Monday, March 19, 2018

Ronald Breaks the Bank

Paul Gallard (Ronald Colman) arrives at the Sports Club in Monte Carlo with an empty suitcase, and proceeds to win 5 million francs at the baccarat table. He departs with his winnings, telling the newspapers that gambling is a fool's game to which he will never return.  Miffed, the casino administration begin to move heaven and earth to get The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935) to tempt him back to the tables, and hopefully, lose.

Most of the action in the 71 minute film is at the very beginning and the end. In between, there is the feeling that the screenwriters were killing time until we could get to those final scenes. It's not that the film was dull - it really wasn't. But it was hard to know exactly where the movie wanted to go and what tone it wanted to strike.

While this is not one of Ronald Colman's best roles, he is delightful as Paul (this was released the same year as Clive of India and A Tale of Two Cities - two powerhouse parts for him). He also has a very good rapport with Joan Bennett (Helen Berkeley) in their second film together - they had previously appeared together in Bulldog Drummond (1929). As in that film, it is clear that Mr. Colman is the star; unfortunately for Ms. Bennett, the part of Helen is not really well defined. As Ms. Bennett and Mr. Colman didn't work together after this, one wonders what would have happened had Ms. Bennett been given better written roles and a character able to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Colman.
Joan Bennett was born into an acting family. Her maternal grandparents were actors, as were her mother and father (her mother would eventually become a literary agent). Her sisters also were actors: Barbara and Constance Bennett. Joan appeared in two films (in 1916 and 1923), then was on Broadway (to which she would return in 1950, in Love Me Little) in Jarnegan (1928).  After two  uncredited film roles, she appeared as the ingenue in Bulldog Drummond.  With her blonde hair (her natural color) and youthful face, she was perfect for roles like Amy in Little Women (1933). Her career path would change, however, when future husband Walter Wanger and director Tay Garnett convinced her to go brunette for the film Trade Winds (1938). After that, she was a natural for roles like Kitty in Scarlet Street (1945). Married four times, her career all but ended when her third husband, Walter Wanger, shot Joan's agent in a fit of jealousy. She'd continue her career with regional stage performances (including the national tour of Bell, Book and Candle as Gillian). (In contrast, Wanger's career was not affected after he served his four-month jail sentence.) Television would prove a reentry for Ms. Bennett - she won an Emmy nomination for her role as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in Dark Shadows (1966-1971). In 1970, she published her autobiography The Bennett Playbill (written with Lois Kibbee), and continued to appear in TV movies. She died of a heart attack in 1990, at the age of 80. For more on Joan and sister Constance, see this article from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter.
Two excellent, but sadly brief performances are turned in by Colin Clive (as Helen's nefarious brother Bertrand) and by Nigel Bruce (as Paul's valet, Ivan). Mr. Clive is deliciously nasty; it's a shame he has so few scenes. And Mr. Bruce gets most of the really good lines. He's really funny, and not at all the buffoon that he would play in his later career.

Sylvia Sidney was originally considered for the role of Helen, and John Ford was to direct - an accident on his boat gave the director's chair to Stephen Roberts (AFI catalog). The film's title is taken from an 1890's music hall song, resulting in the studio being sued by the heirs of  songwriter Fred Gilbert, for violation of their copyright; they eventually lost the suit.  You can hear the song sung by music hall comedian Charles Coborn in the video below - you'll notice the song has nothing at all to do with the plot of the movie. The song would actually be sung in several films, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Alien: Covenant (2017). (TCM article).
The New York Times reviewer was not impressed with the film; they somewhat liked Ronald Colman, but were quite hard on Joan Bennett (really, she doesn't have a strong script. We thought they were being unfair).  It wasn't until May, 1946 that a radio version aired on Hollywood Star Time, with Rex Harrison and Lurlene Tuttle as the leads.  Perhaps the film is justifiably forgotten today, but it's worth seeing for Colman alone. He's always a treat.
As promised, we'll leave you with the song on which the title was based.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Katharine's Getting Married

It's been two years since Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) divorced her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy is about to remarry. Her fiance is George Kittredge (John Howard), an up-and-comer who is completely different from the wealthy Dexter. Tracy, however, is not happy. She seethes with resentment towards Dexter, and towards her father, Seth Lord (John Halliday), who has been cavorting with a dancer in New York City. So, when Dexter shows up the day before her wedding with two reporters from the scandal sheet "Spy Magazine" in tow, Tracy is ready to give Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) the ride of their lives.

TCM Presents for February was the delightful The Philadelphia Story (1940). Katharine Hepburn is perfection as the intolerant Tracy, a woman of strict principle who finds herself torn among 3 men on the eve of her wedding. She never misses a step as Tracy discovers the true meaning of love as her inhibitions fall away.

Katharine Hepburn came to Hollywood to star in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) with John Barrymore. Two years later, she won her first (of four) Oscars for Morning Glory.  But, by 1938, with her films not doing well, she bought out her contract, and departed from Hollywood (after she was included in a list of actors termed Box Office Poison), Ms. Hepburn returned to New York, where she appeared in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story, a play which had been written by Philip Barry with her in mind. The play was a huge hit (it ran for 417 performances in New York, then opened on National Tour). All the major studios wanted it, but there was a catch. With the help of her friend Howard Hughes, Ms. Hepburn had purchased the rights to the play. No film would be made without her in the lead, and without her approval of her leading men. MGM bit the bullet, and bought the film, hired Philip Barry to write the screenplay, and (with Ms. Hepburn's approval) hired Cary Grant to play Dexter (even with his high salary demands and insistence on top billing!) This Philadelphia Magazine article  has more behind-the-scenes information on the production. For more on Ms. Hepburn's fascinating life and career, check out her autobiography Me, and the authorized biography that was published just after her death, Kate Remembered by A Scott Berg.
James Stewart is equally good as the angry young man who disrupts Tracy's life, a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Spencer Tracy (they had not yet met). Mr. Stewart brings both a swagger and sass to Macauley Connor. He begins by resenting Tracy and all she represents, but ends deeply infatuated with her. Mr. Stewart would win his only Best Actor Oscar for his work in this film. His scenes with all three of his co-stars crackle with energy.

Cary Grant, however, was NOT nominated for his role as Dexter. Why will always be a mystery to me. He is wonderful (as always) in a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Clark Gable. She asked Mr. Grant to appear when Gable was unavailable, and he agreed - provided he got top billing and a salary of $137,000 (which was given to British War Relief) (TCM article). As with their three prior parings (Sylvia Scarlet (1935), Holiday (1938), and Bringing Up Baby(1938)), their interplay is dynamic. There is an ease in their conversations that make them all the more real. Mr. Grant is equally adept at sparring with Mr. Stewart. And his scenes with Virginia Weidler (as Tracy's younger sister Dinah Lord) are a pleasure to watch.
The other nominated actor in the film is the always excellent Ruth Hussey (best supporting actress). If you have never encountered Ms. Hussey, treat yourself with this film or with The Uninvited (1944). There is a world-weariness to Liz, but it has not eliminated her hope for a future with Mike. Ms. Hussey began her career in Providence, RI as a radio commentator.  She eventually moved to New York where she modeled, and found jobs with theatrical touring companies. That got her an MGM contract, where she appeared films such as The Women (1939), Another Thin Man (1939), and H.M. Pulham, Esq (1941). She also appeared on Broadway in State of the Union (in the role Katharine Hepburn would play on film), and Goodbye, My Fancy (Joan Crawford's movie outing). Ms. Hussey appeared on radio and television as well until her retirement in 1973. She was married for 60 years to talent agent Bob Longenecker until his death in 2002; the couple had three children. She died in 2005, following an appendectomy, at the age of 93.

Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for adapted screenplay, and director George Cukor was nominated. The film is listed as #44 in the100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (interestingly, the rating went up from the original list, where it appeared at #51). It's also #44 on the 100 Years, 100 Passions list. In 1995, it was added to the National Film Registry.

The Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film twice: in July, 1942, with the original cast, and in June, 1943 with Robert Taylor, Robert Young, and Loretta Young. (AFI catalog). It would be remade as the musical High Society in 1956, starring Gracy Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm, with glorious music by Cole Porter.  The New York Times review was glowing when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall, and quite honestly, what's not to love. We'll leave you with the trailer to this outstanding film:

Monday, March 5, 2018

Clifton in Suburbia

Henry (Robert Young) and Tacy King (Maureen O'Hara) live in the small town of Hummingbird Hills. Henry is a young lawyer, trying to get ahead in his law firm, which requires the Kings to socialize with his boss, Horatio Hammond (Ed Begley) and his wife Martha (Josephine Whittell) on command. But the Kings have a problem. Their three rambunctious boys make it impossible for them to keep a maid, or hire a local babysitter. So, Tacy puts an ad in the Saturday Review for a live-in babysitter, and gets an immediate response. But there is a complication - the applicant, Lynn Belvedere is a man (Clifton Webb). Our film this time is Sitting Pretty (1948).

Set in counterpoint to our last film, All That Heaven Allows, we have the same suburban mentality looked at from both the dramatic and the decidedly comic points of view. The role of the vindictive neighbor here is taken on by Richard Haydn as Mr. Clarence Appleton, an effete botanist who lives with his deaf (and equally nosy) mother. Mr. Appleton takes great pleasure in snooping around the community, looking in his neighbors' garbarge and opening up their mail. He's quite as malicious as Mona Plash, but it's all in the attitude. Where Sara and Cary fear Mona, Mr. Belevedere and Tacy view him with disdain.
As in the last film, the gossip has affects the family dynamic, with Henry constantly fearful of the how things look or sound, while Tacy turns up her nose at such nonsense. But with a family of five to support, and a job in which he is at the mercy of a stuffy and judgemental boss, Henry perhaps has a right to be nervous. As played by Mr. Young, if there is one thing that makes Henry problematic, it is his lack of presence in his boys' lives. These are youngsters who need a first hand, and neither Henry nor Tacy seem capable of supplying that discipline.

Which is where Mr. Belvedere comes in; as an expert in children (he is, he declares, a genius, who has had experience in a wide variety of areas) who claims to not particularly like them, it is apparent that he is willing to spend time with the boys. Within a day of his arrival, he has cured the youngest son of pelting everyone at the kitchen table with his food (check out this TCM article for Clifton Webb's account of the filming of the scene) and taught the youngest two boys some yoga poses. As portrayed by Clifton Webb, Mr. Belvedere is a man with definite beliefs who practices what he preaches. The boys need attention, therefore, he gives it to them, and makes them nicer children at the same time.
In one scene late in the film, Tacy encounters Mr. Belvedere at a ritzy restaurant lounge. After her comment that Henry is a lousy dancer, Mr. Belvedere invites her to dance, and she compliments him on his terpsichorean skills (you can see that scene below). In fact, Clifton Webb began his career as a professional ballroom dancer, eventually becoming a Broadway star in both comedies and musicals. His 23 Broadway credits include The Importance of Being Earnest, Blythe Spirit, and Present Laughter. In fact, if you go to the outer lobby of the Music Box Theatre today (where he performed in As Thousands Cheer), you'll find a poster discussing the history of the theatre - and on it is a picture of Clifton Webb. In 1945 Mr. Webb (who had had a few small roles in silents and one early talkie) starred in Laura (1945). He made the role of Waldo Lydecker his own, and continued in films from that point on. Primarily out of touch with the father who had left his mother shortly after his birth, he was extremely close to his mother, Mabelle. They lived together, hosted parties together, and were, to all intents and purposes, a couple. She died at age 91, in 1960. Mr. Webb only survived her by six years, dying of a heart attack at the age of 76.  He did begin an autobiography, but was never able to complete it. It was published, in 2016 by Robert Wagner (not the actor) as Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb

John Payne was considered for the role of Henry, and Celeste Holm was also proposed for a part in the film (probably that of Edna Philby, which was ably filled by Louise Albritton in the final version). (AFI Catalog).  Larry Olsen, who played Larry King, the King's eldest son, is the brother of Susan Olsen of Brady Bunch fame. He stopped acting at the age of 16; he died in 2015, aged 77. Betty Ann Lynn, who appeared as Ginger the babysitter would later appear as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show (by then, her name was Betty Lynn). She'll be 92 this year. John Russell (Bill Philby) is probably best remembered today for his role on TV's Lawman. He died in 1991 at the age of 70.
The New York Times was quite pleased in their review of the film. And the film was successful enough to result in two other movies - Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). Three other films were planned, but Mr. Webb's reluctance to continue in the role cancelled them. Mr. Webb did, however, reprise his role in this film on the February 1949 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast. When the 20th Century-Fox Hour performed a television version, Reginald Gardner took over the part of Mr. Belvedere; in 1965, it is believed Victor Buono took on the part for a pilot that never saw the light of day. Finally, in 1985, a successful television series, starring Christopher Hewitt as Mr. Belvedere ran for five years.

We'll leave you with Ms. O'Hara and Mr. Webb cutting a rug.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Jane in Suburbia

All That Heaven Allows (1955) introduces us to Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a widow with two grown children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds). Cary essentially lives alone now - both children are away at school - and Cary is finding herself at loose ends. Unlike her best friend, Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), Cary is not a "club woman" and her days seem endless. So, when Sara has to renege on a luncheon date, Cary invites her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) in for a cup of coffee. Cary becomes fascinated with Ron's life goals - a life within nature, growing trees. Ron's invitation to visit his nursery leads to a relationship between the two, one that is ridiculed by Cary's supposed friends (represented by the vindictive Mona Plash (played with relish by Jacqueline de Wit)) and rejected by her appalled children.

Let's just get it out of the way -  All That Heaven Allows is a melodrama - but WHAT a melodrama! With excellent performances from the two leads, reunited after their successful teaming in Magnificent Obsession (1954) along with Agnes Moorehead and most of the production cast (AFI catalog), and with support from the likes of Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), and Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), the film goes beyond its melodramatic roots to something much grander. But what really elevates the film is the cinematography by Russell Metty and costume design by Rose Brandi. The film glows with color and texture - you can see every leaf on the trees and the colors are sumptuous. It is very much like watching an exquisite painting, but one with a story and acting that keeps you involved with the characters. The script is tight, providing just enough information about the characters to keep you involved, but avoids having backstory that overwhelms the movie.
Douglas Sirk, the film's director, is the architect. Sirk built on a novel by Edna and Harry Lee (see this TCM article for more on Sirk and the film's creation); it's a wonder that this film got past the censors, since it is really about sexuality. Oh, sure, there is only a hint that Cary and Ron are intimate, but the attitude of the Peyton Place-ish town and of the Scott children is all about the fact that Cary, an "older woman." She's actually only just 40 - we are told she married at 17, and her son is about 22 (Criterion Collection discussion of the film and Jane Wyman) and Ron is about 30. 

The film makes it clear that Cary is both attractive and interested in being sexually active. All of the reactions from family and supposed friends revolve around that point. Ned, for example, is offended by Cary's attractive evening gown (you can see it below) but is fine with the idea that she marry Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who has is interested only in a companionable marriage (translation - no sex). Kay is horrified at the thought of her mother marrying someone young and attractive, until she herself marries Freddie North (David Janssen), at which point she understand her mother's desires and acknowledges that her mother should follow her heart (and libido). The townspeople wink at Howard Hoffer's (Donald Curtis) womanizing, but start rumors that Cary and Ron were having an affair while Cary's husband was still living. It's a misogynistic, small-minded mess of an environment.
The middle-aged, upper middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant gathering given by Sara (who really is the only person open to Cary's relationship with Ron) is juxtaposed against the party given by Mick (Charles Drake) and Alida Anderson. A mix of people of different ages and socioeconomic status, the Anderson party is the only place where Cary and Ron are totally welcomed and completely comfortable together. These are the people who abjure riches, and live with nature. Mick and Alida were from the social strata of the town, but Thoreau's Walden has become Mick's bible, and he now lives apart from society and the economic pressures of that life. It is a life that ultimately attracts Cary to Ron and the Andersons.
The chemistry between Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, which was so apparent in Magnificent Obsession continues in this film. Though we are told there is an age gap (Ms. Wyman was actually about 8 years older than Mr. Hudson), it's really not all that noticeable - their relationship is so solid that they seem made for each other. It's a shame they never made any other films together.

Virginia Grey also stood out as Alida; we found her quite engaging as the woman who gives up the rat race for her husband.  Ms. Grey had a lengthy career - she started as a child in silent films (she played Little Eva in the 1927 Uncle Tom's Cabin). As an adult, she was a supporting player (as in this film) in A movies, and the lead in many B pictures. In the 1940s, after Carole Lombard's death, she began dating Clark Gable, but his sudden marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley ended their relationship. After Robert Taylor's separation from Barbara Stanwyck, she also dated Mr. Taylor for a time (you can see a 1952 letter which he wrote to her here.  Ms. Grey would later relate that Ms. Stanwyck despised her because of the relationship). Ms. Grey never married (it's been surmised she never got over Clark Gable); she would work in films and television until 1976. She died in 2004 at the age of 87.

A note of interest - Gloria Talbott was not the first choice for the role of Kay. Producer Ross Hunter initially wanted to cast Jane Wyman's daughter, Maureen Reagan in the role, but finally decided she was too young (she was about 13 at the time).
The New York Times review was rather ho-hum (though reviewer Bosley Crowther really liked Jane Wyman).  For a more recent observation, take a look at this brief analysis (including many scenes from the film) by Richard Brody that appeared in The New Yorker. Another tribute came by way of the filmmaker Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven (2002), which he modeled, both in plot and cinematic style, after All That Heaven Allows. We'll leave you with the trailer from the film, and a recommendation that you give it a viewing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Humphrey Burns

The kickoff film for this year's TCM Presents was  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which celebrates its 70th Anniversary this year. Humphrey Bogart stars as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American stuck in Tampico, Mexico. He's broke, it's next to impossible to get a job, so he spends his day hitting up an American tourist (John Huston) for food money ("Can you spot a fellow American to a meal?"). When he finally is able to get a job, it's from a cheat named Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), who disappears without paying Dobbs and his friend, Curtin (Tim Holt). Curtin and Dobbs are eventually able to locate McCormick, and "persuade" him to give them their pay. Using that money, and $200 that Dobbs wins from the lottery, the pair and prospector Howard (Walter Huston) head out to the Mexican hills to find gold. But gold can change people, Howard cautions, and Dobbs will become a victim of that change.

Director John Huston cast his father, Walter Huston as the knowing prospector. It's an amazing performance which won Walter the Academy Award for best supporting actor.  But it almost didn't happen.  A highly regarded leading man on both stage and screen (the little jig he does in the film was taught to him by Eugene O'Neill when Mr. Huston appeared on Broadway in Desire Under the Elms (Lincoln Center Film Society)), Huston Sr didn't object to playing an older man - he'd already played James Cagney's father in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But son John's insistence that he remove his dentures was just too much even for a father trying to support his son's career. John and Mr. Bogart would eventually resort to holding Mr. Huston down and forcibly removing the teeth, much to Walter Huston's chagrin. But the difference in his speaking voice was so noticeable that he finally agreed to appear without his teeth. (TCM articles). It's interesting to note that, on some of the poster art, the drawing of Walter Huston looks like him in most of his films, not as he appears in this film (see the poster below).
Born in Canada in 1883, Walter Huston began his career on the stage, primarily in touring companies. His first marriage postponed his acting career: he worked in an electric power plant to support his wife and son. When the marriage ended, he returned to the stage - this time vaudeville - working with his second wife, until he began getting roles on Broadway. Between 1924 and 1946, he would appear in 14 plays - musicals and dramas - including Dodsworth, which he would also bring to the screen. He was nominated 4 times for Oscars (Dodsworth (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)), finally winning for this film. He worked with his son on other films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941) where he played the dying Captain Jacoby, and providing narration for John's wartime documentaries (i.e. Let Their Be Light (1946)). His third marriage in 1931 endured until his death of an aortic aneurym at age 67 in 1950. For more on Walter Huston, see this Los Angeles Times obituary.

Humphrey Bogart was not the studio's first choice for Dobbs - Edward G. Robinson was initially suggested, though John Huston badly wanted to Bogart for the part. Ronald Reagan and John Garfield were considered for Curtin, and Zachary Scott was in the running for the part of James Cody (which would go to Bruce Bennett). It's been said that Ann Sheridan did a walk-on as a prostitute, but the woman in question does not look a bit like her, so it's probably urban myth. (AFI catalog)

Bogart, of course, is amazingly good in a characterization that morphs so dramatically during the course of the film. He's not a bad man in the beginning - even when he forcibly takes his salary from Pat McCormick, he only takes the money due to him and Curtin. He even pays the bartender for the damage to the saloon from his own money. But as the gold starts to mount, so does his greed and paranoia. At one point, he most closely resembles Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, crouching and giggling over his wealth.
There are some uncredited performances to look out for. The Mexican Boy Selling Lottery Tickets is portrayed by Robert Blake, who would later star in the TV show Baretta.  Jack Holt, a silent and sound actor, perhaps remembered today for his appearance in San Francisco (1936) is one of the residents of the flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard.  And the Lone Ranger's colleague Tonto, Jay Silverheels appears as the Indian Guide at Pier.

John Huston filmed much of the action for the film in Mexico; finally he was dragged back to Warner Brothers to complete filming when the costs became too high. He worked with an advisor, who Mr. Huston believed was actually the author of the novel, B. Traven. The advisor denied this, but the BBC later confirmed John Huston's theory.  Check out this New York Times article on the author, as well as the BBC broadcast.
Besides Walter Huston's Academy Award, the film also won for Best Direction and Adapted Screenplay to John Huston - the first time a father and son won Oscars (and the only time thusfar for the same film). It was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Hamlet). In April of 1948, Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre; in February 1955 Edmund O'Brien and Walter Brennan performed the radio play for LuxThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre was #38 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (it was #30 on the original list), as well as being listed at #36 in their 100 Greatest Movie Quotes (for the oft midquoted: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"), and #67 in the 100 Most Thrilling American Films. In 1990, it was added to the  National Film Registry (the second year of the registry).  

We'll leave you with the trailer for this excellent film. If you've not seen it before, you are in for a treat.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Dorothy's Brooklyn Family

The Nolan family is poor.  Father Johnny (James Dunn) is a singing waiter with a drinking problem, and more imagination than is practical. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) works hard as their building's super to get a few pennies to support the family; while she loves her husband, she has become disillusioned by his dreaming. Son Neely (Ted Donaldson) is a good boy, who can't wait to finish school, while daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) lives for learning - she yearns to be a writer, but is troubled by the increasing animosity between her mother and her adored father. Our film for this week is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Based on the novel by Betty Smith (which celebrated its 75th Anniversary in October of this year) the film is actually one "book" of the five that makes up the 1943 volume. The movie is also the directorial debut of Elia Kazan, and Mr. Kazan pulls no punches in showing the effects of poverty on this simple family. It would have been easy to gloss over the pain of their lives, but we're given an honest portrayal, thanks in no small part to the magnificent cast.

Let's start with James Dunn, who received an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his work in here. According to the TCM article, one of the reasons Dunn was cast was that he had a drinking problem. Kazan felt that having an actor " who probably had some experience with drink" made for a better performance. Dunn brings both dignity and pathos to the role - watch his face in the scene below as he suffers over the consequences of his inability to support his family. Then, compare that to his scene with Francie, as they imagine moving to a neighborhood where she can attend a better school. His love for his child shines from his eyes and you never doubt for a moment that you are seeing Johnny Nolan, not the actor. In the 1930s, Mr. Dunn had been used quite often - he was support to Shirley Temple in four of her films, but by the time he was cast in this film, he had difficulty getting roles, primarily because of his alcohol abuse. After winning the Oscar, he made a few more films, eventually transitioning to television. He died from complications of stomach surgery in 1967, at the age of 65.
It's hard to believe that Dorothy McGuire was not the first choice for Katie - the story was purchased with Alice Faye in mind for the role (and Gene Tierney auditioned for it as well) (AFI catalog). As a poor, uneducated woman who loves her children and husband, but has become stern and introverted as she tries to make ends meet, Ms. McGuire is magnificent. She has no trouble letting us become angry at Katie; at the same time, she allows us to see the young woman who fell in love with Johnny Nolan and his dreaming ways.

Aunt Sissy is arguably one of Joan Blondell's best roles. A brash and affectionate woman, Sissy has been married at least three times, but is not the slightest bit embarrassed by her life choices. Like her sister, Sissy is poor and illiterate (though it's never stated, we don't see Katie read, and she asks her children to read to her. Sissy and her mother also comment that they cannot read, so it seems likely that neither Katie nor Sissy received any education). Her marriages seem to have ended in part due to several miscarriages. But Ms. Blondell brings to Sissy the zest for life that Katie has lost. In his review of the 2016 TCM Film Festival, Scott Halloran reported on Ted Donaldson's appearance. Mr. Donaldson discussed his crush on Ms. Blondell, and the signed photo she gave to him at the film's conclusion - "From Joan 'I'm waiting for you' Blondell." Likely this was a rough shoot for Ms. Blondell, as she was in the middle of her divorce from Dick Powell. She was also upset that a scene, which showed Sissy working in a condom factory was cut from the film. Nevertheless, her performance is spot on, and you like Sissy - both in spite of and because of her cavalier attitude towards life.
As a librarian, I particularly love the scene in which Francie goes to the library. Attempting to read her way through the library, Francie is up to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The librarian is horrified that this child is going to attempt such a difficult book. When she realizes that Francie will not be swayed, the librarian asks her to take, as well, When Knighthood Was in Flower (lest she get a headache thinking of the child "wrestling" her way through the book). You can view the scene here. Equally lovely is Francie's relationship with her teacher, Miss  McDonough (Ruth Nelson) who encourages Francie to consider writing as a career, but who also subtlety cautions her against pipe-dreaming (like her father!)

A trio of remarkable character performances also compliment the film. First, we have Lloyd Nolan as Officer McShane. He's excellent as a lonely police officer who envies the closeness of the Nolan family. James Gleason as McGarrity, the pub owner who cares deeply for Johnny Nolan and who endeavors to assist the family, is exceptional in a very small part. John Alexander as Sissy's exasperated husband, Steve Edwards is also notable. And watch for silent screen star Mae Marsh as one of the Tynmore sisters, and a young Nicholas Ray as a Bakery Clerk.
The heart of the movie is Peggy Ann Garner. As a child with an eager mind, and a heart torn by her parents' troubles, Ms. Garner imbues Francie with a spirit of hope. Her efforts in the film resulted in resulted in her receiving a Oscar in 1946 as outstanding child actor of the year.  Ms. Garner started her film career as Carole Lombard's daughter in In Name Only (1939). She was the young Jane Eyre (1943) and the child Nora in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). As with so many child stars, she had trouble getting film roles as she aged, but worked in real estate to make ends meet between her television roles. She married three times, all ending in divorce, and had one child (Catherine Ann Salmi). Ms. Garner died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 52 in 1984.
A radio version of the play aired on Hollywood Star Time (with Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner) in January of 1947, on Studio One in October 1947 (with Rosemary Rice and Frank Reddig), and again by Hallmark Playhouse in April of 1949 (with Mr. Dunn and Connie Marshall). In 1951, a musical version of the story opened on Broadway, with Shirley Booth as Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell would take over the role for the National Tour). Finally, in 1974, the film was presented on television with Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker and James Olson.

Besides the awards to Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar (it lost to The Lost Weekend) and was selected by the National Board of Review in 1945 as one of their 10 best films of the year.  The New York Times review was glowing. In 2010, the film was entered into the National Film Registry. It is a magnificent film, and one that you should visit at your earliest convenience.  We'll leave you with the Nolan family moving into their top floor apartment.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Katharine's Family Dinner

December marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and the film was part of the 2017 TCM Presents series. Very much a tale of the 1960s (but still relevant today), the film introduces us to Joanna "Joey" Drayton (Katharine Houghton), a 23 year old woman raised by liberal parents. Joey has returned from her vacation prematurely to her San Francisco home, accompanied by Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a highly-regarded physician, who happens to be African-American. The two met in Hawaii and fell in love. As John is about to leave for a three month work assignment with the World Health Organization in Geneva, the pair have arrived to tell Joey's parents, Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) of their plans to marry in two weeks in Geneva. What Joey doesn't know is that John feels it is crucial to their future as a couple that Matt and Christina bless the marriage. If they will not, he will remove himself from Joey's life.

As pointed out by TCM host Tiffany Vasquez in her introduction, the film was a bit dated even upon release. John's father (Roy Glenn) states that "in several states" John and Joanna would be breaking the law - however the U.S. Supreme Court had just recently handed down a decision regarding interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (brought to the screen in 2016's Loving). Regardless of that momentous decision, Mr. Prentiss was correct about the difficulties that the couple would face - and still (unfortunately) face today. So, while some of the film is a tad old-fashioned, it still can speak to us in the 21st Century. (This Los Angeles Times article on 50th Anniversary of the film is an interesting examination of the film in the our times).
Spencer Tracy was ill when he filmed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In fact, both Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer placed their salaries for the film into escrow in the event Mr. Tracy was not able to complete shooting. Mr. Kramer arranged that Mr. Tracy would only film in the morning, while his energy levels were up to the task (TCM Article). Spencer Tracy died only 10 days after his work was completed. Regardless, his performance gives no hint that he was unwell; he is wonderful as a father facing his own liberal principles against the future happiness of his daughter. Mr. Tracy was posthumously nominated for his 10th Best Actor Oscar. (He lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night). 
Another nominated performance was that of Beah Richards, as John's mother (Ms. Richards also lost, to Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde). Her performance is just wonderful; her love for her son, as well as her fear that her husband will destroy the relationship between himself and his son is evident in every scene. She was a lovely scene with Spencer Tracy that leads to the films penultimate speech from Mr. Tracy. She started working in New York theatre, first off-Broadway (in 1955), then on Broadway (she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in The Amen Corner). She only made 15 films, most of them playing someone's mother. But it was in television that she made her mark, winning two Emmy awards, and appearing in shows such as I Spy (playing Alexander Scott's mother),  ER (as Peter Benton's mother), and Beauty and the Beast (as Narcissa). Ms. Richards died of emphysema in 2000 at the age of 80. 
Katharine Hepburn suggested that her niece, Katharine Houghton read for the role of Joanna (the studio had Samantha Eggar in mind (AFI catalog)). She's quite good in a part that really is somewhat minor - Joey is the catalyst for the action of the film. She is in the middle of the dialogue between her parents and John, not really part of the conversation. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that Joey is written as almost passive. We know she has some of her mother's fire (her comment about her mother's employee Hilary shows that), but all Joanna can say of herself is that she will be important because her husband is important. I suspect it was not the picture that we were supposed to have of Joanna, but it is very much a sign of the times that Joanna is not all that important. She's not even going to get a say in the decision regarding her future.
Besides the nominations for Mr. Tracy and Ms. Richards, there were other Oscar nominations: Actor in a Supporting Role (Cecil Kellaway), Art Direction, Film Editing, Music (Scoring of Music—adaptation or treatment), Directing, and Best Picture. It won awards for Katharine Hepburn as Best Actress, and for William Rose's Writing (Story and Screenplay—written directly for the screen). This was Ms. Hepburn's second Oscar win - the next year, she would win again for her role in The Lion in Winter and would share the honor with Barbra Streisand, who ALSO won for Funny Girl. The film has also been featured in three AFI lists: It stands as #35 in 100 Years, 100 Cheers, #58 in 100 Years, 100 Passions, and #99 100 Year, 100 Movies, 1998 edition.

I'll close with one of my favorite scenes in the Christina's conversation with the very nosy Hilary (Virginia Christine):

Monday, January 29, 2018

Barbara Desires

Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) had dreams of being a great actress. It's 10 years since she left her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and three children to pursue her career, and all she has to show for it is a job as a small-time player in vaudeville. When a letter arrives from her younger daughter, Lily (Lori Nelson) inviting Naomi to Lily's graduation and senior play, Naomi spends every cent she has to return to Wisconsin as a great actress. While she knows that Lily wants her, the question remains as to her welcome from the rest of her family. Thus begins All I Desire (1953).

Based on Carol Brink's novel, Stopover, this is not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best films, the primary reason being her leading men. It's hard to understand why an attractive and intelligent woman like Naomi would want to be with either Henry or Dutch Heinemann (Lyle Bettger).  Henry is an oblivious cypher, who neglects his children, ignored his wife, and is totally unaware that his colleague, teacher Sara Harper (Maureen O'Sullivan) is madly in love with him. Dutch, on the other hand, is a bully and just short of a stalker. They make quite a pair. On some levels, you want Naomi to go back to vaudeville.

Ms. Stanwyck (who is, as always, magnificent) was not the only person considered for the role of Naomi. Both Joan Crawford and  Bette Davis were discussed as possible candidates for the part (AFI catalog). Either would have been fine, but Ms. Stanwyck brings a vulnerability to Naomi that is important for the audience's relationship with her. This New Yorker discussion focuses on Ms. Stanwyck's invaluable contribution to the film.
The children, however, are another matter. We really enjoyed Marcia Henderson as the oldest daughter, Joyce.  The combination of her mother's abandonment and her father's neglect have taken a toll on her. Yet, she is still capable of love, and ultimately has much of her mother's spunk.  The relationship between her and Russ Underwood (Richard Long) is quite sweet, especially after Naomi pushes Joyce to loosen up a bit.

One of the more interesting friendships in the film is that of young Ted Murdoch (Billy Gray) and Dutch.  Ted appears to be the only person in the town for whom Dutch has any affection; he's kind to the boy, and has taught him to fish and shoot a rifle. It's apparent Ted has no real tie to his father - it made us wonder if Dutch (and perhaps Henry) suspected that Ted was the result of Naomi's affair with Dutch. The film never states it, but given the information we have, it seems a logical premise.
Douglas Sirk, who had wanted to shoot the film in color, brings a beauty to the film's setting.
The lovely period costumes by Rosemary Odell and an amazing set by art directors Bernard Herzbrun and Alexander Golitzen create a convincing reality to the turn of the century backdrop. Sirk had also wanted a different ending to the film. We wondered if he might have been right in his original concept.

We were intrigued to see both Stuart Whitman and Guy Williams appearing in uncredited parts in the film. And it was quite enjoyable to see Richard Long working with Ms. Stanwyck twelve years before they would appear as mother and son in The Big Valley (and in a horseback riding scene, no less!).  Mr. Long was a terrific actor - he started his career with a substantial role - as Claudette Colbert's son in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). After several years in film (mostly as the juvenile), he went over to television in shows such as Bourbon Street Beat and Nanny and the Professor.  He was married twice - his first wife died of cancer about a year after their marriage. His second marriage (to actress Mara Corday) produced three children and lasted until his death at the age of 47 from a heart condition.
This New York Times review was not favorable, blaming director Sirk for many of its failings. And while All I Desire is not a perfect film, we enjoyed it, by and large.  We'll leave you with a scene from the film, Naomi's return to the Murdoch home.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Real Love Story

By and large, the Movie Night Group devotes our screenings to fictional films, but this week we screened a documentary - Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2015). The film tells the story of Harold and Lillian Michelson, two behind-the-scenes forces in Hollywood history. Harold was a storyboard artist and later an art director, while wife Lillian was a researcher for films (and the owner of an extensive library). Both a romance and a look into the history of Hollywood, this was one that we had to view together.

The beauty of this film is the genuine warmth that the director shows in portraying his subjects.  According to this TCM article, Daniel Raim had considered a film about Mr. Michelson after talking to him for his documentary on art directors (Something's Gonna Live (2010)) and a short film (The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000)). At the same time, he envisioned a second film that would explore the research process in film, with a focus on Ms. Michelson and her library. But once he talked to them and their friends more extensively, he realized that their stories were so interwoven, that the best way to discuss them was to do one film about them both.

Despite his admiration for the couple, Mr. Raim is not creating a hagiography.  For one thing, it's quite apparent that Ms. Michelson would not allow it. She talks openly about her own limitations - her trepidation about marrying Mr. Michelson, when she really didn't know him very well; her problems dealing with her autistic son (her knowledge about autism proved useful when she researched for Rain Man (1988). However, she would not allow Dustin Hoffman to follow her son around, feeling it was a violation of they young man's privacy). We are presented with a story about two real people, not an idealization of a perfect life.
Ms. Michelson is the linchpin of the film - she  tells her tales with humor.  For example, she recalls being fired from her job with the telephone company when she was seven months pregnant because she was "an affront to the public." Her stories about her research - getting access to a closed FBI office so she could see what it looked like; connecting with elderly Jewish women so she could get an example of turn-of-the-20th Century undergarments (for a scene in Fiddler on the Roof (1971)); interviewing a drug lord for the movie Scarface - are both humorous and awe-inspiring. A voracious reader, Ms. Michelson developed a love for science fiction, which resulted in Mr. Michelson agreeing to become the art director for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). When Robert Wise asked him to do the job, Harold initially  said no; he didn't care for science fiction. But Lillian insisted he do it - turn down Star Trek? Unthinkable!

While photographs of the couple help to tell the story, a great contribution to the film is the illustrations provided by Patrick Mate, a colleague of Harold's at DreamWorks. These drawings provide a visual focus to the unfolding story.  Likewise, Mr. Michelson's hand-made greeting cards, which he would present to his wife for her birthdays, Valentine's Day, and their anniversaries, show his quirky sense of humor, and his deep love for his wife.
Harold's amazing storyboard clearly demonstrate the influence of the story-board artist to film. His work on The Birds (1963) and The Graduate (1967) outline the films shot-by-shot. Interestingly, Mr. Michelson recalled that he viewed The Graduate as a serious film, and was amazed when director Mike Nichols took his work to create a film that was sarcastically funny.

Interviews with colleagues and friends show the affection that the couple engendered inside the film industry. When Harold became ill, Lillian took him to work with her at DreamWorks (one of the many homes that she was able to find for her collection). Harold would sit with the staff animators, and tell them of his experiences. The result: the couple ended up as King Harold and Queen Lillian in Shrek. (Harold and Lillian website)

The reviews for the film were raves. Check out Variety, The New York Times, and Point of View Magazine as examples. We wholeheartedly agree, and recommend that you give this one a look.  We'll leave you with the trailer, and hope you will enjoy the film yourself!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Margaret Looks for Magic

An infant is abandoned at a New York City foundling hospital and the matron on duty makes a phone call to the Institute of Child Psychology. Professor Peter Vincent (Philip Merivale) and Dr. Woodring (Alan Napier) arrive to conduct a series of evaluations on the infant; she is adjudged satisfactory, and removed to the Institute for education. The Institute has a theory about education, and have taken on the infant girl, named Alpha (Margaret O'Brien) to test their theories. Alpha will be taught Chinese, music, chess, math and history, but will be removed from the rest of the world, so as to eliminate any corrupting influences. At age 6, Alpha, now fluent in Chinese, able to read complicated books, and an expert in world history, is ready to be tested by Professor Josh Pringle (Henry O'Neill). When word gets out about Prof. Pringle's arrival, reporter Mike Regan (James Craig) arrives at the Institute to do a story on the prodigy. Bemused by Alpha's concrete understanding of the world, Mike tells her the world is full of magic, a concept that has been rejected by her tutors. So the Lost Angel (1944) ventures out of the Institute to find Mike and prove the validity of magic.

This is a truly delightful film, both moving and funny, with a cast that is in top form. Margaret O'Brien is excellent as Alpha, a little girl who is, at times, more mature than her elders. She manages to make Alpha smart without being a show-off, but also to retain Alpha's innocence and child-wonder of the new world she is being revealed. (The character is somewhat reminiscent of Natalie Wood's Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street.)  In 1945, Ms. O'Brien was presented a special juvenile Oscar, for her work that year (including this picture) (AFI catalog) The story of that Oscar did not end in 1945 - it was stolen from Ms. O'Brien's home in 1954, shortly before her mother's death, found 50 years later (for the full story, visit this blog post) and returned to the ecstatic Ms. O'Brien.
But Ms. O'Brien would be lost if it was not for the rapport that she has with both James Craig and Marsha Hunt (Katie Mallory).  Ms. Hunt is particularly terrific, combining a developing motherly affection for the child with a wariness of her. The scene of their meeting at Katie's nightclub is especially funny. The image of the Alpha and Katie staring at one another in a game of visual chicken is wonderful (Katie loses the match!). They would appear in another film together that same year: Music for Millions.

Ms. Hunt, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, began her film career in 1936 with The Virginia Judge; she retired from acting in 2008, following her appearance in the short film The Grand Inquisitor (for more on her appearance in this film, listen to this Film Noir Foundation podcast on Ms. Hunt). A truly underrated performer (watch her extraordinary performance in Cry 'Havoc' (1943), her career was foreshortened when she was blacklisted. Her crime - she was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, and protested HUAC's questioning of the Hollywood Ten.  Offered the opportunity to apologize for her protest, she steadfastly refused, and channeled herself into working for world peace and the environment (Deadline Hollywood). Now retired, there are ongoing efforts to make a documentary on her life.

The film is gifted with a number of fantastic supporting actors. Keenan Wynn had already appeared in four films, only one of which credited, when he appeared as Packy Roos in our film, and he is  wonderful as a gangster who doesn't read very well.  His interactions with Ms. O'Brien are very funny, resulting in several sweet and amusing scenes. Alan Napier, Philip Merivale, Donald Meek (Professor Katty), and Sara Haden (Rhoda Kitterick) also handle their parts with extreme delicacy. It would be easy to make the members of the Institute into villains, something these remarkable actors avoid. Their love for Alpha is apparent from the beginning of the film - though she is their job, she is also a responsibility, and one that requires understanding and affection.

There are a few more actors to watch for - Ava Gardner in an unbilled roll as a Hat Check Girl. Even though you don't get a good look at her, the voice is unmistakable. Robert Blake, as Mike's neighbor Jerry is credited, but Bobby Driscoll (as Bobby, the boy on the train) is not. This was Mr. Driscoll's film debut (TCM article).
Radio versions of the film would appear on the Lux Radio Theatre in  June 1944, with Mr. Craig, Ms. Hunt, and Ms. O'Brien reprising their screen roles, and in December 1946 with Ms. O'Brien again enacted Alpha on Academy Award Theater. The story had been written specifically for Ms. O'Brien at Louis B. Mayer's orders (he wanted her to be the next Shirley Temple).

After reading Bosley Crowther's review of the picture in the New York Times , we wondered if he had seen the same movie as we did.  Variety, however, did enjoy the film, as did my fellow blogger at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. We'll leave you with the meeting of Alpha and Mike, and the suggestion that you settle down in front of the TV with this little gem. It's an evening well spent.