Monday, October 16, 2017

Ginger is on the Radio

Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers), America's "Purity Girl" has had it. She's been on the radio for a year. She's popular, she's making plenty of money, but she is banned from going ANYWHERE. She wants to go out and dance in Harlem, she wants to wear makeup and date. But under her present contract, she is forbidden from doing anything that might compromise her image of innocence. When she threatens her boss, Sam Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) with leaving his employ, he agrees to get her a Professional Sweetheart (1933) - and potential husband - that will allow her to date discreetly.

Though at times a fairly silly movie, Professional Sweetheart is enjoyable. Ginger Rogers is very cute as a girl who just wants to have fun, and while Norman Foster (as Jim Davey) is perhaps not the most dynamic actor in the world, he is convincingly sincere. Add a group of excellent character actors, including Gregory Ratoff (playing a part not dissimilar to his role in All About Eve), Frank McHugh (as Speed Dennis), and Allen Jenkins (as O'Connor), and you have a film that is fun and ever so slightly titillating (as you can see from the still below!)
We were pleased to also see Theresa Harris (Vera) in a small role.  She's relegated to playing a maid, of course, and is not even billed in the credits, but she is again (as she was in Baby Face) intelligent and attractive, and more of a confidant to the unhappy Glory than a mere servant.  Unlike Ginger Rogers, Ms. Harris actually gets to do her own singing (Etta Moten sings for Ms. Rogers; why, is a big question).  Ms. Harris has a lovely voice, and is an excellent actress: with 99 film and television credits to her name, Ms. Harris SHOULD be better known. She was the inspiration for a play, By the Way, Vera Stark, which performed off-Broadway in 2011. Married from 1933 until her death, to a physician, Ms. Harris retired from acting in 1958. She died at age 79, in 1985.

Normally, we enjoy ZaSu Pitts (Elmerada de Leon),  but her vagueness gets annoying after a time.  Of course, Elmerada is supposed to be annoying, but she is also supposed to be funny. The film really carries the act a bit too far, so we found ourselves groaning when Ms. Pitts started to open her mouth.

Norman Foster is okay as the romantic lead, but not much more than that. He would continue acting until 1938 (he returned to acting in the 1970s in a few television shows and movies), but he is best known as a director. He directed several of the Mr. Moto films, 1948's Rachel and the Stranger (starring his sister-in-law, Loretta Young), and the noir classic Woman on the Run (1950). He also did much television directing (including 39 episodes of Ms. Young's television shows). He was married for 7 years to Claudette Colbert; after their divorce in 1935, he married Sally Blane; they had two children and were married until his death from cancer in 1976 (age 72).
This was Ms. Rogers' first film under a three picture deal with RKO (TCM article). All three pictures (Rafter Romance, also co-starring Norman Foster, and Chance at Heaven were the other two) were released in 1933, as was her next film, under a new seven-year contract - Flying Down to Rio, her first film with Fred Astaire. They didn't dub her singing voice after that!

Original titles for the film include Careless and Purity Girl, (AFI Catalog) but we felt the release title was the best choice - after all, but Jim AND Glory turn out to be professional sweethearts! Besides the character actors mentioned above, there are brief glimpses of Betty Furness (as a reporter) and Akim Tamiroff (as a waiter).

The New York Times liked the film (which premiered in Radio City Music Hall), as did my colleague at Pre-code.com (for an outline of some of the pre-code naughtiness, please to visit his posting). You can see some of that naughtiness in this clip from the film. A good opportunity to see Ginger Rogers early in her career, Professional Sweetheart is a pleasant romp. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kay Sings?

Would-be actress Pamela Drake (Deanna Durbin) is eager to follow in the footsteps of her mother, noted actress and soprano Georgia Drake (Kay Francis). But when Pamela is offered a role in Karl Ober's (S. Z. Sakall) new play of St. Anne, complications ensue. Though the character is Pamela's age, Georgia is eager to play the role; Pamela, however is unaware of her mother's plan. Thus begins It's a Date (1940).

The film is by no means great literature. The plot is fairly simple; you know almost immediately that John Arlen (Walter Pidgeon) is going to fall in love with Georgia. And that Pamela will discover her mother's interest in the part of St. Anne. It doesn't really matter, though. It's a frothy little film that you can enjoy simply to watch some really fine actors and one amazing singer.

As you can see by the artwork accompanying this post, Ms. Francis is relegated to second billing (along with Walter Pidgeon) under the new star Deanna Durbin. Ms. Durbin had gotten her start at MGM; her first film was the short Every Sunday (1936) with another magnificent singer, Judy Garland. You can hear the two of them singing together in this clip:
Ms. Durbin's contract was dropped (according to the Deanna Durbin Devotees website, Louis B. Mayer instructed his people to "fire the fat one", and they let Deanna go). Universal, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, snatched her up. She is credited with single-handedly saving the studio from ruin (TCM article). With a good screen presence and an amazing voice, she became immensely popular, and continued working until age 29, when she retired and completely disappeared from public view. Her son announced her death at age 91 in 2013, providing no details and thanking her fans for "respecting her privacy."

As we've mentioned before, Kay Francis was out of favor with Warner Brothers; they would give her awful scripts or loan her out to other studios, in hopes that she would quit. She didn't (the checks didn't bounce!). Though she is not around for half the movie, she's quite lovely as a good mother who only what is best for her daughter. She also gets some attractive costumes from Vera West.
The film is not short on supporting talent. Besides Ms. Francis and Mr. Pidgeon, we are also treated to such amazing character actors as S.Z. Sakall, Eugene Pallette (in what is basically a walk-on as the Governor of Hawaii), Henry Stephenson (as the ship's Captain Andrew), and Samuel S. Hinds (as agent Sidney Simpson). With such strong performers, the material is elevated beyond the scope of the writing.  All the character parts are small (most of the heavy lifting in the film is Ms. Durbin, with Mr. Pidgeon getting a nice chunk of screen time), but we did think that Mr. Sakall, as always, made the most of what he had, to excellent effect. It is no wonder he was often called "Cuddles". Even here, playing the man who doesn't WANT Georgia in the role, you like him!
The New York Times actually liked the film, with reviewer Frank S. Nugent calling it "a charming, if highly improbable, entertainment" in his review. In some senses, it is a comedic/romantic version of All About Eve, with a bit of singing. The next time you are looking for a film to just sit and enjoy, this is one to consider.  We'll leave you with this scene from the beginning of the film, with the lovely Ms. Francis NOT singing:

Monday, October 2, 2017

Don Goes to the Devil

Heaven Can Wait (1943) tells in flashback the life of Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). After his death, Henry heads directly to Hell, where he meets with His Excellency (Laird Cregar). His Excellency is puzzled as to why Henry is there (he's a bit behind, due to the level of arrivals), and queries Henry on his reason for not heading first to  The Other Place (as most arrivals do). For one thing, His Excellency notes, the quality of the music is far better in The Other Place (Mozart and Beethoven are there!).  But Henry, who was a bit of a rapscallion in life, relates his story to explain why he didn't bother trying to obtain entry upstairs.

There is often some confusion between this film and the 1978 film with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. That was indeed a remake, but its plot was taken from the Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  This story is a much simpler one, concerned with a man, his family, and their lives in turn-of-the-century New York City. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch with his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, this is an amusing, slightly suggestive film that is always entertaining. Sure, in the 21st Century, it is a trifle sexist - Martha Strable Van Cleve (Gene Tierney) is off-handedly equated with her father's symbolic cow, Mabel by Grandfather Hugo Van Cleve (Charles Coburn) when Martha and Henry elope (We'll take Martha/You keep Mabel). But, in the final analysis, Martha is the backbone of the family, and much wiser than her mother-in-law, Bertha (Spring Byington) or her mother Mrs. Strabel (Marjorie Main) - or her husband, for that matter!
Several performances really shine in Heaven Can Wait, but none more than that of Charles Coburn. A remarkable character actor who coulc play anything, he is superb as Grandfather Hugo. With that little bit of a twinkle in his eye, you know from the start just where Henry "got it from." Mr. Coburn was already 60 when he began his film career. He had worked on the Broadway stage - beginning in 1901, he would appear in and/or produce 28 plays. He had formed his own theatrical company with his business and acting partner  - and wife - Ivah Wills Coburn. It was after Ivah's death in 1937 that he ventured permanently to Hollywood (he would return to Broadway in 1952, to produce The Long Watch). In the years between 1933 (he filmed a short that year, and a film in 1935) and his death in 1961, he appeared in 99 films and television shows (as well as occasional radio programs). Among his exceptional performances are The More the Merrier (1943), Bachelor Mother (1939), King's Row (1942), and In Name Only (1939). He was (sadly) an advocate of segregation, and a member of both the White Citizens' Council and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (a right-wing, anti-Communist group in the 1950s). He married a second time at age 82 and fathered a daughter. He died of a heart attack at the age of 84.
Director Lubitsch was reluctant to use Don Ameche in the part of Henry - he had wanted Fredric March or Rex Harrison (AFI Catalog). But Ameche's screen test proved him perfect for the role, and Lubitsch reluctantly agreed (TCM article). Reginald Gardiner was considered for the role of Albert (which would eventually go to Allyn Joslyn), and Simone Simon was set to play Mademoiselle (Signe Hasso would take on the part when Simon's billing demands were not met).
Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review was reasonably pleased with the film. Regardless, it has been acknowledged as a classic, discussed by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, who calls it a story of "riotous, uninhibited love." Senses of Cinema calls it "a commentary on marriage, an appreciation for love and dedication, and belongs firmly in Lubitsch’s canon alongside One Hour With You (1932)."

All in all, Heaven Can Wait, is a lovely, wry, and witty film, well worth your viewing. I'll leave you with this interview between Henry and His Excellency, as they discuss the musical options in Hell.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dancing in the Stars


I'm going to spend a little of your time discussing a film from last year.  We just recently saw La La Land (2016) with a live orchestra providing the score, and this second viewing even further solidified my appreciation for the influence of classic cinema on director Damien Chazelle. Let's spend a few minutes looking at some of the references to film's past that appear throughout the movie.

The plot is a simple boy meets girl story. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress, working as a barista at a film studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a gifted musician with a passion for jazz music. Their first meetings are problematic, but when they finally get to talk at a party, love grows. Complications ensue when Seb takes a job with a contemporary music group. Making more money than he had ever hoped to see, but playing music he dislikes, Seb is also constantly away from Mia. They begin to drift apart as their lives and careers collide.

The film opens with a a dance number on the LA freeway, as Mia, Seb, and half of the city are caught in a traffic jam. With rich colors and enthusiastic, athletic dancing, the segment is a tip of the hat to the 1967 Jacques Demy musical The Young Girls of Rochefort. The images below will give you a look at the two scenes side-by-side. For an audience unused to a film opening with people singing and dancing (for no good reason!) on a highway or bridge, this must have been a shocking opening. I found it wonderful!  Another Demy film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, also provides inspiration for La La Land. The endings of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and La La Land are also remarkably similar. This article from PopSugar has a very interesting analysis of the two movies.
La La Land
 
The Young Girls of Rochefort
Two days after the release of La La Land (December 25, 2016), Debbie Reynolds, the star of Singin' in the Rain, died at the age of 84. In January, La La Land was awarded the Chairman's Vanguard Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.  It  was accepted by Ryan Gosling, whose acceptance speech focused on Ms. Reynolds and the inspiration her performance provided to the cast. (Slate.com). There are several nods to Singin' in the Rain in the film - Seb and Mia strolling through an active movie set, as Don and Cosmo do; Seb swinging around a lamppost, reminiscent of the Singin' in the Rain title number; and the concluding fantasy sequence which summons up images of the "Gotta Dance" number. (Slate)

Other films - both musical and non-musical - make appearances. A fantasy epilogue towards the end of La La Land brings to mind the "Our Love is Here to Stay" number from An American in Paris, as well as the Ballet Sequence in that film. Emma Stone carrying a bunch of balloons in the sequence is a clear pointer to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. We even see a little boy in that epilogue carrying a Red Balloon.

As Seb and Mia dance in the stars, both the "Begin the Beguine" number from Broadway Melody of 1940 and the "Never Gonna Dance" number from Swing Time are benchmarks. Mia's bedroom contains a large mural of Ingrid Bergman, and her cafe if just across the street from a stage set that was the window of the Cafe Aurore in Casablanca. Seb brings Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause; then the couple visits the Griffith Observatory where much of the action from that film occurs. The Slate article previously referenced and this discussion in New York Times provide an excellent outline of the many classic film references.
La La Land is a film that one can watch multiple times and each time see something new. I'll leave you with a trailer and my favorite song from the film:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

William Has The Key

Paedar Conlan (Donald Crisp), a Sein Fein official, is on the run from the British military in 1920s Dublin. He's being sought by Captain Andrew Kerr (Colin Clive), an officer in the Secret Service. Andrew and his wife, Norah (Edna Best) have a good marriage, though Andrew knows that she once loved another. Their life becomes more complex with the arrival of Captain Bill Tennant (William Powell), Norah's former love. Thus begins The Key (1934).

A compact film, The Key proved to be interesting plot, if a bit weak at times. We discussed the rather oblique title at some length (was it called The Key because of Powell's entry into his commander's office? Or was Paedar Conlan The Key to all the problems? It's a mystery; and not a very revealing title). We were also bemused by an ending that felt tacked on.  Released in 1934, we suspect that concerns with the code may have altered the original ending. Regardless, it felt abrupt and slapdash.

The actual key to this film is William Powell. With the twinkle in his eyes, and his devil-may-care attitude, Powell saves the film from being a bore. When he is on the screen, you can't take your eyes away from him. Particularly nice were his interactions with a flower girl (played by Anne Shirley, back when she was still Dawn O'Day). We know that Tennant is a ladies' man, but his conversations with Ms. O'Day are gently flirtatious, an acknowledgement of her youth and obvious naivety. A consummate actor, Mr. Powell is never better than when he is a bit of rogue; he's always able to let you know that there is a gentle side to nature.
Colin Clive proves a good foil to Mr. Powell. His character is very straight-arrow; this allows Powell to give the action some much needed bounce. Mr. Clive had a very brief film career - only 18 movies between 1930 and 1937, the most famous of which was his role as Dr. Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 Frankenstein. During the same period, he appeared in 4 Broadway plays, including Libel, which would be made into a film in 1959. Whether Mr. Clive could have broken away from the super-serious plotlines into which he was being cast will never be known. He died in 1937 of tuberculosis complicated by alcoholism; he was 37.

This was Mr. Powell's last picture at Warner Brothers. He'd not felt well-used there; he selected The Key over another Philo Vance film and a movie called Dollar Wise (which does not seem to have ever made it to the screen). When his contract ended, he headed down the road to MGM, where he was teamed with Myrna Loy and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama (1934). That paring with Ms. Loy was such a success that they appeared in another film that same year, for which Mr. Powell was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - The Thin Man. Ultimately, Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy were in 14 films together. (TCM article; William Powell The Life and Films by Roger Bryant).
Mordaunt Hall in his New York Times review called The Key "a sturdy and effective melodrama" which is perhaps more praise than it deserves. He was particularly impressed with the performances of Mr. Powell and Mr. Clive; he even singles out Ms. O'Day for praise. While not a bad film, it's not Mr. Powell's best. But even his least is worth a quick view. We'll leave you with this trailer from the film:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Barbara's in Jeopardy

The Stilwin family, Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), Doug (Barry Sullivan), and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are in a deserted area of  Mexico to enjoy a long anticipated camping expedition. But when an accident places Doug in Jeopardy (1953), it's up to Helen to find assistance before the rising tide drowns her husband. There is, however, a complication - an escaped murderer (Ralph Meeker as Lawson) is in the area, and will stop at nothing to get away. 

The poster art for the film is rather peculiar. Yes, Helen does end up in jeopardy, but there are two people in real danger. The posters make it look as though the title of the film is A Woman in Jeopardy, when it is not.  This, of course, does make the art a bit more lascivious, but it doesn't prepare the viewer for the real story.

We were a little taken aback that Doug would bring his family to such a remote and really dangerous area, especially since they are in a country where none of them speak the language (Doug does have a modicum of Spanish). The conversations between Doug and Helen, however, remind us that this was an area in which Doug spent some happy times during the second World War, fishing with his army buddies. We can assume that, after facing combat, Doug found the isolation of this area attractive, and he remembers it colored by his other thoughts about his time in the service.

Barry Sullivan is quite good as Doug - you may shake your head at his decision to take his family to such an odd vacation locale, but you cannot doubt his regard for his wife nor his love for his son. Sullivan's scenes with young Lee Aaker are especially moving; as Doug loses hope of Helen's timely return, he begins to carefully prepare the boy for his death. Sullivan does it tactfully, and without any self-pity. It's a picture of a good father wanting what is best for his boy.
Mr. Sullivan was particularly complementary about Ms. Stanwyck in the film, stating that "of the films I did with Miss Stanwyck only Jeopardy sticks in my mind as having any merit, but all three occasions (the others were The Maverick Queen and Forty Guns) cling to my memory as fun experiences."  Part of the credit for the success of the film goes to director John Sturges, who enticed Ms. Stanwyck back from a one-year attempt at retirement. (TCM article)

There was a great deal of discussion about Ralph Meeker, who presents an interesting and complicated character. Two of our members wondered if providing a backstory for Lawson would have been beneficial. What did he do? Why was he in Mexico? I'm convinced it would not have added anything. We know Lawson is a murderer. We see a dead man that he killed, and we see him shoot a police officer. That, for me, was enough. By the end (no spoilers on this one), we do have to look at Lawson as a human being rather than just a malevolent villain. Lawson is a complex individual who you won't like but will appreciate.
Lee Aaker, who is very good as Bobby, had a relatively short film and television career. He's probably best remembered today for his role as Corporal Rusty in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1959). Many of his film roles were uncredited (like A Lion is in the Streets (1953)), but he also had the role of Red Chief in "The Ransom of Red Chief" segment of  O. Henry's Full House. When acting roles were not available to him any longer (as so frequently happens to child actors), he went into the production arena. He finally left Hollywood, settling in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Based on a radio play A Question of Time (AFI catalog), the film was expanded a bit, but is still relatively short - 69 minutes, which affords the film a lot of tension. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed by the film; regardless it did well at the box office. In 1954, Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sullivan reprized their roles in a 48 minute broadcast.

In a recent introduction on TCM's Noir Alley (to Stawyck's Crime of Passion), Eddie Muller called Ms. Stanwyck "greatest actress in the history of motion pictures." He went on to say:
Not only did Ms. Stanwyck possess the greatest range of any movie actress, being equally adept at screwball comedy and gut-wrenching drama, she could easily lay claim to being the most essential actress in the development of film noir. After all, dark crime thrillers were not really a movement until Stanwyck created a sensation as the duplicitous  Phyllis Dietrickson in 1944’s Double Indemnity. At that time she was the highest paid woman in the USA and the box office success of that film was the single most critical factor in the rise of what would later be called film noir.  And she didn’t stop there; during the 10 years following Double Indemnity, she could lay claim to the title The Queen of Film Noir: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong NumberThe Two Mrs. Carrolls, The File on Thelma Jordan, No Man of Her Own, Witness to Murder,  as well as noir-stained dramas like The Lady Gambles, Clash by Night, and Jeopardy. Stanwyck took a long Walk on the Wild Side. For years however, few of those films were mentioned when experts talked about film noir. The reason is simple. Film scholars were mostly men and they rarely felt a female protagonist fit the mold they’d established for film noir.  No one, man or woman, portrayed this angst and agony better than Barbara Stanwyck.
Thank you, Mr. Muller for saying so eloquently what we've been attesting to in our own modest way about this most glorious of actresses.  We'll leave you with this opening scene for the film.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Jane Sells Haute Couture

When a rainstorm floods out a train trestle and strands her in the boom town New City, Texas, Lucy Gallant (1955) (played by Jane Wyman) realizes she can make her fortune by selling the nouveau riche clothing from New York and Paris. With the help of local banker Charlie Madden (William Demarest), the owner of the local brothel Lady "Mac" MacBeth Claire Treveor), and rancher Casey Cole (Charlton Heston), Lucy opens a store. But the success of the store creates a barrier between her and Casey - he wants a stay-at-home wife, and Lucy loves working.

I try to not give away the ending of films as a rule, but as our major issue with Lucy Gallant was the ending, I'll have to do a bit of a spoiler. We had thoroughly enjoyed it up until the last scene, but the standard 1950s woman as "handmaiden to her man" routine was irritating. The character of Lucy Gallant is so attractive - she's smart, clever, imaginative, kind, and loyal - it's hard to see her giving up her dream because some man doesn't want his wife working.  We found ourselves coming up with a five years later scenario in which Lucy was back running her beloved store.

Based on a novella, The Life of Lucy Gallant by Margaret Cousins, this is an interesting portrait of the women in New City.  The characters of Lucy, Molly Basserman (Thelma Ritter) and Mac are carefully drawn. All are strong characters, well able to take care of themselves (and often having to do so). The script is not so careful of the the men.  Casey begins as gentleman-ly and rather attractive, but deteriorates into a petulant, chauvinistic caricature. Gus Basserman (Wallace Ford) may have found oil, but he remains a crude drunk, Jim Wardman (Tom Helmore) is your typical northern carpetbagger, and Charlie Madden is a weakling. In fact, the only reliable male here is Summertime (Joel Fluellen), who remains loyal to Lucy through every crisis, but as an African-American is relegated, per the mores of the time, to being the doorman at Gallant's.
Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Women's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 posits that the film equates Lucy's life in the department store as a prison, where freedom is marriage and children. But I would suggest there is another subtext in the film, much more hidden, and possibly more critical of the role Lucy assumes at the film's conclusion. The biggest advocate for Lucy's marriage to Casey is Molly Basserman. At the beginning of the film, Molly runs a boarding house while her husband wildcats for oil. Later in the film, we see Gus Basserman drinking and whoring. Finally, Lucy discovers that Gus has purchased a very expensive fur coat for another woman, and it appears that Molly is blissfully unaware of her husband's infidelity. With this the only symbol of a "happy" marriage in the film, just WHAT is Lucy getting herself into?

In their review of the film, the New York Times comments that Charlton Heston is "not believable" as Casey. We tend to agree. He plays the role as though pouting for the whole film. While at first, Casey seems like a gallant gentleman, after awhile he is merely annoying. He seems to have no regard for Lucy's happiness, and he is unable to compromise on anything. We expected that the character would grow, but he did not. Heston was allegedly dissatisfied with his performance - his mind was elsewhere. When Lucy Gallant wrapped, Heston flew off for his next role - in The Ten Commandments!

The film is very much about fashion, and there are some lovely outfits (though most have a 1950s vibe, even though much of the action takes place before the second World War). We also get treated to a Vista Vision fashion show, emceed by the one and only Edith Head (who designed the dresses for the film). 

The film demonstrates that the growth of Gallant's mirrors the growth of the town of New City, and the dominance of the female clientele in the town. We see other stores begin to appear near Gallant's, including a high-end jewelry story. The women in the town dress better, and there is a decidedly more cosmopolitan air to New City by the conclusion of the film.
According to the AFI catalog, Joan Crawford was at first interested in the part of Lucy. The Hollywood Reporter had also announced that Jody McCrea (son of Joel and Frances Dee) and Julie Dorsey (daughter of Jimmy) were to have made their film debuts in Lucy Gallant; neither however made it to the final version of the film. 

We'll leave you with an early scene, in which Lucy meets some of the local ladies of New City:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Harry's First Year


2001 is a rather recent film for this blog to cover, but I had the opportunity to watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again with a friend, so it seemed like a good opportunity to expand my focus a bit and discuss this rather lovely movie. I'm a big fan of Harry Potter (both the books and the films), so I was pleased when my friend decided we should make that a "movie night" selection.

The basic plot: Baby Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of his Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) Dursley. He endures 11 years of neglect, living in a cupboard under the stairs in the Dursleys' home, belittled by his guardians and their obnoxious son Dudley (Harry Melling).  However, on his 11th birthday, letters begin to arrive, not just by post, but down the chimney, delivered apparently by a flock of owls.  Harru's uncle tries to destroy them, but a visit by giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) results in Harry being taken from the Durleys for enrollment in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry, it turns out, is a wizard, whose parents were killed defending him from a dark wizard, Voldemort. Voldemort disappeared after being unable to kill Harry, and Harry is famous in the wizarding community as The Boy Who Lived.

I was dubious when I read the first Harry Potter novel. It was a children's book after all, and I was a grown-up. I read the first three chapters, muttering under my breath "children's book." And then I became so engrossed that I stopped categorizing it.  As more books were released, I snatched them off the shelf; attending parties in Barnes and Nobles (one treat was listening to Jim Dale read from the prior book), waiting for my book to arrive in the mail, and spending the next few days savoring the new story. I don't often cry when reading books, but the Harry Potter made me cry three times. Thankfully, the movies lived up to the novels, primarily due to the excellent casting of the key characters.
Richard Harris was the perfect Albus Dumbledore.  Sorry, Michael Gambon, good as you are, you will always be second best.  Mr. Harris was not keen on taking the role - he turned it down THREE times and only accepted it when his granddaughter told him she would never talk to him again if he didn't do the part (The Guardian). Sadly, Mr. Harris died after the second film, and the role was assumed by Mr. Gambon.

The part of Severus Snape, as played by the amazing Alan Rickman is really a minor character in this film. He is quite disagreeable, and of course, we won't find out for some time just what Snape's problem is with Harry Potter. Mr. Rickman was at first reluctant to take on a part that, in the first script really just appeared to be a standard child's villain, but author J.K. Rowling told him what was planned for later in the film (Vanity Fair). Once you've read all the books (or seen all the films), you realize how marvelous Mr. Rickman makes Snape - he is a character it is hard to hate.
This is, however, a film about children: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the enduring friendship and partnership that develops during their years at Hogwarts. I've always felt that Harry falls in love with the entire Weasley family, not just Ginny (spoiler - that's in a later book). The Weasleys represent for Harry the family that he lost. 

Mr. Radcliffe is especially good as Harry in this first film. The scene in which he encounters the Mirror of Erised is especially moving. As this child, who has never known love, looks into the mirror and sees the affection in the eyes of his dead parents, it's hard not to cry for him. As he has grown, Mr. Radcliffe has become an impressive actor. I had the opportunity to see him in Equus on Broadway, and recently in a NTLive broadcast of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead. I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Look also for the performances of Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom, who will grow to become a fierce and fearless warrior for good). It's an exceptional cast in a movie that I can watch over and over - would that I had the time to binge all 8 of them!

I'll leave you with a trailer of the film. Next time, an earlier classic!


Lawyer Elsie

Scarlet Pages (1930) opens as a baby is being taken in by an adoption agency. The mother, whose name is revealed by the forms she signed, has relinquished all rights to her child. Years later, we meet the mother, Mary Bancroft (Elsie Ferguson), now a successful lawyer with political ambitions. She is romantically involved with district attorney John Remington (John Halliday), who, though Mary loves, she has refused to marry. Their lives are complicated when Mary takes the case of accused murderer Nora Mason (Marion Nixon). Nora has murdered her father, an act she acknowledges, but for which she refuses to give a reason, and John will be prosecuting the case.

Scarlet Pages is a surprisingly enjoyable film. That Nora is Mary's daughter is no surprise; from the moment she appears, the viewer is pretty sure that eventually the two will discover they are related. But the getting there is a real pleasure; the story moves along at a good pace, and the reveal at the end of the film is an amazingly impressive one. Given that this is sound film in its infancy, the movie has an abundance of competent actors and a nicely related story. It's also impressive that it is a film about a professional woman, who worked her way up in her career, probably starting before women could even vote in the U.S.
Elsie Ferguson spent most of her career on the stage, both in New York and London. Considered one of the great beauties of her time (TCM article), she appeared in a total of 29 Broadway plays between 1901 and 1944. One of those plays was Scarlet Pages, which ran for two months 1929. Of the 25 films in which she appeared, only Scarlet Pages and The Witness for the Defense (1919) survive. Our film is the only sound film in which Ms. Ferguson appeared. She appeared in one final Broadway play after Scarlet Pages, 1943's Outrageous Fortune.  After that, she retired with her husband to their farm in Connecticut (with trips to another home in Cap d'Antibes). Ms. Ferguson died at the age of 78. Though she was no youngster at this point in her career, her poise and dignity serve her well in Scarlet Pages; her final scenes in the courtroom are exceptionally done.


John Halliday is also excellent in his role as Mary's closest friend and most vehement opponent in the courtroom. Halliday gives the character both dignity and deep affection. His respect for Mary, both as a person and as someone he loves dearly, is apparent. We were especially impressed that at no time does John suggest Mary quit her profession to become his wife alone - a far cry from Herbert Marshall in The Flame Within!

The other male part (a small but important role) is played by Grant Withers, as Nora's fiance, Bob Lawrence. Mr. Withers had a long career, though he is probably best known as Loretta Young's first husband. The pair eloped, and the marriage was annulled almost immediately. Best remembered as Ike Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946), Mr. Withers frequently appeared in films with his friend, John Wayne. He segued over to television in the 1950s, appearing in shows such as Lassie and Perry Mason. In intense pain, and in failing health, he died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1959.

In their review, the New York Times proved to be underwhelmed by the film, though they reserved some praise for Ms. Ferguson (a "modern Portia") and for Ms. Nixon.  We think this is a film worth visiting, and recommend it highly.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Barbara's Secret Marriage

Ruth Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) and State Attorney General Robert Sheldon (Warren William) elope. When the ceremony ends, they look for a phone - he to call his office; she to contact her father, Governor W. H. Vincent (Arthur Byron) with their good news.  But Robert's call results in a roadblock to their happiness; Ruth's father has been accused of taking a bribe, and the only way for Robert to investigate the charges is for Ruth to remain The Secret Bride (1934).

Audiences at the time of release would have known from the trailer the serious nature of the film, though the title really makes one believe this is a romantic comedy. Based on an unproduced play, Concealment, by Leonard Ide, this was not really a movie anyone wanted to make (except producer Hal Wallis) - William Dieterle later said "the script was bad..." (TCM article).  Both director Dieterle and Ms. Stanwyck were under contract to Warner Brothers, however and neither could afford to be suspended  - Ms. Stanwyck was supporting herself, her son, and her then husband Frank Fay, and the Fays were having financial issues with the Internal Revenue Service [A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: True Steel 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson]. So, rather than go on suspension, Ms. Stanwyck apparently grit her teeth and took on a role that was certainly beneath her talents.

The role of Ruth is really not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best - the part is under-written and she has little to do except be morose about her hidden marriage. She's only given one really good scene - Ruth goes to confront her father with evidence that his personal typewriter was used to write a letter demanding bribe money. Ruth, who has a close and loving relationship with her father, is distraught and feels betrayed by her suspicions about her father's actions. His denial of the charges, and her reactions to his protestations of innocence are strong and convincing. It's interesting that Dan Callahan in his biography, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, felt exactly the opposite. We, however, thought that Ms. Stanwyck played the scene perfectly. Stanwyck plays her as young and inexperienced, making the scene strong and appropriate for what little we know about Ruth.
Also wasted is Glenda Farrell as Robert's secretary, Hazel Normandie. She SHOULD have a pivotal role - she's romantically involved with one of the villains (she doesn't know he is a villain), and she is accused of a murder. But by the end of the film, she's all but disappeared from view. She doesn't even really figure into her own murder trial. A shame really, because Ms. Farrell is able to deliver a clever line like no one else.
Grant Mitchell's Willis Martin, the pawn in the scheme, should be a more interesting character, but that role too is poorly outlined. As a result, Martin, with his constant weeping and quivering, is merely annoying. You really want to shake him and tell him to get a grip on himself. It's a shame because, again, Grant Mitchell is a strong character actor who is given no opportunity to grow his characterization. (To see him in better form, try The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
The only actor who really gets to do anything in the piece is Warren William, and he runs with it. He does appear a trifle old for Ruth, but he's clearly well established in his political career, so the age difference is consistent with character. Mr. William started his acting career on Broadway (as Warren W. Krech  - he was born Warren William Krech) in 1920. The advent of sound brought hime to Hollywood and a contract with Warner Brothers. With his impressive speaking voice, he was likely a godsend to the studio, and was a leading actor in many pre-code films, including Three on a Match (1932)  and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He also was cast in several series - Perry Mason and the Lone Wolf among them. Besides film work, he also did some radio, specifically a series entitled Strange Wills.  He died in 1948, at the age of 53; his wife of 25 years died a few months later.

There is a very nicely done scene which features 1930s criminal forensic science - an analysis of the typewriter used to type a bribery note. Of course, it helps if one knows what a typewriter is! 
The costuming by Orry-Kelly is stunning, especially a fur-trimmed dress that Ms. Stanwyck gets to wear (you can see it in the trailer). She also gets several really stunning hats. But Ms. Stanwyck deserves more than nice clothing - a script would help. We'll leave you with the trailer to the film: