Monday, April 16, 2018

Ronald is from Boston

George Apley (Ronald Colman) is from Boston. He believes the world revolves around Boston, and that only Boston manners - as decided on by him, of course - are the proper ones. His life becomes problematic, however when his son John (Richard Ney) falls in love with a "foreigner" from Wooster, MA and his daughter Eleanor (Peggy Cummins) becomes involved with an English professor, Howard Bolder (Charles Russell) who believes that Ralph Waldo Emerson was a radical; he also has the temerity to be a Yale graduate.  Welcome to the world of The Late George Apley (1947).

In a sense, one of the biggest problems with the film is the title. The LATE George Apley? George Apley isn't dead! But in the play (which ran for a year on Broadway, and featured Leo G. Carroll as George) from which the film is taken, the story is related by Horatio Willing (here played by Richard Hayden) after George's death in 1924. As a result, you spend much of the movie waiting for George to leave this world. The action of the film instead centers around events in 1912, with George dealing with the romantic relationships of his children. Neither has chosen a potential spouse that fits George's notion of appropriate. The film looks at his ability to accept his children adults, able to make choices about their own futures. It never gets to the end of the play.
Ronald Colman is perhaps the best part of this film; he is able to make George wry and amusing. Mr. Colman had an excellent sense of comedic timing; he also understood character distance - he keeps George ever so slightly removed from the action, until such time that it is imperative that he become deeply involved.  It is something Mr. Colman used to superb effect in The Talk of the Town (1942), and it works well in this film. He and screenwriter Philip Dunne are thus able to make George sympathetic, which would not be an easy task with a a lesser actor. (AFI catalog)

Making George and company sympathetic is a tricky task. He adoration of Boston and his disregard of any other part of the world can become trying. Though we never meet Myrtle Dole (John's love), we do meet her father. And while we first accept Julian Dole (Paul Harvey) as being wiser than George, we wondered if we should have done so. Mr. Dole proposes exactly what George's father did to George, and what George wants to do to Ellie - separate her from her lover for an extended period to break up the relationship. Mr. Dole's reasoning certainly seems rational - Myrtle will never be happy in Boston, while John will never be happy outside of it. In the end, we are looking at two fathers who infantilize their children, rather than letting them decide the future for themselves.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is Agnes Willing (as portrayed by Vanessa Brown).  Agnes sees herself as plain and dull, primarily because John - her intended husband according to the Apley and the Willing seniors - is totally uninterested in her. However, after conversations with Catherine Apley (Edna Best) and Ellie, Agnes begins to see herself and her power differently. We are treated to the growth of this character, as she learns display herself differently and push back when others try to make her a walking mat. A late scene with Howard goes on a bit too long, but it does give Ms. Brown an opportunity to show off the new Agnes.

We were also pleased to see Mildred Natwick (as Amelia Newcombe, George's sister). Though Amelia is, quite frankly, a harridan, Ms. Natwick is always enjoyable in any part she plays. She works well with Mr. Colman, and with Percy Waram, who plays her husband Roger. And it is quite pleasurable to see the always excellent Peggy Cummins in a film. With only 26 film credits, it's a novel experience to be able to see something other than Gun Crazy (1950).
If the The New York Times review is an example of the reception the film received, it did not really wow the critics. The Late George Apley is by no means a bad movie; it's just not one of Ronald Colman's best films, even if his performance is top notch. Certainly consider it if you have a chance to see it.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Myrna on the Home Front

The war is over and three servicemen are on their way home. Sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), bombadier Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and infantry Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederic March) meet on the plane to Boone City. Each returns to family, but each has changed: Homer lost his hands when his ship was torpedoed; Fred saw his friend crash, and now has horrible nightmares, and Al is tormented by his memories of the men who didn't make it home. Are The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) behind them or still to come?

In the first year of its existence (1989), the National Film Registry  added The Best Years of Our Lives to its list of films of "enduring importance to American culture." And indeed it is. It is perhaps the best film of the post-war period, if not one of the best of all time.  Directed by William Wyler after his return from the European Theatre of Operations, it was, in fact, his first film after spending over three years in bomber planes making documentaries for the U.S. Army Air Force. As a result of the noise in the planes, he lost his hearing, and was virtually deaf for several years. Wyler understood well the life facing disabled veterans. He therefore fashioned a movie (based on Time Magazine article "The Way Home," and a treatment by MacKinlay Kantor) that dealt with disability on a variety of levels. (For more on the film and it's creation, see this Film Preservation Board essay).
The most obvious examination of disability is the casting of double amputee Harold Russell as Homer. Unlike his character, Russell was injured in a training accident, and spent the war in the hospital. Mr. Russell was included in a training film Diary of a Sargeant (1944); when Wyler saw that film, he decided to change the character of Homer from a man suffering from severe spacticity. While clearly not an actor, Russell's gives a genuine performance; his scene, late in the film, with actress Cathy O'Donnell (as Homer's fiance, Wilma Cameron) is truly moving, giving real truth to the film. 

Mr. Russell became the only actor to receive two Oscars for the same performance: he was awarded a competitive Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the other nominees were: Charles Coburn in The Green Years, William Demarest in The Jolson Story, Claude Rains in Notorious, and Clifton Webb in The Razor's Edge), as well as a Special Oscar for "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." (TCM article). Years later, Mr. Russell sold one of the Oscars, in order to get funding for his wife's health care.
Fredric March won the Best Actor award that year, but  Myrna Loy as his wife, Milly Stephenson didn't even get nominated! If anything is a travesty of the Oscars, it is the fact that she was NEVER nominated for Oscars for any of her wonderful performances. (The Academy did try to finally rectify the oversight in 1991 by awarding her an Honorary Oscar. You can see her acceptance here). Her performance as Milly is inspired. Watch her face as she realizes that Al is in the house. Then, see if you can refrain from tearing up as she explains to daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright, who was only 12 years younger than her on-screen mother) why even her "perfect" marriage has its challenges. Her quiet dignity, as she silently, but sympathetically, observes the changes in her husband are beyond stirring.

Dana Andrews (who also was not nominated for this picture) is excellent as a man returning to a wife he finds he no longer loves (Virginia Mayo as the rather despicable Marie Derry), and who is forced back into the same dead-end job he left to serve his country. Fred Derry is still suffering the effects of the war. He has vivid nightmares of the death of his friend, he feels ill-equipped to take on a more responsible job ("I just dropped bombs" is his response to any queries about his ability to prove experience based on his war service), and his wife only wants him to wear his uniform and party. It is in the company of Peggy Stephenson that he is able to find any comfort or understanding, but his marriage is a block that he can't get around. Mr. Andrews gives us a character that shows the most growth throughout the movie - he really does go from a boy to a man.
Though they only have a few scenes, Roman Bohnen and Gladys George as Fred's father and stepmother Pat and Hortense are magnificent. Their most powerful scene occurs towards the end of the film; the scene is a simple one - Pat is reading a document aloud to Hortense which explains the citation Fred received from the military. With just Mr. Bohnen's voice and Ms. George's eyes, we see the love and pain that they feel for their son. The war, we see, impacted more than those who fought.

Equally effective is Hoagy Carmichael as Homer's uncle Butch Engle. Butch serves as the springboard to Homer's reentry into life - teaching him to "play" the piano, quietly encouraging him to open up to his parents and to Wilma, and perhaps more importantly, keeping him from slipping into alcohol as a refuge from his troubles. Another interesting casting note: Mr. Wyler used his 4 and 7 year old daughters in one of the drugstore scenes.
The film opened to enthusiastic reviews. The New York Times called it "this best film this year..." and Variety said it was "one of the best pictures of our lives." Since then, it has continued to be held in high regard, coming in at #37 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Edition (the same position as the original list) and at #11 in AFI's 100 Years, 100 Cheers. Richard Brody singled it out for a DVR alert in his New Yorker commentary. It also was financially successful, earning over $11,300,000 in its first North American release. It was even re-released in 1953 to note the return of troops for Korean, to equally favorable reviews (AFI catalog). Yet, despite this, Mr. Wyler was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee - certain scenes were deemed Communist propaganda!

If you have never seen The Best Years of Our Lives, we strong urge you to get hold of a copy. It is worth your time. We'll leave you with the trailer from the film.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Ronald Goes Mad

Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is a highly regarded Broadway actor, and while there is no debate on his talent, attitudes towards him as a person differ drastically. Mr. John has a problem - he totally inhabits his current role. As his ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso) says "when he's doing something's wonderful to be with him, but when he gets going on one of those deep numbers... We were engaged during Oscar Wilde, broke it off during O'Neill, married during Kaufman and Hart, divorced during Chekov." Despite this, Tony's producer is encouraging him to tackle Othello, a part he longs to do, but which also terrifies him for its intensity of emotion. A Double Life (1947) is our film this week.

Ronald Colman won a well-deserved Oscar as best actor for his performance in this movie. (His competition was: John Garfield, Body And Soul; Gregory Peck, Gentleman's Agreement; William Powell Life With Father; Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra) He was originally reluctant to play the part - the part was first intended for Laurence Olivier - but persuasion from director George Cukor and screenwriters Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin convinced Mr. Colman to take on the role and the Shakespearean text that went with it. (TCM article). They were certainly right; Colman's experience on the stage stood him in good stead, and he is an impressive Othello. You would never guess he was uncomfortable with the text; his portrayal is crisp and magisterial.

Considered a film noir, A Double Life also has moments that call to mind the horror genre. The scenes of Tony's descent into madness could rival the Hammer films of the time, with the use of unseen voices echoing from Tony's weakened mind. And is it any wonder that Tony has become unhinged - by the middle of the film, we learn that he has appeared in the play for over two years - 300 performances, of 8 performances a week?  It's amazing he didn't lose it after a year of doing what is probably considered one of Shakespeare's most intense and demanding roles (today, most actors leave their show at the end of one year). We did wonder if part of the screenwriters were (on some levels) mocking The Method, in the form of an actor who too deeply submerges himself into the character he portrays.
Both Signe Hasso and Shelley Winters (as Pat Kroll) are very good in their parts, though in many regards, the characters are there to counterpoint one another. Ms. Hasso is the dutiful wife (yes, they are divorced, but it is clear that she still considers Tony to be her husband) and Ms. Winters is the local slut. Ms. Hasso is very good as a woman torn between her love for a man, and her fear of  his increasing instability and violence.

I have to admit to a certain bias against Ms. Winters, who I consider to be an over-actor of the first order (that being said, her predilection for over-emoting worked beautifully in A Patch of Blue (1965), probably her best performance). But she is good in this role; you do find yourself sympathizing with her in what would prove to be her breakthrough role (AFI Catalog). Director Cukor badly wanted her for the part; in order to relax her, he filmed a rehearsal without her knowledge and used that as her screen test.
There is one decidedly problematic character, and that is Bill Friend (Edmund O'Brien). Bill is the publicity agent for Tony, he also has a crush on Brita and cannot understand why she does not reciprocate his feelings. Later in the film (spoiler here), Bill works with a reporter to label a killing as "the kiss of death" murder as publicity for Tony's production of Othello. He KNOWS Tony will object, that Tony will find such publicity tacky and distasteful. Yet Bill is seemingly surprised when Tony blows his stack and fires Bill. Bill's immediate reaction - Tony is involved in the murder. As Bill tries to involve the police in his newly blossomed theory, he is asked if there is any ulterior motives to his belief. He says no, though Mr. O'Brien provides a slight reaction, demonstrating that Bill is quite aware that he has a definite bias against Tony. It's really hard at this point to have any sympathy for Bill; the irony of his last name is apparent.
A very young Betsy Blair makes an appearance as The Girl in the Wig Shop, a young woman eager for a stage career - so focused that she is willing to change anything about herself to get a job impersonating Pat Kroll. The Girl presents a counterpoint to Tony - he becomes the part without choice, while she willingly subsumes herself for a chance at fame.

Though not as widely known as it should be, A Double Life has come up in recent commentaries. For example,  the New York State Writers Association at SUNY provides this fascinating examination of the picture within the tradition of Film Noir. They note the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer Milton Krasner - as well as the horror roots of production studio Universal. And this L.A. Times article released in 2014 after the premiere of Birdman finds a remarkable similarity between the two films, as they concentrate on stage actors becoming immersed in their roles.
George Cukor and Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin formed a partnership with this film - the first of seven collaborations, including Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, and Pat and Mike. Mr. Colman was convinced to take on the role as one that would result in an Oscar - and George Cukor kept his promise, campaigning hard to get Mr. Colman the award. Mr. Colman would only make three more films after this, turning his attention to radio and then television in The Halls of Ivy, with his wife Benita Hume. The New York Times review was glowing in its praise, not only for the film, but for Mr. Colman, saying it was "the role of his lengthy career." Despite Mr. Colman's fears, the Times was impressed by his portrayal of Othello. 

This is a fascinating film, well worth your viewing. We'll leave you with this trailer.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Robert Avoids Heaven

Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is a boxer with dreams of becoming the champion. He's trained long and hard, and is ready for the bout that will propel him to stardom. He's in his private plane, heading for New York when his aircraft is damaged. Plummeting earthbound, his spirit is plucked from his body by overeager heavenly messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton).  When Joe protests to Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) that he doesn't feel dead, Mr. Jordan discovers that Joe is destined to live another 50 years! Since Joe's body is gone (cremated by Joe's manager Max Corkle (James Gleason)), Mr. Jordan and Joe go out to find Joe a new body. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) tells the story of that quest.

I'm truly of the opinion that Robert Montgomery is one of our most underrated film actors. He's good in everything he does, and can play the villain, the anti-hero, and the hero with equal aplomb. He's delightful as Joe Pendleton, a man of deep feelings and simple tastes. He loves his plane, his saxophone, his dear friend Max, and ultimately, Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes). His quest for a new body is governed by the purity of his nature - he wants simply what he is entitled to, and wants the body he is given to match the one that he had. After all, he kept it "in the pink!"

Robert Montgomery was born into a privileged family, but that all ended with his father's suicide when Robert was 18. He decided to try his hand at acting and writing; by 1924, he was appearing on Broadway, where he was in 7 plays (through 1928). He signed a contract with MGM in 1929, where his stage training was essential in the booming sound era; he was often the juvenile in this period (as in Untamed (1929)).  In 1937, he showed a new side of his talent in Night Must Fall,  as an insane killer. World War II disrupted his career - he volunteered to serve in the Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Upon his return, John Ford cast him in They Were Expendable (1945); when Ford was injured, Mr. Montgomery finished directing the film. His characterizations became even more nuanced, as he appeared in films like the film noir Lady in the Lake (1946). He turned to television, to produce his own anthology show, Robert Montgomery Presents.  Married twice, he had three children by his first wife, Elizabeth Allen. His daughter, Elizabeth, went on to perform in film and television (and is best remembered for her role in the TV series,  Bewitched). He died of cancer in 1981.
We were a bit less enthralled with Evelyn Keyes. There are times, especially at the beginning when she is pleading for her father, that she seems over-melodramatic. She improves greatly in the love scenes with Mr. Montgomery, and they have a warm relationship that is easy to appreciate. Rita Johnson, as the other woman in Joe's life - the almost widow Julia Farnsworth - is quite good as the would-be murderer. She's properly bitchy, and you eagerly await her - and her paramour Tony Abbott (John Emery) - getting their comeuppance.

The film's strength really comes from two magnificent supporting roles - Mr. Jordan and Max Corkle. James Gleason is excellent as the frequently bemused Max. His fatherly affection for Joe is apparent from the minute we first meet him, and his pain from the repeated loss of Joe is palpable. But Mr. Gleason also brings humor to the part - his inability to see Mr. Jordan, while he tries to have conversations with him make for amusing scenes, yet maintain the integrity of the character. In their review, the New York Times says that Mr. Gleason "steals the film's most comic scene as the manager with cosmic premonitions," but he never lets Max become a fool, and we are grateful for it.
What can we add about Claude Rains that hasn't already been said? He's delightful as Mr. Jordan - warm and understanding. He cares about Joe, and about his predicament, but he has a heavenly duty to perform, and Joe isn't always willing to acknowledge that. Mr. Rains brings a sincerity to the role that perfects the movie. We believe he is an angel, and we know that Mr. Jordan will keep an eye on his charge until he meets him again in 1991. This article from the Criterion Collection talks about "the hint of steel" Mr. Rains brings to the part. It is the making of the character.
The story upon which the film was based was initially purchased as a vehicle for Cary Grant (AFI Catalog)  Years later, Warren Beatty would ask him to play Mr. Jordan in his remake.  (Evenings with Cary Grant by Nancy Nelson). When Mr. Grant said no, Mr. Beatty cast James Mason in his 1978  Heaven Can Wait - which was, in fact, the title of the original play by Harry Segall (TCM article)

Lux Radio Theatre in January 1942 aired a version of the story with Cary Grant, Evelyn Keyes, Claude Rains, and James Gleason. It was remade again as Down to Earth (2001) with Chris Rock as a comedian who is untimely snatched from his body.

We'll leave you with this trailer, and the suggestion that you give this delightful film a first (or a second) viewing:

Monday, March 19, 2018

Ronald Breaks the Bank

Paul Gallard (Ronald Colman) arrives at the Sports Club in Monte Carlo with an empty suitcase, and proceeds to win 5 million francs at the baccarat table. He departs with his winnings, telling the newspapers that gambling is a fool's game to which he will never return.  Miffed, the casino administration begin to move heaven and earth to get The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935) to tempt him back to the tables, and hopefully, lose.

Most of the action in the 71 minute film is at the very beginning and the end. In between, there is the feeling that the screenwriters were killing time until we could get to those final scenes. It's not that the film was dull - it really wasn't. But it was hard to know exactly where the movie wanted to go and what tone it wanted to strike.

While this is not one of Ronald Colman's best roles, he is delightful as Paul (this was released the same year as Clive of India and A Tale of Two Cities - two powerhouse parts for him). He also has a very good rapport with Joan Bennett (Helen Berkeley) in their second film together - they had previously appeared together in Bulldog Drummond (1929). As in that film, it is clear that Mr. Colman is the star; unfortunately for Ms. Bennett, the part of Helen is not really well defined. As Ms. Bennett and Mr. Colman didn't work together after this, one wonders what would have happened had Ms. Bennett been given better written roles and a character able to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Colman.
Joan Bennett was born into an acting family. Her maternal grandparents were actors, as were her mother and father (her mother would eventually become a literary agent). Her sisters also were actors: Barbara and Constance Bennett. Joan appeared in two films (in 1916 and 1923), then was on Broadway (to which she would return in 1950, in Love Me Little) in Jarnegan (1928).  After two  uncredited film roles, she appeared as the ingenue in Bulldog Drummond.  With her blonde hair (her natural color) and youthful face, she was perfect for roles like Amy in Little Women (1933). Her career path would change, however, when future husband Walter Wanger and director Tay Garnett convinced her to go brunette for the film Trade Winds (1938). After that, she was a natural for roles like Kitty in Scarlet Street (1945). Married four times, her career all but ended when her third husband, Walter Wanger, shot Joan's agent in a fit of jealousy. She'd continue her career with regional stage performances (including the national tour of Bell, Book and Candle as Gillian). (In contrast, Wanger's career was not affected after he served his four-month jail sentence.) Television would prove a reentry for Ms. Bennett - she won an Emmy nomination for her role as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in Dark Shadows (1966-1971). In 1970, she published her autobiography The Bennett Playbill (written with Lois Kibbee), and continued to appear in TV movies. She died of a heart attack in 1990, at the age of 80. For more on Joan and sister Constance, see this article from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter.
Two excellent, but sadly brief performances are turned in by Colin Clive (as Helen's nefarious brother Bertrand) and by Nigel Bruce (as Paul's valet, Ivan). Mr. Clive is deliciously nasty; it's a shame he has so few scenes. And Mr. Bruce gets most of the really good lines. He's really funny, and not at all the buffoon that he would play in his later career.

Sylvia Sidney was originally considered for the role of Helen, and John Ford was to direct - an accident on his boat gave the director's chair to Stephen Roberts (AFI catalog). The film's title is taken from an 1890's music hall song, resulting in the studio being sued by the heirs of  songwriter Fred Gilbert, for violation of their copyright; they eventually lost the suit.  You can hear the song sung by music hall comedian Charles Coborn in the video below - you'll notice the song has nothing at all to do with the plot of the movie. The song would actually be sung in several films, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Alien: Covenant (2017). (TCM article).
The New York Times reviewer was not impressed with the film; they somewhat liked Ronald Colman, but were quite hard on Joan Bennett (really, she doesn't have a strong script. We thought they were being unfair).  It wasn't until May, 1946 that a radio version aired on Hollywood Star Time, with Rex Harrison and Lurlene Tuttle as the leads.  Perhaps the film is justifiably forgotten today, but it's worth seeing for Colman alone. He's always a treat.
As promised, we'll leave you with the song on which the title was based.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Katharine's Getting Married

It's been two years since Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn) divorced her husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy is about to remarry. Her fiance is George Kittredge (John Howard), an up-and-comer who is completely different from the wealthy Dexter. Tracy, however, is not happy. She seethes with resentment towards Dexter, and towards her father, Seth Lord (John Halliday), who has been cavorting with a dancer in New York City. So, when Dexter shows up the day before her wedding with two reporters from the scandal sheet "Spy Magazine" in tow, Tracy is ready to give Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) the ride of their lives.

TCM Presents for February was the delightful The Philadelphia Story (1940). Katharine Hepburn is perfection as the intolerant Tracy, a woman of strict principle who finds herself torn among 3 men on the eve of her wedding. She never misses a step as Tracy discovers the true meaning of love as her inhibitions fall away.

Katharine Hepburn came to Hollywood to star in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) with John Barrymore. Two years later, she won her first (of four) Oscars for Morning Glory.  But, by 1938, with her films not doing well, she bought out her contract, and departed from Hollywood (after she was included in a list of actors termed Box Office Poison), Ms. Hepburn returned to New York, where she appeared in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story, a play which had been written by Philip Barry with her in mind. The play was a huge hit (it ran for 417 performances in New York, then opened on National Tour). All the major studios wanted it, but there was a catch. With the help of her friend Howard Hughes, Ms. Hepburn had purchased the rights to the play. No film would be made without her in the lead, and without her approval of her leading men. MGM bit the bullet, and bought the film, hired Philip Barry to write the screenplay, and (with Ms. Hepburn's approval) hired Cary Grant to play Dexter (even with his high salary demands and insistence on top billing!) This Philadelphia Magazine article  has more behind-the-scenes information on the production. For more on Ms. Hepburn's fascinating life and career, check out her autobiography Me, and the authorized biography that was published just after her death, Kate Remembered by A Scott Berg.
James Stewart is equally good as the angry young man who disrupts Tracy's life, a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Spencer Tracy (they had not yet met). Mr. Stewart brings both a swagger and sass to Macauley Connor. He begins by resenting Tracy and all she represents, but ends deeply infatuated with her. Mr. Stewart would win his only Best Actor Oscar for his work in this film. His scenes with all three of his co-stars crackle with energy.

Cary Grant, however, was NOT nominated for his role as Dexter. Why will always be a mystery to me. He is wonderful (as always) in a part that Ms. Hepburn intended for Clark Gable. She asked Mr. Grant to appear when Gable was unavailable, and he agreed - provided he got top billing and a salary of $137,000 (which was given to British War Relief) (TCM article). As with their three prior parings (Sylvia Scarlet (1935), Holiday (1938), and Bringing Up Baby(1938)), their interplay is dynamic. There is an ease in their conversations that make them all the more real. Mr. Grant is equally adept at sparring with Mr. Stewart. And his scenes with Virginia Weidler (as Tracy's younger sister Dinah Lord) are a pleasure to watch.
The other nominated actor in the film is the always excellent Ruth Hussey (best supporting actress). If you have never encountered Ms. Hussey, treat yourself with this film or with The Uninvited (1944). There is a world-weariness to Liz, but it has not eliminated her hope for a future with Mike. Ms. Hussey began her career in Providence, RI as a radio commentator.  She eventually moved to New York where she modeled, and found jobs with theatrical touring companies. That got her an MGM contract, where she appeared films such as The Women (1939), Another Thin Man (1939), and H.M. Pulham, Esq (1941). She also appeared on Broadway in State of the Union (in the role Katharine Hepburn would play on film), and Goodbye, My Fancy (Joan Crawford's movie outing). Ms. Hussey appeared on radio and television as well until her retirement in 1973. She was married for 60 years to talent agent Bob Longenecker until his death in 2002; the couple had three children. She died in 2005, following an appendectomy, at the age of 93.

Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for adapted screenplay, and director George Cukor was nominated. The film is listed as #44 in the100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (interestingly, the rating went up from the original list, where it appeared at #51). It's also #44 on the 100 Years, 100 Passions list. In 1995, it was added to the National Film Registry.

The Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film twice: in July, 1942, with the original cast, and in June, 1943 with Robert Taylor, Robert Young, and Loretta Young. (AFI catalog). It would be remade as the musical High Society in 1956, starring Gracy Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm, with glorious music by Cole Porter.  The New York Times review was glowing when the film opened at Radio City Music Hall, and quite honestly, what's not to love. We'll leave you with the trailer to this outstanding film:

Monday, March 5, 2018

Clifton in Suburbia

Henry (Robert Young) and Tacy King (Maureen O'Hara) live in the small town of Hummingbird Hills. Henry is a young lawyer, trying to get ahead in his law firm, which requires the Kings to socialize with his boss, Horatio Hammond (Ed Begley) and his wife Martha (Josephine Whittell) on command. But the Kings have a problem. Their three rambunctious boys make it impossible for them to keep a maid, or hire a local babysitter. So, Tacy puts an ad in the Saturday Review for a live-in babysitter, and gets an immediate response. But there is a complication - the applicant, Lynn Belvedere is a man (Clifton Webb). Our film this time is Sitting Pretty (1948).

Set in counterpoint to our last film, All That Heaven Allows, we have the same suburban mentality looked at from both the dramatic and the decidedly comic points of view. The role of the vindictive neighbor here is taken on by Richard Haydn as Mr. Clarence Appleton, an effete botanist who lives with his deaf (and equally nosy) mother. Mr. Appleton takes great pleasure in snooping around the community, looking in his neighbors' garbarge and opening up their mail. He's quite as malicious as Mona Plash, but it's all in the attitude. Where Sara and Cary fear Mona, Mr. Belevedere and Tacy view him with disdain.
As in the last film, the gossip has affects the family dynamic, with Henry constantly fearful of the how things look or sound, while Tacy turns up her nose at such nonsense. But with a family of five to support, and a job in which he is at the mercy of a stuffy and judgemental boss, Henry perhaps has a right to be nervous. As played by Mr. Young, if there is one thing that makes Henry problematic, it is his lack of presence in his boys' lives. These are youngsters who need a first hand, and neither Henry nor Tacy seem capable of supplying that discipline.

Which is where Mr. Belvedere comes in; as an expert in children (he is, he declares, a genius, who has had experience in a wide variety of areas) who claims to not particularly like them, it is apparent that he is willing to spend time with the boys. Within a day of his arrival, he has cured the youngest son of pelting everyone at the kitchen table with his food (check out this TCM article for Clifton Webb's account of the filming of the scene) and taught the youngest two boys some yoga poses. As portrayed by Clifton Webb, Mr. Belvedere is a man with definite beliefs who practices what he preaches. The boys need attention, therefore, he gives it to them, and makes them nicer children at the same time.
In one scene late in the film, Tacy encounters Mr. Belvedere at a ritzy restaurant lounge. After her comment that Henry is a lousy dancer, Mr. Belvedere invites her to dance, and she compliments him on his terpsichorean skills (you can see that scene below). In fact, Clifton Webb began his career as a professional ballroom dancer, eventually becoming a Broadway star in both comedies and musicals. His 23 Broadway credits include The Importance of Being Earnest, Blythe Spirit, and Present Laughter. In fact, if you go to the outer lobby of the Music Box Theatre today (where he performed in As Thousands Cheer), you'll find a poster discussing the history of the theatre - and on it is a picture of Clifton Webb. In 1945 Mr. Webb (who had had a few small roles in silents and one early talkie) starred in Laura (1945). He made the role of Waldo Lydecker his own, and continued in films from that point on. Primarily out of touch with the father who had left his mother shortly after his birth, he was extremely close to his mother, Mabelle. They lived together, hosted parties together, and were, to all intents and purposes, a couple. She died at age 91, in 1960. Mr. Webb only survived her by six years, dying of a heart attack at the age of 76.  He did begin an autobiography, but was never able to complete it. It was published, in 2016 by Robert Wagner (not the actor) as Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb

John Payne was considered for the role of Henry, and Celeste Holm was also proposed for a part in the film (probably that of Edna Philby, which was ably filled by Louise Albritton in the final version). (AFI Catalog).  Larry Olsen, who played Larry King, the King's eldest son, is the brother of Susan Olsen of Brady Bunch fame. He stopped acting at the age of 16; he died in 2015, aged 77. Betty Ann Lynn, who appeared as Ginger the babysitter would later appear as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show (by then, her name was Betty Lynn). She'll be 92 this year. John Russell (Bill Philby) is probably best remembered today for his role on TV's Lawman. He died in 1991 at the age of 70.
The New York Times was quite pleased in their review of the film. And the film was successful enough to result in two other movies - Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). Three other films were planned, but Mr. Webb's reluctance to continue in the role cancelled them. Mr. Webb did, however, reprise his role in this film on the February 1949 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast. When the 20th Century-Fox Hour performed a television version, Reginald Gardner took over the part of Mr. Belvedere; in 1965, it is believed Victor Buono took on the part for a pilot that never saw the light of day. Finally, in 1985, a successful television series, starring Christopher Hewitt as Mr. Belvedere ran for five years.

We'll leave you with Ms. O'Hara and Mr. Webb cutting a rug.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Jane in Suburbia

All That Heaven Allows (1955) introduces us to Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a widow with two grown children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds). Cary essentially lives alone now - both children are away at school - and Cary is finding herself at loose ends. Unlike her best friend, Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), Cary is not a "club woman" and her days seem endless. So, when Sara has to renege on a luncheon date, Cary invites her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) in for a cup of coffee. Cary becomes fascinated with Ron's life goals - a life within nature, growing trees. Ron's invitation to visit his nursery leads to a relationship between the two, one that is ridiculed by Cary's supposed friends (represented by the vindictive Mona Plash (played with relish by Jacqueline de Wit)) and rejected by her appalled children.

Let's just get it out of the way -  All That Heaven Allows is a melodrama - but WHAT a melodrama! With excellent performances from the two leads, reunited after their successful teaming in Magnificent Obsession (1954) along with Agnes Moorehead and most of the production cast (AFI catalog), and with support from the likes of Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), and Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), the film goes beyond its melodramatic roots to something much grander. But what really elevates the film is the cinematography by Russell Metty and costume design by Rose Brandi. The film glows with color and texture - you can see every leaf on the trees and the colors are sumptuous. It is very much like watching an exquisite painting, but one with a story and acting that keeps you involved with the characters. The script is tight, providing just enough information about the characters to keep you involved, but avoids having backstory that overwhelms the movie.
Douglas Sirk, the film's director, is the architect. Sirk built on a novel by Edna and Harry Lee (see this TCM article for more on Sirk and the film's creation); it's a wonder that this film got past the censors, since it is really about sexuality. Oh, sure, there is only a hint that Cary and Ron are intimate, but the attitude of the Peyton Place-ish town and of the Scott children is all about the fact that Cary, an "older woman." She's actually only just 40 - we are told she married at 17, and her son is about 22 (Criterion Collection discussion of the film and Jane Wyman) and Ron is about 30. 

The film makes it clear that Cary is both attractive and interested in being sexually active. All of the reactions from family and supposed friends revolve around that point. Ned, for example, is offended by Cary's attractive evening gown (you can see it below) but is fine with the idea that she marry Harvey (Conrad Nagel), who has is interested only in a companionable marriage (translation - no sex). Kay is horrified at the thought of her mother marrying someone young and attractive, until she herself marries Freddie North (David Janssen), at which point she understand her mother's desires and acknowledges that her mother should follow her heart (and libido). The townspeople wink at Howard Hoffer's (Donald Curtis) womanizing, but start rumors that Cary and Ron were having an affair while Cary's husband was still living. It's a misogynistic, small-minded mess of an environment.
The middle-aged, upper middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant gathering given by Sara (who really is the only person open to Cary's relationship with Ron) is juxtaposed against the party given by Mick (Charles Drake) and Alida Anderson. A mix of people of different ages and socioeconomic status, the Anderson party is the only place where Cary and Ron are totally welcomed and completely comfortable together. These are the people who abjure riches, and live with nature. Mick and Alida were from the social strata of the town, but Thoreau's Walden has become Mick's bible, and he now lives apart from society and the economic pressures of that life. It is a life that ultimately attracts Cary to Ron and the Andersons.
The chemistry between Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, which was so apparent in Magnificent Obsession continues in this film. Though we are told there is an age gap (Ms. Wyman was actually about 8 years older than Mr. Hudson), it's really not all that noticeable - their relationship is so solid that they seem made for each other. It's a shame they never made any other films together.

Virginia Grey also stood out as Alida; we found her quite engaging as the woman who gives up the rat race for her husband.  Ms. Grey had a lengthy career - she started as a child in silent films (she played Little Eva in the 1927 Uncle Tom's Cabin). As an adult, she was a supporting player (as in this film) in A movies, and the lead in many B pictures. In the 1940s, after Carole Lombard's death, she began dating Clark Gable, but his sudden marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley ended their relationship. After Robert Taylor's separation from Barbara Stanwyck, she also dated Mr. Taylor for a time (you can see a 1952 letter which he wrote to her here.  Ms. Grey would later relate that Ms. Stanwyck despised her because of the relationship). Ms. Grey never married (it's been surmised she never got over Clark Gable); she would work in films and television until 1976. She died in 2004 at the age of 87.

A note of interest - Gloria Talbott was not the first choice for the role of Kay. Producer Ross Hunter initially wanted to cast Jane Wyman's daughter, Maureen Reagan in the role, but finally decided she was too young (she was about 13 at the time).
The New York Times review was rather ho-hum (though reviewer Bosley Crowther really liked Jane Wyman).  For a more recent observation, take a look at this brief analysis (including many scenes from the film) by Richard Brody that appeared in The New Yorker. Another tribute came by way of the filmmaker Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven (2002), which he modeled, both in plot and cinematic style, after All That Heaven Allows. We'll leave you with the trailer from the film, and a recommendation that you give it a viewing.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Humphrey Burns

The kickoff film for this year's TCM Presents was  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which celebrates its 70th Anniversary this year. Humphrey Bogart stars as Fred C. Dobbs, a down-on-his-luck American stuck in Tampico, Mexico. He's broke, it's next to impossible to get a job, so he spends his day hitting up an American tourist (John Huston) for food money ("Can you spot a fellow American to a meal?"). When he finally is able to get a job, it's from a cheat named Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), who disappears without paying Dobbs and his friend, Curtin (Tim Holt). Curtin and Dobbs are eventually able to locate McCormick, and "persuade" him to give them their pay. Using that money, and $200 that Dobbs wins from the lottery, the pair and prospector Howard (Walter Huston) head out to the Mexican hills to find gold. But gold can change people, Howard cautions, and Dobbs will become a victim of that change.

Director John Huston cast his father, Walter Huston as the knowing prospector. It's an amazing performance which won Walter the Academy Award for best supporting actor.  But it almost didn't happen.  A highly regarded leading man on both stage and screen (the little jig he does in the film was taught to him by Eugene O'Neill when Mr. Huston appeared on Broadway in Desire Under the Elms (Lincoln Center Film Society)), Huston Sr didn't object to playing an older man - he'd already played James Cagney's father in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But son John's insistence that he remove his dentures was just too much even for a father trying to support his son's career. John and Mr. Bogart would eventually resort to holding Mr. Huston down and forcibly removing the teeth, much to Walter Huston's chagrin. But the difference in his speaking voice was so noticeable that he finally agreed to appear without his teeth. (TCM articles). It's interesting to note that, on some of the poster art, the drawing of Walter Huston looks like him in most of his films, not as he appears in this film (see the poster below).
Born in Canada in 1883, Walter Huston began his career on the stage, primarily in touring companies. His first marriage postponed his acting career: he worked in an electric power plant to support his wife and son. When the marriage ended, he returned to the stage - this time vaudeville - working with his second wife, until he began getting roles on Broadway. Between 1924 and 1946, he would appear in 14 plays - musicals and dramas - including Dodsworth, which he would also bring to the screen. He was nominated 4 times for Oscars (Dodsworth (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)), finally winning for this film. He worked with his son on other films, including The Maltese Falcon (1941) where he played the dying Captain Jacoby, and providing narration for John's wartime documentaries (i.e. Let Their Be Light (1946)). His third marriage in 1931 endured until his death of an aortic aneurym at age 67 in 1950. For more on Walter Huston, see this Los Angeles Times obituary.

Humphrey Bogart was not the studio's first choice for Dobbs - Edward G. Robinson was initially suggested, though John Huston badly wanted to Bogart for the part. Ronald Reagan and John Garfield were considered for Curtin, and Zachary Scott was in the running for the part of James Cody (which would go to Bruce Bennett). It's been said that Ann Sheridan did a walk-on as a prostitute, but the woman in question does not look a bit like her, so it's probably urban myth. (AFI catalog)

Bogart, of course, is amazingly good in a characterization that morphs so dramatically during the course of the film. He's not a bad man in the beginning - even when he forcibly takes his salary from Pat McCormick, he only takes the money due to him and Curtin. He even pays the bartender for the damage to the saloon from his own money. But as the gold starts to mount, so does his greed and paranoia. At one point, he most closely resembles Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, crouching and giggling over his wealth.
There are some uncredited performances to look out for. The Mexican Boy Selling Lottery Tickets is portrayed by Robert Blake, who would later star in the TV show Baretta.  Jack Holt, a silent and sound actor, perhaps remembered today for his appearance in San Francisco (1936) is one of the residents of the flophouse where Dobbs and Curtin meet Howard.  And the Lone Ranger's colleague Tonto, Jay Silverheels appears as the Indian Guide at Pier.

John Huston filmed much of the action for the film in Mexico; finally he was dragged back to Warner Brothers to complete filming when the costs became too high. He worked with an advisor, who Mr. Huston believed was actually the author of the novel, B. Traven. The advisor denied this, but the BBC later confirmed John Huston's theory.  Check out this New York Times article on the author, as well as the BBC broadcast.
Besides Walter Huston's Academy Award, the film also won for Best Direction and Adapted Screenplay to John Huston - the first time a father and son won Oscars (and the only time thusfar for the same film). It was also nominated for Best Picture, but lost to Hamlet). In April of 1948, Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston reprised their roles for the Lux Radio Theatre; in February 1955 Edmund O'Brien and Walter Brennan performed the radio play for LuxThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre was #38 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies, 10th Anniversary Edition (it was #30 on the original list), as well as being listed at #36 in their 100 Greatest Movie Quotes (for the oft midquoted: "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"), and #67 in the 100 Most Thrilling American Films. In 1990, it was added to the  National Film Registry (the second year of the registry).  

We'll leave you with the trailer for this excellent film. If you've not seen it before, you are in for a treat.