Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Humphrey Burns

The kickoff film for this year's TCM Presents was  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which celebrates its 70th Anniversary this year. Humphrey Bogart stars as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American stuck in Tampico, Mexico. He's broke, it's next to impossible to get a job, so he spends his day hitting up an American tourist (John Huston) for food money ("Can you spot a fellow American to a meal?"). When he finally is able to get a job, it's from a cheat named Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), who disappears without paying Dobbs and his friend, Curtin (Tim Holt). Curtin and Dobbs are eventually able to locate McCormick, and "persuade" him to give them their pay. Using that money, and $200 that Dobbs wins from the lottery, the pair and prospector Howard (Walter Huston) head out to the Mexican hills to find gold. But gold can change people, Howard cautions, and Dobbs will become a victim of that change.

Director John Huston cast his father, Walter Huston as the knowing prospector. It's an amazing performance which won Walter the Academy Award for best supporting actor.  But it almost didn't happen.  A highly regarded leading man on both stage and screen (the little jig he does in the film was taught to him by Eugene O'Neill when Mr. Huston appeared on Broadway in Desire Under the Elms (Lincoln Center Film Society)), Huston Sr didn't object to playing an older man - he'd already played James Cagney's father in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But son John's insistence that he remove his dentures was just too much even for a father trying to support his son's career. John and Mr. Bogart would eventually resort to holding Mr. Huston down and forcibly removing the teeth, much to Walter Huston's chagrin. But the difference in his speaking voice was so noticeable that he finally agreed to appear without his teeth. (TCM articles). It's interesting to note that, on some of the poster art, the drawing of Walter Huston looks like him in most of his films, not as he appears in this film (see the poster below).
Born in Canada in 1883, Walter Huston began his career on the stage, primarily in touring companies. His first marriage postponed his acting career: he worked in an electric power plant to support his wife and son. When the marriage ended, he returned to the stage - this time vaudeville - working with his second wife, until he began getting roles on Broadway. Between 1924 and 1946, he would appear in 14 plays - musicals and dramas - including Dodsworth, which he would also bring to the screen. He was nominated 4 times for Oscars (Dodsworth (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)), finally winning for this film. He worked with his son on other films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941) where he played the dying Captain Jacoby, and providing narration for John's wartime documentaries (i.e. Let Their Be Light (1946)). His third marriage in 1931 endured until his death of an aortic aneurym at age 67 in 1950. For more on Walter Huston, see this Los Angeles Times obituary.

Humphrey Bogart was not the studio's first choice for Dobbs - Edward G. Robinson was initially suggested, though John Huston badly wanted to Bogart for the part. Ronald Reagan and John Garfield were considered for Curtin, and Zachary Scott was in the running for the part of James Cody (which would go to Bruce Bennett). It's been said that Ann Sheridan did a walk-on as a prostitute, but the woman in question does not look a bit like her, so it's probably urban myth. (AFI catalog)

Bogart, of course, is amazingly good in a characterization that morphs so dramatically during the course of the film. He's not a bad man in the beginning - even when he forcibly takes his salary from Pat McCormick, he only takes the money due to him and Curtin. He even pays the bartender for the damage to the saloon from his own money. But as the gold starts to mount, so does his greed and paranoia. At one point, he most closely resembles Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, crouching and giggling over his wealth.
There are some uncredited performances to look out for. The Mexican Boy Selling Lottery Tickets is portrayed by Robert Blake, who would later star in the TV show Baretta.  Jack Holt, a silent and sound actor, perhaps remembered today for his appearance in San Francisco (1936) is one of the residents of the flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard.  And the Lone Ranger's colleague Tonto, Jay Silverheels appears as the Indian Guide at Pier.

John Huston filmed much of the action for the film in Mexico; finally he was dragged back to Warner Brothers to complete filming when the costs became too high. He worked with an advisor, who Mr. Huston believed was actually the author of the novel, B. Traven. The advisor denied this, but the BBC later confirmed John Huston's theory.  Check out this New York Times article on the author, as well as the BBC broadcast.
Besides Walter Huston's Academy Award, the film also won for Best Direction and Adapted Screenplay to John Huston - the first time a father and son won Oscars (and the only time thusfar for the same film). It was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Hamlet). In April of 1948, Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre; in February 1955 Edmund O'Brien and Walter Brennan performed the radio play for LuxThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre was #38 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (it was #30 on the original list), as well as being listed at #36 in their 100 Greatest Movie Quotes (for the oft midquoted: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"), and #67 in the 100 Most Thrilling American Films. In 1990, it was added to the  National Film Registry (the second year of the registry).  

We'll leave you with the trailer for this excellent film. If you've not seen it before, you are in for a treat.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Dorothy's Brooklyn Family

The Nolan family is poor.  Father Johnny (James Dunn) is a singing waiter with a drinking problem, and more imagination than is practical. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) works hard as their building's super to get a few pennies to support the family; while she loves her husband, she has become disillusioned by his dreaming. Son Neely (Ted Donaldson) is a good boy, who can't wait to finish school, while daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) lives for learning - she yearns to be a writer, but is troubled by the increasing animosity between her mother and her adored father. Our film for this week is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Based on the novel by Betty Smith (which celebrated its 75th Anniversary in October of this year) the film is actually one "book" of the five that makes up the 1943 volume. The movie is also the directorial debut of Elia Kazan, and Mr. Kazan pulls no punches in showing the effects of poverty on this simple family. It would have been easy to gloss over the pain of their lives, but we're given an honest portrayal, thanks in no small part to the magnificent cast.

Let's start with James Dunn, who received an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his work in here. According to the TCM article, one of the reasons Dunn was cast was that he had a drinking problem. Kazan felt that having an actor " who probably had some experience with drink" made for a better performance. Dunn brings both dignity and pathos to the role - watch his face in the scene below as he suffers over the consequences of his inability to support his family. Then, compare that to his scene with Francie, as they imagine moving to a neighborhood where she can attend a better school. His love for his child shines from his eyes and you never doubt for a moment that you are seeing Johnny Nolan, not the actor. In the 1930s, Mr. Dunn had been used quite often - he was support to Shirley Temple in four of her films, but by the time he was cast in this film, he had difficulty getting roles, primarily because of his alcohol abuse. After winning the Oscar, he made a few more films, eventually transitioning to television. He died from complications of stomach surgery in 1967, at the age of 65.
It's hard to believe that Dorothy McGuire was not the first choice for Katie - the story was purchased with Alice Faye in mind for the role (and Gene Tierney auditioned for it as well) (AFI catalog). As a poor, uneducated woman who loves her children and husband, but has become stern and introverted as she tries to make ends meet, Ms. McGuire is magnificent. She has no trouble letting us become angry at Katie; at the same time, she allows us to see the young woman who fell in love with Johnny Nolan and his dreaming ways.

Aunt Sissy is arguably one of Joan Blondell's best roles. A brash and affectionate woman, Sissy has been married at least three times, but is not the slightest bit embarrassed by her life choices. Like her sister, Sissy is poor and illiterate (though it's never stated, we don't see Katie read, and she asks her children to read to her. Sissy and her mother also comment that they cannot read, so it seems likely that neither Katie nor Sissy received any education). Her marriages seem to have ended in part due to several miscarriages. But Ms. Blondell brings to Sissy the zest for life that Katie has lost. In his review of the 2016 TCM Film Festival, Scott Halloran reported on Ted Donaldson's appearance. Mr. Donaldson discussed his crush on Ms. Blondell, and the signed photo she gave to him at the film's conclusion - "From Joan 'I'm waiting for you' Blondell." Likely this was a rough shoot for Ms. Blondell, as she was in the middle of her divorce from Dick Powell. She was also upset that a scene, which showed Sissy working in a condom factory was cut from the film. Nevertheless, her performance is spot on, and you like Sissy - both in spite of and because of her cavalier attitude towards life.
As a librarian, I particularly love the scene in which Francie goes to the library. Attempting to read her way through the library, Francie is up to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The librarian is horrified that this child is going to attempt such a difficult book. When she realizes that Francie will not be swayed, the librarian asks her to take, as well, When Knighthood Was in Flower (lest she get a headache thinking of the child "wrestling" her way through the book). You can view the scene here. Equally lovely is Francie's relationship with her teacher, Miss  McDonough (Ruth Nelson) who encourages Francie to consider writing as a career, but who also subtlety cautions her against pipe-dreaming (like her father!)

A trio of remarkable character performances also compliment the film. First, we have Lloyd Nolan as Officer McShane. He's excellent as a lonely police officer who envies the closeness of the Nolan family. James Gleason as McGarrity, the pub owner who cares deeply for Johnny Nolan and who endeavors to assist the family, is exceptional in a very small part. John Alexander as Sissy's exasperated husband, Steve Edwards is also notable. And watch for silent screen star Mae Marsh as one of the Tynmore sisters, and a young Nicholas Ray as a Bakery Clerk.
The heart of the movie is Peggy Ann Garner. As a child with an eager mind, and a heart torn by her parents' troubles, Ms. Garner imbues Francie with a spirit of hope. Her efforts in the film resulted in resulted in her receiving a Oscar in 1946 as outstanding child actor of the year.  Ms. Garner started her film career as Carole Lombard's daughter in In Name Only (1939). She was the young Jane Eyre (1943) and the child Nora in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). As with so many child stars, she had trouble getting film roles as she aged, but worked in real estate to make ends meet between her television roles. She married three times, all ending in divorce, and had one child (Catherine Ann Salmi). Ms. Garner died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 52 in 1984.
A radio version of the play aired on Hollywood Star Time (with Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner) in January of 1947, on Studio One in October 1947 (with Rosemary Rice and Frank Reddig), and again by Hallmark Playhouse in April of 1949 (with Mr. Dunn and Connie Marshall). In 1951, a musical version of the story opened on Broadway, with Shirley Booth as Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell would take over the role for the National Tour). Finally, in 1974, the film was presented on television with Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker and James Olson.

Besides the awards to Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar (it lost to The Lost Weekend) and was selected by the National Board of Review in 1945 as one of their 10 best films of the year.  The New York Times review was glowing. In 2010, the film was entered into the National Film Registry. It is a magnificent film, and one that you should visit at your earliest convenience.  We'll leave you with the Nolan family moving into their top floor apartment.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Katharine's Family Dinner


December marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and the film was part of the 2017 TCM Presents series. Very much a tale of the 1960s (but still relevant today), the film introduces us to Joanna "Joey" Drayton (Katharine Houghton), a 23 year old woman raised by liberal parents. Joey has returned from her vacation prematurely to her San Francisco home, accompanied by Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a highly-regarded physician, who happens to be African-American. The two met in Hawaii and fell in love. As John is about to leave for a three month work assignment with the World Health Organization in Geneva, the pair have arrived to tell Joey's parents, Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) of their plans to marry in two weeks in Geneva. What Joey doesn't know is that John feels it is crucial to their future as a couple that Matt and Christina bless the marriage. If they will not, he will remove himself from Joey's life.

As pointed out by TCM host Tiffany Vasquez in her introduction, the film was a bit dated even upon release. John's father (Roy Glenn) states that "in several states" John and Joanna would be breaking the law - however the U.S. Supreme Court had just recently handed down a decision regarding interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (brought to the screen in 2016's Loving). Regardless of that momentous decision, Mr. Prentiss was correct about the difficulties that the couple would face - and still (unfortunately) face today. So, while some of the film is a tad old-fashioned, it still can speak to us in the 21st Century. (This Los Angeles Times article on 50th Anniversary of the film is an interesting examination of the film in the our times).
Spencer Tracy was ill when he filmed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In fact, both Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer placed their salaries for the film into escrow in the event Mr. Tracy was not able to complete shooting. Mr. Kramer arranged that Mr. Tracy would only film in the morning, while his energy levels were up to the task (TCM Article). Spencer Tracy died only 10 days after his work was completed. Regardless, his performance gives no hint that he was unwell; he is wonderful as a father facing his own liberal principles against the future happiness of his daughter. Mr. Tracy was posthumously nominated for his 10th Best Actor Oscar. (He lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night). 
Another nominated performance was that of Beah Richards, as John's mother (Ms. Richards also lost, to Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde). Her performance is just wonderful; her love for her son, as well as her fear that her husband will destroy the relationship between himself and his son is evident in every scene. She was a lovely scene with Spencer Tracy that leads to the films penultimate speech from Mr. Tracy. She started working in New York theatre, first off-Broadway (in 1955), then on Broadway (she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in The Amen Corner). She only made 15 films, most of them playing someone's mother. But it was in television that she made her mark, winning two Emmy awards, and appearing in shows such as I Spy (playing Alexander Scott's mother),  ER (as Peter Benton's mother), and Beauty and the Beast (as Narcissa). Ms. Richards died of emphysema in 2000 at the age of 80. 
Katharine Hepburn suggested that her niece, Katharine Houghton read for the role of Joanna (the studio had Samantha Eggar in mind (AFI catalog)). She's quite good in a part that really is somewhat minor - Joey is the catalyst for the action of the film. She is in the middle of the dialogue between her parents and John, not really part of the conversation. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that Joey is written as almost passive. We know she has some of her mother's fire (her comment about her mother's employee Hilary shows that), but all Joanna can say of herself is that she will be important because her husband is important. I suspect it was not the picture that we were supposed to have of Joanna, but it is very much a sign of the times that Joanna is not all that important. She's not even going to get a say in the decision regarding her future.
Besides the nominations for Mr. Tracy and Ms. Richards, there were other Oscar nominations: Actor in a Supporting Role (Cecil Kellaway), Art Direction, Film Editing, Music (Scoring of Music—adaptation or treatment), Directing, and Best Picture. It won awards for Katharine Hepburn as Best Actress, and for William Rose's Writing (Story and Screenplay—written directly for the screen). This was Ms. Hepburn's second Oscar win - the next year, she would win again for her role in The Lion in Winter and would share the honor with Barbra Streisand, who ALSO won for Funny Girl. The film has also been featured in three AFI lists: It stands as #35 in 100 Years, 100 Cheers, #58 in 100 Years, 100 Passions, and #99 100 Year, 100 Movies, 1998 edition.

I'll close with one of my favorite scenes in the Christina's conversation with the very nosy Hilary (Virginia Christine):

Monday, January 29, 2018

Barbara Desires

Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) had dreams of being a great actress. It's 10 years since she left her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and three children to pursue her career, and all she has to show for it is a job as a small-time player in vaudeville. When a letter arrives from her younger daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson) inviting Naomi to Lily's graduation and senior play, Naomi spends every cent she has to return to Wisconsin as a great actress. While she knows that Lily wants her, the question remains as to her welcome from the rest of her family. Thus begins All I Desire (1953).

Based on Carol Brink's novel, Stopover, this is not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best films, the primary reason being her leading men. It's hard to understand why an attractive and intelligent woman like Naomi would want to be with either Henry or Dutch Heinemann (Lyle Bettger).  Henry is an oblivious cypher, who neglects his children, ignored his wife, and is totally unaware that his colleague, teacher Sara Harper (Maureen O'Sullivan) is madly in love with him. Dutch, on the other hand, is a bully and just short of a stalker. They make quite a pair. On some levels, you want Naomi to go back to vaudeville.

Ms. Stanwyck (who is, as always, magnificent) was not the only person considered for the role of Naomi. Both Joan Crawford and  Bette Davis were discussed as possible candidates for the part (AFI catalog). Either would have been fine, but Ms. Stanwyck brings a vulnerability to Naomi that is important for the audience's relationship with her. This New Yorker discussion focuses on Ms. Stanwyck's invaluable contribution to the film.
The children, however, are another matter. We really enjoyed Marcia Henderson as the oldest daughter, Joyce.  The combination of her mother's abandonment and her father's neglect have taken a toll on her. Yet, she is still capable of love, and ultimately has much of her mother's spunk.  The relationship between her and Russ Underwood (Richard Long) is quite sweet, especially after Naomi pushes Joyce to loosen up a bit.

One of the more interesting friendships in the film is that of young Ted Murdoch (Billy Gray) and Dutch.  Ted appears to be the only person in the town for whom Dutch has any affection; he's kind to the boy, and has taught him to fish and shoot a rifle. It's apparent Ted has no real tie to his father - it made us wonder if Dutch (and perhaps Henry) suspected that Ted was the result of Naomi's affair with Dutch. The film never states it, but given the information we have, it seems a logical premise.
Douglas Sirk, who had wanted to shoot the film in color, brings a beauty to the film's setting.
The lovely period costumes by Rosemary Odell and an amazing set by art directors Bernard Herzbrun and Alexander Golitzen create a convincing reality to the turn of the century backdrop. Sirk had also wanted a different ending to the film. We wondered if he might have been right in his original concept.

