Monday, April 19, 2021

Robert Meets Jane

After several thugs beat Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) with claims that he owes a gambling debt, Milner is offered an opportunity - go to a ritzy resort in Mexico, all expenses paid, and stay for one year. En route, he meets Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), a wealthy woman who is also going to the resort. When he arrives, he meets various characters, including hunting-mad actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), FBI Agent Bill Lusk (Tim Holt), and the threatening Thompson (Charles McGraw). But what is becoming clear is that Dan is in danger.  Our film this week is His Kind of Woman (1951).

Any discussion of this film has to start with the fact that it is weird. It's classed as a film noir in many publications, but it is more than that - it's got a little marital melodrama, elements of the traditional gangster film, and a lot of comedy.  This by no means is to intimate that it is a bad film - there is pleasure in weirdness, and there certainly is in His Kind of Woman.
 
The audience is often in the same situation as Dan Milner - going on an unknown ride, with precious little information to guide us.  We know from the start that Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is up to something, and that Dan's appearance is part of the factor, but we aren't sure of what, which adds to the suspenseful aspects of the film.  There is supposed to be a resemblance between Dan and Ferraro, but the camerawork also makes it seem that Mr. Mitchum is much taller than Mr. Burr (there was actually only a 1 inch difference in their heights), so we finally see the two together, the similarities are slim at best. 
Mr. Burr was the THIRD person cast in the role of Ferraro, a character loosely based on Lucky Luciano (TCM article).  Lee Van Cleef had shot his scenes when Howard Hughes informed his second director, Richard Fleischer (more on that later) that he didn't like Van Cleef.  So Fleischer re-filmed all the scenes with Robert J. Wilke, only to have Mr. Burr walk in one day to tell Fleischer that Mr. Hughes had ordered Mr. Burr to the set to again re-film the Ferraro scenes (Movies!TV). Mr. Burr is convincingly menacing as Ferraro - even in stillness, he has an air of danger around him. It's been said that, in one of the intense fight scenes, he accidentally knocked out Robert Mitchum (AFI catalog). We felt he was a real asset to the film, but three different filmings does seem a bit excess. 

Robert Mitchum was Howard Hughes only choice for the role, and he's excellent as a man way out of his depth.  In the extended ending, he is truly fearful - something you don't often see from a hero.  Also, he has an excellent rapport with his fellow actors, especially with Jane Russell (who became his long-time friend with this film) and Vincent Price (who called Mr. Mitchum "an extraordinary actor" who was "heaven to work with").  
Jane Russell brings just the right amount of street smarts to the character of Lenore, who is really Liz Brady, a former singer trying hard to find a rich husband.  She and Mr. Mitchum bounce off of one another beautifully; she's also smart and gutsy.  When the final showdown begins, she's all set to storm the gates with Mr. Price's ragtag army.  She brings a sweetness to Liz that is refreshing - yes, she's planning to marry Mr. Price for his money, but the audience never feels that she is completely mercenary. 
 
Some other supporting parts worth mentioning are Jim Backus as a professional gambler who is using his skills to railroad a newlywed into his bed - watch for the Casablanca-inspired scene with Leslye Banning (Jennie Stone), who was, in fact, Jane Russell's sister-in-law.  Ms. Banning and Mr. Russell were divorced in the 1950s; she remarried and had a total of 10 children - 3 with Mr. Russell and 7 with her second husband Keith Rogers, to whom she is still married). Marjorie Reynolds (Helen Cardigan) as Cardigan's estranged wife and Tim Holt have far too little screen time, in our estimation, but both (especially Ms. Reynolds) make the best with what they have.
I've saved the best for last - Vincent Price is amazingly funny as the actor who takes on the villains. Mr. Price looks like he is enjoying himself in the part, and it brings some much needed relief at the end of the film when the sadism level reaches it's peak.  Howard Hughes was particularly enamored with the character of Mark Cardigan, and insisted that it be substantially expanded. Watching Mr. Price spout Shakespeare (and for those who have watched the commentary by film historian and academic Vivian Sobchack, they is NOT all from Hamlet. Mark quotes Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest) and throw his cape around is immensely funny. At the same time, you have to admire his bravery, as well as his intelligence - watch him figure out exactly where an attacker is hiding.

It would take more space than we have here to go into detail on the varied and sundry changes made to this film - Eddie Muller's intro and outro for the film's presentation on Noir Alley will give you a really good overview. The short version is that director John Farrow refused to make the emendations that Howard Hughes wanted - the expansion of Vincent Price's scenes, and a long ending that involved beating and torturing Mitchum's Dan Milner (it's amazing that this film got through the PCA!). So, Hughes brought in Richard Fleischer and told him he would only release The Narrow Margin IF Mr. Fleischer subbed as director for the scenes he wanted. By the time the film ended, Mr. Mitchum had been on the production for one year, having shot some of the extremely intense scenes many times with different actors.  He finally lost it one day, and destroyed much of the set when he was shooting a fairly violent episode yet again.
The New York Times review by H.H.T. (Howard Thompson) was abysmal, calling it "one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years".  It lost money upon release, primarily because Hughes spent so much money in reshooting that the budget was overly inflated.  In recent years, it has been viewed more positively, with Senses of Cinema say it is one of  "classics of narrative perversity" and TimeOut saying that in spite of its oddness it is "an unforgettable delight".

If only to see Vincent Price, we heartily recommend of viewing of this peculiar film.  We'll leave you with the trailer:


Monday, April 12, 2021

William and Myrna Investigate Again

It’s a year After the Thin Man (1936) investigation, and Nora (Myrna Loy) and Nick Charles (William Powell) return to their San Francisco home on New Year’s Eve, To Nick’s dismays a command visit by Nora’s aunt, Katherine Forrest (Jessie Ralph) awaits them. It seems that Nora’s cousin Selma Landis (Elissa Landi) has been abandoned by her husband Robert (Alan Marshal), and Selma is frantic.

If this film doesn't quite have the magic of the original film, it's pretty darn close (and if you'd not seen the first one, you wouldn't care there was something better). Mr. Powell and Mr. Loy remain in top form, and Mr. Powell is given another character to bounce off - this time in the person of Jessie Ralph's domineering Aunt Katherine.  Every time she calls him NICHO-LAAS, you fall down laughing. 

What begins as a simple case of marital neglect becomes a series of murders, with Selma Landis as the key suspect.  It's hard to sympathize with Selma - she's a doormat. Her husband is a boor, he's a serial philanderer, and she knows that he only married her for her money. When she begins begging him to return to her, one cringes. Selma has no gumption - she crawls to her husband and cowers from her aunt. Even her relationship with Nora - who really cares for her cousin - is that of a supplicant.  It doesn't help that Ms. Landi really overacts the part. 
That David Graham (James Stewart) would be passionately in love with Selma seems a stretch. The only time she seems to have rebelled against anyone is when she jilted David for Robert. But Mr. Stewart, who was starting to get lead parts (Born to Dance (1936) was released just before this film) is excellent in a very complex part.  According to Ms. Loy's biography, he was thrilled to be in the movie, and ran around the set telling everyone "There ought to be a law against any man who doesn't marry Myrna Loy!" (Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider). They had already appeared in the same film (though with no on-screen time) in Wife vs. Secretary that same year.

This was the first big role for Dorothy McNulty (Polly Byrnes), who would change her name to Penny Singleton in 1938 (AFI Catalog) and go on to fame in the Blondie series - all 28 films of it. She's good in the part - Polly's a tough woman, and serves as an interesting counterpoint to Selma the wimp. In the long run, I think we ended up liking Polly a lot more (even if she is a conniver!) 
Other supporting actors provide interesting performances. Joseph Calleia (Dancer) is properly menacing as the nightclub owner who is using Robert Landis for his own purposes. A short scene with Fingers (Harry Taylor), another of Nick's buddies, is very amusing. And finally, there is Sam Levene (Lieutenant Abrams), who takes on the part of the harried police officer.  Mr. Levene is excellent, and he and Mr. Powell have the rapport that is necessary to make the relationship between the detective and the investigator work.  

Asta gets a bigger part in this movie - he has a "wife" who is flirting with another dog, much to Asta's disgust. It's a cute bit, and was probably added because of the popularity of the animal from the prior film.

When Ms. Loy saw that she and Mr. Powell were being advertised as a screen team, she decided that receiving half the salary Mr. Powell was getting was not enough. So, she stood her ground and held out for an equal salary to Mr. Powell - and Louis B. Mayer gave it to her! (TCM article). And, if only for this film, Ms. Loy does seem to know how to knit.
The opening of the film makes of a big point of the fact that Nick and Nora are arriving in San Francisco on the Sunset Limited, a train that ran from New Orleans to San Francisco. Since, at the end of the first movie, the Charles' were on the train to San Francisco (and it is just after Christmas in that film), we know that the action in After the Thin Man is likely one year after the first movie.

The New York Times review by Frank S. Nugent was positive calling it "one of the most urbane comedies of the season". And indeed it is.  We'll leave you with the trailer:



Monday, April 5, 2021

William and Myrna Investigate

The disappearance of The Thin Man (1934), Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), and the suspicion that he is responsible for several murders, brings his friend, former police detective Nick Charles(William Powell) out of retirement. His wife, Nora (Myrna Loy) and their dog Asta come along to assist in the investigation.

The reasons this film is listed as an Essential (Jeremy Arnold The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) are the two stars. The interactions between Ms. Loy and Mr. Powell are phenomenal. Their banter is clever and loving; it sparkles like the champagne they drink. It's easy to understand why the public thought them a happily married couple - they play the part so perfectly. As Jeanine Basinger said, "Loy and Powell know how...cooperate without losing individuality. They're Fred and Ginger OFF the dance floor" (I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies).

Ms. Loy had spent most of her career playing exotics. This role completely changed her image, and she would eventually do 14 films with Mr. Powell, six of which were part of The Thin Man series. She wasn't the first choice for the film - Louis B. Mayer wanted silent film star Laura LaPlante to play Nora, but director Woody Van Dyke, who had worked with her and Mr. Powell in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), insisted on Ms. Loy, and won the argument (TCM The Big Idea). She gives Nora an intelligence that, in lesser hands, would have made the character seem like a ditz.
Much of the credit for the success of the film goes to director Woody Van Dyke.  He wanted the two actors to re-team, recognizing their easy relationship from his prior experience with them. He also encouraged his actors to be more spontaneous - when William Powell started shooting balloons off the Charles' Christmas tree with an air gun off-camera, Mr. Van Dyke just worked the routine in the the picture (TCM Behind the Camera).
 
Maureen O'Sullivan as Dorothy Wynant, the only appealing person in that family, didn't particularly like the film because her part was very small. She also disliked Mr. Van Dyke's fast shooting style - the film was completed in between 12 and 18 days (TCM The Essentials). Authors Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich modified the character of Dorothy from the original Dashiell Hammett novel. Dorothy was far less appealing - "a rather silly, heavy-drinking girl" (Mystery Classics on Film: The Adaptation of 65 Novels and Stories by Ron Miller). This change works well, as it gives the audience someone who cares about the missing inventor with whom we can sympathize. Claude Wynant is not all that pleasant, and the rest of his family are distasteful. That we sympathize with Dorothy makes it more palatable that Nick would continue the investigation. 
 
 
Thankfully, Nat Pendleton (Detective John Guild)  gets to play a police officer who is good at his job. Sure, he's not brilliant like Nick, but he's smart enough to realize that he has the help of an outstanding detective, and he uses his colleague's skills with gratitude. We liked Detective Guild, and his easy relationship with Mr. Powell.  

The film has the advantage of a number of excellent character performers. While all are pretty disagreeable characters, the actors give the right bite to their parts - Porter Hall as Lawyer MacCaulay, Minna Gombell as the unreliable former Mrs. Wynant (Mimi), and a very young Cesar Romero as her current husband, Chris Jorgenson.  
 
William Henry, who Dorothy's odd brother Gilbert, would go on to have a long and varied career - the quintessential working actor. He appeared in films from 1925 until 1971 (in later years, often uncredited). In 1951, he added television to his credits, appearing in shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Six Million Dollar Man (his final role). He died in 1982, at the age of 67.
While the ending is a bit convoluted - Mr. Powell complained that he was having trouble sorting out the complicated plot - the audience doesn't really care who did the murder, we are more interested in watching Nick figured it out. The popularity of the film, besides generating 5 more Thin Man films, also resulted is a spate of films that dealt with married sleuths like those found in There's Always a Woman (1938), Dangerous Blondes (1943), and A Night to Remember (1942). None of the copies were as good as the original.

The Thin Man received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.  It also created a craze for wire-hair terriers (though Myrna Loy said that Skippy, the dog who played Asta, bit her) (TCM The Thin Man).

The New York Times review by M.H. (Mordaunt Hall) called the film "an excellent combination of comedy and excitement,"  and other critics have also praised the film (TCM Critics Corner). 
 
Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy recreated their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on 8 Jun 1936. From 1957 to 1959, Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk starred in a TV series, The Thin Man. It even generated a musical play called Nick and Nora, starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason, which opened on Broadway on 8 Dec 1991 (but closed on 15 Dec 1991) (AFI Catalog). 

Since then, it has appeared on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs (#32). It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997.

This is a must-see movie to add to your list.  We'll leave you with the trailer:



Monday, March 29, 2021

Katharine & Spencer Go to Court

Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) shoots her philandering husband, Warren (Tom Ewell) after she finds him in the arms of Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). The case intrigues attorney Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn), who sees it as a means of striking a blow for women's rights. But there is a complication - her husband Adam (Spencer Tracy) is the assistant DA assigned to prosecute the case.  Our film this time is Adam's Rib (1949).

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are delightful as a happily married couple on opposite sides of the political fence (she's a Democrat; he's a Republican) and opposing each other in a media circus of a trial. Amanda is convinced that if the defendant were a man, she would not be on trial for shooting her cheating spouse. Adam says the gender shouldn't matter - it's the letter of the law that counts, and someone who shoots another deserves jail time, no matter the reason for it. 

The dialog between the couple fairly crackles - it's smart, sexy, and amusing. Written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (who were friends of Tracy and Hepburn), the screenplay was written with the acting duo in mind. The story was inspired by the divorce of Raymond Massey and Adrianne Allen, who hired a married couple as their representation. The Massey/Allen divorce resulted in two divorces, when lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney also divorced, each to marry their client  (TCM's The Big Idea).

While this was not Judy Holliday's first film, it was a major breakthrough for her. She's wonderful as the remarkably dim Doris - the audience feels sorry for her, at the same time shakes their collective heads at her naivety. Ms. Holliday was appearing on Broadway in her first starring role - that of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday.  In fact, she filmed Adam's Rib during the day, and rushed back to the Henry Miller Theatre to appear in the play each evening. Ms. Holliday badly wanted to appear in the film version of Born Yesterday, but Columbia's Harry Cohn had no interest in her. So, Katharine Hepburn devised various means to bring Ms. Holliday into a position that Mr. Cohn could not say no (TCM The Essentials), even going so far as to plant stories that Ms. Holliday was stealing the movie (TCM's Behind the Camera) from Tracy and Hepburn.  

Jean Hagen is also spectacular as the Other Woman. This was her first film, and she's a riot in her small scene with Katharine Hepburn. Beryl Caighn is reminiscent of Ms. Hagen's most famous role - Lena Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, but we should never forget that Ms. Hagen was a versatile actress who really never rose to the level of success that she should have.

If there is one weak link in the film, it's Tom Ewell as the cheating husband. It's hard to imagine what either Doris or Beryl could see in this uncouth lout. A cheater, an abusive husband - he's despicable, and Mr. Ewell doesn't attempt to make him in any way attractive.  We're not particularly fans of Mr. Ewell - it seemed to us there should be something about him that would seem appealing to two women. We didn't see it.

David Wayne (Kip Lurie) has the pleasure of singing a "Farewell, Amanda" which Cole Porter wrote for the film. He's really funny as a fey composer who is the bane of Adam's existence.  He's flirtatious, rude, and downright obnoxious - a man with some talent who thinks he can dominate every event. We wondered why the Bonner's would have it at their party (to play the piano), when Kip spends most of his time insulting the guests and Adam. It was Katharine Hepburn who convinced Mr. Porter to write the song, but he would only do it if they changed the name of the character from Madeleine (AFI catalog). At which point, they decided to also change the name of the male character from Ned to Adam.
Several other actors have small parts, and their presence in the film is most welcome. Marvin Kaplan as the Court Stenographer will be remembered more for his voice than his face - he was Choo-Choo in the animated series Top Cat. Madge Blake, who played a plethora of older women (including Aunt Harriet on the Batman television series) appears briefly as Adam's mother.  And Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere) gets to play a strong woman who has one of the funnier bits in the film.
 
The film has been criticized for undercutting Katharine Hepburn's bit for women's rights at the end (Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film by Cynthia Lucia), but we felt that the movie did justice to the points of view of both attorneys. Amanda is right - women are treated unequally by the law, but Adam is right that men should be held to the same standards. 

Two other titles preceded this one - Love is Legal and Man and Wife (Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis). The second title was changed, as the PCA found it suggestive. What they didn't seem to notice was that in the first scene in Adam's and Amanda's bedroom, while it has two large beds, clearly only one of them was used that night - the second bed is neatly made, and the other pillow in Adam's bed is has a head dent in it!  
 
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was quite positive, calling it a "bang-up frolic". Other reviews were equally complimentary (TCM Critics Corner).

In 1973, there was a very brief TV series based on the film with Ken Howard and Blythe Danner. The film has also been included in Jeremy Arnold's first book of The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why they Matter. This is definitely a film that should be on your must-see list - here's a trailer:


Monday, March 22, 2021

Cary Writes Words and Music

Cole Porter (Cary Grant), a law student at Yale opts to discard a career as a jurist to take up songwriting in Night and Day (1946) a very loose interpretation of Mr. Porter's life and career.

Since the release of  DeLovely (2004), Night and Day has had to bear the brunt of its claim to being a biography of Cole Porter. Quite frankly, it's not. It's a way of incorporating a vast array of Mr. Porter's glorious music into a film, and tell a story at the same time. Let's go over a few of the facts, and then we can talk about the film as a story, not a biography. 

Cole Porter did attend Yale, and one of his classmates was Monty Woolley (Mr. Woolley, who plays himself, was NOT a professor at Yale). The sinking of the Lusitania had nothing to do with the failure of See America First, as the ship sunk in May 1915, and the musical opened in March 1916. Mr. Porter was not wounded in combat during World War I; he is listed as serving in the French Foreign Legion during the war (Broadway, The American Musical). He also spent time in Paris partying and met his future wife in Paris. Linda Lee Thomas was well aware of Mr. Porter's sexuality when they married - she had come from an abusive first marriage. Linda Lee Porter never officially left Cole - in fact, it was she that worked with the doctors to keep them from amputating his leg following his horseback riding accident. She continued as his health advocate until her death in 1954 (Cole Porter obituary). Following her death, doctors convinced him to allow the amputation, and he lived as a recluse for the rest of his life (as Linda feared). Mr. Porter was as openly gay as the era would allow (The New Yorker). Regardless, he and Linda loved one another and were inseparable - les Colporteurs (Smithsonian Magazine). 

As you can see from the photo, The Porters looked nothing like their on-screen imitators.  Linda wanted Alexis Smith to play her, and when she expressed her desires to Warner Brothers executives, Cole jokingly said that Cary Grant should play him (Cary Grant: In Name Only by Gary Morecambe & ‎Martin Sterling). Mr. Grant and Ms. Smith are wonderful together, and Ms. Smith was thrilled to be working with him. Though he could be very definite in his opinions - for example, Mr. Grant demanded that his suit be cut so that only an eighth of an inch of cuff should show, Ms. Smith commented on his "care and attention" to the character (TCM article).  This was Mr. Grant's first technicolor film.
Warner Brothers incorporated their best character people into the film. Eve Arden finally gets a chance to sing as French performer Gabrielle, who introduces Porter's song "I'm Unlucky at Gambling." Jane Wyman (Gracie Harris) also gets a chance to show her vocal talents.  Dorothy Malone (Nancy) has some brief scenes with Donald Woods (Dr. Ward Blackburn) as her husband and Cole's friend and physician. Alan Hale (Leon Dowling) turns up as a theatrical producer who doesn't see the beauty of Cole's compositions. And Henry Stephenson (Omer Porter) is sympathetic as Cole's grandfather.
Monty Woolley gets to play himself, and get off some bon mots while he is at it. He pops in and out of the film, as Woolley wanders in and out of the Porters' lives (and back and forth from New York to Hollywood). There is some amusing banter as he goes off to film The Man Who Came to Dinner - he'd starred in the Broadway play (he almost didn't get the movie role - Warner Brother considered Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Robert Benchley, John Barrymore, and Charles Coburn). 
Mary Martin, who got her start in Cole Porter's Leave it to Me, reprises her hit song from the musical, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (though this song, along with several of the others, are cleaned up versions of Mr. Porter's sometimes rather racy lyrics).  Ginny Simms (Carole Hill), the woman who works with Porter in a music store in the film, is very loosely based on Ethel Merman. Ms Merman had appeared in earlier plays, but her first starring role was as Reno Sweeney in Mr. Porter's Anything Goes (AFI catalog).

The New York Times review by Thomas M. Prior (T.M.P.) was positive, though even Mr. Prior pointed out that it wasn't really a biography.  When the film  DeLovely was released in 2004, The Times again wrote about Night and Day as part of a discussion of the biographical aspects of the two movies. 

If you are not a stickler for facts, and would like to see some fine acting, pleasant singing, and spectacular songs, this film is worth a viewing or two.  We'll leave you with the trailer:


Monday, March 15, 2021

Cary and Myrna House Hunt

Jim (Cary Grant) and Muriel Blandings (Myrna Loy) are a happily married couple living in a three bedroom apartment with their two daughters, Joan (Sharyn Moffett) and Betsy (Connie Marshall), and their maid, Gussie (Louise Beavers). Jim is a successful ad man, making a nice salary, and while he loves his family, he yearns for a home with more room. When he stumbles upon an ad for a farmhouse in Connecticut, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

If you’ve ever bought a house, redesigned your abode, or even picked out paint samples, this film is for you. The combination of Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Melvyn Douglas (Bill Cole) is a trio not to be missed. Add in a truly wonderfully supporting cast, and you have a VERY funny movie, which even today rings so true.

Cary Grant is delightful as a family man who is feeling the physical constraints of his crowded New York City apartment. It's very clear that the Blandings are well-off by contemporary standards. Jim makes a good salary, but there are limits, and Mr. Grant effectively pulls off the frustration of a man who is sinking his salary into a construction project that feels like a money pit. Some aspects of home buying have (thankfully) changed - no one today would dream of buying a home without a professional building inspection - but Jim's limitations as a home buyer add significantly to the humor in the film. Cary Grant and Myrna Loy did three films together (the other two are Wings in the Dark (1937) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)); this would be their final film together (TCM article).

Myrna Loy has long proved her talent for comedy, and her fine touch is demonstrated perfectly here. Her rapport with Mr. Grant is wonderful - an early scene, in which he brings her an early morning cup on coffee is a sweet comment on the intimacy of their marriage. As Jim hands her the cup, he lightly strokes the top of her head; she sleepily smiles. Later, as they try to perform their morning ablutions in their tiny bathroom, Jim gently pushes her head down so he can adjust the mirror on the medicine cabinet. It's those little touches that make this very much the story of a marriage. As Jeanine Basinger says, Ms. Loy "always remained relaxed, natural...There was an honesty to her, and a subtext that put her quietly in charge of everything." (I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies). One of my favorite scenes in the film is her selection of paint for the house. Think about the plethora of paint chips in the local paint store today!

The last member of the trio is the realist in their midst - Jim's best friend and lawyer, Bill Cole - who, it turns out, was also one of Muriel's beaux in college. Melvyn Douglas is wry (if somewhat frustrated) by Jim's impetuosity, and the contrast is wonderful. Their regard for one another is clear - even when Jim shows moments of jealousy, the audience knows it can't possibly last. Mr. Douglas had already appeared with Ms. Loy in Third Finger, Left Hand (1940), however they were close friends due to their mutual interest in liberal politics (TCM article).

Louise Beavers is terrific as Gussie, the one calm, practical member of the family. When all else is falling apart, Gussie keeps the home humming.  Though her acting career was spent playing maids, she always brought warmth and dignity to the parts. She's best remembered today for films like Imitation of Life (1934), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), and was one of three actresses to portray Beulah on television - the first television series to star an African-American actress.  In her private life, she served as a board member for the Screen Actors' Guild (Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmakers by Donald Bogle). Her career is discussed in depth in African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 by Charlene Regester. Ms. Beavers died of a heart attack in 1962, at the age of 60.

The Blandings daughters are ably portrayed by Sharyn Moffett and Connie Marshall. Both girls stopped acting as they approached adulthood; Ms. Marshall died of cancer in 2001. Ms. Moffett and her husband are clergy in the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania.

Other notable appearances in the film include Reginald Denny as Mr. Simms, the unflappable architect who keeps the Blandings house going; Ian Wolfe has one short scene as realtor Smith - a conniver if ever there was one. Lex Barker is a carpentry foreman in another brief speaking part. Jason Robards, Sr appears as John Retch, the contractor.  But two actors stand out - Lurene Tuttle as Mary, Jim's loyal secretary (watch her as she waits for him to come up with an appropriate ad campaign for Wham!), and especially Harry Shannon as Mr. Tesander, who spends most of the movie looking for water. This exchange between Mr. Shannon and Mr. Grant and Mr. Douglas is priceless:

JIM: Water, Mr. Tesander. TESANDER: Yep. JIM: At six feet! TESANDER: Yep. JIM: And over there, just thirty-two yards away, you had to go down two hundred and twenty-seven feet to hit the same water. TESANDER: Yep. JIM: How do you account for that, Mr. Tesander? TESANDER: We-ll, way it seems to me, Mr. Blandings, over here the water's down around six feet and over there it's-- uh --  BILL AND TESANDER: down around two hundred and twenty-seven feet. (script).

The film was based on a book by Eric Hodkins and is a novelized account of a true story.  Bosley Crowther's New York Times review was generally positive. 

The story spawned an October 1949 Lux Radio Theatre production which starred Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, as well as a Screen Director's Playhouse production with Betsy Drake and Cary Grant in  June of 1950 (AFI catalog). Mr. Grant and Ms. Drake also were the stars of the Mr. and Mrs Blandings radio show in 1951.

New Yorkers all, we loved the introductory scenes of New York City, circa 1948. And we can certainly empathize with life in a NYC apartment. If you've never seen this movie, you'll find it a real treat (and if you have seen it, it's not a bad time to relax with the Blandings Family again). In the meantime, here's the trailer for a taste of what's to come:



Monday, March 8, 2021

Fred Dons His Top Hat

Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is about to open in a new London musical when it happens - he meets the girl of his dreams, Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). All it takes is one dance for the two to fall head-over-heals in love.  But Dale is told that the man who is romancing her is Jerry's best friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), the husband of Dale’s friend, Madge Harwick (Helen Brodrick). Our film this week is Top Hat (1935).

If there is a truth to be found in any Astaire-Rogers movie, it is that the written plot is unimportant - all the information you need to know about the story is there in the dancing. We see the carefree bachelor ("No Strings"), who falls in love with the downstairs neighbor ("No Strings - Sandman"). He woos her ("Isn't it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain"), seduces her ("Cheek to Cheek"), and wins her ("The Piccolino).  Who needs words more than those penned by the great Irving Berlin?

It is because Astaire and Rogers are great actors that the film works so well. They act the words of the script, of course. But they act the dance. Watch their faces, their movements - they are telling us the story even when we think we are just watching them dance. It's not surprising that their partnership is legendary. They fit beautifully together.

The film is also remembered for the "Cheek to Cheek" dance - notable for the grace of the choreography, as well as for the ostrich feather dress that Ms. Rogers helped to design it with Costumer Bernard Newman. It too is the story of legend.  Ms. Rogers loved the dress - and she is correct in her belief that its flow contributed to the dance itself. The problem, however, was that the dress shed. Badly. It left feathers all over the floor and Mr. Astaire's tuxedo. Mr. Astaire rebelled - he wanted a different dress for the number, and Ms. Rogers dug her heels in and refused to get a new dress (Actually, an old dress - they wanted her to use a dress she'd worn in The Gay Divorcee).  So, the wardrobe staff came to the rescue - they spent the night reinforcing the feathers. The result is on the film - an occasional feather wafts by, but no flurries. And Ms. Rogers gained a gold charm in the form of a feather (and a note which read "Dear Feathers, I love ya!, Fred"), a song, and the nickname "Feathers" from Mr. Astaire.  (Ostrich Feather Dress  TCM Behind the Scenes). 

Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick as the older married friends of Jerry and Dale are very amusing. Ms. Broderick, especially, with her deep voice and saucy manner is perfect as the attempted matchmaker. Watching her encourage Dale to get closer to Jerry is really funny (especially considering that Dale thinks Jerry is actually Madge's husband, Horace). Ms. Broderick, who spent her film career playing best friends, is also remembered as the mother of actor Broderick Crawford.

While the characters played by Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini) and Eric Blore (Bates) are required for the plot, they are pretty silly. Especially nonsensical is the scene with Bates (masquerading as a gondolier) and an Italian Policeman. It is reported that several scenes at the end of the film were excised to speed things up - one wonders why this particular bit remained. The character wasn't much loved either - Italy banned this film because of Mr. Rhodes portrayal (TCM Trivia & Fun Facts). It's also worth noting that Lucille Ball makes an appearance as a Flower Shop Girl in the film.

The New York Times review by Andre Sennwald was very positive: "Top Hat is worth standing in line for. From the appearance of the lobby yesterday afternoon, you probably will have to." (The film, in fact, did sell out Radio City Music Hall.) Other reviews were also complimentary. 
Top Hat was nominated for 4 Academy Awards - Picture, Art Direction, Dance Direction (Hermes Pan), and Song (Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek"). Three songs from the picture - "Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day"--were ranked first, second and fourth on the Your Hit Parade radio program (AFI Catalog). It's also been featured as an Essential on TCM, and is featured in Jeremy Arnold's second book, The Essentials, Volume 2: 52 More Must-See Movies and Why They Matter.
 
This truly is a must-see movie. Just ignore some of the plot, and watch the dancing. You'll want to dance yourself. We'll leave you with a trailer:



Sunday, February 28, 2021

Fred Dances in the Dark

After years as a major film star, Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has sold his California home and memorabilia, and returned to New York City. He's met by his dear friends, Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray), who have plans - a new play they've written just for him. They plan to enlist Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a major theatre director and actor, to head the production. But Jeffrey's concept of The Band Wagon (1953) is far different than the musical that the Martons had envisioned.

Our group had all seen this delightful film before, and were enthusiastic about seeing it again. One of the Freed Unit musicals, this story is biographical in nature, taking inspiration from the lives its star, its writers, and from other Broadway notables.  

Fred Astaire is perfection as the movie star who decides to retire rather than face a declining public. Many aspects of Tony Hunter are taken directly from Mr. Astaire's own life. He had starred on Broadway in 1931 musical The Band Wagon (then dancing with his sister, Adele), in which he'd sung "I Love Louisa" (The musical revue also featured the song "Dancing in the Dark"). In 1946, Mr. Astaire decided to retire, thinking that his career was starting to peter out (Starring Fred Astaire by Stanley Green & Burt Goldblatt). And he did express concern that his potential dancing partner Cyd Charisse (Gabrielle Gerard) was too tall for him (TCM The Big Idea). All these little nuances gel to create a character with some depth.

By 1953, Cyd Charisse, had been at MGM since 1944. She'd lost Easter Parade (1948) to Ann Miller after Ms. Charisse broke her leg (interestingly, Mr. Astaire returned from retirement to take on Gene Kelly's part when Mr. Kelly broke his ankle). And she was too pregnant to star in An American in Paris (1951). Her big break came in 1952, when she danced in the "Broadway Rhythm Ballet" in Singin' in the Rain. She's poetry in motion in this film. Just watch her do "Dancing in the Dark" with Mr. Astaire; the simple beauty of the dance - and the dancers - is perfection. She wasn't the first choice for the part - Vera-Ellen was initially considered. 

Ms. Charisse's singing voice was supplied by India Adams; sadly, one of her numbers was cut - "Two-Faced Woman." MGM didn't give up on the song though - they later used it in Joan Crawford's film Torch Song (they should have left it in The Band Wagon!). For more information on Ms. Charisse, take a look at this brief video from TCM on her career. And to quote Mr. Astaire (from this bio) "When you've danced with Cyd, you stay danced with."

Jeffrey Cordoba was originally intended for Clifton Webb, but as he'd become rather a big star by 1953, he wasn't interested in a secondary part. He suggested Jack Buchanan instead (TCM The Essentials).  MGM also considered non-dancers Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson (AFI Catalog) before deciding on Mr. Buchanan.  He's very funny and an able song-and-dance man in a character that was inspired by both Orson Welles and José Ferrer; between 1950 and 1954 Mr. Ferrer staged and/or starred in TEN Broadway plays.

We were especially impressed by the costumes of Mary Ann Nyberg - they are beautiful, and in many cases, quite simple. The white flair dress that Ms. Charisse wears in "Dancing in the Dark" is perfect for a night scene - the simple lines of the dress flow with her dancing; the light color spotlights her and Mr. Astaire as they dance. In the documentary that accompanied the DVD of the film, Ms. Charisse commented on the red dress she wore in the "Girl Hunt Ballet" - it was one of her favorites.  Liza Minnelli (interviewed in that documentary) recalled that Ms. Nyberg made dresses that mirrored those of the stars for 6-year old Liza.  She loved them!

Musicals, of course, entail a lot of work. The "Triplets" number was especially difficult for the principles, involving multiple takes and painful leg binding - they were dancing on their knees and no one could stand the discomfort for more than 20 minutes. But that was not the only problem for those involved. Fred Astaire's wife was in the last stages of terminal lung cancer. Oscar Levant, always a curmudgeon, was even more belligerent, having just recuperated from a heart attack. When he yelled at Nanette Fabray just once too often, she told him off, and the entire crew applauded. Jack Buchanan decided to use his time in America to have some much needed dental surgery. Vincente Minnelli was distracted by his ex-wife, Judy Garland's problems while filming A Star is Born (TCM Behind the Camera).

The film received three Oscar nominations - for Costume, Score, and Original Screenplay. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1995. It's #17 on the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Musicals.  

When it opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Bosley Crowther's New York Times review was glowing:"Joined with the equally nimble talents of Fred Astaire. Jack Buchanan and Cyd Charisse and some tunes from the sterling repertory of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, this literate and witty combination herein delivers a show that respectfully bids for recognition as one of the best musical films ever made." Other reviews were equally enthusiastic. We heartily concur. 

If you've never seen this film, give yourself a treat and find a copy.  Here's a trailer from the film. Enjoy the music:






Monday, February 22, 2021

Barbra is Funny

As Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) awaits the return of her husband Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif) from an 18-month prison stay, she recalls her career as a Funny Girl (1968) and her introduction to the gambler who would become her husband.

When Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964, the star, Barbra Streisand had appeared in only one other play - the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale.  She had, however, become well known to the public due to television appearances - including The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Funny Girl ran from 1964 to 1967 (Ms. Streisand was in the lead for the first year, after which she appeared in the West End production). Regardless, Hollywood did not want her - Anne Bancroft, Carol Burnett (TCM Trivia), and Shirley MacLaine (Tribeca News) were all considered for Fanny. It was the film's producer Ray Stark who wanted Streisand, despite Columbia Pictures fear that Ms. Streisand was not pretty enough. The result - an Academy Award win for Ms. Streisand, in the only tie for the Best Actress category in Oscar history (Ms. Streisand shared the award with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter). It's not a surprise - Ms. Streisand is amazing Fanny Brice, bringing just the right amount of humor and passion to this story of a career and a marriage. And while most of the songs in the film were done in the conventional way, William Wyler decided film the song "My Man" live, as Ms. Streisand was having some issues with the emotion required for the scene (TCM Behind the Camera). 



The story of Ms. Brice - a comedienne and singer from the early days of Broadway, was put together by her son-in-law, Ray Stark (Mr. Stark was married to Frances Arnstein). Not surprisingly, he took some liberties with his mother-in-law's life. For one thing, her rise to fame was not as meteoric as stated in the film - it took her years, starting at Keeney's (Frank Faylen) Theater on Fulton Street, then on tour in the chorus, to Burlesque, and then to the Ziegeld Follies. Her marriage to Nick Arnstein was fraught - both had been married before, Arnstein had already been in jail and would end up there again, and he was perfectly happy to live off his famous wife's money. Ms. Brice finally divorced him when she discovered his record of infidelities. The couple had two children, however son William Arnstein did not wish to be mentioned in the film. (Encyclopedia of Jewish Women)
 
Omar Sharif is appealing as Nicky - he's very sexy and the relationship between the couple in the first half of the film is delightful. But this is also the story of the end of a romance, and Mr. Sharif makes Nicky understandable as a man who loves his wife, but wants to stand on his own. He almost lost the part, however. There was much anger against him because he was an Egyptian national, add to that his romancing of a Jewish woman. However, William Wyler insisted that he be kept on. A romance flamed between Mr. Sharif and Ms. Streisand that surely added to their onscreen relationship, but probably ended her marriage to Elliot Gould. Before Mr. Sharif came into the production, David Janssen (fresh off The Fugitive) was being considered for Nicky.
Kay Medford  (Rose Brice) was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress as Fanny's mother. It's a relatively small part, but an important one, as Rose is the one person to whom Fanny will listen, and as her marriage becomes strained, it is Rose to whom she turns. At some point, Rosalind Russell was being considered for the role ( AFI catalog). 

Anne Francis (Georgia James) appears briefly as a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies. By the second half of the movie, Georgia has disappeared (sadly). Ms. Francis was frustrated by her diminishing role in the film - she would blame it on Ms. Streisand, however as much as we enjoy seeing Ms. Francis, it must be pointed out this is the Fanny Brice story. Ms Francis sued to have her name removed from the credits (TCM article).
Walter Pidgeon has a more visible role as impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. As always, Mr. Pidgeon brings just the right amount of veritas to the part. His interplay with Ms. Streisand is spot on - especially the scenes when she is auditioning for a place in the Follies. 
 
Though her part is small, Mae Questel (Mrs. Strakosh) is adorable as Rose Brice's friend. The mother of Sadie (the married lady), Ms. Questel is the original yenta, busily trying to get a husband for Fanny. Ms. Questel is probably best remembered today as the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl.

Many of the train sequences on the film were shot at the and Jersey City and Hoboken Train Stations, both beautiful old stations. Hoboken has seen its share of issues in recent years, including flooding from Superstorm Sandy and a train which crashed through a bumper block into the concourse (Wikipedia).   

While the New York Times review by Renata Adler was extremely negative, many other reviewers were more enthusiastic about the film (TCM Critics Corner). It would eventually wind up with 6 Oscar nominations (including Picture, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Original Musical) and the win for Ms. Streisand. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2016 and is #16 on the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Musicals.

It was a treat to see this film again, and we heartily recommend it.  Here is the re-release trailer:



Monday, February 15, 2021

Brian Loses Control

College friends Al Mercer (Guy Madison), Brick (Brian Keith), Roy (Brian Keith), and Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews) take a vacation trip to Harold's Casino in Reno, Nevada. Upon returning to school, Ronnie comes up with a supposedly foolproof method of robbing the casino. Ronnie and Roy see it as a game - they won't keep the money, so there is no crime. But unknown to them, Brick, a Korean War vet who has had mental issues since returning stateside, is finding it hard to cope with civilian life. This week, we'll discuss 5 Against the House (1955).

At first look, this appears to be a film in the vein of Oceans 11 - it was, in fact, an inspiration for Martin Scorsese's Casino (TCM article). There is one small problem - it's not a very good movie, and it's badly miscast. 

Two of our actors are supposed to be college students in their early 20s. Alvy Moore was 34 and looks it; Kerwin Matthews was 29 and looks older. It's therefore rather hard to find them believable as naive youths. Also, Matthew's character is supposed to be extremely intelligent. But he thinks he can commit grand theft and not be charged because he's going to give back the money. Really?? He's also really unpleasant - he's constantly hazing a younger student (which is supposed to be the comic relief), and he's vain enough to decide to trap Al into his illegal scheme. All in all, he is a self-important, spoiled brat.

Guy Madison is saddled with a character who's given little opportunity to develop. We know he is a Korean War veteran, and that Brick saved his life. We know that he is in love with Kay Greylek (Kim Novak). We're also told that he is intending to study law. Other than that, he is a blank slate, and the script does not allow us to really care about him at all.

The actor who is given the most to work with (and that still is not a whole lot) is Brian Keith. He gets the chance to play a man teetering on the verge of madness. But he's given precious little of a back story, and that does not help our understanding of the man. When one thinks of other post-war films, like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), both of which have characters that have suffered emotional trauma because of their experiences, the audience is given a chance to taste some of the horrors that plague the men. Not here - like Al, Brick is written in shorthand. It's only thanks to the skill of Brian Keith that we have any sympathy for him.

This was only Kim Novak's fifth film, and while she too is saddled with a superficial character, we do warm to her, mainly because we see that she is a strong and intelligent woman.  If any character is a savior, it is she, and the audience likes her audacity by the end.  The same year as this film was released, Ms. Novak would appear as Madge in Picnic, and her stardom was assured.  

William Conrad (Eric Berg) has a brief appearance as a casino employee - strangely, he gets billing OVER Kerwin Matthews. Well, maybe not so strange - he's a far better actor.

The story was taken from a Good Housekeeping series (AFI Catalog) - an odd tale for such a magazine.  One nice feature is that it offers a glimpse of Reno (and Las Vegas) in the mid 1950s - not the cities that we think of today.

Unless you are a Kim Novak completist, or a fan of Brian Keith, we can't really recommend this one. Here is a trailer from the film: