Saturday, March 25, 2017

Kay's a Model

Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains) is about to pull off a huge business deal, but he needs to convince his backers of his stability.  So, he hires mannequin Nicole Picot (Kay Francis) to come as his date to an important party.  This leads to Stefan owning his own investment firm, and Nicole becoming the head House of Picot, a major design house.  Stefan loves Nicole, but she's not ready for marriage, at least to him.  Unbeknownst to Nicole, Stefan is the mastermind behind a huge swindle.  To avoid investigation, he convinces Nicole to go away with him for a brief vacation, where she meets Anthony Wayne (Ian Hunter) on her Stolen Holiday (1937).  

The date of the release of the film makes it rather remarkable, as there are elements in it that you would expect in the pre-code era, not in 1937.  Stefan is as dishonest as they come, but it is impossible to dislike him.  There is an implication that he and Nicole have been lovers, and though one of our lead characters is "punished" for their sins, another minor character easily gets away with an horrific act.  Based on an actual scandal (see this brief note at the AFI Catalog), the ending is true to the real-life facts.  Warner Brothers, however, carefully distanced themselves from the real story with a disclaimer at the beginning of the film (TCM article). It's amazing that they were able to produce the script as they did, and it makes the film far more provocative. 
As always, Ms. Francis gets a gorgeous wardrobe from Orry-Kelly that she shows off to perfection.  Her severe hairstyle at the opening is quite in contrast to the feminine gowns (you can see it in the image above).  The set design by Anton Grot is splendid and Ms. Francis is placed into it like a jewel.  

The only real problem with the film it is that Ian Hunter doesn't bring much to the part of Anthony Wayne.  Perhaps it is the comparison to Rains, but quite honestly, it's hard to understand why Nicole is attracted to Wayne, he seems such a non-entity.  When Ms. Francis is with Mr. Rains in a scene the dialogue sparkles, but once she is with Mr. Hunter it seems banal and dull. It's a shame, really, because he was just fine as Ms. Francis' romantic interest in I Found Stella Parish (though, to be honest, we did prefer Paul Lukas in that film).  Mr. Hunter is a capable if uninspiring actor; but put up next to someone like Claude Rains, he fades into the background.
Claude Rains.  There really is music in that name.  The man could pretty much do anything - villain, romantic lead, supporting actor.  Bette Davis was a fan (Mr. Rains daughter discussed their relationship on a TCM Word of Mouth oral history), and in fact thought that Charlotte Vale of Now Voyager would have eventually married his Dr. Jaquith (TCM article).  He's really magical in this film - he takes a character that could potentially be unlikable, and turns him into the most interesting person in the movie, despite his rather larcenous nature. According to Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David J. Skal and Jessica Rains, he and Ms. Francis didn't get along.  He disliked her unwillingness to participate fully in scenes where he was being filmed for a close-up.  One assumes this may be the reason they didn't work together again.

Mr. Rains began his film career at age 44 with The Invisible Man (1933).  By that time, he'd been on stage in London and New York, served in the first World War (with colleagues Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, and Herbert Marshall); attended, and then taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and returned to the stage.  When he returned to New York, and was appearing on Broadway, he was approached by Warner Brothers (after RKO decided he was not right for A Bill of Divorcement).  Beginning in 1933, he worked steadily, appearing films such as Mr. Skeffington (1944), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938),  Four Daughters (1938),  and King's Row (1942). And, of course, Casablanca (1942). Nominated for four Oscars (all in the supporting actor category), he never won, but did get a Tony Award for his performance in Darkness at Noon (1951). With his delicious voice, he was a popular radio voice, and transitioned to television in the 1950s and 1960s.  But he still continued in films until 1965, two years before his death of intestinal hemorrhage in 1967.  In one of his final films, Twilight of Honor (1963), he worked with Richard Chamberlain, who was making a name for himself in Dr. Kildare.  Mr. Chamberlain did a tribute to his co-star on TCM; the year after the film, Mr. Rains appeared with Mr. Chamberlain again in Dr. Kildare.
Also in the cast is Alison Skipworth as Suzanne, who acts as a surrogate mother to Nicole.  Ms. Skipworth is quite amusing in the role, and really gets most of the good lines.  She's a delight in the role!

We'll leave you with the trailer to the film.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bette Meets Little Miss Evil

This month TCM Presents offered a theatrical screening of the story of the woman who is #23 (on the Villain side) of the Greatest Heroes and Villains of all time (according to the American Film Institute).  We are speaking, of course, of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (1950)

The event was hosted by TCM's own Ben Mankiewicz.  In his commentary, he spoke briefly about his Uncle Joe, who at the 1951 Oscar ceremony took home two Oscars for the film as Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The was the second year in a row for him to receive the same awards: he had won the previous year, for A Letter to Three Wives, and he remains the only person in Oscar history to accomplish this feat.  All About Eve  was nominated for 14 awards (a record at the time. It has since been tied by Titanic), and won 6, including Best Picture.

Two of the nominations were in the category of Best Actress. Both Bette Davis (Margo Channing) and Anne Baxter vied for the Award (Ms. Baxter was not willing to be nominated in the Supporting Category, since she was the title character).  It's been speculated that they split the vote, resulting in Judy Holliday winning for her performance in Born Yesterday (certainly a worthy winner as well)

If you are not familiar with the story, a few words are in order.  On the evening of the annual Sarah Siddons Society Awards, Broadway actress Eve Harrington is being presented with its highest honor.  From the audience, fellow awardees director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and famed actress Margo Channing look on.  As she watches the action, Karen recalls the night she met Eve, introduced her to Margo, and changed their lives forever.
The film has a fascinating history, and I heartily recommend the book All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs.  The film was based on a short story that appeared in Cosmopolitan. "The Wisdom of Eve" is allegedly based on a real incident involving actress Elisabeth Bergner and her secretary Martina Lawrence, but it has also been speculated that supposed impetus is  a rivalry between Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott, when Scott understudied Bankhead in The Skin of Our Teeth.  Regardless of who was the factual inspiration, the screenplay gives us a portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals - a woman who is just one in a long line of ambitious individuals.

Once you've seen the film, it's hard to imagine anyone but Bette Davis in the role of Margo.  She literally inhabits the character.  However, Ms. Davis stepped in at the last minute when Claudette Colbert severely injured her back, and had to bow out.  At age 42, Davis was fast becoming a has-been - her last part was in Beyond the Forest (1949), after which she and Warner Brothers studio bid each other a not-so-fond farewell.  Beyond the Forest has one major claim to fame - it's the film in which Davis uttered the immortal - and often parodied line - "What a dump."  When  Joseph L. Mankiewicz called and offered her the part, if she could be ready in 10 days, she jumped.  She credited Mankiewicz with "resurrecting her from the dead." (TCM article)

Tallulah Bankhead would claim that the film was "all about" her.  And while Ms. Davis steadfastly denied Ms. Bankhead as an inspiration, some aspects of the role do seem to very much hearken up images of Ms. Bankhead.  When she started filming, Ms. Davis had laryngitis, so she maintained a lower vocal range throughout the film - a voice that closely resembles that of Ms. Bankhead.  The "surprise" curtain call as Margo stands alone on the stage of "Aged in Wood" was also taken directly from Ms. Bankhead, who it was reported used that gimmick when she did her own curtain calls.  And accidentally or not, Ms. Davis' most famous dress in the film looks amazingly like dresses worn by Ms. Bankhead (see below).
About the dress - Edith Head had to quickly alter or remake dresses for her new star.  When Ms. Davis tried on the party dress, Ms. Head was horrified to realize that the dress was too big above the waist.  Davis saved the day by pulling the neckline down around her shoulders, giving the dress a sexy (and coincidentally more Bankhead-like) look.

Ms. Davis' is not the only stellar performance in the film.  Anne Baxter is an impressive Eve, going from wide-eyed innocence to malevolence with the merest flick of an eye. Eve will use anyone and anything to get what she wants, and it is never more apparent than when she sets her cap at Lloyd Richards.  Watch as she sexually manipulates her friend (Randy Stuart) to call Lloyd for her.  There's a hint of  relationship that's more than just friendly between the two.
Marilyn Monroe, in an early role as would-be actress Miss Casswell is quite amusing - the scene in which she sets set her sails to accost Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) after calling him an "unhappy rabbit" is priceless.   And Celeste Holm brings charm and poise to the part of Karen.  But for me, it's the "character" performances that make this film what it is.  Let's start with Thelma Ritter as former vaudevillian, and Margo's dresser, Birdie Coonan.  It sometimes seems that Birdie gets a good portion of the wonderful lines.  For example, after Eve tells the story of her life, Birdie retorts "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."  Or, when Bill asks her what message she would like delivered to Tyrone Power once Bill arrives in Hollywood - "Just give him my phone number; I'll tell him myself."  But more than the lines (and this is a phenomenal script for good lines), it is Ritter's delivery that makes them.  Her Birdie is smart and cagey - she is the first person to spot Eve as a phony.  As always, Thelma Ritter is a gem, and it is always sad for me that Birdie disappears in the last third of the film.

But can any discussion of the perfect delivery of perfect lines be complete without a discussion of George Sanders.  His Addison DeWitt (who may have been based on critic George Jean Nathan - AFI catalog). is a masterpiece of wit and malice.  A theatre critic who describes himself as: "My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater."  We learn quickly that Addison is an impressive judge of people. Without a word, Sanders shows us that Addison, like Birdie, knows that something about Eve is not right. Eve, who has managed to play nearly everyone like a violin, does not realize Addison is not be played.  Sanders is a perfect partner for Eve, and a perfect foil for Bill Sampson and Lloyd Richards, both of whom remain far to oblivious of Eve's manipulations for a very long time.
Claudette Colbert was not the only person considered for Margo - Susan Hayward (deemed too young), Ingrid Bergman (didn't want to leave Italy), Marlene Dietrich, and Gertrude Lawrence were all in the running at one time or another.  Jeanne Crain was also considered for Eve, but her third pregnancy prevented her from getting the role (she and her husband eventually had 7 children).  John Garfield and Ronald Reagan were discussed for Bill, and both Jose Ferrer and Clifton Webb mentioned as Addison.  The film would be performed four times as radio productions (the last one, in 1954 featured Claire Trevor, Ann Blyth, William Conrad and Don Randolph).  It would ultimately be remade as a musical - Applause, which starred Lauren Bacall as Margo in the original cast.  (I saw it after Ms. Bacall left. Her replacement - Anne Baxter!)

As I mentioned before, All About Eve is an awards favorite, and the praise just keeps on coming.  It was #28 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, and in 2014, Richard Brody of the New Yorker discussed the film as a commentary on the difference between film and theatre.  But All About Eve was not just a film that was discovered later in its life.  These reviews in Variety and the New York Times demonstrate that the film was immediately a critical hit.

I'll leave you today with a clip from the film - perhaps the most famous line in the film (though there are others that are just as magnificent).  It was voted #9 in AFI's 100 Greatest Quotes; so here's Ms. Davis warning us to "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night"

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Joan is Broke

In Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) lives a carefree and spendthrift life.  She spends her days sleeping and her nights drinking and dancing.  But her happy-go-lucky lifestyle end when her father dies amid the 1929 Stockmarket Crash.  With the Crash goes all their money and their friends, leaving Bonnie and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) to fend for themselves in the real world of work.  Bonnie sells their house and all their belongings, finds a comfortable apartment for herself and her brother, and gets a job writing for a newspaper.  Bonnie finds her new life refreshing and stimulating, but Rodney wants nothing more than to drink and loaf, so he decides to fast track to wealth by working as a bootlegger for the ruthless gang chief Jake Luva (Clark Gable).

The title of this picture really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, quite frankly, and I find no reference that there was any thought to another one.  The authors of  Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk & William Schoell refer to the title as "a clumsy attempt at irony;" that is certainly one theory. We see some ballroom dancing at the beginning of the picture; then later, Bonnie works in a nightclub.  Ms. Crawford performs one dance routine, but it is rather awkward and heavy footed, reminiscent of her dancing style in Untamed. Regardless of the dancing (for this really is a gangster film, not a musical), Ms. Crawford is engaging and enjoyable as a young woman eager to make her own way in the world.  She makes the transition from spoiled heiress to working girl seem almost effortless.  One scene in particular makes the transition believable.  As Bonnie and Rodney are forced to sell their possessions, Bonnie watches as her supposed friends ridicule her poverty, and giggle about bidding on her possessions.  Bonnie face is composed, but determined - without a word, Crawford shows us a woman who has just discovered the worth of these worthless individuals
Cliff Edwards plays ace reporter Bert Scranton beautifully.  The one person on the paper who goes out of his way to assist Bonnie in her efforts to excel, their relationship becomes one of teacher and student.  Bert never abuses his position with her, never demeans her.  Their friendship is just that - it never becomes sexualized.  As a result, in just a few brief scenes, we come to like and admire Bert, making his untimely end even more shocking.

Mr. Edwards was better known when the film was released as "Ukulele Ike."  He was a singer and had a big hit in 1929 with Singin' in the Rain.  But today, he is best remembered as the singing and speaking voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940).  He was successful on both Broadway (appearing with the Astaires in Lady Be Good (1924) and as a recording artist, and it was his prowess on the ukelele that made it a popular instrument.  During the 30s and early 40s, he was very busy on film, usually in supporting parts (as here, and in another Crawford film, Montana Moon).  He also had a successful career on radio, both as a guest singer and on his own show, The Cliff Edwards Show.  He segued into television, where he hosted his own show, and was a guest on The Mickey Mouse Club and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  However, years of heavy spending, multiple alimony payments (to three ex-wives), and alcoholism took their toll.  He died in 1971, without a cent to his name.  The Actor's Fund (which had helped support him in his illness), the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, and Walt Disney Productions (which during his life time gave him voice work) all paid for his burial.
Which brings us to Clark Gable.  As this TCM article and New York Times review demonstrate, even before Gable was The King of Hollywood, he was a notable presence in film.  Quite frankly, when he is in the scene, you can't take your eyes off him. And when he is with Crawford, the chemistry is palpable.  The Times review singles him out for "a vivid and authentic bit of acting."  This was his first role opposite Crawford; they would eventually appear in eight films together.  In this one, he was billed sixth (she, of course, got top billing).  By the end of the 1931, he was getting second billing just below Crawford.  What started as a friendship on this picture would develop into an outright love affair, and you can see it beginning in this film, especially when they kiss.  One scene between them is particularly interesting.  Bonnie sits at Jake's piano, playing the "Moonlight Sonata" that previously had been played for him by his moll, Della (Natalie Moorhead), but while Della plays it straight, Bonnie plays a jazzy version.

One is really sorry that Jake is such a creep - he is much more attractive than Robert Townsend (Lester Vail), Bonnie's lover at the opening of the film (oh, yes - this is a pre-code film.  Bonnie and Bob clearly spend the night together).  Bob is also a bit of a creep, rejecting Bonnie when her wealth is gone, but the character goes through an epiphany when he watches the demeaning manners of their mutual friends towards Bonnie.  Ultimately, Bob is still not all that attractive, but he does make himself into a better man. 
We were all amused to see Bonnie (in 1931) with a hand-held hair dryer.  THAT was the ultimate in wealth, in our opinion!  In the end, we all agreed this is a worthy film for any Crawford fan, especially because of the Gable connection.  We'll leave you with this early (and very pre-code scene) of party guests stripping to their skivvies for a moonlight swim.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Barbara Marries an Immigrant

It's 1909.  Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) nervously awaits the return of her cousin (and possible fiance) Jeff  (Ralph Bellamy) from Germany.  But Jeff's return changes both of their lives when Mary meets his friend, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger).  Hugo and Mary fall deeply in love, marry, and begin a family, consisting of their dachshund Cammie and their son Teddy (Ronnie Cosby).  Hugo begins a successful career as a professor in Rossmore College, and becomes an American citizen.  Their lives seemed blessed, until World War I erupts.  From that point on, Hugo and Mary are shunned as the enemy, and their happy existence becomes a series of tragedies.

Ever in My Heart (1933), a pre-code film, is almost relentlessly sad; there are parts of the film that are almost too much to bear.  Since it begins as an almost lighthearted romance, the ultimate spiral downward makes for an even more intense viewer experience. Released by Warner Brothers studio, which also gave us such socially relevant films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, which looked at the American criminal justice system) and Heroes for Sale (1933, which dealt with the problems faced by World War I veterans); this film too is attempting to highlight injustice within the United States. The film, however, came out as Germany was electing a Nazi government, and beginning their persecution of the Jewish population (Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940).  As a result, it probably was not perhaps seen in the light which screenwriter Bertram Millhauser had intended.
Barbara Stanwyck was not fond of this picture (TCM article) or any of her films at Warner Brothers; she called them "a series of parts that were much alike - women who were suffering and poor, and living amid sloppy surroundings."  That may be true, but she is dynamic as a woman who watches her life crash in ruins about her.  We have no doubt of her sincerity when Mary refuses to leave her husband, despite their reduced circumstances.  When neighbors, who had been their friends begin to reject them because of her husband's nationality, Stanwyck gives Mary a quiet but determined dignity.

We were enchanted by Ronnie Cosby in the role of young Teddy.   He is just delighful in the role of the affectionate child whose life becomes a tragedy.  Mr. Cosby's career began with a small role in 1929's Madame X.  He worked steadily through 1939, appearing in films such as Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933), Little Men (1934), and the 1937 remake of Madame X.  His last appearance was in 1941's Birth of the Blues.  He died in 2010, at the age of 82.

Ralph Bellamy is also excellent as Jeff, Mary's first cousin and original intended.  Jeff is carefully set up as a contrast to Mary's brother, Sam (played with a certain amount of petulance and jealousy by Frank Albertson).  When Sam revolts against his brother-in-law merely because he was born in Germany, it is Jeff who tries to soothe the family. Though Jeff describes himself as passionless, is always a true friend to both Mary and to his rival, Otto.  When Mary's family ignore her, it is Jeff who ultimately convinces Grandma Archer (Laura Hope Crews) to take in the starving couple. That Jeff is also a member of the very biased family is sometimes hard to remember - he is much more like the very open-minded Mary than the rest of the Archers.  We understand why Mary at one point was considering a marriage with Jeff.

As is often the case, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Kruger were not the first choices for the Wilbrandts. Kay Francis and Paul Muni were originally considered (AFI Catalog).  Not surprisingly, The New York Times reviewer was not enamored of the film, calling it "meaningless to this new generation" because it was not "news any more that the war propaganda which dramatized the Germans as baby murderers and wife beaters was prejudiced."
This comment by the Times in 1933 is quite ironic, given that Ever in My Heart is much more timely today than any of us might like to admit.  Just days before we viewed the film, I heard this report from NPR story concerning US residents, most of the Muslims, who are fleeing to Canada - and to arrest - rather than staying the in U.S. This film is testimony to the fact that these are not new prejudices, and that despite this film's pleas for tolerance and understanding, history keeps repeating itself, with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and today with a political agenda aimed at a particular religious group.   

As we publish this article, the news of Robert Osborne's death has just been announced. It's with a heavy heart that we add our voices to those that mourn this kind, wonderful and intelligent man.  I had the privilege of meeting him at a reception several years ago; he was gracious and welcoming.  But more than this, I will miss my nightly visit with him on television, where he answered my need for more information, and provided a context and an appreciation for the films that I've always loved.  I have learned at the feet of a master; he will be greatly missed.
We will leave you with this trailer and with a reminder that no one in the United States should be forced to state that "they let me be a citizen, but they won't let me be an American."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Queen Joan

When Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) arrives at the home of her cousin, Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford), she discovers a mess of unhappiness.  Eva's sister-in-law, Carol Lee (Betsy Palmer) despises Eva and is loathe to tell her about Carol Lee's engagement to Judson Prentis (John Ireland); Eva's husband, Avery is rarely sober, Eva's son Ted (Tim Hovey) has constant nightmares. Jennifer, however, is immediately enchanted with the affectionate Eva, and becomes her acolyte and defender.  Little does she know Eva is not the woman she images; she is, in fact, the heartless Queen Bee (1955).

We always enjoy Joan Crawford, and seeing her play the witch is generally a pleasure.  But Queen Bee really taxes that pleasure button.  Based on a novel by Edna Lee, the film is melodrama at its worst.  The plot has holes in it a mile wide, and the characters are superficial, and annoying.  Even Ms. Crawford suffers from the inconsistencies in a character that could have been a companion to Harriet Craig. Eva is uptight, controlling, and jealous, just like Harriet, but she is Harriet on steroids. Unlike Harriet, she is contradictory.  On the one hand, she emotionally tortures her family endlessly. One the other hand, she falls into an inconsolable depression when a person she has just tormented beyond endurance dies.   Once she recovers, she's back on the torture trail.  She is, to quote Winston Churchill, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

But she's not the only character that makes you throw up your hands in despair.  Let's look at her husband, Avery.  When we meet Avery, he snarls at Jennifer about the scar on his face.  His family, even the sister that loves him, calls him "Beauty" as a nickname!  The scar and the nickname are brought up the once, and then dropped.  We know he got the scar in an auto accident, but it is a throwaway reference. He's a raging alcoholic (allegedly because he is married to Eva); he also is fairly spineless.  Even with the health and well-being of his children are at stake, he is terrified of confronting his wife.
Which makes us question why Jennifer would fall in love with him.  She despises him on first meeting, but within a hair's breath is madly in love (and for no good reason.  The man is constantly inebriated and is verbally abusive to boot).  But quite frankly, there's not much to like about Jennifer either.  An orphan, she has come to the Phillips' home because Eva, who has been supporting Jennifer in Chicago, has invited her.  Jennifer has had a good education, thanks to the financial munificence of the Phillips', but she doesn't seem to have made any effort to support herself by getting a job.   At first enamored of Eva, she ultimately discovers her to be a monster.  But still Jennifer stays.  Why? Her affection for the children? This great love for Avery? Again, the film gives you no legitimate reason for her actions.  In its review of the film, the New York Times  talks about Ms. Marlow "gawk[ing] and quak[ing]."  I hate to agree with Bosley Crowther, but he's right on this one.

As if all this is not enough, the film throws in the abusive Miss Breen (Katherine Anderson), the stereotypical evil nanny (the character Bette Davis would play in The Nanny).  The character arrives when Eva suffers her nervous breakdown, then stays on to emotionally and physically torment the children.  Miss Breen serves a point - she provides Eva with a source of blackmail at the end of the film, but quite frankly, Eva could have gotten her blackmail information without Miss Breen's annoying presence.  All Miss Breen contributes is to make Avery, in his one moment of rebellion, again look like a weakling.
It is nice to see Fay Wray (Sue McKinnon) in the film, even if it is only for about 5 minutes. But, the presence of her character is, again, rather pointless (she's a rather dotty lady who was emotionally damaged when Eva stole Avery from her.  She doesn't know how lucky she was!) According to this TCM article, Ms. Wray announced her return to film (she had retired when she married Robert Riskin, to care for her child from her prior marriage and to her two children with Mr. Riskin) after her husband's death in 1955.  Ms. Crawford not only sent her a note saying "Welcome...we need you", she arranged for her to be cast in the part of Sue.  It's a thankless role, but Ms. Wray is excellent in this little snippet.  While not her first post-retirement role, it was certainly not her last.  She would continue to act in both film and television until her final retirement in 1980.  She would marry again, in 1971; she and Dr. Sanford Rothenberg were together until his death in 1991; Ms. Wray died in 2004, aged 96. 
Oh, yes, and then there is the supernatural element of young Ted, and his dreams of a horrific car crash, which, by the conclusion of the film, we discover has a supernatural element to it (the abusive nanny wasn't enough of a leap into the macabre).  

This AFI Catalog entry notes that the film received Oscar nominations for black and white cinematography and for costume design (it lost to The Rose Tattoo and I'll Cry Tomorrow, respectively).  The film also changed the ending of the book, possibly to provide what they considered a happy ending.  But nothing is all that happy about this film, and it did Ms. Crawford no good service.  So, unless you hunger for the complete Crawford, avoid this one.  We'll leave you with this clip in which Ms. Crawford is matchmaking for  Ms. Marlow:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Barbara STILL Hates Housework

The fishing town of Monterey, California is the setting of Clash by Night (1952), a film noir that features Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle.  Mae's been living in New York, the mistress of a wealthy married man.  Though they were deeply in love, he was unable to divorce, and when he died, the small settlement he left her was taken back by her lover's family.  Broke and depressed, May returns to her childhood home, now occupied by her brother Joe (Keith Andes).  Mae's beauty and strength of character attracts a gentle fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), as well as his friend, the cynical and callous Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).  Though frightened of marriage, Mae decides that Jerry might be her salvation, even though she is dangerously attracted to Earl.

Clash by Night  is very intense film, and as such, it is hard to actually LIKE it.  We have characters we can understand, but many of whom are terribly hard to admire.  Stanwyck's Mae Doyle is at the top of the list.  She was born in Monterey, but left because she hated it there.  Now she's back, but she still hates the place.  Why does she return? Wasn't there somewhere else she could go? And strong as she is, was it so impossible to stick it out in New York City, where it seemed she was happy?  Stanwyck, in a sense, creates a character that is a cypher.  We never really know Mae, a woman who wants to be happy, but can't seem to find real contentment.  Her marriage to Jerry seems an act of desperation. And though she loves her child, her sorrow and pain after her daughter's birth hint at the least of post-partum depression - or perhaps we are just looking for an excuse for her misery.
Jerry, as played by Paul Douglas is a sympathetic character, but also a weak, and sometimes pathetic, man.  His love for Mae is genuine.  He is a good and loving father to their daughter, Gloria, but he is manipulated by everyone. Earl, who is supposedly his friend, ridicules him.  His Uncle  Vince (J. Carrol Naish) uses him as a source of money, and as a tool for vengeance on Mae (Uncle Vince's predilection for pornographic poster art, and his constant "requests" for money put Mae in the position of asking her husband to get Vince out of the house.  You can't blame her for that). And Mae, who cares for him but has no love for him, consents to marry him - with his knowledge that there is no love - in order to have a caretaker and provider.  So, while you feel for Jerry, it's difficult to like him, he is such a patsy. 

Robert Ryan, who played the part of Joe (Mae's brother) in the original Broadway cast of the play, was the only cast member to appear in the movie (the play featured Tallulah Bankhead as Mae and Lee J. Cobb as Jerry).  Ryan, as Earl, gives us a portrait of a man who is a lost soul.  Too intelligent for his job as a movie projectionist but too unambitious to do anything else,  Earl spends his life drinking too much and ridiculing everyone and everything around him.  Mae, who is initially repulsed by Earl's negativity, finally responds both to his sexuality and to his intellect.  But in the final analysis, Earl is not someone who can even take care of himself, much less a wife and child.  Should Mae leave with him, we wondered how long it would be before he abandoned her and the child for which he has no regard or affection.
Perhaps the most attractive characters in the story are Joe and Peggy (Marilyn Monroe).  Peggy deeply loves Joe - and he loves her - but she is no victim.  Their love ultimately is one of equals, and will succeed because of their commitment to one another.  Ms. Monroe was really breaking through in this small, but pivotal role.  And while her relationship with Stanwyck was cordial, the seeds of her later problems had already begun.  According to this TCM article, director Fritz Lang was frustrated by her lateness and inability to remember her lines.  Stanwyck, however, never lost her cool, and would do repeated takes when Monroe forgot her lines.  Ultimately, Stanwyck would comment, after Monroe's death that Monroe "drove Bob Ryan, Paul Douglas, and myself out of our minds."  However, "she didn't do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once."

The film, not surprisingly, changed a great deal of the play (by Clifford Odets).  The setting is changed from Depression-era Staten Island, New York (which, of course, makes Mae's return far less drastic).  And the endings of the play and film are far different (no spoilers, should you want more information take a look at this article in the AFI Catalog).  Joan Crawford, Jeff Chandler, and Mala Powers were considered at one point for the parts of Mae, Earl and Peggy, all interesting choices.  Regardless, without Stanwyck's powerful and layered performance, this film would likely have fallen apart (this New York  Times review comments on the strength of the performances in a film that they don't necessarily think holds together).
As we've said before, any Stanwyck movie is worth a look, and this certainly is, not only for her, but also for strong performances from Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas.  And the opportunity to see Marilyn Monroe before she became a love goddess is a treat.  We will leave you with this clip from the film, in which Mae returns to her brother's home, and meets the woman he wants to marry. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Kay is Divorced - a Lot

The "horror" of Divorce (1945) is the topic of this film, which stars Kay Francis as Dianne Carter, a four-time divorcee who has just shed her latest husband, gaining both her freedom and a pot of money.  Following the divorce, Dianne decides to return to her home town for a brief visit.  When she arrives, she reconnects with her former boyfriend, Bob Phillips (Bruce Cabot), now a real estate professional, happily married to Martha (Helen Mack) and the father of two sons.  But happiness is a relative term; once Dianne sets her cap for Bob, the marriage is doomed, and Martha has little recourse but to seek a divorce and try to start her life over.  

Kay Francis starred in and produced this, the first of three pictures with Monograph Studios.  Her contract with Warner Brothers was over, as was her work during World War II, and it seems that the idea of having more control over her films held some attraction (TCM article).  Like the film, Allotment Wives, this picture uses a growing social issue to attract an audience.  As the War ended, the number of divorces began to grow dramatically (see this article from the Washington Post), probably a result of the hasty marriages made during the war.  Regardless of the actual reasons for the rapid increase, the film looks at divorce as an evil, with the character of Dianne as a predatory homewrecker.  And while the plot is a bit simplistic, and some of the characters not entirely fleshed out, it does a decent job of setting a tone.
Though low budget, the film does recruit some strong actors, most notably Ms. Francis, whose performance gives a depth to the character of Dianne.  The other excellent performance is that of Helen Mack.  Her Martha is not a whimpering wife - Ms. Mack gives her a strength and pride that is not usual for the "loving wife" that she is being asked to play.  Within the context of the divorce, she juxtaposes nicely with Dianne, who has built her finances with the settlements from her multiple marriages.  Martha, on the other hand, refuses all monies from her husband, even child support - If Bob can not be an actual support for their children, she will work and support them both emotionally and financially. Her refusal to depend upon him both empowers her, and emasculates him.

Bruce Cabot, on the other hand, is a football, passed back and forth between the two women (interestingly symbolized by a football game early in the film, which Martha attempts with her two boys).  Cabot's Bob is almost passive - first guided by his wife, then abruptly manipulated by his former girlfriend.  That passivity makes it easy to understand why Dianne would even want him. He's quite a talented real-estate agent - Dianne sees both money and control in any relationship with him. According to the AFI catalog, Cabot was not the first choice for the role - it was originally earmarked for Paul Kelly (who would appear with Ms. Francis later that year in Allotment Wives). 
The presence of Jerome Cowan, playing lawyer Jim Driscoll, is another added pleasure.  We recently saw Mr. Cowan as the lecherous neighbor in My Reputation; his part here is not all that much bigger, but considerably more sympathetic.   A character actor who brings veritas to any role that he plays, Mr. Cowan appeared on Broadway beginning in 1923, and would continue appearing on stage until 1959 (his final stage appearance was in Say, Darling). His work on Broadway led to his casting in Beloved Enemy (1936), starring Brian Aherne and Merle Oberon (Mr. Cowan took on the role of the villain of the piece).  He worked continuously from then on - probably his most noted performance is that of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he was also excellent as one of Bette Davis' suitors in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and as the harried district attorney Thomas Mara in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As the age of television began, he deftly moved into the medium, appearing as a guest star in such shows as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Bonanza.  His final appearance was on an episode of Alias Smith and Jones in 1971.  He died in January of 1972, survived by his two children and his wife of 43 year, Helen Dodge. 
One other appearance worth noting is that of Larry Olsen, as Michael Phillips, the older of the two boys so devastated by their parents divorce.  Mr. Olsen had a decent career as a child actor, but is bet remembered today as the older brother of Susan Olsen (of Brady Bunch fame).

We'll leave you with this scene, in which Dianne begins to disrupt the happy marriage of Bob and Martha. We will return again with another film from one of our favorite actresses.