Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lawyer Elsie

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Barbara's Secret Marriage

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

We'll Alway Have Paris

It is the 75th Anniversary of Casablanca (1942) and to celebrate AFI Silver featured the film for several days. I've seen the film more times than I can count on television and home video; I've also seen it several times on a big screen, but when your friend tells you that she's NEVER seen the film, what can you do but go again? The opportunity to see the # 1 film on AFI's list of 100 Years, 100 Passions, not to mention #2 on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Films list with a neophyte is just too good to resist. It really is like getting to see the film AGAIN for the first time.

If you are like my friend, and have never seen Casablanca, a quick plot rundown is in order (then again, if you've never seen Casablanca, stop reading this blog, and go watch the movie!)  It's December 1941, and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns a successful cafe and (illegal) casino in Casablanca. The cafe is inhabited primarily by refugees, trying to get to America. But, on the night when black marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is arrested for the murder of German couriers (they were carrying non-revocable letters of transit), Rick's past catches up with him, in the form of his lost love, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).
It's likely that Casablanca is one of the most written about films in movie history - I know of four, one of which was just released: We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg (2017); The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II by Aljean Harmetz (2002), Casablanca: Behind the Scenes by Harlen Lebo and Julius Epstein (1992); and Casablanca: Script and Legend by Howard Koch (1995). As a result, it has a much storied history.

For example, the rumor (fed by a Hollywood Reporter news item) that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were to play Rick and Ilsa has been debunked by numerous sources (including Ms. Harmetz). Ms. Harmetz also clarifies the rumor that George Raft was offered the role - his name was suggested, however producer Hal Wallis wanted Humphrey Bogart. Ms. Harmetz also relates Paul Henried's (Victor Laslo) later antipathy for the part of Victor Laslo, and his disregard for Humphrey Bogart. He told the author in 1992 that "Mr. Bogie was nobody.... Before Casablanca he was nobody...he was a mediocre actor." To give him credit where credit is due, he had had a successful theatrical and film career in German before the rise of the Nazis, and had appeared on the New York stage as well.
Though Casablanca is really a fairly simple story of love and loss in time of war, what makes it unique and so thoroughly re-watchable is the dialogue. In AFI's list of  100 Years, 100 Quotes  for SIX of the 100 quotes, starting at #5 with "Here's looking at you, Kid."  The rest of this amazing list is: #20 - "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," #28 - "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'," #32 - "Round up the usual suspects, #43- "We'll always have Paris," and #67 - "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."  It doesn't include the lines like "I was misinformed" (see the clip at the end), or "Are my eyes really brown?" I could go on, but you get the point. Check out these TCM articles for some quote that did not make the film!

Some of the more clever lines are uttered by that master of delivery Claude Rains as Louis Renault. Both my friend and I love "Serves me right for not being musical," said when Louis discovers where Rick hid the letters of transit, or "I'm shocked, SHOCKED to find out that gambling is going on in here," as Louis collects his gambling winnings. As always, Mr. Rains is an amazing actor; it is hard to keep your eyes from him when he is working - even in his stillness there is wit shining through.
The other actor who is impressive (besides our key three players, of course) is Conrad Veidt  as Major Strasser. A star of German cinema (Veidt is perhaps best remembered from his amazing performance as the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)), Veidt left Germany in 1933. His wife was a Jew, and Veidt despised the Nazis. He emigrated first to England, then to the United States, where it seems that his most memorable roles were as Nazis (such as All Through the Night (1942) and Escape (1940)). He donated large sums of money to the war effort (TCM article); Veidt also required that, if he were cast as a Nazi, that character must be a villain (Casablanca: As Time Goes By: 50th Anniversary Commemorative by Frank Miller). Unfortunately, Mr. Veidt did not get a chance to escape from the Nazi typecasting - he died of a heart attack in 1943, shortly after he finished filming Above Suspicion.

Of course, Mr. Veidt was not the only refugee appearing in the film: Madeline LeBeau (Yvonne), S. Z. Sakall  (Carl), Peter Lorre, Marcel Dalio (Emil the Croupier), Helmut Dantine (Jan Brandel), and Paul Henreid were among the actors who escaped from German and the occupied nations to work in Hollywood. (AFI catalog)

In 1944, Casablanca won 3 Oscars in 1944 (Film, Michael Curtiz (Director), Adapted Screenplay (Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch)) and was nominated for 6 others including Best Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Rains), Score (Max Steiner), Editing, and Cinematography. It appears on several other AFI lists:AFI 100 Years, 100 Cheers at #32, AFI's top Heroes, with Rick Blaine at #4, and 100 Years, 100 Thrills at #37. But the true test of the film is watching it again and again (which I have). It's a picture which you decide you will watch JUST this one scene and end up watching the whole movie.  I'll leave you this this conversation between Rick and Louis, and another wonderful Rick quote:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Robert and Norma Dance

The Marletts seem like a happy family. Daughter Lucia (Norma Shearer), or Lally as she is fondly called, adores both her parents, and they seemingly have a strong marriage. But all is not as it appears; Henry (Hal) Marlett (Lewis Stone) leaves his wife Harriet (Belle Bennett) for Beth Cheevers (Helene Millard). The separation alienates Lally from her father, and sours her on men. She decides (at the urging of her mother) to never marry. But that resolve is short-lived after meeting Jack (Robert Montgomery) at a party. Their Own Desire (1929) tells the story of what may be a doomed relationship.

Both Ms. Shearer and Mr. Montgomery are quite good as the young lovers. Ms. Shearer was already an experienced silent actress, and this was her third talking film; Mr. Montgomery came to film directly from the New York stage, and seems comfortable in what is for Hollywood a new medium.  He and Ms. Shearer would eventually appear in five films together (this was their first). Their acting (and that of Lewis Stone) is surprisingly subdued, given the film's proximity to the silent era. Ms Shearer would be nominated for an Oscar for her work as Lally, however she lost to herself in The Divorcee (TCM article).
Belle Bennett, however is still acting as though she is in a silent film - there is much emoting, much throwing her body around to convey emotions she has just spoken. As a result, the character of Harriet appears emotionally unstable. But Harriet is also written as being quite selfish. Certainly, she's had a hard blow with her husband's betrayal, but to force a promise from her young daughter to never marry and stay always with her is tantamountly unfair. Ms. Bennett had had a long career in silent films - her first was in 1913. Whether she would have ultimately made the transition to sound is unclear - she died of cancer in 1932, at the age of 41.

The part of Beth Cheevers is horribly underwritten. We have no clue as to why Hal would love her. At first, one wonders if she is a gold-digger, but as the story unfolds, we are informed that her former husband (whom she divorced to marry Hal) was quite well off financially. As written, Beth seems an unconcerned mother, a cold wife, and a nasty rival. All and all, Helene Millard is given little to work with, and nothing she does makes Beth relate-able.
Though based on a novel that was released the year before the film (AFI catalog), the script leaves something to be desired. Some plot aspects are problematic, as if the writers don't seem to know whether to concentrate on our young lovers, or on their parents. There is a scene in which Hal and Beth go to the country club and are shunned by their former friends. It's one scene, and it goes nowhere. The audience is going to find it hard to sympathize with either of them, so it is unclear why time is taken up with it. This is, however, definitely a pre-code film - witness that our adulterers are never punished for their actions, and there is a suggestion that Lally and Jack spend a night of passion together.
While the script is no great shakes, and some of the acting is dated, the interactions between Ms. Shearer and Mr. Montgomery is certainly worth the short running time of the film.  We'll leave you with this early scene, in which Lally and Jack share a dance.

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 trailer, which introducess 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.