Friday, January 31, 2014

Charles Needs a Green Card

We return for a visit with an old friend - Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941).  This is an absolutely wonderful film, romantic and engaging.  Sure, it's a melodrama, but in the best sense of the word, with characters that grow and keep you engaged in their stories.  It also continues to be a timely story - that of immigration and the desire for people to find a home in the United States.

The film is narrated by Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), who is on the run and trying desperately to get some money.  He sneaks into the Paramount lot, to tell his story to Hollywood director, Mr. Saxon (played by Hold Back the Dawn's actual director, Mitchell Leisen). The war in Europe is raging, and Georges has escaped Europe to Mexico, intent on settling in the U.S.  However, the U.S. immigration quota for Romania (Georges' place of birth) has already been exhausted, and there is a long waiting list.  Georges finds himself stuck in a seedy little bordertown hotel, with other hopeful immigrants, waiting from five to eight years for a spot to open up.  The arrival of Anita Dixon Shaughnessy (Paulette Goddard), Georges former dancing partner and lover, presents another option: marry an unknowing American and get a green card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen.  Once in the country, divorce the duped spouse, and go off with Anita.  Georges sets his sights on Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a shy schoolteacher in Mexico for the day.

The film contains some absolutely outstanding performances.  Charles Boyer is wonderful as a cad who gradually changes into a decent person (and in some sense, much against his will). As he begins to fall in love with Emmy, we can see his inner battle between his growing feelings for her and his desire to resume his wayward life.  As Emmy, Olivia de Havilland is sweet and generous, but with an inner core of strength that becomes apparent towards the film's end.  Her conversation with Anita, and her comment that she is "from a small town. We don't have any of those fine hotels. We eat at the drugstore... But we leave a tip just the same" is both biting and assertive.  Finally, Paulette Goddard gives us an Anita who is grasping, passionate, and self-serving, but is also an absolute riot.  That our immigration officer, Mr. Hammock (played with verve by Walter Abel) is also attracted and amused. 

This film features a number of memorable performances by the supporting cast.  Of special note is Rosemary deCamp as Berta Kurz.  Patiently waiting to get into the US, the pregnant Berta is all the more sympathetic because of her desire to make a better life for her child.  Without giving too much away, her actions to make sure that her child will have a secure future will have you rooting her her.  Hold Back the Dawn was released in September of 1941, just before the war in the U.S. starts, but after the war in Europe has forced thousands of refugees to flee the Nazis.  Though never stated, it seems obvious that Berta and her husband are Jews, fleeing the holocaust.  It's interesting that the film never discusses WHAT the characters are running away from, yet you cheer for them all the same. 

Costuming for the film is done by Edith Head; here she creates a variety of costumes, with bold, elaborate clothing for Anita, and simpler, more everyday garb for Emmy.  The costuming tells us a great deal about the characters, adding even more dimenions to the characterizations.

Watch for the scene where Georges is escaping from the police.  It's quite well done, but has some humorous moments.  Also, George's encounter with an American woman at the bullfight is also quite funny.  Watch their faces as her marital status becomes apparent.  Finally, the lovely scene in which Emmy names some olives that Georges shook from a tree (you have to see the film to find out why) is gentle and romantic.  

The film is based on an  autobiographic story by Ketti Frings, with a script by  Billy Wilder and Charles Bracken.  This  TCM article discusses some of the story and script changes, causing some annoyance to all of the authors.  Despite the changes, this is still a remarkable script.

Robert Osborne, in an introduction to the film on TCM noted that deHavilland was in the unenviable position at her home studio of Warner Brothers of having to go outside the studio to find good roles.  Here, she goes to Paramount, and ends up with an Oscar nomination.  It is worth noting that, at Oscar time, Olivia DeHavilland was pitted against her sister Joan Fontaine (for the film Suspicion), the first time siblings had competed for the same award.  Joan, of course, won, beginning rumors of a feud between the sisters.  This Hollywood Reporter article looks at the story behind the feud.

As we leave you, here is a brief scene of Georges romances Emmy in pursuit of a green card:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Larry's a Cad

A young couple has just married; they are deeply in love, and exuberant after their wedding.  They arrive at an inn, where the proprietress, Mrs. Truesdale (Zasu Pitts) has obviously dealt with the young man before - she won't let him in until she sees a marriage license!  Flash forward a few months, and the couple are quarreling: being married is interfering with his writing, and then he discovers he is about to the a father.  Flash forward another three years:  our "hero" is frustrated with the duties of fatherhood, and the need to prostitute his "art" in order to pay the bills.  After yet another quarrel with his wife, he leaves, never to return.

Westward Passage (1932) stars Ann Harding as young wife Olivia Van Tyne Allen later Ottendorf) and Laurence Olivier as her husband, Nicholas Allen. It is unlikely that you will ever meet as unattractive a "hero" as Nick Allen.  He is a selfish boor, a horrible father, and a verbally abusive husband.  Why Olivia would want to be married to this man is beyond us.  When he meets his ex-wife 6 years after their divorce, he has to be reminded that he has a child (he can't even remember how old she is), and he would prefer to ship the little girl off to boarding school than actually deal with her. Quite frankly, Nick doesn't have even one redeeming feature. He knows nothing about compromise, and he remains unchanged throughout the film.  The only time we had even the tiniest bit of sympathy for him was when Olivia's friend spills tea all over his newly typed manuscript. Her callous disregard for his work and livelihood gave him at least ten seconds worth of appeal.

In the past few weeks, we've watched two movies with Asian characters, and in our discussion of Son of the Gods we discussed the "cringeworthy" nature of some of the Western attitudes portrayed in those films.  Here, Nick has a Chinese butler.  Nick's discussions with Olivia about Chung make those other films tame.  Both of their comments are so racially charged as to make one want to blush. 

Olivier's portrayal of Nick paints him as a very unappealing man.  We were puzzled as to why the author thought the audience would root for this cad.  And Olivier's makeup in this film is quite odd and distracting - he's wearing more eye-makeup than Ann Harding; one ends up looking at his eyeliner rather than him.

As to Ann Harding's Olivia, she is incomprehensible.  Olivia has remarried Harry Ottendorf (Irving Pichel), a good husband and a loving father to a child who is not his own.  Yet, she obviously prefers Nick.  Why? Who know.

A quick nod to that nine-year-old version of the young Olivia, played here by Bonita Granville.  She is quite good and appealing, as is the child that plays little Olivia at age 2. We also have near cameos by Zasu Pitts, as an innkeeper who never seems to want residents at her inn, and by Edgar Kennedy. 

According to this TCM article, the film lost a chunk of money. Yet it got a quite good review in the New York Times, which compared it favorably to Coward's Private Lives.  Also, it seems that this, Olivier's second US film, convinced Greta Garbo to request him as her leading man  in Queen Christina,  a somewhat notorious action that resulted in Garbo later asking that he be fired, and her former lover John Gilbert hired in his stead.  Seems Garbo felt she and Olivier had no chemistry.  As a result of these two films, Olivier goes back to the London stage, and it is quite a while before he can be attracted to appear in another Hollywood film.

We can't really recommend this one, unless you want to see Laurence Olivier before he was a big star. Next week, we'll venture forward, to the 1940's.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Man Out of Place

Son of the Gods (1930) stars Richard Barthelmess as Sam Lee, an amiable college student, with a good supply of disposable cash.  Sam plays polo, and is frequently requested to fund his classmates when they run out of money.  One evening, he is approached by Kicker (Frank Albertson); he and Bathurst (Claude King) have a double date planned, only a third girl arrived with their dates, and now they have insufficient funds.  Would Sam loan Kicker a few dollars? Better still, would Sam join them, and squire the extra lady?  Though at first reluctant, Sam agrees.  All is well on the drive over; the girls like Sam, and he is shy, but friendly.  When the group arrives at the restaurant, the young ladies retreat to the powder room to fix their faces. A few minutes later, a restroom attendant asks Kicker to come to the ladies' room.  The women are in a furor - how DARE he inflict that CHINAMAN on them! Sam might ask them to dance! It is repulsive, and they want to leave NOW. The young men refuse to bring them home, but finally agree to get them a cab.  And then they have to tell Sam.  He's not surprised; he's been through this before.

Though it is hard to fathom why no one questions Sam Lee's parentage (he certainly does not have physical features that would lead one to believe he is of Asian descent), it is equally hard to believe that Sam's race is so important. And, while Sam is Asian in all but color, he is also generous, kind, loving nature, and noble of spirit.   Yet, he is abused by every woman he meets (save one) and is literally flogged because he is of another race. The single exception to this is Eileen (Mildren Van Dorn), who acts as secretary to Lee Ying (E. Alyn Warren), Sam's father, and who regards Sam as a brother.  

As Robert Osborne said in his commentary on TCM, some moments in the film are "cringe-worthy".   The reaction of Allana Wagner, played with vehemence by Constance Bennett, is certainly offensive to modern audience, but it is also apparent that it is intended to be repugnant to the audience of 1930.  Of course, it's clear that we are supposed to feel for Sam BECAUSE he is pure of spirit, not a "coolie"  This TCM Article discusses the attitudes present in the film in more detail.

We were particularly impressed with Richard Barthlemess in this film.  His conversations in Chinese were quite convincing, and he is able to make Sam likeable without becoming saintly.  Barthlemess had already played an Asian man in Broken Blossoms (1919); in that film, he was in full Asian makeup, and had a more tragic end.   Also quite good was Mildred Van Dorn; while her Irish accent comes and goes, she is able to make Eileen an appealing character.  Van Dorn only appeared in 15 films (between 1929 and 1934), 8 of which are shorts.  She died in 2004 at the age of 93.  We also have a brief appearance by  Dickie Moore as Young Sam.  Though we generally like Constance Bennett, she is rather histrionic in this part.  We're not really supposed to like Allana, but Bennett's over-the-top performance is a bit hard to take.

Next time, we'll be back with another film from the 1930's.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Barbara Doesn't Drink Tea

A young woman arrives in China to marry her childhood sweetheart, only to become swept up in a civil war.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Megan Davis, who arrived in China with high hopes of a new and happy life, but instead is introduced to the Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a  grim, but very well done precode film.

The film emphasizes the extreme class differences and violence that are associated with China.  General Yen (Nils Asther) mows down a rickshaw boy with his car, and the local missionaries decry the "savages" that populate China.  We are quickly made aware that there is no understanding between the European community and the Chinese, or between the peasants and their rulers.  Yet the Europeans are busily attempting to convert the Chinese to their religion, and the rulers think nothing of killing prisoners.  Bob Strike, the missionary Megan has come to wed - he has been living in China for years, yet can't speak or read the language.  How can he be working with the Chinese people if he can't speak to them? He, of course, assumes that they will learn HIS language. That assumption proves both ignorant and dangerous, as it sets him up for ridicule (and endangers himself and his fiance), when he accepts a "pass" that he cannot read from General Yen that is nothing but an insult. 

Strike is a very unappealing character.  Though he has not seen his betrothed in three years, he cannot spare time to meet her at the station when she arrives.  When she arrives at his home for her wedding, he still has not arrived.  And when he does come, it is to tell her the wedding must be delayed, as he has to go out to a mission office to retrieve some orphans, who have been caught by the civil war.  Is Strike a good man? Perhaps, but he is one of these individuals who loves mankind, yet has no regard for the individual. He is, in many ways, as careless of the individual as General Yen.  They serve as interesting foils; one supposedly good and caring, the other cruel and selfish.  But in the long-run, they are not much different.

Megan, on the other hand, is more open to the Chinese culture. She is horrified at the death around her - she tries to get help for her injured rickshaw man, she is eager to go with Bob to save the orphans, despite the danger.  She tries to stop the executions that Yen has ordered, and she intervenes with Yen for the life of Ma-Li.  While she is ignorant of Chinese life, she seems to want to learn more.  Though she has come to China to work as a Christian missionary, Megan is willing to bring Ma-Li to the Buddhist Temple, and doesn't try to convert her.  

Megan is not only frightened of her attraction to China, but also of her growing feelings for General Yen - he is a man with an air of danger around him, and she certainly has reason to fear rape and/or murder at his hands.  However, she also becomes fascinated by him, and in a sense, why not - Yen is an attractive, intelligent man.  And he is a man who shows his attraction and interest in her.  He listens to her.  If Megan and Bob were to marry, would the marriage last?  It seems unlikely.

Of course, as with so many early Hollywood films, Yen is played by a Caucasian.  The makeup job is well done as these things go; the DVD of the film contains a short promo film which demonstrates a "before and after" of actor Asther in makeup. It's quite fascinating. 

We do have two wonderful Asian actors in the cast. Toshia Mori plays Ma-Li, and is interesting and attractive as a woman who is as dangerous as Yen. Mori did not have an especially long career (her final film was in 1937), but was the only non-white actor to be honored as a WAMPAS Baby Star.  One assumes that the mores of Hollywood, which forbade Asian women from getting any good roles led to her eventual defection from Hollywood.  She died (in the Bronx) in 1995, at age 83.  The always wonderful (and shamefully underused) Richard Loo appears in a small part as Ma-Li's lover, Captain Li. Loo managed to have an especially long and rich Hollywood career, becoming the go-to villain during the second World War, and continuing with a long television career through 1981. General Yen is only his third film, so it is a genuine pleasure to see him as a young man.  He died in 1983, at age 80.

Walter Connolly, as always, is excellent as the unapologetic scoundrel, Jones.  Though we know that he is as callous and unfeeling towards the peasants as Yen, Connolly is able to create an attractive character.  Perhaps his general disregard of everyone (including the missionaries) makes him more interesting.

Though now highly regarded by fans of pre-code cinema, General Yen did not do well when it opened.  This TCM article discusses some of the problems that it faced - primarily the audience's shock at a white woman having deep feelings for an Asian man.  This is Stanwyck's fourth appearance in a Frank Capra directed film; their work together is always exceptional.  A quick nod is also due to costumers Robert Kalloch and Edward Stevenson. 

We leave you with a clip from the film in which Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) must respond to General Yen's (Nils Asther) advances: