Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Barbara and the Cavalry

The Cavalry has been ordered to capture Apache chief Nachez (Rudolfo Acosta). Trooper Hook (1957) leads the successful raid. One of the survivors is Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck), a white woman captured by the Apache many years before, who has born Nachez a son, Quito (Terry Lawrence). Though her "rescuers" suggest leaving the boy with "his people", Cora refuses to give up her child. Sargeant Hook (Joe McCrea) is ordered to return Cora to her husband, Fred (John Dehner). Their journey will take them into a land where both Cora and Quito are despised.

If you are not a fan of Westerns, you might have missed this excellent film. In fact, you might have missed it even if you DO like Westerns - it isn't always on the list of the best Westerns, and it should be. With a strong cast, led by two outstanding actors, the film tells a tale of bias in a more-or-less traditional Western format.

As always, Barbara Stanwyck is magnificent as a woman whose world has been upturned twice in her lifetime. Her silence as we meet her sets the tone for the film - hearing a language that has become unfamiliar, suspicious of her "rescuers", Cora is first and foremost a mother who wants only to protect her child. We watch fear and suspicion play over her face, we see her tentative movements. She silently bears the verbal abuse of Colonel Adam Weaver (Patrick O'Moore), she hides from his wife, Ann (Jeanne Bates). But when some townspeople assault her son, she is silent no more. Venom spews from her mouth in a torrent, as she attacks them with a shovel. This is no meek victim; this is a survivor. One lovely moment early in the film has a storekeeper, who has witnessed the harassment of Cora and Quito, waving goodbye to her. Ms. Stanwyck's tentative wave and shy smile are a testament to her ability to convey every emotion with the merest flicker of her eyes.
Joel McCrea's prior relationship with Ms. Stanwyck serves them in good stead in the picture (see this TCM article for a brief rundown of some of the earlier work together). Trooper Hook is also a survivor, with a backstory that parallel's Cora's. Mr. McCrea presents a stoic front, but we also quickly realize that he is an unusual man. Though Natchez is his enemy, he admires him for his dedication to his people. He also admires Cora because she survived. He understands the depths to which the survival instinct can bring you. Mr. McCrea's stoicism is not, however, without feeling. Like his co-star, we learn about him from his eyes and from his stance. His affections and integrity radiate from him without discussion.
Earl Holliman (Jeff Bennett) is a delightful surprise in this film. His character is interesting; unlike most of the men Cora meets, he casts no judgement on her and is delighted by little Quito. Mr. Holliman brings a balance to the film - not everyone is biased against the Native population. It's also fascinating that Jeff falls hard for Consuela Sandoval (Susan Kohner), as a young Mexican woman en route to her arranged marriage. The attraction is mutual, and there is an implication that Consuela may not be adverse to breaking her engagement. Here too, we see that Jeff is not interested in ethnicity. He responds to people as individuals.

The only real pointless character in the film is that of Charlie Travers, as played by Edward Andrews. Mr. Andrews has a tendency to play broadly, and he certainly does so in this film. As a result, Travers is a disappointing caricature. Though the character is inconsistent, we felt that, in abler hands, the part might have been more interesting.
Terry Lawrence, who played Quito is very appealing in the part. According to the IMDB, this was his only film role, but on his webpage, Mr. Lawrence mentions that he did some television and commercial work. He is now a musician.

The AFI catalog mentions that Jody McCrea (Joel's son) and director Charles Marquis Warren's mother, wife, and three children all were listed by The Hollywood Reporter as appearing in the film. Jody appears as Trooper Whitaker, but there is no confirmation of the Warren family's work in the final film.

The paring of Ms. Stanwyck with Mr. McCrea is an inspired one, and both do credit to this timely story. There is a lovely balance to it, with the bigotry of characters like Colonel Weaver and Fred Sutliff carefully balanced by the acceptance of Ann Weaver and Jeff Bennett. This is a remarkable film, and one worth your viewing.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Clark's in Advertising

Victor Albee Norman (Clark Gable) has just returned to New York City after several years service in the military during World War II. Vic is determined to make up for lost time by getting a job in advertising; but not just any job. He wants a high-paying one. He approaches "Kim" Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou) about employ in his agency, but Kimberly is skeptical. He has a problem client, Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet) who takes up much of the firm's time, and the only hiring he might do would be someone that would placate the troublesome Mr. Evans. Vic is quite certain he is that man as he enters the world of The Hucksters (1947)

Having served as an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Clark Gable returned to MGM to appear with Greer Garson in the film Adventure (1945). Advertised with the tag line "Gable's back and Garson's got him", the film proved a disappointment to all. Seemingly, there was little chemistry between the pair. It took two years for MGM to pair Mr. Gable with neophyte Deborah Kerr (Kay Dorrance) ("It rhymes with Star!" said MGM's publicity department), and it doesn't hurt that Mr. Gable also had the superb Ava Gardner (Jean Ogilvie) to bounce off of as well!  This time, MGM's investment paid off, with the film making double the studio's investment.
The Hucksters is a fascinating examination of the world of advertising. Certainly, there are times when its message seems a bit over-the-top, but by and large it paints a picture of the advertising world that would later be echoed in the film The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) and in the television show Mad Men.   Based on a novel by Frederick Wakeman, the film is a much sanitized version, as Gable was unwilling to play the part as originally written, calling it "filthy and not entertainment." (AFI catalog). For example, Kay in the book was not a widow - she was very much married and Mr. Gable objected to his character having an affair with a married woman.

