Monday, July 6, 2020

Rita Fascinates Orson

Told in flashback, our story begins as seaman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) is wandering the streets of New York City and happens upon a mugging. He rescues the victim (Rita Hayworth) from her attackers and returns her safely to her hotel. The next day, he is approached by Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a noted defense attorney, and is asked to accept a position on Bannister's yacht. The Lady from Shanghai (1948), it seems, is his wife, Elsa. Against his better judgement, Michael accepts the job so he can get closer to the tantalizing Elsa.

The reaction to the rather odd movie was mixed. One person said, having seen it, she would not choose to view it again. It can be cumbersome viewing it. The film feels like pieces are missing, and the viewer can get lost in the convoluted plot. This is not a surprise, since director Orson Welles planned a much longer movie that was cut drastically by Columbia (TCM article). The sections that were removed were destroyed at some point, so hopes for a director's cut are likely futile. Peter Bogdanovich in his commentary on the film, is eager to shift any blame for the film's defects away from Orson Welles and onto other parties, including Rita Hayworth. Mr. Welles' history as a director and producer demonstrate that he certainly is responsible for much of the film's problems.
Welles' opening narration sets the audience up to wonder at just what exactly Elsa Bannister is up to. Rita Hayworth does not disappoint as a seemingly demure, but somewhat shady character. Her voice, her mannerisms, her eyes all signal the duplicity of Elsa. The notorious hair cut and dye job which so irked Harry Cohn also help her to create this very cunning lady.  It's been said that she asked her then-husband Welles for the part - he wanted then unknown actress Barbara Laage, (Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius by Charles Higham) while Ida Lupino was also under consideration at one point (AFI Catalog). Though their marriage was crumbling when she agreed to take on the part of Elsa, she may have been trying to patch up the union, or at the very least assist Welles in providing child support for their daughter, Rebecca.  Sadly, the marriage still ended in November 1947, just around the time filming ended, exacerbated by Mr. Welles infidelities (Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Leaming). (AMC Filmsite). At the same time, a New Yorker DVD of the Week notes that Welles' many close-ups of Mr. Hayworth are loving in their attention to her.
Glenn Anders is appropriately creepy and revolting as George Grisby. He is well matched by Everett Sloane as the sly lawyer and husband. According to Mr. Bogdanovich, Mr. Welles decided to put him on crutches because he didn't like Mr. Sloane's walk. The effect of the crutches and the odd gait that Mr. Sloane affects is disquieting.

The film was shot on location in New York, San Francisco, and Acapulco, though one of the early scenes in New York really looks like a poorly designed set (other scenes are clearly of New York). The yacht scenes were filmed aboard Errol Flynn's boat, the Zaca, and it has been said that Mr. Flynn actually appeared in the film, though no one is sure exactly where he appears (Paula's Cinema Club).
Loosely based on the novel  If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King. Welles offered to direct it if Harry Cohen would give him $50,000 so his musical production of Around the World (with music by Cole Porter) could open (the production had run out of funds just before opening night, and they need to pay for the costumes) The rights to the book were owned by William Castle, who was an associate producer on the movie. It went through a number of titles before release including Black Irish If I Die Before I Wake, and Take This Woman.

The reviews at the time of release were poor, as is evidenced by this New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, who said that Mr. Welles "has a strange way of marring his films with sloppiness which he seems to assume that his dazzling exhibitions of skill will camouflage." As the years progressed, the regard for the film increased, as evidenced by this Irish Times discussion from 2014 and J. Hoberman's discussion of the film in the New York Times on its blu ray release. The Lady from Shanghai was added to the National Film Registry in 2018

This is an essential film - in a recent Noir Alley, Eddie Muller called it "a cinematic bombshell" and "the most daring, sinister, alluring, and combustible... mess ever released by a major studio."  You may love it or hate it, but it's one that should be seen. We'll leave you with this trailer: 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Howard, King of the Beggars

The Poet (Howard Keel) has come to the Baghdad marketplace to sell his poems. Discouraged by the lack of business, he sits to contemplate his situation and is given money. He has inadvertently taken residence in the place of Hajj the beggar. Not one to let a good opportunity pass him by, The Poet claims to be a relative of Hajj (who has gone to Mecca), and proceeds to set up shop and solicit alms. However, when he is kidnapped by the thief Jawan (Jay C. Flippen) and ordered to reverse Hajj's curse. The Poet discovers that everything in life is a matter of Kismet (1955).

Back in 2016, we viewed the non-musical Ronald Colman version of Kismet (1944). Also filmed in color, that version was a delightful fairy tale, with strong performances from Mr. Colman and Marlene Dietrich.  The musical version is much the same story, but it's hard to compare it to the earlier rendition, precisely because it is a musical. The addition of the lush score changes the whole dynamic of the film, making it a very different experience.

Howard Keel is excellent as The Poet. He's actually too young for the part - he is only nine years older than his "daughter," Ann Blyth (Marsinah). But he is so engaging and appealing you really don't care. If we had one complaint, it was that he doesn't get to sing the most exquisite song from the production, "Stranger in Paradise". That pleasure goes to Vic Damone (Caliph), who has a pleasant voice, but nowhere near the richness of Mr. Keel's bass-baritone. Mr. Keel was second choice for the part - Ezio Pinza was the original selection of Arthur Freed (TCM article).
After working in public relations, Howard Keel was hired as the understudy for John Raitt in Carousel - he would appear in the role while Mr. Raitt was on vacation. (PBS) He next became the replacement for Alfred Drake in Oklahoma! (Mr. Drake was the original Poet in Kismet). Mr. Keel would eventually appear in 6 Broadway plays. His breakout film role was as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun (1948), but his ultimate singing partner was Kathryn Grayson - they co-starred in Show Boat (1951) and Kiss Me, Kate (1953). After leaving MGM (following Kismet), he continued to appear on film and television; then in 1981, he became a regular on the television show Dallas as Clayton Farlow, Miss Ellie's second husband. He would continue with Dallas for the next 10 years; the show had the added benefit of introducing him to a new audience, and invigorating his singing career (though he never actually sang on the show!). Mr. Keel died in 2004, at the age of 85. (Guardian obituary)
Also outstanding is Dolores Grey; she makes Lalume into a sultry seductress, and her musical routines are memorable. It was surprising to learn that she was upset by the daylight shoot of the film, fearing it would show up flaws in her complexion (A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin). She need not have worried, She looks awesome.  Cyd Charisse was under consideration for the role (AFI catalog) and while she certainly had the dancing ability (let's face it, she could outdance anyone!), her singing was not at Ms. Gray's level.

Ann Blyth has a beautiful singing voice, and she is an excellent actress, but the part of Marsinah is so terribly small, she feels almost wasted. She does get to sing the lovely "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" and supports Vic Damone in "Stranger in Paradise".  She's at her best with Howard Keel - he gives her someone to bounce off. She's less engaged with Vic Damone, which is not her fault. He's stiff and flat when he is not singing, it's as though he thinks he making a record album. It probably didn't help that director Vincente Minnelli, usually an actor's best support, was downright unpleasant to Mr. Damone during the shoot. This was not a film Mr. Minnelli wanted to make; as a result, he went quickly, sometimes to the detriment of his actors (That Was Entertainment: The Golden Age of the MGM Musical by Bernard F. Dick). 
There are some interesting supporting parts worth a mention - Monty Woolley as Omar the merchant, who starts The Poet on his long, strange journey (this was his last film appearance). Sebastian Cabot as the Wazir, a wicked man plotting to line his own pockets at the expense of his Caliph. Mike Mazurki appears in the small role of a policeman. Jack Elam (Hasan-Ben), Jamie Farr (Orange Merchant), Ted de Corsia (Policeman), and Barrie Chase (Harem Dancer) also appear - some in parts that if you blink, you will miss them (but worth looking for!)

While being able to view the film on demand in your own home is wonderful, this Cinemascope production does lose some of its impact when shown on a small screen. One of our members commented that so much was going on, it was hard to concentrate on it as she watched on her computer monitor. It's a film that begs for a big screen revival.
Kismet had many lives, most of them as a straight play (see our post on the Ronald Colman film, linked above). The musical opened on Broadway in 1953, with Alfred Drake as The Poet,  Doretta Morrow as Marsinah, and Richard Kiley as Caliph (Neile Adams as a Dancer). It ran for 583 performances.

The New York Times review of the film by Bosley Crowther was lukewarm. It paled by comparison to the stage version, but did receive positive review for Mr. Keel and Ms. Gray, and for the  music. It had a Christmas release at Radio City Music Hall, but lost money for MGM.

Kismet is not a bad film - it could have been better, but is well worth seeing for Mr. Keel, Ms. Grey, and Ms. Blyth.  We'll leave you with a trailer:

Monday, June 22, 2020

Marilyn Joins the Chorus

May (Adele Jergens) and Peggy Martin (Marilyn Monroe) are Ladies of the Chorus (1949) in a burlesque theatre. When the star of the current show resigns, May is asked to take the lead role, but instead sends out daughter Peggy. An instant hit with the audience, Peggy also is has an unknown admirer who sends orchids to her every day. After a few weeks, Peggy's curiosity gets the better of her, and she decides to find out the identity of her mystery man.  She also finds love - and complications.

Nowadays, this film is remembered as a Marilyn Monroe film - her first "starring" role, in fact.  But when it was released (as you can see in the poster to the left), the "star" was actually Adele Jergens, and Ms. Monroe was given second billing. All that changed once Ms. Monroe became a phenomenon.  The title credits of the film were altered - Marilyn Monroe was listed above the title, and poster art featured her picture, not that of Ms. Jergens (as you can see below).  In 1949, this was a B picture that didn't rate big stars, and Ms. Monroe was certainly NOT a big star.  This was her first - and only - movie at Columbia Pictures (more on that later). But Ms. Monroe is used to good advantage in the pictures, and she is engaging as the ingenue.
The casting of the film is interesting - there is only nine years between the mother and daughter (Ms. Jergens was only 31). The studio makeup people put a little grey in her hair to make the alleged age difference more convincing. Regardless, the two worked well together and were quite friendly, with Ms. Jergens becoming very protective of her younger co-star (TCM article). Their easy rapport is evident in the film and adds to the audience's enjoyment.

Adele Jergens worked as a model, a chorus girl, a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, and a performer and understudy for Gypsy Rose Lee in the Broadway review Star and Garter. When Ms. Lee was ill, Ms. Jergens was able to step in, which led to a contract with Columbia. While there, she appeared primarily B movies (The Guardian). The year this film was released, she met her future husband (they were together for 40 years, until his death), Glenn Langan on the set of Treasure of Monte Cristo. After the birth of her son, she returned to work, primarily television, retiring from performing in 1956. She died of pneumonia at the age of 84, a year after her only son died of a brain tumor.
This was Marilyn Monroe's only Columbia film. It's been said that Harry Cohn propositioned her, and Ms. Monroe declined. Cohn, not noted for being a beneficent boss, cancelled her contract (Marilyn Monroe: Her Films, Her Life by Michelle Vogel). The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, once she became known, Columbia capitalized on her appearance in the film and changed the billing (as previously mentioned) (AFI catalog). This, by the way, is not the breathy Marilyn of later pictures - she's not yet the sexpot into which she would be molded.
The film really belongs to the women in the cast, including Nana Bryant as Adele Carroll, our hero's mother. Without giving too much away, her performance is a majro reason that this movie is a fun ride. Her actions take what could have been a really trite weeper and turn it into a delightful romance. 

We do have a couple of male performers. Rand Brooks (Randy Carroll), best remembered today as Charles Hamilton (Scarlett's first husband in Gone with the Wind) is fine as the enamored society gent. He is very convincing in his big scene with May (asking for Peggy's hand in marriage).  Eddie Garr (Billy Mackay) only has a few scenes as the man in love with May.  Mr. Garr is probably best remembered today for being the father of actress Teri Garr.
There is one fairly inane scene in which Dave and Alan Barry play decorators Ripple and Ripple Jr.  It wants to be a burlesque routine, but it really is just silly. Otherwise, this is an enjoyable film, and a chance to see Marilyn Monroe as you will never see her again.  

We'll leave you with with scene of Ms. M singing:

Monday, June 15, 2020

Vincent's House is Haunted

Millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) is having a haunted house part for his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). He has invited five strangers to the House on Haunted Hill (1959), with the understanding that he will pay them each $10,000 for spending a night. Once the doors are locked at midnight, they cannot leave until 8am. The "guests" - pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), psychiatrist Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal), office worker Nora Manning (Carol Craig), columnist Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum), and the house's actual owner Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) all need the money. But can they survive the night?

If you like short, campy movies with special effects so low budget that you can see the wires, this is the film for you. The inimitable William Castle directed and produced the production which goes, as always, for the shock value. A believer in promotion, Mr. Castle felt it "should be an integral part of the entire movie going experience." (Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle by Joe Jordan). He would design gimmicks for his films, like vibrating motors attached to some seats for the thriller, The Tingler (1959) or voting on the main character's fate in Mr. Sardonicus (1961). The House on Haunted Hill, too, had its gimmick, which we'll discuss later on.
Without Vincent Price, this movie would be nothing. He gives it cache - he plays the role with his tongue firmly implanted into his cheek. As a result, the audience can sit back and enjoy the proceedings, understanding that taking ANY of it seriously would be a drastic mistake. Mr. Price had just lost a role in a Western film - he was judged too tall to play opposite the new star, Alan Ladd. Mr. Castle offered Mr. Price the lead in The House on Haunted Hill, which was in development. In exchange, Mr. Castle gave him a piece of the movie, which ended up netting Mr. Price a new painting for his extensive collection, and a new career as the king of the horror film (The Price of Fear: The Film Career of Vincent Price, In His Own Words by Joel Eisner).

Vincent Price was very much a Renaissance man. He began his acting career in London with The Mercury Players, after having worked as a teacher and studied fine arts. By 1936, he was working on Broadway, playing Prince Albert to Helen Hayes' Victoria Regina. He would appear in 11 Broadway productions, including the Mercury Theatre production of  Heartbreak House, starring Orson Welles (1938),  Angel Street (1944), and Richard III, playing the Duke of Buckingham to Jose Ferrer's Richard (1953). He'd moved to Hollywood by 1938, with a co-starring role with Constance Bennett in Service de Luxe.  While he played good guys on some occasions, it seems he was destined to specialize in villains or weaklings, like Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck (1946) and Shelby Carpenter in Laura (1944). He moved easily from film to radio to television (where he appeared as one of my favorite villains in "The Foxes and Hounds" episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E). A highly regarded art collector, Mr. Price donated works from his collection to form the basis for The Vincent Price Art Museum, so that students at East Los Angeles College would have access to a teaching collection. He also wrote several books on gourmet cooking with his second wife, Mary Grant.  His final on-screen film role was in Edward Scissorhands (1990), but he contributed his vocal talents to a number of films, and even to the music video Thriller. Mr. Price died of emphysema in 1993 at the age of 82.
I was unimpressed with Carol Ohmart when I saw her in The Scarlet Hour; the group opinion was not any different. She's an expressionless actress, who thinks making a moue with her mouth is the epitome of fine acting. It's not. In 1955, James Bacon called her a "female Brando" for her "savage realism" (Chicago Daily Herald, 3 July 1955).  One wonders how much Paramount paid him for that compliment. 

Carol Craig gets to scream a lot during the film. The one character who is truly terrified by what is going on, Nora has the brains of a pea. She goes wandering off behind curtains and into empty rooms. Why someone that frightened would be wandering this revolting house alone is beyond us.
Though she doesn't have a lot to do (except for some Lady Macbeth hand cleaning), Julie Mitchum is worth noting as Robert Mitchum's sister.  We also enjoyed Richard Long as the "hero" of the piece. He's effectively stalwart, with not a lot of screen time. And let's not forget Elisha Cook, who keeps warning the audience about the dangers of the house and the ghosts. He's a puzzling character, who remains a question even as the film ends.

The exterior of the house is a Frank Lloyd Wright home - Ennis House, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles (The house was also used as Spike and Drusilla's residence in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer). (Los Angeles Conservancy) The inside is studio created - it's an upscale albeit rather dirty haunted house, though you might find a head in your luggage.
Always the showman, William Castle devised a special gimmick for this film. Called "Emergo," it involved a glow-in-the dark skeleton appearing over the audience's head at a pivotal point in the movie (TCM article). According to Joel Eisner, the first time he tried this trick was at a private screening for major producers. The skeleton was operated from a fishing reel in the projectionist's group, which worked at first. Unfortunately, the line snapped, and fell on the assembled producers.  Mr. Castle had to redesign the skeleton, so that, if it fell in a real theatre, it was light enough to not hurt any audience members!.

The New York Times review  by Howard Thompson, called the film "a stale spook concoction. " However, in a review of a 1999 remake, Lawrence Van Gelder said the new film was "a sorry reincarnation of the 1950s William Castle horror film". That rendition starred Geoffrey Rush in the Vincent Price part (AFI catalog). Today, Mr. Price's version is considered a cult classic.

We'll leave you with a trailer: 

Monday, June 8, 2020

Ginger Won't Marry

Victoria Stafford (Ginger Rogers) has had three trips to the altar, all unsuccessful - she bolts the minute she is asked to say "I Do". She's about to take a fourth trip, this time to Oliver H.P. Harrington (Ron Randall).  However, fearing another botched ceremony, his father (Thurston Hall) suggests a cooling off period before the vows are exchanged. After a month in her sculpting studio, far from her family and fiance, Vicki decides she will marry Oliver. But when she arrives in New York City, she finds an American Indian (Cornell Wilde) in her upper berth, saying It Had to be You (1947).
This is a remarkably silly movie, with few redeeming values; with a cast headed by Ginger Rogers and Cornell Wilde, one expects better. Unfortunately, the script is weak (and at this point in history, rather offensive), and the acting is overdone.

When Ginger Rogers did Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941), she presented the character with a high-pitched voice; she would do something similar when she appeared in The Major and the Minor (1942). The little-girl voice was perfect (albeit a tad over-young) for the allegedly 12-year old Susu Applegate. She does it again here, and all it accomplishes is to let us know Vicki is a moron. She shouldn't be - she's a talented sculptress with confidence in her abilities. Her inability to commit to a man, except to someone she met when she was 10 is odd. But Ms. Rogers makes her into a nincompoop, who vibrates through the picture with no apparent focus, leaving the audience with no focal point as well. Ms. Rogers allegedly liked the role (TCM article), though one wonders why.
Cornel Wilde is usually an enjoyable actor, but he is out of his element in this movie. When he plays the native-garbed George McKesson, he is goggled-eyed and ridiculous - if his eyes got any wider, they would pop out of their sockets.  When enacting fireman Johnny Blaine, he is the exact opposite - almost flat in his portrayal of a man allegedly in love.

Spring Byington only gets to flutter helplessly as Vicki's mother Mrs. Stafford.  The events whirl around her and she is incapable of understanding ANYTHING about her daughter. It's a real shame to waste her in this piece of nonsense.
If there is one thing that is extraordinary about the film, it is the costuming. Jean Louis designs four spectacularly gorgeous wedding gowns, as well as dresses and suits for Ms. Rogers that would make any woman proud to wear them. 

In her book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, Jeannine Basinger comments on the wedding dresses as means of demonstrating Victoria's emotions prior to each of her weddings. Yet, in each marriage, she bolts. Ms. Bassinger believes that the film is "a case of the audience having it all. They get to ogle three gorgeous wedding gowns for the price of one. They get to see three wimpy grooms rejected. And Ginger Rogers is still intact for further plot development, free and easy and not saddled with a dreary marriage." For a film aimed at a female audience, the story may have been aimed at the many unhappily married women among them.
In April 1948, Lucille Ball and Cornell Wilde starred in a Screen Guild Theater radio version of the story (AFI Catalog).  A January 1950 Screen Directors' Playhouse show starred Joan Fontaine (subbing for an ill Ginger Rogers).

Bosley Crowther's New York Times review was scathing - he said that even his 8 year old son didn't like it. Unfortunately, we are forced to agree with him. It's not the worst film ever made, but it is a Ginger Rogers low point.  If you are a completest of Ms. Rogers work, or in the mood to see great costumes, then see it (but have a remote in hand to fast forward through some of the silliness).

Monday, June 1, 2020

Police Inspector Ralph

Gloria Gale (Shirley Grey), a spoiled socialite, is bored. When she meets Dan Terrence (Charles Sabin), a crook who works for gang leader  Mike Russo (J. Carrol Naish), she agrees to be his wheel-person during a jewel theft. Once the crime is committed and the police, led by Inspector Steve Trent (Ralph Bellamy) hone in on her, Gloria, the Girl in Danger (1934), has second thoughts about the adventurous life.

The fourth (in a series of four) movies (released between 1933 and 1934) that featured Ralph Bellamy as Inspector Trent, the movie really should be named "The Girl is an Airhead." The film's major problem is that from the start, one cannot believe that Gloria could be stupid enough to get involved in a life of crime merely because she is jaded.  We're not talking about a bit of shoplifting, or hanging out in a casino. We're talking breaking and entering and grand theft.  Dan Terrence is also armed, so had someone entered the room he was pilfering, he'd have had no qualms about shooting the unsuspecting intruder. It doesn't seem like any amount of ennue would entice a woman with a brain in her head to set herself up for 5 to 10 years in prison.
If the plot is a little lacking, the movie does have some bright spots. Ralph Bellamy is always a pleasure to watch, and it's nice for a change to see him in the lead, and not playing a put-upon dolt.  He's clearly comfortable as Trent, and his laconic attitude works well for this precise character.

Mr. Bellamy was born in Chicago; by 1919, he'd left home (he was 15) to work in theatrical road shows. Ultimately, he made his way to New York, started his own theatre company, and began getting work on Broadway, where he worked off and on from 1929 to 1959. He originated roles such as Grant Matthews in State of the Union (which would star Spencer Tracy in the film version), Michael Frame in Tomorrow the World (Fredric March in the film), Detective McLeod in Detective Story (Kirk Douglas n the movie), and what is perhaps his finest performance FDR in Sunrise at Campobello, a role he finally got to play himself when the film was made. He received a Tony Award for that performance. He spent a lot of his long career playing put-up second bananas, like the character of Daniel Leeson in The Awful Truth (1937), which got him his only Oscar nomination. Married and divorced three times, his 1945 (4th) marriage to Alice Murphy lasted until the end of his life in 1991 at the age of 97. He worked until nearly the end - his last role was Richard Gere's industrial nemesis in Pretty Woman (1990)
Another plus to the film is seeing early work by Ward Bond (Wynkoski), J. Carroll Naish, and Vincent Sherman (Willie Tolini) - here in an acting role! This was, in fact, Mr. Sherman's last role in front of the screen. He worked as a screenwriter, as a dialogue director, and finally as a director in films such as Old Acquaintance (1943), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and Harriet Craig (1950).

Originally titled, By Persons Unknown (AFI catalog), this is a so-so film with some engaging actors and a slapped-together script. It's blessedly short (57 minutes), with a pre-code ending that will have you shaking your head. Personally, I think Gloria Gale needs a time-out.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Jean Meets the Devil

Multi-millionaire John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is furious. Though he studiously keeps himself out of the limelight, a recent labor protest by the employees of a department store he owns have brought his name front and center. Determined to fire all of the people involved in the protest, he hires private detective Thomas Higgins (Robert Emmett Keane) to infiltrate the store and find the protesters. Mr. Higgins is unable to start immediately (his wife is about to have a baby), so Merrick fires him and uses the store credentials Higgins has acquired to become an employee in the store's shoe department. It's not long before he discovers that he really likes the store employees and despises the management. Our film this week is The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).

The tone of this sweet and funny film is set at the opening credits, when we are introduced to the "devilish" Mr. Coburn and the angelic Ms. Arthur. While Ms. Arthur gets above-the-title billing, this film really belongs to Mr. Coburn, as it should. J.P. Merrick could be a bully and a bore, but not in Mr. Coburn's capable hands. He treads a fine line in being lovable, but still keeping you in suspense as to what he will do in the end. Though, as he becomes increasingly furious at the store managers and supervisors, you really want to give him a hug.
Charles Coburn came to the screen late in life - he was 60. He'd spent his career working in a touring company with his wife, Ivah Wills (they had 6 children). When Ivah died of congestive heart failure in 1937, Mr. Coburn moved his family to Los Angeles to try his hand at film acting. Between 1938 and his death in 1961, he appeared in more than 90 films and television shows. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1944 for his work in The More the Merrier, and was nominated two other times - for his work in this film, and for The Green Years (1946). He was active in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters - Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler by Allan H. Ryskind), a group supporting the McCarthy hearings. Following a second marriage (he was 81 at the time), and the birth of a seventh child, he died of a heart attack at the age of 84.  His papers are housed at the University of Georgia, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Jean Arthur is delightful as Mary Jones. Though her romantic interest is Robert Cummings (Joe O'Brien), it is Mr. Coburn with whom she has the most scenes and the best chemistry.  She would work with Mr. Coburn twice more: The More the Merrier (1943) and in The Impatient Years (1944) (TCM Article).  The part of Mary Jones was specifically designed for Ms. Arthur - this film's producer was her husband Frank Ross. He had set up an independent production company and was eager to find a property that fit her talents better than the scripts she was being offered. Though Mr. Coburn's part is much stronger, Ms. Arthur refused rewrites that would have given her character more screen time. (Jean Arthur: A Biofilmography by Jerry Vermilyeand).  She was fond enough of the part that she planned to do a remake of it in 1966, to be titled The Devil and Mr. Jones, with Ms. Arthur as the Devil; sadly, it didn't materialize.
Robert Cummings  is good in a relatively small part. An early scene in the film has Joe cavorting with Mary on the beach at Coney Island. It's quite delightful to watch, and there is a naturalness to the performances. Mr. Cummings was not the first choice for the role - Jeffrey Lynn was originally considered.  (AFI Catalog)

Also in a small but important part is Spring Byington  (Elizabeth Ellis). A gentle woman who just wants to find someone to love, she fixes her sights on Merrick when she thinks that he is indigent. One feels that Merrick has avoided any kind of entanglements because of his money. Ms. Byington makes Elizabeth into someone who cares nothing for money. She wants to find a man she can make happy, and Merrick is the right fit.
There are so many excellent character actors in the film it is hard to focus on just one or two. Edmund Gwenn is marvelous as the repugnant Hooper, one of the bosses who drive Merrick to distraction. S.Z. Sakall  appears as George, Merrick's very tolerant butler, and is his usual warm self.  William Demarest shows up in the small part of a detective, Regis Toomey is a police officer in Coney Island, and Florence Bates plays a professional shopper - all contribute greatly to the film.

The film, which opened in April at Radio City Music Hall, received an enthusiastic review from New York Times critic Bosley Crowther "Out of the sheerest gossamer the most captivating webs are sometimes spun". Unfortunately, it did not do well at the box offer (Author Jerry Vermilye speculates that the "unsubtle pro-union stance" was a factor").  In January 1942, there was a Lux Radio Theatre production which starred Lana Turner and Lionel Barrymore. The film was nominated for two Oscars: Norman Krasna for his original screenplay and Charles Coburn as Best Supporting Actor.  

This is a movie that is not to be missed, especially if you are a Jean Arthur fan. We'll leave you with a clip, in which Charles Coburn meets Ms. Arthur:

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Classics for Comfort

2020 has been a year of interesting times, and in interesting times, we need comfort. What better comfort is there than a good movie?  So, from May 19-22, the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) is hosting the Classics for Comfort Blogathon, in which we will all discuss those films that bring a smile to our lips or a song to our hearts.  In no particular order, I'm pleased to share with you five movies (and an honorable mention) that I turn to in times of trouble, stress, and/or sorrow that are comfort films for me.

No comfort film list is complete without something from Ms. Hayley Mills. She is a delight - a wonderful actress with a list of excellent films to her credit. Adding just one to this list was a hard choice - in the running were Pollyanna (1960), which I discussed in a previous blogathon, Summer Magic (1963), and The Moon-Spinners (1964).  But, I ultimately opted to select The Parent Trap (1961), because there are TWO Hayleys to make me glad.  

Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers live on opposite sides of the U.S. Sharon is in Boston with her mother; Susan lives in California on her father's ranch. They accidentally meet at summer camp, loathe each other at first sight, only to discover that they are "separated at birth" twins - when their parents divorced, each took one daughter, planning to never meet again. It was also decided by the parents that they would not tell their children of her sibling's existence.  Knowing it's the only way to get to know the other parent, the sisters decide to change places.  But when Susan discovers that father Mitch (Brian Keith) is about to marry the gold-digging Vicki Robinson (Joanna Barnes), the girls hatch a plan to get mother Margaret (Maureen O'Hara) back with her ex. 

This was Ms. Mills second film with Disney, and she shines in the dual role. She gives the two sisters distinct personalities. Even when dressed alike, you can tell them apart (amusingly, their parents can't).  Sure, the story is a fantasy, but who cares? The early rivalry episodes are full of tween deviltry and the latter partnership includes deviousness of quite a different ilk - you'll cheer when the twins set their sites on the obviously bad Vicki. And when Ms. Mills sings "Let's Get Together," a dare you to not groove to the music.

We think of Edward G. Robinson (Martinius Jacobson) as a tough guy, but in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), he's the gentlest man you could ever meet. A loving husband to wife Bruna (Agnes Moorehead) and father to his daughter Selma (Margaret O'Brien), he works as a farmer in a small Wisconsin town.

In many respects, the film is a series of short stories, about Selma and her adventures (and arguments) with her younger cousin, Arnold (Jackie "Butch" Jenkins), about Martinius and his desire to build a new state-of-the-art barn, and about the budding romance between new teacher Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford) and newspaper editor Nels Halvorson (James Craig). The script hangs together beautifully, as the characters weave in and out of each others lives.

The beauty of the film hinges on the relationship between Ms. O'Brien and Mr. Robinson. There is a genuine tenderness between the two; adding Agnes Moorehead to the mix - an actress who, in my estimation, can do no wrong - only adds to the charm of the family connection. In one biography, Ms. O'Brien said she became very close to Mr. Robinson during filming (Margaret O'Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography by Allen R. Ellenberger); this is certainly reflected on screen.

Yet the films avoids becoming schmaltzy. The town in which the Jacobson's live is not perfect. The town is poor; most of the young men are gone to the War; there is even a hint of child abuse. Ultimately, though, the film is about family and unity - the Jacobson's live in a community that comes together in crisis, even if it is only donating a calf to a cause.

When times are bad, you need to laugh, and nothing will make you laugh more than Ball of Fire (1941). Gary Cooper (Bertram Potts) plays an English professor at work with six colleagues on a new encyclopedia. Professor Potts is horrified to discover that his understanding of slang is archaic. How can he write the needed article for the encyclopedia without further research? So he ventures out of the their cloister to learn the language of the day. On his journey, he meets Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a night club entertainer who knows just a bit too much about gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Joe's solution - stash Sugarpuss with Bertram and his colleagues until Joe can marry her and keep her from testifying against him.

The combination of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is comic dynamite. She's forward and alluring; he's shy and retiring. But they spark on screen like nobody's business.  With her as the aggressor, Ms. Stanwyck is at her comic best - she needs him to become enamored of her, but there is danger in the air. She's never met anyone as gentle and considerate as him, and she finds herself falling for him (much to the consternation of Joe Lilac!)

There are so many wonderful scenes - Sugarpuss teaching the assembled professors the conga; Sugarpuss demonstrating the new slang to Bertram (in the form of yum-yum); Bertram learning to box. I could go on, but you get the idea.

We discussed this film at more length several years ago. But like so many of the great Ms. Stanwyck's films, it is a movie that cries for rewatching (and will have you in stitches throughout.

Take two remarkable actors, add in some suspense,  sprinkle it with comedy, write dialog that sparkles and you've got Charade (1963). It's easily one of the most re-watchable and entertaining mystery stories around - even when you KNOW the ending, you really don't care. You want to watch the film again to meet with the charming, intelligent, and witty Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) and the man of mystery Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). They are a combination to be imbibed regularly.

Regina is on vacation at a skiing resort in the French Alps with her best friend Sylvie Gaudel (Dominique Minot) when Sylvie's mischievous son Jean-Louis (Thomas Chelimsky) "introduces" her to Peter. He's intrigued, but she "already know an awful lot of people, so until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else." Regina returns to her home in Paris, determined to divorce her always-absent husband Charles, only to find her apartment stripped bare and a message from the police. Charles is dead - murdered and thrown from a speeding train. The appearance of three threatening men, who demand to know the whereabouts of money Charles stole from them, add to Reggie's distress. And then there is the question - just WHO is Peter Joshua?

Cary Grant didn't want to do the film - he thought he was too old to be romantically involved with Audrey Hepburn, so the script was altered - she pursues him, and the effect is magic. After all, what woman wouldn't want to woo Cary Grant? Combine their interplay with an engaging story and you have a film to watch over and over. You'll laugh, you'll gasp, but you will never be bored.

Sometimes, an inspirational film that brings tears to your eyes is just what you need when you feel blue. The true story of The Miracle Worker (1961) is one that does it for me. Based on the autobiography of Helen Keller (Patty Duke), a blind-deaf woman who lost both senses after a childhood illness, the movie introduces the uncontrollable child to Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), herself almost blind, but as determined to teach Helen to communicate as Helen is to have her own way.

As a child, I was addicted to biographies of famous women. I think I read every one I could find in our local library. The woman that fascinated me most was Helen Keller. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was awe-inspiring. So too does this film bring a feeling of warmth and love that few movies are able to do. The strength of these two individuals, along with the unquestioning love of Helen's mother, Kate (Inga Swenson) make this a film of great passion.

Don't get me wrong - this is a film with humor as well, but I defy anyone to get to the end without a tear in their eyes. With Oscar-winning performances by Ms. Bancroft and Ms. Duke (both recreating their Broadway roles), The Miracle Worker is a film to lift your spirits.

Honorable Mention:   No list of my comfort films is complete without a mention of one of my primary sources of comfort since childhood. Sure, including To Trap a Spy (1964), is a bit of a cheat. It’s a filmed version of two Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes, but for me it's one of the places I go when I need to feel better.

It was love at first sight when I saw Robert Vaughn in an early episode of the show. My father took me to a double bill of this and another U.N.C.L.E spinoff movie The Spy with My Face (1965). To say I was in heaven is an understatement.  

The show ended up forming the basis of my first close friendship - one that abides to this day. When times are tough, when I’m sad or anxious, it’s Napoleon Solo who can make everything just a little bit better. (And it doesn't hurt to have Illya Kuryakin as well!)

Don't forget to read some of the other blogs that are participating in the Classics for Comfort Blogathon. You're sure to find some other films that will brighten your days.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Salieri and the Obscene Child

An elderly man screams "I killed Mozart," then attempts to slash his own throat. Transferred to an asylum, former court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) tells a visiting priest (Herman Meckler) his life story, and why he believes that he killed Amadeus (1984).

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hosted another film with live orchestra (back when we were still allowed to go to the theatre), this time the award-winning story of the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. With a score consisting almost entirely by the works of Mozart, this is a film that fairly shouts for a performance with a live symphony orchestra, and it did not disappoint. The glorious music added immensely to this fascinating film.

I saw the film when it first came out. I'd already seen the play three times on Broadway (I've since seen it another three times) and confess that I was disappointed in the film then. I love the stage play - I truly feel it is one of the best modern plays - and the focus of the movie was different than the play. The stage version was about Salieri, while the movie is centered more on Mozart. It's a subtle difference, since their lives keep intersecting, but an important one. This time, I made the determination that I would push the play out of my mind as much as possible and view the film as an independent entity. The result - I really enjoyed the movie.
I'm going to begin with a bit of history about the play. It opened on the West End in 1979 with Paul Scofield as Salieri. When the play transferred to Broadway in 1980, Ian McKellen starred in the show (I had the opportunity to see him; later I saw Frank Langella and David Birney). That production ran for 1,181 performances with actors David Dukes, John Wood, and Daniel Davis also taking over the part of Salieri. The play also opened with Tim Curry as Mozart (Simon Callow had played Mozart on the West End) and Jane Seymour as Costanza - later Mark Hamill and Amy Irving would later take on those roles.  In 1999, the play returned to Broadway, this time with David Suchet and Michael Sheen as Salieri and Mozart. It ran for 173 performances (Yes, I saw that one too). This past December, The Folger Theatre did a superb imagining of the play with Ian Merrill Peake as Salieri.

Director Milos Forman made two determinations before he began filming - one was that the filmed version needed to be substantially altered from the stage play. He cited the movie Equus as an example of what happens when you try to transfer a play directly to the screen (New York Times article). He also wanted virtual unknown Americans for the two lead roles (New York Times article).  Thus, he selected Tom Hulce as Mozart over contenders such as Mark Hamill, Kenneth Branagh, David Bowie and Mikhail Baryshnikov (Mental Floss article); and F. Murray Abraham over Mick Jagger and John Savage (AFI catalog). Costanze Mozart went to Elizabeth Berridge after Meg Tilly injured her leg; Patti LuPone was also in the running at one point. (F. Murray Abraham discusses his casting in this Rolling Stone article)

The film's cast is remarkable, and give a depth of performance that contributed to its success. New characters such as Leopold Mozart (with a sinister Roy Dotrice playing the part) and Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow, the only actor from a stage production to appear in the film) add nuance to the movie. We also have a couple of future stars introduced - Christine Ebersole plays Salieri's protege Katerina Cavalieri (she does not, however, do her own singing. Suzanne Murphy was given the vocals) and Cynthia Nixon plays maid and Salieri spy, Lorl. She was 17 years old during production - the year of the film's release she would appear in TWO Broadway plays (The Real Thing and Hurlyburly) simultaneously, so far the only actor to do this on Broadway (Playbill).
There always seem to be questions as whether Salieri actually poisoned Mozart. It's unlikely. This BBC article looks at the historical anomalies in the play and the film. Author Shaffer was influenced by a play written in the 19th Century by Alexander Pushkin. The murder story serves only as a means for giving Salieri vent to the real concern of the play - what happens when God gives you the ability to identify true genius, without the capability of creating it yourself. While the play includes quite a bit of music, the film is able to incorporate so much of Mozart's work that the sheer beauty of his compositions is undeniable. The film introduced many people to his work (TCM article), as well as to the compositions of Salieri (if you've never heard his work, here is a link to his Requiem).
The film was a huge hit - it grossed $51.97M and was number 12 on the box office list for 1984.  It won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Picture, Actor (F. Murray Abraham), and Screenplay (Peter Shaffer). Director (Milos Forman) won the Oscar and Director's Guild Awards.  It also won Oscars for Art-Set Direction, Costume Design, Sound, & Makeup. Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields won the Grammy for Classical recording.  It received Oscar nominations for Tom Hulce in the Best Actor category, for Cinematography & Film editing. A director's cut of the film was released in 2002 that includes a number of cut and lengthened scenes ( In 2019, it was added to the National Film Registry in 2019.

On many levels, this is a remarkable film.  I'll leave you with a trailer, and the recommendation that you view film. And, if the opportunity arises, do see the play.