Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joan Meets Greer Again

When Jimmy Lee's (Robert Taylor) proposal of marriage to Mary Howard (Joan Crawford) is rejected, Jimmy begins to suspect he has been replaced in Mary's affections. He is distressed to discover that his rival is the very married publisher Rogers Woodruf (Herbert Marshall). Based on Mary's theory (as purported in her new novel) that the rejected wife and new lover can have an intelligent conversation about the affair, Jimmy maneuvers Clare Woodruf (Greer Garson) into a meeting with Mary, without either knowing about their mutual lover.

We discussed When Ladies Meet (1941) several years ago, but with the opportunity to discuss it in the context of the Harding/Loy version, we decided to view it again. As with the prior film, the plot hinges on the relationship between Clare and Mary. One real problem with this verson is that Joan Crawford's Mary becomes quite annoying.  The film requires that you be able to like both women, but it is hard to like Mary. She's snobbish and affected (taking on the personality of Rogers). As a result, you begin to wonder why anyone would like her.  Plus, where Ms. Loy appeared innocent and somewhat naive, Ms. Crawford SEEMS more knowing, and that sophistication works against her characterization. With Mary and Clare more obviously played as contemporaries (where there seemed almost a big sister-little sister affection between Ms. Harding and Ms. Loy), Mary should know better than to be taken in by a cad like Rogers.
That the first film was pre-code, and this one is firmly within the Code era makes very little difference. The stories are exactly the same, and we still have little bits of double-entendre (primarily from Spring Byington as Bridget Drake). The character of Walter del Canto (Rafael Storm) is played as though the actor intends him to be gay (which was not the case in the original). The racy plot is still not all that racy.

Spring Byington  is a marked improvement over Alice Brady. She plays Bridgie as a tad risque, but essentially sweet. She has a much lighter touch than Ms. Brady, and is able to make the character very appealing.  Interestingly, Ms. Byington had originated the part on Broadway (AFI catalog); why she was passed over in the first iteration of the film is puzzling - she had appeared the same year that version was released as Marmee in Little Women (1933). Ms. Byington had a long and varied career.  From 1924 to 1935, she appeared steadily on Broadway, appearing in 20 plays (including The Merchant of Venice, in which she played Nerissa). Her film career really started in 1933 (she had appeared in one short film in 1930); after she left Broadway for good, she worked steadily in films, television, and radio (her show, December Bride was first a radio, then a television show).  She married once, (she was engaged for a long time, but her fiance died before they wed) and she had two daughters. She was close to actress Marjorie Main, but their relationship is unclear. She loved science fiction and at one point took flying lessons (the studio made her stop). She died of cancer in 1971 at the age of 84.
Even with a second viewing, we were unimpressed with either of the men in this version. In the earlier film, Robert Montgomery's youth played in his favor. His attempts to convince Mary of Rogers duplicity seemed innocent, if somewhat artless. Robert Taylor, however, is much older and more mature in appearance. His wooing becomes almost stalker-ish, making him unappealing. If there is any chemistry at all, it is between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Garson. Their scenes on the boat are humorous and convivial. He never seems to have even a moment of camaraderie with Ms. Crawford. By the end though, we felt the women would be better off alone than with either Mr. Taylor or the self-absorbed Rogers.
The performance that really stands out in this film is that of Greer Garson, who, according to this TCM article was being groomed for stardom by MGM (following an Oscar nominated performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Ms. Garson started her career on stage and television in the UK, and that was where Louis B. Mayer discovered her. Following her small, but important part in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), she appeared in Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier, and in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), the first of FIVE consecutive Oscar nominations as Best Actress. She would ultimately be nominated seven times, winning for Mrs. Miniver (1942).  [She currently holds the record for the longest Oscar speech - 5 minutes and 30 seconds].  Her 1943 marriage to Richard Ney, who had played her son in Mrs. Miniver and was 27 years younger than Ms. Garson created a bit of a scandal; the marriage lasted until 1947.  Some say the problems in the tumultuous marriage resulted from the age difference. However, the couple were separated almost immediately after their marriage when Ney was called up to serve in the military. When he returned, he found work hard to come by, while his wife was still quite popular, resulting in dissension (Michael Troyan, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, 1999). Following that divorce, Ms. Garson married Buddy Fogelson. She worked sporadically after that, eventually retiring with her husband to his Texas ranch. They were together until his death in 1987. Ms. Garson died in 1996 at the age of 91.

The New York Times wondered in their review why this "Hoover-vintage comedy" was "resurrected". We wondered the same thing. It's not really a showpiece for any of its actors - quite frankly, it does most of them a disservice. It's worth a look to see Greer Garson and Spring Byington, though. We'll leave you with this scene, which features several of our key characters:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ann Meets Myrna

Reporter Jimmy Lee (Robert Montgomery) is deeply in love with novelist Mary Howard (Myrna Loy). But despite his numerous proposals, she refuses to marry him. Jimmy discovers that Mary has fallen in love with her married editor, Rogers Woodruf (Frank Morgan). Having read the novel on which Mary is currently working - in which she proposes that her heroine, in love with a married man, has a calm discussion with his wife, to talk about her desire to wed her lover - Jimmy knows what Mary has in mind. He decides the best course of action is to introduce Mary to Claire Woodruf (Ann Harding), without revealing to either of them their mutual relationship. When Ladies Meet (1933) will determine the future of both women's relationships.

Though a pre-code film, this one is not really all that shocking. There's a lot of talk, but very little action. Mary has heretofore resisted Rogers' desire for a sexual relationship; just as she is about to give in, Jimmy blunders in and breaks up the rendezvous (certainly his intention!) We later discover from Clair that Rogers is a serial philanderer, and that Claire has turned a blind eye to it because she believes he really loves her. With the exception of some double-entendre blathering from Mary's friend Bridget Drake (Alice Brady), this is a pretty tame film.
That being said, this is an interesting and thoughtful movie, primarily because of the performances of Ann Harding and Myrna Loy.  Ms. Harding presents a woman who is both dignified and understated. Even when confronted by betrayal, there is no hysteria, no over-emoting, just a quiet sorrow that is signified only with her eyes and her stance. Ms. Harding can break your heart with a glance.

Ms. Loy mirrors her in dignity playing a woman who is the ultimate idealist. When confronted with the realities of life, she too remains stoic. Her determination lets you know that her life will go on, and she will remake it. But we came away wondering how her new novel would end, with the author enlightened about the truths of life. We come to realize, thanks to the talents of these two excellent actresses, that Mary and Claire are very much alike in their attitudes and emotions. Interestingly, Ms. Loy became great friends with Robert Montgomery and Alice Brady on this production.  Ann Harding remained distant from the "coterie of three." (TCM article)
Growing up with Frank Morgan as The Wizard does make it hard to see him as a romantic figure, especially one who is so deeply loved by these two remarkable women. It is certainly his skill as an actor that makes it obvious to the audience that Rogers is a cad. That he is so awfully unloving - more interested in the chase and in sex - becomes apparent later in the film. But Mr. Morgan does a good job in preparing you for this revelation.

Alice Brady seems to be present to provide the comic relief. Unfortunately, she becomes rapidly annoying.  An Oscar-winning actress - she was nominated twice, and won for her role in In Old Chicago (1937) - in this film, it feels as though she is doing screwball comedy, while everyone else is playing subtle humor and high drama.  We felt that Bridget was too shallow a person, where the other characters are fully developed. It felt as though Ms. Brady was in a different movie.  We wondered if a different actress in the part would have made a difference, and we may find out next week.

The film (based on Rachel Crothers' play, which was produced on Broadway in 1933) would be remade twice: once in 1941, with Joan Crawford, and again on 11 June 1952 as a ABC television presentation with Patricia Morison and Richard Carlson in the leads (AFI catalog). This film was nominated for the Best Art Direction Oscar, for Cedric Gibbons, whose sets are gorgeous (We were especially impressed with Mary's apartment).  We'll leave you with this scene, featuring appearances by our four leads. Next time, we'll be viewing the 1941 version.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Well, Nobody's Perfect

TCM Presents for June was a real treat - a big screen presentation of Some Like it Hot (1959).  #1 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs, this film is among director Billy Wilder's masterworks.  The story focuses on two musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) who inadvertently witness the murder of seven gangsters in Jazz Age Chicago. On the lam from kingpin "Spats" Colombo (George Raft) who ordered the massacre, Joe and Jerry don dresses, become Josephine and Daphne, and join and all-girl's band headed to Florida. Intending to get a free ride south and then head on to Mexico, Joe and Jerry instead are trapped with entanglements. Joe assumes the disguise of millionaire Shell Oil Junior at first to seduce girl singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), but finds himself falling in love with her instead. Jerry, however, is being pursued by actual millionaire Osgood Fielding, III (Joe E. Brown), who is unaware of "Daphne's" actual genter. Added to this, there is the meeting of the Convention of Italian Opera Lovers Association in their hotel, headed by Little Bonaparte (Nehemiah Persoff) and attended by "Spats" and his cronies.
One of the nice things about seeing this film in a theatre is listening to people actually laughing at the jokes in a 58 year old movie. The story is timeless, and so is the dialogue. Jack Lemmon is especially funny - his switches back and forth from "I'm a girl" to "I'm a boy" are the icing on this gender-switching farce. His interactions with the unappreciated Joe E. Brown are also priceless bits of comedy.

It's also fun to watch Billy Wilder incorporate references to old gangster films of the 1930s. Witness Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (as Johnny Paradise) mimic George Raft's Guino Rinaldo in Scarface with his coin-tossing antics. "Where did you pick up that cheap trick?" Raft asks.  According to the AFI Catalog, Wilder wanted Edward G. Robinson to appear in the film, but Robinson declined. He despised George Raft, and had vowed never to work with him again. One wonders if he enjoyed watching his son gun down Robinson late in the film!
Another visitor from the land of the 1930s gangster picture is Pat O'Brien, who often played a good guy in those early films. Here he is again on the side of law and order as Mulligan, the police detective investigating the massacre. He's got some nice repartee with both Raft and Nehemiah Persoff, making his relatively small role memorable.

Tony Curtis had some troubles with doing a falsetto (his lines as Josephine are partially dubbed by Paul Frees), but he had no problems doing his Cary Grant imitation (Grant would later jokingly tell Billy Wilder "I don't talk like that!!!" (The Guardian)). Curtis came up with the idea of doing Shell Oil Junior as Mr. Grant, rather than just talk like Joe. Wilder, who had always wanted to work with Mr. Grant, was amused. Curtis, who later did a tribute to Mr. Grant for TCM, stated that he wanted to imitate Mr. Grant because it implied culture, and because he had always wanted to work with Cary Grant.

The film was originally to be shot in color, but the makeup that the men wore was just too outlandish in color. Though Marilyn Monroe had expected (and wanted) to appear in a color film, Billy Wilder showed her the color rushes - she agreed to the switch to black and white.
When you watch this film today, you wonder how Mr. Wilder and Mr. Diamond were able to pull of this very daring film (the film was condemned by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency). Yet, despite its edginess, audiences embraced it when it opened (see this TCM Article for more on the film's release). Very loosely based on a German film (Fanfaren Der Liebe) in which two musicians cross-dress (among their many wardrobe changes) to get jobs, Wilder and Diamond added the 1930s gangster angle. Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor were considered for the parts of Jerry/Daphne and Sugar. At one point, Wilder wanted Danny Kaye and Bob Hope for Jerry and Joe, but ultimately decided on Curtis and Lemmon.

For all those Star Trek fans out there, watch for Grace Lee Whitney (in the unbilled role, Rosella). She's very obvious in the party scene on the train to Florida. 

Though it did well at the box office, it didn't garner all that many awards - Golden Globe Awards for both Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe (the Globe has awards for acting in comedies, which surely helped against the juggernaut of Ben Hur). History has been kinder the to the film, and besides being first on the AFI comedy list, it is also #22 on the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Films, 10th Edition, as well as #48 on AFI's 100 Greatest Quotes of All Time. I'm going to leave you with that quote.  Quite frankly, the line IS perfect!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Barbara Runs an Orphanage

Steve Bradford (James Cagney) owns a steel company. He worked his way up from the bottom, and is now wealthy and powerful. But, he longs for something he threw away years before. As a young man, he impregnated his girlfriend, but refused to acknowledge her or his child. Unmarried and childless, Steve wants to find the son he abandoned 20 years before. He arrives at The Haven, the orphanage where his child was placed, to ask the supervisor, Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck) for information on the boy's whereabouts - information Ann cannot give him. While there, Steve befriends unwed mother Suzie Keller (Betty Lou Keim), who awaits the birth - and adoption - of her own child. Reminded of the family he rejected, Steve finds himself becoming closer to Suzie, as he tries to open the records that will lead to his son.

These Wilder Years (1956) is a film trying to make a point, and it does a good job of it. In 1956, once a child was given up for adoption, the natural parents had no rights - after all, most adoptions were results of unwed relationships, and the mother was considered morally suspect (see The Adoption History Project for more information on the topic). Children of adoption were discouraged from seeking out their natural parents; records were closed, ostensibly to protect the child. It wasn't until the 1970s that a movement began to open adoption records, and allow birth parents and their offspring to connect.  (Not that this was the first film about adoption - Our Very Own in 1950 had already tread the ground, though the marital status of Gail's parents is underplayed. And Blossoms in the Dust (1941) had looked at adoption through the lens of the illegitimate child.). Thus, the idea of a parent - an illegitimate parent - wanting to contact his child was fairly new and perhaps dicey.

Let's get it on the table that there isn't ANYTHING that James Cagney cannot do. Naturally, he is excellent in this film - he is able to make you both like and loathe Steve Bradford simultaneously. As the facts about Steve's past actions are revealed, a lesser actor would lose his audience. Cagney, however, keeps the viewer engaged - his eyes reveal the disgust that he feels for himself; thus, you root for him to find some semblance of peace. 
That Stanwyck and Cagney only appeared in the same film this one time is a shame, as they are wonderful together.  Stanwyck has the capacity to go toe-to-toe with this tough guy and not blink, yet at the same time retain her dignity and femininity. Ann's integrity shines from Stanwyck; at the same time, she portrays a sympathy for him that is genuine. However, you never worry that she will pull the routine of sacrificing her integrity for the man she loves. If Ann does start to love Steve (though the real "romance" here is Steve and Suzie),  it is not something that gets in the way of her ability to perform her job. Stanwyck, however, was not the first choice for the role - both Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes were considered. In fact, it appeared Ms. Hayes would do the part until she abruptly withdrew due to "scheduling conflicts." (AFI catalog)

This is a film that is very much about counterpoints. We have Steve and his unseen lover, compared to Suzie and her unseen lover. We have the two lawyers, the scrupulous James Rayburn (Walter Pidgeon) and the slimy Leland G. Spottsford (Edward Andrews). Finally, we have the two sons that are the results of the affairs - one an adult, the other just born, whose lives are impacted by the actions of their parents. But (without spoilers), the ending for all are satisfactory, if not necessarily the ending each person wanted.
According to the AFI catalog, Debbie Reynolds was offered the role of Suzie, but turned it down because she was uncomfortable with playing an unwed mother (perhaps she was afraid of being typecast. That same year, she played an unwed mother of sorts in Bundle of Joy - a musical remake of Bachelor Mother). Susan Strasberg was also considered, but ultimately the part went to the relative unknown Betty Lou Keim. Ms. Keim had already done some television, but this was her first feature film, and the trailer to the film (below) advertised a new star in the making. But that stardom never came. After a few more films and television performances, Ms. Keim married actor Warren Berlinger and retired from acting in 1960. The marriage produced four children and lasted until her death in 2010, at the age of 71.
Two other young actors got a boost to their careers in this film. Don Dubbins (Mark Nelson) had done some uncredited parts in feature films, and had been appearing on television. But, as a result of this part, Mr. Dubbins was cast in Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) with James Cagney (this TCM article states that Mr. Cagney requested him for the film). Mr. Dubbins would work steadily in television (primarily) until his retirement around 1988; he died from cancer in 1991; he was 63.  Mr. Dubbins appeared in episodes of three television series: Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. The star of those shows also appeared for a nanosecond in this film - Michael Landon made his film debut as Boy in Poolhall (if you blink, you miss him. We did!)
The New York Times' Bosley Crowther gave the film a negative review calling it "hackneyed and slushy," but we disagree wholeheartedly. We suggest you give it a try, and leave you with a scene featuring Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Cagney:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Elliot Flies

One of the real delights of modern technology is being able to see a phenomenal film, with an outstanding score performed by a live orchestra.  I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform John William's entrancing score to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), as the movie played behind them. This is a film in which the music is intrinsic to the intensity of the film as a whole. Try and picture Elliot and E.T. flying before the full moon without Mr. Williams soaring score - it just wouldn't be as effective. Your pleasure is doubled when the orchestra is sitting there with you, helping to make the film come to life. Not surprisingly, the score is #14 in AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores, with John Williams winning the Oscar for Best Score that year (Mr. Williams has won five Oscars out of 50 nominations), as well as the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and three Grammys.

The story of an alien, accidentally abandoned on Earth by his colleagues, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, follows the adventures of E.T. and the young boy, Elliot (Henry Thomas) who befriends him. It's a beautiful story that I actually saw when it first opened (I stood on line at the Kips Bay Theatre in New York City to see a preview, and befriended some like-minded gentlemen. We held each others places on line, sat together in the theatre, and cried in all the same scenes. I've never seen them again, but if they ever read this, just know it was a special evening of camaraderie for me).
The beauty of E.T. is the relationships of the children; adults, like Elliot's mother Mary (Dee Wallace) are either oblivious or menacing.  For the children, after some moments of shock, E.T. becomes a friend - they recognize him as someone that is nonthreatening. Yes, E.T. is initially a plaything - witness Elliot's comment to older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), "I'm keeping him," like E.T. is a lost puppy; or Gertie (Drew Barrymore) dressing E.T. up like one of her dolls. But in the end, it is the three children and Michael's friends, who risk all to get E.T. home. 

At the 1983 Oscars, E.T. was nominated for 9 awards (including Best Picture and Best Direction for Steven Spielberg). Including the Score award for Mr. Williams, the film won a total of 4 awards, the others for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects. But the film was up against Gandhi that year (which won both Picture and Direction). It wasn't until 1993, that Mr. Spielberg finally one a Best Direction Oscar - for Schindler's List, which, to date, is the ONLY one of his films that has one the Best Picture nod. He's won best Direction twice (the other award for Saving Private Ryan in 1999)
Despite that oversight, E.T. is #24 on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list, and it has also been included on the AFI 100 Year, 100 Cheers list (at #6), as well as AFI 100 Years, 100 Quotes (#15 for, what else, "E.T. phone home").

There was a scene in the film in which Elliot is scolded by the school principal that was eventually cut from the film - the principal was played by Harrison Ford. Peter Coyote (Keys) met Spielberg when he auditioned for the part of Indiana Jones; Dee Wallace came to Spielberg's attention through her work in the television show Skag. Producer Kathleen Kennedy spent 6 months interviewing child actors before settling on her cast. (AFI catalog).
Reese's Pieces became quite a "thing" after the film's release; however, the producers originally contacted Mars for permission to use M&Ms. Mars said no - the film would frighten little children. (TCM article). All I can say is I bet there is a Mars executive out there who has been kicking himself for 35 years!

I'll leave you with the scene that perhaps is most emblematic of the effect of Mr. Williams impressive score. It is not just the special effects that make Elliot fly!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Claudia's a Young Mother

Claudia and David (1946) picks up nearly four years after we left the Naughtons in Claudia.  Claudia (Dorothy McGuire) is very much involved in mothering her little son, Bobby (Anthony Sydes), with the assistance of Bertha (Elsa Janssen), who now serves both as nanny and housekeeper. While at a dinner party hosted by David's sister-in-law Julia (Gail Patrick), the Naughtons meet Elizabeth Van Doren (Mary Astor), a wealthy widow who wants to completely redesign the farm which she purchased some years before. David (Robert Young) is thrilled to be offered what he sees as a dream job, but Claudia becomes annoyed at the amount of time David is spending on the project, pulling him away from home for longer periods of time.

There was no difference in opinion on this one - the entire group enjoyed the film, and found the more mature Claudia very appealing.  Sure, we have an initial driving sequence where we discover that Claudia is a terrible driver, but other than that, you spend a lot of the movie rooting for Claudia (and conversely getting very aggravated at David for being a total jerk).  Dorothy McGuire gives us a Claudia who wants to be a good mom; we know that she learned from the best, and it is reflected in her attitude towards her child. Her irritation towards David is the result of his unjustified petulance. David is almost blase about his son's illness and is oblivious to Claudia's concerns when she suspects the little boy is ill. I found myself cheering when she told him off.
One scene in particular is very telling in demonstrating the growth of the character of Claudia. Confronted by Edith Dexter (Rose Hobart), the wife of neighbor Philip Dexter (John Sutton), who has been visiting Claudia and little Bobby (Philip had driven Claudia home the night before, when he realized her concern about her child's health), Claudia is able to ultimately disregard Edith's nastiness (Edith smacks Claudia across the face), and have a kind and moving heart-to-heart with the older woman. Claudia's gentleness of spirit shines through, and you can see her reflecting back the teachings of her mother.

It's always good to see Jerome Cowan (Brian O'Toole); and he is very good in the part of stage medium.  We did feel that Brian's telling Claudia that David is going to have an accident seemed a bit over-the-top for a man who is essentially a performer. It is perhaps that the screenwriter wanted Claudia to seem silly for believing him, but her naive belief in him isn't all that odd - he's summoned up memories of her late mother, and already convinced several of the other dinner-party attendees of his veracity. By the conclusion of the film, you do have to wonder if he really has ANY psychic powers.
This was Anthony Sydes first film; though his name was not immediately familiar, he had a respectable career as a child actor.   Most of us probably remember him as Thelma Ritter's son, Peter in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or as Tony in Sitting Pretty (1948).  Born in 1941, he worked in films and television until he was 17 years old, after which, he joined the Army, serving two tours in Vietnam. His next career was as a professional auctioneer - he started an auction business and an auction college (to train new professionals in the field). His firm was still in business in 2015 when he died at age 74.  (For more information, see this obituary in The Hollywood Reporter).

For those of you who might wonder if the mustard bath that is used was actually a treatment of the time, it was. It was a long-time home remedy for fever.  By 1949, according to this Archives of Disease in Childhood article, it was considered by doctors, at any rate, as a way to keep parents busy until the doctor could arrive (back in the era of house calls!) -  much the way Philip sets Claudia doing tasks that will keep her occupied until the Doctor (Harry Davenport)'s arrival.

We also enjoyed John Sutton, who gave Philip a kindness that (for us) eliminated any thought of a pursuit of Claudia.  Sutton had a fascinating life - before becoming an actor, he worked as a tea plantation manager, a hunter, and a rancher; living in what is now Pakistan (where he was born), China, Malaya, and the Philippines. With over 103 film and television credits, he had an impressive career (usually as a villain or second lead) in such films as Jane Eyre (1944), Captain from Castile (1947), and The Three Musketeers (1948). He died of a heart attack in Cannes in 1963, age 54.
The New York Times review was fairly positive, though we think they were harder on Claudia then she deserves (and much kinder to David than HE deserved). There was a third Claudia film planned (AFI Catalog), but as Ms. McGuire and Mr. Young were never free at the same time, the picture never happened. Regardless, this is a nice conclusion to the series, and worth a visit.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Dorothy Marries Young

Claudia (1943) Brown Naughton (Dorothy McGuire) and her architect husband David (Robert Young), live on a farm outside of New York City.  Recently married, Claudia is having a hard time adapting to her new life. She can't balance a checkbook, she's convinced her husband doesn't find her attractive (when he actually adores her), and she misses her mother (Ina Claire) terribly. Unbeknownst to Claudia, Mrs. Brown is ill; Mrs. Brown has told David that she will be seeing a doctor immediately. In the meantime, Claudia is trying to convince David to sell the farm and rent an apartment in the City - nearer to her mother.

The reaction among our group to Claudia were mixed, primarily because of the title character. Let's face it, Claudia Naughton is very immature. But, that is the point - just barely 18, never really away from her mother, Claudia is a lost lamb. And David, in trying to encourage her to grow up, isn't helping all that much. He's taken a city girl, and plunked her down on a farm, pretty much alone all day (yes, there are servants, but they can't provide the emotional support she needs). David is in the city all day at work, and Claudia is trapped at home. She's having to cope with the farm, as well as run the household - and the girl has never balanced a checkbook in her life. So, if she is eager to get out of Connecticut and back to New York City, who can really blame her? What perhaps is more problematic is her inability to understand that David loves her and finds her attractive - resulting in her kissing lothario Jerry Seymour (Reginald Gardiner) in her husband's presence. That IS a bit much.
Though released in 1943, it's apparent that Claudia is set before the start of the war (the play on which the screenplay is based opened in February of 1941). The perfectly able-bodied David is not set to go into the army, and he asks Claudia if she has heard of The Depression. Claudia is a flashback to an earlier and perhaps less painful time.

Dorothy McGuire came to Hollywood and this film, her first, straight from the New York stage, where she starred in the run of this play (from February of 1941 to January of 1943; Olga Baclanova and Frank Tweddell also came over from the play).  Ms. McGuire would return to the stage several times after she she arrived in Hollywood. She was not a shoo-in for the part - Jennifer Jones, Joan Fontaine, and Katharine Hepburn were all considered.

In the years that followed this film, Ms. McGuire made some remarkable film, including The Enchanted Cottage (1945), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Spiral Staircase (1946), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and Gentleman's Agreement (1947) (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress). She worked fairly steadily until 1990; she would become a staple at Disney in films such as Old Yeller (1957) and (one of my favorites) Summer Magic (1963). She also made the transition to television, appearing in television films like She Waits (1972) and episodic TV such as St. Elsewhere (1986). Yet, despite this, she's really not acknowledged as one of the "greats" perhaps because, with her quiet beauty and low key performances, she literally melts into her characters.  In fact, after she died in 2001 (at the age of 85), she was NOT included in the Academy's "In Memoriam" at the 2002 Oscars! Married to photographer Tom Swope from 1943 until his death in 1979, Ms. McGuire had two children.
Robert Young is fine as David, though his lack of understanding of his very young bride does make you want to throttle him at times. Does he really need to tease her about her attractiveness when she is so obviously insecure? And bringing a teenager, with no knowledge of life outside a big city to a farm, then leaving her there all day to fend for herself seems inconsiderate. Young wasn't the only actor considered for the part: Cary Grant, Franchot Tone, and Don Ameche were all considered (AFI Catalog).

By far, the most appealing character in the piece is Ina Claire as Mrs. Brown.  Claudia's mother is very aware of her daughter's foibles, and desperately needs Claudia to grow up. Regardless, she is a loving mother AND mother-in-law. Her affection and regard for David are genuine, and his regard is mutual. The lack of backstory in the film proves to be a deficit; one wonders how Claudia and David met, and why Claudia, with such a capable mother, is such a flibbertigibbet-gibbet? But we can assume that Mrs. Brown believed Claudia would gain maturity in college and with time, and would learn to do some of the tasks in which she is now immersed a bit more gradually.
Claudia was based on a series of short stories and books about the character. There was a second movie (which we will discuss next time), a radio show, and a television series (with Joan McCracken as Claudia). While the film is not perfect, it is certainly worth a viewing, if for no other reason than to see Dorothy McGuire's screen debut. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Savage Clara

Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) is the latest in a family of passionate individuals.  Her grandfather, Silas Jennings (Fred Kohler) indulged in an extramarital affair on the wagon train west; her mother Ruth (Estelle Taylor) fell passionately in love with the Native American Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn).  Nasa is prone to wild outbursts and fits of temper, and the only one who seems to understand her is her best friend, the half-Native American Moonglow (Gilbert Rowland). Nasa tries to be accommodating to her father Pete (Willard Robertson), but when he decides to announce her engagement to HIS pick for her spouse, Nasa impulsively elopes with ne'er-do-well Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), causing a serious rift with her father.

Based on a novel by Tiffany Thayer (who Ben Hecht called "a fellow pornographer"), Call Her Savage (1932) is about as pre-code as you can get. We've got adultery, attempted rape, venereal disease, prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, and various states of undress (my colleague's review at Pre-code.com will give you a bit more information and images!). With all that included, it's rather frightening to realize that the producers took things OUT of the film that were just really too extreme even for a pre-code film (The article at the AFI Catalog goes into a great deal of detail outlining some of the scenes in the book that didn't make the movie.)

As portrayed by Clara Bow (the film was developed for her, according to this TCM article), Nasa is a bit of a wildcat, and the scenes where Nasa throws a temper-tantrum tend to be over-the-top.  However, when Ms. Bow is quiet, as in a scene where she sits on the floor beside her mother, or when she is trying to decide how to get money to support her child, her genuineness is quite touching. An experienced silent actress, Ms. Bow still relies on some of those tricks to get her point across.  At the same time, her skills as an actress enable her to do more with just her eyes then most actors can do with their whole bodies.
Clara Bow's life was not easy.  Her father abandoned her and her mother when Clara was very young. Her mother was mentally ill and at one point threatening her daughter with a knife as Clara lay in bed. It seemed that Hollywood might change all that, as Clara became more and more successful - nicknamed the "It Girl" because whatever "It" was, she had It (TCM article), she appeared in the first picture to win an Academy Award (Wings), and made the transition to talkies. But, the betrayal of her former secretary, who laundered much of Ms. Bow's dirty laundry in public during a court case, as well as her anxieties regarding her performances in sound films, caused her to retire. She'd recently married cowboy star Rex Bell; they would have two children and settle on a ranch in Nevada. Clara, however, became increasingly reclusive and uncommunicative; when Bell decided to run government office, Clara attempted to kill herself. Clara was briefly hospitalized for her disorders; though she and Bell never divorced, she ended up living alone in a bungalow on their property. Ms. Bow died of a heart attack at age 65, in 1965.  (See also this article from The Guardian in 2016)

Thelma Todd  as Sunny De Lane is not well served here. She has very little to do except be petulant and nasty.  As Larry Crosby's lover, she spends most of her time taunting Larry and insulting Nasa. An actress of some skill, especially in comedic roles, Call Her Savage is really a waste of her time.

It was good to again see Monroe Owsley, who we've encountered in a number of pre-code film - usually as the villain. And he certainly is playing that character here. Larry Crosby is a reprehensible human being, who takes joy out of humiliating people. His mad scene is well done, and a later encounter with Nasa is full of venom. It's rather hard though to understand why Nasa is so taken with him - he's rather despicable. But, given Nasa's predilection for doing whatever her father DOESN'T want her to do, marrying Larry is perfectly in character.
We also wish there had been a bit more of Gilbert Roland. An attractive man, he is even more admirable in this film for his willingness to tolerate Nasa's fits of pique.  Mr. Roland would go on to a successful career in film and television, working until his retirement in 1994. Though he has an equally small role in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), he uses what he has to memorable effect. He's also wonderful opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950).

The New York Times, in its review of November of 1932, was not terrifically impressed with the picture. The reviewer complements Mr. Owsley and Mr. Rowland, but felt Ms. Bow overdid it a tad. We'll leave you with a scene from later in the film, where Nasa gives in to her frustrations. Our suggestion - watch the quiet moments:

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