Even cleaned up, The Hucksters can be a strong indictment of the world of Madison Avenue. Take the character of Kim, and his drunken confession concerning his career's start. Or, the way in which Vic, who is by and large a good man, manipulates Dave Lash (Edward Arnold) to get what he wants. There is no question that life in this world results in a compromise of integrity if one is to succeed.
Though Mr. Gable was initially reluctant to star in the film, he was extremely supportive of his two co-stars once production started. He'd ask that Ms. Kerr do a screen test; obviously, once he saw it, he was more than satisfied - he had six dozen roses awaiting her in her dressing room. Ms. Kerr later stated that "He did everything possible to put me at my ease, and was a man utterly without regard for himself as a film technician, or for his status in movies." (TCM article) He was similarly supportive of Ms. Gardner, who'd had one major role the year before (she'd done a number of films, often uncredited) in The Killers. When Ms. Gardner had to perform in the night club scene (to an audience of no one - all the extras had left for the day), Mr. Gable arrived, sat down in front of her, providing her with an audience. They became fast friends, and would appear in two other films together (Lone Star (1952) and Mogambo (1953)).
Edward Arnold is excellent in the small role of Dave Lash, an agent who's client, Buddy Hare (Keenan Wynn) has caught the attention of Mr. Evans. Thanks to Gable's demand for changes to the script, the character of Dave Lash was made less charged. Mr. Wakeman's book had made much of Dave's ethnicity - his Jewish heritage was used as a club against him. Instead, the script changes Dave to a man who had had a bit of trouble in his past, but has spent his adult life trying to help children live a better life than he had. Allegedly, Wakeman built the book's character on agent Jules Stein, the founder of MCA (Freddie Callahan as portrayed by George O'Hanlon, was initially a caricature of Lew Wasserman).

A tip of the hat as well goes to the delightfully crude Evan Llewellyn Evans, as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet. Mr. Greenstreet pulls no punches in making Evans totally reprehensible. The audience is both amused and revolted by his antics, making Vic's rebellion against him a delight to watch. Also watch for Keenan Wynn as the atrocious comic Buddy Hare. His awful routine also shows up the horrid taste of Mr. Evans.
The reviews from Variety and Life Magazine were lukewarm at best (Life said: "Opposite the ladylike Deborah, Clark Gable's mannered virility seems embarrassing - something that never happened to him alongside such tough Tessies as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow..). Regardless, the film made a respectable profit, Ms. Kerr's career was launched, and Mr. Gable was back the following year in the impressive Command Decision.
 
We'll leave you with a scene from the movie: the introduction of Evan Llewellyn Evans and a suggestion that you look this one up.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Queen Barbara

Jeff Young (or Younger) (Barry Sullivan) is on his way to Rock Creek, when he meets Lucy Lee (Mary Murphy), who's headed there as well to sell her cattle. When Jeff prevents Lucy from being raped by The Sundance Kid (Scott Brady) the two continue to the town together. Once there, Jeff gets a job with Kit Banion (Barbara Stanwyck), at her saloon The Maverick Queen (1956). Kit has been having an affair with Sundance, but is sick of his vulgarity, and finds Jeff to be a much more appealing man. However, Jeff's eagerness to meet the Hole in the Wall Gang arouses her suspicions.

We've already ascertained that Barbara Stanwyck can do anything, but Ms. Stanwyck is the perfect Western actress. She looks like she knows how to handle a gun, she looks like a horsewoman, she won't let anyone - man or woman - run her down. So we were really looking forward to this film. Well, we were wrong. The Maverick Queen is a pretty awful movie. And it's not that Ms. Stanwyck is bad in it - she's actually great. But she's got precious little to work with, and the rest of the cast is inferior at best. Ms. Stanwyck performed her own stunts in the film, by the way (TCM article)
I've previously mentioned my antipathy towards Barry Sullivan, and this movie is case in point as to why I don't like him. He plays Jeff totally flat - no emotion, and little reaction. He's got two beautiful women in love with him, and he can't even muster a smile. It's hard to believe that a woman as dynamic as Kit could fall in love with this nonentity, and Mr. Sullivan's performance doesn't help you to believe it.

Equally dull is the performance of Mary Murphy as Lucy. She's a pretty woman, but she is banal. She's supposed to be gutsy enough that she's willing to run a herd of cattle to market for sale, but you wouldn't believe it from her performance. Her career was not standout - she's remembered today for her performance in The Wild One (1953) - but does anyone remember any actor but Brando in that film? She did quite a bit of television, retiring in 1975.  She died in 2011 at the age of 80.
Scott Brady tries to play his role by not bathing and scowling a lot. Again, why in heavens a woman with the class of Kit would want to sleep with this guy is a mystery. This is not the Sundance Kid as played by Robert Redford thirteen years later; this is a nasty, mean, and crude individual with no class whatsoever.

It's always nice to see Jim Davis (Jeff Younger). He's possibly the only one of the bad guys with any kind of personality, and he's only in a couple of scene. Now, if Kit had been smitten with him, we might have believed it, but the casting department flubbed that one.
The script was based on a Zane Grey novel, which was a motivation for Ms. Stanwyck's appearance - she was a fan, and in fact made several appearances on the television series Zane Grey Theatre (hosted by and often starring Dick Powell). But, compare some of her TV scripts to this, and you'll see a big difference in quality. The tight television format was far more entertaining than this muddle.
With fight scenes that are almost laughable, and music by Victor Young (AFI catalog) that is trying to emulate High Noon, this one is a major disappointment. We will leave you with the film's opening, and a suggestion that you try a different Stanwyck western. We'll have a really good one for you shortly.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ronald Visits India

The life of Lord Robert Clive (Ronald Colman) is recounted in Clive of India (1935), a somewhat fictionalized account of his beginnings as a clerk for the East India company through his rise as a military officer and later diplomatic official.

Let's begin by saying that this is a very loose interpretation of the live of Robert Clive. For one thing, Lord Clive, as portrayed by Ronald Colman is a much nicer person than the real Lord Clive, who has been referred to by William Dalrymple as "an unstable sociopath" (The Guardian) because of his treatment of the Indian people. Clive's death is still a bit hazy - it's quite possible that he killed himself; at the very least, his dependence on opium was surely a contributing factor. Nevertheless, this filmed account of Clive makes him far more heroic than the real man ever was. (For more on Robert Clive, visit this Wikipedia article.)

Regardless of its take on history, this film belongs entirely to Ronald Colman. He is in nearly every scene, and dominates the movie. There are a number of fine supporting actors, but most have so little screen time, you are likely to miss some of them. Mr. Colman is not afraid to make Clive annoying at times. He's not really going for totally heroic - his Clive is ambitious, impulsive, violent at times, and a tad greedy. What the film does want to do is to mitigate Clive's attempted destruction of the Indian people in his quest for money (TCM article). It's all for their own good, and Colman is pretty much stuck with that attitude.
Loretta Young as Clive's wife, Margaret Maskelyne, is little more than window dressing. She is included to look supportive and sad, and gets to do very little else. A scene in which she leaves her sick child to accompany Clive back to India is created out of whole cloth - the Clives had nine children (four died in infancy), but their oldest boy, and the child born just before Robert and Margaret returned to India, Edward Clive, 1st Earl of Powis, lived to the age of 85. Why the screenwriters (R.J. Minney and W. P. Lipscomb) felt it necessary to insert this dismaying episode is beyond our ken. (It's also rather irksome that both parents refer to the child as "the boy". Really? Don't his parents know his name?)
Colin Clive, who has two very brief scenes as Clive's adversary  Captain Johnstone, was in fact a descendant of Robert Clive. Colin Clive was nearing the end of his career, though his second turn as Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein, was released in May of 1935 (our film was released in January). Mr. Clive started his film career as a leading man, but by 1935, he was becoming a supporting actor, perhaps due to his increasing dependence on alcohol. He died two years after Clive of India, of tuberculosis exacerbated by his alcoholism.
Even though he was only in a couple of scenes, it's always a pleasure to see Cesar Romero. Cast as  Mir Jaffar, an Indian lord, Mr. Romero brought to mind his portrayal of Ram Das in The Little Princess (1939). We wondered if this role led to his being cast as Indians in both the The Little Princess and Wee Willie Winkie (1937). Mr. Romero always played his parts - even when portraying a villain - with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. Clive of India is no exception; it would have been nice to have seen more of him in the film. Mr. Romero was not the first thought for the role - it was to have been given to George Regas (AFI catalog).
While there are some good scenes in the film - those with the battle elephants were quite impressive - this film is not going to be ranked among Mr. Colman's best. For Colman aficionados, it's worth a look. Otherwise, see Random Harvest or A Double Life.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ronald Has Amnesia

The first World War is ending, but for John Smith (Ronald Colman), it finished prematurely. Wounded in battle, he was discovered by the enemy, and eventually sent back to his country in an exchange. John will never return to the war - he has lost his memory, doesn't know who he is or where he came from, and is virtually unable to speak. But he desperately wants to leave the hospital and resume some kind of normal life. So, when an opportunity presents itself, he walks out of the hospital, and is befriended by Music Hall performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). We'll be discussing Random Harvest (1942) this week.

While we endeavor to keep spoilers to a minimum, Random Harvest has so many twists and turns that it is next to impossible to not reveal something in any discussion of the film. So, if you've never seen it before, you might want to watch it before reading our discussion. Or at least be aware that a number of important plot points occur and characters are introduced because of surprise changes in the storyline.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizon (that highly successful 1937 film featured Ronald Colman) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the film that in 1939 introduced Greer Garson to American audiences). The book is significantly longer than the film, and has a narrative voice that does not appear in the film. And one of the surprises that appears early in the film is saved for the final page of the book. Otherwise, the screenplay is faithful to the book.

Ronald Colman (while a bit old for the character) is absolutely amazing. He really has to play three characters in the film: the shell-shocked John Smith, the loving Smithy, and the aristocratic Charles Rainier. While I'm not fond of the scene in which Dr. Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) bring Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd (Charles Waldron and Elisabeth Risdon), the parents of a missing soldier, in to see if John might be their son, Colman gives it just the right level of hopefulness. It also establishes John's desperate need to leave the asylum - without a family to go to, it seems likely that he will molder in the hospital until his will to fight is gone. Mr. Colman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance - he lost to James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy - as well as by the New York Film Critics. As two recent pictures had not done well - Lucky Partners (1940) and My Life with Caroline (1941) - this film (along with Talk of the Town (1942) put Mr. Colman back on top of the box office. (TCM article)
Greer Garson is radiant as Paula; like Mr. Colman, she too has to go through several "personalities," though not as drastic as his. With her warm smile and easy grace, it's no wonder that Smithy trusts her instantly. That he could ever forget about her is perhaps the only puzzle of the movie (though we are not at all stunned that even Dr. Benet is in love with her). Ms Garson gets an opportunity to sing in this film (wearing a the shortest kilt on record!). She does an impressive job, and imitates Sir Harry Lauder to boot in the "She's My Daisy" number.  Ms. Garson was not nominated for an Oscar for this role, but it's not all that surprising given that she WON that year for her impressive work in Mrs. Miniver.

Susan Peters, as Rainier's step-niece Kitty, does an excellent job in a role for which Donna Reed was initially considered (AFI catalog). She has to age from approximately 15 to 25, and also make us understand that her attraction to Charles is more than a schoolgirl crush. She achieves this ultimately when she decides they are not destined for each other. Her sympathy for Charles, combined with her understanding of her own needs as a woman endear her to the viewer. Ms. Peters was nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver), and she won the Supporting Actress award from the National Board of Review.
Ms. Peters had a sadly short career, appearing in only 24 films and television shows (much of her early work is uncredited). Three years after the release of Random Harvest, Ms. Peters was out hunting with her husband, Richard Quine and some of their friends. She reached down to pick up a rifle; it discharged into her stomach, the bullet logging in her spine. Though MGM supported her through her hospitalization, the realization that she was wheelchair-bound impelled them to pay out her contract. She did work after that, but rarely. Her most notable roles were in The Sign of the Ram (1948), in which she was the villain, and a television series Martinsville, U.S.A. as a lawyer (years before Raymond Burr was a hit as a wheelchair-bound detective in Ironside). She was also able to get some stage work - Tennessee Williams notably altered The Glass Menagerie to accommodate her injury. However, with her marriage ended (it has been said that she divorced her husband because she didn't want to hinder him), she became more and more depressed. She died at age 31, from starvation and dehydration.
The supporting cast, all in very brief roles is impressive: Una O'Connor as the Tobacconist, Henry Travers as Dr. Sims, Rhys Williams as Sam, Reginald Owen as "Biffer", Margaret Wycherly as Mrs. Deventer, Alan Napier as Julian, and Arthur Shields as the Chemist. Having such impressive talent as support for the leads adds immeasurably to the viewing experience.

Though it was not nominated for its cinematography, it should have been. The film makes you believe that it is in color. Some of it is dialogue - discussions of Paula's hair being the "color of a copper penny" and blue beads being the color of her eyes help, but the pink/white tree in front of their house, the warm browns of Biffer's pub, and the lush greenery of the Smith's little town make you forget you are watching a black and white film. It's exquisite work.
Pauline Kael's antipathy towards the film in later years (she said she preferred Carol Burnett's 1973 spoof "Rancid Harvest" because "it was shorter.") nonwithstanding, Random Harvest was a huge hit, earning $4.5 million and breaking attendance records at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It is today #36 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Passions, and in his tribute to Greer Garson, was cited by Keith Carradine as being his favorite of her films. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Black and White Set Direction, and Score).  Mr. Colman and Mr. Garson would reprise their roles twice for the Lux Radio Theatre, in January, 1944 and April 1948.

Random Harvest is a real treat, and one that you will revisit over and over again. Yes, it is a melodrama, but WHAT a melodrama, with performances par excellence. We'll leave you with the film's trailer:

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ronald is King

With Paris surrounded by the Burgundian army, the greater population is slowly starving. Not so the court, where King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) has an enormous store of food laid in, and he is not sharing. Fran├žois Villon (Ronald Colman), a poet and rapscallion, robs the King's storehouse of food, to sell to a local pub owner, Robin Turgis (Sidney Toler). Villon's partners in the venture want to kill the Guard of the storehouse (Barry Macollum), but Villon will not allow it; thus, when they are discovered, the Guard protects Villon. But the protection is only temporary - under torture, the Guard reveals the location of the gang's hangout. The King, in disguise, goes to the Fir Cone Tavern to watch the arrest, and overhears Villon boast of what he would do If I Were King (1938). Louis decides to make Villon his new Grand Constable, as the Count de Montcorbier. and gives him one week to solve the problems he bragged he could settle - after which, Louis will hang Villon.
 
The film is VERY loosely based on the life of the poet Francois Villon, probably best remembered today for the line "oh, where are the snows of yesteryear?" (from “La Ballade des dames du temps jadis”). The real Villon was constantly in trouble, was almost hanged, and was eventually banished from Paris. He had a tendency to get himself into fights; on at least one occasion, he killed his opponent (that his opponent was a priest probably didn't help matters any. However, friends and his adopted father - a lawyer - attested to the fact that Villon was attacked several times by said priest). Much of what is known about him is based on his poetry and on a few court documents.   For more information on Villon, visit The Poetry Foundation website.
Never mind that the truth of the narrative is a bit iffy, this is a wonderful film, with an engaging story and strong performances. The combination of Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone is inspired casting; the way they bounce off one another is one of the highlights of the film, along with a terrific supporting cast, spectacular art design, and gorgeous costumes.

Colman gives a Robin Hood flavor to Villon, a man who starts off robbing from the rich to make himself rich, but who, when handed power, finds that his love of his countrymen is stronger than his love of himself. Even when he is seriously misbehaving, the twinkle in Mr. Colman's eyes makes you want to forgive this arrant rogue. He has many fine moments, but he is at his best when he is verbally dueling with Basil Rathbone.
Louis XI is often referred to as The Spider King, and Basil Rathbone takes the name seriously. He literally moves like a spider, as he portrays the devious nature of Louis. He takes genuine pleasure at watching a man being tortured. He chortles with delight at the thought of trapping the robbers in the pub. He eagerly anticipates the fun of tweaking the noses of his courtiers - and of Villon - by making Villon the new Grand Constable. We've never seen Rathbone give a bad performance. This is among his best. Colman was justifiably nominated for his second Academy Award for his performance (he lost to Walter Brennan in Kentucky. The other nominees were John Garfield in Four Daughters, Gene Lockhart in Algiers, and Robert Morley in Marie Antoinette).

Frances Dee is quite lovely as Katherine DeVaucelles, but it's Ellen Drew as Huguette who really should have stolen Villon's heart. Ms. Drew makes this little street urchin delightful and sympathetic. She is the only one who really seems to love Villon without question.  Ms. Drew's career began in 1936, and continued until her retirement in 1961. She spent her career primarily in B pictures; in the 1950s, she made the change to television. Married four times, she had two children. She died in 2003, at the age of 88. (The Guardian).
Henry Wilcoxon appears in the relatively small part of the Captain of the Watch. Though he's not given much to do, he makes the most of what he has, and is memorable in the film. A favorite of Cecil B. DeMille (he appeared in starring roles in both Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935)). By this point, he was appearing in secondary roles (Hardy in That Hamilton Woman) or B films (Woman Doctor). Like many others, he made the switch to television in the 1960s, but not before he produced several films with his mentor, DeMille. Married twice (with three children, one of whom was named after his best friend, Heather Angel; another was named Cecilia after Mr. DeMille) he died at age 78 in 1984.
The story was originally a play with E.H. Sothern in the lead. Later, it was a silent movie with John Barrymore (TCM article).  Lux Radio Theatre presented an adaptation with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frances Dee in October 1939. In the broadcast, host Cecil B. DeMille mentions that the story holds memories for him: he had appeared in the 1901 Broadway cast with his wife.

According to this AFI catalog article, "a replica of the throne of the Louvre Palace was made in cooperation with the French government." Needless to say, the set design is spectacular. Equally impressive are the costumes by Edith Head; whether she is dressing the commoners or the nobility, the costumes tell a story as well.

We'll leave you with this brief documentary on the making of the film. We heartily recommend that you give this one a try.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Ann is in Front of the Wall

David Starrling (Zacharay Scott) returns from a business trip; his daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau) is thrilled by his return. But his wife, Celia (Kristine Miller) is out. When David goes out of the apartment, he spots Celia in a car with Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmore) and their interaction are clearly intimate.  When David questions her casually, Celia tells him she went to a play with a girlfriend, but that evening, when Celia's sister Dell Faring (Ann Sothern) arrives for dinner with her fiance - Crane - David is able to confirm that Celia and Crane are having an affair. As they argue in their bedroom that night, David picks up a gun, and Celia decks him with a metal handmirror. Dell's arrival a few minutes later precipitates another argument, resulting in Dell firing the gun and killing Celia. As Dell runs out of the bedroom, the screams of young Susan echo down the hall. Our film this week is Shadow on the Wall (1950).

Though this is NOT a remake of The High Wall, the plot elements are remarkably similar - a spouse murdered, an orphaned child, a female psychiatrist trying to figure out what is going on, and a murderer who has no scruples when it comes to protecting his - or herself. And like Herbert Marshall in our last film, Ann Sothern is in far different acting territory in this film. She'd made a big success at MGM in the Maisie series, and had spent most of her career there doing light comedy. But with A Letter to Three Wives, she demonstrated her gifts as a dramatic actress. It's hard to sympathize with the dead Celia - she's spent her life backstabbing her sister and has graduated to cheating on her husband.  But this film takes her crime one step further - Dell Faring will stop at nothing to protect herself, even if it involves the murder of a child. (TCM article). Ms. Sothern makes Dell sympathetic up to the point when she realizes that Susan is a danger to her. At that point, her obsession with getting rid of the girl turn the audience firmly to the Starrling family, and to Dr. Caroline Canford (Nancy Davis) who's attempting to piece together what Susan saw.
I'm not a fan of Nancy Davis (Reagan) ordinarily, but she is perfect in this film. She plays Caroline with an appropriate detachment that emphasizes the professionalism of the woman. Her conversations with Pike Ludwell (John McIntire) demonstrate her concerns about the Susan and her father, but she never lets it get in the way of her duties as a physician. Her subtle performance make Dr. Canford one of my favorite onscreen physicians.

Zachary Scott's biography by Ronald L. Davis is entitled Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad. And while he certainly did play a lot of them, he doesn't here. David is a good man; he truly believes that he is guilty of the crime with which he is charged - albeit accidentally - and is ready to pay the price. His only concern is his child - everything he does while in prison hinges on his desire to find a safe and loving environment for Susan. That we know he is innocent helps in making him sympathetic, much of the credit goes to Mr. Scott's fine performance.
The role of Susan was originally intended for Margaret O'Brien (AFI catalog) - one can almost hear the screams echoing from her mouth! Regardless, Ms. O'Brien was not available for loan from MGM, so Gigi Perreau was cast. Ms. Perreau started her career at age 2, as Eve Curie in Madame Curie (1943). Two years later, she played Fanny Skeffington, Jr. in Mr. Skeffington. In 1956, she was the budding ballerina in Fred MacMurray's family in There's Always Tomorrow. Married and divorced twice, Ms. Perreau has four children. She taught drama for several years at her alma mater, Immaculate Heart High School, and for a time managed an art gallery with her brother Peter Miles (also a child actor). Like most child actors, she saw a gap in her career as she got older, but she is still working today, often as a voice actor.
If the two reviews posted in Ann Sothern: A Bio-Bibliography are any example, Shadow on the Wall was not really all that well received. It appears the reviewers had problems remembering that Ms. Sothern was not Maisie. Regardless, we found this an engaging film, with an excellent cast and well-written screenplay. We'll leave you with the trailer to the film, and the suggestion that you give it a try.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Robert is Behind the Wall

After running his car off the road, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor) is found in the vehicle with the dead body of his wife beside him. When it is discovered that Kenet has complained of blinding headaches and periods of blackout following brain surgery, his trial is postponed to discover if he is competent to be charged with murder. Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter), a state psychiatrist, is charged with the task of evaluating Kenet. In the meantime, he'll be kept behind the High Wall (1948).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable film with some small issues, not the least of which is the character of Steve Kenet. As portrayed by Mr. Taylor, Kenet is a violent man, with an instinct towards strangulation when he is riled. We see him attempt to kill two people, and he hurts several more. Yes, he has good reason to be angry at William Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), and he has suspicions about his wife once he arrives at Whitcombe's home. Regardless, his murderous fury is out of place for a man who is ultimately trying to prove he is not a killer.

Kenet's predilection for violence also makes it hard for us to believe that Dr. Lorrison could have feelings for him. Let's start with the obvious - Ann is his doctor; he is her patient. It's totally unprofessional for her to go above her duties as a physician. Plus, she has offered to watch after his child (which, quite frankly, is a bit dodgy as well. One way or another, having the child in her care prejudices her opinion of him). Steve also unleashes his violent behavior in her direction - not exactly conducive to loving behavior.
These points aside, High Wall is a tight mystery that keeps you interested throughout. According to this TCM article, director Curtis Bernhardt wanted to show Kenet as a man damaged by the War. Both Bernhardt and Taylor were veterans; Taylor plays Kenet as someone who is perhaps suffering from PTSD, with violent surges followed by periods of blackout in which he doesn't remember his actions.  It 's a conceit that works well IF you eliminate the love affair between Kenet and Lorrison.

We very much enjoyed Audrey Totter in the role of the psychiatrist. With the exception of her decidedly bad taste in men, Ms. Totter plays Lorrison as a professional woman who is confident in her ability to treat patients and bring them back to a mainstream life.  Ms. Totter's career tended towards roles as second leads in A pictures (such as The Unsuspected 1947) or as the lead in B films. But her B films tended to be film noir, and she shone as the femme fatale.  She was Robert Montgomery's object of lust in The Lady in the Lake (1946) and Richard Basehart's promiscuous wife in Tension (1949). In a 1999 New York Times article (an interview that included noir "dames" Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray and Jane Greer), Mr. Totter acknowledged that "the bad girls were so much fun to play..." When she and her husband, Dr. Leo Fred married (they were married from 1952 until his death in 1996), she slowed down her career to raise their daughter, occasionally appearing in television shows like Zane Grey Theatre and Lux Playhouse.  She continued working until 1987 (her final appearance was in an episode of Murder, She Wrote). She died, age 95, in 2013.
If you are used to Herbert Marshall as a good guy, this film will quickly dissuade you that he is only capable of being a nice guy. He plays Whitcombe as a sociopath - only interested in himself and quite capable of doing whatever it takes to maintain his own status quo. Without giving too much away, there is one incident that is so sudden, and so cold-blooded that you will literally gasp as you watch it happen.

Screenwriter Lester Cole was called to appear before HUAC eight months after the release of this film, resulting in his imprisonment and blacklisting. This was the last script that was produced under his name (AFI catalog); he was able to get three others sold using fronts. His star in our film, Robert Taylor, testified to HUAC that Mr. Cole was a Communist.
The High Wall was produced as a radio play on the Lux Radio Theatre in November 1949, with Van Heflin and Janet Leigh and the leads.  It received a positive review from Variety though it did not do well at the box office.

We'll leave you with this scene in which Mr. Taylor has a flashback. Next week, we'll be looking at another woman psychiatrist dealing with an accused murderer.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Barbara is a Witness

Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) awakens one night, and goes to her bedroom window. She sees her neighbor,  Albert Richter (George Sanders) murder a woman. She calls the police, but when officers Lawrence Matthews (Gary Merrill) and Eddie Vincent (Jesse White) investigate, they find nothing. Was Cheryl really a Witness to Murder (1954)?

Though this is perhaps not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best roles, she takes control of the character with both hands, and brings it up to a new level (check out this wonderful discussion from the TCM website). What could have been a weak and helpless woman, in Ms. Stanwyck's capable hands, become someone of power and sense. Sure, she's afraid, and she makes some mistakes, but she learns from them. Case in point is the scene with the psychiatrist (Lewis Martin) in the mental hospital to which Cheryl has been taken. She's terrified, but she knows the only way to get out of the hospital is to take command of the situation - which she does. The disinterested psychiatrist is forced to sit up and take notice of this thoughtful woman.

Though the plot is nowhere near as good as other films in the genre, the film is reminiscent of other movies like Rear Window (1954; released AFTER this film), Gaslight (1944), and Sorry Wrong Number (1948). There is a certain amount of voyeurism - we watch Cheryl purchase binoculars to spy on her neighbor - as well as a great deal of menace perpetrated on women by men. While our trusty police officers aren't trying to gaslight Cheryl, it's what they succeed in doing. And, like Leona trying to convince the police of a pending murder, Cheryl too is ignored as she tries to convince some really stupid men of what she has witnessed. According to Stanwyck by Axel Madsen, the producers were aware that Rear Window had a similar premise when they began production on Witness to Murder, but believed their film had the punch to compete with it. Frankly, it just didn't.
Witness to Murder is saved from true lameness not only by Ms. Stanwyck's strong performance, but also by the presence of George Sanders as the villain. Mr. Saunders is an excellent actor; he doesn't try to whitewash Richter or attempt to make the audience like him. Richter is a cad through and through, but you enjoy every minute that he is on the screen. That he is a former Nazi is merely fodder for thought. He doesn't need to be anything but what he is - a self-absorbed, hateful bully who is enjoying his cat and mouse game with Cheryl.

George Sanders started his career in the U.K. He'd been born in Russia, but the family emigrated when he was 11 (at the start of the Russian Revolution). He began appearing in films in Great Britain, like 1936's Strange Cargo (not be be confused by the 1940 Joan Crawford film of the same name). That same year, he played the despicable Lord Everett Stacy in Lloyd's of London. But the wonder of George Sanders is that he played a variety of remarkable characters, from the devious Addison DeWitt in All About Eve to the heroic Simon Templar in The Saint series. He was a weak philanderer in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and a dastardly pirate in The Black Swan (1943). He even did a musical (Call Me Madame 1953). There really wasn't much he couldn't do - and do it well. He married five times (including marriages to both Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor). His marriage to Benita Hume Colman (after she was widowed) lasted 8 years, until her death in 1967. He published his autobiography (Memoirs of a Professional Cad) in 1960; in 1958, he did a record of Songs for the Lovely Lady. He continued working in film and television, but by 1970, he was ill. He committed suicide in 1972, age 65. His friend and colleague Brian Aherne published a biography, A Dreadful Man (1979) and David Niven discussed Mr. Sanders in his memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses (1975).
Where George Sanders is always memorable, the same cannot be said of Gary Merrill. While he is certainly likeable as Larry, he's also frustrating. He's smart enough to think that Cheryl is a remarkable woman, but he can't really accept that she is telling the truth. It takes him WAY too long to realize that Richter is the bad guy. By the end, you really want Cheryl to save herself and not end up as a damsel in distress. She's the only one with any real brains.

There was one small point that rather irked us as city dwellers.  Cheryl's door only has a snap lock on it, making it easy for Richter to access her apartment when she is not home. We found it hard to believe that a single woman would have such a flimsy lock and that she would not check to see that the latch had caught when she left her apartment. It works as a plot devise, but not so well as "realistic" drama. (We also found it hard to believe that Cheryl would - SPOILER ALERT - run to a high place when Richter's goal seems to be to throw her out a window. But the lock was more aggravating.)
The film was adapted for the Lux Video Theatre in 1956, with Audrey Totter in the role of Cheryl (AFI catalog). It's probably not surprising that it wasn't a huge hit at the box office, since Rear Window would open a mere three months later, with a far superior plot line.

While not a bad film, this isn't really all that good. The saving grace is the opportunity to see Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Sanders bounce off one another in their only screen appearance together. We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hayley Makes Me Glad

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, I'm going to break with our usual post, and contribute to the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, in which we'll discuss films that are sources of comfort when days are bleak. I'll be discussing Pollyanna (1960), starring Hayley Mills as the title character.

After the death of her missionary parents, Pollyanna Whittier is taken in by her Aunt Polly Harrington (Jane Wyman). Aunt Polly takes her position as the leading citizen of the town of Harrington seriously, much to the disgust of Mayor Karle Warren (Donald Crisp). The Mayor feels that Polly's domination of the town's affairs demean his role as a voted official, and eliminates citizen involvement in the workings of the town. Aunt Polly also has very decided opinions on her late sister's marriage to a man who she saw as beneath the Harrington family, and about the rearing of children. But she is not prepared for is Pollyanna, a little girl secure in her parents' love and accustomed to making lemonade out of lemons. Pollyanna brings with her a determination to be happy and to teach everyone around her "the glad game".
Over the years, the name Pollyanna has become an insult. Merriam Webster defines the word as "a person characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything".  Pollyanna has not had an easy life - her mother died when she was young, and she's recently lost her father. As missionaries, they were dirt poor, and couldn't even get their little daughter a doll. So, her father invented the glad game as a way to help his child appreciate what she had rather than bemoan what she lacked. Like all of us, Pollyanna gets angry, sad, and frustrated, but she tries to look for the good in people, for then (according to the medallion she has from her father), you will surely find it. 

Hayley Mills is perfect as Pollyanna; then again, I'm rather biased when it comes to Ms. Mills - I think everything she does is great. I recently had the opportunity to see her in an Off-Broadway play, and was thrilled (Party Face). She brings a sincerity to the character of Pollyanna. She's not perfect. She becomes furious at Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) whose obsession with death frustrates the child. She scolds Jimmy Bean (Kevin Corcoran) for his tree-climbing, but finally climbs trees herself. She loves her Aunt Polly, but lies about her maid Nancy's (Nancy Olson) relationship with George Dodds (James Drury). 

Several scenes have always stood out for me and cheer me when I'm down. After Pollyanna's encounter with Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou), she develops a fascination with the crystals that ornament his lamps - the rainbows they throw when held in the sunlight enchant her. So, in spite of his protestations, she begins hanging them from his window, to fill the house with rainbows - until finally he too is engrossed in the project. Another is her visit to the Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), who has a fire and brimstone approach to religion (primarily at the urging of Aunt Polly). Though forbidden to talk about her father by Aunt Polly, Reverend Ford is intrigued by Reverend Whittier's beliefs, resulting in Rev. Ford's conversion to a more loving approach to God.

And of course, there is the relationship between Pollyanna and Aunt Polly - a woman who has rejected love (in for the form of Dr. Edmund Chilton, well played by Richard Egan), and is astonished by the instant love that Pollyanna lavishes on her. When Pollyanna runs to kiss her good night, Ms. Wyman's amazement sums up Aunt Polly in an instant. It's a marvelous moment.
Pollyanna's ability to try and see the glass as half-full is truly satisfying. She doesn't always succeed, but if she did, then she really would be the blissfully unaware creature of which she is frequently accused. But she's not. She's a wonderful, warm little girl who wants love (and a doll) and who has the magical ability to put a smile on your face. Don't believe me? Ask Tillie Lagerlof (Reta Shaw) or Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield). They will back me up!
I'll leave you with one of my favorite scenes: Pollyanna discovers a rainbow: