Monday, March 23, 2020

White House Kay

Lucy Chase Wayne (Kay Francis), the wife of Secretary of State Stephen Wayne (Preston Foster) is the granddaughter of a U.S. President. She has ambitions for her husband to achieve the same position.  Lucy also wants to circumvent the efforts of Irene Hibbard (Verree Teasdale), the wife of Supreme Court Justice Carter Hibbard (Walter Connolly) to romance Senator Gordon Keane (Victor Jory). So, to tweak Irene's nose, she suggests to woman's club president Lavinia Mae Creevey (Louise Fazenda) that Carter would be an excellent presidential candidate, never dreaming it will interfere with her own desire to be the First Lady (1937).

Kay Francis doesn't often get the chance to do comedy, but she's a excellent comedienne, as we've seen in films like The Goose and the Gander, Jewel Robbery, and Cocoanuts. First Lady is in the category of the first two films - a romp, where Ms. Francis gets to figuratively wink at the goings-on in the political arena, circa 1937.

This is a fictitious Washington - no mention is made of the current political administration, and there is certainly no President Chase in U.S. history. Regardless, the film is gently poking fun at the ways in which candidates for office are selected, and it looks like not much has changed in that regard. Though Lucy knows politics (she writes and/or edits her husband's speeches), she cannot run for office - it is a man's world; women can maneuver from behind the scenes, and be the "power behind the throne."  
Most of the action focuses on the two female adversaries, Lucy and Irene. There has long been bad blood between the two, and Lucy now sees a way to embarrass Irene. The reasons for Lucy's ire are, not surprisingly petty - Irene stole Lucy's cook, and is also making a play for the man Stephen's niece Emmy Page (Anita Louise) loves. But, her plans backfire horribly, and Lucy has to concoct a new means of besting Irene. 

Where Ms. Francis plays her part tongue-in-cheek, Verree Teasdale is downright serious. Ms. Teasdale's Irene is an avaricious woman, who wants power and men (though not necessarily in that order). As a result, the interplay between the two is spot-on, with each getting good lines, but with Ms. Francis coming off as the more sympathetic character. Without such a strong actress to play against, Lucy would seem ridiculous. Opposite Ms. Teasdale, she is delicious. It is worth noting that Irene's prior divorce does not seem to be an impediment to her husband seeking higher office.
The men in the film mainly serve as support to the the two women. Preston Foster does a good job in a part that could resemble a tree in the hands of a lesser actor.  Victor Jory gets the rare opportunity to play the juvenile and romantic interest to both Emmy and Irene. Walter Connolly, however, steals every scene as the somewhat bumbling Supreme Court Justice who would rather listen to the radio than romance his bored wife. 

It's unfortunate that Anita Louise doesn't have more to do than look innocent, she's a good actress, but the part pales in comparison to the lead actresses.  Louise Fazenda, however, as the annoying Mrs. Creevey is hilarious. The script has a lot of fun with her strict abstinence. Her inability to understand that she is drinking strong alcohol when she given a glass of absinthe -  and keeps asking for more - is very funny. 

Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box office, and helped to begin Ms. Francis' slide from the top at Warner Brothers (TCM article).  It may not be her best film, but we really enjoyed it and suggest you add it to your list.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Tom Loves a Bad Girl

E. V. "Marsh" Marshall (Tom Tryon) and his lover Paulie Nevins (Carol Ohmart) meet clandestinely in a wooded area outside Los Angeles. As they are leaving, they notice three men meeting. The couple sneak over to listen and hear the men discussing the robbery of a local home - the takeway will be $350,000 worth of jewelry. Paulie decides that, if they steal the loot from the thieves, it's not a crime, and they can use the money to run away from her husband - and his boss - Ralph Nevins (James Gregory). Our film is The Scarlet Hour (1956).

Noir City DC aired this rarely seen film. It's an interesting plot, but it suffers from a big problem - the three lead actors (Tom Tryon, Carol Ohmart and Jody Lawrance) can't act. Thankfully, there are other people in the film who can, so one ends up ignoring the leads, and concentrating on James Gregory and Elaine Stritch (Phyllis Rycker). 

 Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film "introduces" Tryon, Ohmart, Lawrance (and Ms. Stritch, though not listed as such). For Mr. Tryon, Ms. Ohmart, and Ms. Stritch, this was their first film. All had appeared on television; Ms. Lawrance however had appeared in several film prior to The Scarlet Hour, including a starring role in Ten Tall Men (1951) with Burt Lancaster.  Nevertheless, Paramount and Mr. Curtiz wanted to emphasize the "new faces" in the film; thus, they were "introduced" (AFI Catalog). 

Tom Tryon is just adequate as a man who can't make up his mind about much of anything. Mr. Tryon expresses everything - concern, fear, love, anguish - by furrowing his brow. It's not really convincing. He'd started on Broadway as a waiter in Wish You Were Here (the play starred Jack Cassidy). He continued worked in films and on TV, most famously on The Cardinal (1963), a film he disliked because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Otto Preminger (The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Fujiwara). Preminger fired Mr. Tyron in front of his parents (later rehiring him). The abuse continued when Tryon was cast in Preminger's In Harm's Way (1965). It ceased when Kirk Douglas walked off the set in protest. Mr. Tryon eventually left acting and became a successful novelist. He died in 1991 of stomach cancer at the age of 65. 
Both Ms. Ohmart and Ms. Lawrance (Kathy Stevens) are simply okay as the Bad and Good Girls. Ms. Ohmart is rather flat; emotions rarely cross her face. Ms. Lawrance, on the other hand, simply oozes sympathy as she emotes in Mr. Tryon's direction. What's not clear is why she would be in love with this banal man who doesn't look in her direction.
The actor who makes this film worth watching is the always wonderful Elaine Stritch (Phyllis Rycker), playing Paulie's best friend from their days as B girls. While Paulie has married rich - and miserably - Phyllis has married a plumber, Tom (Billy Gray) and they are ecstatically happy. Ms. Stritch bubbles with joy, and does it all without being saccharine.
Elaine Stritch began her Broadway career in 1946; she would eventually be nominated for four Tony Awards (for Bus Stop, Sail Away, Company, and A Delicate Balance), and won Emmy Awards for appearances in Law and Order and for her one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (which also won a Tony for Best Special Theatrical Event as well as two Drama Desk Awards). She didn't make many films, but was a frequent guest star on a number of television shows (including a one-year stint as Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen). Much of her life is outlined, along with her stellar Broadway career, in At Liberty and a follow-up Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. She retired to Michigan in 2013, and died there the following year.  You can see her performing the song "Zip" from Pal Joey in her one-woman show, as well as discussing her adventures getting to the previews.
James Gregory (Ralph Nevins) is back to playing a villain in the piece, and he is a doozy. Yes, his wife is a philanderer, but the film implies that she started fooling around when she discovered he was an abusive brute. It's really hard to have any sympathy for the character; were our lovers nicer people, we might end up rooting for them. 

Watch for E. G. Marshall  and Edward Binns as police officers Lt. Jennings and Sgt. Allen. And we get the pleasure of Nat "King" Cole singing "Never Let Me Go" in a nightclub. And though IMDB lists Billy Gray as Phyllis' husband, it's not the right Billy Gray (the star of Father Knows Best was only 18 years old when the film was released); our Billy was well into his 40s.
You can read more about the film in this article from the Film Noir Foundation, which it says of  "brings that arc of the noir cycle to a close—an arc that wouldn’t be reopened until Body Heat." If you are a noir fan, it's worth a viewing - and if you've never seen Elaine Stritch, watch to see her take control of the action. In the meantime, here is a trailer:

Monday, March 9, 2020

Joan Enters Society

On his return cruise to England, Francis, Lord Kelton (Frank Morgan) finds a woman asleep in his stateroom. Mrs. Fay Cheyney (Joan Crawford) has mistaken his cabin for hers. As she leaves, she meets Arthur, Lord Dilling (Robert Montgomery). Both men are intrigued with the attractive Mrs. Cheyney, and spend the trip vyng for her attentions. We turn our attentions this week to The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)

It's hard to go wrong when you have the stellar cast of lead and character actors present in this movie. Joan Crawford is convincing, though she plays Fay with more seriousness than did Ms. Shearer in the 1929 version. Ms. Shearer very much had her tongue firmly in her cheek, whereas Ms. Crawford makes Fay more conflicted. The addition of a fairly nasty gang (Sara Haden (Anna), Melville Cooper (William), & Leonard Carey (Ames)) makes the stakes in this version a lot higher. Myrna Loy had originally been cast as Fay (TCM article), but Mrs. Crawford was so adamant in her refusal to play the lead in Parnell (she'd sworn off costume parts after The Gorgeous Hussy) that MGM decided to switch the actresses.
William Powell is splendid as Charles. Though his part is relatively small, he makes good use of the screen time provided. We speculated on the benefits of casting him as Lord Dilling - his chemistry with Ms. Crawford is better, and he has the charm and gravitas that we found a bit lacking in Robert Montgomery. Mr. Montgomery is not bad, he just doesn't have the savoir faire of either Mr. Rathbone or Mr. Powell. In comparison to these two gentlemen, Mr. Montgomery comes across as a touch callow.  It's been said that Mr. Montgomery and Ms. Crawford were not particularly fond of one another, (Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk & William Schoell) which might be part of the problem. Truth to tell, had we not seen Mr. Rathbone, we might not have given Mr. Montgomery lower marks.
Frank Morgan is a vast improvement over Herbert Bunston. Now Lord Kelton, he is no where near as boring and pedantic as the original. He's a tad naive (just WHY is Fay in his room, wearing nothing but her undergarments??)  and he is clearly older and less dashing than Lord Dilling. But, he's no buffoon, and one could see Fay agreeing to marry him. He's rather a nice man, he's quite wealthy, and he is clearly head over heels about her. 

Nigel Bruce (Willie) is cast in a role in which he, like his friend Kelton, is somewhat innocent (he really doesn't know that Cousin John (Ralph Forbes) is NOT his wife Joan's (Colleen Clare) blood relation), but he's also a decent and not silly man. He doesn't do the fubsy Englishman that we are used to in his appearances as Dr. Watson; he is a too trusting soul, but a good friend with a sense of humor.
We also enjoyed Jessie Ralph as the Duchess of Ebley. This version gives the Duchess a bit of a past, which makes her even more attractive (and makes Fay's reluctance to rob her even more pointed).  A Broadway actress with experience in silent films, she was 63 when she made her sound film debut in Child of Manhattan (1933). She had 50 sound film credits to her name (including such gems as Enchanted April (1935), David Copperfield (1935), and After the Thin Man (1936). Married once (and together until his death), she was forced to retire in 1941 after diabetes complications resulted in the amputation of her leg. She died three years later, age 73, of a heart attack. 

A few new scenes are added to the film - the opening scene with Lord Kelton, a late scene with Mr. Powell (obviously inserted to satisfy the Hays Office), and fund-raising auction scene, with little dolls of our lead character auctioned for charity. Here's a photo of Mr. Montgomery with the Crawford doll. We thought the dolls were absolutely adorable, and wondered if the actors got to keep them.

The New York Times review by Frank Nugent was not exactly glowing, though he did express admiration for William Powell saying that "Mr. Powell is equally fascinating, either side of the pale."  Following the release of this version, the Lux Radio Theatre aired a version with Miriam Hopkins, Walter Pidgeon, and Adolph Menjou in May of 1942. In 1953, Broadway Television Theatre broadcast an adaptation with Vicki Cummings in the lead (AFI catalog). 

Each film has its own merits, and we liked both of them for different reasons. We always enjoy seeing William Powell; we liked the rapport between Shearer and Rathbone. With the changes in film technology between 1929 and 1937, the movies are different enough that it is entertaining to see them both.

We'll leave you with a scene from the film:

Friday, March 6, 2020

Norma Enters Society

Socialite Fay Cheyney (Norma Shearer) is hosting a charity event, during which both Lord Elton (Herbert Bunston) and Lord Arthur DIlling (Basil Rathbone) vie for her attentions. At the end of the evening, she is invited to the home of Mrs. Webley (Maude Turner Gordon), and eagerly accepts the invitation. Lord Dilling however, is puzzled. He thinks he remembers Mrs. Cheyney's butler, Charles (George Barraud), but NOT as a butler. Our film this week is the first version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929).

This is our contribution to the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings  and Kristina of Speakeasy.

It's always enjoyable to go back to the beginnings of sound films and see what the introduction of the voice did to the movies. In this case (as with many other movies of the time), MGM selected a reasonably successful play and made it into a movie. If you are more familiar with films from the mid-1930s forward, you will discover it is not what you are used to - it is very conversational, and at times static. The actors are clearly not able to move around very much (given the limitations of the microphone), but with two outstanding performances, it was a movie we all enjoyed.

This was Norma Shearer's second sound film (TCM article), and she seems comfortable with the new medium. She'd had good success in silent movies; with a pleasant speaking voice, and her delightful, sparkling laugh, she makes the transition to talkies seem almost easy. It helps that, in this film, she has someone to bounce off - Basil Rathbone, who is engaging as Fay's hopeful suitor. The story was originally purchased for the actress Florence Vidor (AFI Catalog), but that production never came about. 
Born in Montreal, Ms. Shearer tried to begin with a career on Broadway, but was turned down by Florenz Ziegfeld as not being pretty enough (Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle).  She later got some revenge when she refused to star in The Great Ziegfeld (Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood by Charles Foster). Extra work in films followed, though many thought her (again) not pretty enough for pictures (Canadian Heroines 2-Book Bundle: 100 Canadian Heroines / 100 More Canadian Heroines by Merna Forster).  A small role in The Stealers (1921) resulted in a contract with what would become MGM; by 1925, she was getting star billing, which she retained until her retirement in 1942. Though some tried to attribute her success to her happy, albeit short, marriage to Irving Thalberg, even he was not always right about her career. When he dismissed her request to play the lead in what would become The Divorcee (1930) with "you're not glamorous enough," she sent him sultry pictures (by George Hurrell) that proved her glamour (and gave her an Oscar to boot) (Made For Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards by Bronwyn Cosgrave). She would receive five more Oscar nominations. She lived quietly in retirement, eventually remarrying. She died in 1983 at the age of 81.
While Ms. Shearer started her career in films, Basil Rathbone began on the London and New York stages. He began working in 1911 and returned to the stage after serving in the London Scottish Regiment (along with Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman) during the first World War. It was during the war he became the Army Fencing Champ, a skill that would serve him well in many of his films (though sadly, he always seemed to lose on film!). He did a few silent films, but (like his friend Ronald Colman), he had a voice made for the movies, and it serves him well in our film, as does his stage presence. One scene in particular comes to mind. As Lord Arthur enters a room, he is question by another man. Mr. Rathbone moves slowly towards a sofa; he demeanor showing thoughtfulness. He sits, and then, after a brief pause, answer the question. It's a clever bit of acting that gives us more information about the character, while answering to the needs of the hidden microphone. 

While we realized that the character of Lord Elton was important to the plot, as portrayed by Herbert Bunston he becomes a bore after about two scenes.  Mr. Bunston really overdoes it; he's so obviously stupid, one wonders why he keeps getting invited to dinner parties. Sure, he's rich, but he hasn't got a brain in his head! In contrast to Mr. Rathbone, his character becomes even more idiotic. Every time he opens his mouth, you want the floor to open up and swallow him.
Hedda Hopper (Lady Maria) has a small role as one of the society ladies who frequents the same parties as Fay. She doesn't really have a lot to do, but she is pleasing in the few scenes she is given. Likewise, George Barrault's scenes are infrequent, but pivotal to the action.
The movie is based on a play that opened on London and on Broadway in 1925; the Broadway production starred Ina Claire, Felix Aylmer, Roland Young, and Helen Hayes. We were intrigued that Roland Young (who played Lord Arthur on stage) was NOT involved with the film - he was under contract to MGM as well. 

The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was nominated for a writing award at the first Academy Awards. It got a decent review in the New York Times (Mordaunt Hall didn't like Herbert Bunston either).  It's been filmed three more times, in 1937 under the same title, with Joan Crawford, William Powell, and Robert Montgomery; as The Lady and the Law (1951) with Greer Garson, and in 1961 with Lilli Palmer in a German version. We'll be taking a look at the 1937 version next time we meet.

We'll leave you with the opening scene: 

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon. Please consider visiting some of the other posts and learning more about our friends to the north.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Ronald Does Dickens

Banker John Barsad Walter Catlett) meets with Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allen) to inform her that her father, who she thought was dead, is alive. A prisoner in the Bastille in Paris for over 18 years, Dr. Manette (Henry B. Walthall) has almost lost his mind, but his love for his young daughter helps him to be "recalled to life". On a ship back to England, the Manettes meet Charles Darney (Donald Woods), who is, unbeknownst to them, is the nephew of the man who caused Dr. Manette's imprisonment, the Marquis St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone).  Our film this week is the David O. Selznick production of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

David O' Selznick became famous for adapting novels for the screen (think Rebecca (1940), Gone With the Wind (1939), David Copperfield (1935), Anna Karenina (1935)). When working on Gone With the Wind, he was quoted as saying "the book is the law, the book is the Bible" (Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From "Gone with the Wind" to "The Passion of the Christ" by Thomas Leitch), and with one small exception, this is true of A Tale of Two Cities. Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, the story paints a picture of Paris leading up to and during the Terror. 

The one big change from the novel was forced by the casting of Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton.  He is, of course, magnificent in the part; his mellifluous voice provides a perfect ending to the film, as Sydney tells us "It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." (it gives me chills very time I hear it). But Mr. Colman was adamant about one thing - he did not want to play both Sydney and Charles Darney. (AFI catalog).  Though Mr. Selznick was later quoted as saying Mr. Colman "had a dread of dual roles", Selznick would convince him two years later to perform in The Prisoner of Zenda as both the King and as Rudolf Rassendyll. Yet, the casting of two different actors works well, and makes Carton's efforts at the end of the story even more poignant.
It is fair to say that this is a film without any false performances. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring some of Hollywood's greatest character actors. Blanche Yurka, as Madame De Farge gives a frightening performance as a woman obsessed with the demise of the aristocracy. Notorious for her knitting skills, Madame is making a blanket with the coats of arms of all the aristos she plans to execute.  My friend noticed that Ms. Yurka was "throwing" her yarn in the English fashion (and in fact, was not really knitting - the needles never moved), which ended in a discussion about when would a knitter in France have knitted Continental style? The answer was in the early 19th Century (A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt), what we now call the continental style was introduced to the rest of Europe from Germany, so it is likely that, in the 1790s, Madame would indeed have thrown her yarn.

Madame is a good companion to Lucille La Verne as The Vengeance, an odious woman, equally maniacal in her desire to murder. Ms. La Verne was at one point in the running to play Madame De Farge, along with Judith Anderson, May Robson, and Emily Fitzroy. Two years later, Ms. La Verne would be the inspiration and voice for the Queen/Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can hear her doing that insane laugh in this film as well. 
Also outstanding is the always entertaining Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross. A determined lady whose life is devoted to the protection of her "Lady Bird," Lucie and Lucie's family, we know from the start that nothing will prevent Miss Pross from seeing the Manettes home to safety in England.  

Basil Rathbone has a relatively small part - that of the Marquis St. Evremonde. He is so totally despicable that you look forward to his eventual death. The only problem is that you don't get to see him any longer and he is so very good in the part, giving just the right amount of swagger and disregard to a horrible man.
Isabelle Jewell has a small but important part of a Seamstress swept up in the madness of the Terror. We see her once at trial, and then again in prison. She plays it well - though only introduced to the woman, you feel for her, and ultimately admire her courage.  Though director Jack Conway was convinced she would not fit the role, David Selznick disagreed, and insisted on testing her.  All parties were convinced by her test, and Ronald Colman got permission to give her the good news. (TCM article)
Colman portrayed Carton again on two Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts, on 12 Jan 1942  (with Edna Best) and 18 Mar 1946, (with Heather Angel). Orson Welles took on the role for a 26 Mar 1945 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast. The story has been on film multiple times. There was a silent version in 1917; William Farnum played both Sydney and Charles.  In 1958, Dirk Bogarte appeared as Sydney; and a 1980 television movies featured Chris Sarandon as both Carton and Darnay. Two television  miniseries have also been produced - one in 1980 with Paul Shelley in the double role and a 1989 version with James Wilby as Carton.  

The New York Times review by Andre Sennwald called the movie "a prodigally stirring production. . . .for more than two hours it crowds the screen with beauty and excitement. . ." We wholeheartedly agree, and leave you with a trailer:

Monday, February 24, 2020

Gig is a Cop

Johnny Kelly (Gig Young)  works as a cop in Chicago, the City That Never Sleeps (1953). His father Sgt. John Kelly, Sr. (Otto Hulett ) is a police officer as well, and Johnny joined the force at his father's urging. But Johnny is sick of it; he feels underpaid and over-worked. His mother-in-law demeans his low earnings - his wife, Kathy (Paula Raymond) earns more than he does. Johnny has also become enamored of Sally "Angel Face" Connors (Mala Powers), a nightclub performer who is willing to become his lover IF he leaves town with her. So, when Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) offers Johnny a large sum of money to set up Hayes Stewart (William Talman), Johnny is tempted, but declines, as Biddel expects him to do it while on duty. In spite of his unwillingness to become involved with Biddel and Stewart, circumstances force him back into the case.  

This was another Noir City DC offering with which I was unfamiliar. I'll deal with the one negative issue of the story first - the attitude that Kathy Kelly is somehow an unsupportive wife because she gets a decent salary is annoying in this day and age. When she tells her father-in-law that she's going to stay home and live on Johnny's salary, there were groans in the audience. Putting that aside, the film is engaging, and keeps you guessing throughout - there are a lot of twists to the intricate plot.
Eddie Muller has called this one of the top 25 noir films (TCM article); it's an unusual film in that it told in a documentary style, with a little bit of the supernatural thrown in. The narrative voice of Joe Chicago (Chill Wills), Johnny's partner for this one, fateful day, gives the film an eerie, out of this world effect. 

Edward Arnold is good as the wealthy man with a young wife he adores - Lydia, played with her usual air of disdain by the wonderful Marie Windsor. They are, not surprisingly, an unlikely couple, so it's no surprised when we discover that Lydia is having an affair with Hayes Steward.  With his rumbling voice and bigger-than-life demeanor, Mr. Arnold brings a touch of menace to Biddel.

Until he was cast as Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, William Talman seemed to have a career in which he was always a psychotic villain. Hayes Stewart is no exception to this assumption. He's a despicable individual - he's been working for Biddel as a henchman, doing the dirty jobs that Biddel is unwilling to do himself. Now that Biddel has found Hayes to be too big for his britches and wants him taken down a peg, we get to watch the two men turn on one another. Mr. Talman makes his character frightening.
Mala Powers is an actress who never gets the respect she deserves. She's wonderful as Angel Face, a woman who's dissatisfied with her life, and is determined to change it. Her relationships with the two men in her life - Johnny and Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell) are complicated, and Ms. Powers is able to show the complex feelings she has for these two very different men. As her attitudes change, Ms.Powers creates a character who is not fickle, but torn between love and the need to live a better life.

This was Tom Poston's first billed appearance (AFI catalog) - he only appears for a few minutes, but it was fun to see this familiar face as a police officer working with John Kelly, Sr. Though Mr. Poston did do many films, it was television that saw his best work, most notably as George Utley on Newhart
Gig Young is the key player in this film, and he is powerful as the conflicted policeman. You have to sympathize with Johnny, and Mr. Young does a good job in making you understand that Johnny is basically a decent man. The scenes in which he listens to the carping voice of his mother-in-law, followed by an offer from Biddel to do some work while on the job, set up the discords within this man who wants to do his job, but is tired of being considered second-rate because of it.

Some of the background shots were filmed in Chicago; the lighting and the cinematography by John L. Russell is properly atmospheric; the action of the film is set in one night. The director, John H. Auer, had an extensive career, primarily in low-budget movies, and accentuates the seedy nature of the City and of Johnny's job.
The New York Times review was lackluster when it was released, but the film's reputation has grown through the years. Martin Scorcese has called it one of his favorite films, (WBEZ radio) and assisted in efforts to get it restored and re-released.

I'll leave you with a clip from the film:

Monday, February 17, 2020

Cary Knits

A woman walks on a pier, her eyes fixed on the sea.  The waterfront guard, fearful that she is a potential suicide, is about to confront her when he is stopped by a sailor.  The sailor, Hard Swede (Charles Bickford) proceeds to tell her story. Our film for tonight is Mr. Lucky (1943).

Cary Grant is magnificent as the somewhat shady Joe Adams. He walks a fine line in making Joe (who'll use the name Joe Bascopolous throughout the film) both suspect and likeable. Classified as 1-A by the Draft Board, Joe gambles for, and wins the identity of the dying Bascopolous, as well as the gambling ship Fortuna from his former partner, Zepp (Paul Stewart), an equally devious character who's quite willing to cheat to get what he want. Joe then sets about finding some suckers to rent the ship. He focuses on a War Relief charity, run by Dorothy Bryant (Laraine Day). She's suspicious of his motives, but is eventually won over by his charm and seeming dedication to the war efforts. 

We, the audience, know that Joe is up to no good, but with Cary Grant in charge, it's easy to understand Dorothy's change of heart. And, as he gets to know her, we learn more about his life - Joe has not had it easy, and he's determined that nothing, not even war (it's not his war, he tells us) will alter his path. His growing affection for Dorothy is displayed by a tie she gives him as a gift - watch as he refuses to remove it (she tied it on for him).
Laraine Day is a good match for Mr. Grant - she's smart and determines. One doesn't feel that she is an easy mark, which makes her changing relationship with him all the more convincing.  Both Ruth Warwick and Anna Lee tested for the part (and Mr. Grant's new wife Barbara Hutton wanted to play Dorothy as well. Mr. Grant nixed that idea. (TCM article)), Ms. Day, however is ideal casting. The scene in which she uses the Australian (or Cockney) rhyming slang that Joe taught her to warn him away is beautifully done.

There are a number of wonderful actors in supporting parts. Charles Bickford's part is small but pivotal (we wish we'd seen more of him). Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Steadman) finally gets to play a good person - she is lovely as Dorothy's colleague in the charity. She, too, is intrigued by Joe; she's also immensely supportive of Dorothy when the going gets tough. Alan Carney (The Crunk) is amusing as Joe's henchman, and Paul Stewart is properly intimidating as Joe's enemy (when Mr. Stewart plays evil, he is most convincing). 

We had a bit of a problem with Mr. Bryant, as played by Henry Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is  prim as Dorothy's grandfather, but he also has a loving relationship with his granddaughter. Is is hard to imagine him calling the police when it is sure to get Dorothy arrested.
As a knitter, I'm terrifically intrigued with Cary Grant learning to knit for the cause (you can see him in his early efforts here). And though the film gets chuckles out of men learning to knit, they also show him and The Crunk appreciating the craft after they learn it. Joe's admiration for a hand-knit tea cosy ("nice work") is endearing  Dorothy also points out that many men in England who are unable to serve in the military are learning to knit so they can provide warm clothing for the troops. If you would like to learn more about knitting in World War II, visit Knitting for Victory. Efforts still continue for today's veterans at the National World War II Museum (Knit Your Bit).

Based on Milton Holmes' story "Bundles for Freedom," which appeared in Cosmopolitan, the original ending of the story was far different that the one we see (AFI catalog), and it is for the best. Cary Grant asked RKO to purchase the film rights for him, and they obliged. Mr. Holmes and Adrian Scott were credited with the screenplay (Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten by Bernard F. Dick).

Mr. Lucky opened at Radio City Music Hall and received a positive New York Times review - they called it "is a picture of many moods, and they are all handled expertly by Director H. C. Potter." Ms. Day and Mr. Grant reprised their roles for Lux Radio Theatre in October 1943. In 1959, a television series, loosely based on the film, premiered with John Vivyan (as Mr. Lucky) and Ross Martin.

If you've never seen this film, you are in for a treat. Here is the trailer:

Monday, February 10, 2020

Little Girl Lost

Five-year old Carolyn Crawford (Gwendolyn Laster) loves flowers. On her way to school one morning, she wanders into a field in search of some blossoms, and plunges into The Well (1951). Her mother, Martha (Maidie Norman) becomes concerned when Carolyn does not return home from school; she calls the local sheriff Ben Kellog (Richard Rober), who begins searching for the child. Some local people saw little Carolyn talking to a stranger, Claude Packard (Harry Morgan), and are convinced the man kidnapped her. Adding to the problem - Carolyn is African-American, Claude is white.

This film was part of the Noir City DC at AFI Silver. Our presentation featured an introduction by film historian Foster Hirsch.

Dr. Hirsch acknowledged that The Well is not really a film noir, though it has noir moments (A recent Facebook video by Eddie Muller also discusses the film's noir potential). Rather, The Well is two films in a brief 86 minutes. The first section focuses on how gossip and here-say in the small town results in an upsurge in racism and race riot, as the  citizens of the town - white and black - become incensed at what they see as injustices surrounding  little Carolyn's disappearance. The fury is so intense that Sam Packard (Barry Kelly), one of the chief instigators of the riot (it's his nephew who has been arrested) forgets why all the trouble started in the first place!  The second section of the film shows us the the town reuniting as they race the clock to rescue Carolyn before her fall is fatal.
This is clearly a B film, using actors most of us only see in supporting roles.  Maidie Norman, who spent her career playing maids, finally gets a role she can sink her teeth into as the distraught mother who only wants to find her little girl. Ms. Norman was born in Georgia but raised in Ohio (Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003 by Jacqueline Jones Royster). She received a Master's Degree in drama from Columbia University in 1937; that same year, she married her first husband (they were together until his death). In 1946, she started performing on radio; the following year, she made her first film The Peanut Man (a film about George Washington Carver). It was difficult to find roles that truly used her talents - more often than not, she played domestics. However, she refused to speak in what she called "old-slavery time talk" (Jet Magazine obituary).  She went to television to find more challenging roles; she also became an instructor in drama at UCLA, where she introduced a course on Black Theatre history.  She died in 1998, at the age of 85, of lung cancer.
Harry Morgan, is - as always, excellent as the suspected kidnapper.  Claude is in town for a few hours, and attempts to visit his uncle. He's a kind man; he sees the child staring at some violets in a flower shop window, and buys them for her. That simple act of kindness opens up a maelstrom of trouble for him. Mr. Morgan began his career on Broadway (using his birth name, Harry Bratsburg); between 1937 and 1941, he appeared in 8 plays. In 1933, he appeared in a small role in The Kennel Murder Case; his screen career really started in 1942 in To the Shores of Tripoli (using the name Henry Morgan; he'd later be listed as Henry "Harry" Morgan. Around 1962, he was billed as Harry). Always a supporting player, he played a variety of "types" - good guy and villain alike. Radio and television, however, moved him into more prominent roles, such as Bill Gannon in Dragnet. But, the best was yet to come - after playing a psychotic general in M*A*S*H, he was offered the role of Colonel Sherman T. Potter, the new commander of the 4077th. He eventually was awarded an Emmy for the part. He married twice (the second marriage was after the death of his wife Ellen - they were together for 45 years). He died in 2011 at the age of 96.
The story was loosely based on the story of Kathy Ficus, a three-year old who fell into a pipe in an abandoned oil field (AFI catalog).The film received two Oscar nominations,  for screenplay and editing. This is not a great film, by any means, but (as Foster Hirsch said in his introduction), it's an important film.  If you can find a copy, we heartily recommend a viewing.  We'll leave you with a trailer:

Monday, February 3, 2020

Aldo Is on the Run

James Vanning (Aldo Ray) goes into a Los Angeles bar for a drink, where he is approached by Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft). She's got a problem - she was meeting a girlfriend for a drink and walked off without her wallet; would Jim loan her a small amount of money to pay for the drink she purchased? Jim agrees to help her; they strike up a conversation and decide to dine together. When they leave the restaurant, Jim is kidnapped by two criminals, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), who plan to torture him for the location of something. We're going to discuss Nightfall (1957).

When I attend Noir City DC, I  try to select some films I've never seen before - sometimes ones I've never even heard of. This picture fell into the latter category. I openly confess to not being a particular fan of Aldo Ray, but after seeing this film, my opinion of his acting abilities has soared upward. Mr. Ray is both engaging and sympathetic as a man on the run both from the gangsters that want him to reveal the location of stolen funds, and from the police who believe he has committed a murder.

This was by no means Anne Bancroft's first appearance - she'd started in television, and made her big screen debut with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark in Don't Bother to Knock (1952). She makes a lovely addition to Nightfall, appearing as a mannequin (modeling gowns created by fashion director Winifred Waring (AFI catalog)) at a local couture house, who becomes romantically involved with Jim.  In a sense, as is pointed out in this TCM article, the character is somewhat unnecessary to the story line, but she is so very engaging that you really don't notice. 

Brian Keith plays a truly despicable villain, though he's not nearly as bad as his murderous colleague, played with appropriate madness by Rudy Bond. Mr. Keith's calm delivery emphasizes how truly heinous John is. He commits murder with the ease of putting on a jacket. There is no guilt or emotion - it is just a task that he must perform.

It's always a pleasure to see Frank Albertson, here playing Dr. Edward Gurston, Jim's (or Art Rayburn; James Vanning is a pseudonym) best friend and camping partner. It's a small part, but he is, as always, enjoyable.Though he is only present for a few scenes, his character is crucial to the actions that follow, and his presence is felt through out the film.

Early in the film, we are introduced to Ben Fraser (James Gregory) and his wife, Laura (Jocelyn Brando). Their relationship is lovely - their marriage is obviously strong, and they are not afraid to tease one another about his job. James Gregory presents a man who is good at his job, and is also scrupulously honest. Though the authorities suspect Jim of robbery and murder, Ben has his doubts, based only on observation and a brief conversation between the two men. Ben's trust in Jim becomes a key factor as the plot thickens.

James Gregory started his acting career in New York (he was born in the Bronx and raised in New Rochelle) in the Broadway production of Key Largo. He would appear in 14 Broadway productions during his lifetime. After a three-year Navy stint, he did more theatre and radio - his distinctive, gravelly voice made him a natural. His first film role was as a police officer in The Naked City (1948); he's probably best remembered for his role as Senator Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He found a home guest starring in television series, including Star Trek, The Big ValleyHawaii Five-O, and Barney Miller, where he had a recurring part as Inspector Frank Luger. He retired in 1986, and lived with his wife of 58 years until his death at the age of 90 in 2002.
Director Jacques Tourneur  was no stranger to film noir - he'd already directed Out of the Past (1947), perhaps the penultimate film noir. Since then, attitudes towards television had changed, and the filmmakers, who had originally ignored it, realized the TV was another venue for their films after the screen time was over. However, noir's grey-shaded cinematography did not show up well on 1950s b&w televisions. The films looked muddy. So, Mr. Tourneur brought in cinematographer Burnett Guffey to create a look that would show more clearly on early TV sets (PaleyFest). This included moving the film from Los Angeles, where it opened, to the mountains of Wyoming. The result - the film becomes truly black and white - with the stark, white mountains and snow-covered fields, contrasting with the  dark trees and water. It's a beautiful piece of work.

The New York Times review was dismissive, though the reviewer complimented the actors on a job well done (he's particularly impressed with Brian Keith and James Gregory - I agree).  The evaluation of the film has changed in recent years, as is evidenced by this Huffington Post article, calling it "work of striking juxtapositions and tones that by picture end, come off like an unforgettably disarming person — you’re charmed, discombobulated, even slightly disturbed, and you’re not sure what to make of it all. You just know you like it, no matter how bizarre it all ends up."

I heartily recommend you look for this film - I think you will enjoy it. In the meantime, here is a trailer:

Monday, January 27, 2020

Joan Has Her Portrait Hung

Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), an instructor of psychology at Gotham University, has just sent his family on an extended trip to Maine. He spends the evening with his friends, Dr. Barkstane (Edmond Breon) and New York District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey).  Several hours - and drinks - later, Richard exits the club and pauses to admire The Woman in the Window (1944), a portrait in the gallery next to his club. He's stunned to realize that, standing next to him is THE woman (Joan Bennett), who after some conversation, invites him to her apartment. His response to her query will change his life forever.

At the 2019 Noir City DC, we were treated to an introduction to this film by film historian Foster Hirsch. The film, he said, was about submerged desires, and what happens when these desires bubble to the top. Certainly, there is a sexual aspect to the interactions between Alice and Professor Wanley (at least, on his part!). But I disagreed that this was the result of a loveless or sexless marriage. We see Professor Wanley seeing his wife (Dorothy Peterson) and children (Robert Blake and Carol Cameron). He gives his wife a warm departing kiss; we later see him writing to her, and starting the letter "My Dearest Darling". This is certainly a long-time marriage, but he clearly still loves his wife, and very much misses his family.

Seeing Edward G. Robinson in anything is a treat, but he really outdoes himself in this film.  The juxtaposition between the nebbishy professor and the calculating criminologist is fascinating to watch. This was Mr. Robinson’s first film with Joan Bennett, and the chemistry between them is perfect - so good, in fact that the two would be reunited the following year for the impressive Scarlet Street.  Given Mr. Robinson's career of playing vicious murderers, it is intriguing to see him as a victim - though one who has a real crime on his hands.
Merle Oberon was at one point considered for the role of Alice (AFI catalog), but it is hard to picture anyone but Joan Bennett in the role. She is so enormously sexy that it's easy to picture the three clubmen (Dr. Barkstane, Frank Lalor, and Professor Wanley) discussing their dream girl based merely on a picture in the window of an art gallery.  With her dark hair (a change she made in 1938, which opened a new range of films for her), deep voice, and her seductive tones, she is a siren, wooing men to their doom. Her interactions with both Mr. Robinson and Mr. Duryea are letter-perfect. It's no wonder that Hollywood wanted this dream team to be reunited the following year.

Ms. Bennett, her husband, Walter Wanger, and Fritz Lang were the producers on the film; this opened up new opportunities to director Lang, whose vision for film had being circumscribed by producers like Darryl F. Zanuck. (TCM article)  The film's ending was Lang's idea; producer and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson wanted a different ending, but he was overruled.
Dan Duryea  (Heidt) is appropriately smarmy as the bodyguard hired by his company to tail Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) - a wealthy man who has a reputation for losing his short temper and getting into fights.  While we initially think Heidt will be easily fooled by the Professor and Alice, we find he is by no means stupid, though he is avaricious and vengeful. Mr. Duryea spent the greater part of his career playing the villain, but he's never boring. His scenes with Ms. Bennett sizzle with tension.
The film's initial title was Off Guard. It received a single Oscar nomination for Score (Hugo Friedhofer and Arthur Lange)., losing to  Miklós Rózsa's Spellbound. Ms. Bennet, Mr. Robinson, and Mr. Duryea reunited to perform a Lux Radio Theatre version in June of 1945.

If you've never seen Woman in the Window, do get hold of a copy. It's a real treat.  I'll leave with the trailer: