Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interlude: Silent Movie Time

AFI Silver provided another opportunity to see a classic film on a big screen - in this case the seldom seen Mary Pickford silent Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924).  We are all used to seeing Mary Pickford as the waif, her beautiful curls hanging low to her back.  But this film features Mary as the heiress to Haddon Hall, a tempestuous beauty who defies her father by falling madly in love with the son of a rival family.  

So, how different is this from Pickford's usual films?  Well, it is set in the 1560s (an early scene shows young Dorothy Vernon's betrothal - that is dated 1550).  And, Dorothy is quite wealthy; she frequently wears her hair up (imagine - the curls hidden!!)  But what doesn't change is the spirit of the character Ms. Pickford portrays.  Dorothy has spunk, as does Ms. Pickford, who did most of her own stunt work.  There is a rather amazing horse ride (and Dorothy is riding side-saddle), across a narrow wall, over a gap in the wall, and down a gully.  You can clearly see Ms. Pickford in most of the action (a stunt double comes in for a small, fairly risky, piece of the action).

Our screening was enhanced by the presence of the author of a new book:  Mary Pickford Queen of the Movies. Christel Schmidt discussed the film in some detail, including the introduction of the Sir John Manners, played by Allan Forrest.  Forrest was Pickford's brother-in-law (his wife, and Mary's sister, Lottie Pickford Forrest plays Dorothy's maid, Jennie).  And while Forrest is a nice enough looking man, it seems he was not all that muscular.  So, for an opening scene in which we see Manner's bare back, a body double was substituted - the back belongs to Pickford's husband, Douglas Fairbanks! 

Ms. Schmidt will be touring the country, doing screenings of Pickford films, including Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall.  The film will have (as ours did) live musical accompaniment.  If you have the opportunity to see it, do.  You'll really enjoy it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Connie Has a Baby (Sort of...)

Today we consider another Constance Bennett precode - Rockabye (1932).  In it, Ms. Bennett is Judy Carroll, an actress who has become embroiled in a scandal. Her former lover, politician Al Howard (Walter Pidgeon) has been accused of  being an embezzler. Judy testifies for him at his trial, but this creates huge problems for her, as she is adopting a child.  As a result of the publicity, her adoption is revoked, and the baby, Lilybet (June Filmer) is taken from her.  To help her recover, her manager Tony de Sola (played by Paul Lukas) sends her to Europe for a rest.  When she returns, she comes back with a new play - and an interest in the playwright (Joel McCrea playing Jacobs Van Riker Pell).
Our conversation went off in a number of directions. First, we again we dazzled by the spectacular costuming. No costumer was listed, but our hats are definitely off him or her.  Ms Bennett never looked better. 

We also had a discussion about several of the characters.  We wondered if we should assume that Lilybet is actually Judy's real daughter?   We compared this to such films as To Each His Own, which we discussed some time ago.  Probably not, the child is too old since this little girl is nearly two, and her affair with Al ended the year before.  We thought that Judy would have been more careful about where she placed the child (so she could more easily adopt it) - probably giving the child directly to friends, rather than to an agency.  The little girl who played Lilybet, June Filmer, was just delightful.  She seems to have had a sister (Joy) who also made a few movies.  Little June only made three movies, in 1932 and 1933.
Of course, we've discussed Joel McCrea before (and not always favorably - we like him as an actor, but some of his characters have been rather unpleasant).  Jake, however, is a good guy.  He is honest about his marriage, and is a responsible and loving man.  He takes his responsibilities seriously, and, as a result, finds that his life will become one of pain.  The commentary by Robert Osborne on the film also enhanced our experience.  Mr. Osborne's mentioned that Constance Bennett was attracted to Joel McCrea, but he didn't want to be Mr. Constance Bennett.  He married Frances Dee the following year, and they remained married until his death in 1990.  He's an impressive actor, with a varied career:  for example, he was the original Dr. Kildare (Internes Can't Take Money from 1937). Interestingly, he would never play a member of the military (see Robert Osborne's fascinating piece on him), because he himself was unable to serve during the war.

We also enjoyed the performance of Paul Lukas, Judy's manager, and perhaps the man in the movie who loves her best.  Without giving away the ending, we wished him his own happy ending.  Here's a clip with Bennett and McCrea:

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Interlude: WWII Erupts

On December 6, 1941, a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers leave San Francisco on a routine run to Hawaii.  As they arrive, they discover that Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field have been virtually destroyed by the Japanese attack of December 7th.  In that instant, the lives of the crew of the Mary Ann change as they attempt to get their plane first to Wake Island, then to the Philippines, to fight in the newly declared war in the Pacific.  This is Air Force, a Howard Hawks film from 1943. 

We had the opportunity to see this interesting film on a big screen at the AFI Silver Theatre, as part of a Howard Hawks retrospective.  Hawks, a member of the U.S. Army Air Service during the first World War, had already demonstrated his interest in aviation with his prior films, Ceiling Zero (1935) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Here, as the war rages on in Europe and Asia, with no end in sight, Hawks looks at an event that would have been very much in the memory of his audience.  The film is careful in sticking to the facts, with only a few liberties taken.  In fact, a group of Fortresses was en route to Hawaii just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, and one of the ships was, in fact, the Mary Ann

My companion, who is quite familiar with the history of World War II, pointed out to me some of the liberties taken in the film.  For example, were a ship like the Mary Ann to be sent from Hawaii to the Philippines, it would have flown via Midway, not Wake Island. It's apparent that Hawks wants to reference the events that occurred on Wake Island, as it was attacked and captured by the Japanese (and perhaps tip his hat to the film Wake Island, that had been released the previous year). Towards the end of the film, we see the Mary Ann's crew involved in a battle - it appears to be the Battle of the Coral Sea, but that didn't happen until 5 months AFTER Pearl Harbor (not a few days as portrayed here).  And there is no way a B-17 could hover over a convoy of battleships to mark the way for oncoming planes. It just would not work!

You'll be treated to some fine performances here: a young John Garfield as tail gunner Joe Winocki; George Tobias as New Yorker and gunner Weinberg, Harry Carey - always wonderful - as crew chief Robbie White, Arthur Kennedy as Bombardier Tommy McMartin. and Gig Young as co-pilot Bill Williams.  We even have a cameo by Ann Doran as pilot Irish Quincannon (John Ridgely)'s wife.

Though I'm not usually a fan of war movies, this one was certainly worth seeing, and I hope to view it again. It had a sympathy for the men and an understanding of what they were facing that is not always apparent in World War II propaganda films.  Is it propaganda? Of course, but propaganda of the best kind.

For your enjoyment, the trailer from the film is below:

Our next Constance Bennett movie will be up in a few days.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Connie Goes to Court

Two Against the World (1932), on the service, appears to be your typical, 1930's romantic comedy - wealthy Adelle Hamilton (Constance Bennett) is on her way to a meeting.  She is late, and rude to the man (David Norton, played by Neil Hamilton) she believes to be an elevator operator.  Of course, he is not.  He is a lawyer, on the way to the same meeting.  He is the lawyer for the widow of a woman killed while working for Adell's family.  Adell and her brother Bob (Allen Vincent) cannot be bothered participating in the family discussion - they play tic-tac-toe.  The family seems not worth our time - there is also a philandering sister (Helen Vinson).  All-in-all, not exactly an admirable group.

Only this film is not a simple rom-com.  Things turn dark when the members of the family are involved in a murder, and Adell takes responsibility for the events.  We won't go into too much detail, here, but the film turns quite dark about mid-point.  The film asks us to sympathize with the murderer rather than the victim (Pre-Code, of course);   the murder is even staged in such a way as to minimize your interest in the victim. In the clip below, we see a scene as the intensity increases:

Let's spend a moment discussing the costuming by Orry-Kelly.  It is fantastic.  At one point, Ms. Bennett is wearing a raincoat that any one of us would have worn in a minute.  Also, a black dress that was to-die-for.  And Ms. Bennett, always lovely, wears them well.  You can get an idea from the clip, but better is to come in the film.

The film is a tad disjointed, but it is worth a look.  Certainly, it is never a hardship to watch Ms. Bennett.  She takes even the most mediocre script and makes it shiny.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Interlude: Loretta is BAD

The Movie Group began in New York City, with weekly meetings to watch a variety of films.  Since then, we have continued our meetings virtually.  However, occasionally, a member might get to see something that fits into nicely into our discussions, and so it will be added to the blog.  

This week, I got to see Born to be Bad (1934) at the AFI Silver Theatre in Maryland, where they are doing a tribute to Loretta Young's 100th birthday.  In this film, Ms. Young is Letty Strong, a woman of 22 with a 7 year-old son (Mickey, played by Jackie Kelk).  Abandoned by the boy's father before he was born, she was taken in by Fuzzy (Henry Travers).  However, she now supports herself as a dress-model and paid escort.  She allows her son to skip school, and informs Fuzzy that Mickey will not live life as naive as she - he knows the realities of life.  Here's our first glimpse of Letty:

Enter Malcolm Trevor (Cary Grant), the wealthy owner of a dairy, who Letty tries to bilk. Fascinated by her child, he and his wife adopt the boy, in hopes of giving him a better life. But Letty intends to get the boy back, and enough money to support them - preferably at Mal's expense.

That the film is pre-code is readily apparent.  We get some glimpses of Young in her lingerie (with her legs as bare as they can be!).  And Letty is never condemned for her actions, neither her present day lifestyle, nor the fact that she is an unmarried mother.  Fuzzy, our bell-weather for  Letty's actions, is angry with her for her  actions as a mother - the fact that she does not teach her son proper values.  Though it is apparent he does not approve of her occupation, he does not censure her for it; he remains her friend, and hopes that he can convince her to be a better mother.   He regrets she is compelled to do this, primarily because of the example it sets for Mickey.   An article on the TCM website offers some insight into the reception that the film received (it wasn't good).  The production code was right around the corner.  We see here the last vestiges of the pre-code film.

We'll resume our weekly review in a few days.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Connie Marries the Elite

This week, we again join Constance Bennett in a precode film.  This one is Our Betters from 1933.  Connie is Lady Pearl Saunders Grayston.  We meet her as she has just married Lord Grayston (Alan Mowbray).  She is determined to be a good wife to him, though she is aware that their marriage was one of convenience - he needs her money to  support his lifestyle.  But Pearl finds almost immediately that her dreams of a life as a happy wife are naive.  Her husband has no intention of giving up his mistress.  

The film, taken from a play by W. Somerset Maugham,  produced by David O. Selznick, directed by George Cukor, and with music by Max Steiner is not a great one, but it is interesting.  Besides having some of the best behind-the-scenes talent in Hollywood, we have a fantastic performance by Bennett.  Her Pearl becomes a society hostess, but one who is jaded and cold. We also want to pay homage to the fantastic costuming of Hattie Carnegie - take a look at the stunning (and scandalous) black dress Ms. Bennett wears to a party - it's a knockout!

At one of her parties, we discover that she is planning to bring her sister, Bessie (Anita Louise) into the same lifestyle, by arranging her marriage to Lord Harry Bleane (Hugh Sinclair).  Though Bessie seems willing, it soon becomes clear that she really loves Fleming Harvey (Charles Starrett).  But everything begins to implode at a weekend outing to the Grayston estate, as we learn more about Pearl's rather seedy existence.  

Among the party guest are GIlbert Roland.  We enjoy him as an actor, but felt he was wasted here as the gigolo who pursues Pearl, but is involved with the wealthy Duchess Minnie.   We also discover that Pearl is essentially destitute, thanks to her husband's bad handling of her finances, so she is using her wiles to "borrow" money from Arthur Fenwick (Minor Watson).  

Much of our conversation focused on the bartering of American heiresses for English titles.  It is surprising that, in 1933 (this is a contemporary story), this was still going on.  We especially discussed the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, who was literally imprisoned by her mother until she consented the Duke of Marlborough

Here is a clip from the film:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Connie Gets a Bed

Lorry Evans (Constance Bennett) has just been released from prison. She and her friend Minnie Brown (Pert Kelton) board a steamboat, in hopes of fleecing some of the men on board.  Only, Lorry is discovered, so she jumps overboard.  And is fished out of the water by Dan (Joel McCrea) the captain of a nearby barge. Having lost the money she scammed while on board the steamboat, Lorry takes Dan's money, and heads for New Orleans.  Thus begins Bed of Roses from 1933, the latest in our Constance Bennett series.  

This film is so obviously pre-code!  Lorry and Minnie are being released from prison for soliciting.  They are scam artists, and once Lorry gets to New Orleans, her goal is to sucker a rich man (John Halliday as Stephen Paige) into becoming her sugar daddy.   And yet, it will all end well for our "heroine".  Here is a clip from the opening scene:


Of course, we will discover that Lorry has a code, and will return to Dan because he is a good guy.  And she will fall in love with him.  And then her life will become even more complicated, as she has to decide between love and the knowledge of what her past life will do to their relationship.  Bennett is fantastic in the part.  She makes Lorry hard to dislike, yet you are always aware that she really is not quite on the up-and-up.  We also, of course, get some beautiful clothing once Lorry has gotten herself properly set up (no costumer is listed for the film, unfortunately).

The men are interesting characters as well.  Dan is a really good guy.  This is NOT the McCrea of Primrose Path (which we previously discussed).  This Dan takes people as they are; he doesn't make judgements.  Similarly, Stephen Paige actually seems to love Lorry.  Considering how she wormed her way into his life, this is rather surprising, however John Halliday, an excellent character actor who we've discussed before, makes it work.

Finally, there is Pert Kelton.  For those not familiar with her right away, this is Ma from The Music Man!  Minnie is hysterical, and Ms. Kelton plays her for all she is worth.  She reminds one a bit of Mae West.  And watch for the ending.  You will be quite amused.
Pert Kelton with John Halliday

Next time, another Constance Bennett pre-code

Monday, April 1, 2013

Double-0 Connie

Carla Vanirska (Constance Bennett) is trying to get a train ticket to Vienna.  The lines are so terrible, she cannot get near the ticket office.  Enter Captain Rudolph Ritter (Gilbert Roland), who offers his assistance.  He is hoping to accompany her on the train, but at a stop, she disappears into the night.  The problem? She's an enemy agent, spying on his military forces during the First World War.  After Tonight (1933) looks at the life of an espionage agent, and the problems faced when she gets much too close to the enemy.

Constance Bennett makes an excellent spy.  She is beautiful and clever.  No one suspects that the lovely nurse could possibly be the agent K-14 that everyone is seeking.  She is also daring.  Even when she suspects a trap, she goes to a rendezvous, on the off chance that this might be a real meeting.  Gilbert Roland is also excellent as the army officer who loves Carla.  You do sympathize with both of these people, wanting Carla to escape, yet wanting her to remain with Rudolph.

We were also intrigued with all the spy paraphernalia that gets used: invisible ink, the messages hidden in books and jewelry, creaky steps that signal the possible intrusion of the enemy.  A good use of all the spy games made the film even more enjoyable.

The movie has an especially well-done ending.  We can't tell you what it is; we don't want to spoil it for you.  But, we think you will like it.