Monday, November 12, 2018

Gramercy Park Barbara

Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck) and Brandon Bourne (James Mason) appear to be a successful, happily married couple. They dine weekly with Jessie's mother Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard), who shows deep affection for her son-in-law. They live in a lovely Gramercy Park apartment. But, there marriage was threatened some years ago when Brandon had an affair with Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner). Her departure helped repair their marriage; however, Isabel has just returned to New York, and she wants Bran back. Our film for this week is East Side, West Side (1949)

Before I begin discussing the film itself, I wanted to comment on the "East Side" setting. One of my favorite places in the world is Gramercy Park. For those of you not from NYC, Gramercy Park is a small region in Manhattan; it encompasses an area from 19th Street to 21st Street, and from Third Avenue to Park Avenue South. In its center is the actual Park, a private garden available only to residents. Centered in the Park is a statue to Edwin Booth; across the street is The Players' Club, which Mr. Booth founded in 1888. Among the inhabitants of the area were James Cagney (who lived at #34), Gregory Peck (you can see him walking in the Park in A Conversation with Gregory Peck), and Margaret Hamilton; John Garfield died in #3. The home in which the Bournes reside is #36 (right next door to James Cagney!) and was my personal dream apartment. Now, there is no way that Jessica can see the river, even from the top floor of the east face of the building (Stuyvesant Town would be in the way), but it's still an impressive residence.
It goes without saying that Ms. Stanwyck is impressive as Jessica. Though Jessie is quiet, Ms. Stanwyck makes sure she is not passive. Jessie is determined that her marriage will survive (her parents' marriage was tumultuous, and it had a toll on their daughter), but neither is she a doormat. She has made it clear to her husband that she won't tolerate his philandering any longer. Though she has suspicions at times, she is willing to trust to a point that he is keeping his word. Ms. Stanwyck makes her pain evident, but also shows us Jessica's strengths - especially when she finally confronts her chief nemesis, Isabel (for an interesting discussion of the scene, please visit this review by Jeanine Basinger in The New York Review of Books. It includes a review of  Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner in which Ms. Gardner alleges an affair with Ms. Stanwyck's husband, Robert Taylor).
None of us are huge James Mason fans; though he is at his best when there is something a bit shady about the character. This film is no exception. Mr. Mason has no problem with making Bran distasteful and weak; the result however is that you know pretty quickly that he is not a fit husband for anyone, much less the caring Jessica. His interactions with Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse, in a rare dramatic role) cut immediately to the chase. He flirts, she puts him down, saying "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out!" The audience totally understands her reaction; we don't even need to know that Isabel can summon him with a flick of her little finger to understand that he is spineless.
Conversely, Van Heflin as Mark Dwyer is excellent and immediately likeable. Sure, he falls for Jessica a bit too fast (but it is only an 108 minute film!) and he doesn't appreciate Rosa's affection for him, but he's a good man who has little use for Bran, and is upfront in his relations with the women in his life. Mr. Heflin, in his third appearance with Ms. Stanwyck (they had already appeared together in B.F.'s Daughter and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) , shows an easy relationship with his co-star. There is an equality and regard in their relationship that (appropriately) is not present with Mr. Mason.

Part of the reason that Mr. Heflin's character is so attractive is the regard with which he is held by Rosa Senta. She's loved him since childhood, but she is also a woman with a regard for herself. She won't accept him as a second choice. His honesty towards her; her response to their conversations make both characters attractive.
Let's also acknowledge that the women in this film are remarkable for their solidarity. Sure, Isabel and Felice Backett (aka "The Amazon", played by Beverly Michaels) are heinous people, but the interactions that Jessie has with Helen Lee (Nancy Davis) and Rosa, and the love that Nora has for her daughter demonstrate that not every female discussion results in a catfight. These women are protective of Jessie. Ms. Davis, (in her first screen role; she was on the set of this film when she met her future husband, Ronald Reagan), says it best, when she decries the belief "that [women] aren't capable of affection for one another and honest friendship." Rosa, Nora, and Helen show the depth of female friendships. (TCM article)

Beverly Michaels was also appearing on the big screen for the first time. She was married to the film's producer Voldemar Vetluguin at the time (the marriage would end in 1952). She only appeared in 11 films (3 of them uncredited), but she's quite good in this small but memorable role. After her divorce, she married again, to screenwriter/director Russell Rouse. They were married for over 30 years, until his death, and had two children (their son Christopher is an editor). She died in 2007, at the age of 78, by which time she had become something of a cult figure as a noir-ish bad girl.
As is often the case, Mr. Mason and Ms. Stanwyck were not the first choices for the Bournes - Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were the considered first. This would also be Gale Sondergaard's final film for 20 years - she and her husband Herbert Biberman were blacklisted; they moved to New York City where she was able to get work on Broadway. Finally, in 1969, she returned to the big and small screen (AFI catalog) with the film Slaves (directed by her husband) and the TV show It Takes a Thief.

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Kay Goes Cocoanuts

The four Marx Brothers enter film and the sound era with The Cocoanuts (1929). The plot, such as it is, (based on their Broadway musical, with a book by George F. Kaufman and music & lyrics by Irving Berlin) focuses on the brothers' antics in The Cocoanuts hotel in Florida. As hotel manager Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) tries to woo the wealthy Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), Penelope (Kay Francis) has her eyes on Mrs. Potter's necklace.

Let's just admit from the start that there is precious little plot here. There's a jewel robbery, as well as our requisite young lovers (Mary Eaton as Polly Potter and Oscar Shaw as Bob) who are being thwarted by Mrs. Potter. But it's all superfluous to the antics of Harpo, Chico, and Groucho (Zeppo gets to play straight man to Groucho in a couple of scenes). Some of the routines can go on perhaps a bit longer than perhaps they should; regardless, it's still the Marx Brothers, and they are hilarious.

This was the Marx Brothers' first talking film - they had done a silent short (Humor Risk, which has since been lost) in 1921. The Cocoanuts film sticks very closely to the original musical, which was on Broadway from December 1925 to August 1926 (and revived for a week in 1927). So, while you have a lot of Marx Brothers' routines, you also have chorus girls kicking up their heels. While the Brothers were filming The Cocoanuts at the Paramount Studio in Astoria, New York, they were also appearing on Broadway in Animal Crackers. They were literally running from the sound stage to the 44th Street Theatre in time for the evening performance. (TCM article).
Perhaps one of the funniest sequences in the film involves Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Kay Francis and several doors. It's the kind of bedroom farce routine that would inspire plays like Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong.  The scene is impeccably timed, and in only her second screen role Kay Francis is a perfect foil for the routine. Unlike Margaret Dumont, she doesn't just let the mayhem happen around her. She reacts and participates. It's an crazily funny routine, and even moves a bit of the sparce plot forward.  If you are only used to Ms. Francis as the suffering lady, take a look at her here and get a whole new view of her range.
The film is, of course, bound to the limitations of the new sound process. Any scenes that involve talking are tied to a location with a microphone. In one scene, in which Hammer is reading a document to Chico, the actors had to use water- soaked paper so it wouldn't crackle. Musical numbers (of which there are many) are performed to an off-stage orchestra.

A highlight of this film (and most of the Brothers' films) is an interlude in which Harpo plays the harp. Watching him play is so enjoyable - you watch his face change as he plays; he becomes one with the beautiful music. Mr. Marx was pretty much a self-taught harpist (see this article from Vanity Fair in 1926 in which Alexander Woollcott discusses Harpo's playing) - his fingering is all wrong for a trained harpist. Regardless, his music is beautiful, and the audience is given a moment of calm to catch one's breath before the next onslaught of mania.
Though the film did not get great reviews (AFI catalog), and the Marx Brothers were highly displeased with it (so much so that they attempted to purchase the negative from Paramount, so they could destroy it), the film made nearly $2 million. This resulted in a total of five films made with Paramount, after which the three Marx Brothers moved on to MGM.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film:

Monday, October 29, 2018

John Bets on the Horses

Hester Grahame (Valerie Hobson) is a woman of ambition. She has a husband, three children, a lovely home, but she wants more. She wants expensive clothing and to mix in society, but that costs money. Her small income and her husband's earnings are not enough for her to live in the style she requires. Her young son, Paul (John Howard Davies) wants her to be happy and discovers that, by using his old rocking horse, he is able to hone in on the winners of some horse races. But there is a cost in using The Rocking Horse Winner (1949).

Based on short story by D.H. Lawrence (as well as a one-act play), The Rocking Horse Winner is often classed as a horror film. It is reminiscent of the short story The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs or of the film The Innocents (and the story on which it is based The Turn of the Screw by Henry James), with supernatural overtones that one is never quite sure are real. Does Paul really communicate through his rocking horse, or is it mere coincidence that he is able to pick horse race winners? It is his communication with the beyond that is seeping his life's energy from him, or is he just a sickly, over-imaginative child? We never will know.

As portrayed by Valerie Hobson, Hester is a careless person who overdoes everything. She overspends, she overreacts. She doesn't mean to be an uncaring mother, but her social activities are time-consuming. She has Nanny there to look after the youngsters, so Hester is not really aware of the changes going on in her young son. That she is much harsher and more selfish in the short story is probably one of the better changes made by the film. Were she that horrid, the movie would be completely unbearable. As it is, it is still a hard film to watch.
John Mills, who acted as producer for the film, has a small part. It's not an unimportant one, but he's only on screen for about 10 minutes total. Naturally, we wanted to see more of him, and it turns out the audience at the time of the film's release felt the same way. He later posited in his autobiography (Up in the Clouds, Gentlemen Please) that this was a factor in the film's poor box office returns: "I was deluged with mail from my fans, who said they didn't expect to pay good money only to see me on the screen for about ten minutes." (TCM article) Regardless, he is always an enjoyable actor to watch, and his characterization of Bassett, the Grahame's groom, is of the one totally honest and sensible occupant of the household.
This was John Howard Davies second film role - he had appeared the prior year in Oliver Twist (in the title role). He's very good as Paul, giving him a pathos and a frenzy that are appropriate to the role. He would appear in only two more films; in 1967, he would switch to directing and producing. The result - nominations for television BAFTA's for Monty Python's Flying Circus and Mr. Bean; and a win for Fawlty Towers. He died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 72.
While this is a very well-done and well-performed film, we found it painful to watch. If you are a horror fan, you might find it enjoyable; if you are interested in films that leave much to your imagination and provide much to consider, you will certainly enjoy it. In the end, we were glad we watched The Rocking Horse Winner,  but felt we couldn't recommend it without a caveat that the film is distressing.  We'll leave you with a scene from early in the film:

Monday, October 22, 2018

John Joins the RAF

Peter Penrose (John Mills) arrives at a military base, prepared to take on duties of an RAF flyer during World War II. He meets David Archdale (Michael Redgrave), his new roommate, and the two become fast friends. David is courting "Toddy" Todd (Rosamund John), while Peter is dating Iris Winterton (Renee Asherson). But what will be the effect of the war on their relationships. Our film this time out is The Way to the Stars (1945) [titled Johnny in the Clouds in the United States].

This is a quiet film, which portrays the work of the RAF pilots with sympathy and dignity. It opens after the war has ended. The barracks are deserted; there is a sadness and desolation in the abandoned airbase. Did we not know better, we might assume that the war was lost (you can view the opening in the clip below). This scene reminded us of the moment in The Best Years of Our Lives when Fred Derry finds the airfield of derelict planes. There is the same sense of a lost past.

We then fade back to 1940, and the arrival of our protagonist, Peter. At this juncture in the film, there is some joy. These men are committed to what they need to do, and look at it as the great adventure of their lives. It's not long before Mr. Mills is showing us, primarily through his reactions, that there is no adventure in their duties - just pain and loss. Sure, this is an English film, and there is a bit of "stiff upper lip" but it is clear that this stoicism is required to do the job, not because Mr. Mills or Mr. Redgrave are unaware and unafraid.
The film uses the arrival of Americans as a contrast to the English soldiers.  Joe Friselli (Bonar Colleano) begins as the original ugly American. He is the epitome of phrase "over-paid, over-sexed, over-fed, and over here." His friend, Johnny Hollis (Douglass Montgomery) is more sedate, and is embarrassed by his friend's bravado. But like their British counterparts, the American soon discover that their boasts of taking the German's down quickly are just that - idle talk. They begin to take on the sobriety of their UK colleagues, and even apologize for their vainglory.

We've seen Douglass Montgomery before; we was using the name Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge (the studio didn't want him confused with Robert Montgomery), but when he left America to live in the UK, he went back to his own name. We were not impressed with him in his earlier film, but he is quite good here. Johnny has a dignity and ease that Mr. Montgomery makes apparent. He loves his wife and son, he also cares about the people he meets in England. He becomes the symbol of the caring American that Joe Friselli will need to emulate.
The credits make it clear that the film is written with some experience behind it. Terrence Rattigan, the screenwriter, was himself an RAF tail gunner. Scenario writer Richard Sherman was a Captain in the military (assumedly, the US as he was American). But all the participants had experienced the war firsthand. This TCM article describes an incident in which Mr. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith experienced a bombing raid.

The Way to the Stars introduced two future stars: Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard both have small roles in the film. Also new to film was Bonar Colleano; he too was introduced in the film, but his career ended prematurely with his early death in 1958 in an auto accident. The film also features appearances by many notable English actors, including Stanley Holloway (Mr. Palmer) (who would become best known to American audiences as Mr. Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964)), Felix Aylmer (Reverend Charles Moss), Basil Radford (Tiny Williams) (probably remembered as the cricket aficionado Charters in The Lady Vanishes (1938)), Joyce Carey (Miss Winterton) and Renee Asherson (Iris Winterton).
The film is also exceptional in that it is a war film that never shows you the war. We see the aftermath of the battles, not the battles themselves. And the only scene that really shows the machinery of war at all is one of Johnny in his airplane. Even the romances of the piece focus on them within the context of the war. The Way to the Stars is careful to not lose the focus. This is about men at war - it is not about the war, nor is it about their love-lives. It is a story of survival, pure and simple.

Though the film was not successful in the U.S. (and is mostly forgotten here today), it is well regarded in the U.K. (See his BFI Screenonline discussion for the British view of the film today) and did well there on its release.

We really recommend that you give this The Way to the Stars a viewing. As promised, here is the opening of the film, with the abandoned barracks of 1946 and the arrival of the troops in 1940:

Monday, October 15, 2018

Lucy's in the Corner

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), recently relocated from San Francisco to New York City, has opened a private detective agency with Kathleen Stuart (Lucille Ball) working as his secretary. He is visited by Lt. Frank Reeves (Reed Hadley) and warned to keep out of trouble. But trouble is following Brad; he's being shadowed by Stouffer (William Bendix), an unpleasant character who it appears has been hired by Anthony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).  Jardine is a disreputable man who likes to use people and then blackmail them. Welcome to the world of The Dark Corner (1946)

If you've only seen Lucille Ball play the daffy Lucy Ricardo, you are in for a treat.  Kathleen, as portrayed by Ms. Ball is one smart cookie - smarter, in fact, than her boss, the private eye. She's also a lot calmer under pressure; she is witty and determined. Reviews quoted in Loving Lucy: An Illustrated Tribute to Lucille Ball by Bart Andrews and Thomas J. Watson attest to the fact that her efforts here were not wasted: Variety called her performance "tops" and the Los Angeles Examiner said that "given half a chance [she] demonstrates a quality of work that is all too rare in pictures."  High praise indeed! She almost didn't get the part, though. Ida Lupino was originally cast, but scheduling conflicts kept her from appearing. (AFI Catalog) Sadly, the film was not a happy experience for Ms. Ball (TCM article); she did not get along with director Henry Hathaway, who bullied her terribly. 
Clifton Webb (Hardy Cathcart) seems to have been given the Waldo Lydecker part from Laura. Like Waldo, Cathcart is ascerbic, opinionated, and obsessed with beauty. Here, it takes the form of his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), who, quite frankly doesn't appear to have two brain cells to rub together. She's no match for Mr. Webb, who dominates the scenes they are in (he should, really). But her acting is just not there, and she fades quickly into the background of the film, when compared to the talents of Mr. Webb and Ms. Ball.
Mark Stevens was also a second choice for the role of Brad - Fred MacMurray was suggested initially. It is interesting that Mr. Stevens gets fourth billing in the credits (as seen above), because it IS the lead role. He is decent as Brad, but he has the same problem as Ms. Downs - it's hard to shine when you are working with performers like Ms. Ball, Mr. Webb, and William Bendix. His skills as an actor are not as great as theirs, and as a result, he isn't particularly memorable. He proved to be a reliable actor, with a career that spanned radio, film, and television (He also played Olivia de Havilland's husband in The Snake Pit).

William Bendix is decidedly creepy as Stouffer (or White Suit, as Brad un-affectionately calls him). He's a sweaty mess of a man, with no scruples and a vicious streak a mile-wide. His presence in the film, and his exit from it are both memorable. He provides an excellent foil to the equally evil but far more intelligent Cathcart. Mr. Bendix began his film career in 1942, primarily playing supporting parts such as Gus in Lifeboat (1944). By the 1950s, he had starting moving to television, where he was best known as the title character in The Life of Riley. Mr. Bendix was married for 37; he died in 1964 of pneumonia, having appeared in over 90 films and television episodes/shows.
A highly regarded film noir (see these articles in Slant and in Noir of the Week for contemporary discussions of the film), The Dark Corner was based on a story that appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine by Leo Rosten (he also wrote Captain Newman, M.D.) Ms. Ball and Mr. Stevens would reprise their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre production in November 1947.  Screen Guild Players also produced a version starring Howard Duff and Claire Trevor in May 1952.

This is a really good film, and worth a viewing. Here's a trailer to whet your appetite:

Monday, October 8, 2018

Barbara has a Whip

The Bonell Brothers, Griff (Barry Sullivan), Wes (Gene Barry), and Chico (Robert Dix) ride into Tombstone, Arizona with a warrent for the arrest of Howard Swain. Working for the U.S. Attorney General, former gunfighter Wes is not interested in the problems local Marshal John Chisolm (Hank Worden) is having with Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), the out-of-control brother of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), the political force in the territory.  But when Brockie attacks Marshall Chisolm, Griff finds himself going head-to-head against Brockie, and by extension, Jessica and her Forty Guns (1957).

Originally titled Woman with a Whip, this is an interesting movie with a decent plot and an excellent cast who play well together. Barbara Stanwyck is in top form as Jessica. She is tough, and she is feminine; she makes it easy to understand why men both love and fear and respect her. It's not her forty gunslingers; it's Jessica herself who is a power to recon with. Interestingly, Stanwyck had SOME competition for the role. Marilyn Monroe, who was a contract player at 20th Century Fox badly wanted the part. Director Samuel Fuller wanted Stanwyck, and he won the day (TCM article). As an aside, Ms. Stanwyck did her own stunts, including one in which she is dragged several feet by a horse - a stunt that the stunt personnel would not do. In fact, Ms. Stanwyck redid the stunt 3 times, until Mr. Fuller was satisfied with it.
Barry Sullivan is good in the film - his stiffness works as stoicism, and he is able to handle the scenes between him and with Ms. Stanwyck well. Their romance has just the right amount of edge to convey strong individuals who click (See this discussion of some of the sexual byplay in this Slant review). He also handles the transition of Griff from stern control to subdued rage. And his rapport with Gene Barry is good. 

Mr. Barry brings humor to the role of Wes; his compatibility with Eve Brent, playing gunsmith Louvinia Spangler (Ms. Brent would later appear in a pair of Tarzan films as Jane, opposite Gordon Scott) is quite sexy. Wes is another man who like his women strong. His comment that he's never had a woman make a gun for him before is tinged with innuendo.
Robert Dix does a nice job of showing growth in the character of Chico. He manages to mature from an impetuous kid to a mature, thoughtful man. Mr. Dix is still acting - he'll be appearing in The Last Frankenstein sometime this year. John Ericson, however, retired in 2008; he makes Brockie a sociopath, though sometimes the character is a bit over the top. Ziva Rodan, in the small role of Rio (blink and you'll miss her), retired to Israel in the late 1960s. She's since returned to California (though not to acting).

Given the respect so many critics have for Samuel Fuller, this film is highly regarded by critics. The Slant review, cited above and this Senses of Cinema article praise his skill both with the script and with the camera. Mr. Fuller had a very different ending of the film in mind; the studio however, over-road him - they deemed his concept too harsh( AFI catalog). While Mr. Fuller's proposed ending really horrified us, we didn't like the one he chose either. We felt that he weakened Jessica, and that with a slight change, she would have remained the strong woman we so admired.
Jessica comments in this film on her age (some statements have been made that Ms. Stanwyck was too old for the part. We beg to differ). But age would be a factor for her career from now on. Ms. Stanwyck would not make another film until Walk on the Wild Side four years later (Barbara Stanwyck: Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan) in which she is decidedly supporting to Capucine. That would be followed by two more films, after which she moved into television where she was far more appreciated.
Filmed in Cinemascope (in black and white), the film is both gritty and beautiful. If this Variety review is any example, it was well received (especially since it was filmed for $300,000 in one week). A Criterion review of the Blu-Ray release also sings the praises of Mr. Fuller and Ms. Stanwyck. We'll leave you with this trailer, and a suggestion to visit Tombstone the next time the film is available:

Monday, October 1, 2018

George Finds a Body

Actress Mona Harrison (Adele Jergens) is expecting a package from costume designer Hector Rose. The package that arrives, C.O.D., which should have contained her Oscar ceremony dress, instead contains the body of Mr. Rose. Panicked, Mona calls reporter Joe Medford (George Brent), to make the body go away. But Joe has other ideas - after calling a photographer - and the police, Joe begins to investigate the murder, in hopes of a big scoop. But he has a slight problem in the form of Rosemary Durant (Joan Blondell), his competition on a rival newspaper. Our film this week is The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947)

We have here yet another film that wants to be The Thin Man, but isn't.  George Brent and Joan Blondell just don't have the chemistry required to make that happen. Excellent actors both, they just don't gel the way Myrna Loy and William Powell do; their's is a unique chemistry that just is not found in this film. Ms. Blondell and Mr. Brent were better matched in Miss Pinkerton, though that was more her film (this is centered on Joe). Ms. Blondell was not the first choice for Rosemary - Veronica Lake was considered for the role. (AFI Catalog)

That being said, The Corpse Came C.O.D. is not a bad movie. It could stand some editing (it is 87 minutes long. It wouldn't have hurt had it lost about 7-10 minutes). A running gag in which Ms. Blondell ends up locked in a closet goes on for way too long, and much of the slapstick is really unnecessary. There are also a number of missing transitions; for example, early in the film, Joe confesses to a colleague his deep love for Mona, yet by the middle of the film, he's discussing marriage to Rosemary. There's almost a whiplash effect when he says it. He's like Romeo - in love with Fair Rosamund, and two seconds later, passionate about Juliet. But Romeo has an excuse - he's only 16!

All that aside, you have a pretty good mystery story. The  motives are well designed, and the murderer is a surprise, without being completely from left-field. The story is based on a novel by Jimmy Starr, who wrote three Joe Medford novels in total (Hardboiled in Hollywood By David E. Wilt). We wondered if the studio was looking for another series, and it just didn't pan out. If you can ignore some of the silliness, and just concentrate on the mystery, you've got a pretty good whodunit.
Jim Bannon, who plays Detective Mark Wilson was best known as a Western actor, particularly in the role of Red Ryder.  By the 1950s, he had transitioned to television, but didn't really find a good venue. So, in the 1960s, he moved to Arizona, where he worked as a radio announcer (his career prior to moving into acting) and as host of an afternoon TV show.  He was married for 12 years to Bea Benaderet (they divorced in 1950); the couple had two children, including Jack Bannon, who you may remember from Lou Grant. Mr. Bannon, senior died in 1984 of emphysema, at the age of 73.

The opening sequences of the film, with stock footage of Hollywood and images of the various gossip columnists of the day was very entertaining, as were the nightclub scenes. While this isn't a great film, it has some moments, and if you happen to run into it, it might be worth a bit of your time.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Harry's Third Year

As young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is about to enter his third year at Hogwarts Academy, he is in trouble. Infuriated at Uncle Vernon's (Richard Griffiths) sister Marge (Pam Ferris) after she has insulted Harry's parents, he has literally blown her up. Though magic outside of school is forbidden to Hogwarts students, Harry is amazed that Minister Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) is not the least concerned. But the Minister is worried that Harry was out on his own; later, Harry is warned to stick close to Hogwarts from Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams). Does all this have something to do with the recent escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from Azkaban Prison?

We had the opportunity to hear the score of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) played by the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap. The glorious music by John Williams is even more impressive with a full orchestra and choir behind the film. (Here's a sample of the song Double Trouble from the film itself). Added was a very enthusiastic audience, who showed their appreciation for the film - and for the orchestra. The crowd by and large stayed through the credits to listen to the NSO play the closing music.
Perhaps my favorite character in the Harry Potter novels is the most conflicted one - Severus Snape, as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman. I'm not the only one - his first appearance was greeted by loud applause, as was his name on the credits at film's end. As with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we still don't know why Snape is so disagreeable, but one scene towards the end is rather remarkable. Without injecting too many spoilers, our young heroes, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are in danger. Snape throws himself in front of the trio to protect them. Nothing is said, but it is a moment that foreshadows the future relationship of Harry and Snape.

This is Michael Gambon's first outing as Professor Dumbledore; he took on the role after the death of Richard Harris. Personally, I prefer Mr. Harris - he seems more like the rather whimsical Dumbledore of the books. But Mr. Gambon has a strength of character that makes you appreciate his role as Headmaster of the school. He is only in the film briefly, but he makes his presence felt.
Having seen the film several times, a new question arose about Aunt Petunia Dursley (Fiona Shaw). Given that she resents her late sister, Lily (Geraldine Somerville) and doesn't much like her nephew Harry, it's still hard to believe that she would allow her sister-in-law to call Lily a bitch with bad blood. At times, Petunia takes on the demeanor of an abused woman. She is so eager to please her rather nasty husband, that she allows all kinds of insults to be thrown in her direction. The scene ALMOST makes you feel sorry for her (almost).

I hope that we will be able to see more of these concert-driven films. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the film's trailer.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rita Gets Shot

Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938) is the question when the rather unpleasant singer (Rita Hayworth) is shot during a performance in the Swing Swing Club. Just before her murder, Gail called Inspector Tom Kellogg (Don Terry), so it’s up to him to find the killer.

Without being too snide, this film works primarily because it is short (it's 61 minutes). Though a few smoother transitions would have been helpful, it has a fast enough pace that you don't immediately notice the holes in the plot.  It's a B movie, with a cadre of actors who, with the exception of Ms. Hayworth, never made it out of Bs; like most B films, the sets on this are run of the mill, except for the club set where Ms. Hayworth stars. Called the Swing Swing Club, it's a prison setting, with the band and emcee wearing the striped garb of inmates and the guests seated in cells. One can almost see an imaginative set designer working with the scriptwriter to re-use a prison set within the film. It's quite an imaginative design.

In her approximately 20 minutes of screen time, Ms. Hayworth does a good job of making you loathe the nasty Gail. We're not sorry she is killed by the time she gets it (no spoiler here - the title tells you what is going to happen!). But there are a lot of red herrings scattered through the film that seemingly lead nowhere. If the screenwriters had ever talked to a police investigator, we'd be surprised. Gail's apartment, which should be under police protection after the murder is more like Grand Central Station than a crime scene - there are more people coming and going from it than from the nightclub!
The same year this was made, Ms. Hayworth had appeared in There's Always a Woman, where she made an uncredited appearance as a secretary. The following year, she played another villain in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. She still doesn't look quite like the Rita Hayworth we are used to. In this film, the studio decided to make her up to look more like Hedy Lamarr (who had just come out with Algiers, her first American picture). (AFI Catalog) And it is not Ms. Hayworth singing (it's Gloria Franklin); in fact, she only got to sing in her films once - the guitar solo in Gilda is actually her singing and playing the instrument. (TCM article).  

Ms. Hayworth unhappy life has been chronicled by biographer Barbara Leaming in If This is Happiness. Sexually abused by her father, threatened and prostituted by her first husband (Eddie Judson), cheated on by her second and third husbands (Orson Welles and Aly Khan), bankrupted and abused by her fourth husband (Dick Haymes, aka Mr. Evil), she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease in 1980. She died in 1987; she was 68. But she left us a legacy of magnificent performances, such as Virginia Brush in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Vera Prentice-Simpson in Pal Joey (1957), Rusty Parker in Cover Girl (1944), Doña Sol in Blood and Sand (1941), and, of course, Gilda. She was the first person to dance with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; truly, she was a remarkable performer on all levels.
One little incident we found interesting was the brief appearance of Gail's Maid (Mildred Glover). She's adamant in her unwilllingness to speak to the police. We realize quickly she is by no means stupid, in fact, she has rather a way with words.  But it seems pretty clear SHE is convinced that she will accused of the murder. Does she think she will be suspected because she is a woman of color?

The original title of the film was Murder in Swingtime (which might have been a better choice - it wouldn't have let us know the name of the victim before we entered the theatre!) It's an okay movie, with some clever bits, a little too much of the dumb police officer, but in the long run, not bad for a B film. If you are an aficionado of Ms. Hayworth, you may want to give it a viewing.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Clifton Leads the Band

Beginning during his tenure as leader of the Marine Corps Band, and continuing through the end of the Spanish-American War, the life of composer and band leader John Philip Sousa (Clifton Webb) is the subject of our movie this week, the biopic Stars and Stripes Forever (1952).

This is a fun movie, primarily because of fine performances by Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner (Willie Little) and Ruth Hussey (Jennie Sousa), and the interspersion of Sousa's rousing marches. Much of the story about Sousa himself is accurate (the dates of the creation of certain of his marches are changed (The Great Composers Portrayed on Film, 1913 through 2002 by Charles P. Mitchell)), though the Lily Becker (Debra Paget)/Willie Little story is completely fictitious. It was inserted to add some romance to the plot, and probably because Mr. Sousa's life was not in the least tumultuous. After a successful period in the Marines, he went on to a hugely renowned career as a bandleader. He was happily married to his wife for 53 years (until his death in 1932), and had three children.  As pointed out by Jeanine Basinger in I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies "a marriage story is a screenwriter's nightmare.... Marriage had no story arc..." Thus, the Sousas relatively trouble-free union had little for the screenwriters to build on.
To give the story some spice, we have the insertion of Lily and Willie. Willie is an eager beaver who pursues everything - a job with Sousa, his relationship with Lily - with verve. He invents the Sousaphone to get a position with the Marine band (the Sousaphone was actually invented by J.W. Pepper, with input from Sousa, as a means of marching with a tuba. It was lighter and smaller, and the sound went OVER the heads of the other musicians, resulting in better music for the audience, and less chance of deafening the other marchers), pursues the career-driven Lily even when told that his wife cannot travel with him while he is with the band, and convinces Sousa that Lily is an asset to the band as a singer. Robert Wagner is delightful in the part. This was a huge role for him. He'd come to the attention of the public that same year with a small part in With a Song in My Heart, which resulted in his being cast here (Rory Calhoun had been an early choice.) (AFI catalog)
The women in the film - Debra Paget and Ruth Hussey - don't get a lot of screen time. Certainly Ruth Hussey is hardly present, but she makes the most of the screen time she is given. One particular scene, in which she plays piano for her husband's latest ballad, was delightful. Mr. Sousa wanted to write successful ballads (TCM articles), but he was obviously much better at marches; so, his wife begins to play his latest ballad to a much catchier march beat. Another scene involves Mr. Sousa observing Willie sneaking into Lily's train cabin. Ms. Hussey's blasé response is perfect. 

We weren't as impressed with Ms. Paget, who is okay as the volatile Lily. Most of the time, we really wanted her to relax a bit. However, a scene between her and Ms. Hussey is excellent, as the two women discuss men and marriage. June Haver was first choice for the part, but we suspect it is more the way the character is written than the actress' performance.
Which brings us to the star of the film, Clifton Webb. As always, he is excellent. We get to see him dance and sing (which is always a pleasure. As we mentioned in a prior post, Mr. Webb began his career as a professional ballroom dancer, and he had lost none of his ability in that area). Mr. Webb very much wanted this part, and the reviews and the success of the film must have been gratifying to him. There is a strength and warmth to his performance that makes Sousa quite endearing. (Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb)

We discovered that George Chakiris has an uncredited role as a Ballroom Dancer; blink and you'll miss him (we did). Stars and Stripes Forever was a critical and financial success, and propelled both Mr. Webb and Mr. Wagner into Titanic the following year. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film. It's certainly worth a viewing.