Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Ingrid's Bad Marriage

Following the murder of opera star Alice Alquist, her young niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is sent to Italy to live and work with Alice's dear friend and former voice teacher Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau). Ten years later, Paula has fallen in love; her mentor encourages her to follow her heart. After some indecision, Paula elopes with Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), whom she has known for a scant two weeks. Gregory confesses to Paula his desire to live in London, and Paula decides it is time to re-open her aunt's home and give Gregory his dream. That dream turns into a nightmare for Paula, as Gregory slowly and systematically begins to Gaslight (1944) her.

AFI Silver presented Gaslight as part of a program recognizing Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October).  If you've heard of the term "to gaslight," it originated with the 1938 stage play from which this play was adapted. Gaslighting is defined as " to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation)" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And if anyone is the personification of the gaslighted woman, it is Ingrid Bergman. With merely her eyes, and by changes in posture, Ms. Bergman is magnificent as a woman being continually cowed by the man that she loves. We first see Paula around the age of 12 - and you believe Ms. Bergman IS a child (it helps that she doesn't talk - director George Cukor knows that her voice would reveal her age, and so he lets her tell her story just with the stunned look on her face.  We then watch her become a woman who goes from independence to fearful dependence. It's a phenomenal performance, certainly worthy of the Oscar that was given to Ms. Bergman. (She was up against stellar competition: Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away; Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington; and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Not a decision I want to make!)
Charles Boyer certainly makes a case for citing this film as one about domestic violence. Yes, his goal is to find the jewels that the late Alice Alquist hid somewhere in the house. But Boyer paints a picture of a man who likes the power that his manipulation is providing. When Paula finally rebels against him, Boyer initially cringes as he sees his control ebbing. But then his eyes change - he's discovered a better way to humiliate her; there is triumph, pleasure, and satisfaction in that look. Boyer, like Berman, can do much with just the briefest glint in the eyes. We know there is no reason for him to pull this subterfuge - all he needs to do is tell Paula he would like to prowl through Alice's costumes. But Boyer demonstrates that Anton's actions are about power over Paula and a revenge against Alice for complicating his life. On a personal note, Boyer's wife was pregnant with their only child during the filming of Gaslight. Though it was believed the child would be born after filming ended, Patricia Boyer delivered a few weeks early. The cast celebrated the event with champagne! (TCM articles)
Angela Lansbury, in her first film role (she also appeared as the older sister in National Velvet that same year), was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. She is marvelous as Nancy Oliver, a servant girl, who has delusions of seducing the master of the house and supplanting her mistress. In the video below, she discusses her experiences on the film, including the celebration of her 18th birthday on the set. Nominated three times for the Oscar (including a nomination for The Manchurian Candidate, which is arguably her finest film performance), Ms Lansbury was not awarded an Academy Award until 2013 when she was (finally) given a Special Oscar. Though her film roles were varied, Ms. Lansbury's greatest impact was felt in the theatre. She currently has 5 Tonys to her credit, with an additional two nominees. She was also nominated 18 times (including TWELVE consecutive nominations for Murder She Wrote) for the Emmy Award. She was married for 54 years to Peter Shaw (until his death in 2003), and has two children. You can see Ms. Lansbury next year, as the Balloon Lady in the remake of Mary Poppins.
Joseph Cotten is also very good as Brian Cameron (in the stage play, the character was named Rough, and there was no romantic attraction between him and Mrs. Anton. In the American production, Angel Street, the part was played by Leo G. Carroll). Mr. Cotton brings just the right amount of gravitas to the role, but there is also a twinkle in his eye as he describes to Mrs. Anton his interest in her and her Aunt Alice. His interactions with Constable Williams (Tom Stevenson) are wonderful, as they converse about both the case and Nancy. And the scene in which he asks Lady Dalroy (Heather Thatcher) to seat him next to Mrs. Anton at dinner is wonderful. It is unclear as to whether he is attracted to Paula, or to the fact that she so much resembles her aunt. But, at the point at which Brian enters her life, Paula very much needs a friend, and Brian has already been shown to be a kind and sympathetic figure.

Is there anyone who can play dotty canniness like Dame May Whitty? The character of Miss Bessy Thwaites was an invention of the film (she's not in the play or the British film), and she is delightful, though a bit scary as a murder stalker. Sure, she adds a bit of comic relief, but multiple viewings help you realize that SHE is a key factor in Paula's marriage to Gregory. Had she not brought up Alice's murder on the train, would Paula have fallen so readily into Gregory's arms? True, she supplies valuable information to Brian about the goings on in the house, but on many levels it is disturbing that she knows so much ABOUT the Antons' lives.

The original play, Gas Light was produced on the West End in 1938; in 1941, it opened on Broadway as Angel Street, with Vincent Price as the Anton character (called Manningham in the play). I was lucky enough to see an excellent 2007 off-Broadway production by the Irish Repertory Company (you can see a review here). There was also a British film, called Gaslight (1940), starring  Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. It is still available for viewing, despite an MGM's efforts to destroy all copies of the film. There have also been six teleplays of the story (see the AFI Catalog for a listing of the tv versions and their casts) and a 1946 radio version in which Ms. Bergman and Mr. Boyer reprized their roles.

Gaslight was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning two (the other was for Cedric Gibbons Art Direction). The other nominees were Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer; this was his third of four nominations. He never won), Best Writing, Best Black and White Cinematography, and of course, Ms. Lansbury's nomination. (Though not costume design. A shame - Irene's costuming work is impressive in the film).  In the AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills, Gaslight placed at #78. 

If you've never seen the film, treat yourself with a viewing (leave the lights on!). In the meantime, we'll leave you with this scene, in which Paula tells Gregory about her Aunt Alice.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Greer's Bad Marriage

Told in flashback after the death of Philip Bosinney (Robert Young), That Forsyte Woman (1949) introduces us to Irene Herenford Forsyte (Greer Garson).  Irene's husband, Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn) decided he wanted Irene as a wife - she was beautiful and dignified, and Soames is a man who gets what he wants. So, despite the fact that she is honest and tells him she does not love him, Soames cajoles her that love will come and she consents. But love does not come, primarily because Irene feels controlled by Soames: he picks her clothing, tells her where to go and when, and who to meet. For this Man of Property, Irene is one of his treasured possessions - she is a fine piece of art that he has purchased and now displays with pride.  Irene's one joy is her relationship with her niece June (Janet Leigh), who is madly in love with architect Philip Bosinney. The problem - Irene is falling in love with Bosinney as well.

This is an excellent film with a great deal of nuance. The script, which is taken carefully from John Galsworthy's first novel in The Forsyte Saga, The Man of Property, deals only with the marriage of Soames and Irene (whereas the 1967 and 2001 BBC series covered The Man of Property (1906), Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918), In Chancery (1920), Awakening (1920) and To Let (1921), and A Modern Comedy (1928)). The story of Irene and Soames' marriage is fraught with problems in the novel - Irene has an affair with Philip, and Soames rapes Irene - issues the film could only suggest (or raise the ire of the censors!). But the hints are there; it only takes a little imagination to understand exactly what is going on.
Errol Flynn was borrowed from Warner Brothers to play Young Jolyon Forsyte (the role that ultimately went to Walter Pidgeon). (In exchange, Jack Warner got William Powell for Life with Father (AFI catalog). Once at MGM, Flynn refused to play young Jolyon. He was then offered the role of Bosinney; again he refused. Flynn wanted to play Soames - a drastic change from his usual swashbuckling roles (TCM article).  MGM finally agreed, and Flynn gave an impressive performance as a man who is involved only with the financial value of everyone and everything in his life. Once finished with this film, he was back to Warners, again making westerns and swashbucklers. It's amusing that he ends up in the video of the MGM 25th Anniversary Lunch, chatting happily with Greer Garson. Jack Warner must have been furious!

Greer Garson is intriging as a woman who is torn between an unhappy marriage and financial security. Irene is down to her last cent - she can only survive teaching piano, and her only client is her landlady. Soames' campaign to win her (he enlists the help of the landlady) catches her at a low point in her life and she succumbs. Likewise, Philip catches her as she begins to doubt her decision to marry Soames; it seems that her love for Philip really is a remembrance of the love she lost many years before. She comments that Philip is much like that idealist and untidy young man. Irene is a woman who wants to be strong, but often lets herself be led, against her better judgement.

Philip, however, comes off as thoughtless, at the least, and insincere at most. He pursues June when he first meets her; likewise, he is hot on the heels of Irene after their first encounter. We felt that, once Irene accedes to his advances, he will fall in love with someone else. We found it difficult to believe Philip, much less sympathize with him, he is so flighty.

Janet Leigh is lovely as June. She plays a genuinely nice girl, who is blasted into anger by betrayal. The character certainly deserves better than Philip! Ms. Leigh literally burst into stardom after Norma Shearer saw her photo on her father's desk at the ski resort where he worked. Her first film, The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) starred her opposite MGM heartthrob Van Johnson, and she starred in a succession of films afterwards, including Little Women (1949), Holiday Affair (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), and Scaramouche (1952). But it was Psycho (1960) that most people remember today. Among my personal favorites is her performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). (In a recent discussion of the film, William Friedkin posited that Rosie is a double agent. I'm never going to watch that movie again in the same way!) Ms. Leigh was married 4 times, most famously to the father of her daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee, Tony Curtis (the marriage lasted 11 years). She wrote four books (two novels, a memoir, and a book about Psycho). By the 1960s, she was making frequent television appearances (including another of my favorite, the sadistic Miss Diketon in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode, The Concrete Overcoat Affair). She died in 2004, aged 77, three years after the death of her fourth husband, Robert Brandt - they had been married for 38 years.
This was the last filmed performance of Harry Davenport (Old Jolyon Forsyte), a remarkable character actor who is probably most remembered as Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939) [Two films would be released after this: Tell it to the Judge (1949) and Riding High (1950)]. The descendant of a long line of actors, Mr. Davenport began his career at the age of five (he was born in 1866). By 1894, he was appearing on Broadway. By 1934, he had appeared in 37 Broadway plays.  His film career began in 1913; he transitioned from silents to talkies, and spent much of his sound film career playing kindly grandfathers and professional men. In 1913, he co-founded (with Eddie Foy) the Actors' Equity Association. When his marriage to his first wife ended after three years, he married actress Phyllis Rankin - they were together for 33 years, until her death in 1934. They had three children together (Harry also had a daughter with his first wife, and Phyllis had a son - who would become the father of Arthur Rankin, Jr.). Mr. Davenport died of a heart attack in 1949, at the age of 83 - he was in the process of securing a new screen role when he died.
With exquisite costumes by Walter Plunkett (for the women) and Valles (for the men), lush technicolor photography by Joseph Ruttenberg, and art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Daniel Cathcart, this is a truly beautiful film. While the New York Times review was not kind to anyone but Ms. Garson, we enjoyed the film immensely. (It opened at Radio City Music Hall - definitely a prestige venue!). We'll leave you with the trailer, for a quick look at this lovely film.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Myrna's Married?

Magazine editor Margo Sherwood Merrick (Myrna Loy) is celebrating her first wedding anniversary alone. Or so her colleagues believe. The truth is, Margot is not married. Offered a promotion, Margot faked the marriage to discourage flirting by her boss Ralph Russell (William Halligan) and eventual firing at the instigation of his jealous wife (Marjorie Gatson). Her faux marriage also protects her from a number of unwanted suitors, including Philip Booth (Lee Bowman) and Hughie Wheeler (Sidney Blackmer). But when she meets artist Jeff Thompson (Melvyn Douglas), she begins to wonder about the benefits of that fictitious ring on her Third Finger, Left Hand (1940).

When it's a Myrna Loy movie, you really WANT to enjoy it. She is always so wonderful. Add the engaging Melvyn Douglas to the mix, and you SHOULD have an delightful film. But good as they are, even these actors need a script, and Third Finger, Left Hand really doesn't have much of one. The initial idea is good - a woman who pretends marriage to deflect unwelcome male advances on the job (surely a timely plot!) - but at a certain point, the screenplay runs out of steam and the picture just gets stupid.  For example, Margo has been carrying on this deception for a year, but she doesn't have a concrete description of her alleged husband, and each time she is asked, makes up a  new (rather asinine) one. Her father (Raymond Walburn) and sister (Bonita Granville as Vicky) never asked to see a picture or to know what he is like?  Margo should be smarter than that.
As a result, these two entertaining actors become irksome after a while, as they try to best and humiliate the other. If Margo is interested in Jeff, it's hard to imagine her as a simple housewife in Wapakinetta, Ohio. (We surmised that she will end up handling the business end of his art sales. He's really not all that good at it). Late in the film, the couple run into his neighbors from Wapakinetta, and Margo starts talking like a Brooklyn B-girl. Several members of the group were very distressed at her actions, though I myself found it fit revenge for his earlier behavior. Yet, there is so much plot between his actions and hers that it did, on many levels, seem out of place and inappropriate. It's as though the early chemistry between the two actors vanishes.

Not that there is any particular chemistry with any of her other suitors. Hughie, seen briefly, is a drunk, and Philip is boring. It's hard to imagine the intelligent Margo with any of them. In the long run, she would have been better off single.
There are several underused actors in the production, including Felix Bressart (August Winkel) and Bonita Granville. It's a shame to waste such talented people; when you see them in the cast, you expect them to be integral to the plot. Regretfully, they were not.

We thoroughly enjoyed the scenes with Ernest Whitman, as Pullman conductor Sam. Viewed from a 21st Century perspective, Sam is a wonder. A man eager to stimulate his mind, Sam has a law degree, which he pursued to alleviate the sameness of his job. Sam, as a matter of fact, is a far better lawyer than Philip, and proves an able adversary to Philip when Jeff solicits his assistance. Sam is also African-American.  Mr. Whitman spent most of his career, not surprisingly, playing bathroom attendants and African natives (The Road to Zanzibar). But he also had a stage, radio, and a brief television career, appearing as Bill Jackson in the radio and television versions of Beulah. He died in 1954, at the age of 61.
According to this TCM article, Ms. Loy and Mr. Douglas became lifelong friends. Their liberal politics and social activism united them.  Ms. Loy supported Helen Gahagan Douglas when she ran for the U.S. Senate against Richard Nixon (Nixon accused Congresswoman Douglas of being a Communist. She was not, but it worked. He won the election. For more concerning the election, visit this New York Times article.)

Though reviews were not generally enthusiastic, this New York Times review was actually complimentary towards Ms. Loy and Mr. Douglas.  The story was reused by the Lux Radio Theatre in September 1941 when they presented a radio version starring Martha Scott and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (AFI catalog).  We'll leave you with the trailer from the film.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Clifton is an Angel

An unborn child (Gigi Perreau) receives assistance from two angels, Arthur (Edmund Gwenn) and Charles (Clifton Webb), when her chosen parents, Lydia (Joan Bennett) and Jeff Bolton (Robert Cummings) just can't seem to get around to conceiving her. For Heaven's Sake (1950) tells the story of Charles' transformation into a human, named Slim (and patterned after Gary Cooper), ostensibly to assist the child. But human temptations affect Charles in ways he did not expect.

We had mixed reactions to this film. Most of the group found it mildly amusing, whereas I found it annoying. My issues were script related: 1. The child chooses the parents? Really? 2. Having a child will save a bad marriage. 3. When a woman wants to have a baby, she shouldn't tell her husband, she should just get herself pregnant. He'll come around.  For Heaven's Sake was based on a play by Harry Segall, who had a thing about angels. He also wrote the play on which Here Comes Mr. Jordan was based (AFI catalog).

We all agreed, however, that the script was pretty slim (no pun intended). The saving grace of the movie, however, Clifton Webb. Mr. Webb goes along with the silliness of the conceit, and as a result gives an enjoyable performance. According to Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb and David L. Smith, Mr. Webb was intrigued with the script because he wasn't playing "Clifton Webb."  He was also really intrigued with Charles' portrayal of Slim - it amused him to imitate Gary Cooper, and he was also eager to utter lines that were so linked to film westerns. Mr. Webb shaved his mustache and cut his hair to enhance the Gary Cooper imitation - it was the only sound film in which he didn't have the mustache. According to this TCM article, Mr. Webb said that "I always have children in my pictures because, I'm certain, it's punishment for having lived so long as a bachelor."
Edmund Gwenn was also very good in the role of Arthur. As the stabilizing influence on the actions of the film, he's called upon to respond as Charles' human body begins to react to temptations. Of particular amusement was a scene in which Charles and Arthur set the scene for our little girl's conception. The look on Mr. Gwenn's face especially was something that told the audience what was going on in the bedroom above, yet there was nothing about which the censors could complain.

Gigi Perreau and Tommy Rettig (in the small part of Joe, another child waiting to be conceived) were quite good as well. Ms. Perreau is ALMOST able to make you understand why she has picked the Boltons for her parents. And Mr. Rettig is adorable as a little boy whose parents really long for his arrival, but are unable to financially support a baby.

On the other hand, Joan Blondell (as playwright Daphne Peters) and Joan Bennett are just wasted in the film. Ms. Blondell has about two decent scenes, both of which involve her trying to seduce Charles. Ms. Bennett just gets to be petulant. That the film is not about the women is emphasized by the lack of definition given to their characters. Ms. Blondell was returning to the screen after a three year absence - she had just divorced producer Michael Todd.
Jeff Bolton, on the other hand, has plenty of screen time, and is a totally obnoxious character.  In the spirit of honesty, two of our group are NOT members of the Robert Cummings fan club, and this was not a film in which he engender any affection.  A lot of it is the fault of the script, but we really need to understand why our little girl wants to be his daughter. Cummings plays him as so self-centered that one wants to yell to the child "RUN AWAY."  Mr. Cummings had a long career, starting in uncredited parts in 1933. His roles varied throughout his career between A- and B-list films; regardless, he appeared in several notable films. Two for Alfred Hitchcock show him at his best - Saboteur (1942) and Dial M for Murder (1954). He was also good as the reluctant prince consort in Princess O'Rourke (1943). After a career on both on the stage and on radio, by the 1950s, Mr. Cummings had made the successful transition to television, with The Bob Cummings Show, and later My Living Doll. Mr. Cummings was married five times, and had seven childen (his son Tony is an actor). On the recommendations of colleagues, Mr. Cummings, an advocate of healthy living, became a patient of Dr. Max Jacobson (aka Dr. Feelgood), who succeeded in addicting Mr. Cummings to methamphetamines (he thought he was taking a vitamin mixture). This addiction and Parkinson's Disease affected his ability to get acting jobs. He died in 1990, age 80, of pneumonia and kidney failure in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. (New York Times Obituary)

The TCM article listed above says that many of the reviews for the film were favorable, though the New York Times was not impressed. We'll leave you with the trailer for the film, to give you a taste.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Golden Boy and the Blacklist

Tom Moody (Adolphe Menjou), a fight promoter, is eager to make enough money to buy off his estranged wife and finally marry his mistress, Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck). When Joe Bonaparte (William Holden) enters their lives, they think they have found their Golden Boy (1939), but there are problems. Besides being a talented fighter, Joe is a gifted violinist, and his father (Lee J. Cobb) strongly objects to Joe relinquishing his potential career as a musician for a life in the boxing ring - the the potential destruction of his hands.

Perhaps it seems unusual to look at a 1939 film as part of the Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon, but this film featured a great deal of talent that was, in one way or another, affected by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC).  We'll take this opportunity to look at both the film, and the experiences of those involved in it during the period of the blacklist, in this year, the 70th anniversary of the beginning of this evil campaign.

My interest in the Blacklist really began in 1972, when Robert Vaughn (yes, THAT Robert Vaughn, the actor who appeared in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and had a PhD in Communications from University of Southern California) published Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting.  The book demonstrated that everyone involved in the process in Hollywood was victim - from those who supported the blacklist, to the actual victims. Dr. Vaughn's title was  taken from a quote by Dalton Trumbo: "it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."
Barbara Stanwyck is, as always, excellent as Lorna Moon (interestingly, the play was purchased as a vehicle for Jean Arthur, with Frank Capra directing! (TCM article)). Ms. Stanwyck can take a scene, as she does when she is trying to convince Joe to continue fighting, and change her reaction on a dime.  Though filmed under the code, Lorna remains unpunished, despite the fact that she is clearly having an affair with the married Tom.  

Ms. Stanwyck was a staunch conservative - she objected to labor unions and only joined the Screen Actors' Guild when it became apparent that the new union would prevent her from working (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940). When the investigations of HUAC began, Stanwyck, like her husband Robert Taylor, became a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Whether she herself named names is information that is not recorded - Mr. Taylor certainly made a name for himself when he testified before HUAC on October 22nd, 1947, and named names (Howard Da Silva and Karen Morley, specifically). But Ms. Stanwyck was involved with a group that was busily hunting for Communists within the Hollywood rank-and-file.

So too was Adolphe Menjou a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. His Tom Moody in our film is a rather banal man; it's hard to understand why Lorna would be interested in him, so it is easy to root for a relationship between Lorna and Joe. The day before Robert Taylor testified in front of the HUAC, Mr. Menjou testified. He fancied himself an expert on Communism, having read "over 150 books on the subject [of Russia]". He then accused John Cromwell of "acting an awful lot like a communist" (while acknowledging that he had no knowledge that Mr. Cromwell actually was a communist. He considered himself "a witch-hunter if the witches are Communists. . .a Red-baiter. I make no bones about it whatsoever. I would like to see them all back in Russia." Later, he would publicly attack many Hollywood liberals, including Katharine Heburn ("scratch a do-gooder, like Heburn, and they'll yell 'Pravda'."), infuriating Spencer Tracy and Ms. Hepburn who would only speak to Mr. Menjou onscreen when they filmed The State of the Union in 1948. (Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman by Anne Edwards)
William Holden is quite wonderful as Joe, a part for which John Garfield, Tyrone Power and Richard Carlson were all considered (AFI catalog).  This was his first real picture, and he almost got ousted from the film - only thanks to Barbara Stanwyck's intervention and coaching did he remain in the role that would effectively begin his career. When we discussed their only other film together, Executive Suite, we provided a clip of Ms. Stanwyck's tribute to Mr. Holden at the 1977 Oscars.  Though a participant in Hollywood Fights Back, a radio program hosted by the Committee on the First Amendment (the group protesting HUAC's activities), (J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War by John Sbardellati) Mr. Holden, unlike many of the other committee members (Marsha Hunt and Jane Wyatt among them) seems to have escaped unscathed from the morass of the blacklist. He even rejected vehement anti-Communist Hedda Hopper's advice when he appeared in The Bridge on the River Kwai, co-scripted by HUAC refugee Carl Foreman (Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism by Jennifer Frost). Again, it did not affect his career.

Others in the cast were not as lucky. Lee J. Cobb (named by Larry Parks, himself a victim of the blacklist), and writer Clifford Odets (named by Leila Rogers, Ginger's mother) were blacklisted until they finally, in desperation, went before HUAC to name names (see this Study Guide from Lincoln Center, from a production of the play there). For more information on those affected by HUAC, visit this list.
Golden Boy had started as a Broadway play in 1937; many of those involved in that play were also targeted, including Mr. Cobb, Mr. Da Silva, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan (who would become a symbol of the traitor when he named names to clear himself), Morris Carnovsky (named by Mr. Kazan) , Phoebe Brand (Mr. Carnovsky's wife; also named by Mr. Kazan), Luther Adler, and Roman Bohnen.  Jules Garfield, who would take Hollywood by storm under the name John Garfield was also in the Broadway play. He dearly wanted to play Joe Bonaparte, but was unable to get the needed studio loan-out to play Joe. Mr. Garfield, too, was targeted by HUAC, probably causing the heart attack that claimed his life at age 39.

Theses individuals, colleagues in 1939, would become adversaries for no real reason; yet the hatred that the Blacklist generated still remains.  In 2008, when Elia Kazan received a special Oscar, many in Hollywood either boycotted the award, or refused to applaud. (You can see the ceremony here). Was Mr. Kazan the only person who surrendered to HUAC? Are people like Lee J. Cobb and Clifford Odets evil because they caved into the pressure of not working in their chosen profession? And are we going to continue to punish the victims - because of their political beliefs, their race, creed, gender or sexual identity? That we can talk about the Blacklist in 2017 is a step in the right direction - let's keep the dialogue going, and remember it as a symbol of all the bias in our world.

We'll leave you of this scene of Lorna meeting the Bonaparte family:

Friday, November 3, 2017

Cary and Robin, As You Wish

A small boy (Fred Savage) is laid up in bed due to illness.  His Grandfather (Peter Falk) comes to visit with his favorite book, The Princess Bride (1987). The boy is dubious, but as the story of Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) unfolds, the youngster finds himself captivated by the tale.

TCM  Big Screen Classics for October featured the 30th Anniversary showing of this lovely story, along with an opportunity to hear director Rob Reiner talk a bit about his experiences on the film. The Princess Bride has a very interesting history - the book was written by William Goldman (author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). After the book's release, Robert Redford, Norman Jewison, and Francois Truffaut all expressed interest in filming it (Vanity Fair article). Rob Reiner had also loved the book - it was his favorite (it had been given to him by his father, Carl Reiner), and he eventually approached Goldman about taking it on. Some convincing had to be done - Reiner related that The Princess Bride was Goldman's favorite of his works, and he didn't want it to be ruined. Needless to say, it wasn't!
The cast is altogether delightful, but our favorite characters were Valerie (Carol Kane) and Miracle Max (Billy Crystal). Mr. Reiner talked about his experiences with Mr. Crystal, who ad-libbed some of his dialogue (including the "mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich"), resulting in Mr. Reiner having to leave the set for a time - his laughing kept interrupting the action.  The scenes are superb - from word one to the conclusion ("Have fun stormin' the castle").

This was Robin Wright's breakout film role - though the film "introduced" her, she had been on screen before. She had appeared on one TV show, a TV film, and a small part in Hollywood Vice Squad (1986). At the time she filmed The Princess Bride, she was a regular in the soap opera Santa Barbara (AFI Catalog).  Ms. Wright is very good, though I have a problem with one scene. When Westley is attacked by the Rodent of Unusual Size, Buttercup just stands there watching, and doesn't react until it finally goes after her. Princess, pick up a stick and hit the darn thing. If it kills Westley, it's going for you next!

I confess to not being a Mandy Patinkin fan, by and large, but as Inigo Montoya, he is perfect. He learned to fence with both hands for the film (as did Carey Elwes), and he plays Inigo straight. Had there been the slightest bit of satire in his demeanor, the part would have fallen flat. Because Inigo believes in his quest, we do to, and we root for him to find the man who killed his father.

Christopher Guest is wonderfully despicable as Count Rugan, and makes a perfect partner to Chris Sarandon's Prince Humperdink. Both play their roles with relish, and while they are a bit overstated, it really works in the film.
Before I close, I need to talk briefly about the frame story between the Grandfather and Grandson. The relationship between the two makes the film very special. The Grandson doesn't want to see his Grandfather because he will pinch the boy's cheek (of course he does), and the boy isn't really interested in the story at first, because it is not about sports, and because there is kissing. Yet, we feel the love between the two, and watch the boy become engroseed in this story which was also read to his father years before. Peter Falk just exudes love for his Grandson, and Fred Savage is the perfect pre-teen boy. Mr Falk's line, "when I was your age, television was called books" is marvelous! I looked forward to their "interruptions" in the main story.
While The Princess Bride was not a box-office bonanza, it did relatively well in initial release. Since then, it has become widely popular. It was named #88 on  AFI 100 Years, 100 Passions, and in 2016 it was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. It even has its own fan website; visit for trivia games and film clips.

We'll leave you with these scenes of Westley's signature line.

Garbo Laughs Over Lunch

When Russian representatives Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are sent to Paris to sell the jewels of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), the negotiations do not go smoothly. The Grand Duchess, now living in Paris, initiates a lawsuit, and the three agents find themselves seduced by the entrancing Parisian lifestyle. Enter Nina Ivanovna Yakushova - or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) - a stern Communist envoy, sent to find out the reason for the delay. Determined to not fall into the same pit as her predecessors, Ninotchka (1939) instead finds herself succumbing to the wooing of Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a ne'er-do-well playboy, and Swana's latest lover.

In conjunction with the Food in Film Blogathon, we'll look at Ninotchka though the lens of food and beverage. Ernst Lubitsch's film sparkles like the champagne that intoxicates Ninotchka and Leon and satisfies like Ninotchka's workman's lunch. A nominee for the 1939 Best Picture Oscar, it marked a redemption for Greta Garbo who had been labeled as "Box Office Poison" in 1938. This was her first comedy, and resulted in the last of her 3 nominations for the Best Actress Oscar. (She'd already been nominated for Anna Christie (1930) and Camille (1938)). In 1955, she was awarded an Honorary Oscar. Not surprisingly, she did not attend the ceremony.
Food represents a corrupting influence in Ninotchka.  Among the initial temptations that seduce Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski is the readily available room service in their luxurious hotel. Ninotchka tries to resist the temptation by eating lunch where working men eat, but even there she is expected to relish her food and care about what she is eating. Leon cautions her that she has insulted the restaurant owner and must apologize "by eating everything that he brings you with relish, by drinking everything with gusto, by having a good time for the first time in your natural life!"  Ninotchka's ultimate downfall is represented when she is drunk on champagne. She's been raised on goat's milk and vodka. Champagne is a new, heady experience for her.

In comparison, the lack of food in Russia is constant theme. The jewels that the ambassadors are in Paris to sell will provide food for the citizens. Grand Duchess Swana convinces Ninotchka to leave Paris by pointing out the number of people who will starve while their court case if fought. When the quartet return to Russia, they pool their ration of a single egg apiece to make an omelet. Finally,when Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski again leave Russia - never to return - it is to open a restaurant in Turkey.
Greta Garbo is amazing in the film. Yet, her two most intriguing scenes were ones she did not want to play.  According to this TCM article, Garbo was reluctant to play the drunk scene - finding it "unbecoming".  Co-star Melvyn Douglas also stated that she "was unable to articulate so much as a titter during the shooting of the restaurant scene." Yet, somehow in the film, laugh she did, and legend was born.

Bela Lugosi has almost a cameo appearance as Commissar Razinin. With his beard and scowl, he is properly menacing (he's been mentioned prior to his appearance as someone with whom you do not want to tangle).  It's a good role, and makes for an interesting break from the horror films that would dominate his career. 
Both Cary Grant and William Powell were considered for the role of Leon (AFI Catalog); Melvyn Douglas is excellent in the role. You believe him both as a wastrel and as a man who is sincerely in love for the first time. A stage actor with Broadway experience, Mr. Douglas came to film with the advent of sound. He continued to work in both mediums, adding radio and television to his resume, until his death in 1981 - 14 months after the death of his wife of nearly 50 years Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas.  The pair met while appearing in the Broadway production of Tonight or Never (Mr. Douglas had been previously married and had a son). They had two children; their grand-daughter is actress Illeana Douglas.

The story was redone as a play on the Paris stage in 1950, as well as a radio play (part of the Screen Guild Theater) with Joan Fontaine and William Powell in the leads.  A musical followed in 1954. Silk Stockings, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, and starring Hildegarde Neff and Don Ameche (and with a very young Julie Newmar in a minor role) ran for 478 performances.  The film version, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse was released in 1957. Then, in 1960, a television version of Ninotchka was aired on ABC, with Maria Schell and Gig Young in the leads.
There were, not surprisingly, censorship issues. The Russians didn't like the film (and threatened theater owners in Vienna with reprisals if they exhibited the film!). As this New Yorker article points out, it won no love from the Germans either - the German couple at the railroad station issuing their salute to the Fuhrer is a clear barb at the Nazis. Lubitsch was no fan of the German Reich - three years later, he would release his biting comedy, To Be or Not To Be (1942).  Regardless, the New York Times was in heaven, calling Ninotchka "one of the sprightliest comedies of the year." Besides the awards mentioned above, it was also nominated for Best Writing (Original Story) and Best Writing (Screenplay). It ranks at #52 on AFI 100 Years, 100 Laughs.

We'll leave you with this scene, of Garbo laughing (and eating - and she's not eating "raw beets and carrots"). Enjoy!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Joel Fishes

When Boyd Emerson (Joel McCrea) and his friend Frasier (Raymond Hatton) arrive in  Kalvik, Alaska, their entry is greeted by open hostility.  The Silver Horde (1930) concerns their efforts to open a salmon canning business in Kalvik, and the opposition they face from their chief competitor, Fred Marsh (Gavin Gordon).

A remake of a 1920 silent film of the same name (AFI catalog), The Silver Horde is as much about the business of salmon fishing in Alaska as it is a romance. In a fairly detailed sequence, we are shown the details behind the salmon that arrived on the shelf of consumers from the moment the fish are caught until the can is sealed and labeled. And just to be sure that the viewer knows that this is a part of the film, we see both Joel McCrea and Raymond Hatton working on the assembly line. Salmon fishing (in this case, coho salmon) is a major industry in Alaska - school children are taught about the five kinds of salmon, it is that important - and this one episode emphasizes that. More to the point, the industrialization of the salmon fishing would have been an exotic and unique process to the general filmgoer; this segment proves both educational and a quick glimpse of the past of an important food industry. The film, by the way, was actually shot on location in Ketchikan, Alaska (TCM article).
This was the first teaming of Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur (they would do two more films together). However, Ms. Arthur is not the star here.  Evelyn Brent (Cherry Malotte) is. Ms. Brent had long experience as a silent actress - she started in films in 1914.  She's quite good in this film, playing a tough and knowing woman, who has made her money in Alaska working as a prostitute, and is now the owner of a successful copper mine. Ms. Brent worked steadily, well into the 1940s, though she did most of her later work in B films, or at Poverty Row studios. When she retired from acting in 1950, she became an agent (she would make one television appearance in 1960 - on an episode of Wagon Train). Married three times, she died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 75. Unfortunately, many of her silent films have been listed as lost

This was Joel McCrea's second major role and he was pretty much on an upward trajectory for the rest of his career. He's sincere and attractive as Boyd; he manages to keep your sympathy and interest even after he is verbally cruel to Cherry. Mr. McCrea was always an interesting actor AND an interesting man. While many actors who were not in the military played soldiers in movies, Joel McCrea refused to wear a uniform in any of his films. Unable to serve in the Armed Forces, he felt that for him to appear in uniform was disrespectful to those who were serving (TCM article). He loved westerns, and in his later years would only appear in them. After his retirement, he worked on his ranch, where he lived with his wife, Frances Dee (they had three children, and were ultimately married for 57 years) until his death at 84 in 1990.
Blanche Sweet, who plays Queenie, was a notable silent actress, but her career just didn't take off in sound films.  She's quite sassy as Queenie, serving to tie up some plot loose ends and to give us a tiny glimpse into Cherry's past. This film, was in fact, her last until 1959 when she appeared in an uncredited role in The Five Pennies (she also did a few television appearances around this time). She continued to work in radio, and on stage. She had married Raymond Hackett in 1935; after his death, she moved on to a new part of her life - she worked on film preservation. She served on the Board of Directors of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was a consultant to the Department of Film of the Museum of Modern Art. (New York Times obit). She also appeared in Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982). Ms. Sweet died of a stroke in 1986, at age 90. Her ashes were scattered in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
The New York Times review was not particularly complimentary in their evaluation of the film, though they were very enthusiastic about the work of Blanche Sweet. While not a great film, The Silver Horde really has a lot going for it, especially the opportunity to see two future stars before they got their starts.  We'll leave you with this scene of Joel McCrea, looking rather hunky as he fights for his place in the community: 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ginger is on the Radio

Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers), America's "Purity Girl" has had it. She's been on the radio for a year. She's popular, she's making plenty of money, but she is banned from going ANYWHERE. She wants to go out and dance in Harlem, she wants to wear makeup and date. But under her present contract, she is forbidden from doing anything that might compromise her image of innocence. When she threatens her boss, Sam Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) with leaving his employ, he agrees to get her a Professional Sweetheart (1933) - and potential husband - that will allow her to date discreetly.

Though at times a fairly silly movie, Professional Sweetheart is enjoyable. Ginger Rogers is very cute as a girl who just wants to have fun, and while Norman Foster (as Jim Davey) is perhaps not the most dynamic actor in the world, he is convincingly sincere. Add a group of excellent character actors, including Gregory Ratoff (playing a part not dissimilar to his role in All About Eve), Frank McHugh (as Speed Dennis), and Allen Jenkins (as O'Connor), and you have a film that is fun and ever so slightly titillating (as you can see from the still below!)
We were pleased to also see Theresa Harris (Vera) in a small role.  She's relegated to playing a maid, of course, and is not even billed in the credits, but she is again (as she was in Baby Face) intelligent and attractive, and more of a confidant to the unhappy Glory than a mere servant.  Unlike Ginger Rogers, Ms. Harris actually gets to do her own singing (Etta Moten sings for Ms. Rogers; why, is a big question).  Ms. Harris has a lovely voice, and is an excellent actress: with 99 film and television credits to her name, Ms. Harris SHOULD be better known. She was the inspiration for a play, By the Way, Vera Stark, which performed off-Broadway in 2011. Married from 1933 until her death, to a physician, Ms. Harris retired from acting in 1958. She died at age 79, in 1985.

Normally, we enjoy ZaSu Pitts (Elmerada de Leon),  but her vagueness gets annoying after a time.  Of course, Elmerada is supposed to be annoying, but she is also supposed to be funny. The film really carries the act a bit too far, so we found ourselves groaning when Ms. Pitts started to open her mouth.

Norman Foster is okay as the romantic lead, but not much more than that. He would continue acting until 1938 (he returned to acting in the 1970s in a few television shows and movies), but he is best known as a director. He directed several of the Mr. Moto films, 1948's Rachel and the Stranger (starring his sister-in-law, Loretta Young), and the noir classic Woman on the Run (1950). He also did much television directing (including 39 episodes of Ms. Young's television shows). He was married for 7 years to Claudette Colbert; after their divorce in 1935, he married Sally Blane; they had two children and were married until his death from cancer in 1976 (age 72).
This was Ms. Rogers' first film under a three picture deal with RKO (TCM article). All three pictures (Rafter Romance, also co-starring Norman Foster, and Chance at Heaven were the other two) were released in 1933, as was her next film, under a new seven-year contract - Flying Down to Rio, her first film with Fred Astaire. They didn't dub her singing voice after that!

Original titles for the film include Careless and Purity Girl, (AFI Catalog) but we felt the release title was the best choice - after all, but Jim AND Glory turn out to be professional sweethearts! Besides the character actors mentioned above, there are brief glimpses of Betty Furness (as a reporter) and Akim Tamiroff (as a waiter).

The New York Times liked the film (which premiered in Radio City Music Hall), as did my colleague at Pre-code.com (for an outline of some of the pre-code naughtiness, please to visit his posting). You can see some of that naughtiness in this clip from the film. A good opportunity to see Ginger Rogers early in her career, Professional Sweetheart is a pleasant romp.