Monday, June 10, 2019

Walter Faces a Bank Run

Thomas Dickson (Walter Huston) runs a successful bank in an unnamed city in 1932 America. His bank survived the beginnings of the Depression primarily because of Dickson's gift for choosing individuals to whom to loan money. Often, Dickson makes loans on the character of the person, regardless of their collateral, yet those to whom he lent money have unfailingly paid it back. But a bank robbery threatens the integrity of the bank when word is leaked that they are broke, starting an American Madness (1932).

Shown at the AFI Silver Theatre as part of a retrospective celebrating the works of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, the film featured commentary by their daughter,  Victoria Riskin (who recently published Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir). Mr. Riskin wrote the screenplay - one of eight collaborations with Frank Capra (TCM article).

Frank Capra was not the first choice to direct the film - initially Allan Dwan was set to direct, but producer Harry Cohn was dissatisfied with his efforts, fired him and assigned Roy William Neill. Within a day, Neill was gone and Frank Capra, who was just back from a vacation, was pushed into the film. Scenes of the bank run are reminiscent of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and the character of Thomas Dickson resembles George Bailey, even to his speeches as je attempts to calm the bank panic. It's an interesting opportunity to see the work that would later influence what many consider Capra's masterwork.
Walter Huston is impressive as Dickson, a man of principle facing a crisis of faith.  Dickson has spent his life relying on his ability to read people. Now, in an instant he discovers that a climate of fear brings out the worst in his fellow man. The character of Dickson was based on the chairman of the Bank of America, A. P. Giannini (AFI catalog ). Mr. Huston is always an impressive actor - see his work in Rain (1932), Dodsworth (1936), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) for very different performances.  

Pat O'Brien plays Matt Brown, an ex-con hired - and promoted - by Dickson. He's in love with Dickson's secretary, Helen (Constance Cummings), and inadvertently witnessed what he thought was a romantic assignation between Dickson's wife, Phyllis (Kay Johnson) and fellow employee Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon). Mr. O'Brien has his best scenes when he is (unsurprisingly) accused of collusion in the bank robbery. His anxiety over preserving his boss' marriage (Matt accompanied Ms. Dickson home when he found her at Cluett's apartment) rather than provide himself with an alibi is well played - and an interesting contrast to Gavin Gordon.
Constance Cummings didn't have a big part in this film - her role is to support Matt and Dickson, but she does it well. When she was the Star of the Day in Summer Under the Stars, Michael Feinstein discussed her.  Her U.S. film career was short (she'd already had a Broadway career, which would continue until 1979); after her 1933  marriage to Benn Levy (they had two children and were together until his death in 1973), she moved with her husband to England, where she would continue working in films (Blithe Spirit (1945)) and the stage (Long Day's Journey into Night opposite Laurence Olivier in 1971). She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 1979's Wings.  She died in 2005, aged 95
This is the first film role for Sterling Holloway (Oscar), who would go on to perform numerous character parts, television roles, and voice parts, include Mr. Stork in Dumbo (1941), the narrator of "Peter and the Wolf" in Make Mine Music (1946), and Winnie the Pooh. 

It's an interesting movie, and if you are a fan of Frank Capra, or would like to see the genesis of It's a Wonderful Life, definitely worth a viewing.  I'll close with an early scene, which introduces many of our characters.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Dorothy is a Doctor

Dave Saunders (Tim Holt) and his pal Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin) are looking for work as cowhands when they happen upon a stampede, caused by the drunken shenanigans of Gabe (James Bush), a ranch hand for Fred Warren (Cliff Clark). Mr. Warren summarily fires Gabe (and hires Dave and Chico who helped control the cattle), and is shot by Gabe in retaliation. Gabe escapes, but begins to plot revenge, and steal Mr. Warren's herd. Our film this week is Saddle Legion (1951).

This is a B picture, pure and simple. It's 68 minutes long, but it is quite a ride. Blink and you will surely miss something. Tim Holt has  just the right amount of sincerity as Dave - a true Western hero who does what needs to be done. And Richard Martin as Chito is silly without being a moron. 

Though Tim Holt would occasionally escape from Western films (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Magnificent Ambersons, for example), much of his career was spent in B oaters.  A decorated war hero (he won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for her service in World War II's Pacific Theater of Operations), he would relocate to Oklahoma and life on a ranch the year after this film (TCM article). He made a few more film and television appearances, but by and large, he managed theatres and radio stations, produced rodeos and music jamborees. He died in 1973 of bone cancer.  
The reason this movie was selected is a simple one - the presence of Dorothy Malone as Dr. Ann F. Rollins.  Dr. Rollins is a competent and trusted physician. Though both Dave and Chito show surprise upon meeting her, their acceptance of her abilities is immediate, and it is clear that Mr. Warren is also confident of her skills. In an early draft of the film, the character of Ann Rollins was to have been a veterinarian, (Tim Holt and the B Westerns). Making her a physician works much better, as she then can question the supposed illness of Mr. Warren's cattle, but still need to seek help in the diagnosis. Ms. Malone is good, giving Ann a self-assured stance and a sexiness that is not usual in B Western heroines. Interestingly, Chito is the one who is wise enough to want to pursue more time with "Senorita Sawbones," probably one of the few times Mr. Holt didn't get the girl. 
Also in the cast is Movita Castañeda as Cantina performer Mercedes. She's later be called simply Movita, and would become the second Mrs. Marlon Brando. It's a fairly small part, but she acquits herself well.

No one would ever call this an outstanding movie, but we found it enjoyable. If you like Westerns (or movies about women doctors), give it a viewing. It's fun.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Lawyer Gregory

It's Maycomb, Alabama at the height of the Depression. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a widower with two children Jeremy "Jem" (Philip Alford) and Jean Louise "Scout" (Mary Badham). He's a lawyer who is surviving the Depression; he receives his payments in kind from his poor neighbors. Well respected in the community, he's asked to take on an impossible case - a local African-American handyman, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Atticus agrees to defend Tom, and the lives of the Finch family are deeply affected. We'll be discussing To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the most recent TCM Presents: Fathom Events.

That To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the all-time great films is not a statement with which most people would argue. A moving portrait of one man's attempts to combat racism in his small town, it is a timeless film. Gregory Peck is incomparable as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who cannot say no when asked to take on a difficult and controversial case. It's a part that won him the Academy Award, and has been voted as the #1 Greatest Heroes in AFI's list of Heroes and Villains in the Movies.

I'm not going to discuss Go Set a Watchman (which I refuse to read. It's likely it was a first draft of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and should not have been published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird ) or the Broadway play of To Kill a Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin (which I've not seen, but hope to one day). Suffice it to say, in my opinion To Kill a Mockingbird is a film (and book) that should stand apart from these two later portraits of Atticus.
It's hard to believe that Mr. Peck was not Harper Lee's first choice for Atticus - she initially wanted Spencer Tracy (New Yorker article). In fact, several other actors were approached BEFORE Mr. Peck, including James Stewart ( Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman) and Rock Hudson. Bing Crosby, in fact, campaigned to get the part.  Today, it's next to impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, Mr. Peck so makes it his own. His portrait is a series of nuances that build up to a man - a widower who sits on the porch swing with his arm across the bench, seemingly embracing his late wife; a father who gently rocks his sleeping daughter as he carries her from their car; a now-nearsighted man who must toss his eyeglasses on the ground to accurately fire a rifle. According to Mr. Peck, he managed to win over Harper Lee. He recalled shooting a scene in which he noticed the author's "cheeks were glistening"  Sure he had moved her with his acting, he asked her about the tears: "Oh Gregory, you got a little pot belly just like my daddy" (AFI interview). She would later say "when Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch, he played himself and touched the world" (TCM tribute by Mary Badham to Gregory Peck). For a substantial biography of Mr. Peck, see the chapter on the film in Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters: What Harper Lee's Book and the Iconic American Film Mean to Us Today By Tom Santopietro.
Neither of Philip Alford nor Mary Badham had long film or television careers. They are both excellent as the Finch children; Ms. Badham was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker. Mr. Alford would eventually become a businessman (he lives in Mississippi); Ms. Badham was an art restorer. Of late, she has become a spokesperson for the film and it's message of tolerance. She was close to her onscreen father until his death in 2003 (and always called him Atticus). Also remarkable is Robert Duvall as Arthur "Boo" Radley. Though only in the film for a few minutes, it is a characterization you will long remember. Kim Stanley as the adult voice of Scout is also excellent (TCM article).
The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards (in a year that featured Laurence of Arabia, The Music Man, The Miracle Worker, and The Manchurian Candidate); it won three: Actor, Screenplay for Material from Another Source, and Black & White Art Direction (AFI catalog). Brock Peters was the first African American to receive the All-American Press Association of New York Award for Best Supporting Actor. Mr. Peters had spent the better part of his career up til this film playing villains; his trajectory changed after this - he would appear in several Star Trek movies and played Benjamin Sisko's father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  He died in 2005, two years after delivering the eulogy at the funeral of his friend and colleague, Gregory Peck.    
The film has appeared on several of the American Film Institute's greatest film lists: #17 Greatest Film Scores, #25 100 Greatest Films of All Time: Anniversary Edition (#34 on the Original List), # 2 100 Years, 100 Cheers, and # 1 Courtroom Drama.  It was added to the National Film Registry in 1995. It is still a remarkable film. If you've not seen it, please rush out and get a copy from your local library. In the meantime, here is the trailer:

Friday, May 24, 2019

Marsha Testifies

The film opens on a statement that we are about to see the future. The War is over. The Nazis who victimized millions of people are being held responsible for their actions. A trial is being held, and among the accused is Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox). Present in the court are three of his victims who survived: Father Warecki (Henry Travers), the local Catholic priest; Karl Grimm (Erik Rolf), his brother; and Marja Paierkowski (Marsha Hunt), his one-time fiance. The film promises the fate of the criminals: None Shall Escape (1944)

I'd not heard of this film until it was aired at the TCM Film Festival last year. A friend went to see it, and suggested I might want to seek it out; unfortunately, it has not been available on any media format, nor has it been aired on any television station. Recently, the film was released to Blu-Ray, and I was able to get a copy. If you've not seen None Shall Escape, try and find a copy (perhaps from your local library). It's a fascinating look into the past.

The movies was released in February of 1944 - four months before the D-Day invasion. The Germans had just won two major victories in Italy (at Cisterna and Anzio Beach), and the final outcome of the war was still in doubt. There had been other anti-Nazi films: The Great Dictator (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940), To Be or Not To Be (1942), All Through the Night (1942), but this was the first to attempt to show what was happening to Jews in Europe. It was also doing something else that was unique - looking to the end of the war and assuming the Allies would win - a bold statement in 1943 and early 1944!
The flashbacks which tell the story of Wilhelm Grimm's rise in the Nazi machine begin in 1919. The First World War has ended badly for him: his dreams of German glory have been destroyed, and he has lost a leg. He sees himself as less than a man, not only because of his disability, but also because he has been forced to return to Poland. Grimm despises the people he lived with before the war, including his fiance. He blames his hatred on the fact that the town will only see his injury. That the people of Lidzbark welcome him back, and that a woman like Marja could love him show the audience that, before the war, he seemed a good man. Clearly, he is no longer, and Alexander Knox plays him as one dead inside. The monster that was created by the war is only encouraged by the rise of National Socialism, and Mr. Knox is not afraid to display the evil that must have been buried below the surface. 
Marsha Hunt exudes an inner strength as Marja. The man she loved is, for all intents and purposes, dead. And with the beginning of the Second World War, she watches everything that she knows get plowed under by the reign of this horrible man.  She plays Marja with dignity; Marja never pities Grimm, but eventually she loathes him, and what he has become. His crimes are horrors, even before he becomes an officer with the Nazis, and Marja must acknowledge that the only way to save herself and her people is to abandon a man she once loved.

Also in the cast is Henry Travers as the local priest and Richard Hale as Rabbi David Levin. The two prelates are friends, and work for the good of their populations. It's a nice touch to present the religious leaders as a team, rather than as rivals for converts.
None Shall Escape was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story (AFI Catalog) for writer Lester Cole (who was later blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten). Columbia chief Harry Cohn wanted Paul Lukas in the part of Grimm, but director Andre de Toth wanted Alexander Knox. It was released as a B movie, and reviews at the time were mixed - Bosley Crowther of the New York Times (of course) hate it, calling it "bombastically directed" and "dishing out thick, dark gobs of anguish;" while the Hollywood Reporter was glowing (TCM article).

Regardless, it is an important movie.  In her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust Annette Insdorf  says the film is "revelatory in its inclusion of the genocide of the Jews [and] prescient in its depiction of the postwar trial of an SS leader."  As Stan Taffel, in this 2016 interview said "This film is relevant in the 21st Century and it will be relevant in the 22nd Century. As long as people care about who they are and what they are and how the
y are, this film is relevant."  I'll leave you with a trailer and this discussion of the film by Marsha Hunt:


This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon. Go there to read the posts of the #Villains2019 participants.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Clark Rides the Night Bus

When Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) literally jumps ship to join her new husband King Westley (Jameson Thomas) - over her father's vehement objections - hell breaks loose. Alexander Andrews (Walter Connolly) hires every detective he can find to search for Ellie, but she has other ideas. She boards the night bus to New York City to reach Westley. Unfortunately, Ellie has no idea of how to be on the lam; she is befriended by reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who plans on using her story to get back in good graces with his editor. Our film is It Happened One Night (1936).

Victoria Riskin provided an introduction to this film, which was part of the Fay Wray/Robert Riskin Retrospective at the AFI Silver Theatre.  Mr. Riskin collaborated with Frank Capra on the film -  Mr. Capra read the story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams, which was published in Cosmopolitan, and approached Mr. Riskin about adapting it for the screen (Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir by Victoria Riskin); they pitched it to Harry Cohn at Columbia.

Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, Constance Bennett and Margaret Sullavan were all approached to play Ellie. Finally, Claudette Colbert (who was not enthusiastic) consented to do the part, contingent upon a hefty salary. Similarly, Robert Montgomery was requested for the part of Peter, but Louis B. Mayer decided to send Clark Gable instead; Mayer resented Gable's increased salary demands and decided four weeks at a Poverty Row studio was fit punishment (AFI Catalog).  By the film's conclusion, no one was particularly thrilled with the result - except the audiences!
Claudette Colbert is excellent as Ellie. It's a difficult part - Ellie needs to be snooty enough to be believable as a spoiled brat, but warm enough to attract Peter's attentions from the start. Ms. Colbert had not wanted to work with Frank Capra again (there had been some animosity on the 1927 film For the Love of Mike) and she was unwilling to show her legs for the now-famous hitchhiking scene. However, when Mr. Capra brought in a model to be "the leg," Ms. Colbert said, "get her out of here, I'll do it -- that's not my leg!" and did the scene that has become synonymous with the film (TCM article). She left the film convince it was "the worst picture in the world," but by 1982, when Frank Capra received the AFI Lifetime Achievement award, she was much more enthusiastic. (You can see her speech here).
While Mr. Gable had worn a mustache in other films, the reaction to his appearance in It Happened One Night convinced him that he should keep it permanently (Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris). He also began wearing a trenchcoat as a lucky charm. Mr. Gable gives Peter Warne just enough arrogance to stand up to Ellie, but he's also warm and gentle. There's a scene in which a woman faints on the bus - Peter's ambivalence in wanting to help her, but knowing that he hasn't very much money, makes you warm to the character. Gable also has the unique ability to play comedy without being silly. Watch him undress in a scene that could have been ridiculous - with him doing it, it's a masterpiece.
The film is replete with some very impressive character performances. Roscoe Karns is decidedly slimy as Oscar Shapeley, the lecherous traveling salesman.  Alan Hale seems friendly and innocuous as Danker, the driver who picks up our hitchhikers (but he's not). And finally, there is Walter Connolly as Ellie's beleaguered father, a man who only wants the best for his only child, but isn't always very good at letting her know that.
It Happened One Night became the first comedy to win an Oscar, and the first film to win Oscars in the five major categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Writing (Robert Osborne commentary).  It became the model for a subset of the screwball comedy genre (See: The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930's by Elizabeth Kendall). It spawned two remakes (both musicals): Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) with Ann Miller, and You Can't Run Away from It (1956) with June Allyson. It appears on multiple AFI lists: #46 on 100 Years, 100 Movies (Anniversary Edition) and #36 on the original list; #8 on 100 Years, 100 Laughs; and #38 on 100 Years, 100 Passions. In 1993, it was added to the National Film Registry.

If you've never seen this excellent film, treat yourself and find a copy. In the meantime, we'll leave you with the scene that nearly bankrupted the men's undershirt industry:

Thursday, May 16, 2019

5 From the 50s

May 16th is National Classic Movie Day and to celebrate, I'm participating in this year's blogathon, Five Favorite Films from the Fifties. Be sure to follow the link to see the work of other bloggers, and find discussions of films you might never have thought to view.

As I've mentioned before, my favorite films change from day to day, so I've opted to pick five films I truly love in five different genres - comedy, musical, film noir, suspense, and western. My caveat is, if you asked me tomorrow, you might get a totally different list. I'm also going to avoid discussions of films we've previously covered (I'll link you over to a few noteworthy ones within my chosen categories). Regardless, all of these films are remarkable and definitely worth seeing. If there are some with which you are not familiar, get hold of a copy asap. You won't be sorry.

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) has all but retired when his friends, writers Lester (Oscar Levant) and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray) try to entice him back to work with their latest play. They plan to get Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct it. Cordova, however, has grandiose ideas, including the addition of ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to the cast. With misgivings ("I am not Nijinsky. I am not Marlon Brando. I am Mrs. Hunter's little boy, Tony, song and dance man."), Tony agrees, but conflicts arise as rehearsals begin.

When it comes to musicals of the 1950s, Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) (justifiably) come immediately to mind. But The Band Wagon (1953) is a film that should always be included in the list of great 1950s musicals. With Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire performing one of the greatest dance numbers in movie history, plenty of comedy, and a love story, it's a film not to be missed.

In 1931, Fred and Adele Astaire (along with Frank Morgan and Helen Broderick) starred in the Broadway play, The Band Wagon. It was a musical revue; this film has nothing to do with it, though I Love Louisa and Dancing in the Dark were both performed in the play. The film has a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who loosely based the story on Mr. Astaire. He'd tried retirement for a few years, but was coaxed back to star in the very successful Easter Parade (1948); his most recent film, however (The Belle of New York) that had not done well (for more on Fred Astaire and The Band Wagon see this article in The Paris Review). The Martons were based on Comden and Green (though the real-life writing duo were not married), and Cordova was based on  José Ferrer, who between 1946 and 1948 produced, directed, and/or starred in 8 Broadway plays - and did 10 more in the next three years! (TCM articles).

Jack Buchanan was not the first choice for Gregory Cordova - Clifton Webb was approached initially; Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price were also considered (AFI catalog).  And while Vera-Ellen was at one pointed listed for the role of Gabrielle, one wonders if the failure of The Belle of New York led to her not being used.

The film was well received upon release; the  New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was enthusiastic. It was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Story and Screenplay, Best Costume Design (Color) and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.  With all the wonderful musical numbers, the one for me that stands out is "Dancing in the Dark," perhaps Mr. Astaire's most romantic number since he and Ginger Rogers graced the screen.  We'll close this section with a video of that delightful dance.

Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) is on vacation in Morocco with his wife Josephine Conway (Doris Day), a well-known singer who retired to take care of their son Hank (Christopher Olsen).  They are befriended by Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), a Frenchman who asks way too many questions for Jo's tastes. Bernard is murdered and whispers to Ben that a statesman is targeted for murder. But the would-be murderers have their own plan - snatch young Hank to be sure that Jo and Ben don't contact the police.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a remake of Hitchcock's 1934 film of the same name. The plots are similar, but this version has a lot more nuance. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that "the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional" (Hitchcock by François Truffaut)

James Stewart had already appeared in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Rope (1948); they would work together one more time in Vertigo (1958). Mr. Stewart was attached to the project from the beginning; Doris Day was also Mr. Hitchcock's first choice for Jo, especially since he wanted part of the conclusion to replicate the search for Richard the Lionheart by his troubadour Blondel. (TCM article). Her song, "Que Sera, Sera," won the Academy Award for best song, became her theme song, and was used in two more of her films (AFI Catalog). An excellent dramatic actress, she portrays a strong woman who ultimately refuses to be cowed by the danger threatening her child. Ms. Day's recent passing has already contributed many caveats to her exceptional skills as an actress and singer. This film is further proof that she was a talented dramatic actress.

To my mind, The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of Hitchcock's great films that is often overlooked in discussions of his work. Perhaps because it was not seen for so many years - it was one of the five films that Hitchcock owned and refused to release (including Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry) (Mental Floss article). The highly regarded Vertigo and Rear Window got much praise and viewing when the films finally came back to their audience in the 1980s. This one has just not received as much attention.

If you are ready to watch the master of suspense spin his web, watch The Man Who Knew Too Much; here's a clip of the trailer, with a bit of Ms. Day doing her famous song.

Pregnant and dumped by her no-good boyfriend Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger), Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) boards a train with only her meager belongings - Morley gave her the ticket to get her out of town.  She is befriended by newlyweds Patrice (Phyllis Thaxter) and Hugh Harkness (Richard Denning), who are on route to introduce Patrice - who is also pregnant - to Hugh's family. Patrice lets Helen try on her wedding band while they are in the ladies room; at that moment, there is a train crash. Helen awakens to discover both her new friends are dead, and Hugh's family thinks that she is Patrice. With her baby to think about, and No Man of Her Own (1950), Helen is faced with a massive decision - accept help from the Harkness family, or leave before they realize her deception.

No Man of Her Own is on my list of favorite film noirs, as well as favorite Barbara Stanwyck films. As a woman abandoned by the man she loved, Stanwyck is remarkable (as always). Her ethical dilemma is obvious - the love she has for her unborn child, versus the need to lie to people as kind as Mr. & Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl & Henry O'Neill). There is the further complication of her growing affection for Hugh's brother Bill (John Lund). If it is a touch melodramatic, who cares? When you get a performer like Ms. Stanwyck telling the story, you want to watch.

One of the things that really intrigues me is that Helen is clearly an unwed mother, yet there are no recriminations from anyone. Patrice is obviously aware that Helen has never had a wedding ring, and generously lets Helen slip on Patrice's ring. Originally, Helen was to have been a prostitute (AFI catalog), but in my opinion, Helen as a rejected lover makes for a more interesting story line.

When the DVD was released in 2016, the New York Times provided some interesting commentary about the film (Bosley Crowther disliked it when it was released in 1950). The film was based on a Cornell Woolrich story (I Married a Dead Man), it has been remade several times, with versions in Japan (Shisha to no Kekkon (1960)), in France (J'ai épousé une ombre (1983)), in India (Kati Patang (1970), and in America (Mrs. Winterbourne (1996).

This is top-notch Stanwyck - and not one that comes up all the time, so watch for it! This trailer will give you an idea of what to expect.

The beauty of The Quiet Man (1952) is that it is so much more than a comedy. It tells the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), who left his home in Ireland as a young boy to emigrate to America with his mother. He grew up with his mother's stories of his former home, their wee cottage, White-a-Morn and the roses that grew outside the house. Sean's life in America was a hardscrabble one, and as that life has become untenable, he retreats to Innisfree, and buys White-a-Morn. As he tries to settle into a country he doesn't know, he finds that his unwillingness to fight brings heartache to him, and to the woman he loves, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara).

The Quiet Man was based on a short story by Maurice Walsh; John Ford acquired the rights in 1937 and yearned to make it into a film (AFI Catalog). Republic Studios finally agreed to make it IF Ford, O'Hara, and Wayne would make a Western (read moneymaker - Republic considered Ford's little film a vanity project that would lose money), so the trio first did Rio Grande. Filmed in Ireland, with various members of the cast's and crews' families working on the film, Ford was also under express orders to bring in a film no longer than 2 hours. But, his final cut ran 2:09 - he showed it to his execs, and stopped the projector at exactly the 120 minute mark. They agreed to the longer time (TCM articles).

For me, the film is important for its portrayal of a strong woman who is trying to maintain her independence in a society that limits a woman's choices. Mary Kate, in hounding Sean to get her dowry, is not asking for money - she's asking for her independence. With his American upbringing, all Sean can see is that what's his is hers. Mary Kate wants "her [own] things about her," for they are what make the house and the marriage all her own. 

I could go on for hours about this film. As a child, I would watch it every St. Patrick's Day (and growl when they cut crucial scenes out. Thank heavens for TCM and uncut films!).  I've been in Ireland twice, and both times visited Cong, the little village in County Mayo where The Quiet Man was filmed. The Quiet Man is a song of joy about Ireland, and a tale of strength under pressure.

There are some truly remarkable westerns in the 1950s - Shane, The Searchers (1956), Johnny Guitar (1956), among others.  But one film that should be in this list is the excellent Westward the Women (1951). The story of a group of 140 women who are recruited by rancher Roy E. Whitman (John McIntyre) as brides for his hands, the film portrays with as much truth as possible the dangers and hardships that faced the pioneers who went west. Leading the caravan is Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), a hard-nosed scout with little faith in the venture.

The women are a tough bunch. There is our star, Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel), a saloon girl who wants a new start. The widowed Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni) wants a new father for her son Tony (Guido Marfuti). Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) has lost her husband and son to the sea, and also wants a chance with a new husband.
Robert Taylor is letter perfect as the man who decries Mr. Whitman's plan as foolhardy, but grows to respect the women in his charge.  Early in the film, he speaks to the assembled group. He asks if any can shoot a gun - he's stunned when Maggie O'Malley (Lenore Lonergan) shoots the eyes out of a picture. His regard grows as he sees the women take on more and more responsibility as they struggle towards California.

Regardless of his star billing, this is a film about the women.  Hope Emerson especially paints a portrait of a woman trying to begin a new life. She brooks no nonsense from her colleagues or from the men who lead the trail. She's brave and forthright, and you adore her from her first "hokum-smokum". Rose Myers (Beverly Dennis), a young woman pregnant with an illegitimate child is also an interesting character - accepted and loved by the group, with no condemnation of her past indiscretion. As this TCM article notes Westward the Women goes deeper into creating a female vision of the westward progression. These are the Pioneer Women (the film's working title) who would tame the western frontier.

Frank Capra had planned to direct, with Gary Cooper as Buck, but eventually sold the project to William Wellman (AFI catalog), which I believe added a layer of realism that benefited the story enormously.  Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review has certainly missed the point of the film; I suggest you take a look at A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger for further discussion on this very timely picture.  In the meantime, take a look at the trailer:

And thus, our Five from the Fifties - there are many more excellent options (I didn't include a film I love, The Girl in White (1954). That's for another day). Just head over to Five Favorite Films from the Fifties and see the other wonderful films that were selected. In the meantime, Happy National Classic Film Day!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Margaret Hires a Maid

Having not been paid by her employer for four months, housekeeper extraordinaire Lizzie (Ruth Donnelly) quits her job and heads off to an employment agency. She meets Joan Smith (Margaret Lindsay), a young married woman who is searching for a maid. But with her limited income, Joan can't really afford a maid of Lizzie's qualifications. Lizzie, however, is intrigued by Joan and  her son Bobby (Ronnie Crosby), and agrees to take a pay cut to work in the household. Lizzie has a plan to bring Joan and husband Jimmy (Warren Hull) up to her employer standards. This week, we're discussing Personal Maid's Secret (1935).

Every once in a while you fall into a film you've never even heard of, and that provides low expectations.  Personal Maid's Secret is one of them. Originally entitled Living Up to Lizzie, (AFI catalog), it is in fact a delightful little comedy. While the plot is pretty transparent, the acting is so good that you warm to the film almost immediately. Leading the cast (though she got fourth billing) is Ruth Donnelly. Her Lizzie is a practical sort - she leaves her current employment confident that she can secure another position immediately. While she is qualified for a much more well-paid position, she takes on the job with the Smiths because she has a good feeling about them - and because she feels she can help them. Finally Lizzie is a woman with a past - we know it from the start, and when we discover the truth about her, she becomes even more endearing (we wondered if perhaps the film was originally written before the code, as some of the early hints about Lizzie's past suggest a bit of hanky-panky).
Margaret Lindsay gets first billing and is engaging as the young wife trying to help her husband make his way in the world of business. Jimmy is an insurance salesman, and as such, needs contacts. Lizzie suggests to Joan that the best way for Jimmy to get ahead is for the Smith's to entertain. But to do that, they'll need to have a display of affluence. Using her pin money and some ingenuity, Joan is able to get the ball rolling. Ms. Lindsay plays the part with warmth - there is never a suggestion that Jimmy needs to succeed to make her life easier. Their marriage is a partnership, and his success is hers as well.

It's not often that one gets to see Frank Albertson (Kent Fletcher) play a good guy, but he does here, and is quite appealing as Joan's inventor-brother. As with the other characters, there is no hint of grubbiness - Kent lives with his sister because it is expedient for both of them. He is working - and working to develop a new engine carburetor, which he hopes will increase gas mileage. When he becomes enamored of Diana Abercrombie (Anita Louise), you root for him to get the girl. Ms. Louise is lovely as the wealthy young lady whose life is about to change. And it's nice to see Arthur Treacher (Owen) - as always, playing Arthur Treacher!
One 21st Century problem with the film is the character of Bobby. Bobby is fascinated by "colored" people (in the 1930s, "colored" was a polite term. Think of the NAACP). The Smiths had a maid who was African-American at one point, and Bobby clearly adored her. So, he's decided that he wants a friend who is African-American. But what makes his constant queries interesting is that Bobby doesn't really see race - he asks the very white Palmers (Henry O'Neill and Lillian Kemble Cooper) if their son is colored. So, while his questions can be a bit unnerving, it's also an interesting comment on the ability of children to accept regardless of race. The song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" comes to mind.

Our villain, Warren Sherrill, is convincingly played by Gordon Elliott. If he seems familiar, you might know him from his later career as a Western actor and the role Red Ryder - Will Bill Elliott. Born on a ranch in Missouri, Mr. Elliott came by his Western expertise naturally. He became a horse breeder, and retired to a ranch in Nevada after his retirement. He died in 1965 at the age of 61.

Given that this was a B movie, the set design and costuming are outstanding. The Smith's home needs to reflect their life, and the work done by Carl Jules Weyl are an important part of the story.  Orry-Kelly did the costume design, and, as always, it is impressive.

The film was not widely reviewed, but Variety gave it a very positive review (Wild Bill Elliott: A Complete Filmography by Gene Blottner), as did the Sydney Morning Herald, which complimented Ruth Donnelly for "the warmth with which she plays this part and the perfectlon of the portrait's detail," and said the film itself is" shrewd and humorous and the conversation is so natural that the spectator is able to forget the plot, which contains no surprises." There ARE a couple of slight surprises, though by and large it's a convention plot; but with such fine acting and such appealing characters, you won't care.

We'll leave you with a trailer and a suggestion that you seek this one out.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Myrna Gets Caught in the Rain

The arrival of Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) and her husband, Lord Albert (Nigel Bruce) in Ranchipur, India creates problems when Edwina becomes attracted to the heir to the throne, Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). Though warned to stay away from Dr. Safti by her former lover, Tom Ransome (George Brent), Edwina continues her pursuit, but has the misfortune for fall in love with the handsome doctor.  However, everyone is threatened when The Rains Came (1939).

The Rains Came feels like it should be longer than it is; so much happens, the characters grow so much, that you think it must be of epic length, but director Clarence Brown packs an awful lot into a running time of 103 minutes. Like so many of the movies from 1939, this is both an exceptional film and one that is not always remembered because it had so much competition the year of its release (how do you get noticed when you are up against Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Ninotchka?). It was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning in the newly created Special Effects category), but none of the marvelous cast were even nominated for their work.

Let's start with Myrna Loy. She's cast against type (at least at this point in her career) as a harlot; there was some comment that she was not capable of playing the role (Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider). It's clear that Edwina lived with Tom Ransome before her marriage, and that she left him. It's also quite clear that marriage is no barrier to her bedding any man that intrigues her, and that Major Safti very much intrigues her. While Marlene Dietrich was considered for the part (TCM notes), Fox head Darryl Zanuck eventually borrowed Ms. Loy from MGM (in exchange for Tyrone Power's appearance in Marie Antoinette (1938)). Mr. Zanuck didn't make her life easy, however - Ms. Loy had been under contract to him and he'd let her go; he apparently resented her success at MGM, and was blatantly nasty to her (TCM article). She found support from director Brown, who told her "I think you're giving the best performance of your career." And she is (though she would later outpace herself in The Best Years of Our Lives). She takes a character who starts as a caricature of an avaricious woman, and as the story progresses matures her into a living, breathing person.
George Brent was also borrowed (from Warner Brothers) for the part that was originally intended for Ronald Colman (AFI catalog). Like Ms. Loy, Tom is a careless individual - the son of a noble (and with the possibility of eventually inheriting the title). He's lazing in India, supposedly painting a portrait of the Maharaja (H.B.Warner), but never getting it done. He's got a (well-deserved) reputation as a roué, and is finally being tested both by the tragedy that strikes Ranchipur, as well as the love that the young Fern Simon (Brenda Joyce) feels for him. Mr. Brent does a good job of turning Tom into a grown-up, and makes it an interesting process to watch.

Tyrone Power is exceptional as Major Safti, a dedicated doctor who is next in line for the throne of Ranchipur. Both Charles Boyer and Ramon Novarro were considered for the part (Clarence Brown: Hollywood's Forgotten Master by Gwenda Young). That he is one of the most striking men on Earth doesn't hurt - when he is on screen, you can't take your eyes from him. In the hands of a lesser actor, Rama could be mere eye candy for Edwina to toy with; with a gifted actor like Mr. Power, we respond to him; he uses everything at his disposal to paint a picture of a man who is both attracted to and offended by this obvious - and careless - woman.
This is not just a film of stars. It is an ensemble with a host of gifted character actors. First and foremost is Maria Ouspenskaya (Maharani). An indomitable force, she too is hard to ignore on the screen. Playing a character who is a mix of Eastern and Western habits, she is a powerful woman who has both the strength and determination to lead her people. Born in Russia in 1876, Mme. Ouspenskaya acted with the Moscow Arts Theatre until 1922. While on a trip with the company to New York, she stayed behind, where she worked on Broadway (she ultimately would do 8 Broadway plays) and taught acting and ultimately founded (with Richard Boleslawski) the School of Dramatic Art. When money got tight, she moved to California and opened a dancing school. She also began appearing in films. She was nominated for the Oscar twice, for Dodsworth (1936, her first film), and for Love Affair (1939). She died as the result of a stroke, and a fire - the couch she was on caught fire from her cigarette.
Other notable cast members include Nigel Bruce as Lord Esketh, a totally reprehensible man, and an welcome change from the sweet, befuddled character he was usually forced to play; Jane Darwell as the common sense Aunt Phoebe, loathed by Mrs. Simon (Marjorie Rambeau as the snobby minister's wife), adored by Tom Ransome, and by her husband the Reverend Homer Smiley (Henry Travers as a good and loving man); Mary Nash as nurse Miss MacDaid, who despises Lady Esketh until she is forced to acknowledge her devotion to Rama and the injured of Ranchipur; and Joseph Schildkraut as Mr. Bannerjee, as Westernized India traumatized by the earthquake (and our question - what happened to Mr. Bannerjee??)

The weakest link in the film is probably Brenda Joyce as Fern Simon; she's not a compelling actress, and as a result the character is diminished by the strong performances around her. As a young girl who feels she is being choked by her parents, Ms. Joyce does project the necessary naivety required of Fern. Ms. Joyce worked primarily in B pictures; she succeeded Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in the Tarzan series, working with Johnny Weissmuller and Lex Barker in that franchise. She retired in 1949 to raise her three children with husband Owen Ward (the marriage ended in divorce in 1960). She would later work in the Catholic Resettlement Office, assisting immigrants in their new country. She died in 2009 at the age of 92.

According to this article, which looks at the film (and its remake) in comparison to Louis Bromfield's 1938 novel, the novel focused on the effects of the catastrophe on all levels of Indian life. A Photoplay magazine, however, published an article in which Mr. Bromfield commented on the 1939 version of the film. Not surprisingly, given the venue, Mr. Bromfield praised the film.
As previously mentioned, the film was remade in 1955 as The Rains of Ranchipur with Lana Turner and Richard Burton, with a much different ending.  In March 1940, Lux Radio Theatre did a production, which featured George Brent, Kay Francis, and Don Ameche in the main roles.  The New York Times review by Frank Nugent was not satisfied with the film, calling it "the merest skeleton of the Bromfield work, and that not too well reassembled." When the film was included in TCM's Summer Under the Stars day devoted to George Brent, TCM host Dave Karger provided some commentary on the movie and on Mr. Brent.

Regardless of the review, this is a magnificent movie. Sure, it's a romance, but WHAT a romance! We wholeheartedly suggest you give it a viewing. In the meantime, here is the opening of film, with our introduction to Tom, Miss MacDaid, and Rama.