Monday, December 30, 2013

Monument Valley Revisited

AFI Silver recently screened The Searchers (1956).  Glenn Frankel, the author of The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, was also there, to comment on the film and answer questions.  It was a fascinating talk.  Though we previously posted on this film, the opportunity to see it on a big screen, and the  commentary by Mr. Frankel invites a revisit to perhaps best of all Westerns.

The book, which is reviewed here (NY Times Review), looks not only at the film, but at the historical inspirations for it. In this Interview with author from CNN, the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, and her abduction by the Comanches is discussed.  Like Debbie (Natalie Wood), Cynthia Ann (or Naduah, as the Comanches named her) was abducted at about age 11.  She lived with the Comanche for 25 years, bearing 3 children. One of her sons was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Quahada Comanche. (For more information on Naduah and Quanah Parker, visit the Texas State Historical Association) Though given opportunities to leave the Comanche, Naduah refused; she loved her husband and children.  Eventually recaptured, Naduah was unable to return to her family, dying at age 45.

Ethan Edwards' fears that Debbie is now fully Comanche is a reflection of historical facts.  Ford emphasizes the importance of Ethan's fears when he encounters a group of recaptured white women and children.  Forced again into a new world, two of the prisoners appear insane - a woman who apparently has lost her child, and a teenage girl.  A third girl is terrified and weeping inconsolably.  Edwards' face reflects his horror, but of what?  Is it his fear that this is what will remain of Debbie when she returns, or disgust at the "savages" these supposedly civilized females have become?  You can draw your own conclusions, but it seems that this might be the instant when Ethan contemplates killing Debbie.

Finally, a word on seeing The Searchers in a theatre.  Nothing can prepare you for the grandeur of the scenery when seen in its proper environment.  The people are dwarfed by the expanse of the valley.  They appear as ants, stretching across an unending vista of stone and sand.  Monument Valley shows us that no one, not the settlers, not the Comanche, can change the Valley.  The Comanche have learned to live with the land.  The settlers come to "tame" it.  They never will.  One look at the sky and land, and you realize the lunacy of even trying.

I close with a trailer from the film, which gives a good idea of the vistas, and of Ford's vision of the West:

Friday, December 27, 2013

Rita Entertains the Troops

Tonight and Every Night (1945) is the story of a small London theatre, the Music Box, which was able to continue performing every night during World War II, despite the constant bombings that plagued the city.  The film opens late in the war, with the arrival of a "Life" magazine reporter, who is doing a story on this remarkable achievement.  As he interviews performer Rosalind Bruce (Rita Hayworth), an American who was there from the beginning, we flash back to her recollections of the start of the war.

The music and dance in this film are the stage shows that our cast, Rosalind, Judy Kane (Janet Blair), Tommy Lawson (Mark Platt) and their colleagues put on at the theatre.  The songs aren't "book songs" - they don't advance the action of the story at all, which is unfortunate, as we would have liked a little more backstory concerning our performers. Why are both Rosalind and Judy in England? And what about Tommy? We know he worked in a store, but we would have liked to have learned more.  We also are given a love triangle: Judy loves Tommy, Tommy loves Rosalind, and Rosalind loves RAF Pilot Paul Lundy (Lee Bowman), and a story of friendship: the relationship between Judy and Rosalind is one of true loyalty to each other.  But, at times, we yearned for more depth about our characters, and it just wasn't forthcoming.

The story line is actually factually based.  The Windmill Theatre (which still exists) in London had the motto "We Never Closed", as it remained open throughout World War II.  The full story of the Windmill was told in the 2005 film Mrs. Henderson Presents, starring Judi Dench.  Our version of the story was based on a play about the Windmill called Heart of the City (the name of the theatre was changed due to copyright issues).  This article on the TCM Website will provide a bit more information about the history of Tonight and Every Night. 

There are some particularly good numbers in this film.  We were particularly taken with Janet Blair's rendition of the title song.  Staged as Judy summons London residents from a filmed newsreel, the number is imaginative, and beautifully done.  We especially liked the change from b&w to color as the performers emerge from "reel" to "real" life.  Also amazing is Mark Platt's improvisational audition.  Confessing that he dances at home to whatever is on the radio, theatre owner May "Tolly" Tolliver (Florence Bates) moves a radio dial to summon up a variety of different musical styles.  Finally, Tommy performs an impressive dance to speech by Adolph Hitler!  You can see that number in the clip below:

The film does a good job of painting a picture of life during the Blitz - the bravery of the performers in not only remaining in London, but performing despite extreme danger is made very clear.  We learn of other theatres that are damaged or destroyed, and we are affected by the casualties of the bombing.  Though the war was almost at an end when the film was released (January of 1945), filming probably occurred during the summer of 1944, as the Allied forces were invading the European mainland.  Rita Hayworth's daughter Rebecca was born in December of 1944, and Hayworth was pregnant during film. Dance scenes were filmed immediately, before the pregnancy would show.  Later scenes camouflaged  her condition with loose fitting clothing and muffs.  It's especially apparent in the "The Boy I Left Behind" number, where she wears long underwear, and the song "What Does an English Girl Think of a Yank". Rita's singing is dubbed again, but the dancing is all her.  And, as always, she is magnificent.

In closing, here is the lovely Ms. Hayworth in "You Excite Me", widely touted as one of her best routines in any of her films:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rita Haunts Otto

Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) is the lead performer in Danny McGuire's (Gene Kelly) Brooklyn night club.  She learns of a contest to model for the fashion magazineVanity from fellow dancer Maurine Martin (Leslie Brooks) and decides to enter.  Though Maurine does all she can to sabotage Rusty's chances, magazine editor John Coudair is so taken by Rusty's appearance that he hires her.  It seems Rusty is the spitting image of John's lost love, Maribelle Hicks.  It's no coincidence - Rusty is Maribelle's granddaughter. Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled by Rusty's success.  Maurine is furious; but Danny is also angry and jealous, for his girlfriend is being courted by other men; specifically, Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman), who is as captivated by Rusty as John was by Maribelle.  In his pursuit of her, Noel encourages Rusty to quit her job at Danny's place: he will get her show on Broadway. 

Thus begins Cover Girl (1944).  It is not really one of Gene Kelly's best musicals, which is sad to say.  One of the problems is that there are just too many musical numbers which don't advance the plot; instead, the serve as distractions away from the story of Rusty and Danny.  One example is the "Cover Girl" number, which is way too long, and Rita Hayworth isn't in enough of it.  The same with "The Show Must Go On": you have to wait too long to see Hayworth, and instead, get to look at a bunch of models trying to be as engaging as Hayward (and not succeeding).  It's not that the dancing or songs are bad, it's that they are jarring. They don't seem to fit into what is going on.

However, there are some wonderful numbers.  Kelly's impressive "Alter Ego" number, in which he dances with himself, (back before CGI).  Hayworth (not singing - Hayworth's singing was dubbed. More on that later) "Long Ago and Far Away" (a spectacular Jerome Kern/Ira Gershwin song), and finally the amusing "Poor John", which DOES advance the John-Maribelle story.  Also intriguing is the first "trio"  number with Phil Silvers (as Danny's best friend, Genius), Gene Kelly, and Rita Hayworth ("Make Way For Tomorrow").  The routine feels like a practice for Singin' in the Rain, perhaps not surprising, since it was developed by the same choreographers (Kelly and Stanley Donen). This was Donen's first film work with Kelly, so it is interesting to see the development of their unique and impressive partnership.

Though Rita Hayworth "sings" in a number of films, she is actually dubbed in every one of them.  This was a surprise to us, as we were so familiar with her in Pal Joey and in Gilda.  We, of course are curious as to WHY she was dubbed. We assume that powers-that-be deemed her inferior (as with Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Natalie Wood - all of whom had sung in films with their own voices in other films, but in My Fair Lady, Showboat, and West Side Story, respectively, were determined to be vocally insufficient).  However, she did do SOME singing in Gilda, and sang for the troops during World War II (see this article on Gilda from TCM). Below is a YouTube video of Ms. Hayward singing "The Heat is On".  Why she wasn't allowed to sing is a mystery.

The movie draws some nice parallels between Rusty and her grandmother, but we felt that Rusty comes off as a bit more callous than Maribelle.  Rusty clearly doesn't love Noel; and while Danny is acting like a total jerk, consenting to marry Noel is cruel to Noel.  Is she going to Noel for security? Because she SHOULD be married? Or just passively letting Noel lead her by the hand? Regardless, she ends up jilting him at the altar (Maribelle tells John they are done long before their relationship gets that far).  We thought that Noel took it a lot better than he should have.

As always, Eve Arden is tremendous as assistant editor Cornelia Jackson. The scene in which Rusty walks in being "animated" is a hoot; it's instantly apparent that Rusty is no actress (and that Hayworth is fantastic at mocking bad acting).  But the scene is stolen in one look by Arden.  As always, Ms. Arden can do more with an eyebrow than most performers can do with their entire body.

To close, here is one of our favorite novelty numbers from the film, Ms. Hayworth doing "Poor John".

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Norma Haunts Leslie

The here meets the hereafter in Smilin' Through  (1932), a lovely film about a man who lost the love of his life on their wedding day.

John Carteret (Leslie Howard) still mourns the loss of Moonyean Clare (Norma Shearer) after 30 years. He spends much of his time in the garden where they were happiest, and where the spirit of Moonyean visits him, assuring him of her continued love. As a result, John has virtually withdrawn from the world, until the day his friend Dr. Owen (O. P. Heggie) brings the news that Moonyean's sister and her husband have died in a boating accident, leaving her 6 year-old daughter orphaned. He also brings the child, in the hopes that she will reopen John's heart.  Though at first reluctant to take the child, John is so captivated by little Kathleen (Cora Sue Collins) that he consents to adopt her.

By 1915, the now adult Kathleen (also played by Norma Shearer) is the apple of her Uncle John's eye, as well as being nearly a twin of Moonyean; John is convinced that Kathleen will shortly marry the somewhat stodgy Willie Ainsley (Ralph Forbes). But when Kathleen meets Kenneth Wayne (Fredric March), a young American who is heir to a local home, and who has come to England to join the war efforts, any hope of that is lost. Kathleen and Kenneth fall desperately in love.  But when John learns of the affair, he is horrified; Kenneth's father was drunken lout who murdered Moonyean.  John forbids Kathleen to see Kenneth.

Based on a play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, this version is the second time the story was told on screen.  The first was a silent version in 1922, with Norma Talmadge as Moonyean/Kathleen.  The third time, in 1941, was a musical version with Jeannette MacDonald as Moonyean, Brian Aherne as John, and Gene Raymond as Kenneth/Jeremy. 

Like any MGM film, especially one starring Norma Shearer this subtle movie is beautifully done.  Exquisite costumes by Adrian, along with convincing makeup for Leslie Howard (who has to age over 40 years during the course of the film), and a sensitive script that really keeps you involved make this a film that wears its age well.

Of course, we have an exceptional acting group here.  Leslie Howard is especially convincing as John. You have to believe that he is able to communicate with the spirit of Moonyean, which Howard does beautifully.  His later rage against Kenneth is equally good.  We especially enjoyed his scene with the young Kathleen.  Howard carefully unwraps the hidden man, making John blossom in this brief conversation.  We were also impressed with O.P. Heggie, who plays Dr. Owen.  Owen serves as the link between the past and the present and Heggie does a nice job.  He had a fairly short career in talking films.  He died at age 59, in 1936, having appeared, in a total of 27 silent and talking films.  Included in this list are The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as the blind hermit and Anne of Green Gables (1934) as Matthew.
Certainly, the play suggested the doubling of Kathleen/Moonyean and Kenneth/Jeremy.  It is an especially good decision to continue that casting note.  We felt that, especially for the character of Kenneth the fact that Kenneth looks so much like Jeremy makes John's dislike more intense, and helps the audience to understand his horror at the younger man's involvement with Kathleen.  
The film was nominated for Best Picture in 1932, losing to Cavalcade.  This brief TCM article discusses cameraman Lee Garmes and his initial difficulties in filming Norma Shearer (who was sensitive about the appearance of her eyes on film).  Obviously, it was a problem his was able to overcome, because she is just lovely, as always.

To close, here is the opening scene, in which we see John grieving for his beloved Moonyean.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Barbara Goes to Court

The final film in the AFI Silver tribute to Barbara Stanwyck was Remember the Night (1940), certainly an appropriate film for the holiday season.  It's a few days before Christmas.  John [Jack] Sargent (Fred MacMurray), a New York City Assistant District Attorney has been requested by his boss to delay his vacation for one day, in order to prosecute a shoplifter.  It doesn't sound like it should be all that hard, but the DA knows that it is difficult to convict a woman, and Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is very much a woman.  Rather than deal with the holiday spirit of the jurors, John forces a delay to the trial, then feels guilty when he realizes Lee will have to spend the holidays in jail. He bails her out, then discovers she has no where to go. As she was brought up in Indiana, only a few miles away from Jack's family home, and her mother still resides there, Jack proposes he bring her with him for a visit to her family.  So, off they go, each intending to spend the holidays with his or her mother.

In the past, we've complained about films that don't seem to know if they are comedy, tragedy, or romance.  Remember the Night has a little bit of each, yet holds its course beautifully. The film starts in an almost comedic tone, building the humor until our couple is arrested for trespassing in a pasture (and theft.  Jack decided to milk a cow for a cup of milk).  However, once Jack and Lee reach Indiana, the mood of the film begins to change.  Our encounter with Lee's mother (Georgia Caine) and her cold husband, who will not even tell Jack his name, quickly reveals WHY Lee's life went wrong.  The mother, who's love and regard Lee still craves, despises her daughter, who is "just like her father."  Lee was forced out of her home as a young teen; she is still not welcome there, so Jack brings her to his family to spend the holiday.

The film now counterpoints the dark, almost evil tone of Lee's childhood home with that of Jack.  Like Lee's mother, Mrs. Sargent (Beulah Bondi) is a widow.  She raised John alone, but with love and encouragement.  We discover that there is much about the young lives of Jack and Lee that are similar:  like Lee, Jack once "borrowed" the egg money, but Jack's mother talked to him about it.  Lee's mother condemned her as a life-long thief.  It is that one difference - the attitude of the mothers towards their children that have shaped their adult lives.

Of course, this is a stellar cast.  Stanwyck is amazing as Lee.  Watch the scene where she absorbs the love in the Sargent house.  Her eyes display her amazement at the family's love and intimacy, and yearning for a similar memory.   MacMurray is quite convincing as Jack - one is even willing to overlook the fact that it is illegal for Lee to leave the state while out on bail, thanks to the honesty of MacMurray's portrayal.  And then there is the always magnificent Beulah Bondi.  Her character is all warmth and understanding - even when she has to do something unpleasant, her kindness shines through.  Will she accept Lee in the end? One suspects she will, and that one day in the near future Lee and Jack will be back home again in Indiana to stay.   A quick nod is also due to Sterling Holloway (Willie), who it turns out has a lovely singing voice.  Certainly, his quirky voice and appearance have always typecast him, but Willie is a character you look forward to visiting.

To supplement your enjoyment of this film, here is a posting from the Movie Morlocks blog, which talks a bit about the film's author, Preston Sturges.  As I mentioned, this film is full of the spirit of Christmas, but with a bit of humor thrown in.  With Christmas coming, why not give it a look?  In the meantime, here is a clip for your enjoyment:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Historical Joan

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) is an unusual film, in that it feature Joan Crawford playing an historical person and is set in the 1820s and 1830s.  Never before, nor again, would Crawford tackle a period piece, which makes this a fascinating diversion.

Crawford plays Margaret "Peggy" O'Neal Timberlake Eaton, an innkeeper's daughter who becomes influential in the Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) White House, following her marriage to Secretary of War John Eaton (Franchot Tone).  Her common birth, her forthrightness, and her earlier marriage to John "Bow" Timberlake (Robert Taylor) make her an easy target for gossip.  And then there is her relationship with John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas). She loves him, he claims not to love her, but then he realizes too late that he does have feelings for her.

It's hard to imagine a studio other than MGM  being able to assemble this much talent in one movie. Besides the already mentioned Crawford, Tone, Taylor, and Douglas, we also have James Stewart  as "Rowdy" Dow,  Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson, Beulah Bondi  as Rachel Jackson, Sidney Toler as Daniel Webster, and Louis Calhern as Sunderland.  With the exception of Crawford and Barrymore, the supporting actors have minimal screen time.  Certainly, Taylor and Stewart had not yet achieved the level of stardom that we are familiar with (Taylor's breakout in Camille was 4 months away, while Stewart would wait another 2 years before You Can't Take it With You.); yet Taylor gets second billing under Crawford, in spite of being in only about 1/3 of the film (no spoilers here; you have to watch the film to find out why).  We particularly enjoyed a scene in which Peggy and Bow are sewn into adjacent beds so there will be no hanky-panky.

Crawford's Peggy is very sweet; and also quite bright - she does the accounting for her father's inn, and she is shown as being quite savvy about business.  As always, Crawford creates a strong and feminine character (with the assistance of Adrian, in his creation of some spectacular period dresses).  Despite this, Crawford felt that the audience - always her career arbiter - did not like her in costume roles, and so she opted to not appear in an historical drama again.  This TCM article discusses the public reception - or lack thereof - of the film. 

The article also discusses the personal life of Lionel Barrymore in some detail.  Barrymore's severe arthritis had already become a problem.  He could still stand, though doing so was painful; walking was next to impossible.  He was also dealing with his wife's illness - an illness that would claim her life 4 months later.  Barrymore's relationship with the always wonderful Beulah Bondi - in her Oscar-nominated role - is warm and loving; acting as a counterpoint to the blustering, somewhat abrasive politician.  One particularly funny scene with Barrymore involved an unnamed character actress - the mother of one of the cabinet wives - who congratulates Jackson for his successful put-down of her daughter.

The character of John Randolph is, however, a frustrating one.  While his reluctance to become involved with a girl he'd known since she was a child is understandable, Randolph seems hell-bent on being unhappy, and making Peggy unhappy as well.  Even when it seems that love is within their grasp, he is unable to compromise to unite them.  Certainly, Jackson is equally to blame for Peggy's eventual unhappiness, but it's easier to blame Randolph, with his easy assumption that Peggy's beliefs should take second place to his own. It's not one of Douglas' better roles; a bit too angst-y for our taste.

We found it interesting that the author of the book The Gorgeous Hussy, Samuel Hopkins Adams, also wrote the book The Harvey Girls and the story Night Bus (which became It Happened One Night).  An article in the American Journal of Public Health discusses his career as a "journalist and muckraker".

To close, we share the opening of the film. Enjoy!