Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Warner Loves Fay (and Ingrid)

Several months ago, we discussed a film with Warner Baxter, and decided we wanted to view another of his movies.  This week, we watched Adam Had Four Sons (1941), with Baxter as Adam Stoddard, Fay Wray as his wife Molly, and Ingrid Bergman as their governess, Emilie Gallatin. The action opens with the arrival of Emilie, a young woman from Europe, who is immediately accepted - and adored - by her four young charges, Jack (who will grow up to be Richard Denning), David (Johnny Downs), Chris (Robert Shaw) and Phillip (Charles Lind).  The story follows the hardships of this good family, and the woman who becomes an intrinsic part of it, through a stock market crash, the First World War, and interpersonal catastrophes.  Through it all, Adam, his four sons, and Emilie remain true to each other, despite the attempts of the world to break them apart.

The film emphasizes the strength of this family.  Despite everything, the brothers, their father, and even the adopted family member, Emilie, remain loyal to one another.  Torn apart by the world's events, they cope and regroup.  Even when one seemingly insurmountable outside force - Jack's wife, Hester, played with relish by Susan Hayward - tries to fracture the brothers, she cannot succeed.  It is interesting that their home is named Stonehenge,  symbolizing the durability and longevity of those that abide in the home. 

The film features several strong women characters.  Fay Wray's Molly is the heart of the family.  Meeting her, we understand WHY the boys are so good and loyal.  She is the epitome of the good wife and mother.  Yet, she is not cloying or ridiculous.  Ingrid Bergman's Emilie, the adopted mother, begins as a naive girl and grows into a powerful woman.  She comes to the family as an employee, is forced to leave because of Adam's sudden impoverishment, but returns, not as an employee, but as substitute for the mother the boys have lost.  This was only Bergman's fourth film in the United States, but you can already see her skills.  Cousin Phillipa (Helen Westley) is the traditional cagey old lady. She knows more than she says, hides her wisdom behind her relish for a good, stiff drink, but works for the good of her nephews.  Vance (played by June Lockhart) is another innocent.  The childhood sweetheart of Phillip, she does not waver in her love, even when Phillip is severely injured.  And then there is Hester.
Susan Hayward's Hester is quite the conniver.  She enters the story as the wife of David, but the audience knows immediately that she is up to no good.  Of course, while Emilie and Cousin Phillipa are also well aware that she is merely an opportunistic schemer, it takes the men a bit longer to catch on.  Hayward truly makes the part her own; she uses sly glances, and the most subtle of movements to convey who Hester really is beneath all the artifice, she makes you want to slap her silly!

Given the title, one would think this is a film about five men.  But, really, it isn't.  It is about a family, and the women in the family that help the men to remain true to themselves. Here, we see Emilie's return and the introduction of Hester:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Joan's Showplace

As promised, this week we viewed the 1950 Harriet Craig, in which Joan Crawford plays the title role.  As with the previous film, this movie centers on a manipulative, dishonest, demanding, and snobbish woman obsessed with her home.  However, this story ditches the subplots that seemed to go nowhere in the prior film.  Here, the screenwriters build on the original plot by George Kelly, and add more character development.  As a result, Harriet becomes a more three-dimensional person.

The film opens with Harriet preparing for a trip to visit her ailing mother.  Harriet is running the small house staff (Mrs. Harold  played here by Viola Roache, and Lottie, played by Ellen Corby), and her cousin Clare (K.T. Stevens) ragged. Harriet is also incensed that she cannot contact her husband, Walter (Wendell Corey).  But in the next scene, much about Harriet is revealed.  Her mother is quite ill, but it is a mental illness, and a severe one.  Harriet is eager to  please her mother; it becomes quickly apparent that her mother is only person she really loves. We also discover that Harriet was abandoned by her father when she was 14 (after she discovered him having an affair with a co-worker).  As a result, she has no trust at all for men.

This film also subtly changes the relationship between Harriet and Walter.  They have been married for over four years.  She does rule the roost, but there is an affection for him that we did not see in the prior film.  When she returns to find the house in disorder (Walter had friends over for a poker party), she goes up to reprimand him, but looking at him asleep, a small smile creeps across her face, and she rumples his hair to wake him. And, while she does scold him for the mess (what wife wouldn't), it is kindly done.  And they end up kissing in the bed.

It should be noted that this Harriet uses sex to control her Walter (but it is pretty clear that she enjoys it as well!)  When he wants to go out golfing, she points out that she will be upstairs in the bathtub.  The look on Walter's face as he cancels his outing tells us everything we need to know.  Obviously, this Harriet is FUN in the bedroom! Her actions are usually motivated by jealousy and fear.  Everything is about keeping him close to home and close only to HER.
Harriet's nastiness is especially apparent in her behavior towards the servants. Lottie (Ellen Corby) is an especial victim of her bile.  Harriet is contemptuous of her; even giving her flowers for her room is a sign of her disregard for the woman (Harriet dislike flowers and especially dislikes that they came from Mrs. Frazier.)

And then there is cousin Clare.  Clare is portrayed as a doormat.  She takes everything Harriet dishes out, and whines about how grateful she is.  When she finally realizes that Harriet has been manipulating her to keep her away from her boyfriend, Wes, Clare leave, because she hopes that Wes will now take care of her.  In the end, we found Clare to be almost as unpleasant as Harriet.

Other changes  in this version:   Harriet's is willing to have a party in her home; but while she consents to entertain, but only the guests SHE chooses.  None of Walter's friends are welcome.  The Vase, which is quickly established in both films as Harriet's pride and joy, here is described as Ming China, and therefore quite valuable; in the prior film, no such claim was made. As mentioned before, the loss of the subplots is a definite plus here, as is the addition of Walter's friend, Billy Birkmire (Allyn Joslyn).   Finally, there is her attitude towards children.  In both films, she dislikes children, but in this version we discover she lied to Walter about her ability to conceive.  We also find out she is willing to have a child IF it will keep Walter in place.

As in the first film, we were particularly taken with the scene in which Mrs. Harold  (Viola Roache) resigns.  It's quiet different in many respects, but the impact is the same.  Both actresses shine as they face each other down.  We also very much enjoyed Lucile Watson as Celia Fenwick.  Mrs. Fenwick takes an immediate liking to Walter, and has Harriet's number in about two seconds.  She seems to be trying to separate Harriet and Walter. But she is funny - we realize that she is  cheating at cards, and that Walter knows it!

A nod as well to Sheila O'Brien, Crawford's designer in the 1950s.  She creates the gowns for the film, and they were noteworthy.   Here's a suit that we found particularly beautiful.  We particularily loved the delicate collar.  

 We close with a trailer from the film:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rosalind's Showplace

A few weeks ago, we watched two different versions of the same story.  We are doing it again.  The time, we begin with the 1936 version of the Pulitzer Prize winning play be George Kelly (uncle of Grace Kelly), Craig's Wife.  This is the story of a woman who married for a house, rather than for love or position.  And it is directed by Hollywood's only woman director in this period, Dorothy Arzner.

Harriett Craig (as played by Rosalind Russell) is the very model of a total bitch (one of our group said that if you look up "bitch" in the dictionary, Harriet's picture is there).  She is cold and calculating, a liar and a snob.  Her attitude to everyone is supercilious, no one is as smart as she and no one is good enough to set foot in her precious house.  She has no friends, and has made sure her husband Walter (John Boles) is distanced from his friends.  Friends, after all, might want to visit, and no one is allowed into the temple that Harriet has created.  Harriet is fascinated by objects, and revolted by anything that she perceives as mess.  Flowers are forbidden in her "temple". The petals might get on the table.
The film opens while Harriet is away. Her sister is ill, and Harriet goes to visit her for a few days.  While there, Harriet decides to bring her niece Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) home with her (Harriet has decided that he sister will recover more quickly if she is left alone). On the trip back, Harriet lectures the young woman on the benefits of a loveless marriage, and the security of a well-to-do husband.  Meanwhile, back home, her husband has used her time away to visit his friend Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an unhappy alcoholic, who suspects his wife's fidelity.

There really is no motivation given for Harriet's obsessive behavior about her home.  We also don't know much about the marriage; in the play, Harriet and Walter have been married for only 18 months.  This film gives us no idea of the length of the marriage.  Since Walter doesn't seem to be unhappy at the start of the film, his switch to utter disgust of his wife is rapid.  Certainly, a lot of small things happen to tarnish his image of her (his Aunt Austen's lecture, Harriet's unwillingness to cooperate with the police), but he's been living with her for awhile.  His rebellion seems a bit precipitous here.  We found it amusing that Harriet forbids Walter to smoke in the house, something that would have been quite offensive to viewers in 1936  (maybe she suspected that second-hand smoke is bad!).

We were very impressed by Rosalind Russell in this film.  She is not afraid to make Harriet unlikeable.  Even her attitude towards her sister and niece is reserved to the point of disinterest.  Her Harriet is totally dead inside.  Also quite good was Billie Burke as the neighbor, Mrs. Frazier, a warm, affectionate woman with a love for flowers and children. She serves as the perfect foil to Harriet.

We've already been told at multiple points what a harridan Harriet is and how difficult it is for her staff.  Poor Mazie (played beautifully by Nydia Westman) is treated shabbily by Harriet, even though she has taken on the  cooking responsibilities (she was hired as a housemaid), the most recent cook having resigned.  We find out that there is so much turnover in the staff, the employment agency won't send a new cook until the home has been inspected. So, when Jane Darwell, as the housekeeper, Mrs. Harold  has her final confrontation with Harriet,  you want to cheer as Mrs. Harold takes the match.  
One thing to note, when you see Thomas Mitchell, you will assume that this subplot will actually have a conclusion.  Like a lot of the subplots here, it does not.  Primarily because these incidents don't affect Harriet - she won't let them.  

We recommend to you the excellent TCM article for more insights into the making of this interesting picture. This is an excellent film, and well worth your viewing.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nurse Barbara

Several years ago, our group began our quest for pre-code films.  We viewed the wonderful Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse (1931) at that time.  Recently, I re-watched the film with a newer member of the group, and here share some of our thoughts. 

Stanwyck plays Lora Hart, a young woman who passionately wants to be a nurse.  We meet Lora as she applies for a position in a hospital nursing school.  However, Lora does not have a high school diploma - her mother's illness forced her to withdraw from school shortly before graduation - and the nursing matron will not accept her.   As she leaves the hospital, she literally runs into Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) who, it turns out, is the hospital administrator.   Bell is quite taken with the attractive young woman, and decides to support her application.  Lora becomes friendly with her roommate, Nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell), and Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger whom she assists (after he is shot).  After graduation, she finds herself in a conundrum - her nursing oath demands that she obey the orders of the doctor in charge, but Lora quickly realizes that Doctor Ranger is in cahoots with Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable) to murder two little children for their trust fund.

There is a lot of rowdy goings-on in this film.  We have our heroine in a state of undress several times (and Ms. Maloney joins her in one of these slip-teases once).  We have a bootlegger, who is not above asking his friends to take someone for a ride (we won't tell you who).  We have a dipsomaniac mother, a doctor who may be on drugs, and a murderous chauffeur.  And we possibly have an off-screen rape (see the TCM article for more on that).  Want to see more, here is a clip of Stanwyck in one of the slip scenes:

We also have some outstanding performances.  Joan Blondell as the gum-chewing Maloney is a hoot.  She's not really interested in nursing - it's just the only job that will pay you to go to school!  However, you like Maloney, who is quite good at her job, and a true friend.  It's Maloney who first recognizes that the children are being mistreated, and her concern is real.   

Clark Gable is very menacing as Nick - this was a breakthrough role for him, and it is  understandable.  Director William Wellman uses this up-and-coming star to good effect.  In the TCM article we previously referenced, there is a discussion of Stanwyck and Blondell's reaction to this new man on the block.  It's quite humorous. 

Finally, there is Stanwyck herself - her Lora truly wants to be a nurse. Watch the scene where the nurses take the Nightingale oath, and watch Stanwyck's eyes.  Her idealism radiates (as opposed to Maloney, who keeps cracking her gum!).  Also, watch her when she meets Dr. Bell, and later when she discusses him with Maloney.  How DID she explain her predicament to him? Lastly, there are her interactions with the children - her tenderness is moving.

Join us next time for another film - the first of two versions of the same story.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Connie Talks to Herself

Venice Muir (Constance Bennett) is a wealthy young woman. Her parents are dead; she is quite alone in the world.  Much as she wants to meet someone, she can't seem to get a man interested in her.  The men in her circle are much more attracted to the merry widow who was suspected of poisoning her husband.  Finally, Venice meets a man who seems to be interested in her.  Donnie Wainwright (David Manners) gets a bit inebriated, and proposes.  He asks Venice to travel to Europe with him, and marry him on the ship. But morning brings sobriety and a better offer from the widow, and Venice finds herself alone, bound for Europe. Once there, Venice decides to change her image - she hires a young man (Ben Lyon as Guy Bryson) to pose as a gigolo, and finds that men are now pursuing HER.  Thus begins Lady with a Past (1932), a pre-code film which puts forth the premise that men don't make passes at good girls.

Constance Bennett is fantastic here.  Her Venice is sweet, kind, and innocent of the ways of the world.  But she has a great sense of humor, especially about herself.  She is alone so much, she finds that she spends a lot of time talking to herself. "I talk so much to myself that I'm all worn out when I meet people", she bemoans. Yet, she retains her sense of humor, in spite of feeling that she is inferior to everyone else.

While David Manners makes an interesting object of Venice's affection, the character that was by far the most interesting is Guy Bryson.  He, like Venice, has a wicked sense of humor.  And he genuinely likes her.  Though she is paying him, it is evident that he is there because he likes her and wants to help her. In the clip below, we are introduced to Guy;  we rather hoped that he was the man of Venice's dreams. He is a sweetie who doesn't "even mind that she is a good girl".

A TCM article which discusses this film is well worth a read. Especially interesting is the review that is included, in which the reviewer says that Bennett's Venice "gives hope to shy bookworms everywhere".   We heartily recommend this under-appreciated little gem. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Constance is Born to Love

Towards the end of World War I, a nurse in England, Doris Kendall (Constance Bennett) meets an American soldier (Joel McCrea as Captain Barry Craig).  They fall in love; he wants to marry her, but if he does, she will be sent back to America, and she desperately wants to stay in Europe to be near him.  They spend the night together, just before he leaves for the front.  And then, the floor falls out from under Doris when she learns that Barry is missing, presumed dead.  Thus begins Born to Love (1931).

Certainly, Born to Love is a melodrama, but a very well-done one, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing til the end of the film.  Sure, we know that Barry isn't dead fairly early on, but that does not keep the suspense active - will Doris find out that Barry is alive in time? Will she leave her new husband (Paul Cavanagh as Sir Wilfred Drake)? There's more, but that would give too much away. 

We saw some interesting similarities to other films we have watched.  The scene in which we discover that Barry and Doris have been intimate is delicately handled.  The resulting out-of-wedlock baby reminded us of the post-code To Each His Own. Both are set during the First World War; both result in the mother having to make a decision about the child's (and their own) futures. And both are quite subtle in letting us know that more has happened than immediately meets the eye.  Late in the film, there is a tragic occurrence; the film uses a silhouette  convey the tragedy.  Interestingly the same technique was used in the 1937 Adventure in Manhattan, which also starred Joel McCrea. There is even a line of dialog that is remarkably similar.  McCrea appears to be the only common link between two film.  Is it possible he suggested the line? Or did the authors see Born to Love?  I suspect we will never know.  

Constance Bennett is excellent in this film.  We were again taken with her versatility as a screen actress.  She is able to move seamlessly from comedy to intense drama. And certainly the plot of this film demands an intensity of emotion.  Joel McCrea again plays a man who is not entirely likeable.  His Barry is selfish; he shows up after Doris has married, urging her to abandon her husband AND her child for him.  We wondered why he had never tried to communicate with her until then (a period of nearly a year).  He says he was very ill; could he not find a nurse willing to write to his fiance and let her know he was alive?  Those two things made us very distrustful of him; we saw him as quite childish and unreliable.  Which made us more sympathetic to Sir Wilfred.  Except that Sir Wilfred ultimately shows himself to be the biggest cad of all.  This man who originally seems kind, strong, and loving turns out to be cruel, cowardly, and sneaky.   As we said, this is not a simple film.

We have a couple of character actors to mention - Louise Closser Hale as Wilfred's aunt, Lady Agatha Ponsonby is quite good.  Her character is no-nonsense.  At first she doesn't seem to think all that much of Doris, yet when things get tough, she is gone.  As though she doesn't want to be involved in her nephew's calumny.  And Frederick Kerr  as Lord James Ponsonby (or Uncle James, as Doris calls him) is quite good as the only truly good man in the film.  He dislikes his nephew's actions, but has no control over him.  Uncle James' distress is quite evident, as is his affection for Doris.

Next time, we'll be seeing another Constance Bennett film.  We hope to see you then.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Barbara Takes a Vacation

Forbidden (1932) features Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith, a librarian who is bored with the sameness of her life.  The townspeople set their clock by Lulu; always at work at exactly the same time. They are stunned when, one day, she is late.  For Lulu has decided to change her life - take her savings and go on a cruise to exotic Havana.  At first, her trip is a disappointment, until Robert Grover (Adolphe Menjou) literally falls into her life.  What follows is a love affair of pain and passion; their love complicated by his political ambitions.

With the emphasis on a woman who reluctantly gives up her child to its father rather than raise it herself, this film very much reminded us of Give Me Your Heart, but it doesn't end as happily.  For one thing, Lulu is being threatened by Al Holland.  For another, as kind as Robert Grover is, he is still a fairly selfish individual, and one feels that most of what he does is because of his political ambitions, not his regard for his wife (as he claims).  Regardless, Adolphe Menjou is impressive in the part. He remains sympathetic, even though you badly want to dislike him.  As we were introduced to the character, we knew there was something not quite right about his relationship with Lulu, but it wasn't immediately apparent that he was married.  Menjou plays his part carefully.  He never loses control of Robert's heart; we know that he loves Lulu, but he can never escape from his hunger for a political life. 

And then there is Ralph Bellamy playing a character (Al Holland) that is the total opposite of what you normally expect;  he even looks physically different. Al Holland is a driven, cruel man, whose only saving grace, it seems, is his love for Lulu.  However, he is constantly interfering in her life, and his intrusions often have disastrous results.  Just as Grover desires the power of political life, so too does Holland desire power.  However, Holland is power-crazed, he wants to control everyone around him.  Al hates Grover merely because Grover will not bow to him.  Holland believes that Grover "owes" him; Grover's retort is that the people elected him, not Holland.  The picture painted here of newspapermen is not a pleasant one; obviously, obnoxious newspaper reporters have been around for a long time.  
Finally, there is Stanwyck.  She is superb (but would we expect otherwise?).  Watch the scenes in the ship (and the sets used for those shipboard scenes are magnificent), when she goes to dinner alone; her loneliness is palpable (you can see part of that scene below).  Also impressive are her scenes with her baby daughter, Roberta (played with such charm and natural-ness by little Myrna Freshold. She is an adorable child.)  Much like the character in Confession, Lulu is constantly protective of her child; as in that film, we discover she will do anything to protect Roberta.  Stanwyck is also makes Lulu's love for Grover heart-breakingly real; we know she is with him because she loves him, not for what she can get out of him. 

The film has a lot of twists and turns and it never seems to go the way you expect. One expects a short story - one gets an epic, with the passage of years ably expressed via a scrapbook of the growing Roberta.  Even the character of Helen Grover (played by Dorothy Peterson) is a surprise.  As she leaves for an extended trip to Europe, she encourages Robert to have fun while she is away. Does she know he is having an affair? Is she telling him to go out and sow his wild oats?  Though the critical reception was not great, and director Frank Capra unimpressed with his film (as this article from TCM explains), we think it is worth watching, if only for the stellar performances we've discussed.

Next week, we'll be viewing another precode film, with another favorite of ours, Constance Bennett. In the meantime, enjoy Barbara's vacation in Forbidden: