Wednesday, January 22, 2020

William Gets Married

Candace Goodwin (Frances Dee) is in love with Michael Stewart (William Holden), but Mike is reluctant to propose to her - Candy's family is well-off, and Mike is a simple working man. When Candy's father Pierce Goodwin (Grant Mitchell) announces that, should Mike marry Candy, he'll cut off her funds, Mike proposes, and Candy announces her intention to live on a budget.  But, it's a lot harder than the inexperienced Candy thinks. Our film this week is Meet the Stewarts (1942), and is part of the The Wedding Bells Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

This is a pleasant film that, unfortunately, goes off the rails a few times. It starts as a sweet look at a newly married couple facing financial woes, but then degenerates into unnecessary slapstick. Jeanine Basinger in her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies points out how difficult it is to write an entire movie about a marriage - most films lead us TO the marriage, and then stop (happily ever after). It's much harder to show day-to-day life and make it interesting. Meet the Stewarts is able to do that for awhile, then seems to feel it needs something else to keep the plot moving. We didn't think It was necessary. 

Frances Dee is quite engaging as Candy. She's ill prepared for life as a struggling wife - she's never cooked, or cleaned, or kept a budget, but she is determined to learn. Ms. Dee creates a no-nonsense woman who believes she can do anything she puts her mind to. She can, but it takes time, and her husband is not really convinced that she can learn the skills of a homemaker. Their arguments become diatribes about money - with Mike looking the worse for their encounters.
Frances Dee started her career as an extra in 1929. She worked regularly, rising to more important parts. In 1933, while filming The Silver Cord, she fell in love with its star, Joel McCrea. They married that October, eventually having 3 children. They were together until Mr. McCrea's death in 1990 (on their wedding anniversary).  Ms. Dee died in 2004, at the age of 90. 

William Holden is a good partner for Ms. Dee in Meet the Stewarts. Despite his anxiety over money, you like Mike, but Mr. Holden plays the role so it is clear that Candy is making appropriate decisions and trying to learn how to be a wife with not a whole lot of money. Ms. Dee was just returning to work after a maternity leave, and was having problems adjusting to the work schedule. The film's director, Alfred E. Green decided to fire her, but Mr. Holden went to Harry Cohn and interceded. Ms. Dee remained in the film (William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua). William Holden enlisted in the Army Air Force; Columbia was able to get a dispensation so he could finish the film before entering the service, (AFI Catalog) and the film opened in May, 1942.
We looked forward to seeing Margaret Hamilton (Willametta) in the cast, but were very disappointed when she finally arrived on screen. She's supposed to be funny as an inept maid, but she is just annoying. Her incompetence is intolerable, and we kept wondering why someone didn't fire her on the spot (and dock her for breaking the glassware). Anne Revere (Geraldine Stewart) was a breath of fresh air as Mike's older sister. You think that you won't like her, but she turns out to be a good woman looking out for both her brother and her new sister-in-law.

Based on the short story Something Borrowed by Elizabeth Dunn, there are things to many like about this little film - Candy and her efforts to make the marriage work is one of the major attractions. When she goes back to work to pay a debt that she inadvertently incurred, she is admirable, and the film does not try to make it feel like she is in some way emasculating her husband by working for the money. Yes, the film gets silly at times, but in the long run, we all enjoyed it for what it was - a light, rather breezy entertainment (with some scenes we'd like to excise), as well as a look at two young people starting a new life as a married couple.

This post is part of The Wedding Bells Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Please visit the blogathon website to view the other posts in the series. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Edward Sees Himself

The Whole Town's Talking (1935) about gangster "Killer" Manion (Edward G. Robinson), who just broken out of jail in search of stoolie "Slugs" Martin (Edward Brophy). With Manion's picture all over the front page of every newspaper in town, Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) is in a pickle - the mild-mannered clerk is a dead-ringer for Manion. How can the police catch Manion and not keep arresting Jones? Well, a pass issued by the Chief of Police seems like a good solution, but when that information hits the papers as well (thanks to Reporter Healy (Wallace Ford), Manion develops his own plan.

Mr. Robinson is quite impressive in the dual roles. Using him is an interesting and effective casting decision; it toys with the audience's familiarity with him in his gangster roles, by throwing another characterization into the mix.  Mr. Robinson doesn't rely on makeup or vocal changes to differentiate the characters - he uses his posture and his face. The audience always knows which character is which because of his skill in demarcating one man from the other. Clearly the star of the film - and the romantic lead - his performance also shows the skills that would make him a magnificent - and powerful - character actor as he aged. 

Following his success in Little Caesar (1931), it appeared that Edward G. Robinson was doomed to a career of gangster roles. So, when Columbia pictures wanted to borrow him for The Whole Town's Talking, he initially balked (TCM article). Under suspension and pressed for cash, Mr. Robinson eventually agreed to take the part. The film was so well received that there were rumors he would be nominated for an Oscar. However, Jack Warner used his influence to block the nomination - he didn't want a Warner star nominated for another studio's film (Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson by Alan L. Gansberg).
Jean Arthur is appropriately sassy as Wilhemina "Bill" Clark, the woman of Arthur’s dreams. He secretly writes poems to her, addressing them to Cymbeline; poems which she mocks (not knowing Arthur is the author). When she realizes that Arthur is a double of Manion, she becomes fascinated with the timid clerk. And while Bill finds Arthur's bachelor apartment exactly as she suspected (even to “a canary bird”), she has mellowed enough to find this endearing. We were especially amused by Bill’s discussions with the police, as she yells “Manion” to every crime about which they inquire. This film was something new for Ms. Arthur and contributed to her future in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (Women in the Films of John Ford by David Meuel).
It's surprising to realize that the film was directed by John Ford. One doesn't often think of him in relation to films of this type, but he had directed contemporary American stories before (John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher). In his autobiography, Edward G. Robinson had nothing but praise for Mr. Ford. The pair bring a gentle comedy to the film - Arthur is amusing, but never mocked.

A quick tip of the hat to the always amusing Donald Meek as Hoyt, the first person to confuse Arthur with Manion  - his efforts to claim the reward for finding Manion are really funny (it's not a surprise that he's having a problem getting the money, since he keeps turning in the wrong person). 

We do wish the police were a little less stupid - the idea of giving Arthur a note, and then letting a reporter put that in the newspaper is so tantamountly idiotic that you can only shake your head at this plot device. Regardless, this is a very small complaint in an otherwise enjoyable picture.
When it opened at Radio City Music Hall, The Whole Town's Talking received a glowing review from Andre Sennwald at the New York Times. This was the first of Mr. Robinson's films to open at Radio City and was a huge success for the studio (Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson by Alan L. Gansberg). 

The story was adapted from a novel by William R. Burnett, the author of Little Caesar (which would certainly help explain Mr. Robinson's initial reaction to the role). Working titles were Jail Breaker and Passport to Fame (AFI catalog).  In February 1941, Jeff Corey took on the story for the Lux Radio Theatre.

This is a fun film, and one we wholeheartedly encourage you to view.  We'll leave you with a clip from the opening of the film:

Monday, January 13, 2020

Joan Bakes

There's been a murder. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the second husband of Mildred Pierce (1945) is dead, and the prime suspect is Mildred's (Joan Crawford) ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett). As Mildred relates the story of her life with Bert, Monte, and her children, we realize there are several suspects to the crime, including Bert's former partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and the Pierce's oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).

Our group discussed Mildred Pierce back in 2011;  we decided it was time for a re-watch.  The first reaction to the film this time was remembering how much we all despised Veda Pierce.  Ann Blyth plays her part with such supreme self-obsession that it's hard to find anything good about Veda. Even when she is telling her doting mother how much she loves her, Ms. Blyth has a look in her eyes that displays her manipulative behavior.  It's a remarkable performance, and one which Ms. Blyth does not couch by trying to make the audience like her (Shirley Temple was considered for the part - Director Michael Curtiz was not sympathetic).   Ms. Blyth did an interview at the TCM Film Festival (you can see her discussion of this film begins beginning at 5:14).
Jack Carson  was, at one point, considered for the role of Monte Beragon (AFI catalog). It's hard to imagine him as a loafer - Wally Fay is constantly in motion, always looking for a deal, always on the make for one woman or another. Zachary Scott, on the other hand seems tailor-made for the passive Monte, a man who's never lifted a finger to do anything besides play polo and take other people's money.  The casting of Mr. Scott is an easy choice - it's helpful that he looks rather caddish, and since we know from the start that Monte is the victim, the audience can just wait to find out what he did that resulted in his murder (Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad by Ronald L. Davis).
Zachary Scott was born in Austin, TX; he left his home town at age 19 - he dropped out of college and worked on a freighter bound for London, where he worked in repertory theatre for nearly two years. Once back in Texas, he continued to appear on the stage; there, he was noticed by Alfred Lunt. Small parts on Broadway followed (he appeared in 6 Broadway productions throughout his career), which led to a contract from Warner Brothers. He never really evolved much beyond supporting roles in films like Shadow on the Wall (1950) and Flamingo Road (1949); his major starring role was in The Southerner (1945). By the 1950s, he was moving to television like many of his colleagues. Married twice (he had a child with each wife), he died in 1965 at the age of 51 of a brain tumor. 
If there is one person who comes close to stealing the film from Joan Crawford, it's Eve Arden (Ida Corwin). Besides bringing some humor to this melodramatic story, she the voice of truth She has what is perhaps the best line in the film (certainly the best comment on Veda): "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young."  Ms. Arden received her only Oscar nomination (with Ann Blyth) in the Supporting Actress category (they both lost to Anne Revere in National Velvet).  She would later say that she never expected the part to bring her a nomination (TCM articles). 

Though it was nominated for 6 Oscars, the only winner that night was Joan Crawford, who wasn't even the first choice for the role - Michael Curtiz wanted Barbara Stanwyck. Ms Crawford wasn't at the ceremony, however. Fearing she would not win (see Ann Blyth's TCM tribute to Joan Crawford), Ms. Crawford took to her bed and called in sick. However, when she was notified that she had indeed won the award, she invited the press into her bedroom, where she prettily sat in her sickbed with the Oscar in her hand. 

The story was remade as a television miniseries in 2011 starring Kate Winslet.  With more time (five one-hour episodes), and no production code to deal with, the miniseries is closer in plot to James M. Cain's original book.  Carol Burnett did one of her memorable spoofs, "Mildred Fierce" (shoulder pads and all!). The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.

If you've never seen this production, treat yourself and find a copy - it's one of Ms. Crawford's finest performances (allegedly, her favorite role), and a film noir par excellence. Here's a trailer to whet your appetite.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Bette is a Librarian

Librarian Alicia Hull (Bette Davis) finds herself in a Storm Center (1956) when she is asked to remove a book, The Communist Dream, from the Kenport Public Library. Torn between her desire to get a new children's wing for the library, and her belief in free access to books, Alicia has to decide what is best for her library and for the community in general.

While one member of our group found the film hard to sit through - specifically the parts that involved young Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin) and his meltdown - all members of the group agreed this is an important film, and deserves to be seen and discussed more frequently.

The character of Freddie is included to create one specific scene towards the end of the film. While we salute the imagery that the writers and director were inserting, Freddie is a frustrating character who lessens the impact of the film. The child is badly damaged, primarily by his tentative relationship with a bigoted, unintelligent, and obnoxious father. George Slater (Joe Mantell) bullies his child because the kid is too smart, and wants a boy who will do what he sees as manly things, like play baseball. Mother Laura (Sallie Brophy) encourages Freddie's intellectual growth (she is a talented pianist), but she is undercut by her husband, and weak enough to put up with his nonsense. Why she would marry this neanderthal is beyond our understanding, and is a weakness in the story.
Kevin Coughlin is over-the-top as Freddie; according to this TCM article, director Daniel Taradash was not comfortable directing a child (this was, in fact, Mr. Taradash's only directing credit). Coughlin's mother horrified both Ms. Davis and Mr. Taradash when she pinched her son until he cried, so as to elicit tears for the camera. This was Mr. Coughlin's first film role; he would later play Billy in The Defiant Ones (1958). Most of his career, however, was on television. He died in 1976, at the age of 30, hit by car speeding by his home in Malibu.

Bette Davis was not the first (nor the second) choice for Mrs. Hull (AFI catalog). Originally, the part was intended as a comeback for Mary Pickford, however Ms. Pickford bowed out, ostensibly because the film was not being shot in color. It is believed, however, that she was pressured to withdraw from the picture by Hedda Hopper who was infuriated by the anti-McCarthy sentiments of the movie.  Ms. Hopper's influence may have also had the same effect on Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, and Loretta Young. Ms. Davis, however, is magnificent as Alicia. She gives Alicia both the strength of character and vulnerability needed to play a woman who is being crucified by the town she loves, simply for being true to her duties as a librarian.
Brian Keith plays councilman Paul Duncan as an innocuous man who is even more dangerous because he seems so personable. Engaged to the librarian Martha Lockridge (Kim Hunter), he uses her collegiality with Alicia to find information that he can use against Mrs. Hull in a smear campaign. Though only one character makes mention of their complicity, it's clear to the viewer that Martha is not averse to the benefits that come from Alicia's dismissal.  There are strong performances as well from other actors in the cast, including Paul Kelly as sympathetic judge Robert Ellerbe, Edward Platt as the Reverend Wilson, Joseph Kearns as Mr. Morrisey, and Kathryn Grant as Hazel.
The story was based on an actual event (though the reason for the firing was altered). Ruth Brown was a librarian in Oklahoma, who was active in local civil rights organizations. In 1950, she was fired from her job ostensibly for being a communist - the actual reason was her involvement in desegregation activities. (The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise S. Robbins ). 

Daniel Taradash and Elick Moll, the screenwriters, were familiar with the case and saw Storm Center as "a dangerous picture about dangerous ideas." Original titles for the film were: The Library, This Time Tomorrow, and Circle of Fire, but none of them were felt to be strong enough.  The American Library Association, which had supported Ms. Brown through her fight in Oklahoma, hosted an advance screening, during which a letter from Bette Davis was read, saying she hoped she had "reflected accurately their dedicated service and had made communities more aware of the role of librarians"  (Louise Robbins. Fighting McCarthyism through Film: A Library Censorship Case Becomes a "Storm Center". Journal of Education for Library and Information Science Fall, 1998. 39(4) 291-311).

Not surprisingly, there were censorship issues with the film. The Catholic Church's Legion of Decency came up with a whole new category just for this film (The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940-1975 by Gregory D Black; Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959 by Peter Lev), stating that "the highly propagandistic nature of this controversial film (book-burning, anti-communism, civil liberties) offers a warped and strongly emotional solution to a complex problem of American life."

The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was reluctantly negative, but Mr. Crowther pointed out:  "This is too bad, because the purpose and courage of the men who made this film not only are to be commended but also deserve concrete rewards. They have opened a subject that is touchy and urgent in contemporary life. It should be presented so adroitly that it would fascinate and move people deeply.Furthermore, they have got from Bette Davis a fearless and forceful performance as the middle-aged widowed librarian who stands by her principles. Miss Davis makes the prim but stalwart lady human and credible."  
While this is not be best picture ever made, it is a significant film, one that is still worth watching. Unfortunately, we still have to deal with communities banning books (American Library Association list of Banned Books) and individuals deprived of their liberties because of the beliefs, place of birth, religion or skin tone.  As a librarian myself, I wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of Storm Center.

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film:

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ms. Hale is Having a Baby

As Jacqueline Walsh (Barbara Hale) is about to take her wedding vows to her second husband, Herbert Fletcher (Robert Hutton), she faints.  Her uncle, Dr. William Parnell (Lloyd Corrigan) believes she is pregnant. The father of the child is her first husband, Vernon Walsh (Robert Young), whom she divorced after he was named as the co-respondent in the divorce of Wanda York (Janis Carter). Though Vernon protested his innocence, Jackie does not believe him, and wants him to surrender any claim on the pending child. Vernon, however, sees the baby as a way to get her back. Our film is And Baby Makes Three (1949)

This is a potentially cute film that would have been considerably better had it been about 15 minutes shorter (it's 84 minutes). The plot, which is entertaining up to a point, goes completely over-the-top by the end. It felt as though the writers had no idea how to end the film, so they just kept throwing elements into a blender to see what they could get. What they got was a mess.

Given that they have little in the way of a script, Robert Young and Barbara Hale work well together. Both were second (and in Mr. Young's case, third) choices for their roles. Columbia initially assigned Evelyn Keyes the part of Jackie, and she refused - she ended up on suspension (AFI catalog). Both Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings were offered the opportunity to play Vernon. Both said no.
In a sense, Ms. Hale has the more outlandish part. Either we have to believe that she left her marriage, found Herbert, went to Reno, and came back to her wedding in under two months, or we have to believe that in more than three months (it takes 6 weeks to get a divorce in Reno, and it is hard to believe that she agreed to marry Herbert immediately after leaving Vernon), she didn't realize that she was pregnant.  It's somewhat mind boggling.

Barbara Hale started as a model; by 1943, she was off to Hollywood, a contract with RKO, and her first picture - an uncredited role in Gildersleeve's Bad Day. She worked in films, primarily in B pictures, until 1958 (she would make a few more films between 1968 and 1978), when she was offered the role of Della Street in Perry Mason (which ran from 1957-1966). She originally considered declining the role - she had three small children at home, and was spending her time with them ( article), but her friend Gail Patrick (who was producing the show with her husband Thomas Cornwell Jackson) said that the role was small and was show was only going to last for 18 episodes! Ms. Hale would go on to star in 332 episodes and 31 TV movies with her good friend Raymond Burr (the final 4 movies were filmed with Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook subbing for the Perry Mason character. Mr. Burr died in 1993). Ms. Hale was married for 46 years to Bill William. She was intrigued with him from the start - it took him awhile to realize she was the woman for him (Eddie Muller commentary on The Clay Pigeon). The couple had three children, one of who is the actor William Katt (who starred in The Greatest American Hero, and as Paul Drake, Jr. in several of the Perry Mason films). Ms. Hale died in 2017, at the age of 94.
Both Billie Burke (Mrs. Fletcher) and Melville Cooper (Gibson, the Butler) are wasted. Ms. Burke, in particular, is doing a retread of roles she's done before - she's the mother who is afraid of scandal (her son's fiance's pregnancy by another man), and who dithers around echoing her husband (Nicholas Joy as Marvin Fletcher). She doesn't even have a name - she's just "Mrs. Marvin Fletcher".

Though her part is minimal, and rather irrelevant to the main story, Janis Carter takes what she has and runs with it. She's amusing as the predatory Wanda; the character is added at the last minute (like a lot of things in this film) to stretch it out a bit. Sure, she's not really necessary, but she is fun to watch.
This was the second film produced by Santana Productions, Humphrey Bogart's production company. Founded in 1948 and named after his boat, Santana produced 7 films, 5 of which starred Bogart. At the time, the Santana films didn't do well financially, but In a Lonely Place (1950) is now regarded as one of the best of Bogart's films, and highly regarded as a film noir (here is Eddie Muller introducing it on TCM's Noir Alley).

New York Times review called And Baby Makes Three "A thin joke is stretched beyond the point of fun." The review in Variety was positive. Regardless, the film did not do well at the box office, and it's really not surprising. One is bored about an hour in.  There are better Barbara Hale films (try The Clay Pigeon, in which she starred with her husband ). This is not one of her best. 
A small treat - we recently were able to participate in a tour of the Library of Congress Packard Campus. Part of the tour was a visit to the Cold Room, where nitrate copies of films from many studios are housed. In the Columbia vault, I found a can with a nitrate copy of And Baby Makes Three!  You can see it below (thanks to my husband for taking the picture - follow the link to see more of his work):

Monday, December 23, 2019

Alexander Joins the Army

Successful novelist Paula "Polly" Wharton (Irene Dunne) and newspaper editor Max Wharton (Alexander Knox) are a happily married couple. Max is highly regarded at the New York Bulletin, the newspaper at which he is the chief editor. Though he is well Over 21 (1945), (39, in fact) he feels it is his duty to enlist in Officer Training School and serve in the military during World War II, much to the disgust of the paper's owner, Robert Drexel Gow (Charles Coburn), After successfully completing Basic Training, Max is off to Florida to attend Officer Training School, where Polly will join him as an Army wife. Both must adapt to a life that is alien to anything they have ever encountered.

This is an entertaining film with light humor and an interesting point of view. While most films focus on the man's adjustment to the military, Over 21 is more concerned with Polly. She's led a relatively privileged life; the career successes of herself and her husband mean that she's never had to do the "housewife" tasks - until now. Ms. Dunne plays Polly as a determined woman. She's succeeded in everything she's ever tried - she can surely prevail in this as well. Her goal is to be with her husband and support him in his efforts in the Army. Ms. Dunne avoids having the audience pity Polly - we laugh with her as she manipulates the peculiarities of her new housing and new life style. We also watch as she protects her husband from the intrusions of his former boss. Ms. Dunne was not the first choice for the role - Rosalind Russell was originally considered for Polly, but dropped out to appear in Sister Kenny (AFI catalog)

It's a bit harder to get involved with Max. He is convinced that he can only write about the war if he experiences it in some direct way. It's clear from the start that, at age 39, he does not expect to see combat, but he does wish to learn about what the men who are going into battle will face.  We appreciate his motives, but we get very little information about him; we know he is an intelligent man, who is lost as he tries to learn a new job. Mr. Knox doesn't get a lot of help from the script, with all the really good lines going to Ms. Dunne. As a result, Mr. Knox is left looking frustrated and unhappy. Any empathy you feel is because of Polly's devotion to him than to the depth of the character.  

Alexander Knox was born in Canada. His acting career started in Boston, with a repertory theatre, but when it closed, he returned to Canada to work as a reporter. After two years, he went to England, and appeared in several films. By 1940, he was on Broadway, first as Friar Lawrence in a production of Romeo and Juliet (that starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh), then in Jupiter Laughs, starring opposite Jessica Tandy. He'd already appeared in several Hollywood films, including The Sea Wolf (1941) and This Above All (1941), when he was offered the lead in Wilson (1944), which earned him a nomination for Best Actor. His film career ended abruptly, when he was unofficially blacklisted for his involvement with the Committee for the First Amendment (Actors on Red Alert: Career Interviews with Five Actors and Actresses Affected by the Blacklist by Anthony Slide). He returned to England with his wife, Doris Nolan (they were married from 1943 until his death in 1995), and worked there (and eventually back in the U.S.). He died in England of bone cancer.
Charles Coburn as publisher Gow is, as always, very good and very funny. But Gow's attitudes towards Max's desire to serve in the military are unpleasant; Mr. Coburn plays him as a completely selfish man, who would rather sell his paper than do the work necessary to make it a success without Max. While you laugh at his antics, a lot of head shaking occurs as he tries to manipulate Polly and Max.

I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but some of the best moments in the film occur at the end, when Polly decides it's time to intervene in saving the paper for her husband and for Gow. The look of sheer delight on Max's face when he discovers her work is something that really appealed to us. For that reason alone, this film is worth a viewing.
Over 21 is based on the Broadway play, which was written by and starred Ruth Gordon; it ran for 221 performances in 1944. The play's time-frame is 1943, and while the film does not give us a date we know that World War II is raging.

Over 21 opened at Radio City Music Hall to poor notices: here is Bosley Crowther's New York Times review. Several factors contributed to the reviews. The movie was released just after VJ-Day (TCM article), which greatly influenced its reception - it was seen as a relic, discussing issues that no longer needed consideration (Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring). 
Another problem was the original Broadway play. Some criticisms at the time considered that Ms. Dunne's performance was too close to Ms. Gordon stage rendition. Finally, other reviews focused on  Mr. Knox's performance, stating that it was too reminiscent of his work in Wilson. (Military Comedy Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography of Hollywood Releases Since 1918 by Hal Erickson). 

None of that is relevant today, as it is not possible to see stage play.  We can also relate to Max's desire to do all in his power to stop another war from happening.  We'll leave you with this short clip from the film, and a suggestion that you give it a viewing:

Monday, December 16, 2019

Ida and Her Sisters

Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) works as a companion to Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom), a retired actress with savings that will keep her living comfortably for the rest of her life. Ellen works to support her two sisters, Emily (Elsa Lanchester) and Louisa (Edith Barrett) in London. The sisters, however, are somewhat odd in their habits, and their landlady has demanded that Ellen remove them from her boarding house immediately. In desperation, Ellen asks Miss Fiske if the sisters can visit with her at Miss Fiske's house for a short time. But when the short time extends to six months, Miss Fiske has had it.  Our film this week is Ladies in Retirement (1941)

A melodrama very much in the vein of Night Must Fall (1937), the film's power is driven primarily by the performance of Ida Lupino. Playing a woman who should be much older her 23 years  (TCM article). Ms. Lupino gives the character grit, and emphasizes that this is a woman who feels overwhelmed by circumstances. Clearly, Ellen is the breadwinner for the family. She's tried leaving her sisters on their own. She's exhausted her last chance of supporting them from afar - their landlady has threatened to have them institutionalized. Ellen's desperation is evident as she tries to keep Louisa and Emily with her. But the two women, one a temperamental hoarder and the other a grown child, are not controllable, even with Ellen there. Keeping them at Miss Fiske's abode is her last chance to protect them, but their continued antics make this impossible. Ms. Lupino would later list it as one of her favorite film roles (TCM Notes).
Louis Hayward (Albert Feather) was married to Ms. Lupino at the time this film was made. He's good as the shady Albert; he makes the character even likeable at times, though one is always suspicious of his motives.  Mr, Hayward started his career on the London stage, a protege of Noel Coward. In 1935, he did a Broadway play; this led to his first film role, The Flame Within (1935). He was cast as the first Simon Templar in The Saint in New York (1938), but is probably best remembered for his performance in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). When World War II broke out in the U.S., he joined the Marines, commanding a photographic unit and eventually producing the Oscar winning short With the Marines at Tarawa (1944). He returned from the war severely depressed, which caused the breakup of his marriage to Ms. Lupino (Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati). He would marry twice more, the third producing his only child. His career continued, in both film and television until 1974. In 1985, he died of lung cancer (he'd smoked four packs a day for 50 years), at the age of 75.
Emily  and Louisa are well acted by Ms. Lanchester and Ms. Barrett - they give the characters just the right amount of insanity, so that, for awhile, you are able to sympathize with them and with Ellen. Rosalind Russell had expressed interest in playing one of the parts. Also in consideration for the sisters were Lillian Gish, Judith Anderson, Pauline Lord, Laurette Taylor and Helen Chandler (AFI Catalog). 

Evelyn Keyes does a reasonably good job as Lucy, the housemaid (in fairness, it's not a great part). She spends most of her scenes with Mr. Hayward, and he steals all the audience's attention. As I said, he's quite the rogue. 
  Based on a 1940 Broadway play (which ran for 151 performances) the screenplay was written by Garrett Fort and Reginald Denham, based on Mr. Denham's script with Edward Percy. The play starred Flora Robson as Ellen, Estelle Winwood as Louisa, and Isobel Elsom who reprises her role of Miss Fiske in this movie.

It's not surprising that the film received two  received two Oscar nominations - for Black & White Art  Direction (Lionel Banks and George Montgomery) and for Score (Morris Stoloff and Ernst Toch). Though we know that the film was shot on a backlot, the film gives the feeling of the moodiness of the moors, and is reminiscent of atmospheric Wuthering Heights. The score also makes interesting use of the music from The Mikado; of course, it is a comedy, but it is the story of Ko-Ko, a man forced to become the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. The film got other awards:  Isobel Elsom received the Best Acting nod from the National Board of Review (NBR); Ida Lupino received a joint Best Acting Award from NBR - for this film and for High Sierra.

New York Times review was positive calling Ladies in Retirement "painstakingly done, beautifully photographed and tautly played."  The story been redone several times. In September 1943, Lux Radio Theatre presented Brian Aherne and Louise Barrett.  Robert Montgomery Presents (1951) had Lillian Gish and Una O'Connor in a television broadcast. 1954 saw a version with Edith Barrett, Elsa Lanchester & Claire Trevor as part of the Lux Video Theatre. The film was remade as The Mad Room (1969) with Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens. 

While our group had some mixed feelings about the film (one member said she found it sometimes frustrating), the consensus was that it's certainly a film worth watching.  If you like melodramas, this one is for you.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Riley Moves

Eleven year old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy little girl - she lives in Minnesota with her parents (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan), plays soccer, and has many friends. But when her father gets a new job in San Francisco, Riley's life is up-ended. We see the changes in her Inside Out (2015), as the emotion that has always governed her life - Joy (Amy Poehler) - begins to lose control of Riley to Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader).

This film was part of our double feature afternoon at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and it is an absolute delight. The conceit - that we have a console manipulated by five anthropomorphized emotions which color our memories - is fascinating.  The film looks at the need for sadness to create joy, the function of anger, disgust, and fear as protective devices, and the importance of long-term (and short term) memory to emotional development (Psychology Today).

Amy Poehler is endearing as Joy - her love for Riley and the life that her partner emotions have created for the child is true and deep. She understands the need for the protective emotions, but to her Sadness is a useless - and dangerous - addition to the group. It's only when Sadness begins to interact with Riley's long submerged memories - symbolized by Riley's imaginary friend Bing-Bong (Richard Kind) that Joy begins to appreciate the need for Sadness in Riley's life.

The idea of the memory console is one that the filmmaker play with successfully - we see the emotions of Riley's mother and father; of her school teacher, and of the pizza store clerk. It's equally beguiling to see how the emotions combine in adults (and eventually, even in animals!)

The movie is also really funny - Riley's dreams, for example (and Joy's pleasure at meeting Rainbow Unicorn, the star of the dreams who MUST be treated with respect), and the morose Sadness's need to be towed (she's too depressed to walk) are just two examples. There are more, and all add up to the create a film that is interesting on many levels - and for many ages.

Roger Ebert's review of the film was enthusiastic, as was the review from Rolling Stone, calling it "a flat-out masterpiece". One of the strengths of Inside Out is that you forget that you are watching animated characters; there are moments that bring tears as the viewer realizes that growing up is the ability to balance emotions. Emotionally, (like Joy) we want Riley to have a life without Sadness, but there is the realization that there can BE no Joy if Sadness is gone.  

We'll leave you with a trailer of this remarkable film.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Peter Visits Arabia

Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is working in the map division in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, when he was assigned by Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) to evaluate Prince Faisal's (Alec Guinness) war against the Turks. Lawrence's interest in Arab culture and his eagerness to form a united Arabia impresses Faisal; when Lawrence comes up with a plan to cross the Nefud Desert with 50 men and attack the Turks in Aqaba, Faisal supports it. Lawrence's daring impresses his troops who make him one of their own -  Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

The recent TCM Presents: Fathom Events presentation of this film was a must-see. Jon Stewart was right - you have to see this movie wide-screen (and not on a cellphone!). The heat of the desert and the glare of the sun are visceral in the film - even in an air-conditioned theatre, you are hot and thirsty. With commentary by Ben Mankiewicz, this was an exceptional TCM Presents.

Albert Finney was originally approached for the lead role of T.E. Lawrence; he was even given an extensive, expensive screen test (costing £100,000), but Mr. Finney balked at a five-year contract with Sam Spiegel. (TCM article). At some point, Spiegel tried to interest Marlon Brando, but that raised a row in the U.K., and Brando pulled himself out of consideration (AFI Catalog). Anthony Perkins was also considered (but his appearance in Psycho made him less appealing to Spiegel).  Director David Lean was more interested in an unknown actor, and had seen Mr. O'Toole in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960). Halfway through O'Toole's screen test, Mr. Lean stopped the cameras - "No use shooting another foot of film. The boy is Lawrence."
It is hard to imagine anyone but Peter O'Toole in the part. He embodies Lawrence, even resembling him a bit, as you can see from the photos below (though at 6'2", Mr. O'Toole would tower over the 5'5" Lawrence). Mr. O'Toole captures the whimsy as well as Lawrence's personal and emotional conflicts. Lawrence was born to unmarried parents (though his father was not an absentee one); he was well educated and lived fairly well, but he was also teased and tormented about his bastardy. In his book Hero: The Life & Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Michael Korda states that Lawrence was tortured by the pleasure he found in pain. That he also took pleasure in killing is not discussed in this book - in fact, he was a vegetarian (PBS) who professed his gladness that "nothing had to be killed to feed us." His death on a motorbike was the result of his need for speed - he was probably going nearly 100 miles per hour. Mr. O'Toole did an interview for TCM about his work on the film here. His tale on the filming of the scene where Lawrence is given his white robes is fascinating.
Alain Delon was originally cast as Sherif Ali iben el Karish, but David Lean wanted Ali to have brown eyes, and Mr. Delon was unable to wear the contact lenses required to turn his blue eyes brown. So, they hired Maurice Ronet for the part - but his eyes were green. Director Lean, already in Jordan, asked to see photos of Arab actors - he was sent a photo of Omar Sharif, resulting in a collaboration that would result in Mr. Sharif getting the lead in Dr. Zhivago (1965). Mr. Sharif and Mr. O'Toole became great friends on the shoot, learning to do The Twist together; as a result of their dancing prowess,  Mr. O'Toole called Mr. Sharif "Cairo Fred" because "No one in the world is called Omar Sharif." Mr. Sharif won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor for his work in this film.

The list of actors who almost appeared in the film is breathtaking - Cary Grant, David Niven, Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Horst Buchholz were all considered or approached at one time or another. Even so, the list of actors in the cast is spectacular: Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi) is strong as a desert chiefan; Jack Hawkins (General Allenby) is both tough and sly as a British officer looking out for the best interests of his country; Alec Guinness is a cagey prince looking for the best deal for his nation; Anthony Quayle (Col. Harry Brighton) portrays an officer who cannot comprehend the man that is Lawrence; Jose Ferrer (Turkish bey) gives us a fiendish enemy to the Arab nation - and to Lawrence. Last, but by no means least, is the wonderful Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden), initially Lawrence's benefactor, but in the end, a pragmatic official using the best man at hand for the job.
Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) was to have been played by Edmund O'Brien, but he left three days into the shoot. Kennedy is excellent as an opportunistic reporter who builds his reputation - and Lawrence's - with the articles he publishes about the conflict. The character of Bentley is based on Lowell Thomas; the name of the character was changed because Mr. Thomas did not wish any association with the film (Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene Phillips). Mr. Thomas would later state that "the only true things in it [the film] are the sand and the camels." Though initially friends, Lawrence became disillusioned with Thomas when Thomas toured with film footage he had shot of Lawrence in Arabia (PBS); Lawrence felt himself exploited, while Thomas claimed "[Lawrence] had a genius for backing into the limelight."
To say that you should see this film if you have not already done so is redundant. Though Bosley Crowther's New York Times review was unenthusiastic, it has since garnered much praise. Janet Maslin discussed the beauty of the movie when it was restored in 1989 (New York Times). It won 7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art/Set Direction, Sound, Film Editing, and Score), and was nominated for 3 other (Actor: Peter O'Toole; Supporting Actor: Omar Sharif; Writing: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson - Mr. Wilson's contributions were finally acknowledged in 1995). It also won best film awards from the Golden Globes and BAFTA, with David Lean taking the Director's Guild Award and Sam Spiegel winning the Producer's Guild Award.  It was added to the National Film Registry in 1991. It's also on five American Film Institute lists: #1 in the Ten Top Ten for Epic; #7 in the 100 Years, 100 Movies Anniversary Edition (#5 in the Original List); #3 in Film Scores; #23 in Thrills; #10 in Heroes.

Even if you can't see it on a big screen, do seek this remarkable film out. We'll leave you with the trailer to this amazing work of cinema:

Monday, November 25, 2019

Tiana Meets a Frog

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and her father, James (Terrence Howard) have a dream - to open a restaurant in their home town of New Orleans. After James' death in World War I, Tiana continues to work and save to finally open that restaurant. So, when Tiana's best friend Charlotte "Lottie" La Bouff (Jennifer Cody), hires Tiana to cater the desserts (Tiana's beignets - Lottie's father's (John Goodman) favorite treat) at a big society party, Tiana believes has enough money for the down payment on the restaurant. But there is a complication - the derelict sugar mill that Tiana has offered on has another, wealthier, bidder. Our film is The Princess and the Frog (2009).

Summer in DC means free films, and The Shakespeare Theatre Company hosted a double feature as their new season is opening. The Princess and the Frog tells a tale of dreaming vs. reality, and the importance of knowing the difference. Tiana has become so wrapped up in working towards her dream - she knows that dreams don't come true by magic - that she never has time for anything BUT work. Her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) worries that she's become so obsessed with the restaurant that she will never have a private life or find love.
Tiana's progress is interrupted by the entrance of a frog - and a frog that talks, no less. He is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a young man who is the exact opposite of Tiana. Raised in a wealthy royal family of Maldonia, he's been thrown out of his home and left to fend for himself. His irresponsibility forced his parents to try and make him grow up. But all they've succeeded in doing is pushing Naveen into finding a wealthy wife or a get-rich-quick scheme. It's one of the latter that puts him in the hands of Dr. Facilier (Keith David) a local practitioner of dark magic who convinces Naveen's valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) to take on the appearance of Naveen, and marry Naveen's prey himself - Lottie La Bouff.
Anika Noni Rose is excellent as the voice of Tiana. She has just the right amount of strength and sass that you admire this young woman, but also would like to see her find some happiness and ease in her life. She also has an exquisite singing voice. As an actress, she's taken on a variety of roles - she had an ongoing role as assertive lawyer Wendy Scott-Carr in The Good Wife, got to show off her acting and singing chops in Dreamgirls (2006), won the Tony for Caroline, or Change (2004), and was nominated again for her work in A Raisin in the Sun (2014). In 2019, she received the Lucille Lortel Award for Carmen Jones.

The movie has a lot of surprises, not the least of which is that  'Big Daddy' and Lottie are actually nice people. John Goodman gives  'Big Daddy' a bit of pomposity, but he's also loving and generous, not just to his daughter - it's clear he has a deep affection for Tiana and Eudora. And while he certainly loves Tiana's beignets, there is a hint that he is also tipping her a lot to help her start her restaurant.
The trumpet playing alligator, Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) is a tad silly, but works in the context of our frog-cursed humans. Likewise, Ray the Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings) is amusing, though the accent is sometimes difficult to understand. Both actors do give us sympathetic characters which are worked seamlessly into the story.

All in all, this film is an enjoyable modern fairy tale, with an exemplary cast. We'll leave you with a trailer from the film: