Friday, November 17, 2017

Golden Boy and the Blacklist

Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou), a fight promoter, is eager to make enough money to buy off his estranged wife and finally marry his mistress, Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck). When Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) enters their lives, they think they have found their Golden Boy (1939), but there are problems. Besides being a talented fighter, Joe is a gifted violinist, and his father (Lee J. Cobb) strongly objects to Joe relinquishing his potential career as a musician for a life in the boxing ring - the the potential destruction of his hands.

Perhaps it seems unusual to look at a 1939 film as part of the Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon, but this film featured a great deal of talent that was, in one way or another, affected by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC).  We'll take this opportunity to look at both the film, and the experiences of those involved in it during the period of the blacklist, in this year, the 70th anniversary of the beginning of this evil campaign.

My interest in the Blacklist really began in 1972, when Robert Vaughn (yes, THAT Robert Vaughn, the actor who appeared in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and had a PhD in Communications from University of Southern California) published Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting.  The book demonstrated that everyone involved in the process in Hollywood was victim - from those who supported the blacklist, to the actual victims. Dr. Vaughn's title was  taken from a quote by Dalton Trumbo: "it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."
Barbara Stanwyck is, as always, excellent as Lorna Moon (interestingly, the play was purchased as a vehicle for Jean Arthur, with Frank Capra directing! (TCM article)). Ms. Stanwyck can take a scene, as she does when she is trying to convince Joe to continue fighting, and change her reaction on a dime.  Though filmed under the code, Lorna remains unpunished, despite the fact that she is clearly having an affair with the married Tom.  

Ms. Stanwyck was a staunch conservative - she objected to labor unions and only joined the Screen Actors' Guild when it became apparent that the new union would prevent her from working (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940). When the investigations of HUAC began, Stanwyck, like her husband Robert Taylor, became a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Whether she herself named names is information that is not recorded - Mr. Taylor certainly made a name for himself when he testified before HUAC on October 22nd, 1947, and named names (Howard Da Silva and Karen Morley, specifically). But Ms. Stanwyck was involved with a group that was busily hunting for Communists within the Hollywood rank-and-file.

So too was Adolphe Menjou a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. His Tom Moody in our film is a rather banal man; it's hard to understand why Lorna would be interested in him, so it is easy to root for a relationship between Lorna and Joe. The day before Robert Taylor testified in front of the HUAC, Mr. Menjou testified. He fancied himself an expert on Communism, having read "over 150 books on the subject [of Russia]". He then accused John Cromwell of "acting an awful lot like a communist" (while acknowledging that he had no knowledge that Mr. Cromwell actually was a communist. He considered himself "a witch-hunter if the witches are Communists. . .a Red-baiter. I make no bones about it whatsoever. I would like to see them all back in Russia." Later, he would publicly attack many Hollywood liberals, including Katharine Heburn ("scratch a do-gooder, like Heburn, and they'll yell 'Pravda'."), infuriating Spencer Tracy and Ms. Hepburn who would only speak to Mr. Menjou onscreen when they filmed The State of the Union in 1948. (Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman by Anne Edwards)
William Holden is quite wonderful as Joe, a part for which John Garfield, Tyrone Power and Richard Carlson were all considered (AFI catalog).  This was his first real picture, and he almost got ousted from the film - only thanks to Barbara Stanwyck's intervention and coaching did he remain in the role that would effectively begin his career. When we discussed their only other film together, Executive Suite, we provided a clip of Ms. Stanwyck's tribute to Mr. Holden at the 1977 Oscars.  Though a participant in Hollywood Fights Back, a radio program hosted by the Committee on the First Amendment (the group protesting HUAC's activities), (J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War by John Sbardellati) Mr. Holden, unlike many of the other committee members (Marsha Hunt and Jane Wyatt among them) seems to have escaped unscathed from the morass of the blacklist. He even rejected vehement anti-Communist Hedda Hopper's advice when he appeared in The Bridge on the River Kwai, co-scripted by HUAC refugee Carl Foreman (Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism by Jennifer Frost). Again, it did not affect his career.

Others in the cast were not as lucky. Lee J. Cobb (named by Larry Parks, himself a victim of the blacklist), and writer Clifford Odets (named by Leila Rogers, Ginger's mother) were blacklisted until they finally, in desperation, went before HUAC to name names (see this Study Guide from Lincoln Center, from a production of the play there). For more information on those affected by HUAC, visit this list.
Golden Boy had started as a Broadway play in 1937; many of those involved in that play were also targeted, including Mr. Cobb, Mr. Da Silva, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan (who would become a symbol of the traitor when he named names to clear himself), Morris Carnovsky (named by Mr. Kazan) , Phoebe Brand (Mr. Carnovsky's wife; also named by Mr. Kazan), Luther Adler, and Roman Bohnen.  Jules Garfield, who would take Hollywood by storm under the name John Garfield was also in the Broadway play. He dearly wanted to play Joe Bonaparte, but was unable to get the needed studio loan-out to play Joe. Mr. Garfield, too, was targeted by HUAC, probably causing the heart attack that claimed his life at age 39.


Theses individuals, colleagues in 1939, would become adversaries for no real reason; yet the hatred that the Blacklist generated still remains.  In 2008, when Elia Kazan received a special Oscar, many in Hollywood either boycotted the award, or refused to applaud. (You can see the ceremony here). Was Mr. Kazan the only person who surrendered to HUAC? Are people like Lee J. Cobb and Clifford Odets evil because they caved into the pressure of not working in their chosen profession? And are we going to continue to punish the victims - because of their political beliefs, their race, creed, gender or sexual identity? That we can talk about the Blacklist in 2017 is a step in the right direction - let's keep the dialogue going, and remember it as a symbol of all the bias in our world.

We'll leave you of this scene of Lorna meeting the Bonaparte family:




Friday, November 3, 2017

Cary and Robin, As You Wish

A small boy (Fred Savage) is laid up in bed due to illness.  His Grandfather (Peter Falk) comes to visit with his favorite book, The Princess Bride (1987). The boy is dubious, but as the story of Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) unfolds, the youngster finds himself captivated by the tale.

TCM  Big Screen Classics for October featured the 30th Anniversary showing of this lovely story, along with an opportunity to hear director Rob Reiner talk a bit about his experiences on the film. The Princess Bride has a very interesting history - the book was written by William Goldman (author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). After the book's release, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, and Francois Truffaut all expressed interest in filming it (Vanity Fair article). Rob Reiner had also loved the book - it was his favorite (it had been given to him by his father, Carl Reiner), and he eventually approached Goldman about taking it on. Some convincing had to be done - Reiner related that The Princess Bride was Goldman's favorite of his works, and he didn't want it to be ruined. Needless to say, it wasn't!
The cast is altogether delightful, but our favorite characters were Valerie (Carol Kane) and Miracle Max (Billy Crystal). Mr. Reiner talked about his experiences with Mr. Crystal, who ad-libbed some of his dialogue (including the "mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich"), resulting in Mr. Reiner having to leave the set for a time - his laughing kept interrupting the action.  The scenes are superb - from word one to the conclusion ("Have fun stormin' the castle").

This was Robin Wright's breakout film role - though the film "introduced" her, she had been on screen before. She had appeared on one TV show, a TV film, and a small part in Hollywood Vice Squad (1986). At the time she filmed The Princess Bride, she was a regular in the soap opera Santa Barbara (AFI Catalog).  Ms. Wright is very good, though I have a problem with one scene. When Westley is attacked by the Rodent of Unusual Size, Buttercup just stands there watching, and doesn't react until it finally goes after her. Princess, pick up a stick and hit the darn thing. If it kills Westley, it's going for you next!


I confess to not being a Mandy Patinkin fan, by and large, but as Inigo Montoya, he is perfect. He learned to fence with both hands for the film (as did Carey Elwes), and he plays Inigo straight. Had there been the slightest bit of satire in his demeanor, the part would have fallen flat. Because Inigo believes in his quest, we do to, and we root for him to find the man who killed his father.

Christopher Guest is wonderfully despicable as Count Rugan, and makes a perfect partner to Chris Sarandon's Prince Humperdink. Both play their roles with relish, and while they are a bit overstated, it really works in the film.
Before I close, I need to talk briefly about the frame story between the Grandfather and Grandson. The relationship between the two makes the film very special. The Grandson doesn't want to see his Grandfather because he will pinch the boy's cheek (of course he does), and the boy isn't really interested in the story at first, because it is not about sports, and because there is kissing. Yet, we feel the love between the two, and watch the boy become engroseed in this story which was also read to his father years before. Peter Falk just exudes love for his Grandson, and Fred Savage is the perfect pre-teen boy. Mr Falk's line, "when I was your age, television was called books" is marvelous! I looked forward to their "interruptions" in the main story.
While The Princess Bride was not a box-office bonanza, it did relatively well in initial release. Since then, it has become widely popular. It was named #88 on  AFI 100 Years, 100 Passions, and in 2016 it was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. It even has its own fan website; visit for trivia games and film clips.

We'll leave you with these scenes of Westley's signature line.

Garbo Laughs Over Lunch

When Russian representatives Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are sent to Paris to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), the negotiations do not go smoothly. The Grand Duchess, now living in Paris, initiates a lawsuit, and the three agents find themselves seduced by the entrancing Parisian lifestyle. Enter Nina Ivanovna Yakushova - or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) - a stern Communist envoy, sent to find out the reason for the delay. Determined to not fall into the same pit as her predecessors, Ninotchka (1939) instead finds herself succumbing to the wooing of Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a ne'er-do-well playboy, and Swana's latest lover.

In conjunction with the Food in Film Blogathon, we'll look at Ninotchka though the lens of food and beverage. Ernst Lubitsch's film sparkles like the champagne that intoxicates Ninotchka and Leon and satisfies like Ninotchka's workman's lunch. A nominee for the 1939 Best Picture Oscar, it marked a redemption for Greta Garbo who had been labeled as "Box Office Poison" in 1938. This was her first comedy, and resulted in the last of her 3 nominations for the Best Actress Oscar. (She'd already been nominated for Anna Christie (1930) and Camille (1938)). In 1955, she was awarded an Honorary Oscar. Not surprisingly, she did not attend the ceremony.
Food represents a corrupting influence in Ninotchka.  Among the initial temptations that seduce Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski is the readily available room service in their luxurious hotel. Ninotchka tries to resist the temptation by eating lunch where working men eat, but even there she is expected to relish her food and care about what she is eating. Leon cautions her that she has insulted the restaurant owner and must apologize "by eating everything that he brings you with relish, by drinking everything with gusto, by having a good time for the first time in your natural life!"  Ninotchka's ultimate downfall is represented when she is drunk on champagne. She's been raised on goat's milk and vodka. Champagne is a new, heady experience for her.

In comparison, the lack of food in Russia is constant theme. The jewels that the ambassadors are in Paris to sell will provide food for the citizens. Grand Duchess Swana convinces Ninotchka to leave Paris by pointing out the number of people who will starve while their court case if fought. When the quartet return to Russia, they pool their ration of a single egg apiece to make an omelet. Finally,when Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski again leave Russia - never to return - it is to open a restaurant in Turkey.
Greta Garbo is amazing in the film. Yet, her two most intriguing scenes were ones she did not want to play.  According to this TCM article, Garbo was reluctant to play the drunk scene - finding it "unbecoming".  Co-star Melvyn Douglas also stated that she "was unable to articulate so much as a titter during the shooting of the restaurant scene." Yet, somehow in the film, laugh she did, and legend was born.

Bela Lugosi has almost a cameo appearance as Commissar Razinin. With his beard and scowl, he is properly menacing (he's been mentioned prior to his appearance as someone with whom you do not want to tangle).  It's a good role, and makes for an interesting break from the horror films that would dominate his career. 
Both Cary Grant and William Powell were considered for the role of Leon (AFI Catalog); Melvyn Douglas is excellent in the role. You believe him both as a wastrel and as a man who is sincerely in love for the first time. A stage actor with Broadway experience, Mr. Douglas came to film with the advent of sound. He continued to work in both mediums, adding radio and television to his resume, until his death in 1981 - 14 months after the death of his wife of nearly 50 years Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.  The pair met while appearing in the Broadway production of Tonight or Never (Mr. Douglas had been previously married and had a son). They had two children; their grand-daughter is actress Illeana Douglas.

The story was redone as a play on the Paris stage in 1950, as well as a radio play (part of the Screen Guild Theater) with Joan Fontaine and William Powell in the leads.  A musical followed in 1954. Silk Stockings, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and starring Hildegarde Neff and Don Ameche (and with a very young Julie Newmar in a minor role) ran for 478 performances.  The film version, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse was released in 1957. Then, in 1960, a television version of Ninotchka was aired on ABC, with Maria Schell and Gig Young in the leads.
There were, not surprisingly, censorship issues. The Russians didn't like the film (and threatened theater owners in Vienna with reprisals if they exhibited the film!). As this New Yorker article points out, it won no love from the Germans either - the German couple at the railroad station issuing their salute to the Fuhrer is a clear barb at the Nazis. Lubitsch was no fan of the German Reich - three years later, he would release his biting comedy, To Be or Not To Be (1942).  Regardless, the New York Times was in heaven, calling Ninotchka "one of the sprightliest comedies of the year." Besides the awards mentioned above, it was also nominated for Best Writing (Original Story) and Best Writing (Screenplay). It ranks at #52 on AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs.

We'll leave you with this scene, of Garbo laughing (and eating - and she's not eating "raw beets and carrots"). Enjoy!



Monday, October 23, 2017

Joel Fishes

When Boyd Emerson (Joel McCrea) and his friend Frasier (Raymond Hatton) arrive in  Kalvik, Alaska, their entry is greeted by open hostility.  The Silver Horde (1930) concerns their efforts to open a salmon canning business in Kalvik, and the opposition they face from their chief competitor, Fred Marsh (Gavin Gordon).

A remake of a 1920 silent film of the same name (AFI catalog), The Silver Horde is as much about the business of salmon fishing in Alaska as it is a romance. In a fairly detailed sequence, we are shown the details behind the salmon that arrived on the shelf of consumers from the moment the fish are caught until the can is sealed and labeled. And just to be sure that the viewer knows that this is a part of the film, we see both Joel McCrea and Raymond Hatton working on the assembly line. Salmon fishing (in this case, coho salmon) is a major industry in Alaska - school children are taught about the five kinds of salmon, it is that important - and this one episode emphasizes that. More to the point, the industrialization of the salmon fishing would have been an exotic and unique process to the general filmgoer; this segment proves both educational and a quick glimpse of the past of an important food industry. The film, by the way, was actually shot on location in Ketchikan, Alaska (TCM article).
This was the first teaming of Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur (they would do two more films together). However, Ms. Arthur is not the star here.  Evelyn Brent (Cherry Malotte) is. Ms. Brent had long experience as a silent actress - she started in films in 1914.  She's quite good in this film, playing a tough and knowing woman, who has made her money in Alaska working as a prostitute, and is now the owner of a successful copper mine. Ms. Brent worked steadily, well into the 1940s, though she did most of her later work in B films, or at Poverty Row studios. When she retired from acting in 1950, she became an agent (she would make one television appearance in 1960 - on an episode of Wagon Train). Married three times, she died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 75. Unfortunately, many of her silent films have been listed as lost

This was Joel McCrea's second major role and he was pretty much on an upward trajectory for the rest of his career. He's sincere and attractive as Boyd; he manages to keep your sympathy and interest even after he is verbally cruel to Cherry. Mr. McCrea was always an interesting actor AND an interesting man. While many actors who were not in the military played soldiers in movies, Joel McCrea refused to wear a uniform in any of his films. Unable to serve in the Armed Forces, he felt that for him to appear in uniform was disrespectful to those who were serving (TCM article). He loved westerns, and in his later years would only appear in them. After his retirement, he worked on his ranch, where he lived with his wife, Frances Dee (they had three children, and were ultimately married for 57 years) until his death at 84 in 1990.
Blanche Sweet, who plays Queenie, was a notable silent actress, but her career just didn't take off in sound films.  She's quite sassy as Queenie, serving to tie up some plot loose ends and to give us a tiny glimpse into Cherry's past. This film, was in fact, her last until 1959 when she appeared in an uncredited role in The Five Pennies (she also did a few television appearances around this time). She continued to work in radio, and on stage. She had married Raymond Hackett in 1935; after his death, she moved on to a new part of her life - she worked on film preservation. She served on the Board of Directors of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was a consultant to the Department of Film of the Museum of Modern Art. (New York Times obit). She also appeared in Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982). Ms. Sweet died of a stroke in 1986, at age 90. Her ashes were scattered in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
The New York Times review was not particularly complimentary in their evaluation of the film, though they were very enthusiastic about the work of Blanche Sweet. While not a great film, The Silver Horde really has a lot going for it, especially the opportunity to see two future stars before they got their starts.  We'll leave you with this scene of Joel McCrea, looking rather hunky as he fights for his place in the community: 


Monday, October 16, 2017

Ginger is on the Radio

Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers), America's "Purity Girl" has had it. She's been on the radio for a year. She's popular, she's making plenty of money, but she is banned from going ANYWHERE. She wants to go out and dance in Harlem, she wants to wear makeup and date. But under her present contract, she is forbidden from doing anything that might compromise her image of innocence. When she threatens her boss, Sam Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) with leaving his employ, he agrees to get her a Professional Sweetheart (1933) - and potential husband - that will allow her to date discreetly.

Though at times a fairly silly movie, Professional Sweetheart is enjoyable. Ginger Rogers is very cute as a girl who just wants to have fun, and while Norman Foster (as Jim Davey) is perhaps not the most dynamic actor in the world, he is convincingly sincere. Add a group of excellent character actors, including Gregory Ratoff (playing a part not dissimilar to his role in All About Eve), Frank McHugh (as Speed Dennis), and Allen Jenkins (as O'Connor), and you have a film that is fun and ever so slightly titillating (as you can see from the still below!)
We were pleased to also see Theresa Harris (Vera) in a small role.  She's relegated to playing a maid, of course, and is not even billed in the credits, but she is again (as she was in Baby Face) intelligent and attractive, and more of a confidant to the unhappy Glory than a mere servant.  Unlike Ginger Rogers, Ms. Harris actually gets to do her own singing (Etta Moten sings for Ms. Rogers; why, is a big question).  Ms. Harris has a lovely voice, and is an excellent actress: with 99 film and television credits to her name, Ms. Harris SHOULD be better known. She was the inspiration for a play, By the Way, Vera Stark, which performed off-Broadway in 2011. Married from 1933 until her death, to a physician, Ms. Harris retired from acting in 1958. She died at age 79, in 1985.

Normally, we enjoy ZaSu Pitts (Elmerada de Leon),  but her vagueness gets annoying after a time.  Of course, Elmerada is supposed to be annoying, but she is also supposed to be funny. The film really carries the act a bit too far, so we found ourselves groaning when Ms. Pitts started to open her mouth.

Norman Foster is okay as the romantic lead, but not much more than that. He would continue acting until 1938 (he returned to acting in the 1970s in a few television shows and movies), but he is best known as a director. He directed several of the Mr. Moto films, 1948's Rachel and the Stranger (starring his sister-in-law, Loretta Young), and the noir classic Woman on the Run (1950). He also did much television directing (including 39 episodes of Ms. Young's television shows). He was married for 7 years to Claudette Colbert; after their divorce in 1935, he married Sally Blane; they had two children and were married until his death from cancer in 1976 (age 72).
This was Ms. Rogers' first film under a three picture deal with RKO (TCM article). All three pictures (Rafter Romance, also co-starring Norman Foster, and Chance at Heaven were the other two) were released in 1933, as was her next film, under a new seven-year contract - Flying Down to Rio, her first film with Fred Astaire. They didn't dub her singing voice after that!

Original titles for the film include Careless and Purity Girl, (AFI Catalog) but we felt the release title was the best choice - after all, but Jim AND Glory turn out to be professional sweethearts! Besides the character actors mentioned above, there are brief glimpses of Betty Furness (as a reporter) and Akim Tamiroff (as a waiter).

The New York Times liked the film (which premiered in Radio City Music Hall), as did my colleague at Pre-code.com (for an outline of some of the pre-code naughtiness, please to visit his posting). You can see some of that naughtiness in this clip from the film. A good opportunity to see Ginger Rogers early in her career, Professional Sweetheart is a pleasant romp. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kay Sings?

Would-be actress Pamela Drake (Deanna Durbin) is eager to follow in the footsteps of her mother, noted actress and soprano Georgia Drake (Kay Francis). But when Pamela is offered a role in Karl Ober's (S. Z. Sakall) new play of St. Anne, complications ensue. Though the character is Pamela's age, Georgia is eager to play the role; Pamela, however is unaware of her mother's plan. Thus begins It's a Date (1940).

The film is by no means great literature. The plot is fairly simple; you know almost immediately that John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon) is going to fall in love with Georgia. And that Pamela will discover her mother's interest in the part of St. Anne. It doesn't really matter, though. It's a frothy little film that you can enjoy simply to watch some really fine actors and one amazing singer.

As you can see by the artwork accompanying this post, Ms. Francis is relegated to second billing (along with Walter Pidgeon) under the new star Deanna Durbin. Ms. Durbin had gotten her start at MGM; her first film was the short Every Sunday (1936) with another magnificent singer, Judy Garland. You can hear the two of them singing together in this clip:
Ms. Durbin's contract was dropped (according to the Deanna Durbin Devotees website, Louis B. Mayer instructed his people to "fire the fat one", and they let Deanna go). Universal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, snatched her up. She is credited with single-handedly saving the studio from ruin (TCM article). With a good screen presence and an amazing voice, she became immensely popular, and continued working until age 29, when she retired and completely disappeared from public view. Her son announced her death at age 91 in 2013, providing no details and thanking her fans for "respecting her privacy."

As we've mentioned before, Kay Francis was out of favor with Warner Brothers; they would give her awful scripts or loan her out to other studios, in hopes that she would quit. She didn't (the checks didn't bounce!). Though she is not around for half the movie, she's quite lovely as a good mother who only what is best for her daughter. She also gets some attractive costumes from Vera West.
The film is not short on supporting talent. Besides Ms. Francis and Mr. Pidgeon, we are also treated to such amazing character actors as S.Z. Sakall, Eugene Pallette (in what is basically a walk-on as the Governor of Hawaii), Henry Stephenson (as the ship's Captain Andrew), and Samuel S. Hinds (as agent Sidney Simpson). With such strong performers, the material is elevated beyond the scope of the writing.  All the character parts are small (most of the heavy lifting in the film is Ms. Durbin, with Mr. Pidgeon getting a nice chunk of screen time), but we did think that Mr. Sakall, as always, made the most of what he had, to excellent effect. It is no wonder he was often called "Cuddles". Even here, playing the man who doesn't WANT Georgia in the role, you like him!
The New York Times actually liked the film, with reviewer Frank S. Nugent calling it "a charming, if highly improbable, entertainment" in his review. In some senses, it is a comedic/romantic version of All About Eve, with a bit of singing. The next time you are looking for a film to just sit and enjoy, this is one to consider.  We'll leave you with this scene from the beginning of the film, with the lovely Ms. Francis NOT singing:

Monday, October 2, 2017

Don Goes to the Devil

Heaven Can Wait (1943) tells in flashback the life of Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). After his death, Henry heads directly to Hell, where he meets with His Excellency (Laird Cregar). His Excellency is puzzled as to why Henry is there (he's a bit behind, due to the level of arrivals), and queries Henry on his reason for not heading first to  The Other Place (as most arrivals do). For one thing, His Excellency notes, the quality of the music is far better in The Other Place (Mozart and Beethoven are there!).  But Henry, who was a bit of a rapscallion in life, relates his story to explain why he didn't bother trying to obtain entry upstairs.

There is often some confusion between this film and the 1978 film with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. That was indeed a remake, but its plot was taken from the Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  This story is a much simpler one, concerned with a man, his family, and their lives in turn-of-the-century New York City. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch with his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, this is an amusing, slightly suggestive film that is always entertaining. Sure, in the 21st Century, it is a trifle sexist - Martha Strable Van Cleve (Gene Tierney) is off-handedly equated with her father's symbolic cow, Mabel by Grandfather Hugo Van Cleve (Charles Coburn) when Martha and Henry elope (We'll take Martha/You keep Mabel). But, in the final analysis, Martha is the backbone of the family, and much wiser than her mother-in-law, Bertha (Spring Byington) or her mother Mrs. Strabel (Marjorie Main) - or her husband, for that matter!
Several performances really shine in Heaven Can Wait, but none more than that of Charles Coburn. A remarkable character actor who coulc play anything, he is superb as Grandfather Hugo. With that little bit of a twinkle in his eye, you know from the start just where Henry "got it from." Mr. Coburn was already 60 when he began his film career. He had worked on the Broadway stage - beginning in 1901, he would appear in and/or produce 28 plays. He had formed his own theatrical company with his business and acting partner  - and wife - Ivah Wills Coburn. It was after Ivah's death in 1937 that he ventured permanently to Hollywood (he would return to Broadway in 1952, to produce The Long Watch). In the years between 1933 (he filmed a short that year, and a film in 1935) and his death in 1961, he appeared in 99 films and television shows (as well as occasional radio programs). Among his exceptional performances are The More the Merrier (1943), Bachelor Mother (1939), King's Row (1942), and In Name Only (1939). He was (sadly) an advocate of segregation, and a member of both the White Citizens' Council and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (a right-wing, anti-Communist group in the 1950s). He married a second time at age 82 and fathered a daughter. He died of a heart attack at the age of 84.
Director Lubitsch was reluctant to use Don Ameche in the part of Henry - he had wanted Fredric March or Rex Harrison (AFI Catalog). But Ameche's screen test proved him perfect for the role, and Lubitsch reluctantly agreed (TCM article). Reginald Gardiner was considered for the role of Albert (which would eventually go to Allyn Joslyn), and Simone Simon was set to play Mademoiselle (Signe Hasso would take on the part when Simon's billing demands were not met).
Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review was reasonably pleased with the film. Regardless, it has been acknowledged as a classic, discussed by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, who calls it a story of "riotous, uninhibited love." Senses of Cinema calls it "a commentary on marriage, an appreciation for love and dedication, and belongs firmly in Lubitsch’s canon alongside One Hour With You (1932)."

All in all, Heaven Can Wait, is a lovely, wry, and witty film, well worth your viewing. I'll leave you with this interview between Henry and His Excellency, as they discuss the musical options in Hell.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dancing in the Stars


I'm going to spend a little of your time discussing a film from last year.  We just recently saw La La Land (2016) with a live orchestra providing the score, and this second viewing even further solidified my appreciation for the influence of classic cinema on director Damien Chazelle. Let's spend a few minutes looking at some of the references to film's past that appear throughout the movie.

The plot is a simple boy meets girl story. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress, working as a barista at a film studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a gifted musician with a passion for jazz music. Their first meetings are problematic, but when they finally get to talk at a party, love grows. Complications ensue when Seb takes a job with a contemporary music group. Making more money than he had ever hoped to see, but playing music he dislikes, Seb is also constantly away from Mia. They begin to drift apart as their lives and careers collide.

The film opens with a a dance number on the LA freeway, as Mia, Seb, and half of the city are caught in a traffic jam. With rich colors and enthusiastic, athletic dancing, the segment is a tip of the hat to the 1967 Jacques Demy musical The Young Girls of Rochefort. The images below will give you a look at the two scenes side-by-side. For an audience unused to a film opening with people singing and dancing (for no good reason!) on a highway or bridge, this must have been a shocking opening. I found it wonderful!  Another Demy film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, also provides inspiration for La La Land. The endings of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and La La Land are also remarkably similar. This article from PopSugar has a very interesting analysis of the two movies.
La La Land
 
The Young Girls of Rochefort
Two days after the release of La La Land (December 25, 2016), Debbie Reynolds, the star of Singin' in the Rain, died at the age of 84. In January, La La Land was awarded the Chairman's Vanguard Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.  It  was accepted by Ryan Gosling, whose acceptance speech focused on Ms. Reynolds and the inspiration her performance provided to the cast. (Slate.com). There are several nods to Singin' in the Rain in the film - Seb and Mia strolling through an active movie set, as Don and Cosmo do; Seb swinging around a lamppost, reminiscent of the Singin' in the Rain title number; and the concluding fantasy sequence which summons up images of the "Gotta Dance" number. (Slate)

Other films - both musical and non-musical - make appearances. A fantasy epilogue towards the end of La La Land brings to mind the "Our Love is Here to Stay" number from An American in Paris, as well as the Ballet Sequence in that film. Emma Stone carrying a bunch of balloons in the sequence is a clear pointer to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. We even see a little boy in that epilogue carrying a Red Balloon.

As Seb and Mia dance in the stars, both the "Begin the Beguine" number from Broadway Melody of 1940 and the "Never Gonna Dance" number from Swing Time are benchmarks. Mia's bedroom contains a large mural of Ingrid Bergman, and her cafe if just across the street from a stage set that was the window of the Cafe Aurore in Casablanca. Seb brings Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause; then the couple visits the Griffith Observatory where much of the action from that film occurs. The Slate article previously referenced and this discussion in New York Times provide an excellent outline of the many classic film references.
La La Land is a film that one can watch multiple times and each time see something new. I'll leave you with a trailer and my favorite song from the film:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

William Has The Key

Paedar Conlan (Donald Crisp), a Sein Fein official, is on the run from the British military in 1920s Dublin. He's being sought by Captain Andrew Kerr (Colin Clive), an officer in the Secret Service. Andrew and his wife, Norah (Edna Best) have a good marriage, though Andrew knows that she once loved another. Their life becomes more complex with the arrival of Captain Bill Tennant (William Powell), Norah's former love. Thus begins The Key (1934).

A compact film, The Key proved to be interesting plot, if a bit weak at times. We discussed the rather oblique title at some length (was it called The Key because of Powell's entry into his commander's office? Or was Paedar Conlan The Key to all the problems? It's a mystery; and not a very revealing title). We were also bemused by an ending that felt tacked on.  Released in 1934, we suspect that concerns with the code may have altered the original ending. Regardless, it felt abrupt and slapdash.

The actual key to this film is William Powell. With the twinkle in his eyes, and his devil-may-care attitude, Powell saves the film from being a bore. When he is on the screen, you can't take your eyes away from him. Particularly nice were his interactions with a flower girl (played by Anne Shirley, back when she was still Dawn O'Day). We know that Tennant is a ladies' man, but his conversations with Ms. O'Day are gently flirtatious, an acknowledgement of her youth and obvious naivety. A consummate actor, Mr. Powell is never better than when he is a bit of rogue; he's always able to let you know that there is a gentle side to nature.
Colin Clive proves a good foil to Mr. Powell. His character is very straight-arrow; this allows Powell to give the action some much needed bounce. Mr. Clive had a very brief film career - only 18 movies between 1930 and 1937, the most famous of which was his role as Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 Frankenstein. During the same period, he appeared in 4 Broadway plays, including Libel, which would be made into a film in 1959. Whether Mr. Clive could have broken away from the super-serious plotlines into which he was being cast will never be known. He died in 1937 of tuberculosis complicated by alcoholism; he was 37.

This was Mr. Powell's last picture at Warner Brothers. He'd not felt well-used there; he selected The Key over another Philo Vance film and a movie called Dollar Wise (which does not seem to have ever made it to the screen). When his contract ended, he headed down the road to MGM, where he was teamed with Myrna Loy and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). That paring with Ms. Loy was such a success that they appeared in another film that same year, for which Mr. Powell was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - The Thin Man. Ultimately, Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy were in 14 films together. (TCM article; William Powell The Life and Films by Roger Bryant).
Mordaunt Hall in his New York Times review called The Key "a sturdy and effective melodrama" which is perhaps more praise than it deserves. He was particularly impressed with the performances of Mr. Powell and Mr. Clive; he even singles out Ms. O'Day for praise. While not a bad film, it's not Mr. Powell's best. But even his least is worth a quick view. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Barbara's in Jeopardy

The Stilwin family, Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), Doug (Barry Sullivan), and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are in a deserted area of  Mexico to enjoy a long anticipated camping expedition. But when an accident places Doug in Jeopardy (1953), it's up to Helen to find assistance before the rising tide drowns her husband. There is, however, a complication - an escaped murderer (Ralph Meeker as Lawson) is in the area, and will stop at nothing to get away. 

The poster art for the film is rather peculiar. Yes, Helen does end up in jeopardy, but there are two people in real danger. The posters make it look as though the title of the film is A Woman in Jeopardy, when it is not.  This, of course, does make the art a bit more lascivious, but it doesn't prepare the viewer for the real story.

We were a little taken aback that Doug would bring his family to such a remote and really dangerous area, especially since they are in a country where none of them speak the language (Doug does have a modicum of Spanish). The conversations between Doug and Helen, however, remind us that this was an area in which Doug spent some happy times during the second World War, fishing with his army buddies. We can assume that, after facing combat, Doug found the isolation of this area attractive, and he remembers it colored by his other thoughts about his time in the service.

Barry Sullivan is quite good as Doug - you may shake your head at his decision to take his family to such an odd vacation locale, but you cannot doubt his regard for his wife nor his love for his son. Sullivan's scenes with young Lee Aaker are especially moving; as Doug loses hope of Helen's timely return, he begins to carefully prepare the boy for his death. Sullivan does it tactfully, and without any self-pity. It's a picture of a good father wanting what is best for his boy.
Mr. Sullivan was particularly complementary about Ms. Stanwyck in the film, stating that "of the films I did with Miss Stanwyck only Jeopardy sticks in my mind as having any merit, but all three occasions (the others were The Maverick Queen and Forty Guns) cling to my memory as fun experiences."  Part of the credit for the success of the film goes to director John Sturges, who enticed Ms. Stanwyck back from a one-year attempt at retirement. (TCM article)

There was a great deal of discussion about Ralph Meeker, who presents an interesting and complicated character. Two of our members wondered if providing a backstory for Lawson would have been beneficial. What did he do? Why was he in Mexico? I'm convinced it would not have added anything. We know Lawson is a murderer. We see a dead man that he killed, and we see him shoot a police officer. That, for me, was enough. By the end (no spoilers on this one), we do have to look at Lawson as a human being rather than just a malevolent villain. Lawson is a complex individual who you won't like but will appreciate.
Lee Aaker, who is very good as Bobby, had a relatively short film and television career. He's probably best remembered today for his role as Corporal Rusty in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959). Many of his film roles were uncredited (like A Lion is in the Streets (1953)), but he also had the role of Red Chief in "The Ransom of Red Chief" segment of  O. Henry's Full House. When acting roles were not available to him any longer (as so frequently happens to child actors), he went into the production arena. He finally left Hollywood, settling in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Based on a radio play A Question of Time (AFI catalog), the film was expanded a bit, but is still relatively short - 69 minutes, which affords the film a lot of tension. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed by the film; regardless it did well at the box office. In 1954, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sullivan reprized their roles in a 48 minute broadcast.

In a recent introduction on TCM's Noir Alley (to Stawyck's Crime of Passion), Eddie Muller called Ms. Stanwyck "greatest actress in the history of motion pictures." He went on to say:
Not only did Ms. Stanwyck possess the greatest range of any movie actress, being equally adept at screwball comedy and gut-wrenching drama, she could easily lay claim to being the most essential actress in the development of film noir. After all, dark crime thrillers were not really a movement until Stanwyck created a sensation as the duplicitous  Phyllis Dietrickson in 1944’s Double Indemnity. At that time she was the highest paid woman in the USA and the box office success of that film was the single most critical factor in the rise of what would later be called film noir.  And she didn’t stop there; during the 10 years following Double Indemnity, she could lay claim to the title The Queen of Film Noir: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong NumberThe Two Mrs. Carrolls, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, Witness to Murder,  as well as noir-stained dramas like The Lady Gambles, Clash by Night, and Jeopardy. Stanwyck took a long Walk on the Wild Side. For years however, few of those films were mentioned when experts talked about film noir. The reason is simple. Film scholars were mostly men and they rarely felt a female protagonist fit the mold they’d established for film noir.  No one, man or woman, portrayed this angst and agony better than Barbara Stanwyck.
Thank you, Mr. Muller for saying so eloquently what we've been attesting to in our own modest way about this most glorious of actresses.  We'll leave you with this opening scene for the film.