Monday, September 30, 2013

Sisters in Love with the Same Man

When the AFI Silver opened in 1938, their premier film was Four Daughters.  As part of their anniversary festival, this was one of the three films we viewed. 

The Lemps are a musical family - father Adam (Claude Rains) is a conductor, instructor, and flutist; his daughters Thea (piano, played by Lola Lane), Ann (violin, played by Priscilla Lane), Emma (harp, played by Gail Page), and Kay (vocalist, played by Rosemary Lane) accompany him on classical recitals in their home; their audience is their Aunt Etta (May Robson).  Their home is a happy one, and the girls have a busy social life.  Emma has a beau, Ernest (Dick Foran), and Thea has just met someone (Frank McHugh as Ben Crowley).  Young Ann, however, has no interest in a beau; she has decided to be an "old maid", and live always with her beloved sister Emma.  But that is before Felix Dietz (Jeffrey Lynn), a young composer enters their lives.  In short order, all four girls are smitten with the young man.  He however, only has eyes for Ann.  And while it seems there will be a happy ending for Felix and Ann, the arrival of  Mickey Bordon (John Garfield), and Ann's realization that Emma loves Felix will have devastating results.   

From a novel by Fannie Hurst, Four Daughters is certainly a woman's picture in the traditional sense.  In some sense, the men (Felix, Ernest, Ben) are merely objects for the women to discuss.  But the character of Mickey, as portrayed by Garfield is far more than that.  Garfield's intensity (which he brought to all of his film roles), makes Mickey a force of nature that blows violently into the lives of all around him.  Mickey is both selfish and caring at the same time.  He loves Ann passionately, is able to see the pain of those around him (he and Aunt Etta are the only ones that realize how deeply Emma cares for Felix), but he is also willing to destroy the lives of Ann and Felix so he can have Ann. 

The Lane Sisters and Gail Page are flawless as the Lemp girls.  Their love for one another and for the family unit is true - watch the scene as the girls rummage through each other's closets to compile an appropriate date outfit.  Ann's decision to be with Mickey rather than Felix is as much about sparing Emma pain, as it is her need to bring some joy into Mickey's life.  We quickly realize that Ann DOES love Mickey - not in the way she does Felix; she feels an almost motherly responsibility for Mickey that she cannot escape. Ann's extreme youth is further demonstrated by her decisions.  She is unable to differentiate between love of a spouse and love of family.  Mickey should be family, but Ann can't quite see it.

The film resulted in two sequels, Four Wives and Four Mothers, as well as a companion film, Daughter's Courageous.  While neither is quite as powerful as the first film, the chemistry among the Lemp family is emphasized in this continuing series.  The impact of Garfield as a performer is highlighted in this clip.  Enjoy!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Connie is Kept

Constance Bennett is back in the 1931 melodrama, The Easiest Way.  She plays Laura Murdock, a department store saleswoman who is offered the opportunity to pose as an artist's model for the Brockton Advertising Agency.  She readily agrees, and finds the work agreeable.  However, she comes to the attention of Willard Brockton (Adolphe Menjou), who offers her a different kind of employment - that of his mistress. 

While visiting friends of Brockton in the country, Laura meets Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery). He knows of her life, but loves her unconditionally.  She eagerly agrees to leave Brockton, and live a respectable life.  Only problem is, Jack is leaving the country, and Laura will need to fend for herself 'til he returns.  Can she do it? Or is the easiest way the only way for her?

This film very much reminded us of Primrose Path, where our heroine struggled to avoid the oldest profession.  But, while that film was set in the early 40s, this one is set smack in the center of the Great Depression - it was hard for a man to get a job, much less a woman.  And while Laura is working, she has a lot on her plate - siblings, a mother, and an alcoholic, perpetually unemployed father.  The money that Brockton provides supports Laura in style, but also allows her to provide for her family.  Mother Agnes (Clara Blandick) refuses to see Laura once she is living with Brockton, yet clearly Laura's money is supporting her.  The only family member who refuses to live on Laura is her brother-in-law Nick (Clark Gable, in one of his first major films).  While NIck is hard, he is true to his principles; he doesn't approve of what she is doing, so he won't take anything from her.  Gable is able to give him that rugged handsomeness for which he was later known.  TCM   points out in that he was the hit of film - women came out of the film asking who he was.  

Some interesting period views here - the film is obviously precode - among other things, we see Laura's parents in bed together.  We see an old New York City railroad flat, and we are provided a view into the world of advertising, circa 1931.  It was fascinating to see the rooms of artists providing copy for department stores; almost an assembly line of painters and models.

We found Robert Montgomery's Jack to be somewhat uncaring; he insists that Laura abandon Brockton, but isn't concerned that she might not be able to earn a living, then stops writing for a time without telling her it might happen.  He even tells her to return Brockton's expensive gifts of jewelry and furs (which might have supported her til Jack's return). It's a relatively small part for Montgomery, but we always enjoy seeing him. 

We were pretty sure that Brockton would have demanded the jewelry back anyway.  Adolphe Menjou's Brockton is a very callous, calculating individual.  He is only interested in controlling a woman, and Menjou is VERY good in the part.  He plays Brockton as matter-of-fact, rather than over-the-top evil. 

We leave you with a glimpse of Laura's work as a model, and a hearty recommendation to give this film a look.   With the paring of Constance Bennett and young Clark Gable, this is a definite winner.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fred Analyzes Ginger

This past Sunday (September 15th, 2013) was the 75th Anniversary of the Silver Theatre (now the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center).  To commemorate this notable event (and the restoration of the theatre by AFI in 2003), AFI ran exactly the same program that the Silver Theatre ran in 1938.  We went to see 3 of the 5 films that were part of the celebration, all released in 1938.  I'll be blogging about each of them over the next few weeks.

Carefree, with Fred Astaire as Dr. Tony Flagg, Ginger Rogers as Amanda Cooper, and Ralph Bellamy as Stephen Arden, was our first film of the day.  The plot, as in most Astaire-Rogers movies, is secondary to the dancing, but in this movie, Ginger Rogers is given a lot more to do than in some of the pairings.  Amanda Cooper thinks she is in love with Stephen Arden, but she can't bring herself to marry him.  So, Stephen asks his friend, Tony Flagg, a psychiatrist, to talk to Amanda, to see if her can find out why she is reluctant to wed.  Tony encourages Amanda to dream, to find out the subconscious reason for her concerns - turns out, she's in love with Tony.  But when she tells him, Tony hypnotizes her to hate him, then has second thoughts.  

Okay, so it's a rather silly plot.  But there is some magnificent dancing here.  One of my personal favorites is The Yam, a boisterous, energetic number, which has Fred throwing Ginger over his upraised leg.  The picture below gives you just a taste of the grace and joy of the routine.  It's also one of the few dance numbers where Ginger sings and Fred doesn't, and where she wants him to dance, and he is the holdout. This article at TCM discusses that dance in some detail, including the fact that Ginger Rogers came up with the idea of the leg lifts.

 Rogers really gets a chance to show her comedic skills here.  After Tony gives her a sedative and leaves the room while it takes effect, Amanda is whisked out of the room by the totally ignorant Stephen.  She then proceeds to create mayhem everywhere she goes.  Rogers manages to make you love her, even as she does all kinds of outlandish things under the influence of the gas.

Another rarity in an Astaire-Rogers film occurs in the dream sequence - at the end of the dance Amanda kisses Tony.  While kisses are often suggested in Astaire-Rogers films, you seldom see them kiss. Here, you do!  The dream dance is performed mostly in slow motion.  It's a shame the modern audience has become so jaded about slow motion, thanks primarily to its overuse.  Here, the slowed speed allows you to see the precision of the dance moves.  They have to be absolutely perfect, or the speed would show every flaw.

That Astaire was a golfer is evident in the Since They Turned 'Loch Lomond' into Swing.  Astaire taps as he swings, his movements are beautiful, and he even carefully changes clubs when he wants a different shot.  It's a clever and challenging dance.

Finally, there is the pièce de résistance of the film - Change Partners.  The song is one of Irving Berlin's best; it has probably been performed by every major popular singer since it came out, but has there ever been a better rendition than that of Astaire? Though his voice is not the quality of, say, Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, Astaire brings a grace to his songs that few can match.  Here, he uses his voice and movements to hypnotize Rogers, in hopes of telling her of his love.   It's been said that many composers wrote just for Astaire.  When you hear him do this, you understand why.

To close, let Rogers and Astaire hypnotize you via this magnificent number.  We'll be back next week with more discussion from AFI and from our weekly meetings.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Connie Gets Married

Sin Takes a Holiday (1930), stars Constance Bennett as Sylvia, secretary to the wealthy Gaylord Stanton (Kenneth MacKenna).  Stanton has been seeing a married woman. He is perfectly satisfied with the situation, since he has no intention to marry, and Grace's (Rita La Roy) husband is not interested in a divorce.  But, to his surprise, Grace decides she is ready for husband #3, and intends to divorce her husband, with Stanton as corespondent.  To circumvent this (and continue his affair), Stanton convinces the shy Sylvia (who loves him) to marry him.  It will be a one-year (we assume he thinks he will be done with Grace by that time), marriage in name only, with Sylvia safely ensconced in Europe, and Stanton sewing his wild oats in New York.  However, complications ensue when Sylvia, while in Europe, meets Stanton's friend Durant (Basil Rathbone), who is quite impressed with the young woman, and determines to marry her himself.

In many respects, Sin Takes a Holiday is reminiscent of  Lady with a Past.  As in that film, Constance Bennett is considered plain and dull (hard to believe), and while abroad, develops the confidence to take control of her appearance and her life.  Of course, in this film, her "marriage" has given the bankroll to assist in the metamorphosis.  The major difference here is the motivating factor for the change.  While Venice in Lady with a Past decides to make a complete change in her image, Sylvia's emergence as a fascinating beauty occurs because of the attentions of Durant, the first man who has ever seen her as an attractive woman.

For those of us used to seeing Basil Rathbone playing a cad, Durant is a revelation.  When we first meet him at Stanton's house, he seems, to all intents and purposes, to be that bounder that Rathbone plays so well.  But Durant is actually a good man.  He loves Sylvia deeply; he is charming and kind.  And, unlike Stanton, he can see below the surface to the inner Sylvia.  Stanton never does, and we ended up rooting for Sylvia and Durant to end up as a couple.

We also enjoyed ZaSu Pitts as Syvia's roommate, Anna.  Having seen a bit of the silent film,  Greed a few days earlier, it is interesting to see change in her career in talkies.  She continued to work, even appearing in television shows (like The Gale Storm Show) until her death in 1963, usually (as she does in this film) as the best friend of the lead actress.   EliZa Susan Pitts also wrote a candy cookbook: Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts - it seems she collected candy recipes!

We were less impressed with Kenneth MacKenna.  It didn't help that Stanton is such an unlikeable character, but MacKenna does not (in this film) have the dynamic screen personality of his foil, Rathbone.   MacKenna's career was relatively short, though he did return to films briefly in the early 1960s, playing one of the judges in Judgement at Nuremberg. In the early 1930s, he even played Bullldog Drummond (a role that would later be played by Ronald Colman and John Howard) in 1930's Temple Tower.  MacKenna died in 1962.

We really enjoyed this film.  The characters are well developed, the scenery and settings are lovely, and, as always, we have Bennett wearing some wonderful clothing.  In an article on the TCM website we find the following quote from Constance Bennett: "I'm a lot more sartorial than thespian. They come to see me and go out humming the costumes."  We disagree; while we love the costumes, we really left this film humming Constance Bennett.