Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dr. Ann

The Flame Within (1935) stars Ann Harding as Doctor Mary White, a successful psychiatrist in New York City.  For many years, she has been pursued romantically by Dr. Gordon Phillips (Herbert Marshall). Mary is aware, however, that Gordon will expect her to relinquish her career as part of their marriage and she is not ready to be just a housewife.  When Lillian Belton (Maureen O'Sullivan) attempts suicide, Gordon and Dr. Jock Frazier (Henry Stephenson) consult Mary on her treatment.  Mary discovers that Lillian is deeply in love with Jack Kerry (Louis Hayward), an unrepentant drunkard, and it is Lillian's fear for his life that drives her to suicide.  Mary determines that saving Jack is the best way to cure Lillian.  But there are consequences. 

In the pantheon of films about women doctors, this is one of the weaker ones.  Ann Harding is quite good as Mary, but the script gives her no help in creating a convincing character.  That you like and believe in Mary at all is due to Ms. Harding's abilities as an actress (according to this TCM article, she was Barbara Stanwyck's favorite actress, and with good reason!).  Released as the Production Code was being firmly enacted, it often feels like the screenwriters don't know what to do with Dr. White; as a result, the character goes from a strong, successful, independent career woman to an impulsive, dependent housewife. 

It's clear at the beginning of the film that Dr. White is good at her job, and well respected by her peers. Even Dr. Phillips, who wants her to stop working and be just his wife, refers his ailing patient to her care.  Despite this, nothing that she does from the moment she meets Lillian Belton convinces us that Mary actually knows what she is doing. Lillian attempts suicide in despair over Jack Kerry's alcoholism.  So Mary decides to cure Jack, and that will cure Lillian.  There is a highly regarded alcoholism specialist on staff, but Mary doesn't even consult him.  And how does curing Jack take care of Lillian's exaggerated co-dependence? The first time they have a fight, Lillian is probably going to again attempt a swan dive out a window. What the writers know about psychiatry one could engrave on the head of a pin.
On the plus side, alcoholism is treated as a disease, not as a joke (even if it can be treated successfully in two weeks), with specialists attached to the field. And the seriousness required to study medicine is addressed in Mary's early speech to Gordon, when he (AGAIN) asks her to give up her career to be his wife. "No work? Just Mrs. Gordon Philips, housewife? Oh what did I give up my youth for? Why did I give up most of my life to this thing if I were just to forget it and throw it away as if it had never been... it's more than a profession. It's a religion." 

It's hard to warm up to Herbert Marshall as Dr. Philips.  If he is so in love with Mary, why does he put conditions on their marriage? He seems to not love her, but loves his vision of her. At the same time, his pursuit is almost stifling, and he comes across more as a stalker than as a passionate lover. The unhappiness that will come with her selection of him over career is just not important to him.  As a result, he is unlikable, cold, and unbending.
Maureen O'Sullivan is good, if a bit manic in the role of Lillian.  At one point, the part was earmarked for Merle Oberon (AFI Catalog). Ms. O'Sulllivan had already made a name for herself in Hollywood with her appearance as Jane in Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932), notably for an apparently nude swimming scene with Johnny Weissmuller (she would ultimately appear as Jane in 6 films). She appeared in a variety of films in the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Pride and Prejudice (1939).  By the 1950s, she was primarily appearing on television; and in the 1960s, she changed to work on Broadway, both acting and producing.  She was married from 1936 until 1963 (his death) to director John Farrow; they had eight children including Mia and Tisa Farrow. In 1983, Ms. O'Sullivan remarried, and was with her second husband, James Cushing until her death in 1998 (at the age of 87) of a heart attack.

We were less impressed with Louis Hayward, a good actor who deserved a better part.  Mr. Hayward gets to do little that justify the passion of two women for his inebriated man about town.  Interestingly, it was Mr. Hayward's performance that was most lauded in this New York Times review

In some respects, this film almost feels like a precursor to Spellbound (1945), where we again have a psychiatrist who becomes emotionally (and unprofessionally) involved with a patient.  Regardless, the film is worth a look, especially when compared to Kay Francis' pre-code women doctor films such as Mary Stevens, M.D. and Dr. Monica, or with Ms. Harding's other venture into medicine in The Right to Romance (1933).  We'll leave you with this trailer from the film:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Five Stars to Remember

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day, I'm going to break with our usual post, and contribute to the Five Stars Blogathon!  I'll be sharing with you today some of my favorite actors, and why I think you should give some of their films a look.

It would be easy to go with the well-remembered stars - Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly are all high on my list.  But you've all heard of them, and undoubtedly have seen many of their films. So, I'm going to select some actors whose work you might not have viewed, or who don't come to mind in classic film discussions.  All have films we've reported on in this blog, and I hope you will click over and learn more about these wonderful actors.

Kay Francis

Ms. Francis started her career on the Broadway stage, but by 1929, she had begun a film career that extended over 69 films and 17 years.  Most famous perhaps for a lisp that made the letter r sound a bit like Elmer Fudd, Ms. Francis was an attractive woman who WORE dresses (they never wore her).  During the early part of her career, she was often the lead in "women's pictures" - lots of gorgeous clothing and jewelry, and much suffering on her part.  But these were roles she owned.  She had a strength that shone from her eyes, and when you watched her being menaced, she always seemed to know how to keep control of the situation. One of her best roles was as the woman on trial in Confession (1937).  We see her murder Basil Rathbone, seemingly in cold blood, but WHY? Ms. Francis keeps you wondering throughout the film; her mastery of her art is exceptional.

She was also quite comfortable in comedies. Witness her standout performance in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and her suggestive and fascinating exchanges with Herbert Marshall.  If you've never seen some of her later work, where she got to be a villain, you are missing a real treat.  Try In Name Only (1939) where she plays Cary Grant's manipulative and greedy wife. It's a shame that, by 1939 (as a result of being called Box Office Poison), Warner Brothers was relegating her to supporting roles.  But, even so, she took these roles and ran with them.

When World War II broke out, Ms. Francis devoted herself to entertaining the troops (Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) is a somewhat fictionalized account of that work); after the War, she returned briefly to films and tried her hand at producing at Monograph studios.  Sure, the scripts and production values were low, but Kay dominated her parts - take a look at Divorce (1945) and watch her make mincemeat out of Bruce Cabot. By 1946, she was done with films; she made a couple of TV appearances, and went back to the stage. She retired in the early 1950s, but left us a legacy of delightful film performances.

Claude Rains 

Was there any role Claude Rains could not play? From Shakespeare to Shaw, playing villain or lover, a man of honor or a man to revile, he could do it all.  Let's begin with the start of his film career, The Invisible Man (1933), in which he was literally ALL voice.  We see his character briefly, but for the greater part of the film, he is invisible, conveying his increasing mental illness with his voice alone. Five years later, he played Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and managed to slide past the censors a subtle performance in which John is decidedly effeminate (Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David K. Skal and Jessica Rains).  That same year, he would appear as the loving and supportive father to Four Daughters (1938), in a role with both humor and dignity.

You can't mention Claude Rains without mentioning his performance as Captain Louis Renault Casablanca (1942) ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"), or his sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager (1944).  But the two performances that, for me, are truly unforgettable are Job Skeffington and Julius Caesar.  In Mr. Skeffington (1944), he again appears with Bette Davis (they had already appeared in Juarez (1939) and Now, Voyager). But this time, he is the sympathetic character - a man passionately in love with a careless and often demeaning wife.  In lesser hands, Job would have appeared merely as doormat; under Rains skillful control, Job is a good man who made an unwise choice.

When he appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), he made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was over 20 years older than his co-star, Vivien Leigh.  He uses his age to good effect - Caesar is a more a tutor than a lover, and entertained by the young queen's advances. He certainly is not immune to her charms, but Rains maintains an amusement, both with Cleopatra, and with himself.

Thankfully for us, Mr. Rains continued working until a few years before his death at age 77, leaving us a legacy of films, and radio and television performances to relish.

Thelma Ritter 

You just cannot sing the praises of Thelma Ritter too much.  Sure, she's funny, but give her a dramatic role, and she will run with it.  She was in her 40s when she started acting in films, and gave us performances that are truly unforgettable. Just think about Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  She has TWO scenes, and you remember her throughout the film, even though she is uncredited in it (as well as in A Letter to Three Wives (1949)).  When she disappears from All About Eve (1950), you wonder where she is; and you keep wanting her to return in Rear Window (1954).

Two of the performances that are high on my list are as different as noir and day.  In 1953, Ms. Ritter entered the world of Film Noir as Moe Williams in Pickup on South Street.  A peddler of necktimes and information, Moe is a rather seedy individual.  Ms. Ritter gives her a soul; Moe may be down, but she has her own code, and her life is her own.  Compare Moe to Ellen McNulty in The Mating Game (1951).  Again, Ms. Ritter is a poor woman, but a lady with spunk. Her desire to see her son happy, and to get to know his new wife without intimidating her is a pleasure to behold. We like her son Val (John Lund) BECAUSE of Ellen's unquestioning love.

 Ms. Ritter left us 43 television and film performances; she worked until her death of a heart attack at age 66.  I'm greedy, I wish there were more.

Ricardo Cortez

Ricardo Cortez began his career in silents. His parts at the time tended to be Latin lovers in the Valentino mold, but with the advent of talkies, the New York City born Jake Krantz changed directions.  He was often cast as the heavy, but had his share of leading man roles. He excelled in all of them.  

In Ten Cents a Dance (1931), he treads a fine line - we are never sure if he is the hero or the villain until the very end. However, in Mandalay (1934), he is one of the most truly despicable men you could ever meet.  He played Sam Spade in 1931's The Maltese Falcon, Perry Mason in The Case of the Black Cat (1936), and the slightly shady, but best of friends to Kay Francis in The House on 56th Street (1933).  

Mr. Cortez worked steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but his acting career started to peter out in the 1940s.  He had directed a few films, but ultimately opted to leave the film industry for a new career as a stockbroker.  In 1958, he appeared in his last film, The Last Hurrah and two years later he was in an episode of Bonanza (playing a Latino!). Ricardo Cortez is an unknown gem of an actor, and one I recommend you seek out.

Barbara Stanwyck

Yes, I said I was going to concentrate on the underappreciated actors of the Classic Era, but to my mind, Barbara Stanwyck should be better known and admired.  Years ago, when going on my first job interview, I needed a focus for my demeanor. I thought about Katharine Hepburn, but it was wrong. So was Rosalind Russell.  But Barbara Stanwyck was perfect for me - a woman who projected an aura of strength and intelligence, who brooked no nonsense, but could also be kind and understanding. 

She started her career with talkies in 1929, and never really looked back. Her work in pre-code films is something to see - start with Baby Face (1933) and Night Nurse (1931) to see just a sample of her nuanced performances. She could do drama (Stella Dallas (1937)), comedy (my personal favorite, Ball of Fire (1941)), farce (the brilliant The Lady Eve (1941), suspense (Cry Wolf (1947)), romance (Remember the Night (1940)), and westerns (The Moonlighter (1953)).  She could be a convincing victim (Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and an even more persuasive villain (Double Indemnity(1944)). She even could elevate a B movie to a new level (The Night Walker (1964)). 

Rather than appear in inferior films, Ms. Stanwyck moved over to television to continue her career; The Big Valley showcased her talent and her tremendous beauty.  One of her last television roles was as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds (1983). Watch her lust after the considerably younger Richard Chamberlain in the scene below:

Missy, as she was called by her friends, was much admired by her co-stars, such as Linda Evans, as well as the crew on her various sets. Her co-star in Golden Boy (1939). William Holden, credited her with his success in the business - she worked with him in his first film role, helping him prepare for scenes. Holden would be instrumental in campaigning for the Honorary Oscar that Ms. Stanwyck finally received in 1982.  It was an honor long overdue, and I think that, if you give some of her movies a viewing, you'll agree she was one of our greatest stars.

So, for National Classic Movie Day, why not put some popcorn in a bowl and settle down with one of these marvelous actors - or pick one of your own. You'll be glad you did!

I was featured on The Classic Movie Marathon link party

Monday, May 8, 2017

Norma is Bedridden

Based on the 1930 play by Rudolf Besier (which premiered on Broadway in 1931 with Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne in the lead roles), Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) tells the story behind the courtship and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  The Barrett family live in a large house in London with their father, Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton).  The six brothers and three sisters have been forbidden to marry by their father, who rules the home with an iron hand.  Elizabeth, the eldest child (Norma Shearer) and a highly regarded poet, is his darling; that she is bedridden, and therefore quietly dependent upon him is no small part of his affection. The arrival of poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) at Wimpole Street, who comes to discuss her poetry, but leaves totally enamored of her, changes the dynamic between father and daughter, as Elizabeth begins to get well, and to envision a life outside the environs of Wimpole Street.

History according to Hollywood is a fascinating thing, and this film is ripe for comparison to the actual facts.  For the most part, the story is a quite accurate portrayal of the courtship between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  The large Barrett family did all live together in Wimpole Street, and were forbidden marriage by their domineering father.  Elizabeth was the first to wed (and her elopement actually put some stress on her relationship with her brothers); she was immediately disowned by her father. Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) was romantically involved with Captain Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes); they ultimately married and had three children.  Elizabeth's brother Alfred also married before his father's death; both he and Henrietta were disinherited. (See The Brownings' Correspondence)   Elizabeth did seem to recover some of her health after meeting Robert Browning, and Mr. Barrett did forbid Elizabeth to go to Italy for her health. In 1846, Elizabeth and Robert eloped to St. Marylebone Church with Elizabeth's maid, Wilson (Una O'Connor) in attendance; within the week, they left for Italy, where they remained for the rest of Elizabeth's life. In 1849, Elizabeth gave birth to her only son, Robert "Pen" Browning (she suffered four miscarriages). Elizabeth died at age 55 in 1861.  After her death, Robert returned to England with Pen; they moved to a residence close to Anabel Barrett (Katharine Alexander), who acted as a surrogate mother to Pen and a confidant to Robert.  Robert would live until 1889, age 77. (The Poetry Foundation)
Charles Laughton, as the Barrett patriarch is impressive.  Though only three years older than Ms. Shearer, he sears the screen with his overbearing and frightening presence.  Laughton is not afraid to make Mr. Barrett a monster. In fact, when he was told by producer Irving Thalberg that, thanks to the censors, the film would need to play down the incest angle of Barrett's affection for his eldest daughter, Laughton objected, telling Thalberg that "...they can't censor the gleam in my eye."  (TCM article).

Allegedly, Fredric March was disappointed with his performance, feeling that director Sidney Franklin was more interested in the character of Elizabeth, and that his performance suffered by comparison. March felt his performance was too over-the-top, and while he is quite passionate and exuberant, we really felt it worked. Browning was 6 years younger than Elizabeth; March's performance emphasizes that age gap, and also transmits the idea of someone who really could transfer his strength into the body of a sick woman.  We found him to be delightful and even the New York Times in their review was rather complimentary.
It's only thanks to Mr. Thalberg that Ms. Shearer agreed to play Elizabeth - she was unsure of taking on a role so closely linked to Katherine Cornell (though Ms. Cornell was not interested in appearing in films - she would eventually do ONE - she appeared in Stage Door Canteen during the second World War.) But she is lovely in the role; she was nominated for an Oscar for the performance (she lost to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night). The film was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (also losing to It Happened One Night). Marion Davies was originally set to star (William Randolph Hearst yearned for his lady to play more serious parts). However, Ms. Davies bowed out (after a conversation with Ms. Shearer).  Ms. Davies was much happier in her comedies and was not comfortable with appearing in such a serious part (AFI Catalog). 

Una O'Connor  as Wilson is wonderful. Ms. O'Connor plays the part more as a surrogate mother to the ailing Elizabeth, and less as her servant.  With a walk that makes her almost appear to glide across the screen, and her stubborn determination to protect her charge, Ms. O'Connor is a delight.
We were somewhat less enthralled with Marion Clayton as Barrett cousin Bella Hedley and Ian Wolfe as her fiance Harry Bevan.  Their odd speech patterns (she with a little girl lisp and he with an affected upper class tone) just seemed pointless. We kept wanting them to just shut up and go away. (Bella does serve a purpose to the overall story; Harry, not so much).

The costumes, as designed by Adrian, are magnificent, especially Elizabeth's fur ensemble at the end of the film.  The play was primarily set in Elizabeth's sitting room, and the film really does very little to extend it from that location (we do outside once with Henrietta, and to Browning's home with Wilson. The rest of the film is set in the Barrett house, and is Elizabeth's perspective) .  Despite that, the film is entertaining and not in the least claustrophobic.

We have a little bit of a treat for you - Robert Osborne's introduction during Norma Shearer's TCM turn as star of the month.  (Thanks, TCM!)
The success of the play and this film led to it being remade at least 10 times for radio, film and television.  In 1946, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne - Mr. Aherne reprising his stage performance as Robert Browning.  In 1950, Helen Hayes starred as Elizabeth on television's Prudential Family Playhouse.  Another television production followed in 1955 as part of the Front Row Center series, this time starring Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ba. The Producers' Showcase series in 1956 scored a coup, convincing Katherine Cornell to reprise her Broadway role.  There were also two film versions: one in 1957, with Jennifer Jones; and a second in 1982, with Jane Lapotaire and Jeremy Brett.  

We'll leave you with the scene from the beginning of the film, where the ailing and shy Ms. Barrett meets the gregarious Mr. Browning:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Celeste Sends a Letter

As Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora May Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) are about to leave on a charity boat ride, a young man delivers A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  The letter informs them that their "friend", Addie Ross (voiced with just the right amount of venom by Celeste Holm) has left town - with one of their husbands.  Unable to leave the boat, the women spend the day worrying about their husbands and reviewing their marriages.

Based on A Letter to Fives Wives by John Klempner (the film eliminated two wives, which tightens it up), this is an exceptional film, especially given that it is really a series of vignettes.  The use of Addie's  narration as a glue to hold together this tale of three marriages in trouble is both inspired and entertaining.  That narration brings the tale to a different level, making the film a fully cohesive unit instead of a series of short stories.

Two of the stories especially stand out.  Rita and George Phipps  (Kirk Douglas) are a relatively happy couple, but Rita, a successful radio writer, is trying to have it all - career, husband, and children.  She's pretty good at doing it, but George is frustrated that he and their twins often take second place to the demands of her clients (ably represented by  Mr. (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Mrs. (Florence Bates) Manleigh).  Kirk Douglas plays George as an educated, reasonable and progressive man; he really doesn't mind that his wife works and that she out-earns him by quite a bit.  Her job and her impressive salary afford them all a good life, and enable him to pursue his career - an underpaid high school teacher - without guilt.  George loves his job and his wife.  He just wishes that she wasn't constantly afraid, and would occasional say no to her clients unreasonable demands.
In flashback, we see the courtship of Lora May Finney (Linda Darnell) and Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas).  Both are from the wrong side of the tracks (in Lora May's case, quite literally - she lives with her sister Georgianna (Barbara Lawrence) and mother, Ruth (Connie Gilchrist) on the edge of the train tracks).  But Porter, the owner of a successful department store, is now well-off, and enamored of Lora May's beauty.  But he is not interested in marriage; Porter's been married, and he didn't care for it. Plus, his ideal is Addie Ross - he keeps her picture on his piano, and talks about her "class," a quality he doesn't find in Lora May.

Linda Darnell is impressive as the tough talking Lora May.  The viewer is quick to realize that, despite her comments to the contrary, she loves Porter.  But she knows the only way to keep him is to play the game his way - Porter likes to fight, and Lora May is more than willing to oblige him to get what she wants.  To a point, of course.  When Porter shows up at her front door, honking his horn for her to come out, Lora May ignores it: "Anybody wants me can come in and get me, this ain't a drive-in." For more on the life of Ms. Darnell, please see our blog post on her work in The Mark of Zorro (1940).
The third story, the marriage of Deborah and Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) is possibly the weakest of the three.  It's not bad, its just that Deborah seems weak next to these two dynamic women. One sympathizes with her truly ugly dress, since we know she's not had time to procure a new one, but really, it is so hideous, it's hard to understand why even a simple farm girl would purchase it.  And WHY does Rita have to TELL her to cut off those ugly flowers? But it should be acknowledged that Deborah has left the farm, the WACs, and her past life for a new, more upscale environment with a husband she really doesn't know - the story of Brad and Deborah is a brief glimpse into the marriages that began because of the war.

Jeanne Crain began her film career at age 18, with a bit part in The Gang's All Here (1943).  Winner of the Miss Pan Pacific pageant, she attracted the attention of film scouts; by 1945, she was starring in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven. She could sing, dance, ice skate, and she was a pretty good actress, but also in 1945 she married Paul Brinkman, and began having babies - seven in total.  She was pregnant during the filming of this movie, and may have lost the role of Eve in All About Eve due to one of her pregnancies. Regardless, her portfolio is quite impressive: I'm particularly fond of Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and People Will Talk (1951)   Ms. Crain and her husband remained married until his death in 2003, but after a messy divorce proceeding (which was never completed), they lived apart.  She also lost two of her sons before she died in 2003 of a heart attack at age 78.
We've raved about Thelma Ritter (here playing Sadie Dugan) before, and she does not disappoint in this film.  Whether it is her interactions with her pal, Ruth Finney or her sass when she is working as a maid for Rita Phipps, Ms. Ritter is the queen of the bon mot. Take, for example, her response to Rita's request that she wear a uniform: "The cap's out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on." or her answer to the Manleighs about their radio program: "You know what I like about your program? Even when I'm running the vacuum I can understand it."  At the same time, it is Sadie who cautions Ruth about her passion for her new refrigerator, when Ruth seemingly puts keeping it (in many respects, for Ruth, the refrigerator is a symbol of respectability) above her daughter's happiness: " You got to make up your mind whether you want your kids happy or your icebox paid up." 

A number of different actors were proposed for the film, including both Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino as the voice of Addie Ross (AFI catalog). Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Directing Oscars (winning the latter two), no acting nominations came its way. Interestingly, Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas, and Celeste Holm were all nominated for other film work that same year (none of them won, however).

Contemporary critics received the film enthusiastically (see this New York Times review and this TCM article).  Since then, regard for the film has increased, as is evident by this New Yorker discussion, especially as a sophisticated examination of marriage.  As Jeanine Basinger notes in her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, films that actually examine marriage itself are rare.  A Letter to Three Wives does this, and does it well.
Both Lux Radio Theatre (1950) and Screen Players Guild (1952) performed radio versions of the play.  Then, in 1985, the story made its way to television, with Ann Sothern appearing as Ruth Finney in a version which starred  Loni Anderson, Michele Lee, Stephanie Zimbalist as the three wives. 

We'll leave you with a scene from the film - the arrival of the letter.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doris Answers the Phone

Newlywed American Kit Preston (Doris Day) is wending her way home through a London "pea-souper".  A voice in the night calls her by name, then threatens her life.  Panicked, Kit runs home and tells her husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison).  He reassures her that it is common London practice to try to spook people in a London fog.  But the next evening, Kit receives a phone call from the same voice, again threatening to kill her by the end of the month.  The police are summoned, but are suspicious that no one else heard the voice but Kit.  Meanwhile, Kit becomes more and more terrified as the calls escalate - calls that no one hears but her. Our film this week is the mysterious Midnight Lace (1960).

Our discussion started with a birthday toast to Ms. Day, who turned 95 on April 3rd. For several members of our group, this was the first time they had seen Ms. Day in anything but a musical comedy.  And while her performance here is perhaps not as impressive as her work in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), she is still excellent as the terrorized victim.  According to the AFI Catalog, Ms. Day became truly hysterical (using as an inspiration for the scene a moment in her life when her first husband became abusive) and Ross Hunter had to shut down production in order to allow her to recover. 

If there is one problem with the film, it is that, in many respects, it has not aged well.  Kit is so remarkably helpless.  Sure, she's being stalked, and that is scary, but she does nothing to protect herself (she's wealthy - couldn't she hire a bodyguard?) She is aware that the police doubt her veracity, yet when her husband is finally in the house during one of the calls, she hangs up the phone before he can get on the extension (though why she doesn't just hand him the phone is another issue!)  There are times when you want to shake her!
On the plus side, you have a real mystery, with a number of worthy suspects that keep you guessing throughout the film.  We'll start with Roddy McDowall (who was odds on favorite among the newcomers to the film) as Malcolm Stanley, money-grubbing son of Kit's put-upon housekeeper, Nora (Doris Lloyd).  He provides the character with just the right amount of sleaze and menace, and given that he really only has a couple of scenes, Malcolm is a character that stays in your mind as the action progresses.

Mr. McDowall started his career as a child actor in the UK; in 1940, his family moved to the United States to escape the Blitz in England; by 1941, he was starring in John Ford's How Green was My Valley, and in 1943, he became the first owner of the collie America loved in Lassie, Come Home.  Mr. McDowall worked steadily in Hollywood, in both film and on television; worked on Broadway (he was Mordred in the original cast of Camelot, and played Artie Strauss in Compulsion, the role assumed by Bradford Dillman in the 1959 film) and in regional theatre, making a reasonably seamless transition to adult roles.  A highly regarded photographer, he worked for magazines such as Look and Life, as well as publishing several books in the field.  He remained close friends with his Lassie co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, was also a dear friend of his Midnight Lace co-star, Myrna Loy (he called her "Fu" because of her early role in  The Mask of Fu Manchu),  and was known for his parties, in which he would screen classic films for his guests.  Winner of both a Tony Award and an Emmy, Mr. McDowall died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 70.
Herbert Marshall  has a few scenes as Charles Manning, another possible culprit.  A deep-in-debt gambler, Charles COULD be trying to kill Kit to distract Tony.  Marshall, unfortunately, has little to do in the film; mostly, he looks worried and distracted.  It's always good to see him, but he really is underutilized in the part.

John Gavin's Brian Younger at first seems like a nice guy, who is always in the right place at the right time, but then there are those mysterious phone calls from the local pub.  What IS he up to?  Gavin, an amazingly attractive man, is well cast here, though I would say his perfect part was as Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which he mocks his white-bread good looks.  A reasonably successful actor, who appeared in Spartacus (as Julius Caesar) and Psycho (both 1960), Mr. Gavin would leave film and television work for a career as a diplomat (Ambassador to Mexico) during the Reagan administration.  Currently retired after a successful business career, Mr. Gavin and his wife Constance Towers have been married for over 40 years. 
Finally, there is a half-hearted attempt to make Kit's Aunt Bea Coleman (Myrna Loy) appear to perhaps be in cahoots to drive Kit crazy.  But really, Myrna Loy?  Her role as the reassuring voice that attempts to soothe the increasingly agitated Kit is very small, but she is a welcome presence in any film.  A noted liberal, Ms. Loy related in her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming that she cautioned conservative John Gavin about being seen with her - she stated that he must have been, since he "rode Reagan's coattails right into an ambassadorship."

The voice that plagues Kit is discussed in this TCM article, comparing it unfavorably to something that  "now it sounds like a character on The Cartoon Network."  And while that is true, we did find the voice unnerving enough that, if we received a call that sounded like that, we'd be calling the police as well.  Wacky, perhaps, but also unnerving. 
Doris Day has 17 glorious outfits designed by Irene in the film.  The decision by the group was that the one above, was our favorite (I'm a sucker for hats that match a dress!)  The midnight lace of the title was a jet black lace pegnior, that was probably the most ordinary of the items of clothing Ms. Day wears. Several of the outfits are viewable on Google Images.

The film opened to moderate reviews (see this Bosley Crowther overview from the New York Times).  In New York City, it premiered in Radio City Music Hall (along with a new stage show and The Rockettes), always a sign of a prestige film.
We'll leave you with this scene of Doris Day traversing the London fog in the opening of Midnight Lace

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cary Takes the Train

As a happy start to the month of April, TCM Presents on Fathom Events featured North by Northwest (1959), an Alfred Hitchcock adventure starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.  This presented an excellent opportunity to see this fascinating film on a big screen

Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing, except to make Roger's initials "ROT") is a successful and rather cavalier Madison Avenue executive. Twice married and divorced, Roger has a jaundiced view of the world. There is in advertising, he says "no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration."  But it is a precept he adheres to in life, as he lies constantly to his mother and his latest girlfriend. Out for a business drink at the Plaza Hotel, he signals a bellboy to assist him in sending a telegram to his mother.  But when he follows the bellboy to the counter, he is accosted by two men Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), who had requested that the hotel (and that bellboy) page George Kaplan.  Assuming that Roger is answering that page (and is therefore Kaplan), they escort him from the hotel at gunpoint, and bring him to a home on Glen Cove, Long Island, where he is briefly questioned by a Mr. Townsend (James Mason).  When Roger cannot answer their questions, they force-feed him bourbon, and toss him into a car, with the intention of sending him over a cliff.  Roger escapes, but the consequences of his attempts to prove what really happened lead him into a series of dangerous adventures.  
Even after repeated viewings, North by Northwest is an exhilarating movie. Of course, my repeated viewings were on television screens, and you have not seen the film (shot in VistaVision) until you've seen it on a big screen - the cropduster sequence alone is worth the price of admission! Cary Grant is perfect as a jaundiced, flippant man who is catapulted into a world of violence and misdirection. But the world in which Roger finds himself is, in many ways, not much different than the world he lives in - one in which there is only "expedient exaggeration".  For what is George Kaplan but an expedient exaggeration?

Interestingly, Cary Grant was not initially considered for the role of Roger.  Having just concluded Vertigo, Hitchcock considered continuing his relationship with James Stewart by casting him in the part.  Though Stewart dearly wanted the role, Hitchcock ultimately decided that Grant was a better fit, and delayed his shooting start until Stewart was committed to Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) (See these TCM articles for more information).  It's been reported that Grant was a bit reluctant to play the role, because he felt he was too old for the part (he wasn't!)
One story about Hitchcock's direction of Cary Grant is amusing.   An individual on the set one day (when the crew was shooting in the Plaza Hotel), noticed that Cary Grant just began filming his scene with no direction from Hitchcock.  He approached the director, and asked: "'You haven’t even said 'Good morning' to Cary. How does he know what to do?' Hitch answered casually, 'Oh, he’s been walking across this lobby for years. I don’t need to tell him how.'"  (Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog).  Mr. Grant, of course, had retained an apartment at the hotel for many years. 

There were also issues with casting Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall.  Though Ms. Saint had already won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954), MGM wanted Cyd Charisse in the role, and Cary Grant was angling to have Sophia Loren cast in the part (he was deeply in love with her at that point).  But Ms. Saint brings that cool Hitchcock blonde with the inner raging fires to the part.  She said in a interview for  Vanity Fair that the intensity of the train kissing scene caused a photographer to fall off his ladder, so engaged was he in action! She also gets to wear my second favorite dress in all of moviedom (see it above. My first, for the record, is Grace Kelly's black and white outfit in Rear Window.  Both created by the imaginative Edith Head).
The film features several interesting villains - James Mason is quite good as Phillip VanDamm.  But the performance that really stands out is that of Martin Landau as Leonard, VanDamm's "right hand."  Landau, with eyes that never seem to close, and a serpentine way of walking is both disturbing and fascinating.  This AFI catalog entry notes that the Production Code Administration (PCA) was concerned at Leonard's seeming effeminate. With lines like "Call it my woman's intuition, if you will" and VanDamm's response that "I think you're jealous. No, I mean it. I'm very touched, very," Hitchcock plays up an interesting relationship between the two (and ignores the PCA).

The disappearance of the character Licht (as portrayed by Robert Ellenstein) became much clearer when the film is viewed on a big screen.  Licht is one of the men who kidnaps Roger (he's on Mr. Grant's right in the lobby card at the top. He's also notable for his odd way of holding a cigarette). We see him several times; then he disappears.  Why? Well, he was on the cropduster flight that attacked Roger! The newspaper announces that two people were killed in the crash (not as easy to see on a TV screen), and someone was firing a gun BACK at Roger (as the plane passed him, so the sniper was leaning from the plane window and firing back at him.).  Ergo, Licht was the sniper, and one of the two people killed when the plane collides with the oil tank truck.
Two other performances are really too wonderful to ignore.  The first is Jessie Royce Landis as Roger's mother, Clara Thornhill.  A bit dotty ("You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?") and mercenary (she takes $50 from her son to con a room key from a hotel clerk), she is also delightful and droll.  Famously, it's been said that Ms. Landis was YOUNGER than her onscreen son, however she had claimed herself younger than she actually was (she was in reality 8 years older than Mr. Grant).  Regardless, they make a delightful combination.

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor) had already appeared in five Hitchcock movies, including Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941); the latter was Cary Grant's first film with Hitchcock.  Born in England in 1886, Mr. Carroll started his career on the London stage, eventually moving to New York, where he appeared in 35 Broadway plays, including the title role in The Late George Apley (1944), a screen part that would go to Ronald Colman and Detective Rough in Angel Street (1941), which would be reworked for Joseph Cotten in Gaslight (1944).  Seemingly always cast as an old man (his film career didn't really start until he was nearly 50), Mr. Carroll played a wide variety of supporting roles from Phelps Finnegan in Sadie McKee (1934) to Count Bertil Jacobsson in The Prize (1963).  For two years, he dealt with two chatty spirits on TV's Topper (1953-1955), but he became known to a new audience as the enigmatic Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).  Mr. Carroll was married to Edith Nancy de Silva from 1926 until his death at the age of 85 in 1972.
When North by Northwest opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (and other venues nationwide), it garnered praise, as in this New York Times review, which commented that it was "the year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase,"or a review in Variety which said that "the Alfred Hitchcock mixture - suspense, intrigue, comedy, humor. . . Seldom has . . .been served up so delectably." In 1995, it was added to the Library of Congress'  National Film Registry.  And the American Film Institute put it in 4th position in their 100 Years, 100 Thrills listing.

If you've not yet seen this film, please do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with the sexually charged dinner conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Barbara Runs a Carnival

Charlie Rogers (Elvis Presley) goes through life with a chip on his shoulder.  After an altercation with some college boys in the "tea room" (where Charlie works as a singer), Charlie leaves town for greener pastures.  En route, he gets into yet another brawl with Joe Lean (Leif Erickson), this time for flirting with Joe's young daughter Cathy (Joan Freeman).  An equally angry man, Joe runs Charlie's bike into a ditch, severely damaging the bike and destroying Charlie's guitar.  While waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired, carnival owner Maggie Morgan offers Charlie the chance to pick up some money, working for the carnival as a Roustabout (1964).

Let's begin by admitting that only one member of our group would identify as an Elvis fan, and she was the only one who had seen any of his other films.  I've seen pieces of many of his films, but this is the only one that I recall watching from start to finish.  By and large, Elvis was not a fan of the movies he was making around this time, referring to them as the "Presley Travelogues" (TCM article).  While this is not a great film, by any means, producer Hal Wallis invested time and capital into making it the best film possible in its genre.

There just isn't enough Barbara Stanwyck in the film. Period.  Every scene she is in is stronger because of her presence, and she makes Elvis a better actor when she is working with him.  Hal Wallis convinced her to do the film; she thought it would be fun, and that she would reach a new audience. (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan).  As always, she got along with everyone, including Elvis.  She found that he was prompt, professional, and always knew his lines, as well as being quite pleasant.  She took second billing, under the title, just as she would take second billing in to her ex-husband in The Night Walker, released the same year as this.

Ms. Stanwyck had already started to venture into television, as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show (an anthology series which featured her in short plays. She won an Emmy for her work in the show, but it was not one of her favorites ), and with guest roles in shows such as Zane Grey Theater, Wagon Train, and Rawhide.  So, it's no surprise that she left film for a starring role in The Big Valley the following year. Always her own woman (take a look at this New York Times article for a glimpse into this woman who refused to hide her age, and relished her career.  Of course, Ms. Stanwyck was a woman who looked better with every year, and made a pair of jeans (made specifically for her by her friend and frequent collaborator, Edith Head) look like haute couture.
We did find her introductory scene to be a bit frustrating - it's really had to believe that Maggie would tolerate Joe's outlandish behavior (and that she would allow him to drive when he is obviously drunk).  But this was the only scene in which she allowed Joe to run roughshod over her.  After this, when she is in a scene, Ms. Stanwyck is in charge.

Sue Ane Langdon is quite amusing as the "seer" Madame Mijanou.  Her scenes with Mr. Presley display a warm give-and-take, and a later scene with Joan Freeman give us a look into the woman beneath the surface of all the sass.  Ms. Langdon made a few films, but she made her real mark in television.  In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she appeared in many of the major television shows, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mannix, Perry Mason, Bonanza, and Happy Days.  She and her husband, Jack Emrek were married from 1959 until his death in 2010. Now retired, Ms. Langdon lives in the San Fernando Valley in California.
It's always a pleasure to see Barbara Stanwyck, and while this is really an Elvis Presley movie, Ms. Stanwyck makes her presence felt.  We'll close with a scene that features a conversation between Charlie and Maggie, and an Elvis number.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Barbara is Bedridden

Leona Cotterell Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is alone at home; she is bedridden and cannot maneuver her home unassistedLeona cannot find her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), who was supposed to be home to care for her. The servants are off, and Leona is annoyed.  She gets on the phone, attempting to find her husband, but some wires cross; she overhears two men discussing the murder of a woman.  Leona tries to get help for this "poor woman," but she soon begins to believe that the "poor woman" is herself.

The story of how Leona and Henry became a couple in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) is told in flashback; using this technique, we learn much about the backstory of this very unhappy marriage.  Based on a popular radio play, the film expands the 27 minute radio story  by inserting this background information.  Though the radio play was wildly successful with the marvelous Agnes Moorehead in the lead role, the studio deemed her to be too much a character actress to reprise her role.

Barbara Stanwyck was justly nominated (her final competitive bid) for an Oscar for the role of Leona. She lost - again - this time to  Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  She did have other tough competition: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit) and Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama), any of whom certainly deserved the award (and Ms. Dunne was another excellent actress who never won an Oscar, despite being nominated 5 times).  That being said, Leona is a character that runs the gamut - she's tough, decisive, and authoritative in the flashback scenes; whiny, carping, and domineering as she lies in her bed.  Stanwyck, craftswoman that she is, makes it all hang together - you believe the trajectory of Leona's life. 

Burt Lancaster's Henry goes through a similar metamorphosis.  A milquetoast at the beginning, he allows Leona to bulldoze him away from the woman he supposedly loves, (Sally Hunt as played by Ann Richards).  By the time we see him in the present, the roles have begun to reverse, with Henry taking the lead in the marriage and in business (though not in a good way).  In what is essentially a new part from the radio play, Lancaster crafted a character that was far different than any he had played before (TCM articles). Initially, Hal Wallis had wanted Lee Bowman for the part (who was often cast as weaker men), but Lancaster lobbied for the role and got it when Bowman proved to be unavailable.  He's excellent in the part. 

As Leona's father, James Cotterell, Ed Begley portrays a power-obsessed man, who is overly protective of his daughter and demeaning to his son-in-law.  At the same time, he's also a bit of a cad, far more interested in his latest girlfriend than in  his daughter's troubles.  In a sea of characters who are dichotomous, his is perhaps the most contradictory part in the film. Begley makes it easy to understand how Leona has been driven to hypochondria by her father's bullying nature.
We particularly liked Ann Richards in the role of Sally Hunt Lord.  She ends up being the only truly sympathetic character in the film - she loves her husband and son, but still is protective of Henry.  Despite the fact that Leona literally stole Henry from Ann, she does her best to assist Leona.  Born in Australia, Ms. Richards had a very short film career, appearing in 18 films (and one television show) between 1937 and 1960.  She's probably best remembered as Dilly Carson in Love Letters (1945).  She retired from film in 1949, to raise her three children with her husband Edmond Angelo (she would reenter the film arena to appear in Mr. Angelo's 1952 film Breakdown), and to write poetry (two volumes of her poetry were published in 1971 and 1991).  She died in 2006, at the age of 88. 
According to an article in the AFI Catalog, the film had a bit of trouble with the Production Code Administration (PCA) regarding Henry's plan to steal from his father-in-law's pharmaceutical company.  Early versions of the script made it much more obvious that Henry was stealing and selling drugs (ergo, drug trafficking, a code no-no).  The script had to be amended so that he was selling "products of all kinds," not drugs.  It's a fine point, but it made the PCA happy.

Several excellent actors make brief appearances in the film.  Wendell Corey has one scene as Dr. Alexander, the man to whom Leona goes for a "cure" to her invalidism.  Leif Erickson as Detective Fred Lord, who is husband to Sally and is also investigating Henry's nefarious activities, makes an appearance.  And as the sinister Morano, William Conrad shines in a single scene. With his imposing presence and magnificent voice, Mr. Conrad always makes an impression.
We highly recommend this film; if you've not yet seen it, you are in for a treat.  We'll leave you with a scene featuring the now panic-stricken Ms. Stanwyck as she tries to talk to Ms. Richards.