Friday, March 28, 2014

Joan B. Leaves Home

Joan Bennett and Henry Fonda star in I Met My Love Again (1938).  We meet Julie Weir and Ives Towner while Ives is in school.  He and Julie are deeply in love and wish to marry, but Ives has been convinced by his mother (Dorothy Stickney) to delay the wedding until he is a success.  Two years later, the couple are still engaged, and Julie is frustrated by the delay.  Caught in a storm one night, she seeks refuge in the home of Michael Shaw (Alan  Marshall), and it is lust at first sight.  Julie and Michael elope and move to Paris.  Three years later, she has reason to regret her hasty marriage: Michael refuses to work, they are in debt, have a young daughter, and he is constantly partying.  Those parties prove his downfall - Michael is shot and killed while playing "duel" with another guest.  For the next seven years, Julie attempts to work as a fashion designer.  Finally, a letter from her Aunt William (Dame May Whitty) pulls her back to Vermont and to college professor Ives.

Joan Bennett is excellent in the role of Julie.  She has to literally grow up in front of you, starting as a naive 18 year old and morphing into the 30ish mother of a young child.  This is one of Bennett's last roles as a blonde.  The same year as this film, she reverted to her natural brunette color and never looked back.  She is stunning with dark hair, and her resemblance to sister Constance is minimized.  We have her husband Walter Wanger and Tay Garnett, the director of her film Trade Winds to thank for the change.  It also resulted in a change to her career, making her more appealing as a femme fatale in such films as Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and the recently discussed The Housekeeper's Daughter. 

Some really wonderful character performances are highlighted in the film.  First and foremost is Dame May Whitty as Aunt William, the aunt we all want to have in our family.  As is often the case, Dame May gets the best lines in the film.  When the obnoxious Mrs. Towner comes to find out why Julie is back, Aunt William finally loses her temper: "The next time you come for tea, I'll have rat poison in it".  And Stickney is really good as the mother from hell.  You wouldn't want to have the family that Ives has. They are all pieces of work, and the actors do a good job of demonstrating that.  Henry Fonda's role is somewhat weaker than we are used to from him, but like Bennett he does a good job in growing the character from youth to maturity.

Some of our group were not familiar with Alan Marshall, who plays the ne'er do well Michael.  Marshall had a long career, appearing in films and on television until  his death in 1959 of  a heart attack.  At the time, he was appearing on stage with Mae West in Sextette. Also in the cast is Louise Platt, whose most famous role was of Lucy in Stagecoach.  She left the screen for ten years (between 1942 and 1952), returning to do some television, including a year on the soap opera The Guiding Light.  Her only scene with Bennett (which comes at the end of the film) is a doozy.  Watch for it!

Next week, we'll be back with a film from the 1950s.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fred Meets Ginger

As I've mentioned before, when an extraordinary opportunity to see a classic film happens in the greater Washington DC area, I'm going to tell you about it.  Recently, the National Portrait Gallery hosted a screening of Flying Down to Rio (1933), and there to comment on the film was TCM's own Robert Osborne.  I was very excited to attend the film screening, as well as a reception for Mr. Osborne, who was kind enough to sign my copy of his latest book 85 Years of the Oscars.  Add to this, the opportunity to ask questions about the film and to see the film on a big screen - it was an amazing night!

Flying Down to Rio is the first Astaire-Rogers film.  Technically, it's a Dolores Del Rio-Gene Raymond story, though, as Ginger and Fred are only minor players in it: they get fourth and fifth billing, respectively.  And they only get one dance number together - "The Carioca", which was nominated for the Best Song Oscar (it lost to "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee).  But, as always, their dancing is so amazing, they stole the picture from the stars, and the rest is history.
The plot of the film is fairly ordinary.  Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) is the leader of a fairly successful orchestra, however, Roger likes two things far better than working - flying and the ladies.  As a result, he is constantly getting the band fired either because he was late for a broadcast, or for consorting with the guests.  Into his club walks Belinha de Rezende (Dolores Del Rio), a wealthy Brazilian traveler, who immediately captivates Roger.  The management fires the band when Roger is caught dancing with Belinha instead of working, but their joblessness doesn't last long - they have been hired by the Hotel Atlantico in Rio, and off they go.  Of course, the hotel is owned by Belinha's father.  Further complications ensue as Roger and Belinha realize they are in love, though Belinha is engaged to Julio Rubeiro (Raul Roulien), and when the band discovers that the Hotel is in the midst of a hostile takeover by a consortium.  In order to keep their job, Fred Ayres (Fred Astaire) and Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers) come up with a production number to end all production numbers - it's danced in the air!

The introduction by Robert Osborne provided us with some interesting facts.  Originally, Honey Hale was to have been played by Dorothy Jordan, but just before filming began, she married Merian C. Cooper and retired.  In the 1950s, she made three more films, one of which is quite notable. It's The Searchers, in which she played Martha Edwards, Ethan's sister-in-law and great love. (We talked about The Searchers twice.  Here is the most recent article.)  Her marriage to Cooper lasted until his death in 1973; she died in 1988, at the age of 82.  

With Jordan's departure, a new Honey Hale was needed, so the studio turned to Rogers.  She and Astaire knew one another - they had met - and dated - in New York City when he worked as a choreographer in play in which she appeared.  Though neither was looking for a dance partnership (Astaire had decided not to have another partner after sister Adele retired), this was a one-shot in a minor role.  Little did they know they would be making film history.

This TCM Article talks about these facts, as well as another partnership that was formed during the film - Astaire's meeting with Hermes Pan, the assistant choreographer here. It also discusses the magnificent art deco sets - they are of themselves works of art.
The film is also VERY pre-code. From Ginger Rogers see-through evening gown to the dancers whose dresses are literally blown off while performing on an airplane wing, we get to see a lot of some lovely ladies.  Add to that some suggestive lines ("What's this business with the forehead?" "Mental telepathy." "I can tell what they’re thinking about from here.”) and you have a delightfully naughty film.

A quick tip of the hat is due to actor Raul Roulien, who plays Belinha's fiance.  He makes Julio so very likeable that, by film's end, you wonder WHY Belinha would pick such a lightweight as Roger, when she has a wonderful, stable, loving guy like Julio at hand.  We don't have a lot of hope for that marriage.  One suspects Roger will be gadding about once the novelty of Belinha and Rio wears off.   However, we think that Fred and Honey will take the band to new heights of popularity (once they get away from Roger and his hijinks).

We leave you with Fred and Ginger dancing "The Carioca":

Friday, March 21, 2014

Clark Boxes

When waitress  Mabel O'Dare (Marion Davies) loses her job thanks to Aloysius K. Reilly (Roscoe Karns), he gets the bright idea to introduce her to a Broadway producer.  Mabel ends up with a job, only because the star has just quit.  But there's a problem - Mabel can dance, a little, but not enough to lead a Broadway show.  Her dreams of stardom are all but gone when Reilly decides to get some publicity for her by claiming a love affair between Mabel and up-and-coming boxer Larry Cain (Clark Gable).  But again, there is a little problem - Larry and Mabel loathe one another.

Thus begins Cain and Mabel (1936), a little froth of a comedy, with a few musical numbers thrown in.  While it was fun to see Clark Gable in this very early role, and Marion Davies is a delightful performer, this was probably not the best movie either ever made.  The musical routines were a bit tedious - they ended up changing the tone of the film.  We know Mabel isn't a great dancer; all the routines do is emphasize that to no purpose.  And though the film is a bit long, there are some delightful scenes.  The early conversations between Reilly and Mabel are a hoot, and then there is the added presence of Allen Jenkins as Dodo, Larry's fight second. Any time Allen Jenkins is in a movie, you know you are going to have a good time.  

We also have Ruth Donnelly as Aunt Mimi, who is also very funny.  It should be mentioned though that Mimi is a fairly despicable person.  She will go to any lengths to advance Mabel's career, because it is keeping Aunt Mimi in the money.  She has no worry that her actions might make Mabel unhappy.   
Another interesting appearance is that of Pert Kelton as Toddy, the star whose departure makes way for Mabel.  We've seen her in Bed of Roses, and  as we mentioned then, later in her career as Shirley Jones' mother in The Music Man.  Unfortunately, she doesn't get a whole lot to do here, which is a shame.

Interestingly, Dick Powell was originally slated to play Ronny Caudwell, Mabel's co-star and almost boyfriend.  However, the part went to Robert Paige, because William Randolph Heart didn't like Dick Powell. Hearst felt Powell was too attractive and that Davies liked him too much.  As I'm sure everyone is aware, Heart and Davies were longtime companions.  An interesting bit of trivia - when Hearst was in financial trouble in the 1930s, it was Davies who came to his rescue. She was a very intelligent businesswoman, and used $1 million of her own money to bail him out (much of it invested in jewelry).

This TCM article also tells in some detail the story of how Clark Gable was cast as Larry.  Davies did NOT want him in the part - she didn't think he was attractive enough to play Larry!  She later changed her mind about him, but Gable never quite forgot the insult.  All we have to say is HUH?  Gable not attractive? On what planet?

The film is a remake of  the silent film The Great White Way, which was filmed by Hearst's company in 1924, which starred Anita Stewart.  And while we can't whole-heartedly recommend this one, it has some nice moments.  And then there is Gable.  We close with the film's trailer:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Queen Tallulah the Semi-Great

The sexual appetites of Catherine the Great are the subject of A Royal Scandal (1945), starring Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine.  The action opens as Catherine has had a spat with her most recent favorite.  Enter Alexei Chernoff  (William Eythe), who sneaks into the palace to warn Catherine of a plot against her.  Catherine however, is far more interested in Alexei than any plot.  Alexai becomes the new favorite, much to the annoyance of Chancellor Nicolai Iiyitch (Charles Coburn), who was hoping that the French ambassador Marquis de Fleury (Vincent Price) could fill the vacant position, and thus create a closer relationship with France.  But once Catherine sees Alexai, she does everything but lick her lips.  She wants him, and his engagement to her ladies' maid Countess Anna Jaschikoff (Anne Baxter) is no barrier to  the Queen lust. 

A Royal Scandal is remake of the silent film Forbidden Paradise (1924), which Lubitsch did direct, and in which Poli Negri played Catherine and Adolphe Menjou played the Chancellor.  Though this version is a farce, the dialog is a bit stilted.  There are some really funny lines, and some quite humorous performances, but all in all, A Royal Scandal leaves a lot to be desired.  Produced by Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Otto Preminger, the film feels like neither is involved.  Lubitsch had intended to direct A Royal Scandal, but he became ill, and Preminger stepped in.  (Interestingly, when Lubitsch died in 1948, Preminger again took over the direction and  completed That Lady in Ermine.  For that film however, Lubitsch received sole director credit.)  Another problem is that A Royal Scandal takes place entirely indoors, giving it a stagey and claustrophobic feel.
On the plus side is the presence of Charles Coburn, who steals the movie.  He gets the best lines and his character is the both the most likeable and the most intelligent.  The Chancellor knows his Queen, and for the most part, knows how to handle her.  You can watch the twinkle in Coburn's eye, and waits for him to return when he is not on screen.  We also get a brief time with Vincent Price.  Always a delight, we wished he had more screen time.  The same cannot be said for William Eythe. His Alexei is dull.  What Catherine sees in him is beyond our ken.  Sure, he is attractive enough, but really, listening to him is torture.  One roll in the hay should have been enough for her.  

While Tallulah Bankhead is certainly right for the role of Catherine, one wonders what Greta Garbo would have been like in the part.  It seems Lubitsch actually wanted Greta Garbo, however when he took over, Preminger decided to stick with Bankhead, who had already been signed. Some of the casting issues are described in this TCM article.  We also learned from Robert Osborne's introduction that Alexei was meant for Tyrone Power, but Power turned it down.  Charles Boyer was also considered.  Both actors are far too intelligent to play the buffoon Alexei, but a more dynamic actor would have a least made us understand Catherine's desire to keep him around.  Anne Baxter is totally miscast here.  She tries hard, but hasn't much to work with.  And in scenes with Bankhead, Baxter is blown out of the water.

For a look at the contemporary opinion on the film, we direct you to this  New York Times Overview and link to a review.  They weren't keen on it either.

Before we say goodbye, here are some clips from the film, with Bankhead, Baxter, Price, and Eythe, and the film's magnificent costuming by Rene Hubert:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Robert Goes to College

As part of their 100th Birthday salute to Vivien Leigh AFI Silver ran the 1938 film A Yank at Oxford. I had never seen this film before, so it was with a great deal of pleasure that I was able to go and see it for the first time on a big screen.

Robert Taylor stars as Lee Sheridan, a highly lauded jock at Lakedale State College.  Though well-liked by fellow students, and by his instructors, Lee has a notoriously big head.  This attitude has been aided and abetted by his father, Dan (Lionel Barrymore), editor of the local newspaper, who thinks nothing of holding up delivery of the paper so he can put in a headline about Lee's latest sports achievement.  Lee's starring role in the athletics department has not, however, caused him any scholastic damage.  He has done well enough that he has been selected by the College dean for a scholarship to Cardinal College, Oxford University.  While at first reluctant to leave his father and the newspaper job that awaits him, Lee finally agrees to his father's wish that he attend Oxford.

Of course, Lee being who he is, the first thing he does upon meeting some Oxford classmates is to brag about his athleticism, and what a break Cardinal College is getting in having his skills at their disposal.  So, Paul Beaumont (Griffith Jones), Marmaduke Wavertree (Robert Coote), and Paul's sister Molly (Maureen O'Sullivan) collaborate in a plan to put Lee down a peg.  When Lee discovers the trick, he is bound and determined to return to the U.S., but the intervention of his servant,  Scatters (Edward Rigby) convinces him to stay.  He excels at Cardinal, both academically and athletically.  He also falls in love with Molly.  The complications? He is being pursued by a married woman, Elsa Craddock (Vivien Leigh), who is also pursuing Paul.  And he has annoyed the Dean of the College (Edmund Gwenn).
A Yank at Oxford was filmed in the U.K., using British actors, a British director, and British film crew.  MGM had to find ways to circumvent the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which imposed quotas on the number of foreign films in the country, and therefore (hopefully) bolster the British film industry. By sending heart-throb Robert Taylor over to England,  MGM would fulfill the letter, if not the spirit of the regulation - they would get this film into distribution in Great Britain. And, if the experiment worked, it was a way of producing other films that could more easily be marketed in Great Britain - and the United States - creating a revenue stream for the studio.  This TCM article on the film, as well as the substantial essay, British Films, 1927-1939 discuss the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 and its affects on British and American production.

Robert Taylor is quite good in this film.  He succeeds in making Lee likeable, but also in making you want to smack him for his inflated ego.  He really is the focus in this film; the other characters revolve around him, and he does an excellent job in holding it all together.  

The casting of the women is very interesting.  Maureen O'Sullivan plays an ingenue, but an intelligent one.  She is also attending Oxford, and clearly is no slouch academically.  She also has a definite moral compass, and it is Molly, more than anyone else, who succeeds in teaching Lee about being a team player.  Vivien Leigh, on the other hand, portrays a rather sly character.  A year before she will come to American attention as Scarlett O' Hara, Leigh plays a philandering wife who is loyal to nothing but her own sexual desires.  Interestingly, given the time period, she isn't really punished for her appetites.

It's also a pleasure to see Edmund Gwenn, Lionel Barrymore and Robert Coote in small roles.  Coote had already appeared in two American films, but most of his work was in the U.K. His Wavertree, a fairly innocent young man whose major goal is to get sent down (expelled) from Oxford (in an effort to impress a wealthy uncle) is a riot. Try as he might, Wavertree is just too naive to succeed in being bounced.  One wishes there was more screen time with Gwenn and Barrymore; regardless, they stand out in the scenes in which they appear. 

All and all, this is an excellent film, made even better by seeing it on a big screen.  Here is a trailer from the film, in which the British production angle of this film is emphasized:

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ms. (Joan) Bennett Goes Home to Mother

The Housekeeper's Daughter (1939) is a light little comedy that is quite funny.  Hilda (Joan Bennett) has been "working" for Floyd (Marc Lawrence) as his moll and his shill.  She's sick of it, and decides to leave him, returning to the home where her mother, Olga (Peggy Wood) works as housekeeper.  There should be plenty of room in the house, as the family is about to go on vacation.  However, the son and heir, Robert Randall (John Hubbard) decides to stay behind.  He has ambitions to become an crime reporter, and, encouraged by Hilda, he heads to the newspaper office, where he offers his services to Editor Wilson (Donald Meek).  Reporters Deakon Maxwell (Adolph Menjou) and Ed O'Malley (William Gargan) are covering the murder of Gladys Fontaine (Lilian Bond). Randall, in a druken stupor (Deak and Ed have gotten him drunk) is told by Benny - the actual murderer, more on him later - that Glady's dead body was thrown off a house boat.  When that hits the papers, Robert becomes a hero - and the target of Floyd's ranker. 

This flick has a little bit of everything - romance, suspense, mystery, and random silliness.  And while a couple of scenes became tiresome (Deak and Ed on the roof of the Randall house throwing fireworks at each other got ridiculous after a few minutes), mostly this is a fun picture that keeps your attention.  Especially funny were two interactions towards the end of the film between Mrs. Randall (Leila McIntyre) and Editor Wood.  Mrs. Randall's particularly deadpan response to the chaos around her was an absolute riot.

We promised more information on the character of Little Benny.  As portrayed by George E. Stone, you know almost immediately that there is something not quite right about Benny.  Regardless, the women in the film, our victim Gladys Fontaine and Hilda, both seem to find him cute, and both agree to be "his girl".  For Gladys, that promise spells her doom when Benny, who is a master at making poisoned coffee, inadvertently kills Gladys when Benny prepares his deadly potion, intending it for Floyd (who Benny sees as a danger to Gladys).  Stone manages to give Benny a spooky, but also rather cute, demeanor. 

The film has a number of rather appealing actors. Adolphe Menjou is particularly appealing, not the least because it is the older woman, Olga, who captures his heart.  He spends most of the film getting into trouble with a twinkle in his eye.  Also present in the film (he's listed WAY down in the credits) is Victor Mature as Lefty, one of Floyd's gang members.  He's probably the only member of the gang who is likeable, because he is the only one who seems to care about Hilda.

On the other hand, we found John Hubbard  (Robert Randall) to be a rather banal actor.  It turns out we've all seen him on TV and none of us recall him; in fact, I had JUST seen him on an episode of Maverick, and could NOT remember who he was.. Unfortunately, with so many strong character actors, Hubbard just fades into the background.

Joan Bennett is quite lovely.  Her Hilda is strong and attractive, both physically and emotionally.  She is a good influence on Robert Randall, trying to encourage him to follow his dream.  She is kind to Benny, and a loving daughter.  Her biggest fault, of course, is that she lies to her mother and to Robert about her prior "employment".  Bennett had a very long career.  Beginning in the silent era (1916), she worked until 1982. Among her notable films are the 1933 Little Women, Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window,  and Father of the Bride.  As her career started to wane, she became a regular on a soap opera, entitled Dark Shadows, which brought her new fame.  "I feel positively like a Beatle." she is reported to have said about the reactions to Dark Shadows.  She died at aged 80 in 1990. 
A quick note about Lilian Bond, the lovely actress who played our murder victim.  She was, it seems, photographed in the nude by Alfred Cheney Johnston, a photographer who specialized in nudes, and was the photographer for the Ziegfeld Follies (Bond was in both the Follies Earl Carroll's Vanities).  She had a fairly long career - from 1929 until 1958. 
One notable appearance - a tribute to her beauty - is as Lily Langtry, the object "Judge" Roy Bean's adoration in The Westerner.  She died in 1991, at the age of 83.

We leave you with a brief snippet from the film:

Monday, March 3, 2014

Three (Pre-Code) Sailors on the Town

I recently had the opportunity to see a pre-code film, Sailor's Luck (1933) at a Raoul Walsh Film Festival at AFI Silver.  It's a silly little movie, but as an example of pre-code film, it's quite interesting.

Three sailors, James Fenimore Harrigan (James Dunn), Bilge Moran (Frank Moran) and Barnacle Benny Cohen (Sammy Cohen) arrive in port, intent on having an entertaining shore leave. Benny is in search of his girlfriend, Minnie Broadhurst (the character is also known as Mme. Marvelle, and is played by Esther Muir), while Jimmy wants to find a girl - any girl.  Bilge is happy to tag along with Benny.  After our trio rob a man of two hands of bananas, Jimmy meets Sally Brent (played by Sally Eilers), and follows her to a swimming pool, where she has just landed a job as a swim instructor - despite the fact that she can't swim.

Racism, sexism, and - well, add your favorite ism here - are rampant in this film.  The banana salesman who gets robbed and the landlord in Sally's building are both Italian, and played with all the caricature possible. The Baron Portolo (Victor Jory), for all the world reminiscent of a low-level Mafia-style gangster, also seems to be Italian.  We have a gay bath attendant at the swimming pool (and oh, my, is he a stereotype), a Jewish sailor (Barnacle Benny),  who at one point pronounces his name as "Quinn" spelled C-O-H-E-N, with a pause for a laugh.  Why would that be funny? Well, the photo below gives you an idea of Sammy Cohen's very ethnic appearance (he's in the center).
The one character who is NOT a stereotype is Bilge.  Again, you can see him in the poster above (to the left).  He appears, to all intents and purposes to be a big, ignorant lug.  Yet, he plays classical music perfectly and with feeling, and reads philosophy.  He also seems to be engaged in a menage a trois with Minnie and Benny.  It gives one pause.

The film also manages to keep the lovely Sally Eilers as undressed as is humanly possible.  We even find her sleeping au naturale.  She is constantly being leered at and manhandled. And though she is careful of the proprieties, our Sally still allows a sailor to set her up in a hotel room, since she has no money.  It's clear she is not willing to sleep with him when they get to the hotel.  It's also clear that HE thought that she was.

It's rather fascinating that the film got a very nice review from New York Times  back in 1933.  It's not that it is a bad film.  Sure, it's rather silly and far-fetched, but the very things that make it pre-code are rather shocking to us in 2014.  It is, by far, the most politically incorrect film I think I've ever seen. 

Sally Eilers is very appealing in the film.  Having never seen her before, we were very intrigued with her as an actress.  She had a very substantial career, appearing in films from 1927 through 1950, though many were B pictures.  By the 1940's, she was only in a few films, and does not seem to have made the transition into television as did many of her contemporaries.  An interesting bit of trivia appears on the IMDB concerning her start in pictures.  She was discovered by Mack Sennett while visiting the studio to have lunch with an old friend named Jane Peters - better known these days as Carole Lombard.  After four marriages - husband number one was Hoot Gibson - and one child (who became a screenwriter), Eilers died in 1978 at age 70.

Mention should also be made of child actor Buster Phelps, who appears as Elmer Brown, Jr.  He is quite adorable in this film.  I had seen him a few times before (in Libeled Lady and in One Man's Journey), but his presence does a lot to show Sally in a more sympathetic light.  Her genuine affection for little Elmer make plain her innate goodness.

Luckily, we can give you a little taste of this odd little film.  Here we see Sally waking up after her night alone in the hotel.  And notice her lack of garb: