Monday, August 29, 2011

Joan Teaches the Blind (and Deaf)

None of us had ever seen 1957's The Story of Esther Costello before this viewing and it was definitely a pleasant surprise. Ms. Crawford plays Margaret Landi, a wealthy American woman on a visit to the town of her birth to make a donation to the village church in Cloncraig, Ireland,  Father Devlin (Denis O'Dea), however, has other ideas, and introduces Margaret to Esther Costello (Heather Sears), a local girl being raised in squalor after her mother was killed and Esther was left deaf and blind.  With some reluctance, Margaret agrees to have some tests run to confirm the severity of Esther's condition.  The tests show no physiological reason for Esther's condition, but also emphasize the need to get her some training, to enable her to live a more normal life.  Again, Margaret is reluctant to go further, but Esther's eagerness to learn impresses her.  Ultimately, she bring Esther back to America with her, becoming not only her patron, but her teacher and dearest friend. 

The movie's portrayal of the education process for the deaf-blind is extremely interesting, especially the way in which Esther is taught to lip read, and to communicate with those who cannot do sign language.  Esther's education covers the beginning of the movie; the second part of the movie is devoted to Margaret's attempts to raise money for Esther's school, a process that becomes badly corrupted when Margaret's estranged husband, Carlo (Rossano Brazzi) reappears on the scene.  Brazzi is properly slimy, as he uses sex to reclaim Margaret, then begins to cast his eye in the direction of the innocent Esther.

Some interesting guest appearances in this movie: Bessie Love has a brief scene with Brazzi as an art gallery patron; John Loder appears as a friend of Margaret's (we never see him after Esther goes to school. A shame really).  His voice did not sound the same as we remembered - we wondered if it had been dubbed for some reason?  Lee Patterson as reporter Harry Grant, Esther's love interest, was a pleasant surprise for some of our viewers - they remembered him from his later work in One Life to Live.

But the person who really steals the movie is Heather Sears as Esther.  She manages to convey so much in a part that is not only mute, but limited in the use of her eyes (Esther, after all is blind as well).  Ms. Sears (who won the Best Actress award from BAFTA for her work here) is marvelously expressive.  She had a limited film career, appearing in film and on television in the U.K. 

This is also a surprisingly adult movie.  Without giving too much away, watch for the scene, towards the end, when Crawford finds a nearly comatose Sears on the floor of her bedroom.  Then watch as Crawford tries to get the traumatized girl back to bed.  Your mind will tell you what she is actually seeing, while the screen shows you something else.  A tasteful, and telling, piece of film direction.

All in all, another Crawford film that is underrated and worth your time. Next time, we go to a much earlier film.  In the meantime, here is a trailer from our movie this week:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Joan Goes to Greece

Thanks to TCM's latest "Summer Under the Stars", we've been able to assemble a number of Joan Crawford (and Carole Lombard) movies that we had none of us seen before.  We look forward to sharing them with you in the coming weeks.  This week, we again visited with Ms. Crawford in her 1935 film I Live My Life. Joan is a young society girl Kay Bentley , on a cruise through the Greek Islands with her father (played beautifully by Frank Morgan).  While riding her rented donkey on Naxos, she stumbles (literally) on the archeology site that is being excavated by Terry O'Neill (Brian Aherne). It doesn't take long for Terry to fall head over heels for Kay (though he thinks she is a secretary on the yacht), but Kay resists his charms. For awhile.  When he follows her to New York, she is truly smitten.  But complications, as they say, ensue.  The course of true love is rather rocky, especially with two such wonderfully headstrong people.

Crawford is gorgeous here, and the chemistry between her an Aherne fairly smokes.  As we know from Ann Blyth's introduction to Ms. Crawford on TCM, Joan was a small woman - barely 5 feet tall. Mr. Aherne, however, was 6'3" - together, they make a fairly arresting couple. Crawford's gowns, by Adrian, are lovely; we rather drooled to try some of them on! (And the sight of the attractive Mr. Aherne in a tuxedo was nothing to sneeze at!).  Crawford pokes fun at herself in one scene, commenting on the amount of money she spends on her manicures and on her eyebrows.  She doesn't mention her EYELASHES! She could dust the windows with those eyelashes.

We enjoyed Frank Morgan as Crawford's loving father.  It seems at first that he will betray her, but he is impressive in his affection for his daughter - ready to give up everything he has to make her happy.  And, while you will have to wait awhile for her to show up, it is worth the wait to see Jessie Ralph as Joan's grandmother, the frightening Mrs. Gage.  She is an absolute hoot, and you will enjoy her tremendously.

All in all, this is a fun film, with a great cast and a really nice script.  If you get a chance, see it. You won't regret it. In the meantime, we can direct you to a scene from the film:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cougar Joan

This time, we are going forward in Ms. Crawford's career to her 1956 film Autumn Leaves.  Joan plays a lonely spinster, Milly Weatherby, who works from her home as a typist, and has given up on finding someone with whom to share her life.  One day, as she eats alone in a crowded restaurant, she is interrupted by a young man - the restaurant is crowded, could he eat with her, rather than wait for a table.  Though Millie is reluctant, she agrees, and finds herself drawn to the rather odd Burt Hanson (Cliff Roberson).  They date; she breaks it off - primarily because she is in her early forties, while Burt is about 30.  Burt however, will have none of this, and continues to pursue her, finally convincing her to marry him.  Though happy with him, Millie finds that Burt is lying to her, first about small things (like the daily presents he brings her) and finally a huge one - revealed when his ex-wife (Vera Miles as Virginia Hanson) shows up at their door.
In the hands of a different director, we felt this little melodrama could have been quite touching.  But directed by Robert Aldrich, famous for action pictures like The Dirty Dozen and the ultimate in horror camp, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, this film goes WAY over the top.  Witness Cliff Robertson's performance, as Burt becomes ill.  Had it been AFTER 1960, we would have said he was (badly) aping Anthony Perkins in Psycho.  However, we can't use that excuse here; Robertson is all but required to froth at the mouth to portray Burt's descent into madness (gee, couldn't Aldrich have watched such subtle performances as the Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, and Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend?)  Poor Joan is left trying to make Milly sympathetic - which she does do, but it is a lot of work!

We did enjoy seeing Vera Miles, even though the part is small. Ms. Miles is catty, manipulative, and having a relationship with her father-in-law that is quite sickening. Here she is meeting Milly for the first time:

And watch for Lorne Greene, pre-Bonanza, already playing older than his years. Like Ms. Miles, his character is totally reprehensible, more than he really needs to be.  

On the plus side, it was a genuine pleasure to hear the title song sung by Nat King Cole! And Ms. Crawford really is able to make the most of minimal script to give a well-rounded character.

More Crawford coming up soon - and some Carole Lombard (we hope), thanks to Summer Under the Stars!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mogel Joan

This week, we were able to get hold of 1942's They All Kissed the Bride.  In it, Joan Crawford plays Margaret J. Drew, the head of a trucking company. She is a stern boss, with a passel of rules for her employees, which makes her despised and dreaded by her truck drivers. Enter Michael Holmes (Melvyn Douglas) who is publishing articles on her tyrannies, much to her ire.  Michael meets her (though she doesn't know who he is) when he crashes the wedding of MJ's younger sister Suzie (Mary Treen).  Rapidly, MJ and Michael become involved as he tries to loosen up this very up-tight lady.  She, however is immediately attracted to this unknown man.

This is a particularly odd little movie.  First of all, the title has NOTHING to do with the plot. We barely see the bride, in fact, we see more of her groom as the action progresses.  Also, the film can't decide if it wants to be a screwball comedy or a romance.  Clearly filmed (at some point) after the start of World War II, it makes only passing reference to the war, and there is no implication that all the male characters will soon be deep into the fighting.  And Crawford's MJ is rather annoying.  She WANTS to be the head of her father's company, but she acts like a total idiot when she meets Michael.  Oh, sure, love at first sight and all that, but really!! There is no way anyone could efficiently run a conglomerate like MJ does, yet be such a blithering moron.  Poor Melvyn Douglas doesn't get to do much better, really.  Michael is pretty much as silly - and he KNOWS who MJ is. At least she has the excuse of ignorance.

Some good supporting actors here - Billie Burke is very sweet (and of course, addled) as MJ's mother;  and Roland Young is rather likeable as MJ's business associate, Mr. Marsh.  Here's a scene where she meets Allen Jenkins:

 But in the long run, one rather wishes the authors and director had made a decision about which direction they wanted the picture to take.  Instead, they end up with a mishmash that never does find its genre.