Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Robert Meets a Ghost

When the ancestral home of the de Canterville's is sequestered for use by the U.S. Army, the heiress, Lady Jessica de Canterville (Margaret O'Brien) meets an American decendent of the family Cuffy Williams (Robert Young). They also meet the resident ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville (Charles Laughton) who was condemned to walk the halls of the house until a descendant performs an act of bravery. Could Cuffy be the one to free The Canterville Ghost (1944)?

As part of the 10th Anniversary celebration for the Classic Movie Blog Association, we're featuring film-related anniversaries. Now 75 years old, The Canterville Ghost is also part of the memorials for the Second World War and D-Day (it was released in August, just two months after the invasion).

Let's begin by mentioning that the screenplay, adapted from an Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, has only marginal similarity to its inspiration. This is very much a World War II tale - there is no need for a descendant to perform an act of bravery for Sir Simon in Wilde's version. For one thing, Sir Simon's crime in Wilde's story is far more deserving of his horrible fate - in an unjustified fit of jealousy, he murders his innocent wife. In the film version, Sir Simon runs away from an opponent in a duel - even Sir Simon's adversary thinks his punishment horrific. Because the victim of his crime in the Wilde novella was a woman, Sir Simon must be saved by a woman: "you must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray with me for my soul, because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been sweet, and good, and gentle, the Angel of Death will have mercy on me." (The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde). The idea of courage under fire was deemed more meaningful in the midst of the war.
As we saw in Journey for Margaret (1942), the chemistry between Margaret O'Brien and Robert Young is outstanding. He's also faced with the unenviable task of playing a coward as his country (and the viewers of the film) face an horrific war. It cannot have been easy to play a man who begins the film running from danger, but Mr. Young takes on the task. He makes Cuffy even more the hero, because the audience is aware that he is truly afraid. (Mr. Young remained in Hollywood during World War II. He participated in war bond rallies and worked with the local civil defense.)

Equally enjoyable are the scenes between Charles Laughton and Ms. O'Brien. He was "enchanted" by Ms. O'Brien (TCM article) and their affection shows. It's been said that Mr. Laughton wanted children, however his wife, Elsa Lanchester, was either not willing or unable to have children (she admitted to at least two abortions). Mr. Laughton was allegedly quite receptive to interactions with youngsters - in fact, his only work as a director, The Night of the Hunter (1955), focused on two children. 

We were especially takien with the dancing sequence in which a young soldier asks Lady Jessica to dance. As the child is unfamiliar with swing dancing,  the soldier does all the steps for her. Ms. O'Brien really gets into the routine - even when she is unable to do something, she turns control over to her partner. It's a lot of fun to watch.

The film also demonstrates the skills of a number of excellent character performers: Una O'Connor (Mrs. Umney) is good as Lady Jessica's nanny. William Gargan (Sargent Benson) has just the right amount of military demeanor for a man who has literally just seen a ghost. Peter Lawford (Anthony de Canterville) dons a blonde wig that we suspect he stole from June Allyson to play Sir Simon's brother. Reginald Owen (Lord Canterville) is autocratic as a man who values courage over the life of his son.

The film was originally to be directed by Norman McLeod, but Charles Laughton was concerned with Mr. McLeod prior experiences with broad comedy (he was the director on two Marx Brothers and one W.C. Fields films), and requested that he be replaced. Jules Dassin stepped in, and he and Mr. Laughton got on swimmingly. As this was one of Mr. Dassin's earliest feature films, Mr. Laughton provided advice in private, which the director found helpful.

There have been numerous adaptions of  The Canterville Ghost. An early television broadcast (September 1949) starred Wendy Barrie and Edward Ashley. The following year, Robert Montgomery Presents Your Lucky Strike Theatre (November 1950) had a version with Cecil Parker and Margaret O'Brien. In April of 1951, the Du Mont network aired a show with Lois Hall and Reginald Sheffield. May 1953 saw  Ziv TV show a the story with John Qualen and Connie Marshall. It was made into a musical in November of 1966 - again on television - with  Michael Redgrave, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Peter Noone (of Herman's Hermits fame), John Gielgud and Andrea Marcovicci were in a 1986 television film, and Patrick Steward and Neve Campbell tackled the parts in 1996. (AFI catalog). A Film Comment article from 2018 calls this version "the strangest one of all," but we agree with them that it is "definitely charming." Here's a trailer:

This post is part of The Anniversary Blogathon hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association - celebrating it's 10th Year. Happy anniversary, fellow members! Please visit the website to read the other posts that are part of this celebration.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Aline Pumps Gas

Sisters Myra (Ann Dvorak) and Olga (Aline MacMahon) run a gas station/diner/motel deep in the desert of the American Southwest. Isolated from the rest of the world (except for the customers who are always heading somewhere else), Olga is protective of her younger sister.  She forbids her from socializing with men, especially Steve Laird (Theodore Newton), much to Myrna's fury. Olga's life is disrupted by the arrival of George (Preston Foster), a man who was once Olga's lover. Our film this week is Heat Lightning (1934).

Aline MacMahon is always remarkable, and this film is no exception. When we meet Olga, her face is closed. She interacts with strangers on a business level only. She is not unfriendly, but distant and cautious. With the arrival of George (who Olga - and only Olga - calls Jerry), Ms. MacMahon changes her whole demeanor. The suspicion begins to slowly melt into affection, and finally into the hope for a resumption of their earlier relationship. Some of this is accomplished with costuming, as Olga literally lets down her lush hair (George had commented on the beauty of her thick, long hair), but most accomplished with Ms. MacMahon's eyes and posture. This was the first picture in which she received star billing, and she makes the most of it.

Ann Dvorak's part is relatively small, but the last scenes in which she appears are very strong and truly heartbreaking. Myra's early rebellion and the results that revolt make it appear that the sisters will end up very much alike. The emptiness in Ms. Dvorak's face tell us the future of Myra far better than words could.
We're not used to seeing Lyle Talbot (Jeff) play a weakling, but he does here. By the end, he develops a small amount of backbone, but primarily he is under the thumb of the domineering - and nasty - George. We previously discussed his impressive film career when we viewed A Lost Lady, but this was a new side to a decidedly versatile, and underrated, actor.

Frank McHugh (Frank) is also playing a somewhat different part from his usual sidekick roles. He's a chauffeur to Mrs. Feathers Tifton (Glenda Farrell) and Mrs. Tinkle Ashton-Ashley (Ruth Donnelly), two new divorcees, on their way home (with LOTS of expensive jewelry) from Reno. Surprisingly, Mr. McHugh is also the current object of both their affections! Mr. McHugh is amusing and effective with relatively little screen time. But seeing him as an object of lust does take some getting used to.

As is often the case, Glenda Farrell doesn't get enough to do, though her interplay with Ruth Donnelly is especially fun. They are a good combination; in the end, Ms. Donnelly gets the better lines and the stronger part. 
The script is intriguing, in that the backstory is supplied in tiny spoonfuls - you get just enough to understand Olga, and no more. It's script writing by insinuation, and is effective. You keep watching the movie to find out more, as you are given just a tad more information about Olga's life in the city. While several of the characters seem extraneous  - the girls who arrive with "Popsy" (Harry C. Bradley), for example - it's evident by the end of the story that each of these visitors is telling us more about Olga and her decision to live in the desert. 

As you can see, it's an amazing group of character actors - Jane Darwell also appears in the opening scene as Gladys, wife to henpecked husband Herbert (Edgar Kennedy), a couple motoring through the desert with a really unreliable jalopy. It's another humorous interlude, but fascinating as well - Olga is a skilled mechanic, better than most men - even in the precode era, it's not usual to see a woman who is skilled at a trade. 
The story was based on the play, Heat Lightning which was on Broadway for a month in 1933. and starred Jean Dixon as Olga. In 1941, there was remake (of course, drastically altered. The remake was, after all, well within the code) as Highway West (1941) (AFI catalog).  Reviewer Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was not enthusiastic about the film in his review, but did like Ms. MacMahon, saying "she gives a believable performance the rôle is not well suited to her". We disagree; there is not a part written which Ms. MacMahon cannot in some way make suit herself.

Released in March of 1934 (just 4 months before the Code began to be strongly enforced), the picture has not been widely circulated since then, as it was on the Legion of Decency's Banned List (TCM article). We think that it's a shame it - and its star - are not better known, and really recommend a viewing. Here's a trailer to get you started:

Monday, September 30, 2019

Barbara Goes to California

When Lily Bishop (Barbara Stanwyck) is accused of cheating at cards and ejected from town, California (1947) bound Michael Fabian (Barry Fitzgerald) invites her to join him on his trip west, despite the objections of the other train members, and its leader, Jonathan Trumbo (Ray Milland). News of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill disrupts the train, as Lily and most of the train break off to rush to the scene. Trumbo arrives at Pharaoh City to find Lily has opened a saloon and is working with Pharaoh Coffin (George Coulouris), a former slave trader and a man with ambitions of becoming the Emperor of California.

