Monday, November 25, 2013

Barbara's Test Marriage

Back in January, our group watched Illicit, a fascinating precode with Barbara Stanwyck.   As part of the AFI tribute to Stanwyck, I was able to see it again, this time in a theatre.  As always, a big screen does make a difference in your viewing experience.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent;  Anne is deeply in love with Dick Ives (James Rennie), but is terrified of marrying him.  Marriage, she believes, will destroy their love, just as it destroyed her parents' love for one another.  Though Dick is sure she is wrong, he is willing to continue their current arrangement (each has an apartment, but they visit overnight on a regular basis) until his father (Claude Gillingwater) reveals that their affair is the subject of gossip.  Anne agrees to marry, but within a couple of years, Anne is distressed to discover that her prediction has come true.  Dick is more concerned with being out with friends than with her.  And he has seemingly succumbed to the charms of his ex-girlfriend,  Margie True (Natalie Moorhead).  

The film is very careful to set up similar romantic situations for our hero and heroine.  Dick rejected Margie when he met Anne; Anne left Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez) for Dick.  Both exes are eager to win back their former love; but while Dick is easily led by Margie, Anne is not deceived at all by Price.  Try as he might, Price cannot get Anne to betray Dick, even after she knows that Dick has been seeing Margie.  In fact, Anne seems to find Price rather distasteful in his pursuit of her.  Stanwyck nearly cringes at his advances, and is quite prepared to throw him out of her home (and one suspects she could do it, too)  Both Margie and Price are vain, predatory individuals.  They don't so much love as seek to possess.  One can imagine that, once they win their battle, they will start seeking other prey.  Anne possibly is able to see this.  It takes Dick quite a long time to understand Margie.

Another couple (of sorts) is also thrown into the mix.  We have Charles Butterworth as the always inebriated Georgie, and his constant companion Helen "Duckie" Childers (Joan Blondell in a fairly small part). Where Georgie is a lush, "Duckie" (who does like to party) is sober, and is a good friend to Anne, while Georgie is busy gossiping about Anne and Dick.  Playing a society girl, Blondell still retains her brash appeal.  The good news is, she gets better clothing; the bad news is that she isn't on the screen often enough. 

This TCM article gives some picture of the critical reception of the film.  While some local censor boards banned the film, The New York Times was pleased with the story, giving the cast overall approval for their work. 

The film still has a great deal of appeal because it still seems so timely.  This trailer will give you a taste of this interesting movie:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Loretta's Haunted Apartment

A Night to Remember (1942) is one of those films that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. Screwball comedy? Horror? Suspense? Romance? Take your pick, because the film really doesn't do any of them very well.

The film opens on Nancy (Loretta Young) and Jeff Troy (Brian Aherne).  They have just arrived at their new Greenwich Village basement apartment, which Nancy found for them (Jeff's never been there before).  He's a hack mystery writer (he writes as Jeff Yort), and wants to work in the Village, in hopes of writing the Great American Novel. They have arrived early (without notifying their landlord), and are stunned that the apartment isn't ready for them (who arrives two days early, and expects to just move in? They haven't even paid for the apartment yet).  But the real problem is, the landlord is more frightened than annoyed that they are there.  And there is this weird housekeeper who says something keeps crawling on her feet. 

The film is extremely repetitious.  The housekeeper keeps telling the same story over and over; there is a door that is always getting stuck.  It's like the writers had a few jokes, and decided they could keep using them.  Rather than build on humor, the repetitions become inane.The one humorous bit is the introduction of Old Hickory, a turtle that was the mascot of the speakeasy that used to be in the apartment building.  Old Hickory keeps turning up (scaring everyone), and MANY people, including the police inspector investigating the murder (of course, there is a murder!), are fans of Old Hickory.

The film is based on the third in a series of nine mystery books about the exploits of
Jeff and Haila Troy, entitled The Frightened Stiff.  There was also a Screen Guild Theatre radio production of the film, with Lucille Ball playing Nancy Troy and Brian Donlevy playing Jeff on May 1, 1944.  

The supporting cast is good, albeit not well used.  Sidney Toler as Inspector Hankins (shades of Charlie Chan!) is the only smart one within a group of fairly dumb police officers,  That's probably why he is an inspector.  At one point, Jeff comments that the police are no longer allowed to used rubber hoses during an interrogation - shades of the Miranda Warning!.  You get to see the wonderful Lee Patrick  (playing apartment house resident Polly Franklin) right away, but you have to wait quite a while before Gale Sondergaard (as Mrs. DeVoe) shows up.  Both are fun to watch.  We would have liked to have seen more of them, as both Aherne and Young got a bit annoying after awhile.

As the movie opens, it has a creepy air.   We felt that the writers should have emphasized that suspense aspect more, as we think they would have had a better movie.  Not that humor and murder can't be done - Miss Pinkerton, which we saw a bit ago, was able to do it.  So did the wonderful Cat and the Canary.  But the problem with A Night to Remember is that nothing really makes sense.  Why would the landlord would rent an apartment in the building to an outsider, when he and all the tenants are so frightened that an outsider will discover their crimes.   And, the ending is very abrupt. The murderer is revealed with almost no explanation, and the film is over. 

We kinda liked the little apartment, though, with its private garden in the back.  It is supposed to be on Gay Street, which is a real Village street.  But other than that (and Old Hickory), this movie was missing that certain something that makes you want to come back for more.  It's no wonder there were no further Troy mysteries.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Barbara Rises to the Top

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend part of a Barbara Stanwyck festival that was held at the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, MD. The festival was held to celebrate volume one of a new biography of the magnificent Ms. Stanwyck, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940  by Victoria Wilson.  As part of the series, I viewed three of the films.  Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some thoughts with you about these films (one of which was previously reviewed).

The first film was the infamous Baby Face (1933), starring Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers, a young woman from the absolutely wrong side of the tracks.  Lily lives with her father, a nasty, evil man who runs a speakeasy Erie, Pennsylvania.  It's clear that he has been prostituting his daughter, just as he did with his wife (before she left him and ultimately died).  Lily despises him, and, as a result of her experiences, has no use for, as she puts it, "Dirty rotten men!".  At the urging of the local cobbler (a fan of
Nietzsche), Lily packs up her meager belongings and heads for New York, to "use men, not let them use [her]."  And use men she does; from the minute she begins her trip, Lily is using her body to work her way to wealth and power.

Quite a bit has been written about this film.  Since the restored version was discovered by Library of Congress curator Michael Mashon, many authors have looked at the original version in contrast to the version that finally ended up in theaters.   Of particular interest are these, from and from Electric Sheep.  Obviously, many changes had to be made to make the film compliant with the newly enforced production code.  The result was a hodgepodge, with the film being neither the somewhat subversive, shocking film we can see today, nor the moral tale that Hays Office required.  Just a quick look at the  New York Times review from the period shows how the film suffered.  The reviewer said the film was about "an unsavory subject, with incidents set forth in an inexpert fashion."
The film is actually beautifully crafted.  One brief moment that, I felt, said so much about Lily was an early view of her leaning out the window of her Erie home, and trying to brush the soot off the flowers in her windox box.  It serves as a comment about the environment in which Lily has always lived, but also demonstrates her desire for beauty, as well as her stubbornness.  

The men in Lily's life are a real back of losers.  From the railway engineer who is her first conquest, to J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), men as shown as lascivious, vain, and quite stupid.  It's fun to see John Wayne in a very NON John Wayne role, the easily manipulated Jimmy McCoy.  You can't really imagine that they are totally unable to see that Lily is controlling them to her own aims.  Of course, they are so self-involved that it never strikes any of them as odd that a creature like Lily would want them.

One person who is wasted, however, is Margaret Lindsay as Ann Carter, the fiance of the somewhat insane Ned Stevens (Donald Cook).  Ann's whole part involves walking in on Lily and Ned, and then running out of the room in tears.  Cook gets more to do as Ned melts down when Lily dumps him.  Cook is such a low-key actor, it's hard to imagine his character being so volatile.  However, watch Stanwyck in that particular scene.  Her control is amazing.

George Brent, as Courtland Trenholm, is something different from the other men.  He does not immediately fall prey to Lily's charms; when they first meet, he is not willing to bow to her blackmail demands, and the look between them is one of mutual admiration.  When they encounter one another two years later, his admiration for her abilities turns to a love that is deeper and more meaningful than anything Lily has ever confronted.  Trenholm knows exactly who Lily is, yet he doesn't care.  He is willing to look beyond her past to what she might become. 

All through the movie, Lily has only one constant relationship, and that is with Chico (Theresa Harris), a young African-American woman who is an employee in the speakeasy.  Lily's loyalty to Chico (and Chico's to Lily) is unique in films of this era.  Chico is Lily's partner and confidant; she masquerades as Lily's maid, but we are always aware that the relationship is deeper.  To the very end, Chico is there; no man can come between them. 

If you've not seen Baby Face, treat yourself.  Here is a trailer: 

For another look at the film, take a look at this posting by Electric Sheep

Monday, November 18, 2013

Liberated Loretta

The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) is about two extremely obnoxious people, who are supposedly funny when they get together. Loretta Young plays June Cameron, author of the bestselling book "Spinsters aren't Spinach," a tome that urges women to be independent, and seek careers rather than marriage.  Ray Milland is Dr. Timothy Sterling, a medical school instructor and researcher in head pain.  They meet at an inn, when June, desperate to return to New York, intrudes herself into Tim's car, and demands (yes, demands!) that he drive her home.  During a stop, a young boy accidentally attaches a "Just Married" sign to Tim's car, and the local telegrapher is horrified to discover her hero (June) is married!  To avoid scandal, June's publisher convinces her to pretend marriage (she'll also get another book out of it - "Marriage Ain't Measles"), and then "divorce" Tim once it is published.  Tim agrees when he is given a long sought-after promotion BECAUSE he is married.

The biggest problem with this film is that neither Tim nor June is particularly likeable.  June intrudes herself into Tim's car (too cheap to get a taxi?), then refuses to reimburse him for gas or her lunch (for which he paid), then breaks a piece of his medical equipment (a head, which bears remarkable resemblance to a Chia pet) because it looks like her hatbox.  Certainly, Tim has more reason to be obnoxious (he didn't request her company or expenses), but then he proceeds to pay her debt by getting drunk on her liquor, and falling asleep in her bed.  One would think that the approximately $2 he was out was worth losing to get away from her.

We're all fond of Ray Milland, though most of us are more familiar with his dramatic work (The Uninvited, The Lost Weekend, Ministry of Fear), than with his comedies.  That being said, we're all fans of The Major and the Minor, and looked forward to seeing him again in a comedy.  The problem with The Doctor Takes a Wife is that it isn't all that funny.  It has some funny moments, but the leads end up being more of a hindrance than a benefit, and the screwball elements - like the scene where Tim runs back and forth between apartments (in an effort to keep his medical colleagues and his fiance apart) - strain credulity.  The plot is so segmented that it just doesn't hold together very well, and June's very abrupt reversal regarding Tim is hard to believe.
The characters that we would loved to have seen more of were Marilyn Thomas, played with verve by Gail Patrick and the always wonderful Edmund Gwenn, as Tim's father Dr. Lionel Sterling.  Gwenn is barely used - an absolute shame, as his character was just lovely, and he is such an excellent actor.  Patrick here is (again), the other woman.  Except, if you look at it closely, June really is the other woman - Marilyn and Tim are engaged when the whole marriage ruse is cooked up.  If Marilyn is a bit much, it is merely a device to make her more unappealing than June (and it's hard to make someone more unappealing that June).  It's Marilyn who is the wronged party; she is quite loyal to Tim, even after she believes he has married someone else while she was out of town.

Reginald Gardiner playing June's publisher (and would-be husband) is really just playing the same character he played in Christmas in Connecticut.  John is even more unlikeable than June, and is openly dishonest - it's his idea to milk the pretend marriage for yet another advise book (from a woman who knows nothing about the subject).  He's even planning for a "divorce" book once June is able to ditch Tim.
The film's opening scene is a lovely, idealized view of the contemporary bookstore.  Another fantastic set design is June's two-story New York City apartment.  Her book is obviously doing well - among other touches, the apartment has a lovely spiral staircase up to the balcony.

It's also interesting to note that the title "Spinsters aren't Spinach" was probably influenced by the book "Fashion is Spinach" by fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, which was published in 1938.  One of our group discovered the title's multiple copies in her library (which has a fashion focus).  She suspects that the book was very popular in those days since since so many copies were available.

Another little oddity in the film was June's display of a knitted baby sweater.  Never mind her complete about face regarding marital bliss.  As someone who knits, the author is rather perplexed at how she knit that thing so quickly! 

Just to get an idea of the reception of the film in 1940, we took a look at this rather blah New York Times review.   The problem, we think is that the film is trying to be screwball, but is it really? Does one farcical scene make a screwball comedy?  It's not the worst movie ever done, but neither is it really top of the game for any of the leads.  Here's a trailer from the film, to give you a chance to decide for yourself.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Loretta's Alone in the World

A man sits on a park bench, casually feeding pigeons.  He is dressed in dinner clothes; he appears to be quite wealthy, both in his garb and demeanor.  Beside him, a young woman quietly cries.  He brusquely asks her why.  She has lost her job, and hasn't eaten for 2 days.  He opines that there is absolutely no reason for her to starve, and whisks her off for a meal.  Thus begins Man's Castle (1933), a precode film, starring Spencer Tracy as Bill and Loretta Young as Trina. 

Considering the disposable nature of movies in this period, and the fact that the plot centers on a couple living together without benefit of marriage, it is fascinating that the film was reissued in 1938, with about 9 minutes of content deleted (this is the cut of the film we can see today).  Included in these cuts is a shot of Loretta Young jumping nude into the water.  Yet, even with this elimination, it is obvious that Trina (who we see enter the water) is skinny-dipping.  It's puzzling how even this version was able to pass the censors. A shortened version of Man's Castle was also aired twice (in 1939 and 1941) on the Lux Radio Theatre, both times with Spencer Tracy reprising his role.
Set amid the Depression, Man's Castle presents a picture of a man running from responsibility and the woman who loves him and is willing to tolerate his constant dreaming.  We found Bill very much like the little boy who smacks you to tell  you he likes you.  Though it is apparent that he loves Trina, he is constantly plaguing her with speeches about his eminent departure.  He continually belittles her, calling her Whoositz", and poo-pooing her dreams of a future. Bill is a pipe dreamer, with little grasp of reality.  Even his attempts to steal enough money so that Trina can live comfortably demonstrate his immaturity.

Though we have no real back-story on either character, it is clear that Trina recently became unemployed.  What she did before she met Bill is not discussed.  She also has been evicted from her apartment; again, it is clear that this is a recent event.  Despite her loneliness and destitution, Trina retains a positive view of life, and of Bill.  While Bill thinks he is smart, is is clear that Trina is much smarter than he is. She is able to run the house; she plans for them both, and (while she fears his departure), she knows his heart better than he knows it himself.

The real-life relationship between Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy is discussed in this TCM article.  The couple fell in love, but as we discussed last week, marriage between the two was as impossible here as it would be for Young and Gable several years later.  Ultimately, Young decided to end what had become a very public affair. 
As always, we have some interesting character performances here.  We've seen the Marjorie Rambeau before, when she played Ginger Roger's mother in Primrose Path.   Here, as Trina's only real friend,  the alcoholic Flossie, she becomes the avenging angel for pair against the rather distasteful Bragg (Arthur Hohl).  She is both sympathetic and frightening.  It becomes obvious early on in the film that things will not end well for Flossie.

Always delightful is Walter Connolly as Ira.  A man of religion, Ira also protects Trina and Bill.  But where Flossie's response to the events of her life are anger and escape, Ira looks at life squarely, and looks to his God for guidance.

It's an interesting movie - one that makes you hunger for the uncut version.  Regardless, it is worth a look - here's a look at the scene we first discussed: