Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Elliot Flies

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Claudia's a Young Mother

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Dorothy Marries Young

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Savage Clara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Ann

The Flame Within (1935) stars Ann Harding as Doctor Mary White, a successful psychiatrist in New York City.  For many years, she has been pursued romantically by Dr. Gordon Phillips (Herbert Marshall). Mary is aware, however, that Gordon will expect her to relinquish her career as part of their marriage and she is not ready to be just a housewife.  When Lillian Belton (Maureen O'Sullivan) attempts suicide, Gordon and Dr. Jock Frazier (Henry Stephenson) consult Mary on her treatment.  Mary discovers that Lillian is deeply in love with Jack Kerry (Louis Hayward), an unrepentant drunkard, and it is Lillian's fear for his life that drives her to suicide.  Mary determines that saving Jack is the best way to cure Lillian.  But there are consequences. 

In the pantheon of films about women doctors, this is one of the weaker ones.  Ann Harding is quite good as Mary, but the script gives her no help in creating a convincing character.  That you like and believe in Mary at all is due to Ms. Harding's abilities as an actress (according to this TCM article, she was Barbara Stanwyck's favorite actress, and with good reason!).  Released as the Production Code was being firmly enacted, it often feels like the screenwriters don't know what to do with Dr. White; as a result, the character goes from a strong, successful, independent career woman to an impulsive, dependent housewife. 

It's clear at the beginning of the film that Dr. White is good at her job, and well respected by her peers. Even Dr. Phillips, who wants her to stop working and be just his wife, refers his ailing patient to her care.  Despite this, nothing that she does from the moment she meets Lillian Belton convinces us that Mary actually knows what she is doing. Lillian attempts suicide in despair over Jack Kerry's alcoholism.  So Mary decides to cure Jack, and that will cure Lillian.  There is a highly regarded alcoholism specialist on staff, but Mary doesn't even consult him.  And how does curing Jack take care of Lillian's exaggerated co-dependence? The first time they have a fight, Lillian is probably going to again attempt a swan dive out a window. What the writers know about psychiatry one could engrave on the head of a pin.
On the plus side, alcoholism is treated as a disease, not as a joke (even if it can be treated successfully in two weeks), with specialists attached to the field. And the seriousness required to study medicine is addressed in Mary's early speech to Gordon, when he (AGAIN) asks her to give up her career to be his wife. "No work? Just Mrs. Gordon Philips, housewife? Oh what did I give up my youth for? Why did I give up most of my life to this thing if I were just to forget it and throw it away as if it had never been... it's more than a profession. It's a religion." 

It's hard to warm up to Herbert Marshall as Dr. Philips.  If he is so in love with Mary, why does he put conditions on their marriage? He seems to not love her, but loves his vision of her. At the same time, his pursuit is almost stifling, and he comes across more as a stalker than as a passionate lover. The unhappiness that will come with her selection of him over career is just not important to him.  As a result, he is unlikable, cold, and unbending.
Maureen O'Sullivan is good, if a bit manic in the role of Lillian.  At one point, the part was earmarked for Merle Oberon (AFI Catalog). Ms. O'Sulllivan had already made a name for herself in Hollywood with her appearance as Jane in Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932), notably for an apparently nude swimming scene with Johnny Weissmuller (she would ultimately appear as Jane in 6 films). She appeared in a variety of films in the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), A Yank at Oxford (1938) and Pride and Prejudice (1939).  By the 1950s, she was primarily appearing on television; and in the 1960s, she changed to work on Broadway, both acting and producing.  She was married from 1936 until 1963 (his death) to director John Farrow; they had eight children including Mia and Tisa Farrow. In 1983, Ms. O'Sullivan remarried, and was with her second husband, James Cushing until her death in 1998 (at the age of 87) of a heart attack.

