He recuperated, and assumed desk duty after he was fit for service. Married to Ann Dvorak in 1932, she moved to England with him. The marriage, however, didn't survive the stresses of the war - they divorced in 1946. Mr. Fenton directed a few films more films, but had retired from films by 1956. He died in 1978 at the age of 76.

We very much enjoyed Ruth Warren (Nellie Weaver) as the Palmero family publicist (and possible mistress to Mike). She gets all the good lines, and while there are hints of a relationship between her and her boss, she is a smart, tough woman who tries to stand aside from Mike's actual work. She's a good friend to our young lovers, and is also an able press agent. It's a pleasure to see this dynamic woman in a film so heavy with testosterone.

Boris Karloff had JUST opened in Frankenstein two weeks before this film premiered (TCM article) which surely enhanced the menace of his character. This recent review in the New York Post of the film's DVD release talks a bit about early Karloff. His part is small, but he is always shown in a menacing shadow (contrasted to Mr. Carrillo, who is filmed with little shadow). 

My colleage at gave The Guilty Generation a positive review, and we second the reaction. While this is not a great film, it is worth seeing for these excellent actors early in their sound careers.We'll leave you with a scene from Maria's birthday party, including Mr. Young and Ms. Cummings.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Peter Swashbuckles to an Oscar Nomination

Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) works as a junior writer on the comedy series Comedy Cavalcade starring Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). He has a crush on K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper), but she's not interested. Benjy's life takes a dramatic change when a guest star on the show has to be minded, Benjy is required to keep an eye on Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), an actor famed for his swashbuckling roles, and his deep regard for alcohol and women. Benjy spends the next several days trying to keep Swann sober and out of trouble, while being tutored by Swann about life and love. This week, we'll discuss My Favorite Year (1982).

Allegedly based on Errol Flynn's appearance on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, this is a film chock-full of wonderful performances. However, the film rises and falls on Peter O'Toole, who he is wonderful as the conflicted actor. He manages to give the character just the right amount of pathos (his lack of interaction with his young daughter is a source of embarrassment and regret to him), but never wallows in it. Albert Finney was also considered for the part (AFI catalog).
31 Days of Oscar Blogathon
This was Mr. O'Toole's seventh (of eight) Oscar nominations (he lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi). I suspect even Mr. O'Toole didn't expect to win this one - despite the fact that "dying is easy, comedy is hard" (attributed to Edmund Kean on his deathbed and repeated by Alan Swann), actors just don't win for comedies (TCM article). The role for which he should have won - T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (you can see him discussing the film in this TCM commentary) - was released in the wrong year. Mr. O'Toole lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (and it's hard to argue that selection).  That he lost the Golden Man to Cliff Robertson (for Charly) the same year his co-star, Katharine Hepburn, won for The Lion in Winter, is doubly sad. He was enthralling as King Henry II, a role for which he'd been nominated four years earlier in Becket.  Ultimately, the Academy tried to make up for his record of most nominations by an actor without a win (Entertainment Weekly) by awarding him an honorary Oscar in 2002. You can see him accepting the Award here, (and let me just add how furious I am that the Academy no longer gives due credit to the Honorary Award winners, relegating them to a separate ceremony and allowing them no opportunity to share their win - usually one long overdue - with their fans and colleagues). Robert Osborne provides a very lovely overview of Mr. O'Toole's impressive here in this video which introduces an interview at the TCM film festival.
The film boasts an amazing ensemble of character actors.  Selma Diamond as Lil, the costume designer is a beyond funny, especially in her one scene with Mr. O'Toole (in which they discuss his presence in a Ladies Room. Her reaction to him is spot on). Ms. Diamond had been a comedy writer on Your Show of Shows and was the inspiration for Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show (Jewish Women's Archive).

While one spends a lot of time shaking one's head (and laughing) at Belle Steinberg Carroca (Lainie Kazan), it's clear that Alan Swann admires her honesty. They clearly like one another, and Swann is both impressed and humbled when Belle scolds him for avoiding his child. Ms. Kazan is over-the-top, as is Belle, so it works.

Many of the other characters are based on real people: Rookie Carroca (Ramon Sison) was based on a Filipino sailor that lived in Mr. Brooks Brooklyn neighborhood; Herb Lee (Basil Hoffman) resembled Neil Simon, a writer on Your Show of Shows; Benjy Stone is a combination of Mr. Brooks and Woody Allen; Boss Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell) was Jimmy Hoffa (Mr. Brooks personally asked Mr. Mitchell to do the part while both were eating lunch at the MGM commissary); and of course, King Kaiser (the always excellent Joe Bologna) was Sid Caesar, The King of Comedy!
Make sure you take a look at the actress who dances with Alan Swann in the Stork Club - that's Gloria Stuart, 15 years before her Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic.  Adoph Green - the songwriter with partner Betty Comden of musicals like Bells are Ringing and Wonderful Town - appears as producer Leo Silver (based on Your Show of Shows producer Max Liebman). Mr. Green was himself nominated for two Oscars - screenwriting for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.

So, was this really based on Errol Flynn's appearance on the Sid Caesar variety show? Two opinions seem to exist. According to this Los Angeles Times article, Flynn's appearance on the show was uneventful, and the writers had little interaction with him. However, in 1997, Brooks stated that "I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed Cuban sisters" and that Flynn kept trying to get the 20 year old Brooks drunk (The Baltimore Sun; Ben Mankiewicz intro). Which is true? Who knows.
I was looking forward to viewing this film with my group; it's a favorite of mine, and I was expecting they would all like it. I was wrong. One person disliked it; one said it was okay, but no more than that. The other members really enjoyed it. It did do well on release - the opening weekend, it earned over $2 million. The New York Times review was quite positive. The story was remounted as a Broadway musical (with Lainie Kazan reprising her role) which didn't do particularly well - it only ran for 45 performances. Here is a trailer from the film and a suggestion to visit the films of the always impressive Peter O'Toole:

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, 2019

Monday, February 18, 2019

Deborah Takes a Vacation (of Sorts)

It's England, 1940. Robert Wilson (Robert Donat) has volunteered for service in the Royal Navy. He'll be leaving his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) behind and he worries that she'll not be able to care for herself. Catherine seems to have a perpetual cold, and without her husband's income will have to struggle to get by. Once onboard ship, Robert is shocked when he learns that Catherine has joined the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service). In the three years that they are separated, the Wilsons mature - and begin to wonder if this Vacation from Marriage (1945) should be a permanent one.

Filmed during the war (TCM article), this movie paints a picture of the results of war-related separation on a marriage. We'll see something similar in America in 1946, with The Best Years of Our Lives, where we are introduced to the three couples whose relationships have been altered by years of division, and the requisite responsibilities that the parties need to assume. In Vacation from Marriage, we are introduced to one couple whose marriage is already troubled before the war. Being independent and forced to face a world turned upside down, the two are forced to grow. But neither is aware that the other has matured as well. Thus, any reunion is going to result in a horrible tension for individuals who are no longer the persons they once were. 

Quite frankly, the Wilsons are initially dull and uninteresting. To quote Henry David Thoreau, they "live lives of quiet desperation." Robert hates his boring office job; his stomach is an ongoing problem, requiring bland foods. Catherine, a stay-at-home wife, is always sick; at the same time, she lives her life to please her husband - her constant reply to change is that "Robert wouldn't like it." Four years of marriage has made them into ghosts who go through life on autopilot. Whatever love they felt for one another has deteriorated into a routine of sameness. They are together because they are used to being together.
It's likely that Catherine joins the Wrens merely from financial necessity, but she finds a purpose in the work that she assumes. Deborah Kerr is almost unrecognizable in the early scenes, so plainly is she made up. Ms. Kerr is able to make the gradual changes to Catherine very believable. It is obvious that, by contributing to the war effort, Catherine begins to find the self-worth that she lost as a housewife. And she quickly realizes that she cannot go back to the life - and the man - she left behind.

Similarly, Robert Donat goes from milquetoast to assertive seaman as he too finds his wings. Like Ms. Kerr, he shows the steady growth of the character; the communication with his wife in the three years they are apart are sent to the woman he left behind. Neither reveals anything about their new lives to the other, creating a disconnect. Then again, how do you tell your spouse by mail that you've become someone else?
There is a grittiness to the story: it's very dark because most of the the scenes are at night. Even when they go into pubs or nightclubs, they are dimly lit; it accentuates the danger inherent in the wartime atmosphere - the night is the time of the bombings that are devastating London.

Our one breath of fresh air to the sorrow we feel for the Wilsons is Glynis Johns as Catherine's new friend, Dizzy Clayton. Dizzy is funny and upbeat. Ms. Johns is excellent as someone who (in spite of the fact that her fiance is also overseas) brings humor to the character. Dizzy may be changing as well with her new responsibility, but as a person, she tries to maintain her humanity; you know that she and her fiance will have a future together after the war's end.
In the US, an introduction was added, with an uncredited Peter Lawford providing the narration. The film also marks the first (uncredited) role for Roger Moore as a soldier.  The movie is based on a story by Clemence Dane (who also wrote A Bill of Divorcement). Ms. Dane won an Oscar for original story. 

Filmed primarily in London (AFI Catalog) (where it was called Perfect Strangers), it did well there, though it was not really successful in the U.S..  Reviews here were very mixed. For example, the  New York Times review was quite complimentary, admiring the leads and the supporting players alike in a story they called an "oft-told tale ...[told] easily and well," while Variety's review was scathing.

We'll leave you with a clip of the not-so-happy couple parting for their various war work, and a suggestion that you give this one a viewing:

Monday, February 11, 2019

Cary Joins the Royal Flying Corps

Jerry Young (Fredric March) is an American flyer during World War I. Stationed in England with his colleagues Mike Richards (Jack Oakie) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant), the team is eager to get to France and see some action. But when they get their orders,Young finds that the emotional and physical toll is more than he counted on. Our film this week is The Eagle and the Hawk (1933).

This is not a film for the faint at heart. It's tough-minded and there is nothing uplifting about it. Every second of it is a condemnation of war and its barbarity. It's also well-paced and to the point - in a brief 73 minutes we learn all we need to know about the life of this flyer squadron in general and about Jerry Young in particular.

Fredric March is excellent as a man who is much too good at his job, and who is tormented by the demons of those who he has killed or have died with him.  Early in the film, he is devil-may-care - excited to begin fighting the good fight, as he sees it. But, much like the men in The Way to the Stars (1945), that eagerness doesn't last long, and in Jerry's case, gives way to horror and despair.

One scene that is especially striking occurs late in the film. Jerry is on R&R, and is attending a dinner party in the home of a wealthy family. After being bombarded by congratulations on his kill record and on his bravery, he attempts to leave. However, more is in store - the wife of the family brings down her small son, a lad of about 8 who wants to know all about the war. "Don't you like to kill the enemy" "What do they look like when they fall? Are they on fire? Do they explode with a great, big bang?" the eager child inquires. The look of revulsion on March's face tells us all we need to know of the agony he is experiencing.

This is a very early effort in Cary Grant's career, and so the character we get is very different than the actor we are used to from his later films. Henry can come across as petulant at times, but Grant is able to demonstrate Crocker's resentment and anger at what he feels is a bias on Jerry's part. Crocker is NOT an attractive character - in one scene, we watch as he shoots at an enemy pilot who has parachuted from a disabled plane. At the same time, it's hard to argue with his rationale - a dead man is not going to kill either Crocker or his colleagues. In the end, we appreciate the grudging respect that Jerry and Henry have for one another; but where Henry feels that morals have no place in war, Jerry cannot disassociate from his ethical code, no matter the cost. Mr. Grant was not originally cast in the part - it was intended for Gary Cooper, who had to bow out due to conflicts (AFI catalog).
Carole Lombard had already appeared in 37 silent and sound films, including The Racketeer and No More Orchids, both starring roles. Her work here is very short - she is only in about two scene, both towards the end of the movie. Regardless, the scenes are crucial in better understanding Jerry Young. Ms. Lombard's character doesn't even have a name - she is billed as The Beautiful Lady - however you will remember her after the film ends. Importantly, these are not the start of a romance, rather, it is a woman who comprehends far too well what this soldier is going through, and who seeks a way to relieve his pain, albeit temporarily. Ms. Lombard had hoped for more to do in the film; alas it was not to be (TCM article). The next year, she would finally get the opportunity to show her comedic chops in Twentieth Century; her real breakthrough was in My Man Godfrey in 1936.

Jack Oakie spent much of his career in comedies; while Mike gets the humorous lines, his part is in no way comedic. None of us were particularly fans of Mr. Oakie, but he's very good in this role. It is perhaps the kind of part he should have had more of an opportunity to perform.

Most of the reviews were positive: The New York Times,  The Hollywood Reporter, and the blog all expressed their regard for the film. Only Variety logged complaints. We wondered if this film might have had an impact on the pacifism that kept the U.S. out of World War II until 1942. It surely is a film that makes it clear that war is pointless.

We'll leave you with this scene between Mr. March and Ms. Lombard.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Dorothy Marries a Steel Boss

When steel magnate Arthur Parker (Robert McWade) brings his steel boss to his home for dinner, his wife, Henrietta (Florence Roberts) is insulted, and his daugher, Dorothea (Dorothy Mackaill) is amused; both expect an unkempt worker who will slurp his soup. But Dot is rapidly converted when she meets Richard Brunton (Joel McCrea); she almost immediately decides to marry him. But there is a problem; Dick is poor and is decidedly opposed to Kept Husbands (1931).

This is not a great movie, but it has some nice moments, thanks to its strong cast. Dorothy Mackaill does a good job of portraying a selfish, greedy brat of a girl, who is more interested in her own satisfaction than in the needs of anyone else, including her husband. There are times that it is hard to believe that Dot truly loves Dick, though Ms. Mackaill makes it quite clear that Dot is definitely in lust for the hunky steel boss. She plays Dot as thoroughly spoiled, and quite used to getting her own way by any means possible. Watching Ms. Mackaill summon up phony tears to play on Mr. McCrea's emotions is a pleasure; her delivery is perfect. Also amusing is the wedding night scene (remember, this is a pre-code film!)
Joel McCrea is excellent as Dick. He's a man with ambitions, who knows that wealth comes from being productive, and he is willing to pay his dues to reach the top. He genuinely loves Dot, but is thrown by the contradictions of this woman who claims to love him, but is unwilling to let him be anything but her lapdog. It's interesting that Dot falls in love with a man much like her father (who states that he is "the only one in this family that works") but then tries to change that husband into a layabout. When the final confrontation happens, you want him to stand his ground. We favorably compared Dick to Gene Raymond's character in The Bride Walks Out - Dot's wealth is not the sticking point. It is her insistence that he abrogate his career and dreams, and become a parasite on her and her father that is the issue. (We would argue with this TCM article that the film is less about taking down the heiress than showing that hard work is important, whether you are wealthy or not).

There are several noteworthy supporting actors in this film. Ned Sparks as Hughie is amusing at times, but after a while becomes an annoyance.  We liked Mary Carr as Dick's mother, Mrs. Brunton. She's sweet (though by the end, she is a bit too oblivious to what is going on with her son and daughter-in-law). Ms. Carr had a lengthy career during the silent era (unfortunately, many of those films are currently lost). She worked from the beginning of sound (1928) through 1956 (when she played a Quaker woman in Friendly Persuasion). Five of her children with silent film director William Carr went on to show business careers (son Thomas was a prolific film and television director). When Ms. Carr found herself nearly destitute after silent films ended, her friends in the film industry found her jobs. She died at the age of 99, in 1973.
Clara Kimball Young  (Mrs. Lucille Post) returned to film after a six-year absence with this, her first talkie (AFI catalog). She had her own company during the silent era (Women Film Pioneers Project), though there was involvement on the part of her husband, James Young, and her lovers Lewis J. Selznick and Harrry A. Garson (her eventual ex-husband would attack Mr. Garson with a knife in 1917). After this film, she primarily appeared in westerns, and in 1956, she was a correspondent for the Johnny Carson's first television show. She died in 1960, at the age of 70.

In the end, we did enjoy this film. It's not the best film that either Joel McCrea or Dorothy Mackaill ever made, but it's interesting - with the caveat that you may want to throttle Dot or her mother at various points in your viewing. At 70 minutes, it's worth a look if you are interested in pre-code films or in seeing silent stars like Clara Kimball Young and Mary Carr. (By the way, it lapsed into the Public Domain and is available for viewing on the Internet Archive).

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Kay's On Broadway

Fay Carter (Kay Francis) was born in a trunk. She's spent her life acting and touring the country; first with her actor/father, later on her own. She is determined to build a career on Broadway, but the only parts she are offered are tours. A chance meeting with Peter Snowden (Ian Hunter) may change all that. Peter yearns to produce a Broadway play, and he may have just found the actress to help him succeed. Our film this week is  Secrets of an Actress (1938).

We really enjoyed this film. It's compact (a mere 70 minutes) with excellent acting, a bit of drama, and a dash of comedy for Ms. Francis (who, as we mentioned in our review of The Cocoanuts is quite a good comedienne). If we had any complaint at all is that we would have liked the film to be a bit longer. A little more backstory, especially for Carla (Gloria Dickson) and Dick Orr (George Brent), as well as for Fay would have been welcome.

Ms. Francis, though, has a choice part. She gets to be the straight woman for Isabel Jeans (as the frequently inebriated Marian Plantagenet), be lovelorn with George Brent, and assertive with Ian Hunter. Fay is one of her richer characters - well drawn by the writers, a strong, talented woman who is interesting and attractive to both the audience and to her leading men. It's quite easy to see why both Peter and Dick are drawn to her. She has pizzazz! (For an excellent overview of Ms. Francis, both in this film, and through her career, see this TCM article).
Gloria Dickson as the villainess is also quite good. When Ms. Dickson is on the screen, you cannot take your eyes off her. Her delivery is sharp, and her demeanor has just the right touch of self-assured nastiness. We were not familiar with Ms. Dickson, who made a total of 23 pictures between 1937 and 1944. We'd seen her before as Dolly in Lady of Burlesque (1943), but she frankly didn't make an impression. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 28 when a fire (caused by a cigarette setting fire to a sofa) engulfed her house.
Isabel Jeans as the hard-drinking Marian became rather wearing after a few scenes.  The character's drinking could have been toned down a bit, which would have made her much more appealing. Her binges don't add a lot to the film; it's hard to understand what the writers were thinking. Regardless, the relationship between Marian and Fay is well done - they come across as really good friends; we did wonder how long Fay will be able to tolerate Marian in her cups.  In the end, we would have preferred less of Marian and more of Ian Hunter and George Brent.

There did seem to be one continuity issue. Early in the film, we see Dick ask Carla for a divorce (before he meets Fay). But later, when questioned why he has never asked for a divorce, he says there  is no point. We wondered if the censors insisted that the earlier scene be included to emphasize that a physical marriage no longer existed between the couple.  It did bother us that Dick didn't tell Fay that  he was married - Mr. Brent plays him as an upstanding guy. By hiding the marriage, the audience loses sympathy for him.
The film had two working titles before release: Lovely Lady and The Woman Habit (AFI catalog). It has gorgeous sets by Anton Grot and exquisite gowns by Orry-Kelly.  While Warner's was already starting to (undeservedly) sour on Ms. Francis, they do provide her with a lovely setting for the film. The Complete Kay Francis Career Record: All Film, Stage, Radio and Television by Lynn Kear, John Rossman call the film "uneven." While this is a fair evaluation, this is still a film worth a viewing.  Here is a trailer to whet your appetite.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Dana's on Trial

Writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) attends an execution with his future father-in-law, crusading newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). Spencer has been advocating for the repeal of the death penalty, because of his belief that circumstantial evidence is being used to convict people unjustly. He and Tom come up with an idea - they will concoct evidence against Tom regarding the recent murder of a hooch dancer named Patti Grey. Once Tom is convicted and sentenced, Spencer will come forward with the information that will show it was a setup, and that the conviction could not have been Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).

I try very hard to avoid spoilers in the films we discuss; quite frankly, this is a hard one. The main reason being that the film seems to be going along on a traditional plain. You are sure you know where it is going and how it will end. And then everything hits the fan, and you are gobsmacked to find you were completely wrong.  Our group went into this film knowing very little about it, and we were glad; the beauty of the film is in the surprise towards the end.
Dana Andrews is excellent as the writer who is attempting to bring down a District Attorney (Philip Bourneuf  as Roy Thompson). He's treading a fine line in the film, and he does it beautifully. You would never believe that he was in the midst of an alcoholic crises that resulted in his arriving at the studio late with immense hangovers and after automobile accidents (Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews by Carl Rollyson). It would take awhile, but Mr. Andrews was able to control his illness by the late 1960s. In 1972, he became a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and was able to say he had not had a drink in four years (New York Times).
We were not as impressed with Joan Fontaine (Susan Spencer).  Susan is a decidedly unappealing character - she's spoiled, she's unemotional; Ms. Fontaine seems stiff and uncomfortable in the role.  One never feels any love between her and Tom. When she reads a newspaper article that shows him slumming with exotic dancer Sally Moore (Barbara Nichols), Susan is offended that Tom has publicly embarrassed her. She seems far less concerned that he is sleeping with another woman. Ms. Fontaine holds the character distant from everyone, and Susan is uninterested in anything that requires thinking. With a father as intelligent as Austin Spencer, one expects a daughter more like Polly Fulton in B.F.'s Daughter. What Ms. Fontaine gives us is an enigma who cares for nothing.
While one is never sure of the motives of Roy Thompson, Jonathan Wilson (Shepperd Strudwick) and Bob Hale (Arthur Franz) are portrayed as lawyers who are honorable. The discussions between Hale and Thompson in particular, are fascinating, and display Bob's ethics in contrast with Roy's ambitions.

This was director Fritz Lang's final film in America (TCM article). In fact, film editor Gene Fowler, Jr. put the film together with Lang's instructions - the director had already left the country. The director of M (1931) and Fury (1936) would make three more films in Germany; after which he essentially retired. Upon retirement, he returned to Los Angeles, where he died in 1976, at the age of 85.
Before Bert Friedlob acquired the script, Ida Lupino had intended it as a vehicle for herself, Howard Duff and Joseph Cotton (AFI Catalog). Unfortunately, the film didn't do well on release and received mixed reviews. Variety called it a "melodrama [that] never really jells." The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, however, praised the "forceful" Mr. Andrews and said that "this a fairly intriguing and brain-teasing mystery film."

In recent years, the film has been discussed in a more positive light, as is demonstrated by these articles in Cineast and The Guardian.  It was remade in 2009 with Michael Douglas as the prosecutor.

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film. Try to avoid spoilers before you view this movie. You'll appreciate the surprise.

Monday, January 14, 2019

About Marsha Hunt

On a recent trip to New York City, I was able to catch a screening of a documentary. Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity (2015) was directed by Roger C. Memos, and is a tribute to Ms. Hunt (who turned 101 October 2018) both as an actress and an activist. With interviews of colleagues, friends, and admirers, this film is a must-see for classic film aficionados, as well as individuals who work to make the world a better place.

Marsha Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917, and her family moved to New York City when she was a small child. After graduating from high school (Horace Mann in the Bronx), she had decided to pursue an acting career (Her family wanted her to attend college, but she felt it was a waste of time - she couldn't take any theatre courses until she was in her third year). Ms. Hunt started as a model; by 1935 she had signed an acting contract with Paramount Studios, where she was immediately cast in romantic lead roles. She grew bored with those kinds of parts, and asked Paramount for more character-driven stories. Paramount was not sympathetic; by 1938 she was no longer with the studio. She later signed with MGM, where among other roles, she appeared as Mary in Pride and Prejudice (1940).
Ms. Hunt discussed her disillusioning experience in auditioning for the role of Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939). Assured by David O. Selznick that he had "found his Melanie" after her audition, the following day the trades announced the casting of Olivia de Havilland. She also talked about her favorite part, the film that is often called the first movie to speak of the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). Ms. Hunt recently discussed the film at the 2018 TCM Film Festival.

When the writers who would eventually be tagged the Unfriendly Ten were summoned to appear before Congress, Ms Hunt was part of the contingent - The Committee for the First Amendment - that traveled to Washington DC to stand in solidarity with them. As a result (and despite years of war-related work during World War II), Ms. Hunt was eventually blacklisted. During this period, she began appearing on Broadway, ultimately appearing in six plays between 1948 and 1967.  

She also began working as an activist - first as a protege of Eleanor Roosevelt in support of the United Nations. Even today, at age 101, she continues to advocate in causes centered around homelessness, mental health, and hunger.
I felt privileged to be able to see this excellent film. Mr. Memos is still working to get venues to show it, and it should be seen, along with Ms. Hunt's wonderful films. We've discussed her in our comments on Lost Angel and Blossoms in the Dust, and hope to view more of her work. If you know of a venue that would be able to view the documentary, do contact Mr. Memos. A review of the film is available in the Los Angeles Times. Should you be able to catch a screening, please go - you're in store for a wonderful and enlightening experience.