We were intrigued to see both Stuart Whitman and Guy Williams appearing in uncredited parts in the film. And it was quite enjoyable to see Richard Long working with Ms. Stanwyck twelve years before they would appear as mother and son in The Big Valley (and in a horseback riding scene, no less!).  Mr. Long was a terrific actor - he started his career with a substantial role - as Claudette Colbert's son in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). After several years in film (mostly as the juvenile), he went over to television in shows such as Bourbon Street Beat and Nanny and the Professor.  He was married twice - his first wife died of cancer about a year after their marriage. His second marriage (to actress Mara Corday) produced three children and lasted until his death at the age of 47 from a heart condition.
This New York Times review was not favorable, blaming director Sirk for many of its failings. And while All I Desire is not a perfect film, we enjoyed it, by and large.  We'll leave you with a scene from the film, Naomi's return to the Murdoch home.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Real Love Story

By and large, the Movie Night Group devotes our screenings to fictional films, but this week we screened a documentary - Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015). The film tells the story of Harold and Lillian Michelson, two behind-the-scenes forces in Hollywood history. Harold was a storyboard artist and later an art director, while wife Lillian was a researcher for films (and the owner of an extensive library). Both a romance and a look into the history of Hollywood, this was one that we had to view together.

The beauty of this film is the genuine warmth that the director shows in portraying his subjects.  According to this TCM article, Daniel Raim had considered a film about Mr. Michelson after talking to him for his documentary on art directors (Something's Gonna Live (2010)) and a short film (The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000)). At the same time, he envisioned a second film that would explore the research process in film, with a focus on Ms. Michelson and her library. But once he talked to them and their friends more extensively, he realized that their stories were so interwoven, that the best way to discuss them was to do one film about them both.

Despite his admiration for the couple, Mr. Raim is not creating a hagiography.  For one thing, it's quite apparent that Ms. Michelson would not allow it. She talks openly about her own limitations - her trepidation about marrying Mr. Michelson, when she really didn't know him very well; her problems dealing with her autistic son (her knowledge about autism proved useful when she researched for Rain Man (1988). However, she would not allow Dustin Hoffman to follow her son around, feeling it was a violation of they young man's privacy). We are presented with a story about two real people, not an idealization of a perfect life.
Ms. Michelson is the linchpin of the film - she  tells her tales with humor.  For example, she recalls being fired from her job with the telephone company when she was seven months pregnant because she was "an affront to the public." Her stories about her research - getting access to a closed FBI office so she could see what it looked like; connecting with elderly Jewish women so she could get an example of turn-of-the-20th Century undergarments (for a scene in Fiddler on the Roof (1971)); interviewing a drug lord for the movie Scarface - are both humorous and awe-inspiring. A voracious reader, Ms. Michelson developed a love for science fiction, which resulted in Mr. Michelson agreeing to become the art director for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). When Robert Wise asked him to do the job, Harold initially  said no; he didn't care for science fiction. But Lillian insisted he do it - turn down Star Trek? Unthinkable!

While photographs of the couple help to tell the story, a great contribution to the film is the illustrations provided by Patrick Mate, a colleague of Harold's at DreamWorks. These drawings provide a visual focus to the unfolding story.  Likewise, Mr. Michelson's hand-made greeting cards, which he would present to his wife for her birthdays, Valentine's Day, and their anniversaries, show his quirky sense of humor, and his deep love for his wife.
Harold's amazing storyboard clearly demonstrate the influence of the story-board artist to film. His work on The Birds (1963) and The Graduate (1967) outline the films shot-by-shot. Interestingly, Mr. Michelson recalled that he viewed The Graduate as a serious film, and was amazed when director Mike Nichols took his work to create a film that was sarcastically funny.

Interviews with colleagues and friends show the affection that the couple engendered inside the film industry. When Harold became ill, Lillian took him to work with her at DreamWorks (one of the many homes that she was able to find for her collection). Harold would sit with the staff animators, and tell them of his experiences. The result: the couple ended up as King Harold and Queen Lillian in Shrek. (Harold and Lillian website)

The reviews for the film were raves. Check out Variety, The New York Times, and Point of View Magazine as examples. We wholeheartedly agree, and recommend that you give this one a look.  We'll leave you with the trailer, and hope you will enjoy the film yourself!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Margaret Looks for Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Joan is Constant

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

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

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

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

We'll leave you with this trailer:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Vivien Crosses the Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mae Crosses the Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

Barbara's Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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