We were less impressed with Louis Hayward, a good actor who deserved a better part.  Mr. Hayward gets to do little that justify the passion of two women for his inebriated man about town.  Interestingly, it was Mr. Hayward's performance that was most lauded in this New York Times review

In some respects, this film almost feels like a precursor to Spellbound (1945), where we again have a psychiatrist who becomes emotionally (and unprofessionally) involved with a patient.  Regardless, the film is worth a look, especially when compared to Kay Francis' pre-code women doctor films such as Mary Stevens, M.D. and Dr. Monica, or with Ms. Harding's other venture into medicine in The Right to Romance (1933).  We'll leave you with this trailer from the film:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Five Stars to Remember

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day, I'm going to break with our usual post, and contribute to the Five Stars Blogathon!  I'll be sharing with you today some of my favorite actors, and why I think you should give some of their films a look.

It would be easy to go with the well-remembered stars - Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly are all high on my list.  But you've all heard of them, and undoubtedly have seen many of their films. So, I'm going to select some actors whose work you might not have viewed, or who don't come to mind in classic film discussions.  All have films we've reported on in this blog, and I hope you will click over and learn more about these wonderful actors.

Kay Francis

Ms. Francis started her career on the Broadway stage, but by 1929, she had begun a film career that extended over 69 films and 17 years.  Most famous perhaps for a lisp that made the letter r sound a bit like Elmer Fudd, Ms. Francis was an attractive woman who WORE dresses (they never wore her).  During the early part of her career, she was often the lead in "women's pictures" - lots of gorgeous clothing and jewelry, and much suffering on her part.  But these were roles she owned.  She had a strength that shone from her eyes, and when you watched her being menaced, she always seemed to know how to keep control of the situation. One of her best roles was as the woman on trial in Confession (1937).  We see her murder Basil Rathbone, seemingly in cold blood, but WHY? Ms. Francis keeps you wondering throughout the film; her mastery of her art is exceptional.

She was also quite comfortable in comedies. Witness her standout performance in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and her suggestive and fascinating exchanges with Herbert Marshall.  If you've never seen some of her later work, where she got to be a villain, you are missing a real treat.  Try In Name Only (1939) where she plays Cary Grant's manipulative and greedy wife. It's a shame that, by 1939 (as a result of being called Box Office Poison), Warner Brothers was relegating her to supporting roles.  But, even so, she took these roles and ran with them.

When World War II broke out, Ms. Francis devoted herself to entertaining the troops (Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) is a somewhat fictionalized account of that work); after the War, she returned briefly to films and tried her hand at producing at Monograph studios.  Sure, the scripts and production values were low, but Kay dominated her parts - take a look at Divorce (1945) and watch her make mincemeat out of Bruce Cabot. By 1946, she was done with films; she made a couple of TV appearances, and went back to the stage. She retired in the early 1950s, but left us a legacy of delightful film performances.

Claude Rains 

Was there any role Claude Rains could not play? From Shakespeare to Shaw, playing villain or lover, a man of honor or a man to revile, he could do it all.  Let's begin with the start of his film career, The Invisible Man (1933), in which he was literally ALL voice.  We see his character briefly, but for the greater part of the film, he is invisible, conveying his increasing mental illness with his voice alone. Five years later, he played Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and managed to slide past the censors a subtle performance in which John is decidedly effeminate (Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David K. Skal and Jessica Rains).  That same year, he would appear as the loving and supportive father to Four Daughters (1938), in a role with both humor and dignity.

You can't mention Claude Rains without mentioning his performance as Captain Louis Renault Casablanca (1942) ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"), or his sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager (1944).  But the two performances that, for me, are truly unforgettable are Job Skeffington and Julius Caesar.  In Mr. Skeffington (1944), he again appears with Bette Davis (they had already appeared in Juarez (1939) and Now, Voyager). But this time, he is the sympathetic character - a man passionately in love with a careless and often demeaning wife.  In lesser hands, Job would have appeared merely as doormat; under Rains skillful control, Job is a good man who made an unwise choice.

When he appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), he made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was over 20 years older than his co-star, Vivien Leigh.  He uses his age to good effect - Caesar is a more a tutor than a lover, and entertained by the young queen's advances. He certainly is not immune to her charms, but Rains maintains an amusement, both with Cleopatra, and with himself.

Thankfully for us, Mr. Rains continued working until a few years before his death at age 77, leaving us a legacy of films, and radio and television performances to relish.

