Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kay Helps Out

We are at a train station in San Francisco. Amid the hustle and bustle of people traveling, we meet Lynn Palmer (Kay Francis), a Travelers' Aid employee who has dedicated her life to assisting those in need, from a little girl en route to meet her father to an old man who is down to his last penny.  Thus begins Stranded (1935), a wonderful little film that pairs Francis with George Brent as Mack Hale, a gruff engineer who has arrived to supervise the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

There's quite a bit of plot in this little film, which is a romance, a gangster film, and a social injustice film all rolled into one.  Though not a pre-code film, it takes a feminist perspective on the working woman, and portrays a tough, intelligent woman who likes and values her work life, and wants to combine it with home and family.  While Lynn dedicates herself to assisting those in need as they arrive in San Francisco, Mack deals with a protection racketeer, Sharkey, and with bridge construction workers who arrive on the job drunk - encouraged to do so by Sharkey (played with his usual relish by Barton MacLane).  We also have a couple of sub-plots: there's society girl Velma Tuthill (Patricia Ellis), who has volunteered to work at Travelers' Aid to get away from her mother, and meet up with her boyfriend du jour.  And then there is Jimmy Rivers (Frankie Darrow), a poor boy who is hired by Mack to work on the bridge (with the help of Lynn). 

If there is one problem with the film, it is the fact that there are SO many plots that some just get left in the wayside.  The character of Velma virtually disappears after she makes a pass at Mack.  She is there more as a foil to Lynn; where Lynn is caring and dedicated to her job, Velma is uninterested and callous;  Lynn's love for Mack is counter-posed to Velma's obvious lust.  The scene in which Mack finally responds to Velma's blatant attentions is very funny; it is worth having her there just for the brief moment of comeuppance.  

The other character who doesn't really get enough time is Jimmy.  When one sees Frankie Darrow in a film, one expects him to be a major part of the plot.   However, Jimmy has only a few brief scenes, and while Darrow makes the most of them (and Jimmy's presence is important to the finale), one wishes for a little more development of the character.  At one point in the action, Mack fires Jimmy. Though not directly stated, we wondered if this was Mack's way of protecting Jimmy from Sharkey and his minions.

What makes this film special, however, is the truly progressive attitude towards women.  This article at the TCM website discusses the strength of Lynn's devotion at some length. This is not just a woman who likes to work.  This is someone who feels the power of what she can do for a small strata of humanity, and who knows it is important work.  She is also not afraid of or intimidated by men.  Though Mack is a brusk, opinionated individual, who sometimes lives life at the top of his lungs, Lynn is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.  There relationship is one not only of love, but finally of mutual regard.  She will never let him bully her.  Their relationship is one of equals.

We are all admirers of George Brent, and this film did not let us down.  While he portrays Mack as rigid and dogmatic, one realizes that his job requires him to BE rigid - one inch of error and his workers or the people who use his bridges could die.  The problem is that it carries over to his everyday life - he has a very jaded view of people, and he wants Lynn to adhere to that view.  Francis, always a powerful actress, holds her own against him, and gives us a loving, and equally partisan individual - but one who believes in the essential good and value in the ordinary person.

Several scenes in the film really popped out.  First, is a scene where Mack is forced to wait for the ever-busy Lynn - and wait he does.  Another is the scene (previously mentioned) where Mack lets Velma know whom he really prefers.  And finally, there is a really funny bit where Lynn has to get a group of foreign brides to their new homes in San Francisco.  Mack shares the ride with the women.  It's a hoot.

The film also makes nice use of stock footage of the Golden Gate Bridge while under construction (as well as providing some interesting detail about the work).  Clothes-horse Francis mostly has practical, business clothing here (though she gets a gown or two, courtesy of Orry-Kelly).  Her wardrobe (and her lovely apartment) are not totally out of place, as the film establishes that Kay is not without economic resources. She works because she wants to, not because she has to.

Finally, we wondered if Kay Francis in these kinds of roles, was an inspiration for women? We've see her in many roles in which her character is a strong professional woman.  What impact did those roles have on the viewer? Was there a woman who was convinced to become a social worker or physician based on a Kay Francis film?

We close with Lynn and Mack on the phone.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Connie is an Artist's Model

As the film The Common Law (1931) opens, we meet Valerie West (Constance Bennett).  She has just informed her lover Dick Cardemon (Lew Cody) that she is leaving.  Dick is angered by her departure, and is sure she will return.  Valerie, however, is determined to make it on her own and applies for a modeling job with artist John Neville (Joel McCrea), who is struggling with a painting for which he needs the right model.  He finds that model in Valerie, and finds too a woman to love.  

Though struggling to make it as an artist on his own income, John is the son of the wealthy John Neville, Sr. (Walter Walker). John, Jr.'s sister Claire Collis (Hedda Hopper), who we know is not thrilled by his career choice, is horrified when she discovers that her brother is in love with such a - to her view - common woman.  So, Claire devises a plan to break up the relationship.

There is a real chemistry between Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea. It was evident in their other movies together (this is the fourth of their four films together that we've viewed and discussed). An article on the TCM website (in a discussion of Born to Love) talks about Bennett telling McCrea that he was to be her co-star in that film, and the fact that many in Hollywood thought there was more to their relationship than just work.

Certainly this film falls nicely into the Pre-code realm.  We watch Valerie shyly drop her clothing as she poses nude for painter John, and we see a number of paintings that make it clear she doesn't wear a whole lot of clothing for the series of pictures he does of her.  And then there is their relationship.  Terrified he will be driven away if they marry, Valerie agrees to a relationship with John ONLY if there is no marriage involved.  As in the film Illicit, it is the woman who opts for the "common law" relationship.  The men in these films are much more desirous of marriage than the women.  

John is clearly more conventional than Valerie - his double-standard is quite pronounced when he learns of her prior affair with Dick.  But it does not bother him in the least that she is willing to pose in the nude.  And, while they are in Paris, John and Valerie live together openly, when they return to New York, John feels compelled to hide their relationship.

This film is also notable for the presence of notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.  Her Claire is annoying from the minute we meet her.  She is dull and conventional, has no understanding of her brother, and is more interested in her position and reputation than his happiness (unlike John's father, who just wants John to be happy).  We don't learn a whole lot about Claire Collis - she seems to be either a widow or a divorcee, as we never meet a husband, nor is he even mentioned.  In the TCM article about this film, Hopper's relationship with Bennett is discussed.  Bennett did not like her one bit; even though at this point in her career, Hopper was still primarily acting.  However, she had started selling stories to the press about her colleagues.  It was after she realized how much more lucrative being a member of the press would be that Hopper changed her career focus (though, even after she was a columnist, she still appeared in films, most notably, as  Dolly DePuyster in The Women.  
The film opens with a stock shot of Paris from the 1930s which was quite fun to watch.  The clothing this time was by Gwen Wakeling.  We were not familiary with her, but as always, Bennett's clothing is gorgeous; but quite honestly, Constance looks good in anything.

All in all, this is an enjoyable film.  We heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Joan Dances Crazy and Robert Sings Badly

Untamed  from 1929 is a peculiar movie!  It stars Joan Crawford as Alice "Bingo" Dowling and Robert Montgomery as her love interest, Andy MacAllister, and was the first talkie to be released by MGM  - they were the last studio to abandon silent films - as well as Crawford's first featured sound film. 

Untamed opens in South America, where Bingo Dowling is living with her ne'er-do-well father. Dad obviously doesn't supervise his child all that much.  She's off with the natives, singing and dancing wildly.  As you will see in the clip below, Crawford really is no singer, and her dancing is odd, at best.  We discussed her dancing some time ago, when she appeared with Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady.  While her dancing there was energetic, here she is all angular knees and elbows.  It's rather frenetic and crazy, but it sets the tone for the character of Bingo, who is at heart a wild child. 

Enter Ben Murchison (Ernest Torrence) and Howard Presley (Holmes Herbert), old friends of Bingo's dad (Lloyd Ingraham).  They find him gambling and drunk (his normal pass-times), but they have news.  They have struck oil, and he is a partner in the endeavor.  No sooner does Papa Dowling get the news than he is shot.  He begs his old friends to look after his daughter, hears her voice, and dies.  Being genuinely good men, "Uncle" Ben and "Uncle" Howard determine to bring Bingo to New York, where she can have a life proper to that of an oil heiress.  However, Ben is not prepared for the trip to New York City, for on the boat, Bingo meets, and become immediately smitten with Andy MacAllister, a poor but noble young man (with an equally bad singing voice). 

Since Bingo has spent her life in the jungle alone with only her father as a role-model (and he's no exemplar), her reactions to a man are rather unique and inappropriate.   She sees nothing wrong with being alone in a man's room; she peers into his room without permission - Bingo has no sense of propriety. Crawford does a nice job of taking the wild child and transitioning her into a New York sophisticate.  From rebelling at the prospect of shoes on her trip over, she wears the height of fashion.  Bingo is shown as friendly (and seeming liked by "The Kids" who become her circle), yet Crawford is able to show the wild child is still bubbling within. For those of us used to the Crawford of the late 1930s and 1940s, this is a very different actress. Even Crawford's posture is different than in her later career.  We really are seeing the silent screen actress that she was, as she begins to grow into the dramatic actress she would become.  
It's always a pleasure to see Robert Montgomery, always a consummate actor, in anything.  We've seen some of his later films with Crawford (Forsaking All Others and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney), so we knew that the pair are excellent together.  This film did not disappoint.   His Andy is a "good man"; even though it would be easy for him to take advantage of Bingo, he is careful of her.  So, when "Uncle" Ben forms a dislike for Andy, it's really hard to understand why.  We understand that he is reluctant for Bingo to marry the first man she's ever met, but Ben is wise enough to know that Andy is not after her money.  Yes, he knows that Howard is very attracted to Bingo, and hopes perhaps they will make a match.  But knowing the individuals involved (and he does), it's hard to understand why he keeps trying to force Andy and Bingo apart.
The island where the film opens is dark and dingy. This makes a nice counterpoint as Bingo moves from that dark jungle to Park Avenue.  Having seen where she began, it is not hard to understand that a bit of the jungle is still in Bingo - she is quite temperamental and often violent. Watch Crawford's eyes during a boxing match - they positively glow with delight as the two men pound on one another.  She also seems to know the rules of fighting - maybe the one thing her father taught her!

Another interesting aspect of the film is the amount of drinking that goes on.  Prohibition won't end for another four year, yet there is a constant flow of alcohol.  In one scene, Bingo's pet monkey breaks the only bottle of alcohol on the boat, so the two gentlemen are going to save it by soaking it up with a sponge.

While the film is a talking, it includes periodic explanatory cards, a hangover from the silent era, as well as being heavy visual.  The actors still sport the heavy makeup (lipsticks and eye shadows) that were a staple of the silent era.   It looks very much like a silent film, with words stuck into it;  but what we are seeing is the birth of the sound film, with silent motifs aplenty amid the sound, and actors and crew still learning their new craft.  For a more complete discussion of this topic, please stop by the TCM website for this article, which looks at this film in the context of the beginnings of the sound era. 

In the meantime, we will leave you with Robert Montgomery (badly) serenading Joan Crawford.   

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ms. Fontaine has No Name

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." is perhaps one of the most famous opening lines of a novel.  Last night, I too went to Manderley again, submerging myself in the wonder that is Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar. 

Aired as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars tribute to Joan Fontaine, Rebecca is a remarkable film.  Starring Joan Fontaine as the nameless second Mrs. deWinter, Laurence Olivier as her husband - and the widower of the unseen, but always felt, Rebecca - Maxim, and Judith Anderson as the always creepy Mrs. Danvers, it faithfully represents the Daphne du Maurier novel, yet creates compelling cinema AND manages to placate the Production Code.  

The story of Rebecca open in Monte Carlo.  Our heroine is wandering the cliff-side, when she sees a man gazing over the edge of the precipice.  Alarmed, she cries out. He reacts violently, telling her loudly to mind her own business.  That evening, as she sits in the lobby of the hotel with her employer, the crude Edyth van Hopper (played by the always wonderful Florence Bates), who should appear but That Man - Maxim de Winter, the wealthy owner of Manderley, and a lion of the social set.  Mrs. van Hopper tries to ingratiate herself to him, to no avail (though she is oblivious to Maxim's disregard of her).  Maxim is much more intrigued by her paid companion, and when Mrs. van Hopper is relegated to her room by a cold,  the girl and Maxim begin to keep company.  She, of course, is immediately smitten by him.  He treats her as a child, needing constant care and correction. But, when Mrs. Van Hopper decides to drag the girl back to America, Maxim proposes marriage. Following a happy honeymoon, the couple returns to Manderley, and the second Mrs. De Winter finds that her life is a constant stream of insecurity and fear. 

Joan Fontaine is really perfect as the second Mrs. De Winter.  Her mannerisms, which can sometimes be annoying, work beautifully here; they highlight her naivety and anxiety.  Laurence Olivier provides the perfect balance of superciliousness and affection as Maxim.  One is never quite sure of his love for his second wife, nor his feelings for Rebecca.  Which is as it should be - Rebecca needs to hover over the proceedings, as her minion, the magnificent Mrs. Danvers attempts to destroy Maxim's marriage, as well as his new wife.  Ms. Anderson was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for her performance (losing to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath).  Watch her as she shows the second wife Rebecca's room and belongings.  Her obsession with, and passion for, Rebecca oozes from her.  She is frightening and fascinating.

Also notable is George Sanders as Rebecca's "cousin" Jack Favell.  Sanders revels in his "hail fellow well met" persona, as he tries to figure out the best way to wring some money out of Maxim, and intimidate the second Mrs. De Winter.  Just seeing his character, you get a clearer picture of who Rebecca really was (and don't like her much, as a result).

TCM has a wealth of information about this film.  One place to start is this article which discusses the uneasy relationship between director Hitchcock and David Selznick.  Where Hitchcock had intended to use the novel of Rebecca as merely a jumping-off point, Selznick required an exact retelling of the novel.  Though one change did have to be made - Rebecca's death in the book is somewhat different than the circumstances described in the movie.  The Production Code would not have allowed the film to end as it did with the original story line.  So great was Hitchcock's antipathy for Selznick, that he used him as the model for Raymond Burr's character in Rear Window!

A trailer from the film is below.  If you've never seen Rebecca, do yourself a favor and put it at the top of your list.