Monday, October 22, 2018

John Joins the RAF

Peter Penrose (John Mills) arrives at a military base, prepared to take on duties of an RAF flyer during World War II. He meets David Archdale (Michael Redgrave), his new roommate, and the two become fast friends. David is courting "Toddy" Todd (Rosamund John), while Peter is dating Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson). But what will be the effect of the war on their relationships. Our film this time out is The Way to the Stars (1945) [titled Johnny in the Clouds in the United States].

This is a quiet film, which portrays the work of the RAF pilots with sympathy and dignity. It opens after the war has ended. The barracks are deserted; there is a sadness and desolation in the abandoned airbase. Did we not know better, we might assume that the war was lost (you can view the opening in the clip below). This scene reminded us of the moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when Fred Derry finds the airfield of derelict planes. There is the same sense of a lost past.

We then fade back to 1940, and the arrival of our protagonist, Peter. At this juncture in the film, there is some joy. These men are committed to what they need to do, and look at it as the great adventure of their lives. It's not long before Mr. Mills is showing us, primarily through his reactions, that there is no adventure in their duties - just pain and loss. Sure, this is an English film, and there is a bit of "stiff upper lip" but it is clear that this stoicism is required to do the job, not because Mr. Mills or Mr. Redgrave are unaware and unafraid.
The film uses the arrival of Americans as a contrast to the English soldiers.  Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano) begins as the original ugly American. He is the epitome of phrase "over-paid, over-sexed, over-fed, and over here." His friend, Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) is more sedate, and is embarrassed by his friend's bravado. But like their British counterparts, the American soon discover that their boasts of taking the German's down quickly are just that - idle talk. They begin to take on the sobriety of their UK colleagues, and even apologize for their vainglory.

We've seen Douglass Montgomery before; we was using the name Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge (the studio didn't want him confused with Robert Montgomery), but when he left America to live in the UK, he went back to his own name. We were not impressed with him in his earlier film, but he is quite good here. Johnny has a dignity and ease that Mr. Montgomery makes apparent. He loves his wife and son, he also cares about the people he meets in England. He becomes the symbol of the caring American that Joe Friselli will need to emulate.
The credits make it clear that the film is written with some experience behind it. Terrence Rattigan, the screenwriter, was himself an RAF tail gunner. Scenario writer Richard Sherman was a Captain in the military (assumedly, the US as he was American). But all the participants had experienced the war firsthand. This TCM article describes an incident in which Mr. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith experienced a bombing raid.

The Way to the Stars introduced two future stars: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard both have small roles in the film. Also new to film was Bonar Colleano; he too was introduced in the film, but his career ended prematurely with his early death in 1958 in an auto accident. The film also features appearances by many notable English actors, including Stanley Holloway (Mr. Palmer) (who would become best known to American audiences as Mr. Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964)), Felix Aylmer (Reverend Charles Moss), Basil Radford (Tiny Williams) (probably remembered as the cricket aficionado Charters in The Lady Vanishes (1938)), Joyce Carey (Miss Winterton) and Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton).
The film is also exceptional in that it is a war film that never shows you the war. We see the aftermath of the battles, not the battles themselves. And the only scene that really shows the machinery of war at all is one of Johnny in his airplane. Even the romances of the piece focus on them within the context of the war. The Way to the Stars is careful to not lose the focus. This is about men at war - it is not about the war, nor is it about their love-lives. It is a story of survival, pure and simple.

Though the film was not successful in the U.S. (and is mostly forgotten here today), it is well regarded in the U.K. (See his BFI Screenonline discussion for the British view of the film today) and did well there on its release.

We really recommend that you give this The Way to the Stars a viewing. As promised, here is the opening of the film, with the abandoned barracks of 1946 and the arrival of the troops in 1940:

Monday, October 15, 2018

Lucy's in the Corner

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), recently relocated from San Francisco to New York City, has opened a private detective agency with Kathleen Stuart (Lucille Ball) working as his secretary. He is visited by Lt. Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley) and warned to keep out of trouble. But trouble is following Brad; he's being shadowed by Stouffer (William Bendix), an unpleasant character who it appears has been hired by Anthony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).  Jardine is a disreputable man who likes to use people and then blackmail them. Welcome to the world of The Dark Corner (1946)

If you've only seen Lucille Ball play the daffy Lucy Ricardo, you are in for a treat.  Kathleen, as portrayed by Ms. Ball is one smart cookie - smarter, in fact, than her boss, the private eye. She's also a lot calmer under pressure; she is witty and determined. Reviews quoted in Loving Lucy: An Illustrated Tribute to Lucille Ball by Bart Andrews and Thomas J. Watson attest to the fact that her efforts here were not wasted: Variety called her performance "tops" and the Los Angeles Examiner said that "given half a chance [she] demonstrates a quality of work that is all too rare in pictures."  High praise indeed! She almost didn't get the part, though. Ida Lupino was originally cast, but scheduling conflicts kept her from appearing. (AFI Catalog) Sadly, the film was not a happy experience for Ms. Ball (TCM article); she did not get along with director Henry Hathaway, who bullied her terribly. 
Clifton Webb (Hardy Cathcart) seems to have been given the Waldo Lydecker part from Laura. Like Waldo, Cathcart is ascerbic, opinionated, and obsessed with beauty. Here, it takes the form of his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), who, quite frankly doesn't appear to have two brain cells to rub together. She's no match for Mr. Webb, who dominates the scenes they are in (he should, really). But her acting is just not there, and she fades quickly into the background of the film, when compared to the talents of Mr. Webb and Ms. Ball.
Mark Stevens was also a second choice for the role of Brad - Fred MacMurray was suggested initially. It is interesting that Mr. Stevens gets fourth billing in the credits (as seen above), because it IS the lead role. He is decent as Brad, but he has the same problem as Ms. Downs - it's hard to shine when you are working with performers like Ms. Ball, Mr. Webb, and William Bendix. His skills as an actor are not as great as theirs, and as a result, he isn't particularly memorable. He proved to be a reliable actor, with a career that spanned radio, film, and television (He also played Olivia de Havilland's husband in The Snake Pit).

William Bendix is decidedly creepy as Stouffer (or White Suit, as Brad un-affectionately calls him). He's a sweaty mess of a man, with no scruples and a vicious streak a mile-wide. His presence in the film, and his exit from it are both memorable. He provides an excellent foil to the equally evil but far more intelligent Cathcart. Mr. Bendix began his film career in 1942, primarily playing supporting parts such as Gus in Lifeboat (1944). By the 1950s, he had starting moving to television, where he was best known as the title character in The Life of Riley. Mr. Bendix was married for 37; he died in 1964 of pneumonia, having appeared in over 90 films and television episodes/shows.
A highly regarded film noir (see these articles in Slant and in Noir of the Week for contemporary discussions of the film), The Dark Corner was based on a story that appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine by Leo Rosten (he also wrote Captain Newman, M.D.) Ms. Ball and Mr. Stevens would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre production in November 1947.  Screen Guild Players also produced a version starring Howard Duff and Claire Trevor in May 1952.

This is a really good film, and worth a viewing. Here's a trailer to whet your appetite:

Monday, October 8, 2018

Barbara has a Whip

The Bonell Brothers, Griff (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix) ride into Tombstone, Arizona with a warrent for the arrest of Howard Swain. Working for the U.S. Attorney General, former gunfighter Wes is not interested in the problems local Marshal John Chisolm (Hank Worden) is having with Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), the out-of-control brother of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the political force in the territory.  But when Brockie attacks Marshall Chisolm, Griff finds himself going head-to-head against Brockie, and by extension, Jessica and her Forty Guns (1957).

Originally titled Woman with a Whip, this is an interesting movie with a decent plot and an excellent cast who play well together. Barbara Stanwyck is in top form as Jessica. She is tough, and she is feminine; she makes it easy to understand why men both love and fear and respect her. It's not her forty gunslingers; it's Jessica herself who is a power to recon with. Interestingly, Stanwyck had SOME competition for the role. Marilyn Monroe, who was a contract player at 20th Century Fox badly wanted the part. Director Samuel Fuller wanted Stanwyck, and he won the day (TCM article). As an aside, Ms. Stanwyck did her own stunts, including one in which she is dragged several feet by a horse - a stunt that the stunt personnel would not do. In fact, Ms. Stanwyck redid the stunt 3 times, until Mr. Fuller was satisfied with it.
Barry Sullivan is good in the film - his stiffness works as stoicism, and he is able to handle the scenes between him and with Ms. Stanwyck well. Their romance has just the right amount of edge to convey strong individuals who click (See this discussion of some of the sexual byplay in this Slant review). He also handles the transition of Griff from stern control to subdued rage. And his rapport with Gene Barry is good. 

Mr. Barry brings humor to the role of Wes; his compatibility with Eve Brent, playing gunsmith Louvinia Spangler (Ms. Brent would later appear in a pair of Tarzan films as Jane, opposite Gordon Scott) is quite sexy. Wes is another man who like his women strong. His comment that he's never had a woman make a gun for him before is tinged with innuendo.
Robert Dix does a nice job of showing growth in the character of Chico. He manages to mature from an impetuous kid to a mature, thoughtful man. Mr. Dix is still acting - he'll be appearing in The Last Frankenstein sometime this year. John Ericson, however, retired in 2008; he makes Brockie a sociopath, though sometimes the character is a bit over the top. Ziva Rodan, in the small role of Rio (blink and you'll miss her), retired to Israel in the late 1960s. She's since returned to California (though not to acting).

Given the respect so many critics have for Samuel Fuller, this film is highly regarded by critics. The Slant review, cited above and this Senses of Cinema article praise his skill both with the script and with the camera. Mr. Fuller had a very different ending of the film in mind; the studio however, over-road him - they deemed his concept too harsh( AFI catalog). While Mr. Fuller's proposed ending really horrified us, we didn't like the one he chose either. We felt that he weakened Jessica, and that with a slight change, she would have remained the strong woman we so admired.
Jessica comments in this film on her age (some statements have been made that Ms. Stanwyck was too old for the part. We beg to differ). But age would be a factor for her career from now on. Ms. Stanwyck would not make another film until Walk on the Wild Side four years later (Barbara Stanwyck: Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan) in which she is decidedly supporting to Capucine. That would be followed by two more films, after which she moved into television where she was far more appreciated.
Filmed in Cinemascope (in black and white), the film is both gritty and beautiful. If this Variety review is any example, it was well received (especially since it was filmed for $300,000 in one week). A Criterion review of the Blu-Ray release also sings the praises of Mr. Fuller and Ms. Stanwyck. We'll leave you with this trailer, and a suggestion to visit Tombstone the next time the film is available:

Monday, October 1, 2018

George Finds a Body

Actress Mona Harrison (Adele Jergens) is expecting a package from costume designer Hector Rose. The package that arrives, C.O.D., which should have contained her Oscar ceremony dress, instead contains the body of Mr. Rose. Panicked, Mona calls reporter Joe Medford (George Brent), to make the body go away. But Joe has other ideas - after calling a photographer - and the police, Joe begins to investigate the murder, in hopes of a big scoop. But he has a slight problem in the form of Rosemary Durant (Joan Blondell), his competition on a rival newspaper. Our film this week is The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947)

We have here yet another film that wants to be The Thin Man, but isn't.  George Brent and Joan Blondell just don't have the chemistry required to make that happen. Excellent actors both, they just don't gel the way Myrna Loy and William Powell do; their's is a unique chemistry that just is not found in this film. Ms. Blondell and Mr. Brent were better matched in Miss Pinkerton, though that was more her film (this is centered on Joe). Ms. Blondell was not the first choice for Rosemary - Veronica Lake was considered for the role. (AFI Catalog)

That being said, The Corpse Came C.O.D. is not a bad movie. It could stand some editing (it is 87 minutes long. It wouldn't have hurt had it lost about 7-10 minutes). A running gag in which Ms. Blondell ends up locked in a closet goes on for way too long, and much of the slapstick is really unnecessary. There are also a number of missing transitions; for example, early in the film, Joe confesses to a colleague his deep love for Mona, yet by the middle of the film, he's discussing marriage to Rosemary. There's almost a whiplash effect when he says it. He's like Romeo - in love with Fair Rosamund, and two seconds later, passionate about Juliet. But Romeo has an excuse - he's only 16!

All that aside, you have a pretty good mystery story. The  motives are well designed, and the murderer is a surprise, without being completely from left-field. The story is based on a novel by Jimmy Starr, who wrote three Joe Medford novels in total (Hardboiled in Hollywood By David E. Wilt). We wondered if the studio was looking for another series, and it just didn't pan out. If you can ignore some of the silliness, and just concentrate on the mystery, you've got a pretty good whodunit.
Jim Bannon, who plays Detective Mark Wilson was best known as a Western actor, particularly in the role of Red Ryder.  By the 1950s, he had transitioned to television, but didn't really find a good venue. So, in the 1960s, he moved to Arizona, where he worked as a radio announcer (his career prior to moving into acting) and as host of an afternoon TV show.  He was married for 12 years to Bea Benaderet (they divorced in 1950); the couple had two children, including Jack Bannon, who you may remember from Lou Grant. Mr. Bannon, senior died in 1984 of emphysema, at the age of 73.

The opening sequences of the film, with stock footage of Hollywood and images of the various gossip columnists of the day was very entertaining, as were the nightclub scenes. While this isn't a great film, it has some moments, and if you happen to run into it, it might be worth a bit of your time.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Harry's Third Year

As young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is about to enter his third year at Hogwarts Academy, he is in trouble. Infuriated at Uncle Vernon's (Richard Griffiths) sister Marge (Pam Ferris) after she has insulted Harry's parents, he has literally blown her up. Though magic outside of school is forbidden to Hogwarts students, Harry is amazed that Minister Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is not the least concerned. But the Minister is worried that Harry was out on his own; later, Harry is warned to stick close to Hogwarts from Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams). Does all this have something to do with the recent escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison?

We had the opportunity to hear the score of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) played by the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap. The glorious music by John Williams is even more impressive with a full orchestra and choir behind the film. (Here's a sample of the song Double Trouble from the film itself). Added was a very enthusiastic audience, who showed their appreciation for the film - and for the orchestra. The crowd by and large stayed through the credits to listen to the NSO play the closing music.
Perhaps my favorite character in the Harry Potter novels is the most conflicted one - Severus Snape, as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman. I'm not the only one - his first appearance was greeted by loud applause, as was his name on the credits at film's end. As with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we still don't know why Snape is so disagreeable, but one scene towards the end is rather remarkable. Without injecting too many spoilers, our young heroes, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are in danger. Snape throws himself in front of the trio to protect them. Nothing is said, but it is a moment that foreshadows the future relationship of Harry and Snape.

This is Michael Gambon's first outing as Professor Dumbledore; he took on the role after the death of Richard Harris. Personally, I prefer Mr. Harris - he seems more like the rather whimsical Dumbledore of the books. But Mr. Gambon has a strength of character that makes you appreciate his role as Headmaster of the school. He is only in the film briefly, but he makes his presence felt.
Having seen the film several times, a new question arose about Aunt Petunia Dursley (Fiona Shaw). Given that she resents her late sister, Lily (Geraldine Somerville) and doesn't much like her nephew Harry, it's still hard to believe that she would allow her sister-in-law to call Lily a bitch with bad blood. At times, Petunia takes on the demeanor of an abused woman. She is so eager to please her rather nasty husband, that she allows all kinds of insults to be thrown in her direction. The scene ALMOST makes you feel sorry for her (almost).

I hope that we will be able to see more of these concert-driven films. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the film's trailer.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rita Gets Shot

Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938) is the question when the rather unpleasant singer (Rita Hayworth) is shot during a performance in the Swing Swing Club. Just before her murder, Gail called Inspector Tom Kellogg (Don Terry), so it’s up to him to find the killer.

Without being too snide, this film works primarily because it is short (it's 61 minutes). Though a few smoother transitions would have been helpful, it has a fast enough pace that you don't immediately notice the holes in the plot.  It's a B movie, with a cadre of actors who, with the exception of Ms. Hayworth, never made it out of Bs; like most B films, the sets on this are run of the mill, except for the club set where Ms. Hayworth stars. Called the Swing Swing Club, it's a prison setting, with the band and emcee wearing the striped garb of inmates and the guests seated in cells. One can almost see an imaginative set designer working with the scriptwriter to re-use a prison set within the film. It's quite an imaginative design.

In her approximately 20 minutes of screen time, Ms. Hayworth does a good job of making you loathe the nasty Gail. We're not sorry she is killed by the time she gets it (no spoiler here - the title tells you what is going to happen!). But there are a lot of red herrings scattered through the film that seemingly lead nowhere. If the screenwriters had ever talked to a police investigator, we'd be surprised. Gail's apartment, which should be under police protection after the murder is more like Grand Central Station than a crime scene - there are more people coming and going from it than from the nightclub!
The same year this was made, Ms. Hayworth had appeared in There's Always a Woman, where she made an uncredited appearance as a secretary. The following year, she played another villain in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. She still doesn't look quite like the Rita Hayworth we are used to. In this film, the studio decided to make her up to look more like Hedy Lamarr (who had just come out with Algiers, her first American picture). (AFI Catalog) And it is not Ms. Hayworth singing (it's Gloria Franklin); in fact, she only got to sing in her films once - the guitar solo in Gilda is actually her singing and playing the instrument. (TCM article).  

Ms. Hayworth unhappy life has been chronicled by biographer Barbara Leaming in If This is Happiness. Sexually abused by her father, threatened and prostituted by her first husband (Eddie Judson), cheated on by her second and third husbands (Orson Welles and Aly Khan), bankrupted and abused by her fourth husband (Dick Haymes, aka Mr. Evil), she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease in 1980. She died in 1987; she was 68. But she left us a legacy of magnificent performances, such as Virginia Brush in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Vera Prentice-Simpson in Pal Joey (1957), Rusty Parker in Cover Girl (1944), Doña Sol in Blood and Sand (1941), and, of course, Gilda. She was the first person to dance with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; truly, she was a remarkable performer on all levels.
One little incident we found interesting was the brief appearance of Gail's Maid (Mildred Glover). She's adamant in her unwilllingness to speak to the police. We realize quickly she is by no means stupid, in fact, she has rather a way with words.  But it seems pretty clear SHE is convinced that she will accused of the murder. Does she think she will be suspected because she is a woman of color?

The original title of the film was Murder in Swingtime (which might have been a better choice - it wouldn't have let us know the name of the victim before we entered the theatre!) It's an okay movie, with some clever bits, a little too much of the dumb police officer, but in the long run, not bad for a B film. If you are an aficionado of Ms. Hayworth, you may want to give it a viewing.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Clifton Leads the Band

Beginning during his tenure as leader of the Marine Corps Band, and continuing through the end of the Spanish-American War, the life of composer and band leader John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb) is the subject of our movie this week, the biopic Stars and Stripes Forever (1952).

This is a fun movie, primarily because of fine performances by Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner (Willie Little) and Ruth Hussey (Jennie Sousa), and the interspersion of Sousa's rousing marches. Much of the story about Sousa himself is accurate (the dates of the creation of certain of his marches are changed (The Great Composers Portrayed on Film, 1913 through 2002 by Charles P. Mitchell)), though the Lily Becker (Debra Paget)/Willie Little story is completely fictitious. It was inserted to add some romance to the plot, and probably because Mr. Sousa's life was not in the least tumultuous. After a successful period in the Marines, he went on to a hugely renowned career as a bandleader. He was happily married to his wife for 53 years (until his death in 1932), and had three children.  As pointed out by Jeanine Basinger in I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies "a marriage story is a screenwriter's nightmare.... Marriage had no story arc..." Thus, the Sousas relatively trouble-free union had little for the screenwriters to build on.
To give the story some spice, we have the insertion of Lily and Willie. Willie is an eager beaver who pursues everything - a job with Sousa, his relationship with Lily - with verve. He invents the Sousaphone to get a position with the Marine band (the Sousaphone was actually invented by J.W. Pepper, with input from Sousa, as a means of marching with a tuba. It was lighter and smaller, and the sound went OVER the heads of the other musicians, resulting in better music for the audience, and less chance of deafening the other marchers), pursues the career-driven Lily even when told that his wife cannot travel with him while he is with the band, and convinces Sousa that Lily is an asset to the band as a singer. Robert Wagner is delightful in the part. This was a huge role for him. He'd come to the attention of the public that same year with a small part in With a Song in My Heart, which resulted in his being cast here (Rory Calhoun had been an early choice.) (AFI catalog)
The women in the film - Debra Paget and Ruth Hussey - don't get a lot of screen time. Certainly Ruth Hussey is hardly present, but she makes the most of the screen time she is given. One particular scene, in which she plays piano for her husband's latest ballad, was delightful. Mr. Sousa wanted to write successful ballads (TCM articles), but he was obviously much better at marches; so, his wife begins to play his latest ballad to a much catchier march beat. Another scene involves Mr. Sousa observing Willie sneaking into Lily's train cabin. Ms. Hussey's blasé response is perfect. 

We weren't as impressed with Ms. Paget, who is okay as the volatile Lily. Most of the time, we really wanted her to relax a bit. However, a scene between her and Ms. Hussey is excellent, as the two women discuss men and marriage. June Haver was first choice for the part, but we suspect it is more the way the character is written than the actress' performance.
Which brings us to the star of the film, Clifton Webb. As always, he is excellent. We get to see him dance and sing (which is always a pleasure. As we mentioned in a prior post, Mr. Webb began his career as a professional ballroom dancer, and he had lost none of his ability in that area). Mr. Webb very much wanted this part, and the reviews and the success of the film must have been gratifying to him. There is a strength and warmth to his performance that makes Sousa quite endearing. (Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb)

We discovered that George Chakiris has an uncredited role as a Ballroom Dancer; blink and you'll miss him (we did). Stars and Stripes Forever was a critical and financial success, and propelled both Mr. Webb and Mr. Wagner into Titanic the following year. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film. It's certainly worth a viewing.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Lady Barbara

Charles Poncefort "Hopsy" Pike (Henry Fonda) has led a relatively sheltered life. The son of the Pike's Ale magnate (Eugene Pallette), he's been guarded all his life by the inimitable Muggsy (William Demarest). Having finally ventured out on his own, to research snakes in South America, Hopsy is now on his way home to Connecticut. While onboard ship he meets a trio of con artists:  "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), Gerald (Melville Cooper), and  Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck).  While Jean's initial goal is to fleece this lost lamb, she finds herself falling in love with him, a feeling that is mutual. But, when Hopsy discovers Jean's stock in trade, he dumps her. Determined to get her revenge, Jean invents The Lady Eve (1941).

If you have never seen The Lady Eve, please add it to your viewing queue immediately. You're in for a real treat. Besides the inimitable Ms. Stanwyck in one of her finest role, you also get Henry Fonda being totally adorable and a script without compare by director Preston Sturges. It's a win-win scenario!

Henry Fonda is in the unenviable position of portraying a character you really want to hate, but can't quite bring yourself to do it. Hopsy is so totally guileless that, even when he is wooing Lady Eve Sidwich with the same lines with which he wooed Jean, you just laugh at his inept lovemaking and forgive him. Of course, you also want Jean to give him is comeuppance. But with two actors who are so equally paired, they are both able to succeed.
Ms. Stanwyck is a sexy delight as the two ladies in Hopsy's life. The scene in which she tries to seduce him by allowing him to put on her shoes is magnificent. It's a wonder they got that and some of the more naughty dialogue past the censors. And her running commentary as she watches the ladies in the dining room lust after Hopsy is a hoot. It's next to impossible to imagine this film without her, but Ms. Stanwyck was not the first (or even the second choice) of the studio. They wanted Claudette Colbert; Madeleine Carroll and Paulette Goddard were also considered. But Mr. Sturges wanted Ms. Stanwyck, and thankfully he won the argument (AFI catalog). Ms. Stanwyck has the unique ability to make the audience (who is in on the joke) believe that Eve and Jean are distinct characters.
The studio also considered Brian Aherne, Fred MacMurray, and Joel McCrea for the role of Hopsy (TCM article), but again, Mr. Sturges was victorious and got his choice of Mr. Fonda. There is a lot of slapstick in this film - Hopsy takes a number of pratfalls - not something for which Mr. Fonda was known (sure, he'd done the screwball comedy; for example, The Mad Miss Manton with Ms. Stanwyck, but she's the screwball in that, not him). So, it was perhaps a risk to cast him in the part. But, frankly, he is perfect as the innocent abroad.
The quartet of supporting actors who grace the film are impressive. William Demarest, who must have been in the Preston Sturges stock company (he appeared in 8 of Mr. Sturges' films) is hysterical as the bodyguard/valet, Muggsy, who seethes with suspicion of anyone who approaches his charge. He's cagey though - he knows that Jean's father is not on the level; he's the only one who suspects that Eve is really Jean in disguise. But, his suspicious nature is also his downfall - like Cassandra, Muggsy's warnings go unheeded, to riotous effect.

Eric Blore  has a small part as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, or Pearly to his mates, one of Colonel Harrington's con artist pals. Mr. Blore is wonderful at looking exasperated, and does it quite well as he watches Eve get in deeper and deeper. We only get a few scenes with him - he's a device to get Jean into Hopsy's house, but he is always enjoyable.
From his entrance singing Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl, Eugene Pallette is also excellent as Charles' father. The only member of the family with any common sense, he plays Mr. Pike as an endearing, if somewhat exasperated individual (witness his frustration as he tries to get breakfast). I look forward to seeing him in films, though my recent discoveries about his private life are dismaying. A supporter of Adolf Hitler, he once refused to sit down at a table with actor Clarence Muse (TCM article) while filming In the Meantime, Darling, resulting in his firing by director Otto Preminger.  Mr. Pallette eventually retreated to Oregon to hide near his own personal bomb shelter. He would return to Los Angeles in 1948, after a two-year retreat, but he never worked again. He died of throat cancer at age 65, in 1954.

Last, but certainly not least is Charles Coburn.  Harry is a rogue, and Mr. Coburn makes no bones about it. He's willing to go against his daughter's wishes, the fleece an easy mark, but it is clear that he loves Jean dearly. One is never quire sure of Harry's motives, but one is sure of his personal integrity among his colleague.  As a result, we like him, though we would be very wary of playing cards with him.  For more on Mr. Coburn's life, visit our blog post from October 2, 2017.

The Lady Eve was based on a story Two Bad Hats by Monckton Hoffe. A radio version aired on the Lux Radio Theatre on March 1942 with Ray Milland and Barbara Stanwyck (For a discussion of Ms. Stanwyck's participation in this episode, see this article from Film Comment). It was remade as The Birds and the Bees (1956), starring Mizti Gaynor, George Gobel, and David Niven. (Having not seen this film, I won't comment, except to say, George Gobel? Really??)  In 1994, The Lady Eve was added to the National Film Registry; since then, it has appeared on two of the AFI Lists: it was #26 on 100 Years, 100 Passions and #55 on 100 Years, 100 Laughs.

We're going to leave you with the trailer from this highly enjoyable film. We'd also like to mention this Vanity Fair article on Preston Sturges which you might find interesting. If you've never seen this film, please do give it a try.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Rock is Obsessed

Robert Merrick (Rock Hudson) is afraid of nothing, and is constantly putting himself in jeopardy. When he finally manages to crack up his speedboat, his life is saved with the personal respirator of Dr. Wayne Phillips. But while Bob's life is being saved, Dr. Phillips suffers a heart attack, and there is no way to resuscitate him. Widow Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) are left to deal with the aftermath, with Helen forced to fend off the unwelcome attentions of the ever-on-the-prowl Bob. Our film for this week is Magnificent Obsession (1954).

If you don't like melodrama, you won't like this film. But, we do enjoy a good weeper and this is an excellent one. In his first major role, Rock Hudson is outstanding as the callow youth who needs a good kick to make him grow up (TCM article).  Early in the film, we are told that Bob attended medical school, only to drop out and assume the life of a dilettante in the wake of his father's sudden death.  We get no more information than that, but the way Mr. Hudson plays the scene speaks volumes about Bob's bitterness; a bitterness that resulted in his decision to devote his life to pleasure - something it seems his father never got to do. It is important that Mr. Hudson slowly grow his character, and he does so. With subtle allusions to the passing of time by director Douglas Sirk, we watch as Bob Merrick changes from a heel into an admirable human being.
Equally, Jane Wyman is terrific as a woman who loses her husband, only to find her entire life upended by the actions of one irresponsible human being.  Like Mr. Hudson, Ms. Wyman's character has to change, but the changes are more subtle. We need to understand why she is attracted to Bob Merrill (sure, she doesn't know who he is at first, but she is recently widowed, and was very much in love with her husband. Any new man should be a hard sell.). More importantly, we need to see her sacrifices as well thought out and not self-pitying. Ms. Wyman does that convincingly. Ms. Wyman was nominated for an Oscar for the part (losing to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl).

Agnes Moorehead (Nancy Ashford) is one of the great character actresses of her generation, and she gives a fine performance. Especially notable is her early scene with Rock Hudson, in which she lets him know that he is acting like a complete moron, but does it with professionalism.  Ms. Moorehead started her career in radio; her later involvement with Orson Welles Mercury Players led to her casting as Charles Foster Kane's mother in Citizen Kane (1940). She would go on to play nearly every kind of character - Humphrey Bogart's nemesis in Dark Passage (1947), Jane Wyman's rough-hewn Aunt Aggie in Johnny Belinda, Edward G. Robinson's loving wife in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), and the abused Madame Fosco in The Woman in White (1948). She did Broadway and regional theatre, but it was on television where she would finally make an indelible mark. A generation of viewers can't forget her memorable performance as a farm woman threatened by minature "Invaders" in The Twilight Zone. And then there is Endora on Bewitched. Take a look at her performance in the fourth episode of the series, "Mother, Meets What's His Name" When she asks Darrin (the ultimate idiot) "Why do you object to my daughter being herself?" you want to cheer. Her delivery is spot on (and you really want to shake Samantha for submitting to Darrin's domestic tyranny). Ms. Moorehead continued acting until her death of cancer in 1974 at the age of 73.
Also in the cast (and happily still with us) are Barbara Rush (who plays Joyce Phillips). Ms. Rush is 91. She was working until 2007, and since seems to have retired. Judy Nugent, who plays Helen's young friend, Judy, continued acting on film and television until 1978. Around the time she retired, she, husband Buck Taylor, and their three sons moved to Montana. They were divorced in 1983. In an interview for Western Clippings, Ms. Nugent stated this film was her favorite role.

Jane Wyman was not the first choice for Helen - Olivia de Havilland, Eleanor Parker, and Joan Crawford were considered for the part. Jeff Chandler was in the running for the role of Bob Merrick, and Charles Bickford was considered for the role of Edgar Randolph (the role would go to Otto Kruger). (AFI catalog)
The film is a remake of a 1935 film with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne (which was aired on Lux Radio Theatre in April of 1937, starring the film's leads). The New York Times did an excellent DVD review of 1935 and 1954 versions when Criterion released them as a set.  The film was such a success that the cast we reunited in All That Heaven Allows the following year.

This is a film that becomes richer with each viewing, and we encourage you to give it a try. We'll leave you with a trailer:

Monday, August 13, 2018

Humphrey Rides the Rapids

The Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) work as missionaries in Kungdu in German East Africa. When "jack of all trades, master of none" Charlie Allnut, skipper of The African Queen (1951) arrives with their mail, they discover that Britain is at war with Germany. Blithely believing that no war in Europe can affect them, they are stunned when German soldiers appear, kidnapping their parishioners, and burning down the village, church and all. The Reverend protests their treatment, and is struck on the head by a rifle butt; he becomes disoriented, and dies within a few day. When Charlie returns, he agrees to take Rose to safety. Only she has another idea - journey down the un-navigable river to Lake Tanganyika, and attack the German steamer Louisa.

We had the opportunity to see this wonderful film on a big screen as part of the ArcLight Presents series. A restoration of the technicolor film provided a glowing film, rich with the colors of Africa - for indeed The African Queen was filmed in Africa (for more on how the filming dealt with this on-location work, I suggest Katharine Hepburn's humorous account in The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind). But more than that, The African Queen is a pas de deux between Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
Though other actors appear in the film, notably Theodore Bikel as the First Officer on the Louisa and Robert Morley as Rose's pedantic brother, the bulk of the film centers on Rose and Charlie. There relationship starts as one of bare tolerance. Charlie finds the Sayers to be snobs, and Rose is revolted by Charlie's unkempt appearance and rumbling stomach. When circumstances force them together, Charlie is horrified at Rose's plan to attack the Germans (who wouldn't be!), and is convinced that a little bit of stress (like minor rapids) will convince this meek woman that her goals are impossible. But Hepburn's Rose is indomitable. "I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating," she marvels.

Katharine Hepburn credited the success of her performance to director John Huston. She first had a problem getting a handle on Rose. When  she spoke to Huston about it, he suggested that she pattern Rose after Eleanor Roosevelt (TCM article). One of my favorite lines in the film is delivered by Ms. Hepburn with pure Mrs. Roosevelt attitude - "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."
Hepburn was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for her performance (she lost to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire). John Huston and James Agee were also nominated for the screenplay (based on the C.S. Forester novel), and Huston was nominated for directing. Ms. Hepburn relates in her book that she found everything "divine" (that is, until members of the cast and crew started getting sick), much to Mr. Bogart's annoyance.

But the big winner of the night was Humphrey Bogart, finally winning his only Oscar (to great applause from the attendees that evening). Leaving toddler Stephen Bogart behind, Lauren Bacall ventured to Africa with her husband, who was allegedly miserable the whole time. (Bogart: In Search of My Father by Stephen Bogart and Gary Provost) However, he found some respite by teasing Ms. Hepburn - she (and her partner, Spencer Tracy) became fast friends with the Bogarts, and were among the last people to visit Mr. Bogart when he was dying of cancer. Mr. Bogart is amazing in the part - then again, he always is. He is able to grow the character and make it believable. The change in Charlie Allnut, from polite disregard of Rose, to abhorrence, to regard, to love, is so swift that, in the hands of a lesser actor, it would not be credible. With Bogart in charge, you buy it wholeheartedly.

Bogart would reprise his role for the Lux Radio Theatre in December 1952, with Greer Garson stepping in for Ms. Hepburn (AFI catalog). The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1994. It's also on multiple of the AFI lists: It was named #65 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10 Anniversary List (and #17 on the original list),  #14 on 100 Years, 100 Passions and #48 on 100 Years, 100 Cheers.

This is another film that you should run to see. Even on you television screen, it's an amazing film. We'll leave you with a trailer.