Thelma Ritter 

You just cannot sing the praises of Thelma Ritter too much.  Sure, she's funny, but give her a dramatic role, and she will run with it.  She was in her 40s when she started acting in films, and gave us performances that are truly unforgettable. Just think about Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  She has TWO scenes, and you remember her throughout the film, even though she is uncredited in it (as well as in A Letter to Three Wives (1949)).  When she disappears from All About Eve (1950), you wonder where she is; and you keep wanting her to return in Rear Window (1954).

Two of the performances that are high on my list are as different as noir and day.  In 1953, Ms. Ritter entered the world of Film Noir as Moe Williams in Pickup on South Street.  A peddler of necktimes and information, Moe is a rather seedy individual.  Ms. Ritter gives her a soul; Moe may be down, but she has her own code, and her life is her own.  Compare Moe to Ellen McNulty in The Mating Game (1951).  Again, Ms. Ritter is a poor woman, but a lady with spunk. Her desire to see her son happy, and to get to know his new wife without intimidating her is a pleasure to behold. We like her son Val (John Lund) BECAUSE of Ellen's unquestioning love.

 Ms. Ritter left us 43 television and film performances; she worked until her death of a heart attack at age 66.  I'm greedy, I wish there were more.

Ricardo Cortez

Ricardo Cortez began his career in silents. His parts at the time tended to be Latin lovers in the Valentino mold, but with the advent of talkies, the New York City born Jake Krantz changed directions.  He was often cast as the heavy, but had his share of leading man roles. He excelled in all of them.  

In Ten Cents a Dance (1931), he treads a fine line - we are never sure if he is the hero or the villain until the very end. However, in Mandalay (1934), he is one of the most truly despicable men you could ever meet.  He played Sam Spade in 1931's The Maltese Falcon, Perry Mason in The Case of the Black Cat (1936), and the slightly shady, but best of friends to Kay Francis in The House on 56th Street (1933).  

Mr. Cortez worked steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but his acting career started to peter out in the 1940s.  He had directed a few films, but ultimately opted to leave the film industry for a new career as a stockbroker.  In 1958, he appeared in his last film, The Last Hurrah and two years later he was in an episode of Bonanza (playing a Latino!). Ricardo Cortez is an unknown gem of an actor, and one I recommend you seek out.

Barbara Stanwyck

Yes, I said I was going to concentrate on the underappreciated actors of the Classic Era, but to my mind, Barbara Stanwyck should be better known and admired.  Years ago, when going on my first job interview, I needed a focus for my demeanor. I thought about Katharine Hepburn, but it was wrong. So was Rosalind Russell.  But Barbara Stanwyck was perfect for me - a woman who projected an aura of strength and intelligence, who brooked no nonsense, but could also be kind and understanding. 

She started her career with talkies in 1929, and never really looked back. Her work in pre-code films is something to see - start with Baby Face (1933) and Night Nurse (1931) to see just a sample of her nuanced performances. She could do drama (Stella Dallas (1937)), comedy (my personal favorite, Ball of Fire (1941)), farce (the brilliant The Lady Eve (1941), suspense (Cry Wolf (1947)), romance (Remember the Night (1940)), and westerns (The Moonlighter (1953)).  She could be a convincing victim (Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and an even more persuasive villain (Double Indemnity(1944)). She even could elevate a B movie to a new level (The Night Walker (1964)). 

Rather than appear in inferior films, Ms. Stanwyck moved over to television to continue her career; The Big Valley showcased her talent and her tremendous beauty.  One of her last television roles was as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds (1983). Watch her lust after the considerably younger Richard Chamberlain in the scene below:

Missy, as she was called by her friends, was much admired by her co-stars, such as Linda Evans, as well as the crew on her various sets. Her co-star in Golden Boy (1939). William Holden, credited her with his success in the business - she worked with him in his first film role, helping him prepare for scenes. Holden would be instrumental in campaigning for the Honorary Oscar that Ms. Stanwyck finally received in 1982.  It was an honor long overdue, and I think that, if you give some of her movies a viewing, you'll agree she was one of our greatest stars.

So, for National Classic Movie Day, why not put some popcorn in a bowl and settle down with one of these marvelous actors - or pick one of your own. You'll be glad you did!

I was featured on The Classic Movie Marathon link party

Monday, May 8, 2017

Norma is Bedridden

Based on the 1930 play by Rudolf Besier (which premiered on Broadway in 1931 with Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne in the lead roles), Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) tells the story behind the courtship and marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  The Barrett family live in a large house in London with their father, Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton).  The six brothers and three sisters have been forbidden to marry by their father, who rules the home with an iron hand.  Elizabeth, the eldest child (Norma Shearer) and a highly regarded poet, is his darling; that she is bedridden, and therefore quietly dependent upon him is no small part of his affection. The arrival of poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) at Wimpole Street, who comes to discuss her poetry, but leaves totally enamored of her, changes the dynamic between father and daughter, as Elizabeth begins to get well, and to envision a life outside the environs of Wimpole Street.

History according to Hollywood is a fascinating thing, and this film is ripe for comparison to the actual facts.  For the most part, the story is a quite accurate portrayal of the courtship between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  The large Barrett family did all live together in Wimpole Street, and were forbidden marriage by their domineering father.  Elizabeth was the first to wed (and her elopement actually put some stress on her relationship with her brothers); she was immediately disowned by her father. Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) was romantically involved with Captain Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes); they ultimately married and had three children.  Elizabeth's brother Alfred also married before his father's death; both he and Henrietta were disinherited. (See The Brownings' Correspondence)   Elizabeth did seem to recover some of her health after meeting Robert Browning, and Mr. Barrett did forbid Elizabeth to go to Italy for her health. In 1846, Elizabeth and Robert eloped to St. Marylebone Church with Elizabeth's maid, Wilson (Una O'Connor) in attendance; within the week, they left for Italy, where they remained for the rest of Elizabeth's life. In 1849, Elizabeth gave birth to her only son, Robert "Pen" Browning (she suffered four miscarriages). Elizabeth died at age 55 in 1861.  After her death, Robert returned to England with Pen; they moved to a residence close to Anabel Barrett (Katharine Alexander), who acted as a surrogate mother to Pen and a confidant to Robert.  Robert would live until 1889, age 77. (The Poetry Foundation)
Charles Laughton, as the Barrett patriarch is impressive.  Though only three years older than Ms. Shearer, he sears the screen with his overbearing and frightening presence.  Laughton is not afraid to make Mr. Barrett a monster. In fact, when he was told by producer Irving Thalberg that, thanks to the censors, the film would need to play down the incest angle of Barrett's affection for his eldest daughter, Laughton objected, telling Thalberg that "...they can't censor the gleam in my eye."  (TCM article).

Allegedly, Fredric March was disappointed with his performance, feeling that director Sidney Franklin was more interested in the character of Elizabeth, and that his performance suffered by comparison. March felt his performance was too over-the-top, and while he is quite passionate and exuberant, we really felt it worked. Browning was 6 years younger than Elizabeth; March's performance emphasizes that age gap, and also transmits the idea of someone who really could transfer his strength into the body of a sick woman.  We found him to be delightful and even the New York Times in their review was rather complimentary.
It's only thanks to Mr. Thalberg that Ms. Shearer agreed to play Elizabeth - she was unsure of taking on a role so closely linked to Katherine Cornell (though Ms. Cornell was not interested in appearing in films - she would eventually do ONE - she appeared in Stage Door Canteen during the second World War.) But she is lovely in the role; she was nominated for an Oscar for the performance (she lost to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night). The film was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (also losing to It Happened One Night). Marion Davies was originally set to star (William Randolph Hearst yearned for his lady to play more serious parts). However, Ms. Davies bowed out (after a conversation with Ms. Shearer).  Ms. Davies was much happier in her comedies and was not comfortable with appearing in such a serious part (AFI Catalog). 

Una O'Connor  as Wilson is wonderful. Ms. O'Connor plays the part more as a surrogate mother to the ailing Elizabeth, and less as her servant.  With a walk that makes her almost appear to glide across the screen, and her stubborn determination to protect her charge, Ms. O'Connor is a delight.
We were somewhat less enthralled with Marion Clayton as Barrett cousin Bella Hedley and Ian Wolfe as her fiance Harry Bevan.  Their odd speech patterns (she with a little girl lisp and he with an affected upper class tone) just seemed pointless. We kept wanting them to just shut up and go away. (Bella does serve a purpose to the overall story; Harry, not so much).

The costumes, as designed by Adrian, are magnificent, especially Elizabeth's fur ensemble at the end of the film.  The play was primarily set in Elizabeth's sitting room, and the film really does very little to extend it from that location (we do outside once with Henrietta, and to Browning's home with Wilson. The rest of the film is set in the Barrett house, and is Elizabeth's perspective) .  Despite that, the film is entertaining and not in the least claustrophobic.

We have a little bit of a treat for you - Robert Osborne's introduction during Norma Shearer's TCM turn as star of the month.  (Thanks, TCM!)
The success of the play and this film led to it being remade at least 10 times for radio, film and television.  In 1946, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne - Mr. Aherne reprising his stage performance as Robert Browning.  In 1950, Helen Hayes starred as Elizabeth on television's Prudential Family Playhouse.  Another television production followed in 1955 as part of the Front Row Center series, this time starring Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ba. The Producers' Showcase series in 1956 scored a coup, convincing Katherine Cornell to reprise her Broadway role.  There were also two film versions: one in 1957, with Jennifer Jones; and a second in 1982, with Jane Lapotaire and Jeremy Brett.  

We'll leave you with the scene from the beginning of the film, where the ailing and shy Ms. Barrett meets the gregarious Mr. Browning:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Celeste Sends a Letter

As Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), Lora May Hollingsway (Linda Darnell), and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) are about to leave on a charity boat ride, a young man delivers A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  The letter informs them that their "friend", Addie Ross (voiced with just the right amount of venom by Celeste Holm) has left town - with one of their husbands.  Unable to leave the boat, the women spend the day worrying about their husbands and reviewing their marriages.

Based on A Letter to Fives Wives by John Klempner (the film eliminated two wives, which tightens it up), this is an exceptional film, especially given that it is really a series of vignettes.  The use of Addie's  narration as a glue to hold together this tale of three marriages in trouble is both inspired and entertaining.  That narration brings the tale to a different level, making the film a fully cohesive unit instead of a series of short stories.

Two of the stories especially stand out.  Rita and George Phipps  (Kirk Douglas) are a relatively happy couple, but Rita, a successful radio writer, is trying to have it all - career, husband, and children.  She's pretty good at doing it, but George is frustrated that he and their twins often take second place to the demands of her clients (ably represented by  Mr. (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Mrs. (Florence Bates) Manleigh).  Kirk Douglas plays George as an educated, reasonable and progressive man; he really doesn't mind that his wife works and that she out-earns him by quite a bit.  Her job and her impressive salary afford them all a good life, and enable him to pursue his career - an underpaid high school teacher - without guilt.  George loves his job and his wife.  He just wishes that she wasn't constantly afraid, and would occasional say no to her clients unreasonable demands.
In flashback, we see the courtship of Lora May Finney (Linda Darnell) and Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas).  Both are from the wrong side of the tracks (in Lora May's case, quite literally - she lives with her sister Georgianna (Barbara Lawrence) and mother, Ruth (Connie Gilchrist) on the edge of the train tracks).  But Porter, the owner of a successful department store, is now well-off, and enamored of Lora May's beauty.  But he is not interested in marriage; Porter's been married, and he didn't care for it. Plus, his ideal is Addie Ross - he keeps her picture on his piano, and talks about her "class," a quality he doesn't find in Lora May.

Linda Darnell is impressive as the tough talking Lora May.  The viewer is quick to realize that, despite her comments to the contrary, she loves Porter.  But she knows the only way to keep him is to play the game his way - Porter likes to fight, and Lora May is more than willing to oblige him to get what she wants.  To a point, of course.  When Porter shows up at her front door, honking his horn for her to come out, Lora May ignores it: "Anybody wants me can come in and get me, this ain't a drive-in." For more on the life of Ms. Darnell, please see our blog post on her work in The Mark of Zorro (1940).
The third story, the marriage of Deborah and Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) is possibly the weakest of the three.  It's not bad, its just that Deborah seems weak next to these two dynamic women. One sympathizes with her truly ugly dress, since we know she's not had time to procure a new one, but really, it is so hideous, it's hard to understand why even a simple farm girl would purchase it.  And WHY does Rita have to TELL her to cut off those ugly flowers? But it should be acknowledged that Deborah has left the farm, the WACs, and her past life for a new, more upscale environment with a husband she really doesn't know - the story of Brad and Deborah is a brief glimpse into the marriages that began because of the war.

Jeanne Crain began her film career at age 18, with a bit part in The Gang's All Here (1943).  Winner of the Miss Pan Pacific pageant, she attracted the attention of film scouts; by 1945, she was starring in State Fair and Leave Her to Heaven. She could sing, dance, ice skate, and she was a pretty good actress, but also in 1945 she married Paul Brinkman, and began having babies - seven in total.  She was pregnant during the filming of this movie, and may have lost the role of Eve in All About Eve due to one of her pregnancies. Regardless, her portfolio is quite impressive: I'm particularly fond of Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and People Will Talk (1951)   Ms. Crain and her husband remained married until his death in 2003, but after a messy divorce proceeding (which was never completed), they lived apart.  She also lost two of her sons before she died in 2003 of a heart attack at age 78.
We've raved about Thelma Ritter (here playing Sadie Dugan) before, and she does not disappoint in this film.  Whether it is her interactions with her pal, Ruth Finney or her sass when she is working as a maid for Rita Phipps, Ms. Ritter is the queen of the bon mot. Take, for example, her response to Rita's request that she wear a uniform: "The cap's out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on." or her answer to the Manleighs about their radio program: "You know what I like about your program? Even when I'm running the vacuum I can understand it."  At the same time, it is Sadie who cautions Ruth about her passion for her new refrigerator, when Ruth seemingly puts keeping it (in many respects, for Ruth, the refrigerator is a symbol of respectability) above her daughter's happiness: " You got to make up your mind whether you want your kids happy or your icebox paid up." 

A number of different actors were proposed for the film, including both Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino as the voice of Addie Ross (AFI catalog). Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Directing Oscars (winning the latter two), no acting nominations came its way. Interestingly, Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas, and Celeste Holm were all nominated for other film work that same year (none of them won, however).

Contemporary critics received the film enthusiastically (see this New York Times review and this TCM article).  Since then, regard for the film has increased, as is evident by this New Yorker discussion, especially as a sophisticated examination of marriage.  As Jeanine Basinger notes in her book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, films that actually examine marriage itself are rare.  A Letter to Three Wives does this, and does it well.
Both Lux Radio Theatre (1950) and Screen Players Guild (1952) performed radio versions of the play.  Then, in 1985, the story made its way to television, with Ann Sothern appearing as Ruth Finney in a version which starred  Loni Anderson, Michele Lee, Stephanie Zimbalist as the three wives. 

We'll leave you with a scene from the film - the arrival of the letter.  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doris Answers the Phone

Newlywed American Kit Preston (Doris Day) is wending her way home through a London "pea-souper".  A voice in the night calls her by name, then threatens her life.  Panicked, Kit runs home and tells her husband, Anthony (Rex Harrison).  He reassures her that it is common London practice to try to spook people in a London fog.  But the next evening, Kit receives a phone call from the same voice, again threatening to kill her by the end of the month.  The police are summoned, but are suspicious that no one else heard the voice but Kit.  Meanwhile, Kit becomes more and more terrified as the calls escalate - calls that no one hears but her. Our film this week is the mysterious Midnight Lace (1960).

Our discussion started with a birthday toast to Ms. Day, who turned 95 on April 3rd. For several members of our group, this was the first time they had seen Ms. Day in anything but a musical comedy.  And while her performance here is perhaps not as impressive as her work in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), she is still excellent as the terrorized victim.  According to the AFI Catalog, Ms. Day became truly hysterical (using as an inspiration for the scene a moment in her life when her first husband became abusive) and Ross Hunter had to shut down production in order to allow her to recover. 

If there is one problem with the film, it is that, in many respects, it has not aged well.  Kit is so remarkably helpless.  Sure, she's being stalked, and that is scary, but she does nothing to protect herself (she's wealthy - couldn't she hire a bodyguard?) She is aware that the police doubt her veracity, yet when her husband is finally in the house during one of the calls, she hangs up the phone before he can get on the extension (though why she doesn't just hand him the phone is another issue!)  There are times when you want to shake her!
On the plus side, you have a real mystery, with a number of worthy suspects that keep you guessing throughout the film.  We'll start with Roddy McDowall (who was odds on favorite among the newcomers to the film) as Malcolm Stanley, money-grubbing son of Kit's put-upon housekeeper, Nora (Doris Lloyd).  He provides the character with just the right amount of sleaze and menace, and given that he really only has a couple of scenes, Malcolm is a character that stays in your mind as the action progresses.

Mr. McDowall started his career as a child actor in the UK; in 1940, his family moved to the United States to escape the Blitz in England; by 1941, he was starring in John Ford's How Green was My Valley, and in 1943, he became the first owner of the collie America loved in Lassie, Come Home.  Mr. McDowall worked steadily in Hollywood, in both film and on television; worked on Broadway (he was Mordred in the original cast of Camelot, and played Artie Strauss in Compulsion, the role assumed by Bradford Dillman in the 1959 film) and in regional theatre, making a reasonably seamless transition to adult roles.  A highly regarded photographer, he worked for magazines such as Look and Life, as well as publishing several books in the field.  He remained close friends with his Lassie co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, was also a dear friend of his Midnight Lace co-star, Myrna Loy (he called her "Fu" because of her early role in  The Mask of Fu Manchu),  and was known for his parties, in which he would screen classic films for his guests.  Winner of both a Tony Award and an Emmy, Mr. McDowall died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 70.
Herbert Marshall  has a few scenes as Charles Manning, another possible culprit.  A deep-in-debt gambler, Charles COULD be trying to kill Kit to distract Tony.  Marshall, unfortunately, has little to do in the film; mostly, he looks worried and distracted.  It's always good to see him, but he really is underutilized in the part.

John Gavin's Brian Younger at first seems like a nice guy, who is always in the right place at the right time, but then there are those mysterious phone calls from the local pub.  What IS he up to?  Gavin, an amazingly attractive man, is well cast here, though I would say his perfect part was as Trevor Graydon in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which he mocks his white-bread good looks.  A reasonably successful actor, who appeared in Spartacus (as Julius Caesar) and Psycho (both 1960), Mr. Gavin would leave film and television work for a career as a diplomat (Ambassador to Mexico) during the Reagan administration.  Currently retired after a successful business career, Mr. Gavin and his wife Constance Towers have been married for over 40 years. 
Finally, there is a half-hearted attempt to make Kit's Aunt Bea Coleman (Myrna Loy) appear to perhaps be in cahoots to drive Kit crazy.  But really, Myrna Loy?  Her role as the reassuring voice that attempts to soothe the increasingly agitated Kit is very small, but she is a welcome presence in any film.  A noted liberal, Ms. Loy related in her autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming that she cautioned conservative John Gavin about being seen with her - she stated that he must have been, since he "rode Reagan's coattails right into an ambassadorship."

The voice that plagues Kit is discussed in this TCM article, comparing it unfavorably to something that  "now it sounds like a character on The Cartoon Network."  And while that is true, we did find the voice unnerving enough that, if we received a call that sounded like that, we'd be calling the police as well.  Wacky, perhaps, but also unnerving. 
Doris Day has 17 glorious outfits designed by Irene in the film.  The decision by the group was that the one above, was our favorite (I'm a sucker for hats that match a dress!)  The midnight lace of the title was a jet black lace pegnior, that was probably the most ordinary of the items of clothing Ms. Day wears. Several of the outfits are viewable on Google Images.

The film opened to moderate reviews (see this Bosley Crowther overview from the New York Times).  In New York City, it premiered in Radio City Music Hall (along with a new stage show and The Rockettes), always a sign of a prestige film.
We'll leave you with this scene of Doris Day traversing the London fog in the opening of Midnight Lace