Barbara Stanwyck in a Western - seems like it should be a perfect combination. Unfortunately, with California, other factors get in the way of making this a worthy venue for Ms. Stanwyck. First and foremost is the script - it's a hodge-podge of themes that don't ever come together effectively. First we have a gambling lady escaping to a new land, with a group of pilgrims seeking a new home. Next, it's an hysterical mob careening to the gold rush territory. Tnen, it's our gambling lady trying to run a saloon, and finally, it's a battle for statehood. Huh? All these points come across as separate story lines; there's no cohesion among them, which makes the story disjointed and unappealing. Even the fight scenes seem awkward.
Ms. Stanwyck is also working with an unfinished role: the character of Lily is not really fleshed out. We get a modicum of backstory (her father was a gambler), but then out of nowhere, Lily really wants to get married, and she's seemingly willing to take the first man who proposes, whether worthy of her or not. Add in the fact that there is no chemistry at all between Ms. Stanwyck and either Mr. Milland or Mr. Coulouris. Quite frankly, we thought Lily would have been better off with Barry Fitzgerald. Lily was originally earmarked for Betty Hutton (AFI catalog) but she declined to go on a honeymoon with her first husband. The remnants of Ms. Hutton probably remain the in singing numbers Ms. Stanwyck performs (with vocals by Kay St.Germaine).

Ray Milland was also the second choice; Alan Ladd had been assigned by Paramount, but he was in a salary dispute, so Mr. Milland was give the part. It's a thankless character - a trail boss, who (it turns out) is an army deserter. He's not very appealing, he's downright nasty to Lily. It defies even the idea of "meet cute" that he would be her love interest. Mr. Milland is a good actor, but he needs a character to work with, and he doesn't have one in this picture.  

Another actor who was considered for casting was Victor McLaglen as Pharoh Coffin (may I add, that who came up with THAT name??). George Coulouris does the best he can, but Coffin is a villain with not one redeeming quality. That Lily would even consider marrying this truly despicable man is a head shake - he's got money, but no personality and not a whit of kindness. 
Anthony Quinn (Don Luis Rivera y Hernandez) has about two scenes. It was a role that deserved more development; because of the lack of distinction, when he's gone, you forget about him (which is not the point). 

The only actor who manages to give his part distinction is Barry Fitzgerald. Michael Fabian is a good man: you like him and Mr. Fitzgerald's portrayal of him from the beginning. Though he unavoidably gets caught up in the script confusion, generally speaking, Michael's actions make the most sense of anyone in the story.
What the film does have is beauty - this is a lush technicolor film. Director John Farrow and director of photography Ray Rennahan use the background to good effect, presenting exquisite vistas of the California country-side (an early montage is an especially lovely piece of work). Edith Head's magnificent costumes for Ms. Stanwyck are breathtaking. And the necklace that Ms. Stanwyck wears in the picture below was a family heirloom that Mr. Farrow provided for use in the picture. It's amethyst, and has a matching tiara that Ms. Stanwyck also wears in the film.
The Lux Radio Theatre did a version of the film in January of 1950 with Ray Milland, Lizbeth Scott. and Raymond Burr. We were rather intrigued with the idea of Mr. Burr as Coffin - it seemed he might have brought a bit more sinister appeal to the part.  

We were stunned to read a positive review of the film from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who said that California "glitters with a quite beguiling gleam" Unfortunately, we can't agree. If you are looking for a Barbara Stanwyck western, try Trooper Hook instead.  In the meantime, here's a trailer from California:

Friday, September 27, 2019

Miguel Visits His Family

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) lives in Mexico with his large family, shoemakers all. He is especially fond of his great-grandmother,  Coco (2017), who was abandoned by her father when she was a small child. Coco's mother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) raised her family to despise music, as it was his career as a guitarist that took her husband away from the family. Miguel, however, desperately wants to be a musician, like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), but his  Abuelita (Renee Victor) will have none of it. So, on El Día de Muertos, Miguel attempts to enter a local talent contest - but first he needs to find a guitar.

This post is part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen.

We were treated to a live orchestral performance to this lovely film, with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap playing the score by Michael Giacchino. The film is a delight, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2018, as well as the award for Best Song for "Remember Me" by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. 

One of the questions that arise from the movie on first viewing is the title - why is it named after the very elderly Coco, and not Miguel, who is the focus of the film. Well, you have to watch the movie to get that answer, but it is a moving reveal. The relationship between Miguel and his great-great-grandmother is a close one. He enjoys being with Grandma Coco - though he is bemused that she is unable to remember his name - but as she is the only one who really listens to him (or so he believes), Miguel feels great affection for her. 

The rest of the family, represented by Abuelita, the matriarch of the family, find Miguel to be a bit of a handful. Abuelita upholds her mother Imelda's edict against music, which becomes the crux of Miguel's problem. He feels a call to music, and is a talented guitarist. In this family who loathes music, how is it possible that he could possibly be one of them. His answer - he is the great-great-grandson of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz.

Thrown by a fluke into the land of the dead, Miguel's family on the other side try to send him home, but with Mamá Imelda's proviso that Miguel will give up music. Miguel attempts to thwart her by finding de la Cruz, and getting HIS blessing to go home. Enter Héctor (Gael García Bernal), an impoverished musician who has all but been forgotten by his family. Héctor agrees to help Miguel to de la Cruz if Miguel will put his photo on an ofrenda so he will not be consigned to oblivion. Mr. Bernal brings just the right amount of sadness to the part to make Héctor sympathetic. 
Benjamin Bratt is excellent as de la Cruz, a scoundrel if ever there was one. He voices the part with equal amounts of vanity and arrogance. At the same time, he makes the character intriguing - until we find out more about his past.

Be on the listen for Edward James Olmos as Chicharrón (this article in Gizmodo features an interview with Mr. Olmos on his characterization). He's quite wonderful, and will break your heart.
The reviews of this film were quite positive - Roger Ebert called it "a sprightly story;" The New York Times was a bit less enthusiastic, but still enjoyed the film; the Hollywood Reporter called it "one of Disney-Pixar's most engaging efforts."

The power of a live orchestra providing background to an excellent movie is something that cannot be emphasized too much. If you have the chance to see one of these film and concert combos, please consider going. I'm going to leave you with a trailer to Coco.  

This post is part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen. Please visit the website and sample some of the other interesting posts.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Harry's Fourth Year

As Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is about to enter his fourth year at Hogwarts, he is invited by the Weasley family to attend the Quidditch World Cup. The festivities are interrupted by the appearance of the Dark Mark and an attack on the attendees by a group of Death Eaters. This event signals that Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts is very much about a drastic change in his life and safety. This week, we're going to talk about  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Patrick Doyle's beautiful score was front and center as the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap played the music behind the film. It is truly impressive how much more intense the film is when a live orchestra is enhancing the film (much the way silent movies had a live accompanist). Wold Trap is a large venue, but we had an enthusiastic audience, who really became immersed in the film.

We know from the film's very beginning that this is a different film from the first three. The Dursley's are not present, and we enter the film on Harry's nightmare - he sees Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), and an unidentified man (David Tennant) kill an old caretaker. The dark tone of Harry's dream colors the rest of the film, as Hogwarts too becomes a nightmare world for young Harry - not just because he is forced into the TriWizard Tournament, but also because he is starting to notice girls, especially Cho Chang (Katie Leung).
We are used to Ron, Hermione, and Harry being a united front against the forces of evil, but their relationships are strained as they begin to mature. Harry and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) have their first major fight - Ronald is convinced that Harry entered the TriWizard Tournament in secret. Ronald and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) also fall out when Ron unfairly assumes that Hermione couldn't possibly get a date the Yule Ball. His fury at Hermione (along with the fact that she is attending with one of his personal heroes) ultimately brings Hermione to tears.
One of the delights in seeing this film with a real audience is their reactions to the actors who became part of the franchise. This is especially true for Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), whose appearance on screen always results in long cheers. In spite of his somber attitude, Snape is a favorite of mine. Those of us who have read the full series of books (and seen all the films. Multiple times.) appreciate his dedication to the children's safety as well as the pain that it causes him. Of all the instructors, I believe the Professor Snape is the one person with whom we can all identify.
I recall, while reading this book, breaking into tears on the subway as I came to an event late in the story. The horror that we witness with Harry is unexpected, and author J.K. Rowling knows how to make you feel Harry's pain and shock.  If you've never read these books, or seen the films, do seek them out.

We plan on attending more of these concert performances, for Harry Potter as well as for Disney (tune in for another animated film with a symphony score). In the meantime, I'll leave you with this trailer from the film.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Aline is Kind

Mary Herries (Aline MacMahon) is a wealthy woman with an impressive art collection, and a desire to live in solitude. She has family and friends who visit occasionally, but is quite happy being on her own. She is also a Kind Lady (1935) and finds it hard to resist helping those in need. When street artist Henry Abbott (Basil Rathbone) appears at her doorstep with a sob story, she invites him in for some hot tea and a sandwich, gives him some money, and a warm coat for his wife. It's not long before Abbott reappears, this time with wife Ada (Justine Chase) in tow, and wheedles his way back into the house. But is he as innocuous as he puts on?

This is a suspenseful yarn that reminded us of the equally chilling My Name is Julia Ross. Both films focus on a strong female lead being preyed upon by strangers - attempting to mold the heroine to their desires.  The story is unsettling - though it's not in any way gory, it's a tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat fearing for the safety of Mary Herries.

With Aline MacMahon heading the cast, you know you can't go wrong. She's playing a woman much older than her years - when the play opened on Broadway in 1935, it starred Grace George as Mary. Ms.George was 56 at the time (Ms.George would also play the part on Broadway in a 1940 revival); Ms. McMahon is 20 years younger when she took the part of a woman we know is well into her 50s. Ms. MacMahon brings a determination to the part that makes the audience root for her. Sure, she is a softie, but she's not a weakling. She stands up to Abbott on multiple occasions, and never stops trying to get out of his clutches. For an excellent biography of Ms. MacMahon, visit this Filmstruck post.
Which brings us to Basil Rathbone, an actor who can make even the most heinous villain appealing. Watching Mr. Rathbone play the part (which on Broadway was performed by Henry Daniell, another able malefactor) is like watching a spider spin his web - you want to run, but you can't take your eyes from him. One scene towards the middle of the film is impressive - The Doctor (Murray Kinnell, playing a character who makes Abbott look like a saint) informs him of an "accident." Rathbone's reaction spells out his disgust at the event and his realization that all their plans have changed, and become far more deadly.

Rose (Ms. Herries maid) as ably portrayed by Nola Luxford, is a woman who has seen her mistress's sympathies go to people she finds undeserving before. Her distrust of Abbott is evident from the moment she meets him, and Ms. Luxford makes her the only one in the house with the nerve to go to Mary with her concerns. When the film was remade in 1951, the part of Rose would go to Doris Lloyd, who plays Mary's sister Lucy Weston in this version (TCM article).
Frank Albertson (Peter Santard) again gets to play the good guy, as Mary's nephew-in-law-to-be (he is about to marry her niece, Phyllis (Mary Carlisle)). The immediate affection that Mary and Peter have for each other is important to the plot. It's not just that she offers to give the couple one of her prized art works as a wedding gift. Peter is genuinely concerned at Mary's silence and it is his tenacity that brings the film to a satisfactory ending. 

As previously mentioned, the film returned to Broadway in 1940; appearing in the part of Ada was Dorothy McGuire in one of her earliest stage roles.  The 1951 film remake starred Ethel Barrymore and Maurice Evans as Mary and Abbott. The story also made its way to television on two occasions: Ford Theatre (December 1949) starred Fay Bainter and Joseph Schildkraut; and Broadway Television Theatre featured Sylvia Sidney (November 1953) (AFI catalog).

This is an excellent film - certainly worth your viewing. We hope at some point to catch (and discuss) the Ethel Barrymore remake. In the meantime, please consider seeking this one out.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Ann Has a Secret

John Shadwell (John Boles) and Vergie Winters (Ann Harding) were planning to marry, but Vergie's father (Edward Van Sloan) told John that Vergie is instead marrying Hugo McQueen (Creighton Chaney). In pain, John marries Laura Shadwell (Helen Vinson) on the rebound. But Jim Winters had been paid $10,000 to tell the lie, and trick John into the marriage with Laura. Unable to divorce his wife, John visits Vergie on a regular basis, while his political star begins to rise. Our film this week is The Life of Vergie Winters (1934).

Based on Louis Bromfield's short story (AFI catalog), this film is similar to the stories that are told in Forbidden (1932) and Back Street (1932) - a couple whose true love is thwarted by circumstance, but stay together despite the rules of society. And while this is not an original plot, Ann Harding makes Vergie so likable that you don't really care that you know the story. You keep watching just to see her. 

There are class issues regarding Vergie's potential marriage to John which assist the Shadwells' lies; and Laura is eager to marry a man with political possibilities. Vergie, however, is seemingly well regarded (initially) by the community. A milliner with a popular store, her wealthy clientele are friendly with her (albeit only during business hours). When her secret life becomes more public, she loses her society shoppers, but inherits a new customer base, represented by Pearl Turner (Cecil Cunningham), a local madam. Rich or poor, Vergie displays an easy relationship with her customers.

The film also has an interesting "innovation" not a part of the previously mentioned movies. The Life of Vergie Winters uses narratage (New York Times review); the inner monologues of the townpeople at the opening of the film (the film actually begins with John's death and Vergie's imprisonment) serve as a kind of Greek chorus, preparing the audience for the story that is about to unfold. The technique was very reminiscent of the inner monologue in Strange Interlude (1932) and is interesting, if a bit stylized.

Frank Albertson (Ranny Truesdale) is the kind of man every woman wants to marry. His love for Joan Shadwell (Betty Furness) is deep; when the couple discover Joan is adopted, Joan suggests they break the engagement, since her background is so nebulous. Ranny complies - he demands his ring back; then asks for her hand and places the ring back on her finger. No further discussion of the subject is required (much to the disgust of Laura Shadwell). Ranny is a true gentleman, and Mr. Albertson gives him a warmth that makes him very engaging.
Helen Vinson, on the other hand, plays Laura as a opportunistic witch. She has no regard for John; she wants the prestige that his political possibilities will provide and nothing more. It's pretty apparent that the marriage is eventually one of convenience; it's also clear that she has no use for the child that she has taken into her home (the end of the film - without giving much away - substantiates that). Ms. Vinson's career was primarily playing the "other woman." She started on Broadway, appearing in four plays between 1927 and 1932, then went to Hollywood, where she would make 40 films, including Jewel Robbery (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and In Name Only (1939). Her final film was The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). Married for the third time to Donald Hardenbrook the following year, she left film at her husband's request. They were married until his death in 1976; Ms. Vinson died in 1999 at the age of 92.

One of the most appealing people in the film is that of Joan. We first see her as a girl of about 11 (played by Bonita Granville). She's an engaging child, kind to Vergie (who she has been told to avoid). The interaction between Ms. Harding and Ms. Granville is touching. The character does not alter as she ages - Betty Furness is lovely as a woman who has somehow stayed a good and loving person, despite being raised by a viper. 

There are a few other actors who should be mentioned - Lon Chaney, Jr. (still listed as Creighton Chaney - his true given name) has a few scenes as Hugo McQueen, the man Vergie's father says she is marrying. Donald Crisp is the villain of the piece as Mike Davey, a local pub owner who despises John. Sara Haden is Winnie Belle, the woman who has set her cap on Vergie's despicable father. Ben Alexander, who would later gain fame as the first of Jack Webb's partners in Dragnet, appears as Laura's brother Barry. And Walter Brennan has a brief scene as a rumor-spreading drunk.

The New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall was indifferent; the film was "important" enough that it opened at Radio City Music Hall. It probably will come as no surprise that the film landed on the Catholic Church's Condemned List, which also helped it to do well at the box office (TCM article).  But, with a release date of June 14, 1934, it's at the end of the pre-code era - the new regulations took effect on July 1st, and would effectively have made this film impossible to release in its current state. So, while it is not the most original of plots, it is handled well, and it's always a pleasure to see Ann Harding at her peak.  We enjoyed it, and think you will as well.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Richard Searches for the Plague

A dead body is discovered on a pier in New Orleans; the victim shot twice, making his death a clear-cut case of murder. But the medical examiner notices something odd, and calls in Public Health officer Dr. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark). Reed determines the coroner's fears were justified - the victim Kochak (Lewis Charles) was suffering from pneumonic plague, and would have died within 24 hours - as will anyone he contaminated. Reed and Police Captain Warren (Paul Douglas) need to find the murderers before anyone else dies and there is a Panic in the Streets (1950).

This is a taut noir drama that doesn't waste any of its running time. With a strong cast, the film will keep you engaged til the very last moment. Richard Widmark is excellent as the Public Health Service officer who finds himself battling the clock - and the local police captain - I his attempt to locate men who are potentially carrying a virulent - and fatal - disease. He wasn't the first choice for the part - Dana Andrews was originally tagged for the role.

As good as Mr. Widmark is - and he is good - the film's power is intensified by a riveting performance by Jack Palance (here credited as Walter Jack Palance) as Blackie, the gangster who murdered Kolchak. Mr. Palance emanates an air of danger, yet we see him interacting with the local community on a friendly basis. It's clear from his performance that Blackie can turn on a dime, and woe to the person who crosses him. Even the advertising poster (above) has Blackie as the dominant image - though Mr. Palance’s name does not even appear on the ad. This was Mr. Palance's first screen appearance (AFI Catalog) - he'd already done two television shows - and he makes an impressive debut. He would continue in television and films until 2004, winning an Academy Award for Supporting Actor for his performance in City Slickers (1991) (you can view his amusing acceptance speech here. He was 73 years old at the time).
It's always good to see Barbara Bel Geddes (Nancy Reed) in anything, and we wished she had more screen time (though, frankly, the film is not about her). Nancy provides a sounding board for Clinton; she allows him to vent his frustrations both about his job - which he clearly loves - and about the current investigation. (Linda Darnell was the person first cast as Nancy). 

We were impressed by the mature dialogue between the husband and wife (a couple discussing their choices regarding the expansion of their family), and by the equality in the marriage. The screenplay was based on a story by Edward and Edna Anhalt; we wondered if Ms. Bel Geddes dialogue was written by Ms. Anhalt, because Nancy sounds like a woman - not a man talking with a woman's voice (the Anhalt's won the 1950 Oscar for best story).

Paul Douglas acts as Mr. Widmark's foil, a police detective who initially resents being posted on what he sees as an impossible - and seemingly ridiculous quest to find a murderer who might have a disease. It's not until he sees the effects of the plague - and begins to understand Dr. Reed's determination to stop its progress - that he becomes a true partner in the search for Blackie and his cohorts. Mr. Douglas is always a strong presence in any film, and does not disappoint here.
There are a two secondary players that are worth noting. Tommy Rettig of Lassie fame plays the Reed's son, Tommy. It's a small part, but instrumental in showing the family side of Clinton Reed. His genuine love and interest in his son provide insight into his belief in his family. In his second film role, Zero Mostel plays Fitch, one of Blackie's minions. The character is a rather repulsive little man, and honestly fades into the background. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, Mr. Kazan claimed that he employed Mr. Mostel in spite of his being blacklisted. It didn't help - by 1952 Mr. Mostel was blacklisted completely and didn't work on television or film until 1959 (of course, Mr. Kazan would later name names, ensuring the safety of his own career (Los Angeles Times)). Mr. Mostel returned to New York and the theatre, and would eventually win three Tony Awards).

One character is not listed in the credits - Cleaver, the mortuary attendant who discovers the disease. It's a small role, but we were impressed by the professionalism of the man.  IMDB says that the part is a cameo by director Kazan, but he really looks nothing like Kazan - this actor is a much bigger, and frankly, better looking man.  I'd love to find out who played the part.
The City of New Orleans is also a character in the film, but it's not the New Orleans of Edna Ferber or Frances Parkington Keyes. This is a city of immigrants and of poverty. We see the docks and the underworld; none of the historic beauty of the French Quarter is visible in this film (TCM article).

The story was redone as a Lux Radio Theatre in March 1951, with Richard Widmark and Paul Douglas reprising their roles. The New York Times review was mostly positive, calling it "a generally gripping entertainment."  We believe it's a film that will keep you watching til the very end.  Here's a trailer to whet your appetite:

Monday, August 26, 2019

Fred Joins the Army

The very married Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley) has his eye on chorus girl Sheila Winthrop (Rita Hayworth); he's decided to entice her into his bed with a diamond bracelet. Sheila is having none of it and refuses the gift. That evening, Julia Cortland (Frieda Inescort) finds the bracelet in her husband's pocket (engraved "To Sheila") she informs her husband that she is sick of his philandering and has instituting divorce proceedings. To prevent this (as Martin's finances are all in Julia's name), Martin claims that the bracelet was a gift from his choreographer Robert Curtis (Fred Astaire) to Sheila as an  engagement present, which drives Robert into the army. Today, we'll be discussing You'll Never Get Rich (1941)

As with You Were Never Lovelier, You'll Never Get Rich is more about the dancing than the plot, and thank heaven the dance numbers are so spectacular, or no one would ever watch this film.  Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth have exceptional rapport in all their interactions, but it's not always enough to make up for a rather ridiculous and very padded script.

Much of the humor is supposed to come from Robert Benchley. In total honesty, none of us are fans - by and large, he is an annoyance; in this film, his annoyance factor is redoubled. Why Robert would even associate with this man is beyond comprehension. Martin is a liar and a cheat; he is constantly unfaithful and downright nasty to his wife; and verges on sexually abuse in his pursuit of women. We didn't understand why Julia would stay with him, but she has the excuse of a marriage contract. Robert does not seem to have any tie to Martin. You would think he would run for the hills.
When he does run, it's not from Martin, but from Sheila (Martin has told Julia and Sheila that Robert is in love with Sheila and wants to marry her). He ends up in the Army. Fred Astaire makes a most unlikely soldier. Never mind the fact that he is underweight (in one of the somewhat humorous incidents, he puts a five pound weight in his hat so he passes the physical), he's also too old to be in the draft. Once in the service - which he worked so hard to achieve - he is constantly disobedient. He even puts on an officer's uniform - a court martial offense that the film treats as a lark. Released on September 25, 1941, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Army that Robert enters is a peacetime one (the draft had been reinstated in 1940). In a scant 42 days, these funny soldiers will be going off to possibly die in Europe and in the Pacific. In retrospect, the prospects for these men is not particularly comical. it's unlikely this film would have passed muster after December 7th.

Add Osa Massen (Sonya) and Cliff Nazarro (Swivel Tongue) to Mr. Benchley and you have a trio of actors you would rather were somewhere else. Mr. Nazarro's line of double-talk rapidly gets wearing, and as we mentioned when we discussed Honeymoon for Three, Ms. Massen isn't the world's greatest actress. (I'll acknowledge that she had some good moments - she's pretty good in A Woman's Face, but the part is blessedly small, and she's supposed to be annoying in that film).

Frieda Inescort is a plus, but she's seen so rarely  - and always with Benchley - that she is wasted. Ms. Inescort started her acting career on Broadway in 1922, after working in England as a journalist and a private secretary. Over the course of her career (between 1922 and 1948), she would appear in 20 plays, including When Ladies Meet (in the part that would go to Myrna Loy in 1933 and Joan Crawford in 1941). Her film career began in 1935; she'd primarily play wives and "other women", like her role as Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice (1940). She also began appearing on television in the 1950s, with roles in The Loretta Young Show, December Bride, and Bourbon Street Beat. Married for 35 years to Ben Ray Redman, she survived him by 15 years, dying of multiple sclerosis in 1976 at the age of 74.

Rita Hayworth's singing is again dubbed, this time by Martha Tilton who has an unbilled part in the film (AFI Catalog). Fred Astaire dances while in jail with Chico Hamilton and the Delta Rhythm Boys in a brig that is apparently not segregated! (TCM article).
Originally called He's My Uncle, the title of the film comes from the 1917 song "You're in the Army Now," though the song is not used in the film. Then again, the songs that we have were written by Cole Porter - who received an Oscar nomination for "Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye" (also nominated was the score by Morris Stoloff).

New York Times review was relatively positive. Though the script was called listless, the reviewer felt that Ms. Hayworth's and Mr. Astaire's dancing more than made up for it. The film, in fact, opened at Radio City Music Hall, a quite prestigious venue, and was profitable enough that You Were Never Lovelier was quickly put into production. 

We suggest that you watch the film for the dancing, and fast-forward though some of the plot. Here are Fred and Rita dancing to "So Near and Yet So Far":

Monday, August 19, 2019

Marion Finds Her Father

Sir Basil Winterton (C.Aubrey Smith) is The Bachelor Father (1931); though never married, he has managed to father three children with three different women. Now getting on in years and not in the best of health, he asks his lawyer John Ashley (Ralph Forbes) to locate the now-grown children: Geoffrey Trent (Ray Milland), Maria Credaro (Nena Quartaro), and Antoinette Flagg (Marion Davies), so that he can finally have a relationship with them. But, will they want a relationship with him?

Marion Davies is thoroughly delightful as Tony (don't DARE to call her Antoinette!), a vibrant and winning young lady who is eager to discover a new family, but unwilling to compromised herself to do so. The audience knows early on that Tony is not actually the daughter of Sir Basil (she had a half-sister, also named Antoinette, who died before Tony's birth). The script - and Ms. Davies - make it transparent that Tony is not there for wealth, she's there simply to meet her father - and if she doesn't like him, she's leaving!!

Marion Davies is an engaging actress who really should be seen more often. Though she was concerned about the move to talkies, she should not have been. Ignore the stories that she is the model for the untalented second Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane - she's not. In his introduction to The Times We Had by Marion Davies, Mr Welles said: "Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person." (WellesNet) With all the stories about William Randolph Hearst being the model for Charles Foster Kane, it's often forgotten that Citizen Kane is a work of fiction. It is true that Hearst wanted her to succeed as a dramatic actress, but Ms. Davies far preferred comedy. Her comedic timing was impeccable, and while I'm sure she is an excellent dramatic actress, her gift really was in comedy, as is evidenced in this film (which she also produced).
There are many Marion Davies stories - this one is rather nice. After Cecil Beaton commented that she was one of the six most beautiful women in Hollywood, he was invited to photograph her. When she arrived, she was wearing a high-neck dress. He had hoped to photograph her with bare shoulders - so she cut up the dress to give him the picture he wanted (TCM article).

C. Aubrey Smith is delightful as the curmudgeony Sir Basil.  Mr. Smith was reprising his role from the 1928 Broadway play. Even though this was a pre-code film, there were still issues (that were apparently disregarded) concerning the subject of the film. The Hays Office wanted the title of the film changed and no reference to the Broadway play, so that Sir Basil was not a bachelor, but multiply-divorced. As it was, because it was clear that the children were illegitimate, several countries and U.S. states changed the dialogue to muddy the children's status. As you can see by the advertisement below, the studio ignored the order. (AFI catalog).
This was Ray Milland's ninth film role, and while its not a big one, he does make an impression as Geoffrey, who despite his mother's antipathy (probably well-deserved) to Sir Basil, wants to form a relationship with his father. Mr. Milland worked for years, often as second lead, until he won an Oscar for The Lost Weekend (1945). But he had already done some really choice parts, including Gary Cooper's youngest brother in Beau Geste (1939), Ginger Roger's benefactor in The Major and the Minor (1942), and the musician who's house is haunted in The Uninvited (1944). Mr. Milland would act and direct until just before his death in 1986. He was survived by his wife of 54 years and two children.

Ralph Forbes doesn't have an awful lot to do - he's mainly there as a love interest for Tony (honestly, the butler, Larkin (played marvelously by Halliwell Hobbes) is more interesting than Mr. Forbes. Mr. Forbes had a substantial film career, that extended from silents to the television era; he also appeared in 14 Broadway plays between 1924 and 1950. He was briefly married to Ruth Chatterton and to Heather Angel. He died in 1951, at the age of 46.  

A French version of the story, entitled  Le père célibataire and starring Lili Damita, was released the same year as this version. Though successful upon release, the subject matter made sure it was not available for viewing after the Code was enforced. If you get a chance to see it, please do - we think you will enjoy it, and perhaps fall a little in love with Marion Davies.